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Friday, 21 February 2020

Making it up as you go

Michael Cule: “You play to find out what the game is about. And the players will teach you what the game is about. They’ll ask questions that you never thought of, the questions you never thought needed an answer. That’s the sort of thing you need to be able to improvise about and turn on a dime, and stick something in, or make something up, that’s going to confirm and answer the questions you never thought were going to go into it.” 
Roger Bell-West: “Every time the players say let’s follow clue A rather than clue B or C, they’re saying this is the thing we’re interested in.”
Michael and Roger are talking there about improvising in investigative campaigns. My preferred style for running a game is improv, arguably because I’m too lazy to prep but also because I don’t think it’s the referee’s job to author a story and then herd the players through it.

My own improv is along the lines of seeing what the players are interested in and running with it. As a rule I don’t actually retcon what I’ve already decided is going on in an adventure, because that strikes me as unfair on the players. How can you uncover the truth if the facts themselves can be altered? Armistead Maupin famously retconned a key plot twist into Tales of the City when a reader wrote in while the stories were being serialized to point out that one of the characters' names had an unusual anagram. In retrospect it worked, but I'm not sure any of the rest of us should try it at home.

When I ran the Victorian scenario “Murder Your Darlings”, there was an opportunity I might have seized to change the whole story. The characters came across a twenty-year-old photograph taken in India of a woman who looked a lot like one of the maids currently working in the house of the murdered ex-major. Instead of taking it as evidence of the maid being the major’s illegitimate daughter (the result of his affair decades earlier with a family friend, who was the woman in the photograph) they jumped to the conclusion that she must be a naga or immortal shape-changing lamia. And I could have made it so. They wanted a supernatural explanation, so why not give them one? The risk in changing the plot with a significant retcon is that it can ripple out to invalidate other facts the characters have already uncovered. O, what a tangled web we weave…

Listening to Michael and Roger talking about The Armitage Files, I got to thinking about “The Unseen Hand” (last week’s scenario) and how you could run that, not as the ironic experiment in conspiracy theory it was designed to be, but as a flurry of happenstance, coincidence and enemy action from which the players could grab some threads and tug on them, and that would decide the real direction of the story.

The Tesla angle, for instance. ‘Nikola Tesla must be experimenting with AC vril power…’ one player might say excitedly. Personally I'm already heartily sick of "Tesla the sci-fi hero" stories (yawn) but OK, it’s a science fiction campaign based on Lovecraftian themes, so why not? The Tesla connection could let you fold in and embellish roughly contemporary stories such as Alpha the robot (pictured above) and his occasional acts of murderous rebellion. As the players’ investigations show you what they are hoping and fearing from the adventure, you can lay the rails just one step ahead of them. Little do they know that the investigation is going to be whatever they want it to be.

I’m still not sure about that level of “total improv”. It’s how a lot of Doctor Who writers seem to plot their stories, but once you notice that they’re ass-pulling on a regular basis, there’s not much incentive to care. Likewise, if players cotton on that you’re adapting the facts to fit whatever they say, disbelief isn’t so much suspended as thrown off the roof. So if you try it, do so sparingly – but, seeing as I did say you risk getting lynched if you play “The Unseen Hand” as written, nobody could blame you for chickening out and turning it into a seat-of-the-pants episode of cosmic weirdness instead.

Friday, 14 February 2020

"The Unseen Hand" (scenario)

New York city, high summer of 1929. Traffic horns are blaring, the sidewalks shimmer in the heat, and the fire hydrants of Brooklyn are gushing over packs of laughing street kids. ‘Everybody can be rich,’ is a saying coined by John Jakob Raskob, VP of finance at DuPont and General Motors. Sure, the stock market took a wobble back in March, but that was quickly fixed by a $25 million injection of finance by “Sunshine Charley” Mitchell at the National City Bank.

