Eclipse d20 – Character Optimization and Over-Optimization

   Having looked at some of the abusive builds – and why they won’t work if the game master is paying attention – it’s time to take a look at some of the potentially over-efficient builds and how to handle them.

   The Shapeshifter. This character has invested a lot of points in the various Shapeshifting upgrades, and has purchased some extra hit dice (or an immunity to the hit die requirement for turning into things if the game master is silly enough to let him or her get away with that), and has been poring through various books looking for creatures with really useful powers to turn into.

   There are a couple of things to remember here.

   Can I – say – grab the statistics for a hawk, add “Special Attack (Ex): Spits acid up to 120′ as a ranged touch attack with a +20 racial bonus inflicting 40d6 damage” and “Special Defenses (Ex): Immunity to Acid”, call my new creature an “Acid Hawk”, leave it as an animal, and change into it?

   Obviously not. No sane GM will let that work. No sane GM will allow the player to drag creatures out of random sourcebooks either. No such creatures exist in his campaign!

   Ah. That’s the first bit. A shapeshifter can only turn into creatures which exist in the campaign. They can’t just make things up – or quote irrelevant sources, no matter how “official”. Personally, I presume that’s because shapeshifting needs an established pattern – and so shapeshifters can only turn into things which are reasonably plentiful in the setting – automatically putting unique and near-unique creatures are off limits as well, just as they are with the Shapechange spell.

   So; be careful what creatures you allow into your campaign. To be blunt, even a single Monster Manuel style book probably has more creatures than you’re going to need for a campaign – and if you want something to be unique, just make it so. If you have any doubts about a creature, don’t allow it. If you want to use it later, it may have been imported, or recently created – or just be too rare to provide a pattern for shapeshifting.

   Secondarily, the character needs to be familiar with the creature he or she wants to turn into. That’s not necessarily a firm rule if the game master feels like allowing experimentation (“I turn into the largest hawk-like bird I can!”) – but I personally suspect that trying to transform your body into something that might not exist and which you’re unfamiliar with in any case is pretty well up there on the “risky behavior” scale. “A big hawk” will exist in most settings. “An eight legged animal with poison fangs and climbing claws” very well may not – and the results of trying to turn into something that doesn’t exist are unlikely to be pleasant.

   The Stunt Double. This character has taken several instances of Action Hero/Stunts specialized in a particular type of activity and studied the rules – and thus, in any tense or puzzling situation, can always whip out some precisely-tailored special ability (that he or she never used before and never will again) to deal with it or to escape serious injury. That’s entirely legal and there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just boring. You deal with that as per page 163 – assigning an equally-boring ECL penalty to the character. Of course, if you happen to be running a slow-advancement game, there may not be a problem at all; Action Points will be a scarce resource. Advanced cases will usually be Luckmasters as well.

   The Luckmaster. This character simply hates to fail – and so he has taken Luck. With lots of Bonus Uses. Often in several specialized varieties so that he can afford more of it.

   So whenever there’s a critical die roll to be made, the Luckmaster can simply have it be a twenty.

   That’s legal enough – but, in a way, it’s its own penalty; the Luckmaster is boring. Worse, if your game makes a lot of die rolls, the only way they’ll be able to buy enough luck to keep it up is to skimp on their other abilities – making them even more boring. If that’s not enough, you can invoke page 163, assign an ECL penalty, and thus make the Luckmaster even more boring than before.

   The trouble with that, is that a player who doesn’t want to risk failing probably has a fairly high tolerance for boredom already. I prefer to deal with this particular problem in the game world.

   Now there’s no downside to genuine luck, but the Luck ABILITY simply allows you to presume that your die turned up a “20” without actually having to roll it – and it only works a limited number of times per game day. Make sure that the player isn’t always sure whether to use those 20’s or save them for later on. Add some depth to your world.

