Musical Drops from The Americans

Only recently did I finish watching The Americans, which ran six seasons between 2013-2018. If season five signaled to many fans that the show needed to retire, it made an incredible comeback in season six (easily the best of the series) before doing so. The music was a great part of the series, and I want to look back on the musical highlights. These are my 12 favorites, but not ranked in descending order, rather in the order they appear in the series, from season 1 to 6.

https://rossonl.files.wordpress.com/2021/12/tusk.pngTusk, Fleetwood Mac (Season 1, Episode 1)

The most talked-about song used in The Americans is this Fleetwood Mac classic, which starts less than two minutes into the pilot, and then comes back at the end (above pic), as Philip hides in his garage ready to shoot Stan Beeman. To think these two (Soviet spy and FBI agent) would become best friends throughout the series. In the first episode, Stan came within a scratch of learning the awful truth about his next-door neighbor.

Watch and listen to the clip here.

https://rossonl.files.wordpress.com/2021/12/siamese.pngSiamese Twins, The Cure (Season 1, Episode 8)

If the series had never used a Cure song, that would have been a misfire. The bleak and melancholic tone of The Americans shouts Robert Smith and his ’80s textures. The final moments of midpoint episode show the Jennings family and the FBI at their most vulnerable, and “Siamese Twins” conveys the appropriate levels of angst and turmoil as only The Cure can.

https://rossonl.files.wordpress.com/2021/12/flood.jpgHere Comes the Flood, by Peter Gabriel (Season 2, Episode 3)

The series uses a lot of montages, and this one, for my money, is the best of them, coming in the otherwise lackluster season two (the least impressive season music-wise). The show writers use Peter Gabriel four times throughout the series (three appear on this list), and this is the best of them. “Here Comes the Flood” starts off slowly and then hits a crescendo as Elizabeth burns a letter from her dead friends to their son explaining who they really were.

Watch and listen to the clip here.

https://rossonl.files.wordpress.com/2021/12/only-you-1.pngOnly You, by Yazoo (Season 3, Episode 4)

In which Philip seduces high-school student Kimmie to gain access to her father’s office. (Said father works for the government of course.) Kimmie is played wonderfully by Julia Garner, and she just wants to share her favorite song with this “cool guy”. This is very painful for Philip, as he genuinely cares about Kimmie and hates having to exploit her. A key moment in Philip’s evolution in the series, to a fine note.

Watch and listen to the clip here.

https://rossonl.files.wordpress.com/2021/12/11americansweb-facebookjumbo.jpg
The Chain, by Fleetwood Mac (Season 3, Episode 7)

A close rival to “Tusk”. (I’m hard pressed to say whether Fleetwood Mac or Peter Gabriel is the signature band for The Americans. They probably both serve that role.) For the duration of the song, a standoff at a diner explodes into violence, and “The Chain” seems to have everything in its repertoire that fits the action — from twangy verses to the pounding bridge to the bass line — “The Chain” is a remarkable song for a remarkable Jennings-style assassination.

Watch and listen to the clip here.

https://rossonl.files.wordpress.com/2021/12/tainted.pngTainted Love, by Soft Cell (Season 4, Episode 2)

In which Philip gets on a bus to coordinate with a Ukrainian dude, and he suddenly finds himself forced to murder a TSA agent — choking the poor bastard right behind a young woman, who is wholly oblivious savoring the beats of “Tainted Love” on her walkman. One of the finest examples of The Americans marrying style with substance, and morbid humor with murder.

Watch and listen to the clip here.

https://rossonl.files.wordpress.com/2021/12/under1.pngUnder Pressure, by Queen and David Bowie (Season 4, Episode 5)

The series lost steam in the late fourth season (and wouldn’t reattain glory until the sixth), but right before that dip came undeniably the best use of music up to that point (yes, even better than “Tusk”). The Queen-Bowie classic is an incredible song to begin with, and the way it is used here is one that cries for constant rewatch. Philip is under awful pressure (trying to save Martha, his wife/informant whom he screwed royally), and real-wife Elizabeth comforts him by giving him what he needs: raw burning sex.

Watch and listen to the clip here.

https://rossonl.files.wordpress.com/2021/12/maxresdefault-1.jpgOld Flame, by Alabama (Season 5, Episode 3)

Oh, season five, what can I possibly say about thee? Regarded by many as the nadir of The Americans (and rightly fucking so), its best musical moments come in the softer scenes. Like this one, in which Philip and Elizabeth stay at a quiet hotel and dance slowly to “Old Flame” playing on the radio. It’s a genuinely touching moment that feels earned, after all the darkness these two have been through in the series.

Watch and listen to the clip here.

https://rossonl.files.wordpress.com/2021/12/lay.pngLay Your Hands on Me, by Peter Gabriel (Season 5, Episode 6)

Everyone is depressed in this episode the point of suffocation. Philip and Elizabeth realize they’ve killed an innocent man on a pointless quest, and Philip knows he’s by now on thin ice with his KGB bosses. The end scene is quite moving, as Oleg clearly seems to contemplate suicide before burning the recording of himself with Stan Beeman. The show writers needed a remix of “Lay Your Hands On Me” in order to build more percussive drama, and they asked Peter Gabriel for permission to do this mix. Well done indeed.

Watch and listen to the clip here.

https://rossonl.files.wordpress.com/2021/12/told.pngWe Do What We’re Told, by Peter Gabriel (Season 6, Episode 1)

The final season doesn’t waste time pussyfooting. Three years after the events of season five (the year is now 1987), Elizabeth is given secret orders that she must keep even from Philip, by radicals back home who think that Gorbachev has gone too soft. She’s given a cyanide pill, should things go wrong. And good loyal Elizabeth, she “does what she’s told”… to ensure that Gorbachev and Reagan never make peace.

Watch and listen to the clip here. (Music starts about one third of the way through.)

https://rossonl.files.wordpress.com/2021/12/dire-straits.pngBrothers in Arms, by Dire Straits (Season 6, Episode 10:)

The last time this song was used impressively in a TV series was in season two of Miami Vice: the final sequence in “Out Where the Buses Don’t Run”, where the missing person for so many years is revealed as a corpse hidden inside the walls of a house. In the series finale of The Americans, the song is a sad farewell to the Jennings, as they gather their passports to flee America as they knew they would someday have to.

Watch and listen to the clip here.

https://rossonl.files.wordpress.com/2021/12/u2.pngWith or Without You, by U2 (Season 6, Episode 10)

Known in some circles as the Jennings mix of “With or Without You”, it repeats Bono’s wail shamelessly, multiple times. Until this finale, Queen and Bowie’s “Under Pressure” (from season four) was the #1 use of music in the series (and “Tusk” #2), but Bono kicks that down a notch. It’s a heartbreaking end that sees Paige jumping ship at the last minute, unable to follow her parents back to Russia. The lyrics are perfect (“you give yourself away”), and the whole song a perfect send off.

Watch and listen to the (final part of) the clip here.

Reading Roundup: 2021

This was a good year for books. Here are my ten picks. Most of them were published this year, but I was late catching up on others. Especially my #1 choice.

1. Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought (Expanded Edition). Jonathan Rauch, 1993 (2013). Rauch stood at a crossroads in ’93 and saw the coming of 2014. It began with alarming trends — feminists joining hands with fundies in attempts to censor pornography because porn “hurt” people — and reached a defining moment with Salman Rushdie. Suddenly liberals were pandering to the inexcusable and retreating from their most important values. They haven’t looked back since. It’s so rare to find a superb analysis of the processes that go into formulating our opinions (instead of just focusing on “where we stand”), and Rauch outlines different processes that people use to get at the truth. He argues for the liberal science approach (public criticism is the only way to determine who is right) and shows that the egalitarian and humanitarian approaches are not only misguided but dangerous. Hearing that Islam is a religion of violence is hurtful to many Muslims, but that’s a necessary truth that needs confronting. Hearing that biological sex is not on a spectrum may be hurtful to transgendered people, but what hurts is often factual. Science can screw up and fail, but it has a built-in mechanism to improve on itself when it does. On whole, when everything is subjected to public criticism, the result is a system that has never been surpassed anywhere in human history. After hundreds of years, the community of liberal science has outlived all its challengers. It has criticized itself and been made the stronger for it. You certainly can’t say that about the fundamentalist, egalitarian, or humanitarian approaches. The results speak for themselves: offensive speech is a precious commodity. Full review here.

2. Boundaries of Eden. Glenn Arbery, 2020. This novel started my new year and blew me away. (It would be at #1 if Kindly Inquisitors weren’t so goddamn perfect.) It blends genres subtly across a philosophical canvas, and is a bit hard to summarize. Call it a heritage mystery, a southern Gothic, a drug-cartel thriller, and an unsparing look at the mind of a serial killer. It’s about the way sins of the past impinge on the present, and the pain that comes with digging up the past. The main character is Walter Peach, who runs a newspaper in the central county of Georgia, treats his wife and kids like sewage, falls in love with his niece, openly fawns on said niece around his family, while at work he publishes screeds against Mexican cartels that no one takes seriously. Pivotal to the drama (and Peach’s past) is an abandoned 40-year old house buried under a sea of kudzu. Some of the scenes inside the house show that Arbery could be a horror writer if he wanted to; he has a gift for summoning dread that many horror writers only aspire to. Some of the most horrifying parts, though, are revelations unearthed about the main character’s mother, her slave heritage, and crimes committed in the name of justice. Well crafted and multi-layered — even poetic at times — Boundaries of Eden begins like a Faulkner classic and slow-burns into something much more; it never cheats the reader because it’s a novel that does everything, and because Arbery is simply incapable of writing a dull paragraph. I didn’t want it to end.

3. Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender, and Identity. Helen Pluckrose & James Lindsay, 2020. Critiques of postmodernism usually strawman their subject, but Pluckrose and Lindsay do right by it, allowing us to scorn postmodern theories with a clean conscience: theories saying that objective truth is unobtainable, and that the scientific method is overrated; that power and hierarchies are the number one evil; that words are powerful and dangerous, and language can be as harmful as physical violence. This stuff was always bonkers, but when applied to social justice agendas of the woke left it goes off the cliff, giving us Critical Race Theory (all whites are complicit in racism), Queer Theory (sex isn’t biological and exists on a spectrum), Postcolonial Theory (describing Islam as a religion of violence is hateful), Fat Studies (the desire to remedy obesity is hateful), and so on. The authors conclude that while racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and social injustices continue to be problems, postmodern theories are religious anti-solutions making the problems worse. The proper solutions lie where they always have — and where they have produced tangible positive results — namely, in classical liberalism. This is a perfect book to read in tandem with Kindly Inquisitors (#1), which the authors have clearly learned from. Full review here.

4. Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse. Dave Goulson, 2021. This is a strident plea to protect insects before they’re wiped out, and the planet along with them. The author (an entomologist and conservationist) explains how global insect populations are declining through habitat fragmentation, industrial farming practices, pesticides, and climate change — and in some cases the decline is by as much as 75%. It continues to astonish me that many people don’t realize how critical pollination is. Nearly 90% of plant species require pollination in order to produce fruits or seeds, including most agricultural food crops, and while honeybees and bumblebees do most of the pollination legwork, other insects do too, like butterflies, wasps, and beetles. In some parts of the world farmers have to do the labor-intensive job of hand-pollinating their crops. Goulson calls for action to protect insects and rethink our heavy reliance on pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. We can help insect populations recover in a variety of ways: by reducing lawn space in favor of flowering plants, mowing grass less often, incorporating wide ranges of native plants into our gardens, and giving predatory insects a first crack at the problem that pesticides address. If we don’t want fruits and vegetables to become the food of kings — and for humanity to be reduced to eating wind-pollinated cereal grains — this is a book we’d do well to heed.

5. Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem: How Religion Drove the Voyages That Led to America. Carol Delaney, 2011. I’m not a fan of Columbus, and there’s certainly no reason to have a holiday in his name, but after reading this book I appreciate him more in the context of his time. He wasn’t a greedy colonizer but a zealous apocalyptic. 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 from Muslim control. Columbus believed a crusade was necessary, and he knew there was enough gold in the east to finance a holy war. He also knew 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 religious fervor that drove Columbus: by discovering new islands and evangelizing “savage” peoples, Columbus was preparing the world for the Last Judgment, and acquiring the necessary riches to finance the Last Crusade. Delaney is no apologist for Columbus, but she does show how he’s been over-maligned. At least he tried treating the Indians decently, unlike many of the men he led, and especially unlike the governors (Bobadilla, Ovando, etc.) who came after him. Full review here.

6. The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth. Jonathan Rauch, 2021. The sequel to Kindly Inquisitors (see #1) addresses the major epistemic crisis facing America today — a two-pronged assault elevating falsehoods above facts, from the populist right and elitist left. Rauch starts by showing how human beings are biologically and socially conditioned to believe whatever they want, irrespective of evidence, and that our institutions of expertise tame those tribal urges through rigorous practices such as peer review and fact checking. He draws a parallel between this constitution of knowledge and two of liberalism’s other institutions, constitutional government and free-market economics. All of them together, working at their best, result in political cooperation, economic prosperity, and reliable scientific findings. But recently there have been two particular forces seriously undermining the constitution of knowledge. The first is the nihilism of the internet, with its metrics and algorithms that are sensitive to popularity but wholly indifferent to truth. Fake news, trolling, and junk science flood the web giving the alt-right a voice everywhere. Instead of banning ideas, the right swamps and swarms them with garbage to overwhelm people. The second is cancel culture, rooted in what Rauch calls “emotional safetyism,” which construes disagreeable or upsetting arguments as threats that need policing. His list of the dozen ways in which emotional safetyism poisons us is one of the best exposes on the subject. So is his seven-fold criteria of how to tell whether you’re being criticized or cancelled. The left has gone a long way in turning a culture of critical review into a culture of confirmation bias and censorship. Full review here.

7. Sins of Empire. Brian McClellan, 2017. I gave this novel a try based on its reputation as a fantasy set in a world of guns and magic. The world evokes our Napoleonic era and there’s a mood to it unlike typical fantasy that feels like fresh air. I was hooked immediately by the three major characters. First is Michel Bravis, my favorite; he works for the secret police force and is an antihero, a coward who does everything in his power to obtain a promotion by kissing the asses of those above him. He’s my favorite character because of this; he’s so real and authentic. Second is Ben Styke, a legendary military veteran rotting in a labor camp until he gets pulled out and set on a course of action that he’s not really clear about. Finally there is Vlora, or Lady Flint, the general leading her company of Riflejacks mercenaries, who gets summoned to the city for a new contract, but quickly learns that nothing is safe or as it seems. It’s a good story and I look forward to the next two books when I have time for them. McClellan’s plotting is impressive, as he focuses on mysteries as much the usual fantasy tropes, and his self-serving characters are very entertaining. Fantasy novels don’t always have the most engaging characters, but Sins of Empire has plenty of them.

8. Prey: Immigration, Islam, and the Erosion of Women’s Rights. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, 2021. Vilified for speaking truth and common sense, Hirsi Ali has now turned her guns on the problem of Muslim immigrants in Europe, especially since 2015, when more than a million migrants and refugees crossed the border and ignited the well-known crisis. It’s important to stress that Hirsi Ali’s book doesn’t demonize migrant men from the Muslim world. As she says, there’s no racial component to her argument at all. A certain proportion of men of all ethnicities will rape and harass women. But the rates are vastly lower in some parts of the world than in others, especially in places where men are raised to respect a woman’s autonomy. In many parts of Europe now, women who walk outdoors (assuming they don’t stay shut inside at home) have adopted some of the mannerisms of women in the Middle-East and Africa — shrinking from men, being on guard, and avoiding drawing attention to themselves. The simple act of traveling or enjoying lunch in a cafe has become a thing of the past for many women. The unpleasant fact is that hard-won gains that women have made are being eroded in Europe by immigrants from the Muslim world where such rights to women are not granted, and the problem is compounded by the fact that Muslim immigrants have a poor track record of assimilating to western culture even by the second or third generations. Islam’s demands are too absolute to allow for it. Hirsi Ali rejects right-wing populist solutions (expelling illegal immigrants and restricting Muslim immigration), and instead advocates a massive reform of the European systems of integrating immigrants, from which she herself has benefited. Full review here.

