Infernal adventures


Our heroes have rescued three women from an uprising on the Chagos Islands, and now stand atop a small hill in the lazy afternoon heat, looking around at a field of dead Islanders as they ask the three ladies about the events that led to the uprising. As they might perhaps have expected, the entire uprising was triggered by Alan Marshall, the man they had been sent to the archipelago to find. Spurned by one of the ladies at tea, he had raged down to the hovels where the islanders dwell and tried to assert his overseers’ privilege over one of the local women, but this time his advances were not only rebuffed, but violently put down. He now hung from a tree a short distance from his own house, stripped to his smalls and flayed to the waist. The ladies led the PCs down to the tree, and from that hideous splayed corpse along a small path to the overseers house. This wood cabin held a prized view over the atoll, with cool sea breezes to ease the afternoon heat and a small garden of island flowers that had been tended by an old native lady until the uprising. The islanders had left Marshall’s house untouched, perhaps seeing no point in burning it down when its owner was not alive to see the conflagration, so the PCs entered the cabin to search for evidence of their erstwhile contact’s history.

In the house they found a small box holding 6 silver bullets, a stock of gin, and a collection of letters and documents that they hastily gathered together. Satisfied they had all they could get, they retreated hastily to the ravaged docks, deciding against taking on the bulk of the island population. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor, and sometimes bad men get what is coming to them. They took the skiff back to the Nostromo, and instructed their captain to make haste out of the bay before the natives returned to the port and decided to deploy the remaining cannon in their direction. At sea they dug through the notes, and were able to learn a depressing fact about Alan Marshall: he was a fraud. He had never been to Rugby school, and all his credentials had been faked in the service of winning a colonial commission. No doubt after a few years of leadership on the Chagos Islands he aimed to step up to a more prestigious post, and make that all-too-common jump from petty bourgeois ne’er do well to colonial boss. His faked letters of introduction and claims to Rugby education had been sufficient to impress some functionary in the Colonial Office and get him on the first step of the ladder of opportunity that the exploitation of colonial properties offer; but his appetites showed him to be manifestly unsuited to the job, and had been his downfall. Now he had perhaps lost the Chagos Islands for the British crown: now that the natives were free they would no doubt strengthen their defenses, and if they had a second wizard capable of conjuring, perhaps they would raise some monster of the deep to defend their new realm. Whatever, it was of no matter to the group: they sailed on to Mumbai.

The Mumbai docks

They arrived in Mumbai five days later, drifting at midday into the busy and hectic ports of the city. In 1857 Mumbai was not the great city it would later be, but under rate pressure of Her Majesty’s continued colonial investment of the sub-continent it was continually developing. Their ship sailed in past a motley collection of Dhows and local freighters to the end of the docks where the foreign ships rested, and immediately their attention was caught by two strange newcomers. At the end of the docks a British corvette floated in the air, tethered to an old cannon tower in place of its usual pylon. This ship would usually be seen floating above a British military corps, giving the Imperial army military superiority over all but the most well-armed of opponents. But here it hung alone in the dusty Mumbai air, bereft of its ground forces, repainted with bizarre markings and flying the flag of a foreign nation. Nearby a large ocean-going ship floated, built of bundles of reeds lashed together around beams of rich dark wood. Two long, narrow canoes hung on divots from this ship’s raised stern, and a hard-faced warrior stood at the gangplank, stock still and carrying a two-handed club. This ship was not of any design they had seen before, and though as large as a galleon it came from no European tradition. Truly, Mumbai was another world.

They docked smoothly and found an agent of the East India Company waiting for them. On his advice they took accommodation at a guesthouse slightly inland and uphill from the docks, and accompanied by a small group of porters they passed through the bustling dock and up the hill to the guesthouse. The three ladies they had rescued, for want of better things to do, accompanied them and offered to help them in their endeavors in Mumbai. “It’s the least we can do for you fine fellows after your valiant efforts to save us from those brutes!” They would go about town gathering information – who would suspect a newly-arrived British lady of being an agent of the crown?

Once their things were settled in they decided on their afternoon’s investigation. First they would go to the docks to find out about the two mysterious ships, because they all had a feeling that their presence was not a coincidence. Then they would go to Mr. Bond’s house and find out what he had been up to, and who his cream-breasted, kohl-eyed temptation had been.

The Gurmukh

The interlopers

They approached the floating ship first, the corvette that had once been a British military unit. It hung above a cluster of men and animals, porters busily loading and unloading equipment from a mid-sized skiff that hung just off the ground, swaying slightly in the heat. As they approached one of the men broke away and strode over to them, clasping his hands and calling to them in greeting. He wore a long golden robe, had his hair tied up in a perfectly-pointed red turban, and wore a wicked-looking ornate dagger at his hip. He was tall, broad-shouldered, scarred but genial-looking. He greeted them warmly and introduced himself. “Akashpreet Singh, captain of the Gurmukh, valiant warship of the Punjab navy!”

They introduced themselves, and with a short conversation learnt that indeed this ship had been a corvette of the British Navy, the HMFS Eagle, which had been captured some months ago in battle with the kingdom of Punjab, and now saw service in the honor of the Sikh people. Akashpreet was not a free-booter, but a soldier in the service of the noble military of the Punjab. He had traveled to Mumbai some two weeks ago, on a mission to recover a stolen artifact of value to his people. On that topic he would say no more, but he did take the time to assure them that he was not at all concerned by the possibility that the resident British soldiers might take offense at his ship and try to recapture it. “They can take offense all they like!” He declaimed. “But they’ll not try to take it if they value their pale hides!”

Intrigued but satisfied, they moved on down the docks to the strange reed galleon. As they approached they gained a closer look at the soldier guarding the vessel. His skin was not the color of Indian locals, paler but not white, and his face was covered in complex whorls of tattoos. He watched them warily as they approached, standing calm and readying with his spear by his side. As they came near they heard a strong voice from the ship itself, raised in greeting. “Hoi, greetings Pakeha! You stare as if you have never seen a ship before!” A tall, solid-looking middle-aged woman came marching down the gang plank, dressed in simple sailor’s clothes and walking with an assured swagger. She strode past her guard with a nod and introduced herself to the staring group. “Manawa, captain of the Manawapou, at your service.” They clasped hands and she explained that she came from the distant land of Aotearoa, which their nations might have introduced to them as New Zealand. Her ship was one of 14 galleons of the Aotearoa navy. They talked a little, and she offered to host them in for dinner. Over dinner she revealed that she was in Mumbai chasing a stolen artifact, which she had planned to send her warriors to recover as soon as she arrived. Unfortunately an old adversary of hers, a man called Harry Flashman, was in town and had stumbled upon her in the markets. She had reason to believe that he was in cahoots with the rich white man who had stolen her artifact – or, more particularly, as was his wont, that he was in cahoots with the white man’s daughter – and had likely told the thief about Manawa’s presence. She was thus waiting in port for a chance to strike, but had not yet devised a plan. The old man she was pursuing was known as the Collector, and had taken a priceless feathered cape of her tribe, which would render the wearer invulnerable to almost any form of damage. The only weapon that could be guaranteed to pierce its blessing was silver, and it was a potent cloak for war.

Manawa also told them a little of her ship. The Aotearoa fleet had been built recently when the first of the Queen’s vessels had sailed into Maori waters, and they had realized they needed to compete with these newcomers. The elders had enacted a ritual, sacrificing 7 white sailors to the tribes’ ancestors in order to draw forth from their distant past the lost maritime secrets by which the people had reached Aotearoa over the oceans some 10 centuries earlier. They had built 14 ships on the basis of that knowledge, and when each ship was commissioned it was blessed with the flayed skin of one of the sailors they had sacrificed to learn the ancient lore. She took them below to her hold and showed them the shrine that lay at the heart of the ship; on one wall was the flayed skin of a white sailor, just his back half, with strange sigils and symbols tattooed over it in disconcerting patterns. She explained to them that the front half – and the face – were hung on another ship in the fleet, and that each of the ships carried one such terrible charm in the hold, to protect it from inclement weather and keep it sailing strong and true over even the most treacherous of waters. This ship and her sisters would serve to protect Aotearoa from the incursions of the white man, which had wreaked such terrible havoc in neighboring Australia, where the land was ravaged by war and the stalking spirits of the native clans’ ancient demons. But while the other ships patrolled the waters of her homeland, Manawa was here, trying to find a way to recover her tribe’s stolen cloak.

They thanked her and asked her what boon she might give if they were to return the cloak, since they somehow suspected that the Collector was entangled with Bond’s disappearance. Satisfied that they had met someone they might be able to turn to for help if they could return that cloak, they bade their farewells and returned to their residence.

Bond’s lodgings

They found Bond’s lodgings easily enough from a local grog smuggler, and visited in the morning. They learnt from the smuggler that the woman they had been supposed to think was his deceiver had disappeared, and he himself had not been seen for several weeks. His house was a small townhouse a little distance removed from the bustle of the port, in a leafy and wealthy neighborhood criss-crossed by small canals lined with fragrant bushes. They pushed their way through the gate and into the garden, approaching the house with a little caution. William Oxbridge crept ahead, carefully checking for enemies, but finding none called the group forward. They entered the house, and began their search.

The house had been turned upside down by intruders, but not in a search for secrets or money; there had been a battle, and it had been titanic. A single corpse lay against one wall, rotten and disgusting and long dead. It was one of the same kind of assassin that had waylaid them in Muscat, and it had fared worse than those who attacked the PCs. There was a knife stuck in its ribs, and its head had been blown apart by a pistol placed right under its jaws, the bloody remains now dried in a huge fountain of crusted brown all over the room’s delicate wallpaper. There was blood scattered liberally across other parts of the room too, and signs that the battle had been vicious and extended. Ultimately though it appeared that Bond had been beaten and captured, and dragged out of the house. Nothing else had been taken, though a lot of material had been disturbed. In particular they found notes scattered around his desk, and a map that had been torn down in the battle but was still largely intact.

It appeared their employer in Muscat had been wrong. Mr. Bond had not gone native, but had been kidnapped by the same people who attacked them in Muscat. Presumably whatever information he carried had been of great value, and they planned to get it from him, and whatever plot they had hatched stretched as far as Muscat. Given that they had been told Mr. Bond was magically bound to be unable to reveal any information under torture, it seemed likely that though he had been taken three weeks ago, it was still possible that he could be alive, and they could rescue him and perhaps help find out what plot was being run here.

For the rescuing they turned to the notes and the map. The notes were not clear, but suggested some plan to unleash communal violence between the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities, though no details were written down. The map was a map of the entire northern region of the sub-continent, with 11 sites marked with simple red crosses, and one site marked with a big red tick in a circle. They guessed that whatever the site was, that was the place of interest, and perhaps that was where he had been taken. But they could not be sure – they needed a local guide. They decided to take the map to Akashpreet of the GUrmukh, and see what he knew of the locations marked on it.

Akashpreet was happy to see them and invited them onto his ship, taking them on a tour of its defenses and carefully avoiding showing them the central room where its strange infernal magic kept it afloat – rumour has it that the workings of a corvette are based on magic that requires child sacrifice, and can be unsettling for the uninitiated when they see it. He then took them to his navigation room, called the navigator, and examined their map. The navigator told them that the 11 crosses likely marked sites of religious significance to the Muslim population of the region, and the ticked place was a fort in Rajasthan, infamous as a centre of Hindu resistance to the white invaders.

