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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:

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. 


Overview
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.

Daylight
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.

Arrival
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".


*  *  *

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.

Monday, 16 December 2019

Þorrablót is coming


Our Christmas freebie is a little different this year. It's a scenario and it's not for Christmas, it's for the winter solstice. It's coming up on Thursday so be ready to hit the shore with axe and shield unlimbered if you want to run it on or around midwinter's day.

The adventure uses Gregor Vuga's Sagas of the Icelanders rules, insofar as it uses anything, so if you want to run it with those you can get the book here. Your quick intro to the Icelandic stories is here. And how about a bit of music to set the mood?


Friday, 6 December 2019

"The Feast of Misrule" (a Yuletide scenario for Legend)


Baron Grisaille is holding a Midwinter banquet for the local peasantry. The tradition is of the Feast of Misrule, when social conventions are supposedly inverted along the lines of the Saturnalia of Ancient Selentium; servant becomes lord and lord becomes servant on Midwinter Eve.

Another tradition is that anyone who comes to the castle during the festival and asks for hospitality must be admitted. Lord Grisaille has asked each of his retinue at Castle Greyholm to provide a dish for the peasants and their representative, Father Frost.

Lord Grisaille fears trouble in these unsettled times and so the characters are enlisted to provide additional muscle at the feast. Naturally that only makes sense if they have an appropriate reputation (in our campaign they were all mercenaries), failing which they could be invited guests, if of high status, or might simply happen to arrive in town a few days before the festival.

If employed as guards, the characters are visited by Cain, one of the men at arms, and invited to present themselves to Geraint, seneschal of the castle, by noon on 19 Yeol, ie the day before Midwinter Eve.

Arrival

A walled town surrounds the castle. Near the gate is a tavern called the Golden Plough where the characters will see a commotion. A crowd has gathered, peering in through the windows.

Inside, the landlord, John Wheatley, is being consoled by Peter Fleurette, the sergeant-at-arms of the castle. It turns out that last night the lord’s son, Grindel, came by with his five bully-boys, known locally as the Hellhounds, and they forced themselves on Wheatley’s daughter, Rachel. Fleurette is sympathetic but there’s nothing he can do.

The castle

Originally built as a fortress, the castle has been extensively modified over the years to emphasize comfort over security. A second, newer courtyard is primarily domestic, incorporating kitchens, the hall, and guest areas. The old courtyard is smaller and houses the family and their retinue – though even here are signs of rebuilding, with large windows on the first and second storeys.

In the outer courtyard stands a pine tree decorated with ribbons and bits of glass that sparkle in the low winter sun.

The seneschal

If characters have come to provide security, Cain or Peter Fleurette will escort them to the seneschal’s chamber, which is on a staircase off the old courtyard. They first reach an outer study, where they are met by the seneschal’s clerk, Bob, and he takes them up to see Geraint.

Geraint is paying a shilling a day for three days’ work. This is twice what skilled guards would normally be paid, but still less than Grindel is rumoured to pay the Hellhounds. What is their specific task? “You will guard her ladyship and obey whatever commands she sees fit to give you.”

If they come as guests then they will be shown to their rooms. Subsequently Bob will call in to see how they’re settling in. Any further connections will depend on their social status and what they ask for. Equals or near-equals of the baron (ie status 4+) could call on him and/or his wife; others will have to work the social contacts as best they can.

People

The lord’s family and attendants include:

  • Clarissa, Lady Grisaille, his wife (age 35, but still beautiful), gracious but troubled
  • Grindel, his son (age 20), a sneering popinjay
  • Hybane Pontifex, his court wizard (looks to be around 40), in silk robes that leave his muscular arms bare; wears an Ouroboros amulet
  • Peter Fleurette, his sergeant at arms (age 28), a bluff but canny soldier
  • Geraint, his seneschal (age 35), brow always furrowed, constantly on the edge of getting flustered yet never quite giving in to panic


Other notable figures are:

  • Slake, Hybane’s apprentice (looks about 40), bald, wears silken robes like his master and wears an identical Ouroboros amulet; carries a silver flute said to be the source of much of his magic
  • Cain and Crawford, a couple of ordinary men-at-arms who can serve as spear carriers if needed
  • Rat, a servant from the scullery, often to be found lurking surprisingly nearby, who will pinch anything he can
  • The Hellhounds: Jubal, Crassus, Adler, McColm, and Barrabas, tough ex-Crusaders in the pay of the lord’s son who should together be nearly but not quite a match for the player-characters.

