Horror


I wonder if my rope’s still hanging from the tree
By the standing pool where you drank me
And filled me full of thirsty love
And the memory of water?

I wonder if a king still fishes there
His back towards the burned-out air
His laughing catches singing loud
The memory of water

 

Our heroes have explored the area around the river near their Ark, and after raiding a radio station full of cannibals they feel stronger now, and their Ark is stronger too. But they are not yet ready to fight the Helldrivers they know live south of the river, and since they fortified the Ark and returned from their last mission carrying a katana, they have begun to wonder if they are safe from those dangerous men with their vehicles. They are separated from the Helldrivers by a river, but the river still has a few bridges that cross it. The nearest functional bridge is to the west of their Ark, inland from the two towers, and it seems likely that if the Helldrivers are to cross the river they must come over that bridge. So the PCs decided they should travel there and investigate the bridge, to see if it offers an easy way across the river and if so, whether they can block it.

Before they left the Ark they contributed to its ongoing project, to establish a system of hunting parties. This month they stumbled upon great success: Lonnie, stalking south east of the Ark, found an abandoned complex of cages and enclosures full of animals. The walls and barriers of the enclosures had long since broken apart and decayed, but many of the animals remained in the shelter of the enclosures, protected from the elements and the wilder predators of the Zone. Unfortunately they had not expected Lonnie to find his way through the outer barriers of the ancient zoo and begin picking them off for food, nor did they expect him to tell the Ark and bring a steady crew of hunters over the next few weeks. With this discovery the Ark’s food supplies grew, and a new guild of hunters established themselves. Around trashfires and in the meagre allotments at the centre of the Ark, people began to whisper hopefully of the possibility that tomorrow might be no worse than today.

Still, the People were not satisfied just to have more food. The Helldrivers had vehicles and gasoline, which the Ark lacked, but perhaps they could do something to improve their mobility and their power in war. They began a project to construct a stables, converting the remaining covered car park of the stadium into a dry area where they hoped to raise bitterbeasts that the hunting party would slowly catch in the wilds to the South. Not an easy project, but with the future promise of great things. The People set this in train, and then the PCs decided to head East to find the second bridge.

This expedition would be longer and more dangerous than anything they had previously tried. They would need to head west across uncharted lands in the sector north of the Dark Tower, then after some travel through the next sector they would need to turn south and pass another sector to the bridge. That would be a two day journey, two day’s back, and enough grub and water to survive the journey and any battles in the interim. Bloody Jack set about some racketeering to try and raise the necessary grub and water but his efforts were dismal, and in the process one of his gang turned on him, switching sides to join Li’l Kim. Vowing to make the filthy turncoat pay, Bloody Jack chose three of his best followers to go with them into the wilderness, and they set forth with all they had.

First they headed east, into a wide open area of low grasses and scrub north of the Dark Tower. Some distance into this sector was a small hill that they could use as a vantage point, and from this hill Lonnie could scan the surrounding areas. To the south he could get a glimpse into the Dark Tower, finding himself looking into an open courtyard inside the walls. Zone crows constantly circled, breaking his view, but he could make out a skeleton clothed in some gaudy outfit, lying in the middle of the courtyard with a long weapon of some kind discarded next to the body. Nothing else moved, and the whole area seemed to have several doors opening into walls and further buildings inside the outer walls. It was a large and forbidding complex.

Looking west, Lonnie could see a road that ran through the next sector before turning south and heading to the bridge. This road was relatively free of rubble and overgrowth, and though it would not be a perfect way to travel it was obvious that the Helldrivers could bring their vehicles to the Ark along that road. They definitely needed to get to that bridge…

They set off along the road into the next sector. This sector was a forest of dead trees standing sentinel in a misty expanse of ruined, collapsed buildings. Almost nothing stood more than a metre above the ground, and in between it all rose the trees, stunted and broken, grey and leafless. As they passed the trees Barathos touched one and the branch crumbled to dust in his grip, giving off a rank smell. Rank, stinking water ran sluggishly between the trees, trickling in streams and rivulets of rot down to the distant river. A single broken tower loomed over the expanse of decay, just the concrete and steel skeleton of the building remaining. Some giant force had blown across this area, destroying smaller buildings and reducing the largest tower to a burnt husk. In places the dead trees had collapsed, forming open spaces that the PCs had to struggle to cross, picking their way over entangled boughs and trying not to fall into the gurgling streams of rot. Here the branches and trunks of the trees sagged into the creeks, and slowly suffused with rot that had begun to turn them into blocks of toxic petrified wood. They hustled, moving as fast as they could to get through the rot.

The hustle was exhausting and distracting, so they missed the Trash Hawk until it fell screaming from the leaden grey sky. Fortunately they heard the wind whistling through its massive feathers, and though it struck them first they were not flat footed. It attacked them when they were halfway across one of the broken open spaces, so they were forced to scatter amongst the fallen trees. It struck at one of Bloody Jack’s gang but missed, landing amongst them with a beating of huge wings, a body the size of a large van that stank of dust and rot smashing down into one of the trees. Huge, vicious claws struck at the gang member, and the beating wings raised a storm of dust and rot. They all struck at it before it could take off, and with a lucky strike Grimshaw smashed its head in like a melon. The Trash Hawk grunted and sank dead to the ground.

“This beast must have a nest,” Lonnie observed, and their gaze turned to the single high point in the entire sector – the shattered hulk of the high rise building. With a sigh, they set out to climb it.

It was empty, the entire west face scoured by fire and the rest of the building reduced by fire and wind to just empty, wind-blown chambers. They dragged themselves up endless flights of spiraling stairs, eventually emerging onto a windswept rooftop covered in bones and guano. This was the home of the Trash Hawk. At one corner of the rooftop they found a huge edifice built of office furniture and chunks of dead tree, crowned with bedding of fresh grasses, torn up cushions and car seats – the Trash Hawk’s nest. They approached cautiously, but this time they checked the skies too, so they saw the second Trash Hawk coming.

Forewarned is forearmed, but that was not enough for Four Armed Marl, who was hit by the beast and lifted from the ground before they could attack it. Fortunately Four Armed Marl could hang on grimly as the bird rose, and Barathos blinded the bird before it could flee far, stopping it from taking Marl too high. The rest of them fired slingshots and arrows at the thing, and managed to knock it down before it could take Marl over the edge of the building. It fell screaming and Marl rolled free with only a little damage.

Inside the nest they found bodies, which carried bullets, and a couple of eggs, giant things that would obviously soon give birth to Trash Hawks. Everyone thought of the stables, and they agreed that this would be a project of the Ark. Why have bitterbeast stables, when you can have Trash Hawk stables? What would the Helldrivers do then? They agreed to take the eggs back to the Ark after their journey was complete.

They trudged down from the building, stopping halfway down to rest and eat, and returned to the road that had carried them through this sector. They followed it west a short distance to a point where the dead trees began to falter and fall, and the land rose slowly into a new area of crumbling ruins. The air cleared and the road descended in amongst the ruins, their previous smooth journey returning to the familiar jumble of rubble, broken buildings and dense undergrowth. They picked their way through the ruins, seeking paths where they could move more quickly, and after perhaps an hour or two of careful walking stumbled into an open space rich with menace. It must have once been a junction or a market area, because it was wider than a simple crossroads. On four sides it was surrounded by the shells of old buildings, broken now but still stretching three or four stories towards the low-hanging clouds, and plunging the entire area into partial shadow. The fifth side of the place was open, but standing in the middle of this area was a kind of obelisk on a plinth, reaching perhaps 30 metres up. A skull and crossbones had been painted onto the plinth, standing as a stark warning – but against what? Did it mean they should not proceed further west beyond this square? Or did it mean they had already come too far?

In the middle of the square a hole opened into the ground. Surrounded by twisted metal railings, a set of steps led down into darkness. Was the skull and crossbones a warning against this? They moved closer and sniffed, but there was no scent of rot, just musty old empty tunnels. They decided to go inside.

You are here

The stairs led down into a semi-circular room, dark and musty but not rotten. Their lantern revealed more tunnels leading down further into darkness, with a strange barrier of intermittent metal blocks standing between them and these further tunnels. On one wall of the room, hidden behind mould and fungus, they found a strange diagram, all coloured lines and dots, that seemed to have a huge place of prominence in the room. They carefully peeled it off the wall and rolled it up to take back with them to the Ark, though they were not sure what it was. Then they headed past the strange metal blocks and on to the next tunnels, which plunged down into darkness at a steep angle. Footsteps clanged on metal steps as they began to descend. One of Bloody Jack’s gang balked at the darkness and fled in terror for the light, but Nischata and four-armed Mort stayed with him, and down they went.

