Friday, December 19, 2014

Story Seed - Disturbed Sleep

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The sound of stone grinding on stone echoed through the burial complex like a dragon's roar. The opened tomb gasped, exhaling fetid air from ages long passed.  The two men gagged and coughed on the foul stench, not dry dusty and ancient, but wet, cloying, and rotten. The torch, jammed into a wall sconce older than their great grandparents, guttered, turning sickening colors of green and purple like a week old bruise.

"This isn't right. The stories, they must be true, this place is evil, cursed!" the younger of the two men exclaimed, eyes on the torch as it returned to its former colors in hues of orange, red, and yellow.

"Grow a spine Yaffy, there ain't no such thing as curses." He jammed the long iron pry bar back into the gap in the stone, "It's a tomb ya daft bastard, what' ya expect it to smell of, roses and sunbeams? Now come on an' put yer back into it. The hard part's over and the pay is only a stone's breadth away."

"Sure ... yeah, sure. Whatever you say Samn," the younger replied, hefting his own pry bar and approaching the stone once more. With a cry he stabbed the iron length into the gap beside Samn's own tool. "On three then ... one, two, three -nnggg."

The pair heaved once more, forcing the stone aside inch by inch.  The rough hewn surfaces ground out a fresh bellow of sound that ended only when the two finally ceased pushing having lost leverage.  The sound died out, fading like a moan to silence broken only by the heavy breathing of the grave robbers and the quiet flicker of the torch's flame. The air from the tomb poured out even more freely, dank and damp and thick with rot.

Samn sized up the gap, "Alright, hand me the torch and take up a satchel, it's time to get rich." Yaffy pushed the torch into his partner's and and picked up a heavy burlap sack. The two squeezed crabwise into the tomb through the gap in the stone, their torch leading the way, throwing off oily smoke. "Gods its dank in here," Samn muttered as he looked around.

The room was black as pitch, even with the light of the discolored torch, now burning like a bruise once more. There was no familiar gleam of gold, no reflection of jewel, glass, or metals. "Where's the gold Samn? Where's the riches?" The room appeared to have been painted black, the only object a long sarcophagus upright in the center of the small chamber.

Samn waved the torch around the sarcophagus, "I dunno Yaffy, maybe ..." He cut off as he saw that the sarcophagus was open, a handwidth of blackness even more pure than the rest of the room showed between the stone lid and the rest of the box. "We ain't the first to be here; look, they even opened the damned coffin."

Samn turned and found himself alone.  Yaffy was gone, the sack abandoned on the black stone floor. He waved the torch about looking for his fellow miscreant. "Damnit Yaffy, joke's not funny." Behind him the sound of wetly ragged breathing made Samn spin in place.  Where he'd expected to find Yaffy he was met with a worn death mask riding atop a flowing shadow. One eye was cracked and missing, but the other glowed from within, a red hateful glow that bored into Samn's soul, and froze him in his place unable to even scream with his last breath.

The sound of stone grinding on stone roared out once more before silence and darkness descended on the tomb.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Back Issues #12 - Do I Know You? - Part 3

The last two issues have dealt with the idea of taking the familiar and making it new and unfamiliar while attempting to retain some degree of recognizably. I tackled the two biggest RPG genres, fantasy, and science fiction and reworked the humble orc into something new-ish. In regards to the final result your mileage may vary, but no idea please everybody all the time (somebody famous said something about that I think  smirk ). This week will be the final of this tangent as I re-work the orc one last time for the modern/post-modern age...

Issue #12: Do I Know You? - Part 3

This is all true. In the later days of the 20th Century trans-genic animals were a big deal. Goats who could be milked for spider silk, sheep that produced insulin, disease and pest resistant vegetables and fruits, and more. Medical research was even underway to try and breed transgenic pigs that whose organs could be harvested for human transplant. You may think, "We're closest to chimps, why not look there?", but the reason why swine were chosen was due to the size and configuration of their organs compared to humans. A pig's liver, stomach, etc are roughly the same size as human organs, chimpanzees are smaller and so too are their organs.

