Berlin: The Wicked City

I confess I’m blown away. Weimar-era Berlin (1919-1932) is a perfect setting for Call of Cthulhu, and I’m a bit surprised it took 40 years for someone to pitch the idea to Chaosium. David Larkins explains why he designed it:

“I feel like the city at this time provides an outlet for exploring particular modes of horror centering on themes of shifting identity, humanity’s capacity for depravity, body horror elements like mutilation and mutation, the collapse of ordered society, and the like. It is certainly not a setting for everyone, as it necessarily deals with issues of sexuality and hedonistic behavior that not every group wants in their horror games, but if that’s something your group is comfortable tackling, the experiences baked into a Berlin-centered campaign promise to be quite removed from your classic games. I also like to amuse myself by thinking that Lovecraft himself would have been repelled by the contents of the book! If the idea of partying with Anita Berber and Conrad Veidt, punching out literal Nazis, getting impregnated with yard-long owl-headed maggots, ducking the attention of gnostic Saturn-worshippers, matching wits with a coven reality-bending witches, being turned into a living doll, or foiling a Communist shoggoth sounds like fun — Wilkommen, Liebchen!”

A GM after my own heart. I used to design transgressive campaigns like this for AD&D, populating my scenarios with all sorts of demented elements that were, well, not to everyone’s taste. But the world-building of Berlin: The Wicked City is on such a staggering scale, and something I’ve rarely seen in any RPG supplement. The geographic and historical detail alone is worth the price of admission.

A full-scale color map of the city is provided, and keyed with important sites, many of which are zoomed-in throughout the module. Notable personalities, and plenty of real-world historical people, are given helpful bios and gaming stats. There is a section on crime and punishment, Berlin’s dark underworld, and the many political factions before Hitler’s takeover in 1933. The section on LGBT issues is remarkably informative, and explains how people of unconventional sexuality can find a welcoming place in Berlin.

Noteworthy are the three camps of gays at this time: (1) the “militant homosexualists” (Nationalists who esteem strong blue-eyed and blond-haired masculine gayness), (2) the “Third Sexers” (Socialists who view gay men as having female souls and lesbian women as having male dispositions as naturally occurring facets of evolution), and in between these right and leftists, (3) the “libertarian gays” (the largest and most general group, who have no use for basing sexual orientation in any political organization, or clubs or rallies). Again, there’s pretty much a place for anyone in Weimar Berlin, except perhaps for trans people who are widely derided by all (which is ironic, considering the drag-queen cabaret is a visual symbol for Berlin; a reminder of prejudices from all sides).

The menu for prostitutes is damn impressive. No less than 19 types are detailed: boot girls, chontes, demi-castors, doll boys, dominas, fohses, grasshoppers, gravels, half-silks, kontroll girls, line boys, medicines, munzis, nuttes, race horses, t-girls, table ladies, telephone girls, and wild boys. No, I won’t explain each of these here. Suffice to say, whatever the sexual appetites of your PC, if you can’t find what you want in Weimar Berlin, good luck elsewhere.

The section on drugs (cocaine, heroin, morphine, cannabis, etc.) describes the levels of addiction one can expect, and whether or not the drug aids or hinders in use of Cthulhu like visions or spells. The libraries and museums of Berlin are all helpfully described, as they are sure to be invaluable sources for PC investigators. And the list goes on. For RPG city supplements, Berlin sets a new bar.

But how well is the gazetteer put to use? A Cthulhu source book is ultimately judged on the strength of its adventures scenarios — the application, in other words, of its own source material. Trust me when I say the three Berlin adventures are among the best I’ve seen for any Cthulhu setting, and I’ll now describe them. From this point on, game masters’ eyes only. If you think you might want to play any of these, you should stop reading now. Don’t ruin the surprises in store for you.

The first scenario, (1) The Devil Eats Flies, is grounded in the theme of lustmord (sexual murders and pleasure killings), and is set up as a dark crime procedural involving multiple factions, with the PCs having almost no idea who they can trust. The second one, (2) Dances of Vice, Horror, and Ecstasy, is about uberschreitung (sexual transgression and depravity), and involves a secret club who want to create a sex goddess, and eventually succeed, but the cabaret members get far more than they bargained for, leaving the PCs to clean up an orgiastic disaster decimating the city. And the last adventure, (3) Shreckfilm, taps into algolagnia (the craving of pain for sexual pleasure), expressed through the machinations of a witch cult that has eaten its way into Berlin’s power structures, particularly with Nazis on the rise. I’ll review them all.

(1) The Devil Eats Flies. Setting: 1922. It starts with the suicide of the real-life Carl Friedrich Wilhelm Großmann, who murdered and raped and cannibalized countless victims, many of them children. As in our real world, Großmann hangs himself in his jail cell, but in the Cthulhu game his suicide turns out to be the final stage of a magical ritual that he has been building to over the past five years. His death disperses his spirit across Berlin, and in spirit form he is able to instantly possess anyone who ever ate the flesh of his victims that he peddled on the black market and his own hot dog stand (yes, he actually did this in real-life). That’s thousands of people, and he can possess multiple hosts at once. The goal of Spirit-Großmann is to use these hosts to continue his legend of murdering, raping, and molesting kids on a wide scale. In order to defeat Spirit-Großmann, the PCs must enact a banishment ritual that, if it goes wrong, will backfire and summon Großmann back into the world as a shoggoth-like creature and probably kill most of the PCs. If it goes well, then Großmann’s spirit is banished, but (unless the PCs are very shrewd) by partaking in this ritual the PCs end up unwittingly accelerating the events that lead to the horrible year of 1923 and the Great Inflation, when the German mark becomes so valueless that Germans start burning their paper money to keep warm or use it to wallpaper their homes. That’s when the young Hitler tried to seize power in Munich — failing, though gaining the platform that would become crucial to his later success. So, unless the PCs are really on top of their game, they could have an indirect role in accelerating Hitler’s rise to power. And that’s assuming they are able to save Berlin from a massive onslaught of murder, rape, and baby rape enacted through innocent people by Großmann’s spirit.

