A Forest on Fire

It’s hard to find really attractive , beautiful alien environments, but the Japanese – unlike the West – still have a fine artistic sensibility.


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Call Him Lord

After a few decades, I have just reread Gordon R. Dickson’s SF short story (and Nebula winner of 1966) “Call Him Lord”.

(A famous SF short story, at one time: but it hasn’t been republished in quite some time. And down the memory hole it goes…)

It would be interesting, changing the author’s name and a few minor details, and resubmitting it to a modern-day board of sci-fi judges. I don’t think you could slip it past them right now: but in a generation or less, it would be amusing to see their reactions.

Certainly, the feel and culture of the Imperium touched on in the book is a better fit for the 1970s-style Traveller ethos than anything post-Asimov, if at once more tougher and with a higher integrity than most Imperiums out there.

(Decides not to spoil a 50-year-old short story: who knows, a reader might be interested in finding and reading the tale himself!)

Among other things, Dickson is one of the (somewhat forgotten) originators of military SF, thanks to his Dorsai novels, a.k.a. the Childe cycle. I have time for short tales, but not enough for longer novels. But maybe someone would be interested in reading those near-forgotten gems, and – re-clothing them in Traveller cloth – putting them out as scenarios to roleplay!

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Online Mongoose Traveller Character Generation

I have recently been introduced to the RPGSuite, designed to support Mongoose Traveller (2nd edition). I have to admit, I like the dramatic music most of all… but anyways, it’s a (rather good) work in progress.

I first got the free Traveller Character Generator. I got an web-based generator, which allowed me to generate humans from one career, Drifter. I had problems logging in, so I wrote to RPGSuite: they fixed my problem quickly, and gave me a new race to work with for my hassle. I appreciate good support!

So, I decided to buy the whole package for $39.99. Suddenly, more races and far more careers are available for me to play around with! I don’t recommend this if you aren’t into Mongoose Traveller: but if you are, it’s worth the price, mainly as a timesaver (for both chargen and especially gear). The character history generation is also a game in itself, which should help the storytelling abilities of both the Referee and the Player.

(Yay, Immersion!)

There is also a digital character sheet available that keeps track of damage, combat rolls, etc. I didn’t get this, but the Mongoose Traveller Referee should look into it: but weigh the price — $9.99 — before committing.

Things I liked most:

  1. The variety of careers and races available!
  2. The focus on the Spinward Marches for homeworlds, and the ability to select for certain types of worlds.
    1. Yes, I work in the Empty Quarter: but most Travellers are based in the Marshes, and it’s the majority of players which should be supported
  3. Having the history of the character available as it generates.
  4. The dramatic music!
  5. The graphics are basic, but that’s more than sufficient for my needs.
    1. Players who are native to the computer RPG era may like more customization options.

There is one serious flaw:

  1. It’s hard for the software to handle two or more careers on a single character: when you do this, it fails to save when setting up contacts. Also, not all contacts are saved on the sheet. I trust that this will be corrected soon!

And two minor flaws:

  1. The tiny human face shown in the connections is rather flaky. There are both male and female human images, but what image comes up is apparently random: it certainly isn’t properly linked to the sex of the PC generated or the contact. I suppose that this is a minor bug… but it’s still a bug in an otherwise decent-to-excellent product.
  2. Again tied to the connections: even though we generate two connections, only one is shown in the character sheet.

For the future?

  1. More of the varieties of humaniti, including Solomani, Vilani, Zhodani, Answerin, Genoee, etc characters. As well as other famed Traveller sophonts, like the Hivers and the K’kree. (The Droyne are already in the works.)
    1. But this may depend on Mongoose’s publication schedule & goals: in the end, they may decide not to review/republish all of the material of earlier Traveller versions.
  2. The ability to use https://travellermap.com/ for homeworlds.  The Traveller Character Generator is a web-based product already: why not leverage it?

Finally, the About Us tab introduces us to the design team: it’s good to see Travellers across the globe, working together to provide a valuable product!

Gim Lanatarac_Sample Character Sheet


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Survival During Wartime: A Guest Speaks

Andrew has some great thoughts on wartime survival in the Life During Wartime post, so I’ll be bringing those thoughts up here, rather than have them get lost in the comments!

Fuses on slow or fast falling explosive thingy-ma-bobs (bombs, shells, etc) are important. If set to contact, only the, well, contacted object will be hit (top floor). Delayed fuses allow penetration through cover. Variable timed/radar fuses that blow up when they get near an object really suck for soft targets in the open. Good old timed fuses (TL4-6) can be real fun, as it gives the NPCs the faint hope that they can run away or remove the bomb before it blows up.

Shaped Charged warheads are really fun to use against buildings due to the awesome spalling ability of the cone-of-death.

The more esoteric the round is – guided, sub-munition, guided sub-munition, air-employed mine, etc., the harder it is not to be screwed. It isn’t like dumb munitions, where you’re dead or not, oh, no, you now have to worry about things like hang time (how long does that guided stuff float around out there) and the area effect of multi-rounds.

Drop ordinance just will suck from a defender’s stand point. Once the droppers get bored, head out to the local asteroid belt, and start dropping car sized rocks, you know the end is nigh.

Here’s a great link from a Bosnian War Survivor on, well, surviving a siege. http://www.naturalnews.com/040249_bosnia_preppers_survival_strategies.html#

Basically, to survive, don’t stand out. And have good people covering you.

