Don't Forget Your Boots

Meandering aimlessly around the GURPS landscape

Tag: background

After The End Of The End; or, What Was Up With The Pink Snow?

I promised that I would go back and fill in some of the blanks from the apocalypse game (see session 1, session 2, session 3, and session 4). There are lingering questions, like, “What the heck was going on there?” and “You said there were no zombies! You’re a liar!

Since the campaign started before the GURPS After Thed End series began, I never wrote up a formal description, but here’s how it would look in hindsight:

Primary Cause: X-Factor (ATE2 pg 7)

Secondary Effects:

  • Bombs Away (ATE2 pg 4)
  • Mega-Virus (ATE2 pg 5)
  • Things Fall Apart (ATE2 pg 6)

Appropriate Hazards: Chemicals and Munitions, Disease, Gangs, Paramilitaries, conceivably Radiation

Max TL Reached: TL 8

How long ago:  GM looks meaningfully at watch

Location/Setting: The ruins of Portland and surrounding areas

Campaign Style and Morality: Depressingly gritty and shades-of-grey

But what does all that mean, really?

Well, it was aliens.

During the first few minutes of (I think) the second session, one of the players proudly announced his bet for the ultimate source of the trouble:  “Panspermia!”  I was startled, because… he was basically correct. The aliens were “reverse terraforming” Earth.

About the only plot-twist I had planned for the aliens was that they weren’t coming from the skies. These aliens had been on the planet for a long time. They were going to come out of the oceans. My vague intention was to tie them to the Cthulhu Mythos somehow, probably playing off the “dead Cthulhu waits dreaming” angle. The plan was to associate the falling stars from session 1 with “when the stars are right”. They came to the planet centuries (at least) ago, concealed themselves at the deepest parts of the oceans, and gathered their strength for a brutal takeover.

The pink snow was a product of the aliens. It was a biological weapon, a pollen that caused a terrible disease in those who came in contact with it. (Not the stuff to stick in one’s mouth.) The disease would cause bleeding, mental confusion, restlessness, aimless wandering, and eventual death. Those who didn’t die from it could end up with long-term brain damage.

Incidentally, I based the disease’s writeup off several of the sample diseases from GURPS After the End 2: The New World. When I first read the sample world-killer diseases, I was skeptical. They seemed like serious problems, sure, but enough to destroy civilization? Does “HT-4 to resist” really equate to a 90+% fatality rate? … and then we rolled all the resistance rolls for Cypys’ agonizing night of quarantine. Turns out, any disease that inflicts a HT penalty as one of its effects is going to be startlingly effective.

Which brings us directly to the “zombies”. The crowds of moaning, shambling folks who were bleeding from the eyes — they weren’t zombies, they were victims. They were the walking wounded, not the walking dead. They were people who had failed enough HT checks to start suffering the obvious effects of the pink snow disease. Yes, every time a PC poked one of these guys with a stick until they fell down, they were tripping a sick person. Don’t think it wasn’t still a good idea, though. I was watching for the first time one of the “zombies” managed to make physical contact with a PC, causing all manner of exposure to infectious bodily fluids.

If you’re reviewing the material looking for zombies, there’s one other candidate that I can think of:  Al, the would-be looter who got picked up by a tripod. When he emerged, he was wearing a wire skullcap and seemed to have had some personality changes. In time, more of these capped individuals would have turned up. Of course, the caps were a way for the aliens to control the humans who resisted the pink snow disease.

I stole the “aliens in tripods using caps to control the minds of humans” idea from the Tripods books, by John Christopher. (And at least one person called me on it.)  I’ve always wanted to use those tripods in a game. I’ve been a big fan since I was a kid. I remember being fascinated by the BBC series on TV, and then by the comic strip adaptation in Boys’ Life. The comic prompted me to search for the books, back then. Not too long ago, one of my kids reminded me of the books when he picked up the first one. For the apocalypse game, I changed the aliens’ methods and motivations, but kept the iconic visuals.

That wasn’t the big literary theft, though. The original core idea for the campaign — that an alien race might try to adjust the ecology of our planet for their own purposes — came from David Gerrold’s War Against The Chtorr. (Good luck finding all the books. There was a GURPS book for 3rd Edition, now out of print, and likely to stay that way, from what I understand of how licensing rights go.)  Those books were also the source for the visuals, if not the effects, of the pink snow. The worms came from there, as well, but they never got enough game time to grow to their full “Greyhound bus” size.

Really, the underlying themes of the apocalypse game came from the Chtorr books, too. The main character in the books is a scientist who is working against the “chtorraforming” of Earth. (Massive over-simplification, but whatever.) A lot of the story is spent just trying to figure out what’s going on. At one point, it is observed that the end of the human race might already be inevitable, no matter how hard or effectively they fight back. Nobody knows for sure. When the worms first appear, humanity is too busy fighting the plagues to take notice. They don’t even think about the possibility that the plagues are alien until long after they’re over, when the worms and other extraterrestrial plants and animals start showing up. There’s a lot of talk about how there are no truly sane people among the survivors. How bad is the survivors’ guilt when an entire world dies? How does PTSD manifest when the trauma was the death of an entire civilization?

My take-aways, from the Chtorr books especially, but also from nearly every other good end-of-the-world story that I read:

  • Nobody’s sane and stable, after the end.
  • Nobody really knows what the heck happened.

Let’s see, are there any other lingering questions?

