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

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

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

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

Setting off from Paris in a hastily-outfitted Potez 540

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

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

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

The briefing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saint Sulac

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first resistance

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

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

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

The catacombs

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

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

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

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

The ritual

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

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

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


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

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

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

It came from Mars … to ROCK!

Saturday night saw me at Ikebukuro Chop, a tiny underground live venue, to see a couple of bands. My partner’s friend’s friend’s husband is the singer for the band pictured above, The Lechery From Mars, whose style clearly begs to be described as Cthulhupunk. The music is a kind of raucous light metal, not really gloomy enough to fit the standard goth rock pattern of bands like Sisters of Mercy, and definitely with an edge of punk to it. You can hear it at the band’s myspace site. It’s a bit like a collision between Jello Biafra, the Sisters of Mercy and Siouxsie and the Banshees. I don’t know what they’re singing about but I get the impression they take a light-hearted approach to horror and occult topics.

A servant of the elder gods?

In style, this band resembles a carnivalesque distortion of Garden of Delight or Fields of the Nephilim, and I suspect that the themes of their songs are similarly light-hearted reinterpretations of the original invokers. Garden of Delight act as if they really do believe in the ancient Sumerian gods and creeping abominations that they sing about, whereas The Lechery from Mars are probably just a bunch of guys having fun. Though I guess it’s possible that the bassist really is a creature from beyond space and time.

Invoker or Invokee?

Anyway, they were fun. Sadly – and this problem followed all the bands this evening – even though they were clearly playing with gusto and had a lot of skill, it was impossible to get a clear sense of what their music was all about, because the sound system was absolutely appalling. In a small room with low ceilings it’s a really bad idea to turn it up to 11, and on top of that the mixing didn’t seem to be very clear. There was a huge amount of that low-key electric humming sound when the bands weren’t playing, so I think something was wrong with the set up. In the tight confines of this space, the extreme volume simply meant that you couldn’t make out any sound beyond a roar. Taking these photos actually hurt when I crouched near the speakers (though maybe that was another manifestation of the dark will of the Elder Gods). Live Inn Rosa is vastly superior to Chop, and if you go there you would be well advised to wear earplugs. Though last time I went the sound was fine, so maybe it was just last night’s technicians…

After The Lechery From Mars we made a switch to the band Baal, a three piece that could probably best be described as operatic hardcore: a kind of high-tension mix of bands like Insurge with good old fashioned hardcore power, Ministry meets ebm. You can hear them at their myspace page, and their website gives a nice range of promotional pictures that pretty much capture their style. Their visual style is very reminiscent of post-apocalyptic, mad-max style survivalist, but when they played Chop they had added zombie-attack style injuries to their necks. It’s hard to see in the photos I took but it really gives them a zombie survivor look. Have we finally stumbled onto Zombiecore?

Post-apocalyptic Magua got bit!

It’s a nice mixture of post-apocalyptic zombie survivor, punk, and basic hardcore aggression. I frankly thought that hard core was long dead, smothered by its own genre restrictions,  but it’s nice to see new things being done with it in the city of lights … hardly surprising though, considering the amazing quality of Japanese live acts. Which makes the terrible sound mixing even more of a disappointment – these bands should have been raising the roof with their style, aggression and skills, but instead we were all being stifled like experimental subjects for some kind of new sonic death ray. Hopefully next time I see them the sound mixing will be better, and I’ll be able to experience the full joys of this new musical genre, Zombiecore!


Can it predict the superbowl too?

Tell me this is not a gatekeeper to the Elder Gods’ lair under the Mountains of Madness. And a hairy chested yeti crab? We are doomed once the ice melts … doomed …

Hideous dark secrets await...

I received the pdf version of James Raggi’s re-release of Geoffrey McKinney’s infamous Carcosa “supplement V” two days ago, and have been reading it voraciously since. I haven’t received the physical version yet, so can’t comment on that, but my main interest was the content so I’d like to give a review of it here. It’s my first reading of Carcosa – I missed the original version and the controversy surrounding it – so I’m going to review it as if nobody knew what it was. I have wanted this product since I read the controversy, since much of the material contained within it is relevant to my own campaign ideas, which can involve a certain amount of ritual sacrifice and happen in worlds with an underlying morality that I think has similarities to that of the “lawful” or “neutral” residents of Carcosa – that of sometimes making very unpleasant bargains with evil powers in order to further a greater good.


Carcosa is a science-fantasy/swords and sorcery setting, a planet far from earth in which the ancient gods of the cthulhu mythos slumber (and sometimes wake), and humans live in small and scattered settlements, terrified of the evil powers that dominate the world. The appendix to this edition describes the state of Men[sic] nicely thus:

Man has not populated the world of Carcosa with the monsters of his imagination. Instead, the monsters of Carcosa infect the nightmares of man. Nor has man imagined mythological spirits and projected them upon his surroundings, later refining his mythologies with philosophy and theology. The world of Carcosa is fraught with the like of the Old Ones and their spawn, the legacy of the extinct Snake Men, and Sorcery.

