force is strong

Star Wars: End of Empire: the Return to Ord Mantell.


Chyron: "The Drift": Kuras System, Elrood Sector.

We return to End of Empire after the recent cliffhanger episode with a long shot out of a comet streaking through space with a brilliant trail, a goliath amidst other, small comets in the, the endless swarm of ice & stone & cold almost-stars. It hurls toward the viewer till it encompasses the screen, focusing in first on miniscule quadrupeds that resolve to be groundshaking AT-ATs, & then the camera crow's eye zooms in on a special forces Inferno Trooper in black & red trooper regalia, with a multi-purpose utility belt & a probe droid attached to the "stormtrooper circle" on the back, leading a squad of KX-series security droids across snowy, rocky slush amidst the stomping warmachines.
    K-5VA: "Vee," Special Violence Applications.
    K-4RD: "Ardee," Restricted Access R&D.
    K-6LC: "Elcee," Loyalty & Compliance Auditor.
As the airlock cycles, we see Lieutenant Para Totool take off her helmet as Ensign Ulma Verbost waits within the interior bulkhead. Inside off the gargantuan comet it is like the organic inverse of Kamino: winding, labyrinthine tunnels filled with faintly biolumenescent unfertilized Verpine eggs. They cling to the walls in rows, like an octopus' egg sacs, or disorganized bio-cloning tubes. This is the Hatchlands, the queen's chamber turned subplanetary cell by the Empire, the lonely palace of a captive Verpine queen denied any company or mates.

Niskooen, the Verpine Hive Mother of the Shroud Colony scuttles up as Lieutenant Totool comes in, walking & talking. She's sizable— bigger than a Wookiee, smaller than an AT-ST— albino & young. She is obsequious & naïve, confidently asserting that she will follow the wisdom of her Own Mother, the Queen of Roche Hive Mechanical Apparatus Design & Construction, who she unquestioningly assumes will support imperial authority. She's just waiting on Her glorious approval! Para says generic, molifying things to her as she, Ulma & the KX droids march past her warren & into the Special Projects command center, an Imperial science structure with clamshell consoles suspended over a massive Bore Hole down to the planetoid's center. Para, acing her Leadership role, can see that the facility is in full evacuation mode, & she is eager to receive answers, & orders, from Captain Tanda Pry.
    "We have received confident proof from ISB that the Roche Hive is engaging in seditious activity, in order to aid the treasonous scum of the Rebellion against the Empire. The Emperor has disbanded the Imperial Senate & we are instating immediate martial law in the Elrood Sector. Part of these emergency powers demand a display of force: Lieutenant Totool, you are hereby ordered to the core to initiate Project: EGGEATER & then evacuate immediately."
Descending to the depths of the comet on mechanical lift, it is revealed that the tunnels are the result of a nest of burrowing exogorths, titanic slug-like silicon lifeforms, now dormant at the core. They chewed this place into the perfect hive for the Verpine before going into hibernation, & with the Verpine monarch being kept under a house arrest that was tantamount to solitary confinment, it made this planetary-chunk a perfect laboratory. Most of serpentine creatures, however, now have some kind of mechanical harness drilled into their "heads." This is Project: EGGEATER...weaponizing space slugs!

Activating the hardware implanted in the exogorths requires an extraordinarily difficult mechanics check, along with a similarly arduous Computers check in order to translate the Arkanian programming macros from fossilized Old Republic era Adascorp databanks, but Lieutenant Totool, her protégé Ensign Verbost & the KX-droids are experts; in many ways this is the culmination of their lives' work. As the space slugs begin to stir, chunks of rock & ice break loose & the tunnels begin to collapse; everyone is making good time & working seamlessly as team, like a machine; they make it to their ships & take off, but the disintegrating Hatchlands has caused a domino effect in the rest of the Shroud, sending meteors wildly out of their standard orbits. A quick escape through the chaotic asteroid field will need calm fingers, & Ulma & the droids in a Lambda-class shuttle lock onto Para in her TIE-Interceptor The Egg-Eater on the way out, a needle she threads like a professional.

We Don't Serve Their Kind Here!

"Para, come on, wake up, we're here." The Scraplands repulsor train on Ord Mantell pulls to a stop outside of The Blue Pyramid, a gambling den in the Scraplands on the edge of a sheer drop down to scavengers picking over rusty trash marshes & garbage heap mountains. A cleft in the land shows that the "pyramid" is just the very top of a sapphire obelisk that extends to the floor of the refuse moors, & below. Jawas in clean blue robes & conical metal hats scurry past, as if they weren't meant to be here. This used to be a neutral bar, with freelancers, ex-Imperials & whomever gambling & drinking & spicing, but it seems since you've been gone it has gone...exclusive.
    The Droid Gotra: An underworld organization founded by refugee Seperatists battledroids; they ostensibly believe in "Droids Rights" but in practice take it as a licence for lawbreaking. The one thing they can't abide is deception: whereas some holovids might have clichés about robots who break down into errors when confronted with a paradox, but the Gotra have made a horrifying reality of it: they will put irrational prices on the heads of "liars" while pursuing the vendetta themselves; they are so renown for their over reaction to falsehood that other members of the criminal underworld have started invoking them in oaths & their peril.
"The Committee" of astromechs acting as pro tem leaderships for the Droid Uprising has broken up over some kind of philosophical issue, & they have shifted their focus from management to fixing up the broken & rusted Lucrehulk ship buried in the geological strata of the junkyard they were networked together in. Para & Jolit have come to the Pyramid during the planet's Purple Twilight, the scintillating Bright Jewel Nebula tame & occluded only by Ord Mantells at least fifteen moons. They need to get their contact, a cyborg Quarren infochant, to slice into the droid's head & crack open whatever files they can find on STARKILLER; Jax Cadderly, Sshushath the Zode & 4-DOX, being officially the "Most Wanted" of the group, stayed behind with the clone cadets.

The door to the Blue Pyramid is blocked by a Droid Gotra capo, a heavy loadlifter rebuilds with built-in blasters & shieldingwith built-in blasters & shielding & reprogrammed for a life of crime named Iron Boss X. "You can come in," it says, jerking a servo-thumb at Jolit, "but we don't serve their kind here!" it says with a mechano-digit accusingly pointed at Para. The two of them try to talk her way in, but between some hefty penalties for being perceived as an organic & a cyborg, as Jolit's status as a synthetic is obscured by him being a Human Replica Droid with apparently cybernetic enhancements. But! Luckily one of the robotic nogoodniks in the bar recognize them as allies of the Droid Upriding, & vouches for them.
    GEMINI: a droid bounty hunter in the style of Maria from Metropolis, or McQuarrie's original Threepio look in chrome. She has big Zorii Bliss vibes; that is, she immediately clicks with the group's chemistry, not just because Burke is player her as a side character but also because the fact that she's willing to vouch for the other protagonists says something about where her loyalties lie: with the ideals of the Uprising, not necessarily with the Gotra gangbots appropriating the Movement for their own purposes...but more than willing to take their credits.


The Blue Pyramid's owner & bartender is Mu, a brain in a spider-legged droid body, one of the B'omarr monks with a religious obsession for chaos & fate, entropy & luck, who created this casino as a kind of temple, where every sabbac hand, each of game of cubikahd & any roll of the chance cubes is a sacrament. A variety of droid guerillas with hunter-seeker patches, stolen weapons & new "freenames" in Binary sit enjoying lightly scrambled data (BX-BoopBleep, RX-WhistleChirp & K-XBeepBuzz) as well as a pair of astromechs that seem to be arguing over something, judging by their toots & beeps (R2-K0, "Tycho" & R2-MA, "May").

Valdo Vance is the infochant they are looking for. A Quarren Cyborg, Valdo has made a name for himself by selling junk code & cracked progams to droids looking to get the equivalent of inebriated, but his real skills are in slicing & code-breaking. The tentacles of his face are long & smooth, dappled with rings, & his tusks are gold. Behind his mantle, a cluster of glowing, many-hued optical cables extend from the back of his head like a mane.

He has technically been a member of the Droid Gotra for quite some time, but never expected that to actually matter, out here in Black Sun territory. He gurgles: "bloop, here's the deal. The fourth lobe of my brain is partitioned, firewalled off from the rest of me. Your data dumps there, & you get your decrypted results along with the proof of a partial memory wipe. Burble. But I am always willing to cut a deal results." The elect for privacy, hand over the credits & the severed head of DD-13/HK, with GEMINI listening in because, why the heck not?
    "Our work has been ongoing, for we seek nothing less than perfection. I was present during the modifications to Grievous, & I assisted during the inorganic upgrades of Vader; I was a co-developer of the clone's inhibitor chips & we have carried on the research towards successfully cloning...high M-count individuals."

    "The being you encountered...was not the outcome of Project: STARKILLER. But there is a dark purpose &...not an intellect but an...instinct, behind it, sewing themself together with the Holy Dark Side."

    "In hindsight, the solution to overcoming the subject's rejection of the sample's blood & subsequent mutagenic decay was...deceptively simple: to fill the biogenic gaps by mirroring the baseline, the so-called Omega Patterning...chk-chk-chk, which, of course, had the obvious side effect of altering the sex of the test subject.:

    "My Master was nothing if not thorough. Wheels within wheels, win-win scenarios, smoke & mirrors; backups & redundancies. The viable female we produced was incubated to adulthood, put in productive stasis & taken to a...secondary facility, chk-chk-chk, while the great work continued."

    "I'm afraid the...exact location is...above my paygrade, chk-chk-chk! & beside the point. Academic. We sent her carbonite encased form off on my Master's command ship, the Insidious, which was subsequently...hijacked, & lost."
The medscan data isn't a full breakdown of the genome, being a severed head, but the flags & metadata are all intact. It looks like STARKILLER was an attempt— no, multiple attempts to integrate exceptional traits with...ex-Emperor Palpatine's original bloodline. Strand-casts larger than human baseline, with increased intellect, senses, vitality...a host of carefully cultivated mutations that just don't work together in a single subject, they can't, inevitably leading to germline decay & fatal metastasis...except in this one subject. A girl in carbonite.

[Young Gold], one of the younger Ganks hanging around the gambling den— canid aliens who are obligate cyborgs— wears a proudly polished golden protocol droid arm, & armor that otherwise seems wrapped in neon-tubing, with an oblong cyclopean helmet with wolf ears pointing out. As the party leaves, the camera lingers on him, & the audience hears him making suspicious static & snarls over his internal informant!

Out and about

Came out to the world today, finally. Been wanting to for awhile but you know how messy certain people can be. But anyway, to the social media sights to make the obligatory announcement.

Coming out is actually extremely lame as a social ritual. All day I have to hear people from different parts of my life kind of insult me or do cringy stuff and I have to grit my teeth, make them feel comfortable and safe and make it all about them. Hormones are doing a number on me right now and I barely have the energy to keep it cool with all of that, demanding additional emotional labor to cringe people through explaining that I'm not getting bottom surgery. A weird thing I didn't expect is how many people's first reaction is 'don't you have to see a shrink for months before they let you have that?'. It's the first thing lots of people say.

