RPG aids

Kill them along the way, but count your bullets, for there are more worthy targets

– The Falcon, dialectical ephemeralist revolutionary, talking about lackeys

Our recent train heist involved a serious number of low-ranked enemies, the full complement of which hasn’t been described yet (Drew’s breathless reports take her a lot of time to write, even if they might seem like a rant she spat out over the phone to a friend in 10 minutes). During the latter part of this battle (after Bob Millet got naked) we had five PCs taking on 16 soldiers in a rather drawn out and exhausting gun battle, which was only a taster for the main event. We soon discovered that this makes battles slow and exhausting, and you spend a lot of time resolving rules for people who, though potentially fatal, are largely just going to serve to wear you down a bit. Cyberpunk doesn’t have any special rules for handling this, so you just have a huge number of different people making complex shots, rolling hit locations, doing damage, keeping track of armour, etc. Cyberpunk doesn’t really have a style that is suited for minions in the sense that e.g. Warhammer 3 or Iron Kingdoms have them, but we often find ourselves dealing with gangers, grunts or low-level cannon fodder who really should be treated as just that.

We have also begun to run up against the problem of the nihilistic arms race that I described a long time ago. We have good armour and we’re dangerous, so if our GM wants to put in enemies who can kill us – or even just hurt us – he needs to give them powerful weapons that he really doesn’t want our team to get. Not only does this really up the lethality of every adventure, but when we win we will get those weapons. Drew has been salivating over the possibility of getting a military-grade sniper’s rifle, that does 7d10 or 9d10 damage and gives her a +5 to hit – she can take down anything with that. Our GM obviously wants to stop us getting that, but if he wants to stop us he needs to deploy some serious grade stuff against us. So we also need to find a way to derail this arms race.

Rules for minions offer an opportunity to smooth down combat and slow down the arms race.

The basic principle of the lackey

The lackey is the Cyberpunk version of a minion or mook in fantasy RPGs. They turn up in groups, armed with the kind of military cast-off stuff that no PC wants, and they aren’t individually dangerous but if you don’t mow them down they’ll take a piece out of you. They serve to distract team members while the big boss is setting up the rocket launcher, or the real solos are mainlining their combat drugs and getting ready to wade in. You could probably ignore them because you can tell each of them is a scrawny boosterhead, but en masse they might just get a lucky hit.

The way this works in cyberpunk is simple. Lackeys come with base stats for attacks, damage and armour, but they get a +1 to hit and +1 die of damage (up to the number of dice their weapon delivers) for every additional member of the group. To further simplify things, they don’t have hit locations – their bodies are a single routine armour type. They also don’t have a Body Type Modifier (BTM) or hit points: for every four points of damage you do over armour, one lackey gets it in the neck. They don’t roll skill checks for e.g. awareness/notice, dodge/escape or other challenged actions, but have a simple single difficulty level for all actions against them. Thus, hitting them involves a single attack roll followed by a single damage roll, and then a count. They also don’t vary their attack type except for narrative fun – you don’t worry about giving them three shot bursts or single shots or whatever, because they just make a single attack each round. The sole exception to this is if the GM decides to give them grenades or have them lay down suppressive fire – in the former case the standard to hit  rule for weapons applies, while in the latter case anyone who fails to avoid the suppressive fire simply takes damage equal to the level of the lackey multiplied by the number of them firing, minus BTM (armour doesn’t apply). This damage doesn’t hit any particular location – the lackeys are firing huge numbers of bullets so it is spread evenly over many areas. High level lackeys in large groups might deliver enough damage to knock a solo down, but they won’t take out any of her limbs because they delivered it through a wall of low-grade lead.

Stats for the four levels of lackey are given below.

  • Level 1 (shit kickers): Armour 0, attack 5, dmg 3d6, basic difficulty 12, initiative 7
  • Level 2 (gangbangers): Armour 12, attack 7, dmg 4d6, basic difficulty 15, initiative 12
  • Level 3 (basic security): Armour 18, attack 10, dmg 5d6, basic difficulty 18, initiative 15
  • Level 4 (corporate dogs): Armour 24, attack 12, dmg 6d6, basic difficulty 20, initiative 15

Key points about handling lackeys

Because no weapon can be boosted beyond the number of dice it rolls, there is no benefit to increasing lackey groups beyond a certain size: shit kickers don’t benefit from having more than 4 in a group, since they can’t do more than 3 extra dice with their weapon. This reflects the fact that people this useless can’t coordinate actions in large numbers; while corporate dogs can be up to 7 in number, which is a truly terrifying squad. Lackey squads can be larger than this (if some arsehole down in the docks can dose up 100 losers on enough ghostshock and set them loose then yes, you will find yourself having to gun them down by the dozen), but they won’t do more damage than twice the original damage of their weapon, because of reasons.

When a PC does damage on a squad of lackeys, they can’t kill more than the number of bullets they have fired. So Drew’s beautiful blue pastel rifle, damage 9d6+3, is a waste of time against lackeys because it only fires one bullet. However, if she switches to her FN-FAL, she can fire 3 shot bursts and take down three guys at a time.

