HereAfter

From Sigil Entertainment!

Heroes Die.

What is an adventure if not a game of chicken with the grim reaper? From a pit full of jagged spikes to giant spiders to traitorous blades in the night to angry would-be gods from the deepest levels of the Abyss, Death stalks the novice and veteran hero alike. And sometimes, Death wins the game.

But in the vast tapestry of fantasy adventure, death need not be the end. HereAfter is a meta-setting designed to take that death, especially the dreaded Total Party Kill, and embrace it. Characters awake on the shores of a mystical island in an endless sea where they have the opportunity to win their way back to the land of the living and complete their quests and find justice and vengeance. Or they can find their way to their final reward in the planes beyond.

But they aren’t alone in the HereAfter: many others before them have crossed the veil to the Endless Isle. Some have made it their home, wishing neither to return to the living or go on to the true end. Some are trapped and driven to madness, haunting the land of the dead itself. Powers and forces beyond mortal ken also watch the HereAfter, unable to enter themselves but using their influence and minions on the Endless Isle.

HereAfter is designed for use with the 5th Edition of the first fantasy adventure RPG. It can be used with characters of any level, from any setting. Characters might adventure here for a session or two before returning home, alive and well, or have a full campaign on the Endless Isle.

Hereafter will soon be found on Kickstarter!

The Ephemeral Joy of RPGs

I meant to write a long post-TotalCon blog entry. It would have talked about how the Rebel Scum came to a satisfying conclusion with Vader allowing them to assassinate Tarkin in order to get them in the open and then eviscerating them one by one. It would have mentioned the absolute insane joy of The Battle of the Colliseum, in which 3 teams competed with one another to please the Gods and managed to raise $1000 for Children’s Miracle Network in the process. It would have even admitted the absolute exhausted, hung over session of PSINAUT Sunday morning turned out better than expected thanks to some patient players and the fast, furious fun of the Savage Worlds Adventure Edition rules.

But, I forgot. or I put it off.

Or, more likely than any of those things, the immediate bliss of those events had faded and I went on to experience other, different forms of the same with my weekly DargonHeist and Hell on Earth games.

One thing I have begun to understand about the tabletop role-playing experience is how ephemeral it is — and how that is a good thing. For me, even, it is the main draw. One can watch a movie or listen to an album or read a book over and over again. For the very good examples of those forms, those repeat engagements provide new experiences, but for most it is simply good enough to return to the shadow of the experience of watching, hearing or reading it for the first time. Tabletop RPGs are not like that. There are no repeat viewings, even if you play the same adventure over again. The people are different, or the time is different or you are different. because it is improvisational, it would be impossible to recreate the adventure even if played literally moments after finishing it the first time, with the same people in the same place.

I can’t quite articulate why, but I feel this is important. This ephemeral joy that RPGs bring is, to me, a fundamental draw. It may be the only part of the experience that truly differentiates it from all other forms of entertainment. There are lots of interactive forms of entertainment, and many ways to engage in fantasy play. But tabletop RPGs, relying as they do on a combination of player improv and randomizers, can do something not even really good MMORPGs online can do: they create a completely unique experience that cannot be repeated or effectively captured.

Some may balk at that last assertion. Yes, Critical Roll and other streaming, YouTube and podcast series are very popular. But even though people have found entertainment in observing others play, they are not themselves playing and therefore are not experiencing that ephemeral, interactive joy. Watching Critical Roll might be more meaningful for a gamer because they can imagine how they might feel were they playing, but ultimately they aren’t playing. Nor is the experience ephemeral — one can always cue it up on YouTube and watch a favorite episode or scene over again. As such, I think shows like Critical Roll kind of swing wide of the point of the RPG hobby. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge them their success or the fans their enjoyment, but it’s essentially TV, as “real” and “unscripted” as an episode of Survivor.

So what? Well, first and foremost this: if you are hungry for an experience like you cannot get from any other form of entertainment, I implore you to give tabletop role-playing a try. Whatever else the experience will provide, it is guaranteed to give you something completely unique every time you sit down at the table (virtual or otherwise). Second, if you are an active player or DM watching streamers and wondering why your game isn’t that good — stop. That experience happening on screen is a form of entertainment built for an audience. What you are doing at your table is far superior, even if it doesn’t come with the best voice actors in the business. And finally, if you are a lapsed player or DM — come back. We want you back and your love of the medium will flare back to life like a campfire in a windstorm. It has never been easier for far flung friends to play online, and D&D has never been more in the public eye in a positive way. Seek out a game store, a club at the local library or start a game night at the local watering hole.

Just because the experience is ephemeral and hard to articulate to those that weren’t there does not mean it is a lesser experience. Play.

Bow Before The PANTHEON

Turns on lights. Taps mic. “Hello? Is anyone still here?”

The end of 2018 was one bitch of a ride. I finished my schooling, changed jobs and started writing RPG material again. In all that mess, this blog got lost — but never forgotten! Now that I have settled into work, school is over (FOREVER!) and I have found a groove with game writing, I hope to get back to this. It’s been too long since I have yelled into the void just to hear my own echo.

 

The first new business of 2019 is The Savage Sign. It is a quarterly publication for Sigil Entertainment  full of all kinds of wonderful goodies for the Savage Worlds RPG system. The Savage Sign is in the middle of a Kickstarter right now to fund its first issue. Go have a look! Among other things, and with plenty of help from some very talented designers, editors, writers and artists, I have been creating the super hero setting Pantheon. The setting is inspired by the work of my favorite comic book creators, including Warren Ellis, Mark Waid, Grant Morrison and Kurt Busiek. It is four color heroics in a world full of secrets. And like any good comic book story, it won’t be done in one. We plan to support and expand PANTHEON all through the year, leading to something big in 2020.

 

Expect to hear more about this project as time goes on, as well as some other cool super hero stuff I have in the works.

The Creative Stack

The word “Blog” appears at the top of an otherwise blank sheet of college ruled paper. It is the top sheet of five such pieces of paper. The rest aren’t labeled “Blog” of course. They have labels like “Tabletop Game Design” and “Fiction” on them. And while each sheet represents a distinct creative activity, they are all part of a larger experiment: the Creative Stack.

