The Valley of Gon is a disputed land between Ariaka and Hadun, that is occupied by feuding warlords who vie constantly for control and riches. It formed as a separate political entity in the aftermath of the long border war between Ariaki and Hadun. This war came to its exhausted conclusion perhaps 300 years ago, when the people of Hadun and Ariaka decided that they could no longer justify warring over the valley. New borders were drawn, with Hadun ending at the western and northern side of the low mountains on the northern side of the valley, and Ariaka ending in the forests on the southern side. The river valley in between was left unresolved, and in the period of peace that followed free peoples from around the Archipelago moved here to settle and farm the fertile lands. They were followed by warlords who conquered settlements and formed their own tiny principalities, made and lost by violence. By the time the people of Hadun and Ariaka realized what was happening in Gon it was too late, and no one wanted to spill more blood on the land; from then on it became a wild zone of separate, overlapping warlord’s holdings. Exhausted from the border war and seeing the benefit of an ungoverned wilderness separating their kingdoms, Ariaka and Hadun stood by as the valley fell to warring chieftains.

The Patchwork Demesnes of Gon

The Valley of Gon is a fertile land, and has many small settlements. Over time these settlements have been captured by warlords and amalgamated into their holdings, so that now the land is a patchwork of different warlords’ possessions. The area of land held and defended by a single warlord is called a Demesne, the villages and towns within it subject to the whims of the rulers, and its capital usually characterized by a stronghold of some kind surrounded by a shabby township. Most of the strongholds are remnants of the Ariaka-Hadun border war, or older towers built by dwarves or elves to help the humans fight deepfolk when they first settled after the Harrowing. Some of these strongholds are beautiful and enduring works of military architecture, while others are decrepit ruins crumbling slowly under the poor stewardship of their warlord owners. Nonetheless, at the centre of every demesne is the stronghold and the warlord’s personal army; possession of the stronghold, combined with the death of its former owner, gives someone the power to declare themselves ruler of the demesne – though they will still need to be able to defend it against rivals.

Some demesnes are successful and have been passed down through generations of descendants. Others change hands regularly, as one warlord is slain and replaced by another, neighbouring warlords steal land, and border conflicts sap the warlord’s fighting strength until an incursion finally leads to his overthrow, or an outside usurper takes over. Many adventurers have ended their career of delving and fighting deepfolk by moving to Gon and overthrowing a weak ruler of a small demesne; they soon fall prey to some other retired adventurer, a mercenary band with ambition, or a neighbouring tyrant. Sometimes they impress the citizens of their demesne into fighting for them, or tax them until they bleed while war ruins their crops and hopes. Such is the life of an ordinary person in the Valley of Gon.

By common agreement, citizens of demesnes cannot easily leave. They will not be openly allowed into any other demesne, and must live their lives within the demesne in which they were born until such time as a rival warlord captures the land and makes them part of a new demesne. They are not serfs per se, but in many ways their lives are similar to those of peasants: nominally free, but unable to leave and subject to the whims, the taxes, the wars and the cruelties of their masters. Such is life in the Valley of Gon.

The Freeports

The river Gon meanders through the middle of the Valley of Gon, and at points along its banks one can visit a Freeport, a small town not held by any warlord, free for all to visit and trade in. Not every town on the river is a Freeport: El, for example, held by the fourth Elizabeth, is a town on the banks of the river that is not free; while Azell, a half day’s boat travel upriver, is a Freeport. Why some towns are Freeports and some are not is not known, and not all towns remain Free: Azell, for example, is disputed by the Warlord of Ar and his western neighbour, the 11th Indri. One day, if the power balance in that rivalry fails, Azell may become a new holding in the demesne of one of those antagonists. In the meantime it makes a roaring trade, taxing all goods heading to the demesnes surrounding it while charging passage fees to all boats heading past.

Anyone can live in a Freeport, and any resident of any demesne can leave to live in any Freeport. By common agreement Freeports are neutral towns where Warlords’ disagreements must be set aside and all must live in peace, though no Warlord would be foolish enough to put their safety in the hands of common agreement. Commoners, too, do not often take advantage of the freedom on offer in these ports, because by common agreement any Warlord is allowed to send soldiers to recapture any citizen who has moved to a Freeport, unless they can pass three Harrowings in the port and thus be declared a freeman. Because by common agreement no one can interfere with a Warlord’s exercise of power in his or her own demesne, no one can stop a Warlord from punishing those commoners who leave a demesne, and grisly torture can await those who fail to stay hidden for three Harrowings. Thus it is that the Freefolk of the Freeports and the commoners of the demesnes live different lives and rarely experience each others woes and joys.

The largest Freeport is Gon, at the mouth of its eponymous river, ruled by a merchant family, teeming, filthy, busy and raucous. The other Freeports are all along the river, growing smaller but richer as one heads inland. No one knows how a Freeport is made, though all know how they are lost, and Warlords all watch each other carefully for signs one is planning to take over an existing Freeport, with all its riches, artisans and opportunities. The forcible capture of a Freeport is a rare moment when Warlords will unite in common purpose, and fear of the massed vengeance of other Warlords is the primary reason that the Freeports remain free. War is all in the Valley of Gon, and it is the threat of war that keeps the river open and its towns prosperous.

The Book of Broken Nights

In every Freeport one can find Nightmasters, a kind of archivist who keeps the complex history of the Valley. These people maintain special registers of the major events of the Valley of Gon, in which they record every time possession of a demesne changes hands, maps of every demesne and records of every change in boundaries and laws in the demesnes. These books are called Books of Broken Nights, for reasons no one understands. They are the only history of the Valley of Gon that matters: who killed who, who wrested what right from whom, and who belongs to whom.

Most Nightmasters also hold other books called Almanacs, which chart the history of individual demesnes. The Book of Broken Nights at Azell, for example, will record that 11 years ago the Warlord ruling the demesne of Ar was overthrown violently by an incursion by another warrior, who captured the demesne and declared himself the new Warlord Argalt. The Almanac of Ar will record that following this capture there were two years of sustained raids by the 11th Indri on Ar’s southern border, attempting to wrest control of three sheepfarms and an elvery; that these raids failed; and that after the payment of 30 cows and a young woman whose name is not recorded the 11th Indri ceased attempts to conquer that stretch of border, and had returned to him his own son, captured in war. The Almanac of Ar will also record that that son had been rendered a dribbling lunatic by a blow to the head during his capture (so it is said!) and that the 11th Indri harboured much resentment for it which likely led to two assassination attempts, though the details of those attempts are uncertain. The Book of Night will therefore record no adjustments to the borders of these two demesnes, since the 11th Indri failed in his efforts.

This is how history is recorded in the Valley of Gon. Should one seek knowledge of a rival, whether for trade, love or war, one must seek a Nightmaster in one of the Freetowns, pay them the coin they demand, and put their faith in the dismal record they are given.

Possession and freedom

The people of the Archipelago consider slavery abhorrent, and will tolerate no capture or control of others for profit or ideology. While this consideration extends to the Valley of Gon, it is interpreted differently within its borders, and generally with a much greater degree of moral flexibility. While outright slavery remains unheard of, indentured servitude, forced labour, conscription, human trafficking and inherited obligations are common. It is a bad idea to become indebted to anyone powerful in the Valley; crimes committed against the powerful can meet with far worse punishment than simple imprisonment or corporal punishment. Demesnes in the Valley of Gon can have many strange customs, including hereditary castes, inter-generational labour obligations, permanent captivity and hard labour. Some Warlords practice human trafficking or use the slightest excuse to enforce punitive labour punishments on their commoners; for some reason no one has been able to understand this is particularly common in demesnes that have old mineshafts within their boundaries. Sometimes warlords do population swaps, exchanging for example 10 shepherds they no longer need for 5 potters from a friendly neighbour. Whether those shepherds’ and potters’ families will accompany them in the swap is rarely discussed, since it is of no matter to those who matter. Of course this is not slavery – the shepherds are free to flee to a Freeport, as are their confiscated family. No one is constrained!

This possession and freedom extends beyond individuals to demesnes themselves. Some demesnes are tributary to larger, more powerful demesnes, providing annually taxes and sometimes conscripted labour in exchange for “protection”. Many warlords, after taking possession of a crumbling stronghold in a tiny demesne ravaged by war and mismanagement, soon realize that it is better to live on your knees than to die on your feet, and attach themselves to a richer, more powerful rival. It is well that these poor and war-ravaged demesnes always have too many mouths to feed, because inevitably their tribute-holding master will find a need to sacrifice people in the frontline of their latest battle. Why would they risk their own, when they have desperate allies paying tribute?

Such is the nature of freedom in the Valley of Gon.

Strange ideologies

While investigating the selkie killings in Estona, the Wrathbreakers met some strange people who followed an ideology called “monarchism”, and advocated for serfdom in all of the Archipelago. These monarchists did not develop this ideology by themselves, but learnt it from a Warlord in the Valley of Gon. With so many demesnes and so many rulers, the Valley of Gon constantly reveals strange new systems of political organization, most of which are soon put to the sword. Some, however, survive. Occasionally a warlord attempts to unite the entire Valley under one leader, and in doing so they usually present an ideology of rulership and a vision underlying their conquest (they are never doing it just for themselves, and those who claimed otherwise can be seen outside the stronghold windows, sinking slowly on the impaling spears). After their inevitable failure these Great Uniters leave behind their ideology, which festers and spreads long after their vision has disappeared from the earth. Sometimes these ideologies even escape the Valley to find a foothold in the more civilized regions of the Archipelago, though Kyansei showed the contempt in which many such ideologies are held. Nonetheless, the Almanacs are full of strange visions and mad philosophies.

No Deepfolk

Part of the reason for the Warlords’ continued success is the absence of deepfolk in the Valley. Aside from a few incursions on the northeastern edge of the Valley, where its mountainous borders encroach on the Spine, there are no deepfolk anywhere in the Valley of Gon. War in the Valley is an exclusive conceit of the humans who make it their home. This was not always the case: until perhaps 500 years ago there were Deepfolk here, and they left behind them some of their workings, including mineshafts, occasional towers and structures aboveground, which are assumed to have been used against humans, and abandoned tunnel networks. Some demesnes are rich because of these abandoned mines, which they continue to work; occasionally they uncover buried secrets of the deepfolk that inevitably lead to ruin. Some Warlords have deepfolk artifacts, which they use to enrich themselves or destroy their enemies, and occasionally a mining team will uncover some dark beast from the time of the deepfolk, abandoned in a deep shaft for hundreds of years, and catastrophe will follow.

Generally, however, the Valley of Gon is free of deepfolk, which gives its human Warlords more time and freedom to kill each other for money and power.

Strange religions

The spirituality of Salt, Sun and Storm can be found throughout the Valley of Gon, but here it co-exists with other, stranger religions drawn from the minds of people too long freed of any obligation except constant war. Oftentimes a traveler in the Valley of Gon will come across a strange Shrine in which devotees of an imagined god sing strange songs. Sometimes these religions will be a harmless mish-mash of folk wisdom and the teachings of distant lands; other times it will be a philosopher’s work turned into a creed to which the lost blindly cling; but sometimes the traveler will find themselves being sacrificed to some dark and insane religious icon. All of these religions are empty of power and gravity: they cannot heal like a devotee of Salt, or call upon the weather as does a Stormcaller. But here in the Valley of Gon every madness has its place, and many strange religions can be found.

In amongst these strange religions are rumours of dead gods, buried gods, ancient magics with strange powers that cannot be compared with anything humans know or normally use, and mysterious alchemies. Devotees of strange gods brew mysterious potions and devotional tinctures on twisted altars, to be used in religious ceremonies that should never be known by simple humans. Even, it is rumoured, human sacrifice, blood magic and cannibalism can be found in the Valley of Gon, if one dares to look.

And it is to this strange and twisted realm that the Wrathbreakers now travel, seeking a lost girl and the answers to questions about lost secrets. Something is stirring here, and they are going to find it – and kill it.

