RPG aids


Who is Dr. Abad?

In the words of Banu Delecta, medic on the Beast of Burden:

  • Md. Jenin Abad was my senpai at medical school
  • Came from a poor Nomad Federation family
  • Big chip on his shoulder about class and the station/planetary divide
  • Soooo exhausting to deal with, constantly inserting politics into like everything
  • Ultimately became my classmate can you even believe it?
  • Because he took a year’s leave of absence to go do volunteer work in Odacon
  • To do this he spent 6 weeks picketing the School President’s office, and putting up fliers on the academy grounds, we were all like can you even believe what he’s doing?
  • Everyone thinks he only got into the school and got his leave of absence because we all know that Nomad Federation and Free Leaguer students get affirmative action
  • I mean It’s fair enough but like I had to study really hard and he was just doing zero-g acrobatics and working shipside and he just got into school just because of AA and then I bet he didn’t even have to pay the fees
  • Anyway diversity is good
  • So we studied together and I guess he was okay because even though he was always like complaining about my parents’ summer house on Kua not that I would have invited him I mean ewww he would help me with homework on the anatomy classes and he was really good in the clinic like I couldn’t understand what those kids from the cellars were even saying and even though his accent is pretty thick with Nomad federation slang he always managed to get through to them so I guess like his bedside manner was okay? I dunno if he should have passed but I guess the quality of healthcare out there in the Dark is so bad that it probably doesn’t matter but I hope he never works on Coriolis
  • Also he dated my friend Katmus and that didn’t go well and they had a big fight on her holiday yacht about like privilege and she dropped him off in Lubau lol and he had to get working passage back as a medic on a pox ship can you even?
  • Anyway from his work on Odacon I met Adam, so I guess that’s good right?

In Adam’s words

The picket didn’t work out for us and the Legion came in through number 1 and number 3 docks. I set up some of the renegades at the stairwell from 3 dock and we crashed a loader down the stairwell to 1 dock but it only slowed them down, and the retreat to 2 dock was vicious. We had to leave some of our wounded behind, I wanted to terminate them but the rebel leader said no not my choice to make, he’s a nice guy but it doesn’t surprise me he died a year later on Errai with attitudes like that. When you’re up against the Zenith you don’t have time to be sentimental do you? I don’t waste my time on that shit but I follow orders so I left each of them with the ammunition we could spare and we pulled back. The legion broke through to 2 dock as we were still trying to load the ship, because the leaders wouldn’t leave the wounded behind. Sheria was one of the leadership and she was gunned down pulling some wounded girl who was obviously useless, just going to bleed out on the ship if we even got away, but you have to be fair to Sheria and the other leaders, they didn’t hide on the ship when the bullets were firing. I’ll never forget Sheria, or the bravery of everyone else on that station. Foolish, pointless bravery, but better than I’ve ever seen from any professional soldier. I include myself in that because I don’t feel fear, and you can’t be brave if you aren’t scared, can you? Anyway I put a bullet in her head when she asked for it and dragged the wounded girl back, she died in my arms a few minutes later so that was a waste just like I expected. When the legion saw they couldn’t get the ship in time they fired some kind of bioweapon canister, we didn’t realize until we were in the Dark and the coughing started. But Ayman the political operative knew this doctor, Md. Jenin Abad, who he said might be able to help. For some reason I was immune but the rest of them progressed fast so we went to Abad, at a displaced person’s camp out in the edge of the system. He saved us all (except Ayman, whose gut wound was too serious for anyone to help). He’s a good man, Abad, a bit serious about politics but isn’t everyone in Odacon? Except me, I kill for money. When I got to Coriolis I was looking for a medic and I put a message through to Abad, who I knew was from the Academy. He recommended Banu, told me she’s a clueless princess but she’s good and under all the layers of lace and faux-naivete she cares. I don’t know about that, but she is good. So I owe Abad for that I guess. I don’t expect him to last with his attitude, idealists never do, but I hope he does a lot of good before he goes out.

You came in that?

Our PCs have had their first battle on board their ship, and I have been forced to think in detail about how large it is and how it is laid out. This is difficult, because many RPGs give guidelines on what to put in your ship and how much it costs, but very few talk about how it should all be laid out, how big it is and what it all looks like in the end. Some early games like Traveler provided deckplans but the ships they provided were very closely modeled on nautical ships and had a lot of flaws in their design (including that the final deckplans didn’t much match the design). So I did some thinking about how ship sizes and scales work in the Third Horizon, and came up with some guidelines, as well as some house rules for ship design. This post summarizes them.

The motivation: The Beast of Burden

The PCs’ ship is the Beast of Burden, a Class IV converted luxury yacht that they use for exploration and – as little as possible – combat. I have described the Beast of Burden elsewhere but its key modules of interest for ship design are:

  • 4 Luxury suites and 16 standard cabins
  • Two hangars, each capable of holding one class II or two class I ships
  • A single cargo hold, which in the original rules should hold 250 tons of cargo
  • A salvage unit
  • An arboretum

I ruled at the start of the game that the arboretum is a module, not a feature. The Beast of Burden is also armed and has various other modules, but for the purposes of ship design I think the ones listed above are crucial. So I need to figure out how all this is laid out and what it all looks like.

Ship size: The surprising scale of Coriolis ships

To figure out ship size I thought about hangars. These are the largest components of a ship, and are available from Class III up. A Class III ship should be able to hold a single Class I in its hangar, and a Class V should be able to hold one Class III. We can make some judgments from this. First of all, how big is a class I ship? It has 3 modules, so let us assume that each module is either a hangar capable of holding some small air raft or similar sub-orbital vehicle; or that each module is a 5x2x1 m cargo hold [for more on cargo holds see below] then we could imagine that if we laid these modules end to end the longest they would reach to would be perhaps 15-20 m long and 5 m wide. Add on a 5x5m floor plan for the bridge, and then a general padding for the external shell of the ship, engines etc, we can imagine that the longest a Class I ship would be is about 30m. Perhaps its total dimensions would be a maximum of 30m x 20m x10m.

This tells us that a Class III ship hangar would have to be about 50m x 30m x20m to comfortably fit such a ship. Realistically a Class III ship couldn’t have more than 4 modules for hangars, and we could imagine laying them in a 2×2 pattern (or in a ring of 4). So a Class III ship’s hangars alone could be 100m x 60m x 20m, or a cylinder 50m long and 60m in diameter. Add in some extra space on each end for cargo, service, engines etc and we can imagine the maximum size for a Class III ship would be about 150m x 80m x 30m. A Class IV ship needs to be able to hold 2 Class I ships in a single hangar, so that hangar must be about 100m x 50m x 30m. A Class IV ship could have 8 or maybe even 12 hangars, so its maximum size (with padding for crew space etc) would be 350m x 150m x 80m. Based on this we can present the following table for ships in the Coriolis system.