They were halfway down when they heard them coming. They barely had time to react before the ceiling above the stairwell collapsed on them and they were attacked. They caught a brief glimpse of grey, slippery skin and huge dark eyes, mouths with many teeth, before someone smashed the lantern out of Nischata’s hands. There was screaming and chaos, but after a moment Barathos engaged his mutant power and the stairwell burst into light. They found themselves facing off with eight hideous monsters, naked humanoid figures with slimy grey skin, huge eyes and wicked claws and teeth. The beasts shied back from the light, their advantage in the darkness suddenly reversed to weakness in the light, but they did not run. One was already dragging Nischata down the stairs, leaving a great bloody smear along the side of the narrow stairwell from a huge wound in her ankle, and she was too stunned to fight back. Down below chittering and hissing sounds suggested that her fate would be brutal and slow.

They fought back. The battle was vicious and the grey men gave no quarter, but in the harsh glow of Barathos’ radiance the beasts eventually relented. The last two fled down the stairs and Grimshaw and Bloody Jack followed, but they decided against chasing these beasts too far into their own world. At the bottom of the stairs they found a long, narrow tunnel with a walkway on one side, which appeared to end at gateways to other tunnels and more stairs. Deeming it too risky to explore just yet, they retreated upward.

In the room with the metal blocks they found Bloody Jack’s cowardly gang member, Bennie, dismembered and half eaten. They fled to the surface, emerging into the half light of the shadowed square at a sprint and only stopping to rest when they were far away in the direction of the river, standing in a patch of pale sunlight. Barathos unrolled the strange picture and pointed to a spot with a larger circle and special writing. “I think we’re here,” he said, and drew his finger east and north in the general direction of the Ark. “Are these tunnels? These grey men – they can come up anywhere!”

They shuddered in horror, but there was nothing to be done – yet. Once they had weapons, and rocket fuel, then they could go back into those tunnels. Until then, they would have to trust the Ark’s defenses to hold…

They headed south to the river, and soon found themselves facing the bridge. The road rose a little and then joined the bridge, a long, simple structure with low balustrades on both sides, now overgrown with grass and bushes and fungi but not heavily enough infested to stop the helldrivers if they came over in force. Hopeful of finding some blockage further across, they ventured out onto the windswept open sweep of steel, picking their way between bushes and huge fungi.

They were halfway across when Grimshaw triggered something, and a huge explosion threw fire, twigs, grass and burning toadstool all over them. They hurled themselves away from the blast, and Barathos found himself lying on the ground staring at an unexploded bomb. Backing away carefully, he warned everyone not to move and began searching the rest of the bridge. He found more of the bombs – many more. Sometime long ago a flight of bombs had hit the bridge and somehow all of them had failed to explode, and now here they lay, waiting for some foolish traveling mutant to trigger them. Grimshaw had set off a bomb near the edge, but Barathos calculated that if the one in the middle of the bridge went off the damage would be devastating.

It only took them a moment to grasp the implications before Barathos set to work, carefully jury-rigging the entire collection of bombs into a single linked explosive. If anyone tried to drive across the bridge, they would bring the whole thing down. The work took him several hours of tense, careful work, but when he was done the problem of the helldrivers was solved. They could not now cross the bridge, and the explosion would be so loud that they might even hear it at the Ark. A perfect trap!

With that they retreated carefully from the bridge and returned to the Ark, skirting the entrance to the grey men’s lair and making time to collect the Trash Hawk eggs as they went. They were forced to sleep in the tower beneath the Trash Hawk’s nest, and returned exhausted and hungry to the Ark the following afternoon. The People greeted them in triump, cheering their egg prize, and speaking eagerly of hope for a better future. At the end of another hard adventure, our heroes stood at the gates of the Ark, looking south towards the distant river, and for just the briefest of moments as the clouds parted and the sun shone through, they felt their was some hope for them yet.

Then a sound drifted to them on the fresh breeze. The subtle scratching of wood blown against brick – or the snicker of a watching enemy? They thought of the sinister enemy crouching below the ground, waiting to pounce and stock its hideous larder, and retreated behind the newly-build barricades of the stadium.

Out in the dark, large black eyes blinked shut, and the shadows moved with vicious intent. The darkness watched, and waited.

 

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And when I see a shooting star go flashing in the night,
I often wonder if some other beings also see the light,
And are they picking up our signals,
As they spin off into space,
Until the final act is over,
Until every man has spoken,
Until every summer’s gone,
Until every battle’s done,
Until the day,
Transmission ends, transmission ends

 

Our heroes have returned to the Ark, and for a while at least food was plentiful and the People were at their ease. But soon their attention turned to the sword they had seen from afar in their last adventure, and they again began to think that having such a powerful weapon of the ancients in their possession would be their best defense when the Elder died and the delicate tension of the Ark snapped into open war.

While they planned for another mission south of the river they worked furiously in the Ark. They all contributed tirelessly to the project the People had chosen, to build up the defenses of the Ark, and within a few weeks they had successfully strengthened all the entrances to the Ark. In place of simple scrap piles blocking the Ark’s many gates they built proper barriers of old furniture and scavenged iron, reinforced and designed to be much harder to penetrate, and a system was negotiated between the bosses to ensure that someone was at all times patrolling the perimeter, carrying the revolver the PCs had found, ready to rush to the aid of any entrance that was attacked. Watches were fixed on the new embarkations, and people slept safe at night in the knowledge of their new security. The PCs’ thoughts turned to those Helldrivers on the far side of the river – too strong to attack, and just a matter of time before they found a way across, and found the Ark. The party needed more weapons to help defend the Ark, and in that moment of shared work they decided to set out across the river and grab the Katana they had seen from the Tower by the river.

This katana had been set into a large stone on the roof of a building south of the tower. The building was a small, squat, heavyset two storey building, but its roof was surmounted by a strange, delicate tower that stretched up in a spire of wires and steel struts to a cluster of discs at the top[1]. They simply had to find a way into the building and onto the roof, grab the sword, and get out. They set off the next morning.

This time they took two new team members with them, so that their team was:

  • Chang Chang the Fixer, fungal mutant
  • Bloody Jack the Boss, with frog legs, accompanied by his gang members Carrot and Nelma
  • Lonnie the Stalker, a plant man
  • Grimshaw the Enforcer, carrying a mighty hammer
  • Parsnip the Gearhead, a man who can breath fire

They passed through the sector south of the Ark, Lonnie the Stalker entering the wreck of the fallen aircraft and searching through for scrap until he found a note, preserved in a plastic folder but still yellowing and fading. Parsnip and Chang Chang pored over it, trying to decode the strange writing on it, and between them managed to identify it as a love letter. They could not read much, but found phrases about “the sorrow of parting” and “being separated by a great barrier of water” and “thinking of you whenever the sun rises in the east” and “never change my email address” and “Farewell forever”. It appeared that the giant flying craft had traveled across a vast stretch of water much greater even than the River, and carried inside it a person whose lover was on the far side of the great water. What remarkable people were the ancients, to live in such times that they could make love across vast gulfs.

Or have any love at all.

They passed on, climbing the towers and crawling across the gantry to camp in the south tower. From there they crossed into the sector where the radio station was, moving carefully across a wilderness of broken ruins overgrown with moss, creepers, small bushes and trees. They found a huge nest of Rot Ants, not the mobile kind, massive fist-sized ants that had torn book-sized pieces of glass and steel from all the buildings in the sector and formed them into a kind of huge glittering, monstrous mound of glass and steel. The mound was as high as the stadium, and glinted in the pale midday sun, but it also squirmed: the ants brought small animals, rabbits and birds and even small zone spiders, and skewered them on the glass and steel spikes of their home, keeping them there as an outdoor larder that the passing ants snacked on before heading off to explore the sector. Disgusted, the party gave the mound a wide berth.

As they crossed the sector Lonnie had a sense they were being watched, or followed, but could find no sign of any followers and simply put the feeling down to nerves. They soon reached the radio station, and although they scanned it carefully they could see no sign that anyone was there. They perched on a disused ice cream van overgrown with creepers and ruin, hiding behind the reclining ice cream cone on its roof as they surveyed the station with their telescope. The station had on one side an underground entrance, where perhaps once vehicles had entered, a main entrance on the ground level that looked easily accessible, and then a second storey with dark, narrow windows all shuttered. They decided to go in through the main entrance, and approached cautiously.

