Sunday, April 17, 2011

HelgaCon IV: Spirit of the Century - King Solomon's Mines

My third session at this year's Helgacon was a "Spirit of the Century" game run by Mr. F.

Spirit of the Century is an interesting game, which uses "fudge dice", which are a quartet of six siders that can give you plus, minus, or neutral results, and relies of the application of "aspects", which are qualities applied to either the scene being played or intrinsic to your character. Thus combats and other situations are more a process of negotiation between player and referee as to what aspects can apply, and less about pure number crunching. It's a much more "improv" style game, and I found it a lot of fun to play.

The situation as laid out was that we were a group of explorers embarking on an expedition into the heart of "darkest Africa" to find the fabled mines. The party consisted of an Alan Quartermain inspired "Great White Hunter", a professorial type expert in antiquities, a burly, hard drinking Scottish mechanic, a Kabalistic rabbi (played by yours truly), and the very prim and proper princess of a lost nation of sentient gorillas.

There were three main set pieces laid before us by our inimitable GM.

The first was a party at the Italian embassy, which was a particularly fascinating example of "social combat". Mr. F laid out two sliding scales, one that tracked how much the cat got let out of the bag about what we were doing in Africa, and one that gauged how much opposition we were in for (from none through cover sabotage all the way to outright jeep loads of soldiers gunning for us).

The rabbi invoked his "You can't say "mazel tov" without a drink in your hand" aspect to keep the opposition liberally greased with booze, while our professor got into a high stakes card game with an enemy agent in grand "Casino Royale" style, while the princess ensnared the Italian governor out on the dance floor with her simian wiles.

At the end of it all, the bad guys had largely figured out our mission, though we managed to glean some info from them as well, especially about the untrustworthiness of a femme fatale who was working the crowd that night, and we kept the opposition on a low level.

We rapidly segwayed to a riverboat voyage down the White Nile, where we passed into the pocket empire run by the usurper Gorilla Khan, who made an all out, all ape attack on the vessel to take out the princess as a potential rival to his rule.

There ensued a lot of monkey punching. Our bwana hunter's faithful guide and sidekick got carried off by gorillas, and the princess got worked over pretty good, but we managed to chase the rotten apes off through a lot of crack shooting, invocations of King Solomon's ancient authority befuddling our apish attackers (my own contribution to the fight), wardrobe malfunctions from the princess, and liberal blows with a monkey wrench from our stout engineer. Of course, by the time the smoke cleared, the riverboat was careening out of control, and ran aground outside our destination city (which I can't quite remember right now) forcing us to hoof it.

The final set piece was a confrontation in a jungle clearing with a bunch of pygmies led by a maniacal female shaman who was invoking dark powers to curse us. The rabbi used the mystical artifact book he carried to block her evil influence by invoking one of the names of YHWH, and was struck dumb as a side effect. The battle culminated in the appearance of a MECHANICAL DINOSAUR that turned out to be one of the ancient golems that guarded Solomon's mines. We beat the thing by our engineer character luring it to a cliff edge and then going down it's throat fighting as it bounded over and fell to its destruction.

It was okay, though. He came strolling into camp brushing the dust off of his sleeves the next morning. I guess after Nessie, any other dinosaurs were just pale imitations.

From there, we regrouped and headed in toward the fabled location of the mines, only to find the femme fatale from the party waiting for us with a squad of enemy zepplins. And on that cliffhanger note, we ended.

All told, it was a rollicking session, and Mr. F knows how to run a good game.

I'll admit, I got a little too rambunctious a couple of times and started bossing other players around about what aspect they should use, especially during the gorilla fight, for which I apologized at the end. I just got really into it. No excuse for being bossy boots, tho.

The overall flow of the session was interesting because it compared to my morning session of Mutant Bastards with regard to the question "What do you do when you have a lot of material and only four hours to use it." In my case, it felt like a first session that got cut off before things could really get rolling.

In Mr. F's case, he had arranged it such that elements could be dropped or included as necessary. While there was a sense that there was more that could be dwelt on, and that this could easily expand to several weeks play if done long form, the "accordion style" where the narrative was compressed to fit the time worked pretty well.

It was a satisfying session, and he got to use the set pieces he was the most excited about. I think this is a good idea for running con style games. Be willing to jettison non-essentials so that the main features get covered.

