Monday, March 26, 2018

Bright Lights, Night City: Cyberpunk 2020 Sessions 1 & 2

This entry begins a new series of post-session write-ups for my Cyberpunk 2020 campaign, Bright Lights, Night City. The campaign is mostly run from pre-written modules published by R. Talsorian Games, Dream Pod 9, and others, linked together with a few NPC swaps.


Merlin: A former Trauma Team doc whose license was revoked under questionable circumstances. Merlin's talent for chemistry and lifetime of partying has led him into a relationship with the Triads, where helps develop various illicit substances in exchange for expensive cyberware maintenance.

Baxter, PI: Born in a marine nomad flotilla near the Philippines, Baxter immigrated to California as a teenager and later joined the Night City PD, where he proceeded to make nothing but enemies. Muscled out of the force after arresting a particularly well connected exec, Baxter how has a corporate army, an Eastern European mercenary company, and a Combat Zone street gang breathing down his neck.

C.J.: A talented Trauma Team surgeon, C.J. has a reputation for brilliance, both metaphorically because of her skill in the operating theater and literally because almost every inch of her skin is covered in bio-luminescent tattoos. Though she prefers to hang back when violence starts, she's quite capable of holding her own with her high-pressure chem-gun.

Gielle Metalik: A Sudanese-born bike nomad, Gielle runs a gang in the Combat Zone, taking edgerunning jobs to maintain connections and keep supplies and munitions rolling in. A calm and charismatic leader, she maintains a pleasant demeanor but takes no shit, and is not afraid to get her rippers dirty.

Important NPCs:

Silver Shark: While other fixers might promise their talent the world on a platter if they take on some high risk, high reward gig, Shark has a reputation for reliability. His jobs might not pay the best, but they pay on time and they pay the right amount. Clients value his discretion, and edgerunners know that the Shark will take care of them.

Saturday, 12:00: Silver Shark was in his "office," a table near the back of a waterfront dive bar called Paradise Lost, when he got the call. An anonymous party with an electronically masked voice needed a bit of hands-on corporate espionage performed, and they were willing to pay pretty damn well for it. All Shark had to do was secure a crate of cargo off of a PetroChem freighter named Arabian Dream, without alerting PetroChem's security detail or the media. Simple enough. After relaying one of his offshore accounts to the anonymous client, Shark started assembling his crew.

Baxter and Merlin got the call first - Baxter smelled something fishy with the deal and went to do some digging on his own (because his player couldn't make it that week), but Merlin's wallet was a bit too light to turn down the offer. Gielle Metalik and C.J. needed the paycheck as well, and the crew assembled at Paradise Lost at 16:00 to hammer out the details. Shark was nothing if not prepared: the team was soon equipped with harbor patrol schedules, schematics of the vessel, and a 200 euro advance each. He'd also secured transportation.

Ariel, a small time smuggler who frequently worked with Shark to help people with questionable documentation get ashore without dealing with inconveniences like "customs" and "visas," had agreed to pilot the team out to the freighter, where it sat shrouded in heavy fog a short distance from the docks. Arabian Dream was a refitted 20th century model, and there was only one dock still operating the antique equipment needed to unload her. Shark had arranged for that dock to have a maintenance issue, forcing the target to stay anchored and vulnerable, away from the watchful eyes of PetroChem's corporate security.

Sunday, 00:00: Having taken the time to vet the information about the freighter, run a background check on Ariel, and buy some equipment, the Edgerunners reconvened at the habor to start their mission. Strangely, neither Baxter's investigations nor some skillful hacking from a contracted netrunner were able to turn up any information about the Arabian Dream's cargo; all official documents indicated that she was empty and had come to pick up a load of manufactured goods. Feeling a little less confident, but past the point of no return, the team reviewed their infiltration plan one more time as Ariel's sport boat glided almost silently towards the huge, dark bulk of the freighter, their approach masked by the dense fog. The plan was to insert via a maintenance ladder on the port side, enter the communications room and disable the ship-to-shore link, and then extract a sample of the mysterious, officially non-existent cargo from the hold. So far, they were off to a good start, without a single alarm raised as the sport boat slid up next to the huge ship.

Gielle mounted the ladder first, but was almost immediately flung back to the deck of Ariel's boat as a deafening explosion erupted aboard the Arabian Dream, sending a huge gout of flame into the sky and rending the massive vessel nearly in half. When the team recovered their wits, C.J. found Ariel slumped over the wheel, a chunk of shrapnel having entered the smuggler's left eye and protruded out the back of her skull. As Gielle shoved the corpse to the side, a huge, dense cloud of foul smelling vapor began pouring from the hole in the freighter's hull, water boiling on contact with the unidentified gas. Eyes and noses burning as the cloud surrounded the small sport vessel, Merlin frantically kickstarted the engine as Gielle gunned the throttle, pushing the boat back to shore as fast as possible.

Behind the fleeing Edgerunners, the cloud of toxic gas grew exponentially, practically overtaking them as they docked. Abandoning Ariel's body, the team scrambled back to Paradise Lost, giving a short, frantic account of the situation and mobilizing the bar's patrons to help seal the windows. Dish rags, duct tape, torn t-shirts, whatever was available, was crammed along every seam and crack in the windows and doors. It wasn't airtight, but it would give them a fighting chance.

Shark demanded to know where Ariel was, and was crushed to learn she hadn't made it. He'd always liked her.

00:15: Unable to leave, and with the gas at least unable to get in at the moment, the team settled in to wait things out. Keeping the Runners company was Mac, the bartender, a stout and reliable fellow who heard all the good gossip but hated to spread it, his waitress Cherry Moon, who loved spreading gossip, and a couple of drunks named Greg and Bob. Vic, the bouncer, was on Shark's payroll and worked security when he brokered deals. Over at a corner table sat Razorface Casey, a solo merc who was about four boilermakers in, and whose most notable features were the olive drab ballistic plates grafted to his skin over his vital organs, and the chrome plated, skull-faced helmet fused over his entire head. In the opposite corner, a frightened corporate flunky was making a hushed, panicked phone call.

00:16: Razorface orders his fifth boilermaker.

C.J. overhears a snippet of conversation from the corp, and catches him telling whoever's on the other end that he's trapped in a bar with a gang of terrorists that just set off a bomb. Shortly after, the phone and 'net lines go dead. It's clear someone wants them cut off.

