Horror


Strange summer lands

Strange summer lands

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

There were three PCs:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

fn3: Actually called sandrunners, but you get the picture

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

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

Mushroom man on the spit!

Mushroom man on the spit!

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

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

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

The food chain, in the dungeon

The food chain, in the dungeon

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

Giant scorpion and mushroom man hot pot

Giant scorpion and mushroom man hot pot

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


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

Harder to beat than it looks

Harder to beat than it looks

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

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

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

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

To bring this post back to RPG-related issues:

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

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

The beauty of Autumn

The beauty of Autumn

When late summer comes to middle earth, conversations in the taverns and marketplaces of Anduin naturally turn to the most hideous forms of arachnoid death. As the oppressive heat of summer fades from Mirkwood’s dim reaches, to be replaced by the moldering stillness of autumn, and the first red tips can be seen on the leaves atop its dense canopy, the great spiders reach the end of their spawning season. In the long hot days of July and August, their chitterlings still small, these hideous beasts could satisfy themselves with the blood of small woodland creatures that they caught in light webs scattered in wide orbits around their central nests. But by the end of summer their squirming horde of new grotesques are large, and hungry. They have already eaten the smallest of their brood, and as their many eyes turn a hungry regard on the remainder of the nest their parents set forth to snare larger prey. In Anduin around the Mirkwood the cooler harvest months of September and October are also called the gorging season, for that is what the spiders do. All of Mirkwood trembles with the fear of these merciless predators stalking in the lower shadows of the dense woodlands, and the folk of Anduin discuss the ways they can die. Is it better to be taken at the end of autumn, by which time the spiders are sated, to be stocked in their larder for weeks of slow bleeding, perhaps with a little hope of rescue, or to be run down and sucked dry in a brutal orgy of bloodlust in the undergrowth?

Opinions differ on this urgent question. These grizzled old woodmen and girlish scouts have all heard the stories – though of course none have met the man at their centre – of the survivor, who lived by licking rainwater from the webbing that held him, perhaps snapped on an occasional bug, crying out occasionally for help (better to do this after the chitterlings have fed on a nearby deer or boar, so as not to draw their attention) and praying to whatever gods can hear desperate whispers through the impenetrable canopy of this godforsaken forest; until after some weeks a miraculous rescue is mounted, and a band of Orc hunters or late-autumn woodcutters frees him from the web. This man had hope, or so they have heard. But all of them have seen with their own eyes the frenzied hunting packs, heard the desperate cry of their comrade and rushed to his aid only to find him writhing on the forest floor beneath a squirming, raging, chitinous mass of venom and death, his fate sealed. It is best then to run, your own survival guaranteed by his sacrifice, but your sleep forever after to be disturbed by the haunting sound of his weakening, desperate cries, the final gurgle, and then the clicking and slurping of feasting monsters.

This conversation will repeat itself in the taverns of the wood folk all across the wide banks of the Anduin. Perhaps someone will brush away a tear; someone else will turn their gaze to the rose blush of sunset over the distant trees, dark memories stirring. Then all will come to agreement – best not to go into the great wood at all during the gorging months, and avoid either fate.

So it was that the Fellowship decided to avoid the deeper paths of Mirkwood altogether on their journey to the lonely mountain. They met at the eastern end of the Mirkwood road and traveled north on the plains, cutting east of Mirkwood in the lightly wooded hills and valleys of the dale lands. Our story starts as they reach the long lake at its eastern end, where the ruins of Old Lake Town stand silent and watchful in the autumn mists. The Fellowship has four members:

  • Annunon, a wood elf, veteran of the battle of five armies
  • Durin, his friend, a dwarf who is also a veteran of the battle
  • Aregisel, a woodman scout the two hired to guide them through Mirkwood
  • Roderick, a barding squire whose father fought with the dwarf in the battle, and sent him to learn wisdom with the veterans

Their aim was Dale, where in the first snows of winter the five armies would enjoy a reunion to relive their valiant victory and bicker over who was bravest. Annunon and Durin were returning to the scene of their first (and only) glory, where their bond of friendship was forged atop a blood-slick pile of orc corpses, and to hasten their journey they had engaged the services of Aregisel; Roderick was a burden thrust upon them by old friends.

Having recommended a path that would draw them clear of the spiders commonest haunts, Aregisel had led them north to the lake. Here they camped on a promontory, enjoying the late autumn evening, while Aregisel scoured the lake shore for treasure. At this point the burnt and shattered remnants of docks and warehouses lay crumbling in the water, interspersed with the bleached bones of the dragon, and it was Aregisel’s hope that some treasure might remain – perhaps a merchants stash dislodged and drawn to shore in the summer storms, or a gem broken off the dragons scales and gleaming in the shallows, somehow missed by looters in the chaotic days after the destruction of Lake Town. He found nothing though, except a memorial coin minted to commemorate the occasion of the mayor of lake town’s fifth election victory – a prize of a kind, but none left alive to appreciate it. Satisfied this part of the lake had been scoured clean, and unnerved by the mists hanging over bones of city and dragon alike, Aregisel returned to camp before dusk.

