For this year's freebie, don't thank me, thank Steve Foster. He's the designer of Mortal Combat, the homebrew RPG that pulled our thinking away from mega-hit dice heroes towards a grittier blood-&-mud style of fantasy that ended up inspiring Dragon Warriors, for one.
Steve has given his blessing to handing out free PDFs of this seminal (if rough-&-ready) work:
Just so you know what you're in for here, Mortal Combat is as old school as it gets. It's a combat system with spell lists, designed almost entirely for traditional hack-n-slash adventures. There's an implied medieval setting, but no social skills or details, no stealth, no rules for survival or climbing or lore or any of the other few dozen things you might try in a modern game. Back then, if it wasn't covered by the rules then you could do anything that seemed reasonable. Somehow we managed, and there are times when wrestling with GURPS's several hundred skills and perks when I've yearned to strip things right back. Maybe not quite that far back, but almost.
And you can see now why I didn't choose a career as an illustrator. Happy Christmas!
Thanks to the instantaneous distributive powers of the internet, there are some Christmas freebies you can scoop up in the time it takes to say "ho ho ho".
Casket of Fays issue #3, for instance, has scenarios, stories and new rules for Dragon Warriors. I especially liked Lee Barklam's article on cunning folk, having heard a friend of mine talk about his Yorkshire heritage and a colourful local character called Conjurer Tom. But there's so much brilliant material packed into this issue that it's impossible to single out any one piece. Many thanks to editor Simon Barns and his contributors for making such top-quality support material available for free.
By the way, have you seen any of Jakub Różalski's art? His work seems like a perfect fit for Legend at Christmas. Here's what I mean:
Still with Dragon Warriors, Jim Desborough has a post on Yuletide monsters like Krampus and (not being as lazy as me) he's even included stat blocks. Don't settle for a lump of coal when you can have this crew of ghastly ghoulies in your Christmas stocking. And while you're there, do take a look at all the great gaming stuff in the Postmortem Studios store.
Straying only a little way from DW into the misty borderland where the English New Weird merges with science fiction and folk horror, John Whitbourn's Binscombe Tales includes a creepy seasonal yarn called "It'll All Be Over By Christmas" which comes in a Kindle chapbook with a couple of other stories. If you're asking my advice, I'd buy the whole series, but that's a good place to start.
But wait, you say; that's not free. True, but here's another Binscombe Tale that is. Draw the curtains, dim the lights, and enjoy "Eyes".
So here's the other half of the Greek-influenced world Jamie has been creating for his Vulcanverse computer game. In these two regions (the world is divided into four rectangular quadrants) he takes us up into the mountains and out across the deserts. When Jamie sent me this material he mentioned gamebooks, and my first thought on reading it was that it would make a great setting for a gamebook -- or even for a series of four linked books, Fabled Lands style.
And then the Vulcanverse raised $1 million in virtual land sales in one morning (yes, really) which makes it all possible. So Jamie and I are now hard at work at a couple of new gamebooks to tie in with the virtual world and we expect those to be on sale by spring 2021. Fabled Lands players, don't think we've forgotten you. These Vulcanverse gamebooks are going to use a variant of the FL rules and, if we can figure out the legal issues, there will be a way to enter them from FL book 10. More on that as we progress.
Anyway, here's Jamie's description of the oroi and eremoi of the -- I suppose it would be the Klytotechneschora (Κλυτοτέχνηςχώρᾱ)? Greek scholars, feel free to correct me!
THE MOUNTAINS OF BOREAS
Boreas is the god of the north wind and the borders of Boreas are mountain ranges: tall, white-maned, slate grey mountains that reach up to the heavens. Crossing them directly can be hard but many mountain passes have been carved through their towering walls. Tunnels have been dug into the mountain sides that lead into subterranean city complexes where minotaurs and other fell creatures dwell. If the outer edges were transparent, like a cutaway ant’s nest, you would see that the mountains are riddled with such passages. Many lead up and in to the high sierra of the interior, through underground cities, mines, burrows, pits and shafts. It is easy to get lost in these labyrinthine passages – safer to take one of the high passes.
If you go up through a pass and down the other side, you will descend into the table-top plateau beyond, a great alpine steppe, bounded on all sides by silver-capped, cloud-bound mountain peaks. The plateau is where Boreas, the winter wind, dwells.
Unlike the other gods, Boreas does not sleep. He cannot sleep for he is bound to blow for all time. Once, as a god, he could choose when winter came, whether it be early or late, whether to bring rains for crops or to drown them with floods, or to unleash storms upon ships at sea or relent and let sea-soaked sailors live or die. Boreas delighted in the sacrifices made to him by those who sought to appease his terrible power. But now he is bound by mankind’s science. Science that has decided how the world works, how he shall work. As the divine power of the gods declined so did the inevitable, inescapable power of reason rise to eclipse everything that had gone before. Now he must follow the rules and strictures of man’s ineluctable logic. He must blow when unknown forces he will never understand impel him to do so, rest when he must rest according to a system he is incapable of comprehending. Gales, hurricanes, tornadoes, gusts, breezes or soft zephyrs are not his to decide. He is no longer the master of his own destiny, and so he rages across the high steppes, screaming his incoherent anger at the empty skies.
In the middle of the plateau is a tall column of granite that spears upward into the clouds. Upon it rests the Fortress of Winds where Boreas himself lives. But he rarely resides there now for he spends most of his time shrieking in rage, rushing across the frozen flatlands or ‘working’. Boreas hates ‘working’.
Elsewhere, there are four mountains that rise up out of the plateau, separate from those at the edges. Mt Helikon, Mt Atos, Mt Othri and Mt Nysa. These were once home to the Oreads, members of the Ourea, young minor goddesses of the mountains, the children of the earth goddess Gaia. These mountain nymphs, the rulers of Boreas, have not been seen in aeons. It is said they sleep inside their mountain fastnesses awaiting a time when mankind may turn to them once more. They once ruled this land but now all that is left is Boreas, mindless, raging, howling, not much more than the rush of the wind unlike the old days when he and the Oreads would banquet in the Fortress of Winds or soar across the sky, shrieking in delight as Boreas, laughing, wafted them gently over the clouds.
Much of the plateau itself was once rich, terraced mountain farmland, now it is little more than wind-scoured tundra.
Cyclopes living in their mountain-side cave lairs, would climb up to the peaks and hurl boulders at each other for sport, or drop enormous rocks on unwary travellers below to crush them for their great cauldrons. Tenderized human flesh and crunchy bone stew was the height of cuisine as far as a cyclops was concerned. Now only a few cyclopes are left, scattered across the peaks, eking out a tired, lonely existence.
Many mountain peaks were used as eyries or nests inhabited by harpies and hippogriffs. They struggled against each other for control of the mountain peaks for thousands of years, a bitter war of hatred and blood. But now, as only a few harpies and hippogriffs remain, there is plenty of space to share, their glorious kingdoms of the sky reduced to abandoned nests, shattered rocks and broken, cliff-top pillars.
In ages past, minotaurs ruled in their subterranean cities dug into the mountains, emerging only to raid the lands of the Amazons who ruled most of the steppes that made up the high sierra of Boreas. These warrior women bred magnificent horses, riding across the steppe tundra, warring with the minotaurs, and tending to their nomadic herds, moving around from tent city to tent city. They would meet for great conclaves at their temples on holy days.
Harpies and hippogriffs, giants and cyclopes were always trying to steal away their cattle, the Amazons always trying to prevent it. It was a vibrant land of warring tribes and creatures. But now the Amazonian temples lie in ruins, their great yurts are no longer pitched ‘neath starry skies, their horses wander in small herds, searching for what little roots and grasses are to be found in the frozen earth, the cattle have long since been hunted to extinction. A handful of Amazon women linger on, trying to preserve their old ways. The tunnels and subterranean cities collapse untended, as the number of minotaurs that dwell below can be counted on the fingers of a single hand.
