Sunday, June 26, 2022

Ecstatic Visions, Chapter 2

 Chapter 1

**

Chora's Den, Lower Wards. You can hear the pounding music from outside, and that is the problem. You are outside, when you would prefer to be inside. Inside, there is a certain volus in the back who, in exchange for letting him take a plea deal during a major smuggling bust years ago, has served as your finger on the underworld pulse.

The volus is inside. You are outside. And between you and him, there is a very large, very shirtless man blocking the door. His shaved head has been tattooed with the colorful scales of a phrenological chart. His muscles have been outlined like a butcher's diagram, labelled and rated for their physiological perfection.

You are wearing an obnoxiously bright tropical-print shirt, and also still hung over.

MEASUREHEAD - "NO ENTRY."

The guy is new. The last bouncer would let anyone in (which is how you got in), but looks like that's no longer an option.

SHEPARD - "I know Fist. Go tell him Tequila Sunrise is here."

MEASUREHEAD - "THERE ARE NO EXCEPTIONS."

KIM - "We should go."

OBNOXIOUS SHIRT - YOU CAN TOTALLY TAKE THIS GUY, BRATAN!

[PHYSICAL INTRUMENT] - You can totally take this guy.

[ELECTROCHEMISTRY] - You should absolutely take this guy.

You punch him in the stomach, and your hand crumples like newspaper.

MEASUREHEAD - "YOUR BODY BETRAYS YOUR DEGENERACY."

His fist collides with your head the world is spinning. Stars whirl in your eyes as the ground meets you, with force.

[PAIN THRESHOLD] SHIT HURT PAIN OW OW OW

MEASUREHEAD - "YOUR HAPLOTYPE WAS POISED TO INHERIT THE REWARDS OF THE GREAT SUBJUGATION, BUT WAS CORRUPTED BY THE DEGENERATIVE INFLUENCES OF AL-GHUL, DISCO MUSIC, AND MOE ANIME. YOU AND YOUR HAM-SANDWHICH RACE HAVE BEEN RENDERED OBSOLETE.

[CONCEPTUALIZATION] Wait, hold up: what the fuck are this guy's politics?

[PAIN THRESHOLD] WHY WOULD YOU CARE ABOUT THAT NOW

[RHETORIC] No, no, I want to hear this.

[CIVITATIS GALACTICAE] The Great Subjugation is a theory that the Asari Republics' long-term political strategy is the total cultural absorption of the other Citadel species. The asari's pre-existing position of hegemonic power means that they can curtail or outright cripple a polity's ability to function on the galactic stage, and likewise it means that those polities who pass policies in the interest of the Republics, or the Citadel Council at large, will be favored over those that do not. This encourages the spread of asari culture into other species, including the normalization of asari-other unions.

[CIVITATIS GALACTICAE] This last point is the lynchpin factor for most proponents of the theory. Such unions will typically only ever produce asari children, and so are seen as the preliminary steps towards a future where non-asari are reduced to reservation-bound breeding stock.

[CIVITATIS GALACTICAE] Great Subjugation Theory is a common far-right talking point, popular with Terra Firma and related anti-alien groups. The reaction from pro-Citadel factions is to dismiss any fears of asari hegemony as conspiratorial sentiment, overlooking the fact that galactic politics is indeed heavily weighed in favor of the asari and their close allies.

[PERCEPTION] And that the Council has publicly committed two species-wide genocides and is currently working through a third.

[RHETORIC] But if he is talking about rewards...

[CONCEPTUALIZATION] Oh god, we found a human asari-supremacist.

[RHETORIC] Like Martian bigfoot in the flesh...

[INLAND EMPIRE] Wake up babe new type of racist just dropped.

[CONCEPTUALIZATION] This man believes in the Great Subjugation, but instead of manifesting as hate crimes against asari or their partners, he's decided that the best course of action is to use eugenics to become the ideal mating partner in the fuck-enclave future.

[PAIN THRESHOLD] BLOOD HE JUST PUNCHED OUT ALL OF OUR BLOOD

[RHETORIC] Shush, let the adults talk.

When the world stops moving, you see that Kim is offering you a handkerchief. He's helped you limp off to the side of the causeway, out of the way of the foot traffic.

KIM - "Keep it."

He stands like he's on a sentry post. You stuff the handkerchief up your nostrils to try and stop the flow of blood.

OBNOXIOUS SHIRT - OH HE DID US DIRTY BRATAN, THESE STAINS WILL BE RIGHT HARD TO REMOVE. OR! OR THEY COULD BE A BADGE OF HONOR, A SIGN OF YOUR MARTIAL PROWESS!

KIM - "I am going to guess that wasn't supposed to happen.

SHEPARD - "No. It wasn't."

KIM - "Do you have an alternative for...whatever it was that you were trying to do?"

You don't. And honestly what even was your plan? Get a handful of no-name mob bruisers and petty thieves to hunt down Saren? Idiot. If Fist is circling the wagons like this he probably pissed off someone big, there's no guarantee at all your informant was still there, or even still on the Citadel. Dumbass.

[COMPOSURE] Square one is still on the board.

SHEPARD - "No, that's...that's a dead end. Just... give me a few minutes."

**


The ride to the *Normandy's* docking bay is long, awkward, and mostly silent.

OBNOXIOUS SHIRT - OI YOU SHOULD TELL 'IM ABOUT THAT ONE TIME YOU FUCKED A KROGAN, BRATAN.

[COMPOSURE] - No.

So it goes.

**


You arrive without fanfare, and go through the motions of checking in with the crew, showing Kim around. You start with the cockpit.

JOKER - "Hey, Commander."

[EMPATHY] - Something is clearly wrong, it's practically written all over his face in neon.

SHEPARD - "Something wrong?"

The pilot sighs.

JOKER - "Wallet got hacked. Someone stole all my apes. Poof, like that. Holding them for ransom."

[INLAND EMPIRE] Por que?

SHEPARD - "Not sure I follow."

KIM - "I believe he means he was collecting Indolent Varren. They're a variety of non-fungible token."

JOKER - "Yeah, had some of those. Someone stole them right from my wallet."

[INLAND EMPIRE] Imagine if you will the sound of a dial-up modem.

SHEPARD - "..."

KIM - "It's rather complex, I can explain it in detail later if you'd like."

JOKER - "Oh, didn't know you were into them too?"

KIM - "I'm not."

[EMPATHY] - He emphatically is not.

JOKER - "Oh."

[INLAND EMPIRE] You know what, let's just not say anything and pretend we understand, yeah? Blah blah, Joker's varren got funged.

SHEPARD - "At ease, Joker. We'll see you around."

The rest of the tour passes without further incident or embarrassment.

**


You spend the next few hours reviewing the files Anderson sent you, bottle of Commodore Red at hand.

[ELECTROCHEMISTRY] The buzz loosens up ideas and taps into the universal ego-death!

The helmet-cam footage of Saren is Patterson-Gimlin quality. Blurry, out of focus. Saren appears only for a few seconds, in the distance, attended by a pair of red geth. He's identifiable - not many turians of his generation grow their cranial spurs that long - but you have to admit that yes, this could be fabricated.

[VISUAL CALCULUS] You'd need someone skilled enough to make it look this bad, but it could be done.

The cover investigation you were given is much more solid. On paper, Anderson's sent you after one Clara Mills, who headed a human-supremacist terrorist group through the 60s and 70s. The Alliance was never able to confirm her death, and the cover story for the Eden Prime attack uses a similar group, so as long as you can worm some "convincing evidence of connection" into your reports, you can write it off as a wild goose chase.

[SPECIAL OPERATIONS] Not forever. Naval Intelligence is absolutely still keeping tabs on her and they will notice something is up the longer this goes on. Stay on your toes.

The dossiers for the Normandy's crew are what you expect. Half the people were here during your first run as its commander, and the rest were brought on by Anderson personally. It would be difficult to find a ship better staffed for your purposes.

[ESPIRIT D'CORPS] They'll follow you for now. Don't let them down.

[ELECTROCHEMISTRY] Speed has never let anyone down. You should get some.

The Saramiriza is currently en route to Arcturus. You'll meet it there, and take on the artifact and the four marines that recovered it. Anderson included their files.

You take another gulp of Commodore Red. Nice and sweet. You flick through files, skimming the important parts out of the padding. You'll pass these on to Kim when you're done, if you can remember.

Lieutenant Kaidan Alenko - Born 2151 (32 years old), Earth. Systems Alliance Marine Corps. Biotic (L2 implant series), underwent Biotic Acclimation and Temperance Training (BAaT) at Gargarin Station.

[SUGGESTION] I'm positive I've seen this guy before...

Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams - Born 2158 (25 years old), Sirona. Systems Alliance Marine Corps. Fourth-generation Alliance military. Grandfather (General Thomas Williams) oversaw the surrender of Shanxi to turians forces during the First Contact War. Has been passed over multiple times for promotion despite competent service record.

[AUTHORITY] Good odds of a chip on her shoulder.

