Category Archives: Empire of Doors

Game Off

Last night I killed Empire of Doors, my latest roleplaying campaign, which has been running since April. Since those first two sessions I so carefully logged, the group bounced about some other planets, meddled in intrigue and made some good allies and some nasty enemies (and/or rivals). They lost a homeworld, a spaceship, a horse, a body and a moon, and gained an army and the begining of an empire.
Two of my players took extended trips abroad during the game (one after the other), and we ran an extended cycle of “background” sessions, which were suppossed to tie together the PCs’ backstories – they (the three that were playing) got to experience a flashback game where they each met the same sinister trio (Doctor Neave, scientist and war criminal, and the two feral children of an escaped dictator, all eager to revive his dark legacy). Each of these encounters involved a mysterious “pink box”, which became the central mcguffin once the missing player returned and we moved back to “the present”.
Oh, yeah, there was also an implausible plotline with a moon about to crash down on a planet. This moon just kept gnawing at my mind more and more. It actually figured prominently in the penultimate session, which I likened to “The boring parts of 2001: A Space Odyssey, accompanied by fart jokes rather than classical music”.
So last session, bitching over the phone in a mid-session break about how I’m not having fun, I realized that, well, I don’t have to carry on with this. The Gingi[1] wouldn’t.
So I come out of the bathroom, share this insight with the party, who pull grave faces, and we think what to run now. And Bo wants to do superheroes, i.e., normal people in our reality getting cool superpowers, like we’ve done for, oh, the past 10-11 years? Every game I ran to him since the days was a bbs?
So Bo says “my character is an Indian cab driver in New York. He’s a student, on a scholarship. You two guys step into my cab. Who are you?”.
And Oren (who has drifted into silliness by now) says “Why can’t we all be in the circus?” and creates a native american indian who quit the Buffallo Bill show and ran off with Bill’s mustache to find some girl he met on the Internet.
Bo says Oren is being too silly, and that his character is more realistic, he actually met this Indian guy, who told him all these stories about Vishnu. Now, who you guys wanna be?
I look at Israel, and voice-over his thought balloons, saying that he’s too bummed to bother coming up for a character for the 10 minutes tops that this joke game will last.
And Israel says, I’m Vishnu. The Indian god. I step into your cab.
“Blue and glowing and with four arms,” I add.
And it gets funny from there. They go to a bar. The cabbie calls his dad in India (who doesn’t believe him), and asks Vishnu, why his life sucks so much, and why he, as the creator…
“umm, Vishnu isn’t the creator, he’s the preserver,” I nit.
“Oh, so he’s like the SysAdmin of the world?” Bo translates, “someone else writes the code, and he just makes sure it runs properly?”
“Brahma writes the code,” I agree, “Vishnu sysadmins, and Shiva does QA.”
Well, Bo thinks that as sysadmin of the world, Vishnu should trouble-ticket his character’s life. So Vishnu agrees. And adopting a less conspicious avatar (a dwarf), he joins the cab driver in his cab.
Umm, the native american guy is there too. But quiet.
I have them roll random encounters. We get an 8, which I say is a buxom but loud woman, complaining about her super (Bo’s character is in love; Vishnu thinks she deserves a spanking, and makes it so. The cabbie gets a slap, although the passenger is perplexed when she sees both his hands are full helping her with her bags). Then we get a 6, which I say is a pregnant woman about to give birth, and they wrestle Manhattan rush-hour traffic to get her to the hospital on time.
All in all, more than 10 minutes of amusement, mostly provided by my players. I think it turned out a neat sitcom, Bo says this is a romantic comedy.
Next week, maybe Israel does us Batman.

1 Gingi = Yonatan Miller; described by the 2nd Unit director as the “Unit 0 director”; guy who used to play with us, and was probably one good reason why I was willing to run the same game for Bo for 10 years. Probably deserves an entry of his own one day.

Empire of Doors session 2 – April 28th 2004

After the ambush (last session), they gathered the stray camels and buried Jorn. Bandana insisted on saying a few words. The Man From The Stars was clearly heartbroken. They interrogate their prisoner (Kachkala is interested in their religious beliefs, and if there is any convenient messiah prophecy there to exploit…), but all they learn is that they belong to an extremist group of zealots that are opposed to all contact with offworlders and their technology. Eventually, Kachkala lets the prisoner go, giving him enough water to get back to the town below the Gate. Adap claimed dibs on the attackers’ laser bazooka.

The Man From The Stars revealed that his name was Gaxaue (a bushman name, one the PCs are bound to forget. Damn). He outlined the geography and politics of Jotun (the local planet) to the group – They are heading into an area that is bordered on one side by the sea (where there is a larger population) and on the other side by the Forbidden Zone, where "the ground moves".

