Category Archives: Microsetting

#VeskGods: Bhel

Bhel, Flame Tongue

Alignment: N
Portfolio: Betrayal, Fire, Knowledge, Magic
Worshipers: Vesk, firefighters, spellcasters, historians.
Favored Weapon: Flaming Taclash
Connections: Akashic, Flamewalker, Overlord
Bhel is a snake-headed vesk with flaming eyes and a long, flaming tongue. She was originally the deity of a race of serpentfolk that opposed the vesk, but betrayed the serpentfolk deities to become a vesk goddess when it became clear the vesk would crush the serpentfolk. She is considered a keeper of secrets, and while Ollothatyra is the writer of the scroll of every mortal’s life, Bhel burns the end of those scrolls to bring about every mortal’s death.
Worshipers of Bhel consider themselves to be students, rather than ethical faithful of her religion, and seek to learn hidden knowledge that she holds control over by following her dictates as rules of her metaphyscial school. While this is considered a reasonable deal in vesk society–obeying a powerful lady because she can reward you–worshipers of Bhel are often viewed with suspicion, given that betrayal is part of her portfolio.
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#VeskGods: Grumzati

Grumzati, the War Blood.

Alignment: CG
Portfolio: Freedom, Rage, Strength
Worshipers: Vesk, rebels, liberators, sailors (and thus starfarers), special forces, Pahtra, Ysoki.
Favored Weapon: Fist
Connections: Flamewalker, Geneturge, Star Shaman

Depicted as a dark blue vesk with prehensile, double-long tail, Grumzati lives in a sea of burning blood found where the Abyss overlaps with the Plane of Water.

While the Vesk god of War is the deity of battle, glory in combat, and victory, Grumzati is the god of conflict as a means to an end. Grumzati was a mortal vesk that fought to destroy a cult of slaver demons, and changed his form to adapt to water environment as a way to defeat the most powerful of those demons. As a result he is also seen as a god of change, evolution, and specialized tactics.

Worshipers of Grumzati believe as strict rule systems will, in time, become imbalanced and turn into tyrannies. They exist to prevent those tyrannies from damaging the rights of individual vesk. While the Vesk imperium might normally try to suppress the worship pf such a deity, as a conflict god Grumzati is too well-respected by other militant vesk gods for any direct action to ever be taken against his followers.

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Thoughts on Introductory Game Fiction vs game Tie-In Fiction

You can set the tone for an RPG, from an entire game system to a single adventure, with bits of short fiction. The purpose of this fiction isn’t really the same as fiction that exists only for its own sake. You need to introduce a world and show some of the ways it can be used, as much as entertain with prose.

That’s subtle different from game tie-in fiction. God tie-in fiction does work entirely on its own, and may even take liberties with what game rules could handle in order to present a story set in the same world as a game. It’s a balancing act, but the best tie-in fiction tends to be a good story first, and a faithful representation of a game later. (And this is fair – lots of games made as tie-in to fiction are imperfect representations of those fictional worlds. When you change the format, you accept some alteration in the details.)

For example, I’ve been experimenting with what fiction set in the Really Wild West would look like. I’ve done short introduction fiction for some of the RWW pieces, but am thinking I might take a different approach if I wanted to do my own tie-in fiction.

I haven’t had time to write a complete Really Wild West long-form story, but I have written the first scene of one.

THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE RUSTY

The air was dense with smoke and ash, burning Skaff’s throat as he sucked desperately through the bandanna held to his mouth. His eyes watered but he dared not shut them,  glaring deep into the smoke as he ran. The clouds of thick gray ash and cinders were painful, burning his cheeks and hands, but it was infinitely preferable to the oily black vapor that would surely be crawling through the town’s streets by now. Choking, even burning, was a less fearful fate than the horrors he had seen visited on those who had been exposed even briefly to the black gas.

A loud roar, part steam horn and part animal howl, bellowed through town. Even over the screaming of panicked citizens he could not see through the conflagration, the roar was clear and chilling. He felt the need to run from that sound as quickly as possible, but it seemed to come from all directions at once. As its echoes faded, a similar sound rang in the distance. He was unsure how far away the source of the more remote roar could be—a mile?—less?—but he knew it was not far enough. The distant roar seemed to come primarily from the east and so he turned west, the direction only discernible because the low setting sun made one section of smoke glow more than the rest.

A woman crashed into him, running in blind panic, and clawed at his coat. She was tall and thin, with the fine features and sharp ears of an elf, but her face showed none of the serenity Skaff associated with the European clade. Before he could react to her at all, though he knew not if he hoped to aid the woman or shove her away, the elven interloper cried out and dashed out of sight into the smoke. She left a wet sensation on Skaff’s shirt, which he briefly hoped was water, perhaps a result of the woman trying to protect herself from the flames. But the strong smell of iron, wafting up even through smoke and bandana, told him the truth. He was covered in another person’s blood, soaked through her clothing to thoroughly that one impact had splashed it on him. It was a sure sign black gas was nearby. That woman, though running, was already dead. She just had the worst parts of experiencing her end yet to come.

Skaff tried to angle his retreat to move both westward, and away from the direction he thought the unfortunate blood-cover woman had come from. He could no longer see clearly from his left eye, and the stinging in his right forced him to close it even as he desperately fought to keep looking for deadly vapors. Shapes in the ash were vague, and he could only guess at their clades. A human, one of the insectile chivvin, the jerky motions of an automaton. A figure that was a centaur, or a mounted rider, thundered past. Suddenly, in a flash of crimson light and wave of heat, the horselike figure burst into flames, turning to charcoal before it could even fall to the ground.

And then, the dull glow of dusk was blocked from above.