For the past few months — well, actually, for the past few years — most of my time and mental energy has been consumed by school. I am a middle aged man with a degree in English Literature and a gnat’s level of focus, so you may ask why I am in school. I am doing what all middle aged people do in the modern economy: changing jobs before my job changes me — irrevocably. I am moving from “surveyor by trade” to “civil engineer.” I know what you are thinking, and no — I did not decide to become an engineer just so I can level up from geek to true nerd.

Ok. Maybe a little.

Anyway, all that background is to get to this: with classes ending for the summer, I find myself with free time. I could squander it on video games and extra sessions of D&D (and rest assured, I will to some degree) but I also want to ensure I use the time I have wisely before going back to school in the fall. I tried to pick a project, but realized that the whole “attention span of a gnat” thing was going to cause me no end of trouble in that endeavor. So, instead, I am writing an entry for this blog because that piece of college ruled paper told me so.

I call it the “Creative Stack” and I honestly don’t remember if I came by the idea listening to a podcast or dreamed it up myself. If it ends up working, you can be sure I will claim the latter, so we will go with that for now.

The Creative Stack consists of five sheets of paper. They bear the following headings:

Tabletop Game Design, for serious efforts toward board and card game design with an eye toward eventual production or publication.

Game Prep, for convention games and other “serious” role-playing Game Mastering circumstances.

Fiction, for prose storytelling.

RPG Game Design, for professional work in the RPG arena, including freelance writing and part time development.

and, of course, Blog, for this thing here.

(There area couple of blank pages in the stack at the moment, too, in case I get a bug for something in particular.)

The way the stack works is simple: Whatever the top sheet is, I work on for some period of time, maybe an hour or two. When I finish for that day, I write down what I did and when I did it, and then move that paper to the bottom of the stack. The next day (presuming I don’t procrastinate) I work on whatever is next in the stack, even if that isn’t necessarily the thing I would want to be working on at that moment. I don’t get to move on until I have put work into whatever is on the top of the stack.

The system is intended to both keep me working on something creative daily, and help me avoid both burnout on one project and also avoid randomly dropping a project out of disinterest or a simple failure to get back to it. In the best case scenario by the end of the summer I have reams of completed projects, and a creative stack that has turned over a few times. In reality, I will be happy if I manage to complete a single project within each category.

At the very least, it should mean that every 5-days-ish, you should see a new blog entry from me. If you like that sort of thing, I mean.

-I

Eclipse City: Lost in the Drift

 

Over this past weekend I had the opportunity to run a single session Starfinder adventure at a good friend’s 50th birthday geekstravaganza. Since many of the folks who would be attending this event were folks who make it to the annual regional cons I Gamemaster at, I decided to run a follow up to the events of Carnage 2017’s Dropship Murphies and TotalCon 2018’s Eclipse Runners/Battle for Nebula City mini-campaigns.

 

When last we left our intrepid crew, they had managed to save Nebula City from a plot by the nefarious Azlanti Empire and become celebrities in the process. Unfortunately, the Azzies weren’t finished and attacked Nebula City with a small fleet. Nebula City’s merchants and mercenaries stood as a bulwark against the invaders while the local pirates of the Corsair Nebula sought to take advantage of the loser. In the end, the pirates sided with the defenders and repelled the Azlanti. But even as they did, Eclipse — the divinely powered Artificial Intelligence originally stolen by the Dropship Murphies — was able to move herself from the PCs’ ship to the core of Nebula City itself and it winked out of normal space, leaving all surviving ships in the lurch.

 

We picked up the story a month later. For thirty days the rechristened Eclipse City had been floating in the Drift. Eclipse herself seemed focused on finding something, though no one was sure quite what, and left it to the former Murphies/Runners to maintain order on the station. Despite the respect their previous heroics afforded them, they did not find it an easy task. With no way to get supplies or people on or off the station — Eclipse had made sure all the Drift capable vessels were out defending the station when she engaged the drive — old alliances, agreements and other faction relationships began to fray. And while the station was not yet in danger of starving or running out of air, luxuries were beginning to run low. On a city populated by rich merchants, powerful crime lords, and working stiffs that just want a good drink at the end of a long day, that was enough to heat the pot. It would not be long before it boiled over.

 

What’s more was a series of anomalies occurring on the station. People were reporting strange experiences and even half remembered visitations. Some unknown force seemed to be watching Eclipse City — or worse.

 

With all that background established, we got going. The PCs were sent to talk with the leadership of the Recycler’s Union which had begun favoring certain factions over others in providing recycled air and water. It became clear early in the interview process that the Recylcer’s weren’t bad guys but were responding to pressure put on them by other factions. Things looked like they might turn out peacefully, so that is when the vampires showed up. Among the gangs operating on the station, the vampires were poised to do the best as food, water and other consumables were used up. All they needed was an ever increasingly desperate population of cattle willing to send one another to slaughter. So they figured it would be easiest to take out the Recycler’s Union, and if they got the station’s only “cops” in the process, so much the better.

 

It was a short battle. Vampires might be sexy, and they might scare Victorian Gentlemen, but they are no match for jump jetting dwarves, invisible sniper androids, four armed Not-Jedi, giant lizard commandos or technomancer space elves.

 

After the cleanup — vampires always die messy, it seems — the party tried to get Eclipse to leave the Drift on account of the growing instability on the station but the AI was focused on her goal: direct communion with Triune somewhere in the Drift. Finding where that “somewhere” was probably would not take more than, say 1000 years, and she only really “needed” 27% of the station’s population when she got there anyway, so it was totally doable. The PCs began to rethink their loyalty to Eclipse at that point.

 

Before they could enact any plans, they discovered they were not alone on the station. And by “they” I mean “species native to the Prime Material Plane.” A race of psychic, big headed, big eyes, gray skinned beings with a penchant for reading your mind through your local GI tract had infiltrated the station and were trying to find a way to get to the engine core and Drift drive. When they finally managed to get one of the PCs — random rolls indicated the axe weilding dwarf Hoss Bloodhammer — they had the information they needed. The race was on to stop these alternate dimensional interlopers from stealing Eclipse City and dropping it out of the Drift into *their* Prime Material Plane space.

