Horror


Cleansing the hearts of men

Cleansing the hearts of men

Were the hearts of men always corrupt, or did they become so when the world died? Before Eschaton, were men’s hearts as clear as distilled water, or in that halcyon time did only nature thrive pure and clean? Was Eschaton the cause of men’s corruption, or punishment for it?

I do not ask myself these questions as I burn out the evils of this world (there is much that must be burnt). But now I crouch on this hillside looking down at this thriving camp of filthy apocalyptics (there is much that must be burnt). And I wonder what came first – the impure fire in the sky, or the impure fire in men’s hearts.

I emerged from a test of fire in the bowels of the corrupt earth, and find myself facing only the unceasing corruption of men’s souls…

The catacombs and the lost man

We had traveled to these catacombs seeking a valuable transceiver for the untrustworthy Chroniclers in Tumbler. Here we stood at the edge of the catacombs, checking weapons and gear. With a grunt our Apocalyptic slapped Tesla on the back, muttered something about being right behind her, and nodded at the tunnel entrance. She took a deep breath and slid inside, her filthy rags and oil-smeared face merging quickly with the shadows. We gave her a moment to move ahead before we slipped in after her.

Even Tesla could not help but be swayed near to terror by the tunnel we entered. Even that dirt-grubbing scrapper, who blinks unsteadily at sunlight and dreams of the comfort of crushing stone depths and darkness, crouched shivering at the bottom of the entrance tunnel, staring about her in disgust and horror. For once no one complained at the cold, harsh operating-theatre light of my splayer, because no light could render the hideous flesh of those tunnels more horrific than the simple fact of their brooding, grotesquely pulsating presence. The tunnels were lined with flesh, like a hideous oesophagus plunging into the gullet of some dreadful dark beast (if only we had known). It yielded spongily to our steps, and did not respond to our touch, but on a regular, slow beat the whole thing flickered as if disturbed by a distant … heartbeat. A sickly smell pervaded the place, as if they exuded some faint odour, and the air was warm and clammy. Somewhere, one of us retched. My finger twitched on the trigger of my fungicide rifle, and I noticed the hellvetic checking his explosives. No human is made for this horror.

We plunged on. Perhaps no human is made for this horror, but we had a job to do. A nod, a grunt, the Hellvetic hoisted his rifle and the Apocalyptic whispered a few assuring words, hulking protectively over the scrapper, and we pushed on. The tunnel opened into a large chamber, hideously papered over with living flesh and scattered evenly with entryways leading into smaller chambers. These chambers were all empty but one, which was scattered with adventurers’ implements: sacks, a few blade bracelets, some empty suits of armour, a scattering of blood[1]. In this room also the walls were different, stained in places with a darker pattern. In one part this darker pattern bulged out from the wall, revealing a kind of sac hanging from the wall, perhaps engorged with some fluid. We approached carefully to investigate, and in the light of my splayer saw something move inside the sac – something vaguely human shaped, that began pressing desperately against the sac. The apocalyptic stepped forward and sliced smoothly up the side of the sac with a sudden glinting blade, and a man fell out of the sack in a splatter of amniotic fluid and a burst of grave-stench.

For a moment we all stood there stunned; he kneeled before us, coughing and gasping desperately. He wore a leather coat and a gas mask, still strapped on his face and maybe the reason he was still conscious. The Hellvetic gripped him on one shoulder as if to offer reassurance, but he looked up at us wretchedly through gore-smeared goggles and said, “Just make it quick,” in a tired, resigned voice.

In a corner of the chamber Tesla looked at those other sacs and the scattered remains of other adventurers, and keened quietly to herself.

“No, friend, it’s not your time yet.” Sylvan grabbed him under one shoulder and offered him water from a canteen. “You’re free.” Someone cleaned his goggles, and he looked around at us all with a brief expression of wonder.

Then he saw Tesla beginning to scrabble through a toolkit discarded on the fleshy floor, and lunged weakly forward. “Hey! That’s mine!” Looked around at the other discarded tools.

We returned to the surface so he could recover his strength, talked. His name was Stanislav (“Stanko to my friends – but you can call me Stanislav”)[2]. He was a Scrapper, hired with his friends by a group of mercenaries to scout ahead and find this cave. They found the cave but something – things – ambushed them and when he woke up he was in the sac. So were his friends, but something came and took them one at a time, screaming and desperate. Dragged them away.

He didn’t know where his mercenary employers were – maybe they had abandoned him, maybe killed by cockroaches. He didn’t care, but he wanted to find the things that killed his friends, and show them a similar mercy.

We agreed. We went back into the cave.

What could possibly go wrong?

What could possibly go wrong?

A single tunnel from the lower chamber descended further into the depths. It ended at a kind of kitchen, strange now that its furniture and implements dripped with horrible, misshapen fleshy outgrowths. An ancient blast door lay jammed open, almost as old as Eschaton and probably originally rusted into place; now it was held fast by tendrils of faintly rippling flesh. Beyond, a narrow tunnel led deeper into the complex, now lit by occasional flickering lights. We entered it.

We were only a little distance into the tunnel when they attacked, two vicious monsters bigger than men and armed with wicked claws. They struck from both ends of our group, strung out in the dim corridor, but we fought them off, killing them both. They were big, grey things, with blank expressions and strange, twisted bodies – once men, maybe, but ossified and warped by some terrible chemistry. I have read rumours of these things in the archives: beasts tortured and changed to monsters by the corruption of the spore zone, and acting with a single mind, often possessed by a single greater power. No doubt they nested here, preying on cockroach clanners and waiting to burn.