Ship class Max length Max width Approx weight Equivalent vessel (Earth)
I 30m 20m 600 tons Fast patrol vessel
II 75 m 40m 9000 tons Naval patrol vessel
III 150m 80m 60000 tons Container ship
IV 350m 150m 420000 tons Largest ships on earth
V 600m 300m 3600000 tons None
VI 1.2 km 1km An enormous amount None
VII 2.5 km 2 km None
VIII 5km 4km None
IX 10km 8km Coriolis station

The Beast of Burden herself is approximately 240m long, which makes her about the length of a Panamax cargo ship – some of the biggest ships used on earth[1]. Most of this is on the service deck, which holds two hangars, the salvage unit and the cargo. Without these modules she would be much, much smaller, but a Class VI ship with a hangar needs to have a hangar large enough to fit her, so its hangars need to be at least 300m long – in fact they need to be large enough to hold a much bigger Class IV ship than the Beast of Burden, which is why a Class VI ship can be 1.2km long.

Astute readers might notice that the weights given here are huge. I found some guidelines for calculating the weight of an ocean-going ship which suggest its weight is its volume divided by 5, and I have calculated the spaceship weights on the assumption that they would be half the weight of an equivalent-volume ocean-going ship. The reason for these enormous weights is that a terrestrial ship is long and slim, but no such restrictions apply to a spaceship. The Knock Nevis was 70m wide and maybe 80m in height, while a Class IV ship is twice as wide and higher as well. These larger volumes lead to much greater weights. In any case, in space weight is unimportant, so the main concern is volume, not weight.

For comparison purposes, I estimate the Coriolis space station is about 4.8 km wide and 7km long, making it a Class IX ship.

Dimensions of some components

It’s worth noting that ships of the same class can be remarkably different in size. A Class I ship with three weapons modules might be only 10m long, and a class IV ship that was devoted to carrying pilgrims in coffins might be only 100m long. Without hangars and cargo we can expect they are much more compact, but the ship class is decided by the total quantity of its components, not its size. Let us consider the size of some of these components.

For living space, I assume that a luxury suite is a 10mx10m floorplan, while standard suites are 5mx5m. I assigned 1m3 of space to the service station per 10m3 of volume of the ship. I decided not to measure cargo by weight, but instead by volume – 1 ton of cargo can be tiny if it is iron ore, or large if it is raw cotton. So instead I assign 10^class m3 of volume to cargo per module (so a class IV ship cargo module is 10,000 m3). The salvage station should be half the size of a hangar on a ship of that class. For class 1 and class II ships I assume a hangar (for sub-orbital small vehicles) might be about 10mx5m. Everything else I consider to be malleable in size and allocation, and I assume extra space for luxury suites or shared living space is natural. Docking stations, etc. scale up with the ship.

I assume the height of a deck for living space is 2m, or 3m if the ship is spacious, plus 1m per class of the ship. The Beast of Burden has two levels on top of its service deck, so as a class IV luxury yacht each of these levels would be assumed to be about 7m in height, with 3m of actual space experienced by the people in the ship. Obviously service decks don’t follow this plan.

Finally, I multiply the total volume by a small amount (perhaps 10%) for super structure, and then by a percentage equal to the cost inflation of the ship’s features. So if a ship’s features make it cost 30% more, then it also takes up about 30% more volume.

House rules for ship design

I made a few house rules for ship design, which I list here.

  • Cargo by volume: As mentioned above, I think cargo should be measured by volume. I assume 10^class m3. On a class IV ship this means one module takes up 10,000 m3, which is a 100mx10mx10m cube. On the Beast of Burden this is two sections, each 25mx20mx30m, forward of the hangars. A Class IV ship with 12 modules devoted to cargo could have 200mx60mx10m of space, 100mx60mx20m, and so on. By way of comparison I think the largest super-tankers can hold about 500,000 m3 of oil, about 4 times as much as a Class IV bulk hauler.
  • Divisible modules: If modules scale with class, I have decided ship designs can swap a single module for multiple smaller class modules. So for example a single class IV module could be composed of two Class III modules, four Class II modules, or eight Class I modules. So instead of having 64 stasis pods, a Class IV ship could opt for 32 stasis pods and an extra 8 escape pods (both class III modules). This will cost more because module price doesn’t scale with class, but it makes the ship design more versatile
  • Extra class I modules: For ships of class III and above, a couple of free class I modules can be chucked in to represent the vast space in these designs. These ships get 2^(class-2) extra class 1 modules, so a class IV ship gets 4 extra Class 1 modules. For example, an extra tiny hangar for sub-orbital vehicles, one more coffin, an extra escape pod, etc. This is just flavour.
  • Prison modules: The cabins module can be exchanged for a prison that holds as many people as the coffins option. Put it next to the medlab for added torture chamber options.
  • Hangar expansion: The rules suggest that the number of ships should increase as 4^class (so a class V ship can hold 16 class I ships) but this is madness: I have chosen to make it 2^class. On my calculations this means that Coriolis station can hold up to 192 class I ships at any time. I think that’s okay!

With these rules it’s easier to design flexible ships that suit their purpose.

Ships beyond Class V

I have included ships up to Class IX in my table of sizes to allow for the Coriolis to be described by the rules. I have not considered how modules, hps etc. scale up with these sizes, but a basic progression from the rules would suggest a Class IX ship has 640 modules, 24hp and 11 EP, and 17 armour. I would guess that some of these values (particularly armour and hp) would scale further, and modules might plateau, so you might expect 400 modules, 40 hp and 30 armour or something similar. That’s basically indestructible. Good thing there’s only one, and it’s not mobile!

Conclusion

The Coriolis ship rules lead to staggeringly large and very cool ships, with a lot of variation in size and structure within a class, and a lot of flexibility to describe different ship designs. Coriolis station is outside the core rules, but probably the way the rules work they could be scaled up to describe Coriolis station accurately. It’s likely that your PCs will encounter ships up to 1 km long, and they’re probably flying in some rusting hulk that is bigger than most ships on earth. I think there is a problem with Class 0 ships – we need some designs for in-system fighters but the current rules don’t support that – but otherwise the rules scale well and it works nicely. By adding dimensions to some components and changing the size of cargo, it’s possible to come up with some guidelines for how to lay out deckplans and design ships that are awesome in scale and lots of fun to fly in.

I want my spaceships big and exciting. I’m looking forward to the moment my PCs encounter a 1km long spaceship, and have to negotiate …

Edit to add:

I have house-ruled the hangar module to allow the hangar to carry more ships of lower class at a rate of 2^(class step). So a class 4 ship hangar can hold 1 class 2 ship or 2 class I ships. But the official rules say this should happen at a rate of 2^(2*class step). So a class IV ship hangar holds 1 class II ship or 4 class I ships. This leads to a really rapid rate of increase of ship sizes, even if we make generous assumptions about how small a class I ship is. For example, suppose we say the biggest a class I ship can be is 15m long and 10m wide, and a hangar should allow 5m on all sides of this ship. So a class I ship needs 25m x 20m of space in a hangar. Then a class III ship hangar would need to be 25mx20m in size, and the largest a class III ship would be would be perhaps 70m x 50m, if it had four hangars. However after this hangars scale up rapidly! A class IV ship hangar would need to hold four class I ships so needs to be 100mx20m, and a class IV ship could potentially have 8 of these, which in a realistic cylinder shape would make its hangars 200m long and 50m across – so the whole ship is about 250m long. After this things scale fast. A class V ship hangar holds 16 class I ships and needs to be 100m x 80m or 200m x 50m, so a class V carrier could be 1km long and definitely more than 600m. Then a class VI ship hangar would hold 64 class I ships and need to be 400m x 100m, and so on. By this reckoning I think the largest ships in each class would be about 1km (class V), about 2km (class VI), 4 km (class VII), 10 km (class VIII) and 20km (class IX). These are huge! And that’s assuming that class I ships are half the size of my starting assumption. In this variant there is much more diversity of size within ship classes, and the PCs will likely never encounter a ship bigger than class IV, but it does raise the possibility that the Order of the Pariah are sitting on some ginormous battleship (let’s call it the Yamato) that is going to appear in the Kua system some time in the future and be bigger than the Coriolis …


fn1: The largest ship on earth was the Knock Nevis, which was 460 m long. Panamax ships are routinely 250m long.

