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Thursday 19 December 2019

"Winter Bites" (a solstitial scenario set in 10th century Iceland)

"Where is the horse gone, where the young rider? Where now the giver of gifts? Where are the seats at the feasting gone? Where are the merry sounds in the hall? Alas, the bright goblet! Alas, the knight and his hauberk! Alas, the glory of the king! How that hour has departed, dark under the shadow of night, as had it never been."
We used Sagas of the Icelanders for this adventure, and such game mechanics as it needs are given in those terms, but other options are GURPS Vikings and VikingsRegardless of the system, you will certainly find the Icelandic Saga Map useful.

If you're running the adventure as the lead-in to a campaign then the characters are young (15-19 years) and begin with two relationships instead of the usual four. 

Thorkill Whalerider lives at Kolbeinsvik up in the Strands in north-west Iceland. In his youth he was a renowned trader and raider, now he owns much of the land from Arness to Kaldbak and is the big man in the district. The characters are sent by their family in the far south to trade goods with Thorkill, but a complication requires them to spend the winter with him.

At this time of year the sun rises at 10:00 and sets at 14:00, with three hours of twilight either side. So it’s full dark from 5pm till 7am.

The characters are bringing spices and furs, which their father is trading with his old shipmate Thorkill for wood (mostly driftwood that fetches up along the coast). Thorkill has agreed to send them back with men and mules to carry the wood, which takes more space than the goods they’ve brought.

It's sunset and the characters have been travelling all day in freezing fog. They're cold, they're tired. Coming down off the Thorskafjord Moor, they see a big man who seems to have a bloody burden on each shoulder. He lumbers up and tells them he’s Ulkar No-Name, “so now you can tell everyone you met nobody on the road.” He doesn’t smile. “I’m bringing these two sheep for the feast.” Wouldn’t it have been easier to herd them back and slaughter them at the house? “I didn’t think of it.”

But there’s a snag
Thorkill hasn’t yet got the wood together to send back, and so he says the characters must stay for the frost festival Þorrablót”) when a sacrifice is made in honour of Frost and Snow, the sons of Jokul the Giant in mythology.

The characters can sit about the house as guests, or they can join in chores if they choose to. If they volunteer to do that, it’s an opportunity to meet Audun Haldorson the foreman who says that the wall needs mending on his farm. It’s not actually for Thorkill, but it would help indirectly as it would free up Audun’s time.

If so they might meet Audun’s headstrong son Bakki, who is their age and will surely propose a swimming contest (in the sea, freezing) or a wrestling or drinking match, or a dice game (use wyrd). Bakki usually tries to get them to do this instead of work, and is likely to be derisive if they refuse, so there’s opportunity for Honour to be questioned.

About half the wood has so far been made ready, including a pine tree trunk that would make a magnificent mast for a ship. Thorkill’s brothers pause each day to look at it and say what a hardship it would be to part with that, maybe the characters can make do with some driftwood roots instead, etc, etc. It’s just a wind-up.

The household

  • Thorkill (38)
  • Asdis (wife, 26)
  • Ongul (brother, 35)
  • Skeggi (brother, 34)
  • Ulkar (illegitimate brother, very strong, 39)
  • Senuna (a beautiful Irish thrall, 19)

Rumours include:

“Ulkar is Thorkill’s half-brother, but he’ll never acknowledge him. He gets seated at meals like a labourer and never gets included in family decisions.”

“When will Thorkill have your goods packed to send back? In his own good time, like everything else.”

“Thorkill went raiding in his youth to prove himself as bold as his father, but Kar Drangson was as fierce a man as any of us will meet in this life, and with his sword given him by the Danish king he was a match for any three warriors of these days.”

“The bandit called Thorn has worried his way into Thorkill’s side since last winter. He preys on those crossing the moors and he’s been tracked as far as Ymir’s Tooth Mountain, but nobody knows where he has his lair.”

“You’ve been invited to the frost festival?” Sucks his teeth. “You know it involves a sacrifice, don’t you?” (This is just locals winding up some young outsiders.)

Characters could use Look into someone’s heart to figure out if a rumour is true or just the locals getting a rise out of them.

Audun the foreman
Thorkill’s foreman is Audun Haldorson (35) a free man with his own farm at Kaldbakvik. Thorkill has bought up every other farm in the district that his family didn’t already own because of the haunting of Kar the Old, who died twelve years ago and whose ghost is said to walk the shores.

The bandit
Thorn and his four men are outlaws who hide out in the mountain and watch for traders they can rob. Their lair is in a tunnel that runs right through the mountain.

Towards sunset it’s as though the day peels back, so that already you can see stars while there is still a glimmer of pale blue, orange and red along the horizon. At such a time character might, looking up at the mountain, see the blood-red light of the dying day somehow mirrored in a pinprick gleam in the middle of the black cliff.

Unless you know the way up, it is a hard climb to the caves where the bandits live. For the last twenty feet it’s likely their lookout will have spotted you, too, so there’ll be a barrage of rocks raining down on you before you reach them. [When you tempt fate for the climb; ideally Berserker or Fight with many against many for the fight at the top.]

The barrow
At night you can see a pale green light billowing around the headland. This comes from Kar the Old’s barrow. (When would they see that? Probably when going outside to empty their bladders.)

Audun: “That’s why people are in a hurry to get home before sunset at this time of year. No one wants to meet Kar walking on the shore. When Kar was buried, Thorkill was in Norway. He took it hard, not for love but because Kar had much of his wealth buried beside him in the barrow. But Kar’s ghost has enriched Thorkill anyway, by terrorizing people into selling him their farms.”

If they enter the barrow: it takes most of the day to dig down to the rafters. Then if they enter (a drop of twelve feet) their torch goes out because of the foul air. They won't be able to get a torch or candle to stay alight, and that's -1 ongoing for darkness.

The interior chamber is narrow, only room for one at a time. They feel around until they find horse bones, then their feet slither on silver coins and they blunder into the back of a carved chair. It’s heavy, though. It doesn’t give when they push it. Wait – there’s somebody sitting in it…

In fact: Ulkar is prone to narcolepsy and wanders off in a daze by night, either wandering the shore or entering the barrow by means of a tunnel that emerges a hundred yards along the beach. So they will have quite a fight with him – that’s Accept a physical challenge at -1 ongoing for darkness; in the cramped conditions it’s not possible for another character to assist by spending bonds. It will go better for them later if they don’t kill Ulkar.

The treasure includes the short sword Kar used to wield, which is the finest weapon any of them have ever seen. Its blade looks blue in daylight and in torchlight almost seems to reflect the blood it’s thirsty to spill. Thorkill will not part with this: “You must do something worthy of fame before I give you the sword, for I myself could never get it from my father as long as he lived.”

The festival
At the feast they are given strong drink, then the youngest is bound with silk ribbons and carried out to the bonfire. [A character could Consider an uneasy situation if concerned.] He is shown to the flames and the men say, “Now this one will sacrifice to you, sons of the ice.” He’s then carried to a hut to lie with Senuna, the thrall; the only sacrifice, his virginity.

If somebody wants to essay a poem or song, so much the better. Our Icelanders campaign is historical, so there's no magic, but you'll want a numinous moment to evoke the solstice spirit, so how about giving the characters a spectacular view of the northern lights "like the hem of Odin's cloak brushing middle-earth".

*  *  *

The opening quotation is from J.R.R. Tolkien's translation of "The Wanderer". The pictures are by the acclaimed illustrator John Vernon Lord, whose grandson happens to be one of our players. John coincidentally grew up in the same Derbyshire town as my dad. Much of the story has been swiped from Grettir's Saga, and I urge you to read that before running it. May the High One grant you peat for your fire, mead for your cup, and boon companions to share the long evenings of storytelling and merrymaking with.

Monday 16 December 2019

Þorrablót is coming

Our Christmas freebie is a little different this year. It's a scenario and it's not for Christmas, it's for the winter solstice. It's coming up on Thursday so be ready to hit the shore with axe and shield unlimbered if you want to run it on or around midwinter's day.

The adventure uses Gregor Vuga's Sagas of the Icelanders rules, insofar as it uses anything, so if you want to run it with those you can get the book here. Your quick intro to the Icelandic stories is here. And how about a bit of music to set the mood?

Friday 6 December 2019

"The Feast of Misrule" (a Yuletide scenario for Legend)

Baron Grisaille is holding a Midwinter banquet for the local peasantry. The tradition is of the Feast of Misrule, when social conventions are supposedly inverted along the lines of the Saturnalia of Ancient Selentium; servant becomes lord and lord becomes servant on Midwinter Eve.

