Tuesday, June 20, 2017

First impressions from Mass Effect: Andromeda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

ACKS monster: Half-Ghoul

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 1, 2017

50 Wonders of the Reticulan Empire

Stellagama Publishing is PROUD to present:

An advanced technology supplement for the These Stars Are Ours! sci-fi setting, also published by Stellagama Publishing. It uses the Cepheus Engine rules and is fully compatible with all other 2D6 OGL Sci-Fi games.

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

If you are playing in a different setting than These Stars Are Ours! this product can serve as a resource for high-tech equipment available to mature interstellar societies. All technologies here will fit – with occasional minor adjustment – into any advanced TL13+ world or polity in any setting compatible with the Cepheus Engine or the 2D6 Science Fiction SRD.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Space Patrol - now in Print!

Uphold the Law! Fight interstellar crime! Hunt pirates!

The Space Patrol now available in Hardcover format!

Print-on-Demand from DriveThruRPG!

Order HERE!

Saturday, May 13, 2017

ACKS adventure idea: The Rot Beneath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dungeon itself consists of the following:

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


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

Friday, May 12, 2017

ACKS - Clerics and Sorcery!

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

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

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

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

So Evil Sorcerers are Chaotic Clerics!

Friday, April 28, 2017

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

Have you wanted to see what These Stars Are Ours! is all about? Now you can try it before you buy it!

These Stars Are Ours is Stellagama Publishing's space-opera setting for the Cepheus Engine Core Rules and other 2D6 OGL SciFi games. Set in 2260 AD - two years after the Terrans took Keid and forced the Reticulan Empire to capitulate the book it introduces the player characters to the immediate aftermath of the Terran victory in the Terran Liberation War against the mighty Reticulan Empire and its many thralls. For their part, the upstart Terrans, bolstered by their victory against their old masters, now move to become a power to be reckoned with in interstellar affairs. Against this background of espionage, maneuvering, and saber-rattling, and on the new interstellar frontiers, the player characters can forge a destiny of heroes or villains of the new United Terran Republic. The book provides all the astrography and background necessary to set a sci-fi campaign in the exciting times of the 23rd century.

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

Note that this publication includes information and a character generation table for Reticulans - Grey Aliens from Zeta 2 Reticuli! Also included are small-craft Flying Saucer stats. See the These Stars Are Ours! core book, available from Stellagama Publishing, for much, much more for the Greys, from abductor saucers to Noble careers.