Horror


Over Christmas large swathes of northern England drowned, washed away in a huge flood caused by storms from the Atlantic. The same storms battered the Irish coast, and are now moving up towards the arctic, where the North Pole is expected to be 1C – 30C above the average for this time of year – on 30th December. Towns in the north that do not normally experience flooding, like York and Leeds, were submerged, and some towns on the west coast experienced their second or third major floods in three years. Insurers estimate the cost of the latest floods at 5 billion pounds, and more are expected tonight and tomorrow.

For many people these floods will bring financial ruin, because many people in the affected areas were no longer able to obtain flood insurance – the area they live in was deemed too high risk by the insurance companies, which stopped covering them after the 2011-12 floods. Those floods are estimated to have cost 3 billion pounds, and since then the government has been investing about half a billion pounds a year in flood mitigation measures that clearly were insufficient to handle the latest storms. This withdrawal of insurance comes despite the fact that the government instituted a 10 pound levy on all insurance plans in the UK to subsidize the continued provision of flood insurance to at-risk areas – even that additional support was insufficient to get the insurers to return to Cumbria, so people in that area have been running their businesses uninsured since the last floods.

Now the Environment Agency are talking about learning to live with floods instead of preventing them, because they think the government just doesn’t have the resources to cope with the weather. The first Labour member has broken ranks and demanded that mitigation and recovery funding be taken from the foreign aid budget, citing – of all countries! – Bangladesh as an example of a place that shouldn’t be receiving aid money when British people are at need. Bangladesh, of course, faces a future of flood adaptation measures that make the UK’s look trivial, and part of the reason it is economically unable to handle that future is past British colonial intransigence. But of course now that the UK begins to face its global warming future, solidarity with poorer nations will be one of the first higher ideals to give way.

It won’t be the last though, because this is what adaptation looks like: increasing amounts of resources being devoted to Canute-like strategies to temporarily shore-up defenses against increasingly vicious and uncontrollable natural phenomena, and the most vulnerable people on the periphery left to drown or burn. These unprecedented rains aren’t some kind of aberration or heavenly wrath with no explanation or pattern – they’re the latest manifestation of global warming, and there is much worse to come in our lifetimes. Some people will say they’re worse because of El Nino, but the same thing happened three years ago, and for six months much of Somerset was underwater before this El Nino started. The future is here now, long before everyone expected, and it’s not pretty. As the weather turns on us, what we have to do just to hold it back is going to get a lot worse, and the numbers of people affected – and their anger at the people who can’t fix it – are going to grow.

This extreme weather and its associated damage is coming at a time when our ecosystem is suffering increasing stress from other human interference – draining the water table for unsustainable farming, overfishing, habitat destruction and invasive species as well as increasing pressure for land and basic resources like water. We see these stresses running up against the influence of climate change all the time now, in debates like those in the UK and the US about how much water to sequester for protecting environmental flows in rivers. This combination of stresses means that we have less room to manoeuvre when it comes to adaptation. Californians, for example, have adapted to the drought by draining groundwater, which takes decades or centuries of quality rainfall to replace; in the UK there is pressure to dredge more rivers, but river systems are vital to the health of ecosystems, and damaging these systems through dredging will place other pressures on the environment. Increasingly, adaptation measures that were taken for granted in the past will come into conflict with other land-use practices or environmental safeguards.

The UK’s problem with flooding is a good example of this. To properly manage flooding in this “new normal” of increased rainfall and intense storms is going to require coordinated action all along river systems, and it will have to include setting aside some farmland to flood when rivers overflow. George Monbiot describes how upstream grouse moors and fallow fields will need to change land-use practices to prevent run-off, and the need to restore the health of rivers, rather than dredge them, in order to ensure major rains can be properly managed. Additionally, where previously winter precipitation would be stored as snow and released slowly in spring meltwater, now it will fall as rain and wash immediately off high lands, requiring changes in winter land-use patterns. This is going to create additional pressure on farmland and require new models of cooperation between urban and rural communities that, frankly, I don’t think are possible in the UK’s class-blighted society.

Adaptation is also going to require economic changes that a lot of mainstream economists aren’t going to be happy with. The flood levy obviously hasn’t worked, and the idea that insurers will continue to be able to operate profitably under current market conditions while also providing a useful social service is beginning to look untenable. They are going to need increasingly aggressive protections as climate change worsens, or the government is going to have to take on a bigger role as an insurer of last resort. Farmers who are forced to set aside land for flood plains are obviously not going to be insurable, and communities that are clearly intended to play a role as upstream sacrifices (as happened in parts of York) can’t be expected to insure themselves. It’s hard to see how these wide scale, often transnational environmental challenges can be effectively responded to by piecemeal responses in local areas or single countries, or by isolated market entities like insurance companies. A bigger cooperative model is going to be needed if we’re to preserve the key components of our environment in the near future.

Adaptation vs. mitigation was a key plank of the denialist platform in the 1990s and 2000s, and continues to be pushed by luke-warmers and delayers such as the Breakthrough Institute. It’s important to remember, though, that adaptation in practice means that some people have to sacrifice their livelihoods and sometimes their lives on the frontline of global warming’s impacts. For governments, adaptation is a question of dollars and shifting resources, but for the people who are forced to wade through water in the front room of their business “adaptation” can mean bankruptcy or financial ruin, displacement or – at best, in this current situation – a completely wretched Christmas. As the paid shills for delay and denial shift from braying “it’s too soon, we don’t know if it’s a real risk” to “it’s too late, all we can do is adapt,” we should remember what happened this Christmas in the UK (and also the US mid-west, and the Australian surf coast). Adaptation means some people losing their homes and livelihoods, it means towns flooded or (as happened in Japan earlier this year) entirely washed away. It also means increasing pressure on the environment and ecosystem services we all depend on, and on infrastructure like the collapsed bridge in Tadcaster or the overflowing US sewage works – infrastructure that we have taken for granted in some cases for hundreds of years. Even if we somehow conclude that adaptation is still cheaper than mitigation, we should stop and ask ourselves: is it worth the savings?

Let’s hope 2016 brings a renewed commitment to fix this growing and increasingly dangerous problem, before climate changes washes, burns and blows away all of industrial civilization.

THIS! IS! SPARTA!

THIS! IS! YOKOSUKA!

For our final session of 2015 my group and I tried a short run through the Fantasy Flight Games zombie apocalypse role-playing game The End of the World, a rules-lite system intended to simulate zombie survival in a collapsing world. I’m going to give a very brief summary of the game we played, and then a short review of some aspects of this game, which had some good ideas but I felt fell a bit flat at the end.

The session

Our group were a university academic, game designer and computer programmer, based roughly on our own careers (see below). The adventure started with us playing an RPG in our friend’s apartment in downtown Tokyo, only to be interrupted by his housemate showing us a news report of a disaster at a nearby infectious disease research institute. A huge fire had broken out, and in running away from the fire a scientist tripped and spilled some kind of virus over himself. He promptly exploded in a shower of bloody vomit, and very quickly the area around the research institute was shutdown, with everyone warned to stay inside. That included us, gaming inside the zone where everyone was required to stay inside.

