Saturday, June 13, 2020

Campaign Report: John of Patmos' Mythic Babylon Campaign Part 2: "Apocalypse"

This week we continue with the second and final part of John of Patmos' Mythic Babylon campaign report. See the previous post for part 1 and a link to the music of Aphrodite's Child which you should be listening to as you read this.


While the player-characters were busy in Babylon, something else was going on a few hundred double-miles to the south – a great ripple in the Lower Sea. Silanum's answer to the cries of the people was amplified by Ea and reached even to the Kulullu and Kuliltu people 
(18) who live beneath the waves of the Lower Sea.


I saw the souls
I saw the martyrs
I heard them crying
I heard them shouting
They were dressed in white
they've been told to wait

The sun was black
the moon was red
the stars were falling
the earth has trembling
And then a crowd impossible to number
Dressed in white
carrying palms
shouted amid
the hotless sun
the lightless moon
the windless earth
the colourless sky ...

They'll no more suffer from hunger
they'll no more suffer from thirst
They'll no more suffer from hunger
they'll no more suffer from thirst
They'll no more suffer from hunger
they'll no more suffer from thirst

They heard and heeded the call, but were greatly disturbed by a disturbance from the depths. Something very old was approaching from the open ocean. 

They cried out it's name in warning to the people of Babylon: “An-Dammu! An-Dammu!” (19) The ecstatic prophets of Babylon heard the name and took up the cry in the streets of the city, but few could heed or understand them. After crying their warning, the Mer-people fled into the the shelter of the Abzu (20) where Ea offered them protection.


17. In the opera, the band called this track Aegian Sea in order to make the work more accessible to their audience.

18. Kulullu and Kuliltu are the Akkadian names for Mer-men and Mer-women.

19. The name An-Dammu means 'Spouse of Heaven' and can be arrived at by rolling the numbers 6-1-6 on the Babylonian name generator, or by rolling 6-6-6 if one accepts that An-Dammu's city of origin is heaven itself. John of Patmos invented her for the campaign, and saw her as a beast birthed by Temtu (the Sumerian primordial sea, later called Tiamat), who birthed many monsters, demons, and hybrids. An-Dammu is betrothed to Anu, the god of Heaven. In the Middle Babylonian Creation Myth, Marduk would defeat Tiamat to become king of the gods. But in this campaign its her offspring that's defeated.

20. The Abzu is the subterranean water, the domain of Ea.


We return again to the action in Babylon. After the half-hour of silence that followed the opening of the seventh seal (see Part 1), the statues of the seven great gods animated. They walked from their inner sanctuaries to the gates of their temples, seeming to grow in size as they did so. Each carried a bowl in their left hand and a trumpet in their right. They then raised their trumpets to their mouths and, as the trumpets rang out across the land, overturned their bowls - and the punishment of the gods was poured out.

The god Adad overturned the first bowl, and a mixture of hail, fire, and blood fell to the earth, killing a third of all trees and grasses.

The god An overturned the second bowl and a mountain fell from the sky into the ocean, killing a third of all marine life.

The goddess Ištar overturned the third bowl, and a star fell from heaven and poisoned a third of all rivers and springs.

The god Šamaš overturned the fourth bowl, and a third of the sun, moon, and stars disappeared, creating total darkness for a third of the day and the night.

The god Sin overturned the fifth bowl, and another star fell from the sky and created a great rift in the ground, open to the underworld. Out of this poured a cloud of smoke, and from the smoke came locusts who were "given power like that of scorpions of the earth", and who were commanded not to harm anyone given the "seal of God" on their foreheads. These "locusts" had a human appearance (faces and hair) but with lion's teeth, and wearing breastplates of meteoric iron (21). The sound of their wings resembled "the thundering of many horses and chariots rushing into battle." They flocked to the shore of the Lower Sea, there to await An-Dammu, who was soon to emerge from the sea.

The god Ea overturned the sixth bowl, and the four winds blew the remaining stars out of the sky. When they fall to earth, they were seen to be two hundred million charioteers with flaming wheels and smoke pouring out behind them.

The god Enlil overturned the seventh bowl, and a vision of the Tablet of Destinies was revealed to all – Enlil was shocked to see that the tablet was inside the temple of Marduk, rather than inside his own temple, and that the priestess Silanum was writing furiously within. He unleashed thunder, lighting, and hail to the earth, in order to sweep aside all those remaining in the city, including Silanum – but those marked with the triangle on their foreheads were protected by Ea. So Enlil called forth the beast!


The first bowl on the earth
the second bowl on the sea
the third bowl on the rivers
the fourth bowl on the sun
the fifth bowl on the Beast
the sixth bowl on the stars
the seventh bowl on the air

And the earth turned grey
the sea turned black
the rivers turned red
the sun turned cold
the Beast turned pale
the stars turned fast
the air turned to poison


21. These locust men were invented by John for the campaign – they aren't mentioned in Babylonian myth, though they definitely fit the idiom For stats, he used modified Pazuzu (a demon) from the book.


This instrumental track in the album turns our attention back to the Lower Sea for a moment, where at last the beast, An-Dammu, is emerging – a monstrous seven headed serpent with poisonous blood!


Back on the ziggurat of Marduk, the nameless Gala Priestess character sang out a lamentation for those who were lost, by which to give hope to those who remained.


Alas alas
for the human race
for the kings,
the kings of separation


Enlil had seemingly been foiled, because not everyone was dead! He had once again been tricked by Ea and now saw the writing on the Tablet of Destinies. He instructed his step mother, An-Dammu, to march northward at the head of her locust army to put an end to people forever.