How can Vulcan restore this magnificent land to its former glory? He cannot do it alone, he needs the help of the mortals, those once feeble humans who have mastered reason and logic, created technologies inconceivable to the minds of the gods, save Vulcan himself. To the ancient gods,, mankind's craft is like a new kind of magic that has empowered them in ways the old gods never imagined possible. Only the mortals can rejuvenate the white capped mountains, the crumbling hill top forts, the Fortress of Winds and the underground cities. Only they can awake the Oreads to rule again, only they can restore the creatures of Boreas to greatness once more.
Landmarks and places of interest
The High Steppes
Most of the interior of the Boreas is a steppe plateau. Here and there hills rise up out of the flatlands. Where once the land was tilled and farmed, now it is mostly frozen tundra. The Amazons once roamed these lands, leading their herds of cattle and horses in search of pasture, growing crops and tending the land. They built temples and a few hilltop forts, but mostly they moved around living in great tented cities.
Hilltop Forts and Temples
Where a hill rises up out of the steppes, the Amazons built a fort upon it, the better to store their goods and defend against raids by the minotaurs, harpies, hippogriffs, cyclopes and other fell creatures of the mountains. Mostly they lie in ruin but one or two are still inhabited by Amazon warrior women, eking out a sparse life amidst the ruined glories of their past.
Mts Atos, Helikon, Nysa and Othri
These four mountains are the abodes of the four Oreads, the Mountain Nymphs that once ruled over the land with the North wind, Boreas. They rise up from the plateau near the four corners. They sleep in their mountain top palaces (like Parthenons), waiting to be woken once more. From each mountain, a river of the same name, runs to a large abyssal sink-hole near the centre of the High Steppe. The waters cascade down great waterfalls to disappear into unknown lands far, far below. Some say the rivers flow to Neptune’s realm of endless seas, like a celestial drain, others that they flow to another plane entirely.
The Great Sinkhole
Here the four rivers that run from the mountains of the Oreads spill down into the endless depths of an enormous sinkhole near the centre of the high steppes. Some say that if you fall into the Great Sinkhole, you will fall and fall, and die of thirst and starvation before you reach the bottom.
The Fortress of Winds
This is a pillared hypostyle fortress of porticoes and pillars. It rests atop a solid column of stone that rises up from the High Steppes to scratch at the clouds. It is the home of Boreas, the Winter Wind, but he has long abandoned it, in favour of hurtling about his realm shrieking like… well, like the wind, creating havoc, trying to throw off the bonds that bind him.
Lair of the Cyclopes
In the mountainsides that border the interior of Boreas are many caves, dug out by the one-eyed giant cyclopes. Here they would hurl boulders down at unwary Amazons below or play catch with their friends and enemies on nearby mountains using great boulders as balls.
Here hippogriffs (half eagle, half horse) made their homes, high up in the mountains. They would war against the harpies whilst also trying to raid the herds and settlements of the Amazons below.
Harpies (half woman, half bird) made their nests from bones and skins high in the mountains. They would war against the hippogriffs for control of the skies, while also raiding the Amazons below. A risky business as the Amazons became adept in making sky-ballistae that could take down a harpy or a hippogriff with a single shot.
Below the ground, minotaurs have dug complex tunnel systems, creating living spaces, mines, passages, underground temples and stores. Much has fallen into rack and ruin but their great pillared portals and gargantuan gates still dot the landscape though most are sealed through rockfall or massive locks the keys for which have long been forgotten or lost. You might still catch sight of a lone minotaur lurking at one of these gates from time to time but sightings are rare.
THE DESERT OF SPHINXES
Somewhere in the sands of the desert, three sphinxes slumber in eternal repose, awaiting the next age of the gods, should it ever come. They are the Androsphinx, (human head, lion body), the Criosphinx (ram’s head, lion body) and the Heiracosphinx (hawk’s head, lion body). In that bygone age, mortals would seek out sphinxes in search of wealth or knowledge. If they could answer the riddle that the sphinx would set them, then the sphinx would allow them a single question that had to be answered truthfully. If they failed the riddle, well then, the mortal’s life was forfeit and they were devoured on the spot. Now the three sphinxes rest in small pyramid mausoleums, dreaming of riddles and tasty morsels of mortal flesh. Perhaps there dreams will soon be over, and they will once again stalk the hot sands of the desert.
Once, the Great River rushed from the first Cataract of Oceanus, the father of rivers, in the far north, through the second Cataract of Tethys, down to the Shores of Psamathe at the southern edge of the desert, and into the sea. In that delta stood the mighty city of Iskandria. Here the Myrmidons lived, a warrior race armoured like ants, who fought for Achilles in the Trojan wars. Iskandria teemed with life, commerce, arts, and crafts. Ships plied the Great River, its banks were home to farms and fisheries, vineyards and breweries for the making of fine wines and barley beer. Irrigation canals ran from the Great River into the deserts, creating farmlands and oases to feed the Myrmidons. The land was blessed by the gods, and filled with abundant life, fed by the Great River.
But now the gods have departed to their divine divans, to sleep the ages away. Where the waters cascaded down in raging torrents at the Cataract of Oceanus, now there is only a trickle that evaporates into empty air before it can reach the parched and dry riverbeds of the once Great River. Where once a river flowed, there is nothing but a long, winding ditch that cuts through the desert, slowly filling up with wind-blown sand. The canals that branched out to either side, once swollen with waters of life, are choked with dust and rocks, and dry, white bones.
The second Cataract of Tethys halfway through the Great River’s journey to the sea, was used to divert waters into the irrigation canals. Huge water wheels were set up to capture the power of the raging torrents. Tethys, a goddess, was mother of rivers, springs and streams, but she has long gone to her rest. Now the waterwheels lie baking in the hot sun, grime and dirt clogging their cogs, rust eating away at their metal brackets, their wooden spokes as dry and brittle as bleached bone.
Iskandria, the city at the Shores of Psamathe (goddess of the beach), once a thriving metropolis crumbles ‘neath the sun’s hammer. A handful of Mymirdons scratch out a living from the dusty fields, living amidst the cracked houses and shattered streets like the ghosts of once mighty warriors of legend.
Elsewhere, the desert has spread like a tsunami of sand. Lost cities and sunken forts are buried beneath tons of desert dust, waiting to be rediscovered, filled with ancient wonders and long lost treasures.
Dragons have crept back into the wilds, untamed, unchallenged, to take up residence amidst the pillared temples and cities of old, even in the Great Pyramids of the long forgotten kings of ages past. Even the Valley of the Kings where the ancient Myrmidon lords were buried is lost to time, the desert and dragons.
And where dragons roam so do the Spartoi. When a dragon’s tooth falls to earth, up springs a skeletal hoplite with spear and shield. Over the years, many dragon’s teeth have fallen. These Spartoi have formed themselves into regiments of undead hoplites, appointing their own lieutenants and commanders, taking over the forts that the Myrmidons once built to control these lands. Now the Spartoi range up and down the desert in search of blood or battling amongst themselves for supremacy.
And as if that were not enough, out in the western edges of the desert, in an empty quarter now called the Land from which None Returns, there dwell cockatrices whose touch is poison and whose breath is death. Yet their blood is said to cure all ills, so it is that desperate men and women will sometimes seek them out.*
Landmarks and places of interest
Three of these are hidden in the sands of the desert awaiting discovery. Much smaller than the great pyramids of Egypt these mausoleums each house one of the sphinxes of ancient times. They slumber, awaiting a new birth. Will it be mortal men who free them from their sleepy shackles?
Cataract of Oceanus
This is the origin of the Great River that runs through the Desert of Sphinxes. Oceanus was the god of rivers, the well of all the fresh waters in the world. But now he sleeps, no longer needed, discarded, set aside. So the wellspring of the Great River has dried up, and the once fertile lands, fed by the river, have been reclaimed by desert sands.
Cataract of Tethys
This second cataract, half way on the Great Rivers journey to the sea, was used to divert waters into the irrigation canals. A shrine to the goddess Tethys was regularly tended, to ensure the free flow of waters but that too has fallen into rack and ruin. Tethys herself has long since departed.
The Great River
A river that meanders through the two cataracts from the north to the delta and the sea to the south. It is now dried out and is slowly filling up with sand. It fed a fertile land, but now it is a barren wasteland of dust and sand.
