Horror


This month’s Scientific American has an interesting article about the colonialist routes of the modern conservation movement, focusing on the role of John Muir in the foundation of Yosemite National Park. John Muir was the charismatic founder of the Sierra Club, a big organization in the conservation movement internationally and especially in the USA. John Muir was also an enthusiastic genocider:

his position was that of champion for a mean, brutal policy. It was in regard to Indian extermination[1]

Muir thought of the native Americans of Yosemite as “hideous” and “strange creatures,” and had no respect for them. He wrote that

they seemed to have no right place in the landscape, and I was glad to see them fading out of sight down the pass.

Which is an interesting example of how counter-productive such racism can be. The article presents compelling evidence that those people who had “no right place in the landscape” had actually carefully shaped the entire conservation area through generations of traditional slash-and-burn farming practices, which Muir ignored or actively reviled, with the consequence that the park lost much of its original beauty and character within Muir’s lifetime.

It is of course no surprise that an enthusiastic proponent of genocide should refuse to listen to or respect the ideas of those whose land he stole, and a bitter dreg of schadenfreude that his ignorance and racism led to the corruption of his dream stolen property. That will no doubt have been of little consolation to the men, women and children murdered in pursuit of his conservationist dream.

I wonder if the desire for pristine wilderness amongst those early conservationists was driven at least partly by a desire to reach an itch in the conscience that couldn’t be scratched. No humans on the land means being able to look away from what you’ve done, and to maintain a pretense of terra nullius, that the land was never occupied anyway, that those people who “have no right place in the landscape” were just drifting through anyway – only white men can touch the land in a way that leaves indelible marks, and to the romanticist those marks can only be the cruel marks of industry. So the only solution to protect the land from the evil touch of men is to set it aside – and carefully look away from the fact that the land was being nurtured by red men before you came and took it.

From this guilty itch and wilful blindness was formed the impulse to set aside land for conservation – the essence of the modern conservation movement. There is no doubt that this movement has done a lot of good for the environment, but it’s worth remembering the bloody crucible in which that impulse was born, and wondering how different the modern conservation movement would be if Muir had listened to those people he wand to see “fading out of sight,” instead of hastening their journey down the pass …

fn1: these are the words of his future wife’s friend. They should serve as a reminder that at the time of genocide in America and Australia, opinion was not settled on the rightness of the matter, and those who commissioned the deed were well aware that there was debate as to whether it was right.

If you go down to Gotanda today ...

If you go down to Gotanda today …

On Sunday I played a quick(ish) game of Malifaux with two of my regular role-playing crew. This was my first ever game of Malifaux, and I was quite impressed – it’s a smooth and enjoyable small squad battle game, with a cute mechanic and powers that are easy to learn, as well as very pretty design and a rich atmosphere. This is a brief report of the battle, which ended in a brutal all-party conflagration in the middle of the field.

Don't go to the nursery, dreamer, you won't like what you see ...

Don’t go to the nursery, dreamer, you won’t like what you see …

I played the Neverborn, and my foes were the Resurrectionists and the Guild (I think). We played on an 8×8 battlemat, with two strategies each. My team were:

  • Zoraida, a leader with a heavy magical bent
  • Teddy, a big furry bastard with teeth
  • Baby Kade, a small and unpleasant child with nasty knives
  • Candy, a blank-eyed Goth Lolita with a bag of poisoned sweets
  • Terror Tot, your classic vengeful infant
  • Sorrow, some kind of spirit creature with a mean turn in misery and pain
  • Voodoo Doll, Zoraida’s totem and a big mistake

The Guild player, Big R, went for a small squad of Death Marshalls, the Scales of Justice and some random guy with a big hammer (?) who died. The Resurrectionist player, Aloha-san, went for an absolutely brutally murderous leader called Seamus, some gravedigger dude, a Flesh Construct that is famous for taking huge damage, and a woman who could bury herself. Which didn’t work. There was also a zombie punk samurai thing. My foes went for strategies based on putting markers down on territory, one of which was Squatter’s Rights, which led to a protracted battle between undead and guild members in the middle of the board.

Because Candy and Baby Kade both have “Manipulation,” which makes it a challenge for opponents to attack them, I went for two secretive strategies:

  • Deliver a message: Candy has to rock up right next to an enemy leader and use all her actions for the round delivering it a message. Standing in front of an enemy leader doing nothing is … a challenging proposition. But if you have a challenging proposition, why not put it to a blank-eyed Lolita with a bag of poisoned sweets?
  • Bodyguard: Baby Kade had to stay alive as long as possible; at turn 4 (with two turns to go) I had to reveal that he was the bodyguard; I got bonus victory points if he was still alive with more than half hits at the end of the game. Baby Kade is fiendish difficult to hit, but he is just a baby …
Ted shambles toward Bethlehem

Ted shambles toward Bethlehem

When the battle started I split my forces, sending Zoraida, Candy and the Sorrow one way towards the Guild’s forces, and Teddy, Baby Kade and Terror Tot the other to take on the Resurrectionists. What’s not to like about a giant, blood-stained teddy bear with massive teeth and two psychotic babies crawling into battle? I soon discovered the power of this gang together – Terror Tot and Baby Kade both have pounce, which means that they get an automatic attack on anyone who moves into their engagement range, and once Teddy gets his hands on you you aren’t leaving the engagement. This little squad of creepy doom caught the Flesh Construct just after he had placed a marker down on a victory point. The Flesh Construct lasted into the 2nd Turn, and my little team came out of that encounter unscathed. Oh Teddy …

Meanwhile I discovered the power of the Voodoo Doll in a tight group. Selecting it to start with was a mistake, because it moved so slowly that Zoraida’s first action was to summon a new one with a spell, causing the old one to die. I could have used those 4 soulstone points on magic of some kind! The newly-summoned Voodoo Doll also got to put a “Sewn Fate” on a Death Marshall, which makes it vulnerable to all other attacks and means it takes damage if it injures the Doll. Zoraida started throwing magic at it to make it shoot its own men (she has a pretty turn in domination magic!) and the presence of the Sorrow meant that the Death Marshall kept taking damage from failed willpower duels. In desperation Big R had this unfortunate Marshall shoot the Voodoo Doll down, killing itself at the same time, and Zoraida just immediately summoned another one, which put a sewn fate on the next closest Marshall. This Marshall did so badly from the presence of the Sorrow that it was reduced to 1 wound simply through badly-timed activations and failed willpower duels, before it had even been attacked. But before it died it did manage to kill a member of its own team (Scales of Justice) at Zoraida’s bidding.

This was all a sideshow to the main action, though, which was the battle on the raised central area. Aloha-san and Big R had both selected a strategy which required taking and maintaining control of squares in the centre of the board, and they were beating the living (and un-living) crap out of each other for possession of those marks. The Resurrectionists were summoning zombies from the dead, and Seamus was blasting hell out of anyone who he could see, but Lady Justice (the Guild leader) was doing an awesome job of mincing his crew. This gave me plenty of time to pull my crew into the battle unharmed, and I entered the centre of the table with no injuries and a full crew. At this point I had to reveal Kade’s bodyguard status, and Seamus immediately went to town on him with his pistols – but Baby Kade was on his own now because in order to win I had to get Candy right up to the base of the nearest leader (Lady Justice) within 2 Turns (the game ended at Turn 6). She could get within 4″ in Turn 5, but in order to deliver her message in Turn 6 she couldn’t move (it uses a full action). Fortunately, I could get Teddy to within striking range of Lady Justice. Once he hit her, he could push her 4″ and get into base-to-base contact with her, activating his “gobble you whole” power.

Turn 6 started with Candy in base-to-base contact with Lady Justice, Terror Tot in pounce range, and Teddy ready to munch, but with one other Guild crewmember within missile-fire range. Seamus, the only remaining Resurrectionist, was letting rip with everything he had on Baby Kade – an unfortunately terminal situation for Baby Kade. Initiative was drawn – and Big R won! Lady Justice could act first, and dismember Candy before she could deliver her message! Except … that in the previous round one of my crew (Zoraida?) had cast a spell that induced “Mood Swing” on the other Guild crewmember, allowing me to choose to activate that crewmember in place of any other Guild crew at a time of my choosing. I chose now, so Lady Justice didn’t get to tear Candy apart, the activated crew member failed to kill her, and she delivered her message:

You are going to die

After which all my crew whaled on her, finishing, appropriately, with Teddy delivering the killing blow and swallowing her whole. The other Guild crewmember died during this Turn too, as did Baby Kade, which left me with all but one of my original crew, the Resurrectionists with just their leader, and the Guild completely killed, their leader eaten in one bite by Teddy.

