Friday, April 29, 2011

Wrapping up April

The alphabet theme for the month has been a lot of fun and I'd like to thank everyone for starting it and sticking with it. I was skeptical about it at first but I was wrong - it was a great idea. It gave me a reason to dig out and dust off some material that I had not looked at in years, a lot of it in a retrospective kind of way that I might not have done without the theme. Tomorrow I plan to close things out with some M&M 3 write-ups of some of my super characters that appeared earlier in the month.

The end of the month brings an end to the theme and it also ends another phase of my life as a new career opportunity opens up with May. I am not ending the blog -I still have things to say and a bunch of session write-ups to post as well - but because the initial stage of the new job involves some travel and training it may interfere with my usual posting schedule. It's temporary and I will still post when I can but the timing is probably going to get rather irregular compared to what it has been. Consider it the swinging of the pendulum of Law and Chaos over in favor the many-arrowed side for a time.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Z is for: Zenopus!

Zeonpus was the creator of the mysterious tower that once rose above the sample starter dungeon in the Holmes Basic D&D book. All we know about him is this:

100 years ago the sorcerer Zenopus built a tower on the low hills overlooking Portown. The tower was close to the sea cliff west of the town and, appropriately, next door to the graveyard. Rumor has it that the magician made extensive cellars and tunnels underneath the tower. The town is located on the ruins of a much older city of doubtful history, land Zenopus was said to excavate in his cellars in search of ancient treasures.
Fifty years ago, on a cold wintry night, the wizard's tower was suddenly engulfed in green flame. Several of his human servants escaped the holocaust, saying their master had been destroyed by some powerful force he had unleashed in the depths of the tower. Needless to say the tower stood vacant for a while after this, but then the neighbors and the night watchmen complained that ghostly blue lights appeared in the windows at night, that ghastly screams could be heard emanating from the tower at all hours, and goblin figures could be seen dancing on the tower roof in the moonlight. Finally the authorities had a catapult rolled through the streets of the town and the tower was battered to rubble. This stopped the tauntings but the townsfolk continue to shun the ruins. The entrance to the old dungeons can be easily located as a flight of broad stone steps leading down into darkness, but the few adventurous souls who hove descended into crypts below the ruin have either reported only empty stone corridors or have failed to return at all. Other magic-users have moved into the town but the site of the old tower remains abandoned.
Whispered tales are told of fabulous treasure and unspeakable monsters in the underground passages below the hilltop, and the story tellers are always careful to point out that the reputed dungeons lie in close proximity to the foundations of the older, pre-human city, to the graveyard, and to the sea.
Portown is a small but busy city linking the caravan routes from the south to the merchant ships that dare the pirate-infested waters of the Northern Sea. Humans and non-humans from all over the globe meet here. At the Green Dragon Inn, the players of the game gather their characters for an assault on the fabulous passages beneath the ruined Wizard's tower.

So we really know very little other than that he was a wizard, he built a tower, and he was curious enough to risk his life searching for lost knowledge and power. Now in D&D a wizard is supposed to be 9th level before he builds a tower, so we have a baseline there. We also know he lived in the tower for 50 years before The Incident, so I'm going to propose that he had advanced at least a bit beyond 9th level during that time, started off youngish, and ended up oldish. The signature notes from the end are "green flame" and a force unleashed in he depths - maybe he was a summoner? So...

BECMI D&D - Let's call him a 14th level M-U with all of the fire spells and some summoning as well. All of his fire spells are customized to be green fire, not regular fire. If you can find his spellbook, you can do the same thing. Give him a 17 Intelligence  and an 8 Wisdom.

AD&D - Same thing, maybe with a green efreeti servant. Engulfed in green flame sounds more like a deal with the Nine Hells or the Abyss gone wrong though so give him a quasit or imp for a familiar, a flesh golem servant, and a demon running loose in the ruins of his tower. If he's going to make a personal appearance give him a custom spell that changes cone of cold to fire damage - green fire. M-U players will love it.

