Posts Tagged ‘Rifts’

It Came from Toronto After Dark: The Corridor

January 30, 2012

These It Came from the DVR articles are going to be a little bit different.  As an early Christmas present to myself, I picked up a festival pass to the Toronto After Dark film festival.  So the first difference is that these are new movies, on the big screen, instead of old ones and niche programming on the small screen.  The second difference is that these are going to be short.  I’ve got eighteen films to see in seven days (as well as dressing up for the annual zombie walk), so I’m not going to have a whole lot of time to write, and I want post these while the blood is still fresh.
Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration, but most of the films it showcases won’t see wide release – so in addition to extracting some rpg goodness from each movie, I’ll also give them a bit of a critique, so fellow gamers can know what they need to track down and what to avoid.  I’ll try and keep spoilers to an absolute minimum.

The Corridor

This science fiction/horror story follows a group of old high school friends, drifting apart from one another, as they reunite for a weekend of bonding at an isolated cabin in the middle of winter.  Here they make contact with an otherworldly force, and are unprepared for the indelible changes it leaves on their psyches.  As the strange force’s influence grows, the friends find their sanity stretched beyond the breaking point and their lives in peril.

Indie Horror Done Right, the Canadian Way

The Corridor is one of those films that I wish was made more often.  It reaches beyond its budget, is well written, and makes a unique interpretation of a classic trope (the cabin in the woods) by adding a genuinely Canadian voice to the genre.  That’s high praise, and The Corridor deserves it.
It’s an annoying stereotype to call Canada the ‘great white north’; however, the isolation of the north is something that holds a special place in the Canadian psyche (even a Toronto boy like me knows a few lines from Robert Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee by heart).  The Corridor does a great job of capturing that feeling on film – the sense of being trapped, the cold, and the peculiar way the snow seems to absorb sound.  During the Q&A after the screening, director Evan Kelly admitted what a pain it was to shoot in the snow (once you’ve kicked through a snow bank, you can’t exactly reset the scene), but I’m glad they were ambitious enough to try on the limited budget the film had, because it paid off.  Visually, it sets an appropriate tone for the film, with all that oppressive whiteness pressing in on the landscape and squashing the characters.  Plus, the winter is a natural obstacle to the characters simply walking away from their problems, so The Corridor avoids some of the suspension of disbelief problems that a lot of cabin in the woods movies are burdened with.
I think that The Corridor’s ‘Canadian-ness’ goes beyond its wintry setting to the nature of the fear it explores.  While most (American) cabin in the woods films (like Cabin Fever, or even, if the concept of isolation is stretched, The Divide) deal with the disintegration of groups into fractured, lone individuals, the alien force in The Corridor represents overwhelming integration into a group that violently overwrites the self.  I think the argument can be made that a country’s national values also hold their secret fears, and if individualism is an American ideal/fear, then I think that you can say that collectivism is our Canadian ideal/fear.
Even though it takes a while for the blood to start flowing, Kelly avoids boredom by slowly turning up the tension between the characters.  While most of us don’t have to deal with mental illness in our circle of friends (another credit to the movie is the deft hand with which schizophrenic Tyler is portrayed), the grudges, hurt feelings, and lines of alliance between the characters is something that we can all relate too (especially with a group of people who grew up together).  It all works to make the characters believable, which gives the violence all the more impact when it explodes onto the screen (and there’s a couple of pretty gruesome scenes in there).
Watching The Corridor reminded me of the first half of Dreamcatcher, before it takes a left turn and Morgan Freeman starts chewing on the scenery (he wasn’t the worst culprit, but he was the most unexpected one), but that doesn’t really do The Corridor justice.  I think a better comparison is to H.P. Lovecraft’s short story, The Colour Out of SpaceThe Corridor doesn’t have any forbidden colors (or any of the trappings of the Cthulhu mythos), but the portrayal of something truly ‘other’, and the madness that force invokes, has a very Lovecraftian feel.  Portraying the ‘unknowable’ is even harder on the screen than it is on the page, but I was impressed with the route that The Corridor took, walking a tight line between explaining too much and leaving things so vague as to be meaningless.  By the end I felt very satisfied with the story, and although screenwriter Josh MacDonald revealed in the Q&A that this was an aspect of the film he labored over, I never once felt the mystery was disingenuous or sloppy (as I’ve said before, two of my writing pet-peeves).
There were a few scenes where I thought the acting could use a little more punch, but in general the performances were good.  Likewise, there were elements that could have been more polished (for example, the character Bobcat, who was supposed to be bald, had pretty visible stubble on his head for a lot of the film), but honestly those are things that I would have completely overlooked in a lesser film.  I only looked for perfection because The Corridor set the bar so high.
The Corridor is highly recommended; watch it to see what Lovecraft might look like completely removed from all the Yog-Sothothery.

RPG Goodness

In my review of The Divide, I looked at how D&D’s class system, constructed for mutual reliance, can create tension and mistrust.  While The Corridor shares The Divide’s isolation and social breakdown, it uses a mind-bending alien force as its catalyst, rather than the exposure of humanity’s base nature.  In D&D terms, I think The Corridor’s approach still subverts the game’s reliance on teamwork, while avoiding the fallout that comes from permanently damaging the trust that holds a party together.  Actually, D&D already does this, and has since 1e’s Monster Manual.  The beholder, succubus, and mind flayer (as well as many others), all have powers that subsume the will of the individual, turn adventurers against one another, and create paranoia and dissent amongst the players.  The key to these monsters though, is that they also remove responsibility from the player for the actions of her character.  I’ve seen some pretty horrible things happen between characters due to these kinds of monsters, all while the players were laughing and having a good time.  As an example, when I ran Rifts, one of my players was mentally enslaved by a mindolar (a giant, mind controlling slug) and forced to try whatever he could to get the other characters into the monster’s lair (so they could become slaves as well).  His attempts almost worked, and rather than the rest of the party being angry, the event is cited as one of the greatest moments my players had in that game.
I think that both the approach I described in my review of The Divide (limited resources, restricted movement, and mistrust), as well as the one suggested by The Corridor can be combined together to make an interesting and memorable adventure (in the form of the adventure outline I promised in the earlier review).

Castaways of the Sargasso Prison

This is an event based adventure that takes place on board the ship Wandering Grail.  After a failed pirate attack leaves the Grail without a captain, the ship becomes becalmed in a treacherous region of sargasso.  The PC’s must deal with dwindling supplies, power struggles between the crew, and with the monstrous creature that controls the sargasso.

Adventure Hooks
This adventure is perfect to stage while the PCs are en route to a different adventure.  Perhaps they have paid for passage to distant continent, or seek adventure in the ruins of a remote island.  If the PCs are mercenaries, the Captain might hire them as guards since he (rightly) fears the pirates that ply the trade routes he must cross.

Major NPCs
Captain Maraver Fleetwind (female human fighter; Lawful Neutral/Unaligned) – The ornery and unpleasant Captain Fleetwind takes an instant dislike to the party (even if she hired them).  She is an unforgiving task master, and works the crew beyond their limit.
First Mate Bellray Copper (male human rogue; Neutral Evil/Evil) – On the surface Bellray is pleasant, accommodating, and completely subservient to Captain Fleetwind (while apologizing to the PCs for her behavior).  In truth, Bellray is an ambitious and bitter man who will go to any lengths to take control of the Wandering Grail (including the murder of his captain).
Quartermaster Quill Urthadar (female half-elven sorcerer; Neutral/Unaligned) – Although she has the official title of Quartermaster, under the controlling leadership of Captain Fleetwind, Quill is little more than a glorified cook (not that she minds).  Quill is quiet and unassuming until the supplies begin to run low; then she begins secretly hoarding food and water as a tool to control the crew.  Although she justifies this as a more reasonable alternative to Bellray’s rule, she is a little too comfortable choosing who will live and who will starve.
Abbhortha (advanced kopru; Lawful Evil/Evil) – This powerful undersea creature has recently learned a ritual to calm the winds above the sargasso-choked reef it uses as a lair.  It hopes to stop passing ships in order to mentally enslave their crews, spread its influence and build a new kopru empire with Abbhortha at the centre.

Event: Pirates
After a few uneventful days at sea (during which time Captain Fleetwind undoubtedly earns the party’s ire and Bellray tries to befriend them), the ship is attacked by a group of opportunistic pirates.  This encounter should be difficult, not only to reinforce the dangers the sea has to offer, but also to keep the party completely occupied by the fighting.  While the party is defending the ship, Bellray takes the opportunity to backstab the Captain during the confusion.  Depending on the actions of the PCs, one or more may witness Bellray’s treachery (although he is exceptionally sneaky, so he tries to avoid committing the assassination within their line of sight, and even if he does should be allowed a Hide or Bluff check opposed by the PC’s Spot or Sense Motive to cover it up).

Event: Alliances
Few mourn the loss of Captain Fleetwind, and protocol dictates that command of the ship falls to First Mate Copper.  The PCs may oppose this, or try and take control of the ship themselves, but it is extremely difficult to convince the rest of the crew to support them (and the ship won’t run without their support).  Even revealing the assassination does little to turn the ship against Bellray (give him a +5 circumstance bonus to opposed Diplomacy checks at this point).
Bellray knows the PCs are powerful adversaries and attempts to woo them to his side, all the while working out the best way to get rid of them.

