Gamebook store

Friday, 8 December 2017

"The Holly King" (scenario)

It's the time of year for the seasonal Legend scenario again. Admittedly "A Ballad of Times Past" wasn't actually set in Legend, and "Silent Night" used GURPS stats instead of Dragon Warriors, but you know it's the thought that counts.

This year we have a real treat. My gaming group likes to get together for a pre-Christmas special, and what we like best of all at that time of year is to sit down for one of Tim Harford's brilliant blends of solstitial magic, Vancean charm, gruelling fights, and nail-biting fear. In past specials we've faced a vampiric tree at White Bay (geddit?) and an ancient threat that sailed the currents of the ley lines. Last year's game, "The Holly King", was perhaps the best of the lot, and Tim has kindly given permission for it to be posted here.

I'll just add that Tim's own notes for the scenario consisted of two maps and about two hundred words on a sheet of A4. (You get better games that way, as discussed here by AsenRG and others.) I've captured it below as best I can, but really you had to be there -- or you have to play your own version. Spoilers from here on in, so don't read on unless you'll be running it.

Tim's own description of the adventure: "The idea behind the game is that the Holly King is summoned to Ellesland by the singing of the children on Sunrise Peak. The Magi plan to substitute mechanical changelings for the children and to incarnate themselves instead, perverting the ritual so that it summons them, not the Holly King."

The Holly King
The characters are mercenaries being sent to the village of Sunrise Point at the request of its lord, Sir Haskel. Alternatively they could be coming to stay with friends for Christmas.

They are approaching up the coastal road on the afternoon of December 22. Their route takes them past Cyprian Abbey, which stands on an islet accessed by rowing boat. The monks will offer lunch – wholesome, but not substantial, comprising fish with herbs and laverbread. They can also tell the characters something about the area.

Sunrise Point

Sunrise Point is the easternmost point of Ellesland. The village here has a population of about a hundred. The lord is Sir Haskel de l'Aube. His wife is Lady Salme (more accurately she is Salme, the Lady de l'Aube) and his son, aged 9, is Herbert. Sir Haskel has six men at arms, and in an emergency can also call on the able-bodied men of the village. The local priest is Father Guent.

Sunrise Peak

The hill that rises behind the town, Sunrise Peak, is the first place to see the dawn. The legend is that on Christmas Day the Holly King and his sidekick, Black Peter, are summoned to Ellesland by the singing of the town’s children on Sunrise Peak. The tradition is that children go up on their own, without adults, and return bearing gifts from the Holly King.


Arriving at the hall, the characters find there is already something brewing. A Krarthian warship has been seen off the coast. This tallies with reports that Lord Haskel has previously received (either by magical or mundane means; you decide) of an impending attack – his reason for engaging the characters, if they are mercenaries.

That evening a lookout rushes in to say that a warship is sailing towards the northern beach, a few hundred yards from the village.

The ship bears the standard of Blue Moon (Magus Tor). From it comes a raiding party of just thirteen warriors – which is a puzzle, as the ship is large enough to carry far more.

The purpose of these warriors is simply to provide a diversion while the four Mordant Knights disembark under cover of an illusion. An extremely attentive character (ie not engaged in a melee on the beach; Perception -7) might notice splashing in the water, but otherwise the illusion conceals the Mordant Knights perfectly.

The raiding party will pull back to the ship if hard pressed, if necessary with an illusion of a creature of sand to cover their retreat. However, once the Mordant Knights are away the Knight of Illusions will no longer be on hand to cast that. Instead the illusion of the sand creature must be provided by an ordinary Krarthian sorcerer who now appears on deck. If he is picked off by arrows, the raiding party may well have little choice but to stand their ground, as there wouldn’t be time to get aboard and get out to sea without the illusion to cover them.

If the ship is captured, there are clear signs of several large animals having been in the hold: claw marks, the dent of hooves in the planking, feed pails (some with oats, some with raw meat), smears of excrement, etc.

If the characters specifically look around for tracks, they may (Tracking or Perception-5, with modifiers for poor light) pick up something leading up the sandy path at the north end of the beach. Hoof prints, but also the marks of a large bear and the deep ruts left by a heavy cart.