  • Don’t have many single, critical, rolls. Most important things really should depend on several actions and checks anyway.
  • Call for less-than-vital checks. Is that Spot check for a deadly ambush – or just to notice some minor detail?
  • Have important activities – with lots of chances to roll dice while doing them – other than combat.
  • Don’t give away information until after the players are done rolling. If they don’t know what that incoming spell is, they won’t find out the effects until after their saves have already succeeded or failed.
  • In extreme cases, you may want to have some rolls which the characters would prefer to fail. Perhaps the legendary blade must bond with it’s wielder in order to aid him – and so it’s prospective owner must fail his or her will save to claim the blade. Perhaps the partially-buried glyph will go off if someone notices it, but is otherwise harmless. Perhaps that locked door is holding back some terrible peril, and it would be best not to manage to pick the lock.
    • You wouldn’t want to overdo that sort of thing, but there really are times when people would be better off failing. What people want is not necessarily what is best for them.

   The MegaWitch. This character has taken Witchcraft, and a few of the most useful advanced abilities – and has purchased a LOT of power to run them with, either as Mana, by taking Rite of Chi, or by buying a Psionic Progression (often with no caster level and specialized so as to include no disciplines). He or she may be running the half-celestial template all day for a relative handful of points, continuously turning incorporeal, or granting everyone else the benefits of his or her saving throws.

   That’s possible because – while Witchcraft has relatively low upper limits in many ways – it’s very efficient about those things that it can do. That’s why there’s a note on page 121 at the end of the Witchcraft section advising the game mater to be wary of characters who combine large reserves of Power with Witchcraft.

   Well, presuming you weren’t wary, didn’t say no, and are running a low-to-mid powered campaign where this is a serious problem, it’s time to take a look at page 163 again. You could gratuitously throw in some problems with using such powers all the time – creatures that hunt individuals who do that, or entities which are jealous of mortals using their powers, or some such – but a boring ECL penalty is probably the way to go. In most cases that will neatly match those overused abilities up with their effective levels again.

   The Deity. This character really is a deity. The player has noted that you can get Dominion, Manipulation, Sphere of Influence, and Godfire – becoming a genuine god – for a mere twenty-four points. Have a fast and persuasive tongue, and you could tack that onto the human racial template (either in place of the racial bonus feat or by adding a disadvantage, such as “obligations to divine parent, -3”) and stay at a +0 ECL. You could be a GOD and have an ECL of Zero! Think of the perks!

   That does require leapfrogging right past two instances of “special circumstances and game masters permission required”, but we’ll presume that the game master is someone who can’t say “no”.

   Actually, this isn’t so bad. For that investment, you get several things.

  • You’re good at running a domain and can get dominion points – if you manage to acquire a domain.
  • You can influence events in your domain by spending dominion points.
  • You can sense events related to your sphere of influence.
  • You get a -1 modifier on the level of spells related to your sphere of influence.
  • You get one point of Godfire.
  • As side effects of having Godfire:
    • You don’t age.
    • You aren’t affected by diseases (although you can carry them).
    • You can recover from Petrification and Polymorph effects after a fight
    • You are fertile with virtually anything.

   Well now.

  • You don’t get a domain; you’ll have to acquire that normally – and unless you do, you have nothing to run and can’t acquire dominion points to spend on running a domain.
  • Age doesn’t matter much in most games.
  • Diseases are generally easy to deal with.
  • Petrification and long-term Polymorph effects are both fairly rare, since they often amount to putting the player out of the game.
  • Unwanted kids are no real bonus.

   So what you’re really buying with those twenty-four points is the ability to sense events you can do nothing about, slightly easier access to spells in a specific field, and that precious point of godfire.

   Hang onto that Godfire Point young deity; you may not get another during the duration of the campaign.

   That’s why most young gods reserve that Godfire Point for something like bringing themselves, and their friends, back to life after the parties wiped out. That – as noted in Eclipse – is a handy safety for the game master. If he or she slips up and there’s a total party kill, the players can fix it themselves.

   As one player-character deity has noted, being a god is a job in the service industry.

   The Speedster and the X-Man. The speedster has boosted their movement rate, learned to split their move around their attacks, and learned to move through threatened squares without provoking attacks of opportunity. They can dart in and through a group of enemies, attack, and retreat again beyond the point where they can be easily attacked without any real risk.

   In fact, the Speedster is simply one of the more common examples of the X-Man – a character optimized for one or two specific tricks or tactics. The classical d20 Fighter often went this way at higher levels, but – in Eclipse – you can over-specialize much more quickly and at much lower levels. Carry this too far, and you’ve got the Nova – a character who utterly dominates whenever their speciality comes up and has nothing to do otherwise.

