Saturday, March 29, 2014

Ironclads: Action at Palmyra Island

Palmyra Island Mississippi, 25 FEB 1863. 
This is a night action, set on a river roughly six hexes wide, winding across three maps. The ironclad USS Indianola begins halfway across map 1 and needs to make it to map 3 without losing more than 50% hull or flotation. She is pursued by CSS (formerly USS) Queen of the West and Webb, wooden vessels built as rams. They come on at the edge of map 1 on the first turn. Both are faster than Indianola--Webb is capable of a blazing 18 hexes per turn!--and perhaps more importantly, both have guns with good fields of fire, and heavily armored bows. The Confederates also get two dummy counters to simulate the Indianola's lack of tactical information.
Historically, Indianola suffered seven rams before she limped to the riverbank, ran aground and surrendered.
In this game, both sides moved downriver, with the Confederates keeping all four ships (two real, two bogus) together and moving at speed 8 or so. On turn 3, rolls for stack flares dispelled one dummy counter; on turn 4, the two sides were at range 9, just within targeting range and also within the narrow arc of Indianola's stern guns. One shot nicked the paint of QotW's armored prow, the other removed the second dummy; that was about all the success the Union had. Indianola swerved back and forth across the river, trying to avoid rams; as she headed toward a riverbank at full speed, I ordered "Stand by to portage!", which would have been a good move if I could have managed it. Webb missed the ram but raced past and boxed her in.  The Union ship was raked fore and aft, taking serious hull damage from the Confederate heavy guns, while her own shells couldn't get past the Confederate bow armor. A critical hit jammed her rudder, which made her course fatally predictable; Queen of the West plowed into her, stove in her stern and sank her. Decisive victory, Confederates. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Red Hand of Mars: Zombie Attack

It was past midnight when they were awakened by the sound of a gunshot. Salisbury, Sobson and Faustmann grabbed their weapons and made their way from their rooms in the guest hall onto the wall of the inner bailey. They discovered a group of men swarming up the stairs from the outer bailey--not peasants with pitchforks, but tough men with military training. Salisbury traded pistol fire with them, but the enemy advanced unchecked until Faustmann rashly and heroically charged the point man and dealt him a knockout blow. The rest of the enemy squad came up the stairs, pistols and shotguns at the ready. Salisbury, realizing they were outnumbered and outgunned, grabbed Faustmann's collar and retreated to the footbridge which spanned the gap between the bailey wall and the second story of the  keep. Sobson, the mechanic, was already removing the pegs which held the bridge in place. The three men retreated into the keep before a hail of gunfire, and threw the bridge down moments before the attackers reached it. Salisbury held them back with his pistol for a few seconds before his luck finally ran out; a slug tore through his left arm, spinning him to the ground. One of the attackers leapt across from the wall to the keep, but Salisbury's defense had bought enough time for Faustmann to seize a table from the Baron's study; the boxer lunged forward with the table as a ram, and the attacker was shoved out the door to fall sixteen feet to the cobbles below.
Inside the keep, Lady Stella and her maid went to the third floor to see to Margaret Heathmoor, who was still working in her lab. Mr. Sator followed, armed with a swept-hilt saber. Heathmoor continued to compound her healing serum; after a few seconds, Lady Stella dredged up memories of her chemistry classes and began mixing a few of her own concoctions.
Meanwhile, Father Albertus Neihus saw the attackers chase Salisbury and Faustmann into the keep. The padre had brought a hunting rifle with him, in the hopes of  boar or roe buck; now he stepped to the window, shouldered the weapon, and fired on a different type of prey.  One of the attackers stumbled, seriously wounded. As the others looked up to find the source of the fire, the priest saw their faces in the moonlight; two of them were the Thule Society men who had argued with the baron that afternoon! The return fire barely missed--one round even tore his collar--and Albertus hastily retreated from the window.
The attackers, stymied at the crossing to the second floor, found their way to the keep's main door on the ground level. The journalist Rathstein raced inside just ahead of them and bounded up the stairs. At the landing, Rathstein turned and fired at point blank range. The leading Thule man fell--but seconds later he rose again, his undead flesh already collapsing and his skin withering, and attacked.
Faustmann remained on the second floor to defend the baron. Sobson scampered upstairs to bar the door to the lab, while Salisbury, Rathstein and  Neihus fought a desperate gun battle. The Thule todtruppen forced them to retreat to the third floor. Lady Stella unbarred the lab door, intending to use her home made smoke flask. And then Sator acted. One quick lunge with the sword, and he ran Heathmoor through. As the woman fell dying, Sator flung an improvised firebomb at Stella. The mechanic Sobson, unarmed and trapped at the end of the lab, tossed a rope out the window and slid down to the ground to escape. Moments later, Sator followed.
Lady Stella quickly put out the flames on her skirt; with the room filling with smoke, she opened the lab door. Unfortunately, just as she did so, the attackers reached the top of the stairs. Rathstein and Salisbury were unconscious; Neihus still stood but was badly wounded. The Thule man saw Lady Stella and demanded "You are the Englanderin scientist?" Stella, startled, said "Yes" and the man instantly aimed his arc pistol at her and took her hostage.
The Thule Society men withdrew. They had paid a heavy price--of the eight men who attacked, four were dead, another was a zombie, and one was seriously wounded--but they had not lost the arc generator or arc pistol and they succeeded in capturing "the Englishwoman scientist". Little did they realize they had the wrong one! Sator had disappeared into the night. Margaret Heathmoor lay dead and her notes were either burnt or missing, but one last vial of regeneration serum was beside her....


