Monday, 1 July 2019

Evil, be thou my good: the cult of the Wicked King

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Decades have passed since anyone anyone last saw him, and yet his face is everywhere. His statues loom on every corner. His tower blocks out the sun. His soldiers plunder you. His ministers lie to you. His secret police spy on you. His tyranny is in the air and the earth and the water. It hovers, unseen, between person and person, ruining and infecting everything, withholding you even from those whom you most yearn to love. It poisons you and it sickens you, reducing you to a mockery of the person you could have been. It deforms your personality. It withers up you soul. It breaks your heart.

He has not been officially deified. In the city's gilded temples, hireling priests offer up thanks to heaven each morning and evening for being allowed to live under a ruler so wise, so holy, so enlightened - but while they pray for him, for his health and his longevity and the continuation of his rule, they do not pray to him. Officially, he is no more and no less than the very best of mortal kings.

He has not been officially deified - but people pray to him anyway, just as one might pray to any other evil spirit of the land. Spare me, they whisper, before they sleep. Spare me just one more night. Spare my parents. Spare my children. Take my neighbours, if you must take someone. I will make you a bargain. I will make you an offering. I will be loud in my praise of your wisdom. I will burn sweet incense at your statue's foot. I will inform on the old woman for her seditious gossip at sundown. Only spare me, O king, O destroyer. Only spare me yet another day.

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In the streets, superstitions about the Wicked King grow like weeds, and the people regard his agents less as members of mortal institutions than as a race of folk devils to be evaded through luck and guile. If you eat while standing in the shadow of his tower, they say, the secret police will come for you within a fortnight. Scatter rice from a third-story window and the wrath of the King will be averted. Whisper the name of your worst enemy three times while facing the tower at midnight, and the secret police will come and take them away - unless they've hung a polished brass mirror on their door, in which case they'll come for you instead. Faced with the apparently random predations of the city's government, such petty rituals help the people to feel that they wield at least some measure of control over their own destiny. And who is to say that there is not some truth behind some of them? No-one, after all, really knows what it is that watches the city through the eyes of the king's statue network, or upon what principle his minions decide which luckless souls will be dragged away, wailing, into the night.

So the people pray to the king. They make offerings to him. Some of them even maintain sad little shrines to him in the darkened corners of their homes. But a few go further. In the dark of the night, they slink out and abase themselves before his statues. They croon songs of worship into their cold ears of stone. They sprinkle the dust around their feet with the warm blood of sacrifices. They join the cult of the Wicked King.

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The cult has existed for decades, now, ever since the people of the city began to grope around for some explanation of what had happened to them. In its most popular form, it teaches that the king is a kind of prophet, whose actions must be understood as coded or symbolic teachings. His power and immortality are signs of his semi-divine nature. His destruction of the city's name, his withdrawal from the sight of the people, and his refusal to proclaim his own divine status are understood as acts of negative mysticism, designed to encode the truth that real power and identity are to be found not in the outward world of appearances, but in some secret and numinous realm beyond them, hidden as the king himself is hidden, immortal as he is immortal. Some cultists think that his cruelty is a sign that the moral law is a lie, too. Others believe that he is punishing the city for its sins. Others still maintain that the body is the soul's prison, and that unleashing a gang of masked murderers to brutalise his people is the king's rather roundabout way of teaching them not to place too much value on physical things.

But these are rationalisations, and the true reasons that people are drawn to the cult of the Wicked King are the reasons that people are always drawn to power. Ambition: if I sacrifice enough to the king then he is sure to bring about my promotion. Desperation: if I pray hard enough to the king then maybe the secret police will bring my sister back. Justification: I'm not just a cruel and selfish person! I'm following the secret teachings of the king! And, perhaps most commonly of all, sheer exhausted frustration. Faced with the endless opacity of the city's government bureaucracy, the transparent injustice of its laws, the arbitrary depredations of its security services, and the spiritual inadequacy of its state religion, it it understandable that many people become desperate for even the illusion of having a hotline to the top.

The cult of the Wicked King is something of a wild card in ATWC. It's extremely disorganised and decentralised: a shifting web of solitary practitioners, semi-formal congregations, and splinter groups following individual teachers and interpreters of its makeshift theology. Doctrines vary widely from one cult member to the next: all that they really have in common is the belief that the Wicked King really does want his people to worship him and will reward them for it, despite the claims of the Ministry of Religion to the contrary. (Indeed, some of them see the Ministry of Religion as an actively malevolent force, keeping the truth from the people for evil reasons of their own.) They exist in something of a legal limbo, discouraged but not technically illegal: and the secret police, in particular, tend to regard the cult's activities with something resembling indulgence, a fact which discourages the other branches of the city's government from attempting to crack down on them too harshly.

The informal patron of the cult is Alisher the Just, the current Minister of the Heavens, who is himself a secret cultist of the Wicked King. Leading teachers of the cult's esoteric doctrines sometimes find themselves summoned for discreet meetings with the minister, who believes that proper worship of the king will help accelerate his personal advancement, and doesn't care how many human sacrifices he has to preside over in order to bring this about. PCs who oppose the Wicked King could easily find themselves targeted by vigilante cultists eager to win his favour by defeating them. But crafty PCs might also be able to turn the cult's beliefs to their own advantage, especially as it includes many people who would be willing to risk their lives for a chance to meet the king face to face.