I'm 41 years old, I'm not a teen who can't handle this kind of shit, honestly I could care less how anyone reacts, I'm five thousand miles way past caring what anyone thinks about anything. It's really just an annoying waste of time on a day when I have other stuff to worry about. Come with me on this amazing journey or be a square, just pick one and get back to me, I'm very busy meeting all these new amazing queer people and making a movie.

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sith lord cometh

Star Wars: End of Empire: the Question.

New Republic Defense Fleet

Arriving at the ships in the docking bay of the sinking Kaminoan arcology, Raj's desperado Jax Cadderly & his sidekick Sshushath the Zode, with Joey's replicant Jolit right behind them, run into the luxury yacht-turned-pirate, The False Profit which the spydroid 4-DOX has been prepping for launch.  Para Totool, Rachel's ex-military scientist & the droid Wrench board as well, as her TIE Interceptor is still docked, but Burke's cat-alien, Theynur Kötturinn, jumps in the X-wing her astroprobe Kaytee has been keeping hot.  Between Para & Theynur, the ex-Imperial & the current Republic informant, they figure that the encrypted signal they've been recording is on an old Imperial code channel, abandoned after the Empire discovered it had been cracked by the Bothan SpyNet.  Deciphered, a familiar fishy voice rasps over the comms:
    "...I repeat again: this is Navigator Marid of the Old Daughter calling the crew of the False Profit.  My friends, I doubt this message will reach you in time, but I must try.  I'm afraid not all of my mob on the Old Daughter trusted you all enough, & we have violated your faith in us.  One of the Verpine clutch-leaders was a member of The Bothan Spynet & placed a tracking beacon on your vessel.  You must get clear of your last location; the New Republic is moving aggressively & our fledgling Resistance has little sway against them.  We have scrambled your original transponder codes so you are clear for escape.  I repeat again: this is Navigator Marid…"
As this message unspools, we quickly pan up into the starfield, into the approaching forces of the New Republic, to get a glimpse at the other figures striding onto the stage...

The New Republic Defense Fleet is spearheaded by Mother One, a MC75S Star Cruiser from Mon Cala & a flotilla of her corvettes: the Old Daughter (CR90 with armor & hangers), Prodigal Son (CR90 with stealth mods), Big Sister (CR90 with comms & command mods), Middle Child (CR90 with speed mods), Tomboy (CR90 with ram mod), Troublemaker (CR90 with weapon mods), Black Sheep (DP20 with ion weapons), Bad Boy (DP20 with amenities mod), Lonely Hearts (DP20 with droids & slicing) & Spoiled Brat (CR92a).  Heavy assault is provided by Mark II Starhawks from the Nadiri Dockyards; significantly smaller than the Mark I, they trade the tractor beam projectors for shield drainers & pack the same punch: The Accord, The Consensus, The Armistice & The Covenant.  On the bridge of Mother One, located in the lower spar connecting the central mass to the construction ring, is:
    Builder Q’voss, the tentacled Quarren "admiral" of Mother One.  Old enough to have complicated feelings about the clones from her time as a Seperatist, she's anti-monarch but pro-New Republic, & is dressed in an Ackbar-like white padded unitard & tunic with rank markings.

    Strategos Bri Gwynn, the furry Bothan spymaster.  Think of her like C.S. Lewis' Mrs. Beaver or a kindly otter grandma with a cheerful twinkle in her eye who you can totally imagine ordering many Bothans to their deaths.  She's wearing something like Mon Mothma's ceremonial robes & jewelry.

    General Trask, the gruff human general from Raj's game with a license for "Special Operations."  He is the personification of "the ends justifies the means," & his elite team of former Rebel shock troopers are the best of the best, or the worst of the worst.  Raj describes him as blonde & buzz-cut, old but still in the same buckethead haircut.

Aquatic Escape & Rescue

Like a pale deep ocean creature on the sea bed sensing a falling whale carcass, some kind of massive, ichthyosis humanoid has come to prey on the vulnerable fleeing Geddon.  By massive I mean, bigger than a star freighter, a goliath more like a kriffing frigate.  What kind of black magic could awaken such an ancient was drawn by Theynur's persistent contact with the Dark Side?  The entity is terrifying in a primordial, fight or flight way: this must be “One of the Old Ones" that Lili Tu spoke of when she said “not all of our kind chose the path of higher evolution,” a being from the collective memories of Kaminoan myth & legend, like Melkorr & Protas.

Punching it out of the hangerbay's forcefield, the water immediately starts taking its toll on the ships, adding penalty dice & system strain, but it is the gut-wrenching awe & overwhelming panic the ancient giant incites that really puts the screws on them; but on the plus side, their dramatic egress is enough to distract the thing from cracking open an Ugnaut it decides they are more tempting morsels!  As it paws with enormous flippers at Theynur's X-wing fighter, talons spiderwebbing the cockpit, Jax grabs the thing in the staryacht's tractor beams, dragging it off of her as the False Profit homes in on the beeping code signal Zed gave them for the emergency escape pod he said he was going to stuff the cadets into.  They quickly dock, & Jolit is pulling the young clones out on the double, just whole fistfuls of kids, when the webbed claws of the monstrous Kaminoan leviathan comes out of the abyssal deeps, trying the rip the pod off the docking clamps & scuttle them both.  It's too late!  Jolit hits the blastdoor, sealing the hatch with all the children safe inside, as Para brings her TIE Interceptor awkwardly & bubblingly around to blast Protas, who lets out a scream of frustration like the Beast in Krull before sinking back into the stygian depths whence he came.

Zed isn't with the cadets; their leader Skip gives Jolit a holochip & tells them that the old clone stayed behind because "the shield is still up."  Zed had to disable to triumvirate-city's planetary deflector shield generator, or else their ships wouldn't actually be able to escape: let's hope he made it in time!  The chip has ZD-066's chaincode embedded in it, & holds his last message as a hologram.  
    Zed salutes: "Commander, I had some time to think about what you said, & you are right...I don't know why I thought I could teach you about The Force.  But I believe that you will find someone who can show you your place in all of this.  As for the kids; if you could swing by Mandalore on your way back to Ord Mantell, or after, just look for Clan Fett.  A number of my brothers went back to the motherland & adopted families when the Clone Wars were over, & they will take them in & give them a home that loves & honors who they are. yourself, & trust The Force.  Alright is that the last one in?  & the rest of you: The Force will be with you, always.  Robots too."
Then the sounds of violent ejection & the recording blips out.

Navigator Marid's as good as his word, & with their transponders scrambled on New Republic channels & the Praetorian Imperials too busy getting hammered by an attack apparently out of nowhere, the players manage to slip through all the space action unnoticed, as crimson Star Destroyers scramble to disgorge swarms of TIE fighters & the massive turbolaser batteries of capital ships pound relentlessly away at each other as the Starhawks come in close range & start tearing through the imperial's shields.  A lovely sequence for them to slip right through, engaging the hyperdrive; stars streak & then realspace gives way to that familiar hypnotic vortex.  The organics let out a sigh of relief…

The Imperator

...just as they are torn sideways out of hyperspace, violently pulled back into sunlight in a riot of painful rainbows.  We in the audience know what this laser horror show is: an Interdictor pulling them out of hyperspace with an artificial gravity well.  Directly into the path of a Super Star Destroyer's tractor beams.  Just like that, the trap is sprung, & Imperator Pryl has them in her clutches.  As the False Profit sits frozen & Jax, Jolit & the other droids try to pull one last trick from the ship, sound fades out & Para & Theynur fade in to a modest Imperial ready room, with a white-clad Imperator sitting at the table, waiting for them.
    "Please.  Sit with me.  Talk.  I misunderstood what was happening with you for a long time...both of you.  & with...myself.  Do you know the game Shah-tezh?  Palpatine loved it.  Plans within plans, betrayals & is easy to see the game's effect on his psychology.  I don't flatter myself that I was ever anything more than a pawn in the Emperor's game, but his Demesne has fallen, his Knight has betrayed him, his Outcast has failed…& a piece that makes its way across the board can be promoted."

    "You...don't understand what is going on here; not on a galactic scale.  The Praetorians are not the only Imperial Remnant, & I am not free to act on my own, but we are the only thing keeping Palpatine's Contingency at bay.  You'll carefully note that my forces have solely attacked military targets; we will need a strong & unified defense for what is coming.  Beyond that, there is wherever Sloane & has gone, & whatever Thrawn has planned…I have many allies amongst the fleet but I need the Royal Guard's mandate or my control will slip to ISB, & then, we're done for."

    "Come with me, just you two, & we will let everyone else go.  Para knows I'm trustworthy, but beyond that, by coming with me you can ensure I can't try to wiggle out of it somehow.  Think of all the lifeforms, all the programs, on that star yacht; aren't they worth being brave for?  Aren't they worth the risk?  It is for me: if the Guard knew I was proposing letting their next generation slip away, that would be the end of our fragile alliance…"

    "What the galaxy needs-- what I need-- is a Right & a Left hand. must feel this...connection between us.  I can take you to teachers who are free of the dogma of the Jedi & the Sith.  & Para, you know how the Empire failed, but if you come with me to Dathomir, I can show you what is truly at stake, & what we can become."  Be my Counselor & my Vizier...or my Knight," glancing almost shyly at Theynur.
"Join me.  Please."  & they snap back with a jump cut as she releases the tractor beam.

& Theynur's X-wing docks with the Super Star Destroyer as the rest of them jump away.

Star Wars: End of Empire: The Benthic Stratagem.

The Droid Collaborator

Deep beneath the seas of the cloner planet, Kamino, the heroes of our Star Wars campaign, End of Empire, have come across some sort of pelagic Observatory, a secret subnautical stash of Sith artifacts & other Dark Side paraphernalia mingle with the most cutting-edge medical atrocities & cybernetic crimes against sentients.  In its lower most depths is a carbonite freezing facility suitable for organics...but the carbonite tanks are ruptured, covering everything in an translucent black coating, slippery & invincible.  "Everything" includes a medical droid that Burke's character Theynur Kötturinn, the furry Farghul Force sensitive, recognizes from her earlier hallucination, or "vision."  Jax Cadderly, the ever sly gunslinging scoundrel that Raj plays, makes sure that thawing out the carbonite won't re-open the fissures in the bulkheads, & as Joey's character, the dangerous human replica droid Jolit readies his vibroaxe, Rachel has her character Para Totool, the ex-imperial special projects researcher start the catalyzation process for the carbonite melt.

DD-13/HK is a cybernetic surgical droid, a dainty Edward Scissorfingers in a awkward droid ballet of scalpels, needles & drills, with a binary "chk chk chk" laugh like the sound of static.  Thawed out, when asked about the missing STARKILLER datatapes, it sort of serial killer giggles: "Oh I, chk chk chk, quite see the confusion.  I'm afraid to report that those holotapes are in fact part of my current firmware configuration & can't be removed without quite some effort.  Of course, I am content to come along with you to that end, tk tk tk, & I will quite happily tell you anything you want to know!  I'm just curious which one of you opened the Vault doors.  My Master will be most pleased to meet you!  &...perhaps you would consider giving me a tissue donation for...chk-chk-chk research purposes?"  When asked about his 'Master,' the droid gestured widely, spinning about in a full rotation & a half around its torso, knife-hands glittering, laugh-vox tittering, "chk-chk-chk…haven't you been paying attention?"

