Monday, August 14, 2017

War Orphans: I, Sontaran

Okay, before I get into the Doctor Who write-up, just a couple of notes. Because of player scheduling issues (largely related to this weekend being the fall move-in for WVU), this will be the last session (and thus, the last write-up) until I get back from Gencon. I'm not sure what else to mention here; I think I had something in mind when I opened up the file to write this blog post but now that I get to it I'm blanking. So yeah.

It's nighttime in a Roman palace hallway. A man in the armor of the Praetorian Guard approaches a German guardsman watching a room at the end of a long hall. He offers him some wine and they make small talk as best they can with the slight language barrier until the German passes out. The Praetorian Guardsman draws his sword and sneaks into the room.

The 'camera' focuses on his face as his eyes go wide.

"What... what are...?" he stammers.

"You dare intrude on me, in defiance of your Emperor?" a stern voice barks at him. "Insubordinate! I'm doing your lord a favor!"

An energy blast rings out and the Praetorian Guard falls to the floor, dead.

Cue opening theme.

Meanwhile, back in the TARDIS, the characters are still talking about what they're going to call their new captured star when the TARDIS lands[0]. Eska wants to call it the Celestial Hook, and the Magpie points out that 'Celestial Hook' is simply the region of the sky it was in from the standpoint of a particular form of Earth astronomy. At one point Galaxion, I wanna say, floats the name 'Singularity Engine.'[1]

But since they've landed, they decide to worry about where they are. They use the scanner to get a look outside and one of the stained glass windows in their Gothic cathedral 'desktop theme' becomes a viewscreen showing them what appears to be a Roman or Greek market.

They go outside to find that their TARDIS has taken the form of a closed-up merchant's tent, and Eska decides to go back inside and grab some weaponry. He's about to get his blaster until Galaxion suggests that maybe he get a sword or a bow that's not going to stand out. Eska doesn't know how to use a bow[2], so he decides to build something that can pass for a bow but still allow him to be as dangerous as he'd prefer to be. The Magpie gives him some grief about it, but Eska uses some jiggery-pokery to build a bow with some tech built-in to let him use it as efficiently as he does his rifle. (Hey, he wants to spend the Story Points, I'm willing to let him)

They also realize they haven't yet figured out a normal supply of physical currency to use, so the Magpie uses what is best described as his handheld alchemy lab to produce some silver dust and salt so they can pay for things but not necessarily stand out. They do, however, come up with a foreign source of the salt to explain why it's so pure and powdery.

And speaking of 'foreign sources,' they also decide to go to the wardrobe and dress like foreigners to give themselves some wiggle room if they make mistakes about the culture or politics. They kick around a few ideas as to where they're pretending to be from -- they don't want to seem backwoods, so Germany is out. And they're all a little too light-skinned to pass as Middle Eastern. So they settle on pretending to be Greek merchants.

So they stroll out into the market to buy some food and wine and be all tourist-y. Galaxion approaches one of the merchants and asks him who's in charge, saying that he's been away from Rome for a few years. The merchant, nervously, responds with 'The Caesar.' And everyone's like 'yes, which one?' The guy nervously looks back and forth and, knowing the emperor hates this nickname, whispers 'Caligula' and comments during the discussion that he just got back from his 'war with Neptune' in Britain a month ago.[3]

Everyone is a little concerned, for obvious reasons. Caligula being in charge means that Rome is a potentially very dangerous place right now for some outsiders who don't know all the local customs. Galaxion is a little more annoyed than concerned, though, because he's developed a taste for getting busy with the locals when he visits new places[4] and Caligula has a reputation for, shall we say, monopolizing the market. Even knowing that he's going to be dead in, as near as they can tell, a few months, he's still a bit of a downer all around. Exciting, but a downer.

