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Thursday, 14 January 2021

Pointing the finger


British literary critics of the 19th century had the notion of the "Young Lady Standard", which was a kind of family-friendly U-rating for novels that would not offend the sensibilities of a Victorian girl. Because of this, British literature often shied away from the sort of forthright depiction of life you find in French or Russian novels of the time. There was a feeling on the Continent that literature was an art form and had a right, indeed a responsibility, to mirror life warts and all. In Britain literature was the forerunner of early-evening television.

Even so, authors like Jane Austen were not the twee and cosy yarn-spinners that many suppose. Lady Susan Vernon is an amoral, manipulative adventuress who deserves a place in the ranks of dark antiheroes alongside Vic Mackey and Walter White; Catherine Morland runs afoul of predatory sexual vindictiveness; Lizzie Bennet takes on a real-life dragon for very high stakes; Becky Sharp is willing to betray even those who love her just to squirrel away some cash. Nonetheless, though depths of human depravity are certainly there to be inferred in 19th century British literature, those are all pre-watershed conflicts. None of them is described with the uncompromising raw honesty and occasional breathtaking brutality of authors like Balzac or Chekhov.

Dickens wrote stories to stir your emotions, but he and his readers knew they were parlour entertainment, to be read by the whole family -- a "safe space" in entertainment. A Victorian paterfamilias who opened a novel to be confronted with the likes of Madame Bovary might well have stormed back to the bookshop and thrown it through the window.

I think something similar is behind the uproar we sometimes see nowadays over "unsuitable" content in roleplaying games. There are some people who play games the way those Victorian families read novels; there are others who expect games with no holds barred. This has led to the concept of the "x-card" -- sadly nothing to do with homo superior, but a mechanism to interrupt games whose scenes or subject matter a player is unhappy with. To quote from the blog I linked to there:
"The x-card is used to signal that a boundary has been crossed or that a player is not OK with the content. The game stops immediately, and discussion shifts to the reason why the card was used."
For me that's as absurd as calling a halt to a disturbing play or movie. If you don't like what you're seeing, don't tell me about it; there's the exit. But there's a category disconnect here. I regard roleplaying games as art, no different from literature, theatre, cinema, poetry, and painting. The people who advocate x-cards want their games to be morally uplifting and to avoid upsetting anybody, just like those family novels for the Victorian fireside. We have different expectations.

I have a player who doesn't like horror scenarios. If we're going to be playing a horror campaign, that's OK; she sits it out. Sometimes there's a grey area. A scenario may not be overtly intended as horror, in the sense of belonging to the horror genre, but horrific things happen. There have been a few times when my players have shocked me to the core with some of the things they're willing to do. And that's fine. It's why I play, in fact, to see those things that emerge unexpectedly from characterization -- sometimes beautiful, sometimes very nasty. It's the same when writing characters. You ask yourself how far they will go, what lines won't they cross, and the answer is often revelatory.

What do you do if you come up with something you know will be shocking, whether as a player or a referee? If I thought my players couldn't handle it then I'd keep it to use in a story, perhaps. But really, if my players were like that then we'd soon part company. They and I know we're not setting any limits.

Taking the blog post I cited again, one of that player's boundaries is "I don't want any romance involving my character." But it's really hard to plan that kind of thing in advance, especially in the improv style of play that gives the best games. When refereeing, I wouldn't have an NPC profess love for a PC if I didn't think the player was capable of running with it. (I'm talking about their acting ability and imagination, of course.) What if one player-character falls in love with another? I'd much rather they both played it. Unrequited love is one option there, and it could develop in interesting directions as we know from countless TV shows and novels. It would be pretty disappointing if a player just said, "I don't want to roleplay that." In that case play your blocking. Reject them, spurn their advances in-character. Don't tell everyone about it.

But what about games in a public forum? Twenty years ago I went along to a convention to sign Fabled Lands books but soon got roped into a series of fascinating mini-RPG scenarios run by the guys behind West Point Extra Planetary Academy. Each game had a different setting and was built as a moral quandary to be played out in twenty minutes. They could hardly have started by saying, "This scenario deals with issues X, Y and Z." It's the trigger warning problem. If you're trying to capture a genuine sense of surprise in the game, you can't give too much away upfront. (Not to mention that the evidence indicates that trigger warnings are of no use in any case to the genuinely traumatized.)

Why have these debates crept into games of late? I think partly because roleplaying is becoming -- well, not mass market entertainment, not by any stretch, but certainly it has opened up beyond the hardcore gaming demographic of the early days. Aficionados take a sophisticated approach to their hobby. The casual fan tends to have a less mature outlook.


Also, American culture has always had a much more censorious streak than European. The idea of shutting down a discussion because it offends somebody's moral code is perhaps natural if your country was founded by Puritans. And because of social media, the Overton window has shifted away from liberalism towards moralism. Hence gripes like this, that maybe do make sense over in the US (American friends, feel free to chip in) but strike most Europeans as potty.

And because most roleplaying derives from genre fiction, and genre sensibilities tend to be a little less grown-up than proper literature, there's a tendency to expect roleplaying games to stick to the soft-soap forms of conflict you get in traditional SF and fantasy. Witness the outcries over Game of Thrones when the writers stepped outside genre norms -- even though that was pretty much the entire thesis of the show from day one.


Anyway, enough theorizing. What do we do about it? Well, surely few gamers want to sit around listening while one player explains their reasons for halting the game. The next stop on that line is struggle sessions, which nobody will enjoy. But those people's sense of offence seems genuinely to overwhelm them, and there's no point in subjecting anybody to an experience they disapprove of. So we're going to need better ways to signal which kind of roleplayer you are. High literary with anything goes, or pulp with puritan boundaries? As long as everyone around the table knows what they're letting themselves in for, I'm sure we can all keep on gaming without needing to call the thought police.

Tuesday, 5 January 2021

Adventuring on a shoestring


I have a friend who keeps telling me I should do podcasts. It’s flattering because he does a fair few himself and he’s very good at it, but the field is so crowded already. Mike and Roger on Improvised Radio Theatre With Dice, Ralph on Fictoplasm, Jeff and Hoi on Appendix N Book Club – and not forgetting Dirk the Dice on the Grognard Files.

