Thursday, August 29, 2013

Realms Toowoomba Session # 28 [RPG]

[1 Kythorn 1372]

While they wait for Ralkin to return from his exploration of the tower, the others discuss what they should do next. Mellia elicits more information from Fargrim on what he saw when he went under the water, and then suggests the group has two options: explore the submerged courtyard or return to the locked door that presumably leads to orcs. Concerned that either avenue of exploration could lead them further away from the Crown of Horns, Mellia makes a surprising suggestion: could Cain make a sacrifice to his deity, Kossuth, for guidance on the question? Cain, who had already suggested various acts of arson, enthusiastically supports the idea. He and Mellia begin loading as much flammable material they can find into the stables. Cain tries to sneak in a horse as well, but Mellia catches him and strongly objects.

As the two spellcasters prepare, Fargrim and Markus investigate strange voices coming from the direction of the keep--it sounds as if a returning monk has discovered the bodies of his fallen comrades. After approaching cautiously, however, the two discover that their new ally Ralkin has played a trick on them
by imitating voices. He tells the two that he found nothing of interest in the tower. The three then travel to the locked door, realizing that one of the torches on the way is an enchanted everburning one. This time, Ralkin has little difficulty picking the lock. Opening it carefully, the trio see a staircase descending into darkness and hear loud voices from the bottom. The three adventurers carefully shut the door and return to Mellia & Cain to report what they've found.

Mellia is incensed that the three acted without consulting her and Cain. A debate ensues about what the party should do. Mellia advises caution, as Bearos may not even be alive or have passed through the orcs' hands. Ralkin is the first member of the group to suggest that they know the orcs are slavers, and that rescuing slaves is enough reason to go below. The debate continues for some time until it starts to rain. Worried that their intended sacrifice could be ruined, Mellia and Cain hurry to the stables. Mellia cuts her palm and
writes a message in blood, which Cain translates into Ignan: "Is the way to the Crown of Horns through the Bleak Theater?" Mellia ignites the barn with a massive fireball, and Cain's sacrifice is received favorably. Although the adventuring cleric operates outside his faith's normal hierarchy and tenets, his passion for fire is well-received this day and he feels an answer fill his mind: "Yes". However, the cleric initially keeps this answer to himself. A frustrated Mellia unsuccessfully resorts to divination magic to try to get the answer before finally extracting it by promising Cain he can set the rest of the castle aflame.

Later that afternoon, Mellia identifies one of the magical rings worn by Grim as a Ring of Spell Resistance, while Ralkin correctly predicts that the other is a Ring of Darkvision. Cain makes some attempts to see if he can lure the creature that Fargrim saw in the water into becoming visible, but his attempts fail.  That night, while resting, the group have a long discussion on how to proceed the next day. They conclude that, after searching for traps on the stairs, Ralkin will pretend to be a slaver with Markus as his slave. The others will
then follow behind invisibly, hoping to catch the orcs by surprise.

[2 Kythorn 1372]

The morning begins with Cain conjuring a veritable feast of somewhat bland food. In a bid to make Markus' disguise as a slave realistic, Fargrim suddenly punches the swordsman in the jaw! An enraged Markus tries to respond in kind, but is restrained by Ralkin. "I'll get you for this!" Markus shouts.

After opening the door and examining the stairs leading down, Ralkin has no difficulty spotting two crude tripwires. Moving below cautiously, he sees that the stairs lead to a guardroom. A half-dozen orcs are sitting at a table, while a half dozen more are sleeping behind a crude barricade. Two doors lead off from the chamber. Oddly, the orcs have an appearance quite different the norm: milky white skin and silver-grey hair.

