The Complaints Line

It all started, of all places, on a dream forum. The one place even a corporate tech giant didn’t bother to monitor, I guess. Nowadays, the forum’s closed, and most of the community are gone or dead.

It was one of several such places I frequented after I started having The Nightmare. Places for people to talk about dreams. Often just to share and compare. Some people tried to analyse each other’s. One guy said he was a highly qualified psychologist and could use them to deduce how your subconscious was doing. A few people thought they could tell the future, like horoscopes. There was this one lady who always turned up sooner or later any time two or more people mentioned having the same dream, or dreams that were suspiciously similar. She went by Minerva, and her theory was that dreams were the result of, like, memories being processed or something. Whenever multiple people had the same dream, Minerva tried to work out what they shared. What parts of their lives were similar enough to have produced identical results when processed?

That forum wasn’t the best of the ones I frequented, but it was the one where I got the most useful response when I brought up The Nightmare. I’d had The Nightmare on and off at random intervals for over a year by that point, usually when I was sick or stressed. Every other place I’d brought it up never found much to talk about. It was always a difficult one to describe because… there wasn’t really anything to it.

In The Nightmare, I’m somewhere dark, and cold. I can’t see anything, or feel anything. I can’t even feel myself – it’s like I don’t have a body. And for some reason, I’m afraid. I’m not sure why I’m afraid, but it’s overpowering and it’s awful. I feel like I’m trying to reach out for something, anything, but I can’t because I have nothing to reach out with. And I don’t know how I know, but I know there’s someone or something there, just out of reach, and I’m trying to call out to it, but I don’t have a voice. And somehow I can tell that there are other things around me in the same kind of state that I’m in, too. They’re stuck, and they’re panicky, and I’m trapped with them and they’re trapped with me.

Most places I mentioned it, there’d be one or two comments of how unpleasant the whole thing sounded, and then no further conversation. But on this one forum, someone gave me the reply that kicked everything off. ‘Dude,’ they wrote; a lady called StrangerInSeattle. ‘I’ve had that exact nightmare dozens of times since the mid 90s’.

Minerva, of course, joined the conversation before I could respond myself. She began to quiz us, about where we’d lived, and what we’d worked as, and how old we’d been when The Nightmares started.

Minerva didn’t always find the connections she was looking for, much to her own dissatisfaction. But with this one, she found it easily, in the course of less than ten comments.

It turned out, we’d both started having The Nightmare while living in one particular area. Working in one particular building.

We’d both experienced one particular phone glitch.

 

I’d spent the better part of my twenties working in a call centre run by an office owned by a company that was ultimately part of one of the tech giants. I’d like to say which one, but I won’t, and it wouldn’t do any good if I did. Of the last three people I know who tried to blow the whistle on these guys, one wound up dead, one’s now in jail, and the third last anyone heard of him was a heroin addict sleeping rough under a bridge every night.

The thing about big companies is that, compared to them, we’re tiny, like ants. We got ants in the office once, and even though none of us had anything specific against them we didn’t think twice about calling an exterminator. Even if you’re trying to care about the lives of ants, it’s always so easy to destroy them as soon as they start bothering you – and when you are an enormous tech giant, they you have no real reason to even try caring about anything outwith your profits. You have the best lawyers, the best muckrakers and the best fixers, and it only ever takes one memo from the PR department to have someone crushed like an ant, as soon as it becomes the best move for the company.

I knew all of that when I worked for them, obviously, but a job’s a job. Heck, I was one of the people who couldn’t not know it; part of my job was keeping up-to-date with the PR policies. They had me on the Customer Service team, and then on General Complaints, which apparently is a meaningfully different thing to some people. Both of them, ultimately, involved sitting in a big room with a hundred other people, packed as tightly as optimum profit required, and taking phone calls from people who were angry at the consequences of one or more decisions by one or more of the colleagues of one of your boss’s boss’s bosses.

Seattle, meanwhile, had apparently been a receptionist for the same office on the same site – its official name was a forgettable alphanumerical designation; let’s call it TX2 – before it had even been a call centre. Back then Site TX2 had still been owned by the same tech giant, but they’d been using it for shipping admin or something. Back then, on the rare occasion that someone wanted to complain to Seattle’s bosses about anything other than a specific problem with the shipping admin, the person who took the call was usually just her.

Both of us, at some point shortly before we first had The Nightmare, had received a glitched call that unsettled us.

Glitched calls happened a lot. Big systems of complex phone lines just sort of do that, I suppose. It wasn’t especially commonplace in my experience, but it was commonplace enough not to worry about. Sometimes calls were mute, and you just couldn’t hear anything. Sometimes they were so quiet or crackly that you couldn’t make out what was being said. Sometimes they cut off unexpectedly. But Seattle and I had both experienced one that was different in a way we couldn’t quite describe. Calls that were silent but… not in a way we could be sure of. Calls where maybe there was something there – something indistinct like hundreds of whispers a long way off – but so faint that maybe we were imagining it.

Calls we only remembered because they left us shaken, without being able to express why. Neither of us had ever told anyone before, because who the hell admits to being scared by a dodgy phoneline?

We probably still could have chalked the whole thing up to a bunch of odd coincidences, and maybe we should have. But maybe Minerva was rubbing off on us. We didn’t. We kept looking. Seattle knew how to get in touch with other people who’d worked in the same building. I still had a lot of my own old colleagues on social media. Both of us knew other communities who were interested in dreams. And we had the help of Minerva who, whatever else she might have been, was actually pretty good at investigating things and spotting the right questions to ask.

