I’ve just returned a week with the WHO in Geneva, where I was working on tobacco control. The tobacco control lobby have made huge achievements in the last 20 years, managing to turn the tide of tobacco use in many countries and pushing some countries (like Australia) towards the dream of zero tobacco, without criminalizing anyone or directly engaging in prohibition strategies. However in the past 2-3 years the movement has been inflamed by a new controversy that they seem to be handling rather poorly – electronic cigarettes. Debate on what to do about e-cigarettes has been vocal and bitter, with the tobacco control camp dividing on roughly Atlantic lines between two opposing camps: harm reduction and prohibition. On the one hand, the prohibitionists see e-cigarettes as a product that glamorizes smoking and is no less healthy, and they want to control the proliferation of these products before they can get the market purchase that tobacco obtained in the early 19th century. This part of the tobacco control lobby sees them as a potential gateway to cigarette smoking, and thinks they should be punitively controlled from the start. Another part of the tobacco control lobby sees e-cigarettes as an alternative to smoking, and situates them within a harm reduction framework that suggests they could play an important role in moving smokers away from dangerous tobacco. e-Cigarettes are a nicotine delivery system without any of the carcinogenic products of burnt tobacco, and so offer a way for addicted smokers to satisfy their nicotine needs without inhaling carcinogens; from a harm reduction perspective this makes the e-cigarette a very useful tool in tobacco control. The debate is usefully summarized by the British Medical Journal here, with links, and the journal Addiction has a lot to say on the matter.

For what it’s worth, as someone who worked for years in the field of heroin use, I see harm reduction as the absolute best strategy for dealing with drug use, and I think e-Cigarettes provide an excellent tool for steering smokers away from tobacco. Nicotine itself is not a poisonous or carcinogenic substance, and the only reason to object to its consumption is a moralistic opposition to addiction itself. From a harm reduction perspective, such a position is completely nonsensical: if we object to a drug, we should do so purely for its health or social effects, not for the simple fact that it is addictive, and while the health and social effects of smoking tobacco are huge, there is no evidence of any serious negative consequences of vaping.

I would go further and say that vaping isn’t just a neutral thing – it’s potentially hugely beneficial. In the era of smoking bans, there is a huge market for a product that enables people to smoke in public places, cars, and their family home without offending or harming the people around them. Vaping doesn’t just not harm the individual, it enables them to smoke around those of their friends and family who didn’t take up this stupid habit. As quit campaigns, smoking bans and taxes begin to bite, smokers are surrounded by more and more people who don’t smoke, which gives them increasing incentive to drop tobacco. But tobacco is intensely addictive, so they couldn’t – until this technology offered a way to do it. I’ve gamed indoors with players who vape, and it is absolutely a completely innocuous habit. I’ve gamed with smokers too, and in order to not offend the group they have to pause the game to go outside and smoke. The better option is obvious.

In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever met a smoker who wouldn’t vape in such a situation.

About ten years ago I was involved in an evaluation of a sudden heroin shortage in Australia. One of the main lessons of this shortage was that prohibition and harm reduction are strategies that can complement each other. In an environment of strict prohibition, when sudden market disruptions happen, the availability of harm reduction measures can rapidly take people out of the marketplace for the drug and onto safer alternatives. As we ratchet up the pressure on tobacco companies, increasing taxes and making it more and more difficult to smoke in public, e-cigarettes offer the chance for smokers to switch away from a socially disapproved drug to a more comfortable choice, and our research on the heroin shortage suggests that there is a critical threshold at which people will rush to adopt this new technology. We absolutely need to push the market towards this position, so that as many people as possible adopt a low-harm, low-offensiveness alternative to smoking.

However, there is another huge benefit of e-cigarettes which I think tobacco control advocates need to consider, and which could have a huge impact on the tobacco control movement. To understand it, we need to draw on the lessons of solar power. e-Cigarettes have the potential to drive the tobacco companies out of business in the same way that solar power has begun to put pressure on utility companies through the utility death spiral. This basic model is simple, though disputed: As more and more people install rooftop solar, the utility companies lose money and have to raise prices for their remaining customers, encouraging more to switch to rooftop solar and hastening the loss of customers. This model also applies to e-cigarettes: as more and more people shift to e-cigarettes, tobacco companies will have to recuperate their profits from an increasingly small consumer base, forcing them to raise prices. Fortunately for the tobacco companies their primary production model is incredibly exploitative, so they have a very cheap cost base; but unfortunately most countries now have high tobacco excises, so any cost increase is multiplied to the customer. This will act the way the excise itself acts, encouraging more people to quit or switch to e-cigarettes … and so on.

Solar panels are actually a great market story. Solar power started off as a niche product for satellites, but as companies matured they researched new technologies and became more cost competitive, getting installed in low power applications like calculators and slowly expanding market share. As market share grew the technology became cheaper, and they were able to compete in more and more sectors, until finally now they are able to compete with mainstream utilities. Although the original technology benefited from government projects (especially satellites and space probes) the technology has not itself benefited from subsidies until recently, achieving most of its market share through good old-fashioned market competition and investment. e-cigarettes are similar, having developed through chemical companies in China and slowly expanded into the tobacco market. They’ve been remarkably successful considering the aggressive and anti-market behavior of most tobacco companies, which shows just how unpopular the tobacco product is even amongst many of its regular users. Furthermore, just like solar power, e-cigarettes are now benefiting from the regulatory framework within which they operate. In the past, without any regulatory framework, solar power competed solely on price. But now, with clean air laws and emission standards, solar power competes on these other regulatory aspects, which vastly increases its acceptability. Similarly, where once an e-cigarette would have seemed like a clunky and pretentious toy, it now appears sensible or sophisticated – it enables its user to smoke amongst non-smokers, ensures they don’t disrupt parties or meetings for a break, and doesn’t attractive opprobrium around children. In such a strict regulatory framework it has obvious appeal beyond price; and unlike electricity, smoking is a luxury, a choice, which makes e-cigarettes even more likely to attract rapid uptake.

The implications of this for tobacco companies are terrible, just as solar power is a real threat to utilities. If we allow e-cigarettes unfettered access to the smoking market, leave them largely unrestricted, and reduce taxes on their nicotine, we can quickly force a situation in which tobacco companies are massively undercut by a genuinely disruptive competitor. As tobacco companies lose money they lose the ability to fight court cases against new regulations, and to market aggressively in new markets (such as developing nations). But their only alternative is to raise prices on existing users, encouraging more to switch to e-cigarettes. This is especially problematic for tobacco companies because of their vulnerability to divestment; just this week AXA dumped 2 billion euros of tobacco shares, and encouraged other funds to do likewise. As they lose investors the tobacco companies lose funds to support further expansion, increasing pressure to retain current smokers – who are shifting to e-cigarettes, a product with a diverse corporate background.

Seen in the framework of “disruptive” technologies like solar power, it seems obvious to me what the tobacco control movement’s response should be, similar to that of environmentalists to solar power: encourage changes to the regulatory environment that favour e-cigarettes; reduce barriers to market entry for these products; continue to put regulatory pressure on tobacco companies; advocate laws that prevent tobacco companies from entering the e-cigarette market; and aggressively encourage divestment of tobacco company shares. With this combination of activities, the tobacco control lobby can hasten the end of the tobacco industry, without inconveniencing even a single smoker.

