Two great characters on the edge of chaos

Two great characters on the edge of chaos

On the weekend I saw Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the new offering from JK Rowling. This movie is set in the Harry Potter world before the events of the Potter books, and I guess is intended to flesh out that world for a new generation of audiences. The movie itself is great and I strongly recommend seeing it, but the implications of some of its content for the broader world that Rowling has built, and for the viability of her vision of the world outside of the Potter stories, are dire. This movie raises some serious problems both about the structure of the world as it appears to have been envisaged, and also about the nature of the “good guys” in this world, and it rubs up against some of my complaints about the lack of imagination in modern fantasy. I’d like to talk a little about that and in doing so I’ll throw in a couple of minor spoilers, but first the movie itself.

This movie is set in New York in 1926, in the same world as the Harry Potter books. The main character, Newt Scamander, turns up just as a series of magical terrorist attacks are happening across Europe, blamed on some dude called Grindelwald. Scamander is carrying a suitcase full of magical creatures that he has collected for study, and by dint of a major series of accidents he ends up embroiled in a battle to save New York and a single child from a monster. In the process he gets caught up with a muggle (in America, a “no-maj”) called Jacob Kowalski, and two witches (sisters) called Tina and Queenie. he has to simultaneously protect his monsters from the US law that forbids all magical creatures (on pain of death apparently) and protect himself from the machinations of a sinister senior wizard called Graves. The result is a classic Rowlingesque rollicking adventure which in my opinion is in many ways superior to the Potter movies, primarily because it doesn’t involve children and doesn’t have the same weight of world-ending seriousness. It also lacks the stuffy public school atmosphere of those books, instead having a louche American roaring twenties atmosphere that makes it much more relaxed and fun. The setting, although completely different from the Potter stories, is seamless with them, and the movie manages to evoke the exoticism with which America was viewed by Brits back in the 1920s without deviating at all from the sense of the setting. In particular, the two women, Tina and Queenie, were genuinely exotic, in a very 1920s American way, and in my opinion Queenie in particular worked really well to separate the American setting from stuffy British Potter without in any way undermining the context of the original stories or this movie. The monsters were brilliant, either awe-inspiring (the Thunderbird, the Obscurus) or engagingly cute (the Niffler) and were true to the design principles and style of the original movies. Some of the interactions with them, especially the Niffler and the Thunderbird, were vintage Potter, and even if the movie had been in other ways second rate the rich scenes with the monsters would have saved it. But this movie is far from second rate: the action scenes are excellent, the pace is good, and the plot is a simple, coherent and believable story that comes to a quite well executed finale. It is internally consistent and doesn’t depend on the audience forgiving mistakes or suspending their disbelief, and has that feeling of a plot pared back to its essentials to make sure the viewer doesn’t have to do double takes or try to hold together a bunch of leaky ideas at once to accept the conclusion. It’s a big story but a tight, believable arc that holds the action together and keeps you engaged and enjoying it without thinking. It’s one of those movies which you know you would still have enjoyed even if the monsters were second rate – but they most definitely are not. The main characters are also great – Scamander, Queenie, Tina, the Niffler, and Graves are all excellent characters well acted. Scamander really comes across as the gentle well-meaning misfit that he is, as does Queenie, and Tina the slightly tragic investigator who hasn’t quite got it together. The only let down is the brief appearance of Johnny Depp at the end – I’m completely over Johnny Depp’s acting, though I used to like him, and I don’t want to see another one of his supposedly fresh and original but actually completely cookie-cutter eccentric performances outside of a Tim Burton makeover (which I won’t watch). I certainly don’t want to see it spoiling an actual decent movie. But besides his brief annoying cameo, everyone else was great. The movie has minor flaws, as most movies do, but they’re not worth even documenting. It’s great. See it. You will love it.

So what’s wrong with this movie? The first big flaw was the fact that this movie comes straight to the point about the magical administration ruling the parallel universe of witches and wizards in the Rowling setting: it’s straight-up fascist. Now I missed some of the Harry Potter books and movies (skipped the middle 77 and saw the underwhelming final two), but my impression was that in the modern era the magical administration is overtaken by a kind of military coup near the end and turns kind of nasty, but based on Fantastic Beasts it appears that the administration that was taken over by this supposedly nasty military emergency government was actually – well, not really any different to a military emergency government. Particularly striking was the ability of senior figures in the administration to summarily execute other wizards for minor crimes, without evidence or trial, to confiscate property and to invade people’s minds. Indeed, the person who gets the execution order is then put to death by one of her good friends in the administration, who seems to think the whole idea is fine, which suggests that there is a level of brainwashing going on in this organization that is up there with North Korea. Meanwhile this Grindelwald dude is running around the world trying to undermine the administration and blow the wizards’ cover and get them noticed by muggles – but when I see people being executed without trial by the wizard’s rulers I am not inclined to think he’s wrong. If it’s Rowling’s intention to flesh out the world of Harry Potter, she needs to be careful that she doesn’t flesh it out in a way that makes Voldemort seem like the good guy, because I was only a few minutes into this movie before I thought the forces of wizarding administration were the bad guys, and certainly halfway through I was assured of it. I should add that this seems to be a trend in movies recently, that the administrations of the “good guys” are way too evil to be good – I saw this also in the Bourne Legacy (awful movie, don’t bother) and pretty much any of the Avengers-type movies that I have been able to stir myself to watching. It’s really hard to convince myself to appreciate the good guys when the people they’re working for are, well, dictators and war criminals.

The other aspect of the movie that bothered me – and that dovetails with this fascist administration – is the callous difference between the wealth of wizards and the poverty of muggles. The movie starts with the no-maj, Kowalsky, going to a bank to get a loan to open a bakery. He needs a loan because he has no money, but the bank won’t give him one because he lacks collateral, and they don’t have infinite resources so they don’t want to risk some of their finite stock of cash on this dude with no money. This is classic scarcity economy stuff: nobody has enough resources. The bank dude points out to Kowalsky that there are machines that can produce a hundred doughnuts a minute, and Kowalsky replies by pointing out that his doughnuts are better because they’re hand made. Then halfway through the movie, Queenie bakes him a strudel that is better than anything he can make – and she does it in a moment, without touching it. Then at the end some wizards wave their wands and repair shattered and crushed buildings across New York[1] in a matter of minutes. We are repeatedly told that the wizards can’t allow their secret world to be discovered by muggles because this would spark a war – and you can see why. These wizards are sitting on power so great that they can rebuild shattered city blocks in a moment, and they’re hiding this power from their fellow citizens in a society that took years to build a single skyscraper. At the end of the movie Scamander leaves Kowalsky a suitcase full of silver eggs from one of his monsters, as collateral for his bakery loan – Scamander’s rubbish is worth more than anything Kowalsky owns. Yet these wizards and their fascist society refuse to reveal themselves to the normal people struggling all around them, for fear of starting a war.

They’re not the best people, are they? They could lower the veil, reveal themselves, have access to the institutions of a society of 3 billion people, and the cost for them would be that they might have to donate an afternoon a week repairing inequality and solving world hunger – but they are desperate to hide themselves from this society. It’s a deeply cynical view of who these people are – but these people are the people we’re meant to be sympathizing with. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I can’t. The only wizard who has anything good to say about this is Grindelwald, who wants to reveal the existence of wizards and make them deal with the human world. I think he kind of has a point, though he probably advocates slavery or something.

I don’t know where Rowling is going with this new series of stories – based on the first movie, it appears she’s going somewhere fun, which will be spoiled only by the presence of Johnny Depp – but if she doesn’t fix this little issue I can see it becoming increasingly difficult to paper over as she explores the context and social structures of Harry Potter’s world. I’m not convinced she can – Harry Potter, remember, is fundamentally a story about a boy who is born rich and receives everything he needs for nothing while those born poor struggle to get half of his benefits, even though they’re way better at what they do and work way harder – and although she’s probably a good enough story teller to get around it, for me this huge and glaring problem at the heart of the Potter world is going to only grow bigger as we see more of it. Harry Potter was a movie about the triumph of inherited wealth, in a class-based society (of the haves – mages – and the have nots – muggles – in the classically classist setting of England and public schools) and this movie is a story about the 1% – people so rich they can ignore the law of conservation of energy, and so idle and feckless that they refuse to share this power with the rest of society in case they might have to do a day’s work putting their powers to the service of those beneath them. But I am expected to side with the 1% in these movies. I don’t think I can do it for long.

But I could for this movie, which was fun. So watch it, enjoy the chaos and the sadness, and try not to think about the huge inequality at the heart of this fun and extravagant world.

 


fn1: Why do American movies love destroying their own cities? Is it a deep psychological scar?

 

Mushroom man on the spit!

Mushroom man on the spit!