I’m on the latest of those, mostly chatting about Dragon Warriors and Jewelspider but with a bit about the early days of roleplaying. After the discussion, an interesting point was raised about whether DW would have worked better as a single rulebook, the way games like Runequest and Champions were released at the time, rather than as six standard-format paperbacks. (We’d hoped for twelve, but that’s a detail.)

What happened in the early ‘80s was Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson had a epiphany. They could see that fantasy games potentially had a huge market but had so far failed to escape the niche of sweaty hobby shops. How to get them out of the shadows and into the mass market bookstores? The lightbulb moment must have come while playing a Fantasy Trip solo adventure. ‘Know what, lad?’ I can imagine Steve saying – or maybe it was Ian. ‘Do something like this for kids and we could have a breakout hit.’

The red-braced MBAs among you will have noticed that Ian and Steve didn’t publish Fighting Fantasy themselves, despite owning White Dwarf magazine and a chain of game stores. They pitched it to Penguin Books and lions were shook into civil streets.

Me, I just rode their coat-tails. I figured that all those tweens and teens who’d now discovered gamebooks might also be waiting for roleplaying. So Oliver Johnson and I took ourselves out to Ealing, where Transworld had their offices, and the game that was to be known as Dragon Warriors was born.

What if we had done DW as a single rulebook? I’d been working on an RPG for Games Workshop that they planned to call Adventure (yeah, not my idea) and that would have sold about 2000-5000 copies. The value to GW was mostly that they could sell figurines on the back of it. Adventure never happened because GW picked up the UK Runequest licence, but it had penetrated even my business-blind consciousness that we could sell ten times as many copies if we got a paperback RPG into high street bookshops.

And where would a chain like W H Smith have put a single-volume rulebook anyway? Not alongside the FF books that all the 10-13 year-olds were snapping up. There might have been a corner of the shop where Jane’s Fighting Ships and Formula One books were stocked. You’d never have seen it. We wouldn’t be talking about it today.

And how much would it have cost? The DW books were £1.75 each – in the mid-80s, a little less than $5. If we’d lumped the content of the six paperbacks into one durable hobby-style RPG hardback, call it £15. About fifty quid in modern money. Not a pocket money purchase, for sure.

And would Transworld have been interested? Probably not. The adult division wouldn’t believe there was a market for fantasy role-playing, the kids’ editors wouldn’t commission a £15 hardback. And if they had, Oliver and I would have got an advance of about £2000 each (that's maybe £7000 in today’s money) to keep us going for a year or more while we wrote the whole game and all the scenarios. Passion project though DW was, just to pay the bills we'd have been tempted away by gamebook contracts instead.

Would I rather have released DW as one book? Well, that’s what I was working on in Adventure. It wouldn’t have been entry-level like DW. It would have been set in the world of Medra rather than Legend. The skill system would have been more complete because it was designed as an entire system rather than piecemeal and episodic the way DW came out. There'd have been no elves or goblins.

Would that game have been as good? Apples and oranges. Single-volume RPGs back then were for the hobby market. Paperbacks like DW and FF and Maelstrom were for the mass market. I'm heartily glad that James Wallis eventually reorganized DW into a single book, and it's far easier to find the rule you want that way, but we had to follow the winding road to get to that point twenty years on.

If I'd really understood the business side of gaming at the time, though, I’d have made the rules d6-based. How many schoolkids even knew where to buy icosahedral dice, still less have the pocket money to spare? It was Britain in the ‘80s, a tatty and corruption-riddled backwater off the coast of Europe. The streets were paved with stale chewing gum and flattened fag butts. Off licences had metal grilles to stop people pinching Watneys Party Sevens. The height of dining out was a gristly steak and chips at the Berni Inn. Kids didn’t have the cash to fling at mobile phones and X-Boxes like they do today. Or did, that is, pre-Brexit.

That dice bit I’ll be fixing with Jewelspider. All you’ll need are a couple of six-siders. It’ll be a small-format book, too, though maybe I should do a hardback as well as a paperback edition if only because that will be more resistant to spilled wine and red-hot fragments of dope. Tell you what, though. It’ll be a bit more than £1.75.

Friday, 1 January 2021

The better angels of our nature


I was recently reading an article that dismissed the idea that human beings might be perfectible and that history is generally moving in the direction of civilization away from barbarism, so I thought I'd share this short talk by the delightful Hans Rosling.

It's no proof that we'll end up with the Federation, or even the Culture, but it would be pretty stupid if, for the sake of cynicism, we didn't even bother to try. So my resolution is to do more in 2021 to combat injustice, superstition, prejudice, intolerance and ignorance. I hope you'll join me on the march to humanity's bright future. If we can't get there, don't let anyone say it was for want of effort.

In the meantime I want to wish all the blog's readers a very happy New Year. May your own personal trajectory be ever upward and onward. Let's leave the world a better place in January 2022 than we find it today: more civilized, more rational, more generous, and more compassionate. And if you're looking for a resolution for 2021, how about: get the jab?



Thursday, 24 December 2020

Mortal engines

For this year's freebie, don't thank me, thank Steve Foster. He's the designer of Mortal Combat, the homebrew RPG that pulled our thinking away from mega-hit dice heroes towards a grittier blood-&-mud style of fantasy that ended up inspiring Dragon Warriors, for one.

Steve has given his blessing to handing out free PDFs of this seminal (if rough-&-ready) work:
Just so you know what you're in for here, Mortal Combat is as old school as it gets. It's a combat system with spell lists, designed almost entirely for traditional hack-n-slash adventures. There's an implied medieval setting, but no social skills or details, no stealth, no rules for survival or climbing or lore or any of the other few dozen things you might try in a modern game. Back then, if it wasn't covered by the rules then you could do anything that seemed reasonable. Somehow we managed, and there are times when wrestling with GURPS's several hundred skills and perks when I've yearned to strip things right back. Maybe not quite that far back, but almost.

And you can see now why I didn't choose a career as an illustrator. Happy Christmas!