Event: Becalmed
Not long after the death of Captain Fleetwind, the Wandering Grail’s course leads it above the reef of Abbhortha, who uses a magical ritual to calm the winds and strand the boat (magical or nature oriented PCs might notice the weather is unnatural with a difficult skill check: Nature or Arcana).  Rowing the ship is possible, but is made increasingly difficult due to the sargasso weed in this region (it fouls the oars and applies either a cumulative -2 to skill checks or increasingly reduces the ship’s speed until it cannot move).
During this period Bellray’s twisted nature becomes more and more apparent as he inflicts cruel and barbarous punishments for the slightest infraction.  Bellwind won’t actively move against the PCs until he is sure he has the superiority of numbers on his side and can win the fight with acceptable losses.  Control of the crew is best resolved as an ongoing skill challenge between the other events, or as a series of opposed Diplomacy or Intimidate checks.  The breakdown of the crew into opposed factions should evolve throughout the adventure (in this conflict all sides should be aware that killing too many of the crew is virtual suicide, since the ship needs a minimum amount of people to operate).

Event: Food and Water
Although the PCs and the crew might fish for food, water reserves quickly begin to run low (and the fishing is meagre at best).  This is compounded by Quill’s ongoing theft of supplies.  When one of the PCs begins to suffer from the effects of thirst or starvation give them an opportunity to catch Quill stealing, find her secret cache, or have her approach the PCs with the offer of rations for loyalty.  How this plays out is entirely up to the PCs.  They might side with Quill to depose Bellray, or the ship might split even further, into three competing camps.  As long as she controls the supplies, Quill gets a cumulative +2 circumstance bonus to opposed Diplomacy and Intimidate checks for each day the crew goes without food or water.
Keep in mind if the party has access to magic that can create edible food or drinking water it can drastically alter the outcome of this encounter.

Event: The Testing
At an appropriate time, perhaps when the Grail’s crew are at an impasse, the ship is attacked by a motley assortment of aquatic monsters (merfolk, sahuagin, a sea-lion).  These beasts are the thralls of Abbhortha, and he is using them to attack the ship with the intent of thinning out the Wandering Grail’s most capable defenders.
If they are still alive, both Bellray and Quill might take this opportunity to try and consolidate their power.

Event: An Offer from the Depths
With the crew weakened by infighting and the attack by its thralls, Abbhortha begins to personally venture onto the ship at night, using its mental powers to enslave and influence lone members of the crew.  The compromised crew members will act strangely (and the PCs might detect the magical influence through appropriate spell or skill), cajoling and forcing their shipmates to submit to their ‘sea god’ (and bringing them before the monster during his nightly incursions for indoctrination).  If enough of the crew are converted, Abbhortha will come aboard the ship permanently – sending out his minions to capture or kill any remaining crew members.  Depending on the actions of the PCs, it is entirely possible one or more will fall under Abbhortha’s sway.
If Quill is still alive during this event, she desperately wants to be on the winning side of this disaster and willingly converts to Abbhortha’s cause – even going so far as to dump her stores of food and water overboard, since she believes the new sea god Abbhortha will provide and is eager to prove her faith.  Bellray (if he is still alive) on the other hand, will never submit to the sea monster’s will.  The first mate would rather die fighting than give up his hard won control of the Wandering Grail.  Despite his vile nature, Bellray may be the PCs’ best ally in the fight against Abbhortha.

Concluding the Adventure
If Abbhortha is prevented from enslaving a critical mass of crew members, the creature cuts its losses and cancels the ritual of becalming, waiting for a more likely target to pass through its territory.  If Abbhortha is gravely injured, the beast abandons its plans (cancelling the ritual) and flees back to the inky depths.
Either Bellray or Quill, if they are in charge of the Wandering Grail by adventures end, are eager to send the PCs on their way and never see them again.


For a higher level version of this adventure simply replace Abbhortha with an advanced aboleth.
Traditionally, kopru are listed as Chaotic Evil, but I like to think that the prehistoric empire of the kopru, before their degeneration, was Lawful Evil – a part of its racial history megalomaniacal Abbhortha would be drawn to.

It Came from Toronto After Dark: Manborg

January 26, 2012

These It Came from the DVR articles are going to be a little bit different.  As an early Christmas present to myself, I picked up a festival pass to the Toronto After Dark film festival.  So the first difference is that these are new movies, on the big screen, instead of old ones and niche programming on the small screen.  The second difference is that these are going to be short.  I’ve got eighteen films to see in seven days (as well as dressing up for the annual zombie walk), so I’m not going to have a whole lot of time to write, and I want post these while the blood is still fresh.
Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration, but most of the films it showcases won’t see wide release – so in addition to extracting some rpg goodness from each movie, I’ll also give them a bit of a critique, so fellow gamers can know what they need to track down and what to avoid.  I’ll try and keep spoilers to an absolute minimum.


In this comedic love-letter to eighties b-movies, the world has been conquered by Draculon and his demonic armies.  The nations of earth have fallen, and only a rag-tag group of freedom fighters stands between Draculon and absolute, eternal power.  Just when things are at their bleakest, a new hero rises to aid the freedom fighters and save the human race – enter Manborg!

More Wacky Retro-sploitation from Astron-6

I’ll admit up front that without the festival pass, I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to see Manborg, and even with the pass I almost skipped it.  I figured it would be a laugh, but I’ve seen enough real bad movies that I’m not that keen on fake bad movies.  I won’t say that Manborg completely converted me, but I had a good time watching it; and what more can you ask for?
Director Steven Kostanski prefaced the screening with “Do you guys like crappy VHS movies from the eighties?  If you do, I think you’ll like this.”  I can’t think of a better statement to prepare viewers for the madness that is Manborg.  When I was a kid looking for affordable Christmas presents for my brothers, I discovered the bargain VHS bin at K-Mart (yes VHS and K-Mart, I am old).  Out of this treasure trove of schlock I picked out an obscure title featuring a very young Jackie Chan called Fantasy Mission Force.  It featured sub-par acting, abysmal effects, awkward slap-stick humor, the craziest, most random storyline I have ever witnessed – and my brothers and I watched it a dozen times.  Manborg is the spiritual inheritor of Fantasy Mission Force; it’s a tribute to the movies we watched as kids, which ignited our imaginations before we realized a lot of those films were pretty bad (Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone also comes to mind).  Kostanski plucks his characters directly from that childhood repository.  You’ve got your martial arts master (“only a ninja can stop a ninja”), your angry Australian (remember Jacko?), your badass future chick (like Melanie Griffith from Cherry 2000), and of course the manborg himself (if it didn’t have ninja’s in it, you can be guaranteed a b-movie from this era had a cyborg).
The visuals are appropriate, with lasers and digital effects circa Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, but after the laughter and nostalgia wears off, are pretty difficult to watch.  On the other hand, most of the monsters were created using some very nice stop-motion animation, which helped to sustain my interest throughout the film.  There are some brief uses of this technique in Father’s Day (for which Kostanski did the effects), but seeing it used throughout Manborg reminded me why I love stop-motion so much and why films like Clash of the Titans still hold up to modern viewing.
Manborg’s greatest strength, and what sets it apart from other spoofs, is that you never get the impression Kostanski is on the outside looking down at his subject, but is right in the thick of it, reveling in every cheesy, glorious minute.  You could almost call this self-depreciating humor, since the laughs are generated by a love of the subject matter and a knowing wink between Kostanski and the audience that we’ve been caught enjoying a guilty pleasure.
At the end of the day though, I’m not sure if the joke can sustain a film for even Manborg’s shortened sixty minutes (not matter how nostalgia-laced those minutes are).  I think the movie would have been better in a more condensed form, with the weaker material cut out, leaving it thirty minutes of concentrated mayhem.  Given that I’m not exactly the target audience of Manborg, this might not be a fair assessment – I am sure there were those at the screening who wished the film was a full ninety minutes or more.
Manborg is recommended for diehard fans of schlock cinema – this is pretty much as perfect a tribute as you can make to 80’s b-grade sci-fi films.  For everyone else, the stop-motion animation is fantastic, and the movie is genuinely fun to watch, I’m just not sure you’ll be able to endure how true Manborg is to the source material from start to finish.