My surmise was correct. At the tunnel’s end we found an open chamber scattered with the bones of cockroach clanners. In the centre of the chamber was a broken grille that had once covered a shaft that plummeted into the earth. The grille had been broken upward, and the cockroaches attacked from below. Signs of struggle and violence suggested they had not gone lightly, and had perhaps killed more than one of their attackers; but now they were gone. The remaining beasts, and our transceiver, must lie below, at the bottom of that shaft.

We descended. The shaft opened into a large room, flickering with lights and cocooned in grotesque, pulsing flesh. This was some kind of control room, with many lights flickering, old chairs, perhaps a map buried beneath glossy skin. Holes in the walls sussurated with the faint movement of air from distant caverns, the flesh puckering around them like the disgusting lips of a blighted, mutated beast. Our transceiver was buried amongst flesh and steel on one side of the room, waiting for us to remove it. But at the far end of the room an ancient door was jammed half open. We did not see it, but we felt the movement inside.

Sprawled over the bench and desk next to the transceiver, partially covering the machinery in which it was buried, was a huge heart, pumping and twitching with a fell puissance.

We moved quickly. The hellvetic placed a triggered explosive on the heart and took a firing position near the shaft, while I placed my fire grenades at two points in the room. Tesla and Stanko began to dismantle the control panel in order to remove the transceiver, and Sylvan and I approached the door.

I threw my final fire bomb through the door, and all hell broke loose. Beasts swarmed out of the room beyond the door, screaming and smoking, and fell upon us. Vicious battle ensued, with the hellvetic firing into the fray with an angry chatter of peacemaker-fire, Sylvan moving smoothly amongst the battle slicing and stabbing and getting torn at by angry beasts while I tried to burn them and Stanko and Tesla desperately worked to free the transceiver. The beasts were many and vicious, and as they closed in Stanko had to stop working on the transceiver to fire at them with the pistol Sylvan had loaned him; he killed one, but the hellvetic was being pushed back and Sylvan seemed to go down under the beasts’ attack. Fortunately he rose up again, strengthened with rage[3] and beat back the last attackers as Tesla and Stanko dragged the transceiver free. We ran for the shaft, Sylvan going up last and me and Ronan setting off the explosives before he was even clear of the shaft.

They all burnt.

We struggled outside with the transceiver and fled, putting distance between ourselves and anything that might be left behind. We doubted there would be pursuit, because we had heard the rumbling of collapsing caverns behind us, but we wanted to be sure because the fight had taken its toll, and we were all badly injured. Stanko’s left arm had been mangled at the shoulder, and everyone was exhausted when we stopped. I gave what battlefield treatments I could, and we made the decision not to return to Tumbler, but to go to Gesseln, where we could get healing and maybe find a buyer for this transceiver. Why return anything to those untrustworthy Chroniclers in Tumbler?

Weary but not unwise, we trudged north.

Stanko’s merry band

After a day of travel we stumbled upon Stanko’s employers. Tesla found them while she was scouting ahead, not because she stumbled on their camp but because she followed the Cockroach clanners who were preparing to ambush it. By following the clanners she saw that they were digging tunnels under the camp and preparing to attack from below.

Stanko wanted to be paid. Cockroaches killing everyone in the mercenary camp would certainly stop him collecting his payment, but he was leery about going in with us, because he didn’t trust his employers. We agreed with him; they were a band of Apocalyptics, and a nasty looking bunch. Sylvan seemed particularly adamant that we should not trust this band, and that we needed a story to ensure they did not come after us. He, of all of us, knows the mettle of his kind – why would we doubt him?[4] We decided to stay hidden, and he would go in and negotiate for his money, using the information about the Cockroaches as a further incentive. He would tell the mercenaries he had been rescued by a group of Spitalians who had destroyed the caverns he had been sent to scout; this would hopefully discourage the mercenaries from continuing on their mission, and maybe enable us to secure an escort back to Gesseln (not that I wish to travel with Apocalyptics – one is enough).

Stanko entered the camp. Would they listen to him, and pay him, or would they show the treachery typical of their kind, cut his throat and come for us, oblivious to the trap that the cockroaches had set for them?

Would our fate rest in the hands of a Cockroach warband? We watched Stanko begin negotiating, and placed our trust in the treacherous souls of men, and the brutal instincts of the Cockroach clan …

 


fn1: There were also some burn husks, which the Apocalyptic slipped into his pouch when Karl the Spitalian was not looking. This tale is told, as last time, from Karl’s perspective.

fn2: My friend Sergeant M from Australia was visiting Japan and wanted to join our session, so we made a temporary character for him. He played Stanko the whole day with a dour Russian accent, cynical and resigned to the evils of this post-apocalyptic world. “What could possibly go wrong?” Stanko was a perfect expression of wasteland fatalism.

fn3: Actually massively enhanced by a burn husk he secretly huffed, which vastly improved his fighting prowess; he should have done this at the beginning of the fight

fn4: Sylvan had discovered burn spores growing in the lair, and realized that the Apocalyptics had been traveling to the catacombs to harvest burn spores. This made him think they would kill anyone who had been inside the lair, unless we could assure them that there was no longer any value in protecting the secret of its contents. But he couldn’t tell the other characters that, because he was still hiding the fact that he had taken burn, and he now realized that the burn he had taken probably belonged to an agent of the Apocalyptics in the camp …

They looked like this! Honestly!

They looked like this! Honestly!

In our first D&D session we began investigating the dungeon from the Basic Rules set, somehow managing to avoid a TPK in the first battle but retreating to the village after our two followers were killed. In the second session our elf, Aengus, went on a date with the town cleric, learning nothing of interest, and after a day of rest we hired two new followers – a completely useless fighter called Abel Artone and a halfling called Begol Burrowell, who is famous for some situation involving an enraged badger – and set off to finish plundering the dungeon.