The next day they headed west towards one of the lakes crossing points, a remote and little-used raft crossing that Aregisel expected to be quiet and cheap. They traveled without structure, expecting no trouble and setting no guards, enjoying the cool air of the valleys and the joyful bird song of late summer. But even this close to Dale there are wild things and wild men, and some hours’ journey after the midday break they heard yelling and telltale cries of altercation from just the other side of the slope they traversed.

The Fellowship are men of action, if not of wisdom, and both Durin and Roderick ran for the hilltop at the first sound of conflict. Annunon and Aregisel, none the wiser but much less courageous, melded into the brush at the side of the road and moved more cautiously forward. On the other side of the crest they saw before them a classic tableaux of rural banditry: Three roughly-dressed men carrying swords were harrassing an aging merchant. He had backed against a tree, leading a pony laden with supplies, and was holding off one of the men with a rough piece of wood grabbed from the trail side. A small boy clung to one arm, and as the Fellowship watched one of the men pushed the merchant back at the tree, yelling threats of death and worse.

Never known for their wisdom, Durin and Roderick rushed to intercede, marching down the hillside and yelling threats. One of the men stepped forward, sword drawn, while two others maintained a wary guard on the merchant. Roderic, resplendent in mail hauberk and a tower shield passed down from his father, tried to impress the rough-cut bandit with his poise and authority, but the bandit merely laughed off posturing by a man so fresh from childhood that he had yet to muster a proper beard. Durin, dwarven veteran, sported a resplendent beard and a menacing manner, but before he could assert himself the man threatened him dourly, “This ain’t no biz o’ yers, git gone now ‘afore I cut ye a new mine.”

Now Roderic recognized the trio, notorious bandits from Dale who had a reputation for elusiveness and viciousness. He tried threatening back, but the man was having none of it; he simply spat in the youth’s direction and grunted “Git gone, yer little twerp, or I’ll ‘ave your balls and your mammy’s too.”

Of course the man had not counted on the two hidden in the shadows of the verge. They both let fly with their bows, but both missed. Shocked, the other two men moved forward, and battle was joined. Durin and Roderic both tried striking the leader and missed, but Aregisel’s second arrow struck true, piercing the lead bandit’s chest and passing straight through him in a burst of broken fletching, then hitting a pot on the merchant’s pony with a resounding clang. The bandit fell, killed instantly by the blow, and a moment later Annunon’s arrow pierced the second bandit’s hand, pinning him to a tree. The third took one look and turned tail, bolting for the cover of the trees. Aregisel tried to shoot him in the foot but missed, and before anyone could make chase the fleet-footed bandit had disappeared into the shadows.

“No matter,” Aregisel called to the others, nocking another arrow and surveying the surroundings carefully. “Soon it will be dusk, and ’tis the gorging season.”

Battle done, they descended to talk to the merchant and hear his sorry tale. He was grateful for the rescue, and revealed to them that this sorry band of reprobates had been his employees, paid to escort him to the hall of the elf king, and had turned on him once they reached the isolation of the long lake. He had been given the choice of handing over all his money and goods or losing the boy, his only son. He was on a mission to collect trade goods from the elves and transport them to the woodfolk, and these treacherous knaives had been offered 2 treasure each to take him there; he had already paid 1 upfront, and if he did not complete this trade mission by winter he would be ruined. Would the Fellowship assist him?

Seeing a chance to make a name for themselves and a little money, as well as to help a good man in need, the Fellowship agreed, after some negotiation. Aregisel searched the body of the dead man and found nothing – not even his broken arrow could be salvaged from that carnage – while Roderic convinced the merchant to offer them 8 treasure regardless of how many survived the trip. They left the body where it lay, released the man pinned to the tree on his bond, and set out down the path to find a good campsite before sunset.

Somewhere in the forest, a man ran for his life – and the great spiders stirred as the lazy evening of autumn bled into night…

The Prince is dead ... long live the Queen!

The Prince is dead … long live the Queen!

[This is a guest post by one of my group’s players, Eddie, about his Vampire characters]

Lady Ashira (Elder)

A protecting mother, a lover of beauty, self involved survivor.

“ The most beautiful people are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These people have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”

Lady Ashira has taken control of New York, after an extensive war with the Sabbath has ruined both groups and resulted in Final Death for most of the low generation vampires. Her rule is one of subtlety and charm, where those who make open threats or threaten ugliness have a tendency to mysteriously find divine retribution. As she would say, she truly, full-heartedly strives for everyone to feel safe and happy, and would gladly crush anyone who doesn’t.