RPG Goodness

Manborg had me thinking about (what else?) cyborg characters in rpgs.  The setting of the film, taken at face value and removed from its retro-cheese,  is about as close as we are ever going to get to seeing Rifts on the big screen (given that Palladium books has been trying to make it happen since the nineties, the forecast doesn’t look promising).  You’ve got the world overrun with demons, high technology, and a group of heroes that seem picked at random from the Palladium megaverse: a Ninjas and Superspies chi master, a gunslinger, a special-ops mercenary, and of course a full-conversion ‘borg.
I always thought that bionics and ‘borg characters in Rifts games were missing something.  The game has a great modular bionics building system, but is missing a key element in the place cybernetics would hold in the game world.  There are a whole lot of rules for replacing lost limbs and organs, but there are no mechanics in the game to inflict that kind of damage on the PCs.  Other than just wanting to chop off your arm to get one with a gun attached, there is very little reason to become a cyborg unless you start the game as one.
The problem with characters beginning the campaign as a cyborg is that in most of the popular culture cybernetic heroes are reborn as a ‘borg.  The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, Robocop, and Manborg, all feature cybernetics as a technology that either saves the main character’s life, or resurrects them.  This bothered me when I ran Rifts, so I used a house rule that mega-damage in excess of a character’s armor, blew off a limb rather than completely atomizing them (it also helped to mitigate the problems of the mega-damage system in general).
Of course Rifts isn’t the only game that is guilty of missing a great story opportunity for cyborg PCs.  Gamma World is my preferred post-apocalyptic rules system (see my articles on Gamma Rifts), and it also features PCs who start as cyborgs from day one.  Given that Gamma World tends to be more deadly than regular D&D (because of the lack of consistently available healing), and since the game has no method of bringing dead PCs back to life (unlike D&D’s raise dead) a post character creation cybernetic option seems like a perfect fit.
Here’s how it would work.  When a PC dies, give the player the option of resurrecting the character as a cyborg.  Perhaps the rest of the party finds a hidden Ancient medical facility whose cybernetic repair bays can be jury rigged with some cannibalized Omega Tech to rebuild their fallen comrade (a perfect opportunity for a Skill Challenge); or maybe the PC’s corpse was discovered by a mysterious cryptic alliance who transforms the PC as a part of their own shadowy agenda (which is why the PC now unwittingly carries a tracking device).  A cyborg PC removes their secondary origin, as well as any traits, powers or critical effects tied to that origin.  The PCs’ new secondary origin becomes Android (or AI if you are using Famine in Fargo).  Add any traits, powers and critical effects a character of the PC’s level is entitled to.  Changing a character’s secondary origin may also result in new ability scores (as a result of the character’s new mechanical components).  If the ability score associate with your old secondary origin is different from your cyborg origin, roll 3d6 and assign the total to that ability score.  Change the ability score associated with your cyborg origin to 16, unless it is the same ability as your primary origin, in which case it is raised to 20.  Resurrected PCs should also lose any Omega Tech cards they are carrying and draw a new card.
There is no reason that PCs should be the only ones to benefit from bionic technology.   Cyborgs make great Gamma World opponents, and the ‘Borg template allows you to create cybernetic versions of Gamma World’s already deadly list of monsters (as well as modifying the library of traditional D&D monsters – imagine alien cyborg beholders invading the earth retro flying saucer style!).  The rules for using templates in Gamma World can be found at the end of my review for War of the Dead.

‘Borg Template

“It can’t be bargained with.  It can’t be reasoned with.  It doesn’t feel pity or remorse or fear.  And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.”

Apply this template to a creature that has been transformed into a cybernetic killing machine through the use of Ancient or alien technology.  ‘Borgs fight using the same weapons and abilities they possessed before the change, only they are tougher, faster, and their machine minds possess a level of emotionless, single minded focus most organic beings find frightening.
Some ‘borgs show occasional flashes of their former personalities, haunting the crumbling buildings they once called home, searching for something they can’t quite remember, before resuming their program of systematic extermination.
“’Borg” is a template that can be added to any humanoid or beast.  It works best when added to a creature with a strong melee attack, like a brute, skirmisher, or solider.  This template represents the most common type of cyborg encountered across the wastelands of Gamma Terra; it is doubtless that other versions exist.
Prerequisite: Humanoid or beast; level 5.


I cribbed some of the ‘borg template’s powers from the cyborg monsters in Legion of Gold (and since that adventure is all about cyborg marauders on an aggressive campaign of ‘recruitment’ they really should have been given the template option there), but I prefer a Steve Austin style bionic leap to a jet-powered one.  I also wanted the ‘borg to have the single-minded focus of the terminator, so I gave it a power similar to the fighter class’ ability to mark in D&D (but couldn’t use it exactly since there is no marking in Gamma World).

It Came From the DVR: Vampires vs. Zombies

October 9, 2011

When I was younger, I used to love nothing more than staying up all night in the cathode ray glow of the television with a bottle of caffeinated beverage by my side, watching such late night fare as Incredible Hulk reruns, badly dubbed kung fu flicks, and rubber suited monster movies.  They were hardly Shakespeare, but I’ve found inspiration for writing and gaming in even the darkest dregs of cable television (not everything is redeemable – Charles in Charge comes to mind).
Now that I’m older and (slightly) more responsible, my DVR stays up all night for me, recording a smorgasbord of visual junk food.  In this series, I boil that junk down and extract the interesting bits – campaign ideas, adventure locales, encounter set pieces, and of course, monsters.
Spoiler Alert! Yes, spoilers are going to abound.  When dissecting a movie or television show to find the hidden awesomeness, you’re bound to reveal things about the plot.

Deadliest Warrior

I am a big fan of Deadliest Warrior.  Each episode they use a computer simulation to pit two of history’s greatest warriors against one another, collecting data about weapons, armour and fighting techniques along the way.  Yes it’s cheesy, it’s arbitrary and the Americans always win (which is even easier to ensure this season, with the addition of highly subjective ‘x-factors’ to the criteria), but I am a sucker for any show with gratuitous slow motion shots of pig carcasses and ballistics gel torsos being hacked to pieces (I also love Mythbusters).  Plus, the trash talk between experts is hilarious.
From a gamer’s perspective, it’s a little like watching Gygax’s fetish for arms and armour come to life, albeit with a few less pole arms.  After spending years with some of these weapons on paper, it’s nice to see them in action.  Of course, if you’re reading this blog, the odds are you’ve already seen the show.  There’s a lot of overlap in the Venn diagram describing people who are gamers and people who wonder if a ninja would win in a fight with a pirate.  And if you haven’t seen the show yet, it’s definitely worth checking out for that alone – but I want to talk about the finale.

Vampires vs. Zombies

Now, normally the show deals with real historical figures and martial traditions, but for the season three finale the producers decided to take a sidestep into folklore and pit two iconic undead monsters against one another (depicted here in a mash-up of Clyde Caldwell’s cover of Ravenloft and Jeff Easley’s cover for The Magister).  To give their professional opinion and help with the testing, Steve Niles (author of 30 Days of Night, representing the vampires), and Max Brooks (author of World War Z, representing the zombies) were brought in as experts.  As would be expected, both by the type of tests they run on the show, and by the version of the undead presented in both Niles and Brooks’ work, the show assumed biological versions of vampires and zombies instead of supernatural ones (so no flying or transmutation for the vamps, and no magically animated body parts attacking on their own for the zombies).
The episode was a lot of fun, and even more gruesome than usual.  I heartily approve of using dog and crocodile bites as analogs for the impact of zombie and vampire bites.  Once the data was collected, Deadliest Warrior moved on to the real highlight – a hydraulically powered biting machine they used to chew apart a couple of ballistics gel torsos made up to look like a vampire and a zombie to measure the damage the monsters could inflict on one another.  The vampire stand-in even had a pumping jugular so they could time how long it would take the creature to bleed out if a zombie got a lucky hit (like I said, they went for the more biological version of the vampire – so they needed blood to survive).  I also have to congratulate Max Brooks for taking the smack talk to a whole different level.  I easily could have watched a half hour of him bad mouthing vampires and it still would have been entertaining (but then I would have missed out on the biting machine, which would have been a crime).
Not surprisingly, even with the advantage of overwhelming numbers on their side, the zombies lost.  Which, as big a fan of zombies as I am, is at it should be.  Zombies are mindless, and really only have one strategy, while vampires are at least as smart as mortal humans.  They also had the vampires fighting with their teeth and claws, when they could have easily used any of the human weapons featured on the show from the past three seasons.  Zombie movies are great, and I think they make a better metaphor for our consumer capitalist society than vampires do, but in an actual fight – vampires win.  But really, why would vampires and zombies fight at all?  Wouldn’t vampires simply avoid an approaching zombie horde since they don’t have anything to gain by destroying them?
My partner and I usually like to bet on Deadliest Warrior, and in our ‘post-game’ debate these questions came up, which got me thinking (yes we will argue with each other about anything, which should be obvious by how seriously I am taking such a ridiculous show).  In combat it’s true that vampires would mop the floor with zombies (as the dramatized portion of the show demonstrated), but when two predators compete with one another in an environment, that’s rarely the factor that determines survival.  If it were, the world would be swarming with smilodons and megalodons.  Predators compete with one another by stealing the other’s food source.
The problem for vampires is this: both vampires and zombies have the potential to infect others and create spawn, but vampire spawn compete for food (living blood) with their creators so it’s not in the vampires’ best interest to create too many, while zombies just keep making more zombies (since they are mindless and exist only to spread their virus anyway).  So while vampires may win the proverbial battle, they will most likely lose the war, as the zombie plague spreads like wildfire amongst their food supply and the vampires are left to die of starvation on a dead planet filled with wandering corpses.  It would also put vampires in the strange position of having to risk their ‘lives’ to shield humanity …  a scenario rife with possibilities for role playing games.

The Planet of the Dead Campaign

This campaign works best with any post-apocalyptic rpg: Rifts, Gamma World (Gamma Rifts even!), D20 Apocalypse, Mutant Future… but it could also easily work with D&D (especially if you wanted to use the world ending arrival of Atropus from Elder Evils), or even a dark take on Mutants and Masterminds (think Marvel Zombies and the Midnight Sons).  Hell, you could probably even use something like Palladium’s Invid Invasion for the Robotech rpg (imagine riding a red and black, vampire built cyclone through the wastelands, fighting giant, gestalt mega-undead formed from the lashed together bodies of hundreds of zombies).
Here is a breakdown of the campaign arc such a game might take.


