It’s just not cricket …

It’s that time of the year again, and the newspapers are full of reports about the Superbowl. Vox has been flooded with articles about why we hate the Patriots or why players keep getting bigger, and everyone is expected to have an opinion on this sport. Apparently this year’s effort was extra boring, and the half-time adverts were crap, and the Maroon 5 dude revealed that he has a tattoo in Times New Roman font[1]. This year I didn’t bother with this whole thing, because I have tried to get into American Football and I just simply cannot. I have tried, and I just can’t really enjoy it.

This is a bit of a surprise to me, because I can enjoy most sports if I understand them. Indeed, I put in a bit of effort over the past two years to learn the rules of NFL, I spent time watching matches (which are broadcast live here in Japan if you have cable tv, and which on replay are stripped of adverts and quite easy to watch), I put a bit of effort into studying some of the rules and trying to figure out what was going on. It’s my view that the single biggest reason most people don’t enjoy most sports is that they simply don’t know the rules, and that if a sport is played well by elite athletes and you understand the rules you will probably enjoy it. So I was surprised when I tried to learn the rules of NFL and I still found it simply unenjoyable. I have tried to find reports from others about why they don’t enjoy NFL, but there are precious few, or they are reports like this one that don’t really seem to explain the game’s problems. So I thought I would write a post about why I can’t get into NFL. Perhaps someone will comment to give their own opinion, or to explain why I’m wrong (nicely, I hope!) or perhaps not, but here I would like to outline some of my reasons.

Here I am not going to waste time talking about the many political problems of the NFL – the blackouts, the teams’ insatiable demands for government money, the racist team names, the fact that college football players aren’t paid, the disgraceful treatment of cheerleaders, the concussion scandals, the awful mismanagement of the knee issue or the blatant disgusting militarization of the whole thing – which are well known and are a good reason to boycott it on principle, but not an explanation for why the game itself is simply not enjoyable. I also don’t intend to talk about this as “my favourite sport is better than yours” or to suggest that NFL players aren’t great athletes or that rugby dudes are tougher than NFL dudes or anything silly like that. I thought I should like NFL – I like ball sports with heavy contact, I approve of violent sport, and I like watching men smash each other, and I enjoy most other ball sports when I watch them – but I don’t enjoy it. I also don’t intend to tell people what sports they shouldn’t like, or laugh at people for watching weird shit – if you like snooker or darts or curling that’s all cool and not my business – but I wanted to try and pin down why I don’t enjoy NFL, and see what other people have to say about that. For the record, my favourite sports in approximate order would be kickboxing/MMA/boxing, rugby, high quality English premier league soccer, AFL, some olympic-level sports, lower quality soccer, and then a bunch of other stuff in no particular order. I’m not anti-sport, and I’m not opposed to violent sport (I thoroughly oppose any efforts to ban boxing, for example, on pure civil liberties grounds). I also have done kickboxing (and other martial arts) for 25 years, fought in an amateur fight once, and enjoy regular training with rough men. I’m not squeamish about violent sport. So, here are my reasons, in no particular order.

