During a moment of sudden frenzied violence in yesterday’s Shadowrun adventure our wizard character Adam Lee deployed an indirect mana attack spell for a grand total of only 2 or 3 points of damage. Immediately afterward our opponent – a russian Shadowrunner mage – dropped an indirect attack spell on me that something like 8 points of physical damage even though I have a monumental full defense dice pool, decent armour and good body. This prompted me to declare that “Direct spells are shit!” Today I thought I’d check this statistically, and see if I can identify some guidelines for using direct and indirect attack spells. There seems to be a general consensus that direct spells are better against people with heavy armour and high body, and reliably deliver damage while indirect spells have bigger upper limits. Is this true?

This post assumes the reader knows the Shadowrun 5e rules.

The difference between direct and indirect spells

Direct spells use the force of the spell as a limit on the spellcasting check, and target either body or willpower only. So for example our wizard Adam Lee, with a 14 dice spellcasting pool, will be making a challenged check against the body or willpower of the opponent, which will typically be 4-6. In contrast, indirect spells use the spellcasting skill with the same limit against the opponents defense (Intution+Reaction, no limit). Any net hits then do damage as a weapon with damage Force and AP -Force. So it appears that if you can get through the defense you can do a lot of damage, but high dodge opponents will be a challenge for this spell.

In practice it looks something like this: with a direct spell Adam can expect an average of about 5 hits, while the target can expect 1-3, so Adam can expect to fairly comfortably deliver 2-4 damage at a low risk of drain. With an indirect spell Adam will also get 5 hits, but the opponent will be likely to get 3-5 hits so perhaps half the time Adam won’t hit, and when he does hit he will get 1 net hit. But that net hit is added to the force of the spell, so e.g. with a Force 6 spell he might do 7 damage that is then challenged by the opponents soak with AP-6. If the opponent has body +armour of 17, this means the opponent rolls 11 dice, gets about 4 hits, ends up taking about 3 damage – so it seems like it levels out in these kinds of scenarios, but that the direct spell is more reliable. Is this correct?

Comparing effectiveness using average hits

I ran a brief comparison of the average damage to be expected from Adam Lee’s direct and indirect spell using a basic excel spreadsheet. Here I calculated the average hits for each spell, the average defense, calculating damage for the indirect spell only if the average spellcasting hits were bigger than the average defense hits, and then using average hits from the soak check to further reduce damage. I did this for a target with defense pool 10 and with body values of 3, 5 or 8. I ran the analysis for spells of force 3 to 8.  For each level of force I calculated the minimum armour value at which the direct spell did more damage on average than the indirect spell. This is the armour threshold for a direct spell to be better than an indirect spell. For example at Force 4 the direct spell is better against anyone with armour higher than 7, largely because the net hits from the indirect spell attack are so low (due to the Force-based limit) that it can’t do much damage.

My first interesting discovery was that this armour threshold is independent of the target’s Body – it is approximately the same for all three simulated Body values of 3, 5 or 8. This surprised me, because I thought the direct spell would really lose out against higher body, but ultimately this doesn’t matter. I also found that as Force increases, the armour threshold for a direct spell to be better than an indirect spell really skyrockets. Figure 1 shows this for a target with Body 5 and defense pool 10 (it is approximately equivalent for other Body values), and you can see that for a Force 8 spell the target needs to have armour of 23 or more in order for the direct spell to be better than the indirect spell. This is because a force 8 spell has 8 acc, 8 damage, and AP8 – it shreds through anything except the scariest armour, and in fact this spell is basically as good as the best sniper rifle in the game.

Armour threshold for effective direct spells by spell Force

So my first finding is that while in theory direct spells might be useful against heavily armoured foes, they typically are only better than indirect spells at very high levels of armour, and if you’re playing a mage capable of spells of force 6 or higher you are unlikely to be meeting the kind of armoured foes against whom you need to deploy your direct spells.

When is an indirect or direct spell better than a gun?

Next I conducted a few rough calculations to see when either of these kinds of spell is better than a good old fashioned lead injection. For this I posited a street samurai with a 14 dice pool to hit using a Colt America L36, which is Acc 7, dam 7P, AP1. Can’t go wrong with those stats! I compared it to Adam Lee’s direct and indirect spells against a couple of targets: one with defense pool 7, and total soak of 12 or 20; and one with defense pool 12,  and total soak of 12 or 20. I found that in all cases the indirect spell was better than the gun at Force 6. This was independent of the total soak or defense pool. In some cases the direct spell was simply never better than a gun, but interestingly for the higher defense pool against the higher soak, even a Force 4 direct spell was better than a gun.

The reason for this is that as the Force of an indirect spell increases its damage increases even more. Assuming you can hit on average, even the thinnest margin leads to increasing damage with increasing force, and the damage increases by more than the force. For example, against someone with defense pool 10 and soak 12, the average damage of the indirect spell ranges from 0 at force 3 (it doesn’t hit) up to 8 at force 8. At higher force values, damage increases by 1.3 – 1.5 for every unit increase in force. This is because the increased force simultaneously increases damage and decreases armour, so even when the force-based limit is well beyond what your mage can expect to roll on average (e.g. Adam Lee expects about 4-5 hits on average, so any spell of force 5+ applies a higher limit), you still see your damage increase.

This means that in general, as you increase the force on your indirect spell to make it do more damage, you also raise the threshold above which a direct spell of the same Force would be any use. And you make your spell increasingly better than a gun. And it appears that Force 6 is the sweet spot beyond which a readily-available and relatively dangerous gun is no longer better than a spell for a relatively beginnerish mage.

Direct spells as one-shot killers

There is a way to make a direct spell a one-shot killer, though: cast it at low force and Edge it. Remember, Edge adds 3 to your dice pool, sixes roll again, and you get to ignore limits. This means that a Force 4 direct spell has no upper limits, but is defended against by a very small dice pool. Adam Lee, Edging the spell, will likely get 10-11 hits, with no upper limit on how many he can get, but the target having to roll just 3-6 dice to defend. Chances are this will do 7-9 damage, which brings a single target perilously close to death. A similar indirect spell is much less likely to achieve this, because the defensive dice pool is larger and has no limit.

This strategy is especially effective against targets with very high dodge, because it ignores dodge, and it’s particularly effective for GMs to deploy against PCs since the NPCs don’t need to save up their Edge for later. If the opponent is protected by a mage they may get some counterspelling, and they can Edge the defense, but even then it is likely that by pooling all of that together they will still have a smaller dice pool than the attacker. If there is no mage in the party then even Edge is going to be of little use, and the spell is going to cause a lot of trouble. This is especially true for those mages who have both a stun and a physical damage direct spell in their arsenal, since they can choose the spell to match the target – a troll street samurai deploying Edge will likely still only get 6 dice to defend a stun attack. Note that Edging an indirect spell to make into a killer is less effective, since the real power of indirect spells lies in their high damage rating and armour piercing, so they are at their most effective when cast at the kind of Force ratings that do not put crippling limits on the caster’s success.

A final note on the effectiveness of attack spells in Shadowrun

Above I found that a 14 dice attacker with magic is only more effective than a 14 dice attacker with a basic pistol at Force 6. This is a big problem for magic, because Force 6 will cause physical damage on the caster unless they have a very high magic attribute, and for an indirect attack spell to be significantly better than a gun it will need to be Force 8 or 10, at which point any human mage will be risking very large amounts of physical damage that cannot be healed. I think this under powers magic a little relative to the other fighters in the game, unless the PC is somehow carefully balanced to make sure that it can be super good at resisting drain and casting spells, probably also with a high Body. One way to get around this could be to relax the limits on Magic attributes, allowing them to become 7 or 8 in basic characters, which means that a combat mage who really focuses on that aspect of their character could be able to sling around Force 7 or 8 spells without suffering physical damage. Another option could be to drop the rule that drain can become physical when the Force exceeds the Magic attribute – it means that Force 8 spells are still high risk but not fatal. This is particularly important because Force acts as a limit on spellcasting rolls, and if you can only cast Force 5 or 6 spells you are suffering a significant reduction in maximum attack capability compared to say a street samurai (7 with a katana) or a sniper (8 with some rifles). I think in general the rules on limits may be a problem for high level characters – when you have a limit of 8 on the number of hits you can roll, but your opponent has 30 dice in dodge and no limit, you’re simply never going to hit, and fights are going to become very long and boring as people trade blows that never hit or only barely hit and do little damage. I think a quality that allows you to increase accuracy, or some other property for higher level characters, might be useful. At the moment wizards have the ability to exceed all limits by casting high Force spells but in reality they never will – a Force 10 spell will carry a large risk of serious injury for a wizard. I think it would be more exciting and make wizards more dangerous if they did not face this extreme risk. Remember that wizards have low initiative and weak armour (in general), and everyone aims to gank them, so it would be nice if they could be more able to take these risks in the one round of combat where they’re still alive.

Another possibility is that mages just aren’t that powerful in Shadowrun, and that it is better to play a mage who is good at a single material thing (e.g. shooting a pistol) and give him or her moderate background magic for support – healing, armour, that sort of thing. But even then, a PC who can get a maximum of +3 to your armour for a short time is not an especially great contribution to the party, especially if their shooting is good but not top notch. I think a few things here need to be tweaked to make mages more dangerous at the extremes of their range.

 

Save

Save

Save

Save

On the fat of the land I been living
Now it’s only a matter of time
Sooner or later, you open your eyes
And return to the scene of the crime
Dig deep at the top of the heap
Now you’ve bitten off the hand that feeds you
You got nothin’ but your soul to sell
You got nothin’
When the river runs dry
You will return to the scene of the crime
When the river runs dry
Salvation will rain on you one last time

 

Things fester in New Horizon. Out in the zones, away from the Claws, where the poor strive and toil and graft their way through life, jumping from paycheck to scam to paycheck to grift and back again, life is a hard scrabble, and you’re always just a step away from failure. When you fail – or when the system pushes you over the edge, into the shadows – you have to look for help among other people with the same hard luck and hard stares as you, and it doesn’t always end well. But sometimes you find a community, people who have something in common with you beyond being a ragged survivor of a hard world, and then you have a chance, at dignity if not at wealth and security.

Being non-human marks you out, and all across the sprawling ruins of the edge of New Horizon there are groups of metahumans who make it together, because they have something they can recognize each other by. Sometimes those bands don’t work out so well – sometimes they bring the shadows with them, and looking inward as they do, cloak themselves in darkness.

In a world of augmentation and magic – things can get very nasty down there in the shadows.

That’s why Anansie contacted the characters with an urgent job – a missing person’s case. An elven girl had gone missing, and after they exhausted all their own options her family called on shadowrunners to try and find her. Anansie did not know the details but he said there would be some money in it, maybe contacts, and it probably wasn’t such a tough job. So they headed off to the south end of Havensport, where the hard scrabble folks live.