This short adventure makes a great prequel to the campaign and sets up both the relationships of the PCs as well as setting the tone for adventures to come.
Hours before the global outbreak of the ‘zed virus’, the characters are investigating a series of murders on their home turf.  The victims have been drained of blood and suffered horrible neck injuries (which should raise a lot of flags amongst the players).  As the deceased are all from vulnerable populations (homeless and sex trade workers), the authorities (police, city watch, etc.) have shown little interest in finding the perpetrator, so it falls to the PC’s to get to the bottom of things (perhaps they were even contacted/hired by the family of one of the victims).
The reality is that a powerful clan of vampires, known as ‘the family’ is using their influence to cover for the indiscretions of one of their more reckless members (you can’t do an end of the world game without at least one nod to The Omega Man).  The family is important in the campaign, but doesn’t appear again until the late stages of the game.
The PCs can follow the clues left by the careless vampire to an old tenement building it has been using as a lair (its behaviour has estranged it from the rest of its brethren), but the clock is ticking.  Outside, the zed virus is spreading faster than in can be contained, and a shambling horde of the undead is headed the PCs’ way.  The vampire seems like the least of the party’s worries when the zombies show up.
An interesting climax to the adventure could be an encounter that transforms from and invasion of the vampire’s lair to a defense of it (perhaps making a temporary truce with the vampire, or maybe a gory three way battle).


Fast forward six months (or a year) and the world has not fared well.  Society has crumbled, the government no longer exists, and the organized war against the zombies has been lost.  The battle for survival begins.
The PCs can be wandering nomads, foraging for equipment and supplies, or they can be holed up behind makeshift barricades, venturing out on short treks for food and medicine.  This kind of format makes this portion of the campaign perfect for short, goal-oriented adventures (find food, rescue loved ones, etc.), that emphasize the demoralizing hellscape of the post zombie apocalypse.
Dangers abound, not just from zombies, but from other more predatory survivors, the environment and starvation.  Encounters with zombies should be varied – the Resident Evil series of games did a great job of making a wide range of monsters to fight by having the t-virus constantly mutating and infecting different animals in different ways (and if the game system already has all kinds of strange creatures you can really go to town when introducing the zed virus).
Getting an infectious zombie bite should always be a threat, but in an rpg it can’t be as virulent as it is in the movies (unless you’re running a Call of Cthulhu game I guess).  Players generally expect a higher degree of survivability for their characters than you get in the average horror movie.  If you need an in-game reason the PCs get a saving throw, or (if you are using a 4e-style disease) can get better from the virus, perhaps they already have some in-built resistance to the plague that the average person doesn’t benefit from (in a fantasy campaign maybe they have been blessed by the gods, or drank water from a magical fountain).
Pepper these short adventures with rumours of a zombie-free colony of survivors that’s been founded some distance from town (however far it needs to be to make the travel dangerous and memorable).   The worse things get where the characters are, the more likely they are to take the hook (and if they were already nomads, getting to this sanctuary may have been their goal all along).


Hungry and ragged from the journey, the PCs arrive at the colony, a self-contained complex of hi-tech buildings, complete with armoured greenhouses and its own nuclear power plant (or an impenetrable, walled city with its own self-contained vineyards and orchards in a fantasy game).  Amazingly, the colony is as zombie free as advertised and welcomes the PCs with open arms.  The place is floor to ceiling gleaming white tile and chrome, bright fluorescent lighting, and most importantly, fully equipped with clean, running water (in a fantasy game the colony would be a neo-classical daydream of the Acropolis, filled with white marble and mathematically precise colonnades).  In exchange for residency, given the PCs’ skills, all they need to do is volunteer for the colony’s defense force.
At this point in the game an easy, by the numbers adventure will lull the players into accepting the colony at face value (or not, most rpg players are a pretty suspicious lot – but that’s OK too, the game doesn’t hinge on them being trusting).  Under orders from the defence force, a daytime raid against a group of uninfected bandits, or a simple seek and destroy mission to clear a group of undead from a nearby roadway would be good fits.
Once they have begun to settle into their new life, throw the occasional clue about the colony’s true purpose the party’s way: in spite of the steady trickle of survivors coming in, the colony never seems to run out of room or resources; the PCs have never met or seen any of the people who defend the colony through the night; the colony’s leaders are constantly shifting people from one living area to another – every week it seems the PCs have new roommates and neighbours; there is no crime in the colony, yet the PCs haven’t seen any internal police.  It won’t take much for the PCs to want to investigate further.

The Bloody Truth

Eventually the PCs will use whatever means they have (force, guile or subterfuge), to get to the bottom of who really runs the colony – a group of vampires called the family (possibly including the vampire they fought at the beginning of the campaign, if it escaped), protecting a small pocket of humanity from the zed virus to preserve their food supply.
The PCs might stumble onto direct evidence of the family (using whatever means of vampire detection are suitable to the game and type of vampires it features), or they may break into the core of the family’s secret activities in the colony – a cavernous, refrigerated vault underneath the colony’s reactor that houses a living blood bank.  Hundreds of comatose humans, hooked into a web-like network of intravenous tubes, some providing just enough sustenance to keep these poor souls alive, while the blood they produce is slowly leached away by others (a fantastic image courtesy of the film Daybreakers).
As more and more survivors make their way to the colony, the family adds more bodies to the blood bank, always making sure to keep enough free humans to supply a healthy breeding stock.  Preference is given to those humans with highly trained skills, powerful defenders (like the PCs), and pregnant women.  Criminals, agitators, and dissidents are all prime candidates to be taken to the blood bank.


The endgame of the campaign is completely dependent on the actions of the PCs (which goes without saying for any part of the campaign, but here especially so).  As distasteful as it is, the party might decide to maintain the status quo.  Sacrificing a portion of the population might be deemed a worthwhile price for the vampires’ protection against the zed virus and the continuance of humanity.  The challenge for a party that takes this road is in convincing the family that they will keep the vampires’ secret.  Doubtless the family will arrange for tests of loyalty which might be as dangerous as fighting the vampires themselves (and since the family’s opinion might not be unanimous, this is a great opportunity for high stakes political intrigue and espionage).
Most rpgs are action oriented, and many of the players I know would want to take the other road, overthrow the family and free the enslaved humans.  The challenge here is obvious and could be played out as a climactic Helm’s Deep type battle between the vampires, their minions and whatever freedom fighters the PCs can muster together (you could even throw in an ill-timed zombie attack for good measure), or as a series of guerrilla attacks between the PCs and the vampires (in between which they must once again fare for themselves in the zombie infested wasteland).
There is also the possibility that some PCs will want to side with the family, while others will want to destroy the vampires.  You should definitely be prepared for some inter party conflict here.  Emotions can run high in these situations and it might be a good idea to call a session before the PCs decide what they are going to do (think about the fate of Rorschach in Watchmen – some players might be cool with that, while it could ruin the campaign for others).

Vampires as PCs

Many of the game systems mentioned feature the option of playing as a vampire.  At first glance it might seem a bad idea to include these character options, but they can add an interesting twist to the whole campaign.  The vampire PC might already be a member of the family (and should be prepared for some of the previously mentioned conflict at the end of the campaign), or might be a member of a different group of vampires just as ignorant of the colony as the other PCs (and might be equally horrified by the activities there).  A vampire PC won’t automatically side with the family any more than other PCs will automatically want to fight them.

Random Encounters: The Steading of Cyberworks 7

July 29, 2011

As I promised in my last post, I present my conversion notes for running the Gamma World boxed set’s introductory adventure, Steading of the Iron King, in the world of Rifts. This covers the entire adventure, so the post is a little long.
Spoiler Alert!  If you haven’t played through Steading of the Iron King, and plan to (or if you are one of my players – there’s a ton of spoilers in here about the campaign!) my commentary and walkthrough of the adventure is going to spoil it.  Not that there’s any world shattering secrets in the adventure, but still, spoilers.  You have been warned.


Reading through the adventure when I first picked up the boxed set is one of the things that helped convince me that Gamma World was a suitable rule set for the Rifts setting.  The final encounter with the Iron King immediately brought to mind the cover of the Rifts Sourcebook, with Hagan Lonovich sitting on a cybernetic throne, stroking a bottweiler and wearing A.R.C.H.I.E’s interface helmet.  Also, for the campaign I am running, I wanted the tone to be a little more serious than the ‘stupendico’ installation evoked, and the mixture of insane A.I. and Wizard of Oz that is Cyberworks in Rifts seemed a perfect fit (deadly serious and ridiculous at the same time).
I moved the action to a pre-rifts Cyberworks facility in the tech heavy area of Mississauga, just outside of Toronto, now the magic rich city of Lazlo (as a Torontonian, Lazlo’s prominence in the world of Rifts is one of the features that attracted me to the setting in the first place).  In Rifts canon, A.R.C.H.I.E. 3 and Cyberworks are located underneath the Aberdeen proving ground in the state of Maryland.  I try not to break canon when I use an official setting, but I do like to bend it (there’s nothing wrong with breaking canon, but I find working within it a useful tool to the thought exercise of building a campaign), so in my game, A.R.C.H.I.E. 3 is only the most successful of Cyberworks’ experiments in artificial intelligence.  Scattered across North America are other facilities with less developed A.I.s, including A.R.C.H.I.E. 7 in Mississauga.