The hall

Lunch in the hall shortly after arriving would be a good opportunity for the characters to get a look at some of the key nonplayer characters such as Hybane and Slake.

The hall comprises a high table at one end, on a low dais, which seats twelve. The lord’s seat is in the middle at the back, with a door to his private chambers right behind it. The main body of the hall contains three rows of cross-benches seating up to sixty more, and is warmed by two great hearths on either side.

Status is reflected by how far from high table you are placed, or if indeed you get to sit at all.

For most of the time characters would not be armoured, nor carry weapons longer than a poignard. On the night of the feast, characters who have been hired as muscle may be fully armed and armoured, but then they would not be seated in hall to dine, of course.

At some point, not necessarily now, the characters should get to hear talk of the monster Grimnir that’s said to lurk in the marshes to the west. A servant, perhaps: “I never met ‘e meself, like, zur, but me uncle’s cousin’s… friend’s brother’s… priest’s boy, ‘e said ‘e met a bloke from Scardic as did see a shadow once out there at dusk on Dobby’s Walk. Big as a ‘ouse it were. Just ignored ‘e, kep’ on staring at the castle ‘ere, and that bloke, who saw ‘e, turned around an’ count ‘e lucky to get away with ‘e’s life. So that be the troll they call Grimnir, on account of ‘e grim and ‘e near.”

It’s possible the characters might try tracking the monster to its lair in the marshes: a warren of tunnels, twisting back on each other to allow ambushes. Grimnir can wriggle through spaces as small as any man, despite his size. It is likely death to enter the tunnels in pursuit of him.

An audience with her ladyship

Clarissa, Lady Grisaille – oh, all right, the characters are going to end up calling her Lady Clarissa – has a mission for the characters. She either orders them (if guards) or requests it as a favour (if guests).

“There is a certain person who may attend the Midwinter feast. If he does, I wish to serve him a special dish. But Hybane, the lord’s wizard, has the recipe for this dish and may not be willing to share it. Therefore I want you to enter Hybane’s rooms when he’s at dinner tonight and get me the recipe. You will know it because is written on a wooden tablet with silver edges.”

She warns them not to touch anything else and is able to provide them with a charm that will allow them to pass undetected by Hybane’s warding spells. This charm comprises a strand of her hair drawn through one of her tears, wound around the character’s neck, then tied and the knot kissed.

Clarissa doesn’t have any other magic, but she has picked up some lore. For example, she might guess that reversing Hybane’s shrinking spell (see below) involves going backwards through the portals while reciting part of the Lord’s Prayer.

Hybane’s rooms

Hybane lives on a staircase off the new courtyard, adjacent to the kitchens. There are three rooms, which in the order you come to them are:

Reception room: an open fire, chairs, table, narrow windows too small for somebody to climb through. This is where the pontifex entertains guests. There is a portrait of him on one wall trough which he can travel to and from this room.

In a niche in the wall stands a bronze figurine of a two-headed eagle, the first of the magical guardians. If it sees an intruder it will emit a series of piercing screams, and at the same moment Hybane will feel a flutter of wings behind his shoulder. If the characters enter the chamber wearing the baroness’s charm, however, the eagle will not see them.

If the characters sneak in here they will perceive the furniture to be built on a giant scale, as if for somebody twelve feet tall. Looking back at the door, that too is twice the height they remember it being from the other side.

