Shadowrun is suited to campaign settings rife with economic corruption, the desperate and abandoned poor, powerful corporations who control the social fabric, shady underworld groups and street gangs in conflict. Sounds rather like a vision of Greece after the default, if you were to chuck in a bit of magic. So let’s do that! And what better way to do it than through a resurgent Greek mythical pantheon. And, for that matter, if Greece’s default were to drag Europe down, we would also see Italy and Ireland fall into chaos – and what do they have in common but a history rich in pantheism and magic? How would we construct such a near-future shadowrun campaign?

In comments to my previous post, Paul tried to describe a worst case scenario for Greek default:

Greece comes up to a pay day for the public sector and has no money to pay in. They issue IOUs. The public service goes in strike shutting down hospitals. A run on the banks begins and everyone withdraws their money in Euro. The banks collapse. No medicine is being imported into the country or moved to hospitals. Petrol imports stop and the prices go through the roof, preventing the transport of food and other critical supplies. The entire economy locks up because no one can get to work. Farms lie fallow or with harvests rotting in them because farmers can’t use their equipment. Food and potentially power/water shortages start to hit major cities leading to rioting. The police haven’t been paid or fed so they join in. The damage to property and life is massive. Refugees head to neighbouring countries. Eventually international aid arrives, food and petrol shipments unlock the ability to provide basic necessities of life but medical support remains at the level provided via international aid (i.e. broken bones are treated, people with cancer aren’t going to get drugs worth more than tens of dollars – which I believe is most of them). Restarting the economy from this situation is chaos, it’s basically shut down and had spiralling cascades of defaults.

Now let’s suppose that Greece has a pantheon of sleeping gods, but they were roused by some mischievous figure in one of the resistance movements (New Dawn sound like contenders, but anyone will do). They see a country in chaos and desperate for a guiding hand, so they start letting their magic seep out again. How could they have been roused, and what would the implications be for Greece and Europe? I have a few ideas …

Witch Hunter Rebekka

In this version of the campaign, the PCs are members of a top-secret Greek government organization that was tasked with keeping supernatural threats under control, like the organization from Witch Hunter Robin or Double Cross 3. Unfortunately, their organization was abolished as part of the austerity package insisted on by the European Central Bank, and they suddenly find themselves unemployed in a world where the supernatural is suddenly given a free hand. Perhaps they embark on a solo quest to find out what’s really happening, or maybe they set themselves up in some seedy downtown office and start selling their services to corporations and gangsters who have discovered that the dark side is coming for them. And during this maybe they notice a pattern. Perhaps there are other, similar organizations throughout Europe, and as Europe unravels in the wake of Greece’s chaos those organizations too get shut down or worse.

An orthodox priest, a banker and a schoolgirl walk into the Parthenon …

Perhaps the secret organizations working to protect Europe are not government run, but maintained instead by the churches. In Greece this means the Greek Orthodox church… so what do they do if they are approached by a banker, who does a sideline in hacking, who has discovered evidence that something behind the trouble was planned – that much of Europe’s chaos was actually schemed up by some sinister cabal that saw a chance to create chaos in Italy, Greece and Ireland at the same time. The mechanism is economic collapse, but the goal is to revive old, dark gods – the pagan gods of Ireland and the Southern Mediterranean that the more modern churches drove out. So who do they turn to? A motley group of PCs who have special powers and a can-do attitude, perhaps drawn from the many warring street clans and gangs that have sprung up in the chaos of the default and the political struggles that followed.

A conspiracy of bankers

Of course! What else? We all know that the major banks are servants of satan – let’s make it official! Perhaps the whole economic collapse was engineered to create the kind of chaos necessary to create space for new gods, to generate new, radical and subvertible political movements, and to force the collapse of the secret bulwarks that the Europeans have established against the dark powers that used to rule Europe. Perhaps European history is a long story of dark powers manipulating politics, and the modern European Union was a post-war project to try and drive them out of society and politics. It was working fine – until someone had the silly idea of setting up a common currency. Then the dark powers saw that they could use mundane, financial means to tear the entire European project down, along with all its political and cultural movements against the kind of chaos on which the dark powers depend for their success.

This whole conspiracy would take place in the halls of power, in the boardrooms of banks and sinister organizations, would be traced through emails and secret meetings and currency transfers through shady swiss bank accounts. It’s the perfect conspiracy for a couple of street hackers to slowly track down and unravel in the course of their dubious work – running in the shadows of the corporations, they find a deeper, darker conspiracy at play than mere political corruption … and all of it focused on unleashing old powers long forced down by the church, the enlightenment and the scientific revolution. We all know that our enlightened, materialistic world view depends on the special social order made possible by wealth and the absence of war and political conflict. What better way to unravel it than to engineer economic chaos, poverty and political disruption in the heartland of the old gods – Greece!

