Monsters


Big sister’s gonna get ya

Recently I went on a five day holiday to China, and while I was in Fuzhou I took part in an escape game with my partner Miss Jade and her Chinese friends (hereafter referred to as Team Princess). The escape game was played at Mr. X Fuzhou, one of the shops of a national chain called Mr. X. Mr X runs a variety of different escape rooms at any time, with some changing on a seasonal basis and some permanent fixtures. We played Yayoi, which is a horror/investigation type with a Japanese theme. Others available included an alien-themed Area 51 game, an Alice in Wonderland introductory adventure, and a couple of other mystery investigations. Team Princess chose Yayoi because they wanted a challenge and because it is one of the new genre games that features NPCs (i.e. human actors).

The other games

I’ve never done an escape room before and my image of them is as a kind of boring puzzle in a single room, so I really wasn’t expecting the Mr. X experience. Miss Jade and Team Princess do these games every time she returns to China (she lives in Japan at the moment), and I was kind of surprised when I heard this because given my image of the games I really didn’t think they would be so compelling. How wrong I was! Here I will explain briefly what happened in the game, and then give a review. If you’re planning on doing this Yayoi game, I recommend you skip the section describing the adventure itself and go to the review.

Approximate layout of the Supernatural Hostel

The events of the game

This game has a whole backstory and took us 90 minutes to complete, which involved a frantic series of investigations and pursuits, so I will explain briefly here what happened and how it worked, based on my memory and the explanations I received from Team Princess afterwards. We were a team of investigators who had been asked by the police to investigate a mysterious death in a hotel that is rumoured to have supernatural connections. We took an elevator to the hotel, and entered the first room we found, room 401. I have prepared an approximate map of the hotel as we experienced it, but when we arrived we only knew about the four rooms (401 – 404), not the strange supernatural section behind the closet. In room 401 there was a body on the bed, which we shall refer to as Dead Dude (DD), which body I had to touch (it was gross). He had apparently died of dehydration. At the back of the room was a closet (visible in the map) and near the door a small desk with a weird computer screen on it. The computer worked, and had its own email client with emails from various organizations and individuals in the inbox. In the drawer of the desk we found a cassette, which activated a video on the computer. This video showed DD’s boss (we shall refer to him as The Boss), sitting at a desk, face out of view, explaining to him that he needed to find a doll, of which he showed an example. There were rumoured to be 6 dolls in the hostel, each with a Japanese girl’s name, and all under the control of some spirit thing called Hasegawa san. He was to find a doll.

We guessed DD died trying to find the doll, so we sensibly set about finding the doll. We went to room 403 and found a way to open it, and in room 403 we found a second cassette. This cassette had new instructions on how to get the doll, involving the word kagome, so we went to room 404 to investigate. The door at 404 had a keypad with six buttons, each of which when pressed emitted the sound of a child reading a single Japanese syllable. We entered ka-go-me and then opened the door. This led us into a room with five of the dolls on the far wall and a strange arrangement of ropes with bells on them, in a circle in the room. One of the dolls was missing! A song then started playing, the kagome song from Japanese childhood (this is a kind of Hey Mr Wolf game). At the end of each repetition of the song the ghost voices singing it would say a Japanese girl’s name (corresponding with the doll’s names, which were on a diagram on the wall of room 401), and we had to ring the corresponding bell. This process took us two tries but when it was done Hasegawa appeared in an empty space in the middle of the far wall of the room, between the dolls. Hasegawa appeared in the form of a Japanese spirit from a picture, wearing a mask and yukata, and he carried the key to room 402 (Hasegawa was our first NPC!) He also told us that now we had sung the song correctly we would be able to see the ghost that killed DD. Yay! Apparently this ghost only comes out to kill when it is raining, but it wasn’t raining so yay.

In room 402 we found a series of crawlways that we had to search through. We found a third tape, which when we played it had a video from The Boss giving DD new instructions. It congratulated him on finding the doll but told him to hide it and explore the hostel some more, because it was rumoured to have some secret place where you could find an elixir of youth. Wow! So we guessed DD had hidden the doll in room 402 and went back to find it. Eventually we found it and took it back to room 404, where we placed it back in the place DD had stolen it from.

Which was when everything went dark and the rain started. We all panicked and ran screaming back to room 401 where we all jumped in the closet[1], the last one into the room being a member of Team Princess, Mr. J, who had lingered in the hallway to see the ghost that killed DD. This ghost was apparently some monstrous thing in a torn yukata that crawled down the hallway rapidly on all fours, and it freaked him out a lot. So we all dived into the closet, and then the closet began to shudder and twitch and move and after a few moments it came to rest again but there was this horrible, hideous laughter outside, that can be best likened to the creaking hacking laugh of the ghost in The Grudge. It was horrible.

