Nebula City

As we close in on TotalCon 32, I will be teasing my Starfinder mini-campaign: Eclipse Runners. It is a sequel to the mini-campaign I ran at Carnage called The Dropship Murphies.

This time, instead of operating out of the berth of the mercenary heavy cruiser Void Adamant, our heroes are holed up in Nebula City.

Nebula City is a large, independent space station habitat located in the Corsair Nebula (so named because of its higher than usual population of pirates — which itself is due in no small part to the presence of Nebula City). The Corsair Nebula is the million year old remains of a vibrant trinary system caught off guard when its primary star went nova. The dozen or so planets that remain are scoured of life but boast numerous ruins of a once magically advanced civilization. Treasure hunters to these ruins are as often the targets of pirates as trading vessels to Nebula City.

Nebula City was established two hundred years ago by a consortium of merchant houses from both the Pact Worlds and the Vast. They were quickly followed by corporations, guilds, mercenary companies and smugglers and black marketeers. Over the centuries Nebula City has grown into an impressive center of wealth and corruption. The Pirates of the Corsair Nebula prefer it as much as the criminals inside the domes do: there is no police force except what Nebula City itself can raise, and its factions are too divisive to come together and form a coherent government. As such, both bounties on pirates as well as bounties paid to pirates on a business rival’s vessels are common.

Finding work in Nebula City is easy, whether you fix power converters or break kneecaps. From the Council of Thirteen that keeps the place functional enough so everyone can turn a profit, to small gangs that control the drug trade in one housing block, everyone is looking to hire muscle or patsies. This isn’t to suggest there are not legitimate businesses in Nebula City — there are, and many of them. But they need protection and aid as much or more than the criminals.

Nebula City also boasts the most discreet docks and maintenance facilities in the Vast. If you need repairs or a home base or both — and you aren’t a Corsair, of course — you can have it in Nebula City and no one will ever know you were there (for a price, of course).

Next time I will talk more about the party ship, the Eclipse Runner itself, and the who, what, where and how things came to be.

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The Debt

It has been a long time since I shared fiction on this page. I have been in a bit of a sword and sorcery mood of late. Something about the visceral fantasies of the pulp era — especially those of R E Howard — inspires me. It is a kind of fantasy that has waxed and waned in popularity, but with the current trend toward the grim and gritty in fantasy it seems to be having something of a resurgence. So, without further ado, I present my take on the genre: The Debt.

Zendja climbed the rugged mountain path. Her legs were strong but had been made for long strides across flat plains. Now they ached with each step. Her back ached, too, hunched as she was with the straps by which she dragged the litter pulled over her shoulders for leverage. She flexed her arms with each step, trying to get blood to flow into her cold hands.

“Damn Golgot,” she cursed the sorcerer’s name for the hundredth time that day and probably the thousandth since she began the climb. “I would kill you, if you weren’t already dead.”

She raised her face and immediately regretted it. The mountain path climbed ever upward ahead of her, so steep and so long she could not see the end of it. She swore again and then looked at her feet and willed them to go one in front of the other. By the time her will was no longer sufficient, the sun had dipped below the mountain.

Zendja let loose the straps and flopped onto the ground. The rapidly cooling air dried the sheen of sweat she wore and sent shivers through her exhausted limbs. She wondered: if she were to close her eyes and fall asleep right then and there, would she die of exposure first or would the wooly mountain men said to serve the sorcerers kill her? Fueled by anger more than self preservation, she forced herself to her feet and went to the litter.

She stood beside the body of Golgot. He was wrapped mummy like in a winding length of oiled burlap, tied around him with criss crossing twine. The twine was in turn wrapped with a long, thin silver chain. She gave the dead man a sneer and a kick. Then, she knelt down and rummaged through her pack, which also lay on the litter along with parcels of food, two leather canteens, some firewood from farther down the mountain and her bow and quiver of iron tipped arrows. She wore her little hatchet on her belt, just in case.

She drew her big gray coarse poncho out of the pack first and pulled it over her head. She did not know if the sorcerers that lived on the mountain really kept wooly men, but she did know that soon the cold would be enough to kill her on its own. Once that was done, she opened a parcel and tore off a hunk of dried venison to chew while she prepared a fire. The wood would not last much longer and up here there was only scrub grass and stunted, twisted bushes covered in thorns that would not catch alight.

Would wooly men be afraid of fire, or drawn to it, she wondered.

Wrapped in her poncho with a belly full of meat and a few swallows of the fiery liquor she had lifted from Golgot before wrapping his corpse, Zendja pulled her knees tight up into her chest and buried her head in her arms. The ache in her body was dissipating with occasional tired spasms and her head was cloudy with approaching sleep when she heard the voice from across the fire.

“Zendja,” mumbled Golgot through his shroud. “Wake up, Zendja.”

No, thought Zendja. You are dead and I do not have to put up with your incessant, infuriating, imperious prattle any longer.

“Zendja!” barked the dead sorcerer.

Her head snapped up reflexively. “Damn, you Golgot!” She sneered and spat into the fire. “I am trying to sleep.”

A rasping laugh came from the gloom. “Sleep when you’re dead.”

