Halloween Movie Night

Traditionally, Halloween night is a night when I get together with friends and watch awful horror movies and if that’s not possible, Halloween III (it’s an absolute classic – don’t you judge me).

This year that’s not proving possible, sadly, but over the last couple of nights I’ve been entertaining myself watching some classic films on the Netflix and Amazon Prime (now that I’ve discovered how to work Amazon Prime on the laptop). My plan for later tonight is to watch Eat Locals and possibly It (Part One) depending on when the last trick or treater turns up.

Although that said I might just watch Dog Soldiers again. It’s been about a month since last time I watched it. Decisions, decisions.

However, before I do that, here’s half-a-dozen recommendations for great (for a given value) movies that you might enjoy this Halloween evening. They’re all either on Netflix or available free with an Amazon Prime subscription because I am nothing if not cheap. They’re not explicitly Halloween movies – I watched “Tales of Halloween” last night to see if it would make the cut and it didn’t and that was the only explicitly Halloween themed movie on my watch list. It wasn’t bad incidentally, just not great. And this list has both Lifeforce and The Lair of the White Worm on it.

Damn now I feel bad for Tales of Halloween and want to add it back onto the list but I’m going to be strong. Watch it if you like – one or two of the stories are fun and there’s plenty of knowing nods to the genre but it’s not making the cut tonight so stop hassling me. God!

I’ve presented them in chronological order, because there’s no point doing a list in order of worst-to-best when all the entries are just great. Arguably.

TL:DR – watch Ghost Stories (2017) if you’re only watching one spooky movie this Halloween

The Monster Club (1981, Amazon Prime)

The Monster Club

Vincent Price plays Vincent Price better than anyone else.

Vampires sup, werewolves hunt, ghouls tear, shaddies lick, maddies yawn, mocks blow, but shadmocks only whistle.

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, I’m a sucker for anthology movie horror. To be honest if I’d planned this better I’d just have watched anthology movies and called it a day. I was ambushed by this while looking for something else (Lair of the White Worm in fact) on Amazon Prime, and immediately watched it again.

It’s actually a pattern with the Monster Club. I have a memory of first watching this years and years ago on the television while looking for something else, and then finding the original collection of short stories it’s based on thirty years ago while browsing the library in Sunderland. It pops up unexpectedly, and cheers me up whenever it appears.

Wikipedia tells me the Monster Club flopped when it was released which is a crying shame. The last movie from Amicus (who made some absolute classics several of which I note are also on Amazon Prime), it’s a delight to watch.

It has three stories – the Shadmock which is sad and strange; the Vampire which is humorous and contains Donald Pleasance; and the Ghouls which is one of my hands-down favourite stories of the horror genre for… reasons.

In two of them the humans are arguably the real monsters. In the third one … not so much. In fact this theme – that humans are just as monstrous as vampires and werewolves – forms the coda at the end of the framing sequence which is set in the Monster Club itself. In a way it’s a little odd that the monsters in the third story are so unsympathetic given the previous stories but I suppose you could make an argument that the point of the Ghouls is that humans make accommodation with monsters while monsters act out of neccessity. Or something.

Regardless, it’s a short movie with some truly outrageous musical interludes and three fun and inventive horror tales. Give it a look why not.

Surprise Appearance: Patrick Magee. Although to be fair with this kind of movie it’d almost be a surprise if Patrick Magee wasn’t in it.

Pumpkin Rating: Four generous pinches of pumpkin spice. It’s only got three stories in – I’d give it the full five if it had one more tale in. Also I’m not a disco fan. Sue me.

Tangent: Honourable Mention

I also want to quickly mention three other anthology movies that I’ve enjoyed recently. Sadly none of them are on Netflix/Amazon Prime at the moment but they are bound to turn back up again eventually. All three are worth a squizz when they do if you haven’t seen them already.

Southbound – a grim sequence of nightmarish stories that follow on one from another full of unsettling imagery and sinisterness. There’s a lot of guilt here, and nobody gets out these stories unscathed – and nor do they deserve to.

XX – A classy anthology movie part of whose claim to fame is that it’s horror by female directors. The Box is very good and very dark; the Birthday Party is funny in a horrific sit-com sort of way that makes it feel a little like something that would happen to Hyacinth Bucket; the Fall is okay but suffers from having annoying young people in it; and Her Only Living Son is excellent and arguably moving. I’d watch it.

Trick ‘r Treat – We watched this as our Halloween movie years back with Prof Woody. Definitely watch it if you haven’t already. It’s full of familiar faces, and has a real EC Horror Comics vibe with slick visuals and loads of atmosphere. The fact that the stories are all taking place on the same night and gently bump up against one another adds just the right amount of pumpkin spice. It’s maybe a shame there’s never been a sequel although I imagine it’d be challenging to get the same degree of quality.

Lifeforce (1985, Netflix)

Lifeforce

A pretty uninformative poster that inexplicably plays up the science fiction rather than the naked space-vampries destroying London.

That remark is not for publication gentlemen – this is a D-Notice situation.

This is not a good movie. It’s a great movie! It’s like the weird lovechild of a pants 80s genre movie. A 70s Hammer movie, and a 60s Quatermass movie with added nudity!

It begins by quickly hand-waving the fact that this space shuttle has earth-like gravity because… science! It contains a scene in which a security guard tries to coax a naked woman with a sandwich, and one in which our hero slaps a nurse around because she is “…a masochist, an extreme masochist.” It culminates in sexy space-bat vampires destroying London.

It’s a movie that veers between excellent and terrible in the space of two lines of dialogue. To be honest it is at best a flawed movie and probably actively problematic. It’s … well it’s pretty 80s if I’m honest.

It’s textbook straight male gaze for example. I remember my sister back in the day complaining vociferously that there’s plenty of full-frontal nudity of the lady-space-vampire, but that the best you get to see on the men is the occasional bum. That said, I still laugh quietly every time the shot of the two male vampires appears where their tackle is tastefully concealed by the reflection of a light strip.

In a piece of trivia I found when reading up on this movie on Wikipedia, one of the male vampries is a younger brother of Mick Jagger, and the other was in both ‘Allo ‘Allo and the Dr Who story Silver Nemesis. Thank you wikipedia, font of all knowledge. I wish you’d been around 30 years ago when I was having a heated argument about whether the second male vampire was the guy from that advert. Wait no not that advert. This advert.

Anyway.

The story itself is a familiar one. Boy meets girl inside giant space ship hidden in Halley’s Comet. Boy loses girl during disaster on magic space shuttle. Girl destroys London. Boy finds girl again while energy vampire zombies run amok in the streets.

The tale of space vampires devastating London interweaves with the tale of an American astronaut with secrets and a dodgy British SAS fellow chasing a nurse around the Home Counties that is an almost classic example of the “get them out of the location on a wild goose chase so that it can all go wrong”.

Yet there’s more to it than that. For all its flaws, there’s something deeply satisfying about Lifeforce. It’s a story with a beginning, middle, and end. It doesn’t engage in too much exposition, and while there are a few obvious plot holes it’s easy to ignore them and focus on the dreadful special effects, the variable acting, the corny dialogue, and the occasionally naked underwear models tearing apart the capital.

The Prime Minister turns into an energy-vampire-zombie incidentally. Which I find prophetic.

Pumpkin Rating: Four slighty-past-their-best small pumpkins. Less excruciating nudity, less hilarious slapping of nurses/soft-core porn, and maybe a stronger actor in the lead would all earn it an additional half a star.

Surprise Appearance: Patrick Stewart. He has hair!

Lair of the White Worm (1988, Amazon Prime)

Whist lad had yer gob I’ll tell yers all an afful story

Lair of the White Worm

I wrote this entire piece without saying “I got your white worm right here” but in all fairness that is probably a bit too subtle for this movie.

This is the move I was looking for when I found the Monster Club and watched that instead. I caught up with it last night. It’s… I want to use the phrase “still an absolute classic” but I’ve become aware that not everyone things those words mean what I think they mean.

Its still an absolute classic though.

It’s a Ken Russell movie; this knowledge should cause you to brace yourself slightly before going in. Do not take it seriously, just relax and enjoy the foolishness.

I first watched it late one night on I think Channel Four and loved it; thank goodness my parents had gone to bed however. It’s not precisely subtle. Part of the tale is a retelling of the Lambton Worm (a story for which I have a definite soft spot), but shifted a couple of miles and altered to Dampton for some reason. There’s a song. The song is brilliant.

There are many dreadful things about this movie, from at least one unconvincing accent through a disturbing strap-on dildo, to a scene with nuns in (it’s a Ken Russel movie remember), and a climax with a white worm that is only slightly less shonky than the giant Dampton Worm puppet that appeared in the hilarious village fete sequence.

It also contains the least subtle use of a red marker pen ever in the movies ever. And this is in a movie about a giant white snake that lives in a cave and has a taste for virgins.

In another life, this would have been a Call of Cthulhu scenario in White Dwarf. Or, with the careful removal of all the sex and violence, a pants BBC six-part paranormal thriller from the 80s. I say both of these as a good thing, obviously.

It has a surprisingly star-studded cast for a low-budget B-movie, and one of the high points for me is Amanda Donohoe as Lady Sylvia. There’s something about her performance that in my opinion drags the whole movie up a couple of notches. Maybe it’s the fact that she regularly expressed exasperation that the idiot Scooby Gang are blundering around and foiling her plans mostly be accident. It’s hard to put it into words – watch the film yourself and see what you think.

The scene with the boy scout is awful and problematic and also one that makes me laugh every time. Because I am fundamentally broken inside.

Pumpkin Rating: Four-and-a-half pumpkin themed sweets that are not good for you. It’s a guilty pleasure inasmuch as I ever feel guilty about enjoying dreadful things.

Surprise Appearance: Half the cast. Especially Peter Capaldi and Hugh Grant.

Cabin in the Woods (2012, Netflix)

How hard is it to kill a bunch of nine year olds?

Cabin in the Woods

Man is the real monster. As are the monsters; they’re also the real monsters. Monsters, is what I am getting at here.

I love this movie. The first time I saw it it immediately went into my constantly shifting favourite ten movies of all time and has stayed there ever since. It starts off in a pleasantly familiar fashion – a quintet of friends go to the titular cabin in a van, and discover a basement full of cursed horrors and then monsters and people die horribly.

Obviously there’s more going on than that, but I don’t really want to say too much for fear of spoiling it for people who haven’t seen it. Which means this is going to be a pretty short review.

If you enjoy horror movies, then it’s worth watching at least once. It’s clever, and slick, and wears it’s heart on it’s sleeve, and has some pretty damning things to say about the modern horror movie genre. To quote Whedon “… it’s a serious critique of what we love and what we don’t about horror movies. I love being scared. I love that mixture of thrill, of horror, that objectification/identification thing of wanting definitely for the people to be all right but at the same time hoping they’ll go somewhere dark and face something awful. The things that I don’t like are kids acting like idiots, the devolution of the horror movie into torture porn and into a long series of sadistic comeuppances.“

Can’t argue with that.

The dialogue is funny – Joss Whedon co-wrote it with Drew Goddard who might not be as instantly recognisable as Whedon but has some meaty writing chops. I struggled to find a specific line to stick at the top there’s so many (I nearly went with “I’m on speakerphone aren’t I?”).

The commentary is sharp. The “people do unspeakable things in the most banal fashion” dial is turned up to eleven. Heck, it’s aaaarguably a treatment of the Trolley Problem that could in theory raise some questions about the ethics of the ending in a way that Ms LeGuin and the people of Omelas might find familiar. Yeah! Literary references. Take that! Liberal elite represent!

Ahem.

In conclusion, I found it to be one of those dense movies that rewards a second viewing to catch some of the stuff you missed the first time round. But if you can, go in cold the first time and let the story unfold around you. It’s worth it. Probably.

Number of Hemsworths: One (Chris)

Pumpkin Rating: Five excellent glowering jack-o-lanterns. One of my favourite movies in this genre or otherwise.

Surprise Appearance: Sigourney Weaver is in it for about five minutes and is as always excellent.

The Rezort (2015, netflix)

The Rezort

It’s not really about the zombies

I’m a businesswoman in a world of new priorities, and you pay for it.

You like zombies? This movie got zombies. You like slightly heavy-handed social commentary? This movie got slighty heavy-handed social commentary. You like it when the humans are the real monsters? This movie got humans being the real monsters.

This isn’t a zombie apocalypse movie as such – although if I had had more wine I might talk about the idea of the zombie apocalypse in a small space which is kind of what happens here. Rather it’s a post-zombie apocalypse movie. The zompocalypse happened, then it ended, and now people have moved on with their lives.

Not all the zombies are gone, though. There’s one place on the planet apparently where they still remain – a private island which hosts the eponymous Rezort. People go there to shoot carefully herded and presented zombies. It’s Disneyland with post-human cannibal horrors and white wine spritzers and little cars right out of Jurassic Park. And like Jurassic Park, the Pirates of the Carribean ride comes alive and starts eating the tourists.

Although to be honest, like all the best zompocalypse fiction, it’s not really about the zombies.

