Zenopus is so hot right now.
On the back of Zach Howard's well-received 5th edition reimagining of J. Eric Holmes' classic sample dungeon, The Ruined Tower of Zenopus, here's Clovis Kell with Return of Zenopus: The Lower Dungeons, available as PDF from DMs Guild.
You can read my review of Ruined Tower of Zenopus or my retrospective of Holmes' 1977 classic dungeon on this site.
First of all: full disclosure. I've got my own Zenopus sequel (Beneath the Ruined Wizard's Tower) over on drivethrurpg, but mine is for Blueholme/WhiteBox. I'll review Return of Zenopus as a D&D 5e scenario in comparison with Zach's 5e version of the original, not as a contrast with my own retro effort.
What's it all about?
Although Return of Zenopus is pitched as a sort of sequel, with the appearance of strange monsters around Portown suggesting to the worried authorities that the old wizard has returned, it doesn't need to play that way. Kell's dungeon works fine as a simple extension of the Zenopus dungeon and adventurers who cut their teeth on the celebrated first level can move seamlessly into these new levels without any particular hook needed.
Return of Zenopus offers a brief discussion of how these new areas relate to Holmes' original map. First of all, there's a Dungeon Annex which is located off to the east of the site. This is an area that Holmes' formerly described as a tunnel ending in the cemetery. Zach Howard developed this footnote into a tunnel connecting to a chamber where cultists were creating undead. Kell turns this into a two-level 'mini-dungeon' that fleshes out his Zenopus backstory and should contrive to promote PCs to level 2 or even 3 once they complete it.
Then there are two lower dungeon levels underneath the original site. Kell creates a secret door in Room N to allow access to these. The threats down here will put second level PCs to the test and the rewards should promote them to 3rd or 4th level.
What's Zenopus up to?
Kell makes the brave choice of outlining the real history of Zenopus and the reason for his disappearance. Of course, D&D players have been speculating about this for decades. Most gamers, on their first introduction to the Zenopus dungeon, will imagine that old Zenopus found some demonic idol, started worshiping it, opened a gateway to Hell and obliterated himself and his staff. And indeed, this is the explanation Kell goes for. So, no bonus points for surprise but at least newbie players get exactly what they expect from this dungeon.
One nice touch is that the massive idol of Moloch discovered by Zenopus has "huge red quartz gemstones set in the eye sockets." I love this sly nod to David A. Trampier's iconic cover to the 1e Players Handbook.
Tee-hee. Kell writes: "The vast majority of other statues of the era, are missing the gemstones, long ago taken by thieves and temple looters."
The Moloch idol drives Zenopus mad in the prescribed fashion (memory loss, growing obsession with invoking Moloch) and, when he finally completes his rite, the hellfire from the portal blows everybody up. Half a century later, the lizardfolk and some human cultists are back to worshiping the Moloch idol, but down in the lower dungeons Zenopus lingers on as a demented wraith.
Enter, the player characters...
The Dungeon Annex
This is a two level mini-dungeon, linked to the main site by a 300ft tunnel that links to Room P, the room in Holmes' dungeon that featured a couple of ghouls and "a short dirt tunnel which ends blindly under the cemetery."
The first level of the Annex has stairs up to the Portown Cemetery (albeit to a crypt with a padlock on the gate) and various rooms housing anonymous Cultists and the Undead (mostly Ghouls) they have raised. What's well done here is the task of finding the key to the gate down to the second level and the advantage in sparing the Cultist leader who can reveal it.
The second level contains more crypts that give way to caverns and a 7 mile tunnel that exits in the marshes off to the west. The Cultists here are bolstered by Lizardfolk but the iconic Moloch Idol is easy to find and PCs can enjoy themselves prizing out those massive gems from the eye sockets, just like Trampier drew it.
There's a NPC prisoner to rescue from the sacrificial slab (the obligatory Elven maid) but the nasty trolls teased in the backstory don't make an appearance.
This is a perfectly decent mini-dungeon annex for the Zenopus site, expanding the role of the cultists and their undead goons. The Trampier idol is a nice touch. The layout is thoughtful and PCs who scout ahead or interrogate prisoners will be rewarded with tactical advantage. The factions at work here are linked to the Ghosts of Saltmarsh campaign - a link proposed by Zach Howard that works well here.
On the other hand, there's a lack of dynamic purpose. The Cultists are just Bad Guys and their agenda is Undefined Villainy. It's not clear what they're doing down here, what their plans for Portown are, or what they want from Moloch. Even Selzelia the Elf Maid has hardly any hooks: she gets a detailed personal history but Holmes' female prisoner, Lemunda the Lovely, offered more story potential, as the daughter of a powerful lord in Portown. Selzelia might be a useful ally against the Sahuagin if you plan on following up with Saltmarsh but, as with the hints that the Lizardfolk and Cultist factions could fall out, no clear details are offered about this.
The Lower Levels
Directly beneath the dungeon mapped out by Holmes, Kell proposes two more levels that are "laboratories" created by Zenopus and now haunted by his Wraith. The entrance is a secret door added to Holmes' Crypt (Room N).
The first level takes the party on a linear route, culminating at the lab where Zenopus blew himself up. Hopefully the PCs can fend off the Undead and realise that an innocuous gold coin has future significance. A hidden room beyond reintroduces one of Holmes' most memorable motifs, the talking Brazen Head. This one is rather more prosaic than the mystical oracle in the original: it just has a magic mouth spell on it and can be manipulated to reveal the stairs down.
Downstairs are just two rooms. One has a pair of elegant (but rather easy) riddles that direct players to open a secret door. Beyond is Zenopus, now an angry Wraith, and a big fight for his treasure hoard.
These two levels only account for nine rooms, so anyone hoping the lower levels of the dungeon would be significantly expanded will be disappointed. They are also rather linear, unlike the much more interesting layout of the Annex which rewarded players who used scouting to understand their whereabouts.
As with the Annex, it's a fairly routine slog through mechanical traps and unintelligent monsters (oozes, slimes, grumpy animals, undead). The design leans too heavily on things that damage or kill, which tends to discourage investigation. Players will not feel their curiosity is being rewarded but have no choice but to tamper with things if they want to make progress.
Zenopus is a tough Big Bad, but he's also a disappointment. Partly because, this is Zenopus, yet all he does is rush up to players and start battering them. He has no spells. He's no longer a dreaded enchanter. He's just an undead bozo. Even by the standard of undead bozos, he falls short. In 5th edition, Wraiths are supposed to be undead warlords who command Spectres and have Wights as their shock troops. OK, there are 3 Spectres on the upper level, but there's no sense here that Zenopus is marshaling an undead army in pursuit of a diabolical master plan. He's just standing around, being a Final Boss.
