Tuesday, June 20, 2017

First impressions from Mass Effect: Andromeda

I have finally begun playing Mass Effect: Andromeda. I am a dedicated fan of the original trilogy. I even wrote a blog post discussing the lessons a tabletop military sci-fi RPG referee can draw from the original Mass Effect. Thus, I came with much enthusiasm. Below are my first impressions from the first two and a half hours of the game, which I played last night.

Note that I began playing for the first time only after Bioware released Patch 1.08. I am told that the patches greatly improved the game. So this post refers to the latest (June 2017) patched version.

The game runs flawlessly on High settings on my mid-range rig - Intel Core i5-2400 CPU @ 3.10GHz, GeForce GTX 960, 12 GB RAM, Windows 7 Home Premium 64 bit, and running both Windows and the game from an SSD. It looks gorgeous and runs perfectly smoothly with good FPS and no graphical glitches so far.

My first impression is that Mass Effect: Andromeda is a flawed game, an unpolished gem if you wish. Its interface is cumbersome and sometimes counter-intuitive. Getting into the menus, for example, takes one keystroke. Getting out of them and into the game requires you to go through many, many screens. Or at least I did not find yet the quick shortcut key for leaving the menus. You cannot pause during cut-scenes, which are sometimes very long - though if I recall correctly, previous Mass Effect games had this issue as well. You can no longer control you squad-mates' power use, only direct them whom to attack; however, they seem to be very effective on their own (more on the combat AI later).

The greatest flaw, in my opinion, is that the plot exposition is very weak compared to Mass Effect 1. In the original Mass Effect, within the very first hours of the game, it introduces Saren. It made perfectly clear that he is a nefarious villain. He does despicable things to the colonists in Eden Prime and plots to blow up its starport. The first hour of game-play also introduces the Geth and the Reapers. Within an hour or two you know the main plot - Saren is trying to bring back a long-dead evil alien species called the Reapers using something called the Conduit, and as you saw on Eden Prime, that will be very, very bad. Therefore you have a clear motivation to pursue the plot and a strong villain established early on.

In Andromeda, on the other hand, you see some sort of alien villain whose underlings killed one of your crew-mates and beat up another one or two of them. He seems interested in the older alien technology present on Habitat 7, and that's it. It is unclear what is motivation is, what he is up to, or why you should oppose him; even the violence with his troops could be, as far as you could know in the first two and a half hours of game-play, a misunderstanding in first contact. Thus the plot starts off weak, with a weak villain. Your main motivation is exploring the galaxy to find a home for your people, but it is a much weaker motivation than pursuing Saren and his horrible plans.

The game shines, however, in exploration. I'd dare say that it does exploration better than any previous Mass Effect game. Much better. It engages your Sense of Wonder in one of the best ways I have seen in a computer game. You explore an alien world right off the bat. It is a wonderful world, full of beauty and mystery. Full of alien stuff. My favorite part so far was exploring a dead alien facility, which reminded me of the Derelict in the original Alien film, though (un)fortunately there was no Xenomorph here. The environment is incredibly detailed. It starts off linear but later allows much exploration off the beaten track. This Sense of Wonder kept me hooked into the game for two and a half hours straight, which is uncommon for me these days.

I love the Scanner. It really drives home the Exploration theme, reminding me of the Tricorders of Star Trek fame. You scan all kinds of stuff in the world and get an analysis of them. This analysis is far from generic, at least so far. Very enjoyable and thematically appropriate.

I also think that, while the game failed to introduce a strong villain, it introduced Ryder in a much better way than the original game introduced Shepard. Ryder has strong roots in the setting, hook and connections. She has family ties, a father and a twin brother on board the Hyperion. Her father is a very detailed character, up to and including superstitions such as a "Lucky Rock", which your scanner ironically presents as a simple chunk of granite. NPCs talk with familiarity about her father. She is part of a crew and of a family. Unlike this, Shepard's background came up very rarely, in one mission in the original game, a few conversation mentions, and a very few e-mails in subsequent games.

Combat is also very enjoyable, though the new cover system takes time to get used to. NPC AI - ally and enemy alike - is wonderful. Your squad-mates act very well in combat. Enemies flank you. This compensates for the fat that, as mentioned above, you have little control over your squad-mates.

All in all, mixed but enjoyable experience. I am definitely hooked to this game.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

ACKS monster: Half-Ghoul

Half-Ghoul
% In Lair: 20%
Dungeon Enc: Cabal (1d8) / Lair (3d8)
Wildreness Enc: Cult (3d8) / Lair (3d8)
Alignment: Chaotic
Movement: 90' (30')
Armor class: 2
Hit Dice: 1*
Attacks: 3 (2 claws, bite) or by weapon
Damage: 1d3/1d3/1d3 or by weapon
Save: F1
Morale: +3
Treasure Type: D
XP: 13

Those touched by the dread Lady Beneath - the Chthonic goddess Kassogtha - slowly fall into her embrace of eternal life-in-death. Dark rituals slowly turn the devout cultist into a half-ghoul - disfigured and malicious, slowly rotting alive towards death and "rebirth" in undeath. The cultist appears disfigured with lesions and blisters on his face and body; his fingers are elongated to resemble claws and his teeth grow into fangs. Half-ghouls often disguise themselves as plague victims and wear long robes and hoods to obscure their true nature.

The half-ghoul is not undead (yet) and thus cannot be turned and is still vulnerable to sleep, charm, and hold spells, as well as poison. He is, however, immune to disease. Unlike a true ghoul, he cannot paralyze with his bite, but he can still deliver vicious bites and rend flesh with his claws. When a half-ghoul dies, he will rise as a true ghoul on the next dusk unless he is decapitated, a stake is driven into his heart, or the spell bless is cast upon his body.