No doubt then – that was where he had been taken. He must have uncovered some nefarious plot and had been planning to do something at the base where that plot was conceived, the fort in Rajasthan, when he was betrayed and attacked. Presumably now he was held in that same fort, being tortured for whatever information he held. They must rescue him!

But how to get there? Would Akashpreet fly them there in his corvette? Sadly he could not, because he had come to Mumbai to recover a stolen artifact, a diamond called the Koh-i-Noor that was of great significance to his people. It had been stolen by a man called the Collector, and Akashpreet had been planning to liberate it from the collector and could not leave town until he had it. Unfortunately an old adversary of his, one Harry Flashman, had seen him in town, and the cad had no doubt informed the Collector, whose wife he was likely secretly tupping. Now AKashpreet could not mount a raid on the Collector’s home, but could not leave Mumbai until he had the diamond. He would help if he could, but …

So it was decided. The PCs would raid the collector’s home and recover the diamond (and Manawa’s cloak). Akashpreet would then fly them to the fort in Rajasthan, to rescue Bond and find out what plot was in train. Their mission was set! They thanked the Sikh captain for his help, descended from his stolen sky ship, and prepared for battle.

I have a few friends from my old Compromise and Conceit campaign visiting Japan for a few weeks so I am running a three session revival of my compromise and conceit world, this time set in 1857 just after the Anglo-Persian war and the creation of Afghanistan from the rump of the Persian Empire. The PCs are a group of agents returning from active service on behalf of the crown in the Anglo-Persian war, and the adventure starts in the city of Muscat. The PCs are:

  • Duke Markus, an Austrian Hermetic wizard specializing in fireballs and arrogant nobility
  • William Oxford III, a ruffian from London with a dubious past as a resurrectionist
  • Fergus, a Scottish fusilier with bagpipes that can strike terror into the hearts of men and monsters, and a huge claymore
  • Talita Tumani, a Lakota warrior traveling the world to export the Red Empire’s special brand of democracy
  • Abdul Hassan, a Hashashin exiled from the court of the Persian Empire and on a vengeance spree

The system is based on Coriolis, but with a corruption mechanic that I first trialed in my short neolithic campaign and have modified following the excellent stress mechanism introduced by Fria Ligan in the new Alien RPG[1].

Henry’s Hamam

The PCs have gathered at Henry’s Hamam, a complex of massage parlours, saunas and tea houses near the port of Muscat, and the only Hamam in the entire peninsula run by a British man. At this time in history the Sultanate of Oman had just broken into two parts in a disagreement over Zanzibar, but the Sultanate of Oman remained a powerful naval force in the Indian Ocean and the British were their honoured guests and allies, rather than a colonial power. With the secession of the southern portion of the Sultanate, however, brokered by the British, and with debts mounting, Oman’s attitude towards the British had turned from one of trusting equals to resentful junior power, and British potentates in the region were viewed with both awe and contempt. Henry’s Haman was thus an oasis of calm British rectitude, where only the most wealthy and trusted Arab locals were allowed, and where British officials often conducted underhand affairs of state.

So it was that the PCs found themselves in a large drawing room, seated on sofas around a table set with sweets and teas, as the local agent of Her Majesty, Sir Ian Markels, swaggered drunkenly in to do business with them. At 3 in the afternoon he was already tipsy, and dragged a bottle of gin from a countertop as soon as he entered the room. He wasted no time in telling them their task, crashing rumpled and slovenly onto a wicker chair and informing that “One of our spies in Mumbai has gone native!”

Their job, it appeared, was to get this spy back. Sir Markels told them that the spy was bound by magic not to spill secrets if he was tortured, but no such authority prevented him from telling someone voluntarily if he switched sides – and Sir Markels suspected he had fallen for “some creamy-breasted, kohl-eyed wonder of the Orient, all scented and soft-skinned glory”. In between his reverie at the thought of the spy spending lazy Indian afternoons in this imagined sylph’s boudouir, Sir Markels let them know that this spy possessed important information that they were worried he might spill, and they needed him back. They also needed to know who he had told any information to – and those people needed to be “dealt with, whether man, woman or child!” A spark lit up in his eye at the thought of slaughtering the colonials, his warm feelings for his imagined creamy-breasted paramour extinguished in a rush of typical British bloodlust.

Going native, it appeared, was a common problem on the sub-continent, due, Sir Markels informed them, to “a surfeit of heat and creamy-breasted women, and a decided insufficiency of suitable gins!” It constantly threatened harm to the interests of Her Majesty’s Empire, and Something Needed to Be Done. To this end, they were to travel to Mumbai forthwith on the spindrift clipper the Nostromo, find this spy and bring him back. First, however, they were to travel to the Chagos Islands to collect a man called Alan Marshall, who is said to have studied in the same year as the spy at Rugby School, and also to be an expert on Mumbai. As sometime classmates with shared interests, it was likely that this Mr. Marshall – currently working as overseer of the mining works on Chagos – would be able to help them find their spy and convince him to come back. Were they and Mr. Marshall to prove unable to bring the spy back, they were to ensure his secrets were buried, and all people who knew them buried with them.

The spy’s name was Bond. Mark Bond. He was a known womanizer, philanderer and alcoholic, with a fondness for these newfangled mixed spirits, which he drank on ice, stirred and not shaken. He was rumoured to have Scottish heritage, which might explain the ease with which he turned on the empire, and though once a dangerous agent had no doubt gone to seed living the soft life of the Indian colonies. “Those Hindis,” Sir Markels informed them in his increasingly drunken drawl, “ain’t savage heroes like your Redskins – no offence, young lady – nor are they fanatical lunatics like their Mohammedan neighbours – no offence to you either, my good man – and are in fact weak, with little magic to speak of and more interest in bickering amongst themselves and praying to their million fantastical gods than fighting back against our superior race!” With this dissertation on the ills of an entire continent Sir Markels staggered to his feet, told them to be at the Nostromo at dawn, and weaved out of the room, still clutching his bottle of half-finished gin.

As they were talking, some of the group had noticed a curious shift in manner among the servants of the Hamam. Their room was graced with two muscly local men in breeches, whose job was to pump two large ceiling fans that kept the room cool. Soon after Markels entered, a sleazy looking young Arab had slipped in and whispered something to one of these fan-wallahs, who had ducked out a moment later and been replaced by a much less proficient fan-wallah, who seemed much more interested in their conversation than in his half-hearted flailings at the fan. Once Markels left this man left too, replaced by the earlier, much more expert fan-wallah. Something seemed suspicious, so they decided to set out immediately before whatever plot was enacted. Once they reached the outer door of the Hamam they noticed that sleazy chap sidling around the walls, and decided to lay a small trap. Two of the group returned to their apartments to begin preparations for departure, but Abdul, Fergus and William lingered behind. Fergus stayed in the Hamam and left a little late, while Abdul hid behind some spice baskets on the far side of the road outside the Hamam, and William lounged against a wall near the entrance, yelling at the servants that they had been skimping on gin.

Fergus soon saw someone slipping over the outer wall of the Hamam, and set off to follow them. At the same time someone crept up on Abdul and tried to stab him from behind, and battle was joined. Their assailants were armed with poisoned weapons and had supernatural powers of leaping and acrobatics, but eventually they managed to kill both of them, though they weren’t able to keep either alive to talk to. Both wore lose assassin’s outfits, had dreadlocks and a strange pattern of white marks on their chest, a kind of dust that may have been powdered onto their chests in some ritual. They also carried kris, wave-bladed daggers, and poisoned darts.

None the wiser as to who was after them, the PCs dumped the bodies and returned to their apartments. They decided to move to their ship immediately, since their mission appeared to be known about after Markels’s poor choice of venue to hire them. On their journey to the ship they were attacked by six more of the assassins, in a vicious rooftop ambush that would have been their end if they had not noticed it before it started. Two of their assailants fled under the influence of Fergus’s bagpipe music but the rest were cut down in a vicious battle in the darkened alleys near the port. They retreated to the ship, battened down the hatches and waited to depart.

The Chagos Islands

Their journey to the Chagos islands was uneventful, with their spindrift clipper skipping fast and light over calm and clear seas until a week later it arrived at the northern tip of the main island of the archipelago. Here, as they approached Eclipse Point and prepared to enter the inlet to the coral atoll where the British base was located, they saw smoke rising in ominous spires from the island. Their ship skipped over the rough seas at the edge of the atoll and rounded the point towards the British port, and their worst fears were confirmed as it hoved into view – it had been destroyed, with only smouldering ruins left along the seafront. A single small sailing ship floundered in the port, and a skiff had been wrecked on the shore. One of the port’s two cannon had been destroyed, and the other – at the opposite end of the seafront – pointed inland towards the port itself and not out to sea. It looked as if there had been a rebellion, and the island had been thrown into chaos.

As they approached the port they saw a worrying harbinger of their coming troubles. On the beach lay a huge, severed crab pincer, a pincer large enough to crush a man and probably blown off of a crab so large that it would be the size of the wrecked skiff on the shore. Such a beast was clearly not natural – someone had summoned that from the angry deeps, and unleashed its wrath on the people of the island. There was trouble here, and the Nostromo‘s captain refused to sail his ship closer to shore. Until they cleaned up the crab and found out what dangers lurked in this tropical idyll, they would only be allowed to use the ship’s rowboat. They tried arguing but he would not budge, and so finally they all decamped onto the rowboat and pushed hastily for the shore.

Their captain had been right in his suspicions. No sooner had they set foot on the shore than a huge crab emerged from the water and charged towards them, obviously intending to tear them apart on the orders of its summoner. The thing scuttled towards them on hideous legs so large that they could hear them drumming on the sand, and clicked and clacked its pincers with flesh-rending intent. Fergus and Abdul ran up the beach toward the distant cannon, hoping to turn it around and bring it to bear on the beast, while the rest of the party prepared for battle. They need not have bothered, however: William Oxford III took a careful bead with his pistol, fired once, and struck the crab right between its eyestalks, blowing its tiny brain apart with a single well-placed shot. It skidded and crashed to a shuddering halt in the sand, dead[2].

They began to explore the town, looking for survivors, and soon were alerted to action up the hill, in the thick woods of Eclipse point. They heard a rifle shot, and the unmistakable sound of a British woman in distress, as she yelled “Not on your breeches, you fiend!”

They dropped everything and charged up the hill into the trees beyond the burning port, sprinting uphill until they burst into a small clearing and tumbled to a halt. Here they found a squad of rough and ugly native men, wearing just breeches and carrying bows, crouched down and facing an old ruined British fort that stood atop a rocky outcrop facing the sea. They could hear the distant boom of surf far below and beyond the fort, a tumultuous backdrop to the clarion voice of a woman hidden among the rocks of the ruin, as she yelled, “I’ll never accede to your demands, you murderous thug!” and fired another wild shot down the hill.

As they burst into the clearing all the men turned to look at them, murder in their eyes, and battle was joined. The battle was short and ended poorly for the islanders, as the PCs shot down the islander leader – their wizard – in a blaze of missile fire, and Fergus used his evil bagpipes to drive the men away from battle. They soon mopped up the rest with fireballs, claymore and axe, and soon the clearing was silent but for the panting of their pugilist.