I just finished reading episode 1 of this entertaining and weird manga, called Dungeon meshi in Japanese, by Ryoko Kui. It’s the tale of a group of adventurers – Raios the fighter, Kilchack the halfling thief, and Marshille the elven wizard – who are exploring a dungeon that is rumoured to lead to a golden kingdom that will become the domain of whichever group of adventurers kill the evil wizard who has taken it over. The story starts with them having to flee a battle with a dragon, which swallows Raios’s little sister whole. She manages to teleport the rest of the party out of the dungeon in an act of self sacrifice, and they decide that they should go back in and save her from the dragon. They could wait and resurrect her from its poo, but they decide they would rather go in, kill it and cut her out of its belly (dragon digestion is very slow). No answers are forthcoming to the question of why she can’t just teleport herself out as well, or how she will survive in a dragon’s belly, but I’m sure the reasons are clear.

Anyway, because they left all their gear and loot behind when they fled, they would need to sell their armour and weapons and downgrade in order to make enough money to buy supplies for the return trip. Also they don’t have time to go back to town and get more stuff. So they decide to go straight back into the dungeon and live on a subsistence diet of whatever they can gather and kill in the dungeon. This is particularly appealing to Raios, who has always secretly wanted to eat the creatures he kills (when he tells them this, Marshille and Kilchack decide that he’s a psychopath, but they ain’t seen nothing yet …) Off they go!

They soon run into a dwarf called Senshi who has spent 10 years exploring the dungeon and learning to cook its monsters. Raios has a book of recipes but Senshi tells him that’s all bullshit, and teaches them to cook as they go. Senshi has always wanted to eat a dragon, so he offers to join them and help in their quest. Thus begins the long process of returning to the deepest levels of the dungeon, one meal at a time …

The food chain, in the dungeon

The food chain, in the dungeon

This manga is basically a story about a series of meals, with some lip service to killing the monsters that go in the meals. It starts with a brief description of the ecology of dungeons, which sets out a nice piece of Gygaxian naturalism, along with the food pyramid suitably reimagined for mythical beasts, and gives us a tiny bit of background about the dungeon crawling industry, which is so systematized as to be almost industrial in its scope. Once we have this basic background we’re off on a mission to eat everything we can get our hands on: Mushroom men, giant scorpions, giant bats, basilisk meat and eggs, green slimes (which make excellent jerky apparently), mandrake, carnivorous plants and ultimately a kind of golem made of armour. In the process they make some discoveries about the nature of the beasts – for example, Marshille discovers that you can use giant bats to dig up mandrake and that a mandrake tastes differently depending on whether you get it to scream or not, and the golem is actually armour that has been animated by a strange colony of mollusc-like organisms that are excellent when grilled in the helmet or stir-fried with medicinal herbs.

Giant scorpion and mushroom man hot pot

Giant scorpion and mushroom man hot pot

Plus, we get recipes, which are detailed and carefully thought-out and also slightly alarming. For example, for the mushroom man and giant scorpion hot pot (pictured above) we get to see the team slicing open the body of a mushroom man, which is kind of horrific. The final meal of this issue, the walking armour, is particularly disturbing, since the crew basically sit around in a room plying mollusc flesh out of the pieces of an empty suit of armour, then grill them, except the head parts, which they cook by simply sticking the entire helmet on the bbq and waiting for them to fall out as they roast. It’s made clear that the armour is operated by an interlocking network of separate mollusc-things that have some kind of group sentience, but then once they manage to drag some out of the armour they slip them into a bowl of water and declare happily “they drowned!” Really it’s just like eating a big sentient shellfish. i.e. completely disgusting, in a disturbingly fascinating way.

Each recipe also comes with a disquisition on its nutritional benefits (and the importance of a balanced diet), along with a spider diagram showing the relative magnitude and balance of different ingredients (in the bottom right of the picture above, for example). In some cases special preparation is required – the green slime needs to be dried for several weeks, but fortunately Senshi has a special portable net for this task, and a green slime he prepared earlier which the crew can sample. In other cases, such as the basilisk, medicinal herbs of various kinds need to be included with the meal, which sadly makes it impossible for the reader to make their own roast basilisk, lacking as we do the necessary ingredients to neutralize the poison in the basilisk after we catch it. There are also tips on how to catch the ingredients – the basilisk has two heads for example but only one brain, so you can confuse it if you attack both heads at once – and some amusing biological details too. For example, it is well known that chimaera made from more than two animals are not good to eat because they don’t have a main component of their structure, while chimera of just two animals – like the basilisk – will adopt the taste and general properties of whatever their main animal is (in this case, a bird)[1].

In addition to the rather, shall we say, functional, approach to non-human creatures, the story also has some quite cynical comments on the adventuring business. During the encounter with the carnivorous plant, for example, they find a half-digested body. They feel they should return this body to the surface, but just like climbing Everest, they don’t want to go back up till they reach their goal, so instead they leave it in the path for a returning group to deal with. Realizing this might cause someone to trip, they arrange to hang it from a tree by a rope in what is, essentially, a mock execution, and then they go to sleep underneath it (Marshille, unsurprisingly, has bad dreams). To counter this cynicism Marshille acts in part as the conscience of the group, spinning on her head in rage at one point when they suggest eating something, and refusing outright to eat humanoids, but she is usually overruled and then forced to admit that yes actually this meal is quite delicious. Marshille seems to be the stand-in for the reader, since she generally expresses the disgust that the reader is likely (I hope!) to feel, and also gets things explained to her obviously for our benefit (this comes across as very man-splainy, since it’s the male fighter telling her how the world really is, but since she spends most of her time responding in apopleptic rage, it’s bearable).

Beyond its cynical but loving commentary on the world of dungeon crawling, its fine recipes and detailed exposition of dungeon ecology, this book is also a careful retelling of a staple of Japanese television entertainment – the cooking variety show. Anyone who has spent more than about a minute in Japan will have noticed that Japanese television is heavily dominated by variety shows about food, and a common format is for a group of stars and starlets to go to a remote town and sample its local delicacies. Usually this happens in rural Japan, though it can also often be seen in overseas settings, and it always involves a brief description of what is special about how the food is prepared and the ingredients obtained, and then a scene where everyone eats it and says “delicious”, and if there is a starlet involved she will be the one asking the questions while an older person (usually male) explains things to her. So this manga is an almost perfect recreation of that format, except with adventurers instead of starlets and magical creatures instead of standard ingredients. Also, the food shows usually don’t go beyond saying oishii over and over, but in the book we get more detailed expressions of the nature of the food, its texture and taste, which is just great when you’re talking about a humanoid mushroom.

Part RPG dungeon crawl, part variety show, part ecological textbook, this manga is a simple, pleasant read with an engaging story and two entertaining characters (the dwarf and the elf). It’s a really good example of the special properties of manga as a story-telling medium, since the entire idea and its execution would be almost impossible in short story or novel form, but is really well-suited to words with pictures. The pictures give it a more visceral feeling than if you were simply reading a short story about a dungeon cooking show, but the manga format gives I think more detail to the food and science descriptions than you would get in a TV drama. It’s a great balance, and an entertaining read. From a non-native Japanese perspective, it has the flaw that the kanji don’t have furigana (the hiragana writing by the side of the kanji which makes them easy to read), so it takes a while for a non-expert reader to get through, but it doesn’t have the heavy use of slang language and transliteration of rough pronunciation that you see in comics like One Piece, which makes them almost unreadable to non-experts. In general the grammar is simple and straightforward, though sometimes Senshi’s speaking style is overly complex and he uses weird words. In some manga, and especially in novels, the sentences are long and complex and very hard to read for slow readers, but here the sentences are short and straightforward, and the language is mostly standard Japanese. I found I could read in ten page blocks without too much difficulty, using a kanji lookup tool on my phone (I use an app called KanjiLookup that enables me to write them with my finger, which I’m not very good at but a lot better at now I have read this whole manga). After about 10 pages I get sick of constantly referencing the app and put the book down, but it’s not so challenging that I gave up entirely, probably because of the simple language and the short sentences and the very clear link between what is being said and what is being depicted. So as a study exercise I recommend it. As a cookbook or a moral guide, not so much …

 

 


fn1: Actually I’m pretty sure the “basilisk” in this story was actually a cockatrice.

In the modern world, progress means unemployment. Recent events in the US show that fear of the wreckage of progress is beginning to affect major political movements in the developed world, although it’s unlikely that the new champion of the mythical “white working class” is going to ease the problems they are supposed to be facing. And whatever the particular racial composition of the working classes of the developed world, it is certainly true that they are facing challenges to their economic security, both now and in the future. Furthermore, if we are to move towards a post-scarcity world these challenges are going to be a lot worse. If the developed world makes the right decisions in the next 15 years (I think we can rest assured it won’t) we could see a world of self-driving cars and vat-grown meat, powered by renewable energy from sun, sea and sky that destroys jobs in the fossil fuel sector forever. In some ways we are close to a post-scarcity society – for example, the CSIRO estimates that the Australian coast line holds 8 times the energy required to power all of Australian society – but the changes we make to get there are going to have huge economic and social impact. Beyond the job losses and their cultural impact, what does it mean for Trump’s mythical “white working class” man (it’s always a man), who drives a big pick up truck, works in a coal mine and loves steak, to lose his job in the mines and see his children eating factory-grown meat and driving automated cars?

