I am up to session 6 of a short campaign using Mutant:Year Zero, a post-apocalyptic RPG from the Free League, a Swedish mob whose games I had never heard of before I stumbled on Mutant. This game is apparently 30 years old – I’m playing the 30 year anniversary edition – and I guess it must have been available only in Swedish for most of its history, because I’d never heard of it or the Free League before. Which is a shame, because Mutant:Year Zero is a brilliant RPG, and the Free League’s work is a really refreshing and much welcome addition to the role-playing world.

Mutant: Year Zero is set in a post-apocalyptic earth, with the players taking the role of mutants, a mysterious group of humans with strange mutations that give them a kind of limited impact super power. The mutants are clustered together in an Ark, a safe haven in a world of decay and destruction, and from the Ark the mutants venture out into the ruined outer world (called the Zone), looking for artifacts left behind by the Ancients, the people who ruled the world before the apocalypse. There are no humans in this world, just mutants and threats. The world is a really decayed and ruined place, so even finding something like an old bicycle or a pistol is a huge achievement, and when the mutants start the game they will have nothing better than a hammer or slingshot made out of old scrap, probably no armour and only their wits to help them survive. From there they build up their own supplies and develop their Ark, while (perhaps) simultaneously learning the secrets of the apocalypse.

Character creation

Character creation is a simple process of spending points to buy ranks in four attributes and 13 skills. You choose a character class from a choice of eight, each of which has a unique skill that only they can use. Character classes are well suited for the environment, including archetypes like Dog Handler (who has an actual dog that can do stuff), slave (who is super tough) and stalker (who finds secrets in the Zone). You also get to choose talents, some of which are unique to your class, and you roll up a single mutation to start with. Mutations are fairly exotic things, ranging from being able to explode with spores that do damage or hide your escape to being able to read minds. Mutations are triggered with mutation points (MPs), with more MPs being spent to get bigger effects. All PCs start with one MP, but it’s dangerously easy to get more. Finally, there are no hit points in this game – you take damage directly on your attributes, which means there are four damage types, and there are mutations and conditions which can do damage to all of them. Attributes range from 1 to 6, skills will be generally no more than 3 at start.

The system

Mutant uses a unique and savage dice pool system which incorporates a huge element of risk into skill checks, along with a vicious death spiral mechanic. You roll a dice pool composed of two types of dice, attribute and skill dice. All dice are d6s, so you need to make your dice pool with two colours of dice – in the set that comes with the game you use yellow for attributes and green for skills. Any 6 is a success, and if you roll a 1 on your attribute dice that can become damage. Once you roll the dice you can make the decision to either take the result you rolled, or push the roll. Pushing means that you can reroll any dice that show no 1s or 6s. This means you can get a success even if you failed on the first roll. However, once you push the roll any 1s do damage on the attribute associated with your skill. When you push the roll you also get MPs equal to the number of 1s you rolled, so there is a benefit to taking the damage. This means though that every skill check can potentially kill you (if it is tested using strength), knock you out from fatigue (for agility) or render you useless with confusion or doubt. It also means that you become worse and worse at everything the more you make skill checks. Worse still, the GM is advised that failure should always come with a cost, so if someone rolls a dice pool and gets no successes the temptation to push it is really high – and there is great pleasure for GMs in punishing PCs who fail. The dice pool mechanic is further enhanced by adding gear dice, black dice representing the benefit of using equipment. These can get you more successes but any 1s rolled on these dice will damage your gear if you push the roll, so pushing your roll when using your favourite artifact will eventually break it unless you can get a gearhead to repair it (also a roll with a push/fail risk!)

Damage taken to attributes can be recovered with four hours of rest and consumption of a specific resource, or connection with friends (some relationships are established inside the party to help with this), but early on in the campaign the resources required are quite expensive and rare, which makes resting a costly business. The whole thing is finely balanced – at least early on – to ensure that the players are constantly on the edge of their seats, and always eagerly scrounging more stuff, but most of all always considering the risk of their next action. The game is heavily loaded with risk and decay, which makes it a really good mechanic for a living-on-the-edge post-apocalyptic setting.

Combat

Combat works pretty much on the lines of the skill system. You need at least one success to hit someone, though your opponent can defend and if they get more successes than you they can damage you. Damage is usually just 1 or 2 points per weapon, straight onto your strength attribute, with armour as a (pretty ineffectual) soak. Extra successes on your attack can be used to do extra damage or other effects like disarming your opponent, knocking them down, gaining initiative, etc. However to get extra successes will likely require that you push your attack roll – which means you damage your own strength, so one pushed roll and one hit and you can be out of combat. If your strength drops to 0 you take a critical hit, which can be fatal but most likely means you have penalties until you heal. But this combination of pushing rolls and taking damage against an attribute that can have a maximum value of 6 means that combat is absolutely lethal. Most fights only last 1 or 2 rounds and end with the entire party badly damaged, either from injuries or from pushing their rolls. I think someone has been reduced to 0 and taken a critical hit in every session so far, and there have been several fights where the PCs have been super close to TPK – in one fight a PC unleashed a huge wave of mutation powers to kill an opponent out of desperation, but their mutant powers backfired and killed them too. It’s that kind of game.

The speed and lethality of combat means you can get through a lot of fights in a session, and you can get a lot done. Where other systems might have a dungeon crawl that takes sessions to complete, in Mutant you can do an entire lair in half a session. Combat is fast and deadly and a lot of fun.

The Ark

Another excellent aspect of the game is the development of the Ark. During character creation the players also develop their Ark, describing its structure and main inhabitants and assigning it basic levels in four attributes (Warfare, Technology, Culture and Food) which determine how well the PCs can do things like defend the Ark, understand artifacts they find, obtain food, and read and write. As the PCs adventure they find artifacts, which they can choose to use or to hand over to the Ark to be stored in the Dawn Vault. If handed over, these artifacts add to the Ark’s attributes, slowly improving it. The players can also select projects to improve the Ark – things like a defensive wall or a farm or universal suffrage – which further improve the Ark. As the campaign unfolds the PCs and the Ark develop together, until the Ark goes from a desperate hard-scrabble hideout carved from the corruption to being a real home for the PCs. This mechanic is very simply set up but very effective, and the way the Ark and the PCs interact with each other to support each other’s development and achievements is really great. Seeing your players debating whether to set up a tribunal or a secret police force (or cannibalism!) is really fun.

The campaign arc

The book comes with a campaign idea and some adventures related to it, which you can choose to follow if you like. This involves uncovering the secrets of the apocalypse and the truth about the Ark and the mutants who live in it. It helps to explain a strange point made at the beginning of the book, which is that the mutants who live in the Ark don’t remember how they got there and can’t have children, and look up to a mutant called the Elder who used to offer them guidance in their new world. This means that the Ark is a kind of stand-alone setting, much younger than the apocalypse, so it’s as if the PCs just sprang into being (it’s as if a group of god-like beings just created them from nothing!) The campaign arc answers these questions, and can also tie into an amusing-looking spin-off called Genlab Alpha. However I didn’t really like the campaign arc, so I have dumped it and decided to keep the apocalypse kind of mysterious and go my own way. I’m not sure why I didn’t like it – it seems like it would be perfectly playable and very satisfying (and challenging!) to complete, and it doesn’t necessarily interfere with the other tasks like exploring the Zone and building up the Ark, which are where the real fun lies. I guess I just don’t like being told what to do, or maybe I had my own vision of the apocalypse that I wasn’t willing to compromise on. However, if you don’t use the campaign arc you’ll probably find yourself running – as I have – into trouble explaining who the PCs are and why they’re there.

Good points

This is an excellent game. My players have all exclaimed multiple times at how much they love the simple, high-risk system, and how exciting the whole thing is. The Ark development is enormously appealing, the character classes really are evocative of a post-apocalyptic game, and the constant resource-scrabbling and the nature of the threats you meet really help you immerse yourself in a post-apocalyptic worldview while you’re playing. The simple, speedy nature of the rules means we almost never argue over rules – there’s the odd aside along the lines of “isn’t it weird that they decided this” but nothing more, really – and the entire system can be memorized, pretty much, because it’s all so simple. It’s a very big difference from the other system we’re playing at the moment, Shadowrun, where we often get bogged down in complex debates about stupidly complicated rules. There also aren’t many ambiguities, so you can play through almost without checking the book, unless you need to remember something numeric (this usually only happens in the Ark development phase). Somehow this game has managed to incorporate some fairly robust resource management, stronghold development, character development and high pace adventuring within a very simple, very easily learnt package. I really cannot sing its praises enough!