As well they did, for at the entrance Parsnip found a trap. The entrance was a set of double glass doors that opened into a narrow space ending in another set of double doors. A cabinet had been upended and placed between the righthand set of doors, so they could not be opened fully. The left hand set opened well, but the floor had been dug away to form a pit, full of spikes, that was covered and carefully hidden. They stepped around the trap and into the main room, finding a narrow, long room with a desk on one side, two doors on the opposite side to that which they had entered, and two elevators at one end of the room.

As they entered they were heard, however, and three crazed men came charging out of the furthest door. They were dressed in rags, filthy, crazed looking people carrying spears, and they charged the party without fear or relent. Battle was joined, and it was vicious: though they prevailed they were all injured, and as the battle proceeded two more of these crazed mutant types entered from the far door, bringing more blood and pain. Finally however their five opponents were slain.

They were exhausted though and badly hurt. They considered searching the rest of the rooms beyond the doors, but they were too badly hurt to consider it – they needed rest, and food. They decided to rest here, in the entrance area, where they had already slain five of the strangers and they knew the terrain. They ate, rested, set a watch, and slept.

They were woken by another gang of the crazed strangers attacking them through one of the doors. They were not surprised, because they had set a watch and had expected this, but it was a vicious battle. Behind the five crazed men came a sixth, a towering monster carrying a club and wearing heavy scrap armour. This man was obviously the leader, and a dangerous foe – with the first swing of his club he struck Carrot a crushing blow that knocked him flat left him stunned and broken. Parsnip realized now was his moment to shine and stepped forward to touch the leader and set him roaring with a great blaze, but unfortunately he stepped too close and immolated himself too. Parsnip fell, broken and writhing in agony from his own mutation, but not without killing the leader too, who flailed about shrieking and burning before he fell to ash. The other crazed men did not stop fighting though, and before the battle was done Nelma had been brought down with a brutal stomach wound, and Chang Chang had lost all his teeth and been knocked unconscious.

Now, having killed the leader, they were sure they must be safe. They moved into the room from which their first group of attackers had come, finding a sleeping and living area – it was filthy and dark and stank, but it was a place to rest. Here also they found a few rations of grub, fresh meat of some kind, which Grimshaw and Bloody Jack ate in preference to their own preserved grub, figuring that it was better to eat food that could go rancid before eating their own rations. They slept again, and when they had recovered they explored the rest of the level. They found a room with a large desk and some strange long-dead electrical equipment, that was obviously the boss guy’s private space. Leading off from this were two doors, one of which led to a dark, sealed room with an air mattress and a bunch of trash that was obviously his sleeping room. In here amongst the dust and rubbish they found a jar of fetid water in which floated a perfect set of teeth; initially shocked, they realized the potential and Parsnip carefully smashed out all of Chang Chang’s remaining teeth, replacing them with the perfect false ones[2].

The next room was a smaller room with a desk and a window that had been pushed open, clearly the boss’s escape route. He must have exited through this window, gathered his men and then somehow come up the stairs from below to attack the PCs at night. But now he was dead. Mice, men, all that. Beyond this room was a small room full of electronic equipment, including a battery. With this and the air mattress the PCs had quite a haul of artifacts to take back to their Ark. They had also found some fresh meat and rot free water – quite a good haul!

This was all the rooms on the first floor. They opened the door that their attackers had come through with the leader, and found stairs leading both up and down. They decided to explore up first, since if they could get the katana they would find all battles easier, so they headed up. Loony Lonnie – experienced in sneaking around in dark and dangerous places – took the lead by a small distance, and went ahead to scout the entrance to level 2.

The stairs marched up in darkness to level 2, then beyond to the rooftop where they expected to find the katana. At level 2 there was a heavy door, bolted from the outside, which Lonnie carefully opened. Gesturing to the others to stay in the stairwell, he slipped inside. The door opened into a large room, dimly lit by pale light filtering through blocked windows. It was an L shape, so a section of wall blocked off Lonnie’s immediate view of the room. As he turned around this section of wall he was suddenly shocked by the figure of a looming man, and stumbled back into the main part of the room – and into a waking nightmare! The looming man swung forward, and revealed itself to be a corpse hanging on a meathook, the flesh partially stripped from its bones and a badly damaged face grinning out at him in death. The rest of the room was soaked in blood, full of buckets of meat and cuts of human hanging from meat hooks. On a table in the middle of the room lay a dismembered human body, a few wicked looking knives lying next to it or standing in buckets full of gore. Lonnie wretched, remembering the meat Bloody Jack and Grimshaw had eaten – and heard murmured sobs. In the corner he found a wretched, injured person, chained to the wall and desperately scared. He unchained her and helped her outside, soothing her with calming whispers and shutting the door firmly behind him.

“Nothing in there,” he declared sternly. “Just this prisoner. We can go up.”

The rest of the party briefly demurred, suggesting they should search the room together, but he assured them it was an empty room holding nothing but some chains and a dirty bucket, and they agreed to head up. Trying to hide his tremors, and trying to make sure the freed prisoner’s mutterings did not give the game away, Lonnie led them upstairs.

The stairs opened onto the roof, a windswept and empty expanse of concrete with nothing to recommend it. The struts and spars of the radio mast towered above them and the rock with the katana sat in the middle of the roof. Lonnie stood trying to calm his nerves and hide his fears as Bloody Jack strode forward and drew the katana from the stone in a single smooth motion. The rest of the party cheered, and Lonnie hid his sobs by pretending to pay attention to the freed captive. Shivering and shaking, he followed the rest of the group down the stairs, again assuring them there was no reason to go into that hateful room, and casting Grimshaw and Bloody Jack suspicious looks. Does a man get a taste for this sort of thing. Had they changed? Could he see it in their eyes? What was that hard glint in Bloody Jack’s visage, had it always been there …?

He steeled himself and slid down the steps to the basement, leaving the others on the stairs to await his scouting. The stairs opened into what had once been an underground carpark, the entrance sloping down from the ground level, barricaded with a cunning structure of scrap that had a single old telephone booth as its entrance point. The rest of the carpark was empty except for trash and remnants of the old age, and in one corner a fire and some cozy cushions for a group of five guards. The elevators from above would have exited here if they worked, and the empty shafts were open against one wall. Lonnie moved over to the fire and soon saw what he had expected – a bucket full of fresh meat. He lugged it over to the elevators and cast it down, carefully hid the bucket. Then he went back to the stairs and called the others. Obviously the five men who had attacked them in the second wave had been on guard here: when his first five men died the leader had snuck out of his window and around and down to here, and taken his five remaining men up to attack the PCs. It was done. The nest of cannibals were all dead.

They led the freed captive out into the weak sunlight and back to the ice cream van. On the way she babbled and jittered, and somehow Chang Chang figured it out, but with one glance from Lonnie he, too, decided to keep the whole thing quiet. They returned to the ice cream van, rested, and spoke some more to the captive. Her name was Arabesque, and she claimed to have been alone. They didn’t believe her, and finally she admitted that she had been part of a larger party, and had been abucted by the cannibals. She expected her group had moved on. Freed and exhausted, she agreed to return to the Ark.

A miracle of the ancients

They had not moved more than 30 minutes before three mutants emerged to block their path. One was pushing a miracle of ancient technology: a perfectly cut steel bathtub-like structure, on a single wheel, with two handles sticking out of one end that could be used to carry it. The steel carrier was full of food and water, but as the three men moved into the street it was set down, and the man pushing it pulled a bicycle chain off the top. Another of the men carried a club, and the one at the front held a shotgun.

“She’s ours,” he said.

They negotiated. The men soon relaxed when they realized the party meant them no harm, and they talked. Arabesque’s group had come from far away, on a pilgrimage to the Oracle of the Silver Egg, who could “make your dreams come true,” but they had been ambushed one night and two of their party abducted. They had been hanging around waiting for a chance to go in and rescue their group when they saw the PCs – Lonnie had been right that they were being followed. They decided to wait and see if the PCs rescued Arabesque or weakened her abductors.

“Well met then,” Chang Chang said, “because indeed we did. Now … would you like to make a deal?”

And so it was that all four of them decided to change their plans, give up their journey to the Oracle, and join the Ark. They rested near the ice cream van, and the next day all of them returned bearing the air mattress and the battery to the Ark, Bloody Jack now armed with a katana.

And only Lonnie and Chang Chang knew what their friends had done.


fn1: A radio station.

fn2: Chang Chang’s critical injury says he has a -1 to Manipulation and other charm rolls for two weeks while it heals; with the new teeth in he took a point of damage and gained a permanent +1 instead.

