This session was shortened because my travel schedule was exhausting and complex and I had no time to prepare anything fun or interesting. So here I list the few things that were done in this two hour session.

The PCs have finished solving the problem of the disease outbreak on Marfik 4, and have learnt that there is a Horizon-wide program by the Draconites to collect samples of xeno-organisms that cause disease in humans. The PCs’ guess is that this is part of a bio-weapons program, and they are very concerned about what this means. Recall that in session 2 the Draconites stole a powerful ancient artifact from the PCs. Could their efforts to obtain artifacts be related to this bio-weapons program?

As insurance the PCs decided to go to the site from which the infected ice had been dug up, and bury it. Some data djinn work enabled them to find the site, and they destroyed it effectively with only a little risk to themselves. They then returned to the settlement on Marfik 4 and produced a small stock of vaccines against the agent that had been in the ice, as well as a tool for identifying whether other diseases were derived from this agent, in case in future they ran into a bioweapon based on Draconite technology.

After this they left the planet of Marfik 4 and traveled to the Lithofor, where Adam purchased cybernetic implants and the whole team rested for a few weeks. Their next step will be to travel onward to Amedo, and at the Lithofor they started looking for work to pay their way.

New ship power: Binding Vacuum Beasts

I think it hasn’t been mentioned in my write-ups up until now, but in an earlier session one of the PCs died and his consciousness was uploaded into the ship. The PC was a mystic and so now the ship has mystic powers. When the PCs fought the vacuum beasts in the previous session they decided to use some XP to give the ship a new mystic power: the ability to bind vacuum beasts to the ship. Their idea was that this would give them a kind of companion animal to their space ship, which would be able to fight alongside it in battle. However, when they looked at the stats of the beasts, and recognized the difficulties they would have keeping them for long periods of time, docking at civilized space stations, etc. they decided not to invest in this power.

It is possible, however, that other groups they encounter in future will have this power, and will have bound vacuum beasts to their fleet. Perhaps then they should invest in a mystic power to repel these beasts, or to attack them mentally, so that they have a defense against them when they do finally meet them …

Fucking muppets!

 

I have spent the last 4 weeks on a series of fairly demanding business trips to two continents, and since I am bound by the tyranny of miles to a single airline I have been forced to watch movies on only one channel during the flights. This has been really challenging because aside from the enjoyable John Wick 3 the only action movies on offer have been super hero movies, and derivative schlock from other series (like Godzilla). Here I give my brief thoughts on the movies I watched, and ask some questions about the terrible decline of the modern action movie.

X-Men: Apocalypse

I can’t believe how ordinary this movie is. Does it even have a plot or a purpose? The acting is terrible and the entire cast of mutants is boring and shallow, with no possible reason for me to care about them. As a movie it only holds you because there are some other movies in the same series and you need to see what they do – but since I haven’t seen any other movies in the series I really can’t feel anything for these characters and can’t be led to even understand why they bother turning up. There are some good actors in this movie but you wouldn’t know it. This movie also has one of the most execrable scenes in modern cinematic history which is also one of the most execrable plot hooks in human history, and which is performed so poorly by Michael Fassbender that the depth of its depravity almost slips by you through the power of its banality. I am, of course, talking about the scene where a dude called Apocalypse tries to convince a Jewish concentration camp survivor to join in with his plan for genocide by having him destroy Auschwitz. There’s something really wrong about watching a fictitious character destroy the Auschwitz memorial – it’s just so horribly wrong – but to do so as part of a scheme to enlist a genocide survivor as a genocide perpetrator is really … well, it’s a chef’s kiss moment in modern cinema, isn’t it? But it’s all done so badly that you almost don’t realize how terrible it is until you wake up from the stupor this movie has sunk you into and realize what you’re being tricked into nodding along to. I gave the movie perhaps 20 minutes after that pearler but it didn’t offer anything remotely interesting, so I gave up and decided that staring at the ceiling of the plane was a better use of my time.

Deadpool 2

Deadpool 2 isn’t bad – at least I managed to finish it – but it’s a really lame and weak follow up to the freshness of the original. Standing on its own as a piss-take of super hero movies, Deadpool is entertaining and creative, but as a series in its own right it has nothing to hold it together. Deadpool’s smut and the particular conceit of his humour gets old fast, and watching Deadpool 2 I realized that the original movie was good primarily for its freshness in what is otherwise a stale, juvenile and worn out genre. Since Deadpool was made this genre has gone from needing a healthy dose of satire to needing a bullet, and is such a weak and overworked formula that satire no longer works. Indeed, when you look at the poor mixture of humour and pathos in Avengers: Infinity War you realize that the genre has been satirizing itself accidentally for quite some time now, and satire doesn’t work any more.

