Posts Tagged ‘baikonur’

In praise of original Battletech and parsimonious rewards

January 25, 2015 2 comments

I’m too busy to be blogging and I have a self-imposed rule not to just wax nostalgic here, but Gordon Cooper directed me to Jeff Rients’s recent post on first-version Battletech and…

See, the arrival of the clans was the first time I realised that power creep and complexity could spoil my fun.

I got clued into Battletech about a year before the return of the clans was released and before FASA’s canon story cranked into gear (which powered a series of further releases in several different media and made me all excited about the possibilities for being a writer/designer of an entire game line, like the Tolkien of a new creative world explored originally through play etc etc.). So I just about had time to get confident with the game before it changed forever.

And immediately I could see that the change was a double-edged sword.

On one hand, it was wildly exciting – all the new stuff to geek out about, the potential for a massive player league actually writing history in real-time on tables around the world, which would be published and would update everyone’s game. This was before the internet: the idea that your game could affect someone else’s a continent away? Wild.

On the other hand, Battletech worked. And it taught me a bunch of lessons that are now OSR mainstays. It was a nice little game you could teach and play in a day – complex but not unmanageable. And it was pleasingly incomplete, which meant you could make it work your way. It encouraged tinkering and the setting encouraged the same kind of tinkering, so you could kinda roleplay as you tinkered. That’s a feature I’ve long dreamed to getting into a game design, BTW. And I’ve never managed it as elegantly as Battletech.

For instance: the original low-cost Locust was, like many pieces of Vietnam-era military design, clearly conceived for a very specific mission and partly crippled for any wider application. “What use is such a tiny mech?” you could hear Kerensky scoffing. “Perhaps against infantry. Give it machine guns and send it to quiet street riots and it won’t be a total waste.” No. The rules allowed you to take out the MGs and give it 3 medium lasers. Suddenly its high speed plus reasonable punch made it an effective weapon and my favourite toy.

And the whole system was delightfully balanced, elegant and well-considered. Its parts fit together seamlessly. You could design your own mechs and they would delightfully be just a bit more effective than the ones in the original book but there was no killer combo that rendered all others obsolete. Heat, damage, movement, armour, cooked together just right for maximum tactical pleasure. And the people I played with got that, too, and it encouraged a certain refinement in their design sense. I got kudos for realizing the potential of the Locust within the design system. When I suggested it could be made even better with the addition of a new element – a sticky mine, weighing 1 ton, that you could apply to an enemy by ramming them, and which would do ludicrous damage – they wisely noted that such a weapon would destroy the balance, making the whole game about sticky mines.

Also, back in original edition 3025, mechs were in short supply and getting shorter. Battlefield salvage was the main treasure in our campaigns – “limb blown off” was like level drain – you would have to fight hard to get a compatible weapon to replace whatever you’d lost.

The changes the Clans supplements made were just enough to ruin this balance – and they were accepted because they were published by the designers. Some weapons were upgraded and symmetry was lost. Worse, the Clans changed the ecology: salvage and scarcity gave way to a market and plain old bookkeeping. We tried playing it the new way, and then we didn’t play Battletech any more. Somehow the existence of this new canonical path, and our unwillingness to follow it, sent us off to play something else rather than continuing with the older rules. So far, so OSR – we all know the chorus to this one. That’s not my point here.

My point is that Battletech taught me one more thing, as I turned to other games. I missed the delight of finding a PPC to replace that large laser I’d lost and having to make sacrifices to get it to fit – sacrifices that made me question the decisions I was making. I missed the charm of the bad decision, of scarcity, of smaller but more significant rewards. It gave me an idea for a campaign I still haven’t played – although bits of it have been scavenged into Tartary and CCH.

What if, in 3050, the Clans are in worse shape – and hungrier – than the Houses? Instead of plentiful and better parts, they hasten entropy so that complete mechs become great rarities and you come to find those large lasers and missile racks much more commonly on improvised transports or sedentary installations. What if, as you begin your campaign, all you have is a book of blueprints – instructions for building these mythical, ideal things that nobody quite remembers. So then maybe you find a whole engine, rated 275, and your blueprint book tells you it was designed to go in a Wolverine. And now you’d like to find a Wolverine skeleton but all you have is half a Hatchetman frame and a pair of Marauder legs. Do you try to cobble those together or hold out for closer matches and the possibility of a more efficient, more reliable, more by-the-book combination? What kinds of risks are you willing to take, to get the right chassis for your other parts? If you do manage to put something respectable together, can you handle the heat from all those other junkyard generals and collectors and major governments? And when is a lance of working mechs actually a better solution than a couple of turrets, a short length of railtrack and some infantry using a SRM6 like a mortar? When does it actually make sense to take your hard-won mechs into battle, rather than finding any other solution?

Screen Shot 2015-01-25 at 1.28.28 PM

…of course, the same principles can be applied to any game. In Warring States China you might be lucky enough to chance across a proper sword – definitely potentially better than your fire-hardened spear, but you have to learn know how to use it, and in the meantime you’re a target for every would-be sword saint and bravo gang leader who wants some high-status steel on their hip to boost their charisma. When I think of running a DnD-like game I most often think of it being a game without adventurers’ markets in town, where basic equipment qualifies as valuable treasure. Plate Mail armour has, on occasion, worked in this role. But there’s something nice about Battletech’s particular setup, where the original designs stand as dreams to be resurrected, and the idea of the Atlas looms over everyone’s neo-medieval radioactive siege engine, mocking your engineer’s paltry efforts.

