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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Save

Save

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?

Save

Save

cc clanner

 

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

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

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

(Spitalian lament)

[Told in the words of Karl, Spitalian epigeneticist]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

degenesis map

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The age of degenesis has begun ...

The age of degenesis has begun …

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

Overview

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

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

Fascist in a wetsuit

Fascist in a wetsuit

Raw passion and beauty perfectly combined

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

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

Throwback in Borca ...

Throwback in Borca …

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

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

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

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

Time ... to sacrifice everything

Time … to sacrifice everything

The system: Elegant dice pools and sudden violence

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

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

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

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

The flaws of an ultra-violent system

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

The problem of loaded histories

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

Go get 'em!

Go get ’em!

Conclusion: Degenesis is a really great game

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

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

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

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

No one here is who you think

No one here is who you think

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not your average money-lender

Not your average money-lender

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

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

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

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

“INITIATE TRADE: Approach, supplicate, ingratiate.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Their response was to sneer and start shooting.

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

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

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

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

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

Tyrant, Lancer and captured Rev-heads en scene

Tyrant, Lancer and captured Rev-heads en scene

One of the members of my regular gaming group is thinking of running a one-off set in the world of Mad Max, probably hacking the Fate rules. I don’t know how the Fate rules work but I’m very excited to consider gaming in Mad Max’s crazed world. So here are a few ideas for character classes (or archetypes, if that’s too narrow a concept) that might make sense in that world. They’re designed in terms of what might be thier core attributes, skills and types of special powers or feats. The archetypes are all based on people you meet in Mad Max 2-4, and examples are given in square brackets after the archetype name.

  • Road Warrior [Mad Max, Furiosa, Warrior Woman]: The quintessential loner good at everything. A capable driver not great at stunts, the Road Warrior is also a capable melee fighter and shooter. The Road Warrior’s primary trait is her level of comfort on moving vehicles: for a Road Warrior the moving back of a car is as stable a platform for combat as the solid earth of the desert, and she suffers no penalties or disadvantages fighting atop a moving vehicle – the only way to shake her loose is to change the momentum of her car. Because the road warrior has to make it in a wild and dangerous world on his own, he has to be good at a lot of things and often isn’t the match of his opponents at any one of them. He makes up for this with a healthy reserve of cunning and luck, as if the world had a narrative that favoured him …
  • Rev-head [Warboys, Hedgehogs, the Rock Riders]:Rev-heads are the quintessential stunt drivers of the Fury Road. They aren’t great fighters or shooters, specializing in only one form of attack, but this is because their main job is delivery – they get the Road Warriors and Polecats where they need to be. Rev-heads are also technically adept, because they need to fix their rigs on the run.
  • Polecat [Polecats]: Masters of acrobatics and close-fighting, the Polecat forms the boarding party of the wasted future. There is no vehicle too hard for them to get a purchase on, no high-speed chase that can confound their acrobatics, and no height or speed that can scare them. They don’t shoot, drive, speak or think: they leap, they smash, they grab.
  • Lancers [Warboys, some of the hedgehogs, crew of the tanker in Mad Max 2]: Lancers are the stalwarts of the convoy, the men and women at front and back whose job is the gunnery and long-range attack. Masters of heavy weapons, rifles, crossbows and spears, they don’t aim to get in close and fight, but to lay down the heavier defenses of the convoy so that the Polecats can get in and get the prize. Although they aren’t great drivers or athletes, they have a remarkable talent for escaping car crashes, and when they have the enemy in their sights they don’t feel the rough and tumble of the road …
  • Fliers [The Gyro Captain]: Fliers are rare and valued heroes of the future, patrolling the skies rather than the road. They can’t fight but they can fly, they have no fear of heights, excellent perception and an acuity for technology and the weather. Those little gyro-copters aren’t particularly stable either, so Fliers tend to have a great deal of luck…
  • Scamp [The Feral Kid]: People grow up early in the wasteland, and they don’t all get ahead by fighting and killing. Some make it through luck, wits, stealth and cunning. Most of the wasteland’s thieves and spies don’t make it to adulthood, which is why the majority of the ones you see are feral, scuttling kids. They can’t fight, but good luck catching them, or even seeing them …
  • Breeders [The Wives]: Breeders are rare gems in the wasteland, humans of perfect purity and beauty who are somehow immune to the corrupting effects of the Collapse. Perfect in every way, their genetic advantage isn’t just reflected in exceptional beauty: they also have better senses, and their minds are unaffected by decay and deformity, giving them a rare insight into the true nature of the world. They are highly sought after by every community in the wasteland, and they know how to use their beauty to deceive, distract and confuse. Breeders can be male or female!
  • Tyrants [Toecutter, Humungus, Aunty Entity, Imortan Joe, the People Eater, the Bullet Farmer – my, there are quite a lot of these aren’t there!]: Tyrants are the leaders of the wasteland, so-named because there is no nice way to rule in a world without water, food or mercy. They know what makes men and women tick, and they know how to use it to their advantage. They may not be great in battle, or even able to to fight at all, but they have a remarkable ability for channeling others’ cruelty and ambitions to their own ends. Through intimidation, inspiration, cunning and plain old good luck they get everything they want every time … until their luck runs out.
  • Organic Mechanic [The Organic Mechanic]: The doctors of the future, though there is almost nothing in the future that they can prevent or treat, except physical injury. Lacking the bedside manner of modern physicians, they make up for it with a refined taste in cruelty and an ingenuity for the use and misuse of human frailties. In addition to rough and ready methods for preserving the injured, the halt and the lame, Organic Mechanics also have a remarkable talent for jury-rigging primitive cybernetics and bio-enhancements so that their charges can keep fighting and dying. Why waste good organics? Or any?
  • Tech-heads [Master, Mechanic]: They can’t fight, they’re probably physically deformed, and they aren’t usually very pleasant, but you can’t go anywhere without them, so there they are in every messed-up community and hole in the ground between here and the salt flats. Give a tyrant a mechanic and a pool of water, and she’ll have a “community” built on cruelty, pig-shit and petrol within a month.
  • Brutes [Blaster, Rictus Erectus]: Possessed of the two greatest physical attributes one can enjoy in the wasteland – excessive physical strength and dim wits – the Brute is the last line of defense of every tyrant and petty dictator ever to rule the sand. Once the warboys are done, the rev-heads are burning and scattered, and the forces of disaster are closing in, every corrupt has this final suicidal mutant giant to deploy as he or she scuttles out the back door. Slow, stupid, impossibly loyal and invincible – what’s not to like?