 

In the end the PCs faced down a group of aliens in Engineering and were able to defeat them. Using the alien plot in their argument, they also managed to convince Eclipse to leave the Drift for her own safety. Unfortunately no one, not even Eclipse, knew where into normal space the station would drop.

 

We’ll find out where at Carnage 2018.

Running for Dylan

Normally, this blog is a place for geekery, the occasional rant and ruminations on writing. Today I want to talk about something far more important: Running for Dylan.

Dylan Hockley was one of the 20 children and 6 educators killed in the December 14, 2012 rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School here in Newtown, Connecticut. Out of that unimaginable tragedy, Dylan’s Parents Ian Hockley and Nicole Hockley have — like many of the other families of the people who were lost that day — tried to build something good. That thing is the Dylans Wings of Change foundations and the Wingman project. Despite having suffered the worst tragedy imaginable, Ian and Nicole have decided to make the world a better place. I am grateful to know them.

In order to get the Wingman project into schools, where students are trained to be leaders and create a safe and welcoming environment for everyone, they need funds. In order to help with that, I will (again) be running in the Cape Cod Ragnar Relay for them. You can read here about how Ragnar became the main fundraising vehicle of Dylan’s Wings, but suffice it to say we need your help.

So, yeah, I am asking you for money. I am asking you to donate money to Dylan’s Wings of Change through my Crowdrise campaign? I am asking you to make a small sacrifice in order to make the lives of kids — not just kids with autism, but all kids — better as they go to school.

What do you get out of it? Well, besides the warmth in the cockles of your heart, you get to make this race more fun for all my van mates! You see, what I wear on my legs will depend on how much money I raise.

I DARE you to make me do my best Gal Gadot.

The River of Stone Flows to the Sky

It has been a while since I shared any fiction on this page. I was inspired to write the following story over the course of the last few weeks while doing some design and development work for Starfinder role-playing game projects (both personal and professional). So, yeah, it’s fan fiction. Enjoy!


The River of Stone Flows to the Sky

A (unofficial) Starfinder Story

By Ian Eller

 

Kukedth and Muxedth crouched on their bellies, keeping their heads low enough to be concealed by the patch of thorny braxis in which they hid. Kukedth’s tail twitched impatiently and the beater he held in his backhand swayed, rustling the braxis. Muxeth hissed at her clutchmate, her forked tongue almost touching his nose she was so close to him. “Quiet,” she whispered harshly, easily making as much noise as Kukedth had. Her own beater hovered motionless while her three arms fidgeted a little.

They hid in the braxis for what seemed to Kukedth a very long stretch. His belly scales spasmed now and again and he had to fight to keep his tail still. He occupied himself by stacking small stones, going for a tower taller than the last before it collapsed. Each time it did so Muxedth reproached him with her hiss and glare. “Hunting is patience,” their father had always said. He was right. Unfortunately, patience was a gift divine Eldaroph had not bestowed upon Kukedth.

Suddenly the waiting ended. The wulgot was a hundred spans away when it raised its furry head above the brown grass. Without a word, Kukedth and Muxedth were after it. As soon as it sensed their movement it bolted. Its single powerful hopper drove it forward while its two thin forelimbs helped it make sudden turns as it tried to evade the hunters. The creature had little hope of evading Muxedth, and none at all of outpacing Kukedth.

Kukedth’s spine went rigid and he became a missile. His three arms scrambled for purchase for the briefest moment before launching him forward at breathtaking speed. He seemed to fly over the rugged scrub and rock and grass covered plain, faster than any of his broodmates and indeed of any of his kind that he knew. Muxedth did not try to keep up. She knew better. Rather, the other hunter tracked the wulgot with her keen eyes and tongue and ran to intercept its escape route. She forced it to double back and allowed Kukedth to get ever closer.

The chase was for Kukedth unfairly brief compared to the long wait. He dared not toy with the thing, however. They were hungry and the meal was needed back at the camp. He moved faster and faster, turning with ease each time the wulgot changed direction. Finally he got close enough to bring his beater down on the creature. It was a glancing blow, but enough to send the furry beast sprawling in the dirt. Kukedth circled back to where it had fallen and took another swing. He missed, but before the wolgot could right itself and launch away Muxedth was there. Her beater stroke did not miss or glance. The wolgot’s skull caved in and the hunt was over.

With the chase done the two hunters returned to their bellies. They drew out their knives and quickly cleaned the wolgot corpse. They laughed and joked as they did so, heady with the euphoria of success. Once they had finished the wolgot was carried by Muxedth, who was significantly bigger and stronger than Kukedth — but also slower, Kukedth would always note.

The way back to camp was long. Lately game was sparser and sparser in the plains. Their father said it was because of a drought, but others said differently. They said it was because of the moonfolk and their massive stone eating towers. Even as they slithered back to camp Kukedth and Muxedth could see one of the towers in the distance. Even so far away they could feel the vibration in their belly scales as the thing ate the earth and belched stones into the sky on a river of blue light. It was no wonder, some said, the game had fled with that never ending hum in the earth. Others still suggested an even more sinister explanation: the moonfolk were hunting the wolgot and bengit birds and hroth themselves, stealing food right from the mouths of the people, just as they stole the stones from the earth.

Kukedth did not like to consider such things. To him, the moonfolk were wonders and he secretly desired to see them up close, to visit their strange towers, and perhaps even ride one of their magical conveyances into the sky.

***

Braddig looked through the scope, tracking the two slitherers as they, well, slithered across the plain. In his field of view, reticles hovered over the aliens’ heads. The reticles glowed green and Braddig touched the trigger anxiously.

“Hey,” said Nora-19 and gently pushed the barrel of Braddig’s sniper rifle up toward the sky.

Braddig swore. “You ruined my shot,” he said, but he did not try to find his targets again. “I was only calibrating the scope anyway.”

Nora-19 considered the young human. Her cybernetic eyes scanned him from his short cropped hair and scruffy chin, down his scratched and dented combat harness and all the way to his worn out boots he refused to replace no matter how many ugly worlds just like this one they tromped on. The android shrugged and said, “I know, but there is movement in the Azlanti camp.”

