Thursday, August 15, 2019

Let's Look at a Bunch of Books (I Didn't Finish)

So I've had my Kindle for a few months now and boy howdy do I have some REVIEWS for you all. Mostly partial, because I have embraced the gospel of Did Not Finish.

River of Teeth, Sarah Gailey

DNF, pg. 78/169

What a disappointment. My favorite episode of the Dollop, turned into an alternate history novella? Sign me up! But the end result is a boring, chutzpahless affair. It takes nearly half the book to get the team together, and maybe one of those team members exists beyond a lackluster physical description and a minor gimmick. Definitely should have opened with everyone already together.

Pacing, characters, and bizarrely boring hippos aside, the thing that killed it for me was that the core conceit, the importing of hippos to the Gulf Coast for meat with completely predictable failure, is the least interesting of the alt-history elements.

The timeline in the back has no mention of the Civil War, and twenty-teens views on sex and gender abound even in hippo-infested 1880s Louisiana backwoods. I want to know how we got there. Hippos be damned, tell me about how abolition took root way earlier, or how the Second Great Awakening brought with it the sexual revolution, or what downright apocalyptic cultural change the South went through. Those are big, interesting ideas and they are completely ignored.

It reminds me of 5e worldbuilding, to a T. Needed more LeGuin and less Firefly.

No sleep till hippo.

Quantum Thief, Fractal Prince, Causal Angel, Hannu Rajaneimi

The Jean le Flambeur trilogy has gone right onto my shelf of "really good science fiction." It's got a whole lot going for it. The setting is immensely creative and full of bizarre far-future societies The future-shock dies down over time with context clues and easy-to-grok explanations, and I never lost my bearings once I figured things out. The pace is swift without sacrificing detail or breathing space (the longest of the three installments is 328 pages), and it's clear that the story was written as a whole to start - the arcs flow together smooth as silk. Most importantly, for a book all about posthuman gods, the characters are still relatable and understandable. I enjoyed spending time with all of them. The tech can get very close to "okay this is basically just magic now", but it's part of the territory.

When I talk about posthumans in Mothership, from now on it will be invoking those found in this series. It's touchstone-level good.

Unsouled, Will Wight

DNF after two chapters.

Remember the opening sequence of Avatar? Katara and Sokka are out fishing and get into an argument and bicker because they're siblings and Sokka's being a jackass? There's like two sentences of exposition about waterbending there and one of them is Sokka dismissing it as something he has heard a million times before and doesn't care about.

Take that scene, and the scenes to follow, and replace all the character establishment and fun interaction with exposition of the magic and you will have something that approaches Unsouled: a magical vaguely-east-Asian land filled with a magic system the author can't wait to tell you about.

Every single sentence in those first two chapters spoken by a character, any character, has to do with the magic system. It was like reading the novelization of a wiki page. To damn with the faintest wisp of faint praise, I would consider reading that wiki page. But not six novels of it.

I tried reading another Will Wight story I had, from another of his series, and found that this is an endemic trait to his work. Would not recommend to anyone.

Accelerando, Charles Stross

DNF at 21%

The transhuman future, as envisioned in 2005. A cavalcade of technobabble that succeeds at disorientating and alienating the audience, but that's not necessarily a good thing in this case. It jumps forward and back over the border of incoherence and the characters are not nearly compelling enough to carry the story beyond that. There's a terrible BDSM scene in it.

The Red Plague, Jack London

Hey, did you know that Jack London wrote a post-apocalyptic novella about a plague that wipes out nearly all of the human population sometime in the twenty-teens? He did, and its pretty solid stuff. Has that fun mix of being very spot on for the future (America ruled by a tiny group of impossibly wealthy individuals? Global population of around seven billion? Yep, got them both) with some turn of the century-isms (still using silver dollars) plenty of that American Lit class naturalism to go around. Very short, free, bit a of a shake-up in the diet.

Of Sheep and Battle Chicken, Logical Premise

DNF at chapter 22

Recommended to me by Jack Tatters / swampgirl, this is a Mass Effect fanfic that went just a touch too far up its own butt. That's an uncharitable take, honestly, as it has a lot of things going for it - it does a decent job of portraying the setting as darker without adding or changing much at all, just bringing the slavers, pirates, PMCs, militarist conspiracies, extrajudicial-authority-having-space-marines and inadequate government

The issue is Shepard - a character presented as both a woman supposed to be completely broken by horrific trauma, and a one-liner dropping badass. The incongruity is omnipresent, and it is exacerbated by how other characters seem to just go along with her (as they would in the game proper) despite this going against any sane person's reaction to someone who is that single-mindedly murderous. Which is sad, as most of the other characters are pretty well-realized.

But the author drank too deep of the well of dark and edgy: there's a whole lot of "terrible things done because they need to be" without ever questioning or working to fix the underlying issues that led to those scenarios turning violent in the first place. Female characters are threatened with sexual violence on a depressingly regular basis. There's a fanfic-BDSM relationship between Shepard and Liara which looms like an approaching mountain of do-not-want. I am grateful the author gave forewarning in the introduction, but the idea of "huge nerd entering first major relationship" getting down with "mass-murdering emotionally-dead constantly-traumatized individual who has raped at least two other women, this is explicitly stated in chapter 7" is a red flag so huge that it should be seen from space. (I put down the story before it reached this point, but I had lost any faith the outcome would be something I wanted to read or recommend.

Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon

A book of ideas rather than plot, and for its time pretty on the ball about space science - in some ways it's on the ball more than a lot of modern space science with things like wide-scale stellar engineering and the scale of deep time. Features a sapient species of boats, among some other really creative aliens. Very good for inspiration, though it can drag at times with descriptions of successive tiers of increasingly vast complex things beyond our comprehension.

I'd love to see a modern version of it, really. A nice Sagan-helming-Cosmos version would be * chef's kiss *.

Worm, John McCrae

DNF at 11%

I was super invested to start, despite it being two genres (superheroes and teen drama) I am not normally huge on. I loved how it explored the consequences of powers and a world of people with powers. But the sheer amount of extra chaff made me lose steam - the thing's over five thousand pages, paced more like a TV show than a prose story.

Fights are like reading text conversions of Stand battles in JoJo, interrupted by lengthy descriptions of bizarre costumes and asides detailing powers in depth. All the creative usage in the world can't save pacing like that - it's just the wrong medium for it. TV show it would work fine. Pared down text with hyperlinks to a wiki? Perfect. But not straight prose.

I might return to this in the future, or just read a plot summary on the wiki.

Several Conan short stories by Robert E. Howard

Finished 1/3

The good ideas to racism ratio is skewed terribly out of whack. I like Fafhrd and Mouser much better.

Foreigner, C. J. Cherryh

Best implementation of drow I've ever seen. The opening sequence is somewhat jarring with multiple major timejumps, but this was apparently a request by the publisher and not the original plan. Does a fantastic job wrestling with an alien mindset and what follows from it.

Dawn, Octavia Butler

Gold standard material. The oankali are properly alien in a way that I can't find any easy comparison to in anything else I have read - they operate upon a logic that humans simply cannot grasp - we see what they are doing, we know even to an extent why they are doing it, but there is this gulf between the two species that can't be bridged no matter how good they become at communicating. There are just these two incompatible forces colliding and there's nothing either side can do to soften the blow. It's horrifying and tragic and a damn good read.

Time and the Gods, Lord Dunsany

I don't know if the kind of fantasy Dunsany wrote still really exists any more, but this collection certainly made me want it to. While a few of them are lackluster (I found the longer works to border on intolerable) and the high language can lose you, his mythmaking is on point for the whole. Personal favorite is the story of the king who laid seige to Time's castle, and whose army was assaulted by hours and years until they all went home as old men. Don't see stuff like that much anymore.

Luna: New Moon, Ian McDonald

DNF at 30%

You could steal the setting for a Mothership game, whole cloth. The Moon is a harsh mistress and built on terrifying economic disparity (imagine having an AR counter of your oxygen and water budget in the corner of your eye, forever), all that good stuff, but all the narrative focus is on the corporate nobles and their inter-house warfare and family drama, sans any proletariat hordes breaking down their habitat airlocks and getting their revolution on.

There are three books to follow, so maybe that does happen, but when I'd rather that all the characters were dead, I'm not going to stick around and find out.

The King In Yellow, Robert Chambers

One downright haunting short story, three solid spooky stories, and then a collection of indiscernible romance stories that aren't spooky at all. It's downright bizarre - all the good parts are frontloaded and it seems like a different manuscript got shoved in there at the end. Which paradoxically becomes something of a benefit, I think.

I actually like Carcosa and the Yellow King more than the normal Lovecraft stuff when it comes to raw horror, precisely because Chambers explains jack shit. It's a meme, constantly mutating in every use afterwards, worming into the mind and gestating into a new mutant form to spread and survive. It's the effective use of the "throw in random words, describe nothing" method of horror.

"Repairer of Reputations" is by far the strongest story in the book precisely because it leans into this uncertainty. Is Carcosa real? Is this man just crazy? Is the king exerting influence on the world, turning it into a fascist hellscape, or is that just a purely human affair?

Winter Tide, Ruthanna Emrys

In-progress, 240/362

A while back I said I needed to read this book, and my gut was correct. I love it. Like The Ballad of Black Tom (which I also read an adored), it revitalizes what is often terribly old and stale not by changing it drastically, but by pulling back and looking at it from a different angle.

I've gabbed enough about my love for this particular subgenre (recontextualized Lovecraftiana? Cosmic humanism?) that to continue in this review seems a bit redundant. It's good. I want more of it. And not just with Lovecraft, either: people should do it with whatever they can get their hands on. (I'd love to see this applied to something like John Carter, and certainly Conan). Retelling lets the good ideas get polished and the bad ones fall to the wayside. I also love the little touches Emrys adds to make it her own - offhand references to species the yithians have dealt with in Earth's far future, the everyday cultural aspects of the Innsmouth folk, all that. good stuff.

There are a few too many characters to juggle so far, but it gives me a shot of that Shape of Water goodness, which is well worth a few minor hiccups.

I didn't realize this until just now, writing this review, that the copy I picked up was signed. Well I'll be damned.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Mothership Play Report: Weather Report

MY INTERNET IS BACK. Episode 1! Episode 2! Let's go!

  • Berkeley, karaoke gynoid (Michael Kennedy)
  • Manny, scientist (JOZO)
  • Rob Nixon, teamster (CWBunny)

The crew wake up to the sound of gunshots in the street beyond their cheap hotel. Fearing the worst, the crew creeps to the window and peers outside to get a glimpse of the balcony.