Avengers: Endgame

I hate-watched this after reviewing the awful sack of shit that was Infinity War, and had such low expectations after that wretched abomination that I was pleasantly surprised by the movie’s failure to be abysmally awful. It was, however, too long and way too boring, and it ended exactly as I expected: with the universe being saved by a rich white guy (what are the chances!) Plot spoiler folks: our world is not going to be saved by a rich white guy, and the fantasy of the rich white dude who does good has got old fast. The movie still had so many bad points that it was almost unwatchable, but I struggled through so I could see how this horrible shitshow ends (or, rather, restarts). I still didn’t know (or care) who most of these boring, caricatured white people were. Hulk was, if anything, worse than he was in Infinity War, transformed from a metaphor for erectile dysfunction into a sad mocking image of middle-aged ennui. Iron Man had lost his last redeeming feature (his sense of humour, which had already grown old and tired) and was now just annoying. Black Widow at least had a speaking part, though the rush between her and the other dude to kill themselves was just pathetic – neither of them are of any use to anyone, so why didn’t they just toss a coin? And why did they undo the extinction of half the universe anyway? Wiping out half of all life in the universe seems like a bargain if it will get rid of spiderman and space douche in the process. Why bring them back? I mean I know you love your mother and you’re sad she’s dead but five minutes in a room with either spiderman or space douche and you’d kill your own mother to escape. So why on earth would anyone bring them back, and are we meant to really believe that this cast of nobodies is sad about the deaths of their colleagues, who were the most forgettable characters in cinematic history? I’m surprised they could even remember who they used to work with, let alone want them back (I still don’t know the names of most of these incompetents, let alone work myself up into any kind of sweat as to whether they might die or not). This movie also went on a walk through about 8 other Marvel movies, as a reminder that by now these movies are so self-referential and self-involved that you have to do 20 hours of homework through the back catalogue just to understand what’s going on in multiple scenes. What was that shit between Thor and the blonde chicks? I get the impression one was his mother, who he used to live with and see daily, who didn’t notice that apparently overnight he had turned into a fat stoner. How’s that for a maternal bond! (Also Thor was one of the few redeeming features of Infinity War so of course they ruined him in this movie). I guess I should be happy that this entire tired story got a resolution but given that the final scene is just all these people getting back to more adventures it seems like more of a sigh of exhaustion than of relief.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Apparently this is a thing now, with multiple Godzilla movies, which are also somehow linked to King Kong because why not? Also it has this novel plot idea that the beasts are dangerous but some people think they’re part of the natural order and we should try to co-exist with them which is definitely not at all an idea that was old when Jaws was made, and we definitely need to sit through those debates again, especially when they’re done by people who could only be loosely described as “actors”. In this one there are bad guys who are actually environmentalists who want to wake up all these giant monsters to restore the balance of the earth (read: wipe out humans). Because absolutely, definitely, as the world slides into climate crisis and multiple environmental disasters that the environmental movement has been trying to warn us about for 60 years what we absolutely, definitely need are more movies where the end of the world is the environmentalists’ fault and the good people in the government have to fight them to stop them wiping out humanity. Definitely that’s a message we need right now! I would tell you what the moral of the story was but I stopped halfway through because the movie was so pathetic, the action scenes so contrived, and the plot so silly that I just gave up. This movie included Charles Dance and the chick who was Eleven in Stranger Things but even they couldn’t rescue this junk.

Men In Black: International

Boring daddy issues that can’t figure out if they’re serious or a joke, no appreciable plot and the worst acting since Liam Neeson apologized for his racism.

What’s going on with American action movies?

Looking at the menu of the plane’s entertainment system was depressing: just a long chain of superhero movies, with a couple of remakes and a few sequels. There was almost nothing original on the screen at all, and if you wanted to watch something original you would have to look outside the action movie genre. I’m now writing this in the same week that Martin Scorsese derided superhero movies as “theme park junk” and I have to agree with him[1]: action movies were once a great part of Hollywood, but in recent years they have degenerated to the point where they are reliably the worst. They’re just an endless series of rehashed super hero movies, which can be best characterized as second rate pro wrestling, with a scattering of other “franchises”[2] like Men In Black, Star Wars, Batman, or – god forbid – Rambo. There’s nothing original in this at all, it’s just microwaved kara age for the soul. There are even remakes of great movies (like Death Wish, the remake of which was abominable). I think the last original action movie I saw was Atomic Blonde, which was genuinely brilliant but what three years ago now? Since then it’s been spandex as far as the eye can see.

I don’t know why this is happening – why people pay to watch this junk, or what kind of business model the production companies are running that requires them to return to this artistically and culturally desolate fare rather than doing anything original. The best I can think is that it’s the cinematic equivalent of outsourcing risk. They’re guaranteed to be able to make these movies easily and on time, since the plots don’t matter and there are so many characters in your average super hero movie that plot is almost superfluous, and you pay for the movie before you see it so by the time you realize it’s shit it’s too late. I can’t think of any other reason for why people would make super hero movies at all: the original material by Stan Lee is just obviously low-rent, juvenile crap for teenage boys in the 1960s and it is laughably bad, so why would anyone think to draw on it for a movie? Recall that Stan Lee’s material – all the American comic legends – for years followed the Comic Code Alliance, which is a recipe for transparently nationalist and vapid material, and although Stan Lee is said to have broken with this[3] in 1971, this is just post hoc valorization. American comic books were drek for decades, and building a successful movie series on them is going to necessarily require dipping into some of the most juvenile trash that has ever been written down on paper.

Which is fine if these are occasional movies, but the cinematic landscape has been dominated by what is essentially adolescent drivel for the past 10 years. There are now something like 20 Marvel movies, almost all of them shit, and a similar number of DC Comics movies in probably just the past 10 years (apparently there are 71 in total). This is not including the awful TV shows that have now almost all been cancelled because they are so bad. Why has American cinema been overwhelmed by this flood of movies from the same universe about the same characters? And why this universe and these characters, which are specifically and particularly so stunningly low quality?

I don’t have an answer for this, although I suspect it lies somewhere in the toxic witch’s brew of American pop culture’s growing venality, the terrible education system in the US, concentration of American media in the hands of a very small number of companies, and the complete intellectual and artistic emptiness of the money men in those companies. But it’s a depressing turn for American culture to take, because for a long time America was a reliable producer of good quality, exciting and enjoyable action movies. But that industry – the industry that brought us movies like The Last of the Mohicans, Jaws, the original three Star Wars movies, Aliens, Blackhawk Down and Bladerunner – appears to have shriveled and died, and come back as a zombie monstrosity that just lurches from movie to movie, slowly eating our brains.

Someone needs to chop its head off, before the entirety of western cinema culture becomes an empty wasteland.


fn1: Overall Scorsese seems like a man of vulgar tastes, since he seems to think that the only real movies are movies where a young woman falls in love with an older man (or as he puts it, “human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being”), and he seems to think anything where things blow up or people die isn’t real film, so he’s obviously basically wrong. (I mean, if you want to experience “human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being” you could hang out with your family, or read a book – cinema is definitely not the best place to experience that!) But in this case he is just by pure good fortune correct: this is theme park junk.

fn2: I fucking hate this word when it’s applied to movies or games but when you’re talking about super hero movies or these other long-running bullshit series like Star Wars you’re basically using the right word. They’re the McDonalds of cinema.

fn3: Incidentally, check out the quote of Stan Lee in the linked article. My god, what a prat he must have been.

 

No one sees him

There’s something otherworldly about the John Wick movies. Primarily a series of set pieces, with the story loosely connecting the parts together, they feel more like fairy tales than standard action stories, and that’s because they are: John Wick is a fey champion, and the world he moves in is not the human world, but a kind of wicked techno-faerie. Here I will explain the evidence that John Wick is a Changeling or a Fey Champion, and the world he moves in is not part of the human realm. There are minor spoilers in this post, so stop here if you haven’t seen the latest movie.

