Friday, February 27, 2009

Review: Battle for the Golden Sun


>>> SPOILERS FOLLOW <<<

This was one of the first modules to come out for the Star Wars D6 System. In fact, it might have been the first (I'm not sure, I know it was the second one I ever bought, right after Tatooine Manhunt). As I recall (though I can't find any evidence online) it even won some gaming awards for 'best adventure' that year. 

The plot of the adventure was essentially a rescue mission. The characters are sent to find a lost Alliance diplomat after his assistant returns from the last mission, suffering from severe mental trauma. Upon arriving (crashing) on the planet in question (the ocean world of Sedria), the party becomes involved in a civil war between native tribes. It isn't long before they realize that one tribe is in league with the Imperial Forces also exploring the planet—searching for the source of a strange power kept by the natives: the titular "Golden Sun". The action ranges from roleplaying with the natives to infiltrating the Imperial aquatic base to a final all out battle beneath the sea.

Overall, the adventure was enjoyable. It was a good mix of roleplay and action and in a very unique environment. It introduced a lot of really interesting stuff, too—from the very cool looking Imperial Sea-Troopers and their turtle-like AT-AT "Swimmer" to the Golden Sun itself, which turned out to be a colony/hive-mind of force-sensitive coral polyps. The story had a very heroic feel to it as well, complete with a Romeo and Juliet type romance between a native prince of the 'good' tribe and the warlord daughter of the 'bad' tribe. 

The climax of the story involves helping the Golden Sun escape from its confines in the native city, and it is at this point where the coral actually chooses a 'champion' among the character party (either a force sensitive or a person with a high perception). I thought that was a nice touch, and in fact in my campaign that is when one of the characters (Arianne) actually first became a Force user.

Despite all of this, I never warmed to this adventure as much as I did to a lot of others. I think that some of that may have been an unfair comparison between Golden Sun and its contemporary Tatooine Manhunt. Some of it may have been due to the aquatic setting (still not a particularly popular setting in most RPGs). But there were other, more specific criticisms as well. 

First of all, there was the cliche (often repeated in other adventures) of a crash landing on the planet. In many cases, such a thing is necessary in order to keep the players on a particular world long enough for them to be involved in the story there. But in this case, the party already had a mission to accomplish and didn't need the added incentive to stay. Overall, this is a nitpicky criticism, but when this same trick is repeated in every other adventure, you get sensitive to it.

Also, the middle section of the story is rather dependent upon the players being in a specific place in time to overhear the chief of the 'bad natives' conferring with the Imperial commander. This 'evidence' is to be used later as a tool to rally the natives to the cause of good, but I know I had to really railroad my characters to make sure they picked up on this connection. I also was never quite sure why the natives would believe this evidence once it was presented.

As mentioned before, the Romance between native prince and his lady-love was a nice touch. But I almost wish that there had been more of a way to include the characters in this—to tie them more directly into the plot. Since the natives were of a very non-humanoid persuasion (looking like giant seals with arms) it really wasn't prudent to have a character-native romance happen (unless you have some really kinky players), but at times, it felt as though the plot revolved a bit too much around the prince and not enough around the characters. I have since re-run this adventure in a completely different campaign, altering the natives to be an aquatic humanoid race and I enjoyed it a bit more. But then, I guess I have a prejudice towards humanoid races. What a bastard I am.

As you can see, these criticisms really don't amount to much of a negative, so I still recommend this adventure to any group. It just didn't hit me as one of my favorites.


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Star Wars Military Ranks


Though they never really delved into the exact rank structures of the Republic, Imperial or Rebel militaries in any of the movies, the RPG sourcebooks presented a rather jumbled attempt at it that never really suited me. The idea that an Admiral and a General existed within the same heirarchy, and that the former actually outranked the latter just...irked me. I could explain it away for the Rebels by saying that they had a jumbled and mismatched military overall, probably incorporating ranks and organizations from dozens of different planetary militias and naval forces. But especially post RotJ, after the New Republic is formed, I think they'd be able to standardize a few things. Therefore, I made up my own ranking system that I applied in my campaign to both the Empire and New Republic. It is essentially a modified version of the U.S. Military rank structure (with various differences). It goes as follows:

Officer Ranks:
O1 2nd Lieutenant  (Army/Marines)
Ensign (Navy/Fighter Corps)

O2 1st Lieutenant  (Army/Marines)
Lieutenant, Junior Grade (Navy/Fighter Corps)

O3 Captain
Lieutenant

O4 Major
Lieutenant Commander

O5 Lieutenant Colonel 
Commander

O6 Colonel
Captain

O7 Brigadier General
Commodore

O8 Lieutenant General
Rear Admiral

O9 Major General
Vice Admiral

O10 General
Admiral

Enlisted Ranks
E1 Private (Army/Marines)
Spaceman (Navy/Fighter Corps.)

E2 Private, First Class (Army/Marines)
Spaceman, First Class (Navy/Fighter Corps)

E3 Lance Corporal
Petty Officer

E4 Corporal
Petty Officer, First Class

E5 Sergeant
Chief Petty Officer

E6 Senior Sergeant
Senior Chief 

E7 Gunnery Sergeant
Gunnery Chief 

E8 Master Sergeant
Master Chief

E9 Sergeant Major
Warrant Officer

E10 Command Sgt. Maj.
Chief Warrant Officer

And yes, I know it doesn't follow the U.S. Military strictly. A lot of it was chosen simply because I liked the way the rank sounded. So sue me.

My Top 10 Star Wars Adventure Modules


Please note that this list was compiled only from those adventures presented in module format, and doesn't include campaign settings or sourcebooks or compilations of adventures. Also note that a lot of my opinions on these were formed by actually running them in my campaign.

10. Starfall
An interesting twist on the typical adventure, here you start out captured and have to escape from an Imperial Star Destroyer (actually a Victory-Class Star Destroyer). The setting offers a lot of unique challenges and battle arenas, but I remember it most for introducing great NPCs: Wallex Blissex, the Rebel technical wizard, Lira Wessex, the haughty Imperial technical genius (and daughter of Wallex), Captain Kolaff, the battle-hardened and condescending Imperial commander, and T-3PO, the snooty, sarcastic and cynical protocol droid. Three of these characters wound up becoming recurring NPCs in my campaign. In fact, T-3PO was 'adopted' by Arianne Volar and continues to serve (grudgingly) as her assistant.

9. Strike Force Shantipole
An all out action-adventure romp. As mentioned previously in my full review, this module introduces a memorable original race (the Verpine) and a memorable bad guy (The Imperial Commander Bane Nothos). It also introduces the players personally to Commander Akbar, letting them rub elbows with one of the feature-characters of the saga.

8. Mission to Lianna
A rather low-key adventure, all things considered (or at least, it should be if done right). It revolves around a plot to assist a Rebel-sympathetic corporation in sabotaging an Imperial cloaking device experiment. There is lots of undercover and spy action stuff instead of your usual brand of blasterfights and speeder-chases. This adventure is especially memorable to me for a few reasons. First of all, my original Vermillion crew completely screwed the pooch on this mission—a truly epic failure that they have yet to equal. In fact, they screwed it so bad that we wound up writing it out of their history after merging the Vermillion timeline with that of the campaign I was running for Adrienne Olin (Adren). Adren not only accomplished the mission quite gracefully, she grew so close to the NPCs presented in it (the Santhe Family) that we later wrote it into her history that they were one half of her long-lost family.

7. Game Chambers of Questal
An interesting adventure featuring investigation, action and problem solving and including several memorable action set-pieces—from a crimelord's floating arena to the Game Chambers themselves—a devious maze filled with deadly traps and an assortment of unique hunters populating it. It also gives the players the chance to take out an Imperial Moff (Bandor) and his new fear-inducing superweapon. Again, this adventure is especially memorable for me because two of the players (Steve-the-other-one and Mark) had their characters go 'rogue' in the middle of the mission. Splitting up from the main party, they went on a tangental rampage that included speeder-jacking, jamming jedi-telepathy with loud music and impersonation of Imperial officers before finally catching up to the main party just in time for the Game chambers. Yeah, it meant that the session took twice as long as normal, but it was fun.

6. Riders of the Maelstrom
The players escape Imperial pursuit by ducking onto a cruise liner—only to discover that it is being used for a secret meeting between two Imperial Moffs. Throw in a pirate boarding action and the possible destruction of an Alliance safe world and you've got a heck of a plot. But there is more to it than this. The module includes a huge map of the liner itself (the Kuari Princess), as well as details about the various diversions to be found within. I think that maybe half of the time spent on this adventure was the characters just exploring the ship and indulging in all manner of activities—from holo-arcades and 'slaffing' to dancing and drinking and even a bit of shopping. It was a great way to work some character development into a campaign, turning the players loose in a non-combat, non-mission oriented space for a while.