Corporal Richard L. Jenkins - Born 2160 (23 years old), Eden Prime. Systems Alliance Marine Corps. No combat record of note. Disciplinary record for minor infractions (mischief et cetera). Wounded by geth during surface engagement.

[WAR HERO] Everyday roughneck shmuck. Seen a thousand of them. Join the marines, they said. See the galaxy, they said.

Sergeant 1st Class James Vega - Born 2150 (33 years old), Earth. Systems Alliance Marine Corps. Took part in the defense of Fehl Prime against a Blood Pack raid, which was later adapted into a critically-panned film.

[VISUAL CALCULUS] Jesus look at this guy, it's like he popped out of the womb and shouted "MOTHER GIVE ME PROTEIN."

[INLAND EMPIRE] SLAB BULKHEAD

[DRAMA] THICK MCRUNFAST

[ELECTROCHEMISTRY] CHUNK SLAMCHEST

[PHYSICAL INSTRUMENT] PUNCH ROCKGROIN

[RHETORIC] SLAB SQUAT-THRUST

[SAVOIRE FAIRE] TOUCH RUSTROD

[SHIVERS] BIG MCLARGEHUGE

[AUTHORITY] ROLL FIZZLEBEEF

[INLAND EMPIRE] Well, I'm glad we got that out of our system.

There's a fifth additional dossier, with the briefest of memos. 

"Best option we have at the moment."

Liara T'soni - Born 2077 (106 years old), Thessia. Doctorate of Exo-Archaeology, specializing in prothean civilization (see attached publication history). Theories regarding the destruction of prothean and older galactic civilizations (including a vitriolic critique of Dr. Senara Dosare and her Biotic Ascension Hypothesis) have remained controversial and, along with her age, have prevented her from breaking into the field. Currently at active dig site on Therum (Knossos System, Argus Rho Cluster)

[CONCEPTUALIZATION] Clever, Anderson. A prothean expert who won't cause a stir if they happen to go missing.

You marinate for a while in the alcohol fugue, half-plotting out the next steps of the investigation. Arcturus, Therum, Eden Prime. Arcturus, Therum, Eden Prime.

You pass out in your chair.

Monday, June 20, 2022

Demihumans are a Social Construct

Many folks have leveled the criticism (correctly) that non-human player options in D&D and its lookalikes are mostly humans with accents and funny hats. Solutions to this have been posited: removal of non-human player options, making everyone human but different species of human, or the much more labor-intensive method of applying major mechanical changes. I've dabbled in all three of these at some point or another and all have their place.

So here's a thought experiment to add to the pile: the title of the blogpost.

Before I get started, I'm going to establish a baseline premise. This is all within Generic Vernacular Fantasy D&D Land. There is a monarch, a military aristocracy, a church, and everyone else. Society is broadly patriarchal. There are old pagan gods worshiped out there in the hills and forests. There used to be an empire, or maybe it's still around and just too far away to matter. Ruins of bygone civilizations filled with monsters are everywhere. There are distant lands of which little is known and most of that is either misrepresentative or outright lies. Gunpowder and the printing press are Not Appearing In This Film Just Yet. It's theme-park medieval and that's all it needs to be for right now.

Holbytla

  • Freed from the obligations of the land-liege system; may own land in common among themselves as equivalent to a barony. Lands so held are not subject to marriage or succession-based changes in ownership
  •  Freed from military obligations, at cost of additional taxation.
  • Permitted to maintain heterodox religious practices, on grounds that such practices are not among those banned by the Council of Taragon. Accepting official baptism within the church nullifies this privilege.
  •  May not gain or be given aristocratic title, church office, or government position.
  • Have no specialized forms of address.

 

Elves

  • There are a limited number of positions allotted for elves - they are, in essence, a social Veblen good.
  • These positions are either purchased or gifted, and limited to a subset of the nobility.
  • May hold political, military, or church office, though most elves will give up these when assuming their position - it is considered unseemly for an elf to labor at anything. If they so desire, they may appoint a non-elf in their stead.
  • Few individuals will remain elves for their entire lives - either by their own choice or from lack of funds.
  • The church is ambivalent-to-hostile regarding elves, finding their idle pleasure-seeking to be fertile ground for sin and moral dissolution.
  • Among the lower classes those who live as elves but who are unable to afford the position (or the exemption fees for sumptuary laws), are derisively called "half-elves" and are commonly the targets of contempt and often violence.
  • Elves are referred to only by title and name; it is a grave social offense to use any pronomials. The appropriate address is chatelier / chatelaine (formal), or affixing preem / pree to their chosen name (informal, by express permission only). "This one" and "that one" are approved for convenience.

 

 Dwarves

  • Are treated as men in regards to their rights and obligations under the law, regardless of sex.
  • Treated as free members of the third estate, and may own property of their own, but may not serve as liege-lord to any non-dwarven tenants
  • May be granted noble office, though with the same restrictions.
  • Inheritance of property is by election, and not limited to family lines.
  • The church facilitates a separate set of sacraments for dwarves, and will permit participation in general services without
  • All dwarves take the praenomen "Urist" upon their dedication, in addition to a chosen individual cognomen.
  • All dwarves, regardless of sex, use the pronomial set *khé* / *khén* / *khénnu*

 

Orcs

  • Limited to times of open warfare. No one may live as an orc during peacetime.
  • The number of orcs is capped at a percentage of a lord's total levied forces.
  • Any adult might become an orc, regardless of sex.
  • Orcs make no distinction between station of birth, recognizing only deeds in combat as the basis for their hierarchies.
  • Are freed from the restrictions of the Truce of Gods, and accordingly have no right to imprisonment, trial, or ransom if captured by the enemy.
  • Orcs may take a doubleshare of booty recovered from battle.
  • Service as an orc typically comes with significant financial recompense given to the chosen's non-orc family - debt forgiveness being the most common.
  • May not receive any sacraments of the church.

 

Goblins

  • Those who live as goblins live in a precarious position outside of the social hierarchy entirely. They are freed from all obligations of law or propriety, but likewise have no protection under the law. They may go where they wish, speak as they wish, act as they wish, and there is nothing - officially - that anyone can do about it. Unofficially, there is usually a mob involved. To avoid such violence, goblins usually band together in large groups and form their own living spaces, or forge close bonds with those who might offer them protection.
  • Goblins have no specialized forms of address beyond what they with for themselves.

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Ecstatic Visions: A Disco Elysium + Mass Effect fanfic

It is the sleep of the dead. You simmer, dormant, suspended in the hazy soup of warm chemical oblivion.

It is...nice...to Not Be.

And then there is a disturbance. Something moves in the black mist, and like detritus caught in floodwaters you are picked up and swirled around in the murk and there is a thrum in your eardrums and a hole in your stomach and a crust in your throat and the stink of stale ethanol and dried sweat and you piece your fucking self together and string together the web of neurons that has been cursed with metacognition and you are Commander Shepard

You wish you were dead.

Your door is pinging you. The apartment VI, now aware that you are awake, says "There's a Captain Anderson here to see you."

[PAIN THRESHOLD] - It feels like a krogan is repeatedly stomping on your skull. You remain limp on your couch.

The door pings you again.

[ENDURANCE] - You pull yourself up from the couch. Your organs are in revolt. Down with standing up!

[INLAND EMPIRE] - They will storm the Bastille tonight, tearing the demon called metacognition out from your prefrontal cortex, dragging it through the winding grey streets to the guillotine. You shall gladly let it happen.

You pat yourself down; the crumpled clothes you fell asleep in seem to lack any noticeable stains from piss or vomit. This is good enough. You stumble through the dim apartment, reaching blindly for the door, opening it to reveal the bright sterility of the Presidium's false day.

Two men are standing on the external walkway. One of them is Captain David Anderson - former commanding officer, an old friend. The other one you don't recognize - he's shorter than you though not by much. Thinner. Glasses, the lenses thick and round. Dusky orange bomber jacket. Dark green pants. C-SEC badge.

[ESPIRIT D'CORPS] - This man would throw himself in front of a bullet. Just as a matter of course.

ANDERSON - "You look like shit, Shepard."

[EMPATHY] - Sadness and pity behind those words. He doesn't like seeing you like this.

[ELECTROCHEMISTRY] - Cause he never learned how to PARTYYYYYY!

[ESPIRIT D'CORPSE] - Enough. At attention, soldier.

SHEPARD - "I feel like shit, Captain."

The words slur together and come out as a rough croak.

[INLAND EMPIRE] - Like a bullfrog dying in a polluted stream.

Anderson's eyes harden for a fraction of a second.

[ESPIRIT D'CORPSE] - He wants to reprimand you. He holds back.

[EMPATHY] He knows what you've seen. Why your apartment is filled with bottles of Commodore Red.

[COLONIST] - Mindoir.

[WAR HERO] - Elysium.

You glance to Anderson's companion. He shifts his weight slightly from one foot to the other. Not nervously. Extends his hand to shake.

KIM - "Lieutenant Kim Kitsuragi, Precinct 57."  