The heavyworlder Manny spoke to at Amarpreet's the night before is there, and in no-nonsense fashion tells the scientist off for blabbing about his alliance with FRIEND so openly. But, it seems that Manny has a stroke of luck in his drunkenness and managed to find a friend of FRIEND.

The heavyworlder offers to take care of Hank (who is still unconscious and trapped in bee-themed drug dreams), as Berkeley and Manny creep out of the motel and into the street.

In the morning light they are able to clearly see the graffiti on the façade opposite their roach motel: "LANTERN BOY LIVES". Lamplighters this far east is definitely a new development.

In the alleyway across the street, they find a pair of legs sticking out of a trash can. These legs are attached to a man in filthy robes with a cheap Rottweiler mask on his head and a sword on his belt - a Dog Knight. There is a short exchange that lasts only until the Dog Knight hears the battle sounds from down the road, after which he excitedly clambers up the wall and begins running across the rooftops, eager to kill some space fascists.

The pair are finally able to get a line through to FRIEND, who is uncharacteristically agitated and antsy-sounding. He tells them to head to the junkyard (thankfully in the opposite direction of most of the fighting), and to pick up a ride there. The pair hoof it, and in doing so stumble across Rob Nixon, a dockworker looking to join the riots, smash some heads, and make off with some loot scrap.

The junkyard is close when the air is broken by the unmistakable BOOM of an artillery cannon going off behind them, and close. At a dead sprint they run through the gate, catching a glimpse of the junkyard owner barricaded in the main office, loading his shotgun. They find a groundcar with a smiley-face sticker on the windshield, keys already in the ignition. Rob floors the gas and they tear out into the street, wheels screaming.

The only proper way out of town and back onto the highway is via the main thoroughfare, which is right where the fighting was and is.

And there's a fucking tank there sitting right in the intersection, bedecked in Front colors. The rioters are in disarray, covering their retreat with molotovs and homemade tear gas grenades as the riot-suited Fronters open up with machine guns. There's a flash-impression image of the rooster-and-cat insignia of the Interstellar Sex Worker's Union.

The luckiest thing in the world happens, then: Rob guns the engine, pulping two Front stormtroopers. Berkeley rolls down the window and fires her rigging gun at a building. By some absolute miracle, the cable holds AND the tank misses with its main cannon, and the absolute madmen make a perfect quarter-circle turn. As they tear out of town towards the highway, they toss the shattered remains of the rigging gun out of the window and glance back to see the tiny form of the Dog Knight approaching the tank all on his lonesome.

With all that excitement out of the way, the group heads back to the radio tower pull-off, and continues along the northwards road they saw in Session 2.

Of this part there's nothing really of note, except when they passed by an automated refueling station - they drove on by without stopping, but while watching out the window Manny locked eyes with a short, stocky Afro-Sino woman with a buzz cut and a white badgerstripe, standing next to a fancy groundcar.

They go a short distance further down the road before deciding to turn around and investigate. The station is empty when they return - all that's left of Ms. Badgerstripe and her car is a cluster of a couple hours worth of cigarette butts where she had been standing. The crew return to the road and head towards the weather monitoring station.

They pull off near the base of the hill, where the road ends. The truck tires from the radio station are clear in the dirt, heading up the path to the station. A quick bio and thermal scan reveals nothing out of the ordinary besides a pair of human corpses - soldiers of the Legio Africanus. Their gear is intact and undamaged, and there are no wounds present save a tiny pinprick on each neck. Berkeley is able to identify it as the end result of a needle gun, most likely poisoned.

Their armor and SMGs are stripped and repossessed.

Through all of the ascent, the crew notes that they don't seem to have been noticed by the androids. Berkeley, the group's social cover, tries pinging them but gets nothing but a flurry of "I'm busy" notices.

Through the station's main entrance, they step into the Church of Skin.

Homemade pews form a hemicircle around a pulpit made from the receptionist's desk. Out-of-the-box manniquindroids pose in their own bloody stations of the cross, draped intapestries of human hide. AR tags scroll through prayers and stories of their mythos.

Berkeley takes it worse than the others and freezes up, her eyes going traditional bluescreen. Manny attempts the therapy-hack, but is too shaken up to succeed.

And then, noise. Guns go up, and a tiny, child-sized person in an environment suit -a tecnavi- emerges from behind the choir pews, hands up.

They aren't saying anything discernable, but clearly don't want any trouble. They sidle over to the door and back out. With some effort, they manage to say "I leave, you also" before making their way out of sight down the hill.

There's still no sign of the androids, but everyone feels a thrumming, humming, pulse emanating from the garage. It feels as if space is contracting and expanding, as if breathing. Manny is the one to brave the door.

The androids are there, and what's left of the humans, piled up in a tantric knot on the back of a cargo-hauler truck. Metal and meat and knitted together with zealous enthusiasm, throbbing in pain as it draws on the inadequate power supply of the station.

But Manny manages to resist panicking. With deadly clarity, he warns away Berkeley and Rob, grabs some cans of gasoline, and sets the entire place ablaze. The crew leaves immediately - they are able to find the tecnavi's tracks for a while, but not the tecnavi.

It's a long, quiet ride back to Colony Central.

As they drive through downtown, they see a short, stocky woman with a white badgerstripe, smoking a cigarette.