These are the tracks of the Mordant Knights’ steeds and also of the Punch and Judy cart in which the kidnapped children will be spirited away during tomorrow’s festivities.


The next day there is feasting in the hall for the free men of the village. This is from midday on December 23.  The characters are invited too. Sir Haskel tells them the legend of the Holly King, while Father Guent protests that the festival should not celebrate pagan traditions but rather recall the Saviour’s birth.

Meanwhile in the streets a fair is in full swing. Food and ale are taken outside for the rest of the villagers. There is juggling, acrobats, games, and a Punch and Judy show for the children. Lord Haskel’s son chafes at being unable to see the show because his formal duties require him to stay at the feast in the hall.

Some of the children could have previously served at the tables in the hall before going off to the Punch and Judy show. That way the characters could have met one or two of them in order to make later events more personal.


Unknown to the characters, the children of the village (about fifteen children in all, between the ages of three and twelve) are replaced during the Punch and Judy show with mechanical changelings. The punchman rounds up the real children and puts them in his cart (the same one that left tracks off the beach) while the changelings return home, indistinguishable from the real children even by their parents.

The punchman (actually the Knight of Illusions in disguise) will take the real children to the abandoned watch tower a little way to the north. The plan is that the ceremony on Christmas morning will be performed by the mechanical changelings, who will thereby not summon the Holly King but instead the True Magi of Krarth, who will be able to incarnate on Sunrise Peak.

To complete the plan, the Knight of Illusions must also get Herbert, the lord’s son. He will attempt to do that during the night when everybody is asleep.


A mercenary platoon of thirty soldiers led by Captain Hland arrive at the village in the middle of the afternoon. If the characters are mercenaries then they belong to the same company. If not, these are the mercenaries Lord Haskel has hired.

The night after the fair

The characters should not have too much trouble dealing with the raiding party and can return to the hall to sleep.

During the night, soft music drifts across the village like wind chimes. Roll Hearing -5 for an adult to notice this, or -10 to be woken by it if already asleep. A character who wakes will see Herbert, the lord’s son, sleepwalking to the door. If they let him out of sight for more than a moment, he’ll be switched for a mechanical changeling.

To prevent the switch they really need to keep Herbert in the hall. If they follow him through the streets they’re going to lose him in the darkness. He only needs to drop out of sight for a moment behind a dune on the outskirts of the village and then they’ll see him walking back towards them – now a changeling, that is, while the real Herbert is bundled into the cart with the other children.

The mannequins

The real children are connected to the mechanical changelings. Each changeling has eyes made from the tears of the children. A changeling cannot be killed without killing the child, as any harm that comes to the changeling will also affect the original. So they need to be deactivated. The skin can be sliced off (there is no blood, and it tears like parchment) and there is a pendulum where the heart should be. If that is stilled, the link is broken and the changeling deactivates.

Detecting a changeling is not easy. Close scrutiny, if the character has any reason to be suspicious of a changeling for instance, allows a Perception-5 check to notice small gears whirring at the back of the throat.

A further complication is that when one of the changelings is detected, the others will know and immediately scatter to hide on the downs or up on the hillside. Only one of them is needed for the ceremony on Christmas morning.

The watch tower
The children are taken to an old watchtower on the downs a few miles north of the village. They are guarded there by twelve Krarthian soldiers and the Mordant Knights.

The tower has three floors plus the roof. An alarm spell has been placed around it which characters may notice (Perception roll) in the form of an intricate cobweb threaded between the scrub. Crossing that boundary alerts the Mordant Knights.


The characters may have already found the watch tower and realized that it has been occupied by invading troops. Failing that, they will need to do some detective work: spot the switch, figure out the threat, track the real children, perhaps ask for assistance from the beachcomber.

The beachcomber

Tamar is a hermit who lives in a driftwood shack near Barrel Cove, a mile or two south of the village. Like most loners she is a little touched. She scours the beach constantly despite the meager pickings, and one local legend is that she is a selkie who lost her seal skin and now cannot return to the water until she finds it.

She can offer the characters a music box she claims to have found washed up on the beach. They will need to deal with her diplomatically to get that. The music box summons the mechanical changelings, so that even if they’ve gone into hiding around the countryside the characters have a chance of rounding them up.