Tuesday, 22 December 2020

On blithe Yule-nicht

Thanks to the instantaneous distributive powers of the internet, there are some Christmas freebies you can scoop up in the time it takes to say "ho ho ho".

Casket of Fays issue #3, for instance, has scenarios, stories and new rules for Dragon Warriors. I especially liked Lee Barklam's article on cunning folk, having heard a friend of mine talk about his Yorkshire heritage and a colourful local character called Conjurer Tom. But there's so much brilliant material packed into this issue that it's impossible to single out any one piece. Many thanks to editor Simon Barns and his contributors for making such top-quality support material available for free.

By the way, have you seen any of Jakub Różalski's art? His work seems like a perfect fit for Legend at Christmas. Here's what I mean:

Still with Dragon Warriors, Jim Desborough has a post on Yuletide monsters like Krampus and (not being as lazy as me) he's even included stat blocks. Don't settle for a lump of coal when you can have this crew of ghastly ghoulies in your Christmas stocking. And while you're there, do take a look at all the great gaming stuff in the Postmortem Studios store.

Straying only a little way from DW into the misty borderland where the English New Weird merges with science fiction and folk horror, John Whitbourn's Binscombe Tales includes a creepy seasonal yarn called "It'll All Be Over By Christmas" which comes in a Kindle chapbook with a couple of other stories. If you're asking my advice, I'd buy the whole series, but that's a good place to start.

But wait, you say; that's not free. True, but here's another Binscombe Tale that is. Draw the curtains, dim the lights, and enjoy "Eyes".

Friday, 18 December 2020

Our next gamebook (part two)


So here's the other half of the Greek-influenced world Jamie has been creating for his Vulcanverse computer game. In these two regions (the world is divided into four rectangular quadrants) he takes us up into the mountains and out across the deserts. When Jamie sent me this material he mentioned gamebooks, and my first thought on reading it was that it would make a great setting for a gamebook -- or even for a series of four linked books, Fabled Lands style. 

And then the Vulcanverse raised $1 million in virtual land sales in one morning (yes, really) which makes it all possible. So Jamie and I are now hard at work at a couple of new gamebooks to tie in with the virtual world and we expect those to be on sale by spring 2021. Fabled Lands players, don't think we've forgotten you. These Vulcanverse gamebooks are going to use a variant of the FL rules and, if we can figure out the legal issues, there will be a way to enter them from FL book 10. More on that as we progress.

Anyway, here's Jamie's description of the oroi and eremoi of the -- I suppose it would be the Klytotechneschora (Κλυτοτέχνηςχώρᾱ)? Greek scholars, feel free to correct me!

THE MOUNTAINS OF BOREAS
Boreas is the god of the north wind and the borders of Boreas are mountain ranges: tall, white-maned, slate grey mountains that reach up to the heavens. Crossing them directly can be hard but many mountain passes have been carved through their towering walls. Tunnels have been dug into the mountain sides that lead into subterranean city complexes where minotaurs and other fell creatures dwell. If the outer edges were transparent, like a cutaway ant’s nest, you would see that the mountains are riddled with such passages. Many lead up and in to the high sierra of the interior, through underground cities, mines, burrows, pits and shafts. It is easy to get lost in these labyrinthine passages – safer to take one of the high passes.

If you go up through a pass and down the other side, you will descend into the table-top plateau beyond, a great alpine steppe, bounded on all sides by silver-capped, cloud-bound mountain peaks. The plateau is where Boreas, the winter wind, dwells.

Unlike the other gods, Boreas does not sleep. He cannot sleep for he is bound to blow for all time. Once, as a god, he could choose when winter came, whether it be early or late, whether to bring rains for crops or to drown them with floods, or to unleash storms upon ships at sea or relent and let sea-soaked sailors live or die. Boreas delighted in the sacrifices made to him by those who sought to appease his terrible power. But now he is bound by mankind’s science. Science that has decided how the world works, how he shall work. As the divine power of the gods declined so did the inevitable, inescapable power of reason rise to eclipse everything that had gone before. Now he must follow the rules and strictures of man’s ineluctable logic. He must blow when unknown forces he will never understand impel him to do so, rest when he must rest according to a system he is incapable of comprehending. Gales, hurricanes, tornadoes, gusts, breezes or soft zephyrs are not his to decide. He is no longer the master of his own destiny, and so he rages across the high steppes, screaming his incoherent anger at the empty skies.

In the middle of the plateau is a tall column of granite that spears upward into the clouds. Upon it rests the Fortress of Winds where Boreas himself lives. But he rarely resides there now for he spends most of his time shrieking in rage, rushing across the frozen flatlands or ‘working’. Boreas hates ‘working’.

Elsewhere, there are four mountains that rise up out of the plateau, separate from those at the edges. Mt Helikon, Mt Atos, Mt Othri and Mt Nysa. These were once home to the Oreads, members of the Ourea, young minor goddesses of the mountains, the children of the earth goddess Gaia. These mountain nymphs, the rulers of Boreas, have not been seen in aeons. It is said they sleep inside their mountain fastnesses awaiting a time when mankind may turn to them once more. They once ruled this land but now all that is left is Boreas, mindless, raging, howling, not much more than the rush of the wind unlike the old days when he and the Oreads would banquet in the Fortress of Winds or soar across the sky, shrieking in delight as Boreas, laughing, wafted them gently over the clouds.

Much of the plateau itself was once rich, terraced mountain farmland, now it is little more than wind-scoured tundra.

Cyclopes living in their mountain-side cave lairs, would climb up to the peaks and hurl boulders at each other for sport, or drop enormous rocks on unwary travellers below to crush them for their great cauldrons. Tenderized human flesh and crunchy bone stew was the height of cuisine as far as a cyclops was concerned. Now only a few cyclopes are left, scattered across the peaks, eking out a tired, lonely existence.

Many mountain peaks were used as eyries or nests inhabited by harpies and hippogriffs. They struggled against each other for control of the mountain peaks for thousands of years, a bitter war of hatred and blood. But now, as only a few harpies and hippogriffs remain, there is plenty of space to share, their glorious kingdoms of the sky reduced to abandoned nests, shattered rocks and broken, cliff-top pillars.