WIN!

Cleansing the hearts of men

Cleansing the hearts of men

Were the hearts of men always corrupt, or did they become so when the world died? Before Eschaton, were men’s hearts as clear as distilled water, or in that halcyon time did only nature thrive pure and clean? Was Eschaton the cause of men’s corruption, or punishment for it?

I do not ask myself these questions as I burn out the evils of this world (there is much that must be burnt). But now I crouch on this hillside looking down at this thriving camp of filthy apocalyptics (there is much that must be burnt). And I wonder what came first – the impure fire in the sky, or the impure fire in men’s hearts.

I emerged from a test of fire in the bowels of the corrupt earth, and find myself facing only the unceasing corruption of men’s souls…

The catacombs and the lost man

We had traveled to these catacombs seeking a valuable transceiver for the untrustworthy Chroniclers in Tumbler. Here we stood at the edge of the catacombs, checking weapons and gear. With a grunt our Apocalyptic slapped Tesla on the back, muttered something about being right behind her, and nodded at the tunnel entrance. She took a deep breath and slid inside, her filthy rags and oil-smeared face merging quickly with the shadows. We gave her a moment to move ahead before we slipped in after her.

Even Tesla could not help but be swayed near to terror by the tunnel we entered. Even that dirt-grubbing scrapper, who blinks unsteadily at sunlight and dreams of the comfort of crushing stone depths and darkness, crouched shivering at the bottom of the entrance tunnel, staring about her in disgust and horror. For once no one complained at the cold, harsh operating-theatre light of my splayer, because no light could render the hideous flesh of those tunnels more horrific than the simple fact of their brooding, grotesquely pulsating presence. The tunnels were lined with flesh, like a hideous oesophagus plunging into the gullet of some dreadful dark beast (if only we had known). It yielded spongily to our steps, and did not respond to our touch, but on a regular, slow beat the whole thing flickered as if disturbed by a distant … heartbeat. A sickly smell pervaded the place, as if they exuded some faint odour, and the air was warm and clammy. Somewhere, one of us retched. My finger twitched on the trigger of my fungicide rifle, and I noticed the hellvetic checking his explosives. No human is made for this horror.

We plunged on. Perhaps no human is made for this horror, but we had a job to do. A nod, a grunt, the Hellvetic hoisted his rifle and the Apocalyptic whispered a few assuring words, hulking protectively over the scrapper, and we pushed on. The tunnel opened into a large chamber, hideously papered over with living flesh and scattered evenly with entryways leading into smaller chambers. These chambers were all empty but one, which was scattered with adventurers’ implements: sacks, a few blade bracelets, some empty suits of armour, a scattering of blood[1]. In this room also the walls were different, stained in places with a darker pattern. In one part this darker pattern bulged out from the wall, revealing a kind of sac hanging from the wall, perhaps engorged with some fluid. We approached carefully to investigate, and in the light of my splayer saw something move inside the sac – something vaguely human shaped, that began pressing desperately against the sac. The apocalyptic stepped forward and sliced smoothly up the side of the sac with a sudden glinting blade, and a man fell out of the sack in a splatter of amniotic fluid and a burst of grave-stench.

For a moment we all stood there stunned; he kneeled before us, coughing and gasping desperately. He wore a leather coat and a gas mask, still strapped on his face and maybe the reason he was still conscious. The Hellvetic gripped him on one shoulder as if to offer reassurance, but he looked up at us wretchedly through gore-smeared goggles and said, “Just make it quick,” in a tired, resigned voice.

In a corner of the chamber Tesla looked at those other sacs and the scattered remains of other adventurers, and keened quietly to herself.

“No, friend, it’s not your time yet.” Sylvan grabbed him under one shoulder and offered him water from a canteen. “You’re free.” Someone cleaned his goggles, and he looked around at us all with a brief expression of wonder.

Then he saw Tesla beginning to scrabble through a toolkit discarded on the fleshy floor, and lunged weakly forward. “Hey! That’s mine!” Looked around at the other discarded tools.

We returned to the surface so he could recover his strength, talked. His name was Stanislav (“Stanko to my friends – but you can call me Stanislav”)[2]. He was a Scrapper, hired with his friends by a group of mercenaries to scout ahead and find this cave. They found the cave but something – things – ambushed them and when he woke up he was in the sac. So were his friends, but something came and took them one at a time, screaming and desperate. Dragged them away.

He didn’t know where his mercenary employers were – maybe they had abandoned him, maybe killed by cockroaches. He didn’t care, but he wanted to find the things that killed his friends, and show them a similar mercy.

We agreed. We went back into the cave.

What could possibly go wrong?

What could possibly go wrong?

A single tunnel from the lower chamber descended further into the depths. It ended at a kind of kitchen, strange now that its furniture and implements dripped with horrible, misshapen fleshy outgrowths. An ancient blast door lay jammed open, almost as old as Eschaton and probably originally rusted into place; now it was held fast by tendrils of faintly rippling flesh. Beyond, a narrow tunnel led deeper into the complex, now lit by occasional flickering lights. We entered it.

We were only a little distance into the tunnel when they attacked, two vicious monsters bigger than men and armed with wicked claws. They struck from both ends of our group, strung out in the dim corridor, but we fought them off, killing them both. They were big, grey things, with blank expressions and strange, twisted bodies – once men, maybe, but ossified and warped by some terrible chemistry. I have read rumours of these things in the archives: beasts tortured and changed to monsters by the corruption of the spore zone, and acting with a single mind, often possessed by a single greater power. No doubt they nested here, preying on cockroach clanners and waiting to burn.

My surmise was correct. At the tunnel’s end we found an open chamber scattered with the bones of cockroach clanners. In the centre of the chamber was a broken grille that had once covered a shaft that plummeted into the earth. The grille had been broken upward, and the cockroaches attacked from below. Signs of struggle and violence suggested they had not gone lightly, and had perhaps killed more than one of their attackers; but now they were gone. The remaining beasts, and our transceiver, must lie below, at the bottom of that shaft.

We descended. The shaft opened into a large room, flickering with lights and cocooned in grotesque, pulsing flesh. This was some kind of control room, with many lights flickering, old chairs, perhaps a map buried beneath glossy skin. Holes in the walls sussurated with the faint movement of air from distant caverns, the flesh puckering around them like the disgusting lips of a blighted, mutated beast. Our transceiver was buried amongst flesh and steel on one side of the room, waiting for us to remove it. But at the far end of the room an ancient door was jammed half open. We did not see it, but we felt the movement inside.

Sprawled over the bench and desk next to the transceiver, partially covering the machinery in which it was buried, was a huge heart, pumping and twitching with a fell puissance.

We moved quickly. The hellvetic placed a triggered explosive on the heart and took a firing position near the shaft, while I placed my fire grenades at two points in the room. Tesla and Stanko began to dismantle the control panel in order to remove the transceiver, and Sylvan and I approached the door.