They called the lady down, and when she heard European voices she emerged in a rush, accompanied by two other women, carrying rifles and dressed in sweaty, soot-stained traveling gear. They introduced themselves as Elizabeth Bennett, Nancy Drew and Oddeia Landry, young women traveling to India who had been driven off their course by a storm and forced to take shelter here. Unfortunately just days after they took shelter the island’s natives – “sore hard done-by folk, if the story must be told” according to bleeding heart Miss Drew – rose up against their overseer and wreaked havoc on the island. Abandoned by their menfolk, the three ladies had shown good British grit, stolen some rifles and fled to the fort. It transpired that Nancy Drew had been a dab hand at shooting and horse riding as a youngster, miss Bennett had spent long hours on tedious hunting parties with her rich first husband, and Oddeia’s father was a well-decorated hero of Afghanistan, so they had been able to muster a spirited defense for a few days while they tried to find a way to safety.

Sadly, however, the island’s overseer – Alan Marshall – was dead. Flayed, in fact, and hanged alive from a tree just down the hillside. He would not be going to India with the party. But the three ladies were on a mission to find husbands in the colonies, and would their valiant rescuers happen to be heading to Mumbai?

They sighed, helped the ladies down the hill and stood at the edge of the clearing, staring at the smouldering wreckage of the first stage of their mission. They could only hope things would improve when they reached Mumbai …


fn1: I have the quickstart pdf for this and it does look legendary. The stress mechanic seems perfectly poised for space horror role-playing, but I’m not convinced it works so well when translated to corruption for Compromise and Conceit. But who cares, for a three session adventure?

fn2: A 65 on the critical table, instant death.

picture credit: The first picture is a watercolour by David Bellamy, taken from his website. The second is out of copyright, and I took it from the National Gallery of Australia.

Our heroes have dug deep into an ancient cave and recovered some artifacts, but the Teranganu Valley still holds secrets, in particular the mysterious towers that stood beyond the plateau where they found the Sentinel. Local rumour suggested that the tower was haunted with some hideous beasts from the Dark Between the Stars, but the party had two mystics, and a set of Spirit Lenses that enabled them to see the incorporeal and evil spirits they most feared. One of their number, Al Hamra, had the power to render darkmorphs solid, making them vulnerable to physical attack[1]. With such powers they believed they could hope to dig further into the secrets of the valley before their rival Dr. Wana used her unorthodox methods to uncover them; and so they decided to explore the towers.

The roster for today’s mission:

  • Gunner Adam (Soldier)
  • Captain Al Hamra (Mystic)
  • Engineer Reiko Ando (Deckhand)
  • Pilot Saqr Geroushi (Pilot)
  • Sensor Operator Siladan Hatshepsut (Archaeologist)
  • Doctor Bana Delecta (Medicurg)

They flew by grav bike to the towers and first circled them looking for signs of danger, but found none. There were three towers rising from a shared base, perhaps 40m high and 60m across, so not very large and barely tall enough to rise above the thick jungle. The towers were built of pale stone, covered in moss and creepers, mostly intact but with occasional breeches where parts of the walls had crumbled under the pressure of time. The tower rose just above the jungle crown, but near its base the trees appeared strangely stunted and twisted, as if some poison or foul influence corrupted the forest in the immediate vicinity of the towers. The PCs set their grav bikes down in the shadows of the towers and searched the base for an entrance.

There was none. There was no way into the towers at their base, nor was there any visible way in higher up. The towers appeared to have been designed with no entrance of any kind. They returned to the grav bikes and scouted higher up, until right at the top they found two small arches that would allow them admission to the tower. They parked their grav bikes on the roof and entered the main tower.

darkbound

They descended stairs to an empty room, lit by streaks of sunlight falling through breaks in the wall, finding nothing of any note. A set of stairs in one corner led them down into a larger room, in the centre of which they could see a body. They moved into the room to investigate the body, but before they could something pale and vicious came running out of the shadows and attacked Adam. It was a strange, shriveled wretch of a man but it moved incredibly fast and struck him with lightning speed, stabbing at him with vicious claws that were not human in any way. It grabbed him by the arm and tried to bite him with a sunken mouth lined with broken teeth, surrounding him with the stench of death and decay. The entire group felt a strange heavy feeling of dread fall over them, very much like the feeling they had experienced when they activated the cube of terror – but now there was no sunlight, and this strange non-human man trying to kill them. They attacked it, but before they could kill it it suddenly disappeared.

The room fell silent, and after a moment to collect their thoughts they returned to exploring the body. Adam, too callous to be shaken, retired to the stairs and took an overwatch position over the room as his colleagues approached the body. So it was that he was ready when three of the strange human creatures appeared from nowhere and attacked the group. They had almost complete surprise, but he was able to shoot one in the head, knocking it away from Al Hamra and sparing him from the first strike. The other two appeared behind Saqr and Dr. Delecta, tearing huge wounds in their limbs and striking them down to the ground. They lay on the ground dying as the rest of the group battled the three beasts, driving them away and then killing them after a few seconds of brutal battle. As the last one died Al Hamra used his mystic powers to dive into the strange beast’s mind, and after moments of horrific encounter with the Dark Between the Stars he was able to learn that these creatures were Darkbound: once humans, bound for two long to a djinn or some other Darkmorph, they had lost their souls and become a kind of ghoul devoted to destroying the living. He also learned that there were only three in the whole building – they had cleared the tower.

Adam rushed to Dr. Delecta and bound her wounds, and then helped Saqr to recover. The two of them lay in the slick of their own blood, stunned by the savagery of the attack. While they recovered the rest of the group searched the body, finding an ancient and beautiful thermal pistol, light armour, and a book called “Arvan’s Exomorphs”. It was a man, probably an explorer of some kind, and judging by the age of his weapons and armour he had died at least 200 years ago. He carried nothing that could tell them about the nature of the tower.

They found nothing else in the room, so proceeded down to the base of the tower, confident now that it had been cleared. The base was empty, and from inside they confirmed that there really were no entrances – it was not just that they had been blocked up from within, but there really were none. The only entrance was on the very top – why had this tower even been built?

In a small annex to the main tower they found a domed room in which the dead explorer had set up his camp. They found a tent, a computer with a library database, various weapons and tools, and some ruined food. It seemed obvious that he had camped here and explored the rest of the building from this base – but how had he entered the tower? And how had he known about it?

On the far side of the main tower they found another small secondary tower, that rose thin and empty to the same height as the main tower. They climbed it wearily, not expecting to find anything, but at the top level they found a narrow set of stairs leading into a large domed room. Adam and Al Hamra entered first, the others waiting downstairs to see if it was safe. In the room they found a horrendous structure of chains and cogs made of bone, with dessicated human bodies hanging in strange arrangements amongst the chains. There were perhaps 20 bodies, some pinned to the walls and others hanging in horrific corpse carousels in the middle of the room. Using the spirit lenses Al Hamra was able to see that there were flows of strange dark energy running through the chains of the structure, pooling in the bodies as if they were capacitors and flooding onward towards the centre. Something somehow had broken the structure, however, and the flow of energy built up near the centre and then dissipated, leaking out of the building instead of accumulating in the centre where it could form a source of evil power for some dark machine. They had discovered a Cadaver Clock, a strange source of dark energy that could fuel mystic powers. This Cadaver was long since broken, interfered with by some mortal power. Had the dead explorer broken it? And what had it powered? Perhaps its dark power had sustained the Darkbound creatures that had attacked them, starving and shriveled ancient servants of some greater power? Or perhaps whatever power had enslaved those beasts had fed on the energy from this machine, and had long since faded away after the Cadaver Clock broke?

They did not stay to investigate. Horrified by the strange silent machinery of death, they withdrew slowly down the stairs. Swallowing his disgust, Al Hamra told the rest of the party that the room was empty, and they slowly made their way back down the tower and up the main tower towards the grav bikes. No one else realized that there was a horror in the top chamber of the building, and no one noticed his pale, shaking terror. They retreated to the bikes, and if Al Hamra was a little too eager to put the planet behind them – perhaps a little too full of disgust at the shadows in the jungle – no one paid it any mind. They returned to the shuttle, none the richer for their incursion into the towers, and left Teranganu Valley behind them.

As the shuttle streaked away from the surface into orbit, Al Hamra pressed his face against the glass panes of the passenger bay, and wondered: had he left behind some great and secret route to power? Had he swung those bodies just so, could he have absorbed all that dark energy? What great secrets, what dark powers had he left behind?

What dark god could a Mystic become?


fn1: We have started to come up with new and interesting mystic powers to supplement those in the book.

One war took, led to his death.
One a bird lifted over the high sea.
One the hoary wolf broke with death.
One, bloody-cheeked, a warrior hid in a hole in the ground.
Likewise God destroyed this earthly dwelling
Until the strongholds of the giants stood empty,
Without the sounds of joy of the city-dwellers.

Our heroes have made camp on the beach of the Teranganu Lake, and fought off an insidious attack by Djanna from the marshes. The following morning they left Al Hamra, Dr. Delecta and Oliver Greenstar to recover from their wounds and protect the camp, and prepared for their first full day of exploring the Teranganu area.

The cast for this session:

  • Gunner Adam (Soldier)
  • Engineer Reiko Ando (Deckhand)
  • Pilot Saqr Geroushi (Pilot)
  • Sensor Operator Siladan Hatshepsut (Archaeologist)

Their initial plan had been to help the Sogoi people to repel the dig site near the river that was upsetting the ancient spirits of the valley, and to this end they had given the Sogoi leaders two vulcan pistols and suggested they would return the next day with a plan. But as the day dawned bright and suffocatingly hot they decided against this course. Although they very much wanted to disrupt their nemesis Dr. Wana’s work, they did not know how powerful she was or what the consequences of a direct attack on her work might be – if she learned it was they who did it, would she unleash violent reprisals on them in Coriolis or across systems? Their main goal in coming to the surface of Kua had been to investigate the dig site where the Statuette of Zhar Bagha had been found, and they knew where that site was, so they decided that they would avoid involving themselves in local disagreements, and avoid entanglements with their nemesis. They would go straight to the abandoned dig that their contact Lavin Tamm had led them to after they rescued him on Coriolis, and look for further artifacts.

The hollow rock

They had camped on the beach on the east side of the lake. Dr. Wana’s dig site was north of them, on the far side of the river, obscured by a thick bank of jungle, and the rock lay in more dense woodland on the opposite shore of the lake. From their camp they could see its moss-covered top looming above the trees, and just beyond it the tips of two crumbling stone towers that were rumoured to be infested with spirits from the Dark Between the Stars. From their camp to the rock was just a short trip on their grav bikes, and they set off early in the day to try and make the base of the rock before the sun was too high and the entire area became impossibly hot. They packed some archaeological equipment, weapons and armour, and flew across the lake on their grav bikes, landing at the southwestern tip of the rock within a few minutes. Here they found three cave mouths, perfectly cut and obviously not natural, which had been obscured by large trees that had now been burnt away. A short distance from the cave mouths was a large camp, obviously abandoned. They had found their site.

Investigation of the camp confirmed their suspicions. They found Lavin Tamm’s locker, and the lockers of another eight people who showed no signs of having returned to the camp after their ill-fated expedition. Foodstuffs were packed and eating utensils cleaned and stacked, a computer terminal in standby mode and beds made. They had clearly left their camp for a day’s work and simply never returned. There were no tabulae in the camp and no notes, so no way to find out what progress the archaeologists had made on the dig, or if they had any forewarning of whatever had overcome them. Siladan attempted to access their communications terminal to identify whether or not they had sent an emergency signal offsite, but unfortunately all he was able to do was trigger an emergency security warning that triggered an extra-orbital response squad. Checking the manual he identified that they had four hours until that orbital response arrived. He apologized profusely to his team but it was too late: now they had four hours to find out what had happened here and recover any artifacts left behind by the dead team.