Ralkin returns to the top of the stairs and the group put their plan into motion. Upon seeing Ralkin and his "captive", Markus, the leader of the orcs continually expresses surprise and states that he wants to see Ikenvar. He's clearly very suspicious, but Ralkin manages to persuade him to go check with a figure the orc refers to as "Kaernga." However, an invisible Mellia tries to follow the orc through the door but accidentally kicks a metal goblet that skitters across the floor! The paranoid orc changes his mind and states that he
needs to talk to Ikenvar personally. With the others still invisible, Ralkin and Markus follow the orc back up the stairs. When they reach the top, Ralkin shouts to Fargrim to grab him, but the surprised orc manages to throw the suddenly-visible dwarf off of him. The orc's shouts about traps and treachery rouse his allies below, and half of them rush for the door while the other half take defensive positions.

Cain, seizing the moment, waits until the charging orcs are massed in the narrow stairwell before unleashing a wave of flame in their midst. Even the few that survive are badly hurt and easily finished off, as is their leader. Meanwhile, Mellia quickly dispatches the rest by casting a very effective (and very loud) fireball. Markus moves into the chamber to examine a door on the west wall.  His timing is unfortunate, however, as seconds later a massive minotaur bursts through the door and impales the adventurer with his horns! Mellia casts a
spell to increase her allies' speed and then retreats up the stairs. Cain tries to slow the beast with a sonic blast, but the minotaur is enraged and connects with his huge greataxe on Markus' unarmored body. The adventurer is left barely standing. Suddenly, Fargrim charges at the minotaur and, with a single swing of
his greataxe, lays the beast low! Judging by his prowess in this and the previous battle against Grim, the group clearly have a powerful weapon in their midst.

Director's Commentary (June 4, 2014)

A fun session, as the party starts up some classic dungeoneering by moving below Startop Keep.  D&D does have its strengths, and adventuring like this is one of them.  The PCs ruse against the orcs was a good one in theory, and although it didn't work out due to a poor Move Silently roll, the PCs were already plenty tough enough to take out the orcs (they're at least level 5 by this judging by Mellia's fireball, and the level was designed for 2nd level PCs).  Springing the minotaur on them was great fun though, as the image of it crashing through the door and goring Markus was memorable indeed.  Fargrim once again proves his awesomeness by bringing it down with a single swing.  Enjoy the high-action dungeoneering while it lasts, because there's not much more of it! (and I'm writing this as of Session # 82!)

Before they went below, there was some good RP on the surface.  Cain's bonfire was a good way to show the cleric's devotion to Kossuth.  This element actually becomes far more developed later in the campaign, and I think the player really starts to figure out how to RP the character in an interesting and distinctive way after a future storyline set in Thay.

Quite telling that none of the PCs are particularly worried about rescuing slaves per se, and interesting that Ralkin was the first to bring the notion up.

Next Recap

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Buffy Comic Project: "Ugly Little Monsters, Part 1"

Buffy the Vampire Slayer # 40

Dark Horse (Volume 1, 1998-2003)

Creators:  Tom Fassbender & Jim Pascoe (story); Cliff Richards (pencils), Joe Pimentel & Will Conrad (inks).

Setting:  Season Five

T.V. Character Appearances:  Buffy, Willow, Tara, Xander, Tara, Dawn, Spike, Giles,

Major Original Characters:  None

Summary:  It is some weeks after the death of Joyce.  Willow and Tara decide to keep Buffy company on patrol, but during a vampire attack Tara is scratched in the face.  When Willow and Tara return to the Magic Box, Anya makes a rude comment about the scratches and Willow and Anya argue.  Elsewhere, Spike turns up at Giles' door and says he is concerned about Buffy.  He shows Giles something called Ezekiel's Bane and says he found a demon wearing it in the sewers.  Giles says Ezekiel's Bane allows the owner to store and manipulate intense emotional energy, but that it now poses no danger.  Meanwhile, at the Summers' residence, Willow and Buffy discuss how Buffy is coping when they hear a scream from upstairs.  In Dawn's closet are a trio of sharp-clawed demons!  The demons screech at Dawn and then leap out the window.


