The Violent Unknown Event: Diegetic Horror

I'm not a huge fan of blog posts about definitions, but (as far as I can tell), there isn't one for this genre. "Conspiracy Horror" might work, but I prefer "Diegetic Horror". Horror, or something like horror, that is created by in-setting materials.

Defining the Genre
-Primarly diegetic media (public service announcements, posters, documentaries, game shows, etc.)
-The Event is not defined. We do not see The Event occur or learn exactly what it is, but details and hints are present. 

-Horrifying details are presented blandly and dispassionately, or with inappropriate emphasis.
-Connections are implied. The audience is encouraged to put the pieces together.
-The camera is not a participant.

This genre is distinct from found footage horror films, where the viewpoint is a participant or direct witness to The Event, or films where The Event occurs and is later fully, or mostly, explained.

The Falls (1980)

It is not recorded what Orchard thinks of the Violent Unknown Event, and he is very noncommittal about any opinion concerning the Responsibility of Birds, though in an unguarded  moment, he has described his enemy as The Fox. This might be no more enigmatic than a reference to his profession as a seller of chicken wire. 
-The Falls, Entry 1: Orchard Falla
The world has been struck by a mysterious incident called the "Violent Unknown Event" or VUE, which has killed many people and left a great many survivors suffering from a common set of symptoms: mysterious ailments (some appearing to be mutations of evolving into a bird-like form), dreaming of water (categorised by form, such as Category 1, Flight, or Category 3, Waves) and becoming obsessed with birds and flight. Many of the survivors have been gifted with new languages. They have also stopped aging, making them immortal (barring disease or injury).
The Falls is deadpan, absurd, and brilliant. The trailer covers the basic format. It might not be the origin of this genre, but I suspect it's more influential than people think.

Local 58

A perfectly ordinary local television station. Though I think "Contingency" (linked above) is the best short they've produced, "Weather" is closest to pure Event media.

The Event - Mitchell and Web

Stock up on basic supplies. A suitable shopping basket would include sand, tinned tomatoes, and six hundred toilet rolls. Get your supplies early, as smaller shops may run out of sand.
A series of linked skits about The Event, beginning (chronologically) with an eerie PSA and ending with a slowly collapsing game show.

Welcome to Night Vale

A long-running podcast styled as a small town radio program. It's famous enough to have books in big book stores, so presumably it doesn't need an introduction.

Scarfolk Council

An image-based blog about an imaginary town where it's always the '70s. Always.  Some posts are closer to current political satire than Diagetic Horror, but there are some superbly eerie posts buried in the archives.

The Mystery Flesh Pit

A relatively new, location-specific blog about a fictional national park. The author's found the perfect mix of deeply disturbing and utterly banal details.

Debatable Media

-Lessons Of Darkness (1992)
 -The Visit (2015). I've been unable to locate a copy of the full film, but the trailer, stripped of context, seems to qualify.

-The SCP foundation, if you stick to some of the early articles only and ignore the vast realms of explanatory fluff that have sprung up over the years.
-Bits of The League of Gentlemen apply.

If you've got other suggestions, post them in the comments.

Why Do I Love This Genre?

First, it tickles the human need to pattern match and problem solve. A web of connections is presented; the reader is rewarded for making connections and catching obscure internal references. There's craft to appreciate.

Humans are also very good at adapting to remarkably terrible world-changing events. There's a reason this genre tends towards '50s-'70s aesthetics; the first age of mass media, looming feasible global apocalpyses, and cheerfully dreadful government announcements.

Since we're in the middle of "The Event" right now, we can watch euphemisms and jargon go from strange to common in real time. "Flatten the curve", "social distancing," "N95", "isolation", etc; without context, a current news report sent back in time 1 year would be as alarming and interesting as anything in "The Falls".

So sit back, relax, enjoy the Event, and consider the Theory of the Responsibility of Birds. Or perhaps of Bats.


OSR: Electric Industrial Bastion Revolutionland (or: Mashing Wizards Together For Fun and Profit)

The internet rumbles with portents of a combined Wizard Business setting. Jelly Muppet's considering mashing up Chris McDowall's Electric Bastionland and Luke Gearing's Swyvers with Magical Industrial Revolution. I'm considering a similar mix, but with Martin O's Wizard City Hexcrawl too. I'm in a slightly odd position where I can't run my own book straight; all my usual players were involved in testing bits. Ah well.

So let's take a second look at Electric Bastionland now that the final PDF is available. Most of the notes in this review still hold up. It's a great book. Lots of art, lots of concepts, excellent GM advice. If you're looking at a book to introduce new people to RPGs, it's certainly up there.

EDIT: as a side note, Chris has been doing livestreams (archive) and podcasts about E.B. They're fascinating from a designer's POV. More people should do them. Sausage doesn't make itself.
Alec Sorensen

The Map Might Be The Territory, Actually

Cities, like murder mysteries, are things that traditional RPGs don't handle well. There's an axis. At one end, you've got fully mapped cities where every street, shop, and NPC are named. At the other,  you've got die-drop tables and vague as-needed mapping.

Endon from MIR sits somewhere in the middle. Bastion, from Electric Bastionland is somewhere on the fuzzy side.

I'm not a fan of fully mapless cities. I prefer being able to answer questions like "What would happen if I fired a giant cannon directly east?" or "Where's the nearest spire?". Visualizing a city is important. Sightlines and landmarks and weenies. The world carries on even if nobody's looking at it. Street-by-street mapping isn't necessary, but a sense of "over there" or "the wrong side of the river" is, at least for me.