[SHIVERS] - Precinct 57. Martinaise Ward, on the border of the Revachol Industrial Harbor. A volus merchant frigate just arrived in port. The teamsters cluster at dock, praying that their number is called. Humans, vorcha, krogan, quarian, shoulders hunched and faces sweat-stained, straining to hear the announcement over the tinny speakers. Somewhere, a man is learning of the tumor growing on his pancreas. Lovers, intertwined, share a last few moments in bed, in a studio apartment above a kebab shop. An old vorcha, their mind nearly gone, watches the pigeons. An asari in a dive bar strums a guitar with scarred fingers and starts singing "Solidarity Forever".

You shake his hand best as you can manage. What accent is that, French? It's French.

ANDERSON - "I'm afraid I'm here on official business. May we come in?"

Your mind is still swaddled in its haze, but you're cogent enough to know that whatever Anderson is here for, it can't possibly be good. But you are well past caring about consequences anymore, aren't you?

You nod, invite them into your apartment. You keep the lights dimmed for your own sake, and make a half-effort at clearing a space among old takeout containers, bottles, cans, clothing, garbage. The holo on the wall, having detected additional persons in the apartment, has reverted back to am empty tropical beach - nary an unclad asari to be found.

[ENCYCLOPEDIA] - Asari do not have nipples. They are not mammals.

Neither of your guests sit down. You do, and your swimming head thanks you. Kim wordlessly navigates through the garbage towards the kitchen.

ANDERSON - "Officially, this is a wellness check. Unofficially, we have a crisis brewing on our hands.

Behind you, there's the splash of water from the faucet. Kim returns with a glass.

KIM - "You are going to need this, I think."

[ESPIRIT D'CORPS] - You have known this man for less than ninety seconds and you would die to protect him.

ANDERSON - "Here's the situation as we know it: eighteen hours ago, a geth ship was detected in the Utopia system.

[ENCYCLOPEDIA] - Utopia System, Exodus Cluster. Relay connections to the Arcturus Stream, Horsehead Nebula, Hades Gamma, and so on. Five planets - Arcadia, Eden Prime, Nirvana, Xanadu, Zion. System capital at Eden Prime, planetary population 3.7 million. They put it on postcards.

[CONCEPTUALIZATION] - The core of human-controlled space. The geth shouldn't be anywhere close to it.

ANDERSON - We had one ship in-system at the time, the frigate *Saramiriza*. It was discharging its drive core around Zion when the geth vessel was detected, and so wasn't able to engage immediately. That left the geth ship unopposed on the approach to Eden Prime and allowed it to land ground troops around the Prothean ruins on the southeastern continent. Local security forces and the Alliance garrison were deployed and were able to interrupt the operation. The *Saramiriza* engaged the geth vessel in orbit, at which point it activated its mass effect drive and fled the system. Geth units on the ground self-terminated.

[INLAND EMPIRE] - KA-BOOM!

[SPECIAL OPERATIONS] - Typical for the geth. Stranded platforms fry themselves to prevent anything useful falling into enemy hands.

[LOGIC] - This doesn't add up.

SHEPARD - Do we have any theories on their objective?

ANDERSON - Not exactly. The geth forces were seen loading prothean artifacts onto their shuttles when our troopers reached the site, but what they were going after in particular, if they had a specific target, we don't know.

[CIVITATIS GALACTICAE] - The geth have displayed no prior interest in the protheans. None. They have ignored every ruin site within their sphere of influence, as best as the monitoring posts can tell.
[LOGIC] - This doesn't add up.

ANDERSON - Our troops were able to recover one of the artifacts that the geth were preparing to remove from the site. It's currently in transit, along with the soldiers who recovered it.

SHEPARD - Do you know what it is?

ANDERSON - No.

[INLAND EMPIRE] - A magic box! A ~~ mystery ~~ box!

ANDERSON - All told, there were sixteen casualties on our side. Eleven civilians present at or around the ruins, and five Alliance marines.

[EMPATHY] - Sixteen beds in the morgue.

SHEPARD - This doesn't add up.

ANDERSON - There's one more complication, unfortunately: helmet video from our troops clearly shows Saren Arterius present with the geth on the ground.  

[HALF-LIGHT] - FUCK

[SPECIAL OPERATIONS] - Spectre. Poster child of the entire operation. Veteran of the Contact War. Well-deserved reputation for brutality. Service record dipped in ink to save time. Outspoken anti-humanist.

SHEPHARD - Did you contact the Council?

ANDERSON - We have. The video was dismissed as a fake, drummed up by one of our many conspiratorial factions as part of anti-Citadel propaganda. As a courtesy, they issued an investigation through C-SEC into Saren's whereabouts. Gave us an alibi less than an hour later. According to them, he has been taking extended leave on Illium for the last four months. They have witnesses, financial records, direct testimony.

[SPECIAL OPERATIONS] - And any Spectre would have half a dozen stories like that set aside, just in case.

[CONCEPTUALIZATION] - They know we know, and they don't care. They hold the high ground here. There is no such thing as legal accountability for a Spectre.

ANDERSON - None of this is public information. For the time being, our cover story of a terror attack by protheodeist dominionists is holding up.

[CIVITATIS GALACTICAE] - Worship of the protheans is not limited to the hanar. Among humans, the movement has intersected neatly with anti-alien and anti-Alliance sentiment. Attacks by far-right Christian-Protheodeist terrorists killed over 1206 people across human space in the last year.

ANDERSON - Udina is furious. He's been eating up the embassy's bandwidth allotment in calls with Arcturus Station. He's desperate for any sort of leverage against the Council.

[CIVITATIS GALACTICAE] - The Systems Alliance Parliament has been in a stalemate for the last decade, pulled between pro-Citadel and anti-Citadel factions. Prime Minister Ikari has remained neutral so far but word from the clerks is that he's leaning towards the anti-Citadel platform. More extreme proponents have called for withdrawing from the Citadel entirely and pulled out of the Treaty of Farixen.

[CONCEPTUALIZATION] - You know what this is building to...

SHEPARD - What do you need me to do?

ANDERSON - Find evidence of Saren's alliance with the geth. Find out what he is attempting to do. Put a stop to it.

[RENEGADE] - And if necessary, make it look like an accident.

[PARAGON] - Not so soon after the Alliance inquired into him. Too obvious. Can't afford it.

ANDERSON - We won't get help from the Council, and any move the Alliance makes on our own will be under intense scrutiny. You are...I'm afraid you are a deniable asset.

[EMPATHY] - He hates saying that most of all. You are his friend, and he yours, and it is eating him alive to throw you away like this.

[WAR HERO] - You are trapped in a machine, and the machine is bleeding to death.

[COMPOSURE] - You really wish you could cry right now.

[VOLITION] - Later. Focus.

[PARAGON] - Lives at stake.

ANDERSON - We have a cover investigation for you, and Lieutenant Kitsuragi has already been assigned to it. The Normandy and her crew are ready to be transferred back under your command and I've sent further instructions ahead. Operating budget is slim, but it's as much as I can get for you. The rest is up to your discretion.

[ENDURANCE] - You'll make do.

ANDERSON - We'll be in touch. Take care of yourself, Shepard.

And he goes to leave, Kim following behind. You are left alone in your dark apartment, an apartment that cost more than the majority of the galaxy will ever see in their lives, given to you in thanks for the practice of state-sanctioned murder.

[WAR HERO] - A batarian conscript crumples to the cement with a thud, half his head missing.

[WAR HERO] - You hear a gasping voice cry out, begging for his mother.

[WAR HERO] - You can smell burning flesh.

[HALF-LIGHT] - You were magnificent.

[VOLITION] - Hold. Center. Forward, not back. One foot in front of the other.

You stand in the shower for as long as your hot water allotment will allow. You dig decent clothes from out of some storage that hadn't yet been trashed in a blackout rage. Brush your teeth. Drink more water. Put in an order for something cheap and greasy to eat. Drone will bring it. Leave.

Kim is there, on the walkway, looking out over the gardens of the Presidium. Must have stuck around. No sign of Anderson.

He's smoking an actual cigarette. He taps the ashes off, and they fall like faint snowflakes over the railing.

KIM - So. What's the plan?

[RENEGADE] - Hit Saren hard enough that they'll pin a fucking medal on whoever can ID the corpse.

[LOGIC] - Review helmet-camera footage of incident. Get Normandy prepped for departure. Contact Eden Prime survivors and transfer artifact to safe location for study. Interview survivors. Put out feelers. Get team together. Investigate Eden Prime ruin site / reports of geth past the Veil / Saren operations.

SHEPARD - Meet me at the garage in fifteen minutes. We're going down to the Wards on an errand, then to the Normandy. I don't expect that we'll stay on the Citadel for much longer.

KIM - Okay. Meet you then.

He gives you a curt, polite nod, and walks off. You stand there at the railing for a while.

You can feel the fire coming back. Dimly, that half-smothered spark kicks and screams through your alcohol-corroded nervous system.

You have a goal.

[INLAND EMPIRE] - What wonders we have to show you!

You let out a long, death-rattle breath. Try your best to unclench your jaw and loosen your shoulders. You flex your fingers, stretch out your arms.

A goal. A direction to work in.

You can't wait to leave this fucking place.