A once great port at the mouth of the Great River where it spilled into the sea. Now the delta is silting up, and the great city is a shadow of its former self, slowly falling apart as the sun beats down upon it.
*‘Where are you off to, dear?’
‘Just popping out to the Land from which None Returns.’
‘I suppose you won’t be home for supper, then?’
‘Umm… probably not.’
It’s as much a tradition here on the blog as in my group’s games: the Christmas special set in the world of Legend. Since I went overboard a few years back and created an entire campaign setting that I tried to fit into a six-hour session, responsibility for running the Christmas special has wisely been handed over to Tim Harford, who consistently delivers a magical adventure with a seasonally spicy blend of eeriness, charm, humour, danger and action, all perfectly wrapped up in six or seven hours. What I like about Tim’s specials is that he creates a “little world” – a castle, an abbey, a coastal town, a cathedral – and populates it with NPCs who live and breathe. But the real secret is the way he adds the right dash of mystery and wonder to make it a particularly Christmas adventure.
Obviously they don’t have to be set at Christmas, and they still work at other times - see Liar, Liar - but Christmas imbues them with an almost theological power. Quite often magic, ghosts, or supernatural aids them on their quest. This is a literary device called Hierophany
Hierophany, that’s the word I was searching for. Here's an example of it.
So now we're got that clear, without further ado I’ll hand you over to Tim...
THE GIFTS OF THE MAGI
The town of Athgeld’s Cove has a reputation for smuggling which the local lord, Sir Valant, would like to stamp out. For a short adventure, the player-characters could have been invited here or hired by Sir Valant to deal with the problem. They arrive three days before Christmas.
Alternatively, as the priest of St Hedborn’s Church has recently died, the characters may have been sent as his replacements, in which case the adventure could be spun out into a short campaign.
Athgeld’s Cove, named after a local folk hero of generations past, is a town on the east coast of Albion. Sir Valant, the local lord, has his keep high on the downs above the cove: a square stone tower and outbuildings enclosed in a wattle-and-daub stockade.
The town itself has a population of only a few hundred people, the majority of whom live in the lower town around the harbour. The wealthier upper town rings the slopes overlooking the sea and is connected to the lower town by a broad stepped path called the Drangway.
There are also numerous overgrown gullies cut by streams down the hillside, narrow enough to be used by the town’s urchins, who pop up out of them as if from nowhere. These ‘widdens’, as they are known (or ‘the cracks’ as the urchins call them), are not immediately obvious (difficult perception roll needed) and make ideal vantage-points for eavesdropping.
The Church of St Hedborn is situated on a plug of black rock (‘the Shuck’) out in the bay, accessible at low tide along a causeway some eighty metres long. The rock of the causeway (known as ‘the Spit’) and the island is basalt, visibly quite different from the limestone of the shore and hillside and the chalk downs beyond.
The smugglers’ gang is reputed to be large and potentially violent, with the added complication that many of the townsfolk benefit indirectly from the income derived from smuggling and so are unlikely to be cooperative.
The base of smuggling operations is Jacob’s pickle shop and warehouse, from which a tunnel runs directly beneath the Spit to the caverns below the church. Smuggling vessels can tie up on the far side of the Shuck, where at low tide a cave leads up to the caverns where goods can be stored, either for redistribution up and down the coast or for carrying through the tunnel to the pickle warehouse.
Places of interest
In the order that a traveller approaching along the coastal road would encounter them:
The Keep – up on the cliffs high above the town. The lord, Sir Vadant, remains aloof from the business of the town. He has a garrison of a dozen men at arms. His occasional attempts to root out the smugglers meet only with protests of denial or dumb insolence from the townsfolk.
The High Tavern – quieter, pricier, fancier food than its counterpart in the lower town. Rooms can be hired. The tavern is famed for its hedera-spiced ale, which is not as unpleasant as it sounds and is said to be good for chilblains, callouses, joint pain, and ulcers. The landlady is Mistress Emmeline.
The Green Spire – a lighthouse from which a green radiance shines at night. This is the workshop of Nicholas Verdigris, known by the urchins of the town as ‘Saint Nick’, a maker of puppets and mechanicals.
Toll Gate – at the top of the Drangway is a gate where duty is charged on goods brought up from the quay. This is considered more effective than attempting to police or tax the lower town. Of course, any smuggled goods that are redistributed by ship along the coast never pass this way. That is the unauthorized trade Sir Valant wants to bring under control.
The Terrace – the market square of the town, at the base of the Drangway, consisting of small shops, a hospice, and entertainers’ stalls. Nicholas Verdigris sometimes brings his puppets down here for a show on Harelday (the start of spring) celebrating the roguish exploits of the folk hero Athgeld.
The Low Tavern – rowdy, good value. The landlord is Trouton.
The Church of St Hedborn – out in the bay. Services must conform to the tides, but even so most of the lower town attend this church. (A few from the upper town prefer the walk up to the chapel adjoining the Keep.)
The Pickle Shop – close to the quayside; a secret tunnel connects to the church.
Father Beale – a young priest from Ongus who has lately been transferred to the church of St Hedbourne here after disgracing himself by an affair with a lady of rank. He’s out of his depth and already drinking hard (incidentally a contributory factor in the death of his predecessor, Father Wertham). He lives in the parsonage, which is in the lower town. If the characters visit Father Beale there they’ll notice his fine Chaubrettean brandy and may conclude he’s in league with the smugglers – not so, at least not overtly; it’s just that the smugglers are like most people in wanting to curry favour with their priest.
Blue Luna is a jester who at Christmas is given to wild revelling on the Terrace, baring her torso which she decorates with blue ink derived from woad and leading the women of the lower town in a processional dance around the harbour. (‘They are Maenads,’ the priest says, tut-tutting; he may not realize it’s a term that Blue Luna herself would happily embrace.)
Emmeline – proprietor of the High Tavern. At forty she is an elegant and still-beautiful woman. She has a coterie of attractive young women and boys whom she will supply to her guests as prostitutes for a tidy sum. She is secretly a follower of the Magi.
Gregor – the sexton of St Hedbourne. He is a wizened, elderly, but wirily strong man with a white beard. He is a follower of the Magi.
Herman – current head of the smuggler gang. His sidekicks are Matthias and Karl. Karl is a follower of the Magi.
Nicholas Verdigris – a reclusive but kind-hearted artificer whose tall house in the upper town also serves as a lighthouse. His assistant, Job, is a feral lad of about fifteen who swims out to catch fish which he rips apart with his pointed teeth. Nicholas (called “St Nick” by locals) spends the year fashioning puppets, toy wagons, and the like, which he delivers for the children of the town on Christmas Eve.
Trouton – innkeeper of the Low Tavern.
Urchins: Betty, Lilly, and Little Joe are the waifs and strays of the town. They navigate between the upper and lower town by means of the widdens (‘down the cracks’, as they call it) and make a meagre living from errands and trading snippets of gossip. Betty and Lilly are orphans, but Little Joe’s mother (Gum-faced Gretchen) is alive, albeit a wreck of a drunk who has nothing to do with him.
The lord of the keep is Sir Valant. Serjeant at arms is Emmanuel. Other soldiers of the garrison include Luka, Bertram and Jeffry. Jeffry is a follower of the Magi.
Visiting the church
In the church the characters will see an empty crib beside the altar and, close to the back of the nave, four primitive life-size oak effigies. Father Beale explains: ‘There is a local custom of the Christmas Crib and the Magi. Each night those statues move closer to the altar, so that at midnight on Christmas Eve they are ranged around the crib, and then a doll representing Our Saviour is placed there.’
How do the effigies move?
‘I suppose a few of the locals come in during the night and secretly reposition them. If it’s high tide they must use a boat.’
And the doll of the holy infant?
‘I don’t know who will bring that. I haven’t seen it. This is my first Christmas here, you know. It seems to be one of those old customs that the townsfolk prefer to take care of themselves. The priest is kept in the dark – ’ he chuckles, perhaps a little uncertainly – ‘just as parents don’t tell their children who really delivers their presents, eh?’ The effigies of the Magi
There is no particular reason to associate the Magi of the scriptures (the number of whom is not mentioned in the Gospels) with the Magi of Krarth. The characters very probably will do so, but the fact that there are four rather than five effigies is bound to perplex them.