Friday, August 2, 2019

The Book of the Night

David Bourassa

The method and structure I'm using here are stolen wholesale from reddit user fxktn and ancepsinfans.

Furt helped me with the translations.

The Book of the Night

"Through my reason I know that I am mad, and all the world mad with me."

So begins the Kitab al-Layl of Abd-al-Hazra (d. 738), the seminal work of Umayyad occultism. The work of the self-described "mad Arab" has been subject to over a millennium of religious and secular censure, shoddy translation, misinformation, additions and moral panics.

While the Kitab al-Layl contains notable treatises on alchemy, medicine, and astronomy, what has remained the work's defining characteristic are the sections named as "Conversations with a Learned Elder", in which al-Hazra engages in a lengthy dialogue with an unnamed individual regarding the nature of the universe and the powers that sustain it.

In the Conversations, al-Hazra divides the universe into three primary aspects: the purely physical, the purely spiritual, and the transitory territory between. This third category he posits as the most potent, consisting of the fundamental aspects and powers that govern the other two.

The al-Hazran universe is modeled as a dodecohedron. Each face of the polygon represents a different power, and maps to those powers which are considered opposites, and those which are more liable to overlap. The powers are further divided into "hot/feminine" and "cold/masculine" groupings, though al-Hazra notes that this is his own invention and the Learned Elder is dismissive of this structure.

al-Hazran admits that other powers might indeed exist outside of his schema and that none of the powers he details are sharply separated from the others, but thus far his design remains the most popular structure for organizing the Outer Powers.

Notable translations and editions of the Kitab al-Layl are as follows:
  • Original manuscript - All known copies of the original manuscript have additions and edits by al-Hazra's students, including the excising of at least two chapters. The last of these (until new manuscripts were found in 2008) were lost in the sacking of Baghdad in 1258.
  • 950 Greek translation -The first major translation. Several significant additions of Byzantine occult philosophy dilute the original content, but more accurate than many to follow.
  • 1228 Latin translation - Despite its spread (it was the most-read pre-modern edition) it fell out of favor by the mid 17th century.
  • 1597 Sussex Manuscript - Based upon the Latin. First English translation. Clunky and difficult to read due to overt literalism.
  • ~1600 English translation - John Dee's unfinished English translation of the Latin. The fragments that exist indicate that it was mostly used as a vehicle for the aggrandizement of Dee's own beliefs and theories.
  • 1938 Miskatonic University Press edition - The "Necronomicon" - a serviceable but heavily flawed (in some cases properly botched) translation of the Greek. Known for being quite flowery and dense compared to the often prosaic original (the "much discussed couplet" was purely a creation of the translator)
  • 1967 Mass-market paperback - Fed by the American counterculture, this reprint of the MUP edition brought the works of al-Hazra out of academia and to the public.
  • 1998 Updated English Translation - A revised and much more readable English translation, based on both Latin and Greek sources.
  • 2010 Revised, Annotated, and Expanded International Edition - Based upon pristine copies of the original manuscript found in 2008. Held to be the most-accurate translation available by scholars and quite lively by readers.
  • 2018 Living Text Edition - A public-domain, crowd-sourced translation project based on the 2010 edition. Seeks to translate the text into as many languages as possible, and with the greatest diversity of translator voices. Contains apocrypha and additional occult theories related to al-Hazra's work.
  • ???? Pnakotic Library Text - A hypothetical version of the book compiled by intra-temporal scholars under Yithian patronage. If it exists, it would contain the full truth of the matter.

The Outer Powers

The names provided are a mix of Arabic and Greek, accompanied by a common English name. While the names used in the 1938 Miskatonic edition are widespread in common usage, they are fabrications of the translator and have no basis in any language.

1. Khaíno (Yawning Chaos, The Dark and Seething Fire)

That which is the untameable chaos from which the cosmos is formed and to which it is fed in destructive return.

It has only ever manifested in the form of a roiling cloud of superheated hydrogen, fusing into heavier elements and shrouded in mantles of dark matter. Sites where it has manifested remain permanently inculcated by radiation and prone to gravitational abnormality.

12. Bāb al-Lanhaya (The Gate of Infinity)

That which is the impassive, unchanging imposition of order. That which maintains the passage of days and the circuits of the heavenly bodies in their course.
  1. The door was never meant to be there, that leads where it was never supposed to go.
  2. A patch of time that runs too fast, too slow, backwards, upside-down.
  3. Through the telescope it is clear that the outer planets are gone, replaced by alien worlds.
  4. Quantum foam bubbles out of a gash in the air, containing within infinite refraction.
  5. A star the size of an apple and the lifespan of a mouse, giving off all the radiation befitting its station.
  6. The constellations dance, and then wink out one by one with the coming of dawn.

2. Najis (Decay)

That which is rot, sickness, corruption, the making-wrong of things, the fundamentally unclean and irredeemable.
  1.  A lake of rotting slurry, enough to drown in. Ripples of something big out there in the distance.
  2. The house of a hoarder, bigger on the inside. They haven't been seen in years. Dead? 
  3. A parade of roadkill, with jugglers and clowns and an elephant for the Master of Ceremonies. 
  4. You cannot scrub the smell out. It spreads to anything you touch.
  5. A sudden and pervasive cloud of malaise descends, a fog of shit and rust.
  6. The cow corpses spell out "The worms are waiting, but there is no hurry" in their spilled viscera.