00:20: The bar's various windows seem to frost over. Close observation shows that it's not frost, but corrosion from the gas cloud outside. The bar's television begins running coverage of a terrorist gas attack on the harbor.

Outside the bar, the team can hear occasional shouts for help and pops of gunfire, but these become less and less frequent as the minutes start to drag on into hours. Razorface continues to drink, sometimes glaring with his cold, cybernetic eyes at Bob and Greg, who are thoroughly sloshed and trading conspiracy theories about the cause of the explosion.  The corp flunky, his off-the-rack suit drenched in stress sweat, refuses to talk to anyone.

 Outside, the whine and clunk of failing cybernetic servos can be heard approaching the door, followed shortly by a frantic pounding. The visitor makes a gasping, gurgling cry for help, begging to be let into the bar. He pleads, and bargains, and claims the cloud has dispersed, that it's all safe, that he just needs to be patched up. Another bulletin comes on the TV, but the sound is drowned out by the desperate man's cries.

Razorface orders another drink, his cold, mechanical eyes glued to the door, targeting the sounds from the plaintive victim on the other side. The pleas gradually give way to wordless, bubbling, wet noises, as the survivor collapses outside the bar, the rags stuffed under the door turning a dark shade of red as a thick, gelatinous ooze soaks into them.

Cherry Moon starts to panic, and C.J. turns to comfort her. The two get on extremely well.

The TV report continues, "HF gas is extremely toxic, with prolonged exposure causing complete breakdown of soft tissues and decalcification of bones."

Gielle attempts to get some information out of the flunky, since he was the last person to make a call out before lines of communication were cut. The man identifies himself as Carmichael, a PetroChem PR specialist, and insists that there's nothing to worry about. Before the call dropped, he spoke directly to his supervisor Ms. Schell, and she promised to send an extraction team as soon as possible.

Time passes. More drinks are consumed. Cards are played. C.J. and Cherry explore the back of the bar for other means of escape.

Another news broadcast, this time an interview with Ms. Schell of PetroChem! She identifies Carmichael as the mastermind behind the attack, claiming he hired three mercenaries through an unknown intermediary to plant the bomb! Carmichael pleads his innocence to the team, claiming he had nothing to do with hiring them. The team isn't convinced, but Gielle points out that PetroChem could just need an easy scapegoat to avoid a PR disaster. The news switches over to a field report showing a team in PetroChem branded hazmat suits spraying a neutralizing agent over a building in the harbor district. Maybe help really is coming?

01:30: Razorface orders his seventh or eighth drink, and starts obsessively checking the status of his SmartLink, the capacity of his automagnums, the sharpness of his combat knife.. The team decides something needs to be done about the dangerous solo. Merlin has a small vial of Smash, a powerful painkiller with hallucinogenic side effects, and C.J. convinces Cherry to slip it into Razorface's next drink.

Unfortunately for the team, Razorface's toxin binders keep the drug from taking full effect, and he quickly figures out he's been roofied. Guns are drawn, and two shots ring out: a 9mm slug flattens harmlessly against the solo's dermal plating, while a .44 flechette tears through the wall of the bar, letting in a slow leak of dense, toxic fog. C.J. moves to protect Cherry, while Gielle and Merlin tackle Razorface hand-to-hand. Feet, fists, knees and elbows flash in all directions, with the largely unaugmented Edgerunners taking a few serious bruises. Eventually, the combined force of both heroes bear Razorface down to the floor, where Gielle does her best to keep him tangled in a hold while Merlin bashes the armored cranium repeatedly into the tile. Over the course of thirty excrutiating, exhausting minutes, Razorface's brain is finally rattled enough inside his chromed skull that he hemorrhages.

2:30: Something moves past the window. Although the glass is too fogged and etched to see through clearly, the shape appears to be vaguely humanoid, pushing seven feet tall. It moves to the rear of the bar and starts struggling with the locked back door. The surviving patrons rush to the rear, pressing backs, shoulders, and chairs against the door to keep whatever's outside from getting in. The thing, whatever it is, makes a sound like an angry junkyard dog as it finally gives up its assault. A short time later, there are a few cracks of gunfire and some very human screams from another building on the wharf.

Time passes in silence once again. The news continues to pop up sporadically with new, live footage of PetroChem's cleanup efforts, but C.J. and Merlin notice something amiss. Bits of the "live" video are recycled from earlier broadcasts, and whatever isn't appears to be shot on a soundstage. The team starts to think that help might be a long time coming, when suddenly the distinct whine of a air-effect vehicle can be heard from outside!  There's a crackle of electricity and a strange blue glow just beyond the front door of the bar, as a loudspeaker announces that the gas has been temporarily neutralized. The team is obviously skeptical, and starts to prepare for the worst. Gielle and C.J. ready their weapons, while Merlin steals the dead Razorface's automags. The door is forced open, and a man in an utterly nondescript suit steps over the half-dissolved corpse of the gas victim who expired outside earlier.

Merlin shoots him in the knee! Further resistance is quashed when the AV parked outside starts to spin up its 20mm gun. The injured man says that he'd be happy to reduce the bar to rubble at this point, but the party might just make it out if they can prove the explosion was caused by PetroChem's negligence and not a terrorist attack. Gielle takes charge, convincing the man that her cybereyes recorded the entire run, proving they didn't plant the bomb. She'll also give the man Carmichael to interrogate at his convenience. Having thus firmly inserted themselves in the middle of a corporate skirmish, the party manages to bargain for their lives and are escorted out through a weird, glowing blue tunnel through the gas.

Halfway to the AV, and gunfire erupts from the corner of the bar! A squad of troopers in PetroChem hazmat suits have set up with a pair of light machine guns, laying down suppressing fire at the escaping survivors! Bob and Greg, the drunks, are both hit multiple times and crumple into formerly human heaps, their forms spinning out of the thin, blue light walls of the tunnel and dissolving in the mist. Shark, the Edgerunners, Mac, Vic, and Cherry barely escape onto the AV before the powerful cannons roar to life, erasing the PetroChem soldiers, the bar, and a good portion of the pier.

"We're taking you to the Mogul. He'll decide how to handle you."

