Steampunk


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

Ignoring the coming wave

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

Failure of Case Isolation

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

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

The impact of austerity and poor choices

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

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

The frenzy of reopening

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

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

History repeating as tragedy

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

The coming storm

Our heroes are in Mumbai seeking the notorious womanizer and drunkard Mark Bond, who they have been told has “gone native”. It is 1857, hot, tense, and it is obvious to them after just a day in Mumbai that there is trouble on the streets of the city: the local population is not happy with the state of things, and after their time in the Anglo-Persian war they have an instinct for the trouble that is coming. They also think, after visiting his house, that Bond did not go native, but has been abducted by the same group that attacked them on the streets of Muscat. They have identified a likely place to look for him, but they need transport to get them there quickly, and so they cut a deal with Ashkarpreet Singh, hero of the Punjab and captain of the former British corvette the Gurmukh: they will raid the home of the Collector, a notorious artifact dealer, and steal back a diamond that belonged to the Sikhs. In return he will take them to the place they have identified, a hillfort in Rajasthan. They have also befriended the mysterious Maori warrior-captain Manawa, and discovered that the Collector holds an ancient cape of her people that confers immortality on its wearer. She told them that the only weapon that can penetrate this cloak is silver, and so after dividing the few silver bullets they own between their two marksmen, they head to the Collector’s residence in the rural fringe of Mumbai.

They arrived at dusk, taking a carriage to a nearby turnpike and then walking past fields and orchards to a small rural compound surrounded by a high wall. Rather than march straight in, they decided to first send a scout over the wall. William Oxbridge took on this task, slipping into the bushes on the far side of the wall and creeping through the garden to examine the compound. He saw a small estate house surrounded by gardens. A horseless carriage stood empty in front of the main entrance, and to the rear of the house he saw a small, unguarded entrance. Between the entrance and the cover of the bushes, however, was a small oriental-styled garden with some strange statues in it that William suspected would be dangerous. A path led from the back yard through the garden to a gazebo, from which he could hear voices. He crept closer to listen.

The death of Flashman

A man and a woman were engaged in breathless whispered love talk in the gazebo. The man, called Flashman, was desperately trying to escape from the garden before the girl Lucy’s father caught him en tryste with her. Lucy was trying to convince him – breathlessly, and with some disputation, since he kept grabbing her in the Flashman Crossgrip – to meet her father so that he could ask for her hand in marriage, but Flashman was having none of it. He departed from the gazebo to a final plaintiff whispered “Don’t you want to be the 8th Earl of Elgin!?”, and with a final “All in good time my love!” sidled off toward the main gate. As he departed, Lucy assured him she would leave the back door open for him to creep back in. William Oxbridge III sneaked back to the wall and crept over it to warn the others: Flashman knew a way into the house that would not trigger the statues.

 

They ambushed Flashman as he flopped over the wall. He was a big, ruddy-faced and pugnacious looking British man, a classic boarding school bully, the kind of man it is a pleasure to beat down. When they surprised them he eyed them up with a nasty, piggish look and demanded to know “Are you from the Maoris?!” and then “Did the Sikhs send you?!” and then “It was that devilish MacArthur wasn’t it? Gods, and his girl was a flat-chested hussy, barely worth the trouble!”

With that they laid into him. He was a hard man, wearing good quality infernal webbing and carrying a couple of useful and vicious little magic items that he deployed to his benefit. Unfortunately he was not the equal of Abdul’s shadow step, and caught without a sword on his devil’s mission to deflower a British lady, he was no match for the four of them. Finally they killed him, and the flower of British colonialism lay dying in the dust of a byway in old Mumbai. They looted him for all his gear, dumped his body in a drainage ditch, and scaled the wall.

The 7th Earl of Elgin

Having killed Flashman they decided to sneak into the house through two routes. First William Oxbridge would use his resurrectionist power to steal Flashman’s form and enter the house through the back door. He would open a side door for them so that they could all creep in, and then go upstairs to Lucy’s room. Disguised as Flashman, he would trick her into revealing the location of the room where her father kept the artifacts, and then come and tell the others. This plan went just as well as they had all expected, and William was forced to bed the girl in order to maintain his disguise. Disgusted with himself and the sad contingencies the universe sometimes forced a man to deal with in the course of his service to the nation, William left the girl dozing and slipped downstairs to open the window of a cloakroom. The PCs crept in here and William crept back upstairs to recover his belongings.

Unfortunately at this point things went wrong. As the PCs were preparing to leave the cloakroom the earl of Elgin emerged in a dressing gown, saw them, and called in his guards. The group were attacked by an animated suit of samurai armour, and as they were forced to defend themselves William was upstairs, unable to help, trying to learn from Lucy where the artifacts were. The Earl of Elgin then reappeared dressed in the Maori cloak of invulnerability, and in joining the battle revealed himself to be a powerful wizard. Fergus shot him with silver bullets, but even with three shots he could not kill the old man. William came downstairs to help but missed with the first shot of his silver bullet, and was then attacked by a second animated armour that hurt him so badly he had to flee upstairs to Lucy’s room. Bursting into the room, he failed to warn her and she shot him with a shotgun. With William hors de combat, the battle raging and Fergus out of bullets, the Scottish madman had to charge across the hallway to grab the pistol William had dropped, while Abdul tried to distract the earl of Elgin. Fortunately the man was by now so wounded that he teleported away, and the PCs had a chance to kill the remaining animated armour, heal William and regroup. As they did this Markus levitated himself out of a window and onto the roof of the house, to look for the Earl. He saw him loading a box of artifacts onto the back of the horseless carriage and beginning to ride away as the others emerged from the house in pursuit. Markus levitated the case off of the carriage and up to the roof, hiding it out of sight, as the rest of the group chased the carriage and finally killed the Earl. They took his cape and wand and dumped his body with Flashman’s. Up close they discovered that the cape was made from the huge feathers of some ancient giant bird.

In the box they found some money, the Koh-i-Noor diamond, and a few other small magic items. They retired to the docks, where they returned the cape to Manawa. In return for this gift she bound our Maori warriors to their eternal service. They parted on the best of terms, climbed into the Gurmukh, and set off for the hill fort where they expected to find Mark Bond.