11. Erêmos (The Desolate Place)

That which destroys utterly, which sterilizes, which excises, which ends and leaves nothing behind. The severing of continuity.
  1.  A column of aurora-fire, rising up tall as a mountain. All the land around its base is stripped of life, rendered down to grey dust.
  2. Flashes of bitter white light burst in the night sky. Those who see it will go blind by dawn.
  3. A loving partner turns cold and distant, painful to the touch.
  4. A man aflame, complaining of the cold as his skin blackens and his clothes turn to white ash.
  5. Patches of oily sheen, slowly spreading, killing whatever cells pass through it.
  6. An old building is torn down; the overnight replacement is minimalist and stark white and filled with plastic mannequins. No one can say who bought it.

3. al-Hayik (The Weaver)

That which weaves and spins, drawing all things together and moving without seeing. The loom of causality.
  1.  A winning lottery ticket. You don't remember ever buying it, and the prizes keep arriving in unmarked parcels on the front step. You never asked for these. You do not want them. They keep appearing on the front step
  2. Cobwebs thick as tapestries, displaying the potential horrors the viewer might commit.
  3. Each room leads to more, deeper and deeper and never finding an exit. Footsteps thud from a few rooms away.
  4. Rooms full of bloody bodies, each clutching to a severed rope and blunt scissors.
  5. A loom strung with muscle fiber and sinew, halfway through clothing a skeleton.
  6. The cobweb in the corner spells out, in nice neat letters, " SOME LONG PIG."

10. Khthónios (The Dark Beneath the Earth)

That which is sleeping, stagnant, slothful. The warm stillness of the primordial dark. Unmoving in its passivity, slinking down into dreamless, thoughtless night.
  1. Hot black tar, a faint orange fire glowing in its depths, oozing through the cracks in the walls.
  2. A hole in the basement's concrete floor, a tunnel leading down. 
  3. A coma patient tattooed across the chest: "wake me up when everyone else is dead".
  4. As dawn breaks, the earth shifts beneath your feet, vibrations in your bones, as if something is stirring awake.
  5. A persistent fuzz in the mind, as if woken up from a dream. 
  6. A room filled wall to wall to floor to ceiling with sleeping, naked forms.

4. Pankólpos (The All-Womb)

That which is generation, fecundity, birth. That which grows until the point of death. That which eats and kills and shits and fucks and changes.
  1. A bloated black goat that gives birth to human infants.
  2. A quivering mass of teats and vulvas, forever eating its newborns.
  3. A gnarled black tree; ancient, monstrous. Bleeds sweet sap like milk. 
  4. Tide pools full of amniotic fluid, forever restarting the dance of life and death.
  5. Each corpse had a fetus within it. Most looked to have been killed by others trying to free their passengers.
  6. An unlabeled VHS tape, containing a grainy nature documentary that devolves into hundreds of hours of increasing grotesquery.

9. al-Shamal (The Winter Wind)

That which is hunger, loss, lack, emptiness, abandoned. The bitter edge, the gnawing cold. The curse of want, the wasting away.
  1. The sandstorm that never ceases, the blizzard that never wanes.
  2. The form of a lone man on the desolate horizon. He turns to face you, and begins to run.
  3. A debt collected in pounds of flesh. Not carved out, but starved out.
  4. A pervasive smell of cold metal. Objects seem hyper-focused, their edges sharp and invisible, cutting. 
  5. A broken sword, so sharp that it might flense the memories from the brain and the senses from their organs if one stands too close.
  6. They found the widower frozen to death in the middle of a heat wave. No friends, no family, no one there but him.

5. Laímargos (The Glutton)

That which brings suffering, the knife whose point is cruelty. That which is agonies, ecstasies, self-destruction.
  1. The implication of a hidden dungeon of depravity, just behind the wall or beneath the floor.
  2. A fat, headless man sealed behind a damp brick wall, laughing to himself.
  3. The chants at the rally slur and shift, descending to a hateful language not spoken for a hundred thousand years.
  4. A gang of teens beat a homeless man to death. Tomorrow, they will kill him again.
  5. A lash of thorns, dried blood on the fronds. It wriggles when it detects hidden and pleasurable guilts.
  6. A mouth opens up in each palm, licking its lips and demanding to be fed broken taboos, making promises if obeyed.

8. al-Nihaya (The End)

That which is the threat to come. Far away now it sleeps and dreams, but it will come in time and reshape the world. A thing so great and vast that to comprehend even its pieces is to know it cannot be fought nor diverted.
  1. Dreams of hovering in the endless blue of the open ocean, just below the surface. Far below, where the blue shifts to black, sinuous shapes impossibly large twist and writhe.
  2. Mass-panics strike coastal cities; hallucinations of tidal waves and hurricanes.
  3. An unpublished concerto: The Song of Abaia. Never performed; the composer drowned himself.
  4. A school of cuttlefish arranges itself into displays of hypergeometric equations.
  5. Misshapen whales beach themselves, cry out in human voices, die.
  6. A form the blots out the stars, descending from above, descending from outside. 

