Fantasy


Our heroes have killed the changing of the guard, and now they descend into the Redbrand lair. From the ruined manor a flight of stairs leads down to a heavy wooden door, which they pushed aside to reveal a dim cellar. They descended the stairs into a large stone chamber dominated by a huge cistern, filled with cold pure water. The room was large, their lantern light barely reaching to the walls, which were lined with barrels. As Mouser dug around in the barrels looking for signs of traps or treasure a door in the northwest wall opened and a trio of redbrand thugs came charging out to attack them. They dealt with them in short order, beating them down into the flagstones in the doorway of their room. They searched the rooms further, finding a few trinkets and what looked like a package of emergency supplies hidden in the waters of the cistern. Whoever had secreted this escape package in the cistern was going to get an unpleasant surprise if they tried to flee and found their secret stash already looted; but the PCs doubted that anyone was going to escape from here.

They searched some more, and found a secret door in the southern wall of the room. From here they walked carefully through to a large, natural cave cold and smelling vaguely of rot. They immediately guessed that this must be where the strange eye-beast lived. A tunnel from the south they guessed connected the large cave to the secret entrance the halfling child had reported finding on the edge of the village – a useful escape, if that were their plan. A narrow chasm split the tunnel in two, and a bridge linked the two sides of the cave. Mouser crept into the room and headed north on the near side of the chasm, seeing nothing interesting. As he returned to the group he was struck by a strange series of visions, of falling into the chasm and rotting suddenly away, and an intense sense of hunger. Disgusted and confused, he crept back to the group. They moved to the edge of the cave and Mouser and Imoto chan headed back into the cave, Imoto chan tying a rope to the bridge and dropping it into the chasm as Mouser crept north to explore some more.

As Imoto chan finished tying the rope to the bridge she was suddenly struck by some strange magic that caused her body to rot and well up in stench and disgusting, noisome ruin. Somewhere over the chasm, the eye-beast was attacking them. Tyge rushed across the bridge, which collapsed under weight and dumped her into the chasm. Imoto chan leapt across the chasm to find the eye-beast, while Mouser took cover behind a pillar, firing arrows, and Mostly Smithson charged north to cross a bridge on the northern end of the cave, and Raymond deCantrus let loose spells across the chasm. The eye-beast was well hidden but they were able to drive it out of cover and cut it down without suffering too much damage.

In the chasm they found the body of Thel Dendrar, the woodcarver who had gone missing after he confronted the redbrands, and a chest containing some small trinkets and some potions. The chasm was haunted by a strange, weak magic that froze both space and time, rendering it chilly and making all movement in the chasm difficult and slow. As a result Thel’s corpse was still fresh, and strangely lifelike even though it had been ripped open by the Nothic and half eaten. Disgusted, Tyge climbed out and they resumed their quest.

From the cave a tunnel headed west and back into the more regular hallways of the cellar. A set of steps led down to a hallway, with a door at the base of the steps. Mouser opened the doorway, and was attacked by three bugbears who had been waiting quietly for them in the room. Pushed back mostly by disgust at the stench of their foul dog-like bodies, Mouser was shocked to see one hurl a spear straight into Mostly Smithson so hard that it went clean through his chest, knocking him down. The battle that followed was fast and brutal, and for pressed moments they thought they were all going to die before Tyge was able to cut a bloody, vicious path through the bugbear leader and start scattering bugbear hair and flesh like confetti in some horrid underdark wedding. Mouser took the chance to revive Mostly Smithson, and ultimately they prevailed through steel, lightning and hard, nasty work.

Standing in the stench of bloody dog-hair, shivering in rage and reaction, they looked around the dimly lit hallway, back at the room of half-eaten stored corpses and scattered vitreous nothic goo, and decided it might be best if they took a rest. Shuddering at the stench and iniquity, they pushed the door of the bugbear lair closed, and settled down to sleep.

Which was when they saw the goblin. With a sigh, and a shared sideways look of tired resignation, deCantrus asked it, “What is your name, little wretch?”

“Droop,” he replied, and so his fate was sealed …

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Under the mountains and into the wild

[Our Degenesis campaign has had two sessions but I skipped a write up of one, so here I give a brief overview of the events of the last two sessions. We are heading into the campaign In Thy Blood…]

In session 3 the PCs had raided an underground bunker and recovered a transceiver of some value and helped a lost man called Stanko. After leaving the bunker they stumbled onto a large squad of apocalyptics, who were camped in the wilderness and who Stanko told them were the group that he had been scouting for when his team was killed by monsters in the bunker. Approaching the apocalyptic camp they saw that it was surrounded by cockroaches (a kind of degenerate human clan), and likely to be ambushed that night. Stanko, eager to be paid for his work, went into the camp and tried to negotiate for his money. This didn’t work out for him, so the PCs decided to wait until nightfall when the cockroaches attacked the camp, and rescue Stanko and steal the apocalyptics’ stuff during the confusion. The ambush came and all hell broke loose, and during the battle they were able to steal an apocalyptic motorbike, free Stanko, and get away from the camp without being pursued.

They took the bike and the transceiver to the town of Gesseln, where they sold them for a lot of draughts. While they were relaxing in the town they discovered they were being followed by a Chronicler, who they ambushed in a tavern. After a brief and very nasty battle they managed to capture him and beat him until he talked, and discovered that he had been spying on them for the same shadowy people who had sent the apocalyptics to the bunker. This bothered them, because they had been sent to the bunker by Chroniclers, and if a Chronicler had also sent the apocalyptics then it appeared there were factions in the Chroniclers who were trying to cause them trouble, or at least were happy for them to get into a lot of trouble as part of some internecine Chronicler squabble. Everyone knows that the less one gets entangled in Chronicler business the better, so the PCs decided to leave Gesseln and get out of the area. They returned to Tumbler, where their adventures had started, with the intention of perhaps heading somewhere further west and south to get far away from whatever trouble the Chroniclers intended for them.

Here too though they had been misused by the local Chroniclers, and they were none too happy staying here long. Karl Franz, their dour Spitalian, left on Spitalian business, and was replaced by a more junior Spitalian called Montaigne, a familancer rather than an epigeneticist. While the characters were wasting time in Tumbler they discovered that there was an African apocalyptic in the town, apparently lost and looking for a way home. Sylvan, the party’s apocalyptic, went to visit her in her tavern and was given a speech about how she saw him in her dreams. Sylvan is very confident that he is in every woman’s dreams, but this woman seemed strangely unaffected by his usual kant, and suggested they visit an old apocalyptic seer in town who would throw the cards for them. Foolishly Sylvan did this, and they visited the old woman. She told him that for some weeks now she was always drawing the same cards no matter what, and saw him and the African apocalyptic in her dreams. She drew the cards for them, and it was the same pattern: The abomination over the Creator, Hellfire, the Fields of Elysium, and the Bearer of the Broken Cross. She warned them that trouble was coming, and she saw them both standing on the shores of Africa, fighting off hellfire. They must head to the fields of elysium to meet their fate.

Apocalyptics cannot resist the pull of the tarot. Esmeralda the African apocalyptic joined their party and, for lack of anything better to do, they decided to head to Lucatore, a town on the far side of the Alps where Elysium oils are made by the anabaptists. They would find their fate there, and then help Esmeralda to return to Africa through the peninsula. This mission suited Ronan the Hellvetican, since it would take them under the mountains where he grew up; and it suited Tesla since it was her goal to travel to the Island of Bedain, wherein lay some scrapper heaven of oil and broken things. So it was that they set off.

