Horror


On Thursday last week the British people voted to leave the EU, sending shockwaves through the British political establishment and the EU leadership. In the aftermath there is a lot of finger-pointing and blame going on, and as I predicted in a comment at Crooked Timber before it happened, people are lining up to blame Labour for what is a very Tory disaster. Here I want to talk about the limited available data on who voted what, to put paid to the idea that this was primarily (or even partly) a Labour failure. I’m then going to talk a bit about the “white working class” and the EU, and also give a brief opinion about what this means for health and the NHS. I intend to be polemical. By way of background, I have British citizenship and British parents, I’ve talked about growing up in Britain before on this blog more than once, and I really am not surprised by this result. I have only lived briefly in Britain since I was 13 – I immigrated to Australia and then worked for a year and a half in the UK on issues related to the NHS (during this period I started my blog, which is why it has the Thames as its header image). All my family still live there and I think in many ways my family present the ideal anti-EU demographic – I grew up in an environment steeped in racism and heirarchies of discrimination that I think people who grew up outside of the Tory working class, or outside of Britain, really can’t understand. This background informs my interpretation of political movements in the UK, and at its base is a simple theoretical position: for many British people, race consciousness always beats class consciousness.

What could possibly go wrong?

What could possibly go wrong?

The demographics of Brexit

There isn’t yet much clear data on who voted what, but we do have two data sources: the electoral returns for the local authorities, and an exit poll conducted by John Ashcroft. Let’s look first at the electoral returns, which are summarized neatly in the Guardian‘s referendum results page. In case that page dies I’ve put some screenshots of its contents here. First is the map, above, which shows clearly the regional pattern of voters: Scotland and the city centres voted remain (yellow) and the country areas voted leave (blue). For reference, the region I grew up in is the area of Wessex in the south west; I’ve magnified it below. This is the land of King Arthur and even contains a tiny separatist movement in the far south west (Cornwall). It doesn’t include Wales, which I’ve had to include a bit of in this map. The yellow (remain) areas are the cities of Bath, Bristol, Cardiff, Exeter and Plymouth. Outside these cities it is entirely blue. I grew up in towns like Salisbury (the furthest Eastward big blue blotch); Frome (south west of that blotch, in light blue); Falmouth (the dark blue patch west of the two small yellow ones) and Cornwall (the light blue patch poking out into the Atlantic). These are areas that benefit hugely from EU funding under the Common Agricultural Policy, were once strongholds for the Lib Dems, and are now shifting fast to UKIP. They’re heavy tourist towns with very low proportions of migrant and non-white people; unlike in London, if you go into a cafe in Torbay (where my parents live now, the dark blue patch east of Plymouth, I think) you’re likely to be served by a white local, rather than an Eastern European worker. These areas have received most of the benefits of the EU, and very few of its migrants, and have been largely isolated from previous waves of Commonwealth migration (ie Indians and Caribbean people).

Oo-arrh, Oi've got a brand new combine 'arvester!

Oo-arrh, Oi’ve got a brand new combine ‘arvester!

These areas are old, with only three major universities in Bristol, Bath and Exeter. They’re rural and tourist-focused, and they’re also repositories of British history, holding places like Stonehenge, Avebury, and Tintagel. They’ve always been a little bit wayward and remote from the concerns of Londoners, so I suppose a bit of restive anti-EU thought makes sense here. But what about the rest of the UK? The Guardian has some graphs showing the proportion of people voting leave/remain by major socio-economic and demographic factors, which I’ve placed below.

Let's make a classic political science error!

Let’s make a classic political science error!

It’s very clear what’s going on here: the more higher-educated, wealthier people, and the more people not born in the UK, the more likely the area is to vote remain (for those not steeped in British class lore, the UK office of national statistics classifies people by their social class, and “ABC1” is the professional and higher class groups). If you remove Scotland from this chart it will probably be even clearer, since Scotland’s poorer areas were more likely to vote remain. Note also that older areas were more likely to vote for leave.