When using multiple shots against a gang of lackeys, don’t waste time rolling multiple damage. Just add one die to your weapon damage for every bullet after the first. This applies to full auto, where every point of success above the target number indicates one bullet hits. Usually you would roll each of these bullets separately, but with lackeys you don’t bother; instead you just add one die per success. This rule doesn’t exist to benefit the lackeys or make them more dangerous, it is just intended to speed up combat.

When a leader is standing amongst his or her lackeys, area effect attacks do not harm the leader – the lackeys soak it up first. So if someone drops a grenade on such a squad, it might kill all the lackeys but it won’t harm the leader.

Grenades have no frag limit. If you drop a grenade on a group of lackeys, and you roll enough damage, it kills all of them. Don’t be a lackey!

Note lackeys have a fixed initiative. Shit kickers will probably react after your hacker, and you can rely on the higher level lackeys to act fast but not fast enough. You wanna kill corporate dogs, you gotta have at least a little bit of combat sense.


Pops, Drew and Coyote need to kill a man because of reasons. The man has holed up in an abandoned warehouse down in the docks. It’s some oil age shitheap, so they go in the easy way – Coyote attaches a strip of explosive to a wall and they walk through once the dust is cleared. Inside the warehouse there are a bunch of crates that they immediately take cover behind, but not before they come under fire from a squad of five gangbangers. Because the gangbangers were lying in wait they get the drop, and lay down a curtain of suppressing fire on the huge hole Coyote made. The difficulty to avoid this suppression fire is 15 (the target difficulty for all actions against gangbangers), and Coyote and Drew make it but Pops just misses it. He takes 2 points of damage multiplied by the number of gangbangers (5), so 10 points of damage, or 7 after BTM. He is injured but not badly.

Now they are through the curtain of suppressive fire they are able to roll initiative. The ‘bangers don’t roll, they get an automatic 12. Pops rolls 14, Coyote 11, Drew 19. Drew switches weapons to her FN-FAL, pops up and takes a three shot burst at the gang, but it’s dark and this is her second action so she just misses. Pops throws a grenade at the squad, rolling a 15, so it lands, but it’s only a 5d6 damage frag, one of the crappy ones that Coyote picks up cheap from his “friend” Twitch. Pops rolls 18, which is 6 more than the gangers’ armour, so he manages to kill one. Four remain. These four now have a chance to shoot at Drew, who had popped out; they roll 15 but with four gangers they get a +3, so hit her with an 18. Their weapons do 4d6 damage but with +3 dice, so 7d6. The GM rolls 34 on the right leg, which after Drew’s armour of 28 and BTM of 3 leaves just 3 points of damage. She shrugs it off. Finally Coyote rises up and fires two shots at the gangers from his pistol. His first shot hits and the second misses. The first shot does 6d6+2 damage, and Coyote rolls a mighty 33, enough to go through 5 gangers (33-12 armour =21), but he only has a single shot pistol, so he can only kill one. Three remain.

The round ends. Drew doesn’t bother dropping under cover; she squeezes off two three-shot bursts, hitting with the first. She rolls d3 for the number of bullets, and gets three hits! However, rather than wasting time rolling multiple damage rolls, she simply adds 2d6 to her weapon damage, for a total of 8d6+2. Damage total is not so great, just 30, but that’s 18 above the gangers’ armour, enough to kill four gangers. Having fired only three bullets she can only kill three, but there are only three left, so down they go.

The squad is gone. Pops pulls out his grenade launcher and pumps a couple of frag grenades up to the higher level. Drew returns to her beautiful blue pastel Nomad rifle, and takes cover in a corner facing up the stairs. Pops and Coyote head up the stairs to the upper level, moving fast and low. The man they have come to kill is out of lackeys, and out of luck …

Drew contemplating the value of bad combat rules after a headshot

Drew contemplating the value of bad combat rules after taking a headshot

The original Cyberpunk rulebook has a simple and nasty system of armour, which is completely broken. In this system your gun does a handful of dice of damage, between 3d6+1 for a good submachine gun to 7d10 for a high quality sniper rifle, and your armour has a stopping power (SP) that ranges from 4 for a leather jacket to about 24 or 30 for full-grade military armour. If the damage you roll exceeds the SP of your armour, you take damage, from which you can subtract your body type modifier (BTM) before you take any actual damage to your body. BTM is usually between 2 and 4, and you can take about 30 hits before you die, but you can only take 8 hits before you start having to make shock checks to stay conscious, and 12 hits before you start making death checks. These checks become progressively harder, and these wound states (in blocks of 4) come with increasing penalties to activity. This means that taking damage is a rapid death spiral, and as soon as you can you buy one of the basic, easily-accessible armour types that makes you immune to low level damage. See the example at the bottom of this post for more details.