They entered the rock. Here they found a network of perfectly smooth, perfectly formed tunnels that curved and wandered through the rock with no apparent purpose, intersecting and overlapping each other in spirals and whorls until finally one tunnel entered a large cavern, perhaps 50 m long and 20 m wide, that formed the single terminus of the entire strange system. Since there was no light in here and they had no night vision systems, the PCs did not bother sneaking in. They turned on their torches, and entered the cavern.

Found footage

They found the first body just near the entrance, collapsed against the cave wall with an accelerator pistol and a tabula lying on the ground nearby. The body was dessicated and pale, wearing the same uniform that they had seen Lavim Tamm trying to hide in his hotel room on Coriolis. The uniform was crusted with dried blood around its chest, from which a third arm had erupted, tearing the cloth of the overalls and rending flesh and bone apart in its eruption. They recoiled in horror at the sight of this strange monstrosity, everyone stepping back in disgust. After a moment to try and understand what they were seeing, Adam approached and carefully inspected the arm. It was not fully human, grey-skinned and vaguely scaly, with a contorted spine of some kind sticking out of its elbow and only three clawed fingers on the end of the limb. Although it had torn the victim’s chest apart when it emerged from the body, it was also clearly connected to and part of the body.

They looked at each other with growing unease. Something very bad had happened here, and it was something they could not understand. They turned their gaze – and their weapons – to face into the cavern, and continued their exploration.

The cavern had the same smooth, perfectly-made style as the hallways, but for six columns set in two parallel rows near each side of the cave. There were no other physical features. As they advanced they saw more bodies scattered around the room, and a collapsed tent of the kind used to cover archaeological digs set at the far end of the cavern. Although the far end of the chamber was dim in the light of their exo-suits it was clear that nothing else moved or lived in here. They inched forward.

The second body was lying against the first pillar they came to. It had dropped a vulcan carbine on the floor next to its right leg – or what was once its right leg. The overalls of this leg were torn and shredded, and the leg changed near the hip into a tight bundle of tentacles, now dead and dessicated. The dead worker had obviously been shooting his own leg, because they could see bullet wounds in the tentacles and his left, human leg. The tentacles had rough suckers lined with hooks, and it looked as if he had been strangled by at least one of them at some point, because his neck was marked with contusions and tears of the same shape. It was unclear if he had died from the self-inflicted gunshot wounds or the strangling. Again, it looked as if the tentacles had extruded from his leg as if naturally part of it, but had at the same time done massive damage to him. Adam checked the carbine, finding the magazine empty, Siladan labeled the man’s tabula, and they moved further into the room towards the tent.

The rest of the dig team had died around the tent. Two more appeared to have died of strange transformations: one, lying a little distance from the tent, had had her neck elongated like a rubber band so that her head flopped on the floor, and all the fingers on her hands stretched like they were made of rubber; the other had a hugely distended belly and neck, and appeared to have died of choking. One of the dead had been shot several times in the chest, and the remaining three had been slaughtered by some horrific beast. One near the tent appeared to have been stabbed from behind by a huge impaling weapon of some kind, leaving a huge hole in his chest and causing him to drop an accelerator pistol, a mysterious cube-shaped object, and a tabula. The other two lay a little distance from the tent towards the cavern entrance, where they had been torn into pieces by some huge force. Even a cursory check assured them that there were no survivors – the only person who had escaped the carnage was Lavim Tamm, and now they understood exactly why he had been so traumatized when they found him on Coriolis.

They searched the collapsed tent. It had covered the dig site, which was a Firstcome-era frieze on one part of the rear wall of the cavern. The dig team had obviously been picking this frieze away, destroying it as they did so, and although only partially complete they had found an alcove that looked like it might have held some object. On the floor near the alcove was an artifact case, a kind of suitcase that fills with a special gel-like material that protects fragile objects from damage regardless of their shape. Just outside the tent a camera drone lay on the ground, a small red light indicating it was in power save mode. They had filmed their dig.

They decided that discretion was the better part of valour. They collected the camera drone, all the tabulae, the artifact case and the strange cube, and headed out as quickly as they could. Once outside they rushed back to their camp, plugged in the drone, and watched the last few minutes of the archaeology team’s life.

The team had been digging as normal when suddenly the two men inside the tent had started arguing, and one of them had rushed out of the tent, yelling back at his colleague in the tent and then vomiting just outside the tent. His colleague came out and also began vomiting, while the men outside the tent began to look around uneasily and warn each other that they felt strange. One of them asked if something was coming, and they began to act terrified and confused. After perhaps a minute of this growing uneasiness one of the men drew a pistol, pointing it at another team member and yelling “You can’t stop me! I will not fail!” before he shot him three times. The other members of the team began to panic, one yelling “Sarcofagoi!” before they all began to run away from the camera. As they began to move a dark, unidentifiable shape emerged from nowhere and stabbed a massive spike through the chest of the shooter, making him jerk up into the air and throw his gun and tabula to the ground, along with a cube that fell out of his coat. Moments later a nearby woman, backing away in horror, suddenly shivered and twitched and then died as her neck stretched impossibly long and her fingers twisted and stretched. People screamed more and ran, the dark shape dropping its victim and chasing two of them. In the distance they could hear gunshots, and the dark shape disappeared from view as it pursued its victims. Moments later the team fell silent, and the scene became still, the only sound the slow gurgling chokes of someone just out of view of the camera, dying as his own neck swelled up and cut off his breathing. The dark shape did not return.

They replayed the video, but this time focusing on the man who had fired the gun. It appeared that before the horror began he was fiddling with something in his coat, probably the cube, and about 10 minutes before that he was sending and receiving messages on his tabula. He had obviously done something, summoned something or unleashed some monster from within the cube. They needed to know. With a heavy heart, they set about examining his blood-stained belongings.

Things of stone and wood

Siladan investigated the cube. It was not large, perhaps 5cm on each side, and was made of wood inlaid with strange symbols and sigils that were obviously of Portal Builder origin. Some parts of some of the faces could be depressed like switches, and it did not take Siladan long to decipher the order in which the switches needed to be touched in order to activate the device, though he could not say what it did. It was clear that the dead man had also known how to activate it, and this was what he had been doing moments before the attack began. Had he summoned the monster? And had he done so on someone’s behalf. They activated his tabula, and looked at his last messages…

Conversation: 3rd of the Merchant

Tablet owner: Islir Malhum, dig worker [IM]

Conversation partner: Someone called ZK

ZK: Has work begun?

IM: Yes, the dig is under way

ZK: How’s the timing?

IM: The frieze should be uncovered within a day. It is fragile in the dry air and crumbles easily

ZK: So you should have confirmation of the find by tomorrow night?

IM: Yes, the Icons willing. Work will be fast with this team.

ZK: You understand the pressures here?

IM: Yes, I will contact you as soon as I have confirmation.

 

Conversation: 4th of the Merchant

Tablet owner: Islir Malhum, dig worker [IM]

Conversation partner: Someone called ZK

IM: Sir, the frieze has been removed and the chamber uncovered as you expected.

ZK: Good! Is there a find?

IM: Yes sir, the dig leader is very excited!

ZK: Describe it!

IM: That I cannot, I am not allowed near the tent.

ZK: Typical! No matter. You know what to do?

IM: Activate the box. Wait for them to panic and leave.

ZK: Yes, that is right. Do it now!

IM: Sir, I am concerned. The guard at least is tough. I fear he will not leave just from the effect you promise.

ZK: No matter! I am paying you well. You know what to do if he does not leave?

IM: Yes sir, but there are many of them. I may not prevail.

ZK: Do not fear. If you fire on even one in the climate of the box they will fear Sarcofagoi. They will flee. Then you take the find and leave once the way is clear.

IM: You are sure this will work? I fear for my safety.

ZK: I am paying you to risk your safety. Do not cross me know or your uncertain economic future will be the least of your concerns.

IM: Understood.

ZK: Have you the talisman?

IM: By my heart! I place my trust in the Icons. I will message you when the job is done!

ZK: Good. May the Icons be with you!

 

So, it appeared that about a month ago – two weeks or so before they found Lavim Tamm – this man Islim had been at this dig, and had activated the box on the orders of someone called “ZK”. The box was supposed to create fear in everyone present, and if they did not leave then Islim was to attack one of them, giving the impression he had been possessed by a Sarcofagoi, and then loot the dig site before leaving himself. Unfortunately, when he activated the box he had also conjured, or drawn the attention of, something else, something horrible and very violent. The only person who had escaped the ensuing carnage was Lavim Tamm. It was also possible that Lavim had been stealing the statuette at the same time that the box was activated, and that this had triggered some kind of beast.

Siladan, reviewing the footage and doing some research, concluded that the beast that had been triggered was likely a Sentinel. Sentinels are strange pillar-like creatures from the Portal Builder era, which are triggered by unknown conditions and have the power to twist and warp human flesh, as well as being vicious and merciless combatants. Siladan’s guess was that one of the columns in that chamber had been a Sentinel, and the box had triggered it to activate, with catastrophic consequences for the whole team.

Saqr used his weak mystic powers to probe the box, and confirmed that it did exactly what Islim had been promised – it created fear and dread in everyone within a small radius. Saqr even tested it on himself, terrifying himself without summoning any beasts from the Dark Between the Stars. A useful device to be deployed in difficult situations!

They kept the box and the contents of the artifact case: a pair of Spirit Glasses and two Causality Stones. They had also looted some Sugar Globes from the chamber on their way out. Stowing these treasures away in their shuttle they sat on the beach to watch the camp, wondering what the emergency beacon would summon.

Nothing came. The desiccated corpses had been forgotten, or abandoned, betrayed and lost in the hollow hill.


Picture note: The top picture is by Matt Gaser (I think), whose work can be bought here. The other pictures are from Coriolis itself.

Today I read transcripts of Donald Trump’s post-midterms press conference, and I stumbled upon this fascinating quote:

And Barbara Comstock was another I think that she could’ve won that race, but she did not want to have an embrace. For that, I do not blame her. But she lost substantially lost. Peter Roskam did not want the embrace. Erik Paulsen did not want the embrace. And in New Jersey, I think that he could have done well, but did not work out too good. Bob, you can come, I feel badly, that is something that could’ve been one. John Faso. Those are some of the people that decided for their own reason not to embrace, whether it is me or what we stand for, but what we stand for meant a lot to a lot of people.

And I was struck by this language: I’ve seen it before. The embrace is the process by which people are turned into vampires. This is a direct reference to the process of becoming a vampire in the Vampire: The Masquerade role playing game. This is deeply depressing for two reasons: first of all, because it means that there is a vampire in charge of the nuclear codes; and worse still, because it means the pretentious artistes at White Wolf were right all along[1]. Those bastards!

Once you realize that Trump is a vampire from that RPG, it answers a lot of questions. Obviously the orange “fake tan” is actually some kind of special chemical make up that enables him to emerge in sunlight (presumably he learnt the tech from Tony Blair); I guess Trump’s secret solution to the abortion issue is to make everyone undead, so it no longer matters; and now we know why so many Republicans are paedophiles – it’s a vampire thing, paedophilia. It’s disturbing to know that a large proportion of the US congress are vampires, but judging by Trump’s speech a lot of members also refused to accept eternal life and give away their actual souls in exchange for power; but it’s also very disappointing to know that even though they didn’t actually get eternal life, they still gave up their metaphorical souls for temporal power, which makes one wonder why they didn’t just go the whole hog and accept the embrace? These people are going to hell for what they did, why not trade their full soul for eternal life? This kind of half-arsed equivocation is just pathetic, Representative Comstock!