We arrived at a deserted outer courtyard, finding no sign of enemies or of our charmed kobold companion Dogface. Not really stopping to consider the possibility that his absence might be a warning, we plunged back into the dungeon (behind Abel, of course). Entering through the main door and finding nothing disturbed since our previous journey, we decided to head to the room of our fateful encounter with the zombies from the other direction, rather than retracing our footsteps. We passed through the open doorway on the east side of the entrance chamber and into a small room empty but for rubbish. We searched the room and found nothing, but Eric of Melbourne was nearly decapitated by falling beams in the ceiling, which dislodged a loose brick. Behind that he found a silver dagger, potentially useful when we decide to slay a werewolf, so we took that and moved into the next room. Here were more boxes, only these could be opened and investigated. We searched the room until our search was interrupted by a zombie in a box, which emerged moaning and dragging a rusted sword. Once again, Eric of Melbourne’s stalwart faith proved useless against basic undead, and we had to beat the thing to death with blade and stick.

Of course it had no treasure.

We passed this room into the closet where our last followers met their unfortunate end, and back into the area we had already explored. From here, heading northeast, we found stairs leading down into the lower level of the dungeons beneath the castle, where the kobold gang was hiding. Rather than risk such heavy opposition, we decided to clean out this level first, and headed north to the final rooms in the castle. The next room was occupied by 5 kobolds, who tried to do battle with us but were no match for our valiant swords and ferocious spirit. We killed them quickly, and found nothing of value on their bodies.

Good thing we made a deal with our followers to split treasure only after we had recuperated the cost of their equipment!!

From this room there was only one other exit, heading east into a small room. In the middle of this room was a statue of a kobold, pointing its sword at the door we entered from; the far wall beyond the kobold had a solid wooden door, the first door we had seen since we entered. We ventured forth, but were attacked by a giant lizard that emerged from hiding behind the statue, attacking our useless fighter Abel (who goes first, of course) with surprise and killing him in one savage bite.

Good thing we clarified marching order! We beat the thing to death while it was trying to swallow the fighter. Of course it had no treasure.

The door on the far side of the room was locked. Aengus used his super elven sight to look through the keyhole, and saw a bit of ruined wall with some sunlight on it. No one poked him in the eye. We retreated.

We circumnavigated that room, moving back through rooms we had navigated a few days before and passing right around the west wing of the building, only to come to another room with exactly the same statue pointing its silly, hopeless little shortsword away from exactly the same kind of door. Perhaps the shortsword wasn’t so hopeless; as we searched the room Barus the Magic-user touched the statue and it spun viciously in a 360 degree arc, cutting his head off.

We took his spellbook and retreated to consider our options. This door must be locked for good reasons – no doubt, having vanquished those five kobolds we stood at the threshold of their treasure chamber, piles of gold glinting in the sunlight Aengus had seen through the keyhole (was it even sunlight, or just the gleam of untold riches!?) Clearly the kobolds had bound the doors fast and secured the entryways with fiendish statue-traps to keep us away from their hoard, a hoard no doubt stolen from innocent villagers over years of violent raiding and despoiling. We were honourbound to somehow breach their inner sanctum, and carry away the money, though no doubt finding its original owners would be all but impossible and we would likely have to keep it for now.

How to get in? It was Aengus’ low elven-cunning that found the way – we would burn the door down. We set some of Barus’s oil on the door and set it alight, then piled broken chests around it. Soon we had a good fire going, and we retreated and waited for it to burn itself out. Once the fire had burnt down we strode forward and kicked the charred remains of the door down, marching in to reclaim our birthright in a swirl of sparks and smoke!

We found a large, 30′ x 60′ room with a huge table in the middle[1]. There were chairs set around the table, and skeletons sitting in some of the chairs. Eric of Melbourne stepped forward to quell the skeletal monstrosities, but they weren’t moving; and anyway before he could a beautiful music washed over him and Begol, and they gave up all thoughts of violence. They walked calmly into the room, ready to meet the beautiful source of that fine music.

Aengus saw his two colleagues entranced with the horrible screeching emerging from the fireplace. He charged forward, hurdled the table, and looked into the fireplace. There he found two horrible, hideous old women with wings and goats legs, keening away like their cats had just died. He went to strike one but they attacked with their cloven feet and knives they pulled from the ashes, stabbing him to death immediately.

His last, blurry vision was of his friends sitting down at the table as the harpies swooped down on them, blades ready, and cut their throats. He took a while to die, and the last minutes of his life were a vista of horrific feasting.

Then the harpies turned to look at him …

 


fn1: Actually the table on the map was so big it didn’t fit through any of the doors of the room. Some fiendish magic at work here!

 

You whelp 'em, we use 'em

You whelp ’em, we use ’em

The National Review, conservative journal of record and close ally of the Republican Party, has been struggling with Trump’s impending nomination victory. They ran a special issue “against Trump” in which all of their columnists whaled on him; they invented the #neverTrump hashtag that is clearly failing; and they have been running a constant series of attacks on him, leavened of course with conspiracy theories about how he is really a Democrat and anyway it’s all Obama’s fault. Finally, though, they realize that the writing is on the wall and have given up on any chance of  holding him off. Today’s National Review is full of articles claiming he is no worse than Bill Clinton, it’s all the left’s fault, the media are all just like Breitbart, and he won’t be so bad as president anyway. I guess this is the bargaining part of the five stages of grief, which leaves just depression and acceptance to go. And make no mistake, the journal that was formed to “Stand athwart history, yelling stop!” is almost certainly going to accept Trump in the vain hope that they can cut a deal with him – or more likely, so that they can stay connected to the wingnut welfare dripfeed. We’ll see about that.

