Under the mountains and into the wild

[Our Degenesis campaign has had two sessions but I skipped a write up of one, so here I give a brief overview of the events of the last two sessions. We are heading into the campaign In Thy Blood…]

In session 3 the PCs had raided an underground bunker and recovered a transceiver of some value and helped a lost man called Stanko. After leaving the bunker they stumbled onto a large squad of apocalyptics, who were camped in the wilderness and who Stanko told them were the group that he had been scouting for when his team was killed by monsters in the bunker. Approaching the apocalyptic camp they saw that it was surrounded by cockroaches (a kind of degenerate human clan), and likely to be ambushed that night. Stanko, eager to be paid for his work, went into the camp and tried to negotiate for his money. This didn’t work out for him, so the PCs decided to wait until nightfall when the cockroaches attacked the camp, and rescue Stanko and steal the apocalyptics’ stuff during the confusion. The ambush came and all hell broke loose, and during the battle they were able to steal an apocalyptic motorbike, free Stanko, and get away from the camp without being pursued.

They took the bike and the transceiver to the town of Gesseln, where they sold them for a lot of draughts. While they were relaxing in the town they discovered they were being followed by a Chronicler, who they ambushed in a tavern. After a brief and very nasty battle they managed to capture him and beat him until he talked, and discovered that he had been spying on them for the same shadowy people who had sent the apocalyptics to the bunker. This bothered them, because they had been sent to the bunker by Chroniclers, and if a Chronicler had also sent the apocalyptics then it appeared there were factions in the Chroniclers who were trying to cause them trouble, or at least were happy for them to get into a lot of trouble as part of some internecine Chronicler squabble. Everyone knows that the less one gets entangled in Chronicler business the better, so the PCs decided to leave Gesseln and get out of the area. They returned to Tumbler, where their adventures had started, with the intention of perhaps heading somewhere further west and south to get far away from whatever trouble the Chroniclers intended for them.

Here too though they had been misused by the local Chroniclers, and they were none too happy staying here long. Karl Franz, their dour Spitalian, left on Spitalian business, and was replaced by a more junior Spitalian called Montaigne, a familancer rather than an epigeneticist. While the characters were wasting time in Tumbler they discovered that there was an African apocalyptic in the town, apparently lost and looking for a way home. Sylvan, the party’s apocalyptic, went to visit her in her tavern and was given a speech about how she saw him in her dreams. Sylvan is very confident that he is in every woman’s dreams, but this woman seemed strangely unaffected by his usual kant, and suggested they visit an old apocalyptic seer in town who would throw the cards for them. Foolishly Sylvan did this, and they visited the old woman. She told him that for some weeks now she was always drawing the same cards no matter what, and saw him and the African apocalyptic in her dreams. She drew the cards for them, and it was the same pattern: The abomination over the Creator, Hellfire, the Fields of Elysium, and the Bearer of the Broken Cross. She warned them that trouble was coming, and she saw them both standing on the shores of Africa, fighting off hellfire. They must head to the fields of elysium to meet their fate.

Apocalyptics cannot resist the pull of the tarot. Esmeralda the African apocalyptic joined their party and, for lack of anything better to do, they decided to head to Lucatore, a town on the far side of the Alps where Elysium oils are made by the anabaptists. They would find their fate there, and then help Esmeralda to return to Africa through the peninsula. This mission suited Ronan the Hellvetican, since it would take them under the mountains where he grew up; and it suited Tesla since it was her goal to travel to the Island of Bedain, wherein lay some scrapper heaven of oil and broken things. So it was that they set off.

The journey was long but easy, since they traveled on large roads and Sylvan brought a catamite that he procured in a refugee camp, to carry some of their load and ease his sore muscles at night. This boy, Teal, trudged along with them in the dust, patiently carrying their extra gear and doling out attention where it was needed. Such is the way of apocalyptics. They passed through Justitian and Cathedral City, then south to the Alps, where they crossed through the Hellvetican tunnels under Ronan’s warrant, escorting a trade caravan through to lower the cost of passage. On the far side they accompanied the caravan as far as Tirano. They rested here, on the border of Purgare and Borca, and gathered news about the road ahead. Unsure of what they were looking for, knowing only that Sylvan and Esmeralda’s fate had been sealed somewhere here, they feasted on rumour and got drunk on tall tales. One tale told of strange things happening in the swamp to the south of the Lucatore road, so they decided to investigate. They headed south into the swamp, coming to a small camp of peat-digging clansmen after a day’s travel. They hired three to accompany them as guides, and went further south to a thing called the “Old Image Wall,” a huge piece of wall that was said to have once held moving images. The peat-diggers told them a Chronicler had come here with a generator, turned on the wall, and recorded the images that appeared, then left, but they could do nothing to make it work. They headed south for another day and found a smaller peat-digging camp, where they heard that strange things were happening further south, where the land became thick with insects and strange smells. The peat diggers refused to venture there, but they went ahead to investigate. They found signs of a psychonaut of some kind, decided it was too much danger to interfere with and too far from civilization to matter, and returned to the peat-diggers. Unfortunately a gang of Romano clanners had found their peat-diggers, and were in the process of torturing them to find out where the PCs had gone when the PCs returned and stumbled on them in the camp. There was a short, brutal battle in which the Hellvetican wasted 4 bullets and the apocalyptic did nothing, and then the clanners were dead and the peat-diggers rescued. The whole group returned to the Lucatore road, exhausted and disappointed, and they headed further east towards Lucatore.

Elysium is here

Lucatore is a small town in the east of Purgare, famous for its strong walls and the water towers that hold pure water. With this pure water the anabaptists of the town make huge quantities of Elysium oil, which is an incredibly valuable and powerful substance carefully controlled by the anabaptists. It is also the home of one of the Baptists, and a redoubt of their strange and strict faith. When the PCs arrived the town was full and busy, and they initially found accommodation in a small and rundown tavern. Unfortunately some priests arrived, Flayers, who needed accommodation, so the PCs were moved to the Commission House outside of town, a much more comfortable place to stay. They bedded down for their first comfortable night, and slept soundly in a real bed for the first time in weeks.

In the morning they were woken by a horn, and cries and yells from a gathering crowd. When they opened the windows of their Commission House they could see a commotion in the distant town. Sylvan went down to disturb the Commission House maidservant, Dana, and found her in a fuss in the kitchens, wringing her skirts and agitated with worry. When he asked her what was wrong, she answered him with a single simple sentence.

“The baptist is dead!”

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Cleansing the hearts of men

Cleansing the hearts of men

Were the hearts of men always corrupt, or did they become so when the world died? Before Eschaton, were men’s hearts as clear as distilled water, or in that halcyon time did only nature thrive pure and clean? Was Eschaton the cause of men’s corruption, or punishment for it?

I do not ask myself these questions as I burn out the evils of this world (there is much that must be burnt). But now I crouch on this hillside looking down at this thriving camp of filthy apocalyptics (there is much that must be burnt). And I wonder what came first – the impure fire in the sky, or the impure fire in men’s hearts.

I emerged from a test of fire in the bowels of the corrupt earth, and find myself facing only the unceasing corruption of men’s souls…

The catacombs and the lost man

We had traveled to these catacombs seeking a valuable transceiver for the untrustworthy Chroniclers in Tumbler. Here we stood at the edge of the catacombs, checking weapons and gear. With a grunt our Apocalyptic slapped Tesla on the back, muttered something about being right behind her, and nodded at the tunnel entrance. She took a deep breath and slid inside, her filthy rags and oil-smeared face merging quickly with the shadows. We gave her a moment to move ahead before we slipped in after her.

