Not just a pretty face

He’s a ghost, he’s a god,
he’s a man, he’s a guru
You’re one microscopic cog
in his catastrophic plan
Designed and directed by
his red right hand

A wizard, a cyborg and a black man walk into a bar …

  • Adam Lee: A human mage, Korean background, always smartly dressed in a suit and tie, a smooth talker whose negotiation is backed up by an arsenal of arcane tricks
  • John: An elf sniper, heavily cyber-augmented, a long-range killer with limbs of steel and a heart of stone
  • Jayden Roose: Human adept, a drifter, a tribesman from the far south with nowhere to go and nowhere to be

They came to the bar looking for a man called Anansie, a Somalian living in New Horizon who had a job for them. New Horizon is full of people passing through, living unregistered in the shadows between the giant industrial sectors of the harbour, squatting in the walls of the giant canal that cut through the heart of what once, 50 years earlier, was a stunning megalopolis that sprawled over old Hong Kong, and its surrounding seas. The Awakening was said to have started here, when a great dragon of steel and concrete tore itself free from the wastelands on the edge of the city and triggered the rising of the Sixth World. The dragon is long gone, leaving a fractured city in its wake, but where there is mana there is life, and now the city has been repopulated and (mostly) healed over its old scars, though the landscape is new. Arasaka, the great Japanese company that was in a war with Militech and Goliath at the time of the Awakening, grew in power in the chaotic aftermath of the tragedy, and formed a new corporate Shogunate in Japan that rose to its apotheosis with giddying speed and frightening brutality. Where the old Shogunate spawned Feudal lords the Arasaka Shogunate gave birth to subservient companies, great mercantile beasts like Shiawase and Renraku, that owed Arasaka fealty but fought with each other for all the profits they could glean from this new order. New Horizon rebuilt, spread over the old crash zones and recolonized the deserted and shattered outer regions of New Horizon, reconstituting them as floating corporate arcologies and free industrial zones.

The flotsam of a thousand nations came ashore on New Horizon’s outlying Arcologies and trade zones, people drawn to the promise of freedom and wealth from countries newly riven by Awakening, mana storms, metahuman strife, communal violence, war and pestilence. Anansie was just such a person, a fixer and petty criminal in over his head who needed protection from someone or something. So it was that Adam, John and Jayden found themselves in the bar in Havensport, on the eastern edge of New Horizon, waiting for Anansie to arrive and offer them payment for their strength and magic.

But Anansie didn’t come. He wasn’t the unreliable kind, certainly not when business was ready to be done, and after a half hour of waiting their bar maid started to worry. This was Anansie’s business, and he was always there to meet his contacts – perhaps something had happened. The characters pushed her – had someone been looking for him? Was he in trouble? Perhaps whatever he needed protection from had got to him before he had time to secure their help. She remembered that earlier that day a dwarven hacker and an orc had come in looking for him, then left suddenly when the dwarf received a message. Had they found him? In a flush of worry she told them where Anansie usually holed up in the local area, and they left to find him. They all needed the work, and who knew – if he was already up to his neck in trouble maybe they could negotiate a better payment.

Havensport’s central feature is a massive shopping arcade, perhaps three or four kilometers long, as wide across as a shopping mall at its best parts and as narrow as an alleyway in its dingiest moments. Sprawling over multiple levels, its walls were lined with stalls and shops intermingled with squats, rundown tenements, huge advertising hoardings, car parks and recruiting offices for shipping companies and mercenaries. The locals called it Golden Gai, though no one knew why anymore – any glint of gold had long since rubbed off the shoddy facade of its workshops and tenements, and now it was just a dripping, corroding network of grubby shops connected by a single, tangled walkway and an equally complex tangle of ephemeral allegiances, networks and deals. Anyone who was anyone had a shop front on Golden Gai, and anyone who did business in Havensport – or with the trade that passed through it – had an office in one of the alleys and gantries that wove through and around the ‘Gai. The PCs took those alleys from their bar, down to the Golden Line on the Metro and two stops along to Joystone Path station, a ramshackle little nowhere stop that spilled its metro passengers out into a grubby section of markets and seafood stalls that had obviously seen better days. They took a narrow series of rickety switchbacks up through steaming noodle stores and overcrowded tenements onto the Golden Gai, which at this part of its serpentine route was a rainwashed open expanse of low-rent single story houses and brothels clustered around a series of fresh food markets that were open to the constant rains that swept in off the murky waters of the South China Sea – the roofing that covered many parts of Golden Gai had partially collapsed here, and whatever creaking architecture of interpersonal agreements, family deals and gangland extortionates covered this part of the ‘Gai had never managed to come to terms on how to replace it.

Anansie’s block was recessed into the seaward side of the ‘Gai, entrances to individual apartments suspended in the air above the ‘Gai and connected to the ground through a complex hanging garden of stairs and ladders. Anansie’s apartment was on the street level, the door nestled in amongst the scaffolding and stepways of the other apartments. But now it stood open, and a crowd had gathered. As they approached they could see the telltale red and blue flashing lights of a local security company’s warning poles, and a uniformed guard lounging idly in front of his open door, clear signs of trouble. They pulled back into the shadow of a pistol vending machine and Adam signalled for them to guard him. His eyes turned a neon blue and he sagged against the vending machine as his clairvoyance spell took hold.

Adam’s vision drifted through the doorway and into Anansie’s house, where he found a scene of brutal murder. The dwarf hacker and the orc lay dead inside the first main room of the house, both of them brutally stabbed in the back by what looked like claws or maybe cyber rippers. Their blood pooled on the floor around them but was also splattered over the walls and ceiling of that room. Someone had ambushed them as they entered the room, and they had had no chance. The room itself and Anansie’s bedroom and study had been ransacked, turned over by people looking for something. Whatever they sought had not been large, because the raiders had slashed open cushions and the mattress of the bed looking for it. Drugs? Data? Guns? In his brief disembodied search of the house Adam could not tell, but he did catch sight of a data disk with “CON data” written on it, that had been missed by the intruders and lay discarded on the ground behind a desk. Perhaps whoever searched the house knew they had little time, or their search had been interrupted by the dwarf and the orc. Or perhaps the dwarf and the orc had been the ones searching, and had been interrupted halfway through by a savage killer emerging behind them…

Adam returned to his body with a start and told the others. Then he sauntered over to the door of the apartment to speak to the cop. He spun him a story that his girlfriend had been at the house earlier hint hint, and he needed to find out if she was safe – could he have a quick look round just to see? A tall story delivered smoothly with a small bribe and he was in, though only for the briefest of circuits through the house – enough time to palm the data disc and get out. While he was inside John retreated to a gantry overlooking the whole area, so that he could maintain a clear shot on anyone causing trouble, and Jayden scanned the area for possible belligerents. He soon noticed an Asian woman in combat ready gear who stood in the crowd looking too carefully at the building, and checking her commlink regularly. Fragments of a tattoo sticking out over the neckline of her shirt suggested a red hand tattoo on her back – a gangbanger? When Adam emerged from the apartment he and Jayden sidled over to her for a chat.

They soon found out this woman, Fay, was no disinterested observer. She claimed that she was one of Anansie’s many jilted lovers, a girl he had never called back, and she had come to the scene of the betrayal this evening to confront him and maybe slap him for his rudeness, but had instead found the bodies of the dwarf and orc and made a quick call to the local security franchise. Now she was standing around to see if he came back, so she could administer that slapping. When she found out that the PCs had intended to work with Anansie she told them that she thought she might have seen some other people who had been with the orc and the dwarf, and maybe knew where they went. If they promised to let her have her turn at slapping Anansie when they found him she would take them to the people she had seen leaving the scene. Adam was sure she was not telling the whole story but they had nothing else to go on so they decided to trust her and see where her story took them. They set off along the ‘Gai.

They soon found a man who Fay told them was one of those who had been at the apartment. He was lounging on the edge of a busy vegetable market a few hundred metres down the ‘Gai, looking like he was minding his own business but probably keeping an eye on the road for pursuers. They tried to sidle up to him but he caught sight of them and tried to run. Jayden chased him and caught him, but he leapt over a barricade on one side of the ‘Gai and down to a lower level. Jayden followed, making a huge leap that took him past the place where his target fell, landing with a roll and coming quickly and smoothly to his feet facing the landing spot. The man had fallen into a ramshackle market stall, collapsing its plastic and tarpaulin roof and scattering its wares. The Aunty who ran the stall was stood back yelling at a pile of tarp and plastic in rage. Jayden marched in and hauled back the tarp, to find the man struggling bloodied to his feet, a pistol in his right hand. The man fired on Jayden, who dodged the shot and cut him down with one hard blow from his knife. As the Aunty staggered back from her bloodied stall and Adam and John popped their heads over the barrier up above, Jayden quickly and expertly searched the body. He found nothing but a gun and some body armour, but then he noticed that Aunty was putting in a comms call to someone, probably local enforcers. He decided to strip the body and began piling loot onto the stall’s counter – a gun, a 100 nuyen cred stick, some body armour. Seeing what he was doing, Aunty canceled her call and came over to him, yelling that he would pay for this and he better have enough money. He kept looting the body until he had assembled about 1200 nuyen of resalable booty, at which point she patted him on the shoulder and told him what a good young man he was.

It was then that Jayden saw the body had a red hand tattoo on its back. The same tattoo as Fay, who had somehow managed to make herself scarce during the fight. Was this a trap? He asked Aunty about the tattoo and she told him this man was a member of a gang that had been causing a bit of trouble recently, and they had got in a fight with a black man a short while ago. Two black men in one day! She was going to steer clear of their like from now on, it’s bad enough that you see one black man getting in a gunfight, let alone having another fall out of the sky into your shop. No offense, of course.

That barghest took my baby!

None taken. They dumped the body and headed in the direction of the fight, now keeping a wary eye out for Fay. Their path led them through an alleyway where they were attacked by a Barghest, but they managed to scare it off without anyone getting hurt, and continued on their way to the location of the gunfight. This turned out to be the entrance of a disused railway station, Trimanifest Field, on the old Awakening Line that had been closed before its maiden run because of intense mana disruptions at some parts of the line. Not the best place to go unprepared, but what can you do? In any case they would not be fully unprepared – Adam could reconnoitre without showing himself at all. He sat down in the shadow of an old advertising hoarding and slid off into Astral space.

