Friday, August 19, 2016

RealmsToowoomba Recap # 62 [RPG]

[flashback to 5 Flamerule 1372]

Having spent the previous night drinking and celebrating, Markus spends the day recovering.  A small group of his most ardent supporters, young would-be swashbucklers all, pledge their fealty to him and name themselves “Markus’ Marauders.”  Markus isn’t quite sure what to think as the youths take to wearing rapiers and foppish hats with feathers sticking out of the brim.

[flashback to 6 Flamerule 1372]

“Markus’ Marauders” lead the way as a makeshift honor guard for the swordsman down the streets of Silverymoon, and as they near the Academy crowds line the streets to cheer him on.  Inside, the building is full of Silvaeren who have come to watch the brash young upstart challenge the Academy’s deadly and notorious top student, the kenku Villiam Teeal. Even some of the city’s leadership, both noble and martial, have come to observe the match.  The Duelmaster holds up a hand to silence the chattering crowd, and after hearing a formal challenge from Markus and a formal acceptance from Villiam, explains the nature of the duel.  “A true blademaster wields his sword not just to harm his foes, but to protect his allies,” she explains.  Thus, Villiam and Markus are to work together to defeat the combined forces of the other four ranked students of the Academy.  Only then would it be wise to strike one another, she continues, because if either of the two are vanquished before all of the other students, both duelists lose their place in the Academy and are banished until the Duelmaster is satisfied they warrant reentry.

Six fighters take up randomly-assigned positions in the arena: Markus (on the North side), Villiam (on the Side side), McBronzebottom, the Yuan-ti Yazzan, Lady Demuria, and the half-orc Kronk (as El Capitan has quit the Academy and left Silverymoon).  Scattered throughout the arena are a variety of extra weapons, along with a collection of unknown magickal potions in the center.  When the duel begins, it is clear that the four lesser ranked students had settled on a clear strategy: divide and conquer!  Lady Demuria immediately rushes for Villiam and scissor-kicks him, wrapping her powerful thighs around the lightweight kenku, pinning him to the ground!  As she squeezes the life out of him, Yazzan throws daggers at him and McBronzebottom levels his massive bastard sword.  Meanwhile, Kronk heads for the center of the arena to collect potions, and, inexplicably, Markus follows.  Villiam struggles to break free of Lady Demuria’s grip, but every time he does so, seconds later he’s caught again.  It’s clear the Academy’s top student is in peril, but still Markus doesn’t come to his aid.  Seconds later, Villiam lapses into unconscious and the Duelmaster calls the match to a halt, awarding the victory to the lesser ranked students.  Only after, in conversation with the other duelists, does an explanation come for Markus’ odd behavior: he forgot the conditions of the match, and mistakenly thought that if Villiam fell in battle, he (Markus) would win!  McBronzebottom suggests ale as the best means to cure a disappointing end to the young swordsman’s promising quest for the legendary Ninefangs, and Markus agrees.  Although having suffered a defeat, Markus has clearly made a new friend.

[9 Flamerule 1372 continued]

In Thay, the adventurers confront an enraged Felix Ruul.  Upon their passage into the country, their identities were circulated to the various Orders for routine intelligence-gathering and Felix has surmised that their purpose is to find Cain.  Despite the Red Wizard’s bluster and threats, however, the group remains surprisingly calm.  Dolcetto (in Fargrim’s dwarf body) throws the man off-balance by acting quite deranged, while Mellia says that they are present in Thay as lawful supplicants to the Flaming Brazier.  Felix snarls that if the group makes but a single misstep, he will bring the full force of the Order of Evocation down upon them.  And more, he says that the Church of Kossuth has little influence outside Thay, and that he will mark the adventurers for destruction if they somehow extricate Cain from the temple’s punishment chambers.  The wizard then teleports away, clearly frustrated that the adventurers gave him no provocation for violence.  Mellia hastily composes a telepathic warning to Cain, but the cleric’s reply shows little concern: “Ignore that worm, he is meaningless.”

Shortly after the morning meal, an abashed Pirith returns from reporting her progress to the Guild of Foreign Trade.  She apologizes to Dolcetto for being so intrusive about Multivar’s portal, explaining that she had no idea the adventurers were friends of the esteemed envoy from Silverymoon, Mortimont.  She says that the Guild has suggested, and she has agreed, to make recompense to Dolcetto by transferring her own senior household slave to him.  Dolcetto graciously accepts, and even queries if there is a way to speed delivery of the property from Pirith’s residence in western Thay.

Inside the Flaming Brazier, Mellia returns to the fourth terrace. This time, she attempts to start a fire the old-fashioned way, and succeeds admirably.  For the test of purification, she is challenged to pluck a coloured rock from a cauldron of boiling water.  The wizard steels herself against pain and succeeds on her second try.  The fifth terrace is clearly a repository: holy relics of the faith, fire-warded prayer-books, ancient treatises on elemental forces, and more.  The thousands of items are maintained in perfect order and with exteme care, no doubt due to the supervision of this terrace’s lead Tendril, the Indoctrinator.  The priest stands stiffly and, with no facial expressions, poses a series of questions to Mellia about the nature of fire and the tenets of the Flamelord.  Mellia has to think on her feet, but by hewing closely to a single theme (the supremacy of fire), she just manages to satisfactorily answer each question and is allowed to take the test of purification. 

