What He Said: Mark Twain

Today’s the man’s birthday. Here are ten of his best quotes, with an 11th bonus to the right in the pic.

1. The funniest things are forbidden.

— Hell yes. Whether by wokes or fundies.

2. The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.

— Some say that we shouldn’t come down hard on those who read garbage — “because at least they’re reading something” — but I don’t subscribe to that school of thought, or at least not entirely. Twain had it better.

3. The more I learn about people, the more I like my dog.

— Come to think of it, growing up I did like my dog more than I cared for most people.

4. There are no people who are quite so vulgar as the over-refined.

— Zinger.

5. When you catch an adjective, kill it.

— More writers should heed this.

6. I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader, and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.

— A strong reaction, but admittedly Pride and Prejudice is a horrendous ordeal for anyone to suffer through.

7. Concerning the difference between man and the jackass: some observers hold that there isn’t any. But this wrongs the jackass.

— Ouch.

8. Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’. Your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.

— I’ll try this sometime.

9. The more things are forbidden, the more popular they become.

— Which is why censors, silencers, and cancelers are their own worst enemy.

10. One accustoms himself to writing short sentences as a rule. At times he may indulge himself in a long one, but he will make sure that there are no folds in it, no vagueness, no parenthetical interruptions of its view as a whole; when he is done with it, it won’t be a sea-serpent with half of its arches under the water, it will be a torch-light procession.

— My favorite Twain quote.

Contrasts Between the Woke and (Liberal) Anti-Woke Movements

Clearer Thinking outlines the contrasts between two camps, each of whom considers themselves liberal or left-of-center, and tend to agree on topics like the following:

  • there should be easily available access to abortion and other healthcare
  • the war on drugs is counterproductive
  • it’s important to regulate large corporations
  • there are too many people in U.S. prisons
  • racist attitudes should be harshly condemned
  • inequality is a substantial problem in society
  • we should do more to combat climate change
  • there should be separation of church and state
  • same-sex marriage should be legal
  • we should allow more immigration

Where the two camps disagree is on the application of social justice — which divides them into wokes and anti-wokes — specifically on the following issues:

1. Offending others
2. Who has authority to speak about certain issues
3. Group labels
4. Diversity
5. Differences in outcome
6. Cultural appropriation
7. Complicity in discrimination
8. Power structures in society
9. Group generalizations
10. National pride
11. Historical figures
12. The meaning of gender
13. Cancel culture

I replicate that part of the post in its entirety below, as it’s a helpful summary. While it’s true that these groups are not monolithic (as the article cautions), I happen to agree entirely with all of the anti-woke views.

1. On offending others

Commonly Occurring Social Justice Advocate Views

  • Offensive language – including discriminatory remarks, threats of violence, and jokes that play on reductive stereotypes – often harm others, can traumatize people, and can normalize prejudice against discriminated groups.
  • When people make offensive remarks or act offensively without intending to, the lack of intent doesn’t necessarily reduce the harm they cause. Systematic exposure to offensive remarks and “microaggressions” can further marginalize members of groups that are discriminated against, and cause serious negative effects over time.
  • We should strive to reduce instances of offensive language by calling attention to it, educating ourselves on how our remarks and behavior can hurt others, boycotting individuals and institutions that endorse offensive language and, in some cases, banning, punishing or ostracizing those who are severely and/or routinely offensive.

Commonly Occurring Left-leaning Anti-Woke Views

  • If someone is offended by a remark or a joke, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the speaker did something wrong (the problem might actually lie with the person who feels offended and their emotional responses). Lots of humor can be offensive to someone and we should not take such humor to mean that people are seriously advocating for a position that harms others.
  • Interpreting interactions in terms of microaggressions has negative practical consequences, because it primes people to look for offensive language and behavior, rather than trusting that most people have good intentions. The resulting focus can produce more harm than good.
  • “Canceling” those that offend others may have substantial negative effects, including damaging a culture of open communication and debate, reducing exposure to diverse perspectives about the world, and preventing us from learning how to calmly engage with and refute the arguments of people we disagree with.

2. On who has the authority to speak about certain issues

Commonly Occurring Social Justice Advocate Views

  • When it comes to speaking about the experiences of a particular marginalized group and how that group can be supported, the people within that group are the ones who have by far the most authority to do so; they have unique access to knowledge about the needs and issues of that group as a result of their group membership.
  • People from outside a marginalized group cannot truly understand the lived experience of those within the group and should not be the ones deciding what is best for that group. Attempts by outsiders to explain what they think is best for that group are often naive, inaccurate, or reductive. When outsiders have had decision-making authority over marginalized groups historically, it has often lead to substantial harm.
  • Society has consistently platformed white cisgender men at the expense of other people. In contrast, people of color have had their voices ignored for far too long in the U.S.; it is time to finally listen to them.

Commonly Occurring Left-leaning Anti-Woke Views

  • We should be careful not to overestimate the degree to which people from a marginalized group have similar experiences or opinions on how society should change in order to accommodate them. Someone being a member of a marginalized group doesn’t automatically mean that person has good suggestions or ideas from improving the discrimination faced by that group. People from the same group often disagree with each other and we can’t think of one member of a group as speaking on behalf of that group.
  • When it comes to speaking about the experiences of a particular marginalized group and how this community can be supported, anyone in society who has relevant expertise or information should be able to make suggestions, even if they are not themselves part of that group.

3. On group labels

Commonly Occurring Social Justice Advocate Views

  • It is important to recognize the group status of individuals as this helps us better understand the social experiences and explain any discrimination that, for example, people-of-color, women, or trans people might face. Identifying group membership is useful in our efforts to protect these groups from discrimination.

Commonly Occurring Left-leaning Anti-Woke Views

  • Too much focus on grouping people by shared social experience (or another feature of their identity) creates artificial distinctions that might actually increase the likelihood of some groups facing discrimination. While it can occasionally be useful to talk about group membership, what matters is that all individuals are able to flourish regardless of their group status, and this should be our focus (rather than focusing on improving society for certain groups).

4. On diversity

Commonly Occurring Social Justice Advocate Views

  • Having people from diverse sets of backgrounds (including gender, race, ethnicity, class, and sexuality) makes institutions more likely to function fairly, takes the needs of everyone into account, helps rectify historical injustice, and helps groups come up with more creative solutions to problems.

Commonly Occurring Left-leaning Anti-Woke Views

  • While racial, ethic, and gender diversity is helpful to correctly represent everyone’s views, diversity of thought is just as important. Additionally, diversity of thought and ideas is not necessarily correlated with having a diverse set of backgrounds; focusing on the latter is less likely to result in institutions that have genuinely diverse problem-solving approaches, maximal creativity, and fair outcomes. An overemphasis on a social justice oriented philosophy tends to produce a narrow range of views, rather than diversity of thought.

5. On differences in outcome

Commonly Occurring Social Justice Advocate Views

  • The fact that some groups have different outcomes in society (for example, earning less money or having less higher education) is a strong indication that systemic discrimination and societal or institutionalized prejudice has prevented members of these groups from having better outcomes in life.
  • To improve outcomes for marginalized groups, we should use affirmative action to correct for the prejudice in systems that have typically favored people from privileged groups or required qualifications that are only accessible to those with privileged backgrounds. Abandoning standardized tests may also help reduce outcome inequality. Changes like these are a starting point to help make up for past discrimination that has held some groups back.

Commonly Occurring Left-leaning Anti-Woke Views

  • The fact that some groups have different outcomes in society is not always explained by systemic discrimination and societal prejudice. For instance, a difference in outcomes might sometimes be explained by different interests, attributes, or culture. While prejudice is real and still produces many negative consequences, we need to remember to look for additional explanations.
  • There are many valid forms of success, and we shouldn’t assume that one person’s version of success will match another person’s version, and that’s okay (e.g., if a particular woman makes less than a particular man because of her true, uncoerced preference is to stay at home and raise children, there is nothing wrong with that).
  • Using affirmative action can backfire by leading some to believe that people who have been admitted to a particular institution are only there based on their group identity (as opposed to their merits). It is good for institutions to take into account the hardship that people face when considering their applications, but hardship doesn’t always follow from, for example, having membership to a particular racial group.

6. On cultural appropriation

Commonly Occurring Social Justice Advocate Views

  • Appropriating clothing, behaviors or customs of a marginalized group can be harmful for several reasons, including: (1) it allows already privileged groups to benefit financially and socially off of the labor, culture and ideas of the originators of those ideas (without benefiting those creators), and (2) it fails to take into account the significance that some outfits or practices have in their original cultures, trivializing their original meaning. Cultural appropriation causes harm to marginalized groups.

Commonly Occurring Left-leaning Anti-Woke Views

  • Most instances of people dressing or acting in a way that has been associated with a marginalized group is just people appreciating that particular culture, and we should not see that as inherently negative. We are all better off if we adopt those practices and customs that we find beneficial.
  • In many instances, people from marginalized groups aren’t offended by those who incorporate aspects of their culture and, in some instances, even encourage others to adopt aspects of their culture.

7. On complicity in discrimination

Commonly Occurring Social Justice Advocate Views

  • Members of privileged groups (i.e., those who have more power in society based on their gender, race, or class) benefit from discrimination against other groups even when they themselves are not explicitly engaging in discrimination. Additionally, many members of privileged groups will have had ancestors that did explicitly engage in discriminatory practices.
  • As a result of this complicity, members of privileged groups have an obligation to help rectify the wrongs done to the living members of marginalized groups, which includes helping to dismantle oppressive institutions and social systems. It is appropriate for people who do not act on this obligation to feel guilty.
  • White supremacist culture is a prevalent and significant problem in U.S. society today, causing a great deal of harm to people of color.

Commonly Occurring Left-leaning Anti-Woke Views

  • Most members of privileged groups are not responsible for the discrimination that is still present in our current societal structure, as they did not cause it. Nor are privileged individuals responsible for harmful actions their ancestors might have committed, since they were not alive at the time.
  • While it is admirable and important for people to work to improve society for, and reduce discrimination against, marginalized groups, people do not have an obligation to work towards this, nor should they feel guilty merely because of belonging to a “powerful” group.

8. On power structures in society

Commonly Occurring Social Justice Advocate Views

  • Society is organized in a way that benefits particular identity groups at the expense of other identity groups; many of the laws, policies, and social norms we live with were set up and are maintained in order to serve those in power. Powerful people are deliberately trying to perpetuate systems of inequality within the U.S.
  • Claims of “objectivity,” “rationality,” and “reason” are sometimes used to argue in favor of what benefits those who are already in power, and to undermine or silence the voices of marginalized people who are not served by the way society currently operates.
  • One helpful way to combat these systems of power and the people that maintain them is to disrupt the norms, knowledge systems, and processes that they use. This might sometimes include protesting and extreme activism.

Commonly Occurring Left-leaning Anti-Woke Views

  • Given that the world is incredibly complex, people’s actions can often have unintended consequences and interact in unexpected ways. The best way to figure out what to do to improve society is to engage in rigorous debate about policies, with all reasonable perspectives being heard, and arguments and counterarguments being made.

9. On group generalizations

Commonly Occurring Social Justice Advocate Views

  • The power dynamics of groups in society must be taken into account when considering whether a generalization is an instance of racism. If a person from a historically oppressed group believes that all white people are racist that is not itself necessarily a form of racism – the history between the two groups, and the asymmetry in power between them, must be taken into account.

Commonly Occurring Left-leaning Anti-Woke Views

  • There is no difference between making generalizations about marginalized groups and generalizations about privileged groups when it comes to evaluating what is or is not racist; negative generalizations about entire groups are not helpful and should be avoided.

10. On national pride

Commonly Occurring Social Justice Advocate Views

  • The United States was founded on a bedrock of prejudice and oppression, with mistreatment of women, Black people, and native communities baked in from the very beginning. U.S. citizens should not be proud of their roots.

Commonly Occurring Left-leaning Anti-Woke Views

  • The United States played an incredibly unique and important role in history and has helped to improve the state of the world. America is far from perfect, and has participated in numerous injustices. Despite these terrible events, we should be proud of the many positive contributions made by the U.S., including it being the world’s longest standing modern representative democracy.

11. On historical figures

Commonly Occurring Social Justice Advocate Views

  • Given that many people we celebrate today – for example, teaching young children about them or maintaining monuments in their honor – did terrible things, the appropriate response is to stop commemorating these individuals (for example, by removing their statues and renaming buildings). Continuing to make these individuals visible in society – even if we are not explicitly celebrating all of their actions – is harmful to those people whose ancestors were hurt by their actions.

Commonly Occurring Left-leaning Anti-Woke Views

  • It is not fair to judge historical figures by our own moral standards; their behavior, while we may know it to be highly immoral, may have been entirely ordinary for their society at the time. We should teach both the good and the bad about historical figures that had an important role in society. We should commend them for their great achievements while not minimizing or ignoring their many flaws, which might mean continuing to maintain monuments erected in their honor.

12. On the meaning of gender

Commonly Occurring Social Justice Advocate Views

  • Gender is a social construction that is separate from whether someone is biologically male or female (and even biological sex is not as binary as it is often assumed to be). Biological sex should not determine the social reality of individuals, like how they should dress, what pronouns they are able to use, or how they are treated in professional and non-professional settings.

Commonly Occurring Left-leaning Anti-Woke Views

  • We should respect people’s gender identities, but it is harmful to pretend that there are no biological differences between males and females when we plainly can see such differences across most animal species, including humans. There are some important situations where we need to treat males and females differently (such as in medical environments: the probability and management of different diseases differs across the sexes ). Males and females are, of course, deserving of equal respect and treatment, but that is not the same as saying they are identical.