For this job Anansie had hooked them up with new members, because their technomancer and their mage were on other work. Their new team members were:

  • Zenith, an Orc rigger, the driver who took them to the Troll gig on their last little outing
  • Jo, an ex-corporate human hacker

Anansie did not know if they would need a hacker for this job – “there is always a phone, is there not John?”, he had asked rhetorically when he introduced them – but he assured Jayden and John that Jo could handle herself in a fight, and if they were going to be cruising the badlands looking for detritus they would need a driver, so Zenith was their man. The two were waiting at the bar where they always met Anansie, Jo looking trim in armoured suit and Zenith casual in jeans, a t-shirt and big brown boots – classic rigger work wear. They hopped into his big, tint-windowed van and cruised South to the badlands.

Their target was a run down stretch of slums and shacks in the very far southern tip of Havensport, nestled in the shadows of a complex of disturbing looking chemical plants. They drove carefully through the sinister smell of unregulated industry and past sprawling slums into a slapped-together township of temporary shacks, stacked container apartments and crumbling converted warehouses to their meeting point – a dusty park from back in the era of state-run schools. The park had long since been converted into a market place, stalls scattered around a central open area scattered with outdoor tables, and it was here that they were due to meet their contact. When they parked their car, however, they realized they were in metahuman turf – not a human to be seen, and the boundaries of the market park patrolled by a nasty looking bunch of troll and orc irregulars. Of course John and Zenith were unbothered by the sight of a few metahumans, and Jayden was so used to being out of place in New Horizon that being confronted by non-humans did not bother him at all, but Jo looked distinctly uncomfortable as they strolled up to a pair of huge troll guards and asked to see their contact, Charcul. They were allowed through with a few grunts and into a largely troll-dominated arena of families and small groups, eating and drinking and relaxing in an unseasonally dry New Horizon afternoon. The entire park stank of stinky tofu, a delicacy from south China and Taiwan that held an almost narcotic appeal for trolls of all races, and which was ubiquitous at all their events throughout Asia. Jayden grabbed a few plates of the stuff as they walked through the park, so when they got close to Charcul and the next round of even bigger, even scarier troll guards approached he was ready with this opening gift. Zenith gave them the code phrase Anansie had told them and, thankfully relieved of their disgusting-smelling cargo, they were able to pass through to a small gaggle of metahumans standing around a tall, proud old troll.

Charcul told them the story quickly enough, in that deep and engaging bass rumble that only old trolls can mange. A young elven woman from the local community called Lin Fei had disappeared about two weeks ago, and they had very recently discovered that she was being held captive by an anti-metahuman gang called the Purifiers. This gang, entirely human, had set itself up above a bar called Akanebana in a nearby area that because of bad blood between gangs and some old agreements, Charcul’s community could not easily enter. He had reached out to Anansie in hopes of finding a team of shadowrunners with at least some human members that he might be able to cut a deal with. The purifiers had a history of torturing metahuman captives – tearing out tusks, rounding off ears, that sort of thing – and the longer they waited the worse it would be for Lin Fei. They assumed she was still alive because the Purifiers usually returned the bodies of their captives once they were finished, so they thought there was still a chance they could get her out. Word in the neighbouring metahuman areas was that she was not the first victim of this gang, and even if the shadowrunners could not liberate Lin Fei alive, Charcul hoped that their going to get her out would send a warning that she should be the last victim they took from this area.

The matter of payment came up. Charcul and his people were obviously not wealthy, and did not have much to give, but they offered 1500 nuyen each and the free takings of anything the PCs found in the Purifier’s gang base if they could liberate Lin Fei or return her body. They looked at each other, nodded, and offered to do the job for free.

Nobody likes Nazis.

Jayden made the offer, and suggested that the only payment they would ever ask was that one day they might need somewhere to lie low. This part of Havensport was a great place to hide, being almost off the grid and well out of the reach or interest of most corporate security teams. People in this part of town did not talk to strangers, and many of the communities down here had ferocious internal loyalties that stopped them talking loosely with their neighbours. For at least a little while a team of shadowrunners could get lost in here, and bonds of community would hold faster than any deal nuyen could buy – if they were owed a favour here, the trolls hiding them would take the secret of their location to the grave with them. Charcul thought the offer way too good, and in truth it was, but they all saw that one day it could be a life saver for the PCs too. They agreed, and the PCs set off to investigate this bar, Akanebana.

Trivial checks by Jo revealed it was a yakuza bar, owned by a small local yakuza family, the Kurosasori, that worked the edges of the sprawlzone. The Purifers must have set up on one of the levels above, and from the plans Jo downloaded it was pretty clear that the only way to the higher floors was to brazen their way through the yakuza bar itself. But this bar was in a human zone, and the yakuza who owned it were notoriously metaphobic, and a more detailed search suggested that although they did not own the building they were on more than friendly terms with whoever did – so getting in to beat up a bunch of tenants was going to be a challenge. They needed a way in that would get them past the bar without a fight.

They put in a call to Mr. Niwa, consigliere for the Yamada family, whose daughter they had previously escorted to a Troll metal gig. Mr. Niwa was a grateful man, and in exchange for the many extra services they had provided him on that mission he was able to arrange them an invitation to the bar, to talk to a Mr. Uesugi about the details of their evening. They made clear their visit was not going to be pretty, and he reminded them that his reputation was on the line. Everyone understood the stakes, so they went in.

The maps they had downloaded showed that the bar took the entire ground floor of the building, which had a large elevator hall near the entryway, but when they entered the building they found a very different setup. Most of the elevators had been blocked off and turned into cloak rooms or staff offices, and the elevator hall had become the entryway for the club itself, where security guards in smart suits greeted them in subdued Japanese style and divested them of their weapons. They were led into a relatively quiet public area, pumping music and a pair of scantily clad human women gyrating in some kind of raised platform at the end of a long, heavily burnished bar. The windows opened onto sedate zen gardens, and a brusque human waitress took their order. They stood there at the bar waiting for the maitre’d to bring them to their assigned seats but before they began their meeting they noticed a single human woman, blonde and muscular, leaning on the bar and looking around with a kind of urgent, uncertain and tense manner. Jayden approached her and discovered quickly that she was looking for her brother, who had disappeared in the area a few months ago – she suspected having joined the Purifiers. Her name was Gillian Payne, her little brother was Max, and plan was to go in and find him. Thinking she might know something about how to get in, they invited her to join them, and went to their meeting with Mr. Uesugi.

The conversation with Mr. Uesugi proved surprisingly easy. They told him directly they were going to go upstairs and get their target out of the Purifiers, and they hoped to come to some kind of arrangement. He told them directly that he wanted all of the Purifiers dead – they had become an embarassment to his gang, and now their rent was due – and he would much prefer someone else did it, so he would happily allow them into the building, clear the bar so there were no witnesses, and turn a blind eye to the slaughter. But he added two conditions: every single Purifier had to die, and the PCs could only take as much loot as they could carry. In particular the Purifiers were believed to be sitting on a large collection of crates whose contents the PCs were not to take or even to look at. They balked at the “every single purifier” condition, but managed to cut a bargain with Mr. Uesugi, that Max Payne could live if Gillian worked for the yakuza for a year. Mr. Uesugi made very clear that he really did not care for Max Payne to live, and he would make the one exception only if Gillian agreed to repay him with work. She agreed, and the deal was done.

The bar experienced a sudden freak blackout, and all the customers were asked to leave and move to a different bar nearby. Zenith slipped out to his car and came back with a drone – a tank the size of a large dog, bristling with guns. They were led down into the basement to a separate service lift by one of Mr. Uesugi’s goons, a massive thug called Takuya – “Takuya’su! Uss!” – and told that it would deposit them on the 2nd floor. They went up.

The third floor was deserted, a big dark common area that led to a kind of dormitory at one end. Here they found sets of bunk beds, with small bags of belongings in lockers at one end of the room. Searching the belongings they soon found commlinks, and Jo was able to hack the commlinks to get their contents. They found Max Payne’s commlink, and by quickly searching through the messages he had shared with a few of his fellow Purifiers they learnt many things:

  • Max was an initiate who was not allowed to do many things, and spent much of his time in lectures and indoctrination sessions
  • The more experienced Purifiers had a private bar/hangout area in the basement, that the initiates were not allowed into
  • Max and his friend had found a secret access shaft that connected all the floors, and even went down to the basement
  • Max’s friend had used the shaft and had stashed a card for the basement security system behind a cistern in the bathrooms
  • Calli was on level 5, and there was a complex they did not visit – where the prisoners were held – on level 4
  • The initiates spent most of their time in level 3, in a training and indoctrination area, and that was where they were now
  • The entire grubby little arrangement was run by a woman called Calli, who as far as they could discern was some kind of technical wizard

They decided to go down and deal with the security guards first, so once they had found the card they got back into the lift and headed down.

The elevator doors opened into a wide open space dominated by a large set of benches with computer equipment in the middle. There were five men standing around those benches, holding drinks and chatting. When the lift doors open they all stared at the PCs in shock, perhaps thinking for a moment they were colleagues from upstairs, and the PCs, expecting some kind of elevator hall or entryway, stared back in shock.

Except Jayden. Jayden is never surprised, so he burst into the room and set to work with his knife. From there the battle was short and brutal, the room starkly illuminated with flashes of gunfire and echoing with the scream of dying men. All five men died without doing any damage to the PCs, barely able to get a shot in before they found themselves face to face with Jayden, or pinned down under a withering barrage of gunfire.

As the last of the men slid groaning to his grim end Jo set to work hacking the computers, and the rest of the party fanned out to search the area. They found a simple bar and lounge, the kind of messy, untidy and comfy place that a bunch of twenty-something men set up when they’re living together. Nasty posters adorned the walls, yelling hateful human supremacist slogans from faces of young men distorted with anger. Pumping hardcore human first music roared through the room, and messages of hate scrolled across the computer screens. A typical human supremacist den.

Jo soon hacked the computer and gained complete access to the entire computer system. She accessed maps of all the other areas, gained full control of the lift, and hacked one of the guard’s commlinks. From this she showed them a feed of events in the prisoner area of level 4. A horrible tableau unfolded before them: the elf girl, Lin Fei, and an Orc man were tied to chairs in the middle of a stark, bare chamber. Around the back walls of the chamber were several cages, in which a couple of weak, sickly and heavily mutilated elves and dwarves were held captive. One cage in the middle held a huge, badly injured troll, who was rattling on the bars and screaming at the room. His tusks had been removed violently and his body was covered in scabby cuts and sores. Both the elf girl and the orc boy were covered in blood, and someone behind the camera was laughing at them. As they watched a rough, heavy-set man entered the scene from the left and slapped the orc, making a joke about how soon the elf girl wouldn’t have a use for him as a boyfriend. Then he turned to the girl and told her it was time for her to lose her ears. Someone behind the camera laughed, and the troll screamed.