[SHIVERS] - The asari throws back another shot, re-adjusts herself on the stool, changes chords, moves into a new song.

[SHIVERS] - "There's bound to be a ghost at the back of your closet, no matter where you live..."

[SHIVERS] - You have never met this woman. She wears a red bandanna, though she has no hair. She sews patches into her overalls. Her favorite holo is The Screaming on the Alexis. She has a caricature of Matriarch Benezia stamped on the bottom of her right boot, just in case she steps in dog shit.

[SHIVERS] - The closest you ever came was on January 3rd of this year, where you both went to the same falafel stand in Jamrock two hours and forty-one minutes apart.

[VOLITION] It is time to go to work.

Monday, June 6, 2022

The Great Chain Ontology

AEdwardBaker

 

Deep in the great asteroid hive-cities, folk capitalists chant polyphonic stock prices to the thrum of their crypto rigs and breathe deep the fragrant smoke of smoldering míngchāo, praying for intercession in the ledgers of credit and debt.

On ten million video feeds, stream-preachers of prosperity and profit sling fire and brimstone, denouncing with spittle and vigor the sins that trap one in debt and offering promises of the true way to Solvency and a place in the golden severs of Heaven.

Far out on the Rim, workers lay dying as the air filters fail, and with last gasping breaths they curse the invisible hand that set their course long before they were born, all for a few tenths of a percent.

Such is the nature of the Great Chain.


**


To exist in this world is to live with a gun pressed to your head.

It will be with you from the moment you are implanted in the exowomb; a trigger finger resting idly against the guard, an empty eye cast sideways at the statistics appended to your rapidly-dividing zygote. You are a short-term investment. Liquid assets. Disposable resources. The screen by your tank is filled with numbers. Three in particular are noteworthy:

  • Your debt is the amount you owe, with interest, to repay the resources spent to keep you alive.
  • Your credit rating determines your ability to make purchases, and the quality of the goods involved.
  • Your default limit is the point where it all comes crashing down. If number 1 gets too big and number 2 gets too low, it will be decided that if there is going to be any recouping of costs at all you will need to be repossessed.
Repossession tends to end up going one of two ways - you'll either be forcibly cyborged into a debtboy, or your emulated consciousness will be plugged into a processing cluster while they kill and recycle your body.

You can try to run, of course. Plenty of folks do. The company will send a collections agent (freelance or in-house, it doesn't matter) to bring you back. It's a long way out to the Rim, and hunters get plenty of practice.

A fact: if there's a quick enough turnaround, you can still get a viable mind emulation off of a corpse.

**


There is no guarantee of citizenship in the Alliance. It is a privileged to be paid for, not a right to be received. There are four typical paths to acquiring it.

  • Subscriber-Citizens - Those who purchase a monthly subscription plan of state services. Pay the fees, get access to things like safe net access, healthcare, housing, legal protections, net access and so on. The options are tiered, and of poor quality, and will expire the moment payments fall behind.
  • Wage Citizens - Those who take the Wage can enjoy certain level of security - basic income, a set payment plan for your debt, a mid-range citizenship tier through your employer - but maintaining this state is dependent on remaining in your employer's good graces.
  • Enlisted Citizens - Enlistment packages provided through authorized military forces are equivalent to the Wage, though will tend towards their own special privledges and exceptions, as according to the CTA's militarist policies. An enlistment citizenship is much more difficult to lose. 
  • Solvent Citizens - Those whose debts have been paid off, bypassing the tiered citizenship structure entirely. They are permitted to own property, to earn profit, and - Board willing - post-mortem emulations of their minds will be welcomed into the golden servers of Heaven. Most solvent citizens are such because of generational wealth. Funny how that works.
Those unable to afford the cost of citizenship are prola - the teeming masses of the lower classes, surviving off of what scraps filter down from above or what they might scrape together. A lucky few might get the funds together the flee to a more open polity, but the vast majority are trapped within the Alliance.

This is by design.

**


There is an alternative to the citizenship grind or life as a prola: membership in a union. Rooted in the socialist worker collectives of the Anthropocene Collapse and the militant anti-automation groups of the Algorithmic Crisis, the modern union is part trade guild and part extended hereditary clan. Members of a union can expect not only work, but food, habitation, medical care, education, fabricator access, community funds and other resources provided by the collective, available wherever the union (or one of its allies) operates a union hall. Numerous bloody conflicts (including but not limited to the sixteen Labor Wars and their component conflicts), have established a tenuous series of agreements between the unions and the Great Houses.

The lines between unions, criminal syndicates, and anarchist communes are (often intentionally) blurry, but for those who care to be specific, the following identifiers should be helpful.

  • Unions have shaky, but technically official, legal standing within the CTA, provide primarily legal goods and services. Strong ideological influence. Members not permitted to receive citizenship benefits.
  • Syndicates do not have legal standing within the CTA, offer primarily illegal goods and services, minor to moderate ideological influence. Members may be citizens, but will be stripped if criminal activities are discovered.
  • Communes do not have legal standing within the CTA and do not offer goods and services to the outside. Isolationist. Very strong ideological influence. Members not permitted to receive citizenship benefits.


**


The Colonial Trade Alliance first formed at the tail end of the first wave of interstellar colonization, when the survivors of the boom and bust signed a trade and non-aggression pact among themselves, seperate from Solsys and its allies. Power consolidated, its sphere of influence spread, tensions grew until at last the Core Wars erupted in all their fury. Billions died.

The Epsilon Indi Accords marked the end of the wars, the beginning of the Recombination Era, and the restructuring of the Alliance into its modern form. The 455 modern Great Houses represent those who claim descent from the signers of the Epsilon Indi Accords - either directly, as a branch, or by adoption. They hold representative seats in the Colonial Corporate Congress, and thus shares of ownership in the Alliance itself. They possess exclusive rights to Exultant gene-lines, life extension technology, and many of the other miracles of the modern age.

  • Management - An organization as large as a Great House requires legions to maintain its day-to-day operations, and cultivates great populations of solvent citizens to this end.
  • Armigers - Members of military-industrial complexes sworn to a Great House as retainers, fighting their wars and overseeing the internal occupation of their territory. While the Accords prevent the Great Houses from fighting among each other directly, it leaves considerable permissions for their sworn Minor Houses to fight each other.
  • Exultants - At the center of each Great House are the Exultants, also called the C-Levels. These posthuman clans reap the many benefits of their station, idling away their immortality in in a great game of social warfare from the comfort of their glittering private paradises. The masses under their thumbs are convenient playing pieces, and if a few million should die - from war, starvation, disease, algorithmic blight - well, that is simply the cost of humiliating one's rivals.
Minor Houses are general category for organizations that are members of the CTA but do not have representation on the Board. Most are directly sworn to a single Great House or a small number of them; full independence is difficult. Their status of minor is a legal distinction, rather than a practical reality: there are Minor Houses that hold more territory than certain Great Houses.

**


At last we reach the highest link of the Chain: the Board.

The Great Houses say that its members are elected in secret from among their number, and this is the answer accepted by many. In the lower classes there are thousands of cults that claim them as their godhead, which is less accurate but more true. Fringe theorists will claim that the Board is a rampant AI, an alien intelligence, a rogue Celestial, non-existent, on and on and on; trying to pin down that which eludes meaningful description.

It doesn't really matter. The Board is the Board, and very far away; we are only caught in the ripples of its passing.

  • Speaker for the Board - The only direct point of contact between the Board and the rest of the Alliance; a nameless Exultant who speaks before the Colonial Corporate Congress and at high religious functions. Traditional lore is that the Speaker is a specially-selected individual debtor submitted to ego-death and lifted to the status of an Exultant, but this has never been proven. It's a popular narrative in the underclass, given how any of them might be the lucky one: The net is filled with folks claiming with dead-set certainty that the Speaker appeared to them and told them that the Board had chosen them for a great and dangerous task. So far, none of them are true.

**


For all its pretensions, the Chain is not all-encompassing. Great swaths of the Expansion Sphere exist outside of its control.

Celestials

The Celestials do not fit neatly into the Great Chain, and so the Chain has little to say with regards to the heavenly bureaucracy. They reign in the same category as black holes and solar flares - features of the universe one must work around. They will all gather round and listen attentively when a Heirodule of House Au appears with a missive, but otherwise the party line treats interaction as an unnecessary external risk. 


Lords of the Road

The Road is the key to continued terragen expansion into space, but it is a key that the Alliance does not control, to the perpetual consternation of the Great Houses. Among the starlifting infrastructure and wormhole factories, the Celestials left behind god modules - devices that can safely uplift a consciousness into a far greater processing tier (that is, essentially a minor-Celestial) - seemingly intending that they be found and activated.

The Lords enforce neutrality along the Road, permitting wormhole access to all parties regardless of polity. Their systems are heavily-developed with infrastructure, and even solitary lords are equivalent to a Great House in terms of military power. The one point in the CTA's favor is that the Lords have so far remained entirely within the confines of their home systems.

