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Friday, 14 October 2016

The unquiet grave

Here's one I did earlier - thirty-two years earlier, as a matter of fact, in the July 1984 issue of White Dwarf. I used to write so much of the magazine in those days that I had to use pseudonyms or the contents page would have looked a bit repetitive. This piece appeared originally under the nom-de-plume 'Phil Holmes'; Phil because I was and am a huge admirer of Professor Barker, and Holmes because of the detective.

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Lost on the barren moors of north of the Hourla Hills after nightfall, you have little hope of surviving to see another dawn. You have trudged through the freezing mud for hours but finally you stumble and sink to your knees, your iron will no longer a match for your weariness. You bow your head and compose yourself to meet your god. Your only regret is that you did not die in battle.

Through the closing haze of darkness you seem to see a light, and dully you turn your head to watch it approach. An old man stands before you holding a lantern aloft. When, in later years, you think back to this moment it seems that you recall vividly the look of quiet strength in his grey eyes, and the sound of his cloak as the gale snaps it around his frail body.

Beckoning you to follow, he turns and walks away. Somehow you find the strength to rise and stagger after him. Holding the bobbing lantern up to guide you, he leads the way to a small cottage where a welcoming light shines from latticed windows. A few more steps would take you to the cottage door, but your fatigue is too much and you pass out. Barely conscious, you sense yourself being lifted up and carried towards the cottage. As in a dream, you abstractly wonder at the strength in the old man’s arms. He takes you inside and lays you on a pallet beside the fire. Your last recollection is of thick fur blankets being drawn up around you.

It is noon before you awaken. At first you remember little, but as fragments and tatters of memory return from the previous night you are amazed to find yourself in a dusty, derelict cottage. There is no sign of your rescuer and there does not seem to have been a fire in the grate in the recent past. Outside, the bleak landscape lies bathed in cold, winter sunshine. You see smoke rising from beyond a wooded hill and head in that direction.

An hour’s walk brings you to the village of Hobvale where you quickly seek out an inn and treat yourself to an ample and warming repast. Then, sitting by the fire with a cup of mulled wine in your hand, you relate the events of the previous night to the innkeeper.

‘An extraordinary tale,’ he says, ‘but one which I have in fact heard once or twice before from other travellers like yourself. Some years ago an old monk called Alaric lived in a hermitage out on the moors. Anyone who came to his door would receive shelter, and he often went out with his lantern when a sudden storm or blizzard might have caught wayfarers unawares.’

‘Why, then, clearly this was he.’ You are on your feet at once. ‘Come man, I am no churl. Tell me where he lives now and I shall go to thank this monk and reward him for his kindness.’

The innkeeper shakes his head and waves you back to your chair. ‘Hah! I cannot think you would care to undertake the journey. He took in a stricken traveller some ten years past and then died himself when he braved the storm to fetch the man a doctor. He is buried up there on the moor.’
For thousands of years people have enjoyed ghost stories. A dip into the folklore and literature of any country will uncover dozens of variations on the theme. Unfortunately this rich vein of imaginative material is all too often reduced to absurdity by the need to frame everything in simple game-terms. How impoverished and inadequate the modern horrors of adventure gaming can seem when compared to the originals from which they were derived (Grendel, Dracula, the Green Knight, the Balrog, et al.)

The problem in part comes from trying to define things exactly, for this can also limit them. It would be very difficult to create anything like the story of Macbeth in a standard adventure, say. Banquo’s ghost would either have to be a genuine Dragon Warriors ghost with a 1d12 Fright Attack, or a figment of Macbeth’s guilt-ridden imagination, which could be established if the PCs have some way of detecting spirits or the undead when the ghost next shows. Storytelling allows ambiguity whereas games enforce the leaden certainty of binary logic.

I am not suggesting that creatures should not be defined at all in game-terms. But there should certainly be a shift away from a rules-and-stats approach which makes it all too easy to roll hosts of uninspired random encounters. There must be a sense of (and fear of ) the unknown when encountering fantastic creatures, particularly ghosts and undead. Player-characters should not think of such things as standard, nor should they ever feel that they or anyone else in the world knows very much about them.

To help deal with the problem, here is a new term for referees to use: revenant. A revenant is anyone who returns from the dead—whether in physical form, as an apparition, or as an ambiguous and undefined combination of the two. There is no one set of stats for all revenants, because they are not all of one nature; some you can fight, some you can banish with magic, but many can only be dealt with by discovering their particular weaknesses.

