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Tuesday 31 August 2010

Fury of the Deep

Magnum Opus Press have just released another brilliant title in their ongoing* rejuvenation of the Dragon Warriors game. This one is Fury of the Deep, a scenario by Jon Reed and Damian May. It’s designed for characters of 4th-6th rank and would fit in neatly as a prequel to some of the adventures in MOP’s forthcoming DW supplement In from the Cold.

The story has the players hired to accompany a merchant’s expedition to the island of Xanthos, lost from civilization for more than a thousand years. On the surface a thrilling adventure through labyrinthine ruins, the insidiously lethal undercurrent being the dark history of greed, vengeance, depravity, power-lust and mythic magic that the characters are destined to uncover.

Fury of the Deep is being published in PDF form only, is priced at $9.95 and you can get it on DriveThruRPG here. Magnum Opus supremo James Wallis is backing it with this offer: “If you can get a review of any Dragon Warriors book published - and that means anywhere from a blog through RPGNow right up to Dragon Magazine and all points in between - then let us know and we will happily give you a free PDF of any other Magnum Opus product.”

More Brymstone campaign characters on Friday in the shape of the dreaded Tobias of Vantery. Be on your best behaviour.

(*I use the term "ongoing" but actually it's just been officially announced that FOTD is the next-to-last of the Magnum Opus DW books. All the more reason to grab 'em while you can!)

Sunday 29 August 2010

Brymstone beginnings 1

Following on from the Brymstone town map, here is the introductory spiel for one of the player-characters in the Brymstone campaign. I just handed each player a background and let them work it up from there. Don't always do it that way - in fact, at no other time - but this was an experiment. The player in question was Ian Marsh, of Dragonlords and White Dwarf fame, who now runs Fighting 15s. The character was inspired by Vina's fate in "The Menagerie" - what if you got put back together by beings that didn't understand all the mortal components? I explored the theme again in my Knightmare novel, Labyrinths of Fear. (I don't think there was even a single labyrinth in it, but the title came from marketing. Surprising they'd know a word that long, actually.)

I did two versions of the character intro. One was all Robin of Sherwood, the other a bit weirder. Can't remember now which I gave to Ian, so here are both:

Meeting Anath

When you were young, you made a mistake that changed the whole course of your life. You killed a man.

The reasons do not matter now. Only the fact that you were once a fifteen-year-old boy with a bloodied sickle in his hands, standing over the body of a freeman. Your parents had died years before, and you had nothing to hold you to the village to wait for such justice as the lord would dispense. You stole a horse - second heinous crime - and fled to the wildwood, to become an outlaw. A wolf's-head. You have killed many times since then.

You thoughts stray back to that distant time. A long-ago night in another world, through which a terrified youngster rode from his pursuers. You pulled the horse about, trying to get it to leap a narrow crevasse above a stream. Snorting, it threw you. You plummetted down into darkness -

- you have been wandering for a long time in a lightless wood. Your hands grope blindly around the stunted boles of dead trees. A faint glimmer of starlight reaches your eyes, but as you make for it a tall figure steps across your path. You have a burnt stump of wood in your hand. You cannot breathe as the figure approaches with silent tread. A gleam as he smiles - a faint, ironic smile that does nothing to reassure you. He strikes his knuckles together hard, and a spark flies from them. It touches your torch, which bursts alight. You look up to thank the man, but he has gone. The torch burns brightly, giving you a hot red light with which to see your way from the wood. You make for an open field, feeling the heat of the burning torch on your face.

You woke then from the dream which has recurred so often since. Someone was standing over you in the darkness. Through all that long night you stirred fitfully, gripped by a fever, rising momentarily into consciousness and then sinking back into delerium. As dawn broke, the figure who had attended you throughout your ordeal laid his cold hand on your shoulder. "Sleep now," said he, "for I would have no ill befall thee."

You slept through much of the day following, wondering half in sleep about the strange man who had rescued you. He had brought you to a rough cave beside a river, a place which stank of herbs and earth. You rose to walk about the small cave, but found that your legs shook with weakness. You slumped back on your pallet of logs and stretched hide, waking again at sunset to find the tall man there again. He wore green, and his white hair, gathered by a silver circlet, touched his shoulders. He beckoned you to follow him to the mouth of the bower, pushing back a net of creepers. A pack of wolves waited in the gathering dusk for their master, crouched low and watchful.

"Thou art healed." The tall man turned to you, holding out a longbow and quiver for you to take. "I am Anath. Tonight we hunt together, my son."

You took the bow from his hand. His smile was like an icicle in winter sunlight.

Waxing poetical
It was at the turn of the year that you stood,
overshadowed by trees stiff with hoarfrost,
waiting for three lords baleful with ire to speak.
A green-garbed lord leaned forward on his throne of oak:

"Hearken to us, you who share the mortals' breath,
who choose to walk upon the earth broken by plough,
to drink the water plundered from ancient wells."

It was in the cold moonlight that you waited,
caught in a web-tangle of wooded shadows,
listening to three lords solemn with portent.
One spoke to you from his root-twined seige:

"Year has piled upon year since Kernac worked his magic.
The Shapeless One has long been fettered,
yet now men have forgotten those chains that are to break."

The third lord sat in silence
while the winter wind stirred his grey cloak.
A bittern boomed as the moon escaped from cloud.
He then said: "Surrender to sleep, you mortal's son.
Already the winter has stolen you from the old world,
licked your flesh with its barbed tongue,
filled your lungs with its cold laughter.
Awaken with the reborn land, go into the east.
Join battle with the ancient foe, the skulking one,
the stealer of gifts most precious and true."

With sweeping cloaks all three rose to stand in starlight.
Faces of ashen grey stared from under elfin hoods.
All spoke together:
"The days on middle-earth for all
are numbered; he who may should wrest renown,
steal from Fate his fame; that is a hero's sweetest solace,
his best memorial when he has departed from the world."

You wake up in a wooded bower. The forest around you is ablaze with the colour and sounds and scents of a glorious spring morning. The words of the poem linger in your mind like the fragments of a dream, but you can remember nothing else that happened since you rode into the wood. That must have been months ago, for it was close to midwinter then!

Of the two versions, I have a feeling I used the second one to start with because it dropped in that hint about the Shapeless One, who was the campaign's Big Bad, a shapechanger called the Brollachan. Well, I say he (it?) was the BB, but actually he only catalyzed the existing tensions that were building up between those loyal to the local lord and the freemen of the town. It was a riot - literally.

Friday 27 August 2010

The town of Brymstone

A very rough-n-ready look here at Robert Dale's superb campaign setting, Brymstone. This barely gives you a taste of what it was like to walk those winding streets and be caught up in the intrigues being spun within the local lord's household and between him and the city guilds. And that's not to mention the return of the repressed, in the form of a very malevolent protean creature called the Brollachan.

Apologies for the scrappy maps, which I only intended as guides for our DW mapmaker, Geoff Wingate. You should still be able to make out the key, anyway - or see the much better version prepared by Lee Barklam of The Cobwebbed Forest website. What follows is Robert's description of the town, and although it is enough for any GM to flesh out some adventures there, it barely scratches the surface of his extensive campaign, which took in local landmarks such as the abbey at Inis Manistir. It would have been almost enough to fill DW Book 7 on its own - but that, alas, was not to be.

Map key and description of buildings

(1) Penda's Fort
This comprises the citadel (which commands the estuary and the entrance to the southern basin), associated barracks, storehouses, and workshops beside Military Way. All buildings between the Delf Stream and the sea are inside the military compound, and much of the southern basin is given over to the navy.

(2) Courthouse
The administrative centre of the town, including civic archives and library, and a small lock-up. Administration was moved from the much older Guildhall (53) because of lack of space.

(3) the Minster
In addition to the Church of All Saints itself, this complex includes a walled garden, school, large guest wing, and library. The permanent staff includes: Archdeacon Gothi; his secretary, Markun; six priests; four chaplains attached to the naval garrison and the court; sixteen choristers; eight clerks; a master and usher of the Minster school; fifteen scholars, and twelve servants. The Minster was founded just over three hundred years ago, following the conversion of Brymstone to the True Faith. It had become somewhat dilapidated, but restoration work has now begun.

(4) Custom House
The compound where one may find the offices of the customs authority, the house of the comptroller of customs, and a number of bond warehouses. Duty is mostly imposed on luxury goods - including silks and spices off ships out of Ferromaine or Crescentium. The comptroller also collects harbour dues and regulates the entry of strangers into the town.

(5) Post House
For the rapid delivery of important dispatches and the rapid (and safe) transport of dignitaries. Messengers and officials can obtain fresh horses or take lodgings here. Reputable adventurers may wish to hire on as guards.

(6) civic granaries
The town is obliged to maintain a store of corn to feed the people in the event of a seige or bad harvest. These granaries are used as a central clearing house for Brymstone's grain requirement.

(7) naval boatyard
This is a small repair yard attached to the citadel. There are two slipways, a sailmaker's loft and a timber store. It is not a construction yard, though light vessels could be built here in an emergency. (There are a number of professional boatbuilders in the town, but their yards and the ropewalk lie just beyond the walls to the east.)