Another tradition is that anyone who comes to the castle during the festival and asks for hospitality must be admitted. Lord Grisaille has asked each of his retinue at Castle Greyholm to provide a dish for the peasants and their representative, Father Frost.

Lord Grisaille fears trouble in these unsettled times and so the characters are enlisted to provide additional muscle at the feast. Naturally that only makes sense if they have an appropriate reputation (in our campaign they were all mercenaries), failing which they could be invited guests, if of high status, or might simply happen to arrive in town a few days before the festival.

If employed as guards, the characters are visited by Cain, one of the men at arms, and invited to present themselves to Geraint, seneschal of the castle, by noon on 19 Yeol, ie the day before Midwinter Eve.


A walled town surrounds the castle. Near the gate is a tavern called the Golden Plough where the characters will see a commotion. A crowd has gathered, peering in through the windows.

Inside, the landlord, John Wheatley, is being consoled by Peter Fleurette, the sergeant-at-arms of the castle. It turns out that last night the lord’s son, Grindel, came by with his five bully-boys, known locally as the Hellhounds, and they forced themselves on Wheatley’s daughter, Rachel. Fleurette is sympathetic but there’s nothing he can do.

The castle

Originally built as a fortress, the castle has been extensively modified over the years to emphasize comfort over security. A second, newer courtyard is primarily domestic, incorporating kitchens, the hall, and guest areas. The old courtyard is smaller and houses the family and their retinue – though even here are signs of rebuilding, with large windows on the first and second storeys.

In the outer courtyard stands a pine tree decorated with ribbons and bits of glass that sparkle in the low winter sun.

The seneschal

If characters have come to provide security, Cain or Peter Fleurette will escort them to the seneschal’s chamber, which is on a staircase off the old courtyard. They first reach an outer study, where they are met by the seneschal’s clerk, Bob, and he takes them up to see Geraint.

Geraint is paying a shilling a day for three days’ work. This is twice what skilled guards would normally be paid, but still less than Grindel is rumoured to pay the Hellhounds. What is their specific task? “You will guard her ladyship and obey whatever commands she sees fit to give you.”

If they come as guests then they will be shown to their rooms. Subsequently Bob will call in to see how they’re settling in. Any further connections will depend on their social status and what they ask for. Equals or near-equals of the baron (ie status 4+) could call on him and/or his wife; others will have to work the social contacts as best they can.


The lord’s family and attendants include:

  • Clarissa, Lady Grisaille, his wife (age 35, but still beautiful), gracious but troubled
  • Grindel, his son (age 20), a sneering popinjay
  • Hybane Pontifex, his court wizard (looks to be around 40), in silk robes that leave his muscular arms bare; wears an Ouroboros amulet
  • Peter Fleurette, his sergeant at arms (age 28), a bluff but canny soldier
  • Geraint, his seneschal (age 35), brow always furrowed, constantly on the edge of getting flustered yet never quite giving in to panic

Other notable figures are:

  • Slake, Hybane’s apprentice (looks about 40), bald, wears silken robes like his master and wears an identical Ouroboros amulet; carries a silver flute said to be the source of much of his magic
  • Cain and Crawford, a couple of ordinary men-at-arms who can serve as spear carriers if needed
  • Rat, a servant from the scullery, often to be found lurking surprisingly nearby, who will pinch anything he can
  • The Hellhounds: Jubal, Crassus, Adler, McColm, and Barrabas, tough ex-Crusaders in the pay of the lord’s son who should together be nearly but not quite a match for the player-characters.

The hall

Lunch in the hall shortly after arriving would be a good opportunity for the characters to get a look at some of the key nonplayer characters such as Hybane and Slake.

The hall comprises a high table at one end, on a low dais, which seats twelve. The lord’s seat is in the middle at the back, with a door to his private chambers right behind it. The main body of the hall contains three rows of cross-benches seating up to sixty more, and is warmed by two great hearths on either side.

Status is reflected by how far from high table you are placed, or if indeed you get to sit at all.

For most of the time characters would not be armoured, nor carry weapons longer than a poignard. On the night of the feast, characters who have been hired as muscle may be fully armed and armoured, but then they would not be seated in hall to dine, of course.

At some point, not necessarily now, the characters should get to hear talk of the monster Grimnir that’s said to lurk in the marshes to the west. A servant, perhaps: “I never met ‘e meself, like, zur, but me uncle’s cousin’s… friend’s brother’s… priest’s boy, ‘e said ‘e met a bloke from Scardic as did see a shadow once out there at dusk on Dobby’s Walk. Big as a ‘ouse it were. Just ignored ‘e, kep’ on staring at the castle ‘ere, and that bloke, who saw ‘e, turned around an’ count ‘e lucky to get away with ‘e’s life. So that be the troll they call Grimnir, on account of ‘e grim and ‘e near.”

It’s possible the characters might try tracking the monster to its lair in the marshes: a warren of tunnels, twisting back on each other to allow ambushes. Grimnir can wriggle through spaces as small as any man, despite his size. It is likely death to enter the tunnels in pursuit of him.

An audience with her ladyship

Clarissa, Lady Grisaille – oh, all right, the characters are going to end up calling her Lady Clarissa – has a mission for the characters. She either orders them (if guards) or requests it as a favour (if guests).

“There is a certain person who may attend the Midwinter feast. If he does, I wish to serve him a special dish. But Hybane, the lord’s wizard, has the recipe for this dish and may not be willing to share it. Therefore I want you to enter Hybane’s rooms when he’s at dinner tonight and get me the recipe. You will know it because is written on a wooden tablet with silver edges.”

She warns them not to touch anything else and is able to provide them with a charm that will allow them to pass undetected by Hybane’s warding spells. This charm comprises a strand of her hair drawn through one of her tears, wound around the character’s neck, then tied and the knot kissed.

Clarissa doesn’t have any other magic, but she has picked up some lore. For example, she might guess that reversing Hybane’s shrinking spell (see below) involves going backwards through the portals while reciting part of the Lord’s Prayer.

Hybane’s rooms

Hybane lives on a staircase off the new courtyard, adjacent to the kitchens. There are three rooms, which in the order you come to them are:

Reception room: an open fire, chairs, table, narrow windows too small for somebody to climb through. This is where the pontifex entertains guests. There is a portrait of him on one wall trough which he can travel to and from this room.

In a niche in the wall stands a bronze figurine of a two-headed eagle, the first of the magical guardians. If it sees an intruder it will emit a series of piercing screams, and at the same moment Hybane will feel a flutter of wings behind his shoulder. If the characters enter the chamber wearing the baroness’s charm, however, the eagle will not see them.

If the characters sneak in here they will perceive the furniture to be built on a giant scale, as if for somebody twelve feet tall. Looking back at the door, that too is twice the height they remember it being from the other side.

A spiral wooden staircase leads up to the next room.

Bedchamber: a double bed where presumably Hybane and Slake sleep, a clothes chest, bookshelves, a standing desk, wider windows.

The characters may not notice that among the large glass beads of the chandelier hangs a eye which scans the room. If it perceives an intruder, it causes Hybane to be momentarily dazzled in one eye.

This room seems much too big. The bed could sleep a man over twenty feet tall. The bookshelves are three feet apart. There’s no sign of the wooden tablet. At first there seems to be no way up. Then they notice the dust of a footprint on a bookshelf. Another just above it. Directly overhead, there is a trapdoor in the ceiling.

Workroom: a bench, papers, quills, more bookshelves. The characters will almost certainly fail to notice, up in the rafters, a squat clay figurine of a sentry. This sends no warning to Hybane if it spies an intruder, but he is able by magic to compel it to speak and tell him all that it has seen while he was away. Of course, if the characters wear Clarissa’s charm then it will say nothing about them.

This room appears grotesquely out of scale, and the characters should have realized that they have now shrunk to about four inches tall. This effect can be reversed by returning the way they came, but only if they recite the first line of the Lord’s Prayer as they pass through each portal – if they don’t, they’ll stay at their diminished size. That isn’t common knowledge, but Clarissa will suggest it if they seek her advice on how to restore a miniaturized character.

The task, then, is to get up onto the shelf where the tablet with the recipe is, manhandle it into position so they can read it (imagine moving a thick plank of wood about twelve feet by six feet), and copy it. It’s only half a dozen lines, around fifty words, so it doesn’t take long – or wouldn’t, except that a weasel has got in under the eaves and is now eyeing up the shrunken characters as potential prey. The weasel is, however, partly tame (it visits Megan, the old nurse in the dungeon, for scraps of food she saves for it) so it’s possible that the characters can avoid bloodshed.