Tartary hooks and rumours

February 6, 2014 4 comments

Let’s start with the PCs’ more-or-less commitments:

You’re currently 2 days into a 3 day event Mecha Basho, the third day of which is being delayed by your irresponsibly absconding with the Pit Boss of Komtor.

cube of komtor

His vizier, OTAN, images figures that they won’t start the climactic day without him and besides, those bastards from Ulla-n-Batoor Overworld2 haven’t turned up yet and you guys were unceremoniously chased out of the Dashoguz arena by a nomadic horde of Purples so you probably have a bit of a grace period before people start to moan that you’re late.

You have a secret mech for this 3rd day showdown, and potentially awesome destructive capacity (using energy weapons + Holtzman shield, or possibly orbital bombardment). OTOH, now you’ve seen the size of the Pit Boss’s mech, giant saw mining machine it’s kind of comically out of scale with your own (like if yours were a 25mm scale figure, his would be a shoebox).

Cutter #5, driven by Jen the goat and Kyre the human

Come to think of it, it’s pretty much a classic hobbit/dragon scale relationship.

So there’s that.

Also somebody told Kyre to kill the Pit Boss via orbital strike because he’s a mere puppet for sinister Nautiloids (and so is the rest of the top rank of mechawrestlers).


The metal seed-pod in the next door chamber


OTOH OTAN has offered you guys a job fighting for him. Not clear right now how that’s gonna play into Day 3: is it even allowed in the tournament rules? What rules?

Meanwhile OTAN wants colourful belts like your Yellow Belts of Choison. He has not said why. So that’s why you guys went to the Farishta crash site,

Map of the inside of the farishta

Farishta interior, prior to looting

a hundred miles north of Otrar, City of 99 Seers. Apparently the Farishta has been extensively looted already, and its control furniture (likely including the belts) has been taken to Otrar – after a battle between Otrari and Ulla-n-Batoor forces. Wreckage of the battle (burned out Ulla ‘thopters) still litters the area.

So. 1. Farishta wreckage seems to be in high demand – except for the various creepy stuff that’s still left at the crash site (jelly eggs full of dead/dormant humanoids, Mi-go, and other hybrid and exotic body types), which even the ghouls won’t touch, even though it seems mighty meaty.
2. If you want to try to get those belts you’ll have to go to Otrar. 9RraiIrE17D6y36sPfK6fYvuLD0wUIFqQaNiUXLgyAI=w422-h597-no Locals can tell you that Otrar is a fortified city with a high blue tower and famous workpits, from which there is a near-constant banging of hammers and occasional flashes of light like they’re welding together continental plates or something. The Seers of Otrar sometimes have jobs for them, which either involve bringing stuff back from toxic wastelands or performing meaningless acts with mysterious metal stuff on mountaintops. It was a junior Seer who started the Carcosa Wacky Race going, the object of which was to recover the Farishta’s Black Box. Local sky men know that Seer (Mienu the Fat) – and Thora has met him, though I don’t think they exchanged words. You don’t know if the Black Box ever made it back to the Seer or not.
3. Whatever valuables the Otraris didn’t take is probably either in the hands of the sky men or of the ghouls.

Incidentally, the Carcosan sorcerer Chixi’lu the Melter chihuly_face2 used to be highly active in your area. You never figured out what he was up to, but the landscape is littered with his weird scallopy colourful glass towers. Red-Figure_original_large Dale_Chihuly_Mohegan_Sun_Tower_1668_32 Last time Thora was here, there were also lots of dazed/zombified women stumbling about, missing hands or feet. They’ve gone, but the ghoul population has boomed. Why do you care? Well, he was the previous owner of the Yellow Belts. Also he probably had a lair or hideout or something.

Farther afield, and back the way you came…

On the TV: news is still all about your amazing victory at the Basho – unprecedented! Complete unknowns, Cosmic Dancer… could they be another cover identity for The Vengeance of Kokand? Surely he was not so easily bested! Let’s replay that moment when…  interspersed with reports of the fighting around Dashoguz: apparently the main Purple infantry have now arrived, it’s not clear exactly what’s going on. News speculates that terrorist attacks (pictures of Kyre, Keisha and Iqbal with a moustache) were really scouts for this invasion force. The Khan of Khiva says the situation is in hand, but the Amir of Urgench says a strong counter-attack is the only way to stop the Purple Menace, and he’s parading his tanks,_8 implying that the Khan can’t handle it. Dashoguz may or may not have loot for the taking, now that you killed its Governor.

Khiva clearly has its own secrets – big toroidal underground complexes; oNUAv5-JtxN2OuR7iFl6teS8nrcqmF1HLhW6QKVRL14=w865-h592-no odd blue crystals. Extensive mech factories even though the Khan doesn’t fight, and a fondness for electrical powerplants even though the Gas Mining Colony is next door. The Khan

This guy is the Khan of Khiva

was perfectly happy to let you guys loose after you confessed your plan to “deal with” the Pit Boss, and even to host you at his parties, even though consensus seems to be that the Pit Boss is horribly dangerous. He also fixed you up with grease monkeys and supplies – all unofficially. Weirdest of all, he expressed interest in Cutter and where it came from (everyone seems to be curious about that) and then let you go do your thing, rather than, say, impounding Cutter and making you guys disappear.

