Give yourself unto your god
Sacrifice yourself again
Burn your thoughts, erase your will
To gods of suffering and tears
Tie hallowed bonds around your hands
Kneel before this seat of shame
To gods as lost, gods as blind
Gods of suffering and pain

           – Catechism of the Dancer Cult

Our heroes have invaded the sanctum of Samina’s Corsairs, which is the home of an ancient, vile and long lost cult to a degraded form of the dancer. At its heart is Samina, a powerful mystic who possesses all the secrets of her long lost and abominable cult, and uses them to guide a vicious lair of pirates in raids across all of the Third Horizon, striking safe from within their asteroid base far outside of any star system. Our heroes have found this base and aim to kill Samina and tear down her cult; between them and her stand her last few score soldiers, their leaders and champions in battle exos. Dominated by Samina’s mystical powers, they feel no fear and throw themselves into the defense of their leader, which is why the PCs have already slaughtered 36 of them in a vicious battle at the docking station where they entered the station. Now they must move on, and begin to penetrate the base. There remain 32 soldiers, with 4 leader and 4 champions in battle exos. The roster for today’s mission:

  • Clementine, technologist
  • Siladan Hatshepsut, archaeologist and data djinn
  • Dr. Banu Delecta, medic
  • Al Hamra, captain and mystic
  • Adam, soldier and gunner
  • Saqr, pilot
  • Kaarlina, mystic and technologist

In the docking station battle Al Hamra had taken control of the mind of two of the leaders, and used their voice to tell the station’s central command lies necessary to buy the team a little time. Now they stood among the ruins of the battle, in a smoking and bullet-scarred welcome area, injured and exhausted. On one side of the room Al Hamra’s droid body lay smoking and sparking, shattered beyond repair. They had perhaps one hour to transfer Al Hamra’s consciousness to their last remaining drone, attach a weapon to it, repair several jammed weapons, rest, and heal minor injuries.

They set about this task with resigned exhaustion, catching their breath as they cleaned up, reloaded, and repaired. Al Hamra successfully transferred to a new droid, to which Siladan attached a thermal cricket pistol, with a spare reload; further reloads would require someone to attend to the machine. Dr. Delekta provided medical care, and Saqr risked the Dark between the stars to heal a groin injury on Adam that threatened to wear him down before they had traveled too much further. They all rested, recovered their wind, and prepared to push on.

From the docking station a corridor ran perhaps 100m to a central elevator shaft. They guessed a large contingent of soldiers would be waiting for them there, and they were right: a brief scouting excursion by Al Hamra confirmed 8 soldiers, a leader and a champion in a battle exo. Kaarlina took control of the blast doors facing them using her mystic powers, they prepared their moves, and triggered the battle.

Al Hamra used his droid movements to trigger the door to open, and used his mystic powers to take control of the mind of the exo champion, forcing it to fire on the soldiers’ leader. Saqr threw in a grenade and Adam fired a rocket at the main team of soldiers.

At least that was the plan, except that everyone in the room was on overwatch, and as soon as Al Hamra triggred the door a nightmare storm of vulcan shells, thermal blast and accelerator slugs poured through the door. One of their teams of soldiers was eviscerated and several of them took damage before Adam could squeeze off his rocket, which eliminated several of the soldiers. They charged into the room to find cover where they could while Al Hamra dominated the champion in the exo suit, and the battle began. Reinforcements immediately began rising up one elevator, which Kaarlina stopped with her mystic powers, but they were not able to stop another elevator, which arrived after a short time bearing the Oracle, the old man they had fought in Hamurabi station. He dominated their other marine team and turned it on them, but fortunately the dominated exo champion was there, and was able to immediately melt the Oracle to slag with its thermal rifle.

By the time they had dealt with the remaining soldiers in the room more reinforcements had arrived in a third elevator, but by now they were ready. They set a careful cordon around the elevator and destroyed the entire team as it rushed to emerge. Within seconds the entire team lay smoking and bleeding on the floor, and by Siladan’s count they had slain another 16 soldiers, two champions in battle exos, and all but two remaining leaders. Very few of Samina’s fearsome corsairs remained.

They checked their weapons, tended to their wounds, and prepared to head down to the final showdown. They would burn this whole cult and destroy all its hideous ancient secrets, or die trying.

 

 

 

Today’s looming disaster

Where I live in Japan mask-wearing is now pretty much universal – almost no one goes out in public and to see someone without a mask on in public is a kind of shock. The economy reopened after lockdown, in Tokyo, on 23rd May, on which date the number of cases had dropped to 5. Today the Tokyo Governor’s office released the daily update on COVID-19 (pictured above), and we have now returned to 107 cases, with the 7-day smoothed average hitting 65. Depending on how charitable you’re feeling that’s either a 21-fold or 13-fold increase in cases in 5-6 weeks. At its most charitable then we can say that cases have been doubling every 7 days. Today’s peak of 107 cases comes pretty much 5 days after the Tokyo government allowed bars and night clubs to reopen. All of the personal measures we have been asked to adopt – maintaining social distancing, wearing masks in public, and reducing our social interactions, have amounted to a hill of beans. In particular I think mask-wearing has been a completely useless strategy, and worse than that, I think the misguided possibility that widespread mask use will prevent transmission has led many countries to take unnecessary and stupid risks with reopening their economies. This is particularly tragic in the case of Tokyo, because Japan had a very good early response to the epidemic and Tokyo was down to just 5 cases when the government ended the lockdown early. One or two more weeks of actually effective strategies would have ended the epidemic in Japan but instead the government chose to begin reopening the economy early and rely on personal behavior change to prevent its spread.

This was a disaster, and anyone who understands public health should have seen how disastrous this idea is. Infectious diseases are never stopped by individual behavioral change or personal responsibility: they are only ever affected by social changes and policy. We know this from 40 years of responding to HIV, and in this blog post I want to explain how the terrible failures of the early response to HIV should have served as a warning about relying on barrier methods and personal responsibility for preventing the spread of the disease. What is happening in America was entirely predictable based on 70 years of public health knowledge, and it’s a depressing indictment of public health policy-makers that they did not do more to stop it.

The narrative of mask use and economic reopening

First let us examine the history of moves to reopen economies from lockdown and the heavy dependence on mask use to achieve this reopening. Some academics at Stanford University recommended mask use as a way to prevent further shutdowns after reopening in late April. In an April 22 news report the governor of Louisiana made clear that mask use was a key part of his reopening strategy:

It’s just like opening a door for them, or saying good morning or whatever it’s being kind and being courteous, and when others wear masks they protect you. So we’re all in this together. When we all wear masks we’ll effectively protect one another which is why I’m calling upon Louisiana to mask-up.

The governor of Georgia suggested mask use could help with reopening that state in mid-May. The governing.com website lists individual state’s reopening plans and makes clear that almost every state mandated, requested or advised face covering and mask use as a form of protection in sites that were considered high risk but were now slated for reopening. For example California has moved to Stage 2 of its resilience roadmap, and recommends

Crowded settings increase your risk of exposure to COVID-19. Wear a face covering or cloth mask, stay 6 feet away from others, avoid touching your face, and wash your hands when you get home.

Rather than limit access to crowded settings, the government simply advises people to cover themselves and take individual actions to protect themselves and others.

On 1st July Louisiana saw 2083 cases, a five-fold increase on the number it saw on April 22nd; Georgia saw 2,946, probably a 4-fold increase on mid-May; and California saw 6,497, a 3-fold increase over the number it saw when it moved to stage 2 of its “resilience roadmap”. All these states are now at the inflection point of a major upward surge in cases. All the personal responsibility and individual actions they advised to prevent the spread of the virus have done very little to protect their citizens from this epidemic.

The scientific evidence for masks and social distancing

On 1st June the Lancet published a systematic review of the evidence for face masks as a protection against coronaviruses. It found only 3 studies with quantifiable evidence of the effect of masks in non-health-care settings, and pooling the results of these studies found a 44% reduction in risk, which is shown in the figure above. While mask use in health care settings has a very large protective effect (70% reduction in infection, with a narrow range of effect from 57 – 78%), it is nowhere near as effective in non-healthcare settings, and there is little evidence to support it. This is why at the time of writing the CDC still does not suggest there is any evidence for the effectiveness of surgical masks, and why the WHO was unwilling to recommend their use during the early stages of the epidemic.

Why is there so little evidence and why would masks not work in public when they’re so effective in hospitals? The lack of evidence is because most countries don’t use masks in any disease-prevention way in public, and so it is very hard to conduct studies. The lack of effectiveness probably arises from the fact we aren’t trained to use them: we don’t know how to take them off properly or even which side to place on our face, we don’t treat them as single-use items, we often don’t carry spare ones so we need to lower them in public to eat and drink and then raise them again, they get damp and become ineffective because we wear them too long, we wear the wrong masks for settings with high infection risk, and we don’t combine their use with the regular, intensive and disciplined hand hygiene that medical personnel use. I have recently spent a week in hospital during lockdown for surgery, and the aggressive and disciplined pursuit of hand hygiene was noticeable and completely different to community life. If you don’t know how to use a mask and don’t practice proper hand hygiene it is not much use. Here are some examples of mask use I have seen in Japan, when commuting or wandering my suburb (in a mask):

  • A man pulling his mask down on the train so he can pick his nose and wipe it on the poles people hold
  • People wearing their mask pulled down so their nose is uncovered (so common)
  • People folding their mask up and putting it in their pocket or a bag
  • People putting their mask on a table or other unwashed surface and then putting it back on again
  • People putting their mask on backwards
  • People taking their mask off to use a shared microphone in a public meeting
  • People wearing masks to karaoke and taking them off to sing

It is of course also impossible to maintain social distance on commuter trains in Japan. I have also noticed that everyone complains that when they wear a mask their breath steams up their glasses, which means constantly fiddling with the mask and wearing it too loose. If your breath is getting out of your mask rather than through it, you are not protecting anyone and you aren’t protected.