Anyway, we all know these people are arseholes with bad policy ideas, and that they’re also pathetic cowards, so it’s kind of believable that they would baulk at the full embrace but still enact the policies. The real question is: what kind of Vampire is Trump? What clan is he? There are many clans to choose from, but I have narrowed it down to four possibilities.

  • Malkavian: These guys are insane, described as lunatics and jesters, but also visionaries. Some are fanatics, and some have an instinctive ability to pick apart and reassemble minds. Listening to James Comey’s description of his meetings with Trump, you can imagine Trump is doing that. A Malkavian? Possibly…
  • Nosferatu: These guys are deformed, warped by the Embrace, which would explain a lot. They’re hideous, evil beasts driven by their passions, twisted by the Embrace. Unfortunately the definitive text also says they’re more human than other vampires, and Trump shows no human traits, so … maybe not.
  • Ventrue: I think this is most likely, the clan devoted to power and persuasion. The latest text describes two of their archetypes as “cold-blooded corporate director” and “conservative politician”. The Ventrue use their powers to control both the supernatural and mortal world. They blend in with the leading political, media and corporate figures of their age, which would enable a monster like Trump to fit in and find a way to excel …
  • Caitiff: Another possibility, my personal favourite, is that Trump is a caitiff, someone who was embraced and abandoned and doesn’t know their own lineage. Having discovered himself alone and powerful and prey to the clans, he has decided to go loud, and defend himself by being so public and so powerful that no one can touch him. Everything he does is a desperate thrashing out at the supernatural forces closing in on him. For bonus salivatory fun, he was turned by a Ventrue, who has been staked for making such a disastrous mistake – and who was a democrat. In fact all the major dems are vampires, and Trump is their by-blow. If you doubt me, look at page 103 of the new book – if that’s not Hilary Clinton I’m a goblin.

I don’t know how the White Wolf crew figured this out – perhaps they’re vampires too and this is some cosmic joke – but instead of writing a pretentious and unworkable RPG they should have spent their creative years warning us about the dark powers in our midst. This is particularly ironic given I joined a Vampire game a while back and created a character who lived in the ruins of one of Trump’s failed casino projects.

How can the world have gone so wrong!?

 


fn1: I guess there is also the possibility that Trump is an avid Vampire role-player, and he was just deploying a metaphor. This would be simultaneously great and incredibly creepy. It would be great because it would so wonderfully troll the lefties at White Wolf to know that Cheeto Jesus is a Vampire player; but it would also be deeply disturbing. I have been roleplaying for 30 years and I play some pretty disturbing games but I could not imagine anything as grotesque as Trump, John Kelly, Stephen Miller and Sarah Huckabee-Sanders in the basement of the White House rolling d10 dice pools in some deeply pretentious storytelling game. No! I would rather that Trump were a vampire, and armageddon were incoming!

Let the Games Begin …

On the weekend I ran a one-off adventure set in Neolithic England, in the area around Stonehenge. I ran this after being inspired by my recent trip to the area. These ancient sites, and the lives of our stone age ancestors, are a complete mystery to us, which means they provide an excellent backdrop for adventure, since you can use the adventures to fill in gaps about the history of real places, and the few things we do know as an opportunity for new stories. Neolithic England also appeals because the extremely low technology means that adventurers will be defined entirely by their abilities and not their gear, which always appeals to me. Of course I chose to include magic in my neolithic world, because I always want magic in my settings. As with my last two one-offs that I set in real locations, I gave every character a suite of special powers regardless of whether they were identifiably wizards, with the hope that the game would depend heavily on the use of special powers rather than skills. I think I was not disappointed.

The setting

The adventure starts in Stonehenge at the winter solstice, with all the people of the local community gathered in the Avenue to watch the rising of the sun through the stones. The PCs have been invited to join the chieftain of the community along with the Head Priest at the Heel Stone itself, as guests of honour, because of a recent heroic deed they had performed. I asked the PCs to decide what that deed was, and they settled on the slaying of a half-man, half-wolf creature that had been terrorizing the people. Having described the stones and the people, and had the PCs describe themselves, I then introduced the chieftain, a weak-jawed old stick-in-the-mud who was a fighting hero in his youth but has begun to become indecisive. Recent weak harvests are blamed on a decision he made when he first ascended to the chieftainship, to move some of the bluestones inside the Stonehenge circle itself, and there are rumours of moves against him, though nothing solid will happen until the priests of the heavens shift their allegiances. I also introduced three factions within the People, and asked the PCs to pick one. These are listed here.

  • The Farmers: A conservative faction that wants things to stay roughly as they are, no major changes to the way things are done, who support the current chieftain but are uncertain about his religious views and the decision to move the stones. They are currently neutral on his position but could be convinced to switch sides if they could be convinced that his leadership threatens the harvest or the natural order
  • The Drowners: A small and radical faction who believe that a time of change is coming, and who think there needs to be a major period of human sacrifice to appease the changing forces of nature. They are led by a young priest, and contain amongst their numbers some of the poorer, landless folk who live on the edges of the community, some younger more radical priests, and wilder people generally seen as troublesome. They advocate the sacrifice of all who commit crimes, and some elderly people, by drowning in the marshes and in the heads of streams, to appease the gods of the underworld. They even mutter about abandoning the traditional worship of the heavens for darker, more sinister religious ideals
  • The Dawntreaders: A convocation of warriors and priests of the heavens (the main religious sect among The People), this faction sees the recent difficulties as the work of outside enemies. They think their religious ideas and beliefs are fundamentally correct, but that people from Cornwall, Wales or the barbaric tribes to the East are trying to undermine them. They advocate punitive expeditions to the moors, with their most extreme members in favour of extermination. They believe that stealing the other peoples’ harvest and bringing some of their young back as slaves and human sacrifices will warn them and remind them that The People are at the centre of the universe, not to be trifled with.

The PC’s choices were kept secret. They were then asked to pick a language from amongst the neighbouring areas – Welsh, Eastern Barbarian, or Cornish – and the adventure began with the solstice rites.

The system

I used a variant of the Coriolis system, which is a very simple and easy to use system that is very easy to generate characters for. Available skills were slightly reduced and reorganized, primarily to strip out skills like Data Djinn and Technology, and to shift Survival to an advanced skill (survival is the primary skill used to understand and assess new technology in this world of stone and wood). I also added a Darkness attribute, which is basically a limit each PC has on how many darkness points they can use. Every time they use a darkness point to push a roll, the GM gets one darkness point and the PC’s tally increases. When their tally reaches their limit they are consumed by darkness, and something horrible happens to their character, after which they reset. I renamed mental points as will, and this was used for invoking powers. Each PC had a special method for quickly recovering will in combat – drinking booze, or killing a helpless enemy, for example. Each PC also had a method for shedding some darkness points, which usually took longer and was slightly more difficult.

Something I did not expect was that my players would roll really badly. At one point in the session two players rolled a combined total of 24 dice and got no successes. Even with large dice pools and pushing things they seemed to fail a remarkable amount of the time. This would be bad in the normal rules, but with the darkness mechanic it proved a little punishing. I haven’t run Coriolis before but I have run mutant, and I never noticed this problem in Mutant. This session it produced some punishing results, though.

The PCs

Three players joined this session. I made all the PCs as bespoke characters, and they had a choice of four, listed here.

  1. The Dark Priest: a priest of earth and shadow, who specializes in magic that can bring the spirits of the dead back, drain people’s health, heal people, and curse them. He is old, weak and creepy. He sheds darkness by sacrificing a helpless person, and regains will by injuring himself or sacrificing helpless person.
  2. The Nature Priest: A priest who specializes in tracking, learning the secrets of the wild, and granting boons to his allies. He can transform into a bear. He sheds darkness by making a tincture of rare herbs, and can recover will by sparing an enemy he could have killed, with no benefit to himself.
  3. The Berserker: A warrior type who can fly into a berserk rage, commands rituals that make him a superhero in battle, and can intimidate and terrify his enemies. He sheds darkness by killing foes in battle, and recovers will by drinking alcohol.
  4. The Rogue: A scout and assassin, who is accompanied by a bird familiar that he can use for spying and vigilance. He can also go invisible, and has special powers with his bow. He can shed darkness by doing something that causes an ally to be harmed, and can recover will simply by running out of combat.

Everyone decided the Rogue was too much of an arsehole, so in the end the Dark Priest, the Nature Priest and the Berserker started the adventure, lined up next to the Chieftain at the heel stone as the ritual of the winter solstice began …

The New York Times reports on a sexual harassment scandal at New York University, with a bizarre twist: a lesbian feminist philosopher, Avitall Ronell, has been found guilty of sexual and physical harassment of a gay postgraduate student. As is typical of these cases, the graduate student waited until he got his PhD and a job, and then went stone cold vengeful on a Title IX case, getting Ronell bang for rights and seeing her receive some significant penalties. That’s all par for the course for such a case, but in an interesting and unpleasant diversion from the script, we find that a letter was written to NYU, asking it not to punish Ronell at all. This letter rested not on the facts of the case but on her contribution to scholarship and the belief that her actions were inconceivable. The letter was signed by a bunch of literary theorists and feminists, for whom it is apparently too much to imagine that one of their own could abuse the power that accrues at the giddy heights of academia. This letter appears to have potentially been instigated by Ronell herself, which is going to have serious repercussions for Ronell down the track (retaliation is a very serious offence after a Title IX case, whether the case was settled on behalf of the claimant or not). For those of us who are familiar with academia, this is a depressingly familiar story of professors pulling together to protect their own and the (considerable) power of their office – for many academics (mostly but not all men) the right to fuck and harass your students is a job perk, not a temptation to be avoided; and for a great many academics of all genders and races, the right to exploit and academically harass your students is completely valid. What struck me as interesting in this latest scandal, though, is the presence of Judith Butler, queer theorist and originator of the nasty idea that gender is a performance. She appears to have started and signed the letter, including using her status as president-elect of the Modern Language Association. Judith Butler signed a petition not to convict a rapist in 2004 at University of California Irvine, and she was also present in last year’s transracialism controversy, where she was one of the signatories on the hateful letter to Hypatia to have Rebecca Tuvel’s article In Defense of Transracialism retracted on spurious grounds.

Seeing Butler’s name on the latest scandal reminded me that I wrote a blogpost about transracialism and about this scandal a year ago when it aired. In brief, in March last year a non-tenured female assistant professor at an American University, Rebecca Tuvel, published an article in the feminist journal Hypatia which basically argued that a) the process of becoming transgender is a real thing; b) transracialism has many similarities with the process of becoming transgender; c) if you accept the validity of transgender people’s self-identity, you should probably accept the validity of a person’s choice to be transracial. The article was clear, concise and well argued, very much in the spirit of Peter Singer’s work on vegetarianism and animal rights, or Bertrand Russell’s work on religion and war (I think she is an analytic philosopher and so are they, so that makes sense, though I don’t know much about these categories). For a certain class of American activist academics the implications of this work were terrifying: either they rejected transracialism out of hand for obviously dubious reasons, and were scared that Tuvel’s conclusions would degrade the rights of transgender people; or they didn’t really respect transgender rights, and wanted to stop the extension of transgender rights to transracial rights at any cost. This unholy alliance of idiots conspired to write a letter – with 800 signatories! – demanding Hypatia retract the article. In the process they traduced Tuvel’s reputation, embarrassed the journal and their own field, disgraced themselves, and and signally failed to engage with the substance of Tuvel’s work in any way, shape or form. In addition to all of these stupid failings, they also did their very best to destroy Tuvel’s career, which obviously was the worst consequence of all this bullshit.