A New Dawn for the Gods

Another possible campaign would involve not a conspiracy of bankers, but a conspiracy of radicals. In this campaign, political movements proliferate after the default. Some of them are very violent and become popular very quickly, and as Greece slides into poverty and political paralysis the conflict between these street gangs explodes. Many are also connected to criminal groups and also to ethnic groups – Macedonians and Albanians, Turks and African migrants, for example. Many of them are easily infiltrated by people with authoritarian tendencies, and one of them – probably New Dawn, but others could be imagined – is soon overtaken by a man with special powers, a descendant of one of the Greek gods whose powers have revealed themselves during the chaos. He begins to impel his movement towards the revitalization of the gods, and as other gangs see it they also begin looking for new powers to fight with – perhaps they begin to research alchemy, or bring their ancient gods from across the sea. The PCs, investigating minor crimes as adventurers in the post-default chaos, suddenly begin to discover hints that people are dragging up bigger powers than they have ever seen before, and realize that the street-fighting and political conflict is taking on a religious flavour – with the gods returning to the world as the fervour increases. The fevered political environment of a country in chaos and conflict is a perfect place for new powers to emerge, or old powers to revitalize themselves.

Exploring the Genesis

Shadowrun is set after the cataclysmic events that changed the world. Those events are history, and their effects taken for granted in the Shadowrun setting. But I’m fascinated by how they could have come about, and what the world would have been like when magic was being unleashed. Perhaps an imagined economic and social cataclysm in Europe is a good way to construct those events, and gives us a chance to run an adventure right at the time of the genesis of the world Shadowrun takes for granted. I’ve always imagined that such a catastrophe would not necessarily be a physical one, but some kind of cultural and social upheaval that made gaps through which magic and gods could flow. Catastrophic economic problems and social conflict in Europe offer just such a setting. From something completely mundane like a run on some banks, to dragons ruling the sky … could you run a campaign all the way from beginning to end, and create the world of Shadowrun from whole cloth?

 

Battleship Island

Battleship Island is an abandoned island in Nagasaki, that for some years was the most densely populated island on Earth. It was abandoned over a 3 month period in the 1970s, so most of the buildings were left intact, with even some possessions still inside. The island built up over 200 years for the sole purpose of undersea coal-mining: it hosts two mineshafts that go about a kilometre underground and branch out in a network under the sea. Because the island is too far from the mainland for commuting, a community built up around the mines. At its peak this community included schools at all grades, a cinema, pharmacy, clinic and city hall. The island is only about 500m long and 150m wide, so the community was densely packed, and by the 40s the island was so heavily built up that it resembled a battleship – hence the name, gunkanshima (軍艦島), although the island’s official name is Hashima (端島).

While I was in Nagasaki presenting my HIV model, I took a trip to gunkanshima. It’s a fascinating place in its own right and, I think, for people interested in role-playing settings, could make an excellent adventure setting. Some kind of Meiji-era Outland-style detective story springs to mind, or a Cthulhu-in-the-mineshafts post-WW2 horror story. So here are some pictures and background to give a feel for the place, as both a fine example of modern industrial archaeology and a potential adventure setting – and an excellent zombie survival spot. Also, if you’re in Nagasaki this is an excellent afternoon trip, so I’ll give a few pointers on how to get there at the end.

The Island from the tennis-court end

It takes about an hour to get to the island from Nagasaki harbour, with a brief stop at Takashima to look at a diorama of Battleship Island and visit a museum of coal-mining in the area. This is interesting for its depiction of coal mining through the ages, and its excellent three dimensional cut-away models of the mineshafts under the islands. Here you can get a sense of what a claustrophobic and grim world coal-mining was during the era of the island’s existence, and why the setting is ripe for cthulhoid fantasies. The guide will also give you an explanation of what it was like to live on the island (he grew up there) and set a kind of stern tone of things-that-are-gone that I think is quite helpful for appreciating the decay on the island itself.

The view from the coal-loading side

The boat approaches the island from the coal-mining side, so you see the flat (Eastern?) side of the island with the apartments and schools of the tennis court end on your right, and the shrine just visible at the top of the island. The parts most visible from this approach are the most intact; once you land you can see a lot more rubble.

Coal-processor remnants

From the pier it is possible to see the stilts that used to hold the coal conveyor belt, and which once ran through piles of coal. The buildings in the distance are the old schools: elementary school at the bottom and high school further up, with the top floors devoted to a gym of some kind. From this the proximity of the residents to their only source of employment – and the reason for the island’s whole existence – is pretty clear. As someone who lived in the shadows (literally) of a lead smelter in a one-industry town, I can imagine the importance this industrial infrastructure had on the island – everyone who lived here was either directly working in the mines, or there purely to provide services to those who were. It’s a town that must have closed down as soon as coal mining stopped, and the Japanese economy shifted rapidly away from coal in the 1960s and 1970s, so it was inevitable. In fact the whole island was owned by Mitsubishi – so when they closed it no one had a choice, and everyone had to move out in a very short time. There are apparently still apartments with their televisions left behind, and other markers of residential habitation still stuck on walls or doors.