Even if masks were 90-100% effective though, we still know that a strategy of mask wearing will not work. We know this because we tried the exact same strategy for HIV and failed.

The failure of barrier methods for HIV prevention

HIV first entered western consciousness in the early 1980s. It was initially identified in men who have sex with men (MSM) in America but the pandemic really took off in heterosexual people in sub-Saharan Africa, probably because it was already widespread by the 1980s. The first treatment was introduced in 1987 but the first really effective treatments, highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), were only introduced in 1997. In the early 2000s HAART was discovered to reduce the transmissibility of HIV, meaning that people taking HAART were less likely to pass the infection to others even if they were having unprotected sex. This discovery came at about the same time as George W Bush introduced PEPFAR, a massive program of HIV testing and treatment in sub-Saharan Africa, and this widespread testing plus availability of a treatment that could render people non-infectious led to some gains in the battle against HIV.

Now that HAART is available the fight against HIV is almost exclusively based on testing and treatment, but until the mid 1990s the only effective strategy we had for prevention was condom use. Condoms are 90-100% effective in preventing the spread of HIV, and we ran aggressive condom promotion and distribution schemes in the 1980s and 1990s to encourage safer sex and prevention of HIV. Despite dumping huge amounts of money and resources into these programs in the 1980s and 1990s HIV continued to spread rapidly in both heterosexual communities in Africa and MSM and some other at-risk communities in the rest of the world. Condom promotion strategies did not work to prevent the spread of HIV even though we knew that they were highly effective tools for prevention. Barrier methods were all we had – our entire strategy was based on behavioral change and personal actions – and it failed miserably.

The same is also true of all the other STIs: gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis are all still widespread in heterosexual and MSM communities despite the sure knowledge that they are easily prevented by condoms. Indeed, these diseases are much more prevalent in communities that have easy access to condoms but poor access to testing and rapid treatment, such as indigenous populations in Australia or very poor communities in the USA. It is the structural factors of access to testing and treatment that determine the spread of these diseases, not the ability of individuals to take individual action to protect themselves or others.

Why is this possible? How did this program fail so monumentally when the individual preventive action it was based on is so well known to be highly effective? The reason is that sex is a social act, and social acts are mediated by complex social forces that it is difficult for us to navigate and control on our own. When people have sex they choose to flout social rules, they don’t always plan ahead, they are sometimes under the influence of drugs or alcohol or in a rush or not quite sure of exactly what is safe. Power relations are common in sex and can lead to people not being able or willing to negotiate condom use. Just as masks interfere with the ease and enjoyment of basic social interactions, so condoms interfere with the ease and enjoyment of sex, and people sometimes choose not to use them for this and other personal reasons. People also often make judgments about who and what is “safe”, and make these decisions with partial information in very emotionally fraught circumstances. And of course if you want children – a fundamental consequence of and reason for this social interaction – you can’t wear a condom. And so HIV spreads.

There are communities where condom distribution has worked but this is rare. It was probably partially successful among MSM in Australia, but probably because the campaign to use protection and beat HIV was explicitly tied in with the campaign for rights for MSM. It has been successful among sex workers, but this is because sex workers have no social incentive not to use condoms and have powerful tools at their disposal to enforce their own protection, and this is only true in some communities of sex workers who are strongly protected by cultural, social and legal norms that give them the social power to control their sexual interactions. There are many communities of sex workers in the world who cannot negotiate condom use precisely because these structural factors are aligned against their personal protective choices.

In contrast, we can identify a group of people who are at very high risk of HIV but have very low rates and among whom outbreaks of HIV are quickly identified and shut down: porn actors. Porn actors have large amounts of completely unprotected and often high-risk sex with multiple partners regularly, but have low risk of HIV. This is because they work in an industry with rigorous, regular testing policies that ensure that HIV cases are caught before they can become widespread. This is an example of how high-risk behavior can be safe if it is regularly tested and treated, but low risk behavior (for example among heterosexual people in Africa) can be dangerous if it is forced to rely on personal protective actions without the support of a health infrastructure.

Against infectious diseases, social and policy actions are always more powerful than individual actions, because infectious diseases are a consequence of our social interactions, not our personal decisions.

The difference between strategies and individual actions

Public health strategies obviously always rely on individual actions: we need people to report symptoms, to attend clinics for medical care, to comply with test and trace strategies, and to cooperate with the health system. Many of these actions can be guaranteed to happen under the right circumstances because they benefit the individual: if you can afford care, getting care is good for you, so you are likely to do it. But any policy which requires people to do the right thing in a burdensome way runs up against a huge problem: many people do not want to, or are not able to, do the right thing. This is why states have to mandate seatbelt wearing and introduce random breath testing to prevent drunk driving: the action they request of individuals is burdensome and unpleasant, so people won’t do it if they aren’t forced. The same is true of mask-wearing and social distancing, which is fundamentally against all of our social and cultural norms and obviously, objectively makes social interactions worse. Any policy based on requiring (or expecting) people to perform these actions is bound to fail, especially if no one is trained in how to do these actions safely and is not receiving the correct equipment. The policy is particularly likely to fail because the people who don’t conform will spread their virus in ways that people who are conforming cannot see and prevent (such as touching surfaces that mask-wearers touch).

A good public health strategy needs to take into account what people are willing and able to do, and not assume everyone will act correctly and in good faith. A policy which plans to increase risk in other ways – by reopening the economy – while relying on people doing these difficult and unpleasant individual actions to offset the risk is guaranteed to fail. And as we see in America, and now increasingly in Japan, that is exactly what has happened.

What does this say about the future of COVID-19 policy

There is only one safe and reliable way to control this epidemic: lockdown your cities until there are 0 cases, then reopen slowly and carefully with immediate and aggressive lockdowns as soon as outbreaks happen. Coupled with rigorous control of national (and sometimes sub-national) borders, this will ensure that states can get to 0 cases and stay there with minimal future risk. If every country proceeds on this basis we can slowly reconnect countries that have eliminated the virus, and reopen the global economy. But so long as governments think they can reopen the economy provided that individual citizens take reasonable actions to protect themselves in the presence of remnant cases, the epidemic will restart and countries will continually bounce between lockdown and tragic, fatal reopening. This does not mean that you should not wear a mask – as we saw above, they probably have some mild protective effect. But you should not – and your government should not expect you to – use it as the only defense against this virus just so that economies can reopen. In the face of a virus this transmissible and deadly, there is no way your individual actions will make any difference. We need to work together through collective action to destroy this thing. Until a vaccine comes along, our individual effort is meaningless: we rely on policy and social action to end this scourge. Whenever a government asks you to wear a mask to protect yourself and your friends, that government is asking you to take the blame for its failures. Don’t let it happen. Demand real collective action to end this epidemic and restart our lives.

 

I have been running a Coriolis campaign for 39 sessions now, with the PCs having accrued a lot of experience and a large number of talents and skills. The Coriolis rules are generally very tight and have been very easy to work with (except perhaps the space combat rules), but some parts of the basic rules lack a little depth as you gain levels, and there have been some ways in which my group and I have worked together to enhance the rules and in some ways to change them. Here I list some of those changes, and one change I should have implemented but didn’t.

Talent tiers

Pretty early on we realized that talents should have tiers, with more powerful and versatile effects at higher tiers. So we have made some additional talents that apply beyond the first tier. They still only cost 5xp to buy, but they require the previous talent in the tier first. Here are three examples of these tiers in action.

Tenth life: This is absolutely fundamental to enjoying this game. Once you’ve invested 50 xp in your pc you want some way to cheat death, and this is it. It’s the second tier of Nine Lives, and it has one purpose: you burn the talent to nullify a critical roll of 66. This is the game’s only one use talent, meaning you have to buy it again every time you used it. In our most recent session the PC Al Hamra used this to nullify a 66, and then got hit later in the same battle with another 66, which he could not nullify, and two other PCs (I think) have been forced to use their Tenth Life (then immediately bought it again). This talent is tier 2, with Nine Lives at Tier 1, but I think actually Nine Lives is a massively over-powered talent and should itself be Tier 2 – Tier 1 of this talent tree should be something like rerolling a crit and being forced to take the second roll, or being able to use Nine Lives only once a combat or something. But given how lethal this game is we haven’t quibbled with it: Nine Lives is basically a mandatory talent.