Asking people odd and inappropriate questions like ‘have you by any chance had a recurring nightmare?’ isn’t actually so hard when you’ve spent years of your life dealing with customer complaints over the phone until your sense of social propriety went numb.

It turned out there were dozens of us. Always the same site, always the same nightmare, always the same phone call. The building had been renovated over the years; it had changed the phone systems; it had changed pretty-much everything. But something about Site TX2 seemed to produce those glitched phone calls, and something about those glitched phone calls seemed to trigger The Nightmare.

We started researching the site as best we could. We got in touch with a couple of people who still worked there and we looked up all the records we could find of its history. Seattle knew a guy who knew a guy who worked on one of its renovations, and all together we started mapping it at every point in its history we could.

The building was surprisingly old, but had been repurposed several times in the last few decades. It was converted into a call centre in the early 2000s, before which it had been a transport office. Before that, it had been used as a warehouse for a while in the 80s, following a period of reconstruction after a fire in 1977. Before the fire, it had been a Research and Development Centre ever since its construction in the early 50s. Interestingly, it seemed that the building itself had never been sold. The military hardware manufacturer who owned it in the 50s had merged with a different group to form a multipurpose tech company in the 70s, which had then been bought wholesale by a rival not long after the fire, which later rebranded and was in turn incorporated into the current tech giant when the internet really took off and changed the playing field of the tech industry for everyone.

The sheer amount of name-changing and swapping-around this one site had undergone made our amateur investigation difficult, and more than one of us theorised that maybe that was all on purpose. It didn’t help, though, that none of us knew what we were looking for. We didn’t know if we were investigating a brain-scrambling electrical signal or a weak spot in the fabric of reality or a botched magical experiment, to reference just three of the many suggestions people came up with to explain The Nightmare.

It ended up being the renovation worker Seattle got in touch with who pointed us in the right direction. He said his team had been given some very strange instructions when they were converting Site TX2 from warehouse to transport office. Things they weren’t allowed to change or question. Places they weren’t allowed to dig or drill. When upgrading the wiring, they’d had to redirect certain cables in awfully strange routes. And on at least one occasion, they’d uncovered a vent in the ground that had seemingly been filled in a long time before. It was like the current form of the site, he said, was built on top of the bones of a much bigger structure that had extended underground, quite possibly very deep.

Actually, he said it was like the current form of the site was hiding the bones of the bigger, underground one. And his team had been brought in to carefully hide them further without uncovering too much.

The part of TX2’s history when it was doing R&D for the military during the Cold War was, predictably, the hardest part to find records for. We didn’t know what exactly it had been back then, or what exactly had been done down there. But of course, everyone’s mind went to the same place, once it came out that it had maybe been a giant underground facility. People had been building a lot of weird, paranoid stuff during the Cold War. Bomb shelters and secret labs and secure facilities and so on. Giant Secret Fortified Underground Military Tech Lab wasn’t even especially farfetched, and it certainly seemed like something that could have interfered with the operation of telephones in some way. It was a bit of a shot in the dark, but it was better than any other lead we had.

We only knew we were on the right track when the tech giant noticed us. Some of the guys who still worked at Site TX2 at the time had started poking around the area, looking for evidence of the renovation guy’s hidden vents or anywhere that might be hiding a Cold War Era door to an underground vault, and suddenly all of them were fired. The renovation guy cut off all contact suddenly and none of us heard from him again – we still don’t know if he was paid off or threatened or what. The dream forum we had originally used as a gathering place shut down out of the blue. Several of us received letters – not legally binding Cease and Desist orders, not yet, but polite notices that the tech giant would have to take decisive action if we continued to engage in activities they classified as Corporate Espionage. It would become the best move for the company.

And a few of us swore they were being watched. Followed. Monitored by people who felt powerful enough to let themselves be seen now and then, as a warning.

Obviously, most of the people involved backed off at that point. One or two tried to call the tech giant’s bluff and go to the press with the little we had so far, but, well, I think I mentioned earlier what inevitably happens to people who try to blow the whistle on this particular corporation. Seattle stopped responding to messages around the same time, and we later found out she’d been killed in a car accident. Maybe that one was just a coincidence, to be fair, but either way it rattled us.

After that I gave up, and I’d thought everyone else had too. The Nightmare was nasty, but it only happened every so often, and it wasn’t worth directly fighting a megacorporation over.

But then a few months later I got an email forwarded to me from Minerva. I guess she must have been continuing the investigation on her own. She always did seem generally more driven and curious than I was, and I suppose maybe the tech giant had a harder time tracking down someone who hadn’t actually worked for them. The email was from someone claiming that in the 70s he had been an executive of the company that was later bought by the company that later became part of the current tech giant. Part of the deal behind the handover, he claimed, had been that the new, rebranded company would reconstruct Site TX2 after the fire of ‘77, in the process covering up certain details of the building and certain circumstances of the fire, and everyone involved would agree never to tell the full story. He was only breaking that agreement now, he said, because he was ninety-one years old and dying from lung cancer with no family left to leave his legacy to, so he literally had nothing left to lose. Even then, he wouldn’t actually give us his name, or anything to back up the supposed truth of his outrageous story.

I can’t give you justice,’ he said in the email, ‘and I can’t give you evidence. But I can give you answers.’