Gaxaue tells them that he crash-landed his ship on the edge of the Forbidden Zone; He did this after being attacked by an unfamiliar hostile ship, one he suspects of being a "Dragon".

I inserted a footnote here, explaining that "Dragon" is a common term for alien robotic probes which search for life signs and exterminate them, and that these Dragons destroyed the Earth in the past, and that they are the reason that Radio communications are forbidden throughout the worlds of the Empire. Yes, I ripped this off from Greg Bear’s "Forge of God".

So, they decide to head to the crashed starship (Jack seems most keen on this – he’s sure that as a space pilot he can repair the ship). They also mount up on the camels to put some distance between themselves and any pursuit, and this emphasizes that they are a bit short on mounts.

Eventually, Gaxaue leads them to the next village, circling to the other side so as not to approach from the direction of the Gate. They announce their interest to trade for some camels, and are taken in by a local trader who offers them his hospitality, and then inquires what they have to offer. Bandana discovers that money is worthless, but his knife – good steel – is much admired. Jack is sure that the natives will admire his plastic stand of post-it notes (Oren – the player – travels too much in cabs…), but the locals are skeptical. Kachkala donates some needles and thread (she travels light), and Adap (another light traveler) get some assistance from Bandana, who sneaks him a hand-welder gadget (which will eventually run out of gas, but will be impressive until then).

Once they have their Camels, they travel the desert, a fairly uneventful trip, except that they run across some wild donkeys, and Adap insists on taming one. I let the player roll dice, and he succeeds, so a new member joins the team (however, briefly): Olaf, the ninja donkey.

Israel – Bandana’s player – had a suggestion here that perhaps Adap will use his consciousness-transfer power on the donkey and end up trapped there.

They skirt the edge of the Forbidden Zone – where the ground ends in a sheer cliff dropping down a few hundred meters to a vast sandy plain where the ground shifts and drifts, as if with an underground current – and reach Gaxaue’s ship: a black delta-wing, half buried in the sand. Gaxaue touches a dimple in the surface and an entrance ripples into existence. The inside compartment is empty and smooth-walled, but with an irregular surface, sculpted in smooth swells. Sections of wall glow with a soft light.

Gaxaue kicks off his shoes, revealing that his feet have long toes and opposable thumbs – essentially a second pair of hands, and crouches in a small depression in the floor. He slips his fingers into small foot and hand holds and the ship’s VR control interface flares into life in all its holographic splendor.

Gaxaue explains that he tried to land his ship on the planet to get to the Gate; unfortunately, he’d never done something like this – he’s part of the human cultures that live permanently off-planet, what Bandana’s player summarized as "Space Bedouins" – so he crashed while trying to land, probably because he failed to correctly modify his ship for atmospheric flight (The ship is made of some adaptive smart nano-material). Perhaps Jack, who said he was a space pilot, could help him?

Jack is eager to help, and instructs the ship on how to modify itself to fly in the atmosphere. He also instructs it to build him some familiar controls (Bo – Adap’s player – mimed a steering wheel here). He also makes sure that these modifications are military-level, not freight-hauler style.

Here I suggested that Kachkala would be invaluable in actually making Gaxaue and his ship understand Jack’s instructions – her super-social adeptness letting her bridge the considerable differences in the technical jargon between the two cultures. This, I’m sorry to say, was a sort of a GM push, that didn’t really engage the player; Ghoula – Kachkala’s player – was falling asleep at this stage.

So, Jack fixes the ship. It takes off dramatically, with Jack at the controls, once they have freed the Camels and bid a tearful farewell to Olaf the donkey, who will probably roam the dunes, dispensing justice as the planet’s only donkey master of the Gun Kata. (Mach, Bandana’s horse, travels with them, of course). They fly the ship directly back to the Gate, and it barely fits through. Bandana suggests that they head directly to the planet that is the Empire’s seat of government, which we dubbed (on the spot) Metropolis.

They all concentrate, roll dice, and transit the Gate.

The ship emerges in a sort of Jungle, huge trees – hundreds of meters tall – surround them, with jet-black leaves. As they maneuver through the jungle, they see that the jungle is inhabited – there are people on the trees, dwellings that look like wasps nests dangling from the huge branches, and a big central platform which is used by hover-rafts for landing and takeoff.

The ship identifies the planet as one of the Core worlds, the systems closest to the Imperial capital. They land on the central platform, and are greeted by a welcoming committee (who arrive on one of the hover-rafts). At the head of the welcoming committee is a dark haired woman called Orisha, who presents herself as the Consul of this jungle-city, which she calls Brazil. Bandana uses all his charm, presenting himself as a dashing frontiersman, a heroic provincial captain. He makes an appointment to debrief the Consul later in private, in her chambers. Bandana’s player envisions him as a sort of bastard son of Captain Stern – Bernie Wrightson’s character from the trail segment of the Heavy Metal movie – except with a less daunting chin. A young David Niven might also be a good analogy.