6. Sah Weitn (Maker of Lies, The Bloody Tongue)

That which is disruption and lies. The dancer and the piper, the masked stranger. The face of chaos. The hand that guides towards undoing.
  1. A tall, dark man of regal bearing and soft voice, who advises even the poorest of men as if they are kings.
  2. A crooked old man with a twisted leg and broken, yellowed teeth. He'll give you guns and alcohol and sympathize with with your grievances and encourage you to do something about it.
  3. A woman so monstrously obese that she smothers her consorts and breaks her servants' backs.
  4. A shambling, leathery-skinned thing, its head a lashing wet red tendril, howling at the moon.
  5.  The virus, once released, will pry out any electronic secret and spread it to those who will make the most use of it.
  6. A winged black cat without a face, slinking ouit of the shadows to watch one's deepest despair.
It ought to be noted that this power is named in Coptic, the only such use of the language in the book.

7.  Al-Malik fi al'asfar (Xanthous King)

The distant throne which troubles the mind and disrupts its workings. That which corrupts word and thought and draws all things under its mantle until neither word nor thought may escape.
  1.  A slim manuscript of a two-act play, no author known, appears in the library.
  2. The cultural legacy and material culture of an empire that never existed.
  3. The phone rings, the authorities are on their way, lie face first on the floor with your hands above your head. You do not recognize the name, you are certain it can't be real.
  4. Invasive thoughts that cannot be shaken.
  5. An ever-deepening hole of deep fakes responding to each other, branching off, growing wild.
  6. Rats scrabble in the walls. The faded portrait of a beloved leader in his pallid mask. A curious pattern in the wallpaper.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Notes from my First Game

I was clearing out a box of old notebooks and stumbled across the few pages that I didn't want to shred just yet - my first notes as a DM, from back during freshman year of college. Only two pages survive but it's got an NPC list and a city map so all's good.

I had based this (rather short-lived) campaign on an old, old thread on about a city built around a tarrasque (Which got kickstarted and turned into the Salt in Wounds books). It was short-lived mostly because one of my players (who was the group's normal DM) went and murdered an entire tavern with some Book of Nine Swords crazy stuff and I didn't know how to respond to that.

I apologize ahead of time for the quality being a good bit lower than my usual output. I was learning the ropes. Everything not here has been forgotten or lost.

The City of Anterras

Description of a Map: A river running northeast to southwest. A canyon carved in the red-orange badlands stone.

The River Red cuts through the valley city from north to south. It was originally named so for the red clay of the riverbed, and later for the tarrasque blood that leaks into the southern flow through the Low City.

The Citadel was built atop the great beast, to contain it, to flense and carve and cut away at its flesh.  A fortress-abattoir-prison on an island in the river.

The Inner City surrounds the Citadel. Here are found the foundries, butchers and chimericists that make the tarrasque their trade.

The Low City consists of the southern arc of Anterras, and contains within it all the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

High City contains the rich bourgeois neighborhoods, with manicured parks and beautiful boulevards. The offices of the city government may be found here, as well as the trade houses, courts of law, and university.

The Outer City sits atop the cliff and is reachable only by secret elevator or lengthy staircase. The palaces of the fantastically, obscenely wealthy cling as barnacles to the time-carved stone.

The Riverside slums are split by the Citadel and Inner City, but they are the same either way. Docks and warehouses and teamsters unions and easy access to vices.

The Downs are the undercity, the buried ruins of the city here before Anterras was raised. The parts still (marginally) inhabited are mostly under the Low City.

Smokeside  is the northwest quarter of the city, downwind of the foundries. It is a proper Gehennic hellscape, doubling as the plague quarter in times of prion disease flareups.

Breezeside consists of the High and Outer districts. Money = clean air, in Anterras.


Mara-Oversandhill - Halfling trader who does business in and out of the city. Her caravan is the primary means for outsiders to find their way there.

Dr. Percival De Laquoris - Doctor in the plague quarter of Smokeside, runs a clinic there. Infuriatingly deliberate and slow to act. Good standing in the Low City.

Dr. Shil Caster - Percival's assistant. Alchemist. Never takes off his mask. More tolerable to deal with than his employer.

Shady Traw - A shopkeeper in the Downs

Hoskar Torn - Dwarf, lead representative of the Forgeworker's Guild.

Min - Runs a Low City boarding house and post office.

Thud - A domesticated troll in the employ of Min.

Fulwood, Shiv, Osten - Boarders at Min's, foreigners.

Seward the Steward - A steward for the city council offices

Shykana - Orc chieftainess here representing the nomad clans outside the city.

Winras Vadier - Head of the city military, currently preparing for the next crusade against the outside.

Mad Ferbi - A wizard. Lives inside an asbestos suit due to repeated fireball mishaps.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

The Greatest Table Ever Made

This is from the quickstart rules for Call of Cthulhu 7e. It's not in the main book, and that's a shame, because I think this might be the best table in RPGs.

With this table, we can toss out weapon-specific damage amounts and the mundane combat parts of bestiary entries entirely. All that boring stuff about firearm range and worrying about the damage difference between a machete and a crowbar, gone. Fumbling around shopping at WeaponMart, gone. All that chaff about precisely how much damage a betentacled horror can do, gone. Everything is boiled down into "what makes sense in this particular moment for this particular scenario". Any weapon could be anywhere on the list. All you have to do is look at the table.

I want more games to do this. I possibly want all games to do this.

I really don't have anything else to say on the matter. It's a good table.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The Extrapolation Game, Mothership Edition

There's nothing I like better than a background detail I can pull on and flesh out. Dark Souls lore videos are bread and butter to me. I'll talk your ear off about Book of the New Sun. So I've dug through the tables in the Players' Survival Guide and Dead Planet and figured out A) what I can infer from them raw and B) what gameable I can develop using that.

