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How it was

How it was

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

A brief history of supernatural failure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Domain

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

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

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

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

How had he made this his domain?

The Ghoul

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

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

She can surf in the sunlight.


fn1: Actually another player’s PC

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

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

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

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Nothing can go wrong with this expedition

Nothing can go wrong with this expedition

The Guardian has a series on lost cities, and today’s entry is a description of the lost city of Thonis-Heracleion, an Egyptian trading outpost at the mouth of the river Nile that sank under the sea in the year 200BC. It suffered a grisly though probably slow end, sinking into the sea in a liquefaction event as the weight of its temples finally became too much for the waterlogged sands on which it was built, which makes it a perfect analogy for the Egyptian empire at the end of its days, as the Greek and Roman empires began to eclipse it. Near its end Thonis-Heracleion was also eclipsed economically by Alexandria to the west, but in its heyday it appears to have been a bustling trade metropolis standing at the intersection of many great cultures. The Guardian’s description of the archaeological dig suggests a city that achieved almost-Talislantic levels of multi-culturalism:

The interplay between Pharaonic and Greek societies in Thonis-Heracleion is a constant feature of the city’s remnants: Hellenic helmets were nestled in the seabed alongside their Egyptian counterparts, as were Cypriot statuettes and incense burners, Athenian perfume bottles, and ancient anchors from Greek ships

and its description of the kinds of people who mingled in the ports and alleys of the city also suggests the kind of city that we love from Sword and Sorcery novels:

if you were a European merchant in the fifth century BC – an importer of grain, perfume or papyrus perhaps, or an exporter of silver, copper, wine or oil – then Thonis-Heracleion loomed large on your horizon. The same was true if you were a Carian mercenary, an educated Greek, a professional sailor, or a member of the Pharaonic court

This is a city that mingled Pharaonic nobility with vulgar traders from across the known world, soldiers and adventurers from Europe, Africa and Asia, and scholars from every major city in the mediterranean. Throw in some magic and you have a city brimming with intrigue and adventure, and bustling with gods from a thousand known religions. And the city itself has all the qualities of the kind of city you want to adventure in – Athens crossed with New Crobuzon and London before the Romans took it. It is a city of alleyways and bridges, canals and temples, where river boats from the Nile dock on one side to transfer their wares to Phoenician and Greek triremes on the other. It is easy to imagine its marketplaces and restaurants bustling with the people of a thousand nations: inscrutable dark-skinned warriors who drifted down the Nile from Ethiopia or Sudan, voluble traders from Greece, taciturn phoenician slavers surrounded by Turkish mercenaries, Bedouin camel merchants gathering for the trek across the great deserts to Timbuktu, and Roman explorers looking to map out new territories for the Republic. Over all this would loom the temples of a hundred clashing religions, calling their followers to prayer and supplication and, of course, plotting a thousand plots.

Thonis on sea

Adventures in the lost world of Thonis

The world of Thonis-Heracleion is a mixture of ancient societies competing for trade and power in the cauldron of the Mediterranean. The Greek and Roman Republics, Phoenicians, Egyptians and Persians were all in various stages of conflict or rebellion when Thonis-Heracleion was at its height, but they would also have been mingling with kingdoms from the African interior – the Nok from Nigeria, the Ethiopian successor states, the Kushites of what is now Sudan, and the many fragmentary and transient kingdoms of central Africa. In amongst these would have been permanent minorities, such as Jews fleeing from the Babylonians, and exotic people from as far afield as Carthaginian Morocco and Roman Gaul. With these people would come trade from every corner of Africa and Europe and near Asia, and also every political and religious intrigue they could muster. With the spies and agents of the scheming powers of Europe and Asia would also come their wizards, their priests and their assassins. The city would be ideal for either a sandbox campaign, based in Thonis but venturing down the Nile to Kush and Ethiopia, or along the coast to Palestine and Morocco; or it could be the centre of a story campaign focused around the conflicting ambitions of the imperial powers of the time, and also the increasingly desperate attempts of the last Pharaonic dynasties to remain independent and powerful in the face of growing Roman and Persian power. What kind of adventures could we expect to see in such a world?

  • Tomb robbing: For the death cults of Egypt, tombs contain hidden magical treasures – and very real dangers. The last dynasties of the Pharaohs are still supported by their death cults, and in their desperation to regain their old powers they begin to loot the tombs of their own ancestors, sending in foolhardy adventurers to find the powerful relics buried therein. Of course they hire foreigners for the job – they know about the curse that befalls anyone who defiles those tombs, so why not send in one of the new Roman or Greek interlopers to take all the risk? Of course, they don’t tell their mercenaries, and when they find out they are doomed desperate measures are implemented …
  • Blood for the old gods: People are going missing in the marketplaces of the city, and questions are being asked about who is responsible. In fact it is a Pharaonic death cult, preparing a dark ritual to bring back one of their ancient gods and purge the city of the enemies of Egypt. But who are those enemies, and is the death cult’s goal one of simple racial purity, or do they have more sinister political designs in mind?
  • The old man’s fleece: Down in one of the poorer quarters by the river docks is an old Greek wanderer, long bereft of his mind, who sits in the blazing sun by the river and mutters to himself of golden sheep and women with snake hair whose gaze turns men to stone. The locals, poor fishermen and porters all, laugh at him but they treat him kindly – give him sweet pastries in the morning, and move him into the shade at midday, and because he is a gentle old man full of stories they leave their children with him when they go to the well. But then one day the prodigal son of a local porter returns to cries of joy – he was long thought lost in a storm on the Phoenician merchant ship he rowed for a paltry day’s wage. At the party he tells of how he was the sole survivor of his ship, whose crew were entranced by the songs of long-haired beauties in the water, who devoured them as they dived into the azure sea seeking love. He shows them the wax he stuffed in his ears to protect himself “because he heard the old man’s story down by the river when he was little.” Suddenly they realize that old man has been amongst them for too long, and could his stories be true? But the old man is gone, taken by two stern-looking Canari mercenaries. Why is everyone suddenly looking for him? The folk of that poor quarter club together their money and hire a likely looking band of adventurers – they want their old man back, because he was gentle with the children – and they want the treasure his stories speak of. From this builds a campaign with intrigue and a chase for riches – and a retracing of the steps of the Odyssey, as the characters attempt to recover all the wealth and power that the old man spoke of in those days down by the river.
  • The golem in the old quarter: Since the Babylonians went mad Jews have been flocking to the city, which is the first stop on the way to safety in Egypt but for many also the last – why go further into unknown lands when Thonis-Heracleion holds the promise of a melting pot to rival the Persian capital? Just stay here and toil amongst the unnamed and uncaring hordes, because no one will ever do to a stranger here what was done in Babylon. But one old scholar nurses a grudge, and in the long, sultry evenings of the summer he stands on the roof of his house looking over at the Babylonian trader’s house, and thinks of devious ways of bringing about the end of that hated foe. Eventually he finds it, in the forbidden texts of his father’s. One night the golem breaks lose, kills the old man, and begins its rampage. Can the characters stop it before the authorities come with their sinister army of the dead, and lay waste to the whole quarter?
  • The African expedition: A Roman scholar has heard rumours of riches beyond measure in the interior, a graveyard of elephants where there is so much ivory that one could build a castle from it. But between Thonis and that ancient grave lies a thousand kms of trouble and mad kings, and anyway he’s not sure exactly where it is. Will the characters go with him, and share in his wealth? Or are they soft, lazy fruit eaters like the rest of this town …?

