So, tonight was an example of how something can go beautifully right and wrong at the same time. The characters were left in various cliffhangers: several of them toppling to their deaths, and one captured by the Emperor of Atlantis, and their former friend Olga — now a sorceress self-named Lady Morana.

We opened with Dr. Gould, hallucinating from the massive hit he took from the Emperor’s “ring of power”. He was in a black space with a trio of eyes, one atop another, gazing on him in disappointment at being distracted by the Inner World. That prison is the past, he is needed now…but before they can say much else they are interrupted by Olga’s voice askng “Who are you?” to the Eyes. The presence is stunned — she has been resurrected! Kaarna! “No, she is here, but she is not speaking,” Olga tells it. In a panic, the eyes close. gould wakes up from this dream to find himself prisoner on the imperial barge, headed for Atlantis.

Meanwhile, Gus Hassenfeldt and Lady Zara fall to their near-death, landing in a pool in one of the other suspended gardens. After doing some quick first aid, they try to get to the top of the strange building they are in, making their way through plant growth that has taken over the lower levels. Eventually, they reach the top promenade to see the barge and its saucer escort flying away. They also find their saucer shot up and their pilot near death from smoke inhalation. Once everyone had gotten attention, they settled down to the business of survival: finding plants they could eat, hunting some of the birds. After a few days, they were finally rescued by Lord Amon and Zek , who had come for them, despite the impending attacks on Atlantis’ forces.

Gus stumbled on the idea of using the uniforms from a few of the dead imperial guardsmen so that he and Amon can sneak into the royal tower and rescue Gould. It’s an insane plan, but they needed the doctor for something big…the fate of the Inner World could hang in the balance! Under the cover of a heavy thunderstorm, Gus, Amon, and Zara head for Atlantis to save Gould.

Over those two days, Gould was nursed back to health by some of the half-dressed slave women (ain’t they always?) in the palace before being brought before the head of the secret police, Cpt. Thoth — the vril who wears a strange beaked mask to hide his disturbingly damaged face. He is pumped full of drugs to make him malleable, then with the Emperor and Morana/Olga, he is taken to see the “Great Machine” which gives this place existence….

Their saucer arrives without incident and Amon and Gus, using Zara as the ol’ “prisoner they’ve captured” gambit, get taken to Thoth, who immediately recognizes them. This led to a full blown firefight with a half dozen armed policemen, a dozen or so “observers” who keep tabs on the goings-on in the city, and Thoth. In the process, Thoth seals the room and lets poison gas into the chamber (his mask filters it out.)

Amon is shot, Gus manages to disarm, then demask, Thoth, who surprisingly fights back! Despite a horrible crack to the head with a heat rifle, the secret policeman continues to attack! Gus tosses the mask to Zara who wears it while pulling Amon to the doors. His face isn’t the only thing damaged, he tells Gus; his injuries prevent him from feeling pain, including the gas that is steadily killing all of them. Gus gets a hold of the guy and uses his face to smash the buttons on his control panel, opening the doors and allowing them all to escape.

Thoth dies, but they get a hold of his lieutenant, Iris, whom Zara shoots and questions for Gould’s whereabouts. With Amon out of the action, and Zara going to find their other friend Shria, Gus gets into one of the imperial elevators and heads for the Great Machine, deep under ground.

Unfortunately, Gould has already seen the thing — a massive crystalline device that burrows deep into the ground below. Pulsing with energy and tied into the electromagnetic field of the Earth, the machine is keeping the pocket dimension of the Hollow Earth inflated and created the central sun. Olga’s presence has supercharged it, and he can feel it filled with energy and information. Mot goads him into joining with the machine, but wasn’t counting on Gould gaining control of the device. It’s all too much, however, and when Olga tells him to let her into his mind, he does. With that, she has him “turn the key”, opening the prison forever!

The world twists and turns, wracked by lightning storms, the ground tearing itself open, and the sun balloons in size, heating everything unbearably…the city is falling down around their ears, the canals are draining into the new fissures in the ground, the clouds are boiling! Then it is as if a wall of rock in superimposed on them; like they are sliding through it — save a few places where the superimposition does not hold…then the world turns inside out!