13. On the harm of cancel culture

Commonly Occurring Social Justice Advocate Views

  • So-called “cancel culture” – where members of the public attempt to ostracize a person in response to harmful or prejudiced behavior they have engaged in – occurs a lot less than is sometimes claimed in the media. And when it does occur, it is usually justified. Individuals that say they are “cancelled” are often people that still possess a lot of power; they can find good jobs and live a fulfilling life, even if they have been criticized publicly or lost one particular job. It is right for people to stand up against those who act in harmful, prejudiced and offensive ways.

Commonly Occurring Left-leaning Anti-Woke Views

  • Cancel culture often harms people unfairly. Justice is not best served by mobs harassing a person or trying to get them fired. When this is seen as an acceptable way to settle disputes, people become afraid to express reasonable opinions (fearing they will be misinterpreted and harassed). The best way to handle statements that you think are offensive or harmful is to make arguments against them, not to try to get the person that said them fired or ostracized. We need to make it safe for people to debate with each other, and we can’t trust anyone to be the arbiter of what ideas are “off limits” – if we do that then eventually some of our own ideas will end up being off limits according to whoever happens to be in power at that moment.

Columbus’s Fourth Voyage: To the Aztec Empire and the Isle of Dread

No, I’m not confusing Columbus with Cortes, or mistaking the Isle of Dread for a real place. I just decided to have some creative fun with this D&D classic. What, I asked myself, if the Isle of Dread was set in a world of voyaging Spaniards and Aztec sacrifice? In an alternate 16th-century world where magic exists, but is a capital offense punished by the Inquisition? Where, sixteen years before the arrival of Cortes and his conquistadors, Emperor Moctezuma II sits fresh on his throne, wasting no time in taking measures to centralize his empire and make the Aztecs invincible? The following adventure is what I came up with.

The year in this alternate world is 1503 AD, and the adventure starts in Mexico, where Christopher Columbus has been forced to beach after a destructive storm. The PCs are part of his crew — the crew of his fourth voyage — but they’re on the run from the Spanish Inquisition and have joined his expedition under false pretenses, intent on putting many miles as possible between them and Spain. If Columbus found out their real identities — a sodomite, a blasphemer, a Jew sorcerer, an apostate ex-priest (now a druid), a warlock, and an assassin — he would be in a towering fury. He might try to have them hanged, or chained to be shipped back to the Inquisition. More likely, however, is that he will (after getting over himself) choose to ally with them. He will need their skills and powers to have a hope of surviving the Aztec empire and the Isle of Dread, and to obtain gold and wealth from these perilous lands. All of his voyages have been driven by that overriding imperative: to acquire enough wealth to finance the Last Crusade, liberate Jerusalem from the Muslims, and hasten the end of the world. As Columbus proved on his earlier voyages, he is capable of turning a blind eye to those he morally despises for sake of his Grand Cause. And by the time of his fourth voyage, he is convinced more than ever that the apocalypse is imminent.

The PCs, for their part, have gotten way more than they bargained for. They’ve leaped out of the Inquisitional frying pan into the Aztec fire, and things will get disastrously worse on the Isle of Dread. They will have to decide how much of their true identities they wish to keep secret, and for how long, assuming that they even can. The Isle of Dread will force them to show their true colors, especially once they start casting spells. But first things first: the background leading up to the arrival at Mexico.

The Background: Columbus’s Fourth Voyage and the “Panama Canal”

Columbus had left Spain with four ships on May 11, 1502, and eventually reached the coast of Honduras in late July. The purpose of this voyage was to find a strait linking the lands in the Caribbean (which Columbus still believes to be part of Asia) with the Indian Ocean. This strait has been known to exist since Marco Polo traversed it on his way back from China. So in effect, Columbus was looking for the Strait of Malacca (which is really near Singapore) in the region of Central America.

He explored down the coast of Central America until coming to Panama in mid-October, where he learned two important things from the Ngabe natives: (1) that there was another ocean just a few days march to the south, which convinced him that the strait was indeed nearby; (2) that the natives had shitloads of gold. He soon found out, however, that the “strait” was an isthmus and not a water channel. He decided to find a suitable spot to set up a trading post, and in January found a safe harbor at the mouth of the river Belen. He built a garrison fort there in January, making it his headquarters for exploration, until months later in April, the Indians — finally fed up with his presence — attacked the Belen fort, and over a ten-day period (April 6-16) killed some of his men, forcing him to leave and abandon one of his mired ships (the Gallega). On Easter Day (April 16, 1503), retreating from the attacks, Columbus took his three remaining ships, badly leaking from shipworm, and started to sail back home.

It’s at this point that Columbus’s trajectory takes a radically different turn in the alternate D&D world.

In our world, from the point of April 16, 1503, Columbus abandons the Vizcaina (leaking so badly it’s falling apart) at Porto Bello, and then sails the two remaining ships (the Capitana and Bermuda) up to Cuba, where he is caught in a storm so violent that he’s forced back south to beach at Jamaica, where he is marooned for a whole year (June 25, 1503 – June 29, 1504), his ships unusable and irreparable in an unsettled land. After finally being rescued by men from Hispaniola, he makes his way back to Spain, returning on November 7, 1504. He will never sail again, and his fourth voyage ends a dismal failure, having failed to find a strait to the western waters. (To add insult to injury, he failed to make contact with a significant tribe of peoples, the Maya of Yucatán, by the narrowest of margins, by sailing south instead of north when he had reached Honduras.)

In the alternate D&D world, Columbus’s fourth voyage becomes a smashing success — though whether he and his remaining crew (and the PCs) will live to tell the tale is another question. In the D&D world, the Panama Canal already exists naturally as a strait; it doesn’t need to wait for the elaborate engineering of the 20th century. The Indians lied to Columbus, or at least they hadn’t told the whole truth. The strait is accessible every other month — in February, April, June, August, October, and December — when the land mass sinks. During the other months the land rises, blocking the water passage between the two oceans. (It’s a bit like the Sinking Lands in the world of Lankhmar, except on a monthly timetable instead of a daily one.) At the start of every January, March, May, July, September, and November, submerged gases build up beneath masses of rock which rise to the surface and block the water passage. A month later the land sinks, allowing boats and ships to sail through the “Panama Canal” for the duration of those months (February, April, etc.).

Columbus learns the truth of this toward the end of the ten-day battle at Belen (April 6-16), when the Indians simply tell him the truth in hopes that it will make him abandon the garrison and depart their land. With praises to God on his lips that’s exactly what he sets out to do, since the strait is accessible in April. He and his men (and the PCs) board the three remaining ships — the Capitana, the Bermuda, and the Vizcaina — and sail through the canal. He soon abandons the Vizcaina (falling apart, like in our world), on the south side of Panama, and then sails the Capitana and Bermuda up to the coast of Mexico, where he is caught in a storm just as terrible as the one in our world that marooned him at Jamaica. The Bermuda is utterly pulverized at sea by the hurricane, claiming the lives of 37 men and boys, while the others make it to shore in longboats. The Capitana is able to anchor but will need serious repairs before it can sail again.

This region of Mexico is under Aztec control, and Columbus and his men and the PCs are soon captured by Aztec warriors and brought before the King of Soconusco, who — astonished, having never seen white Europeans before — orders them marched north to the capital at Tenochtitlan, the heart of the Aztec Empire, to be dealt with by the emperor, Moctezuma II. From there, the D&D adventure officially begins: an unrelenting nightmare that pits them against bloodthirsty Aztecs, and then a voyage to the Isle of Dread to search for a legendary Black Pearl of the Gods.

The Aztecs: Horror at Tenochtitlan and the Legend of the Black Pearl

Of the original 133 men that sailed from Spain in four ships, 79 (including Columbus and the PCs) made it to the shores of Mexico, crammed into one ship. When they are marched into Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), they are at first treated like gods, as the Aztecs have never seen white people before. But it soon becomes clear that they are inferior barbarians when they show a loathing for godly things (refusing to eat blood, prizing gold over valuables like feathers, etc). 39 of Columbus’s crew are sacrificed at the temple of Huitzilopochtli, their hearts ripped out by the emperor himself (the highest priest in the land), and their bodies cast down the pyramid steps. Five of them are retained as hostages: Columbus’s brother Bartholomew, his 14-year old son Ferdinand, and three random cabin boys. The remaining 35 (including Columbus and the PCs) are sent to the Isle of Dread to obtain the legendary Black Pearl of the Gods. Communication is conducted through Xiuhcoatl, the high priest of Quetzalcoatl, who has the equivalent of a tongues spell.

The DM should convey the paradox of Aztec sacrifice — that it’s a hideous way to die, but not performed out of cruelty or as a brutal display of power. Sacrifice keeps the world alive. The Aztecs believe that the sun will die without ongoing sacrifice. If Columbus is trying to hasten the apocalypse, the Aztecs are doing everything to prevent the apocalypse from happening. They consider it an honor to be sacrificed, and that’s part of what makes it so troubling. It’s hard to persuade a culture to give up its “necessary evils” when it isn’t even perceived that way. Sacrifice is a mark of civilization. Unlike, say, Islamic jihadis, the Aztec priests have a deep respect for life, which is all the more reason they consider sacrifice benevolent: the sacrifice of a life helps preserve many lives.

Even the Aztec war code is “enlightened”, since Aztecs (unlike Muslim Islamists, or the Spaniard conquistadors who came after Columbus) have no interest in dominion per se. They don’t impose their religion or government on any conquered areas. As a people of war their intent is not to subjugate, only to collect tribute and sacrifices — tribute for the benefit of the empire, sacrifices for the benefit of the world. The universe continues to exist only because sacrifice nourishes the divine sun. Killing a foe in war is thus not as good as capturing the foe for the altar.

Aztecs: Empire of the Dying Sun summarizes the worldview:

“The heavens are burning with fire and the gods are filled with wrath. Four of the five suns that once reigned over the world are no extinguished, and the Aztecs stand on the edge of eternal darkness. Only sacrifice will keep the fifth sun in the sky, and that means there must be prisoners to kill for the sake of the sun’s power. As brutal as it may seem to the other tribes of the Mexican lands, the Aztecs are trying to save the world. They do not need approval or acquiescence. They only need blood and sacrifice. Their cause is noble even if their means are savage.”

Everything in Aztec culture revolves around the bloody sacrificial cult. The Great Temple at Tenochtitlan (the two temples to Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc) has over 5000 priests, each of whom daily sacrifice some of their own blood. That doesn’t even count the other temples. With a total population of 320,000, the priesthood comprises about 2% of it. The highest priest is the emperor, though the emperor only leads sacrifices on special victims — and Columbus’s crew is one such case: the extraordinary white-colored men who came from the ocean. The next highest priests are those of Huitzilopochtli (god of sun and war) and Tlaloc (god of rain and agriculture), both equal in rank. And so forth down the line. There are many more gods, with temples to most of them: Quetzalcoatl (god of wind and knowledge, who is the highest ranking god in the city of Cholula); Huhueteotl (god of fire), Mictlantecuhtli (god of death), Tezcatlipoca (god of night and sorcery), Tlazolteotl (goddess of lust and “eater of sins”, to whom the Aztecs confess their trangressions), Xochiquetzal (goddess of love and flowers and songs), and more. A small town might sacrifice 30 people in a year, while large cities might sacrifice hundreds or even thousands. The 39 people from Columbus’s crew are sacrificed at the temple of Huitzilopochtli over a three day period: 13 victims each day, as 13 is the Aztec holy number.

Columbus and his family are obviously excluded from sacrifice, since Columbus is the leader. The PCs are excluded too, since the emperor and his high priests sense their skills and spell powers which will be necessary to survive the Isle of Dread (which is what the Aztecs call it), and obtain the Black Pearl of the Gods. When Xiuhcoatl explains the reason why the PCs were among those spared, Columbus is stunned, and demands that the PCs explain who they really are, once they are left alone in their cells after the first round of sacrifices. The PCs reveal their true identities (see capsules further below), and Columbus is aghast that he has taken heretics and criminals into his crew. But he realizes he has little choice but to work with them.

As for the Black Pearl, Xiuhcoatl has known of its existence for 26 years now. In 1477 AD (his fourth year as the high priest of Quetzalcoatl) he received a telepathic vision from his brother Chimalli, who was blessed by the deity to have been flown to the Isle on the back of a flying snake. Some priests say the snake was a manifestation of Quetzalcoatl himself, but at the very least it was a servant of the wind god. Chimalli had been specially chosen, and was filled with dreams of a Black Pearl of the Gods hidden somewhere on the mythical Isle. He was unable to find it after over two months of searching the Isle; or perhaps he found it and was killed. The snake was to have returned Chimalli to Tenochtitlan whether or not his quest was successful, but the divine serpent was never seen again in Mexico. Chimalli did however send a telepathic vision to Xiuhcoatl on his 65th day on the Isle, in which he stated that he thought he was getting “very close” to finding the Pearl. He also supplied his brother with facts and rumors about the island, that he had either experienced first hand or was told about from the natives. (They are listed four paragraphs below.) His vision also included an aerial map of the Isle that reflected what he saw upon arrival, circling high over the island on the back of the snake. Xiuhcoatl afterwards put himself into a trance that allowed him to draw his brother’s map of the Isle with remarkable precision. (Also shown below.) The map has been guarded closely by the Quetzalcoatl priesthood ever since. The names of seven villages are scrawled in the southeastern peninsula, and Xiuhcoatl believes that these are probably the areas Chimalli began his quest, in asking the local natives about the Black Pearl.