It’s a classic political science error to infer individual voting patterns from area-level statistics, because it’s well-established that these statistics often go in the opposite direction at individual and regional level (Andrew Gelman famously showed this for the USA: richer states are more likely to vote Democrat, but in all states poorer people are more likely to vote Democrat). However, this pattern in this case is so clear that even though we don’t know how individuals in those areas voted, we do know that areas with higher numbers of poor and uneducated people were full of people pissed off at the EU. It’s fundamentally the job of politicians to understand these kinds of big population-level movements in politics, and for Cameron to call a referendum on this topic despite the existence of such a powerful and fundamental dynamic in the electorate is either incredibly reckless, or incredibly ignorant, or both. This stupidity is compounded by the fact that areas with large numbers of poor and uneducated people are more likely to be labour-held areas, so Cameron was going to be relying on his political enemies to support him. I don’t think Corbyn is venal or stupid, but coming hot on the heels of the era of Blair, it’s incredibly risky of Cameron to assume the leadership of the Labour party wouldn’t be venal and stupid enough not to leave him hanging on this issue for cheap political gain.

This brings us to the next issue: who actually voted how in these areas, and was the failure of the leave campaign the fault of Labour and its racist voters? For this we cannot rely on area-level data, but need to look at individuals, and sadly so far the only information we have is from John Aschcroft’s exit poll. I won’t screenshot this poll, which I linked to above, but the conclusion seems to be that this was a very Tory disaster. Here are some key figures:

  • No difference in gender (52% voting leave in both)
  • Young people were much more likely to vote remain (73% for 18-24 vs. 40% for the over 65s)
  • Big trends by social class, with the wealthier more likely to vote remain (a similar difference between the “lowest” and “highest” social class to that in age)
  • Labour, the Greens, the SNP and the Lib Dems voted heavily in favour of remain (over 2/3 for all groups) while Tory and UKIP voted for leave, so that only 20% of leave votes were drawn from Labour, vs. 40% from Tory
  • 33% of leave voters listed immigration as their main concern, and 79% described themselves as English not British

The big caveat on these statistics is that the party affiiliation is based on voting in the 2015 General Election; turnout for this referendum was higher than the 2015 General Election, and so it’s likely that a lot of people who voted in this referendum did not vote in 2015 but did vote in 2010, or never vote; in this case describing them in terms of the last vote they cast may not be very informative. Nonetheless, of those who were recently involved in an election, those who voted for the tenets of the labour party were not interested in leaving. This fact is backed up by looking at the map, where the big labour heartlands in London were all for remain. The Guardian has analysis of some of these heartlands (because of course journalists immediately latch onto the meme that attacks Labour, not the obvious responsibility of all the Tory areas that voted leave). It describes a strong leave sentiment in the otherwise labour-focused area of the Thames estuary (the land of Eastenders), and a suburban revolt outside the Labour heartland areas of Merseyside and Tyneside. Tyneside is a good example: the former industrial heartland and labour stronghold north of the river voted remain, while the more suburban Tory-voting south side went with remain.

My conclusion from this is that the leave vote was driven by pensioners, the “lumpen proletariat”, and Tory voters. The remain vote was driven by labour stalwarts, the educated, and working people in the big cities and former industrial heartlands, who perhaps understand that their future depends on being part of an integrated market. Obviously this is a broad brush, and a disappointingly large number of Labour voters (about 35%) sided with leave. Some people are saying that Corbyn should have gathered these people up with a better campaign, but I think this claim is doubtful. To the extent that Labour voted leave, they’re largely rebelling against the policies of New Labour, and for Corbyn to be more involved in the remain campaign he would have had to have shared a platform with Vampire Blair and the Pig-fucker General. I don’t think this would have convinced more people to vote remain, and would likely have had the opposite effect. If the Tories wanted Labour to help drag the country back from this disaster, they were going to have to make it less of an obvious Tory shitshow, and tell the idiots from New Labour to stay home and out of the sunlight.

What about the white working class revolt?