Now for the fiction...

As research continued the insertion of various genes into pigs progressed with this goal in mind. The leader of this research was Trans-G Ltd. an international company with their fingers in dozens of transgenic pots, including modified crops, and "humane meat". The medical trade however was the grail that the strived for, to be able to provide organs on demand would be a major coup, and provide the kind of PR that money cannot buy. When Trans-G succeeded it broke open transgenic market. No long was the public skeptical, they could see with their own eyes the two dozen organ recipients from the first clinical trials, people who had been hooked to machines in need of kidneys and livers, and hearts. Within a year approvals for other Transgenic products were being fast-tracked under the weight of consumer pressure.

Ten years later Trans-G Ltd. stunned the world when it unveiled its newest "product"; the O.R.C. The pOrcine Rational Custodian was a transgenically uplifted specifies of pig given low human intelligence and the capability to function within the human environment via bipedal locomotion and fully dexterous hands. Smarter and more capable than helper dogs and monkeys the O.R.C. was intended to replace helper animals with a servant who was able to do everything a those creatures could do and more. Further they were hailed as the new answer to menial labor. O.R.C.s could be given jobs too dangerous or menial for humans and still do their jobs.

Like their genetic relative O.R.C.s were strong and possessed a snout like nose and protruding lower canines. Coarse hair and pink skin that was sensitive to sunlight and sunburn were also inherited from their genetic forebears. Unlike their stock they walked on two human-like legs and had hands with three fingers and an opposable thumb. Tests suggested that the O.R.C.s possessed an I.Q. of roughly 70-80 and were capable of learning numerous simple tasks and the smartest could even master one or two complex tasks.

Physically powerful, the government considered them for military ground forces but found that them lacking the ability to make intelligent tactical choices on the battlefield. Other groups derided them as monsters, while still others insisted that Trans-G had played God and that these intelligent creatures were deserving of the rights of freedom and self rule that all "people" had. Trans-G insisted that they were product, that they could not reproduce on their own, and were little more than extremely intelligent animals. Laws were passed outlawing them in sound countries, while still others wrangle back and forth to this day trying to decide the fate of a new life form.

Three weeks, three genres (kinda), and three variants on the classic Ork that are all quite different, but also kinda the same. What do you all think? Any ideas I missed? Opportunities left un-mined? Does this exercise give you ideas on how to make aspects of your own game new again?

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Story Seed - Evolution

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How much further east could I go? The Clock of the Kala had long since fallen below the horizon in my wake. The people no longer spoke even the rudimentary traders language I had learned growing up in the black riage.  The bright storm in the datasphere was close now; I could see the conflagration at its heart. There, perhaps a mile ahead, through the cracked an jutting spires of uplifted rock and stone. There, a new god of the datasphere was being born. Or perhaps a great battle for control over the Iron Wind was being fought as it had for unknown years and would for years more. I did not know what lay ahead, only that I needed to reach that point, to see what lay there, and witness what would happen. I felt it in my body, my mind, my soul; this was destiny.

The last mile felt like only a hundred yards, my destination was at hand, my destiny lay before me. Ahead I could see more of the storm than ever before; swirling energies and coruscating lights, rose from a sunken crater into the sky.  Streamers and whorls spun about a central shaft of dazzling light that I knew was pure data. There in that depression lay the source of the storm and the answer to my questions.

My boots crunched on something and I stopped to look down.  The ground was covered in tiny crystals, like sparkling shards of glass, or snow formed from quartz.  It was a thin coating here, but I could see ahead that the crystals covered the ground more deeply ahead. I continued onward, heedless of the crunching below my heels.

I topped the rise and looked down. There, in the center of the crater, lay a mass of light too bright to make out.  My eyes watered at the brightness, but I forced my way forward, stumbling down the slope blindly, reaching out without sight for whatever lay in that blinding light. My hand closed on something, a shaft of sharp irregular material. It cut my hand and burned my flesh. I could see my bones through my skin, and through my bones I could see data sprites compressed into solid matter.  The sprites entered my blood, flowed into my veins, replaced my flesh as it burned away.