Our hero is a woman coping with the trauma of the apocalypse for whom group therapy isn’t working out any more. She decides to try something different – shooting her trauma with a gun – and takes her boyfriend along with her. She meets a bunch of dreadful people also visiting the resort, and on their first day out the wheels come off with hilarious consequences.

Obviously the party of tourists and their guide get stranded, and then die one by one in gory fashion. So far so standard. It even has the semi-traditional “ticking clock” in the form of a Brimstone Protocol – a grand name for when the authorities unleash fuel-air explosives into an infected area to cauterise the outbreak before it can get out of control.

For all that it is a bit by-the-numbers, to my mind The Rezort manages to be a cut above the usual straight-to-Netflix zombie movies. The production values are higher for a start. Dougray Scott is in it, and is as dour and mysterious as he has ever been. There’s a mystery in the background that slowly unravels in a manner Chekov would be proud of.

There’s two things that set this apart specifically for me.

One is that the thing I took to be a plot hole in the first ten minutes is not a plot hole and indeed raises some grim questions about the post-zompocalypse world.

The other is a bit more specific and may not apply to anyone else, and it is the presence of Jassa Ahluwalia as one part of an e-sports-winning duo with Lawrence “chocolate fireguard” Walker. Jassa played Rocky in the underrated BBC Three comedy series Some Girls which I quite enjoyed back in the day. As is my wont, I like to imagine that this movie is a sequel to Some Girls and that the series took a distinctly dark turn once the zombies started eating people. I told you it was specific.

Pumpkin Rating: Four plump pumpkins. It’s not rocket surgery, it’s not Shakespeare, but it’s an enjoyably sincere zombie survival horror movie which always at the back of my mind is reminding me of a turn-of-the-century survival horror game.

Surprise Appearance: Nobody specific leaps to mind. I imagine Dougray Scott took all their surprise actor budget.

Ghost Stories (2017, Netflix)

GhostStories

In some ways this is the most Halloween movie movie on this list. If you only watch one tonight, watch this one.

We have to be very careful what we choose to believe.

It’s scary. It’s dark. It’s grim.

It’s brilliant. It’s about a man who dedicates his life to debunking the supernatural and… well that’s about all I’m going to say.

It’s Andy Nyman for whom I have had a soft spot ever since Severance and Dead Set and Campus. He’s great in everything he’s in. It’s Jeremy Dyson, the one from League of Gentlemen that nobody ever remembers because he just wrote stuff. It’s adapted by them from their stage play – which I’ve not seen but I understand is quite good.

As with Cabin in the Woods, I’m not going to say too much about it. It’s beautiful to look at, and builds an almost suffocating air of menace and dread that makes the actual horror when it happens almost a relief. Particular gold star for use of “someone with their back to you” which is a trope guaranteed to get the hair on the back of my neck to pack its bags and move to Iceland.

While it’s based on a stage play but I didn’t find it especially stagy. The acting is top notch, the special effects are wonderful, and it pulls the rug out from under you with style and aplomb.

I watched it in the cinema the first time, and spent a lot of time pressed back in my seat making the occasional yelping noise especially during the first sequence with Paul Whitehouse.

I think it’s very good indeed, is what you should take away from this.

Pumpkin Rating: Five great big haunted pumpkins. A great anthology story, that isn’t really an anthology story, and provides genuine scares. Watch it with the lights out.

Surprise Appearance: Martin Freeman.

Something Something 2112

This discussion of the 2019 Event Two Winds of War first appeared on my Patreon in early June.

I. Overture

I actually know Rush mostly from a tv show called The Goldbergs. It’s a pseudo-biographical sitcom about a Jewish family set in 1980-something. Like Stranger Things but with fewer monsters and psychic powers and more over the top jumpers, but with the same appreciation for obvious film references. The Goldbergs I mean. Not Rush.

Obviously I’d heard of them before – way back in sixth form a friend tried to convince me 2112 was the best album ever but I was unconvinced. I was much more of a Poison fan in my late teens (embarassingly). Luckily, I grew out of it.

It was someone’s birthday and I’d done them a dramatic reading of some Rush lyrics as a present. Because they like Rush – it wasn’t just random Tom Sawyering. Then being stuck for a naming scheme for Winds of War I thought I’d take a look and see if they had enough songs I could rip them off for titles.

Misplaced Childhood

Misplaced Childhood is objectively one of the greatest albums ever recorded, incidentally. DON’T YOU JUDGE ME!

Gosh, there’s a lot of Rush.

So we were set. I listened to a few of their songs but they’re not really me. When it comes to progrock I’m a dyed-in-the-wool pretentious Marillion fan. The Rush lyrics were okay though so I amused myself picking out some random lines and sticking them on the photos used to illustrate each piece. Because I felt that was the kind of thing Rush fans would appreciate.

II. The Temples of Syrinx

Unlike Winds of Fortune which are a joint effort, the actual words for Winds of War are all me. It helps, the Boss says, to get a uniform feeling to them. I write them, Matt edits, or suggests edits. It’s still a collaborative process to a point but its my fingers on the keys. It usually takes two or three days of total focus to write all the Winds of War depending on how many there are.

We’d planned early on to save Winds of War for the late booking deadline. We know they always produce a surge of enthusiasm and hype for the game when they come out. Previously we’ve tended to do them around the early booking deadline but this time we decided to mix it up.

This time round, I think we had more actual downtime military arenas than we’ve had previously – once you count the “special project” fights like Beoraidh, Zenith, and Brocéliande. It shouldn’t have been a massive problem, unless of course we closed Downtime late and then processed it late as well.

NARRATOR: But they did close downtime late and then processed it late.

III. Discovery

Once the downtime code had run, the actual processing of the campaigns was pretty straightforward. For a given value. Graeme plugs numbers into his spreadsheet, an then we go through them double checking we haven’t missed anything. This is getting a bit more challenging as time goes on – and as the campaign options increase in complexity.

Most of the heavy lifting with the downtime campaigns is handled by the army orders. They’re intentionally designed like little bits of code – they’re exclusive in that you can only take one of them and exactly what effect they have on the numbers is recorded for everyone to see. They’re easy – an army is always taking exactly one order, and is under the effect of up to one enchantment which keeps the actual complexity low. Once you factor in the presence of forts and territory-level enchantments it gets a bit more complex but again these are all either there or not there and have set effects.

What is making life more complicated is that we’ve snuck in a few additional modifiers that sometimes apply but not always. The obvious example from this downtime was the Wintermark bonus/penalty effect reflecting their strategy that means any of their armies engaged with a Jotun force has some additional modifiers. There’s the one where some armies react poorly to fighting with Varushkans (which is a major ball ache but doesnt come up often) but thats about it. For now. I don’t doubt more will sneak in however.

I spent about twenty minutes calmly saying “-20% casualties, +10% victory points” to Graeme as he tried to slot these numbers in properly. To be fair it was quite late at night.

This additional complication is a pain, but its another element of our attempts to make the various nations’ military forces feel distinct, unique, and cool. So I think its worth it.

Mind you I’m not the one that has to make the numbers work.

IV. Presentation

Rise Against

Because of bad influences who know who they are, I actually spend much of my time when writing Winds of War listening to bands like Rise Against. Apparently they are “punk rock”. 18-year-old Raff would be mortified.

When we process we sketch out a hook for the write-up in terms of what it means to the campaign. So “victory for Empire”, “uncontested win for orcs”, “stalemate” or whatever. Graeme tells me anything cool about the numbers like “the Thule did more damage to the Druj because of the orders” or whatever.

That gets translated into bullet points. Then I copy the actual written orders over. They often suggest some ideas for things to mention by themselves. I can usually get a paragraph or two out of enchantments as well.

There were some significant challenges this time, however. Two of the campaigns were against Druj who either didn’t turn up (Morrow) or might as well have not bothered (Ossium). Two were stalemates (Segura and Sermersuaq). Two were surprise invasions that went unexpectedly well (Spiral and Feroz). And then there were a handful of fights where there were no orders because they were Wind of Fortune opportunities, or where the actual information available to the players was limited (Liathaven).

Finding “the cool” in some of these was a headache and a half.

V. Oracle: The Dream

There’s one basic guideline for Winds of War, which is “make them feel like heroes, especially if they lose.” I’ve written elsewhere about the processes behind Winds of War and how we try to make sure that everyone from a given nation feels like they’ve contributed in some fashion to the victory, or that without their help the loss would have been worse.

This can be a challenge when one side of the other is massively overmatched. Ironically, doing a bulk of the writing during the D-Day memorial stuff didn’t help. At the back of my mind when I do Winds of War is the nagging awareness that war in the real world is hell, but that part of my job is to try and make it heroic. My natural instincts run much more to “and then everyone dies” than to a “and then the knights charge and everyone cheers and we don’t dwell too much on the fact the people on both sides have families” sentiment. But that kind of stuff gets people down after a while, I hear.

VI. Soliloquy

Anyway. Some of them wrote themselves as always – Brocéliande, Liathaven, and Feroz were really straightforward. In the first, its all about the various things the players did to get extra support. The second is a straighforward “fuck the Jotun are back” and the last one was a fun “here are the Grendel, being dicks again.” I knew for Feroz as well that the temple was going to be a key element, so I actually wrote that bit first. The Grendel are always fun to write.

Beroaidh was my next job. It was complicated by the need to manually work out the numbers and check some, and to make sure all the things Matt had written into the Wind of Fortune were touched on. I was also keen to make sure that this wasn’t just a rescue mission – which is why when the Imperials arrive it triggers a revolt. I did this for a couple of reasons – the involvement of the Winter Sun and their special order gave me an excuse, as did some eternal related stuff. I also wanted the Imperial Orcs – who lets be honest are the real beneficiary of this action – to feel like they were getting something cool. These weren’t mine workers, but gladiators and soldiers. I think that came across. We also set it up as an honest-to-goodness rescue mission (unlike Dubhtraig where there was a bunch of treasure as well) so I wanted people who took part to really feel like heroes. And then there’s the spiritual implications which I had been itching to draw attention to but hadn’t felt Dubhtraig was right for. All in all I was pleased with Beoraidh. Even though the fucking name of the place is impossible to spell right.

R-Point

It’s a top notch South Korean horror movie. You may enjoy it. It scared the willies out of me the first time I watched it.

I then ran into a brick wall, and went back to the Boss for some brainstorming and he suggested that we create a “cinematic moment” in some of the others and write about that. he came up with the idea of playing up a Thule plundering incident, which gave a shape to Ossium. The Druj were absolutely kicked in that campaign, so we went with the idea of not really mentioning them in the write-up. They’re there, but they’re like shadows. That kind of conceit. I always have to struggle to not write any campaign with the Druj like it’s Full Metal Jacket (or more realistically R-Point which these days my go-to Vietnam war horror touchstone) for fear of othering the bad orcs as North Vietnamese. We’re doing better these days I think since I started to think more in terms of Conan than Platoon.

After that Segura was still a bit of a struggle – but there I had a Cool Player Action I could reference (the enchantment that stops the Corazón plundering player resources). I struggled for a bit getting my head around how to present the outcome (players stymie Jotun on a vast open plain), but I think we made it work. I also got to do some Ominous Foreshadowing which is always cool. I like the Lasambrian clan of the Jotun – although we seem to be facing some challenge to getting some of the players to accept that they are Jotun despite being in orange with hot pigeons on their flags. There’s a cool story about their journey from bandits to something better, even if the Empire is only seeing bits of it. The write-up is a bit flat in places, but I’m generally happy with it.

I left Sermersuaq til late but once I got started it was a lot of fun. Here we’re unashamedly in High Fantasy Battle land. Heroic Winterfolk and their allies fight the Honourable Orcs in the snow. I knew fom the start that, given the player orders were to take Stark, we’d be refighting the Battle of Berusen from an earlier Wind of War (which I hoped people would remember), and we knew the battle was close. The fight on the ice came to me entirely at random while I was in the shower – inspired in fact by some Arthurian story I half remembered from a Pendragon game now lost in the mists of time. I think it worked – and it let me mirror the earlier campaign with aid from the hylje shapechanging seals. It might not have worked as well as I’d hoped – the decision to have the hylje unable to tell Imperial Orcs from Jotun was cool on paper but might lead to less-optimal play on the field if were unlucky. I have a nasty suspicion the query that prompted Matt to write his recent piece about criticising generals may have been inspired by a misunderstanding about why that fight on the ice takes place. It’s a key moment – a “cinematic moment” – that breaks the deadlock and allows the Empire to win the day. The people I describe as drowning always died – because thats what the math said happened to them – I just shifted them from below-the-abstraction-level casualties to ones that happen “on screen” as it were.

Urizen

Finally Morrow, Zenith, and Spiral. For a while they were going to be a single Wind of War. I’ll be honest with you, I struggled with the Urizen campaigns this time around. Just as I was starting writing them properly, there was a bit of negative feedback about a Wind of Fortune we had just finished that really knocked my confidence. Which is ironic (probably) because it wasn’t even my Wind of Fortune. I’d suggested bits of it (the giant statues were mine and I am very pleased with them) but Matt wrote it.

Negative feedback is never nice, but in this case it was particularly poorly timed. I’m not going to go into any more detail, suffice it to say that I am not as thick skinned as I might appear on Facebook. Smiley face.