9. The Plot. Jean Hanff Korelitz, 2021. A novel-within-a-novel that focuses on the inner turmoil of the author, and kind of reminds me of Misery (no surprise that Stephen King loves it). Misery was about a guy who was forced to write the story he didn’t want. The Plot is about a guy who writes a story that’s not his. Jake is a third-rate novelist who steals a story from a former student now dead, becomes rich and famous for it, and then out of the blue gets trolled by an anonymous stalker and repeatedly called out for plagiarism. Panicked, he tries to uncover the person who is harassing him, and one bizarre twist leads to another. Turns out (major spoiler) that Jake stole a real-life story of a murder, and when he decides to rewrite his novel as a piece of true crime, he ends up in much deeper shit. I never read anything by Jean Korelitz before; she’s pretty good. But while The Plot is a cracking suspense novel, it’s also, I think, a serious mediation on — and rather unflattering look at — writers in general. Their egos, insecurities, vanities. At points I felt a bit naked reading it.

10. Leave It As It Is: A Journey Through Theodore Roosevelt’s American Wilderness. David Gessner, 2021. Yes, Teddy Roosevelt was mostly a terrible president, but he did one thing for which we owe him a debt of gratitude: saving hundreds of millions of acres of land from being developed and despoiled. Gessner reminds us that the GOP was Teddy’s party, and that many of our most important environmental laws came from the Republican party, all the way up through the end of Nixon’s presidency. In fact I would argue that Teddy and Richard Nixon were the best pro-environmental presidents. (The GOP anti-environmental shift came with Reagan.) Yes, they were overall failures. Aside from Donald Trump, no president was so narcissist and drunk on his self-regard than Teddy Roosevelt; and also aside from Trump, no president so openly disdained the Constitution and claimed himself to be above the document like Teddy did. And Tricky Dick was a Constitutional crook. Yet we do owe these men gratitude for their environmental causes, Teddy for land preservation, Nixon for signing loads of progressive legislation. Gessner’s book is a tour of all the sites we can savor thanks to Teddy, and let’s hope these sites will be around for a long time to come.

The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth

When an author of a book like Kindly Inquisitors comes out with a sequel, expectations are high. The argument of Kindly Inquisitors was (is) unassailable but also prophetic insofar as what it forecast. Is a sequel bound to repeat the old argument with newer examples?

Be assured that The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth is no mere rehash. It addresses a major epistemic crisis facing America today — a two-pronged assault elevating falsehoods above facts from both the right and left. Kindly Inquisitors, in a ’90s context, aimed primarily (though not exclusively) at the left. The Constitution of Knowledge has both the populist right and elitist left in its sights, and we have the latter to thank for the former. As Rauch says, political correctness and cancel culture was a godsend to the far right. It helped raise the likes of Trump and Breitbart News to new heights of influence. “The silenced may go mute in public, but resentment builds up in their hearts and homes, then bursts forth in the voting booth when activated by a demagogue.” If the major reason Trump won in 2016 was the failure of Obama administration to address the plight of the middle class, left-wing cancel culture was a close second.

In response to the double assault on facts and knowledge, Rauch wrote this book to explain and defend the “Constitution of Knowledge”, as he calls it — liberal’s epistemic operating system, which is basically our proper (classical liberal) rules for turning disagreement into knowledge. He draws a parallel between this constitution of knowledge and two of liberalism’s other institutions, constitutional government and free-market economics. All of them together, working at their best, result in political cooperation, economic prosperity, and reliable scientific findings.

The chief tenet of both our political and scientific constitutions is that coercion is off-limits and people need to negotiate in order to reach agreement about laws or knowledge. They distribute decision-making across a system of checks and balances. They provide strong guarantees of individual rights — not least freedom of speech and expression — and in return require participants to meet challenging standards of behavior if they want to be legitimated and taken seriously (whether legally or scientifically). But in place of rational persuasion, (right-wing) troll culture employs chaos and confusion, while (left-wing) cancel culture uses conformity and coercion. The result is the same: politicized tribalism with scant regard for truth.

The evolution of reason

Rauch starts by explaining that as human beings, we’re biologically and socially predisposed to believe what we want, irrespective of evidence. From an evolutionary point of view that makes perfect sense. It also makes sense that we evolved to supply reasons and arguments for what we do and believe. The snag, says Rauch, is that while evolution selects the ability to reason, it’s not necessarily in a way that leads to truth, but in a way that persuades. “The gift of persuasion has lower costs and higher returns. With it, we can persuade others to follow where we wish to go, to do what we prefer to do, to ally with us and protect us, and to provide us with aid and resources.” Those who can persuade can prosper.

Furthermore, says Rauch, intelligence isn’t necessarily a safeguard to false beliefs, because intelligence can just make us better at rationalizing. Smart people are more skilled than others in justifying their points of view. But when they are asked to find arguments on the opposite side of a question, they are no better than anyone else. “Brainpower makes people better press secretaries, but not necessarily better at open-minded, self-critical thinking.”

Which isn’t to say that reason rarely gets at the truth, only that it doesn’t reliably do so. We humans are still a tribal lot, and it was a long and painful road for us to establish institutions of expertise that discipline our tribal urges — through rigorous practices like peer review and fact checking. We worked hard to achieve these institutions, and many people take them for granted. The problem is that these institutions don’t defend themselves. Certainly the First Amendment doesn’t defend itself. All it takes are five Supreme Court justices to decide that free speech isn’t a right anymore, and then, poof, it’s gone. Nor do our systems of knowledge defend themselves. All it takes are enough academics willing to be browbeaten into unscientific conformity for sake of “emotional safety”, and, on the other side among the masses, people who are willing to follow them in turn, or lose themselves in the digital landscape of social nihilism.

Internet nihilism: “Flooding the zone with shit”

Rauch argues that the populist right undermines our constitution of knowledge primarily through social media. And it’s true: the internet uses metrics and algorithms that are sensitive to popularity but wholly indifferent to the truth. Fake news, trolling, and junk science flood the web giving the populist right a voice everywhere.

Thus the title of chapter 6: “Troll Epistemology: Flood the Zone with Shit”. Of course, conservative activists have been trolling before the internet. As early as 1980, for example, the Dartmouth Review famously baited campus liberals and doxed gay students. But just as leftist political correctness would later explode into the mainstream, so now troll culture. Around 2014 internet researchers were noticing patterns. Anti-vaccine activists were strongly organized, and employing every ounce of resource into disinformation campaigns. Well before Covid in 2020, these activists were using techniques — repetitive messaging, emotional appeal, endorsements by celebrities, and junk science — with remarkable efficiency.

Hoaxes and purely fake news likewise had an unprecedented audience, thanks to platforms like Facebook and Youtube. And in this way, argues Rauch, troll epistemology could achieve something like censorship, only easier:

“Old-style censorship is expensive, inefficient, and leaky, especially in an open society like modern America. Suppose instead of banning ideas, you swamp and swarm them? Traditional censorship assumed  that information and access to audiences were scarce and could be blockaded or bottlenecked. In the digital era, however, information (good and bad) is abundant; attention is what is scarce. So instead of blockading information, why not blockade attention? If you flood the zone with distractions and deceptions and just plain garbage, people’s attention would be diverted and exhausted and overwhelmed.”

The point is not that everyone is gullible and always falls for spoofing, trolling, and disinformation, only that by polluting the information environment, trolling has made it a hell of a lot more difficult for many people to distinguish fact from fiction.

Emotional safetyism: “Purism instead of pluralism”

Rauch then argues that the elitist left also undermines our constitution of knowledge, primarily through cancel culture rooted in “emotional safetyism”. Such safetyism construes arguments that you disagree with as threats that need policing. Building on arguments in Kindly Inquisitors, in chapter 7 he shows how emotional safetyism turns a culture of critical review into a culture of confirmation bias and censorship.

In a snapshot, here’s his dirty-dozen list of ways that emotional safetyism poisons us.

1. It silences. If an idea makes you feel unsafe, you can hardly be expected to have a conversation about it.

2. It makes you neurotic. If you constantly scour the environment for offense, you’ll keep finding or manufacturing it. (No exaggeration: see here, here, and here.)

3. It causes conflict. If you encourage people to find things offensive, then you foster feelings of victimization, anger, and hopelessness.

4. It rewards overreacting. A safety-based community rewards emotional demonstrations which put challengers on the defensive. (A reality-based community, on the other hand, rewards reasoned claims that can be defended when challenged.)

5. It ignores consequences. Censorship and suppression do not make unwanted thoughts go away. They often do the opposite, and make martyrs of those who promote toxic ideas.

6. It is politicized. Because emotional safetyism has no limiting principle, it can politicize literally anything.

7. It catastrophizes everyday interactions. The concept of microaggressions turns life’s everyday misunderstandings into rights violations and traumas, reinterpreting ordinary interactions as assaults and encompassing almost anything and everything — including statements like “Where are you from?” or “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.”

8. It trivializes physical violence. If words are as violent as bullets (as many of our esteemed academics and law professors claim), then we lose the vocabulary to distinguish between having an unpleasant conversation and heaving our head broken. Violence is real and very different from being marginalized by being misgendered or referred to by a pronoun you don’t care for.

9. It excuses real violence. If words are violence, then using physical violence to silence a speaker is justifiable self-defense. That’s exactly how protestors have justified using violence — such as the ones who threw Molotov cocktails, smashed windows, and hurled rocks at police when the alt-right troll Milo Yiannopoulos appeared to speak at Berkeley. The protestors said that “violence helped ensure the safety of students.”

10. It patronizes minorities. It assumes that everyone wants to feel safe from words; that people will wilt in the heat of an argument, and that minorities need to be handled with kid gloves. (That’s certainly not how I ever wanted to be treated as an LGBT person.)

11. It distracts from the real problem. Harmful words are not the problem. Harmful ideas are the problem. Fighting ignorance and hate by chasing “words that wound” is like fighting global warming by breaking all the thermometers.

12. It undermines pluralism. Physical safety is a civil right, but a right to feel safe from words is a right to criminalize giving offense. It creates an obligation to rid the world of emotional danger — and of so much intellectual diversity. It makes academics into purists rather than pluralists.

And how do we know if we’re being criticized or cancelled? Rauch has a seven-fold litmus test:

1. Punitiveness. The Constitution of Knowledge punishes the idea, not the person. Cancel culture punishes the person, not the idea.

2. Deplatforming. The Constitution of Knowledge relies on diversity of expression. Cancel culture prevents it.

3. Grandstanding. The Constitution of Knowledge rewards careful, rational argumentation. Cancel culture prevents it.

4. Reductionism. The Constitution of Knowledge builds reputational credibility over decades. Cancel culture demolishes it overnight.

5. Orchestration. The Constitution of Knowledge relies on independent observers. Cancel culture relies on mob action.

6. Secondary boycotts. The Constitution of Knowledge relies on independent judgment. Cancel culture relies on bullying.

7. Inaccuracy. The Constitution of Knowledge puts accuracy ahead of politics.  Cancel culture puts politics ahead of accuracy.

If everyone were to seek out points of view that made them uncomfortable — and thinkers who might seem strange, unorthodox, or unsafe — we’d be a lot better off. As Rauch says, this doesn’t mean that every Jew should seek out Holocaust deniers (or that “anything goes”), but it does mean that when we encounter unwelcome or even repugnant ideas, our first line of defense should be, “What can I learn from this?” instead of “How can I get rid of this or shut it down?”

In that vein, I absolutely, 100%, agree with Rauch’s personal statement that he makes as a gay man:

“Cancel campaigns may be legal under the U.S. Constitution, but they violate the Constitution of Knowledge. That they occur in the name of protecting vulnerable minorities is an especially ironic twist. Social justice activists’ confidence that they can be trusted to decide what others can say and hear is a sad display of ignorance and hubris. Even more heartbreaking is that so many activists, in responding to what they claim is oppressive or unsafe expression, deploy exactly the same socially coercive tactics which were used so devastatingly against homosexuals and other minorities. We gay people are very well acquainted with canceling. Coercive conformity was weaponized, deployed, and perfected against us. We were denounced for our non-conformism, which was ‘unsafe’ for the country and children and ourselves. We were shamed, and made ashamed, for who we loved and what we thought. We were made unemployable and socially untouchable. We were browbeaten to keep silent and stay in the closet. Oh, yes, we know something about canceling. We did not spend the last half century and more fighting against it so that we could turn the tables and make pariahs of others.

“Coerced conformity has no place in a movement for liberty and equality. My activist friends should be fighting for the speech rights of those who maintain that homosexuality is wrong. They should be defending intellectual diversity  even (actually, especially) when it offends them.”

As an LGBT guy myself, I say, thank you, Mr. Rauch.

In sum, The Constitution of Knowledge is a wonderful defense of truth, just as its title promises. Highly recommended.

Kindly Inquisitors: A Prophetic View from the Early 90s

If there was ever a prophet about the fate of speech in America, it’s Jonathan Rauch. Almost 30 years ago he wrote Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought (1993), and there’s been an expanded edition available for eight years. I don’t know how I ever missed it. The text in all six chapters remains unaltered, for, as the author says in his new afterword, fresher examples would simply prove the adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same. He’s being modest. He needs no fresher supplements for any reason; his argument is unassailable.

Rauch knew exactly where the left was headed. In ’93 he stood at a crossroads and saw the coming of 2014. Let’s look back, and look forward with him.

In the beginning was pornography

It’s almost eerie the way Rauch starts with an example that was the start of it all for me. The first time I realized something was rotten in leftist-ville was in the late ’80s. I was a college undergrad and was learning, to my shock, that feminists were decrying pornography and advocating its censorship. That made no sense to me, and when I told my feminist librarian supervisor about it over summer break, she didn’t believe it. (These were the days you couldn’t just get on the internet and google something for clarity.) I had to work hard to persuade her that my undergrad colleagues weren’t necessarily fringe wackos; that there was indeed a burgeoning movement in feminism that was pro-censorship.

The striking claim made by both fundies and feminists was that pornography hurt people. (It doesn’t seem as striking today, since the wokes have run wild with this idea: that words and images are as harmful as physical violence.) The fundies claimed that pornography was hurtful because it eroded morality and was detrimental to society. The feminists claimed that pornography was hurtful because it degraded women, aided in their repression and denied them their rights.

Obviously pornography doesn’t do these things. Women are raped and battered by criminals, not by porno-mags or porno-flicks, and no respectable study has ever shown a causal link between pornography and violence. Just the opposite: in countries where pornography is legalized there is (as the intelligent person might suspect) a decrease in rape and sex crimes. But even if there were a link between pornography and violence, says Rauch, since when do we advocate the banning of books or films which “cretins find exciting, thereby letting the very lowest among us determine what we can read and watch”? Do we ban Mein Kampf because someone read it and killed a Jew? Do we ban the Bible because its prescription to kill sodomites inspired a hate crime against gays?

Of course not, which is why feminists quickly switched gears in the ’90s, and broadened their attack, claiming that pornography does more than hurt women as individuals who suffer criminal assault. Pornography also hurts women as a class, as a group of people, whether or not any of them suffer a criminal attack. Pornography, the argument now went, institutionalizes gender inequality and male supremacy. It fuses the erotization of male dominance and female submission.