Even Tesla could not help but be swayed near to terror by the tunnel we entered. Even that dirt-grubbing scrapper, who blinks unsteadily at sunlight and dreams of the comfort of crushing stone depths and darkness, crouched shivering at the bottom of the entrance tunnel, staring about her in disgust and horror. For once no one complained at the cold, harsh operating-theatre light of my splayer, because no light could render the hideous flesh of those tunnels more horrific than the simple fact of their brooding, grotesquely pulsating presence. The tunnels were lined with flesh, like a hideous oesophagus plunging into the gullet of some dreadful dark beast (if only we had known). It yielded spongily to our steps, and did not respond to our touch, but on a regular, slow beat the whole thing flickered as if disturbed by a distant … heartbeat. A sickly smell pervaded the place, as if they exuded some faint odour, and the air was warm and clammy. Somewhere, one of us retched. My finger twitched on the trigger of my fungicide rifle, and I noticed the hellvetic checking his explosives. No human is made for this horror.

We plunged on. Perhaps no human is made for this horror, but we had a job to do. A nod, a grunt, the Hellvetic hoisted his rifle and the Apocalyptic whispered a few assuring words, hulking protectively over the scrapper, and we pushed on. The tunnel opened into a large chamber, hideously papered over with living flesh and scattered evenly with entryways leading into smaller chambers. These chambers were all empty but one, which was scattered with adventurers’ implements: sacks, a few blade bracelets, some empty suits of armour, a scattering of blood[1]. In this room also the walls were different, stained in places with a darker pattern. In one part this darker pattern bulged out from the wall, revealing a kind of sac hanging from the wall, perhaps engorged with some fluid. We approached carefully to investigate, and in the light of my splayer saw something move inside the sac – something vaguely human shaped, that began pressing desperately against the sac. The apocalyptic stepped forward and sliced smoothly up the side of the sac with a sudden glinting blade, and a man fell out of the sack in a splatter of amniotic fluid and a burst of grave-stench.

For a moment we all stood there stunned; he kneeled before us, coughing and gasping desperately. He wore a leather coat and a gas mask, still strapped on his face and maybe the reason he was still conscious. The Hellvetic gripped him on one shoulder as if to offer reassurance, but he looked up at us wretchedly through gore-smeared goggles and said, “Just make it quick,” in a tired, resigned voice.

In a corner of the chamber Tesla looked at those other sacs and the scattered remains of other adventurers, and keened quietly to herself.

“No, friend, it’s not your time yet.” Sylvan grabbed him under one shoulder and offered him water from a canteen. “You’re free.” Someone cleaned his goggles, and he looked around at us all with a brief expression of wonder.

Then he saw Tesla beginning to scrabble through a toolkit discarded on the fleshy floor, and lunged weakly forward. “Hey! That’s mine!” Looked around at the other discarded tools.

We returned to the surface so he could recover his strength, talked. His name was Stanislav (“Stanko to my friends – but you can call me Stanislav”)[2]. He was a Scrapper, hired with his friends by a group of mercenaries to scout ahead and find this cave. They found the cave but something – things – ambushed them and when he woke up he was in the sac. So were his friends, but something came and took them one at a time, screaming and desperate. Dragged them away.

He didn’t know where his mercenary employers were – maybe they had abandoned him, maybe killed by cockroaches. He didn’t care, but he wanted to find the things that killed his friends, and show them a similar mercy.

We agreed. We went back into the cave.

What could possibly go wrong?

What could possibly go wrong?

A single tunnel from the lower chamber descended further into the depths. It ended at a kind of kitchen, strange now that its furniture and implements dripped with horrible, misshapen fleshy outgrowths. An ancient blast door lay jammed open, almost as old as Eschaton and probably originally rusted into place; now it was held fast by tendrils of faintly rippling flesh. Beyond, a narrow tunnel led deeper into the complex, now lit by occasional flickering lights. We entered it.

We were only a little distance into the tunnel when they attacked, two vicious monsters bigger than men and armed with wicked claws. They struck from both ends of our group, strung out in the dim corridor, but we fought them off, killing them both. They were big, grey things, with blank expressions and strange, twisted bodies – once men, maybe, but ossified and warped by some terrible chemistry. I have read rumours of these things in the archives: beasts tortured and changed to monsters by the corruption of the spore zone, and acting with a single mind, often possessed by a single greater power. No doubt they nested here, preying on cockroach clanners and waiting to burn.

My surmise was correct. At the tunnel’s end we found an open chamber scattered with the bones of cockroach clanners. In the centre of the chamber was a broken grille that had once covered a shaft that plummeted into the earth. The grille had been broken upward, and the cockroaches attacked from below. Signs of struggle and violence suggested they had not gone lightly, and had perhaps killed more than one of their attackers; but now they were gone. The remaining beasts, and our transceiver, must lie below, at the bottom of that shaft.

We descended. The shaft opened into a large room, flickering with lights and cocooned in grotesque, pulsing flesh. This was some kind of control room, with many lights flickering, old chairs, perhaps a map buried beneath glossy skin. Holes in the walls sussurated with the faint movement of air from distant caverns, the flesh puckering around them like the disgusting lips of a blighted, mutated beast. Our transceiver was buried amongst flesh and steel on one side of the room, waiting for us to remove it. But at the far end of the room an ancient door was jammed half open. We did not see it, but we felt the movement inside.

Sprawled over the bench and desk next to the transceiver, partially covering the machinery in which it was buried, was a huge heart, pumping and twitching with a fell puissance.

We moved quickly. The hellvetic placed a triggered explosive on the heart and took a firing position near the shaft, while I placed my fire grenades at two points in the room. Tesla and Stanko began to dismantle the control panel in order to remove the transceiver, and Sylvan and I approached the door.

I threw my final fire bomb through the door, and all hell broke loose. Beasts swarmed out of the room beyond the door, screaming and smoking, and fell upon us. Vicious battle ensued, with the hellvetic firing into the fray with an angry chatter of peacemaker-fire, Sylvan moving smoothly amongst the battle slicing and stabbing and getting torn at by angry beasts while I tried to burn them and Stanko and Tesla desperately worked to free the transceiver. The beasts were many and vicious, and as they closed in Stanko had to stop working on the transceiver to fire at them with the pistol Sylvan had loaned him; he killed one, but the hellvetic was being pushed back and Sylvan seemed to go down under the beasts’ attack. Fortunately he rose up again, strengthened with rage[3] and beat back the last attackers as Tesla and Stanko dragged the transceiver free. We ran for the shaft, Sylvan going up last and me and Ronan setting off the explosives before he was even clear of the shaft.

They all burnt.

We struggled outside with the transceiver and fled, putting distance between ourselves and anything that might be left behind. We doubted there would be pursuit, because we had heard the rumbling of collapsing caverns behind us, but we wanted to be sure because the fight had taken its toll, and we were all badly injured. Stanko’s left arm had been mangled at the shoulder, and everyone was exhausted when we stopped. I gave what battlefield treatments I could, and we made the decision not to return to Tumbler, but to go to Gesseln, where we could get healing and maybe find a buyer for this transceiver. Why return anything to those untrustworthy Chroniclers in Tumbler?

Weary but not unwise, we trudged north.

