On Joe Dever and the Legacy of Lone Wolf

I was up way past my bedtime last night, reading through the Lone Wolf Adventure Game from Cubicle 7. You see, I'll finally be starting an LWAG campaign tomorrow night, a prospect I've been tremendously excited about ever since picking up the box set at Gen Con 2015.

Then this morning, after oversleeping due to the aforementioned late-night reading, I blearily checked my Facebook feed and found it exploding with messages of condolence: Joe Dever, creator of the world of Magnamund and author of the Lone Wolf game books, has passed away. He was only 60.

This one is hitting me hard, folks.

When Gygax passed, I was sad, but in more of an abstract sense on a personal level. I got into the hobby some years after he had been ousted from TSR, so my relationship to his creation was always taken at one remove, or more. My familiarity with the magic of Gygaxian prose and world-building came much later in life.

But, as I suspect for many of my age group (those who got into RPGs during the mid-80s to early-90s), Joe Dever's writing was the gateway to this hobby for me.

I've written before about how I "GM'd" the Lone Wolf books on the playground, reading them aloud to a friend who would make the choices and pick the numbers from the Random Number Table.

I remember attempting to make my first D&D game world and basing off the material in the Magnamund Companion.

My first stab at game design was a manuscript called "The Lone Wolf RPG". I still have my dot-matrix printout. I should scan it and post it at some point, as awful as it is.

I was lucky enough to briefly meet Joe at Gen Con 2015, shake his hand, and thank him for his writing and his inspiration. Today I will mourn, and tomorrow I will, in my infinitesimal way, help carry on the creative vision he first laid down nearly 40 years ago.

For Sommerlund and the Kai!

"Thrilling Tales 2e: Pulp Villains - Von Keiner" Available Now!

I've been fairly quiet around here the last couple months; one of the reasons is that I've been pretty busy writing material for publication.

There'll be more to come in 2017, but here's the first fruit of all that labor (and hey, just in time for...sigh..."Cyber Monday"), a plug-and-play villain for your Savage Worlds pulp games.

I couldn't be happier with how the document ended up looking (big thanks to Adamant Entertainment's Eric Trautmann!) and hope that, if you pick this up, you get some use and enjoyment out of my take on a "Nemo meets Robur" anti-hero.

BUY IT HERE

[Savage Rifts] Journey's End

A couple weeks back I wrote about my Savage RIFTS game taking an unexpected turn and sort of accidentally stumbling into a pretty decent setup for picaresque adventures.

Last week I ran the first installment in that new framework. Sadly, and by mutual agreement with my group, it looks like that will be the final installment for the foreseeable future.

I can't really place my finger on it, but things just never really gelled for me. I'll need to give some thought as to why this may be. It might have been the fact I haven't run RIFTS for over 20 years. It might've been the fact that I went with a region that holds no familiarity or nostalgic attachment from the days when I did run RIFTS. It might've been a poor choice of scenarios that didn't match my preferred play-style. There was also the learning curve of running Savage Worlds at a power-level I was unfamiliar with, which proved draining. I got to the point of familiarity I needed to be at, but by that point my enthusiasm was largely shot.

Not helping matters is the fact that I'm currently running one of the most satisfying games I've run in a long time, so it only highlighted my dissatisfaction with this one.

I definitely want to return to Savage RIFTS. I think that next time around, I'll go with a setting and framework that feels more comfortable, familiar, and engaging, and I'll write my own material. (Due to a confluence of writing deadlines, I was pretty much forced to go with pre-written material this time around.)

On a positive note, I did quite enjoy the experience that Savage RIFTS offers—it felt like RIFTS should feel. Also, my Chiang-ku conversion felt just about right, being neither to over- or under-powered, so I'll go ahead and pat myself on the back for a job well-done there.

With Savage RIFTS going gentle into that good night, we decided to run horror-themed one-shots all the month of October—I get to play "The Derelict" next week! And Cryptworld on Halloween weekend!—after which I'll be indulging my new-old love of old World of Darkness and starting up a Vampire: the Dark Ages chronicle. I'll be posting more about that in coming weeks, I'm sure.

Two Game Design Bugbears

I'm a day late with this week's post, and, as I am currently madly racing towards two deadlines, it will be brief.

I'm currently running three(!) weekly games, each a different system, and this has given me some opportunities to refine what I like and don't like in game design these days. Two elements have recently come up that are bugging the ever-loving crap out of me, and I'm sharing them here to vent my spleen and also as a reminder to myself never to include stuff like this in whatever designs I end up doing in the future.

1. Player-character abilities that force the GM to remember a modifier. This is the old "dwarves are at -4 to be hit by ogres" thing. I prefer my mechanics active rather than passive. Nothing irks me more than to hear a player say, "Oh, these are supernatural creatures? Did you remember the +2 Toughness modifier on that roll?" It breaks the flow of the game, adds yet one more thing for the GM to track, and, if forgotten, has potentially major consequences. ("If only I'd remembered that modifier, your character would still be alive.") It's a burden for players as well: not only are they having to monitor their own dice rolls and abilities, but also the GM's. Abilities that impose one-time bonuses and penalties get a pass here, but only barely.

2. Stat blocks that list abilities that require further look-ups. Most systems have some sort of thing where characters get certain abilities due to class benefits/advantages/edges/disciplines. I have no problem with this as long as the mechanical effects of these abilities are listed on the stat block. Too often they're not. For example, in Vampire: the Masquerade, seeing "Dominate 4" on a stat block actually tells you almost nothing useful. Instead, you have to know the four completely different abilities that come with having Dominate 4. Why this isn't listed on stat blocks I'll never know. (Well, I have a suspicion, but I'll keep it to myself.) This happens in Savage Worlds a lot too. NPCs that have a big host of Edges won't always have the benefits of those Edges spelled out on the sheet. Instead, you have to know that the "Quick" Edge allows you to re-deal an initiative card of face-value 5 or less. Yes, it's a learning curve issue, but it's quite annoying, especially in the case of the more obscure abilities ("Serpentis 3?") or if, like me, you run more than one system. Even my beloved Call of Cthulhu falls into this trap whenever you have NPCs with spells; it's the old D&D problem of having to look up spell effects in the middle of a combat or else simply commit them to memory. For me, the platonic ideal of a stat block has all the information I need right in front of me: bonuses, penalties, effects, whatever. The trick, of course, is keeping the block to a manageable size. Pendragon actually does an excellent job of this, incidentally.

Ah, I feel much better. Back to work!

With apologies to Adam Scott Glancy

With apologies to Adam Scott Glancy

[Savage Rifts] Actual-Play Analysis

Last week I wrapped up a four-session arc of Savage Rifts, played with my two oldest friends, one of whom had gotten into Rifts along with me way back in early 90s. So there was some personal history with the setting, to say the least.

Of the three of us, I was by far the most familiar with the Savage Worlds system, but even I found myself taken somewhat by surprise in the way that Savage Rifts plays. It operates at a level far above what, for me, is "typical" SW game play, which is only fitting for the setting. It's pretty much the same difference between Ninjas & Superspies or even Heroes Unlimited and Rifts in the original Palladium system. This speaks well of what a great job the Pinnacle/Evil Beagle team did in bringing the setting over to Savage Worlds, but it did necessitate something of a learning curve for me.

Below is the "post-mortem" writeup I did after our final session. It's a bit of a lengthy read, but if you're curious how Savage Rifts played out for one little group over the course of a month of gaming, read on...


Issue Zero

The backstory begins with Aurys, an Altaran warrior woman who escaped from her Splugorth masters after being assigned to guard the cell of a captured Atlantean freedom fighter by the name of Oxric. He conversed with her telepathically from within his cell—and as he did so, she began to think the unthinkable: of insurrection, rebellion, escape. Whether these were Aurys’s own buried feelings being brought to the forefront by Oxric’s psychic surgery, or whether the Atlantean was planting the ideas in her head, she never knew. But shortly thereafter Oxric escaped; one of his last messages to her was to look for him in the wilds of Dinosaur Swamp if she wished to fight for freedom.

Aurys didn’t stick around very long. On her next mission to the mainland on the barge of her master Golga Sabbal, Aurys slipped away in the night. She wandered for a time until she found the first big settlement, a town by the name of Kingsdale.