In the ruins of the imperial tower, Gus gazes out on the destruction, and beyond to the setting sun on the horizon. In the sky overhead, a moon — except no moon is a blue and white mottled ball with its own small moon. He manages to find a way down on of the elevator shafts to find Gould, and together they climb back to the surface.

Outside in the wreckage, they can see Earth, a bit smaller than the moon, in their new night sky

We ended the night there and have put the campaign on hiatus because 1) it’s a great stopping point for the game, and 2) I have no idea what to do now. It was an exciting night, with a good fight, creepy moments, big set pieces, and one hell of a cliffhanger, but it all came together because, well, I forgot to save my notes for the night.

Which brings me to the GM tips section of this piece: what the hell to do when you’re not really prepared on game night? Have one, maybe two basic things you want to accomplish. I wanted 1) a rescue attempt, 2) a showdown with Thoth, and 3) the reveal on the Great Machine.

The rescue attempt is boilerplate Star Wars: Imperial guard uniforms and saucer (it’s an imperial transport…), they slip in to the big secret base, and eventually have to fight their way out. I kept it simple — a single CON roll to convince the other guards they should be there until they got to Thoth. A good death trap to go along with a creepy major henchman with some kind of hook (he’s horribly disfigured and doesn’t feel pain.)

What i hadn’t planned on was Gould going along with their plan quite so easily. He had a few options: Destroy the inner world and keep the surface safe, stabilize the inner world and make it more accessible from the outside, or decouple it from Earth entirely.

I was going to go with a Space:1889-esque beat and have the Inner World settle over Venus to get my jungle world with dinosaurs to complement the dying Mars, but it seemed more reasonable to create a new Earth, trailing ours close enough to be seen. This new angle gives me a few options for future games — they can try to find their way home (probably through one of the “Eyes” like the one they originally traveled through); they can engage in some sandals and sorcery action; or I can shift the focus to a pre-WWII Earth that just got some Atlantean technology injected into the mix, and which now has a new world only a few light seconds away.

The last option presents a classic alternate space age WWII — rockets and Nazis in space!

Or, I’ve jumped the shark. I guess we’ll see.

On 19 January, it was announced the US military would be switching from the venerable M9 pistol (or for the civilians out there, the Beretta 92) to the SIG-Sauer P320. The P320 is based on the same concept the rather execrable P250 was — it is a completely modular design: the pistol has not just the usual Picatinny rail for a light or laser, it also has interchangeable backstraps found on many polymer-framed guns, it has a reversible magazine catch, it has kits which allow interchangeable barrel/magazines to allow a caliber swap from 9mm, to .357 SIG, .380 to .40 or .45, much like the Tanfoglio Witness. The length of the barrel/slide can be swapped out, as can the grip section from full size, to “carry”, to compact and subcompact sizes. The trigger assembly for this striker fired gun can be swapped out.

sig_sauer_p320-4.png

The Modular Handgun System — the military version — features an ambidextrous safety, as well as the ambidextrous slide stop (making this one of the first SIGs a lefty can use easily.) The P320 has comparable accuracy and recoil to its metal-framed cousin, the P226.

SIG-Sauer P320 9mm (MHS variant) — PM: +1   S/R: 2   AMMO: 17   DC: F   CLOS: 0-6   LONG: 12-18   CON: +1   JAM: 98+   DRAW: 0   RL: 1   COST: $700

So, this week saw everyone back and just in time for the big meet with the Emperor of Atlantis. The characters had convinced the Valhallans to join the fight to preserve Ultima Thule, and decided to bring the Soviets from the crash of SSSR-V6 back with them. The two members of the GPU unit that have been trying to recapture Olga since early in the campaign are convinced they’ll be needed to stop her, if her powers have truly been unleashed, but the characters — rightly not trusting them — leave them at home.