A fish dinner

The recipe is in Bacchile, so not necessarily comprehensible even if any of the characters can read. If they do read Bacchile, they will see that the recipe is described as “Moongazy Pie to give the eater a pleasing aspect, or to undo a wrought ugliness”. When Clarissa has had a chance to study the recipe she calls the characters back. By this time it’s late evening on 19th Yeol.

“I have most of the ingredients I need to prepare the pie. A special parsnip root, crushed peppers from Khitai, a dried herb from Emphidor. But what I do not have is the main ingredient, a moonfish. These can be caught from a certain pool in the woods, and only by moonlight.”

The woods? She means Jewelspider, of course.

“It’s two leagues to the edge of the woods, and the moon will soon be rising, so you’d better set out at once. Follow the moon and you will come to the pool. It’s said to be guarded by Adolphus, a lunatic. You’ll have to find your own way to deal with him.” She looks out into the night. Clouds are gathering on the western horizon, blotting out the stars. “Don’t delay. Once the moon goes in it will be too late. Oh, and you will need this.” She hands them a small mirror. “The moonfish can only be seen in reflection; when looked at directly they are invisible.”

Hybane’s plan

Hybane is also preparing a dish for the Midwinter feast (which is useful, as it will mean he’s in the kitchen rather than his rooms for some of the time, though the characters will also need to distract Slake). His dish consists of sausages made from unknown meat, smoked and spiced with juniper and bay leaves. Inside one of the sausages is a golden lock, to which Hybane holds the key. Swallowing the lock binds the person who does so to Hybane’s will.

Hybane knows that Grindel is not the baron’s real son, that there was a substitution when the child was newborn, and that the monster Grimnir that occasionally marauds out of the Coronach Marsh is very likely the true son. Like Clarissa, Hybane anticipates that Grimnir will turn up at the feast of misrule and, also like her, he hopes to get Grimnir to eat a special dish – though Hybane’s is for a very different purpose.

The old nurse

If the characters track that weasel, they might see it going into the dungeons. Down there in a small cell with a window giving just a chink of daylight is Megan, the old nurse. She has been imprisoned for almost twenty years, so the guards are not very diligent in keeping visitors away, especially if a bottle or two of beer is on offer.

Megan’s mind wanders and she talks mostly to the weasel, whom she calls Brush. The best way to find out anything is to drop a few hints and then listen to her explain things to the weasel. “They think I’d talk. Talk I never would. Not where I found him, nor what I did with the other. Both born monsters, you could say, only one on the inside and one on the outside. And the parents – well, they’re never going to tell, are they? Just a shadow on the lady’s heart and a weight on my poor soul, that’s all those secrets are now.” If she’s interrupted: “Drown him! No, never. Murder, that’d be, and no one has the right to make you sin, not even the lord. And who’d cast a little mite into the swamp to drown, just a few months old, whatever he looked like?”

Twenty years ago, Grisaille and Clarissa had a son. But Grisaille was under a faerie curse, having failed to keep a promise made long before, and the child was born a monster. He was given to the nurse, Megan, to take into the marsh, but instead of drowning him she hid him in a tree stump. Meanwhile, a baby had been taken from a peasant family to be raised as Grindel, the baron’s heir. Clarissa was aware all along that the real heir survived, and Grisaille realized it too when stories began to be told of the troll in the marshes. By that time he’d had Megan cast into the dungeon for fear that she’d tell someone that Grindel was not his son.

(It’s not necessary to force an encounter with Megan. In our own game she was only encountered when the two characters who sneaked into Hybane’s workshop, finding themselves miniaturized and the wizard’s apprentice returning early, tamed the weasel and rode it to safety. It carried them down to the dungeons where they were mistaken by Megan for faerie folk and told the whole story quite lucidly. But players are smart. They can intuit a lot from just half a clue. You might only need to mention that Grindel doesn’t much resemble either parent for them to guess at there having been a substitution.)

Into the woods

Both the castle and city gates are locked after dark. Getting out isn’t the problem, but getting back in might be if they haven’t arranged things in advance with the sentries. A bribe will help.

The countryside sparkles with frost under a crystal-clear sky filled with stars. Low over the woods to the east hangs a waning gibbous moon. Behind them, across the marshes, a solid bank of cloud slides inexorably up over the western horizon.

On horseback it will take less than an hour to reach the forest’s edge. By now the clouds behind them have spread out to north and south, but the moon remains clear. As they ride under the trees, they occasionally lose sight of the moon, but each time it comes into view again it seems bigger and bigger.

At last the woods thicken and they become for a while leaf-whelmed, enclosed in darkness through which only a soft silver light guides them on, until they emerge in a treeless hollow ablaze with cold light. The moon fills half the night sky here, looking almost near enough to touch the treetops. And in the middle of the hollow lies a pool whose covering of light mist makes it seem suffused with a faint milky luminescence.

As they stand pondering the task Clarissa has set for them, they become aware of a grinning, round-faced man with a shepherd’s crook. This is Adolphus. He is a loon, fiercely protective of his pool but easily distracted by anything wonderful.

(In our own game, two of the characters were shrunk to tiny size as a result of Hybane’s warding spells. With no time to restore them right away, we took them to the pool in a carved box. Overhearing one of the characters talking to the box, Adolphus became entranced by the idea of a “box of wonders” and bargained a dozen fish and a trip to the moon in exchange for it. The only close call was extracting the two diminutive characters from the box before handing it over to him.)

The characters should be wise enough in the ways of faerie not to try taking anything from Jewelspider by force. They can bargain, using trickery too, or magic if they have it. Adolphus is an ordinary mortal who got up to the moon and spent too long there, but his self-appointed guardianship of the pool amuses the faerie folk, who give him their protection.

If threatened, Adolphus dives into the pool. If the characters lean close over the water then, his staff lashes up and cracks their mirror. Yet somehow they must single him out among all the moonfish (he changes shape in the water) and wrest him up out of the pool if they are to have any hope of permission to catch any moonfish. Removing them without permission will incur a curse.

As well as moonfish, Adolphus can offer them the chance to ascend to the moon by means of a silken rope ladder. Anyone who does this has a long climb which somehow ends with them slithering down onto the lunar surface – a landscape of smooth silver strewn with clumps of soft cheese. To sample the cheese now would be a disaster; they would lose all track of time and be stranded here for months, as Adolphus was. But it is possible to collect some cheese as long as they remember to keep an eye on the clouds (IQ/Will roll) and not get greedy.

Even so, the clouds well up more rapidly than expected and any character who climbed to the moon must hurry back. If they are caught on the ladder when the moon goes in, it disappears and the only hope then is to dive into the pool. Some combination of climbing (by a good margin) and swimming rolls can be used to resolve this.

Anyone who eats the cheese becomes merrily bewildered and prone to delusions and fancies for several hours. Think elfin LSD.

Back at the castle

The characters get back to the castle cold and tired. It’s the early hours of the morning. The feast is in just over twelve hours’ time. Assuming nobody is suffering from cheese visions, elf curses, or shrinking spells, their best bet is to get some sleep.

Sunset on the solstice

As the sun fades in a dull red welter across the frozen marshes, the common folk arrive for the feast. The yule tree is festooned with candles and trestles are set out in the new courtyard amid braziers for warmth. Most of the peasants will not in fact dine in hall, but eleven dignitaries of the town (guild masters, clergy, master craftsmen, etc) will sit at high table while the lord and his retinue will in theory serve them.

Few of Grisaille’s landed knights are here for the feast, most of them having duties on their own manors. (In truth, few are eager to attend merely to carry dishes for the common folk, no matter that it’s all in jest.)

The song of drunken singing from the courtyard soon becomes deafening, but there is quiet as “Father Frost” makes his appearance. He is a dishevelled indigent, red of face with broken veins in his nose and rheumy eyes, clutching a bottle which cannot be his first this evening. He wears a ragged peasant smock and rough clogs but with a fine silver foxfur coat. Out of the hush the peasants begin a song about the frost personified. It’s a numinous moment, like the haunting ceilidh scene in I Know Where I’m Going by Powell and Pressburger, but the spell is broken by uproarious laughter as “Father Frost” gives vent to an enormous belch and staggers into the yule tree, almost knocking it over.

