I am up to session 6 of a short campaign using Mutant:Year Zero, a post-apocalyptic RPG from the Free League, a Swedish mob whose games I had never heard of before I stumbled on Mutant. This game is apparently 30 years old – I’m playing the 30 year anniversary edition – and I guess it must have been available only in Swedish for most of its history, because I’d never heard of it or the Free League before. Which is a shame, because Mutant:Year Zero is a brilliant RPG, and the Free League’s work is a really refreshing and much welcome addition to the role-playing world.

Mutant: Year Zero is set in a post-apocalyptic earth, with the players taking the role of mutants, a mysterious group of humans with strange mutations that give them a kind of limited impact super power. The mutants are clustered together in an Ark, a safe haven in a world of decay and destruction, and from the Ark the mutants venture out into the ruined outer world (called the Zone), looking for artifacts left behind by the Ancients, the people who ruled the world before the apocalypse. There are no humans in this world, just mutants and threats. The world is a really decayed and ruined place, so even finding something like an old bicycle or a pistol is a huge achievement, and when the mutants start the game they will have nothing better than a hammer or slingshot made out of old scrap, probably no armour and only their wits to help them survive. From there they build up their own supplies and develop their Ark, while (perhaps) simultaneously learning the secrets of the apocalypse.

Character creation

Character creation is a simple process of spending points to buy ranks in four attributes and 13 skills. You choose a character class from a choice of eight, each of which has a unique skill that only they can use. Character classes are well suited for the environment, including archetypes like Dog Handler (who has an actual dog that can do stuff), slave (who is super tough) and stalker (who finds secrets in the Zone). You also get to choose talents, some of which are unique to your class, and you roll up a single mutation to start with. Mutations are fairly exotic things, ranging from being able to explode with spores that do damage or hide your escape to being able to read minds. Mutations are triggered with mutation points (MPs), with more MPs being spent to get bigger effects. All PCs start with one MP, but it’s dangerously easy to get more. Finally, there are no hit points in this game – you take damage directly on your attributes, which means there are four damage types, and there are mutations and conditions which can do damage to all of them. Attributes range from 1 to 6, skills will be generally no more than 3 at start.

The system

Mutant uses a unique and savage dice pool system which incorporates a huge element of risk into skill checks, along with a vicious death spiral mechanic. You roll a dice pool composed of two types of dice, attribute and skill dice. All dice are d6s, so you need to make your dice pool with two colours of dice – in the set that comes with the game you use yellow for attributes and green for skills. Any 6 is a success, and if you roll a 1 on your attribute dice that can become damage. Once you roll the dice you can make the decision to either take the result you rolled, or push the roll. Pushing means that you can reroll any dice that show no 1s or 6s. This means you can get a success even if you failed on the first roll. However, once you push the roll any 1s do damage on the attribute associated with your skill. When you push the roll you also get MPs equal to the number of 1s you rolled, so there is a benefit to taking the damage. This means though that every skill check can potentially kill you (if it is tested using strength), knock you out from fatigue (for agility) or render you useless with confusion or doubt. It also means that you become worse and worse at everything the more you make skill checks. Worse still, the GM is advised that failure should always come with a cost, so if someone rolls a dice pool and gets no successes the temptation to push it is really high – and there is great pleasure for GMs in punishing PCs who fail. The dice pool mechanic is further enhanced by adding gear dice, black dice representing the benefit of using equipment. These can get you more successes but any 1s rolled on these dice will damage your gear if you push the roll, so pushing your roll when using your favourite artifact will eventually break it unless you can get a gearhead to repair it (also a roll with a push/fail risk!)

Damage taken to attributes can be recovered with four hours of rest and consumption of a specific resource, or connection with friends (some relationships are established inside the party to help with this), but early on in the campaign the resources required are quite expensive and rare, which makes resting a costly business. The whole thing is finely balanced – at least early on – to ensure that the players are constantly on the edge of their seats, and always eagerly scrounging more stuff, but most of all always considering the risk of their next action. The game is heavily loaded with risk and decay, which makes it a really good mechanic for a living-on-the-edge post-apocalyptic setting.

Combat

Combat works pretty much on the lines of the skill system. You need at least one success to hit someone, though your opponent can defend and if they get more successes than you they can damage you. Damage is usually just 1 or 2 points per weapon, straight onto your strength attribute, with armour as a (pretty ineffectual) soak. Extra successes on your attack can be used to do extra damage or other effects like disarming your opponent, knocking them down, gaining initiative, etc. However to get extra successes will likely require that you push your attack roll – which means you damage your own strength, so one pushed roll and one hit and you can be out of combat. If your strength drops to 0 you take a critical hit, which can be fatal but most likely means you have penalties until you heal. But this combination of pushing rolls and taking damage against an attribute that can have a maximum value of 6 means that combat is absolutely lethal. Most fights only last 1 or 2 rounds and end with the entire party badly damaged, either from injuries or from pushing their rolls. I think someone has been reduced to 0 and taken a critical hit in every session so far, and there have been several fights where the PCs have been super close to TPK – in one fight a PC unleashed a huge wave of mutation powers to kill an opponent out of desperation, but their mutant powers backfired and killed them too. It’s that kind of game.

The speed and lethality of combat means you can get through a lot of fights in a session, and you can get a lot done. Where other systems might have a dungeon crawl that takes sessions to complete, in Mutant you can do an entire lair in half a session. Combat is fast and deadly and a lot of fun.

The Ark

Another excellent aspect of the game is the development of the Ark. During character creation the players also develop their Ark, describing its structure and main inhabitants and assigning it basic levels in four attributes (Warfare, Technology, Culture and Food) which determine how well the PCs can do things like defend the Ark, understand artifacts they find, obtain food, and read and write. As the PCs adventure they find artifacts, which they can choose to use or to hand over to the Ark to be stored in the Dawn Vault. If handed over, these artifacts add to the Ark’s attributes, slowly improving it. The players can also select projects to improve the Ark – things like a defensive wall or a farm or universal suffrage – which further improve the Ark. As the campaign unfolds the PCs and the Ark develop together, until the Ark goes from a desperate hard-scrabble hideout carved from the corruption to being a real home for the PCs. This mechanic is very simply set up but very effective, and the way the Ark and the PCs interact with each other to support each other’s development and achievements is really great. Seeing your players debating whether to set up a tribunal or a secret police force (or cannibalism!) is really fun.

The campaign arc

The book comes with a campaign idea and some adventures related to it, which you can choose to follow if you like. This involves uncovering the secrets of the apocalypse and the truth about the Ark and the mutants who live in it. It helps to explain a strange point made at the beginning of the book, which is that the mutants who live in the Ark don’t remember how they got there and can’t have children, and look up to a mutant called the Elder who used to offer them guidance in their new world. This means that the Ark is a kind of stand-alone setting, much younger than the apocalypse, so it’s as if the PCs just sprang into being (it’s as if a group of god-like beings just created them from nothing!) The campaign arc answers these questions, and can also tie into an amusing-looking spin-off called Genlab Alpha. However I didn’t really like the campaign arc, so I have dumped it and decided to keep the apocalypse kind of mysterious and go my own way. I’m not sure why I didn’t like it – it seems like it would be perfectly playable and very satisfying (and challenging!) to complete, and it doesn’t necessarily interfere with the other tasks like exploring the Zone and building up the Ark, which are where the real fun lies. I guess I just don’t like being told what to do, or maybe I had my own vision of the apocalypse that I wasn’t willing to compromise on. However, if you don’t use the campaign arc you’ll probably find yourself running – as I have – into trouble explaining who the PCs are and why they’re there.

Good points

This is an excellent game. My players have all exclaimed multiple times at how much they love the simple, high-risk system, and how exciting the whole thing is. The Ark development is enormously appealing, the character classes really are evocative of a post-apocalyptic game, and the constant resource-scrabbling and the nature of the threats you meet really help you immerse yourself in a post-apocalyptic worldview while you’re playing. The simple, speedy nature of the rules means we almost never argue over rules – there’s the odd aside along the lines of “isn’t it weird that they decided this” but nothing more, really – and the entire system can be memorized, pretty much, because it’s all so simple. It’s a very big difference from the other system we’re playing at the moment, Shadowrun, where we often get bogged down in complex debates about stupidly complicated rules. There also aren’t many ambiguities, so you can play through almost without checking the book, unless you need to remember something numeric (this usually only happens in the Ark development phase). Somehow this game has managed to incorporate some fairly robust resource management, stronghold development, character development and high pace adventuring within a very simple, very easily learnt package. I really cannot sing its praises enough!

Some bad points

Besides the limiting nature of the mutant definition and the campaign arc, the main flaw with this game is the simplicity of the rules themselves, which sometimes lend it a bubblegum, comic, not-so-serious feeling that is both slightly out of whack with the context, and also an inducement not to take the game too seriously. We’re having fun with this at the moment but it limits the appeal of the system for other worlds, and I think it could also undermine it over a very long campaign. The game isn’t ultimately suited to a long campaign unless you really exploit some of its less-explored details (like relationships between PCs), because the simplicity of the rules means that there is not much sense of character development, and nothing gets bigger or more complex as you go on – your mutant powers don’t grow, and really all that happens is you get a new skill point or a largely not that great new talent. In a more rich and detailed system there would be new powers or better hit points or something, but you don’t get that here. So I think it might become a bit sterile over a long campaign. However, we’re 6 sessions in and still loving it.

