Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Ecology of the Vector

I had announced the launch of The Wandering Men's role playing game Untold, going live a couple weeks back, and I mentioned all the free content that they are offering to show folks what the Splintered Serenity setting is all about. One of the ways are ecologies; those quick blurbs that give players and game masters alike a chance to learn about the monsters that will be thrown at the heroes of a given story. As I have written some of these ecologies I thought as they appear on the Untold web site I would showcase them on my blog as well. Gamers might find an adventure seed or a new creature to throw at unsuspecting players. Take a look and if you are so inclined pop over to the site and check these guys out.

The wonderfully hideous at that accompanies my humble write up was created by Aviv Or

World: Earth

Environment: Any, ruins, city

Bats were driven to extinction during the Event. The delicate balance that was needed to maintain the ecosystem was tipped in the wrong direction and the vital role the order Chiroptera filled was left vacant.

Enter the Vector, a horrible apoc mutations of the Rattus rattus, the common rat. The vector has replaced the bat in a twisted way. Roughly weighing six kilos with a wing span of nearly two meters, the vector is a hideous amalgamation of bat and rat, with an emaciated frame of stark muscle and sinew. Webbed membranes stretch along its forearms to spread from elongated claw appendages down along its body’s length. From its feral maw of needle teeth to its naked, whip-like tail the vector is a nightmare rodent.

The vector is a perfect example of the axiom: Nature Abhors a Vacuum. Whether the vector rose in response to the need to fill an ecological niche or was some twisted pre-apoc experiment is a matter of some debate. What is not up for debate is the creatures' threat to other species.

The vector is a disease ridden creature that carries, seemingly, as a natural defense mechanism, all manner of infectious diseases. These diseases are plague inducing and one such plague is thought responsible for the abandonment and burning of a Churl out-post on the fringe of Novus Europa territory that saw the death of two thousand settlers in less than two weeks.

With such lethality High-bred governments such as NAU has sought to capture and contain the vector for study. Through study the government hopes to isolate and understand the creature and its immunities to the diseases it spreads. They hope to discover cures and antidotes to the rodent's ability to carry contagions as well as turn such toxins into weapons against the vector.

This flying rat is not only a threat because of the diseases that it carries, but it is omnivorous in the truest sense of the word. They will eat anything. The vector usually feeds on garbage and refuses cast off by humans and other sentient races. They will scavenge carcasses which add to their disease carrying capabilities. Vectors will decimate granaries, orchards, and animal pens if other food sources are not available, or the population out strips resources. These foul things are extremely intelligent and cunning, known to attack creatures larger than themselves, including humans, in concerted efforts that almost appear to be tactical in nature. The rodent is a pest species as well, chewing on power conduits, stripping the cable of its protective coating, creating outages and malfunctions. Nesting anywhere there is warmth and food, especially near human populations.

The vector, like terrestrial rats have a high birth rate and rapid reproduction. Their numbers can grow exponentially in a short amount of time. This is problematic for there are few predators that threaten the vector. Because of their toxic disposition they are fatal to most mammal species that might hunt them. Creatures such as the Vrr or even the puke worm are immune, but this does not control the vector population in many areas. Highbred communities that have infestations will poison their own midden heaps to attract and exterminate them. Such tactics meet with limited results as the colonies seem to sense the poisons and look else where for food.

The vector serves as a predator to other nuisance species such as immature puke worms, various apoc-insects which become huge and deadly in their own right; even raiding Vrr nests for young. The rodents have been observed cannibalizing their own as well as the young; regularly attack other colonies encroaching into their territories. Various sub-species serve the role of pollinator for dangerous plant species like the urush and Venus man-trap.

When feeding the vector is a solitary hunter, preying on creatures they can manage on their own. When such food is scarce or the colony is threatened the creatures adapt to take advantage of their cunning intelligence, their aerial maneuverability, and their seemingly inexhaustible numbers. When prey is determined, the colony will communicate through various clicks and squeaks. The colony attacks in a swarm-like frenzy of beating wings, slashing, clinging claws, and gnashing teeth. The vectors tear chunks of flesh from their victims and peel away to make room for the next attacker. This continues until the prey falls from blood loss and trauma, to allow the creatures to descend and dine at leisure. The disease carrying aspects of the vector have no combat application because of the time involved for the contagions to take affect. In instances where a victim is too heavily armored, or manages to escape, the diseases that the vectors carry may eventually cause the prey to succumb, leaving a corpse for scavenging vectors.

The vector, though small in the context of size among the apoc’s predators, has the potential to destroy everything else, leaving them the top species on Earth.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Hunt: Beyond the Frozen Fire

I reviewed Gabriel Hunt in his adventure Through the Cradle of Fear back in September last year. I enjoyed the book and have followed all of Hunt's adventures up till now. I had hoped to revisit the series in review and have the opportunity to do so now, though without the fun and excitement in which I had the first time around.

Beyond the Frozen Fire begins with Hunt being employed by the daughter of Dr. Lawrence Silver. Her father disappeared in an Antarctic expedition and all that remains is a cryptic radio transmission from him stating that he was in a place that was warm and with trees.

Hunt reluctantly agrees and assembles a team to mount a hopeless rescue mission. What is thought to be to be a fool's errand reveals a subterranean world beneath the Antarctic ice kept vital by the red tinged ice above that gives the world below life and warmth and keeps the secret place from being discovered by satellite imaging. Once there a tribe of Amazonian woman are discovered and a lost Nazi doomsday weapon.

