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Sunday, 25 July 2010

The Darkness of Morning (sleeve notes)

The title was one of those ideas that bubble up to your consciousness from who-knows-where. I suppose I wanted to capture the sense that not every daybreak floods the world with light like Bellini’s St Francis in Ecstasy. Sometimes day comes as a Pyrrhic victory against the night. Or perhaps I had in mind those dawns that set the high places alight but leave troughs of cool darkness below the hills.

At any rate, “The Darkness of Morning” it was. In story terms the title fitted the mood, because I anticipated players would be getting their first taste of the incomplete and somewhat bitter triumph that's the best you can hope for when you have dealings with faerie creatures in the lands of Legend. In DW, heroism usually comes with a high cost; it’s not Boy’s Own.

How it started was like this. Magnum Opus Press wanted an introductory scenario for their revised Dragon Warriors rulebook, Frazer Payne is one of the best Dragon Warriors GMs I know. I put his name forward and, just to get the ball rolling, sent him a few notes. Over time it became a fully worked-out scenario by Frazer, at some point acquiring the title of “The Darkness Before Dawn”.

The idea of this post is to give you the behind-the-scenes of how the scenario got developed. So you don’t need a spoiler alert at this point, do you? If you haven’t already played the scenario, I recommend scooting off to buy a copy of the book here. You may not survive the scenario (when we played it, the party attacked the White Lady on first encountering her and got wiped out) but at least you’ll know what Frazer and I are talking about here.

Okay, so my original and very rough notes were as follows:

Say the players meet for the first time in a village in the early morning after a heavy storm. They all got caught out in the rain and are cold, tired, wet and hungry as they arrive at the village.

The inn has only one guest room, so there's immediately a bit of possible jockeying for status as they decide who will get that room with its nice soft bed while everybody else has to put up with a pallet in the common room - normally all right, but this is daybreak now so they'll be trying to kip with farmers in and out all morning.

To top it off, there's a big commotion in the village square. It seems the young lord of the manor, call him Sir Olvar, went off last night and hasn't come back. The steward Cethric comes to tell everyone Sir Olvar’s cousin Maxim le Cloche is in charge. There are grumblings at that, as many peasants are loyal to Sir Olvar's young bride Lady Angela, but what can they do? Lady Angela is currently in the throes of childbirth, so nobody can get to see her.

If the players ask, they are told that a ghost house is said to haunt the local woods. Each time it appeared in the past is when somebody in the village is giving birth, and the child has then been stillborn. The legend is that the mistress of the house, a "white lady" known locally as Queen Fhionn, eternally mourns her own lost child and so steals the lives of unborn babies. Last night in the storm, the lights of the white house appeared between the lashing branches of the trees. As Lady Angela had gone into labor that afternoon, Sir Olvar rode out to seek the house and demand of Queen Fhionn that she spare his child.

The point of all that btw is that most novice groups will just cut straight to the adventure. But there's enough set-up there (the snake-like steward, drunken wastrel cousin, pure and plucky young wife, doughty peasants, etc) that they could improv a bit if they want to, and that way cotton on to the way scenarios are really planned - ie hardly at all.

Anyway, most players will head off to the woods and you can make much of the dank, dripping undergrowth after last night's storm. This is the run-on-rails bit that Magnum Opus are looking for in the introductory adventure, as I envisage a series of encounter areas (say a clearing, a cave, a hollow oak, or whatever) where you can put fights and/or tests for the players to get a feel for their characters' abilities.

The Hollow Oak

The players find a clearing. The oak has a hole in the side which has a curtain of ferns over it. The curtain pulls back revealing a sort of puppet booth. Puppets corresponding to the players start to enact a story, beginning with a comedy version of their attempt to get to sleep at the inn. This could especially poke fun at whoever got the private room. Anyone watching for more than half a minute has to save or be rooted to the spot – they then take damage as the play turns nasty and their puppet self starts to be injured.