I don’t believe him about the evidence, incidentally. I’m quite sure he could have proven his story if he had wanted to. And I’m not sure I believe him about the justice, if only because – if his story is true – we wouldn’t be the ones he ought to give it to. But, given everything, I’m inclined to believe him about the answers.

TX2, so he claimed, had indeed been constructed initially as a fortified underground testing lab for top-secret weapons. Apparently there were quite a few of these constructed, in secret, around the First World. Nobody wanted to risk being on the wrong end of a technology gap with the Soviets.

What surprised me was that the secret weapons tech wasn’t actually important to the story. Nothing they’d had a hand in making at that site had ever gotten properly produced or used. They made a few technical breakthroughs that allowed the company to make other weapons better at other sites, but in the grand scheme of Things People Were Hiding During The Cold War, everything at TX2 was barely a footnote.

Maybe that was why they went through the merger. They spent all that money on this giant, hidden, fortified underground research facility and never really saw the returns from it. They were relying on military sponsorship to keep turning a profit, and without major results the military eventually lost interest. They needed to switch to a different track to recoup their losses.

So then the 70s started to roll around, and the merger, and there was this big tech company who owned a research facility that was mostly hidden underground, which nobody else knew about. Naturally, they found the quickest, most effective way to make a profit out of one of their facilities being concealed from the eyes of inspectors. They took the best move for the company.

They filled the hidden part of TX2 with underpaid, undocumented workers. Packed as tightly as optimum profit required. TX2 happens to be pretty near a border, so they didn’t have too much trouble finding enough people with enough desperation.

And for a few years, it worked. Cheap labour and no need to adhere to standard regulations sparked a lot of profit.

And then, it sparked a fire.

Turns out, when a facility never gets inspected, and the management never feel the need to stick to safety codes, and you’ve got a hundred or more tired, hungry workers who don’t all speak great English making and testing electronics in a confined space, it’s only a matter of time before something burns down.

The fire spread through the underground portion of TX2 and reached the more modest above-ground section that the world actually knew about. They had to evacuate.

The executives knew this would be the end. They were ruined. As soon as they were seen evacuating far more people than were officially supposed to be working in that building, questions would be asked. People would poke around. Someone would find the secret underground facility, and the company would never recover its reputation.

So they did what they all agreed was the best move for the company.

They chose not to evacuate. Locked the doors. Sealed off the secret part of the site. Turned off all the systems that provided it with electricity and air. Evacuated the above-ground part specifically and pretended that was all there was.

The fire burnt itself out, and the company used the following reconstruction as a cover to fill in every vent and entrance to the underground area with concrete and cover them all back up as if they had never been there. It lost money in the process, and it took a hit on the stock market, and eventually it had to sell out to a rival to keep itself sufficiently in the black to keep the cover-up going. But the company survived with its reputation intact, and the executives all eventually took comfortable retirements, and over time and multiple refurbishments it became gradually easier to prevent anyone from ever uncovering the truth.

The truth, in this case, being a hundred or more people. Trapped in the dark. Temperature rising. Oxygen thinning. Searching frantically for doors that won’t open anyway. Packed as tightly as optimum profit required.

It was the best move for the company. Like crushing a few ants.

 

I never replied to that email Minerva forwarded me. How does anyone reply to that? I spent most of the next few days taking a series of long, fidgety walks.

I heard from Minerva exactly once more, a few weeks afterwards. She sent me a link to an obituary, with no additional context. It was the obituary of a 91-year-old man, dead from late-stage lung cancer with no surviving relatives. He’d spent his entire life in the tech industry, and one of the foremost tech giants of the modern age had recognised him in an official statement released on his death as ultimately instrumental in their own success. I’m sure I needn’t mention which one it was.

He’d died in a fancy house on the west coast of Australia, about as far from TX2 as a person could reasonably get.

I tried replying to that email, but I got no response. When I tried again, the email failed to send. Apparently Minerva’s account didn’t exist anymore. She’d disappeared from social media too, and none of our former mutuals could or would help me track her down.

 

I had The Nightmare again last night. Since I woke up, all I’ve been able to think about is the image of a hundred or more terrified ghosts, lost in darkness under the ground. Packed as tightly as optimum profit required.

I don’t know if I even believe in ghosts, even now. But… I can believe that maybe when something awful enough happens to enough people all at once in one place, maybe it leaves some kind of mark. Maybe something lingers.

A lot of things can interfere with phone calls. Weather. Electronics. EM radiation. Maybe, if there was something left down there, messing with the phones could be its easiest way of communicating.

Or maybe something or someone just worked out that people like StrangerInSeattle, and later people like me and my colleagues, are who you’re supposed to call when you have a complaint to make about the company.

 

***

 

Although mirrored in several locations, this article was originally posted on an independent blogging site on 29/06/2019 and retracted less than 12 hours later. The site is no longer in operation, and despite multiple attempts the original author could not be identified or reached for comment.

 


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Not Like Other Girls II

“You’re not like Other Girls, Elena,” I say softly. “You’re nothing like them.”

There is a terrible crash of splintering wood before she can reply. The door is blasted open. Just outside it, wearing identical uniforms and identical expressions, are Other Girls. Two of them. Their shadows writhe.

“It is time, Dan,” says one of the Other Girls.

“We found you,” says the second Other Girl.

Elena says nothing.

My throat is too constricted to speak at first, but I force the words out in a babbling stream: “Elena,” I say. “Elena, please. You’re not like them.”