Other Free League products

I’m kind of amazed that this game came out 30 years ago, since it feels much more like an early-noughties indie game than a game developed when the industry was new and still at its height. I’m also very impressed by the quality of the work – the artwork and writing are top notch, it’s well laid out and organized, the order of presenting information – the way of thinking – very logical and clear, and everything very nicely packaged. I subsequently bought another game by the same company, Coriolis, which is like a more mature version of the system set in space, and it is really a stunningly beautiful book with what looks like a very rich and playable system. I’ve also jumped into a kickstarter for a fantasy version of the system, called Forbidden Lands, which looks even more beautiful. I have wanted to play high fantasy for a long time but I simply can’t find a system I like, and I think it’s possible that a mature and richer version of Mutant: Year Zero could do the job. With the benefit of being well written, beautifully packaged, and well structured by an experienced and excellent game development company – how did I miss them for so long?

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Is this gonna be a stand up fight, or another bug hunt?

 

Months passed after our heroes captured their ship, and nothing happened. Lean times in New Horizon, first as they hunkered down to avoid attention after their last job, then as they waited out the repairs and reconfiguration of the HS Fortuna. Jayden and Genji moved into the ship and time stretched out, spent cleaning and training, money draining away – HS Fortuna was a great catch, but she cost money, a lot of money, and they were also maintaining a second base, which they called Firefly, a  hidden complex in a waste dump that they had designated as their safe house. Time passed, and money flew.

So it was that they took the first job they could get when they were ready to work again. Anansie set them up of course, a noodle meal at a stall set out in one of the bigger street markets of Sai Kung. They found the stall soon enough, an oasis of quiet and empty seats in a thronged night market, and sat down at an empty bench with a sleazy-looking man in a cheap suit. On the fringes of their noodle stall cold-eyed men stood watch, quietly steering potential customers away from the shop while they ate. Signs of a man working at the edge of the law, with more money than class. The kind of guy the characters needed to do business with.

His name was Yap Wei Man, one of those sleazy property magnates that thrive in Sai Kung like cockroaches behind a noodle stall. He flipped contracts, took over crumbling blocks and “relocated” their residents quickly to enable rapid renovations, dealt cheap rentals between slum lords the way a street dealer cuts low-grade cocaine to college kids, backed up by the same quality of muscle, muscle he could bring to bear with a grim, jaded patience on laggards, people who thought they had rights, families who couldn’t afford to see their whole pay packet squandered on greasy six-mat rooms but had to anyway. The kind of man they all hated.

The kind of man they had to do business with, because business was not good. Not for them, and not for Yap Wei Man, who had made an investment he wasn’t turning around. Pearl View Complex, a big ugly nightmare of interconnected tower blocks long since backslid into slums, coffin apartments and illegal extensions, the kind of tower block where tenants disappeared in a typhoon, where shady businesses took over the basement and the car park had long since been converted into a night market, or a drug market, or worse. These were the kinds of properties that Yap san flipped, but not Pearl View, because people were disappearing – well, he should clarify, more people than usual were disappearing – and tenants were starting to get queasy, moving out, missing the rent, and if yields dropped much more Yap san wouldn’t be able to flip it on, and then he’d be saddled with a loss, and worse still with the tedious task of daily managing rent collection and the desperate poor. No thank you, chummer, he did not need that. And so he needed a group of people who could do dirty jobs quietly, subtle people not afraid of deploying a bit of muscle, but able to keep it quiet. Anansie had recommended them – urgent jobs done subtly, he was told – and so here he was, their humble supplicant. He wanted them to go in, find out what was causing the disappearances, and stop it – all quietly enough that no one who might be looking in the direction of the property with a commercial eye would even notice. He offered them 3000 nuyen each, nothing if the job was not done quietly.

A room of one’s own …

They agreed, and set off to explore the complex. It was two separate blocks, the north eastern a more upmarket tower of actual apartments, mostly legally occupied, while the south western block was a nightmare of subdivided rooms, surreptitious hostels, businesses, and redivided spaces. The two were linked by a complex network of walkways, mostly ad hoc swing bridges of dubious design. The roof of the north eastern tower had turned into a kind of residents-only night market, the bottom two levels of the south eastern block had long since fallen into disrepair, abandoned by tenants and converted to darker, more subterranean uses.

They split up to explore the building and search for clues, and they soon found two. One part of the south western block had been taken over by a gang, the Ascendant Rats, who had slowly begun blocking off the hallways and entries to their part of the block. They had been dealing medical goods and medical care to the poorer members of the block, and seemed to have a good reputation, but about two weeks ago they had aggressively sealed up a lot of entrances to their part of the block, and stopped communicating with the rest of the block. Meanwhile down in the basement there was some new religious group that had moved in a few months ago, the Clarity of Unity. They had been painting art works around the building, and with a bit of careful mapping and thought Adam was able to confirm that yes, the art works were images of arcane power, that had been placed in the positions necessary to establish the Clarity of Unity’s home base as a magical lodge. Someone was working powerful magic in the basement.

First they visited the section held by the Ascendant Rats. They found it empty, and disturbingly so. The rooms were smeared with dried blood, holes in the walls, one room that had obviously been the scene of a vicious battle had a hole in the floor that fell through many levels below, into darkness. As they explored the dark, silent rooms they found strange new walls that had been erected, of smooth extruded concrete that held a faint astral presence. They also felt themselves watched, heard strange clicking sounds, like the voices of aliens – or spirits. In particular a malevolent, six-eyed shadow that they saw watching them from the end of a hallway, clicking menacingly. They retreated to the thriving life of the rooftop market and put in a call to Mr. Yap – he had a vermin problem, and they were willing to fix it, but it would cost him. He agreed – bring him proof, and he would give a hefty bonus. Details were not discussed, but an understanding was reached. They decided to examine the Clarity of Unity, though they were already sure what they would find.

First they visited them at the time of the evening meal, having heard that they ran a soup kitchen. They were welcomed into an old parking space at the ground level, that had been converted into a kind of open air church and food area. Benches were set out, and a big serving area where anyone who asked for it got a big hearty bowl of congee and some slabs of cheap chicken. The PCs did not eat any, and found themselves speaking to stony, closed faces as soon as they started asking questions about the Clarity of Unity’s purpose. Before the meal started an old, weary-looking man emerged, and the crowd began to whisper his name – “Rahman, Rahman.” He gave a short, strangely perfunctory speech about finding clarity in unity before retiring and leaving everyone to eat.

The PCs were not satisfied. They left, and worked their way through the basement to the area behind the Clarity of Unity kitchens. Soon enough they found it – a tunnel that did not match the structure of the building, leading down into fetid warm air. Down they went, heading deep beneath the original structure of the building into a warren of tunnels, all made of the same extruded, concrete-like substance they had seen above in the lair of the Ascendant Rats. They had found the vermin nest.

As they descended deeper into the nest they began to hear the sound of clicking and hissing, always a little way ahead, always fleeing. They were being led into a trap and they knew it – but that’s what they were being paid to do. They advanced slowly and steadily, Jayden in the lead, following the clicks. Somewhere far above, Jayden’s guardian spirit soared in the sky, heedless of barriers of stone or mud, lending him that strange and supernatural sense of danger that enabled him to walk into any trap already prepared. No one would surprise them while Jayden led the way. Behind walked Adam Lee, moving slowly, half his sense in the astral plane, watching for signs of the spirits they were sure would ambush them.

Eventually they found the centre of the nest, a huge cone-shaped cavern far beneath the apartment, shrouded in darkness and stifling with hot, stinking, moist air. Their commlink lights did not reach far enough to light the whole place, but they showed enough: a mound of earth and junk in the centre of the cavern; beyond it a hulking, shadowy structure rising into space; and around them strange pulsing blue sacks stuck to the wall. In the darkness Adam Lee stumbled into one and shrunk back in disgust; Jayden, unfazed by mere horror, stuck a knife in the thing and tore it open, revealing a living cat encapsulated in its pulsing blue goo. The slime fell out, the cat keening and dying as it slid off Jayden’s razor sharp knife. Adam stepped back in disgust and as he did his gaze chanced up, commlink lights reaching out to strike a similar glow from larger egg shapes – and up there, at the edge of vision, the silhouette of humans inside the eggs.

Adam screamed, John opened fire on the distant shape, and they all charged forward. In the half light they saw a horrid, pulsing thorax, a quiescent monster rising above it into the shadows. It was guarded by four strange humanoid creatures, men whose bodies had been hideously reshaped so that they had mandibles protruding from scaled faces, arms grotesquely distorted to protrude behind their backs, ending in wicked insectoid claws. One through a barrier of thin concretoid excretion around the queen and the rest attacked. Behind the queen Rahman stood, arms raised in ecstasy, droning some ancient wicked ritual to the insect gods.