Stanko’s merry band

After a day of travel we stumbled upon Stanko’s employers. Tesla found them while she was scouting ahead, not because she stumbled on their camp but because she followed the Cockroach clanners who were preparing to ambush it. By following the clanners she saw that they were digging tunnels under the camp and preparing to attack from below.

Stanko wanted to be paid. Cockroaches killing everyone in the mercenary camp would certainly stop him collecting his payment, but he was leery about going in with us, because he didn’t trust his employers. We agreed with him; they were a band of Apocalyptics, and a nasty looking bunch. Sylvan seemed particularly adamant that we should not trust this band, and that we needed a story to ensure they did not come after us. He, of all of us, knows the mettle of his kind – why would we doubt him?[4] We decided to stay hidden, and he would go in and negotiate for his money, using the information about the Cockroaches as a further incentive. He would tell the mercenaries he had been rescued by a group of Spitalians who had destroyed the caverns he had been sent to scout; this would hopefully discourage the mercenaries from continuing on their mission, and maybe enable us to secure an escort back to Gesseln (not that I wish to travel with Apocalyptics – one is enough).

Stanko entered the camp. Would they listen to him, and pay him, or would they show the treachery typical of their kind, cut his throat and come for us, oblivious to the trap that the cockroaches had set for them?

Would our fate rest in the hands of a Cockroach warband? We watched Stanko begin negotiating, and placed our trust in the treacherous souls of men, and the brutal instincts of the Cockroach clan …

 


fn1: There were also some burn husks, which the Apocalyptic slipped into his pouch when Karl the Spitalian was not looking. This tale is told, as last time, from Karl’s perspective.

fn2: My friend Sergeant M from Australia was visiting Japan and wanted to join our session, so we made a temporary character for him. He played Stanko the whole day with a dour Russian accent, cynical and resigned to the evils of this post-apocalyptic world. “What could possibly go wrong?” Stanko was a perfect expression of wasteland fatalism.

fn3: Actually massively enhanced by a burn husk he secretly huffed, which vastly improved his fighting prowess; he should have done this at the beginning of the fight

fn4: Sylvan had discovered burn spores growing in the lair, and realized that the Apocalyptics had been traveling to the catacombs to harvest burn spores. This made him think they would kill anyone who had been inside the lair, unless we could assure them that there was no longer any value in protecting the secret of its contents. But he couldn’t tell the other characters that, because he was still hiding the fact that he had taken burn, and he now realized that the burn he had taken probably belonged to an agent of the Apocalyptics in the camp …

cc clanner

 

No one will be left to prove that humans existed
Maybe soon the children will be born open fisted
We all live on one planet it will all go up in smoke

Too bad they couldn’t see this lethal energy
And now the final scene, a global darkening

Dig deep the piles of rubble and ruins
Towering overhead both far and wide
Einstein said “We’ll use rocks on the other side”

(Spitalian lament)

[Told in the words of Karl, Spitalian epigeneticist]

There is much in the ruins of this world that must be cleansed. We the elect have inherited this awesome responsibility, and my brethren discharge it with vigour and pride. But to me falls a subtler task. There is much in the ruins of this world that must be burnt. But those in our charge scrabble through those ruins desperately seeking food, scrap, and pride. We must be careful lest our holy fire also destroy that which might save those we are charged with protecting. I, Karl, epigeneticist, have the task of sorting through the wreckage of this world. I will find that which must be burnt, and that which must be studied.

There is much in the ruins of this world that must be studied. Spores arise from the dust like fatal ghosts, as numerous on the trash of the last world as burn dreams in an apocalyptic den (they also must be burned, in time). So I find myself in this wasteland at the edge of the Black Lung, splayer in hand, documenting the chaos of its degenesis and burning that which must be burnt. For there is much in the ruins of this world that must be burnt.

But I cannot do this task alone, or without distractions, and for this I have my little gang: Ronan the Hellvetic, who kills with grim delight; Sylvan the Apocalyptic, enforcer and bruiser for his flock, appoints himself the leader of this his new flock (he will burn in time); and filthy Tesla and her cat Coils, who knows nothing but scrap and ruins, with all the passion for scrabbling in the corrupted earth that only misguided youth can muster. There was another, Judie, one more scrapper burrowing through the corpse of the last world like a greasy maggot, but she is away on some secret scrapper task. Sylvan, who shares some bond with her (no doubt forged in filth and vice), suggests that she is chasing rumours of plunder dug up when we killed the cave bear in our last job. Having appointed himself our protector, Sylvan suggested that we should continue to break bread, spill blood, and spread fire together, and we all found ourselves nodding along. He has a dangerous way with words, that one – though I fear his blade is far quicker and sharper than his wit. No matter, while we have shared business out here on the edge of corruption, and while ever we can work together in the pursuit of knowledge and wealth, then let us share a campfire and the occasional kill.

There is much in the ruins of this world that must be killed. These past days, it is Cockroaches that we hunted. The Cockroach Clan has been raiding the edges of the black lung, and this season they have begun to encroach on the Protectorate. Judges ride to destroy them, but it is known that where the Cockroaches go corruption follows. We did not seek the Cockroaches – simple bug hunts are beneath us all – but we stumbled upon one of their nests while we sought a deeper treasure. This, then, is the brief tale of their deaths, and the fiery deaths of their infected slaves.

We spent a week in the little town of Tumbler, recuperating from our injuries and attending to our private matters. Tesla spent the week grubbing through all we had rescued from the cave bear’s lair, sorting the dross and forging the better quality material into bolts for her weapon, which she calls a “marvel.” In truth it is a haphazard accretion of trash that fires bullets when it has a mind, marvellous only in that it works. By the end of the week she claimed to have “upgraded” this pile of junk so that it was larger and more cumbersome, and fired smoking, stench-ridden crossbow bolts with an almighty racket. It is also, somehow, pneumatic. One of my brothers, a Famulancer called Herod, believes that the Scrapper cult has no true mysteries, and maintains its priveleged position amongst the other cults simply by clothing trash in a veil of enigma. Herod also maintains a variety of heresies, including the heresy that Cockroach Clanners have souls, so I usually pay little mind to his idiosyncratic notions, but when I see Tesla toiling over that stinking greasy pile of trash to produce a second-rate crossbow, I am inclined to concede his point.

I will never concede that Cockroach Clanners have souls, though.

While Tesla smeared herself in centuries-old oil and dust in service to her misguided creativity, Sylvan showered himself in booze and baser fluids, chasing vice through the town and getting to know everyone he could, in ways that gentler men would consider beneath them. By the end of the week he had learned all there was to know about the area, or at least all that can be learnt from the simple ruddy-faced folk who call it home. He gathered rumours from passing Clanners, who were fleeing the edges of the Protectorate and the Cockroach incursion, and also gathered judgments on the lay of the land and any local stories that might lead us to places we could loot, or burn. After a week of debauchery he concluded that there was nothing of note within several days’ ride of this pathetic hamlet, and we should all move on.

Which is why we were all surprised when that duplicitous Chronicler, Token, told us that he had found a Recombination Group bunker just a few days’ walk away.

He came to us accompanied by another Chronicler, wreathed in voluminous folds of tattered black and hissing with feedback and menace. Amidst many sideways glances at his escort, and hints of threat and fear, he told us that there was a Recombination Group bunker some few days walk away that had recently showed signs of life. The locals had long thought it looted by Scrappers, but in the past few days it had awoken and begun sending out radio signals on some tight beam that the Chroniclers had detected. “Radio”, Tesla told us, is a kind of magic that helps Chroniclers to speak to each other from over the horizon. Truly, their ways are sinister beyond reckoning.