AD&D 2nd edition -  Make him a conjuration specialist with a lot of Monster Summoning spells and the same familiars and servants above.

D&D 3E - I'd still keep him a pure wizard with a few levels in one of the summoning or planar focused prestige classes, maybe even a few levels of Loremaster if you want to assume he has learned a few things during his excavations. I'd still go with one of the improved familiars and a flesh golem bodyguard because I think it's cool. 

D&D 4th - Wizard is still good but Warlock might be more thematic, Infernal Pact or Vestige Pact warlock especially so. The green flame was the pact being called in at the end of his life on this plane in a particularly spectacular fashion. 

So what ended his life? If you go with the dabbling-in-things-better-left-alone theory then I like the idea that he opened up a gate to somewhere else because he had just enough knowledge and power to find it, recognize what it was, and figure out how to open it, but not enough knowledge or power to control it. It could be the aforementioned Nine Hells or Abyss, or maybe it's the Far Realm (in 4E) or the Shadowfell / Negative Material plane which is causing the dead of the city to rise and cause trouble, or maybe he found the upper outpost of a Great Underground Empire and the thing he opened is a gate to the now-ruined capital city that lies even deeper underground and allows weird monsters to find their way into the upper levels of the underground where they would normally be seen. There are many options, some probably better for low-level heroes than others. 

What if he was blown into another universe? Maybe he learned his lesson and now fights to stop those who probe into such forbidden knowledge as a mystic in the world of Mutants and Masterminds?

Set it in the Old World of Warhammer and the story works as-is and makes a pretty decent starting adventure there too. 

In 40K he becomes Zenopus the Rogue Psyker, delving into forbidden knowledge and now on the run from the Inquisition, making for a fun little romp to start that campaign off. 

In Deadlands he becomes the crazy lighthouse keeper who is clearly digging into things he shouldn't be and perhaps the PC's help arrange his dramatic emerald ending.

 In Star Wars he could be a simple rural force-user who takes a walk down the dark side early in the campaign, appears to be reformed by the intervention of the Jedi Order, then later in the game becomes the awesome Darth Zenopus, master of force-wizardry and ranged effects and blazing green force lightning, less so the lightsaber. Perhpas after his demise some PC's are asked to journey to his lair and investigate, giving an excuse to send the heroes down some 10' wide corridors and rectangular rooms deep underground with hidden secret doors, fiendish traps, and enigmatic statues.

Anyway that's the Zenopus brainstorming session - no sheets, no serious stats, just concepts. 

Tomorrow: What to do, what to do....

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Y is for- scratch that - Z is for: Baron Zero

It's a weird thing - I don't have a "Y" character. I do have an extra "Z" though so I will be doing a Z today to make up for it and a Z tomorrow in the usual place

Baron Zero is an original villain for my upcoming Atomic City superhero campaign. In the campaign he will be encountered during the investigation of an alarm at the Atomic City History Museum. As the team investigates they will discover signs of a break in, a shattered block of ice, and the frozen bodies of two would-be thieves. Searching further they will encounter the baron in the medieval history section, slowly discovering just how long he has been in slumber. He has no desire to attack the PC's but he is a medieval lord and accustomed to being obeyed, so any strong words or (god forbid) attacks by the heroes will result in a fight. If he is defeated the PC's will be able to convince him to talk and tell his story. If he wins he will leave them alive and move off into the city to figure out his next course of action.

The next time they encounter him he will be trying to melt the polar ice caps to take revenge on his age-old enemy but that's another story...

Baron Zero was the eldest son of a Saxon baron in England around 1000 AD. Plagued by an invasion of ice creatures during a particularly nasty winter, his father led an expedition to the Arctic (including Zero's next-oldest brother) and left Zero in charge. They never returned so Zero consulted with seers and sages, had magical insulating armor forged for himself, and led another expedition to the north. There he encountered an elemental being known as Lord Winter who was responsible for the attacks. Zero and his army fought well against the creatures (already thinned by his father's effort) but the final attack against Lord Winter was the end. The entity froze the entire army, though this did seal him off from the world for centuries. Zero, clad in his magical armor, was frozen in a state of hibernation and dreamed for centuries as well.