The second assault

Towards evening three more Krarthian ships attack, bearing standards that are respectively red (Red Death), pale green (Gift Star) and yellow and besmirched with foulness (Plague Star). The aim of this wave is to land about a hundred Krarthian soldiers, allowing the countryside to be locked down so that the ceremony can continue unopposed.

One of the ships makes for the northern beach, the other two for Barrel Cove. Each carries a complement of thirty soldiers. The maximum force Lord Haskel’s side can muster is thirty-eight (Hland Haskel and their men) plus the player-characters and about ten villagers armed with axes, cudgels or pitchforks. So it should be a tough fight, assuming they try to oppose the landings at all.

If any prisoners are taken, and if the characters are still unaware of the Mordant Knights at this stage, they could find out now by using Interrogation or Intimidate.

The Mordant Knights seek to block the way to Sunrise Peak, so will not take part in the landings on the beach.

The Mordant Knights

The Knight of Illusions (Blue Moon) rides a donkey and has the power to confuse opponents by altering the way they see things. Shoot an arrow at the knight, and it might turn out you shot yourself or a friend instead. Is that your sword in your hand or is it a poisonous snake? And so on.

The Knight of Carnage (Red Death) rides a polar bear (yes really) and wields a sword that causes profuse bleeding. Any untreated wound he inflicts bleeds at a rate equal to its original damage every minute until staunched using First Aid.

The Knight of Sickness (Plague Star)  rides a diseased horse whose ribs show through rotted, maggot-infested skin. His sword kills if it touches flesh.

The Knight of the Wheel (Gift Star) rides a unicorn. His is the power of strange fortune. Rolling to hit him you might use four dice instead of three, but then you might get to use two dice to parry. The effect changes continually, as often detrimental to the player-characters as not.

The finale

The Krarthian plan requires only a single changeling to reach the peak at sunrise on Christmas morning. Even if the characters rescue the other children, it should be possible for the Mordant Knights to ride off with at least one. (Ideally that should be either Herbert or one of the children who served them at the feast.)

The Mordant Knights’ goal will be to block the route up to Sunrise Peak so that none of the real children can get there in time for the dawn. As long as a single changeling is there to perform the song, the Magi will incorporate again on the mortal world and then you’ve got a pretty apocalyptic campaign ahead.

If changelings and real children both turn up at the peak, it is the real children whose singing takes precedence.

No adults are allowed at the sunrise ceremony, and if they are there then it won’t work. Normally parents take their children up to within half a mile of the peak and then the older children lead the rest.

Assuming that the characters are successful in preventing the Krarthian plan (and let’s hope so for the sake of Christmas) the children will come back down the mountain carrying gifts, including spiced honey cakes that will heal any character still suffering from the powers of the Mordant Knights.

Lines from our game

“We've got twenty-four hours to turn these children into soldiers.” (Luckily we didn’t have to!)

“Say it ain’t so, Joe.” (When one of the characters had tried telling the others, ‘The Holly King isn’t real. He’s just somebody’s dad dressed up.’)

I said afterwards:The Iron Men got to save Christmas and there were so many brilliant touches that I can't list them all. Just a few: the cobweb perimeter defence spell, the way the Ring of Far-Seeing affected Cracknut when he used it, the clockwork mechanisms inside the fake children, the extremely Grand Guignol version of Punch & Judy from Krarth, the strange powers of the Mordant Knights, and the truly magical moment when the children ran back down the hill with presents from the Holly King, made all the more numinous from Cal's point of view as I was lying on my back on the point of death, gazing up into the sky as the sun rose and the kids came down the hillside. I can just see that scene in the movie. I'm in awe of Tim's knack of creating opponents who put us on a knife-edge of survivability -- it makes the victory all the sweeter.”
Tim Savin said:Great session. Tough as nails. Very cinematic stuff, the magical Harfordian blend of fairytale charm with Legendary darkness.”
Oliver Johnson said: “It was a blast from the first moment to the last suicidal leap from a cliff onto the Illusion Knight’s galloping horse.... oops, Joe just missed it – that had to hurt.  In brief, we went up the mountain with the kids on the solstice morning  -- the Illusion Knight, the Gift Knight, a small army of Krarthian warriors and the mannequins awaited. There was another epic battle, with more illusion leading to a serious blue on blue involving Cracknut and Caliburn. Joe Lynch and Duryakin leapt onto the charging knights, as above, and after many gaping wounds, broken bones, plague infection and carnage we emerged victorious. At first light the Holly King visited the kids on the mountain top and all was right with the world apart from the dead lord’s son and the aforementioned gaping wounds, broken bones, plagues, oh, and burns, etc No PC died, anyway. Merry Christmas, one and all!”