Here, however, she is presented with a test unlike any other she has ever been presented with.  Mellia is led by a pair of warrior-monks up and down labyrinthine corridors until she finds herself in a dimly-lit chamber.  A man is strapped, spread-eagled, to a wooden frame and is clearly terrified.  “The righteous are instructed to punish the wicked,” one of the Disciples of the Salamander explains.  “This malefactor has committed sins against the Lord of Flames.  But his purification will not be complete until he has confessed and rededicated himself.  You must aid him on this journey.” The warrior-monk then motions to a nearby table full of torture implements, including brands and jagged cutting tools, before he and his companion exit and leave Mellia alone with the prisoner, charged with discovering the nature of his misdeeds.

Mellia first tries to talk the man into confessing.  When she has little success, she weaves a divination to detect his thoughts and asks him several leading questions.  She discovers the man thinking about the Candlekeeper (the Tendril of the first terrace) being the one behind certain thefts, but it’s not clear whether this is the truth, a distraction, or simply a lie the man is preparing.  Mellia casts another divination to peer into the Candlekeeper’s office, but she is unable to find anything incriminating.  Unwilling to actually torture the man, Mellia exits the chamber and reports her best guess to the warrior-monks.  They abruptly announce that she has failed the test of purification and can advance no further this day.

When she returns to the inn, Mellia tells Dolcetto and Fargrim (in each other’s bodies) that her progress has once again slowed.  The idea is floated that if Multivar’s portal returns everyone to Silverymoon before Mellia reaches Cain, she could perhaps re-enter the portal to Laothkund and then teleport directly to Bezantur.  Mellia decides to ask Pirith to escort her, Fargrim, and Dolcetto to the Guild of Foreign Trade to find Mortimont, in the hopes that the strange little bug-eyed fellow will help her gain official permission for such a return visit should it be necessary.  The three adventurers find Mortimont ensconced in a fine guesthouse maintained by the Guild.  Flanked by his golems, Mortimont is wearing a white apron and baking some delicious-smelling pastries.  He expresses his joy in seeing the trio, and quickly agrees to write a letter to the authorities supporting their request for permission for a return visit.  He continues to maintain that his purpose in coming to Thay is to find a new market for his baked goods.  He also indicates that he has offered to take a representative of the Guild back with him to Silverymoon when Multivar’s portal draws everyone back.  The three adventurers depart with the uneasy feeling they always have when having spent time with the odd little man.

Back at the inn, Dolcetto shares with Ralkin and Myst (in each other’s bodies) her concerns about Mortimont bringing agents of Thay back with them to Silverymoon.  She says it complicates the situation and indicates that perhaps the group should prepare steps to counter it, but Ralkin’s response is swift and blunt: who cares?  If the authorities back in Silverymoon are concerned by sudden visitors from Thay, it’s their problem, not the group’s.

The rest of the night passes uneventfully for the adventurers.

[10 Flamerule 1372]

In the morning, Dolcetto asks Syd whether he has any spells that can protect him against fire.  It soon becomes clear that Dolcetto is considering trying to climb up to the top of the Flaming Brazier using the outside steps and passing directly through the curtain of flame that bars entry to the seventh terrace.  Although this has the potential to speed up the process of gaining an audience with the temple’s leader, the Eternal Flame, Mellia is not pleased when she learns of the idea.  She glares at Dolcetto and says she is close to getting Cain out and won’t have anyone putting her entire strategy at risk just because they are getting antsy to leave Thay.  When Mellia heads to the temple, Syd keeps a close eye on Dolcetto to make sure she doesn’t try anything.

Mellia is escorted to the fifth level to take the test of purification and is once again led to a darkened cell.  This time, a young woman in threadbare clothing lays huddled in the corner.  Mellia is told that the woman aspires to join the devotees in the temple, but has been suspected of ulterior motives.  Mellia is to discover whether the woman is sufficiently pure.  When alone with her, Mellia speaks to the woman, who offers her name as Jilliatni.  Jilliatni says that she was a slave who become free when her master died without any heirs, and that she petitioned the Flaming Brazier because it is one of the few institutions in Thay where advancement does not depend on one’s heritage or class.  After getting as much information as she can, Mellia decides she has to ensure Jilliatni is telling the truth; and to do this, she taps into the Weave and channels a wave of flame at her!  Jilliatni cries out in agony as the fire leaves her severely burned and barely alive, but conscious.  Mellia quickly exits the room and confronts the warrior-monks who had escorted her there.  She says that she has done what she can to find out the truth from Jilliatni, and that if she is expected to serve as an executioner, that needs to be made clear to her.  The warrior-monks are satisfied, however, and state that Mellia has passed the test: whether Jilliatni was or was not sincere in her devotion to Kossuth was of no importance; what mattered was that Mellia was willing to embrace the purifying power of flame in order to try to discover the truth. 