Twenty-six years later (and now 59 years old), Xiuhcoatl still desperately wants the Black Pearl, as does Moctezuma, both believing it has the power to make the Aztec empire utterly and expansively invincible, and thus the means to an endless supply of human sacrifices. (Which isn’t precisely true: the Black Pearl is indeed very powerful but in a different way, allowing its wielder to control the weather, plant life, and wild animal life over vast regions of land and water. The Pearl is also cursed, so it comes with a price.) But the Aztecs have no ships or seafaring skills, they are terrified of the ocean, and no one is counting on the miracle of another flying snake. Xiuhcoatl persuades Moctezuma and the high priest of Huitzilopochtli (Camaxtli) that the arrival of Columbus’s ocean crew is a godsend. After “honoring” these strange visitors with the three-day sacrifice, they imprison the five hostages and “ask” the remaining 35 survivors to sail to the Isle of Dread (the name they gave it after the loss of Chimalli) and get the Black Pearl — and also to bring back Chimalli if by some slim chance he’s still alive and they find him. They are free to keep whatever gold and treasure they find there, which according to Chimalli (see rumors below) seem to be in abundance. Moctezuma gives Columbus a special gift: a blanket of ultra-protection, which confers an armor class of -7 on its wearer; it is light as a shirt and has the texture of cloth, but its deep enchantments ward against most attacks as effectively as magic steel. Columbus will certainly need this blanket when he gets to the Isle; he’s no fighter, and he’s old and ill, subject to being killed by a single attack.

Besides taking the hostages, Moctezuma, Xiuhcoatl, and Camaxtli have another fail-safe to make the party comply: any of the 35 men who (a) avoid sailing to the Isle, (b) do not return to Mexico when they depart the Isle, or (c) fail to obtain the Black Pearl, will be cursed and die of withering — aging five years per day from the point at which they deviate from their objective. Camaxtli is the one who puts the curse on them. (It takes a remove curse cast by someone at least 13th level to free all 35 victims; 11th level to free two thirds of them, and 9th level to free a third of the party. Cast by a spell user below 9th level, remove curse will be useless.)

The gist of what they are told is that somewhere in the ocean 2000 miles southwest of the Aztecs, lies a dreadful island populated by natives, exotic creatures, dinosaurs, and lost temples of an ancient race. There’s treasure to be found, but it doesn’t come easy, and Columbus’s men wouldn’t last more than a few days on the island without skilled characters like the PCs. Xiuhcoatl gives Columbus the aerial map of the Isle (who will give it to Felice, the PC serving as Columbus’s cartographer; see further below), and also supply the following facts/rumors conveyed by Chimalli — who either experienced them first hand, and/or was warned about them from the natives, but wasn’t able to confirm in the vision which ones were actually true. (Most of them are. Only 3 and 7 are false.)

1. The Isle is inhabited by huge animals and dinosaurs, and there is lots of treasure.

2. There are friendly tribes of natives on the southeastern peninsula. They are protected by a huge wall and can provide some helpful information about the Isle.

3. Hidden in the steamiest jungles of the Isle is a forgotten ruined city of the gods, with streets paved of pure gold.

4. A great and ancient evil slumbers under the Isle.

5. The dead walk the Isle at night.

6. The shoals around the Isle are infested with sharks and worse. But the oyster beads are full of pearls.

7. Many of the dinosaurs are dim-witted and can be easily frightened off with displays of showy magic.

Xiuhcoatl strongly advises making contact with the friendly natives on the southeastern peninsula to start with, and asking about the Pearl, what they told Chimalli years before, and what Chimalli set out to do from there.

The crew of the Isle of Dread: Between the losses at the Battle of Belen in Panama (17 killed), the hurricane off the coast Mexico that destroyed the Bermuda (37 killed), and the victims sacrificed at Tenochtitlan (39 killed), and those to remain at Tenochtitlan (5 hostages), there are 35 left of the original 133 who will sail to the Isle of Dread in the Capitana:

1 admiral (Christopher Columbus, Admiral of the Ocean Sea)
1 captain (Ambrosio Sanchez, Master of the Capitana)
17 sailors (from the original total of 45 sailors on all four ships)
2 carpenters (from The Capitana and Bermuda)
1 gunner (from the Capitana)
1 cooper (from the Bermuda)
1 chaplain (from the Vizcaina)
5 cabin boys (from the original total of 50 cabin boys on all four ships)
6 player characters (see below)

The Player Characters: the Sodomite, the Blasphemer, the Jew-Demon, the Apostate, the Warlock, and the Assassin

Here are the PCs. They obtained passage on Columbus’s fourth voyage either as a paid crew member or paying passenger. They did not reveal their true names and identities until Columbus’s crew went under Aztec sacrifice and it was made clear that the PCs were being spared for their skills and spell powers.

1. “The Sodomite”: Sergio Suarez. 5th level ranger. Chaotic good. Between the 1480s and the 1530s, many sodomites were stoned, castrated, and burned by the Spanish Inquisition, and Sergio’s lover (Diego Morales) was tortured for a hideously long time before being burned in a public square. Sergio has vowed vengeance on the Inquisition, but isn’t yet in a position to do that. He has excellent shipping skills, and Columbus hired him a sailor on board his flagship, the Capitana, agreeing to pay him 1000 maravedis a month. Columbus now knows that he’s a skilled ranger but not that he’s a homo. If he were to learn that, he would consider having Sergio hanged. He went by the name San Jacinto before revealing his true identity.

Stats: Strength 15, Intelligence 16, Wisdom 11, Dexterity 17, Constitution 14, Charisma 15, Comeliness 16. Hit points: 45. Armor class: 4 (studded leather). # of attacks/round: 1/1. Damage/attack: 3-10 (long sword +1), 1-6 (arrows from long bow). [Long bow has an effective range of 150 feet, up to 600 feet with -2 penalty per 200 feet.] Also has a whip, which does no physical damage, but Sergio is skilled enough that on a successful hit, the opponent must make a dexterity save or be yanked to the ground, losing a round of attack.

Magic items: (1) Long sword +1. (2) Ring of water elemental command: water walking (unlimited use), create water (unlimited use), lower or raise water (2x/day; up to 24 feet deep, in a 120′ x 120′ area), water breathing (1x/day), assume liquid form (1x/day), wall of ice (1x/day), part water (1x/week; 36 feet deep by 12 feet wide by 240 yards long, for a two-hour duration), tsunami (1x/month; a wave 60 feet high and 120 feet long, traveling 500 mph on the open sea, 40 mph on land, that lasts for a duration of 2 turns).

Ranger abilities: extra damage to “giant class” creatures; surprise on 1-3 (d6); surprised only on 1 (d6); tracking skills, indoor and outdoor; identify plants and animals.

Languages: Spanish (Castilian), Portuguese, Galician.

2. “The Blasphemer”: Alejandro Sosa. 6th level fighter. Neutral. He’s wanted for defiling and vandalizing a church in Valladolid, and for declaiming the Eucharist as a cannibalistic rite. Alejandro considers himself a Christian, but he’s obviously a heretic, and wanted fervently by the Spanish Inquisition. He’s a former soldier in the Castilian army, and skilled in gun use and siege engine warfare. Columbus hired him as one of the two gunners on his second ship, the Bermuda, agreeing to pay him 1000 maravedis a month. He went by the name Elias Chavera before telling Columbus who he really is, and Columbus was appalled to learn that he had taken the infamous Alejandro Sosa on board his ship.

Stats: Strength 17, Intelligence 9, Wisdom 11, Dexterity 15, Constitution 16, Charisma 7, Comeliness 10. Hit points: 60. Armor class 1 (plate mail + helm). # of attacks/round: 3/2. Damage/attack: 5-12 (battle-axe +2), 2-16 (bullets from matchlock rifle). [Matchlock rifle fires once every two rounds, and has an effective range of 650 feet.]

Magic items: (1) Battle-axe +2. (2) Helm of underwater action (crystal clear sight, normal breathing, and normal movement under water).

Languages: Spanish (Castilian).

3. “The Jew Demon”: Isaac de Barros Basta. 7th level mage. Neutral good. On the run from the Spanish Inquisition, Isaac has a huge price on his head: 300,000 maravedis. He barely escaped the Inquisition months ago in Toledo, where his parents and younger sister were tortured, convicted of Jewish witchcraft, and then burned in an auto-da-fe. (His sister Esther had been a 3rd level mage.) He vowed vengeance on the Inquisition but knew he wasn’t nearly equipped to take on the institution, and fled Europe to dodge the bounty, using his alter self spell when exposing himself in risky public areas. Isaac has mending skills, and Columbus agreed to hire him as a caulker on board his second ship, the Bermuda, agreeing to pay him 500 maravedis a month. He went by the name Emiliano Casal before revealing his identity, and Columbus is doubly horrified at having made common cause with a sorcerer (bad) who is a Jew (worse).

Stats: Strength 12, Intelligence 18, Wisdom 16, Dexterity 15, Constitution 16, Charisma 11, Comeliness 9. Hit points: 35. Armor class 7 (ring of protection +2). # of attacks/round: 1/1. Damage/attack: 1-6 (quarterstaff).

Magic items: (1) Ring of protection +2. (2) Eye of discord (when wearing the monocle, the user’s gaze causes a victim within 25 feet to save or become utterly contrarian, unable to agree with any idea or statement or action of anyone; if used more than once a day, the user must also make a save, at a cumulative -1 penalty each time, or be inflicted with a nasty migraine for 1-4 hours that gives him -3 to hit, damage, and save). (3) Wand of shelter (26 charges): casts a “tiny hut” spell that includes a nice full meal for up to nine people.

Spells: magic missile (x2), mend (x2), ventriloquism; alter self, ESP, hypnotic pattern, invisibility; clairvoyance/clairaudience, tongues (x2); phantasmal killer, polymorph other.

Languages: Spanish (Castilian), Portuguese, Hebrew, Latin.

4. “The Apostate”: Enrique Vidal. 6th level druid. Neutral good. A former priest at the Mezquita of Cordoba, Enrique abandoned Christianity in 1499 and has worshiped the forest god Silvanus ever since. He is wanted by the Inquisition for spiritual subversion and instigating mass defects to the druid faith — wanted so badly that a bounty of 200,000 maravedis is on his head. He barely eluded capture months ago, when his hideout in Aragon was discovered. Hearing of the native cultures discovered on Columbus’s three voyages, he decided to flee to these “Indie” lands and counter Columbus’s evangelical missions with his own — by slyly piggy-backing on the admiral’s fourth voyage. He had some money saved over the previous three years, and so payed his way as a passenger aboard the fourth ship, the Vizcaina (for 8000 maravedis). When that ship fell apart and had to be abandoned, Enrique hopped over to the Bermuda. He went by the name Juan Ramirez before telling Columbus who he really is. Of all the PCs, Enrique is the most difficult one for Columbus to choke down, as he is an apostate, his soul beyond redemption.

Stats: Strength 10, Intelligence 15, Wisdom 16, Dexterity 9, Constitution 13, Charisma 18, Comeliness 12. Hit points: 42. Armor class 5 (studded leather +2). # of attacks/round: 1/1. Damage/attack: 3-8 (staff of woodlands), 1-8 (scimitar).

Magic items: (1) Studded leather +2. (2) Extra-healing potions (three). (3) Staff of the woodlands (28 charges): functions as a quarterstaff +2 (0 charges); pass without trace (0 charges), detect snares & pits (0 charges), charm animal (1 charge), speak with animals (1 charge), barkskin (2 charges), summon swarm (2 charges), wall of thorns (3 charges), commune with nature (3 charges), animate plants (4 charges).

Prayers (spells): calm animals, create food & water, cure light wounds (x2); flaming sphere, fog cloud, hold animal, spider climb; cure disease, neutralize poison, water breathing.

Languages: Spanish (Castilian), Latin, Portuguese, Italian (Tuscan), English.

5. “The Warlock”: Felice Monterosso al Mare. 5th level mage. Chaotic good. Of the six PCs, Felice is the only non-Spaniard. He is Genoese (like Columbus) and a skilled cartographer who vaguely knew Columbus in the early 1470s. He’s been living in the port city of Malaga since 1496, where he began secretly studying magic. The Inquisition recently smoked out his mentor (the wizard Hilario De Noia), and burned him alive, and feeling the heat, Felice sought out his “old friend” Columbus when he heard that he was soon sailing again for the Indies. Columbus hired him as a cartographer on board the flagship, the Capitana, to map the new lands of the fourth voyage (agreeing to pay him 2000 maravedis a month). Columbus had no idea that Felice had become a magic-user and was livid when Felice revealed that. He is the only PC not wanted by the Inquisition, but he can’t be sure of that. For all he knows, Hilario gave the Inquisition his name under torture (Hilario did not in fact do this).

Stats: Strength 9, Intelligence 18, Wisdom 7, Dexterity 16, Constitution 10, Charisma 13. Comeliness 15. Hit points: 15. Armor class 5 (cloak of protection +3). # of attacks/round: 1/1. Damage/attack: 1-4 (dagger).

Magic items: (1) Cloak of protection +2. (2) Rod of fire extinguishing (22 charges). (3) Glasses of magic reading (as per read magic spell, unlimited use), (4) Bag of holding (up to 1000 pounds, or 50,000 coins [50 gp weigh a pound])

Spells: comprehend languages (x2), identify (x2); knock (x2), minor image; dispel magic, fireball.

Books: In addition to his spellbook, Felice carries around six books in his bag of holding: Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio, (not Paradiso which he disdains), Boccacciio’s The Decameron, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Mallory’s The Death of King Arthur, and the Bible.

Languages: Italian (Ligurian & Tuscan), English, Spanish (Castilian), Portuguese.

As the cartographer of the Capitana, Felice is entrusted with the aerial map of the Isle of Dread.