But when we added up the points from our strategies we were all on equal victory points.

I think that’s the definition of a Pyrrhic draw, at least for the Guild. But at least Teddy didn’t go home hungry…

Malifauxcent thoughts

This game was excellent, and the battles and magic so much fun that it was hard to remain focused on strategies – we all just wanted to have at each other and see what happened. The basic mechanic involves drawing a card that resembles a standard playing card (but with very pretty gothy designs), using the number plus an attribute to determine success. The symbols on the cards can act as triggers for additional effects. Every round you also have a hand of 6 cards you can use to “cheat fate,” basically swapping your drawn card for one from your hand to get a better result. Sometimes you get “+” or “-” which are like advantages/disadvantages in D&D 5th Edition (you pull two cards instead of one and choose the best or worst respectively). The abilities and talents of the creatures are all on easily accessible cards, and there is a minimum of tokens and other fiddliness. All you need to do is flip over your card to see what it can do, then do the card draws as required. Soulstones (if you have any) can be used to further cheat these draws.

This mechanism is really fun and, in conjunction with the wide range of sneaky and devious manoeuvres on the cards, generates a really rich and challenging combat environment. Once you’re used to the rules – which are very easy and quick to pick up, and all there on the card – it’s really easy to make decisions and work out what to do, and with just 5-7 crew members it’s not hard to get abreast of your options. Overall it seems like a really well-designed and fun system. There is a role-playing game of Malifaux coming out soon, and I think it could make a really cool system and game world. This game is well worth trying if you get a chance!

The most well-respected methods for reducing carbon emissions seem to be carbon taxes and carbon price mechanisms. I have written before about how I think they will not work to achieve a zero carbon state, based on lessons from the field of public health. Here I want to explore in a little more detail just what we might expect in the long-term from a carbon taxation system.

An illustrative example: Effects of carbon taxes on fishing

Fish are a staple food in Japan, and fishing is a carbon intensive practice because fishing fleets use diesel oil. We can get a rough estimate of how much carbon is required to produce a single piece of fish, and use this to estimate how price would change under a carbon tax. First, consider the total carbon emitted in catching fish: this website puts it at between 1750 and 3300 kg for a ton of fish, with the highest carbon emission amongst farmed fish. The analysis suggests that 1kg of wild-caught frozen salmon will be associated with 1kg of CO2; a carbon footprint of up to 6Kg can be expected for fish that is caught in say Chile, and shipped to the US. Taking 5kg as a conservative estimate of the carbon footprint of a kg of fish, we can see that  for a carbon tax of $X per ton, $X/200 is added per kg of fish sold in the super market. So for a price of $250 per ton, we get $1.25 per kilogram; for $2500 per ton, we get $12.50 per kilogram.

The Coles website tells me that salmon fillets are currently $30 per kg. A carbon price of $2500 a ton will increase their cost by approximately 30%.

We can calculate the cost for fresh fish in a supply chain directly, so let’s try this for a typical fresh Tokyo fish, Mackerel. The Seafish.org website has a carbon footprint profiler which indicates that you need to take into account “landed to live weight” and “final processed form to landed weight,” which we can estimate fairly conservatively (though I don’t know the details). This ancient paper (pdf) gives an efficiency of about 3% for shrimp fishing, while this FAO document gives landed weights of between 3 and 84%. Working with Mackerel from that document, let’s assume that only 3% of caught fish is actually edible[1], and make that the “landed to live weight” ratio. The FAO provides a handy guide to “conversion factors” for converting landed fish to actual final processed form, as an annex (pdf) to this guide. Taking the mackerel factor, let’s assume that only 50% of the final fish is eaten, in the form of a fillet. The site then asks us to show how much the fish traveled before and after processing, and by what means. Let’s assume it is landed fresh in Tokyo after a 5 day fishing trip, and that it traveled 40km by truck to the processing plant, then 40 km by van to the shops, and was eaten within a day (pretty standard in Tokyo). Using “Trawling for Herring in the NW Atlantic” as our model fishing method, we get 7.4 tons of CO2 for every ton of final product. So we would need to add X/133 to the per kg price of the fish. For a carbon price of $250, that’s $1.90; for $2500, a $19.00 impost. This site tells me that Mackerel in Japan costs between 600 and 8000 Yen per kilogram ($6-80), so a $2500/ton carbon tax would change this price range to $25-100 per kg. The Coles website tells me Australians already pay $20/kg for tinned mackerel – is it very likely that Japanese will baulk at paying $25 for fresh mackerel? Furthermore, this is for the most inefficient live catch and processing values I can find. If the live catch efficiency goes up to 10%, for example, the impost for those carbon taxes drops to $0.60 – $6.

No one on earth is currently considering a $2500 ton carbon tax. Even $250 a ton is considered radical, but $250 a ton will increase the final price of mackerel by $0.60 – $1.90 per kg. Does anyone seriously believe that this impost will be sufficient to force the fishing fleet to go carbon-neutral?

What are the long-term impacts of carbon taxes?

I chose fishing as an example because it differs from electricity generation in one simple way: short of returning to sailboats, there is no viable low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels for fishing boats at present. So the fishing industry will have little choice but to absorb the price of a carbon tax, pass it on to consumers, or disappear, unless and until an alternative energy source becomes available. If our goal is to get to a carbon zero economy and still be able to eat fish, a carbon tax is surely not going to work. But there are other aspects of the economy that are entirely vulnerable to a carbon tax, most especially electricity generation and public transport. So how well are carbon taxes predicted to work in these industries?

There does not seem to be a lot of available modeling on the long-term impact of carbon taxes, but those reports that have been published are not promising. For example, this report by the Citizens’ Climate Lobby describes a carbon tax starting at $10/tonne and increasing to $250/tonne at $10/year. They use four different established models to identify total, and industry- and region-wide effects of the carbon tax. Their final estimate of the effect of the carbon tax is a 50% reduction in emissions by 2035 (page 30). After that the gains decline. This report, from the carbon tax center, proposes a system of tax and credits that appears to correspond with a $113/tonne tax, and would lead to 25% reductions in emissions by 2024 on a 2012 baseline.

350.org says we need to get to 350ppm by the end of the century to avoid catastrophe; we’re currently on 400ppm and increasing at 2ppm per year. If we halve global emissions by 2035, we’ll be above 420ppm, and still increasing.

As another example, my July electricity bill was $66 for 214kwh of electricity. In Tokyo at the moment this is mostly gas, and would (according to Wikipedia) have released a total of 107 kg of CO2, based on median emissions. At $250/ton that’s going to increase my electricity bill by about $25/month. How much electricity use will that discourage? $25 is a cheap meal out with a few drinks. At $2500/ton it’s $250/month – two cheap meals out and two trips to a love hotel. Am I willing to give up two dates a month in order to keep my electricity use unchanged?

I don’t believe that even a $250/ton carbon tax will be sufficient to force carbon neutrality in electricity generation, and $2500/ton, while it will make solar and wind competitive and force a fairly rapid switch to renewables, may not lead to much change in other behavior, especially in industries like shipping and trucking where alternatives are expensive and still barely off the drawing board. The Citizens’ Climate Lobby report tells us that in the USA each $1/ton of carbon tax is a $.009/gallon increase in petrol prices; $2500 a ton will increase petrol prices by $22.5/gallon. Currently in Tokyo gasoline is sold at probably $2/gallon. Will people completely stop using cars at $25/gallon? Given that a single journey in Japan can cost $5 in parking, and a car can travel 35 mpg, i.e. two trips per parking cost, the total cost of those two trips will go from $14 to $35 in Tokyo. Is that sufficient to stop recreational use of cars?

These reports make clear that even sizeable taxes of up to $250/ton are not enough to get where we need to go. The first report, suggesting $10/year increases in the tax, shows the obvious problem – as the tax grows, the incremental benefit of further increases declines, so going to higher taxes will have smaller and smaller effects. By the time we’re at $300/ton, a further $10/year increase will be less than the effect of inflation on prices in many countries. People will stop responding to those taxes by that time. And as I showed in the case of fishing, there will be many industries where this cost can be passed onto consumers with a negligible effect. I routinely buy fish fillets in Tokyo for $2/fillet, am I seriously going to reduce my carbon footprint if the price of such cheap food doubles?

What we need to bear in mind here is that we don’t want to reduce recreational use of cars by 50% over the next 30 years, or by 90%; realistically, any CO2 emitting form of transport needs to be cut by 99%. These taxes alone are not going to do that.