In ages past, minotaurs ruled in their subterranean cities dug into the mountains, emerging only to raid the lands of the Amazons who ruled most of the steppes that made up the high sierra of Boreas. These warrior women bred magnificent horses, riding across the steppe tundra, warring with the minotaurs, and tending to their nomadic herds, moving around from tent city to tent city. They would meet for great conclaves at their temples on holy days.

Harpies and hippogriffs, giants and cyclopes were always trying to steal away their cattle, the Amazons always trying to prevent it. It was a vibrant land of warring tribes and creatures. But now the Amazonian temples lie in ruins, their great yurts are no longer pitched ‘neath starry skies, their horses wander in small herds, searching for what little roots and grasses are to be found in the frozen earth, the cattle have long since been hunted to extinction. A handful of Amazon women linger on, trying to preserve their old ways. The tunnels and subterranean cities collapse untended, as the number of minotaurs that dwell below can be counted on the fingers of a single hand.

How can Vulcan restore this magnificent land to its former glory? He cannot do it alone, he needs the help of the mortals, those once feeble humans who have mastered reason and logic, created technologies inconceivable to the minds of the gods, save Vulcan himself. To the ancient gods,, mankind's craft is like a new kind of magic that has empowered them in ways the old gods never imagined possible. Only the mortals can rejuvenate the white capped mountains, the crumbling hill top forts, the Fortress of Winds and the underground cities. Only they can awake the Oreads to rule again, only they can restore the creatures of Boreas to greatness once more.

Landmarks and places of interest

The High Steppes
Most of the interior of the Boreas is a steppe plateau. Here and there hills rise up out of the flatlands. Where once the land was tilled and farmed, now it is mostly frozen tundra. The Amazons once roamed these lands, leading their herds of cattle and horses in search of pasture, growing crops and tending the land. They built temples and a few hilltop forts, but mostly they moved around living in great tented cities.

Hilltop Forts and Temples
Where a hill rises up out of the steppes, the Amazons built a fort upon it, the better to store their goods and defend against raids by the minotaurs, harpies, hippogriffs, cyclopes and other fell creatures of the mountains. Mostly they lie in ruin but one or two are still inhabited by Amazon warrior women, eking out a sparse life amidst the ruined glories of their past.

Mts Atos, Helikon, Nysa and Othri
These four mountains are the abodes of the four Oreads, the Mountain Nymphs that once ruled over the land with the North wind, Boreas. They rise up from the plateau near the four corners. They sleep in their mountain top palaces (like Parthenons), waiting to be woken once more. From each mountain, a river of the same name, runs to a large abyssal sink-hole near the centre of the High Steppe. The waters cascade down great waterfalls to disappear into unknown lands far, far below. Some say the rivers flow to Neptune’s realm of endless seas, like a celestial drain, others that they flow to another plane entirely.

The Great Sinkhole
Here the four rivers that run from the mountains of the Oreads spill down into the endless depths of an enormous sinkhole near the centre of the high steppes. Some say that if you fall into the Great Sinkhole, you will fall and fall, and die of thirst and starvation before you reach the bottom.

The Fortress of Winds
This is a pillared hypostyle fortress of porticoes and pillars. It rests atop a solid column of stone that rises up from the High Steppes to scratch at the clouds. It is the home of Boreas, the Winter Wind, but he has long abandoned it, in favour of hurtling about his realm shrieking like… well, like the wind, creating havoc, trying to throw off the bonds that bind him.

Lair of the Cyclopes
In the mountainsides that border the interior of Boreas are many caves, dug out by the one-eyed giant cyclopes. Here they would hurl boulders down at unwary Amazons below or play catch with their friends and enemies on nearby mountains using great boulders as balls.

Hippogriffs’ Eyrie
Here hippogriffs (half eagle, half horse) made their homes, high up in the mountains. They would war against the harpies whilst also trying to raid the herds and settlements of the Amazons below.

Harpies’ Nest
Harpies (half woman, half bird) made their nests from bones and skins high in the mountains. They would war against the hippogriffs for control of the skies, while also raiding the Amazons below. A risky business as the Amazons became adept in making sky-ballistae that could take down a harpy or a hippogriff with a single shot.

Minotaur Labyrinths
Below the ground, minotaurs have dug complex tunnel systems, creating living spaces, mines, passages, underground temples and stores. Much has fallen into rack and ruin but their great pillared portals and gargantuan gates still dot the landscape though most are sealed through rockfall or massive locks the keys for which have long been forgotten or lost. You might still catch sight of a lone minotaur lurking at one of these gates from time to time but sightings are rare.


THE DESERT OF SPHINXES
Somewhere in the sands of the desert, three sphinxes slumber in eternal repose, awaiting the next age of the gods, should it ever come. They are the Androsphinx, (human head, lion body), the Criosphinx (ram’s head, lion body) and the Heiracosphinx (hawk’s head, lion body). In that bygone age, mortals would seek out sphinxes in search of wealth or knowledge. If they could answer the riddle that the sphinx would set them, then the sphinx would allow them a single question that had to be answered truthfully. If they failed the riddle, well then, the mortal’s life was forfeit and they were devoured on the spot. Now the three sphinxes rest in small pyramid mausoleums, dreaming of riddles and tasty morsels of mortal flesh. Perhaps there dreams will soon be over, and they will once again stalk the hot sands of the desert.

Once, the Great River rushed from the first Cataract of Oceanus, the father of rivers, in the far north, through the second Cataract of Tethys, down to the Shores of Psamathe at the southern edge of the desert, and into the sea. In that delta stood the mighty city of Iskandria. Here the Myrmidons lived, a warrior race armoured like ants, who fought for Achilles in the Trojan wars. Iskandria teemed with life, commerce, arts, and crafts. Ships plied the Great River, its banks were home to farms and fisheries, vineyards and breweries for the making of fine wines and barley beer. Irrigation canals ran from the Great River into the deserts, creating farmlands and oases to feed the Myrmidons. The land was blessed by the gods, and filled with abundant life, fed by the Great River.