People do like to bang on about how the average Labour voter is a racist and the only way Labour will get the “white working class” vote back is by appealing to these baser instincts, but I think this is fundamentally flawed. Yes, many working people in the UK are opposed to immigration and can express shockingly racist views, but a lot of these people were prised away from Labour back in the 1980s, and more left during the era of New Labour. I don’t think Labour will ever be able to get these people back, and it’s silly to talk about them as if they are part of the Labour heartland. The sad reality is that British politics realigned in the 1980s, at the same time as its industrial heartland hollowed out, so that the Tories have a reliable stock of poor white people voting for them on racial grounds. This is the “victory” of Thatcher-era politics and the vicious racism of the Daily Mail and the Sun. Amongst these groups, these newspapers have been pushing an anti-EU agenda for 25 years (just try reading the Daily Mail on Europe!), and also a vicious anti-Labour agenda. Of course these papers were going to do all they could to mobilize these readers against the EU in this referendum, and there’s very little the remain campaign can do against 25 years of constant anti-EU propaganda, much of which is straight up lies. This is hardly helped by the willingness of journalists to consistently let the leave campaign get away with their lies about the 350 million pounds (that Farage admitted wouldn’t go to the NHS the morning after the referendum).

It needs to be made clear too that racism was a central part of the leave campaign, and they weren’t deploying a nuanced critique of immigration. The leave campaign was doing very poorly, well behind remain, until they dug up the claims about Syrian refugees, boats on beaches, the sexual assault “nuclear bomb”, the breaking point poster and the constant terror campaign about Turkey joining the EU very soon. Once that stuff came up, leave started catching up rapidly in the polls. Then of course political geniuses like Osborne screwed up the remain campaign with their petulant threats, and the job was done. When people as unscrupulous as Boris Johnson are willing to put out the kind of misleading, deliberately untrue, and viciously racist stuff they did, there’s very little a principled campaign can do except watch the election getting stolen from them. Fundamentally you can’t win a campaign against people who happily tell juicy lies and a media that supports them.

I think a lot of commentators from both left and right in the UK fail to see how potent this stuff is because they didn’t grow up surrounded by it – they grew up in pleasant leafy neighbourhoods to professional or wealthy families, and didn’t have to put up with this stuff day-in, day-out during their childhood. If they did they would know, as I do, just how filthy and nasty the underbelly of the British polity is, and just how ugly its views are. A previous generation of Labour political leaders might have known this, but Tony Blair flayed those people and replaced them with his soulless ghouls, who know nothing except focus groups and servitude to the Elder Gods. I described this kind of politics two years ago on this blog, and this referendum is the vindication of my analysis. There are solutions to this problem, but “giving the racists the chance to shine” is not one of them.

The implications for health policy in the UK

The UK has been out-sourcing medical training and workforce development to Europe and the Commonwealth for years. Up to 26% of doctors and 11% of all NHS personnel come from overseas, a great many from the EU, and once the UK leaves the EU these EU staff will need to be replaced from elsewhere. More could be drawn in from the Commonwealth, but it’s unlikely to be able to fill the shortfall quickly because many Commonwealth countries have only small numbers of medical staff, and may not be able to provide a great deal more. Furthermore, it’s unlikely that a country that just voted to leave the EU out of fear of immigrants is going to suddenly implement policies to bring in more immigrants. The result of this will be further pressure on the NHS workforce, with even more difficulty in replacing staff as they retire and leave at a time when the aging population is putting more and more demand on health services. It takes 10 years to train a doctor and 5 years to train a nurse, but the government has been cutting funding for these training programs (including the nurses bursary) and has been repeatedly warned that it is facing a shortfall in health personnel even without leaving the EU. Pressure on universities is likely to increase with the sudden loss of EU funding, and in the huge economic readjustment that has to happen when EU funds disappear, universities are going to face major shifts in funding sources and needs. Without central organization they are unlikely to prioritize nurse training – they haven’t to date, why should we expect they will do so in the future, with tighter funds?

This problem will be even more pronounced for small and medium enterprises outside of the NHS that provide services to the NHS, and also to financial services companies. At the moment there are a range of barriers to employing non-EU staff that were put in place in response to past concerns about immigration: you have to prove the job can’t be done by a local, and it’s very hard for non-EU workers to bring in spouses. As a result most small companies don’t sponsor visa applications, preferring instead to recruit from the EU where such rules don’t apply. For financial services companies, the sudden loss of their most qualified pool of staff is going to have huge implications, and I suspect for many of them the simplest approach will be to move to Europe. The same will apply to universities, who will suddenly lose access to the best-educated region in the world. This likely won’t affect senior staff but it will have a huge impact on the supply of graduate students and early-career researchers and teachers. These jobs aren’t just boutique jobs for underwater basket-weavers – the UK has a huge pharmaceutical industry that depends on universities and research institutes, as does its high-tech industries like oil exploration services, the arms trade, aerospace, and growth industries like alternative energy. Suddenly putting up barriers to employing people from the most highly-educated part of the world is going to be really bad for high-tech industries in the UK, at a time when industries that primarily employ lower-skilled professionals (like tradespeople) are offshoring rapidly.