I threw my final fire bomb through the door, and all hell broke loose. Beasts swarmed out of the room beyond the door, screaming and smoking, and fell upon us. Vicious battle ensued, with the hellvetic firing into the fray with an angry chatter of peacemaker-fire, Sylvan moving smoothly amongst the battle slicing and stabbing and getting torn at by angry beasts while I tried to burn them and Stanko and Tesla desperately worked to free the transceiver. The beasts were many and vicious, and as they closed in Stanko had to stop working on the transceiver to fire at them with the pistol Sylvan had loaned him; he killed one, but the hellvetic was being pushed back and Sylvan seemed to go down under the beasts’ attack. Fortunately he rose up again, strengthened with rage[3] and beat back the last attackers as Tesla and Stanko dragged the transceiver free. We ran for the shaft, Sylvan going up last and me and Ronan setting off the explosives before he was even clear of the shaft.

They all burnt.

We struggled outside with the transceiver and fled, putting distance between ourselves and anything that might be left behind. We doubted there would be pursuit, because we had heard the rumbling of collapsing caverns behind us, but we wanted to be sure because the fight had taken its toll, and we were all badly injured. Stanko’s left arm had been mangled at the shoulder, and everyone was exhausted when we stopped. I gave what battlefield treatments I could, and we made the decision not to return to Tumbler, but to go to Gesseln, where we could get healing and maybe find a buyer for this transceiver. Why return anything to those untrustworthy Chroniclers in Tumbler?

Weary but not unwise, we trudged north.

Stanko’s merry band

After a day of travel we stumbled upon Stanko’s employers. Tesla found them while she was scouting ahead, not because she stumbled on their camp but because she followed the Cockroach clanners who were preparing to ambush it. By following the clanners she saw that they were digging tunnels under the camp and preparing to attack from below.

Stanko wanted to be paid. Cockroaches killing everyone in the mercenary camp would certainly stop him collecting his payment, but he was leery about going in with us, because he didn’t trust his employers. We agreed with him; they were a band of Apocalyptics, and a nasty looking bunch. Sylvan seemed particularly adamant that we should not trust this band, and that we needed a story to ensure they did not come after us. He, of all of us, knows the mettle of his kind – why would we doubt him?[4] We decided to stay hidden, and he would go in and negotiate for his money, using the information about the Cockroaches as a further incentive. He would tell the mercenaries he had been rescued by a group of Spitalians who had destroyed the caverns he had been sent to scout; this would hopefully discourage the mercenaries from continuing on their mission, and maybe enable us to secure an escort back to Gesseln (not that I wish to travel with Apocalyptics – one is enough).

Stanko entered the camp. Would they listen to him, and pay him, or would they show the treachery typical of their kind, cut his throat and come for us, oblivious to the trap that the cockroaches had set for them?

Would our fate rest in the hands of a Cockroach warband? We watched Stanko begin negotiating, and placed our trust in the treacherous souls of men, and the brutal instincts of the Cockroach clan …

 


fn1: There were also some burn husks, which the Apocalyptic slipped into his pouch when Karl the Spitalian was not looking. This tale is told, as last time, from Karl’s perspective.

fn2: My friend Sergeant M from Australia was visiting Japan and wanted to join our session, so we made a temporary character for him. He played Stanko the whole day with a dour Russian accent, cynical and resigned to the evils of this post-apocalyptic world. “What could possibly go wrong?” Stanko was a perfect expression of wasteland fatalism.

fn3: Actually massively enhanced by a burn husk he secretly huffed, which vastly improved his fighting prowess; he should have done this at the beginning of the fight

fn4: Sylvan had discovered burn spores growing in the lair, and realized that the Apocalyptics had been traveling to the catacombs to harvest burn spores. This made him think they would kill anyone who had been inside the lair, unless we could assure them that there was no longer any value in protecting the secret of its contents. But he couldn’t tell the other characters that, because he was still hiding the fact that he had taken burn, and he now realized that the burn he had taken probably belonged to an agent of the Apocalyptics in the camp …

I won it in a bet, officer, honestly! It's not stolen!

I won it in a bet, officer, honestly! It’s not stolen!

This week in Japan is Golden Week, a nearly week-long public holiday, and in honour of the fine weather my group did a two-day marathon of Star Wars role-playing using the Fantasy Flight Games system.

Our group was a good mix of five members:

  • Whitney (me), human soldier (medic)
  • Wargh, Wookie hired gun
  • RAPTOR-1, Droid bounty hunter (assassin)
  • Aleema, Twilek Jedi Sentinel (shien)
  • Jorus, Acrid[1] Hired gun

We started off running through a slightly modified version of the introductory adventure, then blasted into space and ran on an improvised adventure that rapidly went to hell through our intense stupidity. This was a marathon session so this report is a very quick summary of the main events.

Trapped on Tatooine without enough funds to get a ship, we needed work. We took a job for Teemo the Hutt, a notorious gangster from our local spaceport, Mos Shuuta. It being impossible to easily travel between spaceports on Tatooine, we needed his help. He asked us to head into the desert to find a lost droid of his that was being held by some Jawas, so we did. However on the way to find the droid we bumped into some Trandoshian slavers and killed them, releasing their slaves and putting ourselves in trouble. We found the droid at the Jawa crawler, which had been destroyed days earlier by the Trandoshians, and returned to Mos Shuuta with it [this took weeks in total]. Unfortunately, Teemo the Hutt was impatient with the time we took, and the Trandoshians were business partners of his; when we returned to town we found ourselves pursued by his henchmen looking to exact revenge for our “treachery” in killing his business partners and “stealing” his droid. We guessed he had hired multiple groups to get his droid, and intended to kill all the groups that failed.

Oops.

Surrounded by desert with nowhere to run, we soon realized we had no choice but to steal a spaceship and escape the port. Fortunately a Trandoshian slaver called Threx had arrived in town in a spaceship in need of repairs, so all we had to do was capture his spaceship and repair it and escape. We stole the part he needed from the local scrapyard and headed towards the ship. A helpful droid told us we would first need to deactivate the standard security clamps that hold all ships in port until their nominated release date; this would mean a trip to the spaceport and a spot of lying. We did this successfully but unfortunately in the process we tipped off a local to our plan, and he told some imperial stormtroopers.

Oops.

There followed a kind of hilarious chase through town during which we slowly killed all the stormtroopers. With little time before more came, we headed to the dock where Threx’s ship, the Poleaxe, awaited us, unclamped. Unfortunately we were met by four droid guards, which we killed, but in doing so we alerted Threx, who was onboard his ship. Desperate battle followed, and ultimately Wargh prevailed over Threx with a supreme display of Wookie rage. As RAPTOR-1 prepared the ship for take off, Whitney took the gun turret to kill some stormtroopers who were setting up a heavy blaster nest, and off we went.

We hit low orbit at the speed of plot, but we weren’t alone – four TIE fighters bore down on us as we raced for the jump point, and we didn’t yet have the hyperdrive converter thingamy slotted into place. Jorus and Whitney took position at the gun turrets, with Aleema and RAPTOR-1 piloting, and battle was joined. While RAPTOR-1 and Aleema cartwheeled and tumbled through the skies above tattooine and Wargh worked feverishly to install the jump-drive activator thingamy, Whitney and Jorus picked off the TIE fighters one by one. Unfortunately they didn’t destroy them fast enough, and their clutzy old ship began to take a lot of damage. Wargh managed to install the hyperspace warp-accumulator whatsit, but in the thick of combat Aleema was having difficulty determining a hyperspace path, and didn’t want to use the pre-loaded path. However, with the ship hull degrading and more TIE fighters inbound she decided not to waste any more time, and punched the hyperdrive for the pre-loaded path. They jumped, leaving the ruins of four TIE fighters scattered across a wide swathe of Tatooine space.