The battle was brutal. From the walls enormous termites emerged, firing noxious spray or attacking with huge mandibles, trying to defend their queen. The queen herself began to stir, slowly waking from some long slumber and beginning to shake herself free of her egg sac, massive angel-like wings twitching. They realized that the cone-shaped cavern opened to a wide, sweeping tunnel that must reach up to the surface, and that the queen was going to escape into the city if they did not stop her. They fought desperately, trying to reach Rahman before he could complete the ritual of awakening, but the termites and transformed humans blocked them, and more kept emerging. John fell to the blows of the termites and Genji fought against a fog of confusion from the termites’ poisonous breath, the queen shook more, Rahman laughed in sick glee between the beats of his ritual … but at the last Jayden was able to push through the final guardian and hit Rahman with his full might, slicing and dicing in a whirl of super-fast knife blades, cutting both of Rahman’s arms and slicing through his spine, bringing his evil chant to a halt moments before its crescendo. He fell without even screaming, too badly hurt to do anything except gasp and bleed, and the queen collapsed back into senescence. Around them termite soldiers and mutated humans reverted to uncontrolled madness, the spirits inside them free. The characters, realizing their job was done but only madness would follow, fled, dragging John with them.

Minutes later, panting and exhausted, they emerged into the dim light of the Pearl View courtyard. They dumped John in the shadows of the tower and sagged against the wall, panting and cursing. The distant sound of shrieks and clicks faded as the termite spirits returned to their home plane, or killed each other, and somehow they knew that the queen would die. They had done it. The strange curse of Pearl View Complex was lifted, and just as its seedy owner had demanded, no one would know. Somewhere down below the encapsulated Ascendant Rats would wake up in their suddenly disenchanted sacks of insect pus, to be slaughtered and eaten by their enraged captors, but our heroes had no intention of going back in to rescue them. Jayden looked over at Adam Lee, pale and exhausted, leaning on the wall fighting off the sickness of too many spells, and saw him shake his head gently; looked at Genji, leaning panting over his sword, wiping ichor off his face, and heard him grunt a gentle “fuck it.” They had no spirit to fight. They retreated, and put in the call.

Below them a gang was eviscerated, a queen died, spirits slunk away to their own realm. Ahead of them money, and sleep.

All was right with their world.

 

 

Come sail your ships around me
And burn your bridges down
We make a little history, baby
Every time you come around

Your face has fallen sad now
For you know the time is nigh
When I must remove your wings
And you, you must try to fly

Sly moves in the shadows, done quick and on a budget – that’s what our heroes specialize in. A month after their trainwreck, rested and recovered, they were approached by Anansie with another job from the same contact, Ibrahil “the terror” Tejero, who needed a job done on a day’s noticed. As usual it came with the promise of no violence and a good payday, bonuses for stealth and discretion, and as usual they did not believe for a moment that they could make the conditions. Satisfied with the minimum fee, they met the Terror at his most recent place of business, a rooftop garden over a soy-cheese business near the docks district. The Terror told them he needed them to infiltrate a ship leaving the next night from those same docks. He needed to know what its cargo was, and where it was going, and he wanted to find out with as little attention as possible being drawn to his inquiries. He had contacts in the dock-worker’s union, so he could arrange for them to get onto the ship inside a crate, and from there he simply wanted them to explore the ship, find its real cargo manifesto, and if possible plant a bug to film the cargo. There was a bonus for planting the bug, and an extra bonus for doing everything undetected, and no pay at all if they failed to get the real manifesto. The ship’s official destination was a research facility in the South China Sea, but the Terror did not believe that for a moment – no cargo ship heading for such a place would load stealthily in the middle of the night and head out before dawn. He expected it to change course midway, and he expected its cargo was extremely dubious. The PCs’ job was to find out what, why and where.

They asked questions, of course, and they made one point very clear: If they discovered the ship was carrying human traffic, or some other dubious cargo, they would take unilateral action and still get paid. The Terror assured them he had heard about their … how did he put it … unrealistic standards? … and had no problem with them taking unilateral action if necessary, though he would debate the details with them later. Satisfied their reputation preceded them, they agreed to the job.

The next night found them on the Sai Kung docks, nestled in the muggy darkness behind a pile of crates, watching the Piet Maijing. Behind them a dockworker waited impatiently for them to load into a crate, that would soon be lifted onto the Piet Maijing. The ship was a typical rust bucket mid-size cargo hauler in the South China Sea, the kind of ship that was ubiquitous around New Horizon. They could see the armed guards on the deck, obviously overpowered for a simple hauling mission, and the suspicious way they eyed the dock workers. The whole thing was definitely suspicious, and those guards did not endear themselves to the group with their behavior. The PCs crawled into their crate, and waited to be lifted into the hold.

Once on board they had to wait for the ship to cast off and head to open sea, which would take hours, so they decided to get some rest. Realizing that with rest he could cast almost any spell, Adam Lee wrought a mighty invocation that rendered the entire party invisible, then settled into a meditative pose while he waited for the ship to cast off[1]. The rest of them settled into a reverie, and they waited. The crate was lifted on board, swaying and clattering, and then after a few hours the ship broke away from the port and into the open sea. They rose, stretched their legs, and then settled to wait while Adam Lee ventured into the astral plane and searched the ship.

Perhaps he should have done it before they set off, because it became clear very quickly that the special cargo was astrally active, so it was either living creatures or magic creatures or magic items. Whatever this ship was doing was a disaster for someone. Still, they had to confirm the contents and Astral travel was not the best way to do it; they had to get to the bridge, so they set off. Under the veil of Adam’s spell getting to the bridge was easy – there was a brief moment of tension where someone heard something, but being invisible they just stopped and waited for the moment to pass. At the bridge they had to kill one man, but Jayden did it easily, and nobody saw it, so they stuffed the body into a chair, held it upright so the guards outside could see it, and waited patiently in the shadows, invisible and silent, until their technomage could dig out the manifest from a secured server buried at the back of the bridge. Once they had the details they slipped out of the bridge, dumped the body on the roof, and headed down to the hold to place the bug. By now the ship was steaming into open waters, New Horizon far behind and the sea sparkling in the starlight, distant ship’s lights twinkling on the horizon all around.

They did not pause to enjoy the sea air, instead moving at top speed through bulkheads and holds to the area where Adam Lee had seen the astrally active cargo. Here they found a strange problem: They met a wall of crates that seemed innocuous but was definitely designed to block off the area where the astrally active cargo could be found. They had to either go back and go around, or find a way through the crates. They chose the latter, breaking the locks on a crate and moving through. But now they decided to get crafty, and Adam Lee again went into the astral plane, pushing through the crate’s far wall to see what was on the other side. Here he found the cargo hold suddenly opened up, with the wall of crates stacked up right to the ceiling to make a blocking wall, but only a couple of crates on the floor of the cargo hold on the other side. These crates contained the astrally active cargo, and it seemed the solution was obvious: they would need to go into a crate at the top of the blocking wall, pass through, and place the camera they needed to place. The camera would then have a view of the whole cargo hold, and their job would be done: they could call in the rigger the Terror had organized for them, jump overboard and make a very large payday.

John was selected to do this, while Adam Lee maintained an astral overwatch. He climbed up through the crates and into the topmost crate nearest to the group, walked quickly through, opened the other crate door and placed the camera in a suitable position on the ceiling of the cargo hold. He was just about to retreat when he heard a voice from below.

“Oi chummer, give a lost boy a hand?”

It came from one of the crates. Everyone’s heart sank: Human cargo, or at least sentient, which meant they were going to have to go nuclear on the ship. The five of them against the entire complement of Aztlan mercs. Why did nothing ever go smoothly for them?

“Yes?” John hesitantly opened negotiations.

They soon discovered the truth of the situation. The ship was carrying a cargo of ghouls, mostly sentient but some savage, for research, but this particular ghoul was a plant, placed in the cargo to report in to his handlers and organize a raid on the ship. He had had his commlink taken from him but they could see it lying discarded in the cargo hold some distance from the crate. All they had to do was return his phone to him and let him and his fellows out. He would place a call to his handlers, a ship would come to get them, and they would rise up against their captors. The PCs did not even need to be involved – they could set things in motion then retreat to the ship’s helideck to wait for their rigger to come in and get them.

They thought briefly about the huge payoff they would lose by losing stealth, and by losing the camera in the hold; but they also thought they could negotiate for the possession of the ship. An easy deal. They brought the ghoul his phone, and unlocked his crate. Then, still invisible, they headed up to the helideck and waited for the battle to start.

It started with a thick mist that rolled in from all sides, enveloping the ship in a suddenly cloying, chilling white fog. Then the ship came in, first the roar of its engines and then a shadow looming out of the mist, then a hail on a hugely overpowered loud speaker:

“This is Captain Berberoka of the KRI Krugerrand, and you are MINE! You are slavers in violation of all standards of humanity and you will DIE. Put over and submit to a quiet death, or feel my WRATH.”