This is going to be an economic disaster for the UK for a very long time to come. Their only chance of a decent economic future is to implement an industrial policy, significantly improve funding to health and education, and shift from austerity to a Japan-style deficit-financed industrial society. The only person with a vision to do this – Corbyn – is about to be eaten alive by the Blairite ghouls still shambling through his own party, which will leave the political landscape ruled by Boris Johnson, who has no vision for the UK economy and is going to be so reviled by the time the UK exits that he won’t be able to make anything happen even if he had a sensible idea.

Conclusion

This was a political disaster that is going to leave Cameron, Osborne, Johnson and Farage the most reviled politicians in modern British history. It will likely lead to the breakup of the Union, and if it doesn’t, a return to civil war in Northern Ireland. It will also plunge the UK into a long period of economic collapse that it has no way out of, and no scapegoats for. The EU, coupled with a decent economic policy aimed at renewing British industry, was the only chance for the UK to remain globally relevant and for its citizens to enjoy a good quality of life. Cameron has wrecked that one chance in order to score a victory over the idiots in his own party, in a reckless and breathtakingly stupid political gamble. The tidal wave of economic and social problems about to hit the UK is the perfect proof that conservative politics is a wrecking-ball through modern life, and they should never ever be trusted with power.

soul assassin

These are known as darkling days
rhyming schemes gone askew,
crackling gifts of light and air,
exploding worlds,
ours to share

-Lament of the Unredeemed

Sometimes unexpected things happen in unpleasant places. The PCs have stumbled on a death cult that seems to be wandering across the galaxy digging through old tombs in search of something called “the ansible.” They were paid by a remnant holy man called Michael to kill a priest of this death cult, and having done so find themselves under the protection of the rulers of Pearl 7, in the pirate system known as the Reach. Killing this priest had been traumatic for them, since he was accompanied by a couple of demons and seemed to be able to conjure more when he needed them; our heroes are not used to the idea that demons could be real entities, or that someone would conjure them, or that when they drift into striking range the air turns cold and the victim hears faint echoes of dying children and tortured animals.

They also weren’t expecting to discover the death priest’s purpose, documented on grainy old videos of the death priest raising the souls of long-dead heroes and torturing them to force them to tell him the location of the ansible. Though at first they didn’t believe what they were seeing, their puzzlement soon turned to horror as they realized the extent of this death priest’s reach, and perhaps also his ambition.

They agreed to Michael’s request to help him hunt down the death cult. His plan was to return to his planet and trace the priest’s travels backwards from there, but before they left with him the characters decided to clear a few things up. First, Alpha the psionicist had a background in archaeology, and had realized that they might be able to find out more about the mysterious ansible and the links between the long-dead heroes the death priest had sought out. To do this he needed to set up an archaeological dig in the tombspine, which would mean seeking the support of the tombspine management committee – yes, even pirates have committees. To this end he would need to prepare an application, because even pirates have forms, and bureaucrats.

Second, the PCs realized that the death priest must have a base of operations on Pearl 2 – where he was under the protection of the local authorities – and might have some materials there that could give them more information about where he was from and why he sought the ansible. Since no one yet knew he was dead, and probably believed he was still working quietly on his vile task in the tombspine, they guessed that they could raid his lodgings relatively easily if they moved quickly. While they waited for the first stage of Alpha’s research application to be processed, they set off for Pearl 2, to find the death priest’s lair and storm it.

In the slavers’ lair

Although all the Pearls maintain slaves, Pearl 2 is the heaviest user of slavery and the largest trader in slaves. The Pearl trades, breeds and trains human slaves, bringing in captives from around the sector and breeding carefully-selected slave stock to trade with other Pearls, and to use in its heavy industry. Pearl 2 is packed full of heavy industries, and slaves are used extensively in all the worst jobs in these industries. Pearl 2 also maintains an extensive and rigidly policed caste system, with many tiers of free workers who are treated little better than slaves, though clearly above them. Densely populated, polluted and constantly riven by low-level social conflict, Pearl 2 is a model of all the problems the Spiral Confederacy aims to eliminate from human society.