Having been rescued from the airborne toxic event, the team has been held in a fairly well appointed corporate condominium complex, with access to two levels of the high rise, including a pool and a restaurant. They are not, however, permitted to leave, or to see outside through the automatically polarizing safety glass. Their concept of night and day has been controlled entirely by the cycle of lighting inside the residency. It's a prison, even though it's a very, very nice one. Strangely enough, there are absolutely no corporate logos or branding on any room, facility or employee inside the residence. It's a complete dark site.

After what seems like days of this, the team finally gets some good news, of a sort. Their fixer, Silver Shark, pays them a visit, with a large bottle of actual whiskey in tow. Apparently, Shark has learned, the team were right in the middle of a romantic disagreement between a Ms. Schell of PetroChem and a Mr. DuChamp at their unnamed corporate rescuers. The spat turned, naturally, into corporate espionage and some minor explosions. DuChamp hired the Edgerunners as patsies to keep the explosion from being traced back to his parent company, but the Mogul is sick of all the attention and decided it's time for DuChamp to retire.

Shark has offered to deliver Mr. DuChamp's severance package, and he and Gielle (whose player couldn't make it), head off to settle accounts on behalf of Ariel and the others who were caught in the blast and subsequent gas cloud. The Mogul, meanwhile, has an offer of particular interest to the Edgerunners, and sends his personal assistant Ms. Harker to bring them to his penthouse.

Ms. Harker was tall, slim, blonde, sharply dressed and exceptionally pale. Baxter attempted a thermal scan on Ms. Harker to determine if she was trying to summarily execute the team, and found that she produced almost no heat signature. C.J. made a pass at her, but received only the slightest of smirks with a tiny hint of an elongated canine tooth in reply. Ms. Harker demurred from entering the penthouse, leaving the team alone with a spectacular view of Night City through the massive, wraparound windows, a million neon points of light glimmering in the dark.

The Mogul's penthouse was a veritable museum of film memorability, with display cases full of original props, an actual slab extracted from the Walk of Fame, a few golden statues of various sorts from decades past, and a seemingly endless array of autographed pictures of stars ranging from the Golden Age of Hollywood to just before the Collapse. Nestled between photographs of Monroe and Connery, was a Polaroid of a young girl with dark hair in old fashioned clothes.

"My dear, late daughter.."

The voice seemed to come from nowhere. Baxter's IR scan showed no heat signatures except the party's, however Merlin's echolocator spotted a humanoid form standing behind a large writing desk. As they stared at the desk, a slight shimmer and ripple in the air was barely discernible, as if light was being bent around a vaguely human shape. The Mogul was there, watching but unseen, and as he spoke there was obvious air of bemusement at the Edgerunners' confusion.

He was a film collector, he explained, though that was obvious. He agreed to cut the team loose and let them return to their lives, if they could locate the last ten films he needed for his collection. He would only accept original reels, no copies, tapes, or laser discs. He was willing to pay 25,000 euros per film, and once all ten had been retrieved, the Edgerunners would never have to hear from him again.

It was an offer they could not afford to refuse.

The Mogul had a line on the first film, an original print of Fritz Lang's 1931 thriller M. The current owner of the print, a Mr. Larry Walker of Springfield, CO, had agreed to part with the film for 2,000 euros. The Mogul had even lined up bus fare for the crew, but did not provide the funds needed to secure the film. They'd be on their own to work out how to obtain it.

After a long, grueling Greyhound ride from the Bay Area to Colorado, the Runners arrived in the beautiful, idyllic, Stepford-esque town of Springfield. Little pastel houses of all the same design, on little plots of land all the same dimensions, all trimmed to exactly the same length. As they approach the home of their contact, they find something is terribly amiss. A black-and-white aircar is parked on the lawn, blue lights flashing on top. On the porch, an officer is having a very heated conversation with a man that is presumably Mr. Larry Walker.

Baxter flashes his credentials for a second and makes an Authority roll to convince the suburban cop that he's on assignment from the city and needs details about the situation. C.J. and Merlin approach Walker and make some Empathy checks to get his half of the story. It turns out that Walker's daughter, Alice, failed to come home from school and has been missing for almost 14 hours. Walker can't deal with the sale, due to being in a panic over his missing girl. Merlin seizes the opportunity, promising to find the girl in exchange for the reels.

Baxter figures they have a few hours at most before the Springfield PD realize he isn't who he claims, and uses the time to get the low-down on the suburb with some very successful Streetwise checks. He turns up that the are north of town is cordoned off into what the residents unimaginatively refer to as Gangland, a free-fire area similar to Night City's Combat Zone, but on a smaller scale. Gangland is centered on a very abandoned, very leaky nuclear power plant, and divided into four territories. The entrance is largely controlled by a Colombian cartel, which has been forced east by the Triads and Russians in California and Washington, while directly north of their region is an ultra-militant, ultra-violent gang called the Death Watch. West of Death Watch territory, an old junkyard is home to a posergang called the Bartsters, which affect an identical style of red t-shirts, denim shorts, and bleached, spiked hair. Due east are the Lost Boys, a new gang that nobody seems to know much about, but everyone avoids.

Merlin and C.J. head to Alice's school to make some inquiries among her classmates. Merlin Poochies his way into a group of teens and makes contact with one of the Bartsters, but the kid can only speak in some kind of weird, early 90s code. C.J. swallows her pride and flirts with one of Alice's teenage classmates, learning that she was supposed to come hang out after class the other day, but she got off the bus a block early and headed north towards the power plant. She seemed unusually pale, was wearing a turtleneck despite the warm weather, and moved as if she was half asleep.

Armed with this scant intelligence, the Edgerunners decide their only remaining course of action is to head straight into Gangland. Travelling north out of town, the team finds a breach in the perimeter fence around the old power plant, and sneak in through the Colombians' secured zone. Under cover of darkness, and with Merlin's echolocators and Baxter's enhanced vision to guide them, they sneak around the edges of the old Quonset huts and helicopter hangar that the cartel has re-purposed into a headquarters. Using Baxter's telescopic eye, the crew sees cartel members loading up a large number of crates into various innocuously marked tractor trailers, apparently getting ready for a big shipment. While the ex-cop wants the wreck the operation, C.J. and Merlin point out that they are outnumbered and significantly outgunned. Underscoring the situation, the team barely evades detection by a Humvee packing a heavy machine gun.

