Steampunk


Insertion

The four agents of Section M stand in the cabin of the rickety old French plane, surveying the darkened French countryside. Since they left Paris the weather has changed rapidly from gloomy May skies to a rapidly growing storm, with furious winds buffeting the plane and heavy rain covering the picturesque landscape of the Belgian border in a cloak of grey. A French airman at the doorway finished preparing and, with a grim shake of his head, turned to face the team, mouthing “three minutes” and holding up three outstretched fingers. Clustered in the foreward section of the crew area, the agents reviewed their task.

It was evening of the 21st May, 1940. They had been dispatched to the Mezieres area of northeastern France, on the border of Belgium, in response to a coded message from Aramis, a local resistance leader. Aramis was a member of a local resistance cell in the tiny village of Saint Sulac that had been activated just a month earlier, with the sudden collapse of the Phoney War into real bloodshed, and was still inexperienced and lacking equipment. His message had been cut off mi-transmission but seemed to contain a dire warning about a Black Sun master. Section M sent the agents to find out more with three simple orders:

  • Find Aramis
  • Investigate the Black Sun activity
  • Eliminate any immediate threats

If Aramis had survived he would be likely to be hiding in safe houses on the north eastern side of the village. They would use a codephrase to identify him: he would ask in English for a cigarette, and they would reply “I only have Lucky Strikes”.

Setting off from Paris in a hastily-outfitted Potez 540

As the agents recalled these events the crewman gestured them to the door as he slid the door open, letting in the howling wind and sending the plane into a sudden veering lurch as the storm gusted inside. He grabbed the nearest agent and yelled into their ear, standing close enough to be heard over the throb of the plane’s engine. “The storm is too wild, you have to go now!” Out of the open door they could see dark clouds, hear the resonating thunder and then catch the sudden flash of nearby lightning. Something about this storm felt wrong. It was too sudden, and dark clouds seemed to have coalesced rapidly directly over the village – but only the village. Before they could investigate the strange storm further though the airman signalled the first jump, and they were out of the door, parachuting into Nazi-occupied France. The team for this mission:

  • Captain James Swann, British officer, of Caribbean heritage and a veteran of the last war, the nominal leader of the ragtag group of agents falling through the storm
  • Sven Nielsen, dauntless resistance leader from Norway who evacuated with the allies in early May 1940 to continue fighting the Nazis after the capture of his own town. Sven is a runeweaver, able to wield magic from the ancestral traditions of this Viking forebears
  • Private Dan Gregg, a genius mechanic with an almost supernatural ability with machines, who claims to be fighting for the allies despite his American homeland’s neutrality because of ideology, but may actually be in British service because he is on the run from the law
  • Corporal Sarah Walker, a fearless soldier raised in the sheep farms of the Australian outback, where she learnt phenomenal shooting skills and developed a strange affinity for the wilds. Australia sided with the UK as soon as war was declared, and Sarah and her dog Crook were on the first troop transport for England, where her ferocious combat skills were soon noticed by Section M

The storm scattered the jumping agents to the winds, and as they floated down towards the quiet nightscape of occupied France, they cast their thoughts back to their final briefing just that morning in Paris.

The briefing

The four agents stood awkwardly at ease in a dreary, cramped office in the top floor of a garret in Montmartre, Paris. It was just after lunch on the 21st May, and before they had even finished tea they had been called up to a meeting with their handler, Genevieve Miller. Genvieve was the picture of 1930s professional womanhood: slim pencil skirt, bleached white blouse, immaculate water waves framing a pale, stern face. She half-leaned, half-sat on her small, neatly-arranged desk – the only part of the room free of the chaos of the current situation – and looked over her charges, the details of the briefing complete. From outside the smell of smoke drifted in through the window – three floors down in the courtyard Section M were burning documents. When asked about it she had shrugged and sneered.

“Don’t be fooled by the Old Boy’s statements – ” she always referred to Churchill this way ” – the war office has given up on this. Our days in Paris are numbered, and we aren’t going to be sitting here waiting for the Germans to find out what we’ve been up to under their noses. He may be making positive statements in the Commons but the Old Boy spoke to the Generals last week and asked where the reserves were, and he was told there simply aren’t any. The French are done in, it’s just a matter of time.”