5. Domain of Evil
A very dark adventure, where the characters are trapped in the bad dreams of a fallen and insane Jedi while being pursued by a team of ruthless bounty hunters through a dismal swamp. What's not to like? This is the adventure where Doyce's character Jared was 'killed' in the Dream and almost wound up killing himself for real in the process. If I had to do it all over again, though, I think I would personalize the force-vision-morality-tests a bit more than I did, but it was still a great idea, and a great change of pace in my campaign.

4. Black Ice
A truly expansive storyline that takes players through a number of very different settings and mission types, everything from undercover infiltration of an Imperial research facility (complete with a scientist bragging how he designed the Death Star's thermal exhaust ports) to a boarding action against an Imperial Starship (the Black Ice), to holding a rebel base against incredible odds to a final 'suicide mission' to destroy an Imperial Torpedo Sphere. What can I say, this adventure had all kinds of coolness in it.

3. Crisis On Cloud City
This adventure combines a lot of different elements that I really enjoy. First of all, it includes recurring NPCs (Wallex Blissex and Lira Wessex from Starfall). Second, it includes a pre-ESB Lando Calrissian for the players to interact with, it has a mystery investigation plot, rife with danger and finally it has an evil master-droid who may cause the death of everyone in the city unless the character's succeed in stopping it. A great adventure all around, and memorable to me in particular for the live-action Sabbacc game the module came with—as well as the now-legendary cheating of Harold Hugganut's player, Rick.

2. Otherspace
Aliens meets Star Wars. With recurring villains from other adventures (Bane Nothing, Zardra) and the very creepy Charon and their undead technology, this adventure really struck my fancy. Look here for my full review.

1. Tatooine Manhunt
The first, the best, the shaper of my conceptions of what a good Star Wars adventure should be. A romp through the back-yard of Episode-IV: The Cantina, The Dune Sea, Bounty-Hunters, Tusken Raiders, Lost Old-Republic Heroes. Yep. Its great, as I pointed out in my earlier review.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Nagai, Part 2

The Nagai post turned out to be a lot longer than I had thought, so I'm continuing it in this one:

SOCIETY
Little is known about Nagai society. Even the last Ancient (recovered by the Republic) knew little about how his children had developed. The Nagai are capable of breeding, and they were 'matched' by the Ancients during the time that they lived in their utopian society. It is likely they have continued to breed since the overthrow of the ancients, but the total number of Nagai is believed to be relatively small. They were never raised in traditional family units, and it is unknown if anything of this sort has evolved over the years. All signs point to the Nagai operating as a collection of individuals, united only in their lust for power and blood—and under the control of a few exceptionally powerful personalities. Their predilection for and mastery of bladed weapons suggests they have firmly adopted a warrior philosophy—praising martial prowess, though there has been some evidence that they are highly hedonistic as well.

Reports also seem to suggest that Nagai can breed with other races. At least one 'half-breed' spy, now identified as a 'daughter' of Nom Anor, has been captured and it is unknown how many more of his progeny remain at large—or where their loyalties lie. Considering the Nagai's views on their own superiority, it is likely they would look down on such half-breeds.

TECHNOLOGY
The basis of Nagai technology—stolen from the Ancients—are various types of crystal. Depending on the type, they can function as circuitry, armor, generators, projectors, etc. Instead of constructing objects from these crystals, desired technology is actually 'grown' from them. All that is required seems to be raw materials and the correct 'programming' of a 'seed crystal'. From there, it slowly matures into the finished product. This can be anything from a hand-weapon to a massive starship.

The Nagai operate four major kinds of starships—starting with the gigantic, nearly moon-sized 'worldships' that form the core of their battlefleets and progressing down through Alpha-Class dreadnaughts (comparable in size to super star destroyers), Beta-Class cruisers (comparable in size to star destroyers) and Delta-Class frigates (comparable in size to most known Frigate designs). 

There are three major classes of small craft utilized as well. The 'Shard'-Class Fighter and 'Splinter' class heavy bomber as well as a multi-role interface shuttle (dubbed the 'Strider') that doubles on the ground as a combat walker and personnel transport.

All of the ships and vehicles mentioned above operate by means of a system of power crystals that function as engine, weapon-power and shields. In the early stages of the war against the Republic, the Nagai ship's unique power source and construction made them nearly invisible to standard sensors and fire-control systems. The power-emanations of these craft actually had a dampening effect on all known galactic shield technology—actually draining shield power from their enemies, leaving them even more vulnerable to attack. And to make matters even worse, these power cores could be used to interdict hyperspace travel. It is little wonder that Republic and Imperial vessels fared so poorly in the early stages of the war. Thankfully, with technical advice from the last of the Ancients, allied forces have been able to adapt both sensor and shield systems to function against the Nagai.

Capability-wise, Nagai capital ships are easily a match for two or more allied vessels of similar size in both durability and firepower. Where the Allied forces have the advantage is seemingly in the skill of their crews and pilots and in their superior coordination on a tactical level. The organization of the Nagai suggests that the 'individuality' of their commanders can sometimes lead to the breakdown of discipline and teamwork—especially in situations where they are reacting to attack rather than initiating it.

Despite the size of the Nagai fleet and army, there are actually very few Nagai—at least, by all reports. Most of the fighting in space and on the ground is done by several specially bred species—actually other genetic experiments of the Ancients, now perverted to the cause and service of the Nagai. These include the 'Alpha'-Class soldier—the commanders and elite warriors of the Nagai military. They are actually a conglomeration of numerous worm-like sub-organisms that combine into a hive mind and typically reside within a humanoid crystalline-armored 'shell'. Due to their unique physical composition, Alphas are highly resistant to damage. They have no vulnerable spots and are even capable of regeneration. Wounds do not seem to have any detrimental effect on them, though massive injury can cause the death of the colony. Alpha's possess average intelligence and have displayed some level of tactical ability when operating on their own.

On the ground, the Nagai rely upon hordes of 'Beta'-Class humanoids. These are reptilian creatures who are grown with crystal control circuits 'wired' into their brains. Under the command of an Alpha warrior, Betas can utilize complex ground tactics, including various forms of ranged weaponry (crystalline based, but about the equivalent of modern blaster technology). Typically, one Alpha will command a 'pack' of one hundred Betas. When not under direct control (or if their commander is taken out) a pack of Betas will revert to almost animalistic tendencies—abandoning tactics and ranged weaponry in favor of all-out, hand-to-hand assaults.

In space, fighter-pilots and ship crews consist of 'Beta-2'-Class humanoids, an apparently avian variant of the Beta reptilians. They seem to possess a greater intelligence than their ground counterparts, but are no less vicious or predatory in employing pack and swarm tactics to take down their enemies. It is believed that Beta-2's are controlled from Nagai capital ships, as very few are ever seen operating out of range of their mother-ships.

All of the genetic constructs above are bred in great numbers by the Nagai. Much like their crystalline technology, Alphas and Betas require only the 'raw materials' and some starting genetic seeds.  Entire new batches can be grown in months, if not weeks. Grisly discoveries on occupied worlds have shown that 'raw materials' often include the bodies of organic beings, throw into 'hatching pools'. 

Several forms of unique technology have been employed by the Nagai and their troops during the war thus far, these include the following:

Phase-shifting crystals. Essentially, these allow the user to teleport great distances (even from orbit to planetary surfaces) by opening a dimensional rift. The journey is painful, and ultimately harmful to those using it (scientists conjecture that more than a dozen 'shifts' would cause terminal damage in most life-forms). The Nagai made great use of these crystals in the early phases of the war, using them to teleport strike teams into secure locations—including a sneak attack against the Republic/Imperial/Corporate peace-treaty signing on Coruscant. Likewise, these crystals were used to break into the high-security Republic research facility holding the last of the Ancients. After the last round of attacks, however, the Republic believes it has discovered both hard and soft shielding techniques that can prevent such shifting.

Communication-crystals. The 'comlink' used by the Nagai, allowing instantaneous 'telepathic' communication within a range of several light-years. They have also been demonstrated to have a 'feedback' capability that can injure unauthorized users.

Shard-blades. The hand-weapons of the Nagai. Crystalline swords and knives of varying length and capability. In cutting power, they rival the lightsaber—employing a monofiliment edge that can cut through solid metal. They have been proven to be able to deflect blows from a lightsaber without sustaining damage in return.

Control-Crystals. Only recently discovered in recon missions to Nagai-occupied worlds, these skyscraper sized crystal towers are fired from orbit by larger Nagai vessels (Alpha Dreadnaughts or Worldships). They are generally deployed in highly urbanized areas, sinking into the midst of a city where they root themselves deeply. Control crystals generate a composite energy field that serves a shield generator and, over time, dampens the individual will of organic minds within its 1,000 km range. In the course of a week of constant exposure, most sentient beings are reduced to a docile and zombie-like state, easy to control and employ in basic labor (such as growing more crystalline or genetic technology). These towers have also demonstrated the ability to  fire an energy blast with an orbital range, thus making them quite able to defend themselves from bombardment. Republic theorists had long wondered how the Nagai were going to maintain control of the worlds they had captured without a huge garrison force. Unfortunately, these crystal towers provide control /without/ the employment of large numbers of troops.