The journey was long but easy, since they traveled on large roads and Sylvan brought a catamite that he procured in a refugee camp, to carry some of their load and ease his sore muscles at night. This boy, Teal, trudged along with them in the dust, patiently carrying their extra gear and doling out attention where it was needed. Such is the way of apocalyptics. They passed through Justitian and Cathedral City, then south to the Alps, where they crossed through the Hellvetican tunnels under Ronan’s warrant, escorting a trade caravan through to lower the cost of passage. On the far side they accompanied the caravan as far as Tirano. They rested here, on the border of Purgare and Borca, and gathered news about the road ahead. Unsure of what they were looking for, knowing only that Sylvan and Esmeralda’s fate had been sealed somewhere here, they feasted on rumour and got drunk on tall tales. One tale told of strange things happening in the swamp to the south of the Lucatore road, so they decided to investigate. They headed south into the swamp, coming to a small camp of peat-digging clansmen after a day’s travel. They hired three to accompany them as guides, and went further south to a thing called the “Old Image Wall,” a huge piece of wall that was said to have once held moving images. The peat-diggers told them a Chronicler had come here with a generator, turned on the wall, and recorded the images that appeared, then left, but they could do nothing to make it work. They headed south for another day and found a smaller peat-digging camp, where they heard that strange things were happening further south, where the land became thick with insects and strange smells. The peat diggers refused to venture there, but they went ahead to investigate. They found signs of a psychonaut of some kind, decided it was too much danger to interfere with and too far from civilization to matter, and returned to the peat-diggers. Unfortunately a gang of Romano clanners had found their peat-diggers, and were in the process of torturing them to find out where the PCs had gone when the PCs returned and stumbled on them in the camp. There was a short, brutal battle in which the Hellvetican wasted 4 bullets and the apocalyptic did nothing, and then the clanners were dead and the peat-diggers rescued. The whole group returned to the Lucatore road, exhausted and disappointed, and they headed further east towards Lucatore.

Elysium is here

Lucatore is a small town in the east of Purgare, famous for its strong walls and the water towers that hold pure water. With this pure water the anabaptists of the town make huge quantities of Elysium oil, which is an incredibly valuable and powerful substance carefully controlled by the anabaptists. It is also the home of one of the Baptists, and a redoubt of their strange and strict faith. When the PCs arrived the town was full and busy, and they initially found accommodation in a small and rundown tavern. Unfortunately some priests arrived, Flayers, who needed accommodation, so the PCs were moved to the Commission House outside of town, a much more comfortable place to stay. They bedded down for their first comfortable night, and slept soundly in a real bed for the first time in weeks.

In the morning they were woken by a horn, and cries and yells from a gathering crowd. When they opened the windows of their Commission House they could see a commotion in the distant town. Sylvan went down to disturb the Commission House maidservant, Dana, and found her in a fuss in the kitchens, wringing her skirts and agitated with worry. When he asked her what was wrong, she answered him with a single simple sentence.

“The baptist is dead!”

So watch the old world melt away
A loss regrets could never mend
You never miss it till it’s gone
So say goodbye, say goodbye
We’ll tell our children’s children why
We grew so tall and reached so high
You never miss it till it’s gone
So say goodbye, say goodbye
To seasons end
It was the morning of the winter solstice in neolithic England. The PCs stood next to the Chieftain of the People, near the Stonehenge Heel Stone. Ahead of them lay the stones, the gap in the tallest glowing with the faintest hint of dawn’s first light. The high priest stood in front of the Chieftain, facing the stones and composing himself ahead of the festival. Nearby one of his acolytes squatted in the snow, holding a clay bowl heavy with a slop of fresh pig’s blood and earth. Behind them the People stretched out along the avenue, clustered together against the dawn wind but still thronging the avenue in their numbers, the crowd stretching down the hill into the pre-dawn gloom. Here on the slope of Stonehenge the wind had a biting chill, whipping the thin, crisp coating of new snow into a fine mist that somehow managed to creep through even the tightest-clutched clothing. Knuckles turned blue in the chill wind, noses dripped and froze, but everyone bore the chill stoically, for this was the most important ceremony of the year, winter solstice, when the world turned for another year. Everyone wore their finest clothes, the browns and greys of their best quality furs forming a grim smear across the otherwise pristine white of the surrounding hillside. Many were painted in wode and wearing their best seashells and feathers.
To fit the occasion, the characters had come in their military finery, as befitted guests of the chieftain being honoured for their heroic deeds, though perhaps one of them had brought all his most potent charms for baser, more paranoid reasons. They were three:
  • The Dark Ram, a grim old man from an obscure cult that specialized in darkness, stone, fear and cold; once great in his youth, he was now an old man hunched inside tattered robes, leaning on a black staff topped with the horned skull of a great goat
  • Wolfson, a berserker from the cult of blood, standing firm and proud in his hide armour, fine stone axe held proudly in his strong right arm, the antithesis of the Old Ram, youth and beauty and pure violence against the old man’s frailty and grim blood worship
  • Fast Current, a naive acolyte of the cult of the forests, shivering in the chill wind, not yet used to the privations of religious life, eager to be a part of the most important rite of the year

The Chieftain stood, as always, nervous and uncertain, his weak jaw receding into flabby chins, smelling of pig fat and sour mead. They all knew of the rumours and discontent – indeed, Dark Ram had suggested they decline the invitation to avoid being seen to be allies of this fading man, who was once a hero but now a maligned administrator, but no one could look at Fast Current’s eager religious fervour and not allow him to this one special moment in dawn’s fierce glow. Now Fast Current did not notice as the Chieftain stood, impatiently waiting for the whole thing to be over, probably already scheming about what to do with the various factions aligned against him as he stood in the bitter chill of the coldest day of his 57th year, standing silently witness to his 31st winter solstice as chieftain. Tired. Looking for something, anything, to firm up his weakening grip on the People he had spent his life serving.

The time came. The Chieftain raised his arms. The High Priest stepped past the characters and raised his robed arms towards the people, tried to catch that moment when they all breathed out in unison, that was always snatched away by the Henge’s brutal winds. He turned back, began the recitations of the Necessary Invocations, walked his away around the Small Circle and the Lines. The crowd watched in anticipation as his acolyte scampered forward, he took the bowl of blood and soil and theatrically poured it into the ditch of the Henge (Being careful not to let the wind spill any onto his robes). As he did this his priests, standing at carefully spaced locations along the avenue, began the Chant of the New Life, and an astromancer walked slowly down the line of the people, singing old songs about the stars and the rhythm of the seasons. At regular junctures the priests turned to cast fresh pig fat onto the fires burning in the ditches each side of the avenue, ensuring that the People were bathed in the cleansing light of the fires.

Calling forth the New Sun always takes time. The High Priest continued his chanting and his movements in the Circle, as the priests led the chant for the People, and from the hillside a slow sussuration of poetry reached them over the hiss of the wind. In truth the High Priest mumbled, and it was hard for the PCs to follow his words from their lofty position on the hillside away from the clear spoken priests, but they struggled along as best they could. The Chieftain, well-versed by now in all these processes, muttered the words of the prayers to himself and cast his gaze impatiently to the horizon, waiting for the sun to break over the hillside so that he could send the People home and return to his scheming. Everyone’s attitude was divided between the clarion call of the new year’s rituals, and the bitter cold of the hillside. In such strange interstices is the fate of the new year held.

The Priest began to raise his voice, casting some powders onto the wind from his sleeves. He stepped back past the PCs to face the crowd, raising his voice as the Priest’s voices raised to a crescendo, then turned back to the Heel Stone, arms raised wide, the sleeves of his robe slipping back to reveal the tattoos and leathers embracing his skinny old arms, and raising his voice to a loud, powerful call, yelled “Rise, oh sun!” The crowd drew in their breath as one, a brief sharp sound that carried over the whispering of the wind. Everyone faced the stones.

The sun did not rise.

Still, sometimes the Priest’s call could be a little early, and in any case this ritual was powerful. They waited.

The sun did not rise.

They waited some more. Their call had to proceed into the earth, after all, deep into the realms beneath the ground past the silent halls where the dead slept, to the place where the sun slumbered, and raise it up to the sky. Perhaps sometimes it takes time to drag the sun forth (is the sun a man or a woman? Has it a gender? Opinions were divided, but if it did have a gender it might be a stubborn old man, or a wilfull young woman. They could wait).

The sun did not rise.

The land remained bathed in the shadow of pre-dawn. The wind continued to blow, chill and harsh, not softened at all by the knowledge that the new year’s light shone on them. Over the hills and far away was a faint glow, but the sun did not rise. It was cold.