Braddig got serious immediately. He turned around and settled in behind his rifle and looked through the scope again. The hill on which the they crouched was dense with the nasty thorn bushes native to the nameless rock of a world. He and Nora-19 were well concealed. The Azlanti camp was located perhaps ten kliks away near the base of the massive mining rig. Through the scope he could see the Azlanti soldiers in their green armor shining in the sun like beetles. The scientists and officers, identifiable in more subdued uniforms, were moving around quickly but not frantically. Not an emergency. What then?

As if in answer the image in the scope went blurry. The ground beneath him vibrated so strongly he felt it in his bones.

“The drill is close to the mantle now,” said Nora-19. “They have extracted all the karicite they can within safety parameters.”

“I don’t suppose the Azzies are known for adhering to safety parameters, are they?” asked Braddig as he refocused the scope and increased the magnification.

“Sadly, no,” said the android with more than a little wistfulness in her tinny voice. “If they operate as they have in previous incidents, they will evacuate and allow the drill to continue to work until the mantle is breached.”

“And our weird three armed snake friends will get a big lava surprise.”

“Yes. The region will likely be uninhabitable for thousands of years.” Nora-19 crossed her legs and bowed her head. She whispered something Braddig could not make out, then looked up with an expression of concern on her blue face. “The mining structure intelligence tells me it has begun preparations to merge with Triune through the gateway that is Epoch.” Her tone was reverent but concerned. “I expect we have very little time.” Braddig did not know or care much about the android’s strange three souled god, but he could tell what she meant: death was coming.

Through the scope Braddig could easily see he was looking at an orderly evacuation. What was likely only essential equipment was being loaded onto the three heavily armed transports while personnel secured the site. There was no need to arm destruction sequences — something the xenophobic and imperious Azlanti were known for — since once the plasma drill breached the mantle it was all going to be slag anyway. “We did not bid this job nearly high enough,” he complained.

“And yet we accepted the offer nonetheless,” said Nora-19. “So let us earn our meager pittance.”

Braddig grunted, opened a secure channel to The Adamant Wanderer, their ship, and hailed the rest of the crew.

***

Logist Isaura paused momentarily as the tremor passed. The vibration of it was a queer feeling, crawling up her legs and through her gut and finishing behind her eyes. When it stopped she went back to swiping her datapad. Her eyes flitted swiftly and precisely from the datapad to the camp. She noted every movement of every soldier and scientist, every crate and loader drone. The information was passed instantly through her fingers to the datapad and from the datapad to orbit where the Indomitable Will of Azlant waited.

“Logist,” said one of the Aeon Guards at her side. His designation was ArZ-892. She knew this because she knew the assignments and current positions of all personnel assigned to the mining operation. What his name was, she could neither say nor be bothered to ask. She gave the slightest nod, indicating permission for him to continue. “Overwatch reports movement within the exclusion zone,” he said. “Analysis indicates ninety-four percent probability that it is one or more members of the indigenous population.”

Isaura suppressed a frown of annoyance. The Vice Admiral was either testing her ability to multitask, or attempting to sabotage her efficiency matrix. In either case, it was an unnecessary distraction from her actual duty: evacuating the mine site prior to mantle breech. Without looking up at the guard, she asked, “What is the status of the prisoner population?” She knew the answer, of course, but was curious if ArZ-892 did.

“Three critical, two stable and four dead,” he answered without hesitation. The corner of her mouth twitched. Two critical, two stable and five dead. ArZ-892 was operating on information more than two cycles old. She made a note in his file and then said, “Take a standard compliment and acquire prisoners if possible, additional biomass samples if not.”

He saluted and jogged away, his armor blazing emerald in the sunlight. Logist Isaura set an efficiency tracker for ArZ-892 and went back to her real work.

***

Oddgob made the squeaky whistling sound he always did whenever he was about to deliver bad news. “Bad news, boss man,” said the ysoki, furry ears and bald tail twitching. “That blip was an Azzie floater leaving the camp.”

Braddig swore. “Floater? You mean one of their armored transports? Is it heading our way?” He moved to lean over the console, jostling the smaller, mouselike tech out of the way.

Oddgob’s whiskers danced with irritation as he reasserted his position in front of the console. “No. It looks like it is heading toward the locals you saw.”

Braddig sighed with relief. “Great. Good.”

“Good?” asked Oddgob, Nora-19 and Zocrom in unison. The kasatha had been silent to that point, as usual, sitting cross legged with his four arms set in his meditative pose. His eyes were set hard on Braddig from the center of his grey skinned, elongated skull and something about the way the mystic brought his arms to his sides as he flowed to his feet made Braddig nervous.

“What?” said Braddig, raising his hands. “I just mean the Azzies aren’t on us, which would be bad, right? I mean, right?” He looked from one face to the next and saw nothing but impassive admonition. “Come on! Look, they are dead anyway if we can’t shut down the drill, right? And if we go getting ourselves shot dead in a fight with the Azzies, we won’t be able to stop the drill, right? So in a way, not saving them is saving them. See?” He searched their faces. He held out hope for three heartbeats before finally sighing, swearing and saying, “Fine. We’ll help.”

“Your heart speaks the wisdom your mind does not wish to accept,” said Zocrom in his infuriatingly obtuse way before the mystic moved to sit at a station. His four hands worked rapidly over multiple consoles and the ship began to come to life. Meanwhile, Oddgob scurried out of the cockpit and into the engineering compartment. Nora-19 did not move but her eyes turned an opaque blue and the team’s small ship lurched off the ground. “Prepare for low altitude contour flight,” said her voice from everywhere at once; Nora-19 was not just the pilot, she was, in almost every way that mattered, the ship itself.

Braddig shook his head as he dropped into the gunner’s station and strapped in. “This is a bad bet,” he muttered even as the giddy feeling of imminent combat rustled in his guts.