The glow to the north in session 1 was, indeed, Seattle being nuked. I hadn’t entirely decided if it was aliens destroying a human city, or humans pursuing a desperate “scorched earth” strategy, but I was leaning towards blaming the aliens. That would fit with the repeated rumors that coastal cities around the world were being destroyed.

There was some resistance to the aliens, which explains the plane crash from session 1. Portland has an Air National Guard base, with the 142nd Fighter Wing stationed there. What the PCs saw during the first few minutes of session 1 was those pilots putting up a doomed defense of Portland.

Judith chose to do what she did because of a series of bad reaction rolls. She started off feeling some gratitude for her rescue from the burning house, but her harsh reception afterwards put a bad taste in her mouth. When she heard about the grocery store gang, she figured she could do worse than to switch from the scruffy-and-sorta-hostile group to the well-armed and well-fed group.



“Butcher Hollow? That’s GOT to be a bad place…”

Except Butcher Hollow (or “Holler”, if you’re spelling it like the locals say it) is the home town of Loretta Lynn. It’s mentioned in her famous song, “Coal Miner’s Daughter”. I happened the hear the song, and it got me thinking, the way these things do.

I remember one time, way back in high school — possibly junior high — when I was working up a map of a fantastic continent. I was giving things names like “The Cliffs Of Insanity” and “The Pit Of Despair”.  (Not those names, of course. If you don’t recognize them, there’s this movie you really need to watch…) A friend objected to such hokey names, saying real places don’t get named like that. As it turns out, though, there’s some pretty odd names in the real world…

Later on, I ran a Werewolf: The Apocalypse game. This was the first edition, the one with the ill-considered cut-outs of claws marks on the cover that couldn’t stand up to the wear and tear of actual use; the one where, if you followed the guidance in the book and the rules as written, your first session would end with the PCs performing a near-total party kill on themselves. The PCs started out scattered across the world. One was from Ireland, raised by a traditionalist Celtic pack. When he came of age, his clan’s wise man came to him and laid a geas on him: he must travel to a far-away country, across the ocean, and seek “The Land Of Ashes”. After a certain amount of research and questing, he ended up joining the rest of the group a little ways outside… Ashland, Kentucky. Which he insisted on pronouncing “Ash Land”, with a pause, for the rest of the game.

(Full disclosure: I’m originally from Kentucky, which is both why the Werewolf game started off there, and why I’m going to use it for my example, later on.)

The thought is this:  The real world has names a-plenty for filling your fantasy world. You just have to find them.

One example is the representative of civilization in my current Dungeon Fantasy game, the town of Tembladera. There’s a real town by that name. If you zoom out a bit to see both that town and the ocean, you’ll be looking at the basis of the map I’m using for the campaign. I flipped it around horizontally, so the ocean is on the east, and reduced the scale by a factor of about five. If you transform the map like that, my fictional town of Tembladera sits roughly where the real-world Limoncarro is. The real-world Tembladera sits approximately where I placed the entrance to the dwarven ruins.

What happened was, I was playing around with Google Maps, looking for a location I could morph into my hex map for the game. I found that area and stumbled across the town. I was so taken with the name, I decided to swipe it, but I had already decided to have my town at the point where the flat land turns into mountains.

So, it’s easy to find a name that’ll sound exotic to your players.  Just spin the globe to someplace far away and zoom in close. People may have heard of big cities from around the world, but nobody’s going to recognize the names of smaller towns. And if you’re looking for something less exotic and more evocative, along the lines of “The Cliffs of Insanity”, try looking nearby, but look for really small towns and geographical features.

Here’s that example I threatened earlier. I went to Wikipedia, found a list of unincorporated towns in Kentucky, and went trolling for names that might be good to recycle into a fantasy world. As it turns out, I might even get some use out of them for the dungeon crawl.

What I found:

  • Bear Wallow – A place where an otherwise impassable river becomes shallow, and therefore good for both travelers looking for a ford and for the local bears looking for a cool bath. Could be underground, if they’re cave bears. Random encounters here really shouldn’t be much of a surprise.
  • Big Bone – The story goes, it got the name due to the many mammoth bones found in the area. In a fantasy world, those bones can get a lot bigger. I’m envisioning something similar to the town of Pym Falls, from Old Man Logan. The skeleton of a giant who fell in battle long ago, recycled into a village.
  • Big Windy – I’m seeing a smooth-walled, rounded, straight tunnel, at a somewhat steep angle, with one end opening at the peak of a mountain, such that there’s almost always a fierce, bitterly cold wind. The generously-named steps would be slick and icy. At certain times of day, sunlight might make its way into the tunnel, which eliminates the darkness penalties but also starts melting the ice, making it that much more slippery. I would use it as a path between two or more levels, but not the only path. Better to have a longer way around that avoids the challenges of the Big Windy, but increases the chances of encounters.
  • Black Bottom – When I saw this one, I laughed, because I had finally discovered the translation of the Goblinistani name of the dark pit that the orc tribe has been “farming”.
  • Bone Cave – Plainly, a cave full of bones. Maybe it was the site of a terrible battle and is now littered with the bones of the losers. Maybe it’s full of skeletal undead. Probably both.
  • Brightshade – Clearly an elven ghetto.
  • Brows Defeat – Has an epic ring to it, doesn’t it? You just have to figure out who (or what?) the defeated “Brow” is, or was, and you’re in business.
  • Carbon Glow – Honestly, I’m not sure what to do with this’n, but it sure sounds good, doesn’t it? Maybe some sort of smokey volcanic area, lit by the glow of molten lava?
  • Chicken Bristle – A community of dirt-poor goblins, kobolds, and humans, living in the shadow (and to some extents, the sewers) of a more prosperous town.
  • Coldiron – Brings to mind a stern (if not outright dwarven) community with a feud against the next place…
  • Devil Fork – I couldn’t tell you why the real place has that name, but it surely sounds ominous, doesn’t it? Could be a fork in a road, or in a stream, or in an underground tunnel. The “devil” probably comes from the locals…
  • Drowning Creek – Sounds like a good name for a cursed body of water. Or maybe not cursed, so much as haunted by the ghosts of those who’ve drowned there before, looking to add to their number.
  • Fearsville – If it’s not a bustling town in the land of Ravenloft, it’s just plain trying too hard. I would be tempted to turn it into some sort of twisted, Scooby-Doo nightmare, like a happy little town where everybody just happens to be some kind of monster, behind the facade. Little old lady werewolves. Vampire street-sweepers. All the cute urchins are cannibals.
  • Gold City – What the town near the dungeon re-names itself, after the adventurers start causing inflation from all the ancient coins they’re pulling out of the ground.
  • Lettered Oak – An excellent name for an unusually well-read tree. Could be a treant wizard, but I’d be more inclined to have an animated (but still rooted) oak tree who has dedicated itself to academic study. It’ll answers questions like a sage, but demands payment in books.
  • Lost Creek – The question being, how did it get lost? I’m betting the faerie stole it.
  • Natures Bathing Pool – A fantastic place to meet a nymph.
  • Sulphur Well – Easier to place this one in a dungeon than anywhere else, I’d say. A natural sulfur deposit makes sense. Perhaps it’s bad enough to make the atmosphere nearby hostile to humans, which makes it an excellent nesting ground for… something that has no sense of smell, or doesn’t breathe at all. Elemental creatures of the earth persuasion would work. If the region is volcanic, so would fire elementals or Flame Lords.


The Most Profitable Writing Genre: Ransom Notes

Part of the real-world loot from the recent sale at Warehouse 23 was Pyramid 3-47, which includes David L. Pulver’s “Eidetic Memory” column on monster slavers. In the second paragraph, he tosses off an idea that got me to thinking: “Intelligent monsters like orcs often fight to the death because they see no hope of mercy…. unlike knights, monsters lack wealthy relatives to ransom them.”

In my experience, and from the stories of others, I would say that most PCs often do the same, and for the same reason. It never occurs to them that losing the fight might mean something other than summary execution.

I’ve heard a lot of people give the opinion that players also have a hearty dislike for having their characters taken captive, but I think that worry is often overblown. I’ve been a player in that situation, and more often, I’ve seen “we’re captured and enslaved” as an excuse to really break loose and let ’em have it.* Sure, sure, take their stuff and they’ll sit up and take notice, but most gamers are genre-savvy enough to know that once you strangle the dumbest of the guards with your chains and sneak past the first guard post, you’ll find all your gear, neatly stacked and packaged for shipping. 😉

I think a lot of players haven’t ever had a character in that situation. Even if they have, there’s nothing that says they’ll trust a new GM like they would trust the old.** I would like to think that my guys would trust me not to arbitrarily smear their characters… but on the other hand, I’d like to think that they would trust me to have the slobbering Lovecraftian beast ignore their white flag of truce and eat them all after blasting their sanity to tattered ribbons by its very existence.

But I digress.

We already know that Tembladera has a market for slaves. It’s a pseudo-medieval setting, and slavery is part of the medieval experience. It’s like peasants, the plague, and bad roads. All part of the colorful scenery.

It also provides another decision point for the PCs:  do we kill ’em, or capture ’em to sell? Mississippi Jed has already selected the quirk, “Opposes slavery”. It might even rise to the level of “Abolitionist”, I’m not sure.

But, as the quote from the article mentions, there’s another historical medieval tradition that adds both color and financial options: ransom!

My thinking is, this could cut both ways. Anyone with wealth and friends or family might be captured and ransomed back to those allies. If the orcs capture a knight, they could strip him of his gear and sell him back to his liege (or whatever substitute authorities might be willing to stand in). If the knight captures the orc tribe’s shaman, the tribe might be willing to pass the hat to get him back. Of course, this isn’t going to work with outright monsters (like the otyugh), the brainlessly aggressive (like zombies), or those who can’t scratch up the dough (like the goblin tribe of the late Ghorbash)… but it will work for most PCs.

Here’s how I’m thinking of working it. Let’s say somebody, either a dungeon delver or a dungeon resident, captures a foe. What can be done with them?

Starting with the quick, easy, and unprofitable, the first option is always execution. You might be able to eat ’em, or sell ’em for parts, but you’re not likely to get any large cash reward beyond their treasure. Still, it’s very little trouble, so it’s often the default option. (Dobby wasn’t much interested in feeding prisoners, you might recall.)

Second, if one has access to the proper markets, one might sell the captive into slavery. I’ll be using the pricing guidelines from the article, which means your average orc, in good health, will sell for over $7000 as an unskilled laborer. There are various complications for selling gladiators or skilled laborers, and for races with different Disadvantages, but there’s a reasonable baseline.

Finally, some captives can be ransomed back to their friends at a greater profit than selling them into slavery. The question is, will anybody pay anything, and if so, how much?

There are cases where the answer is obvious, like the otyugh. The captive can’t be too much of a loner, or else there’s nobody willing to pay a ransom. Even if they’ve got friends, they might not be willing to go to the trouble. In the absence of other indicators, I would consult the dice.

