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!

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

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

Bad Men, the Eden House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay sleeping, gentle giants

Today we are hearing reports that Japan will withdraw from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 2019 and resume commercial whaling. These reports are being greeted with some dismay but I wonder if they actually herald the beginning of the end of Japanese whaling.

The reports suggest that the Japanese whaling fleet will stop hunting in the Southern Ocean and restrict their whaling activities to Japan’s territorial waters. On its face this suggests that the fleet will be able to easily and comfortably catch as many whales as it wants, but there’s a problem with this: Japanese people don’t like whale meat, and whaling is only profitable if it is heavily government subsidized. But when the whaling fleet switches from a dodgy “research” program to a commercial whaling program, will the government still subsidize it? I wouldn’t be surprised if the subsidy gets withdrawn and whale suddenly has to compete on price and quality with beef and fish. I suspect then that commercial whaling will become unsustainable very quickly. Furthermore, many areas where whaling could be conducted will put it in direct competition with whale watching tourism (for example in Kochi, Okinawa and some areas around Hokkaido). This political battle played out for years in Iceland, and although the whale watchers finally lost it took a lot of work by the whaling organization to make that happen.

In the past a large part of the reason whaling was supported by the government was its political appeal in a few important rural electorates, but over the past 10 years there have been repeated efforts to reduce the political power of rural electorates, with electorates merging and being rebalanced so their effective vote is closer to parity with urban areas. This means that the government is under less and less pressure to support rural money-sink projects like whaling, and in an era of straitened finances where the boutique demands of a couple of rural electorates conflict with the growing and critical problem of aging in rural areas, I suspect the government will very quickly find it convenient to slash that subsidy (or not transfer it) and leave the whaling towns to sink or swim on their own. It’s worth remembering that one un-subsidized similar operation, the annual dolphin hunt, is not financially successful on the basis of the meat consumed – the main profits from that hunt arise from selling captured dolphins to aquariums (many of them international). With no such secret market to support it the whale hunt may well not be profitable, unless the operators can somehow convince Chinese people to eat whale meat.

This decision also removes much of the international embarrassment that Japan faced from whaling. Until last year, when the Sea Shepherds admitted defeat in their conflict with the whaling fleet, Japan endured an annual parade of shame on the global stage as its tiny pointless whaling fleet hunted endangered animals in international waters while being chased by an aggressive foreign fleet that sometimes had surprising victories. It was defeated in the international courts and forced to change its plans, and it only defeated the Sea Shepherds after militarizing its whaling fleet. In contrast, moving to commercial whaling in Japan’s territorial waters and leaving the IWC incurs a one-time PR hit, because the Sea Shepherds won’t be able to operate in Japanese territory, and so there won’t be annual vision of this conflict. It also removes all political disputes with Australia, which despite its small size remains an important trading partner for Japan and a good international friend, and with whom they disagreed on pretty much only this issue. It also strips the whaling program of all its nationalist political baggage, since it will be removed from the public eye, and potentially opens it to political conflicts within Japan over less politically-charged and more prosaic issues of budgeting and industrial strategy.

This decision also makes me wonder if prime minister Shinzo Abe has not been playing his nationalist base very well. Since he came into office he has implemented new programs to encourage women in work, increased annual migration numbers and relaxed rules on who can come here, made better friends with China, and now he’s stripping the whale hunt of all its nationalist overtones. His apology on the 70th anniversary of the war was actually an expansive improvement on previous apologies, and although there have been some restrictions on international aid Shinzo Abe has adopted a fairly radical global health program that puts the end of war, and international engagement, at the centre of Japan’s development programs. His introduction of this global health policy linked it to Japan’s violence towards women in the second world war, with an implicit rebuke of people who denied the comfort woman issue (which he also almost settled with the Koreans). So I wonder what his nationalist base have actually got out of him? Sure there have been some mild changes to the constitution to enable group self defense, but the most likely short term result of them will be that Japan ends up fighting in a war as an ally of South Korea (should that horrific scenario come to pass). Besides this mild concession, I cannot see that the nationalist wing of Japanese politics have gained a single thing from Abe. He doesn’t even visit Yasukuni Shrine anymore! I think Abe may have presented the world with a text book example of how to play to a nationalist base while implementing policies they don’t want, and stealing them of all their thunder.

