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 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 "Maria," 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 nible 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.


Guildmasters' Guide to Waterdeep: The Yawning Portal.

I've never been a Magic: the Gathering player, since I'd rather dive into a roleplaying game if I can get a bunch of nerds together, but I have always admired the background worldbuilding. I picked up A Planeswalker's Guide to Alara once upon a time & enjoy dipping into the game's meta-narrative when I stumble upon it. When Guildmasters' Guide to Ravnica came out, I was instantly charmed by it. Cool new species, some new background abilities, but above all it's the factions that sold me. Some of the most iconic intellectual property in Dungeons & Dragons comes from combining the game mechanics with the logic of the cosmology, like the Outer Planes. A Blood War between the devils of a Lawful Evil Hell & the demons of the Chaotic Evil Abyss, Sigil, that sort of thing. The Guilds of Ravnica work the same way, but on the Magic: the Gathering coloured mana paradigm. It lends a "same but different" feel to the Guilds' design, & I starting thinking of a lot of various ways to work them in to D&D, most notable as pan-dimensional franchises. The ur-magical Guildpact prevents largescale conflicts from breaking out on the city-world of Ravnica, so I've decided that if all ten Guilds are able to get established somewhere (whatever that might mean mechanically) a similar protective ward, what the people of Forgotten Realms might call a mythal, would come into effect there, as well. Not to mention that the last time there was shenanigans with the Guildpact, the winning Champion ended up bestowed with the power of the Living Guildpact, whose rulings are magically binding across the plane of Ravnica, so there is probably a supernatural incentive to compete, & while each Guild has to be included for the Pact to take effect, there is no need for all ten to be equal...

Another sourcebook I'd had my eye on was Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. Running Out of the Abyss has given me a newfound appreciation for published modules. I think I'll always be a homebrew guy at heart, but there is a lot of appeal in both being able to share in a part of the collective gamer zeitgeist, of having taken part of a "classic module" like The Temple of Elemental Evil & in having someone else do a big part of the game prep for you in advance. I've never had a story relationship with the metropolis Waterdeep, & this module is meant to go from level one to five, which is, I think, a modest & reasonable length considering the way most game scheduling goes these days. I've been playing in a Ravenloft game at lunch at work & I started to think that maybe the "scene at a time" restrictions might work for my vignette-heavy it reminded me of how much Middle-earth Role Playing I did during study hall in junior high. Major flashbacks to Morlókë the Noldo Sorcerer chilling at the Grey Havens. Dragon Heist also has a structure ripe for both faction quests & for sandbox-style "guild-building," & is cosmopolitan enough to be a worthwhile target for expansion (privately, I joke that the higher level Guild diplomats were sent to Kai Shan to negotiate with the Spelljammer sphere-spanning Shou Lung). So I rallied up some of my work crew & this is who they've chosen to play:

    Jellywinks Stumbleduck of the Flayed Monkey Clan, Gnome Barbarian & secretly the envoy from the (Blue & Black) spies of House Dimir, played by Ruoxi. A failed academic freelancing on the courtiers beat for the Deep Times, delivering tabloid gossip about the aristocracy while a deep & abiding rage stirs in her soul, waiting eagerly for blood & axes. She has a creepy talking doll.

    Serous of the Nine Currents, Water Genasi Monk, devotee of Istishia, & Faerûnian convert to the (Green & White) sylvan Selesnya Conclave, played by Jeff. Graceful & with a solemn playfulness, Serous is the survivor of planar catastrophe & kaiju menace, nursed back to health in the glades of the Selesnya, where street & forest, house & stream all coexist in harmony. He has a candle that burns under water.

    Soom Splintertusk, Loxodon Warlock of the Undying, the elephantine shaman sent by the necro-fungal (Green & Black) Golgari Swarm, played by Carl. She is the only one openly wearing her Guild insignia, & she is exceedingly friendly...which what makes her periodic indifference to death & decay all the more uncanny. One of her tusks was shattered & repaired with gold, Kintsugi-style. She wears skullpaint that shifts with her moods.

    Vanri "Toad" Todeshi, Air Genasi Rogue, a pale little thing, the childlike representative from the demonic (Red & Black) Cult of Rakdos, played by Caro. Sure, an archfiend runs the Guild, but there are plenty of people who join because they like circuses, crime, or in the case of Vanri, chaos. Her slight frame can lend her a false innocence, & it is your fault if you fall for it. She has a magical pipe that blows smoke into shapes.