A spiral wooden staircase leads up to the next room.

Bedchamber: a double bed where presumably Hybane and Slake sleep, a clothes chest, bookshelves, a standing desk, wider windows.

The characters may not notice that among the large glass beads of the chandelier hangs a eye which scans the room. If it perceives an intruder, it causes Hybane to be momentarily dazzled in one eye.

This room seems much too big. The bed could sleep a man over twenty feet tall. The bookshelves are three feet apart. There’s no sign of the wooden tablet. At first there seems to be no way up. Then they notice the dust of a footprint on a bookshelf. Another just above it. Directly overhead, there is a trapdoor in the ceiling.

Workroom: a bench, papers, quills, more bookshelves. The characters will almost certainly fail to notice, up in the rafters, a squat clay figurine of a sentry. This sends no warning to Hybane if it spies an intruder, but he is able by magic to compel it to speak and tell him all that it has seen while he was away. Of course, if the characters wear Clarissa’s charm then it will say nothing about them.

This room appears grotesquely out of scale, and the characters should have realized that they have now shrunk to about four inches tall. This effect can be reversed by returning the way they came, but only if they recite the first line of the Lord’s Prayer as they pass through each portal – if they don’t, they’ll stay at their diminished size. That isn’t common knowledge, but Clarissa will suggest it if they seek her advice on how to restore a miniaturized character.

The task, then, is to get up onto the shelf where the tablet with the recipe is, manhandle it into position so they can read it (imagine moving a thick plank of wood about twelve feet by six feet), and copy it. It’s only half a dozen lines, around fifty words, so it doesn’t take long – or wouldn’t, except that a weasel has got in under the eaves and is now eyeing up the shrunken characters as potential prey. The weasel is, however, partly tame (it visits Megan, the old nurse in the dungeon, for scraps of food she saves for it) so it’s possible that the characters can avoid bloodshed.

A fish dinner

The recipe is in Bacchile, so not necessarily comprehensible even if any of the characters can read. If they do read Bacchile, they will see that the recipe is described as “Moongazy Pie to give the eater a pleasing aspect, or to undo a wrought ugliness”. When Clarissa has had a chance to study the recipe she calls the characters back. By this time it’s late evening on 19th Yeol.

“I have most of the ingredients I need to prepare the pie. A special parsnip root, crushed peppers from Khitai, a dried herb from Emphidor. But what I do not have is the main ingredient, a moonfish. These can be caught from a certain pool in the woods, and only by moonlight.”

The woods? She means Jewelspider, of course.

“It’s two leagues to the edge of the woods, and the moon will soon be rising, so you’d better set out at once. Follow the moon and you will come to the pool. It’s said to be guarded by Adolphus, a lunatic. You’ll have to find your own way to deal with him.” She looks out into the night. Clouds are gathering on the western horizon, blotting out the stars. “Don’t delay. Once the moon goes in it will be too late. Oh, and you will need this.” She hands them a small mirror. “The moonfish can only be seen in reflection; when looked at directly they are invisible.”

Hybane’s plan

Hybane is also preparing a dish for the Midwinter feast (which is useful, as it will mean he’s in the kitchen rather than his rooms for some of the time, though the characters will also need to distract Slake). His dish consists of sausages made from unknown meat, smoked and spiced with juniper and bay leaves. Inside one of the sausages is a golden lock, to which Hybane holds the key. Swallowing the lock binds the person who does so to Hybane’s will.

Hybane knows that Grindel is not the baron’s real son, that there was a substitution when the child was newborn, and that the monster Grimnir that occasionally marauds out of the Coronach Marsh is very likely the true son. Like Clarissa, Hybane anticipates that Grimnir will turn up at the feast of misrule and, also like her, he hopes to get Grimnir to eat a special dish – though Hybane’s is for a very different purpose.