Some bad points

Besides the limiting nature of the mutant definition and the campaign arc, the main flaw with this game is the simplicity of the rules themselves, which sometimes lend it a bubblegum, comic, not-so-serious feeling that is both slightly out of whack with the context, and also an inducement not to take the game too seriously. We’re having fun with this at the moment but it limits the appeal of the system for other worlds, and I think it could also undermine it over a very long campaign. The game isn’t ultimately suited to a long campaign unless you really exploit some of its less-explored details (like relationships between PCs), because the simplicity of the rules means that there is not much sense of character development, and nothing gets bigger or more complex as you go on – your mutant powers don’t grow, and really all that happens is you get a new skill point or a largely not that great new talent. In a more rich and detailed system there would be new powers or better hit points or something, but you don’t get that here. So I think it might become a bit sterile over a long campaign. However, we’re 6 sessions in and still loving it.

Other Free League products

I’m kind of amazed that this game came out 30 years ago, since it feels much more like an early-noughties indie game than a game developed when the industry was new and still at its height. I’m also very impressed by the quality of the work – the artwork and writing are top notch, it’s well laid out and organized, the order of presenting information – the way of thinking – very logical and clear, and everything very nicely packaged. I subsequently bought another game by the same company, Coriolis, which is like a more mature version of the system set in space, and it is really a stunningly beautiful book with what looks like a very rich and playable system. I’ve also jumped into a kickstarter for a fantasy version of the system, called Forbidden Lands, which looks even more beautiful. I have wanted to play high fantasy for a long time but I simply can’t find a system I like, and I think it’s possible that a mature and richer version of Mutant: Year Zero could do the job. With the benefit of being well written, beautifully packaged, and well structured by an experienced and excellent game development company – how did I miss them for so long?

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The ice age is coming, the sun is zooming in
Meltdown expected, the wheat is growin’ thin
Engines stop running, but I have no fear
‘Cause London is drowning, and I, I live by the river

London calling to the imitation zone
Forget it, brother, you can go it alone
London calling to the zombies of death
Quit holding out and draw another breath
London calling and I don’t want to shout
But when we were talking I saw you nodding out
London calling, see we ain’t got no high
Except for that one with the yellowy eye

 

Our heroes’ tasks continue, as they return to the Ark again from missions in the Zone, with still more exploring yet to do. They know that to the Ark’s northwest a cult of some kind lives in an abandoned apartment block, and they aim to visit them to learn their purpose and, if necessary, end it. With their successes abroad their reputation in the Ark grows, and people begin to look at them differently, approaching them for advice, deferring to them in debates, or avoiding them if they are joined to a rival gang. Bloody Jack’s star is on the rise, and the other gangs begin to cast longer shadows as her light waxes.

So it is now surprise that one evening they are approached by Shellah, the Stalker who came to them to tell them of the tower some months back, no doubt bearing a new secret to share. She sidled up to them where they crouched around the trash can fire, dragging a large lump of pure, dry wood in one hand and peering all about her as if she thought they were about to ambush her. Sniffing and jerking, she tossed the wood into the fire, and revealed the real reason she had come to talk to them, drawing a small oblong of shaped plastic from the folds of her stinking, multi-layered clothes. “Found this! Need your help!” The plastic block was about the size of her dirty palm, perhaps thinner than a finger, with a couple of buttons inobtrusively protruding from one side, and two small holes in one end of the block at its base. It shone in the firelight, a smooth and glittering piece of technology from the ancients. Shellah pointed at the larger of the two holes. “It charges! Needs a battery!” She stared around at them, snatched it away when Bloody Jack reached out a lazy hand to try and draw it closer. “Mine!” She looked pleadingly at Chang Chang, who managed to convince her to let Parsnip look at it more closely. It was definitely ancient technology, definitely electrically powered, and almost certainly no longer had a charge. But how could they charge it?

Shellah dragged another artifact from her pocket – a damaged black cable, one end of which she smartly snapped into the wider hole in the plastic block. The other was a mess of tangled wires. “It charges!” She declared, waving the ragged wires at the group. “I need a battery, I need your help!” Then she told them where they could find a battery: In the Dawn Vault. She could help them sneak in, if they were willing to help her connect the damaged wires to the battery in the Vault. They pointed out to her that no one can get into the Vault except the Chroniclers (and only some of them!) but she shrugged. She had a secret way in, and she went inside often. They looked at her in horror – no one was allowed in the Vault. And wouldn’t they get caught? At this she also shrugged, and told them no one goes into the Vault. “Got a nest there, sleep there often! Safe from the gangs!” They all looked at each other in shock – what was going on in the Vault? Now their interest was piqued, and they agreed to go with her into the Vault and help set up the charger, but only on the condition that she share the technology with them once it was charged and usable. They had no idea what it was, but anything from the ancients could be useful.

A few hours later, once the rest of the Ark were sleeping, they met Shellah at the back of one of the open areas under the bleachers, and began their expedition to the Dawn Vault.

Beneath the Ark

Shellah led them down a small hallway to a storage room, and there dug through some boxes to reveal a small area at the back of the room where the wall appeared to have partially collapsed. She dragged a piece of metal aside from one corner of the partially damaged wall to reveal a narrow tunnel that led sharply down into darkness. It was too small to walk in, so one by one – and following Shellah’s lead – they crawled inside and began to drag themselves through musty, mouldy stonework. A few minutes of spirited dragging and they plopped one by one into a narrow hallway, landing on cold rough stone. Shellah began moving forward immediately until Chang Chang told her to wait, and they gathered in a group in the darkness. Parsnip lit Lil’Kim’s disgusting lantern, and a rich but pale glow grew around them, suffusing the area with the stench of her oil-wax. They stood in a narrow hallway that descended into a larger space, the hallway ending behind them in a tumbling rockfall. They now stood beneath the Ark, in some ancient space that appeared to have been blocked from outside by a collapse of all the tunnels leading in. Shellah, apparently not needing light, led them down the sloping tunnel and into the larger space. Here they stopped in shock, and stood staring at a horrifying scene from the Time Before.

The tunnel led into a large, low-ceilinged space that looked like it might stretch for much of the length of the Ark. It was probably once a car park, judging by its shape and the markings on the dust-covered floor, but there were no vehicles of any kind in here. Instead the vast space was filled with hospital beds neatly arranged in rows that completely filled the room. Each bed had long since rotted down to its steel shell, along with the dead body that lay in it – each bed held a single skeletal human, long since rotted away to nothing but bone and a few scraps of mouldering cloth. Some of the beds had medical equipment next to them – here a wheeled trolley with some rusted knives on it, there a rusting metal pole with a mouldy plastic bag hanging from it, there a smaller trolley with bedpans and cleaning materials.

They moved cautiously through the rows of silent beds, looking down at the grinning skulls of their long-dead occupants. They could not tell how they had died, or what medical affairs had been taking place here – was this a treatment ward for sick people, or for injured soldiers, was it a recovery ward from some disease, or had it been used as some horrible experiment? They could not tell. All they could see was that everyone had died in their beds.

Finally they crossed the full width of the room, and that was when they saw it – a tunnel leading out of the room, down into musty darkness, open and unguarded, with the mark of the underground railway network embossed above it. To their horror they realized that this secret room under the Ark was open to the rail network beneath the dead city, and thus to the hordes of grey men who lived in the dark and fed on human flesh. They looked back at Shellah, who shrugged and told them she had never seen this exit before. She did not travel through here with a light, and had not realized there were dead bodies in here, let alone noticed the tunnel exit or the foreboding symbol protruding from the wall above it. She gestured them urgently on, and realizing that for now there was nothing they could do they followed her to the far end of the underground morgue.