The shape concealing the sun was vast, looming far above him. Even through the smoke its basic form was obvious, three long legs stretching up from the ground supporting a huge disk which writhed with undulating tentacles. Screams echoed down from the top of the shape, and Skaff stopped dead in his tracks. Hot drops of red fell on his face, like hellish rain, and he could taste that they were blood. One of the massive tripod legs lifted and swung forward, smashing some unseen building of brick and glass in the process. A stone struck Skaff, driving him to the dusty street, and the sky further darkened as the leg fell toward him.

Skaff woke screaming.

All around him it was dark, and for a long panicked moment he didn’t know where he was. Instinctively he scrambled backwards, fighting some wet shape that enwrapped him, tangling him and holding him tightly. Then he was falling. He thought he was falling from a great height, but he dropped just a short distance onto a hard, cold floor.

It was the chill air, as he dragged it into his aching throat, that made him realize he wasn’t in the smoke anymore. He wasn’t in that town. The tripod hadn’t crushed him, by the narrowest margin.

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Tales of the Brain Eaters. Four.

E-Ville’s preternatural forces are mostly aligned with, if not actually part of, specific conclaves or ententes. The Red Cathedral is the most prevalent of these, and nearly every percival either toes the line with them, or has taken positions with lesser alliances specifically to oppose or avoid them. Most of these factions have specific otherworldly concerns, though I’m reasonable sure the Bridge Club are only interested in protecting their ability to play bridge. Which, given how particular the Red Cathedral is about the use of cards (focused on Tarot and Italian-suited decks, but covering all cards to some degree) does require some political power and unity.

But it turns out there are a few true independents left, existing in the margins. Many are sole practitioners, but some are small groups united by blood or possessions, too minor to be considered their own faction, too effective or connected to be considered civilians. The consuls of other factions seem well aware of at least most of these diacritic forces, which are sometimes employed as expendable mercenaries, but finding them is more difficult for outsiders.

Or newcomers.

Even so, there are some clues which can help you at least begin to make inquiries.

Palmistry barbers.

The occult links of both palm readers and old school barbers (especially in their early roles as bloodletters) are well attested to elsewhere. In most cases, those traditions are long since diluted to the point of rumor, but apparently a few followers in Evansville joined forces some generations ago, and have retained at least some of their true art. And, weirdly, they did so by combining their visible commercial front.

There are a few places in E-ville where one building serves as both a barber shop (never a “salon” or “stylist”), and a palm reader or fortune teller (but, interestingly, never a claim of being “psychic”). These public business are small and seem to mostly survive on loyal return customers. Their official offerings are no more connected to the hidden world than anything you’d find in a modern bookstore (though see below), but if you ask just the right questions, they may have the occult answers.

But don’t be insulting, and don’t threaten them. They’ve remained independent. Respect the why and how of that.

Blank delivery.

There are small, local stores where you can order groceries or deli items their own staff deliver. And some of them have options where you can pay for what appears to be a blank entry. But you can enter special requests, and pay extra for it. If you have the RIGHT shop, and the RIGHT special request and you pay the RIGHT amount, you may get something the Red Cathedral would rather control itself.

This works best if a trusted guide clues you in on where and how. Trying it at random is expensive hit-and-miss, and likely to get you tangled in mundane crime before you discover an occult supplier.

Books Plus…

There are a surprising number of bookstores in E-ville. Even national chains that have gone bankrupt have still-active stores here. Many of those zombie chain stores are places with occult connections, but they are firmly controlled by the major factions (though interestingly this seems to be a rare place where the Red Cathedral is not the major influencer… and I do not yet know who is).

But there are independent occult shops, if you can find them. They are all in older, cheaper parts of town, and seem to universally inhabit buildings built before 1925, or in the 1970s (I have no idea why). And they all offer “Books + ____.” What that blank extra something is varies, but the more eclectic, the better your chances of finding a secret back room is available if you know the password.

Books, comics, collectibles, and vaping supplies is a good sign. Books and pizza is surprisingly common. I’ve been told Books and Vacuum Repair is a sure thing, but I haven’t been able to find such a store. Apparently, they do not advertise online. Or indeed, at all.

Others

There is no doubt there are other independents, but the only ones I can confirm have required me to keep their secrets, which is fair enough. They are mites dashing between the feet of giants, and do not wish to be noticed needlessly. Or carelessly.

So if you need someone outside the compacts and factions that rule the shadows of Evansville, and you think you have a line, don;t dismiss it just because it doesn’t fit this pattern. As trends, these account for only a small portion of those who have stayed beyond the Red Cathedral’s reach.

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Centaur PC Race for Starfinder… and more.

CENTAURS IN STARFINDER
I have always loved the idea of centaur player characters. I suspect my love started with “Bridge of Sorrows” by Denis Beauvais, which was the cover of Dragon Magazine #92 (TSR, December 1984). Or maybe to goes back a tad earlier, to the Xanth novel Centaur Aisle, which I read in 1982, the same year I first encountered D&D, and RPGs in general.

I definitely want centaur PCs for my Really Wild West setting hack, which means I need rules for playing them as PCs in the Starfinder Roleplaying Game.

Ability Adjustments
Centaurs are powerfully built and in tune with their surroundings, but their hybrid form does come with drawbacks. Some centaurs are slightly awkward, having the brain of a biped, but the body of a quadruped. Others are delicate, their thin ankles and strange doubled internal organs leaving them prone to injury and ailments. A few are impatient and have little taste for complex calculations, preferring direct action and simple solutions whenever possible.
+2 Strength, +2 Wisdom, -2 to Dexterity, Constitution, or Intelligence.