The old nurse

If the characters track that weasel, they might see it going into the dungeons. Down there in a small cell with a window giving just a chink of daylight is Megan, the old nurse. She has been imprisoned for almost twenty years, so the guards are not very diligent in keeping visitors away, especially if a bottle or two of beer is on offer.

Megan’s mind wanders and she talks mostly to the weasel, whom she calls Brush. The best way to find out anything is to drop a few hints and then listen to her explain things to the weasel. “They think I’d talk. Talk I never would. Not where I found him, nor what I did with the other. Both born monsters, you could say, only one on the inside and one on the outside. And the parents – well, they’re never going to tell, are they? Just a shadow on the lady’s heart and a weight on my poor soul, that’s all those secrets are now.” If she’s interrupted: “Drown him! No, never. Murder, that’d be, and no one has the right to make you sin, not even the lord. And who’d cast a little mite into the swamp to drown, just a few months old, whatever he looked like?”

Twenty years ago, Grisaille and Clarissa had a son. But Grisaille was under a faerie curse, having failed to keep a promise made long before, and the child was born a monster. He was given to the nurse, Megan, to take into the marsh, but instead of drowning him she hid him in a tree stump. Meanwhile, a baby had been taken from a peasant family to be raised as Grindel, the baron’s heir. Clarissa was aware all along that the real heir survived, and Grisaille realized it too when stories began to be told of the troll in the marshes. By that time he’d had Megan cast into the dungeon for fear that she’d tell someone that Grindel was not his son.

(It’s not necessary to force an encounter with Megan. In our own game she was only encountered when the two characters who sneaked into Hybane’s workshop, finding themselves miniaturized and the wizard’s apprentice returning early, tamed the weasel and rode it to safety. It carried them down to the dungeons where they were mistaken by Megan for faerie folk and told the whole story quite lucidly. But players are smart. They can intuit a lot from just half a clue. You might only need to mention that Grindel doesn’t much resemble either parent for them to guess at there having been a substitution.)

Into the woods

Both the castle and city gates are locked after dark. Getting out isn’t the problem, but getting back in might be if they haven’t arranged things in advance with the sentries. A bribe will help.

The countryside sparkles with frost under a crystal-clear sky filled with stars. Low over the woods to the east hangs a waning gibbous moon. Behind them, across the marshes, a solid bank of cloud slides inexorably up over the western horizon.


On horseback it will take less than an hour to reach the forest’s edge. By now the clouds behind them have spread out to north and south, but the moon remains clear. As they ride under the trees, they occasionally lose sight of the moon, but each time it comes into view again it seems bigger and bigger.

At last the woods thicken and they become for a while leaf-whelmed, enclosed in darkness through which only a soft silver light guides them on, until they emerge in a treeless hollow ablaze with cold light. The moon fills half the night sky here, looking almost near enough to touch the treetops. And in the middle of the hollow lies a pool whose covering of light mist makes it seem suffused with a faint milky luminescence.

As they stand pondering the task Clarissa has set for them, they become aware of a grinning, round-faced man with a shepherd’s crook. This is Adolphus. He is a loon, fiercely protective of his pool but easily distracted by anything wonderful.

(In our own game, two of the characters were shrunk to tiny size as a result of Hybane’s warding spells. With no time to restore them right away, we took them to the pool in a carved box. Overhearing one of the characters talking to the box, Adolphus became entranced by the idea of a “box of wonders” and bargained a dozen fish and a trip to the moon in exchange for it. The only close call was extracting the two diminutive characters from the box before handing it over to him.)

The characters should be wise enough in the ways of faerie not to try taking anything from Jewelspider by force. They can bargain, using trickery too, or magic if they have it. Adolphus is an ordinary mortal who got up to the moon and spent too long there, but his self-appointed guardianship of the pool amuses the faerie folk, who give him their protection.

If threatened, Adolphus dives into the pool. If the characters lean close over the water then, his staff lashes up and cracks their mirror. Yet somehow they must single him out among all the moonfish (he changes shape in the water) and wrest him up out of the pool if they are to have any hope of permission to catch any moonfish. Removing them without permission will incur a curse.