The ship broke from the mist as the Piet Maijing‘s guards rushed to defensive positions, a slim black dagger breaking through the white fog. The guards were too late, the Krugerrand slamming up against the bigger cargo ship with a horrendous grinding sound and a horde of angry meta-humans leaping onto the deck. Elves, trolls, dwarves, orks, ghouls, even faerie leapt across the railing and into battle, blasting magic and bullets with furious abandon as they stormed the deck. Aztlan guards, outnumbered and surprised, fell back on the deck to a brutal slaughter, the entire battle lasting just a few minutes before it was reduced to coups de grace, begging and all the bloody consequences of defending slavery. The PCs stood on the helideck, shooting and stabbing anyone who tried to escape and waiting for the Kruggerrand’s captain to find them. Eventually he came stomping up the stairs to the helideck, a grizzled old man with a brilliant shock of white hair, one cyberleg, an entire half of his face composed of sagging skin covered in old, poorly-done neon tattoos, lugging a huge shotgun and grimacing at the need to talk to strangers[2]. Then he started yelling at the PCs about their contribution to freedom, and they negotiated possession of the ship in exchange for their deeds. Hands were clasped, manly threats of pirately loyalty exchanged, and the Krugerrand departed with a new cargo of freed ghouls.

Our new ship, before recommissioning

They called the rigger in and turned the ship around, heading back to New Horizon. Of course they could not dock their stolen ship in Sai Kung, but the Terror was surprisingly happy at their sheepish report of their intervention. He got all the information he needed, and if everyone is dead then by definition the mission was done quietly. Fortunately he Knew a Guy who could launder their ship, though it would cost them – they would have to downgrade. And so it was that the PCs found themselves in possession of a 60m converted icebreaker[4], docked two weeks later in the Sai Kung docks, their new base of operations waiting to be converted to a fighting ship, capable of journeying over the open ocean and big enough to hold an A/V lifter and a couple of drones, as well as a nice collection of heavy weapons. They had made it!

Two weeks later they stood on the bow of their new ship, looking out over the flickering lights and neon splendour of a clear New Horizon night, and wondering – how are we going to pay for all this?

More jobs, done faster and dirtier. The shadows are a harsh mistress.


fn1: The way Shadowrun magic works, powerful spells cause strain, which is stun damage, but stun damage is recovered with short periods of complete rest. Invisibility on five people is a high force spell, meaning it causes a lot of stun, but once the spell is cast maintaining it is not difficult, and spell casters can recover stun damage while maintaining spells, so it was a wash: we all got invisibility, and our mage got to recover all the stun damage he took casting the spell. This is maybe the third or fourth time in seven sessions that our mage has absolutely aced it using a utility spell, which in Shadowrun are much less restricted than combat spells. His combat spells are second rate, but his use of healing, levitation and invisibility has absolutely killed it when we really needed it. His use of levitation in session 5 to lift a super powerful shaman out of cover where we could blow his brains out was a picture perfect use of a utility spell, and in this session his use of invisibility made an extremely challenging task easy, and is at the core of the huge rewards we won from this session. This session was all about Adam Lee, all the time.

fn2: This is Coyote, one of the main characters from our Cyberpunk campaign, living out the end of his days as leader of a meta-human rebellion operating from the free state of Maluku. I can’t wait to meet Drew![3]

fn3: Although I’ll be kind of disappointed if I do. This adventure is set years after the events Drew was part of, and she was furiously serious about dying in combat, so if she made it to actual old age she probably failed at life.

fn4: Although the cargo ship was maybe 200m long, we were only able to get a much smaller ship after laundering it. Through negotiation with our GM we bargained it to about 60m, and then we started googling shipping sites and looking for suitable vessels. At some point someone suggested the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior as a template, which triggered me to search the Sea Shepherd fleet. It’s perfect as a model for the kind of ships that an RPG group would use. They’re small, mobile ships designed to be able to survive on the open ocean (even the southern ocean) but versatile for littoral operations and able to dock anywhere; they’re designed for ship-to-ship raiding, to hold a small crew with a limited cargo, and one even has space for a small helicopter. They’re also robust, ex-ice breakers and the like, and have enough spare space that you could fit weapons if you liked (obviously the Sea Shepherds don’t). If you are aiming for a ship that isn’t straight up military, and don’t want to model it on a coast guard vessel, then the Sea Shepherd fleet is your perfect design. Also our GM told us that after the Awakening the Sea Shepherds went from protesting whaling to trying to protect swimmers from magically endowed and vengeful whales before they went out of business, so their ships are on the market and ready for us!

The ice age is coming, the sun is zooming in
Meltdown expected, the wheat is growin’ thin
Engines stop running, but I have no fear
‘Cause London is drowning, and I, I live by the river

London calling to the imitation zone
Forget it, brother, you can go it alone
London calling to the zombies of death
Quit holding out and draw another breath
London calling and I don’t want to shout
But when we were talking I saw you nodding out
London calling, see we ain’t got no high
Except for that one with the yellowy eye

 

Our heroes’ tasks continue, as they return to the Ark again from missions in the Zone, with still more exploring yet to do. They know that to the Ark’s northwest a cult of some kind lives in an abandoned apartment block, and they aim to visit them to learn their purpose and, if necessary, end it. With their successes abroad their reputation in the Ark grows, and people begin to look at them differently, approaching them for advice, deferring to them in debates, or avoiding them if they are joined to a rival gang. Bloody Jack’s star is on the rise, and the other gangs begin to cast longer shadows as her light waxes.

So it is now surprise that one evening they are approached by Shellah, the Stalker who came to them to tell them of the tower some months back, no doubt bearing a new secret to share. She sidled up to them where they crouched around the trash can fire, dragging a large lump of pure, dry wood in one hand and peering all about her as if she thought they were about to ambush her. Sniffing and jerking, she tossed the wood into the fire, and revealed the real reason she had come to talk to them, drawing a small oblong of shaped plastic from the folds of her stinking, multi-layered clothes. “Found this! Need your help!” The plastic block was about the size of her dirty palm, perhaps thinner than a finger, with a couple of buttons inobtrusively protruding from one side, and two small holes in one end of the block at its base. It shone in the firelight, a smooth and glittering piece of technology from the ancients. Shellah pointed at the larger of the two holes. “It charges! Needs a battery!” She stared around at them, snatched it away when Bloody Jack reached out a lazy hand to try and draw it closer. “Mine!” She looked pleadingly at Chang Chang, who managed to convince her to let Parsnip look at it more closely. It was definitely ancient technology, definitely electrically powered, and almost certainly no longer had a charge. But how could they charge it?

Shellah dragged another artifact from her pocket – a damaged black cable, one end of which she smartly snapped into the wider hole in the plastic block. The other was a mess of tangled wires. “It charges!” She declared, waving the ragged wires at the group. “I need a battery, I need your help!” Then she told them where they could find a battery: In the Dawn Vault. She could help them sneak in, if they were willing to help her connect the damaged wires to the battery in the Vault. They pointed out to her that no one can get into the Vault except the Chroniclers (and only some of them!) but she shrugged. She had a secret way in, and she went inside often. They looked at her in horror – no one was allowed in the Vault. And wouldn’t they get caught? At this she also shrugged, and told them no one goes into the Vault. “Got a nest there, sleep there often! Safe from the gangs!” They all looked at each other in shock – what was going on in the Vault? Now their interest was piqued, and they agreed to go with her into the Vault and help set up the charger, but only on the condition that she share the technology with them once it was charged and usable. They had no idea what it was, but anything from the ancients could be useful.

A few hours later, once the rest of the Ark were sleeping, they met Shellah at the back of one of the open areas under the bleachers, and began their expedition to the Dawn Vault.

Beneath the Ark

Shellah led them down a small hallway to a storage room, and there dug through some boxes to reveal a small area at the back of the room where the wall appeared to have partially collapsed. She dragged a piece of metal aside from one corner of the partially damaged wall to reveal a narrow tunnel that led sharply down into darkness. It was too small to walk in, so one by one – and following Shellah’s lead – they crawled inside and began to drag themselves through musty, mouldy stonework. A few minutes of spirited dragging and they plopped one by one into a narrow hallway, landing on cold rough stone. Shellah began moving forward immediately until Chang Chang told her to wait, and they gathered in a group in the darkness. Parsnip lit Lil’Kim’s disgusting lantern, and a rich but pale glow grew around them, suffusing the area with the stench of her oil-wax. They stood in a narrow hallway that descended into a larger space, the hallway ending behind them in a tumbling rockfall. They now stood beneath the Ark, in some ancient space that appeared to have been blocked from outside by a collapse of all the tunnels leading in. Shellah, apparently not needing light, led them down the sloping tunnel and into the larger space. Here they stopped in shock, and stood staring at a horrifying scene from the Time Before.

The tunnel led into a large, low-ceilinged space that looked like it might stretch for much of the length of the Ark. It was probably once a car park, judging by its shape and the markings on the dust-covered floor, but there were no vehicles of any kind in here. Instead the vast space was filled with hospital beds neatly arranged in rows that completely filled the room. Each bed had long since rotted down to its steel shell, along with the dead body that lay in it – each bed held a single skeletal human, long since rotted away to nothing but bone and a few scraps of mouldering cloth. Some of the beds had medical equipment next to them – here a wheeled trolley with some rusted knives on it, there a rusting metal pole with a mouldy plastic bag hanging from it, there a smaller trolley with bedpans and cleaning materials.

They moved cautiously through the rows of silent beds, looking down at the grinning skulls of their long-dead occupants. They could not tell how they had died, or what medical affairs had been taking place here – was this a treatment ward for sick people, or for injured soldiers, was it a recovery ward from some disease, or had it been used as some horrible experiment? They could not tell. All they could see was that everyone had died in their beds.