There she fell in with the Society of Sages, who offered free Juicer conversions in exchange for two years of service. Aurys signed up right away, a plan forming in her head: she would return one day to Atlantis and kill Golga Sabbal and free her enslaved sisters!

For two years, Aurys did as the Sages bade. She killed. She stole. This wasn’t much different than what she did for the Splugorth. But she never crossed the line to enslavement—until they asked her to retrieve a dragon’s egg.

Cagliostro Smith, the leader of the Sages, sent Aurys on this mission personally, telling her it was “of the utmost importance to the Society.” He dispatched his second-in-command, a techno-wizard of some repute by the name of Morphicles, to accompany her.

They retrieved the egg—never mind how or from whom, it’s far too bloody to get into here—and loaded the massive thing onto the back of a hover-truck. But on the way back the egg began hatching!

Stopping the truck, Aurys and Morphicles got out and began bickering about what to do; Aurys never could stand the arrogant, loud-mouthed techno-wizard. And as they did so the egg kept cracking and splitting, until a giant serpentine body suddenly unfurled like a holiday cracker. Its massive tail landed squarely on Morphicles, killing him instantly.

Aurys, whose Juicer-enhanced reflexes had saved her from a similar fate, stood off, her JA-9 laser rifle raised and poised to take a shot at the hatchling’s head. But then she heard its mewling cries, its evident distress at having crushed Morphicles. Aurys knew why she'd been sent to retrieve this creature: enslavement and experimentation, eventual death, but only after untold days and weeks of suffering. Her heart melted.

“You can shapeshift?” she asked it.

“Y-yes,” it stammered, trying out language for the first time.

Aurys showed the dragon Morphicles’ corpse. “Can you look like him?” A second later, “Morphicles” stood before her. She stripped the dead Morphicles of his clothes and armor and gave them to the dragon-Morphicles. “Come,” she said once the dragon had donned the gear.

And so they walked.


Issue One

They traversed many miles, crossing the mighty Appalachians and descending into the Georgian Piedmont. Not that these names meant anything to either one of them; they were both fantastically naïve in the ways of the world, the newborn hatchling and the former slave. But from time to time they met a friendly wilderness scout or trapper who would keep them on the right track. For they had a destination in mind—or at least Aurys did: Atlanta.

They spotted the kudzu-covered spires that marked the ruins of Atlanta on a warm and humid spring afternoon. Shortly after, they encountered an encampment: a group of professional dino-hunters who had paused in their travels to sell some of their captured specimens to interested locals. A band of Simvan Monster Riders checked out a willful Ironhoof. Some dark-skinned barbarians had come up from their home in the old city, wearing the skins of giant rats and carrying old STOP signs as shields.

Aurys and Morphicles poked around, finding little of interest. Then Aurys heard a chorus of pitiful cries from near one of the dealer tents. In three cages sat a family of Frilled Swamp Runners, calling out to each other and begging for release. Aurys couldn’t stand the sound. Too much like the old slave pens.

She paid for the lot, and threw in a generous tip besides. This encouraged a friendly word from the head of the expedition, a big game hunter who styled himself “The Body”. Aurys had been having visions of a giant copper fish ever since setting off for Georgia. The Body said that there was such a monument inside the ruins, and that the local barbarians worshipped it. He pointed Aurys and Morphicles in the right direction and wished them luck.

They set out at dawn the next day. Their journey was interrupted by a rain shower. What fell from the sky wasn’t drops of water but rather wriggling, live, pink-skinned mollusks. Taking shelter in the ruins of a gas station forecourt, they watched as the ground became carpeted with the disgusting things. Soon the shower passed, and scavenger animals began descending on the helpless, still-writhing meals.

Aurys advised Morphicles to hold on for a bit; the hatchling wished to go and sniff and nibble the mollusks too. As they waited, the bank of ferns behind them rustled and a terrible saurian face emerged!

The crisis was short-lived, however. Cooly, Aurys spun and snapped off a shot from her rifle. The Raptor fell at her feet. They decided to move on before more showed up…

[Editorial Note: I'd forgotten how quickly Extras can be dispatched in Savage Worlds. This was a sort of "testing the waters" encounter and I desperately wanted to avoid a TPK...but sort of got the opposite with a very anti-climactic encounter! Quite different from how it would've gone in Palladium Rifts, where I'm sure the PCs would've still emerged victorious but not without a 30-minute attritional slog of a combat...]

When the duo entered the ruins of Atlanta later that day, they immediately felt like they were being watched. Following the directions provided by The Body, in an overgrown clearing they found what they’d been seeking: a massive copper fish some 30 feet high, sculpted to look like it was breaching the water. As they stepped into the clearing, they were quickly surrounded by more of the dark-skinned barbarians they’d seen at the dino-hunters’ camp. From amidst their ranks emerged a young man, slight of build and chalky of complexion—an albino! He introduced himself as Chief Porter.

Aurys told Chief Porter why they’d come to Atlanta. She spoke of Oxric and the Atlanteans, of her visions of the great copper fish. Porter nodded. “Truly, the god Kopar has willed that you come here for some great task. Follow me.”

He led them down into the earth via a bank of stalled escalators and into the home of the Kopar tribe—Atlanta’s former Underground shopping district. As they walked, Chief Porter spoke of his enmity with the “rat-people” and of the goodness of someone called Lyxander and his Atlantean friends who lived in the tunnels beneath the city. Nevertheless, it was clear that the Atlanteans represented a recent arrival in the region and were still regarded as something of a wild card.

Soon they came to a grand set of stairs leading further underground. An old plastic sign marked “MARTA” hung over the stairs. “Down there. Follow the tunnel on your right and you will come to them eventually.”

Aurys and Morphicles did as they were told. They found a terminal station at the bottom of the stairs, and massive tubes leading off in two directions. They began walking.

After some minutes, they both sensed some people lurking ahead in the darkness. They froze up, just as a call came from the darkness. “No further! Hands up and no fast moves. We’re sending someone out.”

Out of the darkness came a man in military garb, rifle raised and ready to fire. “You’ve got about six more trained on you back there,” he said. “Who are you? What business do you have in the tunnels?”

Aurys told him they were searching for Oxric, that he told her to look for him. The solder asked them to disarm, and they obliged, Aurys taking a rather long time in doing so as she was essentially a walking arsenal.

More soldiers came out and collected the gear, and they set out deeper into the tunnel. They passed another checkpoint, this one fortified with an old subway car laid perpendicular across the tracks, two rail guns positioned to cover the approaches. Then they reached another terminal platform, but this was far from deserted.

An encampment covered the platform and stretched a ways down the tunnel. Around a dozen or so men, women, and D-bees sat about, engaged in various tasks or simply conversing. Morphicles saw his first “cactus man” here, along with two mutant Dog Boys and a wild Psi-Stalker, all of whom began sniffing the air curiously as the shape-shifted dragon drew near.

A tall man, his skin bronzed and hair flaxen gold, garbed in scarlet armor with gold trimmings, came bounding up. “My men radioed ahead. You seek Oxric? He is a good friend of mine. I am called Lyxander.”

He was a True Atlantean, and looked every inch the part. He had a winning smile, a warm laugh, and an easy-going air about him; he possessed the body of a Greek god and looked like he’d snapped more than a few necks in his time.

Oxric was sent for and soon emerged from the gloom of a tent. He was Lyxander’s opposite: pale, almost serpent-like, with strange golden eyes and a disturbing unearthly air. When he saw Auris, he smiled. “Ah, so you decided to find me, did you? And you brought…a dragon-friend?” he asked, holding a finger to his temple.

Morphicles revealed his true form to the astonished assemblage. Both the Atlanteans immediately bowed before him. “A Chiang-Ku! And a hatchling, no less!” breathed Lyxander. “This must be a sign of the gods’ favor!”

Just then, one of the soldiers ran up to Lyxander. “Reports coming in of a disturbance not far from here, Lyxander.” He handed the Atlantean an earpiece, and Lyxander’s brow furrowed as he listened.

“Our drone scouts are reporting demonic activity just a few miles south of here,” he said, his voice suddenly hard and flinty. He looked at Aurys. “You came to fight? Now’s your chance.”