So let’s hope that this decision causes the whaling issue to slide out of view, and then bankrupts the whaling fleet and forces them to be converted into expensive, high-class whale-watching ships. There’s a precedent for this: the first Sea Shepherd ship was a converted Japanese whaler. I hope that in the years to come the Sea Shepherds will be able to say that the Japanese fleet’s victory in the battle for the Southern Ocean was pyrrhic, and that the Sea Shepherds won the war.

ある夜、ある海

ある夜、3隻の船がカシマネ島へ行った。数時間離れたが同じ船団だった。

  • 「怪しい目撃者」:船団の重要船、乗客が乗っている船
  • 「突然の道徳的クライシス」:数時間後ろに追って、宝物や金を持っていた
  • 「倫理的な分離」:船団の尾、小麦を持っていた

波を突く「怪しい目撃者」に乗る乗客の中、4人のPCがいた:

  • 烏龍:銀龍血派のエルフソーサラー。昔々、銀龍がカシマネ島にいたから、龍の骨を探しに行った
  • フノートラップ:ドワーフ光領域のクレリック。ある夜、「光」領域の仲間が輝いていた流れ星を見て、落ちた場所はカシマネ島だと推測したからフノートラップハ流れ星の欠片を探しに行った
  • トバル:ハーフエルフパラディン。トバルのパラディン軍のリーダーは夢を見て、カシマネ島で古代の悪が起きると分かった。トバルはその悪を調べに行った
  • ブッキ:ハーフリング戦領域のクレリック。自分の親戚がカシマネ島に住んでいるから、警鐘をもらいに行った

全員、お互いまだ知らない。全員、レベル3だ。

この世の3つの月が重い雲の裏に隠されて、海が真っ暗だった。嵐の影響で海が不安定だから乗客の全員が甲板で時間を過ごしていた。一週間の旅の最後の夜で、明日到着期待していた。甲板でゆっくりしながら、船員の活動を見ていて、キャラクター全員は船長は心配していたことに気がついた。心配している顔を見せながら、船員に激しい声で指示をしていた。

キャラクターが心配の理由を聞く前に、数人の船員が急に仕事を止めて、静かになってゾンビーみたいに船の側までに歩いていた。人りが側に着いたら直接飛んで、海に潜った。キャルクター達が船の前まで走りに行って、キレイな曲を聞いた。ハーピー!3人が曲の魔法を抵抗したがトバルが曲の影響で船の側を向かった。そして、ハーピーが戦った!

船員がパニックをしたがキャラクター達が怯えずに反撃した。呪文と武器で戦って、ハーピーの一匹をすぐ倒したが、残り一匹が逃げられた。戦闘の後の状態を調べたら、船員の5人くらいが亡くなって、どうかブッキが失敗してクロスボウで船長のお尻に大怪我しちゃった。船員の数が足りないため、船のコントロールが難しくなった上、船長によるとこの区域の灯台は消えちゃったそうから海湾の状態がわからなかった。強風が吹いて、船が容赦なくビーチまで押された。数時間たつと「怪しい目撃者」が座礁し、壊した。キャラクター達が生存したが船が消失しちゃった。

キャラクター達がビーチで休憩したときに船長が現れて、お願いした。灯台の光を再火しないと後追う「突然の道徳的クライシス」もここでもがき進んで、宝物が失われるから、キャラクターが崖を登って灯台をさ再火して欲しいと願った。船長は自分でしたかったがトバルのせいでお尻の大怪我されちゃったから無理そうで、代わりにキャラクター達がしてほしいということを表した。

威圧を使用して、再火の代わりに「突然の道徳的クライシス」が持っている宝物の中から1個の魔法アイテムを貰ったらするという交渉をした。その約束を確保して、崖を登り始めた。

針ネズミの仲間?