Plenty of feminist strippers and showgirls rightly scoffed at this claim, and as Rauch says, if you ask for evidence of it, don’t expect to find it. The argument is much more sly: that the oppressive nature of pornography is so woven into the social fabric of society that it is invisible harm — save to those who are offended by it:

“In the world constructed by pornography, people who are not radical feminists can no more see the harm of pornography than a fish can see water. How, then, do we know if pornography is really doing the harm that feminists allege? Because it must be. By its very nature — by the images it expresses and the psychological climate it creates, pornography is oppressive.” (p 17)

Writing in ’93, Rauch was essentially describing the religiosity of the post-2014 wokes. Only radical feminists (those who have “awokened”, in today’s lingo) can see how transparently harmful pornography is, while others remain blind. Dogma takes the place of evidence-based science.

The defining moment

I’ll look at another example and then turn to the heart of Rauch’s analysis. In February 1989 came what he calls the defining moment: when Islamic jihadists called famously for the death of Salman Rushdie for disrespecting Islam in his novel. As Rauch notes, what was striking was that Khomeini appealed to humanitarian principles in defending his (most non-humanitarian) death sentence on Salman Rushdie. And he was no dummy; his strategy was very effective:

“You have hurt us with your evil words, your impious words, disrespectfully and needlessly written in utter disregard for Muslim sensibilities. You have caused pain and offense to many people. And this you have no right to do.”

Hurt, pain, offense. Typical fundie accusations. But now, alarmingly, winning a sympathetic ear.

Here, for the first time, liberals began to pander to those who called for the silencing of others. Up until now, the left could be relied on to come back full swing against such religious intolerance — especially death threats — by retorting, yes, of course Rushdie’s words caused fury and pain (like any of thousands of other novels do), and that is perfectly 100% all right. Now liberalism was losing its mind, in the name of a perverted “multiculturalism” which says all cultures have their valid ways of believing and that western people should be “be nice” above all. They allowed, of course, that the Ayatollah shouldn’t have ordered Rushdie’s death, but you know, Rushdie really shouldn’t have said those things that provoked Muslims. Seriously.

This was more than a decade before 9/11, and since that second watershed moment — and in its wake the slaying of cartoonists who draw pictures of Muhammad — the unwitting alliance between Muslim jihadists and western liberals has grown stronger. The Islamist argues that the ban on blasphemy is morally right and should be followed; the western liberal says that it is morally wrong but should be followed. Both positions yield the identical outcome: silence, for sake of not giving offense. It’s impossible to exaggerate the moral confusion on the side of the left, when they’re blaming cartoonists more than (or instead of) the jihadists who killed them.

What the left has given up (and which Rauch predicted) is the most important cornerstone of liberalism: that the defense of free expression and universal human rights is not a provocation — far less a “phobia” or bigotry — but a moral obligation. Let’s turn to Rauch’s taxonomy for knowledge-building and truth-seeking.

The five ways to truth

It’s rare to find a good analysis of the processes that go into formulating our opinions, instead of just focusing on where we stand. Rauch outlines five such processes that people take to find or argue for the truth:

(1) The Fundamentalist Approach: Those who know the truth should decide who is right. Unassailable authority figures have been enlightened with the truth and they disseminate it. Arguments might ensue but they are irrelevant if they come from non-authority figures. Examples of this approach include Plato’s Republic and Khomeni’s Iran.

(2) The Egalitarian Approach: All sincerely held beliefs have equal claims to respect. If I sincerely believe that I am a woman, despite my male biological appendage, then who are you to doubt me?

(3) The Radical Egalitarian Approach: Like approach (2), but the beliefs of persons in historically oppressed classes or groups get special consideration. In today’s world, Critical Race Theory is the king of this approach.

(4) The Humanitarian Approach: This can be combined with approaches (1), (2), or (3), but adds that you must not cause harm with your words or expression. It is the recipient of your words who determines how harmful your words are. On this approach, words are understood as literal violence. Examples of this include the two examples I started with: pornography and Rushdie’s novel.

(5) The Liberal Science Approach: Public criticism is the only way to determine who is right. In any argument, no one gets final say and no one is accorded special status, whether for fundamentalist, egalitarian, or humanitarian reasons. You can only be right on the merit of your arguments. Arguments should ideally be conducted with collegiality and respect, but they do not have to be in order to arrive at the truth.

In the end, Rauch says that the fifth approach of liberal science is the only one that can work. That is, a social system that allows and even sometimes encourages offense, is ultimately the only genuinely humane system. A truly humane society is a critical society that stimulates curiosity by rewarding people, not punishing them, for finding mistakes and correcting deficient ideas, no matter how cherished those deficient ideas appear.

Of the first four approaches, it’s actually the humanitarian that is the most dangerous, says Rauch, for this approach takes aim not just at free speech but at liberal science itself (p 27). It leads to the doctrine that people should be punished for holding hurtful beliefs which are thus construed to be false and dangerous. “It leads, in other words, toward an inquisition.”

Authoritarianism used to be the providence of the religious and political right in America, but Rauch saw it starting to flourish among the secular and political left in the ’90s, and warned:

“There is no social principle in the world more foolish or dangerous than the rapidly rising notion that hurtful words and ideas are a form of violence (or torture, or harassment) and that their perpetrators should be treated accordingly. That notion leads to the criminalization of criticism and the empowerment of authorities to regulate it.” (p 28)

The “new sensitivity”, in other words, was just the old authoritarianism in disguise, and look where the hell we are today.

The Obligation of Governments and Universities

The liberal science approach charges two institutions in particular to not punish people for anything they say or believe, no matter how offensive: governments and universities:

“Governments because their monopoly on force gives them enormous repressive powers, and universities, because their moral charter is first and foremost to advance human knowledge by practicing and teaching criticism. If governments stifle criticism, then they impoverish and oppress their citizenry. If universities do so, then they have no reason to exist.” (p 86)

While it’s true that private universities aren’t legally bound by the First Amendment (and shouldn’t be, by virtue of being private), they would do well to act as if they are bound by it in the same way that public universities are. Assuming they want to be taken seriously as an academic institution.

I would add the caveat however, that in college/university settings we need to distinguish between (a) the professional zone and (b) the larger free speech zone. The former protects the expression of ideas but not absolutely; it imposes an obligation of responsible discourse in the classroom. Even in a public university, you can’t just say literally whatever you want in class. The professor has the right to enforce scholarly standards as he or she sees fit, and hopefully does a fair job of it. (Not all of them do.) The free-speech zone exists outside of the scholarly setting. Guest speaker lectures and other campus activities are in this zone (for public universities) or at least should be treated as if they are in a free speech zone (for private ones).

Rauch gets at the same thing when he distinguishes between belief and knowledge. Liberal science doesn’t restrict belief, but in the academic environment it does restrict knowledge. “There is positively no right to have one’s opinions, however heartfelt, taken seriously as knowledge.” (p 116) Believe all you want and express that belief, but don’t expect your beliefs to be taught or entertained in a classroom setting. If you want to believe the earth is 6000 years old, go ahead. If you want to believe that sex isn’t biological and exists on a spectrum, feel free. If you say that vaccines are dangerous and should be opposed, that’s your absolute right. If you insist that Islam is a religion of peace, that too is your prerogative. But none of those claims deserves to taught in schools (even though some of them are). The way to set a curriculum, says Rauch, is to insist that it teach knowledge which consists of thoroughly tested claims, checked and back-checked over again empirically.

The problem today is that while right-wing fantasies are usually treated with the contempt they deserve at universities, left-wing fantasies often get a pass. We have the egalitarian/humanitarian approaches to thank for that.

The greater danger: right or left?

Rauch was suggesting in ’93 what some classical liberals today are now saying: that the greater authoritarian threats come not from fundamentalists (approach 1), or at least not anymore; in the ’80s it was different. Since the ’90s, “the greater threat lies in letting down our guard against ourselves: in high-mindedly embracing authoritarianism in the name of fairness and compassion (approaches 2, 3, and 4)” (p 112). Rauch was all but promising a woke movement.

But… isn’t science supposed to be egalitarian?

Only in the sense that the rules apply to everyone. Liberal science is, as Rauch says, an equal-opportunity knowledge maker. The fact that women and minorities didn’t always have access to the scientific field wasn’t the failure of liberal science. It was the failure to fully embrace it. We didn’t renounce democracy just because women and African Americans and Native Americans didn’t have the right to vote in certain periods. No, we embraced democracy more fully, just as we did with liberal science. The nature of liberal science (like democracy) carries within itself the seeds of its egalitarian improvements.

But, as Rauch goes on to clarify, science is not egalitarian in its results. “An equal-opportunity knowledge maker is very different from being an equal-results knowledge maker” (p 113), and unfortunately, hordes of voices on the left demand equal results. So leftists insist that all religions carry the same potential for peace and violence (which isn’t true), just like the right-wingers would prefer that creationism is taught in schools alongside evolution, to present “both sides fairly”.

Bottom line: no one has a claim to knowledge because their tribe or group or class of people or sect has been marginalized or historically left out. One has a claim to knowledge only to the extent that “one’s opinion still stands up after prolonged exposure to withering public testing” (p 118).

Science’s key to success: rewarding those who prove it wrong

Rauch makes the point that an enlightened intellectual regime allows all sorts of prejudices to bloom, including hateful ones. This is because attempting to stamp out prejudice simply makes everyone share the same prejudice, and thus kills science (p 68). One person’s hate speech is another person’s well-founded criticism, and another person’s stride for social justice. Look at Ayaan Hirsi Ali. One of the greatest human rights activists and yet she was uninvited from speaking at Brandeis University for her (supposed) hate speech.

Science has a failsafe against error in any case: when it makes mistakes — whether by prejudice or not — it rewards those who find them. Science, unlike the other four approaches, is always looking for disconfirmation, not affirmation, of its theories. That’s why it’s the truly humane and progressive approach.

Rauch puts it this way:

“The difference between a scientific society and a mythmaking group is not that one relies on imagination while the other does not; it is that the skeptical and empirical rules set up a tension which makes imagination its own watchman. For if you play the game well, you must be imaginative in two ways at once: in dreaming up statements about the external world, and in dreaming up ways to debunk them.” (p 69)

Liberal science is successful, in other words, because it’s a problem finder as much as a problem attacker, and uses its resources well. It can screw up and fail, but it has a built-in mechanism to improve on itself when it does. On whole, when everything is subjected to public criticism, the result is a system that has never been surpassed anywhere in human history. After hundreds of years, the community of liberal science has outlived all its challengers. It has criticized itself and been made the stronger for it. You certainly can’t say that about the other four approaches.

Once and for all

Thus should Rauch’s statement of knowledge be embraced for what it is: good liberal common sense.

“Let us be frank, once and for all: creating knowledge is painful, for the same reason that it can be exhilarating. Knowledge does not come free to any of us; we have to suffer for it. We have to stand naked before the court of critical checkers and watch our most cherished beliefs come under fire. Sometimes we have to watch while our notion of evident truth gets tossed in the gutter. Sometimes we feel we are treated rudely, even viciously. As others prod and test our ideas, we get angry, hurt, embarrassed… The fact is that even the most scientific criticism can be horribly hurtful, devastatingly so… I am certainly not saying that we should all go out and be offensive or inflammatory just for the sake of it. But I am also only too well aware that in the pursuit of knowledge many people will be hurt. A no-offense society is a no-knowledge society.” (pp 125-126)

Hearing that Islam is a religion of violence is hurtful to many Muslims, but that’s a necessary truth that needs confronting (it’s not bigoted or “Islamophobic”). Hearing that biological sex is not on a spectrum is hurtful to many transgendered people, but it’s truth (not “transphobic”). Hearing that obesity is unhealthy is upsetting to heavy people, but that’s a public service of health (not mean-spirited bullying or “body-shaming”). And on and on.

If you’re a college professor, and a student insists in the classroom that the Holocaust never happened, feel free to silence him, but do it for the right reason. Not because he’s offending Jews. (No one has the right to be not offended in an academic environment, nor to feel secure in an “intellectual safe space”.) Not because he’s “inciting violence”. (Crackpot theories don’t incite violence; the very idea is absurd.) Silence him, in the classroom, because he is trying to pass off as knowledge something that has been thoroughly debunked, and is not worth wasting the time of his fellow students — or their tuition money for that matter. He’s free to speak his crackpot theories on campus outside the classroom.

And above all — I would add before signing off — if you’re going to insist that racial or homophobic slurs “are not speech, but bullets” (saith a University of Michigan law professor), or that offensive speech “wounds” and “injures” (saith another), then you erase, as Rauch says, the distinction between discussion and bloodshed, which carries logical consequences. If offensive speech is so violent, then it requires authorities and thought police to weed out anything perceived as hurtful and wounding. It requires, in other words, an inquisition.

That may have sounded alarmist in 1993, but thirty years later we have the woke-scolds and their cancel culture. And many smart, good-willed people who find it difficult, if not impossible, to have open and honest discussions. Society can’t progress that way. Time for us to shape up and accept results that speak for themselves: offensive speech has proven itself to be a precious commodity.

 

See also the author’s sequel, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth.

Columbus’s Fourth Voyage (II): At the Isle of Dread

In my previous post I laid out the background of an adventure path I imagined for the Isle of Dread module. It’s set in an alternate earth in the year 1503 AD, and allows a group of PCs to take part in Columbus’s fourth voyage, which takes a dramatic turn to Aztec lands and then the Isle of Dread. This post picks up with the arrival of Columbus’s ship, the Capitana, three miles off the coast of the Isle’s southeastern peninsula.

For the most part I use the encounter areas in the reincarnated Isle of Dread module, except where otherwise noted. There is no pirate lair (at area 7), because pirates and ships haven’t yet come to the Isle in this alternate world; Columbus and the PCs are literally the first ever. Likewise there is no shipwreck (on the plateau, area 9).

Travel by Land

Each hex of the map (click on it) represents 6 miles. Normally player characters have three options for land travel mode by foot: fast pace (5 hexes = 30 miles per day), normal pace (4 hexes = 24 miles per day), or slow pace (3 hexes = 18 miles per day).

Speed is modified as follows. (1) Travel on an established trail or road doubles the movement (there’s only one such trail on the Isle of Dread: on the southeastern peninsula, that extends beyond the wall to the tar pit). (2) Travel through mountains (though not hills) halves the movement.

The disadvantages to fast-paced travel are increased likelihood of missing areas that are being searched for, and also in being very likely (4 in 6 chance) surprised by ambushes.

The advantages to slow-paced travel are increased likelihood of finding areas being searched for, the ability to use stealth to avoid encounters (unless surprised, only 1 in 6 chance), and also to map the terrain.

Normal travel means being surprised normally (2 in 6 chance).

However, the PCs will not have much choice if they are traveling with Christopher Columbus, whose failing health all but guarantees the slow-paced travel. He will simply not be able to keep up a normal pace, and certainly not a fast one. But that’s really to the PCs’ advantage. Slow-paced travel is the desirable from a survivalist perspective, and if they want to ensure success in reaching their objectives. The disadvantage is that it means going through rations more quickly, and spending more time on the Isle as the sailing season comes to a close.

The Adventure Path: One of Many

The adventure path I present here is one of many possible. It’s not intended as prescriptive but illustrative, and it certainly shouldn’t be used to railroad PCs into a predetermined arc. It shows the kind of choices they will face pursuant to their objective of locating and obtaining the Black Pearl. Columbus’s primary objective (to get as much gold and treasure as possible) may clash with that objective occasionally. Or maybe it won’t, if the players decide their characters are just as money-hungry for their own reasons.