When he returned he had all the information they needed. There was an escalator down to the platform, which was lined with transparent plastiglass walls to stop people falling on the tracks, and on that platform were five mundane people, four of whom might perhaps be attempting to kill the fifth. If they got down there quickly they might find that fifth man was Anansie – and what better time to negotiate an improved protection deal than when your potential employer most needs you? They sneaked down the stairs.

The sneaking did not go so well, and by the time Jayden reached the platform they knew he and John were there, though they missed Adam. While Adam and John hung back on the disused escalator Jayden stepped forward to try and negotiate. There were four men visible on the first half of the platform – three humans and a big, nasty looking orc. As they emerged Jayden noticed the orc finish snorting something from a capsule and drop it on the ground – combat drugs. All of them had a wild, twitchy look, the kind of look gangbangers get when they’ve been going hard on the cram. Not the most reasonable people to negotiate with, but still. Adam tried asking them what they were doing and if they had his employer bailed up at the far end of the platform but they refused to talk, telling him instead that he had better go. Things just got worse from there, and before they really had time to make a plan Adam was hurling a manaball down the platform, and the orc was throwing a grenade back at them.

The manaball wreaked havoc on three of the men, and Jayden was able to scoop up the grenade and boot it back down the platform in a smooth footy move before entering melee with a stunned ganger. The orc had to clear out of the blast zone and scuttled straight into battle with Jayden, while the remaining two guards tried to shoot down John and Adam. One hit Adam, who ducked out of sight to heal himself, but the battle didn’t go so well for the others after that. Jayden cut the orc down and John blew away one of the other gangers, and nearly killed a third before they finally surrendered. They dragged them down the platform away from the body of the orc and started asking pointed questions. What was the red hand? Why were they after Anansie? Where was Anansie? The gangers spluttered and blabbered, and told their story …




Standing at the limit of an endless ocean
Stranded like a runaway, lost at sea
City on a rainy day down in the harbour
Watching as the grey clouds shadow the bay
Looking everywhere ’cause I had to find you
This is not the way that I remember it here
Anyone will tell you its a prisoner island
Hidden in the summer for a million years

Things have not gone well for Australia’s Aborigines in the 70 years since the apology. Not because the government did or didn’t do what they had to do but because in the years that followed Australia became a banana republic. The world moved on from the oil age, and by 2077 Australia was a relic of a bygone era, a nation of miners and farmers in a world of virtual business and infinite energy. Successive governments, held in thrall to the big resource companies, rich farmers and an agrarian socialist rump, consistently missed the chance to seize on the enormous wealth of the Lucky Country: they missed the solar boom that made energy virtually free for everyone; they missed the asteroid mining industry that jump started a new decade of economic expansion but left terrestrial resource economies staggering in their own dust; they missed the chance to profit from the growth of offshore arcologies and the new Green Revolution. By 2077 the nation had been reduced to a corrupt kleptocracy, a rump of hard scrabble miners and farmers in the interior scraping by where and how they could in the wreckage of the resource economy, while on the coasts a cheap service industry bloomed around elite corporate arcologies and gated holiday homes while the advanced industry of the early millenium moved offshore and disappeared. Cities crumbled, migration slowed, the smartest young people left, and Australia floundered, a land of 1950s ideas squatting in the shadow of 2050s neon.

Then came the Awakening, when the ancient spirits of the world’s First Nations were ripped from their aeons of slumber and returned to the earth. The Awakening rolled over Australia’s Aboriginal people like a wave of enlightenment, affecting them more perhaps than any other indigenous community. Everyone and their Aunty knew someone who had discovered new powers, and the old tribes found themselves surrounded by powers and spirits they had not known since the Dreamtime. It was pure, too, in a way that signified some ancient difference in this ancient people: While the Awakening tore through the bodies of white people on the coasts, ripping them apart and reconstituting them as Orcs, Trolls and Elves, almost no Aboriginal person Awoke as a metahuman. Instead they just … Awoke. Shamans, mages, adepts … every tribe and family suddenly found themselves suffused with the knowledge of the Dreamtime, and the spirits of that time walked the deserts and scrublands where once stockmen and mining companies had their way.

Jayden Roose Awoke in this time, and found answers to questions that had always bothered him. Jayden was a knockabout man, a typical country bloke making his way in this new rough and ready world. He left school … sometime back then … and since then has worked where and how he can: driving cars and trucks for mining companies, helicopters on the big stations, pearl diving in the summer and sometimes working as a tourist guide or a hunter when times were lean. He worked offshore at the crumbling, rusting gas rigs, and then in the dry season moved to Darwin to work as a security guard at clubs and brothels, sometimes mixing in with gangsters or providing private security to the shadier visitors to that wild northern city. Over time he became better at these security jobs, an almost supernatural sense of danger working to protect him even in gangland ambushes or when tense negotiations went wrong. He also found a natural affinity for working with knives, and despite only peripheral involvement with criminal gangs and martial arts teachers across the Top End he found himself an expert in knife fighting, faster and deadlier than almost any non-augmented man around him, even people with many years’ more combat experience. People put it down to his natural affinity as a sporstman, but he was never sure.

In between his knockabout jobs Jayden returned to his tribal home in an inland town, and in those long months of furloughed time he would play a lot of footy. Here too he excelled compared to his peers – people wondered how he could leap so high for the marks, and why he was never seriously hurt no matter how hard the collisions or how vicious the tackle. With his almost prescient ability to judge others’ movement, his seeming immunity to damage, and his powerful leaps, he soon became a valued player in the wild scrubland melees of local pick-up footy matches, and in the local league that his team routinely topped. People said he was just a natural … but he always wondered. And then he Awoke, and discovered that he was an Adept, some kind of spirit-walker who had always had some connection to a deeper well of spiritual power, something he never felt or believed but suddenly understood fully and could use to his advantage. Suddenly he understood how his life had been blessed with the foreshadowing of this power, and he also realized that he had been guided in his travels, to some extent, by a mentor spirit. Wherever he traveled he was never too far from that symbolic Northern bird, the Wedge-tailed Eagle, and now he understood that that feeling of assured confidence he had walked with was not just his own youthful arrogance, but a greater power that had selected him to watch over. His sixth sense for danger, his ability to dodge that backstab or that unexpected kick, to duck just when that man opened fire as the drug deal turned south … it wasn’t just luck, or a steely eye – something soared above him, and in those moments he saw everything around him as if from a great height, through steely predator’s eyes. He was blessed with the mentor spirit of the wild raptors of the North, walking on ground newly sacred, bearing an ancient power in his long black limbs.

This ancient power that Awoke in the Red Centre soon began to tear Australia apart. The spirits of the Dreamtime were back and many of them were angry. Australia’s sclerotic political system, so insufficient for the task of grappling with the 21st century, was completely incapable of dealing with the Sixth World. Connections between states and cities frayed, long-standing political truces collapsed, and the distant lands of the Top End and the far west began to spin away from central control. The lands that Jayden knew from his youth reverted to a wilder, more primal state, and his people began to return – many against their will – to a way of life that some had long pined for, and just as many had forgotten. For Jayden, part of his tribe but not close to it, used to wandering the byways of both tribal and corporate culture, it was all too much. He took one more journey, and this time he ended up in New Horizon, watched over now by the city’s sea eagles, hungry for work, dislocated and looking for new things. New adventures in the shadows now not of a crumbling colony, but a collapsing megalopolis…

Jayden is an unprepossessing man. Simply dressed, with dark skin and the typical wide, cheerful facial features of an Aboriginal man, he looks like nothing special or especially imposing. He moves with a certain unaffected grace, and acts with the confidence of a man who knows he can get out of any spot no matter how tight, but years of rough work and rough sleeping have cleansed him of any belief that he is special or unique or that any great fate awaits him. He is uneducated, simple, rough and pure: what he wants to do he does, and he associates only with people he cares about. He has little care for money and few ideals, though he will not do anything especially criminal or immoral unless the target of his wrath is another, worse criminal. He wears rough jeans and simple linen or cotton collared shirts, usually under a stockman’s coat that is old, dusty and lined with kevlar. He carries a wicked knife that has carried him through many fights, and somewhere inside that coat a plain pistol with no pretensions to grandeur or any kind of Street Samurai heritage – but which has seen more than its share of blood spilled. Laconic, relaxed and simple, his manner puts those around him at ease quickly, and his relaxed, easy style and languid grace hide a deadly seriousness of purpose when the fighting starts. Why be a man of many words, when a few strokes of the knife can tell the whole story? And why waste words on strangers, when a warm smile and an easy hand can smooth over any awkwardness? With this unpretentious and uncomplicated style, Jayden will make a new life in New Horizon – or die trying.

The odds rising ...

She said

Do you remember a time when angels
Do you remember a time when fear
In the days when I was stronger
In the days when you were here

She said
When days had no beginning
While days had no end when
Shadows grew no longer I
Knew no other friend but you
Were wild
You were wild…..

Date: December 3rd, 2177

Weather: Rainy

Outfit: Exalta rags. What do you wear for the end of the world? It turns out I didn’t have much choice, because the end of the world happened in a hard-scrabble cult base out in the crash zone and we had to get away in a hurry when the Goliath ships started falling out of the sky. Once we got clear and found somewhere to rest, all we had that wasn’t combat armour was a bunch of these white robes that the Children of Exalta wore at their suicide party. I think I gathered them together when we arrived at the base, before we realized we weren’t going to be needing disguises, and now I’m sitting here on this hillside watching the end of the world and trying not to cry about our lost Ghost. Unless you’re a weirdo in white robes you don’t really think about the end of the world, do you? But if I had put a moment’s time to it, I wouldn’t have imagined it would be so … muscular … and visceral. It’s a pretty amazing thing to watch but I guess we’ll be lighting out of here soon before the storm heads this way. Now I see what we have done, these robes feel more like a funeral shroud than a real outfit; but I guess they’re the most fitting uniform for whatever new world is going to come raging out of that spreading storm …

Mood: Distraught, and surprised at my tears. I lost two ghosts today – Ghost disappeared, and my Russian ghost flew away somewhere, I guess into that storm. I thought I would kill anyone who tried to take my ghost from me, but toward the end I could feel myself slipping away into some dark, scary place, and I couldn’t stop her, so I’m relieved that the storm took her. Amazed, even, because I couldn’t stop crying when we lost Ghost. I haven’t cried since … that day … the day I turned my back on being that weak girl… but these tears didn’t feel weak. Something happened to me when my ghost flew away, and Ghost disappeared. I lost a terrible weight and gained a terrible fear – the fear of losing my friends.