Although the diviner is granted permission to ascend to the sixth terrace, she has become a torturer.  A moral barrier has been broken, the implications of which loom large in the future.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Torchwood Archives [Torchwood]

The Torchwood Archives is a fun "in-universe" companion book to the show.  The premise is that it's a compilation of material cobbled together by an author named Warren Martyn who got so close to the truth that his manuscript had to be seized and placed securely in Torchwood's vaults. The book is cleverly done to look like the real thing, complete with faux-coffee stains, "taped-in" photographs, post-it notes, handwritten marginalia, etc.  Functionally, it contains some interesting history of the Torchwood Institute prior to Season One and then serves as a bit of an episode guide for the first two seasons.  Here's what it contains in more depth:

(1)  A fun preface by Ianto explaining how the book came into Torchwood's hands and who Warren Martyn is/was.

(2)  An introductory letter from Warren Martyn to his planned publisher, explaining the basis for his strong belief that Torchwood exists.  The letter references all of the craziness that London has experienced from fifty+ years of Doctor Who to show that, obviously, aliens are among us.

(3)  The Torchwood Charter from 1879 assented to by Queen Victoria.  It establishes Torchwood's primary purpose (protecting England from visitors from other "heavenly bodies") and sets forth the role of the Torchwood Institute (a.k.a., Torchwood One in London), Torchwood Glasgow (Torchwood Two), and Torchwood Three (Cardiff--the one we know!).

(4)  Notes on Torchwood One and Torchwood Two.  Includes a lot of speculation about what happened on Canary Wharf.

(5)  Notes on Torchwood Three.  There's a ton of really interesting little bits and pieces here, including:

--speculation that there are underground tunnels connecting the Torchwood sites;

--mention of an earthquake destroying part of Torchwood Three in 1906;

--a "stolen e-mail" from Tosh to Suzie Costello explain her theories on the rift;

--an e-mail from Suzie wondering why Torchwood didn't intervene in the near-explosion of a nuclear plant in Cardiff (from Doctor Who's "Boom Town" episode);

--speculation about Jack, Suzie, Owen, Tosh, Ianto, and Gwen  (interesting side note:  Jack took over leadership of Torchwood in 2000 after the New Year's Eve massacre; Tosh joined in 2005, Owen in 2006, and Gwen & Ianto joined in 2007;  when did Suzie join and who else, if anyone, was on the team in the years 2000-2004?)

(6)  Episode-by-episode notes.  It's a bit weird to put episode titles in a book that's supposed to be "in-universe", but perhaps we can fan-wank this as the titles given to each incident by Warren Martyn.  There's various in-universe memos, police reports, photos, etc. about each incident. My favorite bits here are memos written by Jack that subtly show his and Ianto's growing involvement and a memo from "1999" by James Lawson to Alex Hopkins on the development of RetCon (James Lawson is Owen's predecessor as team doctor).

The Torchwood Archives is obviously pre-Children of Earth, though it does include some material from audiobooks like Lost Souls.  Overall, I thought it was clever and well-done.  Sadly, Ianto notes in an epilogue that author Warren Martyn is missing, so surely there will never be a sequel . . . 

Friday, August 5, 2016

Mynock Squadron Recap # 10 [RPG]

[4.6.11 ABY]

Outside a secret Imperial research base hidden in a dense asteroid field, Kero and Stavros witness a hangar door open and a trio of TYE-Uglies emerge. Kero immediately destroys one with a proton torpedo, but the others transmit a mysterious signal that causes hidden thrusters placed on asteroids in a certain area around the base to fire, creating a narrow but clear corridor for escape! Stavros maneuvers to give chase, and comms Torga, Waric, and Keth to cut off the fleeing pirates before they manage to reach the edge of the field, activate their hyperdrives, and potentially spread the mysterious "blue sickness."

The Y-Wing shared by Waric and Keth quickly reaches the far side of the exit corridor, and Waric's torpedo obliterates a second TYE-Ugly. Stavros manages to pull the third one into a dogfight, and Kero disables the vessel with ion blasts before Waric finishes it off.

With the immediate threat neutralized, Stavros asks Kero whether they should destroy the base now or board it to try to find more information on the disease. Kero seems little troubled by the conflicting orders, and says that of course the group is going in. The three Y-Wings land in the hangar and see a heavily damaged freighter and some bodies floating in the zero-gravity of vacuum. Waric manages to skillfully exit his Y-Wing, traverse the hangar, and restore gravity and atmosphere. 

In the hangar, Kero examines one of the bodies and notices a strange silver substance coating its lower extremities, and is surprised to see it slowly, but visibly, advancing. Kero, quite distracted, tells Waric to take charge. As the others advance through the airlock, Stavros is told to stay behind in the Y-Wing since his flight suit had been damaged earlier and he's at risk of disease. Torga's flight suit is in even worse shape, but she's eager to go forward and receives no orders to the contrary.