Humans were created by the Snake Men and placed on Carcosa as slaves and chattel to be used in vile sorcerous rituals by which the extinct Snake Men summoned, controlled or banished the Old Ones and their related entities. The Snake Men are long gone, but their legacy remains in the world that is presented to us: Spawn of Shub-Niggurath, the Old Ones, strange mutations and sorcerous effects, and lesser and greater Old Ones who are either imprisoned within our outside the planet, or roaming the planet itself looking for prey. The planet also hosts some Space Aliens, whose artifacts and high-tech items adventurers may be able to find and use.

In this world there is no magic, though there are some psionics. The only magic available to humans is that of sorcery, which enables one to summon, bind, imprison or banish evil entities. However, aside from banishment these sorcerous invocations depend upon rituals which invariably involve the degradation, torture and murder of humans. The 13 races of humans come in distinct colours, and these colours are coded to different rituals; in order to gain power over the elder gods one must find a suitable number of the correct humans of the right colour, age and sex, and then do what is necessary to raise the entity, in a ritual whose contents are themselves difficult to learn, and require precise ingredients collected from rare locations across Carcosa. Being a sorcerer is neither easy nor sensible. Being a sorcerer’s chattel is far, far worse.

So, the world of Carcosa is a brutal and nasty place, where humans were invented to be used, and continue to use each other in the manner that their extinct progenitors planned for them. It is a world where moral decisions are made in a very, very different framework to that of many other fantasy worlds; but it is my contention (and I’ll outline this below) that the moral framework for decisions in Carcosa is simply reflective of a different period in our own history, and the decision to play in Carcosa will simply represent a preference for playing in a different historical milieu to the one we’re all used to. No big deal, really, right?

The Rules

Carcosa is presented as a supplement to Original D&D (OD&D), so it doesn’t present a system per se. Rather, it contains a new character class, the Sorcerer, and some kooky ideas for dice rolling and determining hit dice that I’m not sure I’ll comment on until I’ve played with them. It also presents a wide range of new technological items (of the Space Aliens), new monsters (connected to the Old Ones) and a set of rituals for the Sorcerer. The book also makes clear that on Carcosa there are no PC classes except the Fighter and the Sorcerer (and the Specialist, if you want). There is no magic but sorcery, and no clerical magic of any kind. If you want magic on Carcosa, you have one choice: summon an entity of purest evil, and bend it to your will.

The Sorcerer character seems little different to the Fighter, though I don’t have any OD&D rulebooks so can’t tell the details. Perhaps its XP progression is slower and its saves slightly better, but otherwise it seems broadly similar. In my opinion (and I think Grognardia agreed with me on this) this is a big weakness. The sorcerer is basically a slightly inferior fighter who gains levels more slowly, and can only differentiate him or herself from the Fighter through the long and arduous task of learning a ritual and then binding an entity to his or her will. At this point the sorcerer becomes almost invincible, or dead. I think it might be better if the Sorcerer started off with some differentiating power, such as e.g. a single banishment ritual, or psionic powers. The way the rules are structured, they open the very real possibility that you could start play as a sorcerer with no special abilities or powers of any sort, while your fellow player started off as a fighter with psionics! If, on the other hand, Sorcerers gained psionics from the start and advanced in them slowly, they might be more … enticing. The possibility that one day you can summon Cthulhu and maybe, if you’re lucky, he won’t eat you but will serve you for 72 hours, is not a great lure for the average player. Especially if summoning Cthulhu means you have to rape a couple of children and murder them in a pool of acid.

Also, learning rituals appears to be very difficult, so it’s possible you could play a sorcerer for a lot of levels and never get to use any special powers. So, I can’t see the point of distinguishing the sorcerer from the Fighter.

The Rituals

In truth, the rituals are one of the main reasons I got this book. There are six types of ritual, and only one of them can be conducted without doing something nasty.

  • Banish: these drive a specific entity away, for varying times, and are usually quick and easy to perform
  • Invoke: these put the sorcerer in contact with some horrific extra-dimensional being that will answer questions that the sorcerer puts to it
  • Bind: these grant complete control over the subject entity for a given period of time. At the end of this time, it’s wise to have your banish ritual ready
  • Imprison: these trap an entity in some extra-dimensional or subterranean prison, possibly forever, and are the surest way to ensure that it doesn’t come back without the intervention of another sorcerer. All imprisonment rituals seem to involve human sacrifice.
  • Conjure: these summon an entity, either from wherever it is now or from its prison. They don’t guarantee control over the conjured entity, however, so it’s a good idea to bind it first
  • Torment: these cause a chosen entity to suffer horribly, reducing its hit dice and/or forcing it to obey the sorcerer and/or answer questions

So, it’s possible to see that there are ways in which these rituals, even though they involve human sacrifice, can be for the good of all. In fact, one can imagine a “lawful” sorcerer traveling the earth, forcing every sorcerer he finds to teach him their rituals, then killing them and imprisoning any deities they had the power to conjure. This would involve a lot of pain and slaughter but at the end of such a successful campaign the world would be free of deities and no one but the PC would be able to conjure them again. Is this worth a bit of child murder? Don’t answer me unless you live on Carcosa.