The puppeteer (hidden from view inside the tree) is a red-headed goblin called Erkiss. If a player manages to get into the tree, Erkiss will flee up inside the trunk and run off in the form of a squirrel.

Eventually they arrive at the white house. Around the back of the house is a forlorn, overgrown garden, gloomy because of the low-hanging branches of trees and the fact that it lies north of the house, so never sees daylight. In the garden are row upon row of infant graves with sad little headstones. These are the children whose lives have been taken by “Queen” Fhionn over the years.

They are met at the door by Queen Fhionn’s manservant. They may recognize him as the goblin, Erkiss. (It shouldn’t be obvious – just give them the hints and see if any players cotton on!) In his servant’s costume, Erkiss is not obviously a goblin – he just looks like a wizened young-old man. Mention his ginger eyebrows and maybe he gives a wink that a player might have seen if he climbed up to the treetop in time to see Erkiss transform into a squirrel. Recognizing Erkiss gives the character who first says so a bonus: his next successful blow will automatically bypass armour and strike for double damage.

In the parlor is a small fire that is dwarfed by the huge stone hearth. The coals creak and shift sullenly as if on the verge of going out. The fire does little to dispel the dank chill that pervades the house. It is impossible to imagine ever being warm or comfortable here, and after their trek through the dripping boughs of the wood, the players feel chilled to the marrow of their bones. In front of the fire stands a big, black-canopied cradle awaiting a newborn child. It’s empty at the moment. The black drapes make it seem more like a funeral pyre than a cradle.

Now at last they will have to face Queen Fhionn. She has ensorcelled Sir Olvar who is now her slave.

Here again there's the opportunity for bargaining or guile, but most beginner groups will presumably just lay into her. It'd be a tough fight but maybe things they picked up in the woods will give protection from her power. After they defeat her and leave, if anyone looks back the white house has vanished, and the little infant graves, now exposed to daylight for the first time, have sprouted clumps of flowers.

Then they've got the job of taking Sir Olvar home. He's still dazed by her magic. Maybe they found a pool earlier that reflected one's true nature or something, and if they get the smart idea to take him back that way and show him the pool, he'll recover. Otherwise it's a bittersweet kind of victory, as they return Sir Olvar to his young wife (whose unborn child now seems safe) but he remains addle-witted and therefore the drunkard Maxim le Cloche is still guardian of the manor (though he seems to be under the dominance of the steward). Maybe the players take up Lady Angela's cause, vowing to visit Sir Olvar's liege (Baron Aldred) to ask for help.

The adventure illustrates the key things the introductory scenario will need, which are:

  • Very structured adventure with bits of flavor text to guide the novice GM
  • Opportunity for players to flex their muscles in simple self-contained encounters as they learn the rules
  • A little bit of optional character- and intrigue-based stuff that they can take or leave
  • A lead-in to the further adventures in Baron Aldred's fief
My accompanying email to Fraz:

I think that an introductory scenario should show players what they cannot do as much as what they can. If I were running the scenario, I'd be inclined to make Queen Fhionn impossible for any but the greatest heroes to beat in a straight fight, and novice players would have to outwit her - eg by tricking Erkiss into shapeshifting into a baby and lying in the cradle, or simply putting one of the puppets into the cradle, so that while crooning over her stolen "child" she wouldn't notice the players leading Sir Olvar away.

Realistically, though, I suppose you’ll have to include the possibility of a big fight at the finale. You could say something like, "Normally, beginning characters would have no hope of overcoming a creature as ancient and powerful as this White Lady. Armed with the items they won from their various challenges in the woods, they may be able to defeat her temporarily in a fight. Alternatively, they might be able to outwit her, perhaps substituting a puppet for the child she wants so that she's distracted and allows them to leave with Sir Olvar."

The challenges in the woods are at least in keeping with the tradition of gaining power over a supernatural creature - no matter how powerful - by moral tests and/or cleverness.

Fraz replied:

I hope to enhance the Arthurian 'blighted land' flavor at the front end.