  • The weird stops and starts: I really cannot get used to the strange way the game stops, waits, everyone changes, and then it restarts. It doesn’t feel like sport to me, and it all feels strangely pre-determined. It feels more like work than sport. I just can’t get into the pre-organized changing of sides and ordering of attack and defense. Weird, given I am into turn-based combat in RPGs, but there you go.
  • The lack of ebb and flow: This is a big one for me and I think the single biggest spoiler. When the QB gets sacked or a pass is incomplete the game just … stops. No one fights for the ball, there is very rarely a change in direction of the attack, and it seems impossible that the flow of the game would change several times. When you watch soccer or rugby there is a constant shift and flow of possession, attack and defense, and no reprieve for either team when they have or don’t have the ball. If an NFL team is defending at 4th and goal, there is no sense in which they are under the cosh as they would be in a concerted soccer or rugby attack – they just have to foil one more play and then they are guaranteed the ball. Worse still, the attacking team don’t need to worry about the possibility that a pass will be interrupted or that they will miss the pass, because there is no penalty for this in the flow of the game. The only way the flow changes is if someone intercepts and catches the ball or a player straight drops it and the opposition scoop it up. This gives the game a really dead flavour. Nobody is risking anything, nobody is pressed, strategy isn’t built on what-ifs. So many times you get the 5th play and the team brings on a whole different set of players to punt, because there is this regular process that doesn’t change, shift or move around. It’s weird and I cannot think of any other sport except perhaps cricket which is so completely lacking in these sudden shifts of play.
  • The weird timing: There is something really strange about the way that time is calculated in NFL, as if time were not a thing at all. Teams have time-outs during which they keep playing, a one hour game seems to take 3 hours to play, the last 5 minutes just goes on forever, and every player has to be insanely careful about the implications for timing of e.g. an incomplete pass vs. being pushed out of bounds. I appreciate that rules are rules but why do there have to be so many weird and complex ways of simply keeping track of time? In any other game it’s simple: time passes at its usual rate until the game is over, and injuries are handled either by stopping the clock when they happen or adding time on. I don’t understand why there have to be so many weird ways of keeping track of time.
  • The strangely hypocritical rules: The weird timing brings me to the most frustrating thing I have ever witnessed in sport – a player being penalized for throwing a ball down in frustration and wasting 3 seconds of time, right before the game cuts to 2 minutes of adverts. What is going on with that? Why is time-wasting punished harshly in a game that takes 3 hours to play an hour’s football? Similarly, why is it a terrible offense to touch someone’s helmet but completely cool to hit them with a head-high tackle that is guaranteed to cause serious injury? It’s so pernickety, so finnicky, and so arbitrary.
  • The enormously complex rules: Most games have a simple set of penalties for all infringements, with at most two levels of escalation to deal with more serious incidents. But NFL has this intense system of penalties which involve decisions about whether to reset the downs and whether to penalize with distance, and seem to have an enormously complex set of rules that can be broken. It also seems in comparison to other games to have a lot of indecipherable decision points about basic aspects of basic gameplay, such as what constitutes a catch or pass interference. Every game has ambiguities and inconsistencies, but NFL seems to be consistent only in its ambiguities and complexity. It can be frustrating watching rugby and having to depend heavily on the referee’s judgment, but this pales to insignificance compared to the opacity of referee decisions in NFL.
  • The action is everywhere at once: When a play starts there is action happening all across the line and further downfield, and it’s very hard to follow all of it. I think this also means that in every play there are multiple infractions and it’s just luck if the referees see them. This is fine if complexity is your thing but it’s a uniquely weird experience that this is a ballgame yet almost all the action is off the ball.
  • The messy sideline situation: It really weirds me out that for the whole game there is this unruly mob of random people standing all along the sideline. Hundreds of people just shuffling around doing their thing. It’s so messy and weird. Every other ballgame has allocated places – a bunker or a coach’s area or something – but in NFL everyone is standing right down by the sideline crowding the game and just being messy. I guess it’s necessary because of the constant substitutions and changes of team (and we wouldn’t want to waste time!!!) but it’s just weird to me, like a pitch invasion is constantly being threatened.
  • The specialization: Every game has its specialist players but the level of specialization in NFL seems extreme, and not really much fun to watch. Vox tells me this wasn’t always the case, and that when substitutions were allowed more freely this led to the growth of specialization. It’s particularly focused on the quarterback, and I have never seen a game as focused on a single position as NFL. I guess this is a nice analogy for America’s political system, which is obsessively focused on the actions of one man, and I think it’s just as frustrating in sport as in politics. What kind of team game boils down to the decisions of one man? A weird one.
  • The weird camp machismo: I know it’s a bit of a cliche to say this but NFL players are really really camp, and it’s weird that Americans think they look super macho. I recall watching an interlude in a Japanese broadcast[2], and the American review was focused on some player from some team and talking about how incredibly tough and powerful he is. While the narrator was going on about this the camera was doing a slow-motion reel of this dude walking along, helmet in hand, with aggressive and threatening music playing. It was all a big and theatrical build-up to describe how aggressive and manly this dude was. The dude in question was walking slowly along the sideline with his shirt rolled up and tucked into his chest armour, showing off his powerful abs. So basically this super macho dude was walking along in spandex tights and a midriff top, and I’m meant to think that this is tough and not camp. It just doesn’t work for me. Don’t get me wrong, I know these guys are hard as nails, but what is wrong with Americans that they confuse camp and macho? You see the same thing in WWE, which is outrageously camp, and in super hero movies, which are wall-to-wall spandex and glowsticks. I guess there’s a reason that the players have to wear tight spandex tights with gussets, and have a towel hanging out of their back pocket that makes them look like a glistening furry or something, but I don’t know what that reason is and I suspect I wouldn’t be convinced even if it were explained to me. I just can’t get into the American vision of macho, and I think there’s a deep cultural insight somewhere in the fact that a country whose politics is steeped in misogyny and homophobia has so much difficulty distinguishing between camp and macho.
  • It’s dangerous by design: As I said, I’m into violent sports, but I’m not into sport that is designed to damage its participants. Even boxing has limits on the amount of damage its players are allowed to sustain. But much of NFL seems to be designed to damage the players, or specifically allows tactics that are at their most effective when designed to hurt. The bit where the linesmen crash into each other is obviously dangerous by design, but also the complete lack of any sanction for head-high tackles and neck grips means that players are rewarded for injuring each other. With players getting bigger and stronger every year, and no limit on their strength due to exhaustion as the game wears on, it’s inevitable that people will be seriously injured as a necessary consequence of playing the game. This is particularly shit if you’re a college football player who isn’t even getting minimum wage for your work, you’re betting your whole economic future on making it to the next tier, and then the game fucks you up because that is what the game is designed to do. Most sports have a pretty sharp pyramid shape and most people fall by the wayside and never make it to the top, but to be wrecked before you get anywhere good because that is what the game is designed to do isn’t very fair. Other games have introduced specific systems or rule changes to minimize the risk to players, without necessarily changing the overall level of violence or aggression, but NFL seems uniquely unwilling to do this. There’s a limit to how much I can enjoy a sport I know is designed to ruin its participants, and there are so many moments when the dangerous acts are gratuitous. It’s possible that NFL, being dangerous by design, can’t be changed, but in that case it will likely die as American parents forbid their kids from playing it. I won’t miss it if it does.
  • There’s no endurance penalty: In rugby and soccer players have to play for the full length of the game, which means that they have to balance the energy they put into individual plays against the need to go the distance. This is a natural part of any competitive system in nature. But in NFL the constant switches of teams mean that players don’t have to balance these things, and don’t get exhausted near the end as far as I can tell. This takes a lot of tension out of the game, and also eliminates one form of extreme effort from the enjoyment of the game. Particularly in rugby and boxing the last 10 minutes are a test of endurance and will as much as anything else, and losing teams have the chance to win something back by ruthlessly capitalizing on mistakes that happen when people are exhausted. The game also has a natural sense of having run its course, as the players are completely done for at the end, rather than having come to a bitter end because a weird unbalanced and unnatural clock finally reached 0. I also don’t really feel like I’m there alongside the players when they aren’t even sweating. It makes all the drama seem manufactured and culturally mandated rather than arising from the game, an impression that is simply reinforced by the injection of high drama through the narrative efforts of the announcers rather than arising organically from the contest itself.

Put together these things make the game seem dry and sterile to me, a manufactured contest rather than a real game. It doesn’t help that there aren’t many teams and a short season, which just increases the sense that all the drama is manufactured. The crowd also doesn’t have anything resembling the passion of similarly-sized European soccer crowds. Also what’s going on with every player saying which university they’re from when they introduce themselves in the pre-game team review? That’s super weird.

So those are the reasons I can’t enjoy NFL. Apart from “dangerous by design” I don’t think any of them are objectively bad things – they’re just things I don’t like, and obviously you’re welcome to not not like them. I would be happy to hear explanations or alternative interpretations of some of these things (except “you’re dumb for not liking this thing you don’t like”), or other comments on things that stop you enjoying this game. Also, tips on how to enjoy it! (Except “drink more” because the games are broadcast in the morning here).


fn1: And he’s not even a millenial!

fn2: Because Japan doesn’t broadcast the American ads and doesn’t play its own (because Japanese tv isn’t as rapacious as American I guess) they fill the advertising breaks with a review of the previous week’s games, which is prepared by the NFL. I guess the NFL has to prepare this for its overseas affiliates because we aren’t used to intense advertising and need something to fill the space. Or maybe it’s some weekly show. Anyway, it features weird overblown narration with a mixture of faux-highbrow imagery and bad puns, and we also get to see a lot of the sideline behavior of the players, which is frankly fucking awful.

We join our PCs for the beginning of the Coriolis campaign in the third observation deck on their ship the Beast of Burden, in the docks beneath the Ozone Plaza on Coriolis station. The Beast of Burden was undergoing her final refit, so below decks, in the hangar and in the crew cabins deckhands and engineers were coming and going, repairing and fixing and installing the final components of their reconfigured yacht. The PCs had arrived at Coriolis station to take possession of their ship a few days ago, from separate parts of the Horizon, and still being new to each other were taking the time while their ship was reconfigured to lounge around in its more luxurious upper decks, talking and learning about each other very much in the way of new housemates.