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Hiding from tomorrow
and hades wrapped in clouds
ride the breeze
so cold as ice

The faithful, the fallen
have faith to the ones with pride
the faithful, the fallen
and glance of day will never shine

We find our heroes at a moment of crisis. They have negotiated their way out of a tense and complex situation with a band of 20 knights of the Order of the Morrigan, an order of ruthless mercenaries who go to war in honour of their foul Fomori wargods. Although they have avoided slaughter at the hands of these evil folk, they watched as 10 of the knights departed in haste for the town of Crois Arald to hunt down the Fomori deserter that the PCs knew was hidden there. Having already hatched a suspicion that these Morrigan were somehow connected to the slaughter of those deserter Fomori, the PCs needed to get back to town quickly to help the lone Fomori hiding there. They took their leave of the leader of the Morrigan and headed as fast as they could back to the town.

Unfortunately the PCs were slowed down by two wagons – Xenobia of course rode in her noblewoman’s wagon, accompanied by her manservant Wagonsworth, and also by her maid Purple; but they were also slowed down by the wagon of a Korr called Percivole, who they had rescued from the necromancer[1]. So they were not able to keep up with the detachment of Morrigan, and by the time they reached the town the Morrigan had already begun to execute their search. They had begun dragging people out of their houses and forcing them into the central square, while some knights had fanned out to search more outlying buildings. In the center of the square a Far Daragh stood on a platform, massive sword in hand, red armour gleaming in the sun – Far Daragh are Fomori executioners, tasked with killing Fomori who have broken the strange and evil codes of that ancient and vicious race. No one was yet hurt, although they had beaten the sheriff unconscious when he tried to assert his authority, but it was obvious that if anyone resisted they would die. Worse still, the PCs knew that the Fomori deserter, Ilid, was hiding in a building on the southern side of the town, and the Morrigan were approaching it. They were accompanied by a Seacal, a kind of dog-human race that is renowned for its tracking skills. They had to act fast.

They split up. Ichimusai and Leantoir walked towards the main square from the east, to disrupt the rounding up of citizens and in hope of making a distraction. Xenobia and Korr parked his wagon on the road heading out of town, to block entrance to more knights from the north, and headed along a different road to the square in Xenobia’s wagon. Idril climbed a watchtower on the edge of town to get an overview of the area and be able to cast spells at anyone in the area. Fellan slipped into the shadows of the buildings and headed south to try and get to their Fomori deserter before the Morrigan.

Xenobia and Persivore reached the square from the northern road and began talking to the guards just as Ichimusai and Leantoir were stopped by three guards on the eastern road. Ichimusai was wearing a banner that proclaimed him “Ichimusai, greatest fighter under heaven”, intended as a challenge, but the Morrigan were not stupid enough to accept his challenge, so they stood in the road watching each other warily. Xenobia began asking the guards who stopped her what was happening, but as the conversation began the Seacal saw Fellan, and fired at him with a bow. The arrow struck Fellan hard in the side and as he fell the Seacal let out an unholy howl. Hearing that howl the Morrigan grabbed their swords, which Ichimusai interpreted as a challenge, and battle was joined. As the battle started the guards speaking to Xenobia panicked and, thinking her a normal noblewoman accompanied by her manservant, dragged her from her cart and into a nearby building for her own protection, one standing in the room facing the door as a guard while two more stood outside covering the door.

Xenobia waited until the guard’s back was turned and, gesturing to Persivole to draw his pistol, stepped forward, touched the man on the back of the head, and began to rip his soul from his body. He resisted, but the pain and damage was intense, and as he struggled he turned, wreathed in crackling black lightning, to face Persivole, his face drawn and withered, skin taught, veins standing out black and pulsing against unnaturally pale skin, eyes pools of black dripping tears of blood. Persivole shuddered and shot him in the face, blowing his head across the windows and walls and making a huge hole in the door. The guards outside turned in shock, not yet knowing what horrors lay inside that room.

Across the square Ichimusai and Leaintor went to work on their opponents, who acted first, attacking the huge and intimidating druid with their great swords and beating him near to death. Ichimusai killed one with the first swift and silent draw of his weapon, and Leaintor beat on another one. From the tower Idlir cast healing magic on both Leaintor and Fellan, who rushed towards the house where the Fomori was hiding. Unfortunately for everyone, as Fellan was rushing towards the house the Fomori emerged and ran towards the Seacal and one of her accompanying Knights, attacking them in a mad suicide mission. The other two Knights accompanying the Seacal had broken back to the square, hearing sounds of slaughter and gunfire.

Xenobia and Persivole stood in the room, waiting patiently for the guards to enter as Xenobia screamed for help and the Korr reloaded his pistol. Smoke and cordite mingled with the steely smell of blood and the strange, oily stench of dark magic. The guards rushed into the room and Xenobia hit both of them with a crackling nimbus of dark energies, rotting the flesh on their bones as they rushed in to come to her aid. Persivole shot one in the chest, blasting him back out of the door. He flicked the shell from his pistol and tried to act calm as the room filled with the cawing of distant crows and the stench of rotting corpses. Xenobia’s magic has a certain signature.

On the far side of the square Ichimusai and Leaintor pummeled on the remaining two soldiers, killing one and badly injuring another. Idlir stunned the knights facing Fellan and the Fomori as Fellan, dodging another arrow from the Seacal, charged into battle and struck the dog-man in the face with a powerful sweep of his longsword. Now the Seacal was injured and Fellan was whole, the tide of battle turning slightly towards the Sidhe assassin.

In the room Xenobia and Persivole shared a brief glance as Persivole dodged the surviving guard’s sword blow. Xenobia stepped forward and touched the Morrigan, striking him with such a wave of black power that his soul was pushed from his body whole, briefly appearing whole and intact and glowing pure and steady in the air of the room before turning black and crystalline, mouth opened in a silent scream of terror, and then dissipating on invisible winds of dark magic. Somewhere funeral bells rang and the room hung heavy and cloying with the smell of charnel houses and rose incense. Persivole, gagging, flung open the door and fired his pistol at a guard standing on the far side of the square. At the same time Ichimusai and Leaintor entered the square, Ichimusai leaping over one guard to land on the far side of the square facing the guards coming from the south.

Down the south road the Seacal dropped her bow and leapt at Fellan, attempting to knock him over and savage him but missing. Fellan pushed her down and beat her with both his swords, hacking at her head until she lay still and broken on the roadside. Then he and the Fomori set about the callous murder of the other Morrigan soldier while in the square Persivole, Leaintor, Ichimusai and Xenobia teamed up to finish off the remaining three Morrigan. Moments later the battle was done as fast as it had begun, 10 Morrigan and a Seacal dead and the party largely unharmed, except for Ichimusai who stood purring and swaying at the edge of the square, near done for under the weight of multiple sword strikes. Leaintor stepped forward and placed a gentle hand on the giant cat man’s arm, suffusing him with the glow of druidic healing magic. Xenobia moved to pat Persivole on the shoulder in a gesture of triumph, but he ducked away from her touch with an expression of horror. Behind them blood dripped off the windows, and whispering spirits subsided into silence.

They saw the citizens of the town back to their homes and negotiated with the Far Daragh, who looked nonchalantly about him at the ruins of the Morrigan, announced “Nothing to execute here” and walked away. Fellan followed him at a discreet distance, hoping to find out how the Fomori returned to their kingdom beyond the mists. Ichimusai fashioned a banner that stated “Your men were slain by ichimusai, unequalled under heaven” and planted it in the middle of the square. Hours later Fellan returned to tell them that the Far Daragh had taken a horse, and he had lost track of him, but before then the Far Daragh had met with the other half of the Morrigan force and told them about the events in the town. They debated whether to set up an ambush in the town, and finally decided to head out of town and lay an ambush in the hills to the east. If the Far Daragh’s report did not convince the Morrigan to seek vengeance on the party, Ichimusai’s banner surely would.