Fhionn = “white cow, she of white cattle”. This made me wonder if the creature should not appear as a grossly fat female (making the players wonder what her diet is!) rather than the fey lady of the lake I had first imagined. In this case, I could allude to her being a kind of twisted avatar of the primitive Earth goddess, the aspect which carries souls back into the earth.

This made me think that the white house might be more primitive, from the outside. I imagine a chalk embankment in a wooded hillside with windows for eyes, surrounded by burning brands which roar up, lighting the mists as the party approach.

Do you like this rather Blair Witch conception, or am I barking up the wrong tree?

I replied:

Well, I would say that the "fey lady" appearance is more in keeping with Legend generally, at the outset anyway - ie kind of saying to the players: beware, in this world things are rarely what they seem. I took it from the Irish "Bean Fhionn" which means literally "White Lady" (cf Bean Sidhe = ghost lady). The grossly fat image - I dunno, that does seem more of a D&D-ish monster idea to me.

But perhaps there's a compromise: she appears to them as the gentle, fey, beautiful but of course heartless lady at first, but if they fight her she gradually changes as her anger grows, becoming the fat, distended hag you're describing. That's in keeping with the way Celtic heroes and villains transform in combat (think Slaine) so imo fits the Legend setting more.

The backstory rationale would be that she was historically a real woman (probably a sorceress) who lost her child by miscarriage. Her grief caused her to do away with herself, and the distraught ghost then attracted the mythago/residue of an ancient but much degraded Earth Mother spirit, as you say, which merged with her to create the creature folk now refer to as Queen Fhionn. I'm thinking of the way that Herne was both a historical figure (Henry VIII's gameskeeper, who hanged himself) and also a carry-over of the Horned God of Celtic times.

I like your conception of the look of the house, most certainly.


My dodgy old mythology book gave me Bo Fhionn, and starts going on about cattle. I like that merging very much. The encounters in the forest could reveal the tragedy of her story, as well as hint at the presence of this older wood-spirit, perhaps by alluding to ancient 'babes in the wood' fireside tales.


I realize the way I worded it before made it sound a bit like I was damning with faint praise, whereas in fact I think the transformation to gross, ugly hag is a huge enhancement. In that form, the encounter will memorably introduce players to the idea that the faerie creatures of Legend should be feared - much better than just beating up on a pretty lady in a white dress :-)

And I like that the concept was so serendipitous - a sort of misreading of Bo Fhionn (white cow) giving us a really evocatively nasty encounter. Excellent! Great idea to draw in a local babes-in-the-wood myth too. That's nice and creepy. If it was a movie, it should be Pan's Labyrinth.

Postscript: I pre-loaded this post months ago, as I do most of them, but only the other day got some news about Magnum Opus's publishing plans for a new Dragon Warriors book collecting old scenarios from White Dwarf. These adventures were written over a quarter century ago by me, Oliver Johnson and Mike Polling for the unsung editor of WD at that time, none other than Jamie Thomson. Most of the scenarios were originally designed for RuneQuest and/or Dungeons & Dragons, but they've all been adapted to Legend and the DW rules by the brilliant and madly prolific Ian Sturrock. The book is titled In From The Cold (why? why not?) but there have been conflicting rumours about publication date and format, so I recommend you go over to the Magnum Opus website for the latest info. The reissued DW books are splendid, a far cry from the cheap but well-loved paperbacks of yore, and you can buy these deluxe editions here. An asset to any role-playing collection.


  1. I agree that "The Darkness Before Dawn" is a very imaginative scenario with lots of hints to aid the newbie GM. I wish all RPG adventures came like that.

    Alas, it is also an exercise in rairoading, with very little room for error and pratically impossible to resolve by personal initiative and bravery. Better follow the breadcrums and the yellow brick road if you wish to keep your character...good luck trying to defeat a 7th Rank foe with insta-kill powers with your 1st Rank, off-their-diapers, characters.

    This adventure is more worthy of Call of Cthulhu than a FRPG.

