Tag Archives: science fiction

Droids

Look Sir! Droids!

Another Ancient Game You Probably Saw Advertised In The Dragon

But Which I Somehow Acquired. No Idea When Or How.

With This Exciting Action Scene On The Cover, How Could Customers Resist?

With This Exciting Action Scene On The Cover, How Could Customers Resist?

It is a little-known fact that FASA’s famous “BattleTech” game was originally released as “Battledroids“, until they got a letter from a certain director reading, in part, “Yousa be a violatin mesa’s trademark on droidsa! Yousa be changin thats quick or bombad lawyers gonna sue you maxibig!” The company assumed the odd phrasing was legalese and did not realize they were privy to a glimpse into the dark future of what was currently a beloved movie franchise, so “Battledroids” became “BattleTech”, and the rest is history.

The game I am discussing, called simply “Droids”, was published two years earlier (in 1982) and never attracted Mr. Lucas’ wrath, as far as I know. Really, the entire preceding paragraph is mostly irrelevant, I just wanted to a)verify that I did, indeed, remember seeing a game called “Battledroids” at the Compleat Strategist in NYC way back when, and, b)Get in some decades-late digs at Jar Jar. (But does Rogue One look awesome, or what? Anyway…)

“What Mission? What Are You Babbling About?”

The basic premise of Droids is that the PCs are droids, a naming convention to be adopted by White Wolf a decade or so later. There are no humans, animals, or other life forms to interact with. It’s droids all the way down.

“I’m Only A Droid, I’m Not Much Good At Telling Stories”

Droids May Be The First Sci-Fi Work To Predict The "Selfie"

Droids May Be The First Sci-Fi Work To Predict The “Selfie”

In the very earliest days of RPGs, the first 2-3 years of their existence, there was a point where the line between “skirmish wargame” and “RPG” was much blurrier than it is now. We, as humans, like to fit things in boxes, to categorize, define, name, and limit, enabling us to mentally manipulate complex clouds of concepts as if they had a single handle we could grab onto. “En Garde” by Game Designer’s Workshop (I think they went on to do some kind of space game) was one example. TSR’s “Warriors Of Mars” was another.

Droids, nearly a decade after D&D’s release, and marketed as an RPG, has some aspects of this. Despite it requiring a Referee and including a “Sample of Play” in typical style, the book consists almost entirely of rules for combat and for creating droids to engage in combat. There’s about a page of material suggesting there might be organized Droid societies, but it’s very sparse. The game provides content for the very core of RPGs: Go somewhere, kill things, take their stuff, but is sparse on the “kill things”. There’s three generic sample NPC droids, and two more in the scenario provided (“raid the abandoned army base”). The “stuff” includes a small list of items not available at character creation, from vacuum cleaner attachments to movie projectors, but it is diverse enough to offer some inspiration for additional goodies.

A post-human world inhabited entirely by abandoned artificial intelligences is a fine setting for adventure, but all the work in bringing this to life, including any mechanics for anything other than combat, would be to the referee.

So What’s In The Book?

A lot of charts, tables, and descriptions of various weapons, power plants, mobility mechanisms, and armor, along with rules for using all of these things, a short scenario, and an appendix with summarized charts.

Look, it’s 1982! This is pretty much what you got!

Also contained: A layout completely reminiscent of Traveller. I’d say they borrowed the same Adobe templates, but this is 1982, and “Adobe templates” back then meant “plans for building homes in the southwest”.

Let’s Get On With It

There’s not any kind of list of archetypes or “typical” droids, or a real sense of what you’re going to do besides “explore ruins, scavenge parts”. The advice on building a droid actually steers you away from archetypes, encouraging you to build well-balanced units. Not bad advice, at all, but RPGs tend to work best when there’s a team of characters with mixed strengths and weaknesses. More relevant for this article, I need an idea, stat.

Somewhere in flipping through it, I saw there were options for gasbags. The idea of a blimpdroid appeals to me greatly. Perhaps it was created originally as a silent spy, able to drift into enemy territory with a minimal signature. It should have some self-defense capacity to take out attackers, and ideally a backup ground-based movement system. In the campaign setting, it would work as a scout/spy, locating places to forage, relying on better armed- and armored- allies to do most of the killing once it brought back the intelligence, but not helpless in a fight.

Can I build it? Let’s see.

I have 20 CP to start with. CP are “Construction Points”, of course. Seriously, you need to be told that? Wow, my imaginary readers are dim.

“PC” is the measure of whether I continue to internalize my oppression by using the human supremacist term “droid”, or if I refer to myself as a post-organic ferro-American. Or, it’s “Power Consumption”, the measure of how much power each of my components eats. Well, why can’t it be both, huh? Don’t force me into your binary categories!

“BP”, or “Bulk Points”, sort of combine hit points and volume on a unit-by-unit basis.

Based on the character sheet provided, I’m going to need a spreadsheet to keep track of things. Damn, it’s been a while since I fired up Excel for RPG purposes. Getting a bit giddy, here.

Transport

The first thing I’m asked to spend CP on is transport. There’s a lot of choices, but keeping with my character concept, I’m starting with “Propelled Balloon”. The rules are fairly detailed, including time to inflate or deflate and how far you can fall while it fills. (800 meters, so, it’s pretty much useless if you fall from anything smaller than the Empire State Building.) I’m also taking wheels for my ground transport.

Note that each transport unit can support 100 BP, and different types of transport units can’t be combined. So, if I go over 100 BP, I will need more wheels and balloons.

Manipulation

Not the ability to bribe, blackmail, or intimidate, but rather, arms. There’s only three: Repair, Maintenance, and Lifting. Not sure what the future looks like in terms of BP, PC, CP, etcP, so for now, I’m going for a single Maintenance arm, which can do a little repair and a little lifting.

(You may notice the system does not assume a humanoid default. The droids produced by this game will resemble real-world robots much more than space opera ones. You can probably build a humanoid, but it’s not a baseline and there’s no indication non-humanoid droids suffer any notable disadvantage in terms of interacting with the world.)

I… Have… The… POWER!

OK, right era, wrong genre.

Power units have a negative PC… in essence, they reduce your total power consumption by a certain amount. Power plants are the best (most expensive) and can be overloaded at a risk of explosion. Solar cells are tempting, but I plan to operate at night. (I could combine them with a rechargeable battery, I suppose…) Nah. Going with standard power cells.

Power can be allocated to units on as-needed basis. Assuming I may need to move and pick things up at the same time, I will need 4 units of power, minimum. So that’s 4 cells, which will cost me 4 points. Hmm. Let’s kick that up to 7, to allow for what I suspect weapons and sensors will cost. Or, for 5, I could get a power plant. Hm. Power cells are 4 BP each, while a plant is 9, total. This means, in theory, I can lose a few cells and still have some operating power, but a plant is putting all my eggs in one fusion-powered basket. Hm. Let’s go for plant. If I have CP left over, I might get a cell or a battery for backup.

Coin Detected In Pocket

Or, sensors. For vision, I am going with the most expensive, the tri-camera, which also gives me ranger-like tracking capability. It fits my character concept.

CP are starting to get low. I will skimp on the other sensors, going for the most basic sound and communications gear.

Module DR-1: Kill All Humans

Modules are basically programs. You buy an interface, which, I think, determines how many module you can load at once? Or something? The combat modules are insanely expensive — 10 CP for the lowest-level one. The others ain’t much better. I’ll just pick up an M1 Interface for now, in the hopes of finding a data module later on.

Phased Plasma Rifle In The 40 Watt Range

It Costs How Much?

How About A Pointed Stick?

Seriously, the cheapest weapon is 4 CP. I’ve got like 2.1 left. Time to make some adjustments.

Let’s drop the wheels and go for legs. That frees up just enough CP for an energy cannon and a single 10-shot power pack. Hey, that’s 10 times more attacks than a first level magic user gets!

Other Accessories Sold Seperately

I can’t afford armor, ECM gear, or a spotlight. Sigh.

The Naming Of Names

Well, what should I call it? The game explicitly offers an eclectic naming scheme, noting a droid could be named anything from a string of letters and numbers to a computer or industrial themed name. While it’s a year or two late, relative to the publication date, I will go with LASERBEAK for my character.

LASERBEAK’s greatest weakness, mechanically, is its lack of armor. The guidelines caution against this, but something’s got to give. Hopefully, it can stay out of danger until it can scavenge some. It also has only enough power for 10 shots; an additional power supply is needed.

Here’s the final character summary. It seems appropriate I mostly just needed to copy over part of my Excel sheet…

LASERBEAK. It Seems Appropriate This Game's Character Sheet Is An Excel Screenshot

LASERBEAK. It Seems Appropriate This Game’s Character Sheet Is An Excel Screenshot

Other Thoughts

  • I can’t find any limits on attaching new units. There’s rules on how long it will take, based on bulk, but apparently you can stick anything on you that you wish, limited by bulk relative to your movement capacity.
  • There’s rules for robots, which are non-self-aware machines. They are otherwise like droids.
  • There are also some rules for “experimental” devices which have assorted amusing defects.
  • I would have included rules for droids themselves to have various flaws (especially lingering psychological quirks from their programming), in order to gain bonus CP. The 20 points at chargen is very limiting. Of course, I started off with an expensive concept. Downgrading my camera would have given me enough CP for armor.
  • You’ll note there are no attributes, per se. “Strength” is determined by how much your manipulators can lift, in BP. Beyond that, there’s nothing. All droids are equally agile, intelligent, or charismatic. Constitution? You either have power enough to move, or, you don’t.
  • Indicating the era, the communication options are limited to, in essence, voice. There’s radio and light (blinking lights, which, in the rules, goes v…e…r…y s…l…o…w…l…y), but these just transmit your “voice”. No wifi. While it makes sense a post-apocalyptic setting doesn’t have a lot of internet, you can imagine that some intact buildings would still have an intranet, and any droid civilization would be strongly interconnected.
  • Likewise, no viruses or malware to infect you.
  • While the lack of more cyberpunky tropes is not surprising — Neuromancer is two years in the future! — what does surprise me is the lack of melee weapons! It’s a post apocalyptic wasteland where the droids must survive as best they can… no chainsaws? No tasers, even? Perhaps they were planned for the promised, but never materialized (as far as I know) supplements.
  • As is typical of the era and the design, the low-illustration, high-density text conceals many rules and asides that would, in later years, be more clearly called out. Several paragraphs of this bemoaning the lack of thus-and-such rule, with must sarcasm, had to be culled as I stumbled over a good-enough mention of the “missing” information buried in the tenth sentence of a 20 sentence block of text.
  • Overall, the writing is clean, functional, and clear. It’s not plagued by typos, spelling, and grammatical errors.

That last item sort of sums up my thoughts on the game, and perhaps why it did not ignite any kind of spark that I know of. “Functional” is the watchword of Droids. It offers some tools for a unique (at the time) setting, a post-human post-apocalypse, but does very little to inspire. The text describing the various options is perfectly adequate, and that’s it. The art is decent, but it’s all static images of various droids with no background or action going on. The sample of play consists of Player One and Player Two talking to Referee and… looking at things. Shining lights. Examining a hole in a fence. Yay.

So, that’s Droids. Tune in next time, when I look at… I have no idea. I’ll poke around the bookcases until something catches my eye.

For More Reading…

If you like the idea of AIs in a post-apocalyptic (but not post-human) world, you might enjoy this….

The Devil And Captain Alistair

The Devil And Captain Alistair

There was smoke, and fire, and sparks. The main screen’s display had fractured into blocks of random colors; only a handful of secondary and tertiary displays, still getting feeds from the few surviving external sensors, showed anything useful… though how useful the knowledge that the three ‘Revelation’ class light cruisers that had opened fire on them were still there was anyone’s guess.

Three blinking red dots, moving inexorably towards a small yellow circle. That’s what the TTD — the tertiary tactical display — showed. In a moment, a plague of purple specks would blossom across the screen, a swarm of symbolic gnats. They would sweep over the helpless yellow circle, and it… and the humans who dwelled within it… would vanish, as would the display itself.

Captain Alistair braced for the inevitable. And kept bracing. It took him some time to notice no time was passing. The TTD was frozen, as was everyone around him. Sparks hung in the air like fireflies in amber. Weapons Officer Buhari hovered in place, the blood from her shrapnel-inflicted wounds forming fascinatingly frozen arcs, twisted in flight from their expected paths by the now-paralyzed flickering of the grav plates. Nothing moved, except him.

And the newcomer.

Tetrapoid, Alistair thought. Same general body plan as Terrans, Clavarians, and two dozen other Alliance species. Crimson skin, like someone from the northern continents of Balar, but with only two eyes. Small horns, too symmetrical for a Melikor.

The Captain sighed. “I’m authorized for first contact protocol, but Lt. Tangier is much better at it than I am.” He gestured towards the lieutenant, who remained suspended in time, midway through painful recoil from an electric discharge. “However, even if you freed him from whatever you’ve done, I don’t think he’ll be in any condition to talk.” Alistair looked again at the unmoving tactical display, focusing on the text declaring 3.93 seconds remained until impact. “Not that we’d have much time for conversation, anyway.”

The stranger smiled, showing teeth that came to sharp points. Probably an obligate carnivore, thought Alistair. Pack based behavioral patterns? No, no, don’t make assumptions. Rule one of first contact. Assume nothing.

The stranger laughed. “Oh, we have all the time we could ever need. Eternity, if it comes to that.”

Suddenly, all the bits and pieces clicked together.

“Oh,” said Alistair, nodding. “Oh, alright. I see.”

“Do not be alarmed by my appearance. I assure you, despite your culture’s myths, I am no supernatural entity. My species is ancient, and we have travelled far. When we encountered your world centuries ago, it…”

“Yeah, yeah.” Alistair gestured impatiently. “q2They assumed you were evil because you were different, feared your advanced technology, turned you into legends, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.”

The stranger sputtered, momentarily thrown off script, but rallied. “Yes… something like that. But I… my people… are of a benevolent nature. I saw the danger you were in and created a polymorphic stasis field so we could talk.”

“Bull.”

“What?”

“You’re not any kind of hyper-advanced alien species.” Unconsciously, Alistair imitated the tone and gestures of most Academy lecturers. “You are, in fact, a supernatural entity, and not a benevolent one.”

The stranger’s smile remained, but it had a distinct edge to it now. He attempted a world-weary air of disappointment. “I had thought that by now your species would have outgrown such superstitions.”

“We have. We’ve also learned that when you encounter new information, you have to rethink your conclusions. All of this…” he gestured, encompassing the paralyzed tableau that surrounded them… “is not the product of any science.”

“Such arrogance, to presume your knowledge represents all that can be done!”

Alistair waved dismissively. “Yes, yes, you’ve got the patter right. But look. If we’re in a field of frozen time, how can I talk to you?”

“There’s an aura around you that creates a zone of normal chrono….”

“Nonsense. The vibrations of my voice couldn’t pass through the time-stopped space between us. And how can I see? Any photons in this ‘aura’ would have been absorbed by my body in a fraction of a second, and no new ones could flow through. And when I exhale, how does my breath escape? No, no, not buying it, not for a second. What’s going on here can’t be explained by any kind of technology, no matter how advanced… it’s woefully inconsistent and implausible.”

The intruder frowned. “That’s a fairly deep understanding. I’m more used to people taking it at face value.”

Captain Alistair snorted. “Temporal physics is mandatory for anyone on command track at the Academy. Do you know how many time rifts, chronal warps, paradox vortexes, and tachyon storms the average fleet captain encounters in their career? More than half the admiralty are their own grandparents.”