A stitch in time …

The Wrathbreakers have been investigating a mysterious puppet-master in the city of Estona who uses printed notes to dispatch various mercenary and criminal groups on shady missions. They are also attempting to track down the former apprentice of the wizard Siladan, by finding the boyfriend they think may have harmed her. All they know about this man is that he had long dark hair, was older than her, hung around the docks, and was referred to by her as her “Starfall”. They have reached a dead end looking for the notes, and know that the only way they can pursue them now is to confront the man or woman who runs the network of street urchins who deliver messages across Estona. Their investigations proceed from this impasse. The roster for today’s session:

  • Bao Tap, human stormcaller
  • Kyansei of the Eilika Tribe, wildling barbarian
  • Itzel, elven Astrologer
  • Quangbae, wandering blacksmith

Seeking the Puppet Master

It was nearly the new year, the 31st day of the month of Ice, and all would go quiet the following day. They had learnt that the Puppet Master organized his business arrangements with a first, initial visit by one of his agents – one time a dwarf, and one time an elf – so they decided to search the seedier areas of town to find out if there was any knowledge on the streets of a group of adventurers or criminals that was multi-racial, containing an elf and a dwarf, and had been in the town for at least the past year. Unfortunately, this investigation turned up nothing – they could not tell if such a group was here and hiding, if their inquiries had been insufficient, or if the group did not exist. This, their last avenue of investigation that would not bring them into conflict with other forces in the town, ground to nothing.

New Year

New Year in the Archipelago is a day of quiet reflection and prayer, where the citizens of all the islands retreat into quiet contemplation and prepare themselves for the year ahead. The wrathbreakers participated in this day of still inner peace as well, though in their own ways:

  • Bao Tap visited the primary Shrine of the Storm in Estona, a huge tower of ancient stone with a large, open chamber at its base where devotees of Storm could spend the day in silent meditation. He eschewed the option to climb the outside of the tower’s noble spire where, buffeted by the strong winds above the city, he could absorb the full energy of the storm, and instead prayed in the Great Chamber of the Winds at the base of the tower
  • Kyansei rose early at the stronghold to pray to the sun as it rose over the mountains to the east, then traveled all day to the storm-tossed beaches on the western side of Estona, where she prayed again to the setting sun and bathed herself in the salt waters of the first tide of the new year
  • Itzel attended services at the Academy, where she spent the day in the ancient building’s sun dome, meditating on a beam in the pale glow of the new year’s sun
  • Quangbae also attended the Academy, but only for simple prayer and reflection in one of its devotional chambers

At the end of the day, refreshed, they were ready to face the new year, and all the challenges they knew it must surely bring.

Confronting the Rock Spider

They decided that it was time to force the hand of the man or woman who controls the urchins, who they call the Rock Spider. They could have tracked him by carefully observing what his urchins do and where they go, but Itzel thought of a subtler technique. A few days earlier they had received a letter from the Rock Spider telling them not to interfere with his business or inquire further about the notes, or they would be punished. They decided to reply to this letter with a new year note, wishing him well and agreeing to his request. However, the letter would be written with magical ink that would tell them where it was delivered and when it was opened. Itzel knew this ink could be bought from the Academy, and set off to find it. She bought a bottle at the Academy, but they learned it would take a few days to be delivered. In the meantime they decided to continue the search for the missing apprentice, Sara.

The Iron Hand

This time the Wrathbreakers decided to use their limited charms to search for the boyfriend of the apprentice, again trawling through bars and restaurants in the Docks and Old Town looking for signs of a man who might fit the description they had been given. By now they had narrowed down the area of their search to a small cluster of bars and night districts just back from the Docks, so they set out there with a simple plan. Kyansei would again pretend to be on the hunt for men, while the rest of the group would stay nearby within easy alarm distance, ready to pounce.

They plied this tactic for two nights, and on the second night finally found their target. Kyansei was relaxing on a verandah of a well-known bar when from across the road she heard a young woman’s voice exclaiming “Oh stars you have a tattoo! Oh wow! On your neck!? Let me see! No show me! Oh wow it’s a falling star! So beautiful!” Looking closer, she saw a man who matched the description they had been given of Sara’s former boyfriend, flirting with a young woman who was exclaiming over this falling star tattoo. Remembering the nickname Sara had given her boyfriend – “my Starfall” – she realized this must be him. She stood up, abandoned her drink, gestured to the rest of the Wrathbreakers where they sat in a nearby coffee bar, and walked across the road to speak to the man.

Perhaps it was something about her demeanour, or perhaps their investigations thus far had not been as subtle as they had hoped, but as she approached the man saw her, pushed his woman away, stood up and snarled something at her that suggested he knew who Kyansei was. Then he attempted to leap over the balustrade of the verandah where he sat, and battle was joined.

They thought they would be confronting one man, unarmoured and carrying just a knife, but they soon realized they had stumbled into something much worse. A woman emerged from the bar where the man had been resting, carrying a shield and sword; from an alley nearby they saw a wizard with ruined legs, marching towards the square in a chair with magically animated spider’s legs; someone else emerged from the bar carrying a bow. Bao Tap called forth his Nature’s Champion, which manifested as a giant hippopotamus and charged down the alley toward the wizard in the animated chair; as it did so a solid, powerful looking women in half plate armour with a great axe emerged from the shadows and hit it a huge blow with the axe. The wizard began dropping balls of fire on the main battle, which enveloped Kyansei and Quangbae but seemed not to harm their engaged enemies at all. The woman with the sword and shield teamed up with the Starfall to take on Kyansei, and she had great difficulty hitting either of them; behind them the man with the bow deployed healing magic or blasts of stone bullets from his hands to support the warriors or take down the Wrathbreakers’ marine minions.

The battle was poised until the wizard in the magical chair and his heavily-armed colleague finally beat the Nature’s Champion hippo to death; they began to move towards the square, and the Rimewarden on the verandah with the bow did a serious injury on Itzel. Things were looking bad for the Wrathbreakers, but Bao Tap decided to risk everything and cast a second Nature’s Champion. It worked, and another giant berserk Hippo appeared in the square blocking the path for the wizard and his female companion. At this point another man emerged from the bar carrying a bow, and called for a truce. The two sides backed away from each other, the Hippo stopped its advance, and they agreed to a ceasefire while they tried to find out whether they actually had any cause for disagreement.

Badly injured and exhausted, the two groups cautiously moved back into the bar, set out tables, ordered drinks, and sat down to negotiate.

They discovered that they had run into a group of adventurers called The Iron Hand, who had been based in Estona for a few years and made money from various mercenary tasks. Their rogue, Stitch, had been paid to befriend Siladan’s apprentice Sara and find out more details about her master’s work. He had sent these details as letters to his employer. Eventually, after a few months of investigation, Stitch had been told to kidnap Sara and send her to the Valley of Gon. This had been about 4 months ago, about the time that the Wrathbreakers had run into raiders looking for an old friend of Siladan’s just outside the Valley of Gon.

The coincidence was too great to be put down to chance – they guessed they had run into raiders sent by the same people that had taken Sara. Although Stitch did not know this – he had simply sent the girl as a package to a ship he had been told about – they guessed they knew where she had been sent. But why? They asked him who his employer had been and he explained to them that he had been instructed to do all these vile deeds through a series of notes sent to him.

The Iron Hand, then, were also being paid by the mysterious Puppet Master, by the same mechanism. They asked who had set up the arrangement initially and were told it had been a Wildling agent of the Puppet Master. At this point Itzel realized, the agent must be a Changeling. The Changeling appeared to all of the Puppet Master’s agents as a different race, to ensure that they could never find the agent’s employer. From then on they would be given instructions in notes, which they were instructed to destroy. Except …

… They discovered that the Iron Hand had not been destroying the notes. It was always good to keep evidence of their employers’ foul intentions, so they had kept them all, with the wizard casting a spell to make it appear that the notes had been destroyed. They offered to sell a note to the Wrathbreakers for 500 coin, and the Wrathbreakers quickly agreed. Now they would have the notes, they knew where Sara was, and they guessed that the Puppet Master was interested in some secrets buried in Siladan’s past adventuring. What had been in those elven documents that had been stolen by Deepfolk…?

The Wrathbreakers had more pressing concerns, however. Having established what they needed to know, they had to negotiate a careful truce with the Iron Hand. They had been surprised and unready, but even so it was clear that the Iron Hand were easily their match, and they could not afford to go to war with them. They carefully negotiated an agreement not to interfere in each others’ affairs, finished their drinks and went their separate ways, but as soon as they were on their own the Wrathbreakers immediately agreed that they had to destroy the Iron Hand. They were certain that they would be forced into confrontation with them again, and also sure that soon the Puppet Master would pay the Iron Hand to kill them. As they neared their targets, they needed to clear this mercenary band out of the way. But there were 6 of them and they were very dangerous. The Wrathbreakers would need to be stronger and would need to get the upper hand in some way.

First, however, they decided it would be best to find Sara. She had been kidnapped and sent off to the Valley of Gon, possibly to a very bad fate, and needed help. They also guessed that if they found out who had taken her and why, they might be able to track down the Puppet Master from a different direction. Having crossed the Iron Hand they guessed now would be a very good time to get out of town for a while, and when they came back, more powerful and hopefully with more information, they would be in a position to attack and destroy the Iron Hand – then move on the Puppet Master.

They were close to answers to many questions, and whatever evil secrets the Puppet Master sought in the viscera of the Selkie she had paid for was connected to the disappearance of Siladan’s apprentice, the raiders they had encountered in Gon, and the deaths of the surviving members of the Ashentide. Somewhere behind it all was some dark secret buried in ancient elven lore and stolen by the Deepfolk. They were close to something now, though they did not know what, and the answers were trapped somewhere in a dungeon in the Valley of Gon, scared and alone and waiting for rescue. It was time for the Wrathbreakers to leave Estona, and to be heroes again …

When I was a child Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon had a huge influence on me. I read it very young, perhaps at the age of 10 or 12, and I think it was the first fantasy I read after A Wizard of Earthsea. I think I already knew the Arthurian legends (most kids growing up in Britain did) but this novel introduced ancient “pagan” elements to them which profoundly changed my view of religion. I didn’t become a pagan of course, but growing up in deeply misogynist Britain in the 1970s and early 1980s, when everything was still steeped in traditional Christian ideology and Britain’s history was only taught to us as a story of greatness and righteousness, the idea that Christianity was wrong and that Arthur was really a pagan compromise, or that there was another, non-christian history to Britain, or that there was a woman’s side to a story, made a huge difference to the way I thought about the world around me. I’m not alone in this: generations of science fiction fans report MZB’s Mists of Avalon as a crucial and eye-opening book. MZB’s work is also heralded as an important milestone for feminism in science fiction and fantasy, and many people report its influence in this regard.

Since then of course we have discovered that Marion Zimmer Bradley sexually abused her own daughter, and appears to have been an ideologically committed sexual abuser, who sheltered and supported another sexual abuser and was active to some degree in furtherance of a political ideal of pederasty. All this should have been common knowledge by the time her books were published, but it seems to have remained strangely unreported even after her death, only becoming common knowledge when her daughter disclosed the information to the public in 2014. MZB was a hugely influential figure in modern cultural circles: she founded the Society for Creative Anachronisms (SCA) and was also involved in the early establishment of the modern western “pagan” religious movement through her Darkmoon Circle. She also had a huge influence on science fiction and fantasy. But what does it say when a known, ideologically committed child sexual abuser influences your cultural world? Does it have any echoes or influence on the ideals of that movement? I have written before about Jimmy Savile and growing up in a society steeped in child abuse, and how the things that were considered normal when I was young look deeply, deeply creepy in retrospect, so I thought: I’m going to re-read MZB’s work – which so influenced me as a child – and see what it looks like now, in retrospect, and what kind of feminist text it really is. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think it’s possible to be a feminist and be an ideologically committed sexual abuser of children, and I expect that this should show up somehow in her works. I found this (possibly anti-feminist) rant online about how the books always were creepy, and finding out MZB was a sexual abuser of children suddenly made the creepiness comprehensible, but I decided to do it for myself.

So, I’m going to reread these books, and see what they look like now, in retrospect, as a 48 year old knowing what I know now, revisiting books I haven’t read since (at the latest) my very early teens. Every novel requires the author to make choices, and in this case we are dealing with a novel based on an existing story, so decisions need to be made at every turn about how to present the story and how to change it. For example, MZB makes the decision to blend the characters of Galahad and Lancelot together, which isn’t accidental: for some reason she decided to do this. Her decisions about how to represent key parts of the story, key relationships, and the context of the story, should tell us something about the relationship between her politics of sexual abuse and her writing, just as it does about her supposed feminism and her writing. How does the sexual abuse affect the writing? How does a modern adult interpret the story and what do they feel? Is it creepy? Is there a particular stance or depiction of sexual abuse and of children that is depicted in the text that I did not notice (obviously) when I was 10? This post is just the first attempt to investigate and understand this – there may or may not be more. Also please be aware of the content warnings: These posts will involve extensive discussion of rape, child sexual and physical abuse, domestic violence, incest, and general arseholery, as well as some fairly serious levels of personality disorder, parental abuse and shittiness. So brace yourself.