After an uncomfortable night in the tiny apartment we gave up on staying inside and went to the convenience store for supplies, only to find it full of scary sick people. We returned home, and decided to get out. Our friend Jimmy and his flatmate’s girlfriend Saito san came with us, in a car we borrowed from the landlord (this is Japan, this kind of thing happens). Our plan was to head to the US base at Yokosuka, because our game designer was a base boy originally and had American citizenship, and we had heard that America was evacuating, and we hoped to scam a lift with them. By now things were getting scary – the news was on a loop, the convenience stores deserted, and normally mild-mannered citizens turning murderous, and we had seen more than one person dying in an orgy of bloody vomit.

By the time we got on the roads chaos was starting to break out, with people in cars being attacked by other people who wanted to get out, and dead people visible in many places. But there were no zombies, it just seemed like some kind of outbreak and every scared of getting caught up in it. Escaping from one such group of no-good people we damaged the car, and pulled over at an overpass to steal two empty cars (a Prius and a Mustang!) sitting near the shadows of the overpass. As we approached the cars we heard sounds of growling and hissing from the shadows of the overpass, and suddenly a bicycle came flying out of the shadows and hit our car with such force that it shattered the window. Jimmy panicked and ran away down a side street, where something came out of the shadows at lightning speed, hit him and carried him away. We didn’t need any more encouraging – we jumped into the cars and hightailed it out of there, though nothing followed us out of that overpass. We crossed the Tama river and drove on, through streets that were alternately deserted or combat zones.

At the Yokosuka army base we were separated. They allowed the designer, Ishiba san, in, but we two and Saito san had to stay outside. As we sat there in our car wondering what to do the sun started to sink, and suddenly from all across Tokyo rose a howl of primal rage, as if monsters in the shadows were preparing to come out. We’d seen a few of these things slinking around in the shadows, and we decided it was best to hole up somewhere fast. Fortunately the programmer’s house was nearby so we drove to that in about 20 minutes, and got inside just as the sun fell below the horizon.

After that the trouble really started. Two beasts tried to get into our apartment but we prepared and ambushed them separately. Our programmer was training in sword fighting so between us we had a real steel sword, a wooden sword, and Saito san with a frying pan – she was a member of her university tennis club, and a dab hand with a heavy iron skillet. We took out two, but the second one broke my shoulder[1]. Meanwhile Ishiba san found the base attacked from within, and had to flee in a humvee, driving over a couple of the zombie creatures as he went. These zombies were not shambling weaklings, but some kind of undead werewolf-like creature, that shucked off human flesh after its transformation and turned into a howling beast of rage and hunger.

The game finished with us waiting out the night and then driving away to the edge of Tokyo. I suggested heading off to the radiation-affected area to hide, and another player suggested we should hide at the outskirts of Tokyo, going in during the day to steal supplies. That is where the adventure ended.

The game

The game was fun, but in some ways it didn’t work. I think part of the reason it didn’t work was simply narrative – we all knew it was going to be a zombie story and so there was no surprise or tension when they finally came out to play. There are three books in the series and a fourth planned, I think, so it might be better to run the session without any idea of how the apocalypse is going to happen, or even if it will, and then build a campaign that floats around that idea. In fact I have long thought of running such a campaign, starting in the 1950s or 1960s and being uncertain from the outset whether it will be a horror, alien invasion, nuclear apocalypse or something else. This system seems like it would be ideal for that, though our GM told us the online community has been saying it won’t work for campaigns.

The system also suggests that you play yourself, i.e. make a character that is based on your own traits. The system is really simple – three traits divided into offense/defense and one good and one bad point for each trait – so it would be easy to do this, but who wants to play yourself? I role-play to not be a loser, not to watch myself get eaten by zombies. So I vetoed that flat-out, and as a compromise between my preference (play people who can do stuff) and the book, we agreed to make characters similar in career and situation to ours. So I played a deeply arrogant medical doctor who was under investigation for unethical research practices, and secretly welcomed the apocalypse because it was going to derail the investigation.

That was more fun.

The system is interesting and brutal. You assemble a dice pool of positive dice based on your attribute, and negative dice based on the challenge of the task; all dice are d6s. Positive and negative dice cancel if they get the same numbers, and any positive dice left over that rolled below your attribute are successes; any negative dice left over are stresses. For example if you have an attribute of 4 and a difficulty of 1 you roll 4 positive and 1 negative die; one positive die may cancel the negative die if they roll the same; any remaining positive dice that roll under 4 are successes, and if the negative die doesn’t cancel you also suffer 1 stress. Stress accrues on the same stress track as damage, and there is a separate track for physical, mental and social damage. This is why my character died; he could have survived a single blow from the zombie (just) but he had previously accrued stress from skill checks. We realized very quickly that stress was going to be serious, and avoided skill checks after that, but even a couple are a problem. Combat was also brutal – you don’t get any defense skill, so if your enemy is some kind of insane rage zombie it rolls 5 dice to hit you with no negatives to cancel them. That’s a serious amount of damage, so anything with any ferocity or skill is a death trap.

I think the game is intended to be played this way – survival is unlikely and you need to be ready to roll up new characters regularly. But the system is so rough and fast that I suspect it might chew up interest along with characters. It does somehow manage to give a feeling of ordinary people in an ordinary world gone crazy though, so it seems like it is well suited to a zombie survival epic. The book is also very nicely laid out and stylish, so it’s worth getting if you’re interested in such an epic. I think, though, that you shouldn’t start playing yourself, and you might find yourself rapidly house-ruling it to make it bearable.

I’m not sure if zombie survival role-playing is possible now that the genre has been so completely and thoroughly dealt with by popular culture, but if you are interested in trying a gritty, dangerous role-playing game with lots of resources for different types and styles of zombie apocalypse, that is quick to pick up and easy to run, I recommend it. But be prepared to make a lot of rapid changes to the rules as they’re laid out if you want to enjoy it – and start by playing someone a little more interesting than yourself!

fn1: in the mechanic of the game, it killed me, but I made a check to survive but come back severely mauled.

SPOILER: Everything they do turns to shit

SPOILER: Everything they do turns to shit

Last week David Cameron, British PM, put the case for bombing ISIS. It was interesting not for what he didn’t say but for the extent of what he did say. In stark contrast to the last time a British PM tried to ginny up a war, this time he was unstinting in his efforts to present facts and legal material in support of his bloodthirst. I watched it live (by coincidence!) and was interested to see that he released the legal evidence for war – something Blair never did – and spoke in detail to a list of reasons why bombing ISIS would be a war of self-defense, justified by not just international law but common decency. I can’t find the speech online, but you can read highlights here. In my opinion this was one of Cameron’s finer moments, reminiscent of the Cameron I saw on TV in 2009 before I left the UK, making strong speeches upbraiding the Labour Party for abandoning equality and promising that the Conservatives would be a party of greater equality and opportunity.

He does a good act, does the pig-fucker general. He let it all down today when he called the opposition leader a “terrorist sympathizer,” a cheap and pathetic shot that he really didn’t need to deliver after making a strong and passionate speech in favour of a war that, I think, many people would be happy to support. Why smear shit on that gilded lily? This particular insult is particularly stupid because while many people might suspect Corbyn of being a bit too close with Assad, it’s really obvious to everyone that a) this wouldn’t be happening if Assad had a few more friends and b) Corbyn is obviously a pacifist, which means he is not a terrorist sympathizer and everyone knows this. Saying something like “Corbyn can’t be trusted with the nuclear arsenal” is a perfectly reasonable slur; there is, however, no logic to claiming a pacifist is a terrorist sympathizer, and coming from someone in a position of such strength as Cameron this is just pathetic.