Before they left the town the Fomori deserter thanked them, and by way of thanks gave them a fragment of a diary she had found in the ruins of a church to the north east. This document described the final movements of a famous woman who had previously defeated the Fomori in an earth shattering war 300 years ago. The Fomori deserter thought that this letter might be relevant to the reason the Fomori had recently made war in this area – perhaps they were seeking the “memento” the woman mentioned in the diary. The characters decided that once they had killed the remaining portion of the Morrigan they would seek more information about the contents of this diary entry. Thanking the Fomori deserter, they headed out of the town towards the east, to set up an ambush for the Morrigan and lead them to a certain fate…


fn1: I completely forgot to mention this in the previous write up. Korr are a kind of dwarf-like race of engineers and grumps, and this Korr had been turned into a chicken by a trap in the necromancer’s lair, but when they killed the necromancer he returned to his previously slightly larger form. They recovered his gear and his wagon, and now he traveled with them

After six weeks of waiting and watching the Republicans flail about trying to figure out a way to deliver on their campaign promise to “repeal and replace” Obamacare we have a policy! The Republicans have delivered on their promise to “simultaneously” repeal the law and replace it with something better, wisely choosing not to go down the repeal-now replace-later path that would have made them responsible for two years of madness. Instead they have decided to use the budget reconciliation process to revise the law, pushing their amendments straight into committees without giving anyone a proper chance to assess the law – including the Congressional Budget Office, whose decision on the law is essential in order for it to actually reach the committee stage. Apparently it’s a shocking piece of political cynicism when Democrats push a law through congress before anyone has a chance to read it, even after they spent months hashing out the content in public, but it’s okay for Republicans to push the law straight to the committee stage without any debate or public discussion at all …

Putting aside the dirty politics of the law, the law itself seems to be pretty dirty. Vox has an explainer, but in essence the basic details are:

  1. It repeals the mandate, a tax penalty on people who do not take out insurance, and replaces it with a fine applied to the cost of subsequent health insurance. This means that if you drop your plan and don’t take up another one within 63 days you suffer a 30% increase in the cost of your next insurance plan.
  2. It replaces Obamacare’s income-based subsidies with age-based subsidies, that are means-tested to disappear above a certain income. These credits are smaller than Obamacare’s and obviously intended to favour the wealthy and Republican voters (younger people are poorer than older people). In combination with the changes to the mandate, these subsidies will push insurance markets into a death spiral (see below) and are vastly more regressive than the Obamacare system (which was far from perfect).
  3. It doesn’t undo the Obamacare bans on discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions, but it does relax the rules on higher charges for the elderly, so that insurers can charge the elderly up to 5 times as much as the young
  4. It removes regulations on the products insurers can sell, enabling them to again offer insurance which offers no protection against financial catastrophe
  5. It retains the Medicaid expansion until 2020, after which it will stop new admissions to medicaid under the expansion rules, basically enabling the Republicans to repeal the Medicaid expansion by stealth and to put off the electoral consequences of the repeal by making sure it doesn’t affect those currently receiving medicaid. The Medicaid expansion probably increased the number of people insured by 10-20 million – this will be reversed slowly over the next 10 years
  6. It changes Medicaid funding to block grants for the states, which will mean that states give less funding to Medicaid, further restricting its effectiveness and/or driving more people off Medicaid. It also hands out money to Republican states that did not take the Medicaid expansion, to ensure they are not disadvantaged by their decision not to take the expansion over the past 6 years. Given that this decision was a political decision taken in collaboration with the federal Republican party, and that this decision directly disadvantaged state budgets, the decision to reward these states for their intransigence is breathtakingly cynical
  7. It abolishes a range of Obamacare taxes that were crucial to funding Obamacare
  8. It delays the so-called “Cadillac tax” (which all health economists agree is a really good policy) until 2025, effectively ensuring that this excellent piece of pro-equity, cost-containing legislation never happens

Aside from the decision to allow young people to stay on their parents’ insurance until the age of 26, there is essentially nothing about this health financing policy that is good. In particular, decisions 1 and 2 are very stupid decisions that will hasten the descent of insurance markets into death spirals. Consider the example of a 26 year old healthy man with no pre-existing conditions who is leaving his parents’ insurance, and is on 150% of the poverty line. This young fellow is not eligible for Medicaid (which is restricted to people earning less than 138% of the federal poverty line) but will get a $2000 subsidy under the new plan. If he does not find himself a plan within 63 days he will be charged 30% extra on the plan he chooses. The internet tells me 150% of the federal poverty line is about $18,000. The average cost of a silver plan for this man would be about $350[1]. Under Obamacare, if this chap didn’t take up insurance he would be faced with a tax penalty every month of his life for the rest of his life until he chose to purchase a plan; but his plan would be subsidized so that he would not be paying much for it, so the difference between the tax penalty and his plan cost would likely be minimal – his decision about whether to take a plan would largely come down to his personal health seeking behavior[2]. In the case of a 26 year old man we can be fairly confident he would choose not to take a plan, but that’s a story for another day. Under the Republican plan, this young man would suffer a 30% penalty on his next plan, for one year. Using Obamacare coverage costs as a guide, he would face a $110 a month penalty for one year, or $1320. Given that this man is healthy with no pre-existing conditions, and can assume that any significant health issues he faces in the next five years will be emergency issues (i.e. being shot) and best handled by free emergency care, he has no special reason to get health coverage. So from his perspective waiting four months with no coverage is no big threat to his health, and saves him more than the fine – and the longer he waits, the more he benefits. The Republican plan actively encourages young, healthy people to avoid taking insurance for as long as possible, because there is a cap on their liabilities that is determined by the price of the insurance they ultimately take. Given that no one in their 20s needs high cost coverage and salaries rise as you get older, a 30% fine is no inducement to take coverage – and the higher this fine gets, the stronger the inducement to delay purchasing coverage. This fine will encourage young people to avoid markets, except for a small group of people who hate taking risks, who will likely already be sick or at risk of getting sick. The healthy will stay away until they are old enough to need coverage – especially if the new deregulation of products enables insurers to remove maternity care from coverage, since maternity care would encourage 30-something women to take insurance.

Furthermore, while the Obamacare mandate returns the penalty for not taking insurance to the tax payer, the Republican plan returns it to the insurer – to use on covering their losses as the death spiral begins. It’s a disaster for insurers and it shows the fundamental silliness of trying to manage a universal health coverage (UHC) system through a classical private market place governed by Republican ideology – these market places rely on a large pool of low risk individuals, but Republican ideology opposes forcing anyone to spend their money in any specified way. So on the one hand you have a classical market demanding a certain pattern of expenditure that can only be guaranteed through government coercion, and a ruling party that fundamentally opposes that coercion, on both moral and practical grounds.

Madness.

It’s worth noting that a lot of right-wing commentators are angry at this new plan, calling it Obamacare lite and objecting to the subsidies and the mandate. Eric Erickson at The Resurgent opposes the mandate and sees the Republican plan as no different, giving a clear example of the fundamental conflict between modern Republicanism and basic health care policy. You can’t have a functioning health insurance system if healthy low-risk people don’t opt in, but they will never have an incentive to opt in if they aren’t forced to. Sensible systems (i.e. all the rest of the developed world) force people to opt in through the tax system, using government coercion to ensure the risk pool works; if you don’t do this you get a shrinking risk pool and sick people preferentially buying in, leading to escalating costs and a death spiral. That Republicans don’t understand this fundamental aspect of health policy makes them as stupid as their orange shitgibbon president, who just noticed that health policy is “unbelievably complicated.” They’ve had 6 years to figure this out, and they still don’t understand a single thing about one of the most crucial aspects of modern policy.

Fortunately, this bill won’t pass – the Freedom Caucus will sink it from the right, and the Medicaid expansion states from the left. The Republicans have had 6 years to sort this shit out, and they have failed in every way. Truly, Americans are uniquely poorly served by their elected representatives!


fn1: My god American health stuff is so complex. In every other developed country you just pay a certain predetermined proportion of your income as part of your tax and get coverage. How in any way is this market-based stuff better?!

fn2: Because under Obamacare costs and subsidies depend on age, sex and location (to the nearest zip code) it’s impossible to give precise numbers to any of these issues. Suffice it to say that in Japan or Australia no one earning $18,000 would have to pay anything resembling $350 for their insurance (or even $35, I suspect). But we don’t even have free access to guns, so don’t listen to us about healthcare policy!

Strange summer lands

Strange summer lands

On the 30th December I ran a one-off session of Barbarians of Lemuria, a sword and sorcery RPG with a simple engine and stripped down rules that I wanted to try out. This is the game report.

There were three PCs:

  • Kazaam, hunter and assassin from the lost Bone-Eye clan of the Beshaar desert
  • Batiz, shaman of the Bone-Eye, an alchemist, beastmaster and magician too old for combat or any vigorous activity beyond cursing, accompanied on all his adventures by his faithful skorpider
  • Zeddek, mercenary-physician from the Pirate Isles

The group of them had previously been on adventure, Kazaam and the Sea of Evil, in which Kazaam was sent to rescue a farmer from the lair of the Wise, where he had been taken for nefarious purposes by a merchant, who held the Sword of Hideous Death. Kazaam received this challenge simply because he was Kazaam; however, he managed to succesfully rescue the farmer, only to find the reward was less than he had hoped, but he was marked by the Gods for his deeds[1]. After this adventure, the PCs went carousing together in Malakut, and had been carousing for 9 days before finally they became bored and found themselves at a table in the tavern called the Red Empire, pondering what deeds of glory to attend to next.