The rituals themselves are very nicely written, in a portentous style that is very evocative of the Cthulhu ethos, and involves a lot of words like “blasphemous,” “ineffable” and “canticle.” The descriptions have an underlying sense of horror, but are themselves clinically written and detailed, capturing both the mechanical elements of the ritual, its arcane meaning and its horrific consequences in just one or two concise paragraphs. They’re also key to establishing the philosophical and theological background of the world of Carcosa, and in my opinion one can’t really properly describe the world without reference to these rituals. Once one has read this tome of rituals, the descriptions of the communities of the world – tiny enclaves of humans, largely the same colour, suspicious of outsiders and often treacherous and warlike – make a great deal of sense. It also sets the tone for a world steeped in horror.

My main criticism of the rituals would be that it’s not clear how they mesh together – does one bind a creature before or after conjuring it? Why would one torment an entity, and what are the key differences between banishment and imprisonment? Ideally, I would have liked a couple of examples of rituals in use: perhaps a description of a sorcerer’s attempts to conjure a particular entity – how he found the ritual, the order in which he enacts them, and the benefits. For a GM’s section this would be particularly useful, since it would enable a GM to work out how to mesh the quest for and consequences of a ritual into adventure planning. Without this we have to work out the details ourselves, which is fine, but I paid 35 euros for this book so I could read the ideas of the person who wrote it, so I’d have liked a few examples or ideas to support the use of rituals in the game. Also, I would like to know more about what one gains from summoning the entities. The entities all have their stat blocks given, but they are largely for combat, and this means that really the sorcerer seems to be just taking a great deal of risks to invoke a great big weapon. It would be nice if conjuring a given beast gave the sorcerer some benefits (like a kind of familiar), so that even without going into combat the sorcerer got some non-Fighter-oriented benefits. Otherwise, why not just go to hex XXXX and grab the Space Alien Tank there – a much safer way to do 4 dice of damage than summoning It of the Fallen Pylons, which, incidentally, requires casting eight Red Men through an extra-dimensional vault into outer space, and making a save vs. Magic at -4 to avoid joining them yourself.

Despite these limitations, the rituals lend the world of Carcosa a particular feeling of grim horror and foreboding that is both very Cthulhu-esque, and very atmospheric even if, like me, you haven’t read much Lovecraft.

Entities, Monsters and Maps

I really like the entities and monsters presented in Carcosa. The entities have evocative, sinister names and are very, very nasty, and the main monsters arise in almost infinite variety through the random generation tables. Robots and cyborgs follow a similar range and would make both interesting allies and formidable adversaries. The book comes with a hex map of a section of Carcosa with two possible encounters for every hex described. Some of these hexes offer opportunities for further adventuring in dungeons or castles or forests, and give simple adventure hooks; others present towns to explore and conquer, or simply monsters or the opportunity to learn rituals, find ancient technology, or uncover strange objects. It’s a really weird and compelling map that sets out a world completely different to the average D&D setting. This world is definitely not to everyone’s tastes – brilliant Yellow-colored men carrying laser pistols and riding mutant dinosaurs to war against Cthulhoid entities is maybe not everyone’s cup of tea – but if you like science fantasy then it has a lot of material to explore.


I can’t comment on the physical book, since I haven’t received it, but I certainly can commend the presentation of the pdf format. I’ve been reading it on my iPad, and it’s a joy to use. The pdf is extensively hyperlinked, so if you’re reading a ritual and want to know what the creature it summons is, you can jump to the creature; then you can use the list of rituals related to that entity to jump to a different ritual, or to go back to where you were. Ingredients that can be found in certain hexes include a link to those hexes; if a particular hex in the map is related to other hexes, those hexes are listed next to the text, so you can jump to them. The hex map itself is hyperlinked, so you can click to the description of any hex – sadly, on my iPad the bit of the map I tap doesn’t work, and I get directed instead to the column left of where I wanted to tap, but this is not an insurmountable problem (I just tap slightly more to the right) and I don’t know if it’s a problem in the original text or in its translation to my iPad. It would be nice if the hex descriptions included a link back to the map (perhaps in their name?) so that one could explore the map more rapidly, but this too is not an insurmountable problem. The linking is an excellent idea and really makes the pdf useful.

