Monsters


On the fat of the land I been living
Now it’s only a matter of time
Sooner or later, you open your eyes
And return to the scene of the crime
Dig deep at the top of the heap
Now you’ve bitten off the hand that feeds you
You got nothin’ but your soul to sell
You got nothin’
When the river runs dry
You will return to the scene of the crime
When the river runs dry
Salvation will rain on you one last time

 

Things fester in New Horizon. Out in the zones, away from the Claws, where the poor strive and toil and graft their way through life, jumping from paycheck to scam to paycheck to grift and back again, life is a hard scrabble, and you’re always just a step away from failure. When you fail – or when the system pushes you over the edge, into the shadows – you have to look for help among other people with the same hard luck and hard stares as you, and it doesn’t always end well. But sometimes you find a community, people who have something in common with you beyond being a ragged survivor of a hard world, and then you have a chance, at dignity if not at wealth and security.

Being non-human marks you out, and all across the sprawling ruins of the edge of New Horizon there are groups of metahumans who make it together, because they have something they can recognize each other by. Sometimes those bands don’t work out so well – sometimes they bring the shadows with them, and looking inward as they do, cloak themselves in darkness.

In a world of augmentation and magic – things can get very nasty down there in the shadows.

That’s why Anansie contacted the characters with an urgent job – a missing person’s case. An elven girl had gone missing, and after they exhausted all their own options her family called on shadowrunners to try and find her. Anansie did not know the details but he said there would be some money in it, maybe contacts, and it probably wasn’t such a tough job. So they headed off to the south end of Havensport, where the hard scrabble folks live.

For this job Anansie had hooked them up with new members, because their technomancer and their mage were on other work. Their new team members were:

  • Zenith, an Orc rigger, the driver who took them to the Troll gig on their last little outing
  • Jo, an ex-corporate human hacker

Anansie did not know if they would need a hacker for this job – “there is always a phone, is there not John?”, he had asked rhetorically when he introduced them – but he assured Jayden and John that Jo could handle herself in a fight, and if they were going to be cruising the badlands looking for detritus they would need a driver, so Zenith was their man. The two were waiting at the bar where they always met Anansie, Jo looking trim in armoured suit and Zenith casual in jeans, a t-shirt and big brown boots – classic rigger work wear. They hopped into his big, tint-windowed van and cruised South to the badlands.

Their target was a run down stretch of slums and shacks in the very far southern tip of Havensport, nestled in the shadows of a complex of disturbing looking chemical plants. They drove carefully through the sinister smell of unregulated industry and past sprawling slums into a slapped-together township of temporary shacks, stacked container apartments and crumbling converted warehouses to their meeting point – a dusty park from back in the era of state-run schools. The park had long since been converted into a market place, stalls scattered around a central open area scattered with outdoor tables, and it was here that they were due to meet their contact. When they parked their car, however, they realized they were in metahuman turf – not a human to be seen, and the boundaries of the market park patrolled by a nasty looking bunch of troll and orc irregulars. Of course John and Zenith were unbothered by the sight of a few metahumans, and Jayden was so used to being out of place in New Horizon that being confronted by non-humans did not bother him at all, but Jo looked distinctly uncomfortable as they strolled up to a pair of huge troll guards and asked to see their contact, Charcul. They were allowed through with a few grunts and into a largely troll-dominated arena of families and small groups, eating and drinking and relaxing in an unseasonally dry New Horizon afternoon. The entire park stank of stinky tofu, a delicacy from south China and Taiwan that held an almost narcotic appeal for trolls of all races, and which was ubiquitous at all their events throughout Asia. Jayden grabbed a few plates of the stuff as they walked through the park, so when they got close to Charcul and the next round of even bigger, even scarier troll guards approached he was ready with this opening gift. Zenith gave them the code phrase Anansie had told them and, thankfully relieved of their disgusting-smelling cargo, they were able to pass through to a small gaggle of metahumans standing around a tall, proud old troll.

Charcul told them the story quickly enough, in that deep and engaging bass rumble that only old trolls can mange. A young elven woman from the local community called Lin Fei had disappeared about two weeks ago, and they had very recently discovered that she was being held captive by an anti-metahuman gang called the Purifiers. This gang, entirely human, had set itself up above a bar called Akanebana in a nearby area that because of bad blood between gangs and some old agreements, Charcul’s community could not easily enter. He had reached out to Anansie in hopes of finding a team of shadowrunners with at least some human members that he might be able to cut a deal with. The purifiers had a history of torturing metahuman captives – tearing out tusks, rounding off ears, that sort of thing – and the longer they waited the worse it would be for Lin Fei. They assumed she was still alive because the Purifiers usually returned the bodies of their captives once they were finished, so they thought there was still a chance they could get her out. Word in the neighbouring metahuman areas was that she was not the first victim of this gang, and even if the shadowrunners could not liberate Lin Fei alive, Charcul hoped that their going to get her out would send a warning that she should be the last victim they took from this area.

The matter of payment came up. Charcul and his people were obviously not wealthy, and did not have much to give, but they offered 1500 nuyen each and the free takings of anything the PCs found in the Purifier’s gang base if they could liberate Lin Fei or return her body. They looked at each other, nodded, and offered to do the job for free.

Nobody likes Nazis.

Jayden made the offer, and suggested that the only payment they would ever ask was that one day they might need somewhere to lie low. This part of Havensport was a great place to hide, being almost off the grid and well out of the reach or interest of most corporate security teams. People in this part of town did not talk to strangers, and many of the communities down here had ferocious internal loyalties that stopped them talking loosely with their neighbours. For at least a little while a team of shadowrunners could get lost in here, and bonds of community would hold faster than any deal nuyen could buy – if they were owed a favour here, the trolls hiding them would take the secret of their location to the grave with them. Charcul thought the offer way too good, and in truth it was, but they all saw that one day it could be a life saver for the PCs too. They agreed, and the PCs set off to investigate this bar, Akanebana.

Trivial checks by Jo revealed it was a yakuza bar, owned by a small local yakuza family, the Kurosasori, that worked the edges of the sprawlzone. The Purifers must have set up on one of the levels above, and from the plans Jo downloaded it was pretty clear that the only way to the higher floors was to brazen their way through the yakuza bar itself. But this bar was in a human zone, and the yakuza who owned it were notoriously metaphobic, and a more detailed search suggested that although they did not own the building they were on more than friendly terms with whoever did – so getting in to beat up a bunch of tenants was going to be a challenge. They needed a way in that would get them past the bar without a fight.

They put in a call to Mr. Niwa, consigliere for the Yamada family, whose daughter they had previously escorted to a Troll metal gig. Mr. Niwa was a grateful man, and in exchange for the many extra services they had provided him on that mission he was able to arrange them an invitation to the bar, to talk to a Mr. Uesugi about the details of their evening. They made clear their visit was not going to be pretty, and he reminded them that his reputation was on the line. Everyone understood the stakes, so they went in.

The maps they had downloaded showed that the bar took the entire ground floor of the building, which had a large elevator hall near the entryway, but when they entered the building they found a very different setup. Most of the elevators had been blocked off and turned into cloak rooms or staff offices, and the elevator hall had become the entryway for the club itself, where security guards in smart suits greeted them in subdued Japanese style and divested them of their weapons. They were led into a relatively quiet public area, pumping music and a pair of scantily clad human women gyrating in some kind of raised platform at the end of a long, heavily burnished bar. The windows opened onto sedate zen gardens, and a brusque human waitress took their order. They stood there at the bar waiting for the maitre’d to bring them to their assigned seats but before they began their meeting they noticed a single human woman, blonde and muscular, leaning on the bar and looking around with a kind of urgent, uncertain and tense manner. Jayden approached her and discovered quickly that she was looking for her brother, who had disappeared in the area a few months ago – she suspected having joined the Purifiers. Her name was Gillian Payne, her little brother was Max, and plan was to go in and find him. Thinking she might know something about how to get in, they invited her to join them, and went to their meeting with Mr. Uesugi.