Over in DF3: The Next Level, on page 11, there’s a sidebar, “Almost Monster”. It mentions a chance for a character to be denied entry if that character attempts to go into a settlement, for those who have Social Stigma (Savage) or (Monster). If the captive in question has either Disadvantage, I would roll that chance. If it comes up “would be denied entry”, I would read it as “insufficiently civilized”, and have the negotiations fail for that reason. (My orcs tend toward the Klingon. “Proud warrior race” and all that cliche. They might tell you, if the guy got himself captured, it’s proof he’s not worth buying back.)

If I were feeling particularly random, I might roll a Reaction roll between the captive and the negotiating allies, to see how well they’re getting along. When they pass the hat to take up donations, the unpopular officer is going to come up short. However, truth be told, I would probably skip this in the interests of simplicity, unless there were some impressive modifiers in play.

More important, I would say, is the Wealth level of the captive. Nobody buys back peasants, even popular ones. I’m going to set the price similarly to the way the “Monster Slaver” article sets the price for pleasure slaves. I’m thinking a ransom of $1000 per point invested in Wealth is a good starting place. This means, if the captive doesn’t have at least Comfortable wealth, they can’t be effectively ransomed. It also means a high-ST character, or one who would make a good gladiator or pleasure slave, might be worth more on the auction block than ransomed!

In the end, the average orc is still fighting to the death. Even if the tribe is willing to pay, the price is too steep. But, if Sir Player-Character gets himself tackled and dragged off into the depths, it’s not an automatic death sentence, just a steep fine. Of course, in Dungeon Fantasy, even death isn’t a death sentence… if you can afford to pay for a Resurrection.

* “Ever seen a half-elf bite an orc’s ear off? The other way ’round, sure, but…”

** In the same campaign where the half-elf went berserk and dined on orc ear tartare, during the great escape from the slavers, there was another instance, later on, where the same half-elf got captured by different enemies. For some reason, the same DM who played out the great escape, quite successfully, decided it was a good idea to have that captivity-and-escape story play out off-camera. The story went off the rails when he decided to include the torture and crippling of the PC in question. Off-camera, by GM fiat. I recall that decision going over so well that it pretty much ended the campaign. First time was epic, second time was an epic failure.


Cave Calamari and Roasted Rat

There’s been some talk of “going native”, so I’ve been thinking:  If you’re living off Survival (Dungeon), what kind of fare should you expect?  The flip side of this question, of course, is, what are all the creatures in the dungeon eating?

At the bottom of the food chain, we find slime and fungus. Subterranean fungus grows on wood, refuse, corpses, or anything organic. In a DF world, some fungus, like the Crushroom, can walk around under its own power, while other fungus sheds light through bio-luminescence. It’s not too much of a stretch to expect a fair amount of edible fungus. It’s also not too much of a stretch to inflict toxic damage and/or Hallucinations if a character without Survival tries to sample them.

The subterranean world of DF isn’t devoid of plants, either. They just can’t get their energy from sunlight. Carnivorous plants do just fine for themselves. Some exotic plants might draw sustenance from geothermal heat, like hot springs or lava flows.

Next, there’s all the vermin and little creatures that don’t even get stats. We’re talking about normal insects, non-poisonous spiders, centipedes, mice, bats, rats, and such-like. In areas with water, one might find cave fish. The dwarves that built the ruins used to keep guinea pigs for their meat. The cave goat is not only domesticated, but is also found roaming the caves around Tembladera, wild.

Finally, you’ll find more exotic sources of nutrition, like the “cave calamari” of the title: fried darkmantle. Many nuisance wandering monsters can provide a meal after they’re dealt with. Giant rats are just as edible as their mundane relatives. Some of the more pragmatic species of underground dweller count goblin as a staple meat. According to the sidebar on page 24 of DF15: Henchmen, it takes a Recipe perk to dress out and prepare monsters as a meal. I imagine it’s a pretty popular perk, deep in the underground world.

In the real world, cold-blooded creatures with low metabolisms can live for astonishing amounts of time on little food. Some snakes can go months between meals. The same would apply to many of the “disguised trapper” monsters, like the mimic, the cloaker, the piercer, and the various oozes and jellies: anything that sits and waits for food to walk up to it can’t be burning that many calories, and ought to be set up for a long wait.

Sentient inhabitants of the dungeon might forage outside, at least where there’s easy access to the surface world. The goblin tribe formerly ruled by Ghorbash practiced a mix of rat-herding and night-hunting, as well as going on raids against traders’ boats. They supplemented their subterranean food sources with mountain goat jerky, gathered herbs, and stolen foodstuffs. Delving adventurers bring their own surface food into the underground world, as well.

Overall, I would say that the dungeon is probably on the leaner side, as far as foraging opportunities go, but I still wouldn’t rate it as bad as a desert. Nearly, though. Using the system from GURPS Low-Tech Companion 3: Daily Life and Economics, pages 4-5, I would say that most dungeons tend to be Poor foraging territory, with rare areas of Very Poor or Desolate territory, and even rarer areas with higher ratings. Any area rating Good or better would likely be treated as a oasis, either a neutral place to be shared by many or a resources to be hotly contested.


Space Cowboys: The Crew of the Cabra

(This is part two, in which we bring the focus in and look at the PCs for the Space Cowboys game. You can find part one here, talking about the larger ‘verse that these guys live in.)

The Cabra was originally built by Volvo, over one hundred years before the story began. It started off as a mid-sized cargo hauler with sails, but was expanded and improved over the years. Originally, it was more spindle-shaped, had little internal cargo space, and didn’t use spin gravity. The engine room dates back to those days.