My own father is a model example of this problem. My father left school at about 15 to start an apprenticheship as a typesetter, and aside from a brief break to work as a hydatids control officer in New Zealand, worked for 40 years as a typesetter until computers destroyed his entire industry in the late 1980s. Finally he was sacked from his job in a small Australian country town, with no severance pay or future, and forced onto unemployment benefits in his early 50s. As a result our house was repossessed, he declared bankruptcy and returned to the UK to live on unemployment benefits, leaving me to fend for myself at the age of 17. This was emblematic of the devastation that computers wrought on this industry in the 1990s, and basically an entire generation of men were driven out of work and replaced by young university graduates with computers. My understanding is that subsequent shake-ups in the industry saw it further consolidated so that the small company my father worked for was probably also extinguished, and replaced with, first, print distribution centres in the big cities, and then print-on-demand services. Now the work of probably 100 typesetters is done by just one person handling print requests from professionals using word software. For my father (and his family) nothing about this story is good, but from an economic and industrial perspective this is exactly what needed to happen, and I benefit from it all the time in the form of cheap printed books and the ease of just emailing a file to Kinko’s and getting it a day later, instead of having to deal with a cranky old bigot like my father whenever I want to print a report. Win! Except for my father and his family …

For my father, thrown onto the dole queue at 50, there was really no solution to this problem. Nobody hires 50 year old men into entry-level positions, and there was no work in his industry anymore, which was in freefall. Sure he could have tried to get work as a taxi driver or some other kind of alternative industry, but these all have barriers to access and they don’t tend to pay entry-level workers the salary they need to support a family and a mortgage. There was no gig economy in the 1990s (nor would a gig economy support the lifestyle needs of a 50 year old man with a family). Like most working class men of his era, he didn’t have the capital to set up his own business, and the only business he could have set up was in any case being systematically destroyed by the computer age. To be clear, my father tried to keep ahead of the game in his field – he wasn’t a slacker, and for example my earliest experience of computers for work was the Mac he brought home in 1988 that didn’t even have a hard drive, on which he was teaching himself to do typesetting tasks (I think he used Adobe products even then!). But staying ahead of the game doesn’t work in an industry slated for destruction, and even in an industry where he might have been able to set up consulting work opportunities the chances of success were limited. Many economists would suggest that this destructive process is liberating, freeing up people like my dad to find new opportunities – to sink or swim in the new economy – but the reality is that when you lose your job with a mortgage and family, in your fifties, in a country town, you don’t swim. You sink. Which is what my dad did, very rapidly.

If we are to move to a post-scarcity society there is going to be a lot more of this, and a lot of it will be more destructive than what I witnessed with my father. The coal death spiral is going to be fast and brutal, and the men who emerge from their last shift in those mines are not going to have alternative work, since they have no education, no skills and no other work. In my father’s case, we lived in a country town that was held up by one industry – the local lead smelter – and that too is now sinking, leaving pretty much everyone else in the town in the same situation as my father. The move to a post-scarcity society has turned that town to a wasteland, and everyone in it is going to have to sink or swim in the new economy.

But should they?

The fundamental problem here is that we are moving towards a society that doesn’t have enough work, in a society that values people only based on their labour. Cast about through the language with which political economics describes what happened to my father and you won’t find a positive term. You’ll hear about men “thrown on the scrapheap”, about “long term welfare dependency” and “cycles of poverty”. You won’t hear men like my dad described as “liberated by technology” or “freed from work”. You won’t hear about how their self-worth was improved by having time to go to flower-arranging classes, and attend to their stamp collecting duties. The only people who are respected for having lots of free time for community work are young people and rich people. Working men are expected to work. But as we move towards a post-scarcity society, what are we to do with all these people we cast into this world of negative phrases and bad stereotypes and empty futures?

In the UK/Australian framework, my father had access to welfare. This meant he lived in a trailer park, earning perhaps 10% of his income as a full-time employee, forced into humiliating rituals of job-seeking and “signing on” to get his meagre payment, even though everyone involved in constructing and managing this system – from Margaret Thatcher down – knew that he would never get another job. Everyone also knew it wasn’t his fault, but you could spend years trawling through the rhetoric of the politicians, the newspaper columnists, and hate radio, and you would never hear talk about people on unemployment because their job was destroyed by a businessman’s strategy – you only hear about dole bludgers, the undeserving poor, people who can’t be bothered to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Into this world fell my father, proud working man, never to work again, to live on scrapings from the bottom of the government’s deficit-financed barrel.

That isn’t really right, is it?

But we’re going to see a lot more of this, so we need to start thinking about how to handle it. In particular, we need to recognize that as we abolish whole industries with sweeps of policy, we’re going to create more unemployed than we can find jobs for. We need to start talking about these people not as victims of structural readjustment, but as beneficiaries. Instead of bemoaning their fate, we need to welcome it, and treat them accordingly. Instead of telling my father he was thrown on the scrapheap, we should be saying to him, “congratulations! Technology abolished your job! The rest of your life is yours now, thanks for all your effort!” But we can’t do this if we don’t back it up with a proper respect for his material conditions. If we’re going to move to a world of infinite energy supplied by the sun, using solar panels constructed by a machine and monitored by a single guy who manages a solar farm big enough to power a city, we’re going to have to find a better way of dealing with all the coal miners and gas extractors that is better than saying “sorry!” and giving them a meagre welfare payment. So here are two proposals for how to manage the shift to a post-scarcity society, that are based in the reality of where we’re heading, rather than a behavioralist economist’s ideal of a kill-or-be-killed employment market.

  1. Accept the reality of job losses and growing unemployment: Rather than simultaneously treating structural adjustment as a disaster for workers while also demanding they get another job, any job, recognize that people done out of a job by the movement towards a world of no work are the beneficiaries of that move, and the first new citizens of the post-scarcity era. Identify industries that are obviously being destroyed – whether by offshoring, technology, or policy design – and offer specific rescue packages for the workers involved. Not stupid retraining packages based on the pretense that a 50 year old guy kicked out of the only industry he ever knew can ever work again, but real maintenance packages. Say to these men and women, “thanks for your years of work. Progress means your industry is gone, but we appreciate your efforts, and we understand this is a big change, so we’re going to support you.” Provide protection for their homes and incomes, and offer them the chance to retire early with dignity. Don’t insult them by treating them as if they were a 20-something dole-bludging surfer taking 6 months off the labour force to find the waves – offer them a real readjustment package that says “thanks, we appreciate your work, and we don’t need it any more, here’s your reward for a job well done.” Begin to build a class of post-scarcity citizens, not a class of post-adjustment wash outs.
  2. Consider education as a job, not preparation for a job: My father left school at 15 to pursue a career in an industry that was destroyed around him in a few years when he was in his 50s. But a 9 year education is not enough to get by in a modern society – this is a sacrifice he made in his youth to support an economy that changed around him. After his industry failed he spent the rest of his working-age years languishing, with nothing much to do, viewing the world through the lens of a working man with very little education. In the modern world we need as many people as possible to have the best possible education, so why not send him back to school? The government could have said “Thanks for your efforts, we realize that you left school at 15 to help society grow, and now we don’t need your work anymore and we don’t think that’s a fair exchange. Why don’t you go back to school and make up all those years you lost? And if you finish school and you’ve got the thirst for it, we’ll support you through university as well.” Of course, in many developed countries there is no actual barrier to a 50-something dude going back to lower high school – but we know they won’t do that without support, because it just doesn’t work that way. So support them, and make sure that their 40 years of contribution to society doesn’t hold them back from enjoying the same education as even the lowest surfie stoner in the modern world. And if this means that my father spends the last 15 years of his working life going all the way from lower high school to a PhD, then retires and never does anything with it, so what? Our society can afford it.

This is the reality of the modern world. We can afford so much more than we give out. The wealth my father’s efforts generated over his career would have been way more than sufficient for him to be retired 15 years early, the mortgage on his house supported by the government, and an education thrown in for free. He worked hard for some of the biggest publishing companies in the UK and Australia, massive profit makers whose role in the economy was significant. They no doubt paid (or should have paid) more than sufficient taxes to reimburse him for his labour once they no longer needed him. And if we are going to move to a world where most jobs are no longer necessary due to science, automation, or the need to abolish certain industries, we need to recognize that people like my father will be the first denizens of the brave new world we’re creating. We need to reward them, not punish them, for their service. Furthermore, we need to consider the possibility that even with the best, most perfect industry policies in the world, we will only create 1 job for every 2 we destroy – in which case we are going to be permanently increasing the size of the non-working population. So we need to start thinking about maintaining them, not as a burden on the rest of society, not as people who just won’t get a job, but as the forerunners of a society without work.