So today, seeing Butler and her colleagues at work on this stuff again, I found myself wondering what happened to Tuvel after “that little unpleasantness” in May last year? So I did a search, and I was surprised and pleased to discover that she still has her job at Rhodes (I don’t know if she has been approved for tenure or not, or if it is even possible for an Assistant Professor to get tenure), she is still teaching (including the Freedom and Oppression component of Philosophy 101, haha!) and she lists her work on transracialism as her major research interest, so whatever happened over the past year appears not to have destroyed her passion for this interesting topic [1]. So it appears that any consequences of the brouhaha didn’t affect her work, which is great. I checked the status of her paper on the Hypatia website, and it has been cited 4 times already, though google gives it up to 33 citations. In either case this is excellent – getting 4 citations in the first year of publication of a paper is very good, especially in Philosophy. I think the Hypatia metrics are bodgy though because she definitely has been cited more times than that. In particular, I was cheered to discover that the journal Philosophy Today had a whole special issue responding to her paper. This is frankly awesome – very few academics at any level, no matter how original, get to have a whole journal issue devoted to dissecting their work, and to have this opportunity arise from a controversial work that nearly sunk your career is really good. It’s worth noting that in the wash up of the original scandal the issue is generally positive, including an article on the lack of intellectual generosity shown in the response to her work, and some discussion of its implications for various aspects of theory. Tuvel gets to write a response (of course), which means that she gets an extra publication out of her own work, and a bunch of citations – jolly good!

Tuvel’s response is also well argued and thorough, and written in the same plain and accessible style as the original. She begins by noting that the scandal had a significant effect on her psychological wellbeing, and goes on to criticize the establishment for its terrible response to her paper. She then makes a few points in response to specific criticisms of the notion of transracialism. She makes the point first that many critics of her article wanted it rewritten from their own framework:

Critics of my article commented often on how my paper should have been written, which seemed far too often to collapse into saying how they would have written my paper. But different philosophers ask questions differently; and different methodologies shed light differently. We owe it to each other to respect these differences and to resist the conviction that only one method can properly answer difficult questions.
I thought this at the time – Tuvel had apparently presented this work at a conference and received critical feedback from many of the scholars who wrote the retraction letter, and in the retraction letter it was noted that she did not incorporate any of those criticisms in the final article. Nowhere did they consider the possibility that they were wrong. This aspect of the criticism of her work at the time read as an attempt at gatekeeping or policing the content of work, to ensure not just that the conclusions were politically acceptable but that the methods did not stray from those that the crusty elders of the field had always used. One got the impression that the the “Theory” scholars and continental philosophers were horrified at an analytical philosopher just marching in and stating plainly what was true. Quelle horreur! as the Romans would say.
In her response Tuvel also gets a chance to address the criticism that she did not incorporate more work from “African American” scholars. Here she writes (referencing another writer contributing to the symposium):
Botts suggests that typical of analytic methods, my paper fails to engage lived experience when relevant. She further states that “continental methods are better suited to addressing philosophical questions based in the lived realities of members of marginalized populations (in this case, African Americans and transgender persons)” (Botts 2018: 54). However, my paper is a philosophical examination of the metaphysical and ethical possibility of transracialism, not of the lived experience of African American and transgender persons (or African American transgender persons). Not to mention that Botts ignores the lived experience most relevant to an exploration of transracialism—namely that of self-identified transracial people. Insofar as it considers Rachel Dolezal’s story, my article is indeed attuned to relevant lived experience. As Chloë Taylor likewise notes, my article “reflects on whether Dolezal’s experience of growing up with adopted Black siblings, of having an older Black man in her life whom she calls ‘Dad,’ of estrangement from her white biological parents, of being married to a Black man, might be sufficient for understanding her experience of herself as Black” (Taylor 2018: 7). Botts remarks that the relevant populations for my analysis would have been African American and transgender persons, but she does not explain why engaging the lived experience of these populations would be methodologically sufficient. After all, by comparison, one does not rightly suggest that philosophical explorations of trans womanhood must necessarily consult the lived experience of cis women.

This addresses an important problem when we demand the inclusion of specific lived experiences in philosophy or theory (or public health, though it’s rarer): whose lived experience, and how do we choose these experiences? As I remarked in my original post on this issue, America has an incredibly prejudiced, parochial and exclusionary view of race and gender, which essentially ignores the lived experiences of most of the world, and in my view specifically excludes the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist views of black Africans in choosing to name black Americans “African”, as well as ignoring the experience of women in almost all of the developing world. More abstractly, there are millions of competing lived experiences, and we can’t even know what all these experiences are, let alone access them. Certainly we should all strive to incorporate the opinions and voices of the people our work will affect, or the people about whom we are writing, but that doesn’t mean we can ever be complete in our coverage of these voices, or even know who they all are – we will always miss some. But Tuvel’s critics wanted her specifically to avoid the most relevant lived experiences, in favour of other voices and lives that are much more congenial to her critics (and from whose ranks, primarily, her critics were drawn). That’s not an especially scholarly alternative to what Tuvel did. In fact Tuvel brought an important additional factor to this debate, choosing to address broad concepts and frameworks analytically, using a lived experience as an example, rather than trying to build a broad theory from a few select voices. This is a much more effective way of doing this kind of work[2].

Tuvel further backs this point up with this important warning to critics of abstract reasoning generally:

All too often such imperatives border on an injunction not merely to engage sensitively and carefully but to defer to the concerns of black people—all the while essentializing them into a homogeneous group. Like any massively diverse group of individuals, however, black people are of many different minds regarding qualifications for black racial membership. Consider, among others, Adolph Reed Jr (2015), Camille Gear Rich (2015), and Ann Morning (2017)—all black scholars who have expressed more sympathetic positions on transracialism.

This is important to remember – we don’t just choose specific voices within a group, but we can also defer to them rather than engage with them. This isn’t how we should do theory. I think Tuvel is a prominent advocate for transgender and transracial people, but here she makes clear that when we advocate for them we need to not only be careful about whose lived experience we choose to privilege, but how we engage with it.

Tuvel follows this with a dismissal of an argument that people could self-identify as centaurs (which gives the heading of this post), leading to the kind of excellent statement that can only be found in the best journals: “Centaurs, however, are not an actual ‘human kind’ (see Mallon 2016)”. The reference here is: Mallon, Ron. 2016. The Construction of Human Kinds. New York: Oxford. It appears that the academy has dealt extensively with the nature of centaurs, and concluded they aren’t human. What about the lived experience of Actual Centaurs?! How are we to incorporate this into our work?! And has Mallon considered the possibility that centaurs aren’t just not a “human kind”, but actually don’t exist? It’s good to know that philosophy is covering the important issues!

I would also commend to everyone the section of Tuvel’s response on “Inclusive identities” and the last paragraph of her section on “Analytical Methodology”.  Here she attacks the notion that race should be biologically determined, or based only on ancestry, and makes the important point that a person with no allegiance to black people or culture can be considered to have a more valid voice on blackness than a white person raised in a black community (like Dolezal was) if they have “one drop” of black blood. These kinds of ideas have been used simultaneously to define and destroy indigenous communities over many years, and they are very very dangerous. I would argue that just from a practical political, bloody-minded point of view, it is much much easier to maintain a political campaign for equal representation of Indigenous peoples if you allow self-identification than if you demand arbitrary biological definitions of race. The imperial powers that sought to destroy Indigenous peoples can’t destroy a people whose boundaries they can’t police! [Well, they can – but it’s harder, and at some point they’ll have to deal with the Indigenous people in their own institutions].

This dive back through Tuvel’s post-scandal career has been reassuring – I’m very happy to see that the original signatories not only failed to silence her or damage her career, but actually gave her a boost by instigating an appraisal of her work that bought her a whole special issue of a philosophy journal. This also means that rather than driving her theories away, her critics have forced the philosophy mainstream to engage with them and take them more seriously, which is good for her, good for philosophy and great for all those people who are living transracial lives (who doesn’t want philosophers debating their right to exist!?) I bet her students are happy to be being lectured by someone so radical, and if her lectures are as clear as her writing and theorizing I imagine they are getting an excellent education. She will of course be always known as “that transracialism woman”, and of course it’s still possible that the scandal will affect her career progression even if it doesn’t affect her current status, but I’m glad that the resistance those letter writers received was sufficient to protect her and to support her. It’s a strong reminder that the academy always needs to police itself against the arrogance of its own elite.

As a final aside, Wikipedia reports that the associate editors of Hypatia who signed the letter were forced to resign; the whole brouhaha was referred to the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), which found that the journal had acted improperly; and subsequently the journal completely revised its procedures and forced all editors and associate editors to sign on to COPE guidelines. The Andrew Mellon Foundation also gave a grant to a university to develop a code of ethics for publishing in philosophy. So even though Tuvel wasn’t directly involved in any of this, her work can be said to have led to significant reforms in the world of feminist philosophy and philosophy publishing. Very few assistant professors can lay claim to such a legacy.

Also, I’m happy to see philosophers have categorically denied centaurs their humanity. Abominations, the lot of them!


fn1: Her publication record has not been updated, however, so it’s possible that she hasn’t updated her research profile, in which case this information may not be up to date. Assistant Professors are very busy and don’t always get to keep their profiles up to date!

fn2: It’s also essential when discussing the rights of people and animals with no voice: the unborn, the very elderly, animals of all kinds, the environment, the illiterate, increasingly criminals … If the lived experience of real people is essential to ground your philosophy, you’re fucked when the people living the experience can’t speak or write.

And she will come from India with a love in her eyes
That say oh how my dark star will rise
In rented gear two thousand years we waited for a man
But with a whispered plea she’d die for us all tonight.
And she will come from India with a gun at her side,
Or she will come from Argentina
With her cemetery eyes that say
Oh, how my dark star will rise,

And she will rise.

Final confessional: Gunfire in the distance, occasional strange sounds, a young woman talking to the video in English that the mutants can barely understand because it is so ancient and rich with the accents of a different world. She is dark skinned, wearing a shroud of tattered cloth covering her hair, her teeth and skin perfect in a way that the mutants viewing the video cannot imagine – she is beautiful in the way all the ancients seem to have been. She is talking about being driven out of her home south of the river, of running out of London and then being corralled back in again – the viewers gasp, was this ravaged city they live in once called London? –  telling the phone that the world is ending, her refugee camp is under attack, they have broken through. As she talks, urgently, low and fast, her voice a stream of lyrical, barely comprehensible English from the Time That Was, they watch in appalled fascination. This is the whole world they never knew, failing before them, and this wonderful mysterious dark-skinned beauty their only tether to it.

She goes on. No one knows what’s going on or how it started, the monsters are everywhere. She knows she cannot last much longer, the city is infested with them and they are so strong, they hunt at night and in the day and the great ones are invincible. She will run, but maybe one day someone will survive, and will want to know what happened. She’s going to leave her phone here with the charger so maybe some survivor in the future can find it and see what happened. She looks urgently over her shoulder one more time, then at the camera with a look of such yearning and loss that it reaches through the phone, across time and into their hearts in the Ark. Then it snaps to darkness.