Dead air spaces, like that poorly ventilated underground bunker, are killers if gas is used, or if pollutants build up, or there is a flood of one sort or another (sewage, water, even molasses syrup (yes, look up molasses syrup flood, I dare you.)) Being above ground but bermed by debris, dirt or whatever is more survivable in a low-to mid-tech conflict. Look at what the Japanese did in WWII, or the Germans or Russians in the same conflict. Whole factories in hill/mountain sides, multiple levels of underground bunkers. Even the Vietnamese built tunnels with gas traps and ways to close off sections if flooded or entered.

Via vehicle, don’t don’t don’t go faster than other vehicles. Too fast and you will get extra-special attention from the junior air-birds flying whatever their TL version of a strike aircraft is. A Fokker DVII will kill you as easily as a P-47 or a A1 Skyraider or an A-10 or…

Don’t go too slow. The scavengers that live on the edges of conflicts will take you down and strip your vehicle and you as quickly as a hungry pack of vultures descending upon a lone living calf in the desert. It ain’t pretty. Human scavengers, Vargr, even the local wolf analogy, they will hunt and kill you if you go too slow (Ancient Russian Proverb says when attacked by wolves, throw baby (or old person) from the troika. Russian version of you don’t have to be fast, just faster than the slowest one.)

Escaping by air is interesting. If you can somehow disguise yourself as some aid organization, good luck. Otherwise, the closer to the ground the better. Ground provides cover, scatter, to hide in or against. Altitude makes it easier to see you either visually or electronically.

Leave way before it becomes one. The PC should have the ability (air-car, ATV, spaceship) to leave safely and the ability (via local and space merchants, Scouts, or Travellers Aide) to gain the intel that crap is coming down upon them. The fall of Saigon generated many horrific stories and photos. Try to leave before the fall.

And if necessary, remember the end of Kiplings “A Young British Soldier”:
When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.

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Rules for Rulers

Get your CGP Grey while its fresh and hot!

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Character Generation as Amusement

I usually use the ancient MegaTraveller Character Generator (originally found on Freelance Traveller) for character generation, but I admit that I have a lot of fun playing with the web-based MegaTraveller Basic Character Generator. It’s faster, and — while not as detailed as the mtcg — it gives enough detail to provide good story material.

A pity that it lacks a history ledger for the changes made, though. Certainly not a dealbreaker, but just something to regret.

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Life During Wartime, TL 7/8 Aleppo Edition

From: We live in Aleppo. Here’s how we survive.

ALEPPO, Syria — There weren’t any bombs today, or the day before. That’s good, because it means you can leave your apartment, see your friends, try to pretend life is normal.

There are different kinds of bombardment, which all have their own ‘flavour’:

  • iron bombing
  • smart bombing
  • drone bombing
  • artillery
  • catapults (for those medieval moments)
  • laser bombardments
  • meson bombardments (a.k.a. “Things suddenly blow up for no reason”)
  • particle accelerator bombardments (a.k.a. “Ultra-Lighting strikes”)
  • low-yield (kiloton) nuclear bombardments
  • high-yield (megaton) nuclear bombardments
  • meteor strikes (a.k.a.”Rock throwing from SPACE”)
  • orbital rods (“Now in two flavours: mass and undirected, or selective but guided!”)

And bombing/shelling depends on their warheads: explosive, anti-armour, gas, incendiary,  fletchette, clusterbomb, fuel-air, multi-warhead, grinning truck drivers and air/raft pilots who are moving really fast…

This is quite a lot for a civilian-reared Traveller referee to keep track of!

If you want to stay alive in Aleppo, you have to find a way to keep yourself safe from explosions and starvation.

Here’s how.

First of all, to survive the many different kinds of airstrikes, shells, rockets, phosphorus bombs and cluster bombs, you’ll need to live on the lower floors of a building. They’re less likely to be hit than the upper floors are. When a smaller bomb lands on top of a building, it often takes out just the top two or three stories….[but] in the most recent airstrikes, the jets have been using a new kind of bomb that demolishes the whole building.

Science marches on!

Or, in the Traveller universe, perhaps an off-world trader made a good case for some higher-tech off-world artillery shells/bombs to the local government.

Stay out of any rooms near the street. Because light in a window attracts bombers or snipers, I keep our front rooms empty or use them for storage. My wife and I seclude ourselves in interior rooms. We have no electricity, which means it’s usually dark. Before the war, I was studying Islam at the University of Aleppo, but the campus is in a government-controlled neighborhood, and I can’t get there anymore, so I dropped out. Now we almost never leave the apartment. If we’re going to die, we prefer to be together when it happens.

Everyone makes their call, where they will make their final stand, when the time comes.

For a lot of Travellers, maybe 90%, their last stand is on their starship: on the bridge, or in engineering. But, I can see certain merchants make their stand in the cargo bay, defending their goods against all comers…

If you have kids, they’ll have to stay off the streets most of the time, or they’ll be killed.

Note the distinct lack of qualifiers in that sentence.

Occasionally, they can go outdoors to play or get to school, but then their parents have to listen carefully for the sound of warplanes or shelling — and these days, for cluster bombs, which are even more dangerous.

Bad business, raising a family in a warzone. But of course, it isn’t a matter of preference for most…

Schools and hospitals have been moving underground for several years, and almost every neighborhood has an underground school operating now.

This won’t work for meson bombardments.

Still, meson artillery ain’t cheap: that usually means that the guys gunning for you are a wealthy high-tech world, or a serious interstellar power like the Imperium, the Solomani Confederation, Zhodani Consulate, etc.

(And in that case, I’m curious to know: why haven’t you surrendered already? Assuming that this is just an average world against a 80,000 ton gorilla fight.

