MopnsterKillers6.pngMonster Killer!  is a pick-up board game for kids, designed by a six-year kid. A light set of rules allows kids bored with all those toys and devices you gave them, or stuck in a car on a long ride, or in a hotel without their stuff, to print out a couple of battle maps, folding hero and monster figures (there’s even a folding six-sided die), and take the roles of leader, fighter, medic, and scientist in an attempt to save your town from the monsters that have taken over. The maps are scaled so they can be used with your favorite interlocking block system (**cough cough**.) It’s only $1.99, available on DriveThruRPG.

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So this week, the crew is getting together to fire up the next chapter/season/volume of our late antiquity fantasy game. The first run was set in AUC1125 (375AD) and revolved around a group of people that came together during a raid on their caravan, got tapped by Emperor Gratian to sound the tribes in Germania, and found out they were all destined to come together to help fight the forces of evil. You know, that ol’ chesnut. It wound up with a finale that included angels and demon hordes leading people into battle to stop Satan from “opening the veil” so he could attack Heaven. What they wound up doing was releasing the ancient gods back into the world, which put paid to Satan’s plans (and Yahweh’s) pretty smartly.

We’ll be picking up the action eight years later in Britannia, on the eve of Magnus Maximus pulling every Roman and foederati troop he can lay his hands on out of the isle for a coup attempt on Emperor Gratian, who gave the Eastern Empire to the leader of our party in the last game, and who — supported by Olympians — has restored paganism to the Eastern empire. Magnus, and his uncle Theodosius (the real eastern emperor at this time) are supporters of Nicean Christianity and want to crush Gratian and Marcellus (now Emperor Marcellianus) and get the thrones they feel are rightfully theirs.

The characters include: Aiden mac Quint, Marcellus’ son by a Celtic (elven) woman while he was stationed in Britannia; Sigmon Hallig, a disgraced Saxon pirate captain who now hunts bounties and acts as protection muscle; Arden mac Wynn, the Briton prefect for the Romans in the area near the Cotswolds; Faolan mac Anyn, a druid who has been cursed to lycanthropy on the full moon, but who can control his shapeshifting the rest of the time; his sister, Fianna, a huntress; and lastly Myrddin Wyllt…a young Merlin who is interested in the future of Aiden. The campaign, like the last one, will start small scale — local missions and mysteries (we’re starting with a murder mystery), and building out to include the imperial politics of Magnus turning on Gratian, which will eventually take us to Gaul and Germania, and perhaps to a meeting with Aiden’s father in Constantinople.

The first campaign was run in Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition, but after the nostalgia of playing D&D again (and in a set of rules so close to the old AD&D, but improved) wore off, I started to remember the things I didn’t like. Magic is weird, really. I never liked the Vancian style of spellbooks. Sure the warlock class got much closer to my idea of how magic should work, but it was, to put it mildly, fiddly. All of D&D is crammed with rules for almost every occasion, and I threw a lot of it out to keep it simple. The other thing — the healing of D&D drives me f@#$ing nuts. Hey, I almost got my arm chopped off, but a 15 minute nap and I’m good as gold. A lot of this is an artifact of the X number of encounters/day model of dungeon crawling. It simply didn’t fit the more gritty atmosphere I wanted.

What to use? Runequest 6/ Mythras? It’s got some good stuff, and their Mythic Britain sourcebook is absofreakin’-lutely outstanding. It’s easily one of the best sourcebooks for a game I’ve read, and I pulled a lot from it, even though its setting is about a century later than where we are. I don’t know the system that well, and don’t want to read a big-a@$$ book right now. The One Ring from Cubicle 7. Also good, but I would have to relearn it, and it’s a bit too high fantasy for me. Don’t mention Palladium; it was a hot mess 30 years ago and hasn’t much improved. Fate? A possibility that I entertained for a while. I even picked up the Fate System Toolkit and a few fantasy oriented settings on DriveThruRPG, but none of them quite did it for me…but they were close. Savage Worlds is another that was considered for a moment, but I find the system too quirky and I hate the exploding die mechanic.

Eventually, I started looking at the game system that I’ve been slowly putting together for our publishing house, Black Campbell Entertainment. It’s got a lot of inspiration from various sources, but the core mechanic is very simple and with a bit of tweaking, would work for fantasy. Hell, we need to playtest it…so, tomorrow, I start running a game with the first game rules I’ve had to write in six years. The last time I did this big a rules project was in the ’90s. It should be interesting to see how it goes and if the players respond well. If not, well, Fate or D&D would both work well.