They head to the location they and the Atlanteans had agreed on — a neutral spot on an inland sea outside the control of Atlantis. There they found a high mountain range with a massive inland sea and near the northeastern spit of water, a huge crystal and metal building, like an upside-down ziggurat from which streams of water and clouds of steam escaped. The middle of this inverted pyramid was open, stepped leading down to a super-heated pool of water. Various “islands” with water features and gardens were suspended in the middle and the scale of everything was that of a place made for people bigger than Man.

Nearby, a large imperial ship in red and gold waited, and a few saucers were keeping the area secured. They landed on a pad, and Dr. Gould stayed inside the saucer with their pilot, planning on only revealing himself to win Olga over, if she was there; they knew he was of value to the emperor, and it was too risky to show him off. Gus Hassenfeldt, “Sky Marshal” Hunter, and Zara, with a small guard of panthermen to protect them, were directed through the upper floors of the structure to a massive suspended park with waterfalls and gardens.

There they found Emperor Mot (I settled on going with the classic Max von Sydow Ming for the general look and feel) and Olga — or Lady Morana (a Russian death goddess) — dressed in your basic black slinky femme fatale number, complete with cape, and their collection of royal guardsmen. After some banter between the sides, Gus tried to keep the conversation on peace-making: they only started the rebellion to reseat their friend Amon in Ultima Thule (done), and to rescue their friends Olga and Shria. Olga/Morana, however, doesn’t need to be saved. She is perfectly content to be the emperor’s right-hand and consort. Mot even agrees to return Shria to them, if they walk away and disband their rebellion.

Meanwhile, Olga has reached out and touched Gould’s mind, luring him to join them. There, he is surprised to find she doesn’t want to leave with them. She has everything she needs here, but they need him to save the Inner World from collapse. Mot needs him to help “turn the key” and save this world, and he needs Olga’s ability to supercharge the Atlantean technology to do it. They try to convince him to join Mot and his friends can leave in peace…he might even mean it, they think.

But Gould pushes too hard, trying to convince Olga to run away with them. She refuses — Mot has given her more than she could have out there: she has been awakened to her power, she has authority and resect, power, and when she is done with Mot, she will rule this world! The final dig — he also gave her a son. Gould falls apart and she is able to ensorcel him to leave while giving the guardsmen their orders.

The battle was fast and brutal. Gus takes out two guardsmen with rapidity, while Hunter hoses the emperor down with his Chicago Typewriter…but the .45s from the Tommy gun reflect away as the emperor raises his fist. There is a glowing ring with the symbol of the Terra Arcanum on it. He then uses telekenesis to launch Hunter over the side of the bridge to his apparent death below.

Gus grabs Zara and throws them both over the side into a water feature to escape the heat rays of the guardsmen remaining. They are sucked through some kind of tube and expelled into the central terracing of the pyramid, falling…

The gunfire snapped Gould out of it and he runs for it, just in time to see their saucer apparently explode on the concourse above! They are trapped. Then he sees his friends gone, the panthermen cut down by heat ray fire, and Mot closing on him. With a flick of the wrist, his telekinesis knocks the doctor cold. As he passed out, his last sight is Olga standing over him with that derisive look she always gives those enemies she deems beneath her.

This was a fun one, and mostly played off the cuff. I didn’t have much time to plan as I had a last minute hire at the local community college to teach history, and was scrambling to get through the paperwork and mandatory training.

I knew I wanted a big action set piece that was weird and exotic, and big — the same way the Star Wars settings like the Death Star interiors were BIG. This was their first meeting with the big bad, and we had to see him in a venue that was big, strange, and intimidating to give the character more impact, as well. The von Sydow Ming remains one of the all-time best biddies in cinema history and he was always in my mind when I was mentioning the guy as the sinister off-screen presence. He had to POP to make this work: he couldn’t be a push-over, couldn’t be anything but calm, menacing, but charming in his own way.