崖の上に着いたら灯台が見えた。林を通ったらすぐ着く状態だったから進んだ。灯台の門が鍵しめたからフノートラップがピッキングをしようとしたが無理だった。全員が一緒に筋力を使ってドアを押して開けたが大きい音が聞かれて、林から変なものが現れた。「ニードルブライト」という植物系のクリーチャー五匹が戦った。戦闘がすぐ終わったが、また怪我されて全員が少し疲れた。

再火!

灯台の1階に入って、小さい部屋を調べた。誰もいなかったから階段を登って光所まで進んだ。光所も鍵しめて、ここもフノートラップがピッキングしないといけなかった。しに行ったら、あのキレイな曲をまた聞こえて、ハーピーの魔法に掛かられた!光所の後ろまで向けて、ハーピーの豪食になる!

その状態でブッキが「小奇跡」を唱えて、大きい拍手の音が響き、フノートラップにかかった魔法を邪魔してフノートラップが起きた。その瞬間に2匹の起こっているハーピーが光所の上を飛んで戦ったが、フノートラップが神性伝導を呼び出して、光所の真ん中に「曙光」を唱えた。輝く瞬間に量匹のハーピーが大怪我を受け、全員に戦われたら一匹がすぐ死んだ。残りの一匹が逃げちゃったがトバルの上手なジャヴリンで死んで海まで落ちた。

そういうことで灯台が安全になって再火されたが一体、なぜハーピーがここにいたし、なぜ灯台の面倒員がいなかったのか?全員が階段に下がって、調べに行った。。。

Our heroes have captured a goblin, Droop, who was some kind of dogsbody in a room full of Bugbears. Having killed the bugbears and slaughtered a large number of the redbrands at the tavern where they gather, our heroes were fairly sure that there was little left to kill down here in the dark, but just in case they gave this goblin a stern interrogation, and he immediately spilled all the beans. Glasstaff lived in a room north of this room, which should be protected by guards but the four off-duty guards had gone to the tavern to watch the town, and the men they were replacing hadn’t returned yet – probably carousing with the others, Droop surmised, and the PCs did not bother correcting his error. They let him go, and picked their way northward. First they passed through an empty guard room, where the guards they had slain at the inn would have returned had they been able. From there they crept across a narrow corridor into a wizard’s workroom, a typical assortment of rough-hewn furniture, badly pickled animal parts and pungent herbs. They set about carefully searching the room but stopped after Mouse heard a noise in the next room. They burst through a door into an empty bedroom, just in time to see a secret door swinging closed in one corner. With reckless disregard for his own safety Mouse leapt through the door, and was hit by a fusillade of magic darts from the far end of the corridor. The wizard was trying to flee! They chased him and cut him down in a small store room, his life’s blood ebbing away amongst a pile of cooking implements. They searched his body and found his glass staff and some notes to the Black Spider, which confirmed their suspicion that the redbrands had been working for whichever foul creature lived in the mysterious Cragmaw Castle. For now they left his body and moved on.

Droop had told them about the last few rooms in the complex, where a group of skeletons lay waiting for passing adventurers, but would let through anyone who wore red cloaks. They walked through this room to a door on its east side, where they knew the remaining guards stood watch over some kidnapped villagers. Their plan was simple. Mouse placed an illusion on himself to look like Glasstaff, through open the door and demanded that the three of them follow him to deal with intruders. The guards fell for his deception and walked out with him. When they entered the room Mostly Smithson slammed the door shut and d’Cantrus used his prestidigitation spell to make the guards’ cloaks fall off. They stood back and watched as the skeletons attacked the unready redbrands, beating down the last one after he managed to slay the last skeleton for them. It was harsh, but they had triumphed at both adventuring and irony.