Morrow was a “the other side didn’t turn up” fight which already made it tricky. Plus it was against the Druj who are always twats to the players whenever they get the chance. I focused mainly on how great the players were, and hoped for the best.

Zenith was a bit easier – here were people taking a heroic action to free people from a miasma. I had a section originally that talked about more spontaneous auras but I cut it as it was placing too much emphasis on non-player-characters and ran the risk of detracting from the Beoraidh raid. I think it did the job – I was very keen to make sure Highguard in particular got some pay-off from this and was pleased to see how many of them went along on the raid.

Lastly Spiral. This was the kicker – literally. Another boot to the ribs for Urizen from the Druj. After a couple of false starts, however, I think we managed something acceptable. Matt drew out the idea that we should present the Druj as focused on something other than creating fear/being pricks to the Urizen – and given that the entire territory is now basically the Event Horizon that made sense. Plus it adds to the level of forboding when you realise that the biggest dicks in the game now have the Black Plateau. I’ll be interested to see how that plays out; obviously I know what is going on and what is going to happen but it’s how we communicate that to the players that will be a challenge. I shall say no more.

VII Grand Finale

One of the key discussions around Winds of War is always the order we present them in. It’s all about getting the best dramatic payoff and shamelessly manipulating the keeners to generate the most hype. Also the hashtags.

Putting them up live is generally the best part of the process for me. It takes about half an hour to put each one live – mostly spent fixing the links, doing a last lazy pass through for XXXXX and TBC tags and making sure I haven’t left a CockCrown in.

Having Beth Dooner and Tim Baker (mostly) find me the pictures we use also really helps as it saves me hours of work. Plus they know the brief by now (plenty of diversity, focus on people other than the usual suspects, milk the feels for all they are worth). Also Mark and the forum folks who save me having to copy-paste them across to the forums which would add another 10 minutes to each piece of work.

Seeing the real-time reactions as people read them generally gives me joy and makes all the hassle and constant whinging  bearable. There’ll be a trickle of facebook comments over the next few days but its the fans who stay up til one in the morning with me who mostly set the tone.

We got them all up in one go this time although it took me until one in the morning. This was a major problem because we are still in the middle of Winds of Fortune period an the event is in like a week. I usually take a quiet day after Winds of War go live – they’re surprisingly tiring to finalise and post up – but this was not entirely workable this time round. Its something I’ll need to look at for next time.

All told they came to around 19,800 words which is, to be honest, way too many. People need to read these damn things and absorb the content. I’m looking back nostalgically on the old 4,000 word jobs where we just summarized the campaigns – but that meant we were writing individual briefs for the generals and that was a massive faff on and produced words that thirty people read.

So fuck that. I am a lot happier now we don’t write separate write-ups for the generals. Days go by during which I don’t even remember I used to have to do that.

Days.

The Goldbergs

The Goldbergs. I mentioned them at the start. Now I want to use Goldbergs episode titles as the theme for one of next year’s Winds of War. There’s enough of them, and it will spare me from having to fall back on Disturbed song titles. Or Marillion song titles, which will get me judged. Moreso.

There’s Just Something About A Nice Regional Accent

More Braaaaains

Zomboat

There’s four of them; they’re not massively complex even for sitcom characters; and they’re ever so slightly colour coded for your convenience (blue, yellow, red, and green). I’m trying to work out if the Gauntlet reference is intentional or not. Probably just a coincidence.

Following on from yesterday’s zombie exercise, we spent this evening playing a bit of Left 4 Dead 2 which was incredibly cheap on Steam. I’d not really played it before despite it having been out for ten years or so. It was quite entertaining in a “whoops I’ve been shot in the head by my own team again” kind of way but obviously more so in a “killin’ zombies with your mates” kind of a way.

The chainsaw is fun. I cannot aim any of the guns except the shotgun for love or money. We’ll probably go back and play some more of it tomorrow evening.

Hanging out with nerds is important given the depressing statistics about men our ages. I digress

That’s not really the subject of tonight’s post however. Although there are some very basic similarities. I’d initially planned to do Cockneys vs Zombies but at the last minute on a whim I changed my mind.

Instead I watched the first three episodes of new ITV 2 (!) sitcom Zomboat so you don’t have to (although you can if you like – it’s on ITV Hub if you’re bored). In my defence it seemed like a good idea at the time, and in actuality I didn’t resent the hour or so I wasted on it.

Premise

Leah Brotherhead

Kat plays computer games and has watched a lot of zombie movies, which means she’s the ideal person to take charge in the case of a zombie apocalypse. Or something. Also she doesn’t like the Big Bang Theory so she’s okay in my book.

The (comic) story involves two sisters – one a computer-game pop-culture geek the other not – and two mates on a stag do. There’s a zombie apocalypse in Birmingham. The plan is to escape the city via a longboat and head to London because apparently the canal goes to London.

I don’t recognise the cast, although a quick internet poke about suggests Cara Theobold is Jo – more worried about her recent break-up than the zombies. The geeky sister is Kat, played by Leah Brotherhead. She reminded me of a less extreme Meg from Dead Pixels (you might enjoy that as well if you haven’t seen it). She takes charge based on her experience playing a zombie horror MMORPG.

The two lads – Ryan McKen and Hamza Jeetooa – are entertaining in their way. Ryan is Amar – a “gym bunny” who is dense but well meaning and can’t keep his top on, while Hamza is Sunny – a bit of a passive-aggressive cynical whinger.

The characters are paper thin, obviously. But this is a zombie apocalypse story and a sitcom so I can forgive them that. It gets a bonus star – just the one – for being a sitcom in which two of the four leads are non-men and the other two are non-white, I guess.

The Show

Zombie Horde

The zombie horde that follows the narrowboat. At least two of them have specific connections to the main cast (a one-night stand, and a disgruntled rail employee). None of the other zombie hordes seen to far are any larger than this. I did say it was a bit low budget.

It’s okay so far if I’m honest and I’m not just saying that because I’m a sucker for certain regional accents.

In spite of myself I am enjoying the way that they don’t even try not to make terrible decisions. I guess that’s the sitcom element right there even when it stretches the bounds of credulity as in episode three where Jo waits barely five minutes before abandoning the boat to go look for a shower in the zombie infested hotel.

There’s slightly self-conscious zombie culture references throughout which amuse me and make me think I might be at least in part the target audience. It’s not subtle, mind.

Nor is it big budget; I could imagine most of the budget went on the narrow boat that our heroes are planning to ride to London. Birmingham seems oddly deserted for a start. The zombie horde is about half a dozen people, who are obviously following the narrow boat because it moves very slowly. It’s played for laughs – it’s no Shaun of the Dead but it’s better than a not insignificant proportion of the ZomPocalypse stuff I’ve seen over the last couple of years.

It’s self conscious but I’ll forgive it that even if it does have a bit where some other survivors just head off on their own to look for a car because escaping zombified Birmingham in a narrow boat is ridiculous.

Plus it has its moments. I laughed quietly at the bit where the sisters decide to go and get kitted out in leather because its a zombie apocalypse and that’s what you have to do no matter how impractical it all is.

Conclusion

I’m easily pleased, and I wasn’t looking for anything full of social commentary and challenging dark humour. It’s a bit slapstick in places even. You might enjoy it. Or not. I have no idea what your tastes are like.

I’ll definitely catch the rest of the episodes. secure in the knowledge it is almost certainly not getting a second series.

Halloween7

 

Six-and-a-Half Days to Die

SevenDaysCover

Despite the telltale Telltale logo in the bottom right its not a Telltale game as far as I can tell.

It being nearly Hallowe’en, I spent a pleasant evening playing zombie-horror survival game 7 Days to Die courtesy of Matt Heath and his spare Humble Bundle codes. I’m nothing if not late to the party given the game launched in 2013. Still, I never let a game being six years past its sell-by date put me off.

The Game

The game is pretty straightforward first-person survive-em-up. You start naked in a random spot – in my case on the default map which is Navezgane apparently based on real-world Arizona – and then survive. There doesn’t seem to be anything more than that going on and to be honest I’m not that fussed. I’ve played hundreds of hours of Skyrim, for example, and never once finished the main quest because I’m not a main quest kinda guy. Having an entire game where there’s no main quest suits me down to the ground.

It’s also a building/crafting game – basically Minecraft with lots and lots of zombies and a slightly less blocky graphics style – which is a genre I’m enjoying quite a lot at the moment. It’s a long way from My Time At Portia (which is what I’d been playing previously), to put it mildly. It’s also a lot less polished.

It’s familiar stuff – punch trees and grass to get basic materials, turn them into tools to let you gather materials more efficiently and then make clothes and armour and walls and tools and bicycles. All while dodging (or shooting in the head) zombies, zombie vultures, and zombie dogs.

There seem to be a variety of zombies, in that some of them are clearly tougher than others. Some of them wear helmets which in my opinion is cheating. I know somewhere out there there’s some that spit goo because of course there is.

The main game loop is based around the fact that during the day zombies are slow and sluggish but at night they are fast and nasty. You scavenge during the day, and you hide at night. Or at least that’s what you do it you’re me.

The Goal

Having played six previous games of varying success, I decided to go all-out for my eight-more-days-to-Hallowe’en (siilver shamrock) play through and try to do what it said on the tiny – survive until day seven.

If you’ve read the title of this rambling post you’ll already have an idea how well that went.

Character Sheet

This is my oh-so-moody looking character. He’s got a second hand t-shirt, a duster he found in a car boot, a hat he found in a duffel bag in the middle of nowhere, some big chunky boots, and a pair of trousers he wove out of grass because apparently there are no trousers in the zombie wilderness. Come to think of it I’ve not seen any sports bras either. Hmmmm.

Day One : The Tale of Tree Puncher

Things got off to an inauspicious start. The game plonks you in a random location (naked apart from tasteful long boxers) and this time round it had plonked me in the desert. I nearly started over immediately, but I knew if I did I’d feel like a cheat so I decided to go with it.

The “tutorial” basically consists of a set of straightforward missions that get you to build a series of basic items – bedroll, stone axe, wooden club, My-First-Longbow, that kind of thing. That’s about all the handholding it does. You can do these quests in about three minutes. They give you some bonus skill points (the game has a large number of perks which, following my usual strategy in this kind of scenario, I mostly spent on being able to carry more stuff. You can never carry enough stuff in this kind of game).

The last quest sends you off to the nearest trader, but I decided to ignore that for the time being. I spent the first day running around punching and hacking at trees, and getting a feel for the lay of the land. Spotted a house by the lake and made a mental note to explore that once I’d build a basic panic room in the upstairs of a nearby derelict house.

Then night fell.

Night One : All Walls Must Apparently Fall

If the game has a flaw its the night cycle. Because I had an adequate panic room (or so I thought) I just planned to hunker down in a corner and make some stone arrows and maybe cook some roadkill. Unfortunately, I managed to attract the attention of some of the nearby walking dead who invaded the house, and knocked down my door.

I fought them off – having stupidly not left myself an escape route out of the panic room that wasn’t through the zombies breaking into it – and then discovered I’d not got the wood to replace the damaged door. Or the wall. The fighting attracted more zombies who came in through the wall which was less than helpful. What even are walls for if they don’t stop zombies smashing through them?

So I had to dash out and get some more wood, at night, while zombies shambled quickly towards me. It was a bit hectic. Then I discovered I’d blocked the stairs efficiently enough to stop me getting up them, but not efficiently enough to stop zombies getting up them. Its a long story.

I had to quickly build a ladder and break into my own house through a random window, then repair all the damage, then hunker down for the last few hours.

Night in the game lasts officially from ten until four in the morning. It’s both a strong part of the game, and a weak part. It’s strong because its atmospheric and drives a lot of the survival elements. You sit there straining to hear zombies, or the sound of them breaking things. Otherwise it’s silent apart from the odd bit of mood music that helps up the tension a little.

It’s weak because it seems to last about ten minutes during which – at least in the early stages and if you are me – you just sit in total silence, in the dark, doing nothing because your stealth is not very good and if you make too much noise there is a good chance a passing zombie will hear you, smash through your wall, and kill you. In the dark.

The games atmospheric, at least. Assuming you’re a wuss, obviously.

Day Two : The Lakehouse

The Lakehouse

The Lakehouse. It’s a bit cooler inside. Also darker. It’s actually a bit prettier than this but the excessive desert heat appears to be making it hard for me to focus.

I survived the night. I built a lock box, and slapped it down next to my sleeping bag in my slightly-more-secure panic room.

Sleeping bags, incidentally, are where you respawn if you die. You reappear next to the last sleeping bag you put down. Naked. This can be less than ideal for reasons I will come to later.

Being a desert, water was at a premium but luckily I’d spawned near a lake and already spotted an interesting house on the far side of it. Locking all my spare junk in the lock box, I set off for the lake to fill up some tin cans I’d found in a toilet (don’t ask) with lovely dysentry-flavoured lake water.

While there, I nipped over to have a look at the lake house and it was as I’d hoped reasonably intact with a fortifiable lower level and a lootable upper level. Only the second morning and I’d already mentally abandoned the panic room that had served me so ineffectively the night before. I spent the next bit of the day piling things in front of windows, boiling the dysentery out of the water, and dismantling some tables.