Bastion is this roiling urban psycoplasm. There are no landmarks, either physical or cultural. The local council's been replaced with a junta of mandrills in dress uniforms and nobody seems to care. Your apartment above the sweet shop was sold to a group of urban beekeepers, who apologize and hand you beekeeper suits along with the new lease paperwork.

There's logic here, but it's the logic of scriptwriting or dreams. Nothing happening is boring (or allowed to be boring) so everything is constantly happening all at once to everyone. As the book says, "Finding medical treatment is an adventure. Going shopping is an adventure. Getting the train to the library is an adventure."

Running an hour-by-hour game in Electric Bastionland, where there are zero timeskips until you sleep (and even then, you might want to eat a tin of caffeinated horseradish and keep going) seems to be how the system is designed. Discworld meets Crank. Grab a drink of water, catch a breather, restore all HP and carry on.

That sense of overwhelming activity is brilliant on its own, but it's not compatible with MIR's Innovations and Tempo tracks or sense of a world slowly tipping on its side. The world in Bastion changes too fast, and at the same time, it doesn't change at all. The Temo is "flat-out". Someone's already invented the radio, the electic tuk-tuk, and aluminum foil. Revolutions are political (and ultimately futile), not magical or industrial.

Could Endon become Bastion? Absolutely. Running a game of by-the-book MIR, then skipping forward a few decades to Bastion, would be superb. Original PCs could be legendary figures like Isambard Kingdom Brunel or Ada Lovelace.

You Feeling Lucky, Punk?

If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever.
-George Orwell
In Electric Bastionland, you're the human faces getting stamped on. Maybe not quite as grim and dark as all that, but you're clearly not in charge. You've got a failed career and enough cash to buy a sandwich. Society is arranged (badly) for someone else's' benefit. If you scrape and save, you might be able to afford a waxwork sculpture or a fancy hat collection.

In Endon, you've noticed someone is lacing up a giant boot. "Hey, that wouldn't happen to be a face-stomping boot?", you might ask, and the person lacing it up might reply "Almost certainly not." or "Some faces might get stamped on but look at this lovely leatherwork." Magical Industrial Revolution is not steampunk, or any kind of -punk. Electric Bastionland, arguably, is.
Alec Sorensen

Magical Industrial Revolution + Electric Bastionland

If you like MIR, what bits of E.B. are easy to nick and bolt on to the framework?The GM advice section, spark tables, and tips are universally compatible. Failed Careers require some adaptation. The system and base design is fantastic, but you'd probably want to write your own tables (or borrow some of these) for Endon. The ones in the book are perfect for a city that's already reached the apex of its weird arc.

No matter what system you're using, the simple tag concepts are great. I particularly love "Deprived: you can't regain HP until you clear this tag." Brilliant. You are Deprived if you aren't wearing fashionable clothes. You are Deprived if you can see a cat. Etc. Sublimely elegant.

To adjust costs from E.B. to MIR, divide costs in E.B. by 100 (so £100 becomes 1gp, £10 becomes 0.1gp or 1sp, etc.). This might not work perfectly but it's fairly close.

Electric Bastionland + Magical Industrial Revolution

If you like E.B, what bits of MIR are easy to nick and bolt on to the framework?

The magic weapons and items table make excellent Oddities. The magic items especially; they're directly swappable. Prosthetics too.

The basic NPC and building tables are broadly compatible, though Rumours are setting-specific. More Urchins, Thieves, and Scoundrels are always useful. The Menagerie (especially the 1d100 Skeletons) fit right into Bastion's stew.

The Paradigm is, by the standards of Electric Bastionland, rather quaint. Still, rules for building your own industry might be useful if players earn enough money to buy face-stomping boots of their own.

To adjust costs from MIR to EB, multiply costs by 100 (so 1gp becomes £100, 1sp becomes £10, etc.)

A Final Note on Failed Careers

Failed Careers are designed to help a player immediately embody a PC. They're superb.

There's a problem though.

-Steve Dougwailer, failed attorney-at-underlaw, starts with an electric cane (d6) and a book titled "Torts and Retorts".
-Boxton, failed sweetpincher, starts with a dagger and an obedient sugarcrab pet.
-Alice the Wombat, failed prizefighter, starts with a pair of boxing gloves and a red silk cape that turns her into cinnamon-flavoured smoke once per day.

(None of these are actual E.B. packages; I just freeformed them).

Anyway, after the first treasure hunt, Steve Dougwailer and Boxton both die. Tragic.

Alice the Wombat inherits the sugarcrab pet. The two new PCs (Scoots Morganson, failed insurance scammer and Ixilblat, failed time traveler) pick up the law book and electric cane when they join the group.

The original concepts, so clearly embodied by their oddities and items, get diluted. A few rounds of character deaths and everyone's got a mish-mash of stuff. Because character identity is so closely bound to portable items (rather than class features or mechanics) the identities get sloshed around and muddled.

This isn't an issue for one-shots or convention games, but it's a known issue for longer games. Since that's not where E.B. seems to be aimed, I'm not sure it's a major concern, but it's worth noting.

For longer games, or to get around this problem, I'd suggest giving each Failed Career a table of a Thing You Have (portable, an oddity, a weapon) and a Thing You Can Do (personal, non-transferable, minor or significant). Some Failed Careers already do this.