Half-ghouls are fanatics of their cult and much more willing to die for their rotten goddess than regular ghouls are. Kassogtha's dark blessing also imbues them with strength and resilience beyond those they had as normal men before they entered her unholy embrace.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

50 Wonders of the Reticulan Empire

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The Reticulan Empire is the richest, most powerful political entity in known space, outshining even its mighty Chiwak rivals. Millennia old, it has reached a mature and stable Tech Level 13. This technological know-how allows the Reticulans to produce marvels of advanced science beyond anything the Terrans can reliably manufacture. This booklet provides a sample of 50 technological and psionic wonders developed and used by the Reticulan Empire, from compact handheld laser "blasters", advanced cybernetics and gravitics, to the arcane psionic devices that unleash the power of the Reticulan mind.

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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Space Patrol - now in Print!

Uphold the Law! Fight interstellar crime! Hunt pirates!

The Space Patrol now available in Hardcover format!

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Order HERE!

Saturday, May 13, 2017

ACKS adventure idea: The Rot Beneath

I had an interesting idea for a short, self-contained adventure module (for 3-6 characters of levels 1-3) for the Adventurer Conqueror King System (ACKS). It should have an "integrated design", that is that the above-ground "town" area will directly correspond to the dungeon levels beneath it and interact with them.

Centuries ago, St. Marcus of the Hammer smote down an Abomination of Desolation - an idol of the dread Chthonic plague goddess Kassogtha. Knowing that such edifice of Chaos can never be fully cleansed, St. Marcus erected a monastery ("Fortified Church" in ACKS terms) over the old Chthonic manse to guard against its corrupting influence. When neared death, he willed that his hammer be interred in a crypt deep beneath the monastery's chapel and that his skull be coated with gold and placed in a reliquary inside the chapel itself in an eternal vigil against Chaos. When his companions - a studious mage, a repentant thief, and a mighty fighter - died, the monks buried them alongside St. Marcus in his underground crypt.

Years passed. The Empire St. Marcus knew prospered and expanded and then declined and receded. What was once an important monastery declined as well, led by lesser men. Then, in the days of Imperial collapse, the Plague arrived. First came the fever, then the pus-filled blisters. For three out of four victims, death then followed. The survivors often emerged hideously disfigured. The monks of St. Markus prayed to Sol Invictus and invoked their Saint, but no help came. Even their abbot, a devout but simple man, lacked the divine grace necessary to cure disease. Instead of the Unconquered Sun, another voice answered them, whispering in their darkest nightmares. The whispers promised a respite from the Plague, as well as a road of immortality paved by embracing pestilence rather than suffering from it.

At first, the monks resisted and called upon their god to protect their souls from such creeping vileness. However, the temptation of eternal life, of an end to their suffering, blackened the hearts of weak-willed monks. The particularly charismatic, if cowardly, Brother Pavel became their leader. Under the nose of the old and unsuspecting Abbot, they dug under the monastery's cellars and broke the seals to the ancient Chthonic manse. There they found the statue of the "Lady Beneath" - Kassogtha. Enthralled by their lust for immortality, they repaired the abominable idol. At first, they sacrificed animals to it, but no answer came. Then they murdered their fellow monk, Brother Clarence, and rededicated the idol with his blood.

A blessing they received indeed - the dark kiss of undeath. In that horrible ritual, Brother Pavel became a Ghast - though he retained his Clerical abilities and insane mind. His followers became ghouls. Brother Pavel could not ascend to the surface again, lest his rotten nature be exposed. His ghoulish followers, however, could easily pass their hideous nature as a particularly dire result of surviving the Plague.

A year passed and the Plague was long gone, leaving behind disfigured survivors and the lucky few who were immune to the disease to begin with. New people moved in to replace the dead. The rotten cult, however, festered in the darkness beneath the Monastery of St. Marcus. There they used an underground stream to bring in wanton wenches from the nearby Village of St. Marcus to participate in debauched celebrations, a few yards of earth below their unsuspecting former Brothers who still kept faith in Sol Invictus.

The cult's goal is to have this underground blister of Chaotic puss burst and corrupt the entire monastery and village in an orgy of carnage to honor their goddess. However, three things stand in their way. The first is the chapel, where St. Marcus' skull resides, ever watchful against such Chaos; into this hallowed ground the ghouls cannot enter, as the fear of god drives them away. Second is Abbot Kasimir, an old but faithful man whose very presence is a thorn in Kassogtha's side. Third is The Hammer of St. Marcus, buried with his bones in the deep crypts, instilling fear in the ghoulish cult.

Thus they have formulated a plan. First, they will invite the prostitutes one final time into their warrens - this time to butcher them as part of a dark ritual. This ceremony will cause a minor tremor underneath the chapel which will shatter the gilded skull and break the chapel's sanctity. Second, they will kidnap the Abbot and murder him as an offering to their vile goddess, turning the small Shadowed Sinkhole of Chaos at the chthonic manse into a Blighted Sinkhole of Chaos encompassing the entire monastery and slowly extending towards the village. Finally, with their dark influence spreading throughout the catacombs, Brother Pavel will be able to enter the Crypt of St. Marcus and corrupt his hammer into a Chaotic artifact.