So overall, a good afternoon's gaming, with a lot of interesting play in a system that's very different than the usual shape of tabletop RPG's. Thanks to my fellow expeditioneers, and to Mr. F for running it.

Mazel tov!

HelgaCon IV: Mutant Bastards - Analysis

The infamous Cap'n Grakk, just furious that he and his pirate crew
never got to make a showing in the Helgacon IV session that bore their name.

Overall, this was a fun first run for my homebrew "Mutant Bastards" game rules, and the players seemed to enjoy themselves, so on that front I'd call it a success. The system didn't crash, and performed as well as I could hope for a largely experimental ruleset.

As a Con style game, however, I think this session left a lot to be desired. What it really felt more like was the first session of a longer campaign, which in and of itself is cool, but since the format for Helgacon is just one four hour game, this meant it didn't meet the spec.

The biggest hang up was that I'd underprepared for the character creation phase, which thus took way longer than it ought to have. Choosing mutations relied on a special deck of cards, of which I only had one to share among six players, as well as a single copy of the tables that translated their draws. That would be the primary logistical error.

The other thing that changed this from an adventure to an extended introductory session was my decision to start the characters out with nothing, and have them equip themselves from stuff they found on the slave barge. This, in and of itself, went well, and by the end of it the players had explored the barge thoroughly and each had ended up with a pretty cool, fairly personalized kit salvaged from the dead slavers. (Heck, even Lechmere the adorably horrible (and horribly adorable) giant tick got himself a guy to ride around.)

This was all to the good, all things considered, but it would have been nice to get them into more situations where they might be able to use that equipment. As it panned out, there was only time for one random encounter (i.e. the battle with the strangles) before we had to wrap.

So I guess my take away from this is twofold.

First, for con games, if you're going to include character creation, streamlining it is vital. Normally, I'd probably go with pre-gens, but in Gamma World (and by extension Mutant Bastards, which is it's heavily mutated offspring) the character creation is a large part of the fun. Seeing what sort of freakish combination you get is one of the charms of the system. Perhaps a middle ground, where everything but the mutations are already filled in would be good. Hmmm.

Second, a more in depth Mutant Bastards campaign seems to maybe be in order. I'll have to mull that one, since I'm not in a regular weekly game anymore. I prepared a lot of stuff for "The Pirates of Quar" that just didn't get used, so it wouldn't be that big a deal to fire it up proper. Maybe at least at a future Helgacon or some other Helga's Heroes event I might revive it.

We'll just have to see. Anyway, my hearty thanks go out once again to the players who joined me on the fen choked shores of Boss that fine weekend.

There shall be more where that came from, somehow, sometime. As long as we don't hit any Snags.

For the record: In post apocalyptic Boston, THIS is what's known as a Snag.
Thank your lucky stars I rolled Strangles on the encounter chart, players...

Sunday, April 10, 2011

HelgaCon IV: Mutant Bastards - The Pirates of Quar

They'd all been cooped up in these tiny cages for days, in the darkness and stench of the steerage of a slaver barge headed south. They each had their own story of how they'd ended up here, but it didn't much matter anymore. Whatever they were before, they were merchandise now.

There was barely room to move, and the slavers put old zap in the bars, that give a painful shock if touched and put those with minds full of powers into a state of disoriented numbness. A scoop of stinking meat paste a day has been their only food, served with more jabs of zap at the end of the first mate's hated sparky stick, followed by a hoseful of frigid bilge water to flush out the cages and keep their merchandise from dying of thirst before they got to market.

So they slept as best they could, preserving their strength for whatever fresh misery awaited, propped against a scrap of plastic tarp that was all that protected them from the zap in the bulkheads.

One day, they awoke to shouting and pounding feet above, followed by the sound of muskets firing, which in turn are followed by the roar of thunder brought down from the sky onto the water, with a sound like spoons tapping on the bulkheads and shrieks of pain and terror.

The barge listed, and they felt it lurching to port when to the sound of even louder thunder, so loud it shook the floor under their feet and caused their whole world to shift around. Those who had been caught off guard were thrown into the bars, and were shocked, or more truthfully not shocked, finding that the old zap didn't bite them this time. It was dead quiet up above, and the motley assembly of mutant freaks looked at one another in the dim darkness, and set to work breaking free.