***

Kukedth flicked his long forked tongue out. The taste of low burning embers was on the air. The village was ready for what he and Muxedth — and all the other hunting pairs — had managed to get this day. Then he tasted something else. It was acrid and ozone and oil. It was coming from far off behind them, carried on the breeze, but growing stronger. He twisted to look past Muxedth, who was straining a little under the weight of their catch after such a long way.

“What?” asked his clutchmate.

“Moon people,” said Kukedth quietly and slowly. Something was not right. The scent was strengthening quickly. “They’re coming,” he said hesitantly and then suddenly added in a scream, “Go! Run!”

By the time the words were spoken the alien flyer was in sight. It came in fast and low. Kukedth had seen them before from far away but never like this. He suddenly felt quite like the wulgot, and like it he sprang into motion at the imminent attack by a predator. He stiffened and planted his three hands and bolted.

The alien flyer hugged the ground almost close enough to trim the grass and braxis. Its speed was incalculable and it went from a distant whisper on his tongue to looming over him in a blink. It shone like the carapace of a gharro wasp and seemed no more friendly. Kukedth tried to outrun the thing but it easily kept pace. It slid to fly beside him as he ran. It matched every swerve and dash he made. Then the side split open and ona  short ramp stood an alien for each of his hands, including the back one. They wore their strange green shells and held even stranger weapons. Kukedth very much took back all the thoughts he had ever thought about wanting to meet the aliens as they raised their weapons. He hoped they did not realize he was leading the flyer away from the village, and also he hoped Muxedth had kept going that way.

Pain coursed through Kukedth suddenly. A wide net of lightning bolts, impossibly small and organized, had emerged from one of the aliens’ weapons and wrapped around him. His stiff spine convulsed and his fast three arms faltered and he was tumbling in the scrub and earth. He wanted to get back up but could not. No part of his body was doing as he commanded it. Meanwhile, the alien flyer was slowing and turning, having passed him by when he fell. It was coming back at him and one of the aliens on the ramp was aiming a weapon at him.

“Get up,” he hissed at himself.

“Get up!” screamed Muxedth at him. He sighed sadly. She had not left him to return to the camp. Too bad.

The flyer loomed close. Kukedth and Muxedth coiled around one another, each one comforting the other while themselves terrified and distraught.

***

Braddig fired. The forward plasma cannon sent twin balls of roiling death at the Azlanti transport. The weapon was normally used in the vacuum of space where it could do no harm except to its target. In the open of this arid world, so near to the ground, the plasma bolts set the grass and the very air ablaze.

“Direct hit,” said Zocrom still working the controls at his station. “Their shields are down.”

“And their comms?” asked Braddig as he lined up a second shot.

Zocrom hesitated only a heartbeat. “Still jammed. Unless the attack is under optical observation the Azlanti will not know of our intervention for the time being.”

“Nora,” yelled Braddig, “what does the drill have to say?” Even as he spoke he let loose with another barrage from the plasma cannons.

Nora’s voice came from all directions. “The mining intelligence refuses to discontinue its operations. It has embraced its fate to merge with Triune.”

Braddig swore and muttered, “Zealots,” before asking for a report from Zocrom. “The Azlanti ship is disabled and will likely lose reactor containment.”

“So, good news, bad news,” said Braddig. “Oddgob? Do we have time to–”

The ysoki interrupted over the in-ship comm unit. “Yes, yes, but only if we stop wasting time.”

“Okay,” said Braddig, “Nora, get us over there.”

“Aye,” the android spoke through the ship’s internal speakers.

***

ArZ-892 was named Orius Valden, after his grandfather. When the first plasma bolts hit the transport — he knew the sound and the electromagnetic signature that appeared on his heads up display — he was ejected and flew forty yards onto the rocky ground. His armor absorbed most of the impact, but he had landed with his left leg folded beneath him. Even the advanced polymers of the Imperial Foundry could protect him from a dislocated hip. His blaster was lost, thrown far from him by the impact.

He tried to call for help but something was jamming his communications with the base. This was not a surprise since they had been ambushed by what must have been an enemy starship — this planet’s aboriginal inhabitants were nomadic barbarians with neither the magical, alchemical nor technological capabilities to take down an Azlanti transport. He guessed the attackers were Pact World heretics, and when he saw their vessel he knew he was right.

He was too far away to fight, even though he still had a grenade at his disposal. Uninjured he would not have been able to throw the explosive so far. He watched as the sleek Pact World vessel — it bore no insignia, so he guessed they were mercenaries — slid in front of his own crippled transport. A kasatha came out the ramp and managed to coerce the two snake aliens into the ship before it turned and sped away in the direction of the drill rig.

Valden snorted with bitter amusement. He did not know if he hoped the mercenaries would fall prey to the cold, impenetrable Logist Isaura or if they would destroy her.

It did not matter. His time was up. His last thought as the reactor breached on the transport was simply, “Hail Azlant.”

***

That the transport had lost communication with the mining base had been a concern and a mystery. It stopped being the latter when a miniature sun appeared on the horizon to the east.

Logist Isaura clenched her jaw and stopped swiping over her datapad. Already the voices were filling her mind: panicked scientists, angry soldiers, admonishing officers. She did what she almost never did: she turned them off. Just for a moment, a brief handful of seconds of silence in her augmented brain in order to center herself. It did not work. She found no focus, no place to stand — mentally speaking — where the ground did not shift beneath her. With a resigned sigh, she opened all the channels again. The same noises. It was all going to fall apart. Her training told her that. She straightened her shoulders and handed the datapad to one of the Aeon Guard beside her. Her duty, however, told her that she could hold it together, that she must.

She immediately sent commands through the AzlaNet of the outpost, giving each squad commander and department manager their orders. As she did she tagged them and their subordinates and applied automatic demerits for any deviation from her orders. Within seconds the chaos that had followed the destruction of the transport ebbed. Order reasserted itself. The evacuation was not only back on schedule but was significantly accelerated. She broadcast that information to the vessel in orbit but did not open communications. She did not have time to explain basic logistics to men who had come by their rank via lineage and inheritance. There was real work to be done.

Now the difficult part: “MU-975gamma,” she thought, initiating a secure neural connection to the mining unit clockwerk mind. When she sensed the connection had been made but received no reply, she thought, “MU-975G, provide all current data regarding operations.”