  1. Very nice ! What a great little myth there is at the heart of the story. The Holly King coming sailing in from the sea on Christmas morning, summoned by the special magic of the children feels like a piece of age- old folklore recorded by an Oxford academic visiting remote West Country English villages in the 19th Century. And of course, I like the idea of a 'Christmas Spirit' who has more in common with the Urscumug from Mythago Wood than Santa Claus..."Holly Communion" indeed !

    1. That Mr Harford will go far; mark my words, John.

  2. Tell him I also appreciate his mix of the topical amidst the timeless- ‘Krathians’ hacking someone else’s ritual to divert it for their own nefarious purposes ? With the use of ‘fake’ personas ? Nice ! ; )

    1. Would you believe I missed that completely? And given where Krarth represents in the real world, it's so obvious. I'll try harder to discern Tim's hidden meanings in this year's Iron Men special, which we'll be playing tomorrow as it happens.

    2. I’ve also been catching up on Tim’s excellent series of bite-sized podcasts “50 Things That Made The Modern Economy” and I was thinking that they would make the basis of a fantastic ‘time-traveling’ campaign; the first 18 minutes of the first two episodes alone are packed with plot hooks & twists galore as the world teeters on the brink of war...anyway, merry Christmas to the Iron Men !

    3. Tim used Golding's novel The Spire as the basis for Sunday's Yule special. He'd just done a piece for the FT that cited it, so figured it made sense to reuse the research for our game. The real-world parallels struck us much more quickly than last year, though none of us had (fortunately) seen the FT article beforehand.

    4. Btw I probably can't run that special next year as Golding is still in copyright. And in any case it doesn't need much of a write-up, you just need to read the novel and you can play it from that.

    5. Thanks Dave, I’ll add it to the Christmas list !

  3. Great scenario! Thanks for sharing!

    1. You're welcome, Richard. And btw if anybody runs this adventure between now and Christmas, why not drop back and tell us all how it went?

  4. This is off-topic - so apologies in advance and feel free to ignore. Dave, do you (or any other reader) have a solution for your Golden Dragon book Eye of the Dragon? For the life of me I cannot complete it. I can find the ship in a bottle. I can find the sails. But can't find a route which allows me to find both. If anyone can point me in the right direction I will be eternally grateful.

    And even if no-one can help, a very merry Christmas to all.

    1. I can't remember offhand, Michael, but John Jones is the master wayfarer when it comes to gamebook flowcharting. John, if you read this -- help!

    2. At the mansion, first go upstairs and get the various stuff, especially the sails. Then go through the double doors and either fight the monster or use Gust of Wind. When you go back out from their, the statue will be animated. Lure it back through the double doors so it falls into the pit and use a potion of Wind Walking to get back across the pit. After you leave the mansion, tell the truth to the sphinxes and then go to the Amber P. After you've got the harp, freed (and dealt with) Mantis, go to the Citadel to get ship.

    3. Thanks, John. I knew you'd know the answer :-)

    4. Thanks very much gents. I'm reading the American version (with those odd images of young kids on the covers) and wonder whether there may be an error in them.

      After picking up the sails and leaving through the doors back into the garden (299), where the statue waits, the only options are to use Burning Tiger (140) which takes care of the statue allowing you to escape south (to 28), or flee (223) which then gives you the Burning Tiger option again or you die (117).

      John, am I still missing something?

