Nothing can go wrong with this expedition

Nothing can go wrong with this expedition

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

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

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

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

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

Thonis on sea

Adventures in the lost world of Thonis

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

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

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

I thought it was blue ...

I thought it was blue …

Despite the bleating in the Guardian, I think it is still the case that there is a surprising dearth of global warming-related science fiction. This lack of effort by sci-fi writers is despite the fact that the changes are fast approaching, and most surprisingly one of the changes expected to take longest – arctic ice loss – is happening at an incredible pace before our very eyes, with potentially huge effects. We have already seen major crop losses in the UK due to flooding, and I am convinced that the flooding in the UK is due to arctic sea ice loss (or I will be convinced, I should say, if it is a regular phenomenon in the next few years). So, I’m wondering if the world faces the possibility of a major, generalized agricultural failure in our lifetime, and what that will look like. Let’s have a go at imagining it, but first let’s look at what it might be and how it might happen.

Describing a generalized agricultural failure

Only a small number of countries provide a large amount of food for the majority of the world. Wheat, for example, is primarily produced in China, the USA, EU, Australia and Canada; rice is clustered in a small number of Asian countries and is highly dependent on monsoonal weather and water supplies. A generalized agricultural failure would easily occur if just a couple of countries experienced a simultaneous loss of productive capacity. Particularly, crop failures in the USA, China, the EU and Australia would seriously disrupt the balance of food supply. Furthermore, there are a lot of countries that due to either economic decisions or environment are heavily dependent on imports of food. Middle eastern countries with large areas of non-arable land and African nations that are heavily committed to cash cropping are examples of this. Many of these countries are also low- or middle-income nations with very limited emergency food supplies, which makes them very vulnerable to disruptions in international trade. Finally, some major high-income economies with serious military power – such as Japan and the UK – do not have food security, and are currently heavily dependent on international food markets. Collapses in supply for these countries would make them extremely itchy about guaranteeing overseas trade supplies.

Much of the world’s food is devoted to supplying cattle, and a lot of arable land is currently devoted to biofuels or other “non-essential” supplies (such as sugar cane or oil-producing crops). However, food is not an immediately replaceable good – being dependent on seasonal patterns, it can take a year to switch crops, but societies with poor food reserves can’t go a year while they wait. Also some crops that might be replaced in that year have a huge investment in infrastructure that their owners might not want to reverse in times of national emergency: cork, olives, vineyards and all forms of orchards can take 10 or 15 years to bring to productive capacity, so ploughing them under to grow essential foods means a potentially quite long-term reduction in food diversity. The global agricultural system is not nimble in the way that a manufacturing system might be, and is also often heavily subsidized and protected.

So a general agricultural failure would involve failure of crops in a couple of independent producers for a couple of different food types all in the same year – possibly after a couple of years of build up in which reserves were strained – and in both the northern and southern hemispheres. For maximum effect it would need to occur in some high- and some low- or middle-income countries, disrupting not just the production of food but consumption and export patterns. It would have to affect a couple of exporters to have a truly global impact, and it would have to affect foods that are used for human as well as animal consumption.

How would agricultural failure happen?

In the short- to medium-term, a generalized agricultural collapse is only going to happen if it combines some global-warming-related phenomena with some bad luck. The only global-warming-related phenomenon that seems to be reliably weird at the moment is the arctic, but this is having fairly large effects and they can probably be expected to grow more extreme. They seem to be particularly affecting the food producers in the EU and North America, so a viable near-term scenario for agricultural failure would probably be:

  • serious flooding in Autumn in the EU and/or UK: due to the arctic sea ice loss increasing rainfall over northern europe
  • crop failure due to late spring and severe winters in Canada and northern/western europe: due to weakening jetstreams around the poles allowing cold air to flow further south and disrupting the Atlantic climate
  • a massive el nino causing drought and crop failure in Australia and latin America: obviously this is completely unrelated to global warming but the chances of a switch to el nino over any 5-10 year period are very high, and in a warming world the next el nino is going to be associated with some very unpleasant high temperatures
  • a random failure of monsoon or rainy season in east or southeast Asia: also (probably) not global warming related, but for example this year Japan’s rainy season – important for its rice crop – is already late and showing no signs of starting

In combination, these effects could lead to a huge loss of wheat, rice and corn crops in several major food producing nations. The likelihood is that the full global implications of the failure would not be understood until after the northern hemisphere harvest, by which time (maybe) the crops for the following season would already be laid down in the southern hemisphere. Even if governments were quick thinking enough to see the risk for the following year and mandate changes in crops, this would mean the southern hemisphere would have wasted a lot of arable land on non-essential plantings. Of course, the chances that governments would respond in time to the crisis to be able to mandate planting of only essential crops are pretty small, and although price signals might encourage some farmers to switch to essential crops, it is likely that this would take more than a year to happen – especially given the highly protected nature of agriculture in most parts of the world. So after the initial food collapse shock it is likely that there would be a second year of weak harvests, even if the weather turned good. Collapses in wheat and corn crops would be followed by a glut of cheap meat as farmers killed off unprofitable herds; the following year would see a spike in meat prices (I think this happened this year, actually).

What would a generalized agricultural collapse look like?

