Saturday, January 24, 2015

Under Strange Suns - Session 1 - a Sherlock Holmes/Dark Sun/Star Wars Campaign

"There is nothing new under the sun.  It has all been done before."  - Sherlock Holmes, from a Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 

My Favorite Translations

When I first got involved with the Kickstarter for The Strange, a Cypher System Role-playing Game by +Bruce R Cordell and +Monte Cook, what intrigued me most was the possibility of adventure across multiple universes and settings.  Given the nature of the alien dark energy network (the Strange itself), and its power to create worlds from Earth's Fictional Leakage, the characters in my Strange campaigns could easily be tossed into any boxed set that I own.  Whenever I open my core book, and start work on adventure design, my entire collection of gaming materials becomes a potential sourcebook for The Strange.  But if there was one particular boxed set that I was hoping to break out of storage, after years lying dormant in a sealed plastic bin, it was Dark Sun!

Dark Sun is a post-apocalyptic, sword & sorcery campaign setting written by Troy Denning and Timothy Brown and produced by TSR in 1991 for AD&D 2nd Edition.  The setting, Athas, was nothing like the high fantasy of Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance.  The traditional races were both familiar yet terrifying: seven-foot tall deceitful elves, cannibalistic halflings, hairless dwarves.  The new races were downright alien: musclebound and never-tiring muls (half-dwarves) born into slavery, thri-kreen mantis-men, and ten-foot tall half-giants.  Magical energy was drawn from life itself, and wizards needed tp be careful to draw their magic from the nearby plant life without turning it to ash.  Those wizards that didn't care about the ecological ramifications of their spellcasting were called Defilers.  Psionics were rampant, and every member of society had some kind of wild talent.  Metal was exceedingly scarce, and most tools were made of stone, bone, or wood.  

Yes, I was very excited to take my player characters to Athas, but I was facing a challenge. Before announcing the next adventure for our monthly Strange players, I offered a little poll featuring some potential fictional leakage options for our campaign.  Two of us had picked Dark Sun, while another two voted for Star Wars, and yet another two Sherlock Holmes.  Three-way tie!  Many game-masters would just pick one of the options, and reveal it in the game.  These three settings could never be mixed into one adventure, right?  


With the power of The Strange I bring you the first session of Under Strange Suns, a Sherlock Holmes meets Dark Sun meets Star Wars adventure!

*     *     *

When it comes to some of the rules and mechanics Sherlock Holmes is actually covered in The Strange Corebook.  If you are interested in some of the tidbits I used for Dark Sun, I include them near the end of this blogpost.  I'll cover Star Wars when we reach that point in the adventure.  

Andy, Emily, and Barb, excited to be playing The Strange again

Agents of the Estate

  • Barbara "Babs" Goldstein, a Strange Paradox who … 
    • Works the System on Earth
    • Shepherds the Dead on Ardeyn
    • Controls Illusions on Athas
    • and is played by Emily
  • Jacqueline Dingo, a Skeptical Spinner who … 
    • Solves Mysteries on Earth
    • Embraces Qephilim Ancestry on Ardeyn
    • Focuses Mind over Matter on Athas 
    • and is played by Jen
  • Arlo Coulton, a Graceful Vector who … 
    • Is Licensed to Carry on Earth
    • Carries a Quiver on Ardeyn
    • Fights Dirty on Athas
    • and is played by Jeremy
  • Chuck Lannigan, a Stealthy Spinner who … 
    • Operates Undercover on Earth
    • Channels Sinfire on Ardeyn, 
    • Crafts Powerful Poisons* on Athas  
    • and is played by Andy
  • Agent 97 aka "Carol", a Clever Vector who… 
    • Leads on Earth
    • Leads on Ardeyn
    • Bears a Halo of Fire  on Athas  
    • and is played by Bobbie
  • Dr. Sybil Holloway, a Lucky Paradox who …
    • Conducts Weird Science on Earth
    • Embraces Qephilim Ancestry on Ardeyn
    • Hunts with Great Skill on Athas  
    • and is played by Ethan 

* Crafts Powerful Poisons is out of Ninth World Assassins by Metal Weave Games

Well, Jen has to stay in character!