And yet, and yet… the characters may notice that a chill hangs around him, and that is not dandruff on his shoulders, even in the heat of the hall, but a sprinkling of snowflakes. The fact is that this woodsman, though old and drunk, is imbued by the ceremony with some of the essence of Jack Frost. He’ll take no part in the drama of the evening, but if anything threatens him he’ll avoid harm with supernatural luck.

Who wants what?

What do the peasants want? 
Fun, and perhaps a little mischief to let off steam too.

What does Hybane want? 
To bind Grimnir to his will by feeding him the sausage with the magic lock in it. He cares little for the squabble between Grisaille and Grindel.

What does Grisaille want? 
To maintain power in the face of instability; to keep Grindel in his place. (Disowning Grindel would be an extreme measure.)

What does Grindel want? 
To be the new lord.

What does Grimnir want? 
To be back in the family fold, acknowledged as Grisaille’s son. Or else vengeance.

What does Grisaille’s wife, Clarissa, want? 
Grimnir installed as rightful heir – for which some shape-shifting concoction will be needed – and ideally Grindel dead or banished.

The main event

As the riotous singing resumes in the courtyard and the guests inside go to take their places, Lord Grisaille heads towards the seat on the end of high table. It seems that, while he’s willing to give up his own chair to “Father Frost”, the baron has no intention of waiting on the peasants. The end of the table is as far as he’s willing to demote himself.

Characters need to make observation rolls. The Hellhounds are coming into the hall via the servants’ entrance behind Grisaile, and they are fully armed. Grindel has his gaze fixed on his father and his expression is not sneering now but blank and dangerous. As he strides towards the same chair Grisaille is about to take, intent on intercepting him, he reaches for his dagger.

This is it. The coup d'état. The characters will have to spot what’s going on and move fast, otherwise Grindel stabs his father in the back and, supported by his Hellhounds, declares himself the new baron.

Whether or not the characters foil the assassination and/or come to blows with the Hellhounds, all that excitement was merely the hors d'oeuvre and now we come to the meat of the meal. The fire in the western wall goes out – of a sudden, clearly magic. Soot falls into the hearth as something heavy clambers down the chimney. A moment later it erupts into the hall as people stand aghast: a huge, misshapen figure stretching up to its full ten feet in height. Its long arms lash out, seizing a man who it lifts into the air and pulls in half. And then the running and the screaming start.

This is Grimnir, the true heir, come for his revenge on the family that cast him out. Pretty much the only ways this can end, apart from everybody fleeing or being dismembered, are for Grimnir to eat Hybane’s dish and become his servant, or to eat his mother’s dish and be transformed into the comely youth he would have been if not for the curse. Or potentially both, perhaps.

When all is concluded, Father Frost, who has sat impassively throughout, lifts his cup and declares a toast: “Peace and goodwill to all men.” Though he might at that stage be addressing an empty hall.

Special abilities

Grimnir is invulnerable to all weapons. Non-magical ones may simply shatter on his hide. Magical ones will be more durable but no less inutile.

Hybane and Slake wear the Ouroboros amulets. These deflect blows back on the attacker; contest of Ouroboros Magic Attack (16) vs Magic Defence (IQ + Magic Resistance) of the attacker. (In our game, one of the characters succeeded in cutting the chain that secured the Ouroboros amulet, making Slake vulnerable to attack. In GURPS terms that’s targeting chinks in armour, ie -10.)

Hybane is sufficiently puissant a mage that he can repel an attack by any one or even two of the player-characters at once. (In our game he reached out to choke a character from several yards away, Darth Vader style, and lifted him and left him pinned against the wall, caused a candle to flare up and badly burn another character, spoke a word that caused the servants to attack the characters with pots and cutlery, then disappeared when the tide of battle turned against him.)

Slake’s flute can levitate physical objects. Characters may find their own weapons ripped out of their hands and turned against them. He can also let out an eardrum-shredding blast (resist on HT -5, with additional penalties for those with acute hearing) but doing so will break any levitation of objects. Unlike his master, Slake cannot teleport away if things go badly.

The Hellhounds are tough and wield very fine blades but no magic.

Clarissa has a herb which, if thrown onto the fire, will calm everybody enough for there to be a lull in the fighting. That’s her opportunity to get Grimnir to take the moongazy pie, assuming he hasn’t already been telekinetically force-fed the mind-controlling sausage. (And there’s a sentence I never expected to write.)

Megan nursed Grimnir for several months before Grisaille ordered him taken out to the marshes, and if she is brought up from the dungeon he will recognize her. Other than Clarissa’s herb, that’s the only way to de-escalate the situation long enough to get him to accept a dish willingly.

*  *  *

This scenario is by Tim Harford, who adds: "Names have been purloined from whatever dimly remembered source. Grimnir is a sorcerer in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. Jubal and the Hellhounds are characters in the Thieves' World series of short stories. A vague recollection of an Italo Calvino short story inspired the journey to the moon."

My gaming group has been in the habit of holding seasonal specials for some time. I began the tradition of setting the Christmas special in Legend with "Silent Night", but I signally failed with that one as I designed a mini-campaign which needed several sessions but we only had six hours or so, forcing me to bring it to an abrupt and unsatisfying conclusion.

After that Tim Harford, who played Tall Tom Tattertail in "Silent Night", took over running the Christmas game and treated us to such fine scenarios as "The Holly King" and "The Dean's Folly" -- and others too, sadly now as lost as wiped episodes of Doctor Who, because I failed to write them up at the time and Tim quite rightly works from only a page or two of notes.

In contrast to my overplanning with "Silent Night", Tim's improv approach allows him to fit the adventure to the time we have. In the case of "The Feast of Misrule", we agreed to begin at 1:30 and end at 8:00, some of us having come a long way and needing to get home, and Tim in fact drew everything to a close with two minutes to spare. And now I've gone and mucked up that sensible approach by extending Tim's 700 words of notes to more like 5000. Good luck, and happy Christmas!

Want an Ouroboros amulet? You can get it from Lasa Fine Jewelry & Luxury Gifts.

The image of the forest in the snow is by celebrated fantasy artist Tyler Edlin.

The photograph of the Christmas tree in St Swithun’s Quad is by Sam Thompson.

Friday 22 November 2019

Blood Sword redux: The Walls of Spyte

"A work is never completed except by some accident such as weariness, satisfaction, the need to deliver, or death: for, in relation to who or what is making it, it can only be one stage in a series of inner transformations."
That was the author Paul Valéry. His quotation is usually attributed to da Vinci (well, it's always Leonardo, Churchill or Wilde, isn't it?) and given in the snappier paraphrased version that Auden came up with:
"A work of art is never finished; it is only abandoned."
More relevant to The Walls of Spyte is Valéry's other comment on this theme:
"In the eyes of those lovers of perfection, a work is never finished (a word that for them has no meaning) but abandoned. And this abandonment, whether to the flames or to the public, and which is the result of weariness or an obligation to deliver, is a kind of an accident to them, like the breaking off of a reverie that fatigue, irritation, or something similar has made worthless."
All right, enough from les éminences grises. Clearly some works of art are abandoned earlier than others, and The Walls of Spyte is the literary equivalent of a baby left on a church doorstep in midwinter. What went wrong?

If you'll allow me to be highfalutin here, I signed off as Blood Sword's showrunner with book four. Whatever came after that, I was but an onlooker, like RTD watching Moffat episodes of Who. When Oliver Johnson and I originally pitched the series to Hodder, we had intended to work on it equally, but Oliver's job started to take up more of his time, with the result that I wrote books two through four single-handed. Then Oliver thought he'd have time to do book five, and we realized that would mean he'd have ended up contributing a quarter of the total work so we could switch our royalty split from 50/50 to 75/25. Nice and simple.

How often do simple plans gang na agley? Oliver had got about a third of the way in when a family holiday pulled him away from ice-bound horror to sea and sunshine. I was busy on other projects, but I agreed to step in and write the finale -- just forty sections, starting from the point where you meet Karunaz and Zaraqeb. I'd already tied up the storylines I was interested in, so it was just the showdown with the Magi. Oliver enlisted Jamie Thomson to pitch in with a hundred sections or so in the middle. I have no idea what shape the manuscript was in when it went to the publisher, but they clearly didn't have time to fix it, or even to proofread it. You cannot, in fact, get through to the end of that original edition without cheating.