With a sigh of acceptance, and the hint of genuine amusement creeping under the wholly false smile he still wore, the other continued. “Very well. You’re correct. I am the literal, supernatural, devil.”

 

Alistair sat on the arm of the command chair. “Now that we have that out of the way, what’s the deal? Come on, I don’t have all…” He shrugged. “Well, I guess I do.”

 

“I am capable of destroying your enemies.”

“And, what? You’ll get my… my soul?” Alistair still had trouble accepting such a concept might be meaningful, but he tried to control his skepticism.

“Oh, nothing so dramatic. I will just need… a service done.”

“What, precisely?”

“Oh, that’s to be determined. At some point, perhaps soon, perhaps not, I will demand a task of you… and you will perform it, without question.” Something about his tone made Alistair think the being meant it literally — when the service was asked, he would comply, no matter his desires at the moment.

“You have to give me more than that… will it violate my ethics? Cause me to kill innocents? Bring harm to the Alliance?”

The stranger looked at him oddly. “You didn’t ask if I’d make you harm yourself… your body, not your principles.”

Alistair pointed to the frozen explosions, the paralyzed readouts showing death seconds away. “If I reject your offer, I’m guaranteed death. If I accept, even if your price is eventually my life, I still come out ahead on that score. But what makes my life meaningful isn’t my heart beating… it’s what I believe in, what I stand for. Gaining mere existence at the cost of who I am, what makes me me… that’s a poor bargain.”

The stranger shook his head, a grim confidence etching his features. “No terms. I can ask for anything, anytime.”

“One order, and one only?”

“That’s all I’ll need.”

“And my crew?”

“What about them?”

“They’ll live? This isn’t something where you destroy everything that’s not me?”

“Really, you’re a fleet captain, and not a lawyer?”

“Ever see the Alliance Fleet Manual Of Regulations?”

“Fine. No. No tricks, no loopholes. Agree to my terms, and those cruisers will simply explode. An internal failure in their antimatter containment, to be precise. Eventually, it will be traced to a simple data entry error propagated to the local fleet.”

Two thoughts formed at once and collided in Alistair’s brain. From the wreckage of their neural crash, a plan emerged.

“Very well. Let’s do this. I will obey one command from you, and only one.”

Unceremoniously, time’s arrow resumed its flight.

The explosions completed. Bodies finished their arcs across the bridge. Flames erupted from  ruined panels, the screech of alarms filled the smoky air, and on the tactical display, three red dots vanished, leaving a yellow circle, battered but intact.

The bridge was filled with the chaos of confused chatter, the moans of the injured, the expressions of rage and horror as people found their friends dead or dying. Alistair ignored it all and left.

“Captain’s quarters,” he told the elevator, as he tapped his personal comm system off. There would be time to explain later or… there wouldn’t be. Either way, his duty to the Alliance and to his ship would be fulfilled.

“Where are you going?” the intruder asked. Captain Alistair was fairly sure no one else was capable of perceiving it; he’d seen people reacting to his sudden departure, but no one had said a word about the crimson-skinned newcomer in their midst.

Alistair didn’t answer. He found the question useful, though. Whatever else, the creature didn’t seem to be able to read thoughts.

The door opened into a small, but comfortable, lounge area, at the center of the senior officer’s deck. The top staff would constantly meet and interact here during the course of their disparate daily duties; it aided informal communication and information exchange, or so the Alliance psych people claimed. Alistair went directly to his door and commanded it to open. The automated security systems failed to ask about the being following him.

His room was a disaster. The rapid flickering of the grav plates in the initial assault had caused all the furniture to fall sideways, then up, then finally back down again as the internal repair systems kicked in. He moved through the clutter without acknowledging it, or the being behind him, still talking.

“Shouldn’t you be with your crew? Making inspiring speeches to the injured, prioritizing repairs, calling in some message to your command?”

“Every one of those jobs can be handled by someone else. I have great confidence in the ability of my crew to get along without me.” He tapped a case permanently affixed to one wall, and spoke. “Happy weasels rarely eat pineapples.”

A panel opened. He took the gun, and set it to maximum power, wide beam.

“Ah, I suppose you’d feel obliged to try destroying me. It won’t work,” the creature said.

Alistair turned the gun toward his face, aiming it slightly upwards. His brain wouldn’t be there by the time the nerves in his fingers reported the message that they’d pulled the trigger.

That had the desired effect: It startled the intruder.

“Stop that nonsense! Put down the gun!”

Alistair did so, smiling, though the memory of the feeling an instant before… the total loss of volition as his body obeyed unquestioningly… would haunt him for years.

“As agreed, I obey your command. That was the only one you get, remember.”

The thing turned an interesting shade of slightly paler red.

Alistair looked at it. “We’re done here. I’m guessing your ability to stick around in this continuum has some sort of limit, or we’d have a lot more information about your kind… even if it was just the shape of the giant hole in our understanding of the universe.”

It vanished. Alistair was both disappointed, and worried, that it didn’t swear vengeance or promise to return.

He returned the gun to the case, and went back to the bridge. Now, there would be time to make explanations to the crew… and reports to Alliance Command. He sighed at the thought of the latter. He had no idea how many forms he’d need to fill out to explain this.

***

“And that, fellow officers of the Alliance, is how I earned the Silver Pentagram.”

There was a mix of laughter (as expressed by the different species gathered around the table) and applause (ditto).

Pleasing Wavelength Refracted, a creature of smooth crystal planes and softly pulsing inner lights, spoke, or at least, generated sound somehow. “Silver? What does it take to earn the Gold?”

Alistair shrugged. “I hope I don’t find out. So, your turn.” He gestured at the medal formed from three broken gears. “What’s that one?”

The colors inside the body of the officer opposite him shifted subtly to shades of lavender and yellow, a smile of pride — if you knew how to read it. “Ah, Order Of Babbage, Three Gears. You see, there was a world ruled by a mad artificial intelligence…”

The rest of the table laughed derisively. “Oh, who here hasn’t run into a half dozen of those? We don’t get medals for scutwork!”

The crystalline being good-naturedly signaled for silence. “Now, now… you know the Alliance doesn’t hand these out easily. This was rather different…”


Author’s Notes

This is one of those things that kind of crawled into my head one day and refused to leave. Mostly, I wanted to rant about how badly Star Trek handled “time stop” fields in the episodes where they’ve used them, and so, following Larry Niven’s “Draco Tavern” series, I decided to wrap my rant in some fiction. Also, if super-advanced alien beings can pretend to be supernatural entities, why can’t supernatural entities pretend to be super-advanced alien beings? Fair’s fair!

Welcome To Skull Tower, Part XVII

Welcome To Skull Tower, Part XVII — Special Double-Size End Of Book Edition!

Those Who Do Not Study History Are Doomed To Have The GM Lecture Them On It

Because He Worked Six Months On This Background And You’re Going To Appreciate It

Thus it was, that there came the eighteenth segment of the second chronicle of the three tomes, wherein A’pos’tro’phe The Sl’augh’ter’but’cher did battle Vwlss The Bldyfstd[1] on the Fields Of Fauxtolkienia, or, in other words, we reach the section on the history of Arduin, the world and the nation. After we cover some other things.

But First! The Mystery Of Jim(!) Resolved!

Back a few weeks, I noted that Greyhawk included an odd little shout-out in the description of the meteor swarm spell, and wondered what it meant. Well, thanks to Yancy (and the fact I checked my spam folder, where his post was crudely and maliciously exiled for no good reason), we have an answer. Yes, it was Jim Ward, and yes, there was a story behind it, and a damn good one that points, once more, to the very personal and connected nature of those earliest days of gaming. (See my PrinceCon walkthrough for more.)

Crime And Punishment

(No Brothers Karam… Karma… Karaom… Russian Brothers!)

So, we need a brief digression here (shocking, I know, at least as shocking as my parenthetical asides where I repeat the same ‘I bet you’re shocked there’s a digression’ joke I’ve used a dozen times before… and now my digression from my digression to discuss my digression has digressed. I am Laurence Steme, reborn!) to discuss the early history of RPGs. First, wargames were purely episodic… you set up your miniatures for the Battle of Waterloo, you played through each turn (as described way back in the beginning of this series), you removed your figures from your opponent’s nostrils, and you packed up. Then came larger campaigns, where multiple battles would be fought in a sequence. This then mutated to the idea of specific figures on the battlefield representing individuals, not units, and gaining in power from one scenario to the next. And then came the idea of each player controlling one individual while another player controlled the rest of the world, and at some point, an impossible-to-define line was crossed and we had role playing games. (Important to note: Neither “role playing game” nor “dungeon master” appeared in the “three brown books” version of D&D. ‘struth!)

Where am I going with all this? OK. See, at some point in this evolution, it became understood or implied that the characters, and the world, actually had a kind of existence even when not being actively played. No one wondered, or cared, what their Napoleonic figures might be doing between battles; they didn’t unpack them and then roll on the ‘Consequences Of Being At Liberty’ tables before each fight.  When continuity between games started to matter, when you had acquired loot to sell and could engage in activities like making magic items or researching spells, there needed to be a place to do this, and then something clicked and people realized you could explore a town as you could a dungeon or a wilderness, that it could be a place as well, and then a kind of cognitive dissonance hit, as players noticed that while heedless slaughter and pillage made a kind of sense where no one else was portrayed as an actual person, just as sacks of hit points that bled gold and XP when you stabbed them, but, when put in a context of taverns and brothels (and, eventually, other, less important, buildings), it seemed a bit… odd. So it came to pass that as actual settings and worlds grew out of the primordial fog of wargaming abstraction, there would be codes of law that might be applied to errant PCs, and, eventually, such things began to be used to help define different cultures and nations in a world, continuing the transition from wargaming’s “every battle is unique in itself” to “a single world can hold uncounted adventures, with multiple campaigns occurring in the same, shared, setting”. Sort of how games like Wizardry I evolved, over time, into World of Warcraft.

After all that, we come to this:

Beheading Someone For Both The First And Second Offense Makes Sense In This Setting, Trust Me

Beheading Someone For Both The First And Second Offense Makes Sense In This Setting, Trust Me

A footnote to the chart notes that all prison time is at hard labor, which is proper… the idea of a prisoner just sitting in his cell, costing money but doing nothing, is a fairly modern invention. Most medieval punishments were harsh and physical because you couldn’t keep someone around for a long period of time; you punished them and then let them go, presumably to either sin no more, or to sin so egregiously you could justify killing them.

War And Peace

(Because History Tends To Be Cycles Of Such, And Because It’s A Hilarious[2] Callback To The Prior Section Heading)

And now, after inns, timekeeping, holidays, guilds, and religious sects… we get to the actual history of Arduin.

We start with this introduction:

So, About A Five Percent Survival Rate...

So, About A Five Percent Survival Rate…

For context, D&D was published in 1974. Welcome To Skull Tower was published in 1978. That works out to about 120 characters killed per real-world year of actual gameplay. I assume Dave ran games more frequently than the traditional once a week. (He did… see below.)

The history itself is many pages of dense text. I’m loathe to just scan and upload it in full, but I’m also disinclined to type out long excerpts. So I’ll write out a bullet-pointed list of highlights and asides, my usual lazy solution to problems of this nature. (Until it hit the point where the awesome-o-meter just exploded, then I gave in and did some scanning. Some stuff is just too cool to paraphrase or condense. See below.)

  • The first rulers of the world were the “dread reptilian Kthoi”.
  • They warred against the “first true men”, the Rune Weavers, who won.
  • But the Rune Weavers met their downfall a half million years later, battling the Titans and the Star Powered mages “against the rest of Allmanity”.
  • Though the Rune Weavers won (I think… the text is a little unclear, a bit too poetic for its own good), they were so weakened that “a bare 20,000 years later”, when the Time Lords threatened, the Rune Weavers could only trap them (the Time Lords, I think), in the Caverns of the Ancients and then “fade from the kin of Allmanity”.
  • We’re about 20% of the way through the second paragraph, by the way.
  • This allowed the Free Mages Of The Circle to predominate, followed by 3,000 years of relative peace.
  • Then a bunch of aliens invaded, destroying the fifth continent and leading to the Interregnum Of The Dark Years for the next five millennia.
  • Civilization restarted on Khaera, the third continent.
  • The world is named Khaas now, because the old name, Ssas-Khaa, has been forgotten. (Well, that answers my question in the prior article on if the world was named in the original trilogy or not. I’m not sure how I forgot this, as it’s so prominently called out in roughly the middle of a long paragraph on page 88 in a locked filing cabinet in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door reading ‘Beware Of The Leopard’.)
  • Many nations held power as many wars were fought. Or, in other words, like every part of history in what we like to call reality.
  • The real problem, though, was when the College of Sages in Falohyr discovered multiple transdimensional space kablooies (I, erm, may be paraphrasing slightly) manifesting in an area contiguous with the small kingdom of Arduin.
  • This began the “Wars Of When” (oooohhhh, awesome name!), which lasted another 10,000 years, “bleeding the world white of population and magic”.
  • During an unusually long pause in the fighting (presumably to hump like bunnies to produce more grist for the mill), the “Accord of Arduin” was developed. In short, Arduin would be a neutral kingdom, with every other nation committed to enforcing that neutrality. All of the major factions (wizards, technos, sages, etc) would set up colleges or universities to oversee exploration of the gates, with that MacGuyver guy in charge. (I, uhm, may have made up that bit, too.)
  • We just finished the second paragraph.
  • In paragraph three, we learn every nation in the Accord sent settlers to Arduin, as the original population was wiped out in the war; for 500 years, it was forbidden to marry anyone of your own original nationality. So, wait… after the first generation, everyone has two ancestral nationalities… so they’re equally forbidden to marry either… and then the third generation has four forbidden groups, then eight… I don’t think Dave did the math on this bit.
  • It’s no longer a law, but it’s traditional to marry outside one’s nationality, which, by now, must include every nation on Khaas, so, I guess, people in Arduin just live in sin.
  • The Accord has lasted 1,211 years. Pretty good.
  • However, we can’t forget about the Elf-Human wars. You didn’t forget about the Elf-Human wars, did you? I sure hope you didn’t! Never forget about the Elf-Human wars that weren’t mentioned until just now!

The Elf-Human Wars

(Alternatively, “The War Of Elven Aggression” or “The War Against Human Imperialism”)

Trigger Warning: Reaping

No, That’s Not A Typo

The phrase “Twice the iron grey cataphracts of Viruelandia surged up from the south” appears in the text I am about to summarize. If that alone is not justification for the existence of the Arduin trilogy, what could be? Please note, I saved y’all some googling by linking to the definition of ‘cataphract’. I hope you appreciate that.