Finally they crossed the full width of the room, and that was when they saw it – a tunnel leading out of the room, down into musty darkness, open and unguarded, with the mark of the underground railway network embossed above it. To their horror they realized that this secret room under the Ark was open to the rail network beneath the dead city, and thus to the hordes of grey men who lived in the dark and fed on human flesh. They looked back at Shellah, who shrugged and told them she had never seen this exit before. She did not travel through here with a light, and had not realized there were dead bodies in here, let alone noticed the tunnel exit or the foreboding symbol protruding from the wall above it. She gestured them urgently on, and realizing that for now there was nothing they could do they followed her to the far end of the underground morgue.

Here she led them into another tunnel, this one much wider, that also ended in a rockfall a short distance out from the morgue room. But here they found even more shocking relics of the ancients. A huge hand protruded from the rockfall. It had long since turned to a skeleton, but the bones were so thick and huge that even with the rocks crushing them they had not broken or collapsed. The hand was almost as large as Lonnie, their diminutive stalker, a huge remnant of some even bigger beast that had been trapped on the other side of the rockfall. Is that why both tunnels into the Ark were collapsed, because the people in that hospital behind them had needed to block something out? They approached the hand cautiously to investigate its three huge fingers, each ending in a wicked claw the size of a machete, and only then did they realize that this hand was a perfect scale version of the hands on the grey men who had attacked them in the underground railway station a month ago – a much, much larger scale version. That horrid horde of flesh-eating beasts that were creeping below the dead city had a massive, ancient ancestor. Did such huge creatures still patrol the depths of the city? Were they leaders amongst the grey men? Could the Ark expect to be attacked by such horrors in the future?

Shellah hastened them on, crawling up the rockfall to a gap in the wall near its top. Here they saw another narrow tunnel, this one leading up. She gestured them in, pointing up eagerly. They turned their backs uneasily on the ancient corpse and began to climb.

Inside the Dawn Vault

The tunnel was short and nasty, but they pulled through it quickly and scrambled out into a small, dimly lit room – the Dawn Vault. It smelled of dust, mouldy paper and rot, and it was lit with strange tiny candles that glowed with a faint electric light. They had been placed on the tops of shelves and lockers, and although they did not cast a great deal of light it was enough for Parsnip to be able to extinguish their stinking lantern. They looked around as they gathered in the room, at a jumble of books, broken electrical gear, a few broken pieces of sport equipment and a rusty toolkit. The books were in piles on the floor and falling out of a bookshelf, and the other technology lay under a thick coating of dust, stacked in corners of the room. An archway led into the next room, a larger open space with benches and a shower room that was also full of jumbled gear and artifacts from the ancients, piled and scattered around the room without purpose or system, all dusty and untouched. Shellah led them through to a third room where she showed them her nest, a comfortable space with old rugs and blankets for bedding, hidden behind a broken photocopier piled with books. Everything was untouched, some material mouldy, some rusty.

They looked around the room in disgust, and at each other in horror. This was what the Chroniclers did with the artifacts they brought here – tossed them into this room and forgot them!? Nothing was being used, nothing appeared to have been catalogued or studied or put to any use, it was just thrown in here and abandoned them. What did the Chroniclers do with their time, what was their purpose? Why did the PCs offer up the fruits of their dangerous adventures in the wild just to have them abandoned here by uncaring old men? Grimshaw punched a wall in rage, and Bloody Jack began to offer up speeches of wild revolution, until Shellah interrupted them both and dragged them to the battery, a big old UPS that had been recently charged with a generator. While Parsnip set about attaching the plastic artifact to the battery Chang Chang, Lonnie and Bloody Jack wandered the rooms of the Vault looking for artifacts they felt comfortable stealing, and Grimshaw stood guard near the main entrance, muttering in rage to himself.

Parsnip finished attaching the plastic artifact, and a tiny light went on on its face. Shellah told them she would rest here in her nest while she waited for it to charge, and would bring it back to them later. Disillusioned and disgusted, they filed out of the room through the hidden tunnel, to return to their trash can fire and ponder the terrible secrets they had uncovered.

The Doom Cult

Looking for some meaning in their suddenly-upended world, our heroes decided to do what they do best – exploring. The next morning they climbed onto their Trash Hawks and flew off to the abandoned apartment block where they new the Doom Cult lived. By the time their circling hawks landed they had drawn a crowd of robed figures, who gathered in the courtyard of the apartment block to watch their eagles come to a screeching, preening and somewhat chaotic rest on the mould-covered flagstones. The apartment block was a plain five-storey building, once red-brick and white wooden frames now faded to brownish-greyish-black and overrun with vines and creeping rot, but its windows were largely intact, or had been covered over with shutters that appeared now mostly to be closed. The ground floor entrance was a large double door that appeared to work – as they dismounted from their restless hawks, avoiding slashing beaks and restless wings, they saw the Doom Cult’s leader walk out of the doors, swinging them casually closed behind him. He appeared to be unarmed, dressed in long off-white robes, wearing a surgical mask and with leather strapping loosely wrapped around the shoulders and belly of his robe. He strode forward purposefully, shying back only a little as the birds screamed and leapt into the sky. Chang Chang introduced them all. The leader introduced a few of the other Cultists, and the PCs noticed that, rather strangely, this entire group were vaguely insectoid in form, having non-human insectoid arms and a faint hairy scaliness about their skin. It was the first time they had seen a group of mutants sharing a single mutation – where had these Cultists come from?

There seemed to be no threat or risk, though, and the Cultists looked unarmed, so they followed the leader inside when he invited them. The ground floor of the apartment was an open lobby with a few sofas and an empty fish pond, opening into stairs and a small back room. He led them into the backroom and showed them a huge collection of perfumes, the “treasures of the cult”, and invited them to join the Cult in a ritual purge of the surrounding area. Intrigued, they followed the Cultists back outside and in a loop of the building as they swung bottles of perfume on chains, spraying occasional drifts of perfume at stubborn patches of rot, dying trees or marker posts, until they returned to the building entrance, intoning prayers to the gods of pure air.

Unimpressed, the PCs waited for the Cultists to disperse so they could talk more with the leader. He snapped his fingers and a couple of robed, hooded figures emerged from a side door, scuttling over to him with the characteristic gait of terrified subordinates. They began hurriedly packing up the perfumes and dragging them inside, keeping themselves well covered and well out of the way of the leader’s hands, typical behavior of slaves and captives, but their deception was not enough to fully hide their faces from some of the PCs, who noticed that the captives were all non-insectoid, and had strange mutilations marring their faces – in particular, they had glass and plastic embedded around their eyes, in what appeared to be ritual scarification intended to give them the appearance of insect-like eyes.

They had stumbled on a Cult with some kind of horrible sacrificial rituals, they realized. When the time was right, they would have to kill them all.

They were invited back inside to enjoy the Cult’s hospitality, and the leader took Chang Chang aside to make an offer to him – that they should team up, Chang Chang could become a leader of the Cult, and they would make all members of the Ark join the Cult. Perhaps the offer was a little too sudden, or perhaps the sight of mutilated and terrified servants bothered Chang Chang, but he dissembled until he could rejoin his fellows and discuss it.

That evening they sent Lonnie out to investigate the upper levels of the apartment but he was seen and battle started. They had to fight a horde of Cultists on the ground floor, and then the leader and the chief of slaves, a massive slab of a mutant with a vicious axe, before they could win, contending with the leader’s power to heal himself and the slaver and to cause terror in his foes. Eventually they prevailed, slaying all the Cultists and freeing their slaves to join the Ark. They returned, injured but successful, having cleared the only remaining near threat to the Ark and gathered more loyal mutants to their cause. The numbers in the Ark who supported them grew in number, and their authority in the Ark spread.

But they had a new unease, a caution, that made them doubt the value of their authority in their own stronghold. What was the Elder doing, and why did the Chroniclers neglect the Ark so? Was everything they did a waste of time, or had the Elder finally slid too far from sensibility, and from his responsibilities?

Was it time for a coup?