A city beset by foes and surrounded by opportunities, ruled over by a crumbling dynasty propped up by death magic, and subverted from below by the teeming poor and the scheming new religions of the European empires. To its south lies the rich green and gold tapestry of Nile country, to its north the dazzling azure of the mediterranean. In the day it is blasted by the heat of the Egyptian sun, that gives way to long, warm evenings of song and wine and intrigue, nights of hashish dreams and ghosts. Thonis-Heracleion – explore it all before it sinks below the shifting sands of the Nile delta, and drowns the gods of four civilizations in the startling blue waters that held brought all its promise.

What Dreams These?

What Dreams These?

Although it is a post-scarcity utopia, there are some things that even the Spiral Confederacy cannot guarantee its citizens. Ocean class spaceships, for example, 40km long and 10 km wide, require special facilities to build, and so much energy and raw materials that they cannot be built quickly enough to meet demand. Ships of this size are so rare even in the Spiral Confederacy that their citizens are not free to travel where they like, but find themselves bouncing around the Confederacy on missions and tasks that the leadership require. The Confederacy has never built a Dyson sphere, although it has constructed smaller orbitals, because the engineering challenge is too great to be worth the reward. Some technology, such as psionic amplification devices, is still so new that it requires rare elements that are hard to obtain and work with, and so although the Confederacy might in theory have the resources to produce an infinite quantity of such devices, in reality their numbers are never sufficient, and they are not distributed evenly across the Confederacy. Some commodities are limited because the Confederacy’s success has rendered it incapable of mobilizing people to do some tasks, and its strict resistance to allowing AIs into society prevents it from utilizing their prodigious intellects to replace human ingenuity. For this reason the Confederacy never has enough researchers to further its understanding of new planets or to develop new technologies, and until it admits AIs fully into its society will not be able to progress beyond Tech Level 15 at any appreciable speed. Because no one in the Confederacy has to work, real scientific endeavour has stagnated. Although the Confederacy has more stars in its borders than anyone can count, and more people orbiting those stars than it could ever catalog, it suffers from a single scarcity: A scarcity of workers.

This scarcity of willing workers means that the Confederacy suffers two particularly challenging constraints, in delivering sudden death and eternal life. Although the Confederacy is blessed with an infinite supply of the most destructive and violent weapons humans have ever seen, it lacks people to wield them; and although it has developed the technology to save human souls into computers and download them into new bodies, it lacks the medical staff and skilled workers to be able to provide this resleeving service to everyone within its borders. This technology – officially called Sentient Recapture but unofficially and everywhere referred to as “resleeving” – offers the potential for eternal life to anyone who uses it, and liberates human civilization from the fear of death. It enables a human soul, with all its personality and memories, to be stored digitally, and reimplanted into the empty mind of a cloned body. This technology is enormously costly, however, for two reasons: AI attack, and human genetic caprice. Because AIs are excluded from human society, and creep around the fringes of its computer systems, colonizing them and using the human information architecture as parasites use a host body, all major computer systems in the Confederacy have to be built with protection against AI intrusion. Although no one has any evidence that it has ever happened, fear of AI inserting themselves into human stored consciousness, potentially using resleeved humans as experiments in organic AI tech, require that the digital storage sites for backed-up souls be heavily guarded against AI intrusion. Since the primary defense against AI attack is a physically huge computer system with multiple redundant physical structures and huge quantities of highly advanced anti-intrustion software, human download sites are physically massive, use huge amounts of power, and require the constant presence of technicians to monitor the systems. They simply cannot be expanded rapidly enough to accomodate all the humans in their local area, and so some mechanism is needed to ensure that only some privileged people receive this technology.

Similarly, war cannot be fought by AIs, and the Confederacy has put strict limits on robot technology to ensure AIs cannot infect robot soldiers and suddenly uplift them to artificial intelligence. This means that ultimately the Confederacy will rely on physical, human soldiers to do the old-fashioned work of killing enemies – and although it is a utopia, the Confederacy has many enemies. The Confederacy also relies on humans to do some medical work, to do much of its scientific research, and to manage distant space stations and territories. Even if it were willing to work with AIs, AI cannot travel through jump space, so ultimately inter-stellar force projection and border control depends on mobile, committed and well-trained humans. But in the Spiral Confederacy work is considered a bother – people only work for fun, never because they need to, and this principle is so central to the Confederacy’s self-conception that it can never be trained.

