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"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."


THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Monday, August 1, 2016

HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD: A REVIEW OF THE SCRIPT

LEAVE IT TO J.K. ROWLING to come up with the only thing worse than being an orphan fated to confront the most terrible dark wizard of all time...being the son of the man who saved the world from Voldemort.

Albus Potter is not the wizard wunderkind his father was.  He is not terribly good at spells, he is lousy at Quidditch, and he is the only Potter sorted into Slytherin rather than Gryffindor.  From his first day at Hogwart's forward, everyone is clucking their tongues about how disappointing he must be to his father.  Even his cousin Rose--Hermione and Ron's daughter--turns her back on her childhood friend.  The only companion he has is another "cursed child," Scorpius Malfoy, the son of Harry's old rival Draco.  Scorpius has his own baggage, not the least of which are dark whispers that his father was really Lord Voldemort.  These two social outcasts from the teen wizarding world form a bond, and a wild plan, to right certain wrongs and redeem themselves in the eyes of their families and peers.   



I will not be spoiling the plot here, but Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was not at all what I expected.  Then again, maybe it was.  It is trademark J.K. Rowling in the way it uses the utterly fantastic to showcase real human feelings of frustration and pain, to shine a spotlight on the uncertainties of adolescence in the middle of a wild adventure tale.  At the same time, it seems even more grounded in reality than the seven novel saga that spawned it.  Yes, there are still puzzles to solve and spells to cast, but instead of the classic Arthurian myth of the boy hero raised in obscurity and destined to save the kingdom, we have two boys who want nothing more than to be accepted.  And Harry, now a middle-aged father, has never seemed less magical.  True, he is the Boy Who Lived, but he is now the Man Who Grew Up Without a Father and Has No Idea How to be One Himself.  He tries very hard but fumbles, at one point shockingly, setting the entire plot in motion.  

John Tiffany and Jack Thorne's script (based on a story by Rowling) brings back many of the characters from the novels, now all grown up.  Hermione Granger (who kept her maiden name when she married Ron) is the Minister of Magic and Harry's boss (he's the Head of Magical Law Enforcement).  They have problems of their own.  Defeating Voldemort did not necessarily mean an end to the Death Eaters.  In a way these two characters seem scarred by their childhoods, still obsessed with the only thing they seem to know how to do (fight Voldemort).  Ron seems to have escaped, inheriting Weasley's Wizard Wheezes and making a living producing novelty magical items, but there seems something sad even about this.  The story doesn't romanticise; amazing kids have grown up to be fairly normal adults.  Even old Draco seems powerless and diminished, unable to save his beloved wife from terminal illness.  Their pasts and obsessions inevitably haunt and complicate the lives of their children, leading to a tale in which Harry's latest case entangles Albus and Scorpius up in it.

This is about all I can really say.  The reader needs to be prepared for the fact that this is a play script, a collection of dialogue and stage directions.  It doesn't read or unfold the way the novels do.  The reader also needs to be prepared for what is the most adult Harry Potter fable.  Just as the books grew up with their protagonist, from the "aw shucks" wonder of Philosopher's Stone to the grim angsty confrontation with life and death in Deadly Hallows, Cursed Child is about middle age, about being caught between your own childhood and the childhood you have given your offspring.  It's heart-tugging, uplifting, and occasionally disappointing, just like you expect parenthood and adulthood to be.  

Three out of Five stars. 


Sunday, July 31, 2016

GODZILLA RESURGENCE (SHIN GODZILLA) : A REVIEW

IT'S EASY TO FORGET, after decades of rubber-suited wrestling matches and plucky Japanese kids, that the original 1954 film Godzilla was a horror movie.  Most of you have likely never seen it.  Ishirō Honda's tale about a gigantic, radioactive monster that emerges from the deep to terrorise a nation is an exorcism. Just nine years after the end of the Second World War, Japan was still traumatised not only by the tens of thousands killed by the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but by the hundreds of thousands killed by the carpet bombing of its cities.  This was a country that had seen a staggering number of men, women and children burned alive, blasted to pieces, and crushed under rubble. A titanic, unstoppable monster with radioactive breath was the war personified, the collective echo of a million terrible memories.  It's a frightening movie, and a melancholy one.

The one that some of you probably do remember is the 1956 Godzilla! King of Monsters.  This was Honda's film severely edited, with all the social, nuclear, and anti-war elements carefully removed and English speaking Japanese Americans and Raymond Burr added in.  All the horror of the original was gone from this American-friendly adaptation; it wouldn't do, after all, to try and sell those "horror of war" bits to the very country that had bombed you.  A commercial success, this is the film that kicked off the "dumbing down" of Godzilla.  Soon there would be a crowd-pleasing match up against King Kong, followed by a long series of marauding kaiju, or giant monsters.  But throughout these Godzilla got cuter and cuter, dancing his little victory jig after saving Japan from the bad guy beasties, while adoring school kids cheered and yelled out his name.  This feel-good Godzilla wasn't just an international crowd pleaser, it was a proud Japanese export in an era where the country was known largely for cheap toys and transistor radios.  Godzilla became a kind of symbol of the rising Japan to the post-War baby boomer generation.