To be fair, Clovis Kell does urge DMs to make more of Zenopus: "This dungeon is not meant to be static, the wraith, Zenopus can be encountered in any area the DM deems appropriate. It would be interesting for Zenopus to encounter the PCs in several short scenarios before the final big battle." The thing is, we really need these interventions written into the structure of the dungeon, rather than left to creative DMs to ad lib. But more of this below.
In conclusion: any good?
Yeah, it's decent. It's not amazing, but it's solid. The question is, is that good enough?
You're paying $2.99 for about 20 pages of material. The maps are hand drawn, but perfectly clear and in line aesthetically with Holmes' famous map from the D&D Basic Set (1977). Layout is consistent. There's some scrappy formatting, a few passages that need correcting, it's not up to the standard of Zach Howard's Ruined Tower but it's clear enough to digest and use.
Some of Holmes' familiar tropes are acknowledged: the Brazen Head, the Catacombs and Cemetery, Zenopus' laboratory, the mandatory female NPC to be rescued. However, others are missing. Holmes follows Gygax's early advice that a third of rooms be empty, to allow players space to explore. He offers players things to investigate that are intriguing or wondrous or simply odd. He uses traps that confuse or inconvenience rather than damage or kill. He strikes a dreamlike tone that's part Dunsany-faerie, part-Lovecraft, part Errol Flynn swashbuckling and he's willing to invent monsters and unusual situations in pursuit of this (being swept away by a river, a giant octopus, a conjuror who runs away, an ape in a cage). In place of this, Clovis Kell offers a densely packed dungeon that threatens life and limb but rarely excites curiosity or wonderment.
If you are a starting group of D&Ders, or perhaps an experienced DM with a party of rookie players, then the classic Zenopus dungeon is a great place to begin, Zach Howard's 5e iteration of it the obvious jumping off point, and Return of Zenopus positions itself to be a direct continuation of that story. Players might notice the shift from exploration to hackn'slash or might not; a good DM will pick up on the hints about NPC factions and deploy Zenopus to better, eerie effect; an inexperienced DM will struggle to offer more than a succession of monsters to kill.
So my advice is, if you're running Ruined Tower for 5e D&D, you could happily follow on with Return of Zenopus, but the DM will need to do some unassisted work on fleshing out the Cultists and giving Zenopus a wider purpose and loftier presence.
If you're an experienced D&Der, you'll be looking for something different from this module: a contribution to Holmes' lore, a development of the Tragedy of Zenopus, some ideas about the ultimate fate of the infamous wizard and an imaginative context to place Holmes' original dungeon in. From this perspective, Return of Zenopus falls flat, offering only the most conventional backstory of arrogant-wizard-gone-bad and diminishing the numinous figure of Zenopus into another anonymous dungeon-dweller, to fall beneath the PCs' enchanted blades.
Artistically, there's a missed opportunity here to do something memorable with the fate of Zenopus. The Annex and Lower Levels fail to capture the atmosphere and playstyle of the original - although that might be due to the centrality of combat in what constitutes a typical 'dungeon adventure' in 5th edition compared to old school Basic D&D.
In the middle, not a drop of blood on her, a child’s doll. Faye took it for the evidence bag.
We slung the long arms in the back of the BMW. I took the wheel. We were both quiet, me thinking about that bloodbath, Faye playing with the doll.
“Are you putting that thing in the bag or not?”
“Dorothy,” Faye replied, “her name is Dearest Dorothy.”
We stopped at lights so I turned to her. She hadn’t secured her Glock. I reached for it.
“Don’t you touch her!” she yelled, no, screamed. She’s a pretty girl, Faye, but she wasn’t pretty then, eyes wide, froth on her lips.
“It’s just a damned doll, Faye!”
Then I was looking into the barrel of her Glock-17.
“Stop the car,” she shouted: “Stop the bloody car, Dev!”
I did, nice and slow. She unbuckled, gripping that doll with white knuckles.
“I’m taking Dearest Dorothy and we’re going!” Then she was out on the pavement, doll in one hand and pistol in the other, with mid-morning shoppers skipping out of her way. “Don’t touch her!” she screamed at a pointing child. The white-faced mother found herself facing a 9mm semi-automatic.
“Faye, drop the weapon!” Now I was armed, my pistol on her, hers wandering between me, the child and the mother. “Put it down, Faye!”
Faye’s face crumpled with baffled fury, tearful, gulping air. She pressed the doll to her cheek and squeezed her eyes closed. The barrel moved towards her chin.
I took the shot.
The discharge sent pigeons whirring into the air, the boom of the Glock rolling down the shopfronts and surging back to me. Faye lay on the kerb. Dearest Dorothy sat next to a widening puddle of blood. I ran to her.
“Too right, it’s been a strange day,” said the Commander, blinking at the paperwork. He regarded me over the desk with a strange expression. “Are you OK, Dev?” When I nodded he added, “Drop that thing in the evidence bag, will you?”
“Her name is Dorothy,” I told him before I left.
It has arrived, a landscape in oils on canvass, 29 by 47 inches. It must go on the mezzanine. What a spectacle, fusing the hypernaturalism of the Café Volpine School with Signac’s use of geometric abstraction. The road recedes to a point of perspective the eye approaches but never attains. There’s a smudge in the distance that could be a tree, a tower or a human figure. How teasing.
I think it is a human figure. The flyers are at the printers. The photographer arrives at the weekend.
“That smudge?” he said. How can a photographer be so blind? I’m looking at it as I write and it’s distinctly a human figure, on the road, approaching the viewer.
Tonight was a private viewing – a vernissage, as Dietrich would say –to selected critics. Ling’s landscape drew a mixed response. Dietrich insisted on telling gruesome stories of Xavier Ling’s unsettling death. Melinda thought it ‘spooky’ – but Melinda has no insight at all. No one mentioned the figure on the road. It really is very distinct. I can make its eyes (so bright). It’s larger than I recall. Or closer.
Closed the gallery. Can’t cope with the chatter, the inane questions. How can they not see the figure on the road? Is it Ling himself, hidden in his own picture? His eyes – I can make them out from here.
Rain. Too dark. Slept on couch in gallery. He is so much closer. Ling has teeth, so white and sharp. Those eyes…
Banging on windows must be Dietrich with news reviews didn’t answer go away Dietrich so many messages on phone. No leaving now Ling has arrived he fills the frame but I will not look into those eyes, if I turn around and look, the teeth, so close, I will not I will not I will
Hit & Run
Coppers of course, when it’s too late to do any good. Hit and run, they said. Who saw what? Of course, no one saw a bloody thing. Make, model, plates? Sorry, officer… Useless, the lot of them.
No sense from Grace either. Nice girl, not the brightest.
“He stepped out right into it!” she kept telling the woman police officer. “Like he didn’t see it coming,” she said and the lady copper had this look on her face like she gave up being on telly to do this job.
