This year we have a real treat. My gaming group likes to get together for a pre-Christmas special, and what we like best of all at that time of year is to sit down for one of Tim Harford's brilliant blends of solstitial magic, Vancean charm, gruelling fights, and nail-biting fear. In past specials we've faced a vampiric tree at White Bay (geddit?) and an ancient threat that sailed the currents of the ley lines. Last year's game, "The Holly King", was perhaps the best of the lot, and Tim has kindly given permission for it to be posted here.
I'll just add that Tim's own notes for the scenario consisted of two maps and about two hundred words on a sheet of A4. (You get better games that way, as discussed here by AsenRG and others.) I've captured it below as best I can, but really you had to be there -- or you have to play your own version. Spoilers from here on in, so don't read on unless you'll be running it.
Tim's own description of the adventure: "The idea behind the game is that the Holly King is summoned to Ellesland by the singing of the children on Sunrise Peak. The Magi plan to substitute mechanical changelings for the children and to incarnate themselves instead, perverting the ritual so that it summons them, not the Holly King."
The Holly King
The characters are mercenaries being sent to the village of Sunrise Point at the request of its lord, Sir Haskel. Alternatively they could be coming to stay with friends for Christmas.
They are approaching up the coastal road on the afternoon of December 22. Their route takes them past Cyprian Abbey, which stands on an islet accessed by rowing boat. The monks will offer lunch – wholesome, but not substantial, comprising fish with herbs and laverbread. They can also tell the characters something about the area.
Sunrise Point is the easternmost point of Ellesland. The village here has a population of about a hundred. The lord is Sir Haskel de l'Aube. His wife is Lady Salme (more accurately she is Salme, the Lady de l'Aube) and his son, aged 9, is Herbert. Sir Haskel has six men at arms, and in an emergency can also call on the able-bodied men of the village. The local priest is Father Guent.
The hill that rises behind the town, Sunrise Peak, is the first place to see the dawn. The legend is that on Christmas Day the Holly King and his sidekick, Black Peter, are summoned to Ellesland by the singing of the town’s children on Sunrise Peak. The tradition is that children go up on their own, without adults, and return bearing gifts from the Holly King.
ARRIVING AT THE HALL (DECEMBER 22)
Arriving at the hall, the characters find there is already something brewing. A Krarthian warship has been seen off the coast. This tallies with reports that Lord Haskel has previously received (either by magical or mundane means; you decide) of an impending attack – his reason for engaging the characters, if they are mercenaries.
That evening a lookout rushes in to say that a warship is sailing towards the northern beach, a few hundred yards from the village.
The ship bears the standard of Blue Moon (Magus Tor). From it comes a raiding party of just thirteen warriors – which is a puzzle, as the ship is large enough to carry far more.
The purpose of these warriors is simply to provide a diversion while the four Mordant Knights disembark under cover of an illusion. An extremely attentive character (ie not engaged in a melee on the beach; Perception -7) might notice splashing in the water, but otherwise the illusion conceals the Mordant Knights perfectly.
The raiding party will pull back to the ship if hard pressed, if necessary with an illusion of a creature of sand to cover their retreat. However, once the Mordant Knights are away the Knight of Illusions will no longer be on hand to cast that. Instead the illusion of the sand creature must be provided by an ordinary Krarthian sorcerer who now appears on deck. If he is picked off by arrows, the raiding party may well have little choice but to stand their ground, as there wouldn’t be time to get aboard and get out to sea without the illusion to cover them.
If the ship is captured, there are clear signs of several large animals having been in the hold: claw marks, the dent of hooves in the planking, feed pails (some with oats, some with raw meat), smears of excrement, etc.
If the characters specifically look around for tracks, they may (Tracking or Perception-5, with modifiers for poor light) pick up something leading up the sandy path at the north end of the beach. Hoof prints, but also the marks of a large bear and the deep ruts left by a heavy cart.
These are the tracks of the Mordant Knights’ steeds and also of the Punch and Judy cart in which the kidnapped children will be spirited away during tomorrow’s festivities.
THE FAIR (DECEMBER 23)
The next day there is feasting in the hall for the free men of the village. This is from midday on December 23. The characters are invited too. Sir Haskel tells them the legend of the Holly King, while Father Guent protests that the festival should not celebrate pagan traditions but rather recall the Saviour’s birth.