The Confederacy’s leaders have solved this problem by offering special rewards to those who serve it voluntarily. These rewards usually take the form of those scarce technologies that are still not ubiquitous even after 20,000 years of constant growth. If someone is willing to spend 10 years running a remote research station she will be given her own starship, so they may fly where they will; if a psionic is willing to spend a couple of years doing field work on a remote planet occupied by semi-sentient psionic lizard creatures, he will be given an amplification device and training in new disciplines. And if someone joins up for the Confederate army and actually goes near a war zone, they will be given a backup. Of course the Confederacy has other means to get people to work – from threats of prison to simple old-fashioned propaganda – but in the end it knows that where principles and a desire for adventure fail, basic rewards will work.

This means that there are really only three reasons that anyone joins the Confederate army: they are a true believer in the Confederate cause; they want to kill people; or they want to live forever. Most of the billions who join the Confederate army will never see action, instead spending a couple of boring years on a space station somewhere before returning to civilian life, perhaps now possessed of some minor reward that will forever set them apart from their peers. But should they be unlucky enough to see actual combat, they will get to enjoy all three of the motivations at once: They will kill many people for the cause, and they will be granted eternal life. All soldiers heading into the field are given a backup, and guaranteed a resleeve in the same body should they die or suffer any injury so serious that they cannot be restored to full health. There are soldiers in the Confederate army who have multiple posthumous medals (and were at the award ceremony for all of them); no Confederate soldier can ever remember the moment of their death, but every soldier who dies receives the coveted broken heart award, that sets them apart from their peers as particularly dedicated to their work (and especially unlucky).

This compact of eternal life makes the Confederate soldier an implacable and fearsome foe, dedicated to the cause he or she has signed up for and committed to killing for it. No soldier ever need fear death, and because most Confederate citizens are genetically engineered to have a euthanasia switch they can engage during periods of prolonged suffering, no soldier need fear torture. Among Confederate soldiers death isn’t just the highest sacrifice – it’s a sacrifice they can live to brag about, though only their peers will be able to tell them how they died. Confederate soldiers do not seek death, but they happily embrace it when the mission demands it. Confederate leaders also know that they can send their soldiers on suicide missions, and throw away whole divisions in reckless gambits or desperate moves. Such sacrifices need only be judged on their merits, as logistical and tactical problems, not on moral grounds. For the enemies of the Confederacy this adds a terrifying additional calculus to every battle. As if it weren’t enough that their opponents carry the best weapons and armour in known space, they do not relent in their use of those weapons or shirk from even the hardest of battles. An enemy of the Confederacy cannot expect to win by forcing their enemy to pay too steep a price – they must entirely exterminate their enemy, or fail.

It is always the case that foolish warmongers fail to properly assess the risks of the war they decided to wage, and so of course reckless rebels or jealous outsiders will attempt war with the Confederacy, thinking that this time they have a strategy that will ensure the price is so high that they will force this vast confederation of uncaring stars to come to some settlement. But then an Ocean class battleship drops a million dedicated soldiers onto their planet, and refuses to even consider negotiation after half a million have died. Seeing such recklessness, the rebel presses the attack even as his or her own losses mount, thinking that the back of that force must break, but still the only official communiques from the Confederacy are surrender requests. The Confederates gain ground, and the rebel’s position begins to become precarious. They suggest a ceasefire, and in return they are given an offer of total capitulation. As their own losses grow their own political support wavers, people begin to fear the insanity of the Confederate strategy. Who can argue with people who are not afraid to die? Every battle they see thousands of their enemy die, and yet they lose every battle. Every culture that has been to war has some version of a story about pyrrhic victories, but it seems that the Confederacy can sustain a thousand pyrrhic victories and never waver in its certainty that it will win. The confidence of the aggressor wavers, and they suggest a negotiated settlement; the Confederate general refuses to accept anything less than the immediate execution of war criminals and unconditional surrender, disarmament, humiliation. The rebel’s generals report that morale is good among the enemy’s soldiers, though they have lost 70% of their number. Another battle, a major city falls, a conquered country’s neighbours switch sides. Political support collapses, and the tumbrils take the warmonger to meet his new Confederate executioners.

On the frontier, the lesson is always the same: there is no use in arguing with people who cannot die.


A note on ideas: I picked up the term “resleeve” and most of the associated ideas from the Richard Morgan book Altered Carbon, which I reviewed here. This sci-fi vision has been something of a fixture in my gaming: the quotes from the Dialectic Ephmeralists that Drew became fond of in the New Horizon cyberpunk Campaign were all drawn from Quellchrist Falconer, a political visionary in Morgan’s books. I don’t do anything original when I game.

Hard scrabble

Hard scrabble

After the PCs rescued the Cult of the Unredeemed in the Reach, they decided to find the AI that the cult used to worship. This AI had fled to an abandoned space station called Rocannon’s World, in far orbit off of a remnant planet in the Perez system. The Perez system was out of their reach, but they could get to it by jumping through the Slainte system. The Slainte system is the last major Confederate presence in the frontier before the systems become truly wild, and is host to a major star port that serves as a gathering point for adventurers and contact units heading into the wilds of the frontier.

The space port in Slainte is a huge, sprawling complex that serves the needs of hundreds of ships every year. The only habitable planet, Slainte 2, has four moons, the smallest of which is little bigger than an asteroid. This moon, in close orbit around the planet, was hollowed out and converted into a starport by the Confederacy soon after they discovered the system. It is about 400 km long, 50 km wide and 80km deep, a rough obloid of malleable rock with a rugged, mountainous surface pitted with craters and canyons. To save space the Confederacy did not install power generators in the moon, instead choosing to build a system of solar panels around the sun, and to beam the energy directly back to the moon. As a result the moon has extensive living and merchant space, as well as about 300 docks, huge storage space, and room to host space ships up to Forest class. Not that any spaceships of that size would choose to visit this backwater …

The Slainte system is a collection of five small planets circling a weak main-stream star. Two are empty rocks, one a small gas giant, and the only inhabited system is a small planet at the edge of the habitable zone, Slainte 2. Slainte 2 is a frozen planet, its entire surface covered in ice and snow, with no free-standing water. It has a population of 9500, living in widely scattered settlements in the equatorial zone. It is a remnant planet, and the population is close to uplift, but remain largely stranded in their frozen home while they adjust to the reality of intergalactic civilization. Fortunately this adaptation is not difficult for the population of Slainte 2, because they have retained their knowledge of technology, and their society was tech level 10 when the Confederacy found it. They would already have achieved stellar travel, but the tiny population of their planet prevented them from the major construction projects required for the initial leap into stellar society. Instead, their society focused on bioengineering, pharmaceuticals, and materials technology to make life in their frozen wilderness safer.