Other elements of the presentation also really appeal to me. I like the font and the style on the edges of the pages – perhaps the patterns at the top of the page are a little overdone, but they suit the theme. I like the layout of things like rituals and monster descriptions, with the text next to the title and then all the hyperlinks below the title, next to the text; and the artwork suits the world very well. Unlike usual OSR artwork, it’s actually good, and the sketch-like style gives a sense of hurriedly glimpsing horrors, like seeing a massacre through grainy camera footage rather than being a direct eyewitness. This suits the content – especially the rituals and monsters – very well. It’s a very well-presented and laid out text.

The content is also very well written and maintains its Cthulhoid theme pretty much seamlessly across the whole book. This is a fine achievement and really makes the book stand out as a work of fiction as well as a gaming supplement. It’s rare I think to find a world setting that maintains a coherent theme across world content, presentation and writing style, and through the combination of the three builds up a distinct atmosphere. This book does that, in spades, and in that sense I think it’s a masterful work.

I do have some complaints about the content, though. In addition to wanting more detail on the mechanics of rituals, I would have liked more context to the world as a whole. After just a page or two of introduction the book jumps straight into the rules, and further exposition of the background to the world only comes in an appendix, which is very short. Even though the rationale for this – not wanting to bias the Referee, so that they can be free to interpret Carcosa as they like – is perfectly understandable, I’m not into it. I want Geoffrey McKinney’s bias in my interpretation of his world, and I’m adult enough to get rid of what I don’t like. I would like his bias at the beginning, because as it is I have waded through the whole book before I discover why certain rituals use certain colors of human, etc. This problem is even more pronounced in the sample adventure, Fungoid Gardens of the Bone Sorcerer, which is not really an adventure at all but a more detailed exposition of a single hex in the map. Some context to this adventure, perhaps background details to the tensions and regions of the hex map, how PCs might be drawn into differing factions or adventures, and what the political circumstances in the region are, might help. The motivations and perspectives of the various denizens of the map are not clear, and the reasons for selecting it as an adventure are just not there. It’s usable, but it doesn’t add anything to the main hex map except more detail. I would say this is a general structural problem in the text: it isn’t set out in the flow of Introduction/Body/Conclusion, but just as a random scattering of information with a rough flow. Even the appendix setting out the basic circumstances of humans on Carcosa is missing a conclusion: it just ends with a description of the uses of Space Alien technology. Repeatedly missing this structure means that the work is sometimes contextless, which is a shame given the depth of its actual content.

The layout, though generally excellent, suffers some minor flaws and I think James Raggi may have been guilty of over-egging how much he has added to the original. The editing is sometimes a bit weak, with obvious errors in presentation (such as italicizing a book title, then putting other book titles inconsistently in quotes, in the same paragraph of the introduction). Indeed, there is even an error in the preview – e.g. page 129, Hex 0502, has inconsistent pronoun usage (it and he to describe the Mummy). Also I think the linking is incomplete – sometimes a description will say “cf. [ritual name]” where it would have been much better for it to have the link to [ritual name]. Of course I’m happy to forgive tiny errors, because overall the layout is excellent and the writing very concise and clear.

The Controversy

This review isn’t meant to be about the controversy, but I guess I should cover it. Two (?) of the rituals involve the rape and murder of children, and most of them involve the torture and murder of humans. This has led some to say that Carcosa goes too far, that it brings disrepute onto the gaming world, and that it is itself a morally repugnant work. Well, it’s certainly morally repugnant, but much of what happens in role-playing is morally repugnant. In standard D&D most adventuring parties happily torture and murder captured enemies, and exterminate without mercy those who are racially different to themselves, on the very dubious moral assumption that our enemies have no humanity of any kind. D&D explicitly states that elves have no soul. This is a moral framework that is taken pretty much straight from the playbook of 19th and early 20th century western Imperialism[1], and although we are supposed to believe that our D&D worlds make these ideals objectively true, rather than subjectively true, I don’t think this really exonerates the worldview contained therein.

So the world of D&D as most of us are used to playing it is pretty morally repugnant as well, and it explicitly allows for or describes the use of human and non-human lives as tools for the benefit of the PCs. What else is necromancy but the most horrific misuse of humans? What about the Imprisonment spell, or Dominate Monster? Sure, the Player’s Handbook doesn’t say “You can use this spell to rape anyone you want,” but it’s pretty obvious that this is what evil people will do. And most PC groups at some point have used enslaved/captured/charmed/dominated NPCs as meat in the grinder – for trap finding, for attracting the monster’s first, worst attack, etc. I think the old school blogosphere makes quite a point of doing this with henchmen and hirelings.

So what is the difference with Carcosa? It makes the moral framework of D&D explicit, and I think this offends a lot of people who would otherwise have enacted many of the components of the rituals in their ordinary play. But in presenting this moral framework explicitly, is Carcosa asking us to play in a world that is any different from 15th century Europe, which is the moral exemplar for much of our gaming worlds? What distinguishes a sorcerer in Carcosa from the leaders of the USSR in Afghanistan, any of the players of the Great Game, or the British in India? D&D’s implicit morality is, largely, that of 19th century colonial Europe; Carcosa’s implicit morality is that of crusader Europe or the vikings. If we can accept one, and play it at its most invidious, then we can surely play in the other without compromising ourselves overmuch.