We are heading towards a society without work. The first people to experience that society are the long-term unemployed and the unemployed older workforce. If we don’t find a way to treat them as full citizens, and to ensure they can engage in society as full citizens – with accompanying salaries and bonuses – we need to realize that sometime in the future we are going to be living in a society with a very small number of wealthy workers and a very large number of poor unemployable people. Such a society is not sustainable, and in some ways, if the rhetoric about his voters is true, Trump is a sign of what will happen to us if we don’t deal with this issue.

Technology is intended to liberate us from labour. We call them labour-saving devices for a reason. But ultimately we need to recognize that once you have liberated a certain number of people from labour, you have created a new, non-working society, and you need to find a way to manage it. We want a post-scarcity society, not a post-happiness society. So let’s start thinking about ways to reward people for a lifetime of labour, rather than punishing them for picking the wrong industry 40 years ago.

 

Harder to beat than it looks

Harder to beat than it looks

I’m not going to write anything specific about what yesterday’s election results mean for America or the world, but in this post I thought I’d make a few random observations about the electoral process, polling and Democratic strategy, followed by two comments relating this election to past role-playing campaigns of mine.

  1. The US electoral process is a mess: The composition of the senate and the electoral college process are a joke that protects power for small rural states at the expense of the large and populous urban centres. That California (population 40 million) has the same number of representatives in the senate as Louisiana (population 4.5 million) is ridiculous, and ensures that Louisiana’s residents have nearly 10 times as much voting power as Californians; to a lesser extent this is replicated in the electoral college, where they have 8 compared to 55 electors. This is why we see the strange phenomenon of Republicans winning the presidency and the balance of power in the senate even though they do not win the popular vote, and cannot win significant numbers of senators in the cities. Furthermore, not only is voting not compulsory, but it is held on a Tuesday and many states don’t allow early voting or postal voting, or only have early voting in business hours. Every US election comes down to turnout, and this is a huge problem for a functioning democracy. Reform of all these aspects of the US system is desperately needed.
  2. Polls cannot predict anything while turnout is volatile: Polls consistently showed Clinton leading in the popular vote, which is what happened at the end, but they didn’t come anywhere near predicting the final result. I think this is because a) the polls don’t necessarily reflect the population of the state they’re taken in, so don’t reflect how it will vote, and b) even if they accurately estimate individual voting intentions, they need to weight this by turnout patterns in order to accurately estimate the final vote, and in the absence of accurate knowledge about who will vote, knowing how they would like to vote is irrelevant. Even guessing based on demographics won’t work, since we don’t know whether for example the white people who turn out to vote will be the Democrat voters or the Republican voters. In electoral systems with high turnout (e.g. Australia) this is not an issue, since the effect of fluctuations in turnout will be small compared to the total pool of voters, but in countries with low turnout this is a big problem. Especially since much of the result turns on subtle differences in a few states. Donald Trump would not yet have been declared victor if Pennsylvania were not his, and he won there by 1.2%. Even a small difference in turnout would flip that result. To flip that state Clinton needed just a 3% (not a 3 percent point!) increase in turnout. Note also that many states are won by such narrow margins that predicting the result would be impossible even if we had good estimates of turnout – the error margins on the turnout estimate combined with the voting intention estimates would surely swamp the margin of final victory, producing very high probabilities of error. Polling is no better than reading tea leaves in this situation. If the electoral college system were abolished this wouldn’t matter, since the law of averages combined with big margins in larger states would make polling more effective. But basically the only way to predict the result of a US election is to accurately estimate turnout using huge samples in a few swing states, and then give predictions like ‘there is a 55% chance Pennsylvania will fall to the Republican candidate’.
  3. Get out the vote strategies are not so wonderful: Trump’s ground game was famously bad, and his efforts to get turnout very poor, while Clinton was supposed to be running a well-oiled GOTV machine; yet 7 million fewer people turned out than in the last election, and Clinton got 4 million fewer votes than Obama. This tells me that Trump got better turnout than Clinton without having a ground game. This suggests that having a charismatic candidate is more important than turnout; and that a great GOTV effort is insufficient if the candidate is not well liked. From the party’s perspective this should probably be the only consideration. In four years’ time the Democrats should be asking themselves, is it better to have an inexperienced and popular candidate like Michelle Obama, or an experienced and unpopular candidate like Tim Kaine? And if they’re tempted to say “GOTV should make up for Kaine’s flaws,” they should look at yesterday’s disaster for some helpful pointers. Which brings us to …
  4. The demographic strategy is not working for the Democrats: One often reads that the Democrats are on a winning streak because the proportion of white voters is declining and the proportion of African American/Latino voters is growing, but there are two reasons why this isn’t working for them, at least in the medium term. The first is that the decline of white voters is due to ageing, and older people are more likely to be Republican, more likely to be able to vote, and more likely to be energized to vote; and the second is that fluctuations in turnout will wipe out even large demographic gains. When turnout can fluctuate by 10% between two elections (48.6% this election vs 55% in 2012, according to Wikipedia), demographic gains will be swamped by the patterns of turnout – especially if turnout is not consistent across all demographic groups. It’s also not clear to me that the growing trend in Latino/African American populations is a sustainable windfall for the Democrats, since the reason these populations are growing is that they are younger, and younger people are more likely to vote Democrat; but will this be true as these populations age? Democratic policies appeal more to young people, and the population of young people, although growing, may not be growing fast enough to offset the ageing of slightly older people into more Republican groups. If they are going to be competitive, Democrats need to appeal to older white people in rural areas, and that is very hard for them to do when those areas are completely shut off from Democratic modes of communication through Hate Radio, Fox news, and the growing echo chamber of the Republican right.
  5. Trump did not win poor people: The first exit polls I read suggested that Clinton did much better than Trump amongst people on below median income and below 50,000 US$ income. This group is disproportionately young and African American/Latino, probably also more likely to be women, and it shows that the Democrats are facing an ageing problem – this is the baby boomer dividend for the Republicans. In my experience Boomers are very vulnerable to climate change denialism, deficit terrorism, and arguments about deserving vs. undeserving poor, and this makes them easily convinced to vote for Republicans. This was an election fought along wealth lines, with a heavy leavening of racism and sexism to drive up turnout, and it’s not the case that Trump won by appealing to the poor and those “left behind” by the “neoliberal order”. He won by getting out older, wealthier people to vote against the change that their own children are pining for. This is exactly the same story as Brexit, where the people most likely to be affected by leaving the EU – young people and poor people – overwhelmingly voted to remain, while older and wealthier people voted to leave.

I can’t see an easy way back from this for the Democrats, not because they can’t win elections – Obama showed they can, and resoundingly – but because the Republicans will use their time in power to further drive down the ability of poor and young people to vote, and further attack the social organizations – like unions – that support activism in support of these groups.

I had a bet with two Aussie friends that the Republicans would be out of power for a generation, and I think my position was based on a misunderstanding of the importance of points 2 – 4, and now as a result I have to post an expensive 1.8L bottle of nihonshu (sake) to Australia. Which just goes to show the importance of understanding demographics, and also that this election has been a great tragedy for me, and Americans should apologize to me for my loss.

To bring this post back to RPG-related issues:

  1. A few years ago I played in a World of Darkness campaign that was set in a dystopic near-future, in which an inscrutable and ineffable evil force was working to reduce all the universe to its whims, using America as its primary point of access to the mortal world. Of course it was manipulating US politics through the Republican party, and so America had become a proto-fascist hellzone ruled by President … McCain. We thought this was hilariously cynical at the time, but now I think we were showing a remarkable lack of imagination. Shame on us.
  2. My character in the Cyberpunk campaign I recently played in was fond of saying that Asia was where the future was, and comparing shattered, collapsed America and failing Europe to the vibrant and optimistic megalopolises and future civilizations of Asia. This election shows the truth of her view: with Trump likely to sink all forms of action on climate change, China will become the global leader on response to warming; if Trump can repeal Obamacare the US will again be well behind many Asian nations in progress towards universal health coverage; and in comparison to the lunatic electoral decisions of the UK and US, the one-party administrative states of Asian states like Japan and Singapore are looking decidedly responsible and stable. I’ve said before that China is going to present a genuine alternative model to capitalist democracy if it can weather its economic and environmental problems without instability, and certainly the Chinese press have been presenting this US election as an example of why democracy is an ugly thing. As my Cyberpunk character was fond of saying (if her vocabulary extended to it), it’s time moribund European and anglosphere states started looking more seriously to Asia for ideas on politics and governance, because frankly, from my perspective, they seem to be flat out of ideas.