FINAL NOTES:
As you can see from the above, my Nagai differ greatly from those presented in the comics. I freely stole various aspects from the Vong and other places to create what I thought would be a very big challenge for the Star Wars Galaxy. But thus far, despite the set-backs, the Republic (and my gaming group) have made headway against even these overwhelming odds. It makes me proud to see my players come up with novel ideas to overcome this foe. It also makes me happy as a GM to have created a race of beings that ARE bad ass enough that even epic level characters have to pause to consider. My shining moment came when one of the Jedi (Bob) sensed four Nagai approaching his position. That's it. Just four of them. His initial reaction was to say "oh shit". For a character who has taken down hundreds of stormtroopers (almost) single-handedly, to have this much respect for an enemy...well, it was gratifying. It was even more gratifying when Bob (who is often quite impulsive) remained in hiding and called in support... including AIR support. And yeah, that worked. 

The Nagai, Part 1


The current main 'bad guys' in my now post-post-college campaign are a race of beings from another Galaxy who call themselves the Nagai. I admit freely that I stole the name and indeed the original idea from the Marvel Star Wars comics. I had originally pondered the idea after running my players through the Thrawn campaign, but then our gaming group broke up (moved, graduated, etc.) and I never had the chance. And then Vector Prime and all the other Star Wars novels featuring the Yuuzhan Vong came out. I saw a lot of similarities in the overall plot: the Vong too were a race from another galaxy, invading the Star Wars galaxy. Due to my original (and continuing) underwhelmed reaction to these novels, I determined early on that I wouldn't be using the Vong exactly as presented, but they did spark the idea of the Nagai again, and that's what this post is about: My version of the Nagai.

And before continuing, I should point out that my campaign timeline diverges from the 'canon' timeline pretty much right after the Jedi Academy trilogy. The characters who began the game in their twenties are now in their mid-thirties. Han and Leia's kids are still kids and aren't the main focus of the story. Luke's Academy is growing much faster than in the novels. And, most importantly, the New Republic is a functioning and actually rather well-run government (unlike the prematurely corrupt and inept one presented in the Vong storyline). 

I should also point out that the details presented in this file are those that my players have discovered in-game, and may not be the 'final story' as far as the Nagai are concerned.

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS:
The Nagai are slender, pale-grey-skinned humanoids with dark black or blue-black hair and slightly pointed ears. Despite their apparently 'slight' build, they are incredibly strong and resilient—with bone and muscle density far exceeding humanoid standard. They are surprisingly quick and graceful in movement and quite beautiful in appearance—though the latter is often marred by the usually cold glint of their eyes. Their senses are more acute that most humanoids, with vision extending into the infared and ultraviolet spectrums. 

Nagai have been seen wearing a combination of form-fitting outfits with flowing cloaks or robes over top. In battle, they wear a form-fitting crystalline-based battle armor. They seem to enjoy body-decoration in the form of tattoos and piercings, but also in a rather masochistic form of ritual, decorative scarring. 

All Nagai thus-far encountered seem to be masters of melee weaponry—specifically bladed weapons. Considering their reported long-lives, it is possible that their level of training with such puts even the least of them on par with the grand-masters of the known galaxy. 

And finally, the Nagai physiology has a unique reaction to pain and injury. Rather than being hampered by such, Nagai are actually able to operate on a super-normal level when injured—growing more and more physically fast and powerful the worse they are injured. Evidently, this is the result of natural stimulant hormones secreted in response to pain.

PSYCHOLOGICAL CHARACTERISTICS:
Nagai are incredibly intelligent, operating at genius level or beyond. They seem to be lacking, however, in the areas of scientific creativity—though this seems more a sociological thing than physiological: most are just not interested in scientific matters. 

Nagai are quite charismatic, displaying high degrees of self-confidence. When necessary, they can be very persuasive, intimidating or even charming. Most Nagai seem to suffer from at least some form of megalomania. Though they are aware that they are, indeed, mortal, they still consider themselves 'gods' among lesser beings. They seem to hold all races but their own in utter contempt—as servitors or playthings, but nothing more. 

In battle, the Nagai employ complex, innovative tactics, often based on deception or mis-direction. At first glance, this may seem to go against their self-perceived superiority, but the Nagai do realize that even their superior technology can be overcome if employed recklessly. Plus, they seem to enjoy the challenge of overcoming enemies—the chance to prove just how superior they are. The Nagai, for all their strengths, seem to exhibit a 'childlike' sense of petulant frustration when facing severe and unexpected setbacks. 

As a race, there has been some inclination that the Nagai feel threatened by anything that can challenge their claims to perfection—things such as Force Powers. Thus far only one Nagai (Nom Anor—see "History" below) has exhibited talent with these powers—and despite his usefulness to their cause, his own people seemed to view him as a 'defective' mutant. The Nagai tolerate the Sith, because these dark-siders 'serve' them. The Jedi are viewed with loathing, and perhaps jealousy.

HISTORY:
The Nagai were genetically engineered in another galaxy by a highly advanced race known as the 'Ancients'. They were  bred to be 'perfect', physically and mentally—and they don't fall too short of that mark. They are extraordinarily strong, resilient, agile, beautiful and long-lived. They are incredibly intelligent, perceptive, strong willed and charismatic. The Ancients delighted in their creations at first, creating an idyllic world for them to inhabit. Whether by design or not, the Ancients became the de facto 'gods' of this society, some going as far as manipulating events to 'guide' their creations along paths they wanted. 

While many Nagai were content to live in this supposed utopia, a few of the most willful began to resent the manipulations of their 'gods'. Like spoiled children, they wanted 'more'. More control, more power, more...purpose. Before they could comprehend the monster they had created, the Ancients were undone. The Nagai, spurred on by malcontents in their own ranks, rose up against their masters. Despite their vast technological power, the Ancients were unprepared for this eventuality and were too few in number. One by one, they were destroyed by their children in an orgy of blood and violence. 

Having destroyed their own 'gods', the Nagai found themselves stained by the experience, warped into reveling in that blood and in their own superiority. For indeed, if they had destroyed their gods, did that not mean that they were the gods now? The Ancients had left all manner of wondrous technologies behind, based on crystalline technology and genetic engineering. Unfortunately, like children, the Nagai did not completely comprehend these technologies. They could use them, to be certain, but they lacked the knowledge to expand upon them, or even to fix them when they broke. 

Using the stolen technology of their progenitors, the Nagai began to explore their galaxy. As they did, they found the purpose they had been looking for—a purpose warped by their own sense of hubris and lust for blood. There were hundreds, thousands of sentient races, none of whom could equal the level of technology the Nagai now wielded. Thus began their reign of terror. The Nagai cut a swathe through the galaxy, conquering and destroying all in their path. They slaughtered, enslaved or sacrificed billions, every 'victory' further reinforcing their self-deification.

And then it happened. Suddenly, there were no more worlds to conquer...no more races to enslave. They had won complete domination of their galaxy. There was no more fuel for their egos—no blood to satiate the violence they had come to worship. They were at a loss. Without purpose. Some turned against their brethren, sparking a series of vicious civil wars. Others went insane, retreating back into self-created utopias. But a few, those with more vision than the others... had a plan. There were other Galaxies, were there not? Even those were seemingly beyond the reach of the Ancient's technology, at least for the immediate future. But they could still be reached. 

In their journey of domination, the Nagai had encountered anomalies—wormholes and the like. Piecing together what they could of the Ancient's knowledge, they figured that such things might be gateways to other Galaxies...places where they could once again launch their crusade of blood. And so several of their own were chosen and flung themselves into the voids of these anomalies. Even the Nagai don't know what happened to them all.

Thousands of years passed before the Nagai finally heard back from one of these 'heralds'.

Nom Anor came to the known Galaxy some 4,000 years prior to the current timeline. He would come to be considered a 'mutant' by his own people, since his long years of contact with the races of the Galaxy had given him a link to the Force through its dark side. Such powers are, thus-far, unknown to the Nagai—and in fact are an affront to their own perceived perfection. Working behind the scenes for all these Millenia, Nom Anor finally managed to achieve his goal—manipulating several generations of 'lesser-race' scientists, he was able to create at least one stable Wormhole Gateway to his home galaxy. The long-awaited invasion could finally begin.

As the Nagai made final preparations and began to cross over in secret, Nom Anor was able to pave the way for the invasion. Utilizing a network of spies and assassins, and allying himself with the Sith Order, he launched a campaign of terror and disruption across the entire galaxy—destroying several key alliances between the New Republic, the Empire and other factions. Fortunately, Anor was brought down by a joint team of Jedi and Imperials before he could do even more damage. 