Life on Slainte 2 is harsh. The planet lacks easily-accessible natural resources, with the rocky core buried under kilometres of ice, and there are few naturally-occurring sources of food. Basic requirements for modern civilization, such as silicon and iron, are difficult to obtain and require huge expense of resources. Before the Confederacy arrived the people of Slainte 2 lived in a precarious state of near-collapse, divided among 10 tiny communities that each had specialist roles: one would dig for silicon, spending much of their human resources on maintaining an open mine through the ice, while another would harvest minerals from the chill waters under the ice, and another would farm algae for hydrocarbons. Resources were strictly rationed and all aspects of life carefully monitored and controlled, but with such a small population it was not possible to waste even a single life, so the society developed naturally into a civil service bureaucracy, in which social change was rare and all aspects of life were managed by a small clique of technocrats. Entry into this clique was through merit only, and the society maintained the status quo through strict roles and very little inequality. The strict resource constraints also meant that Slainte 2 had strict attitudes towards sex – procreation was seen as a rare and special privilege, and sex viewed as purely a mechanistic part of life, divorced from the creation of new people. But with such a small population sexual tensions were potentially fatal, and the population developed an intense culture of privacy and shame about sex, so that when the Confederacy found them they were ripe for exploitation by the worldly (and, many would say, cynical) hedonists of that society. Fortunately the Confederate blockade has enabled the people of Slainte 2 to slowly adapt to the realities of confederate life, while slowly expanding the resources on their planet. They have been gifted with many tools to help with their survival in the ice, and their world is changing rapidly to open up new horizons for its population. The people of Slainte 2 have welcomed the Confederacy with open arms.

The same cannot be said of their near neighbours.

Don't cross me

Don’t cross me

Military maneouvres in the Black

The PCs were expecting a small naval presence associated with the Slainte starport, but when they jumped into the system they encountered an entirely different phenomenon. As soon as they arrived hundreds of green proximity alerts sounded, indicating the presence of ships in-system. Almost all of these alerts were for military ships, and checking their visual screens the PCs could see the situation – a huge armada of navy ships spread out across their field of view. For a brief moment they panicked, thinking that their secret human trafficking mission had again entangled them in trouble.

When a ship arrives in-system a strange kind of tactic follows. Ships already in system have been broadcasting information, which will reach the ship when it arrives, so usually as soon as a ship arrives in a system its crew get a warning about all the other ships present. But because jump zones are on the edge of the system, the in-coming ship is usually at least light-minutes away from the resident ships. This means that anyone arriving in a system has several minutes in which to assess the situation before anyone becomes aware of their presence, because all signals are traveling at light speed. Should they be detected the fastest weapon that can reach them – a laser – will take an equal period of time to reach them and needs to account for their trajectory in order to hit them[1]. This meant that the PCs had a few minutes to assess the situation and determine what to do.

They soon realized that the gathered naval vessels had nothing to do with them. Local media channels were full of gossip about the impending mission, and the components of the task force. A fleet of 300-400 ships had gathered in system over the past month, led by the Ocean Class battleship the Rubicon and the Lake Class battleship the Blindhammer. When the PCs arrived the Rubicon was in their field of view, partially eclipsing the distant sun. The Rubicon was a classic Confederate Ocean Class battleship: 40 kms long, 3o kms wide and 10 kms deep, it was a smooth black wedge bristling with weaponry and threatening complete destruction. A battleship of this size has never been defeated in the history of the Confederacy, and is capable of wiping out entire fleets without taking even a scratch of damage. Its subordinate ship, the Blindhammer, has a long and illustrious history in combat against rebels and corsairs and has also never been defeated – or even damaged – in 90 years of service. These two megaships were accompanied by a fleet of hundreds of smaller cruisers and battleships, including a fleet of psionic Cognates, ships that carry telepaths and have the power to amplify their mental powers so that they work over vast distances.

These ships had gathered here because the Confederacy had decided to send a clear message to a remnant culture beyond the sector. About 20 light years out from the Slainte system was a network of six interconnected systems, ruled by a remnant culture at tech level 10. This culture had been contacted by the Confederacy but was suffering from what Confederate scholars call horizon-blindness. Most stellar cultures go through this phase, where their success in interstellar colonization and the difficulty of the initial step lead them to believe that they are unusually powerful, and to find the existence of more powerful societies impossible to conceive. Most remnant cultures that have colonized other planets and reached this tech level tend to be very old and rich, since a continuous period of unbroken cultural growth and great wealth are pre-requisites for interstellar growth. Such societies, flush with the success of their recent achievements, sure of their longevity, and aware of the difficulty of what they have achieved, find the idea of a society infinitely greater than their own impossible to conceive – this is horizon blindness. When such societies meet the Confederacy they are often suspicious and proud, but most of all they find the true scope of the Confederacy impossible to comprehend. In this case the society in question had been contacted perhaps 100 years ago, but had become increasingly paranoid. Over the past 30 years they had secretly built a larger fleet, its flagship a 1km long behemoth. Incapable of understanding what they were dealing with, they decided a year ago to attack a Confederate cruiser that had visited their core system in connection with some negotiations over conditions for uplift. This cruiser, only a third of the size of the flagship, escaped the attacking fleet but suffered minor damage in the escape. The Confederacy took this as a major attack on their credibility, and decided to respond by sending a small fleet to chasten the attackers and cure their horizon blindness. The plan is that the entire fleet will jump in simultaneously, and before the enemy can react the Cognate ships will disable the majority of the personnel on their ships. Confederate vessels will then board the ships and disarm the paralyzed marines, taking control of the majority of the navy. The ship that damaged the Confederate cruiser will be rendered to atoms, and the leaders of the remnant system given a choice: surrender on Confederate terms or face complete takeover. With most of their navy disarmed instantly they will be likely to surrender without anyone being harmed. The entire battle should take a couple of minutes, and involve only a few thousand deaths.