They also had a guest, in the stasis hold. When they first met on the 14th day of the Merchant, CC 79, they realized that between them they had very little money and they would need to find work quickly if they were to pay off their large monthly debt and find money for their own living expenses. In their quest for quick paying work they soon found themselves at Wahib’s Cantina, and very quickly a woman called Arkial Lima had found them and begged them for help. She was a gambler on the run from a contract taken out on her by one of her debtors, and needed somewhere to lie low for a few days until a man she knew could organize to bail her out. She could not pay them in birr, but she had a solid rumour to share with them if they would help her. Finding other offers thin on the ground they agreed, on the condition that she spend the time in one of their stasis chambers, where no one would find her and she would cost them nothing. She agreed, and in return told them her rumour: a small mining colony in the asteroid belt, called Rockholme 3, was about to run out of essential spare parts due to sabotage by a disaffected member of the colony. She had learned this from a drunk merchant a few days earlier, and he had also told her that he knew of a large shipment of spare parts that was due to arrive any day soon on a salvage ship called the Divine Grace. Once its captain, Solomon Hulam, dumped his parts on the market in Coriolis the price would plummet, and anyone with a couple of thousand birr to spend could clean up easily, then take the parts to Rockholme 3 and arrive just at the right moment, to make a huge profit selling the spare parts to the desperate station. It just needed timing! The PCs checked a few basic details of Arkial’s rumour, confirmed at least the names and ships, and decided to take Arkial in, keep her in stasis, wake her on the evening of the 18th and escort her to Wahib’s Cantina to meet the shady man who was going to help her out of her bounty hunter problems. An easy job – what could possibly go wrong?

And so they found themselves in bloody combat in their own stasis hold on the afternoon of their first day of rest in Coriolis station.

The nameless enforcer

They were lounging around in the third observation deck, watching screen and taking tea, when an alarm chime sounded and the ship computer informed them that Arkial’s stasis bed had been set to open. They sprang to life, with Reiko Ando and Siladan Hatshepsut rushing down to the stasis hold while Oliver Greenstar and Al Hiram went belowdecks to grab their weapons. The Beast of Burden’s stasis hold held 64 stasis chambers in three rooms, with Arkial resting in the innermost room. At the door to the outer room Siladan activated a screen and they turned on the security camera to the stasis hold, to see a team of six men standing around Arkial’s casket. The chamber was slowly opening, and the leader of the team was pointing a nasty-looking accelerator pistol at the seal, waiting for it to fully unfold and for Arkial to groggily come round. They had perhaps a minute to act.

Siladan acted quickly, setting up a radiation release alarm that began to wail ominously throughout the ship, informing everyone there had been a major radiation leak and everyone had to abandon the vessel within a minute. On the screen the gangsters reacted suddenly, looking around in horror and then dragging Arkial from her pod, still barely conscious as she woke from stasis. As they began to drag her from the room Siladan and Reiko ran into the outer room to take positions under cover by the sliding doors, and Oliver and Al Hiram took places by the exit doors, pistol and carbine out and ready.

They sprung their trap well, hitting the gangsters hard as they fled. Their leader was first through the door, looking lethal in protective clothing and carrying a pistol. Behind him came three goons carrying Arkial, backed up by two more goons. These last two were late to the action and unsurprised, but everyone else was caught flat-footed. Reiko and Siladan stepped from the shadows to strike at the goons carrying Arkial while Oliver and Al Hiram shot the leader. One bullet hit but the other missed and no one went down in the ambush; battle was joined. Almost immediately Oliver took a shot to the leg and fell to the ground, where he rolled around in pain as he attempted to reload his carbine.

The group were outnumbered and in trouble, so Al Hiram decided to try something reckless and desperate. He charged forward to where Arkial lay stunned in her pod-vest on the floor of the stasis hold, and pointing his gun at her head yelled “Stop this madness or your hostage dies!” Everyone halted and turned to stare at him in awe.

Except the leader, who shot Al Hiram in the face.

The rest of the gangsters were about to rejoin the fray when, in response to this bold negotiating tactic, Oliver Greenstar unleashed his carbine’s full automatic fire. Two of the goons went down and a third staggered, and Al Hiram – who somehow was not dead despite the leader’s vicious shot, returned fire from point blank range and cut him down. Siladan stabbed an injured goon and brought him down too, and one of the remaining goons threw his knife down and started yelling for his surrender.

After a short negotiation – during which the goons recognized Al Hiram as a mystic on the run from bounty hunters, and became even more terrified – they allowed the surviving goons to leave, dragging one of their friends with them, but leaving all their gear. They profited to the tune of 2,000 birr and a brace of guns and armour, and Arkial was fine.

cantina

Wahib’s Cantina

Work in the Spice Plaza

Once Arkial had woken they took her to Wahib’s Cantina, skirting the promenade and traveling by narrow alleys. They arrived safely and delivered her to an oily-looking man with dubious intentions, and she thanked them and wished them luck on their travels to the asteroid belt.

They decided to spend a little time at Wahib’s looking for leads for work. This plan soon fell apart when Siladan managed to insult a grieving pilgrim by suggesting that his home system’s mourning pilgrimage was a manufactured culture that was “not even 30 years old, and how could you possibly subject your family’s memory to such a travesty? I’m fascinated by your culture’s plasticity!” After Al Hiram had dragged them out of that brewing fight they retired to a booth, where they sat nursing kohol and bruised ego until a man came up to offer them work. His name was Merez Alcan, and he was looking for an artifact that he had reason to believe was on Coriolis station. It was a Firstcome statue of the Dancer, worth a lot of money, and he was interested in buying it from its current owner, a young man called Lavim Tamm. He simply needed the PCs to find Lavim Tamm and negotiate for him to meet Merez to sell the statuette. Unfortunately Lavim had gone to ground, and some effort would be needed to find him. For that effort Merez was willing to pay 2000 birr. He described Lavim and told them he was known to be addicted to Miran Fire Kohol, and was known to hang around the spice plaza. With this information the PCs agreed to look for Lavim Tamm. They set off immediately to search the plaza.