They freed the prisoners and dragged Glasstaff’s body into town. Here Sildar Hallwinter told them, in shocked disgust, that Glasstaff was actually Iarno Albrek, the wizard he had been sent to Phandalin to find. The townmaster signed over the rights to the old ruined manor, and they repaired to the tavern for a much-needed bath. Over the next few days they caroused with the locals, toasted their newfound freedom, muttered ominous warnings about taxation, and picked up tidbits of information about possible adventures they could undertake once they became bored of the adulation.

Although d’Cantrus could have run for months on the vague plaudits of a couple of drunk old men the rest of the party grew bored after a few days, and they headed North. They had picked up two adventures and one treasure mission:

  • The townmaster had heard tell of Orcs in Wyvern Tor, and wanted the PCs to hunt them down and kill them
  • The local elven priestess, Sister Gaerele, wanted the PCs to find a banshee called Agatha and ask her a question about a spellbook
  • Mirna Dendrar, one of the captives they freed, told them of an ancient heirloom in a ruined town called Thundertree, which they were welcome to keep as their own if they were willing to risk the journey there to take it.

They decided first to kill the Orcs in Wyvern Tor, and then consider the banshee. They left the next day.

On the road to the Triboar trail they were attacked by an Owlbear, which they made short work of. Mostly Smithson and Tyge Trip spent some hours plucking out its feathers, which can be used to produce +1 arrows, and Mouser prepared a couple as they worked. The rest of the feathers they stored for future use when they met a fletcher.

He speaks three languages!

Wyvern Tor

They traveled north on the Triboar trail for two days, until they reached a point where a large valley opened to their east. This valley would lead them to Wyvern Tor. Here the weather was grim and grey, with chill sheets of fine rain drifting off the mountains and rolling over them towards a broad, shadowed line of forest to the west. That forest did not look inviting, and at night strange sounds came out of it. They did not want to spend another night in the open, with that menacing forest on their western flank, but fortunately ahead they saw the ruins of an old inn. As they approached they were confronted by mercenaries, but after assuring them they were no threat they were welcomed into a small compound where a wagon train had taken refuge. Here they found a fletcher who made them a few more arrows, and the mercenaries told them of rumours of evil happenings at Old Owl Well, an old well and ruined town on the northern side of the valley from Wyvern Tor. They were also given some information about Coneytown, a town a day’s travel to the north where they could maybe base themselves while they searched for Agatha.

The next morning they set out for Wyvern Tor. They entered the valley to the east of the ruined tavern and traveled east for the whole day, stopping for an uneventful but cold and unpleasant night in the lee of a moss-covered outcrop of boulders. The next day they began to search the Tor, a large and sprawling hill that rose above the surrounding hillocks to a commanding height, atop which the fragmented ruins of an ancient tower could just be seen. By midday they had found what they were looking for: over a ridge and in a shallow incline was a large cave mouth, guarded by a single bored-looking Orc.

Bored-looking Orcs are Mouse’s stock-in-trade. While the rest of the party moved away to take up ambush positions in a tree-clogged ravine Mouse threw on a quick goblin disguise and ran out to the cave. The Orc approached him with the typical bullying menace that the green-skinned thugs hold over their weaker cousins, and in a short but brutal conversation Mouse managed to convince it that he and a few of his mates had captured a human treasure, but that his mates had driven him away and now he wanted to join the Orc tribe if they would help him get back his treasure (and share it, of course). This plan appealed to the Orc’s humanitarian instincts – who doesn’t want to help out a weaker cousin in their hour of need – and, grabbing Mouse by his goblin collar, the Orc dragged him into the cave to meet his warboss. Mouse’s heart sank as he was dragged into a large cave, where five filthy Orcs lounged around their savage and nasty-looking warboss, Brughor Axe-biter. Six orcs and a warboss did not disturb Mouse overmuch – but the huge ogre lurking in the shadows behind the warboss’s loathsome sleeping furs did. Ogres are trouble. But it was too late to go back on the plan now, so Mouse put a little more squeak in his voice, and after a convincing display of cowardly bloodlust the entire gang decided to roll out and smash his goblin mates.