A Brief History of Hideous Dust (Book)

A street drug of obscure origin that has a reputation more appropriate for that of a minor bioweapon. It is a fine golden powder either ingested or inhaled, producing a rather pleasant and mellow buzz. The hideous part comes later, when it destroys your teeth, rots your skin, atrophies your muscles, and leaves your brain in a constant haze of fantastic visions devoted entirely to spreading more dust. The part where your organs restructure themselves and emerge from your skin-cocoon comes later.

The "brief history" details manufacturing, smuggling routes, wide-scale outbreaks, political responses and lack thereof, and the spread of Hideous Dust across settled space. Generally quite well-researched and even-handed.

Papal Order of Planetary Excommunication

An incredibly rare document, in that only nine have ever been written. Typical excommunications require that the recipient be baptized, delinquent, and refuse to change their actions, and so planetary writs can only be applied to the Papal Colonies.

The second-most notable incident is that of the community on St. Jubileus, where a monastic colony of 550 persons was excommunicated for heresy and improper use of reproductive biotech. (Pregnant priests are always good fodder for the gossip feeds).

The most notable incident is that of St. Severian, which was excommunicated, stripped of long-distance communication, carpet-bombed, and put under interdiction by an alliance of over eight thousand vessels from Papal client polities with full permissions to shoot down any ship that enters the 10 AU exclusion zone. There is no explanation why.

"A New Great Darkness" (Pamphlet)

The first Great Darkness was a multi-decade period of widespread information loss brought about by a combination of inadequate education programs, sudden and incompatible shifts in commonly-used file formats, and deliberate corporate and governmental censure. The period has come to be referred to as a period of great spiritual darkness as well as technological and informational.

The anonymous writer of this pamphlet believes that a new Great Darkness is at this juncture unavoidable, and so calls for the preservation of vital information and technologies that can be re-introduced into the noosphere.

Great Space Battles of the Delta Sector (Book)

Delta Sector (being the territory rimward and widdershins of Old Earth) has always been politically unstable. The mix of cultural and corporate structures that settled those worlds turned out to be a perfect mix for conflict, and enough time has passed that folks can look back on the conflicts with  that strange sort of historical nostalgia that would name gigantic bloodbaths "great".

"The Shedding of Flesh" (Pamphlet)

A widespread pro-augmentation and pro-upload screed, notable for encouraging violent dismissal of any individuals unwilling or incapable of such augmentations. Really just another tired argument for social darwinism. Popular among corporate-backed parties, causes the Cyberneticists' Union endless trouble.

Alien-Human Hybrid Fetus

It's an unassuming little bundle of proteins and chemicals. Barely even properly alive. But it can integrate itself into human DNA during natal development, and this is a fearsome thing indeed. The changes are small at first - then comes the carapace, the mandibles, the additional arms and legs, the extra eyes, the restructured brain. Those little bundles weren't the building blocks of life, they were the leftovers: a means of invading the future.

Breast Pocket Satanic Bible

Prosaically subtitled "A Survival Guide for Life in Hell", this slim tome provides all manner of helpful and practical moral advice for people trapped in a dehumanizing, alienating, and exploitative environment fueled by cruelty and hubris (which is most of the human population). It is written in-character, from the perspective of Satan reflecting on his failed rebellion and the consequences thereof.

Racehorse Sperm

Horses, proper horses at least, are extinct. The genelines are trademarked, copywritten, and held in perpetuity among a relatively small cadre of corporate families. They are a completely arbitrary ultraluxury. They don't even modify the horses. It's just normal horseracing and no one knows why.

Everyone else gets by with camels, llamas, alpacas, oxen, buffalo, the occasional okapi, and assorted neogenic chimeras and prehistoric megafauna restorations.

Primitive Humanoid Native of the Dead Planet

The Dead Planet is the Earth of a Zothique future. The native life is just a hominid descendant species returning to self-awareness after ages of ignorance and darkness. They are very much like the humanity of the past, but the Dead Planet has undone their attempts at growth and civilization, leading them down the road towards a swift extinction if the situation remains as it is.

A Figure in Red Eats the Face of a Horse, Children Smile, the Sun is Black (Painting)

A pseudolegendary cursed painting by an unknown artist. Most of the known owners have died or gone mad under mysterious circumstances, though the art world of the far future is a deadly game on its own so that's not the most unlikely thing. The rumors surrounding it are remarkably inconsistent, save that it is the rightful property of the Red King of Galgorrada, a planet that appears in no other records. There is one security feed of a prior owner meeting with an "emissary of the Court", but the dark-robed figure was not recorded as saying anything, and the owner was found dead by a secretary later that afternoon.

Pocket AI

Cheap, simple intelligences used as personal assistants and occasional companions.  It's common for creators both corporate and open-source to build them with preset character personalities, complete with friendships, rivalries, and romantic relationships with other characters.

A Hollowed-Out Holy Book Containing Sacred Assassination Knives

The assassin monks of the planet Gone-Away don't actually exist. Their beliefs, holy books, sacred knives, secret rites and public declarations of intent are an elaborate ruse used to throw off the actual assassinations through subtle triggering of pre-existing medical conditions.