After some tense sneaking and hiding, the Edgerunners made their way up to the abandoned junkyard and met with Merlin's Bartster contact. Merlin spoke with the leader of the gang, Bart, about where Alice may have gone or been taken, while C.J. talked to the gang's chemist, also named Bart, about buying some of the drugs the gang uses in their hallucinogenic slingshot rounds. She manages to secure enough hallucinogen to fill a spare bottle for her chem-gun.

The lead Bart offers Merlin a deal: If the Edgerunners will help the Bartsters pull a prank on two of the other gangs, they'll lead them to Alice. The prank in question involves placing a large, homemade bomb in the Colombians' camp, then leave behind some Death Watch insignia, with the intent of starting a gang war and knocking out both heavily armed factions. Baxter and Merlin agree to the plan, but C.J. is skeptical, and opts to hang back in one of the power plant's crumbling out buildings and provide support. The bomb in question turns out to be a couple of 2-liter soda bottles, connected with duct tape and surgical tubing, and filled with some unknown combination of chemicals.

Against C.J.'s better judgement, Baxter and Merlin sneak back into the cartel's encampment with a gallon of highly reactive chemicals slung under the PI's arm. A sentry hears them passing, but they quickly manage to hide near some rusted out, slightly leaky, slightly radioactive storage tanks. Merlin starts to feel the effects of the old plant's radiation, while watching a few baby turtles playing in a puddle of green ooze. The sentry loses track of the intruders, but still makes a radio report. Although the alarm isn't raised, the Colombians are definitely on edge now. Baxter decides it's now or never, and tries to find a place to plant the bomb. On the way in, they saw a fuel transport parked next to the other semi trucks, but by now there are too many guards and too many portable lights there. As a next best option, he sights a residential-sized propane tank next to one of the Quonset huts, and moves to plant the device. Merlin uses his echolocators to keep track of guards, and the pair manages to place the explosives without incident.

Baxter rolls...okay...on a demolitions check. Either he shook it too much or maybe didn't add enough of side B to side A, but the chemicals in the bottles are reacting a lot faster than they should. With an explosion happening in seconds instead of minutes, Baxter and Merlin drop the Death Watch swag they were given where someone can find it, and book out of the base at a full run. Alarms go off, spotlights come on, and the base is alive with shouting men and rattling firearms. Baxter makes his reflex save but Merlin fumbles, taking a slug in the left leg and a second in his Kevlar vest. A moment later, the bomb goes off, along with the propane tank, and various munitions stored in the sheet metal hut. Baxter makes a crit on a Cool check, and does not look at the explosion.

Meeting up with C.J., the team books it towards the Death Watch compound and then veers off sharply, hiding among the plant's decaying and crumbling offices. Some of the Death Watch ride out to investigate the blast, and a full fledged firefight starts up between the militia and the cartel. C.J. patches up Merlin's leg while they wait out the fireworks, until a Bartster arrives to lead them to a safe path towards the Lost Boys' hideout, droning the brief, mystical blessing, "Don't have a cow, man."

Creeping up on the building where the Lost Boys have made their warren, the team peeks in through dingy, cracked windows and a large steel door that doesn't properly fit on the hinges. The inside of the building is a tangle of pipes, tubes, and dangling chains of no discernible purpose. Steam pours from a few damaged pipes, water drips from others. In a clear spot on the floor are six figures in the piecemeal leather, patched denim, and spiky accoutrements of a street gang.

Three of the older members of the gang stand facing down three junior pledges. The leader seems to be a tall, pale man of about 18, with a shock of white hair standing straight up on his head, and a large V-shaped scar across his face. Clinging to his arm and shoulder is a Native American woman covered in blood red tattoos, with her studded denim jacket adorned in eagle feathers. A large, bald, black man stands in front of them, knuckles of one massive hand caked in blood.

On the floor in front of this imposing trio, a boy of about 15 sits slumped half-limp, blood streaming from his mouth. Another boy about his age crouches next to him, trying to help the injured teen to his feet. A girl of sixteen or seventeen stands between the injured boy and the heavy, her arms spread out, an impressive mohawk of electric green hair on her head.

"Just stop it, Viktor! He didn't know what he was doing!" she pleads, looking at the man with the V-shaped scar.

"He fucking BIT her, and now we have to fucking deal with her. People are asking questions, Brenda!"

The Edgerunners deduce that this little exchange is definitely about Alice, with the gang leaders clearly about to dole out some Combat Zone justice to their junior member, and probably the missing girl as well. Something clicks in Merlin's brain about the girl's reported behavior, something reminding him of some strange hemophilia cases he was working on before being fired from Trauma Team. The patients all had strange puncture wounds on their necks, exhibiting palor, "zombie"-like behavior, and rapid loss in body temperature. The condition degenerated quickly over the course of 48 hours, leading to inevitable death, with orders from above to have the remains shipped off-site immediately, apparently for research at some off-the-books facility. Merlin had found that a total blood transfusion could reverse the course of the illness, but his research was frozen and his license revoked by management almost immediately after his first attempt at treatment.

The team decides they need to act fast if they want to rescue Alice. Baxter's heat vision detects her signature in a sub-basement below the industrial building, and the team quickly organizes an ambush and crossfire. Merlin draws the pair of automagnums he lifted off Razorface's corpse at Paradise Lost, C.J. charges her chem-gun and Baxter moves to cover her with his service pistol.

Merlin opens the assault from a broken window at one corner of the building, putting four slugs squarely in Viktor's face. Huge chunks of skull and brain erupt out of the back of the gang leader's head, but he somehow stays on his feet, his arms flailing erratically as he croaks an order at his two comrades.

"Eagle..! Rage! G-get--get..kill!"

The tattooed woman, Eagle, screams in rage, her eyes glowing with psionic energy as electricity crackles around her body. Baxter opens up with his side arm, sending several 9mm slugs into Eagle's stomach, as the woman hurls bolts of lightning at the Edgerunners! Merlin takes a bad shock but manages to shake off the stunning effects.

Moments later, the muscular Rage explodes through the wall of the building, and puts a knee directly into Baxter's face. The two struggle briefly, with the PI desperately blocking the massive brawler's vicious elbow and leg strikes. Baxter tries to shoot Rage point blank but rolls a 1, blasting his own leg off at the knee instead. Bleeding out on the ground, Baxter barely manages to stay conscious as the big man starts pummeling him in the face.