Size and Type
Centaurs are monstrous humanoids.Centaurs vary in size from halfling-scale torsos on pony equine bodies, to mighty human or even ogrelike torsos on mighty warhorse equine bodies. At character creation, a centaur PC decided if they are Medium or large. They use equipment as Medium characters in either case.

Hit Points
6

Darkvision
Centaurs have darkvision with a range of 60 feet.

Humanoidlike
Centaurs are close enough to nonmonstrous humanoids that they can be affected by spells and abilities that affect humanoids, but do not affect monstrous humanoids. Centaurs gain a +4 racial bonus to saving throws (if any) against such effects.

Gallop
Centaurs have a land speed of 40 feet, but treat it as a speed of 20 feet when determining their movement using Athletics to climb or swim. A centaur gains a +2 bonus to AC when charging (which normally just offsets the -2 penalty to AC for charging). When a centaur succeeds at a bull rush combat maneuver, they can move their target 5 feet farther than normal.

Natural Weapons
Centaurs are always considered armed. They can deal 1d3 lethal damage with unarmed strikes and the attack doesn’t count as archaic. Centaurs gain a unique weapon specialization with their natural weapons at 3rd level, allowing them to add 1–1/2 × their character level to their damage rolls for their natural weapons (instead of just adding their character level, as usual).

Quadruped
Centaurs are quadrupeds, which gives them some advantages and a few drawbacks. They take -2 penalties to Acrobatics checks to tumble and Athletics checks to climb. When determining their bulk limits, centaurs add half their Constitution score to their Strength. Centaurs gain a +2 racial bonus to their KAC against bull rush and reposition combat maneuvers. A centaur can carry one creature of its own size, or two of at least one size smaller, without counting them against the centaur’s bulk limit.

RWW-Centaurs-background-01

CENTAURS IN THE REALLY WILD WEST
In the pulp-scifi-western-fantasy-world of the Really Wild West, centaurs appear in most ancient civilizations of western Asia, northern Africa, and eastern Europe. They often appear as separate tribes, no less advanced or civilized than the other species around them, and often seen as wiser and more scientifically advanced than the ancient cultures that wrote about them. They are an accepted part of the history of those places, and have become common throughout Africa, Europe and northern Asia.

However, centaurs are not generally huge fans of sea travel. This dislike is not pathological, but practical. Centaurs are excellent overland travelers, but at best mediocre swimmers, and many are large enough to make building ships to accommodate them problematic. In previous centuries, they simply used Roman roads and Asian trade routes to spread their kingdoms far and wide, often as the most feared and effective of cavalry. But the rise of sea travel in empire-building has left most centaur nations shrinking, and often joining larger bipedal nations in mostly-friendly alliances and unifications.

As a consequence, centaurs are not particularly common in the Americas, as their lack of a tradition of sea travel simply has centaur businesses and families less interested in the kinds of roles that have brought people from other nations to American shores. This in turn has caused most major North and South American to develop without taking centaur needs into account. Buildings are not designed to be accessed by hooved people up to seven feet tall, and even centaurs small enough to fit in American buildings find themselves with few places to stand in settings where everyone else sits.

Most centaurs in the Americas find they are just more comfortable in frontier towns or pure wilderness. So while there are not many centaurs on the continents in general, a disproportionate number of those who are present take to Wild West living, where their speed and carrying capacity, and long tradition of dedication and excellence, are seen as more than enough to justify making a few changes to the local saloon, or having on or two of the hotel’s stable stalls be well-appointed rooms, as well.

CENTAURS PF2
So, PF1 already has solid rules for centaur PCs, but what if you wanted to play a centaur PC in PF2, or 5e?

Hit Points
10

Size
Medium

Speed
30 feet

Ability Boosts
Strength
Wisdom
Free

Ability Flaw
Dexterity

Languages
Common
Sylvan
Additional languages equal to your Intelligence modifier (if it’s positive). Choose from Aklo, Elvish, Gnomish, Goblin, Jotun, Orcish, and any other languages to which you have access (such as the languages prevent to your region).

Traits
Centaur
Humanoid

Darkvision
You can see in darkness and dim light just as well as you can see in bright light. though your vision in darkness is black and white.

Centaur Heritages
Centaurs have a vast number of ethnic differences, but also can trace their linneage back to a few early tribes that still often produce very different

Kentoroi
You are Large, rather than medium, and have a thick, sturdy appearance. You may have small tusks, or pointed ears. You gain the orc trait and your bulk limits are increased by +6. You can select orc feats whenever you gain an ancestry feat.

Lapith
Your head, arms and torso are extremely humanlike. You gain the human trait and are trained in one skill of your choice. You can select human feats whenever you gain an ancestry feat.

While for a full suppliment we’d obviously want some cool centaur-specific ancestry feats, doing things this way ensures that as the PF2 game adds new options for humans and orcs, our centaur PCs will automatically gain expanded options as well.

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The AssassiNations

The AssassiNations is a conceptual paradigm, a rough description of  a secret world and their rules and rulers, designed for use in TTRPG campaigns where something a step more involved than just secret societies is desired.

AssassiNations

The AssassiNations are non-territorial governments that rule over populations of secret societies and superhuman clans, ruled with an iron fist by the Erebocracy and it’s regimented laws known as the Canon. They are also one of the least closely-guarded secrets in the world.

Nearly all classic world powers are aware of them. In most service industries between 10-15% of the members know enough to avoid violating the Canon, but that goes up for many fields such as train and bus employees, hotel concierges, sex workers, smugglers, and mercenaries. More than 3/4 of the cabbies in New York City are formally Read In, even if they are mostly nonpartisans.