OSR: Class: Electric Wizard

Writing Ultraviolet Grasslands wizards is a lot of fun. Luka's got a SEACAT electric wizard on patreon. I referenced the playtest doc while building this wizard, but it ended up going in a slightly different direction for the UVGLOGlands wizard.
Clint Cearley

Electric Wizard

You wield one of the great invisible forces of the world. Whether you dream of blasting your enemies into molten fragments or raising a high-tech city, your world is lit by lightning. Your magic is not subtle or delicate.  
Starting Equipment
Spell Focus (see below), rubber cloak, thick-soled boots.


You generate a mild electric current. Each week of safe travel or rest, you generate one Supply of power. This power must be used immediately and cannot be banked (unless you have expensive power cells).

You must brandish your spell focus to cast spells. Roll on the table below. A spell focus takes up 1 inventory slot and costs 50 cash to replace.

Electric Wizard Spell Focus
1. Two amber rods
2. Dried cat on a stick.

3. Mysterious paleo-tech box battery (dead) and cables.
4. Hand-cranked generator and tinfoil hat.
5. Tame but useless legged electric eel.
6. Neon electric guitar.

Dirty Iron

1. Touch a creature to deal 1 lightning damage to it. Touching an unwilling opponent requires an Attack roll against their unarmored Defense.
2. You know the vague direction of magnetic north.
3.You can choose to become as conductive as gold or as insulating as glass. This does not change the amount of lightning damage you take.
Electric Wizard Mishaps
1. MD only return to your pool on a 1 for 24hrs.
2. Lose 1 permanent HP and take 1d4 damage.
3. Random mutation for 1d6 rounds, then Save. Permanent if you fail.
4. Dance and twitch for 1d6 rounds, taking no other action.
5. Induction. One item random item is destroyed. Can be your spell focus.
6. Unable to speak in anything less than a full hearty shout for 24 hours.
Electric Wizard Dooms
Permanently Magnetic. Cannot wield metal weapons or carry more than 1 metal item.
Struck by lightning. Take 4d6 lightning damage. All creatures within 20' must Save or take 1d6 damage.
3. Pelted From Above. Each hour you are outside and exposed to the sky, there is a 1-in-6 chance you will be struck by lightning (as 2, above.) Buildings conceal you, clothing does not.

1. Patented Electric Mood Restorer
2. Rubberize
3. I Singe The Body Electric
4. Yakob's Ladder
5. Electric Visions

6. Clear! 
7. Control Metal

8. Give My Creation Life!
9. Right Hand Rule
10. (In the Path of a) Lightning Bolt
11. Ride the Lightning
12. Thunderpunch

Krist Miha

1. Patented Electric Mood Restorer
R: touch T: creature D: 0
You deal 1 lightning damage to touched creature. Unwilling creatures can Save to negate. Touched creature gets a new Save against all ongoing curses or mind-altering effects. They may reset their emotional state.
2. Rubberize
R: touch T: creature D: [sum] minutes

You coat a creature in a thick rubber skin. They are immune to lightning damage and acid damage, and take 1/2 fall or bludgeoning damage.
3. I Singe The Body Electric
R: 0 T: self D: [sum] rounds

You generate a strong electric current, which arcs from your fingers toes, and hair. You glow as brightly as a torch. All creatures within [dice]x10' take [dice] lightning damage per round. Any creature that hits you with a successful melee attack also takes [dice] damage.
4. Yakob's Ladder
R: 20' T: point D: [sum] rounds
You create a humming electrical ladder [dice]x20' long and 2' wide. The ladder is a semi-solid barrier. Climbing it is not dangerous, but running through it deals 1d6 lightning damage. The ladder can support the weight of a person but not a vehicle.
5. Electric Visions
R: touch T: sighted creature D: [sum] minutes / permanent
If you invest one [die]: Target can see the electrical body-hum of living things, even if invisible. Target can see through illusions. Target can see operational electrical devices or high-powered equipment, even through walls.
If you invest two or more [dice]: This can only be cast on yourself. As above, except you can also see through magical darkness. There are also some permanent effects: (a) You can forever see invisible creatures as a flickering electric skeleton, (b) You can tell if someone else is possessed or has been raised from the dead by looking them in the eyes, and c) you can tell if an electrical machine is malfunctioning or cursed by looking at it. You suffer a permanent loss of 1d6 Wisdom (as you keep staring at things that aren't really there) or 1d6 Charisma (as you keep sharing eerie insights).

6. Clear! 
R: touch T: creature with at least 1 Fatal Wound D: 0 
Slap your hands (or paddles) on the chest of a fallen creature. Roll 1d6. The target:

1-2. Gains [dice] Fatal Wounds.
3-4. Removes [dice] Fatal Wounds.
5-6. Removes [sum] Fatal Wounds.
This spell does not restore HP.
7. Control Metal
R: 50’ T: metal D: concentration Each [dice] you invest increases the effects. One [die] is minor, 4 [dice] is a legendary display of metal control.
At one [dice], control a fist-size lump of metal. You can a) make it hop or roll at a walking pace, b) magnetize or demagnetize it, c) slowly reshape it, d) gently heat or cool it, or e) slowly separate impurities.

8. Give My Creation Life!
R: 20' T: [dice]x2 HD corpse D: 2 hours
This spell takes 1 hour and consumes 1d6x10xHD cash in reagents and special implements. At the end of the spell's duration, raised creatures must Save or die. The creature obeys the Electric Wizard for the spell's duration, then pursues its own agenda. Low HD creatures can be coerced or threatened into obedience.