But before acceptance comes depression, and the National Review’s subscription journal released a perfect model for that stage of grief today, in the form of a vicious attack on the “white working class” that make up the Republican base, and that is deserting its mainstream candidates for Trump. In this article we get to see what the Republican establishment really thinks of its base, through the voice of a Republican stalwart, Kevin Williamson. And what he has to say should put to rest any doubts that the Republican leadership have any respect for ordinary people. Here is a taster:

If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy—which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog—you will come to an awful realization. It wasn’t Beijing. It wasn’t even Washington, as bad as Washington can be. It wasn’t immigrants from Mexico, excessive and problematic as our current immigration levels are. It wasn’t any of that…

…The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible… The white American under-class is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul. If you want to live, get out of Garbutt [a blue-collar town in New York].

There’s a lot more where that came from, all of it vicious and bitter, and defended by another close friend of the establishment, David French, in a follow-up article. This stuff is so cruel, so bitter and so vicious that it’s hard to comprehend that these people see white working class Americans as anything but their greatest enemy. I want to particularly isolate this phrase for special attention, from the above quote:
the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog
Roll that phrase around in your mouth for a moment. How does it taste? That’s some bitter fruit, right there. I’m having difficulty thinking of anything I’ve read in political discourse from a mainstream commentator any time in the past ten years that compares to this piece of vileness. The language is carefully designed to remove the humanity of its object, not just through the banal comparison to stray dogs (we all know what to do with them!) but through its careful transformation of the phrase “human children” into a soulless other. It’s a phrase so dripping with contempt that no one who deployed it will ever be able to walk back from it. It’s clear to everyone what Williamson and his defenders think of the white working class, and it’s not pretty.
Unfortunately for the puppy-beaters at the National Review, the “white working class”[1] is all that stands between their precious party and electoral oblivion, and for the past 20 years they and their political friends and their donor masters have been assiduously alienating themselves from every other slice of American life. It’s pretty clear that they’ve been running a long con on their main voters, promising them racism and religious fundamentalism in exchange for an economic policy platform built entirely around shoveling money into the bank accounts of their rich mates, no matter what the price to their voters. They’ve sustained that con through deceptively blaming all the problems on Democrats, and maintaining the image that they are the only people who really care about or understand mainstream America. But now a brave new figure has promised that “white working class” base a new, shinier agenda with more racism and an economic message that appeals to their real economic insecurities. The National Review’s “intellectuals” and Republican leadership have been telling their base that the economy is fucked and it’s all Mexicans fault for 20 years now, while stealing their income, and now some philistine has come along to play to the same insecurities with a much louder racist message.
This has the sheisters at the National Review mad for two reasons. It isn’t just that the victims of their con have proven as faithless to them as they were to their victims; it’s also that they realize their position at the wingnut welfare feeding trough is in danger. These trust fund babies who have never done a decent day’s work have made a very good living from writing attack screeds on poor black people and pretending that Obama was born in Kenya, but they thought the skills they were offering were in real demand. Now Trump has shown that the GOP doesn’t need policy nuance or subtly-crafted dog-whistle rhetoric. You just have to call Mexicans rapists and promise people everything they want, and the vote is yours. Why would the Koch brothers bother funneling money to the likes of Kevin Williamson when any old red-faced carnival barker can win the nomination just by screaming at foreigners? If the folks at National Review had any use, it was laying the groundwork for Trump. Their work is done now, the earth properly salted – who needs them any more?
Over the next few months, as the Republican thinktank establishment realize that their base has deserted them, and then also start to worry that the wingnut welfare will follow, you can expect a lot more of these vicious attacks on the white working class. They’re going to show what they really think of the marks they’ve been fleecing over their whole career. And as you read this venom, remember that a central part of Republican “intellectual” mythology is that the Democrats are the party of the inner-city elites, people who don’t care at all about the troubles of ordinary Americans, never move amongst them and don’t understand them. In popular Republican orthodoxy Democrats sneer at blue collar workers and all the schmultzy paraphernalia of workaday America, and only Republicans truly understand these salt-of-the-earth Americans. Then compare Williamson’s phrases with the way Bernie Sanders talks about (and has fought for) the rights and lives of ordinary Americans, or the way Obama engages with the victims of mass shootings. Who really cares about these people?
Everything you need to know about the Republican party’s agenda is in that Williamson article. Let’s hope it becomes their epitaph.
—-
fn1: I put this phrase in quotes because there is no such thing as a monolithic “white working class” in a country as geographically and economically yooooge as America. White workers in the coastal South are completely different to workers in the megalopolis of the north east, the farming communities of flyover country or the sun-drenched west. In truth the Republicans haven’t been able to maintain a monolithic control over this group, but American political scientists (as well as Republican “thinkers”) seem to see everything in terms of demographics, so I’m stuck with the idea.
picture note: That beast is from the BBC TV Torchwood series special issue, Children of Men, in which [spoilers!] aliens come to earth to harvest human children to use as recreational drugs. The language that alien in the picture uses to describe its drug dispensary is pretty much on a par with Williamson’s.
Never stood a chance ...

Never stood a chance …

Today, rather predictably, Donald Trump won the Super Tuesday primary race by a large margin. He has now amassed a sizable delegate lead and is looking unstoppable, especially while two ambitious losers divide their voters in an attempt to stay relevant to a brokered convention. It’s certainly fascinating watching the rise of a proto-fascist in real time, though I have serious doubts he has any chance of winning the general election and in the long run may be good for American politics, since he in many ways looks like a kind of freeform performance art suicide attempt by the Republican party. My sense of amusement at his escapades will change to one of real fear if he gets the White House, but I can’t see that happening. In the meantime, while we watch his Icarus-like ascendancy, it’s interesting to ponder the reasons why he has suddenly burst onto the scene, simultaneously energizing the Republican base and terrifying its elite. So far I have seen three possible explanations for Trump’s rise, which I’d like to talk about a bit here; all three offer apparently plausible explanations but seem somehow to be vaguely wrong. I don’t have a special explanation for his rise, which I think is mostly just luck and racism, but I think there are specific reasons why it’s happening now, and in particular I think the Republican party has uniquely inoculated itself against rational thought and good sense, and so it’s become very easy to take it over with Trump’s version of charisma, racism and populism. First I’d like to talk about the three explanations I have seen for his rise, and then I’d like to explain why I think that, whatever the reasons, the Republican party is at this juncture uniquely incapable of handling him.