What do we need to do to achieve carbon zero?

Carbon neutrality will not be achieved by taxes alone. We need additional government interventions to make it happen. Carbon taxes with appropriate transfers to ensure that poor people are compensated for the change are a good start, but they are only a start. We need to go a lot further if we want to achieve these goals. Some policy interventions should include:

  • Complete electrification of freight rail: Australia’s rail freight system (indeed all inter-city lines) is still diesel-powered; it should be electrified immediately, so that it can be shifted to a renewable energy source as the taxes bite
  • Expansion of passenger and freight rail: Most Australian cities are heavily dependent on road transport, which for the foreseeable future is immune to carbon abatement policies. As much as possible, the transport network needs to be shifted to rail, that can be electrified
  • Electrification of all buses: all public buses should be immediately electrified
  • Implementation of tollways: all major interstate highways should be shifted to a toll system, with tolls based on both distance travelled and journey speed, and tolls manipulated to ensure long distance travel is always cheaper by train and bus than by car
  • Construction of high speed rail: this is never going to be profitable in Australia, so it should be subsidized by government, using carbon tax proceeds, and prices fixed in such a way that it is always competitive with air travel and private road travel
  • Minimum price for air travel: Air travel will never be carbon neutral, so it needs to be discouraged or people need to find ways to use their journeys more efficiently (i.e. travel less often and stay longer). A minimum price will encourage this, and should be designed so that electric high speed rail is always cheaper
  • Nuclearization of all large ocean-going vessels: if it’s large enough to have a nuclear power source, it should. No freight should be carried on a CO2-emitting ship.
  • Reorientation of commercial fishing fleets around batteries and nuclear tankers: I don’t know if this is possible, but fishing needs to be redesigned so it is carbon neutral. If it isn’t yet possible to design battery powered ships, research funds should be dumped into this
  • A timetable for the banning of internal combustion engines: Some time in the future, internal combustion engines need to be banned. This timetable should be implemented now. By e.g. 2020, gasoline-using cars should be illegal, so people have 6 years to buy a battery car or convert to CNG; by 2025 or 2030, CNG cars should be illegal. That gives a 15 year time frame to completely electrify the personal transport industry
  • Immediate conversion of cars to compressed natural gas: This should be a brief boom industry, as all old cars are converted.
  • Lower all speed limits: so that cars travel more efficiently and private travel is less time-efficient than public transport
  • Ban all new coal-extraction licenses: No new coal mines should be built anywhere in Australia, and furthermore no new development should be allowed in connection with existing mines. Existing infrastructure bottlenecks to efficient extraction should be seen as a good thing.
  • Divestment laws: Investment funds should be required to divest all holdings in carbon-intensive industries on a reasonable but definitive timetable
  • Scale-up of electric charging points: Cars should be rechargable anywhere
  • Mandatory roof-top solar: for all businesses
  • Mandatory grid integration: no power company should be able to refuse a reasonable request to sell power into the grid.
  • Mandatory storage in new buildings, and subsidies to convert existing buildings: apartment blocks are not efficient solar collectors, but they could still be built with sufficient storage that they can store some solar power for release onto the grid at night
  • Ban all rice and cotton production in the Murray-Darling watershed: water needs to be returned to the river for greening of the river course, because restoring natural wetlands and green areas is essential to improving carbon sequestration
  • Huge rewilding and reforestation programs: Carbon sequestration through forestry management is essential, and this project needs to be undertaken immediately, so that it forms a key part of future carbon reduction strategies. It can be conducted in such a way as to support and restore biodiversity
  • Huge research grants on storage and renewable energy: We need to get to the point where electric trucks and ocean-going boats are a possibility within 20 years. This will need research. We should be doing it

And finally, I think that climate change denial should be illegal outside of scientific journals – if people want to claim it’s not happening they should be required to present peer-reviewed scientific evidence. Funding climate change denial should be a criminal act. The government should further refuse to offer contracts to organizations that have hosted denialists or funded denialists in e.g. the last 10 years. These people need to be driven out of public life and should have no influence on public debate. It is absolutely ludicrous that after three of the hottest months on record (April, May and June), the government’s business advisor is publicly claiming that a period of major global cooling is imminent. That dude should be unemployable, and preferably in stocks[2].

A lot of these programs will require major government subsidies, transfers and loans, and huge government intervention across a range of marketplaces. We need to stop acting as if the worst consequence of responding to the climate crisis is government intervention in markets, and start recognizing that it is the minimum requirement to stave off a civilization-level disaster. It’s huge government intervention now, or civilization collapse later.

So go looking back through history and ask yourself – has any civilization collapse ever been preventable through a small tax that raised the price of fish by 10%? I think you’ll find the answer is no. The emergency is coming, and we need to act as if it’s an emergency, not a minor market failure.

fn1: For farmed fish, this number should be near 100%, obviously.

fn2: This is clearly a rhetorical point

Eerily romantic

Eerily romantic

I have recently been exploring the shadowy and terrifying world of the Neath, in a fascinating and quite engaging game called Sunless Sea. This game is set in a location called Fallen London, an scattering of island archipelagos on a vast underground sea, which was formed at the conclusion of a previous game from the same company, Fallen London. This sunless world is an ocean in a deep cavern, full of horrors and strange stories. The game is viewed from above, essentially on a map, and you play the captain of a steamship who is plying the Neath (the name of the underground ocean) trying to become famous or rich or both. Based in the town of London, you travel between islands trading, picking up stories, fighting pirates, and doing the bidding of mysterious powers. Travel across the darkened seas is fraught with risks, however: in addition to the risk of running out of food and fuel and having to eat your crew, there are also pirates, monsters, and the ever-present growing fear of the darkness. Journeys have to be carefully spaced to ensure you can return to London before the fear mounts and your crew mutiny on you, or the nightmares consume you. There are also mysteries to unravel, and stories involving different organizations and kingdoms.

Strange shops in a strange world

Strange shops in a strange world

The game is viewed from above and there are no animations for battles or encounters, just text-based interaction as shown in the picture above. However, despite the lack of animations the graphics are very stylish and engaging, and very carefully build the sense of terror and weirdness that pervades the game. Drawn a little like a comic, but with a grim wash, and with a writing style that is a mixture of dark humour, Victorian prose, and elegant horror, the narrative really gets you involved in the world. It’s also quite challenging, and if you play it the way it is intended, death will be a common event. As the game progresses and the stakes get higher, the struggle with terror also becomes quite consuming, as you try to balance your need to travel the dark reaches of the farthest-flung islands with the compulsion to keep your terror from overwhelming you.

The game has a few flaws, however. First of all it has quite a sedate pace, so if you’re the kind of gamer who needs edge-of-the-seat energetic game play, it will probably bore you. Also, sometimes the mission details are hard to access, and the game doesn’t tell you when you have completed a task (in some cases), so you can feel lost at sea (literally!) when in fact you have met the conditions of a quest. It is also difficult to piece everything together into a coherent story, so sometimes it feels like the game just intends for you to grind, grind, grind – I still don’t have a sense of a unifying story or theme to the game, and I’m not sure if it will hold my attention if it does not have a theme. It is also quite hard to make money, though I have begun too, and the rules aren’t very deeply explained, so you spend a lot of time making pointless mistakes at first, and I suspect some players have given up early on because of this. However, once you’ve died a few times and googled a few things, the peculiarities of the world and its systems will begin to make sense.

With that in mind, I thought I’d produce here a list of tips for how to play, based on what I have learnt so far.