The collapse would likely be seen in the most vulnerable nations first, most likely those countries with limited food security and heavy subsidization of food prices. I think a lot of these countries are in the middle east and there have already been suggestions that the Arab spring was related to food markets. Jared Diamond famously blamed the Rwanda massacre on pressure for farmland, and other historians have suggested an economic imperative driving the holocaust. Even where it is not obvious, pressure over food and food prices can lead to political instability, upheaval and chaos, and this will likely be the first symptom of the collapse, as prices rise and food importers in the middle east respond rapidly to the collapse of stocks. Unfortunately, market liberalization doesn’t happen quickly and in any case, in the face of a general loss of supply there will be no solution for these countries: they will fall into an increasingly desperate round of riots and political upheaval, and possibly also major population movements.

Following internal tensions in the most food insecure nations, international tensions will begin to develop between major traders and their clients. Faced with generalized crop failures in major wheat trading partners, countries will try to find new markets, but some of these (such as Australia) will also be facing lost supplies, and will likely restrict trade to ensure security of domestic supply. This would lead to tensions between trading partners, followed by a desperate scramble as countries like the UK and Japan rushed to secure supplies. The first casualty of these efforts would be the poorest nations, who would suddenly find food suppliers deserting them for lucrative western markets. At its worst this could lead to riots, seizure of property, and expulsion of businesses and representatives from high-income nations. Emergency food aid would also collapse as countries conserved resources, and this would lead to famine and disaster in countries like North Korea and parts of sub-Saharan Africa, as well as countries newly thrown into food insecurity – especially poorer middle eastern countries like Yemen and Iraq.

Finally, as food reserves dwindled, tensions would rise between high income nations as they competed with each other for food supplies. Particularly, the EU, Japan and China would run into conflict as they sought to outbid each other for the remaining food supplies from the Russian breadbasket areas and the Americas. In southeast Asia, piracy would become commonplace, as it also would around the horn of Africa, and the second-tier powers would probably finance or trade with pirates as an alternative to direct conflict with the major powers. To protect these sea lanes countries with traditional rivalries – such as Iran and Iraq in the Gulf, and China and Japan in Asia – would have to send expeditionary forces. Although Japan currently has the ability to defeat China on the high seas, a war over something as fundamental as food is one of the few situations where China might be willing to deploy its nuclear arsenal. Imagine also what would happen if America suffered a general crop failure due to widespread drought, but Canada’s crop failure was only partial…

Small countries with the ability to protect their borders and a smart farming community or government could stand to benefit from these changes, however. For example, a small country with no bad weather that responded rapidly to food collapse by switching from cash crops to high-intensity farming of a particular food supply could feed its own community and potentially make huge amounts of money selling to major trading partners; in such a case, for a developing nation, centrally mandated rationing and calorie restriction could enable a huge accumulation of wealth through trade that could completely change the country’s future. On the other hand, countries in such a situation who are near a major regional power might suddenly find themselves annexed and subject to strict rationing as the regional power confiscated the fruits of their clever planning.

In the broad, we would see major famines across much of Africa and the middle east, and for the first time in perhaps 50 years we would see generalized famines outside of a small region of Africa, including potentially on other continents. Political upheaval and chaos in the middle east and parts of southeast Asia would bring down governments and lead to major population movements. Piracy and low-level national conflicts, as well as breakup of unstable nations, would lead to violence and conflict on a large scale through complex regions like southeast Asia or East Africa. Finally, there would be the risk of major conflict between the high-income nations, ending in nuclear attacks if the collapse was broad enough.

I think this would be quite a good campaign setting … but let’s hope it stays in the realm of the imagination …

This month’s rapid and unexpected disappearance of the Arctic sea ice is perhaps the first time that global warming (AGW) has really shown an ugly side that can’t be easily put down to just weather and/or luck. But something that surprises me about the sci-fi genre is that AGW’s worst case scenarios don’t seem to have made much impact on the genre – there don’t seem to be many stories which make it a central part of the setting or the narrative, even though it’s rich with possibilities and very topical. I guess I could be wrong, but it seems to have slipped under the sci-fi radar. But as it becomes apparent that we are heading into a future that will not be consistent with any part of our recorded history, a wider and richer fictional discussion of the topic seems like exactly what sci-fi was invented for. How will the world change? Will it be ruined? Will the move to a low-carbon economy happen organically, or will we see authoritarianism and fascism take over only when things become desperate? Will societies adapt or collapse? I’m an optimist about AGW, I think it’s not going to be as bad as the worst case scenarios suggest and I think human society will respond, probably just a bit late and at greater expense than was necessary, but life will continue pretty much as it always has. Nonetheless, the world of the future will be different and the combined challenges of population growth, development and AGW open up vistas of apocalyptic catastrophe that, while they may make for disturbing public policy planning, make for an excellent potential role-playing setting. What would they look like?