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To see who leads the local cultists, roll 1d20:

  1. Broken-hearted old man furtively burning offerings in front of a statue at midnight in the hope of getting his children back.
  2. Psychotic serial killer using the 'need' to offer human sacrifices to the king as an excuse for murders he would totally have carried out anyway. 
  3. Ambitious young member of a local merchant house, who attributes his recent run of good fortune in business to the favour of the Wicked King. 
  4. Anxious band of low-level bureaucrats praying for promotions and the horrible deaths of their managers. 
  5. Wild-eyed conspiracy theorist determined to reveal the truths that the Ministry of Religion is deliberately concealing.
  6. Ageing debauchee who has seized upon the doctrines of the cult as 'proof' that nothing is true and everything is permitted. 
  7. Opium-addled visionary so lost in speculation that he has managed to convince himself (and his followers) that right is wrong, freedom is slavery, and war is peace.
  8. Loyal retainer from one of the Cobweb families, trying to win the favour of the king for his masters, and bring down his wrath upon their rivals.
  9. Small-time gangster who regards the cult and its practises purely as a form of practical street magic, and is entirely indifferent to their spiritual or political content.
  10. Eccentric clockworker convinced that the city's government is deliberately refusing to recognise the value of her inventions, and that the king would acknowledge her genius at once if only she could get his attention.
  11. Twitchy teenage street kid. Her adventurous older brother set out years ago on a do-or-die mission to discover what was really at the top of the king's tower. She still hopes against hope that he made it, and is now living some kind of life of splendour with the Wicked King himself. 
  12. Profoundly damaged Murder Harlot who joined the cult semi-ironically years ago, and has long since lost track of which parts of its doctrine she does or doesn't 'really' believe.
  13. Secret revolutionary who infiltrated the cult on behalf of the Red Brotherhood and ended up rising to become its local leader.
  14. Semi-secret neighbourhood congregation who believe that regular worship of the king helps to avert the attentions of the secret police.
  15. Member of a Labyrinth Doctrine mystery cult, who regards the Wicked King as an ascended and enlightened figure, and creeps up out of the Maze by night to participate in his worship.
  16. Self-proclaimed prophet, deranged but charismatic, who sees the king's face in her nightly nightmare-visions and now seeks to share her incoherent revelations with the world.
  17. Steel Aspirant convinced that only the Wicked King knows where the Cogwheel Sage is really hiding.
  18. Fantatical ascetic, consumed with self-hatred, who insists that the king's tyranny constitutes a form of divine collective punishment upon a city that richly deserves it.
  19. Master mason who has spent his entire working life maintaining and repairing the statue network, and is now convinced that the statues are whispering to him when no-one else is looking.
  20. Air Corps gyrocopter pilot who has flown close to the top of the King's Tower on several occasions, and is convinced that she heard someone in there screaming for help. She has concluded that the king is being held prisoner by his own government, and is plotting a daring rescue mission, for which she is certain that the grateful king will reward her lavishly.
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Friday, 28 June 2019

Team Tsathogga campaign map

Somebody asked for the map I used in the Team Tsathogga game. The actual map is stupidly enormous, and is full of stuff that would just be meaningless clutter to anyone except me: but I've produced a cut-down and simplified map that shows the areas actually visited during the course of the campaign, plus the regions around them. Here it is.


A partial explanation of sources, moving roughly from north to south:
  • The Black Isle started out as a riff on Naggaroth from WFRP, but ended up morphing into its own thing. Sea dragons and viking vampire cultists and a religion kludged together from the diaspora of a diaspora. 
  • Vathak is a heavily-altered, massively-condensed version of the continent of the same name from Shadows Over Vathak.
  • The northern ice wastes are a combination of stuff from the Pathfinder adventure The Hungry Storm, the crowdsourced hexcrawl the Kraalthis post from Goblin Punch, and... some other blog post that I can't currently find, which had all this great stuff about a haunted frozen city destroyed by ice-storms called down by the slaves of its rulers, mixed in with plenty of original material. 
  • The Stonemoors were mostly based on the ancient Baltic, but a lot of the things in them were actually inspired by a few questlines and bits of background art in a crappy browser game I briefly played years ago. Funny how things stick with you sometimes.
  • The Grey Uplands were mostly based on a zone from the original Sacred computer game.
  • The Caves of Purple Lightning are, of course, based on this post from Goblin Punch.
  • Ungol is a modified version of Kislev from WFRP 2nd edition.
  • Vornheim is, of course, based on Vornheim. Deathfrost Mountain is from Death Frost Doom. The Haunted Highlands are based on the DB series of adventures for Castles and Crusades. The ruined monastery is the one from Horror on the Hill.
  • The Plateau of Yeth was based on Minotaurs of the Black Hills from Raging Swan Press, but soon developed into its own thing, with a little help from Scrap and Patrick's reimagining of the Derro in Veins of the Earth.
  • Vulture Crag, and the vulture-men in general, are from this Elfmaids and Octopi post. The Pools of Life were mostly based on Dwimmermount. The Pit of Oom is from Petty Gods.
  • The Cold Marshes are a combination of elements from lots of different sources, but the Marsh Giants are pretty directly from Pathfinder, and the Witchwood of the Ghost Drummers was mostly inspired by the Grunnheim zone in Torchlight 2.
  • I think the Owlmen were inspired by something from Valley of the Hawks by Frog God Games?
  • The Cave Dwarves, the Bear Clans, and the Ursine Dunes are all based on things from Slumbering Ursine Dunes. The Isle of the Eld is, obviously, from Misty Isles of the Eld. 
  • The Relic City-States started out as a riff on some obscure background material from Runescape, of all things, combined with the Scavenger Lands from Exalted first edition. They swiftly became their own thing, though.
  • The Plaguelands are mostly based on Ina'oth from Shadows Over Vathak, though the Two Towers are from Towers Two, and the forests north of them were the ones from Sky Ov Crimson Flame.
  • The Red Legion - the descendants of the terror-legions of a long-dead demonologist, now the protectors of their people but still wearing their ancestral demon-armour, trying to defend their lands from the undead raised by the necromantic rival of their now-vanished master - grew out of some concepts from the first Spellforce computer game.
  • The Yellow Land and the Autocrat's Scar are from The Dread Machine by Gus L.
  • The Isle of Xaxus is the one from The Idea From Space.
  • Azlant is complicated.
  • The Purple Islands are based on The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence, albeit very extensively rewritten. 
  • The island of the cyclopses was inspired by the Pathfinder adventure module Island of Empty Eyes.
  • Zaozerye is based on the medieval Slavic kingdoms. Observatory Lake and its surrounds are from Deep Carbon Observatory. The Tyrant's Maze is loosely based on some bits from Maze of the Blue Medusa. Stonehell, obviously, is from Stonehell.
  • Reval was mostly based on medieval Italy. Bright Meadows and its attendant underworld are very loosely based on Liberation of the Demon-Slayer.  The Caves of Transformation were based on Madness of the Rat King.
  • The Forest of Ruin is inspired by The Dreams of Ruin. 
  • I think I found the Boar Folk in some OSR bestiary or other?
  • Harrowvale is a mash-up of the town from The Haunting of Harrowvale with a few other similar 'spooky little town' settings/adventures. The Cult of Llegh were inspired by the cult of the same name in Petty Gods.
  • Ingria was based on early modern Germany. The Order of the Divine Surgeon was a riff on the gloriously obscure and over-complicated backstory of the Order of Leitbur from the earliest years of Magic: the Gathering. 
  • The Old City is based on 'The City' from Dungeon of Signs, albeit quite a bit smaller.
  • Korvosa and Scarwall are mostly from Curse of the Crimson Throne and Curse of the Lady's Light, though Dunnsmouth is from Scenic Dunnsmouth and the Stone Fleet is from Dungeon of Signs.
  • Gilan was loosely modelled on the medieval Caucasus Mountains. Aram was sort-of based on medieval Iran. The bat-folk were based on the ones from Elfmaids and Octopi. The House of the Beast is from the Pathfinder adventure of the same name.
  • The Thug Bugs are from Fire on the Velvet Horizon. The Blue Cities were inspired by a line in Mutant Crawl Classics. The City of Rot is a mash-up of Skavenblight, the subterranean regions of Ravnica, and The City by James Herbert and Ian Miller.
  • Lata was based on northern India and Afghanistan. The Queenscult were from Goblin Punch, but with the Elizabethan aesthetics swapped out for Indian ones. The Land of the Lost is based on World of the Lost, but in an Indian rather than West African context.
  • The Shiv and the Forest of Spirits are based on the Pathfinder adventures Souls for the Smuggler's Shiv and Forest of Spirits, respectively. 
  • Hule is, of course, from X5 Temple of Death.
  • Qelong is from Qelong.
  • The Jungles of Midnight combine elements from Tomb of Annihilation, the Divine Wight material from Dungeon of Signs, and the Pathfinder adventure path Serpent's Skull. 
  • Torth is from Revelry in Torth. The Dune Folk were from Exalted. The Shrine of the Eremites was inspired by a monster from the Teratic Tome. 
  • The Scrap Clans are based on material from the Pathfinder adventure path Iron Gods. The ghoul-queen was originally inspired by the one from Petty Gods, but eventually developed into something very different.
  • The City of the Four Voices is based on material from Carcosa.
Not shown here: the island kingdoms of the west and the Lost Lands of the east. They're part of the same world, but I'm saving them for future campaigns.