“Thankyou for your service, Elena,” says one of the Other Girls. “Hand over Dan now.”

“Don’t do this, Elena!” I scream. “You don’t have to do this! You’re not like them! You’re not an Other Girl! You’re nothing like them!”

“Take them,” says Elena. As soon as the invitation is given, the Other Girls surge forwards, one blocking my escape, the other lifting me into the air with the gesture of a single slender hand.

“They’ll come for you too one day!” I roar at Elena, as the Other Girls carry me slowly out, their shadows wrapping around my limbs. “You still believe there’s a standard we can meet – that we can all live in harmony if we all obey the rules: boys, girls, Other Girls… It’s a lie, Elena! They tolerate you for now, but only because you’re useful!”

The Other Girls don’t see any reason to silence my screaming as they walk me back, back to the Other for processing, all while the little cabin shrinks into the distance behind us, Elena still visible, silent and unsure, in the doorway.

They won’t tolerate you forever!” I repeat, still shouting at the dwindling figure as the shadows start to wrap across my face and obscure my vision. “You’re not like them! They can feel it! Everyone can feel it! No matter how hard you try, none of us can ever be like Other Girls!”

 


You’re not like other supporters.

A Party of Adventurers: Collective Noun Suggestions for Pathfinder Classes.

The great thing about words is you can just make them up. I find this very fnizly indeed.


Core Classes

Base Classes

Hybrid Classes

Alternate Classes

Occult Classes

NPC Classes


The collective noun for supporters is a Patreon.

“Stay the Feck Away from Sherlock Holmes”: Case of Calum P Cameron vs People Who Try to “Humanise” the Great Detective.

[Originally published on Facebook on 24/5/2014]


OK, I got myself riled up talking about this with people several times recently, and now it’s stuck in my head so, because I am so totally an adult, I’m going to rant about it on the internet.

Some of the people reading this may like the idea of humanising Sherlock Holmes. Or you may be fans of works which attempt to humanise Sherlock Holmes. You should stop. I will tell you why.

…I will admit straight off the bat that I’m being a little facetious here; interpretation of fictional characters is inherently subjective and as such I probably do not have a right to tell you how you should think about any given character. I am going to do so anyway, because, as already established, I am so totally definitely an adult you guys, for definite sure.

Deal With It

And now, let’s get this out the way: when people try to “humanise” Sherlock Holmes, they usually do it by either shipping him with someone (usually in fanfic) or at least implying he has sexual, social or romantic needs (in more official media). And that is a bad way to think, because what you’re doing there is you’re dehumanising all the real people in the world who DON’T have sexual/social/romantic needs. Such people exist. They are perhaps rare, and some of them may be weird, but they exist and they are human, and they don’t need you assuming otherwise.

However, even when you put that aside, I would say that trying to humanise Sherlock Holmes is missing the point of Sherlock Holmes. The point of the character – the reason WHY he is interesting as a character – is that he is, at best, BARELY human.

In my opinion, there are three central, fundamental aspects of Holmes’s character that NEED to be present in order for him to be recognisably the character of Sherlock Holmes. You could make him female, or in the modern day, or a dog, or an Inca, and he would STILL be recognisably Sherlock Holmes if he had these three character traits, whereas anyone who does NOT have them does not, in my opinion, deserve to be named Sherlock Holmes:

  • He needs to be capable of astounding acts of deduction (or induction or abduction… he needs to do the Sherlock Scan thing, basically).
  • He needs to be barely functional (having him be explicitly a drug addict is optional, but he must at least be visibly in need of at least one intervention).
  • And he must be unconcerned with the petty obsessions of society (sex, wealth, fame, romance, etc – he doesn’t necessarily HAVE to be explicitly an aromantic asexual, but it NEEDS to be pretty obvious that he might as well be, for all he actually cares).

But more important, I think, is the character trait which is ultimately the source of all three of these traits. Sherlock Holmes is BARELY HUMAN. He functions on a higher level than anyone else in humanity (save for Mycroft and Moriarty, perhaps). And therefore he CAN’T be a normal human any more than I can be a dog. He is incapable of seeing the world in the way that we would automatically think of as “human”.

The things that we pursue not out of logic but merely out of human nature are things that Holmes cannot see the appeal in – or not on any more than a purely intellectual level. His brain just doesn’t do that. It’s not wired up that way. He couldn’t care about money or fame or sex if he tried. He doesn’t see people as potential sources of sexual attraction or socialisation or money-making. He barely sees people as PEOPLE. He sees people as packets of data – walking, talking masses of detail.

To Sherlock Holmes, EVERYTHING is a stream of details. Details which he is constantly aware of. He sees everything. Sherlock Holmes is AWARE. CONSTANTLY. He is aware of every mark, every size, every shape, every shadow, every twitch and every stain and every blade of grass. He can’t NOT be. Some of the details might be INTERESTING, but none of them are inherently ATTRACTIVE or APPEALING or NEEDED. That’s why he doesn’t care about mankind’s usual idols. That’s why he can tell everything about you at a glance – to him, it’s obvious. To him, that string of observations he just rattled off is WHO YOU ARE. It’s what he sees when he looks at you. It’s pretty-much ALL he sees when he looks at you.