(8) Lord Erek's townhouse
The home of the lord of the fiefdom outside the town walls, including a formal garden, stable block and servants' quarters.

(9) the Theatre
Seating up to two hundred (but not necessarily in spacious comfort), the theatre features mystery plays and other quasi-religious ceremonies. In theory it has strong connections with the Minster, but in practice many of the younger actors are not all that devout in their adherence to the True Faith. Elements of pagan belief creep into many of their performances, and it is not uncommon for them to satirise (insofar as the medieval state permits satire) the Guilds, the Church and the liege lord.

(10) the Gymnasium
One of the places where the cultural "mafia" hang out, the Gymnasium is used for more than just weapons practice. The senior instructor, a hot-tempered giant of a man called Torvald Woodcleaver, gives training in the use of two- and one handed axe and sword. In game-terms, a Knight or Barbarian of 6th rank or less will gain 1d4-1 experience points a month under Torvald's tutelage. He charges 21 Florins a week. Nevertheless his classes are not oversubscribed because of their high casualty rate: roughly one pupil in six goes out with a nasty wound each lesson.

(11) inn: The Whale Road
The town's best hotel - frequented by wealthy traders, recently enriched adventurers, or others who have no connections in Brymstone. Rooms cost 25 silvers a night.

(12) watermills and windmill
There are three mills within the town walls (and many more outside). Two of the three are under civic control, but the third - built against the wall close by the South Gate - is owned by the town's brewery and provides malt for it.

(13) Lighterman's Wharf
This building, a clubhouse where food, drink and other services may be obtained, is the meeting place of the powerful Guild of Fishermen and Lightermen.

(14) warehouses and dockside equipment
There are seven major warehouses which deal in a variety of imported goods. They are mostly owned by the shipping firms (opportunities for profiteering abound), but individuals can sometimes obtain storage space in the Citadel or in Lord Erek's storehouse - at commercial rates, of course!

(15) bakeries
There is one bakery in Lord's Walk and another in Bakery Lane. These provide bread for the Citadel, stores of biscuit for shipping, and quality bread for the wealthy as well as rye for the not-so-wealthy.

(16) brewery
Supplies all the ale consumed within the town, selling to private individuals, ships, inns and taverns.

(17) smiths/armourers
There are three such, and since all cater to the needs of an urban clientele these are not places to buy blades of exquisite craftsmanship! The most that can be said is that their weapons are of workmanlike quality, their armour not unduly ill fitting. The workshops of Master Drenck, just off Black Horse Street, are perhaps a discerning adventurer's best bet. In addition to a variety of weapons and armour, the smithies perform the more mundane tasks of shoeing horses, mending agricultural implements, casting and forging a selection of hardware (domestic and "industrial") and supplying the town's shipbuilders with nails, spikes, cramps and anchors. These jobs usually get priority, so one must be prepared to wait for one's weapon/armour - or "induce" the smiths to speed their work (ie, add 20% or so when paying them). Better-quality weapons can of course be obtained by trading with merchants. For a scimitar of Crescentium Steel you would be talking about something in the region of 500 silvers, however. One of the exquisite kiriha swords of Yamato, if it were made available on the open market, would sell for 2,000 silvers or more. Such choice items are usually offered direct to a private individual.
[Note that it is to Master Trinton, the armourer in Cheapstreet, that one should go for crossbows (he sells but does not make them) - if you go to the bowyer's (51) for a crossbow you will get a very chilly reception.]

(18) banker
With Brymstone being such an important commercial centre, a trustworthy financier is a necessity. Guidon of Ashdown is a former Crusader of impeccable honesty. An elderly man, he retains the powerful stature of his youth and is also widely rumoured to have learned strange magic from the Marijah Assassins. All in all, thieves leave him alone. Very large sums of gold and silver are usually deposited in the strongrooms of the Citadel under official seal, but many people bring their letters of credit for Guidon to honour. He will also hold small valuables and can evaluate trinkets (magical and otherwise). Guidon's fees range from 3% to 10% per year, depending on the size and value of the item.

(19) inn: Wotan's Eye
Limited accomodation (ten rooms) of moderate quality (few rats) at reasonable rates (around 5 silvers a night). The food is good but unimaginative, complemented by a fine selection of wines imported from Kurland, Algandy and Chaubrette. There is no particular clientele, although less well-to-do youths tend to meet at the inn of an evening.

(20) inn: The First and Last
There are seven private rooms here, and stabling is available. The tariff is 5 silvers a night. The food is excellent - seafood is the speciality. The clientele is again varied. Farmers particularly favour this inn on market day, and you will often hear lively bargaining going on over a lunchtime pint.

(21) inn: The Cause is Altered
The odd name may be explained by a story that cattle would proverbially stop as they were brought through Cowgate; "The cows's 'alted," their herders would say with a glance at the pub, "so we may as well." The ten rooms offered are of low quality and price (3 silvers a night), and there is stabling. This inn is frequented by carters and drovers bringing cattle to the slaughterhouse next door. Food is cheap and cheerful, and the customers friendly. If you buy the landlord a drink he will bend your ear with various tall tales (including the apochryphal story about the inn's name). All is not necessarily as it seems, however, as strangers have from time to time disappeared mysteriously - probably to end up on southbound trading ships.
Presently in residence at The Cause is Altered is Makrof, a stooped fellow with a pot-belly who enjoys a nightly drink and a game of knucklebones in the taproom. He purports to be an antique collector, but in fact is a member of the Clan of Harbingers assigned to eliminate Cenncaradh the Painted Man.

(22) tavern: The Northern Cog
A quayside drinking-house used by fishermen and sailors off ships moored in the southern basin. Very much a nautical tavern.

(23) tavern: The Flying Horse
Provides food on market days, when it is usually crowded.

(24) tavern: The Painted Toenail
Frequented by the artistic (or arty) community, this small drinking establishment is viewed with suspicion by the authorities as a melting-pot for malcontents - political or otherwise.

(25) tavern: The Friend in Need
A quiet and expensive drinking house. It has links with The House of Pleasant Accomplishments across the road. It is the haunt of the sons and daughters of the guildsmen, and the owner, Fastalio Gunbratti (an expatriate of Ferromaine), has tried to recreate the atmosphere of plush eating-rooms such as one finds in the ports around the Coradian Sea.

(26) tavern: The Silver Net
Another haunt of sailors and fishermen. A bit seedy, but very popular with those who like that sort of thing. A "locals' pub" which does not welcome strangers.

(27) potters
Leaving aside the market traders, here are two major potters in the town. Ifran the Grey specializes in fine quality tableware, while Shimbek Wisphair (on New Row) concentrates upon specialist ceramics. The naval base draws most of its supplies from these two. Local clay is plentiful, and there are many tile-kilns situated along the river valley.

(28) stonemason
Drusin Rocksmith is the only true stonemason for miles, and gets a lot of business. He has close links with the lord, Erek Longsword, who has provided many commissions in the past - including the refurbishment of his local stronghold (two miles north of Brymstone, see map) and the renovation of the Minster.

(29) tavern: The Old City Arms
Another popular market tavern, the landlord is a keen musician and this is often the scene of impromptu musical gatherings.

(30) ships' chandlers
The two chandlers in the town are Kaltrak of Glissom and Borvul Shortbeard. They sell goods to trading vessels and also supply building materials and hardware. Despite the constant bickering that goes on between these two, they are in fact old friends in their own way, and jointly own the ropewalk beyond the walls. Characters who visit one of these places to buy candles will probably be disappointed. Borvul does in fact supply candles, but only by the crate. You will also have to listen to some nonsensical claptrap about cerumancy, Borvul's sideline-cum hobby and something that many ship-owners plan their schedules by.

(31) carpenters/wheelwrights
Within the walls there are three carpenters not associated with the Shipbuilders' Guild. They provide fittings and furniture for domestic use. Rospian the Red, the carpenter in Lord's Walk, acts also as a wheelwright and wood-turner. Fachor Birnath, in the New Cut, provides furniture of the very highest quality and there is a long waiting-list for his work. His style has the heavy practicality demanded by Elleslandic and Mercanian tastes, but often elaborately decorated with carvings of beasts, old deities and abstract designs. Show him a sketch of some bizarre demon from Marazid or Cosh Goyope and he will likely drag you down to the Wotan's Eye pub for a drink.

(32) music shop
Katani Goldentongue is a handsome woman who sells and repairs various musical instruments, dealing mostly with merchants and naval officers. She also stocks sheet music for part singing or consort playing. Lord Erek keeps his own consort of musicians - mostly at his wife's behest - and (for all the animosity that exists) most guilders try to emulate him. There are occasional musical events held at the theatre, formerly under the patronage of Erek or Alyne but increasing financed now by merchants who are more interested in the status of the occasion than in the quality of the musicianship.

(33) bookshops
The two bookshops deal principally in manuscripts by there are also some printed books (see 36). Literacy within the town stands at about 20% so there is a reasonable market. These are not walk-in-and-browse shops, of course; unless you have an appointment you will simply find a locked door.