This scenario is by far the most “realist” of the three, in that the majority of the NPCs are based on historical people with the same names. Not just Großmann, but “Anna Tchaikovsky” (Anna Anderson, who pretended to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia), Pyotr Shabelsky-Bork (the right-wing Russian officer, and anti-Semite who killed the father of Vladimir Nabokov), Walther Rathenau (German Foreign Minister of Jewish heritage, doomed, probably, to be assassinated on June 24), and others. At first the PCs investigation seems mundane and straightforward: they are hired to simply find out if a missing Russian woman was one of the late Carl Großmann’s victims. But as the PCs investigate all of Großmann’s haunts (his old apartment, whore plazas, his “garden colony” of black-market meat) it becomes clear they are being manipulated, and they soon get wind of (and encounter themselves) multiple attacks from people who ate Großmann’s meat in the past, and are now possessed by his obscene spirit. Soon there are mass assaults, all of them executed in unspeakable fashion, and the police have to cover most of it up to prevent a public panic. By the evening of June 23, Berlin is in a state of alarm; children are forbidden to play in the streets; doors are locked and barred. The PCs are driven to the banishment ritual — which involves the use of a talisman-like fetish — and that ritual has the potential to go horribly wrong and make things worse for them and the city.

(2) Dances of Vice, Horror, and Ecstasy. Setting: 1926, 1928. The second scenario is set in the golden era of the republic: after the Great Inflation of the early ’20s, and before the knock-on effects of the American stock market crash of the early ’30s. It starts in 1926, and then jumps to 1928 when the PCs are rudely displaced across time. This is after they participate in an orgiastic dance at a night club and later attend an unnerving piano performance. The somber magic of the piano shifts the PCs to an alternate version of Berlin that’s completely deserted; the only noise on these streets are rhythmic sounds like a thousand hinges creaking, and the only living entities are demonic zombies that soon come pouring out the buildings and giving chase. If the PCs survive this horrible shadow trip, they find themselves back in their own Berlin again, but two years later on November 10, 1928 — the day before Armistice Day, the 10th anniversary of the end of WWI. Much has transpired in their two-year absence: the stage dancer who cast the orgiastic spell on them has been reborn as Abyzou, the Mother of Abominations, and has taken over the Großes Schauspielhaus (the public playhouse) as her obscene temple of worship. Thousands of Berliners come to the playhouse to revel in mindless orgies. Her pestilential influence is all pervasive: cold winds snap across the city constantly and drive people insane. The city is filled with public drunkenness, brawls, exhibitionism, mating rituals, swarms of flies and cockroaches, and the unexplained death of infants. Hospitals report miscarriages up the wazoo. Funeral processions with tiny children-caskets are seen everywhere, and the police, flooded with calls for help, have their hands full every minute. Within days the Bacchanalian revelers who follow Abyzou are openly raping and killing anyone weak and helpless, especially children, wherever they can find them. The corpses of children and infants are being dumped into mass graves.

The PCs, if they play their cards right, may eventually receive help from a young phone girl (a teenage prostitute catering to the elite), who is actually a manikin that was given life as part of the ritual that summoned Abyzou. For the past two years, these manikins — hundreds of them — were planted in the streets, brothels, and private backrooms of Berlin’s underworld, to absorb life essence from their clients, creating a battery of magical power that finally allowed them to be animated, and which allowed Abyzou to be incarnated. Most of the manikins have no clear conscience, but the one who gets involved with the PCs (Erma Kore) has achieved more self-awareness than the others, and feels terrible about what she helped bring about. Abyzou’s goal is to beseech the Cthulhu goddess Shub-Niggurath to give her the power to bridge two worlds — of shadow-Berlin with the PCs’ Berlin — with an act of mass human sacrifice. The PCs best bet in defeating her is to somehow throw her into a Pit of the Dead, which devours even demigods, and above which floats a giant godlike tree (see left). The tree is composed of a fleshy, organic substance, with leaves that are lobe flaps, roots that are mummified flesh, nine eyes that glow, and a serpentine shape slithers among the pulsating limbs. The mere sight of the creature causes most people to go mad and hurl themselves at the tree, falling to their death in the Pit. Seriously, this is Call of Cthulhu raised to the nth.

(3) Schreckfilm (“Horror Film”). Setting: 1932. There are two plots of equal threat in the final scenario. One is intensely personal, the other global. On the one hand, the PCs are threatened by a certain movie actress, Countess Agnes Esterhazy, and her witch cult. The only way to save their lives and sanity is to destroy this bitch-woman, which ironically, the PCs have the means to do from the very start; they just don’t know it. On the other hand, the PCs also need to prevent a certain filmmaker, Baron Grunau, from completing his next film. Should that film (Das Necronomicon) reach completion, it will spread madness and despair far and wide, and send Berlin and the entire world spiraling far deeper into chaos and bloodshed. There’s a lot of that coming anyway — the Third Reich is around the corner next year — but the film has the capacity to terrify and demoralize humanity on unprecedented levels, both psychologically and spiritually. As if to presage this, suicides have been on the rise in Berlin, thanks to the grim economy. While there was a brief respite since the Great Inflation of ’24 (from ’26-’28), the economy has tanked again, thanks to the American stock market crash of ’29. The game master is directed to emphasize that the PCs receive word every single day that someone they know in the city (an NPC not crucial to the scenario) has committed suicide.