Oh, also this post contains spoilers, because I assume the people reading this have read The Mists of Avalon in the past and are familiar with the story (though like me you may have forgotten details).

I will begin by describing the controversy surrounding MZB and her husband’s sexual abuse, to give a little more history to the tale. I will briefly describe what I understand of the politics of paedophilia in the 1970s (yes this was a thing!) as a background to understand how a paedophilia advocate might represent sex and children in their work. Then I will begin describing my key impressions from the first part of the story. I will use some quotes, which I am transcribing, so apologies in advance for any small errors. Brace yourselves, kids.

Outline of the controversy

The general public became aware of MZB’s sexual abuse history after the publication of her daughter’s revelations in 2014, but SF fandom should have been aware of them for much, much longer, because MZB’s husband Walter Breen was a known sexual abuser in the 1960s, and she was known to be facilitating his activities. The early history of Breen’s abuse is laid out in an awful document called The Breendoggle that can now be read online. This document outlines Walter Breen’s history of sexual abuse of children in the “fandom” circles of 1960s Berkeley, and the efforts to get him expelled from a convention. It’s absolutely shocking to read about how publicly and flagrantly he sexually assaulted children, and how sanguine the people around him were about it. At the end of the document we find out why: If they exclude Walter from fandom for openly abusing children, MZB will stay away too.

This is the first hint of MZB’s deep commitment to sexual abuse of children, but it isn’t just a hint. Her husband Walter Breen wrote a book about abusing children, called Greek Love, and also edited a journal devoted to pederasty called the International Journal of Greek Love. MZB wrote an article for this journal about pederasty among lesbians, so she was obviously aware of her husband’s political activities and supportive enough of them to write articles for his journal of child abuse. This journal and Breen’s book, by the way, were cited by the editors of the magazine Pan, which was connected to the North American Man Boy Love Association (a paedophile advocacy group in America) and the Paedophile Information Exchange (a similar and at one stage radically activist group in the UK). It’s hard to find Pan online but the index of the site holding MZB’s article includes links to some of its articles. Following links through the articles linked above will also lead to more information about MZB’s open support of child sexual abuse, such as helping Breen to adopt a boy he wanted to abuse, sexually abusing a friend’s daughter, and supporting Breen even after they divorced despite his repeated legal troubles over his paedophilia.

I hope from this that it’s clear that MZB was an ideologically committed child sexual abuser, who was definitely supporting at least one other committed sexual abuser and may have been part of an international network of sexual abusers that was active in the 1970s in the USA, Canada and the UK. So let’s see what the introduction of her first novel in the Mists of Avalon series is like. But before we do, let’s briefly look at the political paedophilia movement in the 1970s.

The politics of paedophilia in the 1970s

I can’t believe I had to write that line, but there it is. Believe it or not, in the 1970s and 1980s there was a movement to normalize sexual assault of children, which had its own political organizations, journals, magazines, meetings and rhetoric. Sadly the most famous part of it was connected to the gay rights movement, and the attempts by these people to insert themselves into the gay rights movement and turn it into a kind of pan-sexual liberation movement were seized upon by conservatives as ammunition against gay rights generally. The most famous organization is the North American Man Boy Love Association (NAMBLA), which is well-described in the documentary Chickenhawk, but there was also a British organization and some groups on the continent.

These groups operated on a couple of basic principles, which are worth bearing in mind as we interrogate MZB’s work. They believed that children had sexual agency, that childhood is not a period of innocence, and that children actively solicited and enjoyed sex with adults. Breen in his journal of Greek Love, and other advocates in the magazine Pan argue that these sexual relationships help children grow and mature, and the exchange of sexual affection from the child for adult wisdom from the man is important for child development – they don’t just believe paedophilia is harmless, but actively beneficial to children. They also believe that these paedophiliac relationships were a normal part of most of human society and have only recently been cast into disrepute, usually due to Victorian prudishness, christian interference, or some form of communist or fascist political program (it seems it can be either). Some people writing in the journal Pan seem to hint that adult homosexuality is wrong but same sex relationships between a man and a boy are okay. They also adhere to strong principles of free speech, both for their political advocacy and for their kiddy porn, which they don’t believe harms anyone. Some of them seem to think assaulting infants is wrong but children above a certain age are fair game (or, as my father used to say with a straight face, “old enough to bleed, old enough to breed”). Most of the advocacy seems to have been focused around same sex male relationships, but there was no particular political preference in this regard – I think they just had a clearer voice because briefly in the 1980s and 1990s they were allowed some affiliation with the gay rights movement, to its detriment.

It’s worth remembering that the 1970s and 1980s were a time of sexual awakening in the west, with lots of new ideas beginning to circulate and important efforts being made to cast off the prudishness and sexual stifling of the last 30 years. This new awakening led to lots of mistakes, including things like manipulative and sexually abusive cult leaders, open marriages, political lesbianism, and a lot of abuse in plain sight. Music magazines, for example, did not ostracize or criticize people like Jimmy Page, guitarist of Led Zeppelin, who famously had a “relationship” with a 14 year old girl (and who remains famous and well respected despite his long history of sexual abuse of minors). Along with the sexual awakening that was happening at that time came an atmosphere of not judging people for doing things differently, and care about ostracizing or casting out fellow travelers who had some unsavoury ideas. This is why we see Alan Ginzberg defending NAMBLA in the Chickenhawk documentary, and it briefly allowed NAMBLA to have some political influence. But none of this explains the horrendous attitudes described in the Breendoggle document, or MZB’s continuing success when the people around her knew what she was doing. So bear this in mind, and the politics of paedophilia activism, as we delve into the story.

Igraine’s story: A terrible slog through sexual abuse and violence

Arthur’s story always starts with Uther getting Igraine pregnant. In the usual story Merlin puts a spell on Uther so that he looks like Igraine’s husband, so Uther basically rapes Igraine. In the Mists of Avalon we take about 8 chapters to get to this point, and to get there we have to slog through a long and brutal period of Igraine’s life. In this version she was married to her husband Gorlois, duke of Cornwall, at the age of 14 and by the time the book starts has been with him for five years, has a child of 3 years age, and is looking after her 13 year old sister Morgause. She never wanted to marry Gorlois and we are reminded repeatedly that she has just had to put up with five years of unwanted sex and has only just come around to appreciate him as a man and a husband – she has very mixed feelings. It should be mentioned that she was sent to Gorlois by her mother, Viviane, Lady of the Lake, the high priestess of all pagans in England, to seal a deal. Watching her deal with this circumstance is, frankly, a slog, and it is made worse when Viviane and the Merlin rock up and tell her that actually she needs to fuck Uther, because Uther needs to give her a son. It’s unclear if this ends up being done by magic or just bad luck, but Gorlois notices Uther’s interest in Igraine (which may have been manufactured by a magic necklace) and starts a war. At this point he is mad at Igraine, has become impotent in her presence, blames her and thinks it is some magic (which it may be, though not Igraine’s) and beats her savagely every time he tries to fuck her and fails. It’s hard going!

Igraine spends all this time – which seems to cover about a year, though it’s hard to tell – as a sex slave of Gorlois and a vassal to Viviane and the Merlin, who decide her fate. They tell her who she is to have sex with and who she is to have children with, and they have no care for her feelings or needs. In fact the only moment of this entire period when she has any agency and joy is the moment when Uther comes to her in Tintagel, under disguise: she sees that he is not Gorlois, but Uther, and finally gets to enjoy sex she wants. This is a radical turnaround on the traditional story, and ensures that the first 6 – 8 chapters of this book are basically a slog through domestic violence and rape, with one woman being fought over by two men who will do with her as they choose.

Once Gorlois is dead Uther takes Igraine as his wife and you might be thinking that the rape and domestic violence and use of women as vessels for political purposes is over – after all, this is meant to be a feminist retelling of the Arthurian legend in which the isle of Avalon offers women freedom and empowerment – but you would be wrong. Before we get to the rape of Igraine’s daughter by her son Arthur, effectively organized and implemented by Viviane, let’s talk about some other aspects of the gender relations and sexual ideology in this book.

Morgause and children as sluts

It is very clear in this book that MZB thinks children have sexual agency. Igraine repeatedly bemoans her marriage to Gorlois at the age of 14, not because she was 14 but because he wasn’t the man she wanted. But we also hear some damning insights into the sexual nature of children during the early stages of the book. For example, Gorlois says about Igraine’s 13 year old sister Morgause:

We must have that girl married as soon as can be arranged, Igraine. She is a puppy bitch with eyes hot for anything in the shape of a man; did you see how she cast her eyes not only on me but on my younger soldiers? I will not have such a one disgracing my family, nor influencing my daughter!

Igraine agrees with this assessment of Morgause’s behavior, and later cautions her against Gorlois’s attentions, which the book describes her seeking out, and later on Morgaine (Igraine’s daughter and the key narrator in this section of the books) also writes about Morgause that

I knew my mother was glad to have her married and away, for she fancied Morgause looked on Uther lustfully; she was probably not aware that Morgause looked lustfully on all men she came by. She was a bitch dog in heat, though indeed I suppose it was because she had no one to care what she did.

Morgaine is, I think, meant to be the feminist hero of this book. Is this how feminists describe other women, or in this case girls?

There is another scene later in the book, during a pagan ritual, where a young girl who was playing an auxiliary role in the ritual is drawn into the sexual activity that the ritual triggers. It is very clear that this girl is very young, and this is described as

The little blue-painted girl who had borne the fertilizing blood was drawn down into the arms of a sinewy old hunter, and Morgaine saw her briefly struggle and cry out, go down under his body, her legs opening to the irresistible force of nature in them.

So even very small children are sexual beings in this story, and their subjugation to older men an inevitability of their sexual nature. I’m 17 chapters (about 22% of the way) into this book and I have been repeatedly told by the main feminist icon of the story that girls (i.e. female children) are sexual predators who seek out men and need to be constrained for their own good. Which brings us to …

Virginity as a sacred duty

Feminists have spent a long time trying to demysticize virginity, to stop it being seen as a special and precious and sacred property of women that is “lost” or “given up”. In this supposedly feminist text the preservation of virginity is an essential goal, taught to young women by older women as a duty and a necessary form of self preservation. Morgause is warned by Igraine that if she fucks Uther and doesn’t get pregnant she will be worthless, and he will force one of his men to take her as a wife, and that man will always resent her for not having been a virgin. This restriction isn’t just a christian trait though: Viviane forces Morgaine (the main character of the story) to stay a virgin until she can participate in an important ritual, where her virginity will be sacrificed for the good of the land. Morgaine almost gives it up for Lancelot/Galahad, but he promises not to push her for sex, and so she preserves it (she of course being just a young woman of 16 or 17 is unable to control her lust and needs a man to control it for her).

17 chapters into this supposedly feminist book, I have not met a priestess from the matriarchal isles who has been able to decide for herself when and how she first has sex. This is an important part of this story: matriarchal society is extremely heirarchical and abusive.

The abusive society of Avalon

The original pagan survivors of England are all gathered in the Summer Country, on the misty isles, which float in a kind of separate world overlaid over christian England, separated from it by mists. This is very cool! On the central island of Avalon (which I guess is approximately Glastonbury in the real world), the priestesses of the old pagan religion reign supreme. Or rather, Viviane, High Priestess, Lady of the Lake, rules as an absolute tyrant over all the girls and women who live there. She dispenses them across the land to be used as sexual bargaining tools for the restoration of pagan culture in England (as Igraine was); she tells them when and how they can have sex and who with; and she subjects them to whatever torments she sees fit as part of her religious dictatorship. For example she makes a priestess called Raven take part in a ritual which leaves her vomiting and pissing blood for days, just in order to have some random vision that doesn’t make sense. No one is allowed to speak before she speaks, and junior priestesses in training have to wait on senior ones like slaves.