The player characters will arrive two days before the first stage of this plan. Their hook could be an urgent letter from the Abbot to the (player's) Cleric's superiors requesting urgent help as he senses a great evil shadowing his monastery. It could also be rumors of a great treasure buried in catacombs underneath this monastery. The PCs might even be local youths from the Village of St. Marcus drawn into the event when a friend or younger sibling of one of them goes missing (is sacrificed to Kassogtha by the cult).

The adventure has a timeline which will happen unless PCs disrupt the cult's activity:

Day 1 - PCs arrive.
Night 1 - PCs sleeping in the abbey will hear dire chanting come from beneath the ground.
Night 2 - the prostitutes arrive at the manse, invited for another orgy; instead, the cultists imprison them in preparation for sacrifice.
Night 3 - the cult sacrifices the three prostitutes; a tremor knocks down the gilded skull and breaks the chapel's painted glass windows. The chapel loses its sanctity.
Night 4 - Abbot Kasimir is kidnapped and imprisoned by the cult.
Night 5 - the cult sacrifices Abbot Kasimir and all hell breaks loose #ZombieApocalypse

Ignoring such clues and taking an over-cautious approach might bring bad outcomes.

The dungeon itself consists of the following:

Level 0 (above-ground): The Monastery of St. Marcus with all its facilities. "Friendly and Safe Area", at least until Night 3.
Level 1: Monastery cellars; chapel undercroft.
Level 2: Catacombs; crypts; underground waterway (the monastery's well ends here); cult quarters.
Level 3: St. Marcus' Crypt and the Manse of Kassogtha, seemingly unconnected on this level (though there is a secret tunnel connecting them).

Monsters:

Rats - no level 1 adventure in a cellar is complete without them; possibly some other vermin as well
Skeletons and zombies - animated by the cult
"Half-Ghouls" - juniour cultists in the early stages of their transformation
Ghouls - cultists
Ghasts - cultist priests
Brother Pavel - cult leader: Ghast + level 3 clerical abilities

Friday, May 12, 2017

ACKS - Clerics and Sorcery!

I was thinking about this as of late and... I came to the conclusion that the Evil Sorcerer sword & sorcery archetype, in ACKS terms, is a Chaotic Cleric.

The archetypal Evil Sorcerer wants power, he wants a lot of it, and he wants it NOW. He has no patience for study or for solemn prayer. He will pay any price he needs to pay to get power.

Mages don't have easy access to power. They must dedicate their lives to hard, patient study. This is reflected by their steep XP requirements and neglect of any other character aspect other than Arcane Magic. This is not what a Sorcerer wants.

Chaotic Clerics, on the other hand, advance quickly. They can fight almost as well as Fighters do. They get their spells automatically without having to look for a spellbook or performing research. They get all the spells and do not have to learn new ones. No restrictive repertoire to deal with. They even get necromancy better than Mages - they have Animate Dead as the reverse of Smite Undead as a level 4 spell while Mages only get it as a level 5 spell, and they also get to control (charm) undead, which no Mage can do.

So Evil Sorcerers are Chaotic Clerics!

Friday, April 28, 2017

FREE from Stellagama Publishing - A Primer to These Stars Are Ours!

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A Primer to These Stars Are Ours! provides the prospective customer with a taste of the core These Stars Are Ours! book. The Primer contains an overview of this setting, its human and alien empires, the Terran Borderlands, Reticulan (Grey) aliens, a sample world, a sample Patron, and a news dispatch from February 2260 AD.

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Sunday, April 9, 2017

Towards my upcoming Curse of Strahd campaign

I intend to start DMing Curse of Strahd (an official D&D 5E campaign) for my group in a month or two. Thus, I have ample time to prep.

The first thing I wanted to figure out was how to get them together and bring them to the Death House.

They will start in a normal D&D world. Possibly the Forgotten Realms. They all happen to be passengers on a riverboat traveling an infrequently traveled river. The boat has other passengers as well - possibly even a higher level Wizard and his bodyguard.

On the second day of their voyage, the weather turns uncharacteristically bad - cold, wet, and foggy. The next morning, they find themselves floating in thick fog. The navigator says that her compass went crazy, but they should still be moving down the river and the weather should get better soon.

That night, ghouls attack the boat out of the shallow river water - led by two ghasts. The PCs sleep in the common area, which is the aft of the boat which is covered by a canvas canopy against rain. They will have to fight a gang of ghouls and one ghast who attack their area. Other passengers in their area (civilian NPCs) will get slaughtered before the PCs could respond.

When they start getting the upper hand in the battle, they will hear and see an explosion from the forward part of the boat - the cabin where the crew and the better-paying passengers stay. Apparently, the wizard panicked and tried to get rid of ghouls who cornered him - and miscalculated the effects of his fireball. The boat catches fire and the players have to finish off a few charred ghouls who escaped the blaze.

Soon after the PCs win the fight, heavy rain begins to pour, soon developing into a storm. This puts out the fire, but not before it causes the canvas, as well as the cabin's roof, to collapse. The ship is leaking badly from battle damage and will soon sink to the river bottom. It offers little shelter from the rainstorm.

If the PCs search the boat, they can gather some supplies, possibly a few minor magic items and potions once possessed by the now-dead wizard. They might also pick up a few NPC survivors - all non-combatant civilians.

Now they have to find a shelter from the rain - which means going ashore and into the surrounding woods. However, the trees offer little refuge from the storm.

Eventually, they wander and reach a lone house in the fog - the Death House. In my version of the adventure, the PCs will not encounter the "children" outside but rather enter the House in search of shelter and get trapped; then they will meet the "children" and the adventure will commence...

Saturday, April 8, 2017

These Stars Are Ours! now available in Print-on-Demand!