I also found a locked door. It intrigued me but as night was coming on I decided not to spend the time smashing it in to see what was on the other side. Plus I’ve seen enough zombie movies to know that what was on the other side might well have been zombies.

Second night was spent sitting in the dark. I managed to attract some zombies – again – because I hadn’t realised opening and closing lock boxes made noise. I fought them off, but not before they’d smacked two very inconvenient gaping holes in the side of my second panic room.

I spent four hours squatting in a corner, my bow trained on first one then the other opening, staying very still indeed while the occasional zombie horror wandered past. It was reasonably chilling.

Day Three : Making It Work

As soon as the zombie cock crowed, I dashed out and chopped some precious, precious trees down. The desert has a lot of cacti but not a lot of trees (perhaps unsurprisingly) so wood was a valuable resource. I used the wood to barricade up all the holes my unexpected guests had made, then put a load of spikes around to inconvenience them.

Remember those spikes. They’ll be mentioned again soon.

With the new base somewhat more secure, I nipped over and grabbed my stuff from the first even less secure panic room because I cannot help myself. There was nothing there of any real value but the fact I had crafting resources in the wrong place where I couldn’t easily get to them niggled at me.

These resources were heavy. I staggered back across the desert to the lakehouse at half speed because even with all my initial points going towards caryring mroe stuff… you can never have enough carrying capacity.

During the third day I also got more practice in with My-First-Longbow. I’m a big believer in stealth in this kind of game – my default Skyrim character is sneaky with a bow and his cousin “Fallout Guy” is sneaky with a rifle. They both tend to have charisma too, but the zombies have demonstrated no real interest in witty repartee so I imagine that won’t carry over to this game very well.

Night Three involved hiding in the new lair and this time nobody broke in. Triumph!

Fates Motel

The Fates Motel. I got a bit closer. Then I ran away again because there were zombies inside. I’m a sucker for sad stuff like this in games. Like that Mordiggian shrine in Fallout 3.

Day Four : Exploration

First thing in the morning, I smashed in the locked door. I was both pleased (and disappointed) to discover there were in fact no zombies behind it, but instead a locked gun cabinet. Which resisted all my attempts to smash it open. Apparently I needed lockpicks.

Oh well. I never like guns if I can fire arrows anyway. The ammunition is too hard to make. And also there’s all the noise.

Having proved that Lakehouse Base was secure as long as you didn’t run around slamming doors or whatever, I set off to do some actual exploring. I’d spotted a few buildings in the vicinity while out and about – as well as what looked a lot like an apartment complex tower that I’d already made a mental note to give a wide berth to.

The one that had intrigued me was a kind of gothic mansion on a hill. So loaded up with arrows, a cowboy hat, and a leather duster I’d found in a car boot, I explored more closely.

It turned out the house overlooked a little motel. The Fates Motel, in fact. Which was full of zombies and zombie dogs.

This made me chuckle a little. One of the things I like about this kind of game is exploring locations with character and this one had some character. It’s the best part of any Skyrim or Fallout game – sneaking into a dangerous location, surviving the monsters, and looting everything in sight before shambling slowly back to base because you’re overloaded.

The Fates Motel was quite nicely done. Because I’m into that whole immersion thing, breaking into each apartment in the motel in turn was full of sudden jump scares, sniping at sneaky zombies lying behind things, and generally running around having a whale of a time.

Then, in one of the bathrooms, I found a portrait. I’d not seen a portrait in any other bathrooms. So I smacked it, and low-and-behold it smashed to reveal a hole leading into the apartment next door that I had previously been unable to get into.

Thank you Norman Bates.

The next door apartment turned out to have a ladder leading down into the cellar. With some coffins. And a tunnel that blatantly lead toward the house. And some zombie cheerleaders.

So I had a little dungeon delve, and sure enough three zombie cheerleaders later we came up in the cellar of the Fates House. I didn’t get much further than this because while dispatching Norman Fates’ overweight uncle (or whatever) I manged to make enough noise to attract what sounded like half a dozen flesh-crazed monsters and there was no way I was fighting them in an enclosed space. So I ran away back down the tunnel.

And by run I mean “staggered and spent a lot of time leaning on walls catching my breath” because obviously I was overloaded.

Having cleared the motel section I nipped up to have a look at the house – which had clearly been the site of someone’s last stand. I smashed a few windows and snuck a look inside but there were zombie noises and my well-honed “don’t go into the house full of zombies” instincts took over.

On the way home I stopped in to see the trader and sold him some feathers. He gave me a quest. I ignored it.

Night Four passed like Night Five – huddled in the dark. I risked making a few arrows, but didn’t turn the fire on because light attracts zombies. So I sat in the dark shivering.

Day Five : Running Around Like A Headless Chicken With Sunstroke

Having had some success I did a quick dash round adding some extra reinforcement to the Lakehouse – blocking up the windows so I could stop hiding in the cupboard under the stairs and maybe expand out into the whole downstairs.

That done. I decided to take a look at some other nearby locations. A car showroom with a load of derelict cars in the lot yielded some loot. I weighted up the pros and cons of breaking into the actual showroom and decided against it because basically I’m a coward.

While I was looting the last sedan on the forecourt, I heard a very odd noise and to my surprise a plane went over… and dropped a parachuted-and-smoke-equipped crate into the nearby hills. Excellent! Supply drops! Probably a shotgun!

Unfortunately, I got distracted by zombie birds and missed exactly where the fucking thing landed. While trying to find it however I found a massive hotel, complete with swimming pool. I spent a few minutes poking around and even went into one of the hotel rooms… before exiting through the window pursued by a ravening horde of flesh-hungry Butlins staff.

You may have noticed that there’s a pattern here. Shut up.

This is where I got cocky, unfortunately, and decided that I might as well try out the trader’s fetch quest for some easy loot and experience points I could use to increase my carrying capacity. So instead of returning to base I followed the road up and round looking for a bridge to cross the river (and also additional loot).

I ended up having to establish a couple of supply caches in the boots of abandoned cars because there is only so much random scrap iron and bottles one man can carry.

There was a brief adventure with an army camp in which we discovered that the zombies who can smash through brick walls don’t find it any more difficult to smash their way through green canvas tents. That was a bit hairy, as I was taken a bit by surprise. But! I escaped valiantly from the army camp!

Unfortunately, this left me in the middle of nowhere with night drawing in. I pegged it along the road a bit further – and again I mean I shambled at the kind of speed that would make a three-legged tortoise embarrassed – and found a bridge and a gas station.

But it was getting dark. The last thing I wanted to do was to spend the time breaking into the gas station because it might well turn out not to be defensible or to be full of zombie cheerleaders.

Shack Interior

Interior: Shack. You can just about make out the escape ladder that leads up through the hole in the roof. It’s basically a glorified packing crate. I spent ten minutes sat in pitch blackness listening to zombies snuffle around outside.

Working desperately, I built a shack. If you’ve played Minecraft or Terraria you know what it looks like. Four blocks by four blocks three blocks high with a roof. It’s quite quick to build stuff in this game – thank goodness. I only had to stop halfway through and dash off and cut a tree down (and kill a zombie who’d been attracted by all the hammering) twice. I got the door on just as the sun set and then – because I had learned at least one lesson – I left a hole in the roof with a ladder leading up to it. If the worst came to the worst I could dash up the ladder, jump off the makeshift roof, and peg it into the night.

With that in mind I very carefully put all my spare stuff into a box. Then sat in complete silence for ten minutes, facing the ladder, while a bunch of zombies wandered around outside moaning.

Luckily, they were zombies and didn’t notice that someone had built an ugly wooden shack where there had previously been no shack.

Sunrise

Sunrise! Never has the light seemed so sweet etc etc I left the shack in place as I planned to expand it as a secondary base in the north with easy access to scavenging sites and tasty fresh dysentery. Oh, how Fate laughs at our plans.

Day Six : Pride Goeth etc etc

Another night survived! In a glorified crate! I celebrated by exploring the gas station which was quite fun if a bit nerve wracking. In the process I picked up a load of petrol for making molotov cocktails with. Hurrah!

Roof Camp

The roof camp. It’s a little thing but this kind of straightforward storytelling by location makes me happy. It made the broken-in door I’d found downstairs make more sense as well. Not shown: zombie Thelma and Louise who ate my face a bit before I clubbed them to death while swearing and trying not to fall off the roof.

On the roof, I got distracted by zombie vultures and while gutting one very nearly died due to an ambush by two actual zombies who had been hiding behind the air conditioner unit. I managed to survive, and found another one of those little story things. Someone else had been camping on the roof – I know because I found their  camp and their bloody partially-eaten skeleton.

After observing a moment of silence for the poor fallen survivor, I looted everything they had and jumped off the roof and ran off again leaving the zombies attracted by all the fighting and swearing to eat my dust.

One of the things I’d looted was some sunglasses – which was just as well as the heat was getting a bit much thanks to all that “desert” stuff. I put them on cockily, and reached the village where the goods the trader had sent me to collect were.

Huzzah! This was going to be a piece of piss! Find the stash, loot it, lock the doors and block up some windows, sit quietly while zombies rampaged outside, then fuck off back south with my ill gotten gains, deliver them to the questgiver, and do a celebratory dance!

Zombie Town Arizona

Pick up the stash, investigate that gas station, kill Phil, and fuck off down the Winchester and wait for all this to blow over. Bosch.

You can see where this is going.

So far, the only creatures that had really given me much hassle were the zombie dobermans. Breaking into the abandoned safehouse to get the stashed goods required navigating a tunnel and fighting past one of these fuckers that left me on even lower health than my earlier run-in with Thelma and Lousie and their vulture buddies. Still, I was confident I could handle whatever came next.

What came next was a ladder. A scary ladder leading up into the house.

I briefly wondered if I should just go back and attempt an entrance through one of the windows or – my usual modus operandus – the roof. But no! I had a cowboy hat, hobnailed boots, and some sunglasses! When man in a cowboy hat, hobnail boots, and some sunglasses finds a tunnel, he uses the tunnel!

Long story short there was another dog at the top of the ladder. I fell down the ladder trying to get away from it – My-First-Longbow is a lot less useful when trying to fight a creature that is already chewing your leg – and then the dog followed me down and ate my spleen.

Day Six-and-a-Half : Remember the Spikes?

I respawned, naked, back in the Lakehouse. All my gear was in the tunnels under the compromised safe house being guarded by an undead doberman fuck knuckle.

Still, I did not despair.

Okay I despaired a little bit – I’d screwed my self-imposed survive-seven-days challenge. But! I could come back from this! All I needed to do was grab the spare junk I’d stored in the Lakehouse, and get back north ASAP to reclaim my lost stuff and show zombie cujo who was boss.

Unfortunately… remember I’d blocked up all the windows to make the downstairs more secure before setting out on my ill-fated fetch quest? Well it turns out that what stops light getting out also stops light getting in… and my only light source was currently being used as a chew toy by Clifford the Big Black Zombie Dog.

Still, I managed to find the chest by carefully rotating the camera in pitch black, got some gear out, and left the cupboard under the stairs…

… forgetting I’d put spikes everywhere. I walked straight into them in the dark, panicked, run into some more, bashed off a door, ran out into the sunlight… straight into some more spikes and also a zombie surfer and died again.

Respawning inside. In the dark. With the spikes.

At this point, I guessed the Gods of Computer Game Karma were sending me a message and bowed my head and accepted defeat.

Conclusion : I’d Only Have Wasted The Time Anyway

It’s a fun enough game. It’s not exactly polished. It’s got at least some story built into its locations. It’s got zombies. It’s got the bit I like most in Fallout – exploring a wasteland at your own pace with the only gentle nudging being the need to eat and drink and not be killed by zombies rather than a bunch of quest markers.

I was engrossed enough I kept forgetting to take screenshots, although I am easily pleased, which may have some bearing on my enjoyment.

It’s technically a multiplayer game – one of those “you and a bunch of people spawn on a map and can cooperate or kill each other or whatever” and I suspect that element might be fun. Its about twenty quid on Steam at the moment, however, and fun as it is that feels a bit steep for a six-year-old game with blocky graphics. Hopefully the upcoming Hallowe’en sale will knock the price right down and I can convince some of my mates they want to break into some zombie-filled hotels and stab up the residents in their lunch hour.

Raff’s Score: 7/10

an enjoyable romp with some nuggets of story and plenty of scope for emergent narrative if you’re that kind of person. It probably helps if you’re easily pleased, like survival crafting open world horror and making your own entertainment, and are a massive wuss who gets spooked by tinny electronic groaning noises, mind.

Halloween

Making the World a Better Place

After a month or so of hiatus, I’ve just finished the fourth of the “world powers” videos for Empire. It talks about the Commonwealth, and its relationship with the Empire. As with the previous four scripts its not exactly the same as the words on the video – and it  contains some truly awful efforts to write German words and phrases phonetically (where”phonetically” means “how they sound in Raff’s head”.

I probably shouldn’t have used so much Google Translate here but I got the idea of doing so because of the emphasis the Commonwealth places on having a common tongue and contrasting that with the Empire and… it was probably a mistake.