This video was being streamed from the commlink in this room to Calli’s commlink, up in her hidey hole on level 5. If the PCs attacked now she would see her guards die and know that the den had intruders; but if they did not, this pair would soon be done for. They had to act now. They ran back to the lift and punched it for level 4.

At level 4 the elevator opened into a small entryway that fed into a wider corridor. They moved quickly down this corridor towards the sound of the raging troll, and ambushed the three guards in here with maximum violence. They were dead before they knew what hit them.

As they freed Lin Fei and her boyfriend, crying and desperately thankful, the Troll raged behind them in the cage. “Free me!” he yelled, and “You treacherous bitch, I’ll destroy you!” Apparently this was aimed at Lin Fei, though they had no time to find out why. By now Calli would know they had invaded her den, and would be planning some defense. Zenith sent his drone back to guard the elevator while they discussed what to do. Finally someone suggested that they free the troll and let him use the elevator to go and get Calli, then follow him. They would have to channel him away from Lin Fei, but everyone could see that he had lost his mind, and there was no hope for him. He was rattling the cage bars and screaming, “Let me at Calli! Let me out! I’ll kill her!”

It was a risk, but they took it. Jayden walked up to the cage and did his best to convince the troll that his enemy was Calli, not Lin Fei, and that he could come back for Lin Fei. Then he opened the cage, and they watched as the troll went screaming along the hallway, smashing into walls and yelling at the ceiling, insane with berserk rage. A troll in his finest fury is a sight to behold, and they all paused for just a moment to show him the respect he deserved before they moved down the hallway after him.

By the time they reached the elevator he had already headed up. They called the elevator back down and followed him, and when it opened on the fifth floor the sense of their strategy was clear. There were three guards on the ground in the elevator hall, all with SMGs that had been pointed at the elevator doors, which were smeared in thick dark troll blood. They found the troll around the corner, dead on the ground, riddled with bullets and what looked suspiciously like dog bites. Zenith looked at the bites and told them he had been attacked by a K-nine, a type of drone with a dog form that was specially designed for attacking humanoids. They advanced past the dead troll, giving him momentary whispers of respectful remembrance, and hit the main room.

Here again battle was joined, but now their enemy was ready for them and in cover. Calli was some kind of rigger like Zenith, because she had gun turrets set up in two corners of the room and sent a K-nine drone to get them as they approached the room. With the gun turrets and Calli’s remaining guards ensconced behind cover at the far end of the room it appeared to be a death trap, but Jayden did not let this concern him – he charged in and drew all the fire in the room as he ran to the cover, giving the others a chance to get inside the room and take cover in shooting positions. Jayden’s attack was a crazy spectacle of Adept power – he leapt onto the cabinet that Calli hid behind, dodging short bursts of bullets from two turrets and pistol fire from one of the guards as he dived forward to attack Calli. At the same time the rest of the group opened fire on the turrets, and another guard, and Jo hacked the dog drone to try and make it stand down. More gunfire sprayed at Jayden, but he slipped between the cones of fire and jumped down from the barrier to kill Calli. Seeing the trouble she was in, she dropped out of the connection to her drones and fled, leaving the dog and the turrets dead at her feet. The group chased her but were ambushed by another K-nine drone, which slowed them down enough to give Calli the edge, and she leapt into the secret access shaft that linked all the floors together. As she fell Jo fired shots after her, but Jayden did not wait – he jumped in after her in a controlled fall, sliding down the walls and catching himself enough to land on her crumpled body without injury. She was alive but badly injured, so he calmly reached down and cut her throat. Calli was dead.

The others came down to the basement to get her body, and then they moved back to the final floor, level 3 where the initiates were in training. They burst into the training room to find the initiates on their knees, hands up, pleading not to die. Jo, Zenith and John calmly shot them all in the head, leaving only Max kneeling on the ground in his white Purifier robes, spattered with the blood of his friends and sniveling and crying in terror. As Gillian stepped forward to slap her brother everyone else noticed Jo raising her gun to shoot him in the head too. Nobody bothered to stop her, but at the last she lowered the gun and turned away in disgust. They looked through the room for loot as Gillian ranted and screamed at her stupid little brother and then, satisfied that there was nothing worthwhile, moved back to level 4 to free the prisoners and begin the looting.

Two of the elves they found were seriously injured and badly malnourished, in need of immediate trauma care. They had obviously been held here and tortured for some time. An hour after they entered the building the PCs emerged on level 1 to the waiting Takuya – “Takuya’su! Uss!” – accompanied by their injured and shattered charges, and loaded down with loot. Takuya escorted them to their van, made sure they were all inside, and saw them safely away from the building with another final “Takuay’su! Uss!”

They returned to Charcul and a hero’s welcome. He promised them that if ever they needed somewhere to run, if they needed somewhere to hide, they could always count on him and his people. They were thanked effusively, given lashings of intense troll beer and stinky tofu and fried noodles and heavy, fatty grouper fish meat in a delicious rich sweet dark sauce, feasted until morning, and then left, exhausted, to drag their loot back to their safe houses.

In one small part of New Horizon, they had become heroes. In another small part of New Horizon the Kurosasori yakuza gang slid quietly into the silent, bloody halls of the Purifiers, stepping with sneers of distaste over the bodies of the Purifier guards and the congealing pools of blood that ran between them, searching diligently for the crates that they had been assured no one had opened. They found them in the back of a storage room on level 4, untouched, and as the first grey light of dawn slid across New Horizon’s fractured, fractal cityscape they carried the crates silently and carefully down and out to waiting vans. They spared the dead Purifiers only the minimum attention they needed to avoid slipping in their filth. Once it was done a truck backed up to the doors, and heavy bundles wrapped in black plastic were dumped into it, to be driven off to an incinerator outside the city limits.

Nobody likes Nazis.

Save

Save

Maybe, maybe it’s the clothes we wear,
The tasteless bracelets and the dye in our hair,
Maybe it’s our kookiness,
Or maybe, maybe it’s our nowhere towns,
Our nothing places and our cellophane sounds,
Maybe it’s our looseness,

But we’re trash, you and me,
We’re the litter on the breeze,
We’re the lovers on the streets,
Just trash, me and you,
It’s in everything we do,
It’s in everything we do…

The Ark has 174 People but few heroes. This story is not about its heroes, or its champions, only its desperadoes. There are four of them:

  • Barathos, Gearhead, who we find eating food from a can with a faded label of an angry, dangerous cat. His mutation: luminescence
  • Chang Chang, Fixer, sitting on an old packing crate eating his last twinkie. He is mutated into a symbiotic fungal life form, giving off a strange pungent smell and able to explode with clouds of virulent spores. No one knows Chang Chang’s sex, but most of the People think he is both, because he is fungal.
  • Bloody Jack, a smalltime Boss, always accompanied by a couple of her flunkies, today leaning back to eat fresh potato and dried, rot-free fish being fed to her by one of his gang. Bloody Jack is a revolutionary, leader of the 7th Revolutionary gang, which doesn’t mean much because there is nothing to overthrow and no means of production to seize. She flicks through an old comic that teaches her the ways of the Diadactic Materials, a strange cult; in mimicry of their mannerisms she wears a suit and a ludicrous top hat. She has frogs legs, and can leap faster than you can blink to put her knife in your throat.
  • Lonnie, the Stalker – every band of desperadoes has a stalker. Connie is eating white mush from an unlabeled can, thinking it is powdered potato and eyeing Bloody Jack’s real potato with carefully disguised envy. Connie is androgynous, a little slip of a thing in black leather, spends so much time in the shadows no one really knows who she is.

That is the team that Shellah sidled up to, grimacing and duck-walking carefully into the light of their trash can fire, hands close, coat clenched tight around her. Shellah is a stalker, like Lonnie if Lonnie had less charm and more integrity. Everyone calls Lonnie Loonie Lonnie because it sounds good, but nobody jokes with Shellah about being mad. She’s always one twitch away from running or fighting, and she’s seen so much out there in the ruins. Nobody really talks to Shellah at all if they can, because she doesn’t always make a lot of sense and she creeps you out with her stare and her hissing twitching ways. But everyone knows Shellah spends a lot of time Out There, Zone-walking, and she brings things back. Everyone trusts Shellah. But nobody who goes out with her seems to return, so she goes alone. Always alone. But everyone trusts here in the Ark.

This little gang of desperadoes know each other but let’s not wind this story up so tight it snaps like one of the threads on Grim Delilah’s razor-sharp yoyos, the ones she plays with when the Trash Hawks come around: they may know each other but they aren’t friends. They’re gathered round this fire in this trash can on this night because even inside the Ark there’s comfort in numbers, especially now when the Elder isn’t coming out of the gondola and there’s too much coughing and wailing going on in there, and his old speeches are too few and too weak to hear anyway, so that now people don’t come to listen when he drags his old bones out into the little pool of comforting watery sunshine that always bathes the gondola – they’re too busy now clustering around one or other of the bosses, picking sides for the trouble we can all feel is coming. People are starting to look at each other now, not like comrades in the gristle and bones of this shattered world, but like rivals for the last bits of tattered flesh – or like useful idiots in the struggle to put a new boss in the gondola when the Elder’s coughing stops. Bloody Jack is a boss, Chang Chang is a fixer, and Barathos and Lonnie are useful. That’s why they’re hunched around this trashcan, wondering why Shellah is sidling out of the darkness with one of her don’t-look-at-me-I-didn’t-do-it-I-swear-that-thing-didn’t-follow-me-back-from-the-marsh expressions on her face.

It’s Chang Chang who has the best rapport with Shellah, because she finds and he fixes. “What is it Shellah?” he asks all innocent, knowing from the hard squint of her eyes and the frown that she’s going to tell them anyway. “Find something out there?”

She snorts and grabs a can from Bloody Jack, who always has one spare for times like this, squats down and snaps it open with some ingenious tool, slugs it down over a minute or so of furious gobbling, splattering smacking sounds, all the while shuffling and throwing dagger glances all around like there’s a Zone Ghoul right there waiting to pounce as soon as she lets her guard down – which she never does. Throws the can over her shoulder into the darkness, some kind of wicked little knife-fork-opener thing slides away into her coat with a glint of viscous orange trashcan light on pewter. “Yeah Chang-a, yeah yeah, found something.”