The ship was part of the fleet of the Solo clan*, an extended family group dedicated to interplanetary trade. They called no planet home, being life-long spacers. The clan was loosely run by “Grandma”, their amazingly-old matriarch. It was their practice to have ships working on their own, crewed by family members, with periodic family reunions. When sufficient cash and grown kids accumulated, a new ship would be added to the fleet and a crew gathered from across the clan. As we join the Cabra, it is going through one of these changes in manpower.

For the first season, the crew PCs were Bubba, Hal, Mel, Osolo, and Samale. The second season had a shakeup in the cast, adding Felix, Jasmine, and Terreno. Bubba and Osolo were twin brothers and Mel was their sister, while Hal and Samale were more distant cousins, as was Terreno. Felix and Jasmine were non-family contractors.

As a youth, Bubba Solo had gone off to volunteer for the Patrol, a military organization run by the Core Worlds Coalition. He was a big guy, over 7 feet tall, and a fighter. The Patrol trained him as a ship’s engineer and all-around mechanic, but his experiences at war left him with a touch of PTSD. He was quite protective of his ship and his family members. He shared a bond with his twin, and they always knew when the other was in trouble. Their father was a big Scandinavian, while their mom was Samoan, which explains the difference in their names. (“Bubba” wasn’t his real, given name, but damned if I can remember what it was.)

Hal had led a troubled life, growing up in an asteroid tree farm**, raised by his Grandpa. A life spent in “ziggy” (zero-gravity) had made him particularly at home in a space suit, and work around the farm had given him excellent mechanical skills, but he suffered from yo-yo luck, where catastrophic bad fortune would be followed by implausible windfalls and freak coincidences. He had left home to work a tour on a ship to fund his upcoming wedding, only to be delayed by pirates. Left for dead, he jury-rigged a plasma sail and surfed the rest of the way home, wearing his suit, eating nutritional paste, drinking recycled water, and switching bottles of oxygen as needed… only to arrive three days too late. The insult to his fiance’s family’s honor was too much for them to bear, and they had left, taking her with them, but leaving a few big guys behind to explain Hal’s mistakes to him. Among other things, they informed him that he still owed them the finger that should have worn a ring, and took it with them when they left. In an attempt to turn this disaster around, Grandpa called his space-faring cousins and arranged a new job for Hal working the sails on the Cabra.

Melika Nanika, or “Mel”, was the younger sister of Bubba and Osolo. She was fiercely intelligent, and had gone off to medical school on Mars at a young age. Having spent so much time there, she understood the TL 10 culture, but could also relate to TL 9 folks, thanks to her childhood upbringing. Her wearable computer had more computing power in it than the entire rest of the Cabra and all of its contents, combined. She was an honest, caring, giving person… to start with. She had gotten married and divorced on Mars, keeping her married name. She handled the sick bay, and also filled in as copilot, navigator, and communications officer.

Osolo-Solo Bono Solo was Bubba’s twin. (See, I told you there would be a difference in the names!) Even so, in many ways, he was the opposite of his brother. Where Bubba was driven and ambitious, Osolo was more laid-back. “Lazy”, in fact. While his siblings left to pursue their educations, Osolo stayed on the ship and made himself useful there, getting his learning from the books he read on the long journeys between planets. He was nearly as tall as Bubba, but lacked the drive to exercise, so where Bubba was muscular, Osolo ran to fat. He handled the cooking, cleaning, and passenger management on the ship.

Solo no Samale was another cousin, who had grown up in space, but among a family that pursued more aggressive trading than most of the clan. “Smugglers” was the word most often used. He was a pilot of great skill, but suffered from boredom from the slower pace of work on the Cabra. He was easily distracted, somewhat superstitious, and outgoing to a fault. He chased women single-mindedly, which often put him in hot water.

Felix took Bubba’s place in engineering. He was a neurotic, bearded cross-dresser with a perverse fascination for robotics. He was notoriously bad at remembering names, and would give everyone nicknames to compensate.

Jasmine Mung was hired to work as a business agent and accountant. She came from the Core Worlds, originally. She had a sordid history that had major repercussions for the rest of the crew.

Terreno took over as pilot after Samale. Unlike his predecessor, he saw the job not as a calling unto itself but as a way to make a living while he pursued his true passion: mixed martial arts masked ziggy wrestling. He was a space luchador. He believed that he needed a couple of stiff drinks to pilot effectively, and so hid several bottles around the ship’s control deck.

They were joined by the occasional NPC crew members, but these folks formed the core of the Cabra‘s crew.

* Yes, indeed, they did take their name from Han Solo, of Star Wars fame. During the time of the exodus from Earth, some of the clan’s less-reputable ancestors had found their birth names a heavy burden to bear, and shed them along with the rest of their pasts. As a joke, they took a new name from a character who shared their new work of hauling cargo from world to world. By 2517, of course, this was long-lost legend, unknown to the PCs. (But known to the players!)

** It’s hard to grow trees in space. They take a lot of room and time, and unless you put them under the stress of gravity, you don’t get the strong, straight grain that’s desirable for most applications. Therefore, wood was a semi-precious commodity in this ‘verse.


Introducing the Space Cowboys Game

This “Throwback Thursday” is going to be the start of the story of a new campaign, the Space Cowboys game that’s been mentioned several times before. Here’s some background to fill in the context.