Like the After the Flood campaign setting that I’ve been thinking about recently, apocalypses of the AGW kind offer gamers the ability to have a kind of canned Traveller universe in the world we’re familiar with, because the creeping imposition of rationing and constraints means that some societies will adapt and continue to develop, while others will collapse or go backward. If the apocalypse is just bad enough that the altruism of the adapters is challenged, or their accumulated (social and infrastructure) capital is depleted enough to make their situation fragile, then the world will fragment relative to the state it is in now, creating even greater gulfs in technology between the haves and have-nots, and making transition between them more difficult and dangerous. But unlike the After the Flood setting, a post-warming world won’t be quite so catastrophically environmentally challenging (maybe). So it offers the potential for apocalyptic adventuring with occasional havens of rest and peace – probably the best kind. However, under the worst case scenarios we see a global desert, ruled by road warriors and lunatics. Either situation is unattractive in the real world but very appealing in gaming. So let’s consider a few post-warming worlds for adventurers to explore.

The Collapsed Water World

This is the classic figment of AGW “alarmist” visions, and one that can be played up with a bit of sci-fi chucked into the mix. In this scenario, the campaign setting is perhaps 100 years from now, and in addition to Al Gore’s most fevered sea level rise (what, 60m?) we imagine a few simple positive feedbacks, such as reduced ice albedo and a bit of permafrost melting, to project the sea level rise up beyond reasonably expected norms – say about 200m. This completely changes the geography of the Earth, and with a bit of poetic license we could imagine quite exciting new settings: Indonesia becomes an archipelago of tiny islands, like Earthsea; Australia’s inland deserts flood, forming a shallow sea; Russia and parts of Asia are divided into new, more desperate entities (what would the Siberian archipelago look like?). Britain in this kind of scenario was described in the White Bird of Kinship series, in which the UK had divided into multiple small island countries, ruled over by a harsh and authoritarian church (there was a musician involved in a heretical movement, I recall). JG Ballard’s The Drowned World also possibly describes this kind of setting. This setting encourages maritime adventure, but the collapse of the population and nation-states of the existing world mean that much of the world will have been thrown back to a previous era – perhaps that of the mid-19th century  – with occasional small countries retaining higher technology, artifacts available for discovery, and organizations gaining great power by hoarding old technology.

Such a setting gives a GM the opportunity to set a campaign on earth, but to fiddle with the geography pretty much at will, to have a semi-mediaeval science fantasy setting, and to populate it with a wide range of different societies and tech levels. The players can prosper through finding old artifacts and adventuring for more powerful forces, there will be new lands and kingdoms to explore but the world will largely retain the geography (and in many cases, the social orders) of now – just perhaps poorer and more devastated.

The Warring States Model

In this model the sea levels are largely irrelevant, but environmental and resource collapse have led to wars and chaos, and the late response to climate change has led to enforced energy poverty for much of society, at the same time as it has forced rapid technological change. Some societies have become winners in this new order, but most have lost out, falling into poverty, war and chaos. This kind of society might be what we see in Alita: Battle Angel or Appleseed, where a small community lives with extreme technology in a highly protected enclave while the world outside goes to hell in a hand basket. This is also, perhaps, the world of Judge Dredd (though the causes are different in all these cases). In this world the adventurers might be barbarians from one of the collapsed countries, or they might be agents for one of the survivors. Either way, there will be much conflict in this world, and adventures may derive from resource conflicts and the shady dealings of corporations, countries and rich individuals that are trying to get ahead in a harsh new world. It’s an ideal setting for a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk themed campaign.

The Ascendent South

Perhaps more interesting for its context, in this campaign global warming has devastated the nations of the North, but was far less destructive in the South, leaving the old South to become the new world powers. In this world Africa and latin America is where the new superpowers are gathered, and Europe, North America and much of Asia are in ruins, the home of multiple warring cities and tribes. The civilized peoples of the South ride out from their high-tech enclaves to exploit or aid these ruined nations, and vie with each other for supremacy in the new world. But with the environment more fragile, the world has become more dangerous. Perhaps also many of the countries of the South fell victim too, so that next to a super-advanced Ugandan power we find a huge expanse of starving and desperate Africans, warring with each other and desperately trying to form alliances with their stable neighbour.

Alternatively, with the collapse of the old order the South has reverted to older and more traditional structures of governance, so instead of seeing nation-states in Africa along current lines we see the empires of the old world, such as once stretched from Nigeria to the mediterranean, or over large parts of the southern half of the continent. With these new empires come new political fault lines, new resource wars, and very old imperial tensions – which the ruined nations of the north can only hope to benefit from, or become victims of.

The Full Reversion

In this model, the collapse of the environment took society with it, and after hundreds of years of chaos a completely new world order has emerged, based on new (or very old) technologies, with completely new social systems. Maybe it is a single nation for the whole world, ruled by a technological priesthood who hold much of society in chains; perhaps it is a couple of great empires with extremely authoritarian and regressive governments (theologies, monarchies and fascisms) that continually war with each other for the earth’s few remaining resources; perhaps the world has reverted to some stone age ruin, and looks more like the world of the Atlan saga or Julian May’s Jurassic world than the modern era. In this campaign setting global warming is really just an excuse to make a science fantasy campaign setting out of a newly primitivized earth, on the bones of the earth we already know.