   Now, if one or two players make X-Men, all you need to do is make sure that they have their chances to show off, but that their tactic or trick doesn’t always work – and for every power, there is a counter. For our Speedster, there are ranged attacks, reflex actions, confined places, barriers, entanglement, and many other methods.

   If everyone in the party is an X-Man, your adventures are going to resemble the adventures of a bunch of cartoon superheroes more than the usual fantasy Tolkien-style fantasy adventures – but that’s simply leaning back towards an older style of heroic adventures. Many tales of the Knights of the Round Table, the Bogotirs of Russia, the Greek Heroes, and the Doomed Warriors of the Sagas (among tales from many, many, other cultures) featured heroes who possessed marvelous and peculiar talents – albeit rarely more than one or two each.

   Overall, characters like this are unusual, but they’re actually pretty easy to work with. After all, you’ll know their strengths and weaknesses in detail very quickly indeed – which makes them easy to set up adventures for.

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Federation-Apocalypse Session 116b – The Burning Earth

   As the earth settled down, Kevin and Marty looked around; they didn’t seem to be standing on anything too unstable…

(A family of squirrels, running by at high speed.) “Run! Get as far away from here as you can you dimwits!”

   Marty frowned… At least as much as he could with a beak. A research facility? Too bad he was a parrot at the moment, if he hadn’t been so easy to spot he’d have tried getting a little closer.

(Marty, calling after the squirrels) “What’s going on?”

(Squirrels) “The earth is giving off bad vibes! If we stay here, we will be destroyed! Didn’t you feel that last trembler? It’s going to happen soon!”

   Kevin was trying to remember the route, in the face of all the interesting scents, and was still oblivious. Upstream of course…

   Marty waved a wing in his face.

(Marty) “Hey, I think this place is about to be swallowed up! We should go upstream! Silly kids.”

(Kevin) “Oh yes! That was it! At the river valley, head upstream until you reach the Foul Lake. The gateway should be near the lake shore. Too many tasty-smells around here hiding under the nasty ones…”

(Marty, sighing) “Girls, could you block his nose until it’s needed? I think the wolf-senses are distracting him.”

(Kevin) “Abgh! Mgh Nobe!”

(Marty) “Now that that distraction’s gone, let’s go!”

   Hm… Upstream would take them straight through town – and heading Northwards along the river valley took them in the opposite direction of most of the current exodus. They’d have to either lose a lot of time going around the town or go through it. It wasn’t that big a community – only a few hundred people normally it looked like – but it was pretty spread out.

   It looked like all the normal inhabitants had left – or been evacuated – and had been replaced with military men and women plus some scientists. Currently it looked like 50-60 military personnel and 20-30 scientists.

   Marty clucked. Ooh, women in uniform!. Too bad he was a bird right now!

   About then a small voice spoke up from a nearby bush.

(Rat) “Psst, over here! Don’t wander too close to them right now.”

(Marty) “Who’s that?” (He had the girls do a divination.)

   It looked to be a rat wearing spectacles and a vest.

(Kevin) “Oh? What’s up with them right now?”

(Rat) “They’re busy studying the volcano up in the park right now. I’ve been able to tap some of their communications and gleam some of what is going on, but the military encryption is tough. You’re not from around here are you?”

(Kevin) “Afraid not. Want us to try decrypting things?”

(Rat) “If you’ve got any talent for it then sure. Unfortunately our resources still don’t compare with the humans.”

   Well, the Smartclothes were still working, and the Thralls could do a little divination for a translation to start with. That broke the encryption codes in short order… It looked like the local humans were carefully monitoring a volcano that was ready to erupt soon. There were frequent references to Yellowstone and evacuation proceedings. Most of the data seemed to be related to transferring data on the volcano to United States Geological Service and to the Pentagon.

   NIMH and the Supervolcano? That was a heck of a sequel jump for an old children’s book!

(Rat) “Oh dear, this is worse than I thought. Looks like the size and extent of the projected blast is considerably larger than what we anticipated.”

   Oh botheration. Always sidequests. Of course, the place was getting closer to a nearly unlivable disaster realm, or it wouldn’t have a relevant gate near here… Could Inversion be tugging nearby realms towards itself? The local magic was pretty poor, allowing second level spells at best – but psionics were much stronger than normal. Ah well. If it was the other way around, there might be something – but even amplified Witchcraft wasn’t going to do much about a volcano thirty miles across.