With the fracas in full swing, the junior gangers drag their injured friend away from the fight and hide out deeper in the industrial building, leaving an easily followed trail of blood. Viktor, a veritable walking corpse, shambles limply in their direction, one or two faltering steps at a time despite most of his brain missing. Eagle begins charging up for another electrokinetic barrage, the lights in the compound flickering and dimming as she summons a massive charge.

C.J. ducks into the opening that the single-minded Rage smashed in the building, and starts laying into Eagle with her chem-gun. The searing acid from her sprayer disrupts Eagle's concentration, causing the ganger to dissipate her charge and blow out every light in the joint. Merlin rounds the corner, a magnum in each hand, and lays into Rage's back with both barrels. The heavy hitter's head and upper chest disintegrate into a cloud of blood, pulp, and splintered bone, and his body slumps limply onto the badly bleeding Baxter.

As Eagle finally succumbs to the stream of caustic chemicals, C.J. drops her sprayer and heads over to help her injured comrade, dragging the lifeless Rage off of him and applying a tourniquet. Merlin enters the building, horrified at the twitching, melting body of Eagle sprawled on the floor, and the still vaguely shambling Viktor, which tries to turn and grab him. Merlin disgustedly puts a .44 round into Viktor's heart, sending the gang leader down for good. Merlin follows the bloody trail down to a hatch to the sub basement, where the juvies are frantically gathering a few supplies for their escape. The chemist, weapons still drawn, says that the team will forget they ever saw the juvies, if they turn over Alice. The deal is struck, as the injured ganger informs Merlin that "there might still be time..."

C.J. calls her Trauma Team contact for medivac by AV, as Merlin brings Alice up from the sub-basement. She's unnaturally white, unnaturally cold, utterly catatonic with bloodshot eyes and two small punctures on the side of her neck...


With Alice secured at a local medical facility, and with Merlin's information, doctors begin the long and painful process of flushing her blood from her system and replacing it with vat-cloned substitutes. Baxter will need his share of substitutions as well, but a Triad fixer offers to take care of that pesky leg situation for him. C.J. emails Cherry Moon and lets her know that she'll be coming home in a few days.

Walker upholds his end of the deal, turning over the film reels of M in exchange for his daughter's return. A hefty reward should be waiting for the Edgerunners on their return to Night City.

Just nine more films to go.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

The Lawnmower Man Virtual Reality Roleplaying Game (1992)

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The Lawnmower Man Virtual Reality Roleplaying Game. What is there to say about this game that you can't already glean from the title? I am convinced that if there is an RPG Hell for bad DMs and players, this is the book that Roleplaying Game Satan hands the poor, damned souls upon their arrival to that cursed shore.

Twenty-four years ago, NASA JPL engineers Barry Nakazono and David McKenzie decided that the world needed a game which combined the excitement of near future sci-fi with the ease and simplicity of aeronautic propulsion engineering. The result was the Phoenix Command rule system, which saw some success in the giant robot combat game Living Steel. It also birthed The Lawnmower Man into the world.

For the uninitiated, The Lawnmower Man is a 1992 sci-fi/late cyberpunk/maybe transhumanist movie based on the title of a Stephen King story and the content of those weird Mind's Eye experimental early CGI stoner tapes. The film is widely known for its incredibly accurate portrayal of virtual reality, computer hacking, and cyber-warfare.

The roleplaying game is no less detail-oriented, in fact this may be the most minutia-obsessed game I have ever read. Everything starts with a fairly solid core concept, then veers down a rabbit hole of endless complexity, a fractal pattern of d% tables and cross references leading to the least obvious mechanical choices. It truly feels as though the designers started playing AD&D, but decided it was not complex or "real" enough for their tastes. In fact, initial character generation follows the same 3d6 method of old-school D&D editions, and even uses the same thresholds for ability score improvement, but with a needlessly complex twist.

Ability scores, or "characteristics" as the game calls them, are broken down into two sections:

Primary Characteristics represent objectively measurable and quantifiable aspects of the character, and consist of Strength, Intelligence, Will, Health, and Agility. Each characteristic is generated by rolling 3d6, noting the total, then rolling 3d6 again and taking the higher of the two totals for each ability. 
Secondary Characteristics represent abstract elements of the character, and are composed of Charisma, Leadership, Perception, and Motivation. Secondary Characteristics use a straight 3d6 down the line, no re-rolls. My rolls for both sets of characteristics follow below.

STR: 14
INT:  15
WIL: 14 
HLT: 10 
AGI: 12 

CHA: 14
LDR: 16
PER: 13
MTV: 7

For both Primary and Secondary Characteristics, 10 is considered "average" (much like D&D), while higher scores are increasingly better, and lower scores progressively worse. The threshold of improvement is the same as in D&D. Based on these numbers, I've got a rather strong, smart, and likeable character who is a natural born leader, but who doesn't give a fuck about getting anything done. With these scores, I can also determine my Learning Roll to earn skills, by adding Intelligence and Motivation to get a 22. In order to learn a skill, I will have to roll below a 22 on a d%.
In order to determine a class, I randomly roll on yet another d% table (the game loves these) and hit an 89 to land on Scientist. This gives me a number of chances to learn science and VR related skills - note, my class does not give me skills, it just gives me the chance to learn skills. Unfortunately, I rolled high on solidly half my skill attempts, giving me a -4 penalty to Awareness, Virtual Reality, Computer Systems, and Diplomacy. I managed to roll low on Computer Programming and Project Management, as well as VR Interfacing skills, giving me a +0 (neither penalty nor bonus) to each of those. I also rolled super high on Computer Hardware and Bio-Tech, however I used a class feature to take those at a +0 level instead of -4. In other words, Biff Slackjaw, MCS is strictly okay at building computers, but borderline incompetent at using them.

I can find no reference for generating starting cash in the game in order to purchase equipment, however the authors do state that players pick whatever starting armor they want (which in turn determines how much they can carry into combat), and get one or more pieces of starting gear. As a Scientist, Biff's starting equipment is a desktop computer, and nothing else. I decided to nab him a Kevlar vest and a small pistol out of the back, though he's likely more a danger to himself than to others.