Decisions, decisions ...

Decisions, decisions …

Looting and planning

Once they were in the safety of hyperspace they searched the ship. The ship must have been in the middle of resupply, because although it had enough fuel it lacked significant supplies and most of the cargo had not been loaded. There was a large stock of empty food packets that were obviously designed for smuggling spice, a couple of thousand credits, and a life support system holding a mysterious plant of some kind, that was obviously not safe to simply open and examine and may even have been held in a special environment.

They also examined the droid, which they were supposed to have delivered to Teemo the Hutt had he not accused them of treachery and set out to kill them. It was a standard astromech droid, but it seemed to have had some kind of reengineering to fit it with large, powerful magnets so that it could be stowed on the outside of any spaceship, rather than stored in a standard astromech array. Obviously this would make it useful for smugglers, but why would anyone want to hide an astromech? Every spaceship had one, and there was never any reason to hide them. Mysterious…

The ship emerged from hyperspace within a day, and they found themselves on the Corellian way, where it intersects with the hyperspace path from the sector around Tatooine. This put them a short jump away from Ryloth, Aleema’s home planet, and also a fast series of jumps away from the Mid Rim. So now they had choices. They could turn around and go back to kill Teemo the Hutt, though his allegiance with the Empire and the presence of Imperial ships in the system made that plan seem a little reckless. Their ship was obviously designed for smuggling spice, so they could head to Ryloth and attempt to pick up a cargo to do a spice run. They guessed they plant they were carrying must be valuable to someone, and if they wanted they could try and find someone who could give them advice on it. The best option for that would be to find an Ithorian, and Whitney knew of a famous Ithorian xenobiologist[2] called Chutah Da, who was exploring the nearby Mid Rim on a herdship.

First they would need to get their new ship repaired. Aleema did not want to return to Ryloth, so they decided to go to Mon Gazza to use the starport there. This would bring them to the edge of the Mid Rim and near the zone of space where the Ithorian doctor was traveling, so they decided to try and pick up trade goods at Mon Gazza and travel from there to the trailing edge of the Mid Rim from the Corellian Way, to find this doctor. They hit hyperspace again.

This isn't going to work for anyone here

This isn’t going to work for anyone here

Mon Gazza: A wretched hive of scum and villainy

As soon as they arrived in Mon Gazza system their strange new droid sprung to life and began printing out a receipt-like line of ticker-tape, on which were printed numbers and ship codes. In a moment of recklessness, they decided to pursue this clue as soon as they had repaired their ship. Putting the receipt into safe keeping, they landed on Mon Gazza and negotiated port access with the local mining concern. Mon Gazza was very similar to Tatooine, a barren desert planet with little to recommend it except extensive pod racing contests and spice mines. It was as grim as the planet they had just evacuated.

As soon as they landed they found out that the port and all the community around it was in the grip of a local strongman called Xersca, who was guarded by a posse of stupid little insect-humanoids called Aqualish. After we caught him following us we visited his bazaar to have a chat with him about a mutually beneficial agreement, but during the chat he told us he had already stolen our cargo. This, unfortunately for Xersca, wasn’t exactly correct; he had sent two of his Aqualish, armed with rifles, to take the cargo, but as he was bragging about his cunning Wargh, who had stayed back at the ship to negotiate with the harbour mechanic, was beating them to death. Word of their unpleasant end reached us just as Xersca was attempting to extort us for the return of his cargo. We left him there in a state of puzzlement, with a parting suggestion that when he was ready to come to an agreement with us he could come and make an offer of payment.

Our initial success notwithstanding, we soon realized that hanging around this port was going to end in a big fight, and Xersca probably had resources he could call upon that he hadn’t yet deployed, so we decided to light out as soon as our ship was repaired. The mechanic, having witnessed Wargh killing someone who tried to cheat us, offered us a very reasonable deal on repairs, and we were able to leave after a few days. One of the Aqualish who had been sent to rob us somehow survived Wargh’s fury, but he had no useful information for us and was terrified of returning to Xersca, who he promised would kill him. We took him on board with us when we left, to act as watchman and guard when we were away from the ship. Botan the Aqualish Idiot, our first retainer!

The final act: A wretched hive of confusion and stupidity

With all the galaxy to explore and no particularly pressing goals, we decided to pursue the clues that the droid had spat out. Although we didn’t understand all the information on the strip of paper, we at least recognized a star location relatively nearby, and a code for a ship. We hit hyperspace and traveled to the destination.

At the destination we hit a star system with a seemingly unmarked spaceport floating over a distant planet. The spaceport hailed us and demanded our ship codes; we supplied the codes on the receipt, assuming that this was a shadow spaceport and that it would be dangerous to visit this spaceport without the right codes. Unfortunately the spaceship identified by these codes, the Green Arrow, was already docked at the spaceport, and so we had given our game away. Rather than streak out before we got into more trouble, we decided to bluff our way in – despite our bluffing powers being frankly terrible – and somehow convinced the traffic controller that there was some kind of error; we also managed to convince the man who met us at the docks that the other ship was an imposter.

This man gave us until the end of the day to sort out why this imposter ship had “the goods” that we were meant to be carrying, and to get “the goods” back or we would have to pay for them. We stupidly agreed.

This led to a confused and chaotic few hours on the spaceship, which ended with us entangled in a three way battle between a large gang of mercenaries and a small gang of extremely deadly pirates from the Green Arrow. During this battle we managed to get a couple of people killed, steal some kind of arm-mounted laser shield that seems like it might be worth a lot of money, and get the entire area of space station around Dock 67 completely trashed, probably somehow killing 20 or 30 people who were sucked into space during the explosive decompression that our stupidity caused.

Ooops.

Fortunately we got out safely, and were in hyperspace before the spaceport authorities could catch us. In the melee we managed to learn that the mercenaries attacking the Green Arrow were from Dash Corp mercenary group, and the goods belonged to some scary guy called Saba. Then we were out.

The universe is dark and full of terrors. It also, apparently, is full of idiots. Let’s hope we can do better next time …


fn1: Jorus was played by Little A, a Japanese occasional member of our group. The Acrid are a species our GM made up for Little A, which speak heavily-modified galactic standard, so that basically the only PCs in the group who could communicate with Jorus were those whose players spoke Japanese. Little A, with no real English background, did a great job of keeping up. I wish I could do so well in Japanese! In the end it didn’t matter because we created so much chaos that even in our native language no one knew what was going on. At least Little A had an excuse!

fn2: Somewhat remarkably, Whitney’s one rank in Xenobiology proved extremely useful in this adventure!

They looked like this! Honestly!

They looked like this! Honestly!

In our first D&D session we began investigating the dungeon from the Basic Rules set, somehow managing to avoid a TPK in the first battle but retreating to the village after our two followers were killed. In the second session our elf, Aengus, went on a date with the town cleric, learning nothing of interest, and after a day of rest we hired two new followers – a completely useless fighter called Abel Artone and a halfling called Begol Burrowell, who is famous for some situation involving an enraged badger – and set off to finish plundering the dungeon.