Here she led them into another tunnel, this one much wider, that also ended in a rockfall a short distance out from the morgue room. But here they found even more shocking relics of the ancients. A huge hand protruded from the rockfall. It had long since turned to a skeleton, but the bones were so thick and huge that even with the rocks crushing them they had not broken or collapsed. The hand was almost as large as Lonnie, their diminutive stalker, a huge remnant of some even bigger beast that had been trapped on the other side of the rockfall. Is that why both tunnels into the Ark were collapsed, because the people in that hospital behind them had needed to block something out? They approached the hand cautiously to investigate its three huge fingers, each ending in a wicked claw the size of a machete, and only then did they realize that this hand was a perfect scale version of the hands on the grey men who had attacked them in the underground railway station a month ago – a much, much larger scale version. That horrid horde of flesh-eating beasts that were creeping below the dead city had a massive, ancient ancestor. Did such huge creatures still patrol the depths of the city? Were they leaders amongst the grey men? Could the Ark expect to be attacked by such horrors in the future?

Shellah hastened them on, crawling up the rockfall to a gap in the wall near its top. Here they saw another narrow tunnel, this one leading up. She gestured them in, pointing up eagerly. They turned their backs uneasily on the ancient corpse and began to climb.

Inside the Dawn Vault

The tunnel was short and nasty, but they pulled through it quickly and scrambled out into a small, dimly lit room – the Dawn Vault. It smelled of dust, mouldy paper and rot, and it was lit with strange tiny candles that glowed with a faint electric light. They had been placed on the tops of shelves and lockers, and although they did not cast a great deal of light it was enough for Parsnip to be able to extinguish their stinking lantern. They looked around as they gathered in the room, at a jumble of books, broken electrical gear, a few broken pieces of sport equipment and a rusty toolkit. The books were in piles on the floor and falling out of a bookshelf, and the other technology lay under a thick coating of dust, stacked in corners of the room. An archway led into the next room, a larger open space with benches and a shower room that was also full of jumbled gear and artifacts from the ancients, piled and scattered around the room without purpose or system, all dusty and untouched. Shellah led them through to a third room where she showed them her nest, a comfortable space with old rugs and blankets for bedding, hidden behind a broken photocopier piled with books. Everything was untouched, some material mouldy, some rusty.

They looked around the room in disgust, and at each other in horror. This was what the Chroniclers did with the artifacts they brought here – tossed them into this room and forgot them!? Nothing was being used, nothing appeared to have been catalogued or studied or put to any use, it was just thrown in here and abandoned them. What did the Chroniclers do with their time, what was their purpose? Why did the PCs offer up the fruits of their dangerous adventures in the wild just to have them abandoned here by uncaring old men? Grimshaw punched a wall in rage, and Bloody Jack began to offer up speeches of wild revolution, until Shellah interrupted them both and dragged them to the battery, a big old UPS that had been recently charged with a generator. While Parsnip set about attaching the plastic artifact to the battery Chang Chang, Lonnie and Bloody Jack wandered the rooms of the Vault looking for artifacts they felt comfortable stealing, and Grimshaw stood guard near the main entrance, muttering in rage to himself.

Parsnip finished attaching the plastic artifact, and a tiny light went on on its face. Shellah told them she would rest here in her nest while she waited for it to charge, and would bring it back to them later. Disillusioned and disgusted, they filed out of the room through the hidden tunnel, to return to their trash can fire and ponder the terrible secrets they had uncovered.

The Doom Cult

Looking for some meaning in their suddenly-upended world, our heroes decided to do what they do best – exploring. The next morning they climbed onto their Trash Hawks and flew off to the abandoned apartment block where they new the Doom Cult lived. By the time their circling hawks landed they had drawn a crowd of robed figures, who gathered in the courtyard of the apartment block to watch their eagles come to a screeching, preening and somewhat chaotic rest on the mould-covered flagstones. The apartment block was a plain five-storey building, once red-brick and white wooden frames now faded to brownish-greyish-black and overrun with vines and creeping rot, but its windows were largely intact, or had been covered over with shutters that appeared now mostly to be closed. The ground floor entrance was a large double door that appeared to work – as they dismounted from their restless hawks, avoiding slashing beaks and restless wings, they saw the Doom Cult’s leader walk out of the doors, swinging them casually closed behind him. He appeared to be unarmed, dressed in long off-white robes, wearing a surgical mask and with leather strapping loosely wrapped around the shoulders and belly of his robe. He strode forward purposefully, shying back only a little as the birds screamed and leapt into the sky. Chang Chang introduced them all. The leader introduced a few of the other Cultists, and the PCs noticed that, rather strangely, this entire group were vaguely insectoid in form, having non-human insectoid arms and a faint hairy scaliness about their skin. It was the first time they had seen a group of mutants sharing a single mutation – where had these Cultists come from?

There seemed to be no threat or risk, though, and the Cultists looked unarmed, so they followed the leader inside when he invited them. The ground floor of the apartment was an open lobby with a few sofas and an empty fish pond, opening into stairs and a small back room. He led them into the backroom and showed them a huge collection of perfumes, the “treasures of the cult”, and invited them to join the Cult in a ritual purge of the surrounding area. Intrigued, they followed the Cultists back outside and in a loop of the building as they swung bottles of perfume on chains, spraying occasional drifts of perfume at stubborn patches of rot, dying trees or marker posts, until they returned to the building entrance, intoning prayers to the gods of pure air.

Unimpressed, the PCs waited for the Cultists to disperse so they could talk more with the leader. He snapped his fingers and a couple of robed, hooded figures emerged from a side door, scuttling over to him with the characteristic gait of terrified subordinates. They began hurriedly packing up the perfumes and dragging them inside, keeping themselves well covered and well out of the way of the leader’s hands, typical behavior of slaves and captives, but their deception was not enough to fully hide their faces from some of the PCs, who noticed that the captives were all non-insectoid, and had strange mutilations marring their faces – in particular, they had glass and plastic embedded around their eyes, in what appeared to be ritual scarification intended to give them the appearance of insect-like eyes.

They had stumbled on a Cult with some kind of horrible sacrificial rituals, they realized. When the time was right, they would have to kill them all.

They were invited back inside to enjoy the Cult’s hospitality, and the leader took Chang Chang aside to make an offer to him – that they should team up, Chang Chang could become a leader of the Cult, and they would make all members of the Ark join the Cult. Perhaps the offer was a little too sudden, or perhaps the sight of mutilated and terrified servants bothered Chang Chang, but he dissembled until he could rejoin his fellows and discuss it.

That evening they sent Lonnie out to investigate the upper levels of the apartment but he was seen and battle started. They had to fight a horde of Cultists on the ground floor, and then the leader and the chief of slaves, a massive slab of a mutant with a vicious axe, before they could win, contending with the leader’s power to heal himself and the slaver and to cause terror in his foes. Eventually they prevailed, slaying all the Cultists and freeing their slaves to join the Ark. They returned, injured but successful, having cleared the only remaining near threat to the Ark and gathered more loyal mutants to their cause. The numbers in the Ark who supported them grew in number, and their authority in the Ark spread.

But they had a new unease, a caution, that made them doubt the value of their authority in their own stronghold. What was the Elder doing, and why did the Chroniclers neglect the Ark so? Was everything they did a waste of time, or had the Elder finally slid too far from sensibility, and from his responsibilities?

Was it time for a coup?

 

 

I screamed aloud to the old man
I said don’t lie don’t say you don’t know
I say you’ll pay for your mischief
In this world or the next
Oh and then he fixed me with a freezing glance
And the hell fires raged in his eyes
He said do you want to know the truth son
I’ll tell you the truth
Your soul’s gonna burn in the lake of fire

 

When we last left our heroes they had returned from a successful overland mission, bearing a new gift for their Ark and wary of a new threat. Over the ensuing weeks and months their new gift came to fruition, and eventually the Ark had its Trash Hawk stables, and our heroes became the first to ride them from the Ark. This time their goal was to explore the areas north and northwest of the Ark, to see if there were any threats there and if possible to eliminate them. From the hill north of the Tower they had seen a damaged military base with only an old man living in it, and further to the west of there a stretch of ruins infested with nightmare flowers. They aimed to explore both of these places.