I screamed in terror and pain and sudden awareness and knowledge.  I screamed as the sprites used my body to compile something new. I screamed the cry of a newborn as I was birthed into a new world.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Review - 1 year on, Numenera & the Cypher System

I've been meaning to write something like this for a while. It may seem odd to review a game that came out over a year ago, but I believe that it's truly difficult, if not impossible, to fully review something like a game, especially and RPG, until you spend some real time with it.  That's not to say you can't give a review, but time will show you what things you thought might not be good are OK, and what you thought might be good but aren't and the like.  Hindsight is 20/20 as they say, which is really just saying that experience allows for a fuller view.

So here we are sixteen months since Numenera and the Cypher System were released. Fourteen months (give or take a week) since I started my own game running my group of first two and then three players through the Ninth World.  A mere four months since my first, second, and third opportunities to experience the Cypher System from the other side of the table, at GenCon 2014 (one Numenera session, and two of the then brand new The Strange).

The Good

There's a lot to love within Numenera, from the high production values of the book, to the quality of a system designed for ease and simplicity that doesn't give up on satisfying levels of choice and complexity in play. The setting is a blend of science fiction, fantasy, post apocalypse, and pulp adventure. There are strange new things on every page to inspire players and GMs alike, and the nearly one hundred pages of setting in the core book hits a perfect level of detail and mystery.  This setting isn't for those who need highly detailed write ups of every last building and bookcase in a given city.  Instead it strives to give the potential GM enough to work with before stepping out of the way.

Mechanically the Cypher System does a lot of things differently. A year ago I don't know how I would have answered if asked my opinion on the fact that the GM never needs to roll dice (ok, never is slightly inaccurate, but I often farm out what little rolling I would need to do anyways). I'd like to hope that I could speak as well about it then as I can now, but honestly I'm not sure when it clicked with me how much I would come to love the freedom that it allowed me.  Freedom enough that I wrote an entire separate article about it for this blog.

Is it perfect? No, but I would wager that a person could play and GM every system ever created in the forty odd year history of the hobby and never find a "perfect" system.  There will always be differences in taste, different play feel, and even the occasional edge case where good systems break down into something wonky.  Does the system work?  Heck yes. For my style of GMing, and for my group, this system runs rings around a lot of other games that we have played over the years. It's simple enough that most things resolve quickly, flexible enough that I almost never need to refer to the book during play, and solid enough that I can run players & characters through the ringer as I need to for the story without running into rules issues. Is it perfect? No, but that doesn't matter, because it's good.

But what about the other side of the table? Well as a player I can say that I enjoy Cypher System as much as I do as GM. I have options when I need them, I can try things even if I'm not suited to the role (or, as I discussed prior, it has a permissive open skill system). Characters have character right out of the gate, and advance in interesting steps rather than logic defying leaps.  There's a great deal of variety to be found for players, and character styles can vary widely from very pigeon holed murder machines to exceptionally capably jack of all trade types. Granted there are some things I don't like. Some character options really only work for certain types of characters, and some of the character options result in strange cases of bookkeeping or complexity.

The Bad

So what's bad? Certain things are weirdly difficult to locate. I literally cannot ever find the table for jumping when I need it. It's a minor issue to be sure, but its not a point of favor. There's some text errors that ninja'd past editing and make the mutant characters a headache to figure out. There have been enough questions online that it is clear at least a couple of play examples probably should have been included for the major rules of Effort and Edge.

I'm really picking at nits here though.  I struggle to find a genuine bad thing about this book.  It's clear that there was a lot of love poured into the game from day one, and the end result shows it.