The adventure begins in the legendary inn The Yawning Portal, built over the ruined foundations of a crazed wizard's tower, the open well of which is the only known entrance to the infamous dungeons of Undermountain. The bartender is Durnan, an immortal adventurer, retired; a collector of knick-knacks & trophies who pours a steady pint with a thousand yard stare. Each player gets to choose an NPC from a pre-generated selection of contacts, & they each independently decide on Yagra Stonefist. Okay, that makes my life easier; herding Player Characters can be difficult but at least I've got a half-orc to corral them to one table. & so she did, convincing the massive but relatively weak Loxodon spellcaster to arm wrestle the deceptively tiny Gnome warrior. Jellywinks ("Jelly, Winks, Stumble, Duck, you can call me whatever.") wins but the ice is broken & soon they are chatting & admiring the mummified corpse leaned up against Durnan's bar in a coffin ("He's waiting for someone.") & an unopenable bottle of fizzy liquid.

Yagra gets up to get them all a round of drinks so that we can do some character descriptions & introductions, leaving them to talk amongst themselves, but that is cut short by slurs & violence. “Ya pig! Like killin’ me mates, does ya?” is what they hear, & by the time they push through the crowd, Yagra has a human with an eye tattooed on his forehead pinned & about to get knocked out for the count, but four of his friends with similar eyeball marks & brands ("The Xanathar Gang!" realize those in the know) are about to jump her from behind. Oh no, not on their watch: they get right into the thick of it. At first it's fists & non-lethal attacks, as Waterdeep is a city of laws & police, but Vanri palms a blade & tries to shiv the thug on the ground, & while no one else notices, he decides it's blades out...just in time for Jellywinks to rage & remove his head with a battleaxe. Thunk. Soom throws the body towards the chasm into the deadly dungeon in the center of the bar, but she falls short & only the head goes in. Plunk, plunk, plunk plunk. There is more bloody scuffling but soon Soom & Yagra facedown the rest, tusks & sneers, intimidating them into fleeing...except the one Serous kicks in the pants on the way out. That one decides to get a little vengeance, or at least, that was his plan before Jellywinks & Serous pinned him to the floor.

Just in time for the warty, green fingers & grotesque, carroty nose of a desiccated troll to crest the lip of the well, climbing up out of Undermountain! A cloud of sluggish, possum-sized mosquito-things surrounds it, bloated on it's blood & bile: effing stirges. "Troll!" shouts Durnan, unsheathing Grimvault, of the moonlit glimmer, of the shining edge, from beneath the bar. "Take care of the bugs & get ready to douse this thing in oil!" he barks, leaping to battle. Most of the stirges, seeing stiff resistance, sink heavy & lethargic back down into the dungeon, but three are still hungry for the sweet red kroovy. Serous & Jellywinks drag the Xanathar Gangster toward the troll, throwing him towards it as a distraction, & as stirges attack him & Soom, she calls upon black magic to envelop her mammoth form in tentacles of darkness, crushing the bandit & two of the bloodsuckers. Durnan is picked up & gored by the troll, mauled by rows of teeth, but preservers, chopping off some of the thing's fingers & a hand, massive blade ringing like a chime. Vanri uses the wind magic of her djinn bloodline to pick up a barrel of lamp fuel from the second story of the Yawning Portal, dropping it from a height onto the troll, coating it & Durnan thoroughly in oil. Yagra is behind the bar throwing bottles of liquor at the thing, & the others squash the remaining stirge & help distract the troll so Durnan can really whale on it. He does so with gusto, as Vanri picks up a torch & chucks it squarely at the troll the instant Durnan is clear. Whoosh!

Cleaning up, collecting a wriggling troll finger under glass cake lid for display on the bar, Durnan says they can't solve everything like murderhobos, but he saw the crook draw first; he’s not willing to lie for them but he is willing to tell the police that...either now or later if there is an investigation. Yagra, who they have now figured out is part of the Zhentarim black market syndicate, says she'd love to stick around & talk with "the big one with the nose & the little one with the temper," but she has to go tell someone named "Davil" that the "Eyefuckers" are out looking for trouble on their turf. As she leaves, Soom dips into a pouch with her trunk for some spell components & touches the badly injured Xanathar member, casting spare the dying to make sure he is stable, & gathers up the headless corpse of the other for disposal back in her room. She's been eyeing the mummy at the bar all night & Durnan says "his" tab is up at last call; Soom can keep ‘em after that, since that troll— or the stirges!— probably took care of his friends, so they won't be be getting back in time either. Similarly, he tells Serous that he can keep the fizzy bottle & says the others can have one of the many, many oddities stashed around the inn, but it's not a flea market: don’t go poking around, just grab something. Jellywinks takes a break from chopping the burning troll corpse & finds...a lost heirloom from her family, a necklace belonging to her stillborn sibling, while Vanri picks up a black book labeled "Nocturne" that seems to have recorded her most recent dream in some detail.