The Mughal’s Tomb

The flight to the hillfort was uneventful and fast, and when they arrived the fort’s few defenders abandoned it in terror of the approaching corvette. They searched the fort and found Mark Bond in a tower room, his whole body flayed and nailed to a cross, insects crawling in his left eye. He was still alive after two weeks of torture, but only barely. He had not revealed what he knew, but he revealed the full facts to the group: a gang of Hindu extremists planned to desecrate the tomb of an ancient Mughal princess, and through an abominable ritual they would raise a god of death that would destroy every Muslim and Sikh in all the sub-continent and drive the British out. Already they were planning an uprising, that would break out just the next day. Soon after the uprising began the god of death would manifest, and destroy everything in her path. Furthermore – and this was Bond’s secret knowledge – the current viceroy, Earl Canning, knew of the plan for the abominable ritual and was planning nothing to stop it, because he was a virulent racist who wanted to destroy all the Sikhs in the land, and did not know (or did not believe) the reports that the god of death would be part of a plan to destroy British rule. He believed he controlled the Hindu nationalists and saw the extermination plan as a cunning part of the British strategy of empowering local leaders to rule on their behalf. This foolish man had kept the plan secret, helped the nationalists to stay unimpeded by the British army, and was ignoring reports of preparations for violence among the Sepoys as merely the necessary preparations for communal violence against Muslims and Sikhs. He had no idea the powers that were arrayed against him, or the extent of the violence they had in mind.

The PCs thanked Bond, cut him down from his crucifixion, and left him to die with a last sunset as his final view. They climbed back into the Gurmukh and made haste for the Taj Mahal. Even as they arrived they knew the uprising would be beginning all across the country, and they must stop the ritual now or they would face a far, far worse enemy than a horde of Indian Sepoys. They disembarked into the garden of the Taj Mahal, and raced past its serene reflecting pool towards the main gate, accompanied by their Maori warriors. As they attacked the Gurmukh rose up behind them, firing its light cannon at Sepoy soldiers who were attempting to move forward from the river’s edge and driving them back to the water.

At the gate they were attacked by Hindu warriors, wearing light armour and carrying Urumi swords. These swords were like whirling whips of steel, a flexible blade that curled around any parrying weapon and could not be stopped. They beat these men down quickly and charged into the tomb itself, down stairs into the cool dark of the basement. Here they found a scene of demonic terror: a wizard stood on one side of an ancient tomb, which had been hacked and smashed apart and dragged out of the ground, the bones of its occupant dragged out and desecrated with various vile fluids. In each corner of the room stood a terrified acolyte, holding a sacred knife and a cow, that most sacred of symbols in the Hindu pantheon. Near each a single soldier stood, uncertain of himself in the sight of the obvious evil about to be deployed. The ritual was near its zenith, a strange thick mist rising from the ground. The soldiers attacked, and battle was joined. Abdul used his shadowstep power to move behind the priest and stab him, but was unable to kill him. In turn the priest pointed at one of the acolytes, who killed the cow next to him with one smooth sweep of his knife. The priest unleashed the power that the cow’s death gave him, and a strange creeping horror overwhelmed Abdul – a magic of instant, irrevocable death. He resisted it and fought hard to kill the priest. At the sight of the cow’s death, and under the force of Fergus’s chaos bagpipes, the remaining soldiers fled, and the PCs were able to kill the priest before he could kill another cow and attempt to destroy them all. The acolytes gave up and begged for mercy they would not receive, and the ritual ended.

The PCs emerged into the sun leading the remaining cows, sickened and disturbed by the dark shadows of the ritual they had prevented. They released the cows and climbed into the Gurmukh, sailing over the burning towns of the sub-continent as they returned to Mumbai to report the success of their mission and much more besides: the defense of Britain’s only remaining significant colony, against dark powers from beyond this world.

Epilogue

As a result of their actions the PCs prevented the Indian Mutiny of 1857 from becoming something much darker and more terrible: the combined genocide of all the Sikhs and Muslims in the Indian sub-continent, and the ascendancy of a Hindu Empire powered by the dark magics of an evil cult. The mutiny proceeded as in the Earth’s real history, without much magical support, and was put down by the British forces. Earl Canning was forced to retire in disgrace when the group’s reports were relayed to London, and the East India Company lost its grip on India, and power was transferred to the British Raj. British colonial rule over India was strengthened and formalized, and while things for the crown were going badly in the antipodes and in Africa, for the next decades they could at least point to India as a sign of the possibility of success in their colonial project.

But would it last? And what other anti-colonial movements would arise in the future, in the ashes of the death cult the PCs destroyed. What does the future hold for the Raj, in a world of growing magic and colonial revolt?

 

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

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

The Mumbai docks

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

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

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

The Gurmukh

The interlopers

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

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

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

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

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

Bond’s lodgings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Henry’s Hamam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Chagos Islands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Edgar Evans 1

Guard and defend when forces hinder and collide
Solemn intentions both blessed and divine
You still pulled victory from shattered hope
Count your doubts with broken smiles
Covered your hurt in your pride

 

The Terra Nova expedition set forth to reach the South Pole in 1910, ostensibly for scientific purposes. Through tragedy and hardship its entire complement was lost, and with its leader the real reason for the expedition – robbery.

But in fact one member of the expedition did survive, after a fashion. This is the tale of Edgar Evans, his progenesis, the lies told about him and his mission, and his modern day purpose.

The Terra Nova expedition was led by Scott of the Antarctic, and the tale of its ultimate dismal end is usually told as one of ruthless competition between Scott and his long-term rival in exploration, Amundsen. In fact their rivalry was much more deadly and serious than a mere rush to be first to the pole. For Scott and Amundsen were both secret occultists and tomb robbers, and they and an elite group of their comrades knew that the poles were rich with treasures hidden by strange occult beasts. Their rush to the poles covered a small period of history when occultism was at its peak, before the ascendance of science and the mysterious deaths of many of the explorers leading the movement to loot these secret lairs.

These treasure troves in the poles were the secret safe houses of ancient vampires, elders who sought a place on earth free of humans, with long periods of darkness and, in the north, a close supply of kine in the native inuit populations. As human pressure in the north intensified they moved their bases south, believing that humans could never find a way to cross such vast and inhospitable oceans and ice plateaus.

They were wrong, of course, as vampires are so often wrong about human persistence and ingenuity, and in 1910 both Amundsen and Scott began the race to plunder the southern tombs. Amundsen found the tomb first but his party was rebuffed by ghouls, bad weather and violent magicks, and rather than risk his whole team he gave up and retreated.

