This is the write-up of the current state of my d&d game for new players. It’s been going since December and the party is now near 5th level. The game’s set in Jack Shear’s Krevborna, a Gothic Horror setting. However, the longer the game’s gone on the more apparent that I can’t do horror well.
A fact you will see if you continue reading.
THE START: THE RED STAR INN
Three strangers sheltering from a storm at the Red Star Inn wake to screams in the night. They are Caladan and Geb, a half-vampire knight and human soldier, and “Bob”, a spy who has had her name and past stolen by a wandering stranger. They discover the innkeeper and his entire family murdered. Who did it? What did it? This was an investigative adventure where all their fellow guests in the inn were suspects. Caladan was out of his element since there was no clear opponent to kill. In the end it turned out to be an intellect devourer jumping from victim to victim. I wrote it up in detail here, but you don’t need to read that.
After defeating the devourer, Caladan, Geb, and “Bob” escorted some of the survivors to the nearby Abbey of Saint Seska in the town of Wakehollow. At the abbey they met Landar, a foundling raised by the church who seemed to be imbued with divine power. News reached the town that a recent storm washed away the side of a hill and exposed the entrance to an ancient tomb. Landar joined the party in their exploration of the tomb, where they encountered the shade of Bjorn the Bonesinger, former minstrel in the court of the ancient Witch King. Geb died in the battle against Bjorn causing Caladan to descend into despair.
Back in town, the party recovered and made friends with a stranger named Bred, a wild magic sorcerer of shockingly cautious disposition. Bred joined the party and accompanied them west to investigate a tower suspected of serving as a base for a group of raiders.
Very quickly it became apparent that the tower was not the raiders base but they were in fact inhabiting a series of nearby caves discovered by “Bob”. However, Landar believed the tower might hold some secrets and wanted to explore it further. Caladan saw this as a distraction and abandoned the group deciding to explore the caves on his own. Inside the tower, Landar, “Bob”, and Bred defeated a host of shades escaped from Hell and encountered a nothic by the name of Gibberstrike. In exchange for secrets, Gibberstrike told them about the Chaos Priest behind the raids and how a secret passage beneath the tower led into the caves. Meanwhile Caladan defeated a bunch of goblins but got taken prisoner when ogre reinforcements arrived.
THE CAVES OF CHAOS
Caladan founds himself locked up with the survivors of a merchant caravan, a deranged gnoll, and a sullen orc named Maulglum. He befriended the orc and together they hatched an escape plan. Meanwhile, Landar, Bob, and Bred must pass through a haunted crypt to reach the secret passage Gibberstrike described. Barely surviving an attack by the crypt’s ghoul inhabitant, they reached the passage and pressed on into the caves. They arrived just in time for Caladan’s prison riot. A huge melee ensued and the party defeated the hobgoblin and bugbear prison guards (as well as the deranged gnoll).
Afterwards came a big information exchange between party members and prisoners. Landar was for using the prison block as a trap to whittle away at the raiders, while Caladan was for going after the Chaos Priest and “completing the mission”. The surviving merchants (including the shifty slave-trading one who assisted in the fighting) decided to return through the secret passage while Maulglum the Orc stayed with Caladan. Bred and “Bob” sided with Caladan and set off to slay the priest. Before leaving one of the merchants told “Bob” about a village a few days west of the tower where everyone is named “Bob”.
The party infiltrated the lair of the chaos priest by disguising themselves as acolytes. They reached the priest’s inner sanctum right in the middle of a ritual to raise a host of undead foot soldiers. Another big melee ensued with Bob and Bred lending spell support and Landar calling upon the power of the saints. The party won the day without casualties and the priest was slain.
THE WELL OF SOULS
Landar had a dream that a great evil lurks beneath the well from which the chaos priest sought to raise his army. In that dream he also glimpsed the shield of Saint Seska buried beneath a pile of bones. After the party rests Landar convinced them to climb down the well and put an end to the great evil lurking there. They agreed and climbed down to discover a bone littered cavern housing a portal to the depths of the abyss. Between the party and the portal were a host of undead and terrifying maggot creatures. The party managed (barely) to win their way onto a series of ledges that traversed much of the cavern and avoided the threats on the floor.
Halfway to the portal they each heard a voice in their head drawing them towards a side passage. Caladan was for exploring the passage but Landar was skeptical. Bred said that if anything the side passage might be more defensible than the ledges, so the party decided to explore it.
Down the passage they found an ancient shrine to the Queen of Shadows built in the era of Witch Kings. It had been profaned by the abyssal powers and the party was soon confronted by the undead occupants now lurking in the shrine. The party managed to defeat them and set about resting. The voice, however, convinced Caladan to perform a ritual, bonding his weapons to a shadow spirit. Landar doubted any good would come of this.
The party reached the portal to the abyss where they saw the shield of St. Seska embedded in a nearby tree made from human bones. They crossed over while no undead were nearby and managed to wrestle the shield free from the tree. This woke the guardian beast hidden within the tree. Battling the demon creature to a stand-off, the party led by Landar managed to retreat back to the cavern with the shield before the portal closed (although Caladan was all for battling on with the beast and “Bob” nearly got trapped on the wrong side as the portal closed).
