It’s been another long dearth of posts, but I assure you, it’s for a good reason. When we last left our intrepid writer, he was modifying Civil Blood‘s sequel to match up with real-world molecular biology. What’s been going on since then?
Writing. Lots of it. By day, I’m working away on Wayfinder for Airship Syndicate. I recently graduated from contract writer to full-time senior writer, and the game is closing in on its Early Access date. Therefore, for the first time in a few years, you might be able to play a game and see my dialogue and text, out in the wild.
By evening, I’m writing the second installment of the Skia Project, the technical name for the world of Civil Blood. I’m not a fast writer, but I’ve gotten up to about 38,000 words, with a target goal of 100,000 to 130,000. That’s about the same size as Civil Blood, which clocked in around 129,000 and fit into just under 400 pages. Naturally, just because I reach the end of the novel doesn’t mean I click on Amazon’s buttons and hit “upload” right away. I put Civil Blood through about ten drafts before I felt it had the punch it needed: pacing, stakes, beautiful turns of phrase. The sequel might not take quite as many drafts, but I don’t want to skimp on quality. The “too long, didn’t read” here is that I’m making good progress, and I’m committed to it.
But oh, are there other projects percolating in my brain. I’ve had not one, but two dreams — literal dreams — about Shadowrun projects that made me wake up and say, “Huh. Could I write that?” It turns out independent authors have been invited to contribute to the game’s universe with a profit-sharing deal, and the temptation is strong. I will probably focus on my own universe for the foreseeable future… but never say never.
And then there’s my daily shot glass of nostalgia. This year has hit me hard with good memories of tabletop roleplaying games. Let me break down just how much TTRPGs have meant to me this year:
1) I play an MMO in which I run into TTRPG gamers all the time. On the Everlasting server in City of Heroes: Homecoming I met up with the players who play Vampire: The Masquerade and Legend of the Five Rings characters. This got me telling stories of the best V:TM tabletop campaign I was ever in, and I thought, “You know, that’d make for an okay series of blog posts, both to amuse the players and help Storytellers with some basic principles.” So I’m posting that ASAP.
2) The Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves movie came out, and it was everything I wanted the 2000s D&D movie to be. I wish it had been more profitable, but I’ll take what I can get.
3) I ended up following some topics on Quora, Reddit and Twitter, and the trifecta means I end up reading conversations about the TTRPG scene, which I haven’t been in for a long time. Doesn’t matter that most of the talk is about D&D and not my preferred games, I still grok the language, and have nothing against the big dog.
4) My son is getting to be an age where his friends are starting to play. We had a boffer-stick LARP birthday party for him, and it was highly successful — no crying, no excluded kids, the teams were even, a generally great experience. Our family tried Werewolf: The Apocalypse during the pandemic quarantine as a way to pass the time without interacting with other kids, but that’s a distant memory now. He’s going to try D&D later this summer.
5) Some of the Bioware fans have found me on Twitter and they ping me with Codex questions and the like, so I’m not escaping that world any time soon, either.
6) Wayfinder is a fantasy RPG that reminds me of some of the high school AD&D games I used to play in. One of the main writers is Keith Baker of Eberron fame, so fantasy RPGs are in the DNA of everything we do.
So, with all that said, I’m going to walk down memory lane with the Shot Glass of Nostalgia page. Because while I have new stories to tell, there is value in the old ones. And to all those who have never heard them… perhaps they will smile as well.
We will start with a vampire buffalo. Or, at least, a would-be vampire buffalo, and why my wife was Prince of a city and never got deposed.
It’s time for a sequel update! While many, many things have been coming at me (COVID, house problems, new car!), I have indeed been making time for Civil Blood‘s sequel. Of course, I’ve also been de-stressing with my favorite game, City of Heroes. But in a strange coincidence, both converged, in an unexpected and delightful way.
A little background: one of my characters is Amir al-Madani, also known as the Milk Sheik. He made an appearance in Unidentified Funny Objects 8 (shameless plug!), but before that he was just a character I fooled around with on the live servers. In his biography window, I mention that he’s a microbiologist from the United Arab Emirates, who got his regenerative powers through radiation and can heal any injury as long as he gets to drink milk, sort of like Popeye and his spinach but less macho.