“I am sorry Logist Isuara,” the artificial intelligence responded in her mind, “but my primary and secondary processors are engaged in final upload to Triune. I cannot comply.”

Isaura gritted her teeth but restrained herself from thinking insults at the mining intelligence. To do so would be inefficient and Isaura had no time to waste. “MU-975G, provide a precise assessment of time remaining to mantle breach.”

“Eleven point three eight seven minutes… now,” it replied.

She disconnected. It was not enough time to save everything, but she made a few adjustments to her orders and ensured all high priority items would be on transport in just over nine minutes. That would leave two minutes with which to deal with the terrorists and alien sympathizers — more than enough time.

***

Kukedth was in awe. The interior of the flyer was even more wondrous that it appeared from the outside. It was all polished steel and glowing crystals and panes of black glass etched with ever moving script. Among Kukedth’s kind, writing was a rarity, glass and steel were treasures and glowing crystals were thing of myth and legend. The magic of the alien flyer made him momentarily forget about his physical pain and his anguish at the near loss of Muxedth. His clutchmate was curled up on the cold steel floor, coiled on herself like a frightened hatchling. The alien attack and now this alien ship seemed too much for her.

“Be comforted, please.” The strange four armed humanoid was speaking in an unknowable tongue but the homespeak words emanated from all around intoneless, hesitating echoes. “You and your other are made safe now. To your home you will be taken in the next time that is soon.”

Another of the humanoids yelled something from his seat and the disembodied voice said, “Expletive.” The four armed one spoke and the ship said, “Please secure your body with the provided straps. There will likely be discomfort.”

Suddenly inertia threw Kukedth to one side, then another, and the sitting humanoid released more expletives while working the controls. The four armed one stopped paying attention to Kukedth and Muxedth and focused on its own controls. The ship shuddered and dropped so Kukedth’s stomach twisted even as he and Muxedth lifted off the floor briefly. After slamming down hard, Kukedth scanned his surroundings desperately until he found the safety straps the alien had indicated and after a few heartbeats fumbling figured out how to secure himself and his clutchmate.

The ship swerved and jerked and shuddered and skipped. Its alien crew worked hard at the controls and yelled at each other while they worked their controls. Kukedth stretched his torso to see what was happening and immediately regretted it: the great forward viewing wall showed a landscape spinning and undulating, with a simultaneous view embedded showing the same landscape from the opposite direction while shining green alien ships bobbed and weaved and sent bolts of iridescent fire screaming after the ship he was on.

Kukedth curled up tight against Muxedth. He took it all back. He did not wish to know anything of these aliens, their ships or the stars.

***

“Three point nine four nine minutes… now,” answered the mining intelligence.

Logista Isaura watched the last of the defense fighter spin out of control and crash into the landscape ina  white hot ball of plasma and she swore. She momentarily diverted her attention to the data feed from her implant. She preferred the organizational control over the datapad but in this situation ever fraction of a second counted. The transports would get away but the Pact World terrorists would have time to disable the drill.

She calculated quickly then broadcast, “Move parcels seven seven three to eight three eight to transport prime. Transport beta switch to combat configuration and prepare for interception.” She stalked in the direction of the ships. For only a brief moment she considered whether to board transport prime and escape into orbit. With some regret she dismissed the idea: Indomitable command would certainly see it as a failure, a flight from danger, rather than an attempt to personally oversee delivery of the most important research samples. No, she would have to board the transport turned interceptor and see it through to the bitter end.

By the time she reached transport beta the other ship had taken off. Those personnel that were not high enough priority to ride the transports were fleeing from the mining camp as fast as their legs would take them. Isaura tried not to envy them as she mounted the transport and ordered it aloft.

***

“I am ready,” said the mining intelligence. “I have uploaded my soul.”

Nora-19 responded, “Good. I wish you well on your journey.” Then, after something like a psychic embrace with MU-975G, Nora flicked back to the the immediate physical world and reported, “The drill has moved to full automation. You are clear to destroy it, Braddig.”

“Well , thanks for that!” shouted the human. “To be honest, though, I wasn’t waiting for permission, just a clear shot!”

The landscape rose and fell, twisted and turned. Braddig kept his focus while Nora-19 maneuvered, dodging anti-aircraft fire and trying to keep orbital weapons from getting a lock. “I am going to need some serious overcharge to get through that shielding,” Braddig shouted.

“Redirecting from shields now,” squeaked Oddgob through comms. “Better keep up out of reach, Nora.”

Zocrom’s steady, comforting tones came after: “Worry not,” he said, “I am impressing upon the Azlanti the futility of their actions and the imminence of their dooms should they not flee now.”

Braddig snorted. The kasatha had a nice, long winded way of not saying the word “taunt.” “Okay,” Braddig said, “enough chatter. Just get me a shot, Nora, and–”

The Adamant Wanderer shuddered and pulled hard to port. The whole ship range like a bell, loud enough to make Braddig’s eyes ache. Lights flashed and alerts sounded and Nora-19, Oddgob and the console in front of him all shouted at him what he already knew: starboard shields were down.

“One of the Azlanti transports is attacking us,” said Zocrom. Concern had leaked into the serene calm of his voice.

“Time?” demanded Braddig. Nora answered and he swore. It wasn’t enough, not to dogfight an Azlanti armored transport and take out the drill rig. He wanted to order the android to burn for orbit and get the hell out of there, but he knew she would not comply. “Alright,” he said as he switched his station to aft view and weapons control. “Nora, get us to the target as fast as you can. See if you can’t get the Azzies to back off or crash into something.”

“I will do my best,” said Nora-19, then, “Oddgob full power to aft shields.” The ysoki squeaked his assent.

Zocrom was saying something. The mystic never shut up. It was encouragement and wisdom, but Braddig pushed it out of his mind and focused on the pursuing ship. It was a transport, not a fighter, so it was big and clumsy, but tough. Nora swooped and turned and dove, keeping the Wanderer safe from the transport’s plasma cannons and missiles. Meanwhile, Braddig laid one coil gun round into the transport after another. It didn’t even flinch. It might be a lumbering ox in the air, but it was as tough as one. He did not have the ammunition nor the time to take it down like this.