THE PARTY SPLITS UP
Out of the well the party recovered in the temple. Caladan was for assisting Maulglum in leading the orcs against the rest of the caves’ inhabitants. Bob was for going west to check out this village full of Bobs. And Landar and Bred were for returning to Wakehollow. So the party split up, and this bit was played out via messenger using a very rough version of Legacy: Life Among the Ruins rules, a PBtA game.
Caladan and Maulglum returned to the orc-held caverns and managed to impress the orc leader Strak. The orcs agreed that now that the chaos priest was dead it was time for the orcs to reclaim the caverns. They proclaimed against the hobgoblins and their allies. A series of pitched battles were fought in the canyon with Caladan lending his support to the orcs. The orcs nearly claimed the caves early on, but an ambush of fell beasts forced their lines to crumble and allowed the hobgoblins to claim the upper hand.
In the middle of the night Caladan led a raid upon the strongest of the fell beasts with the aid of a squad of orcs and three barrels of gunpowder. Drawn by all the noise a new battle ensued and Strak and the hobgoblin king managed to confront each other in battle. But at the last moment the orc’s shaman (a hobgoblin in disguise) murdered Strak. Maulglum attacked the shaman and Caladan went to do battle with the hobgoblin king. It was a close one, but in the end Caladan won. However not many orcs survived the war. Caladan set about training the remaining orcs into a fighting legion to be employed in protecting the road.
I should say I’ve made the vampires of the setting something like the Roman empire with the orcs having been a regular part of their armies. That Caladan is half-vampire gave him an in when dealing with them.
THE BOBS OF WALLBURG
Bob traveled west staying in remote villages, earning her keep by telling stories. She eventually reached Wallburg the village of Bobs. There she found a much deserted village save for three inhabitants all named Bob. From them she learned that all the villagers lost their names and identities to a wandering stranger named Bob. Bob learned there are more inhabitants in an old building in town and discovered the rest of the villagers have all melted together into one gibbering mass of eyes and mouths. Turns out if Bob doesn’t get her name back she too will be afflicted by the same gibbering disease. Before the gibbering mouther managed to eat her, Bob’s rescued by an extradimensional frog wizard named Zasgam. They’re after the Bob for stealing Zasgam’s prized gemstone. Zasgam offers to help Bob find Bob if she and her companions will retrieve the gemstone. Bob agrees.
Landar and Bred returned to Wakehollow where they split up because Bred wanted to go to a big city. Landar presented the shield to Mother Disaine at the Abbey and learned that a Witchfinder was in Wakehollow pursuing a heretical outlaw. Landar joined the Witchfinder and his group as they tracked the outlaw to Murkmire, a nearby seaside ruin. They found Murkmire overrun by sahugin and discovered that the outlaw hoped to awaken a great evil submerged off the coast with the help of the sahugin queen. Much bloodshed ensued and only by the Witchfinder’s sacrifice was the outlaw slain. Landar however was shaken. He returned to Wakehollow and decided it best to remain as the town’s protector than wander the roads as an adventurer.
THE QUEEN IN LAVENDER (PART 1)
While on his own Bred wanted all the culture he could get and nothing says culture like the theater!
So he heard about several upcoming plays in nearby cities and decided to see The Exuberance of Pinfolo as performed by Wiswym Nonce & Players in the city of Creedhall. Bred hoped to audition for a part, but unfortunately when he got there he found Wiswym to be drunk and depressed because his actors had all abandoned him. It turned out that two great cosmic events were unfolding in Creedhall at that time and no one gave two shits for the theater.
First, the archfey Queen Maeve was celebrating her procession and her devotees thronged the city with their floats and parades. Second, the star Amalfi was oscillating along the chromaspectral wavelength an event of such celestial import that half the city had become amateur astronomers. Undeterred, Bred managed to convince Wiswym that the show must go on and the two hatched a plan to put on a play so sensational that all of Creedhall would be forced to notice. To this end Wiswym decided to put on a production of the infamous play The Queen in Lavender. And to avoid the play’s habit of driving its actors mad, Wiswym chose to cast inmates from the local asylum for disturbed individuals in most of the parts.
A whirlwind rehearsal ensued, and several dangerous mishaps occur. On opening night Bred started to have second thoughts. Especially after half way into the performance he noticed all the fake stage knives had been replaced with very real sacrificial daggers.
Muttering his battle cry (“One. Two. Three. Fuck it!”) he stepped onto the stage. The show must go on!
THE QUEEN IN LAVENDER (PART 2)
(Around here we got back to playing D&D 5e)
A few days before Bred’s big night, Zasgam the Frog Wizard and Bob dimension doored to the tower where they met Caladan as he trained his orcs. Caladan appointed Maulglum as chief while he was gone and joined Bob and the Frog Wizard. Landar, however, decided to remain in Wakehollow as he believed the town would benefit more by his continued presence. Bob and Caladan bid him well and continue on with Zasgam to Creedhall. As they get closer Zasgam informed them that a cosmic disturbance prevented the Frog Wizard from getting close to the city and Bob and Caladan would need to go on alone.