When she first brings Morgaine to the island to begin her training as a priestess, Viviane repeatedly considers exactly when to begin tormenting her, and we discover that she was initially considering beginning the torments the same night that they arrive, when Morgaine is tired and hungry. We are repeatedly reminded that Morgaine is used to going without sleep or food, and to being cold. It is very clear that Avalon’s matriarchal society is intensely heirarchical, and all the women on the island are Viviane’s to dispose of as she wishes – and we will see this is exactly what she does.

Competition between mothers and daughters

A particularly unsavoury element of the story so far is the competition between mothers and daughters, and between older and younger women. Igraine is jealous of Morgause (her younger sister) and in a very telling moment, Morgaine is deeply jealous of a very young girl, Guinevere, who is lost on Avalon. She had been having a nice moment stripping off for Lancelot (who ostensibly isn’t going to fuck her) when they hear Guinevere’s cries of distress and go to rescue her. Lancelot helps the girl out of some mud, and we read that

Morgaine felt a surge of hatred so great she thought that she would faint with its force. She felt it would be with her until she died, and in that molten instant she actually longed for death. All the color had gone from the day, into the mist and the mire and the dismal reeds, and all her happiness had gone with it

This is how our feminist icon reacts to Lancelot helping a female child escape some mud! This is interesting because we outsiders reading this just see a man being nice to a distressed girl, he really is just being a good samaritan. Yet Morgaine is dying inside at the sight of it! We will come back to this later, because a big issue with this book is that every character is a horrible person.

This jealousy is repeated often, with younger women seen as competitors and replacements for older women, who are always angry at them for their youth. This includes children, who remember are treated in this book as sexually active agents of temptation, and thus need to be guarded against. Every older woman needs to be on her guard against a younger woman taking her place! The ultimate expression of this comes after Uther Pendragon dies, and in his death moment appears to Viviane as a vision. In that moment she realizes that they have been tied together through many lives, and becomes jealous that her daughter Igraine got to have Uther rather than her:

She cried aloud, with a great mourning cry for all that she had never known in this life, and the agony of a bereavement unguessed till this moment

The only pleasure she gets from this vision is the knowledge that in his dying moment Uther thought of her, and not of the woman he loved (Viviane’s duaghter). That’s right, the feminist leader of the matriarchal island is jealous of her own daughter.

Men eat, women pick

Quite often this book reads like a Society for Creative Anachronisms (SCA) re-enactment, with a lot of focus on what people wear and eat in a mid-century American’s idea of “authentic” mediaeval British culture. Actually when I was reading the early parts of the book I thought to myself “this reads like an SCA document”, and only discovered later on reading her wiki entry that MZB started the SCA – it stands to reason I guess!

As part of this there are a lot of eating scenes, and it is noticeable that in every eating scene, women pick at small amounts of bread, honey and a little milk, while men eat fresh meat, bread, ale and other richnesses. I swear every time they eat, women are picky eaters who take as little as possible while men pig out. This is also seen in the sex: 17 chapters in and no women has had sex for fun with someone of her choosing, while multiple men have reputations for having fucked anyone they fancy. This might be excusable as a consequence of the christian world, but we are repeatedly told that “on the Isle” women are free to choose who they want to be with and men respect women as sexual equals. Except we never see it happen! Women in this story never get to have any fun, and the least enjoyable lifestyle is reserved for the “free” women of the supposedly sexually liberated isle, who are constantly fasting, going without sleep or warm clothes, and never having sex with anyone they want to.

Some utopia!

Everyone is horrible

I’m 17 chapters into this book and I haven’t yet met a nice character. I know it was written in the 70s when everyone wore brown, but these people are just awful. Igraine is a powerless wretch who is constantly crying; Morgaine is a jealous and angry woman who is also a complete sucker for Viviane’s power and is easily fooled by everything Viviane says; Morgause is a dirty slut who just needs to be rutted constantly and kept out of sight of men; Viviane is a manipulative, power-hungry and arrogant horror show who never accepts she is wrong and only ever sees people for their uses – she has no humanity at all. The men are all idiots, even the Merlin, who also have uncontrolled appetites and weak minds. Some, like Kevin the Bard, who is supposedly going to be the next Merlin, openly hate women. The most likable character so far has been Lancelot, who rescued Guinevere from the mud and promised not to despoil Morgaine even though she wanted him, but he also seemed to transfer his attentions from Morgaine the moment he saw a blonder, prettier girl, so who can say? Everyone is completely awful, and I have to read 600 more pages of this!

Ritual incest

The most shocking part of the story though is the ritual in which Morgaine is supposed to sleep with a future king of England in a ritual after he kills a stag with a flint knife. Viviane arranges this ritual, which is an ancient thing that is supposed to bind a king to the land. It’s also a kind of test (maybe the Stag would kill the king) and the only time you see a woman eat meat (Morgaine does, at the end of the ritual). Viviane set this whole thing up as a way to bind Arthur to the pagan parts of England, so that all the pagan cultures will follow him and he won’t be able to turn his back on the old ways even though he was raised a christian.

But the thing is, she doesn’t mention to Morgaine that Arthur is the king who is being tested – and Arthur is Morgaine’s half brother. So they go through the ritual, Arthur kills the stag, they fuck in the darkness of a cave covered in the stag’s blood, in the morning they wake up and fuck again, and then and only then does Arthur realize the girl he’s fucking is Morgaine (they haven’t seen each other for 10 years, and they’re both about 16 or 18, so it makes sense they don’t recognize each other immediately).

Morgaine of course is heart broken, because she has been tricked into incest with her half brother. What does Viviane say 10 days later when she finally allows Morgaine to speak to her about it?

“Well there’s nothing we can do about that now,” she said. “Done is done. And at this moment the hope of Britain is more important than your feelings.”

Did I mention that in this story everyone is horrible? There’s exhibit A. And also exhibit A of the idea that women’s sexuality is only there to be used for a purpose, women have no free agency over it, and it should be tamed and put to work for the greater good.

Conclusion

So far I am 17 chapters in and this is what I have seen so far: a bunch of horrible people who think children are all sluts who need to be controlled, virginity is a gift that should be preserved and given away only to the right man or for the right purpose, who see women’s sexuality as a tool to be deployed in the interests of family or nation, and who think incest is completely okay. The older women are all intensely competitive with and jealous of younger women, and no woman is free to be herself on a supposedly feminist island that is actually an authoritarian dystopia where everyone exists to serve a religious dictatorship led by a brooding, narcissistic, tyrannical old woman who is jealous of her own daughter for the marriage she arranged.

It’s hard going.

I don’t think of myself as a feminist, and I don’t think men should claim to be feminists or to have some great insight into feminist theory, but I really don’t think this is a story that is consistent with anything I know of feminism. It’s a hard slog in which women are abused regularly and viciously by all men, and by any women who is older than them and has power over them. This social circumstance isn’t presented in a context of overthrowing or critiquing it though – the goal is clearly (so far) to preserve the power of the matriarchal theocracy by brutally using its junior female members’ sexuality in any way necessary. If this is feminism, it’s a kind of lesbian separatist, almost fascist vision of feminism that was briefly in vogue in the 1970s but quickly died out. It’s the feminism of the anti-sex work activist Julie Bindel, who advocated political lesbianism (in which heterosexual feminists have lesbian relationships so as not to betray the movement), or of the anti-trans movement of the 2010s, which is spearheaded by older women insecure in their aging. It’s the kind of feminism we sometimes hear now from some second-wave feminists, bemoaning the fact that young women like to have sex with whoever they want and get Brazilian waxes, the feminism of women who distrust and don’t respect open expressions of female sexuality.

However, this ideology is tempered in this case by a foul attitude towards (female) children, in which they are seen as sexually permissive, sexually active predators who need to be constrained or married off early, and who are easy prey for older men – and who deserve it if they suffer bad consequences of their sexual activity. There is no mercy or pity for girls taken by older men, indeed no sense that it is wrong at all for girls to be given away to men to be used. It is unsurprising to read this attitude from a woman who actively supported the sexual predations of her husband, wrote articles in his paedophilia journal, and sexually abused her own daughter.

There’s a lot more of this book to go, so I will revisit this topic later. I am interested in how she influenced those who followed her in the genre, how she has misused paganism and pagan concepts for her own political purposes, and what her final conclusion will be about the Arthurian tragedy. I also don’t think the child abuse and incest will stop with Arthur’s unknowing rape of his half-sister (and I guess his being raped by her). My guess is there is worse to come. Let us see what horrors this paedophile activist is capable of conceiving of as acceptable, how she butchers the Arthurian story, and what influence she had on subsequent generations of fantasy writers and feminists. Stay tuned!

The wrathbreakers are on the trail of two difficult problems: where is Sara, Siladan’s lost apprentice, and who is the mysterious and powerful wizard who is trying to kill them? They know that Sara had a boyfriend in the docks, who they are trying to find, and they know that the powerful wizard uses notes of some kind to direct agents of the underworld in Estona to do his bidding. They continue to search the docks for Sara’s boyfriend, and they have been ambushed by agents of the mysterious wizard. But who are they looking for, and who is trying to kill them? The roster for this session:

  • Bao Tap, human stormcaller
  • Kyansei of the Eilika Tribe, wildling barbarian
  • Itzel, elven Astrologer
  • Quangbae, wandering blacksmith

They are joined today by Alexin, a Rimewarden, and three marines, all working for the Myrmidon Kay. Right now, though, they have no targets to point their soldiers at. What to do?

The rock spider

The first thing they decided not to do was to continue pushing into the nature of the network of child messengers in the town. They knew that this network of messengers was controlled by a central figure, likely an adult, who they decided to call the Rock Spider. They also knew that one of these urchins had lured them into a trap, and they guessed it was because either the Rock Spider was in league with their wizard nemesis, or part of the payment his network of urchins had received included alerting their wizard nemesis if anyone was spying on the wizard nemesis’s dropboxes. They had tried to approach the Rock Spider through their only underworld contact, cashing in the favour they were owned by the barkeep at Charlotte Sometimes to ask him to set up a meeting with the Rock Spider. Unfortunately the barkeep returned to them with a simple message from the Rock Spider: there would be no meeting, and although they were on neutral terms at the moment all that would go out the window if they continued trying to investigate or break into his network of child runners. They decided to put that issue aside for now, because they had sparked enough confrontations with underworld figures already.

Onto the Carousel

They decided to continue their search for Sara by deploying Kyansei into the bars and nightlife of the docks, pretending to be a woman looking for a casual partner. They guessed that the man who had been Sara’s boyfriend was likely a player, and might be well known in the area. If Kyansei spent a night or two carousing and looking for men meeting a certain description, they guessed she might hear of one or two regulars who matched the description. They were right: after two nights of flirting and drinking she was able to rule out a large number of potential suitors, and also learned of a few regulars who might match the man they were looking for. Exhausted and hungover after a long night, Kyansei returned to the Boar and they decided to switch their attention to the search for the wizard nemesis.

Creosote’s story

All they knew about the wizard nemesis was that he or she (probably she) communicated with her agents almost exclusively through notes. But reviewing the case so far they realized they had not asked any of the wizard’s contacts how they first brokered the deal, and any details about how the notes looked or operated. They knew the men they had interrogated so far did not keep the notes, destroying them as instructed, but they knew nothing else about them. They decided to visit Creosote, the only recipient of notes they had left alive, and see if they could ask him more questions about the origin of the notes. Obviously given the damage they had done to his business and his dignity the visit was going to be a little complicated, but they figured they could just hit him a lot if it did not go as they intended. So they set off to his lair.

It took them some time to break him down, but ultimately they were able to come to an agreement with Creosote. He convinced them to owe him a favour, in the form of a job that he would call on them for in the future, if he answered their questions. He told them:

  • The notes were printed, not hand written
  • The notes were intended to be destroyed, and were enchanted so that the sender would know if they were not destroyed
  • The ink on the notes had a particular smell, which Creosote could not describe but would recognize immediately if he smelled it [for the reader: it is the smell of the AD&D Player’s Handbook]
  • The notes were printed on fine quality bone-white paper [1]
  • The job before the Selkie job had been to organize someone to kill a hedge witch called Aelsov and deliver his head to a particular location in the docks. Easy work!
  • The job had originally been organized by a dwarf, about two years ago, whose featuers Creosote did not remember and whose name he did not ask. “Just a generic dwarf,” he told them, who was an agent for whoever sent the notes, and who he never met again.