6. “The Assassin”: Lucia Alvaro. 4th level assassin. Chaotic neutral. Hunted by the Spanish Inquisition for recently assassinating the bishop of Jaen, she has disguised herself (per assassin ability) with new haircut, clothing, etc. Aside from Enrique, she’s the only PC who has money to speak of (from assassination jobs) and paid her way as a passenger on board Columbus’s fourth ship, the Vizcaina (for 8000 maravedis). When that ship fell apart and had to be abandoned, she hopped over to the Capitana. She went by the name Carmen Urias before telling Columbus who she is. Ridiculed at first as a woman, a sailor tried to rape her the second day out from Spain, and got his throat slit for his efforts. Columbus, despising rapists, approved the killing entirely. Now that he knows she’s Lucia Alvaro the bishop assassin, he loathes her. But like the rest of the crew, he gives her wide berth.

Stats: Strength 13, Intelligence 17, Wisdom 12, Dexterity 18, Constitution 16, Charisma 7, Comeliness 14. Hit points: 28. Armor class 5 (leather), Damage/attack: 4-11 (rapier), 1-6 (arrows, short bow). [Short bow has an effective range of 60 feet, up to 250 feet with -1 penalty per 50 feet above 50.]

Magic items: (1) Arrows of venom (six; save or die). (2) Rapier of paralysis (+3 rapier, on a natural roll of 20 paralyzes the opponent for 1-4 rounds).

Poison: 4 doses of type B ingestive poison (after 2-5 rounds of swallowing, 15 hp of damage if save, 30 hp of damage if no save).

Assassin abilities: assassination, if the opponent is surprised; pick pockets (45%), open locks (37%), find/remove traps (35%), move silently (33%), hide in shadows (25%), climb walls (88%), spy (base 65%), disguise (base 98%).

Languages: Spanish (Castilian).

The uneasy alliance between the PCs and Columbus is born of need: Columbus needs their ranger, warrior, mage, and rogue skills to obtain the Black Pearl (and whatever gold and treasure he can for his own quest), while the PCs need Columbus to captain the ship and keep the rest of the crew from turning on them. The crew won’t take orders from the PCs, and certainly not if they learn that these PCs are morally “beyond the pale”. They could try taking over the Capitana, but for all their high levels and skills, they would be outnumbered and have to worry constantly about mutiny (especially when they sleep). Working with Columbus is an unpalatable but realistic course of action. But it will be a tense and volatile alliance that could end at a moment’s notice on the Isle. It all depends on how the PCs play it.

Role-playing Columbus

The DM should have fun role-playing Columbus, and if done right the players will get a taste of a somewhat different man than his legacy suggests. Columbus wasn’t the greedy colonizer of left-wing screeds. He had no use for money personally and dressed like a dirt-poor friar in spite of his wealth. His relentless search for gold wasn’t a commercial expedition but an apocalyptic mandate. Like many late fifteenth-century Christians (after the fall of Constantinople to Islam), he believed the end of the world wasn’t far off, and that conditions had to be fulfilled before Christ’s second coming: the Turks had to be defeated, Jerusalem liberated from Muslim control, and the world evangelized. A crusade was necessary, and this “Last Crusade” — which Queen Isabella strongly supported — needed shitloads of money to be financed.

By 16th-century standards, Columbus was actually a decent enough human being. Throughout his voyages he tried to treat the natives well, unlike many of his men who defied his orders (or even rebelled), raping and plundering with abandon. He hanged some of the Spaniards who defied him, though much of it was beyond his control. He sent natives to Spain for enslavement, but only under acceptable conditions. It was standard papal policy to permit enslavement of those who (a) were captured in a “just war”, (b) resisted Christianization, or (c) went against the “law of nature”. The Caribs he encountered on his second voyage, for example, appeared to fit all three requirements. They had (a) brutalized and enslaved the peaceful native tribes (whom Columbus freed and returned to their homes), (b) resisted all peaceful overtures made to them, and (c) were sodomites and cannibals.

Slavery is repugnant, but Columbus can’t be judged immoral on this basis as an individual, anymore than American presidents who served before the Civil War. Even the friar Bartholomew de las Casas, who began as a slave-owning colonizer in 1502, and then after 1514 spent decades as a repentant radical — ferociously fighting slavery and the colonial abuse of indigenous peoples — viewed Columbus kindly in hindsight, describing him as morally just, in contrast to the governors who supplanted him (Bobadilla and Ovando) and the conquistadors (Cortes, etc.) who came after.

All that being said, the PCs will have little reason to like Columbus. It’s precisely his piety and religious motives that get in the way. The PCs hate the church and loathe the Spanish Inquisition — which was founded by Columbus’s benefactor Queen Isabella — and plan to make war on the holy office at some point. After only 20 years the Inquisition in Spain has done more harm than the medieval inquisitions in Europe (which had been under papal control) did over any period three times as long. Columbus stands tall for the church and his queen, and so that pretty much makes him a de facto enemy in the PCs’ eyes.

Columbus’s stats are as follows:

“The Admiral of the Ocean Sea”: Christopher Columbus. 8th level seaman. Lawful good.

Stats: Strength 7, Intelligence 15, Wisdom 8, Dexterity 7, Constitution 5, Charisma 12, Comeliness 6. Hit points: 10. Armor class 10 (or -7, from magic blanket given to him by the Aztecs). Damage/attack: 1-4 (dagger).

(He used to be a more capable and charismatic man than the above scores suggest. The stress of his voyages and increased illnesses have taken their toll. For example, at the start of the first voyage in 1492 his scores were: Strength 10, Intelligence 15, Wisdom 14, Dexterity 9, Constitution 11, Charisma 17, Comeliness 9.)

Languages: Italian (Ligurian), Latin, Greek, Spanish (Castilian), Portuguese.

In short, Columbus is no greedy imperialist, but he is an apocalyptic zealot, and he’s only gotten worse since his ignominious return in chains from the third voyage. Once sharp and wise, he now sees biblical prophecy under every rock; holy purpose on every land sighting. He pushes to dig for gold even when his ships are all but falling apart. When breaking for camp he will have his nose in his Bible and self-authored Book of Prophecies, sniffing out divine commentary on his present whereabouts. Once pleasant company, he’s now ill tempered, and he resents those who don’t appreciate his exegetical genius. Those who question his Book of Prophecies will be answered rudely; those who critique it will be dismissed hostilely. He suffers terribly from rheumatoid arthritis and irritable bowel syndrome. He avoids combat scenarios, as he is not a fighter. Most encounters on the Isle of Dread would kill him and he will have to rely on the PCs for protection.

Gold and Currency

The Black Pearl of the Gods is obviously the party’s main objective (and to retrieve Chimalli if he is still alive). If they leave the Isle without obtaining the Pearl, they fall under the Aztecs’ curse. But it is gold and monetary treasure that drives Columbus’s voyages more than anything (not for wealth, but to finance the Last Crusade that will herald the end of the world). So it’s important to understand its value in this world. The currency mirrors that of 16th-century Spain in our world.

The common unit of currency is the maravedi. The average person’s annual labor is worth about 2000 maravedis. So the sailors whom Columbus pays ~660 maravedis a month are being paid decently for the risks and hardships they take.

The real is the common silver coin of Spain. 1 real = 34 maravedis.

The ducat is the gold coin of Spain. I ducat = 375 maravedis.

The peso is the new gold coin coming from the new world discovered by Columbus. It has more gold than the ducat (4.18 grams instead of 3.485 grams). 1 peso = 450 maravedis.

Assume that all gold pieces found in the Indies (and on the Isle of Dread) are the equivalent of gold pesos. Assume that copper pieces, silver pieces, and platinum pieces convert to the gold/peso exactly as they do in D&D. So a silver piece found on the Isle of Dread is 1/10 of a peso. A platinum piece is worth 5 times a peso. Etc.

In our world, the Spanish crown started to receive a lot of revenue from the Indies (new world) when the conquistadors landed in Mexico. (To put it in perspective, throughout the 1520s-30s, estimates range that the crown received anywhere between 50,000 – 150,000 gold coin per year from the Indies.) In this world, Columbus and the PCs will be in a land (the Isle of Dread) that has as much wealth as Mexico, if not more. What they do with all the wealth they can carry (Felice has a bag of holding) will be largely up to the PCs. They will almost certainly not let Columbus claim it all for the Spanish crown they detest so much, but how they negotiate the details will be determined in the role-playing.

Journey to the Isle of Dread

Geographically, the Isle of Dread sits right on the equator, between 0° North Latitude and 2° South Latitude. Because of its almost central location on the globe, there are about 12 hours of daylight year-round. There are only two seasons that the Isle experiences. The dry season goes from June to September; the wet season goes from October through May and brings with it hotter temperatures, higher humidity, and rain. The party will be landing on the Isle probably sometime in September, towards the end of the dry season, and will be staying long enough to put them well into the wet season, and possibly even beyond the sailing season, into November (see the global graph below), though they could conceivably complete their quest by the third week of October. Depending on how their quest goes, they might have to wait until the following May to leave the Island safely. (See the next two posts for the time frame of the adventure path.)

The fully repaired Capitana will probably travel 96-144 miles per day (4 miles per hour with moderate winds, 6 mph with strong winds). The distance from the Soconusco coast to the Isle is about 1300 miles, so figure about a 9-13 day voyage. Ideally, if Columbus and the PCs start sailing on August 24, they might arrive as early as September 2, or as late as September 6.

Note that without an experienced seaman commanding/piloting the ship — like Christopher Columbus or Ambrosio Sanchez — the Capitana will have little hope of reaching the Isle of Dread. Also, commanders and pilots under 4th level (Columbus is an 8th level seaman, Sanchez 5th level), are able to make a ship like the Capitana travel 72-120 miles per day to get to their destination, rather than 96-144.

The Capitana‘s stats are as follows:

Hull points: 103
Length: 70 feet
Width: 25 feet
Masts: 3, for 3 sails, and 2 yardarms per mast
Normal sail: 4 mph (based on a wind force of moderate breezes, 8-18 mph)
Maximum sail: 6 mph (based on a wind force of strong breezes, 19-31 mph)
Guns: 2 swivel cannons (fore), 1 heavy cannon (stern)

Regarding cannon. It takes one round to load/reload a cannon, a second round to aim it, and the third round to fire it.

Any large target of a swivel cannon is treated as armor class 7. The ten-pound ball causes 4-40 points of damage. It fires at a range of 30-200 feet (no penalty), 200-400 feet (-1 penalty), 400-600 feet (-2 penalty), and 600-1200 feet (-4 penalty).

Any large target of a heavy cannon is treated as armor class 3. The twenty-pound ball causes 6-60 points of damage. It fires at a range of 30-600 feet (no penalty), 600-1200 feet (-1 penalty), 1200-2400 feet (-2 penalty), and 2400-4800 feet (-4 penalty).

To determine the “to hit” roll required, treat the gunner as a fighter at half his level. Add two levels if the gunner has an assistant helping him load and aim the weapon (it doesn’t matter what level the assistant is; but that assistant must be proficient with siege weapons). Add another two levels for every four levels of seamanship that the commanding officer/pilot has, who is steering the ship and giving orders.

So, for examples: (1) The PC Alejandro Sosa (who is a 6th level fighter) has the other gunner (Mario Lopez) assist him, with Columbus (8th level seaman) steering the ship and giving orders. Alejandro will shoot as a 7th level fighter (6/2 + 2 + 8/4). (2) The NPC gunner Mario Lopez (who is a 3rd level fighter) shoots a cannon without any assistance, with Abrosio Sanchez (5th level seaman) steering the ship and giving orders. Mario will shoot as a 2nd level fighter in this case (3/2 + 0 + 5/4).

Regarding hull damage. Generally, it takes one day to repair a hull point of damage at sea, and one day to repair 4 hull points of damage if docked. The rate of success is 60% per hull point without a carpenter, and 95% per hull point if a carpenter is part of the crew. All of this assumes that there is material available for the repairs. Without enough crew, hull repairs are halved (a half a hull point per day at sea, and 2 hull points per day when docked). Repairs can be done at sea as long as the ship has at least half of its hull value. If it falls under a half, it needs to dock in order to make repairs that bring it at least up to half the hull value. From that point it can make more repairs at dock or at sea. A ship can of course keep sailing until it reaches 0 hull points (at which point it sinks). But its damage can’t be repaired at sea when the damage becomes too great.

To find out what the winds are like during the sail to the Isle, roll 3d6 at the start of every day:

3 — Calm (0-1 mph winds)
4-6 — Light Breeze (2-7 mph winds)
7-12 — Moderate Breeze (8-18 mph winds)
13-15 — Strong Breeze (19-31 mph winds)
16 — Near Gale (32-38 mph winds)
17 — Gale (39-54 mph winds)
18 — Violent Storm (55-72 mph winds) (75%) or Hurricane (73-125 mph winds) (25%)

For a strong gale, violent storm, or hurricane, the following five checks need to be made every six hours, or until the winds subside (for a near gale, there is a 50% chance of having to make the five checks as a strong gale):

Capsizing — 1% (strong gale), 20% (storm), 40% (hurricane)
Torn sail — 20% (strong gale), 45% (storm), 70% (hurricane)
Broken mast — 5% (strong gale), 25% (storm), 45% (hurricane)
Beam damage — 10% (strong gale), 35% (storm), 50% (hurricane)
Man overboard — 10% (strong gale), 40% (storm), 70% (hurricane)

A capsized ship takes 1-20 hull points of damage and throws 1-6 men overboard.
A torn sail results in 2-4 points of hull damage, and the sail rips or blows out, or a yardarm snaps, rendering the sail useless. The ship’s movement is reduced by a third until the sail is mended or replaced.
A broken mast results in 2-12 points of hull damage, and tears away the rigging and sails on that mast. The ship’s movement is reduced by a third until the mast is repaired.
Beam damage results in 3-24 points of hull damage.