Friday, March 21, 2014

Red Hand of Mars: Inquiries and Theories

From the Strelsau Bullenspiel:
Streets Covered In Blood
Martian Influence Suspected
Dateline: Sternberg (Wilhelm Rathstein)
Rumors have reached as far as Strelsau of the horrible happenings at Sternberg. Normal working men have suddenly gone on crazed killing sprees, turning on loved ones and strangers alike. Over a score of innocent men, women and children have fallen victim to these mindless murderers—the latest being newly engaged Freda Adenaur, age 16, of Jungwirth. Why did young Freda die? For the answer, your intrepid correspondent traveled to Sternberg to investigate.
Fraulein Adenaur was slain by Karl Schmidt, a local Sternberg millworker, at the Okoberfest celebration in Sternberg Castle. No connection between the two is known; from all accounts, Schmidt simply went mad, and Adenaur was unfortunate enough to be nearby. Driven by madness to superhuman strength, Schmidt slew the young woman with one brutal punch. He then seriously injured Augustus Klein (41, Sternberg) and attacked others before being dispatched by Mr Jimothy Sobson of Strelsau, with the able assistance of noted Strelsau boxer Mr. Charles Faustmann, Mr. Luther Hart (Sternberg), and Captain R. von Hentzau of the King’s Own Hussars.

Foreign Scientist Distributes Secret Serum

What was the cause of Schmidt’s madness? No one knows, but investigators have reason to suspect an elixir created by English scientist Margaret Heathmoor. Miss Heathmoor, who left England for reasons unknown, claims the nostrum is intended to aid the recovery of injured soldiers. Baron Sternberg approved the research, but he must now be rethinking that decision, in light of its cost. The English scientist claims the formula is harmless, but her Ruritanian guinea pigs would tell a different story, if they were alive. Half a dozen men are known to have taken the so-called regenerative serum; all six went mad and attacked bystanders until they were slain. Heathmoor and Sternberg’s Burgomeister H. Schultz have no record that Schmidt had taken this serum. Did he receive a stolen dose, perhaps with the connivance of Heathmoor’s “American” research assistant? Did Schmidt contract this plague of madness from a previous victim? Martian aerial craft were spotted in the vicinity—but why? Are Heathmoor or her “friend”, the mysterious Stella Vanderbolt, agents of the English government—or of Mars? For the answers to these and other hard-hitting questions, read tomorrow’s Strelsau Bullenspiel !