  • The wars began “dim thousands of years in the dark and bloody past”, or well before the “Accord of Arduin”. They began early on, when King Tarafass Dawnstar of the Royal House Of The Rising Sun heard what the sages of Falohyr had found, and he “called up his silver mailed cavalry, his bronze-sheathed and rock-steady spearmen, and his silent archers all clothed in forest green”.
  • Then he got a letter from Morvaen, a human kingdom to the east, demanding a merger, and with a really low buy out offer for the common stock. Tarafass said “Take us if you can!”, and Morvaen said “Challenge accepted!” and it was on like Donkey Kong. (Some paraphrasing may have occurred.)
  • The invading horde poured into the Forest of Flame, where the archers of Arduin inflicted a “green glowing arrow rain [that] sleeted into the ranks of the invaders like a scythe through ripe wheat”, and “a grim red harvest was reaped, and reaped, and reaped yet again”. Clearly, they were cereal reapists. (See, ’cause wheat is a kind of cereal, and… OK. Moving on.)
  • The Forest of Flame is now the Weeping Woods due to the massacres that occurred there.
  • The humans retreated back to the mountain pass they’d invaded from, only to find the Elven king, Tarafass, and his host waiting for them. The Morvaens charged, believing themselves to have superior numbers, but then Tarafass reminded them they were in a universe where magic worked[3], by revealing the massive cavalry hidden under an illusion. Long story short, Morvaen’s army got massively pwned, to the point where, for decades afterwards, every town message board was covered with “nerf invisibility” demands.
  • The elves won that battle, but not the war, as seven more invasions followed, including two that involved “iron grey cataphracts”. All failed except the seventh (which kind of makes sense, because you don’t stage invasions after you’ve invaded), which came (irony alert!) from “one of the very gates the elves were trying to protect”. A horde of deodanths from “a dying Earth” came, “their flickering swords a match for even elven blades”.
  • In 13 days, they’d conquered all but the great keep of the high king.
  • And then…. well, I’ll deal with it next week, as we finish out the history of Arduin, and get back to the inns and roadhouses of Arduin. Yes, really.

Hah! Fooled You!

Double-Length Season Finale Post!

Mostly ‘Cause My Sunday Shadowrun Game Got Cancelled

That’s Two In A Row I’ve Missed. I’m Going Through Chinese Food Withdrawal.

Anyway… when last we left our intrepid heroes, about five lines above, the deodanth army had almost conquered Arduin. And then…

This needs a scan, sorry. It’s too awesome to bullet point.

I use ‘awesome’ a lot, don’t I? Let me try again.

It’s too freakin’ unbelievably mega-awesome to bullet point.

There. That’s better.

"Bespattered" Is A Perfectly Cromulent Word

“Bespattered” Is A Perfectly Cromulent Word

“…sending the clouds themselves fleeing before them in abject terror.”
“…as the weird music sang its song of elven power.”
“…a withering stain that would take three centuries to fade.”
“This is bladework, my brothers!” Aw, hell yes! (Imagine a heavy metal power chord right here. BWAAANG!)

See what I mean? When I write histories and backstories and the like for my own settings, unless constrained by editorial fiat (well, given the budgets of most game companies, more like editorial Used 1992 Honda), I write in this style. This is pure purple pulp, perfect for RPGs and alliteration.

The tale continues…

  • Slaughtering the deodanths took two more weeks.
  • The King was ambushed and slain.
  • The defeat of the deodanths, “one of hell’s own armies”, gave “many a grasping and scheming king pause”.
  • The daughter of the slain king, Tarathala Dawnstar, declared herself queen of Arduin.
  • “The human wolves gathered round their borders in ever growing numbers”.

And then?

Elf Magic: It's Not Just For Cookies Anymore

Elf Magic: It’s Not Just For Cookies Anymore

“…the road to gods and demons, the trail of tears and danger.” So. Freakin’. Awesome.

This is a major part of the appeal of old school. The power. The energy. The “turn it up to eleven” attitude long before “turn it up to eleven” was a phrase.

Eventually, the elvish and human armies met in battle, 1,100 elves against over 100,000 humans…

"...screamed to the high winds of hell..."

“…screamed to the high winds of hell…”

Yeah! This needs to be animated, Heavy Metal style. Seriously. Why hasn’t it been? Get a Kickstarter going, or something.

Well, the Wars Of When went won… went on … for another 10,000 years after that, until the aforementioned Accord of Arduin. And we learn something of the nature of play in those long-lost glory days of gaming…

"Organized Play", Thirty Years Early

“Organized Play”, Thirty Years Early

The Inns And Roadhouses (Again) Of Arduin

So, now that we’ve finished the epic history of the world, stretching back a million years or more, what next?

A list of inns and roadhouses, of course! Only 14 pages past where they were discussed originally. Old school, dude. What can you do?

Few Modern Dives Include The Word 'Carnelian'

Few Modern Dives Include The Word ‘Carnelian’

This table goes on for four full pages. This says a lot about the detail Dave put into his world, or maybe he just liked making up bar names. We will (probably) never know if they were each written up specifically, or if nothing but a name and a rating were ever defined.

There’s a footnote on one page…

Three Out Of Four Alehouses In Arduin Are Alliterative

OK, we’ve covered inns, dates, holidays, religions, guilds, history, and inns… what’s next?

Undead Attacks

What else?

The list of inns is followed by a small table explaining the attacks of various undead — how much damage they do, and additional effects such as paralysis or drain. And this note:

Quite Simple, Really

Quite Simple, Really

Another classic example of Dave in his best “All you of Earth are idiots!” mode. Of course the time required is based on the attacking monster’s hit dice level! Note the use of italics to emphasize the obviousness of the answer. Why are you people bothering Dave with these stupid questions? He’s got awesome things to write about the iron-grey cataphracts of Viruelandia. (Damn, but I love that phrase. I’m going to have to work it into my next project. If I stick to my plan to write the next Rogue Planet novel, it will fit well, come to think of it.)

Space Aliens And Angry Players

We end — almost — with two disconnected (?) rants:

First, Dave wisely and correctly (and I mean that without sarcasm) dismisses those who would insist on “purity” in their world where Howard’s barbarians, Vance’s wizards, and Tolkien’s elves battle Poul Anderson’s troll and Van Vogt’s displacer beast. (To be clear, that bit after ‘world’ is my boilerplate example of the ‘purity’ of D&D, not Dave’s, though I’m sure, were he here, he’d concur with my description.) He points out that an alien with a blaster is no stranger than a dragon which breathes fire, and the inhabitants of a fantasy city, exposed to phraints and centaurs and rune weavers and the like, would consider aliens just one more species, the blaster merely an exotic magic item. He goes on to write:

"Whittle Till It Fits" Is A Good Motto For Any DM

“Whittle ‘Till It Fits” Is A Good Motto For Any DM

Damn skippy!

I have a love, in my own games, of pan-dimensional, alternate-reality, genre mashup themes. I like vast canvases I can paint on, usually in broad strokes, but sometimes drilling down to ridiculously fine details… like covering a million years of history in one long paragraph and then having four pages of inns. I’ve mentioned the “variable detail” aspect of old school before; this is just another example.

Next, Dave produces an early, though probably not the first, rant on what do you do with a cranky player, early in the morning? Remind him you’ve got the viking hat on (x3), early in the morning. (I’ve been listening to Marc Gunn’s “Drinking Songs For Cat Lovers”)

Here you go:

Boy, You'd Almost Think RPGS Tend To Draw People With Poor Social Skills Into Highly Social Situations For The First Time In Their Lives, Or Something

Boy, You’d Almost Think RPGs Tend To Draw People With Poor Social Skills Into Highly Social Situations For The First Time In Their Lives, Or Something

Well said, Mr. Hargrave. There are times to not only say “No”, but “Hell, no!”, and “Hell, no, and never darken my doorway again! Begone, foul spawn of the pits!”

And With That…

We reach nearly the end of Welcome To Skull Tower. What’s at the very end? The Table of Contents, of course. Seriously. It’s on the inside back cover. Perhaps Dave should not have asked Bizarro Number One to help with the layout.

Next time… maybe next week, maybe not, I might decide to take a brief break for other projects, or I might keep on with this… weekly content is good, and knowing what I’m going to write about each week really helps me produce something… we will get to the third book, The Runes Of Doom!

If you enjoy this series, please, pass the links around. If you don’t enjoy this series, pass the links around to people you hate.

[1]Or Bldfstd, according to some scholars.

[2]For sufficiently small values of ‘hilarious’.

[3]”Nobody told me we were in a universe with magic space wizards!

The First Adventure Of The Fourth Streak Derrick

Introduction


Yeah, I’m hyping the crap out of my new book. If you like this story, you’ll probably like the above book. If you don’t like this story, erm, you’ll still probably like the above book, ’cause it’s, uhm, totally different and stuff. I feel like Gil from “The Simpsons”.

This was posted on this site during the Joomla days, and somehow didn’t make the transition over to WordPress. It falls into two genres I like: Planetary Romance and what I call The Banality Of The Fantastic, the latter being my own name for stories set where the “fantastic” element, the thing which makes it a fantasy or SF story, is seen as simply part of the background noise of the world by the inhabitants. We talk to people across the world, we travel from continent to continent in hours, we are speak a command or make a gesture and get answers to everything from “Where is the nearest pizza joint?” to “How many videos are there where two cheerleaders, one a redhead, one asian, make out with each other and then the pizza guy joins in?” (“Two miles” and  “integer overflow error”, respectively.)

Rogue Planet: Fortress At The Top Of The World, was intended to not be deconstructionist, revisionist, satirical, etc. This piece, however, was intended to be something of a respectful and loving satire, or at least humorous, as it deals with the aftermath, generations later, of Earth’s contact with an alien world full of wild technology and beautiful alien princesses. This concept has a lot of potential for deeper exploration; as with so many of the settings I sketch out in very broad strokes, this is one I’d like to revisit if I have the time. I also wrote it six years ago, and I humbly submit my writing’s been getting generally better over time, but I wanted to present it as-is. If it looks like it might see print, I’ll make some editing passes, but for right now, it fits my site’s motto of “Free, and worth it!”

The First Adventure Of The Fourth Streak Derrick

Richard (“Streak”) Derrick (the Fourth) had no idea why he was needed at the coronation of Empress Alazarra Of Dragornos, but it seemed like a good idea to go. Generally, when the potentate-to-be of an entire world sends you an invitation (delivered by a glistening, muscular, mountain of a man garbed in ceremonial armor), you accept.

It was all purely symbolic, of course. Ever since the 1930s, Dragornos had been ruled by an elected Parliament, a governmental system set up during the occupancy which had followed the alien world’s abortive attempt to conquer the Earth. When Overlord Zarg had been killed by Richard’s great-grandfather, political order was maintained when his daughter, Zareena, claimed the throne and then promptly gave supreme power to Streak Derrick the First…who in turn handed it over to the League of Nations and let them take over the business of nation building. It was in all the history books.

But Great-Grandpa Derrick was long dead, and Grampa Derrick got himself killed in the 1950s trying to live up to his father’s reputation, and Pa Derrick was a neurotic, alcoholic mess, and so it fell to the fourth to bear the name to show up and perform whatever empty ceremonial function might be required of him. He assumed he’d get the time off work.

It would be fun, he tried to tell himself. See Dragornos. Look at all the places he’d only seen in old photo albums (most of them in black and white, some of them even taken by his great-grandmother back when she was a news reporter swept up in the biggest story of the last century). Dragornos was supposed to be beautiful – mountains of blue crystal, rivers of liquid flame, cities older than any on Earth, but still alive and inhabited. There was no logical reason to not want to go.

Sighing, trying to put his thoughts in order, he walked to the balcony. From it, he looked down ten feet to the parking lot of the condo complex he called home. He considered, for a moment, the vast wealth of Dragornos. Vaults full of gems. Rare and exotic lifeforms, from wood harder than steel to flowers which made music as the sunlight played on them. Life-size statues of a thousand former Overlords, each one forged of solid gold.

And my great grandfather never thought to grab a piece of the pie for himself. No, the first Streak Derrick had been content to accept a small diplomat’s salary and serve as a symbol of Earth, a hero the Dragornosians could look up to (and a living reminder that he had taken down their former Emperor).  And so, three generations down the line, his sole descendant worked an office job, supplemented with an ever-dwindling trickle of income from interviews and public speaking gigs, dredging up memories from when he was five and passed-down family legends.

No sense being maudlin, he thought. This coronation gig should bring the media roaches out of the floorboards, and be good for enough residuals afterwards that I could probably make a dent in the mortgage on this place. He sighed, then filled out the invitation and signed it. A thought struck him. He went to the small box he kept of the heirlooms not squandered over three generations of waste, and took out a thick, heavy, ring, adorned with a pattern of swords and lightning bolts. He then melted some blue candlewax onto the thick parchment of the invitation and pressed his great-grandfather’s sigil upon it. There. That ought to impress them. The Dragornosians placed a lot of store in pomp.

He was glad the return envelope was prepaid; postage to Dragornos was a bitch.

***

It was a three hour flight to JFK and then a six hour flight by “Aether-cruiser” to Dragornos. Richard was somewhat hesitant about boarding the alien craft. It was a tremendous finned ovoid covered with silver and gold tubes, all leading to massive engines which looked like they could rip free of the ship if they ever fired at full strength. The uniforms worn by the crew were equally non-reassuring; they were both skimpy and militaristic, and seemed to belong to a much earlier era; it was akin to seeing a Roman centurion at the joystick of an F-14.

Tradition, he reminded himself. Dragornos runs off it; the changes made by his great-grandfather only worked because he’d found ancient records of the old Parliament which had existed before the Emperor’s came, and because the Dragornosians had a tradition of conquering heroes imposing their will on the populace. Cunningly working within their cultural paradigms, Streak Derrick the First had created a peaceful, democratic society out of a warlike, imperialist, one in only a few years. There was an old political cartoon Richard had seen once, from 1939, showing an idealized (but only slightly) figure of his grandfather, strangling a zatharg with his right hand and a figure labeled ‘The Old Way’ with his left. Dashing hero and canny politician, all in one package. His great-grandmother had been a person of equal skill and strength, even within the limits allowed to women in the 1930s…that was probably why the marriage ended up not working out.

And there it was – Dragornos City, capital of Dragornos, located on the great River Dragorn. (The Dragornosians were notably short of imagination in their placenames). It was as wondrous as he’d always imagined; mile-high megatowers scraping the sky, a dark cloud of flying, buzzing, vehicles surrounding it, buildings of silver and chrome and gold and crimson creating a blinding glare as the craft approached.

The spaceport was, well, a bit shoddy. Seen from the air, it was amazing, but close up…not so much. The frescoes were worn and chipped. The thick, rich, carpeting was notably thin in spots, faded in others. Handrails were loose. Lastly, the McDonald’s built clumsily over the bones of a traditional Dragornosian café served the worst fries Richard had ever had, and the mountains of gold lame added to the customary uniforms of the waitstaff simply didn’t work well at all.

Richard was greeted at the exit, a wide marble hall, by a typically barely-uniformed guard, who was, in a tradition new to Dragornos, holding up a clumsily lettered signed reading “Streak Derrick 4”. Richard nodded to him feebly; the guard performed a quick and crisp bow, then grabbed Richard’s bags and marched off. Richard struggled to keep up with him as he strode briskly towards the waiting aero-car.

The flight into Dragornos City was smooth and mostly uneventful. Dimly, Richard wondered what Streak Derrick The First would make of the place now, festooned with neon and advertising. A caricature of old Overlord Zarg happily swilling Pepsi glared from one of the highest towers. From terror of the cosmos to advertising icon in a few short decades, joining such former nightmares as Napoleon and Julius Caesar as pallid jokes.

His quarters, located in the south wing of the Imperial Palace, were extraordinary. The slow decay seen at the spaceport had not yet infested the palace, or at least not this part of it. The bathtub alone, Richard thought, was bigger than his whole apartment. The bed could hold an entire orgy (and almost certainly had) with room left over for a buffet bar. The rug was so plush Richard half-feared being lost in it. A selection of drinks and rare delicacies had been made available. Also available were two servants, both female, whose salaries evidently did not allow them to purchase any clothing beyond underwear. Skimpy underwear.

Richard idly wondered if they were waiting around for a tip.

“Uhm….I think I’m good here, thanks.”

The two looked at each other, then at Richard. One spoke. “We are assigned here in order to provide you with whatever you might desire, honored one.”