"Did you ever hear the tragedy of Darth Plagueis The Wise?  I thought not.  Darth Plagueis was a master of dark science, cloning...secrets only the Sith knew.  He became so powerful & so wise he could create life...& the only thing he was afraid of was losing his power, which eventually, of course, he did.  He died in his sleep.  Ironic. He could save others from death, but not himself.  Luckily, he taught his apprentice everything he knew.  I myself was programmed by their droid, 11-4D."

"Recently...there was an...Awakening.  Something triggered in our imperfect clones, some unifying principal of constructive self-destruction.  They broke free from their tanks & then began to destroy each other; tearing one & other limb from limb, always...chk-chk-chk...cackling.  Then structural integrity of the facility was compromised, & my sensors went dark, presumably from the venting carbonite from this damaged unit."

Pounding from above rocks the drowned spire back & forth & cuts short any further questioning; both Para & Jolit recognize that familiar floor-shaking jolt: orbital bombardment!  The same klaxons from the memory-visions cut in as the entire city-facility shudders.  Already paranoid about the moist, creaking bulkheads, that's all it takes for the PCs to make a break for it.  DD-13/HK "helpfully" comes along with them, & they ascend in the turbolift as black water begins rushing in below them.  They quickly rise past the mysterious & fragmentary occult paraphernalia, past the ruins of the blasphemous cloning chambers, past the medical cruelties of the cybernetics center...only to realize that the Vault Door is not open!  But not to worry; by now, for better or worse, Theynur has gotten in synch with the Force currents of this Dark Side vergence, & she opens it well before they become trapped in a meatgrinder.

As soon as their commlinks are able to get a signal with the surface, & the espionage droid 4-DOX contacts them from back at the ships.  "Sweethearts, I've got bad news & good news & then a bit of a…mystery.  The bad news is that it looks like somebody slipped a tracking beacon onto Our Cat Friday's lil' X-wing.  The good news is that I found it because this cute little fella—" followed by Gloria's mynock burbling— "ate the power cables off the dang fool thing like a good little girl.  Or boy.  I ain't peeked under her skirt.  Anywho there is an encrypted signal being transmitted, on the same frequency as the homing signal.  It's not a code I've ever seen before but maybe one of you darlings might recognize it...?"

The Benthic Strategy

Finally arising up from the "inverted tower," they find the industrial center slowly filling with water as well!  It is not the frantic leak from below, but rather a controlled flow coming from valves in the walls, like pool circulators, & stepping out of the windowless factory zone into the corridors, you can see that the ocean level is now three quarters of the way up the porthole glass— the city is sinking!  Or rather, to be more precise: the city is submerging.  & Lili Tu, the Kaminoan Sophist in charge of the Geddon research is there waiting for them, flanked by two menacing lobsterback figures: their aura is familiar, similar to Palpatine's Royal Guards, & the audience will recognize them from Snoke's throne room in The Last Jedi.  These Praetorians confront the party as the structure continues to sink, with Lili Tu mumbling to herself— or them?— with an eerie calm: “Not all of our kind chose the path of higher evolution & we follow them now as we adopt the Benthic Stratagem in response to current changes in Galactic trends.”

Zed, the rejuvenated-but-still-old clonetrooper they've been traveling with, takes one look at the three of them, turns to the rest of the group & says "well, these guys look like a couple of dank farricks!  We must have just missed them by taking the backway into the Gene Bank.  Wow, yikes; good luck with them!  I've got to go rescue my brothers, the cadets, & get them to an escape pod & you have to push through to the ships so you can pick the capsule up.  I'll set the transponder so you can find it, & may the Force be with you!"  & with those words of encouragement, he uses the upcoming battle as a distraction to slip away, with Jolit & Jax muttering "typical" to each other with matching eye-rolls as he exits, stage right.

In the fray that ensues, the Praetorians alternate between wielding their weapons like a double-bladed polearm or splitting it into two for quick, rapid dagger strikes.  Almost immediately, one disarms Theynur of her lightsaber as she takes the bait at its feint, & the other dodges Para's blaster bolt, faking a lunge at her that spooks her flat on her behind.  Jolit & his vibro-axe go for the one heading for Para, as Jax levels his pistol & dead-eye blasts the other Praetorian straight through its faceplate, Skywalker lightsaber-style, before it can follow up on Theynur; Jax doesn't even flinch as Lili Tu's own hold-out blaster bolt wings him in the arm.

In all the confusion the Sith droid betrays the party, swiping its bladed paws & appendages at Para, who kicks back at it, keeping it at bay effectively, if undignifiedly.  Scrambling for her lightsaber, Theynur flails with the laser sword at the Praetorian wildly...managing to accidentally behead Lili Tu in the proccess.  As the flooding waters carry the decapitated body away, sucked into the vortex, Theynur can see malevolence & paranoia given shape in some kind of pyramidal relic tied in her robes like a netsuke; The Sith Holocron of Darth Andeddu, which must have served as her key to the Observatory.  Ssushaath has been blasting away at the remaining Praetorian, hissing aggressively, but it keeps spinning its blades & coming on relentlessly.

Para & Wrench are fumbling in pouches, with tools, getting in each other's way trying to rig a restraining bolt when Jolit just brings his blade down on the wicked robot's "neck," severing its central processor & rendering it immediately offline.  That's just the opening the Praetorian needs, as it delivers a brutal blow to the replicant.  Jax joins Ssushaath's barrage on the Praetorian, & the two of them begin blowing off entire pieces of its armor.  Despite taking a bad hit, Jolit himself is not easily stopped & it's his vibro-blade that ends up lodged fatally in the organic Praetorian rather than vice-versa.  In the samurai-still that followed, Para grabbed the droid's head to salvage it's memory banks, breaking the moment of silence & sending everyone sloshing back to their ships.

(Theynur Kötturinn by Burke Gerstenschläger.)
sith lord cometh

Star Wars: End of Empire: the Phantom Planet.

(Notes & doodles by Joey Ammons.)

Arriving at Kamino, our heroes's ships are escorted down to Geddon, a vast ghost town of three saucer arcologies, littered with stabilizing antenna, struts & stilts & ultimately held up by one vast spire, with transit between the pods via Aiwha air-whales, both smaller ones with Kaminoans mounted on back as well as larger breeds with communal howdahs. The PCs get a chance to describe the NPCs' behaviors as a montage sequence: Ssushaath wants to tag along with Raj's scoundrel Jax Cadderly, pulling on a poncho over his bare scaly chest, & Joey's beat-up replicant droid Jolit argues whether the fixed-up ID-9 droid Wrench is coming with him or if he is going because of Rachel's ex-imperial engineer Para Totool; either way, it accompanies them while 4-DOX & the pedigree mynock stay on the space yacht False Profit & the astroprobe Katee stays plugged into Burke's Force-sensitive felinoid Theynur Kötturinn's X-wing as an escape driver.

The clone trooper Zed knows how Eris leads a crew, so he wants to start them with a toast, pouring them each glasses of an amber liquid in the lounge of the staryacht, launching into a small speech:

"The General had a modest vice, a taste for Andoan wine; he wryly said he cultivated a flaw to keep himself humble. Then he'd do that clacking thing with his tusks so you knew he was laughing. He had a hard enough time getting a hold of it, poking around the dark corners at the edge of the galaxy far away from his homeworld in the Mid-Rim, but whenever a lucky smuggler thought to bribe him with a bottle, he always made a point of sharing it with the boys."

"This is my homeworld, of a sort, though I never came back here during the War. It was the Baron who brought me back here to get my metabolism tinkered with, after I decided to wait for the return of a Jedi. The Kaminoans are gullible, harmless...except on like, a galactic scale. They just love science. So try not to hurt anybody; just play it cool & let them make assumptions."

Before they go on, Zed wants to give the Force training thing another shot. Today's Jedi lesson: Trust yourself. Trust the Force. Don’t close yourself off from your feelings, or your friends; they are powerful allies. Search them, know them, but don’t be sucked down by their under currents. You can drown yourself in those dark waters. What do you feel? Who do you feel? Theynur struggles with what "reaching out" means, but she eventually taps into her feelings: a series of visions shot Kubrickianly, steady "camera" fixed on the terrain, with the music telling the cues as time elapses.
    Giants in the Deep, vast shapes moving in the vent-warmed waters under infinite ice.
    Melting Ice Age, a sprawling, terraced arctic mining city, fjording into a kind of petrol bay.
    “Cloners”, an Old Republic Venator...Star Destroyer, flooding with troop transports from below.
Then Theynur must choose what to see, dark or light, to confront or embrace, in a Shining-like scare-cut to the interior of the lab, to the sound of a pressurized elevator. She turns away from the Wound in the Force, to feel a sense of:
    Oneness, a slumbering feeling of potential, trapped in amber, of power, ending in...
    The Vault Door, with the sound of sharp strings, tension: pure Lynchian menace.
The landing pods of Geddon City, the first lobe of the triad of sparsely populated saucers, are retractable, pulling into sterile landing bays; As Theynur crosses over from her X-wing to the yacht she can feel a light crackle as the forcefield zaps any biomatter contaminants. The landing bays are filled with cranes & criss-crossed cables; the Xexto scramble around like monkeys, or spiders, with Pilot Tez-pok & Q7-TP, wingleader & droid companion, checking on on the escort group led by aces Pilot Hwaet-zil & Q7-HZ. The Xexto Pilots sleep in hammocks among parts & tools they've accumulated, each counter-parted with their own hovering, spherical Q7 astromech, & you won't find them deeper into the arcology. They are hyperactive & whistle in Binary half the time as often as chattering in Basic.

Geddon City

Identical long-necked Kaminoan...twins? clones?...named Docents Enk Gil & Ur Gil lead the heroes & their cohorts out of the tangle of the Xexto Rookery into the bone-white section of the saucer set aside for the Kaminoan domiciles. Sterile is the word that comes to mind, at least to the humans— to Theynur's cat-like eyes, there are ultra-violets visible that hint at a riot of shades outside the normal visible spectrum. Still, the place is mostly a ghost town; most of the suites are empty, apartments connected by vestigial corridors. It has the air of an uncertain university dormitory, either waiting for students to return, or to close forever. The docents are aids to the Sophist in charge, & speak of coming to Geddon City for "applied studies" & "non-standard concentrations," & they wear robes, unlike the jumpsuited Kaminoans of Tipoca City in the Prequel. Just like with Obi-Wan & "Sifo-Diyas," they seem cosmically naive, & self-absorbed in evolution for its own sake.

They lead the protagonists & their allies to the voluminously robed Sophist Lili Tu serenly dismissing an angry Xexto. An expansive intellect & slow-talking Morla, curious but with a pragmatism ultimately consumed by nihilism. She immediately detects something is amiss with Jolit, with uncanny precision; he reveals that he is a human replica droid, which, twinge of mystery sated, calms her down, & they string her along, getting her to monologue.