The book, penned by Christa Faust (each book is ghost written by various authors) had all the ear marks of a great pulp adventure, but fell flat for me. I had lamented the possibility of various writers changing the voice of the novels. With Beyond the Frozen Fire the story changed tone, pace, and suffered in the story telling.

I do not wish to take anything from Christa Faust as she is an accomplished writer, and an Edgar Award finalist, but this story failed for me on many levels. The story, while having the potential to be great pulp adventure in the vein of Burroughs or Doyle, falls very short, even when measured against those giants. I did not look for such lofty prose but something more than what I received. Instead of focusing on the adventure and the potential that a lost world, especially one where Nazis had gone before, the author looks to vividly described sexual encounters and mating rites to tell a tepid story.

I feel the adventure was short changed for prose that only a fourteen year old boy would find appealing. Which brings me to the other issue I had with Beyond the Frozen Fire; I originally recommended the Hunt series for younger readers. Readers of twelve or thirteen and on might enjoy the stories and maybe introduce them to the pulp style adventures as other series has done for fantasy. I can no longer make that recommendation. Beyond the Frozen Fire is liberally sprinkled with F-Bombs and suggestive and lewd language. The focus on sex as I mentioned dulled the tale. Now the story is definitely for a mature audience. The voice and tone of the books took a definite turn with the latest Hunt adventure.

I wish I could recommend the latest Hunt adventure Beyond the Frozen Fire. I was bored with it, not that the writing was horrible, or the story so bad, but it was not the adventure I had come to expect from reading the previous Hunt tales. I might be expecting too much from an afternoon's entertainment, but the bar had been previously raised by other stories from the Hunt Foundation.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Untold: It’s ALIIIIVE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The game is live and out there! I have been waiting two years to say that. I had posted previously about the game Untold from Wandering Men Studios here. I have been working with these guys since the play-test of the system. Since then I have seen it coalesce into the game that the designers had envisioned.

What is Untold? Well the blurb at the web site states it as thus: designed to combine all the best elements of Role Playing Games (RPG's) and Collectible Card Games (CCG's) and toss the rest. Untold is a CBRPG (™): Card-Based Role Playing Game. It is exactly the same as any other RPG, but the primary physical "tools" of the game are different. Instead of rulebooks and character sheets, the only "tools" you need in Untold are cards!

So Untold is a role playing game similar to Dungeons and Dragons and GURPS, with a toe in the card based world of Magic: The Gathering without the blind collectability, but is wholly its own creature with its modular mechanic and card based rule set.

Untold uses cards for building a character deck within is found the skills and statistics to allow the player to create a hero is the Splintered Serenity campaign setting created by the Wandering Men. All skill resolution is determined with the use of a twenty sided die, which has become a staple in many game systems based on the “d20” model. The cards themselves provide rule information and statistical information for resolution.

This not a d20 variant system like True 20 or Pathfinder, but rather its own unique concept. Untold allows for a unique story telling element as well as character customization process. Untold allows for changing character statistics by creating a story to effect that change. For example, a hero needs to have a greater Body stat. (Body, Mind, and Soul are the three “stats” of a character called Aspects) The player might weave a story at the table that by divesting themselves of useless equipment they become quicker and more sure on their feet. The point based building system and modular card mechanic allow for this shift on the fly, by the player removing equipment from their hand and turning the Body card around to show the new advanced number. (Some cards like the Aspect card, are divided into four quadrants allowing for more versatility in the game and few cards to keep track of) The cards are generally divided into three categories for the player. Story, Site, and Hot swap cards, which dictate when such cards can be substituted of “swapped out” during a game. Story swaps can only be switched out as the example above, by telling a role playing story, Site swaps are usually equipment and can only be switched out at certain locations determined by the game master, and an example would be a town or base. Hot swaps are the most versatile cards and usually represent powers or skills that the hero possesses. Allowing the character to have as many as there are available points for. These can be placed into the hand at the beginning of each action to allow access to the ability.

The game does play quick, with minimal start up time, or resolution of action once a player is familiar with the abilities their character possesses. Damage reduction, or hit point calculation is actually the deck points in the player's possession. As your character takes damage you lose cards, you physically watch your character get whittled down. This can be slightly frustrating as well as disconcerting as you take damage and your ability to respond to continued threats is diminished through attrition. The math challenged, like me, might have some difficulty determining what cards to discard to make up the damage they sustained or when healed or regain equipment adding back into their hand. But this is usually as minor inconvenience as using a scratch pad as in other RPGs to tick off damage sustained.

As I stated it plays quick, in one game I played we had twelve players in a multi-tiered adventure, with complete chaos. Different factions were working against one another, some players were novices, and others were wily veterans who could meta- game a system back to the stone age and still others were there to revel in the said chaos. Part of the success was the GM's skill at running, but it was also the ease of the mechanics in play.

Artistically the game is gorgeous, the cards are quality stock with great art from up and coming artists like Tom Babbey, John Gonzales, and Patri Balanovsky. The accompanying website offers free content in the way of adventures, plot hooks, and rules. There are ecologies and personalities to help a game master flesh out there own realities, not just Splintered Serenity. Fiction by Ben Lee, Nathan Ellsworth, and Corey Blakenship give the world of Splintered Serenity its own life.

The setting itself is a post-apocalyptic sword and planet version of Earth with other realities encroaching, with creatures and races of the Elder Dark planning humanities utter downfall. There is super science and sorcery, high adventure and gritty doom. Gotta love a package like that!

I recommend to gamers that are looking for something a little different, even if a card based mechanic does not thrill you, look at the setting, and the content. The world of Untold is worth the time.