(34) slaughterhouse
Virtually all the meat consumed within the walls passes through the slaughterhouse, along with most of that supplied to trading ships. Meat can be purchased direct or through an intermediary (usually a market trader). Hides are sent to the tannery, which is situated outside the town walls near the shipyards, and there the raw hides are processed for use by saddlers and other leather workers.

(35) the House of Pleasant Accomplishments
A large "floating" community of traders and sailors ensures that this establishment thrives. It is more than a brothel - not just sex is for sale within, but rather all the pleasurable adjuncts of civilization: conversation, music, wine and food, an appreciation of the fine arts, and simple companionship.

(36) printer
Kodo, erstwhile member of Bisley Abbey, has been operating as the town's printer for some years. This is not a movable-type press, of course: that technology will not come for centuries yet! Kodo makes his living from woodblock prints of sea charts, maps, and pornographic or religious icons. He still puts the skills he learned in the scriptorium at Bisley to good use, copying manuscripts as a sideline. He charges highly for his work (partly at the insistence of his former colleagues, who are not best pleased at the competition): between 100 and 300 silvers for copying a manuscript, and anything up to 1000 silvers for a map, depending on its rarity.

(37) jeweller-goldsmiths
There are two such professionals in the town: Iandor Longtooth on the New Cut, and Pangus Deepdraught on Bridge Street near the gate. Their work sometimes goes to the local market, but is more often intended for trade. Gold is mined about twenty miles west of the town.

(38) clothier/dressmaker/tailors
The larger of the town's two rag trade suppliers is on Strand Street, and deals in high quality garments - silk brocades, velvet, and furs. Few can afford such luxurious goods, which are usually shipped to the continent. The other supplier, Tracmanius Gloo, has two outlets - in the New Cut and the Crossway - and deals in more workaday garments. Characters are likely to go to him for their fustian robes, cloth hats and woollen breeks. Clothes may also be obtained from sempstresses, of whom there is an abundance in the town's poorer quarters.

(39) bootmakers
Strong boots and shoes are important to all walks of society, so it is no surprise to find three high quality cobblers in Brymstone. They get leather from the tannery beyond the walls. The shop most favoured by the wealthier merchants and gentry is that situated on the Backs, close to the Post House. Cobblers work to order only; there is no such thing as an "off the peg" boot.

(40) fine glass dealer
A specialist importer, dealing exclusively with the gentry and the Citadel. Glassware, exceptionally hard to come by, is as prized as silver.

(41) antiquary
There is a particular interest in antiques among the well-born naval officers, so although most citizens have little use for such things this shop continues to prosper. Magnus of Chorazin sells all manner of things: battered bronze spearheads, glassware and pottery from the days of the legions, small stone idols and pendants depicting forgotten gods, belt buckles and rings, even ancient furniture. Many adventurers snap up his wares eagerly, spending whole afternnons in the dusty interior of the shop, hoping they will one day be lucky enough to purchase a magic item. (But it is unlikely that Magnus - an accomplished mage despite his unprepossessing appearance - would allow a choice article to slip through his fingers.) He also buys any old trinkets that characters may salvage from ruins or burial-mound, of course.

(42) vintner
Although the owner, Sefrassit of Lagunne, would prefer to restrict his clientele to the merchants and gentry, this shop is patronized by all classes. He has a particular distaste for travellers (including adventurers) and will treat them to a strong dose of sarcastic Chaubrettian humour. He stocks fine imported wines and some locally-distilled spirits and liquors. He will deal in bulk as well as by the bottle, supplying Lord Erek's cellar on the one hand and a rough tipple for a carousing sailor on the other.

(43) furrier
Krafthal Axelugger employs his own trappers to hunt in the foothils of the Pagan Mountains. Many furs go to the southern trade route, where demand is high, but the local market (given the harsh winters!) is no less profitable. Furs are not cheap; a typical cloak will sell for 600 silvers or more.

(44) "coffee" house
The drink sold in these three establishments is not, of course, coffee, though that is the nearest cultural equivalent. In fact it is an infusion of berries and herbs from Asmuly, which produces a sharp-flavoured stimulating drink called betch. The "coffee" shops are known by the names of their proprietors - Oslaf's, Weoxtan's and Big Ursula's - and flourish as meeting places for the poorer sort of merchant out to make deals, for rustics wanting a glimpse of "high society", for young bravoes, and for all kinds of faintly disreputable types (adventurers included). The most fashionable of the three is Big Ursula's, in Flying Horse Lane, but Ursula's flirtatious behaviour is not for the faint-hearted!

(45) perfumier & spice merchant
A luxury import house, dealing in spices, essences, perfumed oils and so on.

(46) shipping agents
There are six shipping agents. They act as brokers, hiring merchant ships or freight space to traders who do not own their own vessels. Such agents usually have connections with trading companies, so that ships are kept in continual use either by clients or by the owning company.

(47) surgeons
There are two surgeons who deal with any ailment from 'flu to broken bones. Most of the time their medecines are worthless, but they are fully competent in setting fractures and even manage a few simple operations. This is just as well, as there are some ailments - such as appendicitis and gallstones - that cannot be cured any other way. Their services are expensive and usually painful: anaesthetics range from a slug on the jaw to (if you can afford the full fee) a bottle of whiskey.

(48) horse hirers
Apart from the Post House, two agencies hire horses. These are agents for the large livery stables situated by Cowgate. Horses can be hired, bought outright, or stabled for short periods.

(49) game & poultry dealer
Other than the slaughterhouse, this is the only additional source of fresh meat in the town.

(50) timberyard
The source of seasoned wood used in carpentry and small-scale woodwork in the town. The timber is local, coming from the extensive forests around Brymstone.

(51) bowyer/fletcher
Quite a specialised craft, this, but on a small scale. The bowyer, One-eyed Archos, does not make short bows (they are beneath his notice) and can be fussy about customers. He will occasionally refuse to make a bow for one he considers unworthy of the distinction. He is a freeman (middle to upper-middle class, in modern terms) of Erek's demesne who has moved to the town. He is consequently courteous, quietly proud, and thinks that Erek can do no wrong and that most merchants are scum. If you are a merchant, he will not be so rude as to say this to your face, but you will surely be left in no doubt of it! Archos is a former Master Bowman (before the loss of his eye), and is thus worth cultivating as a friend. He gives free archery instruction to a few devoted pupils twice a week.

(52) waggon parks
Large waggons are not allowed on the town streets during the day, so there are two large parks where carts wishing to collect from or deliver to the docks can be marshalled. The parks are also convenient customs inspection points for incoming carts. A number of semi-permanent dwellings - flimsy shacks and tents - have mushroomed up around the parks, where one will find the motley crew of doxies and pedlars who cater to the waggon drivers' needs.

(53) the Guildhall
Meeting place of the guildsmen, of course, and another of the town's administrative centres. Many records are kept in this building, and the civic treasury lies below it.

(54) architect
A tall, broad-shouldered man with a bluff demeanour, Bosel of Erincester is a business associate of Drusin the stonemason, above whose workshops he has his rooms and office.

(55) saddler
Pacto the Cornumbrian will make saddles, leather bags, purses, halters, bridles and many other items.

(56) fishmongers
It comes as no surprise to find three thriving fishmongeries in a seaport such as Brymstone. Fish is considerably cheaper than meat, of course, and for the poorer townsfolk it is the most substantial item of their diet.

(57) apothecary
Lugdor the Stammerer produces an astounding array of brightly coloured and noxious smelling potions. The astounding thing is that they are almost all useless, and yet that people flock to buy them. The answer to this may lie in the fact that the vast majority of people could never dream of being cured of diseases by magic (even if player-characters expect it), so faith - or superstition - is really all they have. (Players should naturally not be told that Lugdor's brews are worthless. They may or may not discover this for themselves, and there is no recourse in law anyway; Lugdor displays a placard disclaiming responsibility for his potions' effects.)

Brymstone is copyright © Robert Dale 1985

Tuesday 24 August 2010

Believing in faerie

Recent posts and comments about Dragon Warriors, in particular the discussion about how Paul Mason used centaurs in "The Tower of Horglin", have been reminding me why I prefer "low fantasy" over the kind of setting used in most FRP games, and specifically how that preference shaped the DW world of Legend. I characterize it as low fantasy because Legend itself is intended as a pretty realistic milieu into which the fantastic occasionally intrudes. Because centaurs and elves and whatnot are not part of the infrastructure of the society, there is no necessity in DW to treat them as ethnic groups with their own customs and ecology. Instead, they stand for something in the human psyche. They can be (as fantasy should be) illogical and dreamlike.

The article below, in which I explain the thinking behind that preference, originally appeared in the DW fanzine Ordo Draconis which contains loads of useful material for roleplaying campaigns and is not tied exclusively to the DW rules either. It's well worth a look. (Incidentally, there is also a band called Ordo Draconis and their second album was released by Opus Magnum Records, while Magnum Opus Press publishes 2nd edition Dragon Warriors. So you see, there is a God and He has nothing better to do.)