We arrived at a deserted outer courtyard, finding no sign of enemies or of our charmed kobold companion Dogface. Not really stopping to consider the possibility that his absence might be a warning, we plunged back into the dungeon (behind Abel, of course). Entering through the main door and finding nothing disturbed since our previous journey, we decided to head to the room of our fateful encounter with the zombies from the other direction, rather than retracing our footsteps. We passed through the open doorway on the east side of the entrance chamber and into a small room empty but for rubbish. We searched the room and found nothing, but Eric of Melbourne was nearly decapitated by falling beams in the ceiling, which dislodged a loose brick. Behind that he found a silver dagger, potentially useful when we decide to slay a werewolf, so we took that and moved into the next room. Here were more boxes, only these could be opened and investigated. We searched the room until our search was interrupted by a zombie in a box, which emerged moaning and dragging a rusted sword. Once again, Eric of Melbourne’s stalwart faith proved useless against basic undead, and we had to beat the thing to death with blade and stick.

Of course it had no treasure.

We passed this room into the closet where our last followers met their unfortunate end, and back into the area we had already explored. From here, heading northeast, we found stairs leading down into the lower level of the dungeons beneath the castle, where the kobold gang was hiding. Rather than risk such heavy opposition, we decided to clean out this level first, and headed north to the final rooms in the castle. The next room was occupied by 5 kobolds, who tried to do battle with us but were no match for our valiant swords and ferocious spirit. We killed them quickly, and found nothing of value on their bodies.

Good thing we made a deal with our followers to split treasure only after we had recuperated the cost of their equipment!!

From this room there was only one other exit, heading east into a small room. In the middle of this room was a statue of a kobold, pointing its sword at the door we entered from; the far wall beyond the kobold had a solid wooden door, the first door we had seen since we entered. We ventured forth, but were attacked by a giant lizard that emerged from hiding behind the statue, attacking our useless fighter Abel (who goes first, of course) with surprise and killing him in one savage bite.

Good thing we clarified marching order! We beat the thing to death while it was trying to swallow the fighter. Of course it had no treasure.

The door on the far side of the room was locked. Aengus used his super elven sight to look through the keyhole, and saw a bit of ruined wall with some sunlight on it. No one poked him in the eye. We retreated.

We circumnavigated that room, moving back through rooms we had navigated a few days before and passing right around the west wing of the building, only to come to another room with exactly the same statue pointing its silly, hopeless little shortsword away from exactly the same kind of door. Perhaps the shortsword wasn’t so hopeless; as we searched the room Barus the Magic-user touched the statue and it spun viciously in a 360 degree arc, cutting his head off.

We took his spellbook and retreated to consider our options. This door must be locked for good reasons – no doubt, having vanquished those five kobolds we stood at the threshold of their treasure chamber, piles of gold glinting in the sunlight Aengus had seen through the keyhole (was it even sunlight, or just the gleam of untold riches!?) Clearly the kobolds had bound the doors fast and secured the entryways with fiendish statue-traps to keep us away from their hoard, a hoard no doubt stolen from innocent villagers over years of violent raiding and despoiling. We were honourbound to somehow breach their inner sanctum, and carry away the money, though no doubt finding its original owners would be all but impossible and we would likely have to keep it for now.

How to get in? It was Aengus’ low elven-cunning that found the way – we would burn the door down. We set some of Barus’s oil on the door and set it alight, then piled broken chests around it. Soon we had a good fire going, and we retreated and waited for it to burn itself out. Once the fire had burnt down we strode forward and kicked the charred remains of the door down, marching in to reclaim our birthright in a swirl of sparks and smoke!

We found a large, 30′ x 60′ room with a huge table in the middle[1]. There were chairs set around the table, and skeletons sitting in some of the chairs. Eric of Melbourne stepped forward to quell the skeletal monstrosities, but they weren’t moving; and anyway before he could a beautiful music washed over him and Begol, and they gave up all thoughts of violence. They walked calmly into the room, ready to meet the beautiful source of that fine music.

Aengus saw his two colleagues entranced with the horrible screeching emerging from the fireplace. He charged forward, hurdled the table, and looked into the fireplace. There he found two horrible, hideous old women with wings and goats legs, keening away like their cats had just died. He went to strike one but they attacked with their cloven feet and knives they pulled from the ashes, stabbing him to death immediately.

His last, blurry vision was of his friends sitting down at the table as the harpies swooped down on them, blades ready, and cut their throats. He took a while to die, and the last minutes of his life were a vista of horrific feasting.

Then the harpies turned to look at him …

 


fn1: Actually the table on the map was so big it didn’t fit through any of the doors of the room. Some fiendish magic at work here!

 

Except adventurers, obviously … Karameikos is the first campaign setting for Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), and the setting in which my new skype campaign occurs. Karameikos is described in the TSR supplement The Grand Duchy of Karameikos, which gives information about the major towns of the region and the major personalities living in them.

This book makes clear that the major town in Karameikos is Specularum, a town of 50,000 people that may have grown significantly in recent times. It also identifies at least two major high level clerics in this town: Olliver Jowett, an 18th level Cleric, and Aleksyev Nikelnevich, an 11th level Cleric. There are other powerful clerics described in the book but their location is not specified. Olliver and Aleksyev’s stats are given in the book, and they both have Cure Serious Wounds, Cure Disease and Raise Dead memorized, though Olliver could memorize 4x Raise Dead if he really wanted.

I have previously posted here about post-scarcity fantasy, and how it would be extremely cost-effective for clerics in the middle ages to intervene in child birth to save lives. I previously used the AD&D rule book to establish populations of Clerics, but now I have access to the ultimate Canonical text, a definitive world description from the original rules. What are the implications of this world description for my theories about post-scarcity fantasy?

First of all, let us gather some statistics. It’s impossible to know the true birth and death rates in the middle ages, but there are estimates from 17th century Britain that give birth rates of about 30 per 1000 population, and death rates of about 25 per 1000 population. Based on these, we can expect about 3.5 deaths per day, and about 4 births per day, some of which will be of high risk to the mother.

Based on the presence of just Olliver and Aleksyev in Specularum, we can expect that 2 of these 3.5 deaths could be prevented every day by simply walking over to the place they occurred and casting Raise Dead. If we assume that at least 2 of these deaths are caused by disease – a not unreasonable assumption in the middle ages – then two more deaths could be prevented by application of the Cure Disease spell.

Just these two clerics could ensure that no one ever died in Specularum.

They could improve their job by using the Commune spell to learn some basic techniques to improve childbirth and medical procedures. “Why do women die in childbirth” would be a very useful commune question – Olliver can ask one question a day. Presumably once in a year he could get around to this question. Olliver has a 4th level assistant with Cure Light Wounds who could attend 2 births every day and cast this spell to prevent major injuries (ordinary commoners have 1d6 hit points so presumably this spell would completely reverse the damage done on them and/or their children). This would occasionally prevent the need for Raise Dead spells, though between them Olliver and Aleksyenev have enough Raise Dead spells to simply negate every death in the town.