As well as moonfish, Adolphus can offer them the chance to ascend to the moon by means of a silken rope ladder. Anyone who does this has a long climb which somehow ends with them slithering down onto the lunar surface – a landscape of smooth silver strewn with clumps of soft cheese. To sample the cheese now would be a disaster; they would lose all track of time and be stranded here for months, as Adolphus was. But it is possible to collect some cheese as long as they remember to keep an eye on the clouds (IQ/Will roll) and not get greedy.

Even so, the clouds well up more rapidly than expected and any character who climbed to the moon must hurry back. If they are caught on the ladder when the moon goes in, it disappears and the only hope then is to dive into the pool. Some combination of climbing (by a good margin) and swimming rolls can be used to resolve this.

Anyone who eats the cheese becomes merrily bewildered and prone to delusions and fancies for several hours. Think elfin LSD.

Back at the castle

The characters get back to the castle cold and tired. It’s the early hours of the morning. The feast is in just over twelve hours’ time. Assuming nobody is suffering from cheese visions, elf curses, or shrinking spells, their best bet is to get some sleep.

Sunset on the solstice

As the sun fades in a dull red welter across the frozen marshes, the common folk arrive for the feast. The yule tree is festooned with candles and trestles are set out in the new courtyard amid braziers for warmth. Most of the peasants will not in fact dine in hall, but eleven dignitaries of the town (guild masters, clergy, master craftsmen, etc) will sit at high table while the lord and his retinue will in theory serve them.


Few of Grisaille’s landed knights are here for the feast, most of them having duties on their own manors. (In truth, few are eager to attend merely to carry dishes for the common folk, no matter that it’s all in jest.)

The song of drunken singing from the courtyard soon becomes deafening, but there is quiet as “Father Frost” makes his appearance. He is a dishevelled indigent, red of face with broken veins in his nose and rheumy eyes, clutching a bottle which cannot be his first this evening. He wears a ragged peasant smock and rough clogs but with a fine silver foxfur coat. Out of the hush the peasants begin a song about the frost personified. It’s a numinous moment, like the haunting ceilidh scene in I Know Where I’m Going by Powell and Pressburger, but the spell is broken by uproarious laughter as “Father Frost” gives vent to an enormous belch and staggers into the yule tree, almost knocking it over.

And yet, and yet… the characters may notice that a chill hangs around him, and that is not dandruff on his shoulders, even in the heat of the hall, but a sprinkling of snowflakes. The fact is that this woodsman, though old and drunk, is imbued by the ceremony with some of the essence of Jack Frost. He’ll take no part in the drama of the evening, but if anything threatens him he’ll avoid harm with supernatural luck.

Who wants what?

What do the peasants want? 
Fun, and perhaps a little mischief to let off steam too.

What does Hybane want? 
To bind Grimnir to his will by feeding him the sausage with the magic lock in it. He cares little for the squabble between Grisaille and Grindel.

What does Grisaille want? 
To maintain power in the face of instability; to keep Grindel in his place. (Disowning Grindel would be an extreme measure.)

What does Grindel want? 
To be the new lord.

What does Grimnir want? 
To be back in the family fold, acknowledged as Grisaille’s son. Or else vengeance.

What does Grisaille’s wife, Clarissa, want? 
Grimnir installed as rightful heir – for which some shape-shifting concoction will be needed – and ideally Grindel dead or banished.

The main event

As the riotous singing resumes in the courtyard and the guests inside go to take their places, Lord Grisaille heads towards the seat on the end of high table. It seems that, while he’s willing to give up his own chair to “Father Frost”, the baron has no intention of waiting on the peasants. The end of the table is as far as he’s willing to demote himself.

Characters need to make observation rolls. The Hellhounds are coming into the hall via the servants’ entrance behind Grisaile, and they are fully armed. Grindel has his gaze fixed on his father and his expression is not sneering now but blank and dangerous. As he strides towards the same chair Grisaille is about to take, intent on intercepting him, he reaches for his dagger.