They're about ready to say 'screw it, let's get out of here before something stupid happens,' but consider the possibility that the TARDIS may have brought them there intentionally. After all, everyone knows how often the Doctor would travel at random but often seems to wind up just where he needs to be. But regardless, that means there's a chance that they're needed in some way and they'll stumble over whatever it is on their own. So they talk about visiting the Coliseum, the temple at Delphi, stuff like that. They ask around to see if there are any plays worth seeing, and Dreamcatcher gets it into her head to take a picture of the emperor while they're there. So the group decides to get that out of the way.

They head over to the Imperial Palace to find Caligula on his way out to visit the Coliseum, and at his side he has a hooded, robed figure -- a druid, apparently. Which is strange as hell, because as anyone who follows history should know, Caligula didn't have anything even resembling a pet druid. Dreamcatcher gets a picture of Caligula with her memory-camera, acquiring a 'snapshot' of his mind in the process[5], while Galaxion gives the 'druid's' mind a quick scan. The guy's got kind of a thick head, psychically-speaking, but Galaxion manages to get out of him that he's actually a Sontaran, and is stranded here. Because Dreamcatcher doesn't know what a Sontaran is[6], Galaxion and the Magpie give her the run-down. She then gets a snapshot of his mind with the camera, confirming that he crashed in a scout ship, is here alone, was captured by Caligula, and is basically being kept as a pet.

That still begs the question, though, as to why a Sontaran is there in the first place and what sort of trouble he may have stirred up. Galaxion manages to convince a guard that he and his other Greek merchant friends have a delivery for the palace and can be allowed in without an escort. So they head in and immediately start looking for someone who's in charge of the staff or something who can give them some answers, when they're approached by an older man with a limp and a stutter.

He asks what they're doing there, and they say they're here to assess what Caligula brought back from Britain. The man, Claudius, tells them that his nephew emptied out a grain warehouse to store his seashells, and that he'd even left the grain to rot in the street. Assuming they have an understanding of what is going on with all that, Claudius asks if they know anything about his 'druid,' and they tell him that they he's foreign, from 'very far north.' They ask what the druid does and Claudius says that he mostly lectures Caligula about his behavior and makes promises to thwart the countless conspiracies that the emperor is constantly suspecting are targeting him. He explains that Caligula seems to think that the druid is some sort of agent of the heavens, possibly a servant of Neptune, but for whatever reason (maybe just paranoia) the emperor is keeping him under wraps. But it seems obvious to the group that Caligula captured the Sontaran in Britain and used the transportation of his 'captured loot' (the seashells) to cover up transporting a wrecked spaceship.

They ask if they can see the warehouse and, more than grateful to have someone around to help deal with this crap, Claudius takes them to it. On the way he mentions that the druid doesn't seem to eat or drink, nor does he seem to sleep. Also, a guard went missing the night before and he suspects the druid is responsible.

They get to the warehouse and Galaxion has to convince the German guard to leave so they can go in, managing to do so without tipping off Claudius that he did anything out of the ordinary. They head in to find that next to a bunch of chests of seashells, a Sontaran ship sits in several pieces. They're mostly intact, just unattached from each other. Galaxion uses his sonic screwdriver to scan the pieces and determines that it must have been struck by lightning and crashed and was transported back here (possibly broken down into more pieces to facilitate transport). To explain all this to Claudius, whose mind is more or less blown, they tell him that the ship basically is a craft from the heavens and the druid does in fact come from there. But they tell him that while he is an agent of the gods, they are not the gods of Rome. They ask if they can speak with him.

Claudius offers to get them an audience around sundown, while Caligula will be distracted with... things. He asks them what he is to tell the druid to get him alone, and they suggest that he tell him that the emperor has requested that he meet with the 'foreign merchants.' Seems simple enough. He leaves them to look over the spaceship, suggesting they not stay too long in case they get caught by the next guard shift.

They start pouring over the ship and Eska manages to get the computer working. They check the logs and discover that the ship is part of the Seventh Sontaran Expeditionary Force, and that there's a mothership nearby, and they probably don't have too long before the ship sends down more to look for the missing scout. The scout's mission, essentially, is to assess Earth and whether it has any strategic value to the Sontarans' war with the Rutan Host.