I was fortunate enough to bunce some ideas off of Runeslinger last night. I wanted something that had that hawkman city vibe from Flash Gordon, but bigger. He suggested the geyser idea, which I ran with and changed the venue to the giant upside down pyramid for the weird factor. He mentioned “spa o the Gods” and it all clicked. (One of the other players used the same term later in play and got a style point for it…)

Olga had to come off different. She was always quiet, violent, but with that defensive, abused quality that made her a bit human. Now they see her as a sort of Black Queen: confident, powerful, angry, and twisted. Mot has either made her into something obscene, or worse…released something that was always there. This NPC was always an enigma. I had early visions of her secretly being a GPU agent trying to find the Hollow Earth. I considered that she was just so broken that she was truly sociopathic, but hadn’t crossed the line into cold-blooded killer (but was close.) But when she got captured, I knew I had my angle — the abused creature of power that is finally trained well enough to be dangerous and now has her own agenda, which might be to see everything burn (Gould’s concern), unbridled power, or something else.

So again we pulled off a top-notch cliffhanger with a major PC captured, his girlfriend turned into a sorcerous villainess, the others falling to their deaths(?) and the emperor winning.

 

We were down a person for Hollow Earth Expedition this week, so with a bit a soft-shoe we pressed on with a bit of “talking about or feelings” — we saw that Gus Hassenfeldt was shacked up with his mermaid “wife” in a damaged warehouse on the waterfront, where she was out of the ever-present sun of the Inner World, and had access to water from the interior boat dock. Dr. Gould is throwing himself fully into the campaign against Atlantis in a desperate attempt to save Olga (now known as Lady Morana, the emperor’s “favored” consort…) and has been showing tactical acumen that is impressing the turncoat, General Inanna.

They visit the impressive Royal Library of Thule, where Lord Trevor and a couple of the German science team from Deutschland have been digging through the history of the Hollow Earth. They ascertained that the place was artificially created — something all the denizens seem to know — by some “Great Lord” about 1000-2000BC, to rid the world of the evils created by the “gods” of Man. They posit this might be Ahura Mazda, or even Yahweh… The Atlantans were the guardians of the gateways to this prison, and they seemed to have fallen from grace somehow. This led to the “sinking of Atlantis.” Most of their people died along the way, replaced by their servants, the vril. There are vril with Atlantean blood, but for some reason some of the Ancient tech doesn’t work for them, only for humans with Atlantean blood.

Their visit with the scientists is cut short — Atlantis is sending an envoy to parlay, responding to their request to open a dialogue. She arrives in a saucer, a slinky smart woman with a pantherwoman as a pet on a leash. This is Captain Iris of the Imperial Secret Police. She is here to suss them out, and delivers the emperor’s offer to talk, but only with the Outlanders. He sees them (rightfully) as the impetus of this rebellion, and wants to find out what they want. Everyone on the alliance side realizes this is almost certainly a trap to get their hands on the Atlantean-blooded Gould. They agree, but say that will only send Gus, but they want Olga there, and want a meet in a neutral spot. (They intend Gould to be hidden until the right moment, hoping he can win Olga back to their side.)

After Iris is away with their counter-proposal, they get more disturbing news: the German airship, Deutschland, was seen yesterday heading toward Valhalla…but why? They were supposed to be doing a goodwill tour and picking up more troops for Ultima Thule’s defense. Is it some kind of double cross? They’ve left two scientists and a platoon of their men in Ulitma Thule under Linz, a junior Obersturmfuhrer…he is as gobsmacked as they!

Gould and Gus race to Valhalla in a saucer and arrive to find Deutschland and Los Angeles both gone. King Woden was informed their attack on Ultima Thule had failed, and Obersturmbahnfuhrer Werner convinced Admiral Byrd to take Los Angeles and head for the surface. Both airships have a pair of the Atlantean saucers they were given as gigs, and they took the craft with them! (They know that Werner would have needed the LA to get out of the Hollow Earth — Gould’s brother, aboard the American airship, is the only other person they know whose presence can open the Northern Entrance.)

Woden knew the story about their loss at Ulitma Thule was a failure, but let them go. There was obviously some ulterior motive for the Outlanders decamping the Inner World. Fortunately, he has some idea of why from the same place he knew the reports of their failure were false: his new friends, the remaining crew of the crashed Soviet airship SSSR-V6! With the crew is the GPU psychic, Galina Obreva (an on-going antagonist) and her superior, Capt. Arkady “the Ghost” Lenshev, a man with the power to “cloud men’s minds.”