Issue Two

Aurys and Morphicles (in his human form once again) set out right away with Oxric and another Atlantean named Falcone. This one was much more like Lyxander in overall appearance, but favored blue armor and styled his pale hair into a faux-hawk. At his sides hung two ion pistols, slung low. Six soldiers accompanied the group, loaded up with laser rifles and plasma grenades. The strike team took a service elevator to the surface, emerging into the oppressive heat from the cool, dark underground.

They walked for some time, but their destination was clear from the start: columns of smoke rose up into the muggy air, signaling the source of the problem. Soon they slowed their progress, picking their way carefully through the verdant ruins. The sound of shouts and laser blasts could be heard up ahead…

Peering through a thicket of ferns, the group could make out a pack of demonic Brodkil rampaging through a barbarian village, setting buildings on fire and shooting down the few survivors who were attempting to flee. Overhead buzzed other strangely-carapaced demons that occasionally swept down on a terrified villager the Brodkil had somehow missed.

Art by Newton Ewell

Art by Newton Ewell

Art by Ramon Perez

Art by Ramon Perez

The strike team opened up. Laser beams lanced across the devastated village, grenades flew. Aurys, despite her blindness, calmly picked off one Brodkil after another. All fell under the combined assault.

With heavy hearts, Falcone and his team walked among the burning remains. No villagers remained to tell their sad tale. “Where did the demons come from?” Falcone wondered aloud.

“Um, I think I can answer that. In part, at least.” The voice emerged from behind them. Everyone whirled around and raised their weapons. “Whoa! Hey! Whoa!” It was a human male in his early 20s, and he was standing in a flinching posture, both hands up in submission. “Easy, guys! I come in peace.”

The man introduced himself as Harry Mayborn III. He was a Shifter, and came from a long line of summoners. “I never really had much joy for the work myself,” he admitted, "but Dad wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. He raised me to be a Shifter like him and Gramps from before I could even walk.

“So I was up around Char, looking for work, you know? And I met this chick, styled herself Lady Gabrienne. Said she wanted to summon a demon. Well, what was I supposed to say? That’s my line of work. Only I couldn’t bind a demon of the sort she wants to summon. ’Don’t worry,’ she says. ‘I have a binding ritual that will do the trick.’

“Great. So we head down here because she says it has to be this particular site. An old penitentiary from before the time of the rifts. Lots of negative psychic resonance there. I think that was where we went wrong. The demon came through all right, but he was strong. If Gabrienne’s binding ritual was even legit, well, it didn’t work here at any rate. That thing came roaring through and I…I legged it.”

He looked down ashamedly. At this point he noticed one of the dead Brodkil. “Um, didn’t summon these guys, though. Um…oh dear.”

“Never mind that!” snapped Falcone. “Where is this penitentiary?”

Mayborn indicated that it was about a mile south of their current position. Falcone dispatched the soldiers, two of whom had been wounded in the fighting, back to the MARTA HQ with instructions to pull more men for backup.

“Listen,” Mayborn said, “I feel bad about all this. Truly. I may not have enough power to bind the demon, but I can certainly send it back from whence it came. I just need to get close enough…”

A quick con-fab ensued in which it was decided to try for a surgical strike on the penitentiary to allow Mayborn the chance to redeem himself.

“It’s pretty likely that the rancorous bastard has been busily summoning more demons and other infernal allies to his side,” Mayborn noted glumly as the group set off. The penitentiary was just as easy to locate as the village; a great roiling black cloud had gathered overhead, slowly twisting widdershins. Above the ruined prison and beneath the black cloud, more of those strange bug-like demons buzzed around…along with a dozen or more giant gargoyles!

Art by Kevin Siembieda

Art by Kevin Siembieda

The demons and gargoyles spotted the group on the ground and dove on them. A desperate battle ensued with Falcone, Oxric, Aurys, and Morphicles attempting to protect Mayborn to the best of their abilities while they weathered the diving attacks of demon and gargoyle alike. Ion and laser blasts sizzled the air, blades both metallic and psionic sliced and diced, and in time the group stood triumphant, the remaining demons and gargoyles fleeing back behind the penitentiary walls. Unfortunately, Harry Mayborn III lay on the ground, his clothes soaked with blood—a lone gargoyle had managed to get a hit in on him in the chaos of battle.

Morphicles and Oxric did their best to stabilize Mayborn with the healing powers of their minds, but his wounds were deep indeed. Nevertheless, he insisted he was able to carry on. And so the heroes stood surveying the cloud-shrouded pen, knowing what awaited them inside…

[Editorial Note: This session was really tough. The scenario is taken from the Savage Foes of North America book, so it's perhaps intended to be especially combat-heavy--something I didn't realize until it was too late. The two combats very quickly degenerated into boiling hells of boring dice-slinging despite our best efforts to keep the narrative patter flowing. Rolling attacks for over two dozen Lesser Demons and Gargoyles while the players sat idly by for five minutes at a time…ugh. This session showed me that running battles of this size in Savage Worlds with just Theater of the Mind—no battle map, no tokens—is a recipe for boring combats. I’m normally exclusively a TotM guy, and have never run SW on this scale before, so my experience this session was pretty demoralizing. But I decided to press on and try out combat with a battle map and tokens next time…]


Issue Three

The heroes entered the penitentiary grounds and were immediately set upon by some of the remaining gargoyles These were dispatched with relative ease. Beyond the yard lay the old prison blocks. Grimly, the group entered.

[Editorial Note: I figured this was going to be the “make or break” session in terms of seeing if these big set-piece battles could be any fun. I purposely structured things like a side-scroller video game, complete with a boss fight at the end.]

On the first floor of the old maximum security block, the group encountered a truly horrifying creature: a massive crab-like demon, scuttling about in the three feet of standing water that covered the ground floor.

Undeterred, Aurys took aim with her trusty JA-9 and dropped the infernal beast with a single shot!

[Editorial Note: Two walk-over combats in a row! I was getting a little worried…]

Morphicles found a crumbling steel staircase in a stairwell, and he and Aurys went up first. (Falcone had shown himself to be a bit of a kill-stealer in the combat outside the prison and they were anxious to get some more kills of their own without his interference.)

As they climbed to the top of the stairs, the last of the gargoyles dropped down on them from the top level.

[Editorial Note: Guess who momentarily forgot how huge Gargoyles are? This guy. ]

Falcone entered the fray (because of course he did) and the three of them dispatched the hideous fiends easily enough. Then Aurys and Morphicles reached the top of the stairs…

Suddenly the space was filled with searing flames! It was as if someone had squeezed off a blast from a flamethrower—but no! A strange demon with the face of a whale lurked outside the stairwell; the flames had come from a metallic rod growing out of one of its rubbery arms.

Both Aurys and Morphicles were badly burnt by the first blast, so they determined not to give it another chance to do the same. The whale-headed demon went down just as quickly as its crab-like compatriot.

But then, in the vast hall beyond, their ultimate goal reposed, the remaining lesser demons buzzing around it. The demon known as Rozarre the Rancorous buzzed angrily as Morphicles and Aurys emerged from the stairwell.

Art by Newton Ewell

Art by Newton Ewell

The great demon flew towards the heroes, who were joined in short order by Falcone and the injured Mayborn. Oxric, seeing the great beast, shrank back into the stairwell, from which he would play only a peripheral role in the fight to come.

The hall was capacious enough to allow Morphicles to assume his draconic form, and he did so, growing to about the same size as Rozarre. He, Aurys, and Falcone fought desperately in attempt to distract and hold the demon at bay while Mayborn attempted to summon up his banishment spell.

His first attempt ended in a fit of coughing up blood.

Morphicles took a bad hit from one of Rozarre’s saber-like claws…

Mayborn traced a circle in the air, invoking the words of power. Rozarre’s hideous carapace-like flesh rippled but he did not disappear.

Aurys took a bad hit from one of Rozarre’s tentacles…

Our heroes were on their last legs, every single one sporting two or three wounds. It was now or never. Mayborn cast his spell again, the magic circle he described in the air glowing with a white light. With a screech, Rozarre the Rancorous shrank down to a singularity and winkled out of existence!