Who else is curious about Cutter? Well, there’s the Space Psychics (represented by Birunni, mysterious Black Carcosan woman) who abducted, briefed and returned Kyre. They seemed super-excited about something that could fight the Nautiloids. But they also seemed to be in trouble when Kyre saw them – Birunni’s boss had disappeared and her Gigeresque home/base/ship was beiong taken in tow by 2 enormous Nudibranchs nudibranch that kyre saw.  And there’s the strange detail that, even though your attack on Dashoguz has been all over the news, no footage of Cutter is ever shown. Only those brief moments when members of the party are off the mech.

Oh yeah, and right when you got hold of Cutter – you had to bust it out because the caravanserai was being attacked by a band of desert pirates who were being manipulated by a giant red Mi-go. You didn’t think anything of it at the time but it sure was convenient that this supermech happened to be buried under what’s basically a desert truck stop which just happened also to contain a famous engineer on the run. And then the desert pirates didn’t try to hold the caravanserai after they’d taken it – they marched off with prisoners, in more or less in the direction the Mi-go had fled – are were themselves attacked by someone else. You saw the signs of fighting at night. So maybe the desert is teeming with hostile pirate bands. Or maybe there was some specific thing that brought all these people to this out-of-the-way sand bowl.

Cutter has been patiently sitting inside a statue for the past couple of days, _g unconsulted, but it stated quite clearly a while ago that it wants to go find the Ground Base of Tjerimai, the Sister to its own Mothership, Smeroe. And you guys think that’s probably inside a giant brass enclosure at Amritsar Amritsar+copy. Why a brass enclosure? Because that’s what you freed Cutter from, back at that desert caravanserai, SW of Dashoguz. IMG_1057

And that engineer, Wachim, and his grandson Selim (currently somewhere on the streets of Khiva) seem to have an intuitive grasp of what Cutter wants. They built the control panel you use to talk to Cutter without ever having actually seen the machine or opened its brass cucurbit. They knew there was something helpful in that cucurbit.


Tartary is Bollymecha part 2: the Mecha, or jury-rigged rules for rigged jury battles

October 1, 2013 3 comments

How many months since part 1?

Well, mecha combat seems imminent and unavoidable, so here are some rules for handling it. They are completely untested and will probably fold like a carnival float after Holi, but here goes:

Mechs have a pilot, and optionally one or more gunners and an engineer.

Piloting (and therefore moving) goes first, but after that all attacks and damage are simultaneous.

1. Pilots roll against each other to see who gets advantage each round. This is determined by:
The one with the higher result gets to do the thing they wanted to do and gets the difference between rolls as a bonus on the gunner’s roll (or rolls if there are multiple gunners). Example things pilots can do: ram (an attack, see below), dodge, run away, brawl, take cover, evade (apply your bonus as a penalty to the enemy’s shooting), change range.

2. Gunners shoot and reload their weapons. They can also GAMBLE but doing so exposes them to enemy fire without the benefit of armour or risks their weapon malfunctioning somehow. Damage depends in large part on how well you hit.

3. Engineers repair, jury-rig and salvage stuff on the fly. They may also GAMBLE to give the pilot a bonus on the next turn and make DESPERATE SAVES to mitigate mishaps this turn – though these must be extravagantly surprising – see under MISHAPS, below. Engineers sometimes go EVA to get stuff off the battlefield, set traps etc. They can also try to spy on or jam enemy communications, or use any other gadgets during combat that you can think of.

4. If you can think of it, you can try it. Just because I haven’t mentioned spellcasters, psychics, boarding parties, grapnels, human cannonballs, fifth columnists, weresquid or airbags doesn’t mean you can’t introduce them. If you surprise me you automatically surprise the enemy too.

Gambling is declaring a numerical bonus you want to apply to your roll. Anyone – pilots, gunners, engineers – can gamble. Everyone’s gamble gets added together to get the MISHAP target. If you roll under the target on the d10 then a MISHAP happens (roll on the MISHAP table).

You can simultaneously succeed in your roll and MISHAP at the same time – the order in which the two happen depends on how badly you rolled relative to your mishap chance. Other factors can also increase your mishap chance/gravity – damage, environmental factors… some of these will be obvious (skating on glass, pilot’s seat destroyed so he has to cling to the controls) some will be secret (eg. faults in your machine that you didn’t know about). And mishaps tend to damage your rig, breeding more mishaps.

Getting hit costs you +1 mishap the next turn per hit. Ramming costs you +3 next turn. Getting rammed costs you the margin of the rammer’s success in mishap penalty this turn.

When engineers gamble successfully, they reduce the overall mishap penalty by their margin of success. BUT if a mishap happens on an engineering roll then it happens personally to the engineer, and/or the place where the engineer is at the time (usually the engine room).

All hitting is simultaneous – its consequences come at the end of the current round.
To hit roll 9+. This is modified by the pilot’s margin of success + gunnery skill – range +/- any bonus given by the dancers and gambling.

There are 3:
i. close enough for fisticuffs n flamethrowers. This is too close for most ranged weapons (-1 to hit) but not for the sidearms of crew members.
ii. shooting range.
iii. long range. most weapons are at -3, a few are unmodified.
To change range you have to win a piloting contest, unless you both want to change range in which case it might be automatic or you might charge past each other. Mechs are like bulls. Which means I should have a surprise system but I don’t yet.

