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.

Advertisements

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.

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. ;)

 

The High Guard

A decade ago, the dragon Zaskettr returned from the grave and in a rain of fire and death killed the High King, destroyed the capital and thrust the island nation of Maroester into chaos and ruin. There were those sword to defend the king and the realm, but they had grown aloof and self interested. Their great battles were won, they thought, and they retired to their villas and their self interests. They were not there that day when the dragon returned. they were not there for their king.

Maroester was discovered 250 years ago by the Vastlund Empire. The local inhabitants — called the paku, or halfling in the Vastlund tongue — were quickly pacified and assimilated while Vastlund’s slave race — the uyghur, or “orc” — was imported to build the Empire’s newest colony. This island held secrets, however, and in the wild forests and deep mountains and jagged dells there lived other beings. These were the races of the fae, the Fair Folk — haughty and wicked elves, crafty and suspicious dwarves, wild and mischievous gnomes, dark and murderous goblins and many more besides.

But neither the paku nor the fae races were the first to settle Maroester. Something older lived there, something woven into the land and tied to the fabric of magic itself. Ruins cover the island and deep within them lie secrets far older than either mortal or fae, and far more dangerous than either.

Nearly a century years ago, the Empire retreated from Maroester. Some calamity befell the Empire at home and the fleet and the legions left. Only the Margraves — something like barons — and there sworn retainers were left to maintain order. It was not enough. The island quickly devolved into civil war as the Margraves fought one another for control, the orc slaves rebelled and the fae worked their dark tricks on men.

Margrave Emrys Wellard became High King of Maroester when he killed the dragon Zaskettr and used its hoard to consolidate power: some Margraves he bought off and others he raised armies to defeat. He freed the orc slaves and gave them there own lands in the rugged center of the island and he brokered peace with those elves and dwarves who might treat with him. After a seven year campaign, he forged a prosperous nation that could survive the abandonment of the Vastlund Empire. Among his most trusted allies and favored servants were the High Guard — heroes of their own lands and regions and people that gathered under his banner to bring peace to Maroester. they were diverse in kind and objective, but all chose willingly to serve the High King for the sake of Maroester.

For forty years the High king ruled and peace reigned. The High Guard subdued rivals and defeated monsters from the wilds, tamed wild fae and delved secrets in the ancient ruins. But eventually peace got the better of them all and they parted ways and retired. That was when Zaskettr struck. No one knows how the wyrm returned from the dead , but it came back more powerful than it had ever been. It destroyed the capital of Bishop’s Gate and killed the High King and his court. The smoldering ruins of the king’s castle are its lair and the Molten Throne is its most prized treasure. And with the death of the High King, the unified land of Maroester crumbles. The Margraves fight amongst themselves while the old animosities between men, halflings, orcs and fae reignite. Dark monstrosities in the wilderness walk freely and the dragon’s presence sends magical energies and ley lines into choas.

 

Now more than ever, Maroester needs the High Guard.

 

Return to the Isle of Dread: TotalCon Report

This past weekend marked another TotalCon in Mansfield, Massachusetts. It was a great con and as usual I had a lot of fun with old friends and new. As it relates to running games, it was my most successful convention by far.

 

Each of the six 4 hour slots I ran of the Return to the Isle of Dread was full (all 8 tickets sold). There were always folks waiting to see if they could get in, as well. Even more, the 48 total seats available were filled with somewhere on the order of 15 to 20 individual players — meaning that many players returned to the game for multiple slots. It is hard to express how gratifying this is as a GM, especially that last part: players were willing to spend a large portion of their con at my table, sometimes even dumping other games for which they had signed up.

 

This, I think, is an illustration of the strength of the format more than any measure of my game mastery. Dungeons and Dragons can be fun to play in a limited format, but it really shines when treated as an episodic or serial form of entertainment. It isn’t just accumulated treasure and experience points, but accumulated lore, allies, enemies and relationships that make long term play so powerful. I wanted to bring that experience to convention play based upon my experience cramming long hours of play into a single annual long weekend game event. (I will talk more about this in a future post.)

 

Imagine my surprise upon realizing it actually works.

 

Actual Play Report

 

On the off chance that anyone is interested in what actually went down during play at TotalCon, I have compiled a brief synopsis. Note that this was a continuation of events that had occurred at Carnage on the Mountain in November. Also note that this synopsis is neither exhaustive nor chronological, since so much happens in the midst of play that my poor beleaguered brain stands no chance against it. If you were there and want to correct me you can do so in the comments. You can even lie. I won’t know.