Scott suffered his own setbacks in the foul weather of the southern ice, but eventually he and four specially selected members began the final push across the icy wastes towards their goal. It is not clear whether all members of this team knew its true purpose or whether they believed in the pure scientific goal of the mission, but they must have learnt the truth at some point, because they were able to penetrate the tomb while its guardians were distracted by the battle against Amundsen, and made off with a sizeable cache of highly valuable treasures and occult artifacts. Unfortunately they hit bad weather, and were pursued in the few hours of night by a single vampire from the tombs. Somewhere in the journey the vampire caught up with them, but with the summer light fast approaching and needing to retreat to a safe lair, it had no time to close the distance. However, before retreating for the day it stumbled upon a single member of the team who had been left behind while Scott and his fellows set up camp. This was Edgar Evans, injured in an icefall and unable to continue under his own strength. His team had left him in a shallow dugout, promising to return and collect him once they had made camp at a safe distance, and the sun was up. Evans was delirious from his head injury and frostbite, but when the vampire found him he understood well enough the offer it made – eternal life in exchange for the destruction of his party. Showing a degree of treachery well beyond that often claimed for him in subsequent years, Evans took the deal, and so he became a vampire, sired by a monstrous creature called the Bear, and ancilla of a mysterious and remote beauty known only as Polaris.

After the sun came up, and before his change was fully upon him, Evans was collected by his team mates and dragged back to the camp, where they intended to rest in the bright sun and wait out the stormy weather. Their plan was sound – in the Antarctic summer they had many hours to travel, while their pursuers had only a scant few hours to make chase. Finding Evans still alive though delerious in the snowdrift they assumed they had shaken off their pursuers, and decided to spend a single night resting before continuing the following day with Evans on a sled. But that night Evans died, and woke again, and consumed his teammates in an orgy of destruction. He then made his way south, dragging the recovered valuables with him, hiding in the snow during the long hours of daylight.

With Scott’s death the great age of exploration ended and the southern hideouts were safe – for a while. But after the second world war scientific expeditions began to proliferate on the shores of both polar landmasses. At first Polaris believed they would stop there but she soon realized that the human lust for land and knowledge – and energy to achieve its goals – was boundless, and she would need to find new ways to protect her wilderness redoubt. She sent Edgar Evans north, first to New Zealand and then on to the centres of power. His progress was slow and seemingly purposeless, and much of his history is lost. Sometime in the late 1960s he arrived on the Atlantic coast of the USA and became involved in the budding surf movement, making a name for himself as “the midnight surfer,” capable of amazing feats of surfing prowess but only swimming at night. After the surf scene became too large he disappeared again for a while, before he reappeared in a different guise in the extreme sports scene of the 1990s, now also at the head of a successful surfing products company. Once the extreme sports world began to be too heavily filmed he dropped out, setting up an extreme sports, snow and surf media company that soon dominated much of the sports market. A minor celebrity in this world, he also set up a foundation – the Polaris Foundation – that funded environmental activism and research connected to the poles. Through this foundation he began to influence the activities of polar researchers and political movements. He poured funds into the Sea Shepherds, into Greenpeace campaigns against arctic drilling and exploitation, and into global warming activism. He made secret, tentative contacts with the faerie court of winter, and reached out to the werewolves of the great steppes to find ways to seal off the many entryways into the arctic wilderness. Wherever the sun was extinguished for months at a time, the Polaris Foundation could be found advocating for national parks, wilderness sanctuaries, and the gradual exclusion of humanity.

Evans sat at the heart of this web of foundations, activist groups and movements, pulling strings from his headquarters outside of New York. Rich and vaguely famous, handsome and widely respected for his achievements in surfing and extreme sports, a minor celebrity amongst scientists and activists alike, Evans slowly worked to force the withdrawal of human influence from the frozen wastes of the earth’s poles – and for whatever darker purpose his grandsire, Polaris, secretly schemed.

Polaris

Polaris is so old that she has forgotten her name, and much of the lore of the realm of humans. She was no raider – a simple Inuit girl living in Greenland when the Vikings came, she was turned by a visiting Danish vampire in the 14th century. Driven out of her own community after the change, she lived wild and reckless in the mountains north of the norse settlement. She would hide in the bright summers, and stalk the Danish towns in winter when the sun was largely hidden, consuming the Danish kine with gleeful abandon. In the 15th century, as Danish wealth grew in Europe and her predations became more open, many of the community began to leave, fearing to stay another winter; eventually in a single winter of brutal extravagance she slew the remainder of the community, wiping it out. That summer she took the first ship back to the mainland, and moved her predations to the bigger cities of the wider world.

For the next few hundred years Polaris learnt the ways of the Camarila, learnt to control her hunger, and fed and studied across the cities of Europe. Eventually tiring of the Masquerade, after 400 years of petty vampire politics and growing jaded with the taste of human blood, she returned to the lands of her youth. Unfortunately they had changed beyond recognition, the beautiful fjords of her youth now transformed into whaling stations red with blood and rich with the stench of burning blubber. She realized that humans were beginning to encroach on every part of the earth, and yearned for somewhere pure and pristine to retire to, to escape from both vampire politics and human stench. Taking her wild childe the Bear with her, and a coterie of ghouls, she headed slowly south, winding her way over 10 years to the vast open plains of the Antarctic.

Here, surely, humans can never come, she thought. But half a century later there they were, sledding across the ice towards her lair, intent on robbery and murder. It was then that she sent her childe forth, with instructions – turn one of this new breed of adventurous human, for I have forgotten how they think and why they even bother. I see they are fragile and weak as individuals, but as a mass they seem to be capable of anything. While we can no longer claim to know how these kine think, we need one of our number to bear this knowledge, to hold the memory of humanity in his heart so that he can act properly against its interests, to keep us safe. Turn one of them, have him kill his fellows, and bring him to me. A new era has dawned, an era in which the silent and dark places of the earth will soon become bright with human light and rowdy with their empty chatter and barked commands. We cannot fight such a tide, so we need to learn the dynamics of its flow, that we can divert it away from those places where we hide and seek solitude.

And so the Bear went forth, and so Edgar Evans survived the cold, and entered into the kindred in an orgy of bloodshed and betrayal in a tiny hut on the edge of the world’s last great wilderness.

And so too did Polaris’s schemes bend under the pressure of the human flood; and her gaze turned north, and her cold, inhuman mind turned its thoughts towards new schemes, to use human’s own curiosity and volatility against them, and to protect her and her kind.

No one knows the truth of her schemes, only that she is ancient and cold and deadly, and that Edgar is her weapon against humanity – a lonely, gangrel weapon as cold and harsh as the adiabatic winds, and as implacable as the ice.

Snips and snails, and puppy dog tails ...

Snips and snails, and puppy dog tails …

This is an account of our first, short adventure, playing the Malifaux RPG Through the Breach. Malifaux is a Victorian steampunk-horror setting in which the world as we know it is linked to another, sinister world called Malifaux by a phenomenon called the Breach. The Malifaux side of the Breach is full of magic powered by artifacts called Soulstones, and the mundane side of the Breach mines these soulstones to power magic on the mundane side of the Breach. Our characters traveled through the Breach in response to an advert seeking adventurers …

The PCs are my character, Penitent Benny, and two others:

  • Lucien Buchmeister, a bookish chap from Prussia who carries a couple of pistols and has secret magic powers (magic is monitored in the world of Malifaux)
  • Damien, a Frenchie woman with a scarred face and a very cold demeanour, who whispers to her carbine, which she calls Mon cheri

What could possibly go wrong?