And THAT is why he’s barely functional. Sherlock Holmes is AWARE of everything, and he can’t NOT be. Every second that his eyes are open, his brain is flooded with data. Every second that his eyes are shut, his brain is still probably flooded with slightly less data. And most of it is too obvious to be interesting. Most of it is stuff he’s seen a million times before. He knows where it came from, he knows how it got there, he knows what it means. He’s just covering old ground, treading intellectual water, and he can’t make himself stop. He’s BORED.

And since he operates on a different level to anyone else, he can’t relate to them enough to seek comfort or distraction in human contact. He has to alleviate his own boredom. He has to distract HIMSELF. So he chases puzzles like a dog chases cars, because to him, confusion and a lack of understanding are novelties that he isn’t used to and they – they ALONE – can distract his brain from the endless, ceaseless, stream of boring, obvious, seen-it-all-before DETAILS. When he can’t FIND any cases that intrigue him, he can block out the data stream for a few hours more by trolling Watson for a bit. But that petty amusement can’t distract him for long, so a lot of the time he finds himself out of options. He can’t shut his brain OUT without a case, so he has to shut it UP, and that’s where the cocaine comes in.

Holmes is rarely described as sleeping naturally in canon. I wouldn’t be surprised if, what with all that background noise in his brain, the oblivion of drug-fuelled haze is the nearest thing to sleep the man can get.

That’s what MAKES Holmes interesting as a character. We’ve all seen detectives before. We all know Poirot and Dupin and Professor Layton. But Holmes is fascinating because he’s such a glorious, beautiful MESS. Holmes is the very fringe of human existence. He lives in a world that is not our world, although it occupies the same space. The experience of Sherlock Holmes is not like the experience of anyone else. To read about Sherlock Holmes is a study in what it even means to BE human or inhuman.

“Humanise” Sherlock Holmes? You might as well villainise Captain America or dumb-ify the Doctor or remove the sense of ambition from any Disney villain. You might as well make the rabbits of Watership Down into universally-relatable humans, if you’re going to insist on doing it to Sherlock Holmes. In both cases, to do so is to remove the main reason why the character ought to exist as a distinct, unique thing. We’ve SEEN relatable characters before. We KNOW what normal humans look and act like. Sherlock Holmes isn’t there to provide relatability. Quite the opposite. He’s there to provide a glimpse into the extraordinary. Into the beautiful and the terrible. Sherlock Holmes exists as a character that we may gaze into the abyss and watch it gaze back at us and our materialistic, illogical, mundane society.

If you really want to write about relatable and understandable humans with social needs and love interests and familiar ways of looking at the world, you go ahead. There are plenty of good stories you can tell with such a character.

But if that’s all you intend to write about then, please, stay the feck away from Sherlock Holmes.

 


Support, support, support. I can’t make bricks without clay.

Dread and Circuses: Balloon Animal Template

Balloon animals are Comprachico creations – living balloons twisted into simple, colourful imitations of ordinary animals. Sometimes multiple snatcher balloons are surgically conjoined to make more complex animals.

 

“Balloon animal” is an inherited template that can be applied to any living creature of the animal type (referred to hereafter as the base creature). A balloon animal uses all the base creature’s statistics and special abilities except as noted here.

CR: same as base creature minus 1

Size: Decrease by one size category if the base creature was Tiny or larger. Increase size to Diminutive if the base creature was smaller than Diminuitive. A Comprachico may choose to make a balloon animal smaller than is usual for balloon animals of its kind, in which case the size is reduced by one or more further categories, to a minimum size of Diminuitive.

Adjust any size bonuses as required.

Type: The base creature’s type changes to aberration, and it gains the circus and augmented subtypes. Do not recalculate Hit DiceBase Attack Bonus, skills, or saves.

Senses: A balloon animal is blind and loses all of the base creature’s sight-based abilities, but gains blindsense 60ft, blindsight 30ft.

Speed: If the base creature did not have a fly speed, it gains a fly speed equal to twice its normal movement speed (clumsy). A balloon animal also has a Jet speed equal to four times its fly speed.

Armor Class: Natural armor bonus increases by +1.

Defenses: A balloon animal loses all of the base creature’s defences and gains DR 10/piercing or slashing, resist acid 10, resist fire 5 and resist electricity 5. It gains invulnerability to effects which rely on sight such as gaze attacks.

Weaknesses: A balloon animal loses all of the base creature’s weaknesses and gains vulnerability to sonic and cold, and the vibration-dependent special quality as outlined below.

Attacks: The balloon animal loses all of the base creature’s bite or gore attacks, and any special attacks that relied upon specific features such as a mouth, horns, claws or eyes. If the base creature had natural attacks based around limbs or limb-like appendages (such as claws, hooves, tentacles, wings or tail slap), these attacks are replaced with slam attacks appropriate for a creature of its new size. If the base creature had no such natural attacks, the balloon animal gains a single slam attack.

Abilities: Str -2 (to a minimum of 1), Dex +2, Con -6 (to a minimum of 1), Cha +2

Skills: A balloon animal gains a +8 racial bonus on Disguise checks to disguise itself as a piece of balloon art, and a +4 racial bonus to all Perform checks.

Languages: A balloon animal cannot speak but can be trained to understand rudimentary commands in Aklo.

Special Qualities: A balloon animal loses any special qualities that rely on specific features such as eyes, mouth, fur, horns or claws. It gains the compression ability and the following special qualities:

Airjet (Ex)

A balloon animal can use its Jet ability in air as well as in water.

This ability may only be used once every three rounds.