Explanation 1: The schadenfreude explanation

The schadenfreude explanation is very appealing because it involves popcorn and gloating. Basically under this explanation, the Republican party has spent the last 8 years appealing to racism and building up a political logic of obstructionism and anger. As a result, there is an opening for a leader who is uniquely racist and finally willing to say openly what the Republican party has been increasingly clearly dog-whistling in the past 8 years. Usually this schadenfreude explanation starts with the (obvious) unhinging of Republicans after Obama was elected, but it sometimes starts with Bush. It can also be observed in a different, mealy-mouthed form from Republican exiles like David Brooks, who blames it on “anti-politics” and tries to pretend it’s not the GOP’s fault, in the grand tradition of both-sides-do-it. But is the GOP more racist now than in the past? I’m not convinced they are. They ran an actual KKK member for governor one year in the 1960s, and are also the party of Willie Horton and – of course – the southern strategy. Is it possible that the party of Richard Nixon would have had a black secretary of defense, or fielded two hispanics, a woman and a black man in the primary election? Sure they’ve lost it over the election of a black president, but they have also simultaneously fielded a black presidential hopeful of their own, and were generally positive about Colin Powell and Clarence Thomas. Also, although Trump has said some fairly crazy things about how he will unleash American power on the world, what America is doing now – and what it did under Bush – is hardly the low point of its moral history. After 9/11 the elders in the Bush administration sternly warned the American people that they might have to tolerate American agents committing violence overseas, a laughable warning when one considers what Democratic and Republican administrations were willing to condone and order in the 1970s and 1980s in latin America. A willingness to waterboard people might seem horrifying to the average observer now, or in 2004, but in 1974 it was standard policy for both parties. Trump’s bombastic claims certainly set the US government back perhaps 10 years morally, but they hardly represent a return to full-scale 1970s violence. He hasn’t, for example, proposed restarting Cointelpro. So far his main outrage – the one single thing he has proposed that really seems to be beyond recent American moral boundaries – is the deportation of 12 million latinos, many of whom would be children and citizens. But against a backdrop of slavery, native American genocide, Japanese internment and Wounded Knee, this is hardly a new moral low for America. The problem, of course, is it’s hard to tell if he’s serious about this. But aside from this one piece of unhinged rhetoric, what he’s proposing isn’t out of step with past American policy and most of what he has said so far is consistent with historical Republican positions. So I’m not convinced that recent Republican Obama Derangement Syndrome and obstructionism is a sufficient explanation for his development.

Explanation 2: Tribalism

At Crooked Timber blog John Quiggin (with whom I have often disagreed on issues of agnotology) attempts to explain Trump’s rise in terms of a fragmentation of American politics into three groups: Tribalists, neo-liberals, and leftists. In this formalism Trump represents an uprising against neoliberalism, in which society falls into tribal or left-wing components. The tribalists try to protect their rights through racial exclusion while the leftists try to reclaim their rights through some kind of class action, and Trump represents the inchoate expression of rage of the tribalists. I think there are a lot of problems with this explanation, which I have expressed over there. Firstly tribalism=right wing in his formalism, and tribalism seems to be happening only within parties, e.g. blacks vote for Clinton and don’t even break for Sanders, let alone Trump, so it doesn’t seem like the tribalism trumps parties – it just seems like a weak attempt to rebrand right wing politics as tribal politics. Also what is neoliberalism? Is neoliberalism in America the same as elsewhere, and is Obama a neoliberal? If so, given that Obama and Clinton have presided over record jobs growth, expanded the welfare system for the first time in 50 years, and brought about a new settlement with long-term enemies, it seems that America has benefited enormously from their neoliberalism. But if Obama represents a break from the past pattern of Clintonesque politics, perhaps he isn’t neoliberal? And can you express the glacial pace of presidential politics in America in terms of neoliberal politics? There has been one previous Democrat president during the 20 year period in which neoliberalism is generally seen as having arisen, so how can we really say anything about the relationship between neoliberal politics and presidents? And can we say Bush was a neoliberal, with his various political settlements and massive expansion of corporate welfare? Unless neoliberal=corporate welfare, we can’t. And if neoliberal=corporate welfare, I’m fairly confident Trump will turn out to be the ultimate neoliberal. His rich friends are no doubt going to make a killing. I don’t find the term “neoliberal” useful as an analytical category, though it can be a convenient shorthand for modern capitalist practice at times, and I’m not convinced by a theory in which right wing people are tribalists but left wing people are principled opponents of inequality and neoliberalism. So I don’t accept this theory.

Explanation 3: Authoritarianism

This is the Vox take on Trump. Under this theory, America has seen a rise in the number of voters who have authoritarian ideals, they have clustered into the Republican party through its increasingly strident policy positions over the past few years, and in times of economic uncertainty they are vulnerable to racist and oppressive cues. This is an interesting, powerful and well-researched theory, and I’m thinking to read the Stenner book referenced to see what I think of it, but I’m not fully convinced by this theory. In particular, the timing is an issue. The GOP has always been authoritarian, so why is it happening now? When you look back at things like McCarthyism, it doesn’t seem like the modern GOP is especially authoritarian. Of course it’s hard to say, because there’s no objective standard of authoritarianism, but what’s lacking from this theory is an explanation of why this happened now rather during, for example, the era of McCarthyism, or the Cold War. Also, it’s worth bearing in mind that Trump’s ban on all Muslims entering the country is no worse – and probably better – than previous acts, such as the China Exclusion Act, which was maintained even for the first year during which China was America’s ally against Japan (and resulted in significant Chinese military figures being barred entry to the USA during this war). Even his plan to deport latinos is hardly going to be unique if enacted – it will surely involve internment camps, which have been used before against American citizens. Obviously maintaining segregation required a highly authoritarian government, so it hardly seems like Trump’s ascendancy is unexpected against the flow of mainstream politics.