The spice plaza was bustling chaos when they arrived, with merchants from all over the Horizon bragging of the quality of their wares, and a million different sweets and coffees and kohol being thrust under their noses wherever they walked. In the mayhem they could not find Lavim Tamm, but they did discover that there was a specialist Miran Fire Kohol cafe called the White Tugur, run by a woman called Jasina. A tugur is a kind of six-legged feline-like hunter found in the wastes of a planet in the Algol system, famous for its size and ferocity. The White Tugur was built in the shape of a Tugur, with the bar in the head and comfortable reclining seats arranged around the inside walls of the Tugur shape. It was high above the spice plaza, where the spice dust rose slowly on gentle currents of warm air from the shops below, to hang in lazy spirals and slow dancing clouds of multi-coloured fragrant haze in the air outside the windows of the bar. Lights from above and below pierced the haze, casting a million rainbow streaks of light across the air in the plaza outside the windows. They sat on a bench looking out over the distant riot of the plaza, breathing in all the smells of the Horizon and nursing their Miran Fire Kohol, and in that moment they all, surely, fell in love with Coriolis station. Baklava, Miran Fire Kohol in a delicate rose-water mix, incense, the distant sound of the bustle of the greatest space station in the Horizon, the spice haze … a perfect way to spend an early afternoon in space.

But they had work to do. They broke their reverie to ask Jasina questions. She was unwilling to answer them at first, expressing fear of the mystic[1], but ultimately they convinced her to tell them what they needed to know. Lavim Tamm was lying low, terrified of something, and could be found at the Quiet Eunuch, a guesthouse in a seedy sector of the promenade. Perhaps they could visit him there and see what he is so terrified of?

They thanked her, finished their Kohol, and gathered their things. Somehow this mission had turned sour, and something was in the air. They would need to have their wits about them now. They stepped out of the White Tugur, and turned their attention to the promenade …


fn1: Al Hiram’s personal problem is that he is being hunted. It’s fun to have everyone in Coriolis recognize him from wanted posters, and refuse to help him.

bob3

The Beast of Burden

Tomorrow my Coriolis campaign begins, and in preparation the players have generated their ship, and their group concept. Here I describe both.

The Beast of Burden

The Beast of Burden is a reconfigured Class IV luxury yacht, built in the Harima shipyards. After 15 years of faithful service she was sold off by her owner and taken over by a criminal gang, before their leadership was slaughtered in a Legion raid in Sadaal. Desperate for cash the remnants of the gang sold her on to the Free League, who reconfigured her as a luxury hotel for senior members before an unfortunate series of accidents caused all on board to die horribly and the ship to go missing. After two years she was found and claimed as salvage by some intrepid scrappers in the Tarazug system, but they soon lost her after some faulty repairs caused a portal jump mishap in Sivas. Whatever creatures from the Dark Beyond the Stars killed the crew were gone when she was rediscovered in Altai, though considerable cleaning was required to make her spaceworthy again. By now her reputation was stained far worse than the Medlab floors, though, and the salvage crew that found her sold her on for scrap. It was at this point that the media mogul Drefusol Amadi saw a chance at a bargain, bought her and reconfigured her for long distance exploration and research. In CC69 he handed her over to the PCs, saddled them with 50% of the debt for the scrap purchase and refit, and told them they would be hearing from him in due course. Whether their motives were best described as confidence, stupidity or desperation, the group agreed, and traveled to Coriolis station to collect their new ship.

bob2

Her origins in the Harima shipyard mean that the Beast of Burden is a graceful, fast and luxurious vessel, capable of surprising feats of power despite her apparently playful interior. She is large, with a 250 ton cargo hold and two spacious hangars. The cargo hold was originally a pool and party area, which is rumoured to have hosted some crazy parties, but which has now been converted to storage specially designed to enable its easy reconfiguration into a research facility or a cage for alien species.

One of the Beast of Burden‘s hangars originally held a large number of small entertainment vessels, but has been reconfigured to hold a fighter, the No Satisfaction, and an unnamed space scooter for movement between vessels. The second hangar holds the Kashmir, a class II shuttle capable of ferrying 24 passengers. In addition to the No Satisfaction, the Beast of Burden is armed with a torpedo launcher and an accelerator cannon. Though not sufficiently heavily armed to provide real military power, the combination of fighter plus two weapon points means that she is capable of defending herself until escape (or until help arrives). During her refit by the criminal gang she was equipped with advanced stealth technology, which adds to her capability in both escaping combat and exploring planets where open approach might be considered unwise.

kashmir

The Kashmir prepares to leave the hangar

Designed for long distance exploration and research missions, the Beast of Burden has an onboard workshop, service station, medlab and Arboretum. The Arboretum hosts a lizardlike Threng of Algol stock, called Neverwhere, and three colorful and raucous parrots from Kua. The two ships’ cats are allowed to prowl the Arboretum, but have come to an agreement with the parrots and prefer not to venture into the garden too often, as Neverwhere is aggressive with smaller animals. None of these animals are allowed into the Chapel. The Chapel is an essential part of the Beast of Burden, since the ship is generally considered to be cursed and homage at the chapel is essential before attempting any portal travel. The PCs have yet to grow used to the curse, or the strange sounds and sudden chills that they encounter in the darker sections of the ship.

bob deck

The Beast of Burden’s observation deck

The Beast of Burden has retained her core luxury service area, and is graced with four luxury suites and their attached galleys, entertainment spaces and cinema. The library has been converted into a media room, capable of broadcasting radio and including an encrypted messaging station for communication with their patron. On a lower deck are 16 standard cabins for crew. There are, unfortunately, only enough escape pods for 16 people, so the ship is not capable of safely operating at full complement. It does, however, have a stasis hold capable of storing 64 people, so in an emergency it could serve as an evacuation or rescue vessel, though life would be very uncomfortable for all on board. The hangar also holds two ground vehicles and a few basic drones, which can be used for mundane surface exploration, though they are not armoured or capable of all terrain travel.

The Beast of Burden offers a luxurious living space for all purpose extended missions on exploration, research or journalism tasks, ideally suited to a team of explorers hired by a media mogul with dubious intentions. Let us explore this team’s background and composition.

the group

Exploring

The Group: Explorers

The players have configured their group as explorers, with the group talent Survivors. Their members are listed here.

  • Al Hamra, a mystic, captain of the ship
  • Adam, a humanite soldier, the ship’s medic
  • Oliver Greenstar, colonist, the ship’s gunner
  • Siladan Hatshepsut, archaeologist, the sensor operator
drefusol

In the palaces of the powerful

The group’s patron is Drefusol Amadi, a media mogul who runs the Free News. He is a rich man who has been forced out of the centers of power, for reasons the PCs do not know, and intends to use his vast wealth to finance a media organization that will dig up secrets on the rich and powerful, their schemes and private lives. He funds paparazzi and private investigators in the central cities of the Third Horizon, paying them to dig up salacious gossip that undermines politicians and religious leaders, keeps them honest and keeps him paid. He also finances investigative journalists who risk their lives to hunt out the deeper and darker secrets of the powerful factions that vie for authority in the systems of the Horizon. As a side project he pays a smaller number of elite adventurers to explore the old ruins of the Horizon, and to visit frontier colonies searching for dirt, stories, rumours, and hints of ancient ruins and origin myths. His real motivations are unknown, but his animus towards the ruling powers of the Horizon is legendary. He has given the PCs no limits or obligations, simply the responsibility to pay back the debt on their ship, and has made clear to them that at some time in the future he will call on them for aid.