The oak statues are old and silvery, crudely hewn but with some degree of primitive artistic flourish. They are man-sized with no facial features beyond a slight bump for the nose and depressions where eyes and mouth would be. Each wears a crown of fresh berries: rowan, ivy, holly, and mistletoe.
A psychically sensitive character, staring straight into the face of one f the effigies, will momentarily get the impression of looking out at themselves. The impression is so fleeting that it is easily ascribed to imagination.
There are two factions at work here. The smugglers, led by Herman, are reasonably numerous and well-known in the lower town. Their accomplices across the Mergeld Sea are due to bring in a shipment of brandy, claret, cured meats and Kurlish ale on Christmas Eve. Unnoticed among the barrels and crates is a small locked box (locked from the inside, perhaps?) which resembles an ornate cradle.
The other faction at work here are the servants of the Magi: Emmeline, Gregor, Jeffry, Karl, Blue Luna, and the wild child Job. Their goal is to kidnap four of the characters and use their life-essence to animate the effigies of the Magi. They do this by placing one of the four masks (see below) on a character, who then becomes comatose while the corresponding effigy turns into a fetch that is indistinguishable from the real person.
If the characters stay at the High Tavern, Emmeline will drug one or two of them to begin with, carry them from their room at night, and place the masked body in the crypt of the church. Their fetches will then help her to deal with the rest as preparations are made for the ceremony on Christmas Eve.
(A caveat: in our game we had nine player-characters, so replacing three of them with fetches didn't overbalance the scenario. With fewer players you will probably want to have some NPCs possessed instead, maybe just having one PC substituted. You'll also need to pick players who won't mind effectively having their character benched for most of the adventure. They may well not realize they haven't been themselves until the end, so being replaced by a fetch doesn't stop them participating, but in retrospect they'll see they were playing an NPC for most of the game and not everyone will enjoy the loss of agency.)
The four masks
Each mask corresponds to one of the Five. The first three of these are already in the hands of the Magi’s followers:
Red Death: a primitive clay mask with spikes of wood driven into the eye sockets.
Plague Star: a fearful mask of bone, flesh still clinging to it, as if a skull had been shattered and glued together with rancid gore.
Blue Moon: a bird mask, ever changing as the feathers and beaks of which it is made rustle and shift.
Gift Star: the Magi’s servants don’t have this to begin with, and need to find it before the ceremony. In fact it is the face of Nicholas Verdigris, the gift-giver. If and when the characters realize that, when they go to the Green Spire they will find Nicholas dead in a pool of fresh blood and Job carrying his skinned face. This is the mask.
There is a fifth mask corresponding to White Light, whose part in this tableau is as the (un)holy infant.
When an effigy is made animate, it takes on the semblance of the character who has been fitted with the corresponding mask. The player should not know they have been substituted. When they are first abducted, give them a dream of being approached and strangled in their bed by one of the effigies while unable to move a muscle. From then on, the player can act normally except that they are unable to allude to or even hint at any dreams or secrets that would reveal their nature, and they can be commanded at any time by Emmeline or Gregor.
The idea is that the spell of the mask taps into the unconscious character’s spirit so as to mimic their memories and mannerisms. It is so effective that the character is not aware that they are a simulacrum. Every night the character will have dreams of lying in a tomb, the fetches in their masks leering over them, yet when they wake they’ll be unable to mention those dreams to anyone else.
Play the fetches as having all of the regular skills and equipment of the mimicked character. If reverted to their natural form, the effigies have maximum human strength, weigh around 180 kilograms, have 40 HP and a damage resistance of 15. Every 10 points inflicted with an impaling weapon or 5 points with a cutting weapon will reduce damage resistance by 1. Fire will burn away the damage resistance and then start inflicting damage. They move jerkily, as if in stop-motion, and strike with their hands for as much damage as a heavy club.
If the effigies are removed from the church, they will reappear there the next day even if burnt. If characters keep a vigil to watch the statues advance closer to the altar, they will never catch them in motion regardless of how vigilant they are. (A lone vigil is a good opportunity to kidnap the character and replace him or her, too.)
The cavern and the crypt
The cavern under the church is not obvious. You have to prise up a heavy flagstone near the font, descend some steps, open a padlocked door, and at the bottom of further steps is the cavern. A few barrels of brandy are here, left over from the last smuggled shipment, and another door leads to the tunnel to the mainland which emerges under the pickling warehouse.
The crypt is behind a locked gate leading from the north transept. This is supposedly the burial vault of the local lords, and indeed contains a number of ancient sarcophagi. An eagle-eyed character will notice that one or more nearest the door have scrape marks as if the lids were recently moved and replaced.
The abducted characters are in those sarcophagi. As long as the masks are on their faces, they lie helpless, their consciousness looking out from inside the fetches. If the mask is removed, the character is restored to normal but the effigy does not lose the power to move, instead becoming a sort of oak golem with stats as described above.
If a fetch is harmed while in the semblance of a character – for example, drowned or burnt – the real character will feel all those effects even though helpless to move.
The shivering dance
A strange folk dance led by Blue Luna on the pebble beach on the evening of Yule 22nd. As the music and shouts grow less and less restrained, there is an eerie skittering noise as the pebbles shift under the dancers’ feet moving in unison. One character (roll at random – or choose a character who has done something to attract the Magi's attention) is pulled into a strange parallel world. The dance continues around them but their friends are nowhere to be seen. Their vision is blurred and the sound of the music muffled. If the player does not think quickly – or roll well – a dancer will soon press close and smother the character with the ever-shifting bird mask of Blue Moon (qv). The unnerving sense of isolation fades slowly and the character is reunited with the others – yet quite unable to speak of their strange vision. Of course, the real character has been spirited away to the crypt in the confusion, replaced by the fetch of Blue Moon.
The Green Spire
On the evening of the 24th, the lamp in the lighthouse is not lit. The characters shouldn’t automatically notice this as they are not native to the town. If they are talking to a local outside after dark then he or she might remark on it. Otherwise wait until one of the characters mentions the light and then tell them it’s not lit.
If they go to investigate, that’s when they’ll find Nicholas murdered and his face stripped off by Job. If they fail to investigate, Job will deliver the face (the fourth mask of the Magi) to Emmeline or Gregor.
For the ceremony to be successfully performed, the crib must have been delivered and the mask of White Light obtained. It is delivered to Emmeline or Gregor by a white owl (which optionally may be the familiar of any long-running sorcerous adversary of the player-characters, if you want to tie this adventure into the wider campaign).
White Light’s mask is a thin visor of beaten tin that reflects distorted images from the memory of anyone who looks at it. The Magi’s servants won’t care about putting it on a capable character as they no longer need powerful servants at this stage. It’s quite likely they’ll use one of the urchins for this purpose. Instead of resembling the masked urchin, the infant effigy inside the locked crib then comes to life at midnight on Christmas Eve and unlocks the crib from the inside. This completes the ceremony.
When the ceremony is complete, the four original effigies transform into the Mordant Knights and the baby emerges from the crib:
The Knight of Illusions (Blue Moon) has the power to confuse opponents by altering the way they see things. Shoot an arrow at the knight, and it might turn out you shot yourself or a friend instead. Is that your sword in your hand or is it a poisonous snake?
The Knight of Carnage (Red Death) wields a sword that causes profuse bleeding. Any untreated wound he inflicts bleeds at a rate equal to its original damage every minute until staunched using First Aid.
The Knight of Sickness (Plague Star) wields a sword that kills if it touches flesh.
The Knight of the Wheel (Gift Star) has the power of strange fortune. Rolling to hit him you might use four dice instead of three, but then you might get to use two dice to parry. The effect changes continually, as often detrimental to the player-characters as not.