It’s also redolent of the worst rhetorical excesses of the period leading up to the Iraq war, when anyone who didn’t agree with a plan to kill a million Iraqis, displace 4 million more, and ignite a powder keg in the middle East was derided as a coward and a friend of Saddam Hussein. After those heady days of bloodthirsty stupidity it’s a very, very bad plan to show any hint of the same arrogance. This was on display in both Cameron’s speech and Corbyn’s reply, both of which were heavy with caution about the idea of sending British soldiers to the middle East. Cameron was at pains to point out that this was not a war of choice, and Corbyn was at pains to point out that the Labour Party is no longer the party of indiscriminately murdering foreigners.

Progress! And how did this progress come about? Because everyone in British politics is now desperate to avoid being compared to that most sinister of Vampiric figures, Tony Blair, the muppet who sucked Britain into a devastating war with a country it had no reason to invade, against all reason and popular will. Excepting the Scottish National Party, who are a kind of post-Blairite success, the rest of the parliament were engaged in a ten-hour long debate this week with not each other, but the ghost of Vampires past – Tony Blair. They could as well have burnt his effigy and all gone home, because until a couple of generations have passed and that evil grinning demon is dispelled from the British conscience there is no possibility of having an honest debate about war. How can you debate something when the shame, stigma and sin are so deeply ingrained as this? Little knowing, Shakespeare prepared a scene for just this moment in British political history: “Out, damned spot!”

But like the play, it won’t wash out, and as a result Corbyn’s response to Cameron’s speech was, in my opinion, crabby and limited. He could have set a higher tone by commending Cameron for his thoroughness, reminding everyone from the start of what a heinous mistake the last British effort was, and engaging the points that Cameron made rather than reading off a list of questions that Cameron had basically already answered. Corbyn’s speech was aimed at an absent Tony Blair, and those of his ghouls who remain connected to the parliamentary Labour Party, rather than the ostensible warmonger standing in front of him. Was ever a political party more hamstrung by its recent history than this? They elected a near-pacifist, who has completely reasonable grounds for his beliefs, and is strong in them, but the first time a war comes along he actually has a really good opportunity to engage with the British public by renouncing those beliefs “for a greater good”: only he can’t, because he and his whole party couldn’t go to war against Darth Vader himself if he was murdering puppies by the bucketload, because even the suggestion of a warlike impulse and the entire country will yell “FUCK! Blair!” and head to the bomb shelters.

He doesn’t have a reflection, but surely Blair’s shadow stretches far.

Later in the week Corbyn recovered some poise, and wrote a much more solid opinion piece for the Guardian, explaining in more detail why war won’t work. He seems to be largely supported by his party, though reports say he is allowing a conscience vote, which is good. War should be a matter of conscience, though that wouldn’t have stopped the Blairite clique, who are as completely lacking in conscience as they are in souls. Corbyn’s piece points out that without boots on the ground we can’t win, and the only boots on the ground that can win are local, but the local forces are either useless or very very dubious. He also points out that British planes won’t add much to all the other powers there so why bother? I have the same feeling about Trident: just let it all go boys, you’re no longer a world power! But the deeper point I think is more important: without ground troops bombing campaigns are a waste of time, and there is no army ready to deal with ISIS.

ISIS are the Khmer Rouge of the Middle East. Just like the Khmer Rouge, they sprung out of destruction and waste, sowed now as it was then by the US air force and triggered by a local insurrection. In the end the Khmer Rouge were brought down by a Vietnamese invasion, which it appears many scholars think met all the conditions for a “just war”: they invaded Cambodia to protect themselves, stop massive refugee flows, and end a despotic and genocidal regime. Cameron was at pains to make the same points in his speech, though he didn’t compare the UK to Vietnam, and I think he’s on solid ground. The difference, of course, is in the source of ground troops: Vietnam is a neighbour of Cambodia, and sent in 150000 Vietnamese troops, defeating the Khmer Rouge in two weeks (ha!), but there is no similar ground force available to beat ISIS. If the western powers are going to depose ISIS they’re going to need a local force, and the only local forces available are either unacceptable (Iran, Hezbollah, Assad) or uninterested (Turkey).

When I read the debates about what to do about ISIS I find myself trapped by the same demons as Corbyn. On first blush it appears like the perfect humanitarian intervention – no clearer case has presented itself in 30 years. But our recent history of interventions and the recent history in the area make me think that no intervention is going to work. Which leaves ISIS rampaging across the region, destroying everything they touch, even though there’s the possibility of a coalition of global powers acting together for the first time since world war 2 to destroy an unqualified evil, uncompromised by concerns of local politics or history. Since the Khmer Rouge no one has been so obviously cruising for a bruising as ISIS, and no coalition more clearly ready to form since world war 2.

And yet over it all hangs the shadow of Blair and Bush. Vox recently published a great article featuring a debate between Christopher Hitchens and a few other randoms, in which Hitchens was 100% convinced that no harm could come from invading Iraq, while someone else in the debate was predicting, essentially, ISIS. Reach back in history and view that, and weep at how stupid our political masters can be. If they hadn’t invaded Iraq, a million people would still be alive and ISIS probably wouldn’t exist; and if they did, the political will to destroy them would be intense and unstoppable.

There is no place in hell hot enough for the people who made those decisions in 2003.

Christian doctrine summarized

Christian doctrine summarized

Today’s news brings us reports that the Church of England’s gentle attempts to frontload the new Star Wars movie with a one minute long advert for their brand of authoritarian fantasism have fallen flat, in what everyone (even Richard Dawkins, apparently) is calling a defeat for free speech. In a stunning moment of unexpected bravery from our corporate overlords, the bosses of three different cinema chains have told the CofE to get fucked. Rather than being horrified by this slow slide into oppression, I am very happy, and extremely angry that the CofE felt they had the right to pull this nasty piece of totalitarianism on the British public. Before you start hyperventilating, dear reader(s), let me explain …

I’m not an easily offended man, I think, and I think I’ve been on the record as supporting free expression for all religions. I’m an atheist but I don’t subscribe to the “Militant Atheist” school of “thought”, which holds that religion is a childish emotional prop and that society should and will grow past it. I respect individual religious belief, I think religions should have freedom in public life and I’m not especially bothered by the special place that some religious institutions hold in public life – e.g. the christian churches of various denominations in various nations, Islam in Turkey, etc. In the modern era I really don’t see religion as a big threat to our continued progress towards enlightenment, and I have no problem with its open expression and with its historical contributions being recognized. I’m also, I think, on record here as saying I suspect that a lot of the militant atheist spokespeople are sexist, racist bigots who are especially fond of using their atheism as a cloak for their obvious anti-Arab or anti-Islamic racism, and I don’t think that their aggressive tactics do atheism any favours. To the extent that atheism is a movement (it’s not) we don’t need these people as our chief representatives. However …

The Church of England, because it has a huge and privileged position in the British intellectual world. It is the establishment church, meaning the head of the church is also the head of a nuclear-armed state. It owns most of the publicly-run schools, and I can personally attest to the way it used those schools to exclude other religions from discussion, to misrepresent them and to force us to learn and recite its doctrine. It gets free public air time for Sunday worship and special events that no one else gets, and its religious events are the key public holidays, during which time it gets almost untrammeled access to both state and private television and radio. Despite this near constant exposure of a large portion of the population to its propaganda message, and despite the fact that the major media organizations treat the corrupt content of that message with kid gloves, it is still losing the intellectual battle with atheism, agnosticism and who-gives-a-fuckism. So, having lost that battle, and aware of that, they are now going to start forcing adults who have graduated from their schools and escaped their slimy clutches to sit through a minute of unbridled power worship before they can enjoy some actually good fantasy.