Damage = the amount you succeeded by on your roll + weapon damage bonus. When you inflict damage, roll for location (see PARTS, below). Damage is taken straight off armour. When armour is gone, then further damage to a part disables it and/or hurts the crew there.

Mechs also have a WEIGHT CLASS which = their damage bonus for melee attacks/ramming.
Ramming does double damage – triple if you actually have a ram fitted.
When ramming, if your margin of success + difference in weight class is 10+ you can knock the opponent over: -3 to all rolls, no movement until they get back up.
One point of vehicle damage/one vehicle HP = 1d10 HP for a person.

Mechs are made out of parts. Each part has armour points (HP). Armour shelters the part’s mechanisms and crew members: as long as there is armour on a part, the crew on that part are safe. Once the armour is gone, any hit will disable the part AND damage the crew there. Also any critical hit (margin of success = 10+) disables the part even if it still has armour and damages the crew unless they save vs CHA.

Each mech has a COCKPIT (where the pilot is),
a DRIVE (often where the engineer is, also the bit that makes it go), and other subsystems, such as
WEAPONS (manned by gunners, whether they’re guns, melee weapons or other) and a wide variety of

When you get hit, roll d10 for location.
Then each extra Part occupies another number on the die.
Any numbers left over are DRIVE.
If you want to call a shot to a specific part you add 3 to the target to hit, but if you hit it you add 3 damage (ie cancels out the damage penalty, since damage is success-based).

MECH AGILITY is baked into the mech design rules (TBD). Some designs come with more agility than others before you add weapons. In general bigger mechs have less agility but can carry more stuff. It’s just a flat +/- to piloting but also indicates relative top speed: a higher agility mech can reliably run away from a lower agility one after long range is reached.

Singers and dancers mostly set a BONUS RESOURCE before combat begins. OPTIONALLY (and probably not for the first combats which are already looking plenty complex enough) they could manipulate bonuses/penalties during combat by swinging the crowd on the narrative arc of the fight.

An example to make things even more confusing:

Shivaji and Mahmoud are mech fighting at shooting range. They are both pro pilots (skill = 5). Shivaji’s mech has 1 cannon and agility 2. But it also has a damaged foot (permanent +1 mishap). He gambles another +3 – so he has to roll 5+ (over 4) on his d10 to avoid a mishap altogether. Mahmoud intends to ram. That means closing to fisticuffs range AND a tricky maneuver – automatic +1 mishap. He gambles +6, so he has to roll 8 or above to avoid mishap.
Shivaji rolls 2 (dice) +5 (skill) +2 (agility) +3 (gambling) = 12.
Mahmoud rolls 6 (dice) +5 (skill) +0 (agility) +6 (gambling) = 17
so Mahmoud gets his wish – he rams Shivaji. If Mahmoud had any gunners then this turn they would shoot at +5 (his margin of success). But he doesn’t. The weight class of his mech is 3, so he does (5 (margin of victory) + 3) x2 (doubled for ramming) = 16 damage. He gets a 2 on hit location: weapon. That weapon had 12 armour: it is lost and the gunner will be killed at the end of the round (4 damage blew through = 4d10 damage to the gunner).

Shivaji lost the piloting contest so his doomed gunner gets no bonus, and range is fisticuffs so that’s a -1 penalty. The gunner has skill +3, -1 for range (movement goes first but ramming is an attack ie it does not affect this attack b/c everything is simultaneous). He gambles +3 and rolls an 8, for a modified 10 – he would’ve hit with a 9, so with a 10 his margin is 2. The gun is a small cannon: +3 damage, so that’s 5 damage in the…  rolls a 0=drive. The drive’s 30 armour is cut down to 25.

Both failed their mishap rolls and Shivaji’s gunner added an extra +3 to the failure. So, Shivaji failed by 5 but Mahmoud’s ram margin is added, so that’s failed by 10. Mahmoud failed his by 2. Both have engineers who can try to mitigate the mishaps with a straight grease monkey roll, target 9+, modified by gambling. If they succeed then the mishap number is reduced by the margin of success. Shivaji’s engineer gambles +5 and rolls a 5 +4 for skill = 14, so he avoids taking the mishap on himself and reduces it by 4 for a final result of 6 mishap, which means the other gunner is thrown off the rig! Mahmoud’s engineer rolls a 3, failing to mitigate his mishaps – Mahmoud’s agility is reduced by -1 until repaired.

Next round Shivaji starts with no gunner and +2 mishap (his usual +1, +1 from being hit). Mahmoud starts with +4 mishap (+3 from ramming, +1 from being shot). They might be well-advised to just spend a round recovering unless their engineers make some kind of desperate saves to right their rigs.

The Mishap Table

Every point by which you fail a mishap roll takes 1 from your speed. There are also more serious effects, as follows. “Repair” is a saving throw made by a grease monkey, which takes up the monkey’s action the next turn.