The first colour talkie, On With The Show, is in theatres. On the radio you’re listening to Al Jolson, Helen Kane (‘boop-boop-a-doop’) and Rudy Vallée. On Broadway, Leslie Howard is starring in time-travel fantasy Berkeley Square. Characters might find themselves humming: "Ain't Misbehavin'", "The Japanese Sandman","Makin' Whoopee", and "Swanee". When you pick up your newspaper maybe you buy a pulp magazine too.

Find a pretext for the characters to be called to Long Island. Maybe they’re driving back from a party at Great Neck and witness an automobile accident. As first on the scene, they get a chance to talk to the chauffeur before he dies.

The owner of the automobile is William Fox. Also in the car but less seriously injured than Fox is Jacob L Rubenstein. The chauffeur, Joe Boyes, is critically injured and they have only minutes to speak to him. His voice is faint. They have to lean close hear what he’s muttering:

‘A yellow Duesenberg J been followin’ us since we left the Eagle’s Nest. Never liked a yellow auto–’

Alternatively, they could be visiting Nassau Hospital in Mineola when the casualties from the accident are brought in. In this case at least one of the characters will need to have some political or medical authority to get access to Fox. If they meet him at the hospital they obviously won’t get to hear Boyes’s dying words.

While sedated, Fox rambles on about how there’s a conspiracy to keep him out of ‘the Emporion’. ‘My money’s not good enough for ‘em? It’s green, ain’t it? It buys the same jewels an’ furs. But nah, they got this new thing, they want a monopoly on it. “Vril’s for old money; you just wait outside, Fuchs.”’

If they talk to Fox the next day, they find his accent distinctly less Brooklyn. He has been at pains to move beyond his early years as a newsboy, the son of Hungarian Jewish immigrants (hence the ‘Fuchs’ name).

Things the characters can research:

The Eagle’s Nest is William Vanderbilt’s estate in Centerport, Long Island. Fox was at a dinner party there but left early.

The yellow Duesenberg belongs to John Dryden Kuser (32 years old). He was at the dinner party with his wife, Brooke (27 years) but the couple are soon to divorce and Kuser angrily dragged her away soon after Fox left. He was only following Fox’s car because he was drunk and had forgotten the way back to Manhattan. He saw the collision but drove on.

They can ask about vril at a museum or bookstore. They end up speaking to the inevitable old scholar (think: John Hurt) who says, ‘Second time I’ve been asked about that this month. I had a book, Atlantis and the Lost Lemuria, by William Scott-Elliot. No, that was the only copy…’ He looks up the person who bought it (or checked it out): ‘Daisy Farley.’ As for vril, he adds with a smile: ‘Ah, the supposed energy source of ancient Atlantis. The man or woman who controls that would hold our modern civilization in the palm of their hand. But remember what happened to Atlantis.’

An alternative lead to Daisey Farley could come from talking to Brooke Kuser at her Manhattan penthouse. She's throwing things angrily into a bag as the characters arrive and tells one of them to call her a cab. 'If you see my dirtball of a husband, that no-good creep, tell him Daisy Farley brought him a gold-leaf invite from Sunshine Charley himself. What did I do with it? I had my own little ticker tape parade.' She gestures at the window. 'If he wants it back, he can take a roll of Scotch tape for a walk down 5th Avenue.'

Daisy Farley (43 years) is Charles Mitchell’s personal secretary. She won’t reveal anything to them if questioned, but if they follow her she leads them to the New York Biltmore.

If they wait for any length of time in the Biltmore foyer, they may spot Nikola Tesla (73 years), who is a guest here. Tesla makes a habit of moving hotels every six months and leaving unpaid bills. A character who is widely read and/or technically minded may know that Tesla recently filed a patent for a VTOL aircraft.

At the Biltmore, a small bribe will be enough to find out that Miss Farley visited Charles Webster Leadbeater, who arrived a few days ago and is being kept in a suite at the expense of the National City Bank. He is expecting a delivery which the hotel staff have just been told to send on to the Merchants’ Exchange.