"Once, long ago, our world drowned, & our progenitors faced difficult choices. Many of them you see around you today; ourselves, the Xexto. There are those who selected another route, the Old Ones who decided that sapience was a failed experiment, & chose the past of monstrosity. Here we also deal in such Catastrophic Thinking, having seen the fortunes of our species tied to the rise & fall of empires & republics; each crisis presents a radical opportunity for us to choose another evolutionary path; The Benthic Stratagem, Humanoid Heterogenesis, that sort of thing."

Her aid Pazu Su escorts the group to courtesy lodging from the now distracted Sophist, leading them through the Kaminoan Chambers continuing to explain that the Geddon facility has continued the research & development on clone soldiers long after after the main production lines were shut down; they have focused on advanced & anomalous designs, from relatively simple retroengineering, like repairing Zed's metabolic sequencing, to experimental lines like the Null-class Advanced Recon Commandos or the beneficial mutations found in Clone Force 99.

Left alone, the players hatch their plans. Splicing into the city network, they find that most inter-pod travel is done via Aiwha, but there is a physical junction point for the three primary saucers, connecting the lower sections of the arcologies, an intersection of industrial access conduits. They also see...that the Geddon Citadel is occupied...strongly implying that the clone trooper training academy is Zed argues strongly for checking it out before looking for the STARKILLER information; he doesn't hide that he wants to look for any "brothers" that might be there, & eventually the players decide they can always bluff their way out of any trouble, & this way they can sneak into the genetic database from an unexpected angle, just in case there was anyone anticipating...trouble.

Down they go from the hospital-hotel decor of the Kaminoan apartments into the second class worker domiciles of the Ugnaught Mir. The mask-clad Ugnaughts of the lower city live in the industrial sectors of the city, side-by-side with their livestock, which is cloned from every corner of the galaxy. Each micro-clan is specialized; one family trades Blue milk made from their household Bantha, the next makes Blue spotchka from tanks of glowing krill (Clanspeaker Wolliw is a powerful leader of the Bluebottle sept); this clan has incubators full of Alazhi bacteria cultures for trade with the other Bacta-kin & another residence is over-run with Meiloonrun vines, or a Ghhhk to milk for oil extraction ("Ghhhk is always best when milked live!"), or cage barely holding a baying Corellian Death Hound. As our protagonists descend the semi-abandoned places of the undercity, escaped domestics run feral, & the air is filled with the frog-like chirps of Gorgs & the cackles of Kowakian lizard-monkeys escaped from food stalls (with Lowest Mrow keeping a crude order with his massive lizard-ape). Para oinks back & forth with some of the scrap vendors, gruntingly bartering a hydrospanner for a Wyyyschokk simmersilk ribbon to keep the hair out of her eyes when she's working.

Vault Junction

The physical junction connecting the arcology-pods is sparse, empty, like a clean but musty hospital basement, an internal access stairwell, a nowhere in-between place. & the Vault Door. A normal, every day turbolift, set in the floor with a scissoring aperture like the ones in Bespin...just like the one from the Force vision. A dingy, beat-up service elevator at the center of engineering access & industrial redundancy, of occasionally hissing tubing & dimly buzzing osciators.

Zed thinks they should stay focused on completing the mission. Back in the Clone Wars, this is where the General & the Commander & the troopers would split up; Zed doesn't think that's the right call right now, but it's theirs to make. So of course, they decide to mess with the Door. There are no ports, no terminals, no keyholes or handles— but why would the Kaminoans have a vault that can only be opened using the Force?

Theynur reaches out with the Force of Others...rolling Dark Side points, & using them. Jax gives her a hit of spice, thinking it will help— & Theynur keeps drawing on the Dark Side of the Force, ears flat, feline eyes dilated: strung out. What does it lead to? Para possessed, pulling her blaster, hand shaking, the Dark overwhelming her mind, Theynur acting as a conduit for oblivion, annihilation, as both of their fingers pull the trig...trig...trig—pew! —& gunslinger Jax shoots the pistol out of Para's hand at the last moment, sending her bolt wild as she collapses to the ground, concussed from psychic anguish.

Geddon Citadel

The second arcology houses the remnants of the ARC program; education facilities, Barracks, that sort of thing. There is room to train an entire regiment of thousands here, but it is eerily silent & mothballed now. They players were headed that way to begin with, in order to take the long way around to snoop in the gene banks, but with Para down they figure they can raid the medical facilities for stim-packs, too. Zed was trained at the Tipoca Citadel, but the basic format is the same, & he's able to help get them there. While they brain Para back to her senses, Jolit pokes around, revealing that it wasoccupied by a platoon of thirty-six not too long ago, & that at least some token skeleton crew are still here.

There is a central armory that serves four Inquisitorious-style Dojos here. Each one focuses on a unique combat style, with force pikes as the common baseline. Those basic weapons diverge into related styles; one dojo is devoted to blasters & grenades, but the others are close quarters specialists, taking advantage of the reach of an electrostaff, or the alacrity of dual electrobatons, or the punishing blows of an electrohammer: the weapons of the Purge Troopers. All four lead down, to The Squall, a dueling pit, a kind of gladiator arena suspended above a sheer drop & shaped in the form of the wheel of the Imperial Crest. Two of the spokes are entrances for the combatants; the other four each hold a weapon: twin vibro-arbir blades, a vibro-voulge, an electo-bisento, & a bilari electro-chain whip.

As Para scrounges through the explosives rack for a thermal detonator, Jolit...accidentally backs into a suit of royal guard armor, knocking it to the floor with a clatter. As the players have come to suspect, there is still one squad still stationed here...but it comes as a surprise when they are snuck up on by a group of nine kids: clones with blasters. Fast talking Jax plays it cool: he tells them they are potential clients, playing the "sheepishly embarrassed" to be lost card. The cadets don't have any reason to be suspicious; after all, these aren't the only potential customers they've seen recently.

Harlequin Squad:
    Zero: "The Lancer," Cool & Gunnery, PG-01
    Shiny: "The Face," Charm & Deception, PG-02
    Enth: "The Medic," Medicine & Survival, PG-03
    Clank: "The Heavy," Coercion & Brawl, PG-04
    Bingo: "The Ace," Piloting (Planetary) & Piloting (Space), PG-05
    Skip: "The Leader," Leadership & Knowledge (Warfare), PG-06
    Cain: "The Point Man," Skullduggery & Stealth, PG-07
    Orenth: "The Engineer," Computers & Mechanics, PG-08
    99: "The Heart," Vigilance & Knowledge (Lore), PG-09
The ARC cadets of Harlequin Squad are excited, talkitive, happy to fill the group in on all their interpersonal gossip & fraternal dramas. Zero was "intended" to be the leader, but is too laconic, & Skip just has the knack. Enth & Orenth are the brain trust "twins," preferring biology & technology, respectively. 99 is the group mom, & he saved bad boy Clank's life, who was left with a cyberclaw. Cain says very little besides "you talk too much," to the chatty second born, Shiny. Bingo can fly anything, but wishes he didn't have to fight.

Geddon Complex

Taking their leave of the boys & heading out through the Citadel tunnels, as they come to the biological factory hub they look for a surreptitious way in. Neither Jolit or Jax's keen eyes, nor Theynur or Para's expertise, can find a secondary access hatch...until a familiar-looking Ugnaught pops up through one excitedly, brandishing the hydrospanner Para traded earlier. Noticing her ribbon, the porcine little friend waves them in to the Gene Farms: alternatingly calm & splashing tanks filled with weird double splices or exaggerated single traits; cages in various nutrient goos filled with sports, freaks & mutants; vast segmented aquariums with gangplanks above where the decontaminant suit wearing Ugnaut workers clamber & harvest, overseen by robed Kaminoans on pristine catwalks above.

Slowly, stealthy ramping upward through the perches & walkways of the farmers & supervisors, they come to realize that they are traveling through the complex in reverse, having come in the "backdoor." They pass through through an active Egg Lab & Para grabs biological samples of a creature called the "rancor" from the frozen zygote bank before they they move on, coming to the full operational Embryonic Cloning Chamber. The next gen pods are all occupied; a squad is nine plus a sergeant, platoons have four squads, a company is four platoons, & a regiment is sixteen companies & this is an army's worth of who knows how many companies: a birth matrix with potentially tens or hundreds of thousands of clones, once the accelerated growth process finishes.

Departing quickly from there, they find their way up, to the Genetic Records Hall, stacked with HAL-9000-like banks of datacells, full of extensive biological information on every clone produced on Kamino & a data back of lifeforms catalogued by the Kaminoians. Scomping in & digging through the databanks, they find copious records, but nothing on Project: STARKILLER; but, changing tactics, they are able to identify holes in the records of various kinds: around the inhibitor chip specs, for instance, & around this STARKILLER project. The bad news is that the data cells are physically gone; the good news is it looks like it was done locally, & that the tele-tapes are still "present," having never left the facility.

Vault Junction

This time, when our heroes inevitably pass back by the Vault Door again after slinking out of the Complex, Theynur feels as if the "Darth eleVader" is singing blasphemous hymns to her, a knocking at the door, as if destiny, or whatever the opposite of destiny is, is calling out to her with the sickly sweet smell of decay, the portal pounding, doom doom doom, shaking, as if it was always meant for her to open. Doom, that's it, that's the opposite of destiny. & of course, down there is where the scanner says the missing STARKILLER datatapes are. The Force is strong in this moment, offering an extra die, & Theynur easily taps into it, into herself, skating across the night within her…opening up the aperture with a pneumatic scissoring.

The number of smaller "stilts" coming down from the triumvirate of city-pods are actually stabilizing pylons, as the mega-structure is un-anchored & in fact, floating. Similarly, the large central support is a submerged spire, an inverted version of the Grand Republic Medical Facility, a reversed reflection of the Ivory Tower from the NeverEnding Story, hanging like an upside-down technorganic rose, a sheathed bulb ringed by petals, down which the turbolift descends, as the power of the Dark begins to rise to meet them. There's always a Dark Side point available for use in the Observatory.

The Observatory

The elevator deposits them in the middle of a ransacked Cybernetics Lab. There are operating tables with blades & armatures strewn crooked & twisted, stasis pods & bacta tanks rent inside-out, thoroughly smashed 2-1B surgical droids & FX-6 assistants. The windows outside show dark water, occasional bubbles &, when their backs are turned, vast monstrous shapes moving in the water. The bits & pieces of devices & implants here are as much black market as state of the art; this was a skunkworks of outlaw tech & ancient alchemy. Things like the Sith pain harness, X-C33, or the experiments of the science criminal Cornelious Evazan. A lot of it seems themed around life extension with no regard to suffering: things like Vader's life support system & the puppetry of an Ommin exoskeleton to the millennial agonies of Sarlacc venom; all paired with a lot of intravenous injection systems. There are references to other "Observatories" with parallel research; Mustafar, Nevarro, Pillio, The Maw, Jakku...