Once the players had developed their own backstories, laying out their motivations for joining a mercenary company working for Lazlo (‘the Misfits’ mentioned in the previous post), I used the following vignette to set up the adventure:

Against all odds, for the past two weeks, life has been sweet.  Sitting in you bunker atop the bombed out shell of an old hotel, the most dangerous obstacle you’ve had to face was boredom.  The ruins of the lonely highway, the highway for one, over which you have been keeping watch, has lived up to its name.  Two days ago you even had the fortune of unearthing a pre-rifts mini-bar with its contents intact!  Some of it was even fit to drink.
The recent war between the Coalition and Tolkeen has everyone on edge.  That was the reason the city of Lazlo hired you in the first place.  With more troops than they could spare reinforcing their allies to the west, Lazlo’s generals were concentrating what little strength they had, back behind the city walls.  That meant they needed mercenaries like you to act as scouts and sentries (early warning systems and cannon fodder), along Lazlo’s most accessible entry routes.  But hey, what did you have to complain about?  You haven’t heard a peep out of the Detroit and Windsor rifts, and it sure beat dodging dog packs and Xiticix on your own.
Life has been sweet… until yesterday.  You were deep in contemplation that it probably wasn’t a good idea to drink anything out of a pre-rifts bottle, even if the seal was intact, when the perimeter microwave fence was tripped.  After you pulled your head out of the latrine, you and your team sprang into action.  It turned out to be a decrepit robot, waving its limbs threateningly and trying to speak with a busted, crackling loudspeaker.  Then, without warning, it caught fire and exploded.  Odd, but considering what was walking around the wastelands of North America, not completely out of the ordinary.
Then the same thing happened today.  Only this time the robot managed to fire off a small missile into the building next door before it expired.   It also gave you a message: “Run program 1!  All enemies of the Iron King must be destroyed!”  It was a small sample size, but you didn’t like the pattern that was developing.  It was time to earn your pay.

Note: Anyone not from southern Ontario probably isn’t going to get the ‘highway for one’ play on words.

The Real Story

The Iron King (his assumed name) and his cronies were once a part of the Bloody Cavaliers, a gang of bandits raiding the area between Lazlo, Iron Heart and Free Quebec.  They were sent to the Cyberworks facility by Captain ‘cross-eyes’ Zora, the gang’s infamous leader (nicknamed for her habit of putting iron spikes through the eyes of those foolish enough to stare at her disfigurement), to use Cyberworks’ robot stockpile to create a diversion and distract Lazlo’s defenders.
Instead, the Iron King found A.R.C.H.I.E. 7’s cybernetic control helm and began tinkering with one of Cyberworks’ failed experiments.  Unlike the fully sentient A.R.C.H.I.E. 3, this machine intelligence can only communicate empathically and is vaguely self-aware.  Mastering control of the facility’s manufacturing capabilities is a long process of trial and error, and unfortunately for the Iron King, exposes the human mind to dangerous levels of psychic feedback.  It wasn’t long before such mental damage caused the Iron King to descend into all absorbing megalomania.  Cutting off communication with Captain Zora and the rest of the Bloody Cavaliers, the Iron King has taken the first small steps to creating his own robotic fiefdom.
Clues that the adventurers find here might put them on the trail of the Bloody Cavaliers, which is good, since Captain Zora has been busy in Lazlo…

The Handouts

Click on the picture below to download the 2 page PDF.  I apologize for the general monochromatic tone; I have a black and white printer, so I make most of my play aids in grayscale.
If you’ve ever played Portal 2, you’ll notice I cribbed most of Cyberworks’ warning signs from that game.  I’ve never actually played the game myself (or its precursor), but I found Aperture Laboratories’ signs while Googling ‘insane A.I.’ and I thought they were hilarious.


Encounter S1: Tower Defense

The old trail you discovered while backtracking the robots’ trail skirts a glowing crater.  It ends at the base of an ancient, sunken, office tower, where wastelanders carrying crossbows stand watch, supported by porcine humanoids carrying flails.

For the adventure, I re-skinned the badder steading guards as wasteland vagabonds, which I described as looking like central casting punks out of The Road Warrior (which worked nicely since the armour, weapons, and powers fit perfectly).  The porkers I kept as is, but described as looking like the gamorrean guards from Return of the Jedi.

Encounter S2: Tower Interior

Two interior cornices have been converted to guard platforms, where wastelanders wait with crossbows.  In the far corner an aerie is heaped with bones and carrion, the roost for a dragon-like creature with iridescent yellow scales.  An old carpet, embroidered with runes lies on the floor near the doors.

For this encounter, I made the planter of grab grass into a magically sticky carpet of adhesion, with the same effects.  I re-skinned the yexil as a winged dragonsaurus (from the Atlantis book), with the power of acidic spittle, instead of laser eyes (does acid instead of laser damage, but is otherwise the same).
The wastelanders’ barracks room is an old ‘executive quiet room’ complete with scavenged pre-rifts ergonomic cots.

Encounter S3: Warren Entry

A pair of wastelanders are taking cover behind a boardroom table, pushed on its side at the bottom of the stairs.  Strange, dust covered statues line the corridor, depicting what looks like an android holding the Cyberworks logo triumphantly in the air.

I re-skinned the badder slave drivers as momma’s boys – wastelanders with pop can sized M.O.M. implants sticking out of their skulls wielding crowbars.  I exchanged their flails for crowbars and renamed crippling fail as leg breaker (with the same effect).  Fear wave and control pain work fine as is, psychic powers granted by the implants.
Since the human slaves in the cage are effectively brain-dead, I made the destruction of the machine (the AR-06 Psychotron) end their lives and put them out of their misery.  It was a little too early in the game for the kind of moral quandary that rescuing vegetative captives presents.  Other GMs may feel differently.

Encounter S4: Moth Infestation

The chamber is dimly lit by patches of blue moss that glow with the same radiance as a ley line.  An earthen ramp spirals down into an enormous pit in the center of the cavern.  Scattered amidst the luxurious clumps of moss are half a dozen humanoid skeletons.

I kept the black blaashes as they were, since radiation shooting, giant moths are perfect for Gamma World and Rifts.  I know that radiation was the theme tying the two monsters together, but the blood birds weren’t insectoid enough for me to be teamed up with the blaashes, so I re-skinned them as radioactive stirges (from D&D, not Rifts).  All that was needed was to rename radioactive plumage to radioactive aura and beak to proboscis (no mechanical changes).
Since this is an encounter with lurkers and artillery, instead of having the monsters flying around in the open when the encounter began, as in the original text, I had them hiding in the cover of the deep moss, waiting to ambush anything that entered the chamber  (such as adventurers lured in to investigate the skeletons).
I also wanted to add a bit more exploration to the session and mitigate the feeling of ‘next room, next combat’ that this adventure is prone to, so when my players decided to scout the chamber’s adjoining tunnels I added the following encounters in.

The walls of the first cave are festooned with strange leathery sacks, stuck to the stone with some kind of secreted resin.

A moderate (DC 13) Nature check reveals the sacks to be blaash egg cases (as well as the danger of destroying them).  Like their parents, destroying a blaash egg sack releases an explosion of radioactive goo (close burst 1, +6 vs. Fortitude, 1d6+3 radiation damage).  Note: I use Nature for monster knowledge checks about creatures with the terrestrial origin, Science for the extraterrestrial origin, and Arcana for the extradimensional origin.

The secondary tunnel twists back and forth for about 40 ft. and then stops at a dead end.  There is a small tracked robot here, similar in design to the one whose trail led the party to this base, trapped in the corner, grinding away its motor in an effort to get out.  Judging by the rut in the ground it’s created, you think it’s been here for a few days at least.

Stuck in a failed program, the robot is oblivious to anything the party does, but its volatile construction makes tampering with the machine potentially dangerous.  I made this encounter a complexity 1 skill challenge (4 successes before 3 failures), that begins with an easy (DC 9) Mechanics check (opening up the control panel on the robot without damaging it), and ends with a hard (DC 17) Science check (reprogramming the robot to obey the party instead of the Iron King).  In between are moderate (DC 13) skill checks that reflect the idea of repairing, reprogramming, and using Kirk-esque cajoling to get the robot to do what the players want (my players used Mechanics, Science, and Interaction respectively).
Success at the skill challenge means the party has reprogrammed the robot and can use it in combat (the robot has 1 Hit Point, a movement of 3, 13 in all defenses; as a standard action an ally can command it to fire its missile which destroys the robot and has the following attack: burst 1 in 10, +7 vs. Reflex, 2d6+7 fire and physical damage, half-damage on a miss).
Failure means that the party has accidentally triggered the robot’s missile, destroying it and damaging themselves (close burst 1, +7 vs. Reflex, 2d6+7 fire and physical damage, half-damage on a miss).
Outside of combat characters can try and get information from the robot with hard (DC 17) skill checks (I allowed a hard Science check to access the robots memory files, which gave the party a glimpse of the map as well as an image recognition file for the Iron King).

S5: Cyberworks Factory Exterior
This encounter is appropriate for Rifts without modification.

S6:  Cyberworks Showroom

Light panels on the ceiling flicker intermittently, casting sinister shadows in this stunningly clean chamber of steel and ceramic.  Strange machines, labelled AR-72 action inverters, hum and blink in the center of the room.  Alcoves line some of the walls, proudly displaying their wares – a veritable legion of robots in various states of decay.  The sounds of hydraulic lifts whoosh form adjoining chambers.

The only changes I made to this encounter was to re-skin the soldierbots as A-63 all-purpose heavy bots, with no changes to their powers (the robots seen flanking the throne on the cover of the Rifts Sourcebook, sans rifles).