Gracey went into the back of the cop car and I – the body, me – it went into the ambulance.
I didn’t want to go with them.
That mangled meat, it only felt like it was me when the tattooist’s needle was stinging, or the booze was coming back up after a session, or during a ruck, when your nose breaks and there’s blood in your mouth.
What was Grace anyway, when I wasn’t putting babies into her, the twins and the new one, whenever that’s due? Her face, all blotched with tears and snot: wouldn't miss it.
There were two ways to go and one of them was to stand around while the doctors brought out the bad news and Grace howled and then the funeral, all my mates in suits trying to crack onto my sister. What was the point in that?
The other way was marked out with two lines of fire, the treadmarks of a car, a silver Jag, blazing through town. Someone was at the end of that trail, someone with a Jag outside on the drive, someone enjoying a smoke and some banging tunes, trying not to think about what had happened on their way home.
Someone I was going to visit.
I turned my back on the flashing lights and walked into the night. Then I started to run.
These four stories round out the pieces of fiction that are going to appear in the core rules section of The Ghost Hack 2nd ed. It's been a blast writing these. You can read the others here and here.
Stain on the Floor
Or Jack and Ruth, they pop round with the twins, showing me their new phones and all their fancy apps. Where are they these days?
I need Jack to take a look at the door. The lock’s no good. People walk right in.
The young man from the letting agency is here. He walked in, bold as anything, so I hid in the kitchen, waiting for him to leave. There’s a young couple with him. She’s pregnant. He has those horrible tattoos.
“I don’t know about this place,” the woman says, shivering. “I heard what happened to the previous occupant.”
I wonder, who can she mean? The occupant before me was an old lady named Lucas who went to live with her family in Perthshire.
“The police caught the man responsible,” the young man from the letting agency tells them as they leave. “It really is a low-crime neighbourhood.”
I creep out once they’ve gone. She never mentioned the stain on the floor. It’s sticky. It must have ruined the carpets. Where are the carpets?
I look around in alarm. Where is the sofa? The bookshelf? Where’s the TV?
I run across the bare floorboards to the window. I shout out, Help! I’ve been burgled! But the passers by pay no attention. You’re invisible, when you’re old.
Except to the lady across the road. She’s always in her garden, with those shears. She straightens up and waves to me. I don’t wave back. The tenants in that house are noisy students and have been ever since the woman who owned it died, years ago it must be: the twins were just babies when she had that fall.
No curtains to close. No chair to sit on. Just the stain on the floorboards, glistening red. Like a bloodstain on my floor.
It’s like somebody died in here.
Voice of My Complaint
The vicar droned on: “Remember not the sins and offences of my youth…”
There had been sins, I suppose. My jealousy. Your work. That bitch Susan at your office. Something had been going on there. But what did it matter now? Your mother stood opposite me, childless as well as widowed. My mother comforted her. Perhaps they would be close, at last. If only there had been children: something they could share.
The vicar was saying something about “everlasting arms” and I thought of your arms, around me, strong. You carried me like I weighed nothing, from the wreck to flashing blue light. Then, later, they became so thin, your skin like glass. I watched the blue veins, mutinously doing the bidding of your unreliable heart.
Singing, but it was a hymn I didn’t know, something about “the voice of my complaint,” so I moved my lips out of idiot-respect.
The vicar started his reading and my excitement mounted.
“The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.”
I wanted to laugh, but it felt wrong, with Margaret bawling beside me.
“It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption.”
I stepped forward to look into the grave. Corruption stole your youth, your strong arms, your wise laughter. How I longed to see them again, now, uncorrupted.
“O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”
The service ended. Flowers, ashes, dust to dust. The families drifted away through the bird-infested trees, Margaret to the bar, our mothers arm in arm, grieving for a daughter and now a son too.
I remained. “Where are you?” I shouted, then, “I waited, after the accident. I watched you, over the years.” And softly, “Why aren’t you here too?”
But the grave and the senseless wren made no answer.
Under the Bed
The child clutched Mister Wally, stroking his fluffy head and tracing his button eyes. Under the bed, the monster’s nails scratched and scraped. The child pressed Mister Wally to his cheek, inhaling his comforting scent of soiled fabric.
The monster tugged at the quilt, yanking it towards the floor. The child gripped the quilt, ready for the nightly tussle. The monster released its pull. The child wrapped the quilt around him like a snailshell, no corner over the mattress. This was how sleep was earned.
Mister Wally had gone.
Not under the pillow. Not inside the quilt. Sleep was impossible without Mister Wally.
The child peered over the edge of the bed. Mister Wally lay half under the bed frame in sliver of street light from where the curtains didn’t quite meet.
The child reached down, fingertips towards the upturned button eyes.
The monster caught his wrist.
The scream brought the child’s father, blinking furious sleep from his eyes. Light pounced on the room like a cat on a rat.
“Was it a nightmare?” the father asked.
The child sat in bed, his quilt neat, shielding his eyes from the light with a pale hand.
“Not any more,” the child replied.
The father smiled at the child’s mannered tone. He picked up the fluffy doll on the floor.
“Here’s Mister Wally.”
“I don’t want it.”
“You are getting a bit old for Mister Wally.” He shoved the doll into a drawer. What a helpless expression was in those button eyes. Almost pleading. He slammed the drawer shut. “Shall I leave the light on for a few minutes?”
“No,” said the child. “I like the dark now.”
The father reached for the light switch but hesitated. Why did he suddenly fear the darkness that would follow, with that still figure sitting in his child’s bed, watching him with unkind eyes?
He died in the London Infirmary, making all the little nurses laugh. He gave my Dad this telephone number before he passed and said, proper serious: “Just make one call and say his name, the one who wronged you, and I’ll know.”
Not that my Dad needed that. In the Eighties, he stayed away from them Yardies selling coke and shooting coppers. He opened a nice little business on the Portobello Road and made big money when it went upmarket.
I wasn’t that smart. I was fourteen when I phoned Uncle Douglass’ number. No one answered, but I knew someone was there. Someone who’d been expecting the call. I just said the name: Dale Perry. Dale, he threatened me and I was scared. That night, Dale went out of a seventh floor window. Splashed across the car park. Nice one, Uncle Duppy.
I don’t feel good about it now. Or the other names. Dwayne Mitchell, hit by a truck. Job done. Kelvin Franks who narked on me, proper carved up he was, just bits left. Even Caryne, God help me, who cheated on me. Or I thought she did.
All in the past now. Monica sorted me out. No more drugs. I’m respectable, like my old Dad. Two pretty girls. Pictures on my phone: see, that’s them. Love them up big. Would kill for them.
“I’m respectable now,” is what I told Eddie. But he said, “Do some with me, for old times!” But it’s stronger stuff than I remember. Next thing I know, I’m all lit up, thinking I can do anything, proper belted. I tell Monica, “Let me drive!” I’m driving too fast. Monica’s screaming at me. The girls are sobbing in the backseat. I turn to shout at them…
The funeral is tomorrow.
