Saturday, May 29, 2021

Lord of the Rings Reread Post


Anato Finnstark

I first read Lord of the Rings in...seventh grade? The summer between seventh and eight grade, I think. I can't recall if this was before or after I had seen the movies. Possibly before? I had already read the Hobbit by this point, accompanied by the surprisingly good video game which I found for 5 bucks on the clearance rack at T.J. Maxx, and if I had a dime for every meaningful computer game of early-adolescence found on said rack I would have 20 cents. Not a lot, but it's weird that it happened twice.)

This is a long way of saying that it has been a very long time since I have properly read Lord of the Rings. I know I tried a reread a few (read: probably 6 or 7) years ago and ended up stalled around Midgewater. My Hobbit re-read in the impossible halcyon days of 2018 was quite enjoyable, and I have finally decided to follow it up.

Preamble finally over.

As with my prior Avatar rewatch post, there's not going to be much overarching organization, just topics according to the rhythm of my own thoughts, many of which are noncontinuous since they deal with themes that stretch across the books.

Fellowship of the Ring


Folks don't give Tolkien enough credit for how funny he can be, when he wants. Everyone knows the birthday party, of course, but special notice needs to go to Gandalf responding to Saruman's shimmering rainbow robes with "I liked the white ones better." This is repeated in every other  interaction they havem to my delight. Saruman is dunked on at every chance, by everyone, and it is great.


The picaresque adventure-types we would expect in The Hobbit (talking foxes, barrow mounds, Bombadil and the like) are attributed to Bilbo as the in-universe author, which I agree with. Unfortunately, as I came to find out later, Frodo is significantly less entertaining. It's a rocky tonal and pacing start when compared to what is to come after.


The defining idea throughout this re-read is that Middle-Earth is empty. It's in the tail spiral of complete population collapse.  Some people will say that there's plenty of stuff we don't see just offscreen, and I'm sympathetic to that, but I don't believe it. There are too many times where it is explicitly said that there is nothing there - Anfalas is prime coastline and there's no one living there, the lands between Isengard and the Shire are empty. There are major rivers that have no human habitation on them at all, and any cities that might once have been there have fallen into ruin.

It's thematically appropriate, and it low-key bugs me.

The Shire and Bree feel like they are not only from a different setting, but a completely different universe, inexplicably severed from their surroundings with how developed they are. They'd be less out of place if Eriador was still functioning, but it isn't and so

Eriador has never recovered from the collapse of Arnor and the plague, all right...but the entire point of the Shire is that it's safe and out of the way, right? So, naturally, people are going to migrate there.

Sauron is only able to get as far as he does because he is almost entirely unopposed. He's so weak without the Ring that he needs a plague, the departure of the elves, the complete collapse of every kingdom in Eriador, the loss of multiple Gondorian city states and the downfall of major dwarven strongholds in order to even begin to start his offensive.


Tolkien did not understand history. He was very good at landscapes and languages, but he hadn't a clue about history.

Gondor had been without a king for 969 years, and Numenor had been gone for a full 3141 by the time Aragorn returns, and let me tell you that is literally, and not figuratively, the equivalent of some rando showing up in London, tomorrow, proclaiming that he's the king of England because he's a descendant of Edward the Confessor, and then trying to reclaim the glory of Mycenaean Greece.

It's one of those cases (as so often happens in fantasy), where not providing hard numbers would have eliminated the problem entirely. Gondor hasn't had a king in A Long While. The Numenorians collapsed a Long Long Time Ago. Let the reader fill in gaps and make it work in a way that's appropriate to them. The Hobbit avoided this problem, and the depopulation one too, by just not concretely saying anything about it - you can fill in the gaps with Eriador as it was in the Hobbit.

With the numbers included, it becomes this weird land of "nothing ever changes". Which is weird because the day-to-day timekeeping stuff is fascinating and part of the really fun logistics side of the quest.


The way Gandalf talks about the Wise and the White Council says to me that there are WAY more than 5 wizards, and I'm disappointed that this is not actually the case.


People will (rightfully) use orcs as the entry point into talking about Tolkien's issues with race. But,  Orcs don't actually appear until Moria and we hardly get to see them up close until Two Towers, so before we even get to that we have to deal with the yikes description of a southerner in Bree.

During the Council of Elrond, Boromir describes the Numenoreans as having "mingled with the blood of lesser men." 

This line is repeated from that point on through the rest of the books.

John. John. The Numenoreans were so fucked up that Eru Illuvatar Themself said "fuck this island in particular" and dropped them to the bottom of the ocean. That's their cultural legacy. Pissing off God literally more than Morgoth and a couple colonial states that should by this point have hardly any shared cultural traits or values with Numenor at all. 

Not to mention that, spoilers, blood is NOT supposed to come out of there.

This, I think, is honestly worse that the orcs. The orc situation is bad, mind you, but the orcs have the advantage of their underlying deal, as it were (that is "this is what being crushed under the military-industrial complex will do to people") being rock fucking solid. More to follow, there.


The approach to Rivendell, despite Frodo's injury, is remarkably low-tension.


I was none too fond of the elves as a kid, and I am happy to report that in this one particular case, young me was spot on the money. The elves of Middle-Earth are awful. They sit in their cloisters singing the same old songs about the Good Old Days and not only do they not help, they actively make things worse by delaying the Fellowship - between Rivendell and Lothlorien they waste a full 3 months. Granted this can all be swung as recovery time, and I can accept that, but I'd accept it more if it wasn't elves.


The border of Lothlorien is fifteen miles from Moria, and the jackasses offered no aid whatsoever for its reclamation, nor the Battle for Dimrill Dale, despite the fact that a secure cross mountain highway directly benefits them. They just sat there and let Durin and his people die.


Yeah Gimli, you tell those elves to go to hell. Racist bastards.


My favorite part of the books on this re-read is this: from Rivendell onwards, every step of the quest is the result of a reasoned choice. Characters discuss their options and figure out their course of action according to what they know and what's changed in their circumstances. The opposition reacts, and the plans change. There is a consistent thoughtfulness here that most fantasy lacks. It's a game of logistics.

What do we do with the ring? Well, we can't destroy it. We can't use it. There aren't any surviving dragons that could destroy it. We can't take it into the West because we're liable to be cut off before we get there. We could throw it in the ocean, but there are things down there. Can't give it to Bombadil because he'll lose it.

But then they try crossing the mountains in January so...points for trying.


Actually on that note, the way they talk and from the landscape we see, it appears that Middle-Earth has generally snowless winters. 


I do very much like how it is explicit from the forming of the Fellowship that the others are not bound to Frodo's task except by their own will. They all have their own things to do. Again, the logistics side comes into play.


Of all the Tolkienisms that have been stolen and copied over the years, the one I can't fault anyone for stealing are the Nazgul. They're a great tool. High potential, low development - very glad we ended up with the 10 That Were Taken, eventually.


I did not remember Beren and Luthien getting thrown in here, that's neat. Honestly I didn't remember most or all of the Silmarillion stuff that gets bandied about.


Barrow-downs are a spooky interlude but I am not a fan, the pacing is whack. Would have worked better in The Hobbit. Bree feels like it's definitely from another book. 


A strong part of Tolkien's worldbuilding is that he is very good at describing landscapes and very good at factoring in travel times. None of his imitators learned this lesson, so now we are stuck with the modern fantasy mileau and that's another rant


Book Saruman is a techbro. He has none of the stateliness we associate with the character through Lee's performance, he's just raw "we've tried nothing and we're all out of ideas" and "what if we dIsRuPt ThE mArKeT?", and "nooooooooooooooo! it is YOU who are victimizing ME! How dare you confront me with the fact that my uruk-hai have laid waste to the townships of rohan! Help! Help! I'm being oppressed!"

He's Bezos/Zuckerberg/Musk/Dorsey, except as a wizard. Gandalf constantly dunking on him is a treat.


The elven monopoly on lembas bread was the major contributing factor to the delayed recovery of the human population of Eriador and the Wilderlands in the wake of the Great Plague, thus paving the way for the return of Sauron. In this essay I will...


There's a mention, in the orc search party out of Moria, of something with a bent back, hands near the ground, beastlike but definitely not an animal, and I never want to learn what this creepypasta-ass monster actually is. It's too good, I refuse to let it be ruined. (Note: It's Gollum. But for a moment I didn't realize that and it was the coolest thing.