The conversation with Mr. Uesugi proved surprisingly easy. They told him directly they were going to go upstairs and get their target out of the Purifiers, and they hoped to come to some kind of arrangement. He told them directly that he wanted all of the Purifiers dead – they had become an embarassment to his gang, and now their rent was due – and he would much prefer someone else did it, so he would happily allow them into the building, clear the bar so there were no witnesses, and turn a blind eye to the slaughter. But he added two conditions: every single Purifier had to die, and the PCs could only take as much loot as they could carry. In particular the Purifiers were believed to be sitting on a large collection of crates whose contents the PCs were not to take or even to look at. They balked at the “every single purifier” condition, but managed to cut a bargain with Mr. Uesugi, that Max Payne could live if Gillian worked for the yakuza for a year. Mr. Uesugi made very clear that he really did not care for Max Payne to live, and he would make the one exception only if Gillian agreed to repay him with work. She agreed, and the deal was done.

The bar experienced a sudden freak blackout, and all the customers were asked to leave and move to a different bar nearby. Zenith slipped out to his car and came back with a drone – a tank the size of a large dog, bristling with guns. They were led down into the basement to a separate service lift by one of Mr. Uesugi’s goons, a massive thug called Takuya – “Takuya’su! Uss!” – and told that it would deposit them on the 2nd floor. They went up.

The third floor was deserted, a big dark common area that led to a kind of dormitory at one end. Here they found sets of bunk beds, with small bags of belongings in lockers at one end of the room. Searching the belongings they soon found commlinks, and Jo was able to hack the commlinks to get their contents. They found Max Payne’s commlink, and by quickly searching through the messages he had shared with a few of his fellow Purifiers they learnt many things:

  • Max was an initiate who was not allowed to do many things, and spent much of his time in lectures and indoctrination sessions
  • The more experienced Purifiers had a private bar/hangout area in the basement, that the initiates were not allowed into
  • Max and his friend had found a secret access shaft that connected all the floors, and even went down to the basement
  • Max’s friend had used the shaft and had stashed a card for the basement security system behind a cistern in the bathrooms
  • Calli was on level 5, and there was a complex they did not visit – where the prisoners were held – on level 4
  • The initiates spent most of their time in level 3, in a training and indoctrination area, and that was where they were now
  • The entire grubby little arrangement was run by a woman called Calli, who as far as they could discern was some kind of technical wizard

They decided to go down and deal with the security guards first, so once they had found the card they got back into the lift and headed down.

The elevator doors opened into a wide open space dominated by a large set of benches with computer equipment in the middle. There were five men standing around those benches, holding drinks and chatting. When the lift doors open they all stared at the PCs in shock, perhaps thinking for a moment they were colleagues from upstairs, and the PCs, expecting some kind of elevator hall or entryway, stared back in shock.

Except Jayden. Jayden is never surprised, so he burst into the room and set to work with his knife. From there the battle was short and brutal, the room starkly illuminated with flashes of gunfire and echoing with the scream of dying men. All five men died without doing any damage to the PCs, barely able to get a shot in before they found themselves face to face with Jayden, or pinned down under a withering barrage of gunfire.

As the last of the men slid groaning to his grim end Jo set to work hacking the computers, and the rest of the party fanned out to search the area. They found a simple bar and lounge, the kind of messy, untidy and comfy place that a bunch of twenty-something men set up when they’re living together. Nasty posters adorned the walls, yelling hateful human supremacist slogans from faces of young men distorted with anger. Pumping hardcore human first music roared through the room, and messages of hate scrolled across the computer screens. A typical human supremacist den.

Jo soon hacked the computer and gained complete access to the entire computer system. She accessed maps of all the other areas, gained full control of the lift, and hacked one of the guard’s commlinks. From this she showed them a feed of events in the prisoner area of level 4. A horrible tableau unfolded before them: the elf girl, Lin Fei, and an Orc man were tied to chairs in the middle of a stark, bare chamber. Around the back walls of the chamber were several cages, in which a couple of weak, sickly and heavily mutilated elves and dwarves were held captive. One cage in the middle held a huge, badly injured troll, who was rattling on the bars and screaming at the room. His tusks had been removed violently and his body was covered in scabby cuts and sores. Both the elf girl and the orc boy were covered in blood, and someone behind the camera was laughing at them. As they watched a rough, heavy-set man entered the scene from the left and slapped the orc, making a joke about how soon the elf girl wouldn’t have a use for him as a boyfriend. Then he turned to the girl and told her it was time for her to lose her ears. Someone behind the camera laughed, and the troll screamed.

This video was being streamed from the commlink in this room to Calli’s commlink, up in her hidey hole on level 5. If the PCs attacked now she would see her guards die and know that the den had intruders; but if they did not, this pair would soon be done for. They had to act now. They ran back to the lift and punched it for level 4.

At level 4 the elevator opened into a small entryway that fed into a wider corridor. They moved quickly down this corridor towards the sound of the raging troll, and ambushed the three guards in here with maximum violence. They were dead before they knew what hit them.

As they freed Lin Fei and her boyfriend, crying and desperately thankful, the Troll raged behind them in the cage. “Free me!” he yelled, and “You treacherous bitch, I’ll destroy you!” Apparently this was aimed at Lin Fei, though they had no time to find out why. By now Calli would know they had invaded her den, and would be planning some defense. Zenith sent his drone back to guard the elevator while they discussed what to do. Finally someone suggested that they free the troll and let him use the elevator to go and get Calli, then follow him. They would have to channel him away from Lin Fei, but everyone could see that he had lost his mind, and there was no hope for him. He was rattling the cage bars and screaming, “Let me at Calli! Let me out! I’ll kill her!”

It was a risk, but they took it. Jayden walked up to the cage and did his best to convince the troll that his enemy was Calli, not Lin Fei, and that he could come back for Lin Fei. Then he opened the cage, and they watched as the troll went screaming along the hallway, smashing into walls and yelling at the ceiling, insane with berserk rage. A troll in his finest fury is a sight to behold, and they all paused for just a moment to show him the respect he deserved before they moved down the hallway after him.

By the time they reached the elevator he had already headed up. They called the elevator back down and followed him, and when it opened on the fifth floor the sense of their strategy was clear. There were three guards on the ground in the elevator hall, all with SMGs that had been pointed at the elevator doors, which were smeared in thick dark troll blood. They found the troll around the corner, dead on the ground, riddled with bullets and what looked suspiciously like dog bites. Zenith looked at the bites and told them he had been attacked by a K-nine, a type of drone with a dog form that was specially designed for attacking humanoids. They advanced past the dead troll, giving him momentary whispers of respectful remembrance, and hit the main room.

