Friday, November 21, 2014

Story Seed - Breakout

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The night was quiet as Otyr sat below the canopy of stars. The hunk of wood in his hands slowly shedding pieces of itself as he worked the knife.  Otyr didn't yet know what was within the wood, but head steadily cut away at it nonetheless, waiting for that first hint of what this would become.

Behind him the homestead was likewise quiet, he could hear his wife washing dishes, he could hear his boys, supposed to be sleeping, playing quietly in the back of the house.  He smiled to himself, remembering his own childhood, the things he thought his parents didn't know he did. The folly of youth, Otyr thought to himself as he carved away another curl of wood.

The small pile of shavings at his feet grew larger as the evening wore on. The boys quieted down, finally succumbing to sleep's embrace. Kiolla came out to sit by his side for a while, her knitting needles adding a new rhythm to the evening, but eventually she yawned and retired for the night, leaving Otyr with his carving.

After some time he stopped, flexing his cramped hands, and took a long look at the figurine in his hands.  He frowned, it was not what he would have expected.  A figure of sweeping curves and gaunt features, it was clearly a shade or spectre. Staring at the hideous figure and wondering if he would ever be able to see such an object at market Otyr noticed that the quite of the night had become a stillness broken only by a low rumble.

The rumble quickly built, jostling the ground itself, and setting his teeth on edge. The sound was painful. Unnatural.  Otyr stood, preparing to check on his family when the rumble reached a crescendo, exploding into a great sound like stones being broken. Otyr was bowled over, the figuring tumbling out of his grasp one way, his knife the other.  The mountains, distant but visible under the light of the moons shuddered once and then subsided, crumbing in places with distant rumbles of stone on stone.

Rising from the broken peaks an ejection of spectral ectoplasm, glowing green in the night sky and dotted with indistinct bright motes.  Otyr swallowed, fearing what he did not understand, but knowing intrinsically that something had happened in the Night Vaults, and fearing that what he saw was something escaping.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Back Issues #9 - The Emerald Death Cap

The natural world is often stranger than we know. Take for example the discovery of arsenic based bacteria here on earth, something fundamentally different from all other life on the planet. One very real natural phenomenon that we encounter only rarely outside of the cinema is bio-luminescence. The following photo is of a very real fungi; the idea is decidedly fictional however... 

Issue #9: The Emerald Death Cap

The Emerald Death Cap is a magically active fungus coveted by arcane spell casters, necromancers, assassins, and practitioners of holistic medicine. Like all magically active fungi the Emerald Death Cap resists every effort to cultivate it and is exceedingly rare. An average sized specimen, with a cap roughly one to two inches in diameter will fetch 5000 gp or more in even small cities, and can often achieve prices of 10,000 gp in the largest cities.

The Emerald Death Cap grows on the graves and corpses of creatures of magic. In addition the Death Cap requires a dark and damp environment. These two environmental requirements together are responsible for the Emerald Death Cap's rarity, and its known resistance to cultivations. Emerald Death Caps are most frequently found in clumps or clusters of three to five caps with as many as a half-dozen clusters per site, depending on the size and magical power of the cultivation site. Rare finds on the remains of subterranean leviathans have been known to yield dozens or more clusters and have often made the finder fabulously wealthy (or very dead). The Emerald Death cap is universally poisonous to all life and has a noxious scent of rotting flesh.

The uses of the Emerald Death Cap are many, and like all magically active fungi are known to be a powerful source of concentrated mana. Necromancers are known to covet the fungus for its ability to aid in the restoration and animation of necrotic flesh. It is said that a single cap can be brewed into a potion of such potency as to animate a score of fresh corpses into zombies under the necromancer's control. Arcane spell casters who are not necromancers can utilize the fungus to aid in the creation of artifacts that drain life or affect the undead, or the mushroom can be prepared in such a way as to become safe to consume after which it will energize the imbiber with its latent mana. The toxic nature of the Death cap has made it attractive and sought after by assassins who can prepare one of the world's most potent magical poisons from the fungus, and holistic practitioners are aware of preparations of the Death Cap that will yield a powerful antitoxin. Other uses and preparations can be found in ancient texts and obscure tomes; the Death Cap is said to be but one ingredient in a potion of everlasting life.