At the far end of the airlock corridor, Waric notices that the door has strange finger-like indentations pressed into the metal at the bottom edge. After opening the door, Waric, Torga, and Keth find themselves in a junction room, with corridors heading off in each of the cardinal directions. The door to the left is labelled "Research Vault Hub", and when Waric opens it, he sees a corpse laying on the ground, covered almost head to toe in the same silver substance that coated the lower extremity of the body in the hangar bay. While Waric watches, the silver substance advances until it completely encapsulates the corpse, and then the body begins to move!

The body stands up and announces, in an emotionless voice: "Systems Online. Second Empire Protocol is in Effect. Waiting for Supplementary Orders. No Supplementary Orders Received. Default Programming in Effect. Programming: 1) Obey the Bearers. 2) Destroy All Others." Taking no chances, the pilots open fire, but their blaster bolts have only minimal effect.

The Nanoshaped creature advances towards Waric and the others. Waric quickly hits the control to shut the door, but the creature's fingers seem to flow like liquid through the seals and reform into fingers on the other side! The sound of grinding metal fills the air. Kero, still examining the body in the hangar bay, asks for a sit-rep and after being quickly filled in tells everyone to retreat. Keth and Torga make it out of the room, but Waric isn't so lucky. The Nanoshaped wrenches the door open, forms its right arm into a spear, and stabs the pilot in the back! As the others jump into the cockpits of their waiting Y-Wings, Waric manages to stagger to his feet and join them as the Nanoshaped steadily advances. 

The three Y-Wings of Gamma Flight rendezvous in safety outside of the base. Kero gives the order to destroy it, and the pilots fire the remainder of their torpedoes through the open hangar doors to detonate the base from the inside. In seconds, only charred debris remains.

Waric remains cautious, however, and does a full sensor scan of the debris. He's somehow able to get a fix on the still-moving Nanoshaped, and Gamma Flight opens fire again. It's not clear if the creature is destroyed, but it seems to be contained at least for the moment. Kero orders the group to take up positions around the asteroid field while they wait for further orders. As they do so, they receive an incoming transmission from Tazo-Rhi: Kors Tanzent is still alive, but had to be in cold stasis to slow the spread of the disease ravaging his body--and initial tests show it is not biological in origin, but the work of a highly advanced nano-virus. Unless the shutdown signal is found, the disease cannot be cured. Have the members of Mynock Squadron escaped infection?


------------------------------------------------------
Director's Commentary (August 5, 2016)

There's not a lot to say about this one: a classic "dungeon crawl in space" with a mysterious, remote space station occupied by an incredibly dangerous adversary.  I completely 100% swiped the Nanoshaped from silver liquid type Terminator (a "T-1000" Google tells me), but everyone knew and we laughed about it.  It did exactly what I wanted it to as it posed a scary new threat to the PCs that a couple of blaster bolts wouldn't solve, and it foreshadowed the "Second Empire" storyline that would be the backbone of the campaign.

Liquid Terminators--don't mess with the classics!
Uh, Jeremy, I think Star War is the wrong franchise for me . . .


Monday, July 25, 2016

The Deep # 1 (Marvel) (one-shot, 1977) [COMICS]

"A masterpiece of undersea suspense from the author of Jaws!" proclaims the cover to The Deep # 1, Marvel's 1977 adaptation of a "Columbia Pictures' Cinema Sensation!"  It's done by Doug Moench and Carmine Infantino, which is hard to argue with, and here's the gist.  In the middle of World War II, a ship carrying medical supplies sank during a storm off the coast of Bermuda.  In the present day (1977, that is), two divers are exploring a different shipwreck (from circa 1714) when they find a medallion.  The divers, David and Gail, decide to confer with a reclusive shipwreck expert named Romer Treece.  On the way back from meeting with Treece, they're mugged by some thugs working for a slug wanting drugs who goes by the name Cloche.  You see, that WWII ship was carrying 98,000 ampules of morphine, and Cloche plans to recover them for his drug-dealing business!  In order to forever win the War on Drugs, David and Gail decide they're going to blow up that shipwreck.  After fighting off a moray eel attack, the pair realize that there are two ships sunk right on top of each other! (the 1714 one and the WWII one).  There's a climactic undersea scene as our heroes survive cut air hoses and sharks to outwit Cloche, blow up the drug-filled ship, and recover a lost treasure trove.  Roll end credits, with David being played by one Nick Nolte and Cloche played by my movie co-star, Lou Gossett, Jr.  The Deep (movie) has a 36% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, so maybe reading the comic would save you a lot of time!