Club was an augie, a human who's ancestors had been blessed in the genes by the ancients to be faster or stronger or tougher or smarter. In this case, it was tougher and stronger, as he reached up with his scarred hands and tore the weakly welded rebar cage that held him open like it was made of wire hangers.

Craw was some kind of mutated arthropod, probably with horseshoe crab in its ancestry judging from its flattened disk of a head, although from the shoulders down it had the arms, legs, and torso of something resembling a human, albeit covered in chitin and spines. This body it slipped ably between the bars of the cage after wedging its head through, compressing in ways no vertebrate could manage.

Aroma was a skunk about the size of a black bear, gifted with the natural weapons of her kind along with the power of speech. These didn't really help her get loose from her cage, and she spent a while gnawing ineffectually at the lock until Club came over and ripped the bars open for her.

Brother Frederick was a strange, wizened little man who'd fashioned a couple of burlap sacks into a robe and cassock, and who spoke reverently in his prayers to the almighty Atom. When the zap had left the bars and he could think straight again, he merely bowed his head, and in the blink of an eye later he was standing outside the cage, looking a bit dazed from the effort of willing all of his own atoms to be a couple of feet from where they once were without actually crossing the space.

Crowly was an odd fellow with a prounounced speech impairment, brought on by the eight feet of prehensile tongue he kept in his jaw. He had mind powers as well, but instead of teleporting outside his cage, he merely forced it open with raw telekinetic force.

Lechmere, as it would come to be known, was a tick the size of a serving platter, that scrabbled at its cage, squawking an assembly of perfect imitations of words that had been spoken in its presence into entreaties to be released. Not one to play favorites, Club came over and tore open its cage as well.

Once released, the liberated slaves set to work exploring their surroundings and collecting things they might find useful in further escapes. They found the locker where the mate kept his zap stick and the cans of meat paste, as well as a wealth of cargo in boxes in the hold beyond the slave pens.

Aroma and Lechmere ran toward the companionway forward and scratched at the hatch. They were unable to budge it until their universal opening tool, Club the augie, came barreling over to shove it open. The dead slaver that had been weighing it shut was rolled off, and the mutants climbed up onto the deck.

There, they found a scene of carnage, as the bodies of the barges crew lay strewn all about, done to death by what looked like the mother of all musket fusillades. The barge was run aground on a sandbar, and through the fog that surrounded them they could see the tall, leaf and vine festooned towers of an ancient city rising over the rustling green grasses of the fens.

This could be the fabled city of Boss, they marveled, or perhaps even Probiden. There was no way of knowing for sure until they made for shore.

So the odd assembly split up and began to search the barge for necessaries. From the crew they scrounged armor and weapons, and saw the grim fates of the slaver's leaders.

The quartermaster had been dashed against the crew's quarters in the forecastle, his head caved in from the force of hitting the corrugated metal of the quonset hut that had been lashed to the prow.

The bosun had been pinned like a bug to the wheelhouse with a harpoon thru the chest, leaving his well cared for musket and his prized club (a sawed off pool cue reinforced with hose clamps all down it's length) for Craw to claim.

The hated first mate had been burned beyond recognition, and they only knew it was him from the gaudy katana sword he carried with him at all times. Upon closer examination, it was found that the sword was of very poor quality, with a loose hilt and bits of thin gold flaking off of the sword's ornaments, revealing plastic underneath.

Aroma had been sniffing around the upper wheelhouse when she found the captain huddled beneath the barge's control panel. He was still alive, his usual crafty mein replaced by a dull, drooling stare. When she nudged him, all he would say was "Qua! Qua!".

As she lost interest and began to search the small cabin, Lechmere the tick came scuttling up the stairs and saw an opportunity. He climbed onto the captain's back, and carefully inserted special feelers in through the neck joints of the mariner's battered lobstah shell armor. The human stiffened and rose, as the huge tick took over his nervous system and began working it like a horrible puppet. He pulled his lips back in a rictus grin and introduced himself as Lechmere, using the captain's vocal chords to articulate what his own primitive voice box could not.