This isn't to say that there haven't been attempts to bring real terror back to the Godzilla franchise, or that some of the films didn't manage to sneak in social issues and concerns.  Yet the recent 2014 American Godzilla is pretty typical of what the films have become.  There is more action and thrills than pathos or terror.

シンゴジラ, or Shin Godzilla (plans to call the English release Godzilla Resurgence have apparently been scrapped by Toho and it will be released under the Anglicised spelling of its Japanese name) is the first Japanese Godzilla movie in twelve years, and a fresh reboot of the series.  The story bears no relation to the 2014 Hollywood version, or any of the Japanese versions before.  Writer-Director Hideaki Anno's film (co-directed with Shinji Higuchi) is a break with all the others, and the spiritual ancestor of the original Honda movie.  It is not a kids movie.  It's not a feel good movie.  There is more political drama than guys in rubber suits knocking down fake buildings.  It is a shockingly realistic film (half the time it looks like a documentary) that seems to ask one very compelling question...what the hell would really happen if a giant monster came shambling up out of the sea?

Like Honda's movie, there is a lot of collective soul searching, conscience wrestling, and trauma facing.  The film comes just five years after the historic earthquake and devastating tsunami that left more than ten thousand dead and a city irradiated.  It comes at a time when neighbouring China is flexing its military muscle right on Japan's doorstep.  It comes in the midst of an American election when one of the Presidential candidates seems ambivalent about looking out for his allies, and Japan fears having to go it alone.  And yes, it comes when the conservative leaning Japanese government is starting to think its long-standing "pacifist Constitution" needs amending.  All of this uncertainty, this fear, feeds into Shin Godzilla, making it a much deeper and richer film.

The plot is simple.  The sudden devastating collapse of the Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line, a bridge and tunnel allowing traffic to cross the bay, leaves the government scrambling to figure out if this was a terrorist attack or a natural disaster.  Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi (played with steely certainty by Hiroki Hasegawa) has reason to believe it might actually have been caused by a giant creature.  No one believes this idea, of course, until a monstrous tail emerges from the waters of the bay, and later, the creature comes ashore.

One of the most frightening Godzillas ever

I say "creature" because this is not your father's Godzilla.  Drawing on the elements of alien body horror he fuelled his Evangelion series with, director Anno gives us a Godzilla that is a sort of colony organism, a sickening fusion of multiple forms of life bred in the polluted and irradiated depths of the Pacific.  The monster is constantly mutating.  He emerges first as a slithering, limbless horror and gradually, over the course of the film, evolves into something more similar to the Godzilla we know.  But this is not our irradiated dinosaur.  It is a hideous mess of rippling tendrils, ragged teeth, and even the suggestion of little eyes, mouths, and fused spines in the tip of its tail.  As it rampages, it keeps growing and adapting.

Note the tip of the monster's tail

Like Spielberg's Jaws, however, Godzilla actually has surprisingly little screen time in the film.  As with Jaws, Shin Godzilla is far more concerned with the repercussions a disaster like this might have and the way people might respond to it.  The beginning is a long political debate over the use of force, with politicians going head to head over it.  After the Japanese Defense Force fails against the creature, there is mounting pressure from the international community--and especially Japan's neighbours, who worry once this thing is done tearing up Japan they might be next on the menu.  What would happen if Beijing, fearing Godzilla might head its way, might decide a pre-emptive nuclear strike on Tokyo was in order?  These fears are intensified as the nature of the monster becomes clear, and the possibility that just blasting pieces of it off might cause them to grow into separate Godzillas.  All this leads to a long subplot with the Americans, who eventually arm twist the beleaguered Prime Minister into agreeing to a city wide evacuation of Tokyo so that a nuclear weapon can be dropped on it, and Japan--which is strongly against such a strike, races against time to find a solution before it comes to that.

I won't give away the ending, but it should be clear by now this is unlike most of the other Godzilla films before it.  That is a good thing.  It is not a flawless movie--Satomi Ishihara's character, "Kayoko Ann Patterson" who is the American President's special envoy, has some cringe-worthy moments when she tries to play her image of what a brassy American girl should be like--but it is probably the best Godzilla movie since Honda's.  It's effects, a mixture of CGI and traditional Japanese model making and guys in rubber suits, are excellent and have the feel of an authentic Godzilla film. Shirō Sagisu's score is excellent, and incorporates several notes from the original 1954 movie.  All in all this is the right blend of contemporary drama and nostalgia, a surprisingly adult and profound giant monster flick.