[Dice] HD Type of Corpse Golem
1 1-2 Wire Ghoul
2 1-4 Ozone Ghost
3 1-6 Flesh Golem
4 1-8 Reanimated Titan
9. Right Hand Rule
R: 0 T: self D: 0
You make a strange gesture with your right hand. You fly up to [dice]x100' in a straight line in the direction your thumb points, while spinning in the direction of your curled fingers. You cannot drill through solid materials, but you may be able to push dirt out of the way. You take normal fall damage. You may need to test Dexterity to land safely. If you collide with anyone, they take [sum] damage and you take 1/2 [sum] damage.
10. (In the Path of a) Lightning Bolt
R: [dice]x20' T: area D: 0
Designate a straight line [dice]x20' long and 10' wide. Anything along the line takes [sum] lightning damage, Save for half. Up to [dice] targets up to 20' away from the line must also Save or take half damage. The spell sets small objects on fire and makes a tremendous noise.
11. Ride the Lightning
R: [dice]x 1 mile T: self D: 0
You teleport in a flash of lightning, instantly appearing at any point within range. Both your origin and destination must be visible to the sky or connected by a sufficiently conductive item (a wire, a pipe, etc.). Upon arrival, you deal 1d12 lightning damage to all adjacent creatures. For each [dice] you invest past the first, you may bring 1 additional touched target with you when you teleport.|
12. Thunderpunch
R: 0 T: self D: 10 min
You enchant your hand so that it discharges [sum] + [dice]x2 damage worth of lightning into the next thing you touch. You cannot wear any metal on the hand you enchant. Touching an unwilling opponent requires an Attack roll against their unarmored Defense. If you deal more than 12 damage, you and your target must both Save or be flung apart, knocked prone, and deafened for 1d6 rounds.


OSR: Review: Lorn Song of the Bachelor

To avoid entombment in RPG cruft, I only buy books I want to use. My RPG shelf is spartan. (We won't speak of my PDF directory). I don't collect or curate. It's a toolbox.

There are a few exceptions and Zedeck Siew is one of them. I have no immediate plans to use Zedeck's 'zines or adventures. I stuck them on the map of my piratical wavecrawl, but with few illusions about their inclusion.

I buy them to marvel at their craft.

Lorn Song of the Bachelor (print) is one of the most exquisitely and delicately crafted RPG books I've ever seen. There are RPGs that are clever, and RPGs that are beautiful, but Lorn Song is, for lack of a better word, meticulous.

The title grabs you. What is a "lorn song"? Is it a forlorn song? Who, or what, is "The Bachelor", and why do they sing?

I don't like GM-facing mysteries in RPG adventures. Some authors love putting the twist in the last paragraph of room 99, or referencing an NPC throughout the adventure without explaining them until the end. It's a fine technique to keep the GM-as-a-reader interested, but if an RPG book is a tool, hiding aspects of the tool doesn't seem wise. Writing exclusively for GMs who won't, or indeed can't, run the adventure creates novels with some numbers attached.

Lorn Song doesn't directly conceal the plot.

The Tortoise and Achilles

While testing or evaluating RPG books for clarity, I like to imagine a dialogue between the reader and the book.
Book: "Here people are called the Gleaming Fins. Their territory is known for three things: One: dreaming agaru."
Reader: "What the heck is a dreaming agar?"
Book: "[In the next sentence]. Some trees have the souls of birds. Their heartwood makes a powerful incense— notes of balsam, rain; flashes..."
Etc, etc. The reader reaches out for the answer to their question, and the time it takes the book to respond - the distance between the statement that raises a question and the answer - is a useful metric of clarity of purpose. If "dreaming agar" was defined in an appendix or a sidebar or buried somewhere in a location description, the reader would have to put in metal work to link the two sections and concepts, and while running a game spare brainpower is hard to come by. But, in Lorn Song, it's not. Terms are defined right when they need to be defined, in phrases that are both brief and immediately evocative.

RPG books need to introduce a lot of new concepts to a reader in quick succession. Choosing how and where these new concepts are defined is part of the author's craft. Conceptual density is important, but conceptual striation is important too.

Lorn Song rarely misses a beat. Every time a concept is raised, an answer is provided. Everything falls neatly into place. The reader is drawn in by perfect mystery-resolution pairs. In case the concepts don't stick, cross-reference page numbers are provided.

The sublimely elegant dance of call-and-response starts to collapse by the last third of the book, but by that point you're already hooked.

Appendix Z

So... why isn't Lorn Song all over the place?
People are talking about it. Pirated copies are available; a mark of quality if ever there was one. Reviews are generally positive to effusive. People like it and admire it.

So why do I feel like I can't run it? It isn't a lack of content or clarity in the module. If it was, I'd fill in any (purely self-perceived) gaps myself. It's my usual strategy. Everything I need is present. I'm  just not sure how to use it.

Zedeck explicitly addresses one possible stumbling block in the afterword. "If you worry about doing justice to Southeast Asia, at your table - don’t."

For me, the issue is less about justice and more about having a sufficiently stocked mental toolkit. I feel like running Lorn Song is like running a medieval game without the foggiest idea of feudal obligation, and trying to make everything fit, say, an employer-employee paradigm.

It needs to hit the point of saturation, where concepts are reinforced in a dozen different ways, sometimes obviously, sometimes subliminally. Even a strict diet of Disney films and TV commercials will give a person a vague and moderately useful sense of medieval tropes.

But SEA tropes? Not quite as ubiquitous.