A classically educated character might spot that ‘emporion’ is Greek and could translate as ‘the Merchants’ Exchange’. A character with any knowledge of NYC will know that’s the main building of the National City Bank at 55 Wall Street. It is tastelessly pseudo-classical in style, so members of the Cryptonymphs (qv) jokingly refer to is as the Emporion.

Daisy Farley has also been in contact with a catering company, The Swell Affair, run by a minor socialite called Samuel Christie (38 years). The company is based in Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn. Recently they have been desperate to hire more waiters (a possible in for the investigators). None of the company’s staff will reveal anything about their clientele, but if the characters break in or otherwise contrive a look at the books, they’ll see they are catering a very big event at 55 Wall Street on July 27th.

The more the characters probe, the more they’ll encounter closed doors and people refusing to talk, saying, ‘It’s more than my job’s worth. They run everything.’

What’s really going on

A group of wealthy bankers and investors have formed a group they call the Cryptonymphs and are planning a lavish party to celebrate having averted, as they see it, a stock market crash in March. (The real crash, of course, will come in a few months, but nobody knows that.)

Fox wanted in but he’s new money, he’s in movies, he’s an immigrant, and he’s Jewish. Vanderbilt didn’t come out and say that in so many words, but when Fox pressed him about getting an invitation to the party he fobbed him off with some talk about it being for investors in a new enterprise. When pressed he plucked the word ‘vril’ out of thin air, having heard it mentioned when he and a few of the Cryptonymphs first encountered Charles Leadbeater in Australia.

A large crate is delivered to Leadbeater at the Biltmore and sent on to 55 Wall Street. If the characters manage a look inside, they’ll discover a mummy with exotic robes and a copper mask and jewellery. The mummy is a papier-mâché fake, designed by Leadbeater to look ‘Atlantean’, though you’d need to examine it in some detail to spot that. Anybody with knowledge of ancient history will see that the mummy's raiment does not correspond to any known civilization, and anyone with art criticism will recognize it as looking quite like a recent work by the sculptor Demétre Chiparus.

The party is fancy dress. The men wear women’s clothes, but as a parody worn over regular evening clothes rather than a serious attempt at cross-dressing – an Edwardian duchess’s skirt, Empire line shifts, deliberately clumsy make-up, etc. The women are mostly actresses and prostitutes, and they are dressed to look like (male) street kids: flat caps, baggy shorts, grubby undershirts, and so forth. The few wives and daughters who have been invited along are dressed in male evening wear, taking the fancy dress code more seriously than their husbands have. Prohibition is still in force, but you wouldn't know it from the way real champagne is flowing.

The highlight of the party is when Leadbeater brings on the mummy and uses ventriloquism to have it address the party-goers: ‘Cavort as you will, sybarites of a future age. Think you not that my people similarly disported themselves? Pleasure only was their goal. Flesh and wine their distraction. Gold and slaves the power with which they sought to comfort their desiccated souls. You are puppets only. In the timeless gaze of eternity, you are already dead, the fragile edifice of your civilization already crumbled to ruins. So make your music, quaff your wine, assuage your lusts. Look down from these windows on the teeming, toiling masses who labour to sustain your edifices of debauchery. For you too will lie soon enough, as my world of Atlantis lies, forgotten many fathoms deep.’

‘Pray now to the great gods in Kadath!’ continues Leadbeater in his own voice. ‘Let your chant reach them, miserable sinners, and perhaps they will send their servant through to this world to guide you for another year of frivolity.’

He gestures at the mummy and a group of masked, body-painted dancers step forth as a chant is taken up by the party-goers, led by Leadbeater himself.

After a few moments, the mummy comes to life. In fact it’s another of the dancers, who substituted for the fake mummy the guests saw as they arrived. He steps down and removes his mask, offering it to Charles Mitchell, as Leadbeater says, ‘A new lord of the sun is chosen! Hail him as he watches over your fortunes in the year ahead.’