One thousand years later an expedition from Atomic City University found him perfectly preserved in the Arctic ice. They cut out a block containing him, loaded it on a ship, and brought him home. In the museum, a pair of low criminals robbing the museum spied the rich gear inside the ice and attempted to melt him out. This effort awakened him and he discovered that he had new powers of cold and frost in addition to his usual handiness with a sword. Dispatching the thieves, he realized he was in a very strange place and he somehow knew that a great deal of time had passed. Wandering about he found that he was in the perfect place to learn more about what he had missed, and this is when our heroes will meet him for the first time.

This is the last thing those thieves will ever see...
I knew I wanted a somewhat unusual opponent for an early part of the campaign and Baron Zero is the result. I'm fine with a clear demarcation of black and white in my super campaigns but I like to work in a character or two who can cross that line without being contradictory. In this situation Zero is confused but not stupid and is more interested in figuring out where and when he is. What the players do upon meeting him will determine a lot of how he acts and how he is perceived - will he be the "tragic figure out of time that we tried to help" or will he be "that tough frost guy who beat us pretty badly"? We will just have to see.

I also had an idea for a scenario from an early issue of Captain America about trying to melt the icecaps which I thought was pretty cool and ties in nicely with some issues today. I needed a bad guy with the right motivation to believably try to do that and that drove some of his background too. As soon as Zero's mind stabilizes he's going to start looking for revenge on Lord Winter and he's going to find it in a very high tech way, probably by being assisted/misled by a criminal organization who offers to "help" him achieve his goal.

A final consideration was that I always liked the tragic misguided element of Mr. Freeze in the Animated Batman series and I wanted to draw a touch of that into the game as well. Plus that awesome voice by Michael Ansara - that's how I want him to sound, as close as I can get to it anyway.

Once I found the pictures in this entry  it was a done deal - this is exactly how I envisioned him. Take a look at the picture above and imagine him lifting one of the hapless thieves up off of the ground by the throat and saying in that voice "You have no comprehension of the pain I have suffered" as the crook slowly frosts over from the icy grip and aura of the Baron. Imagine waking up after 1000 years in an icy tomb to find some base thug trying to pry the sword from your hand and imagine the cold rage surging through icy veins as instinct and reflexes take over.

I wrote him up for Mutants and Masterminds (3rd edition) so here is his sheet:

His abilities are pretty close to human, enhanced by his long entombment and magical effects. I have not tried to include every possible ice or cold power I could think of, just a few attacks that seemed to fit and some useful skills and advantages and defenses. The way I see it he just discovered that he has these powers (kind of like me as his creator being new to the game) and as tie goes on he will refine them and discover new abilities (as I get better with running him and get more experienced with the rules). Right now he can strike with his sword, freeze someone in place with his touch, and fire off a blast of cold, all while being resistant to cold, painfully cold to touch, and tough to harm in general. I don't see him as an Iceman clone, but I could see him gaining some control over Ice and Snow and over the frozen winds of the north, giving him some move object, element control, and some area attacks down the road. I would also like most of his powers to include a continuing damage and a movement-reducing trapping element but right now that's a little more than I am prepared to try and construct. The above set works just fine for a just-out-of-the-ice Baron Zero.

He probably won't show up in the first session of the campaign but the museum alarm will sound in one of the first few sessions and then he will be off and running, striding through Atomic City as the winds howl around him and his burning need for revenge leads him into a new age.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

X is for: Xeno

This stupid card game...