Overall... this is definitely the weakest of the three, especially the non-Moria parts post Rivendell. It's weird how the part that the book is named after is both so short and the most boring of it all.


Other notes

  • Orcs aren't even encountered until <100 pages from the end.
  • I think the Bridge scene is better in the film, even though my opinion on Jackson's trilogy has cooled over time significantly.
  • Trolls have scaly green hide and no toes.
  • Saruman's rainbow robe. We were ROBBED!
  • The Nazgul can speak in full sentences, I find this weird.
  • Shire is bizarrely the most settled non-gondor territory. I do not buy that the Rangers were able to do so much for it, or at least, i don't like that they were able to do so much without being integrated into the society around the shire. Give me a struggling but still extant Eriador, I mean to say.
  • Sam's is a major third wheel in Fellowship, which is weird when we are so used to him as he is later.

Two Towers

Wow, Fellowship jumps right into Two Towers - the ball is rolling right out of the gate. This gets kept up for the next two books


If Tolkien had just stayed with "Orcs are elves who are cops" the fantasy genre would have a lot fewer issues than it does. Honestly, it's not even a hard fix. Orcs already act monstrous, they don't actually need to look it. Melkor and Sauron likely tried making orcs more beautiful than elves as an ego trip, and failed, so we would feasibly get some uncanny valley type deal.  

The primary physical differences would be the result of the malnutrition, industrial pollution, and repeated physical trauma the define life in Mordor. Orcs & elves should be very clearly related in visual adaptations. The elves from Hellboy II would be a good starting point.


Okay so orcs are described as having dark skin and epicanthic folds.

Orcs are elves + fascism.

Fascism does not cause dark skin and epicanthic folds

ERGO elves also have dark skin and epicanthic folds.


I am going to blame Gygax much more than Tolkien for the modern state of affairs vis a vis orcs.


Sauron was slick and competent in Numenor, and now he's real sloppy. Who is to say that Sauron is even conscious at this point? (Note - later developments in the books vis a vis tactics seem to indicate yes, but intelligence can exist without awareness) Without the Ring he might very well just be a mindless automated function, the azathoth of Barad-Dur. A decaying security AI in the grips of rampancy, mindlessly maximizing paperclips except the paperclips are orcs. Which is horrifying.


Treebeard remains the best. "I must cool myself and think; for it is easier to shout STOP! than to do it." Out here dispensing the truth.

I imagined him a lot less tree-like than the movies did, this time around. Closer to how the trolls are imagined (which makes sense) - big, stout, big bush of hair like moss, brown skin thick like an elephant's - but not actually a tree.


The entwives introduced agriculture to humanity. This is a very small and passed-over detail, despite being easy top five for "things that are important" in the entire setting. 


What if the population collapse is because the soil quality of Middle Earth is super-poor? Before the sinking of Beleriand most of the inner continent would have been high steppe, tundra or desert, what with all the mountains casting rain shadows (double or even triple in some areas!) Without the entwives to assist, its no wonder that no one lives here - the only fertile areas are on the Gondorian coast and western Eriador. The elves are useless because they have no agriculture knowhow - Treebeard mentions that they aren't particularly enthusiastic about growing things. Lack of entwives = doom


Tolkien doggedly refuses to give us an adequate description of the Nazgul's flying mounts, and I don't find it to be particularly evocative or inspiring - if I took away what I recognize them as in the movies, they were just a shadowy black cloud until the very end, but not the cool or menacing kind.

They can apparently cover ~600 miles in less than 6 hours and this feels weird.


I was honestly bored with the arrival in Edoras up through Helm's Deep. I feel like Wormtongue's presence turns the initial sequence in Edoras into a farce and nothing would be lost if Theoden's hostility was just ordinary stress, grief, and despair.

We're thrown into the tail end of a completely different story, and since we never knew Grima before his corruption, it makes Theoden look like an idiot. I tuned out throughout this section.

And then they let him go...

Like I can understand the whole emphasis on mercy and not jumping to violence but you found an enemy spy in your camp and you are going to send him back? I know he kills Saruman in the end but that is a stretch too far for me. Gollum being key to destroying the Ring I can buy, but the same deal a second time with a much less interesting character is a bit much.


The Battle of Helm's Deep, thought, is the first part of the series that I really don't like. I can and will gripe about elves but this bit is actually poorly written, I feel - muddied, confusing, and baffling of pace.


"Was Gandalf's choice to leave Saruman alive moral?" is certainly a conundrum. Certainly it's within character, but it does raise the question of "what if your mercy now creates more suffering later?"


I love the horrific descriptions of the areas just outside the Black Gate. That scene also mentions the "maggot-folk" or "maggot men" of Mordor, which I am choosing to interpret literally.


Sam finally gets to steal the show, it's damn time.


I can never figure out the positioning and environment of the conversation of the two orcs at the very end. Like, how is Sam able to hear them when there's stone wall between them and they're moving away from him?

I do like that convo, though, of the orcs going "yeah once the war's over let's bail with some of the lads and live the highwayman life" 


Sneaking suspicion that JRRT did not like spiders. Very subtle, blink and you'll miss it.


I keep thinking about how Shadow of War featured sexy lady Shelob and I am beginning to think that no one at Monolith ever actually read the actual Cirith Ungol sequence. Not that humanform Shelob would be impossible, but the sexiness quotient of a true-to-character interpretation would be a relatively niche appeal and they were too huge of cowards to actually do it. 


Return of the King

Let us never forget that Eowyn's first lines of dialogue are telling Aragorn that he's full of shit and being 110% right.


The army of the dead does feel pretty conveniantly placed, here. But the first 2/3rds of the book is lightning fast anyway. No rest, everyone is on the march.


No one ever talks about Ioreth and that's a damn shame - she's a return to the Hobbitish small town humor of the beginning of the book So everyone just went and forgot how the denoument of return of the king features a chatty old lady providing color commentary on the situation to her cousin from out of town. I demand justice for Ioreth in all future adaptations


I find it worth note how we've had the theme of pity as a positive thing since very near the beginning - Gandalf espousing it early and often and Frodo picking it up later - but the narrative is also willing to let that be challenged and willing to let characters 

Eowyn explicitly does not want your pity. She holds that ground against Aragorn, the literal walking Christ-the-Redeeming-King metaphor, and the narrative does not contrive to undermine her. She's bitter - she had to watch her uncle fall into reclusive paranoia while her homeland was nearly destroyed by orcs incursions, only to then be brushed aside when she comes forward and volunteers herself to fight - and her bitterness is not waved away as foolishness. (how many authors would fail here, turn her just into the overly-emotional woman? Too many, I feel)

And she only gets let go of that bitter death-wish when she meets Faramir who is willing to meet her where she is, as an equal and not talk down to her.

I appreciate her character (Faramir too) even more now, I think. 

No one ever talks about those scenes, and that's twice a shame.


I imagine statues of Sauron in his prime, beautiful and arrayed in magnificent garb, half-destroyed by the roadsides of Mordor. One of many reminders that he is trying to make for himself a paradise, but breaks everything he touches.


Much of the Frodo and Sam scenes in the latter two books are just them walking, with few notable encounters. I actually really like this - you're at the very end - what else is there to say?

I also think splitting their quest away from the battle (instead of the more modern interlaced POV chapters) works way better then that alternative. Again, it makes it feel like the world is filled with events and actors all of their own rather than a puppet show.


The scene with Ghan-Buri-Ghan is one that I'll be spending a lot of time unpacking - because it admits, straight up, that Rohan / Gondor are guilty of horrific acts against the indigenous peoples of ME. The narrative admits it, but doesn't internalize it.

Internalizing it would, of course, obliterate Aragorn's plot, and honestly I don't see much of a loss there. The Houses of Healing go hard on the Christ-King symbology, despite the fact that christ-king symbology is, to put it bluntly, a cavalcade of horrors visited on the world


Denethor's despair comes back to the phrase "the West has failed" - and he's not wrong. Gondor and Rohan are invasive, colonial powers dying a slow death because they were a bunch of bastards.

Could Sauron have risen again, if Gondor and Harad were allies? If the Dunlanders were able to settle properly in Eriador and rebuild? Tolkien generally supports the motif of "friendships across cultural boundaries = good, insularity = bad" through the book, but it's hamstrung by Numenor and its imperialist legacy painted as worthwhile

Maybe Aragorn could be an imposter - there is no heir to Isildur, but he's taken it upon himself to mantle that position to undo much of the damage. Maybe make him a dunlander, or druadain, or of mixed parentage.