Despite nearly 10% of the world’s population having some level of familiarity with the AssassiNations, that knowledge does not spread. No one who does not need to know is told, and this rule is very rarely broken. In part, this is because the Erebocracy forbids such revelations, and rules over the greatest sects of secret killers, spies, and double agents the world has ever known. And partly, it is because it’s better for everyone that way.

The AssassiNations are a solution to the problem of there being more than one clade of person in the world. While the classic governments of the world are sufficient for most people, there is a second kith of people with extraordinary abilities. They have been called many things over the eons–Argonauts, fey, djinn, even demigods. The next step in human evolution. Aliens. What is important is that the Shadowbreed exist, and are capable of acts of reasoning, endurance, resilience, accuracy, and strength literally impossible for typical humans.

The Shadowbreed vary between 2-15% of the human population, and are found in every nation, every ethnicity, every culture. If they are a different species, they are as broad and varied as humanity itself. If they are a mutation, they are one that does not seem to be spreading. If they are sidhe, they lack the vulnerabilities legend suggests they should possess.

The AssassiNations themselves are often strongly tied to their native cultures, though they evolve and adapt and adopt as any culture does. Whenever a territorial government or group explored, conquered, committed genocide, there were Shadowbreed AssassiNations present on both sides. Once, they warred in near-open conflicts, many of which are the source of ancient mythology. But with the rise of the Erebocracy and it’s Canon, their conflicts are much more regimented. Choreographed. Secret. Quiet.

Canon dictates no single conflict may include more than a dozen Shadowbreed without Ereborcracy sanction. Sanctions are generally in the form of contract hits, laying a price on the slaying of a rogue Shadowbreed that any member of an AssassiNation can claim. No one who is not Read In is ever to be involved in any AssassiNation business or conflict, and only regional Triararchs and their sworn Liturgies can read anyone in. Anyone not a formal member of an AssassiNation is nonpartisan, not to engage in violence against Shadowbreed, or be a target of it.

All AssasssiNation services, known as Custom, as available only to those in good standing with the Ereborcracy. Custom is paid for only in Blood Gold, red coins only the AssasiNations mint or use, and any single Custom has a cost of a single Blood Coin.

Specific locations are declared Moresnet — neutral zones where violence of any kind is forbidden. These include the headquarters of every AssasiNation, most churches and temples, and a significant number of hotels, pawn shops, bus stops, ships, and cemeteries. Most Moresnet are overseen by a Castellan, who within that single space is equal in rank to a Triararch, and is considered the match for a Liturgy even outside their domain. The Ereborcracy anoints Castellans, but cannot remove their title. It can, however, suspend the sanctions of anyone violating the neutrality of their Moresnet, and even place a price on their head. But only for 72 hours — if a Castellan has no been killed or capitulated within that time, their authority and sanctuary within their Domain is maintained for a year and a day.

No action by a Shadowbreed may ever expose the Ereborcracy, the AssassiNations, the Canon, or any element of the careful balance of this shadow world. As needed Triararchs can Read In non-Shadowbreed for the purpose of maintaining the ability of the AssasssiNations to function and fight among themselves, but any that abused this power will be sanctioned.

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Hit man

Fossil. (One)

To call it evil would be to utterly misunderstand its entire existence, though it had been called evil many times over the heartbeat of one or another species’ rise. But those species were never considered when it took form. They had not yet existed, and would not exist for 60 million years after it’s origin was forgotten.

Concepts like good and evil were foreign to it, as they had been foreign to those who called it forth, those who ruled the surface of a very different kind of world, though it was what became our world. They has stood tall in the certainty that their 100,000 years of ascendance would be eternal, and had been as wrong as every collective that believed it before them.

It functioned. That was all it was ever to do, just function, and through functioning prove that thought had gone into it. That thought had existed. Not thought as any mammal brain would produce, or even recognize, but thought nonetheless. Nothing else was enough to memorialize those who had seen the need for a memorial to their meaningless aberration from lifelessness and wild. They called it forth to prove that they had once called things, that the idea of calling into the night had come before, and were satisfied they had crafted the perfect monument to their own immortality.

Then, like every other spark of order or sapience that had even arisen, they were extinguished. Erased so totally that even if the surface of the Earth had not churned over and crushed their edifice to dust over tens of millions of uncounted years, there would be no proof to betray their scar in the timeline of thoughtlessness. Nothing was left of them, who were so different that they could not conceive of man, and man would never conceive of them.

Nothing but the fossil.

And all it could do was function.

Not well. Not as it once had. Nothing it did was in any way what had been planned for it. But it had been planned by creatures more alien than even those on other worlds. Entities who had no concept of anything a mammal could recognize as culture, or art, or philosophy. They made their monument to be magnificent in their sight, but they saw a different world, in different colors, and had no care for what it might do once they were gone.

The monument, the fossil, still functioned, And it would be fair, from the perspective of frail, floundering human minds to call that function evil. Not by intent, or manufacture. But because it was never even vaguely predicted to ever interact with anything like humans, and thus everything it did would be antithetical to human rationality.

It could have destroyed the world, but that was not its function. It could have made men gods, or revealed the secrets of the hidden dark energy binding the universe and accelerating galaxies away from one another, but that was not its function. Divorced from any context native to its creation, its function could no longer be said to be rational, for the rationality of the apes briefly reshaping the world with things born of their dreams was different from the closest equivalent of rationality to those of the things that had brought it forth.

Its function was at best, an approximation of what had been expected of it when it was made nearly eternal. But even if it had been aware of how far from its first conception its new actions were, it would not have cared. It would just have functioned.

On October 28th, 1987, in Grange, Oklahoma, that function was, by human standards, horrific and maddening.

Two-Sentence Supers

Not every supers character needs a lot of backstory. In fact when you get into B-Teams, Caped Best Buddies, Great-Lakes Groups, X-treme X-amples, Tri-County Taskforces, and Substitute Heroes, often about all you need for a quirky, minor super character is two-sentences.