Some bickering followed, as Sylvan and the Hellvetic obsessed about matters of payment and other irrelevancies. Finally they settled on some paltry fee of 150 drafts to visit the place and kill whatever had opened it up, as well as the right to keep what we found there. We have already been deceived by this lying electrician once, so no doubt he will trick us again, but it appears his violent friends are too busy in the cave bear’s lair to bother us, so whatever deception he plays will have to be a little gentler this time. No doubt it will involve haggling over junk.

There is much in this world that must be studied. I am an Epigeneticist, so the contents of Recombination Group bunkers are my responsibility to find, secure, study, burn. Sylvan and Tesla are looters, and any door that opens is an invitation to suicidal recklessness for their kind. Ronan is a psychopath who drifts on the tides of this world’s ocean of violence, only flicking into motion when he smells blood.

Genetics, secrets, and blood in equal measure. We needed no further convincing. We set off at dawn.

degenesis map

There was little profit to be had in the dry and empty landscape east of Tumbler. Streams of ragged Clanners passed us heading west, lugging their paltry possessions on their backs, on rough sleds, or on ragged donkeys if they were lucky. They looked fearfully behind them, and forward along the road to Justitian with grim determination. One group stopped to talk with us, and exchanged a stone and some water with Sylvan but had no useful guidance for us, except that death roamed to the east. We parted ways with the road and headed over the rugged ground on the edge of the Black Lung, following the rough directions Token had given us and trusting to the Hellvetic’s sense of direction. On that first day in the wild we stumbled on a large group of Justices, patrolling the edge of the Protectorate. Beyond them the land did not change at all, proceeding toward the horizon in the same unbroken march of stunted trees, dusty earth and suspicious fronds; but over it hung a sense of menace, and a faint haze as if the entire world out there were burning. The black lung.

The Justices spoke with us, and in their midst I found a Spitalian, beneath me in rank and eager to impress what little knowledge he had on one of his order. The Justices had been patrolling the border, hoping to catch any Cockroach incursions before they broke into civilized farmlands, but for now the Lung’s infestation stayed hidden in its pockmarked plains, and instead they found themselves shepherding fleeing Clanners west. They would not head into the Lung, for that way lies death, but they would not stop us passing. Some clans had stayed behind in the newly-conquered Cockroach territory to fight – and die – in defense of their pathetic holdings, and perhaps if we headed in their direction we might meet a friendly guide or at least find some shelter as we headed to the bunker.

We thanked the Judges and broke through the border, striding purposefully through ankle-high grass into a realm of war and bitterness.

Travel in the Black Lung was dusty and tedious. The following morning we encountered a small group of Clanners, fleeing west, who set us on the right direction to the bunker and told us of their old holdings, which they had abandoned, a short walk to the east. The clan had fled their ancestral homes before they caught sight of the Cockroaches, hoping to escape to the shelter of the Protectorate without threat of roadside raids and night time chaos. We were welcome to stop in their village and use the well if we wanted; perhaps we might find shelter and supplies. They also set us on the correct path to the bunker, which they knew about, because Ronan our Hellvetic had been wrong for a day now and we were slowly drifting south of our target. We thanked them, and headed to their village.

The village lay in a dusty hollow, surrounded by scrub and approached by a single beaten path that in these parts might pass as a civilized road. The sun was sinking and shadows lengthening over the hollow, but we hardly needed our sight to know the Cockroaches had reached it first. The clan holdings were just a couple of long-houses and a barn, which now smouldered in ruins, torched sometime early in the day. Two filthy, degraded beast men stood in front of the door of one long-house, which was barred from without; in the other long-house we discerned signs of evening revelrie, of whatever kind matters to these debased creatures. From our position in the scrub on the far side of the road, in the shadows of the dying day, we apprised the enemy; our first sighting of those ferocious marauders, the Cockroaches.

In truth they were a wretched sight. Filthy, bedraggled rags hung about lean, muscled frames of young men who had not washed in weeks. They were covered in scars and tattoos, smeared in mud and reeking gore, hair wild and matted. Both held wicked short knives, and though on guard neither showed much attention to the task; one was picking parasites carefully from his hair, and the other staring at the setting sun as if it were a talisman he could pluck from the sky. Probably both were stupid enough to believe the truth of this, but their distraction was sufficient to enable us to scuttle behind the razed barn, weapons ready, while Sylvan drifted behind the longhouse and into the deep shadows on the side closest to them. Then we sprung, firing crossbows at the two men. We hit both, and Sylvan emerged from the shadows for an efficient kill, but we were not fast enough – one screamed as he died. Ronan drew his kukhri and he and I raced to flank the doors of the other long-house, while Sylvan grabbed a Cockroach shield and moved to the open ground in front of the long-house door, hoping to lure the Cockroaches out with a pretense at being a wounded fellow.

The door opened, and from it emerged a monster straight from the blackest lungs of hell, a fell giant of a man who stooped under the door frame and hurled himself forward like a steam-hammer in one of Balkhan’s great forges. He ignored Sylvan’s pathetic ruse, because no Cockroach cares about his comrades when there is fresh blood to spill. He carried a hammer in one hand and a vicious spiked club in the other, and struck simultaneously at me and Ronan. He hit both of us, and then Tesla ran over to supine Sylvan and shot the beast with one of those smoking, roaring bolts. She hit it in the shoulder, and with a roar it charged through us to attack Tesla. The giant man stank of the uncured furs that wrapped his body, of half-cooked meat and rancid butter and the moral ruin of a thousand nights spent disgracing the human race, and he moved with the lithe fury of the animal he had become. No soul could reside in that bestial frame, except that it were held captive by some evil magic; let death be its lot, whether it held a soul or only blood-furious urges. It hit Tesla with its club, pushing her back, but now Sylvan was up to fight; he shot it with a crossbow, then leapt forward to cut it twice with those nasty little blades he carries in the folds of his clothes, cutting it in a thousand places. Howling with rage, it turned on him but could not reach him.

In the giant’s stinking wake came two of its vile paramours, keening women clothed in nothing more than wreaths of smoke and a crust of dried blood. Ronan and I were badly hurt by the beast-leader’s strikes, but we were still fast enough to strike the women as they emerged. I am sure neither of us felt any compunction against madly hacking and stabbing these two women, for though one could not mistake their sex upon sight of those ripe melons and sweating pudenda, they evoked no sense of mercy or tenderness such as one might feel towards civilized women; rather, rage at the debasement of all that is gentle in womankind, and all that is moral in humanity. We struck madly at them, ignoring our wounds and desperate in our pain and anger.

Somewhere behind us the vile leader fell with an anguished crash, another of Tesla’s bolts stuck in his left eye. The women were wounded now, bleeding from deep cuts in belly and leg, when Sylvan came bursting through and past them, leaving a trail of blood behind. They fell to the ground with brief grunts of surprise and lay twitching as the Apocalyptic flicked blood off his knives onto their sagging breasts.

“Beasts all,” he grunted, uncharacteristically taciturn. Has an Apocalyptic ever spoken truer? With those simple words the battle ended.

We searched the long-house but found nothing. We then moved to the other long-house, removed the bar and dragged open the door. I pumped light into my splayer and we stepped inside to find two men chained and writhing on the floor. Tesla was about to rush forward to help them, but my firm patrician hand stopped her, as I declared, “Ware! Infestation!” All three turned to look slowly at the Mollusk on my upraised splayer, though they hardly needed to – in the harsh glow of the coldlight, the Mollusk’s frantic palpitations cast a fluttering pattern of shadows over all the walls of the long-house, a beat of cool light and threatening shadow that rippled over the faces of both doomed men.