The adventure begins with a strange dossier acquired by the PCs — either given to them on purpose or left near them by accident; it’s not clear which. Whichever it is, it must be valuable, because people immediately try killing them for it. The folder’s six contents are baffling: (1) a photograph showing the PCs in the company of two men and a woman… none of whom the PCs have ever met before in their lives; (2) a photograph of the movie star Countess Agnes Esterhazy; (3) a calling card with odd sequence of letters and symbols; (4) a postcard of a tall brick tower looming up from a woodland surrounding a lake; (5) a newspaper clipping with the headline, “Murder in the Library”; (6) a curious filmstrip about six inches long. Figuring out what these items are and mean — while dodging assassination attempts — plunges the PCs into a world of witch covens, seances, and spiritual assaults that leave them questioning the fabric of reality. If they survive this mess, they still have a worse mess to deal with at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Turm (the Grunewald Tower in Berlin’s southwestern forest), where Baron Grunau is doing his daily shoots for his catastrophic horror film, Das Necronomicon. The true enemy turns out to be the specially treated film in the baron’s cameras, which steals the souls of all whose images it captures, and whisks them into a parallel dreamland, devoid of color, and where everything (trees, ponds, buildings, etc.) seems artificial and fake; there is is no sky, just diffused light and overarching darkness without stars; and there are phantasmal horrors and doppelgangers that drive everyone mad. To escape the horrid dreamworld may require the PCs to use a ritual — which will also summon Yog-Sothoth and stands a good chance of driving them permanently mad.

Verdict

Not only are the three adventure scenarios among the best I’ve seen for Call of Cthulhu, the detail provided for Berlin is on par with the best city modules or gazetteers for any RPG — my personal favorite after AD&D’s Lankhmar. It’s that good; that inspired. Don’t wait. Buy it here.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5.

Tabletop RPGs of the 70s and Early 80s

As an old-school gamer, I seldom bother with any of the modern RPGs flooding the market. But last week, for the first time, I found myself making an exception when someone called my attention to a game called Tales from the Loop. It may not come from the ’80s, but it’s set in the ’80s, and made me an instant fan. Here’s a look-back on all the classic RPGs that I either played, or owned, or now wish that I had. Tales from the Loop ranks here as well. It may as well be a classic RPG.

1. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1977). 5 stars. Obviously, everything on my list is overshadowed by this one. 95% of my gaming career has been devoted to old-school D&D. The Golden Age, that is, which lasted between ’74-’83. I began playing at the end of the age, in ’81, and up through ’87, by which time the game had become hopelessly commercialized. The influences of the golden period were the pulp fantasies and morally shifty heroes: Conan, Elric, Fafhrd & Grey Mouser, characters from the Dying Earth, etc. Despite D&D’s repeated comebacks (especially with the 3rd and 5th editions), it’s never been what it was, and today’s players don’t necessarily esteem it as the ultimate RPG. A google search will turn up lists of “RPGs way better than D&D”, and the reason isn’t hard to see. Pulp fantasy is long out of vogue, and today’s teens don’t have the touchstones that made D&D so great and accessible. And not just pulp fantasy, even Lord of the Rings, which despite Gary Gygax’s protests, had at least some significant influence on his early design. It’s been almost a decade now since Peter Jackson’s films, and Tolkien doesn’t inspire the same levels of awe that it did in previous years. The pulps themselves are a distant memory, and are even deemed offensive in the politically correct era of woke culture. It’s a shame. The best gaming adventures are the old-school D&D modules, and my coming of age years would have been much less inspiring and imaginative without them.

2. Call of Cthulhu (1981). 5 stars. Of all the RPGs I regret never playing, this one looms large. If I could go back and redo my coming-of-age years in only one way, I would be sure to play Call of Cthulhu. And it says something that I feel comfortable ranking it with highest honors outside the top slot, when I’ve never seen it played, let alone play it myself. Back in the day I learned about it through Dragon articles more than anything, and only in the recent decade have I delved thoroughly into the rules and adventure modules. It’s well known that Cthulhu is a horror game that turned D&D’s heroic fantasy on its head, prioritizing investigation over combat, with PCs who are inherently weak: librarians, doctors, professors, amateur detectives, etc. You don’t play Cthulhu to become a powerful knight or wizard, but rather with the dismal expectation that your character will likely go insane, as your character learns about the horrors of the world and the complete irrelevance of humanity. Using the tools that are needed to defeat the horrors (knowledge and magic) will most likely plunge PCs into mental illness. The infamous sanity score has become the game’s hallmark. Horror reduces your sanity points like weapons reduce hit points. PCs acquire phobias, fetishes, obsessions, hallucinations, amnesia, schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder, and psychosomatic reactions that make them dysfunctional. They can learn magic, but this hardly amounts to a benefit, as magic just immerses them more in the horrors, and makes them panic more, drop things, go catatonic, or experience any number of mental problems. It’s a thoroughly nihilistic game, and the nice thing is that, unlike D&D and Gamma World, it has remained stable and consistent through all the seven editions. While I would surely use the 1st edition if I ever started playing, I have it on good authority that it really doesn’t matter which edition you play.