Nightmares bloom

First they flew their trash hawks to the northwestern area, circling over the area to look for threats. Their reconnaissance centred on a theatre at the centre of the sector, which stood at the junction of several wide roads and was surrounded by crumbling ruins. The entire area around the theatre was overgrown with stunted trees and rich fungal growths, the shattered and scattered brickwork of the old buildings slowly being submerged under the unstoppable tide of nature; but near the centre of the sector, around the front entrance of the theatre, the ruins were more clearly visible and the plant growth less abundant. Here the ruins were wrapped in vines as thick as a human leg, which crawled over old lamp posts and up the sides of remnant walls. At the top of these serpentine green cables hung huge scarlet flowers, each the size of a human, hanging pendulous and partly closed over all the area around the theatre. These flowers formed a kind of ring of blooms around an open clearing, which was overgrown with short, dusty fungi and small plants – and in the middle of that clearing lay a half-covered body, clinging in death to a hunting rifle that the PCs desperately wanted to take.

They landed their birds at a safe distance near an old stretch of grass studded at regular intervals with lozenges of concrete. Grimshaw saw a small shed at the edge of this park and decided to investigate, thinking there might be a scythe within – opening the door he was proven right, and was about to lay his hand on it when a massive Zone Spider ambushed him from the shadows of the shack. Fortunately his hammer justice was at the ready, and he dispatched the thing with a hail of vicious blows. Triumphant, he emerged bearing the scythe in one hand, and named it Truth. Better armed, and newly wary of their surroundings, they advanced carefully to near the edge of the clearing. A rope tied about him, Loony Lonnie crept carefully forward into the clearing, manifesting his plant-man mutation to try and appear part of the undergrowth, rather than as an intruder. The plants seemed not to notice him, so he crept in close to the body. The hunting rifle was still attached to it by a strap, so he had to carefully cut it loose, but then he noticed that it had other belongings, and began searching it carefully. First he found some magazines for the rifle, which he pocketed, and then he foolishly cut open the shirt over the skeleton’s shrunken chest, thinking to find something hidden within. But as he pulled open the old, dry cloth of the shirt he found himself staring at a huge human eye, embedded in the middle of the corpse’s chest and connected to all the nearby plants by a complex web of creepers and tendrils. Startled, he fell back in horror, and the plants reacted. At the top of every flower there was a shiver of movement and a ring of human eyes opened, followed almost immediately by the flowers themselves, which suddenly swelled as if taking in deep breaths of air. Then as one they jetted out bursts of brilliant scarlet powder, and Lonnie was lost to view in a cloud of pollen.

Grimshaw charged forward, scythe out, and began hacking at the plants. One of Bloody Jack’s gang rushed forward with him and unleashed a burst of fire into the plants, hoping to burn them into submission, and while the two of them laid into the supporting vines Bloody Jack herself sprung with her frog’s legs into the cloud, grabbed Lonnie, and leapt back out again before she could inhale any of the pollen. She landed back amongst the group carrying a semi-catatonic Lonnie, who lay twitching in her arms, eyes open, mouth wide in a silent scream.

They waited a few hours for Lonnie to recover from his nightmares, and decided to take the back entrance to the theatre.

The Phantom of the Opera

They passed carefully through the strange park of concrete lozenges to get to the back entrance to the theatre. Here they found a small door next to a rubbish dumpster, that seemed to have fresh meat in it. Only slightly perturbed, most of the team entered carefully through the downstairs door while Bloody Jack and one of her gang climbed to the 2nd floor window and crept in through that. Bloody Jack found herself in a make-up room, which opened into a narrow hallway that led to the upstairs entrance to the auditorium itself. Downstairs Lonnie, Chang Chang and Grimshaw picked their way through a different hallway into another entrance to the auditorium, and entered cautiously.

As soon as they were a few steps inside the auditorium they heard a hum and a brilliant column of light picked them out in the musty darkness. The room suddenly came to life, swelling to the tones of a rusty old pipe organ that, after a few bars of some ancient song, moaned and wailed away into silence. It was replaced by a huge booming voice demanding to know who they were. After that voice fell still a much smaller voice repeated its demand in a squeaky, scratchy whine, and they saw a tiny figure running into the darkness somewhere just ahead of them. From under the bleachers the same scratchy voice berated them.

As Chang Chang spoke carefully with the hidden figures, Bloody Jack moved carefully into the auditorium. She saw a kind of gantry on one side of the building near where she had come in, and spotted a tiny flickering light inside, so drawing her katana she advanced into the narrow space. It was empty but for some strange machinery sitting at the end, a single red light blinking on and off. Looking into the gloom of the room she could see the pillar of light striking down from a large lamp in the ceiling, and once her eyes adjusted to the dark and the dust she noticed that the ceiling and the gantry in which she stood were covered with many other similar lamps. Perhaps the machinery controlled the lamps? She considered advancing closer, but with no knowledge of machinery there was little she could hope to do, so she retreated and watched events below.

Under Chang Chang’s careful seductions the voice in the darkness revealed itself. Someone shuffled out from behind mouldy curtains on the theatre stage and drew himself up to his full height – a terrifying 3 metres! The creature they addressed was some kind of manbeast, a huge monstrosity of a mutant grown giant beyond normal dimensions. He argued and threatened Chang Chang, until finally Chang Chang realized what this thing wanted – an audience! So he offered the manbeast a deal, and of course when Chang Chang cuts a deal, he always comes out on top.

They emerged from the theatre a short time later with two new additions to the Ark: the mighty manbeast known as the Phantom, who would perform songs and plays from the old world for them; and his trusty sidekick piggy, a tiny wizened creature that barely seemed human, but seemed indispensable to the Phantom’s threadbare sanity. The Phantom revealed himself to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the plays and stories of the ancient world, and he promised to educate all in the Ark through theatre and pantomime. Another win for their slowly stabilizing society!

The Old Man

They returned slowly with the Phantom and Piggy to the Ark, and after a day’s rest set out again, this time flying to the disused military base northwest of their Ark. They circled slowly in the sky looking for signs of danger, but saw nothing moving in the camp. It was a small camp built out of tents and makeshift walls of sand and rubble, already partly overgrown with fungus and creepers and slowly merging back into the blight of the zone. It must have been established a long time ago and long since abandoned or overrun, and it seemed to hold nothing of value except a boat on a trailer in one corner of the camp – and the strange old man who shuffled out from under one ragged awning to watch them land. He appeared harmless, just a bunch of rags with no weapons, but they were cautious nonetheless. They alighted from their birds and sent them back up into the sky, and slowly approached the man on foot.

He greeted them and welcomed them to his camp, but from the nasty looks he cast at Chang Chang they guessed that maybe this old man could read minds. He refused to tell them where he had come from how he had stayed alive so long in the Zone, or why he seemed to be unconcerned about the rot pervading his camp. Sitting them down at old seats under the awning he served them a vile apple liqueur he called “Scrumpy”, and talked to them randomly about many things in the past, but gave them no clues as to who he was or what he was doing in their area. He simply assured them he had arrived there “some time ago” and would leave “when he was ready.” He also saw them eyeing the boat, and then his manner became sharp and clear-eyed, all pretense of muddle-headed senility gone. He would swap the boat with them for a diamond. The diamond he wanted was called the Koh-i-Noor, and it was lost in the halls of the Dark Tower. He wanted brave adventurers to go in there and get it for him – “oh aye! And one o’ them scepters too if ye don’t mind” – but he would not tell them why it mattered to him. He implied that two or three previous groups of mutants had gone in and failed, but shied away from talking about who they were or how they met. He told them he did not need them to rush – “I’ll be ‘ere ’till my time ‘ere be done” – but also implied at some point he would be gone. He also threw in a second offer – bring him the diamond and he would throw in some secrets about the Ancients.