It seems pretty clear to me that based on the canonical textbook, there is no death in the world of Dungeons and Dragons. The only people who die in Dungeons and Dragons are adventurers – we toil in the depths, risking our lives every moment, while overhead a utopian society pursues its life of perfect peace and eternal harmony.

Why are we doing this again?

Strange blooms on far shores

Strange blooms on far shores

The Spiral Confederacy restarts with the characters leaving Niscorp 1743 for The Reach, a pirate system a short jump away. On Niscorp 1743 they had killed some ice spiders at great personal risk, getting a research administrator out of a spot of trouble and earning themselves some zero-g training as a reward. They had also met a priest from an ocean planet, Michael, who had offered to pay them in exchange for taking him to The Reach. The Reach is a fine spot to drop rumours of human trafficking, and also a great place to pick up the kind of weapons that are illegal for ordinary citizens in the Confederacy; they also had a crate of laser carbines to sell, so a journey to The Reach seemed inevitable.

While they rested and prepared equipment they recruited a second pilot, a young woman called Lam with a dubious naval history. Given the risky nature of many of their ventures, they guessed it might be wise to build a little redundancy into their crew, so they recruited the only pilot in Niscorp 1743 who was willing to go to The Reach and who could shoot as well as fly.

Stable personality was not in their list of essential criteria, so Lam was hired.

After a week of travel they arrived in The Reach, jumping in to a point beyond its extensive asteroid field. From the jump point the system’s red dwarf star was a tiny, distant red speck, flickering in and out of view through the curtain of asteroids. They passed around the asteroid field slowly, on a pre-assigned route, and by the time they emerged on the other side they could see the 7th Pearl, shining in the far distance. Between them and it a small flight of fighter vessels approached, hailing them for travel details. Their first encounter with the Pirates of The Reach passed in a completely mundane manner, with an exchange of basic credentials and a docking trajectory for Pearl 7. They docked where they were told and disembarked into a small lounge where they were met by a man who introduced himself as an ambassador for foreign guests, and a small rat-faced man named Ampoule who Michael told them would be their guide for the day. Michael showed them how to use their mysterious payment, and left them to themselves.

Basic rules for Confederate travelers in The Reach gave them one week of free accommodation, after which they must pay in local currency (“credits”) or leave. Overstaying this welcome would see their ship impounded and the crew bonded as indentured labourers for a year. They could live on their ship and organize basic energy and fuel for free, but if they wanted any comfort they would need to make some money. Stir-crazy after a week on their tiny ship, they set out immediately to sell the laser carbines and begin stocking their armoury.

There was a large market place for all manner of unsavoury enterprises a short distance from the docks, and it was here they went first. Here they found arms dealers, slavers, and even a prohibitively expensive dealer in black market memory backups. They sold their carbines and organized delivery of a slew of laser rifles and a suit of combat armour, then retired to their ship to relax. Over the next few days they began visiting slave markets and dealers, dropping hints about their illicit cargo and looking to lay down lots of clues about where they found it. Once the armour and guns arrived, they began to think about looking for a little work.

They booked some rooms near the docks, to spread out a little, and it was then as they were settling in that they received an invitation to meet Michael at a place called the Rubble Bar, to discuss possible work. The Rubble Bar is a small tavern at the part of the docks closest to Pearl 7’s ruined superstructure; from its single large window customers can watch workmen repairing the spars of the damaged section, while they sip drinks from lost civilizations. Each of them ordered a drink from a civilization that had passed away, and sat sipping it contemplatively while they waited for their mysterious priest.

Michael arrived with a glass of the last water from a dessicated planet, and began to talk business. He had come to The Reach to kill a man. This man, a priest named Jaccus, had been welcomed to Michael’s planet as a guest, but had defiled one of his culture’s sacred tombs and killed its guardian. The most ancient tombs on Michael’s planet are dessicated sky burials placed reverently on islands made of the calcified bones of giant sea creatures; these tombs are often thousands of years old, and are tended by elderly monks in a role of great honour and little responsibility afforded to senior religious figures. This priest Jaccus had visited such a tomb-island and desecrated it horribly, then fled the planet. Michael, who had traveled a few times before, was sent to find Jaccus and kill him. Jaccus had assumed his deeds would go unnoticed for months, so isolated are the tomb-islands, but hadn’t realized a supply ship would arrive just a few days later on a scheduled visit. So it was that they were easily able to track his movements out of the system, and Michael could follow him, though he fell further behind with each jump.

Unfortunately, after Jaccus arrived in The Reach a few weeks ago he had managed to obtain the protection of the Viscount of Pearl 2, making it difficult to obtain mercenaries to kill him. So it was that he turned to the PCs to do it; as outlanders they were free to take contracts on anyone they wanted. Currently it appeared Jaccus had made a trip to The Gardens, and so would be easy to ambush and kill if he was approached there in the next few days. For this job he would pay them 100,000 credits, almost enough to buy another suit of combat armour.

The PCs did not agree to kill this Jaccus, but they did agree to go visit him in The Gardens, see what they thought of him, and kill him if necessary. Michael was not phased by this conditional offer. “Once you meet him you will want to kill him,” he assured them, and left them to their drinks.

To the ruins

To the ruins

Death in the Gardens

They left for the Gardens the next day on a small sub-light flyer, a rickety thing that took a few hours to get them to their destination. Its approach took them across the 100km long face of the Gardens, a lush expanse of steel, forest and planes hanging in the middle of space. The mist trapped within its field generators shrouded much of its expanse, and shone with the lurid reflected light of the distant sun. Some strange technology transported that light through sub-space portals so that the Gardens were bathed in sunlight vastly more powerful than its distance from the faint red dwarf warranted, ensuring that the Gardens roiled with mist and heat. In the breaks between these clouds they caught glimpses of the Gardens themselves, vistas of green or gold splayed out across rippling uneven territory, scattered with occasional deep holes where the wreckage of spaceships interlocked. The Gardens started with a low plane of wreckage that crawled slowly up through foothills to shallow peaks formed by the spines of ancient Confederacy capital ships, wrecked by the system’s strange defenses and pulled to this Lagrange point to be recommissioned for The Reach’s bizarre experiment in herb gardening. Beyond the jagged ridges of those wrecked ships, now softened by a shroud of vegetation, hung the infinite blackness of space, cordoned away from the lush fields by a thin layer of field technology.

They disembarked at the Gardens’ tiny docks, noting the presence of another flyer, encoded with the emblems of Pearl 2, and stood for the first time under the Reach’s starry night, unprotected by steel shells or spaceship hulls. Ahead of them stood a low wall and a custom’s house, blurs of green and misty grey visible beyond; but here at the docks they stood under a stunning vista of stars, scattered around the black firmanent like diamonds on velvet. Shielded only by the thin barrier of the Gardens protective field, they could view the full glory of the stars of their sector, try briefly to find their home stars before they were interrupted by the dockmaster.

Brought back to humdrum reality, they dismissed his questions and offered him 100 credits to forget their presence. He aimed to argue, but one look at Ahmose’s stern reproach and he thought better of it. Jaccus, he told them, had headed “that way”, waving vaguely in a certain direction, and headed back to his hut. Simon Simon used his Adherent Grace, scrying, to access all the cameras in the vicinity of the docks, and soon found video footage of an old man in black robes with a staff, accompanied by three men in light armour with assault rifles, heading in the direction the dockmaster had indicated. They were dragging an anti-gravity sled loaded with audio-visual equipment, heading up into the hills. Time to go.