The title is an obvious homage to "In the Walls of Eryx" and the story should echo At the Mountains of Madness, but instead of a Lovecraft homage the book came out as really more of a Ross Rocklynne concept rewritten by Robert Lynn Asprin. (You see, I just can't help griping. But, after all, Taika Waititi had a smash hit by turning the end of the world into a silly comedy, so maybe I'd better just go with the flow here.)

I'd always had this idea of astral forces gathering above an Arctic wasteland, and a few years later I got to do it my way in Heart of Ice -- also destroying the universe at the end, you'll note. The idea of the Five having engineered the Blasting in order to Phoenix themselves up to a level of power where they could challenge God -- that bit will have been me. At the time I was probably thinking more of Odin on the tree than self-reincarnating Marvel characters, but that's a detail.

Talking of the Five Magi, W B Yeats's poem seems like it must be the inspiration for them, but in fact I only came across it years later, when I was writing The Chronicles of the Magi. The real seed for the Magi came from a campaign that Oliver ran at Oxford back in the early '80s after we'd all been enthusing about Riddley Walker and Mad Max 2. (Oh yes, about that...) In the campaign we were all feral mid-teen scavengers of a post-apocalyptic tribe, wandering across a landscape of bomb-wrecked highways and nature blighted with chemical weapons. In the sky at night we saw fleeting coloured satellites for which we all felt a degree of "fix". We didn't know what fix was, but any change in fix (as in, "gain +2 Fix with Plague Star") was to be dreaded. I remember an encounter with a local bogeyman we called Smiler, whose face was eaten away in a ghastly rictus and who dwelt in an old bomb shelter permanently shrouded in toxic gas. Oh, if only more of that grim tone had found its way into The Walls of Spyte.

I'm frequently asked about the connection between Dragon Warriors and Blood Sword. They share the same setting, certainly, but I'm not sure I'd class most of Blood Sword as "canonical" Legend. If DW is Robin of Sherwood, which is a pretty apposite comparison, then Blood Sword is the BBC's 2006 show Robin Hood. Or if DW is The Shield, maybe Blood Sword is The Rockford Files . (Both shows I like, incidentally.) On that axis, The Walls of Spyte was Police Squad! -- sorry, there I go again. Anyway, the new edition of the book dispenses with the more knockabout comedy elements (what we used to call "silly dungeon" tone) so maybe it's time to let that go.

What else? Unlike the other Blood Sword redux posts (which incidentally are reprinted at the back of the new edition of The Walls of Spyte) I don't have a lot to say about the writing because most of it wasn't me. Karunaz and Zaraqeb, mentioned above, were characters in my Tekumel campaign, played by Paul Mason and Gail Baker respectively. Gail had recently dumped Paul rather brutally, so I probably let his character behead hers as a salve for a wounded heart.

Oliver must have got the idea for the giant red bat that bedevils you at the start from the Crimson Bat in RuneQuest. I'm just grateful he forgot about the ducks. I also remember Jamie telling me how he was working the word "aoristic", which I think he'd picked up from Greek grammar at school, into one of the riddles. I'm still not quite sure what it actually means, so if anyone can drop a sentence illustrating the aoristic tense into the comments, please do.

I'm disappointed I never got the Blood Sword characters to Ellesland. Or Ferromaine, come to that. There's no sign of Cynewulf, Montombre, Jewelspider Wood, or those other staples of most Dragon Warriors campaigns. On the plus side, I did get to explore the Ta'ashim lands and faith in these books, and that part of Blood Sword -- that is, everything that happens in the muck and mire of the cities of Outremer and the Middle East -- is definitely canonical Legend.

Oh, about that... "Why do the characters refer to their world as Middle Earth?" I'm sometimes asked. "Why not Legend?" Well, Legend of course is a non-diegetic name for the setting, something I'm guilty of with Fabled Lands too. To most DW characters, their world is "the middle earth", ie between heaven and hell. I knew that Tolkien used it for his world, of course, but I also thought everyone knew that he just got it from Middle English literature. Nowadays people think it's his proprietary brand, so where possible I've switched it in this book to other terms like "the mortal world".

Overall, if I'd known the Blood Sword books would still be read today by thirty- and forty-somethings, I’d have been bolder about dispensing with the orcs, goblins and dungeon trappings and made it more like "real" Legend. Especially for the Judgement Day finale, which was much better served in my opinion by Tim Harford's Redemption campaign, of which I've offered snippets here from time to time.

That said, Oliver and Jamie delivered a top-class instance of a dungeon adventure in this book. If I'd played in a D&D game half that good back in the mid-'70s, I might never have spurned it for Tekumel and Traveller. And in the new edition, the more obtrusive Pythonesque bits are gone, Russ Nicholson's marvellous illustrations are reproduced via crisp high-quality scans, and as a bonus you actually can get all the way through to the end. It's still Doomsday, but at least you won't miss it.

Friday 15 November 2019

Patrons wanted for the Jewelspider expedition

My last outing on Patreon didn't work out so well. That was for Mirabilis: Year of Wonders, the project dearest to my heart. In retrospect it was perhaps overly optimistic to think I could fund hundreds of pages of full-colour comic book art through the kindness of strangers, especially since the only publisher of Mirabilis (to date) managed to lose all the copies of Book 2 in a lay-by somewhere between Bosnia and Britain.

Oh well, that's spilt milk. The latest challenge is more achievable (maybe), namely how to fund some top-notch artwork for the Jewelspider rulebook I'm working on. I'd like to get pictures by Jon Hodgson and Tancred Dyke-Wells, among others. And not just covers and a few interiors, either. I'm going to need maps and filler art (to make the layout work) and a tidier character sheet than this one.

If push comes to shove I can do the maps and some sketches myself, but that'll look worse than first edition Dungeons & Dragons so fingers crossed. If you happen to be flush with cash and want to throw some of it at the Jewelspider project, the Patreon page is here. If not, share the link with rich friends and relatives and I'll thank you forever, even if they won't. (According to Amanda Palmer, the secret of raising money is simply to learn the knack of asking people to give it to you, but I suspect I'd also have to marry Neil Gaiman to make that one work.)

What do you get as a patron? Other than the warm glow of satisfaction, you'll have access to sneak peeks at the rules. Like this sorcery phylum, for instance:
Illumination – there are various ways to summon a magical light, each with its own advantages and drawbacks: 
  • Faerie motes accompany you and may even dart ahead to point out hidden things, but are capricious and will shun holy people and places. 
  • Corpse light (Necromancy) or St Elmo’s Fire (Fire mastery) covers you and may affright superstitious companions. 
  • Moonbeams can be captured in a globe and can be directed in a soft beam or dimmed at will, but you need to keep a hand free to hold the globe. 
  • Flames (Fire mastery again) are very bright, which is useful at close quarters but can prevent you noticing things outside the circle of light. 
  • A mirror or piece of glass can be induced to release daylight that fell on it at earlier times. 
  • A glow can be awakened in the heart of a precious gem
  • A hand of glory sheds a light that only the caster can see and has other powers besides: opening locked doors and preventing those asleep from waking. It requires special ingredients: the hand of a murderer cut from the gallows, the hair of a suicide (as a wick) and fat from an unbaptised child. Needless to say, constructing such a thing is considered diabolism by the Church and punishable by death. 
Perhaps the simplest option is to Enhance an ordinary lamp so that even a strong wind won’t blow it out, although note that lamps don’t give off a great deal more light than a few candles would.
At least the pressure of seeing a few dollars trickling in each month will spur me to get on and finish the rules, even if it never tots up to enough to pay for a full-page illustration. However, having included at least one link to Wikipedia above, let me add that they too are looking for donations and their need is greater, and their cause far worthier, than mine. So if you only do one act of patronage this month, make it Wiki not me. Though I won't grumble if you want to make it both.

Friday 8 November 2019

The ticking clock

The ticking clock: one of the mainstays of dramatic tension. I may have first become conscious of it watching First Men In The Moon. The lunar ship had been painted with hot liquid cavorite, which would cut off gravity and launch the ship into space when it cooled down. The snag was, our heroes were bustling about loading their equipment on board but somebody had left the greenhouse doors open and that cavorite was cooling fast…

If you’re going to get an early lesson in great storytelling, it helps if it’s from Nigel Kneale.

Though often put to effective use in movies and television drama, the ticking clock usually ends up going cuckoo when deployed in a roleplaying game. Cthulhu will rise if the ritual isn’t stopped by midnight? What if the characters mess everything up (c’mon, it can’t just be my players) and arrive at the wrong address twenty minutes late?