The three PCs met for the first time outside the double doors of the main station at the Breach. It was a typical hot, dusty day in Malifaux, though to the characters the soul-sapping heat and dryness were yet a novelty. They stood facing a hectic loading yard, full of horse-drawn carriages, porters, rough-looking steam-yarders of every physical description, hue and creed. A gang of Sikhs gently lifting a crate of carefully balanced vases, sweat streaming down their dark bearded faces, turbans gleaming like jewels against the dust and faded ochre of the yard; a squad of Condottieri, resplendent in blue and red silks and brocades, heavily armed and sweating like pigs; a group of Japanese pearling women, famously crossing the Breach to find soulstones in flooded mines, weaving through the yard in colorful yukata, fans waving and tittering in the heat; in amongst them all the swarming throng of leather-chapped steam-yarders, carrying, cursing, fighting, spitting and yawning, surrounded by the stench of horses and tendrils of dust and smoke.

The characters converged amongst this clouded, crowded chaos on the diminutive form of one Mr. Tyler, Esq., standing next to a large carriage atop which sat an enormous, coal-dark black man, a veritable mountain of ebony flesh carrying a blunderbuss the size of a London Omnibus. This black man was holding a signboard in one hand that read “Messrs Damien, Lucien and Benny”, and looking about him with a wary, bored gaze. Beneath him, in the shadow of the carriage, Mr. Tyler stood gleaming pale white in a white linen suit, blazing brilliant white even in the shadows. Diminutive and wiry-looking, he spat out a gobbet of chewing tobacco as the characters approached and strode forward to greet them, hand outstretched. “Mr. Tyler, dogsbody to Dr. Samuel Jacobs. Welcome to Malifaux,” he greeted each of them in turn, looking a little surprised to discover that Damien was a woman, and gesturing them to the carriage. “It’s straight to Dr. Samuels, I’m afraid, for your interview with your new employer, and then to your lodgings. If you don’t mind?”

The journey to Dr. Jacobs’ place was short, and during the ride Mr. Tyler maintained a constant patois of explanations and descriptions of the city of Malifaux, with no questions asked about the characters’ journey or origins. They soon reached Dr. Jacobs’ mansion, a classic Colonial mansion with large gardens and a pristine, low white wall, and the carriage swept through an open gate and perfectly manicured gardens to a wide gravel yard before the grand entrance. Mr. Tyler led them inside, and they soon found themselves standing in a classic academic study: cluttered with books and oddities, stuffy with the smell of old papers and dead things, and dominated at one end by a huge desk. Behind this ostentatious arrangement of marble and leather sat a frail, worn-looking old man who introduced himself as Dr. Samuel Jacobs, shaking each of their hands without standing, and explained the rules of their engagement to work for him:

  • Free lodgings with the indomitable Mrs. McCranning
  • 15 scrip a week [<-this is a quite fantastic quantity of money]
  • Extremely dangerous work at Dr. Samuels’ whim, on demand

With that he told them the nature of their first job. He had recently lost his fob watch, which had considerable value to him since it was given to him by his deceased wife, and he needed them to find it. Though the task might seem trivial, his experience of Malifaux was that such minor misdemeanours as a stolen watch could explode into catastrophe if not addressed, and he needed that watch. The PCs were to find it, and they could start by visiting a Guild investigator by the name of Travis Cain, who rumour has it had been investigating petty theft in the slums.

With that simple explanation the PCs were dismissed, and left the house to ride to their lodgings. Mrs. McCranning’s was a huge Georgian building in downtown Malifaux, not so close to the quarantine quarter or the slums as to be damnable, but not far enough to be comfortable, occupied primarily by travelling labourers. Mrs. McCranning was a classic Irish landlady, hard as nails and shrewd as a goblin. Fortunately she found a soft spot for Penitent Benny, and was willing to secure them a late dinner and baths before they retired. They spent the night in adjoining rooms, Damien chattering to her rifle, Lucien to his books, and Benny screaming his nightmares to the rafters. A group of valiant adventurers ready for any task.

The next morning, after a robust breakfast, the PCs visited Mr. Cain at the Guild HQ, to ask him for advice. This man, snoring in the corner with a bottle of whiskey on his desk, was of little help; he demanded one of their scrip before he would help, and then told them the names of a few families he had investigated in the slums. They paid up and trundled off to visit the slums.

Unfortunately in the slums a local gang lord, the red something-or-other, had them followed, and thinking their pursuers part of the problem they ambushed them in an alley. One they killed and the other two they injured, and in the talk that followed discovered they had simply killed a couple of local gang members keeping an eye on them. These gang members were aware of the stolen local items, and as a sop to avoid getting into trouble with their leader the PCs offered to share any information with the red something-or-other before reporting it to the Guild. With that they continued their search.

They soon found their first target, a family whose two children who had lost their stuffed toys and were now slowly dying of some kind of withering illness. The PCs very quickly realized what was going on here when they heard the mother thought she had seen something near one of the children during the night. They set up a watch.

They were soon rewarded. During the night two small creatures stole into the room where the children slept and sat on their chests. They touched the childrens’ heads, and a strange glow began to form, obviously stealing the childrens’ life force. However, at the same time a strange magic fell over the whole area, causing everyone except Lucien to fall asleep. Lucien managed to wake Penitent Benny, and then ran outside to wake Damien. Penitent Benny acted, moving against the creatures. In the glow of their soul-stealing magic he realized they were some kind of puppet, made out of an agglomeration of household objects. Each of them included a single piece of a child’s teddy bear, as if they were some kind of fetish made of ordinary people’s belongings – including these childrens’! Whatever their origin, Benny didn’t like them, and threw his bowie knives at the puppets. He killed one and pinned the other one to the wall.

Meanwhile Lucien had failed to wake Damien, but upon emerging into the street (where Damien was keeping guard) saw a strange magical woman who terrified him so much that he was forced to run away in fear. Once out of sight around the block he was ambushed by another, nastier puppet, and got caught in a battle that lasted some time before he could kill it. Meanwhile Benny woke Damien and they killed the woman in the street. By the time they had dealt with her Lucien returned from his victory over the puppet (what a hero!) and they all returned to the bedroom, where the puppet remained pinned to the wall. Penitent Benny tied a piece of string and a tin can to it, and they let it go. It immediately scarpered, heading off into the city, so they followed.