[Editorial Note: I gave control of Mayborn to Aurys, so all rolls were coming from the players’ side. The second banishment spell just went off, with both Mayborn and Rozarre Acing their respective rolls but Mayborn only barely scoring the raise he needed to succeed at his banishment. Hugely exciting! The “boss fight” truly lived up to its name, and the PCs very nearly got their asses handed to them. Combat this session went much more smoothly with the battle map and tokens and didn’t feel like nearly such a slog. I was still a bit disturbed by how quickly the Daemonix went down, but then again we’re dealing with a Warrior Woman Juicer—the phrase “combat monster” certainly applies here.]


Issue Four

With the banishment of Rozarre, the black cloud overhead dispersed and the heroes departed in triumph. They met their reinforcements halfway back and so had an escort to the MARTA tunnels to herald their return.

Aurys and Morphicles both headed for the medical tent straight away, where they were tended to by the skilled psychic healers there. Aurys was also reunited with her Frilled Swamp Runner companions, who expressed their delight at seeing her again by knocking over a table of test tubes and retorts. She gave them one of her dehydrated ration bars and they scampered off to divide up the food. Morphicles, meanwhile, had decided to shed his human disguise, adopting a miniaturized version of his true form for the time being.

As the pair lay recuperating in the tent, Aurys opened up to Morphicles about the sins of her past. The killings, the enslavement, the countless actions she now regretted. Her blindness had not saved her from witnessing innumerable crimes against decency and the common good. She spoke of the Slaver she had escaped from, and of her desire to avenge herself upon him. Little did she know that that time was quickly drawing nigh…

The two friends lingered about the camp for the next day. Aurys traded Falcone two of her pre-rifts guns (an Uzi and a 12-gauge shotgun) for one of his silver daggers, which had proved useful in the fight against the demons. They enjoyed the downtime.

This didn’t last long. Lyxander came to them the next day with a request. “Please feel free to say no if you still need to rest, but we’ve lost contact with Fort Hawkins on the coast and need someone to go scout things out, make sure everything’s okay. Neither our wireless set nor the power of magic have been able to raise them.”

Feeling much more their normal selves this day, Aurys and Morphicles agreed. “Just follow the river south,” Lyxander said. And so they did, bringing Aurys’ Swamp Runners along.

On their first day’s journey, they encountered a strange grove of trees knocked down in perfect concentric circles but with no apparent signs of damage, fire, or other sort of violence. Their second day, they followed the sound of screeching Leatherwings to the scene of a Raptor lying on its side, apparently dying. The Leatherwings were waiting to swoop in for the kill when a T-rex came bursting out of the forest and began snacking on the dying Raptor. Aurys and Morphicles withdrew before the Rex caught sight of them as well.

They arrived at Fort Hawkins around dusk. It was a massive fortress complex built around a 20th-century cement reconstruction of an 18th-century fort that had stood on the site that later became Macon, Georgia. Now all that remained of that city was the reproduction tower along with a newer wooden palisade surrounding it.

They were met outside the gates by two gentlemen, each dressed in leathers and capes, their fine flowing hair tied back to reveal long ears and sharp features. Neither Morphicles nor Aurys had met an Elf before, but here were two! The Elves identified themselves as Pennent and Gran, and were happy to welcome the travelers once they explained who they were and from whence they’d come.

The Elves said they were aware that their communication was out, and said it was probably due to an increase in ley line storms over the nearby Ocmulgee Mounds—ancient burial mounds that were now a hotbed of dimensional activity.

“Indeed, that is why we settled here: to keep an eye on the Things that come out of the periodic rifts that open up there. It’s been a while since it’s been this active, though,” the jovial Pennent offered. The heroes were introduced to Gran and Pennent’s Elven wives (and Gran’s newborn son) and given a tour of the grounds, which housed about three-dozen scouts and trappers, all of whom had come to live at Fort Hawkins and train under the Elves, learning their mastery of woodcraft and wilderness survival.

Aurys and Morphicles had a wonderful time at the Fort. The next morning, they accompanied Gran and Penennt out to the Mounds, where they observed a massive nexus of four ley lines converging over the largest mound. As they stood surveying the scene, a small rift began opening at one of the nexus points. Everyone tensed up, ready for whatever might come through. Morphicles used his psionically-enhanced sight to zoom in on the rift, which sat about 500 yards distant.

He was shocked to see four figures come through the mirror-like surface of the rift who looked just like him and his group! After exchanging worried glances, they decided to go down to the rift, approaching the newcomers cautiously. As they got closer, they began observing subtle differences: the newcomers’ clothes were similar but made of nylon and neoprene; “Aurys” wore mirrorshades instead of the blindfold she sported in this reality. “Morphicles” appeared to be a robot, his scales all of chromed metal. The two “elves” appeared to be humans who had received cosmetic surgery to make them appear more elfin.

These mirror-universe doppelgängers were confused and alarmed, and convinced themselves that they were having a bad drug trip or had unwittingly wandered into some sort of VR simulation. The Rifts-universe heroes agreed fervently and convinced them to go back through. (Aurys did consider slaying her double and using the body to fake her own death, but she really was trying to turn over a new leaf these days…) The rift closed 15 minutes later.

[Editor’s Note: The joys of the Random Rift tables! I rolled up a mirror-surfaced rift that connected to a mirror universe (how appropriate!) consisting of an parallel alternate-reality cyberpunk universe with no magic. Wowza!]

With that strange adventure out of the way, the heroes began the trek back to Atlanta, promising to return to Fort Hawkins soon. This was, sadly, never to be.

After a few hours of walking, Aurys heard something that chilled her blood: the sound of a Floating Eye scout from a Splugorth Slaver’s slave barge hovering nearby.

Urgently, she motioned for Morphicles and her three Swamp Runner companions to hide, but alas it was in vain. The Eye caught sight of them! Aurys knew that even now it was beaming the information back to the barge, which wouldn’t be far off. She shot it out of the sky and began to run.

But, sure enough, crashing in over the tree tops came the slave barge. And it wasn’t just any barge; it was that of Golga Sabbal himself! The time had come for Aurys to face her former master.

Art by Keith Parkinson

Art by Keith Parkinson

Morphicles assumed his full dragon form as Aurys, knowing she wouldn’t be able to overcome the barge’s force field with her laser rifle, ran up the side of a leaning palm tree and vaulted onto the barge itself! She sailed right over her Altaran sisters who crouched behind their blast shields and came down right on top of Golga, her greatsword flashing…

…and the blade bounced right off his forearm bracer.

[Editorial Note: It was such an awesome moment and then Aurys goes and rolls triple-1 for damage. Ouch.]

Morphicles, enraged, lept up, his long sinewy form stretching out, and grabbed hold of the side of the barge. He gave a mighty heave and flung the entire thing towards the river bank. Golga Sabbal just barely managed to right the craft, but the throw did shake off two of the warrior women, who gracefully fell to earth and unsheathed their vibro-knives for some “close-in work.”

Up on the barge the battle raged. Aurys was facing not just Golga, but the two remaining warrior women, who rained down blows upon their former sister, their faces twisted, silent masks of rage at her betrayal.

On the ground, the fight did not go well for Aurys’ Swamp Runner companions, two of whom were slain by the warrior women. Aurys, pressed too hard, vaulted off the barge and took on the ground-based Altarans, killing one of them while Morphicles used his psionics to add to her already-considerable prowess.

Golga, seeing a full-blown Chiang-Ku in the fight, decided that discretion was the better part of valor and began hovering away, sending a telepathic message to Aurys that he would be back for her and her little dragon friend soon enough. As a literal parting shot, he dispatched the last Swamp Runner, the baby of the family, with a blast from his forearm plasma gun!

Well, that did it. Aurys’ Juicer rig went into overtime, reacting to her rage and natural adrenaline response by pumping even more hormones and drugs into her system. She saw red. She heard klaxons. Golga must not escape, even if it meant her own life!

Morphicles once more leapt forward and grabbed the side of the barge before it could rise much further. His weight was enough to stall its ascent. Aurys ran up her dragon-friend’s back and renewed her melee with the Slaver. The warrior women, unable to penetrate the Juicer’s preternaturally-quick defenses, attempted to bum rush her off the side of the barge only to fall 20 feet to their deaths on the rocky river bank below after she side-stepped them. Now it was just Aurys and Golga.