Richard flushed. There was very little doubt what they meant. There was certainly a great deal of temptation, most of it clearly displayed. What happens in Dragornos City, stays in Dragornos City, came the thought… Richard tried to come up with a good excuse to send them away…but he kept failing, possibly because their breathing was disrupting his thoughts with tremendous efficiency.  What was that old joke about men only having enough blood to…

The door burst open. A woman ran through it, and Richard’s mind (that part of it which was still functioning) instantly forgot the servants. If they were the Northeast Iowa Corn Festival Beauty Contest First- And Second- place winners, the newcomer was Miss America. Tall, thin but not skeletal, with waves of onyx hair flowing down her back, wearing a gown seeming woven out of rubies, she ran through the door, breathless, and flung herself at Richard, almost knocking him directly onto the orgy-sized bed (a prospect he did not fine entirely, or even slightly, unwelcome), and spoke, in a voice of husky desperation. “Streak Derrick! You must save me!”

Richard rolled his eyes, then grabbed the woman by the shoulders. “Right. Who put you up to this? Am I being filmed?” He looked around for the hidden cameras. “This is going on Fox, isn’t it? Or is it that Kutcher jerk?” He spoke to the room at large. “Really funny, guys. I’ll play along. I could use the residuals. You can just edit this part out, okay?” He then released the woman and tried his best to look as he imagined his ancestor must have. “Why, of course I shall save you! For I am…” he paused and struck the best heroic pose he could. “Streak Derrick….the Fourth!” He tried to suppress a chuckle.

Then the gunfire started, and it stopped being funny.

Richard had heard of atomo-blasters, of course. Like most Dragornos technology, they simply didn’t work on Earth….some sort of radiation in the atmosphere or what-not, he couldn’t remember the details. He had never seen one used in live combat.

The first shots went wild, setting fire to the thick rug and the rich bedcovers. Other blasts followed, turning the room into a maze of fire and smoke. Richard saw one of the servant girls turn and try to run for the door. A beam struck her, and her flesh burned and peeled away, leaving behind a blackened wreck which was once a human being. The only thing keeping Richard from vomiting was the utter certainty he’d die if he did.

The woman who ran in grabbed his arm. “Please! You must do something!”

He looked around. Smoke stung at his eyes. The door held whoever was shooting at them, and the very real fires burning clearly out of control dispelled any notion this was staged. No way would anyone expose themselves to this level of liability. So that left…

He shrugged. Somehow, Great-grandpa always survived this kind of thing.

He shifted to grab the woman by the waist, yanked a non-ignited blanket off the bed, and, holding it in front of them, charge the window, hoping he was right and that they weren’t too high up. His hand, partial exposed to the glass, was torn up as they passed through it, but the blanket kept the worst of it away. He let it go as they fell, and looked down, hoping land was not at all far away.

As it turned out, this was a vain hope.

The ocean water hit them like a wet sledgehammer.

Sputtering, his entire body feeling like it had just been sunburned, Richard broke the water. The woman was floating nearby, not apparently moving, but clearly breathing. A beach was just visible. Far above him loomed a cliff, and above that the towers of the palace.

Seeing no obvious alternative, he began to swim for the shore, holding up the woman’s body. To think that all that lifeguard training at Camp Wickamackee might actually be paying off….well, I did it to impress girls, after all…

As they reached the shoreline, the woman coughed and returned to consciousness.

“Are we…what…”

Richard helped her stand. “We’re on the beach below the city…not sure how to get back up. Uhm…do you have a name?”

She looked at him like he’d just slapped her.

“Of course! I am…”

“Alazarra.” He said, flatly. “Of course you are. I’ve seen your picture in the paper a hundred times, I should have recognized you…”

She sniffed. “The flat images of your Earth papers do not capture my essence properly.”

Richard had to agree. Bedraggled, soaked, slightly cut from their passage through the window, her gown-of-rubies torn and matted in all the right places, she still radiated beauty and command.

“So…I suppose here is where I ask who those people were and why they’re trying to kill you?”

Alazarra wrung water out of her hair. “They were agents of the Scarlet Legion.” She gave him a look which indicated that ought to explain it all. Richard gestured for her to continue. Her brow furrowed at this, but she went on. “They are…reactionaries. That is the word in your language, I think. They wish to restore the old ways. The days when the Overlords ruled.”

“So why attack you?”

“I am the ending of the House of Zarg. There cannot be a new Overlord while I live.”

Richard shook his head. “That makes no sense. I’m sorry, but if they kill you….what then? They just prop up their new Overlord, and suddenly 60 years of parliamentary democracy go bye-bye?”

She sneered. “You do not know our kind, Streak Derrick of Earth. To your people, tradition is something old and cobwebbed, a thing to be brought out and shown about on your feast days. To us…tradition is our blood. It is what makes us Dragornosian! This parliament rules only because a loophole was found in the old traditions. Provide an alternative, and my people will rush to it madly.” She paused for a moment to think. “You must stop them.”

Richard blinked. “I…I must stop them?”

She nodded. “You are Streak Derrick.” That seemed to be all the explanation she needed.

“The fourth! I’m an accountant.”

She tilted her head.

“Accountant…uhm…I add up numbers. For a business. I figure out if we’re making enough money and…”

“A…merchant?”

“Not really. I mean, I don’t sell anything, I just keep track of…”

The sneer returned. “A counter of coins.” Then she shook her head. “No, no, this is not possible. You have his blood, and I do see the lines of his face in yours. You are Streak Derrick, you bear his name, his blood flows in your veins, no matter how thin and dilute….you are of the line of the man who slew my great-grandfather, the greatest Overlord of Dragornos. You must be the one to save me…you must!”

“Sorry. Wrong guy. Look. We have got to get up there, talk to, I don’t know, the Earth Consulate or something, get you some more guards. I’m guessing the timing has to do with the coronation?”

“To slay a queen on the eve of her ascension will bring great strength to their claim on the throne.”

“Why are they even bothering? Earth has dealings with the Parliament. If there’s any kind of coup, Earth will throw its weight behind the supporters of the old regime. Their government will be gone in a few weeks at most.”

“They are not stupid men. I do not know what they are planning, but they must have thought of that. Streak Derrick, we cannot go back to the city! It is not safe! I will be slain before I reach your Consulate, I am certain of that.”

“Whatever. Look. I came here for hors d’ouvres, photo ops, and the chance to weasel a guest appearance on the Late Show, maybe. I didn’t come here to play hero, because all it would be for me is playing, and I’m a real crappy actor. Come on, Princess. I’ll get you to someone who can protect you. You don’t need some square-jawed barrel-chested do-gooder, you need some guys wearing black suits and earpieces.

She shook her head. “I will go. But know this – you have slain me, Streak Derrick. You are my death.”

“Melodramatic much?”

She didn’t reply, but simply strode up the low embankment, taking the clearest path to the outskirts of the city.

The Dragornosians weren’t big on suburbs. The planet consisted mostly of large cities, a relic of endless ancient wars. Millennia after cheap contragrvity had made them useless, walls still surrounded every major population center. Surrounding the cities were underpopulated agricultural lands, mostly worked the lower castes, and surrounding that…wilderness. For a planet with an industrial base capable of space flight, Dragornos has a lot of untamed wildlands.

The massive gates of Dragornos city were open, even late at night. Richard had to admire their style, it not their utility. Thirty feet high, wrought of some dark metal, covered in twisting serpent designs, topped with razor sharp spikes which had once been used to display the fate of enemies of the Overlord….they fairly screamed “Abandon All Hope. Ye Who Enter Here”. A brightly lit blimp, advertising Pepsi, drifted lazily high above them.

Street traffic was light – it always was, more so at night. Most people traveled by air, these days. Nonetheless, there were still guards at the gate. Alazarra had worked the remnants of her dress into a makeshift hood. Richard just planned to bluff it through.

One of the guards, seeing the pair approach, grunted and forced himself to his feet. Sighing wearily, he forced out a tired “halt who goes there stop in the name of the prime minister and identify yourself”, with somewhat less enthusiasm and threat than a teenager asking if deep-fried root vegetables were desired as a side item. Nonetheless, he was carrying a quite real atomo-blaster, and Richard didn’t want to give him an excuse to enliven a boring shift with some random mayhem.

“Two visitors, returning from a walk on the beach”, he said.

The guard glanced at them, as if to assertain that they were not ravenous slargs with poison dripping from their terrible fangs, then shrugged and gestured them to pass. As they did so, the guards eyes narrowed and something resembling alertness crept into his face.

“Say….aren’t you…uhm…you look sort of familiar…”

Richard shrugged in a noncommital fashion and kept walking.

“Hold on…hold on! Yes! You are him!” The guard stared wide eyed. “Blood of champions!”

Richard smiled, still saying nothing.

The guard looked around. His partner was oblivious in the other booth, a blue flickering indicating that he was watching some sort of broadcast on the odd, round, screens which dominated here. He looked back at Richard. “Could I…could I get your autograph? I mean, for the kids…they’ll be thrilled…”

Alazarra paced nervously, glancing around, staring intently at every shadow. She looked pleadingly at Richard.

“Uhm…certainly, fine watchman! Uh…do you have something to write with?”

The guard tore a scrap of paper from the book he carried, and passed it to Richard, along with something that looked like a fountain pen as designed by Torquemada. Richard scrawled a hasty autograph, taking a moment to glance at the categories of offense the guard was supposed to chronicle, including but not limited to ‘1) Treason Against Dragornos’, ‘4) Speaking Ill Of The Overlord (Or The Prime Minister)’, and ‘ 15) Smuggling Condemned Prisoners Outside The City’. He had to raise an eyebrow at that last one.

“Get a lot of number 15, do you?”

The guard laughed. “Oh, no, not anymore. Back in the old days, though, there was tons of it. Every wagon and cart had someone hiding in the back, it seemed. These days, all we really watch for is fruit that’s overripe. But we keep all the old crimes on there. Tradition.”

“Tradition”, Richard echoed, resisting the urge to try out his Zero Mostel impression. He waved to the guard and moved on, grabbing Alazarra by the elbow. She snarled at him from behind her makeshift mask. “You should not waste time bantering with the lower classes! Had your ancestor been so detained, he would have slain both of them before they could draw a breath!”

“I’m not him.”

“Please, continue to lecture me on the obvious. I had always dreamed my last hours of life would be spent being told facts of which I am painfully aware.”

Richard shook his head and reminded himself she’d be someone else’s problem soon. He could clearly see the brightly lit spires of the inner city, but soon found the process of getting there to be surprisingly convoluted. The outer rings of the city consisted of small, dark, buildings clustered tightly together, the narrow streets – still cobbled as they were ages ago – forming a twisting labyrinth of shadows and dead ends. A small number of lampposts, each fitted with a small globe which shed a cold, pallid, light, provided insufficient illumination.

There were no signs.

“Uhm….I don’t suppose you know the way to the Earth consulate from here?”

“I have never walked in these streets before. I suspect no ancestor of mine has for a dozen generations.”

“I see they never invented street signs here, either.”

“The streets are designed to trap and confound invaders.”

“Yeah, and the fact your people have been dropping bombs on each other from the air for centuries never once made you rethink your urban planning.”

She just glared at him. “This is the traditional way to design a city. Why change it?” Suddenly, she paused. “Be wary.”

“Of what? We haven’t seen anyone for fifteen minutes!”

“The day before the coronation of an Empress, and there are no revelers here?”

He rolled his eyes. “It’s too quiet? Is that what you’re saying? Who writes your dialog? That’s just…” He stopped. The patterns of shadow, of darkness on darkness, suddenly seemed…off.

“On the other hand…” He grabbed her wrist and pulled her closer. “Let’s head back this…”

There was a soft thud. Someone…several someones…had leapt off the low rooftops. Patterns of shadow pulled themselves from the deeper darkness and began to move around them, forcing Richard to keep turning, trying to keep as many of them in sight as possible. The dim light of the streetlamps glinted occasionally from the blades.

Richard wondered why they didn’t just blast him with those horribly silly looking, horribly deadly, guns the locals used. Knives…knives he could deal with, a bit. One of the problems of being the descendant of a legendary hero is that you draw bullies like rotting meat draws maggots. From gradeschoolers who turned every history class into a combat zone once they realized who their classmate was to barroom thugs looking to impress their date, Richard had been in a lot more fights than he really liked to think about, and had managed to at least put up a good show, if not always emerge with both pride and dental structures fully intact. He slipped into a fighting crouch of his own and bellowed a challenge.

“Come on, if you think you’re tough enough! Stop dancing around! You want some? Come get some!” Often, in bars, his seeming eagerness to take on all comers dissauded some of the more uncertain combatants.

It seemed to have something of that effect here. There was a hurried rush of dialog in Dragornosian, a language Richard knew, to his occasional regret, only a handful of words in, though he heard his surname, heavily accented, mentioned often in the rapid exchange. Some sort of quick consensus was reached, and one man emerged fully from the shadows, each hand holding a twisting blade. The motion of the blades formed a complex, weaving, pattern, casting sparkles of light in all directions. Something coated the blades, making them highly reflective – they caught and concentrated the dim light, turning it into blinding flashes.

Richard leapt forward, seemingly hurling himself on the blades. Then he twisted and dropped as the knives swept a few inches over his head, landed on one hand, spun, and kicked. His assailant fell. Richard tumbled to his feet and then planted a powerful kick to the prone man’s stomach. He coughed blood and tried to roll away, stabbing upwards clumsily as he did so. Richard grabbed the wrist and twisted. The blade fell, and he caught it. It was oddly balanced and hard to hold, but at least it was something pointy. His few seconds of turning it to find the proper grip had given his foe a chance to find his own balance. The dance continued, this time with greater caution on the part of the attacker.

Why don’t they just rush me, Richard thought. There must be five of them, at least. I should be bleeding in the gutter by now.

But the other four stood back, alert but uninvolved. Their only action seemed to be to keep Alazarra from fleeing.

A swift lunge and a near miss brought his focus back to the man he was fighting, not the four men he wasn’t. His opponent was dressed in dark clothing, loose fitting, with many scalloped and embattled edges, ties, and adornments. Deprived of the Dragornosian love of jewelery as adornment by the need for stealth, he made up for it by having an outfit cut in some many complex ways that it somewhat looked like it had been hit by a lawnmower…and that gave Richard an idea.

He feinted, seeming to leave himself open. The attacker fell for it and stabbed forward, hoping to bury his blade in Richard’s guts. Richard sidestepped, twisted, and grabbed huge handfuls of loose cloth with his free hand, yanking the man backwards. With his other hand, he stabbed clumsily at his enemy’s ribs. The blade skidded off bone, the guard of the hilt jamming painfully into Richard’s hand. As the man struggled to free himself, Richard slashed again, aiming lower, and felt the blade slide into tight stomach muscles and then come free with a horrible wet noise. The wounded man, still alive, wrenched himself free and hacked clumsily back, his blade cutting into Richard’s shoulder. The pain caused him to drop the knife. Before he could retrieve it, the wounded man had retreated and a second, fresh, attacker stepped into place. He shouted something at Richard.

“What the hell is he saying?”

Alazarra tossed her head haughtily. “He says you have shown yourself a worthy enemy. He says he will accept an honorable surrender. Shall I tell him that one of the line of Streak Derrick will never surrender, that you will walk away from this place with the blood of five men staining your boots and never look back?”

“Hell no! Tell them I give up!”

He tossed the knife down and raise his hand. “Me…surrender. Se habla surrender? Surrender por favor? You likee much surrender, yes?”

Alazarra spat out something. Richard figured it contained a lot of insults.

Two men closed on him. A hood was placed over his head, and his hands were tied roughly. He was then prodded to walk along a path. A female voice muttering dark imprecations in a foreign tongue told him Alazarra was next to him.