The cost: Ghost. Ghost was an annoying man at times and sometimes he was crazy incompetent but most of the time he was a perfect battle-hacker. With him behind us we always had perfect control of the battle space – not just knowing where our enemies were and protected from their hacking, but Ghost could always tell us what was incoming, what secrets they were hiding, sometimes it was like he knew what they were thinking. So many times the biggest bad guy got slowed down or stopped by Ghost’s cyber-hacking, so we had time to get to safety or switch tactics. When you go into a battle with Ghost behind you you know you’ll come out okay. But this time he never did. Something happened in there and now he’s gone, consumed by that thing. We got his body out but we can’t find any injuries or any sign of why he died. What happened in there?

News: The war came to its head, not that it matters now. Arasaka lifted up a piece of Tokyo – that’s right, Tokyo – and flew it over New Horizon, then started bombarding the city from orbit, dropping huge numbers of soldiers in there. That piece of Tokyo is like a giant spaceship maybe 5 km long, just hanging up there in orbit and blocking out the sun. By the time we came back from Alt’s place Goliath had given up the battle to hold New Horizon and fled into space, giving a pretty good light show as they fought off the Arasaka raiders and tried to make it out. Some must have, because they came storming back to the crash zone when they realized they still had a chance to grab the MACNIC. Pops and Coyote are sure that the battle for New Horizon and all the fooling around in the high council were all about Arasaka and Goliath trying to get control of the MACNIC, and Goliath’s control of New Horizon really started to slip after Sam stole the MACNIC from that deep pit. We don’t know how much Arasaka and Goliath knew about the real power of the MACNIC but I guess Goliath knew a lot since they were doing the experiments. Anyway all that news is like cave paintings from a distant era, or those weird tapes you get from early in the Oil Age. Old news. Dead news. We made a new world, and everything that happened in the old one is just cute stories now… Except for the fairy stories. They’ve become real.

We spent about 5 days in Alt’s lair after we brought her Sam. Her assistant Ling told us to wait there, make ourselves comfortable, and then we’d get our reward when Alt’s preparations were ready. We weren’t too happy about that but when we saw the chaos that Arasaka was unleashing over in our old home we figured there were worse places to be. We mooched around, watching the war in a state of continuing shock and eating too much and playing cards with some of Alt’s more human mercenaries. Many of her mercs have now gone through complete body transformations – real transhumanist stuff – so they look almost completely like a bad genetic experiment from an old movie. There are men with lizard legs and skin made entirely of scales, and this guy who’s boosted up his body size and got himself some weird feet and horns, so he looks like some kind of bull-human cross. Coyote calls him “the Minotaur” but Pops insists on calling him “that Cretin” and laughing at some kind of joke he says is about geography and English, which are two like completely incomprehensible and pointless things especially if you come from a time so ancient that people still thought the earth was flat. Coyote likes the Minotaur of course, because it’s a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a facial tattoo, must be in want of an ugly friend.

But even Minotaurs get boring after a few days and we were going stir crazy by the time we finally got word that Alt was going to give us our prize. Back when we cut this deal with Alt, at the Fae Ling Moon concert she gate crashed, she promised us “everything we want”, and we were really looking forward to her delivering on that promise. We were thinking a little canton in the Crash Zone, lots of money and weapons, and a small team of dedicated mercenaries to keep us safe, a real base to operate from. What we really got was so much more – and so, so much less. We were herded into this little conference room and given bottles of water and we waited like an hour and then in came Ling looking decidedly moody – not hard to do when you’ve redesigned yourself to look like a fairy soldier from a Gucci advert – and then in came a couple of her broodiest lizard-modified soldiers, and then in she came, wearing a body that looked a lot like it might have been Sam’s though it was a bit older and more worn looking so maybe it was some other random girl she tricked into her cult. We were all a bit too impatient to care about her current choice of sleeve though, and she seemed pretty distracted so the pleasantries were pretty minimal. We asked her about our reward and then she laid out this ridiculous sales pitch that turned our longed-for payday into a great big moment of digital daylight robbery:

As you can see this place we’re hiding in is a spaceport, and in fact I have prepared a spaceship to leave in the next 24 hours. My most loyal followers will join me on that spaceship, which will take us on a slow journey out of the solar system. That spaceship has the most powerful computers and the most advanced systems ever developed. Once my followers and I are in orbit we will upload our consciousnesses into the computer core of the ship, permanently forsaking our physical bodies. Within that computer system there are infinite worlds, perfectly realized, fully populated and constructed. Within those worlds you will be able to live infinite lives simultaneously, and to have anything you ever wanted. You can be kings, peasants, emperors, gods, wizards, beasts or even the wild west wind if you so choose. There is nothing that you will want for, and you can take anything and everything your hearts desire…

She paused her little speech to check something, probably digitally counter-signing transsubstantiation forms or some silly idleness, and she was so distracted that she didn’t notice Coyote’s face getting real dark with his no-I-ain’t-gonna-deal expression, and Pops clenching his fist on the table so hard he looked like he was going to rip it apart. Ghost was looking at Alt like she was a dead rotting goldfish, and the mood in the room was going sour real fast but Alt was off in her little digital world so she didn’t really notice or care. Ling sure noticed but he didn’t seem particularly fussed. I guess he had some faith in our common sense and willingness not to cause trouble which is maybe a little bit more faith than he should have, but fortunately everyone held their temper until Alt came back to us and finished her little space-elevator pitch:

When we met at that awful concert I promised you your hearts desires. When you join me in the digital world I have created, you will have everything you wish for, and will realize dreams you never knew you had.

She looked around at us all, the way the smart new merc does when he thinks he’s made a suggestion none of the veterans have heard before, and already seen come to its bitter bloody end a thousand times.

Needless to say our answer was no. There was a bit of angry backchat but she didn’t care; after a few minutes she left looking confused at why we would refuse her offer. Ling wasn’t confused at all though – he knew exactly why we were angry, but he was in a very conciliatory mood. After her guards left he stopped in the doorway, turned to us and said

Don’t worry my friends, you’re not the only ones disappointed at this turn of events. But some of us can still profit. Tomorrow when the mad queen launches, we will gather to watch and I’ll make you an offer that’s not perhaps as rich as hers, but infinitely more realistic. I think you’ll like it. I’ll send for you.

And then off he went, leaving us fuming in the room and feeling cheated. All those free missions, all those near-deaths, all those people we killed (we didn’t really count, but it was a lot …), all the trouble we went to, and here we are left with nothing but digital smoke and mirrors just as the city we’ve known and lived in is being pounded to rubble by an insane Japanese grandpa, and we’ve got nowhere to go and nothing to show for all our work.

It’s enough to make you want to destroy everything Alt built and everything we fought for …

So we bummed around another day, slobbing in the mess room with the animal-men and doing a bit of light training and spending a lot of time watching TV and marveling at the savagery of the battle happening just a few hours away around New Horizon. Ghost spent a lot of time in the Husk, being boring and ignoring everyone, and Coyote spent a lot of time down in the bowels of the place, checking out the gear that Alt no longer needed and that Ling was now rapidly shipping out. Our reward was looking less and less lucrative, but we were unarmed and surrounded by monsters, so all we could do was wait for this charade to play itself out so we could leave. Late the following afternoon, with the sun beginning to set and promising a glorious sunset through the haze of smoke that now covered the entire region, Ling came to get us. First we had to sit through this interminable ceremony outside in the centre of the space base, all of us lined up and looking at this fat ugly rocket that Alt had somehow managed to set up here. People filed into the rocket from the base itself through a glass tunnel – first some of Alt’s guards and followers, then a solemn procession of blank-faced people in stern-looking white robes, then a kind of cryogenic vat thing that held a seriously broken, warped body in some kind of stasis. Murmurs arose from the crowd, and we guessed this was Alt’s original body. Some more white-faced people walked past and then Alt came out in that same Sam-body to wave goodbye to us. There was no sign of Sam, but we weren’t surprised – we didn’t expect her to make it out of whatever Alt had done to her, though we guessed something of her must be left over to power whatever permanent transsubstantiation Alt had in mind. Everyone cheered Alt, and then she ducked inside the rocket. It was a kind of anti-climactic end to the reign of the first human being ever to be able to permanently transcend their meat sleeve, but I guess in times of war there isn’t a lot of ceremony to go around. Ling hustled us away to a waiting AV, and took us up to a nearby ridge, maybe a couple of kilometres away from the base, along with a bunch of his closest soldiers. He laid out some champagne and snacks and from out of nowhere two lissome girls appeared carrying trays of canapes like we were at a high society party. Then we all sat around on picnic blankets and watched as Alt’s rocket took off. Ling seemed to be very very happy to see her go, so maybe he had been jilted the same way, who knows? He was very free with the champagne and those two girls had to get increasingly lissome to avoid his attentions. But he kept an eye firmly fixed on that rocket, like he was worried Alt might pop out again and say “surprise! You’re not the boss yet!”

She didn’t. As we watched the rocket began to lift off – first on anti-gravity field effectors until it was clear of the base, then huge rockets engaged and it started moving slowly, majestically towards the stars. Ling and his men began to cheer as it sped up towards the distant sky. It was a perfect moment at the end of a balmy day, the sky arching over us like a great big blue pearl, turning darker and darker as the sun set. The rim of the horizon was flaming red with all the colours of war, and the rocket trail stretched out through the middle of it all like a needle of white, spearing up into the heavens with that perfect pure shape that rocket trails have. Over in the near distance, just East of the rocket, we could see the huge spire of New Horizon, a dark lump against the paler sky, flickering occasionally with the flashes of war, and over it that looming hulking ship, floating up near orbit but still visible even from this distance. There must have been millions of people living in that thing even as it was raining fire down on the untold millions trapped in New Horizon.

There weren’t many souls in Alt’s rocket at all, which I guess is why the floating Tokyo didn’t spare much thought to swatting it down. It happened in the blink of an eye: one moment Alt’s ship was soaring free and brilliant into the heavens, then the Arasaka ship moved just slightly, some kind of light opened up on its bow, and a moment later the rocket exploded. There was a brief flash and then debris started pirrhouetting out and down, four big arcs of dirty grey smoke and fire and then a cascade of smaller, paler smoke trails. After a couple of seconds the boom of the explosion hit us, and then a couple of seconds after that everyone on the ridge started reacting. Initial stunned gasps turned to yells of outrage, surprise, fear, soldiers’ curses. We all looked at each other in shock – everyone except Ghost, who was just leaning back on his picnic rug, looking kind of smug.

