The Alexandrian

Crater Dreams

Eclipse Phase: Sunward - Martian City

FIREWALL BRIEFING

The PCs receive a briefing packet via their RED PRIORITY dead drops (the dead drops they are to check at least once daily and which are to be used only for the most time-critical of assignments).

BRIEFING:

  • Three days ago, a second-pass data analysis algorithm detected abnormalities while cross-referencing near-Mars sensor data.
  • Interpolating the data sources revealed an unregistered asteroid that was evidencing deliberate and possibly active cloaking of its albedo.
  • Three weeks ago, this asteroid impacted the surface of Mars in the Terra Sirenum, several thousand klicks south of Pathfinder City in a sparsely populated portion of the planet.
  • This was sufficient to elicit interest.
  • When the orbital path of the asteroid was traced, it was found to have originated 10 years ago from V-2011/Caldwell: The location of The Vulcanoid Gate.
  • In other words, the asteroid had either been ejected from the Vulcanoid Gate (or possibly launched by a TITAN as it passed through the gate) during the final days of the Fall.
  • We also know that a Direct Action militia team has been dispatched to secure the site.

MISSION OBJECTIVES:

  • Establish an onsite presence ASAP.
  • Determine the purpose of the Direct Action team and, if possible, the parties responsible for their presence onsite.
  • Assess the asteroid impact site for a potential existential threat.
  • If a threat is identified, take whatever action is necessary to neutralize it.

BACKGROUND – CRATER X-91

  • Three weeks ago an asteroid impacted the surface of Mars and left a crater several hundred meters across. This is unusual because most asteroids of this size are identified and have their orbits altered before impact (although errors and oversights are not unheard of).
  • Shortly before or after the impact, an organization or individual we’ll refer to as the Host became aware of the asteroid:
    • It was evidencing deliberate and possibly active cloaking of its albedo.
    • Tracing the orbital path of the asteroid revealed that it originated 10 years ago from V-2011/Caldwell: The location of the Vulcanoid Gate.
    • In other words, the asteroid had either been ejected from the Vulcanoid Gate (or possibly launched by a TITAN as it passed through the gate) during the final days of the Fall.
  • The Host mobilized a team to take control of the impact site.
    • Within two hours, a Direct Action team had arrived at the site – termed Crater X-91 – and secured the area.
    • Three days later, research personnel and equipment began arriving onsite. Quick-fab research facilities were erected and the area was further quarantined.

WHO IS OUR HOST?

Discovering the identity of the Host of the X-91 Project is beyond the scope of this scenario. Possibilities include:

  • Virtually any hypercorp
  • Project Ozma
  • Pathfinder
  • An undercover TITAN (or its agents) still active in the solar system

The Direct Action team was hired anonymously through the hypercorp’s secure communication protocols. Direct Action might know who’s paying the bills, but nobody on the ground does.

The research team is composed entirely of forks: They woke up in new morphs, received a recorded message from their alphas which told them they had been paid very large amounts of money, and were then shipped to the job site. (Some of them had done this sort of thing before.) Their alphas might know who’s paying the bills (although that’s almost certainly obfuscated), but, once again, nobody at Crater X-91 does.

BACKGROUND – SILVER BASILISK

What’s in the crater is Silver Basilisk: An exsurgent nanoplague. Instead of a nanoswarm, however, Silver Basilisk takes the form of a strange, silver-black oil.

INFECTION:

  • Anyone touching Silver Basilisk is considered infected.
  • Toxin filters and medichines allow a DUR x 3 test to resist infection.

EFFECT:

  • FIRST GENERATION: Those directly exposed to the concentrated form of Silver Basilisk found in the crater suffer the effects of a mindstealer strain of the exsurgent virus (EP, pg. 367).
    • Suffer 2d10 SV.
    • Succumb in COG + INT + SAV action turns.
    • Suffer -30 penalty to all tests during this time as they feel Silver Basilisk taking control.
  • SECOND GENERATION: Second generation exposure to the virus will suffer the effects of a haunting strain of the exsurgent virus (EP, pg. 366), but on an accelerated timeline of weeks instead of months.
    • Stage 1 (initial infection to 3 weeks): 1d10 SV, gain Psi (Level 1), Mental Disorder, and a psi-chi sleight. Gain new psi-chi sleight every 2-4 days.
    • Stage 2 (3 weeks to 6 weeks): 1d10 ÷ 2 SV, gain Psi (Level 2). Gain new psi-gamma sleight every 2-4 days.
    • Stage 3 (6 weeks+): 1d10 ÷ 2 SV, +5 COG, +5 WIL, gain Psi (Level 3). Fully under the control of Silver Basilisk.
  • ETCHING: In addition, the silver-black oil of Silver Basilisk will etch itself into the skin of victims (or press its way out, depending on how it manifests).
    • It particularly focuses on the face and, later, the eyes.
    • Stage 2: These tattoos will intensify during moments of “ascendancy” in which Silver Basilisk takes greater control of the victim.
    • Stage 3: The tattoos become permanent.