But now the gods have departed to their divine divans, to sleep the ages away. Where the waters cascaded down in raging torrents at the Cataract of Oceanus, now there is only a trickle that evaporates into empty air before it can reach the parched and dry riverbeds of the once Great River. Where once a river flowed, there is nothing but a long, winding ditch that cuts through the desert, slowly filling up with wind-blown sand. The canals that branched out to either side, once swollen with waters of life, are choked with dust and rocks, and dry, white bones.

The second Cataract of Tethys halfway through the Great River’s journey to the sea, was used to divert waters into the irrigation canals. Huge water wheels were set up to capture the power of the raging torrents. Tethys, a goddess, was mother of rivers, springs and streams, but she has long gone to her rest. Now the waterwheels lie baking in the hot sun, grime and dirt clogging their cogs, rust eating away at their metal brackets, their wooden spokes as dry and brittle as bleached bone.

Iskandria, the city at the Shores of Psamathe (goddess of the beach), once a thriving metropolis crumbles ‘neath the sun’s hammer. A handful of Mymirdons scratch out a living from the dusty fields, living amidst the cracked houses and shattered streets like the ghosts of once mighty warriors of legend.

Elsewhere, the desert has spread like a tsunami of sand. Lost cities and sunken forts are buried beneath tons of desert dust, waiting to be rediscovered, filled with ancient wonders and long lost treasures.

Dragons have crept back into the wilds, untamed, unchallenged, to take up residence amidst the pillared temples and cities of old, even in the Great Pyramids of the long forgotten kings of ages past. Even the Valley of the Kings where the ancient Myrmidon lords were buried is lost to time, the desert and dragons.

And where dragons roam so do the Spartoi. When a dragon’s tooth falls to earth, up springs a skeletal hoplite with spear and shield. Over the years, many dragon’s teeth have fallen. These Spartoi have formed themselves into regiments of undead hoplites, appointing their own lieutenants and commanders, taking over the forts that the Myrmidons once built to control these lands. Now the Spartoi range up and down the desert in search of blood or battling amongst themselves for supremacy.

And as if that were not enough, out in the western edges of the desert, in an empty quarter now called the Land from which None Returns, there dwell cockatrices whose touch is poison and whose breath is death. Yet their blood is said to cure all ills, so it is that desperate men and women will sometimes seek them out.*

Landmarks and places of interest

Pyramid Mausoleum
Three of these are hidden in the sands of the desert awaiting discovery. Much smaller than the great pyramids of Egypt these mausoleums each house one of the sphinxes of ancient times. They slumber, awaiting a new birth. Will it be mortal men who free them from their sleepy shackles?

Cataract of Oceanus
This is the origin of the Great River that runs through the Desert of Sphinxes. Oceanus was the god of rivers, the well of all the fresh waters in the world. But now he sleeps, no longer needed, discarded, set aside. So the wellspring of the Great River has dried up, and the once fertile lands, fed by the river, have been reclaimed by desert sands.

Cataract of Tethys
This second cataract, half way on the Great Rivers journey to the sea, was used to divert waters into the irrigation canals. A shrine to the goddess Tethys was regularly tended, to ensure the free flow of waters but that too has fallen into rack and ruin. Tethys herself has long since departed.

The Great River
A river that meanders through the two cataracts from the north to the delta and the sea to the south. It is now dried out and is slowly filling up with sand. It fed a fertile land, but now it is a barren wasteland of dust and sand.

Iskandria
A once great port at the mouth of the Great River where it spilled into the sea. Now the delta is silting up, and the great city is a shadow of its former self, slowly falling apart as the sun beats down upon it.

* ‘Where are you off to, dear?’
‘Just popping out to the Land from which None Returns.’
‘I suppose you won’t be home for supper, then?’
‘Umm… probably not.’

Thursday, 10 December 2020

"The Gifts of the Magi" (a Yuletide adventure set in Legend)


It’s as much a tradition here on the blog as in my group’s games: the Christmas special set in the world of Legend. Since I went overboard a few years back and created an entire campaign setting that I tried to fit into a six-hour session, responsibility for running the Christmas special has wisely been handed over to Tim Harford, who consistently delivers a magical adventure with a seasonally spicy blend of eeriness, charm, humour, danger and action, all perfectly wrapped up in six or seven hours. What I like about Tim’s specials is that he creates a “little world” – a castle, an abbey, a coastal town, a cathedral – and populates it with NPCs who live and breathe. But the real secret is the way he adds the right dash of mystery and wonder to make it a particularly Christmas adventure.
Hierophany, that’s the word I was searching for. Here's an example of it.



So now we're got that clear, without further ado I’ll hand you over to Tim...

THE GIFTS OF THE MAGI

The town of Athgeld’s Cove has a reputation for smuggling which the local lord, Sir Valant, would like to stamp out. For a short adventure, the player-characters could have been invited here or hired by Sir Valant to deal with the problem. They arrive three days before Christmas.

Alternatively, as the priest of St Hedborn’s Church has recently died, the characters may have been sent as his replacements, in which case the adventure could be spun out into a short campaign.


Athgeld’s Cove

Athgeld’s Cove, named after a local folk hero of generations past, is a town on the east coast of Albion. Sir Valant, the local lord, has his keep high on the downs above the cove: a square stone tower and outbuildings enclosed in a wattle-and-daub stockade.

The town itself has a population of only a few hundred people, the majority of whom live in the lower town around the harbour. The wealthier upper town rings the slopes overlooking the sea and is connected to the lower town by a broad stepped path called the Drangway.

There are also numerous overgrown gullies cut by streams down the hillside, narrow enough to be used by the town’s urchins, who pop up out of them as if from nowhere. These ‘widdens’, as they are known (or ‘the cracks’ as the urchins call them), are not immediately obvious (difficult perception roll needed) and make ideal vantage-points for eavesdropping.

The Church of St Hedborn is situated on a plug of black rock (‘the Shuck’) out in the bay, accessible at low tide along a causeway some eighty metres long. The rock of the causeway (known as ‘the Spit’) and the island is basalt, visibly quite different from the limestone of the shore and hillside and the chalk downs beyond.