Mysterious Powers

In this setting, global warming either caused or was caused by the unleashing of mysterious arcane powers, and led to a new society ruled by magic and superstition. This was part of the pre-text for an old apocalypse campaign I ran years ago, although the apocalypse in this case was a direct satanic intervention on earth. In this case one could gild the lily to make the current crop of climate scientists (Mann, Hansen etc.) either heretical figures (because they are believed to be the evil wizards who caused the apocalypse) or saints (because they warned of its coming and tried to stop it). Maybe if they caused it they are still around, ruling post-apocalyptic mediaeval states from their position as immortal heads of an AGW priesthood – a denialist fantasy made true by Satan himself! Alternatively, all of the past is forgotten and the world has reverted to magic and faith, but one can occasionally dig up relics of the old world – along, perhaps, with the true story of how it fell apart and how it can be restored …

The X-Files

In this near-future campaign, the scientists of AGW have found a secret magic or technology that enables them to make any universally-held view become the new reality. For some reason (service to their alien masters?) they have decided to make AGW the new reality, and the PCs stumble somehow on this fact, and have to race to save the world from oblivion – or worse still, to prevent various churches from managing to get hold of the magic that makes mass beliefs come true. This campaign could fit in a whole range of other conspiracy theories – about moon landings and assassinations and the like – and potentially allow the slow introduction of magic into the world as the science cabal’s secrets become known to the PCs. It also allows a sequel campaign – if the PCs prevent the technology from being used, they enter a new campaign of spies and international intrigue as major governments pursue them to get hold of it; if they fail, they shift straight into the beginnings of the Mysterious Powers campaign. Or, they could use the technology to make any other campaign world of their choosing …

Post-apocalyptic fiction, movies and games are quite common, but I’m surprised at the dearth of specifically global-warming focused ones. Depending on how much one wants to play fast and loose with the science, it can provide a potentially rich backdrop for a post-apocalyptic setting, since it doesn’t just change human society, but changes the very environment in which that society lives – it’s like transplanting the human society to a new world, in the near future, but retaining the geography and many of the properties of this world. It also offers on the one hand a very mild form of apocalypse, characterized by nothing worse than population crash and technological regression; or, on the other hand, any level of extremity up to and including people being forced to live on a new version of Venus. Many of these settings are replete with adventure opportunities and, unlike the After the Flood campaign, don’t involve the kind of extreme terraforming that makes it difficult to imagine any hope in the world. I think this makes AGW a rich mine of possibilities for campaign settings and adventuring. I wonder why it hasn’t been explored more?

During the later years of the flood, many people took to the water independently, taking to ships and rafts and trading with the remaining parts of the land for food. Rather than developing communities through the seizure of large facilities, these formed communities over time through accretion. Small boats might gather around an abandoned collection of flotsam, or a small failed arcology; to these would be attracted random communities living on rafts, loners who are sick of plying the seas on their stolen boat, or raiders who want a permanent base to return to. These communities will not survive unless someone can come up with an industry that will hold them together, but such industries are not impossible to create, even amongst the flotsam and jetsam that naturally accrete to such places. Perhaps it would be prostitution in a raft city near a well-plied trade route; or a group of rafts and raiders congregated around a collection of barges that are used for scrapping stolen ships and selling the parts. Maybe someone will establish a shellfish farm on a partially-submerged ship, and then turn the shells into glass that is in turn ground into lenses; or turn unwanted glass from passing traders into valuable lenses. Perhaps the raft floats near a rich fishing area, and can sell preserved fish to traders in exchange for raw materials.

Life on raft cities is harsh, and even if they have some central industry or focus these communities will always have a sense of impermanence, of being a precarious gathering of wind-tossed rubbish that will soon be washed away. Indeed, when the ocean world’s great storms hit they often are, or only those who live near the centre survive, with the rafts on the edge serving as nothing more than human barricades against the fury of the sea. If these communities want to survive they will need to attract larger ships or rebuild themselves around abandoned arcologies and flotsam; and indeed, if a better opportunity appears the raft community will rapidly disperse to take it on. The landscape of a raft city is always changing as newcomers enter and leave, ships are cut free to sink or drift away, or storms wipe out neighbourhoods. Adventurers may find that a whole city they once knew well has gone, or that people they knew have disappeared and all who knew of them have gone as well. In the shifting world of the waves, it is often impossible to know whether they have gone to the deeps, or to a better chance.

In his book, Baxter describes one of the few pieces of useful bioengineering that are of value after the flood: a type of genetically modified seaweed that hardens into a plastic-like material as it grows in seawater, and can be shaped over time to form raft-like structures. Through the use of such biotechnology, perhaps connected to an original large base such as a floating wind power farm or larger river barges, raft cities can establish a central space on which they begin to pin some hopes of permanence. A wind-farm might be jury rigged to provide power again, connected to a ship that will form the administrative centre of the new city, and the plastiweed slowly grown around it to form a kind of island, raised from the water far enough to offer opportunities for farming and shelter from the worst storms. These raft cities will then attract less secure suburbs and exurbs, boats and rafts docked together in a higgledy-piggledy fashion, neighbours who change by the week or the month. The city as a whole will be impossible to catalogue or sustain, but its core will be permanent, and as that core grows over time – or as other parts of the city form their own stable pastiweed bases – the city will slowly take on a permanent character. As the plastiweed subsumes new ships and rafts, a floating island of chaotic colours and shapes and sizes will grow into being. These cities will often be filthy, poor and dangerous, but they represent the only legacy that the original raft communities have any hope of leaving the world.