“I guess Alt wasn’t such a big deal after all,” he said with a shrug, and started cleaning up his strawberry stalks.

And that’s how Alt’s eternal empire died, in a flash of Arasaka side-eye and a picnic that ended early.

Good thing we didn’t take her offer, I guess … Ling hustled us off the hill, probably worried Arasaka was going to turn its attention on our base, but he didn’t need to worry. We got back to the base fine and there was no sign of any trouble, so Ling took us aside and made his offer. He was incontrovertibly the boss of all Alt’s stuff now, and he didn’t intend on retiring. He was going to be setting up as a mercenary captain working all Alt’s contacts, and he wanted effective senior mercs he could trust – if we joined him he’d pay well and we’d get the best jobs. How about it?

Of course we said no. Coyote and Pops were pretty belligerent, doing their ugly-cop/bad-cop routine, and eventually we managed to screw a bit of recompense out of Ling in exchange for a promise to do freelance contract jobs for him. He gave us a Blackbird, a beautiful sleek black attack AV, fully armoured and ready to use; some heavy weapons; a bunch of ordinary ammo; new armour; and some cash. Over the week we’d already received one piece of goodwill: we’d all received some treatments in Alt’s biolabs to get physical enhancements like strength, speed, and accuracy, and now he gave us the weapons we could use to make the most of it. He seemed disappointed we weren’t joining him but not surprised, and promised us he’d be in touch with more work. We thanked him for his kindness, cursed Alt for short-changing us so spectacularly, and got out of there as fast as we could.

Not enough

Not enough

To the Stone

Now we’d lost everything to Alt’s arrogance, and wasted Sam’s life for nothing, we were really agitated. We wanted to know what was going on with this MACNIC, and why it had been so crucial to Sam. If Sam could help Alt go eternal without it, what was she trying to do with it? We knew that Coyote’s dad had been involved in the research on the stone originally, and we knew that he had joined the Children of Exalta; we had a transponder we took from Sam’s friend Theo after I shot him in the head. Ghost had been hacking the transponder and told us he had found a hit, but it turned out he was being deceived. We followed his ping but it didn’t lead us to the Children of Exalta – it led us to the MACNIC. Our new battle AV had a code that would enable us to pass through Arasaka checkpoints provided we were careful, so we sped back to New Horizon, following the ping that Ghost told us was to the Exalta hideout. Ghost only told us later that he had some kind of deal with Sam[1], and maybe some part of her inside him, and she was leading him not to the Children of Exalta but to the MACNIC, which was lost somewhere in New Horizon – Senntech had taken it from the Oil Rig but got caught up in the war and lost it in the rubble of the Pits in New Horizon.

Pops had started calling the MACNIC the “Magic Stone”, because it obviously did weird stuff. We knew that if you feed energy into it it multiplies that energy and projects it back out, and we knew it was somehow crucial to the production of Ghostchalk, which means that it must do something to human minds. We guessed it was crucial to whatever Goliath was doing with Full Body Replacement Cyborgs – that much cyberware should cause a human to go insane but somehow the Goliath FBRs didn’t go crazy – until Goliath lost the stone to Sam, and then Arasaka was able to fight back against its FBRs. Pops wanted to find that stone and find a way to destroy it before Arasaka got hold of it, or Goliath got it back. So when Ghost revealed that the devastated area of rubble and ruin we were entering was not the Children of Exalta’s playground, but a battle zone where Goliath and Arasaka were fighting for the stone, we were all surprisingly relaxed about it.

Except Coyote, who really didn’t want to throw his life away on a reckless mission to find a magic stone. He was mighty mad, but he still set the Blackbird down in the shadow of a wrecked building and disembarked with us. Ghost went into the Husk and gave us the layout, like he always does. The stone was resting in the centre of a crater perhaps 150 metres from our Blackbird. The area around the crater was a mess of trashed buildings and rubble. A bunch of Arasaka soldiers were in the crater, guarding some engineers who were trying to get to the stone; on the perimeter was their leader, some kind of bigshot soldier in samurai-style power armour, and an ACPA, a type of small Mecha. Pops, who now had a rail gun courtesy of Ling’s generosity, and one of the anti-grav harnesses we stole from the Children of Exalta in the Crash Zone, climbed into the nearest building, took a position with a view of the crater and the ACPA, accompanied by one of Coyote’s robodogs. The rest of us found a tunnel that led through the rubble to a trench near the crater, and carefully surveyed the surroundings: 6 soldiers, a bunch of combat engineers, the samurai dude, the ACPA, and an Arasaka FBR camouflaged in the rubble, running a complex hacking routine on the entire area through the husk. The presence of that FBR with its super-powerful cyberdeck meant we had to switch off all our wi-fi connections and communicate only with radio.

Which is why, I guess, the ACPA saw Pops before we had a plan ready. Maybe he was yelling into his radio like an old man with a phone. Maybe his cyberleg dinged clumsily on a piece of rubble. Maybe he let out one of his outrageous old man burps. Whatever the reason, it lifted off from its guard position and headed towards Pops’s nest. He shot it with his rail gun but didn’t hurt it (didn’t hurt it!!!), and then it opened fire on him with the biggest machine gun you’ve ever seen, that it was toting around like it was a handbag. I popped up and shot it in the back of the head with my pastel blue nomad rifle, which didn’t really even dent it but at least distracted it, and then all hell broke loose. Pops had to wait a few seconds for his gun to recharge, during which time the ACPA opened fire again – fortunately the robodog with Pops jumped in the way, nearly getting blown apart by that gun. Then Pops decided to do us all a favour and, ignoring that ACPA, he shot the rail gun straight into the magic stone where it rested in the centre of the crater.

The resulting explosion killed all the soldiers and combat engineers, and knocked down the Samurai leader. It also scrambled everyone, because suddenly we had strange visions and nightmares screaming in our heads. Pops was yelling something about his wife and daughter, Coyote was screaming about war and chaos, and my Russian ghost was scrambling to come out, whispering to me about love and hatred and getting that stone. I slipped out of the trench to look for the Samurai leader but he was nowhere to be seen, and neither was the FBR. Everyone else was dead or screaming, so me and Ghost rushed for the crater. Coyote decided our efforts would be wasted if we couldn’t lift the stone, and headed back to charge up the Blackbird, unable to call it remotely while the FBR was floating around hacking everything. Pops dropped down from the building and started sprinting for the crater – no one could see the ACPA, we figured its pilot had got the same crazy signals as us and would be down for a few seconds.

When the entire world is screaming chaos, you take the chances you can get.

I got to the crater first, and found the stone sitting there in clear view, glowing red hot with the heat of the explosion, steaming with this fluid that had been dripping off it and was now vaporizing from the heat. It was surrounded by the wrecked bodies of unarmoured combat engineers and their mangled linear frames. I took position nearby, keeping cover for Ghost as he came running in. The stone was cooling off rapidly, but it was still too hot for me to lift and anyway I’m more useful shooting. I had to keep fighting off this desperate urge to just grab it and run, but I waited, and when Ghost got close we picked it up and moved it into cover, in the shelter of a kind of pipe that was protruding from the edge of the crater. We could feel rumblings in the ground around us, like the explosion from the MACNIC had somehow weakened the superstructure of this part of New Horizon, so fleeing through the complex wreckage of the level under the crater was not a wise plan – we just had to wait for Coyote to come back with the Blackbird.

By now my Russian ghost was clamouring to come out, she really wanted to be part of the stone’s world, she was humming for blood. I couldn’t keep her down but I don’t like letting her come out in full, she’s too terrifying and I always worry if I let her out unchecked I won’t come back. But I couldn’t stop her slipping out, fingers around my neck like a sinister lover, the pulse of her rage making my finger twitch on the trigger of my rifle.

That’s when the Samurai decided to come back. I noticed some falling scree and stepped out to check, and that Samurai fell down right in front of me, just a blur because it was in some kind of super fancy cloaking. Of course my ghost saved me, flicking my head sideways just as his monokatana struck past me, slowing everything down just enough so I could see where the blur of his cloaked body shaded the rubble background a little. I didn’t have time to get my own katana out but he was at point blank range, so I opened fire, releasing a whole clip into him. That ended the cloaking but it didn’t slow him down. It also released the ghost completely, and when I came back to reality the Samurai was sprawling at the top of the slope, my monokatana in my hand and Ghost lying dead in front of me.

I guess Ghost is used to psychotic allies, because when I bent down to say sorry and kiss him goodbye I realized he wasn’t dead, just in husk mode. I had definitely cut him – I could see it on his armour – but he must have been going into husk mode when I hit him and my ghost thought he was dead and released me from her grip when she thought all her enemies were dead. There was a psychotic rage singing in my ears, that ghost was still there subdued inside me but singing a song of rage and blood as I watched the samurai sliding slowly down the crater rim, gripping weakly at rocks and exposed metal to try and get some purchase so he could crawl away. I’d obviously wrecked his legs so he couldn’t run properly, and the stone’s explosion was making the crater subside so that the rubble stopped him struggling away. It was kind of desperate and pathetic, watching him try to struggle away like that.

I shot him in the back.

Then I heard the distinctive boom of the rail gun followed by the heavy chatter of Pops’s assault rifle, and I was raising my own rifle for a last desperate defense against the ACPA when Pops came whooping and hollering over the intercom. “I got it!” he yelled. There was a lurch as a part of the lower level of the superstructure gave way and the entire crater base sagged to one side, nearly knocking me down. Pops was breathless with running and shooting, still some distance away. “Rail gun nearly did it … full clip … unloaded … in the face haha! Then another rail gun.” He was  chattering happily like he was a teenager who’d just been to his first Fae Ling Moon concert, but I understood his excitement. I bet under that helmet he had the same smug expression Ghost wore when he watched Alt’s ship fall out of the sky. I know that feeling too well.

My ghost was still singing to me of that feeling as the Blackbird hoved into view moments later. We piled on quickly, Ghost back out of Husk mode and yelling about all kinds of impending mischief. As we took off the crater lurched some more and we were suddenly being thrown around inside like a washing machine, but we held on and then we were out, rocketing away towards Pops’s position while Ghost and Coyote both yelled about something on the outside of the ship – the FBR, locked onto us.