The Ugly

The Ugly? The ugly is where I point at stuff I don't like, but that isn't bad as such. For instance I don't like the Vancian magic of Dungeons and Dragons but clearly a lot of people do and it works, so its hard to call it "bad", but I don't like it either way.  So is there anything I don't like in Numenera?  No, nothing I can really put my finger on, aside from that damned jumping table, which I literally cannot put my finger on because I cannot find it. Sure some of the art isn't my cup of tea, but art is so subjective and there is so much that is blow-my-mind good that the stuff I don't like barely registers.

The Final Cut

So after a year, after running it and playing it I can honestly say that Cypher System is one of my top RPG systems currently and probably of all time.  It hits all the notes I need from simplicity and fast play to balance and fun.  That it has been coupled to a setting that really fires my brain on all cylinders with ideas is certainly a bonus. I love that this game changed my outlook as GM, changed the way I prep (or don't prep) for sessions, and brought me back to writing creatively for the first time in a long time.

I like that I can create an NPC on the fly with as little as a name and a single number, and that creatures are barely more effort than that. I love that there's a mechanic for me to steer play where I need it while giving players something they want and need as a balance, and I love that the game is OK to throw balance out the window with single serving mayhem in the form of cyphers. Why give players a grenade when you can give them a nuke? Sure you might regret it once, but the self regulating nature of the single use cypher means you won't regret it again afterwards.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that I feel like a better and more confident GM with this system as well. I don't sweat the small stuff, I role play better, and I don't have the fear of an encounter going to pot because of my poor dice rolling.  I also spend less time on the crunchy bits and more time on the fun stuff; it's easier to create a fun and engaging story when I don't have to stop to answer my own questions or the players' and its better than simply hand waving and resolving to look it up next time. Are these boons and benefits exclusive to Numenera? No, but Numenera made these things click for me the way others games hadn't before.

Basically I love this game.  That's probably not a surprise to my readers, but I hope that my reasons for that are clear, and that my measured complaints are likewise understood. I'm a fan, but I try not to be a fan-boy, and the praise I give is earned.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Story Seed - Druid

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It moved through the forest cleanly, massive branching horns and tall staff somehow not catching on any of the trees or shrubs.  Its footing was secure even over lose stones and down embankments covered in wet leaves.  The animals did not flee from the figure, even the birds stood in the trees watching as it passed by. The predators gave way with deference, and ceased their stalking as it passed.

The druid passed over streams and through meadows, blazing a wandering trail through the wild as it sought the heartstone of nature.  In its wake small flowers bloomed, and trees and animals sickened by disease or blight became well again.  Soon a pack of wolves followed in its wake, providing honor guard for the protector of nature.  A mighty buck, with great antlers rising from its head joined the path ahead of the figure, preceding it and clearing the way of last summer's growth.

As the afternoon grew long and the sun began to dip toward the horizon the procession arrived at last at the holy site.  A clearing deep in the wildest parts of the forest, it had the eldritch aura of an ancient place untouched by man. At its center rose a great monolith of natural stone, striped through with veins of crystals. Here the ley lines gathered and crossed, meeting and mixing and continuing on at the position of the stone.

The animals broke from the procession, staying in the forest proper as the druid entered the clearing.  Small slashes of green rose from its footsteps as it approached the sacred stone and raised its hands and its staff to the sky. The veins of crystal began to glow and subtle and cunning runes soon stood in stack relief against the dark stone.  The druid sang the song of the seasons, of the winter ending, and the rebirth of spring. As the song reached its climax the runes and crystalline veins began to change from cold blue to green, starting from the bottom of the stone the warm green glow rose like liquid poured into a glass.

The song suddenly stopped.  The green glow retreated, overcome by the greater force of winter's cold blue energy.  The druid fell to one knee, gripping its staff with one white-knuckled hand, and looking down to the hand that found something jutting from its heart.  The ice blue arrow began to melt, but rather than drip to the ground it seemed to flow into the druid, cold poison replacing warm blood.  The druid cried out and collapses, its body freezing, turning to ice,

The Lord of Winter smiled with triumph. The land was his, there would be no spring.