Coal miners' baths (left) and pit head (far right)

Further to the south are the pit head and coal mining facilities. The miners bathed in heated sea water, and for much of the history of the island everyone experienced strict water rationing – no fresh water could be used for anything except drinking and food preparation until a pipe was laid from the mainland in the 50s. There were also no private bathing facilities – the apartments were linked to public baths that everyone shared (a very common Japanese practice even now in towns like Beppu, where for example there is a guesthouse for foreigners that doesn’t have its own bathrooms but expects guests to use the local public bathhouse). The building at the top of the above picture held a rainwater trap, I think, and a pipe leads down the hill to the apartments. The lighthouse was added after the island was abandoned, since before then it gave enough light from human habitation not to need its own lighthouse.

The view from the swimming pool

On the western side of the island from these facilities are more apartments, pictured here with a building whose purpose I don’t know (left, foreground). This picture was taken from near the swimming pool, which was a salt water pool filled directly from the sea. The whole island is surrounded by sea walls to protect it from storms but during typhoons these walls are insufficient – on the tour you will be shown photos of waves crashing over the building in the foreground, and residents of the apartment blocks looking down on the storm from the roofs of their homes. All of the apartments in Battleship Island had gardens on their rooftops, because although greenery is visible in these pictures there was none when the island was in use – the green you see here is a recent, natural addition. For the residents the only chance to appreciate elements other than stone and water was the time in the rooftop gardens.

Battleship Island's eastern side

This photo, taken on the return to the ship, shows the island in more perspective. The block in the middle is the second pit head; the building on the hillside is another apartment, possibly containing the city office. The vista stretching away from the foreground is of the coal processing facilities with the school in the background. What you see here is the work of 40 years of typhoons and storms and salt water. Most of this area was reclaimed from the sea in the first half of the 20th century; I guess by the last half of this century it will be reclaimed by the sea, unless someone decides to preserve the island in perfect form. As it is the whole place is a dangerous place, an we all had to stay very carefully inside the fenced off areas, and once the sea has had another 40 years to work its destructive way through the reclaimed areas I guess the island will become unvisitable.

Industry abandoned: the remains of the coal loading dock

The island is in many respects a kind of microcosm of Japan’s industrial history – it grew as Japan’s economy grew, and its economic and physical fate were determined by the powerful economic forces shaping Japanese society; as a result its demographic development mimicked that of Japan as a whole. Our guide showed us a magazine article from the 1960s, when Battleship Island was the most heavily populated place on earth, asking “Is this the future of Japan?” Now it is deserted and crumbling, a fate that will undoubtedly come to many other Japanese towns of similar size. As a model of the way industrial societies grow and decline this island is a powerful example, and an extreme example as well of the way that access to resources shapes the physical and cultural landscape. This isn’t the only such example in Japan – Shimane’s Iwami Ginzan is an abandoned silver mine in a slowly fading rural area that harkens back to the time when Japan was the richest country in the world because of its silver resources. They are long gone, and Shimane is now famous for its religious heritage and its crumbling seaside towns, and not much else.

If you visit Nagasaki I strongly recommend a visit to the island. You will also get a nice overview of Nagasaki’s working harbour, and see some of the scenery in the peninsula, during your trip. I booked my trip with Takashima Kaijo, which at time of writing does 9am and 14:00pm departures for 3 hour round trips, and employs a guide who used to live on the Island. It’s all in Japanese, but they have an English pamphlet that gives you the crucial information you need and some nice pictures. The staff speak enough English to get you on the ship – you need to sign a disclaimer and pay 4300 yen (about $43) for the trip (not refundable if the weather is too harsh to get onto the island). The conditions are described on their website in English, too.  Their office is a little distance from the main harbour terminal, but their website has a map and you can find other cruise companies in the terminal if you don’t want to take the risk. They can take up to 210 people, so if you go during a busy time it will be a bit crowded; you probably need to be prepared for a fairly regimented style of tourism but it’s not too cloying (but don’t take photos while the guide is talking – he’ll get angry). You get about 15 minutes to take photos and wander around and since you can’t leave the confines of the viewing area this is more than enough. The staff are very sweet and accommodating, overall. The ship also stops at Yojima, which apparently has an onsen (hot spring) and hotels, so if you wanted you could make a nice couple of days by booking into an onsen hotel in Yojima and making the trip to Gunkanjima a side trip (about an hour shorter from Yojima).