[Spoilers follow]

There is a scene in the third movie, Parabellum, where Wick and his most implacable foe come face to face in a huge railway station (probably I’m supposed to know which station this is but whatever). They come to a halt as they are about to fight because a conga line of small children is moving between them and for some reason they feel they mustn’t disrupt this line; but then after this line passes two of the enemy agents attack Wick from behind and he is forced to murder them in the middle of the station, in plain view of perhaps several thousand people, using knives, and it isn’t pretty and it definitely isn’t very well concealed, but no one notices. Of course when this happens in a John Wick movie you just shrug and go with the flow – you don’t care if ordinary people do or don’t see what is happening because you’re there to see John Wick kill his enemies with righteous fury and you’re not concerned about the collateral damage.

But if you think about it a little more, no one ever sees him killing people. In the second movie he walks along a big white underpass, firing off shots from a concealed weapon at the androgynous bodyguard of his enemy, and thousands of ordinary people shuffle past but no one notices a gun battle happening right in front of them. The same thing applies in both the second and third movies when he is attacked repeatedly by assassins in plain view after his excommunication and no one notices the brutal battles. At the end of the second movie there is a moment where he should be seen by ordinary people but they all just turn and walk away at a single command from Winston.

There is a never a time in the movies where ordinary human beings notice the huge battles happening in front of them. This is because they cannot see the agents of the underworld and don’t know anything about the High Court or its agents. Essentially the underworld (the crime network at the heart of the movies) is invisible to humans: it shares the same space but somehow the world of ordinary people and of the underworld does not overlap. The agents of the underworld can see humans but cannot be seen. They are, essentially, Fey.

There are many hints in the movies as to the faerie nature of the underworld’s members. Although the lower echelons work for money the higher echelons work for favours, bartering with each other in services. Individuals make blood bonds to each other which have a special currency (even depicted as a kind of coin) that trumps all other concerns. Each of the High Table’s members has a Champion, who is universally feared and serves his or her patron absolutely. The High Table’s members also have clearly delineated realms and a kind of aesthetic or sense connected to them, which makes clear that they are creatures tied to a place or a concept. The otherworldly nature of these high beings is even made explicit in the third movie, when the Director says to John Wick:

The High Table wants your life. How can you fight the wind? How can you smash the mountains? How can you bury the ocean? How can you escape from the light? Of course, you can go to the dark. But they’re in the dark, too.

This is as clear a description of Fey royalty as you could hope to hear.

John Wick himself is a mysterious figure, referred to by the Russians as the Baba Yaga, but in the third movie we learn he was adopted by a Russian crime gang connected to the underworld but managed to escape the underworld before the events of the first movie. From his interactions with the Director in the third movie it is clear that he was in some sense stolen from the human world; and from the first movie we know that he somehow escaped the underworld. This marks him out as a Changeling, another classic idea associated with faerie. His abilities are also obviously supernatural, but his sensibilities are human. It is through this character who stands astride both worlds that we learn about the faerie realm he has escaped, and of course we would not care for the troubles of this world if we were not introduced to it by a Changeling, someone part human in their origins.

The movies also reinforce this sense that we are watching a battle between the fey through their choices of setting. When battles occur in the presence of humans they happen in in-between spaces: underpasses, railway stations, night clubs, and other places where humans are themselves passing through and not in a position to stop and help, or to notice what is happening. The denizens of the underworld are never seen in places of permanent human occupation: they don’t fight or meet in human homes, or hospitals, or even hotels (outside the Continental): everywhere they interact with humans is transient, a place where neither people nor fey leave a mark or stay to pay attention to the surroundings. And when battles happen on fey land they occur in strange, tortured spaces that remind us of how otherworldly these people are: halls of mirrors, or John Wick’s journey into the literal underworld in the second movie, or strange businesses (stolen car dealerships, weird ballet theatres without customers), or art galleries devoid of human customers. The classic combination of these two phenomena is the Bowery King, whose palace is a strange place that exists in plain sight but is never noticed by humans, and whose subjects work in all the liminal spaces of human life, begging and passing unnoticed. He is like the classic model of the Goblin King, in a modern setting.

John Wick is a modern fairy story, with John a Changeling trying to leave the kingdom of his abductors but constantly drawn back into it because his power and his passion is irresistible to its denizens. He fights and kills for the chance to be free, but the strange politics of the fey world stops him from achieving the liberation he so wants (and so richly deserves). The real appeal of John Wick is not the violence or the set pieces, but the way it calls upon the faerie stories of our heritage as part of the story and the aesthetic. It is a peculiarly modern fairy story, and a remarkably original and creative work when you see it in this light: not as an action movie, but as a retelling of ancient myths.

Our heroes are on the planet of Marfik 4, fighting an epidemic in an ice-mining community that has been abandoned by its medical and security staff. They have been told that some of the ice that was the likely source of the disease is en route to the Lithofor on the ice hauler Callow Boy, and need to stop it before it infects that community of 700,000 souls. They were planning to first attack the security and medical staff who abandoned the community, however, and were preparing to attack this group – who they call the Isolation Faction – when they learnt of a new complication in their mission. The Callow Boy has turned off its transponder and has disappeared in the Dark Between the Stars. They need to rush to find it before all trace is lost.

The cast for this mission:

  • Adam, gunner and acting captain
  • Reiko Ando, deckhand
  • Siladan Hatshepsut, archaeologist and data djinn
  • Dr Banu Delecta, medic

First defeat

The PCs decided that they still had time to liquidate the Isolation Faction before they headed after the Callow Boy, and wanted to prioritize this because they thought they needed more information about the ice and whatever the Isolation Faction knew about it. So, they decided to approach the factory where the Faction hid, carrying breaching charges, break down the door, and kill them. Unfortunately they did not see the automated machine gun turret set up on the roof of the factory, and were gunned down by a hail of bullets as they approached. The attack was ferocious, knocking down both Adam and Reiko with potentially fatal and heavy-bleeding injuries. Banu and Siladan had to drag their colleagues back to the main settlement under a rain of gunfire, and administer emergency first aid in the shadows of the settlement.

Defeated, and needing days for Adam and Reiko to recover, the PCs returned to the Beast of Burden, and took her away from the planet of Marfik 4 to search for the Callow Boy.