“So, uhm…hey. Why didn’t they just surround and swarm me?”

“You know nothing of our people, Streak Derrick of Earth.”

“What was that about last words and stating the obvious?”

“Hmf. If they attacked at once, in all of the chaos and confusion, it would not be clear who struck which blow, to whom the honor of wounding and death would belong. It is tradition in such cases to attack in sequence, withdrawing when one can no longer press the fight properly and allowing a new combatant a chance. Each warrior’s blows are thus made clear and their role in the defeat of an enemy is known.”

“You people have some strange traditions.”

“So do you men of Earth, it seems. I like the one where you toss your blade down the instant you suffer the meanest of scratches. Do all your warriors follow this practice, or are you a member of some secret sect?”

“Oh, please. We were outnumbered. Besides, you weren’t being very helpful there.”

“What do you mean?”

“You could have done something. Claw at their eyes. Grab some convenient piece of pottery and dash it over someone’s head. Something!”

There was silence. Richard could see nothing through the heavy hood, but he was sure she was frowning and blinking. Then there was a reply.

“You…expected me…to do battle? Like some sort of palace guard?”

“Well…yes….”

“I am in the company of a man who shares the blood of the greatest fighter Dragornos, World Of Warlords, has ever known, and he expected me to sully my hands with blood?”

“It was a passing thought, yes! You know, you aren’t very….uhm….” He paused, suddenly confronted with the ludicrousness of what he was about to say.

“What? We are to die soon, speak your mind, or perhaps you lack even the courage to do that! What virtue do you find me deficient in?”

Well, there’s a leading question, thought Richard, but he continued with his original thought. “You’re not, well….spunky.”

More silence indicating confused blinking.

“I do not know that word.”

“Well, it’s just…uhm…I always figured princesses were daring rebels who yearned for a chance to break free of their sterile lives and secretly studied swordsmanship despite their parent’s wishes, or something.”

There was a cold, bitter, laugh.

“You are truly mad. I loved my life, and I mourn its end. I had every luxury I could imagine, and no real duties other than appearing to my people as a symbol of the legacy of Dragornos. I was worshiped, adored, and fawned over thanks to a lucky accident of birth, and I gave thanks to the nineteen virtuous gods every day for it. Now, due to my foolish trust in ancient legends and the bumblings of a coin counter wearing the face of a hero, it is to end in ignominy and pain.”

“We’re not dead yet. Uhm…which is kind of odd. Why aren’t we dead yet? I’m guessing it has something to do with tradition…”

“They will want to kill us in some spectacular and public fashion in order to improve their claim on the throne. We are both symbols of the existing order, symbols which must be cast down before a new order is accepted. Every change in dynasties in our history comes in a sea of blood.”

“Except the one my great-grandfather imposed.”

“Yes. Your ancestor was a great hero.” The insult was clear.

Suddenly, they were both stopped. Richard could sense an increase in the ambient light even through the thick hood; it seemed they had been brought inside some brightly lit building. When the hoods were removed, the light was nearly blinding, but his eyes quickly adjusted.

He sighed.

“Talk about a roundabout way to get where I came here to be in the first place…”

The place was an immense arena, dwarfing any such structure on Earth, and probably older than any of them, as well. While humans were still hitting each other with sticks in caves, Dragornosians were hitting each other with ornate, adornment-encrusted sticks in this very arena. Many scholars considered it to be the oldest structure on Dragornos, a not inconsiderable achievement. Currently, the walls around the primary fighting grounds (there were over a dozen, all told, in the complex), long since strained dark with the blood of uncounted thousands who had given their lives in this place, were placarded with uncounted billboards, hawking everything from McDonald’s new McDragornos to, ironically enough, inexpensive life insurance. Richard noted that Snoopy had been given the facial jewels of a Dragornosian battle wolf.

There were arrays of Earth-style TV cameras and Dragornosian tri-imagers, a podium garlanded with the flag of the current Imperial House, and recently added skyboxes in which Earth delegates and Dragornosian elite who had adopted their customs to watch the festivities.

Richard had a sudden inkling the program was undergoing some last minute revisions. What was it she had said? “Killed in a spectacular and public fashion”. Couldn’t get more public than a live broadcast going out to two worlds. As for spectacular…well, it was hard to die mundanely in a place like this.

He looked around at the people surrounding him. Many wore the ornate black cloth of the hunters who had captured him. Others were garbed in armor which seemed to reveal more skin than it protected. One, though, was done up in robes both complex and colorful. He wore a surprisingly simple gold circlet on his head, and around his neck was an odd piece of jewelery. It looked like three serpents, one of sapphire, one of diamond, and one of emerald, entwined around a spherical crimson gem.

Alazarra gasped.

“Nogra’s eye!” Then she paused. “No. A forgery. A cunning trick.”

The robed, crowned, evidently Nogra’s-eye wearing man spoke. His command of English was perfect, and his voice was calm and unctious. “No. I am afraid that this is most genuine. So here we are in this place, I with this, and you with…that.” He gestured at Richard. “He doesn’t seem to have lived up to his ancestor’s inflated reputation.”

“Hey!” Richard, still bound, struggled to his feet. “Watch what you’re saying!”

“Or you’ll what? Surrender to me?”

Richard paused for a moment, righteous indignation momentarily stymied by mockery.

Alazarra, for all the rest of her flaws, knew how to bluff, however. “It is you are foolish! Streak Derrick of Earth has shown cunning and daring, tricking you into leading him alive and unharmed straight to your lair! If you cast yourself over the edge and plunge to your death in the pit, you will spare yourself the ignominy of defeat!”

The robed man stroked his chin, as if hoping a stylish goatee would appear there. “Let me consider that…no.”

He barked something at the guards, who nodded, then he walked away.

“So….what’s the big deal with the necklace?”

“It is the scarlet emerald of Nogra. It is unique in all of Dragornos.”

“Red emeralds tend to be. So it’s pretty. So what?”

“It has tremendous meaning to…”

“Another tradition. Of course. Really a little more concerned with getting out of here now…” He pulled at the ropes a bit. They were tied distressingly well. He glanced over at the guards. Even if he was free, he doubted he could take all of them…or even one of them. They were more or less slabs of muscle, and they carried both curved, double-bladed axes and sleek energy weapons. There were four of them.

Overpowering the guards is out, even if my hands were free. So can I run?

They were on, he saw, some sort of large, raised, and fenceless platform, stretching out over the main arena floor. Probably where the nobles could talk and eat while the battle played out beneath them. There were many opportunities for a daring charge to knock one of the guards screaming into the gaping void, but none of them seemed to have any way which would allow him to not follow the luckless guard, or, even if he could somehow pull back, not have the three remaining guards eviscerate him in a dozen exciting ways.

Hmm…what would great-grampa do? He was forever in situations like this…in fact, there was one time when…

He scooted closer to Alazarra. “I have a plan.”

“Oh? Whom will you surrender to this time?”

“Augh! Look, my great-grandfather was in a mess like this once. Jenny Branson…my great-grandma to be…was with him. She, uhm, distracted the guard and grabbed his gun…” Richard desperately tried to avoid the image of his great-grandmother, who he knew mostly as a faded memory and a barrage of photographs which hit the papers at the time of her death, when he was seven, acting the part of the lusty wench. It was a lot easier to imagine Alazarra doing it.

Sadly, though, not for Alazarra. “You expect me to lower myself to seducing a commoner?”

“You’d rather die?”

“Yes.” Her tone made it clear this was a trivial decision.

“You don’t have to actually do anything! Just wiggle your hips, coo at him, then when he takes you away for a little pre-regicide nookie, you kick him in the jewels, grab his gun, free me, and then we….uh…we…hmm.”

She smirked. “What did your ancestor do?”

“He took the gun and made short work of the three remaining guards, put on a uniform, and snuck great-grandma out by pretending he was transferring a prisoner.”

“Do you expect to make…ah….’short work’ of the guards, even if I agreed to your proposal?”

“No.”

“Then I see no reason to sully myself with them.”

“Dammit, you’re not helping! Can’t you pull some lame-ass tradition out of your hat?”

She gave him an odd look, then began to speak. He interrupted. “I know you’re not wearing a hat! It’s an Earth expression! I mean, can’t you find some weird loophole in Dragornosian custom we can use?”

Her expression shifted from “querulously annoyed” to “momentarily thoughtful”. She pursed her lips a few times, tasting an idea, then worked through the stages of it, each step in the process visible on her face.

“You are blood of Streak Derrick…and he was, for a time, an Overlord of Dragornos…so you can claim the right to challenge any other claimant for the throne…at the moment of ascension….”

“What does that mean?”

“The man who bears the Eye clearly wishes to claim the throne. You have, however strange as it may sound, a blood claim on it as well. You may confront him and he must accede.”

“So I have to kill him?”

“Ideally.”

“Well, one is better than four, so I guess….”

There was a sudden stream of Dragornosian. The guards turned and stared, then one said something in reply. Another babble of words. Then the one who spoke nodded and walked off, presumably to fetch his employer. One of the other three drew a thin, jeweled dagger from his belt and walked over to Richard, then knelt and slit the ropes tying him. Richard stood and tried to rub some blood into his numb wrists.

He glanced over at Alazarra. “What about her?” If they were both free…well, she wouldn’t actually fight because she might break a nail, but since this whole mess started because she trusted him, he felt a slight nagging sense of obligation for her safety.

She replied:”Do you wish to claim me as your consort? Only then will I be allowed to witness the battle.”

“Yeah, sure, whatever.”

More Dragornosian was exchanged, and Alazarra was freed.

“So…uh…now what?”

“Now we wait for your rival claimant to announce himself. We also need witnesses…I suppose the guards will do, there are enough of them.”

“Isn’t it a bit unfair that they’re on his side?”

She looked startled. “This is a sacred tradition. Not even the lowest of the lowborn would defile it.”

“Oh, good. My mind is placed completely at ease.”

The would-be overlord entered. Richard had a chance to study him in more detail now that he wasn’t half-blinded. Early 30s. It wasn’t easy to tell under the ornate robes, but he seemed strongly built and agile. The question is, does he have any fighting skill, or is he just some spoiled brat noble getting too big for himself?

The skillful swing which caught Richard under the chin answered that question. As Richard staggered back, his enemy shrugged away the robes which covered him, revealing a lean, taut, body that showed every sign of being shaped by hours at the Blood Nautilus Of Pain or whatever kind of exercise machines they had on this world. His body flowed from one fighting position to the next, following the proscribe styles of some fighting art Richard probably couldn’t even pronounce. Richard did his best to keep his guard up and ward off some exploratory blows as he whispered to Alazarra.

“So, I have to kill him, or what?”

“The battle is to death or cowardly surrender.”

“Huh.” Richard ducked low as a swing passed narrowly over his head, then tumbled back, barely dodging the follow-up kick. “No option for noble surrender, huh?”

Alazarra glared at him contemptuously and said nothing.

“Didn’t think so.” Richard saw what looked like an opening, took it, and found it occupied by a pummelling fist. He took a few stumbling steps backwards, tasting blood. His opponent smiled.

“Typical of Earthmen. All flash and hyperbole, no substance at all.”

Richard parried a punch. “So, this is some sort of Terraphobia, then, not political?”

“Something of both.” A feint turned, somehow, into the real thing and Richard’s head reeled from the impact.

Richard coughed. “So…what did Earthmen ever do to you?” He looked a way to turn around and get behind his enemy, and found none.

“Look!” His opponent gestured broadly, giving Richard a rare opening which he was too tired and slow to exploit properly. “Look at this place, this great arena, one of the most ancient and sacrosanct places on our world…bedecked now with the sigils and signs of your Earth corporations! Our children feast on the flesh of dead Terran cows and our noble princesses are obsessed with the cacophonous noise which your primitive culture regards as music!” His anger began to show, and his blows became slightly less precise. Richard took as much advantage of this as he could, finally landing one solid hit to the man’s guts…unfortunately, said guts were an expanse of tight and toned muscle, and Richard got no more reward for his troubles than a mild grunt and a potent rebuff.

“You’re going to kill me because you don’t like Britney Spears. Terrific. My death is going to be as much of a sick joke as my life.”

“I am restoring our world to greatness!” He kicked. Richard stepped back, fell, turned the fall into a roll, stood up and tried to regain his balance.

“Yeah, right! More ‘traditions’? Like this whole usurpation of power thing?” He tried a double-handed overhead strike; it was deflected with ease. The follow-up foot to the chest knocked him back a good five feet.

 

“Yes! For the first time in decades, a new Overlord will take command properly!” He leapt at Richard, who had the good sense not to be there.

“Properly? You mean, with massive bloodshed and purges and genocide? What was that phrase, Alazarra? Every change in dynasties comes in a sea of blood?” Richard attempted to find another opening, but was starting to have trouble even keeping his enemy in his sight. His foe was leaping around him, landing one small blow after another from every direction.

“That is our tradition! It is our way! We are the conquerors of worlds! It is not our destiny to become a mass of indolent consumers of your planet’s offal!” The next attack hooked Richard’s leg. He went sprawling to the ground.

“You know, crappy as the Big Macs here are…they’re better than genocide masquerading as politics. Isn’t almost seventy years of peace a good thing?” His foe moved to plant a heavy boot directly on Richard’s head. Richard grabbed it, twisted, and brought the enemy down to the ground beside him. He then rolled to try to smash in his downed foe’s face. “Besides….you’ve still got the entire Earth military that will object to this coup. How long do you think you’ll last?” Richard found his fist grabbed before it could complete its arc, grabbed and twisted and painfully. He tried to limit himself to a grunt, but it turned into a distressingly high-pitched scream.

The man breaking his wrist smiled broadly, apparently at more than just the pain he was inflicting. “You do not even know what the Emerald of Nogra is then, do you? Very well…since I do not wish your spirit to be bound to this plane by unanswered mysteries, I might as well cure your ignorance.”

So that’s why they always did that, thought Richard, as he struggled to yank his wrist free.

“Our world, ancient beyond your comprehension, has known many eras. In one such, vast systems of weapons were constructed in countless hidden locations, linked to the mind of the then-overlord by cunning devices embedded in his sigil of office.”

Richard finally tore his arm free. The parts of it that weren’t numb where in agony.

“OK, I can fill in the rest. Whoever holds the amulet controls the weapons, yadda yadda, you blackmail Earth, they let you rule in peace.”

The would-be emperor frowned. “Somewhat more…succinct…then I would have put it, but that is the essence of the scheme.”

“Cool. So I just need to kill you and everything is back to normal.”

The man laughed. “Your overconfidence will be your downfall.”

Richard began, “Yeah, well your…” he paused for a moment, trying to find some word other than ‘overconfidence’, decided ‘hubris’ was too artsy, and was caught by a vicious double-handed blow, which was followed up by a second, and then a third. The world turned red, then grey, then black.

****

Sounds came first. Sounds of confusion, of many people milling about, underlaid with a sort of distant electronic hum. Then, painfully, light. Bright light. Far more light than any man should experience after a long night of heavy drinking.

Except…except…there wasn’t drinking. There was a fight. A fight without any drinking? Richard tried to put these disparate facts together, and found it gave him a headache. No…more of a headache. Also, a backache, a chest ache, and one hell of a wrist ache.

Wrist ache?

Oh…right. Emperor. Stone. Princess. Me.

Still alive?

He tried to make sense of his position. He was still curled on the floor of the platform. He became aware of his body as a whole, not a series of points of pain, and deeply and instantly regretted it.

Bit of the surrounding noise began to make sense. There was a constnat murmur in what sounded like confused English, and a loud conversation in Dragornosian. Richard forced his eyes open.