But though things looked grim for the followers of Marduk, all was not lost. The stars that had descended to earth as flaming chariots when Ea overturned the fifth bowl were now revealed to be pulled by Apsasus and Aladlammus (22), They are driven by Lahmu (23) and their regiments commanded by the Apkallu (24). Marduk then stepped from his temple and called upon his followers to jump on chariots and join the fight! And so the PCs did!


22. Apsasu and Aladlammu are the Old Babylonian period names for the iconic winged, human-headed bulls that guard the homes of the gods. They are female and male respectively – it's not known if there was more than one of each, but in Mythic Babylon we generally assume so.

23. Lahmu are 'hairy-hero-men' hybrids, created by and servants to Ea.

24. The Apkallu are the Seven Sages, originally sent to earth to instruct humans in the arts of the ME (the trappings of civilization.) By the time of Mythic Babylon, they no longer seem to walk the earth, but it is assumed they will return at times of need. 

Source: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago


13. DO IT


These three instrumental tracks describe how the army of Marduk and the army of An-Dammu met for a climactic battle on the fields outside Enlil's home city of Nibbur. The player characters, drawn by Ea's fantastical chariots, helped fight the onslaught of locust men.


Fighting the locusts seemed futile, and the player-characters soon realized that the path to victory lay in helping Marduk kill An-Dammu, so they directed their chariots to help find the beast.


Who can find the Beast?
She's big,
she's bad,
she's wicked,
she's sad
Who can fight the Beast?

She come's,
she goes,
who ever knows ...
Who can fight the Beast?

She's big,
she's bad,
she's wicked,
she's sad
Who can find the Beast?

She come's,
she goes,
who ever knows ...
Who can find the Beast?

16. OFIS

At last, the shape of the giant seven-headed serpent was spotted through the smoke, and Marduk called out a challenge:


Come out, cursed serpent,
because if you don't out yourself,
I will out you! (25)

The two gods squared off, and Marduk drove An-Dammu into the marshes while the players fought off her Umu (26) demon lieutenants. Driven back, An-Dammu disappeared into the bog. The locust army was now defeated, but there is also much injury on the side of humanity, so a temporary withdrawal was called.


25. Apparently these words were later placed into the mouth of Alexander the Great in another campaign run by one of the players from this one called Alexander the Great and the Cursed Serpent.

26. Umu demons are 'Roaring Weather Beasts,' creatures of Mythic Babylon that resemble Runequest's whirlvishes.


The great gods rang out seven trumpets again, this time to mark the victory of Marduk and hail him as the new king. Enlil accepted his defeat and agreed to step down as king of the gods, though he would keep his sky domain. The army of Marduk re-grouped at the foot of the Duranki (Navel of Heaven and Earth), the great ziggurat of Enlil in Nibbur.


Ladies and gentlemen
Seven trumpets
the sound of thunder!
Seven trumpets
the threatening anger!
Seven trumpets
the trembling voice!

Seven trumpets
You got no choice!
Seven trumpets
the seven angels!
the seven trumpets
the music changes!


Marduk now sat on the throne of Enlil in Nibbur and his high priestess, Silanum appeared once gain to recite an exaltation to the assembled followers of Marduk:


This is the sight we had one day
on the High Mountain
We saw a lamb with seven eyes
We saw a beast with seven horns

and a book with seven seals
Seven angels with seven trumpets
and seven bowls filed with anger

Those are the pictures
of what was
of what is
of what has to come

We are the people
the rolling people
the why people
the waiting people
the wanting people
the tambourine people
the alternative people
the angel people


Following her song, Silanum (“The Lamb”) was symbolically married to Marduk (The Shepherd), and the god and his people were formally united.


One final task was given to the players – to enter the swamp and capture the beast, and bring her back to Nibbur to face the punishment of the gods. They headed to the marsh at the head of a posse of Ea's inhuman servants and followed her to her lair. She was much diminished by this time, but still dangerous (27). Because of her Melammu (28), the players needed to make willpower tests just to approach her.


27. For this encounter, John used the statistics for Mušmahhu, the great seven-headed serpent. 

28. Melammu ('Frightening Splendour') is the aura that surrounds gods and certain other beings.


After fighting for a time, with both sides suffering significant injuries, The Beast opened a dialogue with the player-characters, attempting to get them to her side. They allowed her to speak while they also caught their breath. She explained that she could not be killed; that she was primordial. She existed before the gods, and would come again after them. Her role on the planet was to herald change and create new orders, not to be enslaved.


I was
I am
I am to come

The players tested their purity to decide how to react to the beast, and decided to let her go. It was the Gods and Samsu-Ditana who brought all this about, afterall. The beast needed to exist in order to redress the imbalance. So they let her go, and returned to Nibbur to meet their own punishment for defying the gods.


The characters returned to Nibbur to be tried by the gods, and the stated their case before the great council of Marduk. Afterward, Silanum came to their cell to tell them they had been pardoned. She made a final speech, and sang a song of praise to the characters who helped save the world and usher in the new order. 

With this, the campaign came to a close. In his de-briefing afterwards, John of Patmos revealed that the Kassite character's offspring with Silanum would form the next ruling human dynasty of Babylon.


Here and now!
Here and now!

Fixing the ceiling
I got a feeling
- sing it again!

Here and now!
Here and now!

Show me the season,
give me the reason
sing it again!

Here and now!
Here and now!

Whisper a meaning
nobody's leading
sing it again!
sing it again!

Here and now!
Here and now!