Friday, July 15, 2016

RealmsToowoomba Recap # 61 [RPG]

[flashback to 4 Flamerule 1372]

When Markus arrives at the Academy for his next duel, it is clear that word of his dramatic exploits are starting to spread throughout Silverymoon.  He receives several cheers and hearty handshakes from the small crowd that has gathered outside the arena to watch him fight.  His next opponent, however, is not impressed.  The heavily-armored dwarf, Urist McBronzebottom, tells Markus that his flimsy rapier will never land a single hit.  The two make a small wager, and soon thereafter the Duelmaster, Artula Porolos, proclaims the rules of the match.  She explains that this contest will test the participant’s ability to discern when to strike and when to refrain, and to use timing to their best advantage.  Artula herself will participate in the challenge, and the winner between Markus and McBronzebottom will be the first to vanquish her in battle.  The two can attack each other at any time, but if Porolos defeats them both, they both lose the duel.

For this match, the arena is composed of a large room that contains a multi-tiered structure in the center.  Artula takes up a position at the top, while McBronzebottom and Markus start at the bottom.  When the match begins, the two males quickly decide that climbing is too risky as each would leave himself vulnerable to the other!  Artula casts several defensive spells and watches as her two opponents engage each other in earnest!  Despite the dwarf’s enormous tower shield, the point of Markus’ rapier does slip past and score a hit.  Most surprisingly to those watching, however, is that the young swordsman becomes almost feral at times, scratching and even biting his opponent!  Clearly, Markus has been changing—but why or how, no one else knows.

Artula decides to climb down to join the fighting, but slips several times in her heavy armor.  By the time she reaches the other two, both are badly hurt.  A true free-for-all results, and for a moment it looks as if McBronzebottom’s bastard sword will drop the exhausted priestess of the Red Knight, but she ducks at just the last moment and then Markus leaps in and lands a vicious swipe with nails as sharp as claws!  Artula falls to the ground unconscious, and Markus is proclaimed the winner.  McBronzebottom acknowledges the swordsman’s victory, and Markus invites him to the celebratory party he plans to throw himself at a nearby festhall.  The two end up having an enjoyable night drinking ale and singing dwarven tavern-songs.

[7 Flamerule 1372 continued]

Back in Thay, Myst and Ralkin are returning through the rain- and wind-swept streets of Bezantur when they notice something odd.  Across the street from the red-brick inn where they’ve been staying, the vendor of a stall selling meat-pies is making discreet gestures to get their attention.  When the two adventurers approach, the vendor (a young man with brown hair flattened by the downpour), starts putting his wares away in an adjacent cart while whispering that he wishes to speak with them in a nearby alley.  Ralkin and Myst are understandably wary, but follow the main to the mouth of the alleyway.  With Ralkin (in Myst’s body) keeping watch, Myst (in Ralkin’s body) moves in to converse with the man.  He says that his name is Renold, and that he knows the two are companions to the sorceress who has come to Thay to find Cain.  Renold is clearly agitated, and says that they must hurry to rescue the cleric before it’s too late.  Myst is cautious not to incriminate himself or fall for some sort of frame-up, and says he doesn’t understand but will pass Renold’s message along to Mellia and perhaps return tomorrow to find out more.

A few blocks away, in the Flaming Brazier, Mellia and Fargrim (in Dolcetto’s tiefling body) have reached the third terrace.  Waves of heat wash over them from the massive firepits that line the broad corridors.  Both persevere, however, and soon find their way to the Tendril that oversees this terrace.  The Immolator is a burly man clad in heavy armor of a type similar to that worn by Cain.  He stands before a blazing furnace and explains to a group of petitioners that those seeking a boon from the Great Lord of Flames must show their devotion by sacrificing something beyond mere worldly value.  If the flames in the furnace consume the sacrifice, the petitioner will find favor, but if black smoke billows forth, the offering has been rejected.  A grey-haired woman offers a locket that she explains was the last thing given to her by her husband before he joined the Legion and never returned, twenty years ago to the day.  The locket is consumed by the flames, and the Immolator says her request to learn what happened to the Legionnaire will be granted.  The second petitioner is an obese man wearing silk clothes and sweating profusely.  He offers forth a signet ring which he says is a cherished family heirloom, but when smoke fills the chamber, the Immolator says that the ring is a fake and orders the man taken to the Chamber of Punishment.  The third petitioner, a Rashemi peasant, offers something intangible but priceless: the memory of the happiest day of his life, in the hopes that Kossuth will cleanse his daughter from the plague. The sacrifice is accepted, and the man leaves in gratitude.

Having witnessed the types of offerings accepted and declined, Mellia and Fargrim are next in line for the ritual.  Mellia offers forth her daughter’s favorite doll, left in the girl’s bed the night she was taken by a mysterious dark figure, and something that Mellia had hoped to return to Allia when they were reunited.  The offering is accepted, and the Immolator says that Mellia’s request to take the test of purification to ascend to the fourth terrace will be granted.  Fargrim, however, seems nervous and unsure what to offer, and quickly decides that his journey here is at an end.  “Excuse me—I think I was in the wrong queue,” he tells the Immolator before departing.