Alaric’s revenant could be thought of as a sort of ‘psychic residue’. It could not harm a character, nor be harmed. It could not be pigeonholed as a standard Dragon Warriors ghost, because it was not a conscious and reasoning entity, it was a part of this honourable man which did not fade from the world when his body died and his soul passed on. Revenants like this will appear in scenarios as a means of giving the characters clues to past events, assisting them, hindering endangering them or simply to create an eerie effect.

Revenants may be brought into existence when a person dies as a result of gross injustice, or with a task or duty still to complete. This is the nebulous and inconstant magic of the human psyche, there is no ‘Create Revenant’ spell!

If you left a companion to die then his revenant might pursue you with a view to evening up the score. Maybe he can only be laid to rest if you go back, find his body and give it a decent burial. Or maybe you will have to fight the revenant because it will only be satisfied by your death. Possibly the revenant will depart if you can merely fool it into thinking you are dead. Scenarios involving a revenant will thus often revolve around finding out what it wants and then accomplishing this with minimal unpleasantness to yourself!

Revenants are a useful way of keeping powerful PCs on their toes. The characters might be able to defeat ghosts and spectres with their hands tied behind them, but they will just have to rely on their wits when facing a revenant which inconveniently ignores all the usual tricks for dealing with undead.

Any powers that a revenant possesses should be counterbalanced by specific vulnerabilities. These could relate to the way the revenant arose, so if a person died in a fire, his her revenant could manifest itself in a form mutilated by horrible burns, becoming able to utilise flame-related attacks and being driven away with water.

When you’re devising a revenant, start by deciding on its ‘life’ history and how you’re going to bring it into the scenario, and only then work out its stats and powers (if any)—let your imagination take the lead and make the rules run to catch up!

Second, take great care in the way you play a revenant. Supposing you have a revenant which wants a character dead. It might make repeated attacks night after night, but it would not plan its attacks as would a human assassin. Revenants are isolated fragments of a psyche, and they lose their qualities of awe and strangeness if made to act like rational living beings.

Scenario Outlines

The High Priest of Nebr’volent
After discovering the pyramid of a wealthy dignitary of Ancient Kaikuhuru in Opalar, a high priest in times long past, the characters return home with a fortune in tomb treasures. Shortly afterwards, a succession of deaths among the NPCs who accompanied them alerts the player characters to the danger they are in. The next night, one of the PCs is visited in a dream by the high priest’s revenant. In the dream, the character finds himself running, parched and weary, across the desert sands. In the moonlight, he sees an oasis and heads for it. As he cups his hands to drink, however, his relief turns to dread—for reflected in the water he sees a terrible apparition standing behind him. It is the mummified corpse of the ancient, dressed in its priestly finery. It reaches for him with clawlike hands but he cannot move or turn to defend himself. The water in his hands turns to dust and he awakes in a cold sweat. The dream recurs every night, and each morning the character finds he is getting weaker. (In game terms, he is losing a Health Point every four nights.)

Consulting local sages, the player characters are told by the most well-read sorcerers and exorcists that someone must sit with the character while he sleeps and cast Hold Off The Dead the moment that it seems the dream is beginning. This course proves partially effective—it drives back the revenant until the next time the character goes to sleep—but the sorcerers are charging a great deal each time they are called on to cast the spell....

The other PCs probably realise it is their turn once the haunted character is dead, so they do everything possible to keep him alive.

In desperation, and after a gentle hint from the referee by way of local lore, the character goes down to the docks and seeks out a notorious sorcerer who lives there. This fellow consults his books, charts and astrological devices and then explains that the tomb was cursed. He tells the character that he has only one hope (choose the solution which fits best into your campaign):

1. (For long-term campaigns) The characters must gather together the priestly regalia they stole and return it to the tomb. The problems arising from this are that they possibly do not have enough cash to buy back some of the items, or a collector who bought one of the items refuses to part with it. Once they manage to get back all of the items and set off for the tomb, the haunted character loses no more Health Points—but he doesn’t recover the Health Points he’s already lost until all the items are safely back and the tomb sealed.