After the laughter faded we opened the closet door and found ourselves in a strange redlit room like a study, with icons and buddhist type stuff on a desk at one end and the walls lined with candles. Apparently we were no longer in the normal world, because now the ghost that killed DD could speak to us. It revealed that it was the older sister of a girl called Yayoi who had died here, and whose soul was restless. Since we had escaped the ghost, she would give us the chance to escape if we could pass certain tests and restore the soul of her younger sister to rest.

Well, now we certainly knew how DD died! But we had more pressing concerns, like getting out alive. So we followed the tests. The first was relatively easy, we had to blow out the candles in the room as they flared up, in the right order. Then we went back into the closet and it again moved and shuddered, and when the door opened again we found ourselves facing a long, narrow cave-like room with taiko-style drums at regular points on the wall, and at the end. Between the drums were ropes stretching across the hall, hung with bells that we must not touch. We manoeuvred ourselves to the drums and beat them in the right order, which took some figuring out. This opened a secret door that in turn led to a small cave-like room with a chest in one corner and a locked door on the far wall. The walls were covered in ivy, in which a few skeletons and old bones were entangled. There was a strange clear orb over the locked door, and a locked chest on the floor. We could see through the locked door to a weird kind of temple with a figure of a cat god on the far wall and a big lantern in the middle. Obviously we needed to get through to there, but how? Also in the room were two hand mirrors. Weird. In one of the skeletons we found a note printed on leather, which gave clues to open the combination lock on the box. This we did after some faffing, and inside we found a key. Two of the team took this back to the drum room, and used it to open a compartment under the drum at the end of the hall. This triggered a laser that shone down the hallway, and we used the two hand mirrors to direct it into the clear orb over the locked door.

With that simple task out of the way the door opened and we entered the temple of the cat god. In front of the idol of the god were two empty pedestals for small icons, and the room was lined with miniature sake barrels, each adorned with a Chinese character. We had to choose the characters that would match the wishes of the cat god. Eventually we settled on the barrels with kanji for 9 and tails, because there is a legend that the cat god wants 9 tails. This was the right choice, and it activated something in the lantern, a kind of glowing orb. This, once pushed into position inside the lantern, restored Yayoi’s soul to rest, and we were free! The door opened and we stumbled out to freedom!

About the escape room

I have never done an escape room before so I can’t compare, but this was a genuinely excellent experience, as close as I think I have ever (or could ever) come to LARPing. It was atmospheric, carefully constructed to maintain a complete sense of immersion, challenging and scary. The lighting, decorations, music and sound effects were all designed to build up suspense and terror, and it took minimal effort to really feel like we were there. The addition of NPCs – including one crawling along the floor like a Japanese ghost – really brought the whole thing to life, so that we spent 90 minutes in a state of constant tension. It also sprawled over a wide area so it felt equal parts horror, investigation and exploration – very close to a dungeon crawl, in fact.

If you were to lay out the after action report above and add one or two combats, the escape game I played is essentially equivalent to a single full day session of an RPG. We could have done the whole thing in some Asian-themed Call of Cthulhu and it would have been just as great. This escape room experience really was as close to a real life role-playing session as I can imagine being able to do. It was a thoroughly excellent experience and I commend it to anyone who has a chance to try it.

There is of course a small problem with trying it though – you need to be able to speak and read Chinese very very well to get away with it. I can’t speak any Chinese (I have only learnt Japanese since coming to Japan), and although I can read some Chinese characters and understood the Japanese components of the game, I was essentially a chump for much of the game. I could help with searching and some basic tasks (like the bells and the drums and the candles) and I found some important clues (like the orb above the door and the glowing contents of the lantern in the final room) that were important, but I couldn’t answer any of the riddles, read the emails, or understand the necessary components of the story. So only try this if you have really excellent Chinese or you’re in a team who are patient and willing to go out of their way to coddle your chumpishness. If you can do that though, you will get to have a really good role-playing experience.

I also think that the game I played could form an excellent part of a campaign, with the second stage being to find the Boss who sent DD on his mission, and the third to kill or free Hasegawa san. Each game changes every six months or so apparently (it takes a long time to design and set up new settings) so this would mean a group of regular players like Team Princess would have 18 months of a story before they completed it. I hope Mr. X takes this on in future! They could probably also do a nice sideline in modules for actual RPGs, and if this escape room experience is any guide to how seriously Chinese otaku take their otaku world, it’s likely that China has a really amazing TRPG scene. If you know about that, I’d like to hear more!