“Okay, guys,” he shouted over comms, “new plan.”

***

“For the love of the Emperor just shoot them down already!” she screamed at the gunner.  She could feel the heat in her face and hear the blood in her ears. “Yes, Logist Isuara,” answered the gunner in an even tone with his eyes locked on the console viewscreen in front of him. The rest of the bridge crew stared pointedly at their stations.

Isuara took a deep breath and stepped back from the gunner station. The red in her face deepened, but this time it was out of embarrassment rather than rage. She was not the type to lose her temper, especially in front of subordinates. If she could not think clearly she could not do her job correctly, and deep emotions — love and hate and rage and fear — were the death of clear thought. She released the breath and said, calmly, “Continue firing. Their luck cannot hold forever.” She turned her attention to the pilot. “We can’t outmaneuver them,” she said, “and they know that. They cannot fly forever, and we know that. Determine their goal and beat them to it.”

“As you order, Logist,” replied the pilot.

The crewman at the sensor station said, “The mercenary ship is continuing to transmit, Logist.”

“Is it the same philosophical tripe?” she asked. The crewman nodded and Isuara said, “Then continue to ignore it.”

The enemy ship was wasting a lot of forward momentum dodging weapons fire, which allowed the slower transport to match speed without having to divert energy from the shields. Good thing, too: their gunner was frightening accurate with that aft coil gun. Hunks of metal accelerated to a small but significant fraction of light speed were particularly terrifying in atmosphere. On her datapad, Logist Isuara scanned through telemetry data while simultaneously watching the feed from orbit. When the Pact World ship suddenly changed course, she knew exactly what was happening and why, but before she could change her standing orders, it was over.

***

Nora-19 drew the Azlanti transport closer. It struck as oddly similar to how biological species engage in seduction: come close, show vulnerability, dash out of reach just for a moment but then fall back, let the kiss almost land. Before the Azlanti knew it, they were in her embrace.

“Now?” asked Braddig.

“Now,” answered Nora. “Oddgob, all power to inertial dampeners.”

Nora-19 let her consciousness become the ship. She was flying near the drilling machine, now just another empty shell devoid of a soul. She had drawn the Azlanti close and had shown them a tantalizing opportunity. Suddenly she whirled and dove. At the back of her mind she was vaguely aware of her body pressed hard against her restraints as the artificial gravity tried to keep them all from cracking under the sudden shift in momentum. Out her in the sky, however, she was unencumbered.

The Azlanti transport tried to match her course but it was too cumbersome. As expected it scraped against the body of the drill rig and then started to spin. Nora suddenly cut thrust and they were all weightless for a moment. As soon as the Azlanti ship had spun past them, Braddig fired the forward plasma cannons. It felt like something personal and pleasurable perhaps even a little obscene to Nora, inhabiting the whole ship as she was.

The plasma bolts struck home, targeting the Azlanti power core. Uncontrolled and bleeding fusion reaction, it became their missile. Nora-19 thrust as hard as she could for the sky. When the enemy ship’s core breached and it, the drill rig and the mining camp were consumed in a white hot orb, the Wanderer was barely outside the death zone.

***

Kukedth was happy to be back on the ground, and would be even happier to never leave it again. His insides still felt as though they were being shoved this way and that as the aliens’ flyer turned and tumbled in the sky. Muxedth was awake, but groggy and by her expression he guessed that she felt much the same.

The giant machine was a blazing ruin in the distance. By the way the aliens seemed pleased with themselves this must have been the desired result. He shuddered to think what the alternative might have been.

The four armed alien bowed toward them and said, “You have reached safety. The — something incomprehensible — are to be gone. With hopefulness they will not be returned.” The alien bowed again and turned and left Kukedth and Muxedth to sit in the tall grass.

As the ship rose into the air and increased speed until it was no longer visible, Kukedth curled himself comfortingly around his clutchmate. Together they looked across the plain to where the cook fires rose from their camp. He could just make out members of the clan slithering their way.

Kukedth sighed. There would be much to tell but perhaps for a few minutes he could rest in the sun.

 

The End

TotalCon Post Mortem: Eclipse Runners

The past weekend was TotalCon 32, the biggest and best gaming convention in New England! As I mentioned prior to the con, I spent the weekend running Starfinder — The Eclipse Runners, a sequel to the Dropship Murphies mini-campaign of Carnage 20 (the OTHER best gaming convention in New England).

 

Par for the course I had a great group of players, some sitting for all 5 RPG sessions (plus one massive space combat session) and some just dropping in for a single session. Unlike previous games of this type, the cast of characters remained completely static — 8 seats, 8 pre-generated PCs the entire time. This provided a strong narrative through-line, but at the same time made for a lot of info-dump for single session players later in the game. I am not completely sold on doing it this way in the future, but we shall see.

Eclipse Runners took place in the ruin filled, pirate plagued Corsair Nebula The ship was based out of Nebula City, an independent space station home to everything from organized crime families to Pact World tax-dodging corporations to mining collectives. The station’s 200,000 soul population included representatives of every species in the Starfinder core rules and Alien Archive and beyond. And because the station is willfully independent of governmental control, there is no law except that which Nebula City provides for itself — and that means lots of work for the likes of the crew of the Eclipse.

 

Bramble: nimble ysoki mechanic. Yamato: hard hitting vesk soldier. Niki: cool and calculating android operative. Taristh: indomitable kasatha solarion. “Captain” Chazz: silver tongued human envoy. Meera: genius lashunta technomancer. Keskodai: wise shirren mystic. “Hoss” Bloodhammer: unstoppable dwarf juggernaut. And of course Eclipse herself, the semi-divine AI inhabiting the former dropship.

 

The adventures began with a choice: fly out to save some miners whose ship had been impacted by an asteroid, or loot an ancient temple tumbling through the void on the surface of a chunk of a long ago destroyed planet. If you have been paying attention, it is probably pretty easy to guess where the Eclipse was off to.

They discovered the temple was full of undead (big surprise there) and valueless treasure (oops) but they did take a strange sarcophagus onto their ship (what?) but did not open it (whew) before selling it for a few thousand credits (yay!) to a member of the Corpse Fleet (it’ll be fine).

