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.
Hierophany, that’s the word I was searching for. Here's an example of it.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— Greg Jenner (@greg_jenner) December 17, 2019
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.
The Infant 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”.