The genre was “regular Joe’s, working a job.,.. in space”. We took inspiration from Firefly, and Serenity, and Cowboy Bebop, and dim recollections of Traveller. Player characters were the crew of an interplanetary cargo hauler, built on 150+75+5 points, though only one character from the first “season” had a full load of Disadvantages. The baseline Tech Level for PCs was 9, with TL 10 available for purchase. The available TL 9 technology used the “Safe-Tech” switch from GURPS Ultra-Tech, while the TL 10 technology was just starting to dabble in the forbidden. There would be no aliens, no faster-than-light travel, no alien worlds outside our Solar System, no super-science (with a couple of exceptions for terraforming and such), no Trained By A Master kung fu powers (though realistic martial arts became quite popular as the story wore on), no magic, no robot PC’s…

I didn’t say “no” to psychic powers or cybernetics, but I didn’t advertise them, either. Nobody asked, to begin with. I had guessed that given the background inspirations, somebody would have wanted to play a knock-off of either Jet Black or River Tam. Both appeared in the second “season”.

When I speak of seasons: the conceit was that we were playing the game of a prime-time TV show that never was. We had a theme song. Mention was made of images from the montage behind the opening credits. (We really, really missed Firefly.)  The first season went for some time, then we ended it with a big “finale” session and switched over to a different campaign. Some time later, there was a change in the lineup of players, and we returned to the game for a second season.

The game began in 2517*.  Earth had been used up and destroyed some time past, under the weight of ecological disaster, war, overpopulation, unwise use of nanotechnology, and the rise of hostile AI. The human race abandoned the planet over the course of several decades. Back in the 2100’s, the decision was made that anything lifting off from Earth would be assumed hostile and shot down without warning, after several close calls with attacks from the surface.

Due to the manner in which Earth fell, there was a backlash against the free application of technology. Any thinking machine was suspect. The TL 9 technology base used analog, mechanical systems in place of advanced computers. It also avoided any nanotech, genetic manipulation, or cybertech involving the brain. This tech system excelled in advanced materials and metallurgy, more than anything. This is the paradigm in place throughout most of the Solar System. Certain backwater planets might have a lower base TL, but it was assumed that this was the product of history or poverty, not culture. The local economy and manufacturing base for a given planet might only be able to provide a TL 7 living, for example… but they would be eager to obtain TL 9 goods, if available and affordable.

By contrast, the richest and most technologically advanced cultures had recently embraced computers, virtual reality, genetically-engineered creatures, and everything else their TL could provide without outright super-science. This made them just about incomprehensible to average TL 9 folks. For instance, the TL 9 people didn’t really “get” the idea of computers, having been raised on a diet of horrific legends from the past; they really didn’t get the idea of a non-volitional AI as a personal assistant living in a wearable computer and interfacing with the user through contact lenses and an earpiece. All they could see was some joker in a skintight plastic suit with some crazy wrap-around sunglasses, talking to himself, staring off into the distance, looking at things that aren’t there, and yet somehow managing to be richer than Croesus in spite of his obvious barking insanity.

The way I approached it was to think of the TL 10 people as the most early-adopter of the denizens of Akihabara, and to think of the TL 9 folks as the characters on the original Smokey and the Bandit movie**.

Before the great exodus, Mars had been terraformed, becoming a garden planet, using slow methods. Under pressure from the evacuation of the bulk of the human race, one megacorporation was formed to gather all the information about the science and practice of terraforming. They developed a proprietary process that was superior in some ways, flawed in others. They could turn just about any roundish piece of rock into a livable planet, where a human could walk around on the surface without a space suit, and they could do it in a hurry. On the down side, with no gravity manipulation, most of these new worlds were extremely low-gravity and would gradually lose their atmospheres over the course of centuries. Furthermore, they couldn’t guarantee the final results, so lots of the new worlds had quirks, like a poor climate (often frozen) or little water or vast oceans covering most of the surface.

As colonization spread, the power of the megacorps increased. Planets that were terraformed later found themselves under an increasingly heavy yoke. Between changes in the terms of terraforming and travel times between different parts of the Solar System, several factions shook out.

Nearest the sun, we find the Confederation of Core Worlds, the richest and most advanced. Chief among its members are the Loonies of Earth’s moon (who refused terraforming in favor of living in their traditional underground domes), the people of the cloud cities of Venus, the wealthy inhabitants of the cloud of habitats in orbit around Earth and the Lagrange points, and the mega-rich of Mars. The people here are all well-fed, and have plenty of toys. This is where you find your TL 10 people.

Next, there’s the Asteroid Belt Alliance, led by the people of Ceres. They’re mostly asteroid miners and other free-thinkers. They have few terraformed worlds, but uncounted numbers of hollowed-out asteroids and other habitats. The Greek Camp Coalition and the Troy Commonwealth were similar to the ABA, but based out of the two groups of asteroids at Jupiter’s Trojan points.

The Jupiter Corporate Sector controls Jupiter, Saturn, and their moons. It was set up to extract raw materials from the gas giants. The JCS acts as a government between planets, and dominates the moons it doesn’t own outright. It lacks laws, using corporate regulations in their place. The Cabra was registered to the JCS as a flag of convenience. For the most part, the only thing the JCS cared about was that their income taxes got paid.

Finally, there is the League of Outer Planets, with some claim to independent government, and the Weyland-Yutani Protectorates, which are the most recently-terraformed planets in the system, and so, “owe [their] soul to the company store”. These were the colder, poorer worlds, on the outer edges of the Solar System, including Sedna, Eris, and Quaoar.