  • Always have good stocks of fuel: at first you will only be making small amounts of money, and may find it difficult to purchase things like weaponry; don’t give in to the temptation to spend your cash on a bigger gun when you don’t have much spare, because if you don’t have much fuel, you will find yourself unable to travel to make more money. Always retain enough fuel to at least be able to do a tomb-colonist run, so you can replenish fuel on the return. And always ensure you have enough fuel for the return journey when you head away from London – it is expensive everywhere else (except Palmerston) and if you run out on the high seas you are in big, big trouble
  • Keep your terror down: It is extremely hard to get your terror down from high levels, and/or expensive, so keep your terror down. The main way to do this is to sail through lighted areas, or close to shore. Sure, the pirate raiding requires that you sometimes sail away from the buoys, but you need to make sure that when you travel you stay in the light as much as possible. Especially on long missions, or missions which are going to themselves raise your terror (and many do!) you don’t need to also be burdened with terror built up through frivolous course-tracking
  • Take the blind bruiser’s gift: the only consequence is that later he will ask you to deliver some souls to a far-away place, and you will make your first big cash of the game when you do that
  • Build up admiralty’s favour: it gets you more lucrative and interesting missions, and access to cheaper repairs
  • Keep visiting Hunter’s Keep: Hunter’s Keep is very close to London, and spending time with the sisters will get your terror down. It may seem boring to drop in on a place where you keep having the same conversations, but that soon changes. Hunter’s keep is one of the first stories to reach its resolution, and if you play your cards right you can emerge from the ruins of the story a lot wealthier than you were at the start
  • Watch your nightmares: When you return to London with terror>50 points it automatically resets to 50 (which, btw, is not good!) but your “nightmare strength” increases. Nightmares on the high seas can lead to trouble, including higher terror and ultimately mutiny. It is extremely hard to get your nightmare strength down, but there is one surefire way: travel to the Chapel of Lights north-east-east of London, and visit the well; you can make a sacrifice here and though you incur a wound, you lose nightmares. Do this twice and you can get rid of almost all your nightmares (though having 2 wounds is very risky)
  • Go bat-hunting: bats are easy to kill, and if you throw their corpses overboard you lose a few points of terror. This is the only relatively reliable way I have found to get terror down a lot, though it is not cheap. Basically if you hang around a buoy near Venderbright (or the island of Tanah-Chook, near Venderbright) you will be regularly attacked by bats, but will gain no terror from your location. If you kill 10 or 20 swarms of bats you will get your terror down by 15-30 points, which is really useful. It will cost you in fuel and supplies, though you can recoup the supplies from bat-meat, so make sure you have spare money and fuel before you do this. I think terror affects your abilities, so it’s good to keep it low
  • Torpedos are useful: keep a few in reserve. I was ambushed by a Lifeberg on my way back from the Avid Horizon, and in a moment of desperation I unleashed some, that did it a lot of damage. I took some hull damage but it kept me alive. They cost a lot, but they can be fired early in the battle and do a lot of damage. Combat in Sunless Sea works by increasing illumination until you can see your enemy enough to shoot them, but for the bigger enemies (like Clay Pirates and Lifebergs) you need illumination 100 to get in a really good salvo against them. Getting to illumination 100 without getting sunk is extremely difficult, but torpedos do damage similar to a powerful gun salvo at illumination 50, so if you get ambushed by something much tougher than you they can be a handy way to get out of trouble
  • Keep visiting the old dude in Venderbright: At some point in Venderbright you will get the option to talk to the head of the tomb-colonists, who gives you a mission to explore and find the colours from 8 or so pages of a book. I found two of these colours but the game didn’t tell me I had them, and it took me ages to visit the old dude again. When I did I got an item worth 500 echoes as a reward. So my advice is, once this mission has been unlocked, visit the guy regularly because you can’t be sure you have achieved one of the goals, and the money is worth it. A lot of people say that trips to Venderbright aren’t worth it, but I don’t agree. Not only can you make a bit of money selling news and colonists, but when you explore you can pick up quite valuable artifacts, and as a stop on the way to places further afield, it’s a good way to make a bit of money and get your terror down a bit. Plus some of the story options (the Bandaged Poissonier, Jonah’s revenge, the old dude with the book) can be valuable for you later. So I recommend continuing to visit here.
  • Always go coral-picking at Port Cecil: a single scintillack is worth 70 echoes.
  • Always collect port reports: they can fund your trips, and the admiralty will pay for them no matter how many times you give them
  • Grab stray chances: someone left a coffin on the docks for me once. I took it, and it opened up a whole new island for me. Take any chance you are given!
  • Avoid fights with bigger ships: sure, you can defeat the clay pirates, but unless your mirrors stat is very high you will take hull damage, which will cost about 50 echoes to fix, and all you will get in exchange is a few supplies or a bolt of parabola-silk or something – the maximum profit will be 20 echoes. You can make 20 echoes from a steam pinnace with zero risk. Avoid them.
  • Use the alt-f4 cheat: I’m playing on a mac, I don’t know how to do alt-f4 but I can still do control-command-escape or whatever, and kill the game when I die. Once you are a long way into the game, dying is not such a great idea, so be ready to do this – when you die, kill the game or load before you save, so that you can restart from your last port of call. Otherwise, you have a long upward climb ahead of you …

I think that’s it. I’m slowly gathering stories and trying to find out where the game goes, and I’m not sure if I will finish it (or if it can be “finished”, per se) but I’m enjoying the experience of this new world. I think it would also make a disturbing and evocative role-playing world. If you’re into cthulhu-esque horror and don’t need fancy graphics to make your games fun, I strongly suggest this game. It can be a bit irritating at first, but once you get up and running it’s a really rich and pleasant experience!

Be careful going outside in London, there’s foreigners everywhere

There are millions of undocumented asylum seekers in this country

Maybe you didn’t feel welcome in London because they don’t want more foreigners there?

Once David Cameron’s elected, them blacks’ll get what’s comin’ to ‘em

Your new girlfriend’s not aboriginal is she?

You’re not English, you’re British

What race is your friend?

Enoch Powell was right you know!

These are the kinds of things my family and friends have been saying about immigration and race in the UK for as long as I can remember. By “family” I mean not just my immediate family, but also the extended family – uncles, Aunts, grandparents and cousins – and all of the family friends I have ever met. Most of my family and their friends now vote for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), but they used to be classic Tory working class. They’re indicative of the political groundswell that is lifting UKIP up in the polls, and are the reason this new and toxic party came first in the European elections a week ago. If ever it occurs to you to naively wonder why it is that so many UKIP candidates get caught out posting terrible things on social media, just have a look at what my family and their friends – almost all UKIP voters – think of race and immigration. Is it any wonder their representatives have some hairy ideas?

My family are pretty much entirely lower working-class or lumpen proles. My father left school at 15, my mother at 13 (I think); my Grandfather was a Spanish refugee (oh the irony!) who left home at 15 to fight fascism; I was the first person in my entire extended family to get a university education, and probably also the first person in my entire extended family to complete a higher school certificate (my brother got O levels rather than A levels, and only just scraped them in). My father was a tradesman, until he lost his job and spent the remaining 10 years of his working age collecting benefits (and fraudulently using them to pay for a mortgage on a trailer park home, against the housing benefit rules, while complaining about foreigners cheating welfare). Most of the rest of my family are unskilled labourers or tradespeople. They should therefore be the natural constituency of Labour, but their unpleasant views on race make them natural victims of parties like UKIP. My father believes everything he reads in the Daily Mail (he lives in terror of gypsies paving his yard in the night and then presenting him with the bill in the morning), and basically my entire extended family have been slowly seduced into voting against their economic interests by appeals to their racial biases. As an example of how they vote against their interests, my father has a lifelong disability brought about by polio, but he sneers at people with disabilities campaigning for their “human rights” (his quote marks, not mine) even though these people are the reason he has special disability benefits and parking rights. He has always refused to join a union because “they don’t do anything for me” but then he was sacked and blackballed by his employer, so he couldn’t work anywhere in the city where he lived – and then he asked the union if they could help him with legal action (they said no, somewhat unsurprisingly). This is the quality of my extended family – always wanting certain socialised benefits, but refusing to share in the responsibilities and costs of those socialised benefits, and as people like them slowly undermine the strength of the shared social systems they rely on, blaming foreigners for the resulting degradation in public services and benefits.

It is my opinion that the modern leaders of both major British political parties are too shallow and too caught in their own little bubble to understand how people like my parents think. As a result they cannot understand why these people are drifting away from the major parties to the lunacy that is UKIP. I think Margaret Thatcher understood these people – it was her understanding of this class of people that enabled her to construct what is now referred to as the “Tory working class vote” in the first place – and her political opponents from before Blair also saw how these people think, but failed to stop the drift away from class-based solidarity to race-based solidarity. The modern Conservative party is dominated by young Bullingdon club economic radicals, who have absolutely no conception of what it is like to even be a grocer’s daughter, let alone to be an unemployed typesetter living in a trailer park. The modern Labour party is dominated by political lifers, who may mean well (a difficult proposition to support when one looks at the 10-year-long mistake that was Tony Blair) but have no idea how the working class they are supposed to support really think. The few remnants of old labour still left in the party – people like John Prescott – are far out of touch with the modern working class after years of snorting cocaine off of babies’ bottoms in Blair’s cabinet, and their response to UKIP’s rise has been to fall back on 50-year-old concepts of economic protectionism.