Lost in the Dark

They headed first to where the ship had last been recorded, assuming that there was some chance it would be waiting near that location for a rendezvous, or had continued on a straight path to some secret purpose. They were afraid that it might have changed course and was now heading to the portals, perhaps to offload its ice at a more populous planet in Caph or even Coriolis, but since they had not thought to download the schematics for the Callow Boy they were not aware that it was incapable of portal travel, and their fears in this regard were unfounded.

After a few days’ travel they reached the point where the Callow Boy had gone silent and discovered a very simple reason for its sudden disappearance: it had been destroyed. The ship lay silent in space, broken into four parts, its ice cargo floating harmless around the wreckage of the ship. There was no emergency message, no SOS beacon, just the silent ruins of the 1km long ship hanging in four huge pieces in the darkness. They approached the ship and soon learnt the cause of its destruction, as two huge squid-like monsters detached themselves from its ravaged hull and began moving rapidly toward the Beast of Burden. The infamous vacuum beasts of Marfik 4 had taken the Callow Boy, and now sought to destroy the PCs’ ship.

The fight with the beasts was difficult. Their shadowy, biological structure was hard to lock onto with the ship’s sensors, and they moved quickly and easily through the Dark Between the Stars. Before Adam and Reiko were able to destroy one of the beasts they other had latched onto the hull, and was preparing to begin eating its way through to the crew. Adam had to disengage from the gunner’s post and run to an airlock, carrying the ship’s only machine gun, with the perilous task of going outside the ship to attack the beast himself, since the ship’s guns could no longer lock onto it. As he ran through the ship Saqr threw the ship into complex manoeuvres to try and shake off the beast, as Reiko destroyed the second beast. Fortunately Saqr was somehow able to shake off the beast, and Siladan somehow managed to get a lock onto it as it flew off the hull of the ship. Moments later their torpedo struck the newly-locked beast, and it blew apart in a cloud of ichor. They had survived.

The Draconite Message

They approached the ship and were able to identify three crew hiding in a safe room in the centre of the engineering section. After some complex manoeuvres they were able to dock and rescue the crew, who came on board relieved but shaken. They knew nothing about the disease in the ice, and had simply been conducting standard cargo operations on Marfik 4. They had not kept track of the ice as it was loaded, preferring to enjoy the settlement’s spartan accommodations while the ice miners loaded the ice, and so could not tell the PCs which of the ice in their cargo had come from a potentially contaminated source. They were innocent of any plot to poison the Lithofor, and were able to confirm to the PCs that they had planned no secret course changes on their mission – they had simply been attacked by vacuum beasts and their comms systems destroyed before they could send off a distress signal.

Near the wreckage of the Callow Boy the PCs found a small message drone, of the kind used to deliver physical messages between ships. This message drone had detached from the Callow Boy when it was attacked, following some algorithm intended to preserve the drone, but had been caught by one of the vacuum beasts and partially consumed. They recovered it and confirmed that this drone had been programmed to move secretly between ships, intended to latch onto a ship heading to the portals. It was an advanced Draconite design, small and highly stealthy, and obviously intended to take messages in a physically secure manner. The message it carried was intended to be delivered to a contact on Coriolis, some kind of procurer who must be working for the Draconites. The message was a short video message from Amira, the medic on Marfik 4:

We have found a possible specimen of interest to your employer. Direct experiments are not being conducted, but we are recording evidence of its progress in a human population. It is highly effective. Please inform your employer to send agents to investigate.

It was short, and clearly indicated evidence that the Isolation Faction were working for someone. The PCs returned to Marfik 4 with a clear plan.

Liquidating the Isolation Faction

The second attack on the Isolation Faction went more smoothly. They used the ion cannon on the No Satisfaction to destroy the automated gun turret and managed to approach the entryway without being attacked. A breach charge soon tore down the outer door and they burst in, all guns blazing. Through judicious use of a motion sensor they knew where all their enemies were, and could anticipate their ambushes and flanking attacks. There were 8 remaining security guards in the Isolation Faction plus their leader and the medicurg Amira, spread through three rooms in a flanking formation. While Adam and Delecta took on the main front of the guards in their position on a gantry over the factory floor, Reiko Ando and Siladan charged into the side rooms to take on flanking troops. The battle was soon over, and ended with the death of the security guards and their medicurg Amira.

The Draconite Contract

On Amira’s tabula the PCs found a short message from the same contact on Coriolis. The short video message was a year old, and it told Amira that her planet had been identified as one of a set of planets with a high probability of hosting native pathogens capable of infecting and harming humans. Were any unusual diseases to present themselves in the settlement she would receive a large payment for identifying the source. Extra money would be provided if she were able to track the natural history of the disease, study it directly in humans, or obtain samples. The sums on offer were huge, and clearly an incentive for her to react as she had done when the disease struck the settlement. When she had indicated her willingness to perform the task, the Coriolis contact had shipped her the Draconite messenger drone, to use if she identified any such samples. It was clear that when she had seen the opportunity to profit from the colony’s disease outbreak she had decided to abandon her role as doctor and become instead a mercenary, waiting for the colony to die and filming their final death throes. She had planned to burn the whole settlement down once the epidemic was complete, blame the whole thing on a huge accident, and then profit from the ice samples. Unfortunately she had not expected Md. Jenin Abad to be contacted secretly, and had not planned on the PCs interfering with her plans.

So what, the PCs wondered, were the Draconites doing? They must have sent these messages to other settlements, and had a broker in Coriolis collecting information on potential bioweapons that they would then presumably collect for research. Why were the Draconites building a bioweapons division? Why had they been hunting that statue on Kua? What was the Draconites’ secret plan?

A few days later Md Jenin Abad isolated a cure for the disease and distributed it among the colony, saving 60% of the colonists. The PCs made sure they obtained a copy of the cure, and left Marfik 4 for the Amedo system considerably richer, and considerably warier, than when they arrived.