   The rats had a decent communications network, although they seemed to have hacked some of the satellites and human data network to set it up. Apparently laying miles of cabling was beyond their means and using radio was too likely to attract unwanted attention. Fortunately, most of their own warnings had already been passed. The local human military seemed to be warning people effectively as well – although there was considerable debate on the precise size of the area to be evacuated due to conflicting theories on the size of the projected blast – so there wasn’t much left to do along those lines.

   The current estimate was 24-48 hours before the eruption given current gps, seismic, and thermal data.

   Kevin sighed and ran a quick check on what resources were within range… There were some forty-five Thralls in the Anthropomorphic and adjacent realms that might be able to arrive in time. They’d have to use the natural gates, and – since they didn’t have a lot of time – that might not actually help much. It wasn’t like he could open enough gates to evacuate North America in twenty-four hours.

   He had them come to do what they could. Could anything be done about a supervolcano? Trying to drain the magma chamber would just set it off.

   Could you intervene on the plot level? A supervolcano might reduce the local human civilization down to the point where a unified confederation with the sapient animals became accepted. That was a possible next step in the local plot. He could attempt to start such a confederation early and see if that turned the supervolcano a near-miss. Did that even make sense?

   Marty voted for heading for the gateway; they had more urgent business than the fate of one obscure realm.

   They headed on through town along the riverside. It wasn’t as if anyone was really likely to pay attention at the moment. They were spotted a few times, and one of the scientists even recognized Kevin as a wolf – as opposed to a dog – and pulled out a camera while calling several of his buddies to watch for a bit. Many photographs were taken.

(Marty) “Sorry folks, no time for autographs!”

(Scientist) “Must be an escaped lab parrot. Heard they were doing animal intelligence studies not far from here. Strange that it is sitting on a wolf’s back.”

   Oh well. If they were getting involved anyway…

(Kevin, via telepathic broadcast) “You bunch really should be clearing out! If you want to leave for somewhere more congenial, I shall arrange it!”

(Soldier) “Alright, was I the only one to here that?”

(Marty) “I am not a lab parrot! I’m an office parrot! And my friend is right, you guys are in trouble!”

(Scientist) “If you are talking about that sudden voice in my head, then yes.”

(Kevin, broadcasting again) “Not unless you’re uniquely sensitive. (To scientist) And I think you mean “no””.”

(Another Scientist) “Alright what is going on? Has NIMH lost another batch?”

(Marty) “We’re not from NIHM! I’m a businessparrot and he’s offering you the thrill of a lifetime!”

(Soldier) “NIMH? You mean the National Institute of Mental Health? What’s going on? (pulls out radio) Uh, commander, I think I have a parrot here trying to sell us something.”

(Radio) “Tell him to go away and heed the evacuation. Wait, did you say parrot?!”

(Solider) “Uh, yes sir. I have a talking parrot and a wolf speaking directly to my mind in front of me. And no I haven’t been drinking.”

(Kevin, broadcasting onto the commander’s frequency via Smartclothes) “Yes, he said a parrot. And I’m interrupting to offer you an evacuation gateway. Best offer you’ll have all day I suspect. If you like, I’ll leave it while I get on my way. Radios are less trouble to broadcast to than minds anyway”.

(Marty, joining in on his own Smartclothes) “Yeah! He’ll take you to a place with golf, pretty dragon ladies, all the foods of the worlds, and other neat stuff!”

   The Commander came stomping out and looked at the bunch of them before smacking the soldier upside the head.

(Commander) “Look quit playing practical jokes and get back to work! We’ve got a volcanic eruption larger than anything humanity has ever seen about to take place! Find out who owns the dog and parrot and send it back to them!”

(Marty) “What are you talking about? Nobody owns us! We’re free agents! Are you taking the deal or not? We’re trying to get somewhere!”

(Kevin, back to telepathy) “You should listen to him. An unprecedented disaster is on the way; you might want to consider all possible options.”

(Marty) “And can somebody scratch between my wings? My talons won’t reach!”