With character creation basically completed at this point, I would like to take a look at those combat mechanics. Despite knowing how to use VR interfaces, Biff is totally unskilled at VR combat - a detriment in a game focused on interacting with virtual worlds. Instead, I'm going to explore physical combat first. Biff has four combat actions he can use each turn. These actions may be spent on movement (1 Action per six feet), aiming (1 action for -4 to hit, 2 actions for -1, 3 actions for +0), shooting or attacking (1 action), or several combinations thereof. If, for example, Biff wanted to take a shot at a thug about 30 feet away in the open, he could: drop to one knee (one action), aim for two actions, and then fire. To hit the target, I'd have to roll under a 67 on a d%. Managing a 47, I score a hit on the target. I then roll a d% for hit location, getting 36, which corresponds to a shot to the abdomen. I then would make a Glancing roll on 1d10 to determine if the bullet penetrated the thug's armor. In this case, we'll say the thug is unarmored, giving me a total Glance value of 1d10+24 - this exceeds the damage threshold of Biff's pistol (21+), causing him to deal a "heavy" wound for 35 points of damage. If Biff had a weapon capable of fully automatic firing, this would be resolved for each bullet. Of course, he has a lot of weapons to choose from - the game contains no less than 86 real-world firearms, multiple cars, armored vehicles, aircraft, and explosives, each one with slightly different statlines.

Overall, The Lawnmower Man Virtual Reality Roleplaying Game may be the least playable game I have ever encountered, which is especially damning considering that I have a few games which never got past pre-release playtesting (here's looking at you, Narcissist v0.7, you beautiful, weird butterfly). All the more perplexing is that Leading Edge Games managed to fit this system not just into their own in-house Living Steel game, but also at least two additional film-licensed RPGs: Bram Stoker's Dracula and Aliens. The lifespan of the company was brief, however, and both authors have since gone back to working full time at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Normally, I'd end this post with a link to where you can purchase the game, however The Lawnmower Man Virtual Reality Roleplaying Game is mercifully out-of-print.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Dragon Warriors: A Game In Six Parts

Alright, so it’s 1985 and Dungeons & Dragons is the word in fantasy roleplaying. Basic D&D has just launched its second edition (Mentzer’s BECMI line), and AD&D is about to drop a second edition of its own. Riding the coattails of the D&D craze are the Fighting Fantasy line of “game books,” choose-your-own adventure style stories offering a “single player” RPG experience. UK publisher Corgi books decided to cash in on both the popularity of "regular" roleplaying games and single-player game books, releasing Dragon Warriors, a complete fantasy RPG system and campaign setting spread across a series of six mass market paperbacks
Okay, so, "the ultimate roleplaying game" might be a bit of an ambitious tagline for this thing, but after cracking the hood I've found that it isn't bad at all. The system is very clearly “inspired” by Original and Basic D&D, though considerably simpler: 3d6 character creation remains, but combat is handled by a multi-stage dice rolling process rather than a matrix, character progression is fairly linear, and most "advanced" style rules are modular and totally optional. The game is, as noted above, organized into six volumes: the first contains rules for character creation, game mastering, and two martial fighting classes (Knight and Barbarian), the second contains two magic using classes (Sorcerer and Mystic) and explains the spellcasting system, book three includes an adventure campaign, four includes the Assassin class, rules for lockpicking, stealth, and perception, and five and six contain additional campaign and setting information.

The books are illustrated throughout in pen-and-ink drawings, and contain some of the most delightfully old school Fantasy RPG art I have ever seen.

Dragon Warriors uses a set of five stats to define player-characters: Strength, Reflexes, Intelligence, Psychic Talent, and Looks. The first three are fairly self explanatory, and map onto the D&D characteristics of Strength, Dexterity, and Intelligence. Psychic Talent is a stat used entirely for magic - martial characters rely on their Psychic Talent to resist spells, casting classes rely on it to use spells. Looks has no mechanical use at all, and is simply a guideline for how NPCs will react to the character at first sight.

Because character generation is little more than a few quick 3d6 rolls for stats, class selection, and a handful of very small charts, let’s get to it!

STR: 10

REF: 9

INT: 8

PST: 12

LKS: 7

Based on the penalty/bonus charts the game uses, this character has dead average Strength and Psychic Talent, subpar Reflexes and Intelligence, and is one kinda meatfaced looking goon. With stats generated, it’s time to choose a Profession for this guy; the magic using classes are out of the question (both spellcasters require a minimum of 9 in both Intelligence and Psychic Talent), so that will leave me with Knight or Barbarian. Given that the Reflexes penalty will make light and unarmored combat a bit more harrowing here, I’ll opt for a Knight, with a tin can to keep him sealed for freshness.

Hit Point generation is based entirely on class, and in the case of the Knight that’s a 1d6+7, giving me a grand total of...8. This equates to being able to sustain two blows from most weapons. Perhaps Sir Meatface should rethink his chosen career path?

Attack and Defense scores are also governed entirely by Profession (unless you roll above a 12 or below a 10 on Strength and Reflexes), so our Knight will get the standard Attack rating of 13, and a penalized Defense rating of 6. Characters also have separate Magical Attack and Magical Defense scores; since Meatface is a Knight, he has no ability to attack with magic, and his below average Intelligence roll is not bad enough to penalize him in this case, so he gets the standard Magical Defense score of 3.

There are, of course, situations that can’t be defended against by a strong mind or martial skills, like Indiana Jones boulders and dragon's breath. For those dangers, we’ll need to determine an Evasion score; given Sir Meatface’s inherent clumsiness, he takes a penalized Evasion of 3 based on the chart in Book One. The last score to generate here will be an Armour Factor, but for that, we’ll have to get his starting equipment out of the way. The standard Knight kit includes a suit of plate armour, a sword, shield, dagger, lantern, a backpack, and 25 silver pieces. Plate gives an Armour Factor of 5, which we’ll need when working out the somewhat esoteric combat system.

Okay, so, making an attack in Dragon Warrior first involves a roll-under attempt on a d20, with a target of the attacking character’s Attack score, minus the defending character's Defense score, then on a success, roll the attacking weapon’s armor penetration die against the target’s Armour Factor, then subtract the damage rating of the weapon from the target’s HP. So let’s say Sir Meatface wants to stab J. Random Orc in the face: First, we generate the to-hit target number by subtracting the Orc’s Defense of 5 from Meaty’s Attack of 13, giving us an 8 to roll under. On 1d20, that means Sir Meatface will miss more than half the time. 