One night I was hanging out before a raid, and a player called “Pulsar Kitty” pinged me and essentially said, “Hey, I read your bio. Are you a molecular biologist in real life?”
I replied “No, I just write a lot and have some friends who are doctors,” and so forth. But what she said next surprised me: “Drat. I’m actually a microbiologist, and I work on viruses all the time, and I was hoping to find someone to talk to.”
“Oh.” I said, my interest piqued. It was time to converse with the catgirl! “Well, I wrote a novel involving a vampire virus, and I’m always willing to blab about it.” I figured since she was playing a superhero MMORPG she’d be cool with fantasy and science fiction.
It turned out, not only had she read about vampire viruses, she’d read a Shadowrun novel featuring HMHVV, the Human-Metahuman Vampiric Virus, which of course I knew about because of my time writing Shadowrun. (Long story there.) So we even had a common point of reference. I e-mailed her a copy of Civil Blood, and we got started discussing the sequel. Particularly the worldbuilding surrounding qi-positive European Bat Lyssavirus-4, the cause of Virally Induced Hematophagic Predation Syndrome. Because it’s similar to, but emphatically not HMHVV.
Some writers would just say “it’s magic, it works how I want it to.” That’s their prerogative. But it’s not how I like to do things. So I started kicking the tires on my world and asking the questions I needed to ask. Questions like:
How long would it be before a vampire who had to feed once every 10-14 days or so and had a practically guaranteed infection each time managed to contaminate a serious chunk of the population?
Can a virus provide amazing benefits like super strength and healing to the human body without being tailored to do so? If so, how could it naturally occur?
How could a virus this infective not shape human history in an obvious way, if it existed before qi (magic) was proven to exist?
Is it possible for an accident to release this virus on the world, or does it need some kind of retconned conspiracy and nefarious motives just to be plausible?
Well, Dr. Kitty went to town on the manuscript. And I was pleased to find out that my story held up okay. I thought I’d share some of the answers here, because, well, they’re neat.
Question 1: How Fast is the Vampocalypse?
As some of my beta readers pointed out, in a straight-up 100% rate of infection every 10 days, the numbers create a lot of doubling. First one vampire bites another, then two have to feed in the next 10 days, then four, then eight. You end up in the billions after about 32 weeks. It’s even worse if there are some vipes addicted to blood who become superspreaders.
Fortunately, the situation in Civil Blood allows for a slower pandemic. There are several factors at play.
Imprecise Numbers: Infinity got about eleven days off of one notable bite in Civil Blood, and she might have lasted two full weeks if she pushed it. There’s also a line in the chapter where she reads BRHI’s experimental notes that say “subject went torpid after thirty-two days without blood” indicating that a vipe could survive more than twice as long in extremes, though they would probably be miserable doing so. While that would not be the norm, every day counts in a massive population boom like this.
Bullets: After a month or so (only 4-8 infections) , someone at the Benjamin Rush Health Initiative did the math and started putting together the Forced Protection team to stop the spread. Somewhere around 16-32 vipes, they started nipping them in the bud, first with capture and restraints, then with targeted killings. Though this started in the D.C. area, it expanded eventually to other cities. BRHI has made a lot of bodies by the end of the first novel. Ranath is said to have “dropped the hammer more times than John Henry.”
When the media break the story four years after Patient Zero, police start being able to recognize vipes for what they are and imprison or kill them. Citizens form vigilante gangs for self-protection, which may cut down on feeding or lower the vipes’ numbers through straight-up murder. A very small percentage of vipes might be lost to cases of individual victims defending themselves. An equally small number might be lost to attrition if they take their cues from popular culture, think they’re immortal, and try to survive a jump off a bridge or some similarly stupid stunt. Again, every vipe taken off the board counts.
Psychology: Many vipes feed first on those closest to them when they lose control, and this can be incredibly traumatizing if the victim is a family member or friend. Some vipes will refuse to drink blood again, instinct be damned. This means they might go comatose and starve to death, or commit suicide. I don’t know exact numbers, but the number of people who’d take themselves out would be much higher than the general population, more on par with active shooters or incarcerated felons.