We give it four out of five stars.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

CYPHER SYSTEM SUPERHEROES: KRYPTONIANS

SUPERHEROES, and especially a character on the level of Superman, are a tall order for any system to replicate.  The following was a bit of test run, seeing how well the Cypher System could handle the Man of Steel.  This version is a bit closer to the New 52 Superman, especially in earlier issues, where he can still be injured and is often battered and bruised.  It also tips its hat to Clark from Smallville.  

Obviously, the Superman we all know would be a Sixth Tier character, with access to all the following powers.  He would have concentrated on Might and Speed, building large pools and three or four points of Edge in each.  I also assumed he bought additional Power Shifts, giving him 5 in Strength and Resilience each (see below).  Rather than present his full stats (I saw him as a Tier 6 Mild-Mannered Reporter Who Hails From Krypton) I have decided to post just his Focus.  It might be useful for players who want a young Kryptonian slowly growing into his powers.

The Tier abilities are drawn from various other Foci around the core rulebook (X-Ray vision from Sees Beyond, Heat vision from Blazes With Radiance, and even Teleportation from the Magic Flavor tweaked into Supersonic flight.  


HAILS FROM KRYPTON

While race is usually best handled as a Descriptor, as the source of all of their powers and what makes them unique, Kryptonians take their race as a Focus. Survivors of the doomed world of Krypton, Kryptonians outwardly appear to be human but are immensely more powerful. Their cells absorb and metabolize solar energy from yellow stars like Earth's sun, giving them powers they wouldn't possess under Krypton's red supergiant, Rao. This, combined with their incredible molecular density, is the source of their abilities on Earth.

Kryptonians apply their 5 Power Shifts (p. 270) to Might-based Strength (3 Shifts) and Resilience (2 Shifts) rolls, giving them base attack damage of 9 and 2 points of natural armor. Additional Shifts can be purchased for either category at a cost of 10 XP each, adding +3 damage or +1 Armor. The presence of the radioactive mineral Kryptonite cancels out these Power Shifts so long as the Kryptonian remains in short distance of it. In addition, being in immediate distance to Kryptonite causes the character to take 5 points of damage per round, first from Might, then from Speed and Intellect.

CONNECTION

1. Pick one PC who knows your secret and believes that you have been sent to the Earth with a great purpose, such as providing an example to the rest of humanity with your actions and deeds. Not living up to these expectations can be greatly disappointing to that character.

2. Pick one PC who suspects your alien origin and is suspicious of you, seeing you as a possible threat to humanity or the scout of an invasion force.

3. Pick one PC that you would do anything to protect, and who you will race to the side of whenever they are in danger or need.

Minor Effect Suggestion: Your amazing actions inspire your allies around you, giving them all a +2 to die rolls the next round.

Major Effect Suggestion: You do something so amazing that bystanders and your opponents are stunned, doing nothing but gaping in awe. If you don't already have it, this gives you and your allies the initiative the next round.

TIER ONE
Man of Steel: In addition to making Might Defense rolls against toxins, diseases, and environmental damage, the Kryptonian can also use his Might in place of a Speed Defense against physical attacks. In effect, instead of dodging an attack, the Kryptonian lets it hit and just shrugs it off. Note that his or her Power Shifts affect the roll. Enabler.
   Rapid Recovery: Your ten-minute recovery roll takes one action instead, so that your first two recovery rolls take one action, the third takes one hour, and the fourth takes ten hours. Enabler.

TIER TWO
X-Ray Vision (3 Intellect Points): The Kryptonian can see through matter as if it were transparent. You can see through up to 6 inches (15 cm) of material for one round, although some materials might be harder to see through than others, and lead blocks this power completely. Action.

TIER THREE
Heat Vision (3 Intellect Points): As an Intellect action, the Kryptonian shoots beam of fiery red light from his eyes at a target within long range. This heat melts and burns, dealing 5 points of damage. Action.

TIER FOUR
Faster Than a Speeding Bullet (4 Speed Points) The Kryptonian moves with blinding speed up to 1,000 feet (305 m) in one round. Action.
   Up to Speed. If you do nothing but move for three actions in a row, the Kryptonian accelerates greatly and can move up to 200 mph (about 2,000 feet each round) for up to ten minutes (about 35 miles), after which he or she must stop and make a recovery roll. (Move up to 322 kph [about 610 m each round] for up to ten minutes [about 56 km].) Enabler.

TIER FIVE
Super-breath (+5 Might Points): The Kryptonian emits a blast of cold from his or her lungs in a wide cone in front of him or her up to short range. This blast instantly freezes water and extinguishes flames. All within the burst take 5 points of damage. If Effort is applied to increase the damage rather than to decrease the difficulty, 2 additional points of damage per level of Effort are dealt (instead of 3 points), and targets in the area take 1 point of damage even if the Kryptonian fails the attack roll. Action.