Based on the information they may obtain at each locale, their trajectory might go from

(1) the natives on the southeastern peninsula, to
(2) the haunted village on the other side of the bay, to
(3) the central jungle and the phanaton tree forts, who will steer the party to
(4) the northeastern jungle and the green dragon’s lair, and also to
(5) the northwestern lake and the Forgotten Temple, the latter of which will point to
(6) the central plateau and Taboo Island.

Once on Taboo Island, if they delve deep enough (and manage to survive), they may finally be tipped off as to the Black Pearl’s true whereabouts at

(7) the underwater city of Ixandathru, near the coral reef off the northeastern coast of the Isle.

This trajectory, however, may be interrupted, deviated from, or even upended altogether, depending on how the PCs play their cards. They may investigate other places on the Isle — the rakasta shrine especially, and perhaps even the “King Kong” island off the west coast if they get really ambitious. The campaign should be run old-school, where player decisions matter and characters’ unexpected actions should be accommodated (within reasonable limits). Much will also depend on the PCs’ relationship with Columbus as the quest proceeds. They may find that working with him isn’t so bad; they may find him a frustrating necessity (the most likely scenario); or they may eventually say to hell with him.

With all that in mind, here’s the adventure path I imagined for the Isle of Dread quest.

Land Ho!

The adventure begins 3 miles off the coast, not far from Mora village. The Capitana has recently passed the southern tip of the coral reefs (sighted on the starboard) and realize from their map that they have arrived at the southern peninsula. Columbus and the PCs have agreed to start here since Chimalli said the natives were friendly and it seems the best place to ask for information. Chimalli never said which village (or villages) he visited, but for the party it’s going to be Mora, since it happens to be where they arrive.

Note: In the previous post I provided rules for weather checks and such for DMs who want to play out the previous two weeks that involve sailing from Mexico to the Isle. For the most part, those two weeks of sailing should pass uneventfully and boring, so it makes sense to start the adventure with the arrival at Mora village.

On that assumption, the Capitana aims toward Mora village, a bit battered and down to 71 hull points from its original 103. In the 15 days it took to sail from Mexico, the ship took a total of 42 hull points of damage: 27 points of damage in a violent storm that lasted a full day (on day 6), and 15 points of damage from the attack of a giant squid (on day 11). One of the sailors was killed by the squid, bringing the total crew to 34. At sea, the crew have been able to repair a total of 10 hull points (over 10 days), bringing it up to 71. It needs 8 days in dock for the remaining 32 hull points to be repaired. (See hull repair rules in the previous post.) At about three miles away away from a beaching point, they will reach an anchoring point in another hour.

As a refresher from the previous post, here is the layout of Columbus’s flagship. It is now his only ship remaining of the four he set out with on his fourth voyage.

Of the 35 crew remaining (including the PCs), five have their personal cabins on the Main Deck: Christopher Columbus in the admiral’s quarters (Room 4), Ambrosio Sanchez in the master’s quarters (Room 5), the PC Felice Monterosso al Mare in the cartographer’s quarters (Room 8), the PC Enrique Vidal in the port guest quarters (Room 11), and the PC Lucia Alvaro in the starboard guest quarters (Room 12).

The other 30 — the 17 sailors, the 2 carpenters, 1 gunman, 1 cooper, 1 chaplain, 5 cabin boys, and 3 other PCs — are forced to share cramped quarters across four rooms: the fore and aft rooms of the cargo and steerage decks. The three PCs are Sergio Suarez (hired as a sailor), Alejandro Sosa (hired as a gunner), and Isaac de Borros Basta (hired as a caulker). At any given time, 3-4 of this 30-total are sleeping in Room 1 of the cargo deck; 2-3 of them in Room 10 of the cargo deck; 2 of them in Room 1 of the steerage deck and 2-3 of them in Room 6 of the steerage deck. The remaining 18-21 of the 30-total busy themselves pumping bilge, deck cleaning, setting the sails, adjusting ropes, and watching after the cargo. They work in four-hours shifts until relieved by those who had been resting/sleeping, and then they go to rest or sleep in the crew quarters.

A typical day aboard the Capitana involves back-breaking labor and enforced piety. Every morning begins with prayers and hymns led by the chaplain, and concludes with an evening worship service. A single hot meal is served in the late afternoon, cooked over an open fire in a sandbox on the main deck. The typical meal involves biscuits, pickled or salted meat, dried peas, cheese, wine, and any freshly caught fish. It’s usually cooked by the cooper or one of the carpenters, though the PC Sergio Suarez is a good cook too, and if he volunteers for some meals he will be welcomed for it.

All of this should be explained to the players at the start. Though most of the adventure will involve exploring the Isle on foot (by Columbus and the six PCs), there will probably be a critical part that involves sailing the Capitana from Mora village across the southern bay of the Isle, and also, much later than that, sailing all the way up to the northeastern coral reefs to locate the underwater city of Ixandathru. Sea travel will definitely be a thing in this adventure.

Arrival: Mora Village

When the Capitana anchors in the bay close to Mora village, Columbus instructs his crew to begin repairs on the ship. (Eight days will be needed in dock for the remaining 32 hull points to be repaired.) He then debarks the Capitana with the 6 PCs, 12 sailors, the cooper, and the chaplain. Those 21 proceed to the village. The other 13 crew — the master Ambrosio Sanchez, 4 sailors, 2 carpenters, the gunner, and 5 cabin boys — remain aboard the ship to guard it and to work the repairs that will take 8 days to complete.

The DM should use the map for Tanaroa village (see below), minus the wall and tar pits. (The map can be used for any of the seven villages, as they structured nearly identically.) The village is 1600′ x 1600′ and stands at the edge of a jungle not far from the coast. There are 270 adult villagers, 50 kids, plus a chief matriarch, a war leader, and a zombie mistress living in Mora:

  • 272 adult commoners: 127 males (AC 9, Lvl 0, hp 3, #AT 1, DA 1-6, spear), 145 females (AC 9, Lvl 0, hp 2, #AT 1, DA 1-4, dagger or club). They will fight if they must, but they don’t fight well.
  • 48 kids (AC 9, Lvl 0, hp 1, #AT 0), under age 15. Non-combatants.
  • Kuna, the chief matriarch (AC 9, F1, hp 5, #AT 1, DA 1-4, dagger, AL NG; S 12, I 6, W 7, D 11, C 13, Ch 15, Co 9). Middle-aged and overweight, with short black hair and a pudgy face. She wears several trinkets and minor pieces of jewelry such as a necklace of animal teeth, earrings, and many rings. She is neither bright nor brave, but good at heart. She pretty much lets Masawa make the decisions while she remains the figurehead, occasionally using her charisma to sway the village.
  • Masawa, the tribal war leader (AC 7, F4, hp 21, #AT 1, DA 5-10, macana +2; AL N; S 16, I 10, W 8, D 14, C 13, Ch 7, Co 15). Has long black hair, braided with small bones and animal teeth. Wears gray hide armor, and wields a macana (a sword-like weapon made of wood) with serrated triangular teeth covering the blade.
  • Zheeroo, the zombie mistress (AC 8, C5, hp 28, #AT 1, DA 1-4, club; AL N; S 9, I 12, W 15, D 11, C 14, Ch 12, Co 7). Very old (in her 60s), she heads Mora’s Cult of the Walking Dead, a secret society whose members (except for the zombie mistress) wear hooded masks during cult ceremonies. At these ceremonies, the “walking ancestors” are created by the mistress. These are zombies (AC 8, HD 2, hp 10, #AT 1, DA 1-6, tree limb; AL N) created by an animate dead spell, cast on a villager with an intact corpse, who has either died naturally or been slain. The zombies are feared by the villagers, but used for manual labor or sometimes even spare warriors. Currently there are about a dozen of them living in the jungle surrounding the village. They enter the village when summoned by Zheeroo. Her clerical prayers (spells) are: create water, cure light wounds (x2), detect poison and disease, gentle repose, snake charm, zone of truth, animate dead, speak with dead.

There are also 28 warriors from Mora who live 30 miles away, right above Tanaroa village (Area 1) in the wall towers. The same number of warriors from each of the other villages are stationed there to guard the southeastern peninsula from monsters and hostilities from beyond the wall. There has never been a reason to keep warriors based in the villages, as there are no real threats in the southeastern peninsula. Not even from civil war: the matriarchs have insisted on the practice of keeping all four clans (Elk, Hawk, Tiger, Sea Turtle) equally represented in each village, to minimize dissent and conflict.

Put simply, with no warrior presence, Mora village (like the other villages) is virtually defenseless against a well armed party like Columbus’s, despite outnumbering the crew twelve to one. Masawa and Zheeroo can hold their ground, and Zheeroo can summon a dozen zombies from the jungle (though they are slow arriving), and that’s it. The villages have experienced decades of safety, secure behind the wall. Piracy and ships from other lands are unknown. The arrival of the Capitana is about to horribly shatter that complacency. The natives have nothing to fear from Columbus himself and (presumably) the PCs. Columbus believes that peaceful natives deserve to be treated kindly and respectfully. He will try converting them to Christianity, but will not tolerate his crew mistreating the natives, stealing from them, raping them, or enslaving them. Which unfortunately is exactly what is about to happen. It’s been the sad legacy of Columbus’s voyages.

But first things first. When the party first arrives at Mora, things go well. They are greeted warmly by the natives, and Columbus will be ecstatic that he can communicate with them via the PC Isaac, who has a tongues spell.

Trade. Columbus will begin by showering the natives with strings of colored beads, fetching a gold piece for every few beads given away (an outrageous steal, but the natives consider it gold well spent). This will earn him about 120 gp off the bat. The villagers are very welcoming of trade, and anyone in the party can sell their goods at 100% market value (listed in the D&D Players Handbook), but the villagers are not wealthy and can spend a total of no more than 660 gp (or 540 gp after they pay for Columbus’s beads). They will encourage Columbus to trade with the six other villages too. (The other villages can spend up to the following amounts on trade: Tanaroa, 1000 gp; Burowao, 820 gp; Panitube, 720 gp; Kirikuka, 570 gp; Usi, 730 gp; Dawa, 500 gp.) However, it’s unlikely that the party will be visiting other villages, given the chain of events will unfold once Columbus and the PCs leave to consult with the shaman Mika.

Questions about the “City of Gold”, the “Black Pearl of the Gods”, or Chimalli. The natives will then be brought to the matriarch Kuna, who will be awed at these white people, and order a feast prepared for them. Masawa and Zheeroo will join the feast. When the party asks about a city in the jungle with streets paved in gold, and a Black Pearl of the Gods, the villagers know of the former (which does not in fact exist) but not the latter (which does exist). The seven villages are the chief purveyors of the “city of gold” myth, which has been handed down for decades, telling of such a city in the heart of one of the jungles on the Isle. They know that the Isle is full of black pearls, but have never heard anything about a Black Pearl of the Gods. They advise the party to consult Mika the shaman on the other side of the peninsula (area 25), who may know of such a legend. No one in Mora remembers a stranger from 26 years ago by the name of Chimalli, though Zheeroo (who was zombie mistress at the time) does recall the village leaders of Tanaroa mentioning a red-skinned stranger who came to them, also asking about a pearl of the gods, and she knows that he too was directed to Mika the shaman.

Conversion. The villagers will freely undergo Christian baptism (not realizing or much caring that a monotheistic religion like Christianity makes no room for their pagan beliefs), and Columbus will order the chaplain (Hector Quintero) to convert as many villagers as he can.

Mika the Shaman (Area 25)

Consulting Mika will probably be the PCs’ number one priority. It will certainly be Columbus’s. The next morning he will instruct the sailors to stay in Mora while the chaplain Hector continues baptizing the villagers. He and the PCs will follow the trail northwest for about 14 miles and then branch off west for 10 miles. They’ll have to camp in the evening one hex away from Mika’s home, and the next day they’ll arrive at her hut mid-morning.

Mika’s hut is fashioned from several large dinosaur rib bones covered with animal hides. The front entrance is a tyrannosaurus rex skull. A pair of bamboo golems (AC 7, HD 6, hp 36, 31, #AT 2, DA 1-6, spear, 1-2 + poison, blowgun, AL N) stand guard at the entrance, under her command. A bamboo golem is a five-foot tall humanoid shaped creature, composed of bamboo, with the head resembling a lumpy gourd with carved eyes (like a jack-o-lantern) glowing pale green. One arm is sharpened to a point, and functions as a spear; the other is hollow and loaded with six poisoned darts (save or fall into unconsciousness for one hour). The bamboo golems will not allow anyone to enter Mika’s hut without her invitation.

Mika (AC 7, M7, hp 21, #AT 1 + spells, DA 1-3, knife, MV 20’/round, AL NG, S 8 I 16 W 18 D 7 C 11 Ch 9 Co 6) has no use for visitors unless they pay her respect that borders on groveling. If they shower her with compliments, or if the speaker for the group (Columbus will defer to one of the PCs if they insist) makes a successful charisma check, then she will invite them inside. She’s an old crone, hundreds of years old, granted longevity from making a pact with some unspeakable otherworldly power. She stinks of herbs and has long white-braided hair.

Her spells are as follows: comprehend languages, cure light wounds, witch’s bolt (x2) (1-12 points of lightning damage), ESP, hideous laughter, whispering wind, displacement, tongues, remove curse.

Mika will answer the party’s questions in return for a magic item or an unusual object (she has no use for money or gems or jewels). This is what she will say regarding a lost city of gold, a black pearl of the gods, and Chimalli:

The City of Gold: She knows nothing of a lost city in a jungle, but she tells the party there are jungles all over the Isle. The two major jungles — either of which might conceal a lost city — are in the center of the isle and in the northeast peninsula. Columbus will want make those two jungle areas an immediate priority.

The Black Pearl of the Gods: She tells the party there are loads of black pearls to be found on or around the coast of the Isle, but most of them are non-magical. However, she does know of an enchanted black pearl that is rumored to be at an old village in the broken lands, 40 miles across the bay (area 28). Most likely the PCs will want make that village a priority, and Columbus will agree to put that first, since it is closer than either of the two jungles.

Chimalli: She remembers Chimalli very well. She describes him as a prophetic visionary who treated her kindly and with respect. He was looking for the godly pearl as the PCs are, and she directed him to the village across the bay. She never saw him or heard anything about him again.

In the back of her hut under a floorboard is her stash of magic items from previous payments: 4 healing potions, 1 extra-healing potion, a ring of feather-falling (Chimalli gave her this),

If the PCs return to Mora and sail around the peninsula to 28, it will probably take them about two and a half days. This is the wise course of action, as Columbus needs to touch base with Ambrosio and let the ship’s master know how he and the PCs are going to proceed exploring the Isle, and how long Ambrosio and the ship’s crew should wait for them in the ship, etc.

If for some reason the PCs want to immediately march beyond the wall and travel overland to the village, it would take them 3 days (6 hexes on the first day along the trail, and 3 hexes per day afterwards off the trail), the last day over a region of broken lands that are perilous to navigate. Mika will advise them of the dangers of the broken lands. But that’s actually the least of their worries. The real problem with land travel at this point is having to get past Tanaroa village and the wall, which about to become the last place they want to go…

Disaster at Mora

As Columbus and the PCs consult Mika, the 12 sailors and the cooper are engaging in an appalling act. Still burning with fury over the mass sacrifice of their comrades in Mexico, having not had a woman in ages, and believing all redskin natives to be completely beneath them, they take it upon themselves to steal from them (taking a total of 850 gp), rape their women and girls, and take nine of them as concubines back to the Capitana.