Seriously: large stationary cities are sitting ducks, and while it is possible to make that gorilla bleed, it’s far more likely that the locals are going to bleed out first. Even in the famed guerilla wars — the Chinese Civil War, Vietnam, Iraq, etc — the cities were left in the hands of the more wealthier power, while the opposition built up strength in the countryside.

Then again, perhaps you’re on the frontline of an empire-vs-empire clash, a la the Solomani Rim War. In that case, my intense sympathies.)

So in most wars, even in Traveller, meson weaponry doesn’t enter the equation. Even nuclear strikes — far less pleasant, but far more cheaper, than meson bombardments — are something of a rarity, due to retaliation risk.

Maybe you have a car. You’ll have a hard time getting gas for it. If you’re hoping to keep it from being blown up or damaged by shrapnel, you might store it inside an empty garage or shop. Open the windows, too. Otherwise, the glass may crack from the pressure of bombs exploding nearby.

Air/rafts are a great way to escape a city, in the midst of a TL 7/8 bombardment. Of course, it’s not easy to find one. But some PCs looking to make a quick buck and an air/raft (or a set of grav belts) could make quite a nice pile of money…

Listen for scouting planes, which sound different from fighter jets on bombing runs.

People get really good at picking out different sounds, when their lives depend on it.

The scouts fly lower, and they make a constant buzzing sound. If you hear them, you’ll know that shells will be falling soon, bringing death with them.

(Scribbles notes.)

If you do go outside, make sure you don’t wind up in a group of more than 20 people, or you might attract a plane to target your area.

Two platoons on the move? Or another wedding party? The PCs may well not care: but if they aren’t serving Imperial military — no Laws of War, there — they are taking a gamble.

Scouting runs were particularly dangerous in the summer, when there weren’t any clouds to obscure pilots’ vision. But they’re also bad on clear days in the winter.

Traveller is a pen’n’paper game, so it’s easy to forget the weather. Also, depending on the origins of the PC, a well-acted character may forget about it too.

(We all know the stories of  born-spacers who  freaked out when he first felt wind on a living world: “Hull breach! HULL BREACH!”

I am now tempted to put in a rule that 1% of all born spacers/domed city dwellers/underground hive dwellers undergo a mental breakdown when they step onto a garden world and look up to that vast, endless blue expanse…)

Anyways, the Referee shouldn’t forget the weather!

Going out at night is especially risky, because you can’t see the planes coming overhead, and you have to drive without headlights so you aren’t spotted from the air.

Should the Referee warn the PCs, the first time they try to pull this stunt? I recommend having a friendly local warn them: but if they won’t listen, just shrug and let the Law of Consequences kick in…

One night, I was driving through my neighborhood when I suddenly felt pressure in my ears, and the windows of my car cracked. It was an airstrike less than 100 meters behind me.

You need good windows, if you are living in a city under bombardment.

Or, just ditch the glass.

Staying cooped up at home all the time will get boring, and you’ll eventually want to try to live some semblance of your normal life — to see friends, to attempt to find food. People want to go out. But if you leave, remember that you might not make it back.

Parents should make sure that their kids have relatives and friends they can turn to.

You’ll be able to tell which days are safer. If there are peace talks going on in Geneva, there will be fewer bombing runs that day.

Civilians can be fast on the pickup, and may well be more clued-in than off-worlder mercenaries and traders.

It’s so easy to lose your mind here. You might go out one day to look for food and come back to find that your building has been destroyed and your family killed. I’ve seen people standing in front of bombed-out buildings, screaming and crying in disbelief.

People really do go mad in warzones. This includes soldiers who are not given relief from front line service, especially after the 60-day point.

Civilian women screaming in mental agony, with catatonic children holding her skirts, are one thing. Fire teams of over-the-horizon soldiers bearing heavy weaponry are something else again.

More and more people have lost their homes, and now they’re living on the streets asking for money. Before the war, they never imagined they would be beggars.

One thing I’ve given the Vilani in my writings: the ability to calculate the full cost of a war, before starting one. A surprisingly useful skill, if I may say so myself…

If you aren’t killed by airstrikes or shells,

…you might toss in “small drones” here — armed with guns, or explosive types — after 2020 or thereabouts…

your big worry will be food. Before the siege, there was enough for everyone. But now a lot of poor people don’t have enough money to buy food, because there aren’t jobs anymore, so every neighborhood has young volunteers whose responsibility is to get food and other supplies for their communities. Families that still have a father are lucky: His mission is to get food and other supplies every day.

A man is a man… and that’s that.

Food problems (and, perhaps even more important, electricity/life support/heating/cooling problems) are a serious issue, on high-tech settlements in hostile environments.

A daring trader with some compassion and generosity – even selective generosity – really can be a multi-generational hero in this situation: not just because of the food, medicine, and water he hauls in, but by keeping the communication lines open.

It’s quite possible that his power plant can be the border between life and death.

A pitiless, cold, and acquisitive trader can make far harder bargains: people can and do sell themselves and their families into slavery, in return for a chance to live. Space is very big, very dark, very cold, and very silent… able to hold more secrets than you really want to uncover.

(Someday, the PCs should buy a round of drinks for an off-duty Imperial Ministry of Justice investigator, in return for some of the stories that are kept off the wires. I won’t be joining in, as I plan on sleeping tonight.)

Bread is getting rarer and more and more pricey on the black market, because the economy has been destroyed. The Syrian pound is getting cheaper and cheaper against the dollar, which makes everything more expensive. There is some rice and pasta available from aid organizations. Some of them give it away, some of them sell it. A few families sell their extra food. But there is no meat, no milk, no yogurt.