Marfik 4 on a clear afternoon

Our party have arrived at Marfik 4 and found it in the midst of an epidemic. The population of the one settlement on the planet has split into two parts, with one small group of security and medical personnel in a separate section where they have established a quarantine and appear to be unaffected by the disease. The PCs think that the disease may have been uncovered from ice mined on the planet, or perhaps is a bioweapon being tested by the medical personnel on the planet, but they have not yet established which. Their task now – for which they are being paid handsomely – is to guard the medicurg Md Jenin Abad as he tries to save the colony, and to figure out what has gone wrong. The cast for this session:

  • Adam, gunner and acting captain
  • Reiko Ando, deckhand
  • Siladan Hatshepsut, archaeologist and data djinn
  • Saqr, pilot and mystic
  • Dr Banu Delecta, medic

Day 3 of the epidemic has now begun, and the PCs have made a little more effort to prepare for what they expect to be inevitable conflict with the security team. They have managed to access some basic schematics for the factory area where the quarantined security squad are, and have started referring to these people as the Isolation Faction. Most of the patients taken to the Grace of the Icons 7132 in the first two days have died, and in the morning of the third day Md Jenin Abad took another 10 up to the ship for further investigation and treatment. On the surface, in the small and cold rooms of the settlement, the epidemic raged on.

The emergency message

The PCs were in the briefing room discussing the best approach to take to the Isolation Faction when they were alerted to an emergency message being broadcast from the planet. Adam answered it while Siladan traced it to a small relay station perhaps two hours’ drive on a crawler from the settlement. The message was weak but urgent, and when the broadcast opened they could hear gunfire in the background. The messenger was a person called Hamza, who told them that he and two others were trapped in the relay station and under attack by security guards from the Isolation Faction.

Hamza was not asking for help, however. He and his two colleagues had fled from the Isolation Faction and run to the relay station when the Beast of Burden arrived in orbit. Because they had fled the Isolation Faction they knew that the ice from which the disease had come was now being transported on an ice hauler to the Lithofor, but no one in the settlement knew this because the shift supervisor was dead and his records had been altered. The leader of the Isolation Faction, Mehrak, had told everyone that they could not alert anyone to the ice hauler’s journey because this would invite orbital bombardment, and the rest of the Isolation Faction were doing as they were told, but Hamza and his friends refused to obey this terrible command, and fled to the relay station. They then spent days rerouting command systems to avoid the control the security guards in the Isolation Faction were exerting over the planet’s comms and to try and make contact with the Beast of Burden. They had finally managed to set up a temporary bypass and need to send a message to anyone who would listen: they had to stop the ice hauler. This ice hauler was on a course for the Lithofor. It was carrying the ice that the PCs suspected might have held the disease – and being transported now to a planet with 700,000 people living in it.

Once Hamza and his colleagues set up the relay bypass the security guards had come to physically stop them. They had barricaded the door and now they only had hours to live, but they needed the PCs to act: stop the Callow Boy in its journey to the Lithofor, and prevent a disaster.

The PCs checked their star maps and determined that the Callow Boy was traveling slowly on a long journey – it would take about 20 days to reach the Lithofor and was moving about half the speed they could do in the Beast of Burden, so they could catch it even if they left the next day. Someone pointed out that if the Callow Boy changed course and headed for a portal they would not be able to catch it in time, but they decided to risk it: if the ship changed direction for the portal they would have to send an emergency message to the whole system, which would likely mobilize one of the Queen’s old Firstcome ships to despatch it – and would end with an orbital bombardment of Marfik 4 and the death of everyone on the planet.

But first they would rescue the people at the relay station.

Travel on Marfik 4

Battle at the relay station

The PCs did not waste their time with ice crawlers. They took the No Satisfaction and screamed in to the relay station in a crash dive from orbit, arriving 10 minutes after they left the Beast of Burden. At the relay station they found two ice crawlers, with soldiers hiding in them and firing on the sealed door. Rather than end the fight quickly and gracefully using the No Satisfaction‘s ion cannon they piled out of the ship onto the ice, and Saqr took the ship up to provide air support.

As they approached the crawlers the soldiers inside them switched their focus and began firing on them. Reiko Ando ran forward to engage one squad in melee, and Siladan ran forward to attack the leader, who was crouched in cover behind a crawler. Meanwhile Banu Delecta and Adam provided covering fire from prone positions on the ice slopes. Saqr fired the ion cannon at one crawler but missed, leaving a long dagger of super heated fog expanding in waves in the frozen air above the battle zone. After that one shot Siladan and Reiko entered melee, and the No Satisfaction‘s weapons could not be used, so Saqr completed a circuit of the relay station to search for other attackers, finding none.

Although the battle did not go too well for Siladan, Reiko was a vicious whirling dervish of violence, managing to knock two attackers unconscious and drive the others away into the snow without taking any injuries. She chased after them but they ran straight into the No Satisfaction‘s firing zone and, caught in her spotlights and receiving threatening warnings from Saqr, dropped to their knees and surrendered. Meanwhile Siladan and Adam finished off the other four attackers, Adam firing into the ice crawler until Siladan could charge in with his halberd and begin cutting them. Finally all but two were dead, and the relay station was liberated. Hamza and his colleagues emerged, saved just in time by the PCs’ bravery and overpowering firepower.

Their gaze turned back to the settlement, and the two Isolation Faction soldiers they had taken captive.

The Isolation Faction’s story

They learnt little truth from their two prisoners, or from Hamza. The Isolation Faction doctor, Amira, told them that the disease likely came from the ice, and ordered the security guards and their families into the factory for safety in the first day of the epidemic, before it could spread. They shut down communications with people off planet, and waited. Amira and the leader of the security guards, Mehrak, told them there was nothing they could do about it – it was likely a fatal xenoorganism and no treatment would stop it in time; all they could do was wait and pray to the Icons. Similarly, they could only hope and pray that the ice in the Ice Hauler was safe. Hamza stumbled on the shift supervisor’s body, however, and his abandoned tabula, and learnt that the records had been altered; realizing he had been betrayed, he convinced two of his friends to flee with him to the relay station and risk their lives to send the message to the Beast of Burden. In his cowardice, he had not simply gone to the settlement because he did not want to catch the disease; and he did not expect the relay station would have been shutdown by central authority. So he had done what he could, and thankfully with the Icons’ grace it would be enough.

Hearing this story the PCs again began to suspect that this was not simply a story of an accidental epidemic released from ancient ice. There was too much going on, and too many strange plots. That medicurg was up to something, and they intended to find out what. They returned to the No Satisfaction, and headed back to orbit to plan their next move.

My players are a little disappointed with the mystic powers in Coriolis, and to be honest so am I. I like games with magic, and I always want to be able to have some mystery and arcane secrets in my games. I also like those with mystic powers to ultimately be powerful and terrifying: Shadowrun has a rule, gank the mage, which I think should apply in any game with mystical or magical elements, but there’s no point in having this rule if your mages aren’t worth ganking, and in general mystics aren’t very powerful in Coriolis. Given their need to hide and the risk of persecution, this seems a little disappointing. So my players and I came up with some ideas for improving mystic powers.