Meanwhile in the streets a fair is in full swing. Food and ale are taken outside for the rest of the villagers. There is juggling, acrobats, games, and a Punch and Judy show for the children. Lord Haskel’s son chafes at being unable to see the show because his formal duties require him to stay at the feast in the hall.
Some of the children could have previously served at the tables in the hall before going off to the Punch and Judy show. That way the characters could have met one or two of them in order to make later events more personal.
Unknown to the characters, the children of the village (about fifteen children in all, between the ages of three and twelve) are replaced during the Punch and Judy show with mechanical changelings. The punchman rounds up the real children and puts them in his cart (the same one that left tracks off the beach) while the changelings return home, indistinguishable from the real children even by their parents.
The punchman (actually the Knight of Illusions in disguise) will take the real children to the abandoned watch tower a little way to the north. The plan is that the ceremony on Christmas morning will be performed by the mechanical changelings, who will thereby not summon the Holly King but instead the True Magi of Krarth, who will be able to incarnate on Sunrise Peak.
To complete the plan, the Knight of Illusions must also get Herbert, the lord’s son. He will attempt to do that during the night when everybody is asleep.
A mercenary platoon of thirty soldiers led by Captain Hland arrive at the village in the middle of the afternoon. If the characters are mercenaries then they belong to the same company. If not, these are the mercenaries Lord Haskel has hired.
The night after the fair
The characters should not have too much trouble dealing with the raiding party and can return to the hall to sleep.
During the night, soft music drifts across the village like wind chimes. Roll Hearing -5 for an adult to notice this, or -10 to be woken by it if already asleep. A character who wakes will see Herbert, the lord’s son, sleepwalking to the door. If they let him out of sight for more than a moment, he’ll be switched for a mechanical changeling.
To prevent the switch they really need to keep Herbert in the hall. If they follow him through the streets they’re going to lose him in the darkness. He only needs to drop out of sight for a moment behind a dune on the outskirts of the village and then they’ll see him walking back towards them – now a changeling, that is, while the real Herbert is bundled into the cart with the other children.
The real children are connected to the mechanical changelings. Each changeling has eyes made from the tears of the children. A changeling cannot be killed without killing the child, as any harm that comes to the changeling will also affect the original. So they need to be deactivated. The skin can be sliced off (there is no blood, and it tears like parchment) and there is a pendulum where the heart should be. If that is stilled, the link is broken and the changeling deactivates.
Detecting a changeling is not easy. Close scrutiny, if the character has any reason to be suspicious of a changeling for instance, allows a Perception-5 check to notice small gears whirring at the back of the throat.
A further complication is that when one of the changelings is detected, the others will know and immediately scatter to hide on the downs or up on the hillside. Only one of them is needed for the ceremony on Christmas morning.
The watch tower
The children are taken to an old watchtower on the downs a few miles north of the village. They are guarded there by twelve Krarthian soldiers and the Mordant Knights.
The tower has three floors plus the roof. An alarm spell has been placed around it which characters may notice (Perception roll) in the form of an intricate cobweb threaded between the scrub. Crossing that boundary alerts the Mordant Knights.
The characters may have already found the watch tower and realized that it has been occupied by invading troops. Failing that, they will need to do some detective work: spot the switch, figure out the threat, track the real children, perhaps ask for assistance from the beachcomber.
Tamar is a hermit who lives in a driftwood shack near Barrel Cove, a mile or two south of the village. Like most loners she is a little touched. She scours the beach constantly despite the meager pickings, and one local legend is that she is a selkie who lost her seal skin and now cannot return to the water until she finds it.
She can offer the characters a music box she claims to have found washed up on the beach. They will need to deal with her diplomatically to get that. The music box summons the mechanical changelings, so that even if they’ve gone into hiding around the countryside the characters have a chance of rounding them up.
The second assault
Towards evening three more Krarthian ships attack, bearing standards that are respectively red (Red Death), pale green (Gift Star) and yellow and besmirched with foulness (Plague Star). The aim of this wave is to land about a hundred Krarthian soldiers, allowing the countryside to be locked down so that the ceremony can continue unopposed.