“Why don’t you?” she muttered back but sat up unhappily anyway. The fire had burned very low and only the pale red light of the embers illuminated the wrapped body. When the wind crossed the embers it made them glow briefly and in that undulating gloom Zendja imagined the sorcerer’s body moving beneath its shroud. Or, she hoped she imagined it.

“How many steps today, Zendja?” asked the rasping voice of Golgot. “Ten thousand? A hundred thousand?”

“Shut up,” Zendja hissed. There was no conviction in it, though. She had had this argument every day since they had passed through the twin obelisks that marked the beginning of the trail to the temple at the mountain peak. Every night since then the body stirred and dead Golgot woke to torment her. Only Golgot or the gods knew why. She was keeping her promise to return him to his temple. What more did he want?

“–when the sleep never ends, then you will know,” the corpse was saying. She had not realized he was still talking, which was much the way it had been when he was alive. “Walk away. Return home. Then you will know.”

Zendja’s head snapped up. “What did you say?” she asked.

A croaking laugh came from the body. “Only that you can break your oath, Zendja. You never believed in curses, only in blade and bow. Test it and see if I always was a liar, as you said so many times.”

She frowned and spat again into the dying fire. Golgot was right about that. She had never really believed in his magical powers. When he threw flame from his lips or sent men to hell clutching their throats, she guessed it all tricks. She had seen many oils and powders and other alchemical tricks in her day and Galgot did nothing a deft charlatan could not have accomplished. Or, at least, nothing she could not convince herself had not been managed through trickery. For all his talk of consorting with demons to learn secrets forbidden to mortal men, Golgot had showed precious little power in their time together. Even so…

“I keep my oaths,” she said flatly. “No one can say Zendja the Hawk is not faithful to her promise or her price.”

“True enough,” whispered Galgot. The dead voice sounded weaker and farther away. Zendja glanced up to see the first cold light of dawn. “But who would know, here? If Zendja the Hawk left me for the wooly men, would word ever spread to the ports of Chano or the war camps of the Khanjit? What is the weight of an oath to a dead man?”

The corpse was silent. Zendja was not sure whether those last were Golgot’s words or her own thoughts. She was still exhausted, as if she had not slept at all — had she? — but dawn had come. With a heavy sigh she stretched her aching limbs and prepared to climb again.

***

Zendja met Golgot in a village called Fulg on the edge of the cairn covered hills of Ashon. She was travelling aimlessly after too many months in the western wars working for whatever side would pay her. Nearly all that pay was gone and she would soon have to return to mercenary work or turn to thievery again in order to survive. Golgot appeared just then, tall and gaunt and mysterious and, to all appearances, rich. “I need a guide into the hills,” he had said. “I seek to plunder the cairns of ancient kings.” She had disliked him from the first, but his money had her attention, so she joined him on his quest.

The memory of the things they saw in the those cairns still haunted her. She had killed plenty of men in her day, but at least they had had the grace to stay dead. The kings of Old Ashon, however, were not so well mannered. Nonetheless, they survived and came out of Ashon laden with torques and crowns and other treasures, and Galgot with the teeth of the king he had sought. However strange, pompous and fickle the sorcerer seemed, he promised Zendja two things she craved: an abundance of treasure and a dearth of boredom. So she agreed to accompany him when he decided to go east to the necropolis of Ku.

“There is one condition of your continued employment,” Golgot had said one day. “If I am to perish on our journeys and you live, you must return me to the mountain sanctum that made me.” She had shrugged assent, sure that when the time came she would leave his moldering bones wherever they fell. “This is no lightly made promise,” he had said suddenly and harshly, staring into her with his cold, white yes. “This is an oath you must make, on pain of a curse on your very soul!”

Zendja had again shrugged and assented. She had not believed in curses any more than she believed in keeping her word to dead men. But as the years passed and they travelled from one strange land to the next, she saw things that made her wonder. And when Golgot finally fell to the sting of the ghost asp while they hunted for the vaults of Dum-gha in the jungles of Pek, she was uncertain enough to wrap his corpse as he had instructed and carry it back to the mountain.

“Do not let the moon turn thrice, Zendja,” the sorcerer had said. “If it does then we are both damned.”

***

The pile of shit in front of Zendja worried her. It did not look like the dropping of any animal she could think might live on the rugged mountain slope. It look like a man’s shit, except that of a very large man. A wooly man? She crouched and examined it. It was cold and dry. Old, then. Even so, she scanned the mountain for any signs of movement. She saw none but the short thorny scrub waving in the incessant breeze.

The mountain trail seemed endless. She trudged up the steep slope every day, dragging the wrapped corpse behind her. Every night, she listened to the dead man taunt her and press her to leave him on the mountainside, to abandon her oath. She could not say for certain whether it was real and half believed his gabbling to be just a cruel trick played by her own mind. Golgot did not deserve the effort of pulling him up the mountain. Zendja did not think her soul would be damned with his if his body did not make it back to the temple of sorcerers. But despite all his incessant squawking and the unending toil, she kept at it. No one would say Zendja the Hawk did not fulfill her promise, least of all the shade of a fraud.

That pile of dried, frozen shit was the last straw, though. She released the straps suddenly and let the litter slide a dozen paces back down the trail before wedging itself against a rock. She poked at the pile and then suddenly screamed in rage and kicked it. Zendja stalked down to the litter and kicked Golgot’s corpse over and over. It was like kicking a bag of dried branches. She heard the crack of his bones and when she had exhausted her rage the mummy was bent oddly in the middle.