Here again battle was joined, but now their enemy was ready for them and in cover. Calli was some kind of rigger like Zenith, because she had gun turrets set up in two corners of the room and sent a K-nine drone to get them as they approached the room. With the gun turrets and Calli’s remaining guards ensconced behind cover at the far end of the room it appeared to be a death trap, but Jayden did not let this concern him – he charged in and drew all the fire in the room as he ran to the cover, giving the others a chance to get inside the room and take cover in shooting positions. Jayden’s attack was a crazy spectacle of Adept power – he leapt onto the cabinet that Calli hid behind, dodging short bursts of bullets from two turrets and pistol fire from one of the guards as he dived forward to attack Calli. At the same time the rest of the group opened fire on the turrets, and another guard, and Jo hacked the dog drone to try and make it stand down. More gunfire sprayed at Jayden, but he slipped between the cones of fire and jumped down from the barrier to kill Calli. Seeing the trouble she was in, she dropped out of the connection to her drones and fled, leaving the dog and the turrets dead at her feet. The group chased her but were ambushed by another K-nine drone, which slowed them down enough to give Calli the edge, and she leapt into the secret access shaft that linked all the floors together. As she fell Jo fired shots after her, but Jayden did not wait – he jumped in after her in a controlled fall, sliding down the walls and catching himself enough to land on her crumpled body without injury. She was alive but badly injured, so he calmly reached down and cut her throat. Calli was dead.

The others came down to the basement to get her body, and then they moved back to the final floor, level 3 where the initiates were in training. They burst into the training room to find the initiates on their knees, hands up, pleading not to die. Jo, Zenith and John calmly shot them all in the head, leaving only Max kneeling on the ground in his white Purifier robes, spattered with the blood of his friends and sniveling and crying in terror. As Gillian stepped forward to slap her brother everyone else noticed Jo raising her gun to shoot him in the head too. Nobody bothered to stop her, but at the last she lowered the gun and turned away in disgust. They looked through the room for loot as Gillian ranted and screamed at her stupid little brother and then, satisfied that there was nothing worthwhile, moved back to level 4 to free the prisoners and begin the looting.

Two of the elves they found were seriously injured and badly malnourished, in need of immediate trauma care. They had obviously been held here and tortured for some time. An hour after they entered the building the PCs emerged on level 1 to the waiting Takuya – “Takuya’su! Uss!” – accompanied by their injured and shattered charges, and loaded down with loot. Takuya escorted them to their van, made sure they were all inside, and saw them safely away from the building with another final “Takuay’su! Uss!”

They returned to Charcul and a hero’s welcome. He promised them that if ever they needed somewhere to run, if they needed somewhere to hide, they could always count on him and his people. They were thanked effusively, given lashings of intense troll beer and stinky tofu and fried noodles and heavy, fatty grouper fish meat in a delicious rich sweet dark sauce, feasted until morning, and then left, exhausted, to drag their loot back to their safe houses.

In one small part of New Horizon, they had become heroes. In another small part of New Horizon the Kurosasori yakuza gang slid quietly into the silent, bloody halls of the Purifiers, stepping with sneers of distaste over the bodies of the Purifier guards and the congealing pools of blood that ran between them, searching diligently for the crates that they had been assured no one had opened. They found them in the back of a storage room on level 4, untouched, and as the first grey light of dawn slid across New Horizon’s fractured, fractal cityscape they carried the crates silently and carefully down and out to waiting vans. They spared the dead Purifiers only the minimum attention they needed to avoid slipping in their filth. Once it was done a truck backed up to the doors, and heavy bundles wrapped in black plastic were dumped into it, to be driven off to an incinerator outside the city limits.

Nobody likes Nazis.

Save

Save

Maybe, maybe it’s the clothes we wear,
The tasteless bracelets and the dye in our hair,
Maybe it’s our kookiness,
Or maybe, maybe it’s our nowhere towns,
Our nothing places and our cellophane sounds,
Maybe it’s our looseness,

But we’re trash, you and me,
We’re the litter on the breeze,
We’re the lovers on the streets,
Just trash, me and you,
It’s in everything we do,
It’s in everything we do…

The Ark has 174 People but few heroes. This story is not about its heroes, or its champions, only its desperadoes. There are four of them:

  • Barathos, Gearhead, who we find eating food from a can with a faded label of an angry, dangerous cat. His mutation: luminescence
  • Chang Chang, Fixer, sitting on an old packing crate eating his last twinkie. He is mutated into a symbiotic fungal life form, giving off a strange pungent smell and able to explode with clouds of virulent spores. No one knows Chang Chang’s sex, but most of the People think he is both, because he is fungal.
  • Bloody Jack, a smalltime Boss, always accompanied by a couple of her flunkies, today leaning back to eat fresh potato and dried, rot-free fish being fed to her by one of his gang. Bloody Jack is a revolutionary, leader of the 7th Revolutionary gang, which doesn’t mean much because there is nothing to overthrow and no means of production to seize. She flicks through an old comic that teaches her the ways of the Diadactic Materials, a strange cult; in mimicry of their mannerisms she wears a suit and a ludicrous top hat. She has frogs legs, and can leap faster than you can blink to put her knife in your throat.
  • Lonnie, the Stalker – every band of desperadoes has a stalker. Connie is eating white mush from an unlabeled can, thinking it is powdered potato and eyeing Bloody Jack’s real potato with carefully disguised envy. Connie is androgynous, a little slip of a thing in black leather, spends so much time in the shadows no one really knows who she is.

That is the team that Shellah sidled up to, grimacing and duck-walking carefully into the light of their trash can fire, hands close, coat clenched tight around her. Shellah is a stalker, like Lonnie if Lonnie had less charm and more integrity. Everyone calls Lonnie Loonie Lonnie because it sounds good, but nobody jokes with Shellah about being mad. She’s always one twitch away from running or fighting, and she’s seen so much out there in the ruins. Nobody really talks to Shellah at all if they can, because she doesn’t always make a lot of sense and she creeps you out with her stare and her hissing twitching ways. But everyone knows Shellah spends a lot of time Out There, Zone-walking, and she brings things back. Everyone trusts Shellah. But nobody who goes out with her seems to return, so she goes alone. Always alone. But everyone trusts here in the Ark.

This little gang of desperadoes know each other but let’s not wind this story up so tight it snaps like one of the threads on Grim Delilah’s razor-sharp yoyos, the ones she plays with when the Trash Hawks come around: they may know each other but they aren’t friends. They’re gathered round this fire in this trash can on this night because even inside the Ark there’s comfort in numbers, especially now when the Elder isn’t coming out of the gondola and there’s too much coughing and wailing going on in there, and his old speeches are too few and too weak to hear anyway, so that now people don’t come to listen when he drags his old bones out into the little pool of comforting watery sunshine that always bathes the gondola – they’re too busy now clustering around one or other of the bosses, picking sides for the trouble we can all feel is coming. People are starting to look at each other now, not like comrades in the gristle and bones of this shattered world, but like rivals for the last bits of tattered flesh – or like useful idiots in the struggle to put a new boss in the gondola when the Elder’s coughing stops. Bloody Jack is a boss, Chang Chang is a fixer, and Barathos and Lonnie are useful. That’s why they’re hunched around this trashcan, wondering why Shellah is sidling out of the darkness with one of her don’t-look-at-me-I-didn’t-do-it-I-swear-that-thing-didn’t-follow-me-back-from-the-marsh expressions on her face.

It’s Chang Chang who has the best rapport with Shellah, because she finds and he fixes. “What is it Shellah?” he asks all innocent, knowing from the hard squint of her eyes and the frown that she’s going to tell them anyway. “Find something out there?”