 

Back in November, the player characters uncovered an ancient Yuan Ti temple, if the actual definition of “uncovered” is “unsealed, thereby releasing that blight back onto the Isle after eons in torpor.” Swarms of poisonous snakes attacked Farshore in search of stolen gold, which led the PCs to head into the wilderness and track down the site from whence the stolen goods came. In doing so, they had to contend with a despoiled cairn in the swamp that created two will o’ the wisps and a shambling mound. The ranger died by a will o’ the wisp after “escaping” engulfment by the mound via the “back door.” What they found there would lead them to the source of the snake swarms — a very angry spirit naga — and result in the longest string of sub-5 rolls I as a GM have ever had. That the ranger player’s follow up wizard lived trapped alone with the naga while the rest of the party listened to him scream is a miracle of miracles. That naga’s death would also result in a vessel rechristening, but I am getting ahead of myself.

 

Pterosaurs are dangerous! Especially ones that are nested 500 feet above the sea and 150 down from the top of the cliff. This is doubly true when would be nest raiders in service to a dishonored knight of House Karameikos (aka the PCs) decide to hang right over the ledge. It’s complicated. But it did result in a bloody death as the poor high elf thief chose to plummet to her death rather than be torn to shreds in midair. It may also be of use to know that it takes 4.3 seconds to fall 660 feet. Believe it or not, that figure would come up again.

 

Somewhere in this mess of events the party hired a small sailing vessel called the Red Queen, which was captained by a lovely but less than kind woman named Lydia. During their travels on the Red Queen, the party’s valour — and Sabrina the bard’s Bossom of Charisma — had the motley crew of rejects and half wits start looking fondly upon them and less so upon Lydia. Eventually there was a tussle for control and Lydia lost her head while Sabrina gained her hat. After the aforementioned killing of the naga, the barbarian Garth took the thing’s head and hung it from the figurehead and they renamed the vessel the Black Cobra. Many “Karate Kid” jokes were made and no NPCs ever called it that because all my notes said “Red Queen.”

 

Once the PCs had their own vessel the sessions took a decidedly piratical turn, though that was never my intention. The real motivating force behind that element was not so much the acquisition of the ship, which really just served to force me to roll on a different random encounter chart as the PCs travelled, but the outcome of one of those random encounters.

 

Not the ship that was really a mimic, though. That encounter was fun and scary and ultimately very cool but did not have a huge impact. But still: a ship that was actually a huge mimic.

 

The game changing random encounter was with the Tusk. The Tusk was my go-to vessel for pirate encounters in the seas around the Isle simply because I like the idea so much: a human captain and his orc wives crew the vessel with their dozens of half orc offspring. It is gross and fun and over the top all at once. It turns out, though, that when a ship has cannon as part of its armament, it is highly susceptible to fireball slinging wizards. The Tusk did not last long and given that the captain was one of the three pirate lords of the Isle, the Red Queen/Back Cobra suddenly earned a great deal of prestige.

 

Interlude: On Emergent Story

 

I try not to go into a sandbox or open world game with a “story” idea in mind. There are little stories, of course — the ones that make up the encounters or the NPC stories so they have motivations and personalities. I like to create just enough in the way of backstory so that I can manage play as it happens, jumping on ideas that seem fun at the time and responding to players’ antics. In other words, I throw a lot of shit at the walls and see what sticks. If an open world game is working right, though, a story inevitably emerges. It is a twisted mass of a story, an organic thing like a briar all turned in on itself, but it is there. Players will choose the elements they want to explore and I will flesh out the bones with ideas that come to mind, the results of random encounters and the players’ conjectures (this last one is super top secret; don’t tell anyone). So even as I argue “against” story as it relates to RPGs and D&D, I am really arguing against a pre-determined plot, not “story” itself.

 

Back on the Isle…

 

The story that emerged in the last half of the sessions was one of escalating hostilities between the pirate king Guy Voral and the PCs. There were other events of course: the hunt for necromantic flowers used to make rease dead potions that led to a vampire’s lair guarded by an undead treant, the battle atop the 600 foot tall ancient war machine brought back to life by goblin shenanigans and others. But that growing rivalry served as the centerpiece and served well.