According to rumor, some of the earliest people to leave Earth had just headed out and kept on going. The talk was that people might even be living out in the Oort cloud.

For centuries after the fall of Earth-That-Was, interplanetary trade was carried by ships using first magsails, then later, plasma sails***. These were the workhorse propulsion systems for the TL 9 tech base. However, in recent years (as of the time of the game), TL 10 fusion rockets had come of age and started taking away the more profitable routes towards the richer center of the system. The old plasma sailing ships were forced to work the longer, harder, less profitable routes among the outer worlds.

* That’s a double Easter egg, for those keeping track at home: Firefly was set in the same year, and Ezekiel 25:17 is on prominent display in Pulp Fiction.

** Premiered in 1977, the same year AD&D came out. Nobody had a cell phone.

*** Despite all my talk of “hard science fiction” and “no super-science” and so forth, I had to make the plasma sail into something magic. As part of my pre-game research, I read the book The Wreck of the River of Stars, and I fell in love with the idea of sails. I think something of the tone of the book crept in to the background of the game, as well.

Pics from the Space Cowboys game

We’re almost to the end of the Supers 1200 game reports, so soon, Throwback Thursdays will turn to the Space Cowboys game. This was a long-running (for us, anyway) game inspired by grungy science fiction like Firefly and Cowboy Bebop. Especially Firefly. The PCs were the crew of the Jupiter Free Trader Cabra Espaco, a 3000 ton cargo hauler propelled by a plasma sail. (I tried to stick reasonably close to something resembling “hard” sci-fi, but I still ended up making the sails more efficient than they ever could be, by a factor of ten or so.) The ship was family-owned, and the PCs were, for the most part, related.

As mentioned before, I created a 3d model of the ship in SketchUp before the game began. I knew I wanted the ship to become a centerpiece of the campaign, a setting to be used over and over again. I also knew I wanted to use spin gravity, which was going to lead to a layout that wouldn’t be easy to describe. Both goals indicated that I should put some effort into the map. The model started as a way to fit everything together, but in the end, I was also able to render images for the players.

Here’s a wide view of the entire ship, as it appeared brand new. The thing that looks like a trash can on spider legs at the very top is the point of attachment for the cables for the plasma sail. The boxy thing behind and to the right is the housing for the solar panel, shown retracted. In between the two and slightly lower, you can see the engine room airlock door and the larger door for the upper cargo deck. The smokestack on the left is the magnetic keel. The lighter spot on the left is one of the secondary airlock doors. At the bottom, you can see the lower cargo deck door.


This is a similar view, a trifle closer, showing some wear-and-tear from over one hundred years in service.


An even closer view of the main airlock and the window into the control deck. There’s a stairway down from the airlock door. That rusty-looking thing is a tool box. You can just see the chairs on the control deck, and the door behind them. When under spin, the living quarters, including the control deck, would revolve to keep their floors perpendicular to the pull of the pseudo-gravity, and you wouldn’t be able to see the chairs. The pilot and co-pilot would operate by instruments only under spin, of course.

The yellow circles are lights. The round thing under the control room window is a sensor pod. You can see a second one on the right. There are several around the perimeter of the ship.


A closer view of the top of the ship. The thing that’s directly under the plasma sail array is a control station for the exterior engineer, who would handle the raising and lowering of the sails from here. On the left, you can see a crane for loading cargo while on a planet. On the right, there’s another exterior tool box, for tools used on the sail cables.


And, finally, this is one of the “inchworm” robots. The ship started off with two, Bo and Luke, and eventually a third, Daisy. They weren’t real autonomous robots, but mostly worked under remote control. In the pictures above, you can see different pipes on the outside of the ship. Similar pipes were in the cargo areas. The inchworms could latch on to these pipes – or the sail cables, when under sail – and roll around them at speed, or they could “inch” along on any surface. They were used for cargo handling and external repairs.


Majority of Party Displays Poor Impulse Control

If you’re reading between the lines on the play reports, or even just reading them, you might have noticed that there’s something of a moral crisis brewing among the party members. You’ve heard about the quiet pocketing of loot before the party split. You’ve heard how TKotBO sat out the fight, praying for his comrades, when the rest of the party took on the ogre. And, you’ve heard about the mysterious Mississippi Jed and how he’s learned the fate of his former companion, who was attacked from behind without warning, stripped of his belongings, and nearly sold into slavery, all by the party that now calls Jed a member… though he doesn’t seem overly upset about it.

A note on the party members’ Disadvantages might be informative.

In the first corner, we’ve got TKotBO, whose defining personality trait, aside from an unwillingness to wear outwear that isn’t iron-based, is his chivalrous Code of Honor. It seems that his faith compels him to search the ruins for holy relics, which I’m sure he sees as his own personal crusade. I think he’s just figured out that his current comrades aren’t as much motivated by chivalry as he is.

In the second corner, we have all the Impulsive types, which includes Alric, Gabby, and Jed. Gabby suffers from the classic combination of Impulsiveness and Overconfidence, plus the standard swashbuckler swagger and a healthy case of Greed. If she weren’t so good at what she does, she would seem suicidal; when the day comes that she has to make a choice between the rest of the party and a profit, she might just cross over that line. In Alric, Impulsiveness comes across more as an unwillingness to worry about details, a sort of “call me when the enemy army shows up” vibe. When it comes to Jed, I get the feeling that it’s more a question of him getting swept up in his own patter. In all cases, we’re not talking about folks who think their actions through. They live in the moment.