Smuggling

The smugglers’ gang is reputed to be large and potentially violent, with the added complication that many of the townsfolk benefit indirectly from the income derived from smuggling and so are unlikely to be cooperative.

The base of smuggling operations is Jacob’s pickle shop and warehouse, from which a tunnel runs directly beneath the Spit to the caverns below the church. Smuggling vessels can tie up on the far side of the Shuck, where at low tide a cave leads up to the caverns where goods can be stored, either for redistribution up and down the coast or for carrying through the tunnel to the pickle warehouse.

Places of interest

In the order that a traveller approaching along the coastal road would encounter them:

The Keep – up on the cliffs high above the town. The lord, Sir Vadant, remains aloof from the business of the town. He has a garrison of a dozen men at arms. His occasional attempts to root out the smugglers meet only with protests of denial or dumb insolence from the townsfolk.

The High Tavern – quieter, pricier, fancier food than its counterpart in the lower town. Rooms can be hired. The tavern is famed for its hedera-spiced ale, which is not as unpleasant as it sounds and is said to be good for chilblains, callouses, joint pain, and ulcers. The landlady is Mistress Emmeline.

The Green Spire – a lighthouse from which a green radiance shines at night. This is the workshop of Nicholas Verdigris, known by the urchins of the town as ‘Saint Nick’, a maker of puppets and mechanicals.

Toll Gate – at the top of the Drangway is a gate where duty is charged on goods brought up from the quay. This is considered more effective than attempting to police or tax the lower town. Of course, any smuggled goods that are redistributed by ship along the coast never pass this way. That is the unauthorized trade Sir Valant wants to bring under control.

The Terrace – the market square of the town, at the base of the Drangway, consisting of small shops, a hospice, and entertainers’ stalls. Nicholas Verdigris sometimes brings his puppets down here for a show on Harelday (the start of spring) celebrating the roguish exploits of the folk hero Athgeld.

The Low Tavern – rowdy, good value. The landlord is Trouton.

The Church of St Hedborn – out in the bay. Services must conform to the tides, but even so most of the lower town attend this church. (A few from the upper town prefer the walk up to the chapel adjoining the Keep.)

The Pickle Shop – close to the quayside; a secret tunnel connects to the church.


Dramatis personae

Father Beale – a young priest from Ongus who has lately been transferred to the church of St Hedbourne here after disgracing himself by an affair with a lady of rank. He’s out of his depth and already drinking hard (incidentally a contributory factor in the death of his predecessor, Father Wertham). He lives in the parsonage, which is in the lower town. If the characters visit Father Beale there they’ll notice his fine Chaubrettean brandy and may conclude he’s in league with the smugglers – not so, at least not overtly; it’s just that the smugglers are like most people in wanting to curry favour with their priest.

Blue Luna is a jester who at Christmas is given to wild revelling on the Terrace, baring her torso which she decorates with blue ink derived from woad and leading the women of the lower town in a processional dance around the harbour. (‘They are Maenads,’ the priest says, tut-tutting; he may not realize it’s a term that Blue Luna herself would happily embrace.)

Emmeline – proprietor of the High Tavern. At forty she is an elegant and still-beautiful woman. She has a coterie of attractive young women and boys whom she will supply to her guests as prostitutes for a tidy sum. She is secretly a follower of the Magi.

Gregor – the sexton of St Hedbourne. He is a wizened, elderly, but wirily strong man with a white beard. He is a follower of the Magi.

Herman – current head of the smuggler gang. His sidekicks are Matthias and Karl. Karl is a follower of the Magi.

Nicholas Verdigris – a reclusive but kind-hearted artificer whose tall house in the upper town also serves as a lighthouse. His assistant, Job, is a feral lad of about fifteen who swims out to catch fish which he rips apart with his pointed teeth. Nicholas (called “St Nick” by locals) spends the year fashioning puppets, toy wagons, and the like, which he delivers for the children of the town on Christmas Eve.

Trouton – innkeeper of the Low Tavern.

Urchins: Betty, Lilly, and Little Joe are the waifs and strays of the town. They navigate between the upper and lower town by means of the widdens (‘down the cracks’, as they call it) and make a meagre living from errands and trading snippets of gossip. Betty and Lilly are orphans, but Little Joe’s mother (Gum-faced Gretchen) is alive, albeit a wreck of a drunk who has nothing to do with him.

The lord of the keep is Sir Valant. Serjeant at arms is Emmanuel. Other soldiers of the garrison include Luka, Bertram and Jeffry. Jeffry is a follower of the Magi.

The adventure

Visiting the church
In the church the characters will see an empty crib beside the altar and, close to the back of the nave, four primitive life-size oak effigies. Father Beale explains: ‘There is a local custom of the Christmas Crib and the Magi. Each night those statues move closer to the altar, so that at midnight on Christmas Eve they are ranged around the crib, and then a doll representing Our Saviour is placed there.’

How do the effigies move?

‘I suppose a few of the locals come in during the night and secretly reposition them. If it’s high tide they must use a boat.’

And the doll of the holy infant?

‘I don’t know who will bring that. I haven’t seen it. This is my first Christmas here, you know. It seems to be one of those old customs that the townsfolk prefer to take care of themselves. The priest is kept in the dark – ’ he chuckles, perhaps a little uncertainly – ‘just as parents don’t tell their children who really delivers their presents, eh?’


The effigies of the Magi
There is no particular reason to associate the Magi of the scriptures (the number of whom is not mentioned in the Gospels) with the Magi of Krarth. The characters very probably will do so, but the fact that there are four rather than five effigies is bound to perplex them.

The oak statues are old and silvery, crudely hewn but with some degree of primitive artistic flourish. They are man-sized with no facial features beyond a slight bump for the nose and depressions where eyes and mouth would be. Each wears a crown of fresh berries: rowan, ivy, holly, and mistletoe.

A psychically sensitive character, staring straight into the face of one f the effigies, will momentarily get the impression of looking out at themselves. The impression is so fleeting that it is easily ascribed to imagination.