These concepts can be used as quick descriptions for background characters that may not ever need full stats, or jumping-off points for more detailed descriptions. They aren’t necessarily “joke” characters, just nontraditional and less likely to take center stage for various reasons.

Alewife: Alewife is a stern mother of five who is the strongest in a long line of monosaccahakenetic women able to generate and manipulate honey and honey byproducts, including ale. She does not use her powers for parties, unless one of her children (by birth or fierce mommabear adoption) is getting married or turning 16.

Bear-B-Que: Bear-B-Que is a chubby, cheerful, hirsute, gay man who can actually breath fire and (as a professional chef) make ribs that make people think they are breathing fire. Can also cast shade, but that doesn’t appear to be a superpower.

Drakkar: As a child, Drakkar ate a piece of a viking longship his parents were excavating at an archaeological dig, and now he can transform into one (from 20-60 feet long, which can fly, and has a “kick-ass” dragon masthead). He also fronts an eponymous heavy metal rock band.

Hotspot: Hotspot can always connect any device she is holding to the nearest radio tower, satellite pickup, and wireless connection–even through Faraday cages and solid stone. She most often plays “girl in the chair” to low-level heroes, giving advice and overwatch.

Prybar: Prybar has unbreakable, irremovable, unbendable fingernails. They are often a big ragged, since they are nearly impossible to trim (she has to use her own nails to file her nails).

Quiff: Quiff volunteered to be a human test for a receding hairline treatment. He is the only survivor of the test, and while he is still an aging, overweight man, he now has augmented strength and durability (though not enhanced endurance–he’s good for maybe a minute of fighting between rests), and a huge lock of thick, nearly-indestructible, brightly-colored prehensile hair on his forehead that can lift half a ton and extend up to 30 feet.

Sheba: Sheba is a highly evolved colony of bees–not a sapient queen bee who rules a hive, but the hive itself has become a distributed intelligence able to communicate and act collectively. She can do anything a hive of bees with group human intelligence can do, and is an active environmentalist.

Slack: Slack’s skin is infinitely flexible and stretchy, able to extend away from the rest of the body, which is otherwise normal. If cut free, the removed skin rots almost immediately and the wounded skin heals just as quickly.

Sudden-Oven Man: He can summon an over…. suddenly. Prefers charity work over superheroics but is willing to pitch in when needed. (You can read an interview with him here.)

Ten-Point: Ten-point is a seven-foot tall man with a full rack of stag horns, stag feet, and considerably enhanced speed, strength, and endurance. He works as a park ranger most of the year, but not during hunting season (no amount of bright orange makes him safe when it’s hunting season), when he does more in-town heroics and volunteer work.

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Game Masters, Chapter One

One. Those Above.

Maise Delores tapped the ‘record’ light hovering midair in front of her, making sure her host saw her do it. She could have set the device to record with just a though, but that would’ve been a violation of her streaming site’s official privacy policy. She almost never did that.

She smiled in a friendly manner, but didn’t really think it was necessary. Her host, Winton Classen, was famously among the calmest men in the public eye.

“Thank you for agreeing to an interview, Mr. Classen. My producer and your PR people will put together all the introductions and pleasantries, so we can skip right to the meat of what people want to know. Are you ready for that?”

Winton gave an easy smile in return, no less practiced or perfect than her own.

“Of course, Ms. Delores. I’m delighted to proceed however you feel is best. You’re the tastemaker, after all.”

“Thank you. All right, let’s get right into it. Your company offers vacations to the masses using ‘manufactured reality.’ So the difference between the neural virtual reality we’re all familiar with and manufactured reality is…?”

Winton’s voice broke into the easy, regular rhythm of someone who had practiced saying something a hundred times. “Manufactured reality is literally adjusting the reality you, personally, are experiencing. You can see, hear, even taste and feel an entirely new world we create for your entertainment. And you can do so entirely by yourself, or with a group of family, friends, co co-workers.”

Maise nodded, as much to show Winton she wanted to interject something as to indicate she understood. “Okay, but how do you do that? How is it possible for someone to experience a different reality other than broadcasting electrical impulses into their brain, the way modern VR parlors do?”

Winton’s smile grew in a way Maise thought looked a bit predatory. “VR is just as you say, an illusion of senses sent to your brain. But you only experience what the VR system is programmed for you to experience. It’s no more than a game, or a movie.

“Manufactured reality actually creates a new set of physical laws, which act and react to whatever you do within that reality. We set up those rules, but don’t control the outcome of how you interact with them.”

Maise switched her smile from “friendly” to “slightly bemused,” one of her trademarked moves. “How does that work? At a layman’s level, I mean?”

Winton spoke energetically, his hands moving to punctuate specific words. “We’ve known that perception influences reality since the old double-slit experiments of the early 2000s. It took time for that to eb well-excepted, but the sciences of quantum attunement and quantum frequency grew out of that. In short, at it’s most basic level, reality is just a state of energy, and conscious minds can impact the form that energy takes. Because we are all at the same quantum frequency, we all experience the same reality, on a macro-scale.

But it is possible to adjust that quantum frequency, temporarily, attuning a person and their perception to a new energy state. With the right equipment, such as our extreme comfortable q-couches, your entire body can be placed slightly out of attunement with the reality we all perceive around us, and attuned with a manufactured reality, created by a q-bit cogitator that can emulate a new set of physical laws. That create the framework of a new energy state that an individual can perceive as real.