As the Juicer rained down blows on her old master, he fired a blast from the barge’s main gun into Morphicles’ belly. The blaster was set to “stun,” and the dragon lost consciousness when he was hit. His grip faltered and he fell crashing to the ground, sending the barge with Golga and Aurys bobbing up into the air like a cork in water. Aurys did not notice. Her greatsword chipped and nearly ruined, she at last succeeded in cutting clean through Golga Sabbal’s arm, lopping it off. She followed this up with a cross stroke that sent his reeking guts spilling from his belly and all over the barge, which in turn dipped violently as its master died.

Aurys fell. She dropped the 60 or so feet, losing consciousness as soon as she hit the ground. The great barge followed her, crashing down on top of her. She was no more.

[Editorial Note: Wow! All my doubts about the Savage Rifts combat system were completely erased by this fight. Aurys was able to use a combination of Bennies and Burn Points to stay in the game, declaring “Blaze of Glory” at the end after all other options had been exhausted. She wanted that glorious death, she got it. It was an amazing fight—one of the most cinematic duels I’ve ever seen in 25 years of gaming.]

Hours later, Morphicles came to. He saw the flaming wreckage, the dead bodies. He knew that Aurys must be under that barge. He knew he was alone now. With a sigh, he got to his feet and once again began walking—only now, he couldn’t be sure of where he’d end up…

[Editorial Note: We decided to shift the focus of the campaign at this point, turning it into a picaresque journal of Morphicles’ adventures across Rifts Earth (and maybe beyond?). He will encounter other player-character heroes with their own arcs, much like Aurys, but he will remain the anchor point of the campaign. This will be a great way to explore the setting at large and bring in a variety of other character types over time. I'll be chronicling the action as we go, starting with next week's session. If you'd like to follow along, feel free to subscribe over on Obsidian Portal: Onward!]

Player-Generated Handouts

Oh, hi!

Don't worry, I didn't forget this blog. It's just that I came back from Gen Con with a pile o' work to tend to. Also, unfortunately, I've joined the ranks of people with "family health problems" storming into my life and providing yet more distraction from things like writing fun little blog posts.

In light of August's unremitting intensity, then, I'm thinking a schedule of one post a week is more realistic for the foreseeable future. So that's my new resolution. Thursdays seem as good a day as any, so Thursdays it is. No more dilly-dallying, then...

The wife and I have been playing a lot of Vampire: the Masquerade (20th Anniversary Edition) lately. She's fairly obsessed, to be honest. There's no doubt in my mind that, had she been into gaming as a teenager back in the 90s, she would have been one of the countless thousands of young ladies for whom Vampire was everything. Eh. Vuh. Ree. Thing. We've even joked that she might've ended up in some sort of real-life blood cult or something. So it's probably best she didn't know about it at the time.

Anyway.

For our most recent session, Desiree actually wrote up a nine-page script for a "play within a play" that her vampire/actor character was planning to put on with his infamous sire, attempting to clear her name with the larger Kindred community. She spent a whole Saturday afternoon writing this thing up, chuckling to herself intermittently at how silly the whole thing was but pushing ahead regardless.

Needless to say, I couldn't be more pleased. Is there any experience more rewarding for a GM than seeing your player(s) get just as invested in a game as you are? When players come to the table with character sketches, background narratives, or supplementary handouts--ah! What a joy.

What are some of your favorite and/or most memorable moments when players went the extra mile with investing themselves in the game in between sessions?

Off to Gen Con!

Just a quick update today and nothing substantive for Thursday this week either, I'm afraid. I've got a good reason, though: tomorrow I board a plane for Indianapolis to experience gaming's own Grand Guignol--Gen Con.

Last year was my first time going, so I feel a bit more prepared this time around. I'll be doing a lot more gaming than last year, including running a session of Pendragon (my first time out as a convention GM!). The game booked up fast--shockingly fast, if I'm being honest--but if you're planning on attending the con, have nothing going on between 1:00-5:00 on Friday, and want to be on the stand-by list, drop me a line here or on the sosh medes and I'll keep you in the loop!

Otherwise, if you're reading this and you'll also be there, I'll be one of the guys wearing an Esoteric Order of Roleplayers shirt. (Hot tip: Spreadshirt has a 15%-off sale coming up from the 4th to the 9th...) I accept friendly hellos and small monetary donations with equal grace, I can assure you.

As much as I'm looking forward to the trip, I'm also fairly itching to get going on my Uresia Hack project, so I hope to have some material on that next week (if I manage to dodge the dreaded Con Crud). I mean, I pretty much have to now, don't I?

Kickstarter Alert: Prince Valiant

Full Disclosure: I have done work for Nocturnal Media in the past and have a couple projects for them in the pipeline. However, I am not involved in any way with this project apart from being an enthusiastic booster and backer.

ETA: This has since changed; see my later post for more details.

Take that, you Saxon scum!

Take that, you Saxon scum!

I'm a total geek for Arthurian RPGs. In addition to my extensive collection of King Arthur Pendragon RPG materials, I also own the original and recently re-released editions of Hidden Kingdom (which I hope to actually play one day...). But one feather remains missing from my cap: Greg Stafford's other Arthurian RPG, Prince Valiant, long out-of-print and very spendy on the secondary market.

You can imagine my delight, then, when the announcement went out that a new edition is Kickstarter-ing. Not only that, but it will be packed full to the crenelations with gorgeous full-color Hal Foster art.

The Kickstarter is off to a great start, with stretch goals unlocking additional content (penned by a variety of veteran game writers) opening up even as I type.

Lots more details on the system and philosophies behind Prince Valiant, a game way ahead of its time, can be found at Greg Stafford's site.

The Uresia Hack?

Long-time readers of my internet ramblings will know that S. John Ross's world of Uresia is my metaphorical Great White Whale of fantasy settings. Originally developed and published for the Big Eyes, Small Mouth anime RPG and now available as a systemless guidebook, I've run games set in the world of Uresia using BESM, the Rules Cyclopedia, and Pathfinder. All attempts were, in their own ways, successful, yet none really did it for me. In the case of BESM and Pathfinder, it was simply me not caring for the system itself (finding both to be too crunchy for my tastes); in the case of the Rules Cyclopedia, it was too many modifications required to properly capture in the mechanics Uresia's blend of 8-bit JRPGs, anime, classic fantasy tropes, and Ross's patented brand of big-hearted whimsy.

From time to time, as a sort of idle larf, I've taken a look at a variety of other possible systems over the years: everything from GURPS Dungeon Fantasy to Ross's Risus RPG to Dungeon World. GURPS ultimately proved too rooted in "believability" in its mechanical approaches, while Risus was just a bit too rules-lite for my tastes. Dungeon World looked to be the best bet, particularly with the release of the excellent Class Warfare supplement and its details on creating new and custom playbooks. But there remained some lingering doubts on my part that prevented me from diving in to a full-throated conversion project.

Enter The Black Hack.

This stripped-down mod of D&D, blending old and new mechanics, has been getting a lot of attention lately, and rightfully so. It hits a nice sweet spot between simplicity and crunch, and--most importantly--is eminently mod-able. So much so that the Internet has been downright flooded with hacks of the Hack, as it were.

One that particularly caught my eye is The Anime Hack--in particular, its suggestion that "[t]he Black Hack is not required, but it is awesome and would add a lot to your experience...". Hm! Interesting!

This then got me thinking: using a combined Anime/Black Hack to power a Uresia campaign...

[Savage Rifts] Expanded M.A.R.S. Fortune & Glory Table

Savage RIFTS, like all good and decent gaming products, comes packed with tons of tables for players and GMs alike. The Mercenary, Adventurers, Rogues, and Scholars (M.A.R.S.) Iconic Framework gets a table all its own, the "Fortune & Glory" table. M.A.R.S. characters, thanks to not being the total powerhouses represented by other Iconic Frameworks, get to roll several times on said table.

But, as it's just a d12 table, the range of options may soon seem limited, particularly if you've got a group with a propensity for playing M.A.R.S. characters (or are intentionally doing an all-M.A.R.S. campaign, such as a game centering around City Rats in the 'Burbs of Chi-Town).

I'm not the only one who has marked this out as a potential issue, and recently regular reader Reese Flory sent me his expanded Fortune & Glory Table. With his kind permission, I am reproducing it here.