TIER SIX
Look! Up in the Sky! (4 Speed Points): The Kryptonian can float and fly through the air for one hour. The power is an expansion of Tier Four "Up to Speed." By doing nothing more than move for three rounds, the Kryptonian accelerates to 200 mph (322 kph). Anything he or she can normally carry can be carried while flying.
   Supersonic (6 Speed Points): The Kryptonian launches himself or herself at unearthly speeds, traveling almost instantaneously (mere minutes) to any location that he or she has seen or been to, no matter the distance, as long as it is on the same world


Monday, July 18, 2016

LAMENTATIONS OF THE FLAME PRINCESS WEIRD FANTASY ROLE-PLAYING; A Much Belated Look

IF YOU WERE, like me, a second generation Dungeons & Dragons player (by which I mean you started with John Eric Holmes' 1977 blue boxed set rather than the original 1974 game), then you were probably one of the nerdy kids in the beginning of E.T. (or more recently Netflix's Stranger Things).  You were likely a boy (though my little 6th grade gaming group included *gasp* two girls), bookish--or worse comic bookish--with an overdose of imagination, and hovering right there on the precarious edge of adolescence.  To you, the original D&D was something the "big kids" or possibly even the adults did.  You snuck glimpses of Greyhawk and Eldritch Wizardry the same way you did your older brother's back issues of Heavy Metal under his bed or your dad's Playboys hidden in the closet.  They were something enticing and dangerous that you didn't fully understand.


Eldritch Wizardry

You see, the original 1974 game was written for adults; it was meant for wargamers with weird fiction leanings, not daydreaming eleven-year-olds.  It caught on first with the highly experimental 1970s college crowd, and in their hands took on heady overtones of sex and drugs and post-Vietnam PTSD before eventually trickling down to us.  But the '77 Blue Box began a long process of sanitising all that, making it safe for the kiddies.  Editor Holmes was a professor of neurology and a child psychologist, and in his capable hands D&D became something to stimulate developing imaginations.  That was where I first found it, in the Gifted and Talented Education classes my school stuck me in.  Unlike the early issues of Dragon magazine, there was no nudity, profanity, or adult elements in its pages.  Don't get me wrong, Blue Box was thrilling.  There were dragons and wraiths, goblins and pit traps, but the older edition had the scantily clad warrior ladies, the nude sacrifices, and demons that hinted at dangers of an altogether different kind.


The Child-Friendly Blue Box 

'77, of course, also happened to be the year geekdom was forever transformed by something called Star Wars, and this pretty much drove the stake through the heart of D&D's darker, weirder overtones.  From there on in every edition of D&D was going to be good versus evil, black against white, with epic heroes and lots of action scenes.  First it went more Tolkien than Howard, eventually jettisoning even Tolkien's moral complexity for Dragonlance.  And when the reactionary and deeply paranoid 80s rolled around, D&D was forced to get even more squeaky clean in response to witch hunters like Jack Chick and MADD who themselves were so incapable of separating fantasy from reality that they assumed D&D player's couldn't either.  In response, terms like "gods," "demons, and "devils" (anything that might offend the Inquisition) were changed to "powers," "tanar'ri," and "baatezu" respectively, and the 1989 Writer's Guidelines for Dragon magazine expressly forbade "profanity, graphic violence or sexual activity, or any other adult topics."  Any elements that could possibly have made D&D "weird" rather than "fantastic" was cast out into the void.

20 years later, an American expatriate living in Finland decided to go looking for them.   

Now before I set someone off (and Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Role-Playing has a history of setting people off) I am not saying author James Raggi faithfully recreated old school D&D.  What I am saying is that he managed to capture the impression of it that existed in the minds of those of us who came to the game in the late 70s and 80s...that feeling that our Holmes and Moldvay sets were full of magic, but that the original set possessed a darker magic, a stronger sorcery that the adults had made forbidden to us.

What Raggi did was to re-imagine a D&D that rather than gradually downplaying and starving its weird elements, took the weird home, gave it a cozy place down in the basement to sleep, and fed the weird by luring the neighbouring kids home for it to eat.  Now it is grown into something Lovecraft would be proud of...

Let's cut to the chase; Weird Fantasy Role-Playing is what the title tells you it is.  "Weird fiction" as a term predates the modern "horror" and "fantasy" genres, and described stories that were macabre or unsettling.  "Weird Fantasy" then pretty much explains that what you are getting here is a fantasy game with dark, surreal, unnerving elements.  What Raggi did was to re-imagine a D&D that rather than gradually downplaying and starving its weird elements, took the weird home, gave it a cozy place down in the basement to sleep, and fed the weird by luring home the neighbouring kids for it to eat.  Now it is grown into something Lovecraft would be proud of.