Machine gunner: The Machine Gunner talent now has two additional tiers. The first enables the PC to ignore the bulky quality of weapons (enabling them to carry vulcan machine guns as if they were carbines) and the second to fire full auto using 2AP. Adam has all three tiers, which means he can ignore an extra 1 when he fires his machine gun, he can carry a full vulcan machine gun as if it were a normal weapon, and can reload and fire in one round (he has rapid reload too). This makes Adam absolutely lethal when he rolls well, since he can ignore the first two 1s in an auto fire attack and do it every round even if he exhausts his ammunition. This is just as well since Adam’s player always rolls really badly.

Executioner: Tier 2 of the executioner allows the player to roll a second critical and choose the best one before reversing the dice. It partially nullifies Nine Lives and is used by Siladan, who is a melee fighter and consistently suffers the disadvantage of having to charge through a round of missile fire before he can engage. This is a very bad disadvantage in melee! I suspect that if combined with machine gunner this talent would be horrific.

Combat medic: Tier 2 of the combat medic talent enables the PC to heal damage when stabilizing a crit (but only when stabilizing a crit) so that each additional success grants one wound. Until we expanded mystic powers this was the only way that the PCs could recover damage during combat if they weren’t broken, and avoided this weird and unholy ping pong in which Dr Delekta had to wait for a player to be broken, heal them up a few wounds, and then let them be broken again (I think this ping pong happened in the first few sessions because we misunderstood the healing rules). In any case it’s super important because things spiral down the tube really fast if you can’t heal wounds along with stabilizing criticals. I think this system is far more lethal than even Rolemaster and a lot of our house rules were developed to make it survivable[1].

Expanded mystic powers

These have been described before but I include them here for completeness. In particular the higher levels of the Stop power (which give domination ability with almost no resistance) and the healing powers have been very useful. One of our mystics, Saqr, usually keeps an action point spare for a reaction that increases his armour. Another PC, Kaarlina, has all the levels of technomage and has found them very useful in a lot of situations, and of course Al Hamra loves both the second tier of the mind reading power and his domination abilities. I haven’t really deployed these powers to great effect against the PCs yet but I feel this will come soon.

Enhanced minion powers

I have been following the rule that minions add one die to their attack for each extra member of the group, but I have further enhanced the rules to make them a little more dangerous, enabling extra dice in additional situations.

  • Observation checks: Obviously with more people looking the chance of success should increase
  • Dexterity and force checks: When an entire team tries to get out of combat someone should be able to break through, so I increase dexterity checks accordingly; similarly for force checks, even in grappling-type situations (it’s hard to grapple one mook when three others are whaling on you).
  • Auto-fire: This is the key enhancement. Every extra minion in a group increases the number of 1s that need to be rolled to exhaust their weapons’ ammunition, so for example if there are four minions in a team they need to roll four 1s (the first 1, plus 3 more) in order to exhaust their weapons ammunition when using auto-fire. This makes minions with vulcan carbines absolutely lethal and ensures that my PCs are forced to take minions seriously, especially if I have enough darkness points to pray…

Group and individual skill checks

I follow a ruthless rule for adjudicating skill checks now: if the entire group fails from a single failure, everyone must roll separately; if the entire group benefits from a single success, the person with the highest pool rolls once and gains a +1 for each supporting person. This is done to ensure that the PCs do not basically automatically succeed at everything just from luck, and is something I learnt in D&D. Basically even if an observation check is super hard, if everyone rolls for it one of the group is likely to roll high. So I force the players to roll a single pool for observation checks, research, negotiations and the like – anything where even a single success from one PC is sufficient. In contrast, for stealth checks, where even one failure affects the whole group, I require everyone to roll separately and the entire group suffers from the worst roll. I recommend everyone apply this rule to a party with a fighter in plate mail!

You can really take this rule to new heights of nastiness by rolling some of the players’ dice pool secretly, yourself, so that they don’t know the exact result. I tried this a few times but the uproar led me to give it up. In this embellishment you roll perhaps a third of the dice yourself, so that if the players get no successes they don’t know whether to pray or not (since you might have rolled the one success they need); and if they don’t pray, they cannot guess whether the information they have received is untrue. It also means they cannot tell if they have got a critical success unless they see three dice in their part of the pool.

This is a real dick move, but if you like that sort of thing I strongly recommend it.

Strain from armour

When I played in a long (and excellent) Cyberpunk campaign we had to make a lot of house rules, and one modification we had to make was to armour, which proved invincible once you had more than a certain amount. We house-ruled there that if your armour fully absorbs damage you still take a point of stun damage, to ensure that no one can stay in combat for an infinite period of time just absorbing damage, because armour was so obviously over-powered in those rules[2]. Armour is not over-powered in Coriolis, but I think it would still be good to have a rule that if your armour absorbs all physical damage you still take a point of mental damage. Since absorbing physical damage often means avoiding a potentially lethal[3] critical, it seems reasonable that this should be a stressful experience. This also means that if you’re crouching behind cover absorbing huge amounts of incoming fire without taking damage, you will slowly lose your shit, which also seems reasonable. Unfortunately, however, I forgot this rule until recently and it’s definitely too late to implement it[4]. I recommend that you do!

Final comment on the rules

I have found the Coriolis rules to be very smooth, enjoyable and easy to use, with very little need for house ruling beyond judgements about positives and negatives, and winging it a bit with the use of darkness points. It’s a really well-designed and smooth system that is very fun to use. My only criticism would be that the talents and mystic powers are a bit superficial, and don’t allow the richness and depth of character creation that players demand over a long campaign. But this is a very minor criticism, and embellishing rules is much more fun than hacking them because they don’t work. So I present these rule modifications in that spirit, with the clear qualification that the system works completely fine as it is. Nonetheless, I hope you will consider using some of these rules in your own campaign, and even if you decide to ignore all of them, I strongly recommend the enhanced auto-fire rules for minions. Because, let’s face it, your players deserve the best!


fn1: Perhaps if my players were less reckless this wouldn’t be an issue … but they would argue I’m an arsehole GM and they have no choice. There were good people on both sides of the debate …

fn2: Don’t play Cyberpunk, the rules are thoroughly broken.

fn3: 50% of the time!

fn4: I suspect if my players read this they’ll be clamouring for me to implement the rule, since they’re about to face off with four guys in battle exos.

 

 

 

Inert flesh
A bloody tomb
A decorated splatter brightens the room
An execution, a sadist ritual
Mad intervals of mind residuals

Close your eyes
Look deep in your soul
Step outside yourself
And let your mind go

– Catechism of the Dancer cult

 

Our heroes have invaded a docking station of Samina’s Corsairs’ main base, and having broken through the inner door are about to begin their final assault. Inside the station are 60-something soldiers, a small number of leaders and some elite fighters in exo armour. Our roster for this session:

  • Clementine, technologist
  • Siladan Hatshepsut, archaeologist and data djinn
  • Dr. Banu Delecta, medic
  • Al Hamra, captain and mystic
  • Adam, soldier and gunner
  • Saqr, pilot

They are accompanied by two teams of four mercenaries. As ever they burst into the station without a plan, hoping to prevail by superior grit and better weapons. They were, of course, right, though the battle was a close call[1].

Beyond the docking station was the standard entry chamber, perhaps 10m in diameter and interspersed with standing steel defensive barriers, behind which two teams of corsairs and a leader hid. Two of the PCs ran into the room to take cover behind the closest barrier and were immediately fired upon by all the teams in the room, to little avail. Behind them Saqr threw a thermal grenade over the barriers, failing to do much damage to the defenders, and their back-up mercenaries laid down covering fire as the rest of them moved slowly into the room. Adam used one of his only two rockets to clear the back of the room, and they soon overwhelmed the first defenders.

They had no chance at respite though, because no sooner had the first team died than a second entered the room, laying down a carpet of automatic fire as they came[2]: 8 more soldiers with their leader. Fortunately however, as soon as the group arrived Al Hamra used a dominate spell on their leader, forcing him to attack his own team, and the squad broken down into internecine combat as one team of soldiers traded fire with their own leader. The others, however, were in cover, and the PCs did not deal with the second wave as well – some were still barely alive when the third wave hit.

The third wave walked straight into the full fury of Adam’s machine gun, and were cut down viciously. As soon as the second wave’s leader had been put down by his own men Al Hamra dominated the third wave’s leader and forced him to attack his own men, and also to tell the station’s central command that the intruders had been killed. This strategy only partially worked; the fourth wave hit while they were cleaning up the remains of the third wave, and finally they were forced into a pitched battle with the remaining troops. By this time Siladan had been disarmed of his dura halberd and was fighting with his hand fan, several of the team’s weapons had overheated or malfunctioned (including Clementine’s meson pistol, which they needed intact to fight the exo armours), and finally Al Hamra took a hit from a vulcan carbine that completely destroyed his droid casing, killing his robot shell and forcing his consciousness back to the ship.

When the battle was over they had severely depleted their ammunition and reloads, taken several light criticals, lost their Firstcome battle droid and one mercenary, and ground out quite a few wounds across the party, but they had prevailed. A total of 36 men – 32 soldiers and 4 leaders – lay dead in the small room, which was coated with blood, smoke stains and bullet holes. Al Hamra’s domination of the leaders meant that for a short time the corsair’s central command believed they had been neutralized and their ship was being searched, so that they had bought themselves perhaps an hour of rest time. During this time they had much to do: restocking ammunition, repairing weapons, restoring Al Hamra’s consciousness to a floating camera drone (the only freely mobile drone remaining in their arsenal) and attaching a weapon to it, and some basic medical care.