 

 

Imagine if you will an anime set in the immediate aftermath of World War 2 about a man called Mr. Stonewell, a former soldier from Unit 731 who has returned to Japan and is having difficulty fitting in. He bears a terrible secret about the involvement of senior military figures in the murder of many of his comrades to cover up a heinous crime. The crime in question was a major antiquities theft ring, which was operating in occupied China and smuggling ancient Chinese artifacts to collectors in Japan and other parts of South East Asia. Now the war is over, and Mr. Stonewell has lost his family and many of his friends as a consequence of his superiors’ efforts to cover up the smuggling ring. Fortunately Mr. Stonewell is a master of biological warfare, and has killed off everyone involved in the cover-up and subsequent murder of his family and friends, though he has never seen the people involved brought to justice, and the crimes have been buried, hidden from history. In this show, called the Avenger, we encounter Mr. Stonewell as he attempts to fit into ordinary society after his demobilization. He and his former comrades feel misunderstood and abandoned, nobody understands the things they had to do, or how much they suffered, they are on the fringes of society, abandoned and rejected. We see Mr. Stonewell lurking at a support group for ex-soldiers, we see his flashbacks to the terrible things he had to do and we understand how he suffers under the burden of the tasks he undertook for the freedom of his country. Meanwhile some of the loose threads of his military past are being tugged, and we discover that perhaps that heinous crime – the murder of soldiers to cover up a corrupt trade in antiquities – hasn’t been fully buried. We can expect in later episodes of this show to see Mr. Stonewell using his chemical and biological warfare skills to kill a sequence of bad military leaders in inventive and disturbing ways, it’s going to be great. In episode 3, with this groundwork laid, the anime takes us on an extended flashback so we can see exactly what terrible deeds Mr. Stonewell had to do in defense of his country. We see the briefing at the formation of his new unit, where one of his fellow soldiers makes an off-the-cuff comment about how their work isn’t exactly going to abide by the hypocratic oath; then we see him vivisecting American soldiers, conducting horrific experiments on them to develop better weapons so that his army can win this terrible war against this implacable foe. We understand he didn’t want to do these awful things but he had to, because it was a war and he was told to. We come to appreciate his moral struggle, but we accept that he is a good man because he is Japanese, and all Japanese soldiers are by necessity good people. This is why the murders of his comrades to cover up mere smuggling are such a heinous crime.

Do you think that this show would be popular in America, and non-controversial? Do you think it’s an acceptable moral frame for your hero? Because in episode 3 of Marvel’s The Punisher we see its putative hero, Frank Castle, shoot a suspected Iraqi terrorist captive in the head, killing him in cold blood in direct contravention of the laws of war, but we move on to discuss the more important issue of how this was wrong because Castle was inadvertently doing it to cover up a heroin smuggling ring. The fact that he just committed a crime for which, in America, he should receive the death sentence, is just irrelevant to the story. This happens in the context of his and his friends’ struggle to deal with the terrible things they had to do for the war effort, and after one of them makes an off-the-cuff reference to Operation Phoenix, so they know they’re doing things against the law of war but they, the directors of this shitshow, and we are meant to not care about that. Castle’s moral struggle and flashbacks have nothing to do with that, although sure he didn’t like killing people. Castle’s real problems are all to do with the real crime at the centre of this show, the heroin smuggling ring which he bravely – and morally – lost everything to break.

Frank Castle is a war criminal, and this terrible tv show is a paean to war criminals. There’s a heirarchy of moral ills in this show, with killing your own soldiers to cover up a crime right at the top, and murdering a captive in cold blood right at the bottom. Even the special agent trying to find out about the crimes Castle committed isn’t interested because there was a clear and extensive violation of the laws of war – she’s interested because one of the victims was a friend of hers, and he was innocent. The implication here is obvious – that these wouldn’t be considered crimes at all if the people who suffered them had all been guilty. Here we see the insidious effect of 15 years of wars of aggression, extra-judicial killings and egregious violations of the Geneva convention on the mentality of ordinary American producers of culture – they have lost their understanding of what a war crime is, and of how Americans can be guilty of … well, of anything at all really. And so it is that Castle sails through this show bearing the scars of everything wrong that was done to him, and blissfully free of any guilt, trauma or even recognition of all the things he has done to people.

It’s worth noting that there is a controversy attached to the Punisher, but this controversy is all about the timing of its release, and how its gun violence might be triggering for many Americans after the Las Vegas mass shooting. The valorization of a war criminal isn’t mentioned, and although some reviews dwell on the trauma he experienced, none seem to have noticed that he’s a war criminal. It’s remarkable that this central part of his background is completely missed in favour of the wrongs done to him. Have Americans managed to completely insulate themselves from the consequences of their own wars? Are they now completely morally impervious?

Another aspect of this show that is tired and boring and that I am completely over in American TV is the stereotype of the neglected and abandoned veteran. This is heavily present in the first three episodes, as we see Castle lurking around a support group for veterans, and hear their complaints about how they have been abandoned on their return, how the world doesn’t understand them and hasn’t made a place for them, they’re alone and lost in the world. This overdone stereotype is, frankly, complete bullshit. Returned veterans get access to a nationwide network of socialized medicine, they get discounts on student fees for retraining, they get two weeks of NFL games devoted to them, there is a transnational sports event for disabled veterans with very senior political figures as its patrons, and they get a plethora of TV shows about their struggles and issues. Where and how exactly are these people being abandoned and neglected? Like every other show that ever dwells on this issue, we hear lots of vets saying it’s an issue, but none of them actually tells us what was done to them, or what happened to them. This is particularly insulting in a show that is devoted to exploring the trauma issues of a returned vet, while ignoring the fact that he’s a criminal who should in be prison for life (at least). It’s right up there with right wing talk show hosts using their nationally syndicated tv show to complain about how the media is censoring them – a show about a vet’s trauma, complaining that vets don’t get enough attention to their trauma. Just drop it already. Or better still, make a TV show about a vet returning to America proud of his contribution to the army, counting the notches on his belt of the enemy he has killed, willing to defend his actions in a foreign war he didn’t choose. This story would be much closer to the truth of life for a returned vet, but for some reason we have to be subjected to its exact opposite, this boring trope of the vet who can’t get a break.

This show could have had other stories, that would have kept Castle’s background intact but given a more realistic and sensitive approach to the war. The detective pursuing him could be pursuing him for his war crimes, not because her friend was an innocent victim; he could be seeking redemption for his crimes instead of vengeance for his trauma. Someone, somewhere in all this mess could have just tried to at least talk about this aspect of his back story. We could see an arc which ends with him finding redemption for what he did, through extreme violence of everyone else who ever does anything like it. Or he could have refused to be part of that torture and murder network, and all the trauma visited on him could have been a consequence of his principled stand against war crimes. That would make his punisher stick way more believable and way more moral than this elaborate refrigeration of his entire family, with detailed and boring flashbacks, and no real explanation for why he is so uniquely traumatized compared to everyone else (those hammer scenes are really, really overdoing it). We could have been watching a show that once, just once, in the history of American TV since Rambo, actually tries to tell the truth about returned vets and makes some tiny effort to explore America’s war crimes. But probably that would have been even more controversial than the gun porn.

I really wanted to like this show. I like the actor playing Castle, I love vengeance as a theme and I enjoy watching bad guys get their comeuppance, as brutal as you can. So I was looking forward to a long arc of redemptive violence. But I can’t accept this redemptive violence for this reason, when really the first person who should be getting a dose of it is the guy who casually shot a prisoner in the head because he was told to – the Punisher, indeed. So much of everything that has gone wrong in the world for the past 30 years is the fault of America’s policy adventures, and so much of its current mistakes can be laid at the feet of its ordinary citizens and their foolish misguided self beliefs. A million people died in Iraq, and four million were displaced, because American politicians decided to launch an illegal war of aggression, but none of it would have been possible if people like Frank Castle had refused to break the laws of war. It’s an insult to those million dead to make a show about one of their murderers, to gloss over all the bad things he did, and then whine incessantly about how this man who signed up for an illegal war is the real victim. Obviously everyone has their breaking point, and this is mine. I’m not going to watch a show about a war criminal who doesn’t even have to redeem himself, simply because he’s an American. You can keep your war propaganda, and I think Marvel I can’t be bothered with you anymore.

I got a heavy little number
I got 42 wheels of pleasure and pain
I got a heavy little number
I’m gonna head it on down upon the Alice again

Widda a paraliddic weapon I can ‘ardly miss
Gonna gidda bricks anudder everlasting kiss
Widda a paraliddic weapon I can ‘ardly miss
Gonna gidda bricks anudder everlasting kiss

Jobs come and jobs go. Our heroes recovered from their near miss with corporate security at the student’s strike, and were spending some days taking some hard-earned rest when their favourite fixer, Anansie, contacted them with a new job. He had a contact, a Mr. Johnston, who wanted a job done quick. It appeared that our heroes have gained a reputation for urgent jobs done with little preparation, and without too much attendant catastrophe, and this Johnston had need of an urgent hit on a train.

Anansie funneled them to a man called Ibai Tejero, a Spanish-heritage businessman of some semi-legitimate kind who needed to track down a briefcase in the possession of a previous employee of his business. The man was about to take a Titan train from New Horizon to the Canton Confederacy, and Mr. Tejero needed the PCs to get on the train and get the briefcase – as well as the man, if possible – before it left New Horizon territory and headed out of his reach into Canton. He would pay for their tickets in the economy section of the train, and then they simply needed to get into first class, find their target, grab the briefcase, and call in a Rigger that Mr. Tejero would kindly pay for, who would extract them from the train or from any station they stopped at.

No guns allowed, actually!

 

Simple! They headed to Lai King station, to meet a contact of Mr. Tejero’s who would smuggle small weapons on board the train for them. The train itself was a strict no-weapons zone, but Mr. Tejero’s contact worked in the freight section and could organize for small weapons – pistols, knives, SMGs – to be moved into cargo. They would not be able to do this job heavily armed, but it was their expectation that no one else would be either. They met their contact at the smoking section behind the cargo zone, and carefully handed over a dufflebag with some light weapons and some hard-to-trace nuyen credchips, in exchange for a key to the cargo section of the train. At the station they also made contact with a new team member, a street samurai by the name of Genji who had recently been introduced to them by Anansie. They waited in the viewing area for their train to power up.