I loved this issue, and although it might sound odd, part of the reason is that the writers didn't worry about getting to the plot until the last few pages.  The characterization is perfect.  Having watched every episode of Buffy many (many) times, I can completely imagine the actors speaking the dialogue in the comic.  The conflict between Willow and Anya is played well and earned; Willow would stick up for Tara, and lambasting Anya for constantly making rude remarks on the pretence that she doesn't understand humans was a nice way to cut through and deconstruct established personality traits (a Whedon trademark).  The portrayal of Buffy finding herself in the difficult position of now being something of a mother-figure to Dawn was also handled well.  It's a Buffy story, so there has to be monsters and fighting at some point, but it's really the characters and their interaction that sets the Buffy-verse apart from the rest.


* There's a well-written scene where Willow and Tara are insulted by a trio of drunk jerks.  It's not clear if the verbal attack is misogynistic, homophobic, or both, but seeing characters deal with real-world problems helps keep the stories grounded.

*  There's a weird and slightly comical panel featuring Xander on page 5, where it looks like he has two heads.  Xander is delivering dialogue both to Anya (in the foreground) and to Willow and Tara (in the background) of the same panel.  In order to get Xander looking in the right direction for each, the artist stuck two heads on the same body to represent Xander turning.  I get the idea, but it looks really weird and is probably the sort of thing that would be better represented by turning the one big panel into two smaller ones.  An editor's note on the letter's page provides an explanation for why this wasn't done: for some dumb reason, the editor challenged the writers to use precisely three panels per page.

* In one scene, Buffy is sitting on her bed reading an issue of Fray (the comic that features a Slayer in the far future).

*  For the art covers, I've always hated the very cartoony style that the editor seems to favour.  It makes the Scoobies look like they're in middle school.

Next Issue

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Realms Toowoomba Session # 27 Recap [RPG]

[30 Mirtul 1372]

In the aftermath of their battle against Grim and his slaver army, the adventurers temporarily split up. Fargrim carries Grim's corpse and drops it into the lake, Mellia finds a clerical scroll hidden in a desk drawer which she gives to Cain, and Markus begins leading a trio of horses back towards the keep. On the way, however, he hears a low moan coming from an unexamined wagon in the stables. Looking inside, he sees a strange being manacled inside a cage: the humanoid is just over 5 feet tall and is covered with scales and dark blue
feathers, and in place of a mouth has a beak. The stranger, who introduces himself as Ralkin, asks Markus to hand him the small case of tools sitting nearby. With their aid, Ralkin is able to pick the locks on his manacles and open the steel cage. After soon meeting the other adventurers, including a very stunned Fargrim, Ralkin explains that he was imprisoned by the slavers who had, at the time, pretended to be monks. Mellia seems somewhat cautious and skeptical of the newcomer, but the group invites him to join their explorations of Startop Mountain.

The adventurers explore the small series of rooms beyond the secret door Mellia had discovered through her arcane magicks. One of the rooms, itself guarded by another secret door, contains little but layers of dust, the remnants of a table and chairs, and a faded tapestry depicting Startop Castle from above. Cain ingeniously uses a mending spell to repair the tapestry and is able to discern that the keep has a lower courtyard that must now be covered under the lake in the volcano's caldera. A nearby room contains a massive pile of rubble and a heavy wooden door recently reinforced with steel bands. As Fargrim approaches the door, individual bones in the pile of rubble somehow join together, forming an unliving abomination in the shape of a bear. Still wounded from his battle against Grim, Fargrim is forced to retreat against its onslaught. Mellia scorches the nightmarish thing with a flaming lance, Ralkin unveils a massive bow made out of bone and shoots arrows at it, and Markus lays into it with a mace. Cain, however, is the turning point, as he channels Kossuth's will to drive the creature back in fear, and it is destroyed before it can escape.