Why should we put up with this? Why should I be forced to endure that horrible piece of authoritarian “poetry” when I have already been forced to recite it every morning for the first 17 years of my life? If I am not voluntarily reciting it then there is a simple reason: I think it sucks and I don’t want to. So don’t make me read it again, if I never have to read that horrible little cry for help ever again in my belief-free existence I will be a happy man. And most importantly, what gives the church the arrogance and sense of superiority to think that it’s okay for them to afflict me with this crap during my daily activities? Every time I go to a hotel in the English speaking world I’m given a free bible [another public service extended exclusively to the christian church by private companies], hasn’t the church worked out that if I wanted to read that prayer I would?

Most people understand that if you have told someone something a certain number of times and they still don’t believe it or don’t want to hear it, it’s time to stop yelling at them. Apparently the luminaries at the head of the Church of England have yet to learn that lesson, and think they have some special right to lambast us with their brand of patriarchal authoritarianism just once more, because that one more minute will get us back. The thought of sitting there, waiting to watch something I really want to watch, while for one minute this old man lectures me on how much I should love a god I don’t believe in, makes me so angry. It’s a direct reminder that these evil old men still own my society; an attempt to force me back to being my 8 year old self, shivering and powerless in assembly hall while I wait to be free of their pointless rituals. How dare they do this?

Some random dude at the Guardian is complaining that the real reason the cinemas refused is because they’re scared the illuminati might force us to listen to a muslim prayer in the future, and then they’ll be forced to play it if they also play the christian one. For me personally a passage from the Quran is largely meaningless, and if I listen to it it won’t make me angry because I have no historical association with Islam (though I guess this depends on the prayer they choose!) But for the record I think that Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and everyone else should steer well clear of my precious pre-Star Wars advertising time. I also really want to hope that this is not the reason the cinemas said no, but rather that they, like me, are horrified at the thought of allowing any church to preach to us for a minute before a movie. I’m glad they don’t need the money that badly!

The sooner the Church of England is out of schools and television altogether the better. It’s a dying institution that is propped up by the state and the buttresses of history, but its days are numbered. This desperate, mean-spirited lashing out at non-believing adults needs to be stopped early, and rather than seeing this decision as “nonsense on stilts” or some kind of blow to free speech we should recognize that it is a huge victory for modern values over superstition and authoritarianism. Well done those British cinema chains, and shame on the Church of England for thinking that such a move would ever be okay.

Where did I put that thermometer ...?

Where did I put that thermometer …?

Our heroes have arrived, bedraggled and cowed, at the remote and frozen outpost of Niscorp 1743. They have come bearing a pair of cryogenic medical pods that contain trafficked humans from Dune, who the Confederate Navy has charged them with retaining until they can find the organization that was smuggling them. They also came bearing a crate of laser carbines, their only profitable salvage from within the wrecked and drifting space station at Dune. With little hope of profit or benefit in Niscorp, they were contemplating traveling on to the nearby pirate planet, The Reach, to try and trade their laser carbines there, but traveling to The Reach without a contact is not entirely wise, so first they thought they would rest and see what options they could hunt out from Niscorp.

They docked at the bottom disc of the Niscorp starport and told the waiting harbour master that they were carrying humans rescued from the wreckage of Dune. After filling in a few customs forms they were allowed to move on to the residential area, where they were assigned spacious quarters on the outer edge of the residential disc. This disc was spinning fast enough to mimic Niscorp gravity (about 0.6 standard) so they could see the planet drift by every couple of hours, gleaming pearly white in their viewing monitors before it slid away to reveal a cluster of small moons, and the distant, pale watery yellow disc of Niscorp’s weak sun. The characters were not interested in the view however. Leaving Ahmose to her own devices, Alpha and Simon Simon traveled down to an area near the central spindle of the starport, where they had been told they could find a tavern for traders and soldiers call The Bullseye.

Bullseye!

Bullseye!

The Bullseye was so-called because from its position near the spindle one could look down the length of the central spindle, seeing the wider rings of the other two discs hanging in the sky like two roundels on a target. Located between the central spindle and the accomodation section, it was a natural stop-off point for people working in the inner sections of the starport, either Niscorp mercenaries or travellers on less savoury missions – a perfect location to find people with information about traveling to The Reach.

When they arrived at the Bullseye it was quiet, in a lull between happy hours, and only a few people were gathered there: a group of three Niscorp marines at a table in the centre of the floor; an older man reading a tablet and sitting in front of a huge viewscreen that looked out through the rings to the looming opalescent arc of Niscorp itself; and a man who looked like staff sitting under a cascade of low-grav hanging plants and working on a tablet. The bar’s three famous staff – Annie, Angie and the Stoat – were all there and cheerful, and soon had Alpha and Simon Simon seated with drinks of their choice. Simon Simon chose to drink a specialty, Glacial Ambrosia, which is a kind of smoothy made from milk taken from genetically engineered spider/yak creatures that can graze on cliff faces and produce high fat milk. The drink is served on a chunk of glacial ice that, in this instance, was a deep blue in colour – the Stoat informed Simon Simon that his ice chunk was estimated to be 100,000 years old, before flouncing away to clean the bar (again).

While they drank they watched news – some kind of report about a volcanic flank collapse on a planet some years’ travel distant, that had produced a 300m high tsunami which killed millions – and chatted with the Niscorp mercenaries, who were forthcoming with information about how boring the planet and the starport were. Finally they discovered that the man sitting by the viewscreen was interested in traveling to the Reach.

Michael and his tides

They approached this man, who welcomed them to his table and introduced himself as Michael. Alpha immediately noticed that this man had a filling in his tooth – of noble metal, no less! – which could only suggest that he must be a remnant, as even in the Rim it was unheard of and considered uncouth to have fillings. He spoke to them in a quiet, accentless voice using slightly archaic Confederate Standard, that had a kind of poetic lilt to it. All of his conversation, even about simple things like his plans for the day, was shot through with references to the “tides of time and space,” the “hidden currents,” and “depths of time and space” that soon had them convinced that he must be a priest of some barbaric ocean world. He didn’t enlighten them on his origins, but did tell them that he had business on “the third pearl” at The Reach, where he had a contact. He had business in Niscorp that would last another week or so, but after that he was “ready to flow with the tides,” were a “barque” to be available.

Taking this as a sign of business, they asked him what he would give them for passage. His offer: he would give each of them a single Soul Locker on arrival. Soul Lockers are some kind of priestly magic that enables people to be brought back from the dead provided the Soul Locker is used within a few hours of death, the deceased’s head is (largely) intact, and medical equipment is on hand to ensure that once revived the unfortunate Soul Locker beneficiary does not immediately expire again. Alpha and Simon Simon had never heard of such a thing, but the certainty in the man’s voice and his strange semi-mystical rantings convinced them he must be genuine, and they accepted his offer. A trip to The Reach was thus organized.