As near as they can tell, the ship came down during the middle of a thunderstorm at just the wrong time and a bolt of lightning shorted out its systems and it crashed. This also means that it didn't get out a distress signal (which means the planet isn't under imminent threat yet). The Magpie goes over the ship and guesses that the Sontaran isn't eating because normally they bypass that process by receiving energy through the probic vent in the back of their necks. But if he hasn't been back to the ship (and why would he still be there if he had been), he's probably pretty desperate for sustenance. Sontarans can get by on Earth food, in theory, but it's nowhere close to ideal and he'd probably find the local stuff pretty unpalatable.[7] So the Magpie figures out a formula to make something that they could give the Sontaran as a peace offering. Eska is pretty sure that given time he could fix the ship and even if they can't get it back to him somehow, sending it off-world would be far less likely to corrupt recorded history than destroying it and missing that one piece that would throw everything off.

The group heads back to their TARDIS to kill time until sundown. Eska tries but fails to find any evidence of a Sontaran mothership in orbit, but he does study up on Sontarans in general in the meantime. The Magpie makes a few squeeze pouches of a nutritious slurry that should appeal to the Sontaran (which means it tastes like military prison food). Galaxion goes out to find the 'weirdest street food' he can, to try. During all this, the group has a discussion about a weird thing about all this -- as near as they can tell because they can Feel the Turn of the Universe, Caligula's assassination is a fixed point. His family needs to die. Claudius needs to become the next emperor. Yet, at the same time, the Sontaran that Caligula bought back with him from Britain is contemporary to the time period. And given that they can't imagine how even a single Sontaran could fail to put a stop to various plans to end Caligula's life, that means to them that one or more time travelers -- probably them -- are supposed to step in. As near as they can guess, someone else was originally supposed to interfere but said interference might have been retconned out of existence due to the Time War. And that's assuming it wasn't supposed to be them from the start.

And on that thought, we skip ahead to sundown. They go to the palace, cutting through the garden since it's less likely to be heavily populated. They find Claudius easily enough and he leads them to a side-room where the 'druid' stands, his identity concealed by hood and robes. Claudius leaves them to it.

The Magpie, unable to resist the urge, does a traditional Sontaran salute and says "Sontar, ha!" -- which gets the Sontaran to reflexively respond in kind. He's more than a little startled to encounter someone who knows what he is, and introduces himself as Starn, the Wall-breaker, of the Seventh Sontaran Expeditionary Force. Everyone introduces themselves and explains what they are, and the Magpie hands over the six-pack of Sontaran-compatible slurry. Galaxion asks Starn if he's going to be initiating any sort of invasion. Starn says that if he were to do so, it'd only be out of spite and most likely wouldn't. He reviews his mission with them, what happened, and all that -- I think he mostly confirms what they already know. He was mistaken for an agent of Neptune when his ship crashed in the thunderstorm, Caligula captured him, brought him back to Rome, etc. He also explains that he's offered to help Caligula defeat the conspiracies around him, but Caligula completely misses the fact that he needs access to his ship to really do so. He's got his rifle, and the night before used it to kill an assassin he thinks was sent by the perpetrators of a real plot, but that's about it. But his patience with the mad emperor is wearing thin.

They explain that Caligula is going to be dead in a few months anyways and that all needs to happen at the appropriate time. Thus, it's important that they get him out of here before he completely throws things off-target. Eska says that by his estimation, he can have the Sontaran ship fixed in a day or so, which pleases Starn. They agree to meet the next day and get the ship outside the city so he can take off without any problems. Before they separate for the night, Magpie suggests he 'fly under the radar,' to which Starn comments that the 'planet is not yet that advanced.' (Cue out-of-character Drax joke.)