3. Gamma World (1982). 5 stars. Basically the Dark Ages of Our Future. Growing up in the Reagan era meant ongoing fears of an apocalypse that would turn our globe into a radioactive wasteland. But what raises Gamma World far above other post-apocalyptic fantasies is that its apocalypse takes place in the very far future — the 24th century (2322 AD) — which means that the pre-apocalyptic world is just as futuristic and alien. There are high-tech artifacts like blaster pistols and robots, and cars that fly. The world of the ancients is filled with mystery and wonder, which makes the game a lot like D&D. Most of the pulp fantasies that shaped first-edition D&D were post-apocalyptic (Conan’s Hyperboria, Dying Earth, etc). The worlds of D&D were “fallen” in some way, and Gamma World aligns with this, the only difference being that there are techno-gadgets instead of magic items, and mutant powers instead of spells. But the earth is a global sandbox — just like Greyhawk and Mystara — in which PCs move from one pocket of civilization to another, plundering lost wealth and artifacts. The default start date in this world is 2450 AD, about a century and a half after the nuclear wipe-out. The game is in its 7th edition now, but I won’t touch anything beyond 2nd. The 2nd edition (1982) is the best, perfecting on the first that came out in the ’70s. After these two classics, Gamma World became increasingly commercialized.

4. Tales from the Loop (2017). 4 ½ stars. The only entry on my list which post-dates the ’80s is set in an alternate ’80s world, and it deserves to stand proud in the surrounding company. Tales from the Loop followed the overnight success of Stranger Things and takes direct inspiration from it. In the game you play kids between ages 10 and 15, and solve science-fiction mysteries that involve the Loop, a massive particle accelerator that is nearby the town you live in. The Loop causes aberrations like corruption of the earth’s magnetic field, warping wildlife (even dinosaurs emerge around the Loop), and animating robots in dangerous ways. The rules come with two default locations: the Malaren islands of Sweden, and Boulder City Nevada. But the rules also emphasize that you can set the Loop anywhere you want. I’d use my old hometown of Lyndeborough NH, where I grew up in the late ’70s and early ’80s. A crucial aspect of this game is that adults are absolutely useless when it comes to helping out, so the kid PCs have to do all the leg-work and solve mysteries on their own. Around the mystery solving, there are the normal trials that kids suffer: bullies, school tests, crushes, and heartbreak. It’s such a terrific idea for an RPG, it’s a wonder it took so long for a TV-series inspiration. Best of all, the rules are easy to follow, and flexible enough to cover virtually any situation that comes up in the game. There are eight archetypes (“character classes”): Bookworm, Computer Geek, Hick, Jock, Popular Kid, Rocker, Troublemaker, and Weirdo. Seriously, who among us who came of age in the ’80s doesn’t want to play this? Tales from the Loop recreates an age I miss sorely as I turn 51 at the end of this month. It takes me back to my reckless attitudes and thinking as a kid, and, incredibly, it provides the mechanics for tapping into that heart and drive.

5. Traveller (1977). 4 stars. Even dinosaurs my age tend to forget Traveller. It wasn’t very user-friendly and assumed a significant amount of player knowledge of physics and astronomy. I remember trying to understand the ramifications of zero-g combat, and those weren’t defined anywhere; then also wanting to know what the hell a mass driver was. Without internet forums and google capabilities back then, you were pretty much left to make sense of the rules as you could. Oddly, there was much I loved about that open-ended aspect of the game and ended up playing it a lot with a cousin who preferred space travel to D&D’s wizards and warriors. One thing that struck me was the fact that PCs start out with loads of experience. In most RPGs the characters start at beginner levels, but in Traveller you come out of the military with years of skills under your belt. In most other ways, though, it shares plenty in common with D&D. Both games assume the characters are roguish adventurers “on the make”. The adventures involve shady activities in order to acquire money, and the characters are outsiders (“travellers”) without commitments to local planetary societies. (The Raza crew in the TV series Dark Matter remind me very much of Traveller.) The space world is a lawless frontier where authorities are distant and corrupt. That’s really the same basic framework of old-school D&D. My greatest Traveller memory is the point at which my cousin was finally able to design and purchase his own ship — and then all the mileage he got from it.

6. Middle-Earth Role-Playing (1984). 3 ½ stars. I never played the actual system, but I played the modules all the time by adapting them for D&D. So this one was hard for me to rank. Frankly I don’t like MERP as a gaming system (nor Rolemaster from which it derives), but the campaign modules and adventure modules are top-notch, and I wrote retrospectives of them all (starting with Rangers of the North). When I learned in the ’90s that Tolkien Enterprises finally revoked ICE’s license to produce gaming material for Middle-Earth, I went ape shit. The MERP modules were nothing less than scholarly, as fun to read as to play. They came to dominate my role-playing years in the late ’80s, and I even kept buying them in the ’90s when I wasn’t playing much anymore. I would check in at the local comic store religiously to grab every new release, and I’m glad I did: thanks to the Tolkien-Enterprise fascists, the modules are now collector’s items. It’s a shame, because they’re probably the most academic accessories ever written for any RPG. It’s as if Tolkien himself had taken up D&D and poured his linguistic and cultural scholarship into the hobby. The irony, of course, being that the high fantasy setting of Middle-Earth is on the face of it so at odds with D&D’s pulp fantasy roots. But I never saw a contradiction. Anyway, the MERP rules and gaming system would fall at the bottom of this list, while the adventure modules themselves would place very high; so a ranking of 6 feels about right.