What is this "Weird?"  Author James Raggi writes in the Referee Book;


The main thing that separates a Weird Tale from a conventional horror story is the forces completely out of the control of those who encounter them. A thing that cannot be explained, cannot be defeated, cannot be solved.

He goes on to point out this is easy to achieve in a piece of fiction, where the author has complete control, but poison to a successful roleplaying game, where players must have freedom to act as they will.  The trick then is to take that sense of overwhelming alienness, of hopelessness, of incomprehensible powers and load them into the game...then letting the player's respond to them without railroading.  Much of what makes Weird Fantasy work is tone.  Mechanically, it is little different from any old school B/X edition; the Weird comes from the grim tone of the writing, the sensational and shocking artwork, and the willingness to deal head on with graphic violence, sexuality, and the surreal.

Some reviewers have classified it as a "retro-clone."  It isn't.  Retro-clones appeared when D&D became the property of new publisher Wizards of the Coast, and in a marketing strategy to popularise their new version of the game but of the game's content was made public property.  The idea was that third party publishers would capitalise on the brand name to produce a whole slew of content for the new edition. The flip side of this was that those who were not enamoured with the new version, or who longed for previous, out-of-print editions, could use the open content material and "wed" it back to the earlier mechanics (mechanics cannot be copyrighted, only their artistic presentation).  So independent designers created "retro-clones" like Swords & Wizardry (a close imitation of original D&D) or Labyrinth Lord (a clone of the 80s Moldvay/Cook edition).  These games felt like, and played like, the originals.  James Raggi took advantage of the same realities that made retro-clones possible, but Weird Fantasy Role-Playing doesn't actually recreate any older edition.  Mechanically it is very close to original D&D, but it is very much its own game.

Something it did borrow from old school D&D is the gritty, "fantasy Vietnam" aspect.  Weird Fantasy Role-Playing is very much of the spirit of the original edition in that hit points are low, the world is lethal, and death comes very quickly.  It brings to mind the now-famous "Calithena" post to an old school D&D forum on Dragonsfoot and quoted by Rob MacDougall; 


“When you’re in an old-school dungeon you’re in @*%!ing VIETNAM. Check EVERYTHING. Clear out EVERYTHING. Don’t take ONE STEP MORE than you have to until you’re COMPLETELY SURE it’s clear. Check EVERYTHING for traps. Search EVERYTHING. … THE GM WILL USE IT TO @*%! YOU OVER. Be PROACTIVE: set traps and ambushes for the monsters before they do it to you. Find a position of tactical advantage and DUMP FIREBALLS, FLAMING OIL, AND BARRAGES OF ARROWS on your enemies. And even if you do everything right, you STILL might get screwed by wandering monsters.”

Be Careful What You Touch

This is very much the case in Weird Fantasy.  In many of the post-Star Wars editions of D&D, you could feel confident that you were the "hero" and would survive to see the credits roll.  Not so in Raggi's game.  Going into a dungeon is Hell and there are no assurances everyone is coming out intact.  Worse still, no-one is promising a good death, a heroic death, or even a meaningful death.  A careless mistake, a lack of caution, an overabundance of curiosity can easily get your character killed.

Added to this old school lethality is a heavy layer of grim. Weird Fantasy uses the four standard old school character classes (Fighter, Magic-User, Cleric and thief-like "Specialist") plus the optional racial classes (Elf, Dwarf, Halfling),  These are presented mechanically close to their D&D cousins, but considerably darkened.  Fighters are those who have been "willing to slaughter at another's command" and "immersed in the worthlessness of life."  They "have seen the cruelty of battle, have committed atrocities that in any just universe would damn them to Hell, and have survived."  Screw "fantasy Vietnam," that reads like "fantasy Apocalypse Now."



The Current Edition's "Rules & Magic" Book

Magic-Users, meanwhile, do not cower from the supernatural like sane and normal people, but instead "revel" in its "darkness."  "They see the forces of magic as a new frontier to explore, a new tool for the attainment of power and knowledge.  If it blackens the soul equal to that of any devil, is is but a small price to pay." Clerics are just as likely to be religious fanatics and witch hunters as beneficent healers, and Specialists (the rogues or thieves) are "inspired by greed, boredom," and "idle curiosity" to risk "life and limb simply because a less active life is distasteful to them."  

The demihumans aren't treated with kid gloves either.  Dwarves are a "dying race" incapable of change and adaptation.  The world has moved on and their can't move with it.  Elves are creatures of Chaos, the magical Fae, who like Dwarves are fading and no longer belong in the world. 

Arguably none of this makes Weird Fantasy Role-Playing any different really from a game like Warhammer.  This isn't bright and shiny "high fantasy," its more of gritty real-life mind-set stuck into a fantasy world.  Where Raggi's game goes off on its own and really begins to (darkly) shine is its "weirdness."