With that they were hooked, and they agreed to his deal. Something about his manner made them sure he really did know things, though they could not say why or how they were so sure. Perhaps he was an oracle, like the distant Oracle of the Silver Egg that they had heard about? Or perhaps he had simply learnt many things in his travels – regardless of the reason, they felt he had knowledge they needed and could not take. They also wanted that boat – they had a plan to build a road to the Two Towers and establish an outpost on their side of the river, and having a boat to operate on the river would strengthen their outpost. Yet somehow it felt deeply wrong to just take the boat from the Old Man – they needed to offer him something. And in any case, everyone knew at some point they would have to penetrate the Dark Castle, and neutralize whatever horrors lay within. Their map of the tunnels under the zone told them that there was an opening north of the Castle through which maybe Grey Men could emerge to harass them; the Dark Castle itself remained an enigmatic and continuing menace to their west. Having secured themselves against a major threat south of the river, they would need at some point to turn their attentions to those closer, but perhaps more quiescent, dangers. They were not quite ready yet, but with a little more time, and a little more delving in the ruins of this world, they would be.

They returned to the Ark, solid in their purpose, to prepare themselves for their next task.

Save

Save

I wonder if my rope’s still hanging from the tree
By the standing pool where you drank me
And filled me full of thirsty love
And the memory of water?

I wonder if a king still fishes there
His back towards the burned-out air
His laughing catches singing loud
The memory of water

 

Our heroes have explored the area around the river near their Ark, and after raiding a radio station full of cannibals they feel stronger now, and their Ark is stronger too. But they are not yet ready to fight the Helldrivers they know live south of the river, and since they fortified the Ark and returned from their last mission carrying a katana, they have begun to wonder if they are safe from those dangerous men with their vehicles. They are separated from the Helldrivers by a river, but the river still has a few bridges that cross it. The nearest functional bridge is to the west of their Ark, inland from the two towers, and it seems likely that if the Helldrivers are to cross the river they must come over that bridge. So the PCs decided they should travel there and investigate the bridge, to see if it offers an easy way across the river and if so, whether they can block it.

Before they left the Ark they contributed to its ongoing project, to establish a system of hunting parties. This month they stumbled upon great success: Lonnie, stalking south east of the Ark, found an abandoned complex of cages and enclosures full of animals. The walls and barriers of the enclosures had long since broken apart and decayed, but many of the animals remained in the shelter of the enclosures, protected from the elements and the wilder predators of the Zone. Unfortunately they had not expected Lonnie to find his way through the outer barriers of the ancient zoo and begin picking them off for food, nor did they expect him to tell the Ark and bring a steady crew of hunters over the next few weeks. With this discovery the Ark’s food supplies grew, and a new guild of hunters established themselves. Around trashfires and in the meagre allotments at the centre of the Ark, people began to whisper hopefully of the possibility that tomorrow might be no worse than today.

Still, the People were not satisfied just to have more food. The Helldrivers had vehicles and gasoline, which the Ark lacked, but perhaps they could do something to improve their mobility and their power in war. They began a project to construct a stables, converting the remaining covered car park of the stadium into a dry area where they hoped to raise bitterbeasts that the hunting party would slowly catch in the wilds to the South. Not an easy project, but with the future promise of great things. The People set this in train, and then the PCs decided to head East to find the second bridge.

This expedition would be longer and more dangerous than anything they had previously tried. They would need to head west across uncharted lands in the sector north of the Dark Tower, then after some travel through the next sector they would need to turn south and pass another sector to the bridge. That would be a two day journey, two day’s back, and enough grub and water to survive the journey and any battles in the interim. Bloody Jack set about some racketeering to try and raise the necessary grub and water but his efforts were dismal, and in the process one of his gang turned on him, switching sides to join Li’l Kim. Vowing to make the filthy turncoat pay, Bloody Jack chose three of his best followers to go with them into the wilderness, and they set forth with all they had.

First they headed east, into a wide open area of low grasses and scrub north of the Dark Tower. Some distance into this sector was a small hill that they could use as a vantage point, and from this hill Lonnie could scan the surrounding areas. To the south he could get a glimpse into the Dark Tower, finding himself looking into an open courtyard inside the walls. Zone crows constantly circled, breaking his view, but he could make out a skeleton clothed in some gaudy outfit, lying in the middle of the courtyard with a long weapon of some kind discarded next to the body. Nothing else moved, and the whole area seemed to have several doors opening into walls and further buildings inside the outer walls. It was a large and forbidding complex.

Looking west, Lonnie could see a road that ran through the next sector before turning south and heading to the bridge. This road was relatively free of rubble and overgrowth, and though it would not be a perfect way to travel it was obvious that the Helldrivers could bring their vehicles to the Ark along that road. They definitely needed to get to that bridge…

They set off along the road into the next sector. This sector was a forest of dead trees standing sentinel in a misty expanse of ruined, collapsed buildings. Almost nothing stood more than a metre above the ground, and in between it all rose the trees, stunted and broken, grey and leafless. As they passed the trees Barathos touched one and the branch crumbled to dust in his grip, giving off a rank smell. Rank, stinking water ran sluggishly between the trees, trickling in streams and rivulets of rot down to the distant river. A single broken tower loomed over the expanse of decay, just the concrete and steel skeleton of the building remaining. Some giant force had blown across this area, destroying smaller buildings and reducing the largest tower to a burnt husk. In places the dead trees had collapsed, forming open spaces that the PCs had to struggle to cross, picking their way over entangled boughs and trying not to fall into the gurgling streams of rot. Here the branches and trunks of the trees sagged into the creeks, and slowly suffused with rot that had begun to turn them into blocks of toxic petrified wood. They hustled, moving as fast as they could to get through the rot.

The hustle was exhausting and distracting, so they missed the Trash Hawk until it fell screaming from the leaden grey sky. Fortunately they heard the wind whistling through its massive feathers, and though it struck them first they were not flat footed. It attacked them when they were halfway across one of the broken open spaces, so they were forced to scatter amongst the fallen trees. It struck at one of Bloody Jack’s gang but missed, landing amongst them with a beating of huge wings, a body the size of a large van that stank of dust and rot smashing down into one of the trees. Huge, vicious claws struck at the gang member, and the beating wings raised a storm of dust and rot. They all struck at it before it could take off, and with a lucky strike Grimshaw smashed its head in like a melon. The Trash Hawk grunted and sank dead to the ground.

“This beast must have a nest,” Lonnie observed, and their gaze turned to the single high point in the entire sector – the shattered hulk of the high rise building. With a sigh, they set out to climb it.

It was empty, the entire west face scoured by fire and the rest of the building reduced by fire and wind to just empty, wind-blown chambers. They dragged themselves up endless flights of spiraling stairs, eventually emerging onto a windswept rooftop covered in bones and guano. This was the home of the Trash Hawk. At one corner of the rooftop they found a huge edifice built of office furniture and chunks of dead tree, crowned with bedding of fresh grasses, torn up cushions and car seats – the Trash Hawk’s nest. They approached cautiously, but this time they checked the skies too, so they saw the second Trash Hawk coming.

Forewarned is forearmed, but that was not enough for Four Armed Marl, who was hit by the beast and lifted from the ground before they could attack it. Fortunately Four Armed Marl could hang on grimly as the bird rose, and Barathos blinded the bird before it could flee far, stopping it from taking Marl too high. The rest of them fired slingshots and arrows at the thing, and managed to knock it down before it could take Marl over the edge of the building. It fell screaming and Marl rolled free with only a little damage.

Inside the nest they found bodies, which carried bullets, and a couple of eggs, giant things that would obviously soon give birth to Trash Hawks. Everyone thought of the stables, and they agreed that this would be a project of the Ark. Why have bitterbeast stables, when you can have Trash Hawk stables? What would the Helldrivers do then? They agreed to take the eggs back to the Ark after their journey was complete.

They trudged down from the building, stopping halfway down to rest and eat, and returned to the road that had carried them through this sector. They followed it west a short distance to a point where the dead trees began to falter and fall, and the land rose slowly into a new area of crumbling ruins. The air cleared and the road descended in amongst the ruins, their previous smooth journey returning to the familiar jumble of rubble, broken buildings and dense undergrowth. They picked their way through the ruins, seeking paths where they could move more quickly, and after perhaps an hour or two of careful walking stumbled into an open space rich with menace. It must have once been a junction or a market area, because it was wider than a simple crossroads. On four sides it was surrounded by the shells of old buildings, broken now but still stretching three or four stories towards the low-hanging clouds, and plunging the entire area into partial shadow. The fifth side of the place was open, but standing in the middle of this area was a kind of obelisk on a plinth, reaching perhaps 30 metres up. A skull and crossbones had been painted onto the plinth, standing as a stark warning – but against what? Did it mean they should not proceed further west beyond this square? Or did it mean they had already come too far?