You can fudge it, obviously, but if you do that a ticking clock is forever after going to feel like a fake threat. Or you could embrace the catastrophe. Cthulhu rises, and what used to be an investigative campaign abruptly shifts gear and swerves into post-apocalyptic territory. Now, I like that approach, obviously, because it lets events take the narrative wherever it needs to go. But, again, you can really only pull that trick once.

A more reliable staple is what we might call the “soft” ticking clock. The players aren’t given an exact time when the balloon will go up, but they do know that delays will be costly. The enemy forces are mustering. The elements of a dire spell are being worked. The colony is dying for want of the medicine shipment. Or maybe they just have Mr Wolf breathing down their necks:

Instead of having to count off exact time periods (always a headache when running a game) you can now label various options as just quick or slow. The characters need to retrieve the heir to the throne from a convent in the woods before her father dies, otherwise her cousin will be crowned. They can go straight through the woods – that’s quickest, but there’s a risk of getting lost and these are the hunting grounds of faerie folk after all. Or they can go around the woods, which avoids faerie foes and lets them stick to the road, but is going to take longer. A series of choices like that will determine how promptly they deliver the princess to the castle.

Now, here’s the crucial point. If they chose all the swiftest solutions, that’s its own reward. Their forethought and gambles and shortcuts paid off, they arrive in good time, the adventure ends in a triumphant flourish. But the longer they took, the harder the endgame is going to play out. A short delay gives the nasty prince time to put his agents on the approaches to the castle ready to intercept them. A longer delay means he has replaced their loyal seneschal with his own sorcerer under a magical disguise, and if they don’t see through that the princess may not survive as far as the throne room. A very long delay means the coronation is already starting, the prince has framed them for the death of the old king, and now they need to fight their way past the castle’s entire garrison.

The real fun there is you can make the missed-deadline outcome almost impossible to beat. After all, to have arrived at that ending they will need to have turned down every single opportunity to get a move on. I’m often too lenient with my players. I think I’ve thrown a tough fight at them but they sail through it. This way, I’d figure that the finale they get to if they were too slow is meant to be all but unwinnable. They were given the chance to avoid it but they dawdled, even knowing that time was a factor. So then you can throw a TPK-level threat at them without a qualm.

Or – even worse for their pride – have an NPC step in to save the day, as here:

But all that's just mechanics. Details. What's important is how it feels. A race against a deadline must have a sense of urgency at all times. If the players stop for twenty minutes to talk about their plans, don't accept that twenty minutes makes no difference in a twenty-four hour time frame. Dithering is dithering. "We're talking while we ride," they say? Can't be riding very fast, then.  Call for snap decisions. Keep up the pressure. Every time they start idling, call attention to the swift sinking of the sun in the clouds, the long miles still to go, the chill of approaching night. The sands are running out; make sure they know it.

Thursday 31 October 2019

The face of the fays

If you happen to be in Oxford anytime between now and mid-January, the Ashmolean has a very fine exhibition called "Last Supper in Pompeii". What particularly interested me, though, wasn't the lava bread but a well-preserved statue of a woodland sprite. It was the face. The wide, high cheekbones, slanting almond-shaped eyes, the grinning mouth and sharp chin. Show that to any child today and they'd still know it for a goblin or an elf. And those are faces you can see from time to time even on the street. I walked past two chaps in Brighton, both on the short side, wiry of frame, and with the same bright vulpine features. Some few with faerie blood still walk among us.

It's curious to think that a particular look has been thought of as elfin for thousands of years, and from the Mediterranean to the Western Isles. There's even a genetic condition, Donohue Syndrome, that used to be called leprechaunism because of the distinctive facial features it produces.

So perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that many of our best-known fairy tales occur throughout the world, and some may go back as far as 6000 years. Here's a nice one from County Kildare, and if you want to get into the spirit of Oíche Shamhna, there are a few more in the same vein here.
Thomas Fitzpatrick, a young farmer of Kildare, was sauntering along one holiday when it came into his head to shake out the hay and bind up the oats, as the weather looked like changing. As he was doing so he heard a stump-tapping sound like a stonechat, only it was late in the season for a stonechat to be calling. So he stole along to see what it might be, and, peering through the bushes, he saw a little wee man with a wee leather apron tied round his waist hammering away fitting a heel-piece to a little bit of a brogue. Tom knew it was no other than the Leprechaun. He knew the Leprechaun was the richest creature in all Fairyland and he knew if he could keep his eye fixed on him he could force him to give up one at least one of the crocks of gold he had hidden about in the fields. So he made a sharp pounce on him and held him tight and threatened him with all the worst things he could think of unless he showed him where his gold was hidden. He was so fierce that the little man was quite frightened, and he said, ‘Come along with me and I’ll show ye where it’s hidden.’ Tom fairly glued his eyes to the little fellow, who directed him through sticks and stones, and up and down and to-and-fro till they got to a field just covered with bolyawn buies (ragwort). He pointed to a tall one and said: ‘Dig under that bolyawn and ye'll get a crock chock full of golden guineas.' It was a holiday, so Tom hadn't his spade by him, so he tied his red garter round the bolyawn. ‘You’ll not be wanting me again,' said the Leprechaun. ‘No, no,' says Torn. ‘Now you’ve showed it me I'll off away for a spade.' So the Leprechaun melted away like a drop of water in sand. Tom ran for his spade as fast as the wind. He was gone no time at all, but when he got back there was a red garter round every bolyawn in that field.

Friday 25 October 2019

Different strokes

Games designer, critic and journalist James Desborough put up this video in response to a furore at UK Games Expo back in June. James's points are pretty much what I think myself about all the fuss, but that's not why I'm linking to it here. What I am particularly interested in is his succinct definition of "indie" vs "traditional" roleplaying from 9m 55s on.

In the former, the players get together to tell a story (if you've worked in a writers' room or collaborated on a novel you'll know how that goes) whereas in the traditional form of roleplaying it's not authorial. You play a character. The umpire (or GM, or referee, or MC, or whatever) creates situations. Your characters do things in response to those situations. In retrospect, that can be seen as a story (or a plot, as in, "The king died, and then the queen died of grief") but nobody knew what was going to happen in advance. There was no author. The story emerged from what the player-characters said and did.

Personally I prefer that because my day job (one of my day jobs) is being a writer. I don't want to repeat that in my downtime. Also, I play RPGs to discover and be surprised. The stories that are generated spontaneously from players' in-character words and deeds are more unexpected and more interesting than the ones we'd get if we sat around applying the cookie-cutter of Campbellian story paradigms to the pastry of a story set-up.

That's a personal preference, of course. I bristle if I hear players talking about their story arc and whether it's time for another player to move their relationship on in order to incite a plot point. But then, I'm not much of a fan of genre drama or fiction, and much of that "indie" take seems to derive from genre shapes for stories. As Roger Bell-West says here (at 1:26:20) in such games the goal is not to simulate any physical reality, but to simulate a genre.

In any case, every gaming group is entitled to play in whatever way they most enjoy. There's no One True Roleplaying religion. It gets interesting (and matters) when proponents of one style run up against and misunderstand the playing style and intentions of the other -- as seems to have happened in the Things From The Flood game at UKGE. But if you want to know more about that, continue watching James's video from 12m 12s onwards. I have to say, though, that I ran a Powered by the Apocalypse game (Gregor Vuga's Sagas of the Icelanders) and my players enjoyed it in a thoroughly traditional, in-the-moment, inhabit-the-character style, with absolutely no authorial discussion or narrative analysis. Maybe we were getting PbtA "wrong", but it worked, and I might post some of the scenarios now that the nights are drawing in.

Friday 11 October 2019

"The End of the Line" (scenario)

This adventure was written for GURPS but would work equally well in a Cthulhu By Gaslight campaign, or any rules that support a Victorian or Edwardian cosmic horror game. It owes a lot to HPL's "The Whisperer in Darkness" so, if you don't know the story, read that first.

The characters have been abducted by Mi-Go and are being transported to Yuggoth (Eris) for preparation for the much longer journey to Carcosa (Aldebaran). This adventure should ideally follow on from an apparent TPK in a larger campaign, though you can also launch into it with a cold open, as I did.

The characters are all experiencing an illusion of relative normality. Instead of a spaceship to Eris, they seem to be on a night train heading north. Though they are disembodied brains trundling around in metal canisters with fragile metal grippers for arms, they see themselves as normal.