If the brave and noble Knight somehow manages to land a hit, he must then roll 1d8 (the armor penetration die for a sword), and attempt to score higher than the Armour rating of the Orc’s ringmail (AF 3). In this example, though Sir Meatface’s odds of striking the enemy are poor, the odds of hurting the enemy on a successful blow are pretty good. Damage is not randomly rolled - all weapons have a set, static damage rating, so Meatface would deal a flat 4 damage to the Orc if he succeeded both combat rolls.  At low levels, the combat system slightly favors the players over the monsters - both sides are fairly hard to hit, but monsters tend to have lower Attack scores than player characters. Level progression brings up pretty rapid improvements, with both Attack and Defense increasing by +1 for martial classes (much slower for caster classes). 

Overall, the system seems shockingly playable, especially as a first effort for author Dave Morris, who would go on to pen the excellent Knightmare gamebook series. If not for the unstoppable juggernaut that is D&D, Dragon Warriors could have easily been my go-to Fantasy RPG.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Extra Life is Coming - Game Selection Round 2!

Okay folks, the next batch of Dungeonthon potential games is ready to roll. The first games to make it to our Final Three bracket for Extra Life were Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition, Narcissist, and Hellcats & Hockey Sticks!

Please vote for your favorite games of the new batch at this link here!

And remember, the Dungeonthon benefits sick children in Nashville, TN! Donate at Extra Life and watch us on in November for 24 hours of nonstop tabletop!

Donate here!

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Extra Life is Coming - YOU CAN HELP

Attention PCs and NPCs, the time has come once again to prepare for the Great 24 Hour Dungeonthon supporting the Extra Life charity and the Monroe J. Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt. Last year's run through the Temple of Elemental Evil raised $720.00 to help sick kids, and this year we're hoping to do even better! Before fundraising begins in earnest, though, your friendly neighborhood Dungeon Master needs your help!
This year, rather than a single 24 hour mega-module, I'll be running the intrepid Dungeoneers through three, 8 hour adventures in three different genres and systems, over the period of November 5 through November 6. In order to pare down my dozens of potential game systems down to only three, I'm going to need your input!
If there's a game you want to add to the running, or if you want to cheat the system and vote more than once, please make a nominal donation to the Extra Life campaign, with a comment including the system you want to see us run - every dollar helps sick kids!

Monday, February 29, 2016

Friendship & Fukus: The First NONPLAYABLE Game

This is not a review, nor a character creation walk through. This is, in fact, semi-original content!

Sometime in November, my gaming group started expressing some interest in a "magical girl" themed game, akin to something like the shoujo anime staple Sailor Moon. I've turned the idea over in my head several times the last few months, but most of the generic systems I've looked at have felt unsuitable, and my general dislike of "anime themed" game systems warded me away from things like Big Eyes, Small Mouth and its ilk.

Then I remembered the brilliant, single page Lasers & Feelings from One Seven Design. L&F is a simple, quick playing system using only a single stat, a handful of dice, and a success-counting pool mechanic based on rolling either over or under your target stat. It runs fast, relies on lots of narration, and takes only a minute or three to learn and get started, making it perfect for a social-and-adventure-based one-shot shoujo anime game.

I spent a few hours bashing hacking together some genre-appropriate attributes and scenarios, hung them more-or-less appropriately on the L&F framework, slapped it into a PDF and called it


Like Lasers & Feelings, Friendship & Fukus should be considered available under a Creative Commons / Open Gaming license. Feel free to download, play, hack, modify, and comment with your feedback.

It's entirely possible that other original or semi-original content will come down the Nonplayable pipe in the near future. I don't know. But for now, I hope you enjoy this.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Teenagers From Outer Space (1987): It's Funny, Right?

Oh, Mike Pondsmith.

You gave us Interlok and Lifepaths. You gave us bleeding edge Chromatic Rock music and calculating the amount of thrust needed for a giant robot to overcome inertia in microgravity.

You also gave us this.

Teenagers From Outer Space (TFOS from here on out) was extraordinarily popular among some of my friends back in the mid-90s, back when the North American consumption of Japanese cartoons was starting to expand beyond Voltron and Robotech. Before Cartoon Network and Fox Kids started importing the stuff en masse, anime (or "Japanimation" as it was briefly called, for some godawful reason) was typically shoved into the Special Interest section of the video store (though Media Play had its own section), or ordered from the phonebook-thick specialty catalog behind the counter of the rental shop with little more than a grid of titles and single sentence descriptions, all of which nestled titles like Speed Racer and Demon Beast Invasion comfortably next to each other. The bulk of the longer or more esoteric series, you acquired on generations-old VHS tapes, copies of copies of copies with matted-on yellow subtitles translated and synced by a Canadian college student, hunched over a LaserDisc player and a bank of VCRs in his basement. I still dust off Ed's Dirty Pair translation every once in a while. The point of this long and rambling sentence is that this was a fandom composed of intensely devout, serious nerds, gobbling up whatever scraps of this seemingly bizarre foreign media they could buy, borrow, or steal, and TFOS targeted this group with laser accuracy.

Teeangers From Outer Space is a science-fiction comedy game designed to emulate the popular "harem" style anime series of days gone by, particularly the alternately surreal and bonkers works of Rumiko Takahashi, such as Ranma 1/2 and Urusei Yatsura, along with the American productions which they inspired, like Ben Dunn's long-running comic Ninja High School. For the uninitiated (and if that's you, I'm not entirely sure how you got to this corner of the internet), a "harem" series has a basic premise that should be familiar to anyone who ever picked up an Archie comic book: there's a handsome teenage boy with a singularly defining personality trait (honest to a fault / total schmuck / self-centered jerk), and an improbable number of attractive teenage girls who want to be in a relationship with him, with a sort of implicit theme that adding more vertices to the relationship-polygon adds additional comedy value. TFOS and its progenitors heap on further complications in the form of beautiful demon princesses, super-powered alien girls with only the most tenuous grasp of acceptable human social behavior, and pretty much any other bonkers idea the authors can come up with. Based on the established harem principles, this should help turn the resulting love-triangle/hexagon/triskadecahedron into a non-stop slapstick dramedy train, alternating between hilarious misunderstandings and angsty heartbreak (but only briefly straying into the latter). I've always been of the opinion that it rarely works in comics and TV, and it almost never works in roleplaying games.