Their surprise when they were ambushed by Mouse’s friends was almost comical in its completeness. Sadly the comedy was washed away in a sea of orc blood, and even the Ogre did not last more than a couple of swings of his oversized club before he was brought smashing down, struck so hard in the end by Tyge’s greatsword that his enraged charge was stopped dead, and he was thrown back with the force of the blow. Beside him Brughor, with his last breath, shamed himself and his clan by speaking to Mouse in goblin rather than Orc: “C’est un piège!”

Indeed.

They returned to the Orc cave and searched it thoroughly, uncovering a little treasure and some disgusting Orc food and trash. They found no evidence that the Orcs were connected to Cragmaw castle or the Black Spider. Finally as night settled in they cleaned out the cave as best they could and slept by the Orcs’ dying fire.

The stones find their voice

Secrets of the stones

Before they slept Mouse took them up to the top of Wyvern Tor, to the ruined fragment of tower at the top. He had a feeling that there were secrets buried here, and he had heard the stories of its destruction. Many years ago the Tor had been the home of some dark wizard, who had surrounded himself with wyverns and ruled the area around him with an iron fist. But some obscure texts suggested it was dragons, not wyverns, that roosted here, and the wizard was their slave. Eventually a force of elves and humans had attacked the tower and put down its power at great cost, destroying all but a few shards of the innermost tower and killing the wyverns that defended it. Battles leave treasure, and heroes when they fall sometimes lose their magic items in the blood and mud and shit of the mundane world. Perhaps the stones had a story to tell.

Mouse had recently discovered that stones could talk to him. Perhaps it was too long in d’Cantrus’s lab, stirring strange reagents and sampling new potions; perhaps it was his parents’ legacy – after all he had never known them, so perhaps they were more special than the whispers in the alleys of his childhood had suggested; perhaps it was some wilder power, handed to him by fate or some capricious god. In any case Mouse believed in it, and so at sunset he trudged with his friends up the long, tussocked path to the flat top of the Tor, picking his way through ancient lightning-shattered stones to the broken and crumbling fragments of wall standing in the centre of the open hilltop. To the southwest the sharp, awe-inspiring Icespire peak stood out of the jumbled grey teeth of the sword mountains, glowing pink in the setting sun. Somewhere on its slopes a flash of blue lightning rippled, perhaps a frost giant’s anger or maybe just some strange natural phenomenon of its constantly storm-tossed stone ligaments. To the west and the north, as they watched Mouse approach the shell of the tower, the PCs could see the last red light of sunset fading across a wide vista of forests, plains and river. Tyge even fancied her half-elven sight could pick out the distant line of the sea, luminous in the magic hour, calling to her even from this distance with that strange mystical voice that it reserves only for the fickle souls of elves and their kin. They drank it all in and then turned to watch Mouse as he leaned his face against the chill stones.

Mouse laid his young brow against the stone, and for a moment all he felt was the tug of lichen on skin, and all he could smell was the musty talc of the stone. But then his vision faded, into a maelstrom of war and violence, dark shapes rushing and huge shadows, fire and sudden tugging violence. Vast forces flowed past him, huge shapes surged over the stones, and magic lashed and rippled in the air. He smelled blood, lots of blood, and the acrid smell of damp air in the wake of lightning and storms. Somewhere voices cried in unison and he felt the earth plunge. With the stones he fell down a huge distance into darkness and emptiness, the light closing above him. A flash of purest scarlet, a sudden pure, clear view of the sun rising over high mountains, and the vision was gone. Mouse came to, sweating against the cold stone, the last comforting rays of the setting sun gone and the night’s wind chill upon him. In the aftermath of the vision he knew – knew, with the certainty that only magic can make you feel – that there was a treasure down there. Beneath the Tor there had been a complex of tunnels, and it had been sealed in. Perhaps the denizens of the tunnels were still sealed in there. And somewhere on the east side of the Tor there was a way in.

