Saturday, March 23, 2013

Rifts 2112: Animal Men Vs The Zombies

Game Date: 3/23/2013
Campaign: Rifts 2112, Session 6
System: Savage Worlds
DM: Rusty   

Emma Snow (Star): Medic
Jim Bagg (Cliff): Military Reserves
Sgt. Malcolm Reynolds (Ted): Active Military
Terri Bolton (Matt): Mechanic

Previous Sessions:
Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5

The Story So Far...
A few days ago, the world was suddenly bombarded by multiple natural disasters and a variety of alien invaders.  The evil Splynn have reshaped the Earth to mine precious minerals, while enslaving humans for labor.  Their rivals, the equally evil Xiticix, recruited our party of FEMA responders to investigate a Splynn operation in the newly-returned Atlantis.  Rather than return to the Xiticix, we went our own way instead.  In Nashville we allied with a clan of Dwarven marksmen from another dimension, and then we prevented a nuclear meltdown in Atlanta.

Today's Session:
After defeating last session's boss, we headed back to Nashville, rested, and reported back to the government.  We considered going to St. Louis deal with some rumored demons, but then we heard of a more pressing mission.  The US Secretary of Education was stranded somewhere in Washington State, and had sent out a distress call.  This made him the highest ranking government official currently confirmed alive.  We had a bit of discussion as to whether our government was strong enough to bother helping, but in the end it seemed like the best choice of missions.  We boarded Doug (our space ship) and headed straight there.

The transmissions had come from Mount Shasta in Washington.  As we neared the mountain, we saw that it was much shorter than it used to be, having erupted during the recent cataclysm.  We could see the top of a man-made tunnel sticking out of the mountain, and decided to park Doug there.  Once inside the tunnel, we found an elevator full of dead humans.  We took the elevator down.  We exited into a room where we got attacked by eight undead soldiers.  We took them out fast, mostly thanks to Emma's Repel powers.

"Does whatever a tiger can..."
Once the undead were re-dead, we explored the complex.  We found a lot of empty rooms, offices, restrooms, and so on.  In a laboratory, Mal was attacked by a half-man, half-tiger.  After we killed it, we saw several other empty cages, and evidence that there were more human/animal hybrids about.  Before we could ponder the situation for too long, however, another swarm of zombies started making their way towards us.  This was a much larger group; around two dozen.  It was a much tougher battle.

The zombies swarmed Terri early in the battle, paralyzing her before she could do any damage.  Jim took out several zombies with a grenade, but that still left plenty to cause us a lot of problems.  Emma continued to use her Repel power, but it mostly just slowed them down.  Jim and Mal both had issues with their plasma axes running out of power, and these zombies were resistant to ranged weapons.  Unable to defend herself, Terri took more damage late in the battle, causing her to permanently lose a point of agility.  Our Greek NPC was swarmed by zombies and horribly killed.

When things looked their bleakest, a shark-man arrived on the scene and started eating zombies.  He was accompanied by some dog-men and a tall human with a flamethrower.  We were wary of the newcomers, but "the enemy of my enemy" yada yada.  Soon our new friends had killed off all the zombies, and we all introduced ourselves.  The flamethrower guy turned out to be the Secretary of Education for whom we'd been searching.  The other animal people were lab experiments gone horribly right.  We all boarded Doug and went back to Nashville, where we received a hero's welcome.

Everyone but Mal advanced this session, so we need to make sure to update our character sheets.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Apocalypse World: In Which I Miss The Bus

Game Date: 3/16/2013
System: Apocalypse World
DM: Rusty   

Marsh (Matt): Brainer
October (Star): Skinner
Uncle (Ted): Hardholder

The Session:
We didn't have enough players for our regular game, so we played a one-shot.  Like the name implies, Apocalypse World takes place on a post-apocalyptic Earth, where the survivors live Mad Max style.  There is also some sort of mysterious global force called the Psychic Maelstrom, which is a collective consciousness that people can tap into by opening their minds.

Ted's character, Uncle, was the overworked leader of Hatchet City, which really wasn't much of a city.  The magnitude of Uncle's political power was debatable, as some of the citizens seemed to have their own agendas and varying degrees of loyalty.  Uncle was having a bit of trouble with Ambergrease, a gang leader who had been causing trouble.  As the game began, some of Uncle's followers were requesting he find a way to defeat Ambergrease, lest he risk a rebellion.

My character, Marsh, was a creepy psychic of questionable gender.  I was in charge of several prisoners, one of whom had recently tried to assassinate Uncle. I used my psychic powers to interrogate the prisoners, but they did not know enough to help us.  It seemed that something had been controlling their minds.  Later we dissected one of the prisoners and found a strange parasite in his body.