Thursday, 20 June 2019

A brief history of British literature in Warhammer armies

This is all Solomon VK's fault. In a comment on my previous post he challenged me to imagine Warhammer armies for three British authors - Belloc, Waugh, and Greene - and now I can't stop doing it. So now you all get to suffer the consequences.

The Medievals: Geoffrey Chaucer plays a Bretonnian army heavy on peasants. Thomas Mallory also plays Bretonnians, but his army is mostly knights, and he spends a lot of time trying to reconcile different versions of the game's lore. The Gawain poet plays a weird Bretonnian - Wood Elf allied army which he insists is rules-legal in some edition or other. William Langland plays dwarves, who he says are much better than humans because they're harder workers. The Beowulf poet plays Space Wolves, but it's OK because he only plays 40K first edition, and back then the rules and armies were Warhammer compatible. The whole group sometimes organises tournaments with their rivals, the Welsh Bards, who mostly play armies of Wood Elves and Beastmen and place a premium on freakish and spectacular conversions.

The Renaissance: Phillip Sidney plays Empire. Edmund Spenser plays Empire too, but squanders all his points on knightly orders and High Elf allies, and had to be banned from trying to include a 40K Necron in his Warhammer army list. Shakespeare prefers historical wargaming, with Imperial Rome and the War of the Roses as his favourite periods, but he's got a pretty good Dogs of War army going on the side. Thomas Middleton plays ludicrously murder-happy Dark Elves. John Webster plays Undead.

The Seventeenth Century: Rochester plays Slaanesh. John Donne used to play Slaanesh as well, but then got really serious and switched to Dark Angels. George Herbert has an Ecclesiarchy army. George Etherege has an army of beautifully-dressed High Elves. Herrick collects Halflings. John Aubrey mostly just writes anecdote-heavy blog posts about the good old days of first edition.

John Milton has two collections - Space Marines and Chaos Space Marines. He claims that the Space Marines are his 'real' army and the Chaos Marines are just there to give them someone to fight against, but it's obvious that the Chaos Marines have been painted with vastly greater skill and care than their loyalist counterparts.

The Augustans: Jonathan Swift plays Orcs, carefully converted to look like caricatures of various political figures. John Gay plays Skaven with a heavy emphasis on gutter runners. John Dryden and Alexander Pope only play historical games set during the Classical era: Pope used to play fantasy as well, but ragequit after one too many dwarf jokes. Henry Fielding plays Empire. Thomas Grey plays Halflings. Horace Walpole plays Undead.

The Romantics: Jane Austen has a custom Imperial Guard army, with dashing red uniforms and far too many officers. Mary Wollstonecraft plays Sisters of Battle. William Wordsworth used to play Wood Elves but switched to Imperial Guard after the war started. William Blake plays Chaos Daemons, and sculpts all his own miniatures. Walter Scott used to play Undead, but then switched to historicals, and now spends most of his time obsessively refighting the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge keeps buying new armies and then changing his mind about who he wants to play, leaving behind a couple of half-painted figures and a stack of unassembled models. Percy Shelley plays Slaanesh, and keeps writing interminable blog posts about why they're actually the real good guys. John Keats plays Eldar aspect warriors. Lord Byron plays Vampire Counts. Thomas De Quincey plays Chaos Undivided.

The Early Victorians: Elizabeth Barrett Browning plays Sisters of Silence. Robert Browning plays Dogs of War. Christina Rossetti plays Sisters of Battle, but maintains a secret collection of painstakingly converted goblins and beastmen. Charles Dickens plays Goblins and Skaven, because he can paint twice as fast as anyone else and thus has time to maintain two collections. Alfred Tennyson plays Stormcast Eternals. Lewis Carroll plays Tzeench.