And after that one hour of breathing space, on to the next charnel house …

 


fn1: In fact Al Hamra used his 10th life talent and then got a second 66 crit, so he has gone from storing his soul in a Firstcome defense droid to using a simple camera drone. How the mighty have fallen!

fn2: I set this up so that the number of successes on Saqr’s piloting roll to deceive the defenders determined the speed at which reinforcements arrived: Saqr got 1 success, so this meant that there would be 1 round of respite between new waves of 8 soldiers and 1 leader. Given that these teams of soldiers are all able to use automatic fire, and I have significantly beefed up the auto-fire rules for groups of minions, this is a pretty challenging battle.

Daniel Defoe is the author most famous for Robinson Crusoe, an awful story not worth reading, but he also wrote an account of the great plague of London, which I recently read. This plague was apparently the Black Death, which is spread by fleas of a rat, so it attacks more effectively in summer and requires different prevention methods to influenza. Daniel Defoe wasn’t present in London when the plague happened (just as he never was stranded on an island), but instead wrote his account based on journals and other notes he obtained from his uncle. I suspect his account is not especially reliable, though I think he may have gained more raw material for his book than just that of his uncle, but it remains one of the few surviving accounts of the time, so it is worth considering, and in many respects this book shows us that the UK is making the same mistakes in dealing with Coronavirus that it made 350 years ago dealing with plague. Responding to pandemics is actually theoretically quite easy, though politically the necessary measures can be unpalatable; Defoe’s report shows us that the UK government has learnt nothing from 350 years of experience.

Ignoring the coming wave

One of the more common pieces of misinformation about Coronavirus is that the Chinese government hid information about the disease. This is far from true: in fact by mid-January the Chinese government was yelling from the rooftops about how dangerous this virus was, and trying to warn the whole world to be ready. On 23rd January they did something almost unprecedented in human history, closing a city of 12 million people to stop the spread of the virus. Nobody in Europe or the Americas bothered to listen to these widely-broadcast warnings, and in mid-February the pandemic spread to Italy, where it exploded. By mid-March the rest of Europe and the US finally realized – when white people were dying – that Chinese warnings were serious, but by then it was too late and the virus was wreaking havoc in the UK and much of Europe. The same happened in Defoe’s account of London. The plague was wreaking havoc in the Netherlands in the 1660s but action to stop it entering London was late and weak, even though everyone in Europe knew how bad it could be, and so in 1664 the first cases reached London. By summer it was widespread and killing thousands a week. The British government had been given plenty of warning but they let it in, and after it got in they did nothing to stop it.

Failure of Case Isolation

Daniel Defoe spends most of the book complaining about the policy of shuttering houses, in which houses with even one plague victim were locked shut and guarded by hired guards until everyone inside either died or recovered. He recounts many stories about the horrors of shuttered houses, and also the efforts residents made to escape, including burrowing through walls and attempting to kill their guards. This is the 17th century version of self-isolation, and just as with coronavirus, it did not work. Self-isolation in crowded living quarters – such as were common in London in 1665, and are common in London now – simply ensures that each case infects everyone in their house. It guarantees that the reproduction number of the disease is not the natural number of the virus, but the household size of the affected community. Instead case isolation, in which infected people are separated from the community, is much more effective to prevent the spread. For coronavirus case isolation was the standard response in Asia, which is why China, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam and Thailand were so much better able to manage this virus than the Europeans. Defoe notes this failure, as we see here:

In 350 years the British have learnt nothing about how to handle a serious epidemic, to the extent that they have done worse than the government of Charles II. While the city of London in 1665 organized inadequate numbers of “pest-houses”, in 2020 they couldn’t organize any, and the epidemic raged in “shuttered houses”, which Defoe deplored (though for the wrong reasons).

The impact of austerity and poor choices

Defoe also comments on the city of London’s priorities about spending money. He notes that people need to stay inside, and in particular that many people who work on day labour (yes, zero-hour contracts are not new in the UK) cannot stop working without some independent source of money, and talks about the need for the government to support people’s housing costs. But he notes that the government was much less interested in supporting the basic needs of poor people during the epidemic, than they were in vanity projects after:

Clearly, priorities have not changed much in the 350 years since the plague. If only there were another political party with a coherent project to change the spending priorities of the British government, who could have been elected to government just before the epidemic hit…

The frenzy of reopening

We are now seeing Europe and the English speaking world reopen, with tragic consequences in the USA and, no doubt, similar disasters impending for the UK. In Victoria, Australia, there is a new wave of cases brewing after reopening, and here in otherwise-sensible Japan the government ended lockdown a week or two early and is seeing a resurgence of cases it cannot stop. Experience around the world shows that the only way to be safe from this disease is to strangle it until it is dead – as New Zealand and China did – and then to be hyper-vigilant about importing new cases. Any attempt to live with it will lead only to catastrophe. But in their eagerness to return to normal life the people of Europe and the USA have failed to understand this and are now beginning to pay the price. Defoe noted this strange zeal for life in the last stages of the plague in London:

We can only sustain so much isolation and restrictions and death before we go crazy, a fact that has not changed since the 17th century. It is incumbent on us, then, to make sure that those lockdowns and restrictions are worth it. Many countries have failed to do that, either by making the lockdowns ineffective (as appears to have been the case in the UK and many US states) or by opening just a little early (as happened in Australia and Japan). Defoe understood this; it appears that 350 years later the British government does not.

History repeating as tragedy

We all know the quote, and it appears that the UK government has failed to learn anything from 350 years of experience of epidemics. Defoe’s book isn’t very good and it has a lot of ascientific nonsense as Defoe tries to understand the plague in terms of divine vengeance or weird theories of miasma, but even with that poor fundamental science background the people of Britain in 1665 understood that infectious diseases spread and certain things need to be done. They made mistakes in dealing with the plague, mistakes that are to be expected given their limited scientific knowledge. But Defoe’s book also shows that the secrets of controlling infectious diseases aren’t rocket science and have been known to us for a very long time. To fail to apply those well-known and very basic principles in 2020, with all our wealth and resources, is just a ridiculous failure of civilization. There is no excuse for letting this virus overwhelm us, as it is now doing in the USA and Brazil and will soon do again in the UK and Europe. We know what needs to be done and have the capacity to do it; failure to do so is simply a tragedy, with no excuse or justification. And Defoe’s book shows that some countries are going to repeat the mistakes of hundreds of years ago, as if the governments of those countries have learnt nothing in all that time. It’s a disaster, that even the man who wrote a book as terrible as Robinson Crusoe could have predicted.

America is currently Having a Moment, and various historical works have been identified as having predicted or foretold her Current Predicament, including Sinclair Lewis in his 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here. Since I am interested in tracing the cultural and historical origins of the Present Unpleasantness – and since I have already made the effort to read the US fascists’ utopian vision so you don’t have to – I thought I would give this book a go and find out how prescient it was. I was interested in seeing how much of the current trends in the Republican party had their roots in longstanding cultural phenomena that Americans themselves could identify, what mistakes they though the left wing opposition made to allow this to happen, and how they got out of it. Unfortunately, this book was largely a disappointment on all of these counts.

The book chronicles the rise of an all-American dictator, Buzz Windrip, as he first wins the presidency in an election and then proceeds to rapidly dismantle all America’s constitutional protections and political institutions on a rapid road to dictatorship. The story is told through the perspective of Doremus Jessup, editor of a small-town newspaper in rural Vermont, as he tries to first understand, then live with, and finally fight back against the regime of the Corpos, as Windrip’s party come to be known, and the struggles of his family and friends as they try to accommodate, collaborate with, or oppose the new order. Doremus is near retirement when the Corpos come to power, and is presented as the kind of soul of America or something (it’s not very clear); his viewpoint is given authority and superiority even though he is obviously a blinkered, naive man with a massive investment in exactly the system of capitalist exploitation that Windrip pretends to want to tame but ultimately takes over. He is a biased and self-serving narrator at best and, compared to the ideologically pure and driven characters at the centre of the Turner Diaries, very ignorant about how class and race interests drive American society. He is also, in the context of modern America, something of an anachronism. There is very little independent local media in America now, the entire media industry is now much more dependent on advertising revenue and corporate interests than it was in the 1930s, there is now a major mainstream media organization directly dedicated to promoting fascism in the USA[1], the editors of most major newspapers in the USA are now openly right-wing and happy to enable the kind of illiberal politicians that Windrip is modeled on, and it is highly unlikely that someone of his age and class position in the USA now would be “objective” or “open-minded” or have a balanced view about things like unions, which Doremus pretends to do in this book.