Mellia proceeds to the test of purification.  The staircase leading up to the fourth terrace is covered in burning coals, and the diviner weighs climbing it slowly but with a focused will, quickly in the hopes that the pain won’t register until success has been gained, or strategically by jumping to the areas of the path that look to be the coolest.  She chooses the third route, but misjudges a jump and cries out in pain, instinctively retreating.  The warrior-monks overseeing the test state that she has failed, but may try again upon the morrow.  Frustrated and angry, Mellia heads back towards the inn.

That evening, Syd stays outside and exults in the raw, natural power of the Ride of the Furies.  Using a nearby pool of water, he scrys on Daisy and his animal companion Garry, and sees that both are well and are still in the Silverwood. Inside the inn, Mellia sends a telepathic message to Cain, stating that she has made it to the third terrace and will continue.  The response comes in a tone that can only be described as focused and backed by strength: “Then you have chosen to follow the path of true belief, and I will greet you with honor when you reach your goal.”  Elsewhere in the inn, Pirith continues trying to gather information about the portal that brought the adventurers from Silverymoon.  She obviously thinks the Guild of Foreign Trade will be very interested in its existence.  Dolcetto, in Fargrim’s body, manages to distract her, however, by talking about the best way to obtain books on the Zulkirs that rule Thay.

During the night, the terrible nightmares that wrack Fargrim’s sleep return, no longer held at bay by the ancient wards of Silverymoon.  The warrior dreams about a great battle outside the gates of Nesme.  Protected by a giant dome of ice, the armies of the Frostmistress, Auril, throw down the Witch-Queen and force the Dread-Knight to flee the battlefield. Fargrim feels the bitterness and hatred that radiates from the Dread-Knight, and knows that his thirst to vanquish every living creature from the Evermoors will only grow.

[8 Flamerule 1372]

When morning dawns, the storms that accompanied the Ride of the Furies festival have ceased and the reliable, if dull, weather wards of the Red Wizards have been restored.  Over breakfast, Fargrim talks about the nightmares that disturbed his sleep, concluding that the forces of the undead will redouble their efforts to destroy Nesme.  Mellia surprises the table by saying it a good sign that Fargrim is still having the nightmares.  Despite taking on more mannerisms, and even the accent of Dolcetto, the warrior’s spirit must be intact, she argues, if he is still suffering from the affliction of dark visions. After Myst mentions his encounter with Renold the day prior, Mellia says more information would be useful.  Fargrim offers to find out what the fellow is all about.

That morning, Syd and Dolcetto keep Pirith busy and away from the inn by asking for her help navigating the vast markets of Bezantur in search of histories of Thay and its rulers.  When Pirith tries to turn the conversation to Multivar’s portal, Dolcetto insists on visiting a nearby gladiatorial arena in the hopes of fighting an owlbear!  Forced to remain pleasant and helpful, the Guild’s “guide” can only go along with his wishes.

Mellia returns alone to the Flaming Brazier and is permitted to reach the third terrace and take the test of purity to enter the fourth.  This time, she draws upon all of her willpower and walks slowly up the burning coals.  Although sore and blistered at the end, she passes the test and gains entrance to the fourth terrace.  She finds herself in an unexpected environment: a large workshop where many of the most clever Tendrils are busy experimenting with novel ways to create and disperse fire.  The priests are supervised by the Flamemaker, a bearded gnome wearing stained robes.  He has little time or interest in Mellia’s quest to find Cain, but hurriedly administers by rote a series of questions about the nature and qualities of fire.  Mellia answers them each correctly, but then faces a practical test of her ability to harness it by either using flint and steel to catch a spark on a damp pile of leaves, or create flame by combining certain esoteric alchemical compounds.  She decides to try the latter method, but her knowledge of alchemy is slim and the unlabelled bottles are confusing.  Her attempt to create fire fizzles and results only in a foul odor, leading the Flamemaker to absent-mindedly inform her that she can try again tomorrow.

Fargrim keeps his promise to find Renold.  After being led through a circuitous route to throw off pursuit, Renold talks to Fargrim in a darkened cellar that serves as his bolt-hole.  Renold says that he’s been a friend of Cain’s since childhood, and, after hearing through sources in the church that the cleric had returned to Thay, he’d tried to visit him.  However, Renold continues, Cain is officially a non-being in the church and, again according to unnamed sources, is being held in dungeons underneath the Flaming Brazier.  Renold says that urgent measures must be taken to rescue him, as a secret society of church inquisitors named the Order of the Black Flame will soon interrogate Cain, and he may not survive the process!  Renold says he knows of a secret passage into the catacombs under the temple, but needs help making it past the Disciples of the Salamander, warrior-monks of Kossuth that guard the area.  Fargrim commits only to again passing Renold’s message along to Mellia.