Embraced by the Brujah, the clan’s fury shows in her only if she, or the kindred and kine under “her protection” are harmed. She has been known to rage when her advances are refused or some beautiful art or innocent person is harmed in front of her. The Queen is extremely possessive, and it is not uncommon for people to regret asking for her protection, for while when given she will honestly do everything in her power to protect her proteges, the lines between protection and enslavement tend to blur for the Elder vampire. Some kindred have woken after years, only to find they’ve been under the Lady’s spell because they asked to be safe…

Where the lady comes from is an unknown, but most agree it is probably from somewhere in north Africa. When asked, she always names a different country that touches the mediterranean sea; and follows it with a stream of phrases in the native tongue of the place she mentioned. Most people know not to push her too much on the matter; for some reason the Queen gets extremely … upset … when probed for information on her past.

Those very few who know her well know that there is a streak of hidden survivalism to her, there are ugly rumours of her breaking under pressure or war, havens that burned to the ground and scores of surviving neonates with their memories shuffled. Those who know or suspect of these events, know also to keep their mouths shut, it is better that the gears turn smooth and the Lady remain kind and homely, for when they don’t, death and destruction seem to follow.

The Good

Kind, Understanding, Peace keeper

The Bad

Overprotective, Obsessive, Irrational

Description

Medium height, light skin, long red curly hair, dark eyes, slender figure.

Camarilla

“Order and peace are safe havens. The Masquerade keeps us all from Final Death, and provides our weakest with protection. Nevertheless, beware of the Tyrant who would use it as an excuse for power.”

Anarchs

“I can’t help but love their passion, it is a thing of beauty; but the real anarch movement is long dead. What is left is rebels without cause. The Anarchs, whether they remember or not, achieved their goal long ago, and we all paid the price for that. I hold them accountable for the Sabbath.”

Sabbath

“Ugh, ugly, ugly, UGLY!!!!”

Independents

“As long as they keep to themselves, let them have their weird rites and beliefs, especially if they bring me gifts from time to time…”

Here's an offer you can't refuse ...

Here’s an offer you can’t refuse …

Johnny Falco (Ancilla)

Mobster out of time, Territorial Demon, Anti-hero Daredevil

“There are no atheists in a foxhole? Hah! What strunz came up with this shit? Spend a day in a trench, it’ll take you no time to realize, there is no God.”

Everyone who is someone in New York knows Johnny Falco, the man can’t help but to be in your face. Dressed like it’s still the ’30’s, the loud mouth maniac has an unhealthy predilection for “making sure everyone knows their fucking place”. If he weren’t Katherine’s boy (and the Queen’s toy by relation), someone would’ve tried to openly whack him long ago. Not that they haven’t tried on the down-low, but “fuckin’ with Johny Falco, it’s signin’ up for a one item instant bucket list”.

Johnny was impossible to deal with until the town got its senses together and gave him the perfect job, The Scourge. Now, instead of getting yelled at, icing random unannounced neonates is his fuckin’ job! What a sweet deal, though sometimes mistakes get made … but meh, watcha gonna do ‘bout it?

Apart from being the bosses boy, in case you needed more reasons to stay way the fuck away from Falco, I’ll give you two: One, the man is a world war survivor, I’m talking Great War here. He was a trench fighter, and if the stories are real, he was part of a band of lunatics who would raid enemy trenches at knife point, going direct body to body in the dark. If you doubt it, ask him to show you the razor he used to scalp people with. Me, I’m easy with believing, man says he gutted soldiers in the middle of the night, hell I need no proof.

Two, the man knows no fear. I’m not saying he is a hardass tough motherfucker, which he is, but I’m talking about borderline suicidal daredevil shit. I’ve seen him jump off roofs and into oncoming traffic, “just cuz it’ll be fun to watch ’em lose their shit the moment before the party started.” You wanna see crazy shit go down? Tell ‘im “I dare you to…” and add whatever the fuck crazy shit comes to your mind, then RUN, ‘cuz a massive fuckton of shit is on an expressway to meet the fan.

All in all, you keep the man friendly, and a safe distance away, never step on his territory, and never ever talk shit about the Lady if youse anywhere close to him, and aaaaall will be easy peasy.

The Good

Loyal, Fearless, Friendly

The Bad

Short-fused, Territorial, Dark Secrets

Description

Short black hair, black eyes, tan skin, slim and medium height, decent looking, easy smile, Italian, always dresses in mob fashion

Camarilla

“The Cappo de tutti Capi says we play by the rules now, so we play by the rules now.”

Anarchs

“Oh man, how I love these crazy fucks, they never back down from a fight and are always trying to break the rules, man I enjoy catching them off-guard.”

Sabbath

“The sorry SOBs in the trench facing ours, I don’t know and couldn’t care less why we’re raiding then, but by god I love it when the Boss tells me to go open them a new one.”