Personally I loathe describing roleplaying games in that Hollywood jargon of acts and plot points, but for once it could be helpful, so here goes:

The characters are just brains on trolleys, on a small ship bound for Yuggoth. So an actual Mi-Go (if they confront one) will be unbeatable.
1. Card Tricks
2. The Faceless Man

They are still brains on trolleys, but if they escape they may take the Mi-Go unawares (ie unarmed) in which case all of them together might be a match for one or two Mi-Go. (But any such confrontation risks alerting the other Mi-Go, if the characters allow one to get away.)
1. Finding Cavor
2. The Morgue

They are now back in their own bodies but still hallucinating.
1. At the Docks
2. Across the Void

Epilogue: HOME AGAIN
Back on Earth, normality restored.
1. Landfall

Ways into the adventure
The version I ran started in medias res: ‘You’re on the night train to Scotland.’ Of course, it took very little time for the characters to start trying to figure out why they couldn’t remember boarding the train, or even the reason they were travelling.

I used two NPC characters in Act I who you may or may not need, depending on how you've brought the characters into the adventure:
The Good Friend
A Mi-Go construct taken from the characters’ memories of someone they trust. The Mi-Go are not clear on whether death is final, so in the case of my campaign the Good Friend was an NPC who had been killed years earlier. When the characters raised that very point, he responded blithely: ‘I like to be back in the swing of things. I don’t think it helps to cleave too strongly to logic, eh? It’s a very deceptive tool.’ His function is to keep the characters focussed on reaching their destination.

The Lost Comrade
This could be a missing or former player-character, or another NPC friend of the party – not dead, though, because he or she is not a construct, but has been abducted just like the characters have. The difference is that he or she has managed to see through the illusion and is trying to snap the others out of it.


The characters are on a night train. They can’t see anything outside. Just darkness and scraps of steam flitting by. The train is very cold, and getting colder. They check their watches, which have stopped. In their cabins, they have their luggage and any equipment (guns, etc) they might normally travel with. Or so it appears.

The carriage they are in contains their own sleeping compartments, with a corridor running past, and the dining car. The doors at either end of the carriage are locked and they cannot get through them by any means, even though from time to time a steward or guard will appear who must have come through one of those doors.

Card Tricks
In the dining car, they see a man with his back to them performing magic tricks. This is the Good Friend. He asks them to join him for dinner. ‘You’ll be accompanying --- , no doubt,’ he says, mentioning the name of the Lost Comrade.

Where is the Lost Comrade? ‘Oh, a long way out,’ says the Good Friend. ‘We’ll have to go right to the end of the line.’

Check for claustrophobia. Since they are actually in much smaller spaces than they seem to be – the train and the steamer, that is – claustrophobia could be triggered without any obvious reason, and that is a clue that all is not what it seems.)

Some odd things:

  • Bottles behind the bar – for a moment they all seemed to have blank labels 
  • The deck of cards – for a moment they all seemed to be the ace of spades 
  • The ashtray – didn’t notice the steward empty it 
  • A man looks in from the corridor – just a silhouette of a figure in a long coat and floppy hat.

They will occasionally catch a glimpse of gangling men in long coats with floppy hats. These are the illusory form of the Mi-Go. If the hat is pulled off (not easy) it seems to be part of them and reveals momentarily a grey-pink "face" of thick frills and fins. Check IQ to avoid stun, check for Flashbacks, etc. My players soon took to calling these fellows the Mushroom Men.

A Mi-Go on the train can do anything to them: blindness, causing them to start melting. (A note of panic: what if they flow right down through the bottom of the train?)

The guard as he takes their tickets mutters something about them travelling to Carcosa.

The Faceless Man
Later, either when they are trying to sleep or are in the dining car, a figure with a scarf across his face tries to sneak (Stealth 26) into their compartments, get their bags and throw them off the train. This is the Lost Comrade, trying to snap them out of the illusion. If they pull off the scarf, they see he has no face.
The Lost Comrade
Punch 17   2d crush   plus Pressure Points 13
Wrestling 25   ST 22
Parry 17
Dodge 19  Armour 0  Stealth 26  Perception 26
If he can’t get their luggage, the Lost Comrade returns later and tries to abduct and bodily throw one of them off the train. If thwarted, he jumps just as the train passes over an unfeasibly massive suspension bridge. Possibly they are left holding something from the struggle: a mask of the Lost Comrade’s face.

If anyone has Flashbacks, they find something under a seat: it looks like crumpled paper but it’s a thin cellulose mask of the face of the steward.

More creepy stuff that might be revealed through Flashbacks:

  1. Noticing that a newspaper another character was holding has crimped pages as if it had been gripped by a metal claw. 
  2. Waking up, touching your face and feeling a mask. 
  3. Catching a glimpse of yourself reflected in the window as a Meccano-type structure with a glass brain case, spindly gripper-tipped arms, and a cellulose mask face.
  4. Machine oil stains in place of blood stains.
  5. Rubber wheel-marks on the floor where you might have expected to see footprints.
  6. An impression left on the bed in one of the sleeping compartments – not of a human form, but a heavy box.

The reality:
They are being conducted to Yuggoth, ie the dwarf planet Eris. The Good Friend isn’t really here, it’s just a Mi-Go construct to get them to cooperate.

They are in brain canisters throughout this sequence, so seeing through the illusion should carry a risk of mental breakdown.

Ways to see through it:

  • Flashbacks: any Flashback gives some glimpse, albeit distorted, of the real situation. 
  • Claustrophobia attacks can occur even in apparently large spaces – a hint that things are not as they seem.
  • Hypnosis: can remove the illusion, but the character will need to pass a fright check not to immediately reject that and retreat into the illusion.


They arrive and walk through billows of steam to find themselves in a town of dank, narrow alleys and cobbled streets. There’s a sweet scent of mushrooms in the air. Foggy. It’s still night.

If anyone has Flashbacks: they might feel a wall that’s smooth, like a painted board, or hear a whirring mechanical sound, something like that.

They hear footsteps behind them in the fog. Looking back, they see the tall cloaked figures in floppy hats.

If they tackle any Mi-Go at this stage, they have no chance of overcoming them. The Mi-Go are herding them to the lab (Cavor’s basement flat, as it seems). The Mi-Go plan is to convey them from Yuggoth (Eris) to Carcosa (Aldebaran). Their brains have been removed, and their bodies are being kept on Yuggoth for study.

Finding Cavor
They see a light over a narrow door. Down in a basement flat they meet a Scotsman called Lionel Cavor (pronounced “caver”). He offers them a drink but seems rather infirm, keeping a blanket over his knees next to the hissing gas fire.

If anyone has Flashbacks: they momentarily see Cavor as a waxwork. Drifting shapes like pinkish fungi adjust struts and arms to move the brandy he offers them. His voice comes from a metal box suspended behind the waxwork’s head.

Cavor indicates his telescope by the window. It’s pointing up through a grating and the foggy air, but if anyone looks through it and rotates the wheel on the side they will see, in succession:

  1. A distant pale blue dot. 
  2. Then ten times bigger, a cluster of stars centred on a tiny sun. 
  3. Then part of the sweep of the Milky Way. 
  4. Then an arm of a vortex of lights.
  5. Then a flattened disk of lights. 
  6. And further out: something like tendrils of smoke wrapped around the disk, extending from a pulsing blackness in the centre.
  7. If they keep watching, they see the disk rotating as the tentacular thing sucks birthing stars into its central maw.

‘It is blind Azathoth ye see there!’ says Cavor. ‘See him batten on whole systems that will never live. A hundred thousand stars every eon, yet he’ll keep devouring till this galaxy is but a husk…

‘Were I in the wildest waste,
Sae black and bare, sae black and bare…’

Cavor refers to the rotation of the galaxy every 250 million years, and how the sweep of Azathoth’s polyp will either doom life on Earth this time or it won’t. That’s inevitable, it will either happen or it won’t. Of course, this being the 1890s, the characters will not be aware that our galaxy is only one of billions. If they know anything of astronomy, they may be aware of Herschel's estimate of the shape of the Milky Way, however, and so recognize the "disk of lights" for what it is. (Most astronomers in the late 19th century don't realize that it is rotating.)

Another chance for Flashbacks now, even the players who haven’t bought them as a mental disadvantage.

‘You should get back to the warm and your ain loved ones,’ Cavor reckons. ‘I’d take ma ticket and be on my way, but I’m waiting till I’m a bit firmer on ma feet. Ma ship’s the Selene, but if ye want to go home you’d best find your ain ship and your ain ticket.’

He’s worried, though; what if the “custodians” didn’t keep all his “bits”? (Ie body parts.)