They preface this outrage by first murdering Zheeroo (the zombie mistress) in her sleep. They kill Masawa too, though the war leader manages to kill one of the sailors and cripple another before he goes down. Then, in retaliation for the sailor’s death, the remaining sailors go on a slaughter, killing 41 men in the village and 6 boys as well. Many of the sailors have guns, and all of them are very proficient with their swords (they are all either 2nd or 3rd level fighters), so it’s no contest at all; the native men have spears but aren’t warriors. Finally, to top it off, the sailors drag the matriarch Kuna from her bed, decapitate her, and toss her head at the base of the pyramid at the village center. They remove her heart and leave it on top of her corpse — avenging, as they see it, their comrades who had their hearts ripped out in Mexico. (Never mind that these kindly natives are culturally nothing like the Aztecs.) Taking the nine women and girls, they flee back to the Capitana, trusting Columbus and the PCs will make it back to them.

As Columbus and the PCs return to Mora, halfway along the trail they see a furious native running towards them, heading in the opposite direction. When he sees them, he starts screaming and waving his fists, cursing them, and then dashes around them and keeps running towards Tanaroa village. (He is a messenger from Mora, sent to the wall to appeal for warriors.)

The PCs will have no idea why the native is so agitated and furious. They will have to force him to stop if they want to find out (he will try to evade capture), using either Isaac’s tongues spell (in which case the native will give Isaac quite an earful, denouncing them all as savage rapists and evil plunderers), or Felice’s ESP spell (which will read enough surface thoughts of the man to make clear what happened). Otherwise the party will find out what happened when they get back to Mora.

When they do arrive at Mora and see the appalling massacre, Columbus becomes enraged. He tries to appease the now-hostile villagers, but to no avail. He is thoroughly accustomed to this bullshit. When he returned to Navidad in Cuba on his second voyage (in November 1493), for example, he found that his men had defied his explicit instructions, and gone on a similar rampage of looting, raping, and killing natives. He often hanged his men for such barbaric behavior, as for example, during his third voyage (in August 1500), when he hanged two Spaniards for crimes committed against the Indians, and was in turn “rewarded” for this justice by being arrested by the knight commander Bobadilla and sent back to Spain in chains. Undaunted by that history, he has every intention now of doling out severe punishment on his crew.

But he cannot hang the sailors, because needs a crew to get back home. He will ask the PC Sergio to lash them with his whip (39 lashes a man). If Sergio won’t do it, he will have the ship’s master Ambrosio do the honors (there is a whip back on the Capitana, in the master’s quarters).

Natives on the Warpath

Of the total 196 village warriors manning the wall, 96 of them rally to the messenger’s summons when he reports the outrage. From the time the party returns to Mora, it will take less than half a day for the 96 warriors (AC 7, F1-3, hp 6-18, #AT 1, DA 1-6, arrow from short bow, or 2-7 from spear or macana) to reach them (they’re running fast and hard). Columbus and the PCs should have plenty of time to avoid the warriors, get back to their ship and sail away, as long as they don’t linger in the village. They have no reason to stay, given the hostility facing them, and Columbus is hell bent on punishing the sailors.

Back on board the Capitana, the sailors will take their lashings under protest, whether from a PC like Sergio or the ship’s master Ambrosio. Ambrosio shares Columbus’s fury at the sailors’ behavior, and he will certainly back Columbus up when the admiral orders them to let the native women and girls go. If the PCs don’t back Columbus up, there is a 2 in 6 chance that the sailors will mutiny. They are still furious over the loss of so many friends to Aztec sacrifice, and will not take kindly to Columbus siding with red-skinned “savages”. But they will not mutiny if it means crossing the PCs. They outnumber the PCs three to one, but they are only 2nd-3rd level rogues and fighters. The PCs are 4th-7th level, and two of them are “sorcerers” greatly feared by the sailors.

Appendix: Tanaroa, the Wall, and the Breakdown of the Village Populations

In my imagined adventure path, the PCs do not go to Tanaroa, but it’s possible that PCs will choose to detour here (for whatever reason), whether before or after visiting Mika the shaman. Columbus will certainly have no objections, as he wants to evangelize as many pagans as possible. If they come to Tanaroa after visiting Mika, they will arrive just about the time the messenger from Mora arrives — screaming about murdering white rapists — which will make things very interesting, and land Columbus and the PCs in hot water. The messenger goes straight to the wall to appeal to the warriors, and (as stated above), 96 of them will descend in wrath.

The following information is good to have on hand, in case the PCs decide to travel to any of the seven villages. The village of Tanaroa has pride of place among the seven, in guarding and controlling the wall gates, though the towers are evenly staffed by warriors from all the villages. The breakdown is as follows:

  • Each village supplies 28 warriors for the 28 towers. In other words, one warrior from each village goes in each tower, for a total of 7 warriors per tower. (Total of 196 warriors.)
  • Each village has 270 adult commoners, and 50 kids. (Total of 1890 adults and 350 kids.)
  • Each village has 1 chief (matriarch). (Total 7 matriarchal chiefs.)
  • Each village has 1 war leader (male advisor to the chief). (Total 7 war leaders.)
  • Each village has 1 zombie master or mistress. (Total 7 zombie masters.)
  • Thus each village has a total of 351 people. (Total 2457 people in all 7 villages.)
  • In each village, the clans are oriented as follows: Tiger (north), Hawk (west), Sea Turtle (east), and Elk (south). Each of the four clans has a leader. The Elk clan leader is in Tanaroa, the Hawk clan leader is in Mora, the Tiger clan leader is in Burowao, and the Sea Turtle clan leader is in Panitube.

While the villages have equal standing in relation to each other, Tanaroa does have a certain pride of place being next to the wall only 400 feet away. It’s a stone wall 50 feet high that stretches for a mile in each direction, across the two-mile thin neck of land that joins the southeastern peninsula with the main land. Evenly spaced along the wall are 28 square towers, each 100′ x 100′ and 70 feet tall, and in the center of the wall is a pair of massive wooden gates (on each side of the wall), each with double doors that are 40 feet wide, 40 feet tall, and 5 feet thick. Each gate is barred with a heavy wooden beam.

All of the villages are all about 1600′ x 1600′ and stand in jungle clearings. The map for Tanaroa should be used for any one of them, minus the wall and tar pits.

Planning Ahead

As the party leaves the southeastern peninsula, they will likely formulate a plan (if they have not already done so) for exploring the Isle. At this point they probably intend to sail to the village in the broken lands to find the enchanted black pearl mentioned by Mika, and then afterwards to move inland to search the jungle areas for the “lost city with streets paved in gold”. Columbus does not want any of his crew exploring the Isle with him except for the PCs. The seven of them — Columbus and the six PCs — should from this point constitute the party that will adventure on foot in the Isle of Dread. Columbus is puny and weak (and has a putrid 10 hit points), but the Aztec blanket-cloak he wears gives him a mighty armor class of -7, so he is well protected against attacks.

The rest of the crew, for their part, are happy with this arrangement, disliking Columbus considerably at this point, and never really trusting the PCs. These 26 men and boys will stay behind in the ship, anchored in the bay near the village (if it proves to be a safe area), to wait for Columbus and the PCs to return, which may take many days, and more likely weeks. Ambrosio will be in charge of these men — the 15 sailors (one crippled), the 2 carpenters, the gunner, the cooper, the chaplain, and the 5 cabin boys. The arrangement has Columbus a bit nervous. Ambrosio, the chaplain, and one of the carpenters are the only crew members who are disgusted by what the 13 men did, and most of these men resent Ambrosio as much as Columbus for siding with the natives against their “plundering rights”. There is a danger of mutiny.

The concern for mutiny should weigh on the PCs as they adventure throughout the Isle of Dread. As the adventure path will make clear, Columbus will become increasingly annoying to work with as an NPC ally. The deeper they explore and encounter the Isle’s marvels and horrors, the more Columbus will become convinced that they are key players in apocalyptic events. When he encounters the phanatons, remarkable good-willed creatures who can speak, he will start to wonder if the Isle of Dread is the Garden of Eden. The presence of exotic creatures like dinosaurs will reinforce his blooming opinion. (He will call them “thunder lizards”, as the word “dinosaur” doesn’t yet exist in this world.) If the party finds the waterfalls of healing, he will be convinced they are indeed in paradise — albeit a paradise that has been invaded by Satanic forces, like the walking dead, sorcerer spiders, a dragon, etc.

The logistics of foot travel shouldn’t be too much of a problem. The PC Isaac has a wand of shelter (with 26 charges), which allows him to cast a tiny hut spell, which provides shelter and a nice full meal for up to nine people. The party is almost certain to be on the Isle for more than 26 days however, so there will likely some days of standard camping, and relying on Enrique’s create food & water spell, Sergio’s hunting skills, etc.

Though they will have no way of knowing how long their quest will last, it will probably be well over a month, based on the most ideal trajectory outlined at the start of this post and the map to the left (for DM’s eyes only obviously). The time frame might go as follows:

From the haunted village to the phanaton tree fort (7 days). This might involve circling the broken lands (to avoid the volcanic firestorms), investigating the southern jungle about halfway through (looking for the city of gold) before retracing and then hugging the southwestern coast up into the central jungle (where they search thoroughly for the city of gold).

From the phanatons to the sorcerer spiders (5 days). Once they hit the mountains, they will travel one and a half hexes per day instead of 3.

From the spiders to the rakasta shrine (3 days).

From the rakasta shrine to the the green dragon lair (3 days). Which they encounter after yet again finding no city of gold, though they do find the waterfalls of healing by the end of the second day.

From the green dragon lair to the troglodyte lair (3 days). As they hug the coast to avoid the mountains. he northwestern lake and the Forgotten Temple, the latter of which will point to the central plateau and Taboo Island.

From the troglodyte lair to the northern shore of the lake (2-3 days).

From the northern shore of the lake to the rope bridge of the plateau (4 days).

In other words, getting to the Central Plateau will take at least 30-31 days, and probably more given unexpected things that happen, or that players decide to do.

It’s of course possible that the PCs will ignore the phanaton chief’s advice (see below) and choose to investigate the Central Plateau right away before proceeding to either the northeastern jungle or the northwestern lake. But they won’t know where to focus their searching efforts (they get that information from the temple on the lake), so their quest will become difficult if they go to the plateau too soon.

Once on Taboo Island, if they delve deep enough (and manage to survive), they may finally be tipped off as to the Black Pearl’s true whereabouts at the underwater city of Ixandathru, near the coral reef off the northeastern coast of the Isle. That part of the adventure path — everything that happens on the Central Plateau and Taboo Island, and the subsequent journey to Ixandathru — will be covered in the a third post.

The Dragon Turtle (Area 30)

The first destination after fleeing the Mora natives will probably be the village in the broken lands, given what Mika tells them about an enchanted pearl being there. Travel by sea — around the southeastern peninsula and across the bay — will be the necessary course of action if the natives are calling for the party’s blood (the Capitana can’t remain anchored in hostile territory). It should take about two and a half days (at about 60-75 miles/day, about half of full speed to navigate around the peninsula this close to the Isle).

Sailing across this bay turns out to be a very perilous course of action, for a dragon turtle (AC -2, HD 30, hp 161, #AT 3 or breath, DA 1-8/1-8/5-50 or steam, MV 30’/round, AL N) lurks here. This gargantuan monstrosity is named Chelhydrus, and he sleeps for long periods (of 3-4 months) under messes of driftwood, kelp, algae, and other floating debris. When he wakes up he goes on a month-long feeding frenzy, attacking whales, large predator dinosaurs, and — though he’s never encountered one before — a sailing ship like the Capitana. When the Capitana sails across this bay, Chelhydrus has a 75% chance of slumbering, and 25% of being awake and on the vicious prowl. This will be on the afternoon or early evening of the second day sailing from Mora village.

(a) Slumbering Chelhydrus: The dragon turtle’s “bed” of debris will be drifting in the hex marked “30” on the map, or any of the hexes immediately adjacent to it. If the Capitana sails among that floating debris, it will put the ship right over the dragon turtle (practically on his back), and Chelhydrus will have a 10% cumulative chance per round of waking up. If that happens, he will rise to the surface, at first very groggy and unable to attack or use his breath weapon for 1-4 rounds. During which time Columbus and the PCs had best decide to haul ass, accelerate the ship, and sail away for their fucking lives, if they can. There are basically two possible scenarios: (1) Chelhydrus is right below the ship when he rises (20%). If this is the case, then the dragon turtle has a 50% chance of capsizing the ship when he rises, causing 1-20 hull points of damage and throwing 1-6 people overboard. (2) Chelhydrus rises to the surface from anywhere between 50-100 feet away from the ship (80%). If this is the case, then Chelhydrus will roar in outrage when he loses his grogginess, and attack with his breath weapon. He gets three breath weapon attacks per day — a 30-foot diameter cloud of steam with a range of 90 feet, dealing the equivalent damage of his own hit points (save vs. breath weapon for half). At full hit points, that’s either 161 or 80 hit points of damage per character struck! (Almost certain instant death.) If he attacks with his colossal bite and claws, he has a 50% chance of attacking the ship (treated as AC 10) and doing hull damage, and a 50% chance of attacking someone on the ship.

(b) Prowling Chelhydrus: If the dragon turtle is awake, it could be anywhere in the entire bay area — up to 4 hexes north or south of the one marked “30”, or up to 2 hexes east or west, etc. As long as the Capitana is sailing anywhere in the bay (unless it’s hugging the coast), it will have a 15% chance per day of running afoul Chelhydrus. See above for how he will proceed to attack.

Flight or Fight?

Fleeing Chelhydrus is obviously the sensible thing to do, but that may be hard unless the ship has him in the rear-view and is already moving at a high speed. There is something, however, that might save the ship and everyone’s lives: Sergio’s ring of water elemental command. The ring can summon a tsunami once per month — a wave 60 feet high and 120 feet long that travels 500 miles per hour on the open sea (if it hits land, it slows to 40 miles per hour, but that won’t be the case here), and lasts for a duration of 2 turns (20 minutes) under the ring wielder’s control. Even a 100,000+ pound dragon turtle will be swept away by a tsunami traveling at 500 mph. Sergio gets 20 minutes usage out of the tsunami — more than enough time to sweep the dragon turtle away, while sailing ass in the other direction.

Columbus’s arc: If the party encounters Chelhydrus and survives (whether by barely fleeing in time or through Sergio’s elemental intervention), Columbus will be visibly shaken and struggling to come to terms with what he has witnessed. He has never seen a dragon, let alone a dragon turtle — his entire view of the world is about to be upended on the Isle — and will drop to his knees, praising God for the crew’s deliverance from Satan. He will retreat to his cabin and pour through his Bible, and fixate on a passage in Isaiah:

“In that day the Lord with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea.” (Isaiah 27:1)

If Sergio used his ring to “slay Leviathan”, Columbus will become convinced that “the day of the Lord” is indeed quite imminent, and that his quest for gold is all the more urgent. He will instruct the ship’s chaplain to read the Isaiah passage every morning for prayers, and also during the evening worship services.

Columbus will also take Sergio’s tsunami as proof positive that the Lord works in mysterious ways (again, assuming that Sergio used his ring to save the day), and that the heretical PCs are being used by God for a holy purpose. (Indeed, it must be God at work through Sergio, for “How can Satan cast out Satan?” (Mk 3:23)) When the chaplain concludes the worship services that evening, Columbus will praise the PCs as instruments of the Almighty, and dedicate a special feast in their honor. The crew will be awed by Sergio’s power display and will give the PCs more wide berth than before.