The result of this rule is the exact kind of nihilism I decried in a post on cyberpunk some time back, which attracted a lot of negative attention. It also drains out a lot of the sense of tactical battle skills and planning that seems like it should be the essence of a fight in cyberpunk, because highly-protective armour is much more easily accessible than highly-destructive guns: for example, “Motocross Armour” (SP 24) is easy to get, but the most easily accessible gun is the FN-RAL assault rifle (Drew is a proud owner of one of these) which does 6d6+2 damage, not enough to get through the Motocross Armour + BTM, and definitely not enough to penetrate Drew’s Motocross armour + body-weave + BTM (total target: 31). So instead of dashing from cover to cover, worrying about getting hit, Drew can just stand in the middle of the room gunning people down. If she’s up against people with SMGs she can use the same tactic naked (SP12+BTM=target of 15). Under this rule system you don’t need cover, tactics or planning, you just need a good set of motocross armour and a spine of steel (or, in Drew’s case, a complete lack of any sense of self-preservation and a COOL of 9). This rule is also, I suspect, unrealistic: although this blog says that armour has outpaced guns, this highly entertaining youtube video suggests that even a normal pistol firing certain kinds of normal ammunition can go through very effective armour and still do a lot of damage (the hole from the Hungarian bullet at the end looks to me like it must be at least a Mortal-2 category of damage!) Obviously we don’t want to play in a world where the first shot kills us, but as players we want to keep at least some sense of that furtiveness and care that we assume real soldiers must engage in, especially in close-range firefights of the kind we’re regularly caught in, and we don’t want the game to degenerate to a slugfest between heavily-armoured foes at 10m.

Our house rule, that bullets that don’t penetrate armour still do one point of stun damage, completely changes the dynamic of combat. When someone lays down suppressive fire on a small area you suddenly value cover very highly, because if your dodge/escape check fails you’re looking at 1d6 points of shock damage; you can only sustain this for a few rounds before you’re out for the count. And finding cover makes fights tougher, because moving around and ducking in and out of cover reduces the number of shots you can take and increases your activity penalties. This is why Drew bought her armour-cracking gun …

Drew’s Beautiful New Gun

Realizing that we are usually outnumbered in combat, and with this new rule making force of numbers a dangerous foe, Drew decided to invest in a weapon that can even the odds rapidly. Our street dealer, Coyote, can’t buy really good guns easily (probably because he is so ugly), and so Drew hasn’t been able to get the sniper rifle she keeps asking him for, but he is also very good at modifying existing weapons. So Drew bought herself a cheap, easily-available Nomad 7.62 bolt action rifle, and Coyote modified it to fire electro-thermal (ET) shot. Neither Drew nor I know what this means, but we don’t care: it adds 50% to her damage. This mod can only be applied to non-automatic weapons with caseless ammunition[1], but it means that Drew now has a 9d6+3 damage rifle with an accuracy of +2 and a six-shot cartridge. The accuracy bonus for this gun means that if she is not moving and focuses on just the one shot she hits the head with a roll of 2 or more on a d10; if she has to perform a second action she hits on a 4 or more. Head shots do double damage after SP and BTM modifiers, which is why in our last session Drew killed 3 men with 5 shots.

This gun is also in a tasteful pastel blue. Drew tries to avoid pink when she is working with other combat teams, because she wants to be taken seriously as a riflewoman.

Tactics for breaking armour

In our last session we ended up facing off against five guys with power armour, which has an SP of at least 28, carrying fairly heavy automatic rifles (probably FN-RALs, like Drew’s) and at least one shotgun (scary!). We lucked on a very effective method for breaking down armour within the revised rules, however. This was pretty simple: Coyote used a high-rate-of-fire Kalashnikov to lay down suppressive fire when they first arrived in combat, forcing them back through the door they were entering by, and Pops dropped burner grenades on them. Burner grenades don’t do huge amounts of damage but anyone who is hit by them has to make a COOL check to stay in combat and not put out the flames, and the flames themselves continue for a few rounds, causing additional stun damage under the revised rules. Drew, of course, was laying out head shots, because a single headshot with her beautiful new gun will probably kill someone even if they have SP 30 and BTM 4, especially if it has armour piercing ammo. Once Coyote and Pops had expended their initial ammunition, Coyote switched to throwing fragmentation grenades and Pops switched to three-shot bursts with his FN-RAL, which don’t do heavy damage but are likely to wear down single opponents fast with stun damage. Meanwhile Drew continued with the head shots, aiming at individual opponents who posed the most threat.

Unfortunately Pops and Coyote are really shit at delivering grenades, so most missed, but two of our support team managed to do that job. With this tactic, Drew cleaned up the riskiest guy in the first round, a lot of damage was laid down on the enemy in the second round, and in the third round the burner grenades caused two of the remaining guys to expire; the last two went down from another fragmentation grenade after that. None of these guys were dead (except Drew’s first target), just shocked and exhausted; but Drew soon fixed that.

This tactic works because it maintains a heavy pressure of stun damage on the whole group, because no one can stand in the blast zone of three grenades while they’re on fire and being shot at without eventually giving up the ghost. Under the previous rules, everything we had thrown at them except Drew’s ET round would have done nothing. If Pops now improves his heavy weapons skill so his grenade launcher is actually effective, and we find Coyote a better suppression weapon (e.g. a mini-gun) then this tactic will be even more effective. Even power armour won’t stop us now!

Example: The original rules

Ghost has come out of his hidey-hole in our first adventure, and finds himself facing off against a squad of three gangers armed with SMGs, who are there to kill him. He has warning, and has donned a set of full combat armour that he spent much of his starting money on. He needs to get down the hallway to the lift. The three gangers fire 3-shot bursts at him, hitting him twice and delivering 1d3 shots per successful burst, for a total of 3 hits. They roll damage, but their SMGs are crumby, doing 3d6 damage, and his SP is 24, so there’s no risk he will take any damage. He walks down the hallway towards them, shooting them down one by one as the rest of the group catch up and start gunning them down with assault rifles. Ghost is a hacker.

