Recently Democratic senator Amy Klobuchar announced that she will be running for president, only to be confronted with reports that she is a nasty boss. The media are avoiding calling it bullying, but the reports are bad and suggest that she is genuinely terrible: throwing things at staff, making them do personal chores, humiliating them publicly and terrorizing them personally. Until 2017 she had the highest staff turnover of any senator, and rumours suggest she was warned about her treatment of staff by a senior colleague. This is bullying, plain and simple, and these actions should be called bullying. Her defense has been that she’s a “tough boss”, and others have suggested that she is just “demanding”, but throwing things at staff and humiliating staff publicly is not “tough”, it’s abusive.

Besides the obvious moral failings of bullies, there are three important reasons why a bully should not be nominated for, or run for, and certainly not become, president.

  • Bullied staff are bad staff: When you’re bullied you avoid reporting mistakes, you bury issues you know will trigger your boss, you avoid communicating with your boss, and all communication and information is carefully managed and manipulated to ensure it doesn’t trigger the boss. This means that errors compound and grow, the boss only hears what they want to hear, and decisions get made on the basis of what the boss wants, not what is best for the organization or what is right. Many people will claim that they wouldn’t behave this way if faced with a bullying boss but I can assure you from experience: Everyone does. Bullies run dysfunctional organizations, and often ultimately destroy those organizations.
  • Bullied staff are vindictive staff: If Klobuchar is a bully and she wins the nomination, you can bet that all through the general election there will be a constant dribble of negative reports about her, as her staff try to stop her from becoming the world’s top bully. This will hamper her effectiveness and ultimately risks Trump winning.
  • Bullies do not play well with others: There is only one way to stop a bully’s bad behavior: smash the bully. The only way to restrain a bully is with power – it is the only language they understand. Bullies always punch down and suck up, they have a natural power to understand where power lies and who uses it, and they don’t collaborate or cooperate with peers or weaker people. This is bad at school but it’s monstrously dangerous in a nuclear-armed and powerful nation. This shouldn’t be a difficult thing to see – we can see how Trump doesn’t play well with others, and he’s obviously a bully.

Public responses to reports of Klobuchar’s bullying have largely ignored these points. This Washington Post article, for example, starts with the question “does it matter?” and finishes with this pearler:

If you think about it, the problem with [President] Trump is not that he’s a crappy boss, it’s that he doesn’t get along well with peers and with the people he needs to work with to get legislation passed … I’m not sure the job of being president is a job of management in the sense of being a CEO, but frankly as I see it, it’s about convincing people to do what needs to be done.

This is exactly why Trump being a bully is a problem: he can’t get along with his peers because he has a history of bullying and attacking them, and he can’t convince people to do what needs to be done because they refuse to cooperate with such an outrageous arsehole. These things are all linked!

On Twitter another response I have seen to these reports is that it’s a double standard, that no man has been subject to these complaints and that it’s just another way of bringing down a “tough” woman (with the addendum if she were a man she’d be called “tough” but because she’s a woman she’s “unreasonable”). I am sympathetic to these arguments and I can see that if Klobuchar were just tough she might well be derided as unreasonable, but that is not what is happening, and conflating the reports with “tough boss” is wrong. Furthermore, it’s not a double standard: reporters were reporting on Sanders’ mistreatment of his staff in 2015, Trump’s bullying was well known and well reported on, and Tim Kaine (Clinton’s VP pick) made Trump’s bullying a central part of his address at the Democratic National Convention. While it’s true Sanders didn’t get hauled over the coals for this, it’s true that in a lot of other ways coverage of Sanders was ludicrously biased (he’s not a Democrat, for example, but he was taken seriously by the Democrats wtf), and the broader issue of how poorly the media handled Clinton’s candidacy is about way more than this issue – and largely unrelated, I think. The fact is that Trump’s bullying was widely reported on, as was his sexual assault. It’s just that a lot of Americans didn’t care, only watch Fox News, or were too stupid to understand how to check the candidates before they voted.

Of course it’s possible all the reports about Klobuchar are lies, but I doubt it. I haven’t bothered investigating in detail because it’s not worth my time – Harris is going to win the nomination, so it doesn’t matter what Klobuchar did – and because if Klobuchar does win the nomination it doesn’t matter, since she’s obviously better than Trump. But the fact that this comes up now shows the importance of a simple principle: At all levels of society, at all times, we have to confront and beat down bullies, and we need to always be aware that a lot of people love and support bullies, and we need to confront and deal with them too. I will talk about the importance of this at a more prosaic and local level: the US role-playing scene known as the “Old School Renaissance”, or OSR, where a major figure in that scene has recently been uncovered as a rapist and a shocking bully and power abuser.

Zak S and the personal politics of bullying

Zak S is a major figure in the OSR, who runs the Playing D&D with Porn Stars blog and has been involved in a great many OSR projects, especially Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Zak S has been involved in the OSR since about 2009, when he started the blog, and in his early days was well enough behaved. He occasionally commented here in 2009/2010, before he discovered he had bigger fish to fry, and then I lost interest in the OSR and stopped paying attention to the recycled junk they produce for many years. But somehow in Twitter I stumbled upon a report that Zak S’s porn star players – who, it turns out, were all his lovers as well – have started posting reports on Facebook about how he raped them and abused them for many years. He was apparently a gaslighting, emotionally manipulative abuser, since probably about the time he started blogging. As it stands at the time of writing two women have reported similar behavior and abuse, and it seems pretty unlikely that this is some kind of political campaign. The truth is out and it’s not pretty.

I was not surprised, because Zak S is an obvious bully. He has been bullying people for years, with help from a coterie of vicious internet allies, and has been an incredibly disruptive presence in the OSR. Multiple producers of OSR content and various bloggers have had to bow out of the whole scene or disappear because of his behavior; in 2016(?) a group of women marched out of the Ennies in protest at him winning prizes (they walked out on political grounds; aesthetic grounds would have been sufficient!); he was banned from one of the big forums (RPG.net I think) with an epic post listing his behaviors that I can’t now find; and various people have taken sides over his behavior over the years. It’s no surprise that a man who showed the kind of public aggressiveness and rudeness he showed should turn out to be a manipulative rapist, because bullies only listen to power, not to moral claims, and rape is a crime of power. But by the time this came out he had managed to leverage his vicious public behavior into a role as a “consultant” on D&D 5th Edition and some kind of advisor to Vampire: The Masquerade[1]. He had also ingratiated himself with Lamentations of the Flame Princess to the extent that he is one of their main contributors, and was involved with various other OSR/DIY gaming[2] outfits. Somehow this thoroughly unpleasant man had managed to become popular with a lot of people despite his repeated public bullying of weaker figures. How did this happen?

It’s instructive to compare the response of some people to this news today with the way they defended him for years. People have known about the claims about Zak S and they defended him, over and over, for years. They repeatedly dismissed any criticisms of his behaviour as lies, slander, “social justice warrior” posturing, jealousy, conspiracies, or people being delicate snowflakes. But all the criticisms were true, and all the defenses were the usual bullshit that the enablers always give for bullies. The reality is that a lot of people in the OSR were willing to side with Zak S and supported or defended his behavior when they realized that he was going places. They didn’t dissociate quietly from him, they didn’t refuse to support him, they didn’t confront him – they actively defended and encouraged him. Now they’re all acting ooooh so surprised that he’s a rapist and that all the tactics he deployed online were deployed to devastating effect in his personal life, and a lot of them even now are trying to back out of responsibility by claiming it’s a social media storm, or blaming the women or pretending that they were blinded by political considerations. It’s all bullshit: these people were the sycophants to the bully. Just like every bully in school has a gaggle of hangers-on who applaud his every tawdry move, the leading lights of the OSR clung to Zak S. They hung on his every word. Even now Raggi at Lamentations of the Flame Princess is waiting to see how everyone reacts before he makes comment, because that’s the kind of coward he is. The rest of them are trying to pretend that they had no clue – no clue! – that this guy who had been banned from multiple forums for abuse, who was a known sock puppeter, who broke every social norm and paraded around like the Sun King on Meth, was completely unknowably bad. How could they have guessed? They could not have known!

Well they’re lying. Bullies are nothing without their enablers, and the enablers always crawl out from under their rocks when they see someone who might be going places, someone who they can suck up to for some benefit, even if it’s just the vicarious coolness of being around someone who is “popular” – and even if that popularity is just other morally backward people like themselves cheering the bully as he hurts others. That’s what happened with Zak S, and now we’re watching all these people come to terms with the fact that they spent years helping a rapist and a bully get popular and famous in their sordid little scene.