For adventurers such cities always offer opportunities. The factions within the city will always have some nasty job they need done, and there will always be individuals who have been wronged and need to find their own justice. Though unable to offer much, many of the rafts and ships in these cities hail from before the flood, and may contain relics of technology that the rafters have no use for, but which the adventurers can use or take to a place where they can repair it. A householder looking for the return of their children from hostage takers might offer the adventurers the radar equipment from their long-immobile yacht, or a radio communication set, or a night-vision camera they have not needed since they ceased roaming the ocean. The adventurers may also be able to find more exotic work, chasing old treasure maps or taking on security work for passing traders. The bars and brothels of a raft city will be full of travelers with tales to tell and jobs to share, so a good sized raft city will always have a surfeit of work for intrepid adventurers. But it will also be full of thieves and bandits, looking to steal a good ship with its weapons, or to lead the adventurers to a pirate trap. These cities also offer repair work and resupply opportunities, though they may be overpriced and unreliable, but with the distances between communities often great, adventurers may find they have no choice.

The raft cities of the flood are like the hard scrabble colonies of intergalactic frontier settings. This is where Serenity-style adventures unfold on a yacht, and where the lowest tier of adventurers and scoundrels hide out while they wait for their chance to make their fortune. Raft cities, then, are a place all players will be familiar with, and an excellent setting to start a campaign from.

In the first chaotic years after nations ceased to exist, before the last of the land disappeared, many people would have set out on their own, by whatever means they could secure, to make a new life on the waves. These people would have formed small bands and taken whatever they could find on shore and off, and after they set out to sea they would have raided and fought and traded for whatever would make them better off. Over time the most successful of these survivors would have formed into communities, either static or mobile, who live as best they could as independent city states in the new world. These states survive by trading with strangers and defending themselves against anyone who would try to take what is theirs – or by amalgamating with other states to form new and stronger collectives. Not as stable or as strong as the pelagic kingdoms and dependent on trade with them for new resources, these independent kingdoms offer their citizens greater freedom than the pelagic kingdoms, but at the risk of a precarious existence that may be subsumed by raiders or sink beneath the waves at any time. If such a city-state does not have its own special property to trade upon, it will no doubt disappear, becoming living space for the pelagic kingdoms (who exterminate residents of any property they subsume to make way for their own suppressed masses) or losing its populace to other, more stable economies.Ocean Thermal Energy Collection (OTEC) platforms are one of the greatest possible prizes for such fledgling communities.

An experimental technology before the flood, OTEC platforms use differentials in the ocean’s heat to produce electricity. Anyone who could seize one of these after the flood has guaranteed themselves a tradable commodity – especially if they can somehow secure a supply of batteries to trade, or develop an industry in converting water to hydrogen and oxygen for fuel cells and combustion engines. City-states built around OTEC platforms will typically consist of many small ships, many no longer capable of independent movement, roped together to form a permanent floating colony based around their central power source. On the edge of the colony will be a few archaic patrol boats and the other mobile trade ships of the city, all converted to run on hydrogen-oxygen power and/or sails, and intended for trade and defense against attackers. The city itself trades on a special property that very few societies after the collapse can offer – abundant electricity. This means karaoke bars, game centres, concerts, and all the night life of a real city of old earth, all taking place across a wild and floating city of rafts, barges and yachts bound together and heaving and sighing on the wild deeps.

Such a community is a great prize for any pirates or conquistadors who want to add a stable source of energy to their possessions. As a result, these city-states change hands often, and defend themselves ferociously… or make very dubious deals with any neighbouring kingdoms in exchange for their security. They may also offer special deals to the Pelagic kingdoms in exchange for their independence and security, but more likely they will develop a strong close-defense navy, and possibly even a primitive air force, to ensure they remain independent. Adventurers may be employed to help defend a platform, or to infiltrate it and take it over, but the most likely role of a platform in a campaign is as a rest and recuperation city, a place where mercenaries from many communities meet to find work and to sell the ill-gotten gains of their dubious profession. Here, adventurers will likely find an environment free of repression, where they can cut dubious deals and find new and sinister work, and where a strong but morally flexible industrial sector is able to provide them with equipment suited to a range of morally dubious tasks.

In the world of the flood, OTEC cities hold one of the keys to power – energy. Life after the flood is determined by who has access to energy and who can control its use, and anyone who can find an OTEC city and make themselves useful to its leaders is guaranteed safety and success. This makes OTEC cities a much sought after location – and a dangerous nest of scheming, backstabbing vipers, to boot. The perfect adventure setting!

In the novels Flood and Ark Stephen Baxter describes a natural disaster that leads to the complete inundation of the earth by a massive flood. This flood is not a global warming horror story, but a completely new disaster in which oceans of water leak out of fault lines in the earth’s crust, submerging the continents and ultimately all land on earth. The first novel ends with a gathering at the peak of Everest, as it finally sinks below the waves. Ultimately the new oceans stop about 7 or 8 km above the old sea level, and the earth has officially become a water world. I reviewed the first of these novels here.

The survivors of this flood are mostly trapped on rafts and boats, bereft of any natural resources that might enable them to retain a civilized existence, and over the generations of the flood these survivors slowly change to a new and more primitive form of humanity, eking a subsistence existence from the sea and slowly forgetting all that they had been. The only remnants of civilization are a few arks, which Baxter envisages maintaining some semblance of the pre-flood societies. We only see three such arks in the novels: a replica of the Queen Mary cruise liner, an inter-stellar colony ship, and a deep-sea arcology.