But the death of any one individual could not stop the invasion. Utilizing both their advanced technology and strategic cunning, the Nagai were able to lure the New Republic and Imperial fleets into a devastating series of defeats at Sernpidal and Dubrillion. Maintaining a fragile alliance, the Republic and Empire were able to stem the tide of the invasion, but were slowly being pushed back. Republic agents worked diligently both on the front lines and beyond, recruiting other powers to help in the fight—going so far as to overthrow the Nagai-Sith puppet government of the Corporate Sector to bring them back into the fight.

In a short-lived but fortunate turn of events, the Republic was able to destroy the Nagai's primary wormhole gate and to send a small team to the Nagai's home Galaxy. There, the team tracked down a clue to a single, surviving 'Ancient'—whom they were able to recover from a Sith strike team hoping to do the same. The Republic team returned and with technical advice from the Ancient, the Republic was able to help offset the disparity in technology—though they couldn't negate it entirely. Unfortunately, the Ancient was slain shortly thereafter by a Nagai strike team as part of a renewed series of 'headhunter' attacks against vital targets deep within the Republic and its allies. 

Spurred on by the Nagai and the Sith, many old enemies across the Galaxy have suddenly turned on the Republic while its attention is diverted. The Ssi'Ruk, Yevethans, Geonosians and Chiss have all launched attacks, while the Trandoshan/Wookiee enmity has degerated into all-out war. The Hutts, evidently trying to ride the fence again, have openly signed a 'non-agression' pact with the Nagai—going so far as to allow Nagai vessels to visit their space.

The Jedi Academy on Yavin became a target to a large Nagai task force—but the infiltration team assigned to take down the planetary shield generators was thwarted by a small group of Jedi and Republic agents and all students were evacuated to Coruscant.

Days later, the Nagai abandoned their broad-front approach, concentrating in two separate 'spike' assaults. The first was launched into Imperial space, threatening Bastion, the heart of the Imperial Remnant. This caused the Empire to pull its troops out of the allied front to defend their own territory. Weakened now, the Republic had to scramble to gather up a fleet large enough to stop the second spike- launched down the Hydian Way—a major hyperspace route leading into the core—to Coruscant itself.

As the Republic fleet made its stand at Arkanis, blocking the hyperlane to the core, the strike team responsible for saving the Academy on Yavin put a desperate plan into motion. The Home-One battlecruiser was brought out of its museum-retirement to serve as the power source for an alien and experimental 'dimensional drive' that had been previously recovered in the alternate dimension of 'Otherspace'. General Cracken and top Republic scientists frantically worked to modify the craft to cause a disruption in the hyperlane. As the Republic fleet withdrew, the Nagai jumped and found their entire assault fleet diverted into the Otherpspace dimension. 

It is too much for the Republic to hope that the Nagai will be trapped forever, but it may just buy some breathing room—some time to turn against the sizable Nagai force still occupying nearly a fifth of the Galaxy. Though Bastion was subsequently relieved by the Republic, the war itself remains undecided...

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Clone Wars Cartoons, Part 2


I will continue my discussion of the Clone Wars cartoons by turning now to the new (2008) animated series. Before delving into it, however, I should point out that I have only (as of the time of writing this) seen five episodes of this series and did NOT see the feature-length pilot movie released in theaters. Even so, I think I've seen enough to make some observations.

In contrast to the traditional, 2D animation of the first Clone Wars cartoons, the new series is done in computer-generated 3D. As such, it is truly some of the best computer animation out there. It is no wonder, considering that Lucasfilm's own animation studio is in charge of it. Except for the stylized treatment of the characters, the rest of the animation (scenery, space-battles, etc.) looks as though it was taken right out of the prequel trilogy films. In a way, I'm glad the animators kept the 'stylized' look of the human(oid) characters, because thus far, nobody has really been able to capture 'realistic' people in 3D animation—most come off looking creepily plastic. 

I have to admit that my initial critique of this show as going to be a lot more negative, but in the effort of being fair, I had to take a step back and really look at the show for what it is. And in doing so, I can't say that it is bad. In fact, it has a few things that recommend it. I think my initial disappointment with it comes from the fact that I really did like what Tartakovsky did with the first series, and to have him pushed aside like that irked me. He is certainly a much better director of action than whoever is in charge of this 3D series. The fights here come off as a lot more machine-like and less kinetic. And I imagine a lot of that has to do with the fact it is computer generated. There is that distinct 'inorganic precision' when characters move that is the downfall of a lot of CG stuff.

In fairness, I have to recognize that this cartoon was obviously designed to appeal to a younger (8-11yr) audience. Because of this, the series has a distinctly 'corny' feel to it, from the incredibly over-dramatic narrator who opens each episode (he sounds a lot like the "Meanwhile...at the Hall of Justice" guy from the Superfriends) to the incredibly goofy battle droids, who are played heavily for 'comic relief '("roger roger" and even more nonsense of that sort). Fine. Okay, so its a cartoon made for kids. And I have to admit that if I were thirty years younger, it might appeal to me more. 

There is this strange duality to it all—its a kid's show, only it has an awful lot of death in it. Not just droids are being taken down. Clone troopers die in just about every episode, and they make no effort to conceal the fact that clones ARE people. I can't imagine this show being allowed past any children's television censors from the 70's or 80's.. or even 90's. So I think even the producers of this show may be a bit confused—its like they're trying to appeal to kids, but are including factors that are perhaps a bit more violent than the younger range of their demographic should be exposed to. As a result, it leaves me a bit confused. Why make things wacky and goofy one minute to appeal to kids, then violent and serious the next to appeal to adults? Well, okay. I understand. Its called having your cake and eating it too, and (despite how stupid a saying that is) its a problem. 

As far as story lines go, this series is hit and miss. It is hampered a bit by its target audience, dumbing things down to the point where they may be just a bit too obvious even by 8-11 year old standards. As mentioned before, the 'comic relief' droids are VERY prevalent (and annoying) in this show but they pale in comparison to the use of Jar Jar binks. First of all, let me say that I never hated the character in the movies. Annoying? Yes, but I never cared enough about him to hate him. That being said, after ONE Jar Jar episode of Clone Wars, I now hate this Gungan. Though played for comic relief, Jar Jar's 'wacky antics' (he couldn't figure out how his seatbelt worked) wound up directly causing the death of a Republic senator and about a half-dozen clone troopers. Wow. Yeah. That's funny. Hah. Ha. ha. Again, its another direct example of the odd duality of this show. Slapstick is okay for kids. Slapstick that causes death? That's just.. unsettling.

The things that I've seen that recommend this show include the relationship between Anakin and Obi Wan. Finally, we see that the two of them do seem to get along. They do seem to be friends finally, instead of snippy rivals as they're shown in the movies. Likewise, the other Jedi characters (such as Yoda and Plo Koon) are shown to have emotions and personalities other than just your stereotypical jedi master. In the episodes I've seen, both of them show a very reassuring concern for the fates of the Clones under their command. Yoda even seems to know his troopers on a personal level, and has a nice little pep-talk where he points out that though they may be clones, they are people too—distinct and important. 

In fact, the Clone troopers (and the ways they're handled) are proving to be one of the more interesting aspects of this series. One episode places a good deal of focus on the Clones trying to find a traitor in their own ranks. It showcases a bit of how these soldiers interact, how they distinguish themselves and their personalities and even how they feel about their 'forced servitude' to the Republic. It was a refreshingly 'adult' look at a subject nobody ever brought up before—but then again, a subject like this is a bit over the heads of their target market so...yeah. I'm confused again.

Overall, I am a bit more optimistic about this series than I was when it came out. It has tackled some interesting subjects and (if I can get past the droids and Jar Jar) it may be worth it to stick with it while it develops. So far, most of the stories seem to fit in nicely with the continuity of the universe—and without stepping all over the original series. That is something I can appreciate.

Oh, and P.S.: Anakin's spunky 'tween' apprentice? Meh. I don't dislike her. I don't like  her. So far, she hasn't really impressed me as a character, and she comes off as somewhat gimmicky. But we'll see. 

The Clone Wars Cartoons, Part 1


In speaking on this subject, I would like to make the distinction between the two Clone Wars cartoon series. The first was a traditionally animated series by Genndy Tartakovsky—a very talented artist responsible for the very unique 'Samurai Jack' series. The second was the 3D-Animated series created by Lucasfilm's own animation studio.

Both series take place in the time between Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Both series deal with the exploits of Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi during the war against the separatist confederation, led by Count Dooku, General Grievous and Asajj Ventress. And that's really about where the similarities end.

Tartakovsky's series was highly-stylized and simplistic in its presentation, focusing more on motion and mood than on detail. The series' plot was almost entirely action-based, with only brief moments of dialogue and character interaction between sequences. But despite this, the storytelling was masterfully done. Characters were given depth by their actions as much as their words. Memorable sequences include Anakin and Padme's farewell at the start of the Clone Wars—done entirely without dialogue, where Anakin presses his metallic hand against the canopy window of his fighter as Padme watches from afar. Even as simply drawn as the characters were, you could see the emotion with just a few drawn lines- the downward curve of their mouths, a furrowed brow. Anakin's Knighting ceremony is likewise emotional, and equally light on dialogue—you see the simple pride in Obi-Wan's eyes as he looks on, and the excitement and gratitude in Anakin's as he looks back. It is understated, but  understandable. It is subtle and feels 'real'—a strange irony considering the over-dialogued live-action movies that book-end this series.