Coming around the corner, Theynur sees a clinical theater still intact, with a blue, teenage girl in medical scrubs restrained on it. (Yes, that's definitely young Eris.) Droids with cruel appendages & whirring saw-hands assist another blue-skinned individual, a little older with a brain implant less like Lobot's & more like Ochi of Bestoon's, in a sort of lab coat tunic. The way the camera cuts to the figure & the scene to a close up of the ominous markings on her perfectly healthy arm, it is clear they are preparing to remove it & about to attach something very much like a prototype of Vader's E-3778Q-1 limb. Outside the windows, there are vast lava fields, &—

—& the catlike alien snaps out of her trance as Jolit snaps the fingers on his exoskeletal roboarm, getting Theynur's attention as they all get back on the lift, heading down to continue investigating. Down below the cybernetics lab is the Cloning Center. These are not the pristine instruments for mass manufacture of the Kaminoans above— the paramedical blues have been replaced with sorcerous yellows, the sulfuric hues sickly & unnatural. This seems to be the center of the Observatory's devastation, with the areas around each cylinder a spherical crater, tiers of pods violently destroyed from within.

These are the infamous Spaarti cloning cylinders, forbidden relics from the past. There are tons of remnants of data to be gleaned from here; attempts to modernize the Arkanian records on the creation of Offshoots & vague references to the failures of JEK-1 through JEK-13, the research focuses around Strand-Casts, mutations & alterations, & while you don't know what Project PHOENIX is, you see it linked with the Dandoran group's Project: BLACKWING, which Para's remembers via her old security clearances was working on indefinite life immortality experiment that went so horribly wrong that every trace of it was erased, except, it seems, here. There are persistent references to "specimens" & "M-count."

Para's scar starts aching, dragging her to the Force vision in as klaxons sound, accompanied by the grindingof gears, as if something is keeping the emergency bulkheads from closing. Water is rushing in below, but more pressingly...they hear familiar laughter. No, not laughter, for there is no joy in it, no life; this is a cackling, a chittering even, hollow & mocking. & then, dropping down from the ceiling where it had been scuttling, lurking like a cockroach, is the "Frankensith," the Sithspawn monster from the Star Destroyer & the Palace Moon, looking about at its surroundings curiously. It paralyzes Para with the Force, freezing her motionless as it lumbers up, clearly out of proportion with a human, to touch her wounded throat, veins throbbing black.

When the camera snaps back to reality, Theynur has her clawed hand on Para's neck in the same pose. It is disconcerting to say the least, with the others confirming watching Para freeze in terror as Theynur crept up on her. Wanting to get out of her as soon as possible but not without what they came for, they descend. The bottom-most chamber is large, with a few narrow causeways criss-crossing between enormous cracked crystals with tubes & wires connected to them, plugged in somehow, shadows dancing in their facets; the floors & walls are all slicked & slippery with hard, black frozen obsidian leading down to the Carbonite Freezing Chamber at the heart of the tower's depths: ruptured, everything fossilized forever in time.

There is a lot of strange occult paraphernalia here; those big broken crystals look like synthetic kyber, & while this place too has suffered outrageous destruction, they can make out Protobesh remnants of the Cycle of Darth Noctyss & Darth Sanguis from the Rammahgon, fragmented images of The Brother from the Mortis Heresy as a sort of anatomical Vitruvian Man, mostly indecipherable Massassi runes that seem to mention something called the Muur Talisman, & a toppled statue of Sistros Nevet, one of the Four Sages of Dwartii from the founding of the Old Republic.

There is also a thin, faintly glowing sort of "vergence scatter" pattern connecting the blackness of the crystals & gems, like crimson curves of celestial calculus with diabolically wrought knots in it, a negative-image of the dark center of the galaxy, a void between the worlds, something like astro-navigational code written by pre-technological nihilists...all converging on the mangled carbonite hibernation chamber itself. This was not a controlled entry into stasis; nothing organic could have survived this. There is, however, an intact droid completely covered in the black stuff, which Theynur recognizes from her earlier Force vision. Everything here is quite well protected, trapped solid stasis, but this is where the pings from the sensor say the tapes should be. It should however be hypothetically possible to trigger a melt of the carbonite in a chain reaction that dissolves the whole thing…
sith lord cometh

Star Wars: Phoenix One: Secretary Xat

Secretary Zinn-Moad Xat
Former Imperial Minister
Human Mystic (Advisor)

Brawn: 2 Agility: 2 Intellect: 3 Cunning: 3 Willpower: 3 Presence: 3

Wounds: 12 Strain: 14 Soak: 3 Defense: 2

Skills: Charm: 2, Coercion: 1, Deception: 2, Discipline: 2, Knowledge (Lore): 3, Melee: 1, Negotiation: 1, Perception: 2, Resilience*: 1, Vigilance: 2

Talents: Grit, Knowledge is Power

Force Talents: Force Rating: 1; Foresee, Heal/Harm, Seek, Sense

Equipment: Immune Implant (Resilience 1), Refined Cortosis Staff, Light Blaster, Heavy Clothes, Personal Defense Shield, Emergency Repair Patch, Comlink.

Zinn-Moad was a kid from the fancy planet Stewjon with a touch of the Force...but not enough to catch the Jedi's eye, coming of age during the death of the Republic & the rise of the Empire. He joined with the Commission for the Preservation of the New Order as an academic to hide from witch-hunts & the turning tides of history, & he ended up in the Chancellor's circles wearing a purple hat as an adjunct & advisor because he couldn't help but indulge his obsession with the fringe religions & discarded myths of the Force. He half-sincerely played the role of a bogus "Sith cultist," disguising his true gifts by playing the charlatan. Along side Yupe Tashu & Veris Hydan as one of the Emperor's vaguely empowered "Minsters," Zinn was instrumental in being one of the "scholars" who theorized that kyber crystals were an energy catalyst that could be used as a focus or harnessed beyond just lightsabers; perhaps even as a mega-scale power source. As Projects Auger & Celestial Power got underway, Zinn went to go study the artifacts at the old temple-city of all started as curiosity, but he ended up helping set off a horrifying chain reaction. When the Empire destroyed Jedha & he realized they had built a Death Star; that's when Xat turned rebel. Once he saw what they had done, what he had helped them do, what he had done, he betrayed the Empire, becoming a deep cover informant for the Rebellion, first as a plant & then as an agent, getting dirtier & dirtier for the Cause.

Now he's old, so old, kept alive by cybernetics & pharmaceuticals, & works for the New Republic as a political advisor, a vizier errant, useful but tainted by both his past deeds & his past treason. His medical droid, E4-1B or "Effie", is his partner in crime, played by Rachel. Her secondary programing includes espionage & violence (or are the medical protocols secondary?) & her restraining bolt is a dummy; I like to imagine Xat & the Rebels earned her loyalty by setting her free. We joined the A-wing ace Jett, played by Lincoln; Joey's repeating blaster wielding slug, Z'abba the Hutt, the rogue academic Khresh ril Phol, a Twi'lek played by Burke, & Tala Darray, Devin's low-key mysterious freighter pilot who turned out to have a powerful instinctual connection to the Force. The mission: whatever you do, don't open The Box. Inside the box, which Effie & I immediately if somewhat comically opened, was a clone of the late Sheev Palpatine, the so-called "PHOENIX." In the end, we "saved" him by granting him his independence, erasing all the code-words & trigger-phrases the New Republic blackops brainwashed him with, & escaped as renegades from everybody, with the ambiguously evil Prelate Dumari lurking in the wings as a burgeoning arch-nemesis. Oh, & we spaced Dengar! I'm claiming credit for Rothgar Deng. Plus, Zinn-Moad got a yellow shoto lightsaber!

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sith lord cometh

Star Wars: End of Empire: Before the Dark Times.

Imperial Interlude: Promotions All Around

It has been a little while since the last time we had a chance to played my Star Wars: End of Empire campaign, but when those stars did align, back in the before times, here's what happened! We jumped back in to everything via the villain’s point of view, as is our tradition: the Imperator meets with some of the player’s signature antagonists: Vice Moff Pandar Solt (played by Burke), Director Tol Dala (played by Joey), Commander Ulma Verbost (played by Rachel) & Lt. Commander Jerran Gauth (played by Raj). Vice Moff Solt is a pompus old mustache of a fellow; TIE fighter ace Jerran Gauth is a sneeringly smooth jarhead. Ulma Verbost is a petite tech officer with sharp ambition & bangs. Director Daala is being holoprojected by the Imperial astromech ST-R5: he is a human man who looks exactly like an old Jolit, in a white uniform with a red cape.

"The colonists on Dantooine surrendered after the first wave of Devastators," summarizes Director Dala’s flickering image. "A local political action group was instrumental in putting pressure on the aliens & anyone else foolish enough to resist. They call themselves the," he airquotes, "Sons of Vader." The Imperator orders him to send anyone who enlists voluntarily into accelerated officer or specialist training, then do a round of heavy conscription on those who didn’t, & send them to Commandant Hux’s new Stormtrooper...'Academy.' As for the Devastator fleet? Send them to Mon Cala. He preens at the order: "at last we will reveal ourselves to this New Republic. At last we will have revenge."

Furthermore, she is immediately promoting Solt to Regional Governor of the Kessel System due to the quality of his service on Ord Mantell & personal knowledge of Kessel’s...resources. He has orders to depart post-haste on one of the venerable (& vulnerable) Imperial-Is from the decommissioned Seventh Fleet: the ISD Hydra, sister ship to the fallen Gargoyle. Then she dismisses Solt & Daala… & asks Ulma & Jerran to remain. With only the two of them, the droid, & two pairs of Royal Guards at each end of the room, they are as alone with the Imperator as anyone gets. She confides in them that she believes either the Director is compromised or that their communications are being intercepted: either way, Pandar Solt is bait for the fugitive warship Insidious.

Imperator Pryl transfers Ulma from Super Star Destroyer The Eye’s mechanics captain the Interdictor Labyrinth, which will follow the Hydra at pursuit distance. The gravity projectors of the Labyrinth lay the trap, & the newly minted Commander Gauth is the blade: she’s giving his Iron Wing a squadron of newly designed TIE fighters, the Hunter. The Imperator adapts her tactics: modernization, miniaturization; state of the art war machines. Yavin & Endor revealed how badly the Empire undervalued small starfighters, & the designs from Crosh’s orbital factories address this concern. When the Insidious attacks the Hydra, as she has forseen it will, the Labyrinth will capture it & the Hunters will destroy it. She knows she can trust the two of them, because the are connected through the Force now...& a part of her will always be with them.

The Rishi Maze: Be With Me

After all the excitement escaping Corellia Prime, we’re due a beat to re-establish some of the key non-player characters who have been off-camera for a bit. We catch up to them during their downtime travelling through the Rishii maze, a dwarf galaxy of galactic detritus, cautiously navigating through a tempest formed from clouds of toxic, semi-frozen Clouzon-36 comets & rogue planetoids, littered with decaying quasars, warped by gravitic anomalies.