Fearful flight: Video taken running over rooftops, with fire exploding in the background and screaming down below. Shaking camera as someone runs, a woman’s voice screaming close to the camera. It’s the same woman’s rich and mellifluous voice, but now it’s panicked and yelling in between gasps and heavy breathing. The video might have started with the intent to document what was happening but she has already forgotten that mission as she yells to her friends and screams and pants. Her friends are yelling back and to each other, an indefinite number of other voices further away as they all run across the sloping, red-ochre tiles of the old city. At one point the camera stops and everything lurches as the woman looks down into a gap between houses, where things move and hiss. She steps back and jumps, just covering the distance with a clattering of tiles, then jerks the camera around to show a small group of other running and leaping over the gap. She turns the camera back but jerks it as from behind there is a sudden, blood-curdling yell and someone screaming “They got Johnny!” She gasps but has no time for tears, suddenly jerking the camera left and down behind a stone outcropping on the roof. The rooftops and streets around darken suddenly as a huge shadow sweeps over, roaring, and fire explodes in the street across the road. The shadow slides past with a kind of sinuous, threatening elegance, and from further away they hear other men yelling, screams and weapons fire. She starts up and runs again and suddenly the gunfire is closer. From almost on top of her they hear the heavy chatter of machine gun fire, rough male voices yelling “Down, come down!” then the camera cuts out as they clatter into a dark stairwell.

Mushroom cloud: A shaky video starts with a howling wind and rattling, then steadies, it’s resting on some kind of railing on a high tower. Far away the sky is erupting into a mushroom of smoke rising high into the azure blue of a perfect clear day. Stretching from the horizon to halfway towards the camera is the grey mass of a city, and there are millions of fires sprouting from various places in the middle of the city, smoke haze blanketing the lower parts of the sky below the mushroom cloud. A woman is talking, describing how they had to nuke the city to stop them. It’s the last stand, they’re doing it up and down the country, she says, and then shifts the camera right after a brief flash, to show a more distant cloud beginning to sprout on the horizon. As it rises, after a still moment, there is a distant roar, and then the back of the cloud lights up with a flash from over the horizon. “That’s Southampton, maybe more beyond. We didn’t have a choice.” Then the sound of crying as the wind washes gently by, and the two mushroom clouds rise slowly higher.

Urban horror: The same woman’s desperate sobbing in darkness, then the camera shifts and we are looking from behind a rubbish bin at a long street full of trapped cars. It’s twilight and many of the street lights are broken but the car lights are on and it’s possible to see silhouettes and movement in the light of the cars. People are running from the cars, moving between them, and grey men are leaping across the roofs, jumping onto people and dragging them down and ripping and tearing. Somewhere out of sight there is a deep roar and a much larger figure – familiar now to the mutants – leaps onto a car, screaming in rage. Its scream paralyzes people, who turn and collapse in horror and allow the grey men to catch them. The woman sobs and the camera shakes, then behind her we hear someone saying urgently, “Kara, we have to go! Come, come! Run!” Then the camera jerks and they run into darkness.

Is this gonna be a stand up fight, or another bug hunt?

 

Months passed after our heroes captured their ship, and nothing happened. Lean times in New Horizon, first as they hunkered down to avoid attention after their last job, then as they waited out the repairs and reconfiguration of the HS Fortuna. Jayden and Genji moved into the ship and time stretched out, spent cleaning and training, money draining away – HS Fortuna was a great catch, but she cost money, a lot of money, and they were also maintaining a second base, which they called Firefly, a  hidden complex in a waste dump that they had designated as their safe house. Time passed, and money flew.

So it was that they took the first job they could get when they were ready to work again. Anansie set them up of course, a noodle meal at a stall set out in one of the bigger street markets of Sai Kung. They found the stall soon enough, an oasis of quiet and empty seats in a thronged night market, and sat down at an empty bench with a sleazy-looking man in a cheap suit. On the fringes of their noodle stall cold-eyed men stood watch, quietly steering potential customers away from the shop while they ate. Signs of a man working at the edge of the law, with more money than class. The kind of guy the characters needed to do business with.

His name was Yap Wei Man, one of those sleazy property magnates that thrive in Sai Kung like cockroaches behind a noodle stall. He flipped contracts, took over crumbling blocks and “relocated” their residents quickly to enable rapid renovations, dealt cheap rentals between slum lords the way a street dealer cuts low-grade cocaine to college kids, backed up by the same quality of muscle, muscle he could bring to bear with a grim, jaded patience on laggards, people who thought they had rights, families who couldn’t afford to see their whole pay packet squandered on greasy six-mat rooms but had to anyway. The kind of man they all hated.

The kind of man they had to do business with, because business was not good. Not for them, and not for Yap Wei Man, who had made an investment he wasn’t turning around. Pearl View Complex, a big ugly nightmare of interconnected tower blocks long since backslid into slums, coffin apartments and illegal extensions, the kind of tower block where tenants disappeared in a typhoon, where shady businesses took over the basement and the car park had long since been converted into a night market, or a drug market, or worse. These were the kinds of properties that Yap san flipped, but not Pearl View, because people were disappearing – well, he should clarify, more people than usual were disappearing – and tenants were starting to get queasy, moving out, missing the rent, and if yields dropped much more Yap san wouldn’t be able to flip it on, and then he’d be saddled with a loss, and worse still with the tedious task of daily managing rent collection and the desperate poor. No thank you, chummer, he did not need that. And so he needed a group of people who could do dirty jobs quietly, subtle people not afraid of deploying a bit of muscle, but able to keep it quiet. Anansie had recommended them – urgent jobs done subtly, he was told – and so here he was, their humble supplicant. He wanted them to go in, find out what was causing the disappearances, and stop it – all quietly enough that no one who might be looking in the direction of the property with a commercial eye would even notice. He offered them 3000 nuyen each, nothing if the job was not done quietly.

A room of one’s own …

They agreed, and set off to explore the complex. It was two separate blocks, the north eastern a more upmarket tower of actual apartments, mostly legally occupied, while the south western block was a nightmare of subdivided rooms, surreptitious hostels, businesses, and redivided spaces. The two were linked by a complex network of walkways, mostly ad hoc swing bridges of dubious design. The roof of the north eastern tower had turned into a kind of residents-only night market, the bottom two levels of the south eastern block had long since fallen into disrepair, abandoned by tenants and converted to darker, more subterranean uses.

They split up to explore the building and search for clues, and they soon found two. One part of the south western block had been taken over by a gang, the Ascendant Rats, who had slowly begun blocking off the hallways and entries to their part of the block. They had been dealing medical goods and medical care to the poorer members of the block, and seemed to have a good reputation, but about two weeks ago they had aggressively sealed up a lot of entrances to their part of the block, and stopped communicating with the rest of the block. Meanwhile down in the basement there was some new religious group that had moved in a few months ago, the Clarity of Unity. They had been painting art works around the building, and with a bit of careful mapping and thought Adam was able to confirm that yes, the art works were images of arcane power, that had been placed in the positions necessary to establish the Clarity of Unity’s home base as a magical lodge. Someone was working powerful magic in the basement.

First they visited the section held by the Ascendant Rats. They found it empty, and disturbingly so. The rooms were smeared with dried blood, holes in the walls, one room that had obviously been the scene of a vicious battle had a hole in the floor that fell through many levels below, into darkness. As they explored the dark, silent rooms they found strange new walls that had been erected, of smooth extruded concrete that held a faint astral presence. They also felt themselves watched, heard strange clicking sounds, like the voices of aliens – or spirits. In particular a malevolent, six-eyed shadow that they saw watching them from the end of a hallway, clicking menacingly. They retreated to the thriving life of the rooftop market and put in a call to Mr. Yap – he had a vermin problem, and they were willing to fix it, but it would cost him. He agreed – bring him proof, and he would give a hefty bonus. Details were not discussed, but an understanding was reached. They decided to examine the Clarity of Unity, though they were already sure what they would find.

First they visited them at the time of the evening meal, having heard that they ran a soup kitchen. They were welcomed into an old parking space at the ground level, that had been converted into a kind of open air church and food area. Benches were set out, and a big serving area where anyone who asked for it got a big hearty bowl of congee and some slabs of cheap chicken. The PCs did not eat any, and found themselves speaking to stony, closed faces as soon as they started asking questions about the Clarity of Unity’s purpose. Before the meal started an old, weary-looking man emerged, and the crowd began to whisper his name – “Rahman, Rahman.” He gave a short, strangely perfunctory speech about finding clarity in unity before retiring and leaving everyone to eat.

The PCs were not satisfied. They left, and worked their way through the basement to the area behind the Clarity of Unity kitchens. Soon enough they found it – a tunnel that did not match the structure of the building, leading down into fetid warm air. Down they went, heading deep beneath the original structure of the building into a warren of tunnels, all made of the same extruded, concrete-like substance they had seen above in the lair of the Ascendant Rats. They had found the vermin nest.

As they descended deeper into the nest they began to hear the sound of clicking and hissing, always a little way ahead, always fleeing. They were being led into a trap and they knew it – but that’s what they were being paid to do. They advanced slowly and steadily, Jayden in the lead, following the clicks. Somewhere far above, Jayden’s guardian spirit soared in the sky, heedless of barriers of stone or mud, lending him that strange and supernatural sense of danger that enabled him to walk into any trap already prepared. No one would surprise them while Jayden led the way. Behind walked Adam Lee, moving slowly, half his sense in the astral plane, watching for signs of the spirits they were sure would ambush them.

Eventually they found the centre of the nest, a huge cone-shaped cavern far beneath the apartment, shrouded in darkness and stifling with hot, stinking, moist air. Their commlink lights did not reach far enough to light the whole place, but they showed enough: a mound of earth and junk in the centre of the cavern; beyond it a hulking, shadowy structure rising into space; and around them strange pulsing blue sacks stuck to the wall. In the darkness Adam Lee stumbled into one and shrunk back in disgust; Jayden, unfazed by mere horror, stuck a knife in the thing and tore it open, revealing a living cat encapsulated in its pulsing blue goo. The slime fell out, the cat keening and dying as it slid off Jayden’s razor sharp knife. Adam stepped back in disgust and as he did his gaze chanced up, commlink lights reaching out to strike a similar glow from larger egg shapes – and up there, at the edge of vision, the silhouette of humans inside the eggs.

Adam screamed, John opened fire on the distant shape, and they all charged forward. In the half light they saw a horrid, pulsing thorax, a quiescent monster rising above it into the shadows. It was guarded by four strange humanoid creatures, men whose bodies had been hideously reshaped so that they had mandibles protruding from scaled faces, arms grotesquely distorted to protrude behind their backs, ending in wicked insectoid claws. One through a barrier of thin concretoid excretion around the queen and the rest attacked. Behind the queen Rahman stood, arms raised in ecstasy, droning some ancient wicked ritual to the insect gods.