Which brings us to Volothamp Geddarm, preposterous author of such volumes as Volo's Guide to Baldur's Gate, Volo's Guide to the Sword Coast, Volo's Guide to the Sword Coast Number II, Volo's Guide to Monsters, the forthcoming Volo's Waterdeep Enchiridion, & the soon-to-be-written ...Guide to Spirits & Specters. A human wizard in at least four contradictory styles of fashion, if even a fraction of his stories are true he has lived a cursed & charmed existence. If any of them are true, but for now that's besides the point. He's single-mindedly focused on his friend Floon, which hey, sounds like Soom, & also, does Jellywinks think that the Deep Times would like to run a book review column? He's has a galley copy of his Enchiridion with him, as I hand over the printed out pages to Ruoxi as a prop. Did we accidentally create a publishing mini-game in our publishing lunch hour game? Signs point to yes. But for as pompous as he seems, his concern (& gold) seems genuine, though Vanri Todeshi turns the conversation dark & the haranguing & bargaining of the other members makes him start to think he might have read the room wrong & accidentally approached a party of evil adventurers instead of a greedy party of heroes. They assure him they'll take the job, as he flees, throwing four pouches of ten golden dragons each, having promised at least ten times that on completion.

moria mask

Out of the Abyss: Farewell to the Whorlstone Tunnels.

Looking out at the game table from behind the Dungeon Master's screen can be such an interesting & singular perspective. You know what's behind Door Number One & Door Number Two, but somehow the any path that adventurers choose to take is always going to surprise you. How could any DM have prepared for Lilly befriending the rocs in our Temple of Elemental Evil campaign, or the "Thieves Three" hacking the throne first thing? In my Out of the Abyss campaign, they have been mucking about down in the bowels of the dungeon for a while now: there has been time for factions & monsters of Whorlstone Tunnels to notice & start responding to them. Having discovered a red dragon egg & continuing the explore the chamber of a large black monolith after a thrilling battle with a derro savant, a many-eyed horror, & their minions, the players were ambushed by reinforcements including more of the gigantic, stitched together pickled punk pigs, a derro riding one of the duergar spider mounts called "steeders," & a huge kuo-toa alchemically mutated into a briny & bubonic berserker.

Thanks to the size-altering mushrooms of the faerzress-infused caverns, Serafin, Pritpaul's part-time cannibal halfling, ate a bigwig & grew brobdingnagian; then the ranger tossed the person-sized dragon egg into one of the rickety circus carts the derro had used to house a frankenboar, & pulled the carriage to a hasty retreat. Exit, stage left...but not before smashing down the doorframe, collapsing the tunnel behind them to buy a little time. They dodn't waste any, themselves: time, that is. Ellen's elf cleric in identity crisis, Norin, heals everyone up & dabbles in a little reconnaissance along the route ahead, sleuthing out some traps & shrieking mushrooms. Pook'cha, the thri-kreen bard Sam plays, was the only one not to "eat me" themselves up to size category Large, & so the cricketman clambers into the driver's seat, trying to steer them through the corridors. Imica, drow warlock & recent only child, is not very strong, but Strength is this party's dump stat, so he takes the back, trying to both push or lift the back wheels to help turn steep corners, as the situation demands. A silence spell centered on the egg & an illusion of a sealed passage further obscures their harried departure.