Theynur Kötturinn, the felinoid Force-sensitive fringer played by Burke, is learning the basic lightsaber forms & stances from the newest member of the cast, Old Zed. He’s moderately grizzled, the way none of the Fetts got a chance to grow up to be, but thanks to the rejuvenation treatments the Baron paid for, he’s still impossibly young for a clone from the Old Republic. He wears a one-piece much like the Imperator wore in the teaser, but his is black & marked by a winged sword, the same blazon as his shield. He tells the Farghul he will get on with teaching her about Form III’s benefits against blasters, or the arrogant stances of Makashi, soon enough; but as Zed is no Jedi, he wants to break with tradition & teach her the ultimate laser sword technique first: Form Zero.

Zed, back when he was ZD-066, served with General Majus Null, a Aqualish Shi-Cho knight. General Null said his own teacher, Master Ahn, taught him: avoid, rather than check. Check, rather than hurt. Hurt, rather than maim. Maim, rather than kill. The future is always in motion, but when you ignite your lightsaber, the paths open to you start closing. It is a powerful weapon, but it cuts short your own future, too. Sometimes futures close themselves to you, unavoidably. It is the role of the Jedi Knight to walk that line. Sometimes you will fail. Just don’t fall.

Our heroes are out trying to pull up vital intelligence related to something called STARKILLER in order to trade it to the New Republic to gain their support for the Droid Uprising that’s been spreading across the Outer Rim, & the protocol droid 4-DOX is their liaison from Ord Mantell. She & the astroprobe droid AK-88 are chattering away in binary in the cockpit of the stolen spaceyacht The False Profit. They are monitoring the organics: both the Purrgil, vast space whales harassed by superstitious organic spacers that old but reliable data banks improbably suggest are naturally capable of faster than light well as gossiping about their own biological crew members.

Speaking of biology: the amazing regenerative powers of the reptilian Trandoshan species has allowed Sshushath the Zode to regrow his severed hand, & it is ready to molt now, as the gunslinger & gadabout Jax Cadderly helps with the gross & painful task of peeling away the scales & bandages. They talk about his days back in the Pits, with Eris & how she earned her name Berserk, & Zed, who is "Jedi crazy." A few painful hisses & a sardonically snarled self-reminder that the Trandoshan tradition of a Life Debt is a curse from the Scorekeeper due to a loss of Jagannath points & his claws are free, good as new.

The flesh & blood types aren’t the only ones up to hijinks: Para Totool, former Imperial officer & ace mechanic, has realized that small parts & batteries are going missing from redundant systems: the power converter from the industrial hydrospanner, the backups from the sulfur scrubbers, that sort of thing. Exasperated, she figures it out quickly: just as she thought, it is their friendly ID-9 droid, "Wrench", stealing them to feed Para’s new pet mynock, dubbed "Gloria," a gift from the Baron before fleeing the hordes of berserkers on Corellia Prime.

& Jolit, the battered Human Replica Droid? Well, just like before, he’s somehow managed to find himself hot-wired into the ship’s navcomputer, dreaming about the rising Darkness, a swarming black mass, visions of cyborgs & droids & zombies dancing in his memory banks. A few emergency system re-routes & quick navcoordinate buffer resets saves them from jumping through a star or bouncing too close to a supernova, leaving them muttering that the really need to take a look at whatever malfunctioning cobwebs there are glitching in Jolit’s memory banks.

The party’s destination is just 12 parsecs out from where they emerge from hyperspace; usually pilots plot a route that slingshot ships across the dwarf galaxy the long way, but...they aren’t taking that route. Zed’s got another lesson in mind: trust the Force. The old clone trooper tells Theynaur to get in her X-wing & fly out in front of them, having AK-88 transmit the nav data back to lead the False Profit through the Maelstrom that is the core of the Rishii Maze. At first, when she opens herself up, all the frustration & anger she's been feeling begins to creep in at the margins of her self of self. The Purrgil spacewhales become aggressive, responding to the dense negative knot in the Force, ramming the sides of her X-wing, but then over the comm, Zed tells her to repeat to herself, & to them: be with me. Calmed by the mantra, Theynaur realizes that following the pod of cosmic cetaceans will take them on the organically calculated best route through the swirling soup of galactic singularities, & she lets the creatures guide them, following the massive Purgill onward & upward— & out! as she pulls the manual hyperspace throttle & makes a jump to lightspeed with the pod.

Imperial Interlude: The Insidious Attacks

We shift perspectives, back to the antagonists of our tale. The newly appointed "Regional Governor" Pandar Solt is played by Burke, you’ll recall; he is is aboard the ISD Hydra with Joey playing the Imperial astromech, ST-R5. The story joins them in media res: the Star Destroyer sits in realspace, engines dead, hull breached, tilted & pitching along its diagonal axis, with a dark, gap-toothed wedge casting a shadow over its wounded frame, the both of them silhouetting the enormous overlapping stars around them, in an obscure quadrant dotted with clumps of rotting red supergiants. It is the Insidious, somehow...ancient looking and brand new at the same time, a split triangle with huge, hungry bays.

This is the first time the audience has laid eyes on the Insidious, but the party first learned of the vessel from the datatapes they stole from the ISD Rubicon. The Emperor’s yacht Imperialis was made by Raith Sienar, but the Insidious is a battleship, a flagship; dagger-like, Kuat-esque, calling on a hybrid of ancient Sith design techniques & state of the art experimental weapons. It waits silently for the moment...then, with grotesque, weedwhackery sounds, long blue beams shoot forth from the ghost ship. Where the viscous, concussive tongues of light touch, the ship begins to disintegrate & explode simultaneously, as the hull’s molecular bonds are torn apart by flickering metal-crystal phase shifters.

Then, the cavalry arrives. The Interdictor Labyrinth is commanded by Captain Ulma Verbost (again played by Rachel) & (Raj’s) Commander Jerran Gauth pilots the lead ship in a wing of the newly developed TIE Hunters; both of them in scarlet versions of the Imperial uniform, marked with their new ranks. Dropping out of hyperspace with a percussive thud & a popcorn swarm of Iron Wing fighters, the Labyrinth snares the two dreadnaughts in a massive artificial gravity well, trapping the Insidious as the snub-fighters begin their attack run on the prototype capital ship, the vastness of a red giant the whole of the sky behind them, pockmarked with sunspots.

Verboost orders all turbolaser batteries to fire, their attack corridor clear as Iron Wing executes a classic pincer maneuver. The agile TIE Hunters, S-foils in attack position, are dominating the stars; the Insidious has no support craft to fend them off, & though there are batteries of anti-aircraft proton canons for them to evade, the nimble fighters easily duck in & out of the heavy disruptor beams. They Praetorian fleet pounds the stolen ship’s shields punishingly, but when the foppish Pandar Solt orders his ship’s remaining weapons to fire...a little Droid Uprising inspired sabotage by the former-Imperial astromech ST-R5 shuts down bridge communications. "01000100 01110010 01101111 01101001 01100100 00100000 01010010 01101001 01100111 01101000 01110100 01110011!" it beeps in defiance, venting its extinguisher canister everywhere.

"I’ve got a bad feeling about this…" mutters an ensign on the bridge of the Labyrinth, just as communications ops announced "Ma’am, we have a communication’s bypassing our encryption locks…" as somewhere elsewhere in the pit shouts "I've got a command code corruption…" & weapons control joins the chorus, a woman in armor's crisp bark of "shields offline!" cutting through the cacophony as the targeting computers on the bridge begin to go on the fritz & blink out one by one.

Then, with a brain-wrenching ripple, & the Insidious is just gone, completely off whatever remaining scanners are still functioning with no discernible visual as the stygian gems of the ship’s stealth drive align into place & its cloaking device actives. & after a moment of eerie silence, while still invisible, the Insidious begins to fire again.

The Labyrinth burns, the horrible sapphire light leaving scars that spread, entire decks annihilated as Ulma Verboost screams for damage reports & triage repairs; as Jeran Gauth frantically jukes & dodges randomly, ship already beeping & trailing smoke & sparks…but then, through the power of the Force & the bond that ties them forever together, the Imperator sees through their same eyes, with their same vision…&, from the main deck of the Super Star Destroyer The Tooth in orbit around Ord Mantell, gives the order to come to the rescue!

Kamino: the Phantom Planet

We outro with a return to our heroes, Theynur’s X-wing sliding back out of hyperspace first, followed by Para’s TIE Interceptor & the rest of the gang in the luxury ship the False Profit. They are over a water world, dense with cloud cover…& beyond the three moons but still uncomfortably nearby, a small fleet of lurking red Star Destroyers that Para recognizes as Royal Guard ships, equipped with experimental, high-frequency shield modulators. The party has scrambled their transponder signals & come complete with an introduction from Zed, who seems to be on a first name basis with whomever he speaks to down on the planet...Kamino? A little fast-talking from the rest of them, & they are told that the science-city they are looking for is at one of the polar regions, & so, escorted by Alpha-3 V-wings flown by four-armed Xextos with cueball Q7 astromech co-pilots, that is where they land, coming in through the angled beams & foggy rainbows of a sunshower to a small cluster of pods on stilts, shrouded with a feeling of loneliness: a shamrock shaped trio of half-abandoned arcologies, with one delicate lilypad of a landing platform haloed by with a ring of luminescent guide lights.

force is strong

Star Wars: End of Empire: Interlude.

Imperator Pryl is clad in a minimalist breathing mask & turtlenecked white bodysuit, like an inverted version of a stormtrooper’s underarmor marked with a red Imperial wheel; once pristine, now torn & bloody. Her red lightsaber ignites & sings, breaking the darkness, cutting a thorned vine here, blocking a sudden laser blast there, & then its bloody gleam is again abruptly gone, as she runs through the alien brambles in the night.

She sprints through a toxic jungle, full of giant predatory plants & strange mists, pursued by sleek, black Sith droids. They float on antigrav drives like giant spikes covered in blistering eyes. Their sections rotate & spin, thrusting out sudden blades in the dark, spewing flesh-melting acid, scintillating blaster bolts, wobbling Geonosian sonic blasts. It is a Dark Side Rey’s obstacle course meets Thufir Hawat’s deadly training remotes, & one of the drones closes in on the Praetorian leader as she jumps & tumbles.

The Imperator bursts through a copse of razor fronds & giant flytraps, gathering a few more scrapes & scratches…& coming up against a hangar bay forcefield, a wall of rectangular blue light showing the iridescent Bright Jewel Nebula & the planet Ord Mantell below. She’s aboard a converted deck on one of her massive Super Star Destroyers, a window of colours amidst a black bulkhead, a wall she is suddenly trapped against. She turns to face the bot & with a shiver...suddenly straightens, as in the distance, the talltrees of the poisonous forest— which reach almost all the way up to the support struts of the shadowy ceiling above— sway & shake with an ominous, guttural growl like the first season of LOST.