The little scoundrel scampered over rooftops and alleyways, moving fast but without concern for stealth through the empty early morning streets until it arrived at the wall separating the slums from the Quarantine Zone. Here it started digging a tunnel under the wall. The PCs climbed the wall, though doing so is highly illegal and probably quite dangerous, and waited calmly on the other side for the puppet to finish digging. They then followed it some more, into the Quarantine Zone. After perhaps another ten minutes of running, it scampered into what was quite obviously an ancient tomb.

They followed.

Inside they descended some ancient stairs into a narrow tunnel, lined with chambers. In each chamber was a huge pot, filled with random household items. At the farthest end of the tunnel, the chambers were empty of pots… Soon the tunnel ended, opening into a large room dimly lit with candles. The PCs stopped and Penitent Benny crept ahead to look.

In the room he saw a huge old tomb, on which danced two man-sized puppets, communicating silently with their little tiny puppet. The floor was covered in discarded household items, and two huge pots full of items sat near the throne. There was a sense of malice and despair about the room, and as Benny watched the puppets took one of the pots and did … something to it. A dark, sinister mist emerged from the pot and poured into tomb, within which something … huge and sinister … slowly stirred. Then the puppets cast the pot onto the floor where it broke, its ordinary household contents crashing in amongst the sea of other contents. The two big puppets then looked at the tiny one, and it fled back the way it had come, obviously already setting out to find a new victim …

They attacked. With surprise the battle did not last long, and soon the two big puppets were soon dead. They explored the room briefly but there was nothing else there but the tomb. Being new to Malifaux, they soon decided the best course of action would be to open the tomb, and between the three of them managed to pry off one of the stone slabs covering it. Why was the slab so heavy? It were as if whoever made the tomb didn’t want it opened…

As the slab tumbled off the tomb, they all heard a roar of anger, and a dark, malevolent force began to emerge from the tomb – a kind of huge, shadowy version of the puppets they had killed. It oozed out of the tomb at first like a thick goo, but soon began to congeal in the middle of the room, gathering together the household belongings as it formed like a kind of huge, shadowy tatt-magnet. As it grew they saw Dr. Jacobs’ fob watch in amongst all the tatt, slowly being drawn towards the shadow. The grabbed it and,  realizing their mistake, ran for the exit, followed by the booming laughter of the growing shadow. They burst outside just in time, running helter skelter for the Quarantine Wall, as behind them a vast shadow blocked out the evening sun, crawling with invincible and patient malevolence slowly down the alleys and byways of the Quarantine Zone. What had they released?

They tumbled over the wall into the slums, and already they could see movement about, as people felt the thing coming before they could even see it. They ran straight to the crime boss, the red something-or-other, and told his minions to get everything he had out on the street now. They didn’t wait around to die though, and ran on, towards Downtown. By the time they got to Downtown word had reached someone somewhere that a Big Thing was arisen, and they saw many Neverborn hunters from the Guild rushing down to the slums. They even saw Travis Cain, though they didn’t bother to offer him any useful information. Instead, they ran.

Their adventure ended there. The townsfolk hid and for the whole night battle raged through the slums, as the red gangs and the Guild fought the beast. By morning many of the red gang were dead and their leader was a hero, the black shadow beast defeated. The PCs were able to quietly hand over the watch to Dr. Jacobs and retrieve the reward, and no one – not even Dr. Jacobs, though no doubt he suspected – was aware that Malifaux’s near destruction was the fault of a group of young idiots opening the wrong grave.

The next day they received 15 scrip. So who really cares?

If you go down to Gotanda today ...

If you go down to Gotanda today …

On Sunday I played a quick(ish) game of Malifaux with two of my regular role-playing crew. This was my first ever game of Malifaux, and I was quite impressed – it’s a smooth and enjoyable small squad battle game, with a cute mechanic and powers that are easy to learn, as well as very pretty design and a rich atmosphere. This is a brief report of the battle, which ended in a brutal all-party conflagration in the middle of the field.

Don't go to the nursery, dreamer, you won't like what you see ...

Don’t go to the nursery, dreamer, you won’t like what you see …

I played the Neverborn, and my foes were the Resurrectionists and the Guild (I think). We played on an 8×8 battlemat, with two strategies each. My team were:

  • Zoraida, a leader with a heavy magical bent
  • Teddy, a big furry bastard with teeth
  • Baby Kade, a small and unpleasant child with nasty knives
  • Candy, a blank-eyed Goth Lolita with a bag of poisoned sweets
  • Terror Tot, your classic vengeful infant
  • Sorrow, some kind of spirit creature with a mean turn in misery and pain
  • Voodoo Doll, Zoraida’s totem and a big mistake

The Guild player, Big R, went for a small squad of Death Marshalls, the Scales of Justice and some random guy with a big hammer (?) who died. The Resurrectionist player, Aloha-san, went for an absolutely brutally murderous leader called Seamus, some gravedigger dude, a Flesh Construct that is famous for taking huge damage, and a woman who could bury herself. Which didn’t work. There was also a zombie punk samurai thing. My foes went for strategies based on putting markers down on territory, one of which was Squatter’s Rights, which led to a protracted battle between undead and guild members in the middle of the board.

Because Candy and Baby Kade both have “Manipulation,” which makes it a challenge for opponents to attack them, I went for two secretive strategies:

  • Deliver a message: Candy has to rock up right next to an enemy leader and use all her actions for the round delivering it a message. Standing in front of an enemy leader doing nothing is … a challenging proposition. But if you have a challenging proposition, why not put it to a blank-eyed Lolita with a bag of poisoned sweets?
  • Bodyguard: Baby Kade had to stay alive as long as possible; at turn 4 (with two turns to go) I had to reveal that he was the bodyguard; I got bonus victory points if he was still alive with more than half hits at the end of the game. Baby Kade is fiendish difficult to hit, but he is just a baby …
Ted shambles toward Bethlehem

Ted shambles toward Bethlehem

When the battle started I split my forces, sending Zoraida, Candy and the Sorrow one way towards the Guild’s forces, and Teddy, Baby Kade and Terror Tot the other to take on the Resurrectionists. What’s not to like about a giant, blood-stained teddy bear with massive teeth and two psychotic babies crawling into battle? I soon discovered the power of this gang together – Terror Tot and Baby Kade both have pounce, which means that they get an automatic attack on anyone who moves into their engagement range, and once Teddy gets his hands on you you aren’t leaving the engagement. This little squad of creepy doom caught the Flesh Construct just after he had placed a marker down on a victory point. The Flesh Construct lasted into the 2nd Turn, and my little team came out of that encounter unscathed. Oh Teddy …

Meanwhile I discovered the power of the Voodoo Doll in a tight group. Selecting it to start with was a mistake, because it moved so slowly that Zoraida’s first action was to summon a new one with a spell, causing the old one to die. I could have used those 4 soulstone points on magic of some kind! The newly-summoned Voodoo Doll also got to put a “Sewn Fate” on a Death Marshall, which makes it vulnerable to all other attacks and means it takes damage if it injures the Doll. Zoraida started throwing magic at it to make it shoot its own men (she has a pretty turn in domination magic!) and the presence of the Sorrow meant that the Death Marshall kept taking damage from failed willpower duels. In desperation Big R had this unfortunate Marshall shoot the Voodoo Doll down, killing itself at the same time, and Zoraida just immediately summoned another one, which put a sewn fate on the next closest Marshall. This Marshall did so badly from the presence of the Sorrow that it was reduced to 1 wound simply through badly-timed activations and failed willpower duels, before it had even been attacked. But before it died it did manage to kill a member of its own team (Scales of Justice) at Zoraida’s bidding.