First of all we thought that they should have expanded powers over djinn and other spirits, and also that they should be able to physically heal and mentally attack. We also thought most powers should have additional benefits if you focus on them. So I have developed a system with three tiers of powers. Each power introduced in the book has an additional two levels of power, which expand on or intensify the basic power introduced in the core rules. I also introduced a new power for healing. To buy a second level power one needs to have first purchased the power described in the core rules; for 5 xp one can then buy the next power in the list. Furthermore, no PC can have more level 3 powers than level 2 powers, and no PC can have more level 2 powers than level 1 (introductory) powers, and no PC can have more level 1 powers than their wits attribute. So for example a PC with a wits of 4 can have 4 level 1 powers, 3 level 2, and 2 level 3 powers; in total buying all these powers will require 45 xp, which in my campaign would probably take about 20-25 sessions to get to. Some of the powers at level 2 or level 3 can be expanded by spending additional xp to increase damage or range, or reduce crit value. So to be a fully rounded, genuinely scary mystic would probably require 60xp or more.

The table of mystic powers, from level 1 to level 3, is shown below. All level 1 powers except heal are introduced in the core rules.

Power class Level 1 Level 2 Level 3
Artificer Artificer: go into a trance to understand an artifact Rigger: Activate and control ordinary objects at long range or less using your skill in that item/equipment Technomage: Use an object or technology using mystic powers as if you had the skill
Clairvoyant Clairvoyant: find a person or object Scry: See remote locations, objects or people Act: Cast any mystic power through a video, scry or other remote vision device
Exorcist Exorcist: Drive a spirit out of a person Abjurer: Force a spirit to manifest in a physical form, making it vulnerable to physical attacks Astral champion: launch a physical attack on a spirit in non-physical form. Attack is dmg 1, crit 3, range touch; use xp to increase dmg/range, reduce crit
Intuition Intuition: Ask the GM a question about anything in the world Speak with dead: speak with a recently dead person to find out what they experienced Prediction: Use mystic powers to increase initiative by 1 / success
Mind reader Mind reader: read surface thoughts Detect truth: learn when someone is lying or telling the truth as they speak Mental attack: Does MP dmg 1, crit 3 (stun), range touch. Use xp to increase dmg, reduce crit, increase range
Mind walker Mind walker: see through someone else’s eyes Animal walker: see through an animal’s eyes/senses Machine walker: see through the sensory equipment of any machine, object or system
Prediction Prediction: Use a séance to see the future Regression: Learn the past about a place, thing or person Instantiation: Learn what is happening now to an absent place, thing or person
Premonition Premonition: test mystic powers to sense an impending attack Defense: use a reaction to give a friendly PC or NPC a free defense against an incoming attack, using your mystic powers Nine lives: as a reaction, allow one of your allies to reverse the dice on a critical
Stop Stop: use mystic powers to force someone to stop a single action Control: openly control a person for a single action, such as an attack or an important, obvious decision. Everyone knows you did it Dominate: take complete control of someone for 1 round per success. They get to use force to resist this.
Telekinesis Telekinesis: Applies to small objects Telekinesis 2: Applies to larger objects, up to the size of a person (who can use force to resist your power) Flight: The PC can use their telekinesis to move at a slow flight, including in zero-g. Use dexterity skill to control it
Body control Heal: heal 1 pt of damage per success, even if not broken Armour: Use a reaction to add mystic powers skill to your armour total Heal crit: completely heals a critical of severity less than or equal to the number of successes

 

I thought it might be good to introduce another power which grants someone an additional action point, attribute bonuses, etc., but decided this might be too powerful. Also there is no physical attack capability in any of these powers, so mystics can do mental attacks (which ignore armour!) but cannot do physical attacks. Also to get to a very weak mental attack that is no better than a stun weapon, a mystic needs to burn 15xps, though with 30xps this could be a vicious attack guaranteed to do significant stun damage.

Note also that these powers rely on good mystic powers skill, so most PCs will have to find a balance between new powers and improving their skill. To become a super powerful mystic is a path of privation and extreme limitations on other skills, and it is likely that in any campaign of less than about 40 sessions most PCs will not be able to get to a very high power level. NPCs, on the other hand …

As a final bonus, I think if anyone gets to two or more powers at level 3 they should be able to gain some additional combination power they can activate. So for example telekinesis + mind walker at level 3 might grant the PC the ability to teleport. This would be super useful if the PCs have a nemesis who has 3 level 3 powers … There might also be additional, forbidden powers that are not available to the PCs and require a cadaver clock to activate: permanent attribute boosts, resurrection, etc. Getting that clock and the associated powers could be a campaign goal for the PCs – and battling a mystic who has those powers could be a major campaign in itself. For example, they could discover a mystic who uses body control, stop and mind walker in a cadaver clock to turn people into completely obedient slaves, who fight and die on her behalf without release; the PCs’ job could be to discover the nature of this clock, and somehow destroy this super powerful mystic. That’s a fun and dark campaign! And it might put the PCs in two minds about the true nature of mystics, which could lead to complications when they embark on the Emissary Lost campaign ark …

I know some players of Coriolis will prefer to keep mystic powers subtle and low key, but I don’t like low-key magic and I like magic in my sci fi campaigns, so I will be running with these expanded powers – and making sure my group run into adversaries who have stocked up on them!

Coriolis is set in the Third Horizon, a complex of star systems linked by portals that enable instantaneous transport between connected systems (with severe potential complications). Each system is linked through the portals to perhaps 2-4 other systems, so traveling to distant systems requires passing through multiple portals. Portals are all located in the same place, about 0.5 AU from one of the system’s stars, so when you emerge from one portal you are 0.5 AU from the star and at exactly the position you need to be to go straight back through and on to your next destination. Navigating through a portal is dangerous, and requires piloting skill checks to pass through successfully; failure can be very bad, and as a result most travelers pass through in convoys, sharing the portal data provided by bulk haulers which pay extra to access good quality navigational data. No human can travel through a portal without being in stasis, so any ship that travels between systems needs to have enough stasis pods for its crew; failure to go into cryosleep during transit is always fatal.