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Red Hand of Mars: New Blood

On the morning of the boxing match, two persons of interest arrived in Sternberg on the morning train from Strelsau. One was Jimothy Sobson, native Ruritanian of English parents, a talented greasemonkey who'd come to enjoy the beer and watch Faustmann fight. The other was Nigel Salisbury, an aristocratic Englishman of military age and bearing, although he traveled in civilian attire. Both made their way to the castle  in time for the boxing match. Sobson quaffed the local brew, mingled with the peasants, an dheard tales of the recent spate of madmen; Salisbury went to the viewing platform and met the Baron, Captain von Hentzau, Lady Stella and Mr. Sator.
They all watched the bout--or more accurately, they all attended, as Lady Stella tried not to watch. And all went well, until, half an hour after the match finished, a man--a local working man  named Schmidt, nothing remarkable by the look of him--turned on another member of the crowd and struck him savagely, felling him in a single blow. The man spun and, without any visible provocation, struck a willowy young woman in the throat, mortally injuring her.  The crowd scattered away from the madman--except for Sobson, Faustmann and Salisbury, each of whom, impelled by his own motives, rushed toward the attacker.
Sobson and Faustmann tried to take Scmidt away from the crowd, only to find that the man was enraged and not to be calmed. Further, he was remarkably strong, his punches clumsy but brutally powerful.
Meanwhile, as Salisbury pushed through the crowd, another man--later found to be a local clerk named Kohler--howled with fury and swung wildly at him. Salisbury easily evaded the blows and pressed on to the castle stables, where he seized a shovel for use as an improvised weapon. Kohler, distracted, turned on another man and broke his jaw, then headed for the viewing platform. Lady Stella fled but Harriett was not as quick, and Kohler knocked the servant girl down. Salisbury returned to engage Kohler, but they had barely exchanged blows with the Ruritanian cavalry officer, von Hentzau, casually shot the madman in the back of the head. Harriett, who lay stunned at Kohler's feet, was covered in splattered gore.
Salisbury, appalled at the sudden death and von Hentzau's sang froid, turned back to help Sobson and Faustmann, who were trading blows with Schmidt and coming off the worse. Sobson fell. Faustmann gambled on a risky flurry of blows which staggered Schmidt but failed to take him down. Schmidt's counterattack struck home and Faustmann found himself on the ground, dazed. Luther Hartmann, the local fighter, rushed and with a mighty blow knocked Schmidt to the ground; Hartmann turned to gloat over the fallen Faustmann, but had barely opened his mouth when Schmidt sprang to his feet and continued the fight. Schmidt belted Salisbury with a blow that rocked him back on his heels, then turned and hammered Hartmann with a body blow that knocked him cold.
Meanwhile Lady Stella ran towards the castle keep, looking for help. She found Mr Sator standing at the gate between the inner bailey and outer bailey, watching the crowd scatter. She implored Sator for assistance, but he demurred, calmly pointing out that Harriett--who had come stumbling toward the gate--didn't appear to be seriously injured and that the blood that covered her didn't seem to be her own, and therefore aid was not necessary. Stella, disgusted, went into the keep and upstairs to find Margaret Heathmoor, who she knew to have medical training.
Near the stables, the battle with Schmidt continued. Salisbury and Faustmann had given up on knocking him out, and were trying to restrain him. Sobson, with a natural mechanic's instinct for broken things, had seen Schmidt's broken jaw knitting together before his horrified eyes. He snatched the shovel away from Salisbury and brought it down, axelike, onto Schmidt's head. The blade sank in and blood splashed, but Schmidt fought on. As von Hentzau sauntered over, pistol in hand, the three men finally managed to drag the madman down, The cavalryman holstered his weapon with visible reluctance, and began binding Schmidt's arms. All concerned heaved a sigh of relief...until Schmidt, with a Herculean effort, managed to snap the rope!  That broke through von Hentzau's sunny demeanor; he cursed, yanked out his pistol, and fired. The heavy slug plowed a furrow across Schmidt's forehead but didn't knock him out. The madman twisted and struck Salisbury unconscious, dislodging the Englishman from his back. This proved his undoing, as Sobson brought the shovel blade down hard, severing the spine. Schmidt's feet drummed, his hand clutched at the cobblestones, and then, at last, he fell still.

_Unknown to all, a Martian agent watched the final scene of the drama with quiet amusement. He noted that Salisbury, Faustmann, Sobson, and the servant Harriett had all been exposed to the blood of one or the other of the madmen..._

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Red Hand of Mars

As a break from D&D, I'm running a Victorian Science Fiction mini-campaign using the Ubiquity rules from Leagues of Adventure.

Chapter the First

During the last week of Ruritanian Oktoberfest, an English lady, Stella Vanderbolt, and her maid arrive at Sternberg station with the intent of visiting a college friend who is staying at the Sternberg castle. A dashing Ruritanian cavalry captain, Hauptman Rupert von Hentzau, sees the women struggling with their luggage; he introduces himself and retains a laborer to carry the valises. The man turns out to be Charles Faustmann, a boxer of some minor notoriety, who had just arrived from Strelsau for a bout scheduled the next day. Von Hentzau, who is a cousin of Baron von Sternberg, invites Charles to come along to the castle; he says that the Baron was something of a boxer himself, before the injury that crippled him, and would be glad to meet Charles.Also, there has been some trouble in the area--rioting, murders, something of that sort, he's heard--and while visitors would probably be safe in the village, they would definitely be safe in the castle. They all travel together, the cavalryman flirting gallantly  with both the lady and her maid while the boxer ridges alongside the diver.