Creosote also made clear he was not scared of this patron: he destroyed the letters as instructed not out of fear, but because he assumed if he did not destroy them he would lose future business. He seemed unconcerned by the work he had been contracted to organize – as far as he was concerned the notes offered a simple, reliable source of income and the arrangement was far preferable to the usual complex meetings and negotiations he had to engage in as part of his work.

At the cusp of an age

After this meeting the Wrathbreakers rested, and then set to work: they spent a day searching the town for every printing press. They discovered there were two commercial printers and a small independent operation run by a strange bunch of political fanatics called “monarchists” who advocated absolute rule of the land of Hadun by a hereditary strongman, with most of the population held in a form of abject subjection they referred to as “serfdom”. Obvious freaks, they had a printing press of some kind for producing their repulsive propaganda. The wrathbreakers visited the two commercial printers, collecting samples of their paper and inks, and confirmed from Creosote that one of the papers was the one used in the notes. They visited that supplier and determined that indeed, about a year ago an elf had come into the shop and bought a large supply, but they could not remember any more details than that – “A generic elf”, they said. So, it was on to the monarchists.

Itzel attempted to politely negotiate with the monarchists, but their leader, an oily old man who called himself “King” Robert the 1st, offended Kyansei. He mentioned that in future, when he was “King”, the “empty” lands of the far north would be colonized by the people of Hadun. When Kyansei pointed out these lands were actually crowded with wildlings “King” Robert patronizingly suggested to her that she did not understand the language she was speaking, and that rather than saying “crowded” she should use the word “infested”. As the predictable results of this exchange unfolded across the office and the younger members of the monarchist group either fled or cowered from Kyansei’s rage Itzel and Bao Tap walked into the back room to investigate the printing press. It was a ramshackle, shoddy machine with little ability to produce decent type, let alone high quality letters. This was not their target. They waited the length of time required for Kyansei to beat “King” Robert to a pulp, and then left the building with her still raging at the remaining monarchist activists. That did not appear to be a movement with its eye on the future …

They returned to the Boar. Now they knew they were looking for a fourth, unknown printing press. They also knew that the wizard’s agents were a “generic dwarf” and a “generic elf”. They decided that for their next step they would ask around after adventuring groups of that kind. If they could not find answers in that avenue well, they were going to have to find out from the urchin network where they collected the notes. That was going to require a confrontation with the Rock Spider. They were close, and all that remained was to determine how much violence was needed to find their target …


fn1: One of my players, not yet used to the full depravity of my campaigns, imagined that an off white bone-coloured paper might actually be paper, rather something manufactured from the bones of children. He will learn!

The Wrathbreakers are searching for a missing apprentice called Sara, and also trying to find the person who hired mercenaries to skin and gut selkies on the coast west of Estona. They know that Sara was spending time with an older man she called her “starfall”, at the docks, and they also know that the mastermind of the fey hunts organized them by way of printed notes. But who are these people, and how can they find them? The roster for this session:

  • Bao Tap, human stormcaller
  • Calim “Ambros” Nefari, human rimewarden
  • Kyansei of the Eilika Tribe, wildling barbarian
  • Itzel, elven Astrologer
  • Quangbae, wandering blacksmith

The Wrathbreakers have been carousing in the docks, sitting around with sailors and scoundrels plying them drinks trying to find clues to the identity of their target, this “starfall”. They have also set an urchin watching a dropbox in the Old Town, where they think their note-printing target is likely to visit. While they wait for these tasks to bear fruit, they spend a lot of time in the Boar, their chosen tavern while they are inside the city walls, and Itzel spends a lot of time at the Academy researching Fey. Unfortunately her research yielded few results, except the knowledge that a much larger and more useful library can be found at Alpon in Ariaki, where the Wrathbreakers have connections and mysteries to solve. They resolved to travel there as soon as they have resolved the current problems.

The Urchin Network

While scanning the docks looking for the man who might be behind Sara’s disappearance the Wrathbreakers had to spend a lot of time sitting watching the day-to-day activities on the wharf. They spent many hours between the 12th and 19th of the month of Ice watching people moving around on the docks, trailing people away up the snow-dusted slopes of the winter-bound town hoping to find hints of criminal activity, or watching small deals take place out of sight of the main squares and merchant spaces of the city. It was cold, difficult, boring work and it yielded few rewards – after 8 days of careful attention they found no clues as to the identity of the “starfall”.

However, they did discover one of the secrets of Estona’s underworld. There was a small network of children who worked delivering messages and running small chores for the people of Estona, and those children were obviously connected and working for someone. The younger ones could be seen gathering and sharing resources, then meeting older ones to hand over money and other rewards, receiving instructions and returning to work. Many were clearly poor and struggling, but this may have been an act: others dressed well and filled other roles, such as acting as messengers or porters for Astrologers, Rimewardens, ship captains or ladies in waiting. Some obviously knew their adult contacts well, as if they were regular clients, but others obviously were performing tasks for people they had never met before. Much of the work was simple and blameless – delivering bread, looking after a baby while a father delivered goods for his shop, running off to the blacksmith to get an urgent repair done, the kinds of work that keep small businesses functioning throughout the land – but some was obviously shady. They watched notes and packages exchanged, subtle gestures, children slinking into alleys to make arrangements with shady men. Some could obviously read, and were employed for that skill, to be able to follow instructions and written information. Others obviously could not read, and received either the lowest paid jobs or in some cases jobs where it would help if they were unable to read at all – jobs where they could be trusted not to understand the content of the material they carried, and thus not to care to spill secrets to others.

At the center of this network of children they guessed there must be an adult, or a small gang, pulling the strings that connected all the gangsters, ordinary businesses, scholars, and government workers in Estona. Did everyone know about this network, or was it operating mostly unnoticed in plain sight? And how much did that gang at its heart know about all the criminal activities happening in Estona?

The crayfish trap

After a few days of watching the subtle patterns of criminal activity on the wharf, the Wrathbreakers were approached by one of those urchins. It was a different child to the one they had set to watch the dropbox (as far as they could tell), but this one told them that not only had he seen the person who owned the dropbox, but he had followed her to a secret location outside of town. The child demanded extra payment – after all, he had done more than asked – but in exchange he would be able to guide them exactly to their target.

Like foolish naifs, the Wrathbreakers paid up, and followed his tip. The urchin told them that the woman they wanted had left Estona and headed along the river to a secluded bank with an old wharf, where she was hiding in a small river boat with a group of armed men. They followed the child’s directions, traveling near the river for a few hours until they reached the place he had described. A crumbling wharf jutted into a small bay in the river, and leaning against it was a decrepit old river boat that was obviously too old and unstable to be used. The edge of the river was swampy open clearing surrounded by a dense stand of silent trees. The old boat had no cabin but a kind of tent of canvas covered the middle of the deck, and inside that tent they could see a dim light.

They approached the wharf. Itzel remained in cover in the dark shadows of the trees, keeping watch in case anything crept up behind them. They crept forward in the faint glow of the distant light and the fading remnants of the sunshard, which pulsed slowly in half of a cloudless sky; the other half of the sky was blocked out by the distant bulk of the Orun cliffs, towering here 2 km above them on the far side of the river. A freezing breeze blew down the river, and all they could hear was the slosh of water against the boat.

Nothing noticed their approach. They walked carefully down the rickety wharf and onto the boat, pulling aside the curtains of the tent carefully to look inside. The tent covered a set of splintered, fragile-looking stairs that descended to a low-ceilinged underdeck, from whence they could see the light. They carefully descended the stairs into an empty room, on the far side of which a small light glowed from an emplacement. There was nothing in the room, and noone. They fanned out to search for doors or lurking trouble, and at that moment everyone felt it: a faint wave of magical force, a creaking, grinding sound, and the ship fell apart around them. The walls and floor collapsed and freezing, muddy river water crashed in through the rapidly fragmenting hull of the ship. They all floundered in the water, and then the giant crayfish came.

There were four, ancient chitinous beasts from the murky depths of the deeper river. They slide under the kicking, struggling Wrathbreakers and lunged in to attack, striking and grabbing with pincers the size of a child. In the dark and the chaos the sinking Wrathbreakers could not tell how large these beasts were, but they knew they were in trouble. They attempted to drag themselves out of the water, either onto the water or the swampy ground, but with little success until Itzel, far away in the trees, was able to levitate Kyansei out of the water. She dragged Calim, and Quangbae dragged himself somehow onto the mire at the water’s edge.

It was then that the archers opened fire, shooting at them from within the cover of the trees. Truly, this was a vicious ambush. As they lay gasping and frozen on the shore, Bao Tap still battling the beasts in the water, a hail of arrows struck at them. A massive crayfish emerged from the water to attack Quangbae on the shore, but now Bao Tap was able to make a moment for himself, and unleashed his most difficult and powerful spell: Nature’s Champion. It took two tries but on the second try a huge snapping turtle came at his call, bigger than any of the crayfish, and started attacking them in the water.

With the crayfish under control the group were able to turn their attention on the archers, who were shooting now at Itzel. They made short work of them, but took no survivors. By the time that battle was done the crayfish had been destroyed and the snapping turtle had slid away into the turgid depths from whence it had come. They all stood, frozen and exhausted, at the edge of the water, watching as the remains of the ship drifted into the river and out of sight. They had been set up by someone who wanted to kill them, who had powerful magic at their disposal, and who had used the urchin they had paid to lure them into the trap.

Questions would need to be asked, and their search for the person behind these notes would have to be stepped up. They returned to their stronghold and the next day sent Selena into town with a message for the Myrmidon. After she returned they set out for the town again. They would continue their search, and if necessary the Myrmidon would help them. It was time to call in some favours, and start hurting people …

Standing at the limit of an endless ocean

Stranded like a runaway lost at sea

City on a rainy day down in the harbor

Watching as the gray clouds shadow the bay

Looking everywhere ’cause I had to find you

This is not the way that I remember it here

Anyone will tell you it’s a prisoner island

Hidden in the summer for a million years

The Wrathbreakers have discovered that someone sinister is operating in Estona, directing criminals to do dark deeds by mysterious notes. They have found the first link in some kind of chain, the fixer Creosote, who hired some mercenaries to harvest body parts from Selkie and then shipped them on to a warehouse in the docks. He was hired to do this by note, which he destroyed, and had little else to tell them. Now they must move on to the warehouse of the man who received the goods, one Gerald of Hamm. The roster for today’s session:

  • Bao Tap, human stormcaller
  • Calim “Ambros” Nefari, human rimewarden
  • Kyansei of the Eilika Tribe, wildling barbarian
  • Itzel, elven Astrologer
  • Quangbae, wandering blacksmith

Standing in the smouldering ruins of Creosote’s bar, they decided to head straight to Gerald of Hamm’s warehouse before he received a warning from one of Creosote’s flunkies.

Warehouse failure

At the warehouse everything went wrong. As they approached they saw a group of men loading some goods, and deciding to be careful they sent Bao Tap sneaking down a side alley to investigate the back of the warehouse. He failed to sneak, and was sprung by a wizard smoking a cigar. Fortunately this man was unconcerned with his business, and after introducing himself this man made off to the front of the warehouse to oversee his goods. He was an Astrologer from the western isles called Jonah, who was shipping coal out there for new technologies he was developing. During this brief chat Bao Tap was able to establish that maybe fey magic is absorbed by coal, though he learnt no details before the man walked away. With Jonah gone Bao Tap was able to sneak inside, through a kitchen and into a completely dark back store room.

Meanwhile the rest of the Wrathbreakers entered through the main door of the warehouse. Kyansei and Quangbae lounged against the entryway looking threatening while Calim and Itzel sought out Gerald of Hamm. They found him soon enough, a balding man wearing simple workman’s clothes, carrying a clipboard and yelling at his labourers. He agreed to talk to them and took them upstairs to an office that had been built onto a gantry overlooking the main warehouse. Here they tried to talk him into telling them about his delivery arrangements, using threats and insinuations.

Unfortunately as they were doing this trouble hit them on multiple fronts. In the dark back store room Bao Tap realized that some men were coming to the door, so he hid in the dark behind what he hoped was a solid object; however, with no light to see by he did not know where he was hiding. Moments later the men entered the room carrying lamps, and in the sudden glow Bao Tap realized he had hidden in direct view of a consignment of mirrors, which stood in direct sight of the entering men and were set up in just the right way to ensure he was visible in all of them. After a moment of mutual shock Bao Tap pushed them out of the way and dashed for the kitchen exit, accompanied by their clamour.