7. Stormbringer (1981). 3 ½ stars. This one’s like Call of Cthulhu. I never played it, and like Cthulhu it’s a Chaosium publication. There are strong literary vibes in the Chaosium RPGs, and that’s part of the reason why I’ve been so turned on to them in recent years. Stormbringer is, as you might expect, set in the world of the Young Kingdoms, the realm from the Elric novels. It deals with a failing empire in conflict with the powers of chaos. The world is plunging into an apocalypse that has been foreseen, but which the PCs are utterly powerless to prevent. It’s a nihilistic game, again like Cthulhu, though in a more overarching abstract way. It does have its problems, and I can understand why it never became as popular as other RPGs, despite the fact that Moorcock’s novels were widely loved. The sorcery rules are very detailed, but it’s all a virtual waste, as PCs will rarely if ever have the chance to use sorcery. Magic in this world is brokered by demons, because humans can’t wield magic on their own. They have to bind and command demons to use power; so for example, to cast a fireball would require summoning a fire elemental and using its powers, or throwing its energy, at a target. And the ability to bind demons and other creatures is extremely rare, if not suicidal. On top of that, and in accordance with the predestination of Elric’s world, players have very little say in what their characters will be like. When they generate the characters, the dice determine their class and race as much as they determine their attributes. But there is a lot to admire in this game, and I wish I’d played it at least once.

8. Top Secret (1981). 3 stars. This is the most realistic RPG I ever played, though that’s perhaps not saying much. The early ’80s was the age of the Roger Moore James Bond films, and Top Secret plays on some of those extravagant plot lines. The PCs are field agents for a governmental agency, and they are assigned missions falling into one of three general categories: assassination (killing), confiscation (stealing), or investigation (spying). One might say loosely that it’s D&D in the modern world, for assassins, thieves, and rangers. The problem is that these character professions aren’t fleshed out too well; the professions mainly determine if the PC receives bonus experience points for succeeding in a mission that pertains to their profession. In other words, a field agent specializing in assassination would get bonus points for carrying out a kill, but that’s not to say that confiscators and investigators can’t assassinate. The game is purely percentile based: 2d10 for everything — attributes, skill checks, and combat. I have fond memories of skyjacking a 747 (I was a confiscation agent), though I botched the job by killing more innocent passengers than was necessary; it didn’t go well for me in the end. Alas, that was the only time I played Top Secret.

9. Star Frontiers (1982). 2 stars. This is the Star Wars of early RPGs, so it’s no surprise I never got around to playing it, given my constant dislike of George Lucas. I owned Star Frontiers, to be sure, and read through the Alpha Dawn rules many times. I even went through phases when I was inspired to play, but ultimately never did. Bubblegum space opera was never my thing. If I wanted outer space and star travel, I had the more solid and gritty approach of Traveller. (A reviewer in Dragon back in the day said that comparing Star Frontiers and Traveller is a bit like comparing Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey; and yes, that comparison is bang-on.) Probably the most compelling thing about Star Frontiers is the Sathar, the worm-like race trying to conquer the galaxy. The Sathar are elusive and seldom appear. They aren’t good at military combat and rely on hypnotic powers to recruit from and corrupt the four player character races: humans (of course), dralasites (giant amoebas with a prankish sense of humor), vrusks (huge insectoids that are team-driven, though not quite hive mind), and yazirians (flying wookies, who are easily enraged and go berserk). They live in an area of the galaxy as part of a multicultural federation that works against the Sathar. There are plenty of old-school gamers who rhapsodize about Star Frontiers. I’m not one of them.

Reprobates and Sinners: The Hell Roster and Bad List of Pastor Steven Anderson

Steven Anderson has been leading his church in Tempe Arizona since Christmas 2005, and his sermons have been online since February 2006. Thirteen years later he’s pounding the pulpit, kicking the pulpit, and yelling from on top of it as hard as ever. Here I list the sinners and offenders he habitually screams about. There are of course so many more, but these are the fourteen kinds of people he obsesses and returns to time and time again. I’ve divided the categories into three tiers, and ranked them, as I see it, from greatest offense to least — though let’s be honest, these are all mega-offenses in the eyes of our dear pastor.

— Tier 1:  The irrevocably damned. The sinners in this category are reprobates and cannot be saved, according to Anderson. God has rejected them eternally, once and for all.

1. Homosexuals/pedophiles. By far the worst group, and in Anderson’s view the two are inseparable; it’s impossible to be one without being the other. Anderson believes that sodomites are not only sinners, but actual reprobates, based on the text of Romans 1:18-32. They have been rejected by God for rejecting Him one too many times. God finally got tired of being patient with them, and turned them into sodomites/perverts: “God gave them up to vile affections” (Rom 1:26); “God gave them over to a reprobate mind” (1:28); “God gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts” (1:24). This, according to Anderson, is the explanation for homosexuality: “When sodomites say ‘God made me that way’, they’re actually right. But God didn’t make them that way when they were born. God made them that way when they rejected Him (‘glorified Him not as God’) one too many times, and then God discarded them by turning them into homos.” As reprobates, sodomites, unlike most sinners (those in tiers 2 and 3), cannot possibly be saved, nor should anyone want to try saving them: “He that is filthy, let him be filthy still” (Rev 22:11). It’s the whole reason God turned them into sodomites to begin with: to turn them into trash, because of their unrelentingly God-hating hearts.

2. Bible translators/biblical scholars. Almost as bad as the first category, these people are, like the sodomites, irredeemable reprobates. Anderson bases his view on the text of Revelation 22:19, which speaks of anyone who tampers with the Word of God — that is, anyone who either adds or removes from the words of the precious King James Bible, indeed anyone who insists on changing but a single word of that bible — as “blotted out of the Book of Life” and irrevocably damned. Once removed from the book, they can’t be put back in.