This is it. The coup d'état. The characters will have to spot what’s going on and move fast, otherwise Grindel stabs his father in the back and, supported by his Hellhounds, declares himself the new baron.

Whether or not the characters foil the assassination and/or come to blows with the Hellhounds, all that excitement was merely the hors d'oeuvre and now we come to the meat of the meal. The fire in the western wall goes out – of a sudden, clearly magic. Soot falls into the hearth as something heavy clambers down the chimney. A moment later it erupts into the hall as people stand aghast: a huge, misshapen figure stretching up to its full ten feet in height. Its long arms lash out, seizing a man who it lifts into the air and pulls in half. And then the running and the screaming start.

This is Grimnir, the true heir, come for his revenge on the family that cast him out. Pretty much the only ways this can end, apart from everybody fleeing or being dismembered, are for Grimnir to eat Hybane’s dish and become his servant, or to eat his mother’s dish and be transformed into the comely youth he would have been if not for the curse. Or potentially both, perhaps.

When all is concluded, Father Frost, who has sat impassively throughout, lifts his cup and declares a toast: “Peace and goodwill to all men.” Though he might at that stage be addressing an empty hall.

Special abilities

Grimnir is invulnerable to all weapons. Non-magical ones may simply shatter on his hide. Magical ones will be more durable but no less inutile.

Hybane and Slake wear the Ouroboros amulets. These deflect blows back on the attacker; contest of Ouroboros Magic Attack (16) vs Magic Defence (IQ + Magic Resistance) of the attacker. (In our game, one of the characters succeeded in cutting the chain that secured the Ouroboros amulet, making Slake vulnerable to attack. In GURPS terms that’s targeting chinks in armour, ie -10.)

Hybane is sufficiently puissant a mage that he can repel an attack by any one or even two of the player-characters at once. (In our game he reached out to choke a character from several yards away, Darth Vader style, and lifted him and left him pinned against the wall, caused a candle to flare up and badly burn another character, spoke a word that caused the servants to attack the characters with pots and cutlery, then disappeared when the tide of battle turned against him.)

Slake’s flute can levitate physical objects. Characters may find their own weapons ripped out of their hands and turned against them. He can also let out an eardrum-shredding blast (resist on HT -5, with additional penalties for those with acute hearing) but doing so will break any levitation of objects. Unlike his master, Slake cannot teleport away if things go badly.

The Hellhounds are tough and wield very fine blades but no magic.

Clarissa has a herb which, if thrown onto the fire, will calm everybody enough for there to be a lull in the fighting. That’s her opportunity to get Grimnir to take the moongazy pie, assuming he hasn’t already been telekinetically force-fed the mind-controlling sausage. (And there’s a sentence I never expected to write.)

Megan nursed Grimnir for several months before Grisaille ordered him taken out to the marshes, and if she is brought up from the dungeon he will recognize her. Other than Clarissa’s herb, that’s the only way to de-escalate the situation long enough to get him to accept a dish willingly.

*  *  *

This scenario is by Tim Harford, who adds: "Names have been purloined from whatever dimly remembered source. Grimnir is a sorcerer in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. Jubal and the Hellhounds are characters in the Thieves' World series of short stories. A vague recollection of an Italo Calvino short story inspired the journey to the moon."

My gaming group has been in the habit of holding seasonal specials for some time. I began the tradition of setting the Christmas special in Legend with "Silent Night", but I signally failed with that one as I designed a mini-campaign which needed several sessions but we only had six hours or so, forcing me to bring it to an abrupt and unsatisfying conclusion.

After that Tim Harford, who played Tall Tom Tattertail in "Silent Night", took over running the Christmas game and treated us to such fine scenarios as "The Holly King" and "The Dean's Folly" -- and others too, sadly now as lost as wiped episodes of Doctor Who, because I failed to write them up at the time and Tim quite rightly works from only a page or two of notes.