So what is the answer?

Solution: The GOP has finally sealed itself off from reality.

The rise of Trump is not an unexpected phenomenon, and the only reason he appears unexpected is that mainstream political thinkers on both sides of the political fence have accepted two myths about America: 1) that it is a unique and ideal place and 2) that the Republican party are not a deeply racist, authoritarian party. Given the general shift in American politics after the Southern Strategy, a fairer way of describing point 2) is: there is a strong racist, imperialist under current in American politics, and when it finds a home in one party all hell will eventually break loose. The particular reason that he is so effective in this electoral cycle is one of simple stupidity. The Republican party has recently enacted a process of exclusion from reality that is unique in its history and that uniquely inoculates it against the kind of basic protective measures that would enable it to inform its voters that Trump is beyond the pale. It is this new intellectual isolation that has made it so easy for Trump to seize the nomination without any coherent policies except anger, hatred and naked power.

The GOP has completely isolated itself from reality in the past 10 years. Birtherism, flat tax madness, balanced budget amendments, gun nuttery, and AGW denialism are signs the party has completely lost touch with reality. Denying AGW now requires complete immunity to reality, requiring conspiracy theories about NASA fudging all its data and inevitably leading to the idea that stunts like snowballs on the senate floor can substitute for serious debate. Trump was famously a birther, of course, but by the time he became a birther the party was so drunk on its own reality that birtherism had reached the senate. It’s still easy to find commenters and diarists at websites like Red State who refer to Obama as “Hussein” in an obvious dog whistle to this ludicrous theory. AGW denialism is the ultimate example of this, with activists at every level – up to and including every single presidential contender – claiming it is a myth cooked up in support of big government (this is an actual Cruz quote). Maintaining this kind of delusion in the face of a world going mad with climatological craziness obviously requires a special commitment to making your own facts. Republicans have shown themselves uniquely able to take a side on a scientific issue purely on the basis of its political convenience, and once you start doing that you really need to build a whole intellectual architecture devoted to denying reality.

Republicans even deny their own policies, as seen with the debate over who was or wasn’t in the Gang of Eight, and Rubio criticizing Trump’s individual mandate plan and the Obamacare individual mandate when his own plan involves an individual mandate. Even their attempts to understand Trump are thick with this isolation – they honestly seem to believe that GOP racism is a fiction of the left wing media rather than a simple, obvious fact. Right now the National Review is running a retrospective on William Buckley, the founder of that magazine, who said this:

The central question that emerges . . . is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not prevail numerically? The sobering answer is Yes – the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the cultural superiority of White over Negro: but it is a fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists.

Yet recently in the Washington Post, we have Jennifer Rubin writing this:

The media, licking its collective chops, cannot wait for the GOP to become the party of racists, misogynists and authoritarians that liberals have always portrayed Republicans to be

That’s right, in the conservative journal of record (which, incidentally, recently hosted an article advocating shooting all Guantanamo detainees, apparently as a joke) William F Buckley advocates violence against black people because they’re inferior and Jennifer Rubin thinks liberals have a fantasy of Republicans as racists. The current Republican movement is so committed to denying reality that they cannot accept the racism of their own history.

The GOP are swimming against a series of global currents that call into question everything they stand for. AGW, the crisis in the middle east that George Bush created, inequality in the USA, and the need for universal health coverage (UHC) are all issues that they simply don’t have a policy answer to. If you listen to any of the presidential candidates other than Trump on these issues, they’re just talking shit. AGW isn’t happening, ISIS is entirely Obama’s fault, inequality is not an issue and UHC just doesn’t work even though every other country in the OECD has it.  These are crises that for rich donors and GOP activists are easily avoided, but for ordinary Americans are increasingly becoming insurmountable. These ordinary Americans want solutions, and for years Republicans have fed them the same thin gruel of free markets and Jesus. Now that they are really starting to need to provide solutions – or argue against the real solutions the Democrats provide – they find themselves struggling because for years the intellectual foundations of their movement have been oriented around justifying away these problems rather than facing them. Without any real solutions, they fall back on authoritarianism and dirty tricks at every level, – e.g. banning state officials from using the term “climate change,” refusing to even hold nominations for a judge etc. These struggles in turn draw in people for whom this crazed logic, authoritarianism and deliberate ignorance works, and then when the party followers reach a critical mass, the party is itself so inoculated to reason and common sense that it can’t defuse the crisis and indeed can barely even understand what caused it. As a result they deny that the problem is even there. All it takes then is for a single charismatic, short-fingered vulgarian to walk in and say that he has a real solution, while actually bothering to talk to the people about their real concerns. The problem here is not that the modern GOP is uniquely racist or authoritarian – it always has been – but that it faces a new set of challenges that it is uniquely incapable of adapting to. It is also such a vehicle of power for the wealthy and privileged that they don’t even understand their voters have a problem, let alone care to fix it. Trump is talking to those voters about what they really feel, and offering racist snake oil as a solution. There’s no sense in which his racist deportation solution is less realistic than trickle-down economics or getting a third job, and in any case there’s no intellectual framework supporting Republican political theory, so why would his voters not believe it?