No cannibalism yet, so there’s that.

<Insert grim Vargr joke here.>

Maybe you’ll try to grow vegetables in your garden. In my neighborhood, people are growing eggplant, parsley and mint. Many gardens have become burial grounds, though, because there isn’t room anywhere else to bury dead bodies after four years of war. But if the alternative is starving to death, you might not mind eating food that’s been grown among corpses.

The Vilani are surprisingly comfortable with this kind of gardening, once their dead started decomposing as a result of Contact with the Terrans. Dead bodies make good fertilizer, and people have to eat, so — after the food has been properly Cleansed by the shugilii caste — it’s time to chow down!

(And of course, the dead are typically recycled in closed-cycle habitats and orbital installations. This is true for everyone, from the Solomani to the K’kree…)

We have serious trouble getting hold of fuel or gas to cook with, so we use wood or some kind of dirty diesel. This is really bad for everyone’s health, especially the children’s.

Or, leave your food uncooked, and (worse) your water unboiled. Trade-offs, trade-offs…

Hope — or pray — that you don’t have to go to a hospital. They’re absolutely miserable. I don’t know how the doctors and nurses can stand all the blood, bones and bowels all over the floor. The smell is awful. Patients who can’t leave are constantly screaming in pain. Several weeks ago, I was shot in the hand by a sniper, and I have some broken bones. So I have to go to the hospital once a week to change my bandages. I can’t bear to be there for more than half an hour.

“Charity LIC — a leading supplier of medical care in the Empty Quarter — is willing to help! For a reasonable fee…”

Why am I still here?

Aleppo is my city. Syria is my country. This is my principle, really, and I insist on it.


After all that — the beatings, the airstrikes, the war, the bombings — I want to live in a free Aleppo. I want to stay here, where I was born, all my life. It’s my right.

As I said before, there is a point where people decide to make their last stand.

It isn’t always a physical location — for many women, it’s their children that they’ll die for, not a home — but sometimes, it is.

For most, it’s their family and their tribe, as they define it: blood or faith or land. (Vilani culture types: “…or corporation”) For a few, it’s an idea, a vision, a dream.

Yes, I’m perfectly aware that soldiers in the field are really dying for their buddies: to not let their team down, and to avoid shame. But you don’t have to wear a uniform to value something higher than your life.

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Just Before the Defeat

Things for off-world mercenaries and deep-cover agents to watch out for:

From Mosul’s citizens face ‘frenzy’ and fear of IS

The forces of so-called Islamic State, now besieged in Mosul, are in a state of “frenzy” inside the city, increasingly blaming and terrorising the local population and preparing to conceal themselves if defeated.

These are the close-up views provided by academics from Mosul, who have maintained covert contacts linking the city with the outside world.

They claim that foreign fighters, once visible in Mosul, have disappeared from the city.

“The frontline foreign fighters are rarely there. They’ve vanished. The houses they occupied are vacant,” said one source, speaking anonymously.

“They’re leaving it to the local fighters, who will become the scapegoats.”

  • Often, it’s the ‘smarties’ — people who 1) are stubborn idealists, and 2) have a handle on technology — who leak critical information.
    • This is true even in cities run by psychotic head-chopping religious fanatics. “Can’t stop the signal!”
    • Here, the leakers are academics. But in Traveller, they could easily be retired spacers who have a few off-world contacts and a hidden cell phone…
  • The terror amps up even as defeat looms on the horizon.
    • The Holocaust, for example, really got going after the Nazis knew they could not win…
    • The “darkest before dawn” moment can get very dark, indeed…
  • The foreign fighters vanish when the money — a.k.a. the likelihood of being paid — fades away.
    • The PCs may well be one of these foreign fighters!
  • There’s always a patsy for the defeat. PC mercenaries should avoid being that patsy…

The IS leadership in the city is also described as “melting away”.

  • Not all military leaderships are willing to die in the bunkers, in the Nazi style.
  • “Gotta catch them all!” could well be the motto of a Imperial Army group, tasked with getting all the suspects for the coming war crime trials.

They also talk of “changed tactics”, with IS fighters trimming their beards and changing the way they dress to look more like the civilian population – with Mosul residents assuming this is to make them less distinguishable if the city is overrun.

Cars in the city have been forced to switch to Islamic State number plates, says one of the academics. The fear from civilians is that this could make all cars vulnerable to an air strike or put them at risk of being attacked in the battle for the city.

  • Run and hide!

So far, air strikes have been carefully targeted at government buildings and military sites, according to this view from the city. Another says that this accuracy might seem “impossible” but so far the attacks have been on “confirmed” targets.

  • Itchy trigger fingers on missile salvos are not a good thing. I wonder if the PCs will think this through, when their starship is frantically called upon for ortillery support against “an obvious enemy formation”. Frustration in the field and a pushed button might just equal a decade or more in the  Imperial stockades… or an execution or four. “Look, then shoot!”
    • Double check when it’s a Vilani officer making the call. His traditionalist definition of “acceptable targets” may or may not match those set by the Imperial Laws of War…

Mosul University, once one of the biggest universities in the Middle East, had been kept open by the IS authorities when they seized the city in 2014.

It had raised questions about whether its laboratories were being used to develop weapons, including for chemical warfare, which could be used in battle or against civilians.

But sources now say that this is “no longer an issue” as the university has been pulverised by air strikes.