So I made that phonecall. Just one name.
But you knew that, didn’t you? I didn’t expect you so soon.
Three more lean little ghost stories that will go into the 2nd edition of The Ghost Hack. See the previous post for Walking The King's Road, Show Your Face and Mother's Room.
Galois' Last Theorem
No, I understand: you are selling an antique, not taking a class. To business then. Show me your pistol.
It’s beautiful. You see the rifling on the bore? That increases accuracy. The English pistols were smooth-bored, leaving God or Chance a role in the duel. Not so in France. Not for Galois. Everything is inevitable. You can work it out mathematically…
Quite so, enough algebra. May I? The black powder pours in, so. See how the ramroad packs down the ball? A simple operation transforms a paperweight into a weapon.
I have your pistol’s companion, bought in a house-sale – what a find! Let’s lay them beside one another, two duelists, reunited at last. They were made an identical pair so that choosing one at random confers no advantage. Not that anything is truly random.
It surprises you that a mathematician died in a duel? Galois was a revolutionary in politics as well as algebra. Progress is inevitable, he believed. Then the Academy rejected his paper and that scheming minx Stéphanie … excuse me. I am overwrought. It is the waste, you see? The waste of so much talent, so young.
Pick up one of them. Which is which, they are so alike? Perhaps I hold your pistol, or you mine?
Do you know what Galois said on his death bed? ‘I need all my courage to die at twenty.’
Raise your pistol, sir. Both are loaded.
No, this is not a robbery. Think of it as a solution. I have calculated to exactitude. I should not – he should not – have died that morning. It was mathematically impossible.
The calculation must be performed again. With the same variables.
Do not tremble, Monsieur. The outcome is determined by mathematics, not by nerves. Pull your trigger as I pull mine. Courage! What is a duel, but another equation?
The Desert Miles
I watched the night steal over the desert and the strange, bright southern constellations steal the sky. I listened to the moon-maddened cries of dingoes and watched the thorny lizards pursue ants across the ravine.
I waited as the sun sliced the shadows apart, striking off the stones and making the distance shimmer. I thirsted and I waited.
I dreamed of torchbeams lancing the darkness and my name carried on the wind in strange voices. I dreamed of men and dogs passing close by the ravine where I lay. I dreamed I called out to them with a tongue burned to numbness. “I’m here. I’m down here.”
The dream ended and the waiting became wearisome.
I said goodbye to the ravine, the two rucksacks and the empty canteen. I let the desert pass through me. I drank from its dry winds. I consumed its empty miles.
The sun rose in anger and passed over me in shadow. The moon gleamed like an old bone. The dust cloud blew in from the north and replaced the sand with tarmac and the canyons with neat suburbs. People passed me in the haze, dressed in unfamiliar new fashions, whispering to each other in the dust.
The desert brought me to your house. Children’s toys on the lawn. Dishes in the sink. A bottle of wine and two glasses. An evening with the woman who is now your wife and the children who are now your sons. The years have disappeared into the desert.
I leave sand on the stairs.
I stand at the foot of your bed, where your wife clings to you.
The dust swirls in the night air and settles on your lips.
I’m still waiting, but I have brought the desert with me.
The Last Sonata
The blood drains from your skin, a sinking diminuendo. You will bruise where you rest against the cold linoleum. You become pale where you face the kitchen ceiling, the magnets on the fridge, the calendar with dates fruitlessly circled.
Can you feel your muscles stiffening, the famous rigor mortis? This is the slow movement: adagio.
It’s cold, don’t you think? Your body surrenders the last of your warmth. This is the temperature of objects. Rigid and frigid, you say to yourself, At last, this is lonely death! But you are wrong.
You are not alone. Musicians have joined your tremulous choir. These are the insects you kept at bay so long with sprays and swats. Now they are in harmony with your loosening flesh. They bring their eggs. By the time your muscles unknot, their maggoty children have joined the orchestra. They burrow.
This is the scherzo, a jest: enjoy its playfulness. You are beautiful now. Your skin shines. You are home to a multitude, a busy citadel of consumption and hungry purpose. You are more alive than you have ever been, mother to a nation, multitudinous as the stars in the sky. And you feed your children. You are adoring and adored.
The air buzzes with their insect gratitude. The music hastens: vivace, then faster, vivacissimo.
Your body, sick of stillness, yearns to dance. It swells. Gases broil and churn. The blood foam spews from lips and nostrils. This is the rondo. Your beautiful paleness turns to fungal green and red, like the painted eyes of harlots. Your solid flesh melts at last. You are liquid.
Do not hasten away: the skeleton waits offstage, with its own grave melody in the slowest tempo, larghissimo, the stately unseaming of cartilage and bone. Paleness will return. But I see you are restless. Let the conductor take his bow. We must applaud his work and depart, you and I.
Listen! A new music is beginning.
I'm working on an ambitious 2nd edition for The Ghost Hack RPG. This includes starting each section with a piece of short fiction: a ghost story in 350 words. Writing 350 word ghost stories is incredibly addictive. I need to write dozens. Here are the first three.
Walking the King's Road
The grave stones are old now. Time has pitted them. The weather has smoothed away their sharp angles. The names they commemorate are obscure lines in the stone, shallow and smudged.
I look for my own name. I can still make it out.
They brought flowers, once, and laid them around this monument. There were weeping women and sorrowful children. It was a good burial. I look back fondly on it. My memory is as crisp as my gravemarker is faded.
It was a long time ago.
No one brings flowers to this gravestone any more. The little statues are unpainted and made shapeless by the years. Were they once cats? Or owls? I think they were cats.
There are visitors still. They pass the stones and monuments with ignorant curiosity. The gravestones of strangers are, after all, just symbols of mortality. The passersby sense the vast ranks of the dead who have gone before them and then flinch away from the insight. They hurry on. There is a gift shop to visit.
My coffin lies behind glass, bare to the world, like a strumpet’s modesty. But it is better this way. Better here, under the alien lights, than under the sands, in the oven of the earth, like my mother and daughters, made nameless by cruel history.
I turn away. I pass the turnstile and the girl who sells tickets. I look up at the images on the walls, celebrating the grandeur of my tomb Even now, after all these centuries, my works endure. Look upon them, ye mighty, and rejoice.
Show Your Face
Why won’t you show your face?
I feel you, watching me, when I’m with my friends. They laugh at old memories and I laugh too, to show them I’m OK. That I’m getting over it. But when my eyes slide away to the window, you’re outside in the dark, watching.
But you don’t show your face.
Why doesn’t your smile appear at the glass, or your frown. Or your unspoken recriminations? Why does it show only sky and faraway stars?