   Meanwhile, Kevin had an idea… Trying to drain the magma chamber would just induce a local pressure drop and set the whole thing off early as the gases bubbled out. Moving Yellowstone would open the mantle, for a world-wrecking catastrophe. But laying a gate over the surface to shunt the gases and ash away would just leave the direct surface-level magma flows – which were only a menace in the immediate area – and the earthquakes. It would still be a disaster, but not nearly such a large one.

   He had some of the nearer Thralls to head for Yellowstone. They could control the gate easily enough. Compared to moving a world, this was nothing.

   Marty could practically hear the dinner timer ticking in the commanders head for a moment as the commander just sat there and stared at them. Suddenly he face-palmed, rubbed his eyes, and – still seeing them there – took a deep breath before speaking again.

(Commander) “Alright, as much as I want to start rattling off a list of questions about you and where you came from, what do you mean by creating a gateway. I assume the disaster you speak of is the volcano about to erupt in the nearby park?”

(Kevin, still with telepathy) “Indeed. Your communications were easy enough to read.”

(Commander) “All right, as disturbing as what you just said is, I want to know what you mean by creating a gateway.”

(Kevin) “I’ll demonstrate. What sort of world would be most suitable? Something with similar natural laws but basically empty?”

(Commander) “Huh? You mean like another planet?”

(Marty) “He means a universe.”

(Commander) “Alright, I think one of the black projects has gotten a little out of control here. Alright, let’s see it then. Something certainly sustainable for human life would work nicely.”

   Well… similar natural laws to this, mostly empty, human-compatible; any one of the thousands of empty worlds in the Nortonverse should do nicely. He opened one gateway, with the usual special effects.

(Commander) “Alright, next time I see the General, I am going to punch him for not telling us about the super dimensional dog they were sending.”

(Marty) “Look pal, I told you, we’re FREE AGENTS.”

(Commander) “And I am afraid you will have to forgive me for not taking everything I see right now at face value.”

(Kevin) “Who cares? Although I must ask that you not interfere with any local wildlife who want to leave either.”

(Commander) “At this point I am not going to ask any more questions.”

   Kevin considered… only fifteen miles to Yellowstone Park, a little over thirty to the center – but some of the scientists would certainly want to come along. No reason not to let them, he needed to give the Thralls a few minutes to get into positions around the park anyway. Six would be best; although three would probably do. He could deploy a few of the extras he had along if necessary. Compared to their usual side-excursions, a couple of hours was nothing.

   The commander – reluctantly – authorized a helicopter.

(Commander) “I really don’t want to have to explain this to my superiors if they ask.”

(Kevin, telepathically) “I wouldn’t worry; all your vehicles were going to be in use today anyway.”

   The trip was quick enough – and Kevin decided on a bit of a show. Besides… perhaps physically traversing the outline of the gate would make it easier to envision. He swapped into black eagle form and bailed out – trailing a line of dimness like smoked glass along the border of the gate he was creating and using telekinesis to accelerate himself to supersonic speeds.

   OK, that was PURELY a stunt for showing off, but the Thralls had gotten to try it in Core, and it was even easier here.

   For that matter, they’d gotten to try an orbital hop, and he’d never had a good chance at that yet.

   He did have to deploy two of the Thralls that had accompanied him to make up six controllers – but they did always seem to lose them along the way to anywhere. The others had either gotten caught up in something or had been too far from the park to make it in time.

   Marty swore to himself… For once Kevin had managed to stick him with answering all the questions while he took a high-speed circuit of Yellowstone! The scientists took a few seconds to get over their shock at Kevin’s shapeshifting and bullet-like departure – and then wanted to know EVERYTHING. RIGHT NOW.

   Well at least the pilot had apparently simply decided that they were probably Raven and Coyote, up to their usual tricks.

   Kevin dropped back into wolf-form on his return to the chopper a ten minutes later… One low-altitude gate, covering the Yellowstone caldera and a bit beyond. Destination; one of the assorted semi-livable but barren and uninhabited worlds so common in sci-fi shows so he didn’t have to worry about atmosphere exchange while running a wide-open gate. Six thralls to operate it, with instructions to fly above the gateway and to rely on smartclothes atmosphere filtration during the initial eruption period. They could be relieved later, since that would probably be tiring…

   They advised the scientists to try and get in touch with the rats via the usual telecommunications channels if they wanted more information on things like who and what they were and left for the gate.