... meant that for over a year I had to play with a couple of friends who named every magic-user they rolled up "Xeno". Plus they pronounced it "Ex-Eno" for a long time and it drove me crazy. This is the guy:

Yeah. It doesn't particularly inspire me today but boy, back about 1982 a couple of my friends had that card game - which we never played, not even once - and for whatever reason it just stuck with them. Now he does look like about 80% of the D&D wizards in illustrations at the time, particularly those shown on front and back covers, but I never ran into as many "Gandalfs" or "Thoth Amons" as I did "Xenos" and that just seems wrong. Maybe he was really powerful in the game or something. It's not bad art or anything, it just seems sort of generic - other than the style. Turns out it's the same artist who did the work for another game you may have encountered:

They had that game too - I was a little jealous - so maybe that explains their attachment. Because it was awesome. We used the figures from that game in more than one D&D session.

Anyway, Xeno the wizard(s): I killed them. Both. Sorry, but I was hard on magic-users in my early days of DM'ing. I was not at all afraid of having monsters attack from behind the party as they wandered through the halls of the Caves of Chaos, and the M-U's tended to lurk at the back of the party, making them primary targets. An AC of 8 or 9 or 10 and 1-4 hit points almost guaranteed you were going home draped over a mule. I think one of them made it all the way to 3rd level before I killed him in the chaos shrine - death by zombie. I had seen Dawn of the Dead not long before so my zombies tended to be a little more vicious in their attacks than some. They tended to travel in hordes too. Call it an early attempt at a horror conversion that went poorly.

Heck I think that even when we played some computer games they used those names too - Ultima 2, Bard's Tale, even as late as Might & Magic I they may have still been using them.

I'm pretty sure they had Dungeon of Daggorath for their TRS-80 and I'm pretty sure there was a Xeno in it too.
You want a character sheet? For a dead D&D wizard? OK.

Notice there are no hit points marked off here because M-U's tended to die on one hit

 What you want another one? Where a name like "Xeno" might still work? Where he might not die 10 minutes after being created? how about this:

There, that should work. Although that toughness is laughably high for the Xenos I know... maybe that's the player's reaction to his D&D wizards getting snuffed like that... it would be a fitting change..."no stupid goblin with a club is taking me down THIS time"!

So that's my rundown of "Xeno". This was long before 40K would make it fashionable in some circles to declare someone "Xenos scum". This little reflective scrawl has of course now made me want to make a Xeno in some MMORPG, just so I can own a piece of it and maybe give them that second chance I stole from them all those years ago. Should he be a non-human to make it doubly funny, or does that ruin it since the originals were all human wizards? I think a human wizard named "Xeno" has a touch of the ironic or subversive to it that I kind of like now.  It's been long enough that people might think it's cool and original again. You and I will get the joke, though. Just don't tell my friend. I don't want either of them to think I've gone soft.

Monday, April 25, 2011

W is for: Wolf Blitzer!

The cover sheet for my Mechwarrior binder
Wolf Blitzer the XXIIIrd that is, who is by far the most memorable of my many Mechwarrior characters over the years. He was created back around 1991-92 when the first Gulf War was big news and this one reporter with the most awesome name in the world stood out from the crowd. The second edition of the Battletech roleplaying game had just come out (cleverly named "Mechwarrior 2nd Edition") and looking for a hook for a new character beyond just "noble who fights in a giant walking tank" I had a flash of inspiration and decided that "combat reporter" could be a fun and interesting direction to go, and I knew just what name to give him. Here's his sheet:

His stats are decent and his skills are good and very focused - piloting 4+ is a notch better than the average Battletech pilot of 5+, while his gunnery meets the standard at 4+. He's decent out of his mech too with good skills in unarmed combat, stealth, security systems, small arms, and med tech. His career skill in broadcast media and his comm systems skill mean he can run a one-man field reporting operation without much trouble.