My three colleagues stepped away from the prisoners. I took a half-step closer, enough to see that one was already half consumed with spores. Ronan stepped forward, kukhri raised, to deal a psychopath’s mercy. I stopped him with a wave of my arm. He would carry that infection through a thousand battles and back to the fortress of Justitian itself if he dealt his cool gift here. No, this was my gift to give. I turned and ushered them out. In the long-house I found a store of oil, which I scattered around the men and on the steep. In between waves of madness they looked out at me from bloodshot eyes, knowing too well that their inevitable fate had come. I barred the door.

There is much in the ruins of this world that must be burnt. The sun sank completely below the distant hills as we walked away from the village, plunging the whole world into cold darkness and silence – broken only by the fierce red light of the burning long-house, and the fiercer cries of the men who burnt within.

In time the cries sputtered out. We marched, and slept later, a sleep chased by nightmares of fire and disease. In the morning, bleary-eyed and sore, we broke camp early and marched north. No one spoke of the battle; the usual excitement of a fight won was submerged in the gruesome reality of the Cockroach clan’s dominance, and the distant threat of spores. Even here, so close to the protectorate? Someone would have to be told. Spitalians would come. Much would burn.

Towards evening we found the bunker. It was recessed in the slope of a small hill, shrouded in ferns and slightly back from the old path we followed, so that we almost missed it. In amongst the dripping ferns was a dark scar in the earth, and fresh piles of earth as if something had recently been pushed aside. Looking closer we saw the gaping hole in the earth, and the wide maw of an open gate, square, dark, inviting. The bunker was open. We had found it.

Genetics, secrets, blood. We did not hesitate, but plunged into the darkness.

The age of degenesis has begun ...

The age of degenesis has begun …

My group’s regular member Grim D returned from his annual Christmas holiday in Germany bearing a sleek black rule book for a German RPG called Degenesis, revised and newly translated into English. We were astounded by this book, both for the beauty of its contents and the scale of the project it represents, and as soon as we opened it we became obssessed. We played the first session of a short campaign last weekend, and this is my review of the good and points of this incredible game.

Overview

Degenesis is described by the developers as “Primal Punk” role-playing, set in a post-apocalyptic future 500 years after Eschaton, a meteor fall that laid waste to the earth, unleashed radical climatic changes, and released strange spores that mutate human and non-human life. In this far future humanity has regained some form of functioning society but struggles in a world ravaged by both the aftermath of disaster and the emergence of new, dangerous forms of genetic mutation called “homo degenesis”. Europe suffered the worst of the meteoric damage, and in the aftermath of the disaster Africa became ascendant – but Africa too suffers from the strange ecological changes that fell from the sky. Africans raid Europe to take slaves back to their rich lands, and the people of Europe pick over the bones of their past trying to recover even the smallest semblance of their past glory.

The rules are divided into two books: Primal Punk, which describes the world, and Katharsys, which describes the rules. In Primal Punk you learn in great detail about the history of the apocalypse and the strange things that happened afterwards, as well as the main cultures – Balkhan, Borcan, Neolibyan, etc. – that dominate the post-apocalyptic landscape and the cults from which character classes are drawn. By the time you’ve read 300 pages of history and cultural background, you are ready to begin creating a character you hope might survive this brutal ecological hellzone.

Fascist in a wetsuit

Fascist in a wetsuit

Raw passion and beauty perfectly combined

The first thing to say about this game is that it is a creation of unrivaled beauty. I haven’t seen anything as well designed and perfectly conceived since Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay back in the 1980s. The mere books themselves are a robust and imposing presence, two solid black (or white) minimalist tomes packed in an apocalypse-proof cardboard sleeve. They are constructed of high quality glossy materials, easy to read and handle, and liberally strewn with art of eye-catching beauty. The pages carry subtle prints that change according to the section, giving an atmosphere to the book without overwhelming the reader, and there are a series of symbols and iconography that are carried throughout the text. Chapters and sections of chapters start with quotes from a small cast of famous writers, ensuring that a coherent feeling of post-apocalyptic foreboding envelops the reader. Everything has a punk/skinhead/goth artistic style, as if the whole project were banged out in a squat in East Berlin to the sound of dark sub-cultural music – for example, the symbol for the Clanners cult looks a lot like something from an Einsturzende Neubauten album, and a lot of the iconography and imagery is drawn straight from pagan-core or deep ecologist/punk imagery. There’s also a healthy strain of fascist imagery and iconography throughout the text, most especially in the ever-present influence of the Spitalians, flamethrower-wielding medical extremists who will happily burn a village to save it.

Furthermore, there are movies: two trailers have been produced for the game which really beautifully capture the loneliness and desolation of the post-apocalyptic world, as well as the culture of the Spitalians who play a central role in the iconography and history of the game.  This is one of those projects were nothing was left to chance, no image or artwork allowed to jar with the theme of the books or their aesthetic, and every available medium has been used to ensure that the world completely engages its players. But what of the game itself?

Throwback in Borca ...

Throwback in Borca …

Culture, cult and concept: a simple and flexible character creation system

Characters are created by combining a culture, a concept and a cult. Cultures are the broad national groups of the post-apocalyptic world. The world has been torn asunder and smashed together, so that for example Britain, Ireland and France are merged into one culture. Choice of culture affects the upper limit that can be attained for some skills and attributes, and also the choice of cults available to the character. The player can then choose one of 20 or so concepts such as The Adventurer or The Chosen which further affect upper limits on skills and attributes. Finally a player chooses a cult, which determines yet more upper limits. Cults are broadly speaking the same as character classes, but most cults have a couple of different paths one can take. For example, I’m playing an Apocalyptic who specializes in deception and stealth (called a Cuckoo) but there are others devoted to battle or assassination; the Spitalians may be medics or they may be fighters, or a little of both.

Once these are chosen the player assigns points to skills and attributes, to take them up to their limit. The player must also choose whether their character will be primal or focussed; this choice rules out one skill and rules in another, and determines how a character will interact with the world. You can test all of this yourself with an online character generator, or see the stats for my character here. After this one also chooses backgrounds, such as resources, renown or authority, that affect your PC’s relationship to the cult of which he or she is a member.

Finally, cults have ranks, with names, and rank attainment depends on skills and backgrounds. These ranks come with benefits and responsibilities, and sometimes choice of one rank rules out development trees in others. This whole system in combination is very flexible and detailed and really makes a big break from the standard race/character class approach to character development. It also loads your PC up with a whole bunch of background narrative that extends far beyond the limited background one normally finds in fantasy systems. You haven’t even started playing and already your character is a rich and deep person…

Time ... to sacrifice everything

Time … to sacrifice everything

The system: Elegant dice pools and sudden violence

The system uses a d6 dice pool mechanism with the pool constructed from the sum of attribute and skill with modifiers, including penalty dice. Successes occur on a 4-6, and any 6 is an extreme success called a “Trigger” that enhances the outcome (e.g. every trigger is +1 damage in combat). More 1s than successes indicates a botch, and the target number of successes is set by the difficulty of the action or by an opposed skill roll by the target. For example, my character Sylvan has a 6d6 dice pool with his blade bracelet, and against an active target this will usually need to hit a target of 2. Every trigger adds one to damage, and the base damage for his blade bracelet is 3, so there’s a good chance he will hit someone who is not actively dodging and do 4-5 points of damage. He has a special talent (called a “potential”) that enables him to subtract 1d6 from the opponents active defense dice pool for every trigger he rolls, and if he rolls 2 triggers he gets a second attack. So if for example he rolls a 1,3,3,4,6,6 on his dice roll then he has three successes and two triggers. If his opponent is defending actively the opponent reduces his defense pool by two dice (for the two triggers). If his opponent fails to roll at least three successes then Sylvan will do 3+2 damage (for the two triggers) and then get a second attack (because of the two triggers). It’s a simple dice pool system that enables a rich range of outcomes without having to delve into multiple types of dice or special rules on criticals, etc. There are also systems of extended actions which enable triggers from the first part of the action (e.g. riding a horse) to carry over to the second action (e.g. attacking).