   The “National Geographic” realms. A giant museum? A weird force that collects segments of realms? Something based on centuries worth of magazines?

   Marty had to vote for the third, but had to say that the second would be intriguing.

   The gate opened on a tropical island at the foot of a mountain. A voice that seemed to come from everywhere spoke: “Here you can see a group of tourists that have failed to heed the warnings and are now standing in the path of the volcanic lava flow heading straight for them.”

   None of the above! Documentary! It was based on National Geographic SPECIALS.

   Oh well, at least everyone who wanted to be human was back to being human. It looked like the local natural laws were flexible on whether you want to be human or animal – leaving Kevin human and Marty a parrot; he hadn’t gotten to do enough flying yet!

(Marty) “Last one down the volcano’s a rotten egg!”

   Marty made a mental note to add something to his apology to Gelman: maybe there really HAD been a narrator during those first few days at work, and Gelman hadn’t been joking about strangling the guy!

   It looked like the next gate was… Down the mountainside in the forest. There looked to be a hot spring in that area. A short trip then. Off they went, running down the mountain ahead of the lava flow!. The narrator – quite annoyingly – kept updating their actions and talking about the plants and animals that they passed as they ran. It then began a most annoying discussion on the speeds of lava flows and the sheer amount a destruction that they could cause.

(Marty) “STOP IT! STOP IT RIGHT NOW!”

   There were a few stumbles and falls amongst the Thralls in the race down the mountain – but nothing particularly serious. Their inherent toughness, enhanced speed, and telekinetic talents could cover a lot of spills – although they did have to scramble to stay ahead of the lava flow.

   Once again, Xellos only seemed to appear at the gateways. Oh well, it didn’t really matter how he was doing that. As they approached the hot spring, they could see Xellos sitting on a rock waiting for them.

(Xellos) “My my, you have certainly taken your time getting here. Hopefully you aren’t too exhausted to open the gateway from your little run?”

(Kevin) “Oh, I don’t think so! Off we go! Set for air-filtration and enrichment if you haven’t already done so! Cue boring voiceover!”

(As they opened the portal and entered, the narrator spoke for one last time.) “And watch as the dimensional travelers open a gateway to another world fleeing to supposed safety. Little do they realize, death awaits them.”

(Marty) “Oh shut up you pompous… uh… voice!”

(Kevin) “What, another one? Still, since it presumably knows where the gate goes, but only what it’s seen, it is probably making an reasonable prediction based on available facts!”

(Marty) “That doesn’t make it any less annoying!”

(Xellos) “Oh dear, it certainly seems to not think well of our chances given where we are going! What do you think?”

(Marty) “I spit on chance!”

(Xellos) “Careful, given what I know about your home, chance may not appreciate that very much!”

(Marty, scoffingly) “I’m not afraid of the Numbers! They’re just digits!”

(Kevin) “Everywhere I go it’s “you will never survive”, or “prepare to meet your doom!”, or “Now, fool, you will learn what it means to…”. Well I Will, I Won’t, and I’ll NEVER learn!”

(Xellos) “That may be, but even where I come from, numbers don’t destroy cities repeatedly. That job is for monsters and crazy sorceresses!”

(Marty, flabbergasted) “Whaaa?”

(Xellos) “What, have you not heard? Lord Zero has leveled New York everyday now for some time now!”

   Marty got quiet, his eyes narrowed, and he no longer looked so jovial…

   Oh, that bastard. When I become a god, HE’S GOING TO GET IT, AND GOOD!

(Xellos, seeing the signs) “Oh does that upset you? Don’t worry it all comes back the next morning as usual. I think you are well aware of that!”

(Marty) “It’s the principle of the thing, Xellos.”

(Xellos) “Well yes, I do suppose destroying cities is rather pointless in it’s own fashion. So much better to take things slowly and have a continuous meal!”

(Marty) “The Numbers are supposed to stay in their world running things and eating pretzels. At least I think that’s what Jenkins said. I was kind of tuning her out.”

(Kevin) “I think it’s eating people Marty.”

(Marty) “Oh! Yeah, that’s right! People!”

(Xellos) “Well accountants will do that. Make people tune them out, not eat them I mean.”