I am thrilled to announce that Stellagama Publishing's sci-fi setting book for the Cepheus Engine/2D6 OGL SciFi, These Stars Are Ours! is now available in Print-on-Demand. Currently, we offer a hardcover option, but soon - hopefully within a week - we will also have a softcover option available.

Order it HERE!

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Who's who in the Isenvale March

Here are the high-level NPCs and monsters I have in mind for the Isenvale March campaign. Note that these are faction leaders; some are dungeon level-bosses. Most creatures in this mini-setting are much lower in level and power.

Humans of Oathbridge
Castellan Edmund of Oathbridge, the local ruler, is a level 4 Fighter. He is a capable warrior, but he 22 years old and a mere five years on the throne and is not a good ruler, even though he does try to manage his manor fairly. The matters of state do not come as easy to this young man as warfare does. He prefers to spend his time hunting or sparring rather than deal with the boring and difficult burden of managing his domain. Instead, he lets Gregory, his manipulative majordomo, and court wizard, run things. Lawful.

Gregory of Zabreba, the Castellan's majordomo, and court wizard, is a level 4 Mage. Older and far more experienced than Castellan Edmund, he Oathbridge's actual ruler. This manipulative politician used his keen knowledge of the archaic and often contradictory law of the dying Empire to install Edmund on the manor's throne instead of his older, smarter sister Rowena, when their father died. This way he could get the power into his hands and also insert his fingers into the manor's coffers. He acts as a tyrant in any way he can get away with without coming into conflict with Edmund. He is Neutral, but the Aboleth is now working on further corrupting this corrupt courtier and turning him Chaotic.

Armand the Quick, Oathbridge's chief criminal, is a level 4 Thief, leading a gang of 16 thieves, himself included. His income includes all sorts of petty village crime, burglary in this valley and the surrounding areas, some gambling at the Snoring Dwarf tavern, and other mischief - and also waylaying travelers on the road, in collaboration with the Bandit Queen. He is not an evil man; he is in for the gold. The Bandit Queen is powerful and working with her pays off, so Armand works with her for the time being. He knows very well, though, that if he will be uncareful, he will hang once she takes the throne. Neutral.

Father Frederick, Priest of the Invincible Sun and Oathbridge's religious authority, is a level 3 Cleric. He is a very old, very devout man who has served in his holy post for the past fifty years. He has the villagers' respect but is well-known for being very careful and reserved with magical aid; he does not use his spells lightly and will reject such offer and the accompanying tithe if he suspects that this will serve a questionable purpose. Lawful.

The Bandit Queen is a legendary figure of peasant folklore. Stories about her surfaced a mere few years ago, but now she is a central figure in tall tales and rumor-mongering. She fights, or so the peasant story goes, to overthrow the tyranny of Edmund and Zabreba and institute justice in Oathbridge. "Justice" usually means, in such stories, a major reduction of the extortion taxes levied by Gregory, as well as hanging this rascal and his bully of a Sherriff, Boris. Some even say that she will give serfs their freedom and turn everyone into freeholders. In reality, she is Rowena, Castellan Edmund's older sister. This woman, at the age of 31, is a level 5 Explorer. She is smart, and she also believes that the end always justifies the means and can be quite ruthless. Enraged that her young and inept brother Edmund got the throne, she is determined to take what is hers by the force of arms. For this, she is gathering an army of bandits and rebels to eventually assault Oathbridge, takes its fort, and overthrow her brother. Once enthroned, she will rule with an even hand, but also with an iron fist. Lawful.

Humans of Spirngmound
Abbess Ingrid of Springmound, a level 5 Cleric of Sol Invictus, is the de-facto ruler of the Springmound domain. When she was a young nun, Castellan Ivar of Springmound died on a battlefield of the earlier Imperial troubles with his two sons, leaving no issue. His widow, Lady Castellan Irina of Springmound, ruled for another decade. When Lady Irina died two dozen years ago with no clear heir, the manor fell into disuse, its men-at-arms and servants scattering to find better jobs in other places. The newly-appointed Abbess Ingrid was the only person of authority and power to whom the Springmound villagers could turn in time of need. She is also an ambitious ruler with a desire to become Isenvale's Rectoress - and even rise further in the Church hierarchy. Lawful.

Templar Inessa of Springmound, Abbess Ingrid's mailed fist, is a level 4 Fighter. This seemingly non-impressive woman of short stature is as lethal as a serpent with her spear and legend said that she once stared down a raging bear. Her formal task is to protect the Abbey. Her actual role is enforcing the Law in Springmound - which she does in merciless strictness and a unit of disciplined men-at-arms. The Abbess, a skilled ruler who maintains a much more merciful image, keeps the Templar on a short leash but makes it clear that she will unleash Inessa on any criminal, Chaotic heretic, or threat to the Abbes' power. Lawful.

Humans of Swornwell
Tribune Richard of Isenvale, the March's ruler, is a level 7 Fighter. He is a good but weary man well past his prime. An excellent horseman in his youth, he is now occupied by the affairs of state. The latter are grim. His superiors in the Imperial interior demand ever-greater taxes and military forces for their internecine wars. Thus, he has to balance between his loyalty to the dying Empire and the needs of his own domain. Locally, the Blooded Maw Orcs continually threaten Isenvale and are too powerful for the Tribune's forces to defeat; instead, Richard tries to contain this threat and hold it at bay. Bandits and less-organized monsters are also a constant concern.