The action in this series is likewise well done. It is fast-paced and visceral—characters move /fast/. Things develop /fast/. You don't have time to ponder what will happen next because it already happened. Anakin's first duel with Asajj Ventress is a prime example of this. It is intense and brutal, and makes clever use of Force powers (such as when Ventress hurls a large stone block at Anakin, only to be surprised when he slings it right back at her). Likewise, when Shaak-Ti is battling Grievous (and getting beaten badly) she manages to slyly tie his cape to a train-car using her telekinesis—and then activate the train, yanking Grievous along with it. We're shown new and interesting ways of Jedi fighting: like Yoda's massive force-pushes, clearing out entire swathes of battle droids, and Windu's unarmed technique, where he destroys dozens of droids with just his fists and feet and even an unnamed Ithorian Jedi's force-enhanced sonic-blast. It seem like Tartakovsky is indulging in all the 'what ifs' of being a Jedi, showing us things we haven't yet seen before. My only criticism of this is that sometimes, the Jedi powers are just a bit too much to believe (even if they are visually interesting)—I mean, Windu 'riding' a captured droid fighter, steering it via wires he ripped out of its access panels? Just a bit over the top. Again, there is a strange Irony in all of this—because in the live action movies, we only really get 'more of the same' when it comes to fight scenes.

And finally, one of the places where this first animated series shines is its treatment of the villains. You get to see a bit more of Count Dooku, his ruthlessness being grandly portrayed in one sequence where he dispassionately watches an entire arena of viscious beings slay eachother for the chance to be his disciple. The winner of this competition, Asajj Ventress, is then brutally beaten by Dooku just to remind her of her 'place'. It both shows just how cruel Dooku is, and how powerful. 

General Grievous is given his grand introduction to the Star Wars mythos in these cartoons—and what a memorable introduction it is. He has a group of Jedi pinned down in a crashed starship. They still aren't quite sure what they're up against. One of the padawans can no longer take it and charges out, only to be literally crushed beneath Grievous' taloned feet. From there, he goes on to decimate this entire group of Jedi, all by himself. Only the timely arrival of a special squad of clone commandos saves some of the Jedi. Even as Grievous flees, one of the Jedi Masters is frantically ordering the Clones to kill the general before he can escape. To see such fear in the actions of a formidable Jedi really drives home the point of just how big a threat Grievous really is. This is only reinforced by the scene near the end of this series when Grievous breaks into Chancellor Palpatine's office. Several Jedi flee with the Chancellor while the clone troopers try to hold Grievous off. The battle is once again sharp and brutal—though we as the audience see only a portion of it. In a truly inspired move, Tartakovsky moves the camera out into the hall, where the Jedi wait anxiously for the elevator as the sounds of horrific combat come from beyond the office door. At one point, one of the Jedi hastily mashes the 'call elevator' button over and over, trying to make it arrive faster. This is funny, sure, but it also helps show the fact that the Jedi DO fear Grievous. 

In watching these Cartoons, I feel almost short-changed by Grievous' appearance in the movies. All he does there is run away and get defeated. It's sad, really, to make a character who could have been a truly terrifying opponent and reduce him to a card-board-cut-out who just looked a little scary. But then, the movie didn't really have any time to spare for Grievous—which makes me wonder why they introduced him at all. They could have just kept Dooku around and developed his character...but...oh well.

Before closing, I would be remiss if I didn't mention another very artful and powerful moment in this first animated series: It is a 'vision quest' that Anakin takes on the planet Nelvana. He goes into a cave and finds a series of paintings on the wall that represent stories from the natives past. The primitive paintings seem to come to life in Anakin's vision, telling the story of a being who gains a strange power which he uses to defend his people from evil—even at the cost of his own hand. The story—told entirely with this cave painting style—continues with the hero's power being perverted, turning against both the people he tried to protect and himself. In the end, it destroys his family—and as the 'dark power' spreads across the wall of the cave you see the stylized image of Darth Vader's mask growing within it. Again, all of this is done without dialogue, but its meaning is creepily clear to everyone. Even Anakin seems shaken by it. I know a lot of criticisms of this series come from the stylized artwork of it, but honestly? You don't need more than this if you have a solid story and know how to tell it visually.

Considering the length of this post, I'll continue later with my discussion of the second (CG) animated Clone Wars series. Yes. That is the sound of the other shoe about to drop.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Galactic Military


I've been interested in military stuff ever since I was a kid and got my first set of little green army men. Its no surprise then that the military aspects of a movie like Star Wars would capture my imagination. From the Star Destroyers and Stormtroopers to the X-Wings and Rebel soldiers. All of it was just so 'cool'. As I grew up with Star Wars, I often pondered the various aspects of it—just how were the various militaries organized? There were lots of hints in the original three movies, of course, and from these I was able to piece together what I thought was a rational explanation for most of it. Then the prequels happened—and along with them the Clone Wars cartoons, and...well, things just didn't seem to add up. That's what this post is about—how the various Star Wars militaries are presented in the movies, and how I think they would 'really' be.

First of all, I simply reject the notion that the Republic in the prequel trilogy had no military whatsoever. It is ridiculous to think that any government could survive in a 'competitive' environment without a military—even a relatively small one. It is clearly the case that the Republic is NOT the only power in the galaxy—the Hutt's seem to have their own independent state, and I don't think they're the 'live and let live' sort. If they had the muscle to take over the Republic, they would. Obviously, there's something keeping them from doing so. And it also obviously isn't the Jedi, since Windu himself said there were too few of them to fight a war by themselves.

Likewise, there are all sorts of lower-level threats that would require some kind of military to hold them back. Pirates would certainly require a navy, as would overly aggressive corporate powers (like.. oh, I don't know.. the Trade Federation?). When you add to this the fact that the Old Republic obviously has a military tradition (as seen in the Knights of the Old Republic series) it would only go to reason that there was a military in existence before the start of the Clone wars. In fact, considering the size of the Republic, the military would have to be quite extensive.

It reasons then that there was a Republic Navy prior to the clone wars. It was a large one, but probably very spread out, patrolling the space lanes. It would have ships and equipment geared towards this kind of duty: mainly patrol vessels, but likely with at least some heavy ships to back them up in more serious confrontations. Though the prequels may not support this, the Zahn novels do—namely with the whole Katana fleet which was sent out BEFORE the Clone Wars and represented only a fraction of the total fleet strength of the Republic.

For the reasons listed above, it also seems likely that there would be some form of army as well—at the very least some marines, deployable by the navy, but also likely including planetary militias of various sorts.

The second assumption that the prequels and Clone Wars cartoons seem to make is that Clones comprise the bulk of the republic military—if not its entirety. Again, this seems unrealistic and impractical. Just how many clones could the Kaminoans have made prior to the war breaking out? And how many could they continue to produce? When you're looking at things on a galactic scale, even the output of an entire planet (that's assume the entire world of Kamino was devoted to just making clones) is relatively insignificant. 

Again, it seems more likely that the Clone Troopers would serve as the elite fighting force of the Republic, the 'tip of the spear' as it were. A lot of the 'grunt work'—especially in the early stages of the war—would have had to fall on the shoulders of the Republic Navy and various militias. As the war went on, it goes to reason that the republic would expand these 'conventional' forces in direct relation to their Clone forces—especially when you consider how hard pressed the republic seemed to be. Simply put, they couldn't rely on Clones alone, and it would be foolish of them to do so.

I guess one of the main reasons I had to work all this out for myself was because the prequels (once again) seemed to be contradicting the original trilogy. I mean, you had all these Generals and Admirals in both the Rebel and Imperial militaries (Dodonna, Rieekan, Veers, Ozzel, etc.). They had to have come from somewhere? It was assumed (by more than just me, I imagine) that many were veterans of the Clone Wars. And yet, in the prequels? Nope. Just clones fought in the Clone Wars. But I think that my personal theory explains this all away without too much difficulty. 

Simply put, in the movies (and even in the Cartoons) we are seeing only some of the most pivotal battles of the war and the most elite fighting forces. Therefore, we see the various elite all-clone task forces in action. Elsewhere, off-camera, mixed clone, non-clone forces continue to hold the line against the separatists. So that's where Dodonna and the others must have been. Make sense to you? Does to me. 

Review: Strike Force Shantipole


>>> SPOILERS FOLLOW <<<

In my mind, many of the very first adventure modules for Star Wars were in fact the best modules produced for the system. Of course, as the game matured, 'modules' like this were seemingly phased out altogether in favor of collections of shorter adventures or entire 'campaign packs'. But in my campaign, and in my concept of the Star Wars game, these modules were the blueprint to writing my own adventures. 