She snorts and grabs a can from Bloody Jack, who always has one spare for times like this, squats down and snaps it open with some ingenious tool, slugs it down over a minute or so of furious gobbling, splattering smacking sounds, all the while shuffling and throwing dagger glances all around like there’s a Zone Ghoul right there waiting to pounce as soon as she lets her guard down – which she never does. Throws the can over her shoulder into the darkness, some kind of wicked little knife-fork-opener thing slides away into her coat with a glint of viscous orange trashcan light on pewter. “Yeah Chang-a, yeah yeah, found something.”

She draws a thing out from under her coat, flashes it around just quick enough for everyone to gasp as the amber firelight flickers over the ammunition case’s curves, the bronze glint of bullet casings flashing at them from their rightful place, then slides it away as fast as it came. Her voice drops to a conspiratorial whisper. “Found something, something good.” Takes it out again, where people can see it more clearly: it’s an assault rifle clip, maybe 30 bullets intact in the case, dirty and a bit rusty on the outside but the bullets are as clean as the inside of one of Fanged Rothery’s dinner cans (Fanged Rothery is a rot-eater, teeth like iron and a tongue rich with spines, he can lick a jagged steal tin cleaner than your favourite knife in no time at all).

Bloody Jack reaches for it, just to inspect of course, he wasn’t going to take it I swear! But true to her style Shellah has it back under her coat and she’s right back out to the edge of the trashcan glow before Bloody Jack can get a hand on it. “Not for you Bloody Jack, not yet and not you. We gotta deal to make.” She looks behind her sharp as a Trash Hawk’s claws, like she always does when she has to deal with Bloody Jack. Bloody Jack may talk a lot about justice and equality, but Bloody Jack isn’t above using her little band of zealots to even the scales on her own account, which I’m sure you guessed because as sure as you hear me telling you this, you’ve seen her kind before. So has Shellah, and Shellah is not one to trust anyone more than she needs to.

“A deal, Shellah?” Chang Chang asks, all innocent and surprised like he really thought Shellah was going to keep all thirty bullets for herself, she who never uses a gun and only ever keeps bullets to trade for grub. “What’s that then, you running out of grub?”

Shellah shakes her head and hisses, duck-squats her way back into the light a little. “No Chang-a, I don’t need me no grub.” Brown and broken teeth show as she bares her teeth back and lobs a fleck of spit into the fire. Rumour has it Shellah is a photosynthetic, gets her nutrients from the sun and doesn’t need to eat. A handy mutation, until someone locks you in a box. She looks around at them. “I need me a deal for protection. You know the story People – the Elder’s goin’ inta history, and the Ark’s running out of food, the bosses are startin’ to look at each other like they know what’s what and everyone’s starting to pile up their food, getting it ready for when the time comes. But people like me, me and you Chang-a, we don’t have no gang, and when the trouble comes we aren’t gonna have anyone to look after our backs.” She pauses and Bloody Jack takes the time to look affronted at the mere suggestion that she wouldn’t help out these her dear friends Lonnie, Chang Chang and Barathos. Are they not friends? No one is impressed by her performance.

“That’s why I wanna cut a deal. ‘Coz see I found this bullet case, but I also found the gun it came from. It’s a big gun Chang-a, and whoever or whatever holds that gun is gonna be in a mighty good position when the bosses start quarreling. And I tell you I want to be behind whatever boss has that gun, which is why I came to you first, because I trust you more than them others. I’ll give each of you three bullets now from this case, and tell you where the gun is, if you promise me you’ve got my back when the trouble starts.”

This kind of thing, now this kind of thing to Bloody Jack is like purest nitro to a helldriver. She swings her arms out expansively and begins one of her speeches. “Comrades! Comrade Shellah in particular, on this dark night and in this pinched moment of dire need, when the bosses Foremanize and Capitalistate and take and take, do I seem to you like the kind of Comrade who would abandon her … her duty of … Comradelyshipness, and sell you out to those who would tread the Workerman into the swamps and the rot? No, my gang fights for the good of all, and once we had overthrown the Yoke of Tyranny no doubt I would find a place for you in the new order. There is no need for this conniving and scheming to make deals! Are we not all one in the Eyes of the Great God Of Equals, Marx-who-was?!”

They’ve all heard it before of course and are unimpressed, so Chang Chang waves her quiet and asks in a low voice, “Where is the gun, Shellah?” Shellah shakes her head furiously and points at Bloody Jack. “Make that cursed boss agree, and you all too – even you Barathos, sitting there watching me with your eyes all glowing, I know what you can do and you won’t catch me so quick! Make a deal or I’m off into the shadows to talk to one o’ them up there.” She points to the bleachers, where no doubt some other boss squats in the darkness, scheming or maybe picking the scabs on his feet.

Chang Chang looks around, waits especially for Barathos to nod assent – that this really is a part of a gun, and they really have a chance to find it. “Sure,” He says, nodding quickly. “If you tell us where it is and we think we can get it, you give us the bullets you promised and we’ll go, and Bloody Jack’s gang and all of us will have your back when the bosses start their stoushing. Deal?” He spits.

Shellah looks around, seems satisfied after a moment and then spits back. “Elder’s Tears, Chang-a, you and me and these here in the light have cut a deal, and only the Elder or the Rot can break it.” She drags herself closer to the fire and hunkers up. “I found it at the base of one of the two towers.” Seeing their disbelieving looks she snarls a curse. “I swear I did! Went down to the river and sniffed around the tower on this bank. It stinks around the river but I’ve been there before, it’s safe if you don’t get too close! No one else goes there so you can find things, and I found this! It was in a patch of fungus at the bottom of the tower, like it fell there. Fell there it did! And when I looked up I saw the gun sticking out of the tower window, way up high. You can climb it I tell you, the outside all covered in leaves and vines or maybe go through the door in the base. The guns there, stickin’ out of the tower window, you can just take it!”

They all look at her in disbelief. The river?! But it stood to reason, if there was a weapon as dangerous as that any closer to the Ark someone would have found it by now. And nobody else would be going down there looking, because that meant slinking past the shadow of the Dark Castle, finding a way through the rot and probably cutting through the Crash Zone, which creeps anyone out. But if they did it … a gun … dreams of power.

They look at each other, shifty like there in the flickering light of the trashcan fire, wondering who amongst them is going to crack or be the first to venture some spirit. Somewhere behind them in the shadows of the Ark someone cried in pain, and a boss’s muffled imprecation followed, a wet thud. Maybe now was a good time to be looking for new weapons.

“Okay Shellah,” Barathos ventures finally, his cracked and deep voice cutting through the sudden silence. “Tell us exactly about this tower …”