The undead have their own uses for the negative energy Emerald Death Cap. Beings like mummies, liches, zombies and vampires can ingest an unprepared Death Cap for restorative effects. Prepared Death Caps can be refined to provide potent temporary or permanent increases in power. Immensely powerful zombies and flesh golems have been known to be the result of applications of the Emerald Death Cap during creation or after the fact, for instance.

What kinds of unique magical and mundane plants do you add to your own fantasy games? Do you use real world botanicals and photos as your inspiration or do you find inspiration from a different source?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Story Seed - Monument

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Ikarun trod the path, picking his footsteps carefully, the paving stones were worn and uneven, roots grew up between the stones adding to the difficulty of the footing. Ahead a flock of jubjub birds took off from their perch on the largest monument. bird droppings covered the narrow ledge an dripped down over the side like wax down a candle.  Below the vines creeped upward, roots digging into the stone like miniscule fingers.  The two would meet eventually, and eventually the monument would be lost in a tangle of droppings and greenery.  

Other smaller stones were already lost under moss and vine, or worn and faded by weather and age.  Soon this place would be all but forgotten, disappearing beneath the heels of time and nature. Ikarun walked to the largest monument, the massive obelisk towered overhead, markings marred but guano. He sighed and tapped the stone with his staff, waiting, and then tapping again.  "Come on out spirit, come on out if you want to be set free."

He waited, certain that there was some aged spirit inhabiting this place.  The people of the nearby village had long since forgotten what this place was built for, why these monuments had been built so long before. They had forgotten all of import but they knew of the spirit of this place. Or possibly spirits, though Ikarun doubted that there were many, at most a few, and very likely only the one.

After a good half hour Ikarun sighed, thinking that this would have been better had the spirit come freely. He shrugged off his pack and set about preparing the ritual to cleanse this place by force.  Candles, incense, offerings of fruits and meat and coins; all were arranged around the chalk inscription.  A six pointed star, with himself at the sixth point, and a soul cage at the center.

Slicing his palm he prepared to draw the spirit out and trap it in the cage, freeing this place of its haunt, and adding yet another soul to his menagerie.  "I am so sorry my tenth great grandfather. I had hoped that you sought peace and would willingly go if offered your freedom. The people of the village, they have grown to fear you because they have forgotten you and this place. I am sorry, but their ignorance forces our actions."

Ikarun sliced his hand and allowed the blood to drip onto the soul cage as he chanted the ritual words. The tears that fell from his eyes were not components required by the ritual, but they aided the capture of his ancestor's soul regardless.


Summary - The legacies of years gone by often clash with the lives of the present. For one soul sorcerer duties to the past and present collide.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Nuts & Bolts #8 - Dramatic Editing

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Dramatic Editing is a mechanic I first encountered in White Wolf's criminally overlooked Pulp game Adventure! (yes the ! is part of the title). I've seen it here and there since, but never as integral to the game play as I feel it was in Adventure!, and never with the clever mechanics for cliffhangers that the aforementioned game has.

So what is Dramatic Editing? Well let's call it fortune or luck, at least insofar as the character would see it. It's the force that ensures that after crashing in the Sahara they just happen to find an oasis just over the next dune.  It's the luck of getting shot and having your trusted flask take the bullet for you (R.I.P. trusty flask).  It's the holy crap did Indiana Jones just fall off that cliff? Nope, he grabbed a root right at the edge and climbs up just as his estranged dad is mourning. (editor's note: in Adventure! Dramatic Editing is almost always used in life or death, or major setback situations, other games may allow a more casual use of such mechanics).

For the player Dramatic Editing is their way to wrest control over the narrative from the GM even if only for a moment, to reverse their character's fortunes.  This comes into play by spending points (meta points that the characters don't have access to), to buy effects to edit the situation.  A minor offscreen effect might only cost a single point and ensures help or rescue within a short period of time (like finding that oasis). A major effect that takes place on screen like that flask taking a bullet for your character, might cost three points, and probably is going to need for you to have established prior that your character has a flask. Don't have the points to pay? Well luckily you can also take some complications to reduce the cost. Yeah you leaped from the burning building, but you broke your leg on the way down - ouch!