Opposed to Drefusol is Dr. Wana, an unconventional and reckless archaeologist who works for the Foundation’s Archaeological Institute. She has been opposed to Drefusol since his reporters uncovered the damage she was doing in a dig on a frontier planet, and the way she was treating her local labourers. It does not help that Siladan is an untrained amateur archaeologist, the kind of neophyte she hates – were he to make any major discoveries it would drive her crazy. As soon as the PCs took up Drefusol’s offer to work for him they became her enemies, and she is not a nemesis to be taken lightly – she has contacts in the Colonial Agency, the Legion, and – it is rumoured – the Draconites. She is also very well endowed with grant money and the legacy of her mother’s money, inherited from a mercenary business her mother ran in the early 40s. That mercenary company is long gone, ground to blood and bone in a brutal war on Menkar, but that isn’t to say that her contacts in the world of independent military contractors died with her mother’s sellswords … she is not one to be crossed lightly.

It is against this background that the PCs arrive at Coriolis station, to take control of the Beast of Burden, and their destiny in the Dark Beyond the Stars …

 

leaving old owl well

Leaving Old Owl Well towards Conyberry

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

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

dawn caernarvvn

Dawn at Caernarrvn

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

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

agatha

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

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

cragmaw

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

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

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

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

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

Glass cannon

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

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

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


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

The new documentary Fyre, available on Netflix, describes the events surrounding the collapse of the infamous Fyre festival in 2017. The collapse of this festival gained worldwide notoriety because the festival was billed as a super luxury elite event full of models and influencers and famous people, which only the very rich could afford, but which ended with the “elite” guests having to camp in the dark in emergency response tents and eat soggy sandwiches before they fled home. It was covered extensively in the media and was often covered as a kind of disaster for the instagram age, a festival as fake as the world we build on social media, and a moral story about the collapse of truth in an era of influencers and instafame. It was a particularly attractive FUBAR because it involved rich people being scammed out of their money for what on its surface appears to be a completely vainglorious and shallow status symbol event.

I think a lot of that narrative was either untrue or a pernicious interpretation of the evils of social media. This documentary goes some way to helping to clarify what really happened and helps us to understand who some of the real victims and real villains were, but I think ultimately it fails because it does not go far enough or deep enough, and to some extent it is complicit with the scammers. It has three key flaws: 1) it fails to really contest the accounts of the organizers; 2) it does not give much of a voice to the guests; and 3) it does not offer any deeper commentary on the social media aspects of the SNAFU. I want to talk about each of these three problems and give a little opinion about what this festival tells us about social media and scams, again returning to my old saw that there is nothing new about the evils of social media, and no special skills are required to understand and deal with the problems social media creates.

First though I would like to say that although this documentary is flawed it is worth watching: it will give a much more detailed understanding of what happened and help to put the events into their proper perspective. I did not know, for example, that the organizer of the festival had been involved in a previous scam with all the same players; that a website and twitter account started to debunk the festival long before it happened; and that a great many of the attendees were not the super rich. Some of these points are not really clarified or explored properly in the documentary, but if you watch carefully and pay attention you can see these facts.

The first problem of the documentary is that it is highly dependent on footage of the entire project planning that was taken by the organizers themselves. I don’t know why they filmed themselves but it appears that the boss of the whole thing, Billy McFarland, has something of an obsession with filming his work – even at the end of the movie when he is on bail and living in a penthouse running a new direct mail scam he is filming himself doing it, which is weird. But it seems to me that in order to get this footage the documentary makers had to treat many of the organizers with kid gloves, which gives many of them the opportunity to provide self-serving and I suspect highly biased accounts of their own responsibility for the disaster. Four figures in particular – Carolla the financer, an old guy who has backed Billy McFarland for too long and has 30 years’ showbiz experience, the key guy responsible for logistics and the key guy responsible for booking acts – are up to their necks in the scam and it’s just not believable that they weren’t part of it. When one of them says that Billy would keep going away and finding new investments, it’s obvious that he is scamming new investors and they must know – and sure enough it turns out that he has been lying egregiously in documents to investors. Other people not so close to Billy were quick to get out when they realized the shitstorm that was coming, and one guy who saw right through it was able to get direct photos of the development of the festival and could clearly see it was going to be an omnishambles, yet these four couldn’t see it? Some of them, in particular Carolla and Ja Rule, were involved in Billy McFarland’s previous business, Magnises, which was clearly and obviously a scam, so it really stretches credibility when they tell the documentary makers that they didn’t know what was going on and kept not seeing the wood for the trees even when it was really clear what was going to happen. It’s very clear that Billy McFarland has a powerful effect on these people and is good at keeping them disoriented and confused, and he is always ratcheting up the chaos and demands so that they don’t have time to get clear-headed perspective on the damage he is doing. It is also really clear that he has found typically devious ways to keep them entangled in his dramas so that not only they but a lot of people who depend on them will be damaged if they back away; but these people have been around Billy McFarland long enough to know that this is his shtick, and to find ways out. There is a story in here about how incredibly dangerous people with personality disorders are when they have access to money and authority; but there is also a moral tale about the importance of not enabling these people, and of ultimately being willing to take the risk of walking away from them. This documentary shows in the end that when you enable the disordered leadership in order to protect those around you, all you really do is set those people up for a bigger fall when the narcissists’s schemes finally collapse. There’s a definite cautionary tale for Trump’s America in this documentary, but unfortunately by not properly challenging the stories of Billy’s fellow travelers the documentary fails to draw the proper lessons about the dangers of sticking with a leader with personality disorder.