They managed to reach the city and learned where Bred was, arriving at the stage just at the climactic sacrifice scene unfolded. The sacrifice was a success and a rift opened to where the Queen in Lavender and her star spawn horrors dwelled. Mayhem ensued. Most of the cast was slain or in league with the star spawn horrors and an audience member proved to be an archfey in disguise (Prince Vorash, Lord of Misrule) come to watch the play for the lulz. Caladan and Bob attempted to rescue Bred. Bred attempted to stay alive. Wiswym Nonce got his face eaten and Prince Vorash was so amused he decided to polymorph Caladan into a gorilla. More mayhem ensued, but in the end the star spawn and cultists all died (except one, who escaped giggling and laughing into the night…)
A day later Zasgam was able to enter Creedhall, and asked if the party was ready to retrieve the gemstone. They said yes, and so zimzamallakabam Zasgam transported them to the stone’s current location on the astral plane.
Which is where we will begin next time!
Had the first session of a new D&D campaign. I’m running it with 5e using Jack Shear’s Krevborna setting. Like all good campaigns do, the first session started in an inn…
I pretty much rely on three opening scenarios to bring an adventuring party together: escape from jail, shipwreck, or solve a murder. Here I was using the latter. Having read some on the Gumshoe system I used the simple rule that the players will always find the clue. Their dice rolls will only determine how clear the information they learn is.
So far there’s only three players. There’s the fighter from a (vampiric) family of Lamasthu nobles who had once been the vessel for a demonic power. Another former soldier from Lamasthu who had witnessed his village destroyed. And a bard escaping the criminal underworld of the nearby city Piskaro. In the middle of the night a murder occurred. The innkeeper and his family brutally slain. The culprit? A guest in the inn. The suspects:
- A gambler and his body guard
- A farmer and his son
- A much less likable farmer
- A merchant
- A beggar woman prone to visions
- An old priest and a young acolyte
Most everyone had a secret. The merchant was having an affair with the innkeeper’s wife and had been seen going downstairs in the middle of the night. The unlikable farmer was a lookout for a bandit gang. The beggar woman had the serving girl’s crushed skull in her bag. The young acolyte was actually a woman in disguise on the run from her family. And there was a dead soldier in the barn.
Things happened. Unexpected things.
The gambler and his bodyguard were designed to be a bandit/thug encounter, but the party negotiated with them. Sort of. One of the fighter players came upon the pair robbing the inn’s till and instead of trying to stop them let them go. The other fighter got attacked by the devourer without knowing where it was coming from. And the bard did a decent job playing detective.
The real culprit? An intellect devourer that was using its ability to hop from skull to skull. It made an attack or two against the party without them realizing what was going on except they felt their skulls being crushed. Its goal was to get inside the priest’s skull and leave the inn. But to do that it had to leave a trail of dead bodies behind it. The merchant, the two adult farmers, and the priest all wound up getting taken over by the devourer with the requisite scenes of player character interrogating one of them only to have the suspect’s head suddenly explode as the devourer fled to another occupant.
Combat against the devourer proved rough. One fighter got knocked out and the other failed a fear check and proved less than effective.* In the end the bard’s spells proved more valuable than either fighter in fighting a creature resistant to so many attack types. Now the player’s have agreed to replace the priest as the acolyte’s escort to a nearby abbey in the marsh.
Next game scheduled for Sunday.
* Invariably the player who writes the longest backstory about what a bad ass they are will not roll above a 10 on a D20 for at least 75% of the adventure.
I’ve run a few sessions of Blades in the Dark (BitD) now and am going to outline some of the problems I’ve encountered trying to teach D&D players a new game. Your mileage may vary, but seeing the potholes I’m hitting might clue you in to what pitfalls to expect when leaving behind “the world’s most popular roleplaying game”.
One big problem is that my players don’t have a common language for RPGs like they do for board games.
Now I don’t think Blades is any more difficult to learn than D&D. But when I sit down to play a board game I’ve never played, my pal can employ a language I can quickly understand. She can say, “this uses a dice mechanic or an auction mechanic or a bidding mechanic” and I’ll know a good bit about how to approach the game. RPGs have less of that. And while you can suss out a board game’s mechanics over the course of a game, roleplaying games require more time and personal investment to learn, especially for inexperienced players. Yes, there’s talk about system mechanics (you use a d20, 2d6, prehensile dice), along with the more esoteric talk about Theory you need to be clued into, but when I sit down to play/learn a new RPG the ways those Theory and mechanics operate and mesh together aren’t often readily apparent. And D&D does you no favors here because its system mechanics (getting good at killing stuff) are at odds with what it claims to be about (creating stories).
One thing a friend suggested as a good way to show D&D players the wider range of game mechanics is to use either The Quiet Year or Fiasco to teach other play styles and things like narrative driven mechanics. All so’s to get away from the sword and sorcery style play. That makes sense. Next time around I’ll do that.
On to the problems. . .