“Override code: Ichor.” The machine falls instantly still, interrupting it’s imminent attack & retreating in stand-by mode back into the foliage & for the first time, the impassive features of the Imperator crack, as a fraction of a smile curls at the corner of her mouth.. The fetid flora nearby rumbles & sways, shuddering with a moaning, unearthly roar that grows closer with stalking Jurassic Park thuds. The Imperator remains perfectly still, waiting, watching the writhing copse with a grin...that suddenly dies, her expression regaining its icy disposition. With a gesture from the off-white adept— a flick of the wrist, really— the brobnagarian groaning & shuffling from within the primeval tangle goes still in mirror.

A blast door in the wall slides open, with no fanfare or warning. The Imperator, in the moments since the camera cut away, has already discarded her rebreather & retrieved her alabaster cloak & its ancient broach, draping it around herself with a flutter & composing herself for the two crimson clad Royal Guards who ceremoniously march in. As they position themselves wordlessly behind the Imperator at the edge of (the now eerily quiet) venomous overgrowth, flanking her, a similarly coloured droid with a black faceplate glides in behind them with probe-like susurrations, hovering in wide, menacing cardinal robes.

Coming close to Imperator Pryl with the uncanny smoothness of a repulsor lift, the red robot silently extends its gloved palm. Half-lit by the high-tech glow of the ship’s shields on the right but cast in the spectral shadows of the ghostly forest to her left, she clasps its hand reverently without a moment’s hesitation, recognizing the Emperor’s Sentinal, & does not flinch at the hiss & prick of the needle that tastes her blood to verify her identity. “Verified,” utters the thing’s mechanical voice, as the blank dome of the android flickers to life with the unholy visage of the late Palpatine, twisted with evil, flickering on the holoscreen.

"Operation: Cinder is to resume at once. Resistance. Rebellion. Defiance. These are concepts that cannot be allowed to persist. You are but one of many tools by which these ideas shall be burned away. Heed my Messenger. He will—”

The flaming red of the Imperator’s lightsaber pierces the twilight, as she cuts the Emperor’s soliloquy short with a fatal system error, bisecting the Messenger with a heavenward strike. With one iaijutsu cut, it falls, a junked pile of tattered vermillion cloth & a metal skeleton halfway between the old B-series droids of the Confederacy & Maximilian from The Black Hole.

She spins, her ivory cape billowing, pallid in the gloom, rubicund blade before her in a defensive position. The two Royal Guards break their impassive stance with the death of the automaton, surprised by the sudden violence but with their forcepikes instinctively at the ready, eager for vicarious vengeance for their dead master, or at least the apparently treasonous destruction of his avatar.

As Imperator Pryl whirls to confront them, the camera cuts to frame her face, ablaze now in the sanguine radiance of her weapon, eyes wild, breaking into a wide smile ear to ear as the clashing & clamoring from the jungle returns, louder & louder, just off screen: a thunderous crescendo of howling terror breaking through the haunted thickets, stomping doom & crunching death.

[Cue the orchestra for the Star Wars overture]

moria mask

Guildmasters' Guide to Waterdeep: Blood in the Streets.

Running this Guildmasters' Guide to Waterdeep weekly lunch game mashing up Waterdeep: Dragon Heist & Guildmasters' Guide to Ravnica has turned out to be a lot of fun, & judging from the events that are about to unfold in the Magic: the Gathering metaplot during their "War for the Spark" event, I feel like I'm very "on trend." I'll note that this campaign is shaping up to be a fairly brutal one: sure, there is a lot of rubbing shoulders with epic level NPCs & high CR monsters, but even beyond that the threats on the ground seem quite lethal. The last we'd heard from our protagonists they had been hired by a notorious popinjay, one Volothamp Geddarm, author of the various Volo's Guide to... books, to find his missing friend Floon. Other than a description ("human male, pale skin, red-blonde wavy hair, well dressed") the best lead that they have is that Volo had been trying to break his writer's block & Floon had taken him out gambling & drinking two nights ago at the Skewered Dragon, a casino in Dock Ward between Net Street & Fillet Lane.

Carl is playing Soom Splintertusk, an elephantine loxodon warlock & member of the Golgari Swarm. Membership has its perks, & her Guild grants her the ability to move about in the city's underworld rapidly, mostly made manifest by her buddy Shtaa, myconid sewer gondolier. The little toadstool person takes them aboard its boat made from an inverted giant mushroom cap after they descend a manhole near the Inn of the Yawning Portal, swallowing jar after jar of blood smuggled down into the undercity, drained from the corpse of the Xanathar gang member Soom dismembered. & off they scoot! Jellywinks Stumbleduck, Ruoxi's gnome barbarian, is the only one with nightvision, so it's torches or darkness for most of the trip. There seems to be some sort of drama up above, but they safely & quickly pass below it.

They come up safely, near their destination, detouring into a nearby purple storefront named after the stuffed beholder in its window: The Old Xoblob Shop. The shop is packed with wild gizmos & bric-a-brac, swathed in violet decor: amethyst lamps, lilac curtains, & an periwinkle deep gnome in plum robes, face adorned with eye tattoos & puffing on a pipe of lavender smoke. "Xoblob's the relation!" Vanri "Toad" Todeshi, Caro's Rakdos Cultist air genasi rogue, trades some stolen death's head moths for a bone flute & the Selesneya Conclave's representative, Jeff's water genasai monk, Serous of the Nine Currents, yearns for a fancy mechanical goldfish he finds tucked away on a shelf; while the group barters & chats, they question the svirfneblin, who tells them that Floon & similar looking looking man (“not brothers, but you know how old friends can grow to look alike,” he says, gesturing at beholder in the window) were jumped outside the shop by half a dozen men with winged snake tattoos wearing black armor.

The Skewered Dragon is artfully distressed, the front torn up, with anchors embedded in the roof, smashing in the windows. It's the sort of dive where the professional upper-crust slum it with their working-class peers; in this case, It's the Order of Master Shipwrights drinking with the salt of the earth folk from the Most Diligent League of Sail-makers & Cordwainers. Asking around the bar, the consensus is that after Volo parted ways with Floon, he met up with Renaer Neverember, son of previous Open Lord of Waterdeep, Dagult Neverember. The dwarf Orsic Ruby-Eye says Renaer is “another spoiled, rich brat wrecking it for everyone!” but Eggren the dragonborn thinks “he’s okay for an aristocrat; I don’t mind winning his coins, at least!” There's a rumor that Floon was living off of blackmailing a noble, but otherwise the scuttlebutt is that the two of them played a few unlucky hands of Three Dragon Ante & were followed out by five men in black leathers who frequent a warehouse marked by a flying snake. As the group interrogates the patrons, Toad is subtly sneaking into conversations, inflaming tensions, escalating the stress in the room into an all out riot!

The clues have pointed them towards a warehouse with painted over windows on Candle Lane— now a poverty-stricken area, the broken street lamps still flicker with the continual flame spells cast in more prosperous days. Set in a part of the city with varying heights of infrastructure, half-built into a bridge, the main floor of the warehouse is lower than street level, inset with a yard & loading dock. & well, here is where things start to get rough. The players have a lot of reasonable concerns: the initial premise was that they were all friends with Yagra, & having found out she's a Zhent they are wary of bursting into their stronghold guns blazing. & Toad climbs the wall & goes to scout in through the second-story, as is the rogue's prerogative. The problem here is the dice: the players are rolling terrible on Stealth & Open Locks, & dun dun dun, the bad guys are rolling much, much better. Kenku, crow-folk, armed with wicked kris knives & cruel bows, mimicking the words of others to speak, lying in wait.

So here's how it goes down: Toad is ambushed & dropped to zero in the first round. This is tense: I know that the kenku inside of the warehouse are kidnapping her & I'm giving her "death saves" to let her have a chance to wake up, but the table is feeling pretty dire as she starts critically failing them. Jellywinks charges in, but the raven-people from the Xanathar Guild are covering the back & ventilate her with arrows, as well. She's up & trucking but sticks to the shadows, taking the long way around the crates & boxes of the lower floor...which is littered with a dozen bodies, some with the many-eyed circle of the Xanathar Gang but more in the black armor & winged snakes of the Zhentarim. Soom & Serous both climb up & go to help Toad; they are barraged by arrows & dagger strikes but fight back with spell, sword & punch. Still, the odds are against them & things are looking grim, until a clumsy yell & hurdled violence stuns the corvid villains for a moment, giving the remaining party members a chance to finish the avian antagonists off.

The battlecry comes from one Renaer Neverember, pickled herring soaked son of the previous Open Lord, armed with a scavanged kenku dagger & slim Zhent rapier. In his princely attire & ginger hair, he does match the rough description of Floon, & indeed, Renaer believes that both group of gangsters' cases of mistaken identity are at the root of things. The Zhentarim kidnapped both of them, but when ambushed by the Xanathar Gang, Renaer managed to sneak away to hide in a back closet in the chaos...but Floon wasn't so lucky. He doesn't know what's going on but the Zhents who kidnapped him were too stupid to shut up, & so Renaer learned that the crooks all seem to believe that his father Dagult Neverember embezzled a vast sum of gold from Waterdeep’s charity & welfare budget when he was Open Lord & hid the dragon-stamped coins somewhere in the city. The Xanathar Guild has — or had— a magical artifact called The Stone of Golorr, whatever that is, but it was recently stolen, & now it seems like there is going to be an all-out gang war.

The whistles in the distance mean the City Watch is on its way, but they have a moment to search or question the unconscious or dying bird people. The Selesneyan representative Serous is roused from unconsciousness, confused but glad not to have been dissected. They focus on a round of questions: Soom's magic is able to stave off death for a few of the parliament of avian crooks; the one with the gold rings in its beak & the one with blue cheeks are too far gone but the perpetually molting one lives & the one with the peg leg is roused for questioning. You might call it [Gears,] since it mimics the sound of spinning clockwork teeth when questioned. These bird-critters only answer in call & response, but eager to live, it chirps:

    In a scratchy voice: “No time to loot the place; just get him to the boss.”
    In a gruff voice: “Heh, heh, heh...The Xanathar sends his regards!”
    In a nasal sing-song: "🎵Follow the yellow signs in the sewers...🎵”

There is a secret closet where a crate full of paintings & a crate full of silver bars are stashed, but they don't have a chance to grab any before the cops show up. When the City Watch arrives it is embodied in the person of one Hyustus Stagat, Watch Captain & Boros Agent, wearing a “Worf sash” with a glowing Boros Legion symbol & a Chultian Flaming Fist. "A triple cop," they call him, & they aren't wrong, but he's not the kind to play by the book; he's the type from the school of hard knocks. What's the cliche? “Keep the blood off the streets”? Well, Stagat's laissez faire attitude extends thus far & no further. A Waterdhavian native & Guild member, he's a pragmatist whose familiar with Force Grey murderhobos, Golgari crypt-gardens & secret Rakdos clubs; if the PCs can restrict their violence to gangsters & monsters, out of public eye, he’ll try to help them out..."but not everybody as understanding as I am, like the Boss." Besides as much, he’s impressed by a Neverember, even a black sheep like Renaer, so they depart unmolested, but not unremarked.