When Ralkin searches the rubble pile, he discovers a hidden steel chest. Cain uses the key he obtained from Ikenvar's body to unlock the chest and set the half-orc's hidden loot on display: hundreds of gold coins and a small number of rubies. Ralkin, whom the others learn is a member of a rare species on Faerun called kenku, tries to pick the lock on the reinforced door but finds it too difficult. After a thrilling but exhausting day, the group discusses how they should spend the rest of the day and evening. The consensus is to camp inside
the keep, but Markus and Mellia have a long argument about whether they should journey down the mountain and return with their mounts, or leave them where they are for the time being. Mellia eventually gets the better of the dispute, but Markus states that if anything happens to his warhorse, the sorceress had better
purchase him a new one. That night, while resting, Fargrim tells Ralkin a little bit about Bearos, the dwarf's old friend who had been kidnapped by Grim to taunt the dwarf. Bearos, alas, is still missing.

[1 Kythorn 1372]

The first day of a new summer month brings rain and even hail to the Evermoors.  But although the weather may bode ill, for the first night in days, Fargrim has no disturbing nightmares--a fact that annoys Mellia, as she had hoped that the insight that Fargrim sometimes gains from these traumatic visions would be
useful in knowing whether they were on the right track to discover the Crown of Horns. Fargrim marks his defeat of Grim by hanging the bandit leader's skull mask from his belt as a trophy.

Later in the morning, while on a walk around the inner perimeter of the ancient, crumbling keep, Mellia shocks Markus by suddenly chanting an occult incantation, swallowing a live spider, and climbing up the side of a tall tower without even needing a rope! Mellia enters the tower through a window at the very top and
discovers the room is abandoned save for a large black raven in a cage. A barred trapdoor would allow access to lower levels of the tower. Mellia returns to the rest of the party with the bird, and they discern that it must be a messenger. They include a note stating that "Grim has perished at the hands of Fargrim Trollslayer" and set the bird off. It immediately flies to the northwest.

The adventurers decide to investigate the lower courtyard depicted on the tapestry that Cain repaired. As many of them are nervous about diving into the lake, Fargrim is persuaded to tie a rope around his waist and allow himself to be lowered down while the others stay topside as an anchor. When he reaches solid ground a few dozen feet under the surface, Fargrim realizes he is standing on crumbling stone steps. In the distance, barely discernible so far down in somewhat murky water, are several buildings. However, Fargrim's attention is immediately arrested by glimpses of a massive, multi-headed creature struggling with something else under the water. As the water becomes turbulent and filled with blood, Fargrim tugs animatedly on the rope and is soon pulled to the surface. Everyone backs away quickly from the water.

Returning to the keep, the adventurers try again to unlock or burst through the reinforced door, but have little luck. In a discussion of what to do next, Mellia lets slip to Ralkin the fact that Fargrim and Cain have been suffering strange nightmares. She goes on to explain that the group knows that some slaves have been sold to other malevolent forces in the Evermoors, but that some have also allegedly been sold to orcs below the keep. Cain hits upon the idea of learning more about their options by drawing upon dark necromantic rites to
force the corpse of Ikenvar to answer three questions. However, the spirit of Ikenvar knows nothing of the Crown of Horns, knows only one way down, and states that, as far as he knows, Bearos was to be sent to a place called "The Bleak Theatre." The latter two pieces of information are not new for the adventurers, but they at least seem to serve as confirmation.

Returning to the courtyard, Ralkin persuades Mellia to cast the magical climbing transmutation on him along with an invisibility spell. Alone, Ralkin climbs to the top room of the tower, opens the trapdoor, and peers into the darkness below. An almost overwhelming stench of animal waste billows up, but Ralkin
bravely grasps the rungs of the rickety wooden ladder and starts to climb down.  The kenku has Beshaba's luck, however, as the ladder breaks, dropping him to the ground in a bone-rattling fall! With no light source, exploration of the room proves difficult. However, after some time to allow his eyes to adjust to the darkness, he realizes tiny shafts of light are entering through mostly blocked arrow slits in the walls. Clearing these out, Ralkin is able to discern several small nests with small, hawk-like birds. He also finds a trapdoor leading further downward.