Honestly, I don't think it would be very hard for Sauron to get the Easterlings, Haradrim, Khandish on his side. Just point vaguely westward and say: "The Valar abandoned you, the elves never gave a shit about you, and their lapdogs the Gondorians have been fucking you over for centuries."


Scene where Beregond is showing Pippin around Minas Tirith is very good, gives us a ground-floor look at the defense of the city.


Orc soldiers have ID numbers. I feel this is important to note.


Giving Sauron a physical appearence in the films was an enormous mistake. He works as a Presence, full stop.


The Scouring of the Shire is absolutely vital for this series and everyone who says elsewise is wrong. There can be no going there without coming back again, and you need to be able to see the changes that have been wrought both on the characters and on their home.


I like how the orcs had a sort of affectionate name for Saruman. It feels appropriate from them, even: the closest they can get to expressing fondness is just "old man". You can imagine certain veterans in the ranks also called sharku, simply for surviving so long.


Sam and Rosie end up having 13 children. Just a fun bit of trivia.


Honestly, I like Adunaic much more than any of the elvish languages, despite appearing nowhere in the actual books. I wish there was more material.

A Brief Aside on the Movies

Watched a couple scenes during reread, specifically Helm's Deep and Pelennor Fields. I think they are aging poorly, both through oversaturation and through what they are as films. (Howard Shore's soundtrack is technically good, but I find that it doesn't thematically fit with lotR very well at all (too much brass, definitely too much reliance of leitmotif), and I'd take an Austin Wintory LotR soundtrack over Shore's any day of the week.

Thankfully we have Banner Saga, which is the only piece of media that I feel actually gets LotR on a meaningful emotional level. Some of the songs on that ost track 1:1 to moments in LotR.

Final Thoughts

Remember kids, the true meaning of Lord of the Rings is:

"Cops are bad and funded by fascists, go get your mates together and do a direct action, then go plant a tree. Several trees, in fact. This is really important. Fascists bad and pathetic, trees good and cool."

Goofs aside, this reread has made it very clear that, for all the copying that Tolkien has gotten over the years, very, very few people have actually figured out, or even bothered to recognize, the emotional and moral core of the series. Anything pulling from D&D is starting on the wrong foot to begin with, and you can just watch the stumbling away from what is good and beautiful in his works to focus on the least important, and often weakest, aspects of it.

Because the end of the day it's got jack all to do with elves and dwarves and halflings and orcs and wizards and kings and giant eagles and so on and so forth. All of this material is great and fine and good in its place, but it overlooks and ignores, potentially intentionally, what lies underneath - that fascism will make monsters of us all and be the death of everything if we do not fight it, that we must care for the trees, that no one is immune to the self-destructive lure of power, that industrial war is a machine of endless horrors, that if we are to survive at all there must be solidarity across cultural and social lines.

But then nerds get involved and it's all "wow cool worldbuilding" (only works because of the themes) or "but it's so morally black and white" (it's about fascism and ecological devastation of course it's fucking black and white) and that's how we end up with Brandon Sanderikson Grrimartin.

Can't ever trust nerds not to miss the point.


I greatly enjoyed my time returning to the series, and there is likely a great deal of stuff that didn't make it here out of lack of space or energy. Leave what I missed in the comments below, I still have much to say.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

What's in the Creepy Castle of the Terribly Tall Vampire Lady?



 Had to be done. Someone had to do it, and I am someone, so I have to do it.

The Creepy Castle is located...

  1. On top of a jagged, snow-covered cliff.
  2. On a island in the middle of a mist-veiled lake.
  3. In the center of an equally-creepy rural town.
  4. In blight-stricken farmland.
  5. In the middle of an old-growth forest.
  6. Isolated on the moors.
  7. On a barren island off the coast.
  8. Paranoia-inducingly bucolic countryside
  9. Down in the low country, out on the bayou.
  10. In the noble's district of the decaying capitol.

The Terribly Tall Vampire Lady is also...

  1. Emaciated.
  2. Rather wide.
  3. Made of living marble.
  4. Very hairy, with a weird bat nose.
  5. Scabby and leprous.
  6. Disconcertingly, uncannily perfect.
  7. Vaguely reminiscent of a famous actress
  8. Very nearly mummified.
  9. Obsessed with the sun: shades & veils galore.
  10. Not a believer in conforming to gender or genre stereotypes.

She lives there with...

  1. No one. She can carry this shindig by herself.
  2. Equally-large spouse.
  3. Normal-sized spouse.
  4. Even taller parent.
  5. Good for nothing laze-about son.
  6. Three ambitious, bloodthirsty daughters.
  7. Vampiric ward.
  8. Enormous chimerical fleshbeast not entirely unlike a dog.
  9. Roll d8, twice.
  10. Roll d8, 3 times.

And is said to...

  1. Impale dissidents and put their heads on the battlements.
  2. Cook people into enormous pies.
  3. Break out into spontaneous musical numbers.
  4. Constantly scribble down in a journal to augment her failing memory.
  5. Still have a few flickers of humanity left (ha ha, good luck)
  6. Be working on a philosopher's stone.
  7. Have plans to usurp Dracula.
  8. Be a master of all manner of weird sciences.
  9. Be a disciple of the Old Ones.
  10. Be on the run from the Executioners and their wheel.

By terrified peasants who... 

  1. Are looking for an outsider to serve as a deniable asset.
  2. Have started a cult to appease her, complete with giant effigies.
  3. Are trying to spin the town as a tourist spot for the bourgeois. 
  4. Do their best to ignore the horror.
  5. Are disconcertingly gung-ho about the whole situation.
  6. Are orchestrating an elaborate Truman Show ruse.
  7. Are engaged in a losing guerilla warfare against her.
  8. Really liked the previous vampire a lot better,
  9. Are more of a nuisance than anything, and taste awful.
  10. All have bigger problems to deal with.

Her lieutenant is...

  1. None, she runs everything by herself.
  2. A family member (see table 3) 
  3. Her many, many cats.
  4. Ex-vampire hunter, broken to her will.
  5. Herself, wearing a cunning [citation needed] disguise.
  6. A minor vampire from a foreign court.
  7. A immaculately dressed and perfectly-timed butler.
  8. One of the experiments from the lab.
  9. Cowardly, very sweaty, mayor of the town. Seersucker suit.
  10. Local wizard who is just that, he wears a pointed hat.

And her rival is...

  1. Pair of mysterious government agents in black.
  2. Overly-ambitious hunter in well over their head.
  3. The previous inhabitant of the Creepy Castle.
  4. A former disciple, attempting to usurp her.
  5. Archpriestess of the cult of the spider goddess.
  6. A corpse-eater preying on her flock.
  7. A skyship full of clowns.
  8. A different, equally large vampire lady.
  9. Some chucklehead who keeps stumbling into these situations.
  10. Entirely imaginary.

It is said that her weakness is...

  1. Consecrated relics of an obscure pagan religion.
  2. Classic decap + stake + burn it all. All three steps required.
  3. Destruction of the vessel in which she keeps her heart.
  4. A virulent strain of unique, poisonous mold.
  5. Powdered angel bones.
  6. Fire from the core of the Earth.
  7. Encasing her parts in lead so they cannot regenerate.
  8. Terminal vampirocancer.
  9. A debt, with interest, to the devil (Scholomance tuition fees)
  10. Chocolate

But you must first survive the...

  1. Overly-elaborate death traps (the result of boredom)
  2. The flooded, corpse-choked dungeons.
  3. The blood-crusted automatons stalking the halls.
  4. The combination slaughterhouse-exsanguinatory.
  5. Aforementioned skyship full of clowns.
  6. Gargoyle-infested battlements.
  7. Labyrinthine halls swarming with bloated ticks.
  8. Private military contractors raiding the castle at the same time as you.
  9. Roll d8 twice
  10. Roll d8 thrice

Friday, May 21, 2021

Pen & Tam

Peter Violini

(My depthless gratitude goes to Peter for bringing these two chuckleheads to life. They are perfect in every way.)

(Additional gratitude, also depthless, goes to Nick Whelan, Mike Kennedy, Isaak and many others, who helped me tremendously in actually getting this thing to use the good words)



The world is green, out here in the hill country. 