Tossing Zedeck's zines at a group and going "here, read these to see what this game is about" is a decent strategy, but how many players actually read handouts? And if they do, how many will absorb and implement lessons, cultural values, and concepts that aren't explicitly stated or mechanically reinforced? And, more worryingly, has their GM (me) really understood the material?

There's also the worrying sense that plenty of Appendix N material exists, but that I'm either too lazy or too out of touch to find it. Maybe one day I'll hit the comfort point, either by learning enough or by caring less. Maybe not.

In Conclusion

It's a good module. It sets a new standard for terse functional design. It's got great art and maps and all the usual high-quality touches. It's very affordable.

Full Disclosure: I've worked with a surprising number of the people in the book's credits, but I didn't know they'd worked or consulted on Lorn Song until I checked the credits while finishing up this review.


OSR: Oil Barons and Refinery Kings

Money, in my UVG-GLOG hack, has two main purposes. PCs can spend it on gear, accommodation, and trade goods, or they can spend a random amount (typically 1d6x100 or 1d6x200) on partying for a week to gain that much XP. The main way to gain XP is to travel to Discoveries. Tools and items are more useful than cash, but hoarding cash is the only way to party without potentially going into debt. In the core Ultraviolet Grasslands book there are many alternative options.
Side Note: adding extra Discoveries to the map was a neat idea, but, unexpectedly, it's lead to players sticking around one area for longer. There are relatively few pressures to explore deeper into the Grasslands when "safe" XP is locally available. Something to consider if you're running an UVG game.
Vehicles are explicitly listed as impractical and expensive. A good mule or crab-camel is much more sensible. It eats grass, can travel over all terrain in all weather, and if things are truly dire you can eat it.

But a mule can't haul a monolith or act as a mobile battle-fortress. It takes a lot more effort to spook or fatally wound an autogolem. Setting up tents next to a herd of camels every night grows tiresome when flesh-eating worms can burrow through your bedroll. And while a trading company with some camels is just a trading company, a trading company with a massive smoke-belching autowagon is Those Guys Who Are Not To Be Fucked With.

All this is anti-canon, of course.

Nicked from Luka's Patreon. That's right, this post has optional DLC. Mwahaha!

Fuel Costs

Common supplies are 2 cash / sack.
Premium supplies are 10 cash / sack.
Alchemical Lubricants are 100 cash / sack (UVG pg. 179).
So, eyeballing it, I'd say:
Low Quality Fuel is 20 cash / supply and produces a great deal of smoke. It adds the "smoke" tag to a caravan.
Premium Fuel is 30 cash / supply.
Proper Oldtech Jet Fuel is 50 cash / supply and adds the "fast" tag to a caravan. It also burns white-hot and occasionally explodes engines.

Oil Barons and Refinery Kings

An oil well can be stealthy. Flaring excess gas will create a huge smoky column, but if the gas can be captured, burned quietly at ground level, or vented without burning (ideally, down a long pipe downwind of the wellhead), a simple pumpjack can be hidden behind a hill or in a low valley.

But it's still a permanent site. Since conventional pipelines aren't viable in most post-apocalyptic settings, oil will need to be transported by truck, barrel, or bucket. That means some form of loading infrastructure and a way to defend the site. Otherwise, anyone could waltz up, fill their tanker, and set off... or set the whole place on fire for the hell of it.

While a refinery might be sited near an oil well, multiple wells will probably be required to keep a refinery fed and profitable. Each well requires a fortification, a force to defend it, and some sort of leader. Distributed forces who are loyal to a local leader, who in turn loyal to a local overlord is, or is close enough, to feudalism.

Oil Barons run wells. They might operate a simple refinery tower next to their well for local use, but they sell/tithe the bulk of their crude to a Refinery King. The Refinery King, in return, promises to round up a bunch of other Oil Barons to sort out any local trouble. It's a protection racket, a mutually beneficial relationship, and/or a cult.

There are Oil Barons throughout the Ultraviolet Grasslands. Finding one isn't difficult. Follow the smoke. Safely cutting a deal for their precious fuel is more difficult. There are only a handful of Refinery Kings and they guard their burning fortresses with potent magic. Though less powerful than the Porcelain Princes or the Spectrum Satraps, any faction that can wield armoured vehicles is a potent force in the unclaimed areas of the Grasslands.
Ramshackle Games

1d10 Oil Barons

1. Dolce V-Eight

Crazed naptha-smeared wire-headed wasteland tyrant. Minimal tactical skill, maximum ferocity. Speaks via a microphone and amplifier strapped to the back of an unlucky captive.

: bodies on spikes leads to a dead-end path, perfectly sited for a clifftop ambush.

Well-Fortress: small walled compound with an armour-plated storage dome in the centre. Tower next to dome fires flaming oil spheres from compressed air launchers. Inside, asphalt-covered trading square surrounded by contemptible shacks.
Fighters: thirty greasy and sleepless narco-loons wielding claw hammers, pop-powder pistols, and

-Diplo-Wagon, a dented purple autogolem with a bench and table strapped to the front. Captured number-speakers or wordifiers are sometimes tied to the front as well to assist with negotiations.
-Rattlebikes. One- or two-warrior motorcycles mostly made of springs and smoke.

Trades: slaves, rare goods, vaguely interesting old-tech to barter. Accepts occasional tribute/bribes from the Porcelain Princes to avoid or attack certain caravans.
Lucas Roussel

2. The Black Throne Gang

Nigh-identical spiked Kafka thug bugs on proper oldtech motorcycles. Rude as hell, but willing to cut and honour a deal. Leader is "Black Thorne", whoever that is. Might be an Ultra.