The party reached Morteus Das, the City of Dead tonight. The city was found to be crumbling, the buildings twisted and ruined, and there were several wrecks of skyships that had crashed at various times. Zelansky decided they would land outside the city, upon seeing that. They could see the Black Gate in the center plaza of the city, a gate large enough for battalions to walk through, for tanks and other materiel to drive through. Around the walls of the city, small, desperate settlements with movement. The great X of canals that carved through the city have been dammed, preventing flow into the city and a wide circular canal hems the city in. Even though the land outside the ring canal is green and as fertile as Mars gets, the settlements on that side of the canal are abandoned and in disrepair…why? The feeling of despair, loneliness, and danger permeate the air, and Veitch hears in his head, “I knew you would come! I am so looking forward to meeting you, my boy.”

Before Warm Winds could land, however, Davira — one of the Martians fronting the mission — ordered the captain to hold a few dozen feet over the ground. Streaming from the settlements around the walls of the city were hundreds of Martians, offering relics and other junk in trade for food. They had crossed one of the bridges over the ring canal, and as they approached, the party could see signs of “Martian plague” — a disease combining the worst elements of dementia, leprosy, and proteus syndrome: mis-shappen from their disease, poxed, limbs eroding, the denizens of the settlements around the city tried to beg supplies, and became increasingly erratic when they were not heeded, most shuffled back to the city as the symptoms of their injuries or illnesses took hold. Only one remained to warn them away from the city, but in terms that I knew would provoke the characters with curiosity flaws into investigating.

Zelansky was not so certain their mission to the city could be successful. The gate was larger than they anticipated and most likely could not be moved, if the city had some kind of effect that disabled vessels. The people were diseases and hostile. He considered taking the marines and pushing into the city in force, but Captain Smith, the marine commander, suggested against it. They had no way of knowing what they were walking into. In the end, he decided on a small reconnaissance mission comprised of the party and Cointreau’s grodh servants, Gruhl and Zhargo, and the enigmatic Silent Watcher, an elosi. They knocked up a small 10-man boat from wood and canvas, and entered the city under cover of darkness.

While inside the city, they realized their compass gave a true direction, seemingly toward the center of town. They stopped to radio the ship, but found themselves attacked by a prehistoric-looking creature with six legs, a hammerhead with a lamprey-like mouth, and a tail studded with spikes which it used to nearly kill Post. Post found his heat ray rifle, and Veitch that his coilgun were non-functional! The oridium bullets in their pistols did not produce blaster blots, but instead looked more like dull tracer rounds. At this point, O’Bannon, armed with a BAR .30 from the marines, cut the beast down with a long burst. This, however, brought the attention of the city’s denizens, and they had to slip away before a throng of Martians found them.

Their compass led them to the palace of Morteus himself, and inside they foudn the throne room, with the infamous Sundered Throne, broken in the war between Atlanean God-Kings. They were greeted by Kallas, the Martian from the riot when they were landing. He knew they would come; the Black Gate is their only way home to Earth. Silent Watcher added that Veitch can activate the gate, and Cointreau has been touched by “one of them” and she — they knew instantly he meant Morana, the would-be empress of Atlantis, and “Queen of Shambala” — would answer their calls to open the gate. Once done, they will be able to leave this world with their followers. Kallas proceeded to monologue for a bit, with the shadows of the throne room thickening around him, until they seemed to be wrapping him in tendrils that worked inside of him…then he seemed to big for his skin, eventually exploding open to reveal a 12 foot tall, four-armed god much like Shiva — dark skinned, wild-eyed. Morteus himself!

Cointreau dropped a smoke bomb and the party ran for it, with the followers in hot pursuit. Pin-Li got to do some chop-socky on a group of them, while Cointreau used one of his pistols to knock over one of the brazers lighting the room and cut off some of their pursuers behind a wall of flame. They found themselves in the central plaza, in front of the ornate and enormous Black Gate, and the monstrous sacrificial altar, shaped like a horribly shaped head and set of jaws made out of obsidian that stood in front of it. The Martian followers of Morteus slipped into the plaza from all sides. they were surrounded! Zelanksy order Gruhl and Zhargo to take a message to the ship, informing the marines to return to the safety of Sigeus Portus, where they had set up a communications relay with an orichalcum-powered radio. Cointreau, meanwhile, reached out with his mind, calling to Morana for help (and with some style points, got a great roll.) Suddenly the gate opens!