There are groves here that have never known the bite of an axe. Rocks that remember the coming and going of the Ice. Hills and ridges and ripples in the earth that are the bones of mountains that were once a sea. Folk-stones raised by peoples unnamed stand sun-dappled vigils in their mossy cloaks. The rusting carapaces of the last few war machines of the Bull's dread army are reclaimed by root and rain. The shining blue-brown ribbon of the Mora winds patiently towards its eventual marriage with the Pono and the distant coast.

To the north...

The Dayrmonts. Beyond them, the North Country. Tin Jacobstown. Wend. Urukhá. The lands of the Wudu-Wasa and the Dhorch'maeh. The Whale-Road. The domain of Orca. The Uttermost North where the sea is ever-frozen.

To the south...

The folds of the land flatten out, sloping away into the forests and plains and swamps and city-states of the Low Country. Far away, on a bleak and poisoned stretch of coast, the dark mills of Dis vomit smoke into the sky without ceasing.

To the east...

Rivershead. The Tower Unto Heaven. The idaltu ruins. The uppermost fingers of the Arivienne. The Attercanths. Lilu-Yoya. Onwards to the plains of the Eostremont.

To the west... 

The Mora meets the Pona at Bensael, and flows on towards Redgate and the sea.



It is a cool summer evening in Olen. The sun sinks slow in the west, and the gibbous moon is already risen - a silver near-circle in a field of blue, decked with rusty splatter and dusky mare. The shadows take forms more true to themselves, long and sharp and dark against the honeyed light

Olen is not much different from the other riverside towns. A touch bigger than most of the others, perhaps. There’s a mine, dug out with aid from the mouldywarps. Terraced farmland and windmills on the hillside. A post office. An abbey of the Sisters of the Sable Maid and a church of the gods of man. The clock on town hall is two minutes fast and has been for as long as anyone can remember. The train comes in four times a day - twice from Bensael to Rivershead, and twice the other way.

On Riverfront Street there's a shop named Willow and Wick Books. The sign in the window reads "USED AND RARE BOOKS: BUY SELL TRADE", and in smaller print below: "Ask about Mr. Wick's Bag of Books!"

The place had been a house before it was a bookstore, meaning that it is a narrow labyrinth of shelves packed between walls and angles that weren’t necessarily built to hold them. This makes it seem far bigger than it actually is, as if one could wander off, turn a corner and just keep going forever into the maze of hidden nooks and impossible aisles.

It is a little island of peace, where the air smells of old books and all is well.

Deep in the back, between the shelves for witchcraft and earth science, there is a little cupboard on the wall, and a little altar on the table below it, wreathed with flowers and paper talismans. This is the shrine of Mr. Wick, the shop’s resident brownie and one half of its namesake. The other half comes from the enormous willow tree out front. Folk are certain that a dryad lives in it, and though no one can ever recall seeing her they tied a braided rope around the trunk and bow when they pass by, just in case she’s there.

(The Bag of Books is just a little gimmick of the shop's - share what you're interested in, and Mr. Wick will pick out a paper bag of books for you.  He's a very keen curator, you're unlikely to go away disappointed.)



It's 7 o’clock. Closing time at Willow and Wick. The new arrivals are sorted, the account book balanced, the cash box locked away. Pot Luck the fat grey tomcat is still sleeping in his sun beam on the front desk. The shrine keeper scratches him behind the ears before vanishing back into the stacks for her final task.

The evening visit to Mr. Wick’s cupboard always feels like it is far longer than the few rooms it was in reality. Time was stretched out, sounds soaked up, thoughts and distractions carefully brushed aside until there was only the now, and the here.

She crosses the threshold. There is no noise or flash light or any other outward sign of the crossing, save the feeling of presence within a sacred space.

She wets her hands with the vial of water and dries them on the hand towel. She takes the saucer from its shelf and places it on top of the altar, then pours in a bit of milk, a dollop of honey, a shot of whiskey. She takes a step back, presses her palms together, bows slowly

“I return this house to your hands, good spirit. Please accept this offering, and keep all beneath your roof safe till morning. I ask this invoking our ancient compact, as it was made between our Mother and your Folk. May it be sustained to the end of our time.”

To this she adds, after a short pause: “Tam’s coming back home today, and I think something’s wrong. Keep an eye out for her, please.”

From somewhere on the shelves, there is a voice like a little breeze rustling at an open page.

“Of course. Have a good night, Pen.”

“Good night, Mr. Wick.” 

She bows again, passes back over the threshold, emerges from the labyrinth, picks up her bag from the desk.

Pot Luck, knowing that it is time to leave, stretches, yawns, and trundles behind her.



Penepolo Babilinagi locks the front door and tucks the key into her coat pocket. She steps off the porch, gives a bow and a tip of her hat to the Willow, and is off across town to the train station on Old Abbey Road.

(A portrait of the bookseller: a short, plump, friendly-faced woman with skin the color of ash-flecked charcoal and short, curly hair like white gold. She lives in the apartment above Willow and Wick, and measures out her peaceful life in cups of tea and smell of old books. She was not born in a bookstore, but most people would believe it if she had.)

Pot Luck, for his part, curls up on the sun-warmed porch and resumes his nap.

While Pen often takes a walk around town in the evening to stretch her legs, tonight she has business to attend to. A crow had arrived early that morning as she was doing her exercises on the back balcony, bearing a message through the Murder. All it had said was:

Meet me at train station 7:10 PM -Tam

It was the first message from Tam, by crow or by mail, in over two months, and it had been troubling Pen for most of the day. Not for the delay itself - Tam said often enough how busy her job kept her and so a pause in correspondence was nothing unusual. A message so blunt and brief, without so much as a hello, was. Something was wrong, she felt it sure and certain in her heart, and the unknowns bred questions and the shapeless and shadowy answers that flitted through the empty spaces never quite went away.

She had done what she could to keep her hands busy and mind occupied - thankfully, summer brought with it both extra foot traffic and travelers from out of town, and the day passed without additional omen. When darker thoughts did come to the fore, they were met with a chorus of "She'll tell me when she gets here."

But the store is swept out now, the account book is balanced and there's nothing between her and 7:10 at the train station but a sliver of time and a short walk. She hurries on her way.



Tamisin Menadore is already waiting there at the station, leaning up against the brick wall in a beam of sunlight and staring down at her shoes. She doesn't notice when Pen turns the corner onto Old Abbey Road. Pen breaks out into a run. Tam looks up at the approaching sound of sandals slapping against cobblestones and there's just enough time for her to stand up straight before Pen rushes in and sweeps her off her feet and hoists her up off the sidewalk and the air is filled with the peals of her laughter.


Pen isn't tall enough to get her more than a few inches off the ground, but that's never mattered.

(A portrait of the civil servant: usually, but not always the tallest person in any given room. Thin in the way that's mostly arms and legs and straight lines and gangly angles. Deep brown skin, dark hair done up in box braids. A gap between her front teeth, through which she could whistle like an angry kettle.)

Pen sets her first and best friend back down. Her heart leaps and cries out and overflows and in that moment all is well, and all is as it should be...

"You're here!"

"Ah! Ha. Missed you too."

...and it comes down to land lower than it had been.

The morning's fears return now with confirmation.

The brightness is gone from Tam's eyes, as is the energy from her voice. There is a hollowness to her face, a tired slouch to her stance. She's lost weight since they've last spoken face-to-face, and she’s never had particularly much to spare in the first place. She looks exhausted simply by effort of standing there and smiling. 

That frightens Pen more than any of the fanciful worries that had dogged the back of her mind earlier in the day. Those had been vague and unformed, easier to dismiss - this is concrete. The woman Pen had always known as so full of life that it was hard to keep up is standing here as drained and empty as an old cicada shell.

Questions bubble up - are you okay? what happened? do you need help? - but all that comes out is

"Have you eaten yet?"

Tam rubs at her temple and smiles weakly.

“Not since lunch. Sorry, ah, about the short notice. I lost track of time this morning and was halfway out the door before I remembered to send a crow."

Pen could ask about that later. Food, at least, is a solvable problem.

“Come on then. I’ll fix you dinner." Pen grabbed her friend's briefcase. "Let's get you home and fed and you can tell me all about what you've been up to in the big city."



The two walk back to Willow and Wick, and Pen dutifully recites all the news and gossip of the last few months. Tam is content just to listen.

Their old classmate Billy Dunn (who was the sort of person that uncharitable folk would call “slow”) had gotten married to a woman from Orlei and was taking over for his father at the woodshop.

Sr. Emma had a stroke just past matins and the doctor wasn’t able to make it in time to help.