Example: The revised rules

Drew is lying on the ground unable to move, in plain sight, after a lunatic ganger tried to wrestle her and get her helmet off in our sixth adventure. Two men at the end of the hallway armed with assault rifles let rip on her with suppressive fire, and unable to dodge properly she takes 5 bullets. The men are using kalashnikovs, which do 5d6 damage, but Drew is wearing full combat armour plus SP12 sub-dermal armour (she’s a sensible girl!) so she has a total SP of 28. All five bullets hit her for less than 28 damage each, and she takes nothing. The GM, in a fit of rage, makes up the new rules, and so Drew takes one point of stun damage from each bullet that hit her. The GM, who is a complete bastard, also degrades her armour slightly. Drew is now in the lightly wounded category (-2 on everything) and if she takes 3 more bullets, even if they don’t penetrate, she will need to start making stun checks to stay functional.

fn1: One amusing thing about this game is that, since I’m not a gun nut at all, with no experience of any form of projectile weapons (I have never touched one, and have only even seen one in someone’s hand once), I have no clue what any of the language means, I just treat it as categories of stuff like magic items. One of our players was a conscript in his national army, and has a lot of familiarity with the various barbaric instruments of death that Drew deploys; I leave the details to him.

One of the PCs in my Flood campaign, Quark, has gained a level (even though they don’t exist in Cyberpunk rules), so he has access to a new set of abilities – the ability to make and deploy poison. He has two types of poison: poison darts and gas canisters, which he can deploy from his drone or throw. This post describes some Cyberpunk house rules for poisons.

Quark takes the shot

Quark takes the shot

Poison darts Quark can deliver two types of debilitating poison through poison darts. He needs to make an attack roll using athletics against a target number of 15 or the armour value of his target, whichever   is higher (for targets with multiple armour values use the torso value unless Quark declares a called shot). If he hits this target number he does no damage but the poison is delivered, with either of the following effects. Debilitating pain: The target suffers from debilitating pain and weakness, which makes existing injuries worse. As soon as the target is injured in any way, he or she suffers the full effects of the next highest level of injury. This means that the affected person needs to make death checks at the critically wounded level rather than at Mortal 1, and will start suffering additional penalties as soon as they suffer any wound of any kind. The effects last for the remainder of the battle, and for several hours afterwards. Paralysis: The target does not suffer any pain or distress, but is at risk of paralysis. Every time the target acts he or she needs to make a successful BODY check (with current penalties) in order to act; otherwise he or she is forced to remain still. The effect lasts 1d6 rounds. The target is able to perform basic movements and other similar actions (e.g. drinking an antidote) but nothing more severe, so only walking movement and no combat actions, controlling vehicles, etc. Targets still think clearly and are allowed to drag themselves into cover. They can attempt to evade attacks but this counts as an action, requiring a BODY check. LUCK can be used to reroll BODY checks forced due to this poison. Poison gas Poison gas is delivered by a canister that Quark can throw or drop from his drone. The canister affects an area of 5m radius, but people can attempt to get out of the area before inhaling the gas if  Quark’s timing is off, or if he throws/drops the canister wide and it needs to bounce and spray. To reflect this, delivering the canister requires Quark to roll an athletics attack against the Dodge/Evade skill of everyone in the area of effect. Anyone who fails this check takes the full effect of the gas for 1 round per point of failure. Note that getting out of the area of effect uses up one of the target’s next actions. Note also that they need to make a Combat Sense check against Quark’s same athletics roll in order to be able to choose the direction of escape. If they fail this check, they are required to leave by the quickest, most direct method forward from where they are (or sideways if forward is blocked by someone else faster than them). This means that they may emerge from the gas into an area with no cover, and will need to use the second action in their round to take cover. This may also mean that people who can act before them (but after Quark) will have an opportunity to change actions and take shots at these people. The effects of the gas are described below. CS Gas: The target must immediately make a BODY check and suffer 1 point of (stun) damage per point of failure. Regardless of the result of this check, they suffer a -2 penalty on all actions for one round per point of failure of the original attack roll.

Quark rolls a 1 (again)

Quark rolls a 1 (again)

Crafting poisons Quark can also use his Tech attribute and Chemistry skills to craft these poisons. For the poison darts he needs access to certain reagents, and a laboratory. Making a single dose takes 3-6 hours and requires a target number of 15. A fumble means he poisons himself. For the poison gas he needs access to certain reagents, a laboratory and certain mechanical materials to make the canister. A single canister takes about 12 hours to make and requires a target number of 20. Again, a fumble means he poisons himself. If he rolls below 20 and above 15 he can choose to make a successful canister with a bad action, which has effectively an accuracy penalty = (20-roll). Any failed check means that the reagents are destroyed. The canister materials are only destroyed on a fumble. The necessary reagents are listed below. Debilitating pain: A certain type of deep water shark, which is caught in most areas of the Gyre and preserved for food. By draining the blood, fermenting it and mixing it with certain chemical reagents  the poison can be stabilized. Paralysis: Any stinging jellyfish, which needs to be carefully milked for its poison, which is then mixed with certain chemical reagents and formed into a kind of unguent using whale oil. CS Gas: A large quantity of chilli powder or, alternatively, a lot of fresh chillies. Some chemical ingredients, a flask and a certain type of stopper which requires precision crafting that Quark cannot do.