Zelansky yelled for Veitch to visualize the labs back on Earth, but Silent Watcher suggested another place — somewhere desolate and empty, a plain with brilliant stars overhead. Veitch realizes he is planning on trapping Morteus! He focused on the image in his mind and when Morteus plowed past them to go through the gate, Silent Watcher ordered him to “close it!” Where did he go? Silent Watcher’s thoughts assured them he was someplace “safe.”

Veitch reopened the Black Gate and they dove through to escape the closing ranks of enraged cultists, landing in the facility in Los Angeles, but without the grodh or Silen Watcher. The marines…they are stuck on Mars. And Erha’s father remains stuck in Shambala or Atlantis, or wherever he is.

That was the close of our current run of Hollow Earth Expedition, while we swap over to our Roman fantasy campaign. To try and mesh the flavor of the campaign and capture the types of magic from Celtic and other period myths, we are moving from Dungeons & Dragons 5th Ed. to a new set of mechanics to see how it goes. (If it doesn’t we can always return to D&D.)

Heavy work loads have kept me from updating of late, but our Hollow Earth Expedition campaign continues apace. The characters, aided by scions of the Houses Arvasala (who control the canals and water trade in the area near Parras Das, and the Davira, who mine oridium — the element that powers many of the ancient Atlantean contraptions, as well as being the material “blasters” use. Their vessel is Warm Winds, a large, armed merchantman they have modified with a carry deck for the three Dogfish. They can be launched and recovered using a trapeze rig similar to those on the airship Akron. Crewed by the US marines under Zelansky’s command, and Martian sky sailors under the captain hired by the Arvasala and Davira, the ship moves along the canal out of Parras Das to Avevel, a city on the edge of the Aerian desert. The nearby hills are inhabited by Red Martians that mine the oridium for the Davira family.

Of course, they get attacked by a pair of vessels from a nearby city-state that has attacked the oridium mines and the villages the miners live in, attempting to snatch the oridium trade from the Davira. A battle between the two slave-driven galleys (ala Space:1889) was short-lived, with some excellent rolls by the characters. The Dogfish, in particular, had been ripping up the enemy. This led to the destruction of one raider galley, and the capture of the crew of the second. The characters put down a boarding party to force the surrender of that crew, but the commander was not disposed to give in, and Cointreau wound up killing him. This led to him picking up a pair of Grodh, the four-armed ape-like “people” of Mars. They were slaves of the captain, now they are his by right of combat, as is everything else he had.

They learned a force had been landed by these pirates to take the mines, and the Dogfish raced off to investigate, finding a pitched battle between a hundred of the raiders vs. twice as many miners who were not as well armed, and whose villages had been bombed from the air, pushing them into the hills. A few strafing runs and the arrival of Warm Winds led to these soldiers retreating into the desert…and a certain death. As a punishment for the attack on the villages, the crew of the second ship were turned over to the locals. Almost certainly, they are now slaves.

The ship continued south toward Morteus Das and was caught in a massive, days-long sandstorm that damaged the ship and caused the maglev drive to malfunction. They were only just able to put the ship down in the blinding swirl of dust, then had to wait out the storm. The next day, they woke to find the ship had nearly gone over a half mile deep chasm into the Meridani Sinus, an area that has some of the last free-standing water on Mars due to the valley having been cut off and its aquifer blasted to the surface by meteor hits on either end of the valley. They also found dead animals and Martians from several caravan vehicles that had been blown across the desert to end up in the sand dune under Warm Wind‘s aft. Several had attempted to scale the dune to get to the broken out windows of the captain’s cabin, but were killed by sandblasting.