I am playing in a GURPS campaign that is a muskets and magic setting, in which our go-to fighter is a rifleman called Bamiyan. I haven’t been recording this campaign here because it has been written elsewhere up until some months ago (though with permission from the GM I may start). GURPS is a complex and fiddly system, with a heavy focus on realism, and one consequence of this is that our rifleman is constantly hampered by the amount of time it takes to reload his stupid muskets. Seriously, the dwarves need to do something about that! So, since we haven’t got a better technology, my wizard Freya Tigrisdottir is going to learn a new school of magic, Battle Magic, which enables her to affect guns and rilfemen. Here is a list of spells for that school.

Aim

Increases the accuracy rating of the weapon on its next shot by up to +5.

Duration: 1 minute (or next shot fired)

Base cost: 1/bonus

Prerequisite: magery 1

 

Perfect mechanism

Increases the affected weapon’s reliability rating to 20. Can be extended to additional weapons at a cost of 1 pt/weapon.

Duration: 1 minute

Base cost: 2, 1 to maintain

Prerequisite: At least 1 point of xp in the affected weapon’s class

 

Magic shot

Renders the next shot by the weapon magical, so that it can penetrate spells like Missile Shield. Also enables the weapon to affect non-corporeal magic targets (such as mages under the affect of Body of Air spells, ghosts, etc). Does not offer any other bonuses. Can be extended to additional weapons at a cost of 1 pt/weapon.

Duration: 1 minute (or next shot fired)

Base cost: 2

Prerequisite: Aim

 

Sniper

Grants a hit and damage bonus on the next shot fired by the subject. Note that the bonus affects the damage as well as the skill of the user. This spell does not render the weapon magical, since it affects the user of the gun, not the gun itself.

Duration: 1 minute (or next shot fired)

Base cost: 2/bonus

Prerequisite: Aim, Magic shot, at least 1 point of xp in the affected weapon’s class

 

Far sight

Enhances the shooter’s eyesight so that the range to the target is effectively less than the actual distance. This reduces the shooter’s penalty and also potentially (if enough points are sunk into the spell) removes the half damage penalty for firing at extreme range, or enables the shooter to fire beyond the usual range of the weapon.

Duration: 1 minute (or next shot fired)

Base cost: 2/range class

Prerequisite: Sniper

 

Fierce powder

Enhances the force at which a gun fires, adding 1d6 of damage to the resulting shot. Cannot be scaled up (it’s only powder, after all). Most effective when cast on pistols.

Duration: 1 minute (or next shot fired)

Base cost: 2

Prerequisite: Magic shot, Perfect mechanism

 

Stability

Renders the shooter’s upper body immune to the vicissitudes of environmental stress such as riding a horse or wagon, standing on a heaving ship, etc. Nullifies any penalties due to this condition and enables the shooter to automatically pass skill checks to maintain focus.

Duration: 1 minute

Base cost: 5

Prerequisite: Magery 2, sniper, far sight

 

Fast reload

Reduces the load time for any weapon to 1 second, provided the subject is holding the necessary components (powder, shot) and the gun. Can be extended to multiple weapons. Note that this still means that reloading will take at least 2 seconds –one second to cast the spell, and one second to load the gun. Note the process by which an officer and his batman can fire rapidly when in conjunction with a wizard: in second one he swaps his unloaded gun for a loaded gun his batman holds; in second two the batman produces the components for the unloaded gun (during which the soldier fires the loaded gun); in second three the wizard casts Fast Reload; in second four the batman loads the gun; then in second five the batman and officer swap the guns again, and so on. Note that this process can apply to two lines of soldiers if the wizard has enough mana to cast the reload spell on all the auxiliary reloaders at once.

Duration: 1 second

Cost: 2/gun

Prerequisites: Perfect mechanism, aim, magery 2, at least 1 xp spent in the gun being affected by the spell

 

Complex form

Enables the caster to combine two or more spells from this school together in a single casting. This is an additional cost on top of the standard cost of each spell, that costs 2 points per spell combined. So for example to cast aim and perfect mechanism in one casting would require 4 points plus the cost of those spells. Note that this form must affect the same subject so it cannot combine spells that affect shooters with spells that affect weapons.

Duration: 1 minute (or next shot fired)

Base cost: 2 per spell combined

Prerequisite: Magery 2, at least 2 other spells from this school.

 

Elemental embrace

Enables the caster to imbue the next shot fired with the damage from an elemental attack spell such as lightning bolt, fire bolt, etc. The caster must successfully cast the elemental attack spell within one minute of this spell, and the shot must also be fired within one minute of this spell, or the effect dissipates. It is wise to cast perfect mechanism when combining with this spell, since fumbles can be quite catastrophic. Note the total time to cast this spell is 1 second plus the number of seconds required to cast the elemental spell. Can be combined with Complex Form.

Duration: 1 minute (or next shot fired)

Base cost: 2 + elemental spell cast

Prerequisite: Magery 2, complex form, aim, fierce powder

 

Artillerist

Enables the caster to direct the rifleman’s shot even if the rifleman cannot see the target. This spell requires that the wizard be able to see the shooter and the target, and that there be some way that the bullet can cleanly travel to the target (i.e. open air all the way). It does not provide the shooter any bonuses, and the shooter cannot aim (since he/she cannot see the target). All it does is allow the shooter to shoot things he/she cannot otherwise see.

Duration: 1 minute

Base cost: 5

Prerequisite: Magery 2, complex form, Aim, sniper

 

Duelist shot

Enables the subject to fire two weapons at once with no penalty.

Duration: 1 minute (until next shot fired)

Base cost: 5

Prerequisite: Aim, sniper, artillerist, stability

During a moment of sudden frenzied violence in yesterday’s Shadowrun adventure our wizard character Adam Lee deployed an indirect mana attack spell for a grand total of only 2 or 3 points of damage. Immediately afterward our opponent – a russian Shadowrunner mage – dropped an indirect attack spell on me that something like 8 points of physical damage even though I have a monumental full defense dice pool, decent armour and good body. This prompted me to declare that “Direct spells are shit!” Today I thought I’d check this statistically, and see if I can identify some guidelines for using direct and indirect attack spells. There seems to be a general consensus that direct spells are better against people with heavy armour and high body, and reliably deliver damage while indirect spells have bigger upper limits. Is this true?

This post assumes the reader knows the Shadowrun 5e rules.

The difference between direct and indirect spells

Direct spells use the force of the spell as a limit on the spellcasting check, and target either body or willpower only. So for example our wizard Adam Lee, with a 14 dice spellcasting pool, will be making a challenged check against the body or willpower of the opponent, which will typically be 4-6. In contrast, indirect spells use the spellcasting skill with the same limit against the opponents defense (Intution+Reaction, no limit). Any net hits then do damage as a weapon with damage Force and AP -Force. So it appears that if you can get through the defense you can do a lot of damage, but high dodge opponents will be a challenge for this spell.