This was all a sideshow to the main action, though, which was the battle on the raised central area. Aloha-san and Big R had both selected a strategy which required taking and maintaining control of squares in the centre of the board, and they were beating the living (and un-living) crap out of each other for possession of those marks. The Resurrectionists were summoning zombies from the dead, and Seamus was blasting hell out of anyone who he could see, but Lady Justice (the Guild leader) was doing an awesome job of mincing his crew. This gave me plenty of time to pull my crew into the battle unharmed, and I entered the centre of the table with no injuries and a full crew. At this point I had to reveal Kade’s bodyguard status, and Seamus immediately went to town on him with his pistols – but Baby Kade was on his own now because in order to win I had to get Candy right up to the base of the nearest leader (Lady Justice) within 2 Turns (the game ended at Turn 6). She could get within 4″ in Turn 5, but in order to deliver her message in Turn 6 she couldn’t move (it uses a full action). Fortunately, I could get Teddy to within striking range of Lady Justice. Once he hit her, he could push her 4″ and get into base-to-base contact with her, activating his “gobble you whole” power.

Turn 6 started with Candy in base-to-base contact with Lady Justice, Terror Tot in pounce range, and Teddy ready to munch, but with one other Guild crewmember within missile-fire range. Seamus, the only remaining Resurrectionist, was letting rip with everything he had on Baby Kade – an unfortunately terminal situation for Baby Kade. Initiative was drawn – and Big R won! Lady Justice could act first, and dismember Candy before she could deliver her message! Except … that in the previous round one of my crew (Zoraida?) had cast a spell that induced “Mood Swing” on the other Guild crewmember, allowing me to choose to activate that crewmember in place of any other Guild crew at a time of my choosing. I chose now, so Lady Justice didn’t get to tear Candy apart, the activated crew member failed to kill her, and she delivered her message:

You are going to die

After which all my crew whaled on her, finishing, appropriately, with Teddy delivering the killing blow and swallowing her whole. The other Guild crewmember died during this Turn too, as did Baby Kade, which left me with all but one of my original crew, the Resurrectionists with just their leader, and the Guild completely killed, their leader eaten in one bite by Teddy.

But when we added up the points from our strategies we were all on equal victory points.

I think that’s the definition of a Pyrrhic draw, at least for the Guild. But at least Teddy didn’t go home hungry…

Malifauxcent thoughts

This game was excellent, and the battles and magic so much fun that it was hard to remain focused on strategies – we all just wanted to have at each other and see what happened. The basic mechanic involves drawing a card that resembles a standard playing card (but with very pretty gothy designs), using the number plus an attribute to determine success. The symbols on the cards can act as triggers for additional effects. Every round you also have a hand of 6 cards you can use to “cheat fate,” basically swapping your drawn card for one from your hand to get a better result. Sometimes you get “+” or “-” which are like advantages/disadvantages in D&D 5th Edition (you pull two cards instead of one and choose the best or worst respectively). The abilities and talents of the creatures are all on easily accessible cards, and there is a minimum of tokens and other fiddliness. All you need to do is flip over your card to see what it can do, then do the card draws as required. Soulstones (if you have any) can be used to further cheat these draws.

This mechanism is really fun and, in conjunction with the wide range of sneaky and devious manoeuvres on the cards, generates a really rich and challenging combat environment. Once you’re used to the rules – which are very easy and quick to pick up, and all there on the card – it’s really easy to make decisions and work out what to do, and with just 5-7 crew members it’s not hard to get abreast of your options. Overall it seems like a really well-designed and fun system. There is a role-playing game of Malifaux coming out soon, and I think it could make a really cool system and game world. This game is well worth trying if you get a chance!

Clare and her Gyrfalcon

Clare and her Gyrfalcon

Clare de Lune is one of the characters I generated for the Compromise and Conceit one-shot. She is an ex-exotic dancer for the French troop known as the Cirque de Lune, probably kicked out for some kind of crime against the circus’s managers. Her magic uses nature, perception and deception. She has some combat skills, though she is a little fragile, and she also uses a large bird of prey as a familiar/battle ally, to make missile attacks and distract foes in combat.

This character description shows how simple and easy a character is to generate if you strip all the details out of the WFRP 3 system and just use the very basic dice, attribute and fatigue ideas. Note there are no skills – Clare de Lune is trained in four areas, and that is all. Also the spells I just made up – I didn’t aim for any sense of balance or usefulness, just designed spells to suit the character concept. I think this method works quite well, provide players are happy with a character that may have no use in some circumstances.

Character name:      Clare de Lune

Archetype-thingy:    Cirque du Lune bird dancer                        Feat Points: 3

Attributes

Strength 3 Intelligence 4
Toughness 3 Willpower 3
Agility 5 Fellowship 5

Trained in:

  1. Casting spells
  2. Animal handling
  3. Perception
  4. Spotting lies and tricks

Combat stuff

Defense Wounds Max/ Current
Melee 5 Fatigue       3 /
Missile 5 Stress       3 /
Surprised 5 Criticals (max:   )       3  /
Armour (  warm weather stuff ) 1 (4) Wounds       13 /

Weapons

Weapon Damage Critical Notes
Long knives 4+Str=7 2 Fast (+1 Initiative)
Crossbow 5+Ag=10 2  
Bird 3+Fellowship=8 3 Ranged Fellowship attack

Clare de Lune’s bird

Clare’s bird can be used to perform three tricks:

  • Attack (fellowship-based attack against opponents missile defense)
  • Hover over hidden targets (Clare de Lune can make missile attacks even if she can’t see the enemy, at +2 defense)
  • Distract (fellowship-based attack against opponent’s intelligence; success adds difficulty to enemy’s actions)

The bird can take 5 points of fatigue before it flies away; every failed attempt to do any trick causes 1 point of fatigue, as does any successful hit on the bird (defense 6). It recovers fatigue at 1 point per hour.