Combat is also very violent. Characters have a small pool of flesh wounds and an even smaller pool of trauma wounds, and they die when the latter hit 0. Armour takes off damage, but every trauma wound applies a -1D penalty to all actions. For example, my character Sylvan has a leather coat (2 points of soak), about 10 flesh wounds and 5 trauma wounds. A single crossbow bolt does 10 points of damage, so he will survive one if it doesn’t have too many triggers but will definitely go down to a second. The edginess of combat is further enhanced by the use of Ego in initiative. Characters have a small pool of Ego points (about 8 in Sylvan’s case) that they can use to boost initiative rolls and to add dice to the first action of the round. Initiative is rolled every round, and ego points are spent secretly. So if you spend 3 points in round 1 you get an extra 3D on your initiative and your first action, raising the possibility of killing your target instantly.

However, once your Ego reaches 0 you are unable to fight – and some characters attack Ego, which is recovered only slowly. Combat in this system is more vicious than anything I have seen in other games, and definitely best avoided. Especially since the best healers are eugenicist maniacs who will burn you as soon as treat you …

This extreme violence leads to one of the first problems I see with this game.

The flaws of an ultra-violent system

The adversary we killed in the first adventure, the Blacksmith, was a legendary figure in Scrapper history, but we wasted him in a round. This happened because the extremely violent system means that big bosses are vulnerable to large groups of low-level people. Even though he acted first, the Blacksmith could only harm one of us, and we were then all able to deliver 5-10 points of damage to him each in that first round. Tesla, in fact, delivered 22. Wounds and armour don’t scale with levels, so a Scrapper Cave Bear won’t have five times as many wounds as a beginning Scrapper. This means that if a GM doesn’t deploy a big boss with minions to screen him or her, the boss will go down in seconds. It also means that in order to have a boss tough enough to put up a fight, it’s likely the party will have to lose members quickly. This is fine if you’re into campaigns where people die quickly and get replaced, but many players aren’t and it creates strange narrative twists to have new characters popping up in the post-apocalyptic wilderness. I suspect it will also mean that players soon learn to start characters with specific weapons to ensure that they get the first death in combat. This isn’t a flaw per se, but I think it means the system will encourage a certain style of play and GMing that won’t be to everyone’s taste (fortunately, this style is very much to my taste!)

The problem of loaded histories

Another, potentially bigger problem this game faces may arise as a consequence of its own richness. Moreso than any game I have played except perhaps World of Darkness, this game has a deep and complex history and cultural milieu that is deeply interwoven with every aspect of character development and play. This makes it a great game to read and an awesome product just to have in your RPG library, but also means that the typical avenues of creativity and expression open to players and GMs may be shut down. For players there is always the option to build your own clan, giving some flexibility to character creation, but I think this richness and density of background material may be felt as constricting by some GMs. If you’re the kind of GM who likes to have a set of tools to build your own worlds with, then this game won’t work for you – once you’ve read the background material – and especially if your players are really into the background material – you’ll find it very hard to insert your own creative impulses into the game. I’m not GMing this system so I don’t know, but from the outside it looks to me like a game where the GM has to deploy their creativity very much within the confines of the given history and background, rather than against it. I think for some GMs this will make the game superficially appealing (all that rich material is ready to use!) but ultimately frustrating, because every action available to them is restricted by the canon.

Go get 'em!

Go get ’em!

Conclusion: Degenesis is a really great game

But oh what a splendid canon it is! And what a luscious, awe-inspiring introduction to that canon. Degenesis redefines standards in modern gaming, not only in terms of the sheer physical commitment to the production of the game but also the intellectual and artistic energy devoted to the content. This is no shabby low-grade kickstarter delivered late on poor-quality paper, but a real tour de force of creative energy by a small team who really have pushed the boundaries of what modern game designers are capable of. It’s fun to play, in a coherent and well-imagined world brought to vivid, stunning life by a high quality and beautiful physical product. Even if you never play it, this game is a worthwhile addition to your gaming library, but if you get it then I recommend you do try and play it because it is a simple, elegant and enjoyable system in a rich gaming world that has been brought to life for you with such loving attention to detail that you cannot help but want to wade into that spore-infested, violent future.

Enjoy it, but remember: There will come a time when you have to sacrifice everything!

Art note: the pictures are all from Marko Dudjevic, the artist for the game, whose work can be found on DeviantArt.

Review note: I am going to write a post in future specifically about the twisted politics of the game, including some of the controversy about the fascist imagery. I don’t think it detracts from the game, but more on that later.

No one here is who you think

No one here is who you think

[Told in the words of Sylvan, an Apocalyptic from Balkhan]

If you want to make it in this world you need scrap; if you want scrap you need to travel with Scrappers; and if you travel with Scrappers you’re going to tangle with Chroniclers. Chroniclers are a kind of pimp, squatting over the ravaged body of the world that was, dealing in scrap and iridium secrets instead of flesh and burn-dreams. They sell secrets the way my kind sell dreams, and they use up Scrappers like an unruly flesh-pedlar. And just like every pimp they have their thugs and enforcers, the people they call Fuses and Shutters. This is the tale of how my little gang fell afoul of the Fuse called Case, and killed him.

My little gang haven’t been together long, but we’re tight. We are five:

  • Me, Sylvan, an Apocalyptic from Balkhan, I trade in secrets and other people’s sins, but I have a knife for your ribs, if one dark night I decide you need it
  • Tesla, a Scrapper girl who is a master in crafting and repairing things, but has forgotten more about her cat Coils than she has ever learnt about human relations
  • Judie, a Scrapper girl who knows about artifacts and trade, the kind of girl who’ll get you rich in the wilderness if Tesla doesn’t get us all dead
  • Ronan, a Clanner from some hold-out enclave in Borca, who understands nothing but force and fear
  • Karl, a Spitalian who doesn’t smell too bad or act too crazy for a Viviesectionist Fascist

We met on a job for some Chronicler called Carl, no relation to the mad bio-fascist of course, and since we were all heading towards Justitian after the completion of our job, we decided to stick together for safety. Just because we’re in the wilderness doesn’t mean there aren’t towns where we can’t attend to our vices; and if there is a place that caters to the appetites of the living, then I know of it. So I led our little party to a dusty, nowhere town called Tumbler, that is famous for the ales it brews. After a couple of days of camping and burning leperos, everyone needed a hearty drink, so into town we went.