The schloss covers the top of the hill overlooking Sternberg village. It's surrounded by a moat; the grey stone walls encircle an area about 120ft wide by 200 feet long, and the keep rises 60 feet high or more. It was built in he 1400s, when the Turks and Hungarians were serious threats, but has since been renovated to be more of a residence and less a fortress. The gatehouse is in the northeast corner; the carriage enters there, travels up the slope to the west end of the castle, makes the turn and comes to the keep.

Von Hentzau takes them into the keep and introduces them to Erik von Sternberg. He is lying on a couch, and apologizes for being unable to rise. He explains that he was in Vienna during the Martian attack and was injured while fighting the raiders. He is pleased to meet the visitors, particularly Faustmann, and they talk boxing for a few minutes. Charles commits a social blunder by asking whether the Baron ever made money at boxing, but von Sternberg gently points out than a gentleman fights for honor. The cavalryman suggests that Charles's bout tomorrow be held in the castle bailey, so the baron and his servants can watch; the baron takes enthusiastically to the idea. He invites everyone to dinner, including Charles-which is rather stretching the boxer's "minor celebrity" status, but the baron can't get out and is hungry for new people to talk to.

While waiting for dinner, Faustmann gets a servant's tour of the castle. While in the kitchen, he hears a little more about the troubles von Hentzau mentioned. In the neighboring village of Tausendorf, four men apparently went mad and attacked their families and anyone else they ran across. Details are not clear, but it appears it took a great deal of effort to stop the madmen: "Old Fritz said he shot one right in the chest and it didn't even slow him least, that's what Old Fritz said.." Several people were killed.

Meanwhile, Lady Stella goes to the third floor of the keep to visit her friend, Margaret Heathmoor, who is hard at work in her laboratory. Margaret had studied medicine at Oxford at the same time Lady Stella was there and, as two of the few female students, they became friends. Margaret then moved to Vienna to pursue her studies, and met the Baron there. Now Margaret is working on behalf of the baron, trying to devise a serum to induce regeneration of his back and legs. She tries to explain the theory to Lady Stella but did not specialize in medicine or biology, and gets lost about fifteen seconds into the explanation. Margaret is upset and distracted; she explains that her formula should be perfect but in fact, when tested, it has serious problems, and she can't understand the disparity between her predictions and the results. She needs to get results within a short time; the baron has an understanding with a young countess, but the countess can't be expected to marry a cripple, and there are plenty of eligible bachelors who are quite willing to replace him. Lady Stella is curious as to exactly what the problems are, but  Margaret becomes distraught. It might have been an unfortunate scene, but a distraction arises in the form of someone entering the laboratory--a Mr. Sator, from Vienna, who is assisting Margaret. Lady Stella resolves to investigate through other avenues.

At dinner, the Baron is entertaining, telling the story of his fight with the Martians, talking about Ruritania's right to have a colony on Mars as Britain and other major powers do, and asking about unrest in the capital. It becomes clear that, while von Sternberg is courteous and friendly, he is not intellectually gifted and has a narrow point of view. By contrast, young von Hentzau takes a keen interest in everyone and is clever, witty, and charming--so charming, in fact, that he leaves dinner early to go off with one of the servant girls. Margaret Heathmoor also leaves early, to go back to work in her lab. Mr Sator is also at dinner, but he asks few questions, and his own replies are terse and unencouraging. He perks up when Charles speaks about his ambitions as a fighter, and asks whether Charles is also a swordsman, but on learning that the answer is no, he immediately loses interest and goes back to picking at his dinner. Lady Stella is faintly horrified at the thought of watching boxing, more so in light of Charles' slightly manic, and mercenary, enthusiasm.The dessert arrives and everyone's attention is occupied by an excellent baumkuchen, coffee and brandy.

After dinner, Lady Stella retires to her rooms on the third floor of the keep; some time during the evening, she sees a carriage leave the castle. Charles stays up late, worrying about the next day's fight; from his window in the servant's quarters, he sees that the lights are still on in the laboratory.