That’s what happens when you don’t confront bullies. That’s what happens when you stand by while they act like shitlords, and tear up the communities that welcomed them. Every single one of us has a personal responsibility to confront bullies and to drag them down, to shame them and humiliate them. If we all did this from the very beginning there would be no Zak S’s, no Klobuchars, no Trumps – they would all have learnt that it doesn’t work, and they would have stopped. But too many people make excuses, say that Zak S is just confrontational, that Klobuchar is tough, that Trump says what he means and means what he says, and ignore what is really happening. They let it pass, and then someone genuinely weak and helpless – someone like Mandy Morbid, Zak S’s girlfriend, who has serious disabilities and is a foreigner in America – has to finally break everything and make the stand that everyone else could easily have done years ago. The burden falls on the weakest, the victims, instead of on people like Raggi from Lamentations of the Flame Princess who could have sent Zak S a very strong message years ago by telling him “fuck off Zak, you’re a fuckwit.” Instead of years of humiliation for being a fuckwit, Zak S got years of support and ennoblement, and learnt repeatedly that there is no penalty for being evil.

Not everyone can stand up to bullies. Bullies know power, and often their victims have no power to say no. But bullies always seek the powerful for approval and support, and they know how to accrue power, social and financial resources, and the kinds of capital that protect them. If you control that power, those social resources, or that capital, then the responsibility is on you to attack those bullies. If you have money, a steady job, love, physical strength, tenure, stable and supportive networks – it is your responsibility to confront these people and tell them to fuck off. You may fail or they may try to hurt you but if you don’t it comes down to this – a disabled sex worker crying for help on facebook, anonymous staffers having their stories dismissed in the national press because they’re anonymous cowards, victims of Trump U taking him to court in a fevered national election environment – vulnerable and scared people, risking everything to tell the rest of us what we already knew. But if every day those of us with power and position used that power and that position to tell these people how they are wrong, and to take away their power to do wrong, then those vulnerable people would not have to risk everything to warn the rest of us about what is coming.

The responsibility to smash the bully lies with you, not with anyone else. And if we all use that responsibility, if we do what we should do, then the bullies will never thrive, and the world will be a better place. Or we could be like the cowards in the OSR, and achieve some measure of temporary fame by sucking up to a known bully.

The choice is yours.


fn1: I have always hated Vampire, which is a classic attempt to tell the story from the bully’s perspective, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that they would be attracted to a bully and a rapist.

fn2: “DIY gaming” appears to be some sort of euphemism for “we do D&D”

 

rockhopping

No Satisfaction prowling the asteroid belt

Holy water cannot help you now
See I’ve had to burn your kingdom down
And no rivers and no lakes can put the fire out
I’m gonna raise the stakes, I’m gonna smoke you out
Seven devils all around you
Seven devils in my house
See they were there when I woke up this morning
I’ll be dead before the day is done

The cast for this session[1]:

  • Captain Al Hamra (Mystic)
  • Engineer Reiko Ando (Deckhand)
  • Pilot Saqr Geroushi (Pilot)
  • Sensor Operator Siladan Hatshepsut (Archaeologist)
  • Ship’s Doctor Banu Delecta (Medicurg)

Having fought off the unidentified pirate ships on their way to Rockhome 3, the PCs came to a halt in the dusty darkness of the asteroid belt, and spent a few hours repairing the hull of their heavily-damaged ship. Their repairs were barely enough to make the ship safe for travel, though, so they hurried forward to Rockhome 3, in hopes of finding safe harbour and repairs for their damaged ship. They arrived a few hours later and drifted into one of the space station’s four hangars, finally finding some safety on the 6th day of their journey.

The hangar they landed in was large enough to dwarf their ship, perhaps 400m square, big enough for a small class V vessel. Their ship was the only ship in the hangar, which was a battered and filthy affair, low-tech in all its components and rundown. When they emerged from their ship they noticed the air was freezing cold, so their breath misted in front of them, and had a rank smell. A group of about 15 locals were walking towards their ship, led by a thing, greying, tall man in a dirty flight suit. As he approached Al Hamra to shake hands Al Hamra noticed that he stank of body odour. Everyone in the group looked worried, and they were all wearing flight suits, coats and scarves or mufflers. The place was unusually silent for a working dock.

The man introduced himself as Abraham, colony spokesperson, and immediately cut to business: did they have spare parts? They assured him they did, and moved to the conference room of their yacht to negotiate prices. They managed to cut an excellent deal, selling the goods for more than twice the price they had bought them and selling him more than he immediately needed, leaving them with just a small stock of advanced and ordinary parts. He also agreed to have his dock workers repair their ship, and as final icing on the cake offered them accomodation in the luxury section of Rockhome 3, adding, “I hope the gravity will be stabilized by the end of the day.”

He did not, however, offer to let them investigate the sabotage that had nearly brought his community to its knees. Al Hamra attempted to read his mind, but found only a vision of the community as a vulnerable and wounded animal surrounded by predators, that would be torn apart the moment it showed weakness. Abraham intended to find the saboteur himself.

Al Hamra did not care who the saboteur was. But the group thought back to those two fighters in the debris of the asteroid belt, and wondered what else would be coming for the colony, and if they would be gone before it came. They retired to the luxury quarters to think and to plan, leaving Adam and Oliver Greenstar on the ship to guard it.

Rockhome3

Rockhome 3

Rockhome 3 was actually a spacious and pleasant living space, though so primitive that even the PCs with a station background were uncomfortable living there. It had been built out of five asteroids, four smaller rocks connected to a larger central living space by strong tunnels. The whole thing was held together by gravitron projectors and connected to a large dock and mining complex, large enough to hold five large spaceships and about 12 small mining ships. The centre living space was a nearly spherical asteroid about 3km long by 2km wide, hollowed out and divided into two large residential sections and a central business section. The centre of all three of these spaces and the luxury sector were graced with wide, pleasant parks, and the walls of all the sectors were covered in creepers, ivy, and hanging plants. Large windows on one side of all the asteroids gave a view of the distant sun, and the slow rotation of the entire structure allowed this weak sunlight to shine into all the sectors for about 10 hours every day. Living spaces were primitive but spacious, and about 400 people lived there. No one was registered and no one could say exactly how many people lived there, but everyone knew everyone else’s comings and goings. By the time the PCs reached their luxury apartments they were already known to the entire colony.

Before the day was done they had received their first invitation to intrigue: an invitation to dinner from Ingrid Silwerstern. Ingrid was a representative for the Consortium, who had also sent a doctor called Dr. Angbat. It was only natural that she should invite them to dinner to give her the latest updates on news from Coriolis, and all the intrigues of that distant and splendid metropolis. They agreed, and soon found themselves in the company of an agreeable and charming middle-aged ambassador and the willowy young Dr. Angbat, eating Green Ahi[2] and discussing fashion trends in the Spring Plaza. However, before the night was over Ingrid made them a clear offer: find out who the saboteur was and she would give them 5000 birr (which they managed to negotiate down to 4000 birr). Ingrid’s fear was that the sabotage had been caused by the miners themselves and that they were planning an uprising – something that was always fatal for a large portion of a station, and something she wanted to avoid. Of course the PCs agreed, and went home to plan their moves.

They decided to make themselves useful, and in doing so to begin to find out what had happened in the colony. Reiko set off to help the colony’s workers repair the facilities that had been damaged by sabotage, while Al Hamra oversaw the unloading of the cargo and Siladan attempted to use the ship’s equipment to monitor outgoing broadcasts. Unfortunately Siladan’s personal problem distracted him, and instead of looking for signs of sabotage he found himself examining mining colony culture and trying to understand their life cycle. By evening he had learnt nothing. Banu offered her services as a doctor in the local medicenter, but after her first consultation – with a young domestic violence victim called Ilthid, who told her he could not leave his abuser because he was “rich and powerful offers me so much when he achieves his full potential here”[3] – was sent home for her terrible bedside manner, having learnt nothing about the local community[4].

They regathered in the luxury apartments in the evening, and Reiko was able to confirm that the sabotage had been caused by explosives, though she had not been given time to find out exactly what explosives had been used. They decided that next day Banu and Reiko would investigate the explosives in detail, while Saqr went outside in the No Satisfaction and searched the vicinity, and spent some hours eavesdropping on the communications between the miners as they worked on remote asteroids.

They set out the next day to these tasks. Reiko and Banu were able to determine that the explosives used were low-yield shaped explosives of the type used by miners, and Reiko – by chatting with the friends she made while doing repair work – learned that the mining ship docks were equipped with a kind of vending machine system for dispensing exactly the kind of explosives they suspected had been used. Only one mining ship was out at present, so they guessed that it would be easy to trace who took the explosives. All they needed to do was get into the security control centre and download footage of security cameras watching the docks. Meanwhile Saqr, listening in on miners’ talk, was able to confirm that the miners had not planned any sabotage, and showed no signs of rebelliousness. Whatever motivated their saboteur was much more sinister than mere plebeian discontent!