About Mr. X

The Mr. X chain isn’t just an escape room company. They also provide rooms to rent for playing games of your own, and have tables in the main area where you can play card games supplied by the company. They provide drinks and food, and board games and card games that you can play while you’re there. The atmosphere is very comfortable and relaxed, and the staff are also very serious otaku – one of our staff was a young Uyghur woman who had moved to Fuzhou from Xinjiang so she could get a job in this company, because she loves the games. They are also able to explain the rules of the board and card games that they have available, and are friendly and warm and patient with our many demands.

The card game options …

Mr. X is an excellent otaku world, with a wide range of challenging escape room games and a nice environment for lazy days of board games and RPGs. It gave me a hint of a world of role-playing and nerdy games in China that I had never heard of before, and suggested to me that there may be a huge, vibrant and very advanced fantasy role-playing scene in China. I hope that more of this will become accessible in the west in future, and if any of my reader(s) visit China in the future and are in a position to do it, I strongly recommend you try it. For me it was a very impressive and new experience, and I hope you can all have a chance to share it in future.


fn1: Apparently we were given instructions before starting the game that we should a) run to the closet when we heard rain and b) not try to fight or interact with NPCs.

 

My appetite’s unchanged
Sink into dream; these enchanted depths
The realm of muted wisdom
Slowly descend; trust ignites the darkness
And bliss is this drowning moment
Believe me I am sorry
To charm with bitter eyes; mesmerizing
Careless magic turns upon itself, washed down in ritual

Our heroes return, their souls blackened, from explorations of ancient ruins on the surface of Kua. Dissent has riven their group, as Siladan knows that Adam and Al Hamra found something important but will not share their information with the rest of the group. They sell the sugar globes they found, but money is becoming pressing; in three weeks their next payment on the Beast of Burden comes due, and although they have the funds to cover it they know that a single bad experience in space will force them into debt. They need to rest, and they need to make money.

Siladan wanted to return to Kua and examine the cadaver clock. He confronted Al Hamra about it, but Al Hamra made the reasonable point that the clock had lain undisturbed for 200 years and probably was not going to be discovered again any time soon; before they examined it in more detail they needed to know more about how these things work, and find out what risks they might be taking. In any case, they needed money; so Siladan returned to the libraries on Coriolis to research a book they had found, Philonimus Guide to the Reach, which puported to hold the secret to treasures in the Rimward Reach.

The Rimward Reach is a thin and widely dispersed asteroid belt in the outer reaches of the Kua system, which is distinguished as a graveyard for Firstcome ships. No one knows how they were destroyed or how they ended up there, but it is well understood that these ships are haunted by creatures from the Dark Between the Stars. Brave explorers occasionally attempt to loot these ships, but the effort is dangerous: many evil creatures hide in the wrecks of the ships, and the salvage work is grim and deadly. Philonimus’ Guide supposedly contained clues to the location of wrecks that could be looted, and to this end Siladan bent his research skills to attempting to find a safe site for exploration.

He soon discovered that Philonimus had compiled his guide by visiting asylums for the insane in various systems, and interviewing old pilots who had been committed after the pressures of the dark became too much. Mostly his stories were fever dreams, hallucinations or out-and-out lies by people who had never been pilots, and Siladan slowly lost patience with the book until he was on the verge of quitting, sure that it was just a collection of mad dreams. But in a chapter entitled the Tower he found reference to a dead ship, floating in space between the asteroid belt and the Reach, unhaunted, that could be found by careful explorers who were willing to “thread” an asteroid cluster whose particular description made it identifiable. The chapter referenced the Eye of Anuba, a collection of asteroids in a strange orbit just beyond the asteroid belt, which were constantly clashing and highly mobile, in some kind of weird gravitational distortion. This dead ship apparently lay somewhere beyond the Eye of Anuba, and if one flew a direct course from Kua to the Eye, threaded it carefully and returned to a direct line from Kua, with good sensor work one could find the ship.

The Eye of Anuba would take a week to reach on the Beast of Burden. They decided to try it.