Furthermore, I don’t think these rituals need necessarily be construed as irredeemably evil. In Hex 2013 of the Carcosa map is a village of 497 Jale Men ruled by “She of the Lake.” She is slowly building up an empire and “her hunger for slaves and captives to fuel her sorceries is bottomless.” So if my PC summons the Lurker Amidst the Obsidian Ruins through the murder of four Black Males, and binds it to me using the horrific Primal Formula of the Dweller (which requires my PC to kill 101 Dolm Children with an axe), then sends the Lurker to kill She of the Lake and her main minions, have I not done the world a great service? And what harm have I done to the world if instead of killing the two Yellow Men bandits who survived a bandit attack on my party, I inflict them with a fatal disease and sacrifice them in the ritual called The Encrusted Glyphs of the Deep, which imprisons the Leprous Dweller Below in a primordial city in the Radioactive Desert?

Carcosa presents us with a morally repugnant setting, but as mature adults we can negotiate it in a more sophisticated way than merely averting our eyes and declaring it wrong.


If you like your worlds to be dark, cruel, primitive and full of evil and hard choices, then Carcosa is for you. If you want to play in a Science/Fantasy Swords and Sorcery setting with or without bizarre and evil sorcerous rituals, this book is a great starting point and will give you endless hours of crazed sandbox adventuring. It’s a very nicely laid out, excellently written and well-crafted addition to the gaming world, and I think James Raggi should be encouraged in his efforts. He brings a huge amount of energy and creativity to the OSR, and should be justifiably proud of his achievement in presenting this setting in this format. But of course the ultimate credit should go to Geoffrey McKinney, who has crafted a genuinely disturbing, morally dubious, occasionally repugnant, but very well-written and ingenious world setting that, while not to everyone’s tastes and a little more controversial thank I think is warranted, is definitely a brilliant and amazingly creative work. I hope that he and Raggi will work together again in the future to produce more material of the same high quality and style, and I would definitely like to see more material for the Carcosa setting – whether or not I ever get a chance to play it.

fn1: please do not take this to mean that I think only Imperialists believed these things; this is the particular historical framework that western Europeans draw upon when they make these moral statements.

I just received an email from a friend living in the UK, and in the email was this brief review of a night out in London:

I went to something the other day which made me think of you – a steampunk night.  It was full of people with elaborate Victoriana/goth/cyber-type outfits.  Among other things there was a grindcore band who did a song about an otherwise delightful family trip to the seaside (Margate, to be precise) being ruined by the appearance of mythical being Cthulhu rising up from the sea and sexually abusing grandma.  The phrase “tentacle rape” featured a number of times.

Steampunk-burlesque-grindcore-lovecraft. Has civilization finally reached its nadir?

The Nameless One has spoken, this time through a team of oracles at the German sea-life aquarium, and the cephalopod cabal predicted a win by Japan in the Women’s Soccer World Cup. The closeness of the decision within the tentacled tribunal led some to question whether the final match might be a closely-fought event, and indeed it was; but in the end Nadeshico Japan won! Ganbare Nippon! I wanted to watch this final match but sadly it was only available on pay TV, so I missed it. But I’m happy that Japan won a well-deserved victory after beating some tough teams (Germany and Sweden!) to get there.

Incidentally, Nadeshico in Japanese is a name taken to refer to a classical Japanese vision of feminity. To say someone is “a Nadeshico” is to compliment their feminity as both beautiful and traditional. I think this is an excellent name for a women’s national soccer team. Well done Nadeshico!

My theory is no; but I’m sure Herge would beg to differ, as would the artist who conceived of the idea.

Young, but ferocious in his hatred of the Squid Gods

Even his tongue is a lethal weapon in the war against Infinite Evil

Kraken, by China Mieville, is another “city-within-a-city” novel, like Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Mieville’s previous (rather lacklustre) effort, UnLunDun. In this case the city-wthin-the-city is a supernatural world of grafters, shonksters and magicians, all oriented around a plethora of cults who worship “cast-off” deities and apocalyptic visions, all residing within London. There are some parts of London that are hidden or secret but the majority of it happens in plain view, in the same London that you or I know.