I forget to laugh and my friends notice my searching eyes. They gather close. Do I want to talk about it? No. Do I realise there was nothing I could have done? Yes, I realise that. Am I recovering? Yes, yes I am recovering. Every day, I feel a little better.
You watch me lie to my friends.
It’s time to go. Home. Empty house. Empty bed. Unopened letters with your name on them. Cards with my name on: Deepest Condolences.
Teenage girls at the bus stop opposite shriek with delight. A window opens. A voice calls out. Do I have any idea what time it is?
Yes. It’s time to go. I know it’s not far.
It’s not far, up the stairs, hearing them creak behind me under your tread.
Not far from the stairs to the bathroom, where your shape curls in the rising steam.
Not far from the heart, to the arm, to the wrist and onward, through darkening waters, to where you stand watching me.
Until we are face to face again.
I closed the bedroom door on a weekend’s hard work. With the funeral behind me, the days waited like unopened gifts. Where to go? I was unused to the act of choosing. So many years spent waiting for the summons from Mother’s room.
I stopped. Had I really heard that? The imperious rhythm was unmistakable. I returned, re-opened the door, expecting to find a wounded bird or adventurous cat making this racket. The room was as empty as before, though the scent of gardenia was stronger.
A strong tea calmed my nerves, which were shredded after Mother’s long illness and many demands. It was time to leave, to get out.
I was detained at the front door.
An impossible knocking from upstairs. Surely it was noisy pipes. Subsidence. Shrinking timbers. I set off down the crunching gravel path.
BANG BANG from the upstairs window overlooking the gate. Then again, but with fury:
BANG BANG. My keys fumbled in the lock and my feet pounded on the stairs.
BANG BANG from behind the bedroom door.
The bare room waited – sweet air shivering in the growing shadows. The day was slipping away.
The night drew on too soon.
BANG BANG. Roused from half-dreams of Mother’s sobs, her pain, her drugs.
BANG BANG. Hurried from the shower, from the untasted meal, the unread book. The scent of gardenia on my clothes.
They can be demanding, the ill, but we mustn’t grumble. We must not complain. There will be other times to go away. It upsets her, to be left alone, all alone in this house, this empty house. Phone off the hook. Letters unopened. Food untasted. Waiting for the summons from Mother’s room.
I'm writing a set of short scenarios for GMs to use one-on-one with new characters to introduce them to the rules of Blueholme and the Delvingwood setting of Michael Thomas' Necropolis of Nuromen. The first was a scenario for a solo Fighter. This one's for a solo first level Magic-User of Good or Lawful alignment and explores the background of the villainous necromancer Nuromen.
Of course, you can adapt this for a full party or higher level characters. Just make the traps more deadly, turn the Tormented Knight into a Mummy, replace the Giant Rats with a colony of Giant Spiders, go nuts!
The Desolate Wedding
You have been hired by Lady Leika of the Lily to do some legal work. Norgules Manor is an estate on an island on the far side of Lonely Lake from Camlann Castle. Norgules Manor has been abandoned since the disappearance of Palin Norgules 50 years ago. The ‘Grandsire Law’ allows a grandchild to arrive and claim an inheritance, but after 50 years this expires and the property reverts to the feudal lord, in this case the House of Lily. Lady Leika wants the estate valued and has sent her clerk, Honorius Squint, and guard, Bland Mulgrew, along with you to assess any magical texts or objects in the estate. Palin Norgules had a reputation as a sorcerer and his son-in-law was the dreaded necromancer Nuromen!
Squint is dull and fussy. Rules infractions throw him into fits of shrill rage, threatening dreadful punishments from "my Lady of the Lily, once we are back in Camlann!" He wants to document every room, with painstaking slowness (an hour per room) and won't allow any properties in the House to be "stolen from their rightful owner, my Lady of the Lily!"
Mulgrew is lazy and boorish. He drinks constantly and complains all the time. He is looking to enrich himself by stealing petty valuables from the estate. His arguments with Squint escalate in ferocity.
Each time the text indicates they argue, each gains a Stress Point. Keep track of the Stress Points the NPCs gain. If Squint reaches 10 Stress, he has a breakdown and tries to run away, jumping into the lake and drowning. If Mulgrew reaches 10 Stress, his irritation with Squint becomes murderous rage and he attacks him; then, he tries to flee the house by the front door and, if he cannot, he goes mad, attacking the PC whom he blames for their predicament.
Norgules is a small island off the eastern shore of the Lonely Lake. Palin made his money from timber from the Delvingwood Forest which presses close by the lake here, and used it to build Norgules Manor and amass an occult library. His wife died giving birth to his daughter, Zimena. Palin lavished money on tutors for Zimena, who grew to become a dark-haired beauty and an enthusiastic sorceress.
Palin offered his daughter in marriage to the necromancer Nuromen, hoping to learn Dark Arts from him. He fully expected Nuromen to sacrifice his new bride to Gamosh, the evil god they both worshiped. However, at the wedding, Nuromen betrayed Palin, slaughtering the household with his undead servants. Palin was sacrificed and left behind as an undead guardian while Nuromen and Zimena decamped to the necromancer's hideaway of Law's End.
Rowing across the Lonely Lake
A pair of boatmen row the PC and two NPCs across the Lake to Norgules. They are talkative fellows and it is easy to get the following rumours out of them:
The Manor House
The Manor stands on a bleak headland overlooking the lake. Its upper storey sags and the roof has collapsed in places. In front of the house stands on odd statue: a knight in full armour, kneeling, clutching a sword in one hand. The statue is of rusted iron, the sword immovable. The statue’s posture is cringing, as if pleading for its life. This is the Tormented Knight, containing Palin Norgules' undead corpse, and it will animate later.
The House has windows of stone lattice that are too small for anyone to climb through. The main doors stand open and tilt from their broken hinges. The floor is strewn with rubble and rat droppings. Most of the doorways have no doors. The rooms are 10’ high and lightless.
The doors stand open. Passages lead left and right and a grand arch opens into the Grand Hall: the arch is constructed to look like bones entwined with roses and is capped by a stone skull.
When the PC first enters, rats scurry away, squeaking in alarm. It is so dark within the House that someone must light a candle or lantern. A Detect Magic spell reveals a faint enchantment on the doors.
When the Tormented Knight enters the Manor, these doors will close, Arcane Locked until dawn.
The main chimney has collapsed, filling the floor with rubble and partially blocking access to the library to the south. The stairwell to the north rises to the first landing but then collapses. Weak light filters through the exposed roof beams. There is no second storey. Arches lead to the Foyer, Parlour and Kitchen, all with bones and roses carved out of stone.
Under the ruined fireplace is the skeleton of a young woman (though this is only likely to be discovered after the Shrieking Ghost Event reveals the body). She carries a key to the Study and the Library.