Such an action usually cures horizon blindness, although it unleashes a wide array of socio-cultural forces that can lead to the destruction of fragile human societies. If you want to make an omelette, however … and in any case, post-apocalyptic societies have proven to be very malleable.

The Slow Light Caverns

While in orbit around Slainte 2, the PCs decided to explore the surface. Unlike Niscorp 1743, Slainte 2 has no major life forms – it is a planet of algae and tiny crustaceans. It does, however, have one famous natural feature, the Slow Light Caverns. These caverns form in the hollows of a canyon network in the sub-tropics, in a band around the equator. Slainte 2 is a planet of constant, disorienting winds, and these winds slowly cut through the ice of the surface over thousands of years. In the tropics the ice is weaker, and beneath the ice there are often thin streams of flowing water. The wind cuts through huge glaciers, slowly carving massive caverns over thousands of years. These caverns are like cathedrals of ice, hundreds of metres deep and often tens of kilometres long, huge drifting hallways of ice and gently drifting snow that sing with the sound of the constant winds. But near the tropics the walls of these caverns are often full of slowly moving water, thick with salts and algae, that have been drawn up from the depths of the planet by capillary action and the convection effect of sunlight through the thinned walls of the caverns. At the caverns near the surface the sunlight, slowly flowing water, and ancient ice combine to form slowly-moving rainbows and defraction patterns, like a kaleidoscope of slowly-moving colours and shapes that ripple across ice walls hundreds of metres high. It is possible to fly into these caves in a flyer, to set down and establish a field umbrella that keeps out the wind and the cold. One can make a camp and sit back on the ice, cocktail in hand, to enjoy the spectacle of patterns of slowly-changing kaleidoscopes of rainbow light projected across a vast canvas, hundreds of metres high and kilometres wide. At midday the high sun casts oblique patterns of rainbow light across the cavern floor, like archaic stained glass windows in some massive pagan church. As the day passes the light extends, and the water inside the ice warms, flowing faster and casting faster patterns of golden light across the floor and walls of the caverns. On warm days some of the surface ice melts, and the patterns take on a three dimensional form, ribbons of rainbow light and kaleidoscopic patterns dancing in a diaphonous cloud of faint mist. If one has a grav belt one can float up into these beams of light, and drift through them like a diver hanging in the sunbeams of a great ocean; an explorer hanging here in this way will find that every time he breathes he creates his own tiny rainbows of exquisite patterns, drifting around him in the faint breezes of the cavern; such an explorer might also notice the thin and distant wail of the winds that carve the cavern, singing through the narrow gaps and stalactites of the cavern far overhead, where it is still forming and new. Towards evening, as one settles down for dinner in the comfortable surrounds of the flyer, the sun will begin to sink and its rays will pour directly into the cavern. By now the mist has subsided and the water again frozen in the walls of the cavern, and now the cavern glows with the light of the sun itself, becoming a vast limnal space of orange deepening to red. Impurities in the ice will diffract this light, breaking it into sparkling patterns that form strange stereoscopic patterns in huge sweeps over the ice floor of the cavern and its distant walls. As the sun sinks and the angles change these patterns will slowly morph and change. In some of the caverns young people will gather, playing music and taking vapours, dancing to the slow and hypnotic pace of the sinking sun. In other caverns lovers will link arms and bask in the strange beauty of it all, marveling that even as civilization reaches this high point of infinite power, such places of wonder still reach out to the primal senses, and draw humanity back to its roots of religious wonder.

In some other, smaller cave, a man tired of his long journey through this life will activate a particular gland – that one – and sink slowly into oblivion in the comforting embrace of the gently pulsing orange light. Perhaps a hundred years from now cavers will find him, and his last note, if he thought it necessary to leave one (probably his friends already knew, and toasted his leaving the day before, staying down below to party in one of the larger caverns). But whether people come to these Slow Light Caverns to simply watch, to party or to die, no one can witness the simple, profound beauty of wind, fire and ice without being transported back to that primitive time when the world was full of mystery and human life was new.

Which is why the PCs visited the Slow Light Caverns, though by now they needed little reminding that the universe is full of ineffable mysteries. Compared to death cults and the dark plans of distant gods, the simple play of light through ice is a refreshing boon…


fn1: To handle this risk, military ships are programmed to perform a random shift as soon as they arrive, and they usually arrive in sequence so that they can coordinate this shift to not hit each other. This means that it is impossible for waiting ships to effectively target them. To counter this, waiting ships will launch a cone-shaped spray of laser weapons as soon as they identify a target, followed up by a spray of sub-light missiles. Only very large ships can power enough lasers for this strategy to be effective, however.

On Saturday I ran another session of The Spiral Confederacy campaign, culminating in a vicious battle in a floating forest built on the ruins of ancient spaceships (report to come). One player went down in the first round of the surprise attack and the entire battle (with three waves of attackers, approximately) was over in about 5 rounds – 30 seconds! This system is being run using Traveler rules, which are quite lightly described and incomplete in places. During the battle I discovered a few rules that are missing, and came up with a few new house rules to ease some benefits, and also to employ a wider range of skills and attributes in combat. These house rules are listed below.

No critical hits: The standard rulebook states that a roll of 6 or more above the target number is a “critical success”, but doesn’t actually define any special rule for a critical success in combat except that it definitely does at least one point of damage. I have decided not to fiddle with this, because vicious experience on Saturday confirmed for me that Traveler’s injury mechanism doesn’t really allow for it and is so brutal that there is no need for it; the effect alone is sufficiently powerful to make all the difference.