While Bao Tap was preening at the back of the warehouse, at the front a gang of men were approaching, armed to the teeth and obviously intent on some kind of violence against the Wrathbreakers – maybe sent by Creosote, maybe by someone who had begun to realize what they were up to. Kyansei and Quangbae moved to meet them just as Bao Tap hit the side entrance. Up above them Gerald heard the clatter and yelling and made a break for the entrance to his office. Before he could reach the stairs Itzel hit him with a levitate spell and lifted him into the air, dangling him over the warehouse below, an obviously fatal drop. As he hung there and the sounds of battle began to drift up from below Calim began negotiating with him.

They heard the same story from Gerald: he was given instructions by note, which he promptly destroyed. In this case he had immediately shipped the goods to a dropbox in the Old Town. He gave them the location but was unable to give them any more information because as Itzel was searching his room for shipping records and other details she triggered a trap, and the shock and damage broke her concentration. Gerald of Hamm fell to his death in the warehouse below, and as they heard the clashes begin outside Itzel and Calim decided they had better go help.

The battle ended quickly once they were all there in force, leaving their assailants either dead or limping away in terror. Worried that more trouble would soon come they only had time for a quick search, and found nothing. The back room where Bao Tap had been hiding was obviously some kind of smuggling room with a hidden stash beneath the floor, but they could find nothing of use there. They gave up and headed off to find the drop box.

The dropbox

It was evening on the 8th of Ice, a bad season for staking out postal boxes. Their target was a small compound of eight stone rooms with locked doors, an open gate and no apparent guards. They stood across the road in the freezing cold watching the snow fall, and after a while decided to go and investigate. They did not know which room they were looking for but based on the limited information they had been able to get from Gerald before Itzel killed him they guessed which door it was. They were about to open it when Itzel sensed a magical alarm, and they backed off. There was every possibility it was also trapped, and now both Itzel and Kyansei were very wary of trapped things. In fact Kyansei was across the courtyard, “keeping watch” on the deserted and frozen street. No one was coming, of course.

They retreated to the shadow of a doorway across the street to consider their options. They were tired, lightly injured, and they did not know what they were looking for. The latest delivery by Creosote had been some days ago, likely had already been picked up, and they knew – since all the men Creosote had hired had been killed by Selkie-enchanted lampreys and Gerald of Hamm had been killed by Itzel – that no more deliveries were likely soon. They guessed that the alarm on the door was intended to tell the owner when the door was opened, which they guessed was how he knew his goods had been delivered. But if he was not expecting more goods they did not think he would blithely open the door, and they guessed that their target was likely a powerful astrologer. Gerald had indicated that the person who sent him the notes did not always nominate the same dropbox, so triggering the alarm would probably just alert their target to the fact that his or her note-based arrangements had been discovered. They could see no easy way to solve this problem.

In the end, not seeing a way to solve the problem by direct violence, they gave up and headed back to their stronghold. They grabbed a local urchin and paid her a small amount of coin to keep an eye on the drop box, and headed off to sleep.

The lost apprentice

Two days later, after recovering their strength and taking some time to discuss what to do, the Wrathbreakers decided to head back to Estona to continue their investigations. They took rooms at their regular haunt, a tavern called the Boar, and prepared for the next stage of their investigations.

Here they were approached by Alephia, one of the apprentices to the astrologer Siladan who they had met when they visited him. When they visited Siladan he had mentioned that one of his apprentices had recently left him, probably because she could not handle the pressure of study, but Alephia told them she thought something more sinister had happened. This apprentice, called Sara, had been very committed to becoming a wizard, and in Alephia’s view was not the kind of girl to give it up. She thought that Siladan had misjudged Sara because she was the kind of “nice girl”, all shiny manners and big breasts, which made people think she was weak and simple, when in fact she was a strong woman with a deep desire to learn the secrets of Sun. Alephia thinks something happened to her.

In fact, Alephia was able to pinpoint her suspicions: Sara’s new boyfriend. This man she had only seen once but he was much older than Sara, quite oily, and he seemed sleazy and “not quite right.” Sara had spoken about him a lot, calling him her “starfall”, but Alephia thought she was being manipulated. She thinks maybe Sara’s “starfall” has done something to Sara, and in exchange for a magic weapon she would like the Wrathbreakers to investigate. Surely they have contacts and abilities?

Of course the Wrathbreakers did not say no. They took her initial payment – 6 magic arrows – and agreed to investigate. In fact they set out immediately to scour the docks, pretending to be agents for Sara’s family looking for information about her. It was a pleasant break from investigating lost notes held by tight-lipped criminals, and they suspected it would be an easy investigation that would yield a nice magic gift from Alephia.

Strange notes from arcane fey-harvesters, lost girls, flying gangsters – Estona was proving more troublesome and more complicated than they had expected, and they had not even begun investigating the many mysteries they had encountered on their journey here. They had much to do, and many secrets to uncover …

The Wrathbreakers have returned from investigating what they thought was a band of wreckers, and are ready to investigate its patron. In the course of their investigation they discovered that Estona’s lost ships were not destroyed by wreckers, but by a small group of Selkie who were exacting revenge on the hunters who had killed their fellows and skinned them. Now, the Wrathbreakers have a prisoner and want to know more about whatever dirty little scheme had been enacted in the breakers west of Estona. Present for this adventure:

  • Bao Tap, human stormcaller
  • Calim “Ambros” Nefari, human rimewarden
  • Kyansei of the Eilika Tribe, wildling barbarian
  • Itzel, elven Astrologer
  • Quangbae, wandering blacksmith

The Wrathbreakers took their prisoner to the myrmidon Kay, chief of the Estona marines, and had a short and fruitful discussion with him. They confirmed that the survivor’s band had been tasked with hunting selkie and extracting their body parts, to be delivered intact to Estona. They sought some organs, a strange gland from behind the Selkie’s thumb, and as much of their skin as they could flay, though they were given instructions to flay this within an hour of death, and in cold salt water. Such specific instructions and body parts intimated at an evil purpose, one involving magic, and Kay the myrmidon was concerned about what nest of sinister wizards were operating in his town. Though the gang had not committed any illegal act, Kay made clear to their prisoner that there would be consequences for the traffic he had been engaged in, and unless he coughed up the name of the fixer who had organized this gang, he would be in big trouble. The prisoner agreed and promised to make himself scarce until the entire storm had blown past, and told them that the gang of Selkie hunters had been put together by a man called Creosote, a fixer near the docks. In fact this prisoner was happy to tell them the man’s name on the promise that he would be hurt, because nobody had warned them of the viciousness of the Selkie they hunted, and after the first few successes – when the Selkie were not expecting to be attacked – things had turned very dark for the prisoner and his crew, and he wanted some revenge for being tricked into such a dangerous job without warning.

Perhaps that had been part of the plan, even? That after the first few deliveries of parts the Selkie would organize, and silence all the witnesses to the trade? A very convenient plot if so.

Kay was not happy with the idea that there was a fixer in town willing to trade in materials for dark magic, and decided that now might be an ideal time to put this oily man out of business. Again wanting to maintain some distance between himself and the investigation, he recommended the Wrathbreakers take a direct approach: visit Creosote’s hideout and demand he hand over the name of the person who paid him to fix the job. If he would not, they were free to take whatever measures were required to convince him to confess, and Kay rather relished the idea that he might refuse to talk immediately.

So it was that the Wrathbreakers found themselves at Creosote’s offices that same day, ready for violence. The office was a converted gambling den upstairs above a restaurant a block away from the docks, with stairs leading up to a common room where Creosote’s thugs lounged around. The Wrathbreakers walked in and pretended to be rival Selkie hunters prepared to sell parts to Creosote. This deception convinced his thugs, one of whom disappeared into the back to get Creosote himself.

Unfortunately the message did not put Creosote at ease; rather than coming to speak to the Wrathbreakers he sent his lieutenants to kill them. They burst through the noren separating the common room from the backrooms, and the battle began.

It was short and brutal, and they won. Half of Creosote’s men died, and most of the rest fled as the tide of battle turned against them. Finally Creosote and his last two lackeys surrendered, and he offered up all the information they wanted. Unfortunately, however, this was very little: the task had been given to him in a letter, by someone he had never met. He had gone about the task confident of being paid for it, because this was how these tasks always worked: delivered to him by letter, discharged according to instructions, and rewarded as promised. In this case the note had given him specific instructions about where to find and how to hunt the Selkie, what body parts to take and how, and where to deliver them. He had done as asked, and the parts had been delivered as requested, and he had received his coin.

Of course he had destroyed the letter, as he always did.

So the Wrathbreakers had no clues about who was procuring these parts, except that the instructions were delivered by note (as they always were by this particular employer) and the goods had to be delivered to a warehouse owned by a man called Gerald of Hamm.

They left Creosote alive, surveying the wreckage of his business, and left to find Gerald. Who was sending these notes, and what could they do to find this person? They would just have to keep shaking people up until someone told them something useful … or their mysterious correspondent took a direct, personal interest in them …

Kiss me goodbye

Pushing out before I sleep

Can’t you see I try

Swimming the same deep water as you is hard

“The shallow drowned lose less than we”

You breathe

The strangest twist upon your lips

“And we shall be together… ”

The Wrathbreakers have stumbled upon a strange cave complex while they were searching for wreckers, and now they feel they have stumbled on something that is much stranger than mere criminal damage. It appears that there are some kind of magical seals in the cave, perhaps somehow linked to the sea, and the ship they came here to investigate was not lured onto rocks by wreckers at all.

Having escaped from a trap set by the seals in a cave just off the entrance to the complex, the Wrathbreakers regrouped at the entrance and decided to risk exploring the rest. They left Quangbae on guard, and began their search. There were three tunnels leading from the cave, and having investigated the first, they decided to search the next.

The next tunnel turned almost immediately and opened into a small cave, still dimly lit by the light from the entrance. It was empty, with a dry sandy floor and small cracks in the ceiling letting in wan daylight. The entire wall of the cave was covered with a network of faintly glowing pale blue lines, laid on the wall in a pattern disturbingly reminiscent of the tattoo they had seen on the patch of skin they had recovered from the wrecked boat. It was not the same pattern, but obviously from a similar hand or culture. Whoever’s skin had been flayed and cured and hidden on that boat, they or their relatives lived in this cave.

They could all see where this was going, but they needed to be sure. They ventured into the final tunnel and followed it down a steep, precarious and slickly wet descent to a much larger cave. At the entrance to the cave was a large pool of dark, still water, and beyond the dim glow of Itzel’s werelight the cave disappeared into darkness. A narrow ledge of rock led around the edge of the pool. Treading carefully to avoid stepping in the water, they threaded their way along the ledge.

They were halfway around the pool and separated by some distance when the water began to rise around their feet. Before they could scramble back a new squad of seals appeared in the water and the powerful surge of the water hit them, dragging one of them into the water and forcing the rest of them to take positions on the ledge or the steps. This time, however, as they fought the seals in the water, three humanoid figures emerged from the shadows, screaming in rage.

They were tall, bigger than humans, two wearing sharkskin armour and carrying coral spears. The third was a tall, austere-looking woman in a ragged robe that appeared to be made of seaweed, also carrying a coral spear. Their skin was covered in a fine layer of grey-brown fur, just like the fur on the skin they had found in the ship. When that woman screamed, they knew they were in trouble. Feeling the full force of the strange creature’s power, Itzel stepped forward and yelled “Parley!” in every language she knew, while holding aloft the skin they had found on the shore.

The seals in the water withdrew, and the woman responded in an archaic and almost incomprehensible elven dialect. Her demands were clear: if they returned the skin and promised to bring to her the people who had done this to her fellow selkie, she would let them live. They agreed, and leaving the skin behind, they retreated up the stairs.

Ivrem and Selm

Outside, they gathered around a small fire to rest and eat and dry themselves. They had to wait three days here for Kay’s marines to arrive and take them away, which gave them plenty of time to make plans. It was at this point, recovering their poise around the campfire, that they remembered the two men they had seen hiding in the cliffs behind the cave. They had a good idea of who those men might be, but regardless of who they were they must have seen what happened on the beach. The Wrathbreakers decided to go and get them.