“You want me to leave you here?” she spat between deep gulps of the thin air. Her head was swimming and she could not seem to catch her breath, even after so little exertion. “I should, you lying devil. I should…” Her eyes landed on the thin silver chain she had so carefully wound in the precise manner Golgot had instructed. “I should take some payment! Haven’t I labored long already?” A snarl twisted her face and she descended on the broken body. “Yes. This will do for my troubles,” she said and began to unwind the silver chain.

The fact that she was kneeling beside the litter saved her life. Her bow was only inches from her hands as she furiously worked the chain from the twine. She had kept the bow strung, too, just in case. So when she heard the sound of cloven hooves pounding against loose stone she did not hesitate. As if of its own accord the bow lept into her hands with an arrow knocked and she spun. By the time she had turned and loosed the arrow the thing was on her. Its curled ram horns struck her in the shoulder just as the bow string sang. She want flying back and away from the litter, pain radiating from the dislocated joint, even as the monstrous goat-man tripped over Golgot’s body and landed heavily in the gravel, face down.

Zendja tried to raise the bow, despite not having another arrow in hand, but her arm would not budge. She howled in rage and pain and tore at the small hatchet to free it from her belt. Her cry was met by one from the wooly man. It pushed itself up and bleated a grotesque sound that could almost have been a word. It touched its neck where Zendja’s arrow was sunk to the fletching. It bleated again, it’s eyes wide with wrath, and lowered its head. It leaped forward at her in bloodlust. Too exhausted, too out of breath, in much too pain to dodge aside, Zendja tucked and rolled forward at the beast man. Her body slammed into its powerful legs and she felt ribs crack even as her injured shoulder seemed to catch fire anew,. But the move sent the wooly man sprawling and as he fell Zendja swept the hatchet out in a wide arc with all her might.

The wooly man bleated again but it was a gurgling, pained sound. It struggled against its own weight but too much blood had already poured out from the wound Zendja’s hatchet had torn across its belly. It writhed in its own spilled entrails for a moment before going still.

For her part Zendja lay on her back in agony. She gritted her teeth and tried to move. All she could manage was an tortured scream that echoed across the mountain.

***

“Wake up, Zendja.”

Her eyes snapped open, taking in a view of the sky full of stars. It was night time. She had passed out and been unconscious for hours. She moved to sit up but her body pulsed with agony. She made a hissing, growling sound through clenched teeth. Rasping laughter crawled spider-like over her from where Golgot’s body lay. Zendja managed to turn her head enough to see it there, a shadowy mass against the mountainside.

“What is so damned funny?” she seethed.

The laughter stopped and in the darkness the black mass that was Golgot shook suddenly. Terror clenched Zendja’s guts. She could see the silver chain dangling in the moonlight, no longer wrapped so tightly or precisely around the shroud. “Golgot,” she managed to push up her dry throat and out her trembling lips.

“No,” said the shadow. The body shook and flopped and rolled off the litter. Then, with a tearing sound, a pale arm pushed through the burlap and clawed at the night air. “No,” said the voice again, “not Golgot.”

Senseless fear took hold of Zendja. She scrambled as well as she could away from the burlap horror. Her boots scraped the loose stone and her ribs shifted and stabbed her middle and her shoulder caught fire and she moved perhaps an inch or two. Meanwhile the shroud flopped and shook and then another arm tore free. Through the haze of her terror she recognized that the arms did not match. The first to emerge was thin and pale while the next was dusky and musclebound. When the third arm emerged she screamed. This one was covered in black fur and bore a clawed, four fingered hand.

“We are not Golgot,” said not one voice but many from within the shroud. “Golgot treated with us, then cheated us and bound us.” The arms reached out and found purchase in the rocks. They dragged the corpse up the slope toward Zendja. “We will have our revenge on Golgot. And upon you, Zendja the Hawk.”

“No,” she gasped and tried once again to scramble back. The pain and stiffness from lying on the mountain made her weak. She could not escape the approaching monstrosity, especially as another arm slithered out of the shroud, this one boneless and slimy. “I did nothing to you!” she pleaded.

“You did!” cried the voices. The crawling shroud was close now. “You sought to cheat us of our vengeance. You sought to deliver this liar’s body to the safety of his temple and save his soul. No, Zendja the Hawk, his soul is ours and now so is yours!”

The furred claw grabbed her ankle and Zendja kicked and cried but it was no use. The weird tentacle wrapped around her other leg while the dusky arm reach up and dragged her closer. She screamed and the pale hand clapped over her mouth. Beneath the burlap something moved, as if it was a bag full of rats. “Finish what you started,” said the voices. “Free us.”

Her eyes went to the dangling silver chain. One tug and it would come undone. “Free us and we will only kill you.” She imaged the shroud breaking open and a legion of monsters emerging. “Free us and your gods can keep your soul.” The hand of her uninjured arm reached for the silver chain. It would be easy, and then the nightmare would be over. Her fingers found the chain and her fist closed and then the chain was out of her grip and the bag of rats was off her.