Running Dark

They left as soon as Siladan had confirmed the details, heading on a straight line from Kua to the asteroid belt. They passed the asteroid belt uneventfully after 6 days and headed into the open space towards the Eye of Anuba, intending to cut as close as was safe to the small and deadly cluster, loop over it, and then return strictly to the line of their travel. Everyone knows that entering the Eye of Anuba is fatal, but it is relatively safe with modern ship’s computers to pass nearby, though no sane captain would ever have reason to – it was possible that a ship could float in the dark just beyond the Eye and be undetected for a thousand years. Thinking of the loot, they cut their course near the Eye, diverging slowly from a straight line through its meteoric heart and intending to bounce near it and over the other side.

It was then that Siladan detected the ship: a large vessel running dark, transponder off, heading straight towards the Eye of Anuba.

He alerted the captain. A full sensor scan revealed all the details of the ship: it was the Orun II, an ice-hauler out of Coriolis, owned by a legitimate company called Melem Gessura. The ship has a well-documented log of missions to and from the asteroid belt stretching back many years, no serious legal disputes, and all the evidence suggests it is a serious and well-respected old ice-hauler with no secrets. Yet here it was, running dark in the space beyond the asteroid belt, heading straight for the Eye of Anuba and certain destruction.

The captain hailed it, but received no response. He hailed it twice more and received no response. Strictly speaking – legally speaking – they had received no distress call and could proceed on their mission without being in the wrong. Who were they to judge if a ship’s crew had decided to ignore outsiders and head to certain death? But something about this was wrong. They decided to investigate. They changed course and headed for the ship.

As they neared the rear of the ship Al Hamra again attempted to hail it, and again received no response. However, for the briefest of moments they all saw a flash of light from the stern, a brief sequence of brilliant flashes that was obviously intended to be a distress signal. Someone without comms was trying to get their attention. They decided to dock.

Saqr took the Beast of Burden in to the stern, and they extended their docking bay to one of the stern airlocks. While they docked Reiko Ando took the fighter out of their aft hangar and ran a single circuit around the ship. She confirmed by visual inspection that the ship was undamaged, but the airlocks near the bow had been disabled and the bridge appeared to be powered down. Obviously something was going on inside, and they needed to investigate. They docked, and some of the team moved into the ship:

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

Saqr and Oliver Greenstar stayed on board to monitor the situation and protect the ship, and the rest of the team entered the ship.

Ancient Warriors

They emerged into a large chamber, clearly an access hall, with large doors sealing it off from the engineering section. Adam set up an overwatch point at the airlock while Dr. Delecta tried to get her motion sensor working. It worked briefly, points of light indicating that there was movement in the room beyond the door and somewhere above them and to their right; and also movement to their left, heading rapidly towards them. Before she could give a proper warning a beast emerged from the shadows and attacked them, striking at Adam with a mercurium sword. It was fast, large and very very dangerous, and before they could act properly it had torn deep cuts in Adam’s chest and struck Al Hamra with its claws, a strange and otherworldly cold sinking through his chest and draining his will to live. Stunned, he fell back in terror and it was left to the rest of the group to bludgeon and shoot it to death. Finally the strange creature was dead, but not before it had nearly killed both Adam and Al Hamra. It was some kind of semi-human guardian, armed with a mercurium sword and wearing strange ritual body armour that Siladan dated to at least 300 years old. Its face had been expressionless all through the battle, like they were fighting an animated doll. But it was flesh and blood – so much blood! – and its armour obviously significant. What was it?

Adam stripped its armour as Reiko Ando struggled with the motion detector and got it working, revealing again that someone was moving around in bulkheads above them. Adam sprang up into the bulkhead and managed to grab a girl hiding in the shadows, dragging her down into the light to talk.

She was happy to talk, and begged them for help. Her name was Ayda Leon and she was the deckhand on this ship. They had been on a standard mission transporting ice from the asteroid belt to Kua, but one of their crew had noticed on routine inspection that one of the ice blocks held four stasis chambers inside it. They dug out the stasis chambers and put them in the forward observatory, but their captain had opened one, and been possessed by a djinn. After the possession it freed the creatures in the other chambers, possessed them, and started killing the crew. She had fled into the maintenance ducts, and the engineer Atallah Ard had fled to the engineering rooms. Before he fled, though, he took control of the ship, turned it to the Eye of Anubar, and set it to full power. Now he had locked himself in the machine halls, shut off power to the bridge, and was waiting to die. Another member of their crew, Kolb Zir, had locked himself in the workshop ‘midships, and had jammed the elevator to the bow. She could not convince Atallah to turn off the engines and without access to the bridge they could not turn the ship around or change its course, so they were doomed unless they could kill the djinn.