Fascinating to anyone who is not near it.

Fascinating to anyone who is not near it.

After the Flood the oceans’ depth doubled. Where before humanity had understood some tiny proportion of that zone at the top they called pelagic, but now it had grown so vast, encompassing the world in a shroud of sun-dappled blue mystery that no one could ever hope to understand, let alone conquer. As the scientists of the old world watched this fickle, fluid world rise up to conquer their own they supposed that its surface would be an angry maelstrom, believing that only the land had tamed the sea where it stood in the path of currents and broke up the ocean’s mercurial tempers. But this was not to be. With the land finally vanquished and submerged the ocean became a tranquil and placid conqueror, its great depths too solid and stable to sustain the tempests of old. Where once the land had broken up currents, and continents had impinged on the ocean’s majesty, there was nowhere for heat and cold to go. Large gradients of temperature formed between the shallows and the deeps, unmolested by circumnavigating currents. From these gradients grew winds and storms, as if the ocean flung its anger at the irritations of land and people. But now, with the ocean free to move where it willed, heat dissipated from the tropics in every direction, unconcerned by the petty barriers of continents and undersea mountain ranges. Its reign uncontested by the earth, the sea grew complacent. With this change in fluid dynamics the nature of the earth’s storms changed. Storms still rose up, and winds could travel for thousands of kms across the ocean unstopped, driving waves before them; but these winds were not usually very strong, and for much of the earth’s turn the sea was still and quiet. Cyclones still formed in the tropics, and when they did they could travel long distances across huge stretches of warm ocean; but the well-mixed waters of the world ocean ensure that heat cannot gather on the surface, sinking instead to the frozen darkness of the abyss. As a result these cyclones, though long-lasting, tended to be weak, and they never crossed the current barrier of the gyre, where the waters mixed too much to allow heat to gather. But sometimes … Sometimes, in summer, the ocean would still. Perhaps a circumnavigating current would deviate from its usual path, or break for a time. Perhaps the deep churn of water would change under some gravitational, tectonic or tidal influence, and for a short time the surface would be becalmed. Not becalmed so as human communities could notice, but becalmed in such a way that the heat gathered under the tropical sun, over a continent-sized expanse of water. Such confluences of currents are rare, and this becalming might only occur once in a generation. But when the pulse beneath the sea stops like this, a pulse stirs on the surface. The storms gather on this great sheet of hot water, and a storm forms whose power was unheralded before the Flood: a world storm. World storms grow beyond anything humans have ever experienced, covering areas much larger than even the strongest cyclone and moving slowly over the ocean. Whichever direction they head, the vast size of the heated ocean will sustain their power, and they can last for weeks before they finally exhaust their generating power. As they travel, smaller cyclones – mere category 3-5 babies – break off from their flanks, spinning away in random directions to cause havoc of their own, or reforming into secondary monster cyclones in the wake of the main one. The world storm has a power well beyond the traditional system of categorizing cyclones, and usually it invokes its own unique fluid dynamic properties that make a taxonomy of such storms impossible. While such storms rage the weather across much of the hemisphere will change, as they distort the whole atmosphere. In their wake will come an unusual calm, as the ocean temperature equalizes across the range of the storm: winds stop, the sea calms, and the world heaves a sigh of relief. Nothing human can stand in the way of a world storm. Raft communities will be shattered and their inhabitants lost to the tempest. Larger structures too large to capsize will be simply broken apart, smashed by waves no human has ever seen or simply consumed whole if they are close enough to the centre of the whirlwind. Around the edges of the world storm, sometimes thousands of kms from its middle, powerful waterspouts and smaller storms will form, or lightning storms that will destroy anything floating. Communities in the path of the storm, even hundreds of kms away, cannot escape, because the winds being draw towards the world storm will prevent any sailing vessel from escaping. Only the largest, most seaworthy vessels with their own power can hope to leave the storm, and indeed this is the only way a community can survive: pack as many people as possible onto a large, powered vessel while the storm is still spinning up, and flee before it can open its maw and suck in everything living on the surface of the ocean. When a world storm forms, communities in its path will face horrible choices, because they are unlikely to possess enough vessels to liberate everyone. The privileged or the most violent few will rise up and grab what they can, fleeing with the colony’s most precious effects (and maybe their loved ones) to take their chances on the open ocean, knowing that everyone they leave behind them is doomed. Such are the dilemmas of an ocean-going life… World storms have never touched the gyre, though one or two have passed near it. They usually veer northward before they reach it, but if they do come too close they will usually lose their strength as they approach the broken and mixed zone of water around the gyre. History records that one particularly strong world storm managed to partially cross the gyre and spawned a minor cyclone inside, but fortunately the Hulks was at the opposite side of the Gyre at that time, and the Arc weathered the cyclone’s passing without loss of life. Outside the gyre, however, there are few people alive who can say they have weathered such a storm. Rumours abound of structures large enough to weather even this monstrosity, but no one has ever found evidence of such a community… until Captain Dilver of the Gyre discovered and captured the Ziggurat he named Mount Arashi. — Picture credit: I took this picture from the homepage of a fluid dynamics researcher called Gary Davies. He has a blog on fluid dynamics – cool! Check it out! A note on the science of the Flood: I’d originally assumed, like Stephen Baxter’s books, that the world after the Flood would be warmer and more tropical, with all that extra moisture floating around (water vapour is a powerful greenhouse gas). But the extra vast amounts of water should act as a huge heat sink, and I think that this means that the world would actually be meterologically very stable. In the book Baxter talks of a permanent storm like the Eye of Jupiter, but I think that wouldn’t happen because the uninterrupted undersea currents plus huge heat sink effect would prevent the storm conditions required, except in occasional instances when the currents deviate.