Jessica’sOld Multi-Bite Trick: Jessica introduces Infinity and Morgan to a technique for vipes feeding off of one another. Sure, it has diminishing returns, but it helps greatly. When Infinity came home after feeding, she could lose blood enough to feed about six other vipes without permanent damage. Since they drank from her wound and not a fresh victim, this slows the number of new infections. Morgan and Jessica, who maintained contact with networks of vipes, no doubt publicized this method in the hopes of minimizing harm.
Question 2: Viruses With Benefits
So, can a virus, with a little magical boost, naturally cause bone ossification and muscle growth so a vipe is strong like a human-sized chimpanzee? “Well, heck,” says Dr. Kitty, “Why don’t we take a look at HERV-K?”
Fun fact: there are viruses in your DNA. Yes, yours. Right now. At various points in human evolution, viruses infected us and used something called reverse transcriptase to insert their RNA into the DNA of our genome. But if they don’t kill the host, and they don’t impair them enough to prevent reproduction, and also if the body can’t stop the infection, sometimes the virus gets integrated into us, like a rude guest who gets adopted. This has happened so often throughout human history that about 8% of our genome is virus code. Like HERV-K.
HERV stands for Human Endogenous Retrovirus — the “K” is a label for which one, since there are a lot of them. “Endogenous” means it’s a part of us now. It entered our genome when we were primates about 30 million years ago, before we were even Homo sapiens. In some cells, if HERV-K turns active, it’s very dangerous and can cause problems like testicular cancer. But during reproduction, if it’s working right, it allows a woman to safely grow a placenta. This is naturally occurring… well, natural as of 30 million years ago. It was selected for. No nefarious genius with a laboratory needed.
So… do you think viruses can have complex benefits? Because one made you possible.
Question 3: How Come We Haven’t Seen EBL-4/VIHPS Before?
This was a thorny one, because the world of Civil Blood is not like the tabletop RPG Shadowrun. There is no great cycle of magic that infuses the world, disappears, and comes back. Qi, in Civil Blood, is a supernatural science that had a breakthrough and though it has always been there, humans can now measure it and manipulate it clearly. But… there’s a way for the virus to be old and yet new at the same time.
In prehistory, EBL developed a super-infective strain. But just because something is super-infective doesn’t mean it’s going to spread all around the world. It could have appeared in isolated communities, or spread like wildfire and then burned out, because it comes with a limitation — a vipe needs to drink blood fresh from the wound of another living, squirming human. If they don’t, they get aggressive after a couple of weeks and then their body starts to suffer. By 14 to 32 days, they start getting lethargic and comatose. (Ask me about unstable antitoxins and stable toxins in selfish genetic sequences. G’wan, I dare you.)
So if they don’t have a food supply, the epidemic is going to fizzle out. And in a time period before cities, highways, and even the domestication of horses, a lot of vipes are going to keel over before they find enough prey to keep the cycle going. It’s much more of a supercharged pandemic in the modern day. In prehistory? It might not even show up in the fossil record.
Question 4: So How Did Ulan Release the Plague?
So it’s possible the progenitor to EBL got into humans, and over time, adapted to them. One strain could have mutated into a less infective version but stayed in the human germline, giving resistance to the nastier version until the vipes all died out. With no selective pressure to change, the virus would stay in humans until some could have transferred over to European bats, some of whom could eat trash covered in human saliva. The bats are where Dr. Ulan found European Bat Lyssavirus-4, and she could have, in the process of collecting data on the virus and taking out portions with targeted bombardments of yin qi, recreated the original sequence.
Recreating the original sequence is bad.
Bang. Super-infective qi-positive EBL-4 is back, and the clock starts with her as Patient Zero.
So When’s the Novel Coming Out?
That’s a question I don’t think I’ll answer. There’s going to be a lot more to the sequel than this, but it’s been a long time since I gave a substantive Civil Blood update. Here’s hoping I whetted your appetites.
I had dinner this week with Dr. Sam Willis, who’s our historical expert on Seasun’s Pirates of the Caribbean project. If you haven’t followed him on Twitter (@DrSamWillis), you might want to give it a try — he lives a much more interesting life than homebody writers such as myself. Exhibit A in this regard is his recent dive for a shipwreck off the coast of where Kenya meets Somalia.