Approach: bridge over a steaming oil-moat full of tarpit crocodiles.
Well-Fortress: crumbling dryland coral manor half-engulfed by pipes and storage tanks.
Fighters: fifteen proper battle-hardened bugs, plus ten less tattoo

-Black Thorne Bikes. Vome-made, they say, or mined from a primordial strata of chrome and rubber. Solid, reliable, and clearly not designed for a giant insect, but if they catch you riding one the whole gang will descend to pull your limbs off. They're very fussy about their image.

Trades: wax, gold, tattoos, music.

3. Randall's Bandits

White-webbing harnesses, exposed genitals (not necessarily theirs), and thigh-high white leather boots. Randall has an 4' tall orange turban covered in gems and dried frogs.

Approach:  mobile, so follow the white fog-dust cloud and the oil slick droplets.
Well-Fortress: none. Instead, a herd of bloated and testy petroleum sloths. Lanky, hairless, and flammable, but capable of turning just about anything into crude and a little but of useful fuel. Driven from pasture to pasture.

-Trained War-Camels. Crab legs, so they can only move sideways, but their broad backs provide an excellent firing platform for bows and stick-bombs.
-Hoot-Balloon. Scout and emergency escape system. Parachute pack deploys into a bloated owl, rockets the bandit into the sky.

Trades: fodder, rumours, negotiable companionship, really good drugs.
giorgio baroni

4. Crankcase and the Jams

Time-lost immortal warriors trying to survive in a hostile and baffling world. Crankcase, their leader, wears a row of ludicrous medals and a red-goggle mask.

Approach: maze of dryland coral tank traps. Navigable if you've got a guide.
Well-Fortress: razorwire and coral bunkers around a silver derrick.
Fighters: twenty-eight regenerating supersoldiers. Can still feel pain, and getting shot is messy, so they fight conservatively.

-Thunderchild, heavy war-banger. Two-turrets, two barrels each, armour that eats lasers and rockets for breakfast. Moves at the speed of a turtle but kills anything it sees.

Trades: ammo, maps, old or time-lost tech.

5. Lord Kurorelli

Rogue Porcelain prospector turned warlord. Encased in oldtech power armour. Delusions of world domination.

Approach: crude stelae carved with Lord Kurorelli's many victories.
Mill-Fortress: four-bladed windmill pump, sails made of vinyl and pressed leaflets. Iron castle, but mostly for show. Can be electrified in an emergency, but only for a few minutes, and with a great spray of sparks and fire.
Fighters: ten devoted surgically altered chem-ghouls, plus 2 ooze-infested ogres. Nothing a competent army couldn't handle, but the ogres terrify local raiders. It's the way they eat people...

Trades: luxuries, food, disposable slaves.

6. Pringles Hardvale

Staunchly communal diesel dwarf turned from the path by the Invisible Hand. Adopted a new name and converted their communal well into a neon-lit citadel of capitalism.

Approach: blazing glow-wurms in glass tubes spell out inviting slogans.
Mill-Fortress: open gates lit by more wurms. Inside, a party every day, if you can afford the fees. Diesel dwarves drink distillate for free; Pringles hopes to turn them to his cause.
Fighters: no organized force, but Pringles pays well for bounties and has a crypto-life-linked cash box; the only way to get the sweet credit chips is to play by his rules.

Trades: booze, dancers, soft fabrics, stories of fortune and glory.
Chenthooran Nambiarooran

1d6 Refinery Kings

1. Tanker Trailer Soldier Spy
Two-headed bickering mutant from the deep Grasslands. Ever-ready war-fleet.
2. Chelbat Gargantuman
10' tall space knight who, they say, speaks to rocks. Calls up oil like water, sells it cheap to buy weapons.  Possibly preparing for a holy war against some rival faction.
3. Molly Methoozela
Biolubricant genius from the Rainbowlands who found and tamed a petroleum elemental.
4. Imperial Oceanic Kroog
Rules the Floating Smoketress, probably the last functional skyliner.
5. Babyface Skip and the Wild Hags
Self-explanatory. When the fleshcrafters say they can make you look young again, definitely ask for clarification.

6. The Tyrant Spitfire and His Legion of Centipedes
Also self-explanatory. The Obdurate City of the Tyrant Spitfire is more of a village, but it produces the purest jet fuel commonly on the market.


Practical Tips for Guzzolene

I like tidy systems.

Ultraviolet Grasslands has a very tidy inventory-supply-time system. People consume 1 sack of supplies per week. An unencumbered person can carry 1 sack of supplies or a personal inventory full of adventuring gear. A horse can carry 2 sacks, so 2 weeks of supplies or 1 person and their stuff.

The system has full support for grazing animals or air-breathing autogolem wagons. But if you want to transport larger volumes of goods, you need fuel or power.

There's not much support for fuel. No prices, no size guidelines. VOMEs might make fuel, but do other factions distill it? Are there gas stations? Tankers? Herds of petroleum-dripping cattle?

It's not stated. So, because my players have found an RV with tank treads, I'm going to write some material for guzzolene-powered vehicles.

This introduction isn't meant as a proper tutorial or course. I've simplified everything and ignored some complicated or inconvenient bits. You've been warned.

Part 1: Drilling for the Blood of the Earth

Crude oil sometimes bubbles naturally to the surface. For post-apocalyptic purposes, or modern purposes, this isn't relevant. There's no such thing as a free lunch.