The next morning dawns crisp and clear, a beautiful October day. The festival crowd begins to stream up from the village. Charles spends his time working the crowd, making sure people know his name--a plan which could backfire, if he loses the match. He hears news of more murders last night. In the village of Denewald, only three miles away, two more men went on a crazed killing spree. The cook's assistant relates that her brother talked to their cousin whose girlfriend's best friend was from Denewald, and she said that he said that he said that she said the madmen were amazingly strong and tough; one took a mattock blow straight to the forehead that should have killed anyone, but he got up and kept fighting until, finally, enough men with clubs and axes piled on to put him down. Three men, five women and three children were killed, and several other men seriously injured. No one has an explanation for why the men would have gone mad. There is talk of demon possession; the parish priest discounts this, but has already sent a message to the bishop anyway.

Noon arrives, and with it, the boxing match. The baron donates several barrels of beer to the proceedings, which the crowd appreciates. The time comes, and Charles faces his opponent. Neither Margaret nor Stella attend; Mr Sator is present but spends most of his time gazing over the crowd rather than the fight. In contrast, the baron watches every detail of the fight keenly.The local champion, it turns out, is Luther Hartmann, a brawny man perhaps a year or two younger than Charles and just as big. Charles swallows nervously but bets on himself to win. In the first round, Charles feints and then lands one good blow, which gathers him a point but doesn't really stagger his foe. In round two, Luther adjusts his defense, and Charles fails to get in a good hit; Luther doesn't get one past Charles' defenses either, but his eyes promise that it's just a matter of time. In the third round, it's much the same; the air is thinner here than in Strelsau and Charles is starting to feel it. Both men are covered in sweat. Most of the crowd is chanting for Luther. During the break, Charles goes back and increases his bet. He's ahead, a little, on points, and if he can survive the final round, at least he'll make money. No, he decides, that's not good enough. No one is going to remember a fighter who just barely beat his opponent. He needs a big win--something that will have people talking about him, something they'll hear about back in Strelsau. His brows go down, his jaw tightens. He strides back into the ring. They fight, circling, throwing a quick jab, both men looking for an opening. Finally, with thirty seconds left, Luther wades in. He's fast, two quick lefts and then a brutal right that comes out of nowhere...but somehow, Charles guesses what's coming. he ducks and turns and takes the blow on the shoulder, and Luther is off balance for just that instant that Charles needs. He steps across and hammers a left into the ribs, a right into the gut, a left jab, and another right heavy into the solar plexus. As the bell  rings, Luther is still on his feet but doubled up, trying to breathe, clearly out of the fight. Ten seconds before, the crowd was chanting Luther's name, but now it's "Charles! Charles! Charles!"...

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Ironclads, Charleston Harbor

The Charleston Harbor (31 January 1863) scenario pits six Union wooden vessels and three decoys  against two Confederate ironclads, a blockade runner and three decoys. It's a night scenario, so ships can't identify or shoot targets more than four hexes away; we allowed shooting at gun flashes if the target was five or six hexes away, but with a penalty. We also said that critical hits and specials would be kept secret unless they had obviously visible effects.
Union objectives were to reduce the two ironclads to less than 50% Flotation and prevent the blockade runner from crossing the map. The two Rebel ships were Palmetto State and Chicora; I didn't get the names of the Union ships.
The map has two fairly wide channels north and south, with an extremely narrow one in the middle. I elected to bring both ironclads into the southern channel and see if we could destroy the blockaders in detail; they couldn't bring ships over from the northern channel because, not knowing when the Stag was due to enter the map, they daren't leave a channel unguarded. The leading Union ships quickly established that our two leading ships were the real thing; one of them found that out by ending up nose to nose with Chicora. I lowered the spar torpedo and gleefully rammed, at a combined speed of 12. USS Keystone had started the game with 12 Flotation points; my shooting had reduced her to 4 due to a critical hit (although I didn't know that); the spar torpedo took off 10 Flotation and the ram did another 10. Unfortunately using a bomb-on-a-stick isn't the safest ploy in the world, and neither is a bow-to-bow ram, so I took 50% of my own Flotation in that attack.  It also brought my speed down to zero; and Palmetto State gaily sailed on without me, into the midst of the Union squadron, eliciting the comment "When I said I wanted concentration of fire, I meant ours, not theirs." But Palmetto State's armor justified his confidence, and he dd a pretty good job of handling the Union ships. By turn 11 the ironclad was below 50% flotation and had some engine and stack damage, but two Union ships were dead in the water and another one was well ventilated by shot. And, mor importantly, we'd pulled them over to the center of the map by a sufficient amount that our blockade runner was able to zip in along the south edge of channel, past the fight and away, never getting within the four-hex sighting range. Our ships had to withdraw due to the flotation damage but since the Stag accomplished her objective, we called it a tie.