Solid Crunch vs. Memory Foam
- An example: ghost punching versus Attunement: It takes a bit to wrap your head around the agency you as a player are given in BitD. In D&D you’re a ghost hunter and get a +5 whenever you punch a ghost. In Blades you’re a Whisper and get a bonus to attunement and have a special link to the ghost field and when you’re like “Cool! What does that mean?” your GM will look at you and say, “Well, you tell me?” Some folks will have their eyes light up here. Other folks will stare blankly at the GM and gulp audibly.
Organic development vs. Mechanic development.
- In Blades advancement triggers arise from play and not from killing monsters.
- No builds. If you’re used to a game having the level of crunch where you can go online and find an optimized build, Blades is not that game. Even outside whether or not it’s easy, being a Cutter that rolls 5D6 take-the-highest skirmish is a lot less satisfying then optimizing a guy to do 10D8+10 damage every time he hits someone with a sword.
- On a side note, I hate builds. Sure if the game’s super crunchy and I don’t want to deal with learning rules I’ll hop online and follow a build if that means I get to play the game comfortably. But simultaneously if I’m in a game where a player builds the best killing machine possible, I will intentionally Nerf my character. “What you’re optimizing your thief to be an elite killing machine using some tactical progression you read on an online forum? Fuck you, my barbarian’s now multiclassing as a wizard.” (This raises the question of whether I’m the problem. I can be a shit person at times.) But I hold by the notion that RPG characters should grow organically through play and not be optimized like the Terminator. I also recognize that this very optimization might be someone else’s jam, so I don’t know. Hopefully we get along, because otherwise maybe the best thing would be that we never play games together.
- Players looking around for the boss monster.
- This is likely more about my own bad habits when it comes to adventure design and trying to get out of the habit of encounter-based adventures and more towards heists, but there needs to be a comparable change in player mind-set. If D&D fosters one kind of play style and gives you the tools to play that way, you might see all games as having the same style.
- The heist mindset as opposed to the party exploring mindset. An example: The score is to break into the soul vault beneath the temple of the Empty Vessel and destroy the soul of a cruel factory boss. You hear the high priest has a fondness for blood sports. So PC 1 sets up as a fight promoter causing a distraction, while PC2, a sniper, finds a spot on a nearby rooftop, while PC3, the whisper, breaks into the vault. Except the Whisper PC played D&D and knows you never split the party and go off alone, so he sticks to PC1 and sits at the table checking his phone while the decoy fight goes on instead of being a daring scoundrel.
Hit points and Healing
- Hitpoints vs. Harm-Armor-Resistance-Stress asset management. Hit points are straightforward. You have 30 hit points. It’s right there on your character sheet. The orc hit you with an arrow. It did 5 points of damage. You now have 25 hit points. When you reach 0 hit points you are dead/unconscious. This is simple. BitD does this instead: Harm-Resistance-Armor-Stress-Asset Management. You’re stabbed through the lung and take 3 Harm. Your armor can reduce that to 2 harm, cracked ribs, but you can reduce that to 1 harm, bloodied, by rolling your prowess and taking stress, which from the looks of it might mean you end up traumatized. GM says “What do you want to do?” Player says, “ Can’t I just take 5 hit points damage?”
- I like Blades’s healing mechanics. The rolls and the de-stress mechanics, they add to the gritty, grinding feeling the setting is designed to create, but also it feels gritty and grinding, and if your players aren’t ready for that they’re not going to be happy. Especially if they’re used to short-rest/long-rest, have a healing spell/potion, start the next adventure at max HP. This means their initial reaction to Blades’s healing mechanic is not going to be a favorable one.
The Crew Game in a reactive setting
- My players are having a hard time wrapping their head around the crew game and how that puts them in the setting. No one’s really excited about it. Partially my fault, I suggested they play as vigilantes and everyone agreed to that without having much knowledge of what that meant. But overall the crew game is viewed as an accounting chore and not as a way to generate story momentum.
- With 5e the setting dial is very loose. How much the Forgotten Realms reacts to the characters can be dialed way down or way up without too much change to at table play. If players are used to a game style where they can stomp around a make believe land without too much push back or even organic impact, then the whole faction game is going to be alien.
- So when the setting reacts to players in ways that should be obvious to them, and the players aren’t aware of or picking up on how they could shore against those setting reactions, it can start to look like the setting is out to get the players. If your players aren’t picking up on how reactive Duskwall is to their actions, and how they can be impacting other factions, Blades gives the impression of being out to get the PCs. This is part of its design and why I like it, but my players aren’t used to such a reactive setting and I think this leads to paralysis on their part. “We can’t do anything without pissing off somebody and I’m uncomfortable taking risks.”
- Solution: have the players make characters but hold off crew creation until after a few sessions. For players unfamiliar with how the game operates the crew level game might be the advanced game or the goal of the entire first season. At least give the inexperienced player time to get their feet under themselves. I definitely think the Crew game is 3rd level, expert blue book kind of stuff. Once the players get a feel for the setting, they’ll be in a better space to start an enterprise.