The group still has the elusive derro Droki, one of their main objectives, captured. Shrunken extra-Tiny with a pygmywort mushroom, they've put the mumbling courier in a jar & poked holes in the lid. In the cone of silence no one can hear any of his gibberish, but they try to gauge his excitement levels as they approach forks in the they can go the opposite direction. Between the advanced scouting, interpreting Droki's body language, lucky guesses, good rolls & the absence of those guards who were already conscripted into the enemy cavalry, the players have a miraculously smooth journey, caravanning along the scintillating lights of the tunnel to the fetid pool they found near the entrance. Of course, back then they just elected to take another passage, but the players are, for the moment, found, & they worry that if they try to go around, they'll end up lost again. & so into the pool of warm toilet water they go, doing their damndest to keep the carnival wagon afloat. They get the whole contraption across with some swimming & some rope work, the whole gang is wet, gross & bedraggled, with a couple of looming Constitution save failures left to incubate. But that's the last hurdle; they are out of the Whorlstone Tunnels, plus one dragon egg & a Droki! With Norin proudly positioned to display the belt of dwarvenkind she's wearing, borrowed from Clan Blackskull, & Pook'cha in the red dragonscale armor of the dragon Themerchaud's Flamekeepers, the PCs go full Intimidation on their way to leave the derro ghettos. In a state of constant semi-riot, the PCs are able to strong-arm their way to the barred gates, & out.

They head back to The Ghohlbrorn's Lair, infamously "...the Only Establishment Legally Allowed to Serve Non-Dwarves," to meet up with their NPC companions & plot their next move. Who exactly were they on quests for? What did they want, anyhow? & who do they actually want to help? Some of the crew have stayed in hiding, up in their room— the myconid Stool with its helpful telepathic spores, a beastly quaggoth who thinks of himself as the elf prince Derendil, & Topsy, the former wererat who is also a former twin— but the flashy gnome gambler Jimjar has set up a little impromptu casino down in the main room of the tavern, with curtains drawn & the orc Ront as his "pit boss." Being as haggling is illegal in Gracklstugh & that Jimjar has already been arrested for owning a deck of cards, the players are less than enthusiastic about this, but Jimjar tells them he's got it all figured out. He's going to be staying behind when they move on; he's found a niche for himself here. As a thank you he wants to deal the players in on a very special hand of cards; Norin is asleep & no one wants to wake her from her elf trance, & Serafin is too cautious, but Pook'cha & Imica both agree to draw a single card as Jimjar deals. I'm being a little coy but it is clearly a deck of many things; this is my first time breaking it out as a DM, & I was a little worried how much it might destabilize things. The thri-kreen chooses The Talon, loosing all his magic items instantly...most notably the dragon scale mail on loan from the Wyrmsmith Themerchaud, the red dragon himself, which should prove interesting for Pook'cha. The drow is more lucky: Imica pulls The Moon, which grants him two (1d4) wishes!

Star Wars: End of Empire: The Gargoyle.

After tonight's End of Empire session I feel pretty good about my ability to make roleplaying choices have cosmological consequences: honestly I think it is something I've always been good at as a storyteller, whether or not my players have consciously noticed it, but especially in Star Wars. Darkness rises, &...dark, to meet it. At the end of the last episode I had interrupted the colossal coliseum battle on Corellia Prime by dropping a Star Destroyer on them, rather literally; then I had the hatches & airlocks pop open & disgorge a horde of armed maniacs, Reavers-style. I think between the race, the battle royale & this session we managed to have a pretty action packed sequence of events with a wide variety of set pieces & shifting stakes. I'm proud of the pacing; adopting a hard "cinematic tone" has been teaching me a slew of new tricks.

The fallen Star Destroyer, The Gargoyle, was deliberately crash landed into the palace moon. It spews fumes & gouts of flame & radiation as coaxium reactors im-, then ex-plode, but the human beings, the human bodies deranged by the Dark Side of the Force still come horribly tumbling forth. A full ship's panoply: stormtroopers in disarray, malevolent deckhands & gunners, a wobbly, coltish AT-ST...& well, as Rachel's former Imperial officer Para Totool can tell you, the ship's complement of this class of Star Destroyer is just under forty thousand, so if even a tenth of the people inside have survived, that's more of a slavering horde than the dozen blasters of the gladiators can hope to defeat. With that dawning understanding, with poison & the Dark Side heavy in the air, each round the players have to roll versus Fear, accumulating Stress. I've not been using the Stress mechanics as much as I'd like, & it added a nice sense of menace to the encounter.

Thrown back together after being separated during the fray, Jolit, the replicant droid played by Joey, has to dodge massive chunks of falling debris, trusting his programmed instincts. Meanwhile, the Farghul Force-sensitive played by Burke, Theynur Kötturinn, hides amidst the rubble, as some of the turbolaser turrets on The Gargoyle are still armed & operational! One takes fire & with a dusty shockwave blast, a speeder-sized crater divots into being nearby: too close for comfort. Seeing the lay of the land, Jolit is shouting in slow motion over the oncoming bombardment for everyone to make a break for it— despite his protestations, he's he ends up in leadership roles, including back in the Droid Uprising on Ord Mantell— while Raj's character keeps his eyes on the horizon. The gunslinging Jax Cadderly is watching for Rao Kast, Black Sun gang boss, sleemo & twin lightsaber wielding Mandalorian assassin with a vendetta against him, currently lurking, hidden by a personal stealth field.