People began to mutter. The sun had not risen. Everyone knew the stories. Recently their crops had been failing, and bad things happening. Some said that the Chieftain’s decision to move the bluestones was the reason – had he cursed the sun itself? Somewhere in the crowd, someone said something. Laughter ripped up the line. That old story! But the laughter stilled quickly, because this was serious. If the sun did not rise … people began to mutter more darkly.

The Chieftain was not stupid, he had not presided over 31 winter solstices because he could not read the mood of his People. “Priest,” he grunted, perhaps more disrespectfully than was appropriate for such a ceremony. “Have you messed up the timing? Are your astromancers drunk again?”

The High Priest apologized to the Chieftain, and stepped back to face the crowd. “It is a cold year, and the sun sleeps deep!” He called in his clearest priest’s voice, the voice that had won him power those years ago when his rivals tried to argue with the people on matters of theology, but he called out to them in pure tones of eager rhetoric. “We must call it together, as one!”

The priests obeyed, raising their voices in the Call, and the High Priest led the people on another round of chanting. Now he had one eye over the shoulder at the horizon, waiting for the moment to raise the call. The chant stretched out, and finally he turned, arms raised, and yelled “Rise, oh sun!”

The sun did not rise.

The Dark Ram spat. He could feel trouble brewing in the bones of the earth. The High Priest looked at the Chieftain, uncertain and pleading. Twenty one years ago the last High Priest had gone against the Chieftain on a matter where religion intersected with popular opinion, and a week later he had been found dead in a gully, apparently crushed under an Aurochs. Everyone knew that the Chieftain had not always been weak. He had not always been desperate either. Wolfson looked around at the crowd, readying himself to fight, and also to decide on which side to fight. Fates seemed, briefly, to hang in the balance.

Below them on the avenue the muttering rose again. Someone called out something at the back of the crowd, people snickered – it was the sound of agreement, not amusement. The light was still dim, but in the ruddy glow of the fires the priests’ uncertainty was obvious. The Dark Ram stepped closer to Wolfson and muttered, “Ready yourself.” He cast a warning glance back to Fast Current, who stood confused in the cold wind, not understanding the flows of religious and popular discontent.

The Chieftain hrmphed gently to himself, the sound of a bitter man making a hard decision. He stepped through the characters to face the crowd, stopping briefly when he was level with their ruddy, wind-blasted faces to whisper to them, “You will follow my lead or your end will be bitter,” and then presented himself to the crowd, arms raised, a sudden picture of confidence.

“Oh People!”, he called out to them, his voice suddenly taking on all the clarion tones of his youth. Suddenly their chieftain was not a weak and fading old man, but had called back the power that had led him to this position at such a young age, and helped him maintain it through many challenges. “We face a mighty test! The sun has not risen! Our priests have done their all, but it has not risen!” At this he cast a grim look back at the High Priest, that spoke of angry meetings yet to be held in quiet groves. “I feared that this would arise, because dark forces work against us.” He paused, to watch the crowd muttering to themselves. Dark forces? What dark forces? Did the Chief know something? “But do not fear, my People, because your fate rests safe with me! I assembled these heroes here against this possibility!” His arm swept around to take in the PCs, and the crowd roared their approval. “Whoever has stolen the sun from us, whatever chains hold her fast in the underworld, they will find her, and bring her back!” Thus it was that with a casual sentence the Chieftain answered the religious debate of the age – the sun was a woman! And also sent the characters to their doom. Hearing his confident young voice come back to him, the crowd roared their approval. “They will set out immediately to find the sun, and to bring vengeance upon whoever dared to interfere with her. Have faith in the heroes of our People, my friends! But now, return to your homes and the warmth. Trust in me, your Chief!”

The crowd roared their approval. The chieftain turned to frown at the characters, and after a nudge from the Dark Ram both Wolfson and Fast Current raised their arms to wave at the crowd. At the urging of the priests it began to disperse, and the Chieftain stepped in close to them. “My hut shortly,” he ordered them tersely. Turning to the High Priest, he snarled, “You two, for what it’s worth!” and marched off.

The Wild Women

They trudged back to the Chief’s hut, which was really not much bigger than anyone else’s, and furnished with the same simple bedding of birch branches and hay, though a little colder on account of its size. The Chieftain sat on his pallet, frowning at the High Priest and sucking down an early mead. He grunted his approval when the characters entered.

“Trouble,” he snapped at them. “We need to fix it, or we’re dead.” He frowned over at the High Priest. “No one knows what’s happening. You have to fix it.”

They stood helpless, unable to refuse or suggest any ideas. Finally the Dark Ram coughed and stepped forward. “Do you have any suggestions about what we should do?”

The Chieftain spat. “You’re the ancient wizard. Fix it!” He looked over at his High Priest. “What about you?! Any ideas?”

The High Priest shuffled his feet. “Well actually … they could try the Wild Women.”

Wolfson and Fast Current shuddered, in time with the Chief. The Dark Ram shrugged. “That is a desperate play. Are you really out of answers?” The Dark Ram was good at hiding his fear.

“There is nothing in the stories of our people to explain this. It is otherworldly. The Wild Women stand between the worlds. Perhaps they will know.” The High Priest looked strangely smug about his answer. Of course, rumour was that the Dark Ram had stolen his lover, back when they were both young and the Dark Ram was still a rutting goat. What better fate for him now, than to face the Wild Women?

The Dark Ram shrugged. “So be it. We will visit the Wild Women. We will save the People.” He turned his dark, blood-tired gaze back on the High Priest. “Our reward will be suitable to the task, I am sure.”

“Yes yes, I’m sure everything will be very fine for you if you just solve this problem,” the Chieftain interjected, hustling them towards the door to his hut. As he pulled the hangings aside and they marched out, he added, “Do not bother returning until you find the sun. You know your fate.”

They separated to their huts to gather traveling equipment, and regrouped a short while later in the snow at the edge of the village, shivering in the cold, and at the task to come. They had all heard rumours about the Wild Women, who live in a swamp near Avebury:

  • They are served by giants
  • They live in another realm and only come to this world to make mischief
  • To lay with one is to gain eternal life, but they only lay with women
  • They are beautiful
  • They are terrible crones

With these conflicting stories in their minds, they prepared to set off for the swamps of Avebury. Before they did, however, Fast Current bid them wait, while he performed a ritual in the forest. They returned to their huts as Fast Current called on the spirits of the trees, drawing forth their knowledge about the land. After some hours of constant chanting a vision came to him, of red-headed children fleeing into the swamp to escape strange snakes made of shadow. Dark things stirred in the land to their north!

They set off into the grey pre-dawn afternoon, marching north first through a patchwork of forest and small communities, dotted with fields and little wattle-and-daub huts, until the land slowly gave way to the full, thick forest that ruled the land beyond the communities. A narrow path cut through the forest, beaten down by generations of the People walking the path from Stonehenge to Avebury, and said to be safe but for the odd bear. The huge trees of the ancient forest loomed over the path, casting it into near darkness in the dawn light. They picked their way carefully along the path, vigilant against the strange horrors Fast Current had seen in the dreamings of the tree-spirits, but emerged safely after a few hours onto a sweeping vista of swamp and open hills, the heaths and swamps to the west of Avebury. The distant hills hung like low clouds on the horizon, barely visible in the dawn glow. Below them the swamp stretched to the east and north, a grim smear across the landscape. Mostly it was tall reeds and strange, stunted trees, shrouded in a dark and unwelcoming mist, but at some points ancient trees rose above the murk, vine-festooned branches reaching out to the sky as if they were trying to claw their way out of a stagnant pond.

They walked down the hill towards the swamp. Near its edge they found a small hamlet, just a collection of a dozen or so mud huts, and bargained with a farmer to take one of the town’s least popular members as a possible sacrifice to the Wild Women. The townsfolk let her go easily enough, a flame-haired beauty who they said was no good at farming and always fussed over mud and guts, better suited to sacrifice or religious observance than the hard life of the fens, and they took her with them into the swamp.