Creeped out but undeterred, the plucky mutant skunk continued her search, and found a pair of inflatable life rafts under the captain's bunk in the cabin. These she proceeded to drag down the steps with the Lechmere puppeted captain in tow. Club went up the steps to help her with the second ungainly bundle, and in doing so discovered an immaculate ax hanging from hooks on the wall of the cabin, with a double headed eagle engraved on the blades and a bright orange, high impact handle. This, truly, was a weapon of destiny meant for his hands.

Meanwhile, Crowley had used his telekinetics to haul the cargo in the hold up onto the deck, and had been busily rooting through the boxes and crates. He found many fine treasures, including an ancient battery powered device with a rotating chain for a blade. He too had discovered a weapon of destiny.

Once the little band had finished looting, they inflated the rafts and tossed them into the water, struggling a bit to leap into the bobbing platforms while loaded down with loot, but managing allright without losing anything. Aroma and Craw both volunteered to push the rafts by holding on and kicking, and so they set out toward the fog shrouded ruin to shore.

Of course, nothing ever goes as smoothly as one would like, and wouldn't you know they fell afoul of the strangles on their way in.

Here's what the learned heads of the college of Brand Eyes in the Walled City of Tham have to say about strangles: "This mutant form of kelp is extremely dangerous to swimmers and boat crews alike. These plants lurk near the bottom among dense vegetation, watching above them for anything that moves into their territory. If a likely target comes into view they will swim rapidly upward towards them, in a motion very similar to that of an octopus or jellyfish. They will then attempt to constrict the victim in their muscular fronds. When all the life is squeezed out of their prey, a Strangle will drag the body to the bottom and feed off of the decomposing corpse for several weeks with it's root tendrils. The central core body of a Strangle is roughly 1-2 feet in diameter, but the tendrils can extend out to 8 feet on larger specimens, and size is never an issue when it comes to their attacks. Since they operate in groups, several of these plants can benefit from a large kill, although theres no real communication or co-operation going on among them. Strangles have been known to attack boats, often jamming the propellers or intakes of motorized ones. While this may kill one or two, the remainder of what could loosely be called "the pack" become a serious threat to any hapless sailor sent down to clear the obstruction."

It was poor Aroma who first felt the searching tendrils wrap around her legs, and she let out a shriek. The others hastily pulled her aboard, slashing and chopping at her slithery attackers as she struggled to free herself. Club, who was in the raft pushed by Craw, pulled the mutant arthropod out of the water and carefully set him among the bundles so that his spines wouldn't puncture the raft.

It was Brother Frederick who came to the group's rescue, sending a powerful pulse of electricity through the water that scalded the strangles as they swished up towards the rafts. They managed to bludgeon and rip the stranded weed that had wrapped around Aroma until it stopped twitching, and tossed it's mangled remains over the side to be ripped asunder by others of its kind as the monstrous plants scattered for safer prey.

After they'd calmed themselves, the group set about making the rest of the way to shore, toward a large slab of duracrete they could see jutting thru the mist about a hundred feet away. The mighty Club bent some rebar into a crude grapple, adhered it to some webbing from Craw's spinnerettes, and tossed it ashore. Crowley followed suit, with his ability to perfectly mimic another's motions, and spinnerettes of his own providing the line.

As they pulled themselves onto the pier, they were greeted with accordion music and sea chanties, from a gruff looking humanoid clad in a yellow rain slicker and peaked cap.

He introduced himself as a priest of the waters, keeper of the Shrine of the Compass, and asked if they be pirates from the fortress of Quar, nodding darkly to an ill favored, angular structure that squatted on the ancient harbor, black smoke rising above it from numerous watch fires in its superstructure.

After some initial confusion as to what might be the best answer to give, the group of escaped slaves convinced him that they weren't pirates, which turned out to be the right answer.

And thus, the little band of mutants fell in among the peaceful but downtrodden Boat Folk, and their adventures among them wait to be told at another time, perhaps with an accordion accompaniment.

Editor's note: Some of the details here are a bit hazy for me in the hurly burly of the weeks following HelgaCon, so if any of the participants want to correct any errors, then please drop me a note and I'll fix it. Thankee.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

HelgaCon IV: Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl

Art by Julek Heller

HelgaCon IV started out with an Old School bang, with my good buddy Delta storming up from Brooklyn on the heels of the big April Fools blizzard with the classic D&D module "Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl" (G2 for those who are in the know (or in the snow) about that sorta stuff.) He'd run G1 "Steading of the Hill Giant Chief" last year, but I was too sick to play, dammit.