The Haunted Village (Area 28)

The village is at the edge of the broken lands close to the bay. It used to be a thriving place of about 200 villagers but has been abandoned for decades, ever since a plague ripped through the southwestern peninsula. Now it’s haunted by the walking dead (zombies and ghouls), and even the slithering dead (skeletal snakes), who are drawn to this place because of the black pearl in the witchdoctor’s cave, which is corrupted with an evil enchantment (see below).

For they keyed areas in the village, see the Reincarnated Isle of Dread module. Neither of the totem golems at the gate of the stockade fence (HV1) is active anymore; both have lost their enchantments. Inside the village is where confrontation abounds. There are 33 zombies (AC 8, HD 2, hp 10 each, #AT 1, DA 1-8, various weapons, old and rusted, MV 20’/round, AL N) dwelling in the 12 huts (2-4 zombies per hut) (HV2); 7 ghouls (AC 6, HD 2, hp 9 each, #AT 3, DA 1-3/1-3/1-6, MV 40’/round, AL CE) making the communal hut their lair (HV3); and 6 skeletal snakes (AC 7, HD 2, hp 11 each, #AT 1, DA 1-4, MV 30’/round, AL N) plus the undead form of the witchdoctor, who is a wraith (AC 4, magic weapons needed to hit, HD 5, hp 33, #AT 1, DA 1-6 + energy drain, MV 40’/round, AL NE), in the witchdoctor’s cave (HV4).

[Since there is no cleric in the party, the DM may wish to reduce the number of undead present in the huts, for example, 20 zombies (1-2 per hut) and 4 ghouls.]

The treasure in the communal hut and witchdoctor’s cave is as listed in the module. The black pearl in the witchdoctor’s cave is worth 500 gp and radiates evil. It has permanent sympathy spell attuned to undead, which is why the dead haunt the village. But the pearl itself is not inherently magical. It’s certainly not the Black Pearl of the Gods, and there are no clues in the village as to where that Pearl might possibly be.

Upon realizing this, the PCs will probably proceed to the nearest jungle, immediately south of them. Columbus will urge this, eager to find the supposed lost city and more natives to convert. If they can find the legendary jungle city with streets paved of gold, the Black Pearl of the Gods may be there too. If not, perhaps the city inhabitants who know where the Pearl is.

Columbus’s arc: This is Columbus’s first ever encounter with undead (unless the party encountered walking-dead zombies on the southeastern peninsula), and he will be deeply unsettled by these damned entities — and by the pearl’s evil enchantment which draws them like a magnet. When they camp for sleep, he will pour over his Bible and latch on to a passage in Zechariah which pits zombies against the cause of Jerusalem (which is Columbus’s cause). In the middle of the night he will wake up the PCs furiously and recite the passage in a state of angst:

“This is the plague with which the Lord will strike all the nations that fought against Jerusalem: Their flesh will rot while they are still standing on their feet, their eyes will rot in their sockets, and their tongues will rot in their mouths. On that day people will be stricken by the Lord with great panic. They will seize each other by the hand and attack one another.” (Zechariah 14:12-14)

He will insist that the zombies are further proof that they are living in end times, and that he and the PCs are playing a critical role in the apocalyptic drama.

Into the Jungle: Velociraptors

From the haunted village, the party will probably head south into the jungle and explore there for a while before turning back north, hugging the southwestern coast around the broken lands, and up into the heart of the central jungle. They will become frustrated, as their search for the lost city seems to be in vain.

Each day in the jungle there is a 33% chance of running into a pack of six velociraptors (AC 4, HD 3, hp 22, 21, 19, 18, 16, 15, #AT 3, DA 1-8/3-6/3-6, MV 50’/round, AL N). These dinosaurs are only between 3-4 feet tall (like giant turkeys), but they are fast and use their talons with nasty efficiency.

After the velociraptors, the DM may use another wandering monster before the party reaches the phanatons: a gargantuan poisonous snake (AC 6, HD 10, hp 57, #AT 1, DA 3-8 + poison (save or die in 1-4 turns, and if save then 3-18 points of damage), MV 30’/round, AL N) that they camp next to when they camp for lunch. The snake is 50-feet long, its torso proportionally wide, and has chameleon-like ability, and so has a 5 in 6 chance of surprising a poor victim.

In the Tree-Forts of the Phanatons (Area 10)

Eventually they should come to the phanatons, a small race (3-4 feet tall) that resemble a cross between a monkey and a raccoon, though their faces have an almost human quality in terms of subtle expressions. They glide from tree branch to tree branch like flying squirrels, and live in a tree fort settlement 50 feet off the ground. Their average lifespan is about 80 years.

Columbus will fall in love with these creatures instantly and advise cultivating good will. It’s a sure bet the PCs will too. Certainly the druid Enrique, the ranger Sergio, and the wizard Isaac will take action against any who treat the phanatons poorly or attack them.

They will be brought to Ra’tikki, the war chief (at PH2), and informed that there is no jungle city (let alone with streets paved in gold) anywhere in the central or southern jungles of the Isle. Ra’tikki cannot however speak to the three northern jungle areas.

Ra’tikki and others remember being visited by Chimalli, but it was 26 years ago, and their memory of him is fuzzy. They recall that he was seeking a “Black Pearl of the Gods” too. The war chief will tell the party what he remembers telling Chimalli (points 1 and 2) and also, optionally, a more recent development (point 3).

1. Of the three northern jungles, the largest is on the northeastern peninsula, where a nasty green dragon lives, rumored to have an immense treasure hoard. The Black Pearl could be part of that hoard. It’s a very large jungle, so maybe there’s a hidden city somewhere.

2. The smallest jungle surrounds part of a lake in the northwestern peninsula. On the northern end of this lake is an island. There are rumors of an ancient temple here. If the Pearl isn’t in the green dragon hoard or a hidden city, then perhaps it’s in the temple (if it’s supposed to be a “pearl of the gods”).

3. A wandering band of cat-like humanoids arrived mysteriously at the Isle three years ago. They have been searching for something on the Isle, but the phanatons don’t know what. Their searches are always conducted in the mountains northeast of the plateau and in the jungle on the northeastern peninsula. They clearly believe that something of great importance is to be found in the northeastern region of the Isle. The phanatons don’t like these cat-like humanoids, who seem arrogant and warlike.

If the PCs ask what is on the central plateau, Ra’tikki believes that it is a plains region of warlike natives, giant birds, and mastodons, but beyond that he knows nothing.

If they ask him what course of action Chimalli took, Ra’tikki remembers the Aztec saying that he planned to look for the ancient temple before looking for the lost city or green dragon. Ra’tikki  has no idea what happened to Chimalli at the lake, or if he ever made it to the northeastern jungle. The phanatons never saw or heard Chimalli again.

Columbus is awed to hear about the dragon, and still terrified over the dragon turtle that almost destroyed his ship at sea (assuming the party encountered it). He will urge traveling to the jungle in the northeastern peninsula, to search for the city, and to do battle with the “Satanic” dragon and take its treasure. He will insist on it, and if the PCs object, he will promise to let them decide the itinerary without his interference after they leave northeastern peninsula. If the PCs overrule him (which they could easily do), he will become hostile and threaten to have them arrested and hanged when they return to the Capitana (though that is a feeble threat as well).

Columbus does have a point though. It does make sense to make the northeastern peninsula a first priority. If there is a lost city, maybe there is information about the ancient temple on the lake that could help them. Also, if a tribe of cat-people is persistently searching the northeastern area, then clearly something important is there.

Ra’tikki will voice support for Columbus’s advice, but a bit bashfully, as he has an ulterior motive. He wants the party to do him a favor on their overland journey to the northeastern peninsula — to slay the magic-wielding spiders about 60 miles northeast (area 14). This is an area they would unlikely pass if they went to the lake first and from that point to the northeast peninsula. The spiders like to hunt phanatons and have been a problem for years. The chief doesn’t demand this from the party, only asks it as a favor. Columbus, loving the phanatons, will righteously agree to help, arrogantly speaking for the PCs and volunteering their help. While this will probably rankle the PCs, chances are that at least two of them (nature lovers Sergio and Enrique) would agree to this anyway, as the phanatons are an endearing race, and the spiders an evil plague.

Columbus’s arc: This encounter will mark a certain turning point for Columbus. He will be absolutely enchanted by the phanatons — intelligent good-willed creatures with their own language — and start to wonder if the “Isle of Dread”, as the Aztecs call it, is in fact the Terrestrial Paradise (i.e. the Garden of Eden).

Triceratops Charge

If the party marches to the northeastern peninsula, they will be suddenly charged (1-3 in 6 chance of surprise, even traveling slowly), by a triceratops (AC 2/6, HD 11, hp 60, #AT 3 or trample, DA 1-8/1-12/1-12 or trample for 2-24, MV 30’/round, AL N) as they emerge from the jungle into the hills. It charges for double damage on its first attack.

This 30-foot long herbivore is 10 feet high at the shoulder, and its head is AC 2, while its body is AC 6. Confronting it face on usually means dealing with AC 2. Small creatures (hobbits, children, etc.) are subject to their trample attack (instead of the three horns) for 2-24 points of damage, but that will doubtfully be relevant here.

Columbus and His Prophecies

Columbus will have been obsessing Ra’tikki’s rumor of the green dragon ever since leaving the phanaton tree forts, and pouring over his Bible to find relevance. The first night of camp after trekking through the hills (as the party arrives at the mountain range), he will reach a bold conclusion: that this green dragon is none other than Satan (in the same way that the dragon turtle was an avatar of Satan), and that Revelation identifies the green dragon, but with a textual gloss rendering “great” instead of “green”:

“And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him… And the Lord seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.” (Revelation 12:9, 20:2)

Columbus shows the PCs that he has crossed out the word “great” in this Bible and has scribbled in the word “green”. It is the green dragon, he insists, who was thrown down to the earth — and perhaps other dragons (“angels”) like him — and the Lord will soon be “seizing him and binding him for 1000 years”, whatever that means. He believes they are on the way to confront Satan in his worst incarnation, and that the fate of mankind depends on their slaying the foul beast.

Spiders of Sorcery (Area 14)

Of the PCs, Enrique (for sure) and Sergio (most probably) will want to kill the aranea as a favor to the phanatons, assuming the party was well received by them in the tree forts and given helpful information about the Isle. Columbus will also consider it their holy duty to kill the spiders (not that Columbus himself can contribute anything to this cause), as he believes the phanatons are probably creatures native to paradise (Eden).

The spider webs are 40 feet off the jungle floor and concealed from view unless one climbs above the first layer of leaf growth. This 25-foot climb requires a successful strength check, Each spider has a separate lair, but the walls are close enough so that the spiders can jump from one to another with ease. The webbed over sections of the lairs (see map) resemble caves, containing crude furniture made of wood, vines, and web which are webbed in place on the floor, and contain storage chests and libraries used for spell research.

The three spiders (AC 7, HD 3, hp 21, 19, 17, #AT 1, DA 1-6 + poison, MV 40’/round in web, 20’/round on ground, AL CE) are as large as a pony and greenish brown in color. Each has different spells and treasure (hidden in the roof of its lair) as follows:

Web A1 — Spells: obscuring mist, sleep, levitate. Treasure: cursed shield -1, potion of undead control.

Web A2 — Spells: silent image, ventriloquism, mirror image. Treasure: broom of flying. [The broom, upon command, will carry its owner, up to 180 pounds, in the air and fly at a rate of 30 miles per day. It can carry one extra person, up to 360 pounds, at a rate of 20 miles per day. The device can climb or dive at about 30 degrees. The command word “dash” must be used, which can be revealed with an identify spell.]

Web A1 — Spells: ray of enfeeblement, reduce person, glitterdust. Treasure: potion of poison.

Note that the potion of undead control and (especially) the broom of flying will prove to be very helpful later on in the quest, so even if there’s no monetary treasure here, it’s worth the party’s efforts to help the phanatons by killing these spiders.

Columbus’s arc: He will be deeply unnerved by the loathsome spiders, whose sorcery clearly marks them as Satanic monsters. If the Isle of Dread is indeed the Garden of Eden, it has clearly been invaded by evil (like the spiders and the undead from the village in the broken lands).

The Cat-Men and Hidden Shrine (Area 38 to the north of Area 14, and then Area 39)

As the party aims for the coast to avoid the worst of the mountain range, they are ambushed by six rakasta (AC 6, HD 2, hp 10 each, #AT 3, DA 1-4/1-4/1-6, two claws and a bite, MV 40’/round, AL LN), a race of nomadic feline humanoids. Their camp is about 80 miles south (area 9), built for a community of nineteen. The other thirteen are there now; these six are scouts on patrol. They are wary but not hostile to Columbus and the PCs, as they need their help to enter a shine located in a valley about 30 miles to the northwest.

The rakasta came from South America three years ago to search for this shrine that was constructed by their own people in ages past. They will tell the part that it contains great wealth, hidden lore, and the preserved body of a great Rakasta leader who is needed in their struggle on the South American continent (which they call Terra). About six months ago they located the shrine using the megalithic circles (at the three area-38 points) to triangulate its location at area 39.

The problem is that having found the shrine, they are unable to get past room RS2, as those doors can only be opened by magical means. The rakasta are not magic-users and they need a mage to open them. (The PC Felice has two knock spells.) If the party is willing to help the rakasta — which they might do, on the off-chance that the “hidden lore” inside this shrine contains information about the Black Pearl — the rakasta promise them a heavy share in whatever wealth is to be found inside the shrine.

Unfortunately, the treasure to be found inside the shrine isn’t that impressive (totaling 10,000 gp worth of gems, jewels, and items), and there is no hidden lore to be found. The preserved body of Rajas’el-najar, on the other hand, is most certainly waiting in his resting place (RS9), but he thoroughly deceived his people with false prophecies about this shrine. Once liberated — and much more powerful now with undead abilities — he will plan to ruthlessly conquer the Isle of Dread. As soon as the PCs and/or the raksata open Rajas’s sarcophagus, and he reveals his monstrous intentions, the rakasta will try to destroy their leader and ask the PCs for their assistance. If the PCs know what’s good for them, they won’t hesitate to assist.

Rajas’el-najar is now a Herculean fast-moving mummy (AC 1, magic weapons needed to hit and do only half damage, HD 9, hp 50, #AT 1, DA 1-12 + disease, MV 40’/round, AL LE). He wears a ring of protection +2, a circlet of blasting (a golden headband that projects a blast of searing light for 5-40 points of damage (save for half damage) once every four hours; automatically affecting everyone in a 30-foot radius). He has all the features of a mummy, including fear (the mere sight of him within 15 feet will cause fear-based paralysis for 1-4 rounds, unless a save vs. petrification is made), and a rotting disease that negates all cure wounds spells, and will be fatal in 1-4 weeks.

Note the staff of withering included in Rajas’s sarcophagus, along with the gems and jewels. The staff has 18 charges. It strikes as a +1 magic weapon. If a hit is scored and one charge is used, then the victim is aged 10 years, unless a save vs. rod/staff/wand is made. If a hit is scored and two charges are used, the victim is aged 10 years and one of his/her limbs becomes shriveled and useless, unless a save vs. rod/staff/wand is made (one saving throw for each effect). Raj will wield this terrible staff. Regardless of whether or not the subject saves, a hit from the staff causes 2-7 points of damage.

The detour to this shrine won’t help the PCs learn anything they need to know. The rakasta know nothing about a lost city of gold or Black Pearl of the Gods, but they do know about the green dragon, whom the rakasta say is fiercely intelligent, and knows all sorts of things: he may answer questions provided that he is treated with the utmost respect. The PCs and Columbus are warned that the dragon is vicious to those who don’t approach him with awe.