In the afternoon they gathered and decided to get into the security center. Reiko, Banu and Al Hamra approached the guards at the centre and, using Reiko’s newfound camaraderie with the locals, struck up a conversation about a place to get a decent bath. The guards let them in on the secret of Edith’s Repose, a Courtesan’s establishment in the centre of the business area, and with a few snide insinuations and offers of payment they managed to lure the guards away for an evening of drinking and relaxation. While they were gone Saqr and Siladan crept in and downloaded the camera footage they needed.

Algebraic Escalation

That night, looking at the footage, they found a picture of the likely perpetrator, a young man who accessed the vending machine after the last mining ship left, and showed no signs of going out mining. They thought of asking Ingrid Silwerstern to identify the man but there was no need: Banu recognized his picture as the picture on the file of the boyfriend of Ilthid, the abused man whose case she had handled so badly the day before.

They visited Ilthid immediately, finding him at his home in the first residence. After some pressure he revealed that his lover, Aslam, was a rich man, the youngest child of the Founders, a rich family descended from the original Founders of the colony. The Founders were rich from their historical possessions but had little power on the station, and most of them were now distributed around the colony’s diaspora, on Coriolis or Lubau. Aslam had stayed on Rockhome 3 and was not happy about it, but had recently started talking about how great his future would be. He assured Ilthid that he would soon be a powerful and great figure, and Ilthid tolerated violence and unspeakable acts in hopes of having great favour in the future. The PCs realized that Aslam had some plan, and decided to confront him. They left Ilthid crying softly in his rooms, and returned to their accomodation to send Aslam an invitation to a breakfast meeting to discuss investments.

Their breakfast meeting with Aslam did not go well. He was arrogant and insufferable, but gave them no evidence of his plans. Eventually when he realized they were confronting him about the sabotage he told them they would be well-served leaving the colony immediately, and then walked out. After a few minutes’ discussion the PCs decided to follow him to his residence, and were halfway across the gardens of the luxury quarter when a large screen over the entryway to the quarter came to life and provided them with a simple announcement:

Incoming ship

Docking: Hangar 2

Name: Algebraic Escalation

They were no longer alone on these distant rocks. Something had emerged from the Dark.


fn1: for this campaign we have 7 players but usually we don’t have a full group, so we get different players attending every session. So I think I will give a cast at the beginning of each report so we can see what is happening and who is present.

fn2: A kind of large grasshopper, grilled alive.

fn3: All the players missed this opportunity to find out things about Ilthid’s lover, and promptly forgot Ilthid’s name, because they are – like all players everywhere – completely useless.

fn4: Banu is a rich girl slumming it, so you can see where things went wrong when she tried to provide medical care to a belter victim of domestic violence during her gap year …

And down there somewhere among the noise
The magazine dolls and the big money boys
Move silently on their easy heels
They move silently on their greasy wheels
This town has turned me into what I have become
This town dresses you up like a stranger
This town hangs around in the doorway and tells me I’m late
This town takes us down, takes us down
I feel like I’m losing you to this town

The PCs are trying to find Lavim Tamm, a young man who is in possession of a valuable statue that their employer, Merez, hopes to buy. They visited the White Tugur and the owner told them that they could find Lavim at a boarding house called the Quiet Eunuch. So they set off along the promenade to find his flophouse.

The promenade is a broad and beautiful thoroughfare, but as one climbs higher up its walls the beauty fades, first to functional and practical walkways lined with lawyers and computer businesses and recruiters and other practical, sensible but unromantic businesses; and then to a narrow, shabby and cramped line of dubious cut-rate opportunists. Up near where the arc of the promenade reaches its apex the shops are small, grubby and sometimes indecent: barber shops, cheap masseurs, cyber doctors, flophouses, the occasional capsule apartment, brothels and pawnshops. Up near the arc the two sides of the promenade are close enough to almost touch, or to jump across if one is desperate, criss-crossed frequently with bridges and festooned with cables and conduits. Outside the shops shifty-looking men lounged and argued, chewing kat and smoking cheap tabak to pass the time. In between these sections of bustling but despairing business the promenade would fall into disrepair, and the walkways would pass into dimly-lit and unpopulated stretches through which people hurried, looking around carefully as they stepped through the shadows.

At the edge of one of these patches of blank steel wall the PCs found the Quiet Eunuch, a boarding house with a narrow door and a single reception room looking out over the promenade through a grubby window. They ventured inside to find a small reception at the foot of stairs leading up to two floors of narrow rooms. The receptionist was unhelpful until they flashed some birr, then gestured them up to a room on the third floor. They took the stairs carefully, listening at doors and checking for trouble. Finally they found Lavim Tamm’s room, and knocked on its flimsy door.

Lavim Tamm’s Story

Lavim Tamm was suspicious, and refused to let them in at first, arguing with them through a viewing slot in the door. After they spent a little time convincing him of their good intentions – and flashed him a bottle of Fire Kohol – he let them in, and they found themselves facing off with him in a narrow room with a bed, a screen and a tiny shower booth. It stank of Kohol, and Lavim was drunk. He stood swaying in the middle of the room, wearing the dirty hotel gown and looking worn and tired. Adam noticed that he was obviously sick, his hair shaved to hide the possibility that it was falling out and his skin sallow and almost jaundiced. As he dragged out some plastic cups for them to pour Fire Kohol into, the pilot Saqr noticed that he had bundled up a worker’s uniform of some kind and thrown it onto the floor of the shower room, but from the door Saqr could see it had been burnt in places and was bloodstained.

Over Fire Kohol they slowly put Lavim Tamm at his ease, and learnt his story. He had been part of an archaeological dig on the surface of Kua, a simple worker lifting and digging, when something happened and they were attacked by creatures from the Dark Between the Stars. He could not explain the beasts he saw in any other way – they attacked with fire that was made of shadow and cold, and tore his comrades apart with contemptuous ease. Lavim hid and somehow escaped the battle, carrying a single artifact from the dig, the weird black statuette he had been dusting off when the attack started. Now he was back on the station and wanted to forget the whole experience, but he was convinced someone was watching him, and that people were after the statuette. He was terrified, but had no idea about how to escape his situation. The overalls in the bathroom were the only clothing he owned, and it was covered in his comrades’ dried blood. He was in trouble.

The PCs offered to escort him to their ship, and told him they had a potential buyer for the statuette. If he would trust them they could give him medical care on the Beast of Burden, and then he could negotiate the sale of the statuette, and be free of all his worries. Lavim Tamm agreed, telling them he had hidden the statue in a bridge over the promenade, along with a tag that contained the coordinates of the dig location, and if they agreed to take him to the ship he would collect the statuette on the way. They set off.

Merez intercedes on his own behalf

The bridge where Lavim Tamm had hidden the statuette was a level down from the flophouse and some distance away. Looking over the bridge the PCs could see down the dizzying heights to the base of the promenade, busy and cheerful far below, but the view was obscured by layers of conduits, cables, wires and nets. They accompanied Lavim onto the bridge and stood patiently while he dug around in a loose panel of the bridge and pulled out a small sack and a tag. Adam took the tag, while Saqr and Siladan Hatshepset investigated the statuette. Neither of them saw anything worthwhile in it, and in fact Siladan – who had some training as an archaeologist – was convinced it was a fake, of no value at all. Still, somebody valued it, so they figured they could sell it for Lavim Tamm anyway, so they turned to leave the bridge …

… and found themselves facing Merez, the man who had employed them to find Lavim, accompanied by three goons. The goons were armed, wearing light combat armour, and quite obviously hired Syndicate muscle. This situation did not look quite the way they had envisaged their reunion with their employer.

“Well done boys,” Merez congratulated them. “Now, I want to take possession of that statuette, and I don’t want to pay market price, so I’m going to cut a deal with you. You hand me the statuette, I pay you the 3,000 birr for finding it, and nobody gets hurt.” He waved a tag at them. “This is all the money you’re going to make today, my friends, so I suggest you make the most of my good mood and do as I ask.”

Behind him the Syndicate thugs flicked aside their coats to reveal Vulcan pistols and knives. They appeared to be ready to commit serious violence if things went awry. With most of the PCs back on the ship and only three on the bridge[1] they did not feel they were in a position to argue. With a resigned shrug Adam handed over the statuette and took the tag, quickly transferring its contents to his own.

“Good, very wise,” Merez crooned as he pocketed the statuette. Then he turned, waved his hands to the thugs, and ordered them to kill the entire group in an airy voice. They drew weapons and moved in for the kill as he walked away into the darkness.