S7:  Cyberworks Restricted Area

Except for a space near the doors, the floor here slopes toward a central trench that is filled, floor to ceiling, with flickering beams of red light.  A pair of partial conversion ‘borgs stand on the other side, flanked by two tracked robots that look like the perfected versions of the machine that attacked your bunker at the hotel.  Near them is a panel of flickering lights.

I re-skinned the hoop sharpshooters as wasteland head-hunters, armed with JA-11 sniper rifles.  I renamed axe hack as bionic wrist claws, and hop as bionic leap (no mechanical change to either).  Since I wanted the rocketbots to fit thematically with the opening of the adventure and the robot found in area S4, I got rid of their fly speed, upped their land speed to 5 and gave them the treaded trait (rocketbots ignore difficult terrain).

S8:  Cyberworks Factory Floor

A huge mechanized arm hangs from the 30-foot-high ceiling.  Machines and dynamos hum along the chamber’s periphery.  Two massive vats swirl with scintillating colors; the fluid appears to move on its own.  On a 10-foot-high platform at the rear of the room stands a full conversion cyborg with a crazed look in his eyes, wearing a large, almost spherical helmet, connected to the machines by endlessly coiling spools of wires.  Standing between you and the ‘borg are a pair of robotic hounds and two scowling juicers.  One of the juicers has decorated her light plate armour with the cartoon logo of a bear, the other with the cartoon logo of a frog.

I re-skinned the laserbots as bottweilers (they shoot their lasers from a concealed cannon in their mouths), got rid of their fly speed, increased their land speed to 6, and replaced electrojolt with bite (physical instead of electricity damage).  I re-skinned the hoop warriors as the sugar twins, a pair of deadly juicers wielding vibro-swords, replaced axe slash with vibro slash, big hop with steroid jump, and transmuting touch with sundering strike (no mechanical changes to any of the powers).  The Iron King kept his name but I re-skinned him as a full conversion cyborg, added the robot keyword, and replaced katana with bionic wrist claws (no mechanical change).
Once the battle is over, characters can try and use the cybernetic control helm.  Each use inflicts 2d6+7 psychic damage on the operator (optionally, rather than killing the operator, a character reduced to 0 Hit Points by this can develop an insanity adjudicated by the GM or by rolling on the insanity tables in the Rifts rpg).  Characters using the helm can do one of the following: an easy (DC 9) Science or Interaction check reveals what A.R.C.H.I.E. stands for (Artificial Robot Cerebellum Housing Intellect Experiment); a moderate (DC 13) Science or Nature check reveals the location of two other A.R.C.H.I.E. experiments, one in London Towne (pre-rifts London Ontario), and one in the Hammer (pre-rifts Hamilton Ontario); a hard (DC 17) Science or Arcana check (depending on what the character is trying to create) allows the operator to use the mechanized arm and wild nano vats to create an Omega Tech item (draw two cards as a reward and choose one);  a successful complexity 1 skill challenge allows the operator to create a bottweiler minion with 1 Hit Point that follows the commands (a standard action) of the operator (this option is guaranteed to kill or drive the operator insane so use with caution).

Field Report: Gamma Rifts

July 24, 2011

I’ve written a lot about my love/hate relationship with Rifts, so I won’t beat that horse anymore, suffice to say I’m one of the legions who love the setting and hate the system.  Currently, I am using the latest edition of the Gamma World game to run a campaign set in the world of Rifts (the basic modifications to the rules are here, and a set 30 of Rifts flavoured Omega Tech cards are here).  That campaign is well underway, and I thought I would share some of the tabletop experiences as an example of how a Gamma Rifts game can work.
After a couple of sessions we’ve played through ninety percent of a Rifts modified version of the introductory adventure, Steading of the Iron King (my next post will cover the modifications I made to the adventure as well as some of the handouts I used for it).

The Good

I’m very pleased with the game so far.  The looser, more streamlined rules have been fun.  While the abstract nature of the rules governing weapons and armour might be off-putting to Rifts purists (a baseball bat with a nail in it does the same damage as a vibro-knife), I haven’t missed a dozen books worth of guns or keeping track of all that ammunition (another aspect of Gamma World that has been taken to the abstract level).  In fact, freed from the restrictions of a highly detailed equipment list, everyone had a ball making up their own weapons and armour during the character creation process (more on that later).  It might be a less realistic approach to weapon damage, but it does a far better job than Rifts ever did of allowing for the broad range of character types drawn from the multitude of sources that inspire a kitchen sink science fantasy game (and have them still be useful to the party and fun to play that is).
The Rifts set of Omega Tech cards printed up beautifully (better than I thought they would actually), for the price of less than 2 WOTC booster packs at Kinkos, and mesh nicely with the cards contained in the boxed set.  The mix of the Gamma World and my own splugorth, techno-wizard and magic items did a good job of reinforcing the nature and feel of the setting.
Most importantly, the feel of the game at the table captured the best elements of Rifts – quirky, bizarre characters having madcap adventures in a dangerous and deadly serious world that is often contradictorily ridiculous and funny.

The Bad

While Gamma World does a great job of recreating what I call the ‘street level’ of Rifts (city rats, cyborgs, juicers, ley-line walkers and mind melters), it isn’t that great at emulating the epic side of Palladium’s signature game (mega damage, pistols that can put a hole in a mountain, easy access to long range nuclear missiles, and characters that can fly at Mach 2 at first level).  This wasn’t a big deal for me, as those were aspects of the game I never really felt were integral to the setting, but others may feel differently (I had long toyed with the idea of running Rifts using the notes in the Rifts Conversion Book to convert everything to SDC as a way of dealing with the game’s problems – so that gives you an idea of where I’m coming from).
Finally, if you hate 4e D&D (which provides the core ‘engine’ of Gamma World), you’re going to hate using Gamma World in any setting.  The abstract level of many of the rules (equipment, ammunition, healing outside of combat, and the Alpha and Omega cards) can be a turn-off to players with a more simulationist bent.

The Party

The best way to demonstrate how a Gamma Rifts game actually plays out is to take a look at the party of adventurers my players put together for our campaign (check out their portraits at the end of the post).  Character creation in Gamma World is fun, and the addition of figuring out how the two origins worked with the character’s power source (tech, magic or mutant), only added to the process.
My players rolled their origins but chose their power source based on suggestions from me and the other players of how such a character might be envisioned (for example he Wheeled origin and the tech power source might produce a tracked cyborg like the ones in the Russia worldbook, while the mutant or magic power source with the same origin could be interpreted as some kind of centaur creature).  Often, the ideas that were generated during character creation were also informed by the random skill bonus each Gamma World character receives.
We are still getting used to interpreting the Alpha cards according to power source and not just as a mutation (spells for magic, and gadgets for tech characters), but I think that will get easier with a little nudging from me and the inclusion of more game elements that are affected by power source differently (things like gamma terrain, hazards, and monster powers).
Once the rolling was finished, I asked each of my players to describe themselves, their armour and weapons, and come up with a reason why they were members of a band of mercenaries working for the city of Lazlo (the set-up of the first adventure that I’ll detail next post).  It wasn’t far into the first session that my friends dubbed their party ‘the Misfits’, and besides being an unforeseen Jem reference (which is cool in itself), describes them pretty well.

Lazarus Project Subject E (Laz-E to his friends, for his slow movement rate), is a dead man with no memory of his former life, resurrected and powered by a large graviton reactor in his chest.  He wears armour made from the cast off junk he found in the destroyed lab where he was ‘born’ and wields an old parking meter in combat that occasionally spits out strange coins.  He joined up with the Misfits by accident, hoping one day to uncover the mystery of his origin.  [Re-animated/Gravity Controller with the Tech power source wearing heavy armour and using a heavy 2-handed melee weapon]

Willow is the spirit of a Dryad who survived the destruction of her bonded tree, constantly weeping a slow trickle of tear-sap from haunted eyes.  She wears the bark of her former home as armour and wields a greatclub made from the tree’s thickest branch.  She joined the Misfits as part of her crusade against the Coalition, whose engines of war destroyed her grove.  [Yeti/Ectoplasmic with the Magic power source wearing heavy armour and using a heavy 2-handed melee weapon – there was already an actual Yeti in the party so the Yeti origin’s bonus to Nature, combined with another bonus to Nature through the random skill bonus roll, led to the interpretation of the character as a nature spirit, the Yeti’s claws becoming thorny branches]

Big Claw is a Yeti fire warlock.  She wears armour made from cast off metal scraps, uses a manhole cover as a shield, and wields a magic sword made from the unmeltable ice of the North Pole.  She joined the Misfits to aid in her search of the southlands for a piece of ‘hairless ape magic’ (technology) that can reunite her with her northern tribe, and bypass her enemies in the Coalition state of Iron Heart.  [Yeti/Pyrokinetic with the Magic power source wearing heavy armour, shield, and using a heavy 1-handed melee weapon]

The Master looks human, but insists he is a ‘time lord’, and constantly reminds others of their species’ inferior status.  He wears a personal force field projector on his back and wields a handheld disruptor.  He joined the Misfits hoping the techno-wizards of Lazlo would aid him in repairing his destroyed transport, which he calls a TARDIS (and the Misfits keep him around because he’s a mechanical genius).  [Electrokinetic/Temporal with the Tech power source wearing heavy armour and using a light 1-handed gun – the Master’s personality is the direct result of his abysmal Charisma score]

Paranoia is a risk averse Mind Melter whose psychokinetic abilities are so strong she can rip other versions of herself from parallel dimensions into her own reality (usually to die horribly in her place).  She wears a jacket of red dragon scales as armour, uses a large dragon scale as a shield, and wields a baseball bat with a nail though it.  She was born in Lazlo, so helping with the war effort comes naturally… joining the Misfits means she doesn’t have to follow orders or stick around if the Coalition war machine comes calling.  [Telekinetic/Doppelganger with the Mutant power source wearing light armour, shield, and using a light 1-handed melee weapon]


Just a quick note about the illustration.  This is how I picture the Misfits in my mind when we play – I’m sure my players see themselves differently in the game world (after all I’m only working with a brief description – they’ve got the whole mental picture), but I tried my best …  Finding good reference material for a female yeti is very difficult (in the end I went with Marvel’s Snowbird in Sasquatch form).
Back in high school, when my friends and I ended our epic 2e Temple of Elemental Evil campaign, we commissioned an artist at Toronto’s Pandemonium convention to sketch a portrait of our party.  I can’t remember the name of the artist (and I don’t have a copy of the picture), but I have newfound respect for his talents – even more so that he was able to get it right.