Although convinced there is a trap on it, he opens it anyway to discover he was wrong. More darkness lays below. The kenku avoids the ladder this time and climbs along the ceiling of the lower chamber, down a wall, and onto the floor.  In the near total darkness, however, he can hear something moving towards him.  Still invisible, Ralkin moves as silently as possible and trusts his fingers to find a door out of the chamber. He feels the outline of a door and is able to push it open just as a sizzling glob of some substance flies past his face and impacts the wall. Shutting the door behind him and moving quickly forward, the intrepid adventure travels through a long, dark tunnel before discerning light filtering through cracks in another hidden door. Pushing it open, Ralkin finds himself back in the courtyard, between the inner wall and the keep. After the
harrowing experience, he returns to the other adventurers to discuss what they should do next.

Director's Commentary (May 13, 2014)

This session is most notable for the introduction of Ralkin, run by a new player to the campaign (bringing us up to 5 PCs).  I'd never encountered a kenku before in gaming, and it's always nice to learn about something new.  Plus, the party could definitely use a rogue if they were to continue dungeoneering (and they do, for a few sessions, and then rarely since!).  Ralkin has appeared off-and-on throughout most of the campaign since this session, and is usually portrayed as someone who mostly keeps to himself and has a lot going on behind the scenes (demonstrated by frequent note-passing between his player and me).  His player does a nice job bringing out some of the birdlike and frankly creepy aspects of the species.

Ralkin's exploration of the tower was interesting, risky, and difficult to run because it took place in almost total darkness.  Trying to describe what a character feels, and running combat where sometimes neither of the combatants could see each other, wasn't easy.  I also really didn't want to kill a new player's PC in the very first session!  Fortunately, Ralkin escaped; the lower levels of the tower have never been revisited.

The party did some good work figuring out some of the interesting elements of the first level of Castle Whiterock (Startop Mountain); Cain's mending of the tapestry was really smart, they made an interesting use of Grim's raven, they found some hidden treasure, and so forth.  Fargrim's quick dip into the lake was fun, and I think the PCs (and players) were appropriately scared by multi-limbed terror they saw.  That worked out well, as the submerged area of the keep wasn't something I had completely planned out yet, and I would have had to improvise more if they had pushed further into it.

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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Wrath of Ashardalon Adventure # 4: The Mysterious Chamber

This is the first adventure to use the Chamber Cards, a new feature that wasn't in Castle Ravenloft.  Basically, the heroes have to adventure until they turn over enough tiles to reveal the Dire Chamber Entrance, and then they have to place another Dire Chamber tile on each unexplored edge along the entrance.  The top card from the Chamber Deck is then flipped over to reveal what sort of monster or challenge has to be overcome in the Dire Chamber in order to win the adventure.  There's a couple of different types of Chamber tiles and some special rules about them, so it pays to read that section in the rulebook before the adventure.

Anyway, we went with our standard compliment of 5 heroes and after splitting up into three groups to turn tiles over quickly, revealed the Dire Chamber Entrance.  The card we chose was Stables, meaning a massive Fire Drake had to be beat.  The tricky part was that we also had to place monsters on each of the other Chamber tiles, and some of those monsters ended up being Sentry monsters but we couldn't reach them because the Fire Drake blocked access--that meant that by the time the battle was over, there were more monsters on the board than I had ever seen before!

When the Fire Drake appeared, our Heroes were spread out all over, so we had to do a lot of double-moves to get them into battle position.  We actually defeated the Fire Drake with both our healing surges left, but that really was pure luck: our brave cleric stood in front of the Drake for at least three rounds, and the Drake missed with every single attack due to low die rolls!

Anyway, I like the Chamber Deck idea and looking forward to seeing what else lies within in future adventures.

Next Adventure

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Domination Factor [COMICS]

I'm not sure where to start with Domination Factor, a limited series published by Marvel in 1999.  I'm not even sure if it's one 8-issue limited series or two 4-issue limited series (Domination Factor: Avengers & Domination Factor: Fantastic Four) that share the same plot and tie in together.  I do plan to talk about the story, but first, I must rant.