Expanded M.A.R.S. Fortune & Glory Table
d20
Result
1 Up Close and Personal: Add one die type to the Fighting skill. Your hero may choose any single weapon from the Close Combat —Personal sections. You may gain the Trademark Weapon Edge for one of your starting melee weapons instead of the weapon.
2 Reach Out and Touch Someone: Add one die type to the Shooting skill. Your hero may choose any single weapon from the Ranged Weapons—Personal section. You may gain the Trademark Weapon Edge for one of your starting ranged weapons instead of the weapon.
3 A Strong Suit of Armor: Your hero may choose any one suit of Body Armor and add two of the modifiers listed under Body Armor in the Hero’s Journey section. They must be two different modifiers, not the same one twice.
4 A Way to Get Around: Your hero begins with a d6 in either Driving or Piloting. She also starts with any one vehicle of her choice.
5 Agile and Dexterous: Your hero adds one die type to Agility and begins with either the Ambidextrous or Quick Edge.
6 Smart and Learned: Your hero adds one die type to Smarts and begins with a d6 in any three Smarts-linked skills.
7 Spiritual and Determined: Your hero adds one type to Spirit and begins with the Strong Willed Edge.
8 Strong and Powerful: Your hero adds one die type to Strength and begins with the Brawny Edge.
9 Vigorous and Tough: You hero adds one die type to Vigor and begins with the Nerves of Steel Edge.
10 Wealthy and Connected: You hero begins with the Rich Edge and the Connections Edge with two factions.
11 Charming and Well-Traveled: Your hero begins with the Charismatic and I Know a Guy Edges.
12 Fortune Favors the Bold: Your hero begins with the Brave Edge. He also begins each session with one additional Benny.
13 Dabbler in the Arcane: Your hero has somehow picked up spellcasting along the way, adding the Arcane Background (Magic) Edge and a d6 in Spellcasting. They select three powers as limited by the Ley Line Walker. Otherwise, your character may roll a total of two times on the Enchanted Items & Mystic Gadgets and/or Magic & Mysticism tables.
14 Latent Psychic: Your hero has unlocked their psionic potential over the course of their experiences, adding the Arcane Background (Psychic) Edge and a d6 in Psionics. They select three powers as limited by the Mind Melter. Otherwise, your character may roll a total of two times on the Enchanted Items & Mystic Gadgets and/or Psionics tables.
15 Four-Legged Friends: Your hero has developed an incredible affinity with animals, gaining the Beast Bond and Beast Master Edges and two trained Earthly animal companions, or one trained interdimensional creature of animal intelligence.
16 My Young Apprentice: You hero has inspired a follower, gaining the Sidekick Edge. The sidekick is a standard Savage Worlds Novice character (no Iconic Framework to start), but roll once on Experience & Wisdom, Training, or Underworld & Black Ops table; your hero and sidekick both gain the result, reflecting a shared experience.
17 A Bard's Tale: Your hero has devoted a great deal of time to one of the rare pastimes on Rifts Earth: entertainment. Add the Attractive and Talented* Edges, begin with a Perform specialization at d6, and start with a high-quality musical intrument or other such medium. Your hero may perform at venues for pay.
18 Follow Me: Your hero has proven himself as a combat leader, earning the Command and Team Leader** Edges, and a Knowledge (Battle) skill at d6.
19 I'm a Survivor: Your hero regularly survives encounters that would break tougher adventurers. Add the Hard to Kill and Brave Edges.
20 Choose Your Fate: Select any other result on this table, or gain two rolls on any two Hero’s Journey tables of your choice.
*See Deadlands Noir
**See Supers Companion

[Letters from Heian-kyo] The Ushi no Koku Mairi Ritual

This is the first entry in what will be an irregular series of posts on myth and folk lore from classical Japan. Any game mechanics referenced in the post are for a modified version of the King Arthur Pendragon RPG I've been working on for Nocturnal (publishing date still TBD), but the details should be easily adapted to any system of your choice.

During the reign of Emperor Saga, a scorned wife journeyed to the Kibune Shrine on the northern outskirts of the great capital of Heian-kyo. There, during the Hour of the Ox (1:00-3:00 AM) when the boundary between the material and spirit worlds is thinnest, she prayed to the gods of the shrine, beseeching them for vengeance upon the man who had left her. She returned at the same time every night, seven nights in total.

The gods heard her prayer and directed her to don lit candles upon her head, cover herself in poisonous cinnabar, and lay down in the Uji River. The woman did as instructed, and after 21 days she became something more than human, a vengeful spirit called Hashihime ("Maiden of the Bridge").

Despite the fact that Hashihime was ultimately foiled in her attempts to kill her husband thanks to the intercession of the great wizard Abe no Seimei, her legend inspired scores of other jilted lovers to follow her lead.

The Ushi no Koku Mairi Ritual

This is perhaps Nihon's most notorious black magic ritual. To enact the ritual, gather a bundle of straw and shape it into a roughly humanoid form. Don a white kimono, cover your face with white paint or powder, then hang a mirror around your neck. Wash your hair and place the tri-pronged stand of a gotuku (iron brazier) atop your head. Stick a candle on each prong and light the wicks. Slip on a pair of geta (wooden sandals). Clench a comb in your mouth.

Taking a mallet and some iron nails with you, run from your residence to the nearest shrine that accepts curses. (In Heian-kyo, this is usually the Kifune or Jishu-jinja Shrine.) Find a tree on the property of the shrine and wait until the Hour of the Ox. Nail the straw doll to the tree while uttering salty curses against the target of your ire.

Repeat this ritual for six more nights. By the final night, the doll will have seven nails in it. Placement of the nails will determine what sort of ailments the target will develop: nails in the arm might indicate a broken humerus bone, a sprained wrist, a burn in that location, and so forth. A nail driven into the head of the doll will cause death!

If anyone sees you enacting the ritual and lives to tell the tale, the curse will rebound onto you, so make sure your nighttime visits go undetected, or else be prepared to use that dagger you thoughtfully tucked up into the sleeve of your kimono…

In order to undertake this ritual, you must possess a Kirai (Hate) passion directed at the target of the ritual. At the end of the seven-day period, roll against Kirai. With a critical success, your intended injuries affect the target. The most minor injury will occur 1D6 days after the ritual concludes; each successive injury occurs 1D6 days after the preceding wound. Wounds should cause a progressive amount of damage: 1D6 Hit Points for the first, all the way up to 7D6 for the final.

Characters may be driven to try this ritual due to madness caused by a fumbled passion roll. More usually, of course, player characters will find themselves targets of the Ushi no Koku Mairi ritual! At the Gamemaster's discretion, it may be possible to halt the progression of injuries caused by the ritual by consulting a powerful yamabushi or tengu and beseeching them to lift the curse before it is too late.

[Savage Rifts] Mapping Dinosaur Swamp: Georgia

As I wrote about last week, I'll be running my inaugural Savage RIFTS campaign in the Dinosaur Swamp region, specifically in and around the former state of Georgia.

As I'm entering final preparations for the campaign, I figured I should probably put together a regional map, both because I find the maps in the Dinosaur Swamp sourcebook sorely lacking and because, with the 100-meter sea level rise I apply to "my" version of RiftsWorld, the coastline is substantially changed from canon.

I spent a couple hours noodling around in Photoshop yesterday, and here's what I came up with:

I might have gotten a little carried away...

I put in the old state boundaries mostly just for my own reference--they'd be meaningless to anyone other than a Rogue Scholar or such in-game. I didn't worry too much about reproducing the course of rivers exactly, as the Cataclysm would have certainly reshaped riverbeds.

I should probably brighten up the hexes just a bit for better readability, but in all honesty I'm not even sure how much utility they'll be in actual play. I mean, a 5-mile hex doesn't mean much if you can fly right through it! They're there mostly to give me a sense of scale. On the other hand, I'm thinking about using the old "Random Ruins and Relics" table from the Wilderlands of High Fantasy boxed set to generate, well, ruins and relics in the swamp, so there might actually be some room for hex-crawling in this campaign!

At the end of the day, this map may not be of much utility at all, but it's certainly evocative to me at least, and I think my players will dig it too.

Next up on the cartographical agenda is a rough map of the ruins of Atlanta. If I produce something other than random scribbles, I'll be sure to post it here.

[Savage Rifts] Chiang-Ku Dragon Hatchling

I met with my mid-week group to discuss Savage RIFTS. We’re all on board with it, and I took them through the three frameworks I worked up a few weeks back.