The collapse of Fyre festival was a social media spectacle that was turned into a morality play about millennial idiocy by the media, but it’s worth bearing in mind that there were real victims of this farce. The documentary makes a good case for the low-paid workers of the Bahamas and the businesspeople who were left out of pocket on the island by the scammers, but it does not put much time into the feelings and experiences of the guests who paid to come to the festival and got scammed. It even manages to broadcast Billy McFarland’s point (made through Ja Rule) that nobody got injured or died. Nonetheless, the people who attended this festival turned up to an island far from home and got dumped on a fake beach in the dark with nowhere to stay except damaged tents with sodden mattresses, barely any food, and no idea what to do to get home. A large number were locked inside the airport without food and water for a night while the authorities tried to figure out a way to get them off the island. The fact that they were rich beautiful people doesn’t lessen the fear and hardship that they had to endure for a day or two while they found a way out of this scam – they were poorly mistreated. The documentary finds a couple of customers who were willing to speak on camera about their experience, and it uses a bit of social media footage of other victims, but it does manage to build up an image of these people as wealthy people who were paying for an elitist experience. It even shows a clip of a beautiful girl (possibly one of the influencers who was supposed to get free villa accommodation, though the documentary is careful not to reveal who the people in the social media clips are) saying that the “private” plane was “worse than the lowest class in economy”, which makes her seem kind of snobby from her tone. On twitter today I have been seeing people saying that what these people were really paying for was exclusivity, buying an experience that no one else could have, but I did not get that impression from the documentary: they were pretty clearly paying for the experience of a party on a beautiful beach, and paying for a luxury experience. Everything was marketed as a luxury experience and that’s what the guests were paying for. They weren’t necessarily driven by a desire for exclusivity. After all, they knew lots of other people were going to be there and fundamentally, like with any festival, wanted to go there and share the experience with those people. Any music event is never about exclusivity – you go to live events so you can share the experience with other people. But worse still, this documentary slides over the possibility that actually a lot of people weren’t that wealthy, and had actually been scammed out of real hard-earned money, not disposable income. You can’t tell from the people they interview, or from the prices they display on the documentary screens, but the lowest price tickets were between $500 and $1500. It’s not beyond a person on a normal income to spend a large chunk of their savings on this festival, so that they can have this experience. Looking at the people on the social media footage the documentary shows, and judging by their clothes and reaction, a lot of these people were not throwing away a casual weekend’s cocaine money to drink champagne off models’ tits in an exclusive villa: they were dumping a large portion of their hard-won savings on a chance to enjoy their favourite music in a geodesic luxury tent on a beautiful beach. Now, I have experienced a really enjoyable music festival on a secluded beach (the San-in Beach Party), and it really is a very nice experience, and to do it in luxury on a beach in the Bahamas is something that a lot of people would consider worth burning their savings on. It’s well-established that millennials, knowing they can’t afford a house or a stable retirement, choose to spend what limited savings they can scrape together on experiences like this. No matter how much David Brooks might sneer at their ephemeral spirit, it’s no reason to scam them of their hard-earned cash. That’s not exactly Robin Hood stuff is it? But by carefully avoiding investigating these peoples’ backgrounds, and not trying to do any deeper investigation into who went and why, the documentary falls into the usual traps that bedevil any attempt to explore modern youth culture, and makes it seem once again like a bunch of entitled millenial trustafarians got what they deserved.

Finally, the documentary does not properly explore the central role of social media in the debacle, and what the implications of that might be. The Fyre festival’s initial hype was built up by a bunch of influencers – perhaps 400 – all posting a picture of a blank orange tile to their instagram accounts at the same time, with a link to the Fyre page, where people could see videos of these influencers cavorting in the sea. It was a masterfully done advertising campaign, that used the viral power of instagram and other social media to multiply the value of each user’s post. But let’s not be coy about how this worked: they sank an enormous amount of money on this advertising. The documentary reports that the top girl in the influencer group they gathered, Bella Hadid, was paid $250,000 for that one post. They set up a website that was basically just a collection of movies, and then through a very well designed visual campaign they got a lot of people interested in their product. The documentary reported that in the aftermath of the Fyre farce the US government introduced new rules for social media stars, requiring them to indicate when they’re being paid to advertise product, and the documentary suggested that their behaviour had been duplicitous. The documentary also suggested that they should have done due diligence on the product they were selling, but this point was rebutted by some of the people involved who pointed out – fairly, I think – that these girls are models not scientists, and it’s not their job to vet the quality of a good they’re paid to advertise – that’s what regulatory authorities are for. Fundamentally what happened here is that Billy McFarland paid them to market a scam that neither they, the buyers, any of the contractors in the Bahamas, or apparently any of his colleagues, recognized was a scam. I don’t think under these circumstances these girls are the first people who should be blamed.

More importantly, none of what this advertising campaign did was new. It girls have been around since Audrey Hepburn (Holly Golightly was a classic It-girl), and in the era of the big people magazines girls like Paris Hilton were huge news, without ever making a single social media post. The fact that you can be an it-girl on Instagram doesn’t change anything, and although Bella Hadid is more ubiquitous in the feeds of her followers than Paris Hilton might have been, she is no less ubiquitous in popular media than Paris was. I am old enough to remember the Paris Hilton era, and let me tell you, there is nothing that Instagram could teach her about how to get rich and famous by being nothing and doing nothing. Yes the Kardashians’ famous-for-fame-itself lifestyle and business model is repulsive, but so was Paris Hilton’s. Similarly the problem of these girls advertising products without announcing they’re paid: it may shock my younger reader(s) to learn this, but a mere 20 years ago all the Hate Radio stars in Australia – Alan Jones, John Laws, that repulsive dude in South Australia, and the racist pig in Western Australia – were all advertising products all the time on the radio without telling you they were paid. They had a conversational tone in which they told you personally that they used this car oil, and never once mentioned that this conversation was paid for. This scandal blew up in the late 1990s and you should have seen the entitled whining they did when they were forced to admit on air that they were paid to make their endorsements. Now as far as I know, the late 1990s was approximately 60 years after the widespread adoption of radio. So it took approximately 10 times as long for the authorities to wise up to payola on the radio as it did for them to crack down on these pretty young things on Instagram. I’m sure that their haste to crack the whip on those girls has nothing at all to do with their age and gender … and of course all the top 40 charts and bullshit rankings on MTV and radio charts are still completely bought and paid for by the music industry, but we should worry that occasionally a model will slip in an unannounced endorsement on Instagram… No, as I have said before, the problem here is not social media – it’s you. Indeed there were even social media accounts dedicated to revealing the truth about Fyre but they didn’t take off – because nobody cared about the truth. If you cannot tell that a party on a remote island in the Bahamas where you get to cavort with models in a villa with a private plane for a couple of thousand bucks is smoke and mirrors, you won’t be saved by seeing that scam advertised on tv instead of Facebook. And if a slimy con artist decides to lie to you that he has villas for 5,000 people on that beach when in fact there are no houses on the entire island, it doesn’t matter if he does it on TV, Instagram or a message written in the sky – he’s a liar and a con artist, and the problem is that he lied. Unfortunately, while this documentary does make clear much of the way in which he built his lies, it also glosses over the simple fact that the world is full of liars and rubes in favour of the easy lure of social media panic, and schadenfreude at rich people getting duped.