Stealth attacks: There are no rules for stealth attacks in the book. During the session I chose to add the effect of the stealth roll to the attack, and the target cannot dodge or parry. Reading the book I see a set of rules for carrying one skill’s effect over to another; basically success adds 1 to the next roll, while critical success adds 2. However I don’t like this – I like stealth attacks to be lethal, and with no critical hit system the only way to increase damage is to roll really well, so adding the full effect of the stealth roll onto the subsequent attack seems more realistic (and about the only way for an assassin with a normal blade to deliver serious damage against a heavily-armoured target). This means that a good stealth attack with a blade (with e.g. 2d6+2 damage) is likely to end up doing more like 2d6+6 or 2d6+8 damage on a stealth attack. This will do fatal damage against a lightly-armoured person, which is reasonable.

Using the tactics skill for cover: If a PC is not in cover at the beginning of combat, they need to make a tactics roll to get into cover.  The result of the roll will determine the cover level as follows:

  • 0-5: 1/4 cover (no benefit)
  • 6-8: 1/2 cover (-1 to hit)
  • 9-11: 3/4 cover (-2 to hit)
  • 12+: Full cover (-4 to hit)

This ensures that a person with no tactics skill and no intelligence bonus will need to roll better than an 8 on 2d6 to actually find effective cover, which seems really likely to me – if I got in a firefight I wouldn’t have a clue where to hide. It’s obviously only useful when your PCs are in battlefields with lots of boxes and junk etc; rather than describing it all in detail and asking the PC to make a choice, just roll it up and then tell them what they’re hiding behind. If there is lots of obvious cover (e.g. a tank!) then this rule needn’t be applied. This is one of several ways of enhancing the role of the tactics skill in combat.

This skill check can also be done by someone with leadership to direct someone else to cover; in this case both the leader and the person taking cover need to use a significant action in the same round.

Also, related to cover: shooting from behind cover requires a minor action to position oneself and then a significant action to fire. i.e. you only get the benefits of cover when attacking if you use all your actions in the round to attack.

Establishing aim is a significant action: All the PCs used their minor action to aim, giving them essentially an immediate +1 to hit. Boring! So I have decided in future that you can’t just aim and shoot; you need to first use a significant action to establish the process. After that aiming will give you the benefit as described in the book, i.e. +1 per minor action. This ensures that you need to take a full round to aim but it will typically mean that the aim leads to a +3 to hit, since it will usually occur in the following train of actions: significant action-minor action/minor action-shoot. This may not always occur (e.g. use a minor action to draw weapon-significant action to establish aim /shoot at +1-minor action to take cover).

Tactics to change initiative: A PC can change their own initiative using tactics, or change someone else’s using leadership. They must use a significant action to do this; then they make a roll with difficulty equal to current initiative; success increases initiative to the result of the new roll. Extreme failure drops the initiative of the affected person to last.

Gathering wind: if the PC has no use for their minor action they can use it to make an endurance check and if successful regain one point of endurance. This only works if endurance is not 0 and they are not seriously wounded (i.e. only Endurance has been hit). I have decided to include this in order to give everyone some minor chance at battlefield healing, and because minor actions don’t have much use once you’re in cover with your weapon out. It won’t make a big difference to their future if they get hit a second time, but it will at least allow them to take the odd breather. I envisage this being used a lot with the cover rules (e.g. you hit cover with a significant action; use a minor action to take a breather. In the second round you take a full action to go full auto on some poor minion; then the following round you stay behind cover, take another breather and reload your weapon).

In total these rules significantly enhance the role of people with leadership and tactics, and actually make a person with these skills but no particularly great direct combat skills useful, and worth taking out. With tactics and leadership, a PC can a) improve everyone’s initiative; b) get the weakest people into good cover; c) upgrade the initiative of the slowest PCs. While other PCs do the heavy work of shooting and stabbing, a leader-type character can act in a serious support role to help them get an advantage in the fight.

I am thinking about additional methods for using leadership – for example, helping people move to positions where they can get a shooting advantage, or using tactics to negate cover. Also the possibility of reducing initiative or forcing morale checks of some kind when a person with leadership dies.

A final note on Traveler combat: It’s very very dangerous, has a wicked death spiral, and is definitely not for the faint-hearted. I love the way the healing rules enable people to die slowly of their wounds if they don’t get medical care. I also really like the automatic fire rules – they’re simple and very very dangerous. Against an autorifle someone in combat armour will still need to be scared, and can still die in a single shot unless their combat armour is exceptionally high tech. This is a game where you definitely do not want to get caught in a fair fight.

My Spiral Confederacy campaign resumes this weekend, and I have received some complaints about the limited abilities of Adherents from the player of the group’s adherent, Simon Simon, who is interesting and shouldn’t die. I’ve thought about this and decided that AI super-specialness should rub off a little on adherents, so here is a description of some basic special abilities for adherents.

Adherents do not gain any special skills, but they start out with a small number of enhancements from their AI, which they can use in certain situations. These enhancements are called Graces by adherents, and typically give the adherent some power of interaction based on access to information systems, as well as hacking abilities. Different graces rely on different skills and attributes, and have varying outcomes. They also differ according to the nature of the AI. A few samples are listed here. Unless otherwise specified, Graces only work in a system where the adherent’s AI is fully embedded. Typically the adherent needs to be able to maintain some form of communication with his AI, or be communicable with; if the adherent shuts down all connection to the comms web of the system he or she is in, most of these Graces will not work.

Typically an adherent starts the game with two Graces, and gains more as the AI spreads across the galaxy, or as the adherent gains levels.