In the third corner, Needles stands alone, likely lurking in the shadows. Despite what you might expect, Needles isn’t Impulsive. He suffers from Kleptomania and Compulsive Lying, that’s all. During an earlier session, discussing Needles, I mentioned a proverb I had heard: “The difference between an alcoholic and an addict is, an alcoholic will steal your wallet and then feel bad about it. An addict will steal your wallet and then help you look for it.”  Needles is the kind of guy who would always help you look for your wallet.

Cutting across these groups, there’s the question of loyalty. Alric and Jed have a Sense of Duty to their adventuring companions. (In Jed’s case, it remains to be seen if that translates to siding with the missing Kadabra against the PC’s, or the other way ’round. Maybe he thought Needles was telling tall tales when he actually told the truth?) Gabby and Needles have a pirate’s Code of Honor and won’t back-stab their buddies. TKotBO doesn’t seem to have any particular loyalty to his comrades. He’s bound to keep his word, at least. That’s something.

Everybody seems to agree that the ambushing orcs are the bad guys, anyway.


The Further Adventures Of The Turnip… of the Blood Oath?

As noted here, while the party was hiding in the goblin kitchens, Rho rolled a critical success on Search and found something he described as a “fine turnip”. It got wrapped up and tucked away in Rho’s pouch without much investigation, since the party didn’t linger long in the kitchens, and both healers were busy for much of that time. When Rho met his unfortunate end, his belongings were brought out of the dwarven ruins and put on the donkey, where they returned to town with the rest of the group.

There, it was overlooked during the sale of the rest of the loot. Nobody thought that a cast-off vegetable could be considered anything more than a meal of desperation. Afterwards, though, The Knight of the Blood Oath went looking for personal effects to be turned over to The Church.

TKotBO was feeling troubled by the recent adventure. In the heat of the moment, when the party had sighted Kadabra examining the old stone head without benefit of torch or lantern, he had taken the man for an obvious necromancer. Under that impression, he had accepted the party’s subsequent actions as pure prudence. If necromancers were gentlemen, they might deserve a challenge before being attacked, but then, if they were gentlemen, they wouldn’t be necromancers. However, after sleeping on it, he wasn’t sure they had done the proper thing, after all.

“That guy could have been a delver like any of us,” he thought to himself, while rummaging through the disarray of the donkey’s gear.  “It’s entirely too easy for delvers to mistake each other for evil monsters. Maybe if we all got together and resolved to tie a colored ribbon around that tree where we keep leaving the animals. We could even claim different colors for different delving bands, to aid in identification!”  Pleased with this idea, he considered buying some sort of identifying gear for his fellow party members. Perhaps colored bandannas.

This train of thought led TKotBO to a new realization: with Rho gone, he was going to be the primary source of healing for the group. This is going to be a problem. When they had huddled up in the goblin kitchen and rushed through getting everyone healed up, the only reason it had taken 20 minutes, rather than 2 hours, was because Rho could share his strength with TKotBO and then recover from the effort very quickly. (Or, in game terms, Rho used Lend Energy to power TKotBO’s Faith Healing, then used Recover Energy to bounce back, himself. My understanding was that they were keeping in mind the penalties for multiple healings within a day, and the next time, if there had been one, Rho would have used Major Healing. Without Rho, they’ve only got the one “track” for penalties to supernatural healing.)

He reasoned, it might be a good idea to pick up some healing potions and so forth, in case of emergency. If Alric were to fall in battle, who would hold off the foe while TKotBO got him back on his feet? And could the others win the day while TKotBO then sat to the side, exhausted, reduced to shouting instructions and pouring water over his great helm? No, he thought, it would be much better if he could do the job he had trained for, absorbing the attacks of the enemy, protecting his comrades, while one of the nimble, but poorly armored, party members administered a healing draught.

And what if it were the other way around, and it were TKotBO who fell? Who would heal the healer?

Being (obviously) the sort of man who believes the best offense is a good defense, his mind turned to the shield he had seen for sale, but couldn’t afford. It was a fine piece of craftsmanship, in itself, but unique in his experience for its enchantment: the face of the shield would change to reflect the weather and state of the sky above it, even if it were taken indoors or far underground. If the day were clear, one could judge the time of day from the angle of the sun shown on the shield.

With these expensive things weighing upon his mind, saddened at the loss of his comrade, worried about the fate of his friends on their next trip into the dungeon, TKotBO went to clean out Rho’s saddlebags….

… and found a fist-sized package swaddled in some of Rho’s holy vestments, that weighed far more than any turnip should, unless it were made of metal.  Upon inspection, and after brushing off a thick layer of grime, Rho’s turnip looks more-or-less like this. It’s made of orichalcum.

Thinking of all the good he could do, for his own party and, yes, for all the bands of good and honorable men going down into the dwarven ruins and risking their lives for the glory of the gods*, if only he could secure adequate funding, TKotBO scratched his chin** and asked himself, “What was that fellow’s name, again? Mamu, that’s right, Mamu, the man-servant of Strang…”

(To be continued)

* TKotBO is generous in his views of others’ motivations.

** … with a piece of hay stuck through his helmet’s visor. If TKotBO isn’t wearing his armor, he’s in his union suit. If he’s in his union suit, and awake, he’s probably doing some kind of armor maintenance.


Why take a Thief along when going into the dungeon?

Why take a Thief along when going into the dungeon?

Take a look at this piece of real-world furniture, and then ponder on the penalties to Search. Then, ponder upon that pop-out easel, and the person who built it. Now, if that person had instead decided to build a poison needle trap… what kind of Traps penalties could they rack up?


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