I approached his choice of skills and mech with the idea that there were really 3 schools of thought on how a combat reporter would work in the age of war in the 31st century:

  • Be a non-military reporter, forgoing the mech option and going for something like a helicopter and taking extra skill in stealth and infiltration
  • Be a military reporter and going for the light and fast approach - a light speedy mech like a Locust or Hermes or one of those hovercraft with a speed of 10/15 - and rely on speed to get in, get the story, and get out. 
  • Go all-in on heavy combat capability with a heavy or assault mech and rely on being in the thick of the action for the biggest stories and most vivid combat footage  ' "Here's where I personally destroyed the mech of the Marik commander when he challenged me on the field."
The first option was a no-go as a primary character as it would leave me out of the big mech fights. The second one could be fun, but everyone wanted to play a heavy combat unit, not a scouting or recon or raider unit so I would be a fifth wheel with a light mech in that scenario. No, the obvious way to go was big, so I went with the biggest - an Atlas.

3025 Atlas
The Atlas is a 100 ton mech, the biggest size allowed in the game and the top of the "Assault" class mechs* which are the top dogs of the game. They are rare, at least in the early days of the game, carry the biggest guns, the most armor, and are the slowest mechs in the game. Each weight class of mech has its attractions, but sometimes you want to play the biggest and baddest and if you do this is the way to go. The Atlas was the first 100-tonner in the game and to me has always been one of the best looking and most effective types. It carries the biggest long-range  missile launcher in the game and the biggest gun in the game, giving it both a very good ranged attack and a strong close-in punch. it also carries the heaviest armor of any mech in the game, meaning Wolf lives longer and can do more broadcasting during a fight. Now the game was set in 3050-something during the Clan invasion, a pivotal time in the Battletech universe.  He started off the campaign with an old AS7-D Atlas from the 3025 era which was a solid, reliable mech without a lot of the fancy (and expensive) new technology from the 3050 era. That mech lasted precisely one long adventure, including our first encounter with the Clans (Jade Falcons if I remember right) and at the end the unit was awarded some new tech and mech upgrades and his Atlas was rebuilt as an AS7-S (Steiner variant) model. He renamed it "Skeletor" and spent most of the campaign piloting it in this configuration:

I never liked only having 5 shots for the main gun or only 6 shots for the LRM's like some Atlas models so I preferred this one as he could often get through 2 or even 3 fights before running out of ammo. This is hugely important in an RPG campaign as the DM does not always let you rearm and reload and patch up armor after every fight, unlike playing unconnected battles with the boardgame. Mechs that seem "sucky" or underpowered for a one-shot battle become much more attractive when you're going to have to live with them over time. Conversely many awesome mechs for one-shots look a lot less attractive for an extended multi-battle campaign - I'm looking at you Hunchback! This model also skips the XL engine, a common feature in many later mechs that frees up a ton of weight to add more guns but makes the mech die much faster when taking internal damage. They're also a lot more expensive, another consideration when running a merc unit that's involved in regular, active combat missions. Wolf also turned the SRM-2 Streak around to shoot forward instead of to the back. 

3050 Atlas
Wolf eventually got caught in a bad position during a clan assault and Skeletor took a serious beating, losing a leg and one side of his torso - major damage. Wolf was knocked unconscious and injured during the fight too. While recovering, Wolf decided that perhaps fighting in the middle of a melee was not the best strategy for a combat reporter and that a new approach was needed. Somewhere along the way the unit had captured another Atlas, one of the newer models with an endo-steel internal structure which freed up some additional tonnage without compromising the toughness of the mech and so Wolf began to design an new configuration, the AS7-X:

This version pulled the AC20 (it was hard... sniff) replacing it with a Gauss Rifle that did 3/4 of the damage at more than double the range, plus 2 big long-range lasers (that also do not run out of ammo), and retains the LRM-20. This means it can drop triple the damage of the old model at long range while still doing more damage at short range too!  It's more efficient and less susceptible to ammo shortages. It plays somewhat differently than the previous version, but in a long-term campaign I finally gave in and it made him a monster in combat - he was able to take on clan mechs on much closer to even terms than before. Wolf named it "Stormbringer" and used this mech for the remainder of the campaign, which was not all that much, but it was fun and refreshing for the time it lasted.