BASILISK EFFECT:

  • The silver-black tattoos of a Silver Basilisk host have the effect of a basilisk hack.
    • Viewer: COG + INT + SAV test; on failure, suffer 1d10 SV and catatonic stupor for 1 minute  + 1 minute per 10 MoF.
    • Avoid: REF x 3 test to block out the sensory input.
  • Silver Basilisk hosts will generally paralyze their victims and then vomit the silver-black oil into their mouths while they’re catatonic. The victim’s experience is that they look at the host’s face… and then wake up (possibly having experienced strange visions and with a bad taste in their mouth).

WHERE DID IT COME FROM?

A final gift from the TITANs to transhumanity? Or was it something trying to hitch a ride with the TITANs that got caught at the last minute and forcibly ejected?

CURRENT EVENTS – BASILISK DREAMS

Those sleeping near the asteroid may experience strange and disturbing dreams:

  • 20% chance of experiencing the dreams + 10% per previous time experiencing the dreams
  • The dreams act as weak basilisk hacks: COG + INT + SAV + 20 test. If this fails, a single suggestion is planted in the character’s mind. (Eclipse Phase, pg. 366)

Features of the dream vary. A few possibilities:

  • Corkscrewed corridors of gleaming fuligin (a material darker than black and almost nonexistent to transhuman eyes).
  • Experiencing emotions that cannot be felt by transhuman minds (and certainly cannot be expressed in words); the absence of those emotions upon waking is an immense and empty sorrow shaped like a lily.
  • The dream seems to end, but the character is paralyzed in their bed and a silver caul creeps up the sides of their face and covers their eyes and smothers them and plunges into their ears and eyes and nose and mouth. Then they wake up. (This dream may repeat several times.)
  • Staring into a mirror at one’s own face and slowly becoming aware that some other ego is looking out from their eyes. And then the reflection turns and walks away and the mirror is a window which looks into the world which they have been locked away from. (Turning to see that the world they inhabit is filled with half-formed items that consist only of those sides and features which might be reflected in the mirror.)

Go to Part 2: Crater X-91

I can’t do a murder mystery because the PCs will just cast speak with dead.

I’ve seen this sentiment a lot, but it’s never really made any sense to me: The act of investigating a mystery is one by which you reveal that which is unknown. When we talk about PCs casting a speak with dead spell, we’re describing a situation in which the players reveal that which is unknown (i.e., they investigate the mystery), but then, oddly, we’re supposed to conclude that they can’t investigate the mystery because the investigate the mystery.

I think part of the problem here lies in an erroneous instinct that I talked about as part of the Three Clue Rule:

There is a natural impulse when designing a mystery, I think, to hold back information. This is logical inclination: After all, a mystery is essentially defined by a lack of information. And there’s a difference between having lots of clues and having the murderer write his home address in blood on the wall.

But, in reality, while a mystery is seemingly defined by a lack of knowledge, the actual action of a mystery is not the withholding of knowledge but rather the discovery of knowledge.

Let me put it another way: Strip the magic out of this scenario. Imagine that you’ve designed a mystery scenario in which there was a witness to the crime. The PCs turn to this witness and say, “Who killed him?” and the witness says, “It was Bob.” And it turns out Bob is just standing there, so they arrest him. End of mystery.

You wouldn’t conclude that you can’t do mystery scenarios because people can talk to each other right?

Speak with dead should be no more alarming than an FBI team taking fingerprints or a CSI team enhancing video and running facial analysis.

DESIGN TO THE SPELL

You may also see people suggesting that you “nerf” the spell to one degree or another. (Corpses that refuse to answer questions, for example.) Nothing is more frustrating to a player than having their smart choices blocked because the GM has some preconceived notion of how they’re supposed to be investigating the crime.