They set off the next day, no fanfare, just a quiet exit at dawn into the Zone south of the Ark. The four of them went, packing only three days of food, accompanied by two members of Bloody Jack’s gang, her trusty Enforcers Carrot and Lennie. First they pushed into the sector they knew, sticking to trails everyone had seen before. Here was all overgrown ruins, thick patches of fungus crawling up over broken buildings, bushes and vines curled around and through old vehicles and shattered strange shapes of metal and stone and plastic. It’s clean around the Ark, but soon the fungus and the trees get higher and thicker and the air stills and you can smell it, that strange acrid stench of Rot, the Rot that suffuses this whole stinking Zone and rises from the earth to make the People crumble and fade. You have to move carefully through this place, and if you haven’t got a stalker with you you can get lost in here and then the rot takes you, or something worse gets you first. But Lonnie knows her work and got them to the Crash Zone fine. The Crash Zone was as far as they’d ever been before, and not without trepidation for very long at all. It’s a long streak of destruction through the middle of the Zone, a swathe of open air about a kilometre long that runs from near the slopes to the Dark Castle roughly parallel to the river, ending at the shattered carcass of a giant sky whale, one of those wondrous inventions of the Ancients that could fly even though it was heavier than steel. This one had two decks of seats all the way along, a huge thing bigger than anything the People could dream of building or finding, broken into three parts along the end of the Crash Zone. It used to have wings, or so Barathos insists, but those wings smashed into the buildings along the side of the swathe, tearing them down and making great piles of rubble behind it, shattered arcs of stone and steel and glass spattering out from where it bounced screeching and fiery to its end. You can tell it must have flown on booze or so Barathos says, because the buildings along the way were scorched and burned and if you pick over the ruins of the swathe of open space behind the sky whale you can find blackened stuff from an intense fire, melted so bad it isn’t even scrap. No one usually digs around in the swathe or spends much time in the Crash Zone but they were feeling brave and after a bit of egging on and a spot of booze Barathos ventured into the rearmost section of the whale. Here there were many skeletons still strapped into their seats, many broken badly, bits of roof and seats from the deck above smashed and pushed into the seats below. Some people might have got out or died in the aisles between the seats, and there were grass and moss and fungus and other things growing in between the bodies. He picked over the parts until finally he found a box, made of card and plastic, faded and rotted, and dragged it out. Inside was a little wind up train, made of brilliant green and blue plastic that shone in the pale sun, and a set of lines you could stick together to make it run around when you wound it up. “A clock!” Barathos said, “This can be a clock, look it runs for a time and stops! Maybe we can use it for timing things,” and he packed it up with care he would never show a person and hid it in his pack. Lonnie looked around at the gathering clouds and the distant watery sun heading to its zenith and whispered, “Wanna cross the section before lunch,” and they trudged off, crossed the Crash Zone and headed further than they’d been before.

Past the Crash Zone the ground started sloping up again, until they found themselves on a kind of ridge rising a little above the ruins around. This ridge was covered in small stunted trees and bushes, and gave them cover right up to the tower itself. The tower loomed over them, the tallest thing in the near hereabouts, a squat and powerful thing of stone and verdant overgrowth, still mostly undamaged after all this time since … whenever and whatever happened in the world-that-was. This tower was paired with another one on the other side of the river, and the two were joined near their top by a nastily uncertain looking gantry. The towers, the gantry and all the space between was overgrown with vines, creepers, plants and fungus of all descriptions, with vines drooping down from the gantry to hang over the limpid, dark waters of the river as it sluggishly rolled beneath, stinking and deadly. At the base of the tower near the river, facing the other tower, a kind of barrier stuck out over  the river, pointing diagonally up at the sky like an accusing hand demanding a query of the uncaring sky. “Why me? Why do I have to stand sentinel over this stinking sewer when all the others of my kind were knocked flat in a time before memory!?”

They crept up close to the tower and Lonnie moved ahead to look around. She found the place Shellah said she found the cartridge and there it was, the hole in the fungus patch still glowing slightly as the fungus repaired itself, and up above something sticking out of the tower window, pointing east. What thing? Lonnie couldn’t tell. She moved around a little more and checked the rest of the base of the tower. A kind of path of black stone led into the middle of the tower, which arched over it, ending at the unheeded barrier, and on one side of that tunnel a door barred an entry into the tower. Everything was still and silent. She called them up, and they examined the tower together. Barathos, looking up, grunted and hissed. “Not a gun,” he cursed, though he could not tell what it was.

Discretion would tell them now to retreat and return to the Ark defeated, but that ammunition box didn’t fall from the sky – it must have come out of the tower. Even if the thing sticking out of the window was no gun, there must be something in there. They forced the door and pushed their way inside. Here they found a small room, musty and empty, with stairs leading up into the tower. Another door beckoned, but when they forced it open they were greeted with the deep, repulsive stench of Rot water. Stairs led down into murky blackness, and from down there came the stench of Rot, strong Rot. Chang Chang tried to convince Barathos to go look but he refused, and no inducements could get him near that rot. They headed up, Barathos glowing gently with his strange pale blue luminescence to light the way. His mutant light seeped out of his eyes and through the murk like glowing tendrils, casting a flickering eerie light over the walls of the narrow staircase and putting no one at ease.

At the top they found a large room. A long narrow broken window on the east wall faced along the direction of the river, giving them a stunning view over an endless domain of broken, ruined nature. The wall on their right was also partially open, leading into the shadowed recesses of the gantry that connected this tower with the sister tower over the river, but it was overgrown with vines and shadowy, and they did not want to venture in just yet. There was a single body on the floor, and the whole room was musty and ripe with fungus and small plants. The thing they had seen sticking out of the window was here, on a kind of tripod of metal, dull bronze coloured and standing serene amongst the dust pointing east.

They searched. The strange pole-like thing sticking out of the window had glass ends and after some inspection Barathos was able to identify what it did: It made distant things suddenly closely visible, like the cracked glass lenses that Elomere the Strange wore when he had to stitch up the skin on his constantly-erupting boils, only much more powerful (and with no stench of pus). Barathos took it gently from the tripod and pocketed it. This, he said, could be useful for scouting the Zone. On the body they found a piece of paper in a plastic sleeve, with markings on it, and around the body a few old wrappers of what might have been food. They were just comparing the symbols on the wrappers with a symbol on the paper in the sleeve, and realizing they held a map, when the spiders came.

There was just one at first, crawling silent as the Winter Plague out of the whole in the southern wall, but they felt its malignant gaze and then smelled its corpse smell before it could get to them, and managed to spring away from the body and fight. Bloody Jack was just beating it out of the window when another one emerged, and they were fighting that one when Barathos, leaning out of the window to hit the first one, was hit by its web and dragged outside to dangle upside down from one leg, helplessly twisting in the faint breeze. As he hung there he saw the giant spider hauling its spiny, corpulent bulk back over the windowsill and inside the tower, no doubt looking to snare its next prey, and heard grunts and screams from inside. Looking along the tower’s edge he suddenly realized, as a rare break in the clouds suffused the space between the towers with a golden glow, that the entire space between the towers was spun with many webs of delicate, shimmering filigree. Strange black lumps he had mistaken for fungal growth now revealed themselves to be the cocooned, shrivelled corpses of Trash Hawks and Zone Crows – and there, crawling out from that hideous larder, a third massive spider, scuttling across the wall towards him. He started screaming, and someone hauled him up just in time. They took positions back to back inside and beat off the three spiders, finally killing them all, and a fourth that came skittering out of that wall to join the fray.

Panting and panicky, they ate and rested. While they rested Lonnie and Barathos pored over the paper inside the plastic sleeve, and they both concluded the same thing – this was a map, and the markings seemed to indicate that just south of the river, near the towers, was a food store. They had found no rifle, but they had found food. Again, where wisdom would advise retreat, they pressed on, crawling across the gantry to the tower on the other side. Here they found two more bodies, one carrying an ancient revolver that they tucked away for the Dawn Vault. Then Barathos climbed onto the roof to use his newfound artifact to scout out the surrounding area, and they ventured down to the ground, becoming the first of the People to set foot south of the river.