Nonplayer characters
  • Charles Edwin “Sunshine Charley” Mitchell (53) chairman of National City Bank. 
  • John Jakob Raskob (50) vice-president of finance at DuPont and General Motors. 
  • William Fox (51) president of the Fox Film Corporation. 
  • William Kissam Vanderbilt II (52), millionaire socialite. 
  • Jacob L Rubenstein (31), treasurer of the Namquist Worsted Company. 
  • Charles Webster Leadbeater (75), celebrated occultist.


It’s expected that the characters will completely buy into the idea of a conspiracy and do something stupid to disrupt what is a silly and self-indulgent but harmless bit of fun. The idle rich may have strange tastes, but they’re not really trying to summon the Elder Gods via the corpse of a priest from Atlantis.

The inspiration came from Jon Ronson’s book Them: Adventures With Extremists, in particular the last chapter in which he infiltrates a Bilderberg Group ball alongside a bunch of conspiracy theorists who are (as the player-characters may be) utterly freaked out by the innocuous goings-on.

From there I got to thinking about how player-characters often accept in-game conspiracies without question, even though most role-players are smart enough to know that conspiracy theories are hogwash. Of course, you can argue that ‘it’s the genre, stupid’ but if left unchallenged that can only lead to lazy, repetitive adventures. This scenario is intended to shake up their assumptions (see also: the ending of Firewatch), and if anyone shoots first – well, maybe they’ll emerge from prison (or an asylum) in a few years’ time with a more thoughtful outlook.

One codicil to the genre justification for using conspiracy theories: Blake Snyder cautions against the use in stories of what he calls ‘double mumbo-jumbo’. That is, you can have one completely unlikely or even fantastical element in any story. That’s the reason the story is getting told. But you can’t then add another one, because having reset our model of reality once, it wrenches us out of the story to do so a second time. Aliens invade – and now King Arthur is here. No, stop it. Try harder.

OK, so a consequence of avoiding double mumbo-jumbo is the trope you see for example in The Amazing Spider-Man movies. There, the genetic splicing that gives Peter his powers also accounts for the Lizard, Electro and the Green Goblin – all affected by the research Norman Osborn has had done in an attempt to cure his own degenerative illness. And that’s good. It’s much better than trying to convince us that suddenly four different fields of super-science came to fruition. But it does tend to support a conspiracy theorist’s view of that world – if they said, ‘This is all down to Norman Osborn,’ they’d be partly right.

When we’re role-playing, we’re not creating fiction. Novels, plays, television and movies already do that much better. We’re creating cascades of events which can be viewed as a story, just the same way we recount anecdotes from the ‘story’ of our everyday life. To impose genre tropes on that strikes me as a sterile exercise, depriving the game of the kind of out-of-the-blue surprises that make truth stranger than fiction. I would rather see conspiracies emerge from players’ assumptions, therefore, than bake them into the structure of the game world. Still, some people enjoy those meta-discussions more than getting into character and ‘just playing’, and if that’s your group then I think you won’t be able to try out this scenario on them without the risk of getting lynched. But if you do run it, it'll be interesting to see what kind of complex confection the players spin out of just a few perfectly mundane occurrences. And in that process, perhaps, you'll get to experience how all conspiracy theories are formed.

Friday, 31 January 2020

A score to settle

There’s a trope in modern American crime fiction that goes something like this. The Hero is a thief, loyal to his friends but not too smart. He pulls off a daring robbery, but the cash is stolen by the Sneak, a friend he trusted who betrays him to the cops. The Hero waits until his sentence is up and goes to get his money from the Sneak, only to find it has been paid to Big, a mobster who had the screws on the Sneak. The Hero sets out to recover his cash from its new owner in spite of the massive resources Big has at his command.

How dumb is that? The Hero originally stole the money from a bank or corporation that wasn’t guarding it very well. Now he’s setting out to steal it from somebody who is not going to let it go without a fight, and whose idea of payback is a lot more brutal than ten years in clink. It makes for a gripping story, because it’s personal and played for high stakes, but if the Hero was at all rational he’d just go and rob another bank. All he needs to do is not trust the Sneak this time, and he’d be on a beach with a paper umbrella in his drink before you can say Stick ‘Em Up.