The stairwell is unsafe, especially the first landing which will creak perilously after one person’s weight is put on it. A second person’s weight will cause it to collapse, dropping the person to the floor below and bringing masonry down on top of them for 2d6 damage. The Tormented Knight counts as two people because of its heavy armour.
A table fills the room, set for a wedding feast, although rats have eaten most of the food and the cake is a nest of spiders now. There are old bloodstains on the tablecloth and chairs.
The player can deduce that a fight broke out at the wedding. Searching will find name plates: the bride was Zimena Norgules, the groom Nuromen Antinomus.
The entire upper storey has caved in, filling most of this area with rubble, tilting roof beams, plaster and smashed furniture. Dim light filters through the dust motes from the windows at the back.
There are skeletons under the rubble: a dozen men at arms and as many skeletons in dark robes. Climbing over the rubble will reveal a space at the north end of the room.
There are two corpses here. One is a guard in Norgules livery (bones and roses), the other is a skeleton with runes on its ragged robes. The guard’s leg is broken but he carries an old crossbow. The skeleton has a crossbow bolt in its skull.
If the PC visits the Shrine, they will identify the runes as those of Gamosh. The player might deduce that the Manor’s guards were assaulted by the Undead, evidently in a surprise attack.
This room is in fine condition, with an upholstered chair (slashed) facing the fireplace and a painting mounted above the fire. An archway to the south leads to the Library and north to the Kitchen. The portrait shows a tall, solemn man beside a young woman, clearly his daughter: she is very beautiful, but there is something hard about her features. The Manor is behind them, in its former glory.
If the picture is taken down there is an old message on the back: “This is a fair likeness of my daughter Zimena. If she pleases you, we shall discuss marriage; return with this painting and see her with your living eyes – Thanks be to Gamosh – your friend, Palin Norgules.”
The Library is lined with shelves but the books have been pulled down and are strewn across the floor, many torn or ruined by rainwater.
This room is entered easily from the Parlour but the archway through to the Grand Hall is blocked by rubble. Climbing over the rubble reveals the weakened masonry of the arch, which creaks and drops clouds of dust and gravel; a second person crossing will see cracks appearing. A third person crossing the rubble will suffer the arch falling in on them, dealing 1d6 damage. The Tormented Knight counts as two people crossing in its heavy armour.
The door out onto the Deck is locked and must be broken open by Mulgrew’s crowbar unless the keys are discovered. A small passage leads to a privy.
Each hour spent searching in the Library will turn up a find from this list (roll d4, re-roll if repeating):
This small chamber stands above the front door, reached by a narrow flight of steps. The ugly altar is studied with melted candles, long extinguished, and splashed with old bloodstains. A single unlit candle remains.
There is an altar to Gamosh, a god of chaos and evil from the distant Northlands. The god’s name is etched in the Common Tongue upon the altar along with the inscription LIGHT MY CANDLE TO REVEAL MY GLORY.
If the candle is lit, the characters will all see the vision of the Desolate Wedding. The Tormented Knight will animate. If the PC has already seen the Vision, the scene will instead by a roofless tower on a limestone crag looming over an abandoned village in the forest: this is Law’s End, to where Nuromen fled with Zimena.
Prayers on scraps of paper have been pressed into cracks in the stonework. Most of these are written by Palin Norgules, saying things like “I lit the candle and saw visions most dreadful, yet all true!”
Some of the papers are written in Northern Runes. If a Read Languages spell is cast, these are prayers from Zimena Norgules. Here is a flavour: “How I loathe my father. How little he understands the Misery Unending! O Gamosh, send my love swiftly to me on wings of the night. Nuromen, come to my arms. Then let us open father’s eyes to mysteries of undeath he cannot yet imagine! – your servant and slave, Zimena Norgules”
The study has intact doors. The one from the Great Hall has been smashed inwards and an improvised battering ram lies discarded inside. A trap has been activated: a rusty blade at head-height. The south door is still locked.
The south door has a similar trap which is still functioning and the blade will swing out at anyone entering without using the key. However, the blade is stiff with rust and jams: the victim will only suffer 1hp damage on a failed save vs Breath and a NPC target gains 1 Stress. If the blade is oiled, the trap can be made functional again, in which case anyone entering through the south door takes 1d6 damage and must save vs Breath or be decapitated.
The study was looted long ago: the impressive desk has its drawers pulled out and papers scattered everywhere. A faded circle marked with occult symbols is painted on the floor.
The circle functions as a ward vs undead but a Read Magic spell is needed to activate it. It lasts until dawn. If the Death Knight is inside the circle when it activates, it will be trapped inside.
A secret compartment in the desk contains a life phylactery: a talisman with an unfortunate soul bound into it. If the wearer takes damage that would kill them or is struck by a level-draining attack, the phylactery shatters and the wearer is left unharmed. A Detect Magic spell makes the phylactery glow, revealing its hiding place. However, the wearer suffers terrible dreams and must sleep for two nights to get one night’s worth of rest. Putting it on triggers the Desolate Wedding vision and animates the Tormented Knight. Honorius Squint will insist this is now property of the House of Lily, gaining a Stress Point if the PC or Mulgrew argue.
Correspondence on the desk is between Palin Norgules and Nuromen the Necromancer, regarding Nuromen’s forthcoming visit to Norgules Manor. Nuromen’s letters are written in Northern Runes and require a Read Languages spell to translate: they contain instructions for creating and activating the ward versus undead (without needing a Read Magic spell) in return for Palin providing Nuromen with a suit of plated armour and helm made from solid iron.
The kitchen has big oak tables, a large fireplace and rusty pots and pans hanging from hooks on the rafters. Ornate archways lead into the Grand Hall and Parlour and a shadowy passage leads to a Pantry. There is a door leading out to the back of the house.
The door is unlocked (Slythy Roach picked the lock). There are signs that, in the recent past, people have camped in this room and looted it (the outlaws, before Slythy Roach became guardian of this place).
Someone lives here in this dark and stinking room. There is a bedroll on the floor and skinned and salted rats hang from hooks on the ceiling.
The rats are future meals for the House’s occupant, Slythy Roach. Slythy is an outlaw who works for the White Company and guards the contraband they drop off here. Staying in the haunted house and subsisting on rats has driven him rather mad as has his terrible skin disease, contracted from the rats, which makes him look like a rotting corpse. He has seen the Desolate Wedding in his dreams but, because he is evil and insane, this has not animated the Tormented Knight and he is ignorant of its presence.
Slythy has opened the lock to the door onto the Deck. If captured (e.g. by a Charm Person or Sleep spell or simply cornered and outnumbered) he will assist in fighting the Tormented Knight or Mogo's Henchmen.