The fight was brutal and over quickly, ending with two of the goons bleeding on the bridge, and Adam choking the third into unconsciousness and banging his head on the rails. They waited for him to come around and asked him a few pointed questions, from which they received little joy. He and his mates were hired guards, with no interest in whatever Merez wanted the statuette for. They had been paid and as far as he was concerned their job was done. He happily told the group where Merez was based in exchange for being allowed to drag his friends away for medical care, and they agreed to let him go.

They returned to their ship to recover and fix the teeth that Saqr had lost in the fight, and then decided to pay Merez a visit and ask for the statuette back, or for proper payment. Before they left Siladan spent a little time investigating the area where Merez was based. Saqr, the ship pilot, also had a mystical power, and he decided to use this to locate the statuette. To everyone’s surprise, it was not in Merez’s office – it had somehow been moved in just a few hours to a location near the docks under the Spring Plaza.

Confused, they decided to see if they could steal the statuette from wherever Merez was storing it.

The Draconites intercede on their own behalf

Unfortunately the statuette was not in any warehouse belonging to Merez. When they arrived at the location that Saqr’s mystical powers identified, they found themselves staring at the locked gate of a Draconite compound, guarded by two heavily-armed soldiers. Was Merez working with the Draconites, or had he already sold it on to the Draconites? They decided that if he had sold it on already they would force him to pay them the money for it. They had promised to keep Lavim Tamm safe, and now he had basically been robbed while they were trying to help him.

Angry and determined, they headed to the small Souk near the Spice Plaza where Merez had his office. His office was a small demountable building in the centre of the Souk, reached through winding paths through mercenary brokers, Syndicate fronts and gambling dens. It was a nondescript affair, a building with no sign, a simple door flanked by large tinted windows, and no guards. The door was open, the view inside blocked only by a beaded curtain. From inside they could hear Merez on his phone, yelling at an underlying:

“What do you mean they’re not at the ship? They have to be!”

“… I don’t fucking care! They stole my statue! Get in there and find it!”

“How can I fucking know?! I know the fucking things big, you’ll just have to search it you useless fucking mook! And make it snappy, I pay you no good shits by the hour!”

“… Yes! And if they come back I want you to fuck them up! Those fuckers stole my statue!”

He was still yelling on the phone when they entered his office, but their entrance stopped him dead. After a moment he said, in a desultory voice, “Forget it. They’re here now,” and put the phone down. Adam noticed he probably tripped an alarm of some kind as he stood to meet them.

“Where’s my fucking statue!?” He demanded. From there the conversation did not improve. Merez was certain that they had stolen the statuette, and they would have been sure he was bluffing if they had not overheard his instructions on the phone. Someone had stolen his statuette almost as soon as he returned it to his office – and that thief was either a Draconite, or a friend of the Draconites. Not a pleasant prospect.

After about a minute of pointless low-grade gangster dialogue the PCs noticed Merez looking over their shoulders, as if someone was standing outside. They dropped to the floor in the nick of time, as two guards outside opened fire on full automatic. The PCs rolled in to cover near the door, covering themselves as the windows fell all around them in shattered piles, and watched and winced as Merez’s guards turned the room into a killing zone. Merez himself had ducked behind his desk, which was obviously bullet proof, and was laughing maniacally as his guards shredded the room.

None of the bullets touched the PCs, and when the guards had exhausted their magazines the PCs returned fire. A short battle followed, in which Saqr leapt over the desk and destroyed Merez’s knee before he could run, one of the guards shot Siladan’s foot into a bloody mess, and Adam fought with ruthless efficiency from the cover of the window. In just a few moments both guards were dead, and their relationship with Merez was finally and irrevocably finished. They took what they could from his belongings and left him bleeding and squealing behind his desk.

To the asteroid belt

The PCs decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and that it would be better not to enter the lair of the Draconites for a statuette that their archaeologist was convinced was worthless. They had the tag with the coordinates of the dig, and the promise of further Firstcome artifacts if they were willing to brave it, so they decided to cut their losses with Merez and find a way to make money.

Before they met Merez they had been told a rumour about a mining colony in the asteroid belt that had been sabotaged and was about to become desperate for spare parts. They had also heard about a shipment of spare parts on the Divine Grace, that was so large it had pushed down prices in the station. They decided to buy a large supply and head for the asteroid colony, to profiteer from the misery of belters. What could possibly go wrong with that plan?

They bought the spare parts at a good price and organized their delivery over the next two days. By the time the parts were safely in their cargo hold the Beast of Burden had been fully refit, and was ready to leave Coriolis station. They set off that same day, heading to the mining colony Rockhome 3, six days’ travel through the Dark Between the Stars.

Their journey was uneventful until the last day. As they neared Rockhome 3 they were ambushed by two small fighters, which refused to identify themselves but fired torpedos at their ship and threatened to blow them away unless they jettisoned their cargo and left the area. They refused to do so and instead turned to join battle, trusting to their larger size to win out over two class I fighters. This almost proved to be a grave misjudgment, and their ship was heavily damaged by repeated attacks with an Accelerator cannon before they could finally destroy their attackers. In the frozen darkness of the belt, flying through clouds of dust and ice, lines of hyper-velocity metal shards glittered like stars in the dark, their torpedo counter-measures spread like squid ink in a starry sea, and torpedos streaked past their ship like vengeful demons. Finally they closed on the torpedo ship and rammed it, tearing it apart so thoroughly that the pilot’s ejector pod exploded in its mount, and the ship tumbled away in shattered chunks. The second ship would not relent and closed for the kill, damaging their weapon systems and tearing holes in their reactor, before they managed to score a lucky hit that blew away its engines and sent it spiralling off into the darkness. The pilot ejected and disappeared amongst the detritus of the belt, leaving their ship limping and bleeding oxygen in the cold and merciless Dark.

They had survived their first space battle – just. Ahead of them lay the sanctuary of Rockhome 3, and the mystery of its sabotage. Ignorant of its politics and uncaring of its politics, they headed to the asteroid to profit from whatever petty feud had brought it to ruin.


fn1: A bunch of players had to cancel …

It’s just not cricket …

It’s that time of the year again, and the newspapers are full of reports about the Superbowl. Vox has been flooded with articles about why we hate the Patriots or why players keep getting bigger, and everyone is expected to have an opinion on this sport. Apparently this year’s effort was extra boring, and the half-time adverts were crap, and the Maroon 5 dude revealed that he has a tattoo in Times New Roman font[1]. This year I didn’t bother with this whole thing, because I have tried to get into American Football and I just simply cannot. I have tried, and I just can’t really enjoy it.

This is a bit of a surprise to me, because I can enjoy most sports if I understand them. Indeed, I put in a bit of effort over the past two years to learn the rules of NFL, I spent time watching matches (which are broadcast live here in Japan if you have cable tv, and which on replay are stripped of adverts and quite easy to watch), I put a bit of effort into studying some of the rules and trying to figure out what was going on. It’s my view that the single biggest reason most people don’t enjoy most sports is that they simply don’t know the rules, and that if a sport is played well by elite athletes and you understand the rules you will probably enjoy it. So I was surprised when I tried to learn the rules of NFL and I still found it simply unenjoyable. I have tried to find reports from others about why they don’t enjoy NFL, but there are precious few, or they are reports like this one that don’t really seem to explain the game’s problems. So I thought I would write a post about why I can’t get into NFL. Perhaps someone will comment to give their own opinion, or to explain why I’m wrong (nicely, I hope!) or perhaps not, but here I would like to outline some of my reasons.

Here I am not going to waste time talking about the many political problems of the NFL – the blackouts, the teams’ insatiable demands for government money, the racist team names, the fact that college football players aren’t paid, the disgraceful treatment of cheerleaders, the concussion scandals, the awful mismanagement of the knee issue or the blatant disgusting militarization of the whole thing – which are well known and are a good reason to boycott it on principle, but not an explanation for why the game itself is simply not enjoyable. I also don’t intend to talk about this as “my favourite sport is better than yours” or to suggest that NFL players aren’t great athletes or that rugby dudes are tougher than NFL dudes or anything silly like that. I thought I should like NFL – I like ball sports with heavy contact, I approve of violent sport, and I like watching men smash each other, and I enjoy most other ball sports when I watch them – but I don’t enjoy it. I also don’t intend to tell people what sports they shouldn’t like, or laugh at people for watching weird shit – if you like snooker or darts or curling that’s all cool and not my business – but I wanted to try and pin down why I don’t enjoy NFL, and see what other people have to say about that. For the record, my favourite sports in approximate order would be kickboxing/MMA/boxing, rugby, high quality English premier league soccer, AFL, some olympic-level sports, lower quality soccer, and then a bunch of other stuff in no particular order. I’m not anti-sport, and I’m not opposed to violent sport (I thoroughly oppose any efforts to ban boxing, for example, on pure civil liberties grounds). I also have done kickboxing (and other martial arts) for 25 years, fought in an amateur fight once, and enjoy regular training with rough men. I’m not squeamish about violent sport. So, here are my reasons, in no particular order.