If you've already come across this little article in OD, apologies for repeating it here. My excuse is that many Fabled Lands players may not be all that familiar with what's going on with DW and yet may still find it interesting. The line of reasoning behind these choices when I originally created Legend is pretty much the same as is elaborated in this post on the Lawful Indifferent blog - ie, human beings are so diverse and complex that you'll never get to the end of them, while PC elves and dwarves are just a way of avoiding immersion through stereotypes.

The FL world, of course, is all awash with high fantasy quests and not at all like Legend. So with that caveat in mind, here's the article...


Lafcadio Hearn wrote a story about a mujina that haunted a stretch of road in old Tokyo. The mujina appeared as a woman without a face, terrifying travellers at night. Because the term “mujina” had not been seen in the West, readers assumed that it meant a creature that had no face. Eventually the word achieved its reductio ad absurdum: an entry in a the monster manual for a dozen fantasy role-playing games that were either set in the Orient or had reached the point of desperation where another few dozen new creatures were needed to sell a supplement and it didn’t matter what part of the world they came from.

The truth is, mujina doesn’t mean a creature with no face. It’s just a word for a goblin, sprite or imp, derived in fact from the medieval Japanese superstition that badgers and foxes were mischievous faerie critters. And the blank face? Just a spooky magic trick. Hearn – a folklorist, not a biologist - never intended it as the defining characteristic of a species.

Elf, dwarf, goblin. Where do those words come from? From the mind of Man, who is never happier than when he’s managed to tie a label on something and put it in a display cabinet.

All very well in our world, but this is Legend. Darwin is never going to exist here. The magic of Legend is not a science and, despite the convenience of the game rules, magic doesn’t yield to strictly logical principles. The creatures of faerie that we may call elves and dwarves may have very different ideas of how to categorize themselves.
Gin ye ca’ me imp or elf,
I rede ye look weel to yourself;
Gin ye ca’ me fairy,
I’ll work ye muckle tarrie.
The fays of Legend are not the elves and dwarves of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth or of Dungeons & Dragons. For one thing, they are rare. The people of Legend believe in elves and dwarves, but they don’t expect ever to meet one. They hope never to meet one, put it that way. Because they are rare, there is misinformation about them; conflicting stories. And because this is Legend, those conflicting stories may all be true. Logic sits in the corner without a dance partner, disapproving and ignored.

But what are fays, or faerie folk? They are the degenerate remnants of pagan nature spirits whose power has sapped away with the coming of the True Faith. As nature spirits, they take their form and their nature from the living landscape. In forests they are shadowy, agile, willowy. In mountains they are squat and strong as barrels. Out on the moors they are gnarled, spiteful and dank-breathed. You can call those elves and dwarves and goblins, but to the creatures themselves the terms would seem irrelevant. No doubt they do see themselves as distinct from each other, but the urge to fit things into categories is not part of a fay’s outlook. Referring to them as species like that means even less than the concept of race among humans.

As you travel about Legend, you’ll encounter local beliefs in the faeries just as you might have done in Cornwall or the Scottish Highlands not so very long ago. When a Cornumbrian tells you of mischievous pookas and an Erewornian tells you of murderous redcaps, the nature of the creature they are describing may simply be the vernacular penchant of the fays, shaped by countryside and weather and the attitudes of mortals.

More often, though, the talk in taverns is of a specific local fay: Long Lankin or Old Ned or Jack Hollyshoes. No two are exactly alike. A hobgoblin is just a goblin that nearly did for you. There’s no such thing as a genome we can use to pin down their faerie lineage. If you want to GM them properly, you can put that rulebook away for a start.
“My name is Eildonas of Hulda Hoo,” I tell him as we walk.
“I take you to be one of the Grey Elves,” he says with a sidelong glance, provoking in me a short laugh, since such categories only interest mortals.
What the fays do recognize is territorial sovereignty and status. An elf of the forest regards himself as cultured aristocracy, and may even model his manners on the etiquette of a mortal court. The kobolds or dwarves of crags and caverns are a more rough-hewn breed, but still pride themselves on having noble status. A mean creature of the moors and ditches, whether you call it a goblin or a boggart, knows its place in the hierarchy of faerie.

Now, all of this is the way it works in “real” Legend – that’s my and Oliver’s Legend. (You did get that I put "real" in inverted commas, right?) You’ve bought the Dragon Warriors books, so your Legend is entirely up to you. We don’t have no truck with authorial privilege in these parts. But I do have a good reason for recommending that you don’t start neatly indexing elves and dwarves and what-have-you into suitable player-character templates. That’s because it will ruin your game.

Mike Polling (the author of “The Key of Tirandor”, an excellent scenario in White Dwarf #49-50 that is to be reprinted in In From The Cold) describes a problem in fantasy fiction and gaming that he calls taxonomic reduction. It begins with a demand for details about elves, for example - their social organization, clothing, breeding habits, and so on. So you get a supplement with all that stuff… hit points for Grey Elves, magic for High Elves, eye colour and what they eat. Now you can play an elf. But actually all you are playing is another kind of human being.

Okay, so now your players start to sense that something has gone. Elves used to be mysterious. Now they know more about them than they do about Yanomami Indians. So you have to bring in something new. You scour legends until you find Trows, say, or Sith. Just words. Now they take the place of the elves who have been filed and categorized into meaninglessness. Yet pretty soon a player says, “How can I get to play a trow character?” and the whole reductive process begins again.

The point is: you don’t need player-character elves or dwarves. Unless of course you want to recreate Lord of the Rings in your games, in which case stop playing Legend right now because it’s not that kind of setting - what you want is D&D or MERP. Human beings (or rather mortals, as the term is in Legend) already have infinite diversity. If you aren’t able to find that in your own role-playing ability, dressing up as an elf isn’t going to do it for you.

We have to have the rules in role-playing, but they’re a necessary evil. They shouldn’t be allowed to shape the way we think about the world and characters. And most especially they shouldn’t be allowed to stifle the magic and mystery that’s the whole point of choosing Legend as your game world in the first place.

Of course, DW is a game system as well as a milieu. So you're perfectly at liberty to chuck out the low-magic medieval setting and spooky flavour and just use the rules for combat and magic. My own gaming group did it the other way round: our games are set in Legend but we use our own GURPS variant, 7URPS.

By the way here's a nice little companion comment on fairies by Alan Moore. And if you should be interested in running games in the authentic Legend style, it's worth tracking down copies of Maureen Duffy's book The Erotic World of Faery and Susanna Clarke's brilliant short story collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu.

Friday 20 August 2010

The Tower of Horglin

Well, I asked Paul Mason about running his quarter-century-old Dragon Warriors scenario and he didn't say no. So here it is, almost exactly as it appeared in imazine #14 (the summer 1986 issue). "Papa Don't Preach" was in the charts and Guy Ritchie had recently left school. There's a lot I could say about the scenario itself, but let's save all that for the comments...

The Tower of Horglin
by Paul Mason

This scenario is an exercise in irony. It is also designed to give maximum scope for the legendary-medieval atmosphere of Dragon Warriors to come out. For this reason, it may well be considered too high powered by players used to traditional games and the concept of game balance. This is a recreation (not a simulation) of folklore - the likes of The Mabinogion, and the Grail stories. Magic is powerful, but unreliable and dangerous. An adventurer must rely on his or her wits and self-confidence to avoid a violent end. Do not be afraid to kill any player character who treats the adventure as an exercise in strategy.

There are relatively few NPCs in this scenario. It should therefore be easier to invest each one with a distinct personality. Guidance is given in the character descriptions - it is up to the referee to interpret these.

The adventure requires that the Wight Wood be inserted into your campaign setting. The stream which flows by the wood has been called the Fringa stream - you will probably have to rename it as appropriate to your local environment.

The adventure is designed for a group of chivalrous individuals (preferably knights), It commences in a con¬venient town, with the player characters being accosted in their place of accommodation.

The player characters encounter a woman, clearly distraught. She explains that an evil sorcerer has laid a curse on her. She persuades the heroes to assist her by travelling to the sorcerer's tower and killing him. They journey towards the wood, encountering a deadly black knight, who disputes with them over the bridge he guards. Within the wood, they may encounter a ghoul and some centaurs, and will be ambushed by a malicious band of goblins. Finally reaching the tower, and braving the menaces therein, the gallant band will discover that their quest was pointless. The sorcerer is already dead, slain by the demon from whom he had learned his Black Arts.

One of the most cliched methods for involving characters in an adventure is to use the 'little-old-man-runs-into-the-inn' technique. Without any shame at all, therefore, I present the opening for this adventure. A woman accosts the player characters wherever they are staying, She introduces herself as Edira of Cronwic (see Character Descriptions). She is in a very emotional state. She explains that she has appealed to all who bear arms in the town but none was brave or valorous enough to help her. Any NPCs in the vicinity will be edging away from her as she speaks. It is clear that no-one has any intention of assisting her. Perhaps they know something?