I think that these arks Baxter envisaged are interesting, and the deep-sea arcology essential to continuing survival of the human species, at least in the short term, but I think there would be other, better ways of surviving such a catastrophe, and the world that resulted from human efforts to survive would make an excellent setting for a post-apocalyptic water world campaign, perhaps played with d20 modern or some version of Stars Without Number. Particularly, I imagine that the post-flood world would be dotted with what I think of as pelagic kingdoms, remnants of pre-flood societies that had taken to arcologies floating on the ocean, but linked to deep-sea arcologies that serve as industrial and resource extraction centres. The effort of building these arcologies in the two generations over which the flood submerged the land would mean that they were tiny compared to their pre-flood societies, and many people in attempting to escape the flood would make their own societies – on rafts and ships and old oil rigs and all manner of makeshift homes – and in the eras after the flood these societies would slowly drift across the globe, creating whole new settings and strange encounters. Furthermore, the strange weather and new ecologies of a submerged earth, and unexpected remnants of the old world, would create mysterious and intriguing adventure scenarios and settings. In the next few posts I will describe what I think would be some of the more interesting elements of this world, but starting today I will describe the main remnants of modern civilization in the post-flood world: the Pelagic Kingdoms.

Pelagic Kingdoms

These central kingdoms of the flooded earth would be the lynchpins of human survival in the post-apocalyptic world, because they would have solved the three problems that inevitably beset any attempt to create a sustainable human society in a world without land. These three problems are access to natural resources, energy, and diversity of food supply.  In Baxter’s novels human society fails to solve these problems fully, instead fleeing to a new world where they can find the resources they need or settling into a remnant city on the sea floor, where they can survive but never prosper.

I think that in the era leading up to the flood the biggest societies on earth would solve these problems, though the pressing time scale and the challenges of adaptation mean they would not do it well and only a tiny percentage of their population would escape the flood into these official post-flood kingdoms. To rescue one’s society in such an era of social, economic and ecological collapse, with rapidly diminishing physical territory and resources, would only be possible for the largest, wealthiest and technologically advanced societies. This is because to do so they would need to simultaneously create floating arcologies and a functioning deep-sea city, capable of existing permanently at 4-6 km beneath the surface, but able to extract resources from the sea bed and ship them to the surface to exchange for food with the arcologies. The result of this would be the new, pelagic kingdoms of the US, Europe and China/India – kingdoms composed not so much of physical territory as of a large number of scattered, floating islands orbiting just one or two seabed mining communities.

The Arcologies of the Pelagic Kingdoms

As society realized that the flood was going to consume the earth, they would move to desperate measures. Old ships would be turned into floating apartment blocks and set free to drift, dependent on the diminishing land for food and increasingly needing to grow their own in rooftop gardens or fish for their sustenance; some of these arcologies would be set up as research centres or industrial towns, to continue producing the needs of a rapidly shrinking population base. As the situation became more desperate, governments would realize the need to build specialized arcologies rather than converting ships – with increasing numbers of their own internally displaced populations needing to be accommodated in a shrinking territory, they would realize that they needed to start building land on top of the sea. Thus would begin the project of building real arcologies, purpose-designed to float like oil rigs but cover the area of small towns. Whatever size technology enabled, they would begin to build, far enough away from the encroaching flood to be completed in time to rise with the sea waters when they came. These arcologies would be designed to be at least partially self-contained, proof against storms and the ocean salt but containing in their centre at least some small farms, intensive agriculture of some kind, power plants, and even manufactories. These arcologies, once they floated, would be populated with the elite of the old world and left to drift amongst the converted hulks and jury-rigged floating hamlets of a previous generation. They would trade with each other, try their best to feed themselves and their fellows, as they circled the diminishing landscape of their old nation. Perhaps some, equipped with deep sea salvage equipment, would mine the abandoned cities of the old world for ever scarcer resources.

The Deep-Sea Manufactories

Once it became obvious that the land was going to be forever extinguished, the problem of sustaining these arcologies beyond the next two generations would obviously present itself. How can one repair a solar panel without sand? How can one supply a nuclear fission plant without uranium? Obviously the only realistic solution is to build a deep-sea mining base, somewhere with resources that can be harvested. Such a base would perhaps be built entirely underground, with just a few carefully-constructed entranceways to allow ships in and out. It might be built in the last high points of the nation – the Rocky Mountains or the Himalayas or the Alps – with docks carved into mountain sides and deep mine shafts stretching far enough down to give access to the key requirements of industrial society. These undersea bases would be designed to include manufacturies, so that crucial engineering equipment could be built, ore smelted, and perhaps even ships repaired. Robotic machines would travel far into the old world under the sea, scavenging the remaining organic detritus of the old earth, or digging up mud from the new seabeds to transport to the surface as soil for the arcologies. Perhaps they would build huge wave-power generators in the valleys of their old mountain ranges, entirely robotically made and controlled, to ensure that the world would have energy even after the uranium ran out.