Unlike Mieville’s previous effort, the elsewhere London in this novel is really apt to the real London. It’s a world of cockney arseholes, criminals, rip-off merchants and sleazebags, where people construct their magical lives from cast-off objects and ideas, working their magic in the interstices of objects and cultures. Even the magic itself is beautifully London, a type of make-do enchanting called “knacking” that depends on the resemblances between real objects and the spells constructed from them. The magic is often low-key, cobbled together, not-quite-right, and a bit dirty. Just like London. The elsewhere world perfectly reflects the realities of London’s fragmented, higgledy-piggledy reality, its dirt, the way everyone in the city has to make the best they can of what they’ve got. It also cleverly reflects that sense in London of ideas and cultures all packed together, confused, borrowing from each other and overcrowded in the same supposedly English space. London is a broken, nowhere town, full of transient people, transient plans and transient cultures. Mieville seems to have finally put all this together into a science-fantasy of quite stunning brilliance.

He’s also managed to merge the modern and the arcane in quite clever ways, just like Jim Butcher has in the Dresden Files. A few small examples:

  • a character uses the internet to search out her lover, and discovers a whole hidden world of “knackers” and cultists working online
  • a character is paid for his work in Star Trek memorabilia that has been “knacked” so that it works
  • cultists and believers steal ideas for their “knacks,” their style and manner from science fiction and fantasy, so that their work is self-referential, and sometimes their magic is intended to mimic the magic or tech of their favourite shows
  • a chameleon character uses his magic to infiltrate organizations by appearing to be one of their members; but the way he does it is perfectly and completely dependent upon mimicking and exploiting modern corporate culture

My absolute favourite so far has been the chapter devoted to describing the background of the guy who runs the Familiar’s Union. He used to be  a statue that served Egyptian souls in their afterlife, but he ran a strike there, then left the afterlife and swam back up through the netherworld to the world of the living, to become an organizer. This story is uniquely brilliant to me because it merges cultures rather than technologies from two different times. Instead of him being simply an Egyptian magician who wears an ankh necklace and hangs out in a club, he’s an Egyptian magical slave from a slave-owning time, who has transcended the netherworld to become that quintessential element of the modern Industrial age – a union organizer. But the things he’s organizing don’t always have souls, and work in an industrial landscape that is pre-modern (the cottage industries of wizards). This is Mieville at his best, blending politics, culture, and history through sci fi fantasy for the pure purpose of having fun.

The plot is also beautifully self-referential without being wanky. Essentially, it involves the theft of an embalmed giant squid from the London Natural History Museum. The squid is probably a dead god, and is worshiped by a cult of messianic krakenists, who believe that at the end of the world they will be drawn to a heaven in the Ocean’s deeps. The whole thing is full of cthulhu references (sometimes directly) even though there’s no admission that either the squid or the cult are directly cthulhu-worshipers. The theft coincides with some kind of magical change in London, and the chase is on to find the squid before something really bad happens. Of course the people doing the chasing are in conflict with a sinister, evil organization or organizations, who are really really evil and constructed from a really interesting pastiche of modern images, sub-cultures and cults. The book includes two bad guys, Goss and Subby, who are almost up to the standard of the bad guys in Neverwhere.

I thought that Mieville went off the rails a bit with Iron Council (pardon the pun) and UnLunDun, but he’s back on track with this gem. I haven’t finished yet but so far it’s brilliant, and I recommend it to anyone who needs a bit of science-fantasy entertainment. This book also cements my view of China Mieville as a great writer of, and possibly the main exponent/inventor of, some kind of new sub-genre of science-fantasy, Urban Chaos Science Fantasy, maybe, or CityPunk, or something. His three best novels that I’ve read – Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and now Kraken – are all based in a kind of city, and the vibrancy of the city itself is essential to the plot of the books. The city is almost a character on its own in his work, and his strength is in his representation of the extraordinary and ordinary lives of its denizens.

I also think that Mieville’s leftist politics is a complete furphy in analysis of his work, because although it clearly informs the creation of some of the characters, and his depiction of the different strata of the societies he creates, I think ultimately his works are surprisingly devoid of political messages (though rich in political conflict). For a man who is generally caricatured as a cardboard cutout lefty from the Politburo, his work is actually both suprisingly anarchist (not leninist at all!) and generally devoid of strong left-wing political messages. I don’t think I’ve met a single character outside of Iron Council who ever could be said to represent Mieville’s politics, nor have I read a plot that shows them clearly. Even The Scar, which is a bit of a Utopian quest, if it has any political interpretation at all, would be a guarded critique of the folly of trusting vanguardists – which would be a bit wierd coming from someone of Mieville’s supposedly Marxist-Leninist views. The key to understanding Mieville’s work is his representation of cities.

So, again: read this if you have the time and money, ’cause so far it’s great!

I’m going out for a drink now. I spent much of this afternoon and evening trying to install Linux on a PowerPC iBook G4. The only reason I’m doing this is that I thought it might be nimbler than mac os 10.4. We use this iBook purely for watching movies (it’s plugged into the tv) and playing music, but recently its been struggling with streamed stuff, and I thought a non-mac OS might work. Linux is supposed to be speedier. So I tried installing it.