The room contains Roach's treasure: 123sp, 32gp and a pot of salt worth 10gp and a pouch of Black Lotus. This will provoke an argument between Mulgrew and Squint over whether it is part of the estate or loot for adventurers. The salt can be poured into the visor of the Tormented Knight: roll To Hit to do this (3 attempts) and the Knight must save vs Poison or be destroyed. The Black Lotus is a drug which causes a trance for 1 turn, bringing on the vision of the Desolate Wedding but will also grant a clue about one location in the house (such as how to activate the ward in the Study, wear the phylactery is hidden or where Slythy is hiding).
The ceiling above the door has collapsed, blocking any way in or out of the House here. Rubble blocks the doorway into the Cellar, but this can be climbed over.
The floor here is unsafe. Any character walking on it will see cracks spread. After that, any armoured character (Mulgrew or the Tormented Knight) will fall through the floor into the Cellar below, taking 1d6 damage and then being attacked by the Giant Rats.
This room is choked with rubble. A staircase descends to the cellar below, but that noisome shaft stinks of rats and their droppings are everywhere here and prodigiously large.
A staircase descends to the Lower Cellar, which occupies the space of the Buttery/Kitchen below ground. It is lair to a nest of Giant Rats. There are a dozen of the creatures down here.
12 Giant Rats AC 7, 2hp, HD ½, AT bite for 1d3 + disease, XP 6
Anyone bitten by a rat will become feverisj within the hour and experience the vision of the Desolate Wedding if they have not done so already - this animates the Tormented Knight.
There are vintage wines in the cellar, with a value of 50gp: this will prompt another argument between Squint and Mulgrew.
This wharf sags dangerously. At the north end there are four barrels lined up. The Lonely Lake stretches away into the mist, deep and dark.
If it is night time, there may be a lit lantern on top of one barrel. The barrels are contraband, brought here by the White Company and awaiting collection by Mogo the Miller, a corrupt merchant in Camlann. Slythy Roach lights a lantern to guide Mogo’s men here at night (this lantern was not lit when the PC arrived on the island).
Grimbold and Bluto
They are a superstitious pair and will jump on their boat and row away empty handed if there are scary goings-on. They have never met Slythy Roach and know nothing about the provenance of the contraband.
The contraband consists of a barrel of salted herring (10gp), fine brandy (50gp), peppercorns (75gp) and oil (20gp, equivalent to 10 flasks and capable of creating a fiery explosion that deals 3d6 damage if exposed to flame).
The contraband will prompt an argument between Honorius (who wants to add it to his ledger) and Bland (who wants to split it as loot).
The south door to the Library is locked. The deck here is unsafe and creaks ominously if walked on. After that, it will collapse if two characters (or one unarmoured character) walk on it, tipping them into the lake. Mulgrew will drown in his armour and Squint will drown because he cannot swim, unless rescued by the PC. If the Tormented Knight falls in, it will take 2d4 rounds for it to climb back out.
The PC could try to swim away from the Manor but warn them that the Lake is famous for its treacherous currents: save vs Death Ray to avoid drowning. Alternatively, the boat brought by Mogo's henchmen could be an escape route if Grimbold and Bluto are defeated.
These events occur as the PC and NPCs explore the house. Trigger one event each hour: it takes an hour for Squint to document a room’s contents in his ledger. Once the Tormented Knight animates, trigger an event on a 1-2 on a d6, checking every turn.
The Tormented Knight
Palin Norgules’ zombie is trapped inside the iron armour outside and will animate when the vision of the Desolate Wedding occurs. This will occur at sunset (if the vision was invoked during the day) or immediately (if the vision was invoked at night) and creates a shriek and squeal of grating metal that can be heard throughout the House, adding 1 Stress to the NPCs. The Knight enters the House and seals the gates behind with another loud crash.
The rusted armour moves with creaks and squeals of grinding metal, jerky and yet filled with menacing purpose. Dead eyes look out from behind the visor slit, consumed with hatred for the living
The Tormented Knight
The Knight will cause the two NPCs to gain 1d6 Stress each when it first appears. The zombie retains some intellect: it knows the layout of the house and will search for intruders methodically but slowly (Move 15, so an unarmoured character can out-walk it).
The Desolate Wedding
This vision will occur if a PC Magic-User sleeps inside the House. There are several other events in the House that can trigger it (notably the Shrine but also Slythy's Black Lotus, the phylactery in the Study or a rat bite).
In the Manor's Grand Hall a wedding feast is occurring. Torches burn merrily in their sconces and candles illuminate a majestic wedding cake. The bride is a beautiful young woman in a dress of black and red; her groom an older man with a trim beard and a saturnine smile. An older gentleman, the father of the bride, has finished his speech - this is Palin Norgules.
The groom rises. "I must no longer call you friend," he announces to Palin, "but rather father. I do this once. For you shall henceforth be my slave."
Robed skeletons and zombies burst into the room and start murdering the dfenceless guests. The groom and his new bride watch, smiling.
Palin is dragged before his son-in-;law. Skeletons bring in a huge suit of armour. They seal Palin inside it, hammering long nails through his arms and legs. A helmet is pressed over his face.
"Nuromen - no! It wasn't supposed to be me! We had an agreement!"
The groom hands a mallet and nail to his bride who steps close to the struggling Palin, kneels beside him, then drives the last nail through the helmet. Palin slumps, silent and motionless. From all around the house, screams can be heard as the undead go about their murderous business.
Running the Scenario
This is a horror story and rather open-ended. The PC will enter the House and start exploring. There are jump-scares and mysteries. It soon becomes clear the party is not alone in the House. Squint and Mulgrew argue and tempers fray.
Slythy is more of a scare and a pest than an adversary. He might successfully backstab and even kill Mulgrew. Don't over-use him. He's not the main adversary. Once the Tormented Knight arrives, he might even become an ally. Remember that he is easily mistaken for a ghoul or zombie.
Invest some time in characterizing Squint and Mulgrew, their arguments (which will drag in the PC to arbitrate) and their deteriorating sanity. If Mulgrew goes mad, he could become a threat to the PC too.
Once night falls, Squint and Mulgrew will want to make camp and sleep. Throw in a creepy storm outside. Mulgrew will take watch. If the PC sleeps, she will experience the vision, wherepon she will be awoken by the shriek of the Tormented Knight animating and the crash of the doors locking.
If the vision has already occurred, there will be no time to sleep, because the Tormented Knight animates once the sun has set.
The Knight is a tough opponent, with a strong AC, lots of Hit Points and a nasty weapon. Fortunately, it's slow. Hopefully, the player can use knowledge of the House (its traps, weak floors and staircases, the ward in the Study) to damage or cage the Knight. It's appearance will probably trigger breakdowns in the two NPCs, possibly creating more problems, if Mulgrew goes murderously mad.
The arrival of the two Henchmen might provide more threat, a welcome distraction for the Knight or even possible allies (though they will try to row away if they see anything scary).