In the face of this choice – between obviously out of touch Bullingdon toffs and a clique of political apparatchiks to a vampire – is it any wonder that UKIP have been able to make such gains with the Tory working class? With a complete lack of trust in the political system, having been levered away from an class consciousness during Thatcher’s era, but left rudderless with only their racial consciousness to guide them, the class of British people my family are drawn from are natural targets for UKIP. Labour had 10 years to get these people back into the fold, through restoration of the industrial economy, improvements in benefits and efforts to reduce inequality – practical solutions to the living cost and economic challenges consuming this class of people – but instead they focused on being “intensely comfortable about people being incredibly rich” and were too busy sucking up to the banking industry to bother looking at the little people.

So now both political parties are waking up to realise that a sizeable proportion of the votes they thought they could rely on are drifting away, following the lure of Farage’s racist anger. Both parties have lost the knowledge of how these drifting voters think and what they are worried about, and both parties are unwilling to face a central fact: that these voters they are losing are deeply, unpleasantly racist. This is the party whose leader referred to non-white voters as “Nig-nogs” and whose representatives have a disturbing habit of being caught out saying genuinely horrible things on Facebook – but no one in the leadership of either of the mainstream parties seems to have considered that this might be related to the success of the party. Until they do, they aren’t going to be able to craft a strategy to deal with UKIP’s central anti-immigration theme. How can they? So long as they keep fooling themselves into thinking that the average UKIP voter is a non-racist person with genuine but misguided concerns about European workers taking his job, they aren’t going to get anywhere. Because these people are deeply racist, and race is what is driving their vote. They don’t like foreigners, they don’t want them in the UK, and if foreigners are to come here they want clear assurances that their stay will be temporary, they will be treated badly and paid worse and they will never be given the same rights as the “indigenous” population. If David Cameron doubts that, I recommend he spend 10 minutes trying to discuss labour market reform with my Grandmother.

This also means that the debate about whether to call Farage a racist is irrelevant. UKIP voters aren’t offended by being called racist – they revel in it. My father doesn’t start a conversation with “I’m not racist but …” – he is deeply past that kind of self-equivocation. He refers to black people as “niggers” and starts conversations with proud declarations of his own racism. The inferiority of non-whites is a simple and accepted fact in my extended family. Worrying about whether these people will be offended by being called something they proudly claim for themselves is really angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin stuff. The mainstream parties are going to have to do better than that.

And the truth is, I don’t think they can. A large minority of British people don’t want to be part of Europe, and another large portion don’t care either way. A lot of British people want foreigners out. They were willing to vote Tory or Labour despite the incongruence of their aims and the parties’ aims, because they still trusted those parties, and UKIP was not yet a national force. But now that UKIP has begun to be taken seriously, making consistent electoral gains, an in the wash-up of the financial crisis (which destroyed Labour’s credibility) and the expenses scandal (which tainted both parties irrevocably), the stranglehold of the major parties on the neck of the average British racist prole has been broken. I don’t think they’re going to get those people back, and they should be counting their blessings that it’s only UKIP, not BNP that is benefiting from 20 years of mainstream parties’ stupidity.

In the short term I think Labour will be the major beneficiaries of this trend to vote 1 on race. Labour has a natural constituency based on unionism and class issues that the Tories lack, and the Tory vote has been declining for years. Tory success at the polls has relied on some crafty dog-whistling to ensure that some proportion of the working class vote is prized away from Labour, and they have done this through race (see e.g. their broken promise to keep immigration at 100000 a year). These voters they pry loose from Labour on that basis are fair-weather friends, and will easily be drawn away by a credible racist alternative – and now that alternative is here. Even if UKIP don’t win a single seat at the next general election, they’re going to completely screw up the Tories’ electoral strategy, and I don7t think a more openly racist Tory campaign will save them – nobody believes them on European issues anymore, and since they have consistently failed to meet their pledge to reduce immigration, nobody thinks they’re going to do what they say they will. This is going to make Labour’s task much easier at the next election, but if UKIP don’t implode after that then I suspect Labour will face increasing difficulties in the future. The tide has turned. The racist genie is out of its box, and now there isn’t much either of the main parties can do. Unless Labour can find a way to return the political conversation to a genuine, strong position on inequality and complete reform of the British economy to benefit the poorest and the working class – regardless of what happens in Europe – then both mainstream parties are going to be left desperately hoping that UKIP implodes. If it doesn’t, the tories are toast, and unless they can find a visionary to lead them through this challenging new landscape, my guess is that Labour will have to return to 1950s-style anti-European protectionism.

It’s possible that UKIP may win everything they want without ever winning a seat in parliament … simply by dominating the conversation. This is what happens when the working class vote for their racial interests over their class interests. Let’s hope that this madness remains confined to the UK, because it isn’t pretty to watch and let me assure you, you do not want my extended family’s racist imaginings  being treated as a serious policy framework …

Kicking Bear's Dream

Kicking Bear’s Dream

This Compromise and Conceit one-shot begins in a remote part of the northern Red Empire. The background of the one-shot is described here, and the characters are:

  • Wachiwi, a Sioux scout, blessed with special powers to dance in shadows and summon the aid of her tribe’s ancient spirits
  • Weayaya, a Sioux skinwalker, capable of taking the form of other humans and animals, but also quite a strong fighter with a spear
  • Atha’halwe, a Navajo wiseman from the Empire of the Sun, the large empire in the south-west that was founded by the Navajo; this wiseman called on powers of sun and moon, and fought with a semi-magical curved sword he obtained from a demon-faced warrior from beyond the seas
  • Wickaninnish, an Iroquois brave (fighter) bristling with strange spiritual artifacts, whose name means “No one sits before him in the canoe.” The group’s warrior but also able to call on healing and support powers from his tribe’s gods

Our adventure begins in the late spring, on the shaded side of a hill. The sky was a perfect, pale and cloudless blue, and a gentle cooling breeze blew in from the north. To the far southwest the characters could see a massive herd of buffalo, so far away that they looked like nothing more than the shadow of a huge cloud drifting over the plains. This picture of perfect natural peace was marred by only one small detail: the PCs stood up to their knees in a pile of dead Frenchmen. Nearby, one of these Frenchies was still alive, moaning weakly as his life ebbed away. On the crest of the hill a line of huge crows and buzzards had gathered, watching patiently as the PCs picked through the mess of dead bodies.

While the sight of a mound of dead Frenchies would not usually be cause for consternation amongst good citizens of the Red Empire, in this case they were a source of disappointment. Our heroes had been employed by a village north of this battle scene to find and kill these very Frenchies, and recover from them the village’s stolen totem. Yet for all their haste and careful tracking, the PCs had arrived too late, and had found their quarry killed by some other gang. The totem they had been tasked with finding was nowhere to be seen, and all that they could do was stand in silent consternation, looking at the heaped bodies.

Still, where there are dead there should also be killers, and anything on this wide and sunny earth that is powerful enough to kill a squad of hardened French mercenaries is also big enough to track. With Wickaninnish advising her on the details of the battle, Wachiwi set about finding the tracks of the victors. Wachiwi was a master at her craft, and nothing larger than a mouse could escape this battlefield but that she would find it. Soon enough she had located a faint trail, though on the scrubby and stony ground it was too faint to identify too much detail. The group set off in pursuit of those who had stolen their prize.

The Good Woman

They traveled as fast as they could while tracking, but after several hours’ travel they were interrupted by the sound of screams coming from the lee of a small hill. Our heroes guessed they were a woman’s screams, and immediately set out to investigate. They rode to the base of the hill, and rested their horses near a group of rocks. Weayaya disappeared behind the rocks, and a moment later an enormous crow hopped out from behind them, looking quizzically at its comrades in arms. Weayaya took off quickly and flew over the hill, ascending on the warm air to join a small group of crows that were circling in the sky a short distance away. His instinct was right: they had identified a scene of death, and were waiting for the living to depart so they could descend to feast. From this vantage point in the sky, the whole tableau was clear.

A group of six men in military uniform had made a quick camp in a dry creekbed on the far side of the rise. This creekbed was narrow and choked with bushes, but at one point behind the hill it widened to encompass not just the path of the long-dry stream, but a little beach lined with sagebrush and two small trees. From one of these trees hung a dead man, obviously harshly treated before his end. On the next tree hung a living woman, naked from the waist up and partly flayed. Three of the military men stood around her, while the other three sat around a nearby campfire. Between the fire and the trees lay a dead baby, and on the baby stood a vulture. As crow-Weayaya watched, the men did something to the woman, and she screamed again.

Weayaya returned to the group. It was clear what needed to be done, and no debate was necessary. Wachiwi slid into the creekbed and crept up to the camp, to prepare an ambush. The three warriors led their horses to the top of the rise, and when they judged Wachiwi to have had enough time to approach, they attacked.