A two day stop at Sigeus Portus, the “Gateway to the Valley” provided a diverting stop where they were feted by the priests of the city for their “pilgrimage” to Morteus Das. The ship was fixed and they continued over the lakes and scrublands of the Sinus, then through the mountains to the City of the Dead. In the passes of the mountains, they anticipated an attack, and the Dogfish spotted a pirate vessel with smaller propeller-driven skiffs getting loaded up to attack. A few strafing runs damaged the lead vessel, but the skiffs got away in the twisting valleys of the mountain range and almost made it to Warm Winds. One was shot down by Veitch and his new, orichalcum-powered coilgun; the other crashed into the side of the ship and led to a boarding action that was quickly repelled by Cointreau, Pin-Li, and the Grodhs. A few exchanges of cannon fire saw Warm Winds damaged, and the pirate vessel dropped from the sky.

Finally, they made it to Morteus Das, the City of the Dead, and the first Atlantean city of Mars. The city was found to be crumbling, the buildings twisted and ruined, and there were several wrecks of skyships that had crashed at various times. Zelansky decided they would land outside the city, upon seeing that. They could see the Black Gate in the center plaza of the city, a gate large enough for battalions to walk through, for tanks and other materiel to drive through. Around the walls of the city, small, desperate settlements with movement. The great X of canals that carved through the city have been dammed, preventing flow into the city and a wide circular canal hems the city in. Even though the land outside the ring canal is green and as fertile as Mars gets, the settlements on that side of the canal are abandoned and in disrepair…why? The feeling of despair, loneliness, and danger permeate the air, and Veitch hears in his head, “I knew you would come! I am so looking forward to meeting you, my boy.”

rom_princess_wallpaperThe group picked up with the characters traveling to Parras Das — the City of Gardens — aboard a Martian skyship they had rescued from pirates. The team, with their marine escort, had been taken aboard by the crew after their rescue of Priya, a dheva Princess of the House Arvasala. (Using the art from Revelations of Mars as an example…)

During the four day trip across the desert wasteland of Mars, the characters learned about the people and their world the best they could, as only Zelansky could speak their language, a version of Atlantean. The human-like “red men” were decedents of the Atlaneans and called zhul-ya, and the dheva the decedents of “the ancients.” The Earthmen they are calling vril-ya, and Earth is “vril” to them. Mars has been dying for millennia, and the Arvasala family is instrumental to the survival of many communities in the north of the world. They are ice and water dealers. Their grand ships move ice to the smaller towns, and they are responsible for the upkeep of the canals bring life-preserving water from the ice caps through Parras Das and south to other cities.

They learn the ships are held aloft by some kind of magnetic levitation system that is powered by “oridium” — a material that is also used as ammunition. It appears to be highly energetic and possibly radioactive. During the trip, Cointreau successfully seduced the princess, and gets to try some of his tantric “sex magic”. He finds her a very willing student and subject.

On arrival in the city, they are confronted by an Atlantean design — grand circular canals that take water from the northeastern canal, pump it through the city, and out on the northwestern and southwestern canals. The outer ring of the city is commercial, a massive bazaar, the second ring a residential and garden area, and the innermost ring is filled with beautiful and fanciful towers that could never stand in Earth’s gravity. The central one is the Lighthouse, also the city council chambers for the “Nine Families” that run the city (and much of norther Mars.) They have sussed out the dheva are a higher caste than the zhul-ya; they rule Parras Das, and possibly much more.

A tour of the city leads them to Arvsala House, where Priya’s family oversees the water trade. Their patriarch, Arvan, is interested in the aliens, but is also obviously disturbed by her interest in Cointreau; her brother, Vadra, even more so. Later that night, Cointreau slips out to investigate the many floors and rooms of the tower, only to witness an argument between the old man and his son, and Priya. Why, he does not know, but she appears much more headstrong and combative when there isn’t an audience.

The next day, they go out to see the sights and are attacked by 15 zhul-ya who turn out to be members of the pirate gang whose ship they destroyed when they rescued Priya. A firefight ensued in the Gardens of Pleasure, a beautiful botanical garden scene. The bad guys don’t stand much of a change, getting taken down by Post using Veitch’s coilgun. A stray round let to them fighting a six-legged elephant-like creature with mutliple trunks and a bad attitude. Eventually, they were able to win out, but were arrested by the guards of the House Davira, who are oridium traders and bankers who run security for the gardens. Davira is similar shocked by their arrival, and in the midst of talking to their scion, Zelansky was able to pull off a series of excellent diplomacy tests. He gains their trust, tells them of their desire to hell heal Mars by locating and fixing the “Great Machine”  on the Mountain of the Gods that keeps the Martian atmosphere alive, and to open trade between the United States and Parras Das, and to do this, that they need to find a gate home like the one they used to get here. There’s one in Motus Das —  the City of Dead —  according to their Arvasala hosts. that they want to go there impresses the Davira, who offer to fund the expedition.