The PCs entered this sprawling den of iniquity with a strong sense of foreboding and trepidation. Even the approach to the Pearl is forbidding, with the entire structure swathed in clouds of toxic dust. The Pearl is not a spherical habitat, but a series of obloid structures of differing sizes, interconnected by huge spars that carry traffic and goods between the separate sections. The upper half of the major sections stands clear of the miasma surrounding the Pearl, and the higher one lives in the habitat the wealthier one is. Slaves live, toil and die in the bottom-most sections of the Pearl, never seeing the light of the weak red dwarf that powers the Reach. Like the other Pearls, Pearl 2 has no field technology outside its superstructure, and as a result its surface is discoloured and pitted from the constant contact with the miasma.

The PCs disembarked at a small service dock in the mid-level of the main section. No one greeted them, and the machine for registering their weapons was broken so they simply walked into the Pearl itself bearing all their weapons unremarked. Pearl 7 had organized accommodation for them in the area called Silicon Valley, which was near the dock, so they proceeded there immediately. Silicon Valley is a light industrial area devoted to reclaiming silicon from imported sands, and consisted of a kind of canyon of buildings stretching perhaps a couple of kms along one edge of the habitat. At its base were the reclamation facilities, shrouded in silicon dust; higher up the valley were light industries and chip makers, and near the top the shops and traders and residencies of the better-paid workers. The PCs took small rooms in an area relatively free of silicon dust, and set about finding the death priest.

They started by visiting a local public web access facility, from which Simon Simon tried a little low-level hacking. He could not find the death priest’s address directly, but he was able to identify the dock from which the priest’s ship had set out for the Gardens. There was a dockmaster with a full manifest of addresses which Simon Simon could not access, but he was able to make a fake identity for himself as a representative of a shell company that dealt directly with the Confederacy for illegal technology, the kind of company that one did not ask too many questions about. He sent an email to the dockmaster from this shell company, informing him of the PCs’ imminent visit.

Their visit was a success; after a 40 minute wait and with a small amount of payment to the dock master they were able to obtain the death priest’s address. Unsurprisingly for a pirate haven, no one was particularly cautious about information privacy – at least, not other people’s. It was relatively easy to establish that he lived in a particular location in an area of a subsidiary habitat, called The Bones.

As they left, the dock master’s agent warned them they might not want to visit the Bones.

Everything has to end somewhere

Everything has to end somewhere

Among The Bones

Deciding it might be wise to listen to the dock master, they returned to the web access shop so that Simon Simon could investigate the Bones.  They soon found out why they had been warned against the Bones: this area was where old, sick, surplus or dead slaves were sent for “reprocessing”. It was essentially a giant human abattoir. The only people who lived in the Bones were the few free workers in the processing plants, and criminals and radicals on the run from the law, bounty hunters, or enemies in the main parts of the Pearl. Gangs that had been cast out of the rest of the Pearl would flee here, living alongside dissidents and hermits and homeless people with nowhere better to hide. It was a dangerous place.

While he was searching, Simon Simon stumbled on a layer of Pearl 2’s web that he had not expected. The information network here was heavily stratified, with different layers available to different classes of people and careful restriction of who could put information onto any of them. Simon Simon was alternating between a common information layer used by the local municipal authorities and a general knowledge and news layer – as close as the Pearl had to a real internet – to gain information on the Bones. But in switching layers he discovered a common information exchange protocol between the security forces and the municipal layer. He could not hack the security forces’ secure network, but he could hack messages coming out of it to the municipal services. These would be messages requesting rerouting of traffic for an ambulance, or the closure of an electricity supply during a raid. Simon Simon noticed that the municipal authorities had been asked not to meddle with the area around the death priest’s lair by none other than the Pearl 2 leadership’s personal security force; and that this same force had been raiding the safe houses of two particular cults, and making requests for municipal support during these raids. These requests had begun a couple of weeks ago, at about the same time as the request for the priest’s lair to be freed of interference. One of the cults was of no concern to Simon Simon, some kind of cult with an ancient messiah who had been killed by his own father, and whose flesh promised eternal life when eaten; but the other was a mysterious cult called the Unredeemed, with a heritage at least a thousand years old, that claimed to be a cult of Adherents with no AI. Simon Simon was intrigued by this cult of Adherents without an AI, and also wondered why a cult that had been left unmolested for a thousand years would suddenly start being attacked just as the death priest arrived. Coincidence – or was there a link?