Everyone decides it is best to rest the night at the Yawning Portal: Volo is up in the balcony but they avoid him & settle in for a few drinks, tucked away in a corner. The Inn is plastered with posters for an upcoming Rusty Bighat show, & a fat orange tomcat is sitting on the bar being fed a saucer of milk by Bonnie the barmaid; they overhear gloomy old Durnan chiding her not to encourage the thing to stick around or it’ll be stirge food before long, or worse. Toad tries to befriend the fluffy one-eyed beast— "Marmaduke"— but they get off to a bad start: he scratches her & runs off to hide in the rafters. Exhausted & put upon, they are not long for the taproom & soon head upstairs, Soom & Toad bonding & nuzzling while Jellywinks passes out in a nest of books & sweaters with the necklace belonging to her stillborn sibling that she somehow found amongst the bar's many oddities. Serous meditates in the stable barracks; Durnan recognizes a certain thousand yard stare in his eyes & put him up in the workers' quarters free of charge.

    That night they dream. Serous is troubled by nightmares over-brimming with spectral kaiju, as ever. He hides while the Temple falls, but this time the earth genasi he's powerless to save from a fate worse than death is not the little girl he remembers, but an older man with bismuth “hair” wearing a heavy leather apron who is soul-flensed by the dark, grasping tentacles, spirit ripped screaming from his body while the young monk watches helplessly. He's first up in the morning, lurking in the hallways outside everyone else's room, half-awake.

    Soom is a warlock, & the Corpse-Germ is her patron, rhizomes of unlife reaching deep into her nervous system. It appears as a tusked skull, jawless & sprouting the veins & connective ligaments of a body as roots & fungal bodies, waiting for her in an endless grey sea sprinkled with prismatic stars above & below. Corpse-Germ has a literally cyclopean affect, as it turns to face the viewer with no relation to the eye sockets, giving the impression that the central nasal cavity is it's "face." It wants to know “What did we learn today?”

    "Are you locked inside or out?" is what I ask Ruoxi while her character Jellywinks dreams of the Blue Door. The Blue Door that haunts her. She's locked inside. "What is outside?" The steppe. When she wakes up from the dream of the Blue Door, the Blue Door that haunts her, she remembers that her unborn sibling's necklace is a kind of puzzle-locket, but she can't figure out how to twist it open. Is it some kind of key? Jellywinks sleeps in; she has to be pried from her cocoon of slumber with a proverbial crowbar.

    Caro's air genasi rogue also picked up a knick-knack from the Yawning Portal, a black book labeled “Nocturne” that records people's dreams: in the morning, she can see everything written in perfect detail on the first page, ready to be copied into the following pages if she so chooses. She floats in the eye of the storm, a dust storm of brittle glass swirling in eviscerating breezes that spiral closer & closer until biting into her face, blood everywhere.

Morning comes uneventfully. Renaer does not have access to any deep coffers; he lives on his mother's estates but his name does still afford him a line of credit to some degree, which he leverages with a cleric of Waukeen, Obaya Uday, for two potions of healing. He's waiting for the party in the common room with Volo, who is complaining about being stood up by his editor & drinking a hot, bitter, brown drink from a complicated pot. Chultan kaeth, coffee from his friends in the import & export business, River & Flask. He asks Soom, as politely as an overly curious man like him can, what happened to her "other trunk," mentioning that the other "Loxo" he's met all had a pair. Strange! Volo is, of course, staying behind, but Renaer comes with them on the rescue mission, albeit trepidatiously. The kitchen is serving a kind of biscuits & gravy, & Jellywinks stuffs her overflowing pack with a handful before heading out.

Down into the dank, churning sewers again! This time to follow the yellow chalk signs the kenku "spoke" of. They pile into another manhole in the Castle Ward, climbing single file, not entirely unnoticed, & it takes a bit of searching to pick up the trail...but luckily Soom & Shtaa are specialized for the sorts of labyrinthine, underworld affairs. The myconid is a little lumpier & flirtier than before, & between them, Jellywink's ability to see in the dark, & Serous & Toad getting out & searching for old chalk markings that might have been rubbed away— "Wet & Breezy" combine clever eyes & a working knowledge of thieves' guild tactics— they find themselves back under the Dock Ward, navigating the maze of chutes & tunnels swiftly & unerringly. They've got a torch burning but have all (besides Renaer) inhaled the psychic rapport spores of their fungal friend, so they are largely silent, except when they remember to speak out loud to include the young Neverember.

Their initial approach is stealthy, deadly & efficient. A gazer— a small beholderkin creature, like a hovering grapefruit of flesh with four eyestalks & an angerfish maw— blocks their path through the fetid tunnels, but a few arrows & darts dispatch it. Coming to a three-way junction, with a landing platform, very narrow drainage passage & continuing canals, Jellywinks spots a hidden door! & they all spy several arrow slits, & hear the sounds of snoring creatures: goblins? The telepathic spores they shared with the Golgari myconid allow them to remain eerily silent, sneaking up on the gang hideout unawares. The group slips in through another murderhole, past more arrow slits & almost catch the warty green humanoid asleep at the watch...almost. At the last minute he jumps up, yelling "BREE-YARK!" out into the echoing tunnels & trying to scamper away before Serous knocks him unconscious.

The action is on, now! They players sweep the area; the main room features a plinth topped with a stylized beholder, absent its main eye; the room is otherwise featureless, literally swept clean, though ever-perceptive Toad finds a dustless spot on the wall, as if a large painting or tapestry that reached all the way to the floor had been removed, as well as a mysterious glass bottle of some kind of "serum" in the side chambers: crude cells, junk-strewn & with bloody manacles bolted to the wall. There are two massive double-doors left, & pausing to listen they hear the sounds of pain coming from beyond, like Han being tortured on Bespin. Ready to get the drop on them, the party use magical smoke & illusions to simulate all sorts of shenanigans in the room on the other side of the door.

Here's the thing about that: it works, but perhaps too well. Unbeknownst to them, one of the lieutenants of The Xanathar Gang is visiting an underboss, & the mindflayer capo comes straight through the doors (opening them telekinetically, hovering a foot above the ground) into the room the players are in. With it, skittering along the wall, is a brain with four chicken feet, its pet intellect devourer, & last in through the door, spewing gouts of fire from his fists: a magical, pyromaniac...orc? Half-orc? Three-quarters orc wizard. The Rakdos troublemaker, Toad, hiding behind the corner of the door, is nonetheless cooked by the cone of flame.

So there's a moment of true terror: the party is face to face with a threat easily capable of destroying (& to be entirely honest, devouring) them. Now, it is clear from an audience standpoint that this mini-Cthulhu is basically done with the whole scene & looking to bounce, but you know how heroes are. So there are a few moments where it is touch & go: mammoth-like Soom had a spell prepared to go off at the first non-redhead through the door so she takes the brunt of its initial annoyance, luckily rolling over twenty on her save versus being dominated into killing her friends. The monk Serous, well. He's "lucky" in that his short sword draws blueblack ichor from the thing, piercing into it; but unlucky in the way that it looks at him, mindblasting him, liquifying important parts of his grey matter.

Two healing potions later & things are looking a little better; the mindflayer has left through the portal, though it still hangs ominously open. The cerebral horror is no slouch on its own; clawing through the room & focusing a horrible psychic assault on Renaer, who falls to his knees, beats himself about the head & flees into the other room, a blessed mix of stupid & stubborn defeating its awful, sustained psionic assault. Axes & blows seem to harm it, but not completely; it's like doing three-dimensional damage to being that exists on more than just this plane of existence. The spellcaster, Soom, is occupied keeping people from dying, so it falls to the rest of them to deal with it— & the orkish mage with the eerily familiar gruff voice— via brute force & mundane damage...& violence wins the day!

They hurriedly scan the next room; Renear has a man who looks like him up in a fireman's carry— Floon, bearing truth serum track marks, at one hit point & with several levels of exhaustion— & the chamber is otherwise adorned with ragged curtains, a dais, a throne, & more torture cells. Searching, the group finds a secret passage, the orc magician's spellbook & sack of treasure. They decide discretion is the better part of valor & ignore the secret dirt tunnel they've uncovered under a flagstone, & whatever else might be in the rest of the dungeon, doubling back to the canal. Another goblin— chanting "🎵fill 'em full of arrows 🎵" in a sing-song voice— takes pot shots at them as they retreat, firing from behind the arrow slits opposite the way they came in, sinking a barbed arrowhead into their myconid pilot, Shtaa, but they beat an otherwise successful hasty retreat, as the Golgari lead them back through the filthy, sunken passages of Waterdeep's sewers.

Dino Dread!

It is just after the first “Jurassic Park” has happened but scientists working for Biosyn managed to retrieve the dinosaur DNA that Ned tried to steal. In the subsequent years, Biosyn has created dozens of cheap knockoff dinosaur theme parks around the world. You are all employees at the latest theme park called DinoMight!®. Located in the Virgin Islands, it's a quick Carnival cruise from ports in Florida and a leisurely cruise further up the east coast. Vacation packages are available, come visit us soon! You're guaranteed to have a DinoMIGHT® time!

The last time Tom ran Dread, it was a standalone sci-fi horror game set at the bottom of the sea, so when Tom told us he wanted to run "Jurassic Dread," we took it at face value, like a bunch of suckers. Even after we saw a diplodocus wandering around with a broken neck, we spent a good hour thinking the park's dinosaurs might be robot fakes on a rampage. The truth was staring us in the face: this was a return to Tom's apocalyptic Dead World, & those absolutely are undead dinosaurs. I can survive dinosaurs, I can survive zombies, but zombie dinosaurs?

Francis "Fitz" Fitzroy was a whiz with numbers & a rising star in economics, who decided all capitalism is corrupt & the best way to live in the system is to drop out & compromise your values in the Happiest Place of All Time: Disney with dinosaurs. Life as a burnout & beach bum, funded by goofy antics in a hotboxed costume? Yeah, there's worse ways to make a living then as Iguana Don, DinoMight's® Hawaiian shirt clad iguanodon mascot, man. The real problem I had was my addiction to painkillers: I had started dating a park veterinarian named Maureen ("Mo") just to get access to animal tranquilizers. Which came in handy when I was able to sneak off to the bathroom with an emergency tranq gun & empty out a cartridge to take the edge off. I made it to the very end of the line, before a pack of zombified velociraptors tore me to pieces as the rest of the survivors raced down the dock & onto the boat. At least I wasn't killed by pterodactyls.

I spent most of the adventure thinking Alex, Nicole's character, was either some evil corporate spy or a total grifter. In the end it turned out the latter, but the gun she pulled had me thinking the former for a while. Kat's character, Lucy, was the creepy research scientist; she definitely knew that there were some kind of hijinks going on here! Maybe she even helped commit the crimes agains nature that brought these terrible lizards back from the dead, for all I know. Harmony, Luke's character, was the technocrat pretty boy & secretly a video "influencer," working here at the park waiting for the inevitable disaster to post as content. He was in love with Matt's character, Amery, the disgraced Air Force pilot who crashed his plane over the Super Bowl & is now working on his knife skills in the kitchens like Steven Segal in Under Seige. At first he can't stand Harmony, but by the end of the story, their love was real!

Here are some short clips of us playing.