I got a feeling
somebody's missing
sing it again!
sing it again!

Here and now!
Here and now!


The campaign ended, but the rock opera concludes with two remaining tracks. This one summarizes the campaign, hitting the highlights and commending the GM on not killing a single player-character.


And finally, a goodbye from the group as they planned to split up for the summer at the end of term. In fact, they were never able to get everyone together for a game again. Some have argued that every campaign can only exist once, and the Apocalypse of John of Patmos can never be re-created. Can't it? Do it!


Bye bye, my friend, goodbye
With a lie
you forget and break it

You make it
You make it
You make it
You make it

Cry in my empty room
and we try
to forget and break it

and then
you make it


Bye bye, my friend, goodbye
With a lie
you forget and break it

You make it
You make it
You make it
Oh you make it
Oh, ah. ah.

Do it!

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Campaign Report: John of Patmos' Mythic Babylon Campaign Part 1: "Revelation"

For this entry I thought I'd share an early campaign report for the forthcoming Mythic Babylon. This was run in Greece by a GM known on the web as 'John of Patmos.' The campaign was written up by the GM in Greek and I understand has been translated a few times and published in some anthologies of similar campaign reports, but I find it a bit convoluted. So in this case I thought I'd turn to a separate campaign report prepared by the players, which is a lot more concise. The players were a group of musician friends who released their report in the form of a prog rock opera (I know right? Who does that?! (1)) called 666 . It's really good – you can find it on youtube if you search for Aphrodite's Child 666. So what follows is a summary of the campaign based on the rock opera, with a bit of additional material from John of Patmos' version. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.


The campaign begins in Babylon. Rather than use the default start date presented in Mythic Babylon, John decided to run the game in the year 1595 BC at the very end of the Old Babylonian Period. Samsu-Ditana ( ) was the King of Babylon at the time, and Babylon a city that had controlled access to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (both important trade routes) in central Babylonia for nearly 200 years. Their rivals at this time were the Kingdom of the Sealand to the south, ruled by King Gulkišar, the Kingdom of Elam in the east, ruled by Širtuh, King of Susa, and the Hittites to the north under King Mursili, who is historically credited with bringing about the first fall of Babylon.


1. Okay, my friend Clash Bowley does this, but he's the only one I know.


The events below are presented to coincide with the named tracks on the 666 album. 


This is the opening track, and it reveals the theme of the campaign, which is destruction and renewal, The lyrics of which quote the GM, John of Patmos who often said 'This is the system to f*** the system', by which he meant 'We'll use Mythras (the game system) to destroy Babylon (the political system).'


To open the campaign, John described the scene of a grand week-long festival to that was called celebrate King Samsu-Ditana's ascension to godhood. It was once a custom for kings to ascend to godhood; it was started by King Naram-Sin of Akkad and continued by the Kings of Ur and later of Isin and Larsa; the first two of these fell cataclysmic destruction, and that latter were absorbed by their neighbours. The practice was dropped by the Kings of the first dynasty of Babylon. This campaign is based on the premise that the last king of the dynasty, Samsu-Ditana, was vain enough to re-invoke the practice and thus bring about the end of Babylon.

The opening scene reveals how, masked by all the pomp and circumstance of the festival, the city and it's institutions are actually crumbling from neglect.

Fallen fallen fallen
is Babylon the great!
Space is getting bounded,
time is getting late! (2)

Masters fall and wonder,
people rise and wait (3)
Fallen fallen fallen
is Babylon the great!

You don't need a coin (4)
I don't have to shine
We don't know the reason

But I need you madly
and you need me too
and we need each other... (5)
and we need each other...
and we need each other...


2. This is a reference to how Babylon has lost it's shine, its greatness has fallen away. But it's also a clever bit of foreshadowing. 'Space is getting bounded' refers to Babylon's shrinking territory, and time is certainly late – historically Samsu-Ditana was the last king of his dynasty. 

3. 'Masters fall and wonder' is here a reference to the nobility of Babylon falling to the ground in worship of their new 'god' Samsu-Ditana. The people, on the other hand, or more skeptical and fearful.

4. 'You don't need a coin' is quite true – obviously the players found it noteworthy that coinage hadn't been invented yet.

5. A reference to both the vanity and neediness of King Samsu-Ditana and the GM himself, perhaps? But it is a truism that gamers need each other – this is a social hobby, afterall.


As I mentioned, the opening scene was one of pomp and circumstance – a grand festival to inaugurate the king. If you've ever read 'The Curse of Agade' 
( ) you'll know this is likely to be an affront to the gods. And to make matters worse, the great god Enlil doesn't like having his rest disturbed by noisy humans ( ).

So, while all this pageantry was happening in the streets, Enlil was plotting once again to rid the world of Humans. And once again, the crafty god Ea decided to work behind the scenes to prevent this from happening. John imagined Ea thinking 'This is the last time I will help Enlil destroy the humans. I will depose Enlil as king of the gods and place my own son, Marduk, god of the city of Babylon, on the throne. That way I will never have to save humankind again.'

So, when Enlil directed Ea to bring about the destruction, he put his plan into effect: Ea instructed Marduk's priestess, Silanum (her name means 'Spring Lamb'), to unlock the box containing Tablet of Destinies which records the grand plan of the gods for the future of everything. He told Enlil he would unlock the tablet to write the end of human-kind, and on the surface that's what this looked like, but the tablet was really going to be used to re-write out of the position of King of the Gods.

This all happened behind the scenes, of course. The player-characters discovered bits of this plan via prophecy during the campaign which lead up the the apocalypse and the final revelation at the climax.