In practice it looks something like this: with a direct spell Adam can expect an average of about 5 hits, while the target can expect 1-3, so Adam can expect to fairly comfortably deliver 2-4 damage at a low risk of drain. With an indirect spell Adam will also get 5 hits, but the opponent will be likely to get 3-5 hits so perhaps half the time Adam won’t hit, and when he does hit he will get 1 net hit. But that net hit is added to the force of the spell, so e.g. with a Force 6 spell he might do 7 damage that is then challenged by the opponents soak with AP-6. If the opponent has body +armour of 17, this means the opponent rolls 11 dice, gets about 4 hits, ends up taking about 3 damage – so it seems like it levels out in these kinds of scenarios, but that the direct spell is more reliable. Is this correct?

Comparing effectiveness using average hits

I ran a brief comparison of the average damage to be expected from Adam Lee’s direct and indirect spell using a basic excel spreadsheet. Here I calculated the average hits for each spell, the average defense, calculating damage for the indirect spell only if the average spellcasting hits were bigger than the average defense hits, and then using average hits from the soak check to further reduce damage. I did this for a target with defense pool 10 and with body values of 3, 5 or 8. I ran the analysis for spells of force 3 to 8.  For each level of force I calculated the minimum armour value at which the direct spell did more damage on average than the indirect spell. This is the armour threshold for a direct spell to be better than an indirect spell. For example at Force 4 the direct spell is better against anyone with armour higher than 7, largely because the net hits from the indirect spell attack are so low (due to the Force-based limit) that it can’t do much damage.

My first interesting discovery was that this armour threshold is independent of the target’s Body – it is approximately the same for all three simulated Body values of 3, 5 or 8. This surprised me, because I thought the direct spell would really lose out against higher body, but ultimately this doesn’t matter. I also found that as Force increases, the armour threshold for a direct spell to be better than an indirect spell really skyrockets. Figure 1 shows this for a target with Body 5 and defense pool 10 (it is approximately equivalent for other Body values), and you can see that for a Force 8 spell the target needs to have armour of 23 or more in order for the direct spell to be better than the indirect spell. This is because a force 8 spell has 8 acc, 8 damage, and AP8 – it shreds through anything except the scariest armour, and in fact this spell is basically as good as the best sniper rifle in the game.

Armour threshold for effective direct spells by spell Force

So my first finding is that while in theory direct spells might be useful against heavily armoured foes, they typically are only better than indirect spells at very high levels of armour, and if you’re playing a mage capable of spells of force 6 or higher you are unlikely to be meeting the kind of armoured foes against whom you need to deploy your direct spells.

When is an indirect or direct spell better than a gun?

Next I conducted a few rough calculations to see when either of these kinds of spell is better than a good old fashioned lead injection. For this I posited a street samurai with a 14 dice pool to hit using a Colt America L36, which is Acc 7, dam 7P, AP1. Can’t go wrong with those stats! I compared it to Adam Lee’s direct and indirect spells against a couple of targets: one with defense pool 7, and total soak of 12 or 20; and one with defense pool 12,  and total soak of 12 or 20. I found that in all cases the indirect spell was better than the gun at Force 6. This was independent of the total soak or defense pool. In some cases the direct spell was simply never better than a gun, but interestingly for the higher defense pool against the higher soak, even a Force 4 direct spell was better than a gun.

The reason for this is that as the Force of an indirect spell increases its damage increases even more. Assuming you can hit on average, even the thinnest margin leads to increasing damage with increasing force, and the damage increases by more than the force. For example, against someone with defense pool 10 and soak 12, the average damage of the indirect spell ranges from 0 at force 3 (it doesn’t hit) up to 8 at force 8. At higher force values, damage increases by 1.3 – 1.5 for every unit increase in force. This is because the increased force simultaneously increases damage and decreases armour, so even when the force-based limit is well beyond what your mage can expect to roll on average (e.g. Adam Lee expects about 4-5 hits on average, so any spell of force 5+ applies a higher limit), you still see your damage increase.

This means that in general, as you increase the force on your indirect spell to make it do more damage, you also raise the threshold above which a direct spell of the same Force would be any use. And you make your spell increasingly better than a gun. And it appears that Force 6 is the sweet spot beyond which a readily-available and relatively dangerous gun is no longer better than a spell for a relatively beginnerish mage.

Direct spells as one-shot killers

There is a way to make a direct spell a one-shot killer, though: cast it at low force and Edge it. Remember, Edge adds 3 to your dice pool, sixes roll again, and you get to ignore limits. This means that a Force 4 direct spell has no upper limits, but is defended against by a very small dice pool. Adam Lee, Edging the spell, will likely get 10-11 hits, with no upper limit on how many he can get, but the target having to roll just 3-6 dice to defend. Chances are this will do 7-9 damage, which brings a single target perilously close to death. A similar indirect spell is much less likely to achieve this, because the defensive dice pool is larger and has no limit.

This strategy is especially effective against targets with very high dodge, because it ignores dodge, and it’s particularly effective for GMs to deploy against PCs since the NPCs don’t need to save up their Edge for later. If the opponent is protected by a mage they may get some counterspelling, and they can Edge the defense, but even then it is likely that by pooling all of that together they will still have a smaller dice pool than the attacker. If there is no mage in the party then even Edge is going to be of little use, and the spell is going to cause a lot of trouble. This is especially true for those mages who have both a stun and a physical damage direct spell in their arsenal, since they can choose the spell to match the target – a troll street samurai deploying Edge will likely still only get 6 dice to defend a stun attack. Note that Edging an indirect spell to make into a killer is less effective, since the real power of indirect spells lies in their high damage rating and armour piercing, so they are at their most effective when cast at the kind of Force ratings that do not put crippling limits on the caster’s success.

A final note on the effectiveness of attack spells in Shadowrun

Above I found that a 14 dice attacker with magic is only more effective than a 14 dice attacker with a basic pistol at Force 6. This is a big problem for magic, because Force 6 will cause physical damage on the caster unless they have a very high magic attribute, and for an indirect attack spell to be significantly better than a gun it will need to be Force 8 or 10, at which point any human mage will be risking very large amounts of physical damage that cannot be healed. I think this under powers magic a little relative to the other fighters in the game, unless the PC is somehow carefully balanced to make sure that it can be super good at resisting drain and casting spells, probably also with a high Body. One way to get around this could be to relax the limits on Magic attributes, allowing them to become 7 or 8 in basic characters, which means that a combat mage who really focuses on that aspect of their character could be able to sling around Force 7 or 8 spells without suffering physical damage. Another option could be to drop the rule that drain can become physical when the Force exceeds the Magic attribute – it means that Force 8 spells are still high risk but not fatal. This is particularly important because Force acts as a limit on spellcasting rolls, and if you can only cast Force 5 or 6 spells you are suffering a significant reduction in maximum attack capability compared to say a street samurai (7 with a katana) or a sniper (8 with some rifles). I think in general the rules on limits may be a problem for high level characters – when you have a limit of 8 on the number of hits you can roll, but your opponent has 30 dice in dodge and no limit, you’re simply never going to hit, and fights are going to become very long and boring as people trade blows that never hit or only barely hit and do little damage. I think a quality that allows you to increase accuracy, or some other property for higher level characters, might be useful. At the moment wizards have the ability to exceed all limits by casting high Force spells but in reality they never will – a Force 10 spell will carry a large risk of serious injury for a wizard. I think it would be more exciting and make wizards more dangerous if they did not face this extreme risk. Remember that wizards have low initiative and weak armour (in general), and everyone aims to gank them, so it would be nice if they could be more able to take these risks in the one round of combat where they’re still alive.