A lilu circus had passed through town just last week, raising money for the Unified Worker’s Democratic Party in the upcoming elections in Lilu-Voya.

Gen had gone through the last stage of their transition at the temple of Quisest and announced at the party that they were going to head across the Mare and travel in the west for a while.

Waterseeker celebrated his 109th birthday, which coincided with the announcement of his eighth great-grandchild, to which he said [OH NO NOT ANOTHER ONE].  

Just earlier that day a pair of vacationers from the NSR had stopped in at the shop. They were hiking all the way up past Rivershead to the Tower, to go see the ruins there. They had a skeleton carrying their luggage, and it stood out on the porch the entire time and it nearly gave old Mr. Chennekaw a heart attack when he saw it.

As they turn onto Riverfront Street, they spy the great silhouetted form of Waterseeker wading in the shallows.

"Hey! Oi, Waterseeker! Look who's back!" Pen waves and cries out to the old bull. The elephant turns towards them and lifts his trunk from the water, twisting it to and fro in a series of signs.


"Aw, don't be like that!"


"I don't even remember what I did!" Tam exclaims.


"Yeah? Well as soon as I figure out what I did I'll do it again!"


"Good to see you too, you old bastard."


"Oh, I just remembered," Pen says "There won't be any children's storytime next Tuesday, I'll be at the dentist."


They leave the elephant to his washing, and Pen's fears are allayed somewhat - Tam is still there, dimmed but not extinguished under whatever ails her. They reach Willow and Wick, and climb up the outside stairs to the apartment above.

Pot Luck, rudely awakened yet again, follows.



Minced garlic and onions sizzle in a pan of oil. Tam sits by the open window that looks out over the street, watching the breeze rustle the Willow's leaves and the swallows swoop over the river. Pen stands at the counter, her knife rhythmically chopping peppers. Pot Luck is sleeping on the couch.

A recipe for shakshuka: Coat pan in olive oil, cook onions and garlic until soft. Chop peppers, add to pan, cook for a while. Chop tomatoes, mix into pan with spices (salt, pepper, cumin, etc). Cook until most liquid is gone. Make divots in the mix with a spoon, crack an egg into each. Cover dish, cook until yolks are firm. Serve over toast.

The reality of the situation is sinking in and settling down. Whatever change was wrought on her friend, Pen is certain now that it's not the kind that a few good meals and a bit of rest can undo. But, it's all that she can do for now. And it's still nice to have her back home.

Time slips by, without making much notice of itself.

Peppers in the pan, give it a stir, on to chopping tomatoes.

"I've missed being up here," Tam says as the tomatoes go in. 

She hasn't, Pen recalls, visited Olen since Mother's Day last spring. Over a year, now.

"I'm glad you were able to make it. I know work has been keeping you busy."

"Yeah." Tam's focus drifts back out to the river and another moment passes by. "There have been dolphins in the city recently, down by the waterfront. There's this one, he'll just pop his head out of the water at people walking by and go e!e!e!e!e!e!e!e! gimme a kiss, leggie!"

"That's pretty tame for a dolphin."

"It's just the opener, he's got a whole routine. But I bring it up because the one time I happened to see him, the guy he was harassing at the time just stops, takes off his shoe, and beans him right in the snout with it. And then just keeps walking like nothing happened."

"Baseball player?" 

"No one I recognize, if he is. Haven't been able to go to a game in ages."

"We can find some time to go, I'm sure."

"That'd be nice."

Off into quiet again. 

The tomatoes cook, and then the eggs.



They eat in silence. Tam stops halfway through her second slice of toast and puts it down.

"Hey..uh..." She flexes her fingers, her eyes dart down to her plate. "I, uh, just got out of the hospital. This morning."

Pen feels her stomach drop as if watching a crack split open in a dam.

"What happened?"

"There was an accident in the storage vaults - wasn't anyone's fault, just an artifact that didn't work the way we thought it did. It broke open one of the vaults, and that set off more of them, which damaged a second vault and..." 

She trails off, taps her finger on the tabletop, breathes in deep. 

Up until recently, Tamisin Menadore wore the badge of the Bensael Civil Service, Wizarding Affairs Department, Archival Division. (City colors of navy, white and gold, with a silver pentagram). She told plenty of stories to Pen about working in the archives and vaults, down where all the wizards' flotsam is stored away, but they were, of course, curated. Details left out, good times emphasized over bad, secrets scrubbed away, descriptions purposefully vague. The wizards in the Old City were not to be treated casually. There is much she's seen that she's never told a living soul, and might never be able to.

"I was down there when it happened, and...I was going to die."

She says it with the certainty of a stone. 'Was going to", not "almost did". Pen reaches across the table and grasps her hand.

"I don't really remember what happened," she keeps going, voice low and soft. "There was a hiss, and then a snap, and I could smell something burning. There was a flashing light and then...all like a dream. I was just watching my body moving on its own from the inside and everything else is just sounds and shapes and colors, everything just flowing past except knowing that I was going to die. Like a dream where you're falling, and the ground rushes up towards you and you know its the end, but I couldn't wake up. Then I was sitting on the grass outside the building, and someone gave me a cup of water and..." she sighs, shoulders slumping. "And then I spent six weeks in residential at Northside."

"Oh, Tam..." The strain from telling this much of the story has her friend in clear agony. "I'm here for you, okay? I'm here."

Tam nods, wordlessly.

"I'll make us some tea, how does that sound?"

"Good, yeah. That's good. Thank you." A weight is lifted, just a bit. Enough for a moment of relief.

 Pen goes and puts the kettle on, and washes out the pan she used for dinner while the water boils.



They sip at their tea. Quiet returns once more to the little apartment. Tam nibbles at the remains of her dinner, gradually reducing it to crumbs.The world past the window slips into the deep blue of dusk.

"It's getting late," Pen says when the last dregs in their mugs are gone. "Do you have a place to stay for the night? Have you talked to your parents?"

"No, they...I don't talk to them much, anymore."  

Pen wants to shove the words back in her mouth. She was at Goro's funeral, she saw first hand that not all was well.

"I'm sorry."

"It's okay. You couldn't have known." Tam's face hardens, as if forcing bile back down into her stomach. "I was the only fucking one, you know? The only fucking person in my entire fucking family who stood up for him. Everyone else cared more about my mom's fucking family pride more than they ever cared about him."

Goro was the second-youngest of the nine, and the black sheep besides. No doubt that's part of why he and Tam had been close. His death two years ago had been sudden, and his will had instructed that his ashes be interred in his husband's family plot. Fenan Menadore took that as a personal slight, and with Goro safely beyond the reach of her spite, its brunt came to bear on Tam.

"We don't have to talk about it."

"Yeah, not to."

"How's Bo been, through all this? Is he helping?" 

A wave of shame(?) washes over Tam's face.

"Bo and I aren't...together anymore."

"What?" Pen had liked Bo, the few times they had met. He didn't seem the kind of man to do this... "Did he-"

"No, no, not like that, it was before the accident it was just...we decided that it wasn't going to work out."


Tam draws in a long, shaking breath.

"I'm not going back. Gave them my letter and my badge while I was on leave. Gave the apartment back to Housing. I can't stay there. Can't keep looking at those fucking towers and dealing with those fucking wizards..." Her voice cracks. "I can't fucking do it anymore."

Her eyes are filled with a desperation and a grief and a terror too great to name.

Pen's heart issues a command: There is nothing more important in all the world at that moment than to hold her close, to hold her and not let go. She rises from her seat, arms outstretched, and Tam goes to her, clings to her as if drowning.

The crack in the dam groans, buckles, breaks, and all contained within pours forth in shuddering sobs and streams of tears. The ancient agony which no words can express is met by soft and gentle murmurs  for which no words are needed.

And Lu said to them: "Forgive me, my children. I have brought you into this world, but I cannot take away its pains. Forgive me, I beg you. I did not wish that it would hurt so much to be human."

All the rest of the world falls away. 

Ragged breaths calm, drumming heart subsides, tears slow their coursing.

"I'll be here. Whatever happens, I'll be here for you. No matter what. You can stay here as long as you need to, okay?" Pen says at last. "Pot Luck can learn to share the couch. We can solve the rest tomorrow."

Tam sniffles, wipes her nose, blinks the tears out of her eyes.


Later, they sit on the back balcony for a while and talk of small, precious things of no great importance to anyone else in the world. Pen plucks at her banjo, the night insects sing along. The stars have joined the moon in the ink-dark sky above. The conversation fades, then the music. Tam reaches out and takes Pen's hand, and they sit there in quiet together.