Doremus’s class position makes him a poor judge of Windrip, and a bad character through which to view the political realities of Windrip’s ascent to power. He doesn’t understand class politics, is completely ignorant of the racial character of American oligarchy, and is deeply wedded to an ideal of free speech and debate as valid tools for resolving conflicting social interests. He also has a sneering disregard for poor and working class people and is openly dismissive of people who go off the rails or live differently to a very straight and narrow vision of work and family. It’s really obvious why his handyman, Shad Ledue, hates him and why he is viewed with so little respect by the local fascists once they have America in their grip. Right to the end he seems to think that running a printing press and handing out a few pamphlets about how bad Buzz Windrip is will convince people in the grip of a fascist terror regime to rise up and restore democracy; and he genuinely seems to believe that America can return to its old settled system after Windrip is gone as if all the class and race conflicts that divide America will just disappear overnight – because fundamentally he doesn’t understand where they come from. The protagonists of the Turner Diaries don’t have any such difficulties: they have analyzed all of America’s situation on race lines and have a very clear idea of where it is going wrong and what is needed to fix it. Doremus is almost the perfect depiction of the stereotypical liberal that Twitter leftists despise, or the embodiment of the kind of squishy liberal Lenin would sneer at (or King would warn black Americans against). Wikipedia tells me this book is meant to be a satire, so maybe this choice is deliberate, but I’m not sure – the book ends with a paean to Doremus’s fundamental importance to the American condition, so I suspect it is meant to be lauding him while gently laughing at his more sedate personal characteristics. Whatever it is doing, it doesn’t work, and it is hard to have much sympathy for Doremus as the fascist regime closes its grip around him and the only effort he makes to struggle is against the ruddy crassness of it all, until it is too late and he realizes how he has been done in.

The book does find some interesting similarities with Trump in Windrip’s pre-dictatorial rise. He is supposed to be crass and lewd, a witty entertainer who is capable of bewitching people at his rallies (yes, he holds lots of rallies) and swaying skeptics with his folksy speeches and ribald style. He rises through the Democrats (who were the party of racists at that time I think), and some think of him as a communist because he promises to improve the rights of workers and the poor, with vague promises that Jessup is sure will never be delivered on; at the same time he is appealing to corporate oligarchs with promises of increasing their strength and control and removing the fetters on their business, and appealing to religious conservatives with a promise of a new American dawn. In this he is very much like Trump, who somehow managed to get away with being seen as more left-wing than Clinton (remember “Hilary the Hawk, Donald the Dove”? Or that primary debate where he somehow managed to convince otherwise Serious People that he was serious about healthcare reform?) When he gets into power of course he doesn’t deliver on any of this: the $5000 each household has been promised never materializes, unions are destroyed and all the oligarchs become his personal agents, in a perfect recreation of European fascism in America (perhaps we could call it Fascism with American Characteristics). Doremus seems to just dismiss this obvious fakery as typical politicians’ dishonesty, which is exactly why he is such a dupe for this shit. Another similarity between Trump and Windrip is Windrip’s slimy advisor Sarason, who is a bit of an enigma and is sometimes seen as the real power behind the throne, with some vague parallels with Stephen Miller. It also implies that Sarason is the real force behind Windrip’s politics, and Windrip is just a blowhard – this is exactly the same stupid and naive idea that gets people thinking Trump isn’t really serious about his racism, or that he doesn’t believe in the fascist stuff he’s doing. But this implication at least isn’t clear in the book, unlike in the Twitter feeds of modern pundits who are always so sure that Trump doesn’t really mean what he says. Windrip’s regime is also incompetent and chaotic, with senior leadership constantly changing and also fighting with each other for promotion and favours, and it’s just as corrupt as the Trump regime (more, obviously, once it gets full and unfettered control of all branches of government). Windrip has also written a book, which I guess is the same as Trump, who has a book written in his name.

But here the differences also become clear. Windrip’s book – and his speeches generally – are coherent, he is not a man sliding into dementia. Windrip didn’t run for office to cover up his tax fraud and to close off the tightening investigations into his Russian money-laundering, but to actually implement a full fascist program, which he does. Windrip is not enabled by a corrupt party, he doesn’t win senate or house and has to take power from them by imprisoning his political opponents “for their own protection”. Windrip is backed up by a huge and very well organized stormtrooper organization called the Minute Men who he deploys almost immediately to destroy all political opposition, including the Supreme Court – in 1935 America the political institutions are much less supine and partisan than they are for Trump, and Windrip has to destroy them rather than relying on them to do his bidding. Windrip is, in short, much more competent and organized and coherently fascist than Trump. He has a network of secret prisons and concentration camps set up pretty much immediately after dissolving congress, and after that he quickly completely reorganizes American life beyond recognition. So no, he’s no Trump.

The book is also strangely vague on the actual reasons for Windrip’s appeal or partial electoral success. What exactly about him do people like, and what about his appeal is so slippery that the supposedly all-powerful media organizations can’t see and counter? He promises everyone $5000 and the media point out that this is obviously bullshit, but everyone ignores them, and there is no explanation for how he hand-waves away all these problems in his platform or with his obvious slide into fascism. At the beginning a lot of people in Doremus’s circle dismiss the worst possibilities with the eponymous phrase “it can’t happen here” but nobody at any point bothers to explain why it can’t or why it did. The only clear “political” opinion that flows through the book is the scorn everyone in Doremus Jessup’s social circle feels for poor and working-class Americans, and the huge gulf between his class and theirs. Windrip appeals across this gulf to the “forgotten men” of America but the book cannot explain why this contempt is so clear (and can’t seem to judge it, except perhaps to gently rib it) and can’t explain why or how Windrip has seen it or how to manipulate it. It can’t really even say if this is what helped Windrip win – there is no analysis of what coalition of voters he built, who he appealed to, or how the vote worked out, so we have no idea how this supposedly vulgar and empty suit managed to pull off his coup. The centre of the book is strangely empty of any attempt at analysis. It’s just a story, and not very well told. Compare this with Orwell’s description of the collapse of the Republicans in Homage to Catalonia, or his explanation of the ideology of the Party in 1984; or consider Koestler’s description of the party and its ideology in Darkness at Noon. There’s just nothing to explain anything at the heart of the political events in this book. I was recommended it as a way to make sense of how Trump rose and won, but this is exactly the only part of the story where there is no information. In the end the book is as much of an empty shell as Windrip himself.

It’s also quite boring. It’s not particularly well written, aside from a few nice descriptions of Vermont countryside. The characters all have awful and weird names, and are generally insufferable. I’ve never read Dickens but I think this might be riffing on that style? In any case it’s just horrible and I can’t take them or their opinions seriously, nor can I care about their fates when they’re so stupid and vacuous and judgy. There is essentially little plot – Windrip wins, then there is some faffing around with watching America fall in line, then Jessup finally loses his shit (for no special reason) and writes a stirring editorial that gets him arrested (and of course achieves nothing); he is spared and starts to secretly work for a comically inept opposition coordinated from Canada; finally gets caught and put in prison; then is rescued improbably and ends up fleeing to Canada to recover before returning as an agent to America, when the story ends. Boring. Even when his son-in-law is killed no one seems to really get roused, and you just can’t get much energy to side with these characters. It’s all just weak. If a book was intended to make you side accidentally with fascists it would be this book when Jessup’s former handyman Shad Ledue gets the chance to lord it over scornful, contemptuous and patronizing Jessup (who thinks himself so good and decent).

As an example of this inspidity there is one section where Jessup takes it on himself to attend a Windrip rally before the election, during which he describes the violence of the Minute Men and the fervour of the crowd. In the audience he is almost beguiled by Windrip despite having seen his men beat up people outside (and knowing what is happening in Germany and Italy); he goes home without much further comment and doesn’t make any attempt to join any dots or inquire any deeper into what is happening to make this movement grow. He simply doesn’t have the critical tools to understand what is happening in his own country, and doesn’t have the curiosity to figure it out. He then writes an editorial that basically just boils down to “isn’t this guy and his followers a bit of a crass oaf, who could support that?” He is an empty shell, and the book doesn’t offer anything to flesh him out personally or politically.

So, this book is very boring and poorly written, with annoying and frustrating characters who don’t seem to have a clue or get one at any point in their political and personal journey. As an insight into America’s Current Predicament it is of little use, since it comes from a different time with different politics and it is, in any case, politically shallow and incurious. It lacks any of the passion and invective – or the insight – of its better peers from Europe and the UK. Attempting to understand what’s going on in America from this book would be a waste of time. There is no insight here, so don’t bother.


fn1: Which, incidentally, is why Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent is now irrelevant

I was very excited to discover Max Brooks, author of World War Z, has a new book out, Devolution: A Firsthand Account of The Rainier Sasquatch Massacre, and bought it as soon as it was released. It turns out to be excellent airplane reading (I went to Okinawa for a few days’ relaxation) and not so great night time reading, because it is a very disturbing and well-crafted tale. This is a review of that book, hopefully basically spoiler free.