In contrast to my overplanning with "Silent Night", Tim's improv approach allows him to fit the adventure to the time we have. In the case of "The Feast of Misrule", we agreed to begin at 1:30 and end at 8:00, some of us having come a long way and needing to get home, and Tim in fact drew everything to a close with two minutes to spare. And now I've gone and mucked up that sensible approach by extending Tim's 700 words of notes to more like 5000. Good luck, and happy Christmas!



Want an Ouroboros amulet? You can get it from Lasa Fine Jewelry & Luxury Gifts.

The image of the forest in the snow is by celebrated fantasy artist Tyler Edlin.

The photograph of the Christmas tree in St Swithun’s Quad is by Sam Thompson.

Friday, 22 November 2019

Blood Sword redux: The Walls of Spyte


"A work is never completed except by some accident such as weariness, satisfaction, the need to deliver, or death: for, in relation to who or what is making it, it can only be one stage in a series of inner transformations."
That was the author Paul Valéry. His quotation is usually attributed to da Vinci (well, it's always Leonardo, Churchill or Wilde, isn't it?) and given in the snappier paraphrased version that Auden came up with:
"A work of art is never finished; it is only abandoned."
More relevant to The Walls of Spyte is Valéry's other comment on this theme:
"In the eyes of those lovers of perfection, a work is never finished (a word that for them has no meaning) but abandoned. And this abandonment, whether to the flames or to the public, and which is the result of weariness or an obligation to deliver, is a kind of an accident to them, like the breaking off of a reverie that fatigue, irritation, or something similar has made worthless."
All right, enough from les éminences grises. Clearly some works of art are abandoned earlier than others, and The Walls of Spyte is the literary equivalent of a baby left on a church doorstep in midwinter. What went wrong?


If you'll allow me to be highfalutin here, I signed off as Blood Sword's showrunner with book four. Whatever came after that, I was but an onlooker, like RTD watching Moffat episodes of Who. When Oliver Johnson and I originally pitched the series to Hodder, we had intended to work on it equally, but Oliver's job started to take up more of his time, with the result that I wrote books two through four single-handed. Then Oliver thought he'd have time to do book five, and we realized that would mean he'd have ended up contributing a quarter of the total work so we could switch our royalty split from 50/50 to 75/25. Nice and simple.

How often do simple plans gang na agley? Oliver had got about a third of the way in when a family holiday pulled him away from ice-bound horror to sea and sunshine. I was busy on other projects, but I agreed to step in and write the finale -- just forty sections, starting from the point where you meet Karunaz and Zaraqeb. I'd already tied up the storylines I was interested in, so it was just the showdown with the Magi. Oliver enlisted Jamie Thomson to pitch in with a hundred sections or so in the middle. I have no idea what shape the manuscript was in when it went to the publisher, but they clearly didn't have time to fix it, or even to proofread it. You cannot, in fact, get through to the end of that original edition without cheating.


The title is an obvious homage to "In the Walls of Eryx" and the story should echo At the Mountains of Madness, but instead of a Lovecraft homage the book came out as really more of a Ross Rocklynne concept rewritten by Robert Lynn Asprin. (You see, I just can't help griping. But, after all, Taika Waititi had a smash hit by turning the end of the world into a silly comedy, so maybe I'd better just go with the flow here.)

I'd always had this idea of astral forces gathering above an Arctic wasteland, and a few years later I got to do it my way in Heart of Ice -- also destroying the universe at the end, you'll note. The idea of the Five having engineered the Blasting in order to Phoenix themselves up to a level of power where they could challenge God -- that bit will have been me. At the time I was probably thinking more of Odin on the tree than self-reincarnating Marvel characters, but that's a detail.