Clare de Lune’s spells

Name Difficulty Effect
Grace of Ages 4 Swap 1 blue die for green per success. Lasts WP rounds
Scarlet Pimpernel Highest Fellowship Assume a disguise, lasts 1 min/success (+1 hr/comet)
Riverdance 4 Walk on water for 1 rd/success.
Opium dream 4 Take opium, get a chance to do an overview perception check of all land within 1km / success. Boons/comets enhance the check
Soar with the eagles 4 Can see through the eyes of her bird for 1 min/success. Gain +1 training in perception

 

Clare de Lune begins her dance of death

Clare de Lune begins her dance of death

This blog has been quiet for the past few weeks because I have been traveling and working at the same time, and it has been very difficult to make the time to do anything interesting here. However, for the past 10 days I was in London, and during that time I was able to reconvene my old Compromise and Conceit group for a four hour one-shot.

This one-shot used a hyper-stripped down version of the Warhammer 3 rules. I was going to use Shadowrun but I just didn’t have time to prepare something new, so I decided to just muck around with Warhammer 3. We used diceroller apps, had no cards and I made up all actions for all the characters in an hour one morning. We dropped stances, conservative and reckless dice (except for spells that use them), group initiative, and recharge. I used stress as a consequence of spell-casting to limit spell use, and didn’t bother with skills: instead I just gave each player a list of four things they were trained in. Everything else was just a check on the appropriate attribute. This system is really fast and quite fun.

The PCs were:

  • Captain Nostromo, a wizard who specializes in manipulating machinery and infernal objects, probably Polish
  • Clare de Lune, an exotic dancer formerly of the Cirque de Lune, who fights with knives and is accompanied by a gyrfalcon that can also attack (a Large and Vicious Gyrfalcon!), she also has a selection of nature magic
  • The Sicilian, an ageing ex-mercenary who is preventing the decline of his martial prowess with age by an increasing array of infernal enhancements
  • Jack Cloudie (not his real name), an Iroquois Stormcrier who visited Europe on a mission and decided to stay so that he can civilize the savages of this strange and backward country

I will put up character descriptions in subsequent posts, along with some descriptions of how I simplified the WFRP3 rules.

The setting and the adventure

The year was 1830, and the PCs were on a ship bound for Svalbard in the arctic circle in mid-July. They had been employed by a rich industrialist in London to investigate the strange disappearance of a wizard working in Svalbard, one William Sealy Gossett.

Out of place and time

Out of place and time

Svalbard in 1830 was a huge whaling station, and William Gossett had been sent to Svalbard by the PCs employer as part of a project to research ways to imbue whale oil and whale bones with magical essence, and to design new magical tinctures and items. Svalbard was going through a kind of whale-oil-based gold rush, because whale oil fresh from the corpse is an excellent solvent for magical and infernal essences, and whale oil that cannot be enchanted can still be used in industry. William Gossett’s task was to conduct experiments to enable the whale oil to be treated so that it could hold the essence longer after the death of the whale, with the ultimate goal of shipping it back to Europe to be enchanted. Currently only a small amount of whale products were being enchanted, because there were very few wizards willing to live in the harsh confines of Svalbard and work long days enchanting whale fat. The PCs’ employer aimed to revolutionize this industrial process through developing techniques of magical preservation.

Unfortunately, William Gossett appears to have gone missing. He was supposed to send a letter of safe assurance with each ship that left Svalbard for Europe, but the June and July ships both brought nothing back. Although it was possible he could have missed the first ship, his employer is certain something must be amiss for him to miss two. It could be something simple (such as suicide during the winter darkness) but Svalbard is a lawless place in which whalers often fight physically for control of whale pods. The PCs were sent to Svalbard to find William, and punish anyone who has interfered with him.

Svalbard’s Bay of Blood

The adventure opens as the PCs’ ship enters the Svalbard bay, to a scene of horror sufficient to shock even hardened campaigners such as The Sicilian. The air was suffused with a red mist, and the sea stained red with the blood of a throng of dying whales. The bay was thick with the whales, passing through in huge groups, and in amongst them were multiple whaling ships and many small harpoon boats. Wherever they could, the whalers were laying about themselves with harpoons, and everywhere they looked the PCs could see dying whales floundering in the open seas. The whalers moved amongst the pods stabbing whales with harpoons tipped with leather bladders, so that once a sufficient number had been stuck into the beast it could not submerge. They then began to hack, beat and stab it to death, but usually they would haul it still half-alive back to their ship, where it would be tied alongside other dying members of its pod. Then, men would begin flensing the whales, cutting sacks of fat and meat away even as the dying whale twitched feebly in the water. No indignity was spared these hapless beasts: seabirds flocked to their ragged bodies, pecking at the flesh of the injured beasts as they waited weakly to die; a pod of killer whales moved amongst the gore, picking injured whales and eating them even as they fought to escape the whalers; and here and there a half-flensed whale would be set loose, its body no longer valuable to the whales, to die in a slow spiral of viscera and desperate shrieks, torn at by birds, fish and orcas alike as its unique voice faded.

This scene so horrified The Sicilian that he was forced to act. Declaring that the murder of helpless enemies was beneath a warrior, he ordered the ship’s captain to sail over to a particularly large whale. This whale had been caught and tied to the stern of a whaling ship, but the ship’s crew were in violent dispute with the crew of another ship over possession of the poor giant, and as they fought it simply floundered in the scarlet water, unable to escape because of the ties to the ship and the many harpoons that held it at the surface. As his ship approached The Sicilian leapt onto the whale’s back, slicing the ropes that held the whale to the ship with his soul-bonded infernal sword and running along the whales back, smashing harpoons as he passed them. He noted in horror that, as a final indignity, the harpoons were themselves crafted of whalebone – the majestic giant was being killed with tools made of its own kind. Unfortunately the beast did not understand the purpose of The Sicilian’s mercy mission, and in anger it thrashed its newly-freed tail, flipping The Sicilian high into the air. Moments later he found himself lying on the deck in between the two competing whaling crews, a shattered harpoon in his hand. The crews, realizing what he was doing, joined forces to attack him. The Sicilian was just preparing to sell his life dearly to this gang of reprobates when the whale resurfaced, smashing into the ship from below in a fury of revenge. He found himself flying through the air at the whale’s behest again, and landed close enough to his ship that he could be rescued by his fellows. As they sailed away and the whale made its escape, the sailors on the stricken ship yelled threats and imprecations at him and his team.