A last point about buy-ins and touchstones
- Your friends will lie to you. You’ll say, “It’s like Penny Dreadful meets Watchmen.” And they’ll say, “Cool.” But when you get to the table and two adventures in it’s not that they’ve never watched Penny Dreadful or read Watchmen. It’s that their default game style is Teen Titans Go! And they’re not going to change that. This is fine, I guess. My player pool is not deep. The other option is that we don’t play a game.
- But what do you do? The players said they’re into what the game’s about, but two three sessions in you can see they’re not really onboard. Part of that is my fault. I could’ve done a better job in the early adventures showcasing the series from the start. I tried, but feel like I failed.
- Also a bit about theme songs… no matter what ambient acoustic ethereal blues crunk you say your game’s theme song is, when you sit down you have to work hard to prevent your theme song from becoming Yakety Sax.
Adventure the Fourth: Saint Atsun’s Day
Boulder the Templar’s order needed him to escort the remains of Saint Atsun from the city docks to the small chapter house the order maintained elsewhere in the city, a task not only complicated by the threat of evil apostate knight, Sir Osric, but by the fact that getting a wagon across town can be a chore on the best of days.
Characters included Oscar Gordon, Wilson, Ahthera, Micah, Boulder, Geth (one of the Rogue/Mage playbooks – the Dilettante?), and Haragrin (a Young Warlord).
I always wanted to run the old Slayers of Lankhmar module (actually more its sequel Avengers in Lankhmar) and this was my riff on that. Also I really like the Road Warrior. I handed the players the city map, showed them where the docks were and where they had to go, and sat back. For each district in between I had a series of timed encounters. There was a whole bunch of possible events: a cult parade, a naval press gang looking to abduct crew, a belligerent band of barbarians searching for a lost companion (he’d been press ganged), a cursed pilgrim, and a belligerent drunk of a wizard named the Dread Mancuzo. Depending on time of day and which streets the players went down determined what they encountered.
The party avoided most of the above save for one trap by Sir Osric’s goons (Micah hopped on the horses when they bolted, removing his shirt in case any ladies might be watching), a pie eating contest (Wilson’s wendigo side manifested here when he won the contest, swallowed the contents of a garbage pail, and tried to eat one of the other pie-eating contestants), and the Dread Mancuzo who they found in a partially ruined tavern harassing a serving girl. He started to drunkenly lob fireballs about. Oscar knocked him out and Ahtera managed a well-placed kick to his nuts. Oscar then hired the harassed serving girl to help out around their headquarters.
Of course Osric was waiting for them at the chapter house where there was a big showdown. No one died although Oscar took an arrow that put him out of the fight, and Mancuzo would return in the next adventure.
Oscar and crew fought a ghost, bought a house, and set up shop as monster-therapists.
Adventure the Second: Tooth Soup
Oscar Gordon, Boulder, Ahtera, and Micah (now Micah) investigate the horrible deaths at a local bathhouse. They discover a secret passageway into the city sewers and learn the bad way that the tunnels serve as the lair for some magic-warped monstrosity. This adventure was a way to point towards the undercity as a potential area for dungeon-delving. The party encountered hints to other things such as a Midian-like community in the sewers, but never followed up on it. There was lots of running around, slipping into dank water, and jokes about poo gas. The monster was basically the creature from The Host. No one died.
Adventure the Third: The Mold Dwarf’s Due
An Elfin prince exiled to the city hired Oscar Gordon to rescue his mortal child from the evil Volod Brothers, a trio of mold dwarfs. The Volod’s have plans on selling the child once they return to the Twilight Realm, and some ancient truce prevented the prince from openly stopping the dwarfs. The party consisted of Oscar Gordon, Boulder, Micah, Ahtera, Wilson, and Nibless (Nibbler?).
First the party had to enter the fairy realm via a portal in the city park (Micah got charmed by a dryad and had sex with a tree, when he wouldn’t leave the tree Boulder punched him out), then they had to traverse a corner of the Twilight Realm (Wilson the Village Hero ate some cursed food and unbeknownst to him slowly began to transform into a wendigo over the next few adventures). Finally they caught up with the Volod Brothers and their thrall-borne carriage. The kid was rescued but the Volod Brothers survived, and Nibless, got killed in the fight. I only remember this because the guy that played Nibless was two for three with his character fatalities.
Also this was the adventure where the Beyond the Wall playbooks became tragic like an After School Special. Not that this was a bad thing.
Nibless and Wilson had the backstory of being childhood friends that had a small village adventure and now have come to the big city together. And what happens on their first adventure: Wilson gets cursed, and Nibbless killed (although I think his fate was even worse than that. He was incapacitated in the fight with the Volods, but had stabilized at 0 HP. Unfortunately he was too far away to be rescued when the rest of the party ran, so… it’s best not to think of his fate, left for dead and abandoned by his best friend in the Twilight World.)
The bibliography in the back of the Numenera core rule book is pretty decent, but like most book lists, it could always use some expansion. Gene Wolfe, Michael Moorcock, and Jack Vance are only one way to look at the future a billion years from now. Here are seven more books to inspire your Numenera campaigns.