The ale was as good as its reputation, but the hospitality was a little rough and the other guests were nasty. There were two men drinking at a table when we arrived, giving off the cool air of menace that tells anyone with sense to stay away and mind their own business. Of course that’s not enough of an air of anything to discourage Tesla from disturbing them with breezy talk of treasures lost, until Karl managed to drag her away. We all noticed something off about those men, but didn’t think more of it until the inkeep’s son burst in, proudly waving some drafts around and declaring to all who would listen that he had made some money. This stupid man-child’s mother tried to get him to still his mouth but he was as clueless as Tesla, waving those drafts around like a fool and bragging loudly until those two men stood up, marched over and punched him down. I thought that king-hit was maybe just a sign of a short temper but something else was up, because they started demanding to know where he got his drafts from, and one of them was standing on his hand while the other wrenched his head around. It was a paltry handful of drafts too, not worth shaking someone down for, and these boys were deadly grim about it. Our Spitalian doesn’t like to see idiots beaten for no reason, and stepped in with splayer in hand to enforce a little peace, and that’s when one of those two boys pulled out a shocker and let rip on Karl.

A shocker means either these two boys were Chroniclers, or they were the kind of men who kill Chroniclers. I stepped in to break up the fight and calm it all down, and that’s when I saw that yes these boys had Chronicler tattoos on their heads, but they were trying to hide them. I pushed one away and put some authority over on the other one, enough to break up the fight before our Clanner went psychopathic, but things were tense there and our Spitalian was standing there shaking, near pissing himself and quivering in the aftermath of the shocker, looking real angry and ready to start burning things down – an impulse that’s never far from action for your average Spitalian – and the whole situation was looking a little tense. But now Tesla had her hand on her shotgun, Judie had parted her stinking robes just enough to show off the pistol at her tattered belt, and everyone was putting on menaces. The two men backed away, and then they left, throwing out a few not-so-subtle hints about what the Chroniclers would do when they heard we were sheltering a fraud and threatening their agents.

We paid it no mind. No blood had been spilled, just a little disagreement amongst travelers. By way of payment for his life I took the man-child’s drafts and handed them over to Judie but she was none too happy with them: counterfeit, she said, a passing likeness to real drafts but nothing that would fool the Chroniclers’ scanners – this was fake money, and the kind of fake money that got you hunted down and murdered if you happened to try and use it. Our little act of kindness wasn’t going to be paying any bills, and instead we’d just made powerful enemies. We were about to take the Spitalian to task for interfering in business not our own when the man-child’s mother reappeared, promising us free run of her bar by way of recompense, and slopping more of her disgusting gendo stew down in front of us. Fair enough, but what did this fraudulent money mean? Everyone knows it’s not good to travel with a mystery at your back, and I never met a mystery that I couldn’t turn to a profit. So we decided to investigate.

While we tried to calm the man-child down and get him to tell us where he got the fake drafts our Spitalian went wandering outside to look around. He remembered that we had seen a little Chronicler Alcove when we entered town and went over to talk to the Chronicler who worked there. That Chronicler, called Token, seemed really eager to spill the beans about the two men we had crossed. They were on a mission to “clean up” a nest of bad people near town who were suspected of producing fake drafts, and anyone who dealt with them. If we really wanted to help the town and make a bit of reward we could get to that nest first and find out who was doing the counterfeiting, then sell our success to those two Chroniclers. Token gave us a map to a nearby stronghold that he thought might be the source of the drafts, though he wasn’t sure. He said we could easily confirm if the stronghold was dealing in fake drafts by trading an artifact with them.  He gave us this big, weird engine-like thing with a couple of lights on it that got Tesla and Judie all excited – a real artifact! – and offered to let us use it provided we took it to that stronghold and traded it for drafts, then did what had to be done if we found out the drafts were fake. Sure! There’s obviously money in this one way or another … why not? Off we went …

Not your average money-lender

Not your average money-lender

The nest was only a few hours away, a warren of overgrown and crumbling warehouses with a larger, more intact building at its center. We picked our way through dusty, vine-clogged streets between rusting, empty buildings until we found ourselves facing this huge central storage building, dark and forbidding and obviously adapted: its crumbling walls were held upright with concrete braces and buttresses, and some of its windows had been patched with plastic. In the middle of this looming masterpiece of jury-rigged pre-eschaton ruin the central doors were cast wide open, and in the darkness within a faint light blinked on and off, strangely inviting amongst the vines, dust and rust. In we went.

The warehouse was empty except for a single container suspended in the air in the middle of the room. It was held in the air by a creaking crane, suspended over a pit in the floor and obviously designed to fall rapidly into the hole if anything went wrong, blocking the pit. A strange contraption we thought, until we saw that the light was a flickering screen inside the container, and heard the Chronicler’s voice.

“DEMAND: Cease and state business, standard entrance protocols!”

Chroniclers’ screeches aren’t speech to me, they’re a mockery of human interaction, but to Scrappers like Tesla and Judy they make perfect sense. One of our stinking wreck-crawlers replied to say we had an artifact to trade, and stepped forward to show off the weird engine thing. The Chronicler’s vocoder descended into a rain of feedback and weird screeching until the weirdo inside the outfit managed to get a hold of his emotions, and then spoke in a higher-pitched, more scratchy tone.

“INITIATE TRADE: Approach, supplicate, ingratiate.”

Tesla did just that, lugging the engine thing forward on her little loot sled until she was close, then grunting and hauling the thing across the small gap onto the front of the container, where the Chronicler sat behind a kind of grille. The Chronicler dragged it inside and squealed in overloaded freqencies of machine-obssessed delight, started fiddling with the dials on the engine-thing.

Apparently this is how Chroniclers trade. Just like a burn-dealer with his most desperate junkie.

The trade didn’t go any further though, because the engine thing blew up with a big roar and a brilliant cascade of sparks and flashes. We all fell back in shock, blinking and stunned, and before we could recover we heard the winches creak and groan, and then squeal as the container fell into the pit. A moment later there was a crash when it hit the bottom, and a great cloud of stinking dust rolled out of the pit. Tesla and Judie were babbling at each other, first in horror at the thought of destroying an artifact, then in anger when they realized Token must have rigged the thing to blow up.

This was only our first disappointment in a long, bloody and dirty afternoon.

Creeping up to the pit edge and looking in, we could see the container broken and surrounded with clouds of dust and what looked like mobs of gendos. There were breaks in the rusted roof, so we lowered ourselves carefully down and into the crate. We were expecting to find the Chronicler dead at his desk, but most of the interior was undamaged – it looked like whatever explosion the Chronicler had triggered was mostly light and sparks, and probably the Chronicler’s suit protected against the blast. They’re tough as well as incomprehensible, those strange digital vultures. We poked around in the crate a bit but there was nothing here and the only way was out, but as we were preparing to leave a huge, probably rabid gendo started hurling itself against the grille that the Chronicler had previously been looking out of. The first heave just shocked us but with its second leap it was obviously going to snap its way through that grille, which was little better than a mosquito net. The Vivisectionist stepped up to the plate, sticking his splayer through the grille and stabbing the stupid great dog as it jumped. The dog fell back with that satisfying whining yap that gendos let rip when they are reminded who is boss, and we decided it was best we not waste any more time in this stinking pit. We jumped out the grille one by one and found ourselves facing a short tunnel. This tunnel opened up into a big space that must have been another part of the warehouse, scattered with containers. In the middle of this huge room there was a big pyramid constructed of containers, all piled up on top of each other in some kind of crazed tribute to … something. The containers arranged around the pyramid formed a kind of labyrinth that we had to enter to get to that pyramid.