This one was a bit more effort to make that the previous ones, not least because I was experimenting with landscape video after demands from the public; with putting more words on the screen; and with wearing a knitted woolen hat that looks a bit like a knight’s helmet because I had one and the Commonwealth is all about the fighter tropes.

Also tricky because I worry about the Commonwealth and whether it’s unintentionally too racist. I don’t think it is, but even I balked when google translate told me the German for “The Empire” would be “Das Reich” and spelled it differently. It really is just random chance that the dice assigned “German” to the “Fighter nation” back in the day, but it still makes me nervous in some nebulous way. Probably residual ‘Allo ‘Allo guilt or something. 

Anyway.

You can find the video here.

OVERVIEW

Grooser Burger as they probably say in Ge mine semmer sprakker if google translate is to be believed! Here we have the fourth video about the Empire’s peers on the world stage – the stratocracy of the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth lies to the south-east of the Empire, and shares the same landmass as their great rivals the magocratic Principalities of Jarm.

The Commonwealth are arguably the closest of the great powers to the Empire in terms of outlook – or at least the Empire as Imperial citizens sometimes imagine it to be. In the past though their actual impact on the Empire has been limited, but now that the two nations are partners in the Liberty Pact that is likely going to change.

They’re pretty much the fighter in the Great Foreign Nations adventuring party – their theme is one part military dictatorship and one part social-justice-warrior hegemonizing swarm. Their visual influences are pretty much taken from the Eisen sorucebook for Seventh Sea crossed with a bit of the Old World Empire from Warhammer.

The Commonwealth believes in the Greatest Good for the Greatest Number of People and they can prove by any metric you care to mention that the best thing for everyone is to be part of the Commonwealth. One day, they say, they’ll conquer the whole world – by which time hopefully someone will have worked out what they’re going to do next.

The Commonwealth

As a nation the Commonwealth is young – just over two and a half centuries old. Following the teachings of visionary philosopher Leonitz Altmann, the soldiers of five splintered monarchies helped lead a popular revolution and unite their people into the core of the modern Commonwealth. Sick of tyranny and corruption, they tried to create something new and better.

Today they are a stratocracy – a nation run its generals. They’re by no means a straightforward military dictatorship however – leaders are appointed by the people they will lead. The soldiers choose their captains, and so on up through the ranks. All rank is by appointment from below not selection from above.

While the armies form the executive and legislative arms of the government, they do not operate in a vaccuum. The military is closely advised by the professors and scholars of the many universities that dot the land. Indeed the Commonwealth is as famous for its learning as it is for its military might. Some of the most influential people in the Commonwealth are the philosophers who dedicate themselves to establishing the most ethical course of action for their nation.

Conquest

Core to the nations belief is the idea that it can make the world a better place – a conviction that makes its neighbours very nervous. They steadily expand, and not only through conquest – they are almost invariably prepared to use the pen as well as the sword to convince people of the rightness of their approach.

They may be expansionist but they aren’t interested in subjugating their conquered neighbours. They aren’t motivated by greed, but by an absolute commitment to the idea of spreading the philosophy of the greater good.

A common claim from the philosophers of the Commonwealth is that they will only consider going to war if they can prove that the suffering caused by doing so will be less in the long term than the suffering caused by doing nothing.

And despite what the Jarmish may say, being part of the Commonwealth brings all sorts of benefits – as long as one is prepared to accept the philosophy of the greater good. While the civilian population can’t hold political rank, and don’t participate in government, they enjoy a great deal of security and a surprising amount of freedom – their quality of life is at least comparable to that of their Imperial counterparts and in same cases may even be higher.

Gemeinsamesprache

Everyone in the Commonwealth speaks the Ge mine semmer sprakker (the “common tongue”). All official documents are written in this language, and every child is required to learn it as their first language. Other tongues exist, but while the Commonweath makes no effort to stamp them out, they are not promoted.

This promotion of a single unifying language is not just about cultural domination. Commonwealth philosophers argue that language shapes thought, and by using a single language it is easier for citizens from diverse backgrounds and locations to be united in their pursuit of the greater good. More practically, they believe that different languages make it harder for people to understand each other, and thus easier for unfortunate misunderstandings to create conflict.

Are they correct? Opinion among Imperial citizens is divided – but this idea of a single unifying language is another quality that they share with the Empire… although obviously the two nations speak to very different languages.

Humans, Orcs and Daeva

Like the Empire, the Commonwealth is dominated by humans (both lineaged and unlineaged). Also like the Empire, the Commonwealth counts significant numbers of orcs among its citizens. Unlike the Empire, however, those orcs appear to be largely integrated into society, living alongside and sharing the same rights, responsibilities, and opportunities as their human neighbours.

Not every citizen is a human or orc however. There is a third species that lives in the Commonwealth alongside them – the daeva. They’re unknown in the Empire; about the only thing that most people know is that they are a short-lived people filled with an unquenchable dynamic urge to get things done.

In the same way that orcs have an urge to gregariousness, and a draw toward conflict, the daeva are believed to have a driving urge to make the world a better place – something that makes the Commonwealth a natural home for their people.

**NOTE ON SCREEN: DAEVA ARE NOT AVAILABLE AS PLAYER CHARACTERS**

Magicians and Artisans

The commonwealth has comparatively few magicians. Their “Zauberer” are expected to use their magic to support the military, and there is a great emphasis on practical application over theory. Most of the Commonwealth magicians are spellcasters, rather than ritual magicians. Those who do master realm lores tend to focus on magic they can work by themselves, and the nation as a whole doesn’t have many covens capable of wielding powerful ritual magic. Where they do exist, these covens are almost always connected to one of the Commonwealth armies.

Unsurprisingly, the Commonwealth focuses on magic of use on the battlefield – their most powerful ritual magicians master the lores of Autumn and Summer, and the healing powers of Spring. The rituals of Day and Night are seen as the province of philosophers, while the realm of Winter is seen as particularly suspect, and its use discouraged.

All of this makes the recent offer by the Conclave to let Commonwealth magicians study Imperial lore all the more important. Now, any zauberer prepared to travel to the Empire can learn from what may well be the largest body of ritual magic in the world. It won’t put them on par with the Princes of Jarm overnight but it promises to greatly expand the ability of Commonwealth magicians to support their nation.

What they lack in magical ability, they make up for in industry. The Commonwealth has a great many artisans, expert at constructing magic items, especially weapons and armour. There are numerous items known in the Commonwealth that are unknown by their Imperial counterparts. One example would be artisan’s oil – the recipe for which was recently introduced to the Empire from the Commonwealth as part of a deal brokered by the Fellowship of the Purple Sails. Now that the two nations are allies, there may well be further opportunities to expand the knowledge of Imperial artisans.

Religion

The common good contains many ideas that the priests of the Way might recognise. It encourages loyalty and personal pride; respects courage; enshrines wisdom as a lofty ideal; and encourages both prosperity and ambition.

That said… the common good is not the Way. It doesn’t recognise the virtues as distinct entities but instead promotes the idea of living a good live, founded on ethical principles, that recognises both individual freedom and communal responsibility. Commonwealth priests have a not-entirely unearned reputation for being condescending to the “backwards” priests of the Imperial Synod – and vice versa.

As with any established religion, there are several competing schools of thought as to how to put the ideals of the Common Good into practice. They all tend to agree however that the first step toward achieving the greatest good for the greatest number of people lies in choosing to live an ethical life; to avoid causing suffering to others as much as possible; and to actively reduce the suffering of other sapient peoples.

While most priests are civilians, and tend toward a more philosophical approach to their faith, there are also orders of paladins in the Commonwealth who take a more active even martial approach to the common good.

Some are missionaries, while others serve as armoured knights who inspire and support their fellow soldiers. There are even a few who serve as covert operatives infiltrating hostile nations and encouraging rebellion and social change.

Commonwealth priests know and employ the ceremonies that are familiar to their Imperial counterparts, especially Testimony and Insight. For the most part though, their emphasis is on spiritual counsel, inspiration, and education rather than the use of liao ceremonies – which brings us to one point of contention between the followers of the common good and the followers of the Way.

The Aura Problem

There is one major fly in the ointment when it comes to relations between the priests of the Way and the priests of the common good and that revolves around auras – anounting, consecration, and hallow. For commonwealth priests, spiritual auras are created by wicked people – witches and sorcerers – who use them to subvert free will. How can someone make a real choice when their mind is being influenced by supernatural forces they ask.

They don’t just restrict themselves to the kinds of auras created by ceremonial skills – Commonwealth priests also hunt down ghosts and spontaneous auras and eradicate them wherever they find them. Paladins who dedicate themselves to this practice are sometimes called HEXEN YAY GUR – witch hunters.

As a consequence of this attitude, few Commonwealth priests are tied to a virtue as is popualr with their Imperial counterparts. While they could in theory use the dedication ceremony in this manner, there are few benefits from the point of view of the Commonweath – and some drawbacks given the restrictions on cooperation by those dedicated to multiple virtues.

Imperial priests often see the Commonwealth’s prejudice agaisnt spiritual auras as being an expression of Lucidianism, but the movements are unrelated. Lucidianism grows out of the desire to explore the seven virtues without the distractions caused by auras; the Commonwealth opposition to auras runs much deeper and is based around idea of self-determination, enlightened choice, and consent.

That said – there is no open opposition to the Way in the Commonwealth. While the common good is widespread, there is no persecution of pilgrims of the Way and while they are a small minority there are plenty of congregations who explore and study the doctrines of the faith and the tenets of the virtues. Many of these Commonwealth pilgrims look to Bastion or Timoj for guidance, but they tend to share their peoples suspicion of spiritual auras which causes some more hardling Imperial and Sumaah priests to view them as borderline heretics.

Freedom, Responsibility, and Jarm

The Commonwealth prides itself in recogniing all sapient beings as having equal standing before their law, and equal opportunities within their society.

The commonwealth absolutely abhors slavery, as several of their neighbours have learned to their cost. The idea that a person might be treated as an object, and denied the ability to make meaningful choices, is anathema to the idea of the greatest good.

Coupled with their commitment to the common good, this philosophy places them at odds with the powerful neighbouring nation of the Principalities of Jarm where all power rests in the hands of the noble Magician-Princes, people who cannot work magic are second class citizens, and the economy rests on the backs of a vast exploited underclass of human and orc slaves. The two nations have clashed several times in the last century in the political and diplomatic arenas, but only rarely have they fought one another openly and then mostly in a limited fashion.

Luckily there are is a buffer between the two nations formed of smaller independent kingdoms. It would be a different matter if they shared a land border… something I’ll come back to in a moment.

Unsurprisingly, the Commonwealth were enthusiastic supporters of the Liberty Pact. Through the pact, they are now allied with the Empire and the Sumaah, and apparently looking forward to stamping out the practice of slavery wherever it can be found. This has obviously caused their relations with Jarm to deteriorate even further, and soured their already shaky relations with the Asavean Republic, but you can’t make an omelette without destroying some tyrannical regimes.

The Lantir Question

On the subject of a land border… the Commonwealth and the Principalities of Jarm share a landmass but they are seperated by a number of smaller notionally independent nations. Caught between two giants, these smaller nations do their best to play their larger neighbours off against each other but as the Commonwealth has expanded that buffer zone has become thinner and thinner.

Things have come to a head very recently over the tiny independent nation of Lantir which lies on the border between the two nations. Both its larger neighbours wielded some influence there, but with the formation of the Liberty pact the Commonwealth gave the people of Lantir an ultimatuum – eschew slavery and cut their ties with the Jarmish or lose all Commonwealth support.

Most of the nobles of Lantir vacillated for a while, but finally came down on the Commonwealth side. Unfortunately, some of them – those of a magical bent who enjoyed their close relations with their Jarmish cousins – were not happy about this and apparently attempted a coup. The Lantir government responded by asking for Commonwealth assistance… the magicians called for Jarmish assistance… and open war between the two great nations over the much smaller nation of Lantir became inevitable.

With the Empire and Sumaah positioned as the ally of the Commonwealth, it seems impossible that they will not end up being dragged into this conflict in some capacity. As it currently stands, the Commonwealth has the superior military but its ability to wield magic is significantly more limtied than that of Jarm, and the princes have allies of their own they can call upon.

It isn’t looking good for the tiny nation of Lantir, to put it mildly.

The Commonwealth and the Empire

But Lantir is a very long way away and the Empire’s interests there are pretty much non existant. The important thing to most Imperial citizens is how the stratocracy of the common good gets along with them.

Until very recently, relations between the Commonwealth were not good. Imperial politics favoured closer relations with the Principalities of Jarm with the Commonwealth lagging a distant second. Economic and diplomatic ties with the slavers of the Asavean Archipelago further worsened the Commonwealth’s attitude to the Empire. In fact at one point the Commonwealth ports of Leerdam and Volkavaar imposed sanctions on Imperial traders, and it looked likely that the nation might cut ties with the Empire altogether.

Luckily, diplomatic efforts brought the two nations back from the precipice. With the signing of the Liberty Pact, and the invitation to the zuberer to expand their magical horizons, there is detente between Commonwealth and Empire. Trade is flourishing, and the foundation is laid for a strong alliance. Potentially.

It remains to be seen how long the Empire and the Commonwealth can maintain their good relations. While they have a lot in common, their similarities may just bring their differences into stark relief.