So, back to the festival, which this track continues to describe. Here John of Patmos described the pageantry in more detail and the players were introduced to the city of Babylon. There were some good role-playing opportunities with various locals, including nobles, priests, craftspeople, and commoners. This scene ends at 6pm - sunset on the first day. The band described it thusly:


The day the walls of the cities will crumble away (6)
uncovering our naked souls, (7)
we'll all start singing,
shouting, screaming
loud, loud, loud, loud

The day the circus horses will stop turning around, (8)
running fast through the green valleys,
we'll sing and cry and shout
loud, loud, loud, loud

The day the cars will lay in heaps (9)
their wheels turning in vain,
we'll run along the empty highways
shouting, screaming, singing
loud, loud, loud, loud

The day young boys will stop becoming soldiers,
and soldiers will stop playing war games, (10)
we'll sing and cry and shout
loud, loud, loud, loud

The day will come up
that we'll all wake up
hearing and shouting of joy
and shouting together with the freaks (11)
loud, loud, loud, loud

The day the world will turn upside down
we'll run together round and round
screaming, shouting, signing
loud, loud, loud, loud
loud, loud, loud, loud
loud, loud, loud, loud (12)


6. Babylon's buildings and walls were made from mud brick and in a bad state of decay from neglect. This was in part because all the festivals the king insisted on holding were keeping the builders from their work. Mud-brick construction is prone to decay, so in some sense the walls were always crumbling, except when kings organized a work crew to re-construct them. But as is implied in verse four, the citizens of the city had been exempted from their normal conscription duties, so there's no-one to repair the walls, and no militia to deal with an emergency. Woe betide the unprepared king who lets his walls collapse just before an apocalypse!

7. Every person had an etemmu, or 'ghost', who can linger in the surface world if their descendants don't treat them well after death. The dead were either buried in cemeteries or under the floor of the family home. Neglect of either could uncover these naked souls and free them to wander the streets. This is exactly what was happening in the city, and the scene ends with a dramatic spirit combat between the characters and some ghosts.

8. This is a reference (with some poetic license) to the absence of horses being sacrificed for the dedication of temples. Without sacrificial horses, temples were not renewed. The houses of the gods were crumbling like everything else. The only new temple was the one dedicated to Samsu-Ditana

9. Typo, here – 'carts' is of course what is meant, their wheels turning in vain in the mud. And note also that the highways (trade routes) were empty - a bad sign when you need to trade your excess grain for metals with which to make weapons or silver currency.

10. Young men were in fact conscripted into war in Mythic Babylon, and also sent to perform other tasks like repairing dilapidated civic structures such a defensive walls and temples. But, to appease troublesome citizens, some cities exempted their citizens from these duties. In this campaign, Babylon was one of them – hence the poor state of the army, temples, canals, and city walls.

11. 'Shouting together with the freaks' is a clear reference to the ecstatic prophets, who were taking to the streets in this episode and later ones to pronounce doom on the city. The characters encountered at least one in this opening session.

12. Some strong fore-shadowing here. This was the day the world started turning upside down. The crowd thundered and Enlil fumed on his mountaintop.


This track describes several of the early sessions of the campaign into a single song. Things were starting to go bad and the player-characters were sent on various trouble-shooting missions. Here's the summary of events:

During the festival described in the previous session, various gods arrived from other cities – Adad from Karkara, Ištar from Kazallu, Šamaš from Sippar, Sin from Ur, Ea from Eridu, Enlil from Nibbur, and Anu from Uruk, each with their own pageant.

Meanwhile, Marduk's high priestess, Silanum ('the lamb'), was sequestered in the inner sanctum of Marduk's temple upon the E-temenanki ('House of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth') Ziggurat. She started break the seals on the box that contained the Tablet of Destinies, by which to open the fate of the world to change. Each seal required elaborate rituals to unlock, so the process took several hours to complete. Of course, the characters didn't learn this was happening until much later – they were occupied with other things.

From the start of the game, John of Patmos started what he called his 'doomsday clock' to time events. This 'clock' was based on Babylonian numerology, which assigned numbers to the most important gods like this:

10 for Adad, the bringer of storms,
15 for Ištar, the temptress and goddess of battle,
20 for Šamaš, the sun,
30 for Sin, the moon,
40 for Ea, the god of wisdom and maker of humans,
50 for Enlil, king of the gods, and
60 for Anu, father of the gods.

He used this to time the events of play. The first four of these are described in in this song:

THE WHITE HORSE (Day 2 - 4:00 AM)

Ten hours into the festivities, Silanum broke the first seal on the table of destinies – the seal of Adad. An uridimu (a lion with the head of a man) emerged from the temple of Enlil and announced the wrath of Adad. This was accompanied by a storm with driving rain, thunder, and lightning. Prophets cried out about this doom in the city streets, but people thought this was part of the show at this all-night party.

The storm masked the presence of Hittite raiders who were descending on the city from the north. This was an advance party, riding in chariots drawn by white horses and wielding bows. The characters were part of a group sent out to try to prevent the raiders from approaching the city. They managed to fend them off, but the Hittites didn't leave – they made a camp not far from the city.