When Fargrim does so, however, Mellia quickly dismisses the notion of rescuing Cain through stealth or force.  She says that Cain clearly wishes to remain a cleric of the order, that her approach is working, and that a risky rescue plan, even if it succeeds, will only lead to certain reprisals.  Dolcetto, however, hearing the discussion, suggests that there is a risk to *not* acting quickly.  Everyday they linger in Thay, she argues, is a day less of the unknown and perhaps random period of time they have left before the portal pulls everyone back to Silverymoon.  If Cain isn’t rescued before then, the group would have to go through the entire journey all over again, and Dolcetto is clearly dubious that most members of the party have any interest in doing so.  In the end, however, Mellia is afforded more time to see if her progress through the terraces continues.

That evening, Pirith finally acknowledges how interested she and the Guild of Foreign Trade are in the possibilities presented by Multivar’s portal.  Because the Guild has been trying to establishing trading enclaves in many cities throughout Faerun but have not been allowed to do so in Silverymoon, and because teleportation spells inexplicably but constantly fail in the city’s vicinity, Multivar’s portal could be a valuable tool for the Guild.  Mellia says that the secrets of the portal’s operation might be made available, if Pirith can use Guild influence to help her ascend the terraces of the Flaming Brazier more quickly.  Pirith is not optimistic about the Guild’s ability to influence internal church rituals, but holds out hope that perhaps the adventurers will still allow a Guild representative to return with them to Silverymoon.

[9 Flamerule 1372]

Shortly before dawn, the adventurers are awakened by the inn’s chamberlain rapping hastily on the doors to their rooms. The man seems frantic, and explains that a member of the Order of Evocation is awaiting their descent to the common room.  Syd cautiously tiptoes down the stairs to see a Red Wizard pacing back and forth, clearly furious.  When the halfling describes him to the others, Fargrim and Mellia recognize the man instantly: Felix Ruul, the evoker responsible for kidnapping Cain in the first place!

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Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Buffy Comic Project: "Viva Las Buffy! Act 3: Deuces Wild"


Buffy the Vampire Slayer # 53
(Dark Horse, Volume 1, 1998-2003)

Creators:  Scott Lobdell (plot), Fabian Nicieza (script), Cliff Richards (pencils), Will Conrad (inks)

Setting:  Between movie and Season 1

T.V./Movie Character Appearances:  Angel, Buffy, Pike, Hank Summers, Joyce Summers, Dawn Summers, Quentin Travers, Giles,

Major Original Characters:  The Manager (casino operator); Mary-Lou Sidle & Marcus Sidle (conjoined twins); Willem Bryardale (evil Watcher); Garner Sidle (casino owner)

Summary

Having found himself transported back to 1930, Angel breaks into the manager's office at the casino and finds, oddly enough, a modern-day computer!  He uses the computer and discovers that the original owner of the casino (Garner Sidle) has been using a Navajo holding spell to keep the place trapped in time so that he could return from the future and invest in profitable ventures.  Back in the future, Buffy surrenders to save Pike's life, and both are taken to meet the mysterious owners of the Golden Touch casino: a pair conjoined twins, one of whom is a vampire!  A fight breaks out, and Pike realizes he's dragging Buffy down by making her always protect him.  He causes a distraction and runs for the rooftop, and then jumps off!  In Sunnydale, Dawn discovers Buffy's diary, and in London, Rupert Giles leads the Watcher's Council to Willem Bryardale's chamber, where they realize, too late, that he has been practicing black magic!

Review

This issue had some awesome moments, like the conjoined twins, only one of whom is a vampire, doing all sorts of cool flips, kicks, and gun shooting.  I like originality, and the Sidle twins take the cake!  But the issue also had some head-scratching moments  like Pike, apparently, deciding to commit suicide so as not to be a burden on Buffy.  I never got this "woe is me" side to Pike from the movie (granted, it's been a long time since I've seen it) and it just doesn't ring true.  I feel kind of "meh" about the Angel "back in time" plot, and the subplots with Giles and Dawn are reasonably interesting.  The artwork continues to be excellent, with some top-notch action scenes.
The Sidle Twins; their origin doesn't make sense, but they're cool anyway!

Notes

* I had forgotten, in reviews of the first issues of this story arc, that Angel already knew who Buffy was when she was in Los Angeles, and that he was trying to protect her.  This explains his motivation for trailing her to the Golden Touch casino.

* Having Angel be in full-colour and the rest of the past in black-and-white worked extremely well.

* The letters page has an interesting exchange between a fan and the series editor about some of the fuzzy logic of the previous story arc.  It turns out that there were plans in place to end the series at Issue # 50 and re-launch the book starting with the current creative team, but the previous creative team decided to leave early (one guesses they weren't happy getting canned) and thus there was a scramble to bring the new creative team on early.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Mynock Squadron Recap # 9 [RPG]

[4.6.11 ABY]

Warrant Officer Kero orders Gamma Flight into space, intending to head towards the secret Imperial research base concealed in the asteroid belt around Nishr. During the journey, however, orders are received from the New Republic Intelligence Service (NRIS) liason in the fleet sent to Kuat: "Message received. New Dawn destroyed. Maintain position. Evade Detection. Update Sit-Rep." Kero sets about preparing a situation report and tells the others to formulate a battle plan if Mynock is asked to destroy the base. Waric suggests hit & run tactics, while Torga says they should have interrogated a captured pirate to get a better sense of the number of defenders they may be up against. She raises again the proposal that she be commander during any ground assault, but Stavros tells her she should focus on following orders. 