This was news to the agents, who had flown in on the 15th May with Churchill’s squadron of planes, under the impression he had come in to stiffen resistance and figure out a plan. At that time – less than one week ago! – the Germans had still been barely out of Belgium, and everyone on the flight in was chipper, assured that something would be done in the next few days. Apparently not! Genevieve ran her finger along the line of the desk and added,

“Since then it’s just got worse. De Gaulle did his counter-attack but it failed easily, and the other generals have given up on it all. Mark my words, that de Gaulle has the charisma of a fish and little between his ears, but I fear he may be the last one standing when the dust settles – he’s just wily enough to come out of this looking like a hero. No one else is looking any better, and the only thing more barbaric than the frontlines of a modern war is a clique of generals trying to shift the blame onto someone else. So now you know how the top brass are looking at this, let me explain the reality of the situation for you.

She unrolled a map on her desk and invited them over to look at the disaster unfolding across northern France. “The Germans reached the coast this morning,” she told them. “This here – ” she waved her hand over the area of coastline around Dunkirk ” – is now a pocket of half a million men, cut off from our supply lines by the German tanks. Frenchies, Belgians, Dutch, British, and representatives of every one of our colonial holdings trapped in that little zone. We’re trying to get them out, but it’s not looking promising. By the way, we lost Daphne Rogers’ team in de Gaulle’s counter-attack.” She slammed a finger angrily down on the map somewhere near Laon. “You’re all that’s left of M Section North, I’m afraid.”

This was a shock. Daphne was their most capable agent, and she was gone, lost just days ago. Since April M Section North had been whittled down from 11 to 4. Just them! They were still taking this in when she gave them the warning that would still be fresh in their minds when they landed in Saint Sulac later that same day.

“Now listen, ladies and gentlemen. When this war started in ’39 some of the new blood in the ministry of war thought it would be a jolly jaunt, a few months of silly buggers around the maginot line and then everyone would settle terms. Same blinkered old boy attitude from the Great War. But the Nazi advance was too fast and brutal, now it’s chaos down here, but it’s worse than that: they’re up to something. They didn’t get this far this fast just on Guderian’s wily field genius, did they? We are hearing things from the East, nothing concrete you understand, it’s all locked down tight but little rumours slip out. They’re … doing things in the General Government and Czechoslovakia. You understand we aren’t official allies with the Soviets, but we’ve been hearing from our connections there that they didn’t divvy up Poland between them and Germany because Stalin likes Polish girls. Apparently it was a desperate strategy to stop the Nazis getting hold of a temple in a forest outside Brest, and there are rumours of some ancient Orthodox ritual. We thought the Black Sun was just a silly little cult, but it looks like they know things, big things. Section M was retired after the Crimean War along with other agencies across Europe – there were agreements, you understand, serious undertakings that took years of negotiation. But it looks like some holdouts in Germany didn’t follow the letter of the law, and they’re digging up more than we realized. This op is a case in point: they arrived in Mezieres a week ago and already the Black Sun have moved in there, looking for something. And it’s not just the Nazis either – the Chinese are terrified, and keep sending us messages about what the Japanese state religion is up to. There’s a madness growing out there, and we need to know what is going on. Our one advantage, if you could even call it that, is that they don’t know about Section M. It was restarted only a few years ago and it’s top secret, so we think they don’t know. And for now it has to stay that way, so, my friends, I don’t like to ask this of you, but there are some tough conditions on this mission. If you use your special powers you cannot leave witnesses, and you absolutely must not get captured alive. If it looks like you cannot escape and you are going to be caught alive, I want to be sure you understand what you have to do. Am I clear?”

She looked them over, stern and cold, and one by one they nodded. “No witnesses,” she reiterated, “and no surrender.” She took in their solemn expressions for a moment and clasped Swann’s shoulder. “Very good. Now, go and find what happened to Aramis and why the Black Sun want that village so badly. When it’s done you can head upriver to the front and slip back through to us, we’ll send an alert to the French armies there to be expecting you, but don’t dither. The Germans seem to have their focus fully on the channel and our boys trapped in Dunkirk, but if they decide to turn and take a jaunt through the French countryside Touchon will fold like a cheap camp stove and you’ll be trapped in the pocket with a lot of desperate Frenchies. So get out before the next stage of this debacle unfolds. I want you, at least, back here before we ship out. Okay?”

They nodded and, dismissed, headed for the door. Genevieve sighed and, as Sarah Walker turned to close it, she caught a glimpse of their handler’s prim, ice cold visage slipping, as she sat down behind her desk and sank her head into her hands.

The door snicked shut, and all that remained of M Section North headed off to war.

