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.
ArrivalA 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 castleOriginally 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 seneschalIf 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.
PeopleThe 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 hallLunch 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 ladyshipClarissa, 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 roomsHybane 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 dinnerThe 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 planHybane 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 nurseIf 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 woodsBoth 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 castleThe 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 solsticeAs 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 eventAs 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 abilitiesGrimnir 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.