It did not take them long. The two men were hungry and desperate, and had little they could do. After Bao Tap sent them a message with his spume owl they descended the cliff face and, after a brief, tense negotiation, entered the wrathbreakers’ camp. Over a small meal they attempted to talk their way out of the trouble that must be coming, but they failed, and their story was spilled for all the world to know.

They were the surviving members of a team of men who had been assembled in Estona and sent out to hunt Selkie. Selkie are fey, and someone somewhere was willing to pay good money for their skin and “Other parts”. The hunting had been good at first but the Selkie soon learnt what was going on and became harder to trap. Then, on their last journey back down the coast, their ship had been run aground in perfect weather and attacked by Selkie. In the foaming shallows the crew had turned crazy and started hacking at each other while seals dragged them underwater and drowned them, but somehow Ivrem and Selm had been able to get away, and had fled to the cliffs. Here they had been for a week, unable to come down to the beach because the Selkie were waiting for them, but unable to find a way up the cliffs. They had survived on rainwater and raw lizards and eggs, getting ever more desperate.

They tried to bargain, but to no avail. The Wrathbreakers dragged one of them down to the cave – Ivrem or Selm, they couldn’t remember and didn’t care which – and offered him to the matriarch. They told her they would take the other back to Estona and use him to find the man who had organized the mission, and they would bring that man – and anyone connected to him – here. The Selkie matriarch agreed to their terms, and as they left the limpid pool filled with lampreys, which tore the prisoner to pieces as he drowned in a murky soup of gelid brine.

Three days later the marines made landfall, and they dragged their surviving prisoner – Ivrem or Selm, they still didn’t care – down to the boat, to be taken back to Estona to cash in all of his friends. They did not feel many qualms about staking their survival on the hideous deaths of this man and his employer, and they had a strong feeling that Estona would be a better town once everyone involved had been thrown to the lampreys …


Picture note: This is a picture by Natalia Drepina on Deviantart.

I recently posted some of my criticisms of the Genesys combat system to a forum for Genesys-related material, and received a surprising amount of resistance to the idea of making any changes to the rules. In amongst the resistance there were a large number of people telling me “you shouldn’t be doing that much combat anyway” and “if you like combat so much, just play D&D”. There was a strong theme of “people who play Genesys don’t like combat-heavy gaming” with the general assumption that combat-heavy gaming is somehow bad.

I have been GMing and playing RPGs for just over 30 years, and over that time I have repeatedly run into this idea that combat-heavy gaming is wrong, in various manifestations. You see adverts from gaming groups looking for members that say “we don’t focus on combat”, you meet GMs who tell you “yeah my campaigns tend to avoid combat”, and the ever-disdainful “yeah it’s not like D&D, it’s not all about combat.” Here is an example from the forum where I posted my suggested rules changes:

This entire post seems to me to be a misunderstanding of what Gensys is. If you want combat play 5e. If you want and narrative game that’s interactive between players and GM, then you’re on the right page.

This really pisses me off for a lot of reasons, and reflecting on it over the past week has triggered me to write this rant. To me, this “We don’t run games that are combat heavy” routine is like the idea that “you’re not like other girls“. Men pull this sometimes, and what they mean is they don’t respect basic aspects of modern femininity, which at the same time they really want their girl to have. It’s a shitty, self-deluding and mean-spirited approach, and most sensible girls list it as one of their basic red flags for exiting from a date. In the case of RPG talk, this “my games aren’t combat heavy” routine is bullshit for several reasons:

  • Every game group I’ve ever joined that has advertised itself this way has been just as combat-heavy as the ones that don’t
  • Combat is fun, and most people enjoy it, so when you set yourself apart from it like this you’re saying you’re a killjoy with a weird approach to gaming and probably a boring GM
  • It’s almost always based on separating yourself from D&D, just as “you’re not like other girls” is meant to separate the girl you’re talking to from a lumpen mass of boring, shallow selfie-taking girls who actually only exist as a stereotype in the speaker’s mind

In fact D&D isn’t any more combat-focused than any other system, and when people compare themselves with it they’re setting up a false equivalency which shows they either know nothing about the world of RPGs, or are an arsehole with too much brand loyalty to some other system. I want to attack each of these issues in turn.

Most groups have the same levels of combat

I’ve GMd and played in many groups in many systems over many years in several countries, in multiple cities, in two languages, and in my experience most gaming groups have about the same amount of combat. There is almost no such thing as a gaming group that doesn’t do much fighting. Regardless of the system and the setting, most campaigns involve a fair amount of good quality savagery. There will be sessions of investigation and negotiation, and sessions of shopping and planning, but these will inevitably lead up to combat or flow from combat, and players are always happy when the shit hits the fan and the dice come out.

I think there is a secondary reason for this besides that combat is fun, which is that the players often are working on limited information and don’t know the full story of the situations they’re dealing with, or what they need to do, and often they misunderstand or have forgotten key bits of information (which they invariably didn’t write down). But they can sail through these complexities because they know ultimately they can beat someone up and force the information out of them (or steal it) and if their primary pathway through the story gets lost the GM will save them by having their adversaries play their hand – usually with a weapon in it. Combat is very helpful for resolving story impasses, and GMs and players alike use it for that purpose.

It should also be noted that even though combat makes up a large chunk of time in a typical session, it isn’t actually that much of the story. Consider session 22 of my Genesys campaign, for example: The PCs visited a bar to get a job, sailed overnight on a ship where they did some planning and investigatory magic, walked for a day along a beach, checking carefully for signs of lurking dangers or evidence of wrecking, investigated a shipwreck by examining several bodies and finding and opening a chest, scouted a cliff face to find two men of dubious purpose, scouted a cave entrance looking for signs of fake signal lights, triggered a trap, and had a fight with some selkies. In actual game time the fight probably took as long as two or three of the other activities in the session, but it was only a tiny part of the total story. Combat takes up an out-sized part of the action and people’s perception of the balance of things in a game because rules are clunky and fights take a long time to resolve, not because they’re necessarily a large part of the activities of a typical adventure.

So frankly, I don’t believe people when they say they’re not really into combat in their games, because every time someone says that the empirical evidence shows the lie. Don’t get judgy with me about how you’re not that into it, and don’t pretend your level of combat in your games is special. It’s not, trust me. You’re not special.

Combat is fun

This is why every rule system has a section on fighting, and why popular gaming podcasts are called things like “I hit it with my axe” and not “I talk calmly with it to resolve the conflict.” There are several reasons for this, and they’re all perfectly good reasons:

  • It’s the time your PC faces the most risk and it’s also the time when things are least like the world you’re actually in
  • Most of the settings we play in are designed for conflict, because we want worlds where there are big evil and dangerous threats, and we especially like magic and demons and monsters, which inevitably bring violence
  • We spend most of our lives compromising with shitty people who have more power than us and negotiating and talking our way out of trouble, often with little success, and being able to smash your way out of problems – especially if the person you’re smashing is a bully or evil – is real escapism, and we don’t play these games to replicate the shitty interactions we have with shitty people in our shitty real world

If players didn’t enjoy fighting, and if people who wanted low-combat games were common, game designers would give combat the same amount of attention they currently give to social encounters or stronghold building: almost none. The reason it is a large part of gaming is that people enjoy it, which might also be the reason D&D 5e is so popular … except that D&D 5e isn’t an especially combat-heavy system.

D&D is not combat heavy

This idea that D&D is a combat-focused game is very old and very shitty. It wasn’t true 30 years ago and it’s not true now. First let’s consider some canonical examples of this idea, which I hear all the time. Consider for example this 9 year old post on stack overflow asking how to reduce combat in a D&D game, where respondents say things like this:

Well, for starters, I’d say don’t use D&D. It is a game tailored towards violent conflicts, which is exactly what you’re avoiding, it seems. Mind you, I said “violent conflicts”. No story, thus no game, can exist without any conflict whatsoever. I’m not also saying it’s completely undoable with D&D, just mainly… a waste of its design and practical goals.

I don’t know how to put this finely, so I’ll just say it: this is utter bullshit. D&D was never designed entirely towards violent conflicts, and this idea that it was is based on an unpleasant retrofitting of the nature of these games. Very early D&D lacked a skill system, so compared to games like Traveller and Warhammer that were around at the same time it looks like it was intended to be entirely combat focused, but it was never seen this way at the time. It was understood that the players and GM would resolve all non-combat stuff between themselves using negotiation and discussion and role-playing, and the rules were there to make fighting coherent – not that the game was only about fighting. You can see this in many of the classic early modules, which set out huge amounts of non-combat role playing in the social context of the game, without any particular mechanism for resolving those parts of the adventure. Later versions of the game introduced skills because of the popularity of skill systems and the recognition that without structured rules for non-combat encounters it became too much of a GM’s kimagure about how these matters would be resolved.

It should also be noted that compared to some other fantasy RPGs like Tunnels and Trolls, D&D led the way in finding ways to introduce non-combat themes. D&D invented the thief, a character class originally intended to be weak in combat but very useful outside of it, and also is responsible for the development (or at least popularization) of the much-maligned bard class, which is the Platonic ideal of non-combat role-playing. And what do we find in the 20 years since its inception? The bard is the routinely most-hated character class. Why would that be I wonder?

This idea about D&D being combat heavy is also empirically verifiably not true. Let us compare systems I have on hand! The D&D 5e rulebook has 200 pages of rules, excluding spells, of which 10 are devoted to combat, 2 are devoted to social interaction, 6 to skills, and 5 to weapons and armour. Among the spells 6/11 Bard cantrips are non-combat, 10/18 2nd level Druid spells are non-combat, and 7/15 7th level wizard spells are non-combat. (This is treating healing and restoration as combat-focused). So perhaps 10% of the rules and 50% of the spells are for combat. Compare with Genesys, our supposedly narrative/non-combat game, where in 136 pages of basic rules 7 are devoted to social encounters, 23 to combat and 3 to weapons and armour. Almost all of the spell section is devoted to combat spells, and no real guidance offered for non-combat spells, which are entirely up to the GM and players to figure out. Warhammer 2 has 140 pages of rules, of which 16 are devoted to combat, 6 to weapons and armour, and two of the PCs’ basic attributes are combat-only! (Weapon Skill and Ballistic Skill). In the spells, 5/8 of the lesser magic spells are non-combatant. The game Limnal, a modern fantasy based around things like Rivers of London and the Dresden Files, has 88 pages of rules among which 8 pages are for combat. So even definitively combat-light games like Limnal that are set in the modern mundane world where you can’t just shoot people still reserve nearly 10% of their rules for combat. D&D is far from special in this regard!

Not only do people enjoy combat, D&D isn’t especially combat heavy and it never was. I bet this pernicious lie was started by the Vampire the Masquerade poseurs, who needed an excuse for the fact that their much-loved and very popular game had shit combat rules and really boring magic. But games like Vampire, which explicitly tried to frame themselves as more social, had another problem that D&D and other “combat-heavy” games had less of: They were a target-rich environment for bullies and abusers.

Combat-free gaming and bullying GMs

I played a year-long World of Darkness game, followed up by a very short stint in the standard Vampire world, and I have never experienced so much bullying and abuse by a GM in my life. The setting is designed to make your GM a bully, and the lack of structured rules and the insane power differentials that make combat impossible also mean that almost everything becomes a case of begging your GM for a break. This old Reddit thread in response to someone asking whether to take up VTM is a good example of its kind, with comments like this:

VtM, in my opinion, tends to be bogged down by the lore, politics, and hierarchy of the system. Instead of doing cool vampire things, you mostly skulk around talking to other vampires who are all more powerful than you and will most likely execute you if you try to do anything interesting. Most of the time even having a character sheet was pointless because it seemed like using your powers in any way would get you on the Most Wanted list.

This was my experience exactly: having a character sheet was pointless because any conflict you entered (whether combat or social) was against people so powerful that your skills didn’t matter, or against mundane people who you could always beat. It was completely narrative, effectively, and the problem with narrative styles like this is that you end up entirely at the mercy of the GM, with no clear cues as to how to deal with his goals and desires, and no frame of reference to determine whether he is being unreasonable. In VTM, if a GM puts you into conflict with some god-awful ancient elder vampire, you won’t necessarily know what you’re up against and you won’t be able to resolve this situation unless you know what the GM wants to get out of the encounter; but you also won’t have any framework within which to argue your GM is being unreasonable, since the whole stupid game is designed this way. In contrast if your D&D GM throws your first level group against a lich you know there and then that you can just walk away because the GM is an arsehole and a bully.