Rant Start

This series has the nuttiest numbering system of any series I've ever seen (and that includes the trendy # 0 concept, the weird issue # 1/2 idea, and the database-busting issue # 1,000,000 trick DC pulled years ago).  The first issue published, titled Domination Factor: Fantastic Four, is numbered 1.1; the next issue published was Domination Factor: Avengers was numbered 1.2.  Odd, but we can imagine logically that the next issue will be 1.3; we could even imagine the next issue is 2.1 (with the "2" referencing the second month).  But no!  Instead, the next issue is Domination Factor: Fantastic Four # 2.3, followed by Domination Factor: Avengers # 2.4.  This odd pattern continues until the final issue of the series, Domination Factor: Avengers # 4.8.  I suppose the idea was that the first number represents the month and the second number indicates the issue number, but by using a decimal to separate the two numbers, the reader has no idea what the relationship between them is.  A reader might logically think that issue 2.4 (for example) is set in between issues 2 and issues 3, and that he also needs to find issues # 2.5 through # 2.9, which of course don't exist.  The problem is aggravated by alternating between titles every issue.  If one was only a fan of the Fantastic Four and not the Avengers, that reader would have to figure out that he or she wants to buy Domination Factor: Fantastic Four issues # 1.1, 2.3, 3.5, and 4.7.  How counter-intuitive is that?  What was the thought process behind this?   It doesn't tie into the story, it's not explained anywhere in a text page, and its effect could only have been to confuse the reader.  I pray to Kossuth that any future numbering schemes along these lines are burned in eternal flame.

Rant Over.

Issue # 1.1  I should first say this series has a rather goofy plot.  But that doesn't necessarily make it bad, and my notes for the issue say "Kinda fun, really.  I miss good superhero comics."  The issue begins with Reed Richards and Tony Stark aboard Air Force 1.  There's some funny banter how how they could improve the coffee-maker, but then bandits wearing jet-packs attack the plane!  The Fantastic Four and Iron man save the plane from crashing, but a golden apple given to the President as a gift from Norway seems to have been the target of the attack, and it's lost in the waves.  It turns out that the apple is sought by a dying, elderly woman named Nora Queen, owner of a large corporation called Praxis.  The apple would somehow extend her life, but with it lost, her assistant, Lester, vows to find another way.  Meanwhile, in a cool two-page sideways-spread, a giant wooden . . . erm, giant . . . appears in Manhattan and attacks the F.F.  They're unable to destroy it, and suddenly time freezes and Doctor Strange appears.  He says that the F.F. must astrally travel to the past to prevent a terrible future (which he doesn't elaborate upon) by recovering pieces of the golden apple.  The astral spirit of the Thing is sent back to inhabit his body during the F.F.'s first meeting with Agatha Harkness.

Issue # 1.2  Annoying numbering aside, it is cool that the covers of issues # 1.1 and 1.2 fit together to create one large image.  After the Air Force 1 fight, Iron Man calls in the other Avengers for a consult.  They realize that everyone else in New York seems to be frozen in time, and witness a second wooden giant appear.  The inevitable fight ensues, but it seems to have the ability to heal itself.  Doctor Strange appears, says the two giants are "Harbingers of the Everlasting Winter", and follows the same script in sending the astral spirits of the Avengers back in time.  Tony Stark, for example, inhabits the body of his younger self during one his lowest periods as an alcoholic, while Wanda inhabits her body back when she was allied with Magneto and held the U.N. hostage.  It's actually a really fun way to take advantage of continuity and Marvel's long history.

Issue # 2.3  Each member of the F.F. is back in a different part of their shared history.  Ben is at Agatha Harkness' house, trying to steal her piece of the golden apple without changing anything or letting his comrades know what he's doing (there's some funny internal dialogue here); the Frightful Four attack, complicating matters.  The Torch is at the Inhuman's refuge during their fight against Zorr; he gets caught in the act trying to break into Black Bolt's vault for the piece of the apple.  Reed is at the headquarters of the Enclave during a mission to rescue Alicia, but then-Ben won't let him sneak off to look for the apple piece.  Finally, Sue is being held prisoner by Namor, but then-Reed attacks to rescue her.  Doctor Strange's astral form appears to each and says they must kill all those who oppose them, as they are infested by demonic forces!  I don't have a personal recollection of any of these revisited stories, but I bet for a hardcore FF fan they bring back a lot of memories.