Cavor also refers to his old friend. ‘He’s gone on ahead. Lang syne he’s been gone. I’d not like to go if there’s any chance he’d come back.’

He refers to Bedford, who has indeed been sent to Carcosa. They will find a cellulose mask of Bedford in Cavor’s bookcase which they can use to imitate him if they think of it. That will help get Cavor to talk more plainly.

And where is the Lost Comrade?

‘He’ll be in the Quiet Place, no doubt. That’s where they took ma friend. Past the Last Wall, you’ll find a square. It’s the building on the far side.’ ‘The Last Wall?’ ‘Last Wall and testament, man!’ Cavor laughs madly.

Items they can acquire here:

  • Cavor says he wants to go on a cruise to warmer climes, nearer to the sun. He has the cruise ticket (he shows them) for when he's well enough.
  • Cavor also has a monocle that reveals actual reality, Eyes of the Overworld style. Anyone using that will need to roll IQ (not Will) to avoid mental stun. This can trigger Flashbacks even if they make the roll.
  • He also tells them to take a hat box to the morgue with a wee hammer. ‘Aye, you can have those. Ye may find them useful.’

Cavor offers them the hat box and hammer, but they’ll have to steal the ticket and monocle, as he won’t volunteer those.

What these really are, if they see through the illusion:

  • Ticket – the key that activates Cavor’s sphere; a brass rod with indentations and a wooden handle bearing a plate that says MADE IN LANARKSHIRE.
  • Monocle – a viewing tube.
  • Hat – a metal headband with a wire mesh over the top, such as you might see used in operations on the brain, only somehow of alien rather than human design.
  • Surgical hammer – a metal probe of strange alien design with a button on the side.

The Morgue
At the edge of town they find a wall with broken glass along the top. Cavor called this the Last Wall. If they walk along they will come to a wooden door, bolted shut and covered in old peeling music hall posters. (They struggle to read the text, as in a dream.) Beyond that wall is interstellar space.

More horror: They will see two Men in Hats leading sleepwalking figures across the fog-bound square. Getting closer, they see the figures are equal in number to the party and the same mix of male and female. Closer still, and they see the backs of the figures’ skulls are open and a thin sulphurous vapour clings to the back of each head. If they look at the faces – but they will have guessed: it’s their own bodies.

The two Men in Hats are Mi-Go lab workers, not prepared for an escape and so the reality of any fight, which looks like the characters versus a couple of tall gangling men in hats, will be that their trolley-borne brains are fighting with crude mechanical grabs against fragile, low-gravity, creatures of floating ‘fungus’: drifting shapes like the fins of tropical fish, in which float sensory organs; their arms are delicate as daddy-longlegs but are many and capable of exerting surprising force.
Men in Hats (Mi-Go lab techs)
Punch 18    1d6+3 crush
Wrestling 14    ST 14
Parry 12
HIT POINTS 25         Dodge 13    Armour 0    Stealth 8    Perception 12
The characters fight with their ordinary unarmed combat skills and damage, or at least so they believe. Any guns they think they’re carrying turn out to be unloaded or otherwise malfunctioning.

For each round the fight goes on, roll 2d6. On snake-eyes another Mi-Go comes along and raises the alarm. The characters must also stop either of the “Men in Hats” from running off for the same reason.

Across the square is a set of steps up to a door like a London club. If they fought the Mi-Go, their sleepwalking bodies will have already gone in. Inside they find the Lost Comrade lying on a slab, motionless, his face covered by a hard wax mask. He wears evening dress but no hat. Further back in the room, four other bodies lie on slabs.

The hammer breaks the mask, then they must put the hat on him.

Anyone able to see the truth: The Lost Comrade’s body is lying on a steel slab. Their own bodies should now be moving to lie on other slabs. Using the “hammer” activates the automated brain surgery arms here. Placing the hat positions a number of drill/saw arms that then reimplant all their brains.


The reality: They are in a laboratory complex on Yuggoth. Locating Cavor’s anti-gravity sphere will be perceived as finding their way to the docks here. They’ll need Cavor’s ticket, which represents activating the cavorite panels aboard the ship. Note that the Mi-Go aren’t expecting an escape at first, but if alerted will arrive in unopposable force.

At the Docks
Cavor’s steamer, the Selene, is at the quayside. (Reality: it’s the cavorite sphere under a huge glass-&-steel dome). They need to have the ticket, which is the key that unlocks the sphere’s instrument panel. If they have a ticket, the engines start up, lights come on, the Venetian blind shutters test themselves. They will see that as the steamer getting ready to sail.

But: some "dock workers" have seen them and are heading off. These are cyborg workers, but they could bring the Mi-Go. If somebody chases the dock workers and/or makes a stand on the gangplank as the ship gets ready to sail, he or she can buy time but at the risk of getting left behind. (DX roll to jump as the gangplank falls away.)

Across the Void
They appear to be on a steamer surrounded by clouds at night. (As in the film Between Two Worlds.) But in fact this is Cavor’s sphere. Roll for claustrophobia because the vessel is much smaller than it seems!

Applicable skills for the voyage: navigation, sailing, physics, mathematics, astronomy. Three or four successful rolls are needed to steer the ship back to Earth. If those go wrong, as they very possibly will – well, your Victorian/Edwardian Cthulhu campaign is boldly going in a new direction. Let them discover some cosmic horror out there where no one can hear you scream.

They seem to be attacked by modern-day (ie 1890s) pirates, led by the Good Friend whose brain patterns and body the Mi-Go still have. The “pirates” just drop to the deck, accompanied by one of the hat-&-coat guys with four arms. The pirates are patchwork cyborgs, fairly tough but fragile. However, against the Man in Hat the characters need an IQ roll just to make an effective attack, and critical fail on that means you are losing the plot.

The Good Friend is just a body with a ghastly organic-looking robot brain clamped to the back of his scooped-out skull. But, slow-witted and clumsy as he is, he carries a force sword.
Man in Hat (Mi-Go fighter)
Punch 18     2d+2 crush x 4
“Shotgun” 15    1-3 targets, dodge or make HT-10 to avoid unconsciousness
Parry 12 (but you need an IQ roll for your attack to be effective)
Dodge 14    Armour 5    Stealth 8    Perception 17
The Good Friend’s body with robot brain
Force Sword 13    8d burn
Parry 11
Dodge 11    Armour 0    Stealth 13    Perception 13

Pirates (8 cyborgs)
Sword 12    1d+2 cut
Parry 10
HIT POINTS 10 eachDodge 10    Armour 2    Stealth 10    Perception 10
The Mi-Go is armed with a stun ray: dodge or you must make a HT roll at -10 to avoid unconsciousness. This looks like a shotgun affecting 1-3 targets. In melee it fights with claws, which are mechanical prostheses extending from an artificial exosketeton. Its actual form within that is a tissue-like translucent growth with internal nodes that floats on gossamer wings in low gravity.

If anybody is aware of the real situation and thinks of it, they could possibly use the cavorite panels to make some kind of gravitational attack on the fragile body of the Mi-Go.

Once the “pirates” are defeated, the ship’s trajectory carries them outside the range of the Mi-Go’s mind control – or perhaps it is simply wearing off with time. Now they can see things as they really are: scars on their shaven scalps, the vessel just a wooden-and-steel icosahedron with cavorite-painted Venetian blinds, and beyond the portholes lie stars and nothingness.

Assuming the navigation rolls, etc, work out okay then they’ll touch down on Horsell Common near Woking in late 1895 or early 1896 with an earth-shaking impact that attracts Herbert George Wells, walking on the common in the early hours before the dawn. 'We're testing an experimental military device,' the PCs told him. 'You mustn't write about it.'

'Of course not...' said Wells, peering at the sphere.


Act I is about hints and eeriness – the should get the sense that all is not what it seems.

Act II is about tension and horror – they learn what’s going on and almost wish they hadn’t.

Act III is about action and terror – this is where character deaths are a real possibility, and where one mistake could cast them into the outer darkness beyond the solar system’s rim.

The point of the adventure was to make some use of the mental disadvantages that proliferate among GURPS characters but that rarely contribute anything to the game, even when players remember to roll for them. If GURPS isn’t your thing, I don’t blame you and I’m sure Call of Cthulhu’s insanity rules would serve just as well.

‘Cauld blaws the wind frae east to west,
The drift is driving sairly; 
Sae loud and shrill’s I hear the blast, 
I’m sure it’s winter fairly.’