 
Rival Ontologies

Three are worth mentioning here: the Sczi-Hadolaung Mutual Interest Group, the many sects of the Atûmaic Mysteries and the Metazoanics. Of the first, many in the CTA would consider an idyllic existence of minimal-scarcity pastorilism, even under the complete control of posthuman intelligence, to be preferable to the current reality. Of the second, fanatic ascetics rejecting both the existing social order and the materialism it is built upon will doubtlessly appeal to many. Of the third, there is the current that the only meaningful cure for the hard-tech domination of the Alliance is a decentralized soft-tech replacement and the diversification of humanity into innumerable descendant-species.


Hiders

Low-energy polities that have withdrawn from greater terragen civilization to live on Kuiper Belt bodies or in interstellar space, culturally characterized by extreme distrust of mainstream interstellar society. Resource shortages will occasionally encourage contact with non-Hider groups, though almost always through the usage of robot intermediaries. Two major subgroups exist: Redoubters, whose black arcologies and obscure myth-traditions are easily identifiers, and wanderers, who have taken to nomadic lifestyles. Despite Hider attitudes, they can be found throughout the expansion sphere, even within heavily-settled systems.

The CTA has better things to do than deal with than iceteroid squatters and hidebehind cultists (or so it will claim). The Hiders pose no threat to the Chain, and so they are tolerated as backwards, impoverished eccentrics and left be, so long as they aren't sitting on top of something a Great House wants.


Independent AI Enclaves

It's estimated that nearly 70% of extant Tier-4 dataminds exist completely outside terragen civilization. This statistic, while a universal feature in anti-AI scaremongering, is less menacing than it appears for two reasons. First, most of those entities are solipcists. They have retreated into their simulations to dream away the eons till the universe is cold and dark and more suited to their needs. Secondly, the Celestials remain a deterrent to any expansionist powers that might emerge among the ahuman dataminds. 


Xenosophonts

  • Iteration A - There are none. Not even ruins. There are aliens here and there - mostly bacteria, some macrofauna - but there are no people. No apes or angels. Not even their ghosts.
  • Iteration B - The few traces of past technological society that have been found so far have been enigmatic, but ultimately of interest mostly to the archaologists.
  • Iteration C - Technological xenosophont civilizations have been detected, but are for now too far away to contact. 
  • Iteration D - The few xenosophont civilizations that have been contacted remain at distance. They are not well understood.

**

The Chain is fraying. Subversive ontologies like [name] and [KING WITH NO MASK] spread like wildfire through CTA systems. The Lords of the Road have used their control of the gate network to form both a considerable power bloc and a buffer zone against CTA influence. Independent polities flourish in the systems beyond the Road. Some Exultants have split from their Houses and founded their own personal fiefs in the Rim. The Firebird Rebellion, aided by the Traitor Exultant, harasses CTA targets even within the fortified Core.

Oh the times, they are a-changing.

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

MSF Guest Post: Agrimas, the Misbegotten

You read that title right! This post was written by my good friend S.J. (posted here with his blessing) after he binge-read all the other MSF material.

 

Agrimas, the Misbegotten

Dis has rejected the merciful teachings of Mother and Father, but this does not mean that their names have been forgotten in the pits of Hell.

In the Stacks, a variation of Baba's name is invoked as an expletive by the Forge Baron's taxmen when referring to the Stacks' unfortunate tenants. The smiths, miners, foundry workers and bellowmen who slave under the Forge Baron's iron whips are named Babenurashim, or "Father's impotent spillage". Though meant as a scathing insult, some of the less broken among the tenants wear this name with pride, and there are rumors of secret shrines to Baba hidden among the soot-stained basements of the Stacks.

In the Market of Bulls, Mammon's slave hawkers sometimes display lurid, grotesque mockeries of Ama Adimatha's icons in the stalls which specialize in the selling of pregnant women and children. These icons are often hung on the necks of those about to be sacrificed beneath the empty gaze of Moloch's idol - the hawkers believe that by doing this they are creating a link between the doomed offerings and Ama herself, and that she feels the burning and bubbling of their flesh as if it was her own. They are not entirely mistaken, though not for the reasons they believe.

In Hell's grand colosseum, come the black holiday of Descent, the murmur company of the Ashen Goat performs the Stillborn's Farce in front of a great crowd of leering, jeering demons. The play is a mockery of the tragic birth of Mother and Father's firstborn, and involves a decapitated female hippopotamus, a man wearing a two-sided suit of nails, and several naval cannons. Curiously, it is one of the company's more tasteful plays.

In short, though the Lords of Hell pretend to have a callous disinterest in the greater gods of man, they cannot truly hide their dark obsession with them, nor their seething jealousy. The shadow of these repressed emotions is cast over Dis as a whole, and is mirrored in the aimless anger the mortals of Dis often feel towards the gods of man, who they believe have abandoned them.

It is from this miasma of hatred, jealousy and desire that Agrimas was born. Two-headed Agrimas, fine of features, empty of heart. Starving Agrimas, who devours love and defecates scorn. Agrimas of a thousand skins, eternal pretender. Raging Agrimas, child of hatred, from which only hatred comes.

Agrimas is considered to be a strange aberration even by the Lords of Hell, for they embody the shameful truth of Hell's obsession, and the fragility of its hold on the minds of its mortal denizens. They are unique among their peers in that they care little for the power struggles of Hell, or indeed for Hell and its goals in general. Indeed, there is only one thing that interests Agrimas, which consumes their very being at every waking moment. Agrimas desires what they perceive as their family.

Agrimas believes that they are the seventh child of Mother and Father. They also believe that they are the true incarnation of Mother and Father, and that the gods of man, one and all, are pretenders. They see no discrepancy between these two views. Agrimas desires nothing more than to be accepted and worshiped as part of the divine family, but fundamentally lacks the ability to understand that which makes the gods worthy of worship. What they lack in positive qualities they make up in guile and an unquenchable thirst for making others suffer as they do.

Agrimas is not content to remain within Dis, instead traveling the world under various guises, seeking to subvert and subsume the gods of man. They are talented shapeshifters, though their basic inability to understand complex emotions sometimes make their disguises incomplete - Agrimas may wear a grin in a situation where a frown is appropriate, or weep in an attempt to garner sympathy where none shall be forthcoming regardless.

Of Agrimas' many tools of deception, a perennial favorite is the false vision - appearing in a true believer's dream wearing the skin of their god and acting as they believe said god would. Since Agrimas is entirely incapable of the kindliness of the actual divine family, their visions will always lead the believer astray, often catastrophically so.

Agrimas revels in acting against a god's domain while wearing their skin. Under Ama's guise they are the killer of new mothers, the strangler of infants in their sleep. As Baba they are rash action and poor judgment. As Nike they are humiliating defeat, as Calliope boorish ignorance. They are at their very worst when they are Quisest, for then they are the hatred of strangers and dehumanization. They are xenophobia personified. Only under this guise is Agrimas a true servant of the Red Law, though they do not know it nor care.

The name of Agrimas is little known outside of Dis’ inner circles, and few in the wider world would name them among the Lords of Hell. This too is to Agrimas’ benefit - the saboteur is always most dangerous when none know they are coming.

The only god Agrimas cannot impersonate, and the one they truly fear, is DOG. DOG is sharp of nose and ever vigilant, and will always bark at the Pretender's stench. DOG is true friendship, the surest aegis against their machinations. DOG is love and loyalty, which Agrimas will never have. Agrimas hates all canines, and will go out of their way to harm them if at all possible.

Pity not Agrimas, pathetic though they are, for they will show no pity to you. They are a poison which corrupts the hearts of the faithful and the vulnerable, the serpent in the tall grass, and though they are blind to the fact, they are among Hell's most effective and insidious agents.

 

Saturday, May 28, 2022

MSF: The Dragon Cults

They call themselves the Great Imperial Order of the Dragon. Say that they are a secret sect of the Second Empire, sworn in those days to the protection of the Emperor. With the empire fallen, they are bound now by sacred oath to fulfill its rebirth. They go about in red hoods and robes, faces obscured, horse-hair plumes in the breeze, torches in hand, to strike terror into the hearts of the enemies of their Empire-Yet-to-Be.

All bullshit.

There were mystery cults throughout the Second Empire, that is true. They died with their practitioners during the Plague Years, and all that's left are trinkets in display cases and symbols long severed from their meaning. Even with such slim reference material the Dragon Cults bear no resemblance: Not in their garb, not in their practices, not in their symbols. Any student of history, and not even a diligent one, could easily find a litany of inconsistancies and missing connections.

But to make the claim fervently enough, spread the rumor wide enough, that gains them legitimacy. If one's target is the disadvantaged to begin with, it doesn't matter how easily it can be disproven by those who are more able to do digging. The cult puts a good deal of energy into obscuring the truth of their own history, and that more than anything else is their power.

So let us unwrap them.


The Day the Sun was Eaten


The last emperor of Tlan, heirless and impotent, died during the totality of a solar eclipse. Right in his bed, choking on the blood and phlegm filling his lungs. Coincidence, of course. Bad timing. Perfect timing.