Strike Force Shantipole is no exception. In this adventure, the Characters are assigned to help retrieve a prototype starfighter from a Rebel research outpost in a remote asteroid field. Of course things don't go as planned and before long, the party is infiltrating an Imperial occupied asteroid fortress to recover not only the fighter, but their own stolen starship. In the end, it comes down to a showdown between the Characters in the prototype versus an Imperial blockade.

The adventure includes the standard 'Cut Away' framing format utilized by all early Star Wars modules, but in a story line that is a lot more fast-paced than other contemporary adventures (Tatooine Manhunt, Otherspace, etc.). Characters are quickly thrown into the middle of the plot and its combat, with little time to catch their breath between escaping and sneaking and attacking. This is a double-edged sword, though, as there aren't quite as many opportunities for NPC interaction as there are in other adventures. 

That having been said, however, the module does introduce several very interesting things: The first of which is the Verpine, a race of insectoid aliens sympathetic to the rebellion. As allies, they prove to be both useful and a bit comical (if played right)—talkative, a bit naive about human interactions, great tinkerers, etc. The Verpine proved to be one of the more popular alien races created by West End Games, appearing in many subsequent adventures and sourcebooks, and even in the Heir to the Empire novel trilogy. 

The second interesting thing introduced in this Module is the Character of Bane Nothos—a ruthless Imperial ship captain that the characters have to deal with in order to make their final escape. In and of himself, Nothos isn't particularly interesting, but this adventure is a great set-up for the Otherspace module, in which Nothos winds up a prisoner of the Rebel Alliance. This continuity between modules wasn't necessarily a common thing, but it was an interesting twist—giving the character's 'history' with a villain, so that they will have a personal reason to hate each other the next time their paths cross.

And finally, you get introduced to Commander Akbar. Yes, THAT Akbar, and yes, he is just a Commander at this point in the timeline. See, he's the Rebel in charge of the Shantipole project. The Characters get a chance to rescue him and his staff, as well as recover his lost fighter. Being able to interact so closely with a Feature character adds a nice flair to the adventure, forming an instant link between it and the movies. In fact, by the end of the Adventure, the Characters will see Akbar promoted to Admiral and will themselves become a part of the 'history' of the Star Wars galaxy by having the (dubious?) distinction of being the 'team of rebels' mentioned in the history of the B-Wing starfighter—the team responsible for saving this design.

As a game master, the whole idea of the characters rubbing elbows with movie characters and actually making galactic history struck a chord with me. And in my own adventures, I strove to make those same kind of connections. More than one Rebel social occasion involved Akbar, or Wedge, or Luke. But for the most part, I kept these interactions of the social variety. As this module showed, it is good to work WITH feature characters but not alongside them—afterall, the PCs are the heroes, you don't want them to get overshadowed in their own stories.

As stated before, this is pretty much a straight-out action adventure, with a little bit of sneaking thrown in. Therefore, it may be a bit shallower in plot than some of the other adventures, but that doesn't stop it from being interesting. This limited plot and the aforementioned limited NPC interaction are really my only criticisms of the module—well, that and the fact it set the stage for a recurring theme in an inordinate number of adventures: i.e. the old "You lose your ship" gambit. Seeing how it is integral to the plot for the players to do so, you may have to be very heavy-handed in taking away the character's ship. Thankfully, the Character's get a chance to get their ship back—unlike so many other adventures where it begins with the player's ship crashing.

Overall? Shantipole is a good adventure to run in the early portion of any Star Wars 'Rebel' campaign.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Marvel Star Wars


Around the time of the release of the first Star Wars movie, Marvel Comics produced a comic-book adaptation of it. They continued from there, picking up after the movie left off, telling their own stories of the journeys and exploits of Luke, Leia, Han and the rest. It was the beginning of what would come to be called the 'Expanded Universe'. Fans of Star Wars who grew up in this era tend to have strong feelings about these comics, one way or the other. Personally? I have mixed feelings, but overall, I have a soft spot for them.

At the risk of damaging my 'geek cred' (not likely), I never was an avid comic book collector. Oh, I read them from time to time, sure, and would even buy one when the cover really appealed to me, but it was rather piecemeal. With the invention of the internet (thanks Al Gore) I've been able to do a lot of 'catching up' by reading synopses and the like. But though I have only partial 'direct' knowledge of the subject, I think I know enough to comment on them as a whole—and I certainly have my own feelings on how they shaped my concept of the Star Wars universe.

I'll start with what I consider the 'bad' aspects of the Marvel comics. The first of these, even to my eight-year-old eyes was the style of artwork. It was a funky 70's kind of style that threw me for a bit of a loop. It was very much in the vein of superhero comics of the day, with far-out costumes and over-exaggerated poses. I remember strongly just how bizarre Chewbacca appeared in the early books- like some great ape/sasquatch/hulk crossbreed—as wide as he was tall. As the series progressed, of course, the art changed along with it, but a lot of the comic book hokiness didn't. Therefore, you had this really strange mix of actually quite good artwork with stilted soliloquies and over-dramatic exposition. Plus, it seemed to take years before Luke, Han or Leia ever changed their clothes or hair-styles. I mean, it was just like they were superheroes, they always wore the same costumes.

Another negative, especially in the early comics, was a tendency towards the truly bizarre—a carnivorous green rabbit-humanoid named Jaxxon? A porcupine-guy? A crazy old man (jedi) named Don-Wan Kihotay? Yes, the early Star Wars comics had all these things (in the came comic, actually). At face value, it all seemed rather silly and even a bit disrespectful of the genre in general.

That having been said, however, there was something beneath the surface of this silliness that was intriguing. If nothing else, the Marvel Star Wars storytellers were bold—taking the Star Wars galaxy that Lucas had only just introduced and pushing back its boundaries. Jaxxon, porcupine guy and Don-Won were all actually part of a storyline reminiscent of the Magnificent Seven (in fact, the story-arc was called 'Eight for Aduba-3'). And actually, when you think about it, that setting fits well. A good old space-western. 

As with many things in the Expanded Universe, you have to absorb the things that make sense to you and discard the things that don't. I think its actually kind of cool that Han and Chewie got into a Magnificent Seven type plot, duking it out with a gang of swoop-riders on a remote desert planet. The idea of a crazy old man who THINKS he is a Jedi is interesting, too (apparently lots of people agree, since not only was the idea re-used in ANOTHER Star Wars comic, it also appeared as a character template in the Star Wars RPG—the Quixotic Jedi). Green bunny-men? Umm.. well. Sure. But.. lets just keep those guys in the background huh?

The marvel comics series matured as I did, both in artwork and in literary complexity (okay, so..it never really got past adolescent, but at least it stopped focusing on the bunny-men). Oh sure, they had a lot of stories that were derivative (one story arc took the heroes to a planet very much reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burrough's Barsoom), but to me, it was a strength, not a weakness. It showed just how broad the Star Wars galaxy was—how inclusive it could be to just about any story you wanted to tell. 

Strangely enough, I don't remember a lot of the story arcs nearly as much as I remember the characters in them. To me, that says something. As with the movies, it isn't the setting that's important as much as it is the characters and their memorable moments. The Marvel Comics gave us such memorable characters as Valance the Hunter, Fenn the Mandalorian, Kiro the Brash Jedi-Adept, The Hiromi, the Nagai, Dani the Zeltron hottie, Lady Lumiya the Sith Whip-mistress (okay, so.. maybe the last two just appealed to young men...). 

I could go on for pages about each of these characters, but I'll save that for other postings. Suffice it to say that it was Marvel Star Wars (even with all its hokiness) that really pulled the veil back from the universe and got me thinking about just what kind of stories could exist within it. I know the ideas presented in these comics greatly affected my Star Wars campaign—spawning entire sub-campaigns based on Fenn's Mandalore and the Nagai themselves. But, yeah...still haven't included the green bunny-men.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Nemeses


In thinking back on the various characters and adventures in my campaign, I can think of a lot of interesting relationships that brewed up organically from them. Some of the most interesting of these were the various characters and their personal nemeses.

Once I really started getting into Star Wars, I began to realize the value of trying to keep villains around for an adventure or two—to build them up, just like the characters. In retrospect, it should have been a no-brainer, but when you come from a D&D tradition, the 'enemy' is usually killed at the end of the adventure and you go on to the next one.

Since I don't feel like forming a coherent argument or rational discussion at the moment, I'm just going to list the various characters and what I remember of their nemeses.