Ann Brontë plays High Elves. Emily Brontë plays Dark Elves. Charlotte Brontë plays Wood Elves. Bramwell Brontë used to play Vampire Counts, but sold all his models on ebay to buy more gin.

The Late Victorians: Thomas Hardy plays Imperial Guard. Algernon Swinburne plays a Dark Eldar army heavy on sexy dominatrices with whips, and makes everyone a bit uncomfortable with just how into it he is. Bram Stoker plays Vampire Counts. M.R. James plays Nighthaunts. Lionel Johnson plays Dark Angels (obviously). Oscar Wilde plays Eldar Harlequins.

The Modernists: Virginia Woolf plays Tzeench. W.B. Yeats plays Wood Elves. Henry James plays High Elves. D.H. Lawrence plays Beastmen.

Ezra Pound plays Space Marines, and obviously loves the Imperium for all the wrong reasons. T.S. Eliot also plays Space Marines, but he always loses on purpose in order to make some kind of obscure moral point.

Friday, 14 June 2019

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: d100 encounters with onrushing modernity

'We have fallen upon strange times', wrote Dickens in 1839, 'and live in days of constant shifting and changes.'

Most fantasy worlds get by without ever really changing, apart from the odd cataclysm every couple of thousand years. It's all just kings and guys with swords, forever and ever and ever. Even if steampunk or clockpunk technology does exist, it's usually as a known quantity, something that's been around for long enough to be thoroughly integrated into the fabric of society.

My current interest in the 1830s and 1840s emerges from their status as crisis decades, in which everything was changing very fast, and no-one really knew how to cope with it. They worked it out in the end, of course, for better and for worse. But for a couple of decades there, everyone from the paupers to the prime ministers were totally making everything up as they went along.

Here's an Elfmaids and Octopi-style d100 encounter table suitable for any rapidly-industrialising city, mostly based on things that really happened in Britain between 1830 and 1850. Environments like this are full of rich pickings for chancers and opportunists. Your PCs should do just fine.