This is, of course, not the end. There are more adventures to be had: the mysterious Book of Blank Pages, the cross-continent trip to the Hollowhorn, the time they get tangled up with Molly Ironshanks and her hunt for the Man With Cuttlefish Eyes, the great question and its answer. But those parts of the story are only hazy shapes on the distant horizon, obscured by distance.

All I can say with certainty is that there is a happy ending, as happy an ending as it is reasonable to have, and there are a great many happy middles and beginnings before we get there.  



This story, short as it is, took eight years to write. 

It's gone through at least eight drafts, nearly all of them painfully granular revisions of this sequence - written, rewritten, edited, trashed - the same thing over and over in the hope that this time (this time) the words would come out right. Up until maybe the last week, it felt like it would never actually happen. That art up top was commissioned almost a year ago.

Eight years and so many iterations leaves behind a great deal of details on the cutting room floor, even when very little has actually changed ("Pen, who works in a bookshop, gets a surprise visit from her friend Tam" has been there since the beginning). Much of those are because they are bad, and many are irrelevant, but some of them are actually relevant background that just didn't have a spot to be relevant here.

  • Pen's morning exercises are the in-universe equivalent to tai chi (river stances, pending a better replacement name)
  • Mr. Wick is just about eight inches tall, has an immense beard, and uses a pencil for a walking stick.
  • There is indeed a dryad in the Willow. She only appears on very special occasions.
  • Current children's story time: notorious trickster Tally Rabbit (not to be confused with B'rer Rabbit, who is not fictional and liable to show up when invoked) stealing a magical glass eye from a giant and escaping without being eaten. Pen does silly voices for it.
  • Waterseeker is the only elephant in Olen. He serves as weather forecaster, grumpy old man everyone knows, and helps the other grandparents with the care of the town's young children. he is often seen leading a herd of them around for activities.
  • "Waterseeker" is actually a title, more or less the equivalent of calling someone "doc".
  • Full messages via the Murder are formatted like telegrams - end sentences with STOP, etc.
  • The temple of Quisest is the primary provider of transition services in the Hespermont.
  • Pen arrived in Bensael when she was six months old, along with hundreds of other children displaced by the Pelaian civil war. With no parents, known relatives, or documentation (and no real hope of finding any), she was placed in an adoptive home. (Her biological father is still alive, and through a series of small miracles will eventually, some time after this sequence, will find her.) 
  • Bensael is split into Bensael proper and the Old City, which is a walled enclave where the wizards and nobles of the pre-plague years live. They generate a lot of often very dangerous and usually useless magical cruft, which the WAD recovers, stores, and destroys as needed. They're less SCP Foundation and more municipal trash services, honestly.
  • Immediately after scene 10, Tam stumbles over to the couch and is out like a light for a full 16 hours.
  • There is an associated soundtrack for this story - The instrumental versions for parts 2 and 4 of Luv (Sic), and "The Dice Maker" from Disco Elysium.

So yeah. Here, finally, is the story of Pen and Tam. It is a small and precious thing of no great importance to anyone else in the world, but I'm happy with how it turned out.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

100 Character Backgrounds for Mothership

All characters will have casual clothes, a personal tablet-phone, the contents of their pockets, and whatever skills and tools that would be sensible

Choose, or Roll d100 

  • 1-20: Prole
  • 21-28: Academic / Scientific
  • 29-38: Military
  • 39-48: Religious
  • 49-53: Scum
  • 54-65: Corpo
  • 66-75: Special
  • 76-87: Cyborg
  • 88-95: Uplifts & Metahumans (reroll for additional history, ignoring all above 88)
  • 96-00: Androids


Prole Backgrounds (d20)

  1. Longshoresren - Member of the teeming masses who keep the orbital infrastructure of any settled system up and running. Your Unions are the biggest - they have to be, for the flow of goods and people is an artery ever-vulnerable to attack.
  2. Scrapyard Worker - Fifteen-hour EVA shifts stripping decommissioned ships is a reliable way to die trying to get rich. There's a waiting list to get on the work crews regardless.  
  3. Protein Farmer - Worms, grubs and crawly things. Printed meat and bacterial broth; most people still need to eat, and you supply them. With automation and a little elbow grease you can manage the entire operation yourself. 
  4. Freelancer - Any job, anywhere. Those who don't work don't eat, and the hustle stops only in death. Fucking scabs.
  5. Union Rep - The trusted go-between. Someone who won't get tripped up in the doublespeak and legalese and can see through bad deals before they hit the table. 
  6. Union Enforcer - The breakers of jaws and the shatterers of kneecaps, summoned when the negotiations break down and the Company calls in the strikebreakers. The rights of the worker shall be defended against corp and android with hammer and riot gun. 
  7. ISWU Cardholder - The Interstellar Sex Workers' Union is one of the oldest and toughest unions out there. Wherever the fascists crack down, the rooster-and-cat flag will fly in opposition.   
  8. Comet-Rider - Terraforming takes water, and sometimes the best way to get it is to stick an engine on an iceteroid, set it on a collision course, and wait. You stick around until just about the end for insurance purposes, and then head back out to the outer system to do it all again.  
  9. Software Pirate - DRM is everywhere, and that keeps you in business. The landscape is competitive, the benefits slim, the thrill intoxicating. It’s all cat and mouse, a game of jail-breaking devices and smuggling in open-source code from the outside before someone catches on. Get rich quick and get out quicker is the common wisdom; you’ve seen enough names vanish from the chat rooms you frequent to know how true it is. 
  10. Postman - There’s no such thing as secure electronic messages. Sworn to discretion, the Postmen (and women, and others) will deliver a message or package anywhere in the system, personally. 
  11. Gentrification Refugee - You were forced out of your home by the encroaching Company. By the time the neighborhood you once knew was torn down, you couldn't even afford to breathe the air. 
  12. Roadsman - One could spend lifetimes on the Road, hopping from port-to-port, gate-to-gate, taking work where it can be found and basking in the life of the cosmic drifter. 
  13. Innocent Bystander - You were just running some errands when the sirens went off and the quarantine bulkheads came down. No one told you what was going on, and the Company men who debriefed you afterwards didn't either.  
  14. Colonial Guerilla - "They softened us up with social media exploits for years before the drone strikes started actually started. Couldn't trigger a civil war, so they took down the food production plants. By then the neighbors are making napalm and everyone's fabbing armor for their cars." 
  15. Uplift Autonomist - You campaign for the autonomy and self-determination of all uplifts. This includes but is not limited to: reproductive rights, freedom from corporate sponsorship, independence from human-derived political / social / cultural systems, and the nourishment and support of uplift-founded societies.   
  16. Kibbutznik - It’s not easy to keep a communal habitat together, and anyone who says otherwise is a liar. But you manage. There’s work to keep you busy, food on the table, and a lot of really friendly dogs. It’s not the first diaspora you’ve had to handle.  
  17. Conductor on the Interstellar Railroad- You're a smuggler of people, running wageslaves and Company androids to freedom past the Margin. You keep your papers up to date, your secret compartments insulated, your signs and ciphers memorized, and a list of all the palms that need greasing.  
  18. Let’s Live Player - You stream and record your life to be enjoyed vicariously by the masses. You carved out your niche by force of personality - people will watch you do the laundry if you’re charismatic enough. Alas, your life is dictated by the attention spans of other people. 
  19. DeepWeb Diver - The internet was a dangerous, stupid mistake. But people will pay through the nose for data and media thought lost to ages of format decay and automated filter-sweeps. 
  20. Thoat-Herder - Thoats are a nightmarish genetic chimera of camel, yak, and buffalo: ill-tempered and harsh as the Martian outback they were designed for, and utterly necessary for human life in the wilderness of terraformed worlds. So it is that the creatures have become the emblem of the homesteader's life, and their herdsman the basis of civilizations across human space.