1) Arianne Volar: Her first real nemesis was Bane Nothos—whom she first encountered obliquely in the adventure 'Strike Force: Shantipole'. She ran into him again in Otherspace, and then once more in Otherspace II (even though she had accidently 'killed' him in Otherspace). The two of them were 'ship captains' so the animosity kind of had a nice symmetry. But it wasn't until Bane's niece, Rina Nothos, showed up that Arianne really found her mirror-mirror image. Rina even went as far as to gather a group of rogues around herself, specifically designed to be a match for Arianne and the whole Vermillion crew. The two showdowns that these groups had were both very memorable. To my delight, the first encounter was a complete victory for the villains. Dramatically, the second encounter found Rina and her crew taken down QUICK by the this-time-prepared vermillion team. Rina somehow escaped, though, only to be 'lost' later into a time vortex (the same one that got the mandalorian, Oman). She of course returned and sought vengeance on Arianne—this time managing to kill her father. Arianne managed to track down and capture Rina again, but...well, she's not dead, so who knows what the future stores.

2) Adren Olin: Wow, could she make enemies. Though, truth be told, her main line of work was to 'convert' bad guys to good—something she managed to accomplish with a would-be warlord: "Faarl the Conqueror" and a disillusioned Imperial Admiral (Kermen). As far as a true nemesis goes, however, Adren had two. The first of these was the increasingly obsessed and insane ISB Agent Barezz—a man dedicated to eradicating the 'impurity' of Force powers from the human race. He experimented with all manner of anti-force technologies and genetics (a hybrid human-ysalamiri critter). He was also an avid cloner. This took the form of actually cloning Adren (with the intent of using her against herself) and making copies of himself. "Barezz" has "died" several times now—but he keeps coming back. Kind of like Agent Smith (if you'll forgive the Matrix reference). As formidible as he was, though, Barezz wasn't Adren's only nemesis. Lord Qar, the foppish, narcissistic, swishy and thoroughly corrupt sith Lord is the one who REALLY pissed Adren off the most. And he was an especially frustrating villain because nothing seemed to phase him. Very much like the Joker from Batman, he was a maniac and sociopath who had nothing to lose and inflicted woe upon Adren simply for his own pleasure. He too was apparently 'killed', but the circumstances of that death were strange indeed (another time-travel adventure) so.. who knows.

3) Rick Oman (aka Mandalore). Strangely enough, the 'nemesis' through most of his early career turned out to be his future wife—Zardra, the femme fatale from Tatooine Manhunt and Otherspace. It began as an uneasy and short-lived partnership between Zardra and the Vermillion crew to escape Otherspace. She showed up from time to time as a bounty-hunter, usually working against the group. And then she totally sent the group into an ambush, one that took them to a darkside nexus (Domain of Evil). When she encountered Oman afterwards, she actually felt guilty about it (and was secretly impressed that he'd managed to survive). Thus /really/ began their relationship, and it remains an interesting one. Only much later in his career did Oman develop another real nemesis, and sadly this was rather short lived. Boba Fett (who Oman had actually worked uneasily with before) tried to assume the title of Mandalore, determined to lead the clans into a hopeless but bloody blaze of glory. Oman opposed him. The battle was of appropriately titanic proportions. Fett died. 

4) Horatio Flynn. As a late addition to the team, I've never really had the chance to develop a nemesis for Horatio, but I think he's managed to develop one for himself: Arianne Volar. It all began with a playful scheme to hit on Arianne's adopted ward, Reen. But then it turned into a relationship with said ward. Exactly how serious it is remains to be seen, but Arianne is playing the role of protective mother-figure to the hilt. 

5) Bob the Tusken Shaman. Shame on me, but in all our adventures, I never really developed a personal nemesis for Bob. Oh sure, he squared off against Lord Stromm (see below) a time or two, and several other Dark Jedi types, but I'm not certain any of them could really be called 'his' enemy alone. It could be that Bob was one of the most laid-back of the Characters—in essence, he really was a good Jedi. He didn't hold grudges. But...well, like I said. Shame on me. I'll have to work on crafting him a rival. I guess the closest thing Bob had was his uncle Frank (a recurring joke in the campaign)—Yes, uncle Frank had 'anger issues' and would often go out and club young moisture-farmers then try to ransack their landspeeders. Bob has had several talks with Frank, trying to help him work through his issues.

6) Harry Hugganut. Harry was just too laid back to have any real nemeses. What he had were more...rivalries. The first of these that I remember was during the 'Captain Fandar' adventure. While trying to impress and recruit a pirate to the cause of the Rebellion, Harry could not resist making fun of the pirate's unblinking, devaronian gunman sidekick—nicknaming him "Blinky". And then there was Crisis in Cloud City, where Harry's player CHEATED IN REAL LIFE at a card game to beat out a disguised Lando Calrissian in-character. Thankfully, Lando had a chance to redeem himself. When a rogue droid crashed into the casino, and everyone went scrambling for cover, Harry (completely in character) tried to make a grab for all the loose credits. Much to his chagrin, Lando had beaten him to it! About the closest thing to a 'serious' nemesis Harry had was Rina Nothos' hired gotal gunman, but that never really had the time to develop.

And finally, there is one special case that should be mentioned: Lord Stromm. I created him to be the Sith Lord nemesis for the group—a 'mini-Vader' if you will. The first encounter went well enough—a battle between Stromm, Arianne and Bob that was indecisive, but managed to introduce the villain. But soon after came the dreaded 'M13' incident (which the Empire and Sith order both categorically deny ever happened).

I had manipulated the characters into trying to rescue an informant from a remote and 'lightly guarded' Imperial outpost (M13). Things were going well for the Empire. The characters reached their informant to find him dead—and were then suddenly attacked by Stromm's entire task force. An AT-AT, Two AT-ST's, a company of special Stromm-Troopers (dressed in black stormtrooper armor). A squadron of TIE interceptors and a Strike Cruiser. Yeah, I was really going to show the players who was boss!

And then, everything fell apart.

The details are hazy to me now, but the entire situation turned into a route for Stromm and his men. The high (low) point in this debacle was when Bob used his telekinesis to make a ramp for a landspeeder driven by another in the group (Harry, I think). The two of them rammed the AT-AT in the face, taking it down.

Unfortunately, this seemed to set the tone for the rest of Stromm's appearances. Every time, a combination of bad rolls and mistakes by me resulted in the Sith Lord fleeing for his life. In fact, his injury-prone lifestyle even prompted him to include auto-medpac-injectors in his armor. Sad.

In the end, he went out like a punk. The party was on a Super Star Destroyer and were, for some reason, split up. A perfect time for Stromm to strike! He found Bob alone with the NPC Reen. Stromm and Bob dueled—a duel which turned inexorably into a 'jedi fist fight' (as we came to call them). And then Reen stepped in, with her pitiful 4D blaster skill. She took a pot shot at Stromm as he batted Bob's limp form away. And my dice completely failed me. Stromm was taken down. Oh, his med-injectors assured he got back on his feet, but only just in time to get shot in the head by Oman (who had correctly guessed from afar that it was Bob who was the 'prone one'). Thus, with smoking blaster holes in his death's-head motif (TM) helmet, Stromm plummeted down the turbolift shaft to his death. 

He died as he lived—pathetically. 

So, he wasn't much of a nemesis, but he was memorable. That's something, right? In any case, a good (or even a bad) nemesis can spice up any campaign!

Review: Otherspace


>>> MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS <<<

I am an unabashed fan of the movie Aliens. In fact, it remains at the top of my top-ten favorite movies of all time. Right above Star Wars and Empire Strikes back. Blasphemy, you say! This is a Star Warsish forum! But hey, that's just the way things are. 

Why do I bring up Aliens? Well, because the Otherspace series has a lot in common with it. As I discussed in my previous post, that's one of the greatest things about the Star Wars setting. You can include an 'Alienesque' adventure and it can still feel like Star Wars.

To set the tone for the adventure to follow, the whole thing kicks off with the characters being stranded in a strange place—their ship in need of repairs. This is a classic horror technique—remove the characters from any chance of outside help and place them in a position where they HAVE to go into the spooky places they'd rather not, or they'll never be able to leave.

The pacing continues in line with the best horror movies. You start slow, with hints and glimpses of the horrors you might be facing. In this case, the players have to investigate another ship—the one they were trying to find in the first place. Something horrible has happened to the crew, but at this point, you only get bits and pieces and unsettling clues.

Once you're onboard the Alien's ship (in this case, the aliens are an arachnid race known as the Charon), the characters begin to encounter more and more of them, and of their disgusting bio-technology—slowly coming to the realization that the entire ship is basically 'undead' (there is one memorable encounter where the characters have to cross a room that is  basically the ship's 'stomach'—complete with all kinds of gooey and oozey challenges). 

And through it all, the characters must continue to search for the parts to fix their disabled ship. Though it isn't explicitly pointed out in the adventure, I always liked to present the Charon as 'testing' the heroes through all of this, looking for the strengths and weaknesses of their particular 'strain' of life. I felt it added an extra-creepy atmosphere to make the Charon observing just as much as they are attacking—leaving the players to wonder why they don't just swarm them (and giving a plausible reason why the Charon don't do exactly that). 