They guessed that the best way to find the Wild Women was to walk to the centre of the swamp, and they were not mistaken. After a few hours, as they rested on a tree stump by a foul-smelling stretch of ice-coated water, they suddenly found themselves being watched by a girl-child. This wild scrap of innocence squatted on the twisted bough of a tree some distance from them, ragged furs hanging loose on a bony frame, tearing chunks of meat off of the fresh, twitching corpse of a rabbit with disturbingly sharp teeth. She stared at them with huge, unblinking violet eyes. After a moment, sure she had their attention, she tore the rabbit in half, letting its steaming guts fall to the ground at the foot of the tree, and bounded off into the shadows. Grunting and sighing, they heaved themselves to their feet and marched after her.

She led them a merry chase for an hour, making sure they were thoroughly lost and covered in vile swamp-mud by the time they arrived at a huge, imposing burial mound. This mound was far bigger than those around Avebury or Stonehenge, and by its look far older, perhaps built back when Stonehenge was new. A huge, dead tree grew from the grassy top of the mound, and thick stands of spiny bushes surrounded it. They pushed through and into a dark entry chamber, where suddenly the girl disappeared. Ahead of them in the main chamber of the mound they could see a faint glow; in the side chambers they saw fresh bodies, old bones, and heard the disturbing smacking sounds of something sucking the marrow from bones. They hastened forward, into a huge and shadowed cave, that was obviously much larger than the mound could possibly have allowed. It stank of mud and death, but it was so large that they could not see what horrors might be hanging from its far walls. A shaft of sunlight fell from a huge crack in the ceiling, incongruous given the fractured seasons outside, and lit a strange cascade of thin, semi-transparent discs that hung from the ceiling on inconceivably thin, shiny strands of leather, as if someone in here could spin quartz into thread. On one side of the chamber, near a small fire, lay the broken body of a young man, its guts spilled into a puddle of water, a crow watching them forbiddingly from atop the corpse’s blood-smeared back. Opposite them, on the far side of the chamber, wreathed in shadow, sat an adult woman in a thin robe, lounging on a large stone dais. Something huge moved in the shadows behind them, something they could not quite make out, though occasionally they caught a glimpse of a massive fingernail or an ear or a gleaming yellow eye far above them in the shadows.

The woman held her arms wide in a gesture of welcome. “You seek us, you found us. Explain your needs.” She dragged out the word ‘needs’ in a manner both thrilling and threatening. Fast Current and Wolfson hesitated, but the Dark Ram was in his element. He stepped forward, staff held high, dragging the sacrifice-girl forward by one hand, and pushed her to her knees on the rough floor of the cave.

“We bring a sacrifice. We wish to trade for information.”

The woman shrugged dismissively and ignored the girl, who was doing an admirable job of restraining her terror. For someone fussy about mud and guts, she had surely already seen a lifetime’s worth in morning. She sat still and ready to die as the Dark Ram explained their dire situation, and tried to negotiate the terms by which they could get the information they needed.

It did not take long to settle terms. As soon as the sun rose again, the entire group would come to this mound and serve the Wild Women for a year. In return the woman told them what they needed to know: that there was something wrong at Silbury Hill, and they must go there to find the solution to the world’s problems.

They agreed to the price, and left for Silbury Hill.

The hill

Silbury Hill

To the east the swamp slowly rose and merged into forest, but before they could reach dry land they were ambushed. Emerging from a stand of reeds into a wide, shallow frozen pool they were suddenly attacked by three thick, black snakes that came sliding out of the reeds around the pond. Each was wider than a human leg and longer than a person, and as they slid through the reeds the plants nearest to them seemed to wilt away from them. These snakes emerged from the shadows in a rush, opening wide, toothed mouths and glaring balefully from eyes that were red like fire. Even as they attacked, the characters could tell something else was coming from the reeds, and as battle was joined that thing leapt out into the pool with a mighty huff! It smashed onto the ice and reared up to attack them, a giant dog-like creature with scales like a dragon, and the same fiery red eyes. It’s first act was to spit a massive gob of acid onto Wolfson, and then the battle was joined.

They prevailed, but Wolfson was injured and they were all exhausted and feeling physically sick. Even as they stood in the ruins of the battle, the frozen water of the pool seeping through their shoes, the corpses of the snakes began to melt and steam, fading rapidly away and leaving only a terrible stench. The dog-demon thing lay dead in the pool, decaying more slowly and horribly than its companions. They gathered themselves together and hurried out of the swamp. These were the things the trees had dreamt, and they guessed there must be more. Where had they come from?

Another long walk took them to Silbury Hill, which they approached in the traditional way, from the east. Here an earthwork causeway connected the hill to the land, bridging the ditch that held the hill apart from the land around. As they approached they could see a dim light atop the hill, as if a fire had been lit. They crossed the causeway and climbed the hill, emerging breathless to its windswept summit to find a scene of murder and ruin.

The light did come from a fire, which was still smouldering near the centre of the hilltop. A corpse lay in the fire, partly smothering it and partly feeding it, and two more lay brutalized on the ground near the fire. All three were young, two children and one barely an adult. They were emaciated and showed signs of having been abused for a long while, their bodies decorated with old and new bruises. They wore pathetic clothes, just rags against the cold, and the sores on their feet and faces suggested they had been in the cold weather for some time before they died. The one in the fire had been killed by having his throat cut, but the cut was a fine, clean slice, better than any stone knife could do, and the other two also showed signs of having been repeatedly cut and stabbed with something much sharper than humans could design. Some demon must have come here and killed them.

This, then, was the cause of all their problems. Silbury Hill formed a barrier between the underworld and the real, a kind of sinkhole that could only keep the underworld at bay if it was regularly maintained and prepared, and kept pure. No one should visit it, and anyone who did must observe the proper rituals. Nothing earthly could be done up here – no waste, no sex, no foul words, no birth and certainly no death. Death on Silbury Hill was only allowed in the form of sacrifice, the death of a pure child prepared properly for the ritual of sanctifying the barrier. The kind of profane death they had seen here must only cause pollution.

By killing these children, someone or something had broken the seal between the underworld and the real, stopped the sun in its tracks and unleashed the beasts of hell into the earth. The Dark Ram knew all this, and told them in a steady, cold voice. The damage could be undone, by giving these children a proper burial at Stonehenge where their souls could be recalled and rested, and then performing the proper rituals here to sanctify the place again. But there would be no point if whoever did this simply came back to do it again. They needed to find out why this had been done, and find the perpetrator, and destroy them. A ritual was required.

The Dark Ram prepared one of the bodies, setting it in the proper fashion and painting its cheeks with the correct tinctures. The girl provided the blood, just a smear of fresh blood from a cut on her arm, and then they fell back to wait as the Dark Ram called the body’s soul back from where it had fled, to draw on its memories.

He saw flashing images of horror and violence. A large boat pulling up on the shore and big men in dark armour smashing into a tiny collection of mud huts. A group of them dragged screaming away while the rest died in the river shallows, or in the shade of great oaks where they ran to hide. Fires burned. Then there was a boat, a storm, exhausting flash of water and crash of waves, then peace on the shore and the sound of woodworking. Then flight, a small group of them running into snow and darkness. Hiding on the hill, but found, attacked by the grim dark men, the taste of blood, then fire and death.

The children were escaped slaves, pursued here and murdered on the hill as punishment for their flight. Some were still abroad, running from their captors. But who would kill children on the hill, knowing the risk? They must find these slaves, and destroy them.

Giants among men

The slavers

They decided first to go to Avebury, which was nearby, and warn the people of Avebury of the danger in the woods around, as well as finding a group of warriors to remove the bodies and take them back to Stonehenge for a holy burial, but they did not reach the town. After just ten minutes on the path to the town they were ambushed by a squad of huge and terrifying warriors. There were four of them, and they gleamed. All four were much larger than the PCs, perhaps a whole head taller and much bulkier. They carried large bows that were much better made than those the group carried, and each had a knife of a strange glowing substance that was much harder and sharper than their own weapons. The leader had plates of the glowing stone-like stuff on his leather armour, and carried a larger knife that was as long as a man’s arm, and terrifyingly sharp. They hurled themselves into battle, yelling strange words in a language the characters did not understand, and the group prepared to sell themselves dearly against these great, beautiful, terrible men.