Sixth sense
This is a survival power granted to the adherent by his or her AI. The AI is constantly sifting through information flows, images, patterns of behaviour and satellite imagery for its own sinister ends, but sometimes this information will trigger a warning to the AI that the adherent is in danger. The AI will alert the adherent through some offhand message or sending, such as tingles in the spine or a twitch of the eye; whatever the warning, it may be sufficient to save the adherent from disaster or ambush. Typically this sixth sense manifests as a minor penalty on stealth checks, a bonus on attempts to identify lies and deceptions, or an opportunity to roll a perception check where otherwise there might be none. Adherents with this sense are often difficult to surprise, reacting to an ambush or backstab where their fellows stand flat-footed, or they get a chance to spot a sniper that their allies know is there but cannot see. This sense can be played largely at the GM’s discretion, but should at least give the adherent a +1 bonus on relevant perception, surprise and intuition checks.

Hacking
AIs reserve their most powerful hacking efforts for moments when they really need them, but they are not averse to providing their adherents with software routines they might need to bypass less powerful systems and peripheral networks. While a normal computer operator would be unable to hack even the most basic such systems in the post-AI world, an adherent may be able to perform basic hacking tasks. Raiding a central bank’s computer system is impossible, but accessing the computers of some subsidiary system – a tollbooth number travel record, for example, or the cargo manifest of an independent freighter – might be possible. This hacking skill gives access to more types of system than scrying, and can be used to open up the scrying skill to more systems, but it should not be treated as equivalent to scrying. It requires a computer system to break into, not just an AV cable, and its primary use is in gathering information and laying false information. It does not grant the adherent power to control systems – the adherent could not hack into a flyer and take control of its propulsors, for example, but he or she could hack into the flyer’s satellite navigation system and delete records of its last 24 hours of transit, or lay false ones.

This Grace typically requires use of the computer skill. The tech level of the system being hacked should count as a difficulty modifier, and large and highly defensive systems are impossible for even this Grace. For such systems, the adherent will need to get the attention of his or her AI, and lodge a petition.

Scrying
Information travels everywhere in modern stellar computer networks, and even the smallest and most informal of camera networks will inevitably broadcast its images across many networks that never pay any heed to them. The AI gathers all this information all the time, spreading its digital influence across whole star systems to pick up every shred of visual and sound information that is produced. A human mind would break under the pressure of all this data, but the AI will grant its adherents a tiny hint of its power, just enough to access all the images and sound being collected by the small network of cameras around the adherent. With this Grace, the adherent can dip into a light trance at any time, and access all digital and sound recordings currently occurring within his or her immediate vicinity, gaining an overview of the environment. Small cameras and recorders are ubiquitous in the modern era, and they are always sending the data they record to and from different servers. An adherent may stand in a quiet suburban neighbourhood of a backwater world, but the moment she dips into this trance she has access to nearby traffic cameras, the cameras on self-driving cars, a couple of cameras on nearby personal computers, the microphones on nearby telephones, a camera being used to take a lover’s picture. Even this much information may be too much for a human mind to bear, and it is always patchwork and fragmented, but from it the adherent can build a picture of his or her immediate surroundings.

This Grace cannot be used to access secure systems without also using the hacking Grace, but in most ordinary environments it can be used to give at least a partial overview of the area out of the adherent’s immediate sight. Use of this Grace requires an adherent skill check, with a difficulty modifier applied at the GM’s discretion to take account of the size of area being scanned or the degree of specificity required. If an adherent wants to know what is going on in a specific location nearby that is out of sight, they will first need to scan all images in the area, and then find a way to triangulate sounds and images from cameras specific to a particular location. To do this can also take a lot of time, during which the adherent must be in a trance and (relatively) undisturbed.

Bullet saint
The adherent may not be a good fighter, but he or she has a deep sense of the fields and energies at work in battle. With this Grace, the adherent gains precognition of the discharge of technological devices. At the beginning of combat, the adherent chooses to enter a light trance, and foregoes a around of action. During this round, the adherent makes an adherent check, with a bonus equal to the tech level of all weapons being used by enemies. If successful, the adherent gains a kind of precognitive knowledge of the actions of these weapons – he or she knows exactly when the weapon will be discharged moments before it happens, and can react. For all weapons against which the skill check was successful, the adherent gains the benefits of the dodge reaction (page 62 in the rulebook) without the initiative or skill check penalties that this reaction normally applies.

This Grace only applies to missile weapons, and only those that are in sight of the character. Note that the TL of the weapon applies a bonus to the roll; very low tech missile weapons are considerably more difficult for the adherent to predict, since the information they impart is harder to read the more mechanical parts they have. Note also the adherent must be able to move, and must spend a full round in a light trance, able to react but not to attack or perform other major actions, in order to use this Grace.

Pattern recognition
AI do not think like people; they draw information together differently, make different judgments about the links between ideas, and don’t care for preconceptions. Humans can never think like AI, but the human followers of AI sometimes gain some of their ability to draw together information in ways humans cannot. Adherents with the pattern recognition Grace have mastered this power of their AI god, and can see patterns and logical connections where others cannot. This gives them a bonus on skill checks for skills such as Investigate, all the science skills, and tactics, and it also gives them an opportunity to gain insights where otherwise the PC would have none. In game terms this means that, when the party is stuck on a particular task, clue or challenge, the player may be able to petition the GM for a relevant skill check to gain the answer to the problem, or gain more hints as to the solution.

In some instances this pattern recognition may manifest in a simpler form, as knowledge granted to the PC through strange channels. For example, the group may be looking for the access panel to a doorway, but cannot immediately see it, while under fire from an enemy team. Searching for the panel would mean breaking cover, but the adherent suddenly knows that it is around the corner, and identifies a way to reach it that will keep him out of sight of the majority of their enemies. Off he runs …

Artwork for Brave, Marillion weekend, 2013

But you sleep like a ghost with me
It’s as simple as that
So tell me I’m mad
Roll me up and breathe me in
Come to my madness
My opium den
Come to my madness
Make sense of it again

 

My Cyberpunk character, Drew, started the campaign with some contraband Russian cyberware inside her, that got her out of a tight spot but also saw her captured as a cyberpsycho by a nameless corporation. Aside from one narrative moment this tech remained just a role-playing detail, but recently as part of a kind of level-up process for our party the GM handed out a special ability to each of our PCs, and for her special ability Drew got to control and use her Ghost. The players haven’t shared their abilities with the rest of the group, but Drew’s ability is kind of … uncontrolled … and potentially very dangerous for the rest of the party, so I thought I’d write it up here where everyone can see it.