Both nations have a sense of their own destiny, an urge to expand and spread their way of life to others, and an unquenchable ambition. Eventually conflict between the two is inevitable. They can’t both conquer the entire world, after all.

Epilogue

So that;s the Commonwealth. A nation that owes a little bit to the nation of Thyatis for original dungeons and dragons, and quite a lot more to the writing of Ian Banks. It often throws the differing political attitudes of myself and my boss into stark relief. I see it as a wannabe socialist utopia, he sees it as an authoritarian left-wing dictatorship. We can’t both be right! Or can we…

Anyway, for now they’re cautious allies of the Empire, about to embark on what will either be a small localised conflict far away or the start of the first world war in the Empire world.

You can find further details of everything I’ve mentioned here on the main Empire Wiki. A good place to start is anything that is tagged “Trade Winds” and find the section headed “Commonwealth”

There’s one more nation to cover in our tour of the five World Powers – the Principalities of Jarm – the potent magocracy whose relations with the Empire in recent years have been – to put it mildly- complicated. Until then Handle so, DAAS DASS GROSSER MOG LEESH MASS AN GOOTEM FUUR DIE GROWS SMOG LEECH ANZAHL VON PERSONS ENTS TETT.

(Then Apologise)

Self Indulgent Rubbish About Gazelles

Overly Wordy Set-Up

I tried something different for my walk today.
Actually before I go any further – I’m a fat bastard and my exercise regime largely consists of walking and climbing up and down the four flights of stairs between the filtered water on the ground floor and the attic garret that I occupy on the third floor. When I walk, I listen to Zombies, Run.
(It’s technically a running app, but I use it for keeping me company while walking. It is fun in 30-minute chunks like a radio drama but with added sweating and dodging cars).
Also this is technically a Facebook post but it became pretty clear it was way too long so I thought fuckit, this is why we have the WordPresses and if I put this on the Patreon it will no-doubt cost me Patronisers. Plus next time I go back to Patreon I will need to get my finger out and write the last of the pieces I owe which I am finding very hard to complete due to it being about player sense of entitlement. It’d be easy to write, but not easy to write in a way that doesn’t have the word “fucking” every other sentence. I digress.
Anyway. Walking. I’m meant to be keeping more active as part of the ongoing plan to not die. Unfortunately, I now live half way up a hill in Penrith, a town made up entirely of hills as near as I can tell. The first three-quarters of every outside walk is fine as it is downhill or level. The last quarter is hell as it is uphill and, as mentioned previously, I am a fat bastard.

New Plans and the Bloodthirsty Gazelle

Wallpaper

It’s nice enough wallpaper but its not a patch on the scenic streets or the need to stay vaguely alert so you don’t get run down by a taxi on the narrow pavements.

After checking out google maps and realising that my initial crazy plan of heading uphill so that I could come downhill at the end and this make everything 25% less painful was… well even basic maths would suggest this was a flawed strategy. And everywhere I go I’m either going to have to climb a hill at the start or at the end and I’m not in the mood for hills unless there is an errand in the middle that makes the hill wortwhile.

So instead I got back onto the deeply misleadingly named “gazelle” which stands halfway up the house.
A gazelle is a massive construction of metal and plastic which is a walking machine. You stand on the skis and you walk. It’s pretty straightforward. In the case of this particular gazelle, you walk while staring at a wall and hoping you don’t accidentally smack the radiator with your naked elbow. They you have a shower. Then you feel good about exercising or something.
I’ve had some problems in the past with the gazelle. The very first time I tried it out – stupidly in my bare feet – it tried to kill me. It soon became clear that like an evil piece of clothes-washing-machinery from a Stephen King short story it requires regular blood sacrifices before it will let me use it. I’ve definitely broken a toe, and twisted an ankle trying to use it. Shut up. I have.
It’s okay once you get started. It’s just really, really boring.
The other problem (aside from its attempts to kill me) is that I struggle to combine it with the usual Zombies, Run walking regime which is why I stopped using it and went back to plan B (not exercising unless we were out of bread).
I like the way Zombies, Run is put together normally – in episodic chunks with space between to listen to music or to think or just look at the scenery. Penrith has some nice scenery and I like listening to music so that’s been working out well – apart from the way the awareness of that fucking hill sucks all the joy out of the last ten minutes of the walk.
Recently I’ve been using the time between story segments to plan stuff and think about games and whotnot rather than listen to music. Things like how I can say “players are entitled little shits sometimes” without actually saying that, and also how to spin that into four thousand words. Saying it another six-hundred-and-sixty-six and a bit times is not going to cut it.

The Tedium of the Short Distance Walker

Unfortunately, that doesn’t work as well on the gazelle. The scenery – a wall – is not very engaging. I’ve tried turning my head and looking at the doors on the landing, but they quickly lost their appeal. I’ve peeked through them. I know what’s in there. I can’t see it form the gazelle.
I’ve tried convincing little-black-cat Truffle to keep me company but I found her unblinking stare too judgemental and made her go away. Plus she would insist on sitting on the stairs behind me. I could feel her judging me but unless I turned round to check I was never sure if she was actually still there or whether I was chatting to the air like a crazy person.
I tried shutting my eyes and almost immediately fell off the gazelle because apparently my sense of balance when hanging in suspended plastic skiis is dependent on me being able to see what I’m doing. Also it didn’t work to keep me engaged.
So in the end I stopped using the gazelle. It still tried to kill me once a month or so, usually late at night when I was trying to creep quietly to the bathroom, past the in-laws bedroom door, without waking them, because I am considerate and everything.

I Hate Being Bored and I Can Punch Suns

Today though – having abandoned my plan to use a hill to ruin the first 25% of the walk and thus the entire rest of the walk rather than just the last 25% – I hit on the idea of balancing my tablet on top of some boxes and watching a video.
To be fair, I came to the idea of watching videos on a tablet late in life. Intellectually I knew that you could do this, and that my tablet was basically a tiny flat computer. Realistically, I felt the idea of doing anything other than reading on it was probably witchcraft and letting the side down. And I can’t read while walking on the gazelle – the distraction would just create an opening with which it could make another attempt to suck on my innocent blood and bone marrow.
But I’ve slowly been converted to the idea of treating the tablet like a tiny portable computer, and since I’ve recently joined the early twenty-first century in watching videos on the YouTubes –
– wait have you heard of the YouTubes? There’s all these videos online, literally hundreds of them, and some of them are not awful! I’ve been watching some about games and stuff, and occasionally short horror movies. Its ace!
– I decided to employ all my maths and engineering prowess to prop the tablet up on top of some boxes and watch a Shut Up and Sit Down review. The nice thing was that I could tailor the video in question to how long I wanted to exercise for. In theory, it’s not that much different to listening to Zombies, Run. But in practice it should be more engaging.
Obviously, I need to pick the video carefully. Narrative causality will ensure that if I watch anything dubious one of the in-laws will wander past just as some fat bastard called Electronic Arts a cunt. Or, worse, if I listen to anything musical I’ll just start singing along (which is maybe the real reason I don’t want to walk listening to music while around people who may be judging me silently).
Thankfully, Shut Up and Sit Down (who I had recommended to me by a friend yesterday) are very family friendly. They also look like grown ups which is nice. And more importantly for purposes of this experiment their reviews tend to be between twenty minutes and half an hour long.
This is ideal – because it means that I can’t use stopping to find a new video as an excuse to stop exercising but can also set myself an achievable goal that I know is going to come to and end in twenty-five minutes or whatever.

Some Thoughts About Scythe

The video I picked was about Scythe, which my boss claims is his favourite game. Let’s see if I can embed it here.

(EDIT TO ADD: Okay so that worked. It’s not very aesthetically pleasing but it worked. I shall put a gold star on my weekly “gained a new skill” chart. Even though the skill was “click a button and paste something”. Its still a skill. Shut up).

The review makes some very good points that helped be crystallise my own feelings about it. I don’t dislike the game, but I’m not in love with it the way some people are. I feel bad saying that out loud, given I know several people of my acquaintance really enjoy it.

I’m also terrible at it which doesn’t help, obviously.

The game is beautifully designed – the way you move the little cubes around to reveal advantages and reduce costs is inspired. The visuals are cool. The pieces are cool. The theme is cool.

Look At That Lovely Board

Look at that art. It’s lovely. Genuinely lovely and evocative. How can I not love the game as much as I love the moody Steampunk walkers juxtaposed with disinterested farmers? What’s wrong with me!

But it leaves me cold inside. I don’t get into it the same way I get into Spirit Island (my current favourite game) or Architects of the West Kingdom (my next favourite game right now). I don’t find myself roleplaying it – its engaging enough but only in the way something like Power Grid engages me. I know in my heart right at the get-go that I am not going to win it, and so instead amuse myself setting myself smaller goals to achieve.

I guess its because I find it hard to get into the fiction of the game – which is not the case with the games I enjoy. Which is ridiculous right? The whole thing is dripping in cool visuals. It just somehow doesn’t feel as if the game is really about stomping around with giant mechs and a bear – even though it so patently is. I find it hard to put it into words.

My problem with the game, which I identified during the recent Team Building and Seasonal Review session in Preston, is that it feels like there is one too many things for me to keep track of. Or possible two.

I forgot there was a special points scoring objective (which is understandable as its on a card on the far side of the board) but I also forgot you scored points for territory (which is unforgivable). So I lost, like a machine designed for not winning.

Which is a shame because I really want to like Scythe. I should like it. Mechs and bears and alt-universe steampunk Eastern Europe!

But its also a plodding game which can move glacially slow, which then transforms into a game where suddenly it seems everyone else has (metaphorically) put go-faster stripes and jump-boots on their mechs and recruited the population of a small country to harvest oil for them. At the same time it sometimes feels like every decision is weighted with too much potential for failure and I hate that. I don’t mind choices being significant but I hate it when a single mistake – rather than a cascade of poor choices – can completely fuck your game for you.

Give me a good worker placement game any day, basically.

Result

Scythe aside, the outcome was that the experiment worked! Twenty-five minutes of almost constant walking on the hateful devil machine, enough to get a bit of a sweat on. I was engaged throughout, and didn’t really notice the time passing, which is ideal.

My next plan is to do this every day this week and see where it goes from there – assuming I don’t run out of good twenty-five to thirty minute videos.

I mean I know the NHS recommends thirty-five to forty-five minutes of exercise a day but the stairs count as at least ten minutes exercise a day in my opinion.

And the best part about this if I can make it work is that I don’t feel I need to reward myself with a Snickers after I’ve done my walk because instead I get to have a warm shower, so I’m winning not once but twice.

At this rate I might even attempt a trip out to the swimming baths in the new year – although combining “standing in a pool bobbing gently” with “watching YouTube videos” may prove to be a challenge.

Here Be Monsters (But Stop Talking About Them)

I wrote this rambling post about why I don’t like international maps back in June as a way to distract myself from Winds of War, and because I’d hurt my back. It originally appeared on my Patreon with fewer pictures of giant spellcasting spiders.

The Map is not the Territory

There’s a post on the Empire Facebook asking about maps of other countries. It feels like it comes up every six months or so. The more international diplomacy plot we do, the more often it appears.

We’re not talking about the local area, I don’t think. People (mostly) understand that the Empire for various reasons has limited information about its immediate surrounds. They know roughly what lies just outside their borders (more or less). They also know the tool they can use to find out more.

The problem comes when you move to the international scale, obviously. I regularly talk about the direction you sail to reach various foreign nations (west to Asavea and Sumaah, east to Jarm and the Commonwealth, south to Sarcophan). I even named the seas very roughly in a wind of Fortune, which I’ve recently turned into a wiki page.

What I’ve not done, though, is put up a map that shows exactly where Sumaah, Jarm, Sarcophan and the rest are all located. There’s no world map anywhere. It’s not on the wiki and (secret prestige Patreon information) it doesn’t exist anywhere else either.

It frustrates me a little when that leads people to assume that in-character they don’t know how to navigate to Jarm, or that there are no maps of anywhere. I mean, I can see why they might decide that but its still frustrating. People know where Jarm is and how to get there, I just think that information is below the abstraction layer. I also struggle to imagine a scenario where anyone would need this information in-character, but then I am a monster.

 

The Important Bits

Aranea

For gamers of a certain age, the D&D adventure The Isle of Dread would be the first time many of us encountered the idea of a “wilderness exploration campaign” outside of the familiar angles and neatly outlined 10×10 ft squares of the dungeon. Also aranea. Every game benefits from giant intelligent spell-casting spiders whose main enemies are angry flying squirrels. I digress.

The Empire is the most important place in the game, and the players are the most important people in the game. That isn’t to say that the Empire is the most important place in the world however. So there are other places in the game that are not the Empire, that no player is ever going to visit during time in (outside of a super ambitious player event).

I don’t just count the world powers here – no player is likely to ever see the Court of Five Winds in Faraden, or the Crawling Depths in Ossium any more than they will see the Basilica of Seven Doors in Necropolis or the House of Princes in Jarm. They are places that exist in the world, and can be relevant to the game, but they won’t ever be in the game physically. If you follow me.

We focus the game one the Empire, and that focus applies to the maps as well.