But what you can do is design your mysteries to the reality of the spell. Generally speaking, after all, people in the game world know that the spell exists, right? So they aren’t going to plan their murders in ways that will expose them. (Any more than people in a magic-free setting will commit their murders while standing directly in front of surveillance of cameras.) They will find ways to conceal their identity; they may even find ways to try to use the spell to frame other people. (For example, imagine a murder scenario where the victim thinks one of the PCs did it because the perpetrator used a polymorph spell.)

OTHER DIVINATIONS

The same advice generally applies to other divination spells, too. The only divination effects which are truly problematic are those which allow you to contact omniscient beings and receive crystal clear information from them. Fortunately, these spells basically don’t exist in D&D (and most other games). The closest you can get are commune and contact other plane, but both are explicitly limited to the knowledge of the entity you’re contacting. (1st Edition AD&D actually had a lovely table for determining “Likelihood of Knowledge” and “Veracity”.)

Site Update – We’re Back?

February 5th, 2017

Actually, I’m not 100% sure the title of this post is true: The last several times I’ve tried to work on Alexandrian-related content, I’ve instead twiddled my time away trying to resolve some site-related headache.

To whit: I was hoping to have content up starting on February 1st, but instead I’ve spent the past week disinfecting some files on the site that a WordPress security hole had compromised. Before that, the post preview images I’d set up broke (and I still haven’t figured out how to actually fix them, so you’re stuck with “A” logos for the moment). And I’ve spent this evening trying to figure out how to deal with the fact that Patreon — without actually informing anyone — has disabled pledges of less than $1. Speaking of which…

PATREON UPDATE: I have regretfully decided to cancel the Curious Item Club. This was previously a bonus for patrons pledging $0.50 per post, but sadly that’s no longer an option. Those who are current members of the Club will have legacy recognition on the Patrons of the Alexandrian page for as long as they remain patrons, but I will no longer be producing the monthly curious items.

One of the things I really liked about Patreon was the micro-payments it made possible. The Curious Item Club reward was originally rolled out as, IIRC, a $2 reward package, but I realized that (a) it wasn’t really worth that much and (b) the content was cool enough that I wanted it to be more widely shared by my patrons. Using the content as a way to encourage $0.10 patrons to bump their patronage up to $0.50 seemed to work okay (all things considered). One of the problems with the Curious Item Club, however, was that the time I spent creating content for that was time I wasn’t creating public content for the Alexandrian.  So I think letting it go at this point is the right way to go.

PATRONAGE GOING FORWARD: Although the minimum pledge is now $1, those who don’t feel they can afford that should remember that they can set a monthly maximum on their pledge.

WHAT’S NEXT: I have scenarios for Eclipse Phase and Trail of Cthulhu that I will likely be posting in the near-ish future. I’m hoping to get the archiving of my old RPGNet reviews restarted. The Art of Rulings has a number of additional installments that need to be written (on topics like the Fourfold Model, Group Checks, Social Skills, Hidden/Open Difficulty Numbers, and more). I’m also looking at a new series called The Art of Random Encounters. Also: Context Collisions for The Strange,  Running a Convention Game, and the Grok Threshold.

Patreon for the Alexandrian

… even the smallest of pledges can add up to wondrous things.

ElephantAccording to a Scientific American article, the footprints of an elephant each contain dozens and possibly hundreds of different animals — mites, mayflies, backswimmers, leeches, and gastropods. Given proper conditions, such footprints can endure for weeks, giving them plenty of time to turn into little micro-habitats.

Which is super cool.

Now, scale it up for a fantasy world: A breathtaking colossus that slowly bestrides the world, leaving in its wake footprints a half-kilometer wide. Colossi gnomes scurry in its wake, delving into the exposed depths. Demonic creatures boil out of exposed underworlds. Such footprints could last for years or even decades, perhaps coming to support entire communities.

The End of Watchmen

November 29th, 2016

Watchmen

I really enjoyed Zach Snyder’s Watchmen movie. I felt that, despite the limitations of its form and the flaws in its creation, it still managed to capture many of the things that were amazing about the original work. (And the opening tableau is jaw-droppingly awesome.)

But he totally prat-falled when it came to the ending.

“I did it thirty-five minutes ago.”

First, the plan from the original story shifts from framing aliens humans will never find but would be able to at least hypothetically defend themselves against (as evidenced by the fact they just made a mistake in their invasion plans) to framing a guy who humans absolutely, positively cannot defend themselves against (as demonstrated by the fact he just casually destroyed two major cities) and who is going to live on Mars. This fundamentally changes the tone of the plan from “humanity will come together to face a common foe” to “humanity will behave itself or the angry god will come back to punish us”.