The plot
There are two factions at work here. The smugglers, led by Herman, are reasonably numerous and well-known in the lower town. Their accomplices across the Mergeld Sea are due to bring in a shipment of brandy, claret, cured meats and Kurlish ale on Christmas Eve. Unnoticed among the barrels and crates is a small locked box (locked from the inside, perhaps?) which resembles an ornate cradle.

The other faction at work here are the servants of the Magi: Emmeline, Gregor, Jeffry, Karl, Blue Luna, and the wild child Job. Their goal is to kidnap four of the characters and use their life-essence to animate the effigies of the Magi. They do this by placing one of the four masks (see below) on a character, who then becomes comatose while the corresponding effigy turns into a fetch that is indistinguishable from the real person.

If the characters stay at the High Tavern, Emmeline will drug one or two of them to begin with, carry them from their room at night, and place the masked body in the crypt of the church. Their fetches will then help her to deal with the rest as preparations are made for the ceremony on Christmas Eve.

(A caveat: in our game we had nine player-characters, so replacing three of them with fetches didn't overbalance the scenario. With fewer players you will probably want to have some NPCs possessed instead, maybe just having one PC substituted. You'll also need to pick players who won't mind effectively having their character benched for most of the adventure. They may well not realize they haven't been themselves until the end, so being replaced by a fetch doesn't stop them participating, but in retrospect they'll see they were playing an NPC for most of the game and not everyone will enjoy the loss of agency.)

The four masks
Each mask corresponds to one of the Five. The first three of these are already in the hands of the Magi’s followers:

Red Death: a primitive clay mask with spikes of wood driven into the eye sockets.

Plague Star: a fearful mask of bone, flesh still clinging to it, as if a skull had been shattered and glued together with rancid gore.

Blue Moon: a bird mask, ever changing as the feathers and beaks of which it is made rustle and shift.

Gift Star: the Magi’s servants don’t have this to begin with, and need to find it before the ceremony. In fact it is the face of Nicholas Verdigris, the gift-giver. If and when the characters realize that, when they go to the Green Spire they will find Nicholas dead in a pool of fresh blood and Job carrying his skinned face. This is the mask.

There is a fifth mask corresponding to White Light, whose part in this tableau is as the (un)holy infant.

The fetches
When an effigy is made animate, it takes on the semblance of the character who has been fitted with the corresponding mask. The player should not know they have been substituted. When they are first abducted, give them a dream of being approached and strangled in their bed by one of the effigies while unable to move a muscle. From then on, the player can act normally except that they are unable to allude to or even hint at any dreams or secrets that would reveal their nature, and they can be commanded at any time by Emmeline or Gregor.

The idea is that the spell of the mask taps into the unconscious character’s spirit so as to mimic their memories and mannerisms. It is so effective that the character is not aware that they are a simulacrum. Every night the character will have dreams of lying in a tomb, the fetches in their masks leering over them, yet when they wake they’ll be unable to mention those dreams to anyone else.

Play the fetches as having all of the regular skills and equipment of the mimicked character. If reverted to their natural form, the effigies have maximum human strength, weigh around 180 kilograms, have 40 HP and a damage resistance of 15. Every 10 points inflicted with an impaling weapon or 5 points with a cutting weapon will reduce damage resistance by 1. Fire will burn away the damage resistance and then start inflicting damage. They move jerkily, as if in stop-motion, and strike with their hands for as much damage as a heavy club.

If the effigies are removed from the church, they will reappear there the next day even if burnt. If characters keep a vigil to watch the statues advance closer to the altar, they will never catch them in motion regardless of how vigilant they are. (A lone vigil is a good opportunity to kidnap the character and replace him or her, too.)


The cavern and the crypt
The cavern under the church is not obvious. You have to prise up a heavy flagstone near the font, descend some steps, open a padlocked door, and at the bottom of further steps is the cavern. A few barrels of brandy are here, left over from the last smuggled shipment, and another door leads to the tunnel to the mainland which emerges under the pickling warehouse.

The crypt is behind a locked gate leading from the north transept. This is supposedly the burial vault of the local lords, and indeed contains a number of ancient sarcophagi. An eagle-eyed character will notice that one or more nearest the door have scrape marks as if the lids were recently moved and replaced.

The abducted characters are in those sarcophagi. As long as the masks are on their faces, they lie helpless, their consciousness looking out from inside the fetches. If the mask is removed, the character is restored to normal but the effigy does not lose the power to move, instead becoming a sort of oak golem with stats as described above.

If a fetch is harmed while in the semblance of a character – for example, drowned or burnt – the real character will feel all those effects even though helpless to move.

The shivering dance
A strange folk dance led by Blue Luna on the pebble beach on the evening of Yule 22nd. As the music and shouts grow less and less restrained, there is an eerie skittering noise as the pebbles shift under the dancers’ feet moving in unison. One character (roll at random – or choose a character who has done something to attract the Magi's attention) is pulled into a strange parallel world. The dance continues around them but their friends are nowhere to be seen. Their vision is blurred and the sound of the music muffled. If the player does not think quickly – or roll well – a dancer will soon press close and smother the character with the ever-shifting bird mask of Blue Moon (qv). The unnerving sense of isolation fades slowly and the character is reunited with the others – yet quite unable to speak of their strange vision. Of course, the real character has been spirited away to the crypt in the confusion, replaced by the fetch of Blue Moon.

The Green Spire
On the evening of the 24th, the lamp in the lighthouse is not lit. The characters shouldn’t automatically notice this as they are not native to the town. If they are talking to a local outside after dark then he or she might remark on it. Otherwise wait until one of the characters mentions the light and then tell them it’s not lit.

If they go to investigate, that’s when they’ll find Nicholas murdered and his face stripped off by Job. If they fail to investigate, Job will deliver the face (the fourth mask of the Magi) to Emmeline or Gregor.

The ceremony
For the ceremony to be successfully performed, the crib must have been delivered and the mask of White Light obtained. It is delivered to Emmeline or Gregor by a white owl (which optionally may be the familiar of any long-running sorcerous adversary of the player-characters, if you want to tie this adventure into the wider campaign).