But the men had no magic. The Dark Ram called forth shadow magic to steal their health, and Fast Current entangled them in vines, and Wolfson went into a berserk rage, and the glowing men did nothing in return. No magic of any kind. Although they injured Wolfson and Fast Current, they could not win. One tried to run away but they managed to catch him and kill him, and then they followed his path over some hills to find a larger camp, with another 6 of the same men squatting around fires, cleaning their strange weapons. Everything these men carried was so much more beautiful and perfect than anything the heroes had ever seen – but they had no magic, so they did not see Fast Current watching them. The PCs sneaked away and continued to Avebury, where they raised a larger force. Within two hours the six big, shining men were dead, ambushed and surrounded and slaughtered by the people of Avebury. In the battle they all saw how the strange men’s amber-coloured swords cut perfectly through flesh, and realized that these must be the men who had killed the children on the hillside.

In the camp they found a single slave child tied up, beaten and cowed and dumped inside a tent – one of the children recaptured. Wolfson, they discovered, spoke the child’s language – he was Welsh, one of the hillfolk who live to the north of the wild seas beyond Avebury. He told them his story. The strange men had come to their village in a huge boat, raided and taken children captive, then returned to the sea. One of the men spoke a little Welsh, and told them that they would be sacrifices in a far land, where these men had come from, and where magic had slowly faded from the world. Desperate to bring the magic back, these people had begun making human sacrifices to the dark gods to try and appease them and stop the draining of their powers, but nothing worked, so they began to sacrifice more. When the sacrifices became too much burden on their own people they began traveling to nearby kingdoms to take slaves for sacrifice, and the easiest place, they said, was this island, because on this island everyone was primitive and stupid and could not defend themselves.

So they had been taken, and they would have gone to this far land to be killed in offering to the dark gods, except that a storm drove their ship ashore and damaged it, and while the men were repairing it half of the slaves escaped. When they came in sight of Silbury Hill their group split, with some heading into the forest to the west, some deciding to hide on the hill, and others scattering east. The slavers had caught the ones on the hill, then headed east and found this prisoner, and they were sending out scouting parties looking for more when the characters raided their camp. The attempt to recapture the slaves was thus broken, but perhaps 10 or 12 more of these men were camped to the north, by the sea.

Epilogue: Futures past

Wolfson put on the armour and carried the sword of the slaver leader when they attacked the slavers at the coast. In battle though, he realized that the armour made him sluggish, held back his frenzy, deadened his sense of the wild. He shrugged it off at last, threw away the sword, and in a killing frenzy beat his enemies to death with a stone he picked up from the beach. It was a bitter fight, the 30 or so fighters of the People up against the 12 slavers, but they won. Wolfson confided in the Dark Ram, and they threw all the cursed goods onto the boat, set it alight and pushed it into the reach. These men had powerful weapons and armour, some new technology that shaped stone to be harder than stone, and made them powerful and great, but somehow it had sucked out their magic. It wasn’t the gods of the underworld they needed to appease, but their own lust for progress.

The People stood on the shore watching the ship slip out to the reach, the fire slowly consuming it. They would stay as they were, and their magic would defend them against whatever strange new age encroached from over the water. They turned to face the newly rising sun, strong in their faith and their confidence in their astrologers, and set their faces to Stonehenge. Let the new era come – they were more than a match for it!

 


Note: this adventure was inspired by the desire to tell the story of the Welsh cremation remains recently uncovered in Stonehenge, as recounted here.

Uhtred son of Uhtred, regular ale drinker, who I predict will die of injury (but will go to Valhalla, unlike you you ale-sodden wretch)

There has been some fuss in the media recently about a new study showing no level of alcohol use is safe. It received a lot of media attention (for example here), reversed a generally held belief that moderate consumption of alcohol improves health (this is even enshrined in the Greek food pyramid, which has a separate category for wine and olive oil[1]), and led to angsty editorials about “what is to be done” about alcohol. Although there are definitely things that need to be done about alcohol, prohibition is an incredibly stupid and dangerous policy, and so are some of its less odious cousins, so before we go full Leroy Jenkins on alcohol policy it might be a good idea to ask if this study is really the bees knees, and does it really show what it says it does.

This study is a product of the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) project, at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). I’m intimately acquainted with this group because I made the mistake of getting involved with them a few years ago (I’m not now) so I saw how their sausage is made, and I learnt about a few of their key techniques. In fact I supervised a student who, to the best of my knowledge, remains the only person on earth (i.e. the only person in a population of 7 billion people, outside of two people at IHME) who was able to install a fundamental software package they use. So I think I know something about how this institution does its analyses. I think it’s safe to say that they aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, and I want to explain in this post how their paper is a disaster for public health.

The way that the IHME works in these papers is always pretty similar, and this paper is no exception. First they identify a set of diseases and health conditions related to their chosen risk (in this case the chosen risk is alcohol). Then they run through a bunch of previously published studies to identify the numerical magnitude of increased risk of these diseases associated with exposure to the risk. Then they estimate the level of exposure in every country on earth (this is a very difficult task which they use dodgy methods to complete). Then they calculate the number of deaths due to the conditions associated with this risk (this is also an incredibly difficult task to which they apply a set of poorly-accredited methods). Finally they use a method called comparative risk assessment (CRA) to calculate the proportion of deaths due to the exposure. CRA is in principle an excellent technique but there are certain aspects of their application of it that are particularly shonky, but which we probably don’t need to touch on here.

So in assessing this paper we need to consider three main issues: how they assess risk, how they assess exposure, and how they assess deaths. We will look at these three parts of their method and see that they are fundamentally flawed.

Problems with risk assessment

To assess the risk associated with alcohol consumption the IHME used a standard technique called meta-analysis. In essence a meta-analysis collects all the studies that relate an exposure (such as alcohol consumption) to an outcome (any health condition, but death is common), and then combines them to obtain a single final estimate of what the numerical risk is. Typically a meta-analysis will weight all the risks from all the studies according to the sample size of the study, so that for example a small study that finds banging your head on a wall reduces your risk of brain damage is given less weight in the meta-analysis than a very large study of banging your head on a wall. Meta-analysis isn’t easy for a lot of reasons to do with the practical details of studies (for example if two groups study banging your head on a wall do they use the same definition of brain damage and the same definition of banging?), but once you iron out all the issues it’s the only method we have for coming to comprehensive decisions about all the studies available. It’s important because the research literature on any issue typically includes a bunch of small shitty studies, and a few high quality studies, and we need to balance them all out when we assess the outcome. As an example, consider football and concussion. A good study would follow NFL players for several seasons, taking into account their position, the number of games they played, and the team they were in, and compare them against a concussion free sport like tennis, but matching them to players of similar age, race, socioeconomic background etc. Many studies might not do this – for example a study might take 20 NFL players who died of brain injuries and compare them with 40 non-NFL players who died of a heart attack. A good meta-analysis handles these issues of quality and combines multiple studies together to calculate a final estimate of risk.

The IHME study provides a meta-analysis of all the relationships between alcohol consumption and disease outcomes, described as follows[2]:

we performed a systematic review of literature published between January 1st, 1950 and Dec 31st 2016 using Pubmed and the GHDx. Studies were included if the following conditions were met. Studies were excluded if any of the following conditions were met:

1. The study did not report on the association between alcohol use and one of the included outcomes.

2. The study design was not either a cohort, case-control, or case-crossover.

3. The study did not report a relative measure of risk (either relative risk, risk ratio, odds-ratio, or hazard ratio) and did not report cases and non-cases among those exposed and un-exposed.

4. The study did not report dose-response amounts on alcohol use.

5. The study endpoint did not meet the case definition used in GBD 2016.

There are many, many problems with this description of the meta-analysis. First of all they seem not to have described the inclusion criteria (they say “Studies were included if the following conditions were met” but don’t say what those conditions were). But more importantly their conditions for exclusion are very weak. We do not, usually, include case-control and case-crossover studies in a meta-analysis because these studies are, frankly, terrible. The standard method for including a study in a meta-analysis is to assess it according to the Risk of Bias Tool and dump it if it is highly biased. For example, should we include a study that is not a randomized controlled trial? Should we include studies where subjects know their assignment? The meta-analysis community have developed a set of tools for deciding which studies to include, and the IHME crew haven’t used them.