So, watch this documentary if you want a more detailed account of that fateful party and the garbage fire it became, but don’t let yourself be fooled by the easy targeting of social media and rich entitled millenials. The story of Fyre is as old as the story of liars, and our natural faith in the honesty of our fellow humans. Whether you lie to someone’s face, on tv, on Instagram, or on stone tablets, a lie is a lie: and Fyre was a bonfire of stupid, vicious lies that left a lot of people hurt. Let’s hope we’ve all learnt from it, and that this documentary will help us all ensure it does not happen again.

These guys only run forward!

I have just completed a three day trip to Chengdu, China, where I was visiting an NGO that provides HIV testing and counselling to men who have sex with men. There’s not much to report about the trip itself – the NGO is doing well and we came up with some interesting research opportunities, and I spent a lot of time eating exhausting spicy hotpots – but the Sichuan Airlines flight I took there gave me an opportunity to watch Operation Red Sea, the new hyped-up Chinese action movie. I previously reviewed Wolf Warrior 2, which I watched on a work trip to Guangzhou, so I thought this time I would give a review of this new phantasmagoria of action violence.

This movie is apparently based on a real event in which a Chinese warship evacuated Chinese and foreign nationals from Yemen in 2015. I think “based on” is doing a lot of work in this claim, however, since the sheer volume of damage and destruction handed out by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in this movie could be seen from space if it actually happened, and I suspect that the only thing the real events and the movie have in common is the words “Chinese warship”. But don’t let that discourage you, because this is an action movie and we all know that action movies are at their best when they ignore reality.

The basic plot of this movie starts simple but gets over-complicated very quickly. A coup breaks out in a fictitious north African country, and as the coup unfolds an Islamist revolutionary group takes advantage of the situation to create havoc and try and steal some yellowcake and the plans for a dirty bomb. A bunch of Chinese nationals are caught in the country, working at various businesses, and so a Chinese warship (the Guangdong, I think) enters the port of the capital and deploys teams of soldiers to evacuate Chinese nationals. The parameters of their mission are very very clear: they are only to act with permission from the government (which they seek every time they expand their mission), and they are only there to save Chinese nationals. Anything else is a bonus, but they have to get permission for every bit of mission creep. This was also a strong theme in Wolf Warrior 2: as opposed to certain nations, these movies make very clear that the Chinese government does not interfere in other nations’ affairs unless it has permission from the UN and local governments, and only to protect Chinese interests.

Pretty much as soon as they enter the town where the civil war is unfolding things begin to go wrong. They get attacked from all sides, there are suicide bombers, the people they’re evacuating have been split up, and then they learn of more nationals who have been kidnapped and taken inland. One of these nationals is a female journalist who is hot on the case of a bunch of Islamists who are planning to steal some uranium ore, and a dubious scientist who has the plans for a dirty bomb that can be made with it. The soldiers have to go and save her but are attacked on the way, which requires much slaughter, and then find that to rescue the journalist they will have to fight an entire platoon of terrorists – 8 against 150, which of course they pull off because China! Then things go a bit awol, when the journalist tells them about the yellowcake and they decide – without permission from their superiors on the ship – to go foil the yellowcake plan. Rescuing the journalist leads to quite a few of the soldiers dying, and ends in a rather fantastic tank chase with strong hints of Mad Max.

Aside from occasional 5 or 10 minute breaks to set the scene of the next clusterfuck, and to lay out or reinforce a few nationalist themes, this movie is a non-stop warzone. It’s like your GM squeezed a whole campaign into two hours, with stirring music and a lot of stern faces. The soldiers level up between each scene too, because the challenges they face become more and more extreme and they rise to every single one. I didn’t know that Chinese special forces are also elite tank stunt drivers, but apparently they are, or at least in one of their level-ups they picked that skill to a pretty high level, and I think one of them must be able to fly heavy transport planes too. This movie is basically a team of 8 Rambos, doing Rambo things for two hours against exponentially increasing levels of difficulty.

Which would be frankly ridiculous but the action scenes are very good and the challenges are super fun. The whole thing is also anchored by the story of the sniper and his assistant, who seem to be the pivot around which the rest of the action takes place. The sniper scenes are really cool, and although one of the snipers is a typical East Asian hard-faced bullyboy[1], with vulnerable sidekick, they work out in the end. At several points in the action they are forced to face off against a baby-faced Arabian sniper, who is presented in a surprisingly sympathetic way and is actually pretty cool, though like pretty much everyone in this movie he gets it in the end (I think it’s safe to say that there’s no risk of spoilers here). The bad guys aren’t as one-dimensionally awful as the bad guys in Wolf Warrior 2, but they’re still very nasty, with a fondness for forcing innocent people to be suicide bombers by threatening their children, beheading journalists, that sort of thing[2]. It’s one of those movies where you really don’t feel bad about viscerally hating the enemy. Which is just as well because the body count is very high.

Along the way our team of heroes save a couple of victimized local women and some non-Chinese foreigners, and bravely also rescue a suicide bomber from his bomb, while under fire, but mostly their position is non-interventionist: they’re here to do a specific, limited, internationally-sanctioned job and they absolutely will not deviate from that mission unless there is zero risk that they will screw it up by helping out a local. They may be disgusted at the local brand of terrorism, but there’s no liberal interventionism here! The movie also makes a point of pausing regularly to reiterate basic Chinese government policy: we don’t intervene, we absolutely will not allow Chinese citizens to be victimized by other countries, all our actions are in accordance with international law, and everyone from China loves China. The movie also finishes with a shockingly nationalist epilogue: after all has been said and done and the special forces have returned to China, we have a final scene in which some unnamed ships from an unidentified nation are seen moving towards the screen, and a voiceover is saying something like “This is the Chinese navy. Do not enter Chinese territorial waters” with threats of escalating intensity. I think it’s clear enough to everyone who the unidentified nation are and where the territorial waters must be, and I think this might be the clearest case I have ever seen of current great power politics being expressed directly in a movie (barring the infamous final credits from Rambo IV, I guess).