Another possibility is that mages just aren’t that powerful in Shadowrun, and that it is better to play a mage who is good at a single material thing (e.g. shooting a pistol) and give him or her moderate background magic for support – healing, armour, that sort of thing. But even then, a PC who can get a maximum of +3 to your armour for a short time is not an especially great contribution to the party, especially if their shooting is good but not top notch. I think a few things here need to be tweaked to make mages more dangerous at the extremes of their range.

 

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Naevia contemplates a Scourging

Naevia contemplates a Scourging

My group has started a Fate short campaign that we’re calling Magica Romae, a campaign set in the Roman era with light magic. I missed the first session, in Gaul, with undead; my character joins on the second. She is Naevia the Holy, once a Vestal Virgin who finished her 30 years of service with distinction, became a patrician landowner in Rome, and now is traveling to Gaul with her retinue on some kind of secret business, probably in service of the Vestal Virgins.

Vestal Virgins are a group of six women, recruited between the age of 6 and 10, who are charged with maintaining the sacred Fire of Vesta, and who are punished brutally for allowing it to be extinguished or for sullying their virgin status. They served for 30 years, and after retirement could own property and vote, unlike the majority of women in Roman life. During their service they were charged with many tasks and entrusted with many responsibilities, and enjoyed a reputation for purity and trustworthiness. Naevia was selected at 8, served to 38, and is 42 at the time of the campaign; she has spent the last 4 years since her retirement building up political connections and power in the city, and maintains a connection to the College of the Vestals and to the other Vestal Alumni. It is through these connections that she finds herself on a mission to Gaul.

Naevia, being a Vestal, has magical powers related to healing, protection and divination, though she deploys them sparingly and as much as possible avoids using them for her own benefit. She prefers to exercise temporal rather than supernatural power, and is usually accompanied by a retinue of servants and bodyguards who act on her behalf. In Rome she usually travels incognito, avoiding public displays of her presence, since people who recognize her will tend to make a big fuss at her presence. Naevia is a short, slender woman with tumbling dark hair and somewhat coarse features, marred by childhood illness, but she has a rich, commanding voice and the natural charisma of a woman used to being listened to. Her eyes are remarkable: deep violet pools with a strange power of fascination over lesser people. Naevia is not an actor or a seductress – she deals with people honestly and in the frank and direct manner of a woman entrusted with many spiritual responsibilities and great wisdom.

Naevia does not usually have to deal with others, though, for her extensive retinue deal with most daily irritants. While traveling in Gaul, her retinue consists of the following people.

  • The Lictor Curiatus: Naevia’s chief bodyguard, Rufus Faustus Varro, a dour 30-something pleb elevated to lictor status and entrusted with guarding dignitaries on foreign duties, is an old friend of Naevia’s from her travels in the latter half of her period of service. He is only a little taller than her, squat, heavily muscled and heavily scarred, dressed in traditional Roman field armour but armed with an outlandish German axe. He seems to spend much of his time lazing around, drinking wine and directing the guards, but he also appears to be Naevia’s confidante and final executor of her will. It is rumoured that he is her lover, but he scoffs at such rumours – after he has soundly scourged the fool who uttered them.
  • The Illyrian Scourge: Naevia’s retinue includes four bodyguards, freed gladiator slaves originally from Illyria, who are fiercely loyal to her and Rufus Faustus Varro. These four men are whip-thin, lean, tall, blonde-haired men with wild eyes and fast fists. They never speak, and it is generally accepted that their tongues were removed before they entered Naevia’s service. Rumour has it that she personally imposed upon the authorities to pardon them of their crimes and put them in her service; darker rumours suggest witchbonds they cannot break. There is little point in asking the Scourge their opinion, since they cannot speak and are quick to do violence to those who impugn their vestal sister.
  • The maid: Known only as “the Greek”, Naevia’s maid accompanies her on all her travels, and is never far from her side. The Greek is a luscious young woman from Greece, a lascivious creature made entirely of curves, tumbling dark hair, and flirtatious looks and touches. Aged perhaps in her late teens or early twenties, the Greek is everything Naevia is not: wanton, cheerful, sexual, and extremely shy. She is also rumoured to be Naevia’s preferred assassin, the tool Naevia uses on unsuspecting local lords to work her most vicious wiles, trained in some cruel Macedonian fastness in all the secret tricks of poison and blade. Challenged on such stories, the Greek will demur and blush, and hide behind her indulgent mistress. How could one so innocent and shy be mistaken for anything except a simple maid?
  • The accountant: Lazy, wine-sodden, cynical old Gnaeus Paterculus Flaccus, known to one and all as Flacco, is rarely far from Naevia’s retinue and almost never at her side. He cares for her money and worldly affairs, keeping careful track of her holdings and earnings, helping her to buy oddities and trade goods during her travels, and keeping her informed of the latest machinations of the councils to which she is not invited. Flacco has a penchant for young boys, though none would consider it a weakness, and is rumoured to have bedded the serving boys and slaves of almost every noble family in Rome and its most important satellites; whether he does this for his own pleasure, or to maintain a complex web of spies and eavesdroppers, is a matter of much debate. Certainly though, everyone agrees that over his long life he has elevated those of his boy lovers who served him well to positions of high status, while those who disappoint or betray him have inevitably disappeared. Darker rumours suggest that in amongst his books and ledgers he keeps another, secret ledger that records the fate of all those who serve him. But how could such a silly old accountant accrue such power, and why would he end up in service to one as noble as Naevia the Holy?
  • The Hag: Known universally as just “her”, the Hag has her own wagon and supplies, and attends Naevia’s retinue almost as if she were wilfully pursuing the younger woman, rather than a servant. Sometimes she and her blind dwarven manservant, Puggus, will disappear for days, rejoining the retinue at some later point and giving no account of their deeds. Naevia and the Hag almost never speak, meet or even make eye contact, and for much of their journey together Naevia appears blissfully ignorant of her presence, but occasionally they will draw together for counsel and scheming. Rumour has it that the Hag is an old and disgraced vestal virgin, who was sentenced to be buried alive for her transgressions but was somehow rescued by a young man who she subsequently ate. Others say she is Naevia’s grandmother, or actually a Siren or Medusa who has joined Naevia’s retinue for her own reasons. Some whisper that Naevia needs the hag as a tool to cast dark magics, which are outside of Vesta’s pantheon but almost certainly within Naevia’s power. If anyone knows the secret of the Hag, they do not speak of it. Only a fool would meddle in the affairs of such a sinister crone.