The Stegosaurus and the T-Rex (Area 43)

This encounter needn’t be used to the far northeast. It can be used much closer inland, say at the midpoint between hexes 20 and 38. It should be modified as follows: The T-Rex is not yet on the scene. The stegosaurus (AC 2/5, HD 14, hp 77, #AT 1, DA 3-24, MV 20’/round, AL N) appears suddenly in a fury, charging the party and tucking its head low, spinning to face an opponent with its rear end and slamming it with its spiked tail. The dinosaur is 25 feet long and 8 feet high, and its great plates allow it to defend with an armor class of 2 (the other 10% of the time an AC of 5).

This area is also the hunting ground of a tyrannosaurs rex (AC 4, HD 18, hp 111, #AT 3, DA 1-6/1-6/5-40, MV 40’/round, AL N), a monstrosity 50 feet long and 20 feet high. There is a 60% chance that the T-Rex is attracted to the sound of battle and arrives 3-6 rounds after the stegosaurus begins attacking the party. If that happens, the stegosaurus has an 80% chance (01-80) of breaking off its attack of the party and attacking the T-Rex instead, in effect becoming the party’s temporary ally. It has a 20% chance (81-00) of running away. It hates the T-Rex and has been harassed and wounded by it before.

Waterfalls of Healing: “The Terrestrial Garden”

In the exact center of the northeastern peninsula (two hexes to the northeast of encounter area 20) are gorgeous waterfalls with extraordinary healing properties. Drinking straight from the falls has a powerhouse healing effect. It restores a person to full hit points and any ability scores that have been reduced, removes fatigue, restores any levels that have been drained, cures disease, deafness, blindness, and neutralizes any poison in the person’s system. Not only that, the water temporarily adds 1-4 points to each ability score, which lasts for 1-4 weeks. Roll for each character who drinks.

However, the beneficial properties of the water begin diminishing as soon as it is bottled and removed from the area. If someone, for example, fills an empty potion bottle, it will be plain non-magical water by the end of the day.

Columbus’s arc: The phanatons marked a turning point for Columbus, but the waterfalls trigger an outright conversion experience. He will become 100% convinced that the Isle of Dread is indeed the Garden of Eden, and will admit that he was wrong about the Orinoco Delta in Venezuela being Eden (which he has insisted on since his third voyage five years ago). He will present his new theory to the PCs: that the Black Pearl of the Gods, wherever it is, is acting like the pearl they found in the broken-lands village — but on a much larger scale — like a magnet to evil creatures, drawing them to the Isle. It explains why the Garden contains Satanic forces: the walking dead, sorcerous spiders, a mummified cat-lord like Rajas’el-najar, a dragon, and God knows what else. It’s the Black Pearl’s fault.

As a result, Columbus will be now just as eager as the PCs to find the Pearl: to remove the abominable gem from the Garden of Eden so that the blessed land may return to God’s purpose. His quest for gold is still imperative (for the crusade to liberate Jerusalem), but ridding paradise of the Pearl is the even higher mandate. And if the Aztecs want the evil relic, then so be it; they deserve to be damned.

If the PCs scoff at his claims, he will lash out in fury, and warn them that the Lord will not be mocked, and that their souls are in dire jeopardy.

The Green Dragon Lair (Area 20)

This is an important encounter which should be played carefully. It’s also an encounter which has a strong likelihood of killing Columbus, depending on how the DM roleplays him.

The old green dragon, Noximanthra (AC 1, HD 9, hp 72, #AT 3 or breath, DA 1-6/1-6/3-24 or 50’x40′ cloud of chlorine gas for 72 hp of damage (or half if save), MV 30’/round (walking), 80’/round (flying), AL CE), makes his lair here. He reads and speaks the following languages: Dragon (Green), Quingnam, Quechua, English, Latin, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Italian, Greek, Japanese. He is 36 feet long and 494 years old, nasty-tempered and evil.

For all his viciousness, however, Noximanthra will not be in a hurry to kill the party. He can tell by their smell and looks that they are foreigners, and he is more hungry for conversation and information about the outside world than for the meat of seven humans. He doesn’t understand Spanish, but four of the party members can use other languages to communicate with him directly: Issac (who knows Latin), Enrique (who knows English, Italian, and Latin), Felice (who knows Italian and English), and Columbus (who knows Italian and Latin). Latin is the greatest common denominator among the party and dragon, followed by Italian, and then English.

The dragon isn’t native to the Isle: he’s from Peru, born in 1009 AD, during the rise of Chimú empire; he fled the land in 1086 AD (417 years ago), when as a young adult he provoked the ire of his brother and sister. He’s been living in this lair on the Isle of Dread for about 400 years now.

But that’s not the story he will tell. If asked, he will give an extravagant account of himself: that he is many thousands of years old (in other words, a great wyrm); that he migrated to the Isle from very far away in southern Sweden, about 1000 years ago; that he is the brother of the dragon slain by the warrior-king Beowulf in the early 6th century (1000 years ago), and that he avenged his brother by killing Beowulf in turn.

Through this grandiose tissue of lies, Noximanthra has reinvented himself. He loves European and Asian literature and has been exposed to plenty of it from a Norwegian mage who traded western goods for magic items. (The mage had “discovered” the Americas long before Columbus, in the 11th century, by accidentally creating a gate to the South American continent. He kept his discovery secret.) In this alternate world, Beowulf was a real hero. However, most of the PCs (Sergio, Isaac, Enrique, and Felice) are familiar enough with the tale to know that Beowulf was killed by the dragon he slew, not a different dragon. If they point this out to Noximanthra, the dragon will laugh derisively and say, “You can’t always trust legends. I was erased from history.” He will then reveal the manuscripts that he has in his treasure hoard (one of which is Beowulf, see below) and say that while they tell good stories, they tell plenty of lies too.

It’s the pot calling the kettle black, but the party would be wise to go along with the dragon’s lies and feed his ego. If any of the PCs challenge Noximanthra about any of his claims, or imply that he’s a liar (Columbus, for his part, will swallow the lies, hook, line, and sinker: see below), the dragon will fly into a rage and attack — which could well end the game right there.

The dragon’s hoard contains a shitload of treasure (see below) as well as copies of the following books: Beowulf, The Battle of Maldon, and The Tale of Genji. Noxi obtained these manuscripts in the mid-11th century from his ally the Norwegian mage. They would be worth a lot of money today in Europe. The PC Felice is a book collector and would salivate upon hearing of the dragon’s manuscripts; he might be willing to trade any of the six books he carries in his bag of holding: Inferno, Purgatorio, The Decameron, Canterbury Tales, Death of King Arthur, and the Bible.

If the party treats Noxi with respect, and if Felice (or the group speaker) makes a successful charisma check, then the dragon will agree to a trade. He has read Beowulf, The Battle of Maldon, and The Tale of Genji hundreds of times and has each memorized. He will ask for descriptions of the six books Felice owns, and demand Inferno, The Decameron, and The Death of King Arthur. If the party treats Noxi with respect, but Felice (or the group speaker) fails his charisma check, then the dragon will demand all of Felice’s books as the price to leave his lair alive.

In either case, he is willing to answer questions about the Isle before throwing the party out, and for all his shameless lies, the dragon will respond truthfully when asked about the following:

The City of Gold deep in a jungle: “Yeah, I’ve heard that rumor too. It’s rubbish. Don’t believe anything the redskins behind the wall tell you.” [A racist way of putting it, but true enough. The “city of gold” is a complete myth.]

The Black Pearl of the Gods: “Everything comes from the gods, doesn’t it? I don’t have any black pearls, if that’s what you’re asking. I hate black gems.” [He’s being honest. His vast hoard is devoid of black pearls, and he knows nothing about a special pearl anywhere on the Isle.]

Chimalli: “Never heard of him. Doubt I ever saw him.” [It’s true: Chimalli never came to the northeastern peninsula. He went straight from the phanatons to the northwestern lake, and from there to the Central Plateau. The dragon knows nothing about him.]

In other words, the party’s expedition to the northeastern peninsula has a been a waste of time, though depending on how they react to Columbus’s (likely) death (see below), they could leave with a lot of the dragon’s treasure.

Columbus’s arc: Columbus will swallow the dragon’s lies about his background, as they confirm his exegesis of the following Biblical prophecy:

“And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him… And the Lord seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.” (Revelation 12:9, 20:2)

Columbus has already exegeted the text to refer to a green (not great) dragon (see above, “Columbus and His Prophecies”), and as soon as Noximanthra says that he’s been living on the Isle for a thousand years (a bald-faced lie), another piece of the puzzle clicks into place. The dragon is not going to be bound in the future; the Lord bound him in the past (1000 years ago), and put him here, on the Isle, which is — another part of the puzzle coming together — the Edenic paradise (as Columbus concluded at the waterfalls of healing).

Moreover: If the PCs are smart they will be diplomatic with Noxi, but this will annoy Columbus. If they go so far as to trade or give him books, he will snap on the spot. He will tear open his Bible to the Revelation passage, and tell everyone (the PCs and Noximanthra) to shut up and listen to the word of God. He will read as follows:

“And the green dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world — he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels with him… And the Lord seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him in Eden for a thousand years.”

Currently the Earth is 5507 years old (from most peoples’ ignorant point of view, anyway), and so the dragon’s lies fit perfectly: Noximanthra says he is many thousands of years old (though he’s actually 494 years old), so he probably dates back to the time of creation, when God threw him down to earth. He also says that he has been living on the Isle for 1000 years (Beowulf died in the early 500s), which is another outrageous lie (he’s been living on the Isle for 417 years), but it makes perfect sense given that this Isle is the Terrestrial Paradise (as Columbus now insists). God evidently intended to keep the dragon caged in Eden for this length of time until it was time for the creature to die once and for all.

Columbus, in other words, is 100% convinced that Noximanthra — AKA Satan — has lived out the 1000 years he was prophesied for, and thus that it the PCs’ holy duty to slay the green dragon in preparation for the apocalypse. He will demand that they attack the dragon at once, and become furious if they refuse.

Needless to say, it is stupid for Columbus to trash-talk the dragon in front of his face — and he’s about to pay dearly for that stupidity — though on one level Noximanthra will be amused by these ravings; flattered that he is seen as a cosmic force of evil tied to the fate of the world. But he knows it’s nonsense and can tell that Columbus is unhinged. Once Columbus starts telling the PCs to kill him, the dragon will clear his throat (as if to remind Columbus that he’s right here in front of him), and then politely ask the PCs to leave the chamber so that he may “have a few words with this prophet”. He directs the PCs to wait outside at the mouth of the cave (G1). What he has to say is for Columbus alone. Columbus will have no objections, believing himself shielded (with his Aztec blanket, and his prayers to God) from anything Satan may throw at him.

If the PCs agree to wait outside, Isaac the mage might choose to spy and listen in (he has a clairvoyance/clairaudience spell), in which case he will witness the death of Christopher Columbus first hand. Noximanthra will ask Columbus how such a lunatic as he ever joined up with an impressive group of people, before breathing chlorine gas over him. Columbus’s armor class of -7 is irrelevant here; the cloud fills a 50′ x 40′ area, which is pretty much the exact size of the dragon’s lair (G4) they are in. Columbus will die instantly, whether he saves vs. breath weapon or not, taking 72 or 36 point of damage.

If the PCs refuse to leave, then what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and Noximanthra will unleash his breath weapon on everyone — which, again, could end the game. If the PCs choose to attack the dragon, then initiative should be rolled for (they might deal him some damage before being chlorine-gassed).

Noximanthra does not particularly want to kill the PCs if they have been showing him respect, which is why he sends them from his lair while he gasses Columbus. After he kills him, he invites them back in and laughs over Columbus’s corpse. If the PCs take it in stride and show little remorse for Columbus, and continue as respectful guests, then Noxi, in good humor, will allow them to take as much as 5000 silver coins, 500 gold coins, and also give them the large uncut emerald from his hoard (worth 3500 gp).

His treasure hoard is as follows:

  • 40,400 sp
  • 2000 gp
  • a set of six matching gold chalices (250 gp each)
  • a large uncut emerald the size of a fist (3500 gp)
  • a silver flute (225 gp)
  • five ornate wood carvings of tropical birds (175 gp each)
  • three jade figures of nixies (350 gp each)
  • a malachite mask gilded with gold (850 gp)
  • a lute dipped in gold (1700 gp)
  • a set of four drums made of black dragon hide (900 gp as a set)
  • an ivory statuette of a cave bear (550 gp)
  • a silver necklace set with emeralds (2700 gp)
  • a ceratosaurus’s skull with two emeralds for eyes (each worth 550 gp)
  • a carved wooded scepter set with aquamarines (1925 gp)
  • a silver harp string (85 gp)
  • manuscript of Beowulf
  • manuscript of The Battle of Maldon
  • manuscript of The Tale of Genji
  • any books or manuscripts gained from the PCs

Not counting the books, that’s a total hoard value of 23,000 gp.

Note: It is not required that Columbus die in this encounter, but if played right he stands a good chance of dying, and that’s how I imagined the scenario playing out. Other DMs may not wish to have Columbus be so reckless in ranting about “Satan the green dragon”.

Interlude: After the Dragon

The PCs may have “wasted time” in the region of the northeast, but not really, if they gained treasure and useful magic items. Because they will have also gained considerable experience. If they killed the spiders, survived the Rakasta shrine, killed the T-Rex, and navigated the dragon’s lair without provoking him, then all of that on top of what happened prior (evading the dragon turtle, surviving the undead village, and negotiating with the phanatons) should earn them a level. If they skipped two or more of those, the DM should postpone the level advancement until they finish investigating the Forgotten Temple.

The Troglodytes (Area 21)

This encounter can be run as is stands in the reincarnated module with no modification. It’s standard fare, a cave lair of 17 troglodytes (AC 5, HD 2, hp 12 each, #AT 3, DA 1-4/1-4/1-4, 1 bite and 2 claws, MV 40’/round, AL NE).

The Lake (Area 22)

Crossing the lake to get to the island warrants an attack by the plesiosaurus (AC 6, HD 16, hp 96, #AT 1, DA 4-24, MV 50’/round, AL N) that lives beneath the surface. There is an 80% chance the beast will attack anyone coming within 15 feet of the shore in the main area of the lake, and a 20% chance it will attack in the southeastern strip of the lake. (The party will be in the main area since they are trying to get to the island.) The beast is 50 feet long and very aggressive. If it scores a hit, it will pull its victim into the lake on the following round. If the dinosaur is slain and its body cut open, the party will find a skeletal arm and hand wearing a ring of regeneration.

The lake has an average depth of 33 feet. The party will have options in how they get to the island. They might think of the following:

(1) Sergio’s water elemental command ring allows him to lower water twice per day, and to part water once per week, but neither of those have the range of 2 miles needed to get out to the isle. The plesiosaurus would attack in any case.

(2) Sergio, Alejandro, and Enrique might try investigating the island alone, and leave Isaac, Felice, Lucia (and Columbus, if he is still alive) waiting on the shore. Sergio can water walk with his ring (unlimited use) or water breathe (once/day, for 12 hours). Alejandro has a helm of underwater action (unlimited use of normal breathing and movement, and clear sight) and Enrique has a water breathing spell (that lasts 12 hours). All three of them could easily get to the island in about an hour’s time, investigate the temple, and return in about an hour’s time. The plesiosaurus would of course attack these three PCs, so the dinosaur would have to be slain in advance.

(3) The party could, under Sergio’s ranger instruction, build a raft, as there is plenty of wood from trees in the surrounding environment. Alejandro could get to work falling a tree and limbing it into logs with his battle-axe +2. The logs will then have to be tied and secured well with rope and/or vines. The whole process would probably take 2-3 hours (allowing for much-needed breaks). Once again, the plesiosaurus would have to be dealt with before putting the raft to use. It could get the party to the isle in about 50 minutes time. If the raft was built under Sergio’s guidance, it has a 90% chance of holding up. If (heaven forbid) Sergio has been killed off in the adventure, any raft built by the PCs without ranger guidance will have only a 40% of holding up. A raft that doesn’t hold up will start to unravel on the lake.