I have previously managed to install windows 7 on two iMacs, one of which is depicted here. I got this done with the help of Apple’s bootcamp, which sorts out the boot sector of the mac so you don’t have any really painful problems. I found a couple of sites online – here and here – which claim to have installed ubuntu on an ibook, so I thought I’d try it.

Of course it was impossible. Just like the last two times I’ve tried to install linux on anything. What a useless piece of shit linux is. Here is why:

  1. For a start, the installation disc randomly crashes. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Brilliant.
  2. Secondly, the installation disc runs into some kind of problem with the file system and, instead of throwing up an error saying “encountered a file system problem, you really should try using a decent computer” or some such, it produces an incomprehensible and meaningless “ubi-partman crashed with exit code 141.” Now, correct me if I’m wrong but “exit code” sounds suspiciously like a euphemism for “error code.” Could it be the linux community are so up themselves now that they don’t want to refer to errors as errors?[1]. Anyway, I looked up “exit code 141” on the internet and it has multiple possible causes. This is singularly unhelpful. This is a microsoft or SPSS level of debugging power[3a]. I want to know what causes my error, so I can work around it[4], not just get pointed to a series of websites full of people with diverse OSs and hardware talking about a meaningless error code. So I had to go back online looking for oblique solutions to the problem. This is nothing compared to the last time I had to solve a Linux problem, but we’ll get to that
  3. Thirdly, the available information about how to proceed to a successful implementation has no relation to the way that the Ubuntu installer works. For example, one of those sites says “Choose all default options but when it comes to partitioning, dlete the Ubuntu partition you created earlier. go back and choose to use maximum free space”. None of these processes or options existed in my installer. So there’s no way for legacy information to be used to inform current installations. I’ve never seen a “use maximum free space” option in any partition software. But I get three completely different options I can choose from. I think it’s probably a mark of an amateur software project to have completely different installation processes at every release. The basic processes of installation are the same in every iteration, surely?
  4. WTF is it with the verbose way that Linux starts up and shuts down? I know that there are a couple of hundred people in the world who think it’s cool how the computer tells you that “random process A” is “doing incomprehensible shit B”, and there might be another 10 people in the world who actually know what it’s doing, but it really looks juvenile. It’s like the BSOD – nobody understands that crap, so why bother? The shutdown process in Ubuntu is particularly pratty. Why on God’s green earth should I have to hit return halfway through the process after the CD spits out? There’s no going back from here, why bother?

Anyway, so the basic problem seems to be this: Apple mangles the boot sector, and you need to somehow come up with a set of partitions that the linux installer can read in order to use it. The installer is supposed to be able to preserve the Apple bootsector, so it just becomes a straight dual boot, but in fact no matter how I contort the installation process I end up fucking the apple boot sector 8 ways to Sunday (take that, Steve!) and then it can’t reboot. Following the information in the few websites by people who’ve done it is just impossible, largely because I don’t understand the process of setting up Linux drives[5] but possibly also because Apple mangled the boot sector, and maybe also because I’m profoundly stupid when it comes to linux[8].

So I tried setting up an ext4 partition on top of the Mac OS one. My Hard Drive is 30g, so I had:

  • 32 kb boot sector[9]
  • 132 Mb of nothing
  • 6 Gb of MacOS
  • 132Mb of nothing
  • 21Gb of ext4, the standard linux file format (apparently)

Then I start the Ubuntu installer (after several tries, of course) and it offers me three partitioning choices: install side by side, use the whole disc, or custom format. The first choice doesn’t “install side by side at all” but instead splits my 21gb partition into two chunks of ext4. The second choice does what is expected, but that will probably shaft the bootsector so it was out; the third choice demanded to know “where is the root mount” and since this is my partner’s computer I’m not going to root mount it; I left this well alone. Choosing option a), I proceeded with an installation that just stopped 75% of the way through, and somehow managed to shaft the bootsector, because when I gave up on the process and restarted I had lost the mac os boot as well.

What kind of installation software is that? I just downloaded a “disc” that is designed to fuck my machine. And on top of that, when I repeated the process – same partition in mac os, same install disc – the following happened:

  • The first time I insert the install disc, it just fails, out of hand
  • second time, the install disc works but I get the stupid “ubipartman” error, i.e. the partition software can’t handle the ext4 file system (???!!!???)

So, I don’t really even know if this ubipartman error has anything to do with apple’s shenanigans with the boot sector, or if it’s just a bodgy piece of software. Someone else I spoke to said all knowingly “ah, yes, getting the partition software to work is always the trick.”

You know your software is shit when people are saying things like that about it. Let’s try similar phrases with some other software shall we?

  • Stats software: “ah yes, getting the mathematics engine to work is always the trick”
  • Graphics software: “ah yes, getting the colour palette to work can be a tad fiendish”
  • Nuclear powerplant software: “oh yes, we always take the radioactivity meters with a grain of salt, it’s the software don’t you know old chap?”