Wachiwi slid carefully and quickly up to the camp, and was able to take a position within an arms’ reach of the three torturers. From here she could get a clearer sense of what was happening in the camp. One of the men held a lemon, another held a handful of salt, and the one in the middle held nothing. The woman was tied to the top of the tree by her wrists, so her back was arched and she was helpless before them. They had flayed off parts of her face and shoulder, and were treating these parts with salt and lemon to encourage compliance. As Wachiwi watched the man in the middle struck the woman in the face, and demanded something of her in a language Wachiwi did not understand. A moment later the vulture began to croak, and out of its hideous curved beak came words in rough Sioux: “Where is it?!” The woman stared back at the man in disgust, and replied in Sioux, “My husband may be a coward, but I will give you nothing. Kill me as you did him, you dogs.” The vulture then croaked all this back to the men in their hideous gabbled tongue.

Wachiwi had heard enough; the time for battle had come. In silence she drew from her clothes a dried coyote’s paw, and whispering prayers to her ancestors she buried the paw in the soil near one of the sagebrushes. Having invoked her totem[1], she waited for the sound of her allies charging down the hill. As their ululations reached her, she slipped out of the sagebrush behind the man who slapped the woman, and slid her vicious knife deep into his side, fully intent on gutting him from hip to armpit.

As she struck her comrades came hurtling down the hill, screaming and yelling and firing their weapons, all of which missed. The men in the gully were held frozen in alarm at the sudden ambush, so that their attackers had a chance to charge straight into battle. Wickaninnish leapt from his horse and fell on the salt man, striking him deep in the shoulder with a single blow; Weayaya smashed into the other man with his spear, knocking him back. Atha’halwe dashed past the three men at the campfire as they scrambled to their feet, decapitating two immediately with his katana.

Battle was joined. The man with the lemon was revealed to be a wizard; he invoked some spell that confused Weayaya so that he was unable to strike him. The salt man tried to regain his feet and fight Wickaninnish, but he was too damaged; Wickaninnish surged over him beating and hacking with his axe. Everyone left Wachiwi to deal with the man she had ambushed, but he was tougher than she expected, and was able to recover from the near-fatal wound and draw a sabre, badly damaging her leg. Meanwhile Atha’halwe circled back to kill the last man at the campfire. As the struggle proceeded, the wizard cast another spell, yelling some imprecation in his ugly tongue as he did so. The vulture, of course, translated: “The Great White Mother does not allow her loyal servants such cowardly rest!!” Moments later the two beheaded soldiers rose to their feet, shakily moving towards the battle zone. Fortunately the wizard cast his spell too soon to reanimate the salt man; having clubbed him near to death, Wickaninnish drew from his belt a nasty-looking device made of a huge bear’s claw. With his last axe strike he shattered the hapless foe’s jaw, so that he could stretch the mouth wide enough to insert the bear-claw hook. Moments later he surged up from the twitching body, raising the bear-claw hook to the sky and yelling in triumph. Sunlight glistened on the man’s tongue, ripped out whole and intact from the back of his throat[2]. Wickaninnish flicked it disdainfully to the earth, and turned to take his next foe.

Now the battle had turned desperate for the defenders, and the Vulture translated for both sides as Weayaya speared the wizard to his death and the others teamed up to kill Wachiwi’s foe. “Die, you stinking white man!” “No, please, not that…” “Oh fuck, I’m done in…” “Get behind me, satan!” “aaaaaaaagh!” At the last, Weayaya smashed the wizard to the earth with his spear, and then used the point to score deep cross-marks in his chest. Then, as he twitched and groaned, Weayaya savagely tore back the skin from the crosses, so that he was flayed in a great x-shape, chest and muscles opened to the cleansing sun. With a roar he stood up and joined the battle to fell the remaining soldier.

Having dispensed with their enemies, the PCs took stock. They lay one surviving soldier and the leader, who was still vaguely conscious, next to each other by the fire. Then they cut down the woman. She fell to her knees in the dirt, then rose unsteadily to her feet. She took just one deep, steadying breath and then leapt screaming onto the leader. Knees astride his chest, she grabbed his face and tore out his left eye as he squealed and grunted in horror. Then she stuffed it into his mouth, forcing it shut with one hand while she held his nose fast shut with the other. There followed a minute or so of savage grunting and struggling as the severely wounded soldier tried desperately to shake her off, and our heroes stood around approvingly, catching their breath and watching the woman take her vengeance. The woman screamed curses at him in Sioux, promising him that he would suffer in eternity for torturing her and killing her baby; the Vulture translated her imprecations as the man twitched and kicked. Eventually the leader’s struggles stilled, he stopped kicking, and with some final desultory gurgling sounds, he choked to death on his own eyeball. The woman stood up proudly, spat on his corpse, and then collapsed in the dirt.

Having witnessed justice dispensed fair and honestly, the characters questioned the other man, before ending his miserable existence. The soldiers were English, from a large camp deeper in the wilderness, and were here searching for something that the Vulture translated as “the well of souls.” They thought this might be an entrance to the underworld, but it wasn’t clear in translation. The woman told them that she, her husband and her baby had been traveling when they were abducted for questioning by these soldiers; her husband had proven a coward and told them that there were rumours of a village that held the well, however he had also proven weak, and died before he could tell them more. The woman was a good sioux woman, however, and had held out for an hour before the characters arrived. Atha’halwe healed her, and she told them she would return to her village to tell stories of their heroism, and curse her husband for all time as a coward and a weakling.

The characters decided to continue the path they had been following. These soldiers had come from the direction they were tracking their quarry in, and they suspected that their Frenchmen had been killed by an English patrol. Thus, the story of this quest for the well of souls, and their totem, were intertwined.

 

Treading only lightly on the laws of physics

Treading only lightly on the laws of physics

Custer’s Last Stand

The characters traveled slowly and carefully, aware that they might cross more such patrols. They stopped to rest the night rather than risk stumbling on enemies in the darkness, and next morning set out early to follow the trail. They traveled for the whole day, and towards evening they found what they were looking for. From a hillside they saw a large British camp in the near distance. It was set out against a steep slope, that curved up to a nearly unscalable bluff. In the shadows of the bluff rested a huge Corvette, something none of our heroes had seen before, though perhaps they had heard of such miracles from the British. This huge vehicle was large enough to carry perhaps 200 men, and indeed set out in its shadow was a large camp for about that many men. The camp was set in the lee of the bluff, so invisible to people in the plains beyond. A wide picket on the edge of the camp ensured that noone would find the camp without alerting its occupants. This picket held three gun nests, and also had a soldier every 30m or so. Wandering the line was a six-legged, two-headed chimaeric dog. This force was obviously deep in hostile territory, and moving with extreme caution to avoid being detected by large Red Empire forces.

The PCs had to get in there to find out what was going on. They waited until dusk, and then Weayaya disguised himself as the dead captain. He and Wachiwi slipped into the camp, and set about finding out what was happening. Weayaya found himself enlisted into the senior officers’ meeting, where with the help of a little magic he was able to understand the proceedings. The meeting was convened by a big, arrogant British general called General Custer, and his plans were very clear: in the morning the entire force was going to do a forced dawn march to a town two hours’ walk away, in the shadow of a hill called Little Bighorn. They were going to descend on the town and kill everyone in it, and then his two wizards would enter the well of souls – for reasons not disclosed at the meeting. They would then leave, leaving no trace that they were ever there. Any squad leader who left any evidence that they 0r their men had been there would be thrown from the Corvette on the return journey. The corvette – which Weayaya discovered was called the Custer’s Last Stand – would remain here, to be called in if things went wrong. The attack would take place at dawn.

While Weayaya learnt these military facts, and then went on a tour of the autonomous sentinel cannon gun-nests at the periphery of the camp, Wachiwi was investigating the two huge warrior-beasts standing in the shadow of the corvette. She had never seen anything like them before: three metres tall, made of human bone and demon flesh, with plates of metal armour embedded amongst the organic mess. Each was armed with a huge sword and an infernal blaster, and though they appeared to be inactive at dusk, their eyes still burned with an evil light inside their heavily-armoured skulls. These beasts were Myrmidons, the pinnacle of British military technology and formidable opponents by any measure, likely worth 20 braves in close battle. The force amassed here, though not capable of defeating a major sioux battle group, would certainly be able to wipe out a single town with a surprise raid.

Something would have to be done.