Adventure Summary

After their last mission to Ardeyn, our illustrious Estate Agents regrouped at the Estate Campus in Seattle, Washington for their next mission.  Meeting with senior agents Lawrence Keaton and Conrad Merrick, the agents were told that the dangerous fictional character, Professor James Moriarty, was on the move and recently spotted in Ruk.  It was feared that Professor Moriarty was going to make contact with the Karum, and given his extreme intelligence, he would be a terribly dangerous asset for a nihilistic organization already bent on the destruction of Earth.  The Estate was going to send a senior team of agents to take down Moriarty, but they needed the help of Sherlock Holmes.  That's where the players characters, less experienced agents, would be needed.  Our six Estate agents would be sent the recursion of 221b Baker Street to make contact with Sherlock Holmes and gain his assistance in the upcoming meeting.  Agent Keaton revealed that Holmes had been helpful in the past, and since the famous detective was quickened himself, he visited Earth from time to time.  

Arlo asked agent Merrick, who was munching on a crunch wrap from Taco Bell during the meeting, how he was involved in the mission.  Merrick told the team that he would like an order of fish and chips brought back Chaddock's Corner.  Apparently the fish and chips were the only item to translate back from 221b Baker Street intact.

Once in the recursion of 221 b Baker Street the party worked quickly to make contact with Sherlock Holmes.  Unfortunately, after knocking up, Mrs. Hudson revealed that Mr. Holmes was not in town.  The team regrouped, and decided that two members, Jackie and Dr. Sybil, would go get the fish and chips for Merrick while the rest of the group would break into Sherlock Holmes' home.  

Chuck was a master pickpocket, and easy snatched the keys off of Mrs. Hudson, just as Jackie and Dr. Sybil escorted her away form the home and towards Chaddock's Corner.  Mrs. Hudson thanked the two women for their company before traveling down a dark alley into oblivion.  Keep in mind, the recursion of 221b Baker Street is quite a limited place.  Purchasing the fish and chips was a simple fetch-quest, but before they left the shop Dr. Sybil had a bad feeling that they were being watched.  

Chuck Lannigan used the key to get his team into Sherlock Holmes' house.  After an initial survey of the living room, the only item apparently out of the ordinary was a leather egg on Mr. Holmes' desk.  It was obviously an artifact, and further investigation needed to be done so Dr. Sybil started to break out her lab-gear.  But Chuck just stared at the contents of the shell, a simple worn card-board box sticking out from inside.  

It was an AD&D 2nd Edition Dark Sun Boxed Set!

Yes, I used an RPG boxed set as a "prop"

"So for some reason, Sherlock Holmes was studying AD&D 2nd Edition Dark Sun," Chuck Lannigan stated quizzically.  

The rest of the party stood there and just watched the Stealthy Spinner dig through the contents.  A big fan already of Dungeons & Dragons, Chuck knew that this particular boxed set was special because it was a limited release and should have had a cloth map.  But for some reason, the map was gone.

Andy digging through the boxed set

Nothing else seemed out of the ordinary, so the team met up to discuss Dr. Sybil's findings.  Using her own equipment, despite being somewhat archaic due to the effects of the translation, Dr. Sybil was able to figure out that the artifact was a Translation Shell.  This artifact was obviously created by someone using materials found only in the Strange itself, and by someone who had access to Victorian scientific materials (most likely Holmes.)  The artifact was rare in that it could travel from recursion to recursion, and it could keep one item housed within that would not translate.  Strange, everyone thought, that Holmes would choose to bring a Dark Sun boxed set back to his home.  

Babs wrote a gushing note to Sherlock Holmes telling him that they were in his house and hoping to link up later.  With nothing else out of the ordinary in the home, the party translated back to Earth.  But during the translation, Babs saw a glimpse of a dark female figure, wearing a leather long-coat, a mask, and goggles.  