OK, park that. Here’s another strand. Years ago, I got to a moment in my Tēkumel campaign that looked like turning into a Total Party Kill. Luckily it was the end of the session, so I had some time to think outside the box. Instead of having them all roll new characters next time, I had them wake up on a ship with filthy bandages wrapped around their wounds. It was logical, as they’d been whupped by a gang of smugglers in a waterfront warehouse. Instead of leaving bodies for the authorities to find, and thus bring heat down on their heads, the smugglers stripped them of their gear and sold them to a slaver.

I thought it would turn into a prison break thing, where they’d run away or lead a slave revolt and eventually after many adventures they’d make their way back home to freedom. But the players hated being slaves. They’d rather I’d killed them. It didn’t take long before a couple of them made a deliberately futile assault on their guards just to commit suicide. The others asked to end that campaign and restart with new characters.

Oh well, an interesting discovery, at least. Then I got to thinking, what if they had escaped? The very first thing they’d think about after getting home would be how to get their gear back. That enchanted steel sword, that Excellent Ruby Eye, the Gloves of Chirenē … they wouldn’t rest until they had every single item back. But, of course, this would be months later. That gear would be scattered to the ends of the Five Empires. They could very well spend years tracking it all down and recovering it, probably at far greater cost than simply writing it off and embarking on new adventures to pick up new equipment.

It wouldn’t be rational, but I know that’s what they’d do. Just as they couldn’t abide being enslaved, they couldn’t have lived with the shame of having their precious stuff taken away from them. You can almost imagine the voiceover for the game: ‘They were sold into slavery on the far side of the continent, their treasures taken from them. Now they’re free, and they aim to take everything back…’ It would run and run. And, because it’s personal and defies all reason, it would make a cracking story.

So the next time I see Coen Brothers characters doing something completely stupid, I’m just going to think of my players and it’ll all make perfect sense.

Friday, 24 January 2020

The sacred power of reason

At the end of this month, British government departments will stop using the word "Brexit", on the grounds that Brexit is over and done with from January 31st. It won't be, of course -- the negotiations and patches will take years, the consequences last for decades -- but we're in Ingsoc territory now. The Ministry of Truth doesn't even want talk of "negotiations" (ignorance is strength) as that would make the British people realize that the hard part is only just beginning.

As I write this, in a deliciously ironic touch given that the Leave campaign repeatedly complained about the "unelected" officials of the EU, the prime minister has been on holiday in the Caribbean for 40% of his total time in office and his special adviser Dominic Cummings (unelected boss of government strategy) is looking to hire uneducated cranks to bypass the UK civil service and carry on Cummings's favourite pastime of playing with fire without knowing that fire is hot. It's a strategy that hasn't been tried since Stalin, so what could possibly go wrong?

Jamie and I are wondering whether we now need to prove our patriotism by issuing a new edition of our last gamebook: Can You Do The Thing Previously Known As Brexit? But maybe that tumbril has already trundled. I do wish we had indulged some of our original plans for the book. In the first draft it opened on a crashing plane. You woke up in the cockpit but had no recollection of how to fly the thing. That established a framing narrative to which you'd return throughout the book, with increasingly surreal (or possibly increasingly lucid) episodes such as:
  • Remainers hiding in priest holes in Elizabethan times. 
  • The mutineers on Pitcairn island having “done away with the experts”. 
  • Conversations with the Number 10 cat.
  • Facts trying to escape across the English Channel in rubber dinghies.
And concluding with the prime minister (ie you, the reader) watching the trial of Orestes from The Eumenides, only in this version the Furies win the vote by 13 to 12 thanks to blatant lies yelled out by the Chorus.

"Too wacky," Jamie said, and at the time I agreed. That was before reality, out of its head on drugs, came charging up from behind, shoved reason into a ditch, and ran off laughing. Now even Armando Iannucci has given up on satire ("politics feels fictional enough") and for all I know Chris Morris might very well be thinking of applying to become one of Cummings's galley slaves. (Spoiler: he'll be disqualified on the grounds of having a university degree and being sane. Too bad, as if he worked in Downing Street he's just the chap to pull off a metaphorical Calò.)