The “Top Gun Manistique” idea held much appeal, but we decided to put that one on hold—it’s been ages since we played RIFTS, and the consensus was that a more generalized framework would work better for our inaugural outing.

So we decided on a campaign of Atlantean freedom fighters and their allies operating out of the MARTA tunnels under the ruins of Atlanta, plotting the downfall of the Splugorth. One of my players had already pitched a concept of a runaway Blind Warrior Woman who underwent Juicer modification to better help her in her quest to kill her former Slaver and liberate her sisters from bondage, and that concept fits in perfectly with this framework.

My other player, who is far less well-versed in RiftsLore, went through several different ideas before settling on a Dragon Hatchling. Considering the campaign is going to be heavy on Atlantean and Splugorthian themes, I suggested he consider a Chiang-Ku as his species, to which he agreed wholeheartedly.

Which means it's time to do another conversion. In the process, I'm going to rewrite the Chiang-Ku backstory ever so slightly. As with my previous effort, this went pretty smoothly, and I think I'm in the ballpark as far as balancing with a more "normal" dragon like the Flame Wind.

Chiang-Ku Dragon Hatchling

The creatures called Chiang-Ku Dragons first came to Earth over 10,000 years ago. Experienced dimensional travelers, they took a liking to this little backwater and its single sentient species. Disguised as humans or operating openly in their full serpentine glory, the Chiang-Ku taught the people of Africa, Atlantis, East Asia, and Mesoamerica the secrets of stone magic and geomancy, kickstarting human civilization in the process.

The fall of Atlantis marked the end of serious Chiang-ku presence on Earth. Untold numbers of dragons died alongside their Atlantean allies as the continent vanished from the planet’s surface, and many more fled through dimensional portals as magic began draining from the atmosphere. Those very few that remained, by choice or otherwise, went into hiding and, by the time of the Great Cataclysm, all had met their doom one way or another.

Atlantis’ end also marked the beginning of the end for the Chiang-Ku on a broader scale. Masters of the esoteric arts of tattoo magic and alchemy, their knowledge was much sought-after by the Splugorth Empire, who hunted the dragons to the brink of extinction. In the process, the Splugorth stole the Chiang-Ku’s arcane powers and turned them to evil. The Chiang-Ku are now widely believed by most Atlanteans and Splugorth alike to be extinct.

They very nearly are. In the whole of the Multiverse, only a few score Chiang-Ku yet live. Of that tiny number, two dozen are on Earth even now, pursuing various ends both noble and nefarious. Many, like the inscrutable lord of the Phoenix Empire, are wholly turned to evil and ally openly with those who once drove their kind to the brink of oblivion. Meanwhile, the Chiang-Ku who wish to further the noble deeds of their forebears must operate in secret, usually assuming some form of disguise so that their true nature is not discovered.

To say the least, Chiang-Ku hatchlings are very few and far between. Such creatures, should they be discovered, find themselves the immediate target of the Splugorth, the Coalition, and evil Chiang-Ku, all of whom will wish to turn the young dragon to their own will and agenda or else destroy it. To be a Chiang-Ku is to be hunted, but also to possess great powers and abilities, perhaps moreso than any other dragon on Earth.

Appearance: Chiang-Ku are long and lithe, sporting three pairs of legs, each ending in prehensile five-toed claws. Their triangular scales are always some shade of green, usually emerald. The tail portion of their body is somewhat shorter and stubbier than a typical dragon’s, but their mouths are filled with razor-sharp fangs, giving them a mighty bite. Whiskers grow around their mouths, and a horned crest rings their head.

Due to their shape-shifting abilities, few ever see the Chiang-Ku in this form, however. Although they can assume practically any shape, most develop a “go-to” look for their human guise so that they may be recognized by allies and enemies alike.

Abilities & Bonuses

  • Major Psionic: Chiang-Ku are born with an inherent mastery of psionics. They begin play with the Arcane Background: Psionics Edge and four powers, as well as the Major Psionic Edge. They have 15 ISP and a d6 Psionics skill, and may choose their powers from the Mind Melter’s list.
  • Alchemy: The Chiang-Ku are unequaled potion masters. At Seasoned level or any point thereafter, a Chiang-Ku Hatchling may take the Arcane Background: Alchemy Edge (see Shaintar: Legends Arise for details). A Chiang-Ku with this background may concoct the legendary Elixir of Power and Deceit (subject of a future conversion post…).
  • Tattoo Magic: The Chiang-Ku invented tattoo magic and remain masters of the form, such that all Chiang-Ku hatchlings are born already magically imprinted with the Marks of Heritage (see below). At Veteran level, a Chiang-Ku Hatchling may take the Arcane Background: T-Man Edge.
  • Armored Hide: As if in compensation for their dwindling numbers, Chiang-Ku are able to take titanic levels of punishment—the Hatchling has M.D.C. armor of +12.
  • Claws/Bite: As per the Flame Wind Dragon Hatchling.
  • Fast Regeneration: As per the Flame Wind Dragon Hatchling.
  • Fear: As per the Flame Wind Dragon Hatchling.
  • Infravision: As per the Flame Wind Dragon Hatchling.
  • Inherently Magical: As per the Flame Wind Dragon Hatchling.
  • Low-Light Vision: As per the Flame Wind Dragon Hatchling.
  • Marks of Heritage: All Chiang-Ku are born already mystically-imbued with two magic tattoos (the “Marks of Heritage”), one on each for their forelegs.
    • The Eye of Knowledge: Grants the ability to understand, speak, read, and write any language, as per the speak language power (see Super Powers Companion). Use of this ability requires activation and lasts for one hour at a time.
    • The Flaming Sword: Activating this tattoo conjures a glowing, flame-wreathed sword out of thin air (Str+2d6 damage, AP 2, Mega-Damage). The sword lasts for one hour before dissipating.
  • Metamorphosis: Chiang-Ku lack many of the abilities of their draconic brethren (flight, teleportation, breath attacks), but are unparalleled in their ability to shapeshift. Chiang-Ku Hatchlings needn’t wait for Veteran level to attain unlimited metamorphic powers; they begin play with the full metamorphisis ability as described in The Tomorrow Legion Player’s Guide (p. 45). In addition to the guidelines given there, Chiang-Ku may assume a mist form. (See the intangibility power in the Super Powers Companion for guidelines on how this works.)
  • Mighty: As per the Flame Wind Dragon Hatchling.
  • Nigh-Immortality: As per the Flame Wind Dragon Hatchling.
  • Resistance: All forms of cold- and fire-based damaged are resisted at +4 Toughness/+4 to opposed rolls, as appropriate.
  • Size +6: As per the Flame Wind Dragon Hatchling.
  • Size Increase: As per the Flame Wind Dragon Hatchling.
  • Slow Regeneration: As per the Flame Wind Dragon Hatchling.

Complications

  • Cybernetics: As per the Flame Wind Dragon Hatchling.
  • Enemies: As detailed above, the Chiang-Ku are a hunted species. Hunted by the Splugorth, they are also targeted by the Coalition States (who hate all dragons on principle) and other evil Chiang-Ku and sorcerers.
  • Large: As per the Flame Wind Dragon Hatchling.
  • Outsider: As per the Flame Wind Dragon Hatchling.
  • Untested: As per the Flame Wind Dragon Hatchling.
  • Very Young: As per the Flame Wind Dragon Hatchling.

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"Second-Chance" Games

My recent return to RIFTS via Savage Worlds has got me thinking about other games of the past that I left behind in my youth--and whether I should go back and revisit them now.

Anyone who has been gaming for a few years or more probably has at least one system that retains a certain level of infamy or wistful nostalgia; a system that promised much but, for whatever reason, failed to deliver, and was either angrily consigned to the dustbin or sadly traded away for store credit at NobleKnight (too specific an example?).

For a long time, RIFTS was one of these games. As a teenager I played the hell out of it, far more than even D&D. Then I stopped. When I tried to go back to it, I found the system no longer to my liking.

My Rifts:2112 project was actually born of an attempt to give RIFTS a "second chance.". Back in 2008, I ran two or three sessions using the rules as written before I had to bail and start looking at other systems. Up until this year, the prospect of actually running RIFTS remained pretty abstract, though. Now I'm fairly giddy as I plan to return to RIFTS in what I feel is going to be a rewarding and familiar way, and this has me thinking of other games left behind long ago.