    The cherry on top is that even if the PCs survive and defeat the White Lady, they will have no frickin' idea What the Hell was Going On(tm) because the adventure provides no outlet to pass in on to the party.

    Why bother with all the backstory, even involving a demon prince, when the PCs (and thus the players) will never know about it?

    Dragon Warriors seems like a great game, one of the best FRPGs of its generation; but that is only when the authors restrain from shoving their views on faerie & Co. down everyone else's throats. I will take Elf and Dwarf PCs any day of the week, thank you very much.

    And when I run DW the players are not assured "incomplete and somewhat bitter triumph" as the best case scenario in their dealings with faerie creatures. They will achieve, or fail to achieve, complete and sweet victory on their own merits; without the invisible hand of the "Oh, I can't be a professional and lucrative fantasy/sf author so I will use RPGs to vent the frustration of my deficient creativity as the next best thing" GM pushing and pegging them into neat little holes on the tapestry of his "narrative".

    If I get to run "Darkness Before Dawn" I will have to modify it very extensively; because the people I tend to game are intelligent, independent, opinionated, have better things to do with their time than being led around the nose and near-zero tolerance for pre-planned, inexorable adventure events.


  2. Dear Vargr, its an INTRODUCTORY SCENARIO of course its on rails.

    Why include backstory? It gives history, it roots events in the setting, it gives the GM ideas for tying future adventures to etc. etc.

    Why would PCs find out the answer to every question when they come in at the end of a story?
    Would Barrow robbers know the reason the old draugr within is afraid of his reflection is because he killed his twin brother and can hear him screaming at him whenever he beholds his own contenance. Or do they simply need to know that the dead thing recoiled from a polished shoulder guard?
    Does the GM need to know this? Yes, it allows him to guide the dead jarl, to know its motivations and determine what actions it will take.

    Do the PCs in Dakness know why the sword drove the White Lady away? No. Will they want to know? Yes! Well at least I would. So they describe the sigil to an old hermit wise in the ancient ways, he identifies the markings as having significance in regards to the Wolf who devours the World. They investigate further, they unearth the name Fengris. Their questions rouse interested ears.......adventure hooks aplenty.

    Though I will certainly back you up on being opinionated.:D

  3. Blimey, well that one threw the cat among the tletlakha, all right! (Empire of the Petal Throne fans will know what that means.)

    Btw on the whole, we ask for comments to not be left anonymously, because the blogs where they are seem to get filled up with rather intemperate remarks. Robust debate, by all means, but please sign your real names to them.

  4. Ah "railroading", the gripe of players and GMs the world over. Funny story...adventures don't railroad...GMs do. If the GM can handle the players "doing their thing" and getting back on track without using a hammer then there's no issue. As a younger player I've seen GMs dropping "plot hammers" to force players a particular a GM I've never resorted to that kind of least not since the old hormones kicked in :P

    @ Vargr, your comments sound very impassioned to me. You mention considering Dragon Warriors to be a great game. I'd be interesting in hearing what is it you like about the game.

  5. Hi Kieran - funny thing is, Frazer isn't a railroading GM at all. He and I both take the view that it's the players' narrative and they should call the shots.

    Like most published adventures, Darkness has to map out one possible course of events and, seeing as it's an introductory adventure, as written it's very linear. But we all know that real games don't unfold like written scenarios. Personally I write scenarios *after* playing the game, not before!

    Sometimes players' wilfulness will "spoil" the GM's story. Well, boo hoo. If I want to be told a story, I'll open a book. If I want to tell a story, I'll write a book. I don't believe it's the GM's place to enforce a story - you get that in bad videogames too: Frustrated Author Syndrome.

    However, the GM does control the moral tapestry of the world. For example, in D&D if your quest is to save the world then you probably will save it and be acclaimed as heroes. In DW, if you're sent to save the world then you're like a GI being sent to win the war in Vietnam.