Note that when a ship falls to less than 50% of its hull points, its base movement rate is reduced by 50%, and when it falls to less than 20%, its base movement is 20%. (When it reaches 0 hull points, it sinks.)

This assumes travel during a sailing season. For travel outside of the sailing season, the daily 3d6 roll is modified as follows:

3 — Calm (0-1 mph winds)
4 — Light Breeze (2-7 mph winds)
5-7 — Moderate Breeze (8-18 mph winds)
8-12 — Strong Breeze (19-31 mph winds)
13-14 — Near Gale (32-38 mph winds)
15-16 — Gale (39-54 mph winds)
17 — Violent Storm (55-72 mph winds)
18 — Hurricane (73-125 mph winds)

On top of winds, of course, there are wandering sea creatures that might happen along and attack the ship.


Pulling everything together, here’s what the timeline might look like in the D&D world, from the point of divergence with our world on April 16, 1503:

April 22-24. Columbus sails his three wounded ships through the “Panama Canal”.

April 25. He is forced to abandon the Vizcaina on the other side of the strait.

June 23. Off the coast of Mexico, he is hit a storm so violent that the Bermuda is destroyed at sea. Many of the crew die, and the survivors row to the Capitana in longboats. Of the original crew of 133 who sailed from Spain, 79 remain.

June 25. He anchors the Capitana off the Mexican coast and goes ashore. He and his crew and the PCs are captured by the Aztecs of Soconusco. The king orders them marched to Tenochtitlan.

July 16. They arrive in Tenochtitlan.

July 17-19. Three-day sacrifice. Each day, 13 men from Columbus’s crew are sacrificed (39 total).

July 20. Emperor Moctezuma and High Priest Xuichoatl explain the Black Pearl legend.

August 10. Back at Soconusco. Columbus’s crew begins repairing the Capitana.

August 24. Columbus and his crew and the PCs (now numbering 35 total) set sail for the Isle of Dread.

September 2-6. Arrive at the Isle of Dread.

When they arrive at the Isle, the reincarnated Isle of Dread module should be used. It’s enhanced and greatly expanded from the original classic, and easily retrofitted to first-edition D&D rules. In a future post, I will flesh out some of the encounter areas on and around the Isle as they apply to the adventure scenario I have outlined for this alternate world.


Appendix — Timeline of events: Columbus’s voyages, and the rise of the Aztec Empire and Spanish Inquisition

The following timeline may be more information than most DMs need, but the history is helpful to know, and may help guide the DM in role-playing Columbus based on things he has done in the past.

1345. Tenochtitlan founded by the Aztecs, fleeing Colhuacan and the wrath of the Acolhua empire (for sacrificing and flaying the Acolhua princess after the Acolhuas agreed to let her marry the Aztec ruler).

1358. Tlatelolco founded as a sister-city to Tenochtitlan. The two cities become tributaries and mercenaries of the Tepanec empire. Tlatelolco concentrates on trade and commerce while Tenochtitlan concentrates on war.

1428. The fall of the Tepanec empire (based at Acapotzalco). Beginning of the Aztec Empire, AKA the Triple Alliance: the city-states of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan. Each of the three allied kings leads a group of lesser kingdoms that coincide with the three major ethnic components and political powers of previous times: the Colhulas (Tenochtitlan), the Acolhua-Chichimecs (Texcoco), and the Tepanecs (Tlacopan).

Over the next nine decades, under six Aztec emperors, the empire will continue expanding its rule in the Valley of Mexico (click on the colored map below) until the combined forces of the Spanish conquistadors and their native allies under Hernán Cortés defeat them in 1521.

1453. Constantinople falls to the Ottoman Turks. The land route to Asia becomes closed to Europeans, as non-Muslim travelers are either taken hostage, enslaved, forcibly converted to Islam, or killed.

1473. The Battle of Tlatelolco. Axayacatl, sixth Tlatoani (King) of Tenochtitlan and third Huey Tlatoani (Emperor) of the Aztec Empire, conquers the city of Tlatelolco (the commerce-oriented sister-city of Tenochtitlan) on the pretext of being offended by the insulting behavior of its citizens. Tlatelolco is made subject to Tenochtitlan.

1478. The Spanish Inquisition is established by King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile, intended to maintain Catholic orthodoxy in the Spanish realm. Unlike the earlier inquisitions throughout the rest of Europe, the Spanish Inquisition is under secular rather than papal control, with particular focus on the “heresies” of Judaism and Islam, though other offenses too (sodomy, heresy, sorcery, etc).

1480. On the island of Porto Santo, Columbus begins planning to find a seaward route to Asia in order to fulfill apocalyptic expectations. Many Christians in the late 15th century believe that the apocalypse isn’t far off (especially since the fall of Constantinople to Islam in 1453), and that conditions must be fulfilled before Christ can come again: the Turks must be defeated and Jerusalem liberated from Muslim control once and for all. Columbus knows that another crusade is necessary, and that there is enough gold in the east to finance a crusade. He needs a seaward route, since the land route to Asia has been closed to Europeans since 1453. He intends to find a way to the east by sailing west around.

February 6, 1481. The first auto-da-fé is held in Seville, with six people burned alive in a public square. From this point the Inquisition grows fast throughout Castile, and over the next ten years, tribunals form in eight Castilian cities: Ávila, Córdoba, Jaén, Medina del Campo, Segovia, Sigüenza, Toledo, and Valladolid.

1483. Ferdinand and Isabella establish a state council to administer the Inquisition with the Dominican Friar Tomás de Torquemada acting as Inquisitor-General. The Jews are expelled from all of Andalusia. For the next 50 years the Spanish Inquisition will be extremely and efficiently active. Sodomites are stoned, castrated, and burned.

1486. Columbus petitions Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand for a western expedition to the east. He knows from the writings of Marco Polo that if the Great Khan could be converted, it would mean a reliable eastern flank to converge on Jerusalem at the same time European crusaders attacked from the west. Isabella loves his idea but is consumed with liberating Granada from the Muslims.

August 3, 1492. With the Muslims defeated in Granada, Columbus is finally granted his expedition by the Spanish monarchs, and sails from Palos de la Frontera on his first voyage, with 87 men aboard three ships: the caravel Niña (56 feet long, crew of 20 men), the caravel Pinta (56 feet long, crew of 26 men), and the carrack Santa Maria (75 feet long, crew of 41 men). In return for bringing gold to finance the Last Crusade, he is promised 10% of the profits, governorship over the lands that he finds, and the title of Admiral of the Ocean Sea. Columbus pays his crew as follows: masters and pilots, 2000 maravedis (4.4 gp) per month; able seamen, 1000 maravedis (2.2 gp) per month; ordinary seamen and ship’s boys, 666 maravedis (1.5 gp) per month. Total payroll was 250,180 maravedis (555 gp) per month. (1 gold piece/pesos = 450 maravedis).

October 12, 1492. Columbus touches down on San Salvador. He trades red caps and glass beads with the Arawak natives. When he leaves San Salvador, he takes several of the natives to serve as guides. Columbus plans to take six of the natives back to Spain so they can learn Spanish and so that his own family can learn Indian.

October 28, 1492. Columbus reaches Cuba and names it Juana. He tells his men that if the natives flee at their approach, they must not take anything from their homes. There should be trade (like beads and bells for needed food supplies), not stealing. Columbus becomes so impressed with Cuba that he intends the whole of Christendom to do business with these lands, and to eventually set up a trading post.

November 21, 1492. The Pinta vanishes into the darkness off the coast of Cuba. In his journal Columbus accuses Pinzón of separating the Pinta from the other ships in order to beat the admiral to rich sources of gold.

December 5, 1492. Columbus reaches Haiti and names it Hispaniola. They give a young woman gifts and return her ceremoniously to her village, and she returns with natives who bring food and parrots. Columbus orders that the Indians be treated courteously. Throughout the rest of the month he becomes annoyed at his men’s greed and disorderly conduct, and he compares them unfavorably with the generosity and dignity of the natives.

December 24-25, 1492. The Santa María drifts onto a bank, and then heels over and sinks. Columbus establishes good relations with Chief Guacanagari, and considers the natives in this area to be “Christians at heart”, ripe for conversion. When Guacanagari tells him that there is much gold on the island, Columbus decides to make a settlement where he is stranded and call the place Navidad (the “Christmas Port”). He plans to return to Spain for more ships and supplies and to take some men home, and leave behind 39 men at Navidad. Over the next few days Guacanagari gives Columbus some worked pieces of gold, including a mask. Columbus gives the chief beads, a cape, shoes, and a silver ring.

January 4, 1493. Columbus sets sail in the Niña in search of the Pinta, which has been absent for six weeks now. Two days later, he finds the Pinta, and he and Pinzón head back to Spain.

March 15, 1493. Columbus returns from his first voyage.

May 20, 1493. With the success of his first voyage — as promised, he had found a new route to the east, gold and spices, and many people to be converted to the one true faith — the crown spares no expense in financing a second voyage, and appoints Columbus captain general, conferring him as “Viceroy and Admiral of the Ocean Sea and the Indies”, or “Admiral of the Ocean Sea”, just as the monarchs had promised him.

September 25, 1493. Columbus sails from Cadiz on his second voyage, with 1200 men aboard seventeen ships. Two of the ships are carracks: the Mariagalante (also known as Santa Maria, the namesake of the original sunk on the first voyage) and the Galician. The other fifteen are caravels.

November 4, 1493. Columbus’s fleet comes to Guadalupe, and encounter the Caribs, whom they distinguish from the other Indians, as the Caribs appear to be cannibals and also to practice the “accursed vice” and “extreme offense” of sodomy. Columbus captures many of the Caribs to be sent back to Spain as slaves, while returning to their homes the gentle natives the Caribs had enslaved.

November 28, 1493. Columbus returns to Navidad and finds that the 39 men he had left are all dead, killed by the Indians. He soon realizes they deserved to be slaughtered by the natives for defying his instructions and doing everything he told them not to do — going on raiding parties, pillaging, raping women and taking them back to Navidad as concubines. They were also hoarding gold and not reporting it for the Crown. Columbus manages to preserve his friendship with Chief Guacanagari. His own men start to hate him for refusing to take revenge against the natives.

January 6, 1494. Columbus founds La Isabela to the east of Navidad, and begins to build a settlement there. His men become increasingly problematic, unaccustomed to manual labor and refusing to work. They expect Columbus to give them Indians as servants to work for them.

February 2, 1494. Columbus sends twelve of the seventeen ships back to Spain in order to obtain food and other supplies for the new settlement at La Isabela. He sends back cinnamon, pepper, cotton, parrots, sandalwood, and some gold nuggets in the ships, and also sends 26 Caribs for enslavement. [It was standard papal policy to permit enslavement of those who (1) were captured in a “just war”, (2) resisted Christianization, or (3) went against the “law of nature”. The Caribs appeared to fit all three requirements.]

April 10, 1494. The twelve ships return to Cadiz, under command of Antonio de Torres, carrying letters from Columbus to the monarchs, as well as the cargo and Carib slaves.

April 24 – September 29, 1494. Columbus explores Cuba and discovers Jamaica. He leaves his brother Diego in charge of La Isabela. During his absence, his stepbrother Bartholomew arrives and the Tainos revolt against the behavior of Columbus’s men.

March 24, 1495. Columbus, allied with Chief Guacanagari, marches against the other native chiefs, and kills or captures many of them, including the principal chief Caonabo (who had been responsible for the Navidad massacre). Many of the natives commit mass suicide. Caonabo is sent to Spain as a prisoner. By now, only 630 of the original 1200 Spaniards remain, most of them sick.

March 10, 1496. Columbus abandons La Isabela. He instructs Bartholomew to establish a new city at the mouth of the Ozama River (what will become Santo Domingo). He leaves Francisco Roldan in charge of La Isabela, which becomes a ghost town.

April 20, 1496. Columbus sets sail for Spain with 225 of his men (leaving the remainder behind) and 30 natives.

— Of the ~300,000 Indians in Hispaniola in 1492, about 100,000 of them have died between 1494-1496, half of them from mass suicide.

June 11, 1496. Columbus returns from his second voyage. To everyone’s surprise, he debarks at Cadiz looking like a Franciscan friar, barefoot and wearing a coarse brown habit with knotted cord. He continues to dress like this for the rest of his life, having become disgusted at the greed of his men that had brought down so much slaughter and calamity. He is ravaged by illness, and looks more like 55 years old than 45. His hair has gone white, his vision troubles him, and he suffers from rheumatoid arthritis. Knowing that his time on earth is limited, he is convinced more than ever that he needs to voyage more and acquire as much gold as possible to finance the Last Crusade.

— The Spanish monarchs are ready to plow on, but there are troubling questions now. Columbus insists that the lands he found are at the edge of India, but skeptics and rival seamen start to claim that he really doesn’t know what he’s talking about. And it’s not clear how the natives should be viewed on whole; these so-called Indians range between friendly to hostile to even preferring suicide rather than co-existing with Spaniards.

February 1497. Two relief ships are sent to Hispaniola, under the command of Pedro Fernandez Coronel.

April 23, 1497. Isabella and Ferdinand issue an order for Columbus to prepare for a third voyage. Able-bodied seamen and artisans will receive wages of 30 maravedis a day; soldiers, laborers, and cabin boys would get 20 a day. Those prepared to stay and cultivate the land would earn 6000 maravedis a year. It takes about a year to get the financial backing he needs for the voyage (2,824,326 maravedis) and all the provisions, sail, and costly supplies.