The novel purports to be “found footage”, based on the journal of a woman called Katie who was part of a small alternative off-grid community deep in the wilderness outside Seattle. This high-tech community consists of a few rich oddballs living around a central common house, intended to recreate some kind of image of native American traditional community living while also merging the high-tech lives of the modern urban rich with sustainable living blended deep into the nature in which the community is embedded. There are only a handful of people living in this off-grid place, which is served by drone deliveries from Seattle, has solar power, methane fuel from human waste, careful insulation and water recycling, fiber optic internet, etc. It is serviced by one road that may get cut off in winter, and is intended to be completely self-sufficient once you factor in the regular drone deliveries. Katie and her husband are borrowing their friend’s home for a winter to reconnect or somesuch American bullshit, and as part of this conscious recoupling or whatever it is Katie is keeping an extensive daily journal of her thoughts and feelings (for her therapist of course!). The journal is supplemented by interviews the putative author of the book mixes in with the park ranger who found the journal, the family member who sent Katie and her husband to the shack, and a few newspaper or science articles. This is a bit of a challenge for Brooks to pull off since he has only really ever been able to write in one voice, a criticism I had when I read World War Z, but brave of him to try. The events are set in approximately now, obviously under a Trump presidency, with America involved in an intervention in Venezuela and already experiencing significant internal dissent, as well of course as the kind of anti-science and anti-public service cuts that characterize this particular period in American history. There is major civil unrest happening around Seattle at the time the story is written, which really makes it perfect reading for the current climate.

The first few chapters of the book are spent introducing the other characters and then the shit hits the fan: Mt. Rainier erupts, cuts off their path back to the city with huge rivers of lava, and wipes out just enough other local communities to create major chaos in the emergency response (which is already underfunded and incompetent). To make matters worse the community’s internet and cell connections are destroyed, and there is a strong implication that their drone deliveries are cut off because their drone took out a rescue helicopter. But this is just the beginning; as the characters are settling into the knowledge they may be cut off all winter and are going to have to get very creative with food, they discover something much worse: a small colony of Sasquatch (Bigfoot in the popular parlance) has been driven from their secret home in the slopes of Mt. Rainier by the eruption, and having had no food for days they settle on the people living in the little isolated community as their main calorie source. This is when the novel turns from a slightly ham-fisted exploration of rich urbanites’ insecurities and vanities to a rapidly escalating tale of survival horror.

Because this is a Max Brooks book the horror is interspersed with snippets of science and wisdom from various sources, so that we get a full and rich disquisition on the history of Bigfoot scares in the US, the possible genetic and evolutionary tale of the Sasquatch, detailed description of how primates hunt and kill each other and why, critical assessment of modern rich urban Americans’ obsession with anthropomorphizing and misunderstanding “nature”, and Max Brooks’s personal view of the role of survival and experience in shaping refugees’ lives in the US. These interludes are probably essential, because over the course of the middle half of the book he ratchets up the tension with excruciating care, taking us from hints of Sasquatch presence (stolen berries, a bad smell) to pitched battles in the middle of the community space. Because it’s found footage we, the readers, know approximately what is going to happen: we know that the whole thing is caused by Bigfoot and we know everyone dies. This, too, is frankly a relief – if you were sitting through the increasingly desperate and disturbing middle parts of the book hoping anyone would survive you would be close to an apoplexy by the end of this novel. The fact that it’s essentially an After Action Report means that we don’t get to find out exactly what happened to the author (since they can’t journal their own death) and so it enables Brooks to close off the whole story with a sense of mystery and a slight lack of fulfillment for the reader, which to me is perfect, since the story itself is so improbable and the possibility of anyone surviving so remote that leaving the fate of the group’s last member unexplained is a fitting end.

The strength of the novel is in this careful ratcheting up of pressure over its middle period, the growing sense of dread and impending destruction, and the reader’s helplessness as various members of the community completely Fail to Get It and make accordingly increasingly stupid mistakes. This is helped by the way that various characters either get it together or come undone as the intensity grows, though three of the characters go through changes that are too rapid and sudden to make sense (see below). Brooks supports this by quotes at chapter headings and a few interludes with references to other times in history or other peoples’ speculation about how events might have unfolded, which helps to get the reader engaged in the characters’ struggle even though they’re actually quite unpleasant people who you mostly just want to die. Which, of course, they do. Horribly. It’s quite satisfying but also very nasty, and although I’m not easily scared this book gave me the shivers by the time the tension reached its peak. This is good survival horror!

It’s not without its flaws though, primarily three: the pretentiousness and narrowness of some of the theorizing in the interludes; the clumsy and personally quite awful characters; and Brooks’s inability to diversify his writing voice.

The interludes involve a lot of speculation about science and evolution and group psychology and the conflict between humanity and nature that struck me as overly pretentious and often quite simplistic or weak. I also wondered if some of the facts Brooks presents are actually facts or just things he has heard and just accepted as true (I didn’t bother to check). This is a hallmark of his work in World War Z too (I guess worse in that book because fact-checking was harder back then and he probably had less support). I always read this kind of stuff as bar-room waffle, but it’s presented in this book as serious inquiry, and it’s a bit cringey (not very though!) Also he has this big problem of stereotyping cultures, which he does in the interludes and also in some of the character archetypes: one of the characters in particular is a survivor of the Yugoslavian civil war, a refugee of a particularly vicious part of it, and is obviously just Brooks’s stereotype of what a refugee from a war zone would have learnt about survival and human nature that has made them wise and resourceful and insightful, in a way that is a bit like if you could noble-savage a refugee. (Brooks always does this with Israeli soldiers, who also feature in the interludes in what I thought was the clumsiest piece of writing in the book). To be clear though I enjoy this kind of speculation and waffle even as I’m cringing, and somehow Brooks manages to pull it all off, which is why I guess I loved World War Z. I think it was a bit weaker in this book but it still really helped to pull the whole story together. The brief quotes and discursions on how and why primates kill each other, and how in particular chimpanzees hunt other primates, really sets the tone for the Coming Bigfoot Apocalypse, and serves as a forewarning of just how nasty the humans’ end is going to be; and when the humans start going primal it also serves to orient them as just another kind of primate cast back into a bigger evolutionary game. So though occasionally cringey and quite possibly wrong or distorted, these interludes work really well to establish the framework for the horror. That is vintage Brooks.

The characters, when they’re not stereotypes, are just generically awful Americans. The lesbian parents of an adopted Bangladeshi child who’re so sensitive to her culture but haven’t figured out she’s Muslim (yeah right); the pretentious GRR Martin-esque anthropologist who’s a man-splainer and is wrong about everything; the mild-mannered vegans who can’t be convinced to harm an animal to survive; and Katie herself, the very perfect stereotype of a neurotic upper class white American girl. Ugh. They all need to die. You start the book knowing they’re going to die but you still can’t wait. It makes you wonder if Brooks designed them to make you want them to die, which may not have been a bad thing given how excruciating their ends are. But still, it would be nice if I could enjoy pop culture stories with actually nice characters in them! These characters go through rapid development over the story as the pressure of their collapsing civilization comes to bear on them but three – Katie’s husband and the couple who established the community – go through lightning-fast changes that don’t make sense to me. In particular the psychological changes in the owners hint at a much bigger back story to how and why they established the community, and in my reading of the book suggested some form of culpability or guilt for what happened, which Brooks fails to explore. This lets us down a bit, since some important characters just suddenly get slotted into new roles without any reason. I think this is meant to be linked implicitly to the concept of Devolution introduced in the title and the discussion of Sasquatch’s evolutionary niche, but that discussion is too tightly focused on the Sasquatch to work in the context of the humans’ changes until the very end of the book, by which time it is half-forgotten and buried under a frenzy of destruction and bloodlust. So some of these sudden transformations don’t quite work, but the new roles they get are great, so who cares, really?

Finally, Brooks’s inability to modify his writing voice lets him down again, so that everyone the curator of the story interviews sounds just a bit too close to Katie herself to be able to separate them from her. I guess Brooks isn’t aware of this problem, because if he was he might not write these kinds of curated multi-part interview/story novels, since it’s a recipe for having your own shortcomings found out. It doesn’t let the novel down in the end – I devoured this book like a Sasquatch on a psychiatrist – but it does stop it from being the pitch perfect masterpiece it could have been in the hands of a more capable prose-wrangler. Brooks is a great writer, capable of great plot and perfect timing, very good at establishing and changing mood and a very good judge of pace and tension, but this one thing he can’t quite get right.

Despite these flaws though this is an absolute barnstormer of a book. It is tense, gripping, vicious and callous, as all good survival horror should be, and it plays out perfectly. It’s a quick but incredibly absorbing read that will have you thinking back on it for days after, wondering “what would I have done” and “how would I have coped”, and marveling at the horrific monsters you would be expected to face. It’s an excellent addition to the horror genre for those with a strong stomach and iron will, and I strongly recommend it to horror fans and Brooks aficionados alike.

 

Our heroes have jumped through a mystical portal into the vicinity of the hidden Corsair base, where they have immediately been attacked by a detachment of Corsair attack ships. The roster for this session:

  • Clementine, technologist
  • Siladan Hatshepsut, archaeologist and data djinn
  • Dr. Banu Delecta, medic
  • Al Hamra, captain and mystic
  • Adam, soldier and gunner
  • Oliver Greenstar, colonist and roustabout
  • Saqr, pilot

The four ships arrived in sensor range together, captain Saqr’s attempts to manoeuvre away from them having proved unsuccessful. They swooped in to attack, and the Beast of Burden faced off against them in the cold Dark.

The destruction of the Corsair Fleet

The four corsair ships were small class II gunships, perhaps 30m long and designed purely for space battle around the corsair base. They moved in fast but disorderly, each trying to be the first to kill the intruder, so one rushed ahead and into the Beast of Burden‘s missile range. Using the ship’s advanced sensors Siladan was able to quickly lock onto it; they fired a torpedo while Adam opened fire, Saqr throwing the Beast of Burden into complex defensive manoeuvres just in case the incoming ships secured a lock.