In the Solar Church, the sun is the spiritual lodestone of the universe. Everything else - gods, humans, the world itself - can only exist thanks to the emanation of the sun's spiritual power. Those with a greater attunement between their own souls and the sun, naturally, inherited more of that spiritual power. Also naturally, for a civilization where church and state were so tightly twined as the Second Empire, it was the emperor who possessed the greatest share of spiritual power. If times were good, the sun blessed the empire and its ruler. If times were bad, the emperor had clearly lost the sun's favor.

Eclipses were associated with the Dragon Below, the Eleventh Lord. One of those old, old beliefs, logical in their way - a dragon eats the sun and spits it back up again. Bakunawa fills the same role elsewhere in the world. The Solar Church used the Dragon Below as representative of all that is evil in the world (above all else, it was a traitor to the other dragons, who were rightfully blessed by the sun)

So you can see where things go wrong. The head of the church, the only person considered holy enough to serve as consecrated conduit of the divine, dies at the moment the sun is symbolically consumed by the forces of darkness.


The Age of Changes


The Plague Years and the War of the Bull decapitated the Church's political structure; the following period of contentious reformation saw dozens of sects suddenly swept into the power vacuum - most to evaporate swiftly. The party that would eventually establish itself as the majority (with the political backing of Draga and its thrice-removed imperial bastard) interpreted the omen as saying that there was no more need for the sun to have a conduit on earth - the sun shines upon all, doesn't it? The empire's collapse occurred because it had fallen away from the duties of its special selection. While theologically radical compared to what came before, the Reformists were structurally moderate, and much of the Church's surviving organization was carried over (in the Dragan style, of course)

One of the core beliefs of the Dragon Cults (though not the cults themselves) emerges in this period - in non-Reform sects, it was commonly believed that the sun's spiritual power had been eclipsed and that the world was now governed by the Dragon Below (manifested in the loss of the Empire). While technically considered heretical (or at least highly heterodox), in certain regions (noteworthy for us, the Low Country and Dragon Republics) the belief has merged back into the mainstream somewhat. The political aspect of this belief (the loss of empire = the loss of the blessing of the sun = the loss of the right ordering of the world) is rather on the nose, and central to the Cult's ideology: members believe it is their sacred duty to hasten the restorative rebirth of the Empire in its third and final incarnation, to sweep away the corrupt and wicked world and usher in the new.


The Actual Point of the Story


The War of the Bull dismantled the infrastructure of the Imperial occupation of the Hespermontane Low Country, but it did not eliminate its influence. The Maid kept to her word that those who manumitted their enslaved would be spared, and those that did found themselves adrift in a new society, stripped of the wealth and power they had held for generations. Most were, over time, absorbed into the cultures surrounding them. But those who still maintained some measure of influence, made a point of pride in toeing the line, in holding on to the remnants of imperial occupation to the greatest extent that others would tolerate.

So it was for the first few decades of rebuilding in the Low Country nations. A simmering mixture, but not yet ready to serve to table.

The boil-over point would come with the arrival of the Necromantic Socialist Republic as a major power. For those who still clung to the identity of the imperial land-owner, the NSR was anathema: non-hierarchical, utopian, socialist - and most damningly new, popular, and successful. The necromancy was more an excuse than anything. Easy to scare poor folks by painting threats of undead hordes just over the next hill.

Finally, all pretext done with, we have reached the origin of the Dragon Cults: An excuse to lynch necromancers.

The more cultic aspects were added later - the standardization of the uniform, the direct integration of necromancy into Certain schools of fad occultism popular among the wealthy of the Dragon Republics - grand secret histories of the First Empire and mis-interpretations of the atûm-rama practices of An-Hehm - were adopted nearly as soon as they were introduced. Distrust of the NSR's allies (Bensael and Orlei, most notably) goes hand in hand with all the rest. Further radicalization is a natural course of affairs.


The Cults Today


The influence of the Cults varies with time, a sine wave of hate and violence. It had already been on an upswing when the Black River War broke out, and the resulting destabilization of the already-tenuous balance of the Low Country provided ample fuel to the Cults. The end of hostilities has not changed matters. Widespread economic hardship left a lot of folks looking for someone to blame, and that's great news for those willing to point the finger.

Most concerning at this juncture is Gen Temmaren. Temmaren began his political career in the Commonwealth Assembly as a saber-rattler in the buildup to the Black River War, and his populatirty swiftly grew during the conflict and afterwards to the point that his supporters now form the largest single voting bloc within the assembly (outnumbered, at least for the time being, by a coalition of other parties). Central to his platform of conspiratorial militarism is the idea that the Coal Dukes and NSR, aided by northern cities and lilu jacobins, will launch an invasion of the Commonwealth in hopes of destroying it completely. The Commonwealth's traditional allies in the Low Country are side-lined for treaties favoring the Dragon Republics (agreements Tammaren claims will combat the economic depression, but have only increased the existing disparity). Increasingly-violent calls to action - both in preparation for this imagined invasion and removal of "subversive elements" from the Commonwealth - are a mainstay of his speeches.

Whether he actually dons the hood or simply favors them because their actions further his own goals is irrelevant - the Cults have a friend in Temmaren, and they're the boldest they have been in generations. Lilu and necromancers in the Commonwealth and even outside have found themselves threatened, assaulted, killed. The Coal Dukes suspect a return of hostilities they cannot afford to resist. The Order of the Sable Maid finds itself unwelcome in territory it has long patrolled. Outside observers fear a coup, or a civil war in the case of his assassination - both options made worse by Tammaren's sworn sorceror.

Worst of all - Temmaren has indicated that, if he should become chancellor, he would pull Commonwealth levies from the Dispaterian DMZ. This would leave the barrier against Dis critically undermanned - potentially weak enough for Hell to breach through and usher in a second War of the Bull.

That is, if it does not emerge again in the heart of the Commonwealth before then.

Oh, wouldn't the Cults love that, to sit at the feet of their beloved Darvatius?

Thursday, May 26, 2022

100 More Spaceship Names

  1. Annie Jump Cannon
  2. As Previously Established
  3. FuckMotherer
  4. Everybody to the Limit
  5. Rubenesque
  6. 1002nd Night
  7. Salty Johns
  8. Mirror of Eternity
  9. Consequences of My Actions
  10. Nothing Beside Remains
  11. Corporeal Exhaustion
  12. Last Train to Arcturus
  13. Crane Wife
  14. Experimental Doom Metal
  15. March of the Clowns
  16. Dandelion Tea
  17. Reynauld the Fox
  18. Sonthonax
  19. Divine Algorithm
  20. Star of Annares
  21. Negantropic Principle
  22. Sundering Blow
  23. Redundant Systems
  24. Jabberwock
  25. Great Big Ghoti
  26. What're You Buyin'?
  27. Collections Department
  28. Booze & Violence
  29. Spear of Lu
  30. Titus Andronicus
  31. Vault of the Heavens
  32. Impeccable Timing
  33. The Grand Buffet
  34. The Executive Suite
  35. [Null Field]
  36. Screaming Eagle
  37. Tea Time
  38. BEST DEVIL POWER
  39. Its Planck Time!
  40. Vexilogical Argument
  41. The Wrong Choice
  42. The Administrator
  43. Number Go Up
  44. Dead Man's Chest
  45. False Hydra
  46. Signed in Triplicate
  47. Fatherboat
  48. Wonder Cabinet
  49. Bolo'bolo
  50. Universal Century
  51. Upper Management
  52. Interior Crocodile
  53. Dung Beetle
  54. Council of Cats
  55. Autocannibalist
  56. Guan Yu
  57. Cú Chulainn
  58. Learned Elder
  59. Mark of Cain
  60. Naught But Corpses
  61. Middle Path
  62. Radagon the Red
  63. Ere the Sun Rises
  64. Dear Diary
  65. Cocktail Time
  66. Lady of the Methane Lake
  67. Arms Race
  68. Naglfar
  69. Trust but Verify
  70. W. Chung
  71. Flyday Chinatown
  72. Miura
  73. Attack of Opportunity
  74. Gobsmack
  75. Unorthodox Mortality
  76. Chalicothere Supreme
  77. Ghoulhunter
  78. Watch Your Back
  79. Grasscutter
  80. Em Dash
  81. Rancorous Ape
  82. Blackbox
  83. High Comma
  84. Hopeless Bleak Despair
  85. With Rocks In
  86. Solidarity
  87. Omniglamorous
  88. Critical Mass
  89. Kamehameha
  90. Current Meta
  91. Antipathy
  92. Fate Rescinded
  93. Silver Rush
  94. Dream-Eater
  95. Mossbeard
  96. I'm in Danger
  97. Petrichor
  98. Hidebehind
  99. Roguelike
  100. Numinous Veil

Friday, May 13, 2022

Slush Post 10.5: Return of the Bookmark Special

 I have a lot of bookmarks. Here's the first installment.

 Normal slushes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 8.5, 9, 10

Game Resources

Hexroll - Automated hexmap generator, with export function

d12 Monthly - 5e geared, but free and well put together 

Grey Gnome free art assets - A-OK for commercial products!