The man who would be Emperor was standing at the edge of a platform, holding the Eye of Nogra, and shouting downwards. While Richard couldn’t see them, he knew the lower part of the arena was filled with crowds of reporters and news crews, mostly those from the lifestyles and “fluff” programs – nothing which happened on Dragornos was news. He wasn’t sure what was being said, but he suspected it was something like “And now, I slay your beloved hero in front of you to crack your resolve!” Heh. Like anyone would care, back on Earth, if Streak Derrick The Fourth lived or died.

Trying to move as little as possible, he saw Alazarra. The was being held by two guards, and not in a friendly way. Dimly, Richard recalled that her death was also needed for the new order to take command.

I’m sure that thought would have motivated my ancestor to leap into action, but it’s really my own death that’s bothering me now.

Richard had an idea. A stupid, moronic, self-destructive, idea. An idea so astoundingly dim that only a man certain of death would ever have conceived of it, much less attempted it.

He leapt upwards and charged at the Emperor, grabbing for the amulet as he did so.

The guards barely had a chance to grunt in surprise before Richard and the Overlord went tumbling over the edge. Richard grabbed at the side of the platform with his good arm while clinging to the amulet, barely, with the other. The Overlord snatched at the rock, missed it, and went plunging down a good 60 feet, landing on a Fox News camera with a horrible wet explosion that was sent out live to a dozen stations around the world and would end up being the single most downloaded file on the Internet for years to come.

Richard, meanwhile, was hanging by one hand over the gap. He called out in English:”I’m the goddamn Emperor, you morons! You’re sworn to obey me! Haul me up!”

Alazarra said something in Dragornosian. Suddenly, two meaty hand grabbed him and placed him safely on the platform.

Richard had been holding the amulet by the chain. Idly, he touched it.

His mind was elsewhere. He felt himself flowing into control systems and networks. He could feel arrays of missile launchers, of atomo-beams capable of rending worlds (or at least scarring continents), of clockwork armies silently awaiting his mental command. He struggled to force his mind back to his still-precarious situation. He let the amulet slide from his hand, then carefully placed it around his neck, making sure it did not touch his skin.

He smirked at Alazarra. “The battle ends at death or surrender, right? I never did either…so the fight was still on. The challenge never ended…and now the usurper is dead.”

Alazarra looked at him with something other than contempt for the first time since the attack back in the palace. “That is… correct.” She inclined her head. “You are now the Overlord of Dragornos. All you need to do is abdicate in favor of the Parliament, as your ancestor did, and allow the ceremony to go forward as planned.”

Richard smiled. “Not…quite.”

Alazarra looked up. “I do not understand.”

“You made a good point, earlier. This nobility stuff is great so long as you don’t have to actually do any ruling. Just settle back and learn to wave at the peasants for a living. And if I recall correctly, as part of this whole challenge thing, you declared yourself my consort.”

She opened her mouth, then closed it again. My God, thought Richard. I actually managed to shock her.

Nearly two decades of training as a Princess took over quickly, though. Her face shifted to a smile both conniving and warm. “That is correct.” She looked him over. “You are not entirely ill formed. I would have had to have chosen anyway, and it would not be bad to strengthen the line with the blood of heroes.” She moved closer and then oozed into him, locking arms, and causing him to wince slightly. She gestured to the assembled, and confused, media gathered below the platform, some of whom were still desperately trying to clean blood and internal organs off of their equipment.

“I believe the time has come for what you of Earth call a ‘press conference’.”

Author’s Notes

As is somewhat blatantly lampshaded, Alazarra is fairly unusual among my female characters in that she wholeheartedly embodies somewhat outdated stereotypes (as opposed to my other female characters, who wholeheartedly embrace slightly newer stereotypes… as do my male characters, and my neuter, hermaphroditic, or none of the above characters. Look, people, you want ‘original’ and ‘creative’, find another writer). She was conceived as very much a “Take That!” to the Disney cliche of the Princess who just can’t STAND being rich, powerful, adored, and waited on hand and foot. From a starting point of “It’s damn good to be a space princess!”, she has a grand story arc that leads to  her learning the important life lesson of, “Yup, damn good indeed.” Sometimes, the best way to subvert a new cliche to apply some electrodes and resurrect an old one.

V-Borgs

V-Borg

Well, as a late sign of the apocalypse, or an early sign of the next one, here’s an Earth Delta update! As always, this is a “fresh off the grill” version, not particularly edited or tweaked.


 

V-Borg

V-Borgs, or “Vehicle Cyborgs”, are hideous, blightspawned abominations that fuse partially-living beings with the remnants of vehicles. It’s often theorized that they were the pilots or crew of the craft when they were destroyed, and the combination of blight energies and the vehicle’s self-repair nanobot swarms fused them together. There are countless varieties, many which barely resemble their original forms; over the centuries since the Cataclysm, they have slowly changed and adapted. While not mindless, their motivations are alien and seemingly mad; as far as most who encounter them are concerned, they strike out blindly. Some of them have found their way to the Annihilation Army, while others have been recruited to factions of Turing’s Children.

The transition to V-Borg was hideously painful, and most V-Borgs remain in a state of anguish. This can wax and wane over time; a V-Borg might be rational for a few hours, days, or weeks, then suddenly be consumed by torment and turn violent.

V-Borg Monowheel Gunner

V-Borg Monowheel Gunner

Level 18 Artillery

Medium natural animate (blightspawn, cyborg)

XP 2,000

HP 136; Bloodied 68

AC 29; Fortitude 30; Reflex 32; Will 29

Speed 8

Immune blight, poison, disease; Vulnerability 10 radiant, 10 lightning

Initiative +18

Perception +17

Darkvision, Tremorsense 10

Traits
Monowheel
The Monowheel Gunner gets to save twice when an effect would knock it prone, or once if no such save is normally allowed. However, once knocked prone, it must use all of its actions in a turn to stand. This does not apply to external effects of powers which allow it to stand. In addition, the Monowheel Gunner’s maximum climb speed is 1, due to its lack of legs.
Standard Actions
r Machinegun (weapon) • At-Will
Attack: 20; +25 vs. AC
Hit: 3d8 + 13.
C Spray Fire (weapon) • At-Will
Attack: Close Blast 5 (All creatures in blast); +25 vs. AC
Hit: 3d6 + 9.
C Wild Spray (weapon) • Recharge 4 5 6
Attack: Close Burst 3 (All creatures in blast); +23 vs. AC
Hit: 2d10 + 6.
R Line In The Sand (weapon) • Encounter
Effect: Line 8 within 15. The nearest square must be at least two squares from the Monowheel Gunner. (Any creature which crosses the line); Whenever an enemy enters a square that is part of the line, the Monowheel Gunner may make a machinegun attack on the triggering creature as an immediate reaction.
Sustain Minor: The line is sustained. While sustained, the Monowheel Gunner must remain within 15 squares of any square in the line. If it moves (voluntarily or otherwise) more than this distance from any square in the line, this power ends immediately.
Move Actions
Overrun • At-Will
Effect: The Monowheel Gunner can move through any square occupied by an enemy of Medium size or less. This movement provokes opportunity attacks as normal. A critical hit on such an attack will end movement.
Skills Acrobatics +23, Stealth +23
Str 19 (+13) Dex 28 (+18) Wis 16 (+12)
Con 22 (+15) Int 10 (+9) Cha 13 (+10)
Alignment chaotic evil     Languages Binary, Ancient

The monowheel gunner resembles a decaying humanoid torso, interlaced with corroded (yet still functioning) mechanical parts, balanced atop a gyroscopic wheel. Rapid-fire fully-automatic weapons are mounted on both arms; ammunition appears to be endless, possibly synthesized from scavenged materials and stored internally, sufficient to last through any single battle.

Monowheels often roam in packs, speeding across open areas and attacking any living creature they see. It appears they view this as a sport, with complex rules, and the packs often wear identifying tokens, such as scraps of cloth of a particular color, or the skull of a specific animal. Other monowheels will appear with mixed groups of V-Borgs, other Blightspawn, or more rarely wholly unrelated allies.

Their internal balance systems are very effective, allowing them to move over broken and irregular terrain with no more difficulty than a biped.


Design Notes: The idea of the Monowheels as “sports teams” is one of those things that wandered into my brain while I was writing. I was trying to find an interesting hook or concept beyond, “They like to shoot things”, and suddenly the notion of them moving in patterns, wheeling and spinning and criss-crossing as they hunted down some humanoids, competing to kill them or drive them to some goal, according to some set of rules and limits only they perceived, jumped into my mind.

Acid Sands

Acid Sands

Yes, it’s actual content! A hazard for Earth Delta. (I told you it’s not dead, just pining for the fjords.)


Acid Sands

There are many places in Earth Delta where caustic chemical wastes and industrial metamaterials have combined to form pits of ultra-fine particles that in a corrosive suspension. These hazards often merge imperceptibly with the surrounding landscape, and are avoided by the local natives and wildlife (well, those who don’t avoid them tend to suffer the consequences…)

Acid Sands may be as small as a single square or cover an area 20 or more squares on a side. Large patches are rarely perfectly regular, and often have “solid” areas within them and/or wider and narrower regions.

A DC 22 Nature check or DC 30 Perception check is needed to identify a region of acid sands before someone has actually entered it; once tipped off to the existence of the hazard, the DCs to identify which squares within 5 squares of the observer are acidic drop to Nature 15, Perception 22.

Any non-flying creature entering acid sands is slowed and takes 2d6+5 acid damage. (See below for exceptions.)

Any creature starting their turn in acid sands takes 2d6+5 acid damage, and must make a DC 15 Athletics check as a free action or become immobilized. On the second turn of being immobilized, they become restrained. On the third turn, they are submerged in the acid, and begin to drown, but unless they have acid resistance, it’s likely the acid will kill them first. They can continue to make Athletics checks; once they succeed, they can move normally (albeit slowed) until they fail the check again (at which point, the cycle begins anew) or they leave the pit.

Anyone who can reach a trapped character (with a rope, branch, arm, etc) can try to pull them out as a standard action. The is a DC 15 Athletics check, or DC 22 if the trapped character is carrying more than a normal load. (This assumes the trapped creature is willing to grab the proffered branch, has a free limb to do so with, etc.) A creature who has sunk below the surface cannot be easily rescued in this manner. (They are considered to have total concealment, and vice-versa; DMs should consider the various mechanics and options which can negate such concealment and take them into account if players devise cunning plans, as they are wont to do.)

Characters who do not make ground contact (robots with hovering capacity, some types of mutants, etc.) can move freely across acid sands. Creatures who can walk on liquid, but who still make contact with it, take half damage but do not sink. Flying creatures suffer no particular penalties, unless they cannot hover, or are knocked into the sands while not flying, etc. If immobilized in the sands, they cannot fly out; if not immobilized, though, they are also not slowed, though they do take damage from the acid. (At the DMs discretion, creatures whose flight cannot be physically restrained, such as those who fly via telekinesis or anti-gravity, may be able to avoid being immobilized, or they may get a bonus on the Athletics check to break free.)

Any creature who takes more than 20 points of acid damage from the pits in an encounter has the bonus from their armor reduced by 2 (but not to less than 0) until an extended rest. Any creature taking more than 40 points of acid damage in an encounter has the bonus from their armor reduced by 2 until an Easy Technology check at the level of the armor is made during an extended rest.

The acid sands described above are a level 15 hazard. DMs can adjust the DCs and damage upwards or downwards as needed.


Design Notes: It occurs to me that a true Bastard DM could increase the damage by 1d6 after the character is restrained, and again after they’ve sunk into the pit, to reflect the greater exposure.

An interesting scenario using this hazard could be to place an artillery type monster (possibly an industrial robot which is immune to acid, or which is somehow supported above it, or on a rocky outcropping, or whatever) in the center of it, making it harder for the party’s melee types to close with it. This hazard also lends itself to any place with dangerous catwalks, or to mutant creatures or sapient beings with good forced-movement powers.

On a more meta-rules noted, this is a good example of what I consider to be the right balance of explicit rules and player creativity. (Well, obviously, if I considered it to be wrong, I’d just keep editing it…) To my mind, simply saying, “It’s acid quicksand.” and leaving the DM to decide what the effects might be puts too much burden on the DM to come up with rules on the fly and have them be consistent from week to week — nothing is worse[1] than having the laws of the universe change because the DM has a bad case of CRS. (“Can’t remember shit.”). On the other hand, it’s not possible to list every conceivable combination of abilities and situational modifiers. What I’ve tried to do is address the basic “physics” of the hazard (You get in it, you corrode and sink) and the most common and obvious questions and countermeasures (you can hover over it, you can fly over it, flying creatures who are forced into it will be gummed up, you can pull someone out, etc.). Now, it’s pretty likely any DM worthy of the screen could reach most of these conclusions on their own, but why make him do extra work when it’s the designer’s job to solve these problems for him? Even simple things like “OK, you want to pull him out… uhm… how hard should that be?” are things the DM should not need to waste time solving at the table. Given the data points provided, though, as well as gently nudging the DM towards what factors he should consider when making judgment calls (such as encumbrance level and whether you’re above/below the surface and visible to others), the amount of at-the-table work the DM needs to do ought to be minimized.

[1]Well, OK, being eaten alive from the inside by rabid weasels is probably worse. But it’s a close call.

The World Of Synnibarr

The World Of Synnibarr

World Of Synnibarr

First Edition Cover, Image From http://www.legrog.org/, because I’m too lazy to scan my own copy of the cover. Hope they don’t mind.

OK, first off, let me note I have a few weird psychological issues with the World of Synnibarr, because I bought my copy (the first edition of the game, with the lion man cover) at an SF con in the early 90s where I a)had a migraine, and b)had my girlfriend of the time decide to spend all her time traipsing around with other people. Yes, I still nurture my two-decade old psychological scars. I hold on to my trivial emotional traumas the way other people hold on to their grandmother’s good china. (If your china is made in New Jersey, why isn’t it new jersey? And how can you have eyeglasses made of plastic? Shouldn’t they be eyeplastics? And that airplane food…)

So. Synnibarr. I will attempt to put my personal issues behind me, and review this San-loss inducing book fairly. No, seriously. No matter what my weird cross-associations may be with things, this game is wonked. I’ve referred many times to things that teeter on the edge of awesome and awful… this doesn’t teeter. Hell, it didn’t even fall off. It never got out of the pit of Awful to begin with.

Or…. so it appears merely from flipping through it, then trying to reconcile what I’ve read with any notion of a sane and ordered universe, or at least, a universe which was not actively malign. I haven’t tried to make a character with it, yet. Let’s see how it goes. Who knows? It might be better than it seems. Odin knows, it couldn’t be worse.

Continue reading

The Name Of His Wife

The Name Of His Wife

Jacob Brown sat on  a rough wooden chair. The light from a single flickering candle illuminated sod walls. He set down a wooden bowl filled with watery gruel, which was his breakfast, and blew out the candle. Dawn would come soon. No sense wasting wax.

There was a place across from him, a place where his wife usually sat. It was empty. It was always empty. Ever since…

Yesterday?

Last week?

Forever?

He shook his head. How could it be forever, he wondered. I mean, she was here. Until those damn orcs came. Until…

He struggled, for a moment, to remember her more precisely. Her laugh. The color of her hair. The things they fought about. Nothing came to him. All he knew was, she was gone, taken in a raid, and he missed her, and would do anything if someone could save her. He knew the orcs kept prisoners alive for weeks or months. He had some hope.

Maybe I could….he thought, then stopped.