If you'd like to wind back to an earlier era when Brexit was still about how to negotiate a rational relationship with the European Union that would reflect the electorate's narrow preference for withdrawal, you can try your hand at that in the book. Future generations will marvel that logic and facts ever played any part in the process, given the political maelstrom that actually ensued. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to send my CV off to Mekonta.

Also available from Amazon in Italy, Germany, France, Australia, Spain, Netherlands and anywhere that books aren't burned. And talking of the Furies vs Athena:

ADDENDUM (January 31): Professor Chris Grey has written a summary of how we got to this point. Only of historical interest now, at least until Tim Harford turns it all into one of his Cautionary Tales in 10 or 15 years' time...

Friday, 10 January 2020

The Age of the Triffids

Writing a sequel to The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham's 1951 science fiction classic, is something most authors couldn't even attempt. It's not enough to pastiche Wyndham's style; that would just leave you with a quaint literary curiosity. The sequel needs to match the inventiveness and blistering shock value of the original but in a modern idiom. Think the retooled Battlestar Galactica or the way J J Abrams created a new take on 1960s-era Star Trek.

Perhaps the only writer who could hope to do justice to such an undertaking is John Whitbourn, one of England's greatest living practitioners of fantasy and science fiction. In The Age of the Triffids, he leaps ahead to twenty-five years after the time of the first novel. Bill Masen's community on the Isle of Wight has grown and on the surface appears to be thriving, but with fields of triffids covering most of the mainland and spores ever drifting on the wind, there are threats from outside and perhaps an even greater danger posed by the concomitant social fault lines between the pre- and post-apocalyptic generations.
"Resist the temptation to hide. Otherwise you’re trapped and you'll never get out. Triffids have all the time in the world. Sooner or later, hunger or thirst drive you into the open. They will be waiting."
For copyright reasons The Age of the Triffids is only on sale in Canada and New Zealand. But if you can't wait two decades for the rest of the world to catch up, why not see if a Canadian friend (or bookshop) will send you a copy?

I'm strenuously opposed to book series that go on and on long after they've run out of steam, but what would be your choice for another classic standalone SF or fantasy novel that's crying out for just one good sequel?

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

A place among the stars

"Here is a vision of where we could be [in fifty years' time]: We will have fusion power and open-sea mariculture. We will be able to travel the globe freely through suborbital space in less than an hour. We will have research laboratories, industries, and hotels in orbit. We will have scientific bases, astronomical interferometers, and helium-3 mines on the Moon. We will have city-states on Mars — vibrant, optimistic centers of invention sporting lively and novel cultures, with many casting off the chains of tradition to strike out new paths to show the way to a better future. We will have mining and settlement outfits finding their way into the main asteroid belt, and exploration missions to the outer solar system. We will have grand observatories floating in free space, mapping the planets of millions of stars, and finding other worlds filled with life and intelligence. And we will be making magnificent discoveries in physics and cosmology, learning the nature of the universe and life’s role in it, and preparing our first interstellar spaceships to journey forth and find our place among the stars."
That's Robert Zubrin, astronautical engineer and advocate for manned space exploration, making the case for a Roddenberry-style vision of humanity's future. If you feel like going into the new year with an upbeat attitude, listen to Dr Zubrin talking here to Michael Shermer on the Science Salon podcast. It'll make you forget every dumb, anti-rational, zero-sum argument you encountered in 2019 -- at least for an hour. You might even decide to join the Mars Society.

A while back, Jamie and I wrote a script for a TV show set in a Mars colony later this century. The idea was to de-genre the idea of space travel. To forget about Buck Rogers adventures and space opera plots and instead just explore the human adventure involved in setting up on a new world. The networks didn't bite -- they might have if we'd included aliens -- but here's the opening sequence from the pilot, just in case it entices you to look towards the final frontier...