  • The weird stops and starts: I really cannot get used to the strange way the game stops, waits, everyone changes, and then it restarts. It doesn’t feel like sport to me, and it all feels strangely pre-determined. It feels more like work than sport. I just can’t get into the pre-organized changing of sides and ordering of attack and defense. Weird, given I am into turn-based combat in RPGs, but there you go.
  • The lack of ebb and flow: This is a big one for me and I think the single biggest spoiler. When the QB gets sacked or a pass is incomplete the game just … stops. No one fights for the ball, there is very rarely a change in direction of the attack, and it seems impossible that the flow of the game would change several times. When you watch soccer or rugby there is a constant shift and flow of possession, attack and defense, and no reprieve for either team when they have or don’t have the ball. If an NFL team is defending at 4th and goal, there is no sense in which they are under the cosh as they would be in a concerted soccer or rugby attack – they just have to foil one more play and then they are guaranteed the ball. Worse still, the attacking team don’t need to worry about the possibility that a pass will be interrupted or that they will miss the pass, because there is no penalty for this in the flow of the game. The only way the flow changes is if someone intercepts and catches the ball or a player straight drops it and the opposition scoop it up. This gives the game a really dead flavour. Nobody is risking anything, nobody is pressed, strategy isn’t built on what-ifs. So many times you get the 5th play and the team brings on a whole different set of players to punt, because there is this regular process that doesn’t change, shift or move around. It’s weird and I cannot think of any other sport except perhaps cricket which is so completely lacking in these sudden shifts of play.
  • The weird timing: There is something really strange about the way that time is calculated in NFL, as if time were not a thing at all. Teams have time-outs during which they keep playing, a one hour game seems to take 3 hours to play, the last 5 minutes just goes on forever, and every player has to be insanely careful about the implications for timing of e.g. an incomplete pass vs. being pushed out of bounds. I appreciate that rules are rules but why do there have to be so many weird and complex ways of simply keeping track of time? In any other game it’s simple: time passes at its usual rate until the game is over, and injuries are handled either by stopping the clock when they happen or adding time on. I don’t understand why there have to be so many weird ways of keeping track of time.
  • The strangely hypocritical rules: The weird timing brings me to the most frustrating thing I have ever witnessed in sport – a player being penalized for throwing a ball down in frustration and wasting 3 seconds of time, right before the game cuts to 2 minutes of adverts. What is going on with that? Why is time-wasting punished harshly in a game that takes 3 hours to play an hour’s football? Similarly, why is it a terrible offense to touch someone’s helmet but completely cool to hit them with a head-high tackle that is guaranteed to cause serious injury? It’s so pernickety, so finnicky, and so arbitrary.
  • The enormously complex rules: Most games have a simple set of penalties for all infringements, with at most two levels of escalation to deal with more serious incidents. But NFL has this intense system of penalties which involve decisions about whether to reset the downs and whether to penalize with distance, and seem to have an enormously complex set of rules that can be broken. It also seems in comparison to other games to have a lot of indecipherable decision points about basic aspects of basic gameplay, such as what constitutes a catch or pass interference. Every game has ambiguities and inconsistencies, but NFL seems to be consistent only in its ambiguities and complexity. It can be frustrating watching rugby and having to depend heavily on the referee’s judgment, but this pales to insignificance compared to the opacity of referee decisions in NFL.
  • The action is everywhere at once: When a play starts there is action happening all across the line and further downfield, and it’s very hard to follow all of it. I think this also means that in every play there are multiple infractions and it’s just luck if the referees see them. This is fine if complexity is your thing but it’s a uniquely weird experience that this is a ballgame yet almost all the action is off the ball.
  • The messy sideline situation: It really weirds me out that for the whole game there is this unruly mob of random people standing all along the sideline. Hundreds of people just shuffling around doing their thing. It’s so messy and weird. Every other ballgame has allocated places – a bunker or a coach’s area or something – but in NFL everyone is standing right down by the sideline crowding the game and just being messy. I guess it’s necessary because of the constant substitutions and changes of team (and we wouldn’t want to waste time!!!) but it’s just weird to me, like a pitch invasion is constantly being threatened.
  • The specialization: Every game has its specialist players but the level of specialization in NFL seems extreme, and not really much fun to watch. Vox tells me this wasn’t always the case, and that when substitutions were allowed more freely this led to the growth of specialization. It’s particularly focused on the quarterback, and I have never seen a game as focused on a single position as NFL. I guess this is a nice analogy for America’s political system, which is obsessively focused on the actions of one man, and I think it’s just as frustrating in sport as in politics. What kind of team game boils down to the decisions of one man? A weird one.
  • The weird camp machismo: I know it’s a bit of a cliche to say this but NFL players are really really camp, and it’s weird that Americans think they look super macho. I recall watching an interlude in a Japanese broadcast[2], and the American review was focused on some player from some team and talking about how incredibly tough and powerful he is. While the narrator was going on about this the camera was doing a slow-motion reel of this dude walking along, helmet in hand, with aggressive and threatening music playing. It was all a big and theatrical build-up to describe how aggressive and manly this dude was. The dude in question was walking slowly along the sideline with his shirt rolled up and tucked into his chest armour, showing off his powerful abs. So basically this super macho dude was walking along in spandex tights and a midriff top, and I’m meant to think that this is tough and not camp. It just doesn’t work for me. Don’t get me wrong, I know these guys are hard as nails, but what is wrong with Americans that they confuse camp and macho? You see the same thing in WWE, which is outrageously camp, and in super hero movies, which are wall-to-wall spandex and glowsticks. I guess there’s a reason that the players have to wear tight spandex tights with gussets, and have a towel hanging out of their back pocket that makes them look like a glistening furry or something, but I don’t know what that reason is and I suspect I wouldn’t be convinced even if it were explained to me. I just can’t get into the American vision of macho, and I think there’s a deep cultural insight somewhere in the fact that a country whose politics is steeped in misogyny and homophobia has so much difficulty distinguishing between camp and macho.
  • It’s dangerous by design: As I said, I’m into violent sports, but I’m not into sport that is designed to damage its participants. Even boxing has limits on the amount of damage its players are allowed to sustain. But much of NFL seems to be designed to damage the players, or specifically allows tactics that are at their most effective when designed to hurt. The bit where the linesmen crash into each other is obviously dangerous by design, but also the complete lack of any sanction for head-high tackles and neck grips means that players are rewarded for injuring each other. With players getting bigger and stronger every year, and no limit on their strength due to exhaustion as the game wears on, it’s inevitable that people will be seriously injured as a necessary consequence of playing the game. This is particularly shit if you’re a college football player who isn’t even getting minimum wage for your work, you’re betting your whole economic future on making it to the next tier, and then the game fucks you up because that is what the game is designed to do. Most sports have a pretty sharp pyramid shape and most people fall by the wayside and never make it to the top, but to be wrecked before you get anywhere good because that is what the game is designed to do isn’t very fair. Other games have introduced specific systems or rule changes to minimize the risk to players, without necessarily changing the overall level of violence or aggression, but NFL seems uniquely unwilling to do this. There’s a limit to how much I can enjoy a sport I know is designed to ruin its participants, and there are so many moments when the dangerous acts are gratuitous. It’s possible that NFL, being dangerous by design, can’t be changed, but in that case it will likely die as American parents forbid their kids from playing it. I won’t miss it if it does.
  • There’s no endurance penalty: In rugby and soccer players have to play for the full length of the game, which means that they have to balance the energy they put into individual plays against the need to go the distance. This is a natural part of any competitive system in nature. But in NFL the constant switches of teams mean that players don’t have to balance these things, and don’t get exhausted near the end as far as I can tell. This takes a lot of tension out of the game, and also eliminates one form of extreme effort from the enjoyment of the game. Particularly in rugby and boxing the last 10 minutes are a test of endurance and will as much as anything else, and losing teams have the chance to win something back by ruthlessly capitalizing on mistakes that happen when people are exhausted. The game also has a natural sense of having run its course, as the players are completely done for at the end, rather than having come to a bitter end because a weird unbalanced and unnatural clock finally reached 0. I also don’t really feel like I’m there alongside the players when they aren’t even sweating. It makes all the drama seem manufactured and culturally mandated rather than arising from the game, an impression that is simply reinforced by the injection of high drama through the narrative efforts of the announcers rather than arising organically from the contest itself.