May 30, 1498. Columbus sails from Sanlucar on his third voyage, with 330 men aboard six ships. Three of the ships are sent directly to Hispaniola under the command of people Columbus knew well. He takes the other three ships — the Santa Maria (his flagship), El Correo (“the Courier”), and La Vaquenos — further south, believing that the equator contains more valuable discoveries.

— The 330 men aboard the six ships consist of: the captains and leaders plus 40 squires, 100 foot soldiers, 30 sailors, 30 cabin boys, 20 gold washers, 50 farm workers and gardeners, 20 skilled tradesmen of different types, and 30 women. Whether these women were wives, domestic servants (to make native servants unnecessary), or concubines (to deflect the rape of native women) is unclear.

Late July 1498. The three ships arrive at Hispaniola to find that Francisco Roldan, the island magistrate (and city magistrate of La Isabela) whom Columbus had left in charge, is now leading a rebellion against Columbus and his brothers in Xaragua. Roldan is in defiance of Bartholomew (based at Santo Domingo) and the Colombus brother’s rules of monastic rules of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Roldan promises settlers food, women, and freedom to do whatever they want, and to collect gold for themselves. They plunder the native villages in Xaragua and rape the native women.

Meanwhile, southeast of Hispaniola, Columbus sights Trinidad, and people in canoes. He is puzzled that they are not Chinese; he is stressed from the voyage and suffering severe aches and pains.

August 1, 1498. Columbus comes to the Orinoco Delta in Venezuela and believes it is the Garden of Eden. He becomes convinced that he has discovered the entrance to Paradise. He spends a few days exploring along the Paria peninsula, and west past Cumana, and then reluctantly departs for Hispaniola on August 5, before the food aboard his ship spoils.

August 14, 1498. Columbus reaches Margarita island, sighting Tobago and Grenada further east.

August 31, 1498. Columbus comes to the new colony of Santo Domingo to find that many of the Spanish settlers of the new colony are in rebellion against his rule, following Francisco Roldan, who all claim that Columbus has misled them about the supposedly bountiful riches they expected to find. A number of returning settlers and sailors have lobbied against Columbus at the Spanish court, accusing him and his brothers of gross mismanagement. Columbus has some of them hanged for disobedience.

1499. Throughout the year, conflict escalates between Columbus and Roldan on Hispaniola, with half-resolutions and nothing solved.

May 18, 1499. Amerigo Vespucci joins an expedition licensed by Spain (the red journey on the map). The intention is to explore the coast of a new landmass found by Columbus on his third voyage and in particular investigate the rich source of pearls that Columbus reported. Two ships sail toward modern Venezuela, while the other pair of ships head south with Vespucci aboard. He assumes they are on the coast of Asia and hopes that by heading south they would, according to the Greek geographer Ptolemy, round the unidentified “Cape of Cattigara” and reach the Indian Ocean. They pass two huge rivers (the Amazon and the Para) and continue south for another 150 miles before encountering a current which they cannot overcome and then head back.

May 21, 1499. Isabella and Ferdinand have by now heard the many complaints about Columbus reaching Spain (most of which is slander), and they decide to appoint Fancisco de Bobadilla (a knight of the Order of Calatrava) as the new viceroy (governor) of the Indies.

February 3, 1500. Columbus returns from the interior to Santa Domingo, where he makes plans to sail to Spain and present to the monarchs his version of the events of the past two years.

August 1500. Bobadilla arrives in Santo Domingo to serve as judge and viceroy. He arrives as Diego is overseeing the execution of two Spanish rebels (Columbus is away suppressing a revolt at Grenada). Columbus had ordered their execution for their rebellion against him, and for crimes against the Indians, and had intended their deaths to (a) serve as an example to the rest of the colonists, and (b) to show the Indians that the rule of law applies no less to Spaniards.

October 1500. Columbus and Diego are put in chains by Bobadilla and sent home to Spain. Back at home they are imprisoned.

December 12, 1500. The king and queen order the Columbus brothers released and summon them to their presence at the Alhambra palace in Granada. Their freedom is restored, but Columbus never regains his stature. For the next year and a half he lives in the Carthusian monastery of Santa Maria de la Cuevas (near Seville), leading an austere hermit-like existence in a solitary cell. During this time he writes the Book of Prophecies — a literary gauntlet thrown down urging that the end of the world is imminent. Far from being dampened, Columbus’s passion for the conquest of Jerusalem revs up even higher. He becomes increasingly viewed as an eccentric by the members of the royal court, because of his extreme apocalyptic views, and for continuing to dress like a barefoot friar, rather than the wealthy man he has become.

May 1501 – February 1502. Amerigo Vespucci joins an expedition licensed by Portugal (the green journey on the map). The intention is to investigate a landmass far to the west in the Atlantic Ocean encountered unexpectedly by Pedro Álvares Cabral on his voyage around Africa to India. That land would eventually become present-day Brazil. The Portuguese king wants to know the extent of this new discovery and determine where it lay in relation to the line established by the Treaty of Tordesillas (that divided the world between what Spain and Portugal could conquer). On August 17 the expedition reaches Brazil and encounter a hostile band of natives who kill and eat one of the crew. Sailing south along the coast they find friendlier natives and are able to engage in some minor trading. At 23° S they find a bay which they name Rio de Janeiro (because they arrive on January 1, 1502). On February 13, they leave the coast to return home.

September 3, 1501. Nicolás de Ovando y Cáceres appointed the new governor of the Indies. Columbus retains the title of admiral, but on whole his honor has taken a pounding.

September 27, 1501. A royal mandate orders Bobadilla to return Columbus’s possessions.

February 13, 1502, Ovando sails from Spain with a fleet of thirty ships, the largest fleet up to that point that had ever sailed to the New World.

April 1502. Ovando’s fleet lands at Santo Domingo, and begins ruthlessly suppressing the natives — even worse than Bobadilla ever did (and that’s saying a lot).

May 11, 1502. In spite of his worsening illnesses, Columbus sails from Cadiz on his fourth voyage, with 133 men, on four ships. (1) He and his 13-year old son Ferdinand sail in his flagship, La Capitana, but because of his illness it is captained by one of his former shipmates, Diego Tristan, whom Columbus pays the going rate of 4000 maravedis a month. Abrosio Sanchez serves as master of the ship, and his brother Juan as chief pilot, each receiving 2000 maravedis a month. They supervise a crew of 34, including 14 sailors (1000 m. a month each), and 20 cabin boys. In addition, there are seven specialists: a cooper (to protect barrels holding water and wine), a caulker (to glue the seams of boats), a carpenter, a pair of trumpeters (to sound alarms and perform music), and 2 gunners (on the ship’s two cannon at bow and stern). Added to Columbus and Ferdinand, the total number of people on this ship is 43. (2) His stepbrother Bartholomew serves as the unpaid captain of the Santiago de Palo (also known as the Bermuda). The comptroller Francisco de Porras is given the title and pay (if not the role) of captain (at 3666 maravedis a month) and his brother Diego de Porras is the chief auditor and representative of the crown (at 3000 m. a month). The crew on this ship consists of 11 sailors, a boatswain (in charge of the crew and equipment), a dozen cabin boys, a cooper, a caulker, a carpenter, one gunner. This ship also includes Diego Mendez, a good friend of Columbus’s and six volunteers. Total number: 38. (3) La Gallega is captained by Pedro de Terreros (paid the going rate of 4000 maravedis a month), who had been on every one of Columbus’s voyages. The ship’s master is Juan Quintero (paid 2000 m. a month), who had been the boatswain on the Pinta of the first voyage. A complement of [12] sailors, a boatswain, [11] cabin boys, and one volunteer make up the rest. Total number: 28. (4) The smallest ship, the Vizcaína, is captained by a fellow Genoese, Bartholomew Fieschi. The ship carries [6] other Geneose, [8] sailors, [7] cabin boys, and two paying passengers. Total number: 24. Columbus is given strict orders by the crown not to stop at Hispaniola, given how low he has fallen in the eyes of the settlers. The purpose of this voyage is to find a strait linking the Indies (which Columbus still believes to be part of Asia) with the Indian Ocean. This strait is known to exist, since Marco Polo traversed it on his way back from China. So in effect, Columbus is looking for the Strait of Malacca (which is really near Singapore) in Central America.

June 15, 1502. Columbus arrives in Martinique.

June 29, 1502. Columbus arrives in Santo Domingo (despite his orders to stay away from Hispaniola) and requests that he be allowed to enter the harbor to shelter from a hurricane. His request is treated with contempt by Ovando, who denies Columbus’s request. Columbus finds shelter for his ships in a nearby estuary. Meanwhile, a fleet of 30 ships departs for Spain, and 20 of them are destroyed in the storm, with others broken. Columbus’ archenemy Bobadilla and the rebel Roldan are killed (so they never have to defend themselves in court). Very oddly, only one of the ships makes it Spain — the one that just happens to be carrying Columbus’s gold (4,000 gold pesos = 1,800,000 maravedis).

July, 1502. Ovando rebuilds Santo Domingo, which had been demolished by the hurricane.

Late July, 1502. Columbus arrives at the coast of Honduras at the end of the month.

— Around this time, in mid or late 1502, Moctezuma II becomes the ninth Tlatoani (King) of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) and the sixth Huey Tlatoani (Emperor) of the Aztec Empire. He will be the last Aztec emperor, reigning for 18 years until the empire falls to Hernan Cortes and the Spanish conquistadors (in 1519-1521).

August 14 – October 16, 1502. Columbus explores down the coast of Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, beset by more storms and headwinds. Arriving at Panama in mid-October, he learns two important things from the Ngabe natives: (1) that there is another ocean just a few days march to the south, which convinces him that he is near enough to the strait that he is looking for; (2) that the natives have shitloads of gold. He soon finds out, however, that the “strait” is an isthmus and not a water channel. He has no intention of leaving ships behind to go on a hiking trip, and decides to find a suitable spot to set up a trading post.

1503. Sometime this year the Mundus Novus pamphlet is published, which describes Amerigo Vespucci’s voyage to Brazil in 1501–1502. It becomes popular throughout Europe. Within a year, twelve editions are printed including translations into Italian, French, German, Dutch and other languages. Many in Europe start to suspect that the “Indies” are actually an unknown “New World”, and not Asia as Columbus keeps insisting.

January 6, 1503. On Epiphany Columbus finds safe harbor at the mouth of the river Belen in western Panama. He makes it his headquarters for exploration and builds a garrison fort there.

April 6, 1503. A large number of Indians attack the garrison at Belen. Diego Tristan (captain of the Capitana) is killed.

April 16, 1503. On Easter Day, retreating from the attacks, Columbus takes his three ships (badly leaking from shipworm) and starts to sail home, leaving the Gallega stuck in the estuary at Belen. He now has three ships and 116 men. Seventeen of his men that sailed from Spain with him have been killed by this point. He gives command of his flagship the Capitana to Diego Mendez.

At this point, historical events unfold differently in the alternate world. In our world Columbus abandons the Vizcaina (which is leaking so badly it’s falling apart) at Porto Bello, and then sails the remaining two ships up to Cuba, where he is caught in a storm so terrible that he’s forced back south to beach at Jamaica for a whole year (from June 25, 1503 – June 29, 1504), his remaining two ships now unusable and irreparable in an unsettled land. After being rescued in June 1504, he will make his way back to Spain, returning there on November 7, 1504. He will never sail again, and his fourth voyage ends a dismal failure. He has failed to find a strait to the western waters, and to add insult to injury, he has failed to make contact with the Maya of Yucatán by the narrowest of margins, by having sailed south instead of north when he reached Honduras.

In the alternate D&D world, Columbus’s fourth voyage is a smashing success — though whether Columbus and his men (and the PCs) will live to tell the tale is another question. In this world the Panama Canal already exists naturally as a strait; it doesn’t need to wait for the elaborate engineering of 1904-1914. The Indians had lied to Columbus, or at least they hadn’t told the whole truth. The strait is accessible every other month — in February, April, June, August, October, and December — when the land mass sinks. During the other months the land rises, blocking the water passage between the two oceans. Columbus learns the truth of this toward the end of the ten-day battle at Belen (April 6-16), when the Indians reveal the truth in hopes that it will make him abandon the garrison and depart their land. With praises to God on his lips that’s exactly what he sets out to do, since the strait is accessible in April. He and his men (and the PCs) board the three remaining ships — the Capitana, the Bermuda, and the Vizcaina — and sail through the canal. He soon abandons the Vizcaina (falling apart, like in our world), on the south side of Panama, and then sails the Capitana and Bermuda up to the coast of Mexico, where he is caught in a storm just as terrible as the one in our world that marooned him at Jamaica. The Bermuda is utterly pulverized at sea by the hurricane, claiming the lives of 28 men, while the others make it to shore in longboats. The Capitana is able to anchor but will need serious repairs before it can sail again.

From this point on, the PC are in the Aztec Empire, and will soon be departing for the Isle of Dread (on which see the post above this appendix).

The Reincarnated D&D Modules Ranked

For those who are on the fence about purchasing any of the expensive reincarnated modules by Goodman Games, here are my rankings of the six published to date. The only one I regret buying is Into the Borderlands. The other five I consider money well spent, and I do hope that Goodman Games will continue revivifying more classics. Vault of the Drow merits a work-over, as does Dwellers of the Forbidden City.

Note that I’m not ranking these on their strength as modules (all of them are excellent in that regard) but on the strength of the new material that’s been added. I’ve already ranked them as modules here, and in what follows I rank them purely on the expansions, enhancements, and revisions in the reincarnated versions.