This got me thinking that perhaps the IHME crew have been, shall we say, a little sloppy in how they include studies, so I had a bit of a look. On page 53-55 of the appendix they report the results of their meta-analysis of the relationship between atrial fibrillation and alcohol consumption, and the results are telling. They found 9 studies to include in their meta-analysis but there are many problems with these studies. One (Cohen 1988) is a cross-sectional study and should not be included, according to the IHME’s own exclusion criteria. 6 of the remaining studies assess fribillation only, while 2 assess fibrillation and fibrial flutter, a pre-cursor of fibrillation. However most tellingly, all of these studies find no relationship between alcohol consumption and fibrillation at almost all levels of consumption, but their chart on page 54 shows that their meta-analysis found an almost exponential relationship between alcohol consumption and fibrillation. This finding is simply impossible given the observed studies. All 9 studies found no relationship between moderate alcohol consumption and fibrillation, and several found no relationship even for extreme levels of consumption, but somehow the IHME found a clear relationship. How is this possible?

Problems with exposure assessment

This problem happened because they applied a tool called DISMOD to the data to estimate the relationship between alcohol exposure and fibrillation. DISMOD is an interesting tool but it has many flaws. Its main benefit is that it enables the user to incorporate exposures that have many different categories of exposure definition that don’t match, and turn them into a single risk curve. So for example if one study group has recorded the relative risk of death for 2-5 drinks, and another group has recorded the risk for 1-12 drinks, DISMOD offers a method to turn this into a single curve that will represent the risk relationship per additional drink. This is nice, and it produces the curve on page 54 (and all the subsequent curves). It’s also bullshit. I have worked with DISMOD and it has many, many problems. It is incomprehensible to everyone except the two guys who programmed it, who are nice guys but can’t give decent support or explanations of what it does. It has a very strange response distribution and doesn’t appear to apply other distributions well, and it has some really kooky Bayesian applications built in. It is also completely inscrutable to 99.99% of people who use it, including the people at IHME. It should not be used until it is peer reviewed and exposed to a proper independent assessment. It is application of DISMOD to data that obviously shows no relationship between alcohol consumption and fibrillation that led to the bullshit curve on page 54 of the appendix, that does not have any relationship to the observed data in the collected studies.

This also applies to the assessment of exposure to alcohol. The study used DISMOD to calculate each country’s level of individual alcohol consumption, which means that the same dodgy technique was applied to national alcohol consumption data. But let’s not get hung up on DISMOD. What data were they using? The maps in the Lancet paper show estimates of risk for every African and south east Asian country, which suggests that they have data on these countries, but do you think they do? Do you think Niger has accurate estimates of alcohol consumption in its borders? No, it doesn’t. A few countries in Africa do and the IHME crew used some spatial smoothing techniques (never clearly explained) to estimate the consumption rates in other countries. This is a massive dodge that the IHME apply, which they call “borrowing strength.” At its most egregious this is close to simply inventing data – in an earlier paper (perhaps in 2012) they were able to estimate rates of depression and depression-related conditions for 183 (I think) countries using data from 97 countries. No prizes to you, my astute reader, if you guess that all the missing data was in Africa. The same applies to the risk exposure estimates in this paper – they’re a complete fiction. Sure for the UK and Australia, where alcohol is basically a controlled drug, they are super accurate. But in the rest of the world, not so much.

Problems with mortality assessment

The IHME has a particularly nasty and tricky method for calculating the burden of disease, based around a thing called the year of life lost (YLL). Basically instead of measuring deaths they measure the years of your life that you lost when you died, compared to an objective global standard of life you could achieve. Basically they get the age you died, subtract it from the life expectancy of an Icelandic or Japanese woman, and that’s the number of YLLs you suffered. Add that up for every death and you have your burden of disease. It’s a nice idea except that there are two huge problems:

  • It weights death at young ages massively
  • They never incorporate uncertainty in the ideal life expectancy of an Icelandic or Japanese woman

There is an additional problem in the assessment of mortality, which the IHME crew always gloss over, which is called “garbage code redistribution.” Basically, about 30% of every country’s death records are bullshit, and don’t correspond with any meaningful cause of death. The IHME has a complicated, proprietary system that they cannot and will not explain that redistributes these garbage codes into other meaningful categories. What they should do is treat these redistributed deaths as a source of error (e.g. we have 100,000 deaths due to cancer and 5,000 redistributed deaths, so we actually have 102500 plus/minus 2500 deaths), but they don’t, they just add them on. So when they calculate burden of disease they use the following four steps:

  • Calculate the raw number of deaths, with an estimate of error
  • Reassign dodgy deaths in an arbitrary way, without counting these deaths as any form of uncertainty
  • Estimate an ideal life expectancy without applying any measure of error or uncertainty to it
  • Calculate the years of life lost relative to this ideal life expectancy and add them up

So here there are three sources of uncertainty (deaths, redistribution, ideal life expectancy) and only one is counted; and then all these uncertain deaths are multiplied by the number of years lost relative to the ideal life expectancy.

The result is a dog’s breakfast of mortality estimates, that don’t come even close to representing the truth about the burden of disease in any country due to any condition.

Also, the IHME apply the same dodgy modeling methods to deaths (using a method that they (used to?) call CoDMoD) before they calculate YLLs, so there’s another form of arbitrary model decisions and error in their assessments.

Putting all these errors together

This means that the IHME process works like this:

  • An incredibly dodgy form of meta-analysis that includes dodgy studies and miscalculates levels of risk
  • Applied to a really shonky estimate of the level of exposure to alcohol, that uses a computer program no one understands applied to a substandard data set
  • Applied to a dodgy death model that doesn’t include a lot of measures of uncertainty, and is thus spuriously accurate

The result is that at every stage of the process the IHME is unreasonably confident about the quality of their estimates, produces excessive estimates of risk and inaccurate measures of exposure, and is too precise in its calculations of how many people died. This means that all their conclusions about the actual risk of alcohol, the level of exposure, and the magnitude of disease burden due to the conditions they describe cannot be trusted. As a result, neither can their estimates of the proportion of mortality due to alcohol.

Conclusion

There is still no evidence that moderate alcohol consumption is bad for you, and solid meta-analyses of available studies support the conclusion that moderate alcohol consumption is not harmful. This study should not be believed and although the IHME has good press contacts, you should ignore all the media on this. As a former insider in the GBD process I can also suggest that in future you ignore all work from the Global Burden of Disease project. They have a preferential publishing deal with the Lancet, which means they aren’t properly peer reviewed, and their work is so massive that it’s hard for most academics to provide adequate peer review. Their methods haven’t been subjected to proper external assessment and my judgement, based on having visited them and worked with their statisticians and their software, is that their methods are not assessable. Their data is certainly dubious at times but most importantly their analysis approach is not correct and the Lancet doesn’t subject it to proper peer review. This is going to have long term consequences for global health, and at some point the people who continue to associate with the IHME’s papers (they have hundreds or even thousands of co-authors) will regret that association. I stopped collaborating with this project, and so should you. If you aren’t sure why, this paper on alcohol is a good example.

So chill, have another drink, and worry about whether it’s making you fat.


fn1: There are no reasons not to love Greek food, no wonder these people conquered the Mediterranean and developed philosophy and democracy!

fn2: This is in the appendix to their study

He has a glass staff

Having destroyed the goblin nest and learnt some disturbing facts our heroes traveled onward to Phandalin, where fame, glory – and ale – awaited them. In addition to delivering the supplies they were contractually obliged to deliver, they had also rescued a cargo from the goblins, which they hoped to gain a reward for delivering to Phandalin, and they also had to escort Sildar Hallwinter to the town. He had not only been escorting Grundar Rockseeker to the town, but had been seeking a wizard called Iarno who seemed to have gone missing after arriving at the town. Once he had recovered and set himself up in Phandalin the PCs expected to have more opportunities to work for him and whatever shady cause he truly represented, so they wanted to get to the town fast and settle in.