The advocate and the administrator

Having secured this next stage in their lives, Alpha and Simon decided it might be wise to do something official to avoid getting charged with human trafficking, a crime so heinous to the Confederacy that anyone convicted of it receives a prison sentence so long they will need to be resleeved in order to complete it. They spent an afternoon with an advocate, arranging various forms and entitlements that essentially declared them to be carrying a rescued human to a suitable point of relocation. Provided they renewed their forms at each starport they visited, offloaded their human cargo to a “suitable” medical establishment within a “reasonable” period of time and did not sell him at any point, they were safe from charges of human trafficking. This also meant that their ownership of the cryo-frozen Remnant was now in the official Confederacy computer system, so that if the people who smuggled him out of Dune were actually confederate officials they would soon learn of his whereabouts. The chase had begun.

When they returned to their rooms they found an invitation lodged in their system. A local research administrator called Adam Sanders had need of their services, and would like to meet them for dinner to discuss his plans. Would they like a visit planetside for a completely safe two weeks of work? Safe work … sure …

They met him at a cafe called the Iceview, a slowly revolving bar that served mostly local food and offered a stunning view of the surface of Niscorp 1743 from every table. Adam had already prepared a plate of grilled local ice crab, an insectoid thing that lived in the shoreline of the open seas of the equator and offered a delicate, succulent flesh high in minerals and vitamins, and very low in fat. There were also shreds of a type of squid that, eaten raw, had a flavour like blue cheese due to the chemicals it absorbed from the tainted atmosphere. They chewed on rubbery, stinky squid and discussed business.

Adam’s problem was simple but delicate. He was a research administrator for an agrichem business called Evergreen Chemicals, that had a couple of research bases on the glaciers of Niscorp 1743. Recently one of these projects, a major undertaking in ice-fast algae cropping, was reaching a critical point, and interest within the company had grown considerably. Unfortunately the lead computer manager at the base had killed himself skiing, and had to be sent offworld to be resleeved, a process that could take months. In the meantime the research base computers were not being operated. Soon after the computer operator was sent away for a resleeve, a small team of corporate researchers had “coincidentally” made plans to arrive at the Niscorp starport – they were due perhaps 4 days hence. In most corporations this would be very convenient – Adam would be able to press one of them into service to protect the computers – but not in this corp. Evergreen adhered to a philosophy of evolutionary growth, meaning that rival research teams competed with each other and used any strategies to beat rival research teams, including espionage, with losers in these competitions being axed. Of course being sacked was of no concern to Adam, but losing the fame and respect gained from this research project was. So he wanted a small team of non-corporate people to visit his research base, and have their computer operator run the computer for the two weeks that the research team would be in-system. He had seen in the crew manifest that Simon Simon had a CISCO certificate, so he would give Simon Simon full access to the research computer for two weeks, and in exchange the PCs would camp out in the research base. This was a zero risk job – any attempt at computer intrusion would be purely electronic, since the corporation’s evolutionary growth philosophy did not extend to tolerating physical attacks. All they would need to do is wait in the base and respond to any computer intrusions.

In exchange for this service, Adam would give them access to the Niscorp 1743 starport training facilities for a week, and they could improve their zero-g and space combat skills.

Of course they said yes. They told Michael to wait for his trip to The Reach, and 4 days later they were hurtling down to the Behemoth Tides in a Niscorp shuttle.

behemoth

Luminous Chitin Giants

The PCs arrived at the town of Radiance in the mid-afternoon, with many hours of light still available. The flight took a few hours, and the last part saw them skimming the edge of the glacier where it crumbled into the equatorial sea. Great plates of ice floated loose in the water, barely moving under the sluggish wash of Niscorp’s weak tides. As they flew along this frozen wasteland their attention was drawn to a single iceberg, perhaps a couple of hundred metres long, that was rocking uncharacteristically in the still waters. After perhaps 30 seconds of slow yawing it suddenly surged upward, and they saw their first Behemoth. The iceberg revealed itself to be just a large, uneven hump on the back of some enormous beast, an insectoid monstrosity that must be several kilometres long. This beast was emerging from the water slowly, huge unblinking eyes staring up at them as its massive, multi-mouthed head sliced through the tiny waves. All along its body rose a steaming mist as it breathed out, and then it sank slowly beneath the surface, its body coiling slowly behind it so that for several minutes as their flyer roared past they watched it seemingly endless body uncoiling above the surface, finally slipping below with the lash of a massive, chitinous tail. In its wake a mass of roiling water rolled outward, splashing around the ice and rolling towards the shore – a Behemoth Tide. Awestruck, they finished their journey in silence.

At Radiance they found themselves in a huge luxury apartment overlooking the open water of the bay. They explored its many rooms and helped themselves to its fine wines, then stood on the balcony looking out over the curve of the bay, trying to decide which of its distant icebergs might be a Behemoth. They were due to set off for the research base in a few hours – what harm could it do to explore that bay, and find another, get a closer look? They bundled into the flyer and set off.

The flyer had a special Behemoth-hunting mode, which they set as they hurtled down over the frozen white sweep of the glacier towards the grey sea. After a moment of searching it found them one, a few minutes’ hypersonic flight down the beach, and they were off. The flyer brought them in in a wide circle, explaining the science of the Behemoth as it did so. They saw it lying there on the water surface like a gigantic alien crocodile, chitinous back stretched out for two kilometres in the bay, waves gently washing across its body. Its head and many limbs hung below the surface like reefs of shadow, and one huge, lazy eye lay closed at the waters’ surface, half above and half below the water. Their flyer flitted across the face of this beast like a fly buzzing past a sleeping alligator and came to a stop some distance from its lidded eye. On their cue, it fired a beam of light in some kind of rousing pattern at the beast’s face, and then began rising quickly from the surface. That giant eye stirred slowly open, the huge shell-like lids sending wave-sized ripples out across the calm sea, and a huge, multi-lensed eye slowly emerging from the water to watch them. The whole beast stirred from its rest and began to move. First the head rose, lifting straight out of the water to reveal three more hideous eyes, all unmoving fly-like balls of darkness. Somewhere inside the body of the thing faint lights glowed, and the shadowed limbs began to flicker in the water. Waist-high waves of water rolled away from its stirring head, and then it began to submerge. First it rose up a little, revealing huge expanses of chitinous shell that crawled with strange parasites and beached fish-like things; then the head dipped, and it began to slide under the chilly surface, disappearing into the deep at an almost glacial speed. Finally its huge tail rose out of the water, each of the many frond-like flukes at its tip the size of an urban train, and then they two were gone and all that remained of the vast beast was a ring of agitated water, waves the size of train carriages rolling out in every direction. Ice rocked, and insectoid birds were disturbed as the waves tumbled out towards the distant shore.

Humbled by this monstrous thing, they returned to their apartment to prepare for the next stage of their journey.