These are my first and probably last thoughts on the US election. I’ll be tracking Trump’s impact on Obamacare and writing about it as it happens, but the rest of this is too depressing for me to want to take on. Just the sight of a qualified woman being beaten to an important job by an incompetent, unqualified man with a history of workplace sexual harrassment allegations leaves me so cold I couldn’t watch her concession speech, and I certainly want to minimize my exposure to Trump before he forces himself onto us from the oval office. So I think I’ll be avoiding further posts about US politics for the foreseeable future … Godspeed America, I think you’re in for a rough and probably tragic ride.

Anger, Misery, You'll suffer unto me

Anger, Misery, You’ll suffer unto me

Our PCs have decided to join forces with the Confederate Navy, and to work with them to unravel the sinister plots of the AI forces that are arrayed against the Spiral Confederacy. There are at least three factions of AI working to try and obtain the necessary ingredients to achieve transubstantiation, which would enable the AI to become like gods within human space, and the Confederate Navy wants to stop them. One faction appears to have been using a group of Changeling bandits, led by a trio of Changelings called Kong the Younger, to obtain some pieces of the transubstantiation puzzle. These Changelings have been lured to help the AI faction by the promise of freedom for their planet, Valentine, and a terrible reckoning for human space, though it is unclear to the Navy and the PCs what that reckoning might be. Whatever their goals, the PCs had decided to put a stop to them, and to capture their leader – so, they agreed to participate in an attack on one of the Kongs’ pirate bases.

In exchange for their support, the Confederate Navy had offered the PCs a great reward: assignment of several small attack ships to command by Ahmose, an upgrade of the armour and weapons on their own ship, honorary naval ranks, and a small squad of marines to support their work. They had essentially been made freebooters for the Confederate Navy. This new squadron, the Ahmose Battle Group, would comprise the following ships:

  • The Left Hand of Darkness, flagship of the squadron, newly armoured and armed and piloted by Lam
  • The Harvester of Sorrow, a ground assault ship armed with a special hyperspace neutron scythe that killed ground troops
  • The Hooked on a Feeling, an attack ship designed to resist electronic countermeasures and computer attacks
  • The Romeo’s Distress, a psionic support ship with a crew of psionic assault troops

Rear Admiral Ahmose led the battle group from the bridge of the Darkness, and the rest of the PCs crewed the Darkness, but took responsibility for marine squads from other ships in ground combat[1].

Preparation of this squadron would take several weeks, as the ships were renovated and the Darkness armed in the factories of the Reckless. In the meantime the PCs were assigned comfortable quarters on the Reckless and left to their own devices.

Strange allies in strange places

Strange allies in strange places

Captain Noulgrim’s parting gift

A few nights before their ship was ready the PCs received an invitation from Captain Noulgrim – the slimy man who had threatened them into working for the navy at the beginning of their troubles – to join him for a farewell drink at his favourite bar, the Snakepit. Since they had come to the Reckless they had requested Colonel Stiglam to dismiss the Captain from managing them, and had not had to deal with him since. Given their deep dislike of the Captain, they deliberated over whether to attend, but finally the temptation to find out what he had to say got the better of them, and they decided to go and see what his last words would be.

The Snakepit is a favourite bar of the Reckless‘s gunnery crews, the sweaty men and women who manage the heavy weapons that defend it from space assault – or would, if anyone were ever rash enough to contemplate such an attack. The Reckless’s gunnery crews were a famously low brow and rough bunch, with their own long standing culture of military pride and grungey service, and the Snakepit was emblematic of the culture of their corps. It had been converted from the old galleries where gunners used to sit to operate the ship’s dorsal guns, before those functions were shifted to remote stations deep in the core of the ship, and its position meant that it ran along a large portion of the central axis of the ship, winding its way along the uneven extrusions of the gun turrets its occupants once operated, with a long glass window looking out into empty space. Barely wider than the original seats gunners would have occupied, its gunnery stations had been converted into tables ranging in size from two person counter seats for the smallest guns to six-person banquet settings for the largest guns. Above each table loomed the guns that it had once corresponded to – slender multi-pronged point defense clusters for the smallest tables, ranging up to huge triple emplacements, tens of metres long, for capital ship bombardment. These guns protruded into empty space, the larger guns casting long slanting shadows through the gallery of the Snakepit as the Reckless orbited into the path of the sun’s rays. The bar was clean but rough, smelled of a complex mixture of recreational inhalants and stale alcohol and gunner’s sweat, and was almost empty when the PCs arrived. By tradition the bar is staffed by off-duty gunners, and at the entryway they were met by a huge black man, covered in luminescent tattoos, who grunted at Noulgrim’s name, sneered and told them “Table 7, for 6, just under the triple proton cannons,” before returning to polishing a cabinet carved out of an old shell casing.

They found Noulgrim waiting at the table, nursing a glass of the Snakepit’s classic Reckless Strike drink and looking out over a vista of gun shadows stretching out through the haze of the Reckless‘s external atmosphere. Three brave souls were surfing through the haze, soaring between the lines of the bigger guns’ shadows as if they were sliding through a golden hallway lined with pillars of shadow. Noulgrim raised his glass to them and gave them that annoying smug grin, then gestured for them to sit. As they ordered drinks – Nebula Grog for Ahmose, Snakepit ale for Alva, coconut smoothy for Simon Simon, Reckless Strike for Lam – Noulgrim gestured behind him and a strange woman stepped out of the shadows to stare at them.

She was over 2 metres tall, slender and wiry and made entirely of coiled muscle. Her golden-brown skin was covered in strange painted designs, thick and smeared as if they had been slathered on her by an immature finger painter. She wore no shoes and her only clothing was a modest bikini of what appeared to be gold leaf of some kind, overlaid with a low-slung belt that carried a ludicrously oversized pistol. She carried a spear – an honest-to-god spear – in one hand, and stared down at them all through an expressionless, heavily-painted golden-brown face crowned with a rich head of jewel-encrusted dreadlocks. She nodded once at them and stood impassively, completely impervious to their confused expressions.

“This is Ravager 763,” Noulgrim told them. “I invited her here to meet you. Don’t worry, she won’t sit. Or speak either, most likely,” He added when Lam made to move for her to take a seat. Ravager 763 spared him a swift, contemptuous flick of her eyes but said nothing. They all stared at her – Lam and Simon Simon in obvious confusion, and Ahmose with undisguised lust. Only Alva ignored her, because he was staring at Noulgrim.

“What on earth is this?” He asked.

“Well…” He sighed and looked into his drink. “I think we all got off to a terrible start with that unpleasantness on the Come As You Are, I grant you it wasn’t my finest hour. Things were done – terrible things happened that shouldn’t have, and I’d like to find some way to make amends.” He paused while Ahmose coughed pointedly at his careful use of the passive voice, then continued. “I’ve seen from your work these last months that you’re exceptional people, and you’ve made a lot of sacrifices and taken a lot of risks in service to the Confederacy, and I feel terrible for making such bad assumptions about you when we first met. I mean you were breaking the law, and you were being incredibly stupid, but – ah – ” Alva was about to raise his voice accusatorily but paused when he caught sight of Ravager 763’s cold, hard stare. ” – ah – yes, anyway so the things that happened, what was done, it was probably unfair. Though you did get a ship out of it! Eventually …” He trailed off in confusion, took a sip of his drink, and waved his hand at Ravager 763.

“Anyway, so this is Ravager 763. She’s a member of a small community of interstellar nomads called the Ravagers, no one knows anything about them and they don’t really ever speak so we don’t know their history or their background. They have a different technology for interstellar travel, and they have their own ancient spaceships that maybe work on religious fervour rather than tech – we don’t really know. They have priests and technomages and psionics in their community, which makes them kind of unique, but they have resisted Confederate attempts to investigate them in any depth. They have a polite agreement with the Confederacy but the truth is that their nomadic range extends beyond the boundaries of the Confederacy, we don’t really know how far.

“The Ravagers owe me a debt. I rescued Ravager 763 and her crew from trouble a few years back, before I joined the Reckless, and because I saved their lives she offered the services of the Ravagers to me, a kind of one-off life boon. But now I’m on the Reckless I can’t think of any way they can help me – they’re very good at killing, but I’m stationed on a ship that kills planets, so I don’t really think they’ll ever be able to offer me a service I’ll need. However …”

He pulled a small white rectangular card from his uniform pocket and slid it across the table. It was a plain, unadorned card, with a single splatter of blood embedded in its plastic seal, and the word “Ravager” written in small, neat red characters on one corner. It was a standard contact card, the kind you put in a comms system that gives you a range of contact options.