The dawn battle

Their plan was simple. Weayaya remained in camp disguised as the British captain, and would ride near Custer into battle, with Wachiwi hidden in his saddlebags. They would ambush Weayaya when the battle began. In the meantime, Wickaninnish and Atha’halwe raced ahead to the town of Little Bighorn, to warn the residents of the coming battle. The chieftain of the town was one Sitting Bull, currently deeply involved in the politics of Imperial Ascension and eagerly looking for a victory to present as proof of his candidature. He agreed to the ambush, and they set their ambush in a forested hollow at the base of Little Bighorn.

The trap was easily sprung. Custer’s forces were moving fast and quiet, and had little time for outriders; those they sent were easily neutralized. When his forces entered the hollow the braves attacked, and as soon as the battle began Wachiwi and Weayaya attacked Custer. Wachiwi’s ambush was not enough to seriously hurt him, but she pinned his leg to his saddle with her knife. As he struggled to throw her off, Weayaya struck him with a spear. Custer’s wizards were riding near him and reacted in outrage at this attack, but Weayaya confused them by yelling,

“Custer! You coward and traitor! You have led us into a trap!!”

This declaration worked so well that the wizards were briefly confused, and did not rush to Custer’s aid. As he battled Weayaya and Wachiwi, his men were caught in ferocious battle with the Sioux attackers. Wickaninnish and Atha’halwe cut their way through the throng, making their way towards Custer. Custer was guarded by one of the Myrmidons, but with a stroke of luck Weayaya was able to confuse it with an invocation to the spirits, and for a few brief flurries of battle it did not attack.

As Wickaninnish and Atha’halwe approached, Custer realized he was beyond salvation. Calling to his elite cavalry, he spurred his horse from the battle and led them up the slopes of Little Bighorn, declaring that they would make a last stand on the hilltop. As he fled, Weayaya yelled

“Custer! You cowardly traitor! You lead us to an ambush and flee! You are a low-down servant of the red man!”

The wizards, convinced by Weayaya’s declarations, decided to take sides, and they both let loose balls of balefire on Custer. As he rode up the hill, he was engulfed in two huge balls of black fire. He fell roasted from his horse, and his men riding behind him fell into disarray as the lead horses crashed into the fire and fell. Pursuing Sioux fell on them, hacking them to death.

With their general revealed to be a cowardly traitor, and now dead, the remaining British began to panic. Weayaya rode up to Wickaninnish, and their followed a remarkable piece of stage-managed deception. Wickaninnish dismounted from his horse and, drawing his tomahawk and letting loose a great cry, plunged it deep into the ground. A ripple of confusion spread from the axe, and all across the battlefield people stopped attacking each other[3]. The vulture, circling overhead, translated for Weayaya from English to Sioux, as he said

“Oh brave and powerful warleader, I offer you the surrender of all my men on this battlefield if you will show us mercy.”

All about them soldiers and braves looked on in amazement as the Vulture translated. Wickaninnish raised an arm and replied,

“Pale-faced captain, you have fought well and bravely. It is not your fault that your warchief was a coward and a traitor. Because you acquitted yourselves well, I grant you mercy. If your men throw down their arms and admit their error in this attack, we will allow them to live, and will escort you all back to your camp. I assure your safety!”

Weayaya looked around at the soldiers, and issued this demand. They threw their weapons down and with cries of sorrow, offered themselves to the tender mercy of the Sioux. The battle was over, Custer disgraced, the mission to the well of souls a complete failure, and Wickaninnish now a proud and revered warchief.

They led the men back to the corvette, which they claimed for the Red Empire. Inside they found their totem, which the British had simply stolen opportunistically when they stumbled on the French mercenary band. A few Sioux prisoners were freed, Custer’s documents and plans were stolen, and the wizards questioned. The men would be forced to return on foot to the nearest French outpost, their mission revealed but their lives spared. All that remained was for our heroes to find out why the British were willing to risk so much for a raid on the well of souls. What did they want in the Underworld that they were willing to risk an elite force to do it? What was their interest in the mysteries of the Red Empire…?

fn1: This totem enables everyone in battle to replace one characteristic die with a reckless die. Totems need to be placed at the point of battle, so charging braves cannot deploy totems; Wachiwi was the only person who could invoke a totem for this battle.

fn2: This is counting coup! From this Wickaninnish regained a coup point and one point of fatigue.

fn3: This is one of Wickaninnish’s powers, “Bury the hatchet,” which forces a temporary peace on a battle.

Picture credits: the corvette is obviously from Nausicaa. The picture at the top of the post is a piece of ledger art depicting Custer’s last stand, by Kicking Bear, 1896.

A harbinger of what ...?

A harbinger of what …?

The eroding empire campaign begins in the rain-washed aftermath of the Black Company’s raid on the Doomsday Cult, which was the event that drew our PCs’ disparate lines of fate together. Having fled the Black Company raid, our PCs rested briefly in a clearing some distance from the Doomsday Cult stockade, eying each other suspiciously. The characters were:

  • Thybalt, Tiefling warlock
  • Lithvar, Wood elf druid, the pivot around which all our fates had been drawn together
  • Syrion Dessair, a human paladin who, were he forced to admit to a god that he serves, would probably say “Myself”
  • Ayn (pictured), a human cleric of the Doomsday cult, swathed in black robes and deeply scarred both physically and emotionally
  • Cog 11, a gnome rogue who had decided, on an impulse, to desert his position as scout for the Black Company, and join this strange bunch of wanderers

Though the group mostly shared a common link with Lithvar, Ayn did not, and had only briefly known Syrion (whose motives were, typically for him, very base) and Tyhalt, not the most trustworthy of acquaintances. Thrown in with this strange band, she was even less inclined to trust the scarred and diminutive gnome with the ice-blue, frozen eyes who had led the Black Company to destroy the only good life she had ever known.

No matter! Cog 11 pointed out to everyone that when the Black Company is tasked with destroying a cult, it at least tries to do the job properly, and would be scouring the land for survivors at first light – they needed to get out of this area as quickly as possible and find the relative safety of a town. Lithvar, knowing the area slightly, recommended Tamaran, and after a little pushing and argument they agreed to set out immediately for Tamaran.

Our GM prepared a description of the journey, which I present here:

You set out from the campsite towards Tameron. Everywhere you look you see evidence of last night’s storm, with fallen branches scattered about and dank ground muddy underfoot. Rainwater continues to drip off the leaves above you.

It doesn’t take you long, though, before you can see the sunlight through the trees in front of you. It feels good as you step out of the forest and into the sunlight. You’re greeted with the view of a grassy green valley lying before you, with Tameron lying just a short walk below. A small huddle of buildings lies peacefully in the center of the valley. It is mid-morning and the sun has already begun to dry the muddy roads. You enjoy a cool breeze as you make your way down to Tameron, sticking the edges of the road where the mud has already hardened.

As you approach the town you are reminded of just how good life can be in the Dragon Empire these days. Farmers are hard at work, their ploughshares swinging at the ground semi-rythmically as they prepare their fields for the planting. A boy of about ten herds a flock of geese past you, at first staring at Ayn as he approaches, but then nodding politely as he passes.

Further in town more people are out and about. Some people are picking up roofing shingles that must have come loose in last night’s storm. One man loops a shingle onto the roof of a nearby house, where another man takes it and starts hammering it into place.

A small group of kids skip by, with a chubby boy lagging behind them slightly. They stop and taunt him, and hold out something as if to say “You want this? Ok, come and get it!” and then start running away again. As the red-faced boy sighs resignedly and waddles off after them again, his rotund body turns your thoughts again to how good the people of the Dragon Empire have it these days. Although they are far from wealthy, barely one step above poverty, it’s been many a generation since famine or even plague visited, and war is kept to minor skirmishes on the borders of the Empire, barely effecting the lives of the common folk. Considering the long history of the 13 Ages of the Dragon Empire, a tubby kid in a town like Tameron is a rare – and joyous – thing indeed.

The kind of description that encourages suspicions of impending destruction … Nonetheless, our heroes needed somewhere to hide, so they marched steadfastly into the town, looking for breakfast and if possible somewhere to hide. Soon after they arrived, as they stood in the main square waiting for the nearest tavern to open, they heard a disturbance and saw a boy riding pell-mell into the town, yelling something about destruction and chaos. Cog 11, suspecting the worst, slid into the shadows behind a verandah. Sure enough, the boy had rushed to town to report the destruction of the Doomsday Cult, which the townsfolk had been quite fond of. People gathered and voices were raised in favour of taking a group to the Stockade to look for survivors. Syrion spoke out against this, pointing out that the Black Company and its camp followers would be hungry for loot and unsure of who was a cultist – best to wait. With this counsel dispensed, the party retired to the tavern to enjoy breakfast.