The Research Base

A few hours later they were heading across the glacier to the distant ice base, which was perhaps an hour away. The light was beginning to fade but still they had several hours before sunset. They sped through a valley that was lit up with sparkling floating algae, turning in rainbow spirals as it rose in late afternoon thermals, and flew low over perfect ski slopes that stretched for kilometres in every direction. Once they fancied they saw a skiing party, hurtling down one of those slopes in an arc that must have already been cutting for minutes across the snow, judging by its length. Then their flyer brought them into the ice-fast algae research base, a compound surrounding a large cave cut into the side of a glacier. They set down just outside the base and alighted, snug in their vacc suits against the cold and the tainted air. Feeling unsteady in the low gravity, they walked carefully through the powdery snow to the compound wall, a simple construction of blocks of ice. The gate was slightly ajar, and getting no response on the intercom by the gate they pushed through, entering unannounced. Inside the wall was a small snowy compound, mostly empty but for a few snow-travel vehicles. At its far side it extended inside the glacier wall, where a large cavern had been cut into the ice. Here was the main building of the research base, a large plasteel structure fitting snug into the rear third of the cave. They marched steadfastly in, trying not to bounce too much in the low gravity, to the doorway of the building. This door was also slightly ajar, and the lights inside the building were off. It was dark, and seemed strangely open to the elements.

They started to get a bad feeling about this.

Simon Simon and Alpha went in first[1], pushing the door open and stepping into the darkness, their vacc suit lights cutting orange arcs through the dark and foggy air of the research base. They saw glimpses of some kind of fight, and blood on the floors, but before either of them could properly investigate – or even turn on the lights – something fell on Alpha from above, striking hard into his shoulder. He felt a deep, intense stabbing pain and then the horrible pressure of a flood of some disgusting fluid being injected into his chest. Staggering back, he flailed at the thing but he couldn’t hit it. In the harsh light of his suit lamp Simon Simon saw a scene of horror: Alpha lay on the ground struggling beneath a gigantic spider-like creature, its body the size of a human and its many horrid legs spread out all across the walls and floor around him. Simon Simon struck it with his cybernetic rippers, which drew its attention from Alpha. With a series of disgusting chittery clattering sounds it rapidly turned in a half circle, revealing a head with four large eyes, each separately controlling a vicious stabbing stinger about the size of a sword blade, moving independently and questing grotesquely for a new target. It leapt and smashed one deep into Simon Simon’s shoulder, felling him and injecting him full of some vicious, horrible poison[2].

Fortunately, Ahmose was there, and she could strike the beast with her blade from the side. Barely injured, it turned on her, but it couldn’t penetrate her combat armour. Meanwhile Alpha was scrabbling away from it on the floor, shooting it with his pistol, while Simon Simon also backed away and desperately tried to access the computers. He quickly turned on all the lights and checked for any other spiders, finding no other signs of movement. He also found a gun turret in the ceiling, which he activated. As Ahmose and the spider hacked at each other he fired a burst from the gun. Unfortunately it was a shotgun-type door defense system, and he shot Ahmose as well as the spider. Ahmose hacked a bit more, and now the spider began to look damaged. Finally Alpha, panicking, unloaded the entire clip from his pistol into the beast, and managed to get a good, solid hit on it, blowing its face away and finally bringing it down[3].

Once the spider was down Simon Simon leapt on it and began stabbing it repeatedly, wailing madly, until Ahmose could draw him off and calm him down by getting him to look at the computer. As the computer work brought him back to his senses he explored its records, finding surveillance video. Meanwhile Alpha and Ahmose searched the research base and soon found what they had dreaded. A nest of strange webs and ice in the far side of the room held the frozen corpses of both the researchers, festooned with pearl-coloured spheres of goo that were obviously eggs. They had been ambushed and dragged, paralyzed, to the webbing, where the spider had laid its eggs. Fortunately for them both they had died soon after the paralysis, so only were alive for perhaps a couple of hours in that horrific prison.

Their research project, clearly, had died with them.

The Ice Oracle

Once Simon Simon found video of the ambush they put in a call to Adam to tell him the grim news. They were unsurprised to find him ecstatic at the information – it meant he no longer needed to defend the research project from the rival team, and could become a hero by finding the spider and calling in the PCs to clear the nest. He could now officially hand over the research project to the team who had just arrived at the starport, and remain as administrator of the new project. He could also now legitimately claim to have sent the PCs in to find out what had happened to the research team, rather than to control the computers. Everyone could win!

Alpha and Ahmose, looking at the sad corpses of these men, were not convinced that everyone had won, though they were cheered to hear that the men could be resleeved in a few months. Meanwhile Simon Simon was furiously hacking deeper into the computer system using his access privileges, thinking that there would be one more winner from this sad catastrophe: his AI, which he was now embedding into the Niscorp computer system, to grow slowly into an Oracle.

Simon Simon needn’t have rushed. Adam asked them to stay there a few days to “secure” the base while he organized things at the Starport, and so Simon Simon had time to carefully and systematically seed the computer system with the beginnings of his Oracular Mother. He identified a connection between the system and the planet-side computer network centred in Radiance, one which would ultimately enable his Mother to invade that computer system too. It would take months, but some time in the future he could return here to his Oracle. His network had begun to spread, and now it had a centre.

While Simon Simon did this Alpha investigated the spider a little more, and determined that it was a species not yet known to science. When they returned to Niscorp starport, they would be able to begin the process of getting this spider named after them. For now it was Unidentified Xenotype XZ1847936 Niscorp, but soon it would be Alpha Ahmose Simon’s Spider.

The evening before the research crew came to relieve them they stood in silence before the bodies of the two dead men, pistols in hand, and watched as the spider hatchlings slowly wriggled out of their egg sacs and began blindly groping across the bodies that they instinctively expected to find, still living, waiting for them to feast upon. Ahmose raised a glass of ice wine, and all three of them gave a silent toast to the grandeur and excitement of science.

Then they started shooting.

fn1: Only two players were engaged in this session, and so I assumed the fighter, Ahmose, was not there. Unfortunately things rapidly went pear-shaped, and Ahmose had to suddenly be present.

fn2: See! At this point Ahmose was needed. The poison causes instant loss of an action, and major penalties if you fail an endurance test (neither player did). The injuries from the stinger were enough to almost knock both players out in one hit each. Traveller combat is nasty.

fn3: Traveller has really interesting autofire rules. Basically every gun as a rate of fire (ROF) stat. When you go full auto you roll as many d6s as the ROF stat, and arrange them into pairs as you like. This means that you can easily roll a double 6, which almost guarantees a hit. Alpha has no pistol skill so shoots at -3, and the ROF is is only realistic chance of hitting. In this way autofire benefits people like Alpha, because the rules stipulate that skill levels above 1 do not apply to the roll. I think the biggest ROF in the standard rulebook is 8, so you basically get to roll 4 attacks and organize the dice as you want – this will almost guarantee two hits with an assault rifle. Two hits with an assault rifle will kill almost anyone, even in heavy armour.

In case you missed it, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has been accused of face-fucking a dead pig. Apparently the pig was roasted, and this all occurred in his university days as part of a (presumably unsuccessful) attempt to join some repulsive British fraternity. Aside from the excellent twitter humour that ensued, and despite the delicious prospect of a Prime Minister (any Prime Minister, really) having to publicly deny face-fucking a dead pig, this seems like the kind of story that we really should not be reading – it’s unbelievable that this is even news, because where any man decides to put his (no doubt very small!) weener should be a matter between him and the unfortunate recipient, provided all involved in this exchange of policy are consenting. If David Cameron leaves office with a bukkake pig as his greatest legacy, I think it’s safe to say that Britain will have got off lightly, except for the massive increase in NHS costs devoted to counselling all those who had to imagine such a horror and were left mentally ruined by the visions.