I slipped out the back, and while the Blackbird was careening across the rubble I let my ghost out again, she was so close to me now that I didn’t really have to do anything, just sigh and out she came, and when I came back to reality the FBR was scuttling away across the rubble and I was on top of Pops, my monokatana millimetres away from his helmet and his voice urgent in my intercom. “Drew, come back Drew, Drew! It’s me, Pops!” Ghost was yelling about more ACPAs and the FBR was done for – Pops had smashed it in the head with his cyberleg and I had cut it fiercely – and I was gasping and so tired, so we hauled into the Blackbird and then Coyote was off. We locked ourselves in and endured a couple of minutes of wild, crazy flying as Coyote gave the pursuing ACPAs the slip, but I was just lying there in my crashseat exhausted and beat while Pops and Ghost both stared suspiciously at the stone, which sat glowing a faint, malevolent blue in the middle of our AV.

We had it.

What Sam never did

What Sam never did

The Children of Exalta

And the mist will wrap around us
And the crystal, if you touch it…
And the cares I’ve lost in the drift
Are there
Theirs, ours, lost in the drift
Driven together
And driven

Once we had it we realized we really needed to be rid of it. The stupid stone sang to us all the time, telling us stories about what we could be or what we were or what we weren’t or giving us visions of things that had been. I really don’t like visions of times past, a lot of people died to stop me seeing visions of times past and I don’t need some stupid stone making me see those people again. Ghost was constantly on edge from the thing and Coyote’s face tattoos were flickering like some kind of fireworks show whenever he got too close to the thing. Coyote’s ugly enough on a good day, let alone when he has a pageant of crass aesthetic faux pas lighting up what passes for a face on the front of his thick skull. That stone had to go. We had originally thought we might be able to destroy it but after Pops’s railgun shot just made it mad we decided there wasn’t much we could do with it. Time to make it someone else’s problem.

Now that we had the stone nothing was trying to stop us going to the Children of Exalta. Whatever voice had been driving Ghost to get to the stone no longer plagued him, so now he could lead us directly to the Children of Exalta. We had to flee from the New Horizon pits before Arasaka realized where we had been, and we figured if we stayed in any one place for more than a few minutes they would trace us, so we took the fastest route we could for the transponder that Ghost had hacked. We got there without incident, because there seemed to be another battle going on between Goliath and Arasaka, maybe a last ditch defense by Goliath, with lots of AV combat happening in the direction of New Horizon as we left. The Children of Exalta were hiding out in a distant part of the Crash Zone, just a few hours’ flight in the Blackbird, in a kind of dome they had made of old trash and ruined bits of other buildings, the kind of rough concoction you see scattered around the Crash Zone wherever a bunch of poor outsiders have decided to make a last stand. We go there first, but when we got near we realized that they weren’t alone. There was a small swarm of Goliath and Arasaka ships fighting there way towards the same place, though they were further away than us. Whatever this stone signified, everyone was converging on it and as long as we held it we were going to be the centre of destruction.

We got there first, by a decent margin, probably because we weren’t being shot at by a million fighter ships. The Children of Exalta had found a crater right back in the epicentre of the Crash Zone, where the first fusion reactors had gone critical during the original collapse of Exalta. This was the exact place, we realized that we had once been asked to do a raid on by the nice men who gave me the beautiful grey gown when they helped me escape from Goliath police. Those men were looking for the true head of the Children of Exalta, who was said to be hiding out here with a machine called ANITA so powerful it might hold a fragment of Exalta.

Now we know why they wanted that machine, and why the Children of Exalta had it. And we were bringing them the stone. But as we sat there looking out of our AV screens at the distant destruction raining around New Horizon, destroying everything we knew and probably many of the people we knew, we weren’t really too worried about the consequences of giving away the stone. So long as we could get away ourselves. We were also starting to get angry, very angry, as we realized that all these people all along had been doing all these terrible things just to get to this stupid stone. Alt had used us to get Sam who was using these Children of Exalta to get the stone, and Arasaka had destroyed New Horizon to find it, while Goliath had tortured so many people to use it, and probably the men who rescued me from Goliath had been manipulating us from the start to find this stone, and all along we had just been trying to make a living like honest killers. It’s not like we ask a lot of questions about who we kill or why, but there’s a level of professional honesty you expect from the people around you and your employers and we had been lied to by everyone and anyone since we got caught up in this stupid quest.

We got even madder when we arrived at the centre of the Children of Exalta’s base and found out that their boss was Coyote’s dad.

Getting there was easy. We just flew the Blackbird into the base, through a series of ever-narrower tunnels into an AV dock. We got out, put the stone on an AV trolley and pushed it down some corridors, following a series of lights set into the ceiling that were obviously guiding us, flashing red and blue, towards the centre of the dome. As we walked, people gathered behind us, whispering about how we were the saviours – the same whispers we had heard on the oil rig during the killing. We ignored them, and pushed the stone through the corridors until we emerged into a large amphitheatre in what was obviously the centre of the dome. This was a big open half-circle, but the stage was covered in a huge electrical structure, a big bank of computers and wiring and machinery that centred on a large machine, vaguely humanoid in shape, that had a big hole in the middle just large enough for the stone to be put in it. The Children of Exalta, in their white gowns, were gathering in the bleachers, hundreds of them milling about and watching as we emerged at the top of the steps. They were filing in, talking and whispering and gathering. It looked like some parts of the room had been turned into accomodation, there were rugs and makeshift cooking equipment and groups of people in white gowns who had their belongings with them, probably runaways from New Horizon. The throng grew rapidly as we advanced down the stairs into the amphitheatre. When we got halfway a group of men emerged onto the stage, and we stopped walking. These men were wearing white hoods and cloaks too, except the one in the middle who wore a strange face mask and a black outfit with neon blue stripes down it. This was Blue, the supposed leader of the Children of Exalta, who we had once considered killing. Looking at him now he seemed like he’d be pretty easy to ice, but that wasn’t our job here – our job was to just sort out what was happening and leave.

That’s when Blue took off the mask to welcome us, and we discovered he was Coyote’s dad. Then the guy next to him took off his hood to reveal Twitch, the oily little mincing street-dealer who had arranged for us all to come together as a team in the first place. I felt Pops tense up in anger behind me, and heard Coyote and Ghost gasp in surprise over the comms link, but at that exact moment the family reunion was spoiled by the roof crashing in. Goliath assault capsules smashed through the ceiling, crashing down and splitting open on impact, and through the wreckage of the holes in the roof we suddenly saw Goliath assault ships swooping in. At the same time Arasaka soldiers burst through one door, and a squad of black-clad mercenaries through another.

Everyone started screaming at everyone. From the assault capsules we heard a terrible scream and then they started spilling their deadly cargo: the horrible, misshapen FBRs that Goliath had unleashed on Arasaka troops at the end of the New Horizon war, the same kind of monstrosity that we had encountered in New Haven back when the war started, and had killed in Goliath’s research labs. These things were bred from cyberpsychotic soldiers or something, with no vulnerability to hacking or anything except bullets. We knew what they were here to do: kill everyone in the room.

We started fighting, while everyone screamed at Ghost to get the stone in that machine! Ghost started running, and we started killing, but before we could take down those twisted FBRs a huge, bioengineered monster FBR emerged from the assault capsule, looking like a cybered up super-robot version of the Minotaur Pops had teased back at Alt’s space base. It was huge, and it attacked simply by stomping down on anyone near it. Pops opened fire on it with his machine gun but it just shrugged it off, and kicked him over like a rag doll. It stomped about it so madly that it even crushed one of its own FBR allies, crushing and smashing with reckless abandon. I looked down to see Ghost running up against an FBR, still pushing that stone, and Pops trying madly to roll away from the huge, crushing feet of that monstrosity, Coyote struggling to cut down one of the FBRs with his power sword, his robodog being slowly beaten under by the beast. Arasaka soldiers were in a gunfight with the black-clad mercenaries, while other Arasaka soldiers fanned out to kill the Children of Exalta, who screamed and ran about, unarmed and helpless. In the skies above, Arasaka and Goliath ships were doing battle, oily smoke and flames rolling across the fractured blue of the distant sky. Now was our moment, and it was hopeless. We were done for.

I felt her howling down inside me. This was her moment, her time to redeem me. She sang to me of death and chaos. I could dance through this room creating such a storm of blood and lost souls …

I let her out, my hungry ghost.

Drew at the end

The Awakening

I hear the roar of a big machine
Two worlds and in between
Hot metal and methedrine
I hear empire down

We got the empire, now as then,
We don’t doubt, we don’t take reflection,
Lucretia, my direction, dance the ghost with me

I heard a voice calling me back urgently, screaming my name. I was standing over the body of the monstrous FBR, covered in blood. All the Children of Exalta were dead, and Pops was looming over me yelling “Get Ghost’s body, we have to GO!” Everyone near the stage was dead and there was a strange keening sound over the intercom. The ceiling was beginning to crack and the stage was suffused with a deep blue glow. Coyote was already running down to the stage, heedless of his father’s broken body dangling over its edge. As I watched it began to move, inching towards the centre of the stage under the pull of some strange gravity. The voices in my head had gone and the ever-closer, ever-louder singing of my Russian ghost was silent, replaced only with Pops’s yelling. Then I saw Ghost, lying some distance from the stage, unconscious or dead on the stairs, and the stone affixed in its place in the machine. Something was stirring on the stage, things were moving, and a voice behind the stage was yelling desperate admonitions.

“NO! NOOOOO! Not thiiiiissss!”

It sounded like a woman’s voice, an ancient and ferocious scream of rage, the rage of every old woman who was ever betrayed and dragged down to the river for trial, every little girl who grows up to find the world isn’t hers to take and enjoy after all, the rage of women who pass their prime and discover that all they have left is to watch men bring everything they had built down to ruin. It was the voice of Exalta thwarted.

I screamed too, at the sight of Ghost’s broken body. Suddenly all this rage and imperial manoeuvring and mysterious secrets dragged up from the depths meant nothing because something tugged at me and said “No! Not Ghost!” It wasn’t the callous hissing of my ghost, eager to see more blood, but some other tired, desperate voice. My voice. I ran.