1. The Lost City, by Chris Doyle and Tim Wadzinski, 2020. Not only is this the best module of the six — and for that matter, the best module of all time (except for the untouchable Tomb of Horrors which doesn’t really count) — it is hands down the best reincarnation effort so far. The original module mapped the underworld but left all of it to the DM’s development. Not that we resented that at all; back in the day we loved the art of world-building. But in the reincarnated version there’s not a stone left uncovered: the temple of Zargon, the strongholds of the old cults, the catacombs, the Isle of Death, the goblin caves (which put the Caves of Chaos to shame), the Eye of Zargon, and much more are fleshed out, and the result is an incredibly inspired sandbox where DMs can set up shop and run campaigns in the city for months upon months. The additional levels of the pyramid (6-10) are also mapped out and given detailed encounter areas. Gods only know the use I’d have gotten from this had I known of it when writing my Stranger Things novel, and for comparisons between the module and my novel, see here.

Module rating: 5+ stars. Reincarnation rating: 5+ stars.

2. The Isle of Dread, by Chris Doyle and Tim Wadzinski, 2018. The second-best reincarnation offers what I consider to be the quintessential wilderness sandbox. It was always an excellent module — like Keep on the Borderlands, it came with the boxed-set rules, and everyone played it — but the new encounter areas round it off to near perfection. There are more villages, more natives, more potential for cross-cultural clashes. More dinosaurs and now dragons too (a green one on the main island, a red one on a volcanic island to the north). There’s a not so subtle homage to King Kong, where the natives worship a giant ape to whom they sacrifice victims. Best of all are the kopru additions: more encounter areas in the temple on Taboo Island, and a nasty surprise far below it; and another kopru temple on another part of the Isle. PCs who aren’t careful may find themselves under the koprus’ hideous spells and becoming their agents, plotting to return the Isle to their evil amphibian rule. As for the legend of the Black Pearl, that plays out much more satisfyingly than in the original module. This reincarnation is a home run.

Module rating: 5 stars. Reincarnation rating: 5 stars.

3. The Temple of Elemental Evil, by Chris Doyle, Rick Maffei, and Tim Wadzinski, 2021. This two-volume behemoth doesn’t cheat and I consider my $99.00 well spent. It revises two modules, The Village of Hommlet and The Temple of Elemental Evil, and the player handouts are great; I’m especially fond of the menus for the Inn of the Welcome Wench and also for the Waterside Hostel in Nulb. Speaking of Nulb, the village is done justice (with 13 encounter areas instead of 3), and the region between Hommlet and Nulb is fleshed out with loads of wilderness encounters: a griffon lair, a gnoll fort, an owl-bear cave, elven bounty hunters, and a tomb of a St. Cuthbert priest. At the temple there’s a “deserted” farmstead where a plot is being hatched to raid Hommlet and blow up the village with orbs of explosive oil. As for the temple itself, the Elemental Nodes are fully detailed as they should have been in the first place. This reincarnation has all the ingredients of a sprawling campaign that I someday want to segue into Vault of the Drow, as there is an underdeveloped Lolth faction at the Temple of Elemental Evil.

Module rating: 5+ stars (T1), 4 stars (T2-4). Reincarnation rating: 4 ½ stars.

4. Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, by Michael Curtis and Tim Wadzinski, 2019. The heaviest installment in the series could have been made lighter by omitting one of the original reprints. It’s nice that this series includes complete scans of the 1e versions, but Expedition to the Barrier Peaks contains scans of both the first and second printings of the 1e versions, which is a needless waste. As for the reincarnation, it’s a solid effort that presents new encounter areas inside the spaceship, and also a whole new seventh level dedicated to biological entity manufacturing facilities and android programming centers — and where a nasty alien predator lies in stasis. This level allows the yellow-card door keys (for medical officers and scientists) to come into play, unlike in the original, where yellow cards were keyed to only a few doors on the ship. There’s also a wilderness map for the crash site environs, so the PCs can explore the mountainous region (and run afoul a blue dragon and an invader camp of androids) before getting to the spaceship. It would have been nice to see even more new encounter areas, especially on level one, but on whole this is a solid reincarnation.

Module rating: 5 stars. Reincarnation rating: 4 stars.

5. Castle Amber, by Michael Curtis and Tim Wadzinski, 2020. The next-best module after The Lost City unfortunately didn’t get the best work over. On the plus side, it hugely expands the castle, with a second floor in both the west and east wings, for a total of 55 new encounter areas. The cast has also grown considerably, with many more Amber family members who are as colorful and crazy as the ones we grew up with. That part is excellent. The letdown comes with the Averoigne section. It’s always been my favorite part of the module but minimally developed. I was hoping for a lot of expansion and detailed layouts, in the way the underworld in The Lost City (see #1) was fleshed out, but it still leaves much to the DM. There’s also some lazy plotting in this section that could have been improved. It’s definitely worth buying for the castle expansions, but a towering classic like Castle Amber deserved more. See my detailed thoughts here.

Module rating: 5+ stars. Reincarnation rating: 3 ½ stars.

6. Into the Borderlands, by Chris Doyle and Time Wadzinski, 2018. The only one I regret buying revises two modules, In Search of the Unknown (B1) and The Keep on the Borderlands (B2). I never liked the former module, and the enhancements aren’t enough to change my opinion. The second module is a great classic and one of my favorites. Like many old-schoolers I cut my teeth on the Caves of Chaos, and certainly no other module has greater nostalgic value. The reincarnated version adds more adventure scenarios and encounter areas that make the castle and caves interesting, and I’d recommend this product to anyone who can’t get hold of a print or pdf copy of B2. But if you already have B2, your mileage may vary. It didn’t inspire me much, and I’m glad it’s not the first one I purchased (though it’s the first that was published). It probably would have killed my interest in the other reincarnated modules, and that would have been a serious loss.

Module rating: 2 stars (B1), 5 stars (B2). Reincarnation rating: 2 ½ stars.

Vecna’s Curse in Stranger Things 4

Yesterday’s Netflix teaser revealed the episode titles of Stranger Things 4:

1. The Hellfire Club
2. Vecna’s Curse
3. The Monster and the Superhero
4. Dear Billy
5. The Nina Project
6. The Dive
7. The Massacre at Hawkins Lab
8. Papa
9. The Piggyback

I’m eyeballing #2 in particular. I used the Eye and Hand of Vecna in my latest Stranger Things novel, The Lost City, though I called the lich Gaius instead of Vecna. William Byers gets his eye cut out and Mike Wheeler his hand chopped off and they assume tragic roles in the Cynidicean underworld. How bizarre is it that the Duffer Brothers were also using the curse of Vecna at the same time I was writing The Lost City?

But I suspect the Duffers have used Vecna in a very different way that I did. I’d be surprised if a major character in Stranger Things 4 gets an eye ripped out, or a hand chopped off, to take on evil power. In fact, maybe the curse isn’t about Vecna’s Eye or Hand at all, but rather the nothics — a race of creatures who are the result of a curse stemming from Vecna.

According to D&D lore:

Nothics were the result of a curse befalling wizards who delved too deep into arcane knowledge. Once transformed, the nothic held no discernible memory of its former self, except for a faint notion that there might be a way to reverse its condition. Despite their deteriorated condition, nothics possessed an exceptional insight, and were capable of extracting knowledge and secrets from the minds of others. Some sages claimed that Vecna had laid out traps for wizards seeking forbidden secrets in their quest for power. Those who stumbled upon such traps were transformed into nothics.”

Will these “nothics” be new creatures from the Upside Down in Stranger Things 4? They certainly seem Upside-Downish, with their ability to steal from the minds of others, like the Mind Flayer. And they sure as hell look like other shadow creatures, like the demo-dogs. My bet is that this is what Vecna’s curse refers to. Much as I would love to see the Stranger Things kids subjected to the Eye and Hand of Vecna (as I subjected them in The Lost City), I doubt the Duffers will be going for the jugular like that.

If the curse applies to wizards who get too curious about dark mysteries, and then become empty shadowy versions of their former selves with loss of memory, that sounds a lot like what happened to Will in season 2. Perhaps a major character will be tempted by, or drawn in to, (or possessed by), “Vecna’s” power and become a nothic-like entity. Eleven has lost her own powers, though I suspect she’s still infected in some way, and so perhaps season 4 will be about her trying to regain her powers and paying the dire consequences for her efforts. Or maybe we’ll get a repeat of Will. The trailer shows him drawing pictures. If the pictures are showing him Upside-Down events, and he pursues those curiosities, then he could be on the road to getting cursed again.

UPDATE (March 2, 2022): According to an inside source, Vecna is lab kid #1, transformed into an Upside Down creature: “A trusted and proven inside source has revealed details for the villain our characters will face in seasons four and five: a final villain named Vecna. Like Millie Bobby Brown’s character, Eleven, Vecna began as one of the kids being experimented on by Hawkins National Laboratory. Vecna was Number One. The lab sent Vecna into the Upside Down, where Vecna transformed from a human child into a spider-like monster. Vecna gained the ability to trance people before killing them, and as a more powerful being, became the leader of the Upside Down.”

The Isle of Dread: Reviewed by the Woke Police

I’m still working through Goodman Games’ reincarnated module series and am now on The Isle of Dread, which has been given a spectacular overhaul. It’s one of my favorites in terms of enhancements and expansions, and I’ll review it properly at a later point, but for now I need to share a laugh. As I was browsing reviews of the product, I came across this absurd piece that’s so awful that it’s worth enjoying. The good part starts here:

“First, I’ll mention that this is a content warning for racially insensitive portrayals, cannibalism, and slavery.”

Of course, there’s nothing insensitive about The Isle of Dread’s content (unless you’re an indoctrinated woke), and Christ almighty, if you can’t handle themes like cannibalism and slavery in D&D, why the hell are you playing the game?

“Second, I just want to own the fact that this review is being written by a cis white male, so there are times when my perspective is skewed and not as helpful or nuanced as the perspective of people affected by the issues that I bring up in this section. Let me know if I mess up, because I always want to learn and do better.”

So this guy is going out of his way to kneel at the woke altar, and yet still sees the need to apologize in advance for perhaps not being quite absurd enough. I wondered at this point if I was reading satire, but no, the reviewer is sincere:

“The original adventure included some quickly drawn stereotypes that drew on Pacific island cultures as viewed through the lens of pulp adventure stories. Words like headhunters and taboo were thrown around in a few places, and there was even a side of Caribbean Island stereotypes thrown in with the tribal zombie masters. While all of that is insensitive, it is also somewhat brief. Because there isn’t much nuance added to the outer villages, the villages don’t come across inferior to whatever place the PCs come from. Even when trading with the villages, the only real limits are to two-handed weapons and heavy armor, which has much to do with terrain and climate as anything else.

“There is an awkward mention later in the adventure of a vein of gold that could be mined, but that the natives won’t do it unless enslaved, and that the DM ‘might’ want to discourage this. That an ugly contingency to plan for, and even adding it to the list of things adventurers might do says some ugly things about some of the source material.”

Newsflash: a good DM doesn’t discourage evil actions unless it conflicts with the PCs’ alignment tendencies. A good DM lets the players roleplay their characters in whatever direction that takes them. If the PCs are the kind who might enslave others to get what they need, then the players not only can but perhaps should embark on that course of action.

The wokes repeat the failing of the religious fundies. There is nothing wrong with playing evil or immoral characters, anymore than there is with movie actors playing roles of cannibals, rapists, and bigots, or with novelists writing about detailed depraved characters in order to bring them to life. If anything, it’s people who avoid their own dark side that I’m suspicious of. Role-players, actors, and writers who work artistically with their dark impulses are acknowledging the potential for evil inside all of us, and when done maturely that’s healthy. To close it off is to suppress it. It’s probably no accident that actors like Michael Landon and Bill Cobsy were/are so messed up in real life (Landon beat his wife; Cosby raped women). The messianic and righteous images they cultivated on TV always seemed strained. You’d never have seen them in the evil roles of well-rounded actors like Anthony Hopkins and Robert DeNiro.

PCs do ugly things if they’re being played right, and that goes for good-aligned characters too, at least on occasion — possibly even to engage in something like slavery. If slavery is an accepted norm in your campaign world, there will be be good-aligned people who follow that norm in varying degrees. In fact, my disagreement with this reviewer is 100%. After reading a good book about Columbus, I’m inspired to run a campaign on the Isle of Dread where the PCs come from a 15th-century Spain equivalent, and where it is legitimate policy to enslave peoples who resist colonization. Who knows, if the the PCs are good-aligned, they might come to see the evil in their ways and turn into rebels like Bartholomew de las Casas (who began as a slave-owning colonizer in the Caribbean, but was so disgusted by what he participated in that he fought against the Spanish institutions of slavery and colonial abuse for the rest of his life). Stranger things have happened in D&D campaigns.

Honestly, I marvel that a PC can draw a sword in almost any context (other than pure self-defense) without triggering or offending woke sensibilities. And I wonder very seriously at the depths of stupidity required to emasculate a game by censuring all that makes it interesting.

Anyway, here’s the rest. The reviewer descends into pronoun policing, takes offense at words like “tribal” and “primitive”, and states — I kid you not — that children should not be used in encounter areas, so that PCs won’t be tempted to slaughter them. (Which means effectively that native children don’t exist on the island.) He also repeats his moral injunction against slavery: “We should not be assuming that slavery is an acceptable means of resolving an encounter in D&D. That’s an embarrassment.” The reviewer embarrasses himself in every sentence… but look on the bright side if you can, and have a laugh:

“What was a little troubling to me was that the updated 5th edition version of the Isle of Dread not only failed to add some more enlightened nuance, it actually introduced more problematic tropes, in 2018, than the original adventure had in 1980.

“A lot of what feels problematic in the expanded material falls under the category of people not taking the time to think about what kind of message was being conveyed by what was being said in the text.