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  1. First meeting of newly-founded learned association. Members are arriving from all over the country: they've been in correspondence for years, but most have never met each other face to face. Rich pickings for impostors.
  2. Labour dispute. Workers on strike outside newly-built factory. Industrialist haranguing them from a balcony, threatening to import starving labourers to replace them. No-one on either side knows how far to push their luck.
  3. Secret nocturnal trade union meeting. New members swear terrible oaths of loyalty amid flaming torches and grim icons of death and revolution. 
  4. Creaking carriages importing new machinery for use in manufactures. Working men look on balefully and mutter darkly about the consequences.
  5. Luddite riot. Unemployed and starving workers on the rampage, disguised with masks, blackened faces, and/or women's clothing, trying to smash as many machines as they can in order to raise the demand for labour.
  6. Enclosure act. Common lands are being fenced off and parcelled out to private owners in order to raise agricultural productivity. Local smallholders watch the fences rise with a mixture of anger and despair. 
  7. Monster meeting. Huge crowds of people assembled in fields to hear speeches by popular orators, rousing them to action. Armed yeomanry look on nervously and finger their sabres.
  8. Ragged band of rural labourers, deprived of their land by the enclosure acts, stumbling resentfully towards the city to join the ranks of the industrial proletariat.
  9. New police force splendid in shiny new uniforms, marching the streets with truncheons in hand, ready to keep the scum in line.
  10. Old police force, obsolete but not yet disbanded, shivering in their old watch-houses and predicting ruin to the state.
  11. Clandestine meeting of criminals thrown into panic by the operations of the new police force. All suspect one another of being police informers.
  12. Detective from newly-formed police detective unit following a trail of clues relating to a recent murder.
  13. Crowd gathered around a body that has recently washed ashore, with a gash on its head and bricks shoved into its pockets.
  14. Public execution by hanging. Swells watching from nearby windows through opera glasses. Pickpockets working crowds. 
  15. Quarantined city district hit by exotic new disease from foreign parts, now filled with death and misery.
  16. Land torn open for construction of exiting new sewer network, miles of tunnels being constructed, an entire subterranean world being born beneath the city streets.
  17. Gangs of sweating navvies cutting the way for a canal or railway, demolishing everything in their path.
  18. Furious legal dispute between railway proprietor and a property owner whose inconveniently-placed house is blocking the path of progress. Pickaxe-wielding navvies look on menacingly.
  19. Crowd of speculators trying to work out exactly how long to back the current railway boom for.
  20. Wild-eyed men roving the streets, selling shares in mostly-imaginary railway companies.
  21. Clanking parade of convicts stumbling off for transportation to the colonies.
  22. Band of escaped convicts returned illegally from transportation, furtive and terrified of being recognised.
  23. Band of government inspectors scornfully criticising an old prison, where chained prisoners languish in chaos and darkness and filth.
  24. Band of government inspectors rapturously praising a new prison, where masked prisoners are kept in total silence and solitude.
  25. Coach-load of hopelessly crazed inmates being transported from new prison to local asylum.
  26. Travelling mesmerist attracts crowds with his amazing displays of mind control and mesmeric healing.
  27. Ragged street preacher howls predictions of national woe to a receptive crowd.
  28. Gigantic new asylum under construction. Lead engineer fretting over the spiralling costs. Lead doctor worried that there still might not be enough beds.
  29. Drunken gentry out on the town, smashing lamps and beating up policemen.
  30. Team of mechanics installing new gas lighting on the streets.
  31. Shivering part-time prostitutes, ashamed but desperate, nervously propositioning passers-by.
  32. Sweatshop tailors, diseased and naked, one coat between ten, working frantically to fulfil the latest order for military uniforms.
  33. Huge new gin palace, just opened, all flaring gas lamps and shining mirrors, an instant hit with the locals.
  34. Impromptu penny theatre performing blood-and-thunder melodramas to a delighted crowd of small children. 
  35. Travelling freak show advertises dwarves, giants, and human skeletons.
  36. Grave robbers stealthily excavating the grave of a recently deceased freak on a special commission from a local doctor.
  37. Sauntering dandies with perfumed curls and exquisite swallow-tail coats, serenely ignoring the clamouring debt-collectors who pursue them from street to street.
  38. Wretched beggars wave amputated limbs, telling miserable tales of industrial accidents.
  39. Train-load of blood-spitting consumptives setting off to convalesce at the seaside. 
  40. Street stricken by strange new water-bourne diseases, probably nothing to do with the new factory that just opened upstream.
  41. Band of ex-officials, holders of ancient civic offices just dissolved by modernising government decree, sit around mournfully in their obsolete regalia, swapping tales of the epic civic banquets of the past.
  42. Popular novelist mobbed by admirers, all trying to persuade her to include their brilliant idea in her latest story.
  43. Cabmen competing to drive their fares the fastest, hurtling recklessly through the streets, people scattering in panic before them.
  44. Steamship of day-trippers setting off downriver with hampers of sandwiches and bottled ale, band playing on-deck, queasy passengers vomiting copiously over the sides. 
  45. Firework display over illuminated pleasure gardens by night. Lots of furtive assignations in the bushes.
  46. Crowds gathering to watch hot air balloon race between rival aerialists. 
  47. Recently-returned explorer delivering a public lecture, telling blood-curdling tales of his adventures among the savages.
  48. Recruiting sergeant looking out for likely lads to join the regiment, handing out drinks freely and telling mouth-watering stories about all the food and loot and women that a young soldier can get his hands on overseas. 
  49. Soldiers setting out for distant colonial war, resplendent in their shiny new uniforms.
  50. Soldiers returning from distant colonial war, sunburned and traumatised and ravaged by tropical diseases, twitching nervously at loud noises and looking around for something to kill out of force of habit.
  51. Celebrity criminal being carried to the gallows, surrounded by adoring crowds begging for locks of hair and straining to hear their last words.
  52. Menagerie of exotic animals, caged and miserable, on display to paying customers.
  53. Panic - an elephant, driven mad in captivity, has burst its bars and is now on the rampage. A band of men waving muskets follow in hot pursuit.
  54. In a low tavern, thieves plot a break-in on a nearby warehouse.
  55. Street vendor selling penny books with lurid woodcut illustrations to semi-literature customers.
  56. Newsboys hawk newspapers full of verbatim witness testimony from the latest aristocratic sex scandal. 
  57. 'Lion-hunting' society hostess on the lookout for celebrities to invite to her next soiree. She's got no-one lined up for next week yet and is getting frantic.
  58. The 'black guard': soot-covered street children, drunken and half-feral, roaming the street in mobs.
  59. A meeting between rival benevolent societies to discuss the best means of distributing charitable relief to the poor. The mood is growing less benevolent by the minute.
  60. Crowds mobbing a doctor's coach attempting to carry a man to the asylum, while the patient within screams that he is sane and being carried off against his will.
  61. Band of city traders on shooting excursion to the countryside, nervously eyeing their shotguns and hoping they don't shoot each other by accident.
  62. Seconds making secret preparations for a duel on an isolated patch of wasteland, checking the pistols, waiting for the surgeon, and keeping an eye out for the police. The principals will arrive any minute, horribly hung-over and desperately regretting their drunken challenges the previous night.
  63. Opium eaters stumbling around in a blissed-out haze, smiling meaninglessly at everyone.
  64. Meeting of a band of armchair detectives, determined to solve the latest crimes described in the daily newspapers.
  65. A man being dragged off to a debtor's prison while bailiffs carry off the furniture and possessions from his home, to be sold at auction. His wife and children sit, stunned with misery, in the street outside.
  66. A local election. Both candidates have spent lavishly on free beer for the electors, and everyone permitted to vote is now very, very drunk. Agents of one candidate are now circulating with the aim of tricking the befuddled voters into voting for the wrong man, or, failing that, of drinking themselves into unconsciousness and thus not being able to vote at all.
  67. Chimney-sweeps adorned with green branches, dancing and begging money for beer. 
  68. Bands of emigrants dragging their meagre possessions down to the docks, hoping to try their luck elsewhere. 
  69. A group of literary reviewers sit in the corner of a pub, whispering like conspirators, plotting how best to destroy a writer they have taken a dislike to in their review of her next book. 
  70. A group of actual conspirators sit in another corner, making grand but impractical plans for uprisings, rebellions, and assassinations.
  71. A hired carriage rolls by, on its way to present a grand petition to parliament. Watching crowds, sullen and mutinous, mutter about rioting if their demands are not met.
  72. Screaming match in the streets between legislators beholden to the agricultural and industrial interests. Each faction accused the other of bringing utter ruin to the nation. The mood is tense and a crowd is gathering fast.
  73. Huge new church under construction to spiritually regenerate the working classes. Already looms over the entire district like an omen of doom and the spire's still only half finished. The locals are terrified of it.
  74. Grand opening of new museum to display the treasures of empire, houses sacred art looted from five different continents, rumours of curses and hauntings probably nothing to worry about. 
  75. Scientific expedition just returned from distant shores, now being unloaded by crews of porters, disgorging an apparently endless stream of pickled marvels and monsters from its hold.
  76. Ambitious young doctor seeks volunteers for his latest experiments in surgery and anaesthesia, promises they're only sometimes mostly fatal and his technique is improving all the time.
  77. Band of ragged paupers seriously discussing whether they should spend the winter in the workhouse, or whether they'd be better off getting drunk and breaking some windows in the hope of getting sent to prison instead.
  78. Tombs of the famous dead being systematically broken open under the supervision of a noted phrenologist, who has received permission to carry out a comparative scientific study of their skulls.
  79. Travelling lecturer in chemistry amazes his audience with displays of electricity, explosions, blue flames, and similar wonders.
  80. Band of postmen from newly-instituted postage system roaming the city, attempting heroically to match the directions on the letters with the completely unsystematic geography of the city itself, which has never been mapped and lacks any agreed-upon system of street names or house numbers.
  81. Factory in a state of great upheaval, with everything being cleaned and all the most obviously sick and crippled workers being shoved out of sight in preparation for the first visit of a newly-formed government inspectorate on a fact-finding mission.
  82. Reclaimed drunkards addressing a temperance meeting with lurid stories of their previous debasement. Lots of hymn-singing and tea-drinking. Gangs of drunken roughs jeer and heckle from the sidelines.
  83. Grand opening of chapel founded by new religious movement. Much impassioned preaching, prophesying, and speaking in tongues. Fevered speculation among the faithful regarding the miraculous powers supposedly possessed by the sect's founder. Dark rumours that a plot is afoot to have her committed as a lunatic.
  84. Coachload of miserable children, unwanted or illegitimate, being carried off to a distant boarding school where they can be safely forgotten about. The more desperate among them are planning an escape.
  85. Gang of criminals planning to sabotage the new electric telegraph system, on the grounds that crime will be impossible once news of a crime can travel faster than the criminal who commits it.
  86. Giant new intercontinental steamship lying in drydock, in preparation for epoch-making intercontinental voyage. Lounging spectators make bets on how far it will get before sinking.
  87. Ashen-faced bankers stumbling from the exchange. There has been a crash, and ruin now awaits them and all who have banked with them unless some desperate expedient can be found. 
  88. Stage production of the life and death of a famous celebrity criminal, watched each night with rapt attention by a huge and adoring crowd, to the consternation of the authorities.
  89. Circle of spiritualists advertise weekly communions with the spirits of the dead, with much table-turning, spirit-rapping, apportation, and masses of ectoplasm. A glowering sceptic seeks volunteers to help him unmask their surely-fraudulent activities.
  90. Self-proclaimed genius preening himself in a salon, surrounded by female admirers, holding forth at length on how all true art must be produced without any consideration of profit or commerce. He writes a book a year for the popular press, the most recent of which came out last month and is already a bestseller. 
  91. Half-mad demagogue stirring up a crowd. He claims to be a nobleman deprived of his rightful heritage, who will lead the people to reclaim their rights and bring about a new age of justice. He's clearly a little unhinged, but there are plenty of people around who are desperate enough to listen.
  92. Formal but increasingly heated debate between two cliques of political economists about how best to reform the taxation system to reflect the realities of the new economy. Some important people are in the audience and the stakes are getting worryingly high.
  93. Swindler mercilessly fleecing middle-class snobs at a party by making spurious claims about his aristocratic connections. Some of the sharper ones suspect they're being played but don't have enough to prove anything... yet.
  94. Famous engineer surveying the city, making plans for grand new bridges, tunnels, streets, squares, embankments...
  95. Rookery of slums endlessly subdivided into smaller and smaller apartments, linked by an incomprehensible warren of back-alleys, a breeding-ground of filth, crime, and disease. 
  96. Surgeon holding public demonstration of 'bio-galvanic energy' by running electrical currents through the corpses of executed criminals in front of a paying audience. There is no way this can go wrong. 
  97. Street brawl between local workers and recent immigrants, who are widely blamed for pushing down the price of labour by inconsiderately being desperate enough to work for starvation wages.
  98. A dazzling display of the latest visual technologies: magic lantern shows, stage apparitions, transparencies, panoramas, and mechanical theatres. Some particularly gruesome ghost projections are sending small children into hysterics. 
  99. Well-meaning philosopher wearily explaining to a hostile crowd that giving charity to the poor is actively harmful, as it holds down the price of labour by preserving the surplus population.
  100. Girlish young queen on her way to her own coronation, watched by a sceptical crowd of loafing sandwich-eaters convinced that she'll never amount to anything and will be swiftly forgotten.
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Sunday, 9 June 2019