“Once the framework of a manufactured reality is set up, a visitor’s quantum frequency is attuned, through entanglement, to a master oscillation which serves as a common reference point. Everyone attuned to the same oscillation experiences one, shared, manufactured reality we design and oversee, but do not control. When something happens in VR, it’s part of a script. When it happens in our manufactured reality, it’s because of cause-and-effect beyond anyone’s control or ability to predict.”

Maise jumped on that. “So, it’s real, not artificial experiences? Then why are people’s bodies still here, sitting in high-tech sofas? If you manufacture a new reality, why are they still present in our reality?”

Winton looked unsurprised. “We keep the quantum amplitude low enough to only impact each individual’s experience of the manufactured reality. It isn’t some naturally occurring alternate universe, though we now know those exist. It is a framework of reality, built to be real enough to enjoy and have largely-consistent rules, but not real enough to impact our perception of guest’s bodies. So as soon as their quantum attunement stops being maintained, they snap back to our perception of them, no worse for wear.”

“But to the guests, their experiences are entirely real-feeling?”

Winton allowed his smile to fade to a friendly grin. The kind of grin your grandfather had just before telling you a bad joke. “Only within the rules of the manufactured realities they visit. We keep some sensations, such as taste, touch, and smell, at full strength. But we have adjusted each manufactured reality to have different expressions of pain, for example. So while being stabbed in the manufactured HeroLand reality hurts, it hurts like a bruise or cramp. Typical sport-activity level pain. Nothing traumatic, for obvious reasons. And we ensure that the bandwidth of the quantum amplitude is taken up with enough other feedback that even the most horrific experiences in our manufactured realities are perceived more like watching them in a movie, rather than experiencing them. We make worlds better than real – nothing too bad is capable of happening within them.

Maise knew there was no chance of catching Winton off-guard, but there were certain questions her fanbase expected her to ask. “And no one can get stuck in a manufactured reality? I understand there were some incidents during early human trials.”

Winton choose to look more somber. “When the technology was young and the applications being explored were all military, yes there were cases where it was not possible to detune a subject from their manufactured reality without bringing back the physical effects of their experiences. And some people were allowed to experience manufactured realities for much longer than current best practices dictate. But our systems literally can’t do either of those things.” The big smile returned.  “Our quantum cores can’t generate manufactured worlds with the amplitude needed to overwrite physical reality, and our transmitters overheat after 40 continuous hours, well short of the 150-hour duration that has been shown to potentially cause physiological distress. We built systems that break before they can put anyone in actual danger.”

Maise had one shot at getting a good sound bite, and she took it. “But the system could, theoretically, be repurposed to create more dangerous manufactured realities?”

Winton laughed. “In the same way you could strap a jet engine to a ferris wheel to make it less safe, yes. But no one in their right mind would do such a thing, and it would take hundreds of millions to create such a thing in any case. Guests to any of our Manufactured Marvels sites have nothing to worry about.”

Maise was prepared to push the point—less because she thought Winton actually ran secret off-the-books manufactured deathsport reality, but more because such conspiracy theories were good for clicks and views—but the magnate lifted a finger to forestall her as she took in a breath.

“I’m sorry, Ms. Dolores.” There was no humor in Winton’s expression now, and Maise could just barely see a tiny flashing red light in the corner of his right pupil. “I’m afraid one of those ‘unexpected emergencies’ my staff must have warned you might crop up has, in fact, raised it’s ugly head. Could we have my staff arrange for a virtual interview to answer any more questions? We have, in fact, had an in-person interview now, so your claim of an exclusive remains legally valid.”

Maise smiled and stood, putting out a hand as she did so. “Of course, Mr. Classen. I appreciate you making any time at all for me.”

Winton stood and clasped her hand firmly. A tiny series of hums Maise felt in the bone of her skull, inaudible to anyone else even if they were adjacent to her, confirmed what she suspected. Winton was receiving a stream of wireless data. Her bootjack system probably couldn’t record it, and even if it managed to she’d likely never break the encryption. But even just knowing how much data he was getting could help her figure out what part of his vast empire was under threat serious enough for hum to cut HER short, in person.

His voice remained eminently calm was he walked her to the door of his office. “Perhaps we can make it up to you/ Allow you to run a stream from one of our Manufactured Marvel facilities?”

Now Maise was surprised. “I… was under the impression that was never allowed?”

“Not while guests are present—privacy concerns and such, of course. But we often have previews for VIPs before we open a facility to the public, I would imagine we could let you stream from one of those before anyone else was allowed to use it.”

“That would be lovely.” Maise let real excitement leak into her voice. “I can guarantee that would get fifty million live views.”

Winton’s very-practiced smile returned. “With you as the streamer, I’m sure it will. My staff will contact you to set something up.”

And then Maise was in the waiting room again, and Winton has smoothly closed the door, blocking her access to whatever emergency had his attention.

Winton Classen tensed his jaw in exactly the way needed to bring up his personal HUD, and a list of options popped into his view, though the ‘URGENT’ light flashing in his peripheral vision remained bright and obvious. He focused his vision on “Lockdown,” and as that option was picked heard the hum of antispying devices turning his office into the next-best thing to espionage-proof.

Not that he believed someone couldn’t break those protections, if they really wanted to. Winton just wanted to make sure such an effort would be so expensive no one would ever bother.

Winton moved past the cozy sitting area he and Ms. Dolores had been at, where he interviewed people he wanted to put at ease, to sit in the massive leather chair behind his immense oak desk. Where he interviewed people he wanted to frighten. With a wave of his hand he brought a section of the wall to light and the image of Cory Mai, his chief of operations, took form on it.

“Who is it, and how badly did they screw up?” Winton’s voice was terse, but not angry. If Cory thought he needed to be interrupted, he assumed she was right. He trusted her judgment.