While communing with the Psychic Maelstrom, Marsh received visions of a pale man called "Blind Blue", who we believe to be behind the psychic manipulations.  We also learned that Blind Blue intended to make October his queen, or possibly his slave.  When Marsh went to warn her, one of October's own bodyguards turned against us and attacked.  October managed to stun her opponent by taking her top off (one of her more interesting abilities), after which we subdued the guard pretty easily.

Soon the town was attacked by a Ambergrease's forces.  They used catapults to hurl flaming garbage over our walls, and prepared to drive a bus through our front gate.  While Uncle gave orders to his soldiers, Marsh came across some deserters attempting to smuggle our rocket launchers out of town.  Marsh managed to take their leader prisoner, grabbing a rocket launcher for good luck.  When the bus finally burst through the front gate, Marsh attempted to destroy it with the rocket launcher.  The missile missed by a mile, destroying part of Hatchet City's wall.  Also, Marsh's prisoner got away.

Despite the setback, we still had more than enough soldiers to take out Ambergrease's army.  Uncle's leadership skills got a lot of time in the spotlight.  The battle came down to a one-on-one between Uncle and Ambergrease.  It ended with Uncle shooting Ambergrease in the face.  We had to stop the session there, but we know the true villain, Blind Blue, is still out there.  Perhaps someday we'll revisit this world.

Neat session!  I really like the flavor of the world itself.  The character classes are quite interesting, and while most of them do have D&D counterparts, they still manage to be unique.  I really enjoyed playing my character.  He/she/it was delightfully weird, and it was fun playing a ambiguously gendered character (just like in real life).  I wonder what I could have done with it if I'd had more time to develop my character's personality.

I was very glad I didn't pick Ted's character, however.  Watching him manage his troops and deal with other leadership problems made me quickly realize it wasn't the class for me.  I could probably have had fun with Star's character, though.  I could see playing a Skinner in a future game.

Warning:  This game is not for kids.  This is easily the most adult gaming system I've played so far, and we barely even touched on the dirty stuff.  My character had seduction-related powers, Star's character could hypnotize people by stripping, and Ted's... well let's face it, "Hard Holder" just sounds like a double entendre.  There was also a fair amount of adult language in the play materials.  It takes a lot more than that to offend me, but I mention it here just in case it's a deal breaker for anyone else.

From what I saw, the adult aspects were not handled in a juvenile way.  This isn't a puerile sexual assault simulator like FATAL.  Apocalypse World strikes me as a mature setting that just happens to have some sexual elements written into the mechanics.  While I'm sure many players will turn it into something more childish, I don't believe that was the designers' intention.  But I've only had a couple of hours of exposure to this system, so I could be wrong.  Given that so many groups have at least one player who consistently "goes there" *cough* Greg *cough*, I do wonder how many groups are actually capable of running a game with seduction mechanics before the whole campaign descends into something salacious.  (Admittedly I'm showing my own inexperience here.  I haven't been in a lot of different gaming groups.)

Mechanically, it seems like a pretty easy system.  It just uses 2d6, and character creation was quick and easy.  From the impression I got, the game is more roleplay than rollplay, so the rules are kept light.  But all I've really seen so far are the character sheets, so I'm probably not the best one to ask. I'm a little wary of the damage system.  It doesn't look like you could take a lot of hits before you go down.  (I had the same complaints about Savage Worlds.)  I'd like to think that this promotes roleplay - being fragile means you try to talk your way out of fights.  And yet, post-apocalyptic worlds are not places where it's easy to avoid battle. 

I also question the system of leveling up.  Maybe I'm misunderstanding it, but you get an experience point every time you use one of your "highlighted" skills.  Every time you get five experience points, you get an extra feature.  Great, but I do wonder what keeps you from finding all sorts of risk-free excuses to make skill checks.  Kind of like the Elder Scrolls games, where you can level up by picking the same lock over and over.  I'm sure there's rules in place to prevent such exploits, I just didn't see them.

But regardless of one or two quibbles and confusions, I really did enjoy the session.  I will gladly play this again if it comes up again.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Books: White Plume Mountain

White Plume Mountain
by Paul Kidd
Published 1999
Part 1 of the Justicar Trilogy

When I started reading these D&D books, I wasn't expecting good writing.  I knew that these were basically just assignments that D&D's marketing department tossed out to different authors, in the hopes of cashing in on another form of D&D merchandise.  I've only been buying them because they're cheap now, and I've only been reading them to feed my appetite between game sessions.  Some of the books have been better than others, but none of them have really exceeded my expectations.