As we entered we saw the Chronicler, struggling ahead of us, mask ripped off, probably by the explosion. It was a woman! Do Chroniclers even have a gender? Both our wretched metal-scrapers were silent on that question, but it struck me as a little sly – and was she … an Apocalyptic? Something sinister was happening down here. We were into some kind of plot, no doubt. I don’t know anything about these dirty tech-traders, who leer over old capacitors like a Jehammedan over a set of Borcan tits, but I’m pretty sure that if this was a Chronicler alcove, of this size, there would be more people around, and we wouldn’t be fighting our way through gangs of wild gendos to talk to a Chronicler who can’t identify a jury-rigged artifact. So best to press on and find out who these tricksters are, before we kill them …

We followed her but she disappeared again. When we got closer to the pyramid, in amongst the containers, we saw a big sign painted on one container: an arrow pointing right, with the words “This Way” written beneath. Tesla and Judie were starting to get fidgety, and Tesla was tugging on the Vivisectionist’s wetsuit. “What?” he says in his big dumb way, looking down at her like she’s a bug he’s going to flame out. She shrinks away like she always does when that gas-masked fiend turns on her, but managers to whisper “It’s a Cave Bear, Mister!” before sliding away into the shadows. The cat, Coils, which always purrs when it sees me, hisses at the Spitalian. He’s a figure of unity to be sure, that Neoprene burner. Still, better to have a Spitalian on your side, if there’s going to be one around. I keep telling Tesla that but she prefers her colleagues to have a face, and manners. Skittish girl, really.

Still, this is the Scrapper’s world, not mine. No opium den of lascivious Apocalyptic pleasure, this ascetic zone of dust and machine oil. Best to listen to the girls. I grabbed Judie – we have a rapport, in which I pretend to care for her gibbering stories about artifacts, and she warns me before I touch anything radioactive – and she explained to me that sometimes Scrappers go rabid and wild (sometimes! so what are these two?!) and if they’re really tough and strong they set up these underground lairs full of traps, and dare other Scrappers and random fools to come in and test the traps, then feed the remains to the gendos. They’re mostly characters out of myth, not real folks, but everything the Scrappers tell each other about Cave Bears accords with what we’re seeing here. Maybe time to take it carefully.

Ronan grunted at that, and fingered an arrow to his bow. That bow … Ronan’s answer to everything except dental hygiene issues (he has a stick of bark for that, the pig). The Spitalian, of course, was striding forward like a sacrificial idiot, which I guess his kind are, basically, and heading for a ramp of steel and wood that led up towards the pyramid. We followed him, Ronan scrambling to get ahead and make a proper marching order, and as soon as he took the lead Ronan promptly fell through a set of weak slats, crunching onto the slats and kicking wildly with legs left dangling in open space. Down below the gendos growled and gathered, looking timid at first and then gathering courage as they saw Ronan’s pathetically kicking legs. They surged forward, and also started running up the slope towards us. I put a crossbow bolt in one and Karl struck out at another, and the Scrappers managed to drag Ronan away from the snapping gendo jaws. Clear! the gendos fell back, licking their wounds and growling, and we climbed further up the slope.

We struggled through a couple more traps and up to the top of the pyramid. As we expected the inside was hollow, some kind of structure, so we descended into a a new network of containers. Once we got down into the pyramid we found a weird network of corridors, lined with screens and flickering with neon light. We saw that woman again, running ahead, so we chased her but she disappeared. Somewhere in the twisting alleys of sweating metal we stumbled across a screen on one wall with a repetitive series of images that got our greasy steel-scrapers yammering. The first was an image of a powerful-looking man, scraggly hair around a handsome but cruel face; the next was a barcode with the word EMBARGO scrawled across it. The third simply said “3000 DRAFTS”. Our two Scrapper girls started chanting “The Blacksmith!” in unison until our Spitalian slapped one across the face (she didn’t feel it beneath the greasy scarves) and I slapped the other on the arse. Tesla might act innocent but she reacts real fast to a hearty arse-slapping, and she turned on me straight away. I’ve a surfeit of arse-slapping experience, so I caught her hand and yelled “What is this filth?!” to which she replied “The Blacksmith!”

Unhelpful, Scrappers. But you can’t get rich without their efforts. You have to be patient. Just think of them as burn junkies with a severe vitamin deficiency and you can keep your patience. “WHO IS HE?!” I yelled in my most patient voice, and she briefly told me: He’s an evil bastard who set up a nest, and is famous for killing people.

I was just discussing the benefits of killing him first when one wall broke open with a huge, shattering crash and a massive, horrifying smelly beast of a man came smashing through, carrying a huge battle axe aimed straight at me. It was just like being in the boudouir of the Voivode of Tatabanya when I was sharing tea with the Voivode’s daughter and his bodyguards mistook me for a rapist (I don’t know how). Only they were smaller, and less aggressive. I escaped them with panache and style, but I escaped this monster much more easily – his axe caught on a fragment of metal and the momentum of his charge almost wrenched his shoulders out of his sockets, so I slipped way while he was pulling his arms back together. Then Ronan fired an arrow at him and suddenly he was gone as fast as he came.

How a man that size can move that fast I don’t know, but none of us wanted to find out. We decided to keep moving, and see if we could find the woman. We did, although that raging monster crashed out of the shadows twice more while we searched, trying to cut down Ronan both times and missing but disappearing into the shadows before we could catch him. But finally we did, and that woman was with him, fading into the shadows behind him as he charged in to strike.

We made short work of him once he was in the open with no mirrors to hide behind. Or, to be specific, Tesla made short work of him: while he and Ronan were sparring she slipped in, put her shotgun under his face and discharged both barrels. The rest was just cleanup work, really, and then we were standing there gasping and trying to clear our heads. Well, most of us were trying to clear our heads – Ronan was cutting off the Blacksmith’s Head so we could claim that 3000 draft prize.

And that’s when those Chronicler boys turned up, the two men we saw at Tumbler and a third guy, marching down a gangplank towards us, guns drawn. Ronan stepped forward, carrying the head, and I yelled to them, “Hoy, well met! Here’s your counterfeiter! Now, would you like to share the reward with us?”

Their response was to sneer and start shooting.

A few seconds later the dust cleared and all three were done for. Two were dead and one wasn’t feeling very chatty so we killed him too. None the wiser about what was going on, we trooped out of the pyramid to find a small gang of Chroniclers waiting for us. These Chroniclers at least were interested in talking, and so we found out that we had been completely wrong about everything. There was no 3000 draft reward on the Blacksmith – he was embargoed, which means the Chroniclers don’t deal with him but doesn’t mean they’ll kill him. The 3000 drafts was the amount of fake drafts he had been found guilty of using, not a reward on his head. There was no clean up mission planned for the Blacksmith, and the three men we killed, though they used to be Chroniclers, seemed to have no connection to the actual Chronicler guild or its field agents.

We had stumbled onto some kind of plot involving ex-Chroniclers, probably trying to take over the Blacksmith’s lair for their own purposes. But we didn’t really know why or even understand who these people were. But we had survived and gained the favour of the Chroniclers. Perhaps there is reward to be found in pursuing this scheme to its devious end…?

Time and the tarot will tell. But I have a nose for secrets and profit, and I can feel both here. Along with a fair portion of danger.

But my gang can handle it. This world is full of secrets, and full of people who will reward you for them – or kill you for them. So let us see what we can dig up, what we can sell, and who will try to kill us.

Picture credits: Pictures are from the deviant Art website of the illustrator for the game, Marko Djurdjevic.