Phandalin is a new town, a small number of houses built on the ruins of a much older town. The older town was ringed by a strong defensive wall that must have been destroyed in an earlier battle, that also razed the old town. The now town stood defenseless inside the ring of those old walls, crumbled and cast down, its houses built of poorly slung-together naked wood cast up on the foundations of older, grander buildings. The roads through town were a mixture of mud paths and scattered cobblestones, last remnants of the old town. It hunched against the drizzle of the fag end of the Storm Season, its inhabitants and the buildings themselves taking the last breath in earnest before the winter set in and froze their bones. It had a ramshackle, desperate air to it, as if the whole community had been slung together in the hope that none of the marauding orc tribes of the mountains would notice it, and its residents might have a few seasons in which to profit from trapping and mining before the whole shoddy enterprise fell apart in an orgy of blood and slaughter.

Sadly, it hadn’t lasted that long. The PCs soon discovered that a gang of bandits had set up in town, camped in an old manor on a rise on the edge of town, and were terrorizing all the residents. The script was the same they had seen before in their travels: terrified locals, a blacksmith who used to be a great warrior but had taken up a pacifist religion and refused to fight back, a terrified and collaborationist mayor. The usual. Raymond deCantrus was able to cite several sociological studies familiar with the various psychological and socio-cultural issues underlying such phenomena, until a grim glance from Tyge shut him up. As always in these scripts they planned to ignore the issue and get on with their business, but they were ambushed in the street and forced to kill three of the stupid bandits in quick succession. The fourth rendered up the information they needed before they dragged him to the townmaster, cast him into the town hall’s one cell, threatened a tiny payment out of the townmaster, and set off to destroy the entire stupid band.

First they traveled to the Sleeping Giant, a seedy taproom on the eastern edge of town. Their informant amongst the dead guards had, upon witnessing Tyge’s savagery, told them the entire workings of the redcloaks’ guard operations, which were quite straightforward: at any one time four guards (now dead) were patrolling town, four were on call at the Sleeping Giant, and four were resting in the manor. Besides a few on guard duty with prisoners, this was their whole complement. In about four hours the guard would change at the Sleeping Giant, so the PCs decided to go there, kill the redcloaks in the bar, wait, kill the four who came, and then march into the manor unopposed. A few small details made this plan slightly less workable than it sounded – in particular the gang of bugbears who had been sent by the Black Widow to help the bandits, and the weird monster with one eye that stood guard in the basement of the manor.

Whatever. Killing the four guards in the Sleeping Giant proved remarkably easy. They just walked in and set to work with a grim and brutal disregard for the furniture. As they stood cleaning their weapons the barman tried to run out the back but Mouse easily caught him, and with a minimal amount of threats he admitted he had been running away to warn the redcloaks of the trap. Satisfied, the PCs made sure he stayed in the bar and set up their trap. Sure enough a few hours later the next four guards walked in and died, and their pathway had been cleared out. They tossed the barman a few coins to repair his shoddy furniture and set off for the manor.

The entire aboveground structure of the manor was ruined, obviously destroyed by raiders a long time ago and abandoned. In amongst its vine-tangled and rainswept ruins they found a door leading down to the cellars, where they knew the remnants of the redcloaks (and the Bugbears, and the weird eye-beast) lived. They marched down into a large square room with a huge cistern in the middle, full of pure water. They were checking the cistern and arguing about the correct door to take when three redcloaks burst out of one of those doors to attack them. Perhaps their informant hadn’t been entirely honest with them – but he would pay. They slaughtered their three attackers and cleaned their weapons, while Mouse dragged a small bag of treasures out of the cistern, obviously someone’s escape kit, containing clean clothes and a potion of invisibility.

Well, whoever had hidden that there wasn’t going to escape now. They braced themselves, and headed in …

 

Let the Games Begin …

On the weekend I ran a one-off adventure set in Neolithic England, in the area around Stonehenge. I ran this after being inspired by my recent trip to the area. These ancient sites, and the lives of our stone age ancestors, are a complete mystery to us, which means they provide an excellent backdrop for adventure, since you can use the adventures to fill in gaps about the history of real places, and the few things we do know as an opportunity for new stories. Neolithic England also appeals because the extremely low technology means that adventurers will be defined entirely by their abilities and not their gear, which always appeals to me. Of course I chose to include magic in my neolithic world, because I always want magic in my settings. As with my last two one-offs that I set in real locations, I gave every character a suite of special powers regardless of whether they were identifiably wizards, with the hope that the game would depend heavily on the use of special powers rather than skills. I think I was not disappointed.

The setting

The adventure starts in Stonehenge at the winter solstice, with all the people of the local community gathered in the Avenue to watch the rising of the sun through the stones. The PCs have been invited to join the chieftain of the community along with the Head Priest at the Heel Stone itself, as guests of honour, because of a recent heroic deed they had performed. I asked the PCs to decide what that deed was, and they settled on the slaying of a half-man, half-wolf creature that had been terrorizing the people. Having described the stones and the people, and had the PCs describe themselves, I then introduced the chieftain, a weak-jawed old stick-in-the-mud who was a fighting hero in his youth but has begun to become indecisive. Recent weak harvests are blamed on a decision he made when he first ascended to the chieftainship, to move some of the bluestones inside the Stonehenge circle itself, and there are rumours of moves against him, though nothing solid will happen until the priests of the heavens shift their allegiances. I also introduced three factions within the People, and asked the PCs to pick one. These are listed here.

  • The Farmers: A conservative faction that wants things to stay roughly as they are, no major changes to the way things are done, who support the current chieftain but are uncertain about his religious views and the decision to move the stones. They are currently neutral on his position but could be convinced to switch sides if they could be convinced that his leadership threatens the harvest or the natural order
  • The Drowners: A small and radical faction who believe that a time of change is coming, and who think there needs to be a major period of human sacrifice to appease the changing forces of nature. They are led by a young priest, and contain amongst their numbers some of the poorer, landless folk who live on the edges of the community, some younger more radical priests, and wilder people generally seen as troublesome. They advocate the sacrifice of all who commit crimes, and some elderly people, by drowning in the marshes and in the heads of streams, to appease the gods of the underworld. They even mutter about abandoning the traditional worship of the heavens for darker, more sinister religious ideals
  • The Dawntreaders: A convocation of warriors and priests of the heavens (the main religious sect among The People), this faction sees the recent difficulties as the work of outside enemies. They think their religious ideas and beliefs are fundamentally correct, but that people from Cornwall, Wales or the barbaric tribes to the East are trying to undermine them. They advocate punitive expeditions to the moors, with their most extreme members in favour of extermination. They believe that stealing the other peoples’ harvest and bringing some of their young back as slaves and human sacrifices will warn them and remind them that The People are at the centre of the universe, not to be trifled with.

The PC’s choices were kept secret. They were then asked to pick a language from amongst the neighbouring areas – Welsh, Eastern Barbarian, or Cornish – and the adventure began with the solstice rites.

The system

I used a variant of the Coriolis system, which is a very simple and easy to use system that is very easy to generate characters for. Available skills were slightly reduced and reorganized, primarily to strip out skills like Data Djinn and Technology, and to shift Survival to an advanced skill (survival is the primary skill used to understand and assess new technology in this world of stone and wood). I also added a Darkness attribute, which is basically a limit each PC has on how many darkness points they can use. Every time they use a darkness point to push a roll, the GM gets one darkness point and the PC’s tally increases. When their tally reaches their limit they are consumed by darkness, and something horrible happens to their character, after which they reset. I renamed mental points as will, and this was used for invoking powers. Each PC had a special method for quickly recovering will in combat – drinking booze, or killing a helpless enemy, for example. Each PC also had a method for shedding some darkness points, which usually took longer and was slightly more difficult.

Something I did not expect was that my players would roll really badly. At one point in the session two players rolled a combined total of 24 dice and got no successes. Even with large dice pools and pushing things they seemed to fail a remarkable amount of the time. This would be bad in the normal rules, but with the darkness mechanic it proved a little punishing. I haven’t run Coriolis before but I have run mutant, and I never noticed this problem in Mutant. This session it produced some punishing results, though.