Independent

“Bookies and deal breakers the lot of them, excellent for when playin’ by the rules ain’t gonna cut it. Just remember they ain’t family, and never will be family.”

In the land of the mortal the One-eyed is king

In the land of the mortal the One-eyed is king

Michael “One Eye” O’Neal (Ghoul)

Dreadnaught, Dock Worker, Falco’s Toysoldier

“CHOO CHOO MOTHERFUCKER!!!”

 

Ever heard of the gentle giant? the massive slab of cuddles? One eye Mike is exactly half of those statements. A titanic irishman with a simple love of smashing into unsuspecting crowds. The simple straightforwardness of his lifestyle is an inspiration for the masses. Boss says jump, he smashes through walls and enemies (jumping is hard when you weigh almost as much as a bear).

And that’s that…

Oh yeah, Falco took his left eye after Mike tried to go for one of the Boss’s harpies, bad for the image to have the commoners mixing with royalty he said, Mike can “have it back when he starts playing nice.”

Before that, being the hulk of a man he is, Michael was on the fast track to becoming next in the Brujah line of nutjobs, but now, without an eye and in the bads with the Lady, there is little hope he makes it so far. He will try though, the recent events are his opportunity to shine and see if he can get his eye back.

The Good

Hulk’s body

The Bad

Hulk’s brain

Description

Hulk (colour variation)

Camarilla

“Eh…”

Sabbath

“Grr…”

Independent

“…”

How it was

How it was

Edgar Evans is an eighth generation kindred character in the new Vampire The Masquerade short campaign my group has started. The campaign is intended to involve not just the vampire characters, but also their elders (6th generation legends) and also one ghoul in the service of the ancilla. Edgar Evans is a rich man with a business empire, and he also has a small domain, and it is in this domain that his ghoul, Tia Nero, can be found. This post is the description of his domain and an introduction to Tia Nero, but in order to understand this domain, it is necessary to understand the politics of supernaturals in the second decade of the new millenium, as the humans they had long ignored, scorned or fed upon begin to build a world that is closing in on the supernaturals, and crushing them.

A brief history of supernatural failure

For aeons the main supernaturals ignored human development. Sure, the vampires fed on them and the Fae remained intertwined with them, but these relationships were not symbiotic or cooperative – humans lived in fear of the unknown, crouched in the dark and looked to superstition to rescue them from their night terrors. Over all the millennia of this unpleasant coexistence the supernaturals achieved nothing, made no mark on the world except, perhaps, to score fear in the human soul.

But then human science overcame human superstition, and those fear-scars became just a cultural memory. It wasn’t just that there were too many humans for the supernaturals to scare directly – it wasn’t just the thronging mass of these stinking, short-lived, frail and useless cattle. Science overcame fear, and then slowly science overwhelmed the natural world. For millenia humans and supernaturals had lived side by side, and nothing really changed – and then in one century humans changed the whole world. The supernaturals looked on in horror as humans harnessed the power of the sun to destroy cities, and tried to come to terms with the ability of humans to vanish darkness and fear with cold logic and simple technology. They dismissed all that – sure humans could build big things, but they were still just frail and weak cattle. What’s to fear?

But then the anthropocene began, and the supernaturals felt fear of their cattle for the first time. Every summer the werewolves would find new settlements, would get into fights over lost land, would find their wild reaches slowly stripped back and reduced, and though they might fight an individual farmer successfully, soon enough the hordes would arrive and they would need to fall back to a new redoubt. The mages discovered that it was harder to do their dingier works. It wasn’t just the new laws about child exploitation, or the sudden desire of humans to catalogue every one of their pathetic number, so they could never be lost. It wasn’t even the new laws on ownership and cruelty that made it so much harder to conduct animal sacrifices, or the sudden loss of empty urban space that mages would use for their less savoury experiments. The mages really noticed when they found they could no longer obtain the magical reagents they needed, because the mere existence of millions of Chinese using traditional Chinese medicine drained their reagents dry. There were so many of these pestilential creatures, consuming, consuming, always taking and taking and needing more … The vampires noticed that the dark and secret places of the old cities had disappeared, been replaced with warehouse apartments and subways and underground parking zones and all the paraphernalia of a civilization that increasingly was ignoring them – until it started making bad movies and games about them. In the space of a century they went from an object of fear to a kitsch joke, laughed at by the new science.

Nobody asked the mummies what they thought. Who would dare?

But the supernaturals that noticed it most were the Fae. Intimately connected to the patterns and cycles of nature, their supernatural home’s fate intertwined with the physical world, they noticed very quickly as the planet started to warm. As the summers lengthened and the ice began to retreat, the balance of power of the courts of Winter and Summer changed, and Summer began to rise. They watched the behavior of humans and they realized – disgusted at the potency of human science – that humans identified the changes a scant 50 years after they did. And worse still, humans identified the cause – humans were the cause. The Fae began to panic.