Finally, it should be recognized that Gunkanjima is a heritage site and as such a little respect should be shown: as the guide says, to us it’s a pile of rubble but to him it’s his hometown (実家). So don’t go breaking their rules because you think they’re silly, or get worked up because they wouldn’t land on the island and you lost 4000 yen. Also, if you are planning to go to Nagasaki I think this week – the 24th – 30th – is probably best because it coincides with the tall ship festival, which is quite a nice harbourside event. This season the weather is a little unpredictable, but I think it’s clearing up for the end of spring, so if you are in Japan in late April Nagasaki could be worth the effort. And if you’re in Nagasaki at any time, Battleship Island is a great afternoon trip, well worth the money and of interest to anyone who is interested in history or a little urban exploring.

I’m reading Stephen Hunt’s Six Against the Stars at the moment, I’m only two chapters in and it has already descended into Hunt’s trademark rollicking flow of happenstance encounters, but it’s got a very nice idea for an adventure setting that I don’t think I’ve seen before. The story starts on a far future Earth, its history full of wars and environmental troubles, whose present inhabitants seem not really to fully understand the world they live on or its history. Beneath the earth is the “World Below,” which sounds a lot like a kind of far future Underdark. As our hero runs through it, we have it described thus:

In the heyday of the conflict age, the empire had hollowed out the Earth and refilled it with underground factories and cities, keeping the surface as a park that was only seen by the imperial court.

Some of these subterranean continents had caved in, but others had failed more gradually, only to be reclaimed by the flotsam of the ancient Earth – criminals, slaves, rogue androids, rebels, computer viruses which had become self aware, feral genetically engineered creatures which had broken their own behavioral programming. As the core was abandoned, the pets and toys of the merchant palaces became inbred in bizarre and unanticipated ways, sharing genes and self-splicing where run-down shaping technology lay derelict. They preyed on the safaris that ventured from above. Self-cleaning floors that had learnt to secrete acid to paralyze rodents, drink dispensers which could spray superheated water when threatened, wild herds of protein blocks that had grown armour and gored unwary travellers.

Like much of Hunt’s work, the idea is slightly comic or carnivalesque, but also rich with ideas for adventure settings and a kind of space opera or shadowrun-styled megadungeon. Instead of Aboleths we have ancient AIs residing in abandoned research factories; in place of Mimics, vending machines. Perhaps self-aware cleaning droids float through the corridors like robotic Beholders, and old abandoned tanks or other war machines function like golems and dragons. Were the world above to be fashioned as a post-shadowrun collapse society (perhaps akin to the society from the Amtrak Wars novels?) then the World Below would be a treasure trove of ancient items, and access points that still functioned would be hotly contested by the tribal powers of the surface – or avoided at all costs. Perhaps then some elves would have migrated to the World Below, so it would even have its own stock of shadowrun-styled Drow.

This would be a great setting for a campaign – a post-apocalyptic shadowrun future on the Great Plains of the USA, with a mad max styled surface world where adventurers attempt to enrich themselves and their communities by plundering the World Below. Perhaps more civilized folk use its surface ways as secret routes to attack their neighbours, or to cross deserts and wastelands. Bandits set up kingdoms, and all the rebels and renegades of the surface world flee to the World Below to make their uncertain future. It would be particularly fun to adventure in such a kingdom using Shadowrun, or one of the simpler space opera style systems like Stars Without Number. If you want dungeoneering with a mixture of savagery and high space opera, perhaps Stephen Hunt’s World Below is the perfect place to go looking for adventure …

Not exactly the last of the Interceptors, but...

It’s the little things that can do you in, and watching The Walking Dead recently I noticed that the group have made some serious mistakes in choice of vehicle for their road trip. Who is responsible for their vehicular management? That sanctimonious old meddler, Dale, of course. They really need to start viewing him as “just another mouth to feed.” Here is why they have made bad vehicle choices, and what I consider to be good choices for the zombie apocalypse road trip.

The Winnebago, the hi-tech liability and the chopper

The Walking Dead‘s group drive across America in a Winnebago camper van, a couple of urban runabouts and a Harley Davidson. Three of their four vehicles are bad choices: the Winnebago, the modern urban runabout, and the Harley. Their overall group transport strategy is flawed because the Winnebago is carrying too heavy a load and they haven’t built in any redundancy to account for it. Specific reasons for the flaws in each vehicle are easily identified.

The Winnebago

This is the big mistake in the road trip plan. The Winnebago has many flaws:

  • It carries too much material, which means that if it breaks down in a high-risk area (near a town or an obviously infected area) the group won’t have time to empty it before they need to move on. They’ll have to leave a lot of important gear behind if they’re in a hurry, because they have too much stashed in one vehicle
  • It’s not manoeuvrable, so when they reach traffic jams or narrow roads they have to go around. Worse still, if they see trouble ahead and need to turn around in a hurry, they need to do a three point turn rather than a u-turn. To avoid this they need to stay on large, wide roads which are likely to be heavily infested.
  • It’s inefficient, so that despite its large size it only really carries a couple of passengers and beds. As a hospital vehicle it’s little better than a normal van, but it also carries less people than a mini bus. Furthermore, all the heavy fittings and camping style are simply a waste of space. They won’t use the toilet, and they could get by perfectly well with camp chairs rather than heavy fixed tables. All this stuff is taking up space and using fuel but providing little comfort. As a source of shelter it’s not large enough for the whole group, yet the whole group is constrained in road choice by its size
  • It’s noisy and has high wind resistance, meaning it draws attention to the group and uses a lot of fuel. Fuel efficiency may not be a long-term issue in a world depleted of competition, but in moving between gas stations and fuel sources it is crucial. If you’re going to use a heavy, fuel inefficient vehicle you need good reason
  • It’s heavy: hard to push out of the road, hard to replace wheels