Whatever world you make your home, happy New Year!

Thursday, 19 December 2019

"Winter Bites" (a solstitial scenario set in 10th century Iceland)

"Where is the horse gone, where the young rider? Where now the giver of gifts? Where are the seats at the feasting gone? Where are the merry sounds in the hall? Alas, the bright goblet! Alas, the knight and his hauberk! Alas, the glory of the king! How that hour has departed, dark under the shadow of night, as had it never been."
We used Sagas of the Icelanders for this adventure, and such game mechanics as it needs are given in those terms, but other options are GURPS Vikings and VikingsRegardless of the system, you will certainly find the Icelandic Saga Map useful.

If you're running the adventure as the lead-in to a campaign then the characters are young (15-19 years) and begin with two relationships instead of the usual four. 

Thorkill Whalerider lives at Kolbeinsvik up in the Strands in north-west Iceland. In his youth he was a renowned trader and raider, now he owns much of the land from Arness to Kaldbak and is the big man in the district. The characters are sent by their family in the far south to trade goods with Thorkill, but a complication requires them to spend the winter with him.

At this time of year the sun rises at 10:00 and sets at 14:00, with three hours of twilight either side. So it’s full dark from 5pm till 7am.

The characters are bringing spices and furs, which their father is trading with his old shipmate Thorkill for wood (mostly driftwood that fetches up along the coast). Thorkill has agreed to send them back with men and mules to carry the wood, which takes more space than the goods they’ve brought.

It's sunset and the characters have been travelling all day in freezing fog. They're cold, they're tired. Coming down off the Thorskafjord Moor, they see a big man who seems to have a bloody burden on each shoulder. He lumbers up and tells them he’s Ulkar No-Name, “so now you can tell everyone you met nobody on the road.” He doesn’t smile. “I’m bringing these two sheep for the feast.” Wouldn’t it have been easier to herd them back and slaughter them at the house? “I didn’t think of it.”

But there’s a snag
Thorkill hasn’t yet got the wood together to send back, and so he says the characters must stay for the frost festival Þorrablót”) when a sacrifice is made in honour of Frost and Snow, the sons of Jokul the Giant in mythology.

The characters can sit about the house as guests, or they can join in chores if they choose to. If they volunteer to do that, it’s an opportunity to meet Audun Haldorson the foreman who says that the wall needs mending on his farm. It’s not actually for Thorkill, but it would help indirectly as it would free up Audun’s time.

If so they might meet Audun’s headstrong son Bakki, who is their age and will surely propose a swimming contest (in the sea, freezing) or a wrestling or drinking match, or a dice game (use wyrd). Bakki usually tries to get them to do this instead of work, and is likely to be derisive if they refuse, so there’s opportunity for Honour to be questioned.

About half the wood has so far been made ready, including a pine tree trunk that would make a magnificent mast for a ship. Thorkill’s brothers pause each day to look at it and say what a hardship it would be to part with that, maybe the characters can make do with some driftwood roots instead, etc, etc. It’s just a wind-up.

The household

  • Thorkill (38)
  • Asdis (wife, 26)
  • Ongul (brother, 35)
  • Skeggi (brother, 34)
  • Ulkar (illegitimate brother, very strong, 39)
  • Senuna (a beautiful Irish thrall, 19)

Rumours include:

“Ulkar is Thorkill’s half-brother, but he’ll never acknowledge him. He gets seated at meals like a labourer and never gets included in family decisions.”

“When will Thorkill have your goods packed to send back? In his own good time, like everything else.”

“Thorkill went raiding in his youth to prove himself as bold as his father, but Kar Drangson was as fierce a man as any of us will meet in this life, and with his sword given him by the Danish king he was a match for any three warriors of these days.”

“The bandit called Thorn has worried his way into Thorkill’s side since last winter. He preys on those crossing the moors and he’s been tracked as far as Ymir’s Tooth Mountain, but nobody knows where he has his lair.”