Put together these things make the game seem dry and sterile to me, a manufactured contest rather than a real game. It doesn’t help that there aren’t many teams and a short season, which just increases the sense that all the drama is manufactured. The crowd also doesn’t have anything resembling the passion of similarly-sized European soccer crowds. Also what’s going on with every player saying which university they’re from when they introduce themselves in the pre-game team review? That’s super weird.

So those are the reasons I can’t enjoy NFL. Apart from “dangerous by design” I don’t think any of them are objectively bad things – they’re just things I don’t like, and obviously you’re welcome to not not like them. I would be happy to hear explanations or alternative interpretations of some of these things (except “you’re dumb for not liking this thing you don’t like”), or other comments on things that stop you enjoying this game. Also, tips on how to enjoy it! (Except “drink more” because the games are broadcast in the morning here).


fn1: And he’s not even a millenial!

fn2: Because Japan doesn’t broadcast the American ads and doesn’t play its own (because Japanese tv isn’t as rapacious as American I guess) they fill the advertising breaks with a review of the previous week’s games, which is prepared by the NFL. I guess the NFL has to prepare this for its overseas affiliates because we aren’t used to intense advertising and need something to fill the space. Or maybe it’s some weekly show. Anyway, it features weird overblown narration with a mixture of faux-highbrow imagery and bad puns, and we also get to see a lot of the sideline behavior of the players, which is frankly fucking awful.

We join our PCs for the beginning of the Coriolis campaign in the third observation deck on their ship the Beast of Burden, in the docks beneath the Ozone Plaza on Coriolis station. The Beast of Burden was undergoing her final refit, so below decks, in the hangar and in the crew cabins deckhands and engineers were coming and going, repairing and fixing and installing the final components of their reconfigured yacht. The PCs had arrived at Coriolis station to take possession of their ship a few days ago, from separate parts of the Horizon, and still being new to each other were taking the time while their ship was reconfigured to lounge around in its more luxurious upper decks, talking and learning about each other very much in the way of new housemates.

They also had a guest, in the stasis hold. When they first met on the 14th day of the Merchant, CC 79, they realized that between them they had very little money and they would need to find work quickly if they were to pay off their large monthly debt and find money for their own living expenses. In their quest for quick paying work they soon found themselves at Wahib’s Cantina, and very quickly a woman called Arkial Lima had found them and begged them for help. She was a gambler on the run from a contract taken out on her by one of her debtors, and needed somewhere to lie low for a few days until a man she knew could organize to bail her out. She could not pay them in birr, but she had a solid rumour to share with them if they would help her. Finding other offers thin on the ground they agreed, on the condition that she spend the time in one of their stasis chambers, where no one would find her and she would cost them nothing. She agreed, and in return told them her rumour: a small mining colony in the asteroid belt, called Rockholme 3, was about to run out of essential spare parts due to sabotage by a disaffected member of the colony. She had learned this from a drunk merchant a few days earlier, and he had also told her that he knew of a large shipment of spare parts that was due to arrive any day soon on a salvage ship called the Divine Grace. Once its captain, Solomon Hulam, dumped his parts on the market in Coriolis the price would plummet, and anyone with a couple of thousand birr to spend could clean up easily, then take the parts to Rockholme 3 and arrive just at the right moment, to make a huge profit selling the spare parts to the desperate station. It just needed timing! The PCs checked a few basic details of Arkial’s rumour, confirmed at least the names and ships, and decided to take Arkial in, keep her in stasis, wake her on the evening of the 18th and escort her to Wahib’s Cantina to meet the shady man who was going to help her out of her bounty hunter problems. An easy job – what could possibly go wrong?

And so they found themselves in bloody combat in their own stasis hold on the afternoon of their first day of rest in Coriolis station.

The nameless enforcer

They were lounging around in the third observation deck, watching screen and taking tea, when an alarm chime sounded and the ship computer informed them that Arkial’s stasis bed had been set to open. They sprang to life, with Reiko Ando and Siladan Hatshepsut rushing down to the stasis hold while Oliver Greenstar and Al Hiram went belowdecks to grab their weapons. The Beast of Burden’s stasis hold held 64 stasis chambers in three rooms, with Arkial resting in the innermost room. At the door to the outer room Siladan activated a screen and they turned on the security camera to the stasis hold, to see a team of six men standing around Arkial’s casket. The chamber was slowly opening, and the leader of the team was pointing a nasty-looking accelerator pistol at the seal, waiting for it to fully unfold and for Arkial to groggily come round. They had perhaps a minute to act.

Siladan acted quickly, setting up a radiation release alarm that began to wail ominously throughout the ship, informing everyone there had been a major radiation leak and everyone had to abandon the vessel within a minute. On the screen the gangsters reacted suddenly, looking around in horror and then dragging Arkial from her pod, still barely conscious as she woke from stasis. As they began to drag her from the room Siladan and Reiko ran into the outer room to take positions under cover by the sliding doors, and Oliver and Al Hiram took places by the exit doors, pistol and carbine out and ready.

They sprung their trap well, hitting the gangsters hard as they fled. Their leader was first through the door, looking lethal in protective clothing and carrying a pistol. Behind him came three goons carrying Arkial, backed up by two more goons. These last two were late to the action and unsurprised, but everyone else was caught flat-footed. Reiko and Siladan stepped from the shadows to strike at the goons carrying Arkial while Oliver and Al Hiram shot the leader. One bullet hit but the other missed and no one went down in the ambush; battle was joined. Almost immediately Oliver took a shot to the leg and fell to the ground, where he rolled around in pain as he attempted to reload his carbine.

The group were outnumbered and in trouble, so Al Hiram decided to try something reckless and desperate. He charged forward to where Arkial lay stunned in her pod-vest on the floor of the stasis hold, and pointing his gun at her head yelled “Stop this madness or your hostage dies!” Everyone halted and turned to stare at him in awe.

Except the leader, who shot Al Hiram in the face.

The rest of the gangsters were about to rejoin the fray when, in response to this bold negotiating tactic, Oliver Greenstar unleashed his carbine’s full automatic fire. Two of the goons went down and a third staggered, and Al Hiram – who somehow was not dead despite the leader’s vicious shot, returned fire from point blank range and cut him down. Siladan stabbed an injured goon and brought him down too, and one of the remaining goons threw his knife down and started yelling for his surrender.

After a short negotiation – during which the goons recognized Al Hiram as a mystic on the run from bounty hunters, and became even more terrified – they allowed the surviving goons to leave, dragging one of their friends with them, but leaving all their gear. They profited to the tune of 2,000 birr and a brace of guns and armour, and Arkial was fine.

cantina

Wahib’s Cantina

Work in the Spice Plaza

Once Arkial had woken they took her to Wahib’s Cantina, skirting the promenade and traveling by narrow alleys. They arrived safely and delivered her to an oily-looking man with dubious intentions, and she thanked them and wished them luck on their travels to the asteroid belt.

They decided to spend a little time at Wahib’s looking for leads for work. This plan soon fell apart when Siladan managed to insult a grieving pilgrim by suggesting that his home system’s mourning pilgrimage was a manufactured culture that was “not even 30 years old, and how could you possibly subject your family’s memory to such a travesty? I’m fascinated by your culture’s plasticity!” After Al Hiram had dragged them out of that brewing fight they retired to a booth, where they sat nursing kohol and bruised ego until a man came up to offer them work. His name was Merez Alcan, and he was looking for an artifact that he had reason to believe was on Coriolis station. It was a Firstcome statue of the Dancer, worth a lot of money, and he was interested in buying it from its current owner, a young man called Lavim Tamm. He simply needed the PCs to find Lavim Tamm and negotiate for him to meet Merez to sell the statuette. Unfortunately Lavim had gone to ground, and some effort would be needed to find him. For that effort Merez was willing to pay 2000 birr. He described Lavim and told them he was known to be addicted to Miran Fire Kohol, and was known to hang around the spice plaza. With this information the PCs agreed to look for Lavim Tamm. They set off immediately to search the plaza.

The spice plaza was bustling chaos when they arrived, with merchants from all over the Horizon bragging of the quality of their wares, and a million different sweets and coffees and kohol being thrust under their noses wherever they walked. In the mayhem they could not find Lavim Tamm, but they did discover that there was a specialist Miran Fire Kohol cafe called the White Tugur, run by a woman called Jasina. A tugur is a kind of six-legged feline-like hunter found in the wastes of a planet in the Algol system, famous for its size and ferocity. The White Tugur was built in the shape of a Tugur, with the bar in the head and comfortable reclining seats arranged around the inside walls of the Tugur shape. It was high above the spice plaza, where the spice dust rose slowly on gentle currents of warm air from the shops below, to hang in lazy spirals and slow dancing clouds of multi-coloured fragrant haze in the air outside the windows of the bar. Lights from above and below pierced the haze, casting a million rainbow streaks of light across the air in the plaza outside the windows. They sat on a bench looking out over the distant riot of the plaza, breathing in all the smells of the Horizon and nursing their Miran Fire Kohol, and in that moment they all, surely, fell in love with Coriolis station. Baklava, Miran Fire Kohol in a delicate rose-water mix, incense, the distant sound of the bustle of the greatest space station in the Horizon, the spice haze … a perfect way to spend an early afternoon in space.