The next day, the group pops the TARDIS into the warehouse. Galaxion goes out to whammy the guards to get rid of them and give Eska time to work. Eska drags the pieces of the ship into the TARDIS where he finds a workroom to reassemble the ship over the course of about six hours. Galaxion implies that he's going to go find a prostitute to spend some time with but instead acquires a slave named Marcus just to haul him over to the appropriate authorities to get him freed. Then he gives the man enough silver to purchase a farm for himself somewhere outside the city and build a new life. He also suggests making sure to be out of town in about 24 years and to avoid the island of Pompeii in 39 years. After wishing the man luck, he heads back to meet up with the others and brag about all the whoring he did. The Magpie and the Dreamcatcher go out to get some souvenirs and such. Eska asks the Magpie to get him some military gear, and he proceeds to find a crippled and retired soldier selling his gear and buys it off of him. He also comes back with some pieces of art he feels needs to be preserved, along with a bunch of wine and olives.

At the next sundown the gang (minus Eska) returns to the palace to meet with Starn. Claudius meets them and leads them towards the room, but on the way there they encounter a half-dressed, very drunk, Caligula. He's very interested in these new strangers and what they're doing. It comes up that they're here to meet with his druid, and he assumes they're also agents of the heavens. And he wants to get everyone together to see what happens. Galaxion manages to deflect his interest with a little mental nudge (not that it takes much, as Caligula is pretty distractible in general) and he wanders off to find the druid. The group rushes to the room as best they can, tell Starn that things are on-track, and everyone makes a run for it while Claudius stays behind to run interference with his nephew.

They get to a hill outside the city, where Eska is waiting with the TARDIS and the Sontaran ship. The ship itself isn't in perfect shape, there's a lot of duct tape in there now, but it'll hold together to at least get him back to his mothership... as long as he's not going any farther than Mars or so. Also, they go out of their way to put the idea in his head to tell his superiors that Earth has no strategic value. He agrees and suggests they get into their TARDIS as the ship is likely to be pretty explosive when it takes off. They duck into the TARDIS and watch on the scanners as it lifts off into the sky.

As he's about to leave the gravity well, Starn hails them. He says he's thought it over... and while he understands the need for Caligula to die at an appointed time, he's going to return with a force to conquer Rome to protect them from their madman of an emperor in the meantime. And maybe the decadent city on a better track. Everyone is like 'NOOOOOOO' and he signs off.

To be continued...

[0]-- I probably play it a little more fast and loose than I could/should with regards to how much time passes in the TARDIS when they're traveling (there are guidelines in the books), but in this case the group jumped right back into that subject so I said it was the same conversation.
[1]-- It's not up to me, because I'm just running the game and don't really have a say unless I decide to have the TARDIS somehow voice an opinion, but I actually kind of like 'Singularity Engine.' That said, though, it might not be flowery enough for even some rogue Time Lords despite my own personal feelings on the matter.
[2]-- Technically, it's the same skill as shooting the rifle, but since the subject came up that Eska probably isn't trained in a bow I suggested I might levy a temporary 'tech level' penalty as he adjusts to it. But as you likely saw if you finished the paragraph, it was a moot point anyways.
[3]-- In doing research, I actually had a rough time finding specific dates beyond the year for anything but the actual assassination of Caligula so I played it fast and loose with specifics.
[4]-- Eww.
[5]-- Her player, Becky, asked me if she got any of the depravity, and I told her she basically got a version of the Malcolm McDowell movie from his perspective, 'except the people aren't as good-looking.'
[6]-- Becky actually hasn't seen any of the Sontaran episodes of the new series so she enjoyed the opportunity to play 'audience surrogate' for exposition purposes here.
[7]-- As far as I know, Sontarans normally get everything they need through the probic vent. But Strax seems to get by on Victorian-era Earth (and it can't be as simple as him having access to a ship or anything, because he regularly goes on vacations to Glasgow). I'm taking some liberties regarding the care and feeding of Sontarans.

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