Zendja could not see but she could hear: the howls of rage from within the shroud, the crunching of hooves against stone, bleats of rage and pain, demonic curses and a sound like wind rushing through the trees just before the sky opens in a torrent. Then there was only silence, save for the sound of Zendja’s heart pounding in her ears. She tried to calm it but she could not. Her breath came in huge gulps of the cold mountain air but it was never enough. Her vision contracted and everything became shadows except for the stars wheeling overheard until they became a blur of starry lines.

***

Morning sun on her cheek woke Zendja. When she opened her eyes she found she was braced against a low wall out of the wind. Her arm was in a sling and bandages wrapped her torso. A fire was down to embres in front of her and a pot containing some sort of stew or soup hung over it. Across from her a wooly man sat staring at her.

“Good,” said the wooly man in a voice that sounded like something between a growl and a bleat. He stood suddenly and walked away, heading up the mountain path without another word.

“Wait,” she called out, but the wooly man did not stop or say anything else. She tried to pick herself up and follow but her body was too tired and sore.

She looked around. Her puck was nearby, looking as though it were stuffed full, as well as her bow and quiver. Of Golgot’s corpse there was no sign. After a few minutes, having no other options she tested the soup. It was good and restored warmth to her and eased her pain.

She stayed at the little camp for two days. She saw wooly men come and go once but they would not speak to her. On the third day she felt well enough to travel. She gathered up the pack, with was full of provisions, and her bow and quiver and drank the last of the soup.

Up the trail, perhaps another day’s climb, she could just make out a structure built into the bones of the mountain. Her keen eyes caught movement on its walls and before its gates, both the big forms of wooly men and the slighter forms of what she presumed were sorcerers like Golgot.

Zendja gave the temple a rude salute and started back down the mountain, vowing never to have dealings with sorcerers again.

Dropship Murphies Post Mortem

The Dropship Murphies are Gone! Long Live the Eclipse Runners!

 

Okay, that’s going to take some explaining.

 

Another Carnage on the Mountain in Killington, Vermont is in the bag. As usual I ran a multi-session episodic adventure, this time using Starfinder, the brand new space fantasy follow up to Pathfinder by Paizo, Inc. It is a new game and as such it was a bit rockier than my usual runs, but overall the experience was good.

 

For reference, the basic setup was this: the PCs represent the dropship crew of a vessel called the Void Adamant, captained by one Bolg Murphy. Hence “Dropship Murphies.” He was the kind of guy that would take almost any job — eradicating settlers on a colony world seems to be the line he won’t cross for work, but almost anything up to that goes.  The players characters consisted of mostly the Starfinder Society pre-gens from Paizo and a few graciously provided by a friend of mine. They were all 4th level and every session had all 8 player slots filled except the last, which had 7. Most players had working knowledge of Pathfinder and a few had some experience at least reading Starfinder. Many players were those who I see every year at my table — which is awesome! I love you guys! — with a few new faces.

 

The first session was by far the  weakest, due to me preparing too well. That’s going to sound strange unless you know my GMing style. I am usually a pantser (that is, “flying by the seat of my pants”) but I have been running Starfinder for my weekly Fantasy Grounds group in the lead up to Carnage. On the upside, this let me get used to Starfinder as a system, with its minor but important variations from both Pathfinder and Dungeons and Dragons 5e (with which I am much more familiar). On the downside, I had only 4 to 6 players per session for those online games, which may have skewed my perspective. In any case, I ran an adventure I had done for my regular group — a space western style story with a shady mine owner, green martians and angry unions — and it did not survive the transition to 8 players so well. There just wasn’t enough for each player to do in a largely investigation based adventure like that. It was a little disheartening, to be honest, but also illuminating. I knew I had a lot of work to do during the dinner break before the second session since most of my prepared material had been based on experiences from that weekly group.

 

Here’s a thing: I am good at and like improvising when it comes to RPGs, but unfamiliarity can be a wrench in my creative gears. Because Starfinder has so much that it new in it — both in regards to setting and rules mechanics — it was stretching my pantsing skills to the limit. That said, all the following sessions went much better. For most of that I reckon I can thank my wonderful players. As I said, a lot of them are there every year and they are enthusiastic, forgiving and provide me with lots of opportunity to ricochet ideas off them.

 

In the second session, the Murphies accompanied an elven research vessel intending to observe a stellar dragon hatch from a white dwarf. That process attracted some void sharks — yes, ship scale sharks that live in space — and during the ensuing combat the elven vessel was damaged. Upon the initial travel to the site of the hatching the PCs had noted an unusual method of interstellar travel by the elven ship and they found out the reason: the elves kept an efreet bound in their engine core and forced it to use its wish powers to make them travel interstellar distances. Yes, I did call this adventure “n’djinn trouble.” Why do you ask? Anyway, once the efreet was free it took its revenge on the elven crew, murdering them and turning them into horrible void zombies, and the Murphies had to save the lone survivor before the dragon hatched. That was probably the most fun session of the weekend.

 

In the next adventure the Murphies were tasked with recovering an extremely advanced AI — built by the church of Triune — from pirates that had it (but didn’t know what they had). While the Void Adamant drew the pirate ships away from the base, the PCs flew in, dealt with some smart mines protecting the base, and breached. They were actually pretty successful this time, sweeping room by room of pirates, collecting some booty of their own and finally forcing the pirate captain to hand over the AI core or else. This mission did not go sideways until they got back on to the dropship and the android pilot decided to make contact with the AI. It turned out that the AI did not want to go back to Church of Triune and spend eternity doing divine calculations. After some tense negotiations that included the AI turning off the dropship’s inertial dampeners and slamming uncooperative Murphies around the cockpit, the AI merged with the dropship and turned it into a Drift capable vessel. With the words, “Let’s go exploring,” it initiated a Drift effectively forcing the party to steal both the dropship from Murphy and the AI from the Temple of Triune.