But they had work to do. They broke their reverie to ask Jasina questions. She was unwilling to answer them at first, expressing fear of the mystic[1], but ultimately they convinced her to tell them what they needed to know. Lavim Tamm was lying low, terrified of something, and could be found at the Quiet Eunuch, a guesthouse in a seedy sector of the promenade. Perhaps they could visit him there and see what he is so terrified of?

They thanked her, finished their Kohol, and gathered their things. Somehow this mission had turned sour, and something was in the air. They would need to have their wits about them now. They stepped out of the White Tugur, and turned their attention to the promenade …


fn1: Al Hiram’s personal problem is that he is being hunted. It’s fun to have everyone in Coriolis recognize him from wanted posters, and refuse to help him.

bob3

The Beast of Burden

Tomorrow my Coriolis campaign begins, and in preparation the players have generated their ship, and their group concept. Here I describe both.

The Beast of Burden

The Beast of Burden is a reconfigured Class IV luxury yacht, built in the Harima shipyards. After 15 years of faithful service she was sold off by her owner and taken over by a criminal gang, before their leadership was slaughtered in a Legion raid in Sadaal. Desperate for cash the remnants of the gang sold her on to the Free League, who reconfigured her as a luxury hotel for senior members before an unfortunate series of accidents caused all on board to die horribly and the ship to go missing. After two years she was found and claimed as salvage by some intrepid scrappers in the Tarazug system, but they soon lost her after some faulty repairs caused a portal jump mishap in Sivas. Whatever creatures from the Dark Beyond the Stars killed the crew were gone when she was rediscovered in Altai, though considerable cleaning was required to make her spaceworthy again. By now her reputation was stained far worse than the Medlab floors, though, and the salvage crew that found her sold her on for scrap. It was at this point that the media mogul Drefusol Amadi saw a chance at a bargain, bought her and reconfigured her for long distance exploration and research. In CC69 he handed her over to the PCs, saddled them with 50% of the debt for the scrap purchase and refit, and told them they would be hearing from him in due course. Whether their motives were best described as confidence, stupidity or desperation, the group agreed, and traveled to Coriolis station to collect their new ship.

bob2

Her origins in the Harima shipyard mean that the Beast of Burden is a graceful, fast and luxurious vessel, capable of surprising feats of power despite her apparently playful interior. She is large, with a 250 ton cargo hold and two spacious hangars. The cargo hold was originally a pool and party area, which is rumoured to have hosted some crazy parties, but which has now been converted to storage specially designed to enable its easy reconfiguration into a research facility or a cage for alien species.

One of the Beast of Burden‘s hangars originally held a large number of small entertainment vessels, but has been reconfigured to hold a fighter, the No Satisfaction, and an unnamed space scooter for movement between vessels. The second hangar holds the Kashmir, a class II shuttle capable of ferrying 24 passengers. In addition to the No Satisfaction, the Beast of Burden is armed with a torpedo launcher and an accelerator cannon. Though not sufficiently heavily armed to provide real military power, the combination of fighter plus two weapon points means that she is capable of defending herself until escape (or until help arrives). During her refit by the criminal gang she was equipped with advanced stealth technology, which adds to her capability in both escaping combat and exploring planets where open approach might be considered unwise.

kashmir

The Kashmir prepares to leave the hangar

Designed for long distance exploration and research missions, the Beast of Burden has an onboard workshop, service station, medlab and Arboretum. The Arboretum hosts a lizardlike Threng of Algol stock, called Neverwhere, and three colorful and raucous parrots from Kua. The two ships’ cats are allowed to prowl the Arboretum, but have come to an agreement with the parrots and prefer not to venture into the garden too often, as Neverwhere is aggressive with smaller animals. None of these animals are allowed into the Chapel. The Chapel is an essential part of the Beast of Burden, since the ship is generally considered to be cursed and homage at the chapel is essential before attempting any portal travel. The PCs have yet to grow used to the curse, or the strange sounds and sudden chills that they encounter in the darker sections of the ship.

bob deck

The Beast of Burden’s observation deck

The Beast of Burden has retained her core luxury service area, and is graced with four luxury suites and their attached galleys, entertainment spaces and cinema. The library has been converted into a media room, capable of broadcasting radio and including an encrypted messaging station for communication with their patron. On a lower deck are 16 standard cabins for crew. There are, unfortunately, only enough escape pods for 16 people, so the ship is not capable of safely operating at full complement. It does, however, have a stasis hold capable of storing 64 people, so in an emergency it could serve as an evacuation or rescue vessel, though life would be very uncomfortable for all on board. The hangar also holds two ground vehicles and a few basic drones, which can be used for mundane surface exploration, though they are not armoured or capable of all terrain travel.

The Beast of Burden offers a luxurious living space for all purpose extended missions on exploration, research or journalism tasks, ideally suited to a team of explorers hired by a media mogul with dubious intentions. Let us explore this team’s background and composition.

the group

Exploring

The Group: Explorers

The players have configured their group as explorers, with the group talent Survivors. Their members are listed here.

  • Al Hamra, a mystic, captain of the ship
  • Adam, a humanite soldier, the ship’s medic
  • Oliver Greenstar, colonist, the ship’s gunner
  • Siladan Hatshepsut, archaeologist, the sensor operator
drefusol

In the palaces of the powerful

The group’s patron is Drefusol Amadi, a media mogul who runs the Free News. He is a rich man who has been forced out of the centers of power, for reasons the PCs do not know, and intends to use his vast wealth to finance a media organization that will dig up secrets on the rich and powerful, their schemes and private lives. He funds paparazzi and private investigators in the central cities of the Third Horizon, paying them to dig up salacious gossip that undermines politicians and religious leaders, keeps them honest and keeps him paid. He also finances investigative journalists who risk their lives to hunt out the deeper and darker secrets of the powerful factions that vie for authority in the systems of the Horizon. As a side project he pays a smaller number of elite adventurers to explore the old ruins of the Horizon, and to visit frontier colonies searching for dirt, stories, rumours, and hints of ancient ruins and origin myths. His real motivations are unknown, but his animus towards the ruling powers of the Horizon is legendary. He has given the PCs no limits or obligations, simply the responsibility to pay back the debt on their ship, and has made clear to them that at some time in the future he will call on them for aid.

Opposed to Drefusol is Dr. Wana, an unconventional and reckless archaeologist who works for the Foundation’s Archaeological Institute. She has been opposed to Drefusol since his reporters uncovered the damage she was doing in a dig on a frontier planet, and the way she was treating her local labourers. It does not help that Siladan is an untrained amateur archaeologist, the kind of neophyte she hates – were he to make any major discoveries it would drive her crazy. As soon as the PCs took up Drefusol’s offer to work for him they became her enemies, and she is not a nemesis to be taken lightly – she has contacts in the Colonial Agency, the Legion, and – it is rumoured – the Draconites. She is also very well endowed with grant money and the legacy of her mother’s money, inherited from a mercenary business her mother ran in the early 40s. That mercenary company is long gone, ground to blood and bone in a brutal war on Menkar, but that isn’t to say that her contacts in the world of independent military contractors died with her mother’s sellswords … she is not one to be crossed lightly.

It is against this background that the PCs arrive at Coriolis station, to take control of the Beast of Burden, and their destiny in the Dark Beyond the Stars …

 

leaving old owl well

Leaving Old Owl Well towards Conyberry

When last we saw our characters they had pacified the lands east of the Triboar trail, and were ready to begin seeking their main goal, Cragmaw Castle. To do this though they needed to find the castle, which was lost somewhere in the Neverwinter Wood, and before they could do that they needed to rest and restock. So, they headed over the hills north of Old Owl Well for the town of Conyberry, where they had been asked to ask a question of a banshee, and where they thought to take some time to recuperate and perhaps have a hot bath. To their consternation, however, Conyberry was a partial ruin, a town long-ago laid waste by barbarians and now only beginning to recuperate. Aside from a mercenary brigade with grandiose titles, a merchant, an inn and a few trapper’s homes the town was a mess of ruined buildings and crumbling walls, not quite the respite they had hoped for and definitely no place to discharge their ill-gotten gains.