Saint Sulac

In the storm and the dark the four agents landed separately, scattered over a wide stretch of land south of Saint Sulac. Initially lost, they were drawn together by the irregular barking of Sarah’s dog Crook, the only animal raising any cry in the countryside in the dead of night. The widespread landing and forced march to regroup cost them a little time, but after an hour of effort they were able to gather safely near a small road a short distance south of Saint Sulac. They were also confused by the regrouping, and had to spend more time gaining their bearings and finding the correct path to the village. Finally, after more than an hour of slogging through wet and clinging French countryside and wrestling with maps for unfamiliar terrain in near-total darkness they had their sense of direction, and set off for the village.

As soon as they did so a chill sense of dread rolled over them. A strange vibration rattled their teeth and their skin turned cold and clammy. The rain intensified and a huge clap of thunder rolled overhead, the roar of the clashing sky followed by a disturbing, resonating rattle that sounded almost like a human laugh. The wind turned suddenly and briefly icy, and a curtain of lightning bolts fell in a line across their path, briefly turning night into day with their intense electrical discharge. Something was wrong, and they needed to find out what.

An hour later they had reached the outskirts of the village, and hid in cover on a hillside looking down on the small settlement. It was a small and compact village, with a central town hall near a large chateau, two main streets and a couple of outlying farms. The chateau, an impressive 17th or 18th century hulk on the northern side of the town, had been commandeered by the Germans and now boasted two huge Black Sun banners hanging from its ramparts. Machine gunners and perhaps a sniper’s nest had been set up in front of or in the ramparts of the chateau, and strange portable lighting had been placed at regular intervals along the main streets of the town. This made it easy for the members of M Section North to see the German patrols, but would also make moving around the town dangerous. This light also made it easy for them to see the German soldiers leading a group of scared villagers at gunpoint into the Chateau. The agents saw that just west of their position was a burned out barn and some cows, with a French civilian moving around in the fields in a slightly strange way. Seeing a chance to reconnoitre without risking the lights, they crept down the hill towards him and Captain Swann engaged him in conversation.

“Ah, a Moroccan!” the farmer exclaimed immediately, and with a little pressing revealed he was out after dark looking for his cows, which had been spooked earlier that evening by a firefight at a nearby farm. Captain Swann’s easy manners and Private Gregg’s cigarettes loosened his tongue, and he told them the events of the day.

The Germans had occupied Saint Sulac about a week earlier, passing through in a huge train of exhausted but jubilant German soldiers and rumbling armour and leaving behind a skeleton crew of a couple of soldiers to manage the town. However yesterday a large contingent of new Germans had turned up, taken control of the town and sent the previous garrison packing west towards the front. These new Germans wore different uniforms, they all were constantly covering their faces with gas masks, and they were very businesslike and brutal in their activities. A large number of trucks rolled up to the chateau and began unloading equipment inside, and they immediately began reinforcing it with machine gun posts and snipers. They also enforced a strict curfew for the villagers, and began grabbing random groups of villagers and forcing them into the Chateau.

He also told them that in the afternoon yesterday there had been a shootout at the nearby barn, after a local lad lost his cool with the Nazis and opened fire on one. In the subsequent melee the farm had been burnt down, and several of the farmers cows had been spooked. It was during this firefight that this farmer’s cows had also been scared, and he had only come out to get them now, his concerns about their wellbeing overcoming his fear of the Nazis.

The agents helped him regather his cows quickly so that he could make his way home. They told them that they were looking for Aramis and he told them of a narrow path that could take them around the village clear of the lights and into the shadows of the trees behind the houses to the north east – they might find Aramis there. They thanked him and were about to leave when another strange wave of cold and horror overwhelmed them, setting their teeth on edge, sending chills down their spines and enveloping them briefly in fear. The sky cracked, lightning arced across the whole rain-soaked world, and next to them a cow wailed, coughed blood and died on the spot. The farmer took his leave hurriedly, and they set off to find Aramis.

The first resistance

They crept successfully around the town, avoiding German patrols and sticking to their small country path, until they reached the trees on the north east side of town. There were three houses here with cellars that had entries invisible to the road, and they searched these until they found one with a bloody handprint on the banister. Brief negotiations got them through the door into a dimly-lit cellar where Aramis was hiding, injured and exhausted. He had with him the radio he had used to send his message, which sadly was broken beyond repair in the firefight at the farm to the south. He revealed that there were only three resistance people in town – himself, the farmer Jean-Paul who had directed them to him, and a young man called Francois whose rash actions had started the firefight at the farm. They had been activated only a month earlier, when instructions arrived by post from Paris, mostly in English, telling them how to build a radio from scavenged parts and giving basic information on how to be insurgents. Aramis had been activated with just these pamphlets, a revolver and 12 bullets, and his courage. It was no surprise that the tiny cell had been broken by the Germans almost immediately and that now he hid in this cellar, injured and terrified.