Oh but the laundry list of problems keeps growing: besides Dark Side zombies & maniacal gangsters, there is a Krayt dragon on the loose! With the Baron's contest now abandoned, the cat-like Theynur reaches out with the Force, continuing to draw on her spite & frustration to control the now murderous & irrevocably Tainted beast, directing it into the oncoming swarm. She's able to do so, tapping into a deep, deep well of Darkness, a bottomless void; a bleeding hole in reality that as she touches draws her in, & draws into her, as well. The taste for slaughter spreads outward from Theynur like invisible lightning, a conduit for all the malice & evil in the galaxy as a family of nerf herders in the stands begins to wail vile epithets at each other, turning to slaps, then fists & worse. Pek, one of the muscular Twi'leks sidekicks of the CEC team, eyes rolling bad in his head, points his blaster & Para?! She takes a bolt to the shoulder as the armored up spacetrooper, Zed, muscles his way to Theynur's side...

...& a small black figure with a tiny blade of red light in its hand steps out of the collapsing Star Destroyer. Limned by burning durasteel beams in a visual callback to the Girders on Ord Mantell, it's the "Frankensith" from The ISD Rubicon, a small Vigil-class corvette, which that seems to have rammed itself into the much larger Gargoyle at some point. Para feels the black veins on her throat & neck from where it sucked the life from her growing & throbbing as it draws closer, but that's nothing compared to what the out of control Farghul scout is feeling, seeing. The Jedi will be reborn only to be betrayed from within to birth a greater evil than anything the Sith accomplished. Old Zed drops his shield & takes off his mask— revealing a sort of winged sword that no one recognizes & a surprisingly young face that is familiar to the audience but somehow unknown to our friends— taking her by the shoulders. When did the mutilated, seams & stitches Sith appear? When Theynur used the Dark Side for the first time.

Jolit sees Baron Monstro's repulsorpod descending into the chaos, rallying the others towards where it's descending. The original architect of the completely unsafe & utterly unfair competition, the mercurial fancies & moods by which he'd planned the occasion have been ruined, simply ruined by this turn of events. Hopper Rose, the juiced-up lieutenant of Rao Kast, is back up after huffing himself full of medspray & stimulants, but another heavy blaster bolt from Jax drops him right back down again, as Para shoots dead the Twi'lek joyboy who shot her. Luke Skywalker will betray his apprentice. Luke Skywalker will abandon the galaxy. Zed is looking into the yellow eyes of Theynur. "Be calm. Focus. Don't give into the Dark Side. You are one with the Force." When did the Star Destroyer crash into the moon? After Theynur used the Dark Side to win the race through the Labyri— as with a wrenching of all her willpower, marshaling every last ounce of luck & the final Destiny Point token, the felinoid finds the moment of peace within herself...enough, anyway, to snap out of it & sag into her friends' arms just as the Baron hits the ground. He's jumped out of the pod, relying on his golden power armor to absorb the fall, bounding over to them through the fray, grinning, blood splattering on his gilded armor.

Baron Monstro announces to the party, quite theatrically, that he is, in fact...a man of his word: he’s going to make sure they find out everything they need to know about STARKILLER, just as his promised; mysteriously, he says Zed knows where to take them. Releasing his master of arms, he tells Zed to go with them back to their ships— "I know you're leaving with her no matter what I say, old friend!"— & to make sure they get where they are going, wink; he then calls his personal droid Oh-One on his commstick, ordering him to make sure that "the gifts he got for them" are conveyed to the False Profit. "I've spent a great deal of time thinking of just the perfect presents for my new friends & I would be extremely displeased if they weren’t delivered just because of a little spaceship accident!" Monstro apologizes, saying he’s afraid he can’t be there to give the gifts to them personally, but he never could pass up a challenge, or so he claims before taking one giant leap into the slavering melee, toward the giggling, shambling "Frankensith," just as Eris & Sshushath finish bringing the observation pod down for everyone to load into.