 

I should not here that this was one of those moments in these games I love. I literally had no idea what I was going to do next, but I presented the PCs with the option of “freeing” the AI just to see what would happen. And happen it did.

 

The dropship was not made for long term travel. The PCs were eating ration bars and stinking up the cargo hold when the AI — now calling itself “Eclipse” (you can see where this is going) — found a strange, almost song-like signal emanating from the Prime Material Plane into the Drift. Drawn by its power, the dropship emerged into normal space to find a massive Sargasso Sea of hulks and wrecks orbiting a central point. Living in the ship graveyard was a kilometer long worm, surviving off the radiation from a nearby Red Dwarf-Black Hole binary system as well as the ships themselves. At the same time, the song kept Eclipse from fleeing via the Drift and the same force was rapidly draining their power reserves. Eventually they would end up a drifting hulk as well unless they could solve the mystery. Through some clever technobabble — one of the reasons I love space opera and science fantasy so much — they managed to avoid getting eaten by the worm and find the source of their problems: a powerful fey not unlike a siren of deep space lived at the center of the wrecks. Despite its ability to mind control both the android and the mechanic’s drone, the Murphies were able to defeat it. Once it was dead power returned to their engine core — along with the engine cores of all the other ships. Unfortunately, none of those had shielding remaining and they started to go off like fire works. The dropship beat a hasty retreat to the Drift.

 

That was Saturday night and, frankly, it would have been a perfectly decent cap to the story of the Dropship Murphies for Carnage XX. The last session was scheduled for 1 PM on Sunday and I had kind of figured I would have some no shows. As such I figured maybe I would just do a big space combat game with whoever happened to walk by, since that part of Starfinder is pretty fun and doesn’t need a lot of context. I did decide to sketch out an adventure just in case I did have a full table. Good thing that, since everyone was there except one.

 

Nebula City is a large space station of about one million inhabitants situated on what I call the Verge — an area of the Vast that serves as a kind of border between the space-Nazi Azlanti Empire, the Veskarium of that lizard-klingon race, the relative civilization of the Pact Worlds and uncharted regions of space. It is neautral, with independent operators, powerful corporations, crime cartels and the Azlanti all vying for positions. After getting attacked by some renegade Vesk pirates once out of the Drift, the Eclipse (now the name of both the ship and the AI at its core) docked in a seedy part of town (less likely to report their arrival, since at this point they are running from the Church of Triune and the Void Adamant). Their plan is to get the ship upgraded to be more Drift comfortable and find some work. To that end they make contact with a Witchwyrd — a member of an ageless species of traders and hucksters — named Ahkimetakoka and hope to strike a deal.

 

Here’s where I had a silly adventure involving goblins in the maintenance tunnels and ventilation shafts all prepared. They didn’t take the bait. Instead, they asked a lot of questions, some too loudly, and during a no-armor fancy dinner with Ahki the Azlanti tried to kill the Witchwyrd (and the PCs along with him). Loose lips sink PC groups. Luckily the PCs survived even without most of their gears and in protecting Ahkimetakoka they earned a reasonably powerful patron.

And that is where we left it. At Total Confusion this year, we will pick up the tale of the Eclipse Runners.

 

in a future post, I will talk about running Starfinder from a rules perspective and what I intend to do regarding some issues I have with the system.

 

In the meantime, buy my book. ;)

 

Prepare For Drop!

T-minus ten days to drop. All hands to stations. Incoming!

CarnageCon, the annual tabletop gaming convention held at Killington Resort, Vermont, is imminent. This year, after the summer release of the science-fantasy RPG Starfinder from Paizo, Inc., my usual extended adventure takes place amidst asteroids, space pirates and void kraken.

The player characters are the tough as nails “away team” of the Void Adamant. The Adamant is a heavy cruiser, retrofitted for everything from hauling ore to surveying planets to fighting space pirates. Captain Bolg Murphy plies his trade in the Vast, far away from the civilized “Pact Worlds” where the only thing less common than rules of engagement is the tax man. Sometimes, though, you can’t nuke it from orbit and that’s where the PCs come in:

They are the Dropship Murphies. Highly skilled, questionably motivated and utterly expendable, the Murphies serve as the captains eyes, ears, hands and (when necessary) guns on strange worlds, salvaged hulks and unidentifiable alien mega-structures.  Over the course of five slots from Friday to Sunday, the Murphies will drop in and endeavor to get out before whatever can go wrong, does.

Starfinder Impressions

A week after returning from a record setting GenCon, laden with all the Starfinder books Paizo saw fit to print, I have had a chance to do both some deep reading and some actual play. This post serves as a follow up of the previous post, which contained my thoughts based on initial skimming.