THE RED HORSE (Day 2 - 9:00 AM)

Fifteen hours into the festivities, Silanum broke the second seal, the seal of Ištar. A kusarikku (bull-man) emerged from the temple of Enlil and announced the arrival of the second doom: The army of the Sealand had arrived, led by King Gulkišar. They came up the Euphrates River on thousands of barges and they begin to assemble their siege equipment, including a monstrous red-painted siege-horse called Zu Gusiaš Temtu ('The Tooth of Temtu' (13)), which was set to work on the weak southern walls of the city. The players characters were joined a sortie sent out to try to disable it and it's inhuman Kurgarra (14) operators. With the destruction of the red horse, the troops surrounding the city settled in for the long haul and blockaded the city, but did not attempt to breach its walls. Again, the citizenry hardly noticed.

THE BLACK HORSE (Day 2 – 2:00PM)

The citizens of Babylon continued to celebrate the ascension of Samsu-Ditana, oblivious to the threats outside the city walls. At the twentieth hour, the Lamb broke the third seal, the seal of Šamaš. Šamaš wass the all-seeing sun, and also the god of justice, fair dealings, and by consequence, of trade. With the breaking of the third seal, a Lahmu (hairy-hero-man) emerged from the temple of Enlil into the unusually scorching afternoon sun and announced the next doom on the city.

An embattled merchant caravan, led by an Elamite trader bearing a scale and leading a trail of black pack horses, managed to break the blockade and enter the city. The merchant spoke of poisoned wheat causing mass death in the surrounding lands, and warned against allowing the forthcoming feast to continue. The characters joined the effort to round up and destroy all the bread they could find before people could eat it – a move heavily opposed by the festival organizers and the king's troops.

THE GREEN HORSE (Day 2 – Midnight)

A brief respite followed, and John described the ongoing blockade and party in narrative terms. But this didn't last long, for at the thirtieth hour, the Lamb broke the fourth seal, the seal of Sin. A griffin emerged from the temple of Enlil and announced the fourth doom – the wrath of Sin. By green moonlight, a self-propelled Magilum boat with a horse-carved prow arrived on the Irnina canal and broke through the water gate. It docked in the karum (trading quay) and and unloaded it's occupants. Thirty sickly Sealander warriors, led by the demon Bennu (15), a deputy of Sin and causer of fits, spread out into the city, killing and spreading disease. With this, a plague of palsy spread through the city, and the characters joined the effort to eradicate the green menace.


And when the lamb 
opened the first seal,
I saw the first Horse.
The Horseman held a bow

Now when the lamb 
opened the second seal,
I saw the second Horse
The Horseman held his sword

The leading horse is white
the second horse is red
the third one is a black,
the last one is a green

The leading horse is white
the second horse is red
the third one is a black,
the last one is a green

And when the lamb 
opened the third seal,
I saw the third Horse.
The Horseman had a balance

Now when the lamb 
opened the fourth seal,
I saw the fourth Horse.
The Horseman was the Pest

The leading horse is white
the second horse is red
the third one is a black,
the last one is a green (16)


13. Temtu is the Sumerian name for the god who would later be known as Tiamat. This is a subtle bit of foreshadowing.

14. The Kurgara were third-gender, inhuman, sickle-sword -wielding servants of Ištar. In this scenario a group of them were operating the siege horse.

15. Bennu is one of the disease demons listed in Mythic Babylon, a deputy of the god Sin.

16. White, Red, Black, and Green are all Babylonian colours. White colouring is made from galena, and red from ochre. Black pigment comes from dark grey kohl, and green from malachite.

Four Horsemen of Apocalypse, by Viktor Vasnetsov. Painted in 1887


Here, the band inserted an instrumental track to give The Lamb a theme. The music implies the characters were vainly running around, dealing with emergencies while the Lamb continued her important work. Oddly, the characters themselves were never given musical themes. I understood that they included a Kassite and two Babylonian elite soldiers, an Amorite mercenary scout, and a Diviner from Sumer.


The opening of the remaining seals are described in this song:

THE FIFTH SEAL (Day 3 – 8:00 AM)

At the fortieth hour, the lamb opened the fifth seal, the seal of Ea. At this time, most of the city's weary revelers were asleep, including the characters. When they woke, however, it was to a sound of massive despair, as if the city had uttered a collective moan. The water in the city's canals, its wells, and its abzu basins had retreated, and standing within, cheek by jowl, were the dead. They were grey-skinned, and clothed in white bird feathers. Their mud-caked hands were held high and they wailed, asking for vengeance on the living. The revelers started to panic. Some fell into the the canals and disappeared in the crowds of the dead. It had been Enlil's plan to release the dead into the city at this point, but here, Ea started to diverge from Enlil's script. Silanum called out from the top of the ziggurat, her voice carrying across the city. She bid the dead to wait for the seventh seal. She invited the worshipers of Marduk (among them the player characters) to enter his E-sagila ('House That Raises the Head') temple, and inside they were marked with the symbol of a triangle on their forehead.

Outside in the city, the water returned, covering over the dead, and the followers of Samsu-Ditana managed to get the party going again.


By the fiftieth hour, Silanum had returned to the sanctum of Marduk and opened the sixth seal – the seal of Enlil. The sun blackened, as if by eclipse. Yet the moon was also in the sky – it had turned red. Meteors fell from the sky, crashing into the city and surrounding lands, causing everyone to take shelter. The earth shook under the feet of the citizenry, causing buildings and more sections of the walls to collapse. The characters spent their time helping people to safety and fighting off attacks through breaches in the wall. Meanwhile, a large crowd gathered in front of the newly build temple to Samsu-Ditana, asking: How much longer must we suffer before our god (Samsu-Ditana) saves us? This situation lasted through the night. Knowing Samsu-Ditana wasn't going to save anyone, the characters took shelter atop the ziggurat.