In the middle of the square a hole opened into the ground. Surrounded by twisted metal railings, a set of steps led down into darkness. Was the skull and crossbones a warning against this? They moved closer and sniffed, but there was no scent of rot, just musty old empty tunnels. They decided to go inside.

You are here

The stairs led down into a semi-circular room, dark and musty but not rotten. Their lantern revealed more tunnels leading down further into darkness, with a strange barrier of intermittent metal blocks standing between them and these further tunnels. On one wall of the room, hidden behind mould and fungus, they found a strange diagram, all coloured lines and dots, that seemed to have a huge place of prominence in the room. They carefully peeled it off the wall and rolled it up to take back with them to the Ark, though they were not sure what it was. Then they headed past the strange metal blocks and on to the next tunnels, which plunged down into darkness at a steep angle. Footsteps clanged on metal steps as they began to descend. One of Bloody Jack’s gang balked at the darkness and fled in terror for the light, but Nischata and four-armed Mort stayed with him, and down they went.

They were halfway down when they heard them coming. They barely had time to react before the ceiling above the stairwell collapsed on them and they were attacked. They caught a brief glimpse of grey, slippery skin and huge dark eyes, mouths with many teeth, before someone smashed the lantern out of Nischata’s hands. There was screaming and chaos, but after a moment Barathos engaged his mutant power and the stairwell burst into light. They found themselves facing off with eight hideous monsters, naked humanoid figures with slimy grey skin, huge eyes and wicked claws and teeth. The beasts shied back from the light, their advantage in the darkness suddenly reversed to weakness in the light, but they did not run. One was already dragging Nischata down the stairs, leaving a great bloody smear along the side of the narrow stairwell from a huge wound in her ankle, and she was too stunned to fight back. Down below chittering and hissing sounds suggested that her fate would be brutal and slow.

They fought back. The battle was vicious and the grey men gave no quarter, but in the harsh glow of Barathos’ radiance the beasts eventually relented. The last two fled down the stairs and Grimshaw and Bloody Jack followed, but they decided against chasing these beasts too far into their own world. At the bottom of the stairs they found a long, narrow tunnel with a walkway on one side, which appeared to end at gateways to other tunnels and more stairs. Deeming it too risky to explore just yet, they retreated upward.

In the room with the metal blocks they found Bloody Jack’s cowardly gang member, Bennie, dismembered and half eaten. They fled to the surface, emerging into the half light of the shadowed square at a sprint and only stopping to rest when they were far away in the direction of the river, standing in a patch of pale sunlight. Barathos unrolled the strange picture and pointed to a spot with a larger circle and special writing. “I think we’re here,” he said, and drew his finger east and north in the general direction of the Ark. “Are these tunnels? These grey men – they can come up anywhere!”

They shuddered in horror, but there was nothing to be done – yet. Once they had weapons, and rocket fuel, then they could go back into those tunnels. Until then, they would have to trust the Ark’s defenses to hold…

They headed south to the river, and soon found themselves facing the bridge. The road rose a little and then joined the bridge, a long, simple structure with low balustrades on both sides, now overgrown with grass and bushes and fungi but not heavily enough infested to stop the helldrivers if they came over in force. Hopeful of finding some blockage further across, they ventured out onto the windswept open sweep of steel, picking their way between bushes and huge fungi.

They were halfway across when Grimshaw triggered something, and a huge explosion threw fire, twigs, grass and burning toadstool all over them. They hurled themselves away from the blast, and Barathos found himself lying on the ground staring at an unexploded bomb. Backing away carefully, he warned everyone not to move and began searching the rest of the bridge. He found more of the bombs – many more. Sometime long ago a flight of bombs had hit the bridge and somehow all of them had failed to explode, and now here they lay, waiting for some foolish traveling mutant to trigger them. Grimshaw had set off a bomb near the edge, but Barathos calculated that if the one in the middle of the bridge went off the damage would be devastating.

It only took them a moment to grasp the implications before Barathos set to work, carefully jury-rigging the entire collection of bombs into a single linked explosive. If anyone tried to drive across the bridge, they would bring the whole thing down. The work took him several hours of tense, careful work, but when he was done the problem of the helldrivers was solved. They could not now cross the bridge, and the explosion would be so loud that they might even hear it at the Ark. A perfect trap!

With that they retreated carefully from the bridge and returned to the Ark, skirting the entrance to the grey men’s lair and making time to collect the Trash Hawk eggs as they went. They were forced to sleep in the tower beneath the Trash Hawk’s nest, and returned exhausted and hungry to the Ark the following afternoon. The People greeted them in triump, cheering their egg prize, and speaking eagerly of hope for a better future. At the end of another hard adventure, our heroes stood at the gates of the Ark, looking south towards the distant river, and for just the briefest of moments as the clouds parted and the sun shone through, they felt their was some hope for them yet.

Then a sound drifted to them on the fresh breeze. The subtle scratching of wood blown against brick – or the snicker of a watching enemy? They thought of the sinister enemy crouching below the ground, waiting to pounce and stock its hideous larder, and retreated behind the newly-build barricades of the stadium.

Out in the dark, large black eyes blinked shut, and the shadows moved with vicious intent. The darkness watched, and waited.

 

Save

And when I see a shooting star go flashing in the night,
I often wonder if some other beings also see the light,
And are they picking up our signals,
As they spin off into space,
Until the final act is over,
Until every man has spoken,
Until every summer’s gone,
Until every battle’s done,
Until the day,
Transmission ends, transmission ends

 

Our heroes have returned to the Ark, and for a while at least food was plentiful and the People were at their ease. But soon their attention turned to the sword they had seen from afar in their last adventure, and they again began to think that having such a powerful weapon of the ancients in their possession would be their best defense when the Elder died and the delicate tension of the Ark snapped into open war.

While they planned for another mission south of the river they worked furiously in the Ark. They all contributed tirelessly to the project the People had chosen, to build up the defenses of the Ark, and within a few weeks they had successfully strengthened all the entrances to the Ark. In place of simple scrap piles blocking the Ark’s many gates they built proper barriers of old furniture and scavenged iron, reinforced and designed to be much harder to penetrate, and a system was negotiated between the bosses to ensure that someone was at all times patrolling the perimeter, carrying the revolver the PCs had found, ready to rush to the aid of any entrance that was attacked. Watches were fixed on the new embarkations, and people slept safe at night in the knowledge of their new security. The PCs’ thoughts turned to those Helldrivers on the far side of the river – too strong to attack, and just a matter of time before they found a way across, and found the Ark. The party needed more weapons to help defend the Ark, and in that moment of shared work they decided to set out across the river and grab the Katana they had seen from the Tower by the river.

This katana had been set into a large stone on the roof of a building south of the tower. The building was a small, squat, heavyset two storey building, but its roof was surmounted by a strange, delicate tower that stretched up in a spire of wires and steel struts to a cluster of discs at the top[1]. They simply had to find a way into the building and onto the roof, grab the sword, and get out. They set off the next morning.

This time they took two new team members with them, so that their team was:

  • Chang Chang the Fixer, fungal mutant
  • Bloody Jack the Boss, with frog legs, accompanied by his gang members Carrot and Nelma
  • Lonnie the Stalker, a plant man
  • Grimshaw the Enforcer, carrying a mighty hammer
  • Parsnip the Gearhead, a man who can breath fire

They passed through the sector south of the Ark, Lonnie the Stalker entering the wreck of the fallen aircraft and searching through for scrap until he found a note, preserved in a plastic folder but still yellowing and fading. Parsnip and Chang Chang pored over it, trying to decode the strange writing on it, and between them managed to identify it as a love letter. They could not read much, but found phrases about “the sorrow of parting” and “being separated by a great barrier of water” and “thinking of you whenever the sun rises in the east” and “never change my email address” and “Farewell forever”. It appeared that the giant flying craft had traveled across a vast stretch of water much greater even than the River, and carried inside it a person whose lover was on the far side of the great water. What remarkable people were the ancients, to live in such times that they could make love across vast gulfs.