“The university is completely inoperative and air strikes have made it a difficult place to go. Most of the buildings have been brought down, it’s virtually gone. The laboratories are destroyed.”

It is expected there will be “chlorine rockets”, but doubts about anything more sophisticated.

Another source says that “Daesh used the university to store some weapons” and had blocked access to some sections of laboratories.

“It is believed that they used laboratories for terrorist purposes, but it is almost impossible to confirm such claims.”

  • Who knew that universities would become priority targets?

The city’s people are said to be in a “state of fear and terror”. As IS has been targeted by the coalition forces, they in turn have “put their anger on the people” claiming that Mosul’s residents are communicating with “hostile parties to Daesh”.

At Friday prayers last week, a pro-IS preacher talked of how local people were “hypocrites” who had let down the “caliphate”.

  • It’s never the fault of the leadership. Never.

The religious police are also trying to assert their authority and show that nothing has changed in their control – and there have been more gruesome public executions of people claimed to be opponents or informants.

“They are trying to show they are in control of everything.”

There is a culture of “false accusations” and another Mosul academic says: “Daesh continues to hunt ‘offenders’ and punish them heavily,” which often means the death penalty.

  • There is a distinct difference between “Surviving the occupation” and “Almost surviving the occupation.”
    • Also, the love of false accusations is something for undercover agents to watch out for. That can kill you just as surely as having your cover blown.
    • Some agents are OK with using such false accusations themselves, to cover their own tracks. I respect those PCs who refuse to compromise, but I hope they properly weighed the cost for their integrity: it could be higher than they thought.

The IS authorities have tried to clamp down on communications – but this doesn’t seem to be effective.

There had been highly-monitored public points for internet access, but these too have been shut down.

But as the Iraqi forces advance on the city, internet providers have been boosting access in Mosul.

It means that in some parts of the city it has been possible to make contact, but this is being carried out in elaborate and extremely cautious ways to keep such links secret.

Such communication is described as being immensely dangerous, but there is a great hunger for news. A source says there is a “great risk of punishment”, which would be execution.

  • It’s easier, if you can keep ‘noisy off-worlders’ from poking their nose where it doesn’t belong. But even then,’easier’ is not the same as ‘easy’.
    • If you have a starship, some portable microwave links/satellites, and a few thousand cheapo handsets, you can set up your own fast’n’furious communication network, to keep those leaks and pictures coming. “Just saying.”

“People in Mosul are jubilant at the prospect of the city being liberated,” says another local source.

This optimism, at the early stages of the battle, is said to outweigh fears of the loss of civilian lives and the destruction of buildings.

  • What civilians and soldiers believe before a battle, is different from what they know after a battle.
    • Still… sometimes, things break your way. Sometimes.
    • “The Empty Quarter is not a place famous for happy endings.”

There are deep concerns about how the battle for Mosul might become a proxy for other sectarian disputes and score-settling, with so many opposing forces under the banner of the coalition attacking IS.

There are also fears that politicians, with their own militias, could exploit the battle for their own advantage.

  • “Never let an opportunity go to waste.”

Arguments also exist that this is a city exhausted by bloodshed and desperate for peace and moderation.

For two years of the IS occupation and for a decade before, there has been so much conflict, destruction and extremism.

Mosul has been “saturated with violence” and this long “trauma” must end.

  • And if wishes were horses…
  • Still, most conflicts burn themselves off eventually… given enough decades.
    • Keep an eye out for smouldering embers, though.
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After the Defeat

From the specific pending fall of Mosul, to general notes on warfare:

After ISIS, People From Mosul Fear What May Come Next

He fled after living a year under the extremists, and his nostalgia is tangible. Now, the long-awaited military operations to retake Mosul are getting underway. What does he see for his future if the city is wrested back?

“I miss the home,” he says. “But going home is like killing myself.”

He says he expects chaos and violent retribution if ISIS is pushed out of Mosul. He fears that families who lost loved ones to the militants will take revenge not just on those who worked with ISIS, but on their whole families.

“There is no law, in the years to come,” he says. “The government is weak. I don’t trust these guys.”

He regards his life in Mosul as over. He never plans to go back, and says when he sits with his friends from Mosul in the nearby city of Irbil, they do not speak of home.

  • Some Travellers can never return home.
  • Being on the losing side of a war — civil or otherwise — is costly.

When asked about the families of such people, he says any family with a father or a brother in ISIS will all leave, including women and children, “maybe outside Iraq, maybe to Turkey, to Syria.”

This, he concedes, could number tens of thousands of people.

  • For daring PCs, there’s money to be made on the refugee trade.
  • Those both daring and cruel will no doubt be looking in local slavery networks… or worse.
  • And there are those overloaded members of the Imperial government, labouring to give the Emperor’s Word teeth in difficult situations.

“Now everyone hates the Sunni, they think we are Daesh,” he says. “What about me? What about me who escaped? What about the doctors, the teachers? You cannot say everyone is Daesh.”

Although he doesn’t trust officials set to govern Mosul, he sees them merely as corrupt and inefficient. It’s ISIS he really blames for ripping his world apart.

“It makes me too angry,” he says. “They killed everything. Killed history. They killed people. They killed hope. Killed future. They killed everything.”

  • And in the Middle East Empty Quarter, blood cries out for blood.
    And on and on it goes…

Iraq: The Terrible Battle for Mosul

The peshmerga fired on enemy positions with artillery and rolled through the streets of Qaryat Kanhash in tanks and armored personnel carriers. US jets swooped in, destroying Islamic State vehicles, command-and-control centers, and barracks with precision air strikes. In two days, the Kurdish forces and their American allies killed one hundred ISIS fighters and sent the remaining two hundred fleeing thirty miles west to Mosul. The Kurds lost fifteen men—all killed by ISIS snipers firing from the top floors and rooftops of a hospital, a school, and other public buildings.