We have the “campaign map” which we worked out with Daisy Abbot, which shows where all the things near the Empire are. We do development work on it from time to time – but we also stick to the “don’t do more work than you need” rule.

(Except when we don’t – we also like to scatter loads of hooks for future writers to hang stuff on all over the place which is technically “more work than we need” but we’re nothing if not  consistent here at Profound Decisions towers. We even have a rule about not being dogmatic for the sake of it).

For several years, for example, we knew how any territories were in the Broken Shore and where they were in relationship to each other, but that was about it. The Bay of Catazar map opportunity gave us an excuse to nail down a bunch of stuff about the Iron Confederacy and the Broken Shore. I’m genuinely surprised it worked out as well as it did given how short the development cycle on it was, even for us.

There’s some obvious benefits to doing this work as and well we need it, for all that there are also drawbacks. The less we set in stone, the more freedom we have to adapt to the needs of the game. For example, the development of Tsark/Mountains of the Moon (the design of which Wrenna Robson wrote about here)  went through several iterations as we collaboratively wrote the “story” of the territory. In the end, we needed to make some tweaks to the physical map to make them all make sense – something that would have been tricky if we had set it all in stone six years ago. The same has been true of some recent work on parts of the Mallum. Allowing the story of the territory to react to what will create interesting game helped us make Ossium more interesting than just being a blob of forest with Druj orcs in it, I feel.

The main drawbacks are that we often find ourselves having to do a quick design and development cycle with very little notice; and we have to be careful not to contradict previous events and information unless we can come up with a really good justification.

Anyway. That “don’t do more work than you need” and “don’t set things in stone too early” are only part of the reason I resist creating a world map that is more complex than a square showing the Empire with arrows pointing to the various foreign nations. It’s also tied up with the Lantir question. When I think about it, I think about it in terms of the Blank Space Problem.

 

The Blank Space Problem

Yarr Squiddy

In Maelstrom it was bug people who stopped you going off the map. These days I am in a better position to deploy the natural opponent of all explorers – the giant squid. Even if I have to squeeze it into an immense encounter suit to justify it turning up on land.

Matt talks a bit about the way Empire is a Points of Light setting. it’s a conceit from 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons: ” Civilized folk live in small, isolated “points of light” scattered across a big, dark, dangerous world. ” This approach also leaves plenty of space for players to put their own villages, vales, spires, halls, chapters and what have you into the game and point to the map and say “that’s where we live”. It also leaves us free to create threats within the borders of the Empire when we need to.

That doesn’t stop people e-mailing us to ask what’s over the next hill, but for the most part we’re able to explain why every single thing in the game world is not on the Empire map. There’s a certain level of detail, and we mostly resist being asked to paint things in higher resolution because everyone benefits from the space to add new stuff.

For me this breaks down slightly on the international scale. We have no interest in creating dozens and dozens of individual countries between the Empire and Sumaah, or working out what the coastline around Sarcophan looks like. We don’t have any interest in creating the penumbra of nations that obviously surround each of the other world powers the same way Faraden, Iron Confederacy, Axos, Broken Shore, Narkyst, and the rest surround the  Empire.

There’s two main reasons for this.

First I want to focus our efforts on the Empire and its neighbours – the places that the players might conquer. Or be conquered by. I have no idea what the ruler of Lantir is called, or how their politics work, because their whole purpose in the game at this point is to escalate tension between the Commonwealth and Jarm.

Secondly, as soon as we detail these places, a bunch of people want to make contact with them. And ideally visit their ports and steal their valuables. In my gloomy moods I characterise this as being a response to the fact that all the foreign nations the Empire knows about are arseholes – they demand people pay for their mithril and refuse to do what players tell them to. I sometimes feel like there’s a drive to find the ”good” non-player characters who will put the good of the Empire above their own silly concerns. That some players imagine there are a set of “hidden” foreign nations who have loads of mithril and love wooden beads and pictures of horses. I am a bad person.

In my less gloomy moods, I characterise this as a desire to fully explore the lore – the kind of player Bartle calls an explorer. They want to wallow in the delightful game world Profound Decisions has created and gobble up every tasty morsel of it, on the assumption that it is infinitely fractal.

Narrator: But it was not infinitely fractal.

Fantasyland

From the book “A Tough Guide to Fantasyland” by Diana Wynne Jones. If you’re writing anything set in a fantastical world, read it. If only for a list of things not to do.

No World Maps

So ultimately that’s why I resist world maps. We already risk drawing too much attention away from the Empire by having foreign nations at all. It’s one reason I resist plots that introduce new foreign nations – although its not the only reason I resist plots that introduce new foreign nations. Whenever anyone introduces a new element on that scale, there is the constant nagging knowledge that once that writer loses interests or moves on, the foreign nation does not go away. Same with new eternals. I digress.

Also I’m painfully aware that we have no time to answer the inevitable slew of e-mails from people wanting to know how they can start a colony on the Savage Coast, or how they make contact with the people of Womblestan to see how much they charge for mithril, or how they would convert the inhabitants Ruritania to the Way.

We already get inquiries about why the Empire doesn’t know exactly how the House of Princes works, or the names and interests of all the Plenum families. I think we struggle to communicate that that information doesn’t exist anywhere in our archives because it doesn’t matter except when it matters. There’s a failure to explain that the foreigners only know about the Empire what we want them to know so it will make some game on the field at Anvil – and that we do the same thing with the Empire. The Ragnabe and Heraclien only exist inasmuch as they export white granite to the Empire and like figs (or whatever two line description we’ve given them). I cannot imagine it would improve anyone’s games to know what their opinion on the tax rate in Asavea is, or how they voted during the last big vote on tariffs. I can see why people might want that to be relevant, so they can interact with the off-field non-player characters in deeply nuanced fashion.

The Isle of Dread

If you leave aside the awful cultural appropriation, colonisation themes, and other problematic elements, the Isle of Dread would be a great place to run a player event. But seriously, some problematic depictions here and I say this is a man who helped run Maelstrom.

But arguably at the end of the day, the only thing that actually matters about the Heraclien and the Ragnabe, and Asavea as a whole, is what they think about slavery, religion, and relations with the Empire.

Likewise, arguably all that matters about the location of Asavea, Sumaah, Sarcophan and the rest is that they are far enough away it’s not feasible to move armies or navies to or from them. Anything more than that risks drawing too much focus to stuff we are not interested in including in the game.

We ran a game where the focus was the world map, and it was fun and all, but I don’t want to go back there. Not least because I feel the focus on the world map helped detract fatally from the focus on the actual field the actual players were on.

Plus, when you’ve got an entire world map to populate, even I would start to run out of 90s roleplaying game references.

Unless we literally use the map of Mystara.

Which is tempting, now I say it out loud. If only for the chance to send players to the Isle of Dread.

Bonus Track

Some Context

Part of my writing brief for event two was to draw out some of the ideas around the “powers” of the Underworld – archetypal ghosts who have a special place in the HADES mythos. I did a bunch of “grimoire” pages, and toyed with repeating the roleplaying game motif I’d used at event one. Specifically, writing up a bunch of archetypal spirits as if they were the Malfean baddies from one of the Werewolf supplements.

In the end however, I went a different way. Both John and I are fans of a terrible horror movie called Thirteen Ghosts – the 2001 “remake” of a William Castle movie from the 1960s. Its one of a trio of films (the others being House on Haunted Hill and Ghost Ship) that I have a particular misplaced fondness for despite their many flaws and never miss when they show up on late-night television. All three were produced under the Dark Castle Entertainment label and sit firmly in the “guilty pleasure” bracket of movie fun.

I like their energy. I like the way people seem to be having fun with them. Stop judging me.

Anyway, instead of doing another roleplaying excerpt I decided instead to take advantage of the fact that Thirteen Ghosts is an influence on the lead writer of HADES by turning the tables and suggesting that our fictional author and his Underworld had secretly been an influence on Thirteen Ghosts, by writing a fake review of the movie that has clearly been penned by the same kind of sad-act fan of the “Black Storm” mythos as produced the earlier fanzine. This time I was aiming for “post from someones blog printed out and sent to the underworl by Sinister Conspirators” which I hinted at by stamping a big rectangular “COPY” stamp on each page.

My subtlety is endless.

Rather than write my own review, I used the cunning short cut of just copy-pasting and mildly editing the wikipedia summary for the film which is nicely in-depth. I am shameless.

Then I tacked on the end a “what could have been…” section full of plot exposition which, as the Great Muppet Caper has already taught us, has to go somewhere. I’ve included that section below.

Any comparison to the way people write about the Cthulhu Mythos an its influence of horror writers is coincidental. Or another example of my incredible talent for subtlety I mentioned earlier.

I hope you haven’t hated this self-indulgent trip into live roleplaying plot exposition. With any luck I’ve spent the last week writing a dozen Winds of Fortune and everything is 100% kushtie.

Oh – spoilers for an 18 year old movie with Monk and that guy who played Shaggy in the live-action Scooby Doo movies in it.

Connections to the Black Storm Mythos

The screenwriter Neal Marshall Smith has said that some of the inspiration for his screenplay, as well as elements of the Hellraiser:Deader which he wrote in 2005, came from his lifelong appreciation of the works of British horror author James Banks. Some elements of the final movie are clearly influenced by Banks’ work. The magic inscriptions that trap ghosts, the special glasses that allow a living person to see a ghost, and the melding of magic and science in the form of the infernal machine that Cyrus plans to power with the energy of trapped ghosts is straight out of the pages of one of Banks’ novels. Even the name of the protagonist – Arthur – is seen as a nod to the Banks material where the Pendragon is a major character (albeit a villain). In the first draft, the names of Cyrus and Arthur were reversed, but were apparently swapped because the director claimed that “Cyrus” is a better name for a villain than a hero.

There were originally even more connections. In an earlier draft for example the book that Kalina Oretzia delivers to Cyrus is actually the Die Neun Tore des Shattenreich, an important fictional spellbook from Banks’ universe that contains powerful necromancy magic that can be used to summon, bind, and drain the power out of ghosts.

There are other elements as well. In an earlier draft, it is revealed that Matthew Lillard’s character is already dead having been killed by the Hammer at the beginning of the film. He is now working with the Dust Men to try and stop Cyrus’ plan, although the ghostly “policemen” in this version were only mentioned in a throw-away line they would have been immediately recognisable to fans of the original books. This plotline was dropped as being too confusing, although partly restored when Dennis reappears as a ghost to help Arthur at the end.

The Black Zodiac, with the idea of ghosts who have an archetypal resonance, also hints at Banks’ influence over the work. According to an interview with Stephens, in earlier drafts the connections to the Black Storm mythos were much more pronounced. Throughout the Banks novels supernatural creatures appear who claim to be mythological figures like the Aztec god of death Mictlantecuhtli, or the Greek Minos. In later stories it is revealed that many of these figures are actually the ghosts of mortals who have “forgotten” who they are and taken on the roles of archetypal figures whose actions both riff on the myths of mortals and give rise to new myths. Fans of the Black Storm mythos will not have missed the connection to Helen Winsone’s collection of short stories inspired by Banks being called “A Dark Zodiac.” Each story deals with a different archetype – sometimes called a “Reborn” or a “Deathlord” – among them the Forgotten King, the Crossroads Witch, the Hanged Seer, the Iron Crusader, the Lady of Sorrows, the False Redeemer, the Master of Stones, the Jigsaw Prince, and the Duke of Flowers.

Some of the figures in the Black Zodiac are similar to characters from the Black Storm mythos. The story of the Torn Prince, for example, draws on the character of the Jack of Clubs from Winsone’s “Firecatcher.” In that story, the eponymous spirit – eventually revealed to be a ghost – encourages the young people of Claremont High School to do all the things polite society and parental disapproval discourage them from doing. Yet in embracing their lust for life, and pursuing the empty excitement found in various dangerous thrills, several of them meet tragic ates and – according to the coda – find themselves in the thrall of Jack of Clubs even after they are dead. The story hints that Jack is the same spirit, Mephistopheles, that encourages Faustus to make unwise use of his magic, and has inspired many other doomed rebels and thoughtless thrill-seekers throughout history.

Likewise, the Bound Woman may have been inspired by a Banks character. In an earlier draft he is the Spurned Prince, the ghost of the footballer rather than the girl he murdered, and analagous to the Fury in Sable and Silver, an androgynous figure from the short story “Vengeance” in which a woman murders her adulterous husband and his girlfriend before taking her own life so that she can become a servant of the Fury forever – a ghost dedicated to punishing the unfaithful. In one version Kathy brings her boyfriend Carl along to the house and, after he sneaks off to make a phone call to a girl with whom he is two-timing Kathy, meets a gruesome end at the hands of the raging quarterback who nurtures an affection for Kathy himself as a consequence.

Finally, another obvious connection is with the Pilgrimess, who was originally called the Dust Witch. A version of the Witch at the Crossroads from both Banks’ and Winsone’s works, in this version her supernatural powers would have been more pronounced. The Witch at the Crossroads, said in the stories to be the ghost of the Biblical Witch of Endor, and this version would have tried to kill the nanny, Maggie, by making her supernaturally hungry and thirsty, like the curse placed on the murderer by the ghostly witch in Winsone’s “The Larder Was Bare.”