The Shenzhen 99 train is one of the smaller Titans, with three levels for passengers and one for freight in every carriage. It runs on a circuitous route through the northern territories of New Horizon, following the old coastline, before cutting inland through Shenzhen and into the Canton Confederacy, where it speeds up to full power and hurtles north to Shanghai or west towards the inland regions. Depending on the day and the season it can be 16 or 32 cars long, with the frontmost 2-4 cars first class. These cars are sealed off from the remainder of the rain by security doors, but for this mission the PCs had bought themselves a high-class sequencer, a device that works through most electronic door locks, and some nice suits so they could blend in with the business folks. Their plan was simply to walk through into the first class zone using a sequencer, gather in the first class bar, then wait until their mark went to the toilet to ambush him. Simple.

First, however, they had to board that train. They joined a milling queue in the waiting area, watching as the last of the priority passengers drifted through, and eventually reached a large security check zone. They passed through the weapon search easily, since they had already smuggled their guns on, but beyond that was an ID check, and they were all running on fake SINs (who doesn’t?) Jayden and Genji slid through easily enough but somehow the guards rumbled John’s SIN, and it began to look like he might be denied admission until Adam Lee stepped in and smoothly convinced the guards that their sniper’s SIN was the victim of a hacking attack by a rival corp, and there was nothing untoward actually happening. With this John slid through the ID check, but at the cost of all the licenses attached to that SIN – including all his weapons licenses and his driver’s license. A man might as well be stateless …

They boarded at the third car down from the first class cars. This train was a small one, just 16 cars with two first class and 14 economy, so they were in car five. As they were preparing to board Jayden did a brief circuit of the platform and noticed a group of yakuza boarding the number three car, the economy car adjacent to first class, all dressed in classic black suits and carrying austere looking umbrellas. They were likely Yamaguchi-gumi, which made them enemies of the PC’s regular contact, Niwa-san. Jayden noted that they were there and boarded his carriage.

Once the train was running and outside of New Horizon they made their move.  First they picked up their guns from cargo, discovering with some disappointment that one of John’s two SMGs had been “misplaced”. John stifled his anger, and they crouched down in the cargo area while Adam Lee cast a magic eye spell. With this spell he could explore the whole train undetected, identify the location of their target and scope out the guards they might need to deal with. Once he had found the guards and the target the party decided that they would head to the first class cars and settle in the bar, from where Adam would again use his magic eye spell to keep watch on their target. Then they would pounce when their target moved to the bathroom. They headed to the front.

Unfortunately the path to the bar was full of yakuza, who seemed to be crowding into the lower level. Thinking they might draw a little too much attention to themselves if they passed through that hallway the PCs decided to head up, because the same car had an observation deck on level three that gave commanding views of the New Horizon coastline, the old crash zone, and the rambling shacks and tenements of the territories. They climbed the stairs to level 3 and headed towards the stairs to the observation deck. Here too there were yakuza, but only a few and only going about normal commuter’s business…

…until they saw Genji, at which point they went crazy. The moment the first of them saw Genji his eyes widened and his grip on his umbrella tightened, as if in shock. Then he yelled, “NAKAMURA SAN!” at the top of his voice, and with a sharp movement of his right hand pulled a katana from the stem of his umbrella, and leapt forward to attack Genji. Behind him, yakuza emerged stumbling and confused from compartments, and seeing Genji let up the same yell – “NAKAMURA SAN!” – as they ran forward, pulling swords from their umbrella stems.

At least, it seemed fast to them, probably like the blink of an eye. To Jayden this whole tableau unfurled in the sticky, gelid moments of Adept Time. He saw the Yakuza’s eyes widen, the clinch on the stem of the umbrella, the blade drawn; by then he was already moving with his knife out. By the time the blade was free he already had his knife in the man’s side, and moved through and behind him to stab him in the back as he began stumbling forward. Moments later he pushed the dying man aside – still mumbling “Nakamura … san” – as he moved into the group of yakuza emerging from the nearest compartment. As they readied themselves to enter the fray, he was already moving into them, knife slashing. Moments later the rest of the fight caught up with them, and John, Adam and Genji started shooting and casting spells. Soon four yakuza lay dying in the hallway, and Jayden stood near the entrance to the observatory, wiping his knife on a hand towel. The smell of gunsmoke drifted through the hallway as the door from first class opened and an armed and armoured train guard burst in, gun at the ready.

Adam Lee didn’t miss a beat. “Oh thank god you’re here!” he yelled. “These yakuza set upon me as I was returning from the bar! Please, let us back into first class before the rest of these fiends come up here!” His ruse worked, and the guard let them into first class as if they had always belonged there. They decided to cancel the trip to the bar and head straight to their target’s room, and were walking down the first class hallway towards the end compartment when the entire train shook, rocked and suddenly lurched to the side. An incredible grinding roar arose from below and the train began to buck and kick around them. They looked at each other, sighed the resigned sigh of people who are used to every mission going south for reasons they can never understand, and sprinted towards the room.

The train derailed and hurtled to a stop before they could reach the room, and before they knew it they were lying in a jumbled mess at the end of the hallway, their target’s compartment door now direclty above them and the walls and ceiling bucking and kicking as the train came to a staggering halt with an ear-shattering tearing sound. In the silence after its crash they heard the distant sound of screams and yells of shock, and the ticking of pieces of broken equipment falling and bending. Then they heard a bang from inside the room.

They sprang to action. The hallway had not been so wide, so they could all stand up and reach the door where it now hung above them. John pulled out the small black box of the sequencer and set it on the electronic lock, springing the door open. It slid wide to reveal a comfortable first class cabin, the door giving them a perfect view of a card table with seats around it. Two security guards hung in the seats, strapped in by seatbelts, and now dangling over the door, looking helplessly down at the PCs. Jayden shrugged and with an Adept’s grace leapt inside the room, landing on the wall to one side of the door. He looked around and saw that the window at the far end of the room had been blown out, and their target was nowhere to be seen. “Target’s gone!” He yelled.

Moments later Adam Lee drifted through the door, gave the security guards a dismissive glance and flew through the room towards the broken window to give chase to their target. Jayden gave the guards another look, but they shrugged innocently. Jayden pulled John through and then Genji, to stand on the wall, then ran to the window and leapt through. Behind him Genji and the guards exchanged pleasantries, that resigned, “I’ve done my part of the job, I’m not giving you any trouble now,” kind of conversation people have when they are no longer relevant and no longer a threat[1]. Happy that their backs were safe, Genji and John helped the guards out of their seats and then made for the window.

Outside their target was running away, trying to sprint across the sides of the train cars, avoiding shattered windows and passengers hauling themselves out onto the train side. To the south the sun shone on a pale blue sea, and to the north was the mist and smog of Shenzhen. From Shenzhen came the wail of sirens as ambulances and fire engines rushed towards the accident, but from the sea a different set of A/Vs were incoming – two nasty looking mercenary style A/Vs swooping in off the sea, no doubt coming in to pick up their target. They had just a couple of minutes to get their briefcase and make themselves scarce.

Adam Lee solved the problem. He waved his hand nonchalantly in the direction of the fleeing man and watched in satisfaction as their mark crumpled to the train side. “Paralyzed,” he explained through gritted teeth, concentrating as he held up both the flight spell and the paralysis. “Go get it.”

Jayden needed no urging. He sprinted along the train to the man and secured him until John could catch up. They applied the sequencer to the paralyzed man’s briefcase, which was locked to his wrist, taking it off of him while he watched helplessly. By the time they had the briefcase off him the rest of the group had caught up. Adam flew them all down to the base of the train and they moved rapidly away from the scene to a large huddle of survivors. Once they got there Adam dropped the paralysis spell and began healing injured passengers, with Genji and John offering first aid support, while Jayden hunkered under an emergency blanket with the briefcase and kept an eye on the horizon for menacing soldiers. As police and emergency personnel gathered they all relaxed, knowing that their target could not confront them now, and within 30 minutes they had been given a lift in an ambulance back to Shenzhen station. Once they were there they called in Mr Tejero’s rigger and got out as quickly as they could, their bodies and their booty completely unscathed.

Except for the loss of one Titan train, it had been a perfect job. They even saw Adam Lee briefly in a newscast, hailed as a hero for helping injured passengers, though his fame soon washed from view under an avalanche of reports about girl bands, riots, murders and celebrity weddings. He returned to the shadows, a little richer and a little more successful than before, and they returned to waiting for their next run …


fn1: Basically their target heard the fighting in the economy train and triggered an emergency evacuation protocol which involved using a rigger hack to derail the train and blowing his way out of a window. Extreme measures, but not unreasonable given our tendency to kill anyone we have difficulties with!

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I screamed aloud to the old man
I said don’t lie don’t say you don’t know
I say you’ll pay for your mischief
In this world or the next
Oh and then he fixed me with a freezing glance
And the hell fires raged in his eyes
He said do you want to know the truth son
I’ll tell you the truth
Your soul’s gonna burn in the lake of fire

 

When we last left our heroes they had returned from a successful overland mission, bearing a new gift for their Ark and wary of a new threat. Over the ensuing weeks and months their new gift came to fruition, and eventually the Ark had its Trash Hawk stables, and our heroes became the first to ride them from the Ark. This time their goal was to explore the areas north and northwest of the Ark, to see if there were any threats there and if possible to eliminate them. From the hill north of the Tower they had seen a damaged military base with only an old man living in it, and further to the west of there a stretch of ruins infested with nightmare flowers. They aimed to explore both of these places.