Society and Survival in the Pelagic Kingdoms

The social order in the pelagic kingdoms would be harsh, built around keeping strict authoritarian control over population growth and resource use. Those people who floated out to sea in the first hulks, crammed together like prisoners in apartment blocks that offer little better opportunity than survival, would soon come to be judged as an expendable burden on the dwindling resources of their nation; even once the purpose-built arcologies floated and the undersea manufactories began to function, these people would be seen as a burden, first to suffer calorie restrictions as arable land disappeared, last to be allowed to breed, always required to do the hardest and nastiest work. They would spend much of their lives without energy, would be moved from hulk to hulk as the need arose and treated as a slave population in a world of harsh demands. These would be the slums of the floating world, where everyone vied for a chance to get out to one of the arcologies or to a specialist dormitory ship – one that sat near a resource zone or had some industrial or defense or cultural function. Otherwise the only work on these ships would be security, fishing, and farming shellfish or seaweed in the area around the ship.

On the arcologies, life would be better, but still tough. Some arcologies might have a specialized industrial or farming purpose, others might play a mixed role providing energy, education and housing. These arcologies, being purpose built, would also be able to host proper docks and shipping, perhaps enabling them to trade between countries and with occasional visitors and develop a little real wealth. But even the largest arcology using the most advanced genetically engineered crops would only be able to grow a small amount of food, of which the entire surplus would be needed to keep the dormitory ships alive and functioning; life here might be better but it would still be harsh, and some of the chemical or industrial arcologies could be hellish indeed. In the world after the flood, no one would be allowed to rebel against their lot – find a way out, or be ground under.

Despite the harsh life in the arcologies, these would be the wealthiest and the best places on the planet, and through their combination of resource extraction, limited agriculture, and energy production, the Pelagic Kingdoms would form the central component of the human race’s recovery from its near-extinction. Everyone else living outside of these kingdoms would view them with only three goals in mind: to live in them, to trade with them, or to raid them. In such a world the Kingdoms would always be seeking adventurers – as would their enemies. It would be this world that player characters would interact with – performing dubious missions for the masters of the arcologies, fighting raiders, or raiding them for specialized goods that make the difference between death and survival for the less fortunate peoples of the flood. These Pelagic Kingdoms would also hire adventurers to scour the ocean world hunting out old resources and finding new trade opportunities. In my future posts I will describe some of the other communities that live on the world ocean, how they survive and the adventuring opportunities they might offer.

I GM’d Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying 3rd Edition (WFRP3) on the weekend for a group of three players. It was my first time GMing in 18 months, the first time I have ever GM’d WFRP3 in English (up until now it has been Japanese). It was actually the first time I had GMd in English in 3 years, and because I was dropped into the role at the last minute I rehashed a session I’d previously run for Pathfinder, Strange Doings in the Steam Mountains (also last run in Japanese). A few notes about the session below, but first I thought I’d mention a problem I ran into with WFRP3’s system of rechargeable action cards, which is kind of obvious once you run into it but which I hadn’t thought about ahead and which if unresolved threatens to completely undermine the atmosphere of Warhammer worlds.

How to handle rechargeable healing spells outside of combat?

One of the PCs in Saturday’s adventure was a wizard of the Jade order, a kind of druid-like magician. One of his spells, The Gift of Life, is a healing spell that can be used in combat to heal (roughly) up to 4 wounds and (possibly) one critical wound, if successful. In combat it is quite balanced: it requires enough power to require a wizard to be at equilibrium to use it, it has a recharge value of 4 so can effectively only be used every 3 rounds, and its difficulty increases rapidly if one is engaged with a melee opponent or critically wounded. In the weekend’s first battle the main beneficiary of this was the wizard himself, who hid behind a secret door to heal himself, stepped out to fight, got wounded again, and ducked back behind the door to heal again. When the battle finished, he was still on half hit points and thus one hit away from death.

The problem arose after the combat ended, when the wizard was then able to heal himself, wait for the recharge, cast again, and keep going until himself and the rest of the party were fully healed. There is no daily limit on spell-casting, so there is no reason for him not to do this. Worse still, the spell offers the chance to heal critical wounds – the essential basis of WFRP3’s inbuilt deadliness – so if used continuously out of combat it essentially offers the party a way to regenerate completely after every encounter. Without it, WFRP3 is a very dangerous setting – without any healing, the wizard would have died in this battle, and the entire party would have been in dire straits after the second battle, when they went up against two steam Mephits. So the spell itself is quite a useful spell for ameliorating an otherwise extremely dangerous system. But how to prevent the recharge function from largely eliminating the threat in WFRP3? On Saturday night I allowed the wizard to fully heal himself and cast the spell once on every wounded party member, but obviously this is an arbitrary system, so I need to find a way to limit the spell and to put general limits on recharge effects outside of combat encounters.