There are other similarities, the original version of the First Born Son was clearly an analogue to the Orpheus for example, and had several additional scenes with the Dust Man version of Dennis providing additional exposition, including some of the information that in the finished movie Kalina provides about the purpose of the Ocularum Infernalis.

Sadly the original vision of the remake of 13 Ghosts, heavily inspired by the Black Storm mythos, was not to be.

In the end, many of the subtle “easter eggs” were erased by various rewrites. There is a rumour that a more detailed version of the original Black Mythos inspired script still exists as a special audio DVD commentary recorded by Stephens and his Banks’ scholar collaborator Isla hargreaves, which was unfortunately not included on the DVD release due to a technical error, and the accidentally erased by a programming glitch.

The decision to cut the mythos material was probably wise given the length of the movie and the limitations of the art form. But if the rumoured Netflix original miniseries is greenlit, Stephens has said that it may well have more of the original subplots including some related to the Black –

The Nephilim

“There were giants in the earth in those days”, said Luke suddenly breaking the silence.

Hamish startled.

“Sorry, just thinking aloud.” Luke lit another cigarette. He proffered the package to Hamish.

The Scotsman took one and leant in close as Luke lit it. They smoked in companionable silence watching the storm.

“What about giants?” Hamish asked after a few moments.

Luke took a long drag on his cigarette, and stared off into the darkness. He wasn’t seeing the storm, but looking back into the past.

“It’s something Saul used to say, when I was a boy. I told you he used to tell me stories?”
Hamish nodded. Luke shivered, and Hamish put his arm around his shoulders. He was icy cold.

“Well there’s a story that in the days before the Flood, certain angels came to Earth and came into the daughters of men.”

“Came into?”

Luke grinned up at his friend.

“Screwed, Hamish. They screwed them.”

The big Scotsman blushed. Luke’s grin widened. “They did it enough that they got children off them. Giants, according to the story.”

Hamish blinked. “Giants? From human women? How could that work?”

Luke leant a little closer to Hamish, still gazing off into the darkness, his face serious. “It’s not clear if they were physically giants. It might just be a metaphor. The children are usually called nephilim, but there’s a few other words that seem sometimes to mean the same thing. Emim. Rephaim. Anakim. Gibborim.”

“Gibborim …” Hamish repeated. Luke nodded.

“Yeah, you see now why I’m thinking about this. It can’t be a coincidence.”

“Go on,” said Hamish.

“It’s something Saul used to say. When he used to talk about Sheol.”

“Jew Hell,” said Hamish knowledgeably. Luke rolled his eyes.

“Not quite, but good try. I think the closest we’ve got to a Christian Hell is Gehenna – what the Moslems call Jahannam – but I’m not sure I believe in them. Saul certainly didn’t. Either way, Sheol is different. More like the old Greek Hades.”

“All these afterlives,” said Hamish shaking his head. “Who can keep track of them? I’m just a simple soldier and I like to keep it simple. Heaven for the good people, Hell for bastards.”

“Maybe,” said Luke diplomatically. “Either way Sheol sounds like a pretty grim place. Everyone goes there after death, it’s dark and desolate, cut off from life, and from light, and from God. Doesn’t matter what you do, everyone ends up in Sheol. The idea that there’s some sort of Divine math for working out if someone is good or bad, that always struck me as pretty tacked on. I mean… have you seen any sign of Heaven in all this?”

“Not really,” said Hamish sadly. “But we’ve both seen enough of Hell.”

“Saul said that when God sent the Flood, He really did it to destroy the Nephilim. That between them the angels and their kids, half the earth had angelic taint in them and God didn’t like that. It gave people powers, he said. Powers God wanted to keep for Himself.

“Noah’s family was chosen to survive the Flood simply because they had no Nephilim taint. They were unexceptional descendants of Seth, without even a drop of Cain’s blood in them never mind angel blood. Boring, pure human. Easy to push around, basically.”

There was a bitterness in the young Jew’s voice that made Hamish nervous. He sounded less like his friend, and more like his crazed uncle Saul.

“All those people who died in the flood ended up in Sheol just like everyone else. Angel-tainted humans and pure-blooded Nephilim, all turning up in the afterlife together, all angry at God. But worse than that. Sheol was still pretty formless when the Nephilim got there.”

“I don’t remember exactly how he put it, but he said that when the literal grandchildren of God arrived there was nowhere for them to stand. They were too big, or too heavy or … something.”

Luke was getting frustrated, struggling to find the right words.

“Anyway, they had nowhere to stand so they all fell into the darkness. You know what that means.”

Hamish considered for a few moments.

“The Tempest? They fell into the Tempest?” It was a grim thought.

Luke nodded. “That’s what Saul said. Fell into the madness that underpins Sheol – the foundations of the Underworld. But because they had the power of God in them, even if it was debased by their human blood, the Nephilim didn’t get torn apart or consumed. They survived. In endless agony, torn and shredded by the storm for millenia. Everything that had been human about them ripped away, eroded by the storm, leaving only the shining core of… whatever it was the angels were made of.

“And eventually … eventually they learned to live with it. Became creatures of the Tempest, creatures of pure malice, abandoned and punished by their God for no more serious a crime than being born.”

“That sounds bad,” said Hamish eventually.

“Maybe,” Luke took a long drag on his cigarette, and then flicked it away into the darkness. It fell like a burning star, winking out in the waves far below.

“The worst bit – the bit that gave me nightmares – was that Saul said they weren’t alone down there. That there was something there already waiting for them, something that helped them survive the Tempest, and helped them become … whatever it was they became.

“He used to say it was the ghost of Abel. The first ghost. Murdered by his brother for no reason, thrown into Sheol before there even was a Sheol, so basically just dropped into the Tempest. Abandoned for eons alone in the dark.“

Luke was shivering. Hamish pulled him close against his big thick-knit jumper.

“I dreamt about that for months. Being alone in a dark place, but knowing at the same time that I wasn’t alone. I’d up screaming. Eventually my parents told me I wasn’t allowed to spend time with Uncle Saul any more. It caused a lot of friction at home.”

Luke shuddered, gulping back tears. “I still… I had that dream again last night,” Luke’s voice was tiny, almost lost in the storm. “Every night this last week. I’m not like you Hamish. I’m not brave. I’m scared. So very scared.”

Hamish crushed Luke in his embrace, turning him slightly, staring down into his pale, frightened face.

“I’ll keep the nightmares away lad,” said Hamish, his voice thick. He-


There’s an exchange from “The Great Muppet Caper” early on between Miss Piggy and I think Diana Rigg that goes something like this. 

Piggy: “Why are you telling me all this?”

Diana Rigg: “It’s plot exposition, it has to go somewhere.”

I’ve only seen the movie once, nearly 30 years ago, but that exchange stuck with me forever after.

This is from Event Two of Hades, and its the equivalent of that scene from the Great Muppet Caper. It’s plot exposition it has to go somewhere. It’s the kind of exchange that’s no doubt familiar from a lot of pulp.

I worked harder at this than I really needed to – trying to make sure I was writing the exchange between Luke and Hamish in the kind of way the female-plot-exposition character-explains-the-plot scene is often written in the inspirational material, and that this is clearly the start of one of those embarassingly earnest sex-scenes that I remember being a big part of the original sources. I doubt anyone but me really notices.

There’s some metagame stuff going on here, now I reread it, that I can’t really talk about – given that the game is still ongoing – but suffice to say that the sexuality element isn’t as crowbarred in as it appears. There’s a companion piece to this that is a letter from Banks’ agent telling him in pretty offensive language that “ There is absolutely no way in hell you can make your hero a bummer.

It will either all make sense in the end or it won’t – assuming any players even noticed it. Jim Banks is only an Invisible Wife Character after all. He’s just plot exposition – he has to go somewhere.

Thule Eternal

– stopped struggling against the restraints, and went limp.

Von Hein pulled his Luger from its holster. His hand was steady, but his face was white as a sheet.

His breath misted the air. The concrete bunker was colder than midwinter in Bavaria. There was a stench in the air, stronger than the blood and the urine and the dust of the cell, so deep underground. A stench of sour earth and gunpowder. Von Hein tasted metal – rust. It was like breathing rust.

“Got in himmel!” whispered one of the guards. Von Hein pointed his gun at him.

“If you speak again you will be shot” he said in a flat voice, a voice that did not betray how unsettled he was.

The medium raised her head, slowly, and opened her eyes. Von Hein could not suppress an oath. His grip on the gun tightened. The eyes that opened were not those of the gypsy woman. They were black and moist, glistening like wet tar. Orbs of featureless darkness. They did not blink. She turned her head slowly from side to side, taking in the chamber, the soldiers, Leibersun, and the marks on the walls. She looked down at herself, then back at Von Hein.

The naked lightbulb flickered again. For a moment Von Hein was overtaken by a rush of primordial terror. The nazi officer was certain, absolutely certain, that the light would fail and he would be left alone in the dark with the thing that now inhabited the body of the gypsy woman. He swallowed, his throat dry.

“Sprechen sie deutsch?” he demanded.

The woman stared at him. Silent. He felt as if he were being studied, examined by something beyond his understanding. There was something indescribably different about her face – as if it were a mask laid across the face of something else, something he knew in his heart he did not – could not – look at.

He had thought himself prepared for whatever might happen, but he was not prepared for this. After the events of the last month, after the burnings and the mass graves, he thought himself inured to horror. But this was not the horror of shattered buildings and twisted bodies, but the horror of the unknown – the unknowable.

“Deutsch…” said the gypsy then, slowly, as if tasting the word. The voice that came out of her was not that of a Polish woman, but the deep baritone of a man. The woman’s lips twitched and writhed slightly, and the muscles on her neck were locked in a rictus. Von Hein fancied he could see them vibrating beneath the drawn, swarthy skin of the medium.

Von Hein repeated his interrogation, pointing his luger between the woman’s eyes. She watched him aim the weapon with mild interest but no fear. Either she did not recognise the gun as a weapon – or she did not consider it to be anything she needed to worry about.

Her lip curled slightly, contemptuously.

“Saxons.” She said flatly, in that same unnatural voice. She blinked once, for the first time. She continued to stare at Von Hein. Her expression was empty but her eyes… her eyes were full of something very much like arrogance. In different circumstances, seeing such eyes on one of the lesser races, Von Hein would have splattered her brains against the dirty concrete wall without blinking.

The woman spoke again, slowly, that same deep voice coming from the tiny, emaciated woman. It was not German. Von Hein recognised the language though. Latin.

He kept his gun trained on the thing tied to the chair.

“Well?” he asked Leibersun. “What did it say?”

The translator spoke quietly, his voice shaking.

“It said… it’s difficult. It’s not what I was expecting.”

Von Hein was sickened by the panic in the translators voice. No true German would show weakness like this in front of the men, in front of the lower races.

“Tell me what it said.” he said calmly. The woman-thing was watching their exchange dispassionately. Von Hein could not tell if she understood anything.

“It asked… it asked who we were. Who you were.”

“Can you translate?”

“I think so yes, but please do not go too quickly.”

Von Hein faced the medium. “I am SS-Sturmbannführer Gunter von Hein of the Studiengesellschaaft für  Geistesurgeschichte Deutsches Abhenerbe.” he said. “And I will ask the questions. What are you? What is your name? What do you want?”

Leibersun spoke slowly, haltingly, translating the words, stumbling slightly over “Society for Research into the Spiritual Roots of German Ancestral Heritage”. Von Hein realised that Leibersun would need to be liquidated once he had outlived his usefulness – he already knew too much – and his belief in Catholic God had made him weak.

The medium considered for a moment, and blinked again. An ebony tear wept from the left eye of the gypsy medium, running down her cheek, leaving a trail of dark liquid behind it. Then she spoke. A short sentence. Pause. A sort sentence. Pause. A longer sentence. Pause, and then silence. She did not look at the translator, keeping her gaze fixed on Von Hein.

Von Hein noticed, distracted, that alone of the five of them, the gypsies’ breath was not misting the air. He was not sure, in fact, that she was breathing at all.

The translator swallowed, wiped his hand across his face. He was sweating heavily despite the bone-chilling cold.

“It says… it says… Oh, Mary mother of God protect us…”

Von Hein snapped his arm round, without taking his eyes off the prisoner. He pointed his Luger unerringly at Leibersun’s face, without looking at him. The little man let out a whimper.

“It says it is a ferryman. It says it is called I think… I think it said it is the King of Dragons… And what it wants… Jesus Christ… It says… it says it wants to… to show us how to sail the Naglfar across the sunless sea.”

The medium’s expression changed then as a great crazed grin spread across her face, twisting her expression into something demonaical. Leibersun sobbed, but had not finished.

“It says… O God… It says it wants to help us build Thule Eternal. To build the millennial Reich that will never end!”

CHAPTER END

————-

This longer excerpt was the first thing I wrote for HADES. It recounts in fictional form something that happened in the world to trigger the plot, I seem to remember. Or maybe it doesn’t. It’s John Haynes we’re dealing with here. Things are rarely one thing. Because he’s a pretentious git.

This piece first appeared on my Patreon on 29th May.