Zelansky uses this to parlay a treaty between the USA and Houses Arvasala and Davira, in exchange for the Arvasala merchantman Warm Winds, and representatives and crew from both families. Over the next few weeks, Zelansky works to improve the relations between the families, while Post, Erha, and Veitch work to modify and improve the merchantman. They add trapeze hooks for the Dogfish mini-fighters to take off from  and be retrieved. They add powered flight to supplement the sails. Veitch figures out how to modify the oridium ammunition cartridges to fire through Earth weapons…their Colt automatics are now blasters! Cointreau conspired with O’Bannon to get Veitch together with the half-vril-ya inventor, Erha. They have so much in common and obviously like each other, and their plans culminate with a surprise balcony date between the two.

With everything finally ready, the characters and marines, together with a small crew of Martians led by Priya Arvasala and Sheri Davria, sets sail for Mortus Das, a city “fron which no one returns.”

For our Mars, I’m blending elements of the Barsoom-like Revelations of Mars for the Hollow Earth Expedition setting, and from Space:1889, including having more communities and live canals. I’ve replaced the high/canal/hill Martians of 1889 with the dheva, the zhul-ya, and more primitive versions of the latter. Also, we kept the telepathic Elosi, whose goals and actions remain a mystery. We’re getting more into the pulp super-science aspect of the Veitch character, and starting to build on how the worlds will collide once there is a way to get back and forth from the Red Planet.

The group met up tonight to pick up from the cliffhanger where they had found themselves on Mars instead of the “Second Earth”, Atlantia. While they tended to the wounded who had been rolled over by the minifighters that had exited the Eye of Shambala only to fall over and roll down the mound of marines, and tried to get the litle planes back on their landing gear, Zelansky was photographing their surroundings. He noted that the city they arrived next to had a larger “eye”-stlye gate that acted both as a portal, and as a door/gate to the city. Inside, the buildings seems to shift and more, changing, but in the center was a larger ziggurat with was surmounted by a strange object…a flying saucer much like those of the Atlanteans!

Suddenly, they realized they were being watched by three figures, very tall, dressed in white robes with red sashes. Their faces were disguised by featureless white masks. Yet, thy could hear these people in their heads, the language unfamiliar, but the concepts clear — “strange, one of them is a Vril-ya. I though they were dead or in the Celestial Keep. The other [Cointreau] has been touched by an ancient…but they are all asleep! How is this possible. They others, they’ve never seen their like; similar to the Zhul-ya, but not.” These creatures were quickly joined by more: strange humanoids with long arms and fingers, giant black eyes, none speaking but communicating directly to the characters’ minds. “The leader [Zelansky] is curious. The one touched by the ancient is larcenous, selfish, and weak; he is too dangerous to allow in the city. The Atlantean [Veitch]  is well-meaning but confused.”

Despite not having the same language, the characters are able to communicate. They are on Zhul — Mars, apparently — and Earth is “Vril” according to these things. The city is Elos Das, a term Zelansky thinks means either “hidden city” or “secret city”. The “people” are elosi — the hidden people or people of the secret. He’s not sure, the syntax is strange.

The creatures aided them with their injured, inspected the “crude but clever” Dogifsh minifighters, and examined the party. They find the marines bellicose. Far too dangerous to be allowed inside. Then, as a group, they turn to face northwest. Suddenly, they are headed back into the city, some of them simply disappearing as they go. The three “leaders?” inform them that there is food and water, two days march to the south, or to the northwest. In the northwest, they can see what the creatures saw: two ships in the air, sails out, coming for their position.

As they watch, the city twists and folds itself until it is gone without a trace. The marines spread out and prepare for hostilities, while Erha, O’Bannon, and Post get their Dogfish ready for the fight. The two ships separate, the larger one climbing, while the smaller bears in on them, firing a heat ray that carves a trench of molten glass in the sand and damaged Erha’s Dogfish. The three pilots get into the air, their minifighters faster but more unstable than ever.