“You’ve been invited to the frost festival?” Sucks his teeth. “You know it involves a sacrifice, don’t you?” (This is just locals winding up some young outsiders.)

Characters could use Look into someone’s heart to figure out if a rumour is true or just the locals getting a rise out of them.

Audun the foreman
Thorkill’s foreman is Audun Haldorson (35) a free man with his own farm at Kaldbakvik. Thorkill has bought up every other farm in the district that his family didn’t already own because of the haunting of Kar the Old, who died twelve years ago and whose ghost is said to walk the shores.

The bandit
Thorn and his four men are outlaws who hide out in the mountain and watch for traders they can rob. Their lair is in a tunnel that runs right through the mountain.

Towards sunset it’s as though the day peels back, so that already you can see stars while there is still a glimmer of pale blue, orange and red along the horizon. At such a time character might, looking up at the mountain, see the blood-red light of the dying day somehow mirrored in a pinprick gleam in the middle of the black cliff.

Unless you know the way up, it is a hard climb to the caves where the bandits live. For the last twenty feet it’s likely their lookout will have spotted you, too, so there’ll be a barrage of rocks raining down on you before you reach them. [When you tempt fate for the climb; ideally Berserker or Fight with many against many for the fight at the top.]

The barrow
At night you can see a pale green light billowing around the headland. This comes from Kar the Old’s barrow. (When would they see that? Probably when going outside to empty their bladders.)

Audun: “That’s why people are in a hurry to get home before sunset at this time of year. No one wants to meet Kar walking on the shore. When Kar was buried, Thorkill was in Norway. He took it hard, not for love but because Kar had much of his wealth buried beside him in the barrow. But Kar’s ghost has enriched Thorkill anyway, by terrorizing people into selling him their farms.”

If they enter the barrow: it takes most of the day to dig down to the rafters. Then if they enter (a drop of twelve feet) their torch goes out because of the foul air. They won't be able to get a torch or candle to stay alight, and that's -1 ongoing for darkness.

The interior chamber is narrow, only room for one at a time. They feel around until they find horse bones, then their feet slither on silver coins and they blunder into the back of a carved chair. It’s heavy, though. It doesn’t give when they push it. Wait – there’s somebody sitting in it…

In fact: Ulkar is prone to narcolepsy and wanders off in a daze by night, either wandering the shore or entering the barrow by means of a tunnel that emerges a hundred yards along the beach. So they will have quite a fight with him – that’s Accept a physical challenge at -1 ongoing for darkness; in the cramped conditions it’s not possible for another character to assist by spending bonds. It will go better for them later if they don’t kill Ulkar.

The treasure includes the short sword Kar used to wield, which is the finest weapon any of them have ever seen. Its blade looks blue in daylight and in torchlight almost seems to reflect the blood it’s thirsty to spill. Thorkill will not part with this: “You must do something worthy of fame before I give you the sword, for I myself could never get it from my father as long as he lived.”

The festival
At the feast they are given strong drink, then the youngest is bound with silk ribbons and carried out to the bonfire. [A character could Consider an uneasy situation if concerned.] He is shown to the flames and the men say, “Now this one will sacrifice to you, sons of the ice.” He’s then carried to a hut to lie with Senuna, the thrall; the only sacrifice, his virginity.

If somebody wants to essay a poem or song, so much the better. Our Icelanders campaign is historical, so there's no magic, but you'll want a numinous moment to evoke the solstice spirit, so how about giving the characters a spectacular view of the northern lights "like the hem of Odin's cloak brushing middle-earth".

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The opening quotation is from J.R.R. Tolkien's translation of "The Wanderer". The pictures are by the acclaimed illustrator John Vernon Lord, whose grandson happens to be one of our players. John coincidentally grew up in the same Derbyshire town as my dad. Much of the story has been swiped from Grettir's Saga, and I urge you to read that before running it. May the High One grant you peat for your fire, mead for your cup, and boon companions to share the long evenings of storytelling and merrymaking with.