TheInfant has no immediate powers but is effectively the Antichrist and, if carried back to Krarth, will bring about Doomsday. The kind of world he might then bring about is here described by Tim Savin, a long-time Legend player in Tim Harford’s campaigns:
“If the impulse behind the Holocaust had a persona, that would be White Light. Imagine the Church in a Pullman-esque authoritarian dystopia, like the worst paranoid portrayal of Catholicism. That’s White Light. His goal is a crushing annihilative exploitation of humanity as, essentially, a mana source for his glory. His future is a teeming cityscape covering the globe policed by wooden and glass mannequins unquestioningly doing his bidding while he harvests the living in factory-scale recycling centres. I’ve been there. It’s not my favourite time zone in Legend.”
The origin of the Shuck
Nicholas Verdigris has a theory about the Shuck (the island on which the church stands) which he will share with any character who befriends him. The scene: Nicholas’s workroom below the lighthouse tower, where he is assembling ingenious mechanical toys to hand out at Christmas. Job crouches in a nook on a shelf, cat-like, licking fish-scales from his lips.
Nicholas: ‘You no doubt noticed that the Shuck and the Spit are a different rock from the cliffs hereabouts. I believe they originated in Krarth and were projected here in a molten state across hundreds of miles in the blasting of Spyte.’
This has no real bearing on the adventure, other than to increase the doomful atmosphere, but helps to create a bond with Nicholas so that his appalling murder by Job lands with greater impact. The theory is vaguely corroborated by a local legend that Athgeld once shot an arrow up the Devil’s nose, and when the Devil tugged it out it brought a great clot of blood and snot with it that landed in the bay and that’s where the church now stands.
Events (with dates in Yule monath)
21st: Saturday. A feast. An attempt to drug one of the characters and place a mask on them.
22nd: Sunday before Yule, church service. Gregor plays a strange drum that entrances the congregation (and the characters if they fail to get out in time) and allows him to channel their psychic energy to plant a post-hypnotic suggestion in one character that will bring them back here alone later to be captured and replaced with an effigy.
Evening: The Shivering Dance (see above) rips one of the characters into a different realm where they are substituted with a fetch.
23rd: Villagers fall sick – pestilence.
24th: The lighthouse shows no light. Expecting a smuggling shipment, the garrison launches a raid; assassination attempt on Sir Valant? The smugglers arrive a couple of hours before midnight and the Magi’s agents obtain the crib from the shipment.
25th: Before dawn, the children of the village – and in particular the urchins – expect to receive gifts. With Nicholas Verdigris dead, it's left to the player-characters to deliver them, if any of them are kind-hearted enough to bother.
If inspiration flags, here are some hooks you might develop further:
Blue Luna looking for a baby to imbue the spirit in the infant effigy.
Following one of the smugglers.
Sir Valant showing surprising interest (not necessarily benevolent) in an urchin, perhaps with the implication that it might be his own son or daughter.
Clues – an urchin has seen the tunnel to the church.
If the characters are slow to sniff out leads, Nicholas Verdigris could have worked out at least some of what’s going on and give them some clues.
In the end my players never actually met any smugglers. I had in mind that there would be more mundane activity – a decision as to whether to smash the smuggler ring or simply steal their sausages, before the group gradually realised that there was more at stake than cured meats.
I envisaged several distinct episodes of mayhem, with the town coming under the baleful influence first of Red Death (a bloody confrontation between Sir Valant's men and the smugglers, with the characters, Yojimbo-style, able to throw their weight behind either faction, or neither) then Blue Moon (a mad Morris dance with Blue Luna at its heart) and then Plague Star (sickness and death of Herzogian proportions) but there was no time, and in any case the players cut to the chase pretty rapidly. Fair enough: it didn't make sense for the characters to just sit around as one awful scene after another played out around them.
Gregor was hypnotising the congregation and using their psychic energy to subdue the characters. There were several powerful figures in the cult; I hadn't decided who – if anyone – was the leader. It worked better, Hydra-style, to feel that the characters had never quite slain the conspiracy. I felt that I'd be able to pick off characters one way or another: drugged beer, enchantments, crude kidnap, hypnotic rituals.
And the final showdown was to be the return of the Mordant Knights – when the eerie crib was smuggled into the crypt under the church, unwittingly, with the brandy and sausages, the baby would have unlocked it from the inside, taken its place in the crib, and the ritual would have been complete. The fetches would become the Mordant Knights – ideally (from the point of view of the cultists) consuming the life force of the pesky player-characters who thwarted them before. Presuming the characters escaped that fate, they would still face down the return of the knights.
Really, it could have been a mini-campaign, but that would have required more prep, the tightening of plot holes, more time and probably fewer players, too. Given the constraints I was delighted to throw my plans out of the window. Although the comparison is absurdly self-aggrandising, I'm reminded of Miles Davis's comment after recording Kind of Blue. "I was going for a different sound. I just missed." Sometimes you need to notice that there's a good thing happening and let it happen.
“Count Magnus” by M R James is one of several James stories when an event unfolds over a series of nights – in this case a series of opening locks, but in “The Mezzotint” it’s a figure approaching nearer in a picture. A classic way to build a sense of doom that the oak effigies closing in on the altar should evoke.
Amy Pond’s experiences in the sixth series of Doctor Who might give some pointers on how to run the characters whose spirits are imprisoned in the fetches. Amy is similarly unaware that she’s been replaced by a “ganger”.
After I mentioned his Vulcanverse project a while ago, Jamie shared some of the background material he's been developing for it. As he puts it:
"I quite like what I've written as it's in classic gamebook prose, which I haven't really done for a long time, so it was fun. It's all Graeco-Roman which I have unashamedly mixed up together (which once would have outraged me, but nobody cares anymore). It's kind of interesting in the sense that this kind of mythology was ten a penny in our day, so much popular fiction revolved around those myths (Hercules, Clash of the Titans, Jason, etc etc). But since the rise of Lord of the Rings and Warhammer and their ilk, goblins, green-skinned orcs, Alien rip-offs, elves, dwarves, chaos demons and so on have taken over the majority of fantasy. So now this Graeco-Roman stuff comes across to the gamer of today as new and original -- or at least a nice change. The wheel forever turns."
I read all the mythology books when I was a kid. The ones I really liked were the Norse myths. Greek and Roman never really did it for me. And in creating a world I'd always go for Tolkien's goal of a full subcreation. Abraxas, for example. But see what you think. Fans of the Dirk Lloyd books will appreciate Jamie's distinctive authorial voice at work here:
Vulcan, god of fire and the forge, speaks:
“List, O ye mortals. The old myths are dying. We Gods fade from the world, as mankind turns to their machines, their magic-killing science, their virtual worlds, filled with new gods and monsters. They do not need us any more and we are forgotten. The old myths are dying...
“We sleep. We dream. We fade into eternity.
“But I, Vulcan, the god they once entreated to gift them their machines, their science, their god-forged weapons, will not go quietly. No, I will embrace their new myths, their invisible worlds, their gods who speak in code of webs and nets and chains. I will forge a world that will be greater than the mundane ambitions of you mere mortals! I will use your science to create a virtual world born of a God, a world beyond the fickle, ephemeral dreams of mankind.
“I, Vulcan, will create a new Olympus!”
The god Vulcan has chosen to bestow his blessings upon mankind. That means you, a mere mortal, can acquire plots of land in his New Olympus. The Vulcanverse is divided into four quarters around the Palace of Vulcan in the centre of Vulcan City. Each quarter has its own terrain. Players can build upon their land, recruiting creatures (vulcanites) improving their land, eventually adding buildings that give new functionality, produce goods, trade with other players and with Vulcan City, create their own games, palaces, objects, art and so on.
The Four Quarters
The Vulcanverse is divided into five areas, the central Vulcan City and around it four areas that have been opened up to humans.
The Underworld of Hades: the land of the dead, filled with shades, swamps, tombs etc
The Gardens of Arcadia: a bucolic paradise of farmlands, groves, orchards, centaurs, druids and dryads.
The Desert of Sphinxes: desiccating winds blow across these dried up lands. Dunes, lost cities, salt-flats, sphinxes and scorpions.
The Mountains of Boreas: ice-bound mountains, eyries, crag castles, hilltop towns, and mines inhabited by cyclopes, harpies and minotaurs.