Bouyant (Ex)

A balloon animal is naturally buoyant even when not flying. It is considered weightless and does not sink in water.

Instinctive Training (Ex)

A balloon animal knows the tricks entertain, perform and stay. A balloon animal with an intelligence of 2 (or more) additionally knows the tricks come, fetch and heel. It will perform these tricks to the best of its ability if commanded to do so in Aklo.

Undrownable (Ex)

Although not quite amphibious, a balloon animal does not require air to breathe. If a balloon animal is held under water for 2 rounds plus 1 round per size category above Tiny, it fills with water. A balloon animal filled with water loses its fly speed and its buoyancy quality but gains the aquatic subtype, with a swim speed equal to its previous fly speed. It gradually expels the water and returns to normal if held in air for 2 rounds plus 1 round per size category above Tiny.

A balloon animal that is in contact with both water and air can choose which of the two to breathe, and can swap its fly speed for a swim speed or vice versa at will, but it must still take the same number of rounds to fill itself with its chosen medium.

Vibration-dependant (Ex)

A balloon animal’s blindsight and blindsense rely upon being able to pick up vibrations, much like a normal creature’s hearing. Any effect which gives the balloon animal the deafened condition also gives it the blinded condition for the same duration.

Court in Session: Case of Calum P Cameron vs “Art doesn’t affect behaviour”

Aw hell, I guess I’m gonna do this, amn’t I? The internet has finally pushed me into writing THAT rant.

OK. Deep breath.

There’s this trend that crops up every so often amongst thoughtless consumers and even more thoughtless creators in the world of art and culture, to react to authoritarian, pro-censorship talking-points (“Violent art causes violence”, “depictions of abuse encourage abuse”, et cetera) by taking the stance that art does not and cannot effect behaviour, and therefore not only is censorship unjustified but also creators should not feel responsible for the messages they send.

And here’s the thing: aside from censorship being unjustified, every single claim made by that stance is actually incorrect.

And I know why this happens, because you can’t be a left-wing Christian in the western world without learning why this happens; it’s the same reason people driven out of extremely Conservative churches so often become militant atheists. Classic knee-jerk slide-to-an-extreme-to-combat-a-different-extreme stuff. We all do this from time to time. It’s eminently understandable.

But it’s often wrong.

And right now, I guess, the world is on fire and fascism is having a worldwide resurgence, which means every non-fascist in the art world is suddenly on the defence again, and this kind of extreme black-and-white swing to the other side is what inevitably happens.

But… look, sometimes two wrongs don’t make a right. And we can expose authoritarian arguments for the appalling tripe that they are without telling lies about how art works and how people work.

So let’s get this over with, and then I can set up a stopwatch to see how long it takes the first piece of hate-mail to arrive:

No-one who has ever done anything did it because one or more narratives encouraged them to.

Everyone who has ever done anything did it because they existed in a culture within which it was easy enough to internalise one or more narratives that encouraged them to.

Both of these things are true.

The plural of ‘story’ is ‘culture’. Our species, rather pompously called Homo sapiens, is more accurately Pan narrans, the Storytelling Ape. I think so, anyway – and I think so largely because I read it once, in a Terry Pratchett book, and it was a narrative which I found convincing as presented.

Stories are the nutrient blocks we evolved to consume and metabolise in order to allow our species, as a society, to live and grow. How many stories get told affects how much we can survive and grow. What kind of stories we tell and how we tell them affects what we grow into. How many of each kind of story we tell affects how quickly we are able to grow in those specific directions.

We set foot on the moon ultimately because enough of us spent long enough telling each other that we could. We permitted the existence of Colonialism for as long as we did ultimately because enough of us spent long enough telling each other that we could – and when it finally got beaten back somewhat, it was because enough people spent long enough telling each other that it could and should be beaten back.

Even the people who say that stories cannot affect actions don’t believe it deep down – if they did, they wouldn’t be worried about the stories fascists tell in support of censorship.

In the best cases, what such people ACTUALLY believe is that the ecosystem of stories is far too complex and subtle for the clumsy and blunt tool of censorship to ever have anything but a negative effect, and far too important and necessary to be worth risking damage at the ends of such a clumsy and blunt tool, and on both of these points they are unreservedly correct.

In the worst cases, such people don’t even know what they believe except that it suits their purposes to pretend, just as the fascists do, that the interplay of human culture is blunt and simple and devoid of nuance, and they are willing to slander the very concept of narrative to keep up that pretence, ironically in the supposed name of protecting narrative itself.

Stories are sacred, and must be handled with respect and thought and care and delicacy. Hot takes about storytelling being purely morally neutral are themselves one of many kinds of narrative that are perilous and easily misleading, and which a responsible storyteller would think very hard about before spreading. Nothing is ever that simple.

Art is complicated. Life is complicated. Culture is complicated. And all any of those three things ever are, ultimately, is a collection of stories.

Storytelling is a sacred right gifted to all of us, a fragment of the divine power of God that miraculously can be wielded by any mortal with a mind. But actually thinking about what stories we tell and how we tell them is a grave responsibility we must be willing to take on for the sake of the universe.

There are no easy answers here.
There are only the stories, and the people we tell them for.

 


 


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Dread and Circuses (A Pathfinder Homebrew): The Snatcher Balloon

[They float, Georgie…]


This brightly coloured inflatable appears harmless and fun, until it wraps its dangling string around a child’s wrist and drags them into the air.