He retreated from the stones, shaken by the power of his vision, and returned to his friends. Showing uncharacteristic grace and kindness, d’Cantrus wrapped a filthy Orc fur around his shoulders, and Mostly Smithson offered him a sip of the hot rice brew that he carried with him. They picked their way down the hillside, their footsteps lit by deCantrus’s chill magic light, the night slowly closing in around them, and returned to the Orc cave to rest. Somewhere beneath them treasures undisturbed by time lay silently waiting for them.

But what guarded those treasures? For now, they put that task aside, and turned their gaze north…

A flash of red …

Old Owl Well

Old Owl Well was across the valley from the Tor, and took them half a day to travel to. This day was warmer than the last few and bright, so they found themselves easily able to make out the well as they approached. The story of this well was that it was once a small but thriving settlement that provided fresh water and rest to the trappers of the region, but at some point the trapping business declined and the well fell into disrepair, or was destroyed by raiding orcs. Now it was abandoned, but until recently trappers had continued to use it as a place to stop and rest and gather fresh water. Recently, however, something had been making them stay clear of the place. Trappers being a taciturn lot, no one was quite sure what. But now the characters had a chance to find out, so their first action was to turn away from the ruined walls of the well and head up to a hillside to watch the compound.

The well was little more than a square of crumbling walls around a central tower, a squat little thing with its upper levels crumbling. To the north of the tower was the well itself, surrounded now with low bushes and tangled with ivy. Beyond the walls on all sides but the south were rough, scrub-covered hills with steep sides, from which it was easy for spies like our heroes to watch the well. From their vantage point they could see, on the eastern side of the tower, a large red tent, its canopy daubed with black symbols of some kind. Bemused, they sat on the hill for a few hours watching, but nobody emerged and nothing moved. Sensing daylight fading, they decided to return to the well and investigate.

They waited outside the main gates and sent Mouse in. He passed through the gate, moving as stealthily as he could, and first avoiding the tent moved to the broken tower. As he approached he smelled something foul and unusual, a smell he had never experienced before. Disgusted and uncertain, he crept up to the gaping entry of the tower and peered in, only to recoil in shock. A pile of bodies lay in the centre of the old tower, rotting and silent. No wonder he had never experienced the smell before – he had never experienced a charnel house before. Nor, now, would he ever forget. Disgusted, he turned and crept back towards his friends, to warn them that there was murder done here.

Halfway across the open ground to the gateway though something in his senses tingled. He looked around uncomfortably, and there behind him he saw all those dead bodies walking silently towards him, their mouths open in unmistakable blood lust. Shocked, he stumbled, and they were on him. He slipped between the legs of a particularly large and unruly one, and fled to his friends, yelling in terror.

Battle was joined. The PCs formed a line just back from the gate outside the well and prepared to fight 12 – 12! – of the most pitiful zombies the world has ever seen. Mostly Smithson’s divine grace drove 5 of them away but they still had to fight 7. As they fought a red-robed figure appeared at the doorway and threw a spell at one of them, freezing Mostly Smithson in place, but disappeared from view when Mouse fired a crossbow bolt at him and disrupted the spell. Tyge’s greatsword, Helmsmasher, hummed and sang its holy joy, and she hacked great glowing swathes through the undead, sending rotten flesh flying across the hillside. Finally they defeated the zombies, though not after taking some injuries, and pursued the red-robed wizard. He succumbed easily to their combined might, and soon they were able to interrogate him.

Mostly Smithson, with his unique skill and experience in tattoos, was soon able to recognize the man as a Red Wizard of Thay, a necromancer to whit, and with that knowledge all kindness left the crew. They forced him to tell him what he would, and soon discovered he had been raising this army from local villagers and tin miners, to support him while he researched at Owl Well. Satisfied he had nothing useful to tell him, they finally decided to make the world a better place, and Tyge killed him with a single strike of her sword.

They had pacified the lands east of the Triboar trail. Where next? A chill wind drew their attention to the distant Tor, and they thought about their next steps …