They did what they could to make Aramis a little more comfortable, and he told them how to get into the chateau. There was a network of tunnels under the village which dated back to Roman times, when it is rumoured that a foul cult of death had hidden shrines here. On the northwest side of the town was a small dairy farm, and in its barn a truck was parked over a trapdoor into these tunnels. The Germans almost certainly did not know of these tunnels, since they had just arrived yesterday and the tunnels were a mostly-forgotten secret used primarily by the youth of the town for acts of derring-do against the darkness, and illicit liaisons. The agents could go to the farm, move the truck, enter the tunnels, and make their way to a disused cellar beneath the chateau. From there they would easily be able to enter the chateau and confront the Black Sun Master without having to fight through his hordes of soldiers.

It wasn’t much of a plan but it was all they had, and they could sense the strange energies at play in the town growing worse. By now Sven had a sense of what those waves of cold meant, and he was convinced a dread ritual was being enacted in the chateau. Was this the reason the Nazis had advanced so fast? Was the despondency and confusion in the French higher command a result of battlefield losses, or some more sinister conjuring? They needed to get into that chateau and find out what the Black Sun wanted here. They thanked Aramis, gleaned some information about back-field paths to the dairy farm, stole some of his store of cheese and sausage, and headed out to the farm.

The catacombs

They reached the farm after an hour, but as they approached Private Gregg, always an expert on sneaky and underhand activities, identified a group of Nazi soldiers at the barn. They laid their ambush and sprung their trap, and the battle was short and violent: Sven unleashed a hail of lightning on the soldiers, who fired back but were taken down by a combination of pistol fire and vicious knife work. Swann and Walker with her dog Crook did the knife work while Private Gregg and Sven offered ranged support. With the storm growing ever louder and the distance of the barn from the Chateau they doubted they had been heard but they worked quickly regardless. They dragged the bodies into the dairy, where they found a small workspace, a truck that must have been from the previous war, and various sundry supplies and equipment for a normal farmer.

The truck was broken, however, its wiring and carburetor damaged in the gunfight. There was some debate about whether it was worth the time to repair it or if they should just push it, but Sven pointed out that they needed a way to get to the front as soon as their work was done here, and if the Germans did not know about the catacombs they would never think that the agents would have access to this truck from the Chateau. With that Private Gregg set to work, dragging some wires out of his gear and salvaging copper from a nearby kettle to patch the carburetor. While he did this the rest of them investigated their dead soldiers, who wore a strange emblem on their arms and hid their faces behind gas masks. They carried machine pistols and wore heavy leather coats that acted as ballistic armour. Tearing off the gas masks revealed the unblemished faces of young Aryan men, with no evidence of any special reason why they would need the masks. Was something planned? What was this ritual?

Private Gregg fixed the truck and they moved it forward in the dairy, making enough space to reveal a trapdoor leading down. They lit lamps from a nearby store, dragged the bodies into the cellar, cleaned up as best they could, and climbed down into the tunnels. Here they found cool, dry passages carved out of the stone beneath the village, and polished to a fine smoothness by the passing of time. The catacombs were well-designed, as if they could not have been dug by the people of that ancient time, and they were strangely unsettling. Walking through the catacombs gave one a sense of being in another time and place, and impossible whispers and noises echoed through their cool dark. Perhaps it was just their imagination but the agents felt they were watched as they moved carefully through the tunnels, bereft of all sense of physical position. They marked their position with chalk on the walls, and occasionally found evidence of others coming down here – cigarette butts, discarded wine bottles, a half-eaten raw pig’s head, a pair of abandoned gumboots – but they encountered nothing and no one. The catacombs seemed extensive, and whatever death cult had built them in the Roman era must have been great indeed – though now lost to time, christianity and civilization. Nonetheless, they agreed, it would have been nice if the cult had lasted long enough to leave a map, because they were lost in the rambling burrows of this ancient religion.