These nets can't be replaced

These nets can’t be replaced

Next weekend I will be running another short adventure in my Flood campaign world, and the adventure trigger will be the arrival near the Hulks of one of the drowned earth’s most potent environmental threats: the Miasma.

The Miasma is a special type of jellyfish swarm that can only exist in the depopulated aquatic deserts of the world ocean. With almost all land sunk thousands of metres below the surface of the ocean there are very few areas where fish can spawn and thrive, and huge expanses of the earth’s surface are too far from these spawning areas for larger fish to be able to survive in them. These areas, too far from fish populations to support any biodiversity larger than plankton, have become a strange and top-heavy ecosystem. Aside from occasional large predators migrating through, these empty wilds have become the domain of the grazers: whales, basking sharks and jellyfish that thrive on the plankton in surface waters. But the most efficient and terrifying of these open ocean grazers are the jellyfish, which sometimes by happenstance gather together into huge swarms, sometimes tens of kilometres across, that dominate the open ocean wherever they drift, and leave a terrible path of destruction behind them, like enormous army ants of the open seas.

The survivors of human civilization live in terror of these jellyfish swarms, which they call miasma. These swarms, though composed primarily of plankton-eating drifters, are also usually heavily infested with giant, slow-moving grazers and a large number of deadly predatory jellyfish. They consume everything in the ocean around them, and are an existential threat to the fishing grounds that most human communities zealously nurture. They also transform the atmosphere and sea around the swarm, turning the ocean into a kind of limpid swamp that offends the sensibilities of drifting raft communities, and is deeply toxic.

Most raft communities float on oceans more than 1000 m deep, and are as vulnerable to the currents as a jellyfish swarm. To maintain a reliable ocean food supply, the rafters carefully and systematically build up local ecosystems, which in turn feed a network of wild distant ecosystems. In areas like the Gyre, where a relatively large number of human communities live in close proximity, this produces a wider network of ecosystems that spread beyond the immediate vicinity of the rafts and support wildlife somewhat akin to the offshore ecosystems of the old world. But these systems are fragile, and require careful stewarding by the rafters. Every human community that floats on the waves has some system of undersea support for local fish life, that may be as simple as a series of sub-surface floating breeding beds made of old tires, or a complex architecture of reed beds and corals under the hulls and keels of the rafts. In the Gyre, where human communities are structurally large and complex, there are a host of shallow underwater structures that are thriving with sea life that once would have only existed at the shoreline: lobsters in nooks and crannies of the rafts, oysters growing on the old submarine superstructure that gives the larger rafts stability, and small fish breeding amongst every chain link, tyre underside, and submerged rope knot in the entire archipelago of floating human life. There is even a small community of sea lions on the Hulks. Every underwater structure is covered in sea weeds, and kelp grows downward and outward from the edges of the rafts. Further out, larger fish prey on the smaller fish, moving nomadically between communities and eating the larger fish that live further out from the human settlements. The residents of the Hulks put a lot of time into the care of these undersea communities, enforcing strict waste disposal rules and carefully tending weedbeds and corals to ensure that the ecosystem is balanced and thriving.

A miasma can end 100 years of this careful management and stewarding in a few days of insensate gorging. When the miasma overwhelms a human community it will consume everything that floats free in the water. All plankton and feeder fish will be sucked up by the filter feeders, and the larger fish will be found and killed by the predatory jellies. Sea mammals in the open water when the miasma hits will be entangled and drowned, or slowly paralyzed by the accumulation of stingers. The water the miasma carries with it is devoid of oxygen and highly acidic, and if the miasma is moving too slowly on the currents the effect of this tide of pollution will be to destroy all corals and weeds in the raft and its vicinity. Lobsters, crabs, prawns and octopuses that might be untouched by predatory jellies will suffocate in the miasma, and once the swarm has passed all that remains will be dead and rotting sea life. Sometimes the miasma does not pass, and the weight of its central parts will drag the raft community with it, leading to starvation and death for all those onboard. If the rafters do not realize the danger, escape may be impossible: small sailing ships do not have the power to escape the weight of jellyfish in the water, and most smaller powered vessels will have their rudders and rotors entangled, stalling them in the water. Once trapped in the sea of deadly stingers, there is no way to swim out. There are many stories of miasmas that are haunted with the ghosts of lost rafts and ships, and many people claim that they are more dangerous for a small raft community than the ocean’s storms.