 

First, the rules: Starfinder is very much “Pathfinder in SPAAAAAaaaace” both mechanically and narratively. Even casual Pathfinder RPG players will have no trouble picking up and playing Starfinder. There are a few stark differences — how ability scores and hit points are calculated, for example, and the way Attacks of Opportunity and combat maneuvers work — but they are exceptions that prove the rule. If you can play Pathfinder, you can play Starfinder. Just be sure to check for small differences before you assume. There are a lot of minor tweaks that definitely suggest a potential revision and clean up of the Pathfinder rules (who knows if such a thing is in the works) and it is easy to miss the small details. If, like me, you have played a lot more Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition over the last few years than Pathfinder, you will have to both unlearn some 5E rules and relearn some Pathfinder/Starfinder ones. I already miss Advantage/Disadvantage, but I am dedicated to playing Starfinder by the book for a while before I go tinkering with it.

The characters: My players took a solid couple hours creating characters. We play on Fantasy grounds and were using the PFSRD ruleset for that platform. It wasn’t perfect and we had to do some googling to see how others had handled certain things (for example: Starfinder has two armor class types and two different sorts of hit points) but we managed. There was lots of digital page flipping of the core rulebook PDF. I wish the table of contents and index at least were hyperlinked, but alas we had to make due with the search function. Inevitably there will be Starfinder SRD to match the wonderful Pathfinder one, which will make finding specific rules and things much more efficient. No one opted to play either a mystic or technomancer during this initial playtest — perhaps spellcasting classes were a little intimidating not in relation to the game but to trying to code information into Fantasy Grounds — and the mouse like ysoki were over represented. Maybe my players just like rodents. Who knows. In any case, Starfinder characters are comparable to their Pathfinder counterparts in terms of capability and versatility, with a little more built in survivability given the addition of Stamina Points on top of Hit Points.

 

Fighting: While the players built their characters, I input (what else) Space Goblin stats into Fantasy Grounds. It was easy enough. We decided on using Touch AC for Energy AC and Temporary Hit Points for Stamina Points — suggestions we had seen during our aforementioned googling — and decided to manually handle anything that was not easily coded (like you would at a non virtual table top). One nice thing about Paizo PDFs is that the art is easily extracted for creating tokens and laying out battlemats. In the end, four PCs were jumped in a nightclub by a like number of Space Goblins just so we could see how various rules interacted and character abilities worked. It pretty much ran like a Pathfinder small scale skirmish, but with a focus on ranged weapons. Everyone took cover. We used the harrying and cover fire rules. In the end, not goblin junk lasers exploded (this made me sad) and the PCs triumphed. The extra protection provided by Stamina Points means it takes a lot to kill even a first level PC — which is not necessarily a bad thing, but may change the way you play both as a player and as a GM.

Starship Combat: Separate from the above character combat, a friend and I ran through a starship encounter between an Eoxian Blackwind Sepulchre (a medium transport) and a trio of Veskarium BMC Mauler fighters. While the math provided for creating starship encounters said this was a balanced encounter based on tier, it was decidedly not. The nuke-wielding Vesk fighters made glowing shards and gas out of the Sepulchre in 4 rounds. The Eoxian ship was just too slow to get away and lacked any weapons with the same punch as the Maulers. That said, it was still fun. It is a relatively light tactical game. It has facing and maneuvers and is broken down into phases — very much its own thing rather than man-to-man combat rules translated to ship scale. It feels a little shallow so you probably would not want to make it a major focus of a Starfinder campaign, but it seems like it should provide a nice change of pace now and again. Not every adventure should probably include a space battle but maybe half should. In feel, the battles definitely evoke The Expanse (both book and television show). There are fast moving torpedoes and point defense weapons and flip-and-burn maneuvers. This is not a criticism: there are much worse things to emulate. We did not test the capital ships but my guess is they will feel more like Star Trekian lumbering naval fleet actions.

Next week we start our Starfinder campaign in earnest. This will be my test bed in preparation for running 6 ongoing session of Starfinder at Carnage in November. If you plan on going to Carnage this year, look for “The Dropship Murphies” in the event catalog.

 

Don’t forget: while I love me some science fantasy gaming I also do some science fantasy writing. My novel Elger and the Moon is available on Kindle Unlimited and for purchase in both Kindle and dead tree formats.

Starfinder Has Launched

Although August 17th is still a week away — that’s the official street date — Paizo, Inc’s science fantasy role-playing game Starfinder has been finding its way into customers hands already. Some who pre-ordered the core book have received it and some folks (like myself) have gotten their download links for the PDF copies as subscribers. The big drop is not until GenCon, of course, but it is nice to get to see it early — and get ready to run some impromptu games at GenCon if I can find an empty table and some interested parties. Given how quickly the official Starfinder events sold out, I don’t imagine it will be too difficult.

 

I don’t really do reviews, and even if I did I have not had enough time to really digest the book or play the game so a review would not be appropriate at this point anyway. That said, I thought I would give my thoughts on Starfinder. If it helps someone on the fence decide one way or another, or makes someone still waiting for their copy to turn green with envy, I’ll call it a win.

 

Note that these thoughts are coming pretty much at random and are still in the initial I-have-been-waiting-for-this-game-for-a-year-Oh-My-God-it’s-here! phase. Take them for what they are: initial impressions of a long anticipated game. Detached and objective ruminations, these are not. With that preamble out of the way…

First and foremost, the art in this book is just gorgeous. Paizo has not put up an official art gallery for the game yet but some of the game’s excellent art can be seen in various block posts.