She draws a thing out from under her coat, flashes it around just quick enough for everyone to gasp as the amber firelight flickers over the ammunition case’s curves, the bronze glint of bullet casings flashing at them from their rightful place, then slides it away as fast as it came. Her voice drops to a conspiratorial whisper. “Found something, something good.” Takes it out again, where people can see it more clearly: it’s an assault rifle clip, maybe 30 bullets intact in the case, dirty and a bit rusty on the outside but the bullets are as clean as the inside of one of Fanged Rothery’s dinner cans (Fanged Rothery is a rot-eater, teeth like iron and a tongue rich with spines, he can lick a jagged steal tin cleaner than your favourite knife in no time at all).

Bloody Jack reaches for it, just to inspect of course, he wasn’t going to take it I swear! But true to her style Shellah has it back under her coat and she’s right back out to the edge of the trashcan glow before Bloody Jack can get a hand on it. “Not for you Bloody Jack, not yet and not you. We gotta deal to make.” She looks behind her sharp as a Trash Hawk’s claws, like she always does when she has to deal with Bloody Jack. Bloody Jack may talk a lot about justice and equality, but Bloody Jack isn’t above using her little band of zealots to even the scales on her own account, which I’m sure you guessed because as sure as you hear me telling you this, you’ve seen her kind before. So has Shellah, and Shellah is not one to trust anyone more than she needs to.

“A deal, Shellah?” Chang Chang asks, all innocent and surprised like he really thought Shellah was going to keep all thirty bullets for herself, she who never uses a gun and only ever keeps bullets to trade for grub. “What’s that then, you running out of grub?”

Shellah shakes her head and hisses, duck-squats her way back into the light a little. “No Chang-a, I don’t need me no grub.” Brown and broken teeth show as she bares her teeth back and lobs a fleck of spit into the fire. Rumour has it Shellah is a photosynthetic, gets her nutrients from the sun and doesn’t need to eat. A handy mutation, until someone locks you in a box. She looks around at them. “I need me a deal for protection. You know the story People – the Elder’s goin’ inta history, and the Ark’s running out of food, the bosses are startin’ to look at each other like they know what’s what and everyone’s starting to pile up their food, getting it ready for when the time comes. But people like me, me and you Chang-a, we don’t have no gang, and when the trouble comes we aren’t gonna have anyone to look after our backs.” She pauses and Bloody Jack takes the time to look affronted at the mere suggestion that she wouldn’t help out these her dear friends Lonnie, Chang Chang and Barathos. Are they not friends? No one is impressed by her performance.

“That’s why I wanna cut a deal. ‘Coz see I found this bullet case, but I also found the gun it came from. It’s a big gun Chang-a, and whoever or whatever holds that gun is gonna be in a mighty good position when the bosses start quarreling. And I tell you I want to be behind whatever boss has that gun, which is why I came to you first, because I trust you more than them others. I’ll give each of you three bullets now from this case, and tell you where the gun is, if you promise me you’ve got my back when the trouble starts.”

This kind of thing, now this kind of thing to Bloody Jack is like purest nitro to a helldriver. She swings her arms out expansively and begins one of her speeches. “Comrades! Comrade Shellah in particular, on this dark night and in this pinched moment of dire need, when the bosses Foremanize and Capitalistate and take and take, do I seem to you like the kind of Comrade who would abandon her … her duty of … Comradelyshipness, and sell you out to those who would tread the Workerman into the swamps and the rot? No, my gang fights for the good of all, and once we had overthrown the Yoke of Tyranny no doubt I would find a place for you in the new order. There is no need for this conniving and scheming to make deals! Are we not all one in the Eyes of the Great God Of Equals, Marx-who-was?!”

They’ve all heard it before of course and are unimpressed, so Chang Chang waves her quiet and asks in a low voice, “Where is the gun, Shellah?” Shellah shakes her head furiously and points at Bloody Jack. “Make that cursed boss agree, and you all too – even you Barathos, sitting there watching me with your eyes all glowing, I know what you can do and you won’t catch me so quick! Make a deal or I’m off into the shadows to talk to one o’ them up there.” She points to the bleachers, where no doubt some other boss squats in the darkness, scheming or maybe picking the scabs on his feet.

Chang Chang looks around, waits especially for Barathos to nod assent – that this really is a part of a gun, and they really have a chance to find it. “Sure,” He says, nodding quickly. “If you tell us where it is and we think we can get it, you give us the bullets you promised and we’ll go, and Bloody Jack’s gang and all of us will have your back when the bosses start their stoushing. Deal?” He spits.

Shellah looks around, seems satisfied after a moment and then spits back. “Elder’s Tears, Chang-a, you and me and these here in the light have cut a deal, and only the Elder or the Rot can break it.” She drags herself closer to the fire and hunkers up. “I found it at the base of one of the two towers.” Seeing their disbelieving looks she snarls a curse. “I swear I did! Went down to the river and sniffed around the tower on this bank. It stinks around the river but I’ve been there before, it’s safe if you don’t get too close! No one else goes there so you can find things, and I found this! It was in a patch of fungus at the bottom of the tower, like it fell there. Fell there it did! And when I looked up I saw the gun sticking out of the tower window, way up high. You can climb it I tell you, the outside all covered in leaves and vines or maybe go through the door in the base. The guns there, stickin’ out of the tower window, you can just take it!”

They all look at her in disbelief. The river?! But it stood to reason, if there was a weapon as dangerous as that any closer to the Ark someone would have found it by now. And nobody else would be going down there looking, because that meant slinking past the shadow of the Dark Castle, finding a way through the rot and probably cutting through the Crash Zone, which creeps anyone out. But if they did it … a gun … dreams of power.

They look at each other, shifty like there in the flickering light of the trashcan fire, wondering who amongst them is going to crack or be the first to venture some spirit. Somewhere behind them in the shadows of the Ark someone cried in pain, and a boss’s muffled imprecation followed, a wet thud. Maybe now was a good time to be looking for new weapons.

“Okay Shellah,” Barathos ventures finally, his cracked and deep voice cutting through the sudden silence. “Tell us exactly about this tower …”


They set off the next day, no fanfare, just a quiet exit at dawn into the Zone south of the Ark. The four of them went, packing only three days of food, accompanied by two members of Bloody Jack’s gang, her trusty Enforcers Carrot and Lennie. First they pushed into the sector they knew, sticking to trails everyone had seen before. Here was all overgrown ruins, thick patches of fungus crawling up over broken buildings, bushes and vines curled around and through old vehicles and shattered strange shapes of metal and stone and plastic. It’s clean around the Ark, but soon the fungus and the trees get higher and thicker and the air stills and you can smell it, that strange acrid stench of Rot, the Rot that suffuses this whole stinking Zone and rises from the earth to make the People crumble and fade. You have to move carefully through this place, and if you haven’t got a stalker with you you can get lost in here and then the rot takes you, or something worse gets you first. But Lonnie knows her work and got them to the Crash Zone fine. The Crash Zone was as far as they’d ever been before, and not without trepidation for very long at all. It’s a long streak of destruction through the middle of the Zone, a swathe of open air about a kilometre long that runs from near the slopes to the Dark Castle roughly parallel to the river, ending at the shattered carcass of a giant sky whale, one of those wondrous inventions of the Ancients that could fly even though it was heavier than steel. This one had two decks of seats all the way along, a huge thing bigger than anything the People could dream of building or finding, broken into three parts along the end of the Crash Zone. It used to have wings, or so Barathos insists, but those wings smashed into the buildings along the side of the swathe, tearing them down and making great piles of rubble behind it, shattered arcs of stone and steel and glass spattering out from where it bounced screeching and fiery to its end. You can tell it must have flown on booze or so Barathos says, because the buildings along the way were scorched and burned and if you pick over the ruins of the swathe of open space behind the sky whale you can find blackened stuff from an intense fire, melted so bad it isn’t even scrap. No one usually digs around in the swathe or spends much time in the Crash Zone but they were feeling brave and after a bit of egging on and a spot of booze Barathos ventured into the rearmost section of the whale. Here there were many skeletons still strapped into their seats, many broken badly, bits of roof and seats from the deck above smashed and pushed into the seats below. Some people might have got out or died in the aisles between the seats, and there were grass and moss and fungus and other things growing in between the bodies. He picked over the parts until finally he found a box, made of card and plastic, faded and rotted, and dragged it out. Inside was a little wind up train, made of brilliant green and blue plastic that shone in the pale sun, and a set of lines you could stick together to make it run around when you wound it up. “A clock!” Barathos said, “This can be a clock, look it runs for a time and stops! Maybe we can use it for timing things,” and he packed it up with care he would never show a person and hid it in his pack. Lonnie looked around at the gathering clouds and the distant watery sun heading to its zenith and whispered, “Wanna cross the section before lunch,” and they trudged off, crossed the Crash Zone and headed further than they’d been before.

Past the Crash Zone the ground started sloping up again, until they found themselves on a kind of ridge rising a little above the ruins around. This ridge was covered in small stunted trees and bushes, and gave them cover right up to the tower itself. The tower loomed over them, the tallest thing in the near hereabouts, a squat and powerful thing of stone and verdant overgrowth, still mostly undamaged after all this time since … whenever and whatever happened in the world-that-was. This tower was paired with another one on the other side of the river, and the two were joined near their top by a nastily uncertain looking gantry. The towers, the gantry and all the space between was overgrown with vines, creepers, plants and fungus of all descriptions, with vines drooping down from the gantry to hang over the limpid, dark waters of the river as it sluggishly rolled beneath, stinking and deadly. At the base of the tower near the river, facing the other tower, a kind of barrier stuck out over  the river, pointing diagonally up at the sky like an accusing hand demanding a query of the uncaring sky. “Why me? Why do I have to stand sentinel over this stinking sewer when all the others of my kind were knocked flat in a time before memory!?”

They crept up close to the tower and Lonnie moved ahead to look around. She found the place Shellah said she found the cartridge and there it was, the hole in the fungus patch still glowing slightly as the fungus repaired itself, and up above something sticking out of the tower window, pointing east. What thing? Lonnie couldn’t tell. She moved around a little more and checked the rest of the base of the tower. A kind of path of black stone led into the middle of the tower, which arched over it, ending at the unheeded barrier, and on one side of that tunnel a door barred an entry into the tower. Everything was still and silent. She called them up, and they examined the tower together. Barathos, looking up, grunted and hissed. “Not a gun,” he cursed, though he could not tell what it was.

Discretion would tell them now to retreat and return to the Ark defeated, but that ammunition box didn’t fall from the sky – it must have come out of the tower. Even if the thing sticking out of the window was no gun, there must be something in there. They forced the door and pushed their way inside. Here they found a small room, musty and empty, with stairs leading up into the tower. Another door beckoned, but when they forced it open they were greeted with the deep, repulsive stench of Rot water. Stairs led down into murky blackness, and from down there came the stench of Rot, strong Rot. Chang Chang tried to convince Barathos to go look but he refused, and no inducements could get him near that rot. They headed up, Barathos glowing gently with his strange pale blue luminescence to light the way. His mutant light seeped out of his eyes and through the murk like glowing tendrils, casting a flickering eerie light over the walls of the narrow staircase and putting no one at ease.