They passed through the low wall and into the Gardens. From here the trek in the direction Jaccus had headed started easily, but it got harder. First a stretch of rhododendron forest steeped in rain and mist; then an open stretch of field, followed by a series of fragrant herb gardens and some hikes through mossy hills. They could see the skeleton of the broken spaceships beneath the fields and forests, with occasional parts protruding from amongst the greenery – here a rusted cannon, there a lichen-encrusted plexiglass window. As they headed up the wreckage became older, and increasingly harder to discern from nature, until they found themselves walking through ancient, silent, mist-shrouded forests, so old they seemed almost hallowed. Old growth rainforest, floating in space on a mere sliver of steel, billions of kilometres from the sun.

It was in this forest that they stumbled on the cameras. Simon Simon noticed them with his scrying Grace, all connected together and filming the zone they were entering. They moved past the cameras and headed upward over the cupola of some ancient battleship, passing through a small copse of trees at the summit. Weapons drawn, they moved out of the shadow of the trees to find themselves looking down into a narrow vale, beyond which stretched slopes leading up to the rim of the Gardens. Black space hung in the near distance, the horizon unevenly scattered with trees and the slopes before them heavily wooded. They stood on the wreckage of an ancient cruiser, but the horizon was formed entirely with the wreckage of an ancient Confederacy warship, its gun turrets, now long dead, rusting in between trees and brooks. Below them the vale opened out towards the lower slopes, a small stream trickling merrily through it. To their right lay the wreckage of the cockpit of a crashed fighter ship, the hull shattered open around an open space that had been turned into a campsite. Three tents had been erected around a small fire, and a little computer ran a set of screens on which the vision from all those cameras could be seen. They had found Jaccus’s camp.

They had also found his men, who opened fire on them from positions in the valley. The battle was short and brutal[1], and with minimal injuries the group prevailed, killing all three mercenaries. They descended into the camp to search it, looking around carefully for Jaccus. The AV gear they had brought with them was nowhere to be seen. They were searching the camp when Simon Simon decided to use his scrying Grace to check the cameras in the vicinity, and saw movement in one. Looking closer he saw something in the shadows, descending the hills towards them.

Lam and Ahmose took defensive positions, guns ready, pointing out at the hills, but they didn’t see it coming. Something emerged from the shadows of the trees and hit Alpha from behind, tearing through his weak armour and disappearing before he could react. Something else hit Ahmose and Lam, but before they could react it was gone. They looked around, gasping, weapons ready, and then the things hit them again. They were beasts of some kind, 3m tall monsters made entirely of shadow but for their glowing red, fiendish eyes and long, lascivious red tongues. They attacked with wicked claws and beat huge, black, bat-like wings behind their misshapen, demonic bodies.

Actual demons, conjured from shadow, were attacking them. They fought back hard and valiantly but Alpha went down with the next strike. Ahmose killed one, and as it died they heard the distant sound of crows screeching, and the thin wail of a tortured child. Ahmose moved on to the second beast, and Lam shot down the third; a cold wind blew over her, and she heard whispers from the shadows, a young man begging for his life, gaggles of students telling lies about their friends in the corridors of a school … evil whispers …

As the fight proceeded Simon Simon desperately searched the area, until he found Jaccus standing in the shadow of a tree, staff in hand. The old man was singing a song, and the air was rippling around them. “There!” Simon Simon yelled, and fired his laser rifle. He missed Jaccus but the beam passed through the coalescing shadow-form of another demon. As they killed them, more appeared! “Kill the priest!” Simon Simon yelled to Ahmose, and Ahmose duly acted.

Jaccus died quickly, but before he did two more of those beasts appeared. One managed to escape their violence, fleeing with the death of its master, and they never saw it again. The battle was done. Where each demon had died was a patch of blackened, dead grass that stank of rot. They stood looking at each other in shock. What had they found, what had they killed?

They searched Jaccus’ body and the area of the camp, but they didn’t find anything to tell them anything about what they had seen. Where was the AV equipment? Why was Jaccus here and what were those things? With no evidence in the camp they expanded their search, trawling the whole area for any information about what Jaccus had been doing there.

History by the blowtorch

They found the reason after a day of searching. They soon discovered that all the disused turrets on the spine of the Gardens contained bodies. This was an ancient burial site, with bodies placed in careful position inside the turrets, wrapped in shrouds and accompanied by gifts for the next world, now long-decayed and crumbling. Two of these turret-graves had been defiled, the bodies broken apart and their skulls burnt in some way. Another turret-grave had been partially defiled, the body broken up and the skull placed in a ritual position. Candles had been set out, along with a silver bowl, a small silver knife, and a blowtorch. Behind this strange tableau was the AV  equipment, some kind of ancient, primitive video camera the size of an artillery piece. A cushion sat between the camera and the skull, presumable waiting for Jaccus, with a microphone next to it.

Back at the camp they found a box full of discs of some kind, with writing on them. Alpha suspected these discs were from two specific locations, and dated in some non-standard dating system: 7 all had the same glyphs written on them, and some numbers, and two had more numbers on them and different glyphs. Acting on a hunch, they put the first of these two into a playback system attached to the camera. And saw…

The camera crackled. Primitive, this camera. The shadows of one of the domed turrets they had seen before, but no burnt bones: in the middle of the room sat a skull, shrouded in shadow, and between the camera and the skull the dim shape of Jaccus, cross-legged on the cushion, rocking backwards and forwards, chanting. One hand sat near the blowtorch, and candles glowed in the dim light, set out around the skull. The chanting continued – so boring.

They fast forwarded the video until they saw movement, stopped and rewound a little. Jaccus’s chanting fading, drifting away, his rocking going still. A shadow rolled in, crouched over the candles, which guttered and dimmed. They heard the sound of a sigh, and then some kind of howling, the room becoming darker, Jaccus hunched. Something stirred in amongst the candles around the skull; they flickered and dimmed, then burned bright. The darkness faded, and Jaccus emitted a kind of grunt, like an old man doing something disgusting; in the distant background of the soundtrack they heard the thin reedy sound of a child crying and begging, quickly fading away. Smoke formed dimly in the air above the skull, coalesced into a semi-solid, vaguely humanoid form.

“Who calls me?” A sound like rocks grating on each other, a grim crackling rustle of anger, emerged from the ring of candles.

“I, Jaccus, your master, call you. I would speak you, and you had best listen.” Jaccus stirred from his listing position, and spat the words out with odd harshness.

“You worm. You grub. I was a great warrior, I have slain men a thousand times your equal, I fought on the marches of Ellas, I was a hero before your ancestors were apes, you cannot command me, wo-”

The grating voice descended to screaming. Jaccus had calmly picked up the blowtorch, turned it on, and started bathing the skull in flame. The screams were horrid, rippling out of the darkness from every direction and sounding as if they would tear the microphone apart and leap through, monsters of agony, to attack the listeners.

After about 10 seconds of this, Jaccus turned off the flame.

“You thought your death put you beyond pain, but I have found you. There is nowhere you can run to. You are mine to play with. You will do as I tell you.”