Dancing With Bears by Michael Swanwick: Darger and Surplus are a pair of conmen traveling across a “post-utopian” future. Here they are escorting gifts from the Caliph of Baghdad to the Duke of Muscovy. One is a young man. The other is a mutant dog. Sorta steampunk. Sorta cyberpunk. Picaresque through and through.
Celebrant by Michael Cisco: DeKlend is trying to reach the city of Votu where time runs backwards and gangs of pigeon girls battle rabbit girls in the streets. Not an adventure novel, so much as a travelogue to an utterly strange land populated by organic machines and the strange societies that worship them.
The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin: Mixes the personal with the epic as Essun hunts her murderous husband across a landscape torn apart by cataclysmic forces. This is a world dotted with the ruins of countless previous civilizations, all of which have been destroyed by their own cataclysms to make a landscape alternately elegant, strange, and brutal.
Fain the Sorcerer by Steven Aylett: Fain’s your Cugel-esque rogue caught up in adventures, except Aylett’s imagination is weirder and stranger. You can open this short book to any page and encounter some wonderful insanity you’ll want to steal: “Fain walked among trees which bore fruit like resinous organic gems, until he reached a chasm of steam… the Bridgekeeper had an espaliered head, a bone lattice through which veins and tendons were woven like vines.”
A Double Shadow by Frederick Turner: the book with the lowest rating on Goodreads of all those listed here, it seems to generate the most ire against it, but I love it. A disgruntled terraformer on a future Mars writes a novel about an even further future Mars lampooning the vanities and psychosis of his current co-workers. The resultant novel depicts a society centered on a status economy and the status war that breaks out between the scions of two noble houses (the “top cocks”) when one insults the other.
Memory by Linda Nagata: Your teen on a quest to save a loved one through an alien landscape novel. Jubilee’s world is threatened by clouds of “silver” that alter the landscape and consume those unfortunate to be caught in it. When a stranger steps out from the silver searching for Jubilee’s missing brother, she sets out to find him and solve the mystery of her world.
Gilgamesh translated by Stephen Mitchell: As someone once said the remote past would be as strange to us as the far future. Or, as someone else once said, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” Gilgamesh is one of the oldest texts we have, and this translation by Stephen Mitchell is a great one that makes it read like it could sit side by side with Jack Kirby illustrations. The other great thing about Gilgamesh is it’s really short. The book on tape is only two hours long. Give it a listen here on youtube.
And feel free to add your own bits of far future weirdness in the comments.
The last SWN post I did was adventure 004. We got in another month or so of sessions before stopping. Here’s how it ended:
The crew’s managed to befriend a group of mutant space gypsies that wander the local systems walking a tightrope between the two rival powers: a mad cult that appears to worship one of Rana Bai’s ancestors and a cyborg army that worships an unbraked AI.
Here’s how they got there:
The crew opened the box, got the coordinates to get them across the nebula, jumped, and found themselves in an unknown star system with most of their onboard systems fried and requiring immediate emergency repairs. Meanwhile they watched and snooped on the few ships in the system. One was a military patrol boat, but it failed to notice the party. After a few days they managed to enter the orbit of the gas giant where the derelict Wild Card waited.
They made a number of forays onto the ship looting pretech treasures, fighting an “insane” crystalline repair nano and some decidedly toxic flesh monsters, and contracting a disease or two. They knew they weren’t the only ones on board, but didn’t really want to make contact with whomever else was around. Instead they stuck to exploring the massive ship’s engineering and navigation decks, where on their last run they came upon a group of mutant human fugitives.
These folks wanted off ship and managed to explain some of the political situation in the system. At least their version of it… the crew agreed to help and let the prisoners board the Far Drifter (although there might have been some fracas regarding whether or not they could stay armed) before high-tailing it out of the system ahead of another military patrol boat.
And that’s when boardgames took over game nights…
Healed up, regeared, and after getting a brief earful of archaeological palaver from the local expert, they left Logodav station and made for the asteroid. Inside they found the sky tomb in much better condition than the previous one they explored. For one thing, no pirates had drawn dicks all over everything.
The party set about exploring, Zhukov in the lead, Felipe and Jonah in the middle, Rana Bai bringing up the rear. They quickly encountered a strange garden of flowering (and edible) plants, large organic insectile pods at odds with the interior construction, and bas-reliefs sculptures depicting the tree-aliens, the Ushan, worshiping the sun.
They encountered a group of large scarab-wasp-like aliens. Felipe attempted to communicate with them by using an Ushan greeting, but only succeeded in provoking an attack. The firefight ended. The party was victorious. Explorations continued. Rana Bai cautioned the party against tampering with anything in the tomb since it might be an environmental control. They found some more wasp-beetles, and Zhukov thought he had the drop on them. But all he ended up having the drop on was his fumbled grenade. The wasp-scarabs retaliated while the party was confused and did some damage before getting wiped out.
The party rested and discovered several dead wasp-scarabs lying on platforms. They also found the scarab hatchery when they opened a door and had a rain of live baby scarab-wasps fall on them. The room inside contained four casket-like structures. The first two contained recently dead Ushan, their bodies hollowed out. The other two contained live Ushans.