Thus do adventures start: Batiz plucked his bone eye from its socket and shuffled over to the fire pit, over which a large lizard roasted on a spit. Squatting near the ashes like a savage, he dug into the skull of the beast with his knife and tore forth its roasting eye, which he stuffed into his own gaping eye socket and, with a roar of fear and joy, fell backwards to spasm on the floor, whereupon he suffered one of the rare visions his god sends him. He saw a rich woman and her bodyguard walking through one of Malakut’s many spice markets, strolling down an alley lined with sacks of spices in many colours, the floor a dusty carpet of variegated shades of powder. Suddenly men lunged from the shadows, throwing clouds of spice in the eyes of the bodyguard and dragging the woman away into the darkness beyond the stalls, tipping over a barrel of cardamom and pushing through a curtain of hanging saffron threads as they did so. The vision snapped away and with a squeal of pain Batiz pulled out the burnt lizard eye and hurled it into the fire. He returned to the table, pushing his bone eye back into its socket, to tell his fellows of his vision[2].

Recognizing a woman who needed to be rescued, the characters asked around, finally identifying the spice market where the attack had taken place by the hanging threads of saffron and the cardamom barrel. They rushed there through the narrow streets of Malakut on their war-ostriches[3], arriving in time to find the bodyguard, a woman called Damaya, standing despondent at the entryway. She told them that the woman was Raemis, daughter of a rich merchant who would reward them handsomely if they could rescue her from her abductors before a ransom demand was made. They needed no further prompting, and began searching the market. Finding no evidence of the footprints of the abductors despite the abundant spices scattered around all the floors of the markets, they asked amongst the stall holders. Finally one told them that there was a war ongoing between the Ragged Knaves and the Brotherhood of Shadows, and it was likely one of those groups had abducted her. The Ragged Knaves knew everything that happened in the markets, perhaps they should ask? So they asked around for the Ragged Knaves until finally they met a man called Juss who was willing to lead them to the Knaves’ leader, a beggar-king known as Jandor Hookhand.

Hookhand told them he had heard rumours already that the Brotherhood of Shadows had abducted Raemis, and he would tell them where the Brotherhood’s headquarters were for free, in hopes of receiving help in his war against the Brotherhood, who were slowly strangling his guild of beggars and street urchins. Perhaps they could reason with the Brotherhood leader, Zolat the Scimitar. The PCs headed off to the Brotherhood headquarters, a tavern called the foaming mug. On the way they were ambushed by brotherhood assassins, all six of whom they dispatched in short order before proceeding over the Bridge of Sorrows to the quarter in which they could find the tavern. As they neared, Batiz cast a spell on Kazaam’s hawk to enable him to see through its eyes, and Kazaam hurled his hawk aloft. They found a safe pathway to reach the headquarters without being noticed by its watchmen, and settled in an alley near the rear entrance of the Foaming Mug. Soon a messenger entered the tavern through that back door, emerging again accompanied by a man in a scarlet hooded cloak, who carried a scimitar over one shoulder. Guessing this must be the leader, they trailed him at some distance. Kazaam took the lead, following close to the pair. In fact his stealthy desert movements were so skilled that not only could he follow them closely, he could listen to their conversation and even sneak close enough to steal the keys on the messenger’s belt[4]. Listening to their conversation, he learnt that they were heading to a shop, that there was a demon guardian in the shop, but it would not attack them if Zolat stayed close to the messenger.

Kazaam followed until they were near the shop, taking a position with a view of the door. The messenger opened the door and Zolat entered first, the messenger stepping in behind him, at which point Kazaam shot him with an arrow. One shot killed the man, who fell dead inside the doorway. Kazaam ran forward and slammed the door shut, locking it from without using the keys he had pilfered. From within came yells and roars, strange flickering lights, and then silence. With one arrow Kazaam had slain two, and possibly three opponents. The rest of the party joined him and they opened the door, charging in to take on any survivors of the battle.

Zolat the Scimitar was dead, parts of him scattered around the shop. In his death throes he had overturned a shelf of herbs, and in the battle the decorations and contents of the apothecary had been damaged, but the demon had not been killed. It swarmed towards the characters, a horrific beast with the head of a carnivorous ape and a cylindrical body ringed with disgusting tentacles, the whole thing covered with a thick slimy apes fur. It was Vul’Mazzanlu, the Ape-Thing! Fortunately for the PCs it had been injured in the fight with Zolat, and they were able to kill it quickly. Batiz tore out its hideous tongue and they proceeded to the back of the shop, where stairs led down into a basement from which emerged the sound of chanting, and a flickering light. They had found their kidnappers, surely!

They descended the stairs to see a terrible sight: A large room with a magic circle in the centre, within which lay Raemis’s unconscious body. A triangle was drawn inside the magic circle, and at each point of the triangle stood a chanting acolyte. Smells of incense drifted out of the room along with the droning chanting of the acolytes, woven in with the strident calls and song of the master conjuror: Valtriz of Ill-Omen, who no doubt intended to use Raemis as a human sacrifice to draw forth some hideous demon from beyond!

Before they attacked Batiz consumed the demon’s tongue and used it to cast a cantrip of misdirecting sound, the screams and yells of an angry demon, to confuse the participants and delay the ritual. Then they charged into the room, to find themselves facing 9 more acolytes, Valtriz himself, and an evil assistant. Truly, a battle worthy of heroes!

They fought, Zeddek laying about himself at the acolyte rabble with slaughterous intent while Kazaam fired arrows at the tougher assistant, and Batiz threw acid at the chanting acolytes. However, they could not disrupt the ritual: after they had killed all the rabble defending the ritual Valtiz of Ill-Omen cast a paralyzing spell on all of them – twice! – and they were forced to watch in horror as the shadowy form of a greater demon began to manifest in the circle over the supine body of the helpless woman. Finally they were able to free themselves of the paralysis, and Zeddek killed Valtiz of Ill-Omen. Unfortunately he was too late, and though they managed to disrupt one of the acolytes it was not enough, and the horrifying demon Mazallakos of the Severed Veil appeared in the circle as the Acolytes called his name in adoration and fear. The magic circle snapped, and Mazallakos was free in the world!

They grabbed the nearest ritual weapons they could find and attacked the non-corporeal monstrosity, Zeddek hacking at it with a silver sword and Kazaam firing silver arrows. As they did this Batiz fell to his knees, tore off his shirt, and carved the name of the demon on his body from his chest along his arm; he called to Kazaam, who slew a fleeing acolyte and drained the blood onto Batiz’s shoulder, that he might work this human sacrifice into the carven name like tattoo ink; having done this he then consumed the eye of the Ape-Thing from upstairs, and called forth a mighty spell in the name of all the gods to bind this demon Mazallakos in place[5].

The great spell did not work! The demon was immune to even Batiz’s most desperate spells! But they did not give up, hacking at it with rage and abandon. The demon, perhaps not realizing how close they all were to spent, looked about itself at the dead conjuror and the room strewn with the dead bodies of acolytes, saw a mad mage eating a demon eye, felt the stabbing pain of silver sword and arrow, and perhaps decided that on this day discretion was the better part of valour. It disappeared in a thunder clap, preferring to retreat to some subterranean lair to nurse its wounds and gather followers, that it might decimate the living world in its own time.

They carried Raemis forth from that vile place and returned her to her father, who paid them handsomely despite the discovery that his daughter’s mind was partially lost from the demon sucking her life essence before they could drive it away. They left the compound of the merchant on their war-ostriches as dawn coloured the minarets and rooftops of Malakut with its first pink light. Burdened with treasure and exhausted from a night of battle, they paused at the heights to look over the town, and turned their faces to their next challenge: To find Mazallakos, and restore the rightful order of things by slaying him and any who followed him.


fn1: The Barbarians of Lemuria rulebook has a random generator for sword-and-sorcery adventures, and rather than try to figure out why the PCs were together I just decided they had adventured together before, and had them roll up the details of the adventure they had been on. I was going to give them advancement points for that adventure but decided not to bother; given the flow of events once the adventure started, I probably should have.

fn2: This was a level 1 spell, with the bone eye and the visible effects of the spell-casting counting as requirements to reduce the cost of casting it.

fn3: Actually called sandrunners, but you get the picture

fn4: The player rolled a 12 on 2d6 and used a Hero Point to upgrade from Mighty Success to Legendary Success, which proved incredibly useful a moment later

fn5: Batiz only had 6 arcane points left and binding the demon I decided was a second level spell, which costs 10 arcane points that can be reduced to 6 with requirements. For Batiz this was a) human sacrifice, b) permanent focus (tattoo), c) eating the demon eye and d) doing d6+1 wounds to himself [this is almost enough to kill Batiz].