Apparently there’s been a wreck there that the locals have known about forever, but only recently did anyone scrape together the funding and the interest to find out what it was. Because it’s on an ancient (okay, 14th century or so) trade route from Singapore past India and up into the Persian Gulf, the place is lousy with shipwrecks. The Chinese government got interested, thinking the wreck might be Chinese. There were some fragments of Chinese pottery washing up on the beach, so it was worth a dive. Turns out the wreck was Portuguese, so the Chinese funding dried up, but there might still be other Chinese wrecks out there. Not to mention the historical value of the Portuguese wreck to Portugal or historians who specialize in the time period.
Having recently written up a page on this blog about Shadowrun’s Cyberpirates, this immediately brought up some questions and scenarios that could make good RPG fodder. In that supplement, the authorial team didn’t deal with sunken treasure too much. Speaking just for myself, I figured that treasure-hunting for Spanish gold from the Age of Sail was going to be a lot less likely than treasure-hunting for Yakuza bullion on the yacht you sank last game session.
But the way Sam described it made me want to revisit the subject. For starters, the rule in the modern world is no longer “finders, keepers.” Ever since some guy in Florida found a Spanish treasure galleon with emeralds the size of golf balls back in the early 20th century, governments and museums got pretty active with the court decisions. If you don’t find it in international waters (a few miles off the coasts, where the water is usually so deep you’re not going to casually find stuff anyway), your claim on the treasure is pretty tenuous. Museums will argue in court that you don’t have the resources to research or curate the artifacts, and they do, so it’s in the public and societal interest that they get the goods you found. Sam told us the story of a Templar treasure stolen out of Jerusalem by the Knights of Malta that was sunk by the British off the coast of Egypt. Who gets the rights to a treasure like that? If you answered “Malta,” “Britain,” “Egypt” or “Israel,” you get half credit. If you answered “the guy who found it,” you get none. The governments involved will bring out the lawyers and the experts you probably can’t afford. A brief article on the subject is here and legal links are here if you’re so inclined.
All of this could make for an interesting RPG adventure or two, because while the average PC violates ten laws before breakfast, his employers’ motivations are usually rooted in some kind of legal situation they need to get around. Let’s see what we can come up with to start you off:
A historical team with no government funding hires the player characters as muscle because they’ve figured out there’s a valuable wreck near an obscure coast. They intend to pay the PCs with either grant money or loot from the wreck. Why do they need muscle? Because there are pirates up and down the coast who will pick on any unarmed research vessel. (Researchers make good hostages.) This scenario is a little more immediately cinematic than the others, because it gives the PCs the thrill of actually going under water and grabbing the sunken treasure themselves, which of course can lead to the inevitable underwater combat scene.
A historical team with government or corporate funding shot off their mouths and while they were in port arranging their expedition, an unscrupulous treasure-hunter figured out their dive location and scooped them. Faced with complete failure, the historians want the PCs to steal back the treasure. The claim-jumpers are going to sell it at a black market auction full of tough pirate customers, or else have a deal with a highly lethal corporate acquisitions team. Said team is packing a magical expert, which the treasure-hunter is not. Bonus points if you can punch someone on the deck of a ship and yell “that belongs in a museum!”
A treasure-hunter hires the player characters, insisting he has a claim to a treasure pulled out of an old wreck. The treasure is currently in the hands of an unscrupulous corporation that hired a smarmy lawyer. With a judge’s blessing, they acquired “his” treasure and are now turning the magically interesting parts (there’s always a magical widget, isn’t there?) over to their magical research division. The PC’s job is to break into the highly secure magical research division headquarters, and if they succeed, they get to keep some of the good stuff.
The unscrupulous corporation has heard about the historical team, knows they’re on to something good, and hires the PCs. The PCs are told to get close to the team, observe them, and strike at the best possible moment to abscond with the goods with no witnesses. The corp probably lies to the PCs and says the historians are grave robbers who deserve what’s coming to them. Maybe the PCs have fake identities ready to go to pose as security for the historians, or maybe they pose as buyers. Either way, the PCs have to make the moral decision to follow through or side with the historical team against their sociopath employer.
That’s what I’ve got off the top of my head. Game on.