Edira will use as much emotional blackmail as she can muster. She will play on the sympathies of the heroes as well as appealing to their honourable natures. She will tell, with much dignity, the tale of how an evil sorcerer called Horglin has laid a curse on her because of some slight he imagines she has done him. Every month, a black-clad rider with a fiery sword burns her crops, kills her livestock, and destroys her possessions. She has appealed to the lord of the manor for assistance. Baron Melius has a suspicious and unsympathetic nature, however - he will have none of it.

She describes her freeholding, several miles down the road. Finally, begging for assistance, she explains that she can offer nothing in recompense to those who free her from the curse, but she begs the heroes to help in the name of chivalry and compassion.

Edira's freeholding lies a few miles away, along the highway for the most part, then along a short cart rut. Once there, the first thing the player characters will notice is the smell of dead meat and rotting vegetables. In the farmyard lies the corpse of a goat, while three very young children sit in the dirt, crying hopelessly. Edira tells the characters that the Black Rider last appeared three days ago. She has reason to believe that Horglin, the sorcerer who cursed her, lives in a tower in the middle of the forest. She points to a large, brooding wood about two miles away. This is known as the Wight Wood, a place shunned by the locals. The trees are in the main large, old pine firs, many of them dead.

As the adventurers arrive at the freeholding, dusk is falling. Edira offers them pallets for the night, should they wish to stay. Alternatively they may like to chase straight off for the wood.

The track to the woods leads to a bridge across the Fringa stream, a fast-flowing torrent on its way to join the major river of the region. The Fringa must be crossed to reach the woods. But it isn't as easy as it sounds. On the far side of the bridge, a knight in full armour (with grey accoutrements) disputes passage to everyone (knight or not). If it is not after sunset, the area will be shrouded in a cloying mist that blocks out the rays of the sun. The knight will loom out of the mist as the adventurers cross the bridge.

'You must dispute with me,' a thin voice grates. This is all that is said by the Grey Knight, who will couch his lance and prepare for battle.

The Grey Knight has a terrible secret: he is a Wight. He is bound to the bridge by the same age-old curse that maintains his unliving state. Powerful though he may be, he is vulnerable. Once the players realise that he is one of the undead, they will no longer be under any obligation to behave honourably, and may use whatever methods they may deem necessary. If no magic and/or silver weapons are available, the heroes may like to choose one of the following options: run away (crossing the stream by some other means -use your ingenuities!) or wrestle the Grey Kight over the parapet and into the stream. This heroic action will break the ancient curse upon the Grey Knight, and he will dissolve into dust, washed away in the stream. Details of the Wight can be found in the Character Descriptions section.

The Wight Wood is part of the Mythical Forest. It is the wilderness, the unknown - the symbol of all that is feared. The atmosphere is stifling. Rotting branches, pine needles and ...something else ... combine to create a smell of almost palpable evil. There is noise all about, rustlings, squeakings, birdcalls, and yet it all sounds somehow far away. Despite the noise, there is a feeling of stillness about the wood. There are some things best left undisturbed...

A track leads into the wood. The heroes would be well advised to stick to it. If they don't, then you should treat them to a series of especially nasty encounters, until they flee screaming from the accursed place.

For ten minutes, the adventurers may proceed along the track. They then come upon a fork. The left hand fork appears to lead downwards to a dell in the trees. The right hand path stays more or less on a level, as far as can be ascertained.

The left hand path leads down towards the ghoul's cave, while the right hand path continues to the centaurs' glade.

This section is designed as a little light relief but, true to folklore, it has a dark side. As they approach along the path, the heroes hear a series of shouts and snorts coming from ahead. Eventually the path leads to a natural glade, in which six centaurs are supping of the woodbark brew of which they are fond. As the heroes arrive, the centaurs are in the process of trying to ride each other, which gives you an idea of how drunk they really are. Although rather demented, the centaurs don't seem to be in a particularly violent mood. The heroes may wish to reveal themselves and speak to the centaurs, attempting to find out more about Horglin. The centaurs’ speech is a little incoherent, and they have a habit of stringing unconnected images together in their more grandiloquent descriptive passages, but they seem quite prepared to be helpful.

Unfortunately they know nothing about the sorcerer. They are aware of his tower but they shun it. They have occasionally seen a fey horse riding breakneck along the forest path, with a black-clad rider on its back. Mixed in amongst this information will be various obscure references to the 'Time of Wanting' and 'She who Speaks', but if they aren't pressed about these, they won't elaborate. If questioned further about the 'Time of Wanting' the centaurs get nasty, and the adventurers had better dredge up some tact to get out without a fight. 'She who Speaks' is described by them as their friend, who walks among the trees and appears to them in dreams. They will say no more. ('She who Speaks' is actually Edira, who communicates with the centaurs by means of telepathy.)

This scene should allow you to go over the top in the portrayal of a collection of hedonist headcases. In their drunk state, the centaurs are completely out of their skulls, veering wildly between moods and liable to react violently to a mild affront.

On the far side of the clearing, another path leads away into the forest. If followed, this will bring the heroes to the tower of the sorcerer after a few minutes’ walk.

On the way to the ghoul's cave there are several false alarms. A fox will rush out of the woods ahead of the adventurers, startling them. A few minutes later, a bat will fly in the face of the first character in line. The path leads downwards, ending at a rock bluff in the middle of the woods. A cave mouth gapes in the rock. This cave is the home of a newly undead ghoul. Since he has only recently joined the ranks of the undead he might even pass for a particularly decrepit human. The referee may like to decide on a chance of the ghoul being at home (I'd suggest 80%) or choose. If he is at home, there's a 50% chance that he will be sleeping on a straw pallet that litters the floor in one corner of the cave. If not asleep, he will be sitting cross-legged on the floor, munching a bone (actually a human femur). What happens next is anybody's guess. The ghoul is not a complete fool, and won't attack a group of people clearly more powerful than himself. He's more likely to attempt some sort of deception, or try to follow the group so that he can ambush them.

In the corner of the cave there is a rockfall. This actually covers the entrance to a tunnel. The tunnel connects the cave with the sorcerer's tower. Finding and uncovering the tunnel will take a while, and it’ll be hot and dirty work. The tunnel is narrow (4’) and low (3' 6"), and leads, after a half a mile, to a flight of stone steps leading up to a heavy wooden trapdoor. This leads to the interior of the tower, but is barred, requiring considerable effort to smash through.

If the player characters approach the tower from the centaurs’ glade, they will have an unpleasant surprise on the way. As they walk, the mist between the trees thickens and a faint laughter can be heard. On the path ahead, two short, sallow, warty individuals gesture obscenely at the heroes, laughing maliciously. At this point the mist swirls still thicker and these goblins begin to taunt the adventurers. If attacked, the goblins will melt into the mist that cloaks the trees. Their aim is solely to divert the adventurers, or at least one member of the party, drawing them off the path in order to rob and kill them. To this end they will fake voices in the mist, throw stones, break twigs, utter manic laughter, and so on: anything to totally confuse anyone foolish enough to be messing about in the wood. If anyone leaves the path, they will be instantly and totally cut off from all communication with the rest of the group, finding themselves apparently alone in a silent sea of mist. Soon a goblin will come close and begin jeering at the character. After some minutes of this, it will burst out of the mist and attack with its icicle shortsword.

The goblins in this scene should be played as the infantile (though cunning and dangerous) creatures they are in legend. Don't play them in a logical way - the power of faerie is so great that Man's only hope against it is his own determination and steadfastness in the face of pure whimsy. This should be an encounter in which the adventurers learn (if they didn't know already) that even the bravest must run sometimes. No normal group of mortals should be able to capture or defeat such free-willed sprites on their home territory, on their own terms.
If necessary the referee should decide how many goblins there are, and what their powers are. I have left it abstract as I feel this scene is about the mysterious power of faerie. Remember all those fairy tales about not straying from the path? Now you know why!

The Tower of Horglin is apparently made of black marble with a shining silvery dome on top. There are no windows and only a massive pair of doors. These open easily when pushed.

The inside of the tower is suffused with a pinkish glow. It is a shambles of broken furniture, burned books, torn tapestries, and so on. The damage is so complete that nothing of value may be salvaged from the wreckage.

There is one item which may be of interest, however. In the centre of the enormous chamber, painted on the floor, is a red pentagram. Anyone stepping on to this will be hit by a Nova spell: myriad beams of searing light shoot from the pentagram hitting everyone within 5 metres. The pentagram is in fact the spell Rune, set up by the sorcerer as a trap for the unwary.

There is nothing else in the tower. All that remains is the silver dome on the roof – if it occurs to the players to investigate that, as there is no way up to it from inside the tower. The tower is some fifteen metres tall, so scaling it may be a problem. Horglin used to create an Astral Gate to reach it.

Assuming they do reach the roof, and if the pentagram in the chamber below has not been activated, the heroes will find that their efforts were in vain. The dome is opaque and reflective - and tough enough to resist the strongest blows. However with the discharging of the Rune spell, the last of Horglin's power will have passed from the earth, and the dome will then be near-transparent and brittle. It can be shattered by any blow, even a gentle tap. Inside is Horglin's private sanctum. On a stone block lies the body of Horglin the Sorcerer, recently dead, with a gaping wound in his chest, from which his heart appears to have been torn. Horglin trifled once too often with Ayperos, his patron demon, and his soul was forfeit. Scattered around the floor are twenty pieces of silver. These lie on a whitish ash - the calcified remnants of Horglin's various potent magical relics and charms.