Or have any love at all.

They passed on, climbing the towers and crawling across the gantry to camp in the south tower. From there they crossed into the sector where the radio station was, moving carefully across a wilderness of broken ruins overgrown with moss, creepers, small bushes and trees. They found a huge nest of Rot Ants, not the mobile kind, massive fist-sized ants that had torn book-sized pieces of glass and steel from all the buildings in the sector and formed them into a kind of huge glittering, monstrous mound of glass and steel. The mound was as high as the stadium, and glinted in the pale midday sun, but it also squirmed: the ants brought small animals, rabbits and birds and even small zone spiders, and skewered them on the glass and steel spikes of their home, keeping them there as an outdoor larder that the passing ants snacked on before heading off to explore the sector. Disgusted, the party gave the mound a wide berth.

As they crossed the sector Lonnie had a sense they were being watched, or followed, but could find no sign of any followers and simply put the feeling down to nerves. They soon reached the radio station, and although they scanned it carefully they could see no sign that anyone was there. They perched on a disused ice cream van overgrown with creepers and ruin, hiding behind the reclining ice cream cone on its roof as they surveyed the station with their telescope. The station had on one side an underground entrance, where perhaps once vehicles had entered, a main entrance on the ground level that looked easily accessible, and then a second storey with dark, narrow windows all shuttered. They decided to go in through the main entrance, and approached cautiously.

As well they did, for at the entrance Parsnip found a trap. The entrance was a set of double glass doors that opened into a narrow space ending in another set of double doors. A cabinet had been upended and placed between the righthand set of doors, so they could not be opened fully. The left hand set opened well, but the floor had been dug away to form a pit, full of spikes, that was covered and carefully hidden. They stepped around the trap and into the main room, finding a narrow, long room with a desk on one side, two doors on the opposite side to that which they had entered, and two elevators at one end of the room.

As they entered they were heard, however, and three crazed men came charging out of the furthest door. They were dressed in rags, filthy, crazed looking people carrying spears, and they charged the party without fear or relent. Battle was joined, and it was vicious: though they prevailed they were all injured, and as the battle proceeded two more of these crazed mutant types entered from the far door, bringing more blood and pain. Finally however their five opponents were slain.

They were exhausted though and badly hurt. They considered searching the rest of the rooms beyond the doors, but they were too badly hurt to consider it – they needed rest, and food. They decided to rest here, in the entrance area, where they had already slain five of the strangers and they knew the terrain. They ate, rested, set a watch, and slept.

They were woken by another gang of the crazed strangers attacking them through one of the doors. They were not surprised, because they had set a watch and had expected this, but it was a vicious battle. Behind the five crazed men came a sixth, a towering monster carrying a club and wearing heavy scrap armour. This man was obviously the leader, and a dangerous foe – with the first swing of his club he struck Carrot a crushing blow that knocked him flat left him stunned and broken. Parsnip realized now was his moment to shine and stepped forward to touch the leader and set him roaring with a great blaze, but unfortunately he stepped too close and immolated himself too. Parsnip fell, broken and writhing in agony from his own mutation, but not without killing the leader too, who flailed about shrieking and burning before he fell to ash. The other crazed men did not stop fighting though, and before the battle was done Nelma had been brought down with a brutal stomach wound, and Chang Chang had lost all his teeth and been knocked unconscious.

Now, having killed the leader, they were sure they must be safe. They moved into the room from which their first group of attackers had come, finding a sleeping and living area – it was filthy and dark and stank, but it was a place to rest. Here also they found a few rations of grub, fresh meat of some kind, which Grimshaw and Bloody Jack ate in preference to their own preserved grub, figuring that it was better to eat food that could go rancid before eating their own rations. They slept again, and when they had recovered they explored the rest of the level. They found a room with a large desk and some strange long-dead electrical equipment, that was obviously the boss guy’s private space. Leading off from this were two doors, one of which led to a dark, sealed room with an air mattress and a bunch of trash that was obviously his sleeping room. In here amongst the dust and rubbish they found a jar of fetid water in which floated a perfect set of teeth; initially shocked, they realized the potential and Parsnip carefully smashed out all of Chang Chang’s remaining teeth, replacing them with the perfect false ones[2].

The next room was a smaller room with a desk and a window that had been pushed open, clearly the boss’s escape route. He must have exited through this window, gathered his men and then somehow come up the stairs from below to attack the PCs at night. But now he was dead. Mice, men, all that. Beyond this room was a small room full of electronic equipment, including a battery. With this and the air mattress the PCs had quite a haul of artifacts to take back to their Ark. They had also found some fresh meat and rot free water – quite a good haul!

This was all the rooms on the first floor. They opened the door that their attackers had come through with the leader, and found stairs leading both up and down. They decided to explore up first, since if they could get the katana they would find all battles easier, so they headed up. Loony Lonnie – experienced in sneaking around in dark and dangerous places – took the lead by a small distance, and went ahead to scout the entrance to level 2.

The stairs marched up in darkness to level 2, then beyond to the rooftop where they expected to find the katana. At level 2 there was a heavy door, bolted from the outside, which Lonnie carefully opened. Gesturing to the others to stay in the stairwell, he slipped inside. The door opened into a large room, dimly lit by pale light filtering through blocked windows. It was an L shape, so a section of wall blocked off Lonnie’s immediate view of the room. As he turned around this section of wall he was suddenly shocked by the figure of a looming man, and stumbled back into the main part of the room – and into a waking nightmare! The looming man swung forward, and revealed itself to be a corpse hanging on a meathook, the flesh partially stripped from its bones and a badly damaged face grinning out at him in death. The rest of the room was soaked in blood, full of buckets of meat and cuts of human hanging from meat hooks. On a table in the middle of the room lay a dismembered human body, a few wicked looking knives lying next to it or standing in buckets full of gore. Lonnie wretched, remembering the meat Bloody Jack and Grimshaw had eaten – and heard murmured sobs. In the corner he found a wretched, injured person, chained to the wall and desperately scared. He unchained her and helped her outside, soothing her with calming whispers and shutting the door firmly behind him.

“Nothing in there,” he declared sternly. “Just this prisoner. We can go up.”

The rest of the party briefly demurred, suggesting they should search the room together, but he assured them it was an empty room holding nothing but some chains and a dirty bucket, and they agreed to head up. Trying to hide his tremors, and trying to make sure the freed prisoner’s mutterings did not give the game away, Lonnie led them upstairs.

The stairs opened onto the roof, a windswept and empty expanse of concrete with nothing to recommend it. The struts and spars of the radio mast towered above them and the rock with the katana sat in the middle of the roof. Lonnie stood trying to calm his nerves and hide his fears as Bloody Jack strode forward and drew the katana from the stone in a single smooth motion. The rest of the party cheered, and Lonnie hid his sobs by pretending to pay attention to the freed captive. Shivering and shaking, he followed the rest of the group down the stairs, again assuring them there was no reason to go into that hateful room, and casting Grimshaw and Bloody Jack suspicious looks. Does a man get a taste for this sort of thing. Had they changed? Could he see it in their eyes? What was that hard glint in Bloody Jack’s visage, had it always been there …?

He steeled himself and slid down the steps to the basement, leaving the others on the stairs to await his scouting. The stairs opened into what had once been an underground carpark, the entrance sloping down from the ground level, barricaded with a cunning structure of scrap that had a single old telephone booth as its entrance point. The rest of the carpark was empty except for trash and remnants of the old age, and in one corner a fire and some cozy cushions for a group of five guards. The elevators from above would have exited here if they worked, and the empty shafts were open against one wall. Lonnie moved over to the fire and soon saw what he had expected – a bucket full of fresh meat. He lugged it over to the elevators and cast it down, carefully hid the bucket. Then he went back to the stairs and called the others. Obviously the five men who had attacked them in the second wave had been on guard here: when his first five men died the leader had snuck out of his window and around and down to here, and taken his five remaining men up to attack the PCs. It was done. The nest of cannibals were all dead.