Shushath the Trandoshan has his slowly regrowing arm in sling with blaster out, wary for cloaked Rao, hissing to Jax & covering his back; he owe's the scoundrel a life-debt, through somewhat crooked means, but the two of them have really started hitting it off & developing a rapport, even if Jax is partially responsible for the execution of Wuukar the Wookiee, who Shushath also owed a life-debt to. He's also an ex-gladiator who did a long stint in here on Corellia Prime, which is how he knows Zed & the group's sort-of mentor, Eris Berserk. A cyborg pirate, Eris is a blue-skinned Chiss with a heavy duty black cyberarm as well as some kind of extensive internal apparatus with a blinking control box on her chest. She fusses over the group, healing a little Strain, but spits out her deathstick & curses after a few ticks.

Annoyed, angry, & a little scared, she tells the party that she’ll catch up with them, but she’s got to drag "this idiot"— jerking her thumb exaggeratedly in the direction of the Baron's suicidal jaunt— off this moon alive. He’s practically her father, or anyhow, he mostly raised her, at least. She's got no plans on dying here: Eris tells them that Oh-One won't countermand the Baron, but after they get their "gifts," whatever those are, they should tell it to get the Plume & come pick up her & Monstro— scratch that, say The Baron & her— they'll rendezvous with the party wherever Zed is taking them. That said she leans over, her code cylinder & clavicle necklace clattering, & grabs the person nearest to her, Jax Cadderly, giving him a kiss "for luck," & slipping a cloaked binary beacon onto his wrist to so she can find them later. She yells to the Baron’s Herglic guards— "you scuvy mob!”— to follow her & with a shout, chases after Monstro.

Para's well acquainted with controls to these floating palanquins at this point, so it's just a moment till the rest of them are ascending into the sky, toward the dangling antennae & landing pads of Sub-Palace Besh. Below, the two surviving CEC contestants, the bubblegum & ivory Duros known as the Sugar Sisters, still chasing their dream of getting the Baron to grant them a megawealth "wish," have noticed Eris & the Herglics pursing the Baron & triangulate to meet them, flash grenades banging & blasters finally set to lethal while the wood-wise & cautious Tantal rangers from Nubia beat a strategic retreat back into the precarious black glass columns of the Labyrinth. Hopper Rose, screaming obscenities— I need to figure out what the most "Star Wars" bowdlerization of "fuck" is— couldn't stand up but was still alive when they rose out of sight, as the Krayt dragon, berserk & invincible, ran amok amidst it all.

Oh-One, the Baron's majordomo, is an antique super tactical battle droid: Clone Wars era contraband with a nice patina of age. The robot explains the logic behind their gifts: after the Eclipse Day party, the Baron went shopping based on his first impressions of them. That's part of the reason Theynur doesn't have a gift, but in a way the Baron's real gift is letting Zed go, whatever that means. Also, pointedly, she got a lightsaber. Jolit, for all that parlor talk of being stabbed by lightsabers & shot at by walkers, gets a set of very old plasteel Centurion shock trooper armor. Because of his Mandalorian rivalry, the Baron got Jax Cadderly a jet pack, figuring that he might end up needing it. Last but certainly not least, for Para Totool, the finest gift of all: a glass vivarium with a beautiful, pedigree, glittering mynock, after her interest in the Mynock Fancier's Society.

Their staryacht finally back in space, Zed muses that he thinks "that thing" must be a Wound in the Force, "like Darth Nihilus was."

“But we’ll have plenty of time to talk about on the trip; once we are past the Rishi Maze it’s still a couple more jumps to Kamino.”
accio bow tie

Star Wars: End of Empire: Battle Royale!

The prior session of our Star Wars campaign was the obligatory race sequence that George Lucas baked into the setting's foundations; this chapter of Star Wars: End of Empire flowed right into the equally mandatory coliseum scene, chockfull of creatures & monsters, & ending with a bang. Like my D&D campaign, this episode was mostly in "initiative order," which slows down the pacing but makes for dynamic action sequences. The custom dice of Fantasy Flight serve well, but the actual nuts & bolts of the rules seem, well, confusing & over-wrought. I admit that the homebrew guy in me has been turning over a few house rules for a stripped down version of Genesys, their generic system...but for this session I continued my general agenda of handwaving away too much mechanical granularity & relying on interpreting the symbols on the dice with ad libbing & imagination.