The worst case scenarios involving the Winnebago arise from the combination of its lack of manoeuvrability and its excessive storage usage. On a narrow road, if the group see zombie trouble up ahead they will need to turn the Winnebago around, running the risk that it will get bogged off-road. This could potentially trap other cars between the Winnebago and the zombie horde, meaning loss of those cars too. But even if this doesn’t happen, bogging the vehicle down will mean having to empty it into the other cars. This will take a long time, and as the zombies approach the group will have to choose to abandon large amounts of stuff. This wouldn’t happen if that stuff had been distributed between more, smaller vehicles.

The urban runabout

The group also has a green hatchback, quite modern, that is probably highly fuel efficient, comfortable, reliable and quiet. This is overall a good choice of vehicle, but it has a significant downside: it’s too modern. Modern cars can’t be easily repaired by unskilled users, and often require computer diagnostics and specialist service centres, sometimes affiliated with the company that sells the car. Also, parts are often specific to the car and can’t be scavenged. This means that any breakdown more serious than a simple puncture will put the car out of action. That’s fine if your group has significant redundancy, but the group in the Walking Dead don’t have this luxury.

The Harley Davidson

The Harley is probably a good idea for long road trips – I get the impression that these bikes are designed for comfort in long journeys. It also has the potential to carry a rider fairly comfortably on pillion, and carry a small amount of luggage, so is a good survival tool. But it suffers from the drawback that all motorbikes do: it’s uncovered, so dangerous. However, it lacks the advantages of other smaller bikes: it doesn’t have the speed, manoeuvrability and acceleration of a road bike, nor does it have the off road capabilities of an off-road bike. It’s also likely to be noisy and less fuel efficient than other bikes. What’s its use? If it is to be used for long range reconnaissance, a road bike – extremely fast, highly manoeuvrable and quieter – would be a better option, since it will be able to travel far ahead of the group in a short time, and escape any trouble. If short-range off-road scouting is necessary, then a standard farm bike would be better. This can be used to get through partially-obstructed regions (e.g. old road blocks and traffic jams) easily, is highly manoeuvrable so can be turned around quickly to escape sudden gangs of zombies, and can go off-road to investigate old houses and farms. In the hands of an experienced motor-crosser it can even potentially go over some obstacles, though at high risk. A Harley is only good for open-road cruising. But you can do that much, much more safely in a car, which at least has the advantage of seat belts.

The problem of redundancy and overloading

Another significant problem arises for this group from the combination of lack of redundancy and overloading of the Winnebago. If the Winnebago breaks down irreparably, the group will need to move all the stuff out of it into just two urban runabouts, which also need to transport all the people in the group. Short of the obvious solution – shooting Dale for the sanctimonious moralizing loser that he is and using his seat for storage – the group is going to face a hard choice between supplies and people, because their two small cars won’t have enough room for both. This choice is going to probably have to be made in a hurry, and will lead to the loss of a significant amount of important material. If one of the other runabouts dies, the problem is not so severe but they will be immediately forced to hunt for a new car, even if the only locally available cars are in very dangerous settings. They have no choice in this – if one of their runabouts fails and then the Winnebago breaks down in a dangerous place, they won’t have sufficient capacity to take the whole group to safety and will have to repair the Winnebago under pressure. Bad move.

Furthermore, lack of small vehicles means they don’t have the ability to circle the vehicles at night – not a perfect defense tactic but an important part of safe camping techniques. And of course, they don’t have a spare vehicle to use to block a street or set alight as a barrier.

The ideal road trip strategy

Cars offer the benefits of mobility, shelter and security. However, on a road trip one runs the risk of becoming stranded between locations with no source of supplies, so the key to any safe zombie apocalypse road trip is redundancy. Ideally you need lots of small cars with the following properties:

  • Fuel efficiency
  • Good storage space
  • Manoeuvrable
  • Easily pushed, for jump-starting or getting out of the way
  • Disposable
  • Easily accessible (four doors!)
  • Readily accessible spare parts

The thought of hooning along post-apocalyptic open roads in a Nissan Fairlady may appeal, but it has very few advantages. The group should choose cars that meet most of the above conditions, and ideally some of these vehicles should be able to be used as excess storage spaces, shelters, or hospital vehicles. Thus a good combination would be VW kombi vans (for space, shelter and repairability) or similar vans, four-door utilities (for storage and convertability), and older four-door hatchbacks. For the utes, ideally they would be the sort of ute that gets used as a “technical” by somali warlords – so an older Toyota or Subaru, something reliable and trustworthy that can use parts from any old car and can itself be cannibalized.