...feelings of vulnerability and helplessness are important to Weird tales...knowledge equals power (and) familiarity equals boredom...destroy familiarity by not using, or subverting, cliche elements of game worlds or adventures...Players may show up expecting the usual six-ability-scores-with-classes game, with opponents taken out of a manual and treasure generated off a chart or a list.  Don't give it to them!
- James Raggi, "The Weird" 

One of the tools Weird Fantasy uses to achieve the uncertainty of the Weird is its utter lack of a bestiary.  There are no lists of goblins, hippogriffs, and trolls here.  Instead there are guidelines for creating your own, unique, monsters.  These are meant to be used sparingly; Raggi actively discourages conjuring up comfortable hordes of orcs for players to kill and recommends replacing them with human adversaries instead.  Humanoids are, after all, the safe and tidy "high fantasy" answer to giving the players something to fight while simultaneously skirting around the whole "murder" issue.  Weird Fantasy rubs your face in it.  Fighting animals can be used for spice, but monsters--real monsters--should be used sparingly.  They are horrors and aberrations that challenge the nerve and sanity as much as battle prowess. 



From "The God That Crawls" Adventure

In addition to the adversaries, the supernatural wielded by player characters was made darker and weirder too.  While the Cleric and Magic-User spell systems operate just like old school D&D, and many of the spell names read the same, they have been extensively rewritten to give them an eerie, eldritch feel.  New spells have been added, like the spectacular "Summon," which allows the creation of a random horror right then and there.  This is consistent with the game's overall approach to the supernatural as something alien, intrusive, and corrupting.

The overall effect is the creation of a gritty, old school D&D game suited perfectly to more surreal settings and horrifying adventures.  This is a game of atmosphere and mood, more Call of Cthulhu than Dungeons & Dragons 3, 3.5, 4, or 5e.  As we shall see in upcoming reviews, this has generated a lot of support for the game, with darker and more horrifying scenarios and supplements than we have seen for fantasy roleplaying in a long time.  It gives Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing that freshness, that awe, that chill old school D&D delivered when we were kids first exposed to it, an manifests that "eldritch, primordial" D&D we imagined we had missed.  If you are looking to feel twelve again, playing D&D in the darkened basement, heart pounding as your character turns every corner, this game might be for you.  

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

NUMENERA ADVENTURE: "THE SEVEN GEMINI"

THE SEVEN GEMINI
A Numenera Adventure Inspired by
Kurosawa's "The Seven Samurai" and
Sturge's "The Magnificent Seven"

Andrew Logan Montgomery

Voice Over Narration;

"I AM DYING AN OLD MAN'S DEATH.  Some might say a "coward's death."  It is not clean or quick, it is without honor and empty of glory.  I've lost control of my bladder and my bowels.  My teeth are gone.  And the cancer devouring my insides has already taken most of me.  It is no warrior's death.  But then I have never been a warrior.  

Except, of course, that once.

All my recent memories are blurry and gray, but the long ago ones are clear, and more real to me than the faces of those passing in and out of my hut waiting for me to die.  I see them vividly.  I feel them.  As I near the end I relive them.  

And it's not the loss of my virginity, nervous and fumbling in the field behind the yol pens, it's not the feeling of my first child cradled in my arms, not even the last rattling breath of my wife on her deathbed that I remember.  No, it is them; the Seven.  I relieve the days them came to Sardaurar.

They were wanderers and killers, hands soaked with blood.  They had left a trail of death and ruin behind them.  They were adventurers who robbed ancient ruins for their bread.  Were they good?  Were they evil?  Even now I cannot say.  But they changed us, changed me.  They were bold and they were brave, they were things a farmer never dreamed of being.

And now, in my dreams, they live again..."

SARDAURAR is a small village located in the Beyond.  Where, exactly, is up to you, the game master.  As written, it assumes some place rocky, dry, and desolate, but there is nothing stopping you from moving the setting to a fetid swamp, frozen tundra, or somewhere even stranger.

Gemini is written with four to seven players in mind; seven would be iconic, but unnecessary.  The characters should be Tiers 2 or 3.  Knowledge of either The Seven Samurai or The Magnificent Seven is useful for the game master, but not required for the players.  Players who do know the story may enjoy the twists the scenario takes, however.

SCENE ONE: TWO-LEGGED LOCUSTS

The players start out as NPCs rather than their own characters.  This is a technique I personally love and that my players really get excited about, but may not be for every group.  I strongly recommend giving it a try.