Before Orisha leads them away, Jack "locks" the spaceship and sets up some sort of communication channel with it. Since we made it clear to him that radio is forbidden – see the note about Dragons – we agreed that this is some sort of line-of-sight infra-red laser communication.

Orisha offers the visitors an opportunity to refresh, but before that she gives them a short tour of the city. It is big and populous, and the trees are both buildings, infrastructure and manufacturing plants – they see a hover-raft sprouting from a big dark seed, a grove of "fashion trees" which function as an open-air clothing bazaar, and other wonders. There are many people busy about the city, with lots of colorful uniforms – most notable are the paramilitary guards, armed with rifles of some sort, and the gardeners, specialists who tend the trees.

They retire to their rooms (apparently – and this comes from Bandana’s player, really, but it fits the pattern of scenes like this – there’s going to be a banquet later) and Bandana shows up at Orisha’s "office". There, on a low table surrounding by seating cushions, are arranged assorted flowers, the pollen or nectar of which has various intoxicating effects. Bandana proceeds to pollinate the consul (in a footnote here, I explained that sex with newly-arrived navigators – people who can traverse the Gates – is a common and old Imperial custom, since they were a sort of an Elite, and their abilities are hereditary. This, in fact, probably explains where the PCs came from…

Meanwhile, Adap goes for a stroll. The player (Boaz) asked if he could identify members of his order, and I told him they could be picked up on sight by him, since they are the ones that constantly calculate the lines of fire as they walk (Gun Kata again). As he walks along a balcony, one in fact picks him out. They exchange secret handshakes, and this person turns out to be of higher rank then Adap. "Your master has sent you to me," the man says. And we cut.

The players may or may not realize this, but the above scene runs in my head exactly like the brief dialog between the two Sith in Star Wars: Episode I – you know, Darth Maul’s only spoken line…

Overall, this was a good session, even though not much actually happened (i.e, no fight scenes). It opened up a lot of potential for future sessions, and gave us a better grasp of the game world. For example, the concept of "technology that doesn’t feel like technology" starts to come across: Mature technology has no user-serviceable parts…

Kachkala’s player expressed worries about her character before the session started, asking us for suggestions for a different concept. I’d hoped this session would allow her to get more comfortable with her character, but unfortunately nothing really interesting happened before she fell asleep. Also, the story still needs to gather some more momentum before it can engage all the players.

April 22nd 2004 – First Session

I mentioned that last session, my gaming group destroyed the world. So this week, we started a new campaign.

We’d brainstormed last session and in the begining of this session, but eventually I offered a postapocalyptic space opera setting, very vaguely sketched:

The Empire fell a long time ago. It had stretched across the galaxy, connected not by FTL spacecraft, but by Gates, which allowed people to step across from one planet to the other. Not everyone could pass through these gates – only certain people had the gift to navigate the hyperspace between them and emerge. These people, the Navigators, carried news, information and materials between the worlds.

And one day, the gates stopped working. The navigators stopped coming through. Interstellar travel (slower than light, minor but still important) has also stopped, and with the worlds left to their own devices, Civilization has crumbled.

Many years later, on a backwater planet, a gate stands alone in the middle of an empty desert plane. There is a flash of light, powerful lightning lancing down from the sky. The gate has been activated.

Who are you and why did you step through the gate? I asked the players. I gave them free rein in coming up with their characters and their home worlds. I also told them that psi powers are available in this setting, but these will be mostly telepathy and similar powers – telekinesis would be very weak, if at all.

The character Oren came up with, Jack, is a "space trucker", a former military-trained covert-ops specialist, discharged for "attitude problems". He comes from an advanced, high-tech world, and works as a shuttle pilot, flying freight in space (to orbit or to the moon, I assume – Interstellar travel is out). He’s also a smuggler, and activated a gate when he got jumped on by security forces who cornered him in a sting operation. He conveniently had his overnight bag with him, and a gun. Oh, and he’s very physically tough. Oren described him as sort of Corbin Dallas from "Fifth Element", but he also sounds very much like Arnold or Dolph.