The Republican party has built an intellectual infrastructure on sand, and Trump has simply come in and seized it, using the unique Republican ability to think a million crazy things before breakfast to his political advantage. All he had to do to seize the party was talk to voters about their real concerns, and offer a racist solution. It doesn’t have to make sense, because nothing in modern Republican politics does. In order to solve this problem the party leadership need to walk back from the illogical and destructive framework they’ve built up, but doing that is going to be a hugely challenging and ultimately destructive process, a purge that will probably completely change the entire party. It’s too late for them to do that in time to stop Trump, so he’s going to seize the nomination and destroy the party.

What a crying shame.

The age of degenesis has begun ...

The age of degenesis has begun …

My group’s regular member Grim D returned from his annual Christmas holiday in Germany bearing a sleek black rule book for a German RPG called Degenesis, revised and newly translated into English. We were astounded by this book, both for the beauty of its contents and the scale of the project it represents, and as soon as we opened it we became obssessed. We played the first session of a short campaign last weekend, and this is my review of the good and points of this incredible game.

Overview

Degenesis is described by the developers as “Primal Punk” role-playing, set in a post-apocalyptic future 500 years after Eschaton, a meteor fall that laid waste to the earth, unleashed radical climatic changes, and released strange spores that mutate human and non-human life. In this far future humanity has regained some form of functioning society but struggles in a world ravaged by both the aftermath of disaster and the emergence of new, dangerous forms of genetic mutation called “homo degenesis”. Europe suffered the worst of the meteoric damage, and in the aftermath of the disaster Africa became ascendant – but Africa too suffers from the strange ecological changes that fell from the sky. Africans raid Europe to take slaves back to their rich lands, and the people of Europe pick over the bones of their past trying to recover even the smallest semblance of their past glory.

The rules are divided into two books: Primal Punk, which describes the world, and Katharsys, which describes the rules. In Primal Punk you learn in great detail about the history of the apocalypse and the strange things that happened afterwards, as well as the main cultures – Balkhan, Borcan, Neolibyan, etc. – that dominate the post-apocalyptic landscape and the cults from which character classes are drawn. By the time you’ve read 300 pages of history and cultural background, you are ready to begin creating a character you hope might survive this brutal ecological hellzone.

Fascist in a wetsuit

Fascist in a wetsuit

Raw passion and beauty perfectly combined

The first thing to say about this game is that it is a creation of unrivaled beauty. I haven’t seen anything as well designed and perfectly conceived since Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay back in the 1980s. The mere books themselves are a robust and imposing presence, two solid black (or white) minimalist tomes packed in an apocalypse-proof cardboard sleeve. They are constructed of high quality glossy materials, easy to read and handle, and liberally strewn with art of eye-catching beauty. The pages carry subtle prints that change according to the section, giving an atmosphere to the book without overwhelming the reader, and there are a series of symbols and iconography that are carried throughout the text. Chapters and sections of chapters start with quotes from a small cast of famous writers, ensuring that a coherent feeling of post-apocalyptic foreboding envelops the reader. Everything has a punk/skinhead/goth artistic style, as if the whole project were banged out in a squat in East Berlin to the sound of dark sub-cultural music – for example, the symbol for the Clanners cult looks a lot like something from an Einsturzende Neubauten album, and a lot of the iconography and imagery is drawn straight from pagan-core or deep ecologist/punk imagery. There’s also a healthy strain of fascist imagery and iconography throughout the text, most especially in the ever-present influence of the Spitalians, flamethrower-wielding medical extremists who will happily burn a village to save it.

Furthermore, there are movies: two trailers have been produced for the game which really beautifully capture the loneliness and desolation of the post-apocalyptic world, as well as the culture of the Spitalians who play a central role in the iconography and history of the game.  This is one of those projects were nothing was left to chance, no image or artwork allowed to jar with the theme of the books or their aesthetic, and every available medium has been used to ensure that the world completely engages its players. But what of the game itself?

Throwback in Borca ...

Throwback in Borca …

Culture, cult and concept: a simple and flexible character creation system

Characters are created by combining a culture, a concept and a cult. Cultures are the broad national groups of the post-apocalyptic world. The world has been torn asunder and smashed together, so that for example Britain, Ireland and France are merged into one culture. Choice of culture affects the upper limit that can be attained for some skills and attributes, and also the choice of cults available to the character. The player can then choose one of 20 or so concepts such as The Adventurer or The Chosen which further affect upper limits on skills and attributes. Finally a player chooses a cult, which determines yet more upper limits. Cults are broadly speaking the same as character classes, but most cults have a couple of different paths one can take. For example, I’m playing an Apocalyptic who specializes in deception and stealth (called a Cuckoo) but there are others devoted to battle or assassination; the Spitalians may be medics or they may be fighters, or a little of both.

Once these are chosen the player assigns points to skills and attributes, to take them up to their limit. The player must also choose whether their character will be primal or focussed; this choice rules out one skill and rules in another, and determines how a character will interact with the world. You can test all of this yourself with an online character generator, or see the stats for my character here. After this one also chooses backgrounds, such as resources, renown or authority, that affect your PC’s relationship to the cult of which he or she is a member.