Following the map they headed west along the river from the base of the second tower. The land here had less ruins than the north side of the river, perhaps because they had been destroyed by some great calamity or perhaps because the city-that-was had been different here. Nonetheless as they followed the path along the rivers edge they could see rubble scattered in amongst the trees and scrub of the sector, and occasional jagged columns of stone or grass jutting out of the vegetation. The path they followed lay close to the river but some 5 metres above it, and the landward side rose steep again to the wooded landscape of the south, meaning they could not get far from the river. They could not head inland in any case, because from her vantage point on the tower Lonnie had seen the telltale yellow mist of acid rain, as low-hanging clouds swept along the southern side of the city streaming vile and deadly rain over the Zone. This rain could be deadly for anyone not under cover, and to trudge through it for an hour or two seeking grub would be a death sentence. Fortunately the clouds were skirting the river, so they were able to find a safe path, but even then they had to deviate inland after an hour of careful walking, because the path entered an area of broken stones and fallen buildings, from which they could see the Sunken Ship.

The Sunken Ship is near to a myth amongst the People. It was once a huge beast of grey and silver metal, festooned with guns and heavily armoured, but when the world collapsed it sank on its moorings so that most of it was submerged in the river. The tips of its guns and the bulk of its mid section still stuck above the water, festooned with reeds and dark vegetation and creating little eddies and muddy streaks in the torpid flow of rotten river water. From the north bank it was visible, rich with the promise of the artifacts of the ancients, but there was no way to get to it without going into the deadly water of the river. The Sunken Ship was also rumoured to be the home of dark and deadly secrets, beasts that come at night to snatch those passing nearby and unseen horrors that will snatch anyone attempting to pick their way over its muddy and partially-hidden deck. Nobody had been this close to the Sunken Ship before, but the explorers did not want to disturb whatever beasts laired there, and so cut inland through the broken piles of rubble, keeping bushes and old stonework between them and the foreboding steel bulk of the thing. Their path brought them perilously close to the acid rain before they could cut back towards the river, but they escaped the pinch safely and soon found themselves climbing another gentle slope, this only lightly wooded, that then broke into a series of culverts leading down to a large, abandoned building. The building was actually a complex of separate sections sprawling across quite a wide area, with big open gateways linking the buildings together. Parts of the roof had fallen in and weeds and bushes had grown up to block some of the pathways between parts of the building, but other parts looked roughly safe to enter. The area was dangerously quiet and they thought they could see evidence of habitation, but they could not be sure. This was the closest they could find to the markings on the map – this was their place. Perhaps once it had been a series of warehouses linked together, or maybe a farmer’s barns or a market – who knew what strange ways the people of the world-that-was held their food? Whatever it had been, now it was the cradle in which their Ark’s future lay – they must go in.

They approached the entrance cautiously, careful to keep under what cover they could find and scanning the silent walls for signs of threat. A large archway entered the building, surmounted by words in some ancient language they could not read, carved in faded and mouldy brass. They ventured in, stepping cautiously over rubble and scrap and looking for signs of ambush. Inside was a large open area, thick with fungus and weeds growing between crumbling wooden carts and tables. It had been a market! They fanned out a little and began searching, moving carefully and slowly further inside.

The rooms here were empty of any food, but for obvious reasons – someone lived here. A group of people probably, who had picked the outer areas clean of any signs of food or scrap and who must be living in the inner area. The group crossed a small road that bisected the buildings and through another archway into a wide path between two buildings. As they moved down it they heard voices, and froze. Lonnie moved stealthily forward and, looking around a corner, saw what they suspected – Zone Ghouls! There were eight of them, skinny dirty humanoid creatures a little smaller than a small adult human, heavily wrapped in cloth over every part of their body, wearing hoods and carrying bicycle chains and slingshots. They were squatting in a group in a kind of semi-protected space made by pulling three rotten wooden stalls into a semi circle. They had a small fire and were eating what looked like fresh food of some kind. Across from them on the far side of the room was a huge pile of cans, all with their labels long since torn away, and also strange plastic packets, bottles of amber and red liquid, even strings of onions, all stacked neatly in many piles. Behind them was a gap and then against the far wall of the building a tiered array of clay and wooden shelves on which stood pots and jars full of fresh herbs and strange red fruits. Further away large tractor tires had been converted into potato beds. It was a utopia of abundance!

Which they had to take. Lonnie moved back to the group and explained the situation. Bloody Jack indicated the roof, and jumped up into the shadows on her strange frog legs, motioning for her two gang members to stay and help. She leapt again to a perch near the broken roof above the Ghouls, and waited. The rest of them moved forward and burst into the room, ready to do violence – only to find themselves confronted by equally prepared enemies. The Zone Ghouls had heard them and stood ready in the shelter of the stalls, slingshots out. Now it was eight against six with no surprise, and no one was willing to act first. Chang Chang tried speaking with them but they could barely understand the Ghouls’ garbled, high-pitched grating speech, and the Ghouls seemed not to understand them. They stood at an impasse for a moment but then finally someone moved wrong, and the whole tense coiled moment sprang shut like a rusty bear trap. The Ghouls started firing their sling shots, Chang Chang dived behind the cans for cover, Carrot and Lennie charged forward, Bloody Jack dropped down from above, and battle was joined.

The fight was short and brutal. The Zone Ghouls gave a good accounting of themselves, hurting Barathos and Chang Chang and Bloody Jack, but six of the Ghouls died before the last two broke and ran. Barathos shot one dead as it fled but Bloody Jack managed to catch the last, springing onto its back from 10 metres away and dragging it down. They dragged the Ghoul back to the warehouse and tried talking to it but it was useless – they could not understand one another. They tore off its hood to reveal a skinny, almost human face, blinking back at them from large, dark eyes before it started screaming at the sunlight. Barathos bound it up tight, and they decided to drag it back to the Ark as a slave.

Their battle was done. They picked up as much food as they could carry and headed back to the Ark, climbing delicately across the tower and down the other side, lugging their prisoner and their food back through the Crash Zone to the comfort of the Ark. As soon as they returned Bloody Jack pressed his gang to work, taking them back to the ruined market to grab as much food as they could. They traipsed back and forth, exhausted and damp and tired and scared, for two days, constantly lugging as much as they could carry, until someone heard a crash and a strange haunting piping wail somewhere in the shadows of the market, and they decided it was too dangerous to stay any longer. After two days of work they had done enough though – the Ark was safe for a little longer, the food crisis averted, the bosses content, their life of hard scrabble unchanged by conflict and death. They handed the Revolver to the Dawn Vault, congratulated each other on a job well done, and tried not to face Shellah when she demanded her rights. For a little longer, the Ark would hold.

But they all knew it was not enough. Where next for their precarious little community, balanced on the edge of starvation and violence, trapped between the Dark Castle and the River? And what could they do now to make a future for the People, and for themselves?

Save

Save

They stand together in our wildest dreams

We invoke the Fomori

Strangers with the eyes of men

And they fall from grace

And they fall from light

Two hundred angels

Black rain from the clouds

And they fall from grace

And they fall from light

Blackened forsaken tears

Snake down my face

The high order of the Fomori

The sons of god, they never dream

Strangers with the eyes of men

  • Lament of the Watchers

[Faustus’ note: We have played 3 or so sessions of Undriel, of which only the last two sessions I have joined, and for reasons unrelated to the game I haven’t been in the mood to do write ups. I’m catching up now with this brief summary of the two sessions I joined].