Each player is given a farmer to play.  Start at the top of the list and work your way down;

  1. Calen: Mid-thirties, the de facto "leader" of the village.  Calen is a quiet man, and timid, but the recent depredations by the bandits has pushed him to the every edge.  He wants blood, but knows he doesn't have the power to extract it.  His powerlessness torments him.  
  2. Gemdar: Mid-thirties.  Gemdar is the closest thing Calen has to a rival.  He questions nearly all of Calen's decisions, sometimes heatedly.  It isn't hate that drives him, but jealousy.  Calen--in his opinion--has always been luckier than him, with better land and better livestock.  If Gemdar only had the same breaks, he'd be village headman.
  3. Sejon: Around thirty.  Sejon is Calen's right hand man.  While not a yes man per se, he agrees with almost everything Calen says and very seldom questions his friend.  His favorite lines are "Calen is right," and "yes, I  agree" (when Calen speaks).
  4. Vejris: Early seventies.  Still vigorous, he is the oldest man in the village and people are always looking to him for wisdom.  Calen never makes a decision without asking his zen-like bits of advice.
  5. Hebro: Early thirties.  Rotund, jovial, and constantly cracking jokes, Hebro is nine times out of ten a bit tipsy on Huskerale.  He generally goes along with Calen's decisions unless they require him to stick his neck out or put in extra effort.  He then tries to brush these requests off with humor, and if forced to do them, sulks.
  6. Toryu: Fifteen.  Toryu just passed the manhood rites in the spring and is eager to prove himself to the rest of the men.  A clever young man, he is still naive and inexperienced, and mixed with a short temper this is a dangerous combination.  
  7. Venn: Nine.  Venn is Toryu's shadow, constantly following the older boy around, looking up to him, imitating him, trying to be more like him.  He is also a very bright and curious boy, always looking around while working in the fields wondering things like; "where do the mountains come from?"  "How hot is the sun?"
NPC STATS

Most of these NPCs are level 2 (6) with 4 (12) in Farming and Area Knowledge. Little Venn is 1 (3).  When players take on NPCs like these, assume they have a single Stat Pool equal to 10 + Target Number, with Edge = Level/2 and Effort = Level.  Calen is Specialized in Farming and Area Knowldge; Vejris is Specialized in Area Knowledge and Zen Like Wisdom; the others are all Trained in Farming and Area Knowledge.

BAKING UNDER THE BALEFUL ORANGE EYE OF THE SUN, the men of Sardaurar are tilling the thankless dust, planting Huskweed.  Huskweed is a hemp-like plant with all the medicinal and practical applications, as well as producing eggplant shaped seed pods that contain hundreds of kernels like corn.  These are used to make liquor and tortilla-like flatbread.  The village is extremely poor, eking out a living on Huskweed and a few flocks of Yols (Bestiary, p. 12).  They live in cool, domed huts made of adobe, with no luxuries and only modest possessions.  Trade with neighboring communities earns them a few extra shins used to purchase what they cannot make or grow.

And now their thankless lives have been made a hell.  A band of mercenaries and bandits, led by the alluring Augur exile known as Kala Vera, has descended upon them.  For weeks now they have camped in the jagged hills to the north, sweeping into the village to demand huskweed bread and ale, yol milk and meat.  They have demanded even worse.  To protect them after the first attack, and it's string of brutal rapes, the men have sent the women away.  They are trying to endure the bandits as best they can, hoping they will move on.  But so far, the bandits have stayed.

Kala Vera 5 (15)
Motive: Provide for her men, find Numenera for her clients, recover lost Augur artifacts for herself
Health: 25
Damage: 5 points.
Armor: 3
Modifications: Defends at level 6 due to a psychic energy shield.
Combat: Fights with a psychic blade that ignores physical armor.
Interaction: Kala Vera is cool and aloof but not arrogant or overbearing.  As a two-hundred-year old Augur she feels superior to humans, but knows they outnumber her people and acts accordingly.  She is currently working for the Angulan Knights, searching for the lost Gemini chambers buried somewhere in these hills, and determined to get them to get paid and feed her men.  She is loyal to them, and them to her.
Cyphers: 1d3+1
Artefacts: 1d2

Bandits 4 (12) (group of three)
Health: 18 (every six points lost, one bandit in the group dies)
Damage: 4 points
Armor: 2
Combat: There are eight groups of bandits (24 men total).  They can fight with both ranged weapons and melee.
Cyphers: 1d3 per group 

In scene one, Kala Vera and her bandits return to Sardaurar to demand more supplies.  The players assume the roles of the villagers.  Nearly all their food is gone at this point and they desperate.  After taking the food and drink they want, the bandits will demand some women.  These of course have been sent away.  When she hears this, Kala Vera says the young boys will have to do.  And sends her men to collect 1d6 of them.  The villagers may try to fight this.  Either way, it should be 
played to leave a bad taste in the players' mouths...