At the top they found a large room. A long narrow broken window on the east wall faced along the direction of the river, giving them a stunning view over an endless domain of broken, ruined nature. The wall on their right was also partially open, leading into the shadowed recesses of the gantry that connected this tower with the sister tower over the river, but it was overgrown with vines and shadowy, and they did not want to venture in just yet. There was a single body on the floor, and the whole room was musty and ripe with fungus and small plants. The thing they had seen sticking out of the window was here, on a kind of tripod of metal, dull bronze coloured and standing serene amongst the dust pointing east.

They searched. The strange pole-like thing sticking out of the window had glass ends and after some inspection Barathos was able to identify what it did: It made distant things suddenly closely visible, like the cracked glass lenses that Elomere the Strange wore when he had to stitch up the skin on his constantly-erupting boils, only much more powerful (and with no stench of pus). Barathos took it gently from the tripod and pocketed it. This, he said, could be useful for scouting the Zone. On the body they found a piece of paper in a plastic sleeve, with markings on it, and around the body a few old wrappers of what might have been food. They were just comparing the symbols on the wrappers with a symbol on the paper in the sleeve, and realizing they held a map, when the spiders came.

There was just one at first, crawling silent as the Winter Plague out of the whole in the southern wall, but they felt its malignant gaze and then smelled its corpse smell before it could get to them, and managed to spring away from the body and fight. Bloody Jack was just beating it out of the window when another one emerged, and they were fighting that one when Barathos, leaning out of the window to hit the first one, was hit by its web and dragged outside to dangle upside down from one leg, helplessly twisting in the faint breeze. As he hung there he saw the giant spider hauling its spiny, corpulent bulk back over the windowsill and inside the tower, no doubt looking to snare its next prey, and heard grunts and screams from inside. Looking along the tower’s edge he suddenly realized, as a rare break in the clouds suffused the space between the towers with a golden glow, that the entire space between the towers was spun with many webs of delicate, shimmering filigree. Strange black lumps he had mistaken for fungal growth now revealed themselves to be the cocooned, shrivelled corpses of Trash Hawks and Zone Crows – and there, crawling out from that hideous larder, a third massive spider, scuttling across the wall towards him. He started screaming, and someone hauled him up just in time. They took positions back to back inside and beat off the three spiders, finally killing them all, and a fourth that came skittering out of that wall to join the fray.

Panting and panicky, they ate and rested. While they rested Lonnie and Barathos pored over the paper inside the plastic sleeve, and they both concluded the same thing – this was a map, and the markings seemed to indicate that just south of the river, near the towers, was a food store. They had found no rifle, but they had found food. Again, where wisdom would advise retreat, they pressed on, crawling across the gantry to the tower on the other side. Here they found two more bodies, one carrying an ancient revolver that they tucked away for the Dawn Vault. Then Barathos climbed onto the roof to use his newfound artifact to scout out the surrounding area, and they ventured down to the ground, becoming the first of the People to set foot south of the river.


Following the map they headed west along the river from the base of the second tower. The land here had less ruins than the north side of the river, perhaps because they had been destroyed by some great calamity or perhaps because the city-that-was had been different here. Nonetheless as they followed the path along the rivers edge they could see rubble scattered in amongst the trees and scrub of the sector, and occasional jagged columns of stone or grass jutting out of the vegetation. The path they followed lay close to the river but some 5 metres above it, and the landward side rose steep again to the wooded landscape of the south, meaning they could not get far from the river. They could not head inland in any case, because from her vantage point on the tower Lonnie had seen the telltale yellow mist of acid rain, as low-hanging clouds swept along the southern side of the city streaming vile and deadly rain over the Zone. This rain could be deadly for anyone not under cover, and to trudge through it for an hour or two seeking grub would be a death sentence. Fortunately the clouds were skirting the river, so they were able to find a safe path, but even then they had to deviate inland after an hour of careful walking, because the path entered an area of broken stones and fallen buildings, from which they could see the Sunken Ship.

The Sunken Ship is near to a myth amongst the People. It was once a huge beast of grey and silver metal, festooned with guns and heavily armoured, but when the world collapsed it sank on its moorings so that most of it was submerged in the river. The tips of its guns and the bulk of its mid section still stuck above the water, festooned with reeds and dark vegetation and creating little eddies and muddy streaks in the torpid flow of rotten river water. From the north bank it was visible, rich with the promise of the artifacts of the ancients, but there was no way to get to it without going into the deadly water of the river. The Sunken Ship was also rumoured to be the home of dark and deadly secrets, beasts that come at night to snatch those passing nearby and unseen horrors that will snatch anyone attempting to pick their way over its muddy and partially-hidden deck. Nobody had been this close to the Sunken Ship before, but the explorers did not want to disturb whatever beasts laired there, and so cut inland through the broken piles of rubble, keeping bushes and old stonework between them and the foreboding steel bulk of the thing. Their path brought them perilously close to the acid rain before they could cut back towards the river, but they escaped the pinch safely and soon found themselves climbing another gentle slope, this only lightly wooded, that then broke into a series of culverts leading down to a large, abandoned building. The building was actually a complex of separate sections sprawling across quite a wide area, with big open gateways linking the buildings together. Parts of the roof had fallen in and weeds and bushes had grown up to block some of the pathways between parts of the building, but other parts looked roughly safe to enter. The area was dangerously quiet and they thought they could see evidence of habitation, but they could not be sure. This was the closest they could find to the markings on the map – this was their place. Perhaps once it had been a series of warehouses linked together, or maybe a farmer’s barns or a market – who knew what strange ways the people of the world-that-was held their food? Whatever it had been, now it was the cradle in which their Ark’s future lay – they must go in.

They approached the entrance cautiously, careful to keep under what cover they could find and scanning the silent walls for signs of threat. A large archway entered the building, surmounted by words in some ancient language they could not read, carved in faded and mouldy brass. They ventured in, stepping cautiously over rubble and scrap and looking for signs of ambush. Inside was a large open area, thick with fungus and weeds growing between crumbling wooden carts and tables. It had been a market! They fanned out a little and began searching, moving carefully and slowly further inside.

The rooms here were empty of any food, but for obvious reasons – someone lived here. A group of people probably, who had picked the outer areas clean of any signs of food or scrap and who must be living in the inner area. The group crossed a small road that bisected the buildings and through another archway into a wide path between two buildings. As they moved down it they heard voices, and froze. Lonnie moved stealthily forward and, looking around a corner, saw what they suspected – Zone Ghouls! There were eight of them, skinny dirty humanoid creatures a little smaller than a small adult human, heavily wrapped in cloth over every part of their body, wearing hoods and carrying bicycle chains and slingshots. They were squatting in a group in a kind of semi-protected space made by pulling three rotten wooden stalls into a semi circle. They had a small fire and were eating what looked like fresh food of some kind. Across from them on the far side of the room was a huge pile of cans, all with their labels long since torn away, and also strange plastic packets, bottles of amber and red liquid, even strings of onions, all stacked neatly in many piles. Behind them was a gap and then against the far wall of the building a tiered array of clay and wooden shelves on which stood pots and jars full of fresh herbs and strange red fruits. Further away large tractor tires had been converted into potato beds. It was a utopia of abundance!

Which they had to take. Lonnie moved back to the group and explained the situation. Bloody Jack indicated the roof, and jumped up into the shadows on her strange frog legs, motioning for her two gang members to stay and help. She leapt again to a perch near the broken roof above the Ghouls, and waited. The rest of them moved forward and burst into the room, ready to do violence – only to find themselves confronted by equally prepared enemies. The Zone Ghouls had heard them and stood ready in the shelter of the stalls, slingshots out. Now it was eight against six with no surprise, and no one was willing to act first. Chang Chang tried speaking with them but they could barely understand the Ghouls’ garbled, high-pitched grating speech, and the Ghouls seemed not to understand them. They stood at an impasse for a moment but then finally someone moved wrong, and the whole tense coiled moment sprang shut like a rusty bear trap. The Ghouls started firing their sling shots, Chang Chang dived behind the cans for cover, Carrot and Lennie charged forward, Bloody Jack dropped down from above, and battle was joined.

The fight was short and brutal. The Zone Ghouls gave a good accounting of themselves, hurting Barathos and Chang Chang and Bloody Jack, but six of the Ghouls died before the last two broke and ran. Barathos shot one dead as it fled but Bloody Jack managed to catch the last, springing onto its back from 10 metres away and dragging it down. They dragged the Ghoul back to the warehouse and tried talking to it but it was useless – they could not understand one another. They tore off its hood to reveal a skinny, almost human face, blinking back at them from large, dark eyes before it started screaming at the sunlight. Barathos bound it up tight, and they decided to drag it back to the Ark as a slave.

Their battle was done. They picked up as much food as they could carry and headed back to the Ark, climbing delicately across the tower and down the other side, lugging their prisoner and their food back through the Crash Zone to the comfort of the Ark. As soon as they returned Bloody Jack pressed his gang to work, taking them back to the ruined market to grab as much food as they could. They traipsed back and forth, exhausted and damp and tired and scared, for two days, constantly lugging as much as they could carry, until someone heard a crash and a strange haunting piping wail somewhere in the shadows of the market, and they decided it was too dangerous to stay any longer. After two days of work they had done enough though – the Ark was safe for a little longer, the food crisis averted, the bosses content, their life of hard scrabble unchanged by conflict and death. They handed the Revolver to the Dawn Vault, congratulated each other on a job well done, and tried not to face Shellah when she demanded her rights. For a little longer, the Ark would hold.

But they all knew it was not enough. Where next for their precarious little community, balanced on the edge of starvation and violence, trapped between the Dark Castle and the River? And what could they do now to make a future for the People, and for themselves?

Save

Save

Hey, hey
So why should I care
If somebody let you down?
That’s nothing new
I know just what that can mean
Hey, hey
Well, the way that they talk
The talk is all over town
And it’s no surprise
Little girls hurt sometimes

 

When last we met our heroes they had just blown apart a drug dealing operation with extreme prejudice, pushing back a gang from their turf and doing a big favour for the yakuza gang that officially controls their area, the Golden Dragon. Their Fixer, Anansi, had made contact with that gang, and now they had a chance to make their name known to the criminal bosses who controlled the shadows of Havensport. So it was that they found themselves in a meeting with the Golden Dragon’s boss, Mr. Tsiu, who thanked them for cleaning up the dealers on his patch, and assured them that they could operate with impunity in his territory provided they obeyed his laws – which would of course change at his whim, and in retrospect. Sometime in the future, he promised them, they would receive an opportunity to profit from their newfound position of the trust, and in the meantime they were welcome to make free in his territory on their own business.