We got Ghost onto the AV trolley and started dragging him away. Even as we dragged him we could feel the pull of that strange gravity on the stage, that was drawing all the dead people in the room helplessly towards it. The wailing voice subsided, sucked into the hissing light along with Coyote’s dad’s body. Twitch was already gone. Something was moving behind the stage, and when we got to the top of the amphitheatre, free for now from that pull, we looked back and saw shadows starting to accrete behind the machine, things being drawn together and made into something. The first bodies were starting to move into the shadows of the machine and moving in bizarre, disordered puppet-like jerks.

We ran. The glow of the stone intensified, drawing others into it as it grew, sucking the whole dome slowly to ruin. We pushed the trolley with Ghost on it as fast as we could back to the AV and fired it up. As we strapped in we could see parts of the AV dock beginning to fracture and drop. Everything was sucking in towards that distant stone. Coyote took us out through collapsing tunnels at such a pace we thought he might blow the engines, but it was only just enough – as we rocketed out of the Dome exit we could see the entire dome was collapsing in on itself, and the closest Goliath assault ships were falling in too. The whole dome was glowing blue now, and a moment later, as we were barelling away as fast as we could, the entire dome disappeared, became just a burning pool of blue. Then the Goliath battleship and all its fleet, along with all its Arasaka attackers, crashed down into the blue glow. The light flickered and went out, leaving behind it a pile of seething, burning rubble. We were still hurling ourselves away, but Pops and I had our eyes glued on the screen. Something moved in the rubble, then pieces of junk fell aside and two huge, leathery wings burst out of the rubble, stretching out towards the sunlight like a hideous leathery butterfly. More rubble stirred and a huge, battleship-sized beast began to haul itself out of the ruins, leathery wings beating, serpentine claws gripping at huge chunks of stone, lizard’s mouth open and breathing a huge pillar of fire to the sky.

That is how two ghosts died, and a new world was born.


This, obviously, is the end of the campaign. The Awakening-as-ending was conceived by me and the GM from near the beginning as a lead-in from Cyberpunk to Shadowrun, with the idea that we would end it with the Awakening from Shadowrun and segue straight into a Shadowrun campaign, GM’d by me. Unfortunately in the interim people started making sounds about wanting more fantastical gaming, and I started doing my Traveler campaign, so we probably won’t go straight to Shadowrun now – it may go on hold for a little while so we can do something different. This Cyberpunk campaign has taken something like 18 months and has been an incredible, epic experience, but over that period I guess the focus has shifted away from cyberpunk worlds so that everyone will want a break for a while. With Degenesis and Traveler to occupy us, I probably won’t come back to GM a Shadowrun New Horizon for a while. Despite that minor slip up, our GM didn’t want to change the ending, and I think it’s safe to say everyone was very, very happy with witnessing the Awakening. We have just enjoyed, I do not hesitate to say, the most epic Cyberpunk campaign ever.

I’ll be putting up some more posts over the next few weeks about back story, how plots intertwined together, some moments of combat I had to skip from this report, and why Ghost died. There were so many completely awesome moments in this campaign that they cannot all be reported, but I hope it’s clear from the care I have taken with Drew’s voice that she is one of the best characters (possibly the best character) I have ever played. I have never played a character so engrossing, so competent, so valuable to the party and so completely enjoyable as The Druid. I think it’s safe to say this won’t be the last time her voice is heard on this blog!

Music credits: All poetic interludes are Sisters of Mercy, from the songs Nine While Nine and Lucretia My Reflection.

fn1: Ghost’s player, the Quantum Dutchman, has been doing a lot of downtime, during which he seems to have rescued some fragment of Sam’s soul and probably also arranged for the destruction of Alt’s rocket.

In my recent post on principles for RPG systems I put dice pools near the top of the list, because I think they’re fun. Unfortunately, however, I think it’s hard to make a simple dice pool that doesn’t break several of the other principles in the list, and it’s difficult to make a dice pool mechanism that is satisfying. This is because of the way in which dice pools are related to skills and attributes.

Most dice pool systems are basically constructing a binomial probability distribution, with the probability of a single success determined by the success number on the dice in the pool, and the number of trials being the size of the pool. That is, in classic binomial distribution notation, if Y is the number of successes, n is the size of the dice pool and p is the probability of a success on one die (e.g. 5 or 6 on a d6=1/3 probability of success on one die), then


The resulting number of successes is compared to some target number, that is either set by the GM or determined by the opponent’s attributes and skills. The problem here is that for every point of target number, you need more than one die to have a good chance of getting a success. For example in Shadowrun if the target number is 1 (the easiest non-trivial task) you have a 1/3 chance of hitting it with one die, just under 50% with two dice, and so on. Also you cannot get more successes than your pool, so if the target number is equal to n you can’t succeed.

The problem here is that typically your dice pool is constructed in a similar way to your defense target number when it comes to challenged skill checks. For example, if I construct an agility+melee dice pool and try to shoot someone, it will target a difficulty set by their agility+melee dice pool (or something similar). But because each point of target number requires more than a single die to have a chance of success, your attacking pool is not going to be enough to hit, in general. The systems I have played have several ways around this problem, none of which are satisfactory in my opinion. These are listed below.


Shadowrun gets around the problem of equal target numbers by having both attacker and target roll their dice pool. Because the target pool will generate less successes than a target number based on the attribute/skill combination, this will always produce a lower target number than the attribute/skill combination itself. The problem here is that you have two players constructing then rolling and calculating a dice pool, and comparing results. This has the advantage of giving the player the chance to roll to avoid an attack (which gives them agency) but makes for a lot of rolls, which with large dice pools is trouble. It also introduces a lot of variation, especially at lower levels . You could simplify this by having everyone roll their defense alongside initiative, and then requiring them to keep it, but this would be unsatisfactory to many players, I think.

World of Darkness

World of Darkness (WoD) creates a whole range of problems for itself and then somehow gets around them in a bad way. In WoD your melee attack pool will be an attribute + skill, but your defense pool is just the lowest of two attributes, so it is usually much lower than the attacking pool. This solves the problem of overly-boosted target numbers, but it is deeply unsatisfactory. John Micksen, for example (my WoD Mage) has a defense of 2 (what can I say, he’s clumsy) but he has 3 dots in weaponry, specializing in swords, and he is carrying Excalibur. Excalibur! But his defense is 2! Excalibur is a +5 Holy Sword of Legend, FFS, but he gets no benefit. This is ridiculous: when magically boosted, wielding that sword, Micksen gets 21 dice to attack! But the same Micksen gets a defense of 2, three if he boosts his dexterity above his wits.

However, all is not lost! In WoD, your armour counts on your dice pool. John Micksen’s friend gives him Forces armour 5, so he gets 7 defense. Whew. The WoD rules get around the problem of unfair target numbers by having you subtract your defense from your opponent’s attack pool, and the opponent rolls the result. This seriously reduces the variance of the roll, but it also means that the imbalance of target numbers and attack pools is removed. However, what happens if your defense is greater than your opponent’s attacking pool? In this case, they have no dice left to roll! However, WoD has a rule for this: they roll a single d10 and hit on a 10. That’s right, they have a 10% chance of hitting you with a dice pool of zero.

So let’s imagine this scenario. John Micksen has a ritual casting on himself that gives him +4 strength and dexterity; another that gives him 8s again on his attack rolls; and his friend Andrew has given him Forces 5 armour. John decides he is sick of the paper boy making a noise at the gate of his mansion, so early one sunday morning he staggers out of his faerie-wine induced reverie and, leaving his lithe elven lover entangled in the bedclothes of the master bedroom of their faerie demesne, he wanders up the stairs and into mundane Ireland, picking up Excalibur along the way. He creeps up to the door unheard – this is not difficult, his Dexterity is 6, higher than most mortals (truly Faerie has changed him!), so the stupid paper boy won’t hear him. He hauls open the door[1] and springs forward, yelling obscenities, and takes a swing at the paper boy. “I am the Winter Fucking Knight[2], I do not get woken by paper boys!” he yells, rolling his 18 dice pool (he doesn’t bother wasting a point of willpower on a mere paper boy). The paper boy, however, is a cunning little yobbo and sneaky to boot, so he has a defense of 3,+1 for his woolen jacket, 4 defense for a mere villein! Now John rolls 14 dice, which with 8s again means he should get about 5 or 6 successes. This leaves the paper boy on 1 wound (that is a well-made Irish woolen jacket, not some crappy London fashion accessory!) So, the paper boy grabs his anti-dog club, and jabs it in John Micksen’s face. John Micksen has defense 3 and armour 5, for a total of 8, and the paper boy has a dice pool of 4. Result! The kid has 0 dice! He can’t hit. There stands the Winter Knight, resplendently bare-chested, but shimmering with the power of his friend’s enchanted armour, the snow-flake tattoo that betokens his position as Faerie Champion glittering cold blue light from beneath the silken radiance of the magical armour, armour that has been crafted for him in an arcane ritual by a wizard renowned throughout several planes of existence as a master of the elemental energies that bind the world together.

Oh but wait a minute, the paper boy has rolled a 10 on his one die. His anti-dog club slides through that armour like a hot knife through butter, and jabs John in the ribs, leaving a nasty bruise. The kid pulls a stupid face, yells “‘Ave ‘at, you fuckin’ pervo!” and scarpers up the path and away [well, scarpers as best he can for a kid who has just been stabbed in the face with an Ancient Sword Out of Legend by the Winter Fucking Knight, boosted to superhuman strength and speed].

This ridiculous scenario occurs because the lowest success probability in WoD is 10%, for people with an attacking pool less than their defender’s; followed by 30% for people with at least one die left in their pool. This scenario would have been the same even if John benefited from the +5 of his Ancient Sword that Unites Kingdoms. I think that’s a pretty crap rule. But it’s an inevitable consequence of trying to find a way to give some chance to people with zero pool.

Warhammer 3

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3 (WFRP3) gets around this problem by adapting the Shadowrun approach into a single roll, using a dice pool that is as complicated as possible. Basically, the target’s defense (which is calculated in an arcane and annoying way) is used to add challenge and misfortune dice to the attacker’s pool. These dice can roll failures, which are subtracted from the successes that are rolled by the good part of the pool. The challenge and misfortune dice have different probability distributions to the dice that the attacker puts in the pool (attribute and expertise dice). This system has the excellent property of giving the defender a highly variable target number, along with various side effects and it completely eliminates the problem of balancing defense target numbers against attack target numbers where both are derived from attributes and skills. It is also, as far as I know, the only RPG system I have played (except Rolemaster?) that actively incorporates training into defense (in a variety of overly complex ways, of course). It also only uses one roll. The downside is that constructing and evaluating the dice pool are both complex, requiring a lot of time and effort until you’re really familiar with the system.