There is no herding these slow beasts

There is no herding these slow beasts

The miasma carries its own meteorological phenomena, that in large part are the reason for its name. On the edge of the swarm freely moving predatory jellyfish hunt anything that moves, but in the body of the swarm are primarily filter-feeding drifters, some of them larger than a small boat. Near the centre of this gelid mass the sea becomes so thick with packed-together jellyfish that it is almost solid, and devoid of any other life. When the jellyfish here become too densely packed or when the swarm becomes too large, they die and rot, creating a fetid and stinking swamp of rot. The largest swarms becalm the sea around them, changing its texture so that waves are dampened and currents stop; there in the middle of this becalmed and dense swamp-like realm, the sun beats down and the sea heats up, giving off a stinking and rotten cloud of steam and heat haze that obscures the surface of the water. Most swarms above a certain size carry with them a thick, swamp-like haze that is impenetrable on all but the stormiest of days. Rumour has it that the largest swarms break up under their own meteorological effects: the heat from the centre creates storm cells that scatter the swarm and cast it about into smaller swarmlets. Usually one can smell the swarm before one sees it, because tendrils of this rot drift ahead on the currents. If one is lucky the swarm will be large enough and dense enough that the rafts can be moved out of the currents, or some kind of defenses prepared. But for the larger swarms, or for rafts adrift on a strong current, there is no defense: only prayer.

The miasma leaves problems long after its passing. In addition to destroying all marine life attached to the rafts, it will leave polyps on every surface, and every part of the underside of the rafts needs to be scoured clean to ensure that the raft does not, a year later, become the centre of its own swarm. Jellyfish will also destroy nets and befoul important undersea structures, their weight breaking precious ropes and chains, blocking inlets for power and water desalinators, and poisoning the water as they die and rot. Delicate floating solar panels will be damaged or lost, and the acidic water may do irreparable damage to the oldest and most fragile parts of a long-lived raft community. Small boats may be carried away under the pressure of the swarm, or their propellors and other underwater components entangled and ruined. The raft will also find itself floating in an open sea devoid of life, and any community that is used to catching fish in the immediate vicinity of its decks will need to find a way to venture further afield for food until the ecosystem rights itself – if ever it does. Most likely, though, the local ecosystem will be destroyed, and the rafters will need to make a call on other human communities they know to obtain new stocks of coral, shellfish and weed to regrow their precious ecosystem. Usually such help comes with a high price, that many communities cannot pay: they will then break up, and individual rafts will be forced to brave the open ocean as they seek new fishing grounds or functioning communities to join.

The larger communities are the most vulnerable, because they cannot move. These communities have found ways to ride out the miasma, or even to divert it, but their efforts almost always come with a great cost, in equipment and often lives. Where once jellyfish were annoying pests at the beach, they have now become the greatest terror of the open ocean, and for a community like the Hulks the onset of a major miasma is a threat that most of its residents will only ever see once in their lifetimes – if they survive it …

Even sunlight is rationed down here ...

Even sunlight is rationed down here …

This is a kingdom I created entirely randomly for a one-off of Make You Kingdom, to be played in English this weekend.

Kingdom name: The socialist republic of disasters [yes I really rolled this randomly]

Map Position: E3

Kingdom level: 2

Lifestyle level: 1

Culture level: 1

Order level: 2

Military level: 1

Total population: 70

Consisting of …

  • 63 citizens
  • 4 Court members (PCs)
  • 3 Hurryfoxes

People’s voice (Maximum): 10


  • Royal Palace
  • Ranch
  • Staple [steel]

Background details

The Socialist Republic of Disasters is located in map square E3 of a random part of the labyrinth, and is ruled by Comintern President Mario, who is untroubled by the Ephemeral God. The kingdom is remarkably stable and fortunate given its circumstances: though it only covers three squares of a standard 9×9 labyrinth map, its population is surprisingly large and it is allied with a distant kingdom, the United Dungeon Empire, that supplies it with steel. It is also home to three Hurryfoxes (Gonkitsune). Due to a loan that the wise Comintern President Mario took from the Subterranean One, the Republic is also in debt, owing a mighty 15 MG.

The Hurryfoxes live in the kingdom because it has a special property of being able to coexist with monsters: under the wise and benevolent rule of the Comintern President, a ranch was established, and people from all over the kingdom are happy to receive monsters and live alongside them, provided they offer some of their souls and material for use in the ranch, where any new monsters who join the kingdom can be cloned to produce more of their kind. The ranch is an ancient heritage, from a time before the enlightened rule of the Comintern President, when the kingdom was under a sorcerer’s curse that caused all its citizens to be undead. This time is long past, but out of respect for history the Comintern President has kindly allowed the cultural memory of this special lineage to linger, enabling all adventurers to learn any undead skill when they gain a level or a new skill.

Since the demise of the sorcerer and the end of his curse the nation has lived a long and peaceful life under the principled, firm but loving guidance of the comintern; as a result it has a larger population than many similarly-sized kingdoms (+13 population) and has a strong sense of discipline and order (+1 order level).

The ranch: From each monster according to his means

The ranch: From each monster according to his means

How it looks

This is ultimately up to the players, but given the name, the sense of order, and the sinister-sounding nation they are allied to, I can’t help feeling it has a slightly tatty-grandiose soviet-era feeling to it. I imagine it is not a particularly large kingdom, and is composed primarily of wide, spacious, well-lit tunnels similar to the tunnels in some of the Moscow metro, with the same sense of grandeur. These tunnels form a complex network connecting the living spaces, markets and royal palace (the Comintern Palace, I guess!) together in a soviet-styled warren. I even imagine there is an actual train, a rickety old coal-burner that connects the Socialist Republic of Disasters (SRD) with the distant Unified Dungeon Empire. Perhaps it takes a month to chug along on complex paths through the labyrinthine fallen world, eventually returning two months after it set out with a cargo of iron scrap – rubbish, basically – from the Unified Dungeon Empire.