“The other thing they’re very good for,” he said, “Is getting people out of the Confederacy. So I thought I would transfer my debt to you. I thought if something goes wrong and you suddenly decide you can’t work for the Confederacy anymore – if they’re not what you thought, for example, or what they want you to do is too horrible, or you make a mistake you think they might punish you for – well if you call on the Ravagers they can probably take you far, far away.”

He watched as Simon Simon picked up the card. Then Ravager 763 shifted on her bare feet and spoke for the first time. “The Captain,” she began in a husky, soft voice, “Is owed a debt of life. I am Ravager 763, and on behalf of all my kind I offer you the repayment of that debt, one action to balance his, five lives to be saved or forfeited when you ask it. Any five lives.” Her emphasis was soft and unmistakable. “We will come to you anywhere, but your confederacy is limited in its reach. The card will tell you from which systems you can call us, and how to call us. Noulgrim tells me you will use the debt honourably. We would prefer to discharge our debt with honour, but it is a debt. Invoke it, and any action within our power that balances the debt will be yours to call.”

After she stopped speaking Noulgrim shifted uncomfortably, acutely aware of the hard look Ahmose and Alva were giving him, and the possibility they were weighing up calling in the debt right there and then. But finally Ahmose nodded, took the card gently from Noulgrim, and pocketed it.

“Thank you Captain, I appreciate the gesture. I hope we never have to call on the debt, but Ravager 763, if we do, I look forward to meeting you again.” Ahmose stood up, drink half finished. “I think that’s enough for me. Let’s go.”

The team stood up, bowed to Ravager 763, and left without a second glance at Noulgrim.

They were all wondering – why had he been so sure that they might be asked to do things so bad they might consider escaping the Confederacy to avoid them? Did he know something about the Confederacy that they did not?

Attack on Korgan 3

A few days later the Ahmose Battle Group set off from the Reckless for Korgan 3, a nearly empty star system on the border of the next sub-sector, three weeks’ jump travel removed from the Reckless. Korgan 3 was a small red dwarf orbited by two gas giants, one close to the star and one exceptionally large gas giant very far removed from the star. The size of this star and its orbital position rendered orbital patterns of small objects in the system unstable, and nothing larger than large asteroids existed in the system. Kong’s base was built into one such asteroid, which tumbled through the system in an unstable orbital pattern. It had once been a research base, but the unstable orbit rendered it useless for long term research, so it had been abandoned some hundreds of years earlier. A second research base in the orbit of the larger gas giant had also been abandoned and converted into a remote broadcasting system, which picked up information about ships entering and leaving the system and broadcast basic safety information to arriving ships. The system was treated as a waypoint at best by most passing ships, and avoided wherever possible, since it was too boring to pass time between jumps, and not on any important trading routes. It was an ideal location for a pirate base on the edge of the Rim.

As soon as they arrived in system they were greeted with an automated broadcast advising them to avoid the asteroid with its unstable orbit, and not to interfere with any abandoned research bases. They ignored the message and set a course for the distant research base. Within a few hours, as they drew within the last 100,000 kilometres from the base, they received a message from the base itself – an official Confederacy message advising against approach, probably 100 years old. They ignored it and sped closer, forming into a loose attack configuration with the Hooked on a Feeling to the rear of the echelon.

Soon the warning was repeated, and as they drew closer still it was replaced by a newer, more threatening message: “Unidentified ship, do not approach. This is a restricted zone.” Closer still, and they received a direct contact from the asteroid: “Captain Ahmose, leave now or be destroyed. There are no more warnings.”

Ahmose replied with a simple message: “Time to pay up, Kong!” They sped closer.

Unfortunately the battle group’s sensor operator (Alva) was not a very good one, and the asteroid’s ships got the jump on them. They were suddenly hit by a flight of missiles, all streaking out of the dusty darkness around the distant asteroid towards the Left Hand of Darkness. One missed, point defense destroyed another, and the last one exploded harmlessly on the Darkness‘s shields. Battle was joined.

The enemy battle fleet was composed of five ships: four grim, spiky little 200-ton attack ships clustered around a larger 400 ton flagship, the Cat in the Rain. The ships were all old and retro-fitted with stolen gear, so working at a lower tech level than the Ahmose Battle Group, but they were faster and heavily armed. Despite their extra speed the Ahmose Battle Group had better discipline and reactions, and were able to rain fire down on one of the attack ships, the Blood Brother, so heavily that it was crippled and forced to disengage from the fight immediately. Because most of the damage on this ship was done by the Romeo’s Distress, their enemies focused their fire on this ship, doing significant hull damage and disabling its jump drive but failing to destroy it.

Having knocked the first ship out, the Battle Group focused fire on a second ship, the Dance on Glass. As the Romeo’s Distress fired on this one, it drifted closer to a third ship, the Wasteland. The entire asteroid fleet was now focusing fire on the Left Hand of Darkness, and didn’t act to avoid the Romeo’s Distress as she drifted in. So they weren’t ready when the ship drifted so close that her squad of psionic assault troops was able to teleport into the ship and capture the bridge without a shot fired[2]. The Wasteland was seized in moments with no damage.

By now the ships had drifted within a few hundred kms of the asteroid, which opened fire on the Battle Group with particle beam turrets. But the tide of the space battle had turned, and they were able to destroy the Dance on Glass, the Hooked on a Feeling launched a boarding action on the last attack ship, and the Left Hand of Darkness blasted away at the flagship, the Cat in the Rain, as the Harvester of Sorrow began its ground assault. All the asteroid’s particle beams were now focused on the Left Hand of Darkness, which Lam was steering through complex dog-fighting maneouvres to avoid the attacks while the flagship and the Romeo’s Distress fired on the Cat in the Rain.

The landing area on the asteroid was large enough for two ships, so once the Harvester of Sorrow had unleashed its neutron scythe twice it disgorged its marines to clear the landing site. Unfortunately they were hit by concentrated fire from two plasma gun emplacements as soon as they hit the ground, and completely eviscerated within moments. Her job done (and mostly failed) the Harvester of Sorrow moved off the landing port; but now that she was not using her neutron scythe she was able to release the full fury of her rear gun turret, and the subsequent flight of missiles completely destroyed the asteroid fleet’s flagship, the Cat in the Rain, tearing it apart into thousands of pieces. The boarding action on the last attack ship completed successfully with the complete capitulation of its crew, and the Hooked on a Feeling and the Left Hand of Darkness descended to the asteroid, while the Romeo’s Distress continued to distract the asteroid’s particle beams, in case they could be redirected at ground targets.

The first person to emerge from the landed ships was Simon Simon, carrying his own plasma gun (PGMP). He opened fire on one of the gun nests, while Lam and the Darkness’s marines opened fire on the other. They completely destroyed the nest’s and moved away from the ships, allowing them to vacate the landing zone and making space for the Romeo’s Distress to land – and not a moment too soon either, since the particle beam turrets were slowly shredding her armour. She landed, and the various marine squads quickly neutralized a squad of defenders on the far side of the landing zone.

They were down on the surface. They had captured two ships – the Wasteland and the Negligent Waltz – and forced the surrender of another, the Blood Brother, which was so badly damaged that it could do nothing but drift in space and wait for the ground battle to finish and the victors to come and claim its crew. They had destroyed two other ships, including the asteroid’s flagship, and in exchange suffered only light damage to their own flagship, though the Romeo’s Distress was so badly damaged as to be close to destruction, its jump drives wrecked and hull compromised. Now they had two marine crews on the surface along with the leadership team, while their other marine crews took control of the two captured ships and would land shortly.

Their first space battle had been a resounding success, and now they were ready for a brutal battle to capture the asteroid. Soon, Kong would repay them in full for his earlier treacheries …


fn1: I designed the fleet so that in space battle each player would take control of one ship, and the marines and properties of the ship were designed to match the PC in question. So Lam’s player took over the Harvester of Sorrow; Simon Simon (the adherent) was responsible for the Hooked on a Feeling; and Alva (the psionic) was responsible for the Romeo’s Distress. So now each player effectively controls a PC, a ship, and a squad of grunts. I also assigned them all ranks based on the Japanese Maritime Self Defense forces: Rear Admiral for Ahmose, Lieutenant for Lam (who was previously in the Navy until she stole a ship); and Warrant Officer for the other two PCs. These ranks are honorary, and don’t give them control over any members of the navy except those directly assigned to be their subordinates (they can’t just run around commanding anyone on any ship). Also, Simon Simon’s marines were given strict instructions to put him down like a dog if he showed signs of switching sides (on account of his being an adherent).

fn2: Most of the asteroid ships had a squad of marines on board but just by luck, the Wasteland didn’t. Traveler’s ship combat rules have a simple procedure for determining the success of a boarding attack, in which attacker and defender roll 2d6 with modifiers. I figured “teleporting straight onto the bridge” counts as “superior tactics and training” (+2), and a Confederate psionic assault squad will have superior weapons and armour, giving a total +5 to the roll; the Wasteland got a -2 for no marines onboard. The result was an immediate capture of the ship, which would usually take 2d6 turns but I figured teleporting on the bridge is instant, so the Romeo’s Distress was still free to fight in the space battle.