  • Snipers are dangerous… but they are not enough. But then again, the same goes for airstrikes.
  • High-tech friends are welcome, and valuable: but in the end, it’s usually the locals who have to put in the numbers to actually take & hold land.

Ten days after the fighting, two peshmerga fighters agreed to take me on a tour of the battlefield. We met in 110° heat at the Black Tiger base, a dusty military camp west of Erbil, the main city of Iraqi Kurdistan. The camp is named after its commander, Sirwan “Black Tiger” Barzani, a mobile phone company magnate and the nephew of the Kurdish president, Massoud Barzani, who earned the name while fighting against Saddam Hussein’s forces in the mountains in the 1990s.

  • Nobles have the cash to pay for the armies: and this is typically corporate cash.
  • Despite the propaganda, not all nobles can lead their forces successfully. Some can; some can’t.

Just inside the entrance to the camp, Barzani’s fighters had piled a dozen burned and bullet-riddled pickup trucks. They were ISIS suicide vehicles, I was told, intercepted and shot to pieces as they sped toward Kurdish military checkpoints inside the town.

  • Explosive air/rafts are fun… but expensive, and rare. Most mobile bombs are cheap and wheeled.

We crossed a badly damaged bridge over a canal leading from the Tigris—patched together by the Kurds after ISIS engineers had blown it up—and drove down the road into Qaryat Kanhash. Except for soldiers, the town was deserted: the peshmerga had evacuated the civilians to a nearby camp for displaced persons. Engineering teams were inside houses, searching for booby traps. Small red warning flags surrounded the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on the roadside.

  • Most Referees will skip the boring mine clearance part. Understandable, and justifiable from a storytelling perspective. After all, in real life, even heroes die from stray pieces of shrapnel or stupid accidents: however realistic, this makes for bad stories.

Moments after we arrived a thunderous explosion rocked the town when peshmerga engineers blew up a cache of ISIS bombs in a controlled detonation; thick smoke rose from inside a building a hundred yards away. A second explosion sounded just behind a barren brown hill half a mile to the north, followed by another plume of smoke. “Daesh is based just behind the hill, and the Americans are bombing them,” said my escort, Sadullah Abdullah, a husky lieutenant colonel, using a common Arabic term for the Islamic State.

  • In a role-playing game, it’s hard to get across the noise, the terror and the chaos of the battlefield. It’s enough to drive some people crazy. Literally.

Abdullah told me that Kurdish forces had taken ten smaller villages up the highway during the offensive, but they had not yet secured the road, and there was a chance that Daesh stragglers still lurked in the fields. “It’s very dangerous,” he said. I saw half a dozen US soldiers relaxing on the porch of an opulent villa. According to Abdullah they were Special Forces advisers—so-called eyes. They entered combat zones alongside Kurdish troops and helped to identify targets for US bombers. The peshmerga were under orders, he said, not to allow journalists to speak to them.

  • PCs who act as forward spotters for high-tech artillery/bombardment are very valuable assets… and priority targets. “Avoid the local women.”

The Iraqi military was decimated by the Islamic State, and the US military, which brought some five thousand soldiers to Iraq, is rushing to train thousands of raw recruits. Much of the Iraqis’ equipment—consisting mainly of Soviet-era and American weapons—is in desperate need of repair or replacement. The Islamic State has had two years to prepare for the assault, and according to Iraqi intelligence it has created formidable defenses against any attack. Rasoul told me, “The Iraqi army left behind many heavy weapons that can now be used against it, and the militants have laid booby traps and built a network of tunnels and defensive lines.” Between six and nine thousand ISIS fighters are inside the city, few of whom, presumably, would be prepared to surrender. “In Mosul,” the US diplomat predicted, “it will be a fight to the death.”

  • Ancient equipment and whipped-up green troops, preparing to assault well-prepared positions manned by fanatics – many experienced insurgents – with nothing to lose. ‘Sounds like fun.’
  • PCs who make urban combat a habit really need to look into ways to make Berlin/Stalingrad situations less expensive. I’ve always wanted to run an experiment with a single squad of TL 14 battledressed troops, attacking Stalingrad: how long can they last until they go down? (Answer: when their powered suits run out of juice.)

The three main forces advancing toward the city—the Iraqi army, the peshmerga, and the coalition of independent Shiite militias, some backed by Iran—are in conflict about their parts in the coming liberation.

  • Three liberation armies, divided by allegiance and religion, none of which are welcomed much by the Sunni city. It makes a man wonder when internal squabbling will shift into internal shooting. “Probably three minutes after the last ISIS position has been taken out.”

There is a sense among Shiites that each time the government ratchets up its war against the Islamic State in the Sunni areas of the country such as Mosul, the consequence is revenge attacks against the predominantly Shiite population of Baghdad. “People are tired—they lost so many people, they might sometimes say stop the attacks [against the Islamic State],” said Haider Mohammed, the clothing shop owner. He disagrees with them. “If I would be burned one hundred times,” he said, “I would not let Daesh stay in this country. I would carry a weapon myself if I could.”

  • There is more than one way to fight a war.

    A note of respect for the Shiites here. If it were a Solomani minority attacking a Vilani-majority population, I doubt if said Solomani minority would be allowed to survive three months. Who knew that religiously-driven societies would be more tolerant and forgiving than a cooly pragmatic, intensely collectivistic culture?