  1. Drivetrain damage – limit +2 to any mod thereafter until repaired
  2. Damage: agility reduced by 1 until repaired
  3.  Memorable damage, which is described: -1d6HP to vehicle. Player must invent some excuse for a save to halve the damage
  4. leaking! +1 mishap thereafter, and some vital resource (blood, food, fuel, transmission fluid) will be gone in 3 turns unless repaired. Fresh mishaps reopen the leak.
  5. Something is lost (prob. a weapon, optionally something else). Also, secret +1 mishap.
  6. Crash/man overboard.
  7. One character suffers Arduin crit. Secret +2 mishap and save every turn against vehicle coming apart (engineering rolls).
  8. Weapons fire randomly, 2 in 6 at own vehicle. Arduin crits for all characters and vehicle.
  9. Magazine explosion, or grease monkey turns rogue, starts murdering other occupants. High probability of PC death.
  10. Fuel explosion, or drivetrain turns rogue
  11. Meltdown. Vehicle destroyed.

Mech stats


CATERPILLAR: Agility 0. Size +1 (capacity +4 tons of gear)
Cockpit: 8, drive 24.

Cutter #5, driven by Jen the goat and Kyre the human

Cutter #5, originally driven by Jen the goat and Kyre the human

SMEROE Cutter #5: Agility 3. Size 0 (capacity +23 tons)
Cockpit 0. 6 non-drive legs: 3 each. Drive: 15
Cutters: +6 damage in fisticuffs


Giant Imperialist propaganda bell repurposed as armour for Cutter #5. Shhhh.

Dashoguz Mechs


BASHER: Agility -2, Size 3
Cockpit: 5 Hammer: 12 Drive: 20
Hammer: +5 damage in fisticuffs
Chisel flinger: +1 damage ranged. (cannot use both at once)


BORER: Agility -1, Size 2
Cockpit: 10 drill: 30 Drive: 20
Drill: +2 fisticuffs and the same again next round unless you beat it in piloting contest, penalty -2


CRUSHER: Agility 0, Size 6
Cockpit: 5, crusher 15, drive 15
On a successful ram, the pilot rolls a second contest to see if you are trapped in the crushing gear. If you are then your engineer has to save to sever the bit that’s being crushed in order to get free. The crusher does 6 damage every subsequent round but must roll over the Size of the mech it’s crushing each round to avoid being destroyed itself.

Visiting contenders


CATATHUMP: agility -2, size 5
Cockpit 20, thumper 30, drive 40
Can only move by recoil from its gun, therefore cannot give chase against a more agile mech.
Cannon: +5 ranged, one round reload. 3 marines with gold rifles for close defense


JHOOM BARABAR JHOOM agility +2, size 2
Cockpit 15, mine 10, gun1: 10, gun 2: 10, drive 26
If it rams by +4 over opponent’s roll it sticks its mine to them. Engineer save to disengage it before it goes off in 1d3 rounds.
Guns +1 each.


MARATHI SONIC agility 0, size 1
Cockpit 20, sonic weapon 20, drive 20
Sonic weapon attacks for +3 mishap but no physical damage. Ranged.
Unidentified Mechs lurking by the side of the Arena…










Hattifatteners: a new race/class for Tartary

July 16, 2013 2 comments

Some think the Hattifatteners are wicked, but this is due to their strangeness.
Hattifatteners are found only in groups, and often in swarms. Although they do not possess a hive mind, they agree so thoroughly on the fundamentals of Hattifattener logic that a player may play any size group of them as a single entity. They excel at problems of pure logic and electrical engineering. For Ars Tartary it is sufficient to state that they have no skill at combat but they may strike with a lightning-like attack, for 1d10 per turn spent building up charge, up to as many dice as there are Hattifatteners present. D&D variants will want stuff like their HD and special abilities that unlock as you go up levels: these involve the strength of their lightning attack, their ability to bypass simple obstacles by slipping through narrow gaps and/or quantum tunneling, and at high levels a telepathic mind-link power that extracts information and leaves the target confused and strangely affectless. You can certainly figure out the details there. They save and level as Monks.

The number of Hattifatteners present is indeterminate until it becomes germane, at which juncture roll 1d6 + 2, exploding. This roll may be modified by environmental factors – their numbers are suppressed underground, raised when near big electrical charges. Individual hattifatteners are extremely good at dodging but groups cannot react so quickly – they therefore attack, defend and take damage collectively.

Details of the workings of the Hattifattener “barometer” will not be revealed at this time.

Tartary: The Story So Far

June 11, 2013 1 comment

Having got out of immediate danger for more than 5 minutes, in an environment with unprecedented iced sherbets and gently plashing fountains, the PCs have shared information of their various adventures and acquisitions. I’m going to try to keep this short, but there’s quite a bit of it….

Tl:dr version – the PCs have unwittingly stumbled into a secret war being fought by various entities, some of whom come from space. Everyone’s interested in their mech, which they seem to think might be useful/important when their cold war heats up. Also being psychic seems to attract a lot of trouble just on its own.
One week ago the PCs sheltered from a sandstorm in a caravanserai (fortified roadside rest-stop). Sadly, it was at the time being raided by some men in blue veils. The men were looking for something specific – they were threatening the family of the old castellan (called Wachim), and had put his head in a vise. Happily the PCs killed the men in blue and freed Wachim.

Wachim revealed that he’d been in hiding at the caravanserai, but now his hiding place had been discovered and some terrifying and psychically powerful “they” would soon come to capture him. Before going into hiding he had been an engineer at the court of Amritsar (in north India) – one of the main mech-fighting courts of Tartary, ruled by 2 pilot-princes. One day he had discovered something buried in an enormous brass cucurbit nearby. After this discovery he had been followed constantly, his memory had been interfered with and his family threatened. So he took his drawings of the cucurbit and ran to an obscure backwater caravanserai out in the Turkmen wastes.