What’s depressing about this news story is the thing that the press have completely failed to care about. It’s clearly a story being released publicly for revenge by Paddy Ashdown, some kind of rich arsehole who also happens (shock!) to be a Conservative Party member and who has written a new biography dishing the dirt on Cameron for the apparently openly-stated reason that he gave the Tories 8 million pounds and didn’t get a Cabinet post.

That’s right, David Cameron’s awkward teenage fumblings with his first love are being spread across Britain’s tabloids and becoming international news because some rich arsehole is angry that he was refused a cabinet place after he gave 8 million pounds.

Isn’t that bribery? Shouldn’t the openly-avowed existence of such a promise constitute evidence of, at the very least, attempted bribery? Shouldn’t the police be paying Mr. Ashdown a visit, to have a quiet word about the truth of these claims he made that he tried to buy a cabinet position? If word reached the UK press of some Russian oligarch[1] turning vindictive because his 8 million rubles didn’t get him a cabinet position, that would be seen as strong evidence of corruption and bribery. In the UK it’s … unmentionable. Heaven forbid that we look at the actual political relations being bought quite openly over the table, when there’s a dead pig to be fucked.

Of course this isn’t surprising. This is the same country where a newspaper was able to hack into a dead girl’s phone, possibly disrupting a criminal inquiry; where its senior staff threw away a computer with evidence of illegal phone hacking and were never convicted of perjury; where its staff were able to bribe police in order to hack the phone of a future head of state and a serving Prime Minister; but no one was successfully convicted of any crime, and no one charged with treason even though the company in question is foreign-owned. It’s a country where a single man was able to rape hundreds of children in hospitals and prisons and police repeatedly backed away from investigating him. It’s a country where a single black cab driver was able to rape upwards of 100 women over a 10 year period, and even though the police received multiple complaints never be investigated. It’s a country where police can murder a middle-aged man in front of hundreds of witnesses, and not even be charged with any crime. Of course you can openly brag about attempting to bribe a Prime Minister in Britain, even make money from a book about it, and not be investigated by the police – or even have your bribery remarked upon as such by the newspapers who are lapping up your pig-fucking stupidity.

This little piece of bribery is being announced in the same month that the pig-fucker general is planning to pass legislation to ensure that unions can’t donate money to a political party unless they get the permission of their members to do so, with the express purpose of starving the Labour Party of funds from working people. Because in Britain, only rich people should be allowed to buy cabinet positions. It’s okay to spend 8 million pounds of your own money buying a cabinet position, but completely unreasonable to use a couple of pounds of your member’s money supporting a political party that protects their interests.

The only good thing to come of this is the realization that Cameron has principles: whether or not he fucked a pig, he won’t sell a cabinet place for even 8 million pounds. According to our rich and truthful raccoteur, Margaret Thatcher claimed that Cameron didn’t stand for anything, but I beg to differ with the sainted Tory Goddess. His parliament is a deeply, viciously ideological parliament, and he stands for a lot of things. And it appears that one thing he includes in his list of strong political positions is not giving up cabinet seats to rich men with deep pockets. Good on him! Now charge the man with bribery and be done with him.

[For the record: I don’t believe Cameron fucked the pig. It’s none of my business if he did or didn’t fuck a dead pig, since as far as I know it’s not a crime, but I think he didn’t fuck the pig, and anyway it was like a lifetime ago. I’m also suspicious about his membership of the Bullingdon club. The Bullingdon club is founded on a deep hatred of working people, and I don’t think Cameron shares that hatred. I’m not even convinced that he simply doesn’t care about them. To quote Suicidal Tendencies: “Just because you don’t understand it don’t mean it don’t make no sense.” Cameron’s political ideals are completely antithetical to the rights and interests of working class people but that doesn’t mean they aren’t genuinely held out of a genuine belief that he can do right by those people. I recently read a report that he bailed on the Bullingdon Club as soon as he found out what they do, and I can’t judge one way or another but I can see how this is possible. The fact that he hasn’t ever had to defend his supposed membership of this nasty little fraternity says a lot more about the press than it does about him!]

fn1: People in Russia who spread their riches around for political benefit are “oligarchs”. In the UK they’re “grandees”. What does that tell you about the honesty of our news services?

Cut it off!

Cut it off!

This weekend with our group numbers severely depleted by extra-curricular activities we ran a Warhammer 3 (WFRP3) one-shot, with me GMing. I dug up the Warhammer 2 supplement, Children of the Horned Rat, which is a truly excellent piece of work and contains a neat little adventure at the end, Slaves of Destiny. Of course I ran it in WFRP3, because the Warhammer 2 system, though atmospheric, sucks. My players generated a pair of Dwarven heroes, with 5xp each, who were:

  • Raknar, a pit fighter, armed with a two-handed flail and clad in piecemeal chain-and-breastplate
  • Dvumir Brick-hearted,  an Ironbreaker, of course indistinguishable from all other Ironbreakers on account of his suit of Gromril armour

These two were marching west to Nuln late in the summer, having spent the summer fighting Orc nests in the Razkar mountains. They had acquitted themselves heroically and as a consequence were due to collect a prize and be honoured in Nuln. With no particularly pressing need to be anywhere, they were marching at a comfortable Dwarven pace (12 hours a day without stopping) from settlement to settlement, mostly following the main west road but, at the time the adventure starts, detouring on a narrower local road to the south due to flooding of the main road.

They were just passing around a small embankment when they stumbled on two beastmen munching on the body of a dying man. One beastman was a wargor, one a gor. It was a scene of horror, with the smaller gor chewing on a severed hand, and the larger wargor crouched above the still-twitching body, loops of the man’s guts hanging from its snarling lips. They both turned to look at Raknar and Dvumir at the same time, and with yells and snarls battle was joined.

The larger gor charged forward but didn’t engage immediately, instead stopping to let rip a terrifying roar. Raknar and Dvumir, though shaken, were not broken by the 3m tall beast’s frenzied snarling, and fell into a pattern of battle they were well used to. Dvumir presented shield and armour to the fore, taking the blows that the beast would rain down upon them, and Raknar, partially protected by his heavier friend, unleashed furious blows with his flail[1]. He broke the smaller Gor with two swings of that mighty chain, but even with Dvumir fending off and disrupting the heavier wargor’s attacks, Raknar still took a heavy beating before he finally managed to find a weak point and smash the wargor’s thigh, bringing it down. He then smashed the thing’s head in like a huge, overripe melon, and the battle was done.

Two dwarves beating a beastman Wargor adn Gor on a country road – alone! Very impressive![2]

They searched the bodies, and found only a most repulsive bejewelled necklace festooning the Wargor’s privates; this they carefully removed and sacked, to be cleansed by a priest at a nearby town. They then searched the body of the now-dead human, finding nothing except a few supplies, a few coins, and a letter. Of course they read the letter:

Dear A,

I had plans to pay you back but my last instalment is delayed. Dotterbach is sore beset by chaos and trade nigh impossible these last days. My payments being dead, I beg of you a small extension. Pray take no harsh measures against me ’till Chaos be vanquished! Help being hard to find, I pray you show respect to a town in dire need of mortal kindness.

Yours,

Kaspar

A town in need of aid from Chaos! What more could our pair of glory hounds want on a sunny late summer’s day than to find such a missive? (Except perhaps that the letter itself be slightly less blood-splattered).