The players are here competing at the whim of Baron Monstro, the fabulously wealthy & erratic noble who trained Eris Berserk, the party's friendly neighborhood Chiss cyborg privateer. Monstro has promised to reward them with the answers they seek about the STARKILLER project as a "favour" for their participation in his little deathrace, & while Eris, the Trandoshan ex-gladiator Sshushath the Zode & the droids look on. The rest of the competitors have their own favours to deal with, but the winners get a "wish," which the Baron has said includes anything up to half his financial holdings, & as he is the controlling shareholder of Kuat Driveyards, that means something quite substantial. "Winners" in this case meaning our protagonists, for winning the race through the Solar Labyrinth against all odds, as well as "whomever brings me the kyber pearl from the heart of the Krayt dragon that I'm about to let loose in the bone-strewn crater where the surviving maze-races have gathered," or such is the jist of it.

Here's the situation: Rao Kast is a retired assassin, a Mandalorian who dual wields two lightsabers: he's no Jedi but the laser sword is a power symbol for his people, as well. Since then, he's become a Black Sun Vigo who still likes to get his hands dirty from time to time, especially over personal the one he has for Raj's Jax Cadderly. Somehow the gang boss got the idea that the fast-talking, gun-slinging scoundrel Jax cheated him in a game of chance, & Cadderly has had to look over his shoulder ever since. He's joined the royal rumble with his surviving gangsters, as has Old Zed, the spacetrooper armor-clad man-at-arms who has been sitting at the Baron's right hand through most of the preceding events. Add to that the CEC sponsored team of candy-coloured Duros & Twi'leks & the Tantal Rangers from Nubia that made it in time, & it is quite the full ticket.

"You should have stayed & faced the music, Jax. But instead you made me chase you, so now I'm going to make you watch me kill your friends before I turn you into bantha fodder & take your head home for my collection— I'll put it in a place of honor, right next to the crystal skull of Xim the Despot!"

Rao Kast, in his Rinzler-black armor, descends in a repulsorpod, riling up his troops— the howling, huffing Hopper Rose & the sniveling Skeeter— while failing to intimidate Jax, who knows he's just a middle manager with a sad soul patch at heart, even if he is a Crossfit ripped sociopath who sits on a literal throne of bones. Instead, the Corellian troublemaker runs over to the Sisters Sugar, the pale & pink Duros with their muscular blue Twi'lek sidekicks, & offers them the "wish" if they help the players stay alive. It's a heck of a deal & a great Negotiation check, & so they agree; the bug-eyed alien sisters clicking their heels together to activate jet boots while the tentacle-headed adonises hunker in behind cover, laying down close range cover with long-barreled blasters set on stun. (They are professional competitors on a circuit full of shifting loyalties, & are conspicuously non-fatal but pro-spectacle in their approach.)

While Jax Cadderly is making his play, the force field drops & the vast, slithering monstrosity of the Krayt dragon hoots & howls its way in— only to be captivated by the power of the Force of Others, as the felinoid alien Theynur Kötturinn, Burke's Farghul fringer, opens herself up to the connection between all living things, pacifying the creature in an eternal instant of supernatural emotional vulnerability, a Moment passing between them. While this is going on, the crowd is roaring, struggling to shout in unison. When the chants synch up, the Baron, playing histronic ringleader in his golden power armor, effects change in the coliseum. "DARK! DARK!" they scream, & with an over-dramatic flip of a switch he makes the skydome opaque, shutting out the magnetic aurora caused by the planetary eclipse.

Unable to hold tight to her tranquil center of inner peace, feeling her control of the Force & the Krayt dragon slipping, Theynur taps into her rage & frustration; the snakecharming of the beast becomes a iron fist of oppression & she brands the Black Sun gangsters in it's mind as hated foes as it breaks from her psychic grasp. The blue zaps of the CEC team's stunblasters don't seem to be doing much but keeping the creature berserk, though they do manage to channel it's frenzy of violence away from the themselves & their allies. The crowd's chants change to a call for "FIRE! FIRE!" & the Baron causes the stadium to respond in kind, pressing buttons & spewing gouts of flame from secret nozzles & sprayers.

Cut to space. What looks like a cosmic storm coalescing, complete with eerie blue flashes of lightning & condensing clouds of stellar gas, alerts the orbital watch stations as klaxons blare to life.

Gunners in glossy white backwards-pointed helmets at
Subpalace Esk: “We’ve got an unidentified hyperspace signature coming out too close to the gravity well. It’s big & the transponder says its one of ours, but we’re spooling up the defense grid, just in case.”