Some possible simplifications

The Shadowrun system could be simplified to work in one roll by adding d6s of a different colour to the attacker’s dice roll, and having 5s and 6s on those rolls cancel the 5s or 6s on the attacker’s dice. This is basically the WFRP3 single roll, without the complex dice. Basically this is what WFRP3 needs: a simpler way of constructing and calculating dice pools. You could set up the game table with a large pool of white and red d6s in the middle of the table. The attacker grabs his or her number of whites; the defender grabs his or her number of reds and then passes them to the attacker; the dice pool is then rolled, and the result counted. Alternatively, dice pool construction in WFRP3 could be simplified by leaving the roll of challenge and misfortune dice for the GM; the player only sees the dice he or she rolled, and the GM then calculates the result.

Another possible simplification is to find a way to make attack rolls have more dice than defense targets. For example, if you could add your level to attack rolls, but not to defense target numbers; or if your defense target for any challenged skill check (including combat) was your attribute divided by 3 (round down) + skill, so that most attack pools are larger than target numbers; and also make sure there is a method for boosting attacks (e.g. Edge/Fate/Willpower) etc. Note that with larger dice pools these boosting methods tend to be a waste of time (see e.g. John Micksen), but if you are striving for more contained dice pools, then it probably would work. Of course, no one likes dividing numbers in play, but most character sheets have a place ot write defense; you could have a “defense” section after each attribute, which tells you the value it applies when being used for a defense target.

Another possible dice pool mechanism I thought of yesterday but haven’t done any calculations on, is one in which there is no target number, but the target’s skill+ attribute determine the minimum number required to hit. For example, if attributes start at 2 or 3 points, and skills at 1 or 2 points, then target numbers would range from 3-5. The attacker could then roll e.g. d10s, and get success on any die that rolls above this number. If the target were above 9, then success would only be possible on rolls of 10. So for example you have a dice pool of 5, and your opponent has a target of 5; you roll your five dice and need to get over 5, which basically means that your outcome will be Binomial(5,0.5), giving an “average” of 2.5 successes. Were your opponent’s difficulty 9, you would need to roll 10s, and the chance of getting 1 success would still be pretty good, but little chance of a big success.

I have also been thinking about a concept of what I call success pools, which incorporate post-attack damage values into a coherent framework for all skills and challenges, and could be used to fine tune some of these dice pool mechanisms. I will have more to say about that later.

I don’t think any of the systems I have described here, or their simplifications, are ideal, though the Shadowrun and WFRP3 mechanisms are pretty good (aside from their cumbersome aspects). Shadowrun is fine until you start calculating damage, I think; WFRP3 is fine if you make sure that the only complexity in it is the dice pool (i.e. you drop most of the rest of the game). But they show the difficulty of making a balanced dice pool mechanism, and how there always seems to be a compromise somewhere on the way when you try to introduce a decent random number generation system based on dice.

fn1: With his ritual on, John Micksen has strength 7, so he doesn’t so much haul the door open as launch it into orbit

fn2: John Micksen has some rage issues.

In comments to my post on balance in Shadowrun’s opposed skill checks, Paul asked me whether the distribution of success probabilities for opposed skill checks with equal numbers of dice is equal to the success probability you get from simply fixing an expected target number for your opponent. In practice what this means is that if the target number for success is, say, 5 or 6 on a d6 (probability 1/3) and both you and your opponent have, say, 6 dice, then you set an expected number of successes for your opponent as 6*1/3=2, and then try and roll over this expected target. Apparently Exalted 2e moved from challenged dice pools to using this process, fixing the target number to be half the opponent’s dice pool, and then having the attacker roll above it.

My guess in response was that this would be equivalent at larger dice pools. Turns out I was partially right and partially wrong. I ran a simulation in R, for dice pools from size 1 to 100, and set the target number of successes to be 1/3*(opponent’s dice pool), rounded down. So for a dice pool of 12, attacker rolls 12d6 and counts the number of successes (5 or 6s); they need to get over 12/3=4 to win. For 11 dice, the target is 11/3 rounded down, or 3. Figure 1 shows the results for opposed dice pools (black line) and the expected target number approach (red line).

Figure 1: Success probability with and without opposed dice pools

Figure 1: Success probability with and without opposed dice pools

Note two interesting properties of this graph:

  • The probability of success for the expected target approach bounces around a lot, going from above 0.5 to below 0.5 in little jagged steps. This is because of the rounding problem in setting expected targets. This means that even at large dice pools (100! imagine that!) you can still get large variations in success probability depending on whether your dice pool is a multiple of 3 or not
  • The limiting value for opposed dice pools is not 0.5 as I thought, but actually closer to 0.47. I think this is because of the discrete nature of the probability distribution – there is a non-vanishing probability that both sides will roll the same number, whereas if the two dice pools were normally distributed this chance would be zero – someone always wins, and there is a 50% chance it will be you. In this case the normal approximation to the binomial distribution contains a small error even at dice pools of size 100 or more

The rounding problem is interesting because it is quite punishing at small dice pools. For example, if you have a dice pool of size 4 and your opponent also has size 4, then their expected target is rounded down to 1, which is actually the precise expected target for a dice pool of 3; you have actually gained a +1 to your dice pool through rounding error, and if your dice pools are both size 5 then this bonus increases to +2. We could use the opposite approach of rounding up, so then you would get a -1 or a -2 on your dice pool compared to your opponent. Rounding off smooths this problem a bit – in this case a target dice pool of size 4 gets an expected target of 1 (equivalent to 3d6); that of 5 gets an expected target of 2 (equivalent of 6d6). So your dice pool benefits or suffers. From the chart we can see that this effect is noticeable even at dice pools of 100d6 (which is why I extended it that far).

We can see more accurately what the true probability distributions would be like if we consider only dice pools that are multiples of 3 – that is dice pools of 3, 6, 12 etc. – because in this case there is no rounding error. This result is shown in figure 2, again with the opposed dice pool shown in black and the expected target number in red.

Figure 2: Results of dice pools with no rounding effect

Figure 2: Results of dice pools with no rounding effect

Interestingly,with no rounding the expected target number method produces a slightly lower probability of success than the opposed dice pool method. This is because it restricts the range of extreme success available to the player – e.g. a player with a 6d6 pool can’t get success on a roll of 1 or 2 successes, even though this will (occasionally) happen.

I guess this means that the expected target number system is slightly broken, because rounding is very important at the scale of the dice pools that most people use. In the case of Shadowrun, for the first three dice pools (1d6 to 3d6) against a target with the same size dice pools, the probabilities of success are (respectively) 0.34, 0.56 and 0.26. So dice pools of 1 and 2 benefit hugely compared to dice pools of size 3. The same effect will exist in Exalted. What an expected target number system gains in simplicity, it loses in fairness (at least for small dice pools).

These kinds of considerations show that developing an effective system that is fun to use, simple and fair in all situations is fiendishly difficult. Next I am going to try and look at the WFRP 3 system to see if their methods based on opposed dice types are more robust to these kinds of concerns.

Update: Since Paul mentioned it in comments, Figure 3 shows an approximate example for Exalted 2e. It uses a target probability of 0.4 (7 or better on d10) but does not use exploding dice. The effect is still there but some of the jags are not as clear. Again, red line is the expected target number method, black line is the opposed check (so red=2e, black=1e?)

Figure 3: Target number vs. opposed check for Exalted dice pools

Figure 3: Target number vs. opposed check for Exalted dice pools

Update 2: apparently I got the dice pools wrong for Exalted, so I’ve updated Figure 3 using the correct numbers – a target probability of 0.5 and two successes on a roll of 10.

Magic License: Rie 518967301

Magic License: Rie 518967301

On Sunday I played in a short Shadowrun (5th Edition) adventure, which is likely to become a campaign. I think Shadowrun is a brilliant idea, and I can’t play it without playing some kind of magic-user: the idea of playing a wizard or a shaman skipping through the shadows of a corporate dystopia is too cool to pass up for something mundane like a gun-toting maniac, so I have to do it. For this adventure I decided to make a character reminiscent of my Feng Shui shrine maiden, who I played three years ago in London and who was a huge amount of fun to play. This time I made a Gothic Lolita mage called Rie of the Fallen.

Rie is a classic Gothic Lolita girl, who happens to be a magician. She has no appreciable physical strength, robustness or skills, and as much as possible she avoids any form of exertion or physical activity. All she does is cast spells. She maintains an extremely high class and expensive lifestyle, in order to afford a wide range of expensive clothes and cosmetics, and when asked she will assure you that this is why she is a shadow-runner. She has basically no skills except magic, hiding and looking good. She’s short, a little bit chubby, a little bit haughty and suffers from the negative quality Distinctive Style, which means she can’t hide in a crowd (I wonder why?) Her magic is a mix of attack spells, investigative magic, and support magic – she is not the kind of mage who expects to be ‘running on her own, but as part of a team.

Rie is from the Shamanic tradition, though her particular tradition does not so much ally with its spirits as worship them. She is a follower of the Nephilim, the Watchers Out of Time, angels who fell from heaven after a war with god and who are popular in such diverse cultural traditions as the works of John Dee (16th century British mystic), the Angel Sanctuary manga, and gothic bands like Garden of Delight or Fields of the Nephilim. In fact she has a mentor spirit, Alexiel, who is one of the minor Nephilim.

Mentoring in an Angelic Fashion

Mentoring in an Angelic Fashion

Rie is also an active member of the Gothic Lolita scene, which in 2070 has become a little more active and shamanic than it is now – a scene like that will get very magical once magic becomes real. In the present, Gothic Lolita events often involve fashion shows and also people selling their own home-made fashion items – there is a big amateur fashion scene. Rie makes hairpieces and lockets for this scene, but uses her alchemy and artificing skills to imbue them with minor magics that might be useful. She also has contacts in this scene, and in the media and entertainment world generally, as well as some knowledge of corporate etiquette connected with this world.