The group should have more vehicles than it needs to carry all its materials and all its people, and some of them (the kombi vans) should be sufficient to provide shelter and security in a pinch (bad weather, sudden unexpected zombie onset). All of them should be able to turn easily to get out of trouble, and be pushable by two adults. All the vehicles should carry enough supplies to be self-sufficient for a short time: basic materials for the engine (pipe, radiator, spark plug, battery, jump cables); a couple of days’ food; water; fuel; basic medical supplies. This means that if any one vehicle needs to be abandoned its contents can be stripped out quickly and moved to another vehicle, but can also be abandoned un-stripped without catastrophic loss of vital materials. All back seats should be left empty and the doors unlocked, for rapid transfer of people from broken cars in an emergency. The utes can be used to carry excess material that isn’t so important and can be dumped where necessary; the utes can also be used as emergency evacuation vehicles or even ambulances where things go wrong. All vehicles should be given a priority (High, Medium or Low) and this should be painted on bonnet and doors so that everyone knows which vehicle to head for if not all vehicles can be saved. The group should travel at the optimal speed for fuel efficiency, well spaced out, and stop regularly to rest and check maps – you never know when you might need to turn around, so it’s good for everyone in the group to be aware of potential hazards in the road behind. All vehicles should be driven with at most 2 people in them (to ensure redundancy) and single occupancy vehicles should be avoided – it’s not fuel efficient and it opens the risk of loss of communication. Ideally some kind of radio contact should be maintained between vehicles – hourly checking in, regular reports, etc.

All vehicles should also be fitted with a usable sharp piercing implement such as a sharpened iron spike by every door, so that zombies that break through window glass can be dealt with easily. When driving, everyone should wear seat belts – what’s the point of surviving the apocalypse only to die in a low-velocity car crash? Or worse, survive but be put down like a dog by your comrades because of a lack of suitable medical equipment to handle serious injuries… Finally, motorbikes should only be used if the group really sees a need for single-person reconnaissance. Otherwise they’re a dangerous luxury vehicle that should be avoided.

I think if a group follows these principles it will be able to survive longer on the open road and escape from even quite dangerous and pressing situations without significant lives or material. As it stands the group in The Walking Dead are one breakdown away from either losing a significant load of supplies and/or having to abandon people; or becoming lunch. Don’t make their mistakes, and instead adopt an industrial design approach to your post-apocalyptic convoy: share the load-bearing and ensure redundancy.

A note on the zombie road-trip of the future

As the world shifts to a low-carbon future, cars are going to become electric. In the further future they may even become robot driven. This means that sometime in the far future, the apocalypse will see a collapse from a much higher-tech society than we have now, to a much lower-tech society, with no pause in the Mad Max zone. Isn’t that interesting?

 

 

Magnetism, by Ahmed Mater

The campaign setting I am currently playing in, Punjar, has a vaguely middle Eastern subtext, with the city of our adventures presented as a chaotic, slightly exotic free state of souks and temples, such as western readers might associate with somewhere in pre-modern Oman or Turkey. While gaming there I try to hold in my head images such as the opening scenes of The Exorcist, though obviously (unlike the priest of that ill-omened scene) my character is a local who understands what is happening around him (and might even understand the meaning of the statue he dug up, if he could make the Arcana check!)

Simultaneously with my entry into this world of bazaars, brothels and giant barking toads, the British Museum has opened what looks like a fascinating exhibition on the Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca that constitutes one of the five pillars of the faith. The Guardian has an interesting review, with links to some of the artists involved (one of the artists’ pictures is on the top of this post). The review certainly makes this exhibition sound like a masterpiece of the curator’s craft: it combines historical documents, objects and art with modern art, video of some of the scenes of the Hajj, old news footage, and modern diaries and spoken accounts of people’s pilgrimages. The review makes reference equally to high art and the diary of a North London schoolgirl. It also appears to show something of the complex relationship between Britain and its ex-colonies in South Asia.