But the future is another country, and while they waited to get there they had need of fast cash. Fortunately Anansi was in close with another crime family, a yakuza gang just beginning to spread their wings in New Horizon, in the wilds of Tolo harbour. Their patriarch, Shoji Yamada, had a pressing need of a good team of killers for a very important job: guarding his daughter at a concert by the heavy metal band Troll, a band named after the race of its members that could be characterized by two extreme properties of its performance: volume and violence. Any good girl slumming it in such an environment was going to need bodyguards, especially if her daddy had just started a gang war with a rival triad and was up to his neck in trouble with a bunch of other multinational gangs. Mr. Yamada promised them a decent payment for guarding his daughter; and in between setting the mission, he also .

Having applauded him on his principles of good governance and accepted their child minding job the PCs were on their way, to research both the yakuza daughter and the band. The daughter was as expected – a spoiled sullen brat with a penchant for slumming it in grease paint and crosses. The band was a little more complicated – a Troll heavy metal foursome with a reputation for extreme crowd violence, who run their shows exclusively in illegal spaces in dangerous areas. They would hijack an abandoned warehouse or an old market space, turn it into a killing zone, and rock it out while the crowd destroyed each other, until the police turned up or they ran out of juice. Standard sprawlzone stuff, but not the kind of place for a delicate wannabe rebel girl from a rich family – unless she was guarded by a crack team. Though in truth the PCs were less worried about the crowd than they were about the possibility one of the yakuza enemies would follow them and use the chaos as cover for a snatch-and-grab. Losing this girl in the crowd would be a one way trip to a bad place, no mistake.

Still, beggars can’t be choosers, and they had a perfect set up really – John capable of killing intruders from orbit, Jayden immune to surprise attacks, and Adam a master of crowd control. For this job their fixer had also set them up with a Technomancer, Heckerman, who could give them some forewarning of any impending assaults. An easy evening at the proms, right?

Their girl, Tegami, met them at the front door of her parents’ sprawling mansion, slouching out from behind a huge iron-studded wooden door through a moss garden to their car, remonstrating the whole way with the house butler, Mr. Niwa. Adam opened the back door of their hired car for her, and she flopped inside with a sneered remark about Koreans in suits. The butler raised an eyebrow at Adam and gave a small nod of shared sufferance before shambling away to the house. They were off.

Tegami chan was dressed in standard punk fare, carefully ripped and textured to look not too new but just stylish enough to mark her out as not from anything resembling the social class of the band she was attending. Nothing screams “slumming it” like a sullen little rich girl in faux dirty designer punk kit, wearing the most expensive make up money can buy (smeared, of course!) and staring resentfully at her bodyguards.

Still, they were professionals, so whatever, right?

They turned up at the gig fashionably on time. Last time Troll had commandeered an apparently abandoned yacht, which had only one entrance, and when the drug lords who owned it turned up to secure the supply hidden in the hull the ensuing carnage had been slightly chastening even for a band of Troll‘s infamous level of chutzpah, so this time they had scoped out their venue with an eye to avoiding suicidal escape stampedes, and set up a series of barricades around a complex of narrow streets surrounding a central square in a largely abandoned industrial park. Ragged semi-abandoned warehouses loomed over the streets on all sides, and the multi-racial, multi-species crowd moved with edgy caution between stalls selling vat-grown sausage hot dogs, Troll shirts (unofficial of course), stimulants and downers and personal defense weapons. The PCs left their hired car within easy calling distance of a larger entrance and walked Tegami chan through a distressingly security-free series of barricades. Troll bodyguards loomed menacingly around them but nobody bothered to check them at all. Normally entering a danger zone armed is sweet relief to a mercenary, but knowing the only reason you’re armed is that nobody checked the rest of the crowd offers cold comfort. They decided to get cautious, and John retired to one of the decaying warehouses, climbing up high to a point where he could get a view of the whole zone. Adam and Heckerman fell back a little, leaving Jayden and his heightened sense of danger to keep Tegami safe while they scanned the crowd physically, astrally and electronically. Jayden stood near Tegami chan, assuring her that all old men just loved the moshpit and she should really try it, thus ensuring that she didn’t go near it for fear of appearing uncool – and protecting her from the crowd of spiky, rage-pissed, insanely high troll fans currently grinding each other to mush in front of the stage.

Unfortunately the threat wasn’t in the stage. At some point a man turned up while Jayden was pushing away some random weirdo, and started talking to Tegami chan in a low voice, pointing back to the heights of a building on the far side of the square and muttering something about a private viewing area. Tegami probably couldn’t hear him over the pulse and throb of Troll‘s most famous song, The Other White Meat, but Jayden wasn’t taking any chances, and moved in to push the dude away from his girl. The man slunk away in short order, but then Heckerman told Jayden that the man had put something in Tegami’s bag.

Jayden didn’t waste any time – he knifed the guy in the back while Adam rushed forward to check the bag. Unfortunately for Jayden the room that ostensibly held a private party actually held a sniper, who hit Jayden with a tranquilizing dart that knocked him out for the rest of the night. Such a shame to miss such great music! As Jayden sank to the ground John shot the sniper in the head, and Adam and Hackerman drove the guy on the ground away. Jayden was down and done for, with no treatment in sight, so they dragged him to a quiet area of the barricades and returned to guarding Tegami chan. Tegami chan, of course, thought the entire scene was so completely uncool and couldn’t they just let her enjoy this great music? So hard to be a teenage girl …

Nonetheless Heckerman managed to check her bag and uncover a bug, which probably no one knew they knew about, and carefully left it broadcasting in the bag. They would tell Mr. Niwa about that later …

The rest of the night passed uneventfully, especially for Jayden lying paralyzed in the shadows of the barricade. Aside from some lethal side-eye from their ward the PCs experienced no other trouble, and things were just beginning to wrap up when the troll and his human buddy emerged from the crowd, clubs in hand, and marched determinedly towards Tegami, damaging intent in their eyes. With Jayden down and out, Adam and Heckerman had to take these two guys on right there in front of the whole crowd, while Tegami clapped her hands and cheered. Fortunately John was in his eyrie, unnoticed by the trolls, and managed to shoot the troll down before he could flatten Adam. In turn Adam and Heckerman managed to subdue the human with a combination of magic and good old fashioned brutality, and were able to drag Tegami chan away before anything really bad happened. They bundled the man into the car but decided that whatever awaited him at Mr. Yamada’s House of Polite Yakuza Questions would be beyond their stomach to bear, and dropped him off a few minutes later. Successfully out from the crowd, they returned Tegami chan to the house of her Honourable Father.

Mr. Niwa greeted them with a sigh of relief, Tegami chan’s rude greetings washing off him like engine lubricant off an ersatz duck’s genomic feathers. They warned him about the bug and suggested that he might want to keep it in her bag and use it to lure in whoever planted it, and showed him pictures of the troll and human who had attempted to hurt Tegami chan at the end of the night. “The Russians,” he sighed with an expression of weary expectation. “I’m sure we will Deal With It.” He thanked them, offered for them to stay in the guest room drinking tea as long as they wanted, and only barely perceptibly relaxed his manner when they declined his invitation and headed home.

Somewhere upstairs they saw Tegami chan’s pale moon face looking out of a window, watching their car pull away back into their wild unfamiliar world, her hand half raised in an unconscious gesture of farewell, make up smeared as if she had stopped cleaning up halfway through and run to the window. The lights of their car drifted off into the humid New Horizon night, leaving sullen little Tegami chan in her gilded cage, wondering at lives that could have been.

They didn’t wave back. They were already counting the money.

Art after the fall

I have just begun GMing a short post-apocalyptic campaign using the Mutant: Year Zero system. Before adventure begins the system requires the PCs – who play mutants – generate their safe haven, which is called the Ark. This is a brief description of the Ark from which the PCs will begin their adventure.

Zone location

The near zone

The Ark is in the middle of a giant collapsed city, which is bisected by a winding river that was no doubt once a beautiful sight, but which has turned into a deadly, torpid sewer. The Ark is north of the river, a few kilometres away from a pair of towers that face each other menacingly across the width of the river. Stories and legends warn the PCs not to cross the river, or even to go close to it – but for now these stories are irrelevant, since as much as possible the PCs avoid even venturing too far from their Ark, let alone to the far side of that stinking ditch.

The Ark

The Ark is an old football stadium, its bleachers still largely intact and its entryways roughly boarded up and barricaded against the dangers of the Zone. Sometime during the collapse a blimp crashed into the stadium, and the ripped and torn fabric of the blimp has since been stretched out and converted into a partial roof over the stadium, stretching over the fantastic arcing sculptures that formed the original design of the stadium roof to turn the whole structure into a kind of giant tent. The People live in evacuation tents and simple makeshift shacks around the edge of the pitch, with the pitch itself devoted to a few patches of poor quality farmland to grow potatoes and pumpkins. Some people also live in tents and improvised structures on the bleachers, the lower parts of which have been torn up and long since used for firewood or building material. The tunnels and walkways under the bleachers where fans once congregated in between games have been converted into storage spaces for scavenged food and weapons, extra living space, and mushroom farms. Near the entrances they have been hastily barricaded in hopes of slowing down attackers who breach the entryways. The bosses have also carved out their domains in these dark spaces, usually in corporate boxes overlooking the pitch, connected to bars with windows looking out on the blighted zone. They and their closest sycophants live here, lording it over the People however they can.

In the center of the pitch is the old gondola of the fallen blimp, which rests now under the central arches of the stadium. This gondola is the residence of the Elder, who grows sick and weary of this world and rarely ventures out. A straight path leads from the entrance to the gondola across the pitch to the tunnel by which the Home Team used to enter the grounds. If one follows that tunnel to the changing rooms of the Home Team one will find the area has been sealed off and turned into the Dawn Vault, where relics of the Ancients are stored and the Chroniclers live their careful secluded lives.

The Bosses

There are several gangs in the Ark, but it has not yet descended to the anarchic state in which all people must pick sides and pick up axes, so there are also many independent individuals, and the bosses, though they jockey for power, have not yet fully stamped their authority on all the People. Nonetheless, some bosses are becoming increasingly active in jockeying for power, and some actively speak against the Elder. Some key bosses are:

  • Pieces, a bureaucrat who has repeatedly foiled the plans of the other bosses, either in defense of the Elder or in the furtherance of her own convoluted interests. No one trusts Pieces, and often she is infuriating, but she also has a unique power to sequester resources, and some say she alone still holds influence over the Elder as he slides into senescence.
  • Jared, the hated kingpin who rules his minions with viciousness and spite. Nobody wants to deal with Jared, but some number of the People recognize his leadership style may triumph, because he is willing to cross any boundary, and trash any tradition, in the pursuit of power
  • Bloody Jack, the revolutionary, a PC, who alone thinks of the future, and preaches visions beyond the hard scrabble of daily survival. Bloody Jack commands only a small faction, but she is also more willing than other bosses to take risks outside the Ark, and may yet be able to unite the independent forces amongst the People in pursuit of a new vision. The other bosses watch her, and act against her schemes where they can.