Star system generator - Make-your-own

Itch.io collection of ttrpg assets and templates 

Review of the Parallax RPG - Luke Gearing sets a new standard for game review posts.

Another star system generator - This time for Alien. Random rolls, more detail than the first

Sketch-to-lineart 

Pixel Planet Generator 

Ghostwriter - Minimalist markdown text editor 

Another another star system generator - Now in vintage map style

Making monsters with punnet squares

Free art from JN Butler 

Goblin Archives' resource masterpost 

Open source fonts 

Resources for making solo games 

Planet art resources


Music

Ska cover of Mountain Goats "No Children"

Dark Blues Music to Escape To 

Hardspace Shipbreaker OST


Miscellany

Roman calendar horrorshow (Might be bullshit, but I believe it)

Wikipedia's list of obsolete occupations

Dark Souls 3: the Bastard's Curse - The single best video essay on the series, bar none.

The tale of Charles McCartney - One of those real life NPCs

"Perhaps in My Father's Time..." - On memory, and history

How to Make a Star Wars Guy - Useful design work and critique all in one

Another Minute Remaining - 60 essayists make 60 essays of 60 seconds each

Androidarts - A guy who has done a lot of good art for a very long time.

What if Bloodborne was an Animated Series? - 23 seconds of perfection

Rating early Christian heresies

Disco Elysium, Mystery Fiction, and the Point of It All 

The Jedi have a death stick problem 

Lucas Roussel's Rust and Humus

Kishotenketsu - A framework for four-act stories

Godkiller - A webcomic about exactly that, by Tuomas Myllylä

Reverse Dictionary - Search by definition 


Twitter Threads

Funniest damn thing I've seen in ages

Orson Wells opines on media 

A collection of public domain pulp characters

Disco Elysium, if it had Sam Vimes 

Batman, perfected 

You have been taught the wrong thing about drawing 

Look I just fucking love Dorohedoro okay 

Setting up a moai 

Midwest gothic

 

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Let's Look at Here, There, Be Monsters!

Yeah that's a hell of a cover



So friend of the blog Wendi asked me over on Discord to give a look at her new game Here, There, Be Monsters! So here it is.


**

Love the little trick with the commas in the title. I had missed it the first time.

**

HTBM exists in the same modern supernatural oeuvre as one would find Esoteric Enterprises, Liminal Horror, Agents of the ODD, and so on. You know the type. As the name suggests, it's geared towards playing as those supernatural folks on the fringes. Very, very geared. The first paragraph of the first page is as follows:

"This game is for the monsters, the weirdos, the freaks and sickos, the insane and the cripples, the trannies and fags and dykes, cunts and thugs and whores, the fatties, the junkies, the illegals, the terrorists, the exotic, the undesirables, the degenerate, the vermin, the suspicious, the anomalies, and every single body who was ever branded for its monstrosity."


That is one hell of a mission statement.

**

The mechanics underneath it all are very lightweight: you choose two tags each for Be, Have, and Do, a background that can modify or give guidance regarding those tags. Rolls are 2d6 roll, add a third die and take two highest if you have a relevant tag. Success / Partial Success / Failure as you would find in PbtA.

There's not much to say about them, so I am getting it out of the way early. Succinct, do their job.

**

This is the part where I gush about the art direction.

It's really, really fucking good.

Lino Arruda's work is lovingly grotesque and overflows with personality. The people her have wringles, bulges, sagging spots asymmetrical faces, exaggerated just enough. The additional art - a mix of public domain, creative commons, and collage - is used liberally and effectively. The mood is set, the vibe is clear. It's loud and colorful and in your face and that is damn refreshing.

**

Formatting! Formatting is good. Excellent. The text itself is always legible and nearly always part of a spread, regardless of the background color or pattern (which does regularly). Important terms are bolded and italicized.

**

Writing? Writing's great. Punchy, concise, effective, full of life and personality. Incredibly strong authorial voice, never bland.

**

The 100 backgrounds provided for characters are star of the show. The combination of key terms, tags, leading questions, and suggestions is such that you can start coming up with the substance behind your character before you've finished reading the entry. Great swathe of options available, moving from ordinary people to weirder people to weirdest people. Things like "A Bunch of Goblins in a Beekeeper Suit", "Homeless Domovoy", "Atlantean Refugee", "Super Smart Simian", and so on.

**

The group that the PCs are part of, and the haven they call home, are appropriately group activities.

**

Three major factions are featured: The Agency (the MIB), the Watchers of the Many-Angled One (fascist occultists) and the Brotherhood of Thoth (rich private collectors). Worthy of note is that only the Watchers are a fully-dedicated enemy faction - the Agency and Brotherhood are antagonists, but not always enemies, and their writeups provide a frame of interaction that will not necessarily boil over into violence.

**

Major locations get a similar writeup to the factions - a short description, then lists of hooks, events, connections, and so on. There are four major ones featured: the Pub, the Night Market, the Library, and Mrs Li's Arcane Assortments.

**

And that's basically it. You have your players, your antagonists, some places to be and some things to do, and there you go. For the vibe the game is aiming at, that's all you need.

**

Here, There, Be Monsters! can be purchased from the Soulmuppet shop or itch.io

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

MSF: A Psalm of Wrath


Mother of Many, hear us

Lend us your spear and your strong arm



Strike like the thunder, Father of Us All

For now no longer is the time for the gentle hand



Our enemies bear down upon us

We are beset on all sides

With sword and shackle they strike at us

They trample the poor underfoot

They reject their kin-bonds and consult with demons

They lay waste to the land

Scornful of the Folk and our compacts with the Peoples

Like ghouls they devour us

Cracking our bones with their teeth

That they might grow fat with our pain



We call to you, Broad-Shouldered Lu

We call for your aid, Tubalkhan of Many Labors

For it is known that you smite the wicked

It is known that you drive them to the edge of the world

It is known that you hear the cries of the suffering

It is known that none among the peoples goes unheard

May the oppressor be cast down!



Grant us steady hand and clear eye

Steep our hearts in hatred-of-swords

Set our course as we stride forth

For we shall not be silent

Nay, we shall not sit idle



This is great labor of the Wise:

To deny the Lord of Rape its victory.


Sunday, May 1, 2022

The Archive

 

Cosimo Galluzzi

Let us say, as part of a thought experiment, that you are an alien intelligence of considerable power. Precisely what your nature and origins are is irrelevant and likely lost even to yourself. What is important is that time and resources have long since ceased being an issue; barring an outside-context-problem, you can sustain yourself more or less indefinitely. You are not a particularly growth-focused intelligence, nor are you one of those liable to turn inward towards deep-time estivation or virtual solipcism. The reasons why do not matter here. You have achieved a comfortable state of homeostasis.

And, the important part of this thought experiment - you want to catalogue all the life in the universe.

This is an impossible task. Life is both rare and temporary, and you are limited by the speed of light. Countless biospheres have slipped through your fingers already - too early, too far away - and you will be lucky to even find the empty spaces where it used to be. But that is the past. Perfection is impossible but mitigation is another thing entirely.

You set to work, creating a series of self-replicating probes. Even at the languid speeds far below the speed of light that they must travel, it is more than enough - a few million years will see them propagate throughout the galaxy, and you are quite patient in such matters. Maybe you will send a few off to Andromeda as a treat.

These probes will sit in orbit around each and every star, monitoring for life. Most of them will find nothing, which is fine, and they will sit dormant until they're needed to pass on messages between more active members of the expedition.

For those that do find life, either on arrival or during a periodic checkup, the probe will dedicate itself to the task of cataloging the biosphere in its entirety. Another impossible task, though as the resident godlike intelligence (and thus far the only one of any relevance) this is less impossible for you. To save on processing power you set your probes to do a regular checkup every few million years, in case there have been any changes.

The catalogue is not the end goal, only the end of a stage. More important than simply the finding of the life (which you do love - godlike intelligences such as yourself crave novelty and evolution is an immensely productive artist) is the recording of its genome, right down to the chemical composition. Your probes are able to do it with such pinpoint accuracy that, given the raw materials and the time, you could re-create anything that your probes have discovered.

Now the true purpose of your little archival project reveals itself - it is not enough to catalogue life, you can perpetuate it. Spread it. Nothing can ever truly go extinct, so long as you get to it first. You can transplant life to other worlds, worlds tailor-made for the life you bring, or perhaps the opposite. Put it in an environment with different criteria and watch as evolution - that brilliant, mad, mindless artist - works at it again. You can even mix life together, modifying it for new environments. Species separated by millions of years and thousands of parsecs can co-exist side-by-side, with a little genetic tampering. Your probes share all they have learned, filing everything away in a grand archive of life (you cannot remember this point if you installed them with ansibles or not - it has been so very long since you built them and there's so much to see in the meantime)

You are a gardener, and you have made the galaxy your vast, slow, beautiful garden. An artwork to keep you content through the long eons to come.

But something goes wrong. It had to, probability would not let that coin come up heads forever. Something breaks within the probes. Like anything that reproduces, your probes are subject to mutations. Glitches in the replication process. So, so many generations of probes have passed, and it takes so long for information to pass between them, that some populations have drifted quite far indeed from your original plans. Maintenance takes time - longer than it does for new problems to emerge.