The party named her "Matrix Catwoman", so we'll just stick with that name for now.  

Back in Seattle, the team followed up with Agent Keaton, delivered the fish and chips to Agent Merrick, and then let Dr. Sybil further investigate the Translation Shell.  The artifact had been depleted, but given the right equipment the Lucky Paradox believed she could get it working again.  Besides the boxed set, and the missing cloth map, the party had no other leads save for the Matrix Catwoman.  So they decided to translate back to 221b Baker Street and see if she was still in the room.  Strangely enough, as they translated Chuck saw Matrix Catwoman standing in the Estate Campus courtyard.  

Now completely discombobulated, the team got back to investigating Sherlock Holmes' home.  Chuck was kept circling the room over, and over, an over again until… wait… what was that?

Chuck walked up to the table at the center of the room, and the wooden surface just started to stand out.  Grabbing some paper, Chuck quickly used some pencils to figure out the impression left behind by the previous writer (Mr. Holmes most likely.)  Already familiar with the Dark Sun setting, Chuck realized that Sherlock Holmes had written out, by hand, the credits listed in the Rule Book.  The first name on the list was Troy Denning.  

Quickly the team returned to Earth, but Dr. Sybil botched the translation, so they ended up somewhere both unlikely as well as terribly coincidental: the Wizards of the Coast corporate lobby.  The team flashed their badges, and told the receptionist that they need to borrow the space for a few quick Tweets and calls.  

Using her twitter handle, @CumberCookie69, Babs decided to tweet Troy Denning.  Dr. Sybil also took part in the conversation.  Here, I'll share it with you:

@TDenningauthor We seem to have fallen into a conundrum, and only your expertise can help us. #Nervous

@CumberCookie69 Will be at GenCon in July, hope to see you there.  

@TDenningauthor Well that's extremely unhelpful.

@CumberCookie69 Sorry to hear that, if its a quick question feel free to PM me.

@TDenningauthor I'm from the Estate… need your assistance

@SybilScience69 Sorry to hear that, if its a quick question feel free to PM me.

Realizing that this was getting them nowhere, Babs decided to "hack the impossible" and forced a Skype connection with Troy Denning's computer.  Troy Denning, author of Dark Sun's Prism Pentad novels, was willing to work with the team once they told him that they were members of the Estate.  When asked if he had any interactions with strange individuals recently, Mr. Denning revealed that just the day before he met the famous actor, Robert Downey Jr., who came to his home.  Mr. Denning was surprised that Downey Jr. seemed to have a strong British accent, as if he was preparing for some kind of role.  Downey Jr. knew that Mr. Denning had a special cloth map of Athas in his basement, held in a unique bone frame.  The unusual bones in the frame were found by Mr. Denning during a hiking excursion out west, and after placing the map in the frame, the world of Dark Sun just felt more "alive" and real.  Downey Jr. offered an obnoxious sum of money for this framed map, and Mr. Denning said he would've been a fool not to oblige the actor.  

After thanking Troy Denning for his help, Babs pulled up TMZ and found out that there was a sighting of Robert Downey Jr. at a Wisconsin Hampton Inn.  Jackpot!  The party arranged for a private jet, and by that afternoon they were in front of the Hampton Inn.  It only took a few more flashes of their badges to get past the front desk, and to the room where Robert Downey Jr. (actually Sherlock Holmes) was supposed to be staying.  Arlo picked the lock, and the team filed in, but they were surprised to see that the room was empty, save for a single framed picture in the center.  It was a map of Athas, held within a bone frame.  There were fractal patterns on the bone, and when Jackie approached she noticed that there was another crumpled cloth map of Athas on the ground.  She picked it up and handed it to Dr. Sybil, who placed it into the Translation Shell.

The team then held their breath, and used the map of Athas and the strange picture frame to translate!  But during their translation, Matrix Catwoman was again seen by the party!