Thematically this fits with the Pulp genre and style of Adventure! extremely well.  Pulp was often over the top at times, and even when not the serial nature of the stories and the larger than life heroics of the characters were often rife with good fortune and happy coincidence. Of course Indian Jones isn't going to die, but his climb to safety isn't going to be easy, and it's going to have ramifications like aiding in the reconciliation between himself and his estranged father.

Of course nowhere were the kinds of death defying luck and fortune more evident that during the cliffhangers between serials. Zounds! The evil Dr. Hand's men have sabotaged the Golden Goose, Whip Langstrom's trusty flying boat! How will he survive? Tune in next week! Cliffhangers are the final scene of one session/episode/serial and the first of the next.  They ensured that audiences would return (players too) and allowed for things to end and start on high notes.

Within a cliffhanger Dramatic Editing works as normal with the additional advantage of having some time between sessions to brainstorm how you are going to save your character's butt from the fire.  Since cliffhangers are always of the life in immediate danger flavor players are often going to be needing to saddle their characters with complications to afford the high cost of immediate effects.  When your plane is plummeting from the sky no amount of "there's help fifteen minutes away" is going to save your bacon.  These complications can help drive the story to unexpected places, or even provide a way for NPC antagonists to gain the upper hand on the PCs.

Any game using some kind of "meta pool" including just about any form of benefit points (see Nuts & Bolts #5: Fringe Benefits) could make use of Dramatic Editing type mechanics and many already do.  The use of Dramatic Editing for resolving cliffhangers is something that I have not seen a lot of games use. Perhaps it is due to the particular connection that cliffhangers have to the Pulp genre and style, or perhaps because it requires a certain amount of planning on the part of the GM so that the session can reach the cliffhanger without going over or being under on time for the session.  Regardless I think that given the nature of the hobby cliffhangers are something that could add a great deal of flavor, and can provide excellent reasons why certain character's may skip a session when their player's are not around. They should not be used every session, or to excess, but both Dramatic Editing and Cliffhangers can be potent tools in the arsenal of GMs and Players alike.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Story Seed - The Lab

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Jenkins reached up to adjust his glasses, but found them missing. He blinked and looked around his person, eyes darting about and finding nothing but the deeply worn leather of a wingback chair and a pile of books stacked up to the arm. "Right," he said, annoyed with himself. Of course he didn't have glasses, in the lab he could see perfectly, better actually.  He shook his head and rose, inspecting his room, everything was as he had left it, a chaotic storm of books, papers, and well worn furniture. It was hard for most to see the pattern in the room but it was there, in the stacks of books, each pile stacked tall with a number of books equal to sequential numerals in a Fibonacci sequence, each stack placed on tables sized and placed to represent golden rectangles.

Everything was in its place. He nodded and made for the door; there was work to be done. He paused and glanced out the window to the interior of hollow cylinder of the lab. The stalk was bathed in the blue glow of the fusion reactor and beyond that he could see the other side of the lab facility. A slight smile tugged the corners of his mouth upwards.

Jenkins walked the curved primary hall out of the dormitory toward the research labs. He snapped his fingers, a loud click that summoned a swarm of intelligent nanites around him, setting them to communicate with the cortex enhancements  buried deep in his brain and connecting him to the facility's computer network. A heads up AR display coalesced in his vision displaying his local email, a readout of the facility diagnostics, and the schedule for the day's experiments.

Quick darting flicks of his fingers sent a dozen emails to underlings, while others were sent directly to the trash. The remaining few were flagged for follow up or transfer via inapposite gate to Earth-side networks. The scientists here were as catty with each other as teens at a high school.  Jenkins frowned at the complaints about other people's experiments, the requests for more funding, the excuses. So much time wasted, time and effort from men and women who were being given everything they could possibly want and more.