This creates obvious complications for communications in the Third Horizon, particularly given that many systems have very low populations, are wracked by war or chaos, and have little industry and even less reason to visit them. As a guide, in the System Generator the largest population you can roll up for a whole planet is millions of residents. The systems have low populations that may be scattered across very large planets on very low density population centres. Given this, it seems likely that most systems will not receive much in the way of communications. However, the rulebook gives little information about this issue. All I can find on communications is this tiny inset:

Communication waves travel at the speed of light, which is roughly one AU per eight minutes – thus, getting a reply to a question takes at least 16 minutes per AU between you and the other party. No communication waves can pass through portals. Instead, a ship or a probe must make the jump and then transmit the message on the other side. This leads to great communication delays between systems. The Bulletin keeps multiple probes ready on every portal station, and anyone can pay to use them to send information. This is both expensive and not without risk however, as you never know who might be listening on the other end

This does not give much information about how communication works in the Third Horizon, and I don’t like it for two simple reasons:

  • If you have to pay to send information by a probe, then almost all information from low population centres will never get sent. I don’t like this.
  • It suggests that spaceships with no human crew can pass through portals. I really don’t like this idea: it opens the way for AI fleets, or for automated cargo systems. Not cool.

So, I have decided to revise the communications systems in the Third Horizon by introducing two small house rules that make life a little more complicated:

  • It is very dangerous to freeze and thaw people repeatedly from cryosleep – typically ship’s crews need a few days’ recovery before they can go back into stasis, and repeatedly violating this guideline can lead to insanity and loss of mental function (particularly bad when the security team wakes up in a rage, or the pilot has to navigate a portal in a post-stasis haze)
  • Any path through a portal requires a human to calculate it in order to work. In the entire history of the Third Horizon, no computer has ever plotted a path through a portal successfully. Most scientists suspect this is because the Portal Builders were capable of designing AI ships, and built this failsafe into the portals to ensure no one could obliterate another system using AI fleets

This has important consequences for communications in the Third Horizon. In particular, it means that it is not possible to have a system of automated relays, where probes go through the portals every hour and broadcast information, essentially rendering communication nearly instantaneous throughout the Third Horizon. If probes were possible, then it would be possible to have probes that transport through a portal every hour, collect the latest information broadcasts, and then transfer back through. This would mean that if you were 15 systems away from Kua you would likely get your news from Kua within about 24 hours, since when the probe comes through the portal it can broadcast its information directly to the portal station, and then when the probe to the next system is ready it will be right at the portal so will receive the information as soon as it arrives in-system, and an hour later travel to the next system. If probes were possible the Legion could send a message from Kua to the end of the Third Horizon in a matter of hours, simply by dispatching a probe through a series of portals.

If, on the other hand, only humans can pass through portals and humans require some days to recover from stasis, then sending information becomes trickier. At a busy system like Kua you could still have daily or hourly information exchange, simply by having a large enough number of small ships. For example with seven class I ships capable of stasis, you could send information through to Altai on a daily basis, using a roster to ensure that once a ship has passed through the portal its crew can rest and do other tasks for a few days before passing back through. But in a less busy system such a proposition might not be worth it – news would only be generated slowly, and no one would care what it was anyway, so why would you have seven crews on standby to transfer it? Instead you might broadcast it to a passing bulk hauler once a week, as the hauler passes through, and pay a nominal fee for it to transfer the information to the portal station at the far side. Then that station would pay a nominal fee to the next passing bulk hauler or starship to take information to the next system, and so on. In most cases this would mean that news would travel from one system to another approximately once a day, except in the busiest systems, so that if you lived in the outer fringes your news would take a week or two to get to Kua, and a month or two to travel to the far side of the Horizon. Given the distances involved that’s pretty cool.

This system of broadcasts will only apply to general news, of course. If you want a message sent to your family saying you made it safely to Yastopol then this is your plan: you go to your local Consortium office and select a simple, low cost plan to send your data to your family in Aiwaz, and you have fair confidence that it will arrive in a matter of about 10 days, give or take, uncorrupted and probably unread (let’s face it, you’re pretty boring). But what if you want to sext your lover in Kua? Or send news of a successful kick murder in Dabaran? Then you need more secure and more reliable delivery (you want to be sure he receives that dickpic!)

In this case you may need to provide your own encryption services, and people may be waiting at the other end to capture your data. When a bulk hauler arrives in a system it doesn’t ask questions about who should receive what data: it broadcasts it in bulk to a local receiver and carries on its way, and then that local receiver broadcasts that data on subject to the conditions of the transit. A cheap data transit plan will mean that stuff is just broadcast at every planet in system without fear or favour, and anyone listening in can pick it up. Local data providers will pick it up for sure, and if they recognize the address you gave your dickpic will end up at the correct tabula. But anyone who wants to listen in can also pick up your message, and if the encryption protocols of your backwater farmer’s Grindr app are not suitably good, then now everyone knows precisely how second rate your junk is. Probably not an issue, since the dude you were sending it to has already moved on (sorry to tell you that, but you know what these Kua boys are like – sluts the lot of them). If your news is a successful kick murder, though – well then your data is valuable, and whoever was sifting through your messages is going to be making sure to sell that on.

To get around this you have a couple of choices:

  • Pay for a packet drone, which detaches from the hauler once it arrives in the destination system and travels to a pre-determined local high security data center, from which its message can be broadcast with high security
  • Pay specifically for a tight beam communication to a specific target, which avoids the risk of interception but also leaves a trail of comms from ship to planet that an investigator could find
  • Apply your own high level encryption so even a widebeam broadcast can’t be hacked
  • Pay a secure provider – a dedicated information broker – which passes through some systems regularly and ensures your message gets to its destination, and usually also deletes its records after it passes through

Not all of these options are available in every system, or you may have to wait a long time to get the one you want. That dickpic won’t be fresh if you wait forever! Sometimes no matter how much money you have – or how many people you kill – the thing you need just won’t arrive in the system, and you’ll have to settle for less secure and less reliable communications. That is the nature of life out on the edge of the Horizon. Now let us consider two specific examples.