(Marty) “Uh… you haven’t met her, have you.”

(Xellos) “No, I haven’t, accountants aren’t high on my list of people to meet.”

   While Marty and Xellos bantered, Kevin was checking their new environment… Surrounded by the remains of a forest. Air survivable – if not comfortably or permitting much exertion – but low in oxygen, and grossly polluted. There was far too much ultraviolet, probably no ozone layer, and assorted symptoms of environmental destruction. It was even raining a light oily substance.

(Marty, distracted by the destruction around him) “What is that, acid rain?”

(Xellos) “I believe it to be rain heavily polluted with the petrochemicals that have leeched into the oceans from decades of drilling and spills. Although it could be something else in the air that’s doing it.”

(Kevin) “I think it goes a bit beyond that… The pollution level is high enough that the upper atmospheres gone reducing and it’s generating organic molecules? I wouldn’t have expected most of the hydrocarbons that are light enough to evaporate to remain unoxidized that long… Ah well. I never did read the series!”

(Marty) “Cool! I mean, too bad for them.”

(Xellos) “Amazing the human impact on the world around them when left to their own devices!”

(Kevin) “Well, this is supposed to be a restricted area where an unusually high percentage of the biosphere has survived… Doesn’t look good does it?”

(Xellos) “I would say the reports are a bit off then. This place has been cutoff from the Manifold for sometime hasn’t it?”

(Kevin) “Well, our reports obviously aren’t up to date anyway!”

   Although there was something about that rain… Some sort of mystical or psionic component? Somebody had REALLY been fooling around with Inversion if it was mystical. Probably even if it was psionic. This wasn’t supposed to be that kind of a dimension. If it hadn’t already split, it had to be under a lot of tension.

(Xellos) “Oh dear, that isn’t good. I would say someone already knows we are here.”

(Kevin) “Either that or they’re trying to redesign the place.”

(Marty) “Neither would surprise me.”

(Xellos) “Possible, I really think we need to find shelter and get out of this rain as quickly as possible. I am not liking the vibes I am getting here.”

(Marty) “Hey, I’m with you on that.”

   Kevin sighed, and used the effector modules to erect rain shields (that shouldn’t give anything away, since it didn’t involve any odd powers), checked the local communications networks, and started breaking out the ultralights to get moving. Presuming that this wasn’t a dead realm turned into a trap, they needed the nearest shelter.

   Hm… There were some open communication networks, but there were quite a few that required special authentications, along with a very extensive orbital network.

(Kevin) “Ve hab dos Internets!”

(Marty, after a pause) “You okay Kevin?”

(Kevin) “What, don’t tell me that gag is actually younger than Battling Business World!”

(Marty) “Oh, is that that lolcats thing? Sorry, a little after my time.”

(Xellos poking at a datapad) “I believe there are the ruins of an old town to the southwest of here about 25 miles. Best to seek shelter as soon as possible. The more power we use, the more attention we are likely to draw.”

(Marty) “Then let’s move out.”

   It looked like the Core batteries were working – which meant that the plasma pistols, forceblades, screens on the ultralights, and most of the rest of the personal gadgets would be working at full power. Good; the effectors had worked, but rain wasn’t really much of a test of their power reserves.

   The Thralls had some difficulties with the wind and rain buffeting the ultralights, but nothing that a touch of telekinesis couldn’t fix, even if it did slow them down. Soon enough they wound up over a small American or European town that looked like it had been abandoned for decades. Some of the buildings looked collapsed, but there were others that looked relatively intact.

(Xellos) “Looks to be a good enough spot to me, what about you?”

(Marty) “I think so.”

(Kevin) “Looks all right. We really need some local intelligence! Either time to sift the local net a bit or – preferably – some live locals!”

(Xellos) “Agreed, it definitely looks like our information is woefully out of date here.”

(Marty) “I wonder where the nearest settled spot is.”

(Kevin) “Well, lets see what we can pull off the network then. Local if possible, satellite if necessary – although that will take a little rigging.”

   He pointed some of the Thralls with the right skills at that. It wasn’t like he, Marty, or (probably) Xellos were much on computer hacking… Well, OK, Marty did know some – but none of them were specialists in it, and Gerald WAS – although Xellos watched as well.