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Spartan Laws and Traveller

Just a Traveller rewrite, of the activity of the Spartan King Lycurgus as described in The Shadow of Christ in the Legal Revolutions in Greece and Rome (Part 2).

Before Lycurgus returned to Sparta from his journeys to start his legal revolution, Sparta had the worst government in the world. The city was in a perpetual civil war between the clans, and the royal authority – which had never been strong in the Greek city-states anyway – was disintegrating. Lycurgus’s father, the King of Sparta, was himself killed in the civil war; some say he was hit in the head by a stone thrown from the crowd, other that he was stabbed while trying to quell a riot.

Now, that’s a way for an Imperial Noble to die: on the frontline of a urban riot suppression push!

And perhaps the PCs — hired bodyguards? Family men-at-arms? — may well die right there with him!

What? Did you say that there’s no way that any president or prime minister — even in the Third World developing nations — would die in such a manner?

Yes, you are exactly right. But the leaders of an aristocratic Imperium come from a very different mindset than the term-limited commoners of a democratic world.

Lycurgus’s older brother also died in his young age – possibly another casualty of the internecine strife – so this left Lycurgus the legitimate heir to the throne of Sparta.

But he didn’t want it. The population wanted him as a king for he had exhibited all the qualities of a wise and effective leader in his youth. He agreed reluctantly but eagerly desired to be freed of that burden. So when a month after he was made king he discovered that his brother’s wife was pregnant, he hurried to announce it, and then declared that he would be only a regent to his nephew. When the boy grew to take his position as the rightful king of Sparta, Lycurgus left the city to avoid suspicions that he was working against his nephew to take the throne.

Interesting: a Noble who senses what a burden the crown is, and decided to evacuate ASAP. Can’t blame him, really…

[And who will the Noble invite — or command — to join him in his ‘flight from his Imperial responsibilities’? Would the Imperium start looking for him, to capture him and drag him back to his throne?]

By the time of his voluntary exile, he had already decided that Sparta needed laws. That’s correct, not new laws, but laws. As I mentioned in the previous article, the ancient societies were patriarchal and polytheistic; religion was contained in the family, and there was no shared faith nor shared laws between the patriarchal clans.

Ah yes, the ‘Empty Quarter’ scenario. “All against all” etc.

Perhaps a local scholar would be sent by a Duke to visit certain famed peacemakers within the Imperium, to get their counsel on how to resolve the violence within the Quarter.

But by the time of Lycurgus’s father (850-820 BC) it was obvious that the religious fragmentation between the clans wouldn’t produce a working social order. Polytheism and patriarchy never do. A higher source of law was necessary, and Lycurgus set out to find it.

I wouldn’t be surprised to have certain Solomani nobles simply command the planetary population to be baptized in the name of Christ. Hey, it happened in real life…

Strange enough, he did not try to find it in his own society. He knew that the fragmented polytheistic culture of his nation couldn’t produce such universal order. So he left Sparta and went to Crete which at the time was known for its superb law structure and social organization.

And I have always seen the Imperium as basically polytheistic. Perhaps it’s just this polytheism — ‘many worlds, many gods, many laws’ — that led to the savagery of the War of the Rebellion. Once the Law-Word of the Emperor is no longer heard, and there is no longer One Clear Choice…

Of course, the Imperial Civil War of the 600s were fought among Solomani High Nobles, who shared Solomani mores and religions. Moreover: they were fighting over the wealth of the Imperium, and saw no reason to damage it more than was necessary.

So, you can have technologists go the very high-tech Hiver Federation, truth-loving moralists go to the Zhodani Consulate (a low-profile journey), racial folk of all stripes visit the Solomani Confederation, and religious pilgrims going all over the place.

And there he found one of the most puzzling personalities of the ancient world: Thaletas, or, as some called him, Thales of Crete.

Thaletas was a poet, and he made his living by composing songs which he sang at banquets… But Thaletas was something more, and Plutarch gives a very interesting description of him:

. . . by his outward appearance and his own profession he seemed to be no other than a lyric poet, in reality he performed the part of one of the ablest lawgivers in the world. The very songs which he composed were exhortations to obedience and concord, and the very measure and cadence of the verse, conveying impressions of order and tranquillity, had so great an influence on the minds of the listeners, that they were insensibly softened and civilized, insomuch that they renounced their private feuds and animosities, and were reunited in a common admiration of virtue.1

Notice how Plutarch’s description of the effects of Thaletas’s teaching on his listeners is almost the same as Eusebius’s description of the effects of the teaching of philosophers and lawgivers. Plutarch doesn’t tell us where Thaletas got his laws and wisdom from. But we can gather from this description that Thaletas was a very unusual poet: We don’t know of any other poet also called “one of the ablest lawgivers in the world.” He used his poetic skills only as a tool to bring to others his ideas of law, virtue, civilization, social order.

So, the Imperial version of Lycurgus meets an Imperial version of Thaletas. A rockstar/politican? Hymn singer/judge? An Imperial Poet Laureate/ennobled circuit adjudicator of Corridor Sector?