As an example of Rie’s general character and style, we did a brief shadowrun on Sunday, just doing a delivery run from Denver to the UCAS. This was nothing unusual, just a couple of border crossings and a fight with two rival gangs who “ambushed” us in a traffic jam. When our Face had failed to get the two bands to fight each other, Rie realized that the fight was on, so she tapped the man in the car next to her (giving him combat sense), told him to prepare for battle, and started it herself with a manaball. She spent the entire fight sitting primly in the back of the Face’s Ford Americar, directing spells at one gang using her make-up mirror and not bothering to duck or panic. When the gang finally shot the car to shit she simply stepped out on the far side before it could catch fire.

When that battle was over and the last ganger had surrendered, Rie walked over to him, squatted down in that classic Japanese girl way, and pulled a pair of containment manacles from her pristine little bag. Lacy, of course.

Rie’s basic Shadowrun stats are set out below.


Body 2 Agility 4
Reaction 3 Strength 1
Willpower 5 Logic 2
Intuition 6 Charisma 3
Edge 3 Magic 6
Essence 6


  Con 2   Summoning 5
  Performance 5 Spellcasting 6
  Etiquette 4 Counter-spelling 3
ENCHANTING 1 Artisan 5
  Alchemy 4 Assensing 3
  Artificing 3 Drive 4
STEALTH 1 Perception 2
  Sneaking 4
  Disguise 4


  • Bilingual (English and Japanese)
  • Focussed Concentration 3
  • Mentor Spirit
  • Quick Healer
  • Distinctive Style (negative)


  • Lightning Bolt
  • Manaball
  • Analyze magic
  • Detect Magic
  • Clairaudience
  • Clairvoyance
  • Combat sense
  • Heal
  • Armor
  • Trid Phantasm

Rie owns a Honda Spirit, a wide selection of fake SINs, a Gold Docwagon subscription for one year, and various other stuff. Some of her outfits are armored with mesh-weave, and her cosmetics are very high class; it’s possible that with the next job she will be investing in some flash- and fire-proof cosmetics. She uses a traditional clam-shell mobile phone for communication, always carries a bag with her and usually has an extra bag or two that look like they contain shopping (but probably actually contain adventuring gear). Her magic is a fairly innate and antinomial thing (she doesn’t study) and she isn’t that bright, really, but she has a canny sense of what is going on and doesn’t usually miss things, even if she appears to be paying no attention. She is not pretty or sexy, but her careful attention to style means that she always draws attention. She is the very model of a modern-day wizard, walking around completely out of place and time but acting as if it is of no importance whatsoever that the whole world has noticed her difference; and far more dangerous than her weak and timid manner would imply. She also keeps her own counsel: no one will ever know what she really wants or believes.

The perfect companion on a run, she probably is not.

Look here for that which you do not seek...

Look here for that which you do not seek…

When Japanese people want to succeed at life’s challenges, they will often visit a shrine and pray to the God therein for aid and succor. Most shrines have a designated purpose, with the God ensconced there tasked with aiding childbirth, or the accumulation of wealth, knowledge, or success in love, for example. Those who live in Japan are familiar with the culture of the shrine visit: washing our hands at the little water trough near the front, passing into the silence and calm of the shrine precinct, the sound of supplicants clapping and ringing the shrine bell, and then one’s own pause for contemplation as one bows one’s head before the God. Shrines are everywhere in Japan, from the huge rambling complexes of Fushimi inari jinja in Kyoto to tiny shrines at roadsides and car parks throughout the nation. There is even one on the edge of Shinjuku’s Kabukicho night life district, surrounded on all sides by skyscrapers and major roads, a little oasis of silence in one of the busiest places in the world – its only concession to the underworld it is situated amidst being the wire cage over the water trough. Most of us who live here come to appreciate these calm moments of contemplation in the midst of the urban bustle, and also understand the importance of countryside shrines as central markers of a traditional way of Japanese life that, despite the frenetic pace of urban existence, refuses to fade away.

But there is another side to the challenges of Japanese life that is draining and exhausting, and that those little prayers at the shrine serve to support and perpetuate: the constant obligations of a life lived communally. Foreigners in Japan can escape many of them, but Japanese people face a constant stream of obligations great and small. From the demands of everyday good manners to the struggle of working as a corporate samurai, from the scourge of wedding parties that afflicts people in their mid-20s to the tedium of workplace drinking parties and even the obligation to visit a shrine on New Year’s Day, Japanese social life is full of  obligations. Most of these obligations can be embarked upon in spirit of good will and reciprocity: for example, when one finds oneself working back yet again to make things go smoothly, one can also understand that the reason the postal system is so wonderful is that someone there is also working back to make things go smoothly. People are also mutually understanding of the burden of these obligations, and do all they can to lighten the load and to be understanding of the burden of mutuality. And, of course, one can always visit a shrine, throw in 5 yen and pray for a bit of strength in the hard times.

But sometimes, those obligations carry with them a weight that cannot be wished away at a shrine, and sometimes they come with an additional, crushing challenge: the challenge of having to succeed at them even when one does not want to. The culture of ganbaru, of struggling to do one’s best no matter the difficulty, is an important part of Japanese social and work life, and worse still is the need to show that one is fighting on, even where one wants to fail. This raises the terrible prospect that one can be saddled with an obligation one does not want to carry out, but also forced to do one’s utmost to achieve it, lest one be seen to be shirking or – worse still – embarrass one’s family and colleagues by being openly seen not to want to succeed in a great goal.

It is easy to imagine these onerous tasks, because they arise often. Perhaps a man is forced to apply for a job he knows will come with a huge workload and boring tasks, that he needs to take for reasons of prestige and money but really doesn’t want: in Australia he would simply fluff the interview, but here in Japan if he was recommended to the job by his superior then he will humiliate his superior if he does anything less than try his best to get the job. Perhaps a woman has been arranged an introduction with a rich and handsome future husband, and is required to do her utmost to please him and his family, but she is secretly conducting a love affair with the Korean migrant son of a pachinko parlour owner – she needs to appear as if she wants the marriage and is trying hard, to avoid embarrassing her family and the introduction agent and to keep the peace, but she really needs this introduction to fail. Perhaps a soldier has been tasked with fabricating an international incident at the Marco Polo bridge, and failure to do his utmost to carry out the incident will lead to his punishment and possibly execution – but he knows that if he succeeds his nation will be dragged into a war that will destroy it.

It is at times like these that no amount of prayers at any shrine will save you. You need to appear to be doing your best, but you need to fail. And you know that if you do your best, you won’t fail. You are trapped.

It is at times like this that you need to visit one of the shrines of the God that Failed. You take with you a rotten mandarin, a cup of the cheapest, nastiest sake you can find, and the letter offering you an interview for the job you don’t like. Place the offerings at the shrine, burn the letter, and promise the God that Failed that you will do your utmost to succeed in this honourable task.

Then, failure is guaranteed.

The shrines to the God that Failed are not the usual calm, cheerful devotional spots, established long ago and broadcast to the world through their red torii gates and colourful roof. Rather, they are themselves monuments to failure, hidden in plain sight, just as is the failure that their supplicants seek. There are many such shrines, but they can be very difficult to find: the dirty toilet of the convenience store in Japan’s poorest and most crime-ridden suburb, perhaps; or an abandoned shrine just around the corner from Japan’s lowest-ranked and lowest-achieving community college; or a little waving cat statue in a broken self-storage unit, owned by a failed spam-forwarding start up company. These shrines are never far from anyone, but finding them is in itself something of a pilgrimage, a combination of internet searching, rumour-hunting, and then following one’s own innate spiritual sense for discerning failure and sadness. Also, perhaps, one has to be careful in one’s observances to ensure one is not discovered or seen: not only do prayer’s to the God that Failed have to be conducted in the strictest secrecy, but the shrine must be known only to those that seek it – discovery of religious observance by those who do not seek failure can bring down a terrible curse upon the supplicant.

Many argue that the God that Failed is Japan’s weakest and most aberrant god, but it is possible that actually it is the most powerful. Not only are its shrines everywhere, but it has many followers. While supplication of the God that Failed is always difficult, ordinary daily worship is easy, in a way that the other Gods of Japan do not allow. Ordinary Japanese Gods do not allow one to pray to them from home, or just anywhere, but the God that Failed is aware that many of its best worshippers do not seek anything in life, and it takes their devotion where it can. To worship the God that Failed it is enough to drop out of work and school, and stay home all day on the internet in chat rooms and on 2-channel. It is sufficient to waste one’s money and time in a pachinko parlour, where the whir of the machines serves as a devotional hymn to the God that Failed, your soul slowly leaking through the storm of pinballs into its possession. Worshippers of the God that Failed may not even realize they are in its thrall, but they are everywhere: pachinko junkies, NEETs, that ageing Host who has to work just that little bit longer every morning to make ends meet, that English teacher in the second-rate company who works nights doing skype lessons for sad shift workers … all the silent failures in life who struggle to succeed in a task that everyone else knows is already a lost cause. They flock to the God that Fails, though they don’t realize they are its worshippers, and through the repetitive daily rituals of failure they slowly lose their souls to it. And with the power of these lost souls, it grants the wish of failure to those who are otherwise successful, guaranteeing continued happiness to the successful by robbing the souls of the already-lost.

If the God that Fails has a grand design outside of the ordinary spiritual precincts of Shintoism, no one knows it. It seems reasonable that the very nature of this God would preclude any greater purpose than to leech on second-rate souls. But it is possible that in its army of followers and its calm, epochal dedication to the cultivation of failure, it actually has a deeper and more evil purpose. Who is to say what grand movements in Japanese history and culture are due to its meddling? Who is to say that it does not have power in the halls of the high and mighty as well as the low and feeble? Were the spiritually aware to notice its designs, perhaps they would uncover a great and evil pattern, that only the very brave and courageous would dare to unravel …

This deity would be suitable as an adversary or an ally in a Shadowrun- or Feng Shui-style campaign, or perhaps a far Eastern version of a Cthulhuesque horror. It might be a subtle adversary, its influence underlying more obvious criminal and spiritual cliques that use less subtle techniques. Its efforts might manifest through hacking, accidents, suicides and economic ruin, and establishing the pattern of its attacks would thus be very difficult. It is also a perfect excuse for that GM who needs to destroy the plans of an overly powerful group, but hasn’t figured out a detailed storyline for why they came apart. Missed money transfers, transport plans that fail, contacts who don’t show, NPCs who commit suicide just when you most need them – look in those plot moments for the sinister movements of the God that Failed. Should you be afraid, or scornful? Only time will tell …