Background

The party consists of five members:

  • Ichimusai, a Milesian warrior who does not speak. Milesians are a type of giant cat-people, much larger than humans and hailing from a strictly heirarchical and warlike society
  • Leantoir, a human druid, a great bear of a man from a nomadic and empoverished background, who combines magic and a very big stick
  • Idril, a Sidhe Draoi priest. Sidhe Draoi are a type of forest dwelling ancient that resembles a humanoid grown from a tree. Imagine an elf that mated with an Ent.
  • Fellan Braeduth, an Aes Sidhe assassin with a very short fuse. Aes Sidhe are a more classic type of elf, though they’re of dubious morality and probably more Drow-like than one should be comfortable with
  • Xenobia, a human noblewoman, unwilling necromancer, who uses her powers to investigate murders, deaths and other unsavoury deeds

The land of Undriel has just recovered from a shattering war with a race of evil outsider-like creatures called the Fomori, who come in many forms ranging from the beautiful to the monstrous. The party are veterans of that war, who have teamed up to travel across the war-ravaged lands to a regional city. They have stopped at the town of Crois Arald, which sits at a crossroads south of the city they are traveling towards, and is beset by many troubles. Seeing the chance for fame and fortune, the PCs have decided to help the citizens of the town to deal with some of their problems.

In the first session (which I did not attend) they stumbled on a gang of Fomori and slew them without negotiating, in an orgy of spectacular bloodshed (or so I am told). They kept one survivor, who they handed over to the town guard. The next two sessions begin here.

Interrogating the Fomori

The Fomori proved to be a most accomodating prisoner, willing to answer all our questions without trouble, although the interrogation still took half of the session because we were so stupid and indecisive. She revealed that the Fomori gang they had murdered was part of a splinter faction of Fomori who had opposed the war and were fleeing east to the Kingdom of Reynes, which is offering sanctuary to Fomori who opposed the war. They were heading to a rendezvous point with the rest of the tribe, which would then take some secret faerie route to cross the oceans to Reynes. Unfortunately the PCs had murdered her gang and she was unwilling to reveal the location of the rendezvous point. After much debate they agreed that she was being honest, and let her go.

Bandit and bear

Having “solved” the “problem” of the pacifist Fomori the group decided to take on a clearer problem, a gang of bandits preying on caravans on the western road into town. They set up a simple trap consisting of a wagon decorated as a noblewoman’s wagon, with Xenobia riding the front of the wagon as bait and the rest of them hiding in the back, while Fellan stalked ahead. This trap worked beautifully and the bandits, unable to resist such ripe and easy fruit, attacked without plan or sense. The resulting battle was a vicious bloodbath, with half the bandits falling in moments and the other half cut down in the forested slope as they fled, one having his soul ripped from his body to power Xenobia’s dark magic and the other being gutted and left to die slowly. (Apparently a slow death from disembowelment is more civilized than being rapidly drained of your life essence by a necromancer!) They then followed the path to the bandit’s camp and killed the rest of them in short order. While they were searching the camp they were disturbed by an enraged bear because of reasons; Leantoir tried to calm it but this failed, so then Ichimusai cut the bear in half with one stroke of his katana.

Ichimusai is large, and deadly, and very very quiet. Xenobia likes him.

Dark magic in secret places

The PCs rested a little before setting out on their next adventure, a quest to investigate a group of caves near the town that had recently been declared off limits on account of their being the source of a plague or curse of some kind. They traveled to the area and found the caves, which lay inside a narrow culvert cut into some hills. Stone outcrops just inside this culvert bore marks in Fomori script indicating it was death to enter; intrigued and unworried, they entered. Near the cave entrance they found the bodies of two Fomori, who bore the same markings on their clothes as the pacifist Fomori the group had previously mercilessly slaughtered. Xenobia investigated the bodies and found that they were occupied by a strange dark magic that would animate them as zombies, and was able to disable the magic just before they rose. They appeared to have been killed by black magic, the same kind of soul-stealing weapon that Xenobia uses and marker of necromancy.

Concerned that reanimated corpses might be immune to normal weapons, Xenobia enchanted some of the group’s weapons with coruscating aurorae of shadows, which would disrupt the animating magic of any corpses they encountered. Ichimusai and Leantoir initially resisted this magic but finally consented, but expressed extreme distaste at the slippery, slightly greasy cold feeling it imparted to their weapons and the strange whispering of dying children that they heard whenever they swung their weapons.

Xenobia shrugged, and they ventured further in. Here they found more Fomori from the same tribe, some of whom animated and attacked them. They cut them down and proceeded until they found an inner cave where a necromancer was engaged in a horrific ritual, stitching together the body parts of dead Fomori to make new monstrosities that he perhaps intended to turn into an army. They killed the necromancer and his minions, though this battle was tough and his powers frightening. Behind the ritual cave they found a smaller cave where the necromancer slept and studied, in which they found a strange orb hanging in space, which was obviously some kind of communication device.

Obviously something big was going on here. It appeared that the pacifist Fomori tribe had been meeting here, and the necromancer had killed them as they gathered, though they could not identify his purpose. Some dark plot was being executed here, and it was obviously being coordinated from somewhere far away by someone powerful.

Tensions with the Morrigan

When the party emerged, covered in blood, from the caves they found themselves facing a large squad of Knights of the Order of the Morrigan. This order are a kind of elite military force among the Fomori, and this band had been wandering the local area looking for remnants from the war. They were led by a big soldier called Rumiel, but in their midst was a sinister black-robed woman called Aredhel. When they encountered the PCs a strange, tense encounter unfolded, in which they seemed somehow altogether too interested in the manner of the Fomori’s deaths, and altogether too aware of what might have happened here. At the same time the PCs immediately distrusted this group of soldiers, and tried to angle the encounter so that no one from the group managed to get inside the caves and see the clues of necromancy. No one could quite say why but we all had a suspicion that this band was connected to the deaths of the Fomori. Aredhel also expressed an intense interest in any survivors of the group, and the PCs immediately suspected she was looking for any pacifist Fomori who might be drifting through the area. During this encounter they managed to organize a formal cremation of the dead Fomori, and also managed to escape with their lives. Unfortunately the Morrigan somehow found out about their past prisoner, and sent scouts to town to investigate further. So after they had parted company with this band of ne’er do wells, the PCs also decided to rush back to town to see what they could do to protect their erstwhile prisoner.

And on this strange and confused note the session ended.

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].

Two great characters on the edge of chaos

Two great characters on the edge of chaos

On the weekend I saw Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the new offering from JK Rowling. This movie is set in the Harry Potter world before the events of the Potter books, and I guess is intended to flesh out that world for a new generation of audiences. The movie itself is great and I strongly recommend seeing it, but the implications of some of its content for the broader world that Rowling has built, and for the viability of her vision of the world outside of the Potter stories, are dire. This movie raises some serious problems both about the structure of the world as it appears to have been envisaged, and also about the nature of the “good guys” in this world, and it rubs up against some of my complaints about the lack of imagination in modern fantasy. I’d like to talk a little about that and in doing so I’ll throw in a couple of minor spoilers, but first the movie itself.