In this list I haven’t included Savants like the children in Beyond Thunderdome or mobile archers like the Vulvalini, either because they don’t seem to be playable or because they’re really just the name for a specific clan of other types of characters. But I think this makes for a fairly comprehensive list of mad archetypes for a mad world. Have I missed any …?

Getting out of that fridge is hard

Getting out of that fridge is hard

Mad Max: Fury Road is a masterpiece of Australian cinema, that makes the rare achievement of building on its predecessors in the series to bring post-apocalyptic film-making to what must, surely, be its apotheosis. Visually stunning, with a brilliant sound-track, incredible pace, and a simple joy in hedonistic old-school road wars violence that is deeply infectious, this movie immerses you in its insane world from the very beginning and doesn’t let you escape until the credits roll. It is thorough in its vision of a grim, wartorn post-apocalyptic wasteland, unrelenting in pursuit of heady, dizzying action and absolutely frantic. But beneath its simple patina of gorgeous landscapes, sweeping chases and exciting stunts, it is also a movie of many layers, combining an uproarious vision of a freakshow post-apocalyptic death cult with a powerful homage to Australia’s alternative and bush culture, and a subtle nod to an eco-feminist critique of the societies that are driving to their own destruction. This is one of those movies that you can appreciate for its visual splendour and action sequences, but also that you can enjoy for its crazed Aussie clowncar humour, and contemplate afterwards in the light of its ecological and feminist politics. This, in my opinion, is the perfect balance of themes for a post-apocalyptic movie. It doesn’t make the mistake of unrelenting hopelessness that characterizes some movies like The Road; it doesn’t dull you to sleep with the empty spaces and silences of an empty world, like The Last Man on Earth or Legend; and it offers something more uplifting than the empty survivalism or post-human cynicism of much of the zombie survival genre. Through the post-apocalyptic setting it offers both excitement, gore and social critique, all couched in such a spirit of over-the-top, raucous and invigorating fun that surely only a zombie couldn’t help but at least slide into the scene and get that rev-head spirit going.

The introductory scenes of the movie leave us with a bewildering array of visions of craziness and freakish people that are confusing and overwhelming, as the scenes of Max’s capture are played through the tunnels and byways of what looks like a massive underground punk/skinhead garage. It will be some time before we figure out what’s happening to him or why, but before we do we’re given a sumptuous feast of the sick, the freakish and the mad as we watch the elite of the citadel lording it over their filthy crazed masses. This 10 minutes is like Peter Greenaway on speed, without purpose or sense, but then we hit the open road and get a few minutes to start putting it all in place – oh, that‘s why the women are being milked, that‘s why the freaks are running the circus, those women are running away from him! Then the trouble starts again and we’re back into chaos, but with a few sentences of expository dialogue (finally!) and the dawning realization of the trouble Max is in, and all of it set against a backdrop of classic 1990s Aussie sub-cultural monuments: the punk styling, the rev-heads worshipping V8 with their elaborate steering wheels, the skinhead warboys who’re whiter than Aryan and go all chrome and shiny to die on the Fury Road … In a couple of minutes of frantic action we’re shown an ecosystem, the skeleton of an apocalyptic death cult, and an entire aesthetic to go with it. Then the chase starts and we’re still absorbing it as Mad Max is roaring (or, more accurately, being roared) onto the Fury Road, which in this world is basically anywhere wheels can turn. But the freakshow doesn’t subside – just when you think you’ve seen it all, come to terms finally with the internally consistent madness of it all, new craziness pops into the scene, and tears up the desert with more chaos, and then makes sense again. What you see on the trailer – some dude in a harness with a flame-throwing guitar, a gigantic dude with oxygen tanks, that scary dude with the mask – that seems so over the top and stupid, it all makes its own brand of crazy sense before you’re even twenty minutes in, and you haven’t even met the object of all this craziness, or even the worst of it all yet. Then when it’s all said and done and you’re reading the credits and seeing who these people were – the Doof Warrior, Rictus Erectus, the Organic Mechanic, Nuks the Warboy – you realize you still didn’t get all of it because nobody told you their full name but every detail of their names is a homage to Aussie subcultures, especially the doof scene but also punk, hardcore and all the tattered, dreadlocked, bullet-studded chaos of the 1980s and 1990s underground. Here it is, flying out of your cinema screen in one last glorious death rattle of insanity, road-rage and revhead joy.