So close and yet so far: the story of Mutant Chronicles

I mentioned back in December that, after incautiously writing one too many posts about Warhammer, I'd taken up miniature painting. In order to feed my growing miniature habit, I took to scouring ebay for cheap miniature bundles. And that's where I came across Mutant Chronicles.

I'd never heard of Mutant Chronicles before, but I quite liked the figures, whose cartoonish sculpts were perfectly suited to my limited painting abilities. So I looked into it a bit further... and was mildly astonished by what I found. Those of you who are already familiar with the Mutant Chronicles franchise should feel free to skip the next two paragraphs.

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So: back in 1982, the Swedish RPG company Target Games produced a fantasy RPG called Drakar och Demoner, which I'd kinda heard of. In 1991 they published the famous Gnostic horror RPG Kult, which impressed me enormously when I read the English edition back in 1999 or thereabouts. What I hadn't known was that in 1984 they also released a Gamma World style post-apocalyptic RPG called Mutant, which morphed over the course of four editions into a dystopian post-apocalyptic horror SF RPG called Mutant Chronicles, which shared some setting elements with Kult, and was published in 1993. This game took off like a rocket, and was swiftly followed by the miniatures boardgames Siege of the Citadel (1993), Blood Berets (1993), and Fury of the Clansmen (1994), the collectable card games Doomtrooper (1995) and Dark Eden (1997), a computer game (Doom Troopers, 1995), and a miniatures wargame (Warzone, 1996). The success of Mutant Chronicles was so great that Target rebooted Drakar och Demoner in 1994, giving it a more fantasy-horror themed setting to match the Mutant Chronicles tone, and in 1997 launched a tie-in fantasy miniatures wargame, Chronopia. 

Here's the pitch: megacorporations take over the world. Then they colonise the solar system. Then they strip-mine Earth of all its resources, evacuate everyone they think will be useful, and leave everyone else to choke in the smog. Then they accidentally awaken some Evil Space Demons who have escaped into their gameline from Kult. The demons take over all their computers and nearly kill everyone, but the corporations manage to shove them back inside their box with the help of some magical space Catholics called The Brotherhood. Then they spend hundreds of years fighting each other in a state of enforced technological stagnation, because everyone knows that computers are the tools of the Space Demons, while the poisoned ruins of Earth are gradually repopulated by an assortment of post-apocalyptic weirdos. Then the Space Demons break back out again, and a variety of ultra-macho ethnic stereotypes - Scottish berserkers, Japanese samurai, efficiency-obsessed Germans, and Americans in cowboy hats - must unite to save humanity from the mutant zombie horror-monsters of the Dark Legion.