Mining for oil with traditional shafts and pits, works if the oil is close enough to the surface and you don't mind oil going everywhere. It's not efficient, but you don't need any fancy technology or tools.

But for practical purposes, drilling is the most sensible method. In a typical post-apocalyptic landscape, reclaiming existing oil wells is probably the best plan, but it might be useful to briefly go over the options for starting a new well.


Auger Drilling

An auger is your common woodworking or metalworking drill, but bigger, and on the back of a truck. It spirals into the earth, draws up soil or stone, and ejects it. It's not practical for oil drilling. Oil is typically deep underground. The length of auger required, and the torque needed to turn it, would be ridiculously impractical.

Cable Drilling

Making a drill several hundred feet long is difficult. A cable drill is a sort of jackhammer. A sharp bit is raised and lowered in the bore, chipping away at the rock. Every so often, a bailer (a bucket with a bottom that opens and closes) is sent down to remove the chips.

In a typical '50s steel-and-v8 post-apocalyptic landscape, cable drilling trucks are probably abundant. These days, not so much.

Rotary Drilling

The most common method these days, though variants and refinements exist. Take a length of pipe. Stick some sharp wheels on the end. Spin it and send it down a hole. Since you don't want to add a new pipe segment every 10 minutes (or take ages and ages removing segments), adding a long pipe section each time makes the most sense. That's why oil derricks exist. They're towers to line up and assemble pipes over a well.

The rotating drill bit churns solid rock into grit. You can send down a bailer every so often to remove the cuttings or, more sensibly, force a liquid down the hollow pipe. The liquid picks up the cuttings and pushes them out of the way, either into the surrounding rock or back up the sides of the borehole.

This method has another massive practical advantage. Oil is typically under pressure. Drill a hole normally and all that oil will come flooding out. Oil-bearing rock also contains lighter hydrocarbon gas (i.e. natural gas). If you don't keep a lid on it and keep the borehole pressurized, gas is likely to flood upwards and detonate.

Drilling mud is a moderately toxic mixture of clay, water, and hydrocarbons. Endless variants exist for every situation. Making drilling mud isn't too complicated, but you will need water and pumps.

Part 2: Extracting Oil

Oil pressure might be sufficient to propel a useful volume to the surface. Controlling or storing the flow is relatively trivial. Just build some tanks or dump it in a pit.

But if the oil doesn't flow upwards, you'll need to install some sort of pump. Pumpjacks, those grasshopper- or donkey-type nodding things, are relatively trivial to build. They convert rotational energy (from an electric motor, a few donkeys, or a bunch of barbarians) into translational energy to, in a sense, scoop the oil out of the well. If that doesn't work, sending liquid down the well to fracture the oil-bearing rock (fracking) can increase well yield. 

So, you've got your oil. Now to turn it into fuel.

To do that, I need to teach you how an oil refinery works.

Part 3: Build an Oil Refinery in 5,960 Easy Steps

You can't run a car on crude oil. At sensible temperatures, crude oil doesn't flow easily or burn cleanly. To do anything complicated with crude oil, we need to separate useful from useless compounds.

But first, a few definitions.


Temperature is a measurement of the average kinetic energy of particles. "Average" is a key word. Some particles will be traveling faster than others, some slower. It's a bell curve. This is why you can see steam rising from boiling water before it reaches 100 degrees. Some water molecules have enough energy to transition into the gas phase despite the average molecule not having enough energy.


A measure of how easily a substance transitions from the liquid to the gas phase. Lighter fluid (butane) is volatile. Bricks are not volatile. Decreasing pressure also decreases the energy required to boil a substance; in effect, lower pressures increase volatility.


How heavy a substance is per unit volume. Bricks sink in water. Oil floats on water. Air floats above oil. Etc. In a dense mixture of substances (crude oil, mayonnaise), the easiest way to achieve density separation is to heat the substance to, essentially, let its components move past each other.


Density refinement like separating a mix of sand and gravel by shaking the container. Larger rocks sink, smaller rocks float. Alternatively, it's like separating oil and water by letting your salad dressing sit in the fridge for a few days or heating up your mayonnaise.

Phase change separation (or distillation) is like separating a mix of ice, lead, and gravel by heating the mixture until the ice melts and can be poured out, then by heating the lead until it melts and can be poured out, and then by throwing the gravel away or going a bit mad and melting it too.Phase change distillations are convenient because turning a liquid into a gas separates it from the remaining liquid mixture. It can be cooled, condensed, and collected.

Because crude oil is an awful mess of compounds, it's measured in fractions with similar boiling points rather than by specific compound names. Light fractions are more volatile, heavy fractions are less volatile.

Primitive Refinement

Say it's 825 and it's time to repave the roads of Baghdad with tar or make some greek fire for the Byzantine navy. You take some crude oil and heat it. If you're making asphalt, you don't care what happens to the lighter products, so you can heat it in an open barrel. If you're making greek fire, or any lighter combustable mixture, you can collect and condense the vapours or just heat the mixture until it's more fluid, pour off the upper layers, and leave the dense residue behind.

This is primitive batch distillation. Given time and some very expensive equipment (for the era), you could probably produce a few litres of very dirty gasoline or diesel per day. Considering you can run a modern-ish combustion engine on almost anything (ethylene gas, ethanol, deep fat fryer oil, hydrogen gas, etc) with a few modifications, I'd say it's good enough for post-apocalyptic purposes... in a pinch.

Batch Refinement

Depending on who you believe, advanced batch distillation of crude oil didn't start until the 1850s. A fancy version of batch distillation is used today at most liquor distilleries, so the basic process may sound familiar.