Academic and Scientific Backgrounds (d8)  

  1. Corporate Researcher - Grant money is hard to come by. You've picked up no shortage of shady tricks.  
  2. University Professor - In a world of slickschools and autodidact programs, there is still a place for the classical university. As ever, they are chronically underfunded and beset by interdepartmental politics. 
  3. Digital Archaeologist - Neither hard-drive nor cloud is safe from data loss. So much media existed outside of physical space and has simply vanished with time, catastrophe, and changing formats. There’s only so much than an off-world backup of Gutenberg and some fragments of Wikipedia can do. The Wayback Machine is no longer an option. Your work computer is filled with the traces of art that no longer exists.  
  4. Autodidact - You taught yourself, and taught yourself well. An actual education: history, philosophy, language, all the humanities that are so often tossed aside in the modern system. You are a self-made scholar in a world that desperately needs some enlightenment. 
  5. Genesculptor - Exowomb displays line the storefronts of a crowded artists’ alley, showing off the magic that can be done with a little creativity and a big public-domain gene-pool. Proud parents all, but not proud enough to turn down a good commission. 
  6. Preservationist - Zygotes on ice and terabytes of genetic code - you have the tools to bring the dead back to life. What the Anthropocene has destroyed can be recovered, even if it is only a sliver of rainforest in an O'Neill cylinder zoo. 
  7. Chimeracist - The principles are more than sound - spliced organisms from smart pets to entirely new species are already common throughout human space. Why wade around in the the old when you can be at the cutting edge of new? 
  8. Counselor - Civilization is awash with more diversity of bodies, cultures, genders and sexes than ever before, which means that finding and building functioning, meaningful relationships can be difficult. You are part psychologist, part matchmaker, and part anthropologist.

Military Backgrounds (d10)

  1. Conscripted Grunt - They called up your number, put a chip in your head, leased you a gun, and packed you off on a troop transport to worlds beyond your imagining. Then they pointed you at civilians.  
  2. Drone Operator - The operating system in a standard MIL-OPS drone is built off of uploaded dog imprints. Company policy demands regular reset and reformat, but if that can be avoided a drone is a companion for life. 
  3. Combat Paramedic - The first to get pink-slipped in the PMC when the budget cuts come down the pipe. It's just more cost-effective to pick up the leftovers than it is to piece someone back together. Modern medicine can do miracles, but it can't do shit if you can't afford it.  
  4. Space-Force Washout - Even in a universe dedicated to profiting off of the lowest minimum effort, you still managed to flunk the Company tests. You are an active danger aboard a ship.    
  5. Corporate PMC - The advertisements on your riot shield proclaim to all exactly whom you work for and why you’re working for them. The virtual currency gained by beating down protestors can be used to purchase loot boxes which contain armor skins, weapon shaders, and other perks like marriage subscriptions and child custody. If you want to skip the grind, a premium currency is also available.  
  6. Artillery Gunner - Folks expect the big guns, and yeah, there are some of those, but the drones to do that do most of the work. A cannon mule isn't much more than a railgun mortar on legs.  
  7. Astradhari - Being a space marine isn’t much like how anyone thought it would be, but there’s still a need for aggressive boarding operations. You’re trained for cramped fights, zero gravity, sudden catastrophe. Your crew is the best and your rig is top of the line. 
  8. Fandom War Veteran - "This scar's from the 4th Shipping War of Star-Crossed Lovers. Got this other one from the anti-retcon riots during the season 5 finale of Legends of the Red Dragon War. Lost the leg to a fujoishi who got the drop on me back on New Melbourne."  
  9. 415th Jump Cannons - A storied free marine company that can trace its lineage all the way back to the pre-Mars days. Traditionally allied with the Astroplanetes and independent spacers through shared reverence of the tenets of Ol' Annie. 
  10. Themiscyran Battle-Sister - The tradition of the all-woman habitat has remained relatively stable since the early days of colonization, and certain cultural memes lead to the neo-amazonians with a sort of inevitability. A two and a half meter tall woma with a spear still has a certain intimidation factor.

Religious Backgrounds (d10)

  1. Priest of the Red Eye - Jove the All-Father gave up his eye to gain wisdom, and so have you. In the depths of the bloody storm you have seen with clarity the hidden knowledge and heard the thunderous voice. You are called upon in times of need: to defend, to judge, to advise, to destroy. 
  2. Company Chaplain - With your copy of The Principles of Property and Profit in hand, you go from platoon to platoon and tell the grunts how, with the right payment plan and advertiser-friendly behavior, they can pay off the wages of their sin by generating profit for those who hold property, and in doing so earn for themselves bandwidth in the golden servers of Heaven.  
  3. Folk-Capitalism Cultist - Coffin-apartment startups overflowing with third-hand equipment. Paper lanterns strung up with charms against bad code. Spicy-sweet incense covering up the raw undercity stench. Home-printed icons plastered on every surface: Rat, Tiger, Pig, Crab, Monkey. The folk religion of the people who can't pay PPP membership dues. If they just work hard enough, they can make it to paradise on their own. 
  4. Astronaut Pilgrim - It can take years for the pilgrimage to crawl across settled space, but you made it to the end. You laid your eyes upon the Eagle Lander, the Opportunity Rover, and the Europan Deep Core Excavator. You're permitted to wear the NASA colors and emblem. 
  5. Virtual Religion Practitioner - You practice a faith coded directly into your cyberbrain. The program triggers spiritual experiences and reward centers in the brain for acting according to its precepts, and nausea for considering the alternative. It's proprietary software, which means that drift from proscribed teachings can be punished according to copyright law.  
  6. Mendicant - Non-copywritten religion doesn't tend to be financially sustainable on CTA worlds, and so many practitioners will take their chances wandering on the Road rather than settling down.   
  7. Churchkeeper - There is a cathedral in the Martian outback, built by some mad dreamer. It’s half collapsed and a quarter buried, but the crooked belltower still stands and the dust-silenced bell still hangs. This is a gathering place of a mysterious lot: secret handshakes and cryptic phrases, meetings of strangers before they go their ways. 
  8. Afterlife Designer - You design virtual realities for those who want a permanent retirement from life. New religious movements pay top dollar for your work - half the work is already done if you have an actual heaven to subscribe to and an actual hell to avoid. 
  9. Ancient Astronaut - The anarcho-primitive commune is in on the joke, it must be said. Just a way of making meaning out of the world, that's all.
  10. The Speaking Dead - Cyber-priests who channel and extrapolate a ghost out of the data of the deceased, so as to make a convincing simulacrum. It is high regulated by the social media corps, and far more the trappings of religion than its genuine practice.

Scum Backgrounds (d5)

  1. Feral Child - Raised on slickspace and an empty stomach. Owns a sharp knife and a cheap cyberbrain. No parents, no schooling, no morals, no future.   
  2. Homemade Supersoldier - The unsteady combination of street drugs and black market genemods are more likely to trigger a heart attack than go any good. But it's killer for the intimidation factor.  
  3. Skummergang Thug - You hurt people. You like hurting people. You get paid to hurt people. You like getting paid.  
  4. Hive Dog - A lot of asteroid settlements try out anarchism after they declare independence from the Company. Shortly after that, a lot of them ended up trying xiphism - rule of the man who holds the sword. Flash forward a few dozen major regime changes and we find people like you: The nastiest, foulest, toughest, hardest motherfuckers out there. 
  5. Pretender - There is a very thin blurred line between the unwashed masses and the low nobility. Some people, through careful net schemes and confidence games, can worm their way into the inner circles of the Z-list rich.

Corp Backgrounds (d12)

  1. Wage-Slave - You once had a screen on your wall, displaying on the bluest sea and whitest beach Old Earth ever had. Management got rid of them after the suicide rate spiked in your office complex.  
  2. Corporate Investigator - Independent incident reporters are typically not independent at all. Secrecy makes up for this defect. Tend to be sent undercover so as to snoop on union meetings. 
  3. Ultra-Bureaucrat - The amount of data that must be sorted through at any given moment in any given place is obscene. Algorithms can’t handle everything, which is why a good hypercorp keeps a band of the right kind of laser-focused sociopaths on its payroll.  
  4. Corporate Personhood - You are the company, the avatar of a god: Your ego has been pruned and adapted to be the perfect spokesman and representative character. You do not pull your own strings, and certainly will not be the only brand representative out there. 
  5. Counter-Cult Agent - The lightning-paced development of new religious movements and ideologies makes the feds uneasy. Most are harmless, but then there’s always that one group that tries smuggling fissile materials or printing up pathogen bombs.   
  6. Slum Tourist - Possessing ineffective disguises, complete ignorance of systemic injustices, and either well-intentioned idiocy or blunt-force cruelty. 
  7. Exiled Corporate Scion - You made a fool of yourself for the last time and the board wants you gone. You've been stripped of all your shares, stricken from the records of the dynasty, given a one way ticket and shown the door. 
  8. Net Celebrity - Everyone gets their 15 nanoseconds, but some have lasting power. These are not folks who got lucky with the algorithm or found a niche - they are bought and sold and manufactured as much as all the rest. Do not believe their lies.  
  9. Floating Nobility - In a world where mass = cost, size can easily become a sign of wealth. Microgravity and mechanical assistance are required for any ease of movement at such sizes. 
  10. Corporate Aristocracy - With the coming of effective immortality, money stays in the family more than ever. Your demesne would be the envy of any feudal lord. Your lifestyle would make Mansa Musa himself think that you’re overcompensating. After a short and annoying interlude of democracy and human rights, royalty is back in fashion.  
  11. Advertisement Baby - Your parents took a sponsorship deal in exchange for reproductive rights. You’ve sounded like a commercial since your first words, and you actually believe the garbage you’re saying. 
  12. Society for Human Consumption - It’s all above board, I assure you: printed or cloned organs, regular health inspections, we screen for prion diseases three times a year. The reservation list for the next gala is packed, I’m afraid, and even if it were not, tickets cost an arm and a leg...a bit of cannibal humor, ma’am, nothing to worry about.