While they were eating breakfast, a local rube entered the tavern and began reading a tale of sexual transgression involving a young knight and two ladies-in-waiting. Syrion turned bright red; though he did not tell the other characters, someone has somehow managed to document all of Syrian’s romantic exploits in painful detail, and is now distributing scrolls throughout the land depicting his scarlet adventures. Try as he might, Syrion is unable to find the source of these pornographic missives, and though he once again tried to identify the source with this latest reader, he learnt nothing. Of course the listeners did not know the stories concerned this particular visiting Paladin, and simply laughed uproariously at the ribald humour of the thing. A strange fate indeed, to be renowned across the land for this kind of night-time swordsmanship, but unknown to everyone.

During breakfast, a local farmer recognized Thybalt, who is unmistakable as the tiefling lad who used to live in a village not one day’s ride from Tameron, and told him that his father was near death three months ago. With little else to do, the characters decided to accompany Thybalt back to his village, to see if his father was still alive and if he needed any help. However before they set off they decided to return with Ayn, the Tameron sheriff and a group of villagers to the ruined stockade, judging it now safe from Black Company soldiers. They arrived to find a scene of complete destruction, the stockade and buildings collapsed in smouldering ruins and the open areas of the encampment scattered with dead cultists, all hacked and mutilated by camp followers seeking rings, gold teeth and hidden treasures. Ayn drifted around the stockade in bewilderment and shock, looking at the ruins of what her life could have been and stopping to shed tears over every member of her little cult. The irony of a Doomsday cultist distressed at the end of the world as she knew it was not lost on her new comrades, but they waited patiently for her to attend to her grief.

When her grief was done it turned to anger, and Ayn began invoking a ritual pledge of vengeance, calling upon the names of her apocalyptic gods to bless her in a quest for revenge. The sheriff, seeing this, attempted to force a deal out of her: that she would not turn vigilante if he would prevent the townsfolk from disturbing and robbing the bodies of her dead fellows. She agreed readily, though as the group left the ruined stockade she told them she would obey no promise to any mortal power, and only pledges to her dark gods counted for her loyalty.

A point that was well noted by her new comrades, no doubt.

From the stockade they traveled to Thybalt’s home village, arriving in the late evening to find a tiny hamlet of just a single cluster of large farming houses. They were greeted with suspicion and coldness – Thybalt was never welcome here – but Thybalt was led into his father’s house, to see the slowly crumbling ruins of his once strong and vibrant father. The old man lay on a pile of blankets and mattresses in one corner of the room, no longer able to climb the stairs, and only moved feebly when the PCs entered. A few villagers came with them bearing food, and sat around to eat as Thybalt’s father told him the true story of at least a part of his origins…

Before Thybalt was born the village was in danger from evil, and Thybalt’s father made a deal with the Crusader to protect the village. To fulfill his pact he simply had to give the contents of a small sandalwood box to Thybalt. He gestured to the box, a non-descript thing on top of a cupboard that had probably sat there all through Thybalt’s childhood, undisturbed in its mundanity. Thybalt took down the box, opening it to reveal a scroll. Like a classic knave, he unrolled the scroll and read it. Two words leapt out in swirls of golden light and swam into his eyes; with all the wisdom of corrupt youth, Thybalt immediately blurted out the words.

As soon as he uttered the words, growling them out in some ancient and sinister tongue, three things happened in three different far away places:

  1. Somewhere deep and dark, a figure reads a book at an altar. Behind the figure is a grey wall. As the figure reads the wall folds slowly away, and the grey mass is revealed not to be a wall at all, but the scaly lids of some vast and terrifying eye. The lids open further, and a huge golden lizard eye swims into view. “It has awakened …”
  2. Somewhere else, outside in a grim and windswept plain. Three rocks stand in a line in a rocky, scrubby part of this barren expanse. After a moment the middle rock vibrates, begins to hum, and then explodes. Where the rock stood a vortex opens, its swirling colours a gate into …
  3. Thybalt hears a voice inside his head. “Who has called me?” it asks in a rattling, hollow tone. Thybalt, again showing the good sense that only youth can give, tells the voice his name. “Thybalt the untitled one. Why have you awakened me?” “It is an ancient pact,” replied Thybalt, opting again for truth over wisdom. “I see… There is much I must teach you.”

Though not cognizant of the distant eye and its import, or the vortex on the plains, the others did hear Thybalt say those words, and watched him sink into a trance. When he awoke he was … changed.. in fact, awoken into his Warlock powers.

Satisfied that nothing too unusual had happened – beyond one of their group binding himself to an ancient evil in exchange for a few weak curse powers – the group settled to sleep the night away, falling into slumber near Thybalt’s father’s slowly dying fire, and Thybalt’s slowly dying father. They did not sleep long though, before they were all woken by a high-pitched and terrified scream.

They tumbled outside to find a woman standing near the house, pointing into the open area that all the houses were built around. The night had brought with it a low mist that hung thick and still over the ground, and here in the middle of this small square lay a dead horse, gutted and still steaming, half protruding from the mist. A monstrous red semi-humanoid lizard-thing squatted in front of it, noisily indulging itself on the poor horse’s innards. When the characters moved towards it it fled into the mist and shadows on the edge of the village, but not to escape – oh no, now it was joined by some fellows, that prowled on the edge of the square.

Instinctively the party came together, forming a tight, outward-facing circle. Only Cog 11 chose not to join his comrades in the defensive circle: he preferred to trust concealment in the darkness and the mist than to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with his new comrades. Besides, he figured, he would be a more effective combatant if the enemy did not know where he was. He just hoped that these un-Godly beasts used their eyes to see, and not some other sense.
 
Fear gripped the party as they peered out into the darkness, catching fleeting glimpses of shadow-like movement. Something, or somethings were out there, waiting for the opportunity to strike out of the darkness. They knew little of infernal or otherworldly creatures, and their fear of the unknown was almost paralysing. A trembling hand held the only lantern aloft above the center of the circle, sending trembling shadows rippling in all directions, only to rest on the thick, roiling knee-height mist. 
 
Two of the party members, however, were able keep their composure a little more easily than the others. Thybalt had seen these creatures before. They were the same creatures from the hauntings: the ethereal visitors who came to Thybalt in his night to loom menacingly over his bed. Only this time, these monsters seemed somehow… different … their simple physical presence, lifted from dreams and made flesh, emboldened Thybalt – what he could not confront in dreams he realized he could easily kill in the flesh. And there was no trembling in Syrion’s hands as he boldly held his sword forward, ready to pounce. For better or for worse, this boy knows no fear, and was looking forward to the opportunity to demonstrate to the Empire what a fearsome defender of the weak he is.

Moments later two great flame-limned dogs leapt into the square and attacked our heroes. They were followed by a strange, sluggish semi-humanoid creature seemingly made of tar, that sludged its way in from the shadows towards the party. From another direction that red-skinned humanoid lizard came loping out of the shadows on all fours, carrying a spear. Battle was joined!

The fight was short but brutal. After a few passes, Thybalt tried out his new powers, wrapping one of the flame-dogs in shadow-magic that extinguished the dog’s hellfire and tore the dog apart. Cog 11 drifted out of the shadows past the second flame-dog, which sank moments later into the mist, its flames banked and its innards sliding out of several deep cuts to steam in the mist. Ayn called upon her Gods of the End to bless her, and hurled a brilliant shaft of light through the the red lizardman, striking him dead as if he had been hit by a white-hot comet. Finally, Cog 11 hurled a chakram into the head of the tar-man, slicing the top of its head off. Bereft of strength, it slowly oozed out into a puddle in the thinning mist.

Catching their breath as they stood back to back, peering out into the darkness for the next attack, it slowly began to dawn on them that they were still alive. Some of them may have been in life-threatening situations before, and perhaps some of them had even experienced a violent attacker had trying to rip their lives from them before, but for all of them, this was the first time they had stood up to such a threat and defeated it. A combination of adrenaline and fear saw their bodies trembling in the light of the lantern, sending ripples out on the surface of the mist below them. They were alive, which was both a relief and somewhat exhilarating. Drawing breath, they looked around at each other, and for a moment they all drew strength from each others’ position in that circle of belonging. They had done it, and they had done it together.
 
Congratulating themselves on their first successful battle, the group began to clean up. But then, as if the whole group suddenly realised something simultaneously, they exchanged nervous glances with each other before they wordlessly turning their heads in unison toward the wooden shack where Thybalt’s father lay. They had left it unguarded… 

 

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