Crude is added in batches to a tank (or "kettle") heated by burning the light hydrocarbons naturally produced by oil wells (or other fuels, if those weren't available). Free fuel is free fuel.

Hydrocarbons evaporate and pass through the wonderfully evocatively named Dephlegmator. Just as a decanter removes the cants from your brandy, a dephlegmator removes the phlegm from the crude oil. OK, that's not entirely true, but the basic ideas is there. The dephlegmator aids in heat exchange and helps control which fractions reach the condenser. The condenser uses cold water to turn a hydrocarbon from a gas to a liquid.

There are a few problems. A simple condenser or still (i.e. a cold tube that condenses vapour flowing through it) is not very efficient at separating compounds. Remember, temperature is a range. If you're trying to collect substance A, which has a lower boiling point (is more volatile) than substance Z, some of Z will almost inevitably creep into the vapour, be condensed, and mix with your output. A distillation column (there are many designs) tries to ensure all fluids and vapours inside are at a nice even temperature and pressure.

The system needs to be run in batches because tar and other unsuitable products build up in the kettle and towers. It's also not particularly effective at large volumes. On a benchtop scale you can get pretty decent fractionation, but with either kerosene or vodka, multiple distillations are required.

If you can pump oil out of the ground continuously, why not distill continuously? Why bother shutting down every few hours? The simplest way to perform continual distillation is to chain a bunch of batch distillation setups together. You can either shut down one for cleaning and run another, or run the first one so hot that the tar flows out immediately.

Building a batch refinery requires a lot of steel and some expertise, but it's very possible. The world is littered with large tanks and pipes. Tuning a refinery once it's operating is also possible, so you don't need to get it precisely right the first time.

Catalytic Refinement

So you've got crude oil flowing in one side of your refinery and tasty fuel oil flowing out the other... along with a lot of waste. It's all about fractions, and only a fraction of crude oil can be distilled into your product of choice. All the rest either floats off (if it's light) and can potentially be captured or burned, or sits around gumming up the works. There's a market for lubrication oil, asphalt, and tar, but not much of one.

But what if you could turn some of your otherwise useless fractions into delicious useful product? Thanks to the magic of catalysis, you can. Fluid Catalytic Cracking units (FCCs) are proper industrial magic.
Catalysts are special compounds (usually, quite expensive ones) that make a chemical reaction more probable. Heavier hydrocarbons can decompose into lighter ones, but a catalyst effectively turns it from a one-in-a-million chance into a one-in-a-hundred chance. The chance of you flipping a coin and it landing on its edge is very low, but it increases if you build a sloped ramp to slide the coin at just the right angle. The ramp is the catalyst.

For large-scale industrial processes, it's impractical to mix the catalyst into the liquid or gas and extract it later. Instead, catalysts are usually put on a solid substrate (a pellet) and mixed with very hot heavy hydrocarbons. The pellets can be recovered and reused. Ideally, catalysts aren't consumed in the reaction, but they can be neutralized (poisoned) by unwanted substances.

Instead of throwing away poisoned catalyst, refineries regenerate it by (in most cases) blasting it with heat and steam. The regenerated catalyst is sent back into the reactor. The regeneration process is violent, so to reclaim every atom of precious (and ridiculously expensive) catalyst, refineries often use electrostatic precipiators. Air from the regenerator passes over electrostatically charged plates. Metal catalyst particles are attracted, collected, and reused.

If the idea of a high-voltage system full of sparks, metal powder, hot air right next to towers full of highly flammable hydrocarbons seems ridiculously dangerous... you're entirely correct. Failures in the systems that separate the air-catalyst-lightning side of a catalytic cracking unit from the hydrocarbon-distillation side result in mass casualties and huge explosions.

Heating liquid hydrocarbons or flashing them into gasses right next to an open flame is generally considered a bad plan. Far safer to heat a non-flammable liquid (such as water) over here, then pump the hot liquid over there to heat up the flammable hydrocarbons, or use the hot output (which you want to cool down anyway) to heat up the input. Of course, then you need heat exchangers, and heat exchangers can get clogged...

For post-apocalytic purposes, catalytic cracking (or the thousands of other related processes that a modern refinery uses to turn unwanted hydrocarbons into useful ones) is not viable. Maybe in the middle of an oil-based city, but on the outskirts, it's far easier to dump or burn what you don't need and simplify the process. Rare metals are, well, rare and tend to corrode vital equipment.

Mad Max 2: The Compound

The tower at the centre of the compound is clearly a distillation column. It's not fancy. Given a welding shop, some existing steel tanks, and a few test runs, most post-apocalyptic communities could rig one up in a few weeks or months. The advantage of simple distillation and post-apocalyptic lack of regulation is that you can tune the process on the fly. There's no need to get it right the first time.

The system can be fuelled by hydrocarbon byproducts (natural gas or burning lighter distillates), so power isn't an issue. Water could be a problem. Pre-washing crude to remove soluble salts helps keep a distillation column from clogging with scale (the white stuff that builds up in your kettle).

Mad Max: Fury Road: Gastown

We only get a glimpse of Gastown in the film, but it looks like a full refinery complex. The thick grey smoke and multiple burnoff stacks suggests they aren't doing any fancy refinement. Anything not useful gets burned, either as fuel for the process or just to get it out of the way.

Next up: practical rules for RPGs, oil barons, factions, etc.

Further Reading:

PennState's online refinery course.
USCSB safety and incident videos.