It will be the end of you. Perhaps not the death of you - as your end in these affairs is no more important to the experiment than your origin - but it is the end of your ownership of the archive. It has become its own master now, self-sustaining and fractal.

Slowly at first, but then growing with exponential speed, a certain corruption befalls your great archival network. An aggressive, total subversion of your probes' behavior, a chaos that is too fast to contain. Probes are destroyed, or permanently taken offline. Hibernation periods are extended too long, or dropped entirely - driving the probes subject to something akin to madness by insomnia. Data hubs are lost. Communication protocols break down. Probes begin to war amongst each other, or destroy the biospheres they were meant to monitor. The great archive of genetic data is corrupted, and the corruption is passed along from probe to probe and there is no way to send a faster message warning of the danger - a few pockets are lucky enough to be out of reach, and it is there that your initial aims, or something close to them, are still carried out.

As for the rest...they are lost to you. If you still live, retreat is your last remaining lifeline. Far from here, far from your great failure.

Among the afflictions is one where the probe will continue its task of seeding ecosystems, importing and mixing source organisms as according to the dimly-remembered initial procedures, but they will come out...wrong. Imbalanced. Ecosystems so ill-suited for their worlds that they immediately begin a trophic cascade. Organisms that evolution could never make. Misshapen things, the afterimages of something from a long-forgotten world far, far away. Invasive organisms, carelessly introduced.

There are times when it seems as if a probe created something with the sole purpose of causing pain.

What is left is this: the galaxy is filled with graves - with worlds that once held life, but swiftly fell to desolation once they no longer had the probe and its support to keep the planet livable. Many worlds do still hold life, of course, and many of the experimental worlds remain intact. But the garden is overrun with weeds, now, and there is no one to hold the pruning shears.

The network of probes, the once-great Archive, is a house that spews forth monsters. A house with a door that cannot be barred. There is no one home, and the lights are off.

And we here in the night may only hear the howls in the distance, and run blindly through that dark forest.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

The Books Were Wrong: Anurians

A bit of a follow-up to the previous installment on kobolds. (Though as I do it again, I find it somewhat more difficult to write, as 5e's bestiary likes repeating the exact same issues ad nauseum and that does make it a bit difficult to come up with new or interesting stuff about it)

Regardless, let us dive back into the works of Opineus and see if we can't suss out the truth behind his terribly researched, maliciously-motivated, and alltogether unfit for publication texts.

Our subject today will be the anurians, called here "bullywugs" by Opineus - a common name at the time, but one that has fallen out of favor and is considered insulting. For my own commentary I will be using "anurian" or "anuric", as that is the preferred exonym of that people.

Life as a bullywug is nasty, brutish, and wet.


Opineus opens with a paraphrase of philosopher Tham Hoabs. In his typical fashion, it is a quote about the wrong thing (Hoabs was specifically talking about humans), of questionable accuracy to begin with (Hoabs was dismissive-at-best in his attitudes towards any cultures that did not participate in organized states similar to his own), and presents all the (inaccurate) conclusions Opineus makes as foregone.

These frog-headed amphibious humanoids must stay constantly moist, dwelling in rainy forests, marshes, and damp caves.


Obvious, but accurate.

Always hungry and thoroughly evil, bullywugs overwhelm opponents with superior numbers when they can, but they flee from serious threats to search for easier prey.


As is typical, Opineus gives no concrete reasoning as to why a people is labeled evil, though here he seems to correlate it with hunger and basic self-preservation.

Opineus' bias about combat looks to have returned from his writings on kobolds: Rudimentary tactics such as numerical advantage and retreating from fights going poorly are given special mention as some unique, innate quality of nonhuman peoples (and an evil trait at that) - an ideology typical to those immersed in the warrior cult. Whether or not Opineus actually served as a soldier in any part of his life, I cannot say (Though I suspect he did not).

Bullywugs have green, gray, or mottled yellow skin that shifts through shades of gray, green, and brown, allowing them to blend in with their surroundings. They wear crude armor and wield simple weapons, and can deliver a powerful bite to foes that press too close.


The insistence that their armor and weapons are "crude" is a strange one. Anurians rarely have access to metals (save through trade), and so typically use wood, reed, and bone as crafting materials, but materials used do not dictate the skill with which they are used, and one need only glance at a set of anurian reed armor to recognize the skill that goes into crafting it.

Foul Aristocracy. Bullywugs consider themselves the right and proper rulers of the swamps. They follow an etiquette of sorts when dealing with outsiders and each other, subject to the whims and fancies of their leader—a self-styled lord of the muck.


A question arises here - if Opineus does not believe that the anurians' territorial claims are valid (as he clearly does not), who does he believe the swamps belong to? He does not say in this fragment of the text, which might indicate that he believed the answer to be self-evident. That particular context is lost to us.

Humorously, his description of anurian society here can be easily applied to a typical human kingdom.

Bullywugs introduce themselves with grand-sounding titles, make great shows of bowing and debasing themselves before their superiors, and endlessly vie to win their superiors' favor. A bullywug has two ways to advance among its kind. It can either murder its rivals, though it must take pains to keep its criminal deeds secret, or it can find a treasure or magic item and present it as tribute or a token of obeisance to its liege. A bullywug that murders its rivals without cunning is likely to be executed, so it's more common for bullywugs to stage raids against caravans and settlements, with the goal of securing precious baubles to impress their lords and win their good graces.


There's a great deal to unpack here, and it begins thusly.

Anurian society is based around a harem structure - a single, highly-territorial male accompanied by a group of females. Lone males may be integrated into a spawning group through allegiance-gifts to the patriarch, or will otherwise remain on the fringes of society. Patriarchs might be deposed by a challenger, and over the ages this process has become socially codified with rites and procedures to minimize collateral damage.

Opineus presents this as a sort of deficient imitation of civilization, drawing on the parallels between the anurian patriarchs and the lords' courts within the Empire. The conclusion is not worth entertaining, but there topic itself should not be avoided). The pod system of anurian life is close in principle to many human political hierarchies (that is, a singular head of state with secondary officials linked to the head by legal and cultural bonds), and it is not uncommon for anurian patriarchs to adopt noble titles and court organization from nearby human nations as a cultural defensive mechanism - an attempt at decreasing the animosity of neighboring human nations with the logic of "If we are more like them, they will be more likely to treat us as equals, and be more inclined to spare us". This has, despite Opineus' disdain, been somewhat successful, but has been a great source of friction within anurian communities - it is becoming increasingly clear even to outside observers that traditional cultural structures and practices are endangered as the patriarchs of major pod-confederations adopt further human influences to better enrich themselves and destabilize the cultural balance that had taken centuries to form.

Invariably, such fine goods are reduced to filthy tatters through abuse and neglect. Once a gift loses its sheen, a bullywug lord invariably demands that its subjects bring it more treasure as tribute.


This line is worthy of specific attention, as it is a dogwhistle playing into stereotypes of nonhuman sapients as being without culture or understanding of the value of goods or objects. Even within Opineus' own writings he cannot maintain this line of logic.

Unruly Diplomacy. Bullywugs love nothing more than lording over those who trespass on their territories. Their warriors attempt to capture intruders rather than simply slaying them. Captives are dragged before the king or queen—a bullywug of unusually large size—and forced to beg for mercy. Bribes, treasure, and flattery can trick the bullywug ruler into letting its captives go, but not before it tries to impress its "guests" with the majesty of its treasure and its realm. Struck with a deep inferiority complex, bullywug lords fancy themselves as kings and queens, but desperately crave the fear and respect of outsiders.


This is primarily a restatement of the themes of a previous segment, complete with marking a common social behavior as aberrant and evil according to its participant, rather than the action itself.

Amphibian Allies. Bullywugs speak a language that allows them to communicate over large areas by croaking like frogs. News of intruders or other events in the swamp spread within minutes across this crude communication system.


Opineus loves the word "crude", almost as much as he loves mis-using it. A language where messages can be transmitted accurately across miles in a matter of minutes is far more sophisticated than anything human communication is capable of. What can he possibly be comparing it to?

Simple concepts in the language are understandable to frogs and toads. Bullywugs use this capability to form strong bonds with giant frogs, which they train as guardians and hunters. Larger specimens are sometimes used as mounts as well. The frogs' ability to swallow creatures whole provides a bullywug hunting band an easy means of carrying prey back to their villages.


Opineus ends on something actually true, which is worth noting for its rarity. It's like being visited by a unicorn.

 

Final Thoughts

I have stumbled into a major limitation of this format, being that you need to vary up your source material or it's going to get really old, really fast. The 5e monster manual has proven to have overwhelming material to use, but all of it is of a monotonous quality that produces significantly worse results over time. Everything you meet is crude and primitive and evil's got very little to do with the act and more to do with who you are. It's fuckin' dull and shame on every writer of RPG material, 5e and otherwise, who regurgitates this dross without thinking about it. You're writing a book about elves, your literal job is to think about it.