Rector Sigmund of Isenvale, a level 6 Cleric, is the March's spiritual authority. This once-ambitious young man was an adventuring Cleric, until he got shot in his leg by an Orcish archer and he settled down to replace Isenvale's old Rector who died of old age. While a more senior cleric healed his shattered knee with a powerful spell, such powerful magic was not without a cost. A connoisseur of fine wine to begin with, this brush with mortality hurled the Rector into the depth of a wine glass. His divine authority is great, but so is his tendency for drunkenness. Abbess Ingrid knows of this habit of her superior and plans to utilize it to have him ousted from his position - so that she could become a Rectoress by herself. Rector Sigmund is strictly Lawful but usually drunk.

Nicolai the Serpent, a level 6 Assassin, is head of Swornwell's criminal syndicate. This born and bred conspirator murdered his way up the old thieves' guild hierarchy to place himself on its head. A sadistic man, he does not only kill to further his end but also for the pleasure of taking a human life. Recently, the Deep God's emissaries began grooming this master criminal into their ally in Swornwell, with the intention of eventually assassinating the Tribune and installing their own puppet in his place. Chaotic.

Humans of the Wilderness
Mother Larissa. Art by Hannah "Gecko" Saunders
Mother Larissa, the Forest Witch, is a level 5 Cleric of the ancient nature-goddess Marzanna. Peasants whisper dark stories about Mother Larissa, such as that she can turn insolent people into toads (which is correct - she has such a spell in her repertoire), or that she performs blood-rites deep in the woods. There is a certain streak of malice in this old woman, especially when angered, but she is not a villain. Despite her ominous reputation, villagers often consult with her, as she sells effective potions and salves. She also casts magic on behalf of any who pays her with little questions asked, unlike the clergymen of Sol Invictus. Even the Swamp Lizardmen respect her, as they know her power very well; they occasionally trade with her as well. She has an enormous number of toads and frogs in and around her garden and has domesticated a giant toad as a guard animal. Neutral.

Swamp Lizardmen
Bleeding Talon, the Lizard Chief, is at 6+2 HD. He is a huge, fat lizardman who rules the Swamp like his ancestors did from time immemorial. He occasionally leads his warriors to raid human settlements or ambush caravans, but for the most part, he is content to stay in his village, eat fish, and mate with as many females as possible. Primitive and savage, but not evil or sadistic. Wants to get rid of the Lizard Cult. Neutral.

Burning Eye, the Lizard Shaman, is at 4+1 HD with level 3 Clerical abilities. He is as savage as his king, but wiser. He leads the lizardman religious activity - worship of totems and idols in the swamp. He knows the value of magical items and will hoard any such item he can get his claws on. Harbors burning hatred for the Lizard Cult. Neutral.

The Deep God
The most powerful creature is the nameless Aboleth itself - an 8+2 HD monstrosity, bigger and nastier than the average Aboleth, and also capable of dark sorcery as a 7th level Mage. Also capable of magical research, potion creation, and magical item creation - perfect for rewarding underlings and enticing other people to serve this fish-god. It is, of course, Chaotic and very intelligent. Its goal is to spread its dark influence across the land, gain power, and control as many minions as possible.

Lizard Cult
The Lizard Pontifex, who has long abandoned his lizardman name, is at 5+3 HD with level 5 Mage abilities. Rapidly evolved by Aboleth alchemical methods, he is a genius in lizardman terms (around INT 12). He built the Lizard Cult into a force to be reckoned with, equipped with advanced equipment looted from humans and organized into an effective military unit. He sacrifices captives to his God by throwing them down the well (which goes down into the Aboleth's lake). He is currently at war with the Goblins and Swamp Lizardmen. Communes with his God telepathically and receives gifts through his Emissaries (the Skum). Chaotic

"Tyrannus" is a monster - a 6+1 HD giant lizardman alchemically manipulated by the Aboleth. He is the cult's champion; as dumb as a rock but as tough as a mountain. Easily controlled by the much smarter Pontifex. His bite is venomous, and he wields a massive warhammer looted from the Dwarven ruins; the Dwarves built this weapon for two-handed use, but such a huge reptiloid can hold both it and a massive iron shield. Chaotic.

Orcs
Orgun the Orc Chief is at 5+1 HD, a massive old orc scarred by years of fighting for dominance against a wide variety of rivals, orcs and otherwise. He has been leading the Blooded Maw Orcs for over a decade. In that time, he built them from a regional nuisance into a dire threat to Isenvale. His greatest ambition is to take Swornwell itself. For this, he has been breeding and training his nine warbands and building weapons. The recent rise in power of the Orc Sorcerer Raznak only bolsters his plans. The orc threat is the number one reason why Tribune Richard of Isenvale cannot spare much of his soldiers to provide aid to his vassals, as this force stands guard against the Orcs. Ogrun is Chaotic.

Raznak the Orc Sorcerer, at 1+1 HD was once a petty witch doctor. However, messengers from the mysterious Deep God have taught him much in the Arcane and he has the abilities of a level 4 Mage. He secretly plots to depose the Orc Chief Orgun and turn the Blooded Maw Orcs into an instrument of his dread god. He is smarter than most orcs and even exceeds his Chief in wickedness, and has also acquired several minor magical items from the Aboleth. Chaotic.

Goblins
The Goblin King Burguk is at 4 HD - stronger than most goblin chieftains. He used to terrorize the countryside with his goblin warbands, but now the Lizard Cult has inflicted a painful toll on the goblins - only two Warbands remain. Wants to stuff his face and belly with cakes and humanoid flesh all day, as all goblin kings do, but first he has to get rid of the Lizard Cult. Chaotic.