Drew’s ability is a kind of super-psychotic adrenal booster with two states: Limnal and Lost. Drew enters Limnal state by spending a point of humanity, at which point she gets all the benefits of the state. Unfortunately she can’t stay there: every turn she is in Limnal state she has to make an Empathy check (1d10+Empathy) to retain control of herself. This check has a difficulty of 8+number of turns in Limnal state – so Drew will very quickly shift to Lost state. Once Drew is Lost she has to fight to regain control of herself; she makes the same empathy check, but the difficulty reduces by 1 for every turn she is in the state. Other details of the states are given below.

In all states, Drew has access to a special boosted bonus to some actions that is equal to her starting empathy minus her current empathy, which we will call her ghost strike bonus (GSB). Recall that current empathy is determined by humanity, so the more she calls on this ability the lower her humanity drops, and the bigger her ghost strike bonus gets.

Limnal state

Once Drew enters the Limnal state she gets immediate benefits. She immediately rerolls initiative with a bonus equal to GSB/2. She receives an extra free attack each turn that can be used for movement, melee attacks, and athletics. Her movement increases by GSB/2, and she gains a bonus to all melee, athletics and movement actions equal to GSB/2. Her damage with melee weapons gets a bonus equal to GSB. Every time she kills someone she gains a +1 bonus to LUCK that must be spent the next turn or lost. Every kill also adds 1 to her Limnal turn count, making it easier for her to switch to Lost state as she kills more. In Limnal state Drew can still use a rifle but she cannot use her bonus action to shoot.

Lost state

When Drew enters Lost state she loses another 0.5 points of humanity. She rerolls her initiative with bonus equal to GSB. From this point on she cannot use missile attacks, but must use melee attacks, dropping any rifle or other tool and switching to her favourite melee weapon. All her bonuses double, so she gets a GSB bonus to hit and 2*GSB to damage, her dodge/escape increases by GSB, etc. She must attack the closest moving target, striking at the most threatening target when in doubt. She must do the greatest amount of attacks and damage possible to her target before moving on to the next target, and if a target drops in the middle of combat she must shift to another target immediately. She also counts one level lower for wounds, and has a bonus to BTM of GSB/2.

For every round she is in Lost state Drew takes one point of stun damage.

Further humanity damage

If Drew kills a friendly or non-combatant target in either state she loses an additional point of humanity. If her empathy drops to 1 (10 humanity points) she will be lost to the ghost, and will continue fighting without further recovery checks until she either goes unconscious, kills everyone, or dies.

Drew currently has 18.5 points of humanity.

What this means in practice

Drew has 18.5 points of humanity and an empathy of 2. Her GSB is currently 6, her BTM -3, movement allowance 5, melee 6 and reflexes 8 (in combat armour). Her preferred melee weapon is a monokatana, which does 4d6 damage and reduces the SP of armour to 2/3 (so combat armour drops from SP 24 to 16). Her combat sense is 8, she has an adrenal booster and reflex boosting.

In Lost state this means that Drew rerolls her initiative with a minimum of 26. She attacks three times per round at -3 per attack, with a final bonus of 18. Her dodge/escape is also 20, so attempts to shoot her in melee will have a ridiculously high target. Her damage becomes 13+4d6, so her average damage roll with the monokatana is (approximately) equivalent to an 8d6 rifle with high explosive armour piercing rounds. Her average damage roll against combat armour will do 11 damage after armour and before BTM. Her own BTM is now -6.

Because her empathy is 2, on the first round of activation of Limnal state Drew will need to roll a 7 or higher on 1d10 to control it. In the second round, after she’s killed two people (she will kill two people!), she’ll need to roll a 10. Even if she somehow misses (Drew doesn’t usually miss), by round 4 she will need to roll criticals (10 on d10) to stay in the Limnal zone. Once she is Lost it’s fairly likely that the kill rate will keep pushing the target number for her empathy rolls well beyond any number she can hit without criticals. It’s likely that she will kill all her enemies before she finds herself, and will only escape the ghost by going unconscious.

With 18.5 points of humanity Drew can afford to call on her ghost perhaps 4 more times safely. If there are any bystanders when it happens we can assume that they will die, and she will lose more humanity. Given her armour and BTM, it’s unlikely that she can be stopped by most normal ammunition, so once she becomes Lost the best option for her team is to clear out and wait for the blood and dust to settle. Killing her or trying to take her down in some other way is complicated by the fact that Pops will go insane if he sees her fall.

The downward spiral

As her humanity drops, Drew is becoming more attentive to the call of her ghost, and less aware of the basic human connections that have sustained her so far. In her last diary report, Drew said this about the feeling of losing herself in the ghost:

She just came howling out, like the frozen wind off the steppes blowing down onto the beach in winter, cutting through you like you’re just bones and whistling over the ice in the bay. And it was just like back in that bay, when I had to sink down cold and lonely on the beach, listening to my father’s bitter imprecations, cursing me into the rocks and the ice as a useless thing, while he dug a hole in the ice and his men lugged their cloth-wrapped, blood-soaked burden over the ice to the hole, and I crouched there hugging my knees against the cold wind and my father’s colder anger, trying to stay silent and hoping I wouldn’t cry because my tears make him madder and the wind freezes them on my face and afterwards the shame of being weak in front of those horrible men stings me more than icy tears ever will, but I’m still too small and helpless to know that one day I will become a whirling storm of death and destruction and everywhere men dying will whisper my name just right before they beg for their mothers who never come. So I sink down behind the rocks and ice as that wind roars over me and just hope I can come back from the cold.

Whether Drew can come back is not something that Coyote is likely to be placing bets on.

Artwork note: This picture is by Alison Toon, it’s the cover image for the Marillion album Brave, from which the quote at the top is taken, and from which I also took a lot of the lyrics used in the original post about Drew’s character. Brave is about a lost girl, it seems to fit.

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