— Tier 2:  Especially wicked sinners. These offenders are at least capable of being saved, if they accept Christ as their savior in the Bible-believing way that Anderson espouses.

3. Abortion doctors; pro-choice crusaders; women who obtain abortions. Abortion doctors, or any who have some kind of pro-active role in procuring abortions, are especially wicked in Anderson’s view. They murder the most innocent and vulnerable.

4. Zionists. Israel is the most ungodly nation on the planet, according to Anderson. He calls the year 1948 a diabolical fraud. The Jews are not God’s chosen people, and have not been so for two millennia. Replacement theology shouldn’t be a cuss word but common sense; it’s a basic premise of the New Testament: “If the kingdom of God is taken from you and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof, you’ve been replaced! You were the people of God, you were that holy nation of the Old Testament, but now you have been replaced. And today, the physical nation of Israel has been replaced by believers, by a holy nation made up of all believers in Christ, whether they be Jew or Gentile, no matter what the nationality.” According to Anderson, Zionism is more anti-Christ than any other of the major world religions.

5. Modalists. These people really get Anderson breathing fire. Modalism is a heresy that denies the trinity. It says that God is only one person or entity who has three modes (or faces, or masks) which do not exist simultaneously, and that He changes modes by putting on different hats (the Father, the Son, and the Spirit) as the occasion demands. In other words, according to modalism, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all the same person or entity. There is not three in one, but rather one who can morph as the situation requires. Christianity, of course, maintains that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are distinct. There is one substance and one God, to be sure (which maintains monotheism), but there are three different persons or entities within that God. That’s the trinity. So what’s the problem here? The problem is that Anderson doesn’t like anything that remotely smacks of modalism. He goes ballistic when Christians so much as dip a toe into modalist waters, even when they affirm the trinity. So if you suggest to Steven Anderson that “Jesus is the Father” in some way (per Isaiah 9:6), or if you point out to him that the three members of the trinity are sometimes interchangeable (the bible says the Father raised Jesus from the dead in Galatians 1;1, but also that the Spirit raised Jesus from the dead in Romans 8:11, but also again that Jesus the Son raised himself from the dead in John 2:19-21), he will go into an apoplectic fury. Indeed if you say that “Jesus is the Father” — even if you don’t mean that in a modalist way — you will probably get screamed at, thrown out of his church, and branded a “Oneness heretic”, no matter what trinitarian confessions you’ve insisted on.

6. Atheists/evolutionists. For Anderson they are the same thing. Perhaps more than others on this tier, they are especially in danger of becoming reprobates — unrelenting “haters of God”, whom the Lord will turn into sodomites (category #1) if they persist in virulently rejecting Him.

7. Litterbugs. I have never seen anyone so enraged over litterbugs. Whether it’s hikers and campers who leave trash in the wilderness, or people who throw garbage on the side of the road, if Anderson sees you doing this, you’d best be prepared for a mighty tongue-lashing. And yes, he justifies his “environmental” tirades from the bible.

8. Men who piss sitting down. Germans and other Europeans especially, but any man who allows himself to be micromanaged into effeminate bathroom behavior. Anderson takes the King James phrase, “him that pisseth against the wall” (I Sam 25:22, 25:34; I Kings 14;10, 16;11, 21:21; II Kings 9:8), as a symbol of proper manliness. “And that’s what’s wrong with society today. We’ve got pastors who pee sitting down; we’ve got the president of the United States, George W. Bush, who pees sitting down; we’ve got a bunch of preachers and leaders who want stand up and piss against the wall like a real man.” Anderson is so serious about this, that he has openly rebelled against his mother-in-law when he visits her in Germany — against her “no standing policy when peeing”. On biblical grounds, he will not allow his bathroom habits to be micromanaged.

9. Doctors who perform in vitro fertilization; women who undergo the treatment. Those who engage in vitro fertilization instead of waiting naturally to get pregnant, according to Anderson, are stealing babies from God. Or, as he put it in one sermon, “ripping babies out of the hands of God”. (Side note: this has become a running gag with a friend of mine, when we joke about performing bodily functions before nature calls. So for example, urinating when I don’t really have the urge is “stealing a piss from the Lord”.)

10. Male gynecologists. Men who examine women’s nether regions are disgusting perverts, according to Anderson, no matter how medically professional.

— Tier 3:  Sinful Christians. Those who preach or espouse these views could either be false Christians, or simply misguided believers in Christ who need a tongue-lashing. In any case, these issues do set Anderson off like a bomb.

11. Pre-tribbers. I have to agree 100% with Anderson on this one. Christians who believe in a pre-tribulation rapture have nothing to show for themselves. The idea that Christians will be raptured (taken bodily up to heaven) before the onset of the apocalyptic tribulation (a) is completely un-biblical, (b) emerged only in the 19th century, and (c) was popularized by the Left Behind novels in the sensationalist way of The DaVinci Code. There are technical problems with this view (namely, there’s not a single bible passage that lends credence to it) and the more general problem, which is that the early apostles and Christians not only expected to suffer the tribulation before they were raptured; they saw it as their holy duty. In the synoptic gospels, the letters of Paul, and the Book of Revelation, the rapture comes after the tribulation and prior to God’s wrath pouring out over the earth. Anderson has produced a deluge of polemical youtube videos explaining Revelation’s timetable, but you don’t have to wade through them if you don’t want to. Just check out his helpful graph, which is probably the best available chart for the Book of Revelation (from a fundamentalist point of view, anyway).