I think there are a couple of ways to do this:

  • Implied daily limits: one option is to only allow any spell to be used once in between encounters. If one assumes about three encounters in a day and a spell being used at most twice per encounter, this gives an implied daily spell use limit of about nine times per day, without actually stating a limit. This is completely arbitrary – there’s no reason why a wizard should be able to cast a spell three times in the span of a combat but only once in the following three hours – but it solves the problem, and not just for healing spells
  • Actual daily limits: Another option – which could be good for limiting wizard spell use anyway – would be to put actual daily limits on how much a spell can be used. One way to do this would be to say each spell can only be used a number of times equal to the wizard’s willpower plus their rank, minus the spell’s recharge time. Gift of Life, with a recharge of four, would thus only be usable twice a day by the party’s wizard in this adventure. Magic dart – with a recharge of 0 – would be usable six times a day, which is a handy limit considering that Magic Dart is a nasty spell. This would also give more reason for a wizard to choose non-spell action cards, especially support cards which can sometimes function similarly to spells but using skills. The same tokens used to track recharges could easily be adapted to tracking the number of times a spell has been used. I think this goes against the feeling of WFRP3, however
  • Wound-specific limits: The option I think I’m going to settle on is to use wound-specific limits. That is, any one PC can only successfully cast a heal spell on any one set of wounds once. The recipient of the healing must then go out and get wounded again before they can enjoy the same person’s healing again. I think I will extend this to healing draughts as well, and will make it caster-, rather than spell-specific. In this case, the wizard can cast Gift of Life on a party member (sucessfully) out of combat once; the result of this roll represents the limit of the caster’s ability to tend to the given injuries. Then, when the healed PC goes back into combat and incurs another set of wounds, the caster can heal them again with Gift of Life or a different spell. The PC can separately consume their own healing draught (once), and other spell casters can try to heal that PC, plus any PC with first aid training can also attempt to attend to the injured PC’s wounds – but only once each. This approach to healing is consistent with the rules for the First Aid skill, which can only be applied once by each PC on each PC. It doesn’t limit the number of times a day the spell can be used through magical theory, but through the limitations of the particular injuries each recipient of the spell has suffered. I think this is more consistent with the feeling of WFRP3 rules, and, given that healing spells are quite weak, doesn’t prevent them being used freely in combat (provided the recipient is receiving fresh wounds).

Any of these solutions will work for healing spells, but the last solution may prove insufficient if the problem arises in other types of spell (item identification, teleportation, that sort of thing). I think this is a weakness of the rechargeable-action-card system, but it’s better to house rule it away than to ditch the system, because rechargeable action cards are a lot of fun in combat.

Another minor problem of WFRP3

It may be in the GM’s Toolkit (which I don’t own) but it seems to me that the designers of WFRP3 have put a lot of thought into the rules and how to work them, but haven’t put much thought into how to put all of it together when preparing adventures. With all the actions spread over cards in multiple packs, it’s really hard to work out how to organize e.g. a set of monster statistics for three separate encounters and how to keep track of monster actions for groups of monsters. If I have three separate types of monster in one encounter I have to gather together lots of cards from different locations and then keep them together with clips or folders or bags or something, then somehow return them to their original location when I’m done. I guess there are specialized card holders for this sort of thing, but in preparing for this adventure I had to make my own monsters (the gnome thieves) and find a way to lay them out together and manage them. I don’t feel that this has been settled in the rulesets I have – tips and advice would be appreciated! Also juggling monsters’ special actions in combat requires a lot of experience and attention, since you’re potentially managing several different monsters of several different types all with their own unique (and repeated) action cards. Also basic cards – block, parry and dodge – aren’t available in monster statblocks, so you have to track them in your head. Stat blocks need to be designed in a way that is as practical as the character sheet, and I don’t think they are.

Adventuring in the steam mountains

The adventure itself was fun and straightforward, getting halfway through before our 3 hour room slot was up. My aim is to use this adventure as an intro to a possible sandbox campaign in a small part of a larger world. I vaguely envisaged this world being Japanese-ish (continuing the onsen theme) but without much emphasis on any particular culture to start with, and I thought I’d let the players’ actions and decisions guide the introduction to the world. I also didn’t envisage it being in the Warhammer milieu per se (though undoubtedly given my inclinations, there’ll be a healthy dose of satanism, steampunk and dark powers).

The PCs were:

  • A Dwarven Troll-Slayer: Dwarves, it appears, are black-skinned and clean-shaven, though the Troll-slayer class retains its outcast status from Warhammer
  • An Elven Scout: Elves, it appears, are very tall (>2m), extremely skinny, and generally consistent with their European heritage
  • A Human Wizard: the human was skinny, pale, always cold, with spikey hair in a faint blue tone. So it appears that the default humans of the area are anime-standard

I haven’t decided yet whether the elf or the dwarf were travellers from far away, or if the steam mountains are on the border of three regions. I am tending towards the latter – borders mean lawless areas and strife after all. The onsen resort itself was an Australian-style rural estate, suggesting 18th-century level of building technology, so I’m wondering if the setting will be an 18th-century style semi-arid location, similar to that of Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword. Steam trains are an excellent addition to any setting, so it could be a good plan to set it in or on the cusp of the steam era.

Finally, it appears that gnomes are a bunch of greasy, tattooed criminal bastards, good at technology but sewer-mouthed and immoral. Kind of like East London gangsters, but shorter (if that’s possible). But that could just be because the only gnomes anyone will ever meet are a criminal gang from a single city, so it could be just an unfortunate stereotype – I haven’t decided on that yet.

I’m not sure, in any case, if I’ll get a chance to continue this adventure into a campaign, but if I do let’s see if I can have an orientalist outback pre-Victorian steampunk adventure with racially deterministic gnomes, and WFRP 3 rules. Sounds like fun!