Instantly the entire team was subjected to all the smells of human misery.  Their feet were bound, and they were wearing simple cloths for modesty.  They were in a dark and sweaty room, on board a slave caravan wagon headed for Tyr!  As the team looked at each other, they realized that some major changes occurred…

Jackie Dingo had become a Human Psionicist...

Arlo Coulton was now a Mul Gladiator...

Chuck Lannigan translated into a Half-Elf Bard...

Babs Goldstein was surprised at how tall she was as an Elf Sorcerer...

Agent 97 was surprised at how short she was as a Dwarf Cleric of Fire...

… and the entire team remarked that Dr. Sybil still looked "okay" despite being a Thri-Kreen.

Emily pretending to be Babs, frantically chatting with Troy Denning

Quotes from the Table

"I did bondage work… under cover but not with cover…" - Dr. Sybil mocking Arlo on his time spent in prison.

Lawrence Keaton:  "We have an issue with a certain fictional character…" 
Agent 97:  "Mickey Mouse?" 

"I have Amazon sheets for all my stuff." - … and then Jeremy pulled out a stack of everything Arlo Coulton bought on  

"I have some 'handerpants', do they translate?"  - Jeremy mocking the GM's hand gear

Dr. Sybil, after walking up to 221b Baker Street:  "Who's gonna knock?" 
Babs:  "I'LL KNOCK!" 

"I will stick with 'Frisky Dingo' over there…" - Ethan decided that "Jackie" was not enough of a nickname for Jacqueline.

"I suggest that we sit down at this dinner table and play a game of Dark Sun!" - Chuck Lannigan was ready to get the real game started.  

"She looked Matrix-like.  Matrix plus Catwoman." - Emily describes the weird figure that only she saw while translating back to Earth.  

"They're kind of jag-offs." - Ethan describes Sorcerer-Kings to the rest of the group.  

Jim:  "Andy, on the dinner table you see something unusual." 
Jen:  "If [Matrix Catwoman] is sitting on the dinner table, that's really unsanitary!" 

Babs to Troy Denning on Skype:  "Chuck Lannigan wants a word with you." 
Chuck to Troy Denning on Skype:  "I'm Chuck Lannigan, and I've played more Dark Sun than most people have played of anything in their lifetime."

Jeremy wasn't sure if this piece of equipment would translate

Some New Mechanics

Do you want to run some adventures in Athas?  Over the last few weeks I've worked with some members in The Strange community to develop a few Traits for the Recursion of Athas.  These three would definitely fit at your table!

Wild Talents (courtesy of +Scott Robinson)

Psionics permeate all of Athas, and so every character, when upon completing translation, gain a Wild Talent, a single random psionic ability.  To generate this random ability, use the  rules for Powerful Mutations, found on page 241 of The Strange core book.  Each player gets one roll, and is given a psionic-skinned version of that power.  

Defiling Magic (courtesy of +Marc Plourde)

Using magical abilities on Athas requires the spell caster to draw the life from plants and creatures around them.  While most creatures can take a small drain on their soul, and just experience a bit of nausea, plant life is another matter.  If a caster is not careful, they defile the land, causing all plant life to turn to dead ash.  This is, of course, the easiest and most direct way to cast spells.  Preserving the plant life is far more difficult, but leaves no permanent harm to the world around them.  Of course in Dark Sun, there is no "grey area", and spell casters must make a tough choice:

  • When using a magical revision, or focus ability, should the player character choose to "defile", the difficulty is lowered by 1 step.  
  • When using a magical revision, or focus ability, should the player character choose to "preserve", the difficulty is increased by 1 step.

Inferior Materials

Due to the relative scarcity of metal, most weapons and tools are made of bone, stone, or wood.  When using one of these items as a weapon, any roll of a 2 when using an inferior weapon means that the item breaks, and cannot be used until repaired.  If the player rolls a 1, not only do they suffer the GM Intrusion, the weapon also breaks permanently.  

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