    (For the avoidance of doubt, I'm talking about my version of DW here. In the version with Scottish dwarf PCs, maybe the world gets saved on a weekly basis :)

  6. Yup, I'd agree with you totally. The GM should inspire, provide interesting situations for the PCs to interact with, sometimes provide a kick to get the story moving when needed, but overall the game should flow from and focus on the players themselves.

    For my own games I tend to have a rough idea of the "main bad guy" and his/her plot. After that everything else usually consists of a half page of bullet points written a few mins before a session with ideas for little set-pieces or interesting NPCs. Some of these might be fun for the players to interact with, others might help further the plot, others might be there because they further something one of the players wants to do.

    In a published adventure that isn't a dungeon crawl I expect to see a timeline/plot and a series of encounters/areas that may or may not run linerly. I think "Darkness" does this pretty well players certainly enjoyed it :)

  7. We got wiped out when we played Darkness, but actually I don't think the blame for that can be entirely laid at Fraz's door. In his draft version, when the party first encounter the White Lady in the woods, she sends a bunch of hellhounds to fend them off while she continues on her way. In the published version, the hellhounds got cut out (I think for reasons of space) which means there's nothing to stop you wading in against her at that point. Which is what we did, and everybody got to go home early that evening.

    Personally I feel that the world of Legend, with its distinctive low-magic flavour and its doominess, is what holds up today. The rules are 25 years old and they're showing their age. As am I :)

  8. I love Legend's's like an old friend. :)

  9. "Personally I feel that the world of Legend, with its distinctive low-magic flavour and its doominess, is what holds up today. The rules are 25 years old and they're showing their age. As am I :) "

    Totally agree and that why this comment

    "but that is only when the authors restrain from shoving their views on faerie & Co. down everyone else's throats. I will take Elf and Dwarf PCs any day of the week"

    confuses me. The distinctive way that the fairy world is treated in Legend is one of its biggest draws as a setting. If you want to play in a generic fantasy setting go right ahead but I don't know why you would choose DW over a multitude of other old school or rules light systems. I also don't know why you would buy published scenarios when you know that is the way such items are treated in the setting.

    On a different I've been reading though my WD collection and am looking forward to seeing what In From the Cold does with the old scenarios.

    In Search of a Fool in WD 31 and A Ballad of Times Past looks like they would be a good fit for DW.

    Are major rewrites planned or is it just stat changes and some minor tweaks to make the scenarios "fit"?

  10. Hey Vargr here, again.

    Disclaimer: I don't post anonymously, but I am having problems with my web-browser and cannot login to my blogspot account for some reason. I did sign the post with my net-tag. I post on Mongoose's Flaming Cobra forum and on the DW Mailing List. I also participate on MGT and forums.

    Now that that is out of the way, let us continue.

    For Anonymous:

    I have seen tons of INTRODUCTORY SCENARIOS which are not on rails, that is no excuse.

    And yes, I am opinionated; we should all be. :)

    Dave Morris:

    As a former EPT GM I do know what you meant. :)

    I am confused about your statements. On the Ordo Draconis magazine you wrote and article decrying shoe-horning faerie creatures with rules as a necessary evil, best avoided; on this post you continue along the same line of thought.

    But you have Scot Dwarf PCs? And world-saving campaigns?

    For Kirean T:

    What I like about Dragon warriors:

    - Simpple, elegant, intuitive system
    - No unified mechanics
    - A level system for characters, but one that does not extend from 1-infitiny
    - Low magic
    - No clerics
    - Bestiary based on creatures from myth
    - Ultra-fast character creation with random method
    - Medievalism with dashes of late-medieval and celtic anachronistic elements
    - Pre-made equipment lists for 1st Rank characters (thank God!)
    - Setting based on real-world, allowing use of IRL cultural and historical knowledge.
    - Social classes, PC literacy/illeteracy
    - Grim'n'gritty, perilous world of dark adventure-esque
    - Interesting and different magic-using classes
    - Ready-made adventure campaigns rather than stacks of dry sourcebooks

    That's about it.