Boaz came up with a sort-of Jedi/Ninja: His character, Adep, belongs to a secret society/criminal conspiracy group, which have extensive martial arts training ("very cool fighting"), specifically the "Gun Kata" (from the movie Equilibrium); they also have psychic powers, specifically the ability to transfer their consciousness into someone else and control his body. This struck me as an awfully disruptive power – both for the campaign. Bo suggested that it works at any range, targeting people through their photographs; that the limitation is that it doesn’t work on people wearing metal headgear (tinfoil hats!) and that it is fatiguing (when he is possessing someone, Adep’s body slumps unconscious). Bo also added a cool suggestion that his society claim to be the remnants of the Imperial police (the image of the Imperial police taking over people’s minds – of the "Jedi" actually being Orwellian thought-police – was so creepy and cool, I think it what made me let him get away with it). Adep’s reason for passing through a gate was blunt and simple: his boss/master told him to do it, and he obeys without hesitation – a sort of Samurai code of discipline. Adep dresses in black, with pistols, hidden knives, lockpicks, metal armbands and other ninja gear (including the infamous "instant water" bags…)

Ghoula’s character came from an ancient research station – a space habitat inhabited for thousands of years by a dying race of scholars, who had adapted and genetically engineered themselves into an immortal, infertile, dimorphic race of mental supermen. The men had developed more abstract thinking abilities ("Mentats"), while the women had developed more in the direction of empathy, reading body language, social interaction, intuition, and finely-tuned body control ("Bene Gesserit"). Her character, Kachkala, was the last child born to this race, and was sent through a gate in hope that she would find a way to save it. She has solid blue eyes, a shaved head with a tataric horse-tail top knot, and very strange clothes.

Finally, Israel, playing his cards close to his chest, created the dashing Bandana, diplomat from the planet Conan, a wiry warrior in a fur jacket, armed with twin shockguns and mounted on a handsome stallion called Mach.

As we open the game, these four characters find themselves near a Gate in the desert. A boy called Jorn greets them.He is apparently the one who "called" them to this particular planet (which is called Jotun). Jorn is apparently a potential navigator.

Jorn wants to take them to The Man From The Sky, a stranger who traveled from afar to reach the gate and who recruited him to open it. They go to the nearby town. On the way, Jorn insists they stop in a nearby cave to put on local clothing and hide Mach (the horse), since the locals apparently aren’t fond of people coming out of the Gate.

A big temple dominates the primitive desert town, and the streets are patrolled by acolytes armed with truncheons. Jorn leads them to a shed where The Man From The Stars is supposed to be waiting, but he is distressed to find the man missing. A pair of suspicious acolytes show up and try to take them in for questioning. This suits Bandana fine, because he’s in a "take me to your leader" sort of mood; the acolytes were reacting badly, but Adep took over one of the acolytes’ mind and used this to defuse the situation – preventing it from turning violent.

The four outworlders proceeded with the guards to the temple (Jorn stayed behind), where they met the High Priest, who also did not appear very sympathetic – apparently, the locals had bad encounters with people who came through the Gates: the priest referred to them as "demons". He threatened the PCs with an advanced weapon, apparently some gun taken from these "demons". He did not react well to Bandana’s offer to rejoin the Empire ("Good news, we’re putting the Empire back together!"). The high priest suggested his visitors retire to refresh themselves – and had his guards escort them to a prison apartment that was locked once they were inside.

They discover Jorn’s master, the man from the stars, in the cell next to them (they can talk through the windows); they catch sight of Jorn on a nearby rooftop; Adep once again uses his consciousness-transfer power to control a guard and make him open the door’s bolts and pick the lock. They free the man from the stars and sneak out of the temple. They rejoin Jorn and lie low until night time, then sneak out of town.

The man from the stars tells them that he was part of a space fleet, and that his craft crashed on this planet, "near the forbidden zone". They set off across the desert at night, with the general purpose of reaching his crashed craft.

In the desert, they are ambushed by a sniper with a powerful beam weapon, who cuts down Jorn. The others – Adep, Jack and Bandana – manage to close range and overcome their attackers, who are apparently two acolytes. The session ended as they were about to question the one surviving acolyte.

What have we learned:

  • If you want low-tech, pseudo-mediaval space opera, find more ways to limit guns.
  • Saying "no" to players ("you can’t knock the door open", "this doesn’t work") is fun (and a change).
  • Bene Gesserit and Jedi don’t mix that well. The consciousness-transfer trick is too useful and "steals thunder" from more subtle social manipulations.
  • "A desert planet" is lazy SF.
  • There needs to be more of a reason for people to be together. Conversely, this doesn’t neccessarily have to come from the players. At one point, Kachkala came along with the others because Ghoula thought she wouldn’t go out on her own. But it might have been cool if she had (instead of coming along with the acolytes to the temple). I’m not sure if this is just the player dragging the character along in the precieved direction of the plot, or just the character being sensible.
  • Jack was pretty quiet – and he was the only one who actually framed a back story (i.e., an incident that lead him into the gate). Maybe Oren was just tired.
  • Israel seemed to have fun, and Bandana is a proper incarnation of his ur-concept of a character apathic or dedicated enough to cheerfully charge into the midst of danger and action.
  • Need more background. And scale.