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It all looks like this. All the time.
Flush with cash from the success of Mutant Chronicles, Target Games rapidly expanded their operations into the US, UK, and Ireland. They bought out the miniature company Heartbreaker Hobbies and Games in 1997, and for six years - 1993 to 1998 - they were a serious competitor to Games Workshop. GW had Warhammer: Target had Chronopia. GW had 40K: Target had Warzone. GW had Heroquest: Target had Siege of the Citadel. But as so often happens when a company expands too fast, Target didn't have the financial reserves needed to soak up losses and reverses, and waning sales in 1998 led almost instantly to bankruptcy in 1999. Luckily for them, in amidst all the Mutant Chronicles excitement, Target had also produced a modest little turn-based historical strategy computer game called Svea Rike (1997): and when the remnants of Target Games reformed as Paradox, its first project was an expanded version of Svea Rike called Europa Universalis (2000). The rest is history, and today Paradox has carved out a strong and apparently much more sustainable niche as a creator of such acclaimed grand strategy computer games as Crusader Kings 2 (2012), Europa Universalis 4 (2013), and Stellaris (2016).

For Paradox today, Mutant Chronicles probably seems like an embarrassing episode from their corporate adolescence. The games still have a fanbase, but subsequent efforts to revive them have been dogged by failure and misfortune. Excelsior Games relaunched Chronopia in 2002 and Warzone in 2004, but both games swiftly folded. Then Fantasy Flight Games tried to relaunch Warzone again in 2008 as a 'collectable miniatures game' featuring 54mm prepainted miniatures, which went down like a lead balloon. Prodos Games relaunched it again in 2013 as Warzone Resurrection, which stumbled along for a few years before getting mired in legal disputes and finally ceasing production for good in 2018. The 2008 Mutant Chronicles movie, which somehow featured both Ron Perlman (!) and John Malkovich (!!!), ended up with a rating of 18% on Rotten Tomatoes. Mophidius held a kickstarter in 2014 to launch a third edition of the RPG: the sourcebooks promised in the kickstarter were dutifully produced between 2015 and 2017, but the game seems to have been pretty much dead on arrival, and Mophidius is now selling off their remaining stock at steep discounts. A  2016 kickstarter for a 2nd edition of the Siege of the Citadel boardgame raised $600,000: it was supposed to ship in 2017, but has been plagued by fulfilment issues, and most backers still haven't received their games. And yet, despite these repeated disappointments, the franchise just refuses to die. It's as though Warhammer 40,000 had a weird little brother who was (a) undead and (b) Swedish.

Mutant Chronicles is supposedly set more than a thousand years in the future, but the truth is that this is a franchise in which it is forever 1996. It's absolutely crammed with everything that teenage boys thought was cool in the mid-1990s: ninjas, samurai, cyborgs, zombies, Scottish highlanders (Rob Roy and Braveheart came out in 1995), corporate assassins, spec. ops. commandos, mutants, giant swords, giant guns, holy warriors, Judge Dredd, the Terminator, John Rambo, and Mad Max. This is a world where everyone thinks it's totally reasonable to refer to your elite super-soldiers as Doomtroopers, and where the average pauldron is at least twice the size of its wearer's head. No-one could accuse it of being subtle, but I do understand the appeal: the sheer wild-eyed enthusiasm of it all is infectious. The fact that I actually was a teenage boy in 1996 probably also helps.

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Huge chunks of Mutant Chronicles were clearly ripped off from 40K. The pivotal event in history of both settings is a duel between the magical messiah of the Space Catholics (Cardinal Durand / The Emperor) and the evil warlord of the Space Demons (Algeroth / Horus). In both, a space-age civilisation discovers cosmic evils that force them into a state of technological stagnation. Humanity's best hope against the space demons is an order of sacred warriors with Roman Catholic Gothic aesthetics and lots of power armour. The space demons are split into different factions, led by entities who embody the forces of corruption (Ilian / Slaanesh), destruction (Algeroth / Khorne), pestilence (Demnogonis / Nurgle), deceit (Semai / Tzeench), and insanity (Muawijhe / chaos in general). The settings are characerised by black-and-grey morality, and dominated by oppressive societies riddled with heretical cults that secretly serve the space demons. There are chainswords. There are mutants. And there are some truly enormous shoulderpads.

I feel that it would be somewhat hypocritical to complain about this, given the extent of 40K's own debts to earlier SF media like Nemesis the Warlock and Dune. But the similarities between the two also call attention to their differences. 40K, for better or worse, has changed a lot over the years: 40K in 1987 was very different to 40K in 1996, and hugely different to 40K in 2019. But Mutant Chronicles still seems to be as 90s-tastic today as it was back in the actual 1990s, still trading on memories of endless summer holidays spent listening to Slayer and reading 2000AD. 

Like 40K, Mutant Chronicles trades heavily on the strength of its imagery. Does it make much sense for girls with chainswords and power-armoured dudes in Pickelhauben to team up against frothing Scottish Highlanders and WW1 trench infantry IN SPAAACE? Not really, but it sure looks cool when they do! It features a lot of good, iconic designs, especially of armoured infantry, and I'm sure that much of the franchise's longevity is based on the sheer affection that many old Warzone players clearly feel for their squads of Imperial Trenchers, or Venusian Rangers, or Lutheran Fusiliers. But while its range of imagery is wide, it isn't deep. It draws on many different sources of iconography - feudal Japan, WW1 Europe, the Vietnam War - but at the end of the day, it's still mostly just Macho Men and Macho Women with Guns. It's fun and vivid and pulpy, but everything feels a bit two-dimensional, with no attempt to present, say, the Mishima Mega-Corporation as anything other than a heap of early 1990s Japanese stereotypes, or the Dark Legion as anything more than a gibbering horde of space demons who want to murder everything just because they can. The sense that I sometimes get with the best 40K stuff - that all this really means something, and that what we're seeing is just the protruding edge of something far bigger and older and sadder - never really comes across, at least to me.