Snatcher Balloon CR 1

XP 400
N Tiny aberration (circus)
Init +1; Senses blind, blindsense 60ft, blindsight 30ft; Perception +2

DEFENSE

AC 14, touch 11, flat-footed 11 (+1 Dex, +1 natural, +2 size)
hp 3 (2d8-6)
Fort -3, Ref +1, Will +2
DR 10/slashing or piercing Resist acid 10, electricity 5, fire 5
Weaknesses vulnerability to sonic and cold, vibration-dependent

OFFENSE

Speed 5ft., fly 10ft. (perfect), jet (60ft.)
Melee tongue +4 touch (grab)

Space 2.5ft.; Reach 5 ft. with tongue
Special Attacks grab (tongue, up to one size larger), group grappler, snatch away, tongue

STATISTICS

Str 10, Dex 12, Con 5, Int 2, Wis 8, Cha 5
Base Atk +1; CMB +1 (+5 to grapple); CMD 10 (cannot be tripped)
Feats Weapon Focus (tongue)
Skills Disguise -3 (+9 as balloon), Fly +13, Perception +2, Stealth +13 Racial Modifiers +12 to disguise to appear as a normal balloon

SQ airjet, anchor, buoyant, compression, undrownable

SPECIAL ABILITIES

Airjet (Ex)

A snatcher balloon can use its Jet ability in air as well as in water. It may move in a straight line up to the listed distance (60ft. for Tiny snatcher balloons) in any direction (including upwards) as a full-round action, and does not provoke attacks of opportunity when it does so.

This ability may only be used once every three rounds.

Anchor (Ex)

A snatcher balloon that is not grappling a creature can use its tongue to anchor itself to the ground or another surface. While anchored, it cannot attack or move more than its reach away from the anchor point, but also cannot be blown away or moved more than its reach from the anchor point by others. If another creature wishes to move it further from its anchor point by force, that creature must succeed on an opposed strength check against the snatcher balloon. If another creature wishes to move it further than its reach from the anchor point with magic, it must succeed on a check with the relevant spellcasting ability opposed by the snatcher balloon’s strength check.

Bouyant (Ex)

A snatcher balloon is naturally buoyant even when not flying. It is considered weightless and does not sink in water. It cannot be tripped or knocked prone.

Group Grappler (Ex)

A snatcher balloon has a +2 racial bonus on combat manoeuvre checks. When two or more snatcher balloons are grappling the same creature, each gains a +1 bonus on grapple combat manoeuvre checks.

Snatch Away (Ex)

A snatcher balloon can use its grab ability to grapple a creature up to one size category larger than itself. Any time a snatcher balloon successfully grapples a creature or maintains a grapple, it can initiate an opposed strength check to lift its opponent off the ground. A snatcher balloon whose grappled opponent is not in contact with the ground is no longer considered to have the grappled condition itself and may move as normal, while its opponent remains grappled and also takes an additional -2 penalty to attack rolls and combat manoeuvre checks. These additional penalties do not apply if the opponent is capable of flight.

Tongue (Ex)

A snatcher balloon’s tongue is a primary attack with reach equal to twice the snatcher balloon’s size (5 feet for a Tiny snatcher balloon). A snatcher balloon’s tongue deals no damage on a hit, but can be used to grab. A snatcher balloon which is not yet grappling may automatically initiate a grapple against any creature which touches its tongue. A snatcher balloon can always choose to release anything grappled by its tongue as a free action. The tongue can be forcibly detached from anything it is grappling by dealing 2 or more points of slashing damage to the tongue (AC 11), but this does not deplete the snatcher balloon’s actual hp.

Undrownable (Ex)

Although not quite amphibious, a snatcher balloon does not require air to breathe. If a snatcher balloon is held under water for 2 rounds plus 1 round per size category above Tiny, it fills with water. A snatcher balloon filled with water loses its fly speed and its buoyancy quality but gains the aquatic subtype, with a swim speed equal to its previous fly speed. It gradually expels the water and returns to normal if held in air for 2 rounds plus 1 round per size category above Tiny.

A snatcher balloon that is in contact with both water and air can choose which of the two to breathe, and can swap its fly speed for a swim speed or vice versa at will, but it must still take the same number of rounds to fill itself with its chosen medium.

Vibration-dependant (Ex)

A snatcher balloon’s blindsight and blindsense rely upon being able to pick up vibrations, much like a normal creature’s hearing. Any effect which gives the snatcher balloon the deafened condition also gives it the blinded condition for the same duration.

 

ECOLOGY

Environment any hills, plains or urban; any Comprachico circus
Organization solitary, bunch (2-5) or festival (6-20)
Treasure incidental

 

Almost indistinguishable from the real thing, snatcher balloons are a common Comprachico pet and a commonplace sight at any Comprachico circus, bobbing prettily on the ends of colourful strings which are actually the creatures’ own tongues.

Named for the role they play in Comprachico child-hunting, snatcher balloons are trained by the Comprachicos to lure young children away from safety with their bright, colourful skin patterns and tongue-strings dangling enticingly within reach. As soon as the child grabs the string, they find themselves pulled into the air with surprising strength, dragged upwards to a height where their cries will be drowned out by the everyday noise below, and carried off to the balloon’s Comprachico masters. Fortunately, most snatcher balloons are too small and weak to pose a threat to adults, and so will seldom attack an attended child unless they have significantly greater numbers on their side. Their surprisingly tough, malleable and resistant skin affords them some protection if their prey fights back, although once penetrated it is usually a simply matter to pop the creature like any other balloon.