So impressive were his wisdom and his skill that Lycurgus asked him to go to Sparta, start a music school there, and through his music and his songs prepare the hearts of the Spartans for the future legislative revolution. Plutarch comments: “So that it may truly be said that Thales prepared the way for the discipline introduced by Lycurgus.” In his turn, Thaletas advised Lycurgus to visit the Asian coast and see the difference between the laws of the disciplined and sober Cretans, and the laws of the pleasure-loving Ionians, who were, as Plutarch puts it, “a people of sumptuous and delicate habits.” That the principles of social justice would be connected in a predictable and observable way to the habits of personal morality and righteousness was a new and not very popular idea in the ancient world. Thaletas couldn’t have arrived at his conclusions based on the traditional worldview of the pagan world at the time.

Voilà! A reason to conduct a Grand Tour… and a need to examine the local’s behaviour.

Can songs, however powerful, unite and move a people? Well, maybe: it’s a lot easier when the highest technology is broadcast from a centralized point (radio, tv) rather than fragmented (mp3, music streaming). A shared language and frame of reference helps, too…

Who was that Thaletas, and where did he get his ideas from? That he was an evangelist is clear from the description of what he did. He couldn’t have been awakened by anything he might have learned in Greece; after all, Lycurgus himself was very intelligent, and he had to leave Sparta in his quest for a system of social order which can bring peace to his nation.  If there were any such ideas in Sparta, Lycurgus could have stayed home.

The search for fresh, new ideas and illuminating insights can drive an man to some very distant places.

Universal justice didn’t exist. Force is what mattered. So natural was the belief that there couldn’t be a common system of justice for all that centuries later Aristotle himself was convinced that citizens of different cities could not have a common law to judge between them for there was no common magistracy to rule over them. Law was limited to the clan and to the city. Once a man left his clan and his city, there was no law, and no system of justice to protect him.

It wasn’t quite so bad in the polytheistic Imperium, as beyond the 100-diameter limit there was only Imperial Law: a legal system designed to 1) uphold Imperial authority and 2) push up trade levels, and thus wealth, which means a fair, unbiased, predictable and equitable legal code which respects life, liberty and property.

In the 9th century BC, there was only one religious system in the world which differed. It was the Law of God given to the Hebrews through Moses.

There are no interstellar theocracies in Imperial Space… but there are a few in the Solomani Confederation, if my memory serves. But then again, there are more than a few theocratic worlds within the Imperium, some very powerful and influential indeed!

A ruler could be personally immoral but judicially just, has always been the belief of the pagans, from the antiquity to modern days.

This could be a problem: we may want to ask Prince Lucan about it. Or even Archduke Dulinor…

When Lycurgus was finally called back home by a citizenry tired of constant civil wars and yet unable to find a solution to it, he found them prepared to accept his legal revolution. If he learned from the Law of God in his travels to “many countries,” he certainly did not introduce it completely in Sparta. The caste system remained, slavery remained, and Sparta remained the same militarized and oppressive society it was before. It paid for it through the centuries with the many slave revolts which although unsuccessful, still were able to decimate the free citizens’ population to a point where Sparta had to institute a process of emancipation for some slaves, and also for admission of lower castes into full citizenship.

I can see a few badly weakened Noble Houses not merely marry into wealthy and successful commoners/lesser families, but even adopt respected, militarily successful, and wealthy leaders into their line. Not all: most would rather go extinct than break the blood connection to their revered ancestors. But in rare occasions, it’s possible.

But even if imperfect, Lycurgus’s revolution was real. The law was freed from the family clans. A system of universal justice was declared, at least for the free citizens, which overruled the clan prejudices and hatreds. The law was made public and known to all. And the government of Sparta was divided between several institutions which acted as checks and balances to each other, and to the family as a social unit. The elaborate system created by Lycurgus had no precedent in the pagan world. But it had very strong precedent in the Law of God, at least as far as certain principles were concerned. And it helped little Sparta survive for several centuries, and even fight stronger enemies in the Persian Wars, and then in the Peloponnesian War, and prevail.

Depending on your view of the Imperial Aristocracy, the greatest power of the Emperor may well not be his command of the fleets, but his position as the final judge and arbiter between all disputes between the powerful Noble Houses.

Moreover: insisting that all Nobles, everywhere, always get public trials and full respect of their legal rights sets a hard floor on how bad Imperial justice can get.

“Civis romans sum” — or maybe, “Civis imperialis sum” — would be the coin of the realm, your key to getting actual justice, as opposed to whatever biased slop the local courts are serving Evil Outsiders/Corporate Competitors/Wicked Unbelievers/Inferior Breeds/Uncultured Barbarians.

In part, that Imperial system of justice is why Travellers can cross the Imperium and conduct business in the first place. But I can see access to certain courts being restricted to Nobles, governments, and large corporations, especially when dealing with conflicts within the 100-diameter zone of an inhabited planet.

One thing was necessary, Lycurgus knew: A divine endorsement. If he learned from Solomon and Moses, he knew that people did not willingly obey other people; but they would fear a deity. Near the end of his life he left to go to the closest thing to a universal divine authority Greece had at the time: The Delphic Oracle. He had the Spartans swear to keep the laws he introduced until he returned. The Oracle endorsed his laws. But Lycurgus never returned home. He disappeared from history, making sure Spartans never knew where his grave was.

The Vilani generally don’t go for such things, at least as far as Traveller history is concerned. I always thought that the Vilani did believe in the gods (certainly not in a single Creator/Judge, before contact with the Terrans), but they never put much faith in them. “If my prayers don’t get me what I want from this god, I’ll turn to some other god, or try this ritual instead, or try out that shrine.”

In contrast, their fear and terror of the dead ancestors is gut-level real, right to the bone.

As for famed heros, vanishing forever in a jumpship that is never seen again in Imperial Space… well, maybe if you can find the ship, you can find the hero.

No guarantees, though.

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