Her face was calm, but the slightest crinkle by her left eye worried him more than most people would have if they’d been spitting in rage.

“It’s the Morgan brothers. Both of them, at once, I’ll note. And they screwed it about as badly as possible.”

Winton signed, and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Can we get them out alive?”

Cory shook her head. “I’m not sure we can get them out at all. They’re Gamma-6.”

“What?!” Winton rarely lost his reserve, and was immediately annoyed. If anyone but Cory was claiming that. “Okay, Cory. Explain to me why that’s not impossible. My last briefing said Gamma-4 is still as deep as even DARPA has gotten. And we only recently proved Gamma-5 as even theoretically possible. How the hell did a couple of rich idiots get themselves attuned more deeply than any other manufactured reality system in the world.”

Cory visibly shrugged. “We don’t know. David Morgan is a hell of a quantum engineer, even if he’s refused to ever do much with his talent. We’ve just gotten on-site, and it’s obvious he’s made extensive modifications to his oscillator. And as far as we can tell, he hasn’t documented any of it. We’re analyzing it now, but we have to do that while it’s running, which complicates things. We can’t shut it down without losing both Morgans, given the state of their quantum signatures, and David may be the only person who has never managed a G-6 attunement.”

Winton released the bridge of his nose, and let his mind float for a minute. Cory knew he was thinking, but also knew she wouldn’t interrupt him just by giving him more facts.

“Their overwatch team got worried 12 hours ago, when the Morgan’s bodies began to show sign of severe trauma. They don’t let their overwatch monitor of record their manufactured experiences, but there is a tandem rig for each of them. Two security experts settled in and got attuned, with a 5-minute timer. Both came back into native attunement with enough trauma on their bodies to die within seconds. The Morgan’s chief of staff freaked out, ignored house policy, and called me directly. It took time to get here with a team…”

“You’re there, yourself, in person?” Winton interrupted.

“I am,” Cory confirmed. “The Morgans are huge donors and investors in many of our concerns, and we supplied them with the original private oscillator they’ve since modified. Given their influence, and that we already had two dead, I wanted to assess the situation directly.”

Winton waved a hand to indicate he understood. It was an unusual step, but Cory had always proven to have good reason to take unusual steps.

“The Morgan’s oscillation system shows them at Gamma-4, but I wanted to confirm that, so I had our people do an independent sampling. When that came in at G-7, I had them run it again. And again. But it turns out the Morgan’s system simply isn’t set up to show any attunement deeper than Gamma-4, and our results are consistent. I can’t tell you how they managed it, but I can tell you what David Morgan thought he’d done.”

Winton raised an eyebrow, an affectation he’d developed as a child but also an effective way to let people know they had his attention.

“His diary entries are clear.” Cory’s voice was carefully neutral. Unjudgmental. “He thought he’d found an actual alternate reality, which just happened to have magic and dragons and evil tyrants.”

Winton’s eyebrow stayed elevated. “Do you believe that?”

“I…” Cory rarely paused. She was silent for a full two seconds. Then:

“I don’t believe it. But I can’t disprove it either. And whatever they’ve done, it’s going to radically change some dearly held belief of our experts. So as ridiculous as that sounds, I’m not ruling it out of the list of possibilities, though I’m not basing decisions on it, either.”

Winton nodded to himself. That kind of risk-management, and willingness to accept facts over her own view of what ought to be true, was a big part of why he trusted her judgement. “So…,” he let the word linger for a moment. “”What do you recommend?”

“Now Cory didn’t hesitate.” “We need to send a team in after them. If nothing else, we need to talk to David Morgan, even if we can’t extract him alive. I already have new attunement couches being set up. The Morgans only designed their system for the two of them and the two emergency tandem rigs, but the quantum oscillator has the same standard 32-output connections as our standard models. Even so, I don’t think we can afford to send more than 12 people – there’s a limited about of power available, and while the Morgans’ couches are normal, I don’t know what might happen if we overload their oscillator’s output. It looks like the system can handle 12 more without any issue, but after that it might start throttling back the among of energy used for each couch, and since I don’t know how they got to Gamma-7, I don’t know if reducing total power available might impact it.

“As for who to send, obviously we have a number of qualified teams for most of this. But the manufactured reality the Morgans are in was… custom. It’s not based on any of our Manufactured Marvel settings, or any of the common tropes we have explored and trained in for possible setting expansion later. That means we don’t have any internal setting experts. I recommend we hire some from… unorthodox… sources.”

Winton nodded. “Approved. What is the setting based on, and where are you going to get experts?”

Cory sighed. “It’s something called the Grimdarque Roleplaying Game. It’s a paper=and-pencil tabletop game, not computer or VR, with origins in the 1980s. And… there’s a fan convention… “

“Game Masters” is an experiment in serialized fiction. It is supported only by contributions to my Patreon. if you want to read more of the story, go support my Patreon and let me know!

Supers Ideas: More Knight Shift

Yet more members of the not-front-page, unusually-themed second-string heroes of Cathedral City, the Knight Shift.

Crimson Kpinga: John “Jake” Jefferson James tried to do everything right, despite growing up in a broken home in Devil’s Avenue, one of the worst slums in Cathedral City. He worked part time to help his mother with the bills, avoid criminal crowds, studied hard, and looked after his younger siblings. But none of that mattered when someone matching his description (“young African American male in a t-shirt and jeans”) hijacked a car four blocks away. Jake was grabbed and beaten by police, including the notorious Sgt. Stoneman, who consistently called Jake a “goddam cannibal, like the rest of you Ni-niams.”