They settled in the inn, which to their surprise was a comfortable and welcoming place, and eventually made contact with a wizard who needed to be escorted to the tin town of Caernarvvn, in the mountains to the east of Conyberry. He offered to pay them a Find Familiar scroll in exchange for their support and they agreed, so the next day they set off east, traveling into the sword mountains for three days accompanied by the constant chatter of Raymond d’Cantrus and Verwell the Vertiginous in deep argument.

dawn caernarvvn

Dawn at Caernarrvn

Caernarvvn proved to be an excellent resting place. After three days of uneventful travel they reached the new gateway to the eastern planes, the tin city of Caernarrvn. A collection of narrow and crowded buildings clambering over the steep sides of one of the valleys of the sword mountains, the city looked out over a deep ravine that fell away to a spectacular view of the eastern planes and the distant High Forest. Caernarvvn was a mixed city of dwarves and humans, much of it built underground or in winding alleys and cramped tenements perched precariously on the side of crevasses splitting the ancient mountains, and it was a joy for the PCs to explore the small towns, craftman’s shops, and mixed dwarven/human establishments of this frontier town. Down the steep-sided ravine and along the rushing river lay the larger town of Triboar, fat and settled in its position on the lowlands and the High Road; but here was the first frontier town on a new road from the plains to Neverwinter, the only civilized pathway through the Sword Mountains, and it reveled in both its uniqueness and its newfound riches. For a week the PCs stayed here, while Raymond d’Cantrus learned the Find Familiar spell they had been gifted and taught the same to Mouse. While they dallied in meaningless scholarship Mostly Smithson prowled the alleys of the town, seeking out weaponsmiths and artists (Tyge stood on the hillsides, staring at the sun); eventually he found a Dwarven tattoo artist, a famous flesh-etcher by the name of Grim Gariful. He attempted to convince Gariful to fashion a tattoo with an ink made from the eye of the Nothic they had killed, and to carve it into Tyge’s skin. The dwarf baulked at fashioning an ink out of the vitreous fluids of a dead monster’s eye, but was willing to consider it for his art; but he refused point blank to sully his needles on the skin of “one of those stinking fascist upstarts”. So it was that Mostly returned to their quarters dejected; they would need to find a better, less bigoted tattoo artist in Neverwinter next time they visited.

They returned to Conyberry, now accompanied by an owl called Nimh and a spider called Fuck Where Is It Now!? But before they left the wizard granted them one more payment for their escort: he told them the location of Cragmaw Castle. At Conyberry they prepared their assault on the castle.

agatha

Before they did though they had one more task to perform. The morning after their return to the ruined town they ventured out northwest into the forest, until they came to a small hovel enfolded in branches, the location of the Banshee Agatha. They pushed aside the thick hides covering the door and into a small, dusty living space, obviously long since abandoned. After a moment a chill filled the air and on the far side of the room, over an old book, the air began to coalesce into the ghostly form of an old, haggard-looking woman.: Agatha the banshee. They had come here to ask her a favour and offer her a gift, and she had come to collect.

The gift they offered was a small silver comb, and in exchange Agatha told them the story of an ancient spellbook, which they had been asked to investigate by Sister Garaele in Phandalin. When Agatha reached out to the comb from Mouse he could feel a terrifying paralysis stretching down his spine and along the base of his skull, but somehow he emerged unscathed and with only a few more grey hairs. After she was done Agatha asked him to drop it in a chest, which contained a viper and a huge haul of silver that he was too scared to even try and steal; hundreds of years of offerings to the banshee lay there unclaimed. Mouse opted not to take any, and the rest of the party chose not to offer any other sacrifices to Agatha in exchange for answers to more questions; instead they withdrew, and as Tyge, last out of the door, withdrew into the sunlight, she saw a strangely wistful look on the ghost’s face as she faded away into her strange undead silence.

cragmaw

From now they were ready to approach Cragmaw castle. They headed south along the Triboar trail, and after a night on the trail headed west into the forest. Tyge and Mostly Smithson helped them find a base of operations, which they built as a treehouse in an old abandoned giant spider nest perhaps an hour’s walk northeast of the castle. As they did this Mouse and Raymond d’Cantrus approached the castle, staying in the cover of the forest and using their familiars to explore the outskirts of the castle. They confirmed it was infested with goblins and other goblinoids but could not establish numbers or power. The group gathered to the southwest of the castle and decided to wait and watch.

As they waited and watched they remembered Yeermik, the goblin chef they had spared at Cragmaw Hideout. He would be inside the castle, toiling away over the stove, and perhaps at some point would emerge from the castle to search for herbs. They settled down to wait.

Sure enough, after several hours as the sun began to set he emerged from the castle, accompanied by two goblin guards, on some kind of food gathering mission. They laid a trap, and after a short battle during which Mostly Smithson was attacked by bees they subdued the guards and reacquainted themselves with Yeermik. He was indeed now the assistant cook at Cragmaw Castle, and had been sent out to collect crickets for dinner by his abusive boss Yegg, even though everyone knows that at this time of year Mantises are best, since they’re fat and mature and you can extract the parasites and eat them fresh and wriggling! Yeermik was obviously very angry at his gang master, and happily offered to help the PCs to lure Yegg and his gangmates out of the castle and kill them. Then Yeermik would be head chef!

Without mentioning to Yeermik the delicate fact that they aimed to kill everyone in the castle, so that he would be the head chef of a gang of 1, they hatched a plan. Mouse would disguise himself as Yeermik and slip into the castle, presenting himself to Yegg and telling him that the two goblin guards who had accompanied him out of the castle had caught a delicious beast and were holding it down, but they needed the rest of the gang to come and help with the kill. Mouse would lead them back along the path to a pit trap, and after they fell into it the PCs would slaughter them with all the honour they deserved. Yeermik instructed Mouse that the most appetizing beast to hold down was a Veermek, and after they had prepared the trap Mouse ran off to the castle. Behind him Yeermik and the rest of the group slipped into the shadows – but nobody thought to tie Yeermik up, and he slipped away once they were hidden.

Mouse entered through a locked gate in the southern wall, using a key given to him by Yeermik. The kitchen was the first door on the left after the gate, and he soon entered into a scene of ruddy warmth, stinking goblin cooking smells, yelling and cowering. Putting on his best impression of Yeermik, Mouse spilled the story about the Veermek. Unfortunately Yegg had questions: was it a striped or spotted Veermek? And were the guards holding it by its wings or its horns or its antennae? Having not thought to ask what a Veermek was, Mouse was forced to guess the answer – and got it wrong! Yegg declared him an impostor, and he and his four guards charged. Mouse fled, but as he left the room running to that southern entrance he realized the entrance was closed, not ajar as he had left it! He managed to get the key in the lock and push himself out the door just in time, and opted to run slowly and tantalizingly close enough to lure Yegg and his guards to the trap.

Glass cannon

This worked beautifully, and Yegg and two of his guards fell into the trap while two more came to a teetering halt just on the edge of the pit. The slaughter that followed was quick and brutal, but the PCs had forgotten that Yeermik was gone, and by the time they had dispatched the last goblin they faced a new challenge: a huge wolf, a drow, an enormous Bugbear and a squad of Hobgoblins came charging down the path to attack them. Hopping along behind the bugbear was Yeermik, yelling “Kill!! Krush krush!! Grol smash!!” He had told King Grol about them, and King Grol had brought all his bodyguards out to kill them!

The battle would have been long and brutal but for the fast action of Tyge. She charged forward, Helmsmasher out, calling wrathful smite down on her sword, and struck King Grol a vicious blow to the heart, channeling the divine wrath of her god as she did so. With a single blow she struck Grol dead in his tracks, before he could even swing his morning star[1]. Moments later Mostly Smithson struck down Grol’s wolf in a fury of lightning and steel, and from hiding Mouse shot the Drow with a crossbow bolt. Shocked and dismayed, she turned and ran, but within moments was pulled down by a sleep spell cast by d’Cantrus – a sleep spell that somehow worked even though Drow are supposed to be immune to sleep! Energized by the extreme power of his magic, d’Cantrus declared himself superior to all that had come before, and stepped forward to cast another spell on the remaining Hobgoblin archers. Before they could flee they were all dead and Yeermik captured. The entire leadership of Cragmaw castle, slain in seconds.

They turned their gaze to Yeermik, who whimpered and cried as they dragged him and the sleeping Drow and tossed them into the pit with the dead goblins. It was time to have a forceful conversation with their treacherous little goblin …


fn1: A critical hit with wrathful smite and divine wrath, with a magic weapon, so 4d6+4 for the sword +2d6 for wrathful smite +4d8 for divine wrath, yielding 46 hp damage. Pretty good for a 3rd level character! And unfortunate for Grol, who had 45 hit points …