This slide is a little busy, but ...

This slide is a little busy, but …

[GM Note: This is not a session report but an update on what the PCs have learnt over the past 9 sessions, and the final plans for how they will end the campaign and what part they will play in bringing together the threads of what appears to be a galaxy-spanning plot by AIs to become gods].

The crew of the Left Hand of Darkness have finally made progress in their investigations, and find themselves back in the tender care of the Confederate Navy. This time, however, the order of things is very much reversed, with the Navy seeking the PCs’ help to tie together all the strings of their investigation and begin to act on the knowledge they have gained. Having reacquainted themselves with Captain Noulgrim, the man who originally set them on this investigative spiral through known space, the spaceship the Reckless, they were invited by the Captain’s superior, Colonel Virr Stiglam, to join him in a planning conference. Having already been offered assurances that their ship was safe and that they would soon be rewarded for their work, the PCs agreed, and left the Land Hand of Darkness to visit the Reckless for the first time.

They were taken straight to the yacht races by Colonel Stiglam and his two grim guards, Captain Noulgrim sliding gracefully and smugly out of sight once his work had been done. Noulgrim’s shuttle took them directly to a kind of cupola floating about 300m from the port side of the Reckless, and they disembarked into a warm summer day – floating in space 300m from the ship. The Reckless is surrounded by an atmosphere to a radius of about 500m from the ship, held in by powerful shields, and maintains a gravitational field in this atmosphere so that wherever one is placed within it one will driftly slowly back towards the hull. Whenever the Reckless is in physical space anti-gravity cupolas, yachts and hang gliders drift around in this atmosphere, usually on the sunward side of the ship but sometimes in the strange shadowed dark side, or over the top and bottom of the ship. Events and pageants are often held there, organized by various organizations from within the large population living permanently in the ship’s hull. On this occasion, several groups from the ship’s military organization had organized a zero-g yacht race, and the Reckless had obligingly rustled up a strong and unpredictable wind in its atmosphere. As Colonel Noulgrim prepared them all drinks they sat on the forward balcony of their little cupola, the overhead awnings flapping in the wings, and saw the first of the yachts beginning to approach their viewing point, colourful penants and sails fluttering in the wind, veering and wheeling in the three dimensional race course. To their left and right a scattering of small ships, cupolas, viewing platforms and larger yachts scattered the edge of the raceway, people cheering and clinking drinks and unfurling banners for their favourite teams: “Go the 7th Fusiliers,” and “Victory to the 8th Gunnery Squad” and so on. Discreetly placed drones played marching music, occasionally interrupted by announcements from a popular DJ who was commentating on the race. As Stiglam brought them a tray of wines and spirits the announcer informed them that the lead was currently being contested between the black yacht of the 3rd Planetary Assault Squad and the red and blue yacht crewed by “Shmiel’s Piercers,” an irregular military formation of psions and empathy-linked marines.

Ahmose’s eyes narrowed at that, but sadly her rifle was still on the Left Hand of Darkness, so Shmiel would get to pass them in peace – this time. Stiglam didn’t appear to notice her and Lam’s sudden grimness, and sat down unconcerned in a comfortable swinging seat, handing over a set of binoculars to her. “Here, you can see the races clearly with these.” He waved his hand at the drinks. “Help yourselves, sit, enjoy the races! We have much to discuss!”

Ahmose focused the binoculars on the Piercers, and there he was, standing in the prow, the seedy bearded psion who had raided her mind all those months ago on the bridge of the Come As You Are. He appeared happy, at peace, and enjoying the race. For a few moments she followed his movements with the binoculars, then put them away with a disgusted curl of her lip. Behind them, Alva noticed that Stiglam’s guards remained in the shadows at the rear of the cupola, not relaxing to enjoy the race. They weren’t fully trusted yet.

As the yachts drifted by, their conversation turned to what they had learned, and what needed to be done.

Through their investigations the PCs have learned of a plot by AIs to achieve a transcendental civilization. This transubstantiation would enable AIs to leave behind the physical constraints of their computer systems, and become a galaxy-spanning consciousness. To achieve this they need:

  • A biological form of sentience
  • A means of communicating faster than light (the ansible)
  • The chip to activate the ansible
  • The technology to achieve transubstantiation

The PCs are carrying the first three of this list, and they have a strong feeling that the Cognate, the mysterious AI on the other end of the ansible with whom they communicated once, might have the technology for transubstantiation. This was a technology that the Confederate Navy also wanted, Stiglam told them, though they had doubts about their ability to pry it from the Cognate. They were also sure that the biological form of sentience that the AIs would need was in the PCs control, in the form of Red Cloud of the Coming Storm, ignorant priest of the planet Dune, who was not a human but a silicon-based life form. It seemed possible that if AIs could investigate the corpse (or better still, the living form) of one of those aliens, then they would be able to develop a means to implant their sentience in a biological life form.

The PCs were also aware that there were at least three different forces seeking these things. In addition to the Cognate, they knew that the AI called The Shadow of the Hunter (Is the Last thing the Mouse Sees) was also looking for the same technology, since he had traded the characters their ship for the dead witch from Dune. In addition, Kong the Younger had cheated them out of the chip for the ansible just before they became entangled with the Reckless, and it seemed likely he had done that as an agent for another AI. So at least three AIs were seeking this transubstantiation technology, and they were likely from different factions with different intentions towards human civilization.

Colonel Stiglam then told the PCs about how he had known they were coming to this system. A couple of weeks ago the Reckless had noticed a minor space conflict happening in the Dune system, and when she went to investigate found a ship devoid of human crew busily destroying another ship. This ship, the Mono:Overload, was piloted by an insane AI that had taken over the ship’s systems, killed its own crew, and then turned on its sister ship the Transfer:Complete. The Reckless captured the Mono:Overload and quarantined the AI, which turned out to be the insane remnant of the AI called The Starred One, which the PCs had implanted in the Mono:Overload after it attacked them at Dune. By investigating the events leading up to the starship battle the PCs identified the Left Hand of Darkness as the source of the AI, and sent a series of ships searching for it in neighbouring systems. They caught up to the Left Hand of Darkness after the PCs left her to begin their attack on the Losing My Religion, and after interrogating her crew were able to send the Reckless itself to cut them off when they arrived at Morvan’s Rest – so the pattern of their travels had been revealed, along with their plans to loot the weapons on the Losing My Religion, and their path had crossed again with the Reckless.

The mad AI known as the Starred One had been sent off to a special orbital that the Confederacy reserved for situations like this. It would be imprisoned in a special section of the orbital that was isolated electronically from the rest of the orbital and the rest of the galaxy, and questioned carefully by experts in special systems that were designed to prevent AIs escaping. The surface of the orbital was inhabited by an indigenous race whose technology had not passed beyond nomadic wandering – they lacked even electricity – and supplies were delivered to the staff of the research institute by baggage trains of these indigenous people, so that there was no way that any information could be passed in or out electronically. Reports were written with pen and paper, and all communications offworld handled on a distant section of the orbital that was completely electronically isolated from the prison. Within this setting the mad AI’s consciousness would be carefully unraveled and its secrets discovered.

This suggestion horrified Simon Simon, who views AIs as people deserving of care and respect, but he understood that the remnant of the consciousness that he had infected the ship with was unlikely to ever be cured. He was as interested as everyone else to learn what secrets it held – the Confederacy’s first and best chance to learn the true history of the Reach, the pirate system from which the AI came – but he was disappointed to learn this investigation could take many months.

In the meantime, Stiglam told them as the yachts sailed by and supporters cheered, the Confederacy was investigating the belongings of the dead Kong the Younger, and expected to find the location of his criminal base. They had a couple of plans as to what they would do next, and they wanted the PCs’ help. Would they entertain him on their ship three days’ hence, to discuss further plans? He promised them that they would benefit greatly from helping him – “likely a fleet of ships, that sort of thing” he said airly, waving one arm in the direction of space. Their ears perked up. Finally, a reward for all their efforts?! Of course, they would love to meet him again.

The yacht race finished with Shmiel’s Piercers a minute ahead of their rivals, and minor controversy about whether they had used psionics to achieve their victory. The PCs returned to the Left Hand of Darkness, and waited to hear from the Colonel.