“Early on in the adventure text for the 5e conversion, a dryad encounter mentions that dryads defending the island from ‘pale-skinned’ invaders. The problem is, that implies that visitors to the island, including the PCs, are pale skinned by default. Additionally, not much further into the adventure, the effects of an encounter mention that if an adventurer has to make a save ‘he’ can attempt it again at a later interval to see if it still affects ‘him.’ Later in the adventure, they use ‘she’ as the pronoun for a potential DM for the adventure, but that doesn’t mitigate that within the first few pages of the adventure that the player characters are assumed, by default, to be white and male. Also, just use they. It’s really for the best.

“The original adventure doesn’t really address what language is spoken on the island. The ‘fix’ for this is to introduce the incredibly reductive ‘Tribal’ as a language that people on the island speak. Given that the 5e material mentions that the DMG calls out the Isle of Dread as existing on the Elemental Plane of Water at various times, and shifting between prime material planes, the best solution for what the islander speak would probably have been Primordial.

“There is also a section in the adventure that involves Neanderthals that live on the island. This is a trope that D&D has largely moved beyond, with ‘cavemen’ showing up on various encounter tables. The biggest, and likely completely accidental association that comes up here is that this separate species of hominid is mentioned as using the same ‘Tribal’ statblocks used for the islanders. So the ‘Tribal’ statblocks are used for ‘unadvanced’ humanoids that may not actually be fully human? I don’t think it was intentional, but the connection can clearly be made.

“The terminology of ‘headhunters’ is still used for the corrupted tribe serving the Kopru in the ancient ruins on the island, and it would have been very easy to emphasize that the creepy aberrations that control minds had used their powers to intimidate the islanders into serving them. Instead, we keep the implied Lovecraftian trope of ‘corrupted islanders’ that just naturally start worshipping the aberrations.

“On top of all of that, no matter how old school your adventure is, please don’t leave in those ‘gotcha’ moments with children added into encounters to see of the PCs will slaughter them. Just don’t do it.

“Speaking of things that got left in the adventure—remember that passage in the 1980 text about using slave labor to mine the vein of gold? It is still in the adventure, word for word. It is 2018. We should not be assuming that slavery is an acceptable means of resolving an encounter in D&D. That’s an embarrassment.

“There is also an encounter added to the expanded dungeon section of the final temple that includes ‘degenerate humans.’ Given that these are islanders that have been enslaved and tortured, and then escaped into lightless tunnels, this is horrible terminology to be using, especially when we aren’t talking about shipwrecked humans or pirates, but very specifically about the islanders in this instance. Given that the PCs aren’t meant to be automatically antagonistic to them, and there is an encounter where they can rescue a princess of these humans (yeah, I know), I’m not sure what’s gained by calling them degenerate or harping on how ‘primitive’ they are.

“I think the additional item that made my jaw drop the most when reading through the text, however, was the added encounter with a rakasta outcast, who was outcast because he was born with black fur. I understand that the logic was probably ‘cat people + black cats being bad luck = cat people culture regarding black fur as unlucky,’ but that’s ignoring the literal story being told, that a sentient species considers one of their own that is black to be evil because of their color. I’m really kind of shocked that nobody even looked at that one twice.”

If the reviewer has a hard time believing that a sentient species like the rakasta can be racists, then there’s probably nothing that can be done for him. Human beings are sentient and look at how racist they can be. I’m really kind of shocked that anyone can be shocked over something like this.

Why Columbus Sailed the Ocean Blue

For reasons seldom heard: to prepare the world for the Last Judgment and finance the Last Crusade.

Strange we don’t often hear that.

It took me years to get around to Carol Delaney’s Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem (2011), mostly because I kept forgetting that it was squeezed into the end of my bookshelf. It’s a solid treatment of Columbus that takes his millenarian beliefs seriously, which surprisingly many scholars have not done. It’s common to suppose that Columbus was driven by greed, but as Delaney shows, it’s misleading to equate the material goal with the personal motive. Columbus’s search for gold wasn’t a commercial expedition; it was all but an apocalyptic geas.

We don’t know exactly when Columbus originally developed his plan to cross the ocean, but Delaney suggests that it was on the island of Porto Santo (where he had gone to live with his wife in 1480) when the pieces started falling into place. Many fifteenth-century Christians believed that the apocalypse wasn’t far off (especially since the fall of Constantinople to Islam in 1453), and that conditions had to be fulfilled before Christ could come again: the Turks had to be defeated and Jerusalem liberated once-and-for-all from Muslim control. Columbus knew that another crusade was necessary, and he knew there was enough gold in the east to finance a crusade. He needed a seaward route, since the land route to Asia had been closed to Europeans since 1453. His intent was to find a way to the east by sailing west around.

He also knew (from the writings of Marco Polo) that if the Great Khan could be converted, that would mean a reliable eastern flank to converge on Jerusalem at the same time European crusaders attacked from the west. He presented his plan to Queen Isabella in 1486, which she liked but wouldn’t run with until the conquest of Muslim Granada was over six years later. The rest is famous history. What’s not well known is the religiosity that continued to drive Columbus: by discovering new islands and evangelizing “savage” peoples, Columbus would prepare the world for the Last Judgment, and acquire the necessary riches to finance the Last Crusade.

Columbus’ religious zeal can be seen in the primary sources (his diary, his letters, his “Book of Prophecies”, etc). For example, during the sail back from his first voyage, he wrote to Isabella and Ferdinand that, “Within seven years I shall give Your Highnesses enough money to pay for 5,000 knights and 50,000 foot soldiers for the conquest of Jerusalem” (letter dated March 4, 1493, which surfaced in 1985). In another letter he said that gold wasn’t primarily a medium of exchange but a medium of redemption: “Gold is a metal most excellent above all others and of gold treasures are formed, and he who has it makes and accomplishes whatever he wishes in the world and finally uses it to send souls into Paradise.”

The Garden of Eden

Delaney offers an interesting commentary on Columbus’s first sight of South America (on August 1, 1498) during his third voyage. When he saw the Orinoco River and other parts of present day Venezuela, he became convinced that he found the Garden of Eden — the place where Creation itself began. (Remember, he believed that Cuba and Hispaniola were in the Asian region, having sailed far enough west to come back east to the area of Marco Polo’s adventures.) He didn’t go ashore to explore the region (he had to get back to his colony at Santa Domingo with supplies that were already spoiling), but his mind was churning with excitement. Delaney writes:

“Columbus did not try to enter the Terrestrial Paradise, but he could not stop thinking about what his discovery might mean. The widely held belief that the Terrestrial Paradise would be found only near the end time was part of the medieval Christian interpretation of the story of Enoch and Elijah. These two figures from Genesis were associated with the two witnesses in Revelation (11:3), thought to be waiting in the Garden until the end time, when they were prophesied to fight the Antichrist. Having found the Terrestrial Paradise must have confirmed Columbus’s belief that the end was nigh, and that his enterprise was the beginning of the fulfillment of prophecy. The extraordinary discovery of the Terrestrial Paradise was the first step in the apocalyptic drama. He hoped this event would spur the Spanish sovereigns to take the next steps.” (p 174)

Shortly after, Columbus wrote to the Spanish sovereigns, explaining that he found a new continent and the location of the Terrestrial Paradise (Garden of Eden). He reminded them of the real achievements of his voyages which were being overshadowed by mundane logistical concerns, saying, “Your Highnesses have won these vast lands, which are an Other World, in which Christendom will have so much enjoyment and our faith in time so great an increase, and in the end of your days you will have the glory of Paradise”.

Not a hero, but not really a villain either

Delaney also shows how Columbus tried to treat the natives decently, time and time again throughout all his voyages, unlike some of the men he led, many of whom defied his orders or even rebelled. Isabella herself made some bad appointments that undermined Columbus’s command, the worst being when she chose Knight Commander Francisco de Bobadilla. When he arrived in Santa Domingo in 1500 he saw two Spaniards hanging from a gallows, executed by Columbus for their rebellion and crimes against the Indians. Columbus had intended their deaths to serve as an example to the rest of the colonists, and also to show the Indians that the rule of law applied to his own men. Upon arrival, Bobadilla immediately put Columbus in chains and imprisoned him. Then he sent him back to Spain in disgrace, while releasing all the rebel prisoners Columbus had jailed, and making common cause with them.

Columbus won back some measure of approval from the Spanish monarchs — thanks to Isabella who liked him — but he never fully recovered his standing after the outrage of the third voyage. Yet he became the symbol of all that went wrong in the Indies, while true monsters like Bobadilla, and his even worse successor Ovando, have been largely passed over. Governor Ovando’s massacre of Queen Anacaona and the Taino people (during Columbus’s fourth voyage) was especially treacherous. In the fall of 1503, the queen had welcomed Ovando with a feast, and Ovando responded to this honor by burning the Taino alive, running their children through with lances, and hanging Anacaona. Almost a year later, when Columbus returned to Santa Domingo (after being marooned on Jamaica for over a year), Ovando freed mutineers and punished all those who were loyal to Columbus. Columbus once again returned to Spain powerless over awful men who had displaced him.

Even the friar Bartholomew de las Casas, who began as a slave-owning colonizer in 1502, and then after 1514 spent decades as a repentant radical, actively fighting slavery and the colonial abuse of indigenous peoples, viewed Columbus kindly in hindsight, and as a far better and just person than Bobadilla or Ovando or any of the governors and conquistadors who came after.

The Book of Prophecies

In the time between his third and fourth voyages (1501-1502), as he worked to clear his name from the Bobadilla episode, Columbus also devoted himself to writing the Libro de las profecias (the Book of Prophecies). Scholars tend to dismiss the book, as it disrupts their traditional view of Columbus as the “first modern man”, but Delaney gives it the spotlight it deserves: it shows what truly motivated Columbus.

There are massive amounts of quotes in the Libro from the Old Testament prophets, but also from the New Testament, Josephus, Augustine, and other church fathers. The Libro is nothing less than the “explicit and extensive expression of Columbus’s quest for the liberation of Jerusalem and the way he thought about his discoveries and his role in the fulfillment of Christian prophecy” (p 190). But it wasn’t published until 1892, and only in 1984 was the Latin translated into Spanish; only in 1992 were English-speaking translations made available.

It puts beyond doubt that from Columbus’ view, his (1) discovery of the islands and (2) conversion of the Indians had made possible two of the conditions necessary for Christ to return, but the third most important one — (3) the conquest of Jerusalem — remained the ultimate goal. In February 1502, he wrote a letter to Pope Alexander VI, saying that he (a) had located the Garden of Eden on his third voyage, (b) needed more priests to be sent to the new world to spread God’s word, and (c) must remind His Holiness that the whole enterprise had been taken with the purpose of obtaining gold to restore the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem to the church.

In Delaney’s view, the Libro was

“a kind of literary gauntlet thrown down to the Spanish sovereigns with the hope that they would be persuaded by the logic of the signs that the end of the world was imminent. Columbus’s passion for the conquest of Jerusalem never ended. While his passion was most explicit in the Libro de las profecias, it had been there from the beginning, even if he had not quite understood how it would unfold. But once he had crossed the ocean and understood his discoveries within the wider Christian prophetic tradition, his passion grew stronger and more emphatic. It was a vision that would occupy him to the end of his life.” (p 201)

And it’s no wonder that Columbus felt betrayed upon returning from his fourth journey. He came back to find that Isabella had died (in November 1504), and with it all the friendship he had at the royal court. King Ferdinand (who never liked Columbus) stripped away most of Columbus’s privileges and hereditary titles that the crown had bestowed on him in 1492 (and had reinstated after the Bobadilla affair of the third voyage). The friar Bartholomew de las Casas, who began as a slave-owning colonizer in 1502, and then after 1514 committed his life to fighting slavery and colonial tyranny, wrote this (sometime in the 1520s or 1530s) of the king’s treatment of Columbus:

“As for King Ferdinand, I do not know why he was not only ungrateful in words and deeds but actually harmed Columbus whenever he could. It was believed that if, in good conscience and without losing face, he could have violated all the articles of the privileges that he and the Queen had justly granted him for his services, he would indeed have done so. I have never been able to ascertain the reason for this dislike and unkingly conduct toward one whose unparalleled service no other monarch ever received. Perhaps he was unduly impressed by the arguments and false testimonies of Columbus’s enemies and rivals.” (History of the Indies, pp 138-140)

But the king really knifed Columbus in the back by reneging on the quest for Jerusalem. He had never shared the apocalyptic zeal of Columbus or his wife, and so, with Isabella gone, instead of organizing a crusade he simply asked the Islamic sultan to protect the holy places in Jerusalem for Christian pilgrims. Columbus was outraged and — whatever we think today of crusades and apocalyptic dramas — rightly so.


This book changed some of my feelings for Columbus, but not by a great deal. I still think his legacy is overrated and that there’s no need for a holiday in his name. But I do appreciate him more as a man of his times, and as someone who has studied the crusades extensively, I join the chorus of endorsement of Delaney’s thesis. No scholar of the crusades thinks that crusaders were driven primarily by greed or colonial ambitions, and this book extends that idea based on Columbus’s clear passion for a “crusade that would end all crusades”.

That passion soon fizzled out. Soon after Columbus’s death (1506) came the Protestant Reformation and with it new spiritual battles. Apocalyptic hopes receded in Catholic thought, while in Protestant churches they revved up in new ways that had nothing to do with crusades. Columbus’ vision mutated; America, not Jerusalem, was now the place of redemption, and it would be around a long time for the plundering. Columbus is remembered more for the mutation of his vision, and Delaney’s book is a sort of Albert Schweitzer-like portrayal of the original man who “comes to us as one unknown”.