Most vampires did not care about the Fae, although a few had their connections; even after the Fae’s warnings began to spread, most vampires cared little for the threat of global warming. They were creatures of the night, and CO2 was not going to change the earth’s orbit. Some reacted against it with the same kind of visceral wariness that many humans show towards nuclear power, simply because of its association with nuclear weapons: Vampires have always feared the sun, and anything which enhances its effects fills many of them with a kind of unwary, superstitious dread. Others saw in global warming an opportunity – after floods and storms people go missing, and the chaos engendered by these catastrophes opens up an easy hunting ground for their kind, free of the increasing risk of reprisals that had made the Masquerade so important in modern life. For them, global warming was a chance to enjoy chaos.

But some thinkers amongst the Fae and the Vampire recognized the real philosophical threat. In a scant 100 years humans had gone from cowering, sniveling prey to a vast hive mind that could change the climate of the entire planet. They had become a horde, swarming over the planet in such numbers and building their greedy edifices in such abundance that they had not only destroyed the earth’s natural beauty, they had changed the weather, and now they were harnessing the sun and the power of the sun. The balance had been disturbed, and it was clear that its restoration would require extreme measures. A movement arose in kindred society, a movement popular among the Brujah and some of the darker sects and alliances – a demand for a cull, a real cull, before this horde overwhelmed all the dark spaces of the earth with their lust for things and their increasingly loving relationship with the sun. What if they found a cure for vampirism, some asked? What if they discovered the kindred’s society, and decided to purge it, or discovered a vaccine against the creation of new vampires? Many laughed at such fears, but the chuckling died down when the thinkers observed that humanity had eliminated smallpox in a mere 30 years, that there were societies where almost no child died, that in modern society it was impossible for a child to go missing without thousands of people descending on the scene of the calamity. They always found their murderers, and the time it took them to find a solution to a problem was growing shorter and shorter. From the discovery of smallpox to its vaccine took thousands of years. From the discovery of HIV to its treatment took 20. How long would it take them to purge the world of vampires if they found them? And as they swarmed over the earth, defiling it and investigating it and laying bare its dwindling cache of secrets, how could they not find the kindred?

It wasn’t exactly a panic, but a kind of paralysis set in amongst the supernaturals. They watched as the dark places, the wild places, the sacred places were first torn away from them, then paved over or turned into tourist spots, young couples taking selfies by the dozen in places that a hundred years ago they would have been terrified to walk within a day’s march of. What could they do about this? In their slow and sinister way the vampires schemed, and assumed that they would always be able to hide amongst the flesh folk, always be able to make some new scheme.

For the Fae, though, the philosophical debate quickly became a real battle for power, as it always does amongst the Fae. After the Court of Winter’s amateurish attempt to start a nuclear war in Cuba a fragile political truce was born – no more direct interference in human affairs, by any of the Courts, and everyone expected them all to honour it. But nobody counted on the Changeling, whose numbers grew as the human population swelled. Changeling were like sleeper cells for their courts, a kind of Super PAC of faerie power, who could act on behalf of their Courts without breaching the fragile agreement the Courts had made after the Winter Court’s foolish attempt to produce a nuclear winter. They manoeuvred their changelings like pieces on a chess board, infiltrating human business and politics to try and get their way. By the early 1990s everyone in the supernatural world knew the score: Winter and Spring were with the Democrats, and Summer and Autumn with the Republicans, because all of Fae meddling had shaken out along one deadly axis – global warming. By the early 1990s nothing else mattered, because every Court knew that Summer and Autumn would be forever ascendant if humanity failed to tackle the causes. All of the Fae realms had realized their fate was now tied to that of humanity, and they bent all their will to changing it.

Naturally they sowed the ranks of business and politics with changelings. One such changeling emerged in the 1980s in business, and began to grow in power and influence. He was aging but still robust, an orange-faced caricature of a rapacious businessman, making his money in dodgy real estate and casino deals, tied to the mob and bribing politicans wherever he needed to, playing fast and loose with every standard of business and human decency – a classic progeny of the Summer Court. This man was a crass, larger-than-life bully boy, a carnival barker with tiny hands and huge insecurities, the kind of narcissist who makes it big in Fae life, and by the end of the 1980s he had begun to reap the rewards of that narcissism in mortal life, with ghost-written books and tasteless TV shows. And in the early 1990s he began to make hints about turning his popularity to political advantage – he began to talk about moving into politics.