Until now.  This is the first D&D book I've actually looked forward to reading each day.  I'll find myself at work looking at the clock, waiting for my lunch break so I can read more.  I'm not saying this is quality literature, not in the classic sense or even in the modern/popular sense.  You're not going to set down a Dean Koontz novel to pick up this one.  But within the specific genre of gaming-based spin-off fiction, this is probably the best book I've read.  I would definitely put down a Drizzt novel to read this one.

The story stars a brooding ranger called "The Justicar".  His personality is very similar to Batman - He's very focused on his mission, he cares little for luxury, and he has almost no sense of humor.  He has a shaven head, and looks a little like Vin Diesel on the book cover.  He wields an enchanted black-bladed sword, and wears a sentient telepathic fire-breathing hellhound pelt named Cinders.  Again like Batman, the Justicar is less of a party joiner and more of a one-man army.  I'm not really into the whole "brooding anti-hero" archetype, but a lot of D&D players love that sort of character.  Despite my own aversions, I think the Justicar is every bit as interesting as Drizzt, and I do wish this series had experienced the success of Salvatore's novels.

Eventually the Justicar teams up with Escalla, a shapeshifting fairy with an excess of personality.  She constantly cracks anachronistic jokes, many of which almost break the fourth wall.  She acts a lot like Lidda in The Savage Caves, but Escalla is written so much better.  Some readers might find her annoying, especially when her lack of seriousness puts lives in danger.  That kind of character can be risky to write, as you don't want to risk having a Jar Jar on your hands.  I never thought she crossed that line, but maybe I'm a little biased, since I've always wanted to play a pixie.  As an extreme introvert, I don't know if I'd have the energy to pull it off.  I have played similar characters in NeverWinter Nights, though.

The Justicar and Escalla mix together about as well as you would think, making it feel like a cop buddy-film.  "He's an obsessed loner.  She's a perky pixie.  They fight crime!"   They remind me of Spike and Chester from Loony Tunes.  Also along for the ride is Polk, an annoying NPC who provides more comic relief.  I found Polk to be a completely unneccessary addition to the story, since we already have plenty of humor with Escalla and the fire-obsessed Cinders.  By surrounding the one serious character with all these jesters, the Justicar becomes the embodiment of the "Only Sane Man" trope.  It's like having Wolverine team up with Snarf, Orko, and Scrappy Doo.  But as much as I disapproved of Polk's presence, he didn't drag things down too much.

And really, the humor was one of the things I liked most about the book.  There were some groaners (there'a "pixie stick" pun that made my eyes roll), but there were also a lot of great moments that hung a lampshade on D&D's most prominent tropes.  There were jokes about the standard adventuring gear, particularly the ten-foot pole.  It made fun of outfits adventurers (especially female characters) wear.  There was even a subtle joke about staying "in character".  Granted, I'd heard a lot of these jokes before (Escalla makes a "Did I say three wishes?" joke ripped straight from the Far Side), but it was still a lot of fun reading them in a novel.

And of course, Escalla makes fun of the Justicar's name.  I wish I knew how Justicar was meant to be pronounced.  It could be just-uh-car, or jus-tiss-er, or even just-aye-sir.  The character named himself, and he makes it clear that he meant the name to mean "one who delivers justice."  Therefore I'm inclined to go with justice-er, even though justicer is already a real (differently spelled) word.  There's a Justicar in Mass Effect 2, where it's pronounced just-a-car.  The fact that he insists on being called "THE Justicar" (because it's a self-imposed title) only makes it more cumbersome.  I'll admit that does add to his Batman-esque cool factor, but it also makes some of the sentences a bit cumbersome to read.  Eventually they do start calling him "Jus" for short, which makes things a bit easier.

So, let's talk party balance.  The Justicar, Cinders, and Escalla make a neat trio.  It's the kind of party you wouldn't see much in a real D&D game due to balance issues.  All the characters fill multiple combat roles, so it's the kind of party that pretty much breaks the overly-structured Fourth Edition.  If this is the kind of party we typically saw in older editions, it really makes me want to try them out sometime.  Would Cinders even be considered a party member (played by a separate player) or just equipment?  I'm guessing the latter, since there are sentient swords and the like in D&D.  But he's a developed-enough character that I think it would be neat to play something like him in a game.  A character who can't walk, is worn by another PC, but can still help out the party through skill checks and his breath weapon.  Sure, he won't be the next great action hero, but it would still make for some interesting sessions. 

This is part one of a trilogy, and I'll be starting on the second book ("Descent Into The Depths Of The Earth") soon.  If the rest of the books are even half as good as this one, I'm sure I'll enjoy them.