I imagine the ranch as a somewhat sinister place, not a happy sunlit farm at all. The rules state that if you have a ranch, when you manage to bring a monster back to your kingdom as a citizen you can make a check to produce another one of them in the ranch. Given the speed this happens at, I see it as some kind of sinister magical cloning process, not a game of happy-monster-families. Sometimes, obviously, it goes wrong (which would be why the SRD has 3 hurryfoxes, not 2 or 4). I imagine this is some relic of the time before, and though the citizens know how to operate it, they don’t know how it works.

From each according to their means, to each according to their needs

From each according to their means, to each according to their needs

The court

The court consists of four PCs, described briefly here.

Comintern President Mario, who is untroubled by the Ephemeral God

The President’s Job is Daedalist (迷宮職人, see the second from right in the illustration above), his/her sex is undecided, and his/her primary attributes are quest and warfare. He owes 15MG to the Subterranean one, and it is his mission to escape from the Subterranean One’s debt. Mario likes foppery and storytellers, and hates liars and apologizing.

Cocoa “Wise ears” Scarlet

A Knight with the job of Hunter, who came to SRD from the distant kingdom of Autonomic Dark Gotanda [square F1] as an apprentice and has the mission of becoming Mario’s lover. Cocoa’s primary attribute is warfare, and Cocoa has a horse, armour, weapons and a living drill (a stick with a mole on the end). Cocoa likes the countryside and smart people, and hates Citizens and elderly people.

Hairan Blademagnet

An Oracle with the job of thief, who came down to SRD from heaven in an elevator when he was a child, and whose nemesis is a deep sea monster called the Forneus, that it is his mission to thwart. Hairan’s primary attribute is charisma, followed by quest. He is a belly-god, so can consume food and drink without running out of supplies, so he’ll probably end up obese by the end of the first adventure. He likes receiving weapons, and the labyrinth itself; he hates beards and ogrekin.

Cookie the Involuntarily Anointed

Cookie is a ninja, who came to the SRD as a spy for the neo-superhero federation [map square B6], and has the mission of becoming Cocoa’s rival. Cookie’s job is Doctor, so Cookie has the skills of Monsterology and Anti-magic Formula. Cookie is powerful in quest and wit. Unfortunately for a resident of the SRD, Cookie hates narrow places and hospitals; but she likes stars and princes; Cookie herself carries a Blade of Star, a bomb and a trap collection. Really, she’s a perfect spy!

The adventure

This week’s adventure will start when an old associate of the kingdom, a kind of fence and all-round sleazy guy, arrives to tell Comintern President Mario that a debt collector [a type of monster] has turned up in a nearby kingdom, possibly looking to call in the debt that Mario owes to the Subterranean One. The characters will then set off to find this debt collector and … er … deal with him. Their oily friend knows the way to the neighbouring kingdom, though he doesn’t know the kingdom layout or the nature of the creatures that live there. Is everything as it seems, or is their oily little friend causing trouble …?

Background to our new 13th Age Campaign, written by the GM …

Empires are born, empires grow, and empires fade away. This is an undeniable fact. You can ask any library-dwelling scholar mage and they will tell you that history dictates this so.

An empire begins with the dream of a better world, and is forged with the sweat and the blood of the countless. Under the guidance of wise leaders, chaos is given order, the people become organized, and peace, and prosperity follow. Yet, power and wealth inevitably leads to hubris, to the belief that now is the time when the forces of history can be brought to heel, that this is the eternal empire. This hubris makes us blind to unavoidable urges such greed, lust for power, insecurity, pride, jealousy as they strengthen across the empire. They begin as a small stream, but they soon grow to a mighty river, sweeping across the land eroding the empire away. When the erosion is complete, all that remains are vague memories of a once all-powerful empire and some crumbled ruins hidden deep a distant jungle.

The land in our story has seen an empire crumble twelve times, but twelve times it has also seen a new empire rise again from the ashes, each time heralding a new Age.

The empire in the 13th Age is known as the Dragon Empire. It is a place of order, and a time of prosperity. A benevolent Emperor sits on the throne in Axis, overseeing the government that works to maintain the order across the Dragon Empire. A kind and just Emperor, he has born the burden of the Dragon Empire for many years and has had to make many sacrifices for her.

However, maintaining peace and prosperity across the Dragon Empire is not a burden that the Emperor carries alone. The Archmage and his Order Magus work tirelessly to tame the forces of nature and harness the power of magic to make the Dragon Empire a safer and more pleasant place to live in. The High Priestess and her Church have devoted their lives to the spiritual protection and spiritual development of the citizens of the Dragon Empire. And the Great Gold Wyrm’s selfless sacrifice and the efforts of the Ordo Aurum keep the forces of Chaos at bay.

Will these four pillars be able to resist the forces of history and make the Dragon Empire the eternal empire? Or are the forces of history already at work, eroding the empire from within and from without? That is our story to tell.

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