Once Simon had determined a safe and quick route to the death priest’s lair, they bought a cheap wheeled (!) van and set off. Driving from the spar into the Bones proper they noticed that the section was deserted, with few people on the streets and very little activity except large, ominous factories. Interspersed amongst the factories were grimy accommodation for the area’s few free workers, and occasional workshops. Abandoned factories and crumbling ruins scattered the level they drove through, rusting gates and tumbling walls a testament to the Bones’ ancient, thankless task.

The death priest’s lair appeared to be one such abandoned factory, set back from a narrow road, surrounded by shuttered warehouses, and seemingly completely unguarded. The ground floor was a large warehouse with closed roller doors, and above that were three levels of tiered office space. On one side of the building was a scattering of containers, but they were stacked against the wall of the building and could not be accessed. The whole building was dark and silent, and gave off an air of menacing isolation.

They entered the ground floor through a small side door, which Simon Simon opened with the help of his AI. Stepping through a narrow entry way, they opened the inner door, and Ahmose ducked inside to crouch behind a crate of some kind that was just inside the door. This was the main warehouse space, but it was shrouded in deep darkness, so Lam flicked on the lights near the entrance. Moments later, as the warehouse was flooded with cold halogen light, Ahmose found herself staring into the blank eye sockets of a human skull. The “crate” she had hidden behind was actually a bale of bones, stacked tightly together and bound up with packing wire and plastic, a line of skulls staring out at Ahmose’s crouching eye level. The rest of the warehouse was scattered with similar bales of bones, and in one corner lay a huge pile of human bones, attended by a small tracked excavator. There was nothing else in the room.

They searched it carefully, but aside from an empty gantry with some control equipment on it, there was nothing in the room. A freight lift at the rear of the warehouse led up to the next level, and with only empty skulls at their backs, they were in no mood to delay. They took the lift to the next level.

The doors opened into a pitch black hallway. Ahmose, Simon Simon and Alpha could see down this hallway dimly with their nightvision, so they knew someone was moving at the far end, but they could see little more than that. Lam, blind without combat armour or genetic enhancements, flicked on the lights just as she had downstairs. The hallway lit up, revealing a strange and horrible tableau in the moments before the lift doors closed again. The hallway stretched the length of the building, to a stairwell at its far end. On the left hand wall a single large window stretched the length of the hall, enabling the PCs to look into a large, empty medical room. Bodies were strapped to gurneys inside that room. The other side of the hall had three doorways; two were closed, with narrow glass windows next to them opening into empty rooms. The third doorway was open, and from it had emerged two corpses. These corpses were staggering down the hallway towards the lift doors, arms outstretched, in a kind of shambling lurch. One wore a pair of coveralls and was covered in hideous radiation burns; the other appeared to have been operated on, and wore only a surgical gown with blotches of dried blood all over it. Both stared sightlessly down the hall as they stumbled forward, growling hideously.

Lam and Alpha reflexively opened fire, Alpha with his auto-rifle on full automatic, spattering chunks of radioactive zombie all over the infirmary window; then the lift doors closed. Simon Simon hit the button to jam them open, and moments later they slid open to reveal those same two zombies, closer now, and two more emerging behind them. With a yell Ahmose leapt forward, blade in hand, ordering the others to shoot down the zombies at the end of the hall while she held off those that came too close. Her tactic worked, and after a frenzied few minutes’ work they had cleared the hallway, killing 16 of the shambling dead with no injury. They stood in the hallway, panting and staring at each other in shock.

First they had met demons, and now the walking dead. What next?

They searched the infirmary, noting that all the dead bodies on gurneys had had organs carefully removed, and that the organs were nowhere in the infirmary’s freezers. A grim foreboding grew as to what they could expect to find next …

They took the stairs to the next level, finding a hallway with the same structure as the hall below: a single door on one side, and three doors on the other. Inside these three doors they found two offices and a kitchen. The first office seemed to be a simple secretaries’ room, with signs it had been suddenly vacated but no evidence of a struggle. The second, a kitchen with rotting food inside its primitive refrigerator, also spoke of the building having been suddenly vacated. The third was another office, perhaps for a more senior staff member, which had a locked drawer. They set about smashing the drawer.