They did not, and as the remaining three ships moved more cautiously into range they finished off the frontrunner, hitting it with data pulse and the energy weapon they had stolen from the First Horizon holdovers. Two more ships entered torpedo range but failed to secure locks, and before they could close into a better range Clementine and Siladan hit them with data pulses[1], cutting their systems and leaving them drifting helpless in space.

Now the battle had become easy. It is easy to imagine the corsair crew running around in their disabled ships, desperately trying to restart their reactors and sending djinn into the computer system to fight the data attack as torpedos streamed in and Adam picked away at the hull with the Beast of Burden‘s new energy weapons. Perhaps they were still fighting to regain control of their systems when the torpedo hit and blew away the entire bridge; maybe they were desperately repairing hull damage, praying loudly to the Dancer, as Adam carved their ship open from bow to stern with a single concentrated pulse of energy, and spilled them all into the Dark, still struggling and begging their disfigured Icon for aid. In any case, once the middle two ships were disabled the tide of battle turned quickly and they were soon left facing four disabled hulks. Three were breached and collapsed, mere salvage with perhaps a few dead crew left onboard who had not been sucked into the Dark when Adam burnt their hull away, but one was simply disabled, floating helpless as they moved into board, Siladan bombarding it with data pulses to keep its reactor quiescent as the rest of the crew suited up to move in for the kill.

Assault on the base

They boarded the remaining ship and captured the remaining surviving crew member easily, dragging him back to the Beast of Burden for interrogation. They were not gentle, but extreme measures were unnecessary – Al Hamra read his mind when they asked him questions, and they soon learnt all they needed to know about the Corsair base. It had no remaining defenses, Samina having assumed that sequestering her base in the Dark between the stars and hiding it behind a mystic portal, defended by four class 2 gunships, was a sufficient defense in itself. They could cruise in and take it at their leisure. Except that its remaining complement was formidable:

  • 64 soldiers, in teams of 4
  • 8 sergeants, each responsible for 2 teams
  • 4 champions, elite soldiers in battle exos
  • Samina
  • the Oracle
  • Whatever Darkbound Samina and the Oracle chose to summon

And of course, the Oracle could teleport between statues, so no doubt could appear behind them, perhaps to animate the dead they left in their wake.

They headed to the base. Sometimes you just need to take a risk. They had taken floor plans from the captive’s ship, so they knew that it had a large hangar section that their ship could not enter, and above that a level with four docking stations connected by wide corridors to a central elevator shaft. Each docking station was defended by two teams of soldiers and their leader. Saqr moved in fast and purposively to one of the docking stations, then diverted the ship and cut a rapid loop to a different station. Siladan hit the docking station fast and hacked its lock and they were through, into the first docking station, piling in to attack the soldiers on the other side before reinforcements could come from the other stations.

The final fight was on. It was five to one, but they would prevail. Right?


fn1: There is a lot wrong with the space combat rules in Coriolis, and in amongst them is the fact that the data pulse is massively overpowered. I suspect ion cannons are even worse.

 

As my Coriolis campaign comes to its extremely violent conclusion, I am completing preparations for the next campaign I plan to GM. The last few campaigns I have GM’d have been science fiction: Coriolis, before that the Spiral Confederacy (Traveler), and before that a post-apocalyptic water-world campaign called Flood (using Cyberpunk rules, natch). My players are craving some high fantasy and so am I, but I am completely over D&D and incapable of running it or playing it any more – I just find it boring in all its incarnations and although I loved it when I was younger I can’t enjoy it past about 5th level, so I don’t want to run it anymore. I considered Warhammer, but I think my players would like to move away from worlds saturated in darkness and I know that when I GM Warhammer I make it altogether very grimdark, which some of my players don’t need. So, I decided to make my own sunny and upbeat campaign world for Genesys, using a classic fantasy RPG setting with orcs and magic and mediaeval scenes and monsters and completely arbitrary but fixed notions of good and evil which mean the PCs can slay any evil monster they want without fear of repercussions or any moral quandaries. The setting I chose is based on a map I found on the internet, and I choose at this stage to call it the Archipelago Campaign.

The Archipelago

The Archipelago is a collection of island kingdoms of manageable size, isolated from any major landmasses and connected by stormy but navigable seas. There are 8 nations of human settlements, a large wild area occupied by human-like tribespeople called wildlings, a single island for dwarves, and a couple of forests where elves live. There are also a few members of a race of people called Changelings, who are like humans but smaller and a bit weird, who live in hunter-gatherer societies and can change their form to perfectly resemble any human they have ever seen. The entire area is also plagued by deepfolk: orcs, goblins, ogres, dark elves and deep gnomes who are implacably evil and hate humans with all their heart and soul (if they have a soul). The deepfolk live underground and come out through hidden entrances and lairs in mountains, hillsides and forests, and there is constant conflict between these nasty creatures and humans. There are also other monsters in the forests and mountains, and one island has been ravaged and taken over by a dragon.

The refugee history of humans

The human society in this land is relatively light on history and politics. Humans arrived in the Archipelago 1000 years ago as refugees, but were immediately plunged into 200 years of constant flight and conflict as the deepfolk tried to destroy them. As a result of these 200 Lost Years they have forgotten their origins and lost all documents and written stories about their past, and so they know nothing about where they came from, why they fled, or how they came to the Archipelago. After 200 years the dwarves took pity on them and helped them found a few pathetic settlements, and after that they slowly formed kingdoms. They had to learn to read and write from the dwarves, either because they had no written language or all those details were destroyed during the Lost Years. They brought a kind of magic with them, learnt a new kind from the dwarves and a third kind from the elves, and slowly settled and spread across the Archipelago. Out of respect for their refugee history they have no systems of slavery or kings or queens, and generally there is not much conflict between kingdoms – I have set this society up to be light on politics and history so the PCs can focus on uncovering secrets and killing orcs, but without having the stultifying and boring influence of feudalism on the society.

In general human society is at the technology level of Britain in the 9th century, with the caveat that they have little access to iron – all iron and jewels are hoarded by deepfolk and can only be obtained through war. So weapons and armour are slightly neolithic. This introduces a new tier of weapons between mundane weapons and magic weapons, and gives additional reasons to kill those pale-skinned underground bastards.

Magic and religion

There are three forms of magic in the world, each connected to a religion: Salt, the magic humans brought with them; Storm, the magic dwarves love, which helps them become consummate sailors; and sun, the magic the elves prefer, which is most like the arcane magic we all know and love. There is no heaven and hell, no demons, no afterlife and no special moral restrictions from religion, so religion is primarily a reassuring force to make pathetic humans feel they have a place in the world, rather than a strong moral code. PCs can be one of the three religions but can never mix magical forms. There is a fourth kind of magic, deep magic, used by deepfolk, which is the only way that one can learn necromancy or enchantments, but no human has ever used it so domination spells and vampires are entirely the province of the deepfolk. Deepfolk are evil!

Races and classes

In this world as in all my worlds elves are dodgy, shonky wild creatures who can’t be understood or trusted, but players can choose an elven PC if that is their thing. Dwarves are simply small, thin folk who live on the sea and are masters of art, culture and craft – kind of like erudite 16th century explorers compared to the 9th century barbarian humans. The wildlings of the north are maybe a lost tribe of humans or maybe a different indigenous race, no one knows, but they’re bigger and kind of more savage than humans. Changelings live in small hunter-gatherer societies on the fringe of human nations, and don’t seem to have much wealth or care for human activities, but are much sought after for their transformation powers. No one can play any form of deepfolk, because deepfolk are evil.

Resources and plans

The document I have prepared for my players to read can be found here, with detailed information about the world and rules for the Genesys system. We will be starting in the next month or two, depending on brutally the players are able to end the Coriolis campaign. I am looking forward to a long, leisurely exploration of a fantasy realm after many years of science fiction!

Our heroes are trapped in a ransacked cultist sanctuary in Hamurabi station, facing off with a draconite hit squad that has surprised them. They were here to capture an Oracle and learn from him how to travel to the secret lair of Samina’s Corsairs, but he has teleported away using a large and ominous statue of the Dancer, their secondary objective; they cannot now move to take it, because they stand under the readied guns of a draconite hit team[4]. The roster for today’s adventure:

  • Clementine, technologist
  • Siladan Hatshepsut, archaeologist and data djinn
  • Dr. Banu Delecta, medic
  • Al Hamra, captain and mystic
  • Adam, soldier and gunner
  • Oliver Greenstar, colonist and roustabout
  • Saqr, pilot

They decided that in this case discretion was better than bloody valour, especially considering they had had no time to recover from the many injuries they had incurred over the past week of frantic pursuit, and now even a light smattering of damage would likely go badly for them. Adam and Clementine eyed up that meson pistol, and considered the options for killing the draconites and taking it, but even though they both thought their team would prevail, likely one or more of them would die in the exchange. They decided to talk.

The draconites also seemed disinclined to fight, a good sign given that they had held the element of surprise. Al Hamra asked them what they wanted and they indicated that they had come for the statue. He suggested to them that he would happily hand it over if they helped him catch the Oracle, which offer the draconites declined: they did not care for the oracle, and would not waste their time helping the PCs. They wanted to get the statue and go.