Sixty hours into the campaign, The Lamb broke the Seventh Seal and last seal – the Seal of Anu, father of the gods and lord of heaven. With the breaking of the Seventh Seal, everything stopped. The air was still, and there was complete silence on heaven and earth for half an hour. Nobody could speak, or indeed make any other sound.


And when the lamb 
opened the next two seals,
We saw the souls,
We saw the martyrs,
We heard them crying,
We heard them shouting,
They were dressed in white,
They'd been told to wait.

The sun was black,
The moon was red,
The stars were falling,
The earth was trembling
And then the crowed
Impossible to number
Carrying flowers,
Shouted amid
The heatless sun
The lightless moon
The windless earth
The colourless sky:
"How much longer will we suffer from hunger?
How much longer will we suffer from thirst?"

And when the lamb opened the seventh seal,
silence covered the sky.

The campaign took a week-long break at this point, so this was left as a bit of a cliff-hanger. I'm going to break here, too, and return next week with part 2.

Monday, May 25, 2020

What books can I read to inspire my Mythic Babylon campaign?

This question about the upcoming Mythic Babylon setting was asked recently over on the Mythras forums. Since this turned into a rather lengthy reply and might appeal to people other than gamers, I thought it would be better to post it here.

It's a difficult question to answer - there simply isn't much in the way of fiction in any format that deals well with the time and place covered by Mythic Babylon. We didn't use any fiction as inspiration in building the setting - at least, no modern fiction. We built it solely on the work of history writers, archaeologists, and translators of period stories. Because there's so little available in the popular culture, we designed Mythic Babylon to be pretty comprehensive and self-contained, so you don't NEED to read anything else, though of course if you wanted to get lost down some rabbit holes there are plenty of good history books around. Those will have to wait for another post, though.  

I'm certainly not aware of any TV shows or films that deal with the subject historically, but I do think one could draw a certain amount of inspiration from classic Biblical epics like Ben Hur, Sodom and Gomorrah, or Samson and Delilah.

Of the available fiction that covers Ancient Mesopotamia, very little of it deals with the time period that Mythic Babylon covers (The Old Babylonian Period) even though our  period is rich in ancient texts. Let me try to explain why that matters.

A Mesopotamian History Primer

Before I talk about what's available in fiction, maybe a short primer on Mesopotamian history would help you to understand the different periods. The term 'Ancient Mesopotamia' typically covers about  3000 years of history, and maybe another 1000 of pre-history, but the Old Babylonian Period as seen in Mythic Babylon only covers about 400 of these years, and occurs about 1000 years before the Babylon of the Ishtar Gate and the Bible fame. 

Stories that are set in other time periods can work as an inspiration for the kinds of stories that are appropriate to Mythic Babylon, but might differ significantly in the details of daily life.

These are the main periods of Mesopotamian history - the dates are approximate:

1. Uruk Period lasted from about 4000BC to 3000 BC. This is a pre-historic (i.e. before writing) period during which Uruk was the main city. It colonized other areas and exported its culture to the entire region. Being pre-historic, we only know what archaeology can reveal, so it's hard to write stories about it without being highly inventive.

2. The Early Dynastic Period - roughly 3000 BC to 2300. A time of several competing city states. Early writing tells us the names of some kings and we can build a sketchy history, but much is still unknown. This is the time that the historical king Gilgamesh lived. Sumerian was the dominant language, but co-existed with the Semitic Akkadian language.

3. The Akkadian period - 2300-2100. The city of Akkad becomes dominant and forms what might be the first empire under King Sargon. The Akkadian language (named after the city) is dominant. It ends in a collapse and barbarian invasions.

4. The Neo-Sumerian period - 2100-2000. A short but important empire phase. Ur takes over from Akkad as the dominant city, and the Sumerian language sees a brief resurgence, though Akkadian remains the lingua-franca. This also ends in a societal collapse and invasion.

5. The Old Babylonian Period - 2000-1600. The nomadic and Semitic Amorites have now populated the region and become kings of most cities, so it's heavily influenced by their culture. Many cities form small hegemonic kingdoms that compete with one another - some end up growing very large, like the kingdom of North Mesopotamia under king Shamshi-Adad, and later Babylon will rise to become the most important power. This also ends in a collapse and invasion by the Hittites.

6. The Middle Babylonian / Assyrian period 1600-1200/1100. Babylon rises again under a new Kassite (another foreign tribe) dynasty and controls the south. The city of Assur and a mainly Hurrian kingdom called Mitani compete in the north. The Hittites dominate Anatolia, and Egypt is influential in the west. Historically, we know very little about Babylon at this time, and much more about the north and west, largely due to the accidental availability of written texts from the period. This period ends with the large Bronze Age Collapse that lasts a few hundred years, leaving us with a dark age. This is the end of the Bronze Age.

7. The Neo-Assyrian period 900-612 - Assyria is now dominant over Babylonia and extends its empire far to the west into Israel and Egypt.

8. The Neo-Babylonian Period 626-539 - Culturally similar but with some differences, Babylon has inherited the Assyrian empire. When people think generally of 'Babylon' this is the time period they're thinking of.

9. The Persian Period 539-330 - the Achaemenid Persians conquer Babylon. It's culture is left largely intact, but political control shifts to Persia, with Babylon as a western capital.

10. The Hellenic period starts in 330 with the conquests of Alexander the Great. Babylon is conquered. Again the local culture is left largely intact, though of course it has evolved on its own since the time of Hammurabi nearly 1500 years ago.

