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:
My accompanying email to Fraz:
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
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.
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?
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.