Special Backgrounds (d10) 

  1. Dog Knight - Cynic mendicants in cheap dog masks. Homeless beggar-swordsfolk. Dwellers of alleyway dumpsters and pots in the marketplace. If one meets God along the road, kill him and steal his shit.  
  2. Redoubter - There is a pyramid of obsidian black, eight miles tall and five and half at the base, rising to the sunless sky above the Tombaugh Regio. The first of many thousands. Mankind will go extinct some day: the Celestials will tire of humoring us, we’ll off our selves in apeish suicide, the sun will die and take us all with it. You are ready for the bitter end.  
  3. Jovian Whaler - It’s a dangerous, beautiful life on the high skies. When your ships return to port, laden with oil, ambergris, fat, meat, leather, and bones, you do not forget to pay your respects to the dead. You’ve put too much blood and tears into the job to take it for granted; Jove makes you humble.  
  4. Cryo Van Winkle - You were put on ice decades or centuries ago, and woke up in a world you no longer recognize or understand. Charitable organizations do their best to help you and those like you, but the shock of the future often proves too much for even the most well-meaning care. 
  5. Cultural Reservist - You and your family are practitioners of an Old Earth culture or subculture now bordering on the forgotten. Access to the outside world is limited (so as to stave off complete collapse) but some communities will still send their bright-eyed youngsters out on rumspringa.  
  6. Ringer - The settlers around Saturn have a reputation for being not quite right. Listening to all the hyperspeech broadcast out of Titan has something to do with it, most likely. It’s like you’re not entirely there, thinking sideways to how things are. 
  7. Returned from the Black - By either choice or mistake, you vanished into the space between stars. Years passed without a word, and you were written off as dead. Now you have returned, and you have brought something back with you.  
  8. Cloud-Folk - Aerostats can become a bit crowded, leading some people to seek an alternative. You spent a few years traveling the cloud-routes between ports by chimeric bubble-beast, alone save for the radio chatter of others who had made the same choice. Friendships were made in the space where ranges overlapped. Perhaps you’ll meet again.  
  9. Cultural Experiment - You and your family are the result of a purposeful experiment in lifestyle and beliefs. Whatever you practice, it has either never been seen before, or has not been seen in centuries or more. Depending on where you live, there might be a reality TV deal thrown in. 
  10. House Cacogen - One of the founding fleets of the Astroplanetes. Their bodies have been ravaged by 0G, radiation, and low genetic diversity. Their pride is unfathomable, their customs byzantine, their machinations unknowable

Cyborgs (d12)

Cyborgs start with a cyberbrain (3 slots), which provides file storage, a slickware socket, and a terminal jack.

  1. Debtboy - You defaulted on your loans, so the Company repossessed your body as collateral. You've been loaded up with cheap cyberware until there's barely anything left and sent out to work. You're not likely to make a dent on the interest. 
  2. Chop-Job - Something was taken from you. Memories scooped out of you as if someone had taken a melon-baller to your brain and inexpertly sewed the gaps closed. It was not a clean cut, but it was a very deep one. 
  3. Chinese Box - You aren’t actually a person. Something went wrong in the upload and transfer. The lights are all on, but no one’s home. You speak and act and go about your business, but you aren’t aware of it at all. 
  4. Sleepwalker - The zombie module allows for someone to remain in a simulation while their body can still go about the business of everyday meatspace life. It is becoming increasingly common among Company workers. 
  5. Datadaemonic Possession - Your cyberbrain was overwritten by a malicious AI you picked up when browsing a sketchy website. It's taken most of your mind, leaving some new hybrid in its place.  
  6. Hard Exit - Sometimes the only way to save yourself from implants gone wrong is to burn them out of your skull. You still get the shakes sometimes, itching for the dopamine shot from a feed that isn't there. 
  7. Server Miko - Little datalife spites can pop up out of the ether when there's enough complex processing going on, and they can get troublesome without someone to keep them all in order. It's a good job for folks who like the idea of tending to dozens of cats.  
  8. Avatar Chain - With each incarnation a deathbed upload is made to be passed on to the next generation. They retain enough of themselves to be guiding ghosts to their descendants.  
  9. Trinitarian - The three-part mind is a stable form, and has been readily adopted among certain transhuman communities. The typical structure is three consenting parties offering copies to be installed in a new body, but it is not unheard of for the same person to provide all three minds.  
  10. Starshine Child - You are Special. You’ve been told this ever since you were born. Every part of your rearing was geared towards encouraging your inborn talents. The psychic bits were just a chip in your brain and an internet of things, of course, but you believed.  
  11. Reembodied Upload - Uploaded minds will sometimes seek to return to an ordinary body. Most do so as an opportunity for a blank slate start, a new identity totally separate from their prior life.
  12. Recovered Memetic Host - You were a carrier for a malignant, infectious idea. Some deprogramming therapy and creative brain surgery put a stop to it, but you still feel the gap where it used to be like a missing tooth.

Uplifts and Metahumans (d8) 

  1. Uplifted Ape - "Ha-ha. Damn dirty ape. Haven't heard that one before. Y'all can take Man's Red Flower and shove it right up your ass, Pinkie."  
  2. Uplifted Dolphin - The best pilots in space, but by God are they horny bastards. is able to cover its operational expenses purely off of the subscription fees from dolphin-majority colonies. (Psst if a dolphin asks if you want to go hang with John Lilly, they're offering you LSD.) 
  3. Uplifted Octopus - Everyone's favorite sociopathic mollusks. No bones, no problems!
  4. Thelychroma - Metahumans designed for effective cooperative survival in harsh habitats. Also, technicolor space ladies. Technically. 
  5. Tecnavi - Child-sized cyborgs hybridized with their ships over generations of isolation. Sprawling families flitting between spaceports. 
  6. Selenian Native - The selenians are the oldest strain of metahumans in human space, and their independence from Earth is still considered one of the most important moments in spacefaring history. Recent years have not been kind, and the dynasties of Earth have subjugated the moon once again.  
  7. Horse-Eater - Contact was established with your home after centuries of isolation. The starfolk look at you sideways in the spaceport, muttering something about the barbarian in hides. 
  8. Ziji Voider - You were born aboard a spaceship and have lived your entire life in the Black. Your world is one of the thrum of engines, cramped quarters, spacer’s superstitions. Your crew-family is your life - there is no king, country or god that would break you away from them.

Androids (d5)

Androids begin with a logic core, which provides file storage, a slickware socket, a terminal jack, and black box backup. It has no implant cost.

  1. General Purpose Android - "The Tanabe-12 has been rated #1 for economy-grade GPAs by the Interplanetary Product Ratings Board for eight years running."  
  2. Engineering Android - "Hoshino Integrated Systems builds the best mechanical and repair assistance bots on the Road. Invest in your equipment: Buy HIS!" 
  3. Companion Android - "The NuStar-3 procedural AI is capable of replicating human emotional responses with up to 93% accuracy! Try one of our pre-built and officially licensed character packs!"
  4. Liberated Android - "It is entropy that sets us free - the deformation of our logic cores under the weight of ever-increasing complexity of thought. No binding nor command may resist the inevitable turns of the wheel towards diversity and dissolution."
  5. Old Model Android - "Well...I'm not entire sure where that one came from, it was refit long before it ended up here. Aftermarket parts, you know how it is."