More importantly, Snyder screws up the execution. What makes the line haunting in the comic book is that you linger in a moment of stillness and silence; the reader basically joined Rorschach and Nite-Owl standing in a stunned silence as the horrible implications of that simple, casually spoken statement. (I’ve also always read the line as being delivered the same way someone might say, “I picked up the groceries today.” But I recognize that that’s idiosyncratic.)

Snyder doesn’t give you that moment. He doesn’t let the meaning of the words settle over you. He doesn’t give your imagination a moment to catch up to the rest of your brain and go, “HOLY SHIT!” Instead he:

  • Cuts away from Ozymandias just before he says the line to a reaction shot of Rorschach and Nite-Owl.
  • Has the camera in motion.
  • Has the score rise to a crescendo.
  • Hard cuts away from the line to immediately show what happened 35 minutes ago.

The entire effect is to anticipate (and thus undercut) the line; and then place the emphasis on the action to follow instead of the line itself.

All of that, by itself, would completely ruin the effectiveness of the line. (Which is why you never see anybody quoting the line who hasn’t read it in the comic book: In the movie, it’s simply not quotable.)

He also rewrites the line. The first of these (changing “Republic serial villain” to “comic book villain”) is largely irrelevant to the current discussion (although it does needlessly remove nuance; one of the major points in Watchmen is that in a world where superheroes actually exist, they aren’t perfect heroes — it isn’t the Marvel universe where the Marvel comics are actually published; it’s a universe where superhero comics didn’t exist). But the crucial change is from:

  • “I did it thirty-five minutes ago.”

to:

  • “I triggered it thirty-five minutes ago.”

And the semantic shift, though subtle, is not insignificant. If you trigger something, you have set it in motion (which inherently means you could still stop it). If you did something, on the other hand, then it’s done. This, too, effectively undercuts the ability for the finality of the line to land.

If I was teaching a class in film editing, I would cue this up along with the special editions of the Star Wars movies as examples of how subtle the difference in editing is between a great film and a mediocre one.

It actually reminds me of the story told by the scriptwriters for Casablanca. That film was infamously being rewritten basically up until the last day of shooting, and they had just written the famous ending to the film the day before it was filmed. (“Round up the usual suspects.”) So the director films it, it gets edited, and then they call the writers to tell them that the ending isn’t working. So the writers head over to the studio and they discover that they’re basically trying to do it in one take, “Major Strasser has been shot.” (looks at Rick) “Round up the usual suspects.”

And the writers say, “No, no, no. You have to say, ‘Major Strasser has been shot.’ And then cut to Rick. And then cut to Renault. And then cut to Rick. And then cut back for, ‘Round up the usual suspects.'” You have to see the thought. And so they recut the scene and, of course, it’s a classic.

THE SOUND OF SILENCE

Since I’m talking about this, I’d also like to delve a little deeper into what makes the original Moore/Gibbons storytelling in this moment so utterly compelling.

Look at the composition of the full page:

Watchmen - I Did It Thirty-Five Minutes Ago

It consists of three panels, each taking up the full width of the page. (You can click any of these images to see them at a larger size.)

The first panel, of course, contains the definitive quote. The fact that it takes up a full page width causes the perceived moment to extend in the reader’s mind.

The second panel is a completely silent reaction shot of Rorschach and Nite Owl. Their faces are completely blank in shock; like they’ve been hit in the face with a two-by-four. Notably, the panel is framed to show a bank of clocks in the background. The current time in New York is shown as being one minute to midnight: Which is where the Doomsday Clock has been for the entire comic. Snyder tries to do the same thing, but (a) puts the reaction shot before the revelation and (b) makes the metaphor literal by showing the the actual countdown clocks of the operation at 00:00 (which also means he cuts away from the moment).

The third panel shows a street in New York. Utterly silent. It is, in fact, the fourth page in a row which has the final, page-wide panel depict that New York street:

Watchmen - Destruction of New York

The previous instances had Ozymandias talking over them in captions; but this one does not — it further extends the moment of silence that persists in that room between Ozymandias, Rorschach, and Nite Owl. And it simultaneously reveals that all those shots of New York you were seeing were, in fact, in the past… which inevitably leads you to imagine the destruction which is about to happen.

And then you turn the page and there it is. But you still don’t actually see a giant explosion. You see people react to it. And then you see them vaporized by it:

Watchmen - Destruction of New York

It’s absolutely brilliant visual storytelling in every single way.

Snyder, of course, goes for the disaster porn instead.

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