This was too much for one Vampire, Johnny Falco[1]. Johnny Falco had an irrational hatred of the Fae and their machinations[2], and the thought of a Summer Court Changeling taking control of American politics filled him with disgust – especially this repulsive, orange-faced ignoramus with his trashy tastes and his terrible architecture and his shallow opinions on everything. This was exactly the kind of person who really irritated Johnny Falco, and who made his grandsire despair of the cattle. So one day in 1996 while at one of his casinos in Atlantic City this businessman was murdered, horribly, with a trenching shovel and a gold-plated scale model of one of his own towers. No one saw the person who did it, no one understood how the perpetrator could have gotten into the businessman’s inner sanctum, or how he had managed to remove his face and leave it on a Ronald McDonald statue a stone’s throw away from the tower, in full view of a whole cluster of cctv cameras, but there it was the next day, leering bloodily at a small group of terrified Japanese tourists.

The mystery was never solved, and the businessman’s empire fell into ruin – and nowhere more so than his Atlantic City casino properties.

The Domain

Johnny Falco didn’t just kill the businessman – he also killed his property. The Atlantic City casino properties were bleeding money, but after the murder the authorities discovered an elaborate system of shell companies that covered up for … nothing. They couldn’t find where the money came from or who was responsible for the properties, as if the dead businessman had been a mere figurehead. The casinos sat empty as investigations continued, but even years later no trace of the original investors could be found, or their money. Occasionally a city authority or some rival business would set up a scheme to buy the properties but always at the last moment someone would get cold feet, or the key figure in the investment program would disappear or die, or suddenly their business would be bankrupted overnight by some strange market play. The business world gave up on them and they fell into disrepair, crumbling in the centre of Atlantic City’s glitzy gambling zone. But buildings like that don’t just decay – they poison. Their rot spread out from them like a cancer, infecting the businesses around them and slowly paralyzing the entire zone. Investors saw easier pickings in native reservations and the effervescent Vegas economy, and slowly they pulled their money out. By the turn of the century the collapse of the casinos had spread outward to infect a large part of the Atlantic City seafront, which became a low-rent junkyard of pawn shops, bounty hunters, gunshops and cheap liquor stores. A section of the city 10 blocks long became a wilderness of malfunctioning neon and broken lives, a self-governing conclave of the poor and the destitute.

It was here, in 1996, remarkably coincidentally with the death of the businessman, that Edgar Evans decided to set up a surf shop – right across the road from that Ronald McDonald statue. His Polaris foundation bought up an old gaming parlour and turned it into a massive surf emporium, drawing expressions of disgust and disappointment from investors across the eastern seaboard. People had had high hopes for Evans, a reformed extreme sportsman with robust business sense, but this deal made no sense at all. Sure, the entire Jersey coastline was a haven for surfers and they all had to pass through Atlantic City at some point but did he seriously think they would slum it at his surf emporium amongst the broken glass and broken dreams of this banged-out strip?

They underestimated Evans. He didn’t just sell surfboards, but rented combi vans, set up a vegan organic restaurant called 20,000 Cows, established a live venue and a cheap hostel over the surf shop. Life returned to this tiny part of the seafront, and somehow surfers from all around the world came to enjoy his hospitality. The Atlantic City surf festival was founded, and his business thrived. He expanded to the warehouse next door, turning it into a branch office of the Polaris Foundation and using it to store equipment for the Foundation’s Atlantic Coast Research Project. Once a year the Sea Shepherd ship, Polaris Quest, docked nearby and held an open day.

And above it all loomed the businessman’s abandoned, crumbling tower, his name still emblazoned across its penthouse level in tarnished gold, bragging about the long-dead icon’s fame. The building was occupied now, by squatters and homeless and crack gangs, but they seemed to have a kind of respect for the area, because they never caused any trouble for Evans or his business. Dark rumours spread about his means of enforcing his will on these local homeless, but no evidence ever came to light. He opened a boxing gym for local street kids, ploughed money into a drugs program, funded local rejuvenation projects – he was in every way a perfect local citizen. But still people wondered – how did he have such a hold over these locals.

How had he made this his domain?

The Ghoul

Of course the press came sniffing around, looking for answers, for clues to Evans’s business vitality. They always ended up meeting the same person: Tia Nero. Tia Nero was the corn-haired, blue-eyed, mesh-and-leather skater girl who managed the surf emporium. Short, slight and cheerful, always dressed in a mixture of black punk and skater style, she was the antithesis of the good business person, but she had a way – she had a certain charisma, a certain personality, that made people listen to her and trust her. She was sassy, she had a reputation on the skate scene for extreme bravery, and she was a sharp manager. She would talk to the press, show them around, introduce them to colourful characters, show them photos of her skating days, take them to enjoy the phenomenal food and atmosphere of 20,000 Cows[4], and by the time they left they were writing glowing reviews of this new social project.