THE GARDENS OF ARCADIA
Arcadia, the garden of the Olympians. Once they walked its sylvan paths, sipping ambrosia, plucking the golden apples of immortality, drinking the wines of Bacchus, and filling the elysian groves with their laughter. Hera plotted vengeance against her husband, Zeus in dusky glades, Aphrodite seduced many a mortal, even a god or two, in its sweet smelling bowers, lovers embraced in candle-lit forested walkways. Ares, lord of war, rested here after bloody battle, and Ceres sowed her seeds of plenty in its lush farmland. Satyrs and centaurs gambolled in the sunlit groves, druids and sprites tended to the trees and flowers. Even mortals, those chosen of the gods, attended the revels. Everywhere life blossomed with joyous abandon.
But Pan plays his pipes no more, Diana hunts not in the deep forests-green, dryads and nymphs dance no longer in dappled moonlit glades to the music of the spheres. Silence reigns over the weed infested garden walkways. Ancient trees, long untended, clog the forest trails, roots rise up from the ground to topple the statues, fountains and sundials, cracking open the conservatories and summer houses. The babbling brooks and streams have long since dried up, nothing sleeps in their beds now but desiccated earth and bleached bones. Its bathing pools and lily gilded ponds are filled with rot and decay. The bowers and arbours are overgrown with the thick, fibrous vines that once yielded up the grapes that Bacchus used to make his celestial wines, drunk with joyous abandon in every nook and corner. Now they twist and turn, choking the life out of the land.
In its wilder regions, the Sons of Lycaon wander the deep forests, wolves by night and men by day. These werewolves feed on the unwary and the lost. It is said that King Lycaon himself, father of wolves, still lives somewhere, in the deepest, darkest dens of the forest.
Elsewhere, Arcadia is not entirely abandoned. Faerie folk can still be found in the weed choked gardens, sprites too, though their magic is fading. A druid or two can still be seen tending to half-forgotten woodland shrines, perhaps a wanderer may catch a glimpse of a centaurs’ hind quarters as it flees into the safety of the forest or catch the mournful sigh of a dryad wandering alone through the glades, but mostly, Arcadia sleeps.
Chiron, greatest of the centaurs, tutor of Hercules and Achilles, and the god of medicine himself, Asklepios, once walked Arcadia’s leafy trails, and galloped across its verdant fields. But where is Chiron now? Does he slumber somewhere in an abandoned stable, lost and forgotten? Can mortal men free him from his long sleep of oblivion and restore him to greatness? Only time will tell.
The gods may sleep but Vulcan will not. For what is to be done? It is now the Age of Man, so it must be the mortals, feeble though they may be, pitiful even, to whom the task must fall. Though it breaks immortal hearts, Arcadia must be given* to those who would restore it to its glorious, arboreal splendour.
Landmarks and places of interest
Rivers of Arcadia
The river god Ladon once lived in the gushing waters, but now the rivers of Arcadia run dry as Ladon slumbers. Perhaps they can be restored to their former glory.
The Verdant Farmlands
Once tended by centaurs these farmlands have fallen into disarray. Bucolic farmhouses and sacred stables, home to centaurs, still litter the land, waiting to be put to use once more.
Wineries of the Nectar of the Gods
Here were grown Olympian vines, tended by satyrs, whose hooves juiced the grapes from which the heady wines of Bacchus were made, called the sweet nectar of Olympus.
Woodlands of Ambrosia
Much of Arcadia is covered in sculpted woodland, given a veneer of wildness but in fact crisscrossed with trails and paths, dotted with arbours and bowers, statues, fountains, flowered gardens, gazebos and gardener's huts. It was a bucolic paradise, now overgrown and semi wild. Ambrosia, the food of the gods that imparts immortality on those who eat of it, was also harvested here from the mushroomed shadows of glen and glade. Yet a few dryads still live in leaf-thatched tree houses, some nymphs still dance in sunlit glades and swim with wild abandon in the streams and pools.
The Deep Forest
These are the truly wild parts of Arcadia, found at its remoter edges. The deeper you go, the darker it gets until you reach Lycaon’s Den. Do not assume you will ever leave that place alive though. Safer places along the way are the dryads’ groves, so long as you treat them with respect and honour. Dryads still tend a grove or two. Do not anger them for they have mastery over root and branch, leaf and stream, and can ensnare the unwary or those that desecrate their sacred charges.
Dales of Leaf and Stream
Here dwell faeries and sprites, playing in the waters and tree lined glens, or banqueting on elderberry wine and mushrooms, roots and nuts. Beware, mortals, for to disturb the fae at play is to risk much, perhaps even your very soul!
The Summer Palace
This lies at the centre of Arcadia, so called because there is only one season in Arcadia – eternal summer. The Palace is where the gods once stayed but long has it stood empty, its murals chipped and flaking, its rooms empty and dust-bound, its windows shuttered and its kitchens closed, the banqueting halls and bedchambers silent and empty, begrimed with the filth of ages. The Palace is surrounded by ornamental gardens long since fallen into ruin and decay. Weeds and creepers fill the flower beds, hedge thorn and nettles block and bind the garden paths.
THE UNDERWORLD OF HADES
The underworld was once ruled over by Vulcan’s uncle, Hades, but he sleeps in his immortal tomb, ignored, weakened by centuries of neglect. What is to be done with his realm now? Who will refurbish its sepulchral halls, sweep away the corpse dust that coat its tenebrous terraces, and reawaken the dead that once walked its cheerless cloisters? Who else but the mortals of earth? Those same souls who have turned their backs on Olympus, who have found new gods to worship, virtual gods of silicon science. But what choice does Vulcan have? He must sell all to mankind, for only they can rebuild hell itself.
And what is to be found in Hades? Bone chilling winds sweep across desolate plains, carrying the despairing moans of lost souls to every corner of the realm of the dead. Swamps fester in the pale nacreous glow that rises up from the decaying earth, tombs litter the landscape like broken teeth, shadows walk the land, muttering in the darkness. It is home to the Spirits of the Dead and… other things.
There are bloated swamps, full of mangrave (sic) trees and the drowned dead. Some swamps, left untended for so long, are choked with slime. Swamp spiders spin their webs out of the glutinous putrefying mire making their webs particularly sticky and difficult to get out of.
The two rivers of Hades, the Acheron and the Styx, flow like arteries of black blood across the land. Where the rivers widen bayous have formed. Some say hydras live in the bayous, their many heads arguing among themselves over the spoils of harvested souls and the fruits of putrefaction and decay.
Away from the rivers of hell lie the Plains of Howling Darkness, home to lost souls, wandering in the miasmic shadows, who wail and groan, shambling aimlessly, lamenting their fate in the pale, decaying light. Ashes fall like rain. Mysterious sink holes, ash-filled wells and rune-written trapdoors in the ground lead to subterranean crypts and caverns where vampiric lamias lurk, ready to burst forth and drain the souls of the unwary.
Elsewhere, crumbling towers rise up out of the plains like long dead skeletal fingers groping their way out of the stifling grave-dirt upwards to the long-forgotten light of life. Lost souls are drawn to the high ramparts, their cries of wailing despair spreading across the land, filling all who come there with a fearful melancholy. Other towers have been turned into the nests of the strixes, blood-drinking bat-like birds with razor sharp beaks of bronze.
In the middle of hell lies a sprawling necropolis, the City of the Dead, the capital of Hades.
In its glory, the river Acheron flowed through the city, as if it were some kind of sepulchral Venice of the dead. Funereal barges of silver and ebony floated along the canals of dark water, manned by shades and souls. Now a handful of begrimed, rusted barges ply its dark, greasy waters.
Cerberus, the three headed hell-hound of Hades, who kept watch at the eternal portals of Hades, sleeps in his everlasting kennel too. Can mortal men wake him? Restore him to his old post as guardian of the gates of hell? Can the royal necropolis be restored to its former grandeur? Can the plains and swamps of this ancient hell be renewed? Can Hades be rebuilt? It is up to mortal men and women to decide, to rebuild Hades in their own image, should they so choose.