Talking of the Five Magi, W B Yeats's poem seems like it must be the inspiration for them, but in fact I only came across it years later, when I was writing The Chronicles of the Magi. The real seed for the Magi came from a campaign that Oliver ran at Oxford back in the early '80s after we'd all been enthusing about Riddley Walker and Mad Max 2. (Oh yes, about that...) In the campaign we were all feral mid-teen scavengers of a post-apocalyptic tribe, wandering across a landscape of bomb-wrecked highways and nature blighted with chemical weapons. In the sky at night we saw fleeting coloured satellites for which we all felt a degree of "fix". We didn't know what fix was, but any change in fix (as in, "gain +2 Fix with Plague Star") was to be dreaded. I remember an encounter with a local bogeyman we called Smiler, whose face was eaten away in a ghastly rictus and who dwelt in an old bomb shelter permanently shrouded in toxic gas. Oh, if only more of that grim tone had found its way into The Walls of Spyte.

I'm frequently asked about the connection between Dragon Warriors and Blood Sword. They share the same setting, certainly, but I'm not sure I'd class most of Blood Sword as "canonical" Legend. If DW is Robin of Sherwood, which is a pretty apposite comparison, then Blood Sword is the BBC's 2006 show Robin Hood. Or if DW is The Shield, maybe Blood Sword is The Rockford Files . (Both shows I like, incidentally.) On that axis, The Walls of Spyte was Police Squad! -- sorry, there I go again. Anyway, the new edition of the book dispenses with the more knockabout comedy elements (what we used to call "silly dungeon" tone) so maybe it's time to let that go.

What else? Unlike the other Blood Sword redux posts (which incidentally are reprinted at the back of the new edition of The Walls of Spyte) I don't have a lot to say about the writing because most of it wasn't me. Karunaz and Zaraqeb, mentioned above, were characters in my Tekumel campaign, played by Paul Mason and Gail Baker respectively. Gail had recently dumped Paul rather brutally, so I probably let his character behead hers as a salve for a wounded heart.

Oliver must have got the idea for the giant red bat that bedevils you at the start from the Crimson Bat in RuneQuest. I'm just grateful he forgot about the ducks. I also remember Jamie telling me how he was working the word "aoristic", which I think he'd picked up from Greek grammar at school, into one of the riddles. I'm still not quite sure what it actually means, so if anyone can drop a sentence illustrating the aoristic tense into the comments, please do.

I'm disappointed I never got the Blood Sword characters to Ellesland. Or Ferromaine, come to that. There's no sign of Cynewulf, Montombre, Jewelspider Wood, or those other staples of most Dragon Warriors campaigns. On the plus side, I did get to explore the Ta'ashim lands and faith in these books, and that part of Blood Sword -- that is, everything that happens in the muck and mire of the cities of Outremer and the Middle East -- is definitely canonical Legend.

Oh, about that... "Why do the characters refer to their world as Middle Earth?" I'm sometimes asked. "Why not Legend?" Well, Legend of course is a non-diegetic name for the setting, something I'm guilty of with Fabled Lands too. To most DW characters, their world is "the middle earth", ie between heaven and hell. I knew that Tolkien used it for his world, of course, but I also thought everyone knew that he just got it from Middle English literature. Nowadays people think it's his proprietary brand, so where possible I've switched it in this book to other terms like "the mortal world".

Overall, if I'd known the Blood Sword books would still be read today by thirty- and forty-somethings, I’d have been bolder about dispensing with the orcs, goblins and dungeon trappings and made it more like "real" Legend. Especially for the Judgement Day finale, which was much better served in my opinion by Tim Harford's Redemption campaign, of which I've offered snippets here from time to time.

That said, Oliver and Jamie delivered a top-class instance of a dungeon adventure in this book. If I'd played in a D&D game half that good back in the mid-'70s, I might never have spurned it for Tekumel and Traveller. And in the new edition, the more obtrusive Pythonesque bits are gone, Russ Nicholson's marvellous illustrations are reproduced via crisp high-quality scans, and as a bonus you actually can get all the way through to the end. It's still Doomsday, but at least you won't miss it.