She rolled up her sleeves, revealing arms covered in tattoos made to look like henna patterns, and asked the characters, “Are you gonna help me? Or am I gonna die out here in the Dark?”

They had no choice but to help. They banged on the door of the machine hall and eventually convinced the engineer Atallah to let them in. As Aydah had said, there was no way for him to turn the ship around, and even if he turned off the engines they would still fly into the Eye of Anuba eventually. Atallah did not care: he was willing to die to take the djinn to hell with him. But they were not, and they were not willing to let Kolb Zir die either.

Adam stood up, blood smeared on his stolen ancient armour, and Al Hamra, shivering and cold and terrified by his near death, stepped forward, steadying himself on a piece of warm machinery as he faced his crew. They would rescue Kolb, and find a way to turn this ship around. Here they could do good deeds, and get good rewards. It was a good day.

All they had to do was kill a djinn and its ancient bodyguards.

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.

leaving old owl well

Leaving Old Owl Well towards Conyberry

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

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

dawn caernarvvn

Dawn at Caernarrvn

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

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

agatha

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

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

cragmaw

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

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

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

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

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

Glass cannon

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

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

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


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

They’ve taken the throne
They’re under my skin
Patience won’t be the end of me
They’re thick as thieves

Beware little girl,
The world’s full of bad men
Beware little boy,
The world’s full of bad men

Bad Men, the Eden House

Trump’s latest disgusting faux-pas, in which he told a 7 year old girl that Santa isn’t real, is surely the final and definitive proof that he is a genuinely horrible human being. Not horrible in the sense that his policies are disgusting – we all knew that – but in the sense that he is just a really awful person. Telling a 7 year old girl that Santa isn’t real is something that General Bison would do – it’s comic book super villain stuff, real people don’t do it. But Trump did. This is the latest in a long and enlightening series of episodes which show that he is just a disgusting person. He is a philanderer who takes pride in it and openly admits that he is using power to get what he wants; he cheats on his wife and breaks laws he thinks don’t matter to cover it up; he hates dogs; he claims to love his country but can’t draw the flag or remember the words to the national anthem; he hates Christmas or funerals because they aren’t about him; he made his name on the illusion that he is a tough boss who fires people who fail him but cannot bring himself to actually fire anyone; he feels a natural affinity for autocrats and murderous dictators; he will change all his opinions on a dime if someone tells him they like him; he judges women entirely by their appearance and men purely by how much they posture; he has been bankrupt four times and thinks that is clever; he lies about how rich he is; he doesn’t care at all about the truth of anything except the one truth that he is important; he is 71 years old but cannot shake hands like an adult; he doesn’t understand time zones or know the names of many foreign countries; he dodged Vietnam on the basis of “bone spurs” that were diagnosed by one of his father’s tenants; he is racist, sexist, and vulgar; he eats his steak well done with ketchup. This man hates dogs. He is an awful human being. If you were to look for a way to teach a young man to be a good man, you could show him Trump’s life works and tell him “don’t be like this” and you would be guaranteed to be setting that young man on a good path. It’s so telling about Trump that the only time he has told the truth in the past year is when he is telling a 7 year old girl that Santa isn’t real.

Trump isn’t the only such horrible man in our lives at this time though – we are ruled by them. Brett Kavanaugh is a horrible man, a stinking alcoholic who obviously did what he was accused of doing, and covered it up with bluster and lies and aggrieved tears; Newt Gingrich and all the other men who pressed the impeachment on Bill Clinton have been pushed out of their positions because of sexual misconduct, and are awful men (one of them was Kavanaugh, who devised a slurry of intrusive sexual questions for Clinton but cried when much milder questions were directed at him); Ted Cruz endorsed Trump after Trump insulted his wife and father; Paul Ryan lied about his marathon times, and has made a career as a “serious political thinker” while serving up only flim-flam joke policies to the American public; Mike Pence refuses to be alone with a woman who is not his wife. But they aren’t just an American phenomenon: Boris Johnson once tried to have a journalist beaten up for publishing bad things about him, is a serial philanderer and a joke; Michael Gove is an idiot and a liar; Tony Abbot ran a vicious misogynist campaign of abuse against Julia Gillard and would have brought the entire edifice down around him if he thought it would help, and he told a politician once that he would give them anything “except his arse” if they would make him prime minister. Then there is the cavalcade of dodgy christian fundamentalist politicians in America who adopt a “broad stance” in men’s toilets, or traffic in women, or offer up the worst apologia for rape and sexual assault;  the Australian Nationals politicians who have been revealed to be grubby philanderers as they ponce about the country talking about “family values” and voted against gay marriage because it would “damage the sanctity” of an arrangement they were cheerfully traducing; and let’s not forget the conga line of sexual abusers and rapists in the media, the Les Moonves’s and Harvey Weinsteins and Roger Ailes’s who determine what we read and what we see. And can you look at Mark Zuckerberg and not think that beneath that jeans- and t-shirt exterior beats the heart of a determinedly evil man?