Mushroom man on the spit!

Mushroom man on the spit!

I just finished reading episode 1 of this entertaining and weird manga, called Dungeon meshi in Japanese, by Ryoko Kui. It’s the tale of a group of adventurers – Raios the fighter, Kilchack the halfling thief, and Marshille the elven wizard – who are exploring a dungeon that is rumoured to lead to a golden kingdom that will become the domain of whichever group of adventurers kill the evil wizard who has taken it over. The story starts with them having to flee a battle with a dragon, which swallows Raios’s little sister whole. She manages to teleport the rest of the party out of the dungeon in an act of self sacrifice, and they decide that they should go back in and save her from the dragon. They could wait and resurrect her from its poo, but they decide they would rather go in, kill it and cut her out of its belly (dragon digestion is very slow). No answers are forthcoming to the question of why she can’t just teleport herself out as well, or how she will survive in a dragon’s belly, but I’m sure the reasons are clear.

Anyway, because they left all their gear and loot behind when they fled, they would need to sell their armour and weapons and downgrade in order to make enough money to buy supplies for the return trip. Also they don’t have time to go back to town and get more stuff. So they decide to go straight back into the dungeon and live on a subsistence diet of whatever they can gather and kill in the dungeon. This is particularly appealing to Raios, who has always secretly wanted to eat the creatures he kills (when he tells them this, Marshille and Kilchack decide that he’s a psychopath, but they ain’t seen nothing yet …) Off they go!

They soon run into a dwarf called Senshi who has spent 10 years exploring the dungeon and learning to cook its monsters. Raios has a book of recipes but Senshi tells him that’s all bullshit, and teaches them to cook as they go. Senshi has always wanted to eat a dragon, so he offers to join them and help in their quest. Thus begins the long process of returning to the deepest levels of the dungeon, one meal at a time …

The food chain, in the dungeon

The food chain, in the dungeon

This manga is basically a story about a series of meals, with some lip service to killing the monsters that go in the meals. It starts with a brief description of the ecology of dungeons, which sets out a nice piece of Gygaxian naturalism, along with the food pyramid suitably reimagined for mythical beasts, and gives us a tiny bit of background about the dungeon crawling industry, which is so systematized as to be almost industrial in its scope. Once we have this basic background we’re off on a mission to eat everything we can get our hands on: Mushroom men, giant scorpions, giant bats, basilisk meat and eggs, green slimes (which make excellent jerky apparently), mandrake, carnivorous plants and ultimately a kind of golem made of armour. In the process they make some discoveries about the nature of the beasts – for example, Marshille discovers that you can use giant bats to dig up mandrake and that a mandrake tastes differently depending on whether you get it to scream or not, and the golem is actually armour that has been animated by a strange colony of mollusc-like organisms that are excellent when grilled in the helmet or stir-fried with medicinal herbs.

Giant scorpion and mushroom man hot pot

Giant scorpion and mushroom man hot pot

Plus, we get recipes, which are detailed and carefully thought-out and also slightly alarming. For example, for the mushroom man and giant scorpion hot pot (pictured above) we get to see the team slicing open the body of a mushroom man, which is kind of horrific. The final meal of this issue, the walking armour, is particularly disturbing, since the crew basically sit around in a room plying mollusc flesh out of the pieces of an empty suit of armour, then grill them, except the head parts, which they cook by simply sticking the entire helmet on the bbq and waiting for them to fall out as they roast. It’s made clear that the armour is operated by an interlocking network of separate mollusc-things that have some kind of group sentience, but then once they manage to drag some out of the armour they slip them into a bowl of water and declare happily “they drowned!” Really it’s just like eating a big sentient shellfish. i.e. completely disgusting, in a disturbingly fascinating way.

Each recipe also comes with a disquisition on its nutritional benefits (and the importance of a balanced diet), along with a spider diagram showing the relative magnitude and balance of different ingredients (in the bottom right of the picture above, for example). In some cases special preparation is required – the green slime needs to be dried for several weeks, but fortunately Senshi has a special portable net for this task, and a green slime he prepared earlier which the crew can sample. In other cases, such as the basilisk, medicinal herbs of various kinds need to be included with the meal, which sadly makes it impossible for the reader to make their own roast basilisk, lacking as we do the necessary ingredients to neutralize the poison in the basilisk after we catch it. There are also tips on how to catch the ingredients – the basilisk has two heads for example but only one brain, so you can confuse it if you attack both heads at once – and some amusing biological details too. For example, it is well known that chimaera made from more than two animals are not good to eat because they don’t have a main component of their structure, while chimera of just two animals – like the basilisk – will adopt the taste and general properties of whatever their main animal is (in this case, a bird)[1].

In addition to the rather, shall we say, functional, approach to non-human creatures, the story also has some quite cynical comments on the adventuring business. During the encounter with the carnivorous plant, for example, they find a half-digested body. They feel they should return this body to the surface, but just like climbing Everest, they don’t want to go back up till they reach their goal, so instead they leave it in the path for a returning group to deal with. Realizing this might cause someone to trip, they arrange to hang it from a tree by a rope in what is, essentially, a mock execution, and then they go to sleep underneath it (Marshille, unsurprisingly, has bad dreams). To counter this cynicism Marshille acts in part as the conscience of the group, spinning on her head in rage at one point when they suggest eating something, and refusing outright to eat humanoids, but she is usually overruled and then forced to admit that yes actually this meal is quite delicious. Marshille seems to be the stand-in for the reader, since she generally expresses the disgust that the reader is likely (I hope!) to feel, and also gets things explained to her obviously for our benefit (this comes across as very man-splainy, since it’s the male fighter telling her how the world really is, but since she spends most of her time responding in apopleptic rage, it’s bearable).

Beyond its cynical but loving commentary on the world of dungeon crawling, its fine recipes and detailed exposition of dungeon ecology, this book is also a careful retelling of a staple of Japanese television entertainment – the cooking variety show. Anyone who has spent more than about a minute in Japan will have noticed that Japanese television is heavily dominated by variety shows about food, and a common format is for a group of stars and starlets to go to a remote town and sample its local delicacies. Usually this happens in rural Japan, though it can also often be seen in overseas settings, and it always involves a brief description of what is special about how the food is prepared and the ingredients obtained, and then a scene where everyone eats it and says “delicious”, and if there is a starlet involved she will be the one asking the questions while an older person (usually male) explains things to her. So this manga is an almost perfect recreation of that format, except with adventurers instead of starlets and magical creatures instead of standard ingredients. Also, the food shows usually don’t go beyond saying oishii over and over, but in the book we get more detailed expressions of the nature of the food, its texture and taste, which is just great when you’re talking about a humanoid mushroom.

Part RPG dungeon crawl, part variety show, part ecological textbook, this manga is a simple, pleasant read with an engaging story and two entertaining characters (the dwarf and the elf). It’s a really good example of the special properties of manga as a story-telling medium, since the entire idea and its execution would be almost impossible in short story or novel form, but is really well-suited to words with pictures. The pictures give it a more visceral feeling than if you were simply reading a short story about a dungeon cooking show, but the manga format gives I think more detail to the food and science descriptions than you would get in a TV drama. It’s a great balance, and an entertaining read. From a non-native Japanese perspective, it has the flaw that the kanji don’t have furigana (the hiragana writing by the side of the kanji which makes them easy to read), so it takes a while for a non-expert reader to get through, but it doesn’t have the heavy use of slang language and transliteration of rough pronunciation that you see in comics like One Piece, which makes them almost unreadable to non-experts. In general the grammar is simple and straightforward, though sometimes Senshi’s speaking style is overly complex and he uses weird words. In some manga, and especially in novels, the sentences are long and complex and very hard to read for slow readers, but here the sentences are short and straightforward, and the language is mostly standard Japanese. I found I could read in ten page blocks without too much difficulty, using a kanji lookup tool on my phone (I use an app called KanjiLookup that enables me to write them with my finger, which I’m not very good at but a lot better at now I have read this whole manga). After about 10 pages I get sick of constantly referencing the app and put the book down, but it’s not so challenging that I gave up entirely, probably because of the simple language and the short sentences and the very clear link between what is being said and what is being depicted. So as a study exercise I recommend it. As a cookbook or a moral guide, not so much …

 

 


fn1: Actually I’m pretty sure the “basilisk” in this story was actually a cockatrice.