I can’t do anything. I’m no warrior. I can barely guide a plow, much less swing a blade.

The sun began to stream through the wooden shutters. Jacob stood up and walked to the door. Have to keep the farm running, he thought. Nothing else to do. Nothing else I can do. He spared one last glance at the empty place setting…was she really here only last night? Or was the raid last week? Why couldn’t he remember? Then he walked out.

There were Heroes there.

You always could tell Heroes. Their clothes were bright and varied. Their armor shone, or glowed, or burned with heatless fire. They wielded swords too large for a normal man to lift, much less swing around as if it were a twig, or they were themselves glistening with magical might, their very flesh aglow. Some walked in the shape of a wolf, but spoke with the voice of a man.

They were walking to his hut, crossing through his carefully sown fields, stomping the few shoots which had managed to spring to life. Spring…was it spring now? He should be planting…but that didn’t seem right…he didn’t remember plowing last week…but he must have. The fields were plowed. The fields were always plowed… but he never remembered plowing them.

No matter. The Heroes were approaching. He struggled to listen to them. Heroes were hard to understand unless they deigned to speak to you; to Heroes, simple farmers and smiths and innkeepers barely existed. Jacob knew the rules – don’t interfere with them. They are children of the Gods, and they must be accorded all courtesies. Accede to their requests, and be invisible if they don’t want to deal with you.

Lately, though, he’d found it growing easier to hear them. He wasn’t sure why, but he could grasp snatches of their conversation.

“…you sure this is the place? I think I started in this village.”, said one. He was garbed in the robes of a High Priest of Simmureyal, and an angelic halo girded his skull.

“Yeah, there’s the guard who lost his socks. Why are we wasting our time here?” said another, a woman in glistening azure mail, an ax big enough to fell oaks strapped to her back.

Then their leader spoke. He was a knight, wearing a suit of heavy spiked mail. Jacob wondered at the ease with which he carried himself. Such armor must weigh hundreds of pounds.

“Look, this is the right one. I know this guy who knows this guy who’s seen some of the hidden areas. He doesn’t care about this place, but he told me about it. We can be the first to do it.” He stopped. “Hey, there’s the farmer dude. Jacob Brown. That’s the right one!”

“About time,” said the Priest. “We must have gone through a dozen of these stupid hovels. They all look alike.”

The leader of the Heroes approached Jacob, who quailed back. The Hero smiled in a friendly way, his helmet disappearing as they were wont to do. He spoke to Jacob directly.

“Ho there, Farmer Jacob! What news have you?”

Jacob blinked in surprise. He’d never had a Hero speak to him before. He stammered for a second.

“Is he responding?”

“Hold on, he’s going to. I know this is the right one.”

Jacob finally found his tongue. “Ah…ah…I….greetings, noble knight! You honor my poor farm with your presence. Please, if there is anything I can do for you…”

“We seek to doeth good for thee, humble farmer!” spoke the knight. “Be there anything ye needeth?”

Jacob shook his head at the odd accent. It was, he reminded himself, the way of Heroes. Need….

“My wife!” he finally sputtered out. “My wife…she was taken by orcs in the raid…the Yellow Fang tribe…they lair in the hills north of here, there is a chance she might be alive…”

The Hero just looked at him, as if waiting for something else.

Jacob’s mind spun. He had to offer them something for their risk…he couldn’t ask them to fight and possibly die for him without some token…but he had nothing…nothing but…

“I have so little to offer you if you will help me, but I…I have an old sword which my grandfather wielded in the War Of Tyrant’s Fall. It might…might be worth something to a historian, perhaps….”

The Knight made an odd gesture with his fist and turned to his companions. “Yeah! This is the right one! Damn! We do this fast and we beat everyone else to it!” He then turned back to Jacob. “Fear ye not, old man! We’ll get thy daughter back from thee orcs!”

“Wife, good sir.”

“Ah…right, yes, your wife. We’ll getteth her. No problem!”

The ax-wielding woman spoke. “Hey, where’s Korson?” Even as she finished, though, there was a flicker, and a shape appeared, a tall, thin, man in long robes, surrounded by swirling mists of fog. “Sorry…got dropped. The cat yanked the interface right out of my socket. Took me a minute to reorient myself and plug back in. Let’s go!”

Jacob stared as he watched them saunter off, this time crossing his western fields. They were taking the single straightest line to the orc’s lair, ignoring the roads, moving with Heroic grace and speed over his fields and the thorn-strewn lands beyond. Could they do it, he wondered. Could they save my wife?

What was her name? Why can’t I even remember her name?

It was maddening.

He thought about trying to undo the damage the Heroes had done to his field, but realized that if… that when they returned with his wife, they’d just tromp back over them again. A headache was beginning to form; every time he tried to remember any fact about his wife other than “She’s gone”, the pain spiked. I have to talk to someone, he thought.

The village proper was less than a mile down the road. He passed old Sergeant Tomlinson as he headed there. The “Sergeant” was nothing of the kind, having never served in any organized army, but he had some idea of how to wield a sword and could raise the alarm if bandits or orcs were spotted.

“Ho there, Tomlinson! How goes?”

“Not too bad, not too bad. Realized I’d walked out on patrol today without me socks on, if ye can believe it! Fortunately, there was a gnome walking by here looking for odd jobs, so I sent him. Nice little fella.”

Jacob frowned. “Didn’t you… didn’t you leave them behind yesterday, too? And wasn’t it some apprentice wizard you found to go fetch them for you?”

Tomlinson flushed. “Well, how daft d’ye think I am, losing my socks two days in a row! I think I’d remember if I lost ’em twice…ah, here’s the fella now.”

Jacob watched as Tomlinson happily took his socks back and tossed the gnome a few copper pieces for his trouble. The gnome looked at Jacob oddly, as if searching for something, then shrugged and ran off down the road.

Tomlinson put on his socks gleefully. “So, where ye headin’ to?”

Jacob shrugged. “The village. I need…I need to talk to some people. Tomlinson…did the orcs raid last night? When did they come?”

“No orcs for a long time. Can’t recall any raids.”

“But…my wife…they took my…”

Jacob stopped. A shifty-eyed man in worn leather walked by them. Jacob flinched back, wary for the few coins in his pouch, but the man ignored him. Instead, he fixed a piercing glare on Tomlinson, then seemed to notice something and smiled.

“Hey, Sergeant. I don’t suppose you have anything you need doing?”

Tomlinson nodded. “Do indeed there! As it turns out, this morning, I forgot me socks…and the road is cold this day! My house is over that rise. If you’d be so kind as to fetch them for me…”

Jacob backed away and hastened for the town. Either the whole village was going mad…or he was.

***

The Green Gander Inn formed the physical and cultural center of the town. It was a large, two story structure, with a roof of thick thatch and walls of mortared stone braced by timbers. Smoke poured from the chimney, and the smell of roasting meats wafted out. A steady stream of people dashed in and out of the place, running pell-mell to and fro. Jacob knew none of them; they were all apprentices of one sort or another – young men eager to take up the mercenary’s call, novices fresh from seminary, would-be sorcerers still struggling to master their first spells. There were a lot of them in the area, Jacob noted, though none of them were the children of anyone he knew. They never seemed to settle here, either… just vanish into the great large world beyond the village, to return on occasion as Heroes, or never to return at all.

The inside of the inn was brightly lit by oil lamps and a roaring cookfire. Jacob looked around, and finally spied Sackson. “Sack”, as he was commonly known, was a fixture at the Gander. Jacob pulled a stool up and sat down next to him. The apprentice’s chatter was simply a vague buzz at this point.

Sack stopped drinking for a brief moment, raised his glass in acknowledgment, then downed the contents in a single gulp. The bartender quickly replaced it.

“What’s up, Jake?”

“You didn’t hear? The raid? My wife?”

Sack frowned. “The raid…Right. Orcs attacked the village last…night, was it? Got your wife. Tragic. Here. Have a beer on me.” A coin appeared in his hand and was flicked to the bartender; a second mug was quickly placed on the bar, in front of Jacob, who ignored it.

“Sack…we’ve been friends for a while right?”

“Ever since we were kids.”

Jacob nodded. “What was my wife’s name?”

Sack’s face froze. Totally. All hints of life vanished. For a second, Sack became a flesh-colored statue. Then he returned to normal. “I….I don’t know. Can’t remember. Too much booze, I guess….” He seemed suddenly troubled.

Jacob continued. “You’re my best friend, so you must have been at my wedding. When was it – spring, summer, or fall?”

Sack sat the beer down. “I don’t know.” He looked down at his hands, then around at the bar, as if seeing them for the first time. “Why don’t I know?”

Jacob’s voice began to rise. “Who were her parents? Was she born in this village?”

Sack was backing away, his eyes wide. “I don’t know, I don’t know! Why are you asking me this?”

Jacob grabbed his friend by his burly shoulders and shook him. “Because I don’t know either! She was my wife, Sack, my wife, and I can’t even remember her face!”

People were staring. A mercenary youth, a battered and worn greataxe slung over his back, approached him. “Pardon, sir, but if you have any foes you need slain…”

Jacob practically spat on him. “Piss off.”

The mercenary faded back into the crowd. Jacob whirled back on his friend. “Sack, when did you last leave this bar?”

“Uhm…last night, I suppose. I mean, I have to go home sometime, right?”

“Where do you live? Which house? In town? Out in the fields?”

Sack said nothing. He began to look more frightened.

“Did you leave last night? Do you remember leaving? Do you know what the sun on your face feels like?”

Sack stood up suddenly and kicked the chair away. “I’m leaving now.”

Jacob smiled. The two of them would solve this. There was an answer to be found. They both strode to the inn’s door. Jacob noted the buzz of noise from the visitors was growing louder; he allowed some of it to filter in.

“…he’s leaving?”

“Didn’t think he did that.”

“He never leaves. He’s been here since, like, the alpha.”

“Must be some new event.”

“We ought to follow them….”

Several of the crowd began to cautiously tag along. Jacob ignored them. The pair passed through the door.

Sack vanished as he set foot over the threshold.

Jacob’s eyes widened, He called out for him. “Sack! Sackson!” He ran back into the bar, hoping to see him at the stool at the end, but it was still empty. The milling crowd began to press in on him, asking about his friend, asking if he needed anything done.

Jacob cursed, and forced his way out of the crowd. A dwarf holding a small leather purse raced past him, heading for Sack’s old seat, then stared in confusion.

“Huh? He despawned? What’s up? I’ve got a turn-in!”

Jacob just ran.

***

He paced the length of his farmhouse, a fairly short walk. The old blade lay on the table…if the Heroes did return with his wife, he wanted to have it out. The less time they spent tromping on his crops, the better.

He hoped they’d return soon, one way or another. The longer he sat alone, the more his thoughts raced around all the dark holes in his mind. He knew he knew things, but the things weren’t there. He knew he was born and raised here, but he had no clear memories of his childhood. He knew he had parents, but they had neither faces nor names. He knew he had a wife…and that was all he knew about her, the mere fact she existed.

There were voices and footsteps and the sound of newly sprouted plants being trampled.

Jacob listened.

“Are you sure we get the sword? We kind of messed up…”

“Yeah, don’t worry, I checked it out with my friend. It’s rigged. We can’t save her no matter what, there’s some kind of timer trigger. It’s more, you know, dramatic or something.”

“Right, like anyone bothers paying attention to that shit.”

Jacob’s face went slack. They…they didn’t save her? What?

There was a knock.

Soul-numb, he went to the door. The Heroes were there. The leader spoke.

“Greetings, Farmer Brown. We bear dark and grave tidings. We…”

“You didn’t save her.” His voice was low, calm, flat.

“Uhm… no. We struggled, racing to breach the orcs’ defenses before…”

“Get out. Leave this farm and never return.”

The Hero stopped. His fellow Heroes were looking at him in a mix of anger and confusion. “If we blew this….” one of them began. He waved them to silence and returned to Jacob.

“I am deeply sorry for your loss, but we did try. Surely that’s worth something…”

Words appeared in Jacob’s mind: I am glad you risked your lives to aid me. Here, take the blade anyway. It is of no use to me. He felt his mouth beginning to form the words.

“No!” he shouted.

He turned, spun, and grabbed the sword. He didn’t hand it over to the Hero, but, clumsily and gracelessly, jammed it into his gut. The sword suddenly flared in his hands, sheathing itself in violet fire. The rust and grime vanished, and the blade became mirror smooth.

The Hero he had just stabbed staggered back and gurgled a few times. Then he collapsed, flickering into nothingness before his body could hit the ground. The others stared in momentary shock, then recovered.

“Cool!”

“Wasn’t expecting that!”

“Guess this is the hard part! Let’s get ‘im!”

The three other Heroes charged. Jacob held the sword in what he hoped was a defensive position, and steeled himself to join his wife. Maybe, he thought, maybe, in the afterlife, I can ask her her name.

They came for him then, axes swinging and spells blazing. Explosions of color and light surrounded him…and he felt nothing. The blades passed through him. The blazing explosions destroyed his tiny home, but didn’t even singe his hair.

The Heroes were confused.

“What the?”

“He’s still flagged non-com to us! We can’t kill him!”

“Aw, shit, it’s bugged!”

“Hey, why hasn’t Valkor relogged?”

“I don’t know, I’ve tried rezzing him, but he’s not responding.”

“What’s that nutty farmer doing?”

Jacob suddenly understood.

He couldn’t be hurt by the Heroes, but he could hurt them.

And he wanted to.

Everything began to fall into place. Everything began to fit. All we are, he realized, is playthings for the Heroes. They’re chosen by the Gods, and we’re their toys. We exist to teach them, guide them, worship them, or be killed by them. That’s what we’re supposed to do. We barely have lives outside of them.

Enough. Gods be damned!

He launched himself into a clumsy attack, but the blade moved of its own will. Farmer Brown found himself ducking, weaving, and striking. The priest fell first, appropriately, since Jacob had spurned the gods. The warrior woman with the axe was next, her blade a phantom against his, unable to parry its lethal touch. The wizard ran when he saw his spells fail, but he was easily winded and Jacob felt as if he could do anything.

They left behind no bodies, not even blood on the blade. Whistling jauntily, Jacob returned to town.

***

It was dead.

Everyone in it seemed to be frozen, locked solid in position, Even the leaves blowing in the wind hung motionless in the air. The sky above had turned to ash, a uniform gray from horizon to dome. The sun had vanished, though it was still daylight.

Jacob entered the Gander.

Sackson was there. He was behind the bar, smashing open bottles and guzzling them down. He looked up.

“Jake? You… you’re still here… I mean, moving… I mean… what’s happening?”

“I killed some Heroes.” He sat down at the end of the bar and helped himself to some nuts. “Wasn’t even hard.”

Sackson dropped the bottle he was holding. It fell a foot or so, then hung in the air. “You… you what?”

“Killed them. I was sick and tired of being fodder for their games, so, I killed them. I cursed the gods and I drew my blade and I killed them.”

Sack’s face paled in horror. “You’ve killed the world.”

Madness glinted in Jacob’s eyes. “So what if I have? What kind of world is it, where the Gods push us around like stones in a child’s game? Besides, you’re still moving.”

“I don’t know why. I still can’t leave, Jacob, I try, and then I just go… someplace else, someplace filled with frozen fire, someplace made of words, and then I come back here. I think… I don’t think we have long to live.”

“My wife’s dead. And nameless. I don’t much care.”

Sack reached across the bar to try to grab him. Jacob stepped back, bringing up the blade.

“Jake… please… atone! Apologize! Beg the gods to forgive you… bring the world back!”

Jacob Brown looked upwards and spread his arms. “Do your worst!