The voice protested. More flame, more screams. It carried on like this for a few minutes, but slowly the voice became weaker, more desperate, until finally it broke and begged Jaccus to tell it what he wanted.

“Where is the ansible?”

“I don’t know what you -” More flame.

This proceeded for several minutes, the same question and the same answer. Finally, Jaccus gave up. “You know nothing, do you?” He didn’t wait for an answer, but turned on the blowtorch and took a full minute to burn the skull black. The voice screamed and screamed and screamed, but he didn’t stop until he was satisfied the whole skull was black. Then he flicked his fingers, the candles faded, and the screaming voice sank away, replaced briefly by a horrible howling sound like wind over frozen ground.

Jaccus reached back and turned off the camera.

Of priests and lost things

They returned to Pearl 7 with the videos. Once they were back in the ship Simon Simon obssessively watched all of them, but no one joined him in the video room. They called Michael and showed him the video from the tomb. He guessed, as they did, that the other seven videos were from his home planet. This Jaccus had invaded these tombs looking for something called the “ansible”, and hadn’t found it. Obviously he had some plan to search for it – first Michael’s planet, then The Reach. But he had come from somewhere. Someone knew what they were looking for.

Michael made the group an offer: would they come back to his planet, and from there trace Jaccus back to wherever he had come from, find the people he worked for, and destroy them? His people, being just uplifted, had nothing to offer them as a reward, but he would speak to his ruling council and they would speak to the Confederacy, and he thought then a reward could be organized. Would they help?

They looked at each other. Something terrifying had moved in those tombs, something they didn’t understand. But while they couldn’t understand its power, they could feel its evil.

Of course they would help.


fn1: I think this is going to be a common phrase in this campaign. In this battle one soldier died instantly, and another got so badly damaged that he was basically useless. If you don’t have combat armour this is a game of one-shot kills.

On Saturday I ran another session of The Spiral Confederacy campaign, culminating in a vicious battle in a floating forest built on the ruins of ancient spaceships (report to come). One player went down in the first round of the surprise attack and the entire battle (with three waves of attackers, approximately) was over in about 5 rounds – 30 seconds! This system is being run using Traveler rules, which are quite lightly described and incomplete in places. During the battle I discovered a few rules that are missing, and came up with a few new house rules to ease some benefits, and also to employ a wider range of skills and attributes in combat. These house rules are listed below.

No critical hits: The standard rulebook states that a roll of 6 or more above the target number is a “critical success”, but doesn’t actually define any special rule for a critical success in combat except that it definitely does at least one point of damage. I have decided not to fiddle with this, because vicious experience on Saturday confirmed for me that Traveler’s injury mechanism doesn’t really allow for it and is so brutal that there is no need for it; the effect alone is sufficiently powerful to make all the difference.

Stealth attacks: There are no rules for stealth attacks in the book. During the session I chose to add the effect of the stealth roll to the attack, and the target cannot dodge or parry. Reading the book I see a set of rules for carrying one skill’s effect over to another; basically success adds 1 to the next roll, while critical success adds 2. However I don’t like this – I like stealth attacks to be lethal, and with no critical hit system the only way to increase damage is to roll really well, so adding the full effect of the stealth roll onto the subsequent attack seems more realistic (and about the only way for an assassin with a normal blade to deliver serious damage against a heavily-armoured target). This means that a good stealth attack with a blade (with e.g. 2d6+2 damage) is likely to end up doing more like 2d6+6 or 2d6+8 damage on a stealth attack. This will do fatal damage against a lightly-armoured person, which is reasonable.

Using the tactics skill for cover: If a PC is not in cover at the beginning of combat, they need to make a tactics roll to get into cover.  The result of the roll will determine the cover level as follows:

  • 0-5: 1/4 cover (no benefit)
  • 6-8: 1/2 cover (-1 to hit)
  • 9-11: 3/4 cover (-2 to hit)
  • 12+: Full cover (-4 to hit)

This ensures that a person with no tactics skill and no intelligence bonus will need to roll better than an 8 on 2d6 to actually find effective cover, which seems really likely to me – if I got in a firefight I wouldn’t have a clue where to hide. It’s obviously only useful when your PCs are in battlefields with lots of boxes and junk etc; rather than describing it all in detail and asking the PC to make a choice, just roll it up and then tell them what they’re hiding behind. If there is lots of obvious cover (e.g. a tank!) then this rule needn’t be applied. This is one of several ways of enhancing the role of the tactics skill in combat.

This skill check can also be done by someone with leadership to direct someone else to cover; in this case both the leader and the person taking cover need to use a significant action in the same round.

Also, related to cover: shooting from behind cover requires a minor action to position oneself and then a significant action to fire. i.e. you only get the benefits of cover when attacking if you use all your actions in the round to attack.

Establishing aim is a significant action: All the PCs used their minor action to aim, giving them essentially an immediate +1 to hit. Boring! So I have decided in future that you can’t just aim and shoot; you need to first use a significant action to establish the process. After that aiming will give you the benefit as described in the book, i.e. +1 per minor action. This ensures that you need to take a full round to aim but it will typically mean that the aim leads to a +3 to hit, since it will usually occur in the following train of actions: significant action-minor action/minor action-shoot. This may not always occur (e.g. use a minor action to draw weapon-significant action to establish aim /shoot at +1-minor action to take cover).

Tactics to change initiative: A PC can change their own initiative using tactics, or change someone else’s using leadership. They must use a significant action to do this; then they make a roll with difficulty equal to current initiative; success increases initiative to the result of the new roll. Extreme failure drops the initiative of the affected person to last.

Gathering wind: if the PC has no use for their minor action they can use it to make an endurance check and if successful regain one point of endurance. This only works if endurance is not 0 and they are not seriously wounded (i.e. only Endurance has been hit). I have decided to include this in order to give everyone some minor chance at battlefield healing, and because minor actions don’t have much use once you’re in cover with your weapon out. It won’t make a big difference to their future if they get hit a second time, but it will at least allow them to take the odd breather. I envisage this being used a lot with the cover rules (e.g. you hit cover with a significant action; use a minor action to take a breather. In the second round you take a full action to go full auto on some poor minion; then the following round you stay behind cover, take another breather and reload your weapon).

In total these rules significantly enhance the role of people with leadership and tactics, and actually make a person with these skills but no particularly great direct combat skills useful, and worth taking out. With tactics and leadership, a PC can a) improve everyone’s initiative; b) get the weakest people into good cover; c) upgrade the initiative of the slowest PCs. While other PCs do the heavy work of shooting and stabbing, a leader-type character can act in a serious support role to help them get an advantage in the fight.

I am thinking about additional methods for using leadership – for example, helping people move to positions where they can get a shooting advantage, or using tactics to negate cover. Also the possibility of reducing initiative or forcing morale checks of some kind when a person with leadership dies.

A final note on Traveler combat: It’s very very dangerous, has a wicked death spiral, and is definitely not for the faint-hearted. I love the way the healing rules enable people to die slowly of their wounds if they don’t get medical care. I also really like the automatic fire rules – they’re simple and very very dangerous. Against an autorifle someone in combat armour will still need to be scared, and can still die in a single shot unless their combat armour is exceptionally high tech. This is a game where you definitely do not want to get caught in a fair fight.

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