Issue # 2.4  Back to the Avengers.  Tony Stark almost has his mind wiped by Nick Fury for being a security risk in his drunken state, but manages to escape at the last minute.  Wanda, at the U.N., stumbles on the piece she's been looking for.  Thor's astral spirit travels back to a point when he was in Asgard assisting in a battle against mountain giants; Loki interferes with his search for the apple piece.  Back in WW II, Captain America's search is stymied by the Golden Age Torch.  Meanwhile, at Praxis HQ in the present day, the mysterious Lester views all of the heroes' efforts through a crystal ball.  Methinks something suspicious is afoot!

Issue # 3.5  Each member of the F.F. is successful in obtaining a piece of the apple, but when their astral forms return to the "present" they find it's been changed!  A new, strange world that is dominated by the Praxis Corporation and that contains no super-heroes..  The best part of this issue is "modern" Sue's spirit in 1960s-era Sue's body, putting the kibosh on the condescension and sexism displayed by the other members of the group.  Quite fun, and well-deserved.

Issue # 3.6  The members of the Avengers are also successful and also return to a world dominated by Praxis.  They're also stuck in their astral forms without bodies to inhabit.  But there's an additional complication: Thor is eliminated from the time-stream, and the others begin to forget he ever existed!  It turns out that the mystical apple is Asgardian in nature, that Nora Queen is actually Knorda, Queen of the Mountain Giants (exiled to Earth as a mortal by Odin for her crimes), and that Lester is actually Loki.  Even the "Doctor Strange" that visited the heroes and sent them on their quests was the trickster in disguise.  So yes, this is all Loki's fault!

Issue # 4.7  I'm not 100% clear on Loki's motivation for this whole, complicated scheme.  I think we're to believe that he worked so hard to freeze time to save Knorda's life because he was in love with her; Loki doesn't seem like the loving type, and the point is not developed very well.  He also remade the world into one dominated by Praxis because it wouldn't include the Avengers, as Loki is still irked by the fact that his actions were what brought the group into existence originally (way back in Avengers # 1, of course).  Any how, with all the heroes stuck in their astral forms without bodies, they decide to possess the closest facsimilies they can find: their non-superhero alter egos.  In this new world, Reed is an employee of Praxis working under the supervision of one Victor Von Doom, Johnny Storm is a race car driver, Ben runs a pizza joint with Alicia (and has a kid), Sue is married to Tony Stark, Wanda is a fortune teller, Steve Rogers is an old man in a nursing home (often visited by a middle-aged Bucky), etc.

Issue # 4.8  The big conclusion.  The heroes are losing their memories, but think that their fading recollection of Thor is the key.  The plot of this issue isn't 100% coherent (my notes say "really weird plot moves"), but somehow the heroes steal Thor's helmet from Knorda/Nora's office, head towards a time-vehicle built by this alternate world's Reed and Victor, and then, with Knorda/Nora's help, go back to Asgard's past to trap Loki and save Thor.  With the Earth returned to normal, Knorda/Nora becomes mortal again, and dies.  So yeah, it's not exactly Shakespeare.

Overall, the series couldn't help but be a bit goofy by making a magic Asgardian apple the macguffin.  Combine that with time travel, and you have a recipe for some silly ideas.  But I will say that the redeeming feature was seeing the characters as we conceive them today (or at least in 1999) interact with their teammates/supporting cast as they were portrayed in the 1960s & 1970s--it's very clear how much has changed, and how many of the characters have evolved over time.  I wouldn't suggest rushing out to find back issues of this though--and even if you tried, would you be able to decrypt the numbering cypher?