The campaign lasted for more than a year with 3-6 players during the game, some dropping in and out depending on availability. We fought many battles, mostly against the clan invaders in Steiner space. We didn't always win, but we avoided any disastrous leave-your-gear-behind-and-run type defeats. Wolf's main camera was mounted in the nose-hole of the Atlas skull and he unfolded his satellite uplink antenna on many different worlds. Having a media connection helped the unit keep a higher profile than it might otherwise have had too. 

The very first session involved am orbital drop onto a hostile spaceport and even with his ace piloting skills Wolf was hit by heavy laser and missile fire several times on the way down, landed badly as a result of the damage (hip actuator) and spent that first battle limping around at 1/2 speed - thank goodness for the LRM as it at least let him shoot back at things he couldn't catch. The whole campaign on that planet saw him with some kind of leg damage as there wasn't a lot of downtime and it was damned annoying as an Atlas is pretty slow anyway, and leg actuator damage only makes it worse. This proved nearly fatal at the end as he could not participate in the unit's tactical withdrawal at a crucial point so he made a ferocious last stand until he ran out of ammo and his mech overheated to the point of shutdown. The video was awesome though. That did set some of the tone for the campaign though and at least once during an action on a new world he would have a run of bad luck, usually involving leg actuators. Wolf is the character that made me a lot more open to taking the bad luck advantage in some games - if it's going to happen anyway you might as well get points for it. 

The high points of the campaign in many ways were the "Battalion Battles" we ran every so often. In Batteltech the basic unit is the lance, a team of 4 mechs comparable to a modern tank platoon. A company is 3 lances and a Battalion is 3 (or more) lances, or 36 mechs. Throw in some infantry, recon vehicles, aerospace support, and supplementary local tank forces and you're looking at 40-60 units per side which requires a really big table's worth of maps makes it an all-weekend affair and a huge blast to play, especially when one side is your unit where you know all of the names of the pilots and their mechs and most of them have a character sheet that someone rolled up during the campaign. Now when that pair of Falcon Vultures blows away your recon lance in one turn you actually care whether the pilots live or die and whether it's a shot-through torso or an engine or ammo explosion that takes out the mech! It's really a different game from traditional one-shot Battletech and one I highly recommend.

In the end we were not defeated. "Dante's Hitmen" (I never liked the name - our 1st edition group went by the much cooler "Death's Head Assault Group") came to a good stopping point somewhere around 3056 and decided to take a garrison duty job to refit with new tech. As player interests and attention wandered we just let the campaign go and never went back to it. As far as I know Wolf is still sitting out there in his Atlas X, talking to local contacts and practicing his gunnery. When Mechwarrior 3rd edition came out about 1998 we started up a new campaign but it didn't last as long as this one, which didn't last as long as our 1st edition game with the D.H.A.G. , so maybe our attention was waning even then. The mechanics in all 3 versions were just terribly clunky looking back now. GURPS, Hero, Savage Worlds - any of those would work better now for the out-of-mech action while keeping Batteltech for the heavy metal bashing. I have no strong desire to fire up those old systems again but writing this does make me miss the universe quite a bit. It also makes me miss the groups we used to play with, too. 

For the future I have started to introduce the Apprentices to Battletech. We haven't played much yet but we will, probably this summer. Considering the ridiculous number of pained mech mini's I have sitting out in the garage it's a crime. I started off painting individual mechs, then I went to painting up lances as a unit, then I went to companies, and at the end of our playing time around 2000 I was painting them up as whole battalions with shared paint schemes, so we have the toys - we just need the time, not unlike so many other things in this hobby and life in general. If we do play a decent battle, or even start up a campaign, I'll post it here. Who knows, maybe they'll have the chance to be interviewed by the famous Wolf Blitzer and the amazing Atlas-Cam!

*Lights are 20-39, Mediums are 40-59. Heavies are 60-79 tons, and Assault mechs are 80-100 tons