“I encountered a description somewhere of an unfinished church,” Tim Harford told me, “looming in the mist like the ribs of a whale. That seemed like a great seed for an adventure. Then I recalled that William Golding had written about the building of an impossible cathedral, and I thought - hmm, worth a read. I didn't think I'd get both a column and a Christmas game out of it, though.”
Tim was talking about Golding’s The Spire. Inspired (no pun intended) by a vision, Father Jocelin, dean of Tatchester Cathedral, wants a 400 foot spire built above the square tower. He has brought in Roger Mason and his “army” of builders, oblivious of the costs – both social, as the work forces the suspension of church services and the builders carouse drunkenly at night, and financial, as Jocelin puts his seal to promissory notes secured against the fortune of his aunt, Lady Alison.
Roger Mason warns Jocelin that the spire is an impossible folly. The cathedral’s rudimentary foundations are barely up to supporting the weight of the existing building. He excavates the floor of the nave to show Jocelin that the cathedral sits on rubble, mud and wooden pilings, but Jocelin is blinded by faith and takes this as evidence that the existing building is a miracle.
Despite his certainty that the spire will collapse, Roger is forced to keep working in order to hold together his army of builders. He takes to drink and begins an affair with Goody Pangall, the young wife of the club-footed cathedral handyman who is the butt of the builders’ taunts. Roger and Goody meet in the sparrow’s nest, a wooden cabin built way up in the scaffolding, where they are safe from discovery by Roger’s wife Rachel owing to her fear of heights.
The characters rendezvous at the Paternoster Inn, also known as the Stump Inn, seven miles away from Tatchester. It’s the 18th day of Yeol-monath (December). From here the spire is visible across the bleak, flat, wintry landscape. They notice how, even incomplete, the spire is beginning to change the layout of the roads, with new tracks cutting straight across the fields where carts of stone and wood have travelled.
Why might they be here? They could be summoned by Father Anselm, the sacrist. For the two years of construction the faithful have not been burning candles in the nave of the cathedral. Anselm derives an income from the sale of candles, though that might not be his only motive for opposing the construction work. As Jocelin’s confessor, Anselm is in a good position to appreciate the intensity of the obsession driving him.
So the characters could be here to help maintain order in the town. A particular concern is that the Bishop is sending a holy nail, a relic of the True Cross. Jocelin believes that this, secured below the stone cross on top of the spire, will protect the building from collapse. Such a relic is worth a lot of money and rival churchmen might try to steal it, hence the need for security.
A local rumour is that cloven footprints have been found in the morning frost. Locals think that the Devil has come to watch the spire fall.
The characters arrive at Tatchester. Some of Roger Mason’s builders are on drunken revels in the town. The characters spot trouble and have the opportunity to prevent an assault. It’s the beginning of taking sides.
They may meet with the mayor, Quercus, who is concerned at the disruption caused by the builders, but happy that they will soon finish their work and move on. He is concerned, however, that the funds Jocelin has promised may not materialize, and that the builders might riot when they realize that.
20 December – Solstice Eve
Opportunity to meet Jocelin and Roger Mason. Do the characters want to climb up and inspect the spire? If so they will get a breath-taking view of the surrounding countryside.
On the way down, a perceptive (or sensitive) character may notice the high note of tension in the stone, like a high-pitched bell ringing far up in the sky.
They may also notice the four gargoyles being raised to position around the spire.
They might hear or even surprise Roger Mason and Goody Pangall in the sparrow’s nest.
Jocelin’s plan is to complete the spire. That requires the capstone to be fitted with a vast cross of stone.
Anselm’s game may become apparent: cathedral is dark, no candles. He makes his money selling them.
The builders’ army murders Pangall in the undercroft unless the characters intervene. His organs and blood are used to strengthen the gargoyles. They may possibly explore the undercroft, which has been desecrated by the army. (The foundation pit is dug in the undercroft, which is fenced off.)
21 December – Solstice / Yule Eve – Deadline
The pit shifts as the intolerable weight of the spire bears down. Pillars scream. Stones crack and skitter.
Lady Alison arrives at the Cathedral with the holy nail.
The builders’ army sets up pagan bonfires on the ridges around Tatchester.
Four major gargoyles: Flame, Fate, Fracture and Falsehood. These will animate if the characters fail to break up the rituals at the bonfires. It’s impossible that the characters can stop all the rituals, but at least they may not face all four gargoyles. There are also eight minor gargoyles whose singing causes weakness and dizziness.
The characters' mission, should they choose to accept, is to carry the holy nail to the top of the spire and drive it into the capstone. Winds buffet the spire, causing it to sway sickeningly.