There (by bizarre coincidence) he discovered another, smaller brass cucurbit. Without opening the cucurbit he and his grandson, Selim, built a control panel for the mysterious machine inside, which Wachim referred to as “Smeroe.”


this is a brass cucurbit


in stories they’re the classic containers for djinn


except the one you found was this size

As Wachim explained this the caravanserai came under attack by a whole tribe of Turkmen raiders, lead by a psychic boy (promptly nicknamed “Spoons”), who was being remote-controlled by a tentacled lobstery creature.
The PCs escaped the caravanserai and opened the cucurbit, freeing the machine inside. The machine obligingly opened for them to install Wachim’s control panel, and after some mayhem the PCs escaped into the desert with Wachim’s entire family in tow.

Cutter #5, driven by Jen the goat and Kyre the human

Cutter #5, driven by Jen the goat and Kyre the human

The machine is very, very unusual. It identifies itself as 4TH WATCH CUTTER #5 – a subsystem of SMEROE, its “parent.”  SMEROE is orbiting Tartary, completing one orbit every 14 hours. For 6 of those hours it’s above the horizon, and Cutter #5 is active. During that operational window Cutter #5 is able to run about as fast as a horse while carrying up to 25 tons.* For the other 8 hours Cutter #5 switches off and cannot be roused. Cutter #5 has no engine, fuel, or obvious mechanical means for moving its 12 tentacle arms. Nonetheless, it moves them, quickly and strongly. It is fitted with 5 “flensing spades” (used to be 6 but one was shot off recently). You’ve seen these chop through brick walls – SMEROE says that at some point in the past they have been used to kill something “very large and very very old:” “TUO MEN TIMUR,” which as near as you can figure out was a giant nautilus creature.

SMEROE is one of 7 “reapers” made to fight (or “harvest?”) such creatures. Each reaper orbits somewhere in the sky but has a support base on the ground. In retaliation for the death of TUO MEN TIMUR, its companions, TUO MEN TUGHRIL and/or TUO MEN AGHAL bombarded the ground bases with bunker busters, following which SMEROE lost contact with its fellows. It is keen to get contact back, which is why it has activated Cutter #5 – to go looking for the bases, particularly of TJERIMAI and TJALK – and it needs human, local guidance to get it there. And it looks very much like TJERIMAI’s base is in the Amritsar cucurbit, so the PCs have so far been heading in that direction.


Surely just a coincidence

The bunker busters aimed at SMEROE’s ground base did not damage the base but they did render the surface unsafe to a distance of “40K,” making it impossible to approach for “a long time.” Since Cutter #5 was found only “5K” from the base, it seems that time might be over.

SMEROE also mentions “TUO MOTHER:” this was last seen at a very great “depth” and unknown trajectory. A drawing made by Cutter #5 suggests that TUO MOTHER might be roughly the same size as the sun, and that it will eventually return to Tartary.

Following these revelations the PCs, together with Wachim and his family, rode Cutter #5 toward the large city of Khiva, first stop on the way to Amritsar. Along the way they visited Dashoguz Gas Mining Colony. There they rescued Ahmed, who was being held prisoner and made to operate a pit crane, but unfortunately in doing so they blew up a big chunk of Dashoguz in a massive thermobaric gas explosion.


In the wake of the explosion they broke into the Mining Colony to steal boxes of anti-mutation pills that Ahmed said they needed. While escaping they stole 2 mining mechs, destroyed one of them, and got themselves onto Tartary TV – specifically, PCs Kyre and Keisha were shown on TV, riding a stolen motorbike. Somehow the TV cameras failed to show Cutter #5.


Leaving Dashoguz they headed for the river, where they fell in with a party of Thark slavers, who had captured and enslaved a party of orange Carcosan slavers, who had captured a small black Carcosan woman called Biruni. The Tharks made a gift of Biruni to Kyre, who promptly freed her. Biruni appeared confused by the idea of freedom and stuck close to Kyre thereafter.


Finally the PCs reached Khiva, and spent the night at a caravanserai just outside the walls, hiding their stolen mech (“Caterpillar”), their weird mech (Cutter #5) and their newly famous party members. There they learned that the Great Mech Tourney (or “Basho”) of Khiva would be beginning in a few days – and that following the mysterious terrorist attack on Dashoguz, the qualifying rounds of the tourney would be held there – to bolster the Colony’s security and lend support to the rebuilding efforts.

During the night, the Pit Boss of Komtor, pilot-tyrant of Tartary’s biggest diamond mine and heel-in-chief of the mech fighting league, arrived in his Giant Black Box.

cube of komtor

The box radiated wrongness. Hatred. Pain. Of course, the PCs immediately investigated it. Of course the investigation immediately turned into freeing a container load of sky-men slaves that were being held on the roof, and then an attack with motorbikes and ramrods on the Pit Boss’s elite Industrial Druid guards.


More surprisingly, Biruni chose this moment to reveal that she was not quite the enslaved black Carcosan she had pretended to be, but instead a psychic spy, sent to keep Kyre out of danger. She teleported herself and Kyre to the spinal conduit of some Geigeresque sea-space ship and interrogated her about Cutter #5, her reasons for attacking the Pit Boss, and who the hell she thought she was anyway.