Not this year, tho. I was charged up and ready to rumble, and we had a real rip snort of a run at the forbidding ice cliffs and frozen tunnels of the evil frost giants' home base.

I won't give specifics of the layout and the stuff we found down there, due to the fact that that anyone into the Old School scene (or even those who ain't but who'd like a good adventure) ought to give this module and its companions a try, but overall it was an awesome session.

We settled pretty quickly into funny voices. My character, the mighty fighter Boris of Brainsk, kept up the intensity with a thick Russian accent, but the winner for hilarious dialogue has to go to our team leader and fellow fighter Mr. M's Pellinore-esque, quavery locution. (The best analog I can give is an older Peter O'Toole).

The team of six players, which included two fighters, a thief, a mage, a fighter/thief and a fighter/mage, also gelled pretty quickly as a tactical unit.

I think the best tactic we used was sending our scout, the thief Fedyeka, played by Ms. B, ahead with her elven cloak and boots to check our path, but not so far ahead she got in over her head. So my first pro-tip would be never send a scout farther ahead than their heavy support can run in a round if things go all monster shaped.

Another good use of our resources was using some elven cloaked fighters as cover for our mages if they needed to take point, rather than leaving them exposed to the giants and other ice based monsters that infested the rift.

The surprising tactical development was Mr. H's mage, who was armed with a Wand of Fireballs that he was a bit... overly keen to use. Delta had sought to make us pay for excessive kerploding by causing a cloud of blinding steam to form whenever we set one off, but a surprising tactical dividend appeared when we figured out we could use the steam cloud (and attendant slippery ground from the half melted floor) as an advantage against the complex's giant sentries, forcing them to charge us blind and giving 'em a face full of fury when they stumbled out of the mist. We were shooting +1 arrows and magic missiles and a few lightning bolts got tossed as well.

The fights were a hoot, a mixture of desperation, unintended zappings, and bad@ss giant slaying throwdowns.

Mr. M's fighter earned his sub-moniker as "The Valorous" by taking about three boulders to the head (or possibly more) thru the course of play. He was often in the lead, as referenced in my earlier comment about elven cloaked fighters as a defensive line, and he took a lot of the rocks. He stayed on his feet thru the whole thing, tho, so aside from the quavery voice he was solid steel otherwise.

As for me, I just enjoyed the heck out of hacking away at the big brutes with my magical sword Wyrdbreaker. (Which is werry hard to say with Russain accent.) I've never achieved a level thru normal play where frost giants could be considered a challenging but largely (no pun intended) handle-able foe, and it was pretty exhilerating to take the big snow goons out like we did. The battles were tense but extremely satisfying, and I think all told we racked up about fourteen kills against the forces of shaggy, walrus scented chaos.

We also roasted a lot of damn yetis.

On the down side, minor though it actually was as down sides go, in terms of the tournament scoring of the game we didn't do all that well. Our goals were to A: reconnoiter and find out what the giants were up to B: explore the rift and C: kill us some giants. We did good on points B & C, but not so much on A, which were the big ticket items, pointswise. We somehow managed to avoid several of the clues linking G2 to G3 and beyond, and got fished in by some red herrings to our detriment. So I think out of a possible 1200 pts we scored somewhere south of 200.

But no matter. I speak for myself, but I think I'm in the ballpark for everyone else that we had a grand old time, and avidly look forward to next year, when I'm guessing Delta's gonna turn up the heat on us in G3 (Hall of the Fire Giant King).

P.S.: Whoot! First for reals post HelgaCon IV Blog post! Lets see you guys pick up the slack, Delta and Paul! (And any other attendees who might have a blog. Send me a link if y'do!)

HelgaCon IV !


Back from Helgacon, a wonderful weekend of doing something I love with people I love. I'll be posting about this all over the next couple weeks, as I lay out the solid gaming that went on in that crowded little house on the Cape this weekend. Right now, I'm a bit kerflutzed and not really too typographically loquacious, so all I can do is re-iterate the awesomeness of the people and the pastime we all enjoy. Extra special thanks goes to Paul for pulling most of the freight in getting this thing organized. Thanks to Delta, Paul, and Mr. F for running awesome games, and for all the players in my little offerings.

That's it for now. Gotta start planning for Helgacon V.