The frigate or warship, or whatever it is, closes on the marines’ position while zelansky uses his math skills to aid the mortar crew in attacking the ship. Meanwhile, the Dogfish swoop and attack the craft, while getting fired at by strange cannons that shoot bolts of greenish light their way. These blasters miss the Dogfish, which are far too fast, and they successfully strafe the ship over and over. They noted that the crew of the larger ship seemed to be fighting each other, and they realized that it could be a prize for the smaller ships; perhaps they’ve been discovered by pirates?

The mortar rounds hit their target, and Cointreau finds himself using his Inspire to get the marine gunners to use their .30 machineguns to good effect. Eventually, the craft crashes into the sand near their position and the marines, led by Zelansky, Cointreau, and Veitch board and take the ship. they have to evacuate quickly, however, as the ship is on fire and eventually blows itself sky-high. The small crew is under guard by the marines, and their lone captive, a strange green woman with four arms! is being kept “safe” by Cointreau.

While this is happening, Post pulls a spectacular stall into a landing on the quarterdeck of the other skyship and gets them to surrender. Sure enough, the vessel was taken by the smaller ship, and the captain is a strange green-skinned man with four arms. Post is able to get them to land near the downed craft. Zelansky can talk to them; they speak a dialect of Atlantean. These green people are dheva (gods?), and the red-skinned people that crewed their ship, and that of the pirate vessel, are Zhul-ya, possible relatives of the Vril-ya!

They are able to talk their way into passage on the ship Warm Winds to Parras Das, the city “her highness” Priya, of the House Avasarava, is from. She is the first daughter of a powerful merchant prince in Parras Das, and she was taken captive by the pirates while being transported to a nearby city-state to a commercial negotiation. Priya is easily seduced by Cointreau, who finally gets a chance to try his “sex magic”, with high success (We decided that the tantrism thing he was going for seemed less a magic aptitude/ sorcery thing, than a psychic aptitude/ mind control thing, and changed the character to work more appropriately.)

The night ended with the characters spotting the spires of Parras Das, which sits on the conflux of two arrow-straight canal that stretch to the horizons. I opted for a fusion of the Revelations of Mars Barsoomian feel and that of Space: 1889, with its canals and zones of life for a mile or two around them. We’ve also got hints that the dheva are a royal or rich/aristocratic caste of Martian, whereas the “red Martians” or Zhul-ya are more common.

Last week, the game took the characters to Mars. The evening closed with a cliffhanger — the party having come through the Eye of Shambala onto the Martian plains in the late afternoon, just outside of a strange city, Elos Das from the Revelation of Mars sourcebook.  We established the half-gravity, compared to Earth and the thin air — on par with being at high altitude, but not so high as to instantly incapacitate…but that was it.

I was left with the choice of how much to use RoM, what to make my own to work with the elements of HEX and the Greco-Hindu mix of mythology that’s been hinted at, and whether to crib from my other favorite “planetary romance” source, Space: 1889. The RoM sourcebook has a decidedly Burroughs tilt toward it. The skyships in RoM have that spindly, alien look to them that was used in John Carter (really…not that bad an adaptation.) 1889 has a more traditional look to their cloudships. RoM seems to have a more “dead” Mars than 1889, which has cities and canals, and more habitable zones. So what to do?

Steal, brothers and sisters, steal! I decided all of the cities presented in Revelations of Mars will be present, and I’m using many of the Martian races — but not all. I’m losing the Saurian and Chitik, but keeping the Dheva as a wealthy class/race, the Zhul-Ya as the more common and poor race, and the Grodh (Gorilla Grodh…sigh…) as the equivalent of the savages of Mars. This parallels the High/Hill/Canal Martian slip of Space: 1889. I’m using the cloudships of 1889, as well; they’re prettier, a bit more realistic-looking, but what about their means of flight? I didn’t want liftwood and the RoM book is very hand-wavy…which isn’t going to work with my group. I decided to go with magnetic levitation that uses a form of “oridium” that the book cites as the ammunition for their blasters.

As for Mars, I’m using the Space: 1889 version, but with mods to fit in the RoM cities as stand ins for some of the Martian cities. There will be canals, many in various states of repair, some areas where water is still present under the surface (Valles Marineris). I’m keeping the “Great Machine” that is keeping everything from dying.

Now I just need to figure out what to do with it all…