Although Simon Simon stood on guard outside the door as they set about the drawer, he did not see their assailants until the grenade was inside the room and the door shut. A moment later he heard the muffled thump! of the explosion, and felt a blade penetrating his ribs. Thankfully spared the worst of the damage by his combat armour, he turned to see his assailant. Before him stood a small, wiry man, wearing some kind of leather armour but surrounded by a strange miasma of shadow. What little Simon Simon could see of his face through the shadows wreathed about it suggested an aging man with his skin shrivelled tight against the bones of his skull, like ancient paper. He carried a semi-transclucent sword in one hand, which glowed and shimmered in that flickering miasma of shadow, and sizzled where Simon Simon’s blood ran along it. Beyond this man, near the door, a second, similar figure stood, shimmering sword in one hand and a scroll unrolling in the other. A moment later that figure disappeared.

A chill ran up Simon Simon’s spine and he collapsed, paralyzed, to the ground. Moments later the PCs ripped the door open and opened fire on the assassin. Bullets and laser beams could penetrate the miasma of shadow around him, but they seemed to slow or dissipate when they hit it, so that he did not seem to feel their full force. They had him pinned down but Simon Simon could not tell them about the second assassin, who stabbed Ahmose with the same devastating effect moments later. Alpha managed to subdue the first assailant, but not before the second assassin had beaten Lam into unconsciousness. The assassin was about to finish Alpha when Ahmose’s paralysis faded, and she was able to push herself out of the door, firing her Gauss pistol on full auto as she did. Thankfully this shot cut down the second assassin.

Once again they survived a battle by the skin of Ahmose’s combat armour. One assassin was still alive, so they bound him and gagged him. Ahmose insisted on gagging him in case he could “do magic,” at which the other PCs shrugged in disgust, but now they were beginning to suspect that Ahmose’s constant warnings about necromancy and ancient lore might have more truth to them than old wives’ tales should.

Alpha administered first aid, and once they had recovered and rested a little they finished searching the room where they had been breaking into the drawer before the grenade had surprised them. Inside the drawer was a disc of pornography, and a note saying “When the boss is away: 681983.” They took it.

Injured and with a nagging, primal fear creeping up on them, they opened the last door to a scene of horror.

The door opened into what had once been the office meeting room, a large room with a few tables and chairs, and a large set of glass doors opening to a balcony with a view over the rest of the section. Through the grimy windows they could see the industrial skyline, smoke belching from sinister chimneys, the squat hulks of the reclamation factories and their evil exhaust smeared against the off-white walls of the dome of the habitat. The view was obscured, however, by a naked body hanging upside down from the ceiling of the meeting room, its flayed skin in a neat pile on the floor next to it and the whole rotting thing hanging over a large ceremonial bucket.

“Oh, that’s where they put the organs,” Ahmose said matter-of-factly as Alpha retched behind her; arrayed around the ceremonial bucket were a series of open jars containing the various organs harvested from downstairs. In front of the bowl was a knee cushion, exactly the same kind as they had found with the death priest in the tombspine, and a silver sword that glowed with its own light. All the furniture in the room had been shifted outside onto the balcony, and the floor carefully painted with a symbol of some kind using what looked like many layers of dried blood.

They had found the death priest’s lair. Ahmose warned them not to step inside the symbol and Alpha, not believing her, fired a bullet at the rope holding the body; the bullet stopped at the symbol’s edge with a loud bang, and sank to the ground with a clatter. Careful not to touch the pattern on the floor, they cut down the body and, once it had hit the ground, Ahmose carefully scrubbed away a part of the symbol. Something in the tense atmosphere of the room relaxed, and suddenly a wave of stench rolled over them as the barrier dissipated. They grabbed the silver sword, wrapping it in a towel and stuffing it in a sack, and retreated to the hallway. With nowhere else to put him, they bound the assassin to a table in the kitchen and set off up the last flight of stairs to the top floor of the building.