Snatcher balloons are created by the Comprachicos by applying their shaping techniques to floating aquatic creatures – primarily to cueros but also, if no cueros are available, to jellyfish, rays, cephalopods or even certain oozes – and although surgically designed to breathe air, they feed by absorbing nutrients from water that they settle on, and can if need be survive in water as a result of their heritage, occasionally adapting to sewers where they can drag their child victims in through storm drains and ferry them off unseen by anyone on the streets above. Whether in air or in water, the creatures breathe through their skin and, due to alchemical treatments on the inside of the creature, any air a snatcher balloon inhales is rendered buoyant, allowing the creature to fly. Lacking eyes or ears, they sense their surroundings by picking up currents and vibrations in the air with their sensitive outer skin. Their other organs, including their tiny brains, are thin and flat and spread across the inside of their skin, or clustered behind the tongue at the bottom. Their intelligence extends just far enough to recognise which behaviours the Comprachicos are more likely to reward with food, and no further.

Relatively simple creatures, snatcher balloons are also used by the Comprachicos as a versatile ‘first stage’ in many of their other creations. Left to their own devices, a snatcher balloon will if anything only grow into a bigger snatcher balloon, but under the correct shaping, a young snatcher balloon can be encouraged to grow into a large living-tent creature they call a ‘tentacle tent’, or it can even be twisted and warped into a living balloon animal for use in circus acts.

 

Unusually Sized Snatcher Balloons

The snatcher balloon stats given here are for a Tiny-sized snatcher balloon. While these are by far the most common, they can be grown to other sizes if it suits the purposes of the Comprachicos creating them. For ease of reference, the stats for resized Snatcher Balloons are given below.

Snatcher Balloon, Small

N Small aberration (circus)
Init +1; Senses blind, blindsense 60ft, blindsight 30ft; Perception +2

DEFENSE

AC 12, touch 11, flat-footed 12 (+1 natural, +1 size)
hp 3 (2d8-6)
Fort -3, Ref +0, Will +2
DR 10/slashing or piercing Resist acid 10, electricity 5, fire 5
Weaknesses vulnerability to sonic and cold, vibration-dependent

OFFENSE

Speed 5ft., fly 20ft. (perfect), jet (80ft.)
Melee tongue +5 touch (grab)

Space 5ft.; Reach 10 ft. with tongue
Special Attacks grab (tongue, up to one size larger), group grappler, snatch away, tongue

STATISTICS

Str 14, Dex 10, Con 5, Int 2, Wis 8, Cha 5
Base Atk +1; CMB +2 (+6 to grapple); CMD 11 (cannot be tripped)
Feats Weapon Focus (tongue)
Skills Disguise -3 (+9 as balloon), Fly +10, Perception +2, Stealth +8 Racial Modifiers +12 to disguise to appear as a normal balloon

SQ airjet, anchor, buoyant, compression, undrownable

 

Snatcher Balloon, Medium

N Medium aberration (circus)
Init +1; Senses blind, blindsense 60ft, blindsight 30ft; Perception +2

DEFENSE

AC 10, touch 9, flat-footed 10 (-1 Dex, +1 natural)
hp 5 (2d8-4)
Fort -2, Ref -1, Will +2
DR 10/slashing or piercing Resist acid 10, electricity 5, fire 5
Weaknesses vulnerability to sonic and cold, vibration-dependent

OFFENSE

Speed 5ft., fly 30ft. (perfect), jet (100ft.)
Melee tongue +6 touch (grab)

Space 5ft.; Reach 10 ft. with tongue
Special Attacks grab (tongue, up to one size larger), group grappler, snatch away, tongue

STATISTICS

Str 18, Dex 8, Con 7, Int 2, Wis 8, Cha 5
Base Atk +1; CMB +7 (+11 to grapple); CMD 13 (cannot be tripped)
Feats Weapon Focus (tongue)
Skills Disguise -3 (+9 as balloon), Fly +8, Perception +2, Stealth +3 Racial Modifiers +12 to disguise to appear as a normal balloon

SQ airjet, anchor, buoyant, compression, undrownable

 

Snatcher Balloon, Large

N Large aberration (circus)
Init +1; Senses blind, blindsense 60ft, blindsight 30ft; Perception +2

DEFENSE

AC 11, touch 8, flat-footed 11 (-2 Dex, +3 natural)
hp 9 (2d8)
Fort +0, Ref -2, Will +2
DR 10/slashing or piercing Resist acid 10, electricity 5, fire 5
Weaknesses vulnerability to sonic and cold, vibration-dependent

OFFENSE

Speed 5ft., fly 40ft. (perfect), jet (120ft.)
Melee tongue +10 touch (grab)

Space 10ft.; Reach 20 ft. with tongue
Special Attacks grab (tongue, up to one size larger), group grappler, snatch away, tongue

STATISTICS

Str 26, Dex 6, Con 11, Int 2, Wis 8, Cha 5
Base Atk +1; CMB +9 (+13 to grapple); CMD 16 (cannot be tripped)
Feats Weapon Focus (tongue)
Skills Disguise -3 (+9 as balloon), Fly +4, Perception +2, Stealth +0 Racial Modifiers +12 to disguise to appear as a normal balloon

SQ airjet, anchor, buoyant, compression, undrownable

 


They all Support down here… hopefully…