    5. Once you get the sails and the two potions from upstairs, you return to the ground floor. You should be given the option to go through the double doors, where you'll encounter the pit with a plank, which won't give you problems unless your Agility is less than 4. You fight the monster their (or gust of wind) then return. At that point the statue has animated and the formerly cowardly soldier sacrifices himself. At the point you now have the option to go to 299 or 4, retreat back into the mansion. You need to go back into the mansion and cross the pit. The statue will fall into the pit and you'll use your Potion of Wind Walking to get back across. At that point you can go down the Avenue of the Sphinxes. If you don't do the above, you can't get to the Avenue of the Sphinxes from the mansion, so you can't get the tuning fork and thus the ship.

      I like Eye of the Dragon in terms of the atmosphere, but it's kind of a stone bitch to go through, especially for first time players. It's really easy to miss the mansion, and you absolutely have to go through the mansion or you can't win the book.

    6. I have to agree with you there, John. It was the third gamebook I wrote (fourth if you count the White Dwarf version of Castle of Lost Souls) and I think I was still too influenced by PC adventure games. I wasn't thinking how gamebooks don't really have save points.

  5. Good Lord, the man is right! Thank you John! It is a pretty narrow path to follow for the 'one true way', but not as unlikely to find as some of Paul Mason's FF books, so I'm rather disappointed in myself now not to have found it. But it will be nice to finally complete it; I've purposefully never read the final section as penance for not finding the items,

    I concur on the book's atmosphere too; it's isolated and eerie, one of my favourites.

    1. It made a good roleplaying scenario (set on Tekumel, as an earlier post discussed) because there it was mostly about the atmosphere, RPGs being able to dispense with the puzzles and dungeony encounters that filled most old skool gamebooks.

  6. For the record, another way to beat the book is to go into the cellar after you've been upstairs and get the apple. This is a much tougher path because you have to fight 3 Kappa at the end of the book, but it's doable, especially if you've gotten Mantis' Gauntlet of Dexterity.

    1. Phew. For a moment there I feared I'd Livingstoned the whole thing ;-)

    2. What's the story behind the use of "Livingstone" as a verb?

    3. I imagine that will be a (very apt) reference to Livingstone's penchant for making the true path very narrow in order to find one or several very specific items of no immediately apparent value; his books are typified by this. Interstingly Port of Peril isn't, which (along with the writing) leads me to suspect that someone else was behind that one.

      As an aside John, do you map the flowcharts you do for the books? I've made an attempt at mapping a very difficult book from a different series (not one of Dave's alas), and wondered what a good online tool for mapping it was.

    4. Ian is a busy man these days, and the chance that he took several man-months out of his schedule to write a new FF book is vanishingly small. So I think you're right about Port of Peril, Michael, though I can say that Jamie wasn't the ghostwriter this time out. Possibly Jonathan Green?

      When writing gamebooks I used to flowchart them by hand on A3 sheets. Nowadays I usually flowchart in my head as I go, only resorting to a diagram on paper when it gets especially tricky.

    5. That's an intriguing snippet Dave; care to hint at which title Jamie may have had a silent involvement in?

      Jonathan Green sounds a good guess given his close ties with the FF franchise, and frankly the book reads like one of his, with everything good and bad that that involves.

    6. Nothing specific, Michael, just that Jamie is usually Ian's go-to guy for writing projects, having known him for almost as long as I have. Currently Jamie is slated to write the history of Games Workshop book, for example. We might run a post about that shortly.

    7. Please do Dave, I'd love to see a 'what does 2018 hold for Fabled Lands llp' blog in the new year. In fact, I suspect you still owe us one for 2017. ;)

      And apologies again for sidetracking your post. I did actually read some of Tim's articles; particularly enjoyed his one on Facebook. He contributed to one of the FL books back in the day too I think?

    8. Well remembered, Michael. He wrote 100 sections of The Court of Hidden Faces -- for a sum of money so paltry that it wouldn't pay for a postcard's worth of writing from him these days :-)

  7. I don't construct any kind of physical (or online) flowchart map. Mostly it's just that I tend to go back and replay books ever so often so I tend to remember things. I just recently did a thing where I replayed the Critical IF books in apparent chronological order (Necklace and Skulls, Once Upon A Time in Arabia, Down Among the Dead Men and Heart of Ice) using characters with variations on the name Harkun, with the one going through Heart of Ice being Harkun and once he seized the power of the Heart, he created the Fabled Lands and other game planets like Legend, Orb and whichever world the Fabled Lands is located on.
    Prior to that I did a kind of play-through with the Golden Dragon books where I put them together as a campaign featuring a modified version of the same character. I can tell you more about that once you confirm that you've successfully finished Eye of the Dragon.