By now Alpha and Simon Simon were beginning to unravel. Good citizens of the Core of the Confederacy, they had been raised on science and logic, and they could not understand anything they were seeing. Nothing that had happened to them since they entered the Reach made any sense, and nothing they had been taught prepared them for it. That creeping horror of the unknown, with which Ahmose and Lam were still vaguely familiar, had begun to sink through the barriers of their education, and now they were beginning to panic. They were on the verge of cutting and running, and twitching to get this job done as quickly and dirtily as possible. Cautious only out of terror, they jumped at shadows and twitched to shoot anything that moved.

At the top of the stairs was a door, closed and painted with the same symbol from the room below. Ahmose dragged it open, revealing a small office antechamber to a larger room. Alpha sent his surveillance drone into the room, using infrared and motion sensors only, and finding nothing threatening. The drone drifted through the door of the office into the larger room beyond, and twitched right immediately as its motion sensors triggered. Something was hovering in the air in the room, moving rapidly towards the drone. It was a blob of frozen air, much colder than the rest of the room and floating at about the height of a human head. Moments later it passed through the drone and into the antechamber, heading towards the PCs, who were ready …

… But not for a ghost. The thing that entered the room had a glowing skull floating atop a disembodied, ghost-like body, all shrouded in tattered robes. It drifted straight at them, ignoring the laser blast from Simon Simon’s gun and then straight past Ahmose, clawing at her as it passed. Then it fled down the stairs, a frozen, stinking wind blowing briefly in its wake. Ahmose sank against the wall, reduced to imbecility by one touch from its clammy, icy touch. Simon Simon and Alpha, too scared to follow without the group, dragged Ahmose into the room and leaned against the wall, gasping for breath. Lam stepped into the inner room, but now Lam was beginning to feel their mood, and had lost her temper. She saw the death priests notes and religious items on a table at the far side of the room, strode over, and hurled them all into a sack. Then, turning back, she started storming around the room, kicking things. Simon Simon came in to calm her, but she pushed past him into the antechamber, staring around with wild eyes and ranting.

“First a pile of bones and them I’m attacked by a radioactive space zombie and then there are space ninjas and then a fucking ghost! I am so sick of this!” She stared around at Ahmose and Alpha, leaning wretched against the wall, and then her gaze alighted on the kitten. “SPACE ZOMBIES!” She yelled, and tore down the kitten post with a single sweep of her right hand. Then, shaking the sack at the others, she yelled, “I’ve got the loot, let’s get out of here and back to civilization before we see any more of this hoodoo guru’s madness!” And with that, she marched off to the stairs.

Alpha followed, trying to calm her down but mostly sympathizing with her, but not before he noticed the safe hidden behind the ripped poster. On a whim he dragged out the note from downstairs, and punched the code into the safe. It slid open, revealing a line of test tubes containing what looked suspiciously like human embryos … hastily grabbing them and stuffing them in a container of dry ice from inside the safe, he dashed downstairs after Lam.

Meanwhile, in the inner room, Simon Simon cast about desperately for signs of anything else that needed to be taken. He didn’t want to be left here alone but he also didn’t want to waste the trip, and he was sure that Lam’s search had been just perfunctory. Sure enough, in the corner he saw a primitive leather backpack and a staff. The backpack appeared to contain travel documents, and had a tag from a spaceline on it, and probably carried the information they were actually after. Grunting, and not thinking very clearly about what can happen when you touch a death priest’s staff, Simon Simon gathered them up and hustled after the others.  He grabbed Ahmose on the way, leading the suddenly imbecilic woman down the stairs and into the hallway below, to be confronted by Lam and Alpha at the end of the hall, jabbering. They had found the corpse of the assassin, drained by the ghost, which was now lost somewhere in the Pearl.

None of them thought about the possibility that they were carrying the only three weapons in the entire Pearl that could kill that ghost.

They hurried out and piled back into the van, Lam driving erratically. On their way back, Simon Simon convinced them to let him visit the safe house of the Unredeemed, which was nearby. They agreed, but told him there would be no more adventures. They parked outside and he approached the building, an old worker’s residence in a street of abandoned worker’s residences. Someone threatened him with a gun, but he mollified them by telling them his AI’s call sign in a technical code that only other Adherents would understand. They agreed to give him an hour of his time, and while the rest of the party waited outside, he stepped inside … into the lair of the Cult of the Unredeemed…

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.

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