We live in a time when we are ruled by awful men.

It wasn’t always like this. There was a time when our politicians either didn’t parade their failed virtue in front of us, demanding that we ban abortion or sex outside of marriage or child rape while they did it – they either didn’t do it, or left those policies vaguely undefined. There was a time when politicians had basic human decency, and would behave well around others even if their policies were unpleasant. John Howard’s policies were atrocious, he wasted 10 years of Australia’s best economic growth on buying votes from middle class Australians, and he instituted the modern policy of abuse of asylum seekers, but he would never tell a child that santa isn’t real and he never sexually assaulted anyone. Paul Keating was an arrogant prick but he genuinely cared about the rights of the poor, of working people, and of Aboriginal people. His policies might not always have helped the people he cared about but he tried – and he at least had a sense of humour. John Major may have squandered the chance to achieve a Tory follow-up to Thatcher’s economic policies, and he may have presided over growing inequality and ill health, but he was a bland and tired man who never raped anyone. It’s a low bar but let’s repeat it: John Major never raped anyone. His successor face-fucked a dead pig.

Where did these awful men come from? Slate attempts to offer something of an explanation for them, defining them as the Old Boys, but their explanation is too focused on America (of course). It doesn’t explain the horrors of Boris Johnson in Britain, Scott Morrison in Australia (or Barnaby fucking Joyce!), those eastern European wannabe despots who are despicable and awful nobodies; it doesn’t have much to say about Erdogan, though perhaps he isn’t actually awful (how old school to only be politically evil, and not also personally despicable!). How is that so many of the men who rule or want to rule the English speaking world are so awful? Not just that their policies are traditionally right wing but that they themselves eschew the basic principles of being a decent man? Is there something wrong with the protestant English-speaking world, that throws up these horrific men? Is there something unique to the democratic systems of the English-speaking world? I wonder if perhaps the winner-take-all nature of our political systems encourages these men, and that perhaps explains why democracies that require coalition-building don’t have them. So they don’t appear in France, Germany, New Zealand, or Japan, because in those systems you have to be able to be liked by people who disagree with you – perhaps then it’s telling that in the one time Australian politicians had to negotiate a coalition the awful man lost and the supposedly bland woman won.

I also wonder if it is something about the right wing of politics? After all, it’s usually the right that attracts the racists and sexists and secret hitlerophiles, so maybe that’s where the awful people go? But that doesn’t explain Kevin Rudd, who kept his awfulness under a bushel until he had power and then burnt so bright before Gillard extinguished his awful light. It doesn’t explain Blair, the hideous vampire. It doesn’t explain Mark Latham, who broke a taxi driver’s arm and spent his early dotage ranting in right-wing journals about all the labour party members who (thankfully for labor and the country) dumped him before he could apply his unique taxi-side negotiating skills to the country. The jury of course is out on Xi Jinping, about whom rumours of womanizing in his youth circulate but who finds it very easy to maintain a squeaky clean image, either because he is or because he controls the media with an iron fist.

So how did we get to be ruled by all these awful men?

I wonder if there is something buried in democracy, some awful bug, which makes it vulnerable to these shoddy personalities, these narcissistic vultures. Or at least if the kind of first past the post, winner-takes-all democracy of the English-speaking world is ultimately as vulnerable to takeover by narcissistic, personality-disordered thugs as any dictatorial system. Maybe it takes 20 years longer, but maybe it’s just as inevitable? Or maybe it’s not true that you should leave people’s personal properties out of your calculation of their political worth. Maybe the personal really is political, and if a politician is personally awful then they will be politically terrible. In my youth there was a strong principle that you don’t bring people’s personal life into politics. But perhaps Trump is the antithesis of that principle: we should absolutely judge politicians by their personal behavior, because they will never be better than they are personally when they are in power. Or maybe something has changed over the past 20 years in our culture, so that people are no longer capable of being better politically than they are personally. If so then you need to make sure that the people you vote for have sterling personal qualities, because if in the past the responsibility of leadership caused people to rise above themselves, it appears that these awful men take the opportunity of leadership to debase themselves. If power corrupts, what hope do we have if all of our leaders are already deeply, awfully corrupt?