The Goblin Shaman Nazal is at 1+1 HD, but has level 3 Clerical abilities. He wishes to sacrifice captives to the dark goblin spirits, but before that, he wants to rid the goblin tribe of the Lizard Cult threat. He will begrudgingly agree to parlay even with non-Chaotic characters if that furthers the end of combatting the Lizard Cult. Chaotic.

The Goblin Witch Urinn is at 1 HD, but has Mage abilities at level 5. She is smarter and meaner than other goblins - and even literate - and has interest in magical research. She will torture captured spellcasters to learn Arcane secrets, but will also trade in magical items and lore with strong characters she knows she could not subdue. Chaotic.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Isenvale March

Isenvale March and its Environs. 1 Hex = 6 Miles.
My Vault and Valley mini-campaign idea takes place in the Isenvale March, a remote frontier domain at the edge of an Empire. The March looks impressive on a map but is sparsely populated and economically underdeveloped in practice. Furthermore, the constant threat of monstrous raids and banditry hangs over the heads of the hardy Isenvalers. Naturally, such remoteness opens up opportunities for ambitious adventurers eager to carve out their own realm. Isenvale is rich in high-grade iron ore and has potentially highly fertile soil. However, in the long years since the Dwarves retreated from the valley, the Swamp expanded to claim many of its best lands and the forests swallowed up other arable fields. The peasantry, working hard enough to subsist in these inhospitable lands, lack the means to improve their own land, and so do their rulers. The same goes to the mines. Long ago, skilled Dwarven miners and engineers produced a wealth of iron out of these hills, smelting the ore in the grand furnace at the Vault. Good iron deposits still remain in the mountains. However, current-day mining is primitive and the local miners only produce small amounts of poorly-smelted iron.

Isenvale belongs to a crumbling Empire. I will leave its details vague so that any prospective Judge can adapt it to her own campaign world. It is sufficient to note here that the Empire is weak and torn by internal conflict and economic decline. Optimistic scholars predict that it will survive for another century, at most; more realistic ones do not believe that it will hold for even a decade. As the bulk of Imperial military and political forces concentrate in the struggle for the Imperial heartlands, frontier lords are de-facto independent rulers even if de-jure they are loyal subjects of whoever sits on the Imperial throne.

Tribune Richard of Isenvale rules his domain from his castle at Swornwell. He is an aging Lawful level 7 Fighter, a good but weary man well past his prime. An excellent horseman in his youth, he is now occupied by the affairs of state. The latter are grim. His superiors in the Imperial interior demand ever-greater taxes and military forces for their internecine wars. Thus, he has to balance between his loyalty to the dying Empire and the needs of his own domain. Locally, the Blooded Maw Orcs continually threaten Isenvale and are too powerful for the Tribune's forces to defeat; instead, Richard tries to contain this threat and hold it at bay. Bandits and less-organized monsters are also a constant concern.

The entire March has a population of 980 families. Of these, 150 live the Barony of Oathbridge, 200 in the Barony of Springmound, 80 scattered in the less-populated parts of the March which are only nominally claimed by the Tribune or either Castellan, and 550 in the Tribune's own fertile and better-defended domain around Swornwell itself.

The village of Swornwell with its 150 resident families is almost twice the size of Oathbridge or Springmound. It is, however, a hub of the frontier and thus has a Class-V market despite its small size. Springmound village has 90 families and Oathbridge village a mere 80. Both are also Class-VI Markets.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Vault and Valley

A new setting for ACKS is brewing in my head. It is much smaller than Barbarian Conquerors of Kanahu and far more "traditional" in D&D terms.

This is a "micro" setting. Its focus is a mid-sized dungeon which was once a dwarven Vault owned by a Duke on the Borderlands of a dwarven realm. That kingdom crumbled, the Vault fell, and the Duchy became uninhabited Wilderness.

According to the core ACKS rulebook, this means a value of approximately 115,000gp for the stronghold, at least 75% of it are underground. That will give me the exact measurement for the dungeon in 10'x10' squares! This means 86,500gp invested underground. According to ACKS p.126, that's 173 10x10x10 cubes of excavation, not including mines (which are not part of the stronghold itself).

The Vault also had mines both beneath and around it mining high-quality iron deposits. There were natural caves beneath the mines. The deepest cavern had an underground lake, in which an ancient Aboleth dwelled. When the dwarven miners eventually tunneled into its layer, all hell broke loose.

After a century and a half, human settlers arrived in the nearby valley which was once the dwarven Duke's domain. They named their village Oathbridge after the legend that a Dwarven lord once swore an oath to one day return to the ruined bridge located upstream from the village. The settlers were led by a petty nobleman who became the new village's Castellan. He belongs to the Empire, but the Empire is weak and crumbling. The Emperor rules this village in name only. In practice, the Castellan is loyal only to the local Tribune. No Imperial Legionnaires were seen in these parts for many decades.

Seventy years later, the current domain, ruled by the original Castellan's grand-grandson, is still Wilderness - even the Tribune's castle stands on Borderlands. The Castellan rules over 150 peasant families. As the area is risky, slightly more than half of these - 80 families - huddle close to the Castellan's fortified manor in a small village (Class-VI Market). Most are miners working in a few reclaimed mines. Others raise sheep or barley.

The Castellan has a powerful stronghold for his title - at 30,000gp - as he rules a Wilderness domain of about one 6-mile hex. This includes a small tower, some walls, a gatehouse, and a courtyard with several buildings, build on a local hill.

The ruined dwarven Vault is in the next 6-mile hex to that of the Castellan's seat and village.