This retinue, and a few hapless slaves dragged along for the duration, came as far as Gaul with Naevia. Unfortunately they were separated in heavy weather, and attacked by Gauls. When the adventure starts Naevia is a captive of these Gauls, and her retinue struggling to catch up and free her. If only fate would deliver unto her some heroes who could free her, and help her in her secret mission …

How it was

How it was

Edgar Evans is an eighth generation kindred character in the new Vampire The Masquerade short campaign my group has started. The campaign is intended to involve not just the vampire characters, but also their elders (6th generation legends) and also one ghoul in the service of the ancilla. Edgar Evans is a rich man with a business empire, and he also has a small domain, and it is in this domain that his ghoul, Tia Nero, can be found. This post is the description of his domain and an introduction to Tia Nero, but in order to understand this domain, it is necessary to understand the politics of supernaturals in the second decade of the new millenium, as the humans they had long ignored, scorned or fed upon begin to build a world that is closing in on the supernaturals, and crushing them.

A brief history of supernatural failure

For aeons the main supernaturals ignored human development. Sure, the vampires fed on them and the Fae remained intertwined with them, but these relationships were not symbiotic or cooperative – humans lived in fear of the unknown, crouched in the dark and looked to superstition to rescue them from their night terrors. Over all the millennia of this unpleasant coexistence the supernaturals achieved nothing, made no mark on the world except, perhaps, to score fear in the human soul.

But then human science overcame human superstition, and those fear-scars became just a cultural memory. It wasn’t just that there were too many humans for the supernaturals to scare directly – it wasn’t just the thronging mass of these stinking, short-lived, frail and useless cattle. Science overcame fear, and then slowly science overwhelmed the natural world. For millenia humans and supernaturals had lived side by side, and nothing really changed – and then in one century humans changed the whole world. The supernaturals looked on in horror as humans harnessed the power of the sun to destroy cities, and tried to come to terms with the ability of humans to vanish darkness and fear with cold logic and simple technology. They dismissed all that – sure humans could build big things, but they were still just frail and weak cattle. What’s to fear?

But then the anthropocene began, and the supernaturals felt fear of their cattle for the first time. Every summer the werewolves would find new settlements, would get into fights over lost land, would find their wild reaches slowly stripped back and reduced, and though they might fight an individual farmer successfully, soon enough the hordes would arrive and they would need to fall back to a new redoubt. The mages discovered that it was harder to do their dingier works. It wasn’t just the new laws about child exploitation, or the sudden desire of humans to catalogue every one of their pathetic number, so they could never be lost. It wasn’t even the new laws on ownership and cruelty that made it so much harder to conduct animal sacrifices, or the sudden loss of empty urban space that mages would use for their less savoury experiments. The mages really noticed when they found they could no longer obtain the magical reagents they needed, because the mere existence of millions of Chinese using traditional Chinese medicine drained their reagents dry. There were so many of these pestilential creatures, consuming, consuming, always taking and taking and needing more … The vampires noticed that the dark and secret places of the old cities had disappeared, been replaced with warehouse apartments and subways and underground parking zones and all the paraphernalia of a civilization that increasingly was ignoring them – until it started making bad movies and games about them. In the space of a century they went from an object of fear to a kitsch joke, laughed at by the new science.

Nobody asked the mummies what they thought. Who would dare?

But the supernaturals that noticed it most were the Fae. Intimately connected to the patterns and cycles of nature, their supernatural home’s fate intertwined with the physical world, they noticed very quickly as the planet started to warm. As the summers lengthened and the ice began to retreat, the balance of power of the courts of Winter and Summer changed, and Summer began to rise. They watched the behavior of humans and they realized – disgusted at the potency of human science – that humans identified the changes a scant 50 years after they did. And worse still, humans identified the cause – humans were the cause. The Fae began to panic.

Most vampires did not care about the Fae, although a few had their connections; even after the Fae’s warnings began to spread, most vampires cared little for the threat of global warming. They were creatures of the night, and CO2 was not going to change the earth’s orbit. Some reacted against it with the same kind of visceral wariness that many humans show towards nuclear power, simply because of its association with nuclear weapons: Vampires have always feared the sun, and anything which enhances its effects fills many of them with a kind of unwary, superstitious dread. Others saw in global warming an opportunity – after floods and storms people go missing, and the chaos engendered by these catastrophes opens up an easy hunting ground for their kind, free of the increasing risk of reprisals that had made the Masquerade so important in modern life. For them, global warming was a chance to enjoy chaos.

But some thinkers amongst the Fae and the Vampire recognized the real philosophical threat. In a scant 100 years humans had gone from cowering, sniveling prey to a vast hive mind that could change the climate of the entire planet. They had become a horde, swarming over the planet in such numbers and building their greedy edifices in such abundance that they had not only destroyed the earth’s natural beauty, they had changed the weather, and now they were harnessing the sun and the power of the sun. The balance had been disturbed, and it was clear that its restoration would require extreme measures. A movement arose in kindred society, a movement popular among the Brujah and some of the darker sects and alliances – a demand for a cull, a real cull, before this horde overwhelmed all the dark spaces of the earth with their lust for things and their increasingly loving relationship with the sun. What if they found a cure for vampirism, some asked? What if they discovered the kindred’s society, and decided to purge it, or discovered a vaccine against the creation of new vampires? Many laughed at such fears, but the chuckling died down when the thinkers observed that humanity had eliminated smallpox in a mere 30 years, that there were societies where almost no child died, that in modern society it was impossible for a child to go missing without thousands of people descending on the scene of the calamity. They always found their murderers, and the time it took them to find a solution to a problem was growing shorter and shorter. From the discovery of smallpox to its vaccine took thousands of years. From the discovery of HIV to its treatment took 20. How long would it take them to purge the world of vampires if they found them? And as they swarmed over the earth, defiling it and investigating it and laying bare its dwindling cache of secrets, how could they not find the kindred?

It wasn’t exactly a panic, but a kind of paralysis set in amongst the supernaturals. They watched as the dark places, the wild places, the sacred places were first torn away from them, then paved over or turned into tourist spots, young couples taking selfies by the dozen in places that a hundred years ago they would have been terrified to walk within a day’s march of. What could they do about this? In their slow and sinister way the vampires schemed, and assumed that they would always be able to hide amongst the flesh folk, always be able to make some new scheme.

For the Fae, though, the philosophical debate quickly became a real battle for power, as it always does amongst the Fae. After the Court of Winter’s amateurish attempt to start a nuclear war in Cuba a fragile political truce was born – no more direct interference in human affairs, by any of the Courts, and everyone expected them all to honour it. But nobody counted on the Changeling, whose numbers grew as the human population swelled. Changeling were like sleeper cells for their courts, a kind of Super PAC of faerie power, who could act on behalf of their Courts without breaching the fragile agreement the Courts had made after the Winter Court’s foolish attempt to produce a nuclear winter. They manoeuvred their changelings like pieces on a chess board, infiltrating human business and politics to try and get their way. By the early 1990s everyone in the supernatural world knew the score: Winter and Spring were with the Democrats, and Summer and Autumn with the Republicans, because all of Fae meddling had shaken out along one deadly axis – global warming. By the early 1990s nothing else mattered, because every Court knew that Summer and Autumn would be forever ascendant if humanity failed to tackle the causes. All of the Fae realms had realized their fate was now tied to that of humanity, and they bent all their will to changing it.