One of the ships makes for the northern beach, the other two for Barrel Cove. Each carries a complement of thirty soldiers. The maximum force Lord Haskel’s side can muster is thirty-eight (Hland Haskel and their men) plus the player-characters and about ten villagers armed with axes, cudgels or pitchforks. So it should be a tough fight, assuming they try to oppose the landings at all.
If any prisoners are taken, and if the characters are still unaware of the Mordant Knights at this stage, they could find out now by using Interrogation or Intimidate.
The Mordant Knights seek to block the way to Sunrise Peak, so will not take part in the landings on the beach.
The Mordant Knights
The Knight of Illusions (Blue Moon) rides a donkey and has the power to confuse opponents by altering the way they see things. Shoot an arrow at the knight, and it might turn out you shot yourself or a friend instead. Is that your sword in your hand or is it a poisonous snake? And so on.
The Knight of Carnage (Red Death) rides a polar bear (yes really) and wields a sword that causes profuse bleeding. Any untreated wound he inflicts bleeds at a rate equal to its original damage every minute until staunched using First Aid.
The Knight of Sickness (Plague Star) rides a diseased horse whose ribs show through rotted, maggot-infested skin. His sword kills if it touches flesh.
The Knight of the Wheel (Gift Star) rides a unicorn. His is the power of strange fortune. Rolling to hit him you might use four dice instead of three, but then you might get to use two dice to parry. The effect changes continually, as often detrimental to the player-characters as not.
The Krarthian plan requires only a single changeling to reach the peak at sunrise on Christmas morning. Even if the characters rescue the other children, it should be possible for the Mordant Knights to ride off with at least one. (Ideally that should be either Herbert or one of the children who served them at the feast.)
The Mordant Knights’ goal will be to block the route up to Sunrise Peak so that none of the real children can get there in time for the dawn. As long as a single changeling is there to perform the song, the Magi will incorporate again on the mortal world and then you’ve got a pretty apocalyptic campaign ahead.
If changelings and real children both turn up at the peak, it is the real children whose singing takes precedence.
No adults are allowed at the sunrise ceremony, and if they are there then it won’t work. Normally parents take their children up to within half a mile of the peak and then the older children lead the rest.
Assuming that the characters are successful in preventing the Krarthian plan (and let’s hope so for the sake of Christmas) the children will come back down the mountain carrying gifts, including spiced honey cakes that will heal any character still suffering from the powers of the Mordant Knights.
Lines from our game
“We've got twenty-four hours to turn these children into soldiers.” (Luckily we didn’t have to!)
“Say it ain’t so, Joe.” (When one of the characters had tried telling the others, ‘The Holly King isn’t real. He’s just somebody’s dad dressed up.’)
I said afterwards: “The Iron Men got to save Christmas and there were so many brilliant touches that I can't list them all. Just a few: the cobweb perimeter defence spell, the way the Ring of Far-Seeing affected Cracknut when he used it, the clockwork mechanisms inside the fake children, the extremely Grand Guignol version of Punch & Judy from Krarth, the strange powers of the Mordant Knights, and the truly magical moment when the children ran back down the hill with presents from the Holly King, made all the more numinous from Cal's point of view as I was lying on my back on the point of death, gazing up into the sky as the sun rose and the kids came down the hillside. I can just see that scene in the movie. I'm in awe of Tim's knack of creating opponents who put us on a knife-edge of survivability -- it makes the victory all the sweeter.”
Tim Savin said: “Great session. Tough as nails. Very cinematic stuff, the magical Harfordian blend of fairytale charm with Legendary darkness.”
Oliver Johnson said: “It was a blast from the first moment to the last suicidal leap from a cliff onto the Illusion Knight’s galloping horse.... oops, Joe just missed it – that had to hurt. In brief, we went up the mountain with the kids on the solstice morning -- the Illusion Knight, the Gift Knight, a small army of Krarthian warriors and the mannequins awaited. There was another epic battle, with more illusion leading to a serious blue on blue involving Cracknut and Caliburn. Joe Lynch and Duryakin leapt onto the charging knights, as above, and after many gaping wounds, broken bones, plague infection and carnage we emerged victorious. At first light the Holly King visited the kids on the mountain top and all was right with the world apart from the dead lord’s son and the aforementioned gaping wounds, broken bones, plagues, oh, and burns, etc No PC died, anyway. Merry Christmas, one and all!”