This nationalism is an interesting experience in watching Chinese action movies like Operation Red Sea. Occasionally things happen on screen that are so blatantly intended to push nationalist buttons that you think “wow, this is super unsubtle and really close to fascist!” but then you pause and realize – because you’re viewing it from more of a distance than usual – that what you’re watching is no different to any number of American action movies. It’s probably less blatant than gay porn like Top Gun, and although nowhere near as self-critical as First Blood is definitely no worse than Rambo IV. Because we are not used to seeing military action movies from anyone except America, the kind of nationalism that is routine currency in American movies and that we’ve been raised on suddenly seems shockingly blatant and unpleasant. There’s absolutely nothing in Operation Red Sea that you would not see over and over in any episode of The Last Ship (remember when they pick up that mercenary at Guantanamo Bay? Good times!) But it stands out like dog’s balls when it’s not being portrayed by someone on “our side”. I think it’s very educational to see nationalism from the outside, and reminds me of how much we grow accustomed to in American movies that we really shouldn’t.

Overall this movie is a fun ride, though it has a few problems. The team really is a team, with no strong candidate for a single lead character, and so it’s hard to keep track of exactly who dies and who doesn’t because they’re largely interchangeable. It also seems to hand-wave away some important plot problems, like for example when they’re stranded in the middle of the desert with a bunch of foreign nationals and injured soldiers after the Islamists blow up their ride, and then suddenly we’re at the next battle and all their non-combatant charges have disappeared. They don’t spend much time on character development and aside from the chick, the dude who eats sweets and the sniper team we don’t have a lot of character to hang onto from half of the team (but it’s okay; most of this team aren’t going to go the distance). The first scene with the pirates and the ship also seems kind of unnecessary, like we could have just skipped that, but I guess the GM needed an introductory adventure for the characters. Other than these problems though the movie is a pretty solid contribution to the military action movie genre. It has a little bit of the feeling of Blackhawk Down, though it’s not as good as that (but most action movies aren’t). I recommend seeing it as both a cross-cultural experience, and a rich two hours of exhausting violence, with a tank chase!


fn1: I realize this might sound harsh to my reader(s), but if you have lived and worked in East Asia you’ll know the character I mean.

fn2: It says something about how awful the bad guys were in Wolf Warrior 2 that the journalist-beheading terrorists in this movie are less extreme. At least no one in this movie executed an entire hospital full of Doctors Without Borders volunteers, or blew up a bus full of refugees! (Actually on reflection they did do the latter, but in this movie the bus was part of a military convoy and was also carrying soldiers). But what does it tell us about the movie-maker’s point of view that the enemies in Wolf Warrior 2 were primarily western mercenaries, while the (not as nasty) dudes in this movie are Arabian?

A shining future awaits!

The year comes to an end, and as I do every year I turn my mind to the year’s successes, its excessive slaughters and magical high points: a review of my year in gaming.

Unfortunately 2018 was something of a year of false starts. I began the year by ending my Mutant: Year Zero campaign, which finished with a war for the Ark and the revelation of the cause of the Apocalypse. I did not tell the players this, but my idea for the cause of the apocalypse in this campaign tied in with an old post-apocalyptic campaign I ran many years ago, in which the world had been brought to an end by the Catholic church, who unleashed magic and demons on the world in order to reduce it to a dark-ages level of technology in which religion would again be ascendant. The Mutant: Year Zero apocalypse was a variant of this, and so the PCs were playing in an immediate post-apocalypse world that would ultimately evolve into the world of the post-apocalypse campaign. It would be nice to return to that post-apocalypse world, perhaps using the Genesys system, which I bought this year. Mutant: Year Zero was an extremely enjoyable campaign and opened my eyes to the joys of Fria Ligan’s work. They are a genuinely excellent gaming company who make great games based around a simple and flexible and fun system, which I used a variant of later in the year and will be returning to in 2019.

Aside from the successful completion of the Mutant: Year Zero campaign, though, 2018 was a year of false starts. Our Shadowrun campaign, set in the post-awakening city of New Horizon that followed on from the awesome Cyberpunk campaign of 2016/2017, ended without resolution because our GM got permanent residency in Canada and moved there. This member of my group leaving, and two other members running into major real life hurdles, meant that the regular group I had been gaming with for several years fell apart and a bunch of campaigns that could have got started fell into ruin after just one session. We had a go at The One Ring, and also some D&D, but nothing got up and running. Our Degenesis campaign had a session in 2018 but floundered for the same reason, which is a shame because that world is very powerful and engaging.

The main campaign that has been running successfully in 2018 is my skype D&D campaign, which has had about 8 sessions that I have written up as 5, and which has been a lot of fun. This campaign has players based in Japan, Australia and the UK, and is generally run over roll20 for about 3 hours on Sunday evenings every two weeks (when we aren’t too busy). We have been running the Lost Mine of Phandalver campaign, which seems to be a really well-written and organized campaign and has been a lot of fun to run. The gaming atmosphere is a mixture of horror, comedy and serious fantasy, so that for example one of the PCs is a middle-aged wizard who is only adventuring because he has lost his grant funding, and Goblins speak with a French accent (mon dieu!) but it also has serious moments in which brutal battles end horribly, rogues speak with ancient stones about lost secrets, and horrible evils are thwarted. Much more than my previous attempt to experience original D&D with this skype group, this campaign has really allowed me to enjoy D&D again, to the extent that I even recently ran a session in Japanese for some newbie friends. D&D remains a bit too crunchy and capricious for my tastes, but the 5th edition has made it a lot more fun and a lot easier to GM or play without needing a PhD (perhaps it has been reduced to Master’s level). D&D 5 also shows what an execrable mess Pathfinder is, and how shallow 13th Age is.

Besides the Japanese one-off, I also ran a one-off adventure set in Neolithic England, inspired by my recent trip to Stonehenge, in which the PCs were stone-age adventurers who had to get the sun to rise after the desecration of a holy spot by Bronze Age invaders. This went really well, although I based the system on the Coriolis system and did some tweaks that made it extremely difficult for the players to use all their powers as much as they wanted.

This brings me to my plans for 2019. In my review of 2017 I wrote that I intend to set up a Coriolis campaign in 2018, and run it for a long time with a core group of players, but this did not happen because my regular group fell apart and my work became a lot busier and more demanding than I expected. I also experienced an extremely unpleasant disease in mid-2018, Ramsay Hunt Syndrome, which completely wrecked my schedule for a few months. Things have stabilized now, however, and I have identified a new group of players and rounded them up, so beginning in early 2019 I will start the Coriolis campaign I have been waiting a year to begin. Aside from a few one-offs, this and the Skype D&D campaign will be my main gaming in 2019. I will run a long, excellent campaign of intrigue and dark magic in an Arabian-themed space opera setting, alongside continuing violence and comedy in the Forgotten Realms. A nice mixture!

So, here’s to a healthier 2019 and a more successful year of gaming. Let’s enjoy the Dark Between the Stars together!