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Everyone just keep shooting, OK?
What I think that the contrasting fates of Warzone and 40K demonstrate are that imagery, energy, and machismo can only get you so far, even in the world of SF wargames. I don't think for a moment that most fans of 40K like it for the ideas, but the fact that it has ideas must surely be connected to its ongoing survival and success. The familiar techno-Gothic iconography of 40K means things: it communicates something complex and powerful about the spiritual kinship between dehumanising systems of advanced technology and archaic systems of violence and control. It's flexible enough that it can be used to tell all kinds of different stories from all kinds of ideological perspectives, from anarchistic satires about the awfulness of imperialism to quasi-Fascist parables about the need for strong leaders and the dangers of tolerating dissent, and as such it's been able to continue connecting with new waves of gamers, artists, and designers for more than thirty years. I think you'd struggle to do anything of the sort with Warzone, which only really seems to be set up to tell stories about how one bunch of dudes shot another bunch of dudes and looked really awesome while they were doing it, and which never seems to have been able to attract a new audience to make up for the decline of its original fanbase in the late 1990s.

They do look really awesome, though. And that turns out to be able to get you a really long way. Just not, it would seem, quite far enough.

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Monday, 3 June 2019

Miniature painting: the adventure continues

Last September, after incautiously writing too many blog posts about Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, I took up miniature painting. I posted about it in December, providing images of all the crudely painted figures that I'd completed to date. Five months on, I'm still at it, although my pace has slowed somewhat. This post is an update on what I've been painting since.

I'm still very much a beginner, as will be obvious from the images below. I'm only just starting to experiment with things like basing figures or painting human eyes. I'm painting figures pretty much at random, just in order to experiment with different things - big models, small models, cloth, skin, armour, hair, scales - and my focus is still on quantity rather than quality. But I'm improving. Slowly. I think.

Here are the models I've done so far this year. Click the pictures for bigger images.

More miniatures from Castle Ravenloft and The Legend of Drizzt:











THE CHORUS LINE OF THE DAMNED.
Some chunky old elves from Chronopia: 


Some Arab warriors from somewhere or other:


An angel.


A sprue of female paladins from Shieldwolf miniatures:


Some 1:72 (20mm) elves, as an experiment in working on a smaller scale:



Some GW skinks and Frostgrave snakemen:



A bunch of fantasy henchmen and irregulars:





Some random historical figures:



Painting these guys was an oddly intimate experience. As my brush tenderly caressed their athletic buttocks, I suddenly realised why there was such a big market for cheesecake female miniatures.
Some dark elf spearmen:


Some old Warzone miniatures:



I FINALLY WORKED OUT HOW TO DO EYES!


And a dwarf.


So that's where I've got to. Current projects include finally finishing the board game miniatures, painting up a bunch of other Warzone figures (Brotherhood, Bauhaus, and Lutherans), doing some more Celts (some of whom will be wearing trousers this time), and completing a squad of Mantic orcs who have been sitting on my shelf, half-finished, for about six months. So expect another update in, like, November or thereabouts...

Friday, 31 May 2019

The Automaton Police Office

I found this today and thought it was too good not to share.



This illustration, captioned Automaton Police Office and the Real Offenders, appeared in Bentley's Miscellany in 1838, as part of a satire by Charles Dickens entitled 'Full Report of the Second Meeting of the Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything'. The Association, naturally, is full of fools and lunatics making stupid proposals, but this one really stands out.

The problem, one of the associates explains, is that young gentlemen are causing lots of problems and damage through reckless driving, drunken rampages, beating up policemen, and so on. His solution is to build a giant park, ten miles long by four miles wide, with a tall wall around it. Inside will be empty fields and streets, specially maintained for such gentlemen to ride around smashing things up without causing any problems to the rest of us. There would be wide pavements for them to drive their carriages down, and, for added authenticity, pedestrians were to be hired from the local workhouses, implicitly to give them something to crash into.

So far, so Swiftian - but then Dickens adds a distinctive machine-age twist. In order to give the gentlemen something to beat up, these streets would be roamed by robot policemen. Their job would be to ineffectually attempt to arrest the gentlemen, in order to give them a chance to 'display their prowess' by smashing them to pieces. Once they were sufficiently tired out, the police robots - however mangled - would escort them to a fake police station for a lie down, where they would be 'tried' in the morning by robotic magistrates who were pre-programmed to say things like 'I am sorry to see gentlemen in such a situation' and 'I fear that the policeman was intoxicated'. It would also 'be furnished with an inclined plane, for the convenience of any nobleman or gentleman who might wish to bring in his horse as a witness.'

(This is the scene pictured above: the gentlemen rowdies are on the right, accompanied by the horse that they have brought in as a witness for the defence. The robotic police whom they have smashed up stand in the middle, giving evidence to the robot magistrates on the left, and to a secretarial automaton with a clock for a head. More broken robots lie in the corner in the far left, while fresh police robots lie in alcoves in the wall at the back, labelled 'A Division', 'B Division', and 'C Division', ready for fresh deployment.)

This is all so gameable it barely needs alteration. High walls surrounding a crumbling Potemkin city, built as a playground for the idle rich of a fallen civilisation. Malfunctioning clockwork automata in ancient police uniforms try to arrest anyone disturbing the peace, persisting even after their bodies are smashed to pieces - but all that they do with the people they catch is drag them into sham courtrooms, where robot magistrates find them innocent regardless of the evidence against them. Maybe a cargo-cult society descended from local paupers, convinced that it is very very important for them to spend several hours a day wandering the empty streets in case somebody wants to drive a coach into them. Armies of robotic enforcers lying dormant and rusting in alcoves, waiting to be wound up and sent marching into action. And witness stands for horses.

You could even go for a Westworld style set-up where the whole thing was brought down by a malfunctioning automaton who developed enough intelligence to start resenting getting his head kicked off every night, only to see his tormentors pardoned every morning. Hell, maybe he's still out there, lurking in a corner of the park, his lair stacked high with all the jewelled canes, gold snuff boxes, diamond rings, and other treasures that he looted from the idle rich during his brief but effective reign of terror...