I’m not in London now so I can’t visit things like this anymore (though sometimes the British Museum’s exhibitions end up in Japan), but it looks like something that would be well worth visiting for those living in London. This exhibition also hints at the complex and fascinating campaign setting that the Islamic world offers to enterprising GMs. Obviously most of us, as outsiders to that world, can only really hope to present a cheap simulacrum of that world (like, say, Punjar) but even a very shallow investigation of the world of Islamic art, history and culture would no doubt throw up a wide range of interesting and exciting adventure settings. I’ve no doubt, too, that the political context of almost any period in Islamic history – from the time of the prophet onward – would be easily as challenging as those of the Victorian era. Also playing on the opposite side of the nations of the Great Game – e.g. as Afghan adventurers during the Russian and British interventions there in the 19th century, or as adventurers in any city of the Middle East during the Crusades – could be a lot of fun.  The breadth of the Islamic world, which ranges from modern-day England to 12th century Indonesia, and the diversity of its cultures, offers a plethora of settings, and the Hajj is the classic opening scene (“the adventure starts with the PCs on a routine mission, guarding a rich merchant on his pilgrimage to Mecca”). In fact, it could be like Monkey, with the entire campaign occurring on the journey to the Hajj. You set off from somewhere in India at level 1, and 8 months and 20 levels later you arrive in Mecca. Your ultimate mission, of course, is the pilgrimage itself. But in the face of a hazardous journey over a whole continent, can you even keep the faith that you set off in service of? Or, in the words from one piece in the exhibition: “Are you leaving as you had come?”

I once ran a campaign in the Fourth Age of Middle Earth, shortly after the war of the ring during the period when it could be reasonably imagined that elves were still present in Middle Earth, and the kingdom of Gondor was still recovering from the war. I imagined that this would be a fairly free and lawless time, when political powers would be jockeying for position in the new order, Orcs and Goblins would be in flight and causing trouble, and enterprising adventurers could make their fortune. But the main reason I chose the Fourth Age was simple: its politics and culture are not set in stone in the canon of Middle Earth, and so it is a more flexible setting for the types of campaign I like to run. My preferred campaigns involve a lot of base politics and the exercise of temporal power, as well as many of the banal consequences of the evil that ordinary men do. For some reason, setting a campaign in any of the prior ages of Middle Earth – the ones that had been written about extensively by a better world builder than me – felt like it would be blasphemous unless I a) stuck to the setting faithfully and b) made it somehow directly connected to the canonical events and movements of those stories. This kind of campaign could also be fun, but it’s not the kind of campaign I’m best at.

Though not at all an exercise in post-colonialism, what I was engaged in was of a similar flavour to the post-colonial project in literature: adding political and temporal context to a work from the canon that is already, essentially, set in stone. In my case the campaign rapidly evolved into a story involving a small group of elven fascists attempting to recreate the ancient elven kingdom of Lindon, at the expense of the Dunlendings with whom the people of Beleriand had made an uneasy truce. I also slowly reconceived the Dunlendings as simply politically “evil,” that is they had served Saruman only for the purpose of regaining ancestral land as a crude political calculation, and had no native sympathy for his evil visions (though they were far from a nice people in my retelling). So it did have elements of a classic post-colonial rewriting: giving a bad side to the “good” people, or re-examining their inherent goodness through a political and temporal lens; and giving a political or cultural explanation for the behavior of the evil savage, or attempting to explain the savages actions as if their story were of equal validity to that of the heroes in the original text.

Good examples of this type of post-colonial reworking of the canon are Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys, which attempts to give context to the “mad wife” of Jane Eyre; and the frontier stories of Katherine Susannah Prichard, such as Brumby Innes and Coonardoo, which attempt to tell the stories of the Australian outback with a sensitive eye to how they affected women and Aborigines, and without the usual rose-tinted glasses that were applied to the conquest of the Australian frontier in her time.

One common argument mounted against my claim that Tolkien’s work includes a strong racial essentialist element is that in fact none of the “evil” of the Easterlings and Southrons is inherited or racially inherent, and their alliance with Sauron is a purely cultural and political decision, perhaps driven by cold calculations about the value of the alliance and what they can gain, or driven by particular cultural features that make these peoples more likely to be sympathetic to Sauron’s claims to their loyalty than those of the people of the West. Good examples of such possible arguments might include, for example, tension over land rights in the areas east of Mirkwood, or Sauron claiming to restore old empires in Harad. I recall Tolkien himself implying (or stating) in The Two Towers that part of the reason the Dunlendings sided with Saruman was anger about being driven out of their land by the Rohirrim, so the precedent is there. Unfortunately, Tolkien wrote nothing at all about the events in Harad or the East during the Second and Third Ages, and the Easterlings and Southrons only feature in the Lord of the Rings when they rise against the people of the West – this is exactly the kind of role allotted to savages in colonial literature, as essentially culture-less lumpen opponents, with no story or voice of their own. Since we don’t know anything about the stories of these peoples, it’s impossible to prove or disprove the claim that their alliance with Sauron was simply a calculated political move rather than an innate property of their race.

But, the absence of a story for these peoples qualifies their regions of Middle Earth for the same treatment as I gave the fourth age: they’re a blank slate, there for their story to be explored by enterprising GMs or writers. I think their story would be an interesting one. How did Sauron corrupt them, and what political and cultural battles were being fought within the Empires of the South to decide who to follow and what to do? Did colonialism by the Numenoreans turn the Men of Darkness against the West? Was it something to do with their failure to receive the same birthright as the Men of the West. If the shadow of Morgoth is real, could the Men of Darkness fight against it and if so how did this manifest in their society? Were most Southrons inherently corrupted, but small kingdoms held out against them? Were their political currents opposed to working with Sauron? Did he present himself as an anti-colonialist, in a similar way to the Japanese in World War 2?