The current Castellan - a Lawful level 4 Fighter - is young and inexperienced. He was enthroned rather than his older sister, who left in anger. He is not a bad man himself, but is not very competent as a ruler and is being manipulated by his majordomo - who also serves as a court wizard - and things in the village are quite sordid.

There are various monstrous threats to the village, not least of which are lizard-men and goblins. Lizard-men - typically primitive and Neutral - have dwelled in a nearby swamp for eons. Once, their tribe paid tribute to the dwarven lords. Since very recently, there is a second tribe of Lizardmen, which hails from the ruined Vault. So do the goblins - the two tribes are in constant war over the upper levels of the Vault. This new tribe, unlike its swamp-dwelling cousins, is surprisingly well-organized. It is also equipped with far better equipment than anything usually seen in the hands of lizard-men. Unknown to the Oathbridge residents, they had advice and help from the Aboleth, whom they worship as a god. They are slowly winning their war against the goblins and are also raiding human settlements from time to time.

Another threat is that of the bandits, led by the legendary Bandit Queen - who is somewhat of a folk heroine. The common story whispered among peasants, is that she fights for the common man and will eventually oust the current Castellan and his advisor, to install herself as a just ruler over the village.

She is, in fact, the Castellan's older sister - a Lawful level 5 Explorer - who slowly builds her power towards a comeback for revenge and for claiming what she sees as justly her own...

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Signal 99 - an adventure for THESE STARS ARE OURS! - COMING SOON

“99…99…99… The ship is damaged – crew and passengers in peril – please assist – 99…99…99…“ 

COMING SOON for THESE STARS ARE OURS!

Review of Far Horizon by Zozer Games

Ruleset: Cepheus Engine/OGL 2d6 Sci-Fi
Author: Paul Eliott
Artist: Ian Stead
Size: 63 pages
Publisher: Zozer Games
Price: $9.90
Grade: 5 out of 5

Space is awesome. Rocket science is awesome. Astronauts are awesome. As children, we dreamed of traveling the stars in a space capsule or rocket ship, wearing a space-suit, visiting all sorts of weird and wonderful alien planets. For me, the most important element of science-fiction is the Sense of Wonder, that sensation you feel when you encounter strange and wondrous scenes, objects, and ideas. Science fiction allowed me to escape the boring school life to far more intriguing places in our imagination. Far Horizon scratches this very itch.

Far Horizon is space exploration. Realistic space exploration - scientists in a spacecraft visiting a rogue planet passing through the outer edges of our solar system. It is 2100 AD and the characters' deep-space vehicle, the eponymous Far Horizon, undertook the first manned mission to Pluto. In 2095, astronomers detected a new planet passing through the Kuiper Belt. Strangely enough, they also found tiny shifts in the planet's trajectory - and have added a visit to that planet to Far Horizon's mission. This world - Tartarus - is a mystery for the players to crack.

This adventure is devoid of combat, yet action abounds. This is an adventure of interplanetary exploration, including all the challenges and threats of realistic spaceflight in a thermal rocket with limited fuel flying through the outer system. This is science fiction at its finest - the characters have to figure out a puzzle of science while exploring an alien planet, all while avoiding the deadly dangers of deep space travel. They have a limited time to explore Tartarus due to orbital mechanics and limited fuel; overstaying can spell slow death in the cold reaches interstellar space.

Far Horizon takes place in Zozer Games' Orbital 2100 hard-science setting, though the setting book itself is not necessary to run the adventure. It focuses on the deep space exploration aspect of the setting rather on its Expanse-style interplanetary politics. It should be very easy to set this adventure in any other hard-science, near-future solar system setting, or run it as a one-off.

The book also provides a detailed overview, including stats, description, deck plans, and excellent renders (by the wonderful Ian Stead) of the Far Horizon deep space vehicle itself; also, it has detailed stats and rules for realistic TL8 and TL9 space suits. These will be useful for a wide variety of hard-science near-future games and are second to none. The adventure also provides pre-generated characters (in Cepheus Engine stats) in case the players lack the setting book.

I heartily recommend this adventure, as it is a very unique and interesting hard-science space-exploration romp.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

"Barbarian Conqueror King" - now on Kickstarter!

I have first posted about my "Barbarian Conqueror King" setting for the Adventurer Conqueror King system (ACKS) over four years ago, on February 10, 2013. This is an all-out, "four-color" pulp-fantasy setting with sword & planet, sword & sorcery, and sci-fantasy elements. It has dinosaurs, aliens, lizardmen, mad sorcerers, and mighty barbarians - what not to like?

I am proud to inform you that this setting is now crowdfunding in Kickstarter, together with a Heroic Fantasy Handbook, both to be published by Autarch LLC. I have seen the Heroic Fantasy book and it is also well worth your money!

Back it HERE!


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

These Stars Are Ours! Reviewd

I am proud to see that two prominent bloggers have already reviewed These Stars Are Ours!

First is Robert Weaver from Ancient Faith in the Far Future (who by the way was our indexing expert).


Read and enjoy! Both are wonderful reviews.

Frames of Reference

The Star Wars presents its frame of reference
A good setting, whether for a sci-fi story (or movie) or a role-playing game, needs a frame of reference. This is a central element of the setting that affects many, though not all, of its other elements. This also allows you to fall back to the frame of reference when you run out of ideas or have to improvise.

A frame of reference is neither a theme per se nor a mere plot. It is the combination of plot, backstory, and themes - the glasses through which you see the setting or franchise.