Harder to beat than it looks

Harder to beat than it looks

I’m not going to write anything specific about what yesterday’s election results mean for America or the world, but in this post I thought I’d make a few random observations about the electoral process, polling and Democratic strategy, followed by two comments relating this election to past role-playing campaigns of mine.

  1. The US electoral process is a mess: The composition of the senate and the electoral college process are a joke that protects power for small rural states at the expense of the large and populous urban centres. That California (population 40 million) has the same number of representatives in the senate as Louisiana (population 4.5 million) is ridiculous, and ensures that Louisiana’s residents have nearly 10 times as much voting power as Californians; to a lesser extent this is replicated in the electoral college, where they have 8 compared to 55 electors. This is why we see the strange phenomenon of Republicans winning the presidency and the balance of power in the senate even though they do not win the popular vote, and cannot win significant numbers of senators in the cities. Furthermore, not only is voting not compulsory, but it is held on a Tuesday and many states don’t allow early voting or postal voting, or only have early voting in business hours. Every US election comes down to turnout, and this is a huge problem for a functioning democracy. Reform of all these aspects of the US system is desperately needed.
  2. Polls cannot predict anything while turnout is volatile: Polls consistently showed Clinton leading in the popular vote, which is what happened at the end, but they didn’t come anywhere near predicting the final result. I think this is because a) the polls don’t necessarily reflect the population of the state they’re taken in, so don’t reflect how it will vote, and b) even if they accurately estimate individual voting intentions, they need to weight this by turnout patterns in order to accurately estimate the final vote, and in the absence of accurate knowledge about who will vote, knowing how they would like to vote is irrelevant. Even guessing based on demographics won’t work, since we don’t know whether for example the white people who turn out to vote will be the Democrat voters or the Republican voters. In electoral systems with high turnout (e.g. Australia) this is not an issue, since the effect of fluctuations in turnout will be small compared to the total pool of voters, but in countries with low turnout this is a big problem. Especially since much of the result turns on subtle differences in a few states. Donald Trump would not yet have been declared victor if Pennsylvania were not his, and he won there by 1.2%. Even a small difference in turnout would flip that result. To flip that state Clinton needed just a 3% (not a 3 percent point!) increase in turnout. Note also that many states are won by such narrow margins that predicting the result would be impossible even if we had good estimates of turnout – the error margins on the turnout estimate combined with the voting intention estimates would surely swamp the margin of final victory, producing very high probabilities of error. Polling is no better than reading tea leaves in this situation. If the electoral college system were abolished this wouldn’t matter, since the law of averages combined with big margins in larger states would make polling more effective. But basically the only way to predict the result of a US election is to accurately estimate turnout using huge samples in a few swing states, and then give predictions like ‘there is a 55% chance Pennsylvania will fall to the Republican candidate’.
  3. Get out the vote strategies are not so wonderful: Trump’s ground game was famously bad, and his efforts to get turnout very poor, while Clinton was supposed to be running a well-oiled GOTV machine; yet 7 million fewer people turned out than in the last election, and Clinton got 4 million fewer votes than Obama. This tells me that Trump got better turnout than Clinton without having a ground game. This suggests that having a charismatic candidate is more important than turnout; and that a great GOTV effort is insufficient if the candidate is not well liked. From the party’s perspective this should probably be the only consideration. In four years’ time the Democrats should be asking themselves, is it better to have an inexperienced and popular candidate like Michelle Obama, or an experienced and unpopular candidate like Tim Kaine? And if they’re tempted to say “GOTV should make up for Kaine’s flaws,” they should look at yesterday’s disaster for some helpful pointers. Which brings us to …
  4. The demographic strategy is not working for the Democrats: One often reads that the Democrats are on a winning streak because the proportion of white voters is declining and the proportion of African American/Latino voters is growing, but there are two reasons why this isn’t working for them, at least in the medium term. The first is that the decline of white voters is due to ageing, and older people are more likely to be Republican, more likely to be able to vote, and more likely to be energized to vote; and the second is that fluctuations in turnout will wipe out even large demographic gains. When turnout can fluctuate by 10% between two elections (48.6% this election vs 55% in 2012, according to Wikipedia), demographic gains will be swamped by the patterns of turnout – especially if turnout is not consistent across all demographic groups. It’s also not clear to me that the growing trend in Latino/African American populations is a sustainable windfall for the Democrats, since the reason these populations are growing is that they are younger, and younger people are more likely to vote Democrat; but will this be true as these populations age? Democratic policies appeal more to young people, and the population of young people, although growing, may not be growing fast enough to offset the ageing of slightly older people into more Republican groups. If they are going to be competitive, Democrats need to appeal to older white people in rural areas, and that is very hard for them to do when those areas are completely shut off from Democratic modes of communication through Hate Radio, Fox news, and the growing echo chamber of the Republican right.
  5. Trump did not win poor people: The first exit polls I read suggested that Clinton did much better than Trump amongst people on below median income and below 50,000 US$ income. This group is disproportionately young and African American/Latino, probably also more likely to be women, and it shows that the Democrats are facing an ageing problem – this is the baby boomer dividend for the Republicans. In my experience Boomers are very vulnerable to climate change denialism, deficit terrorism, and arguments about deserving vs. undeserving poor, and this makes them easily convinced to vote for Republicans. This was an election fought along wealth lines, with a heavy leavening of racism and sexism to drive up turnout, and it’s not the case that Trump won by appealing to the poor and those “left behind” by the “neoliberal order”. He won by getting out older, wealthier people to vote against the change that their own children are pining for. This is exactly the same story as Brexit, where the people most likely to be affected by leaving the EU – young people and poor people – overwhelmingly voted to remain, while older and wealthier people voted to leave.

I can’t see an easy way back from this for the Democrats, not because they can’t win elections – Obama showed they can, and resoundingly – but because the Republicans will use their time in power to further drive down the ability of poor and young people to vote, and further attack the social organizations – like unions – that support activism in support of these groups.

I had a bet with two Aussie friends that the Republicans would be out of power for a generation, and I think my position was based on a misunderstanding of the importance of points 2 – 4, and now as a result I have to post an expensive 1.8L bottle of nihonshu (sake) to Australia. Which just goes to show the importance of understanding demographics, and also that this election has been a great tragedy for me, and Americans should apologize to me for my loss.

To bring this post back to RPG-related issues:

  1. A few years ago I played in a World of Darkness campaign that was set in a dystopic near-future, in which an inscrutable and ineffable evil force was working to reduce all the universe to its whims, using America as its primary point of access to the mortal world. Of course it was manipulating US politics through the Republican party, and so America had become a proto-fascist hellzone ruled by President … McCain. We thought this was hilariously cynical at the time, but now I think we were showing a remarkable lack of imagination. Shame on us.
  2. My character in the Cyberpunk campaign I recently played in was fond of saying that Asia was where the future was, and comparing shattered, collapsed America and failing Europe to the vibrant and optimistic megalopolises and future civilizations of Asia. This election shows the truth of her view: with Trump likely to sink all forms of action on climate change, China will become the global leader on response to warming; if Trump can repeal Obamacare the US will again be well behind many Asian nations in progress towards universal health coverage; and in comparison to the lunatic electoral decisions of the UK and US, the one-party administrative states of Asian states like Japan and Singapore are looking decidedly responsible and stable. I’ve said before that China is going to present a genuine alternative model to capitalist democracy if it can weather its economic and environmental problems without instability, and certainly the Chinese press have been presenting this US election as an example of why democracy is an ugly thing. As my Cyberpunk character was fond of saying (if her vocabulary extended to it), it’s time moribund European and anglosphere states started looking more seriously to Asia for ideas on politics and governance, because frankly, from my perspective, they seem to be flat out of ideas.

These are my first and probably last thoughts on the US election. I’ll be tracking Trump’s impact on Obamacare and writing about it as it happens, but the rest of this is too depressing for me to want to take on. Just the sight of a qualified woman being beaten to an important job by an incompetent, unqualified man with a history of workplace sexual harrassment allegations leaves me so cold I couldn’t watch her concession speech, and I certainly want to minimize my exposure to Trump before he forces himself onto us from the oval office. So I think I’ll be avoiding further posts about US politics for the foreseeable future … Godspeed America, I think you’re in for a rough and probably tragic ride.

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