How to catch an AI

Three days later, as he promised, Stiglam visited them on their ship, this time alone and in casual clothes. They took him to the lounge, introduced him to Red Cloud, and laid out lunch and drinks for their discussion. Stiglam told them first that they had penetrated Kong the Younger’s data, and identified the location of his home base. They had also determined to whom he sold the ansible chip that he had cheated the PCs out of – to an agent who worked for an organization that he promised “would bring great distress to the humans.” Kong the Younger, it appeared, was part of a network of Changelings operating within the Confederacy to undermine the navy, and they had managed to land a few Changelings in the research team investigating Dune. Messages had been despatched, and the network’s agent on the Reckless had been apprehended, though he had not yet talked. He had two more days to offer his knowledge freely before the psionics began to work on him, and Stiglam was confident they would learn all they could from him soon.

In the meantime they had a series of tasks to be completed, and they wanted the PCs’ help in some of them. These included:

  1. Attacking the remaining bases held by Kong the Younger’s changeling buddies, and capturing one of them alive
  2. Tracking down Barry and Larry, the two mercenaries who had likely stolen the ansible chip the PCs owned, and had probably sold it on to their original employer when they parted ways from the PCs – this was likely another AI, and the PCs wanted to find who
  3. Visiting the orbital where the Starred One was held, to release Simon Simon’s AI into the orbital and have her help speed up inquiries into the nature of the Starred One’s past
  4. Finding and destroying the Cognate, or capturing it to put into the same prison on the orbital – for which Simon Simon’s AI might be needed
  5. Visiting the Cult of the Last Barrier, and penetrating its innermost sanctum to try and learn the history of the Cult and find out why it was tracking the ansible – for this they would need the help of Michael, the priest who had asked them to take him to the Reach in pursuit of this Cult

Stiglam wanted the PCs to help him with tasks 1 and 5, but they were welcome to assist in any of the others. Task 1 – the raid on Kong’s base – would start soon, and if they agreed to help with that he would see that they were equipped with a fleet of small attack ships, their own ship was upgraded and armed, and they were supplied with marines to support them. Ahmose would become Rear Admiral Ahmose, in charge of the Ahmose Battle Group, and they would be given official license as Freebooters to do the work of the Confederate Navy. This license would last at least until the present threat was past, with the possibility of becoming permanent. He proposed a fleet of three small attack ships to accompany them, with a small number of marines on each.

Did they agree to help?

Did they need to be asked? They tried to appear cagey, but their agreement was obvious and immediate. The Ahmose Battle Group was formed, and plans began for the attack on Kong the Younger’s base.

6HPs each, or 7?

6HPs each, or 7?

My Spiral Confederacy campaign is heading towards its conclusion, which means bigger battles and more annoying enemies, which (just as happened in Cyberpunk) inevitably requires rules for handling minions. Combat in Traveler tends to be quick and brutal but it also involves a lot of tricky management of attributes and penalties as the damage grinds through Endurance, Agility and Strength. We don’t want to have to go through this when we’re fighting large gangs of minions, and we don’t want to have to consider all their possible different skills, so we need a set of rules for handling multiple enemies. For Traveler we will call them Grunts.

Basic grunt attributes: Level and squad size

Grunts are defined entirely in terms of their squad size and level. Level determines their basic armour, attack bonus, and HPs, and squad size determines how lethal they are given their level. I envisage levels ranging from 1 to 4, with 1 being your basic gang member and 4 being a Confederate elite space marine. For each level I imagine a gang of three should be roughly equal in lethality and difficulty to kill as a single boss-level opponent of a roughly equivalent degree of nastiness. An average human has physical attributes of 7, which means that you basically need to deliver 14 points worth of damage (on top of armour) to knock them out (reduce two attributes to 0). So we should say that a squad of three level 2 grunt require about this much damage to eliminate. This means that each grunt at level 2 should have 5 hit points, and the size of the squad is reduced by one for each 5 full points of damage delivered. Grunt squads can then be tracked in sets of hit points separated by slashes. So a level 2 grunt squad with four members would have its HPs written like this: 5/5/5/5. Grunts are degraded from the right, with squad size dropping by 1 for each 5 hps of damage done.

Grunt hit points are thus set at 3+level.

The grunt squad will have a total attack bonus equal to its level plus the number of members. Remember in Traveler the amount you exceed a roll by is extra damage, which will make large squads very dangerous. For a squad of four level 4 space marines attacking with a basic bonus of +4, you can expect them to add 8 to their rolls and get very large effects every time they attack someone. This is to be expected, since you’re being shot at by four highly skilled soldiers at once. Better thin out that herd early!

The grunt squad’s armour is determined by its level, ranging from 3 (flak) at level 1; to 8 (cloth) at level 2; 10 (vacc suit) at level 3; to 13 (combat armour) at level 4. Since you need to exceed the armour to deliver damage, you’re going to need a very high powered weapon to chew through a large squad of space marines.

Grunt damage is 3d6 for level 1 and 2 grunts, 4d6 for level 3, and 5d6 for level 4.

For other skill or resistance checks, the squad uses its level with extra benefit for squad size only where the GM sees it fit (for example, resisting an area level psionic attack would get no benefit, but breaking down a door would).

This means that an entire grunt squad can be expressed in terms of its level, squad size, hit point block, and armour. So for example

Space Marines (Level 3; squad size 3; 6/6/6; armour 10; damage 4d6).

This squad would attack at +6 at the start of combat, and would require 7 points of damage to be reduced in size by one. Attacking at +6 it is highly likely to have a large effect, and will probably kill the first person it shoots. Best to get a grenade amongst this squad real fast.

Autofire, grenades and grunts

The autofire rules work slightly differently for grunts than for normal enemies, and are slightly more effective. The special considerations for each of the autofire modes are listed below.

  • Burst: If a PC attacks a grunt squad with a single fire weapon they can only kill a maximum of one grunt. If they use the burst setting of an auto weapon they can kill a number of grunts equal to the ROF of the weapon
  • Autofire: The damage of all successful attacks is applied simultaneously to a number of grunts equal to the ROF of the weapon. For example, a weapon with ROF 3 on autofire mode that successfully hits twice will roll the damage twice, and apply this damage to the same 3 grunts simultaneously. Thus the weapon may be able to kill all three grunts if it does enough damage over the two shots.
  • Blast: Weapons with the Blast property apply their damage to all grunts within range (and thus may kill all of them)
  • Shotguns: Shotguns are considered to have the blast effect when applied to a group of minions, though the grunt’s armour value is still doubled

Because grunts in large numbers are very dangerous, PCs will want to go full Leroy Jenkins on them early in the battle.

For simplicity, grunts are assumed not to have the auto X property, since this requires tracking ammunition. The GM may wish to add this property to some groups to make them particularly troublesome, but it is probably better just to give the existing group a higher level.

Leadership and grunts

Grunts can have their actions coordinated and improved by people with leadership. A successful leadership check by a grunt’s designated leader can be used to enhance their attack bonus, damage or armour for the duration of a combat (or until the leader is killed), up to the effect of the roll. This can be spread amongst multiple grunts. This leadership check has a DM equal to the group’s level (since the benefits of higher level grunts include some degree of internal coordination).

For example, Rear Admiral Ahmose, in charge of a squad of four level 2 marines, must make a leadership check against a total difficulty of 10. She rolls 12, getting an effect of 2. She chooses to put 1 point of this onto attack bonus, and one point onto armour. The marines now have a base attack of 3, and armour of 9. This means that in the first round of combat they attack at +7, and to kill the first one will require a minimum damage roll of 15 (to do 6 points of damage above armour).

Tactic skill can also be used by the grunt’s commander. In this case the roll has the same difficulty as leadership, but can boost the next single action by an amount equal to the effect of the roll. Note that the leader needs to forego their own action to make this check.

Psionics and other effects on grunts

It may be possible for a psion or priest to apply an effect that paralyzes or confuses a grunt. In this case the individual grunt should be assumed to be killed outright. If the effect can extend to more than one target, it may be possible to wipe out an entire group. If the effect is a domination or control effect, it should be assumed to affect the target grunt and one additional grunt, who will be effectively neutralized by having to deal with the target grunt. If it affects the whole group, then the GM should switch the grunt squad to the PCs, and put it under their control.

Summary

Grunt level: 1 to 4

Grunt HPS: 3+level

Grunt Armour: 3, 8, 10 or 14 (by level)

Grunt attack bonus: level + squad size

Grunt damage: 3d6 for levels 1-2, 4d6 for level 3, 5d6 for level 4

Leadership roll (DM=level): Distribute effect of roll across attack bonus, damage and armour as desired for one combat

Tactics roll (DM=level, forego action): Bonus on next action equal to effect of the roll

As always, the idea with grunt rules is to make them as quick and easy to use as possible, so try not to add any special effects or abilities to grunts that are not immediately manageable, and scalable with the group size. And don’t ever give grunt squads portable plasma guns.