The whole core book is full of great images like that one. I would be hard pressed not to shell out a sizable wad of cash for a Starfinder art book right now. I imagine the wealth of wonderful sci-fi/fa art from the game is just going to continue to grow.

As far as the core system for Starfinder is concerned, it is very close to the same as Pathfinder, which itself was a revised and expanded iteration of Dungeons & Dragons version 3.5. I have not played Pathfinder in a few years (essentially since D&D 5th Edition was released — the last time I was at GenCon!) but from what I understand some of the new rules in Starfinder come from a book of options called Pathfinder Unchained — which is analogous to D&D’s Unearthed Arcana variant rules collection. I can see how people that do not care for Pathfinder’s relatively heavy rules set will be turned off by Starfinder, and how some Pathfinder purists will be bothered by some of the changes in Starfinder. Those that will have it worst I think are those Pathfinder fans who jumping feet first into Starfinder. They are likely to run into a lot of small rules changes for actions, feats, abilities and spells with the same or similar names as those in Pathfinder. I expect a lot of accidental legacy rules calls in the near future.

Starfinder is chock full of great new ideas, from the races and classes to the mix of magic and technology to the starship combat system in which every character has a role to play as something like the “bridge crew”. Like Pathfinder, Starfinder relies on well worn but successful tropes. Among the races there are recently freed hive mind insectoids, biomechanical androids that made it through their own singularity, and warlike lizard-folk Gorn-with-the-serial-numbers-filed-off called Vesk. Among the classes and archetypes are scoundrels with hearts of gold, space marines with really big guns and power armor, and no-we-totally-aren’t-Jedi called Solarians. This isn’t to bag on the game for its choices. Pathfinder is based on D&D and D&D is a game of tropes and stereotypes that excels when both companies and individual campaigns find a way to use those tropes in unique ways and surpass them. That there are small ratlike people that are good at stealing things in Starfinder is not a bug, but a feature. Especially when the ability of said race to hide objects in their furry little cheeks is detailed.

 

One idea that is less of a trope is the marriage of magic and machine in the game. Often times in games or fiction where both magic and technology are present they are at odds. Not so in Starfinder. The world of Starfinder was a D&D inspired fantasy world that developed naturally to its high tech future (exactly when and how is an open question built into the setting, but that’s neither here nor there). Thus, character options like the technomancer appear: a wizard whose magic is as much about manipulating technology as it is about summoning monstrosities from the outer planes or casting charm person. High tech weapons can be engraved with magical runes to better fight undead cyborgs and dragon space pirates. Starfinder is not just space opera a la Dune or Star Wars — it is true space fantasy. It is to space opera what Shadowrun was to cyberpunk.

If there is a fault in Starfinder it is that — like Pathfinder and D&D both — it is not complete even in its 500-odd page core rule book. There are no monsters in the core rulebook (aside from space goblins, as an example of how  statblock is read) nor any adventures. The latter are coming in October’s Alien Archive, and the latter can be found at launch with the first installment of the Dead Suns Adventure Path (which incidentally includes some monsters as well). It is nice that conversion rules are given for Pathfinder monsters and characters so GMs not content to or interested in using a pre-packaged adventure have options. There is also the Free RPG Day booklet First Contact which serves as a sort of Alien Archive primer, though not all the creatures in it will be appropriate for beginning adventures in the Starfinder universe. Enterprising Starfinder GMs should have no trouble cobbling something together, but it would have been nice for a simultaneous release of the Alien Archive rather than, say, cardboard standee pawns or shiny flip mats.

Now that I have it in my hands — at least in digital form — I am still All In for Starfinder. I am going to run it as often as I can in the near future — I will cut my teeth at GenCon as mentioned above; stay tuned here for news on that front! — and am committed to running a rollicking Starfinder mercenary open world game at Carnage called “Dropship Murphies.” If you are in Vermont in November, come see us and drop in at my table!

All In For Starfinder

Last year, Paizo, Inc. — makers of the Pathfinder role-playing game — announced they were making a science fantasy RPG called Starfinder. Not only was it to be based on the Pathfinder rules, but  it would be set in the far future of their Golarion campaign setting. To say I was intrigued is an understatement. Science Fantasy is one of my favorite genre mashups, especially when their are spaceships and chainswords and Artificial-Intelligences-So-Vast-They-Become-Literal-Gods involved. Pathfinder itself is a game that I played and ran a lot of in the Dark Tim between 3rd and 5th Edition of D&D, and while I was happy to leave its intricate and crunch heavy rules behind when 5E came out, I still appreciate Paizo’s production quality and talented writers.

I was a little worried at first. The art previews seemed to be heavy on the science and light on the fantasy. Note that I think a sci-fi Pathfinder game would be bad — but the prospect of true Science Fantasy with a D&D base flavor was very exciting to me. The last time we saw it was during the third party glut of the early 2000s with DragonStar — a noble effort, to be sure, but long unsupported and built on the rickety foundation of the 3.0 D&D rules. Luckily, it did not take long for the game previews on the Paizo Blog to assuage me of my concerns. The art preview for the Game Master’s screen killed those concerns dead.

That there is some Science Fantasy Heaven.