Banu Delecta’s Red Packet

The Cyclade is coming and as always at this time Dr. Banu Delecta’s thoughts turn to Qamar, a courtesan whose company she often enjoyed while she was a student in Coriolis. Dark-skinned, muscular, graceful, shy and ohh-so talented, Qamar was a boon to her during the stress of exams and a relief during those times when her male peers were exhausting and her rich boyfriends disappointing, and if his plebeian upbringing occasionally showed what did she care? He never judged her for her rich background, but loved her for who she was (really! She was special! Not like those old matrons from the Spire that he so often had to entertain!) Qamar retired after she graduated, but it is tradition in the Third Horizon for rich patrons to send retired courtesans a red packet – a small donation of money – on their birthday, as a kind of reminder of their goodwill and also to ensure that the courtesan’s retirement is not too harsh on them. Ever a stickler for tradition – and misty-eyed at the thought of those lazy afternoons in his apartments near the Ozone market – Dr. Delecta remembered that Qamar’s birthday was just after the Cyclade and now, back in her home system of Sivas, she had best organize the delivery.

A red packet delivery is no big deal, and so she takes a lifter down to her local post office and organizes an interstellar plan (oh how inconvenient! Back on Coriolis you could do all this on your tabula). She pays a little extra to ensure it is delivered on the date she chooses – Sivas is only two portals from Kua so she is confident it will arrive in time – and also pays a little more to add some encryption to the packet, since it is money she is sending. She does not fuss herself about choosing an extra-secure delivery method that would, for example, guarantee no one knew the recipient, since as far as she knows there is no evidence Qamar used to be a courtesan, and no reason to connect her to anything untoward, so it is unlikely that anyone will notice a birthday present as an unusual event. She presses the button and her red packet is broadcast to a passing bulk hauler, which will leave in three days for Altai. From Altai there is likely to be a bulk hauler convoy every day, and so her message will arrive in Kua within five days. From the portal station at Kua it will be broadcast to Coriolis, where – provided Qamar has not changed his number – the communications system will ensure it reaches her delicious former entertainment.

The message arrives in time, but Delecta has set it to arrive only on the occasion of Qamar’s birthday. Five days after the Cyclade and 10 days after she sent it, Delecta’s red packet arrives on Qamar’s tabula. By now Qamar has married, a nice dockworker, and the two of them live in a charming apartment near the Spring Market, Qamar’s husband unaware of his past as a courtesan to the rich and lazy students of the Academy. Of course Qamar lied to Delecta about his birthday (and his name, and how much he enjoyed her company …) but still he has had to set up a separate, private list of former clients, and remember to disable notifications on his tabula on this day, lest his new husband see a sudden cascade of red packets all arriving on the same morning. This year, just as last year, once his husband has departed for the docks, Qamar checks his messages and looks at the long list of red packets in his inbox. He opens Delecta’s, considering once again the possibility of blocking all of the former clients on his secret list. But then he sees the amount Delecta has sent him (he does not bother to read her sweet message), and decides that no, perhaps he will think about blocking them next year …

Dr Wana finds an artifact

Dr Wana, famous architect whose reputation is known across the Third Horizon (at least among people who matter) has been working a dig in Ghodar for 3 months, and on a harsh and stormy morning in the Merchant she and her team of students uncover a haul of Portal Builder remains. It is unfortunate that Al Hama does not survive the discovery, but archaeology is an exacting science which occasionally demands its sacrifices, and let us be frank – better it were Al Hama, untrained and undisciplined, than Wana herself. After the initial excitement and tears (not Wana’s) have passed, she prepares to send a message to her funders on Zamusa. This is a slightly complex situation, because her funders would prefer their identity were not known to passersby – indeed Wana herself is uncertain as to who they really are – and she needs to find a way to get this information to them that does not link them in any way to her.

Unfortunately information brokers are not common on Ghodar, out here near the edge of the Third Horizon. Indeed out here even bulk haulers are infrequent. She speaks to her data djinn and organizes a message with wicked encryption, to be sent wrapped in a triggering condition. Three days later a bulk hauler passes through and receives the packet, taking it on to Dzibann, where it waits for four days before being broadcast to a fast merchant heading inward. Unfortunately the portal at Dzibann is unstable and the ship is cast out again after two days; it then rests for three days before trying again, so the message reaches Errai after 12 days. At Errai the message is broadcast across the system, where it is picked up by a data broker and the triggering condition is read. Here the broker discovers that she will be paid 1500 birr to ensure that the message contained within is sent to a specific person in Aiwaz. This is easy profit, since Errai has regular bulk haulers and she knows in particular one she trusts; she sends it on two days later for a small fee and pockets the huge profits, sitting back on her cushions in her small apartment to applaud the stupidity of scientists (if only she knew what Wana had found!) The message is transmitted to Kua, where it is broadcast directly to the contact person Wana had nominated. This person, a shady data broker by the name of Oleagi, reads further instructions, repackages the message in a data probe, and sends it on; he takes his payment directly from Wana’s prodigious array of grants at the Academy. The data probe speeds to the bulk hauler Aurora 3, which picks it up and carries it as far as Awadhi through two portals over three weeks. At Awadhi the data probe is released, broadcasting its message to the portal station. From here the message is broadcast again to passing bulk haulers, and arrives at Zamusa 5 days later. It took a total of 40 days to cross the Horizon from Ghodar to Zamusa, and delivers very pleasing news to Wana’s funders. In the process it has been through multiple changes of sender, including a physical transfer of information, and it is highly unlikely that anyone will learn who sent the message unless they either hack the message, or intercept the data probe – which would require attacking the bulk hauler that carried it. Wana is certain the secret of her Portal Builder artifact is safe for now.

Conclusion

My preference is to have interstellar campaigns be a little like colonial era exploration, with information passing at the same speed that people do. This is a crucial component to keeping the PCs ahead of the law, and it is also a really useful tool for making the frontiers lawless and dangerous. If information takes weeks to travel the PCs can get up to mischief and move on, and by the time they return to somewhere that knows of their crimes their crimes are already old news; the same applies to their enemies. It also lends rumour, stories and gossip a stronger value, and forces the PCs to sleuth around. In such a setting information gets fragmented, and important facts go missing. In a system where probes pass hourly through portals and broadcast information automatically, information spreads at the speed of a fax machine, which is too fast to allow the PCs to stay ahead of the law and ahead of their enemies – and too fast to allow the rims of the system to fragment and break away from the center. This is why I have decided to change the rules for communication in the Third Horizon, and to make it more wild west. In this communication system the PCs will think they’re so far ahead of their enemies – and won’t know when they’re being chased. And that’s exactly how I like it.