Biruni’s questioning was cut short, however, by the fact that her ship-thing was unexpectedly deserted and, moreover, seemed to have been taken in tow by a pair of very large nudibranchs.

nudibranch that kyre saw1alabaster_nudibranch

Reassured that Kyre was not working for an enemy faction and that she wanted to work against the Pit Boss, Biruni gave her a compressed and impressionistic briefing, via a series of visions, before sending her back to the surface, which had abruptly become safer than her ship:
1. she showed her that each time she performs acts of psychic power, she attracts the attention of various factions, all of which employ psychics in their secret wars. These include the lobster-tentacle creatures, other oily creatures and a number of human psychics that walk incognito through the crowds of Tartary.
2. the Pit Boss and 6 other people – whom Tartary natives can identify as almost the entire top rank of the Mech-fighting league (including the 2 princes of Amritsar) are being controlled by a monstrous, shadowy, nautiloid puppeteer. She stated that the nautiloids bring ruin, and are plotting some big atrocity.
3. she showed the Pit Boss also as the hapless (though still horrible) pawn of his psychic advisor, Gaut (beware Gaut, he has spies everywhere).

4. she showed that Gaut is hunting for Cutter #5 – as also are lobster creatures like the one that was controlling “Spoons.”
5. she stated that to bring about the Pit Boss’s downfall, Kyre need only be close to him in 4 days time, at the grand finale of the mech tourney – within 20 feet and with a clear line of sight. Since at that critical moment he would probably be piloting his mech, the obvious place to get close to him would be on the tourney field.

On agreeing (in principle) to do this, Kyre was sent back to Khiva. She has a white belt, which she can use to contact Biruni and her people.

While this was going on, the rest of the PCs were hiding from the Pit Boss’s guards in various bits of Khiva*** and the Khan of Khiva was impounding their mechs, hiding them under the mech repair yard attached to the Minaret of the Dawn (partly to study them himself, partly to keep them out of the Pit Boss’s hands). Reunited, the PCs followed the mechs through a very peculiar set of spaces under the minaret, with encounters apparently designed to find out what they wanted – weapons, or riches, or harems, or powerful mechs of a more conventional design.


Eventually they met the Khan himself (or at least a projection of him), who also wanted to know about Cutter #5, why they attacked the Pit Boss, and what they were up to. On being told about 2/3 of the truth, he agreed to return the PCs’ mechs to them and supply them with the services of the mech repair yard, so that they might take part in the Tourney and do what they want to the Pit Boss – all on the condition that they never mention having met him, that they keep their mayhem outside the city walls, and that they manage to fight their way to the finale. He himself cannot be seen to provide them with any help – they can stay at the yard and use it for repairs, but beyond that they have to sort out their own resources and weapons and armour and dirty tricks.

This guy is the Khan of Khiva

This guy is the Khan of Khiva

This guy is also the Khan of Khiva. What's up with that?

This guy is also the Khan of Khiva. What’s up with that?

Speaking of the Khan of Khiva, he has his own problems – or more accurately he has problem for Keisha, the Judge PC. It seems some zealot calling himself Khalid, Sword of Faith has been sent from the headquarters of Keisha’s religious order to tell the Khan he can’t keep dancing boys any more. Now the Khan loves him some dancing boys, and he just about tolerates the presence of Keisha’s order and its madrasas inside his city walls. Nominally he’s a committed believer, but he certainly doesn’t make any kind of show of sticking to the strait and righteous path, and if forced to choose between dancing boys and religion… well, where there’s currently a great big madrasa there could be a prime real estate opportunity. The head of the madrasa knows this, but he’s divided – Khalid has support from HQ, so he can’t just throw him out or poison him. But that’s exactly what the Khan will do to all of them if Khalid isn’t stopped. He’s sure Keisha can find a diplomatic solution (one has already been suggested, involving a bottle of tequila and the aforementioned dancing boys). Right now Khalid’s being stalled at the caravanserai, but that won’t last for long. And because the tourney is on, the world is watching…

As he leaves them to their sherbets and plotting, the Khan only gives the PCs one piece of advice:

“disguise your mechs. Or steal new ones. You’ll be going to Dashoguz, and they’ll recognize that Caterpillar mech you stole from them unless you do something to conceal it. And everyone who sees Cutter knows it’s not of this world – you’ve already told me you have psychics after you, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Pit Boss, or the Princes of Amritsar, recognized it – and even if they don’t, if it’s as dangerous as it looks, they’ll all want to steal it from you. Do something to conceal its nature.

“Make it work, and I’ll see you at the Grand Tourney Field in the final, 4 days from now. Fail and I’ll see you before then, being picked at by birds in the lime pits. And if you win…

“…if you win I wish you all speed to Amritsar, and take your accursed spidermech out of my domains, before everything that’s chasing you descends on my city.”

* For comparison, the PCs’ other mech, “Caterpillar,” is a fairly typical Tartary construction. It can carry 4 tons, weighs roughly 80 tons itself, and needs a new tank of gas every 8 hours – sooner if made to work hard.

** The complete roster of “flensing ships:” SMEROE, TJERIMAI, TJALK, FENOE, LIET, ETJE and OOLU (destroyed), SMEROE also has a “mother,” but seems to have lost contact with her/it.