Both Para Totool & the human replica droid Jolit are caught in the inferno! Para, Rachel's former Imperial tech officer, makes a run for the hoverpod that Rao Kast came down in, sprinting right through the blaze & making a jump...just barely grabbing on as it resumes its ascent. "Wrench," the ID9 mini-probe droid, is off from his usual perch on Jolit's back, hovering up to go assist Para just as a geyser of napalm forces Jolit back, engulfing him in fire & separating him from the rest of the group. While he's reeling, the Black Sun gangster Skeeter, with a mohawk & a tattooed Mandalorian "T" on his face, keeps pelting him with old skulls & bones from the battleground floor before running over to tackle him, as the spice-huffing, nonsensical obscenity screaming Hopper Rose, high out of his mind & ready-deadly starts peppering them with a hail of two-fisted blaster bolts. Elsewhere, the rangers from the Nubian team have moved in aggressively on the Krayt dragon with armor piercing force pikes: they must have had inside information, because they clearly came prepared for this hunt.

Jolit, played by Joey, is a replicant whose replacement parts have him passing as a cyborg, & luckily he's stuffed into heavy enough armor that the fire safely burns itself out, as they do with Para's heavy-duty armored mechanics coveralls...though she continues to plummet skyward as the autopilot on the pod continues to gain altitude. She clambers inside & rips open the control panel, frantically pulling out components in the hopes of rigging up something, anything...& rolls uh, less than good. So instead she successfully removes...the calibrator on the repulsor drive, causing the pod to, well; drop. Things are going better for the human replica droid; throwing the thug Skeeter off of him, he lifts his vibroaxe & with a vicious roundabout embeds it straight in the punk's skull. I figure this is Star Wars, so the action is on-screen but the point of impact isn't shown: the fatal cut is mostly communicated in foley work, a gruesome sound effect for the wet thunk of finality.

Rao Kast starts off the fight with a flurry of crimson blows & feints; gaining a little space & leaving the felinoid Force user with a notch burnt in her ear, Rao brings both his dual red lightsabers to bear on Theynur...only to be foiled by the imposition of a cortosis riot shield, belonging one Old Zed! The white armored man-at-arms tosses a little cylinder to the cat-like alien, who pulls it to her with a tug of the Force, igniting it with a hissing whoosh: a blue lightsaber? Followed by the ignition of another blade of light in Zed's hand! Jax, seizing the moment, shoots the Black Sun Vigo in the back, & Rao Kast disengages, hitting a button on his suit & initiating optical camouflage, cloaking him in near-invisibility as Hopper Rose takes another hit off his aerosol mask & screams incoherent filth into the mouthpiece. "I'll send you a love letter straight from my heart, you sleemo!" Meanwhile, up in the skies above, Para's sinking hoverpod is saved thanks to the little droid ID9-WR3-H, as Wrench plugs a port in & throws on the emergency inertial dampeners. & then, just as things are getting good...

The ISD Gargoyle is an old, Imperial I-class ship, but storied; the fearsome beast painted on its hull mark it as part of the old Outer Rim fleet that the Thrawn’s Chimera once belonged to. A vicious black wound vents plasma & atmo into space; the wreckage of the Vigil-class Rubicon, flung like an javelin into the hull of the Gargoyle, which now plummets planetward.

The orbital sub-palaces start firing wild, as screams come over the comm channels, & laughter; like a clip from
Event Horizon. "Ytik, what are you doing? Why do you have your sidearm out? Oh N—" The platforms even start catching each other in friendly fire as static sputters. "...Brezel...come out come out..." The Gargoyle takes turbolaser blast after turbolaster blast, guts hollowed out & greebles blown off, but not enough to stop its momentum; the Star Destroyer keeps hull integrity & blows past the blockade, hurtling towards the surface.

Piloted, somehow still, barely holding together though slowly sheering in twain during entry, nose up, eventually crashing, plowing through the Solar Labyrinth like a white knife through black silk…sliding to a stop...right in the middle of the Coliseum, the nose of the triangle shattering ancient archeology & cutting edge technology alike, an arrow cracked in half & pointed at Theynur, as if her song to the Dark Side had beckoned it. A pause, & then the airlocks & hanger bays fall open, as a hoard of slavering, mindless stormtroopers & non-comms, engineers, pilots, officers, even a shaky-legged AT-ST all come pouring out…followed by the spontaneous violent rioting of the people in the stands.