2. (For episodic campaigns) The sorcerer knows of a way to help the character fight back: he must go to sleep clutching a pile of salt in his left hand and an antique jade shortsword (provided by the sorcerer) tied to his right with a silk cord. When the revenant appears behind him in his dream he is able to throw the salt up into its face and then, with its gaze momentarily averted from the pool, he is freed from his paralysis and able to turn and fight it. This is a straight ‘physical’ battle; no spells can be used. The character and the revenant are closely matched, and neither has armour. The revenant wields a mace of mauve stone, so the character has an advantage in that his weapon can impale – and because of the silk cord he cannot lose his grip on it. If he defeats the revenant, he wakes to find he is back to full health. If he doesn’t defeat it then he never wakes up, and the next PC will have to pay the sorcerer for his services.

A Noble Knight
This is intended as a sub-plot to run alongside whatever main adventure the characters are on at the time. A number of strange events occur over a period of several days—e.g. a golden hawk leading the characters to a companion who has fallen in the hills and broken his leg, a lion which silently approaches when they are lost in the mountains at night and guides them to safety. Mention enough of these that the player-characters have a sense of something significant in the offing, but keep them busy enough with the main adventure that they don’t have time to analyse it all.

Eventually, while traversing a mountain pass, they are ambushed by bandits. Things look bad for a while until the sudden intervention of an armoured knight on horseback saves the day. The knight turns out to be an uncommunicative sort, though he does reveal his name (Helvelas) and seems very pious. He walks with a slight limp. At the next town the characters lose him, but he meets up with them when they continue their trek into the mountains in search of whatever tomb or treasure trove they are after. Helvelas accompanies them when they enter a cavern complex infested with monsters, and several times steps into melee to save a character’s life as the party fights on towards its objective.

Finally, after a pitched battle in the main cavern chamber, the characters look around to find Helvelas gone. But while gathering the treasure, they discover the corpse of a knight in the shadows under a shelf of rock to one side of the cave. Mystics with the party can tell that he died of a wasting infection— probably caught from the monsters when they took him prisoner. His left leg was broken. Although his armour was rusted over the years, the characters can still recognise the heraldic design on the breastplate. A golden eagle on a red sun—Helvelas’s coat of arms. His revenant has helped the adventurers reach his body so that they can administer the proper funeral rites.

Recommended sources
Films: The Fog; The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean; High Plains Drifter; Rashomon; Don Giovanni.
Books: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M R James; Dracula by Bram Stoker; British Folktales and Legends by K Briggs; The Room in the Tower by E F Benson; The Bull and the Spear by Michael Moorcock

Not all of these are strictly concerned with revenants, but they are valuable as inspirational material.This article is also available in Magnum Opus's beautifully produced supplement In From The Cold - but good luck finding a copy of that.


  1. What you say is true about almost all monster. Think about an Orc. I don't know Dragon Warriors stats, but everyone probably knows D&D. One Hit Die. Armor Class 5-8. THAC0 19. Combat fodder.

    Now think about Orcs as shown in The Hobbit and Lords of the Rings trilogies. They were these big, scary demon pig-monsters

  2. Rules should be a springboard for the imagination, not its ceiling; in an encounter with a ghost you should be able to roll a 0 or a 7 on a six sided dice !

  3. John and John -- I agree. Published RPGs usually have to provide stats to get newbie referees started, but I certainly never deploy a generic elf, troll or goblin in my Legend games. Even those terms are merely the way that mortals categorize a very wide range of faerie creatures.

    1. To be fair to yourself, Dragon Warriors straight-out-of-the-book Goblins are far from generic. They're equivalent in ATTACK and DEFENCE to a 1st rank Knight (and I know this without even getting up to look at the book), plus all the fun little cantrips they have... like making things icy, or sending a bat into someone's face so they fall off a horse. Very folkloric and rather nasty!

    2. That was certainly the idea, James, so I'm glad we left you with a bit of a shiver :)

  4. Generally when I run games, I insist on making all the die rolls. The stats are there for my use, but I try to keep the mechanics relatively invisible.

    1. You have to do that for things like Perception rolls. If the character doesn't spot something, the player shouldn't know if that's because he failed a roll or because there was nothing there to spot. But I wouldn't expect players to give up their own rolls for actions like combat, swimming, climbing, etc. It would create too much work for me and I think, deprived of any sense of agency (even though the dice are a spurious representation of same!), they'd wander off and do something else.