You may decide to end the scenario on this 'high note'. The players should be shell-shocked, and probably feeling mighty irritated at you. That's always the best way to leave things - they remember the games which provoke a strong response and will later come to treasure their reactions (or they'll decide to kick your head in - I accept no responsibility for any injuries arising out of the running of this scenario). As I said at the beginning, this is an exercise in irony.

Alternatively you may like to develop events from here. Having discovered that their quest was pointless, the heroes may be feeling badly disposed towards Edira. If they have given pause to the strange inconsistencies in her story (Why would a powerful sorcerer decide to curse her? If he did, why could he not just blast her, or torment her with some nameless evil, rather than letting her live?) they may wish to investigate further. But for now, the tale ends here...

Here is some recommended music for the scenario, arranged by section.
A Cry for Help - Prelude from Tristan & Isolde; Wagner
Arable Rubble - The Death of Melisande from Pelleas & Melisande; Sibelius
A Knight at the Bridge — Witches Sabbath Night from Symphonic Fantastique; Berlioz
Into the Trees — Dawn & Siegfried's Rhine Journey, from Götterdämmerung; Wagner
The Centaur's Glade — Uranus from The Planets; Holst
The Ghoul's Cave — The Firebird; Stravinsky
On the Way to the Tower - Also Sprach Zarathrustra; Strauss
At the Door ... and Beyond - Death March from Götterdämmerung; Wagner.


5th rank Mystic


Health Points: 9
Armour Factor 0

Weapon: none
Cash: 5 pennies

Edira is a proud woman in her late thirties. She is of noble birth, but she married a freeholding yeoman, foregoing wealth and security out of love for her husband. Five years ago she was widowed, and since then she has had to look after her small landholding, as well as her three young children. If she were not a woman of mystic power, this burden may well have broken her when she recently earned the ire of Horglin. As it is, her strong will and determination to keep her freeholding drive her on.

She earned the hatred of Horglin the sorcerer by protecting the centaurs of the Wight Wood from one of his more unsavoury schemes. He intended to bind them to his will, taming their natural free-spiritedness and forcing them to become his servitors. Edira foiled this plot by stealing the enchanted ring which Horglin was going to use to perform the spell. Hence Horglin sought for some method by which to persuade Edira to return the ring to him. He decided on a slow war of attrition, using the spells Destrier and Vorpal Blade to become the Black Rider, regularly riding to wreak more devastation to the holding, yet riding away before the dawn (using the faerie power of the Destrier to leap the Fringa Stream).

2nd Rank-equivalent


Health Points: 2d6 +9
Armour Factor 0

Weapon: Hooves (d8, 3 points)
In all respects these are normal Centaurs (see The Elven Crystals, Dragon Warriors Book 3 for details). They spend their days capering around the wood, drunk on woodbark brew. When drunk they are extremely merry, but will still be very touchy — particularly about their main religious mystery, the legend of the ‘Time of Waiting’, a secret known only to centaurs.

WIGHT 7th Rank-equivalent


Health Points: 21
Armour: Plate (AF:5)

Weapons: Lance (2d4, 5 points), Sword (d8, 4 points).
As explained in the text, the Grey Knight is a wight, cursed to guard the bridge over the stream for the rest of eternity. No-one in the area who knows of his existence will talk of him, believing that this will bring a terrible curse down upon them. Anyone asking about the Grey Knight in a public place in the locality will be urgently shushed, and if persistent will be shunned, and treated in a very surly manner. The sign of protection against the evil eye will be made frequently.

The curse on the Grey Knight can be broken. If he is com¬pletely destroyed by a magic or silver weapon, he will not return. Alternatively, if he comes into contact with the waters of the stream whose bridge he guards, he will crumble to dust, which will dissolve in the stream and be washed away.

4th Rank-equivalent


Health Points: 12
Armour: none

Weapons: Dagger (d4, 3 points)
Formerly a crazed hermit, this unfortunate individual was brought to his current condition through his appetite for human flesh. He is a wily old soul, who is unlikely to throw his life away in some desperate attempt to gain the meat he craves. Since he has only recently become a ghoul, he has not yet degenerated to the full ghastliness of ghouldom and can still conceivably be mistaken for a rather pale, lanky and decrepit human. He will probably try to gain the confidence of the adventurers by billing himself as a holy man, and his intense eyes could certainly pass for those of a religious fanatic. If he succeeds in gaining acceptance, he will persuade the heroes that he can lead them to their objective quickly and safely since he knows the wood well. Certainly he knows that the quickest, safest way to Horglin’s tower would be along the tunnel that leads from his cave. His aim will be to get the adventurers to crawl along it so that he can make off with one of them in the gloom, dragging an unconscious person out and into the forest, for a pleasant banquet.

Monday 16 August 2010

Appy now?

Here's one of the colorized versions of Russ Nicholson's incredible Fabled Lands illustrations that app publisher Megara Entertainment has conjured up for the forthcoming glorious hi-def reimagining of War-Torn Kingdom as a full-on 2D CRPG for the iPad. Zip over to Russ's blog if you want to see more gorgeous pics from that. And very soon we should have details of a new print edition of the FL books - and not just that. Ooh, just wait. You're going to think Christmas has come early.

Friday 13 August 2010

Redemption part 3

Our write-up jumps a bit because I didn't have time to write an entry after each week's game, but here's one last entry from a few sessions further on. The party was trying to help reconsecrate a lost chapel, in the course of which quest we were supposed to get absolution for our own sins. We'd had pretty fierce opposition from some antler-headed elves (...goblins, fairies, what-you-will) and my character, Gaius of Tamrac, was also being pulled in another direction by his former mentor, Cynewulf, who had the power to send Gaius's wife's soul down to hell each night. In this sequence, we had gone down into a pit out of Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Gaius had volunteered to squeeze down the narrow tunnel to try and find a way out... It still gives me a shudder.


As recounted by Gaius of Tamrac

When I speak of the horror, I do not mean the drumbeats above us in the darkness, or the slow trickle of black kobold-oil down the subterranean tunnel. I do not refer to the pit into which Escher nearly stumbled, and which we had to cross on a narrow, creaking plank.

I do not even use that term to describe the moment when Lucan lost his balance crossing the plank and, roped to him, I was dragged to the lip of darkness. We were both within a hair’s breadth of oblivion then.

But that was not the horror.

It came when we reached a narrow drain in the floor and I, as the most limber, entered first. I had to remove my armour and crawl along a passage that soon grew tight around me. It dropped then, doubling back on itself so that I now squirmed on my back. It grew tighter. I had only a firefly summoned by Lucan’s magic to light the way. Each breath became harder to take, hot foul-tasting air sucked into taut lungs.

A rope around my ankle was my sole link to the others waiting above. As the rope – some fifty yards in length – went taut, the dwarf Gork began to tug hard on it. I was pulled back sharply and would have broken my legs or my spine when he dragged me up the recurve, but by luck the rope snagged and snapped.

I waited, wondering whether to go back. Wondering whether it was possible to go back. A scuffling in the passage then, and I heard Escher’s voice. We decided to press on together. I first managed to twist around onto my front, and by dint of extreme contortions cut myself out of my clothing. Naked, armed only with a dagger, I resumed the crawl forward. Around us, the rough stone closed tighter.

And then without warning I came upon the horror. It was there in the tunnel ahead. A face fixed with a skinless grimace. A hand of tendons and white bone closed around the firefly. Utter darkness fell upon us like a rockfall.

I could hear that damned thing slithering towards me. No way to go back. Choking darkness. The scrape and tap of its dagger on the rock. The clatter of bones.

With my eye of night I looked for its aura – the only way I could hope to discern anything of it. The aura showed as a deeper absence against the indelible dark, a hole in the heart of a shadow. And then I felt its dead fingers brush my lips and in gasping silence I stabbed with my knife.

There was no way to parry; barely was it possible to aim blows. We lay stretched out at arms’ length, chopping at each other. I struck with my dagger in a chisel grip and felt the tendons of its forearm give way. Still it came crawling forward. I let go the dagger and pounded blindly, in panic, feeling my fists sink into gristle and soft bone.

Eventually it stopped moving. I noticed the pain of several deep cuts that I had not realized I’d taken. Sobbing with disgust, I crawled past the damned thing – the bits of it, I should say; like the evidence of an appalling murder that is no longer a body, but now only strips and patches of gore and skin.

As I squeezed past, my hands closed on a cold thin shaft. On the point of flinging it away from me, I realized it was not one of the creature’s fingers but the key we had come seeking. The cold iron key of the Black Cauldron.

Escher and I pushed on, feeling the weight of a million tons of earth and stone pressing down above us. The soul can be crushed by fear more certainly than rocks may break the body. You cannot banish fear; only the insane do not feel it. But you must hold your fear pent inside a tiny cage at the very back of the mind. If you allow it out, even for an instant, then the horror will come leaping at you like a great unseen beast in the blackness. And then you are lost.