The PCs

Three players joined this session. I made all the PCs as bespoke characters, and they had a choice of four, listed here.

  1. The Dark Priest: a priest of earth and shadow, who specializes in magic that can bring the spirits of the dead back, drain people’s health, heal people, and curse them. He is old, weak and creepy. He sheds darkness by sacrificing a helpless person, and regains will by injuring himself or sacrificing helpless person.
  2. The Nature Priest: A priest who specializes in tracking, learning the secrets of the wild, and granting boons to his allies. He can transform into a bear. He sheds darkness by making a tincture of rare herbs, and can recover will by sparing an enemy he could have killed, with no benefit to himself.
  3. The Berserker: A warrior type who can fly into a berserk rage, commands rituals that make him a superhero in battle, and can intimidate and terrify his enemies. He sheds darkness by killing foes in battle, and recovers will by drinking alcohol.
  4. The Rogue: A scout and assassin, who is accompanied by a bird familiar that he can use for spying and vigilance. He can also go invisible, and has special powers with his bow. He can shed darkness by doing something that causes an ally to be harmed, and can recover will simply by running out of combat.

Everyone decided the Rogue was too much of an arsehole, so in the end the Dark Priest, the Nature Priest and the Berserker started the adventure, lined up next to the Chieftain at the heel stone as the ritual of the winter solstice began …

Last week I visited the Boolean Library in Oxford to see the Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth exhibition. This exhibition combines work from Tolkien’s estate, material from various museums, and published material to produce a detailed description of his life and the process of producing his seminal work, The Lord of the Rings. It includes a lot of the original artwork he produced, and notes and scribblings from his entire career. Interspersed with these are letters, diary entries, photos and details of his daily life, including memorabilia and ephemera (?) such as the rocking chair from his office.

The central theme of the exhibition is the long drawn out process by which Tolkien developed Middle Earth, from its first sparks in his teen years and early university days to its final realization. To describe this process they use a lot of material from his study and workshops, and present a lot of maps, as well as some of the content of his interactions with colleagues, publishers and his friends The Inklings. The exhibition does not set out to give a background or introduction to Middle Earth, though it contains some fascinating exhibits that link his art and his voice to the contents of his world. There are several readings of Quenya by Tolkien himself, that were recorded at some point and which you can listen to, and there is an excellent interactive map of the journeys of the Fellowship, with locations that you can click on to see pictures that Tolkien drew or painted that describe the settings (his 3-D pencil sketch of Mordor is particularly good). There is a section devoted to various pictures he drew attempting to visualize the world of the First Age and the Silmarillion, which indicate that this period was not settled in his own mind. There are also stories about how others reacted to his illustrations. Of particular interest here is the reaction of publishers to his pictures, with (for example) the publisher of the Hobbit being very happy with his picture of Bilbo drifting through the forest on a barrel, but not so interested in other pictures. From all of this the visitor can gain a deeper insight into just how long it took him to produce the Lord of the Rings, how intensively it was worked and reworked, and how close it came to never being published.

I’m not a big fan of Tolkien’s illustrations, many of which are amateurish and in a style I don’t really like, but even many of the illustrations I don’t like are evocative of a particular vision and style that really helps to define how Tolkien saw his world (and, given his authorial authority, how we should too!) Some, like the Bilbo on a barrel picture, are quite beautiful in a kind of art nouveau style that I think really summarizes Tolkien’s romanticism and his anti-industrial sensibilities. Others give a sense of the scale and power of the world he wanted us to wander through, and help us to understand how he imagined the journeys at the core of the story. They also give an insight into another interesting thing about Tolkien’s imagination: just as he centered the story of Middle Earth in the world of the Third Age, and depicted the First Age as a lost realm of dreams and myth, so he himself had a very concrete vision of the Third Age, but a very vague and shifting view of the past of his world. His pictures and descriptions of the First and Second Age do not provide much clarity about what it looked like, as if he was drawing on memories and dreams, while from his pictures of the Middle Earth of Lord of the Rings one feels as if he was really there. This might help to give some sense to the conflicting myths and legends underlying the story, and suggests that Tolkien never intended anyone to draw any single clear and definitive strand of history from the First Age to the Third.

I cannot review an exhibition of Tolkien without touching on the recurring theme of my analysis of his work, the problem of scientific racism. The museum does not touch on this issue or discuss it in any way, and nor does it need to – this is an exhibition about Tolkien’s life and how he developed his stories, not about any single theme that underlies it, and it had no great interest in the impact of his work on subsequent writers (except to present some excellent examples of how enormously popular his work has been). However, the exhibition does present a single piece of extremely strong evidence in support of the claim that Middle Earth represents Europe, and the Haradrim are Africans. One of the central pieces of the exhibition is the map that Tolkien worked from in preparing the book. On this map he has written in blue ink the names of real world places that correspond with the places in Middle Earth. Hobbiton is Oxford, Minas Tirith is somewhere in Italy, and the southernmost city on the map – somewhere north of Haradwaith – is Jerusalem. It is abundantly clear from this map – prepared by Tolkien himself and a core part of his working materials for the book – that he envisaged Haradwaith as Africa. This should help to settle debate on how we should analogize the Haradrim in his stories.

Although the exhibition does not intend to – and obviously does not need to – describe Tolkien’s political views in detail, it does give a brief account of his role in the war and his reaction to it, which are generally agreed to be important to the development of some of the ideas behind his imaginary world. There is a tragic picture of his graduating class from Oxford (I think it’s Oxford) with all those who died in the Great War shaded out, showing how terribly that war affected his generation, even those like himself who were relatively cushioned from it by their comparatively elite status. There is a sad letter from a friend heading to the front, urging him to continue his writing even if the friend will never live to see it (that friend died at the front). This helps to give an insight into Tolkien’s personality. But the real insight into Tolkien’s personality comes from excerpts of his letters, and the description of some aspects of his personal life. Though he had been appointed professor of Old English at Oxford, Tolkien had no office, and worked from a study at home. In this study he supervised students, prepared lectures, and did all his philological work. The museum also tells us that he never closed this study to his children, and that it was a popular place for them. It has to be said that from these insights into his personal world the museum really gives the impression of a man who was kind, gentle and in no way an arsehole. This may not seem like much but I have worked in Academia for 10 years now and I have to say that not being an arsehole in Academia is a rare and special trait. Furthermore, in this age of #metoo where we are increasingly discovering that the people whose work we love are arseholes, losers and/or abusers, it is genuine pleasure to find that a man whose work was of such towering importance, who was in an elite position in a world where men of his position were protected from all forms of retribution for their behavior, and an academic to boot, really appears to have just been a decent chap. It’s a balm for the soul in these troubled times, and although I had no special impressions of Tolkien’s personality in any direction, it is nice to be given some evidence that he was not the arsehole so many other famous people have turned out to be. Well done Dr. Tolkien!

Because I have written many blogposts analyzing the racism in Tolkien’s work, and the negative influence of its racist and conservative content on the fantasy genre, I am often mistaken for someone who doesn’t like Tolkien’s work and doesn’t consider it especially influential. Nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth. I love his work and think it was hugely influential. As part of my trip to the UK I went on a tour of some famous sites in Wessex and the area I grew up in, and I realized through these journeys that I really was strongly influenced by the bucolic vision of a green and perfect England that Tolkien incorporated into his works, as well as the Christian and pre-Christian ideas that drive it. I think his work is an amazing and beautiful construction and undoubtedly one of the most important cultural products of the 20th Century (along, perhaps, with heavy metal, role playing, social networks, modern combat sports and computer games). He did something no one else had ever done, and unlike Gary Gygax he did it beautifully on his first try. This exhibition really does a great job of reinforcing that impression, and gives a detailed and careful description of the process by which he achieved his vision, from a clearly sympathetic but not sycophantic perspective. If you have a chance to see this exhibition, please do so. If you like Tolkien, or even if you don’t but are interested in how this important literary figure built and conceived his world, then I recommend you visit this exhibition and immerse yourself in his creative vision. I promise you won’t be disappointed!

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