Jenkins banished the AR view as he reached the lab he was looking for. "Dr. Silk, I very much hope that you have something for me today. Your contemporaries cannot seem to agree on anything expect that you have been drawing exceptional resources, above and beyond what was originally allotted for your experiment," he said as he entered, keeping his tone level and burying his annoyance deep.

"Dr. Jenkins!" Dr. Tabitha Silk jumped at the sound of her superior's voice, spinning place and knocking over a beaker of dark liquid.  This elicited a squeak of dismay and the petite woman quickly grabbed a pile of paper towelettes and blotted the pool of liquid.

"I do hope that was nothing dangerous," Jenkins remarked, casually surveying the disorder of the lab. He measured his distaste of the non-ordered chaos, with his knowledge that not all great minds required, or flourished in, an orderly environment.  The concept that Tabitha had her own secret form of order hidden within the chaos that he could not see not only failed to enter Jenkins' mind, but it quietly dismissed itself from the subconscious of his mind like some kind of embarrassed and unwanted guest.

"Only if one of the biophysicists have made caffeine dangerous, but it was the last of my oolong," Tabitha replied morosely.  With a sigh she simply pushed the entire flood of tea and avalanche of sodden paper into an already overflowing wastebasket. "You are here to review my findings?" she asked.  A mix of pride and worry colored her voice, and added a hint of heat to her voice.

"Indeed."  Jenkins walked to an elaborate apparatus and bent his tall thin frame at the waist, peering at the mechanism like a great stork peering into shallow water for a meal. "Enough of your colleagues have complained about the resource drain that I have no choice but to review your progress ahead of schedule and determine now if you should return to Earth," he told her matter of factly. "Or not," he then added.

"Those weasly little ..." Dr. Silk cut herself off, tried to gather herself, and then gave up. "Of course, let me demonstrate. I think you will be suitably impressed." She moved to the terminal next to the machine. "If you don't mind, I will skip the specifics of the programming process at this stage?" she asked. His subtle nod spurred her forward, "Excellent.  As you know I am looking at a way to tap into the strange and program and condense cyphers directly using the power output of the lab's fusion reactor.

"The principle is to generate a magneto-gravitic field that can twine the energies of the strange into a shape suitable to accept the programming that we desire and then pinch it off as a discrete component; a cypher. Thankfully the advanced science laws here at the lab have proven capable of supporting the artificial Higgs-Gauss field I need."  Tabitha smiled, hoping to generate a positive response from Jenkins and eliciting only a glance and an impatient look to continue. "As you have heard the power draw has higher than expected, but I think the results will prove the investment."  She entered a command into the control unit and activated the machine which began to pull power.

Exotic matter began to condense within the chamber as Tabitha continued her oration.  "The test cypher needed to be simple enough to ensure that the programming itself would not yield a false failure.  As such a semi stable energy containment cypher was programmed."

"A detonation?" Jenkins asked, actually turning from the machine to look at his underling.

"Y-yes, but it is the lowest energy potential possible that will still yield a demonstrable result."  Tabitha gestured to the machine, "As you can see the strange condensate has set up into the form of a Mark two style grenade. The form was chosen because of its ease to program."

"And it is stable?" This time there was a hint of respect in Jenkins' voice.

The petite woman took a deep breath, "Yes, but for the moment only while the machine continues to hold the Higgs-Gauss field. I cannot generate a strong enough effect with this equipment to fully confine the condensed program."

Jenkins nodded, "I see." He fell silent, regarding the simple grenade-like cypher.

Tabitha began to sweat, and chewed at her lip nervously.

"I am going to allocate Dr. Varnkov to assist you. I think that you have something here and with some refinement of your Higgs-Gauss field, there is a good chance that you can achieve total confinement and through that possibly success."  Tabitha smiled, delighted at her victory. "I am also moving you to the Buoy. The risk with this experiment is excessive, and therefore isolation is required if you are to continue. Otherwise we risk losing the lab itself."

Tabitha's smile melted away, "Yes, Director, thank you." The Buoy was better than project termination, but it turned her victory into a Pyrrhic one.


Summary - Take a trip to the Estate's Offworld Experimental Enclave, more commonly known as the Lab.