 

Next they were hired to escort an academic science vessel to a planet full of strange ancient alien technology. What could go wrong? The planet ended up being infested with graboids and the researcher in charge did not need an escort so much as a mobile power unit shaped like a ship. The treacherous professor tried to use the graboids to kill the PCs but was outsmarted by Meera and was herself fed to the graboids. It turned out the ancient alien tech the professor wanted to activate was a Stargate network that would have likely made the Drift obsolete. Meera convinced the grad students to work for the Eclipse Runners and planned on making use of the technology themselves.

In order to do so, though, they would have to build Eclipse a walking around body, since the AI only ever entered the ship in the first place to be able to explore the stars. Weird, then, that she seemed totally happy living in Nebula City for over a year, right?

 

After their success at the Stargate planet,the party decided on a little R&R in a dance club called Oontz Oontz. And isn’t it always the way — you go out to get your Travolta on and two powerful angels tasked with controlling mortal access to high technology show up and demand you turn over your AI friend to them. Well, it is always the way with the Eclipse crew. Anyway, the Runners politely declined with high caliber weapons fire and explosions. The angels were sent back upstairs but not before they threatened righteous vengeance. And then the owner kicked them out for breaking some lights.

While on the way home to sleep off their intoxicoontz, they noticed some miners walking around with a lot more military bearing than one would expect from rock hoppers. They weren’t just any rock hoppers, either — they were crew members of the mining vessel that the Eclipse Runners had declined to save back in session one. Long story short: the miners were actually members of an Azlanti cell hoping to sabotage Nebula City. Their means of sabotage was especially insidious: move a whole bunch of Swarm eggs into the maintenance tunnels and let them hatch. I think you have all seen the movie that comes next.

 

Luckily the PCs were able to discover and thwart the plot. I amy have failed to mention up to this point that the Eclipse Runners were not especially subtle about their adventures. In fact, they made an effort to be very public: SpaceBook live feeds, Instagamma posts and Go-Pro’s mounted to the barrels of rifles and the heads of axes and hammers. Did you know taking a selfie with a defeated enemy was a swift action? So, upon saving everyone on the station from a horrible death at the mandibles of overgrown prawns, the crew was suddenly famous and beloved.

 

Now installed in really nice digs with a premium berth for Eclipse, the crew is ready to enjoy the high life. That’s when a goblin named Mur shows up in Bramble’s quarters and begs for help: as part of their plan to install the Swarm eggs in the maintenance shafts, the Azlanti needed to eliminate the goblins that infest those areas. So they released something squamous which made a habit of eating a goblin, joining the corpse with other technology it had consumed, and shitting it out as a cybernetic zombie. Having seen the PCs on the holovidtelenetfeedchannels, Mur took it upon herself to convince them to save the remaining goblins. Once they were in his “throne room” her father the goblin king (who looked nothing like David Bowie save for the really tight pants) was inclined to offer them a reward: the location where the Azlanti had stowed all of their gear for when they came to clean up after the Swarm had eaten the station populace.

 

The PCs made relatively short work of the thing  (which turned out made great grenades if you could scrape it up without hurting yourself) and went off to claim there reward. Along the way they discovered the Azlanti had used small drones to create a real time virtual map of the entire station maintenance system. Whether any Azlanti were still watching it was uncertain.

Funny story: it turns out one of the things the Azlanti stowed was a massive ancient warbot full of chain guns and bad vibes. There was some question of whether to and how to go about dealing with it, but finally Hoss Bloodhammer’s simple philosophy of “I ain’t got time to bleed” won out. The machine was full of piss, vinegar and bullets and nearly killed Bloodhammer but in the end the smooth operative Niki put it down. On the live feed, of course. Top five “likes” in Spacebook history.

After they cleaned out the Azlanti stowed gear and chucked the potentially regenerative war machine into a nearby black hole, the PCs were summoned by the powers that be. Upon arriving to the meeting, they were asked via paper note (PAPER!) to shut down all their comms. It turned out the station Steward was scared to death that Eclipse might overhear the meeting — in which he told the party he was scared to death of Eclipse and could they please ask their pet godlike AI to stop infecting station systems, if it isn’t too much trouble please don’t shoot me. It was weird the way Eclipse was fine with living on the station when all she had wanted to do before was explore the galaxy, wasn’t it?

 

Aaaaannnnyway, there was no time to deal with that, since a fleet of Azlanti capital ships were about to drop out of the Drift and attack the station! All the machinations to sabotage the station had been in preparation of an invasion that was happening right now!

That was the end of the regular, role-playing elements. The final Sunday morning session was The Battle For Nebula City, in which eight players commanding about 30 ships (including the bad guys played by me) fought for the future of the station while a Mysterious Countdown promised something ominous. One third of the ships were pirates, come to take advantage of the chaos, one third were ships mounting a defense for the station and one third were Azlanti. The defense vessels offered the pirates amnesty for helping defend the station but most declined and turned their guns on the defenders while the Azlanti tore into them as well. Soon, though, the pirates realized they weren’t going to make out much better in the end and joined the defenders. Through focused fire and a significant reduction in player assholery, the day was won and an Azlanti ship was crippled. With the Azlanti flagship in dire straights itself and the third well on its way, the Azzies decided to leave and return with a greater force to take Nebula City.

 

Which would probably have worked had the countdown not reached zero and Eclipse had not taken over the station systems and turned it into a massive Drift capable vessel. The defending ships and pirates were left to float in the Void as Eclipse took her crew plus 200,000 people on a magical mystery tour.

 

The End. Well, until Carnage 21, November 2-4 in Killington VT, anyway.

 

To TotalCon!

It’s that time of year again! TotalCon is upon us and this year I am running an inordinate amount of Paizo’s Starfinder Space Fantasy Space Opera game. It’s half D&D in Space, half Guardians of the Galaxy, and half Destiny, with a side of EVERYTHING ELSE.

 

After the Con I will have some very, very big news regarding Starfinder and a certain writer and sometimes game designer you may know. Until then — go Find some Stars!

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.