Around the same time I was experimenting with giving RIFTS a second chance, I wrote a blog post about Gary Gygax's post-TSR RPG, Dangerous Journeys: Mythus. (Hey, the game was published in the 90s, when every RPG by law had to have two titles separated by a colon.) Even eight years on, it continues to generate the occasional comment. Notably, a significant minority of the comments take a neutral or even conciliatory stance towards the game.

This strikes me as notable because one usually sees Mythus getting dragged online (when it's mentioned at all), most notably in Chris Hogan's epic "Let's Read: Mythus" series (sadly unfinished, as the task of reading through Mythus seems to have completely killed off Hogan's will to blog). You'd think stuff like that would be enough to put me off the game entirely, yet there remains something ineffable about its attraction. I almost feel like this is something I need to return to and conquer. Plus, you can't argue with the awesome Janet Aulisio artwork...

So yeah, Mythus is my Great White Whale and will probably drag me down beneath the waves should I ever try and engage with it again. (Spoiler alert for Moby Dick!) There's another game from my callow youth that I think might actually prove downright rewarding, though: Underground.

Styled Ray Winninger's Underground on the cover (again, the 90s saw some very strange naming conventions for games), I picked this baby up in 1993, the year it came out, meaning I would have been about 15 years old at the time. I was simultaneously enthralled and scandalized by the game's contents. It was the first "mature themes" RPG I'd ever read; it was glossy and colorful and featured all sorts of crazy-ass art.

Unfortunately, I completely missed the point of the game. I had zero familiarity with the game's sources of inspiration. Martial Law? Never heard of it. Aeon Flux? Yeah, I saw, like, half an episode back in junior high. DC Heroes? Never played it. I honestly thought I was buying a cyberpunk game, and was startled when a review in Dragon magazine identified the game as belonging to the supers genre? Supers? But...where are the capes?

Character creation with my group took three hours. Then everyone died during the first encounter of the first session. We immediately declared the game broken (because it couldn't possibly be us!) and "Underground" became a byword for "lame, broken game" for years afterward.

Nowadays I'm not so sure. Even after that initial debacle, the setting remained (and remains) my all-time favorite dystopian RPG future history. The Parameter Rules strike me as a fascinating stab at systematizing social change with a "lesser of two evils" approach that seems like it would be lots of fun to run. I'm much more familiar with the game's sources of inspiration now.

It wouldn't be anytime soon, but I could see giving Underground another serious go. I'd make an attempt to use the adapted DC Heroes system that powers the game as-written, but if that doesn't work there's always ICONS or FASERIP or similar.

At any rate, I felt sufficiently motivated to cash in some of my Noble Knight store credit to pick up a copy of the rulebook. The cosmic ballet...goes on.

Faith in Savage Rifts

Last week fellow prodigal RIFTS fan Paul V. did whatever the Google Plus equivalent is of a live-tweeting/unboxing of The Tomorrow Legion Player's Guide as he read through the PDF

Paul is new to Savage Worlds, and so had a keen eye for places where the system intersected with the setting in novel ways. One of the things that really caught his attention was the presence of the Arcane Background: Miracles edge and its associated skills and edges (Faith, Adept, Crusader, Holy Warrior).

For those of you less familiar with the world of RIFTS, the inclusion of AB: Miracles is notable because, traditionally, the game never really addressed matters of faith or religion. Certainly there were gods and demi-gods in the setting (hell, they even had whole sourcebooks devoted to them!), but they were always presented as powerful potential foes or allies and very little ink was ever spilled on the topic of the cults or religions that might surround such beings. Out of the dozens and dozens of character classes in the game, only the smallest handful were the equivalent of D&D's "divine" classes.

(Attention RIFTS-heads: I may be way off-base here; I haven't read every single sourcebook out there, not by a long shot.)

Certainly there have been books released that seem to offer a greater focus on the spiritual side of things: Spirit WestMystic Russia, the recent books on the Minion Wars that highlight the dimensions of Hades and Dyval. But, again, these seem to constitute a small amount of information compared to the reams of paper devoted to new gear, monsters, and political entities.

One thing that RIFTS (as far as I know) completely dances around is the state of pre-rifts "Western" religions in the post-rifts world. What became of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam? The books are strangely silent, in spite of the fact that it's established canon that vampires are still repelled by crucifixes. The reason for this is never given, as far as I know.

(Buddhism does get some treatment in RIFTS Japan, and, judging from the sub-titles of the two books, I imagine the RIFTS China volumes touch on Taoism and Confucianism. But, you know, those are "foreign" religions, so it's okay to talk about them, I guess?)

Now let's get back to AB: Miracles. This edge, along with the re-imagined Mystic archetype (now much more explicitly an extension of a Greater Power's will rather than simply an esoteric seeker of knowledge in the Dr. Strange mold), constitutes what is perhaps for the first time in the history of RIFTS a definitive statement on the cosmology of the world: gods and spirits not only exist, but faith in them grants power to the faithful.

Although this might have been an aspect of the setting all along, it is now pushed to the fore and made explicit, which in turn creates some interesting knock-on implications. Although we still don't get any information about the status of organized cults or religions in the world, the existence of capital-F Faith and its beneficiaries would imply that religion must be a powerful force in the world of RIFTS.

Here are some ideas I've had on how to reflect this fact. I'd love to hear more from the readership, if you care to share.

  • Pre-rifts religions probably still exist, but in a much more syncretic fashion. Some have whole-heartedly embraced the new reality of gods and demons, while others cling dogmatically to the old teachings and are every bit as intolerant and human-centric as the Coalition. Lots of room here for interesting post-apocalyptic evolution (the Church of Our Lady of the Sacred Rift) alongside sects that have managed to remain unchanged over the centuries thanks to their strong sense of insular community. The Fallout series' treatment of pre-apocalypse religions would be a good guide here, I think. 
    • (And yes, I realize this is a total minefield and understand why it gets played down in the official books. But hell, Deadlands has Faithful and it's set in a variant of our own 19th century, so there is precedent here for AB: Miracles working for real-world religions.)
    • Greater emphasis would be placed on direct experience with the numinous; priests/rabbis/imams/mullahs gain their station through their ability to demonstrate miracles to their flocks.
    • Perhaps vampires are repelled not by crucifixes but by the Faith of those who wield them? Thus, the crucifix (or any other proffered holy symbol) is merely a "Dumbo's magic feather" for the wielder? This could prove a nasty surprise for anyone without AB: Miracles who tries to repel a vampire with a holy symbol!
  • Speaking of the Fallout series and other such properties, there would of course be plenty of new cults and even whole religions based on resurgent worship of the Old Gods as well as other assorted ultra-powerful beings (dragon cults, cargo cults centered around advanced beings, cults devoted to worshipping a bioroid clone of Elvis, the Splugorth, etc.). Which of these would grant access to Miracles is something I'd largely leave up to players to determine for their own characters and otherwise develop on a case-by-case basis.
  • Interestingly, the core setting's biggest cult is the cult of personality surrounding Emperor Prosek. This leads to an interesting line of thought: does Prosek have a cadre of faithful templars who draw power from his eminence? If this is so, it puts a very interesting gloss on the AB: Miracles edge; since Prosek is not a psychic power beacon or godling or whatever, it would imply that the power of AB: Miracles comes from the faithful, and not the object of worship itself. In effect, it becomes an extremely powerful form of mind over matter. I'll have to think this through some more.
  • Regardless, I also see AB: Miracles as representing access to the spirit world. It's fair to say that the world of RIFTS is a fully animistic world, with spirits inhabiting and personifying trees, rocks, animals, mountains, rivers, etc., etc., in the old shamanistic tradition. A character taking AB: Miracles would have to state at the outset whether their power derived from this spirit world or from their faith in an outside power. This is mostly just a cosmetic trapping, but might have some concrete effects in play.
    • I think it's a reasonable assumption about the setting that the most widely-practiced form of spirituality is shamanic animism. With the great splintering of communication and loss of accumulated knowledge, organized faiths can only project their influence so far, whereas the spirit world is all around at all times, and thus easily accessed, acknowledged, and worshipped.