Adding flavor to this mix of horror are the NPCs, in the form of escaped prisoners from a Rebel prison transport. These include a crafty Imperial Moff, trying to 'cut a deal' with the aliens, an Imperial ship captain with a personal grudge against the players, an assassin droid, an insane space-pirate and finally, a femme fatale—in fact, the same femme fatale from Tatooine Manhunt. Some of these villains remain villains. Others are would-be allies. It was this aspect of the adventure that really captured my imagination and lead to my trying to keep villains alive for more than one adventure. It is fun to have recurring villains—it gives the PCs and the NPCs a 'history' and a real reason for personal animosity.

The Charon themselves captured my imagination as a wonderful alien menace, even if I did wind up adapting them just a bit from how they were presented. Physically, they were tough and creepy looking. They had strange and gross bio-tech abilities and could even create hybrid 'zombie' type constructs. They were part of a 'hive' mentality, meaning that they would and could sacrifice themselves in appalling numbers if they had to. They were implacable foes, determined to destroy or 'adapt' all life forms but their own. And finally, they had this strange link to the Dark Side of the force, through the black obelisk they worshipped. What's not to like?

You throw all of these things into the mix, build slowly to a climax battle versus the big-bad leader of the bugs and end with a breakneck escape—and the lingering threat that the Charon are still there, waiting. All in all, a superb adventure that takes star wars into the realm of horror. The 'Cut Away' framing devices were perfect for this as well, setting the mood for the players, even if their characters were blissfully unaware. 

My only criticisms of this adventure are as follows: First of all, the scope of the Alien threat seems a bit weak if you take the module strictly at face value. A 300m long ship... houses an entire race who wiped out an entire galaxy. Hmmm. Wimpy galaxy. In order to pose any kind of a threat to the Star Wars galaxy, the Charon would have to have thousands of ships and billions of warriors.

Secondly, the number of encounters on the Charon mothership could be a bit excessive—especially if the players are thorough in exploring each level. It could seriously mess with the pacing of the story to have to play out each and every one of these encounters. I would recommend crafting a few different routes, hitting the high-points of the encounters, then confining the characters to whichever route they choose. It would make IC sense, too, in that the Charon could be channeling them down a particular route to see how they perform. Especially in the case of horror, it is sometimes okay to 'force' the players into something. Taking away a bit of control of their own destiny can be unsettling, which is just the point. 

All in all, I loved Otherspace, and I was so inspired by Otherspace II: Invasion, that I wrote my own sequel to the series—Otherspace III (original name, I know, but probably better then Otherspaces or Otherspace-cubed). I'll get around to reviewing the rest some other time. 

Monday, February 9, 2009

All Inclusive Star Wars

One of the things I like the most about Star Wars is just how BIG the galaxy is. Within its bounds, it can include any number of different settings—above and beyond the myriad of those already shown in the films. Though I haven't always taken advantage of it as a game master, I've always liked the fact that I can incorporate just about any setting or characters into the Star Wars world, just by putting a little twist on them. 

The first time I did this was in the Vermillion campaign, where the characters were exploring the Minos Cluster setting. There, they found the planet of Eliad, populated by various exiled noble houses and guarded by an Imperial ship manned mostly by mercenary soldiers. It got me thinking. Noble houses. Mercenaries? I had always had a fondness for the Battletech game setting. Hmmm. Why not?

And so the noble houses on Eliad became those from Battletech: The noble Davions, the proud Kuritas, the stern Steiners, the reluctant Mariks and the treacherous Liaos. And those mercenaries in orbit? They were commanded by Jamie Wolf and Natasha Kerensky. Only one of my players (Todd) recognized the names at the time, but even then, it wasn't a detriment to play. In fact, it was a good hook for me to give the various nobles personalities that were 'ready made' and a lot deeper than I could have otherwise come up with on the fly.

I'm not certain how many other times I incorporated other settings into the campaign, but I know that I was always stealing from movies and books, including the often-maligned Marvel comics Star Wars series. I remember one time I had the players go to a planet that was essentially 'Transylvania' and battle a frankenstein-like sith-created beast. And again, it didn't seem out of place to have an 'old-world' type gothic setting. After all, it was just another planet, and that's just the way they lived. I tried to capture a lot of the 'Aliens' feel with the Otherspace adventures (but of course, they already had a lot of that). 

Incorporating other game modules into Star Wars was quite easy, too. Star Frontiers modules translate with just a few tweaks. Even some D&D stuff can work, when modified: The 'Slavers' series is a good example, though again, it takes some finagling. 

Ironically enough, it was only after everyone went their separate ways—and in fact only in the past few years—that I've really been brainstorming this stuff. You think of just about any science-fiction or action adventure movie and you can see ways it can be translated into Star Wars:

The Mummy? Hell yeah! A desert planet. A sail barge battle. A sith mummy. 
Under Siege? (Bad movie, interesting concept) Terrorists take over a Star Destroyer of Mon Cal cruiser?
Planet of the Apes? Throw out the time travel aspect and its a perfectly good 'escape' romp.
The Black Hole? A Crazy scientist traps your group on a ship run by cyborg slaves?
King Kong! Why not? A remote world with a deadly ecosystem and lots of giant beasts! (Okay, maybe skip over the sad parts so SOME people don't cry too much...)

The list goes on and on. And though each of these ideas are 'derivative', WHO CARES, as long as they're fun! 

In a different vein, I've often amused myself by trying to figure out how characters from other settings could work into the Star Wars setting. Imagine encountering the crew of the Farscape? Or the Serenity? Or even the Enterprise? As long as you ground those characters in the Star Wars universe, why not? I can see Kirk as a 'take charge' Rebel fleet captain. And then there are all the superheroes! Man, wouldn't it be fun to have the X-Men, only they're variant aliens and force-users instead of 'mutants'. The possibilities are intriguing...and fun to think about, even if I never do use them.

Yeah, just imagine: Wolverine: "May the force be with you, bub."

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Random Thoughts: Plot vs. Dungeon

It occurs to me, in my more geeky moments, that the distinction between plot-based adventures and your typical sandbox 'dungeon', may not be as stark as you might think. A well-designed 'dungeon' includes multiple routes and areas—places for the players to choose to explore or not. They can bypass some and thoroughly delve into others. They have the choice as to which path they take and, depending on that path, they will face different challenges.

A well-designed plot-based adventure should have multiple paths and tangents—ideas for the players to choose to explore or not. They can bypass some and thoroughly delve into others. They have the choice of which plot-threads to follow and, depending on that choice, they will face different challenges.

Sounds similar to me.

Plot-based adventures don't seem to be very popular with a lot of old-school gamers, and in looking at a lot of them, I can see why. If a plot is strictly linear, then its like having a dungeon with just one passageway. But even these can be saved  by a GM who is willing to sit down and plan out some side-routes to the story. A good GM will also have to be ready to take a tangent he/she might never have thought of. 

In any case, it was just a random thought I had. Welcome to my brain.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Technological Plateau of Star Wars

First off, this isn't going to be a terribly long blog post. It is just something I've always been curious/confused about/with in the Star Wars universe. What I'm talking about is the fact that in Star Wars, the technology in the universe seems to have been at about the same level for at least 4,000 years—but there are hints that star travel and even hyperspace has been around for as long as 10,000 years. I don't particularly feel like delving into the various timelines presented by various sources, so just work with me on these numbers.

It is very difficult for a person living in our own modern world to imagine technology remaining at a standstill for any length of time. I mean, look at the change in our culture in the last 100 years—hell, in the last TEN years even. Its really incredible when you stop to think about it, and to me at least it seems 'normal' that within my generation technology will just keep progressing at the same rate.

Not so the Star Wars universe. My first introduction to the 'Ancient History' of the Star Wars universe was the 'Tales of the Jedi' comic book series (set 4,000 years prior to Star Wars). The art style in these books seemed to show a more 'raw' and 'barbaric' look to everything, and yet the technology presented really wasn't much different than what we'd seen in the movies. The Knights of the Old Republic series (also set about 4,000 years prior to Star Wars) again seemed to show that things were indeed pretty much the same. Lightsabers, Blasters, Starships, all of it. They maybe hinted that less of the Galaxy was explored at the time (Kashyyyk was only just being 'developed'), but for the most part, it was all status quo. 

On one hand, this kind of offends my modern sensibilities, but on the other, I've tried to rationalize it away. If you look at the length of Human civilization on our own planet, you will see that there have been times when technology has hit a plateau, and remained basically the same for very long periods of time. I mean, a sword is a sword, right? Horse-drawn wagons are horse-drawn wagons. Sailing ships are sailing ships. From the time of ancient Egypt even into the middle-ages (a span of thousands of years) there were advances to be sure, but everyday life for the average person couldn't have been too much different. So I guess its kind of the same for the Star Wars universe. There have been refinements and minor changes throughout the history of the Galaxy, but for at least 4,000 years there has been a plateau.

Sound rational to you? Well...I'll keep trying to convince myself. In any case, if technology DID advance even half as fast in the Star Wars universe as in our own world, I'm sure all life in the Star Wars galaxy would have evolved into pure energy by the time of the movies—and where is the fun in that?