They led the freed captive out into the weak sunlight and back to the ice cream van. On the way she babbled and jittered, and somehow Chang Chang figured it out, but with one glance from Lonnie he, too, decided to keep the whole thing quiet. They returned to the ice cream van, rested, and spoke some more to the captive. Her name was Arabesque, and she claimed to have been alone. They didn’t believe her, and finally she admitted that she had been part of a larger party, and had been abucted by the cannibals. She expected her group had moved on. Freed and exhausted, she agreed to return to the Ark.

A miracle of the ancients

They had not moved more than 30 minutes before three mutants emerged to block their path. One was pushing a miracle of ancient technology: a perfectly cut steel bathtub-like structure, on a single wheel, with two handles sticking out of one end that could be used to carry it. The steel carrier was full of food and water, but as the three men moved into the street it was set down, and the man pushing it pulled a bicycle chain off the top. Another of the men carried a club, and the one at the front held a shotgun.

“She’s ours,” he said.

They negotiated. The men soon relaxed when they realized the party meant them no harm, and they talked. Arabesque’s group had come from far away, on a pilgrimage to the Oracle of the Silver Egg, who could “make your dreams come true,” but they had been ambushed one night and two of their party abducted. They had been hanging around waiting for a chance to go in and rescue their group when they saw the PCs – Lonnie had been right that they were being followed. They decided to wait and see if the PCs rescued Arabesque or weakened her abductors.

“Well met then,” Chang Chang said, “because indeed we did. Now … would you like to make a deal?”

And so it was that all four of them decided to change their plans, give up their journey to the Oracle, and join the Ark. They rested near the ice cream van, and the next day all of them returned bearing the air mattress and the battery to the Ark, Bloody Jack now armed with a katana.

And only Lonnie and Chang Chang knew what their friends had done.


fn1: A radio station.

fn2: Chang Chang’s critical injury says he has a -1 to Manipulation and other charm rolls for two weeks while it heals; with the new teeth in he took a point of damage and gained a permanent +1 instead.

Save

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Art after the fall

I have just begun GMing a short post-apocalyptic campaign using the Mutant: Year Zero system. Before adventure begins the system requires the PCs – who play mutants – generate their safe haven, which is called the Ark. This is a brief description of the Ark from which the PCs will begin their adventure.

Zone location

The near zone

The Ark is in the middle of a giant collapsed city, which is bisected by a winding river that was no doubt once a beautiful sight, but which has turned into a deadly, torpid sewer. The Ark is north of the river, a few kilometres away from a pair of towers that face each other menacingly across the width of the river. Stories and legends warn the PCs not to cross the river, or even to go close to it – but for now these stories are irrelevant, since as much as possible the PCs avoid even venturing too far from their Ark, let alone to the far side of that stinking ditch.

The Ark

The Ark is an old football stadium, its bleachers still largely intact and its entryways roughly boarded up and barricaded against the dangers of the Zone. Sometime during the collapse a blimp crashed into the stadium, and the ripped and torn fabric of the blimp has since been stretched out and converted into a partial roof over the stadium, stretching over the fantastic arcing sculptures that formed the original design of the stadium roof to turn the whole structure into a kind of giant tent. The People live in evacuation tents and simple makeshift shacks around the edge of the pitch, with the pitch itself devoted to a few patches of poor quality farmland to grow potatoes and pumpkins. Some people also live in tents and improvised structures on the bleachers, the lower parts of which have been torn up and long since used for firewood or building material. The tunnels and walkways under the bleachers where fans once congregated in between games have been converted into storage spaces for scavenged food and weapons, extra living space, and mushroom farms. Near the entrances they have been hastily barricaded in hopes of slowing down attackers who breach the entryways. The bosses have also carved out their domains in these dark spaces, usually in corporate boxes overlooking the pitch, connected to bars with windows looking out on the blighted zone. They and their closest sycophants live here, lording it over the People however they can.

In the center of the pitch is the old gondola of the fallen blimp, which rests now under the central arches of the stadium. This gondola is the residence of the Elder, who grows sick and weary of this world and rarely ventures out. A straight path leads from the entrance to the gondola across the pitch to the tunnel by which the Home Team used to enter the grounds. If one follows that tunnel to the changing rooms of the Home Team one will find the area has been sealed off and turned into the Dawn Vault, where relics of the Ancients are stored and the Chroniclers live their careful secluded lives.

The Bosses

There are several gangs in the Ark, but it has not yet descended to the anarchic state in which all people must pick sides and pick up axes, so there are also many independent individuals, and the bosses, though they jockey for power, have not yet fully stamped their authority on all the People. Nonetheless, some bosses are becoming increasingly active in jockeying for power, and some actively speak against the Elder. Some key bosses are:

  • Pieces, a bureaucrat who has repeatedly foiled the plans of the other bosses, either in defense of the Elder or in the furtherance of her own convoluted interests. No one trusts Pieces, and often she is infuriating, but she also has a unique power to sequester resources, and some say she alone still holds influence over the Elder as he slides into senescence.
  • Jared, the hated kingpin who rules his minions with viciousness and spite. Nobody wants to deal with Jared, but some number of the People recognize his leadership style may triumph, because he is willing to cross any boundary, and trash any tradition, in the pursuit of power
  • Bloody Jack, the revolutionary, a PC, who alone thinks of the future, and preaches visions beyond the hard scrabble of daily survival. Bloody Jack commands only a small faction, but she is also more willing than other bosses to take risks outside the Ark, and may yet be able to unite the independent forces amongst the People in pursuit of a new vision. The other bosses watch her, and act against her schemes where they can.

The bosses in the Ark have set up their lairs in the old bars and rooms in the levels under the bleachers of the stadium, laying down barriers to block hallways and building throne rooms in old abandoned changing rooms. They gain power by asserting control over a section of the higher bleachers, and grabbing the pure water that flows there. As the Elder weakens and food supplies run low, the power of the bosses grows, as does their conflict, and the independent members amongst the People begin to think about which boss to side with when the food runs out.

Population

The Ark has a population of 174 people at the beginning of the campaign.

Water Source

The Ark’s water source is the Tarp itself, the covering of battered blimp-cloth that drapes over the roof of the stadium. Every morning mist condenses on this tarp and runs down to drip into the high bleachers, and when rain falls it drains across this tarp and onto the bleachers. Here the People have set up a complex system of buckets and plastic containers to catch the water, which they run down to large vats held under the bleachers on the higher levels. Some bosses have sectioned off parts of the bleachers for their own use, giving them control of pure water, but other areas are free for anyone to grab water to trade for bullets and grub. No one has developed a perfect method for catching this water, and some runs down the bleachers onto the grounds itself, where it is captured and used to grow food in the scrappy allotments around the central Gondola of the Elders. The bosses hoard water and watch those farms greedily, knowing that one day they will need help, perhaps in a dry spell, or after a heat wave, and the boss who cuts the best bargain will gain control of the Ark’s only renewable food supply. Other bosses – and some independent folk too – run missions into the area around the Ark looking for food from the Old Times, but this food is growing rare, and as the easily accessible remains of the ruins dry up everyone in the Ark begins to worry about where their next meal will come from and what they will have to pay to get it.

But at least they have fresh, rot-free water.

Development levels

At the start of the campaign the Ark is in a state of crisis, forgetting its past, with no hope for the future and little food. Only its defenses are in any kind of reasonable state, and even those need work. Its development levels are:

  • Food 2
  • Culture 2
  • Technology 2
  • Warfare 6

The ability to barricade the entrances to the stadium and the open area around it make it a highly defensible Ark, but the barricades are makeshift and in reality there are not enough People to guard all the doorways. The Ark needs brave souls to venture further afield, scout out the threats it might face, and bring back weapons, food and new tools. If someone does not act soon, the People will descend to barbarism and worse. The crisis will soon be upon the Ark, and the People cry out for help.

Help the Bosses do not give. What are the People to do?

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