Beneath this infectious ecstasy of the open road the main characters are laying out an ecofeminist thesis. The basis of the story is a group of women – called the Wives – who are apparently genetically perfect (and very beautiful!) fleeing from their tyrannical husband Imortan Joe, with the help  of his best road warrior, a one-armed woman called Imperator Furiosa (played by Charlize Theron). Joe hopes to have healthy babies by these women, and keeps them locked up for his use until he can get a male heir to rule after he is gone. But they don’t want to be things, so they leave, and his warboys have to chase them. This is a pretty basic feminist plot, made stronger by a couple of narrative devices. First of all, the alleged hero of the show gets fridged at the very beginning – as in literally, nearly – and only gets drawn into the story by accident. He manages to fight his way to Furiosa’s side but his role in the story is just luck, he was meant to be just another thing back at the citadel and it’s pretty clear first, at least, that Furiosa isn’t particularly comfortable with the idea of bringing him along. He’s the passenger for much of the first quarter of this movie, and the chicks are driving the car. Then, these women are not helpless – they are agents of their own destiny, and act with all the tools, strengths and wiles at their disposal to make their getaway. They don’t know how to fight and they aren’t strong (and one is about to give birth) but they don’t let any of that stop them doing all they can to take charge of their situation. These women are also the expositors of the film’s ecofeminist thesis, using their few moments of dialogue (no one in this movie wastes breath speaking!) to drop a few choice eco-feminist koans. The crux of it all comes when one of the Wives is trying to push Warboy Nuks out of the truck, and they are arguing about whether she is one of the citadel’s folk or not. Nuks says that he is not to blame, but she demurs, and yells “Then who killed the world!?” before tossing him overboard. At another point one of the women is credited with calling bullets “anti-seeds”: you plant one and watch something die. These are classic tropes of eco-feminist thought, being delivered by strong women whose presence on the screen is inextricably tied to their femininity and their fertility, and a war being fought to control their powers of birth, that are so precious on this planet that (the implication is) was blighted by men like Imortan Joe. They don’t stand up to expound on a manifesto or to make demands or philosophical claims but every time these girls speak they say something linked to an eco-feminist creed. Even the first time we meet them, one of them is cutting off a chastity belt with teeth built into it, freeing herself of patriarchal sexual shackles, and the perverse vagina dentata fears that the patriarchy brings with them.

I must confess I love it when a good movie works an ideology into its very bones, but does it so well that even though you know it’s there you just get sucked along with it anyway. I have no care for Mal’s simplistic libertarianism in Serenity but I did love watching him righteously defend it; I can’t stand the authoritarian violent message underlying 300, or the way it elided Spartan slave-holding and paedophilia, but I loved watching those men fighting for their worthless cause. When a movie saturates itself with an ideology but does it so well that you either don’t notice or don’t care, or – best of all – everything makes sense in the context of that ideology, that is when you know a movie is well crafted. And Mad Max: Fury Road has carried this off brilliantly, with the rollicking plot and the rollercoaster of stunts and enemies and explosions and madness carrying you all the way to the eco-feminist oasis – and back again.

With this movie I think George Miller has drawn together a few ideas he was playing with in the first three Mad Max movies, but wasn’t quite able to pull off. We see hints of a feminist agenda in Beyond Thunderdome, with the powerful Aunty Entity running the town and trying to use Max as a pawn in her schemes. We see here too the role of oases and lost places as signs of hope, but in Fury Road Miller has been able to better combine them with the narrative of judgment on those who brought the world down that he played with in Mad Max 2. The whole thing is also carried off with a remarkable creative continuity: the names, the punk styles, the language of speech have a certain similarity to them, as do the baroque car designs and the hard scrabble economics of theft and hyper-violent rent-seeking. Even the actors are in some cases the same: Imortan Joe is Toecutter from Mad Max 1. This is a full campaign world Miller has created over the past 30 years, leavening it over time with better production values and now a much stronger environmental message, and maturing some other themes (like the role of power-mongers), but that campaign world has been remarkably consistent across all that time.

For all of these reasons, Mad Max: Fury Road was a movie well worth waiting 30 years for. Later this year Star Wars 7 will come out, and we have to hope that there, too, we will finally see continuity with the original legend after 30 years of lost chances. I am not holding my breath on that, but I can assure you, dear reader(s), that Mad Max: Fury Road is something special, and will redeem this year of cinema – and possibly this decade – no matter what happens at christmas. Watch it, and ride eternal, shiny and chrome!