The Sicilian was unimpressed. No human threat has scared him since winter, 1812. But something else in the atmosphere of Svalbard unsettled him. He and all the group felt as if some dark and imposing force watched from the deeps of the sea, waiting for … something. As they turned away from the carnage and headed into the Svalbard docks, a shiver ran down The Sicilian’s spine. Though he lacked empathy for human emotion, he was finely attuned to the infernal world, and he felt it pressing close about him now …

The wizard’s lab

This scene of horror did not relent when the ship landed, and the PCs wound their way through a street lined with flensing sites and pots of boiling blubber to the town’s only inn, The Bloody Spout. Here they dumped their meagre possessions and inquired as to the whereabouts of the wizard, William. They were directed to “go outside, turn left” and walk until they came to his lab. This they did.

At the lab they found the door snowed shut, and the lab deserted. It showed no signs of a struggle, and it appeared that the wizard had been on a journey recently. They also found two notes, both addressed to the wizard but unsigned. The first said simply:

William, don’t waste my time with your ludicrous theories and propositions. I’ll have no part of this.

and the second said

William, you’re still crazy but let’s meet. Under the gallows tomorrow.

The PCs knew the gallows – they could see it from their hotel room, at the top of the gravel-and-ice-strewn hill behind their hotel. However, they had no idea who had written the note. In order to find this out, they visited the harbourmaster’s office post-haste. The harbourmaster handled all mail for everyone on the island, so must surely know the hand-writing of every person in the town. Sure enough he knew the writing, and immediately identified it as belonging to the other wizard in the town, who ran a lab at the opposite end of the town.

They visited this wizard immediately, and were received with an air of suspicion and threat. This wizard obviously did not like the thought of people investigating goings-on in the island, and was not inclined to be cooperative. However, eyeing The Sicilian and Jack Cloudie with an air of obvious concern, he was convinced to answer their questions honestly. He told the PCs that William had found evidence that the population of whales was crashing under the pressure of human hunting, and that they would soon disappear altogether, taking this boom town with them. William seemed very agitated about this and claimed to have a plan to save them. He told the PCs that William ran a secret lab (that everyone in town knew about) on the far side of the Island, and suggested that perhaps he had travelled with his apprentices to this lab. The PCs decided to follow this lead.

Journey to the secret lab

The PCs found a whaler who was travelling around the island and who agreed to take them to within an hour’s walk of the “secret” lab, though he would be no further diverted from his whaling mission than this. Since it was unwise to travel overland while the ice was breaking up in early summer, the PCs were forced to accept this journey plan. The next day they found themselves standing on a wind-blasted expanse of fast ice, with instructions to head northwest and “don’t fall in or you’re dead.” Thickly swathed in their winter furs, they began to walk, picking their way carefully over the empty ice. However, their journey was interrupted halfway through when they stumbled upon a pool in the ice, in which lurked a submerged polar bear. This beast emerged soaked and roaring from the pool to attack the group, and another emerged from a similar hiding place behind them. With its first strike the bear nearly tore The Sicilian in half, and the second bear tore deep gashes in Nostromo’s armour, but between them they soon killed one, and drove the other away.

Clare de Lune was unfazed. No animal had scared her since her childhood in the Siege of Paris. But that thing, that sinister spirit that watched the battle with cold detachment – neither she nor her bird could see it, but she could feel it following and watching them. No animal this, it disturbed her in a way that nothing in the natural world had done since she was very small…

A short walk later they found the secret lab. This building was open to the elements, and showed signs inside of a savage fight, though there was little blood and mostly mess. One wall had once abutted a kind of earthwork rampart extruding from the hills behind the lab; this wall now had a huge hole in it, which opened into a tunnel. This tunnel clearly extended into the earthworks, and thence under the hills behind the lab. Whoever had attacked the secret lab had done so through this tunnel; but the tunnels were old, and the lab relatively newly built – had William known of them when he constructed this laboratory?

The Trolls and the ritual

The PCs soon found the answer to their questions. After 10 minutes’ walk down the darkening tunnels they emerged into a sheltered bay, carved out of a cave that faced the bitterly cold arctic ocean. Between the tunnels and the sea, sheltered under the archway of the rock above them, was a beach of black gravel and stone. The sea was held back from this stony shore by broken icebergs floating in the water inside the cave, but it still boomed inside the cavern and crashed against the ice, scattering spray throughout the cave. The sense of being watched and of foreboding was very strong here in the wilds under the looming rock, and they felt they could almost see something out in the wild ocean, watching them with grim intent.

The wizard William Gossett stood on the shore, and behind him stood a gang of trolls. None of the group had ever seen trolls, of course, and to the enlightened European such beasts are merely figments of the Scandinavian imagination, but what else could these things be? Over 3m tall, beast-like creatures walking on two legs, with huge clawed hands, their skin alabaster smooth and obviously hard like stone. They had narrow, black eyes deep-set in vaguely humanoid, monstrous faces that looked as if they had been carved from flint. Spines lined head and shoulders, and they wore ragged clothes of polar bear and walrus fur. They also looked angry.

Between the group and William and his friendly trolls stood his apprentices. They were roped together and standing motionless on a broad slab of stone, onto which had been carved a complex magical pattern. Some enchantment held them still, and they obviously were intended as sacrifices in some horrid sacrifice, probably to the looming dark thing in the sea.

The PCs approved. They had seen enough slaughter and brutality on this island to know it was no place for human hopes and dreams, and that it should be turned back to the wild. They had also seen no evidence of anyone on the island who deserved to be saved or to have their dreams of wealth rewarded.

They turned and ran, leaving William and his little army of trolls to complete his unspeakable ritual. As they ran they felt that presence again, bearing in towards the shore to do … something.

The Flensed Ones

When they reached their rendezvous point with the whaler, they found it empty. They waited for two days but no whaler came. Finally they realised that they could die out here if they did not move on; they began to carefully pick their way over the broken ice of the shore, and after several days’ walk they returned, exhausted and starved, to the town. Walkign down the hill from the gallows, they immediately noticed that the sea returned to a pale natural blue. The town swarmed with seabirds, and when they entered its outskirts they soon saw why. Every single person in the town was dead, their body reduced to a withered husk. Some vile magic had swept through the town, killing every human there by the simple expedient of sucking out their fat.

The entire town had been magically flensed.

The PCs walked to the shore and stood there, looking out at the cold and desolate sea. The sea stared back at them, that same dark malevolent force now fully in possession of it. A cold wind blew in, and somewhere in that wind they sensed a hint of gratitude.

Whaling at Svalbard was over, and the Kingdom of Trolls had begun. The only witnesses to its creation, and indeed the wardens of its formation, were Captain Nostromo, The Sicilian, Clare de Lune and Jack Cloudie. Turning away from the sea, they looked out at the desolate hills and the bird-tattered corpses of the flensed victims, and shuddered at the horror they had created.

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