While the discussion continues, two transmissions are received in short order. General Cracken, director of NRIS, instructs Mynock Squadron to proceed to destroy the base in order to stop the spread of the mysterious plague. However, the Disease Response Unit (DRU) of the New Republic Department of Health transmits conflicting orders, stating that the base must be secured as information about a potential cure for the disease is likely to be stored there. Neither authority has line command for Mynock Squadron (which is part of Starfighter Command), and the group is left uncertain how to proceed. Stavros suggests that, while waiting for the Provisional Council to resolve the dispute, the Squadron should proceed into the asteroid field and scout the defences around the base. The proposal is accepted.

With Stavros piloting and Kero in the turret, the first Y-Wing enters the dense asteroid field. The way through appears treacherous, as asteroids both large and small move through quickly at seemingly random vectors, but Stavros manages to destroy any asteroids that get too close and the starfighter makes it through. Torga, flying solo, tries to follow Gamma Leader through the asteroid field but finds that even with constant attention, her vessel's shields are weakening too quickly. Kero orders her to abandon the attempt, at least for now.

Meanwhile, Waric examines some of the information downloaded from the Nishr Independence Force freighter. He's able to get a rough tally of the number of NIF members left aboard the base, but a file labelled "Access" is password protected and guarded by a subroutine that will destroy the file on three consecutive incorrect entries. Waric decides not to press his luck. When Keth and Waric try to fly through the asteroid field, a combination of poor aim and knowledge of shield modulation dooms the attempt. The vessel is forced to crash land on a huge asteroid and engage its magnetic couplers so that repairs can be attempted. Waric jokes with Keth that, if anyone asks, it was Darth Vader's fault. The duo go EVA to fix the Y-Wing's damaged repulsors and maneuvering thrusters, but the repairs take some time.

Upon hearing that Waric and Keth have "encountered technical difficulties," Kero and Stavros decide to approach the base on their own. As they fly closer to the base (embedded in the side of a massive asteroid), they suddenly receive an encrypted Imperial transmission but fail to decode it. Exactly sixty seconds later, automated defences activate: blaster cannons and drone snubfighters hidden in surrounding asteroids. Stavros lures one of the drones into a dogfight and quickly shoots it down, while Kero destroys the other with a well-placed proton torpedo. The embedded blaster cannons have difficulty tracking the evasive maneuvers Stavros puts the Y-Wing through, and Kero destroys the defences with several additional proton torpedos.

Having finished patchy repairs, Waric and Keth decide to try to navigate the field again. This attempt fares no better, however, and the duo decide to retreat before the damage becomes cataclysmic. Stavros sends them an update on the successful battle outside the base, and Waric jokingly responds that he and Keth's progress was delayed by the need to dogfight a TIE-Advance.

Stavros broadcasts a message to the base, telling its defenders that they should surrender and receive medical treatment. No response is forthcoming. A careful fly-by and sensor-scan of the base reveals two small exhaust ports near the rear of the base. Stavros suggests sending the Y-Wing's astromech droid into the ventilation system as a scout. However, the droid stops transmitting some minutes after entering the facility. Kero sends a new sit-rep to Starfighter Command, NRIS, and DRU: "Outer defences eliminated. Cautious investigation. Base unresponsive."

Waric and Keth try to navigate the field for a third time. The Y-Wing is heavily damaged in the failed attempt, and left slowly drifting through space. Once again, hours-long emergency EVA repairs are necessary to get the vessel operational. 

Waric proposes a dangerous new plan: the Y-Wing will "push" a massive asteroid through the field to clear a path, and then follow in its wake. In a vessel barely holding together, the scheme is both clever and potentially fatal. 

As Waric and Keth start to put this plan into motion, Kero and Stavros face a new complication: the massive hangar doors of the base have opened, and multiple starships are emerging . . .
-----------------------------------------------------------
Director's Commentary (July 1, 2016)


Even cybernetic enhancements couldn't get Waric through the asteroid field!
I really liked the bit with the group receiving conflicting orders without a viable way to resolve it.  Part of the fun of a military campaign is forcing the PCs up against bureaucracy and chains of commands that aren't always 100% clear.  This is the sort of thing I can throw out there and have a great amount of fun seeing how they decide to resolve it, when I really have no right or wrong answer in mind.

Making through the asteroid field was done as a "skill challenge" under the Saga Edition rules.  There were a variety of methods the group could choose to use.  As you saw, the first ship made it through incredibly easy, but another just couldn't get through despite repeated tries!  It was both comical and exciting.

Overall, I was pretty happy with this session.  The asteroid field definitely made this base a difficult thing to reach, and it ended on a good cliffhanger.

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