Tuesday 10 August 2010

Redemption part 2

Part Two: Pawns

They become stronger with each we slay, while the recent increase in our own numbers only seems likely to weaken us. Now is the world turned upside-down, the worst of creatures triumphant while the good – and those who would aspire to be better than they have lived thus far – are powerless to act.

But I am ahead of myself, the urgency with which I must write this entry leading to a leap that must confuse the reader of my narrative. I had told of how we set off with the body of the dead Cornumbrian. As we approached the village, three other Cornumbrian warriors came riding towards us, shouting accusations that we had murdered their comrade. There was no chance to explain the situation – indeed, what words could explain it? They tried to ride us down. Two were slain. The third was thrown from his saddle and my sword cut his thigh to the bone. It happened almost as swiftly as I have written it down.

After, when I came to look in the hedge where I had flung the body of the first Cornumbrian, I found the faerie folk had again stolen it. And this time we let them keep it.

The Cornumbrians’ intent had also been to steal Luchan’s horse, which I think excused us taking ownership of their own horses. Luchan nonetheless treated the survivor, saving his limb, and we gave him his own horse and money back. Luchan warned him that if he came to us again with thoughts of revenge, his limb would wither and any he brought with him would die as his other comrades had died.

And so it was we rode on to Blunton in greater comfort than before. It pleased me to gallop out on horseback again, and feel the horse’s delight in speed and freedom and the air in our nostrils, man and beast. God’s Creation is such that even the most tortured souls may snatch such instants of blameless joy, which I feel may be glimpses into the enduring Paradise that is to come.

A moment of conversation on the road was later to take on great importance, so I relate it here. Surveying the fields we passed, Luchan told me of a parable of Our Saviour, where He spoke of a shepherd who went in search of a single lost lamb, even to the peril of the rest of the flock that he left untended. This story struck me as bewildering and yet plausible, for if the purpose of God could be made out in lines of simple common sense then there would be no need of scripture or faith. Therefore, on our arrival in Blunton, I determined to visit the local parson, whom I gave sixpence for the upkeep of his chapel roof and asked if he knew the parable that Luchan had related. He said that he did, and that it was one of the best-known of Our Saviour’s lessons.

Reader, have patience if like me you chafe at these matters of book learning and academe. For next I went to Father Cullon’s room and asked him about this parable. And he told me that he knew no such parable, and that indeed its teaching was absurd for it flew in the face of logic and good commercial sense. It was at that moment I knew Cullon to be something other than a holy man, and I thought also of a certain black noose given to me by one who can coerce my service, this noose said by that one to be the sole means of defeating Cullon. Although at that point I had not yet resolved to make use of the item, it began to be a comfort that I had it – and that despite who had given it to me, and the way he had induced me to use it.

Blunton is Denarth’s home, and having departed there under a cloud he was wary of introducing himself to the town guards. All the same, a confrontation was inevitable so we took steps to make sure it would take place in our own inn under our own terms, after I had first befriended the guards and bought them a few drinks, while Luchan and I stayed on hand to ensure their meeting with Denarth remained uneventful.

Meantime, motivated by boredom, Arandor took himself out to the latrine, hid himself behind the garden wall, and waited to pick the pockets of any of the town guard who ventured outside to relieve themselves.

At the same instant, Denarth was in his room deciding whether to come down and face the guards. As he looked out from the window, he saw in the moonlight dark figures that seemed to be clothed in cobweb robes and have antlers on their brow. Two of the figures fell in silence on Arandor and bore him to the ground. Without hesitation, Denarth launched himself from the window and impaled one of the assailants on his sword.

But there were more. Luchan and I, hearing the sounds of a struggle, ran out into the night with weapons drawn. Black agents surrounded Denarth while others slipped a bag over Arandor’s head and were carrying him off. As I fought my way to Denarth’s side, Luchan ran to saddle his horse and soon came charging into the midst of those creatures, spitting a couple of them on his spear that he wielded like a lance – which gave me cause to wonder again, even in the midst of the melee, if he had some of the upbringing of a knight, and if so where had he come by it?

Denarth and I fought on in the garden of the inn, joined briefly by the town guards until one had his belly laid open and another’s face was skinned off him like a rabbit pelt. The antlered men had claws like iron – I felt them myself, right through my leather jerkin. It seemed as if with each opponent we slew, the others grew stronger. The remaining guards fled then, and who can blame them?

Luchan perceived that the other creatures had almost succeeded in carrying Arandor off into the woods, where at night we would have little hope of finding him. He spurred his horse, great Gabriel, in pursuit.

As soon as Denarth and I had despatched our foes, we hurried on foot after the others. There was silence under the overhanging branches, and many were the shadows painted thickly black in the soft moonlight. In a clearing we came upon our comrades, both with their hands bound behind them and hanging by their necks from an old oak. Luchan still had his feet on the back of his horse, and it is a mark of how disciplined to strife that noble Gabriel is that he did not flinch when I jumped up, balancing on his saddle to cut down both my comrades.

Luchan still lived, but not all his arts could save Arandor. While he worked in vain to restore the spark of life, I learned by certain means that the antlered men had stolen Luchan’s clay cross, breaking it open to obtain the key within. This key opens the way to a hidden place wherein resides the black kettle, or cauldron, of ancient myth, that has the power to restore the dead to life.

We returned to the inn and there met with three new arrivals who had followed us from Crauntel Abbey on the same mission as our own. This group was led by Sir Abuassan, a knight known to me who is in service to my lord Montombre. The men who rode with him were strange and freakish. One was a dwarf clad in fanciful armour; his name was Gurk. The other was a gangling, crook-backed albino who looked to be no older than fifteen years but spoke with the deep tones of a full-grown man, and his name was Lackland. We soon discovered that the eerie appearance of these two reflected their deformed souls, for Gurk muttered and cackled about dealing death in God’s name, while Lackland – well, of his depravities I’ll recount more anon.

Inside the inn, as we all sat together in council, I finally flung the black noose around Cullon’s neck and he fell as though pole-axed. However, he soon recovered his vigour and began to struggle. He had the strength of many men, even weakened by the noose, and when we tried to wound him with our swords we found him to be a creature of living glass or rock, his mortal appearance but a garment of flesh that let him go about in mortal society and pass himself off as a man.

I held the noose a full hour, during which time Lackland had burned off Cullon’s face with a poker from the fire, revealing below a blank crystal visage with an inner glow of magical force. Wearying at last, I passed the noose to Sir Abusassan. The thing that had called itself Cullon lay still, but not yet lifeless. We intended to spend the night together in that room, hoping somehow to choke the motive force out of this strange glass monster, or on the morrow to bathe it in holy water and find some means to seal it up forever.

But fate has a full stack of cards to play on us, and all of them bring woe. In the night, Lackland made two attempts to assault the landlord and rape his wife. On the second attempt, despite having been admonished by Sir Abuassan, he succeeded in gaining entry to their room in the attic. Hearing their cries, I went to investigate and Luchan followed me – though warning, quite rightly, that we should not leave the common room.

In the attic we found ourselves attacked by two of the antlered creatures. We stood no chance of defeating them in combat; it was all we could do to defend ourselves, and I saw that in seconds the one I fought would achieve its purpose of gouging out my eyes. Fortunately for us, Gurk came charging up the stairs and our assailants chose to flee. Whatever purpose those creatures could have had in returning to attack us, having already taken the key in the cross, remained a mystery. But the effect of their visit was no less calamitous, for it distracted Sir Abuassan and he allowed the glass golem to escape. In doing so, it tore right through the bolted door of the inn, breaking the oak like paper.

After, Sir Abuassan chastised Lackland with an axe handle, beating the albino till bruises stood out scarlet on his white skin. Many another man would have died of that beating. Lackland wailed and screamed and vowed repentance, but Sir Abuassan was implacable.

So this is how we stand. The black noose I was given to overcome the glass golem proved all but useless. Our antlered adversaries, whom I presume to be another faction unallied to Cullon, are now individually stronger than we. Luchan and Denarth and I are obliged by the Abbot’s edict to journey on with freaks, knaves and fools who are more dangerous to our chances of survival than the foes who lurk in the darkness without. We have no priest to reconsecrate the cathedral in Helfax Wood even if we can reach it, and any “priest” that the Abbot supplied us now would meet with strong suspicion.

Where do we go next? What indeed is our quest? To reconsecrate a chapel that may not exist, on behalf of a faction in the Church that appears in league with devils and weird sorcery? To find the black cauldron and resurrect the clay of our slain comrade Arandor without regard for his soul? No course that my mind gives me to consider is illuminable by logic. Therefore we must pray for the insight that transcends logic; the insight that would send a shepherd searching for that one stray lamb. In faith lies our only hope.

Resolve must be the firmer, heart the keener, courage the greater, as our might lessens.