Landmarks and places of interest
Rivers of Hades
The Acheron and the Styx run across the land. They come from sources in the mountainous southern edge of Hades where it abuts the mountains quarter (The Mountains of Boreas). The Acheron runs through the central city. Both join up after the city to merge in the Delta of Darkness at the northern (or western) edge of the map.
A bloated swamp, full of mangrave trees and the drowned dead. Flies feast on sunken corpses, twisted beasts feed on the fetid fruits of that land, and gigantic snakes feed upon them in turn, dominating the interiors.
Giant snakes and hydras wander the swamps. Mangrave trees – trees that are half bark, half twisted dead body, grow across all the swamps and bayous of Hades, nourished by the souls of the dead.
The Slimeswamp is a congealed morass of putrefaction with spiders littered about. Giant swamp spiders, so like a swamp but with webs.
Those swamps that are on the course of the Styx and Acheron end up as Black Bayous. Riverside dens and watery graves line the dark, oleaginous lakes. Punts and flat bottomed boats ply the waters, manned by the souls of those drowned at sea.
The City of the Dead
The necropolis, the capital of the Underworld. At its centre a single, tomb smothered hill, rises up over the city like a gravestone. Upon its peak is the now empty Palace of the Dead, where Hades once ruled. Round and about its foothills, tomb complexes spread outward like the suburbs of a living city. Statues of the long dead seem to stalk its streets like thieves in the night, their deeds in life long forgotten.
Plains of Howling Darkness
The Plains are home to lost souls, wandering in the miasmic shadows, who wail and groan, shambling aimlessly, lamenting their fate in the pale, decaying light, hence the name. Mysterious sink holes, ash-filled wells and rune-written trapdoors in the ground lead to subterranean crypts and caverns. There are ancient broken towers scattered across the land. Strixes, bronze beaked blood-drinking birds, circle some of them. Elsewhere, lamias (half woman, half snake) lurk, waiting to pounce on the unwary.
Delta of Darkness
The two rivers finally join and run into the Delta of Darkness at the coast. On the delta can be seen the barge of Charon, who leads the souls of the dead upriver into Hades. Charon himself is long gone though, sleeping in his tomb somewhere. Also at the end of the Delta is the abode of Cerberus, the three-headed watchdog of the underworld, the Guardian at the Gates of Hell, now empty.
Houses of the Dead
Scattered about are small graveyards or cemeteries with small tombs and mausoleums. Here the lost souls have Hades dwell in kind of half life.
Little clusters of blasted trees, half tree, half dead body, litter the land.
* * *
We'll be back with the other half of Vulcan's new realm in a fortnight, when I'll explain what all this has to do with gamebooks. Next week, though, there's a real treat for roleplayers: the annual Legend winter special. The player-characters arrive in an isolated coastal town with dark secrets and its own solstice rituals. That's "The Gifts of the Magi". Don't you miss it!
* Vulcan uses the Olympian word for ‘given’ here which translates in human terms as ‘sold’. This can be a traditional sacrifice of a goat and suchlike, but these days, Vulcan prefers a bank transfer.
David Bailey is a man who gives the lie to the notion that accountants are boring. An inventive and artful referee of Tekumel games, he’s also an imaginative author, creative problem-solver, passionate fan of comics and science fiction, gifted photographer (less well-known in that field than his namesake, admittedly) and one of the founders of game developer Black Cactus. During his career as an accountant, he wasn’t working out how to get tax allowance for business expenses, either; he was a forensic accountant, more Inspector Morse than Spreadsheet Phil.
So when David comes up with an idea for a roleplaying scenario, I listen. His latest was a doozy – to send his Tekumel characters back thousands of years from the relative stability of the Second Imperium to the high adventure of the Time of No Kings.
“What about getting back?” I said. “Reverse the spell, and risk ending up lost in time? Or get frozen by Excellent Ruby with the chance that posterity misplaces the docket saying when to unfreeze you?”
David: “Well, I think they have to hope to get back, but throw in some wives and children, and affiliations and a decade of work…?”
“OK, so they’d potentially be there for a long while? There’s even the implication they’ve been brought through time, Corum-like, for a specific purpose.”
“Perhaps they do finally find a way to get back,” agreed David, “but at huge cost to the new friends and family they’ve made in the past? Maybe returning to their time will potentially trigger a devastating A-bomb level event? Can we create a mature enough scenario that the players are genuinely conflicted about returning?”
That’s a fine goal to aim for, and typical of David that he would be considering the tone and nuance of the scenario right up front. It got me thinking: what might deter somebody from wanting to get “back to the future” and how would we achieve that kind of dilemma in a movie or novel?
The most obvious way would be to make our time traveller a nebbish, passed over for promotion, frustrated in his ambitions, or just an under-achiever who never got the breaks in life. Then he goes back to the past and suddenly he's feted as a hero. Naturally he'd be tempted to remain there rather than go back to a dead-end future.
A more challenging (and interesting) approach would be to start with unlikeable characters, maybe criminals or terrorists of the most unpleasant stamp. The authorities are closing in. Perhaps the characters are trapped and it looks like the only outcome will be death in a hail of police bullets, but then they stumble on a strange machine and are whisked back through the centuries, and there in the past they get a stab at redemption. Having saved the people of that time they also find they’ve saved themselves, so returning to the future is unattractive not only because they’d be jumping back into a deadly shoot-out, but because to do so would imply returning to an identity that no longer fits with who they are.
Or there's the hard SF approach. The time traveller realises she has changed the past, which of course means the billions of dice throws that lead to her original timeline are gone. She can't return to her future because it is not the same future as the one she set out from. All the people she knew there would never have been born. In a movie, you probably wouldn't have her realise that till after she got back ("show not tell") so the third act would be all about trying to return to the past where she at least still has friends and loved ones.
But those are all ways to pull it off through storytelling, and it's neither possible nor desirable to exert that level of authorial contrivance where player-characters are concerned. Instead all you can do is run the game with a mature tone in mind, and be ready to seize on the character arc moments that the players themselves provide.
For instance, in David’s campaign Jamie Thomson plays a jajgi (a form of well-preserved undead like a vampire, say, or Ardath Bey in The Mummy) so perhaps he could come face to face with his living self back in the past. Jamie is a good enough roleplayer to get something really interesting out of the conflict between an unending but unvarying existence and the full-blooded, breathing life in which the chusetl (dream-self) and pedhetl (passions) yet endure.
In his original premise, though, David wasn’t only looking for reasons why the player-characters might not want to go home to their own time. He’s hoping for a genuine conflict. They might want to return but now they have two lives, two sets of friends and families. Which do they choose? It’s hard (but not impossible) to make that bite just with attachments to NPCs, but I suggest that the best hard choice is an old storytelling classic: somebody has to sacrifice themselves, staying behind so that the others can escape, like Cavor among the Selenites.
I've posted before about the genesis of the Starship Captain books (The Wrong Side of the Galaxyand A Galaxy Too Far). The first book began in the style I would have enjoyed when I was eleven, but fifty years on publishing is a very different world. Some of the material I wrote ended up on the cutting room floor and Jamie rewrote much of the rest. The finished book is about 20% mine in terms of text, but hardly mine at all in tone.
Here's an example of a chapter from my version of the book. Skip right to it now if you don't want spoilers. Taking inspiration from the thought that being a food animal for humans is a winning evolutionary strategy (where would pigs, cows and chickens be today if we didn't rear them to eat?) I wondered how an alien politician might act to preserve his species in the face of an all-conquering genocidal civilization. The Leptira are that civilization, here described as "insectoid" -- another thing that would have annoyed 11-year-old me but that is standard practice in modern sci-fi. Don't judge Poltro too harshly, will you? What else can he do to save his people? It isn't so crazy that turkeys might vote for Christmas, after all, if the alternative is extinction.
A Hard Bargain
“Sir, are you feeling all
right?” said the applicant, his young face scrubbed and shining with concern.
fine, thank you,” said Poltro.
was a lie. Being aboard a Leptira flagship was enough to give anyone a terminal
case of the jitters, but the main reason he was feeling peaky was the two
litres of insect poison he’d forced himself to drink that morning. He pulled
out a silk handkerchief and dabbed at his pudgy face. Was the room spinning?