So, this is my third time attempting to install linux and my first time on a laptop. Let’s review our results:

  • First time: nothing, the installer just died in the arse
  • Second time: I installed it fine but X Window didn’t work. Who wants linux without x window? It’s a glorified telex machine. So I hunted around on the internet and it turned out that there’s no standard drivers for the i810 chipset, but someone had written one. I downloaded it and installed it but it didn’t work, and another day of hunting on the internet enabled me to discover that a couple of lines of code in the driver had typos in them. Fucking typos. So I hunted out other drivers with similar code and worked out how to correct the typos, and X Window worked. Oh my god! This is the computing equivalent of making fire. A fucking GUI, man! What next – object oriented programming?!! Anyway, so then when I invoke my beautiful X Window[10], there is no networking. I try invoking the control panel thingy to work out what the next driver problem is and… nothing. No functioning control panel. Two days of struggle to get X Window to work, and I still have to work out the control panel?!! Fuck that. I wiped it
  • Third time: Who knows what mysteries can be produced with the arcane combination of Steve Jobs ratfucking your boot sector and linux trying to clean it up?

So I think I just need to give up. But I just want to point out that EVERY TIME I have spoken to someone about installing Linux they have said to me “oh, it used to be really hard, but now it’s trivial, point and click, out of the box baby.”

Well, I beg to differ.

None of this would be an issue of course, except that there’s an army of linux nerds out there carefully watching the progress of linux, calculating every 10th of a percentage point increase in its market share, claiming it’s the best thing ever and wondering why it isn’t more popular. If any of you are reading this, perhaps there is a hint of why contained in my struggles[11].

And don’t even get me started on my attempts to get hold of a decent, working 64 bit windows package!!!!

fn1: Many years ago I had cause to call a Microsoft helpdesk[2] and the guy on the other end of the phone referred to a clear bug as an “oversight.” I challenged him about this and he told me that it was official policy that bugs were “oversights.” Windows NT was great at the time[3], but jesus christ…

fn2: Hey, don’t criticise me! I was at work, it was Windows NT, I was desperate!

fn3: This is where Apple screwed the pooch. Windows were floating around with the shittest software on the planet (windows 3.1), but it was tied to the best productivity software (MS Office). Apple had a chance here to come up with a killer OS that would take market share, provided that a) it worked and b) they used MS Office. Unfortunately, they gave us Mac OS 8, and they were too arrogant to respond to complaints of “my computer freezes” with “we’ll fix that” before Windows NT came out. I don’t know what happened to b), but jesus Mac OS 8 was shit.

fn3a: not as bad as SPSS. Until their most recent incarnation, when SPSS syntax ran into an error it told you the column number rather than the line number[3b]

fn3b: Possibly not as bad as R, either, another piece of open source joy. When I was working with R in Japan, I actually had a piece of code that worked on one computer but not another, until we removed the comments[3c].

fn3c: which is almost as bad as my friend’s experience of an electronics lab in our undergrad physics days, when his experiment worked using wires with blue insulation plastic but not red.

fn4: Witness here the soft bigotry of low expectations. I’m so used to Microsoft and Apple (and SPSS) that instead of saying “I want to know what the problem is so I can get someone to fix it” I say “If I know what it is I can find a way around it!”

fn5: why does it have to be so fucking difficult? Why can’t they just have one drive with a sensible name (i.e. not “root”, which is a well-known Australian euphemism for fucking and just sounds stupid, I don’t ever want to be a “root user” in any situation which involves a hairy nerdy guy who keeps his dog in his office[6]) and why do they have to have a separate swap space etc? This software has been around for 20 fucking years, can’t they find a solution to the omfg-so-hard problem of swap space?

fn6: I once worked in a place whose network support guy, the classic bearded neckbreather, actually kept his dog in the office – in a tiny cage – and fancied himself an ubernerd. Like most neck-breathers, he was incompetent. When you went into his office, if he wasn’t there the dog would bark and snarl at you from in its cage. Need I add that it was a chihuahua? Need I also add that he stuck to Novel Netware 5.1[7] long after Windows 2000 Server was out?

fn7: If anyone thinks that Windows 95 is a product of Cthulhu, they should try trouble-shooting a Novell Netware Server, as I once had to do. Truly there are heirarchies of evil.

fn8: and, you may have noticed, just a tiny bit antsy.

fn9: Actually I reckon this is just a 32kb file with “Steve Jobs is GOD” written in it over and over.

fn10: Did I mention that Linux/Unix is beautiful when it works? This is the real shit about all of this.

fn11: I know, I know, you’re going to say “It’s Apple’s fault.” But in my experience, the person who glibly states “it’s because it’s an apple” is always wrong. How come I can install windows on my unix-based apples, but I can’t install linux, even though linux is supposedly infinitely more amenable to hacking, and flexible, than windows or apple? Because it’s too fucking hard is why.