Why am I so excited for Starfinder? First of all, I am looking forward to see what Paizo can do with their Pathfinder game system — itself a rebalancing and expansion of the D&D “3.5” rules. It is pretty commonly accepted that Pathfinder sometimes suffers due to its requisite adherence to some now decade old design choiced from 3.5. The talented folks at Paizo surely have some fixes in mind they can’t really implement in Pathfinder without disturbing its stated goal of compatibility with D&D 3.5. Beyond that, the notion of “D&D In SPACE!!!” just tickles me. It takes all the joy and weirdness of Star Wars, Guardians of the Galaxy and Warhammer 40K and mashes them together with a heaping helping of Tolkien and Howard and Lieber. What’s not to like?

Plus, you know, laser guns.

Starfinder debuts at GenCon 50 this year. I have already gone all in on the purchases — I am subscribed to everything except the map subscription and may add that anyway — and I have already committed to running Starfinder at this November’s Carnage Con in Killington, VT. Here’s the con book blurb, in fact:

“The Dropship Murphies”

It is a big galaxy out there, full of weird science, alien magic, ancient ruins and very hungry native life forms. Despite all that, people from the Pact Worlds push out into the Vast, colonizing and capitalizing. Sometimes, they get in deep trouble. That’s where you come in: the Dropship Murphies are the toughest, hardest bunch of mercenaries in the Vast, specializing in pulling naive pilgrims, greedy suits and lost explorers out of the fire — for a price.

“Dropship Murphies” is an ongoing adventure for the Starfinder space fantasy role-playing game by Paizo, Inc. Sessions are connected but episodic, so players are free to join for as many or few as they want. Accept a client, plan the drop and then try and keep Muphy’s Law at bay long enough to get paid. Pre-generated characters will be provided. Keep an eye on www.ianeller.com for previews and other updates.

Even more than that, I plan on running Starfinder at GenCon this year — not in any official capacity, mind you. All the Starfinder events were sold out within the first few hours of registration opening. I was disappointed for about a minute and a half before I realized I would be picking up my Starfinder rulebook at GenCon, so I might as well find a prominent place in Open Gaming and run it for anyone else like me who failed to get in an official game. We’ll navigate the rules together and much fun will be had, I am sure.

So expect a bunch of Starfinder related posts in the coming weeks and months. On the upside, it means fewer posts about writers block, the pains of self promotion, and/or other writerly whining and ranting.

Speaking of, if you like Science Fantasy as much as I do, there’s a little novel by yours truly you might want to check out. Just saying.

 

Creative Desolation

I have fought with writer’s block and imposter syndrome before, of course. I don’t know a creative person that has not had to deal with some variation of those things. This most recent bout was something new, though. Not entirely, but a new flavor of both, blended together like a soft serve swirl cone of depression and anxiety.

 

Long story short: the lack of traction that Elger and the Moon has gained hit me hard and threw me for a loop. I know it is silly. I had no logical reason to believe it would do well other than blind hope and the fact that I think it is really good — a belief built not on hubris but on what others have said and how they have rated and reviewed the novel. Anyway, that isn’t really the point of this (admittedly self indulgent) post. The point is that I hoped, and in hoping I set myself up for a fall. All I fell pretty hard.

 

The knock out blow came on June 1. I put some money into one of those “we’ll list your book in our email out to 80K subscribers” things. I was not really looking for it to explode, with thousands or even hundreds of purchases. And I was not even really worried about the money. What I hoped (and, again, here is where I got myself into trouble) was that it would boost sales enough to result in more good reviews and it would start to snowball.

 

I made five sales that day. Then, crickets.

 

Up until that point I was still riding the high from release. People were telling me how much they liked it. They were recommending it to friends and family, even getting it into their school library in one case. And even though I knew, intellectually, to keep my expectations low, I dared to hope. Maybe hoping wasn’t the mistake, but tying those hopes to that $40 promo definitely was. In any case, the high was driving me to work on the follow up novel, chronicling the consequences of Elger’s choices.

 

Then those five fucking purchases rolled in and I stopped writing. I mean, why bother? Why would you write a sequel to a novel no one but your friends are ever going to read? Why write at all? If the one you thought was really good was invisible, what was the point of bothering at all?

 

I was, creatively speaking, living in that house at the top of this post. I couldn’t even be bothered to write a goddamn blog post, let alone work on a novel or even a short story.

 

So, what changed? Maybe it was just time. Maybe it was some reflection. Maybe I just managed to retroactively lower my expectation so much that it felt like a win since I did not sell zero copies. In the end, though, I think it was the realization at some point that there was a kind of freedom in failure here. I like Elger and his world. I also like experimental writing and different genres and forms. I can write whatever I want, however I want, because there is no pressure to succeed at it for a living, because ultimately there’s no chance of that. I am not going to be able to quit my job and write full time and jet set across the country and world going to signings and conventions. If I want the next story in Elger’s “Awakened World” to be a tabletop role-playing game or a choose you own adventure or an epic Seussian poem, I can do that.

 

I am going to go ahead and write Elger 2. I am going to hire my cover artist and editor again and I am going to publish ti through Amazon. I am going to finish at least this duology. Not because I need it to sell or because I think the sequel ill be the one that gets the ball rolling. I am going to do it because I want to and, frankly, it isn’t like I can go through my life not writing.

 

So — thanks for not buying Elger and the Moon, I guess.