  11. Hi Rudd, the scenarios have had a pretty comprehensive overhaul from what I've seen - though that isn't much, admittedly. Also, there's a thorough reworking of my old Dealing with Demons articles for RuneQuest that effectively makes demonologists a new DW character profession. I'd buy it even if I wasn't getting a free copy :)

    In Search of a Fool - I agree, perfect for Legend, but it was before my time (not often I get to say that) and I have no idea now how to track Albie Fiore down and get his permission.

    And I'm still hopeful of getting Robert Dale's superb Brymstone campaign either released as one of the Magnum Opus titles or at least up here on the blog. A version of Brymstone appeared in the very short-lived Red Giant magazine. (Yes, they really did call it that. Jamie and I were offered the editorial reins but couldn't accept such a dumb title.)

  12. Hi Vargr, actually my comment about anonymous posting wasn't aimed at you because you signed it. I know Blogger can be irksome, so I'm just asking people to sign their name at the bottom if they can't log on to comment.

    No, I really *don't* have dwarf PCs (Scottish or otherwise) and I don't run save-the-world scenarios!

    As you are familiar with EPT, I must apologize for the alarming mental image of the cat among the tletlakha. No cats were really hurt in the writing of this blog :)

  13. @ Vargr

    Really enjoyed reading your list of likes, some of them I really love but took for granted, such as the pre-done equipment lists.

  14. Dave, happy to know no Tiuni have been harmed in writing the blog. I love those critters. :)

    Kieran T, here's a few more likes I remembered:

    - Task resolution system that makes away with dice rolls when Stat >= Difficulty (this is a bloody struck of genius!)

    - No skills (as in Call of Cthulhu, WoD, etc)

    - Small spell lists, but full access to a new one on each rank.

    - The optional rules (Fate Points, etc)

    - Pre-made lists of NPCs for each rank.

    - Table for magical item and money determination for those NPCs


  15. Sorry to be the bearer of sad news - Albie Fiore is no longer with us (since 2009) - if you wanted to track-down his heirs with regards republishing some of his work, I'm sure someone at the Guardian (where he wrote crosswords) could help.

  16. That's really sad news. Albie was a gentleman and a very original thinker. It was talking to him way back in the early White Dwarf days that encouraged me to design scenarios with a rich backstory.

  17. Sad news about Albie Fiore - loved his artwork - I'm pretty sure he did the original Dire Corby for Fiend Folio!

    Dave, do you know how many issues of Red Giant (a very difficult magazine to track down!) were released? I've got the first two, and Robert Dale's Brymstone articles are fantastic. If these could be worked into a DW City book, even if only as a PDF release, that would be brilliant.



  18. Hi Andy, I think those two issues are the lot. I have the whole of Robert's Brymstone campaign, including maps, with stats for both Dragon Warriors and RuneQuest. Maybe the best way to release it would simply be on the web, though, as I gather that not even PDF roleplaying supplements make enough money to be worth doing these days :(

  19. Is that material in digital form Dave? I'm pretty sure us mob at the Dragon Warriors Google Group could get it knocked into shape once we've finished up the current projects.


  20. Hi Bulya, about 80% of it is in digital form. I could scan the rest. The first step would need to be getting Robert Dale's permission to use it, of course.

    It's a perfect low(ish) level campaign based around an ancient creature that foments discord between a feudal lord and the guilds and citizens of the city adjoining his lands. Or is it a campaign about growing social discord that spawns/frees a mischievous faerie embodiment of same? It's like Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt", where Uncle Charlie is the catalyst for what happens but you could also see him almost as an expression of Charlie's id called into being by her frustration.

  21. Hi Dave

    It would be great if it could be released with dual stats as well. Big Legend fan but prefer RQ/BRP system.


  22. Hi Rudd, I prefer RQ myself but ironically I suspect the DW version is the only one that survives. Well, I'll ask Robert if he minds it being used and if he's okay with it I'll put everything I have up here on the blog.