Both of them were in debilitated conditions and terrified of the party. However, Rana Bai was able to forge a psychic connection with them and communicate. She learned that the wasp-scarabs used the Ushan as a food source and hosts for their offspring. Even now other Ushan were alive in the tomb and locked in conflict with the Chittick, the wasp-scarab aliens. The Ushan wished to go back to their fellows and the party escorted them there without incident. The party communicated with these new Ushan, learned where the Chittick were holed up, and said they’d help the Ushan get revenge. But first they wanted to check out this room the Ushan seemed to be in awe of.
This turned out to be a meditation chamber constructed by an ancient Ushan high priest where he went to atone for his failure to save his people. The room was guarded by a large chittick that knocked out Jonah and Felipe before getting splattered by a shotgun. Deeper in the chambers amid strange holographic projections the party discovered the Sun Tower, a powerful Ushan artifact.
After a bit more exploring (and resting to at least get Felipe back up on his feet – no one could repair Jonah and the Ushan carried him for the rest of the adventure) they reached the main chittick nest for the boss battle. Felipe was knocked out, Zhukov managed to remember the correct way to throw a grenade, and even one of the Ushan managed to get some payback for a millennia of enslavement. At which time we were all tired and decided it was time to go home.
So the party returned to the space station, not much richer, but having to settle for single-handedly rediscovering a lost race of aliens and freeing them from enslavement. Before finishing, one of the Ushan (the psychic one) approached Rana Bai with a message.
“Your sister waits for you,” he said. “Beware the Still Lady.”
None of which made any sense to anyone.
Here’s the write-up from last Monday night’s SWN game.
First off was a reminder that when players own a spacecraft someone needs to play the clerk and keep the spreadsheet. It had been two weeks since our last game, so it was a bit hard figuring who owed who money from the scribbled notes on the back of the captain’s character sheet.
Done with that, the game began with the party receiving a message from the secretive Overwatch organization. Overwatch is a bit like Anonymous with spaceships. They’re paranoid security specialists and encryption nuts. They built the box the treasure map’s in, and one option was to have them open it instead of tracking down Ace’s friend Lootman, the owner who’s on some hell-world and may or may not be alive.
The party had been trying to contact Overwatch for a few sessions, but had no luck until now. Overwatch contacted them and set up a meeting.
On an abandoned spaceship.
In an irradiated system.
The party flew out, and Overwatch wanted Captain Bai to cross to the derelict ship. She said she wouldn’t go without Zhukov. Overwatch agreed. The two crossed over and boarded the ship. Felipe ran a scan and saw that the ship was rigged to explode. He told this to Captain Bai, and she and Zhukov fled back to the Far Drifter with only minor incident. Overwatch contacted them again and asked what the problem was. Bai said, like hell was she going to board a ship rigged to explode. Overwatch replied it was just a security measure. Bai consulted with the crew and ultimately decided to cross over alone. She boarded the ship, went to the cockpit, and began negotiations with Overwatch.
Turned out that Overwatch was interested in finding the Wild Card and wanted to partner with the party. They agreed to open the box for a fee and to enter a partnership with the party. There was some negotiation as to what this partnership might entail, and in the end it was decided that an Overwatch representative would accompany the party and make an appraisal of any relics found. This rep would meet the party the following standard day on Logodav Station.
The party returned to Logodav and met with their former passenger, Kameron Litvak. She’d been talking with station security and had a hunch her sister was being held captive at a pirate base in the system. The crew agreed to help her and said they’d go to the pirate base after the Overwatch rep arrived. The next day a small packet boat arrived at Logodav carrying Jonah Gnosis, an AI.
Happy to be working together, the crew boarded the Far Drifter and went to talk to the pirates, posing as smugglers. The pirates agreed to negotiation. The crew landed at their base and were told they could board, but couldn’t wear armor or weapons. Everyone hid a small weapon on their person, but the armor they left behind. They entered the base and quickly met up with a group of pirates who wanted to know what they had to trade. Captain Bai let them sample the space heroin. (The pirates brought out a captive “entertainer” and used her as a test subject.) Pleased with the results the pirates agreed to the deal. But when asked what they wanted in payment, the crew asked for the prisoner – but the pirates refused, which prompted mayhem from Zhukov.
Weapons were drawn. People were shot. Some of them even pirates.
Captain Bai and Felipe were wounded pretty early and went back to the ship once the pirates were done. Zhukhov and everyone else pressed forward, kicking down doors.
More people were shot.
By now Felipe and the Captain had armored up and returned to the hideout. Zhukov was just subduing the pirate chief when they got to him. They then dragged the captain to the prisoners. Where the captain managed to escape and lock himself in with the prisoners. He then began negotiating through the locked door, but when things went south he opted for trying to kill Kameron’s sister. The party managed to bust in and kill him and get a Lazarus patch on the sister. They then killed the last pirates (who had surrendered) and looted the place before boarding the Far Drifter, voiding the hideout’s atmosphere, and flying back to Logodav with the rescued captives.