Finally, cults have ranks, with names, and rank attainment depends on skills and backgrounds. These ranks come with benefits and responsibilities, and sometimes choice of one rank rules out development trees in others. This whole system in combination is very flexible and detailed and really makes a big break from the standard race/character class approach to character development. It also loads your PC up with a whole bunch of background narrative that extends far beyond the limited background one normally finds in fantasy systems. You haven’t even started playing and already your character is a rich and deep person…

Time ... to sacrifice everything

Time … to sacrifice everything

The system: Elegant dice pools and sudden violence

The system uses a d6 dice pool mechanism with the pool constructed from the sum of attribute and skill with modifiers, including penalty dice. Successes occur on a 4-6, and any 6 is an extreme success called a “Trigger” that enhances the outcome (e.g. every trigger is +1 damage in combat). More 1s than successes indicates a botch, and the target number of successes is set by the difficulty of the action or by an opposed skill roll by the target. For example, my character Sylvan has a 6d6 dice pool with his blade bracelet, and against an active target this will usually need to hit a target of 2. Every trigger adds one to damage, and the base damage for his blade bracelet is 3, so there’s a good chance he will hit someone who is not actively dodging and do 4-5 points of damage. He has a special talent (called a “potential”) that enables him to subtract 1d6 from the opponents active defense dice pool for every trigger he rolls, and if he rolls 2 triggers he gets a second attack. So if for example he rolls a 1,3,3,4,6,6 on his dice roll then he has three successes and two triggers. If his opponent is defending actively the opponent reduces his defense pool by two dice (for the two triggers). If his opponent fails to roll at least three successes then Sylvan will do 3+2 damage (for the two triggers) and then get a second attack (because of the two triggers). It’s a simple dice pool system that enables a rich range of outcomes without having to delve into multiple types of dice or special rules on criticals, etc. There are also systems of extended actions which enable triggers from the first part of the action (e.g. riding a horse) to carry over to the second action (e.g. attacking).

Combat is also very violent. Characters have a small pool of flesh wounds and an even smaller pool of trauma wounds, and they die when the latter hit 0. Armour takes off damage, but every trauma wound applies a -1D penalty to all actions. For example, my character Sylvan has a leather coat (2 points of soak), about 10 flesh wounds and 5 trauma wounds. A single crossbow bolt does 10 points of damage, so he will survive one if it doesn’t have too many triggers but will definitely go down to a second. The edginess of combat is further enhanced by the use of Ego in initiative. Characters have a small pool of Ego points (about 8 in Sylvan’s case) that they can use to boost initiative rolls and to add dice to the first action of the round. Initiative is rolled every round, and ego points are spent secretly. So if you spend 3 points in round 1 you get an extra 3D on your initiative and your first action, raising the possibility of killing your target instantly.

However, once your Ego reaches 0 you are unable to fight – and some characters attack Ego, which is recovered only slowly. Combat in this system is more vicious than anything I have seen in other games, and definitely best avoided. Especially since the best healers are eugenicist maniacs who will burn you as soon as treat you …

This extreme violence leads to one of the first problems I see with this game.

The flaws of an ultra-violent system

The adversary we killed in the first adventure, the Blacksmith, was a legendary figure in Scrapper history, but we wasted him in a round. This happened because the extremely violent system means that big bosses are vulnerable to large groups of low-level people. Even though he acted first, the Blacksmith could only harm one of us, and we were then all able to deliver 5-10 points of damage to him each in that first round. Tesla, in fact, delivered 22. Wounds and armour don’t scale with levels, so a Scrapper Cave Bear won’t have five times as many wounds as a beginning Scrapper. This means that if a GM doesn’t deploy a big boss with minions to screen him or her, the boss will go down in seconds. It also means that in order to have a boss tough enough to put up a fight, it’s likely the party will have to lose members quickly. This is fine if you’re into campaigns where people die quickly and get replaced, but many players aren’t and it creates strange narrative twists to have new characters popping up in the post-apocalyptic wilderness. I suspect it will also mean that players soon learn to start characters with specific weapons to ensure that they get the first death in combat. This isn’t a flaw per se, but I think it means the system will encourage a certain style of play and GMing that won’t be to everyone’s taste (fortunately, this style is very much to my taste!)

The problem of loaded histories

Another, potentially bigger problem this game faces may arise as a consequence of its own richness. Moreso than any game I have played except perhaps World of Darkness, this game has a deep and complex history and cultural milieu that is deeply interwoven with every aspect of character development and play. This makes it a great game to read and an awesome product just to have in your RPG library, but also means that the typical avenues of creativity and expression open to players and GMs may be shut down. For players there is always the option to build your own clan, giving some flexibility to character creation, but I think this richness and density of background material may be felt as constricting by some GMs. If you’re the kind of GM who likes to have a set of tools to build your own worlds with, then this game won’t work for you – once you’ve read the background material – and especially if your players are really into the background material – you’ll find it very hard to insert your own creative impulses into the game. I’m not GMing this system so I don’t know, but from the outside it looks to me like a game where the GM has to deploy their creativity very much within the confines of the given history and background, rather than against it. I think for some GMs this will make the game superficially appealing (all that rich material is ready to use!) but ultimately frustrating, because every action available to them is restricted by the canon.

Go get 'em!

Go get ’em!

Conclusion: Degenesis is a really great game

But oh what a splendid canon it is! And what a luscious, awe-inspiring introduction to that canon. Degenesis redefines standards in modern gaming, not only in terms of the sheer physical commitment to the production of the game but also the intellectual and artistic energy devoted to the content. This is no shabby low-grade kickstarter delivered late on poor-quality paper, but a real tour de force of creative energy by a small team who really have pushed the boundaries of what modern game designers are capable of. It’s fun to play, in a coherent and well-imagined world brought to vivid, stunning life by a high quality and beautiful physical product. Even if you never play it, this game is a worthwhile addition to your gaming library, but if you get it then I recommend you do try and play it because it is a simple, elegant and enjoyable system in a rich gaming world that has been brought to life for you with such loving attention to detail that you cannot help but want to wade into that spore-infested, violent future.

Enjoy it, but remember: There will come a time when you have to sacrifice everything!

Art note: the pictures are all from Marko Dudjevic, the artist for the game, whose work can be found on DeviantArt.

Review note: I am going to write a post in future specifically about the twisted politics of the game, including some of the controversy about the fascist imagery. I don’t think it detracts from the game, but more on that later.

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.

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