Random Encounters: The Splugorth in Gamma Rifts

April 28, 2011

While Techno-Wizardry may be the quintessential theme of Rifts, the Splugorth are the setting’s quintessential villains.  Atlantis, as presented in World Book Two: Atlantis, took all the new age influences on the game (ley lines, crystal magic, pyramid power), and brought them together in the most unexpectedly sinister of places – the lost continent.  Atlantis is the dark and frightening Mordor (or underdark) of Rifts Earth.  It’s a place where the bad guys won and heroes soil their power armour just thinking about (since, as presented in the book, it was pretty much instant death if you actually went there).   This is what made the book great, not that it was really useful as a supplement for adventuring in Atlantis (it really only provided the briefest of sketches of the key locations – about ten pages), but it made Atlantis scary enough that should the PCs encounter the minions of the Splugorth (who are detailed in the rest of the page count), it gave them the kind of gravitas GMs strive to imbue their villains with.  Plus tattoo magic was badass.
The Splugorth specialized in Bio-Wizardry and Rune Magic, which would either warp the bodies and minds of their slaves into useful tools or bind their souls to power impressive magical weapons.  Boy were the items impressive.  They also had price tags that prohibited players from getting their hands on them.  Back in the nineties, we would dream about the kind of mayhem we could wreak, if only we managed to somehow find a sword of Atlantis.  Rather than question the wisdom of the sheer volume of these kinds of weapons in World Book Two, I had a great time stealing them for this last instalment of 10 Omega Tech cards in my ongoing series on using Gamma World in Rifts (just click on the picture at the end of the post for the PDF – I’ve combined whole set of 30 cards for ease of printing).   I’ve mentioned before about the beauty of Omega Tech cards as treasure, and I have to say it felt liberating throwing these iconic items into the deck – items I had always thought were cool but had never seen in actual play because they were too crazy (well, we did see zombitrons and magic talismans get used, but never any of the rune weapons).
I followed the pattern set in the Magic and Techno-Wizard cards and included two salvageable items.  This time a one-handed ranged weapon and a two-handed melee weapon (I was thinking of making the magic talisman salvageable, but the weapons from Atlantis are so much more interesting than the defensive items).
One of the charms of the Bio-Wizard symbiotes and parasites from Rifts is that they are often as harmful as they are helpful.  It added to the whole intimidation factor of the Splugorth, and I wanted to preserve that feel when it came to their Omega Tech cards.  Luckily, a quick flip through the Omega Tech that came with my Gamma World boxed set revealed the blueprint I was looking for: many of the cards had some negative effect (usually another attack targeting the user or her allies) on a miss.  This mechanic lets the cards be attractive enough to use, but dangerous enough not to be taken lightly.  Just the kind of thing Lord Splynncryth would find amusing.

A final word (rant), about the Splugorth.  I never really liked the portrayal of Splynncryth in the Rifts books beyond World Book Two.  I felt they played up the ‘used car salesman’ aspect of its personality, making Splynncryth seem more human in its motivations and less like an otherworldly, alien monstrosity.  Sure there’s a bit of that there in World Book Two, but Siembieda never lets you forget that this thing is the spawn of the Lovecraftian Great Old Ones, extracting decadent and weird pleasures from the torture, humiliation and annihilation of entire worlds.  That’s the kind of villain the PCs can dedicate their lives trying to fight.

Random Encounters: Techno-Wizardry in Gamma Rifts

March 10, 2011

Techno-Wizardry is the hallmark of the Rifts game, epitomizing the setting’s mixture of high-tech and high fantasy like nothing else.  There were other ‘kitchen sink’ settings that combined elements of science fiction and fantasy (as early as 1977 Dave Hargrave introduced the Techno class in the Arduin Grimoire), but Rifts was the first game that I ever played where they were so thoroughly blended.
When my friends and I played Rifts in high school, we were fascinated with the concept of Techno-Wizardry, especially the rules for modifying and creating your own items (unfortunately, all we ever added to our vehicles were spoilers and bitchin’ flames on the side – we failed most of our rolls to add anything useful – go figure).  Later, when I had grown dissatisfied with the system and 3e D&D came along, the clean item creation rules were something I appreciated.  The Gamma World rules don’t support creating your own items (I think having to fix a vehicle or pilot a giant robot would make an awesome skill challenge), but the Omega cards are the next best thing (and some are salvageable – which simulates item creation).
Continuing from my previous post on Omega Tech cards for a ‘Gamma Rifts’ game, I present the next 10 cards in the set of 30: the Techno-Wizard origin (just click on the picture at the bottom of the post for the full PDF).  To make it easier to print out with the last 10 cards (the Magic origin), I’ve just added these to a single PDF.
I followed the same pattern as with the Magic origin cards, including 2 salvageable items, but I made sure that they occupied different item slots so there wasn’t overlap (so now we have a neck, weapon, hands, and armor item in total).
Like the last set, many of the Techno-Wizard items had a suite of powers, so I tried to distill them down to their bare essence.  I also had a hard time finding consumable TW items other than psi-cola, so I created the teleport grenades out of whole cloth (grenades seem popular in the Omega cards).
One final word on Techno-Wizardry.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Dr. Doom from Marvel comics (he is the namesake of my handle and one of the greatest villains of all time), the original Techno-Wizard.  From his first appearance in Fantastic Four #5 (1962), he has always been depicted as using black magic and super science hand in hand.  Given the popularity of the comic, and that it predates OD&D by nearly a decade, I’ve always wondered if the character was one of the influences on the proliferation of genre crossover in early D&D products (especially in early 3rd party books).  Kevin Siembieda did work on those early Judges Guild products… who knows what the connection is (maybe Rifts was just tapping into that vibe he saw in the early RPG field)?  My love of Doctor Doom tempted me to include one or two of his signature items in the set, as a tribute to the grandfather of Techno-Wizardry, but I figured I’d save it.  Maybe after I finish this set of Rifts Omega cards I’ll make a small set of Marvel inspired ones (given that I’ve already mentioned my previous Rifts game included Captain America’s shield, there’s a pretty good chance of this happening).
Soon to come: the final installment of Gamma Rifts Omega Tech, Splugorth items!

Random Encounters: More Gamma Rifts

February 9, 2011

As I mentioned in my previous post, the final ingredient needed to capture the feel of Rifts earth in the Gamma World game are some magically oriented Omega Tech cards.  I figured a set of 30 cards would complement the set of 40 that come with the Gamma World box and duplicate the same mix of magic and technology the ‘average’ party of adventurers in Rifts were equipped with (the mechanics of the cards have the added benefit of giving every character ‘class’ the opportunity to play with everyone else’s toys without breaking the game – meaning a robot can use a TK-machine gun and a dragon can get a cybernetic implant).
I divided the cards into 3 origins (mirroring Gamma World’s), magic, techno-wizard, and splugorth, with 10 cards each.  The original cards have a salvageable card about every fifth card, so I gave each origin 2.
Presented here are the first 10 cards of the set, the magic origin (click on the picture for the full file): Bag of Holding, Boots of Speed, Counterfeit Mjolnir, Potion of Heroism, Daern’s Instant Fortress, Cube of Force, Vorpal Sword, Portable Hole, Cloak of Elvenkind, and Staff of the Magi.  As you can see, these items aren’t actually from the Palladium world, but from D&D instead.  I wanted to have one of the origins be made of ‘pure’ magic items, and so I went to the Palladium Fantasy game as a source first (since this is the source of these kinds of magic items in Rifts), but honestly I found most of the items were knock-offs of D&D treasures anyway.  So I decided to use some of the classic magic items from the history of D&D, tempered by what I thought was cool (mjolnir) and what I needed to round out the cards (potion of heroism) – with a little help from the list in Paizo’s Classic Treasures Revisited

The great thing about the impermanency of the Omega Tech cards is that you don’t have to worry about slowly building the party up before you can give them something cool and sexy like a Daern’s instant fortress or a vorpal sword.  There’s no need for an endless stream of meat and potatoes magic items (like +1 swords) – you can head right for dessert without fear of a stomach ache (I also think this approach fits very nicely with the world of Rifts, where nothing is meat and potatoes and everything is a soul-drinking greater rune weapon).
Keep in mind that I didn’t do direct translations of these magic items, the format of the Omega Tech cards wouldn’t allow it (some of the originals of these items had suites of powers – while Omega Tech cards generally only do one thing).  Instead, I focused on the general concept of each item, and in some cases gave it a Gamma World-esque twist.  For example, with the bag of holding, carrying around tons of treasure isn’t an issue in the game, so I instead focused on the quirky dimensional rift aspect of the item.  With the staff of the magi I thought it would be funny to make it a disposable item (with the conceit that the characters can’t figure out how to use its laundry list of powers), so I focused on the aspect that first comes to mind when you think about the iconic staff: the retributive strike.
Soon to come: the techno-wizard and splugorth items!