For example, both Star Wars and Babylon 5 have excellent frames of reference. Star Wars (the original trilogy) starts off with scrolling text describing the Empire and the Rebellion against it. Moments later, we encounter an Imperial Star Destroyer chasing a Rebel Blockade Runner. Almost any world or other setting elements in the original Star Wars universe has something to do with this civil war; most have Imperial presence. Others have hidden Rebel bases. When designing an RPG adventure in the original Star Wars universe, for example, you have a frame of reference to work from - there is the Empire and there is its war against the Rebellion. It colors almost everything. It also serves as a terrific starting point for plot and setting elements.

The same goes with Babylon 5 - its pilot starts with an intro speaking about the Earth-Minbari War, then proceeds to have a plot directly connected to it. While many Babylon 5 plots have little to do with the Earth-Minbari War, it is always in the background and serves as a launching pad for stories in many occasions. Son enough the story moves on to the main frame of reference, which is the Shadow War.

So, when designing a new setting, think of a major frame of reference that defines your setting. Was there a massive War recently? Is this a post-apocalyptic setting? Or did Earth discover faster-than-light travel just recently and is now exploring the wide-open frontier of space? Either way, a frame of reference helps you build a good setting.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

These Stars Are Ours!

Over three years ago, I posted on this blog the first seed of what became These Stars Are Ours. The ideas underlying this setting ran in my head, in one guise or another, for over a decade before that. Today, I am proud to present you with the end result of all these years of dreaming, deliberation, and hard work - THESE STARS ARE OURS! - a full-scale new space-opera universe for the Cepheus Engine and other 2D6 OGL SciFi role-playing games.

Set in 2260 AD - two years after the Terrans took Keid and forced the Reticulan Empire to capitulate - it introduces the player characters to the immediate aftermath of the Terran victory in the Terran Liberation War against the mighty Reticulan Empire and its many thralls. For their part, the upstart Terrans, bolstered by their victory against their old masters, now move to become a power to be reckoned with in interstellar affairs. Against this background of espionage, maneuvering and saber-rattling, and on the new interstellar frontiers, the player characters can forge a destiny of heroes or villains of the new United Terran Republic. The book provides all the astrography and background necessary to set a sci-fi campaign in the exciting times of the 23rd century. 

It is two years after we won the War against our old Reticulan masters. We - the children of Mother Terra - are now free to forge our destiny and put our mark on the stars. These stars are ours! This is a time for bold men and women to step up and claim the universe. We need intrepid explorers to discover the riches of our far frontiers; enterprising merchants to open new trade routes with far-away alien stars; cunning spies and agents to protect us from any alien plot against our hard-won independence; and of course - daring soldiers and spacemen to protect our borders and push back those who would enslave us again. 

We are not alone - brave Cicek warriors and even Reticulan and Ssesslessian defectors fought along our side against the Reticulan legions. Against this mighty alliance, stand our many enemies - both internal and external. Corrupt politicians and crime-lords plot to turn our glorious Republic into their own plaything at our expense. Ruthless pirates and raiders rob far-flung colonies, heedless of the opening they give to our greater enemy. In the shadows, House Thiragin - the Reticulan noble house which once ruled Terra with an iron fist - plots and plans for its ultimate revenge on us upstart “barbarians”. For all of this - children of the Earth – Mother Terra needs you!

This book contains:

- History and background material for 23rd century Terra and the larger universe.

- Corporations, political parties, and illegal groups – both Terran and alien.

- 4 major alien species and several minor ones – all detailed.

- Rules for generating and playing characters from 6 alien species.

- 7 alien careers and 12 Terran ones.

- Advanced character generation rules and event tables for all included careers.

- Rules for cybernetic augmentation, body modification, and cyborg conversion.

- 2 small craft and 5 starships with full game statistics and high-res deck plans.

- The Terran Borderlands including 64 detailed worlds and a high-res star map.

- 12 Patrons offering adventurous missions to the players' characters.


Note that this book provides character generations, biological and cultural background, and flying saucers (!) for playing Grey Aliens from Zeta 2 Reticuli – ready to drop into any Cepheus Engine campaign!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

TSAO teaser: 600-ton Reticulan Abductor

This is the shape of things to come for These Stars are Ours (TSAO), the upcoming new space-opera setting for the Cepheus Engine and 2d6 Sci-Fi OGL games from Stellagama Publishing. Here is the 600-ton Reticulan Abductor!

Little grey aliens from Zeta 2 Reticuli coming to take you at night!

Deck plan and render by Ian Stead.

Monday, January 23, 2017

TSAO teaser: 300-ton Terran Shaka-class Light Military Transport


This is the shape of things to come for These Stars are Ours (TSAO), an upcoming new space-opera setting for the Cepheus Engine and 2d6 Sci-Fi OGL games from Stellagama Publishing. Here is the 300-ton Terran Shaka-class Light Military Transport.

After the War, the Terran Navy decommissioned and sold off many of its ships, as part of the general mobilization of the Terran fleets. The Shaka-class Transport was decommissioned in large numbers and sold as a light freighter or merchant ship – of course after being stripped of most of its military-grade equipment. While unarmed, it is quite easy to rearm, and it remains as rugged and reliable as ever – and thus is a favorite ship of merchants and explorers prowling the frontier.

Deck plan and render by Ian Stead.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Space Patrol - Best ATU Product of 2016!

We at Stellagama Publishing are proud to announce that our flagship product for 2016, The Space Patrol, has won the Best Alternative Traveller Universe (ATU) Product Award as part of the ZHODANI BASE AWARDS 2016!

The Space Patrol is also ON SALE with 30% off its price as part of Stellagama Publishing's Holidays Sale until January 6th, 2017.


Get it HERE while on discount!