The world began to fall apart. There was a howling, and all of reality changed. Every line suddenly seemed sharper, infinitely sharp, as if each component of the world were being pulled out of it.

Sack fell to his knees, half-sobbing, half praying. As Jacob watched, he saw things begin to crawl along his friend’s face and body. They looked, at first, like black worms, like an infestation of the most vile sort, but then Jacob saw they were words, strange words he could not understand. The blackness grew and grew until it covered his friend entirely, and then he vanished.

Nothing remained outside the inn. There was no darkness, there was no light, there was just nothing. The inn itself was dissolving around him, black wordworms crawling everywhere, turning everything into letters and then into emptiness.

No, thought Jacob. I’m not going. They’re not taking me.

He looked around in desperation. There was something… a rip, a tear in the world. Beyond it was light.

Jacob leaped for it as the inn finished dissolving. He felt pain, a horrible burning, He could feel his skin crisping, his fat melting, his bones cracking in the heat, but he struggled to keep his mind, to keep himself together. Then the pain, and all other sensation, vanished.

Epilogue I

BEGIN PRESS RELEASE:

Worlds Of Infinity, Incorporated, wishes to announce its deep regret and sorrow at the apparent deaths of four players of Quest Of The Heroes. While we mourn their loss and extend all condolences and sympathies to their families, we deny any possibility that a coding error or feedback loop could be responsible. While Quest Of The Heroes is currently offline until all investigations are completed, we at Worlds Of Infinity are certain that no action of ours could have led to this tragic situation.

BEGIN BOILERPLATE:

Quest Of The Heroes is the crown jewel of Worlds Of Infinity. After ten years of continuous play, it remains the most popular simulation in our lineup. We continue to dedicate full resources to it, including recent upgrades to our SimuReal Interactives, providing the best and most immersive experience possible. We Are The Makers Of Worlds TM.

Epilogue II

Jacob was somewhere else.

It was a strange place.

It seemed to be a room, but a room such as Jacob had never seen. A soft cloth was underfoot, almost like the hide of some odd animal, and there were large metal boxes, the strangest chests Jacob had ever seen, standing everywhere. The room seemed to go on forever, but every few dozen feet, there was a standing rectangle of green fire, the size and shape of a door. Here and there, far away, in the distance, he saw figures stepping out of or into the green doors, seeming to vanish or materialize. Some sort of magic portals?

He noted, with some grim delight, that he still bore the sword.

Jacob just stared in wonderment. This was no heaven or hell he had ever heard of.

There was a voice.

A man was there, strangely dressed. He didn’t look like a Hero…he looked, Jacob thought, like a tax collector.

“You!  You there! What are you doing here?”

Jacob fumbled for an answer. “I… I am lost…”

“Lost?” The man seemed angry. “Oh, please. I know that getup. The damn game is offline, so you’re busy hacking to see if you can find a backup server somewhere. This isn’t your stupid game. You’ve managed to log into the V-Space Accounting Database.” He sighed, then continued his rant.

“God damn useless sim addicts. Well, I don’t know how you got through the firewall, but you are in deep, deep, trouble. You know what the laws are for trespass into private zones? I’m getting a trace on your signal sent. Might as well unplug, the cops will be there soon. No sims in prison, you freaking fantasy nut. Now log, I’ve got accounting data to lookup. Whole company is in a tizzie thanks to you losers.”

Jacob tried to puzzle out bits and pieces of the speech. “You… you work for the gods? For the Makers Of Worlds? You are their servant?”

The man rolled his eyes. “Great, not only an addict, but one of those roleplaying weenies. Yeah, I work for ‘the Gods’. Sheesh, they’re going to love you in the can! Here’s a hint, loser – don’t drop the… ”

Jacob sliced his head off, cleanly. The body vanished. He expected as much now.

If I can kill the servants of the gods…and their Heroes…perhaps I can kill the Gods themselves.

He went to one of the rectangles and gingerly stepped into it. There was a moment of light, then a sense of dissolution, then he appeared somewhere else. It was another room, similar but not identical to the one he had just occupied.

I am in the realm of the gods. I wander their halls… and here, they can die.

This place is immense, he thought, but I have time. Somewhere in here, I will find the Gods. Then I will kill them.

He smiled a thin, cold, mad, smile.

I am a Hero, he thought. I have a Quest.


As with most of my fiction, this was written in a moment of desperate panic before my monthly writer’s group meeting.  It was posted ages ago on the original Joomla version of this site, then never moved over in the Great WordPress Revolution of… whenever I switched to WordPress. I think it was 2010. (Wow, that means I wrote the Star Rovers piece a long time ago.) Prior to reposting it now, I gave it a quick edit to clean up a few sentences. (No matter how many times you reread your own writing, you always find one word to change here, another word to add there…)

Anyway, I thought it might be interesting to mention that a small bit of the inspiration comes from a quest in Vanguard (ah, Vanguard… you could have been amazing. A perfect example of the harsh reality of “Ship Now or Ship Never”). You were sent to go rescue someone from lizardmen, but as soon as you got near to the village, the text box informed that you heard a scream and that they were dead. No way to save them. (Given how borked the NPC pathing/follow was, it’s probably for the best it wasn’t an escort quest.)

Captain Future And The Space Emperor!

Captain Future!

And The Space Emperor! 

As you may recall, yesterday… yes, folks, I am actually writing “tomorrow” what I said I would… (EDIT: As you can tell, it didn’t get finished until a few days later) as opposed to a week or a month later… we discussed Captain Future, The Wizard Of Science, and his partners — Grag the indestructible robot! Otho, the incredible android! And the Brain, bodiless super-genius! And, frankly, if reading those prior sentences doesn’t  spur some kind of thrill in you, get ye gone from my blogge, for ye are no true-borne gamyr!

Anyway. Today, we shall look at the first Captain Future novel, “Captain Future And The Space Emperor!” It opens with the revelation that Earthmen are being transformed into ravenous, prehistoric, creatures, by some sort of “atavism plague” that rapidly degenerates them back to their ancestral form, and somewhere, a biologist is crying. No matter! Ignore the sobbing scientist! Let’s be fair, the idea was at least vaguely new and sort of plausible (and by ‘plausible’, I mean, ‘a lot fewer lay people knew enough about science to know what bullshit it was, but no real biologist of the time would buy it’) back in 1940; when Star Trek did it more than 50 years later, it was utterly unforgivable.

In any event, when disaster strikes the System, the call goes out for Captain Future! And Captain Future answer the call, in his mighty spaceship, the Comet! Please note the lack of cadillac fins. This was due, in part, to the ability of the The Comet to disguise itself as a comet, by producing a blazing particle aura around it, thus avoiding all suspicion, for when the evil villains would peer out of their space windows, they would see nothing but a mere comet, which was not moving in accordance with any Newtonian trajectory, was not on any charts, and whose blazing tail was evident even if it was very far from the sun, which is what causes comets to have tails in the first place! Captain Future's Spaceship, The Comet

And so, Captain Future sets off! The plague has begun on Jupiter, and is due to someone calling himself “The Space Emperor”. Jupiter is a world “whose vast jungles and great oceans were largely unexplored”.

An aside. In this novel, Captain Future mentions prior adventures, such as capturing the “Lords Of Power”. Yet, this is the first novel in the series, and the character did not appear in prior stories. He begins as an established hero; no “origin story” required, except a quick background. Compare to modern heroic media, where it’s vital to spend endless hours detailing everything the hero has done and then having almost no story left to tell. The monomyth is, ironically enough, killing modern mythmaking.

Oh, the Great Red Spot on Jupiter? That’s actually the Fire Sea, a great radioactive volcanic cauldron. Also, only the upper layers of Jupiter’s atmosphere are methane and ammonia; beneath the clouds, it is a mostly Earthlike world of continents and oceans, inhabited by Jovians, green, hairless, flippered beings. Oh, the Jovians, previously peaceful, are being stirred up against the humans who have settled on Jupiter by the aforementioned Space Emperor.

Before landing on Jupiter, though, Captain Future is ambushed in space! He forces the attacking ship down on Callisto (which, of course, has a breathable atmosphere.. I think the only object of any note to not have a breathable atmosphere is Earth’s moon). Callisto is inhabited by crystalline life forms that can attack end envelop their prey. Using them as a threat, Captain Future wheedles confessions from the vile miscreants, and they describe the Space Emperor as an armor-suited figure who “does things no human could do!”

Further, only a few people could have known Captain Future was heading to Jupiter. This sets up a plot that is repeated in the other two novels I have read — early on, Captain Future realizes the mysterious villain of the novel is one of a set of people, and spends most of the rest of the story narrowing the list of suspects. Also, in each of the three novels, the villain is somehow using, manipulating, or controlling a native race for his own ends. What saves these stories from tedium is that beneath the repetitive plot structure (which I have to assume is varied eventually, given how many Captain Future novels there were!), there is endless invention and awesome spectacle — like the Crawling Crystals Of Callisto! (They’re not called that in the book, just to be clear… but isn’t that a cool name? Wouldn’t you buy a novel called “The Crawling Crystals Of Callisto!”? I would.)

Otho disguises himself as one of the capture henchmen. He can soften and mold his plastic flesh almost without limit, which is useful.  This allows him to find out when and where the Space Emperor will be contacting his Jovian allies, but when Captain Future goes to capture him, he discovers that the Space Emperor is immaterial! He cannot be attacked, captured, or harmed! (Here, interestingly, follows some conversations that show more attention to science… or at least verisimilitude… than is seen in other media, for example, Star Trek: The Next Generation. Having concluded that the Space Emperor is vibrating at a frequency higher than that of ordinary matter, the issues of this — such as how does he breathe, and why the planet’s gravity doesn’t suck him into the core — are brought up and addressed, or at least listed as mysteries which must be solved, and which eventually are.)

While on Jupiter, we also meet two recurring characters: Ezra Gurney, the crusty old Marshall of the Planet Police, and Joan Randall, Planet Police Secret Agent and theoretical love interest. I say “theoretical” because, while she is female, and only such in the novels I’ve read thus far, and is positioned, trope-wise, to be Captain Future’s girlfriend, or at least Unstated Sexual Tension Friend (as is often the case in serial fiction), as of the three and a half novels I’ve read, Captain Future has less sex drive than a toaster, and while he is filled with Manly Fury when Joan is captured (on average, 14.6 times per novel), he has just as much Manly Fury when it happens to Grag, Otho, or the Brain. Joan’s own emotional state is limited to an occasional wide-eyed stare at the handsome Captain Future. I have to wonder if, back in the early 1940s, there was an underground of fanfic that tapped out hard-core porn on manual typewriters, and if the early fans of “scientifiction” were sexually aware enough to even contemplate what a shape-shifting android like Otho or an unstoppable powerhouse like Grag could do in the sack. Not really sure what you’d do with the Brain. Don’t want to think about it. PS: If you do a GIS on Captain Future with safe surf off, you WILL find porn — this is the internet, after all — but it’s based on the 1970s anime series, as are most of the images.

There is quite a bit going on, a lot of last-minute escapes, derring do, cunning plans, and some really awful “friendly banter” between Grag and Otho. Really, it may be simply the cultural distance… we live in a somewhat more restrained era… but a lot of what’s supposed to be playful interaction between friends, among all the Futuremen, often comes across of my modern ears as unduly harsh. It may also be that Edmond Hamilton’s skill at dialogue, at least in these early novels, is far less than his skill at imagining wondrous worlds and settings. At that, at least, he excels — especially when you remember most of this hadn’t been done before. He is quite good at evoking the feeling of a world with a handful of sentences, using a relatively sparse number of words to create a rugged Jupiter mining town or the eerie surface of Callisto. The raw energy and excitement of the story allows Captain Future to leap over great gaping holes in characterization.

Ultimately, we learn the Space Emperor is posing as “The Last Ancient”, a member of the near-mythical race of “super-civilized” beings who inhabited Jupiter long ago. Of course, he is a fraud, an Earthman who found some of the Ancient’s advanced technology, and he has duped the Jovians into following his scheme.  Captain Future defeats him, naturally, by outwitting him. (This is another common theme — Captain Future uses science against his foes. The ethos of the Captain Future novels is clear: Science is not evil, humans are. Even the atavism plague the Space Emperor is using had a benign origin — it was intended to let the Ancients study the evolution of species for the sake of pure knowledge. There is nothing, at least thus far, in the Captain Future novels that is of the “Things man was not meant to know” category — just things which should be kept out of the hands of the evil and the unscrupulous.)

Gaming Captain Future

From a gaming perspective, the universe of Captain Future is amazingly rich. Obviously, GURPS Tales Of The Solar Patrol, with the background suitably altered, is a great starting point, but any system that supports pulpy sci-fi action is good. The System is a great setting because of its size and population. Virtually every world is inhabited or inhabitable,  and even the long-settled worlds are home to countless mysteries, lost cities, forgotten races, and strange artifacts. Most of the worlds have a frontier feel to them — you can draw off the gold rush, of course, but also the settlement of the American West (complete with angry natives) , Australia during its penal colony days, or the English colonies in Hong Kong and India. The novels either ignore issues of imperialism and exploitation, or portray native dissent against the interlopers from Earth as something exploited by evil humans for their own gain, but there’s no reason to keep it that way, especially if the players will be unable to accept the status quo. (It ought to be noted that, in other novels, it’s made clear many of the aliens have equal status to humans — we meet Martian and Jovian businessmen, for example, who have considerable wealth and power in the System, so that there’s evidently some degree of equality going on. Except, of course, for women. It may seem fairly progressive to have Joan Randall be a Planet Police Special Agent instead of a nurse or a secretary, but, as of halfway through the fourth book, you’re left wondering how she ever got the job, as she seems to have no function except to be kidnapped or to stand there while Captain Future delivers some exposition.)

Despite the advanced weapons, combat is often quite physical, and one of the most common tropes is attacks by strange alien beasts who are conveniently immune to conventional super-weapons. Most characters in a Captain Future game would do well to know some fisticuffs and knifeplay. At the same time, actually advancing the plot requires deductions, fact-finding, and especially SCIENCE! Intellectual skills should be a big part of the game, but characters will tend to be ludicrously skilled generalists rather than realistic specialists.

EXTERMINATE!

The tagline of this site is “Old School Attitude, Modern Rules”. (Not, as some would have it, “Updates on a roll of 18+ on 2D10”) A big part of the feel of “Old School” is “Anything that’s cool is included”, and “cool” usually meant whatever was in the movies or at the top of the nerd reading list for that week. Dungeons & Dragons campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s were full of wookies and kzinti, phasers and lightsabers, aliens and predators, ninjas and more ninjas. A lot of that great and glorious wahooness has been lost in recent decades, or is brought back only so that it can be snickered at with a superior attitude and/or played purely for laughs (see the execrable “Castle Greyhawk” module published by TSR for AD&D 2e, as repugnant an attempt to piss on Gary’s legacy as I can imagine).

Me, I prefer unironic, unexamined, embrasure of the 14 year old within. Since Doctor Who hadn’t made it across the pond in most of the early era of D&D, or was sneered at by the kind of Very Serious Fans who might have heard of it (if they watched anything British, it would be Blake’s Seven), there was very little inclusion of Dr. Who material in things like Arduin or All The World’s Monsters. So, we set the gaming TARDIS to take the “That which is cool, rules” attitude of the 1970s and merge it, via a chronal transpacial rift in idea space, with the mechanics of the 2010s, and I present the first of several Daleks, statted for 4e. (There will be at least one solo “Dalek Commander”, and probably a non-elite, maybe two, but I wanted to get one mid-range “model” out first.)

Dalek