*** Wachim et al have not been seen since the PCs left the caravanserai.


Spiritrap: a variant on Bilbil’s Ravenous Phylactery for Pokemon-type shenanigans

June 7, 2013 5 comments

A while ago I wrote a pokeball magic item for destabilizing your DnD game. Here’s a variant that affords different sorts of trouble, ideal for Tartary…

The spiritrap can take any form but it almost always appears as a colourful orb made in 2 or more pieces. When activated these pieces hinge or distend or something so the whole thing “opens” briefly – all too briefly – on one side and simultaneously “closes” on the opposite side.

The spiritrap can take in one creature – man or monster, living or undead, first level or 30th. In order to be vulnerable to the trap, the creature must have been subdued or somehow rendered unconscious or immobile OR it must have performed the action that activates the trap. It gets one save vs magic to avoid capture. Once captured it heals at normal rates and requires no sustenance while inside the trap. It can be kept in the trap indefinitely. It observes everything that’s going on around the trap but can take no action.

The only way to get a creature out of the trap is to activate it. There are 2 modes of activation:

1. simple, obvious button-push: this frees the creature but imprisons the person who activated it.

2. incantation + button push: exchanges what’s in the trap SPECIFICALLY for a creature that has already been trapped in it (only works if the creature is nearby, creature does not get a saving throw).

Even though this item is clearly highly coercive and extremely evil in nature, the stories surrounding it all tell of partnerships and friendships between the creatures thus trapped. The most popular stories concern a wizard who appeared to be a were-creature: using the trap he could swap places with a terrifying monster at will, and then equally suddenly revert to his mild-mannered wizard form. Evidently either the monster co-operated with its captor or it was under some other kind of charm or coercion, so that it willingly reimprisoned itself. It is a matter of considerable irritation to historians of magic that the monster’s side of such stories is seldom told.poke_ball_by_clairc_artstuff-d5hvq62

Look how happy he looks. Look how the creatures piled up in a ball have no real way to tell us how they feel.


so you eat a pokeball, so what’s the worst that could happen? Unimaginably bad. The second worst is that it opens inside you, splattering you everywhere and suffocating the pokemon.



It occurs to me that if you haven’t read the post or thought carefully about the consequences of getting caught in a Pokeball and released only to fight for your handler’s pleasure, the deep creepiness of the above sentiment might be lost on you.


After the straight-up pokeball, the reversible hat is one of the most popular forms for the spiritrap



And then there are the people who want to trap up to 10 creatures in their fingernails. OK I say people, there’s really only Scrap Princess in this category

I do not make these up. And no I don't think I'm at all misogynistic, it's just that I haven't found any pokeball jockstraps. Even though it's _obvious_ I mean _come on_

This one was not designed by a woman. Consider the discomfort of getting a sandshrew in there.


The whole issue of how you trap a goddamn god in a pokeball is never really adequately explored. Although in truth it’s no stranger than being able to catch a crowned dragonfish (which isn’t a dragon) in one.


Decidedly handy for catching them all. Possible downside: which one is the user in?

DMs only: some magical interference from the Tartarverse

May 28, 2013 Leave a comment

Several of Tartary’s magic items are ridiculously powerful* and apt to cause trouble in anyone’s campaign. Sorry about that.

Of course, you can always just disable these items in your setting. Or you can use the following house rule…

If a magic item from Tartary is brought to your world, roll d10 each time it is used:
On a 0 the item may work once but is then drained of all power.
On a 9 it turns permanently into some other magic item native to your setting.
On a 6, it works but using it summons 1d6 creatures from Column B, below.
On a 1, instead of working normally, one of the following things happens…

roll Effect Column B
1 User transformed into a… (Column B) Hemogoblin** (mechanically like low-HD undead)
2 User possessed by a… (Column B) Mi-go***
3 User convinced they are a… Priest of Ming
4 User temporarily gains powers of a… Sky Man pirate
5 User and target life-linked: one dies, both die Industrial Druid
6 User and target mind-swapped Space psychic (high level MU, telepathic/mind-controlling)
7 User and target will not harm each other Sentient machine (possibly but not necessarily a gith machine)
8 Target gains powers of a… Giant fighting hindu temple
9 Target transformed into a… The target OR user, whichever is more inconvenient
0 Item spews out monsters uncontrollably Random third party

*These include the yellow, silver and black belts of Choison or Koh-i-san or whatever, saltifier wands, shrines of Ming, twister projectors etc. Then there are the things that merely do silly amounts of damage to people, vehicles and fortifications.


My advice is either to disable these or severely limit their application – most of them have limited ammo and/or long reload times anyway. The Skyman-sacrificing bazooka needs a ready supply of live skymen, so chances are that will only be good for 1 shot if it shows up. And it has side-effects, so if somebody uses it you should probably let me know…

** stolen from Tim Powers’ Dinner At Deviant’s Palace: it starts out as a small cellophane-like, jellyfish-like bag. It grabs onto any open wound and starts sucking, producing a blood homunculus of the person so vampirized that has some of their skills and its own malign will. If it has multiple victims it can grow really quite big and dangerous. And it knows a portion of what its victims know.

*** are there really no free, LL-compatible mi-go out there? I rather like Carcosa’s Mi-go for being a bit crappy – I have them bootstrap their way to superior intelligence but only for the leaders. Mechanically I’d say take your pick from goblin, hobgoblin or ogre, as it suits you. My Mi-go come in many sizes. Here, have an illo of the philosopher subclass, courtesy of le chaudron chromatique...


Also, some pleasing thoughts about Yuggoth.