Finally they found it – a barely-visible door, set carefully in the rock, its outline barely visible on the wall. They pushed it carefully open and found themselves in a cellar room, disused and full of detritus. The door, they discovered, had been disguised as shelves, which was why it was so hard to find from the other side – perhaps they had passed it several times before Private Gregg’s preternatural instincts for hiding places had given him cause to stop and search that section of wall again. In the cellar there was a set of steps leading up to a trapdoor, which they guessed must lead to wherever they were going. On the other side they could hear – and feel – something terrible was happening. They would open the door, creep in, survey the landscape, and decide what to do.

The ritual

When Sarah Walker opened the trapdoor its rusty hinges caught on something and screeched loudly, and as they piled out they found themselves under attack[1]. They emerged into a small, square room that faced onto a larger, round chamber with six pillars in which a terrible ritual was being enacted. French civilians were tied blindfolded[2] to the pillars, and at the far end of the room the Black Sun Master, Jans Stoller, stood over an ancient, blood-soaked altar, reading from a book. Four Black Sun Novices stood near him, and between the altar and the agents stood a monstrosity – a Servitor of Nyarlathotep. It rushed towards them, exuding a wave of fear before it as they tried to come to terms with what they were seeing. Though some of them knew something of the secret world, none of them had ever expect to see a giant humanoid figure, 2m tall and with a bizarre toothed tongue instead of a head. It attacked Sarah Walker as the rest of the agents set themselves up for battle.

Inside the chamber Jans Stoller continued his ritual, reading from the book in steady cadences as two of his Black Sun Novices supported him. The air above him in the chamber thickened and swirled, composed of a strange, viscous darkness that roiled and whispered in the language of ancient horrors. While he and two of his novices chanted, two others took cover behind pillars and opened fire on the agents. Private Gregg and Captain Swann ignored them, focusing their fire on the hideous servitor to try to stop it from killing Sarah. Meanwhile Sarah’s dog Crook attacked one of the novices, running into the ritual chamber and attempting to savage it so that it could not shoot her. Sven, meanwhile, realized the book was the centre of the ritual. He threw a grenade at the altar, blowing the book off the altar and injuring both the master and one of his novices. The other novice scrambled to grab the book, but Crook ran after him and grabbed his arm. Meanwhile in the antechamber the battle with the servitor continued – it ground down Sarah Walker with multiple injuries before Gregg and Swann were finally able to hurt it, and finally it went down.

In the main chamber the ritual continued, and Sven realized they might not be able to beat the master to the ritual if he did not take risks. Summoning all the power of his ancestors, and calling on dark secrets his comrades did not know he was aware of, he unleashed a wave of lightning that killed all the nazis in the room in a single, huge strike. Fell magics rippled out from him, but his fellow agents were not callow new-comers – they weathered the rage of the elder gods, ignored whispers of madness from outside of space and time, and reveled in the sudden victory his powerful magics had unleashed. Sven grabbed the book while Sarah and Captain Swan untied the civilians, and Private Gregg laid a 1.5 lb demolition charge on the altar. They fled the chamber before more Nazis could enter and tracked quickly back to the truck following the chalk marks they had left on the walls. As they emerged from the trapdoor at the dairy farm Gregg’s charge went off and the Chateau collapsed with a single, catastrophic rumble. The civilians they had freed dispersed into the night as the storm faded, and they drove out of the farm in their stolen truck, heading at full speed for the border.

Epilogue

They made it back to the frontline and crossed over as the sun rose on the 22nd May. The Black Sun force was almost completely destroyed by the collapse of the Chateau and, with no witnesses, it was assumed that an allied bomb had scored a lucky hit. M Section North traveled rapidly back to Paris and were evacuated to England, arriving in London on 24th to learn that the German generals had called a halt to the advance on Dunkirk. For a few days the entire German assault paused, and the British were able to consolidate a desperate plan to escape from France. Had the Nazis at that Chateau been planning to summon something dark and terrible that would turn the tide of war in their favour? Had the German advance been predicated on the presence of a dark god? If so, had M Section North bought the British two precious days with their actions? Or was it a coincidence, and Jans Stoller’s actions at the Chateau completely unrelated to the Blitzkrieg? The agents did not know, but they were sure their actions had mattered. A dark power had been rising in France, and they had stopped it. Whatever madness was rising among the Axis powers, from now on they would be there to fight it, as a raging war of extermination rolled over the world.


fn1: An unfortunate complication on their listening check means one of them – either Sarah or Dan – pushed the door in such a way that it would make this noise, offering them no opportunity to prepare themselves when they emerged.

fn2: This was my kindness, to ensure that the PCs wouldn’t have to kill the civilians if they used magic in the room. Aren’t I nice?

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

 

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