Nightmares bloom

First they flew their trash hawks to the northwestern area, circling over the area to look for threats. Their reconnaissance centred on a theatre at the centre of the sector, which stood at the junction of several wide roads and was surrounded by crumbling ruins. The entire area around the theatre was overgrown with stunted trees and rich fungal growths, the shattered and scattered brickwork of the old buildings slowly being submerged under the unstoppable tide of nature; but near the centre of the sector, around the front entrance of the theatre, the ruins were more clearly visible and the plant growth less abundant. Here the ruins were wrapped in vines as thick as a human leg, which crawled over old lamp posts and up the sides of remnant walls. At the top of these serpentine green cables hung huge scarlet flowers, each the size of a human, hanging pendulous and partly closed over all the area around the theatre. These flowers formed a kind of ring of blooms around an open clearing, which was overgrown with short, dusty fungi and small plants – and in the middle of that clearing lay a half-covered body, clinging in death to a hunting rifle that the PCs desperately wanted to take.

They landed their birds at a safe distance near an old stretch of grass studded at regular intervals with lozenges of concrete. Grimshaw saw a small shed at the edge of this park and decided to investigate, thinking there might be a scythe within – opening the door he was proven right, and was about to lay his hand on it when a massive Zone Spider ambushed him from the shadows of the shack. Fortunately his hammer justice was at the ready, and he dispatched the thing with a hail of vicious blows. Triumphant, he emerged bearing the scythe in one hand, and named it Truth. Better armed, and newly wary of their surroundings, they advanced carefully to near the edge of the clearing. A rope tied about him, Loony Lonnie crept carefully forward into the clearing, manifesting his plant-man mutation to try and appear part of the undergrowth, rather than as an intruder. The plants seemed not to notice him, so he crept in close to the body. The hunting rifle was still attached to it by a strap, so he had to carefully cut it loose, but then he noticed that it had other belongings, and began searching it carefully. First he found some magazines for the rifle, which he pocketed, and then he foolishly cut open the shirt over the skeleton’s shrunken chest, thinking to find something hidden within. But as he pulled open the old, dry cloth of the shirt he found himself staring at a huge human eye, embedded in the middle of the corpse’s chest and connected to all the nearby plants by a complex web of creepers and tendrils. Startled, he fell back in horror, and the plants reacted. At the top of every flower there was a shiver of movement and a ring of human eyes opened, followed almost immediately by the flowers themselves, which suddenly swelled as if taking in deep breaths of air. Then as one they jetted out bursts of brilliant scarlet powder, and Lonnie was lost to view in a cloud of pollen.

Grimshaw charged forward, scythe out, and began hacking at the plants. One of Bloody Jack’s gang rushed forward with him and unleashed a burst of fire into the plants, hoping to burn them into submission, and while the two of them laid into the supporting vines Bloody Jack herself sprung with her frog’s legs into the cloud, grabbed Lonnie, and leapt back out again before she could inhale any of the pollen. She landed back amongst the group carrying a semi-catatonic Lonnie, who lay twitching in her arms, eyes open, mouth wide in a silent scream.

They waited a few hours for Lonnie to recover from his nightmares, and decided to take the back entrance to the theatre.

The Phantom of the Opera

They passed carefully through the strange park of concrete lozenges to get to the back entrance to the theatre. Here they found a small door next to a rubbish dumpster, that seemed to have fresh meat in it. Only slightly perturbed, most of the team entered carefully through the downstairs door while Bloody Jack and one of her gang climbed to the 2nd floor window and crept in through that. Bloody Jack found herself in a make-up room, which opened into a narrow hallway that led to the upstairs entrance to the auditorium itself. Downstairs Lonnie, Chang Chang and Grimshaw picked their way through a different hallway into another entrance to the auditorium, and entered cautiously.

As soon as they were a few steps inside the auditorium they heard a hum and a brilliant column of light picked them out in the musty darkness. The room suddenly came to life, swelling to the tones of a rusty old pipe organ that, after a few bars of some ancient song, moaned and wailed away into silence. It was replaced by a huge booming voice demanding to know who they were. After that voice fell still a much smaller voice repeated its demand in a squeaky, scratchy whine, and they saw a tiny figure running into the darkness somewhere just ahead of them. From under the bleachers the same scratchy voice berated them.

As Chang Chang spoke carefully with the hidden figures, Bloody Jack moved carefully into the auditorium. She saw a kind of gantry on one side of the building near where she had come in, and spotted a tiny flickering light inside, so drawing her katana she advanced into the narrow space. It was empty but for some strange machinery sitting at the end, a single red light blinking on and off. Looking into the gloom of the room she could see the pillar of light striking down from a large lamp in the ceiling, and once her eyes adjusted to the dark and the dust she noticed that the ceiling and the gantry in which she stood were covered with many other similar lamps. Perhaps the machinery controlled the lamps? She considered advancing closer, but with no knowledge of machinery there was little she could hope to do, so she retreated and watched events below.

Under Chang Chang’s careful seductions the voice in the darkness revealed itself. Someone shuffled out from behind mouldy curtains on the theatre stage and drew himself up to his full height – a terrifying 3 metres! The creature they addressed was some kind of manbeast, a huge monstrosity of a mutant grown giant beyond normal dimensions. He argued and threatened Chang Chang, until finally Chang Chang realized what this thing wanted – an audience! So he offered the manbeast a deal, and of course when Chang Chang cuts a deal, he always comes out on top.

They emerged from the theatre a short time later with two new additions to the Ark: the mighty manbeast known as the Phantom, who would perform songs and plays from the old world for them; and his trusty sidekick piggy, a tiny wizened creature that barely seemed human, but seemed indispensable to the Phantom’s threadbare sanity. The Phantom revealed himself to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the plays and stories of the ancient world, and he promised to educate all in the Ark through theatre and pantomime. Another win for their slowly stabilizing society!

The Old Man

They returned slowly with the Phantom and Piggy to the Ark, and after a day’s rest set out again, this time flying to the disused military base northwest of their Ark. They circled slowly in the sky looking for signs of danger, but saw nothing moving in the camp. It was a small camp built out of tents and makeshift walls of sand and rubble, already partly overgrown with fungus and creepers and slowly merging back into the blight of the zone. It must have been established a long time ago and long since abandoned or overrun, and it seemed to hold nothing of value except a boat on a trailer in one corner of the camp – and the strange old man who shuffled out from under one ragged awning to watch them land. He appeared harmless, just a bunch of rags with no weapons, but they were cautious nonetheless. They alighted from their birds and sent them back up into the sky, and slowly approached the man on foot.

He greeted them and welcomed them to his camp, but from the nasty looks he cast at Chang Chang they guessed that maybe this old man could read minds. He refused to tell them where he had come from how he had stayed alive so long in the Zone, or why he seemed to be unconcerned about the rot pervading his camp. Sitting them down at old seats under the awning he served them a vile apple liqueur he called “Scrumpy”, and talked to them randomly about many things in the past, but gave them no clues as to who he was or what he was doing in their area. He simply assured them he had arrived there “some time ago” and would leave “when he was ready.” He also saw them eyeing the boat, and then his manner became sharp and clear-eyed, all pretense of muddle-headed senility gone. He would swap the boat with them for a diamond. The diamond he wanted was called the Koh-i-Noor, and it was lost in the halls of the Dark Tower. He wanted brave adventurers to go in there and get it for him – “oh aye! And one o’ them scepters too if ye don’t mind” – but he would not tell them why it mattered to him. He implied that two or three previous groups of mutants had gone in and failed, but shied away from talking about who they were or how they met. He told them he did not need them to rush – “I’ll be ‘ere ’till my time ‘ere be done” – but also implied at some point he would be gone. He also threw in a second offer – bring him the diamond and he would throw in some secrets about the Ancients.

With that they were hooked, and they agreed to his deal. Something about his manner made them sure he really did know things, though they could not say why or how they were so sure. Perhaps he was an oracle, like the distant Oracle of the Silver Egg that they had heard about? Or perhaps he had simply learnt many things in his travels – regardless of the reason, they felt he had knowledge they needed and could not take. They also wanted that boat – they had a plan to build a road to the Two Towers and establish an outpost on their side of the river, and having a boat to operate on the river would strengthen their outpost. Yet somehow it felt deeply wrong to just take the boat from the Old Man – they needed to offer him something. And in any case, everyone knew at some point they would have to penetrate the Dark Castle, and neutralize whatever horrors lay within. Their map of the tunnels under the zone told them that there was an opening north of the Castle through which maybe Grey Men could emerge to harass them; the Dark Castle itself remained an enigmatic and continuing menace to their west. Having secured themselves against a major threat south of the river, they would need at some point to turn their attentions to those closer, but perhaps more quiescent, dangers. They were not quite ready yet, but with a little more time, and a little more delving in the ruins of this world, they would be.

They returned to the Ark, solid in their purpose, to prepare themselves for their next task.

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