The battle was brutal. From the walls enormous termites emerged, firing noxious spray or attacking with huge mandibles, trying to defend their queen. The queen herself began to stir, slowly waking from some long slumber and beginning to shake herself free of her egg sac, massive angel-like wings twitching. They realized that the cone-shaped cavern opened to a wide, sweeping tunnel that must reach up to the surface, and that the queen was going to escape into the city if they did not stop her. They fought desperately, trying to reach Rahman before he could complete the ritual of awakening, but the termites and transformed humans blocked them, and more kept emerging. John fell to the blows of the termites and Genji fought against a fog of confusion from the termites’ poisonous breath, the queen shook more, Rahman laughed in sick glee between the beats of his ritual … but at the last Jayden was able to push through the final guardian and hit Rahman with his full might, slicing and dicing in a whirl of super-fast knife blades, cutting both of Rahman’s arms and slicing through his spine, bringing his evil chant to a halt moments before its crescendo. He fell without even screaming, too badly hurt to do anything except gasp and bleed, and the queen collapsed back into senescence. Around them termite soldiers and mutated humans reverted to uncontrolled madness, the spirits inside them free. The characters, realizing their job was done but only madness would follow, fled, dragging John with them.

Minutes later, panting and exhausted, they emerged into the dim light of the Pearl View courtyard. They dumped John in the shadows of the tower and sagged against the wall, panting and cursing. The distant sound of shrieks and clicks faded as the termite spirits returned to their home plane, or killed each other, and somehow they knew that the queen would die. They had done it. The strange curse of Pearl View Complex was lifted, and just as its seedy owner had demanded, no one would know. Somewhere down below the encapsulated Ascendant Rats would wake up in their suddenly disenchanted sacks of insect pus, to be slaughtered and eaten by their enraged captors, but our heroes had no intention of going back in to rescue them. Jayden looked over at Adam Lee, pale and exhausted, leaning on the wall fighting off the sickness of too many spells, and saw him shake his head gently; looked at Genji, leaning panting over his sword, wiping ichor off his face, and heard him grunt a gentle “fuck it.” They had no spirit to fight. They retreated, and put in the call.

Below them a gang was eviscerated, a queen died, spirits slunk away to their own realm. Ahead of them money, and sleep.

All was right with their world.

 

 

Strange summer lands

Strange summer lands

On the 30th December I ran a one-off session of Barbarians of Lemuria, a sword and sorcery RPG with a simple engine and stripped down rules that I wanted to try out. This is the game report.

There were three PCs:

  • Kazaam, hunter and assassin from the lost Bone-Eye clan of the Beshaar desert
  • Batiz, shaman of the Bone-Eye, an alchemist, beastmaster and magician too old for combat or any vigorous activity beyond cursing, accompanied on all his adventures by his faithful skorpider
  • Zeddek, mercenary-physician from the Pirate Isles

The group of them had previously been on adventure, Kazaam and the Sea of Evil, in which Kazaam was sent to rescue a farmer from the lair of the Wise, where he had been taken for nefarious purposes by a merchant, who held the Sword of Hideous Death. Kazaam received this challenge simply because he was Kazaam; however, he managed to succesfully rescue the farmer, only to find the reward was less than he had hoped, but he was marked by the Gods for his deeds[1]. After this adventure, the PCs went carousing together in Malakut, and had been carousing for 9 days before finally they became bored and found themselves at a table in the tavern called the Red Empire, pondering what deeds of glory to attend to next.

Thus do adventures start: Batiz plucked his bone eye from its socket and shuffled over to the fire pit, over which a large lizard roasted on a spit. Squatting near the ashes like a savage, he dug into the skull of the beast with his knife and tore forth its roasting eye, which he stuffed into his own gaping eye socket and, with a roar of fear and joy, fell backwards to spasm on the floor, whereupon he suffered one of the rare visions his god sends him. He saw a rich woman and her bodyguard walking through one of Malakut’s many spice markets, strolling down an alley lined with sacks of spices in many colours, the floor a dusty carpet of variegated shades of powder. Suddenly men lunged from the shadows, throwing clouds of spice in the eyes of the bodyguard and dragging the woman away into the darkness beyond the stalls, tipping over a barrel of cardamom and pushing through a curtain of hanging saffron threads as they did so. The vision snapped away and with a squeal of pain Batiz pulled out the burnt lizard eye and hurled it into the fire. He returned to the table, pushing his bone eye back into its socket, to tell his fellows of his vision[2].

Recognizing a woman who needed to be rescued, the characters asked around, finally identifying the spice market where the attack had taken place by the hanging threads of saffron and the cardamom barrel. They rushed there through the narrow streets of Malakut on their war-ostriches[3], arriving in time to find the bodyguard, a woman called Damaya, standing despondent at the entryway. She told them that the woman was Raemis, daughter of a rich merchant who would reward them handsomely if they could rescue her from her abductors before a ransom demand was made. They needed no further prompting, and began searching the market. Finding no evidence of the footprints of the abductors despite the abundant spices scattered around all the floors of the markets, they asked amongst the stall holders. Finally one told them that there was a war ongoing between the Ragged Knaves and the Brotherhood of Shadows, and it was likely one of those groups had abducted her. The Ragged Knaves knew everything that happened in the markets, perhaps they should ask? So they asked around for the Ragged Knaves until finally they met a man called Juss who was willing to lead them to the Knaves’ leader, a beggar-king known as Jandor Hookhand.

Hookhand told them he had heard rumours already that the Brotherhood of Shadows had abducted Raemis, and he would tell them where the Brotherhood’s headquarters were for free, in hopes of receiving help in his war against the Brotherhood, who were slowly strangling his guild of beggars and street urchins. Perhaps they could reason with the Brotherhood leader, Zolat the Scimitar. The PCs headed off to the Brotherhood headquarters, a tavern called the foaming mug. On the way they were ambushed by brotherhood assassins, all six of whom they dispatched in short order before proceeding over the Bridge of Sorrows to the quarter in which they could find the tavern. As they neared, Batiz cast a spell on Kazaam’s hawk to enable him to see through its eyes, and Kazaam hurled his hawk aloft. They found a safe pathway to reach the headquarters without being noticed by its watchmen, and settled in an alley near the rear entrance of the Foaming Mug. Soon a messenger entered the tavern through that back door, emerging again accompanied by a man in a scarlet hooded cloak, who carried a scimitar over one shoulder. Guessing this must be the leader, they trailed him at some distance. Kazaam took the lead, following close to the pair. In fact his stealthy desert movements were so skilled that not only could he follow them closely, he could listen to their conversation and even sneak close enough to steal the keys on the messenger’s belt[4]. Listening to their conversation, he learnt that they were heading to a shop, that there was a demon guardian in the shop, but it would not attack them if Zolat stayed close to the messenger.

Kazaam followed until they were near the shop, taking a position with a view of the door. The messenger opened the door and Zolat entered first, the messenger stepping in behind him, at which point Kazaam shot him with an arrow. One shot killed the man, who fell dead inside the doorway. Kazaam ran forward and slammed the door shut, locking it from without using the keys he had pilfered. From within came yells and roars, strange flickering lights, and then silence. With one arrow Kazaam had slain two, and possibly three opponents. The rest of the party joined him and they opened the door, charging in to take on any survivors of the battle.

Zolat the Scimitar was dead, parts of him scattered around the shop. In his death throes he had overturned a shelf of herbs, and in the battle the decorations and contents of the apothecary had been damaged, but the demon had not been killed. It swarmed towards the characters, a horrific beast with the head of a carnivorous ape and a cylindrical body ringed with disgusting tentacles, the whole thing covered with a thick slimy apes fur. It was Vul’Mazzanlu, the Ape-Thing! Fortunately for the PCs it had been injured in the fight with Zolat, and they were able to kill it quickly. Batiz tore out its hideous tongue and they proceeded to the back of the shop, where stairs led down into a basement from which emerged the sound of chanting, and a flickering light. They had found their kidnappers, surely!

They descended the stairs to see a terrible sight: A large room with a magic circle in the centre, within which lay Raemis’s unconscious body. A triangle was drawn inside the magic circle, and at each point of the triangle stood a chanting acolyte. Smells of incense drifted out of the room along with the droning chanting of the acolytes, woven in with the strident calls and song of the master conjuror: Valtriz of Ill-Omen, who no doubt intended to use Raemis as a human sacrifice to draw forth some hideous demon from beyond!

Before they attacked Batiz consumed the demon’s tongue and used it to cast a cantrip of misdirecting sound, the screams and yells of an angry demon, to confuse the participants and delay the ritual. Then they charged into the room, to find themselves facing 9 more acolytes, Valtriz himself, and an evil assistant. Truly, a battle worthy of heroes!

They fought, Zeddek laying about himself at the acolyte rabble with slaughterous intent while Kazaam fired arrows at the tougher assistant, and Batiz threw acid at the chanting acolytes. However, they could not disrupt the ritual: after they had killed all the rabble defending the ritual Valtiz of Ill-Omen cast a paralyzing spell on all of them – twice! – and they were forced to watch in horror as the shadowy form of a greater demon began to manifest in the circle over the supine body of the helpless woman. Finally they were able to free themselves of the paralysis, and Zeddek killed Valtiz of Ill-Omen. Unfortunately he was too late, and though they managed to disrupt one of the acolytes it was not enough, and the horrifying demon Mazallakos of the Severed Veil appeared in the circle as the Acolytes called his name in adoration and fear. The magic circle snapped, and Mazallakos was free in the world!

They grabbed the nearest ritual weapons they could find and attacked the non-corporeal monstrosity, Zeddek hacking at it with a silver sword and Kazaam firing silver arrows. As they did this Batiz fell to his knees, tore off his shirt, and carved the name of the demon on his body from his chest along his arm; he called to Kazaam, who slew a fleeing acolyte and drained the blood onto Batiz’s shoulder, that he might work this human sacrifice into the carven name like tattoo ink; having done this he then consumed the eye of the Ape-Thing from upstairs, and called forth a mighty spell in the name of all the gods to bind this demon Mazallakos in place[5].

The great spell did not work! The demon was immune to even Batiz’s most desperate spells! But they did not give up, hacking at it with rage and abandon. The demon, perhaps not realizing how close they all were to spent, looked about itself at the dead conjuror and the room strewn with the dead bodies of acolytes, saw a mad mage eating a demon eye, felt the stabbing pain of silver sword and arrow, and perhaps decided that on this day discretion was the better part of valour. It disappeared in a thunder clap, preferring to retreat to some subterranean lair to nurse its wounds and gather followers, that it might decimate the living world in its own time.

They carried Raemis forth from that vile place and returned her to her father, who paid them handsomely despite the discovery that his daughter’s mind was partially lost from the demon sucking her life essence before they could drive it away. They left the compound of the merchant on their war-ostriches as dawn coloured the minarets and rooftops of Malakut with its first pink light. Burdened with treasure and exhausted from a night of battle, they paused at the heights to look over the town, and turned their faces to their next challenge: To find Mazallakos, and restore the rightful order of things by slaying him and any who followed him.


fn1: The Barbarians of Lemuria rulebook has a random generator for sword-and-sorcery adventures, and rather than try to figure out why the PCs were together I just decided they had adventured together before, and had them roll up the details of the adventure they had been on. I was going to give them advancement points for that adventure but decided not to bother; given the flow of events once the adventure started, I probably should have.

fn2: This was a level 1 spell, with the bone eye and the visible effects of the spell-casting counting as requirements to reduce the cost of casting it.

fn3: Actually called sandrunners, but you get the picture

fn4: The player rolled a 12 on 2d6 and used a Hero Point to upgrade from Mighty Success to Legendary Success, which proved incredibly useful a moment later

fn5: Batiz only had 6 arcane points left and binding the demon I decided was a second level spell, which costs 10 arcane points that can be reduced to 6 with requirements. For Batiz this was a) human sacrifice, b) permanent focus (tattoo), c) eating the demon eye and d) doing d6+1 wounds to himself [this is almost enough to kill Batiz].

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