This movie is set in New York in 1926, in the same world as the Harry Potter books. The main character, Newt Scamander, turns up just as a series of magical terrorist attacks are happening across Europe, blamed on some dude called Grindelwald. Scamander is carrying a suitcase full of magical creatures that he has collected for study, and by dint of a major series of accidents he ends up embroiled in a battle to save New York and a single child from a monster. In the process he gets caught up with a muggle (in America, a “no-maj”) called Jacob Kowalski, and two witches (sisters) called Tina and Queenie. he has to simultaneously protect his monsters from the US law that forbids all magical creatures (on pain of death apparently) and protect himself from the machinations of a sinister senior wizard called Graves. The result is a classic Rowlingesque rollicking adventure which in my opinion is in many ways superior to the Potter movies, primarily because it doesn’t involve children and doesn’t have the same weight of world-ending seriousness. It also lacks the stuffy public school atmosphere of those books, instead having a louche American roaring twenties atmosphere that makes it much more relaxed and fun. The setting, although completely different from the Potter stories, is seamless with them, and the movie manages to evoke the exoticism with which America was viewed by Brits back in the 1920s without deviating at all from the sense of the setting. In particular, the two women, Tina and Queenie, were genuinely exotic, in a very 1920s American way, and in my opinion Queenie in particular worked really well to separate the American setting from stuffy British Potter without in any way undermining the context of the original stories or this movie. The monsters were brilliant, either awe-inspiring (the Thunderbird, the Obscurus) or engagingly cute (the Niffler) and were true to the design principles and style of the original movies. Some of the interactions with them, especially the Niffler and the Thunderbird, were vintage Potter, and even if the movie had been in other ways second rate the rich scenes with the monsters would have saved it. But this movie is far from second rate: the action scenes are excellent, the pace is good, and the plot is a simple, coherent and believable story that comes to a quite well executed finale. It is internally consistent and doesn’t depend on the audience forgiving mistakes or suspending their disbelief, and has that feeling of a plot pared back to its essentials to make sure the viewer doesn’t have to do double takes or try to hold together a bunch of leaky ideas at once to accept the conclusion. It’s a big story but a tight, believable arc that holds the action together and keeps you engaged and enjoying it without thinking. It’s one of those movies which you know you would still have enjoyed even if the monsters were second rate – but they most definitely are not. The main characters are also great – Scamander, Queenie, Tina, the Niffler, and Graves are all excellent characters well acted. Scamander really comes across as the gentle well-meaning misfit that he is, as does Queenie, and Tina the slightly tragic investigator who hasn’t quite got it together. The only let down is the brief appearance of Johnny Depp at the end – I’m completely over Johnny Depp’s acting, though I used to like him, and I don’t want to see another one of his supposedly fresh and original but actually completely cookie-cutter eccentric performances outside of a Tim Burton makeover (which I won’t watch). I certainly don’t want to see it spoiling an actual decent movie. But besides his brief annoying cameo, everyone else was great. The movie has minor flaws, as most movies do, but they’re not worth even documenting. It’s great. See it. You will love it.

So what’s wrong with this movie? The first big flaw was the fact that this movie comes straight to the point about the magical administration ruling the parallel universe of witches and wizards in the Rowling setting: it’s straight-up fascist. Now I missed some of the Harry Potter books and movies (skipped the middle 77 and saw the underwhelming final two), but my impression was that in the modern era the magical administration is overtaken by a kind of military coup near the end and turns kind of nasty, but based on Fantastic Beasts it appears that the administration that was taken over by this supposedly nasty military emergency government was actually – well, not really any different to a military emergency government. Particularly striking was the ability of senior figures in the administration to summarily execute other wizards for minor crimes, without evidence or trial, to confiscate property and to invade people’s minds. Indeed, the person who gets the execution order is then put to death by one of her good friends in the administration, who seems to think the whole idea is fine, which suggests that there is a level of brainwashing going on in this organization that is up there with North Korea. Meanwhile this Grindelwald dude is running around the world trying to undermine the administration and blow the wizards’ cover and get them noticed by muggles – but when I see people being executed without trial by the wizard’s rulers I am not inclined to think he’s wrong. If it’s Rowling’s intention to flesh out the world of Harry Potter, she needs to be careful that she doesn’t flesh it out in a way that makes Voldemort seem like the good guy, because I was only a few minutes into this movie before I thought the forces of wizarding administration were the bad guys, and certainly halfway through I was assured of it. I should add that this seems to be a trend in movies recently, that the administrations of the “good guys” are way too evil to be good – I saw this also in the Bourne Legacy (awful movie, don’t bother) and pretty much any of the Avengers-type movies that I have been able to stir myself to watching. It’s really hard to convince myself to appreciate the good guys when the people they’re working for are, well, dictators and war criminals.

The other aspect of the movie that bothered me – and that dovetails with this fascist administration – is the callous difference between the wealth of wizards and the poverty of muggles. The movie starts with the no-maj, Kowalsky, going to a bank to get a loan to open a bakery. He needs a loan because he has no money, but the bank won’t give him one because he lacks collateral, and they don’t have infinite resources so they don’t want to risk some of their finite stock of cash on this dude with no money. This is classic scarcity economy stuff: nobody has enough resources. The bank dude points out to Kowalsky that there are machines that can produce a hundred doughnuts a minute, and Kowalsky replies by pointing out that his doughnuts are better because they’re hand made. Then halfway through the movie, Queenie bakes him a strudel that is better than anything he can make – and she does it in a moment, without touching it. Then at the end some wizards wave their wands and repair shattered and crushed buildings across New York[1] in a matter of minutes. We are repeatedly told that the wizards can’t allow their secret world to be discovered by muggles because this would spark a war – and you can see why. These wizards are sitting on power so great that they can rebuild shattered city blocks in a moment, and they’re hiding this power from their fellow citizens in a society that took years to build a single skyscraper. At the end of the movie Scamander leaves Kowalsky a suitcase full of silver eggs from one of his monsters, as collateral for his bakery loan – Scamander’s rubbish is worth more than anything Kowalsky owns. Yet these wizards and their fascist society refuse to reveal themselves to the normal people struggling all around them, for fear of starting a war.

They’re not the best people, are they? They could lower the veil, reveal themselves, have access to the institutions of a society of 3 billion people, and the cost for them would be that they might have to donate an afternoon a week repairing inequality and solving world hunger – but they are desperate to hide themselves from this society. It’s a deeply cynical view of who these people are – but these people are the people we’re meant to be sympathizing with. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I can’t. The only wizard who has anything good to say about this is Grindelwald, who wants to reveal the existence of wizards and make them deal with the human world. I think he kind of has a point, though he probably advocates slavery or something.

I don’t know where Rowling is going with this new series of stories – based on the first movie, it appears she’s going somewhere fun, which will be spoiled only by the presence of Johnny Depp – but if she doesn’t fix this little issue I can see it becoming increasingly difficult to paper over as she explores the context and social structures of Harry Potter’s world. I’m not convinced she can – Harry Potter, remember, is fundamentally a story about a boy who is born rich and receives everything he needs for nothing while those born poor struggle to get half of his benefits, even though they’re way better at what they do and work way harder – and although she’s probably a good enough story teller to get around it, for me this huge and glaring problem at the heart of the Potter world is going to only grow bigger as we see more of it. Harry Potter was a movie about the triumph of inherited wealth, in a class-based society (of the haves – mages – and the have nots – muggles – in the classically classist setting of England and public schools) and this movie is a story about the 1% – people so rich they can ignore the law of conservation of energy, and so idle and feckless that they refuse to share this power with the rest of society in case they might have to do a day’s work putting their powers to the service of those beneath them. But I am expected to side with the 1% in these movies. I don’t think I can do it for long.

But I could for this movie, which was fun. So watch it, enjoy the chaos and the sadness, and try not to think about the huge inequality at the heart of this fun and extravagant world.

 


fn1: Why do American movies love destroying their own cities? Is it a deep psychological scar?

 

Mushroom man on the spit!

Mushroom man on the spit!

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

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

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

The food chain, in the dungeon

The food chain, in the dungeon

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

Giant scorpion and mushroom man hot pot

Giant scorpion and mushroom man hot pot

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


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

Harder to beat than it looks

Harder to beat than it looks

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

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

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

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

To bring this post back to RPG-related issues:

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

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

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