    1. Nice idea, John. Although of course it does require to get the "wrong" ending for Heart of Ice ;-)

    2. Why is that considered to be the wrong ending? Look at the situation. Gaia can't be fixed. The world is doomed anyway. Eventually humankind (and pretty much all other life outside of microbes and tardigrades) goes extinct. Since there no evidence of aliens in the Heart of Ice universe. That's it for intelligent life once the last human dies. Which they will. And probably fairly soon.

      Or Harkun takes the power and makes a new universe filled with intelligent life, even if quite a few planets seem to get stuck at the "magical medieval" stage of development.

    3. Interesting idea John. Many of the FF titles, especially when grouped by sub-author, would lend themselves to that treatment too. Though they're much more of a licorice assortment than the fine dining experience regularly served up by the author of this blog. ;)

    4. Winning the power in Heart of Ice certainly can't be considered a wrong ending from a solve-the-plot point of view, and it's not for me to tell a reader which ending they should favour. But considering that the theme of the book is whether greed and a lust for power justify "Homo homini lupus" my own preference is an outcome where you prove yourself not to have a heart of ice. And I like the Blade Runner homage, obviously.

      I have to point out there's no evidence for alien life in the real world either, but with ten billion rocky planets in this galaxy and over a trillion galaxies, the betting odds are pretty good. So if somebody gets the Heart's power and remakes the universe, they probably are wiping out millions of thriving civilisations just because Mankind is on the way out. Which perfectly expresses one of the themes too, come to think of it.

    5. That's certainly true. I suppose ultimately some level of justice is served if we take my read. Even though Harkun claims the power of the Heart of Ice and becomes a god, he doesn't get to keep it and rule forever. At some point he and his fellow "elder gods" perish and are replaced by new gods. Indeed, Jaime and Russ are currently putting together a Fabled Lands set comic detailing the quest to find Harkun's own heart.

    6. Which borrows much of the plot of Heart of Ice IIRC. So that ties it up neatly, I guess.

    7. It also implies the idea of a cycle. Perhaps the previous person to get the Heart was Volent. He got it and created the Heart of Ice universe by destroying his own. The he died and left the Heart for someone else to find in Heart of Ice. Assuming that was Harkun, now in the Fabled Lands there's a quest for the Heart of Harkun, which if found will grant temporary fatal ultimate power and destroy/recreate the universe again. Just as has happened untold times in the past perhaps.

    8. Don't forget, the worshippers of "Volent" were crazy. As far as I know they had no basis for believing Volent existed, they just made him up. I'd say the same about all traditional theistic religions, naturally.

    9. Just because they were crazy doesn't mean they were wrong. In some settings (especially Lovecraft's) insanity isn't knowing too little of reality, but too much. Plus, I just like the idea of this Heart being a thing that's seen a multitude of universes and collected stories from them. Sort of a cosmversal version of The Metal Hurlent Chronicles. Hell, maybe the green comet in Mirabilis is the Heart and its reality-shifting power making a cameo appearance...

    10. I mean that they have no basis for all their theological assertions. Like in the real world. It's possible to assert (as I think Greg Bear does) that the universe had an intelligent creator, but there's a big leap from that to saying that a handful of people have somehow divined (no pun intended!) the entire backstory of said entity. Of course, any god like Volent could exist if we posit that he/it planted knowledge of himself in a few worshippers' minds. The thesis given in the HOI text is that the Heart was an artefact created during the Big Bang, a dormant universe, and I favour that theory myself -- but I don't believe the author of a book has the right to force their interpretation on the readers!

  8. I can't really speak to the FF titles. I only own two, Sword of the Samurai and Talisman of Death (both by Jaime Thompson). I used to own the FF version of The Keep of the Lich Lord, but it went to my public library once I got the Fabled Lands Quests version of it.