12. Dispensationalists. One of Anderson’s mantras is that God never changes. He’s always the same. And above all, “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). The Old Testament carries the same moral imperatives it always did, and the God of the New Testament aligns completely with it. If you’re a dispensationalist, you’d best have the courage of your convictions, because Anderson will tear you a new one.

13. Calvinists, or anyone denying free will. This one convicts me out of the gate. I deny free will, though not because I believe in spiritual predestination, rather because I believe in material determinism. For Anderson, a scientific reason to oppose free will is as bad as a religious reason. He insists that we have the free will to do as we choose, and to believe as we choose. And he gets mighty incensed about the issue.

14. Lazy Soul-Winners. Anderson has broken fellowship with his Baptist colleagues over this. If you refuse to go out knocking doors at least twice a week, in order to save souls and win people to Christ — and above all, if you just leave door-hangers and tracts instead of knocking and talking to people — get ready to be screamed at like this.

The Dark Ages: Speaking the Unspeakable

Richard Carrier has a post explaining why he thinks The Dark Ages Really Were a Thing, and he also links to Scott Alexander’s Were There Dark Ages?, both of which I recommend as remedies to the ongoing fad. That fad urges us to avoid the term Dark Ages — if not erase the term altogether from our vernacular — owing to a fear of labels that judge or over-malign the past. It’s true there were western accomplishments during the Dark-Age period, but those accomplishments have been exaggerated to create a counter-myth that there was no serious setback to civilization after the Roman Empire. There certainly was.

Admittedly I was once hooked on the fad. Until about a decade ago, I made a point of calling the Dark Ages the “Anglo-Saxon Period”, which is an accurate enough label for the 5th-10th centuries but also a bit constraining. I eventually got tired of subjecting truth and facts to people’s sensibilities. It’s indeed appropriate, as Carrier and Alexander argue, to speak of a Dark Age Period — that is, a period in the west when there was a dramatic societal devolution. However, I don’t believe the start of this devolution happened at the point usually assumed. The Dark Ages are usually taken as the 5th-10th centuries (as Carrier believes), whereas I believe the term rightly applies to the 7th-10th centuries. The first proponent of this view, of course, was Henri Pirenne in the 1920s and 30s.

Pirenne’s revival

Pirenne’s major work, Mohammed and Charlemagne (1937), argued that classical civilization was destroyed not by the Goths, Vandals, or Huns, nor the Christian Church, but rather the Arab invaders of the seventh century. The Islamic invasions in turn ended up changing the face of Christianity. The detachment of the west from the east — politically, culturally, and religiously — was a direct consequence of Islam’s arrival on the worldly stage. Pirenne concluded famously that “Without Muhammad, Charlemagne would be inconceivable,” meaning that without Islam, the Holy Roman Empire would have (in all probability) never come to be.

There has been renewed interest in Pirenne, for good reasons and bad, and in a post-9/11 age the bad reasons usually get more attention. European nationalists and American neocons have latched on to Pirenne’s work in order to justify foreign policies of intervention in the Muslim world (especially getting involved in regime-change wars), which is an abuse of historical scholarship. One of the better defenses of the Pirenne thesis is that of Emmet Scott. In Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited (2012) he affirmed Pirenne with an eye on archaeological data, arguing that there was no gradual decline in classical society from the fifth to seventh centuries, as commonly supposed. There was certainly a decline from the third to fifth centuries, but that was followed by a revival in the sixth and early seventh, which was then dramatically terminated sometime between 620 and 650. The lights went out, quite literally, with the Islamic conquests. The Arabs brought the Romans to their knees, conquered the richest parts of the Mediterranean, and turned the sea into a military frontier. People fled the coastline and began building hilltop castles to avoid slaughter and enslavement. The Mediterranean was no longer a highway but a frontier of piracy and plunder. The sea became a blockade, choking off trade and communication with Byzantium. Papyrus became a thing of the past, and literacy plummeted almost overnight to levels equivalent to those in pre-Roman times. By the mid-seventh century a “medieval” or “dark” outlook had emerged in western Europe, thanks mostly to Islam. It’s at this point that one may legitimately speak of the inception of the Dark Ages.

A paper available online by Bonnie Effros, “The Enduring Attraction of the Pirenne Hypothesis”, examines the current renewal of Pirenne’s ideas, though it’s not particularly helpful. Not least because she relies on the supposed debunking of Pirenne in the ’80s by Richard Hodges and David Whitehouse (see p 196 of the article). Mohammed, Charlemagne, and the Origins of Europe: The Pirenne Thesis in the Light of Archaeology (1983) tried proving that western Europe was in an economic and cultural death-spiral before the appearance of Islam. But the authors relied mostly on evidence from central Italy, the one place we would expect to find societal deterioration, since the whole balance of power in the Roman Empire had shifted to the east: Constantinople was founded in 324, and by the beginning of the 400s Ravenna supplanted Rome as the capital of the western empire. Rome was then sacked twice, in 410 and then 455, with the western empire dissolving in 476. With all of that — a huge drop in the Roman aristocracy, population, and general fortune — we would obviously expect a dramatic drop in the wealth of the settlements around central Italy.

That’s not what happened elsewhere. Under the Visigoths in Spain, the Franks in Gaul, and the Vandals in Africa, society was reviving and flourishing, especially in the sixth and early seventh centuries. The archaeological record shows expanding populations engaged in vigorous trade within Europe and with the eastern Mediterranean; new territories being brought into cultivation; growth of cities both old and new; clear proof of dramatic technical and scientific innovation; advanced learning and scholarship. This was a revival, not a deterioration, and it was abruptly terminated in the early seventh century with the Muslim invasions. Hodges and Whitehouse’s debunking of Pirenne is discredited on a basic level. They used the exception (of central Italy) to argue a non-existent rule. For whatever reasons, people continue having difficulty believing the Germanic invaders were capable of civilization.