They warned Gus and Gould about Olga — that she had powers far beyond those they knew about. Even the Special Department of the GPU wasn’t foolish enough to train her. But if the Emperor of Atlantis has wakened those abilities in her, no one is safe — not here in the Inner World, or on the surface.

They must stop her, and they will help with the rebellion to do so…

So, I’m slowly crawling toward running a Dungeons & Dragons campaign (see the last bunch of posts), and had been playing around with a couple of D&D character generator apps for the iPad. The one that stood out was a paid app (if you wanted to build more than one character at a time) by an outfit called Lion’s Den named Fight Club 5th Edition. There look to be verions for the various d20 editions on the App Store. (It looks like they’re also up for Android…)

I downloaded the thing and played with it, and found the interface and a character “sheet” presentation on the screen to be magnificent. It calculated up armor class, ave throws, etc. etc. for me, let me pick spells, and equipment. Full service stuff. I decided what the hell and popped for the $2.99.

There were a few places where it fell down, the big one being it doesn’t have all the background packages, nor all the subraces of elves and the like — I suspect it has to do with what is available on the 5th edition SRD. That said, I was able, over the course of two hours, input the rest of the background packages and subraces and save it up to iCloud with no effort at all, especially as you could duplicate one of the existing ones (high elf, for instance) and adjust the modifiers and features for, say, a Drow. I banged out Aasimar to match the Tiefling.

It’s incredibly easy to use, intuitive, pretty to look at, and works very well. So is it worth it? Yes, even if you have to plug some stuff in yourself.

I liked it so much, I downloaded their Game Master 5th Edition app. This allows you to build out a campaign and encounters quickly and easily, but dropping in the monsters you need, the treasures per encounter, the NPCs present and even PC’s stats can be added. (I would like to see the ability to pull PCs for Fight Club…) There’s a tab for rule references, one for the bestiary, treasures, spells that describe them for you. There’s a dice roller that allows you to add mods, etc. The only thing really missing is a decent map screen. (There’s a campaign map/picture window, but it’s not useful for anything but looking pretty.

Game Master 5th Edition is definitely worth the $2.99 to unlock all the features, and reduces game prep dramatically. Is it worth it? Absolutely, even without the map functionality.

So, we had a player out this week, so the Hollow Earth Expedition campaign was on hold for a week. (Actually, I had a way to explain the character’s absence, but…) The rest of us decided to do some character generation for my Dungeons & Dragons game set during the fall of the Roman Empire.

I picked the rough date of 376AD (or 1128 ab urbe condita, according to the Roman calendar of the time), a few years before the disastrous Battle of Adrianople sets the Empire to go into the ground like a lawn dart. The setting, at least to start, is in Germania Superior — along the upper reaches of the Rhine, but will eventually take them to Augusta Treverorum (if they make it.)

One of the players jumped to an idea almost immediately — a human cleric from Mauritania: Aurelius Augustinus of Hippo (or as we know him, Saint Augustine.) He’s about 22 at the start of the campaign, and has left Carthage and his religious studies because of a tricky situation with the daughter of a wealthy man. A curious, well-read, and intelligent man with an interest in different religions, he has set out to explore the world and find some kind of truth to it. In game terms, he’s a cleric with a focus on Knowledge, with Apollo and Minerva as his preferred gods of the pantheon. His spells are primarily healing and mending ones. He has a crossbow…hopefully, he won’t shoot himself or a fellow with it by accident. He’s average on the physical stats, but high on mentals with an 18 Wisdom.

Come on…the guy’s playing Saint Augustine in an alternate reality where the Roman gods exist. How cool does that sound?

The other player went for party balance and — assuming the missing player would most likely go for a wizardy/bardy type — went with a human fighter with a street urchin background for some thieving talents. He’s a former legionnaire, having served his 20 years in relative quiet on the frontiers of the Empire (Britannia, maybe northwestern Gaul, but a relatively quiet post to explain his level 1 rank.) Capable of reading, he had risen to the rank of optio, a sergeant or deputy to his centurion. His character is packing a 16 Strength and 15 Dexterity, and has all his old service gear, so gladius, scutum, chain shirt, etc. With his discharge and citizenship papers safely on his person, he’s currently working as a bodyguard for whoever will hire him.