They were in orbit, of course, but this seemed worse. I mustn’t pass out, he
told himself. That really would be the end of the world.
had an antitoxin to neutralize the poison, but that was back on his bedside
table, about forty kilometres straight down. He could hardly bring the
antitoxin to the meeting in case the Leptira searched him, but he didn’t think
he’d need to. Everything would have been fine if they’d stayed on schedule – by
now he’d be on the shuttle home. Except that the ambassador had already kept
them waiting almost an hour. Poltro should have anticipated that. By now the
stuff was really working its way into his bloodstream and, although it was
meant to be fatal only to insects, he was getting to feel as if somebody had
put all his internal organs in a smoothie blender.
Poltro clapped his hand over his mouth. Between the effects of the poison and
guilt at what he was about to do, it was a struggle not to throw up all over
the ambassador’s waiting room.
you sure you’re okay?” said the applicant, fidgeting on the seat next to him.
“Only you’re sweating rather a lot – ”
keep it too hot in here,” Poltro shot back.
– and the sweat looks sort of… well, green.”
didn’t look at him. He didn’t want to see the look in the applicant’s eyes – eagerness,
honesty, decency. That’s why he’d kept everything so coldly businesslike up
till now. Getting to know the fellow would only make it harder.
new mineral supplement I’ve been taking,” he said. “It’s good for the liver.”
He didn’t add that unless he got the antitoxin quite soon, he’d probably need
to buy a new liver.
could feel the applicant’s relief. “Oh, I haven’t heard of that one. I’ve got a
whole range of vitamin and mineral – ”
door to the ambassador’s office hissed open and a Leptira official in stiff
grey-and-orange robes emerged holding a slate. It scanned the list of names and
appointments with eyes as unreadable as lumps of polished coal.
was no-one else in the waiting room. Finally the wretched creature looked up at
Poltro Gnaktagurr,” it declared in a scratchy voice that sounded like an
off-key tune played on an instrument stringed with raw nerve endings.
winced. Typical Leptira disdain for local customs. As a member of a noble
family, most of the letters in his name were silent. It was supposed to be
pronounced just “Nak”, like somebody starting to say “no” but hiccupping
instead. Still, what was the point of correcting it? Most of the young people
of his own planet could hardly be bothered with the old customs, and when you
had dealings with the Leptira, your name was whatever they chose to call you.
“I’m here.” He got slowly to his feet,
shrugging off a helping hand from the young applicant.
ambassador’s office wasn’t quite as big as a throne room, it only seemed that
way because of being built across three levels of a converted docking bay.
Poltro traced a fresh dampness in the air to a stream that gave off a soft
relaxing murmur as it ran down from the carpeted upper area through a garden of
heavily over-scented flowers from Leptira’s purple moon to a replica beach. The
white sand of the beach area had been raked into the careful geometric patterns
that the Leptira loved to create and then destroy. Beyond that, a view of
Poltro’s home planet of Mondress filled three-quarters of the vibroglass window
that looked out into space.
himself, Poltro was impressed. He could easily imagine the Leptira sitting on
that beach with cold drinks and a plate of bar snacks at the end of a long day,
gazing out of the window and discussing the planet they intended to destroy.
didn’t surprise him that a Mondressan ambassador like himself wasn’t considered
important enough to merit a meeting on the garden or sand levels. The Leptira ambassador
sat waiting directly in front of them at a transparent desk inside which
luminous eels swam sluggishly. Behind him – or her, or it – stood half a dozen
other officials, all wearing the distinctively hexagonal-patterned clothing,
armour and weaponry of the Leptira diplomatic corps. There were no other chairs.
Excellency,” Poltro bowed and then held out his hand, confident that the
ambassador wouldn’t shake it.
his surprise, however, the ambassador got up and came around the desk. A feeler
reached out to stroke his fingers. Poltro felt the briefest touch of
buzzsaw-sharp bristles, like a horse flicking at flies with its tail, then the
ambassador drew his arm away. Perhaps he sensed the poison in Poltro’s blood,
or perhaps it was just natural rudeness.
this is your applicant,” said the ambassador, fixing all his eyes on the young
to meet you, Excellency.” The applicant extended his hand and the ambassador
took it in both sets of feelers, stroking it with the careful attention of a
gourmet judging the ripeness of a piece of fruit.
buzzed the ambassador in satisfaction, and looked at Poltro as if to say, “Ah,
so you didn’t put any nasty poison in this one.”
was feeling sick again. He just wanted to get the whole business over with.
“Show His Excellency your résumé,” he told the applicant.
ambassador stared at the folder that was offered to him, then waved over one of
the officials, who snatched it from the applicant’s hand. Laboriously – because
Leptira diplomats were given more training in warfare than in foreign languages
– it read out the list of accomplishments.
ambassador gave an impatient flick of his antennae. “So you can type, manage a
database and you know how to file a report in octupilicate…”
also have a degree in Interstellar Relations,” said the applicant, looking
more interested in – what would you call it on your planet, Poltro?”
This position calls for a well-rounded individual.”
said the applicant, his enthusiasm kicking up a gear, “my hobbies include
painting miniature– ”
sure that’s marvellous,” interrupted the ambassador. “Those miniature whatevers
don’t paint themselves. But a healthy mind requires a healthy body.”
applicant looked to Poltro for reassurance. It was beginning to dawn on him
that the interview wasn’t going the way anybody would expect for a secretarial
Excellency just wants to be sure that you are in proper physical condition for this
job,” said Poltro hurriedly. “It’s not just pattering fingers on a keypad and
lifting the phone, you know. There could be travel – to the galactic main, even
to the Hub.”
turned away to look at the aquarium desk so that he wouldn’t have to see the gleam
of excitement in the young man’s eyes.
a coincidence, the senator and I were just talking about vitamin supplements,”
the applicant told the ambassador. “I’m quite a health nut, I’m afraid.
Exercise and a good diet are hobbies of mine too.”
apologize,” said the ambassador. “That’s exactly what we like to hear.” He took
the folder from the official and went so far as to glance at the cover. “You
don’t smoke, drink, mash or steep, I take it?”
Steep?” The applicant hesitated for a moment, puzzled at the bad habits of
far-off worlds, but soldiered on through. “Er, no, I don’t do any of those
only one more question,” said the ambassador. “You’re not, I trust, a
suppose I ought to be,” laughed the applicant, “but I just love meat too much.”
The ambassador looked up. “Me too.”
couldn’t take any more of this. “If that’s settled, Excellency, I expect we
should be getting out of your way.”
you can go, Poltro,” said the ambassador. “I was thinking that Mr – ” he looked
again at the résumé – “Mr Kolvubar here – ”
pronounced ‘Kolbar’, actually,” said the applicant. Everybody ignored him.
so impressed with Mr Kolvubar,” said the ambassador, “that I’d like to keep him
was boarding the shuttle back down to Mondress when his phone beeped.
He forced a smile into his voice. “Everything satisfactory, I hope?”
was a sound that might have been a belch. “Oh yes. I’d go so far as to say your
sample exceeded all our expectations, Poltro. I believe we have a deal.”
the shuttle nosed out of spacedock, Mondress appeared in the porthole, a
sun-blazing jewel of clean blue seas and greenly wooded continents. Yet already
there were brown scars of deforestation visible. And there in the darker zone
where night had fallen, Poltro could make out the dull fiery gleam of Leptira
factories, huge disfiguring patches, spreading daily from coast to coast.
“Where’s the harm in economic development?” people had been saying. “Let’s face
it, Mondress is a backwater. We should be flattered that the Leptira wish to
invest in our world.”
knew what “economic development” by the Leptira really meant. Was everybody
else blind? Why did he alone have to save – ?
you still there?” snapped the voice on the phone.
Poltro shook his head. “That’s… marvellous news, Your Excellency.”
course it is. So we’re going to be putting in a larger order next time.”
between the waves of nausea, Poltro felt both elation and despair. He knew what
was coming, but he had to ask. “A larger order?”