Naturally they sowed the ranks of business and politics with changelings. One such changeling emerged in the 1980s in business, and began to grow in power and influence. He was aging but still robust, an orange-faced caricature of a rapacious businessman, making his money in dodgy real estate and casino deals, tied to the mob and bribing politicans wherever he needed to, playing fast and loose with every standard of business and human decency – a classic progeny of the Summer Court. This man was a crass, larger-than-life bully boy, a carnival barker with tiny hands and huge insecurities, the kind of narcissist who makes it big in Fae life, and by the end of the 1980s he had begun to reap the rewards of that narcissism in mortal life, with ghost-written books and tasteless TV shows. And in the early 1990s he began to make hints about turning his popularity to political advantage – he began to talk about moving into politics.

This was too much for one Vampire, Johnny Falco[1]. Johnny Falco had an irrational hatred of the Fae and their machinations[2], and the thought of a Summer Court Changeling taking control of American politics filled him with disgust – especially this repulsive, orange-faced ignoramus with his trashy tastes and his terrible architecture and his shallow opinions on everything. This was exactly the kind of person who really irritated Johnny Falco, and who made his grandsire despair of the cattle. So one day in 1996 while at one of his casinos in Atlantic City this businessman was murdered, horribly, with a trenching shovel and a gold-plated scale model of one of his own towers. No one saw the person who did it, no one understood how the perpetrator could have gotten into the businessman’s inner sanctum, or how he had managed to remove his face and leave it on a Ronald McDonald statue a stone’s throw away from the tower, in full view of a whole cluster of cctv cameras, but there it was the next day, leering bloodily at a small group of terrified Japanese tourists.

The mystery was never solved, and the businessman’s empire fell into ruin – and nowhere more so than his Atlantic City casino properties.

The Domain

Johnny Falco didn’t just kill the businessman – he also killed his property. The Atlantic City casino properties were bleeding money, but after the murder the authorities discovered an elaborate system of shell companies that covered up for … nothing. They couldn’t find where the money came from or who was responsible for the properties, as if the dead businessman had been a mere figurehead. The casinos sat empty as investigations continued, but even years later no trace of the original investors could be found, or their money. Occasionally a city authority or some rival business would set up a scheme to buy the properties but always at the last moment someone would get cold feet, or the key figure in the investment program would disappear or die, or suddenly their business would be bankrupted overnight by some strange market play. The business world gave up on them and they fell into disrepair, crumbling in the centre of Atlantic City’s glitzy gambling zone. But buildings like that don’t just decay – they poison. Their rot spread out from them like a cancer, infecting the businesses around them and slowly paralyzing the entire zone. Investors saw easier pickings in native reservations and the effervescent Vegas economy, and slowly they pulled their money out. By the turn of the century the collapse of the casinos had spread outward to infect a large part of the Atlantic City seafront, which became a low-rent junkyard of pawn shops, bounty hunters, gunshops and cheap liquor stores. A section of the city 10 blocks long became a wilderness of malfunctioning neon and broken lives, a self-governing conclave of the poor and the destitute.

It was here, in 1996, remarkably coincidentally with the death of the businessman, that Edgar Evans decided to set up a surf shop – right across the road from that Ronald McDonald statue. His Polaris foundation bought up an old gaming parlour and turned it into a massive surf emporium, drawing expressions of disgust and disappointment from investors across the eastern seaboard. People had had high hopes for Evans, a reformed extreme sportsman with robust business sense, but this deal made no sense at all. Sure, the entire Jersey coastline was a haven for surfers and they all had to pass through Atlantic City at some point but did he seriously think they would slum it at his surf emporium amongst the broken glass and broken dreams of this banged-out strip?

They underestimated Evans. He didn’t just sell surfboards, but rented combi vans, set up a vegan organic restaurant called 20,000 Cows, established a live venue and a cheap hostel over the surf shop. Life returned to this tiny part of the seafront, and somehow surfers from all around the world came to enjoy his hospitality. The Atlantic City surf festival was founded, and his business thrived. He expanded to the warehouse next door, turning it into a branch office of the Polaris Foundation and using it to store equipment for the Foundation’s Atlantic Coast Research Project. Once a year the Sea Shepherd ship, Polaris Quest, docked nearby and held an open day.

And above it all loomed the businessman’s abandoned, crumbling tower, his name still emblazoned across its penthouse level in tarnished gold, bragging about the long-dead icon’s fame. The building was occupied now, by squatters and homeless and crack gangs, but they seemed to have a kind of respect for the area, because they never caused any trouble for Evans or his business. Dark rumours spread about his means of enforcing his will on these local homeless, but no evidence ever came to light. He opened a boxing gym for local street kids, ploughed money into a drugs program, funded local rejuvenation projects – he was in every way a perfect local citizen. But still people wondered – how did he have such a hold over these locals.

How had he made this his domain?

The Ghoul

Of course the press came sniffing around, looking for answers, for clues to Evans’s business vitality. They always ended up meeting the same person: Tia Nero. Tia Nero was the corn-haired, blue-eyed, mesh-and-leather skater girl who managed the surf emporium. Short, slight and cheerful, always dressed in a mixture of black punk and skater style, she was the antithesis of the good business person, but she had a way – she had a certain charisma, a certain personality, that made people listen to her and trust her. She was sassy, she had a reputation on the skate scene for extreme bravery, and she was a sharp manager. She would talk to the press, show them around, introduce them to colourful characters, show them photos of her skating days, take them to enjoy the phenomenal food and atmosphere of 20,000 Cows[4], and by the time they left they were writing glowing reviews of this new social project.

In reality Tia Nero is a revenant, the illegitimate child of one of Polaris’s ghouls, sent to serve Edgar Evans in the new world. She is everything her public persona suggests, but she is also a steely agent of the night, ruthlessly enforcing a set of strict rules on the residents of the neighbouring tower and ensuring that they are always available for Evans to feed upon or call upon. She also administers this most public branch of his business empire, helping him to retain his connection to a community of surfers who still view him entirely positively, and supporting the activist credibility he needs to maintain connections with the environmental movements that he is manipulating for his own and Polaris’s ends. Evans is mostly in New York city now, and when he needs an agent he knows he can trust to operate on his behalf in the daytime, with initiative and sense, he calls on Tia. He knows she will do what he wants, and over long years of working together he has never met anyone he trusts more. There is only one aspect of their relationship that creates any friction between them.

She can surf in the sunlight.


fn1: Actually another player’s PC

fn2: He got the worst end of their behavior in our World of Darkness campaign and the player hates hates hates them

fn3: Tia Nero is a loose anti-person to Tia Blanco, a vegan surfer I have on my instagram feed

fn4: 20 years ago I had a phenomenal afternoon experience in a vegan restaurant called 20,000 cows in Byron Bay, now dead (though its Lismore branch lives on). Nothing special happened, just a wonderful atmosphere, great food and a feeling of wholeness and comfort that I have never forgotten. Here it is resurrected in Atlantic City, in the shadow of a … certain business person’s … untimely bankruptcy

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Nothing can go wrong with this expedition

Nothing can go wrong with this expedition

The Guardian has a series on lost cities, and today’s entry is a description of the lost city of Thonis-Heracleion, an Egyptian trading outpost at the mouth of the river Nile that sank under the sea in the year 200BC. It suffered a grisly though probably slow end, sinking into the sea in a liquefaction event as the weight of its temples finally became too much for the waterlogged sands on which it was built, which makes it a perfect analogy for the Egyptian empire at the end of its days, as the Greek and Roman empires began to eclipse it. Near its end Thonis-Heracleion was also eclipsed economically by Alexandria to the west, but in its heyday it appears to have been a bustling trade metropolis standing at the intersection of many great cultures. The Guardian’s description of the archaeological dig suggests a city that achieved almost-Talislantic levels of multi-culturalism:

The interplay between Pharaonic and Greek societies in Thonis-Heracleion is a constant feature of the city’s remnants: Hellenic helmets were nestled in the seabed alongside their Egyptian counterparts, as were Cypriot statuettes and incense burners, Athenian perfume bottles, and ancient anchors from Greek ships

and its description of the kinds of people who mingled in the ports and alleys of the city also suggests the kind of city that we love from Sword and Sorcery novels:

if you were a European merchant in the fifth century BC – an importer of grain, perfume or papyrus perhaps, or an exporter of silver, copper, wine or oil – then Thonis-Heracleion loomed large on your horizon. The same was true if you were a Carian mercenary, an educated Greek, a professional sailor, or a member of the Pharaonic court

This is a city that mingled Pharaonic nobility with vulgar traders from across the known world, soldiers and adventurers from Europe, Africa and Asia, and scholars from every major city in the mediterranean. Throw in some magic and you have a city brimming with intrigue and adventure, and bustling with gods from a thousand known religions. And the city itself has all the qualities of the kind of city you want to adventure in – Athens crossed with New Crobuzon and London before the Romans took it. It is a city of alleyways and bridges, canals and temples, where river boats from the Nile dock on one side to transfer their wares to Phoenician and Greek triremes on the other. It is easy to imagine its marketplaces and restaurants bustling with the people of a thousand nations: inscrutable dark-skinned warriors who drifted down the Nile from Ethiopia or Sudan, voluble traders from Greece, taciturn phoenician slavers surrounded by Turkish mercenaries, Bedouin camel merchants gathering for the trek across the great deserts to Timbuktu, and Roman explorers looking to map out new territories for the Republic. Over all this would loom the temples of a hundred clashing religions, calling their followers to prayer and supplication and, of course, plotting a thousand plots.

Thonis on sea

Adventures in the lost world of Thonis

The world of Thonis-Heracleion is a mixture of ancient societies competing for trade and power in the cauldron of the Mediterranean. The Greek and Roman Republics, Phoenicians, Egyptians and Persians were all in various stages of conflict or rebellion when Thonis-Heracleion was at its height, but they would also have been mingling with kingdoms from the African interior – the Nok from Nigeria, the Ethiopian successor states, the Kushites of what is now Sudan, and the many fragmentary and transient kingdoms of central Africa. In amongst these would have been permanent minorities, such as Jews fleeing from the Babylonians, and exotic people from as far afield as Carthaginian Morocco and Roman Gaul. With these people would come trade from every corner of Africa and Europe and near Asia, and also every political and religious intrigue they could muster. With the spies and agents of the scheming powers of Europe and Asia would also come their wizards, their priests and their assassins. The city would be ideal for either a sandbox campaign, based in Thonis but venturing down the Nile to Kush and Ethiopia, or along the coast to Palestine and Morocco; or it could be the centre of a story campaign focused around the conflicting ambitions of the imperial powers of the time, and also the increasingly desperate attempts of the last Pharaonic dynasties to remain independent and powerful in the face of growing Roman and Persian power. What kind of adventures could we expect to see in such a world?

  • Tomb robbing: For the death cults of Egypt, tombs contain hidden magical treasures – and very real dangers. The last dynasties of the Pharaohs are still supported by their death cults, and in their desperation to regain their old powers they begin to loot the tombs of their own ancestors, sending in foolhardy adventurers to find the powerful relics buried therein. Of course they hire foreigners for the job – they know about the curse that befalls anyone who defiles those tombs, so why not send in one of the new Roman or Greek interlopers to take all the risk? Of course, they don’t tell their mercenaries, and when they find out they are doomed desperate measures are implemented …
  • Blood for the old gods: People are going missing in the marketplaces of the city, and questions are being asked about who is responsible. In fact it is a Pharaonic death cult, preparing a dark ritual to bring back one of their ancient gods and purge the city of the enemies of Egypt. But who are those enemies, and is the death cult’s goal one of simple racial purity, or do they have more sinister political designs in mind?
  • The old man’s fleece: Down in one of the poorer quarters by the river docks is an old Greek wanderer, long bereft of his mind, who sits in the blazing sun by the river and mutters to himself of golden sheep and women with snake hair whose gaze turns men to stone. The locals, poor fishermen and porters all, laugh at him but they treat him kindly – give him sweet pastries in the morning, and move him into the shade at midday, and because he is a gentle old man full of stories they leave their children with him when they go to the well. But then one day the prodigal son of a local porter returns to cries of joy – he was long thought lost in a storm on the Phoenician merchant ship he rowed for a paltry day’s wage. At the party he tells of how he was the sole survivor of his ship, whose crew were entranced by the songs of long-haired beauties in the water, who devoured them as they dived into the azure sea seeking love. He shows them the wax he stuffed in his ears to protect himself “because he heard the old man’s story down by the river when he was little.” Suddenly they realize that old man has been amongst them for too long, and could his stories be true? But the old man is gone, taken by two stern-looking Canari mercenaries. Why is everyone suddenly looking for him? The folk of that poor quarter club together their money and hire a likely looking band of adventurers – they want their old man back, because he was gentle with the children – and they want the treasure his stories speak of. From this builds a campaign with intrigue and a chase for riches – and a retracing of the steps of the Odyssey, as the characters attempt to recover all the wealth and power that the old man spoke of in those days down by the river.
  • The golem in the old quarter: Since the Babylonians went mad Jews have been flocking to the city, which is the first stop on the way to safety in Egypt but for many also the last – why go further into unknown lands when Thonis-Heracleion holds the promise of a melting pot to rival the Persian capital? Just stay here and toil amongst the unnamed and uncaring hordes, because no one will ever do to a stranger here what was done in Babylon. But one old scholar nurses a grudge, and in the long, sultry evenings of the summer he stands on the roof of his house looking over at the Babylonian trader’s house, and thinks of devious ways of bringing about the end of that hated foe. Eventually he finds it, in the forbidden texts of his father’s. One night the golem breaks lose, kills the old man, and begins its rampage. Can the characters stop it before the authorities come with their sinister army of the dead, and lay waste to the whole quarter?
  • The African expedition: A Roman scholar has heard rumours of riches beyond measure in the interior, a graveyard of elephants where there is so much ivory that one could build a castle from it. But between Thonis and that ancient grave lies a thousand kms of trouble and mad kings, and anyway he’s not sure exactly where it is. Will the characters go with him, and share in his wealth? Or are they soft, lazy fruit eaters like the rest of this town …?

A city beset by foes and surrounded by opportunities, ruled over by a crumbling dynasty propped up by death magic, and subverted from below by the teeming poor and the scheming new religions of the European empires. To its south lies the rich green and gold tapestry of Nile country, to its north the dazzling azure of the mediterranean. In the day it is blasted by the heat of the Egyptian sun, that gives way to long, warm evenings of song and wine and intrigue, nights of hashish dreams and ghosts. Thonis-Heracleion – explore it all before it sinks below the shifting sands of the Nile delta, and drowns the gods of four civilizations in the startling blue waters that held brought all its promise.

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