The reason that "comedy" games so frequently fall flat (in my opinion, that is; your mileage may vary) is very simple: you can't enforce Mandatory Fun. The way to run a funny RPG campaign (again, in my opinion) is to get a group of not-so-serious-minded players together, let them feed and play off each other during chargen and during sessions, and let them come up with goofy ways to solve the campaign's challenges. Comedy is, by nature, spontaneous and (as the tabletop nerds say) "system agnostic." There's room for comedy in anything from Old D&D to Dungeon World to Eclipse Phase, with suitably clever players and suitably deep reserves of beer. TFOS, on the other hand, wants to make absolutely certain that you're getting your chuckles in its own specific way, a pretty remarkable feat for such a comparatively rules-light system. The game weaves its comedy mechanics into just about everything you do, from character creation through conflict resolution, and while quite a few people enjoyed it, I've always felt it was trying too hard.

Character creation (which is still ostensibly the purpose of this blog) in TFOS is relatively quick and simple. Each character has eight statistics, valued with ranks from 1-6, and each statistic is generated with 1d6 rolled down the line, no re-rolls. Stats are sort of an odd duck, combining both analogs to your typical RPG abilities like Intelligence or Strength with scores that would normally be skills. The statistics, as laid out in the 1st Edition book, are: Smarts (intelligence), Bod (strength and sometimes constitution), Relationship With Parents (exactly what it says; since characters are high school students, this will vary from its initial score throughout the game), Luck (used to mitigate failed rolls), Driving (used for..driving. What? What did you expect?), Looks (how attractive you are to members of compatible species and genders), Cool (sort of Charisma + Wisdom), and Bonk Index (HP, sort of). While some of the stats, like Bod and Smarts, speak to the irreverent tone of the game, Bonk Index is really where the comedy mechanics come into play. Characters in TFOS don't take damage the way characters in other RPGs do; there are no debilitating injuries, ongoing penalties, or character death mechanics in any way. Instead, when characters are successfully struck by an attack (either physically or socially), they lose an amount of "Bonk" points equal to the strength of the attack. When a character runs out of Bonk, they are incapacitated - dumbstruck, paralyzed, unconscious, or horribly embarrassed - until after their next game turn, at which point their Bonk Index resets to normal. In order to facilitate the Bonk mechanic, all of the weapon descriptions and stats laid out in the game are for non-lethal hardware, like Zap guns which stun characters, Boy/Girl guns which change their sex, and Goo guns which fire globs of pink bubblegum. Where actual, dangerous weapons come into play, the rules state that characters never actually get hit, but instead run screaming for cover (suffering an appropriate amount of Bonk for being terrified and having their homework riddled with bullets). This keeps the stakes of the game extremely low, and in theory, keeps people's fun from being spoiled by losing a character they'd grown attached to.

On top of the basic statistics, characters also get 1d6 points to spend on Knacks, essentially skills that the player gets to make up themselves. Points can be poured entirely into one Knack or spread across as many as the player chooses until the pool runs out, and it's up to each player to decide if they're really good at one thing or okay at a bunch of things. Knacks at a bonus equal to their value to any dice rolls the character makes for a related statistic, for example, if you have a Knack for Souping Up Interstellar Hot Rods (2), you'd add 2 points to your Smarts score when making a roll to add a new four dimensional supercharger onto your old jalopy of a flying saucer. All rolls are made on 1d6 with the goal of beating the GM's target number (the GM wins all ties). Fail the roll by a point or two, and your saucer stalls out somewhere in low-Earth-orbit. Fail by three or so, and the warp engine blows up in your face and you're riding the bus til you can get it fixed. On the opposite side of the equation, the game's comedy mechanic ensures that the GM also tacks on unintended consequences for rolling too well: Beat the GM by more than an arbitrary, random value (determined by rolling 1d6 at the start of the play session), and your new supercharger works flawlessly, but you stuck it in backwards, so now you go damn fast in reverse. Roll perfect sixes while trying to ask out the cute alien of your dreams? You've now got a jealous extraterrestrial stalker who's never gonna give you up. The stakes are always about increasing complications and never about life or death, though the characters should always treat them like life-or-death situations, since they're a bunch of dramatic alien teens, after all.

In addition to their randomly rolled statistics and chosen modifiers, characters also get access to a number of super powers or special abilities. Aliens make three random rolls of 1d6 each on a super power table, gaining abilities like Super Strength or Super Bounciness, while humans roll 2d6 on a single table for a more Earthly ability, like Filthy Rich or Super Cute. Players then assign their characters three personality traits to define their character's behavior (such as Insanely Jealous, Sneaky, Eats Cars), roll up their starting allowance (the game includes printable funny money to use as a prop, instead of just writing down the value), immediately spends their allowance on goofy teenager crap, and gets to playing. Most of the adventure paths laid out in the book deal with the aforementioned teen romantic comedy situations, like dealing with unwanted suiters, being an unwanted suiter, or trying to get your sweetheart away from his or her younger siblings or parents. I've always thought inter-character romance was a little weird and vaguely skeezy, and somehow dressing it up with desperate, hormonal teenagers just makes it weirder and skeezier to me from a roleplaying standpoint, rather than zanier and funnier.

Despite what I perceive as flaws, though, TFOS was pretty darn popular by indie (ie not D&D, Shadowrun, or GURPS) RPG standards, and maintains a fanbase to this day. It even spawned a MUX, so fans could play online in a persistent campaign world, and which is still operating as I write this! With nine whole players, even! Considering the game was last updated in 1997 and all but abandoned by R. Talsorian Games in 2002, that is some very impressive staying power, right on par with the best Submarine Racer to dive off Lover's Leap*.

The first edition copy I had access to while working on this post was missing its character sheets and TFOS allowance money props, so I've used a third party sheet this month. Hipster Monster artwork shamelessly stolen from DeviantArt user Crown-Heart, without permission. Gasp.

And of course, my amazing and ever-willing-to-humor-me wife has also created a sheet this week, which I know is the only reason you've actually read down this far.

Teenagers From Outer Space is currently available in its 3rd Edition from RPGNow. All artwork in this post is snipped from the out-of-print 1st Edition.

Several supplements are also available, including Field Trip from R. Talsorian Games and the technically-stand-alone-game-but-also-kind-of-an-expansion Star Riders from Dream Pod 9 (makes of Heavy Gear), as well as various rules in old issues of Protoculture Addicts.

*That is seriously the term the game uses for sex, like, several times.