General Categories of Mesopotamian Fiction

So, now that you know that Ancient Mesopotamia =/= Mythic Babylon, we can look at what's available in fiction. These books seem to fall into three categories:

1. Books by historians or history enthusiasts who see the gap and decide to try their hand a fiction. Many of these deal with the detail of history fairly well, though often with errors. But the reviews indicate they also often fall short in the story-telling department.

2. Writers who are novelists first and foremost and want to write about their history favorite period of history. These are generally more successful, though they may take liberties with the history. At least you get a good story, and if you're looking for inspiration for writing your own Mythic Babylon scenarios, this is probably more helpful - especially since we already have the history part covered pretty well in the setting.

3. People inspired by the bible who want to write a 'historical novel'. These seem to have no 'historical' merit, as far as I can tell, though they pretend to it surprisingly often. My basic feeling is that whenever you see the words 'Sumeria' or 'Shinar', that author probably isn't too concerned about the historicity of their setting. Of course, that doesn't mean they can't tell a good story.

Mesopotamian Historical Fiction

Here's what I've found for fiction when browsing Amazon or Goodreads. I haven't read most of these because I'm rather picky and I already have way too much to read, so I won't buy a book just because the subject interests me - I need to see that it's well reviewed. And most of these aren't. So for most of these entries, my opinion is based on the reviews of others and the author's (or publisher's) description of the work.

Empires of Bronze (Son of Ishtar and Empires of Bronze) by Gordon Doherty. These are set toward the end of the Middle Babylonian period and are really about the Hittites, so I'm not sure there's much in there about Babylon. They look pretty good, though, and fall into category 2.

The Assyrian and The Blood Star by Nicholas Guild. These are set in the Neo-Assyrian empire and centred on a son of one of the kings. They also seem to fall into category 2 and also, to my eye, look pretty good, though they're set well after the time of Mythic Babylon, and the political context of the Assyrian Empire is totally different than that in MB.

The Esskar series by Sam Barone. I'm not quite sure what to make of these. From the description, these are set during the Akkadian period, but the personal names are made up and don't seem authentic, and the kings and rulers mentioned are also made up. So I'd say this is rather a made-up setting than a set of historical novels, but they might capture the kinds of events that could inspire a Mythic Babylon campaign. Until I hear more or read one myself, I'd say 'approach with caution'.

In the Court of the Queen and The Ambassador's Daughter by Elizabeth Roberts Craft. Set supposedly in 2000 BC (the end of the Neo-Sumerian period) these, again, from the description seem to be completely a-historical, but they obviously mash a lot of historical content together to make some perhaps plausible stories. Like the Sam Barone books above, I think the historical value is questionable, but they might thematically be strong. Some reviewers mention not liking the writing, including this very thorough review by someone who undertook some a very impressive piece of sleuthing to try and figure out why another reviewer would think Hammurabi and Zimri-Lim were gay. If you're into the metal ages, check out this reviewer's bookshelves for loads more reviews.

Trade Winds to Meluhha by Vasant Dave. I think this is a category 1 novel. Set ostensibly in 2138 and being about the connection between Sumer and Meluhha (the Indus Valley). The blurb mentions that the main character leaves Babylon (which was a best a little village way up the Euphrates at this time) to go to Meluhha, so this may not be entirely historical - in fact, the author calls is 'prehistorical', which may be a fair assessment given that the Indus script has never been translated. I suspect this has lots of accurate historical details despite being a little loose, and is probably good fodder for Mythic Babylon inspiration. Reviews of the writing seem mixed.

The Seventh Sanctuary by Jennifer Malin. The tag-line 'A steamy novella of ancient Sumeria' sets off all kinds of alarm bells for me, but again, this might serve for inspiration to Mythic Babylon. I'm having a hard time judging its quality from the few reviews.

The Prince and the Prophet and other 'novels of Sumeria' by Jesse Hudson. I suspect this is a category 3 and is fiction partially informed by history, rather than a historical novel. I mean this: "For Ammon-Shur the struggle to end the slave trade in Sumeria is not going as planned" is simply not a thing. But in spite of playing fast and loose with fact, he's done a lot of research and is clearly bringing it to bear in the ways that best suit his story-telling needs.

Here's an excerpt from one text:

Claimed by the Enemy by Shauna Roberts - An Akkadian period novel that, in spite of its terrible cover and 'romance novel' labelling, seems like it might not be half bad, at least in terms of story and historical merit. The writer has several other books to her name, which at least tells you she's good enough to have staying power.

Like Mayflies in the Stream is also by Shauna Roberts - a novelization of the Gilgamesh story. Same comments as above.

The Priests of Lagash by David Jordan - set at the end of the Early Dynastic period. It doesn't have a lot of reviews, which is common for a lot of these books. My gut feeling is that this book is probably pretty decent. From the blurb, it feels right, historically, and he's picked an interesting time. The reviewers seem to like the writing. Too bad it's kindle only - I'll probably never read it, and yet of all the books mentioned here it's the one I think I'd most like to read. 

Lost in Mari: Rise of a Mesopotamian Demon by Jayneela - Set in the Old Babylonian period, the same as Mythic Babylon. There's very little information about the book itself, and no reviews. My gut feeling is that it's rather too fanciful to be considered a historic novel, but that doesn't mean its not good.

The Flame Before Us by Richard Abbott - Set on the verge of the Bronze Age Collapse c.1200 BC and on the coast of Syria (which is on the fringe of the territory we cover in Mythic Babylon.) This is a novel about the sea peoples and the collapse itself. I haven't read the book yet, but I bought it and it sits on my shelf. Richard is a friend of mine and I've read several of his other books, my favourite of which is called Scenes From a Life, about a Canaanite who brings his craft to Egypt where he makes a living. I can vouch for Richard's historical chops and I like his writing, so I almost feel I can recommend it despite not having read it. Almost. I'll update this entry later!