Snake/Rabbit/Parrot Hybrid

Felipsittacines are a common domestic splice and family pet: incredibly intelligent, capable of mimicking human speech and learning complex sentence responses. Terribly lazy, more than willing to sit around and let everyone dote on them.

Powdered Xenomorph Horn

It's used for exactly the same reason rhino horn was, and has the exact same effect, because humans are awful and never learn. The source species in question is a species of large, shelled pseudomammal native to the river deltas of Braunhouser IV. Males use their horns in combat, to make loud trumpeting calls, and may flush them with bright colors as a display of prowess.

Trilobite Fossils

A charm symbolizing good fortune and endurance. Trilobites lasted for over 300 million years, after all. It possesses a certain resonance with the explosion of human-seeded life across the stars, a second Cambrian Explosion in the astral sea. It's not properly part of a religion, not really. Just something to hold on to and think of home.

"Signs of Parasitical Infection" (Pamphlet)

Parasite infections are common enough in space travel that a quick means of identifying them is a necessity for any ship's doctor. Included in this pamphlet are some common Marginal pests:
  • Gravworm
  • Oil Fungus
  • Meat (TM)
  • Astral Ticks
  • Backpacker Wrigglers
  • Tax Collection Androids
  • Infectiou Nano-Spambots

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Great Screaming Hell

Space Engine

Maha Raurava

  • Parent Star: HIP 90881 - G3V (250 LY from Sol)
  • Gravity: 0.92 G
  • Atmosphere: Breathable at lower altitudes near ocean. High desert regions lack sufficient pressure, requiring the use of equipment.
  • Temperature: Hot, averaging between 25 and 35 C year round. Low seasonal variance.
  • Overall Climate: Dry desert and badlands. Single ocean surrounded by terraformed regions.
  • Biosphere: Seedship-modified, Earth-derived. Clustered around primary ocean and surrounding lowlands: high desert remains almost completely lifeless. Most is either non-nutritious or mildly poisonous to most nonmodified humans.
  • Moons: 1
  • Other Bodies in System: Besides asteroids and small rocky / ice worlds, two gas giants and a superterran are present. All have been surveyed by remote probe, no permanent settlements made.
  • Orbital Infrastructure: 3 cylinder O'Neill cluster Seraph and space elevator connected to Colony Central. Communication and weather monitoring satellite grid.

Initial Terraforming: Maha Raurava had liquid water, a decent magnetosphere, and some microbial life already when the seedship arrived. The resulting terraforming was, like in so many other cases, marginal - a few decades of rushed atmospheric alteration and introduction of tailored organisms. The particular seedship (believed to be the Celestial 10 Beads of  Electrum Suspended Above the Event Horizon) left behind life that, while using Terran building blocks, was developed whole-cloth - as alien as one can find while retaining the same biochemistry and still using DNA. (Use Barlowe's Expedition for quick visual inspiration, here). 

Human Settlement: Colonization rights for Maha Raurava were bought on the cheap by the Watanabi Group (henceforth referred to as "The Zaibatsu") for use as a debt forgiveness penal colony. Settlers seeking to escape their creditor companies and those forced to relocate immigrated in large numbers. This has lead to a higher-than-average diversity in the population for a marginal world.

Colony Collapse: Precisely why the Zaibatsu pulled out of Maha Raurava remains unknown, at least to the people on the ground. Rumors that the Group Chair's death kicked off an inheritance crisis are widespread, and seem the most sound option for why 80% of the company's personnel boarded the lone warp-capable vessel and took off to parts unknown, leaving a single family scion behind. The rest of the population is trapped.

The Current Situation: The Zaibatsu currently controls Seraph, the elevator, and a small amount of territory at its base in Colony Central. The rest of Maha Raurava has been carved up between dozens of factions vying for control. None of the original factions have remained intact, having dissolved and reformed over and over again.

The Easy-to-Digest Blurb: Borderlands in the Sengoku Period.

Fun Facts about Great Screaming Hell

  • There's a small population of uplifted whales in the ocean - most came here for political asylum.
  • Three Redoubter arcologies sit at the far north of inhabited territory.
  • Tecnavi shipmother Talabiri was stranded here during the Collapse. They spend most of their time in orbit around the moon.
  • A Zaibatsu climate-observation station in Northeast Quarter has been overtaken by rogue androids that have developed a religion glitch. They seek their true creators, believing inferior humans to be the offspring of some mad demiurge.
  • The area around Colony Central is home to a sizable Hasidic population who have taken to ranching, and some rumors of cows a bit smarter than they have any right to be.
  • One of the few lifeforms capable of surviving the high desert is something like a large turtle. More notable is that its eggs possess leathery shells so thick that they must be pierced by an outside force - those separated from their mother might remain in there for quite some time, and emerge near-berserk with hunger if they have not starved to death.
  • A Fixer by the name of Calamity Jean has emerged among the thelychroma population. She has managed to carve out a sizeable and stable territory through alliance, tactical brilliance, and complete ruthlessness.
  • The Dog Knights have been moving eastward from their normal territory west of Colony Central.
  • The United Planetary Front has managed to bisect Highway 1 between Colony Central and Colony East, bridging their territory on the south coast with their possessions in Northeast Quarter. This is bad news for everyone.
  • There's graffiti on the walls: "LANTERN BOY LIVES".
Further updates for adventures upon Great Screaming Hell may be found here: Episode 1, Episode 2