I don’t know what the reason is but I do know this: we need to get rid of these awful men. Our civilization cannot survive if we allow these awful men to have any influence, anywhere in our society. We need to drive them out, retire them, get them away from anywhere where there is a lever of power. We don’t know what the systematic problems are that enable these awful men to seize the levers of power, so let’s settle on a simpler program: don’t work with them, don’t help them, don’t vote for them, don’t aid them or abet them. Get them out of power, everywhere.

Let’s build a world where we are not ruled by awful men.

When I was a teenager I remember my father as a difficult man with frustratingly retrograde opinions, which were typical of men of his nationality (British) and his generation (born just before WW2). He was a typesetter, a classic tradesman’s job from the post-war years, and he had the kind of views on race, gender, sexuality and social issues that you might expect of a man of this background and this age. He could say shocking things about non-white people, about women, or about any man who had not followed the same straight and narrow path from school to work that he had done. But his views were mellowed by his love of reading, and by a vague sense of groundedness about how the world actually worked. So for example he would say racist things about Aboriginal people, while also recognizing that they had been treated poorly by white colonizers; he could recognize the basic humanity of non-white people while believing basically that the races shouldn’t mix, and that his race (in particular the “English”) was superior. In my memory of my teenage years, he could say bad things but race issues were not always at the forefront of his mind. If welfare fraud or racial stereotypes or “young people today” came up in conversation he would be difficult, but somehow he still seemed to be navigating the world as it was, despite his limited education and because of his love of reading. My father introduced me to a lot of terrible ideas about Aborigines and women, but he also introduced me to National Geographic magazines, liberal views on sex work and drugs, Erich von Danniken[1] and archaeology more generally, and he always supported my interest in science, geography and reading.

When I was 17 my father lost his job and left me behind in rural Australia to return to the UK, where presumably he thought he might still be able to find work. Sadly a fifty-something typesetter in the late 1980s had no chance of finding new work, since his job had basically been automated away in the space of five years of rapid computer growth, so he ended up living on benefits in a trailer park in Devon. And over the years since he returned to the UK he went from being the infuriatingly backward but still-reachable uneducated man of my childhood to an out-and-out bigot, hating anyone and everyone who was different to him, full of bile and rage at the world and terrified of all the possibilities in it. He went from someone who worked alongside Indian and Caribbean men in industry to a scared old man who refused to visit London because it had “too many foreigners”; from a man who recommended Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring to an ignorant climate change denialist; from a migrant in Australia to a man who hated all migrants and believed there were millions of “illegal asylum seekers” living in the UK; from a proud working man to a benefit fraudster who sat in the mobile home he was illegally buying with government rental support complaining about European benefit fraudsters coming to the UK to “abuse our generosity”; from a man who took pride in his nation’s role in resisting the Nazis, to a believer in every sinister lie he heard about Jews, gypsies, communists and gays. Over 30 sad years he became the Racist Uncle from central casting, terrified of the world and angry at everyone who was not an old, bitter man like him.

It was not just my father either: everyone else in my own and the older generations in my family became the same over those 30 years. Before I returned from a brief period working in the UK to Japan, I remember sitting in my grandmother’s living room while she told me that “them black people will get what’s coming to them when Cameron’s elected”, and my uncle warned me “don’t argue with me, sunshine” while he spat bile and invective over the EU – while he was resting in the UK in between work placements in the Europe. Of the four men in my generation or above who I still know alive and living in the UK, two of them had their best career opportunities in Europe, and one of those got his first wife there.  Yet there they sat, hurling hatred and scorn at everyone connected with the European project, at black people, foreigners, young women – anyone who wasn’t like them.

This kind of hateful bile was a constant of my visits to my family in south west England, Brexit country. But there was one other constant every time I went down there: on every tea table, or clipped and stuck to the wall, or in the recycling bin (that they hated), or left scattered around to finish the crosswords: The Daily Mail. And from every bitter, pinched and angry mouth: “The news tells me that the gypsies are now …” “Which news?” “The Daily Mail!” Every opinion, every vicious and vengeful bit of hate speech, every tenuous or blatantly untrue “fact” they used to justify every one of their horrible, scornful opinions was dragged straight from the lying, filthy pages of that lying, filthy rag. Every day it headlined with some story about gypsies or travelers stealing land; or about hordes of “unregistered asylum seekers” who were getting free homes and cars and money while good deserving white people lived in the streets; or about how homeless white people were filthy pigs who brought it on themselves. Every day they bought it and read it and consumed its unfiltered hatred, mainlining discrimination and scorn to the point that my father, disabled by polio at the age of 5, would place his free disability parking sticker on the window of his car while ranting about some article from the Daily Mail and sneering at all these stupid young people who demand their human rights be respected. This man, whose entire twilit years were coddled by disability pensions and free healthcare and physiotherapy and special support for his disability, would mouth that phrase “their human rights” with such bitter rage that you would think he was talking about satan’s ballbag itself. But he wasn’t, he was speaking about himself, spurting out self-hatred and bitterness that he had been mainlining for 30 years from that disgusting, stupid rag, the Daily Mail.