So now, they have the box open and the jump map to the Wild Card. They have some loot (but never enough). They could set out next adventure for the Card or they could do some tomb raiding in system or take on another cargo and make some money doing some more of that space trucking. The choice is theirs.
All I ask is that they give me some clue beforehand.
AKA “This time let’s make sure we check the hold for killbots!”
900 words of actual play report incoming! If reading that sounds awful, run away now!
As promised/threatened here’s a play report from our most recent Stars Without Number game. The main party consists of Captain Rana Bai, psychic explorer searching for her family’s lost fortune, ex-commando Estevan Zhukov, sleazy pilot Felipe Mazin, and Ace Stanton, a conman who’s promised to bring the party to a lost ship full of treasure.
The adventure before this one saw the crew taking on a payroll delivery job, getting into a dog-fight with a pirate ship, getting high-jacked by pirates, and defeating said pirates at the expense of two of their crew’s lives. After that the party cruised into Highline Station and was promptly paid money, which they promptly turned around and paid back to the company that hired them in the form of having the heavily damaged Far Drifter repaired.
Phillip Maeda took this moment to announce his retirement. Yup, space was proving too dangerous for him and he figured he’d rather find a steady job piloting orbital tugs. So down a pilot, the party sat around the station’s shitty spacer bar where Ace bumped into an old buddy, Felipe, who happened to be a pilot. He quickly joined the crew, especially once he heard talk about the lost treasure ship, the Wild Card.
A day later with the Far Drifter repaired, they flew back to New Omsk where they picked up cargo, and Estevan found a message from his former employers at Silverlight Enterprises waiting for him. It told him to be at a dingy bar at a certain time. He set out with Felipe while Captain Bai stayed behind to go over possible routes and cargoes.
Of course, it was an ambush. Of course, people got knifed in the face. Surprisingly none of them were Felipe or Estevan.
After they were done taking care of the Silverlight goon squad, a stranger approached them wanting passage off planet. She was willing to pay and said she had some skill as an astronautic tech. Estevan said it was up to the Captain, and they brought the woman, Kameron Litvak, back with them.
By now Captain Bai had got a line on enough cargo to fill the hold. Computer parts and data cells for Davenbando Station, nutribars and 20 tons of boxed up pigs destined for Logadav Station. She’d also turned down a xenoarcheologist passenger (which surprised me but was likely for the best as he probably would have gotten the party killed in a treasure-hunting mission) in favor of an old doctor and Kameron.
Loaded up and ready to go they left New Omsk and had no problem making their first jump. Unfortunately the pigs didn’t react well to intergalactic travel and several of them quickly became ill. There was some quick debate over what might be causing it, and since they had a doctor (or two if they counted Captain Bai) onboard they decided to operate and see what was wrong with the pigs.
Doctor Soledad cut open a pig and discovered that it had space heroin hidden inside. Most of the other pigs had similar cargoes. The crew did what they could to keep the pigs alive, but they also kept a pack of space heroin.
The only other incident came when they exited jump and intercepted a distress signal from a hijacked shuttle. The decision to ignore the call proved non-difficult. They jumped again and found themselves in the Davenbando system. They encountered a police cruiser, made no resistance despite the drugs onboard, and were sent on their merry way to the station, where they refueled, sold off their cargo, and said goodbye to the Doctor. They then took in a museum/amusement park set up to emulate the quarantined world below that once housed a now extinct race of intelligent one-eyed miniature tyrannosaurus rexes. Captain Bai proclaimed the park the highlight of the trip.
Unfortunately, after doing a bit more book-keeping it was pretty clear that the party had made very little money on the run once they discounted for expenses. Fortunately there was a cargo waiting to go to Logadav Station, and the crew quickly loaded it up. Not wanting to take any chances Captain Bai had Felipe attempt to shear their travel time by doing some course trimming. While not without some risks, Felipe proved more than capable to the task and succeeded. The party reached Logadav without incident. Except for the fact that nearly half the pigs were dead and all of them (except one) had space heroin inside. They decided to rendezvous with the buyer as quickly as possible, which they managed to pull off without incident.
Now they’re on Logadav Station, a mining colony less than a century old, and suddenly famous on account of the fact that the ruined tombs secreted within asteroids throughout the system. Captain Bai has her hopes on doing some treasure-hunting, while Kameron Litvak, the passenger they brought out here, asked for the crew’s help in finding her sister who disappeared several months ago while visiting the system.
Also Logadav is only two (uncharted) jumps away from Valcuba the world where Ace says his ex-partner Lootman is, and he’s needed to open the box that has the map to the lost treasure ship inside.
Unfortunately, those are two uncharted jump routes, and Valcuba is a notorious death world.
The party’s other option for opening the box is tracking down the box’s manufacturer, a mysterious group of paranoid security operatives known simply as the Overwatch Pact. So far they’ve had no luck finding leads.
* And yes, I’m doing the whole art for XP thing again. The vomit from the pig on that one is quite good.
** And yes, I went full space trucker with box pigs and everything.