CCTV footage proved Jake was innocent, but not before he spent 48 hours in lockup. Kake tried to bring complaints against the specific officers who mistreated him, only to find the system was designed to favor their word over his. He was told repeated by the people in his community that police did not treat them equally, and that while there were good cops and bad cops, they didn’t look different until one hit you. Or shot you. His community did not trust, or call on cops.

Jake was done trying to do things the way the system demanded. He decided to fill in the role of peacekeeper and justice dealer in Devil’s Avenue. And, guided by the “Ni-Niam” slur, he researched an African people and their weapons to be his inspiration. He researched the Zande and their traditional weapons, the  Kpinga throwing knife. he got a job at an upscale axe-throwing bar that had moved into a bankrupt barbaer shop on the edge of his neighborhood, and at night practiced throwing the weapon again and again. The Crimson Kpinga was born.

He had a few successes, but his career would have run short early except for one fateful decision. While leading a group of drug-dealing thugs away from a residential area, Jake happened to run through the stairs to the door of the 13th floor of an abandoned building. And, it turned out, Tacoma was watching.

Since joining forces with Tacoma, Crimson Kpinga has received a great deal more training, and significant equipment upgrades, giving him armored costumes and high-tech kpingas, allowing him to operate on a whole different level, though his first priority remains the people of Devil’s Avenue.

Tacoma: Tacoma is a ghost building. It’s elevator can access the 13th floor of any building in the world that is 13 stories or higher, and that has a working elevator. Tacoma itself can only be accessed from an elevator with a 14th floor button, and only if Tacoma feels like allowing it (and is paying attention).

The Tacoma Building, and early skyscraper in Chicago built in 1889, was the first riveted-iron-frame building in the world and the first 13-story building in the world. It was home to numerous offices and businesses. One of these was the Beneficient Order of Hieremias, a charity that existed as a cover for the evil-hunting Gileadian champions of peace and life. When the building was destroyed in 1929 by Sfinții Dracului, the public was told it was to make way for a new building.

But the building known as Grandfather Skyscraper had been murdered by magic, and it’s spirit was restless. It existed as a ghost, seen only from the corner of the eye or as a glitch on maps of various big cities. When Sister Celestial staggered out of a 14th floor elevator in 1934 on death’s door after a bloody gun battle with the King of Hell’s Kitchen, she accidentally access Tacoma instead of the afterlife. Tacoma managed to bring a doctor to her (who, despite great confusion, saved the Sister’s life), and then became Sister Celestial’s best friend and ally for the next 20 years of her crusade. After her death in the mid 1950s, Tacoma sat empty and unaccessed until Crimson Kpinga, wounded and leading dangerous men away from innocents, ran through a 13th floor door, and Tacoma noticed. And brought “CK” safely into his own space.

It took time for CK to realize Tacoma was alive, or at least aware, but with Tacoma showing him special 13th floor rooms all over the world — places where supervillains set up special labs that remained secret after they were killed, or that heroes a generation or two ago had used as their bases of operation, CK and Tacoma became a powerful team. When Firecracker invited Crimson Kpinga to join the Knight Shift, he accepted, and brought the considerable resource of Tacoma with him.

Longlegs: Longlegs is Jennifer “JennJenn” Janice James, the younger sister of Jake james, better known as the Crimson Kpinga. When CK was captured by the Kill Klan, Tacoma reached out to JennJenn as she happened to be on the 13th floor of an office building as part of her food delivery job. Tacoma managed to communicate with JennJenn, and urge her to call the Knight Shift for help. She did, but she also insisted on going to help herself. Wishing to keep her from harm, Tacoma took her to an abandoned safe house where the Parole Patrol criminal gang had been planning a heist during a 4th of July parade, but had been captured before they could attempt it. Among the unused gear was a single-purpose tight-fitting exoskeleton with powerful hydraulic stilts, designed to be disguised as an Uncle Sam Tall Man. during the parade. JennJenn too the suit for its armor value, but discovered she had a knack for using it’s telescoping legs for movement, escape, and powerful kicks.

After CK was rescued, he tried to forbid JennJenn from becoming a costumed hero, claiming she was “too young.” Tacoma disagreed, and CK discovered he could help JennJenn become Longlegs, or he could let her do it on her own. She has since become a valued member of the Knight Shift.

Mirror Mirror: When the Villains Alliance attempt to use the Multivexer to slice off alternate realities from the blended alterverse, allowing them to be isolated and eventually drained of all energy, somehow Adam Mason was caught at the edge of the field, and briefly linked to ever version of himself in ever reality. The result of this is twofold. First, Adama has access to every skill any version of him gained in any reality, which mostly runs to a long list of service jobs and hobby-level sports and games, but occasionally includes a real outlier of high degree skill or learning (such as preparing blowfish safely, and speaking fluent Cantonese).

Secondly, Adam can assume the form of an alternate reality version of anyone he touches. Normally this is a very close duplicate, though sometimes there are surprising differences (the alternate reality version of Dexter he once assumed was, inexplicable, a chainmail-wearing swordwoman with a raygun). However, he can maintain this form only until he encounters a high-energy state change, which includes anything as powerful as a good punch. Once he is “knocked back to reality,” he can’t assume an alternate version of that person again until his quantum state bleeds off all related residual vibrations… a process that takes just over seven years.

He has also discovered that some entities, such as the Incorruptibles and the Elders from Before, do not HAVE alternate-reality versions of themselves.

As a result As Mirror Mirror (Em-Em, in the field), Adam tried not to duplicate anyone, especially a teammate, unless he absolutely has to, since doing so removes that option for seven years of future encounters and sometimes it’s no help at all. That said, when the Terminax was prepared to destroy all life in the solar system, Em-Em was able to beocme an alternate version of itself and countermand its every order to the Terminaughts, and then send a shutdown code to defeat the Terminax itself.

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