Here the referee has two options. For the authentically gritty Legend experience, the nail makes no difference. It's no holy relic, just an ordinary nail that Lady Alison got the bishop to bless as a sop to Jocelin and his obsession. The characters may succeed in reaching the top and hammering the nail home, but the tower continues to lurch in the gale, slates and chunks of masonry fly off and crash to the ground, wooden timbers creak and snap. It's clearly coming down and the best the characters can hope for is to get out alive.
Alternatively, for players who expect their adventures to end in that tawdry bauble called triumph*, the referee can allow the possibility of a partial victory. If the characters can secure the nail then the spire lurches to one side but remains standing -- at least for the time being -- although the stone cross falls and crashes through the roof of Pangall’s cottage, killing any occupants.
Without the nail (or even with it, in the downbeat ending) the entire spire topples, shattering the walls of the cathedral and raining masonry on the surrounding houses. And if the gargoyles are brought to life and not defeated, they will add to the devastation and loss of life by hurling chunks of broken stone far across the town. Not that everyone looking out into the storm will necessarily witness that, You've seen Night of the Demon, you know how supernatural horrors can be ambiguous. But this is medieval Legend, and everyone knows that devils are real, even if they don't see them.
Father Jocelin: The dean. Driven, obsessed, impossible to reason with. All that matters to him is the completion of the spire, and he has neglected his other duties and made himself ill in pursuit of that.
Roger Mason: Master of the builders’ army. Bullish, practical. He knows the spire is impossible and, forced to keep working on it, he’s turned to drink and an affair with Goody Pangall. He is unaware of the plans of Jehan and the devil-worshippers, so could be an ally for the player-characters.
Rachel Mason: Roger’s stocky, forthright wife. She is frightened of heights, which is why Roger carries on his affair with Goody up in the sparrow’s nest.
Father Anselm: The sacrist. Older than Jocelin, whose confessor he is - though Jocelin has not attended confession for many months, preferring to spend his time up in the tower. Anselm opposed the construction work from the start.
Father Adam: The chaplain. He is quiet and hardly noticed by most people, but in fact he’s the canniest of the priests and suspects there are pagans or devil-worshippers among the builders.
Jehan: Roger’s foreman. He’s the leader of the coven of devil-worshippers who are using this ritual to animate the four gargoyles as harbingers of the Apocalypse to come.
Lady Alison: Jocelin’s aunt and, in her youth, a mistress of the King. She has brought the holy nail from the Bishop.
Brutus and Equus: Lady Alison’s cataphract bodyguards.
Pangall: The cathedral carpenter and handyman. The builders jeer at him and make him the butt of their jokes. He lives in a cottage set between the nave and the cloisters, a small courtyard known mockingly as Pangall’s Kingdom that is now filled with masonry and timbers for the construction.
Goody Pangall: Pangall’s young wife. She is pregnant with Roger’s son, who may be born on Christmas Day if she doesn’t die before then. This travesty of the Saviour’s birth (conceived on high, of a supposedly virginal carpenter’s wife) was not planned by Jehan’s coven but they are happy to co-opt it into the magic of their rituals.
The Stone Carver: A mute idiot savant who carved the gargoyles.
William Barleycorn: The innkeeper of the Morning Cloud tavern that sits in the lee of the spire. The characters may take lodging here, in which case they get to see the ominous bulk of the spire looming against the sky when they wake up each morning.
Mayor Quercus: He is torn between belief that Jocelin’s faith in the spire is justified, which would mean increased prestige and prosperity for the town, and fear that it will topple into the town.
Obviously it will help to read Golding’s novel, but if you don’t have time you can look at the Wikipedia summary here. If I share my favourite line you'll see right away why it cried out to be a Legend scenario:
"Nightmares of noseless men who floated beneath the pavements, their flat faces pressed against a heavy lid."
Golding supposedly based his unnamed cathedral on Salisbury. Details and pictures of that here.
And you can read Tim Harford’s Financial Times column, “The Brexit monomania built on blind faith”, in which he gives a slightly different but equally alarming take on the novel, here.
The photo of the interior of the spire is by Topaz172 on DeviantArt and is shared her under a Creative Commons attribution licence.
* It's sometimes said that Legend adventures are about failure. More accurately, the paradigmatic trope is tragedy. Let the player-characters grow to care about those whose obsessions will wreck their lives, or simply those who end up under a ton of rubble. It's the Middle Ages, remember; life is brutish and short, and only the hope of salvation makes it bearable.