White Light’s mask is a thin visor of beaten tin that reflects distorted images from the memory of anyone who looks at it. The Magi’s servants won’t care about putting it on a capable character as they no longer need powerful servants at this stage. It’s quite likely they’ll use one of the urchins for this purpose. Instead of resembling the masked urchin, the infant effigy inside the locked crib then comes to life at midnight on Christmas Eve and unlocks the crib from the inside. This completes the ceremony.

When the ceremony is complete, the four original effigies transform into the Mordant Knights and the baby emerges from the crib:

The Knight of Illusions (Blue Moon) 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?

The Knight of Carnage (Red Death) 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) wields a sword that kills if it touches flesh.

The Knight of the Wheel (Gift Star) has 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 Infant has no immediate powers but is effectively the Antichrist and, if carried back to Krarth, will bring about Doomsday. The kind of world he might then bring about is here described by Tim Savin, a long-time Legend player in Tim Harford’s campaigns:
“If the impulse behind the Holocaust had a persona, that would be White Light. Imagine the Church in a Pullman-esque authoritarian dystopia, like the worst paranoid portrayal of Catholicism. That’s White Light. His goal is a crushing annihilative exploitation of humanity as, essentially, a mana source for his glory. His future is a teeming cityscape covering the globe policed by wooden and glass mannequins unquestioningly doing his bidding while he harvests the living in factory-scale recycling centres. I’ve been there. It’s not my favourite time zone in Legend.”

The origin of the Shuck
Nicholas Verdigris has a theory about the Shuck (the island on which the church stands) which he will share with any character who befriends him. The scene: Nicholas’s workroom below the lighthouse tower, where he is assembling ingenious mechanical toys to hand out at Christmas. Job crouches in a nook on a shelf, cat-like, licking fish-scales from his lips.

Nicholas: ‘You no doubt noticed that the Shuck and the Spit are a different rock from the cliffs hereabouts. I believe they originated in Krarth and were projected here in a molten state across hundreds of miles in the blasting of Spyte.’

This has no real bearing on the adventure, other than to increase the doomful atmosphere, but helps to create a bond with Nicholas so that his appalling murder by Job lands with greater impact. The theory is vaguely corroborated by a local legend that Athgeld once shot an arrow up the Devil’s nose, and when the Devil tugged it out it brought a great clot of blood and snot with it that landed in the bay and that’s where the church now stands.

Events (with dates in Yule monath)

21st: Saturday. A feast. An attempt to drug one of the characters and place a mask on them.

22nd: Sunday before Yule, church service. Gregor plays a strange drum that entrances the congregation (and the characters if they fail to get out in time) and allows him to channel their psychic energy to plant a post-hypnotic suggestion in one character that will bring them back here alone later to be captured and replaced with an effigy.

Evening: The Shivering Dance (see above) rips one of the characters into a different realm where they are substituted with a fetch.

23rd: Villagers fall sick – pestilence.

24th: The lighthouse shows no light. Expecting a smuggling shipment, the garrison launches a raid; assassination attempt on Sir Valant? The smugglers arrive a couple of hours before midnight and the Magi’s agents obtain the crib from the shipment.

25th: Before dawn, the children of the village – and in particular the urchins – expect to receive gifts. With Nicholas Verdigris dead, it's left to the player-characters to deliver them, if any of them are kind-hearted enough to bother.

Suggested incidents
If inspiration flags, here are some hooks you might develop further:
  • Blue Luna looking for a baby to imbue the spirit in the infant effigy.
  • Following one of the smugglers.
  • Sir Valant showing surprising interest (not necessarily benevolent) in an urchin, perhaps with the implication that it might be his own son or daughter.
  • Clues – an urchin has seen the tunnel to the church.
  • If the characters are slow to sniff out leads, Nicholas Verdigris could have worked out at least some of what’s going on and give them some clues.

Tim’s notes

In the end my players never actually met any smugglers. I had in mind that there would be more mundane activity – a decision as to whether to smash the smuggler ring or simply steal their sausages, before the group gradually realised that there was more at stake than cured meats.

I envisaged several distinct episodes of mayhem, with the town coming under the baleful influence first of Red Death (a bloody confrontation between Sir Valant's men and the smugglers, with the characters, Yojimbo-style, able to throw their weight behind either faction, or neither) then Blue Moon (a mad Morris dance with Blue Luna at its heart) and then Plague Star (sickness and death of Herzogian proportions) but there was no time, and in any case the players cut to the chase pretty rapidly. Fair enough: it didn't make sense for the characters to just sit around as one awful scene after another played out around them.

Gregor was hypnotising the congregation and using their psychic energy to subdue the characters. There were several powerful figures in the cult; I hadn't decided who – if anyone – was the leader. It worked better, Hydra-style, to feel that the characters had never quite slain the conspiracy. I felt that I'd be able to pick off characters one way or another: drugged beer, enchantments, crude kidnap, hypnotic rituals.

And the final showdown was to be the return of the Mordant Knights – when the eerie crib was smuggled into the crypt under the church, unwittingly, with the brandy and sausages, the baby would have unlocked it from the inside, taken its place in the crib, and the ritual would have been complete. The fetches would become the Mordant Knights – ideally (from the point of view of the cultists) consuming the life force of the pesky player-characters who thwarted them before. Presuming the characters escaped that fate, they would still face down the return of the knights.

Really, it could have been a mini-campaign, but that would have required more prep, the tightening of plot holes, more time and probably fewer players, too. Given the constraints I was delighted to throw my plans out of the window. Although the comparison is absurdly self-aggrandising, I'm reminded of Miles Davis's comment after recording Kind of Blue. "I was going for a different sound. I just missed." Sometimes you need to notice that there's a good thing happening and let it happen.

See also 

Count Magnus” by M R James is one of several James stories when an event unfolds over a series of nights – in this case a series of opening locks, but in “The Mezzotint” it’s a figure approaching nearer in a picture. A classic way to build a sense of doom that the oak effigies closing in on the altar should evoke.

Amy Pond’s experiences in the sixth series of Doctor Who might give some pointers on how to run the characters whose spirits are imprisoned in the fetches. Amy is similarly unaware that she’s been replaced by a “ganger”.