Character creation for D&D 5th edition is fairly easy. We had to do a bit of flipping around the book, which has a font color and size that is a bitch and a half for my LASIK improved eyes, but we sailed through the basic bits — race, class, abilities. We had to do a bit of hunting to figure out how the skills and save throws worked. It would have gone faster but Wizards of the Coast thought it would be fun to do the glossary in a font that is readable only with electron microscopes. Background packages add a nice bit of fluff to character creation ideals, and other character bits. That the classes and backgrounds start you with some gear is a nice touch.

Overall, due to a lack of familiarity and bad friggin’ fonts, we were able to knock out two characters in the space of just under two hours, including taking our time to discuss some of the basics of the setting — like which races were playable, where they’re often found, etc.

The basic mechanic are on hand to see when you look at a character sheet. d20+proficiency+ability or skill mod. Hit a DC or difficulty check, and roll on. It feels like someone took Advanced Dungeons & Dragons from my youth, cleaned up the rules and added some bits to make it more a roleplaying and less a combat simulation game. From what I can see, it seems a much more logical descendent of AD&D than 3rd and 4th editions ever did.

We still have to get one character statted up, then we’ll probably have a play test session sometime in the next few weeks.

Welp…I dropped a line to the gaming group with a few of the ideas I had and they bit on the one I hadn’t expected, but kinda hoped they would.

The setting is an alternate Earth where the various pantheons are around, their monstrous progeny are present, and magic is real. Instead of the mid to late medieval period that seems the equivalent for most Dungeons & Dragons games, we are going with Late Antiquity/Early Middle Ages.

So far, I’ve worked out that we are going to be near the end of the fourth century, when the waves of nomads started washing west into Roman territory, each wave running away from something worse behind them. But instead of Vandals, Visigoths, Ostraogths, Huns, Franks, and the like, I’m some replacing these groups with the typical bad guy races from D&D. These people and critters are running from something terrible coming out of the Central Asian steppes and are finding Rome and Constantinople ripe for the picking.

Some of the  main playable races of the Players’ Handbook will move to NPC races — the gnomes, dragonborn, and half-orcs (especially the latter) wont’ work for the setting. Humans are the main race, of course, but elves — predominantly from Hibernia and Britannia, and from the Galician areas of Hispania but present everywhere; halflings — for us the descendents of humans and dwarves, and dwarves (the Nordic sort) are commonly found throughout Northern Europe. Tiefling and Aasimar will be playable, but I haven’t worked out exactly what I’m doing with them yet, other than they will be connected to the monotheism and Zoroastrianism coming out of Judea and the Sassanid Empire.

Orcs are getting rolled into trolls; they are a creation of Tolkein and I’m trying to strip a lot of the Lord of the Rings influences for the campaign. Angles and demons work in the setting — I’m tying them to the tiefling and aasimar angle, coming out of the monotheistic regions. The mythic creatures of the Norse, Celtic, Urgo-Finnish, Russian, and the Greco-Roman pantheons will be around.

Now I have to figure out what is pushing the influx of people from Asia.

As to the Europe of this period, the Roman Empire is technically still around. Garrisons keep the peace here and there, but the influx of warlike tribes and creatures is breaking the Prefecture of Gaul into personal fiefdoms. This is made worse by the coloni system, the precursor for the feudal system. The Goth Wars have shattered the aqueduct systems and agriculture is collapsing. High taxes, weak bureaucracy and military, and banditry are crushing trade. It’s all falling apart.

This shift also means that the players will find themselves having to work up some decent backgrounds for their characters. This is probably going to require a night or two of character generation.

This combination of more realistic alternate history and classical mythologies has me actually interested in running fantasy for the first time in decades. Best of all, half my game prep is done for me — hello, bookshelf! Hello, class notes! (I’m glad the university stuck me with teaching all those Early Western Civ classes, now…) Need some maps? Google up some period maps, or raid my library.