(4) If the broom of flying was obtained from the magic-using spiders (at area 14), the PC who owns it could take turns transporting the other party members to the island, at a little less than 2 hours a person  — flying 2.5 miles an hour, so about 50 minutes to the island, then 50 minutes back to shore, for about 8 and a half hours to transport the whole party. The pleasiosaurus would be no threat in this case.

Options (2), (3), and (4) are all doable.

The Forgotten Temple (Area 40)

For the most part, the temple should be run as described in the reincarnated module.

In the head priest’s chambers (K5), a key is lying in one of the floor corners. The key opens the secret door on the south wall, and also the secret door to the treasury (K8). There is also a mural on the eastern wall, depicting a huge plateau with a volcanic crater at its center. Over the image of the plateau is a priest clutching a black pearl, and over the priest a strange humanoid creature with a tentacled head, a sphincter-like mouth, webbed hands, and a three-fluked tail instead of legs. (Show image below.)

In the midst of the debris on the floor is a scroll written in ancient magic. Parts of it are smudged and illegible. A read magic will reveal the clear parts:

“The pearl… [garbled]... to Ixandathru… [garbled]… crush the vampires, tear them… [garbled]… the highland…[garbled]… abundance.”

The original writing read as follows: “The pearl is taken by the enemy to Ixandathru. We will crush the vampires, tear them down, and return the highland to fertile abundance.” It was written centuries ago, from the high priest on Taboo Island to the high priest at this temple.

The only way to find out what words have been garbled are through divination or wish spells (which the party doesn’t have). However, the gem of acuity in K8 will reveal the full text on the parchment.

In all likelihood, the party will be led to the Central Plateau, since (a) the mural shows a plateau accompanied by the image of a pearl, and (b) the parchment mentions a “highland” in the context of a pearl. That a priest is holding the pearl points to a holy context, like a “pearl of the gods”. The strange humanoid in the mural is a kopru, and indeed the Pearl of the Gods used to be in possession of the kopru priesthood on the Central Plateau.

Used to be, that is. The Pearl is not on the plateau anymore, but the party will have to go there to find out where it’s been taken. For centuries the Pearl has been in the hands of the kopru’s enemies, the ixitxachitl, in their underwater city of Ixandathru (area 41). Finding out who or what or where Ixandathru is (the fragmented parchment makes it sound like a person, creature, or place) will be one of the party’s chief objectives in the next stage of their quest on the Central Plateau.

The treasury in K8 is as stated in the module, with the gem of acuity: a special kind of gem of seeing, that has 4 charges to start with. It uses a charge to grant truesight out to a range of 120 feet for ten minutes (allowing the viewer to see through normal and magical darkness, to read magical writing and normal illegible handwriting, spot secret doors, see the exact locations of creatures or objects under blur or displacement effects, see invisible creatures or objects, see through illusions, and see the true form of polymorphed, changed, or transmuted things). Note: If the PCs think to try using this on the parchment in K5, they will be able to read the smudged parts and thus the whole thing. In addition, it can cast ESP (1 charge), clairvoyance & clairaudience (2 charges), locate object (2 charges), and locate creature (4 charges). Every day it gains 1-2 charges, for a maximum of 4.

If they enter K9, the kopru (AC 3, HD 8, hp 44, #AT 2, DA 1-4/3-18, bite and tail thrash, or charm, MV 50’/round (in water), 10’/round (on land), MR 33%, AL NE) — which looks exactly like the creature in the mural in K5 — has recently risen from its torpor-like slumber. It will swim slowly towards the center of the cavern and try to charm one of the PCs (it won’t be Columbus, if he’s even still alive, because the kopru will sense his weakness and illness, and wants to dominate strong victims). A kopru’s charm power may be used on a victim up to 30 feet away, as long as the victim can see the kopru. If he/she fails a save vs. spells, the character becomes totally obedient to the kopru’s demands, unlike the restrictions of a charm person spell. The person will act normally but will be totally committed to the interests of the kopru, using all of his abilities and spells to serve the kopru’s interests, and even risking life and limb for its master. The kopru will know the thoughts and memories of the charmed person, no matter how far away. A character may only be controlled by one kopru at a time, though a kopru can have any number of victims under its charm. There is no limit to the distance at which a victim may be controlled. The charm can be broken by a successful dispel magic (cast against 8th level magic) or by the death of the controlling kopru. The character gets a new saving throw every week, and if successful, breaks free of the charm. If the victim is still under control after a month, he gets no more saving throws at all.

The kopru will keep trying to charm as many PCs as possible (one attempt each round). The PCs who make their saving throws will realize that the creature was trying to fuck with their minds somehow and probably advise attacking the creature or fleeing (the latter being the sensible option). The DM should roll the PCs’ saving throws secretly, for if a PC’s saving throw fails, the other PCs will be oblivious to the fact that he or she is now under control, and — depending on how many PCs the kopru ends up charming — the kopru will want to keep that a secret.

If the kopru can get at least 3 PCs charmed (i.e. at least half the party), it will order them to kill the other party members. In which case, they other party members had best kill the kopru fast to break the charm. Felice has a dispel magic spell that he could use to try freeing a PC, but his spell would have only a 40% of working against an 8-HD creature like the kopru (assuming that Felice has made it to 6th level after the green dragon encounter; if he’s still 5th level, then only 35% chance).

If the kopru can get only one or two PCs charmed (i.e. less than half the party), then it will be satisfied with that, dive under the muck and swim to the far end of the room, remaining submerged until (so it hopes) the party leaves. The one of two PCs who are under its control will act as though nothing has happened to them. At some point the DM should slip them private notes, or take them aside, to explain the following:

(1) they are under control of the kopru but will do their best to keep that secret from the PCs who are not charmed

(2) they will do their utmost, but subtly, to steer the party to Taboo Island (which is where the PCs need to go anyway) and await further instructions as they proceed

Needless to say, the kopru are a very dangerous powerful race. Dealing with even one of them can be a deadly challenge. This will become clear during the next stage of the adventure path.

 

Here ends this part of my imagined adventure path on the Isle of Dread. Stay tuned for the next part.

Film Picks of 2021

Don’t look for Dune on this list; I found it a lackluster affair. For me, The Last Duel was the film of the year, and I really liked The Power of the Dog too.

The Last Duel: la recensione del film medievale di Ridley Scott - Il Cineocchio
1. The Last Duel. 4 ½ stars. The best thing Ridley Scott has done in a long time (since Black Hawk Down twenty years ago) is a western Rashomon, showing three points of view that center on an alleged rape. I’m a sucker for perspective dramas like this and was reminded of the All in the Family episode “Everyone Tells the Truth” (S03E20), in which Mike and Archie gave conflicting accounts of a confrontation between Archie and a black man. Mike the flaming liberal painted Archie as a hyper-racist screaming at the black guy over the slightest provocation, and with a repertoire of racial slurs, while Archie countered with his version, in which he appeared calm and reasonable, and was yelled at and scolded by everyone in the family for no reason at all. Archie also claimed that the black man pulled a knife on him. Then Edith told her version, showing how Mike and Archie equally distorted things. The Last Duel isn’t a comedy, but there are some genuinely amusing dynamics. As in All in the Family, the feuding men come across pathetically and hilariously egocentric, while Lady Marguerite, like Edith Bunker, squeezes out the real story no one wants to hear. The duel itself is a cracker too — and, truth be told, far better than the one between Paul and Jamis in Dune.

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2. The Power of the Dog. 4 ½ stars. The title comes from Psalm 22:20: “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.” The dog in the film is Phil Burbank, a macho rancher living in Montana in the 1920s. He’s a passively vicious man, demeaning and suffocating those around him: his kind brother George, his sister-in-law Rose, and Rose’s effeminate son Peter. I’d never have guessed Benedict Cumberbatch could play this kind of role so well — a closeted gay full of self-loathing, wielding brutal psychological power over others. His “power”, as the dog, comes from his cruel ability to prey on others’ inadequacies and eradicating their sense of self-worth. How the boy Peter delivers his “darling” mother from the dog’s power is something I didn’t see coming. I thought he was actually genuinely bonding with his tormentor and trying to find common ground with him. This is great film making, great acting. It apparently hews close to the 1967 novel, though I haven’t read it.

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3. Encounter. 4 stars. If you like William Friedkin’s Bug, as I do, then Encounter is probably up your alley. The levels of paranoia are just as high. A military veteran (Malik) breaks into his ex-wife’s home in the middle of the night, wakes up his kids and tells them they’re going on a surprise road trip. It’s exciting until they learn it isn’t a road trip, but a rescue mission: Parasitic aliens have come to Earth and are being injected into human hosts through bug bites, says Dad. He sprays himself and his boys with bug spray, over and over again, and it’s not long before his parole officer comes on stage… Malik has issues, obviously. The kids are splendid in their roles, and the spotlight stays on them, their relationship with their father, and the question of their future and safety. Prolonged child endangerment often fails under the weight of what is expected from child actors, but these kids do just fine.

Dave Chappelle Says Won't Back Down To Demands, Attacks Hannah Gadsby – Deadline
4. The Closer. 4 stars. This is a comedy special, not a film, but I’m including it for special reasons. Everyone by now knows that Dave Chappelle was cancelled for poking fun at queer and transgender ideology, and as someone with a gay side myself, I can say there is absolutely no merit to the woke outrage. Take it from another gay man, Andrew Sullivan: “Anyone who can watch this special and think Chappelle is homophobic or transphobic is either stupendously dumb or a touchy fanatic. He is no more transphobic than J.K. Rowling, i.e. not at all. It is extremely funny, and I sat with another homo through the whole thing, stoned, laughing our asses off — especially when he made fun of us. The way the elite media portrays us, you’d think every member of the BLT community is so fragile we cannot laugh at ourselves. It doesn’t occur to them that, for many of us, Chappelle is a breath of honest air, doing what every comic should do: take aim at every suffocating piety of the powers that be — including the increasingly weird 2SLGBTQQIA+ mafia — and detonating them all. The Closer is, in fact, a humanely brilliant indictment of elite culture at this moment in time. It marks a real moment: a punching up against the powerful, especially those who pretend they aren’t [i.e. the wokes].” Yes, yes, yes, and yes!

Wrath of Man (2021) - Transcript - Scraps from the loft
5. Wrath of Man. 4 stars. I watched this film twice in a week, and I can’t remember the last time I did that. Certainly not with a revenge thriller. The problem with revenge films is that they play on our basest impulses for payback in the name of righteous justice. But Wrath of Man is so unapologetically nihilistic that I had a blast with it. Jason Statham is the perfect anti-hero, searching for a gang of armored-car robbers who murdered his son. When tearing up the criminal underworld fails him, he joins an armored truck security firm in hopes of baiting the thugs into the open. It turns out the robbers were military buddies in Afghanistan, and these baddies are quite entertaining on their own. The Statham character isn’t all that he seems, for he’s a vicious gangster, and therefore only pretending to be a “good guy” as he smokes out the robbers. They finally take the bait in the mother of all robberies, ending in the mother of all shoot-outs. Wrath of Man has high rewatch value; I was expecting a mediocre film and was pleasantly surprised.

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6. Nightbooks. 4 stars. Family films aren’t usually my thing, but then Nightbooks isn’t really a family film even though it was marketed as such. I think it’s too intense for many kids. Between themes of child abuse and genuinely scary monsters, it feels more like Sam Raimi trying to do family-friendly as best he can. Some of the jump scares unsettled even me, and there’s stuff like projectile candy-vomit, reminiscent of The Evil Dead. Nightbooks is “family-friendly”, perhaps, in the way the Hinchcliffe era of Doctor Who was, which called forth constant complaints that the show was going too far. From my point of view, none of this is a problem; as a kid who loved horror from the word go, I would have loved Nightbooks. It’s about two kids trapped in a witch’s house that has killed other kids, and the only way to stay alive is to appease the witch by producing stories that have unhappy endings, as she feeds off fantasies of suffering.

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7. Titane. 3 ½ stars. What some critics have called the film of the year is about a woman who kills the people she fucks (both men and women), finds that she likes fucking cars more than her own species, and then gets impregnated by a Cadillac. It’s an impressive avant-garde piece, but a bit oversold; it’s certainly not the film of the year. It’s trying to say something about hybridity — gender identity, family, and what it means to be human — but it’s not quite as profound as it thinks it is. It probably has more to say about biocompatibility (Cronenberg’s Crash is clearly in the background), though how this human being and an automobile successfully mate is never explained, perhaps wisely so. Titane is ultimately, in its second half, about a bereaved father who accepts this son who is not a son (in more ways than one), and vows to protect “him” and his baby from life’s vicious cruelties.

Stowaway review: Netflix's sci-fi drama is oddly down to Earth - Polygon
8. Stowaway. 3 ½ stars. This space survival story is more about the characters and their dilemmas than any thriller elements. (The climbing of the tethers, however, is an exceptionally nerve-wracking piece of suspense that had my hands sweating.) It’s set in the near future, with a team of three on a two-year voyage to Mars. Toni Collette plays the ship’s commander, and the other two are a medical researcher, and a biologist who has been studying the respiratory possibilities of algae on Mars. After launching they soon find out there’s a fourth person trapped on board the ship, and in freeing him the carbon dioxide-scrubbing mechanism is damaged, making it impossible for everyone to have enough oxygen to survive the entire journey. This requires two of them to go into space and climb the tethers to retrive liquid oxygen… and I’ll say no more, save that the ending is depressing, though also very moving.

Ballerinas Pushed to Their Breaking Points in Birds of Paradise Trailer | PEOPLE.com
9. Birds of Paradise. 3 ½ stars. Inspired by horror-fests Suspiria and Black Swan, this ballet drama explores friendship and rivalry alongside the pain that seems inevitably to come with the art. It follows two American girls in Paris, one a scholarship student and a bit of an outsider. They start as enemies but soon become friends, swearing a pact to win the prize together, though it becomes obvious that’s impossible. Birds of Paradise isn’t as good as Suspiria (either the classic or new version) or Black Swan — it’s more like a sanitized version of those films for teens, despite its R-rating — but taken for what it is, it’s enjoyable and feverishly surreal. In one sequence, the girls go to an underground club, where a woman dressed like a Gorgon makes them eat psychedelic worms, and they proceed to face off against each other in a high-stakes dance. Sets a wonderful tone.

Nobody' review: Bob Odenkirk comes on strong as dad taking on the mob - Chicago Sun-Times
10. Nobody. 3 ½ stars. It’s cartoonish but in a good way, and Bob Odenkirk is well suited for the lead. He plays an ex-assassin trying to lead a normal family life, until his bad-ass cravings draw him back in. It’s a silly plot that works despite itself, thanks largely to Odenkirk’s trademark color. He even teams up with his decrepit father (in the above pic), who is a retired FBI agent, and they proceed to gun town the entire Russian mafia. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a film on this level of preposterous since Cronenberg’s History of Violence, which was a metaphor for natural selection (survival of the fittest). Nobody is more a metaphor for the futility of repressing one’s inner thug.

 

(See also: The Best Films of 2006, The Best Films of 2007, The Best Films of 2008, The Best Films of 2009, The Best Films of 2010, The Best Films of 2011, The Best Films of 2012, The Best Films of 2013, The Best Films of 2014, The Best Films of 2015, The Best Films of 2016, The Best Films of 2017, The Best Films of 2018, The Best Films of 2019, The Best Films of 2020.)