Here the party had a small advantage over the draconites: Al Hamra could read minds. He asked a question and applied his mind-reading mystic power, learning quickly that the leader was in telepathic conversation with another, hidden draconite, presumably a mystic and definitely their leader[2]. From this little exchange Al Hamra also discovered that the draconites thought they could control Adam[5], and with that he realized that they really were going to need to talk their way out; but he also learnt that the draconites genuinely only cared about the statue. “Why do you need it?” He asked, and a moment later, against all expectations, the negotiator told them:

“It holds the soul of our founder.”

Well, that drew their attention. Realizing that this statue must be very valuable to them, Al Hamra decided to cut a deal: he offered to have Saqr bring it to them if they would hand over the leader’s meson pistol and leave in peace. It took the leader only a minute to accept this deal, and he even threw in the kind consideration of not killing dr. Delecta and taking back the draconite technology she carried. An agreement was reached, and Saqr walked over to pick up the statue.

As soon as he touched it Saqr was assaulted by a mystic wave of horror, fear and rage, an ancient and powerful force desperate not to be contained. He fought with all his will to resist the force possessing him, and resisted it long enough to hand the statue over to the draconite. Unable to tell anyone what he had experienced, he could only hope that the same force would not overwhelm the draconite. It appeared not to, and the draconite calmy took the statue, and handed the meson pistol over to Saqr. All five men then withdrew carefully, maintaining a cautious watch on the PCs until they were out of sight.

They had lost the statue, and for little prize. They retreated to the ship to nurse their pride and think about the next step in their mission against the Corsairs.

The legacy of the Dancer

Back at the Beast of Burden Saqr performed a mystic powers search, and located the Oracle in the Corsair base. They guessed then that he had teleported there to warn the Corsairs, who they could expect to be readying a welcome party. They guessed that the only way to get to the Corsair base was to travel to the coordinates they had found on the tabula, and there find some lost portal that would take them to the base. They guessed that they only had three days before the coordinates in the tabula expired, and they did not expect another message to arrive, so they had to act fast. However, they wanted to go in with some basic knowledge of what they were doing, and with a little recovery time. They took a full day to recover, during which time Al Hamra and Adam went in search of a weaponsmith to improve their weapons, and Siladan dug into his tomes of ancient knowledge to try and learn something about the connections between the corsairs and the cult of the Dancer that seemed to be so widespread throughout this part of the Horizon.

From fragments of text, stories and hints in the ancient histories of the Dabaran Circle, Siladan was able to piece together an outline of the story of the Dancer in this part of the Horizon. He learnt that when the Dabaran Shipbuilders came to the Third Horizon from the First Horizon they brought with them a dark cult, some kind of heretical nonsense connected with the original religion that they had believed in Al Ardha. This cult had survived for a while in the community those first shipbuilders formed around Atuta, the Unbroken, in Dabaran, but evnetually they were found and driven out, their terrible rites deemed despicable and evil. They fled to neighbouring systems, and in their flight they either discovered or were taken over by some power from the Dark between the Stars – or perhaps it had infected them in the long flight from the First Horizon and corrupted their religion that way. It was possible they laired in some ancient Portal Builder ruin, where they learnt dark secrets, but in any case somehow in this time of flight and conflict they mixed stories of some feminine energy called Lilith, from their original religion, with images and iconography of the Dancer. So their cult formed, hiding in the dark reaches of the lonely systems at the extreme edge of the Dabaran Circle, an area ignored by much of the rest of the Firstcome as they expanded into richer systems in the rest of the Third Horizon. Stories then told of a fresh assault on the cult by forces of the Nomad Federation, in allegiance with the Shipbuilders of Dabaran, in which a small militarist cult of the Messenger (or perhaps the Messenger himself; legends differed on the details) finally vanquished the emissaries of this twisted shadow of the Dancer. The cult was scattered, but over the succeeding centuries tales would arise hinting at the continued existence of fragments of the cult. Stories were also told about lost stars, dark stars, portal builder ruins far away from the portals themselves, wandering portals, and tears in the Dark itself which some creatures from the Dark between the Stars could use to travel between systems.

The PCs had been told before that the Corsairs were a kind of cult, and in the writings of the Collector at the space station in Algebar they had learnt of rumours that Samina herself was a powerful mystic in possession of a horrifying artifact that could boost her powers. Siladan surmised that the remnants of this ancient, corrupted cult of the Dancer had somehow formed Samina’s Corsairs and that Samina herself was the leader of this cult, perhaps taking on the form of the Dancer herself, or some twisted version thereof. This cult must have been twisted by exposure to the Dark between the Stars, and now dwelt in some lost Portal Builder ruin, from whence Samina used her strange powers to send ships to raid any system they chose. Perhaps the Corsairs’ plan to take over a small mining community in the Kua system, near Coriolis station itself, had been more sinister than a mere attempt to have a presence near Coriolis – perhaps she had known about the Cadaver Clock on Kua and aimed to take control of it or study it, with Rockhome 3 as a staging post for the mission. Or perhaps her plan had been to take over that community and slowly convert it to a cult, giving her a base of religious affairs from which she could easily touch Coriolis itself …

Whatever the reason, Siladan’s research confirmed for all the group that the Corsairs needed to be exterminated. Their mission was personal, religious, and essential. The next day they set off for the coordinates on the tabula, taking the Beast of Burden, the Grace of the Icons 7132, and the Shield of the Faceless. The Grace of the Icons 7132 had been reconfigured as a gunship at Dabaran, and the Shield of the Faceless, originally an Order of the Pariah troopship, had been reconfigured as a multipurpose attack ship with more weapons and a different signature. They hired 8 mercenaries, who took positions on the Beast of Burden, and left Hamura station in force.

The Corsair Base

They traveled for a day to reach the coordinates and when they arrived found themselves floating in empty space. They were an astronomical unit further away from the Hamura portals, far from any planet, and there was nothing to see but empty space. Unfazed, Al Hamra retired to the Beast of Burden’s observatory with a pair of spectacles of mystic vision, and under the glass dome lay back to stare into empty space through the spectacles. With their special power to see the Dark between the Stars the emptiness of space was transformed into a horrifying web of darkness, as if some hideous gigantic spider had stretched its lethal gossamers over an entire star system. Hanging in space in the midst of that web, some distance from their ship but visible through the lenses, was a ghostly portal wreathed in shadow. Their portal was a mystical gateway, and they would have to fly through it.

Using their two sets of glasses, Al Hamra and Saqr plotted a course through the portal. Everyone retired to their stasis pods, Saqr set a course, and the three ships entered the Dark Gate.

An hour later they awoke to the sound of proximity warnings, alarms ringing to warn them of incoming ships. They rushed to the bridge, activated sensors, and found themselves in uncharted space. The ship’s astrolabe told them they were in the centre of the Dabaran circle, equidistant from all of its stars, in a part of space with no star. Visual scanners showed them a stunning vista of stars, their sparkling light undiminished by any nearby star, and far away in the distance a single rock floating in space – the Corsair base. And from that rock had come four attack ships, which now bore down on them from four distant points. They had been warned, and had been waiting in orbit of the portal exit, and now they were incoming. Worse still, the Beast of Burden was alone: the Grace of the Icons 7132 and the Shield of the Faceless had not come through the portal, and were now lost in the Dark between the Stars, no doubt being torn apart by horrifying beasts of gigantic and terrible form. Only the Beast of Burden stood against four class 2 attack ships.

Saqr desperately manoeuvred to try and make space between some of the ships, so that they could fight at least one on its own before the whole squadron arrived, but he failed. All four ships came hurtling in, and the crew of the Beast of Burden turned their ship about, and prepared for the fight of their lives …

 


fn1: In game terms this means that all 5 of the draconites are in overwatch, and will get an automatic attack as soon as anyone tries to do anything aggressive. The leader is carrying a meson pistol, which ignores armour; as one player noted, Dr. Delekta is wearing an invisibility sphere stolen from the draconites, so it is likely that there are more scattered about, invisible, also in overwatch, possibly with meson rifles.

fn2: Just as that player predicted, I had a sixth draconite hidden, with another meson pistol, in overwatch, using telepathy. So there was a very good chance that in the first round of combat these two would eliminate two of the PCs, since their weapons can cut through armour, and then things would get very nasty very quickly[3]

fn3: This might seem like overkill but my party by now have accrued probably 80xp each, three attribute increases, a second group talent, and a shit-ton of high quality weaponry[4], and it is almost impossible to set them a challenge when they’re geared up; the draconites know this, because they aren’t stupid, and have acted accordingly.

fn4: We are a couple of sessions from the end of the campaign and they deserve every hard-earned point of advantage they have accrued so far; indeed, the denoument of this campaign is going to be a raid on their own space station to dislodge an ifrit they accidentally teleported in there. They still have a lot of work to do!

fn5: At the very beginning of the campaign Adam’s player chose “creature of the draconites” as his personal problem and, well, that’s really too luscious a peach not to pluck at a time like this isn’t it? Had the PCs decided to fight these guys, Adam – their machine gunner and most powerful combatant – was going to be forced to switch sides, or at least to make very difficult skill checks to resist commands.