I think the general view amongst Tolkien’s fanboys is that his canon cannot be touched and reinterpretation is impossible, but role-playing doesn’t allow this view 100%: those who play in Middle Earth will always change it in some way. But the peoples of the South and East only enter the canon as two-dimensional faceless enemies, and so reinterpretation of their story need not affect the core of the work at all. I think a post-colonial rewriting of their story – to give the context and background for their alliance with Sauron – would be an interesting and entertaining phenomenon, whether done as a role-playing campaign or in fiction. I don’t know if it has been tried, and I guess many would disapprove, but it could also lead to a very interesting and rich gaming or reading experience.

This is a semi-sandbox adventure module for Warhammer 3rd Edition, and my god would it have been useful a year ago when I was running a semi-sandbox campaign in Ubersreik. My adventure even had Skaven, just like The Edge of Night. Though I think my approach to the skaven was better, my map definitely wasn’t, because The Edge of Night is a well-presented product, with a great deal of content.

The Edge of Night presents an adventure in the town of Ubersreik, based on a skaven conspiracy, against the backdrop of a political conflict between three noble families. To facilitate this adventure, the book provides background information on the town of Ubersreik sufficient to, essentially, ground an entire campaign in the setting. The adventure itself builds up to a climax that occurs at a ball held by one of the noble families, but the path by which the PCs can reach this ball is left open, with the adventure description making it clear to the GM that he or she has an almost infinite range of ways of handling the PCs progress to this ball. In order to facilitate the adventure, the book contains a map of the town, with key locations described not just in terms of their contents, but their relationship to the three noble families, and a couple of rumours at each location that may or may not be relevant to the adventure. These rumours can open up into whole other adventures if the GM wants to do the work, or can be dead ends or red herrings or clues to the adventure plot. This gives the GM an almost infinite amount of time to track the main adventure; or if he or she wishes, to have the events of the main adventure happen anyway if the PCs fail to get in tune with it, which leaves the PCs having to deal with the fallout. It also means that the adventure setting essentially can be turned into a campaign setting with a bit of extra work, which means that you’re getting a lot of value out of your 56 page module (and this is important with Warhammer 3, because the products aren’t cheap).

A key part of the build up to the adventure is the development of patronage with one of the noble families, and as is typical with a WFRP 3 product, the designers have developed the progress tracker/party sheet mechanism to include a system of patronage. Basically, each noble house provides its own “family sheet,” which the PCs advance along according to how their actions affect the noble family. As they advance, they gain recognition, an invitation to the ball, and finally patronage. Each house has its own traits and allies, and each family sheet provides benefits in the form of a talent accessible to the whole party when they achieve patronage. Because the map describes which locations contain people sympathetic to specific houses, it is easy for the PCs exploration of the town to lead to opportunities for patronage. Furthermore, the adventure itself contains a few simple encounters for the GM to use to offer advances along the family sheet. Patronage is valuable in its own right, so the family sheet is of use if the GM decides only to use the town as a campaign setting; or, if the GM decides to deepen the political intrigues, the patronage system could be useful in helping to place the PCs on particular sides of political and military conflict, possibly without their having realized what is happening. The family sheet is a good example of the way Fantasy Flight Games have developed a flexible mechanic and found ways to extend it to cover a wide range of possible contexts. It’s a creative idea.

Like other modules, The Edge of Night comes with a wide range of suggestions on how to lure the PCs into the adventure, including but not limited to references to other modules. It also comes with a set of new cards (actions and magic for skaven), new adventure locations, new cardboard standups, and the new mechanic for patronage. I don’t use the standups in this system very much at all (I’ve never been able to incorporate miniatures into my gaming) but the patronage mechanic is useful not just in its own right, but as yet another example of the versatility of the progress chart mechanic, which I thoroughly recommend to all gamers.

I would go so far as to say that The Edge of Night, in addition to providing a fairly complete setting and an interesting adventure, is easily as good as the classic warhammer settings, but with the addition of some very nice descriptions of, and mechanics for handling, political tensions between families in the world. I think this aspect of the game makes it possibly on a par with the classic warhammer modules, and reaffirms for me that WFRP 3 is providing a lot of new and interesting ideas for both Warhammer and for role-playing games generally. I’m hoping to set up a gaming group during the next year, and I will be aiming to run a campaign in Ubersreik with the material in this module. I think that, even if you are planning on sticking to WFRP 2, this module could provide some useful material for your campaign, as well as a complete setting. It’s another example of Fantasy Flight Games’ commitment to high quality work, and to maintaining the authentic feel of the warhammer setting.