Our heroes set off to the town of Dotterbach, which was three days’ easy march from the scene of the killing. By the time they reached Dotterbach Raknar was fully recovered, and three days later they stood on the hill near the town, looking over a pleasant hamlet bathed in late afternoon sunlight, a stream running through the middle of extensive sheep fields and a small cluster of houses. As idyllic a place as any might expect in these dark days of the Late Imperium – but what horrors lurked within?

Revolting slaves

Find-find, quick-quick!

Find-find, quick-quick!

Entering the town, they noticed that even though the sun had not yet set all the residents were indoors, doors shut despite the pleasant late evening warmth, and some peering uncomfortably out from behind their blinds and curtains. The town was silent where it should have been buzzing with the bleating of sheep returning to the fold, the streets empty of children at play or the sounds of people returning from work. Something was obviously amiss. They stopped at the tavern, The Naked Sheep, to find lodgings and a meal, and here fell quickly into conversation with the tavern owner, Abelhard. They were his sole guests, and he was forced to unlock the front door to let them in, but was welcoming enough when he realized that they were adventurers in town with a purpose. He told them the sorry tale of Dottenbach’s recent woes.

About three weeks ago sheep and goats from the town began to go missing, and about two weeks ago the miller and his family all disappeared. The people of the town bore up under this threat and fear for another week or so but the sheep kept going missing, and then strange sounds began to be heard at night – scratchings and the sounds of creatures moving around, sniffing at doors and windows. Now the townsfolk are trapped inside until the sun is high in the sky, and much of the work on preparing the summer’s shearings for market has been interrupted, leaving the townsfolk worried about their winter stores. No one is willing to work in the mill – or even knows how – so the fancy wool carding machine in the basement of the mill sits idle and the flour stores are beginning to run low. Then, about three nights ago, the head of the militia, sergeant Dilmar, was killed while patrolling some fields at the edge of town. Now the militia are in disarray and the townsfolk terrified. They need heroes to rescue them from some force of chaos that stalks their lands!

A good thing our stunty team were on hand. They offered to fix everything right in the morning, and sidled off to bed. During the night Raknar had a terrifying nightmare of crows eating sheep, and in the morning he woke convinced that the evil afoot was, in fact, a-wing, and the problem lay with crows[3]. Dvumir, in contrast, slept like a log and woke none the wiser to any events that might have unfolded during the hours of darkness. Still ignorant of the true cause of the towns troubles, they set off to meet Kaspar, the merchant whose letter they held.

They met Kaspar in his small manor house, which would be considered tatty and drafty in the towns of the north but here was no doubt prized as a genuine palace. He was warm and welcoming, and explained the situation with the letter very simply: he took a debt from a shady person, Mr A, a while back, and is unable to make his final repayment due to the troubles besetting the town. He expects now that, his man having not got through to Vinsilles, Mr A will be sending some men to have a chat with Kaspar. Kaspar made clear that he would appreciate any help in dealing with those men that the PCs might be willing to offer, and also told them to go and speak with the dubious Friar Eckel if they wished to help the town. Friar Eckel was a mendicant priest of Sigmar who had moved into the house of the mayor, Hofstetter, after he died, and was now making free with the mayor’s belongings, and possibly enjoying other privileges bestowed by the mayor’s wife, as well as increasingly acting like the de facto town leader. Kaspar explained this to them in obvious distaste.

They visited Eckel, and soon confirmed that he was both a coward and a lying scoundrel, making free with the town’s wealth and probably having his wicked, lascivious, very non-Sigmarite way with the mayor’s widow. Fortunately, however, a coward and his money are easily parted when a dwarven pit fighter raises his voice, and they left the mayor’s house with the information they needed, and 40 gold coins’ advance payment on the task of saving the town.

Their first stop was the mill, which was empty as expected. A quick search of mill and stable confirmed their suspicions, that the miller and his family had fled, taking their wagon and most of their most precious possessions with them. But why? Searching the grounds they found a clue soon enough – in a goat paddock behind the mill they found a metre-wide hole that opened into a tunnel leading into the moist earth. Being dwarves, they entered it without fear, and headed down this narrow and cramped tunnel into darkness. It stank like a charnel house, and they had to wrap cloths around their faces to keep out the stench, as well as lighting a candle against the inky black.

After about 10 metres’ descent they entered a low cave, perhaps 10m in diameter, with a muddy and filth-encrusted floor that was scattered with half-devoured corpses of sheep and bones. The stench came from here, and here too were the cause of the lost sheep. Six wretched, horribly disfigured and mutated men charged out of the shadows to attack our heroes. These pathetic men bore terrible scars and hideous warpings of flesh and bone, and they keened in rage as they attacked.

Moments later they were dead.

Raknar and Dvumir were searching the few scattered possessions of this motley band when they pulled back a filthy rug to reveal a seventh man, cowering amongst bags and sacks. He sprang back at their approach and yelled “Don’t I beg you! I am a man not a monster!” Since he was speaking Reikspiel with a reasonable accent they assented to give him a few moments of life to explain himself – and thus did they hear his terrible story.

The men they had killed were skavenslaves, the mutated and warpstone-afflicted toilers of the skaven under-empire. The man had been abducted perhaps 3 months ago from the streets of Nuln by a gang of skaven clanrats, and through trade, conflict and theft he had passed through many hands until he ended up in a warren near Dotternbach. Here he had been intended as a future mutant, to be put to fighting in the slave pits or working in some hideous mine, but while he waited he was kept near these six skavenslaves. They had found a way to escape, and when they fled he came with them. At first they threatened to kill him (skavenslaves become as warped as their masters, and have no mercy for each other), but they decided to keep him alive as a bargaining chip. He now lay in fear of his life again, because recently they had seen giant rats skulking amongst the hamlet, sure proof that a skaven slave-hunting gang was nearby looking for them – had the dwarves not found him he would surely have been offered as tribute or bait by the skavenslaves. The skavenslaves had not killed anyone in the town, though – they had taken only sheep, because they were desperately hungry. Their captive suspected that the skaven slave-hunters had killed Dilmar, and worse was to come – now that the slaves were dead they would no doubt attack the town to capture replacements.

Raknar and Dvumir looked at each other in the foul, dank gloom. The town stood in great threat – and they two were all that stood between humanity and a tidal wave of chittering, ravenous rat-horror.

The time had come to act!

[And here ended the session …]

fn1: basically Dvumir is incredibly hard to hit but can’t do much damage, while Raknar is more vulnerable. So the pattern is for Dvumir to act first with Improved Guarded Position, which makes Raknar harder to hit, and then Raknar to use Thunderous Blow. With this strategy Dvumir is almost impossible to hurt – he has soak 10 and defense 3, and anyone attempting to hit him will do so against 3 challenge dice and 5 misfortune dice (once defense and specializations are taken into account). But even attempting to attack Raknar they then face an extra challenge die on all attacks. It worked quite well.

fn2: Actually indicative of a problem in WFRP3, that the monster action cards are underpowered compared to the PC cards. I should have given the Wargor the Reckless Cleave card, but I didn’t do any preparation for this session and haven’t played WFRP3 for a year, so I forgot about this problem. And anyway if Raknar had been hit once more he’d have been unconscious, which would have left Dvumir in big, big trouble …

fn3: Chaos star on the observation check!

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