The bosses in the Ark have set up their lairs in the old bars and rooms in the levels under the bleachers of the stadium, laying down barriers to block hallways and building throne rooms in old abandoned changing rooms. They gain power by asserting control over a section of the higher bleachers, and grabbing the pure water that flows there. As the Elder weakens and food supplies run low, the power of the bosses grows, as does their conflict, and the independent members amongst the People begin to think about which boss to side with when the food runs out.

Population

The Ark has a population of 174 people at the beginning of the campaign.

Water Source

The Ark’s water source is the Tarp itself, the covering of battered blimp-cloth that drapes over the roof of the stadium. Every morning mist condenses on this tarp and runs down to drip into the high bleachers, and when rain falls it drains across this tarp and onto the bleachers. Here the People have set up a complex system of buckets and plastic containers to catch the water, which they run down to large vats held under the bleachers on the higher levels. Some bosses have sectioned off parts of the bleachers for their own use, giving them control of pure water, but other areas are free for anyone to grab water to trade for bullets and grub. No one has developed a perfect method for catching this water, and some runs down the bleachers onto the grounds itself, where it is captured and used to grow food in the scrappy allotments around the central Gondola of the Elders. The bosses hoard water and watch those farms greedily, knowing that one day they will need help, perhaps in a dry spell, or after a heat wave, and the boss who cuts the best bargain will gain control of the Ark’s only renewable food supply. Other bosses – and some independent folk too – run missions into the area around the Ark looking for food from the Old Times, but this food is growing rare, and as the easily accessible remains of the ruins dry up everyone in the Ark begins to worry about where their next meal will come from and what they will have to pay to get it.

But at least they have fresh, rot-free water.

Development levels

At the start of the campaign the Ark is in a state of crisis, forgetting its past, with no hope for the future and little food. Only its defenses are in any kind of reasonable state, and even those need work. Its development levels are:

  • Food 2
  • Culture 2
  • Technology 2
  • Warfare 6

The ability to barricade the entrances to the stadium and the open area around it make it a highly defensible Ark, but the barricades are makeshift and in reality there are not enough People to guard all the doorways. The Ark needs brave souls to venture further afield, scout out the threats it might face, and bring back weapons, food and new tools. If someone does not act soon, the People will descend to barbarism and worse. The crisis will soon be upon the Ark, and the People cry out for help.

Help the Bosses do not give. What are the People to do?

Save

Save

I have just finished reading Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform, by John Pfaff. This book describes the growth of mass incarceration in the United States and describes a set of reform policies to reduce the prison population. In itself this is not unusual – the book takes as its launching point the political consensus in the USA that there is a need to “decarcerate” a large number of people – but this book presents a completely different set of causes of mass incarceration to the accepted story, and lays out a very different strategy for achieving real change. It also argues that the existing reform effort, while valuable, may actually sow the seeds of a long term failure to decarcerate, and risks normalizing a political framework that will be disastrous if crime rises again in America.

Pfaff defines the accepted causes of mass incarceration as the “Standard Story,” which argues that mass incarceration is driven primarily by three factors: the war on drugs[1], excessively long sentences, and private prisons. In the first few chapters he demolishes this story succinctly and using detailed statistics. Only 16% of all prisoners are in prison for drug crimes, and of these a large proportion probably were charged on drug crimes as an easier alternative to conviction for violent crimes; and releasing all of these prisoners would do almost nothing to shift the racial disparities in incarceration, because these disparities are universal. Indeed, since 1990 only 14% of new prison admissions were due to drug use, while 60% were for violent crimes. He then presents a wide range of evidence that prison sentences have not actually increased in length over the past 30 years in the USA: Increased prisoner numbers are due to increased admissions, not larger number of prisoners hanging around longer. Finally, Pfaff drags out the statistics on private prisons, to show that only 8% of US prisoners are in private prisons; and he argues that the lobbying efforts of private prisons are tiny compared to the lobbying efforts of prison guard associations, and from other interests that have greater influence in the zero-sum funding environment of state financing decisions in the USA (most private prison lobbying happens at the state level, where a dollar given to one interest is necessarily a dollar not given to another). In fact, throughout this book Pfaff regularly revisits the power of prison guard associations and lobby groups for prosecutors, and regularly makes the point that the USA’s mass incarceration problem is a catastrophe entirely wrought by public agencies on the public purse. Private prisons in the US might suck, and you might think it’s a bad or a weird idea, or that profiting from human misery is nasty, but they aren’t the cause of the problem.

Having demolished the “Standard Story”, Pfaff then goes on to explain what he thinks are the real causes of incarceration in the USA, which is a complex mish-mash of bad design, lack of political accountability, and public choices, against a backdrop of rapidly increasing crime rates. At the core of his story is the prosecutor. Prosecutors in the USA are the equivalent of the Crown Prosecution Service in the Westminster system, but they are radically different from the CPS. They are generally elected in county (local) elections, and funded at this level, so they are answerable to only local political forces. They have complete discretion as to who to charge, how and with what crime, and they typically are supported by a police force that is funded at the county level. Prosecutors typically are always re-elected, and no incumbent ever suffers from being too harsh on crime. But the real problem is in two aspects of the deployment of their considerable discretion: Whether to charge for misdemeanour or felony, and what plea bargain to make. If a prosecutor charges someone with a felony, that person goes to prison (not jail! The US has some kind of weird distinction!) – but prisons are funded by the state, not the county. This means that there is no financial pressure on them not to send people to prison. But it is the state that makes the laws, and at the state level there is often political pressure to create new laws and increase maximum penalties for those laws. So in recent times the prosecutor has been gifted with a wide range of potential felonies that they can threaten suspects with, that carry very large maximum penalties that are unlikely to be enacted by the judge but sound terrifying to the suspect. This means that it is very easy for prosecutors to get suspects to make plea deals for low level felonies, and there is no local pressure for them not to, but at the next election they are most likely to be judged for successfully putting felons away. This increasing freedom and power has occurred at a time when numbers of prosecutors have increased rapidly, and public defenders – the service that the government supplies to suspects – are massively underfunded and often barely have the time to meet their clients, let alone to help them defend their case. Prosecutors are also notoriously defensive about their work, there is almost no data on what they do, and their representative organizations have enormous clout. These are almost always the people whose perspective you see on shows like Law and Order, Major Crimes, etc.: they are the completely unconstrained and unmonitored heroes of the judicial system, and in the past 30 years the proportion of all cases that they decide to recommend for felony charges has doubled, at the same time as the number of prosecutors has doubled, and crime rates have risen. This, Pfaff argues, is the root cause of the growth of mass incarceration.

But beyond this, Pfaff identifies a much more challenging and much more politically challenging aspect of the growth of mass incarceration, which is going to be very difficult to reverse. Most people in US prisons are in prison for real, serious crimes: 60% of the growth in prisoner numbers since 1990 was due to people imprisoned for violent crimes, and people convicted of the most serious violent crimes (murder, manslaughter, forcible sexual assault, aggravated assault and robbery) take up a disproportionately large amount of prison space and prison time. Seriously reducing the US prison population is going to require that the US voter be comfortable with releasing these prisoners, and being less harsh on violent criminals in future. This is a very politically challenging project, and lies at the core of the reform process: If the US criminal justice system doesn’t find a way to deal differently with violent criminals, the prison population will never significantly decline. To his credit Pfaff makes a powerful and clear argument that from a human rights and a law enforcement perspective, more lenient sentences and better policing are the key to reducing crime and mass incarceration. I find his argument persuasive, but then I would, wouldn’t I? And if you don’t, then you have to accept that the US is going to have a very large number of prisoners, much larger than most other countries, and there is no solution to this problem.

Pfaff goes further, to point out that much of the rhetoric of the prison reform movement is antithetical to this ultimate goal. Many prison reform efforts are pushed as efforts to release low-level prisoners to make space for those who “truly deserve prison”, and even if this balance is not stated explicitly it is implicit in the argument that prison should be for violent crime. America is experiencing a period of declining violent crime at present, but if that should reverse then this logic of reform will be hard to reverse, and it will be hard to argue for more lenient sentences for violent criminals after years of arguing that prison is what these people deserve. Pfaff also points out that the last 10 years of prison reform efforts – which he argues have been supported by all sides of politics in the US – have shown very limited effect, and that this is primarily because they are focusing on a very small proportion of the US prison population (first time drug offenders) and that they need to move from these “low hanging fruit” to the real drivers of prison growth – and those who really suffer in this system – violent offenders.

Within this story there is a lot of other material to consider – this book is a short and well written work with a rich vein of material to consider. It certainly changed my view of the drivers of mass incarceration in the USA and the real reforms it needs. It also shocked me with how callous the US criminal justice system is, and how shambolic. In contrast to the UK, Japan or Australia, where the prison, police and legal systems are all relatively well organized around a single structure that coordinates well, the US system is fragmented and full of perverse incentives, all corrupted by the horrors of having public servants like prosecutors elected at the county level (shudder!) Pfaff also consistently returns to a discussion of how damaging prison is for inmates, their families and the communities they are drawn from, reminding the reader regularly that prison is a destructive experience for everyone involved, and he also reminds the reader regularly of the US electorates’ appetite for punishment. But the real challenge of this book is his focus on the need to treat violent offenders differently. He even challenges the concept of “violent offenders”, arguing that we should refer to them as “people who committed violent crimes”, and argues compellingly that our attitude to violent crime is completely wrong. This struck me because although I’m generally in favour of not sending people to prison for all the reasons Pfaff describes, I am just as prone as anyone else to demanding people be locked up (e.g. that was my first response to the Grenfell Tower fire) or to thinking a sentence isn’t harsh enough (as if I, someone who has never been to prison or spent any time as a free adult anywhere I didn’t want to be, could possibly comprehend whether a three year sentence is any less harsh than a five year sentence!). And Pfaff’s argument is pretty clearly that probably I, and most of the rest of us, have got it completely wrong on prison sentences – that a suspended sentence or a year or two is probably just as good a deterrent as five or ten years, but has significantly less social and economic cost.