In reality Tia Nero is a revenant, the illegitimate child of one of Polaris’s ghouls, sent to serve Edgar Evans in the new world. She is everything her public persona suggests, but she is also a steely agent of the night, ruthlessly enforcing a set of strict rules on the residents of the neighbouring tower and ensuring that they are always available for Evans to feed upon or call upon. She also administers this most public branch of his business empire, helping him to retain his connection to a community of surfers who still view him entirely positively, and supporting the activist credibility he needs to maintain connections with the environmental movements that he is manipulating for his own and Polaris’s ends. Evans is mostly in New York city now, and when he needs an agent he knows he can trust to operate on his behalf in the daytime, with initiative and sense, he calls on Tia. He knows she will do what he wants, and over long years of working together he has never met anyone he trusts more. There is only one aspect of their relationship that creates any friction between them.

She can surf in the sunlight.


fn1: Actually another player’s PC

fn2: He got the worst end of their behavior in our World of Darkness campaign and the player hates hates hates them

fn3: Tia Nero is a loose anti-person to Tia Blanco, a vegan surfer I have on my instagram feed

fn4: 20 years ago I had a phenomenal afternoon experience in a vegan restaurant called 20,000 cows in Byron Bay, now dead (though its Lismore branch lives on). Nothing special happened, just a wonderful atmosphere, great food and a feeling of wholeness and comfort that I have never forgotten. Here it is resurrected in Atlantic City, in the shadow of a … certain business person’s … untimely bankruptcy

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Edgar Evans 1

Guard and defend when forces hinder and collide
Solemn intentions both blessed and divine
You still pulled victory from shattered hope
Count your doubts with broken smiles
Covered your hurt in your pride

 

The Terra Nova expedition set forth to reach the South Pole in 1910, ostensibly for scientific purposes. Through tragedy and hardship its entire complement was lost, and with its leader the real reason for the expedition – robbery.

But in fact one member of the expedition did survive, after a fashion. This is the tale of Edgar Evans, his progenesis, the lies told about him and his mission, and his modern day purpose.

The Terra Nova expedition was led by Scott of the Antarctic, and the tale of its ultimate dismal end is usually told as one of ruthless competition between Scott and his long-term rival in exploration, Amundsen. In fact their rivalry was much more deadly and serious than a mere rush to be first to the pole. For Scott and Amundsen were both secret occultists and tomb robbers, and they and an elite group of their comrades knew that the poles were rich with treasures hidden by strange occult beasts. Their rush to the poles covered a small period of history when occultism was at its peak, before the ascendance of science and the mysterious deaths of many of the explorers leading the movement to loot these secret lairs.

These treasure troves in the poles were the secret safe houses of ancient vampires, elders who sought a place on earth free of humans, with long periods of darkness and, in the north, a close supply of kine in the native inuit populations. As human pressure in the north intensified they moved their bases south, believing that humans could never find a way to cross such vast and inhospitable oceans and ice plateaus.

They were wrong, of course, as vampires are so often wrong about human persistence and ingenuity, and in 1910 both Amundsen and Scott began the race to plunder the southern tombs. Amundsen found the tomb first but his party was rebuffed by ghouls, bad weather and violent magicks, and rather than risk his whole team he gave up and retreated.

Scott suffered his own setbacks in the foul weather of the southern ice, but eventually he and four specially selected members began the final push across the icy wastes towards their goal. It is not clear whether all members of this team knew its true purpose or whether they believed in the pure scientific goal of the mission, but they must have learnt the truth at some point, because they were able to penetrate the tomb while its guardians were distracted by the battle against Amundsen, and made off with a sizeable cache of highly valuable treasures and occult artifacts. Unfortunately they hit bad weather, and were pursued in the few hours of night by a single vampire from the tombs. Somewhere in the journey the vampire caught up with them, but with the summer light fast approaching and needing to retreat to a safe lair, it had no time to close the distance. However, before retreating for the day it stumbled upon a single member of the team who had been left behind while Scott and his fellows set up camp. This was Edgar Evans, injured in an icefall and unable to continue under his own strength. His team had left him in a shallow dugout, promising to return and collect him once they had made camp at a safe distance, and the sun was up. Evans was delirious from his head injury and frostbite, but when the vampire found him he understood well enough the offer it made – eternal life in exchange for the destruction of his party. Showing a degree of treachery well beyond that often claimed for him in subsequent years, Evans took the deal, and so he became a vampire, sired by a monstrous creature called the Bear, and ancilla of a mysterious and remote beauty known only as Polaris.

After the sun came up, and before his change was fully upon him, Evans was collected by his team mates and dragged back to the camp, where they intended to rest in the bright sun and wait out the stormy weather. Their plan was sound – in the Antarctic summer they had many hours to travel, while their pursuers had only a scant few hours to make chase. Finding Evans still alive though delerious in the snowdrift they assumed they had shaken off their pursuers, and decided to spend a single night resting before continuing the following day with Evans on a sled. But that night Evans died, and woke again, and consumed his teammates in an orgy of destruction. He then made his way south, dragging the recovered valuables with him, hiding in the snow during the long hours of daylight.