VTM is basically high school cliques turned into an RPG, and it’s just as much fun: none. It’s also ripe ground for bullies precisely because systems without clear rules or guidelines for conflict, and without the option for you to hack and stab your way out of trouble, put too much power and privilege in the hands of the GM. It’s no surprise to me then that in amongst the last two years’ metoo reckoning within the gaming industry, a lot of the people being exposed turn out to have worked on VTM. It’s a game designed by bullies for bullies.

When you put a lot of power in the hands of one person, you need a strong and robust institutional structure to control that power. In the case of role-playing the institutional structure is the rules, and well designed rules not only provide the players with a good structure for how to handle any situation, but also provide a clear set of boundaries for the GM, so that everyone can tell when he or she is stepping out of line. This is another reason they’re combat heavy: because combat is naturally a time when everything is structured, and when everything is structured then everything is fair, and players want the game to be fair. There are a couple of clear red flags pointing to a bullying GM, and the clearest one is that he or she simply doesn’t bother to follow rules. If (as in my World of Darkness campaign), your GM doesn’t really care about character sheets and character development, ignores rules, arbitrarily forces you to change your PC, puts you into situations where using your powers or engaging in combat will inevitably be lethal, or repeatedly forces you to back down from your own plans by revealing highly powerful enemies, then you need to run. And chances are, if your GM prides themselves on not doing combat, they’re also doing one or all of those things.

Why any of this matters

I think a lot of people enter role-playing out of a genuine and deep interest in the idea, because role-playing is awesome, and I think a lot of them leave very quickly because of their experience of hard-core gaming nerds, who can be really unpleasant. If you want to grow the hobby it’s really important to recognize why people come to the game, what they really want from it, and what behavior and principles will destroy their fun and our hobby. It’s a cliche in this hobby that there’s no right way to do it, and that you should just have fun, but it’s also a truism that you never see people who enjoy combat-heavy games sneering at people who don’t, and you never hear people who enjoy D&D griping about how other games don’t have enough fighting. This sneering all goes one way, and I think there’s a reason for that: a small minority of people in our hobby want to set themselves up as special and rarified masters of the game, and in order to do that they need to disparage one of its most central, universal elements in favour of much vaguer, much less structured parts of the experience which people enjoy less and which make the game much more dependent on successfully negotiating real-world social interactions which are often, sadly, toxic. Don’t fall for it! And don’t become part of some weird system of cliques in which people who play a certain way are better than people who don’t. We’re not in high school anymore, and we don’t have to pretend to be cool. So kill as many orcs as you want, and steal their treasure from their still-warm bodies with joy in your heart and no guilt in your soul!

A commenter at a Genesys community group online has made the following comment about my criticisms of the role Brawn plays in the Genesys combat rules:

One rule that stands out to me relates to party composition in combat and I haven’t seen it mentioned here. If an ally is engaged with the target of a ranged attack (magical or mundane) the attack must upgrade the difficulty once and any despair causes the attack to instead strike the ally. This, combined with setback from the cover rules causes allied melee fighters to either risk causing their ranged allies to miss, hit them instead, or, as is most often the case, choose to shoot something else.

This is true, but I think it doesn’t fully encapsulate how much of a difference brawn makes even to situations where we choose party composition. So let’s consider two scenarios involving combatants maximized for combat and melee.

Introducing the combatants

First let’s introduce our melee combatant, Gruumsh the Bastard, pulled out of retirement from the pathfinder epidemiology project[1] to do his duty as an experimental subject in our battlegrounds. Gruumsh has a brawn of 4, all other attributes at 2, 2 skill ranks in melee, 1 rank in ranged, no stealth (who needs that?!), a greatsword, a bow and chainmail armour. He thus has a melee defense of 1, 14 wounds, soak 6, does 8 damage when he hits you, and 7 damage if he decides to shoot you. For the purpose of this experiment (to retain fairness) Gruumsh has been dragged from Pathfinder to the Realms of Terrinoth in a human form.

Ranged (haha) against Gruumsh the Bastard is Elegant Eddie. Elegant Eddie has an agility of 4, all other attributes at 2, 2 skill ranks in ranged, 1 rank in melee, 2 ranks in stealth, a sword, a longbow and chainmail armour. He thus has a defense of 1 when in melee, 12 wounds, soak 4, does 8 damage when he shoots you and 5 damage when he stabs you. Eddie is also a human, though a miserable example of his kind as far as Gruumsh is concerned.

Now let’s try two scenarios.

Scenario 1: Firing into melee

We suppose first that Gruumsh has an ally like Eddie, who is nameless. He is attacking Eddie’s ally, who is like Gruumsh, in melee. We don’t care how this melee turns out in detail, but what we want to investigate is the consequence of Gruumsh being engaged while his nameless ally fires into melee. The specific rules of this state that we upgrade the difficulty of the shot by 1, so let’s put Gruumsh’s ally at short range and have him thus use a single red dice for difficulty. If he rolls a despair then he will hit Gruumsh. There is a 1/12 chance of a despair on the ally’s dice pool, so about an 8% chance he’ll hit Gruumsh. The maximum damage he can do in this situation with a truly ridiculous roll is 15 damage, of which Gruumsh can absorb 6, taking 9. A more realistic roll would see the attack do 11 damage, of which Gruumsh takes 5. So realistically this can happen 3 times before Gruumsh goes down. There is a scenario in which Gruumsh’s ally rolls despairs and triumphs, and thus does a critical on Gruumsh, but the chance of this is very low – my calculations put it at about 1% – and any GM who ruled in the extraordinary case of rolling 2 triumphs and 1 despair that the triumphs and the despair don’t cancel would likely not survive the session.

It’s worth noting in this case that the final probability of missing the enemy is similar with or without the upgrade, so if Gruumsh doesn’t engage this enemy and leaves it to his ally to shoot, the party is not significantly improving the chances of the ally doing damage on the enemy – and what is going to happen if Gruumsh doesn’t engage? Which brings us to scenario 2: Gruumsh and Eddie at range.

Scenario 2: A ranged stand off

Let’s suppose that Elegant Eddie and Gruumsh the bastard face off at medium range. Here the difficulty for Elegant Eddie to hit Gruumsh is two purple dice. Let’s suppose they shoot each other, so Gruumsh is not using his best skill. In this case if Elegant Eddie gets one success against Gruumsh he does 9 points of damage, which is 3 net; if Gruumsh gets one success on Elegant Eddie he does 8 points of damage, which is 4 net. For Elegant Eddie to do more damage than Gruumsh in this ranged stand off he needs 2 more successes than Gruumsh! Now each ability die is equivalent on average to 0.625 successes, and each skill die 0.83 successes, so this deficit is the equivalent of Elegant Eddie having two less ability dice and one less skill die – so basically the equivalent of Gruumsh’s agility and skill, but for the slightly elevated chance of a critical[2]. Also note that if they’re dealing approximately the same damage to each other after soak, Gruumsh will kill Elegant Eddie first, because Gruumsh has more wounds. So unless Elegant Eddie gets lucky with criticals there is a chance that he will lose this battle even though he is fighting it with his best ability and Gruumsh the bastard is not.

Now let’s suppose that instead of shooting Gruumsh decides to charge Elegant Eddie. He needs to close from meidum range to engaged, which will take him two manoeuvres: one from medium to short, one from short to engaged. This means that he can spend two strain and gets one attack against Elegant Eddie. Note that even though Elegant Eddie has better agility he doesn’t have better initiative chances, so it’s possible that he’ll never get a chance to shoot Gruumsh, but just in case, let’s assume he does. The maximum damage he can do is 16, of which Gruumsh will take 10, so Gruumsh is guaranteed to reach melee this round. There is a small chance that Elegant Eddie will get a critical, in which case there are a couple of criticals he can roll up (11-20, 41-45, 71-75, 81-85, and 96 – 105 if we are going to be generous to Eddie) that could stop Gruumsh from closing range. My estimation of probabilities puts the chance of this chain of events happening at less than 3%. So there is a 97% chance that Gruumsh is going to close range and get an attack in one round.

The maximum damage Gruumsh can do is the same as Elegant Eddie: 16. But Elegant Eddie has 4 soak and 12 wounds, so Gruumsh can knock him out in one round. The chance of this is low obviously, but note that the minimum damage Gruumsh can do on a successful hit is 9, which translates to 5 for Elegant Eddie, so there is almost zero chance that Elegant Eddie is going to survive two hits – and next round he’s going to need to use his free manoeuvre (assuming he gets one) to get his sword out. Once his sword is out there is actually a chance he’ll do zero damage against Gruumsh even on a successful hit!

A note on cover

Let us suppose that Gruumsh the Bastard wins the initiative and sees that Elegant Eddie has a ranged weapon. Suppose that there is some cover at short range that gives him two defense. He could use his free manoeuvre to get there, dive into cover, then next turn use another free manoeuvre to close to engaged, thus saving two strain. Is this worth it? Each point of defense has a 1/3 chance of reducing Elegant Eddie’s dice pool result by one success, so the two dice in total could reduce the dice pool by two successes at most, some of the time. But Gruumsh the Bastard has two extra points of soak than Elegant Eddie, so this cover is less effective than his brawn advantage in protecting him. The rule book says that two cover dice is equivalent to a trench or blockhouse. Gruumsh’s brawn advantage is better than putting him in a pillbox! If Gruumsh opts to run to cover he would be offering his opponent a chance at a shot at reduced difficulty, with almost no benefit, even if that cover were a blockhouse! Unless Gruumsh is already down to his last two strain, the simple fact is that there is no benefit to him in pausing – he should just rush to melee. Note that if the cover were at medium range and the battle started at long range, he would probably be better off waiting for Elegant Eddie to shoot, rather than running to cover, because the benefit to him of gaining the two cover dice does not out weigh the benefit to Elegant Eddie of the range improvement, given his brawn. He is better off just pausing his run, standing at long range, waiting for Elegant Eddie to shoot him, and then closing to cover. And if Elegant Eddie uses his free manoeuvre to maintain the range so that they have to turn this into a shooting match, Gruumsh’s brawn will neutralize Eddie’s extra skill anyway!

Conclusion

Truly Gruumsh is a bastard. His brawn acts as a dampener on ranged attacks, so that PCs who have chosen to maximize this skill are effectively no better at it than Gruumsh himself (and Gruumsh obviously disdains such petty strategies). Although it is true that firing into a combat in which Gruumsh is engaged slightly increases the risk of harm to him, this risk is small and not worth foregoing Gruumsh’s rush into combat. Worse still, if Gruumsh and a ranged fighter enter an encounter at medium range there is almost no chance that the ranged fighter will survive, even though the engagement has started in a way that should heavily favour the ranged combatant. There is no reason for Gruumsh to seek cover if he wins the initiative, since his brawn effectively acts as if he were hiding in a bunkhouse anyway. None of this is an issue if brawn does not affect soak, and note that things become even more catastrophically difficult for Gruumsh if agility determines combat skill – then Gruumsh would be better off with 3 brawn and 3 agility, and all his calculations would change. Just as in my original experiments in Pathfinder, being able to kill someone quickly outweighs fancy considerations of style, and the doubling up of brawn to both defense and offense means that brawn-focused characters are more dangerous than better-armed opponents even in ranged combat!

Some arguments in the online community where this debate unfolded suggested that Genesys was developed for ranged combat, because it was developed for Star Wars, where blasters are the core weapon. First, this isn’t true – the Star Wars system was developed from Warhammer 3rd Edition, which was developed for a world of Grim Fantasy. Secondly, it’s also wrong. This analysis shows that the system clearly disadvantages ranged fighters heavily.

One small limitation of my analysis here is that I have not considered the cost of completely missing (or the benefits of being completely missed) in scenario 2. This might slightly readjust the balance of risks, but is complicated to calculate for Genesys dice pools. But overall I don’t think that nuance significantly changes the basic finding, which is that brawn serves to neutralize ranged attacks through soak to such a degree that it completely distorts the balance of combat. Brawn should not be applied to soak, or if it is, melee attacks should all be agility based.


fn1: Incidentally, it’s interesting to compare the generally positive response of the Pathfinder community to my rules suggestions there back in 2015, with the negativity and criticism of the Genesys community.

fn2: I am using this approximation because calculating precise probabilities for dice pools in Genesys is tough and I can’t be bothered writing the R code to do it.