So it was with a sense of profound disappointment that I read this morning in the Guardian that Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail for 26 of those 30 years that it was slowly turning my father from a normal human being to a rage-infested muppet, has received a lifetime achievement award from the Society of Editors, presented to him by the Editor of that other esteemed vessel of white men’s hate, the Daily Telegraph.

Some achievement. The newspaper most famous for its support of Oswald Mosley and Hitler turned into the delivery device for weaponized hatred, straight into the minds of uneducated men like my father who didn’t know better. By the time Dacre’s tenure was over he had managed to get UKIP national support, and bring on the Brexit he longed for that will destroy the economic security the Mail‘s own readers crave. This newspaper turned a nation of mild-mannered, stoic shopkeepers into a nation of rabid xenophobes and bilious haters, intent on kicking out anyone who was different in any way, or just plain kicking them if they couldn’t kick them out. Even on the Iraq war, the one thing the newspaper ever got right, it only opposed the war because it wanted to pull up the drawbridge and leave the rest of the world to burn, confident in the idea that Britain doesn’t need anyone and that any kind of social connection or sharing is weak, wrong and bad for the English. This newspaper poisoned the minds of a generation, so that it could get Britain out of Europe and damn the working people of Britain to a generation of peonage in service to its rich owner and his rich friends.

The Daily Mail did this by combining a tight writing style that perfectly appealed to the poorly-educated men and women of the war generation and the baby boom, appealing to their worst instincts and their colonialist nostalgic, and boosting that nascent racism and nostalgia into inflamed hatred and terror of any change. There is no policy the Daily Mail has supported in the past 30 years that was intended to benefit the lives of ordinary working or middle-class Britons, and the editor and his rich buddies knew that, so they coated every dodgy policy they pushed in the sweet and intoxicating icing of racism, hatred, and self-aggrandizing scorn. They pushed and amplified that scorn and racism, and used it to wrap every new and discriminatory policy they could, as they pushed Britain towards plutocracy. The final poison pill they tricked the elderly population of Britain into swallowing was Brexit, the bitter medicine that will strangle their grandchildrens’ futures. And the visionary who conceived of this horrible 30 year con receives a medal for his efforts.

In the future our grandchildren will look back on these 30 years as the last chance humanity had to change its direction. They will see that even as the planet went onto the boil, and inequality consumed the social order we had been building, a small gang of thieving plutocrats seized the media and politics and used their power to make sure no meaningful action was taken to turn society onto a different, better course. They will see how the many possible future pathways we could have taken to a better world were blocked off one by by these rich gangsters, until at the end of that 30 years we were left with a very small number of possible pathways to follow that would not end in civilization collapse and ruin. And then they will note that the people who spent 30 years heading off every road to a better future were given a prize for their efforts. Paul Dacre may be able to take that prize to his gold-plated grave, but the children of the future won’t deem him worthy of anything except scorn and ridicule. The same will apply to all those other titans of industry and media masters who brought us to this ruinous pass: all the newspaper editors who supported the Iraq war and unleashed Isis on a middle east already struggling under inequality and climate change; Rupert Murdoch, who unleashed Fox news on America and turned it from hope to hatred; Bari Weiss and Bret Stephens and all the other idiot centrist both-siders who twiddled while their nation slouched into nihilistic fascism, and put nazis and climate change denialists on the precious space of their editorial pages because they felt that “ideological balance” was more important than basic decency or a future for their children. All these people will be remembered as enemies not just of the people they were supposed to serve, but of human civilization. Remember the day this man got this prize, and the people who gave it to him. Some day there will have to be an accounting for the great evil being done in this time by our parents’ generation, and it might as well start with this man, who poisoned my parents minds against their own childrens’ futures, and turned a generation of hard-working, decent people into terrified haters. He will get away with what he did, but history will reward him with infamy.


fn1: I am not a believer!

 

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