 

First, the Council of Farshore asked the party (as the owners of the Red Queen/Black Cobra) to sign on as privateers. They declined. Then, Captain Guy asked the PCs to fly pirate colors. He would have even offered them the Tusk’s old station as the third pirate lordship. They declined that as well, but did so with gusto: they levitated the pirate flag into the air and set it alight for Captain Guy and his whole crew to see. Understandably miffed at the rebuke, Guy later convinced a few members of the Red Queen’s crew, which were some of the lowest scum sailing the seas as it was, to release fire elementals onto the deck of the Queen. The party defeated the summoned creatures and decided on a measured response: they went to Guy’s pirate town, freed his slaves, killed his men and burned his opulent mansion to the ground. On their way out they ran into a powerful ally of the pirate king: a seas dragon that lived in the bay. The dragon did not harass them since it was paid by Guy to keep ships from coming into the bay, but it did promise to report to the pirate so that it might renegotiate its contract.

 

After this affront, guy turned to the mysterious drow Assassin’s Guild to deal with the player characters. Simultaneous attacks from the shadows, with both blade and poison, nearly did the party in but they managed to survive and capture an assassin. After some intra-party squabbling they decided to make an offer to the Guild to buy out Guy’s contract on them. Events would not allow for them to hear the answer from the Guild, but the assassin they spoke to did escape to present the offer. Finally, the party decided to seek divine aid in finding out where Guy was hiding and discovered he had fled to the headquarters of the final pirate lord: the undead captain of the ghost ship Kraken. Coming into the Kraken’s bay at sunset to hid themselves in the glare, the Red Queen was able to get close enough to unleash it’s devastating super-weapon: control water.

 

Seriously. Have you read this spell? I had not. Holy crap. It might not look like much in the context of a bunch of dungeon delving tomb robbers, but on a ship, in battle against other ships? It is a nuke.

 

It turns out Guy had upped the promised wealth to his sea dragon ally (he was double dipping on what he promised the drow assassins, assuming he would only have to pay one or the other) and the dragon was guarding his ship while Guy was on the Kraken negotiating with the last pirate lord. When the cleric tried to use control water to sink Guy’s vessel, the sea dragon responded in kind and they wrestled for control of the ocean. For many rounds the sea dragon attacked the PCs while magically protecting Guy’s ship. The party wizard also had control water and used it to sink the Kraken (after all, the sea dragon had not been retained to protect that vessel or even specifically Guy’s life — dragons can be such lawyers). The party hurled fireballs at the sea dragon while it attacked them with dragon fear and its tail (it’s main action was held up with the control water spell). Once the dragon finally lost concentration on its spell due to the damage done to it, it breathed on the wizard. By that time, though, both the wizard and the cleric were controlling water beneath Guy’s ship and with water rushing in, the Storm Whore was destroyed (but not before the water walking barbarian could loot it at least a little — priorities, people!).

 

Eventually, the party had done enough damage to the sea dragon to convince it to flee. It bore into the hull of Guy’s ship to retrieve it’s promised pay (whether it deserved it or not) and then took the better part of valor. As to the fate of the captain of the Kraken or Guy — no one knows. One would presume that powerful pirate captains might have ways to escape sinking vessels, however.

 

That is where we ran out of time. I don’t think we will see those characters on the Isle of Dread again. I like to create a new sandbox with ever convention season. But who knows? perhaps there is another story yet in the Red Queen — okay, okay.. in the Black Cobra.

 

After all, there is that little matter of the Yuan Ti and their stolen artifacts…

Over the Isle of Dread, a Dark Phoenix Rises

 

When the Return to the Isle of Dread continues this weekend at TotalCon 30, it will be playing under the banner of Dark Phoenix Events. Operated by good friends of mine, DPE is an honest to goodness business designed to provide high quality gaming experiences — not just at conventions, but at private venues as well. The folkks behind it are not just wonderful people and hardworking Game Masters, they are dedicated professionals that want to provide the best experience for your money.

 

Don’t believe me or think I’m biased? That’s okay. Come to TotalCon and play in any one of the number of games DPE will be hosting there. Aside from my own ongoing Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition hexcrawl, there will be immersive cosmic horror and more from Andre Kruppa, comedic horror and more from Nik Palmer, strange mystery and more from Jason Marcure, sci-fi horror and more from Alexander Jackl, steampunk action adventure and more from Scott Legault, Firefly adventures and more with Sean Murphy, super-heroic adventure with David Clarkson, and Star Wars themed Fiasco from Petra Jackl. A number of those GMs are winners or runners up for the Northeast Regional Iron GM competition.

 

Conventions are great places to find new games, meet new friends and hook up with new polayers. This wonderful group of folks that make up Dark Phoenix Events are friends I met at TotalCon and with whom I fell in love with long before Scott and Petra decided to kick off this business. They are all great folks and even if you don’t ever think you will want the services of DPE, you should sign up to play with them because they are just that good.

 

See you at TotalCon 30!