SCENE TWO: CHASED BY THE WIND

CROSSING THE WASTES the player character spy a cloud on the horizon.  It is a reddish mass, swirling in weird geometric patterns.  Rust red, it nevertheless catches the light of the sunset with thousands of metallic sparkles.  The cloud is moving against the wind in their direction.  The PCs might recognize it 3 (9).  It's the Iron Wind.

The only sane choice is to run.  Roll a 1d3+3.  This is the number of rolls it will take to escape.  These are Speed rolls, and to represent the erratic nature of the Iron Wind, each time the Level is random (roll a d6).  After two failed rolls, the Iron Wind is upon them.  A third failed roll results in hideous death.  Play up the horrific effects of the wind as it mutates the landscape and plant life behind them.

The final Speed roll is a leap across a narrow chasm.  The Iron Wind cannot (or will not) cross this.  Once safely across they spy a small village ahead.  This is Sardaurar.


SCENE THREE: A PEOPLE BESIEGED

The player characters now get to interact with the NPCs they played during the introduction.  The villagers are understandably shy when these wanderers come in, and have little food and drink to offer.  They are stand offish and sullen, and it is soon easy to notice that there are no women present.  Winning Calen’s trust will get him to open up about the bandits.

To spice things up a bit, have the player characters make Level 3 Intellect rolls (Jacks step this down to Level 2).  Success means they have heard of Kala Vera…she is not a bandit, but a well known Numenera hunter.  If she is loitering in the area, it is likely she is after something big.

The villagers will pretend to not know what this is. They could be persuaded by a die roll (Level 5) but it would be much more satisfying to have the PCs win he trust of the villagers first.

SCENE FOUR: A HARD LIFE

This is a roleplay-heavy section.  The PCs sleep and spend the next day in the village, seeing how the villagers live.  If they haven’t noticed the absence of women, it should become obvious now.  Also, the town has a small Order of Truth Sanctum, but it looks recently abandoned and has no Aeon Priest.

The PCs may also wish the scout the hills for bandits.  This is a Level 4 task.  With a success, they find Kala Vera’s camp and are able to survey it from the hills unnoticed.  On a 19 or 20, the GM might have the character spy a pair of young girls gathering water at a stream as they return the the village.  If they follow these girls, they enter a jagged ravine in the hills and vanish through a holographic door in the sheer wall of the cliff.  See “Scene Five” for details.

OPTION: Teaching the Villagers to Fight.  

It is entirely possible that the PCs, true to the spirit of the films that inspired this story, will want to train the villagers to fight back.  This could be a fun roleplaying opportunity.  Glaives are obviously the most qualified for the job, but Jacks might teach dirty tricks.  The villagers only have hoes and farm tools, but ingenious players may want to design traps of various kinds.  Take your time and enjoy playing this out.

SCENE FIVE: THE SEVEN GEMINI

Kala Vera is looking for an ancient cavern in the hills, a series of smooth round passages and dome shaped rooms bored into the living stone.  In the largest chamber are seven crystal standing stones, each about three meters tall and one meter wide.  These are the Seven Gemini.

The village’s Aeon Priestess, Kinara, is here, along with all the women and girls of the village.  They are hiding out in the caves and also keeping guard over the Gemini.  The Gemini possess a strange and terrible power, an ability that makes them attractive to army builders.  They clone, instantly, anyone who stands facing one of them with their eyes closed and palms pressed against the smooth crystal surface.

Except these are not clones…the crystals actually abduct an alternate version of the summoner from a parallel universe.  The abductee appears inside the crystal and soon emerges.  There is no limit to the number of times this can be done.  Thousands of alternate versions of people could be conjured from them.

Unfortunately, it is a one-way trip, and if the summoned “twin” attempts to use the crystals, he or she is instantly destroyed.

Be sure to have fun with this.  The GM should prepare notes on alternate versions of the player characters, just in case one or more of them decides to try the device.  These could be slightly different versions of the characters (A Jack who became a Nano in his alternate universe, a straight warrior whose alternate is gay, etc) or full on “evil twins” as in the Star Trek “Mirror” universe stories.  It is key though that the GM run these characters…each is free willed with his or her own agenda, and probably not happy with having been ripped from their existence and stranded in this one.

SCENE SIX: CONFRONTATION  

At some point, the players will want to storm Kala Vera’s camp, or more likely, repel her next attack against the village.  If the villagers have been trained and fight alongside the PCs, lower the effective level of the Bandits one step.  

Kala Vera will try to negotiate if things are going against her.  It turns out she is being paid by a wealthy faction (the Knights Angula in my campaign, but the Convergence is another likely candidate) to recover the Gemini and is willing to split the profits.  Failing this, she will try to escape with her life, especially if more than half her forces are killed.

AFTERMATH:  If the villagers fight, at least a few of them should die to keep the drama up.  One of the survivors--preferably one of the young boys--should be revealed to grow up to be the narrator of the tale, however.