With Scott’s death the great age of exploration ended and the southern hideouts were safe – for a while. But after the second world war scientific expeditions began to proliferate on the shores of both polar landmasses. At first Polaris believed they would stop there but she soon realized that the human lust for land and knowledge – and energy to achieve its goals – was boundless, and she would need to find new ways to protect her wilderness redoubt. She sent Edgar Evans north, first to New Zealand and then on to the centres of power. His progress was slow and seemingly purposeless, and much of his history is lost. Sometime in the late 1960s he arrived on the Atlantic coast of the USA and became involved in the budding surf movement, making a name for himself as “the midnight surfer,” capable of amazing feats of surfing prowess but only swimming at night. After the surf scene became too large he disappeared again for a while, before he reappeared in a different guise in the extreme sports scene of the 1990s, now also at the head of a successful surfing products company. Once the extreme sports world began to be too heavily filmed he dropped out, setting up an extreme sports, snow and surf media company that soon dominated much of the sports market. A minor celebrity in this world, he also set up a foundation – the Polaris Foundation – that funded environmental activism and research connected to the poles. Through this foundation he began to influence the activities of polar researchers and political movements. He poured funds into the Sea Shepherds, into Greenpeace campaigns against arctic drilling and exploitation, and into global warming activism. He made secret, tentative contacts with the faerie court of winter, and reached out to the werewolves of the great steppes to find ways to seal off the many entryways into the arctic wilderness. Wherever the sun was extinguished for months at a time, the Polaris Foundation could be found advocating for national parks, wilderness sanctuaries, and the gradual exclusion of humanity.

Evans sat at the heart of this web of foundations, activist groups and movements, pulling strings from his headquarters outside of New York. Rich and vaguely famous, handsome and widely respected for his achievements in surfing and extreme sports, a minor celebrity amongst scientists and activists alike, Evans slowly worked to force the withdrawal of human influence from the frozen wastes of the earth’s poles – and for whatever darker purpose his grandsire, Polaris, secretly schemed.

Polaris

Polaris is so old that she has forgotten her name, and much of the lore of the realm of humans. She was no raider – a simple Inuit girl living in Greenland when the Vikings came, she was turned by a visiting Danish vampire in the 14th century. Driven out of her own community after the change, she lived wild and reckless in the mountains north of the norse settlement. She would hide in the bright summers, and stalk the Danish towns in winter when the sun was largely hidden, consuming the Danish kine with gleeful abandon. In the 15th century, as Danish wealth grew in Europe and her predations became more open, many of the community began to leave, fearing to stay another winter; eventually in a single winter of brutal extravagance she slew the remainder of the community, wiping it out. That summer she took the first ship back to the mainland, and moved her predations to the bigger cities of the wider world.

For the next few hundred years Polaris learnt the ways of the Camarila, learnt to control her hunger, and fed and studied across the cities of Europe. Eventually tiring of the Masquerade, after 400 years of petty vampire politics and growing jaded with the taste of human blood, she returned to the lands of her youth. Unfortunately they had changed beyond recognition, the beautiful fjords of her youth now transformed into whaling stations red with blood and rich with the stench of burning blubber. She realized that humans were beginning to encroach on every part of the earth, and yearned for somewhere pure and pristine to retire to, to escape from both vampire politics and human stench. Taking her wild childe the Bear with her, and a coterie of ghouls, she headed slowly south, winding her way over 10 years to the vast open plains of the Antarctic.

Here, surely, humans can never come, she thought. But half a century later there they were, sledding across the ice towards her lair, intent on robbery and murder. It was then that she sent her childe forth, with instructions – turn one of this new breed of adventurous human, for I have forgotten how they think and why they even bother. I see they are fragile and weak as individuals, but as a mass they seem to be capable of anything. While we can no longer claim to know how these kine think, we need one of our number to bear this knowledge, to hold the memory of humanity in his heart so that he can act properly against its interests, to keep us safe. Turn one of them, have him kill his fellows, and bring him to me. A new era has dawned, an era in which the silent and dark places of the earth will soon become bright with human light and rowdy with their empty chatter and barked commands. We cannot fight such a tide, so we need to learn the dynamics of its flow, that we can divert it away from those places where we hide and seek solitude.

And so the Bear went forth, and so Edgar Evans survived the cold, and entered into the kindred in an orgy of bloodshed and betrayal in a tiny hut on the edge of the world’s last great wilderness.

And so too did Polaris’s schemes bend under the pressure of the human flood; and her gaze turned north, and her cold, inhuman mind turned its thoughts towards new schemes, to use human’s own curiosity and volatility against them, and to protect her and her kind.

No one knows the truth of her schemes, only that she is ancient and cold and deadly, and that Edgar is her weapon against humanity – a lonely, gangrel weapon as cold and harsh as the adiabatic winds, and as implacable as the ice.

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