If I had any complaints about this book it would be that although he talks about race a little he doesn’t go into a discussion of race in depth, a problem in the American context. Also, although he repeatedly describes the lack of financial disincentives to county prosecutors sending prisoners to state prisons, Pfaff doesn’t seem to draw the obvious extra lesson here – that county prosecutors might have strong disincentives to send people to county jails, which have much less serious ramifications for their inmates than state prisons. In avoiding a full confrontation with the issue of race, and not fully drawing out all the implied pressures on prosecutors, Pfaff manages to miss the obvious possible extension argument underlying the points he makes: that a lot of prosecutors may well be cruel, racist arseholes, and that a root-and-branch reform of the entire prosecutorial system may be in order. But this is a common problem when confronting Americans’ assessments of their own problems, whether its Bernie Sanders or the gun control movement or Black Lives Matter: The American political system is rotten to its core, and it is going to take a lot more than a few piecemeal changes to parts of it to fix the huge problems lurking at its base. We’ve just passed the 4th July, so it’s probably worth reminding my American reader(s): you could ask the UK to take you back, you know. For all its flaws, the UK’s democracy is vastly superior to yours. You’ll have to give up your guns and you may have to learn to shut up occasionally, but in exchange you’ll get a functioning democracy. Think about it!

Anyway, jokes aside, this is a great book, a truly enlightening exposition of one of America’s great problems. If you are interested in drug decriminalization and have always assumed that this issue is at the heart of America’s prison problems, or if you are generally concerned about the way America needs to reform its criminal justice system to become a better country, then this book is a must read. It’s well written, well argued, dry but not exhausting, and compassionate towards the people at the core of the story: the prisoners, who by now are a large proportion of America’s population. If you care about the human rights of all people, regardless of what you might think of their worth as individuals, then this book is a compelling read. I recommend it to anyone interested in this important topic.


fn1: this is often characterized on the left and by libertarians as “the war on (some classes of people) who use (some classes of) drugs” but this book makes it very clear that the prejudice in the criminal justice system extends across the board, and that singling out one class of crimes (drug crimes) as a cause of racial disparities in incarceration won’t work, because the same racial disparities exist across all laws.

I curate my Facebook feed very carefully so that it contains only nice things. It’s possible that my Facebook feed is the only one remaining on planet earth that still regularly gets cute cat videos in it. I prune my content regularly, and in particular I make sure that I hide or defriend people who regularly clog my wall with nastiness, internecine spats, or heavy quantities of political material (of any persuasion). One of my key considerations for whether to hide/defriend is whether the content a friend puts up regularly shocks me or creates a sudden feeling of discomfort when I see it. I guess, if it triggers me. Usually this is things like people putting up political material that features torture or animal cruelty, people who spam my feed with inspirational pictures, and people who regularly say or upload things that heap scorn on others. By ferociously following this principle, I manage to make sure that my Facebook is a world of happiness and light. But sometimes things still slip through that shock me or make me uncomfortable, and one regular occasional event on my Facebook feed is one of my female friends approvingly posting a Celeste Barber picture.

If you aren’t familiar with Celeste Barber’s work you can read about it in this Guardian profile, and you can see some more pictures here. Basically, she’s a frumpy 30-something (?) woman who takes “real-life” versions of models’ PR pictures and posts them alongside the original pictures on Instagram. For example, a model might take a carefully posed shot of herself “falling” out of bed, and Celeste will take an equivalent shot intended to show her “ordinary” equivalent of this posed shot. Some of these are cute, like the one where she mimics a model sitting in her underwear holding grapes, but Celeste is holding a wine bottle – this makes a nice juxtaposition between the perfect and the everyday. Others rightly take the piss out of some of the extremely silly poses that these Instagram models take (the model falling out of bed, for example). But a lot of them just seem to be making fun of these models simply for making a living by being models, or in some way mocking them for being prettier and more posed than real women.

It’s not clear to me what Barber is actually trying to achieve with these pictures. For example, when she takes a picture of herself in a wet t-shirt and juxtaposes it with a picture of a model in a wet t-shirt, what is she trying to say? Sure, her picture looks slightly silly and stupid and reminds us that standing around in wet t-shirts looking sultry is not what women normally do during their day. But the point of a model’s Instagram feed is that it is not normal – that they are presenting an image of perfection and of things outside the everyday, that we admire and look up to. The point of models is that they don’t look like us, and the idea of a model’s Instagram feed is to showcase her beauty and the best photographs depicting it. Most model’s Instagram feeds are feeds of professional shots, that they may have taken a long time setting up and preparing for – this is why they’re models. If the point of Barber’s photos is to show that models take posed photos that aren’t natural, it’s kind of vapid. We all know that.

But I don’t think this is the point of Barber’s project. I think she aims to mock the standards of beauty that these models represent and embody, more than the silly poses they are adopting. This is why actually many of her photos are piss-takes of relatively unposed pictures of models – that is, the model’s picture is obviously from a photoshoot, but she’s not doing anything super weird or super silly, she’s just being pretty in a picture. Some (like the Zayn Malik lover shot or the doorway yoga thing) could be construed as making fun of the extreme lengths that people go to get a good shot on Instagram[1], but many can only be interpreted as mocking the models themselves. They attempt to show that the models are doing something wrong by contrasting them with what an ordinary person looks like in the same position. She herself says

I get a little miffed with fashionista people thinking that they are much better than other people because they are very slim and have architect husbands and get to wear free stuff

But is this all she’s doing, popping the bubbles of these “fashionista people”? I think this statement artificially conflates being beautiful with being better, which models and fashion people don’t necessarily agree with (I’m friends with one or two models who don’t think like this at all, though I’m friends with one who probably does). She also says she’s campaigning against how the media presents images of women. But is this what she’s doing? Because what she appears to actually be campaigning against is how models present images of models. Is she saying that she herself should be considered as beautiful as these women? If so, how come she uses her photos of herself to mock these women?

I think what Celeste Barber is actually trying to say here is that feminine beauty – or the aspiration to feminine beauty – is wrong, and that it is not possible for ordinary people to be feminine and beautiful. I think she is mocking the ideal of femininity itself. This is why her photos only target female models – she doesn’t, for example, take aim at the ludicrous poses male underwear models carefully adopt, or at the over the top presentation of masculinity and machismo in many male sports and film stars. She isn’t alone in this – our society has a strong undercurrent of scorn for femininity and feminine beauty, presenting it as something that can’t be trusted, a mask or veil over who a woman really is. I think Barber is expressing this undercurrent of hatred. She’s saying that real women, in the privacy of their own homes, in their underwear, are not feminine at all, that femininity is just a mask they pull on to impress others, and that it’s not real or valid, and these models’ instagram feeds full of perfect images of femininity need to be torn down in this way because femininity itself is a problem. If she were trying to present a model of accessible feminine beauty she wouldn’t be mocking these feeds, but trying to reinterpret them in some more viable way. But she’s not – she’s laughing at them.

I think this is an example of how some feminists have internalized a deeply misogynistic undercurrent in our society. There is a valid critique to be made of unrealistic representations of and expectations of women and women’s beauty, but this critique doesn’t have to throw femininity and feminine beauty out entirely. But this is what people like Barber do. This is why she doesn’t mock firemen’s nude calendars, or bodybuilder’s poses, which are just as ludicrously set up and unrealistic. These are okay, because masculinity and masculine beauty is considered to be healthy and real in our society. This is why we have a special qualifier for masculinity that has gone off the rails (“toxic masculinity”) but “feminine” is itself the special qualifier for ordinary social practices gone wrong (“feminine wiles”). Femininity is seen as an entirely negative thing, which if it is a deep-seated part of a woman’s character is purely a flaw – weak, diffident, vain and shallow – while if it is surface deep, is deceptive and untrustworthy. There is no model of femininity in mainstream society that is considered to be healthy, acceptable and good for a woman to adopt. We don’t talk about “toxic” femininity, because our society sees all femininity as poisonous. This is why feminists will share Barber’s mocking pictures on Facebook – because they think they’re saying something real about the way the media depicts women, when actually what they’re doing is channeling an age-old hatred of how women present themselves and who women really are.

Obviously someone like Barber isn’t going to have much effect on the adult feminists who share her pictures on my feed. But I wonder what impact this kind of material has on young women and girls growing up in our increasingly macho and competitive society. They’re told from all sides that being feminine is wrong, and presented with a world where the only valid form of beauty is masculine beauty, preferably achieved as a by-product of some serious activity (like sports, or soldiering, or firefighting), that beauty as an end in itself is wrong and that feminine beauty is bad for them and femininity is bad. But many women and girls want to be feminine and want to express their femininity through the kind of models of beauty that we see in these Instagram feeds (this is why these feeds are so popular – they aren’t getting all those followers from men). Then their feminist role models – the women who tell them it’s okay to want to work, that you can be anything you want to be, that no one can stop a girl chasing her dreams – put up pictures telling them that any aspiration to feminine beauty or any kind of construction of beauty at all (posing, make up, dream images) is wrong, and sexist. I think this must be hard on young women and I think that feminists watching Barber and reading this kind of thing need to consider the impact they’re having on young women and what space of beauty they leave open for young women to explore. I think that feminists should also consider whether their reaction to models of feminine beauty is first and foremost about whether they’re bad for women, or whether it’s a kneejerk, visceral response in a misogynist christian culture to the very concept of femininity itself. And is this a good thing?

I’ve been in Asia for 11 years now and one thing I have noticed since I left the Christian world and moved to a pagan country is that Asians have different expectations and views of both masculinity and femininity. In particular, they have no cultural attachment to the story of the fall, of the deceptive serpent and the woman who lures the man into sexual knowledge. As a result both masculine and feminine appearance and manners are seen as a much more natural and uncomplicated part of who humans are, and in my experience people in Asia have a much more comfortable relationship with women’s beauty and feminine behavior. I think this is something western people could learn from, and I think in particular western feminism could learn that instead of rejecting femininity and feminine beauty and reacting against it as a terrible expression of female repression, it should be seen as a natural part of who women are, and just as valid a form of expression of gender difference as anything else. It’s clear that many women in the west want to be like the models they idealize, but they grow up in a world where they’re told in no uncertain terms that they’re wrong, shallow, or even self-hating to feel this way. But these women’s desires and ideals are not a construction – they’re a real and deep part of who these women are. The kind of mocking that Barber is performing, and the general social acceptance it has in the west, does not help young women to grow up into a stronger model of beauty and better gender relations. It just puts them down. Western feminism needs a better relationship with female beauty if it wants to reform this aspect of gender relations in a way that ordinary women are actually comfortable with, and western feminism needs a more critical understanding of its own assumptions and the role of Christian misogyny in constructing modern feminist attitudes, if it really wants to make a better world for western women. Which could start with not mocking girls who want to be pretty!


fn1: Which, btw, what’s wrong with this and what is up with the constant negative carping about how “fake” Instagram is. Instagram is a site exclusively for sharing photographs. Why would you not go to great lengths to take a good photograph for Instagram?