Random Encounters: Grindylow

January 18, 2011

So at the suggestion of KaosEleQtric regarding my retrospective on Rifts, I’ve converted the grindylow to 4e D&D stats.  The exercise reminded me of two things.  First, just how much mileage you can get out of a random generator.  If you’re stuck for an idea of a challenge to face your players it is definitely worth checking out the multitude of random generators online (if only for a thought experiment to get the juices flowing). 
The second thing I was reminded of was just how great 4e handles monster creation.  Don’t get me wrong, the system has its flaws, but when it comes to making new monsters its king (and I‘m in love with the monster builder in the adventure tools).  I really like the approach the rules foster to monster creation.  You tackle the design from the perspective of what you want the monster to do, first and foremost (i.e. shoot eye beams, fly around, or in the case of the grindylow blind people, drag them into the water and sting them), and the end result is a monster that mechanically fulfills that vision.  I love that goblins, kobolds, and orcs all feel different in combat because they are mechanically different from one another (now I just wish that the classes in 4e felt a little more different from one another).  Could 3e handle any of the monsters I’ve created on this site?  Of course it could, I just think it’s a lot easier in 4e (now when it comes to customizing already existing monsters 3e is definitely the king – I love the idea of adding class levels and advancing venerable monster specimens in size). 
With all the rumors of 5e floating around (which I think are premature personally), lets hope D&D keeps this approach to monster design.

The Grindylow

When I was a lad my grandmother used to warn me away from the twisty bog, for that was the home of the grindylow.  When I had seen my fifteenth winter I ignored her tales, as young men are wont to do, and set off into the bog with a group of ruffians in search of gold and adventure.  Nary a one of them survived, all dragged beneath those black waters by the thing’s long, cruel claws, its tail cracking like a horseman’s whip.  The grindylow had found us, and I’ll never forget that crying, screaming little boy I saw reflected in those hateful eyes.”


Arcana DC 15: Grindylow are malevolent fey that live in noisome bogs and other still bodies of water.  They prefer to drown their prey, but are just as capable out of the water. 
Arcana DC 20: The touch of pure silver burns the grindylow’s corrupt flesh, preventing it from healing.  The creature’s magic aura befouls any water it stays in, earning the grindylow the enmity of Nymphs and Druids.

The Grindylow in combat

Grindylow tend to focus on weaker targets who they can easily blind and drag back to the water.  They are slow witted creatures driven by an unceasing hunger for humanoid flesh and are incapable of formulating complex plans on their own.


Grindylow are usually too cowardly to tackle a group of well armed heroes on their own, but are often pressed into service by smarter and more powerful creatures like bog and river hags.  Grindylow like to hide at the fringes of combat, waiting for an opportunity to grab the wounded and drag them away from their allies.


If you’re going to use the grindylow in Gamma World add the extradimensional keyword to the monster’s description.
I ended up giving the grindylow regeneration, something the original version didn’t have, since I was emulating the only creatures in D&D with a weakness to silver:  lycanthropes (which makes sense since the silver weakness in the Rifts version was emulating the Rifts version of lycanthropes).

Random Encounters: Gamma World and Rifts

January 14, 2011

Note: For this blog entry I’m assuming the reader has familiarity with the Rifts setting, because, well, you wouldn’t really be interested in using it for your Gamma World Game if you didn’t.
Last week I mentioned my desire to run a Gamma World game within the setting of Rifts.  I’ve thought more about it and I definitely think it can be done with very little modification.  I like the setting of the Gamma World game itself, its fun and I especially love the weird interpretations those on Gamma Terra have about the culture (and naming conventions) of the ‘ancients’ (us).  But a ‘kitchen sink’ setting like Rifts offers a few advantages, the most important being the easy (and expected) importation of all the cool magical monsters from D&D.  On the other side of things, I get to keep a setting I love while ditching a rule set I’ve come to loathe.  I’m not the first to do this.  Converting Rifts to other game systems is something of an internet wide pastime (which, in my opinion is a good barometer of how great a setting it is and how problematic the rules are).  Of the blogs I follow there’s BTR (that’s better than rifts), Outsyder’s Spectrum Shock, the 4e Rifts Earth Saga, heck even Ryan Dancey (the father of open gaming) is on record saying that Rifts needed a d20 version (and that’s just the tip of the iceberg).  There is such a demand that the forum at Palladium books even has a section detailing why they won’t allow Rifts to be converted to any other system (I’m just going to assume Palladium has enough problems of its own to care what I’m doing in the corner over here).


So how to make it work using Gamma World?  The best attempt I’ve seen is here, and it takes the approach of creating new character origins based off of the Rifts O.C.C.s and R.C.C.s (juicers, power armor pilots, mind melters, etc.).  The origins are good and it does a great job of directly translating the source material, but that’s not what I think is needed.  In Gamma World, the more origins the better (that way there’s less of a chance of duplication within the party), so any approach that limits them to a static set I think is missing out on one of the appealing things about the game (plus it looks like each Gamma World supplement is going to add to the list).  Instead, my solution is to have characters add another level of detail, layered on top of their origins, that filters their powers into something that would better fit in the world of Rifts.  After all, the character creation process in Gamma World is all about interpreting how those origins interact with one another, the power source just guides that interpretation in a Rifts direction.
 Using the table, characters can roll or choose a power source.  Each power source gives a label to the character’s powers (Alpha mutation cards).  So for example: an Electrokinetic Yeti with the technology power source could be a bionic Dog-boy with a built in neural mace attached to its arm; a Radioactive Gravity Controller with the magic power source could be a Ley-line Walker with ominous glowing eyes, always floating a few inches off the ground; and a Speedster Hypercognitive with the technology power source would be a perfect Juicer. 
To continue the example: a bionic Dog-boy with the hostility Alpha card has learned how to short-circuit his neural mace to override a target’s cognition; a Ley-line Walker with the stoke resentment Alpha card casts the ‘wisps of confusion’ spell; and a Juicer with the venomous spurs Alpha card draws a poisoned switchblade (why are these powers always changing?  That’s explained in the altered Rifts fluff at the end of the article).
Allowing for broad interpretations fits Gamma World better and I think allows for the kind of infinite possibilities necessary to recreate the tremendous variety of O.C.C.s and R.C.C.s in the Rifts game.

Other Rules

Add Arcana to the skill list (it screws up the symmetry of the skill list, but nothing’s perfect).  When importing creatures from D&D add appropriate keywords: dragons, demons, elementals, undead, and goblins make great extradimensional monsters; grell, kruthik, mind flayers, and oozes make great extraterrestrial monsters; carrion crawlers, displacer beasts, owlbear, shambling mounds, and spiders make great terrestrial monsters.  Finally add some magically oriented Omega Tech cards (these templates make it easy), like the TK -Machine gun, Cloak of Invisibility, Rune Weapons, and Symbiotes.

The World

A subtle change to the Rifts fluff brings the two games a little closer in line with one another:
“In the ages of the ancients, humanity lived in a golden age of prosperity.  It was a time of high technology, human augmentation and fusion powered travel.  Sages don’t agree on the causes of the ‘Big Mistake’ that awakened the rifts and brought down the apocalypse.  Was it a global war of pride between the kingdoms of the ancients that snuffed out a billion souls whose backlash of psychic energy was too much for the earth’s ley lines to bear?  Were the ancients being punished for ignoring the warning of their prophets that the stars would align for the return of the children of the Old Ones?  Perhaps it was the hubris of ancient scientists at fabled ‘project arrowhead’ attempting to open a doorway to another world?  Perhaps all are true.
Regardless of the cause, the results of the Big Mistake are plain for all to see.  Ley lines, pathways of psychic energy that crisscrossed the planet, crackled with overflowing energy.  Where these lines intersected the power was so great that rifts to other dimensions were torn through the fabric of space.  Magic, once thought to be superstition and sleight of hand, became a powerful force in the world as real as science.  Alien intelligences, demons, and creatures from nightmare poured through the rifts to invade our world.  Atlantis rose from the ocean, unleashing biblical tsunamis on the world’s coastlines.  Civilization ended almost overnight, but not before the ancients unleashed their most powerful weapons of mass destruction.
That was a hundred years ago.  The Americas are a wasteland dotted with settlements carved out of the junk of the ancients.  People use whatever they can to survive, be it scraps of technology, magical incantation or newfound mutant ability.  But nothing is certain in this post apocalyptic age.  The chaotic energy of the ley lines affects all things.  Guns might stop working just as a machine that’s been dead for years lurches to life.  Spells carved into millennia old tablets have random and unpredictable results.  Mutants, their DNA forever altered by exposure to radiation and magic spontaneously grow wings and breathe fire.
It is a harsh world we have inherited from the ancients.  One filled with monsters and uncertainty.” – from the History of the Wasteland, 101 P.A.