She Wrote on Clay by Shirley Graetz - set in the Old Babylonian period during the reign of Hammurabi. I have read this one and have mixed feelings about it. This falls in category 1, and the historical research is very good (though there are a few oddities - there was no such thing as the briefly mentioned 'cavalry' at the time, for example.) However, the story is a little lacking and the main character has very little agency, always being rescued by others. However, as a 'slice of life' story that illustrates the unique quality of the life of a naditu priestess, you won't find much better. I think roleplayers will find this particular 'slice of life' a little too dull for gaming inspiration, but you never know.

I, The Sun by Janet Morris - Set c.1400 BC about the Hittite king Suppiluliumas, this is a very good and well researched historical fiction novel, but not really something to read in preparation for Mythic Babylon. I have a fuller review here:

The Dragon of the Ishtar Gate by L. Sprague de Camp - A category 2 novel set in the Persian era. It's a travelling tale that goes to the far west corners of the Persian empire and told in a style that would appeal to fans of pulp Sword and Sorcery (of which de Camp wrote a lot), but De Camp was widely read in ancient history, so the book is well-researched. I have this on my shelf, but haven't read it. I have read other books by the author and quite liked them, including (in the same series) The Bronze God of Rhodes, which we read with our book club to generally positive reviews. De Camp's dialogue is often playful, and that can come across as pretty campy to some. There's a recent review on Goodread that points out (in detail) all the flaws with the novel when seen from the woke perspective of the 20-teens. This was written in the '60s, so temper your expectations accordingly. And don't expect much Babylonian content.

Dark Priestess by Juanita Coulson - a 1977 category 2 novel; Coulson is primarily an SF author and even wrote some Star Trek and Ravenloft books, in addition to her own original material. This is described as a 'Searing Romance in Fabulously Wicked Babylon at the dawn of History'. I know the publisher wrote that, but since Babylon really only comes to the fore a thousand years after the dawn of history I think we can take this as a clue to the level of historicity. One reviewer calls it a novel about 'Sumeria'. There isn't much to go on in the blurb apart from the name of the main character (Ki-Inanna, which might sound authentic but isn't), so I can't even establish which period of history this is supposedly set in. It likely mashes things up to create a 'Babylonian pastiche', so probably best to think of this as a fantasy novel along the lines of what Guy Gavriel Kay writes.

Gilgamesh The King by Robert Silverberg - another category 2 novel by well regarded SF&F author Robert Silverberg, in which he rationalizes the myth of Gilgamesh into a historical narrative. The mystical elements are also rationalized, with Humbaba turned into a volcanic landscape. I somehow doubt that Silverberg was aware enough of the distinctions between the various historical periods to make this truly historical, but you never know. My guess is that it's a historical pastiche, but nevertheless a useful for gaming inspiration. In fact, I suspect historical pastiche is the preferred method by which gamers relive history. There's a distinctly less historical sequel called To the Land of the Living that finds Gilgamesh in the afterlife with Helen of Troy and Picasso (!)

The Writing in Stone by Irving Finkel - This is a category 1 novel by renowned Assyriologist and biblical scholar Irving Finkel. I was familiar with Finkel's historical work and role as a curator in the British Museum, but I never knew he wrote fiction until a reader pointed this one out to me. Here's the description from Good Reads:

The landscape of this dark and powerful story is the ancient world of Assyria some 3000 years ago, a time when writing was in the world's oldest script, cuneiform, and the domination of unseen forces firmly in the hands of the state's leading Exorcist. In the capital, Nineveh, resides a deep and complex man, the power behind the King of the World. Faced with unforeseen disaster that threatens his authority, he emerges as a psychopathic killer. The author uses his familiarity with ancient writings preserved in the world's museums to recreate a vanished world in which those who step from the shadows in ruthless violence to pursue ultimate control show themselves at the same time to be disconcertingly human. The tight prose and graphic illustrations make this a gripping and unusual tale not of this world, but at the same time weirdly familiar.

Finkel is a good author and I think you can trust in this being a quality book, however if you read the GR reviews, you'll notice a trigger warning about violence against women by some of the characters, so proceed with caution.

Fantasy Novels Inspired by Ancient Mesopotamia 

Between the Rivers by Harry Turtledove - Vaguely based on Sumerian myth and beliefs, this story is set in a not-Sumer where gods walk the earth and malicious spirits abound and can fly up your nose. It's an interesting read for gamers (and I have read this one), though probably too difficult to relate to Mythic Babylon. A mash-up between the two would be interesting, if anyone wanted to put the work in.

The Moonlit Cities series by Marcin Wrona - fantasy inspired in part by Mesopotamia. These seem well reviewed, but only available on Kindle at the moment which means I won't likely read them. I quite like the cover designs, for whatever that's worth.

The Ship of Ishtar by A. Merritt - another fantasy inspired by Mesopotamia, this novel doesn't take place there, but a contemporary archaeologist gets sucked into fantasy adventure along the lines of Moorcock's Sailor on the Seas of Fate, travelling about in Ishtar's ship and caught between her and the god Nergal. I read it, but don't remember being especially moved.

So that's my round-up of Ancient Mesopotamian fiction. Please feel free to let me know of any that I missed. I may post a follow-up on non-fiction in the future, and will certainly keep posting reviews of individual books.