In the East, Hodges and Whitehouse again blamed the wrong people, this time the Persians. It’s true that the Persian War in 614 started the eastern fall, but it was the subsequent Arab Wars that brought the lasting devastation. There had been wars between Persians and Romans before; it was the way of Roman life for seven centuries. How is it that this particular Persian war (supposedly) led to the end of classical civilization in the east? No matter how destructive, wars are normally followed by treaties of peace, and then the recovery of economic prosperity. It always happened between the Romans and Persians, but it didn’t happen this time, and Hodges and Whitehouse have no answer as to why.

Pirenne had supplied the answer, of course, which I take to be self-evident: it was the Arabs, in the wake of the Persians, who laid the permanent waste. The religious concept of jihad was one of permanent religious war that made any kind of peace or genuine coexistence impossible. The annual obligation of jihad ensured ongoing war on Islam’s borders, while the provisions of sharia law meant that in lands taken over by Muslims, natives were provided no protection against bandits and herders who let flocks graze on and destroy the irrigated lands. Fertile areas became semi-desert, and cities became ghost towns.

The term “Dark Ages” is appropriate, but the period starts in the seventh century, not the fifth. Islamic jihad is what brought the darkness, not the Christian church or the Germanic rulers. That’s an unwelcome view in today’s age, where to even question the myth of Islam’s Golden Age is deemed “Islamophobic”, but there you have it.

And yet…

If the Christian church was not the cause of the Dark Ages, it would eventually become a major impediment to pulling out of that blackness.

Carrier, in his post, rightly notes that while Christianity did not cause the massive stalling of society, it did “guarantee by its take-over of the Western mind that nothing that needed doing to reverse that downfall would be done for at least a thousand years”, which is true. But at what point did Christianity become this kind of impediment? It started (per Pirenne and Scott) with Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire.

Those who resist the term Dark Ages are often the same folks who romanticize or overvalue the Carolingians. Carrier’s swipe at the dynasty is a breath of fresh air:

“Even the so-called Carolingian Renaissance was a mere blip in this record, a brief, isolated, relatively unimpressive attempt at a recovery—that failed. Society wouldn’t really start pulling out of this hole until around 1000 A.D. The very pit of the decline was reached in the 7th century, but it took over two more centuries to get back to the rim of that hole, and over four more to get back to where Western civilization had once attained. And even that march up the wall of the pit was relatively inglorious. Compared to the High Roman Empire, the Carolingian era was barbaric, below even the level of societal wealth, sophistication and achievement of Classical Greece, which the Romans at their height had long since surpassed, and which no civilization on earth would obtain again until the Renaissance.”

Quite correct. The western empire under Charlemagne (r. 800-814) developed into a blooming theocracy that would come to mirror some of Islam’s worst elements. It would be the “Holy” Roman Empire whose authority no longer derived solely from its own military and economic strength (as in the time of the Caesars and Germanic kings) but increased dependence on church approval. For the first time ever, by the eleventh century, Christians began thinking in terms of holy war. The crusades were in defense against Islamic aggression to be sure (and in some ways a necessary evil), but nevertheless in contradiction to the church’s one thousand year stand of religious pacifism. The culmination of “Charlemagne’s seed” came with Pope Innocent III (r. 1198-1216), who established the inquisitions to enforce absolute doctrinal conformity. This copied Islam’s inquisition 50 years before, to root out and torture its own apostates in Spain and North Africa. Against such a legacy, Charlemagne’s half-successful efforts to revive literacy didn’t amount to much. The west fragmented into a besieged backwater as Vikings dominated the northern channels and Muslims strangle-held the South.

In Muslim lands, of course, religious dissent and apostasy had always been a capital offense, while for Christians the use of force to enforce orthodoxy was condemned by the early church fathers. Christians could be fierce in denouncing heretics, but only extremely rarely would a fanatic get violent about the matter, and when that happened the church spoke out against the violence. By the twelfth-thirteenth centuries, this had flipped 180 degrees: Catholicism now mirrored Islam in killing its own heretics, and the seeds of that mirroring go back to the ascendance of the Holy Roman Empire under the Carolingians.

So when Carrier concludes:

“Yes, the Dark Ages happened. They occupied the period from the 5th to the 10th century. And they took five hundred more years to fully recover from, bringing Western civilization back by the 15th century to all the peak markers of accomplishment that it had achieved by the 2nd century. That’s a thousand years we were set back. And yes, those ages were sufficiently dark in every measure to warrant the appellation. They dropped the Western world (and even, if less catastrophically, the Near Eastern world) to its lowest levels of decline by every measure not seen since before the rise of the Ancient Greeks who built up Western civilization on a foundation of democracy, technology, and science. The Dark Ages were an era we as human beings should look upon in shame, disappointment, and concern never to repeat what caused them or sustained them. They deserve the name.”

I agree with his summary statement but would put the start of the Dark Ages in the seventh century, not the fifth. Again: there was no decline in classical society down to the seventh century, but rather a decline from the third to fifth, followed by a revival in the sixth and early seventh, which was then dramatically terminated in the early to mid seventh. The result was much as people like Carrier and Alexander describe: dark times that went on longer than they should have, and that we should be comfortable “judging” with adequate labels.