Monday 9 August 2010

Redemption part 1

Part One: Nothing is what it seems

Recounted by Gaius of Tamrac

Upon the instructions I had received from my former lord, I presented myself at Crauntel Abbey, having been told I was to join certain others whom the Church is sending on pilgrimage for the sake of our immortal souls. In these latter days, when many say the Day of Judgement approaches, we must think of the souls of our loved ones and make provision for them in the afterlife, where we may hope to be dealt with less cruelly than in this world where monsters dwell.

I approached the Abbey in the mid-afternoon, when the sun had driven most of the peasants into the shade of hayricks for a nap. This being late summer, the fields were filled with hard golden stubble, of the kind that it delights faeries and young lovers to make circles in. Coming from the south up the long curve of the hill, I saw a man coming towards me whom I recognized. It was one Arandor, who proudly advertises his many soubriquets: “the Reaper”, “the Cruel”, “the Throat Slitter”. He appears to be originally of the mercantile class, but his own line of business is, let us say, the selling of shrouds. By which I mean that, when I was still a knight and served my liege in honourable ways, this Arandor was one of those Montombre called upon to do certain other deeds.

Arandor appeared to recognize me, but our conversation took only as long as the time required to pass each other in the field. Arandor: “You have no horse.” I: “Nor do you.” Arandor: “I never did.” And so he headed on south towards Hallpike, leaving me only to muse on what the world was coming to, that monks would have had employment for his special services. For I was sure he had not been to the Abbey to give confession.

A brief conversation with Abbot Hugo soon brought my mind from spiritual matters. They need something. Of course, is that not always the case? He told me of a ruinous Cathedral, long abandoned somewhere in Helfax Wood. The Church desires to reconsecrate this Cathedral. To do so, we will need a key which is in the possession of a blind man who lives in the house of the Lady of Baptismarl. It’s said that the blind man travelled to the far western edge of the world. Will he give us the key? If he refuses, the Abbot suggested that force should be used to persuade him. I never cease to marvel at how readily the craven and weak of spirit are always the most ready to sanction use of force.

I have said “we”, implying I am not alone in this quest – or pilgrimage, if we are to indulge the Abbot in his choice of words. My fellow pilgrims are:

Denarth, a redoubtable mercenary who served my lord Montombre in former days. He has a temper and bridles at any reference to his short stature. But in a fight he is worth two men of regular height. As for his sins: I know that he slew an unarmed man in anger, but it is hard to blame a man for actions he undertakes in the heat of strong feeling. It is not as grave as a sin committed in cold blood. Regardless of that, I believe he has an honest wish to atone.

Luchan of Grasmere, called by some a doctor, who has some learning. He is slimly built, old enough for his hair to have turned full grey. And yet he owns a fine warhorse called Gabriel, and shows the proper devotion to it that one would expect of a warrior. I am not familiar with the hamlet of Grasmere, but from his bearing I take Luchan to be of good freeman stock. He keeps silent as to the sins that put him in our company.

Father Cullon, a man appointed by the Abbot to reconsecrate the Cathedral on the first holy day after we have reopened it. At that moment, all our sins are absolved. Cullon is not a normal man. There are moments when the eye seems to catch him forcing himself to pause and speak and breathe at the snail’s pace of the mundane world. I have my own suspicions.

Lastly, Arandor is also to join us – though I am unsure he does so as a fellow pilgrim, for reasons I shall explain shortly.

The Abbot gave us hospitality in the form of a meal of bread and mushrooms, accompanied by a quite extraordinary peach brandy, possibly intended for those rare occasions when ladies stay as the Abbot’s guests, and a very fine claret that I was able to induce one of the brothers to bring up from the cellar.

During the night, we were surprised by drum-beats from far off across the trees. A spell of slumber, or perhaps a hand of glory, had been used to keep the monks asleep. I looked out and, seeing a crouched figure of obviously sinister intent, put an arrow in its thigh. It was a crow-like goblin, one of a small party that attacked the Abbey under cover of darkness.

On the wall, Luchan and Denarth found Arandor entangled in a tree, apparently trying to climb from two pursuing goblins. The creatures fled and we realized the drum beats had stopped. I later collected my arrow, covered in dried grey goblin blood, and a crooked spear that had landed in the Abbey grounds when one of Arandor’s pursuers tried to skewer him. I kept the blood and the spear-head.

As we returned to our beds, Luchan and I met a monk who claimed to have a secret item to give us on our quest. He said he could not give the item to me or Arandor, for our sins are too grave. This did little to create any bond of trust; I know my sins well enough, but prefer not to be judged by monks. Luchan was quietly pleased to be spoken of favourably, which gave me further reason to mistrust the monk’s intent – it seemed the classic technique used by tricksters since the Serpent first uncoiled itself along the apple branch. But Luchan is a wise man; I must assume he is on guard against mere flattery.

Luchan went to the stables to check on his horse, and as well that he did, as he found the poor beast strung up by faerie ropes. He freed it and slept the night beside it. Such devotion is admirable, especially as one of his age is the more in need of a soft bed and warm blankets.

In the morning we went to the pottery workshop of the monk we had been accosted by. He then told us that he was Brother Gresham, the Abbey’s potter, and the item he would give us was a clay crucifix – but that Cullon and the Abbot must not know of it. Now, I have no great abiding love for the Abbot, but to be caught as pawn between two factions is rarely satisfying for the pawn. However, when I went to tell Cullon of the crucifix, I found myself under a spell that turned my speech into bestial noises.

At breakfast, Arandor told us that he had first intended to spend the night in Hallpike but, on realizing that the journey back to the Abbey would take half a morning, he had turned on the road, arriving back in the fields after sunset. There he had seen a band of goblins, walking on their bird-like legs with pates shining bald and black in the moonlight. Arandor had evaded them, but when he knocked at the Abbey gate, a huge bird like a white raven with crimson eyes had fluttered up out of the porch, startling him and drawing the attention of two of the goblins. He had run for the tree, barely escaping with his life.

The potter had given me a clay icon of St Christopher. Not wanting to be indebted to him, I gave this to Denarth, who thus gets the benefit of its protection, if any, without any encumbrance on him from one of the players in this game. I now know that we are pawns in someone else’s game – and a pawn can do little, but it is at least good not to be misled that one is directing the game, nor into any false allegiance to the players who move you.

Speaking of the players of the game, we must assume the Abbot is the other. As we set out he beckoned Arandor and pressed upon him a silver piece worth 200 farthings, saying that on completion of his mission he will get twenty-nine more. This is what caused me to doubt that Arandor is also on pilgrimage to redress his sins, but instead for some other purpose of the Abbot’s.

As to sins, my own are well-known around the county, or at least are much gossiped about by those who believe they know them. They caused my fall from mortal grace as well as divine. Though perhaps, in the former case, other considerations were at work, which I say because, if sin alone were enough to strip a man of rank and wealth, there would be scarce a noble in the land with two farthings to rub together.

No, it is bitterness that lies behind those words. Ignore them, reader. Though other men have sinned, I know of none whose deeds are so dreadful as mine, not even Arandor, who even as we set out was attempting to corrupt a monk into some act of impiety – and all merely for boredom’s sake. Thus it has become in the last days.

We were provided with mules. Our journey to Baptismarl took us towards Jewelspider Wood by way of the village of Hallpike, and thence on to Murton. In the tavern there, Arandor sought to practice mischief with Luchan’s help. They distracted a traveller while Arandor picked his pocket. Another man saw this, but Arandor thought quickly and palmed the purse off on another man standing nearby. A large Cornumbrian was accused of the theft. He took a swing at Arandor, who blocked the punch and laid the man out with a purse of silver in the face.

The man was thrown out into the lane. But later we found he had been dragged away into Jewelspider. Luchan assessed the lay of the land and told us there were many faerie signs. Nonetheless, I would not have an innocent man taken by faeries in this way, for if our quest becomes wound about with acts of petty unworthiness, it is like a sapling that falls prey to weeds.

We pressed on into Jewelspider there and then, and soon came across the Corumbrian’s dead body strung up from a tree. As we stepped forward, the corpse raised its hands to touch Luchan accusingly, but the doctor held up his shield, whereupon the cadaver fell upon him and we saw it was only moving because of briars and strings worked under the skin, puppet-like.

It kicked off then – a swarm of tiny faerie folk with little pick-axes and hammers, pouring out of the darkness and covering us. We fought a short while against mounting odds, until Luchan noticed a brook and led the others to safety across running water. I would not leave the Cornumbrian’s body, however, as I knew the faeries would drag it off and the poor man would never receive Christian burial. Therefore I set the body across my shoulders and began slogging back down the lane to Murton.

The faerie folk fought furiously to preserve their prize. Their sheer weight of numbers forced me to my knees. I might have died, but Denarth led the others in a charge across the brook and we drove the little fiends back into the darkness.

Under other circumstances, peril shared in this way could forge the first bonds of comradeship. I see little hope for that with our party. We are too obviously a group picked, not because of an earnest desire for redemption, but because we have between us the unsavoury skills of murder, violence, witchcraft and deceit, and have shown plenty of willingness in our lives to use those skills. Just as the Abbot has his games played with words, I cannot call us pilgrims but merely grims. It is not redemption that lies at the end of our road, I fear.