Reward a PC who tries to appeal to Norgules' humanity, using an understanding of his betrayal by his daughter and son-in-law. At the very least, such traumatic memories will stun the Knight for 1d6 rounds, perhaps allowing it to be carried to the warding circle or thrown into a pit to be eaten by rats.
If the PC survives the night, the boatmen will arrive to row him back to Camlann. If Squint died, the PC can decide what treasures to declare to Lady Leika and which to keep for himself.
A first level Magic-User has a single spell, which could be used in the scenario as follows:
Charm Person: Cast on Slythy Roach or one of Mogo’s henchmem, possibly on Mulgrew or Squint if they lose their minds
Dancing Lights: Frighten away Mogo’s Henchmen, lure Slythy or the Knight into a trap
Detect Magic: Discover the magic in the Foyer, Study or Library (with 20 minutes duration, the spell might last to explore two of these rooms).
Enlarge: Cast on self or on Mulgrew to gain advantage of double damage for a turn
Floating Disc: Transport the contraband to the main wharves where the boatmen will collect the PC in the morning: the round trip takes two hours and the NPCs will stay at the house so check to see what has become of them. Alternatively, take both NPCs with you up the weakened staircase in the Grand Hall, the unsafe part of the Deck or across the weak floor in the Buttery
Hold Portal: Lock a door into the Study or onto the Deck to trap or redirect an enemy (perhaps into the blade-trap on the Study’s other door)
Light: This will reveal Slythy where he is hiding if cast on a room; it will cause the Knight to be blinded (-4 to hit) for 1d4 rounds if cast directly at it, or make the Giant Rats retreat to their holes for 1d6 rounds if cast in the underground Cellar
Magic Missile: An effective weapon against any opponent
Protection from Evil: Imposes a penalty on the Death Knight’s attacks; if the PC is non-agressive, the Knight will back away, perhaps allowing the PC to direct it into a trap
Read Languages: Translate the Northern Runes in the Library, the Study or the Shrine of Gamosh; lasts for 20 minutes so sufficient to visit two of those locations
Shield: Effective protection against any opponent
Sleep: Could be used against Mogo’s Henchmen, the Giant Rats or even Slythy
Ventriloquism: Could be used to scare away Mogo’s Henchmen or lure Slythy or the Death Knight into a trap
Without Hope (great title!) is a new addition to the zombie/survivalist genre that takes its cues from TV shows like The Walking Dead (of course) and Netflix's recent Black Summer: the zombies come in sizes and shades of decrepitude, their bites infect but ordinary death leads to reanimation too. That’s a recipe for a bleak situation.
Without Hope is for sale on drivethrurpg (click the image); don't expect to survive till the season finale
Chris Medders and Eric Porcellni (Spanish Inquisition Studios) state their design philosophy at the outset:
Don’t make any mistakes as this game is set up to be as realistic and as deadly as possible. It doesn’t matter how great a character is made or how tough or skilled they are.
Character death is going to be frequent here – as often as not, at the hands of your fellow-PCs – and the game is designed to run hot and fast to a desperate and bloody conclusion…
Zombie stories are compelling. Partly it’s the zombies themselves, which resonate because of our fears about death, disease and the loss of faculty with ageing. They’re shambling metaphors for AIDS, coronavirus, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Then there’s the social psychology. Zombie stories are all riffing on Lord Of The Flies, exploring what happens to people when social structures break down and savagery becomes as valid an option as civilisation.
Did you read William Golding's 1954 novel at school? Watch Peter Brook's 1963 film version, not the 1990 one which misses the point whenever it can
Like John Wyndham’s novels, from Triffids to Midwich Cuckoos, they examine what happens when humanity is knocked off its perch at the top of the food chain. The unthinkable becomes thinkable, whether its mandatory breeding programmes or the massacre of a room full of children.
For some reason, triffids are never scary on the screen. The Village of the Damned (1960) on the other hand...? Oooer...
The best zombie stories are about the revelation of character: the mild-mannered housewife is revealed to possess the ferocity to survive, the inner-city gangster has the internalised moral code to reject barbaric solutions, the respectable vicar turns to theft, torture and murder. They’re also about social contracts: do we want to live in a liberal democracy where freedom threatens our security or will we trade liberty for safety in an autocratic community? Does religion offer potent unifying bonds or does it divide us and limit our ability to adapt to threats with its rigid codes?
This is the thoughtful stuff. But there’s a recurring trope in zombie stories that’s less thoughtful, and that’s the nihilistic badass. In the absence of civilisation, you can simply exult in barbarism and power: engage in transgressive acts (murder, abduction, torture, betrayal!), arm yourself to the teeth and let ultraviolence solve your problems: live by the sword and – of course! – die by the sword, but it’s a wild ride till your luck runs out.
Transgressive nihilism doesn’t feature heavily in the films/TV versions – such characters are usually the villains – but it’s a big feature in games. In Zombicide, all the characters are transgressive nihilists, arming themselves will chainsaws then cutting a bloody swathe through the dead. In video games, as far back as Doom and Resident Evil, zombies are punchbags for the gamer’s unfettered id.
Surely no coincidence that Doom was developed by id Software
Without Hope falls into the Transgressive Nihilist camp. It’s a set of combat/skirmish rules with a trauma system added to reflect your unravelling psyche. There are lists of guns and a wide selection of antagonists (zombies of course, also freaks and cannibals and cultists, armed gangsters, soldiers and wild animals) and the rules set out how to kill them.
And the rules do this really well!
You roll four stats (MANIPULATION, MIGHT, MIND and MOVE) on 5d10 – a 5-50 range with the mode in the high twenties. Secondary stats are HIT POINTS (same as your MIGHT), SANITY (twice your MIND) and HUMANITY (twice your MANIPULATION).
There’s a big focus on random rolls (common in RPGs where characters die suddenly and get replaced in 5 minutes) so you roll these stats in order – no tweaking them to create your Optimal Badass. With 30, 18, 28 and 29 I am a bit charismatic but rather out of shape and otherwise unremarkable. With 18 HP, I will need protection, but 56 SANITY and 60 HUMANITY isn’t too bad.
You roll 3 professions from a list of one hundred and combine them creatively to tell a story.
This bit is fun. If I roll 51, 23 and 80 I get to be (flicks pages…): Labourer, Cult Leader, Punk Rocker. So, I’m Nozebliid, part time welder and lead singer of a punk band called Gentle Wartz who was performing a gig when the apocalypse went down. I turned my moshing fans into a loyal cult with the force of my personality. I roll my popularity on d100 and get 53, so as many people hate me as love me; I roll again and if I get 53 or less then I’m a public figure: 63, nope, I never broke into the mainstream before society collapsed.
Do you know three chords? Now go kill a zombie!
Every 5 points of MIND gets you a Skill or a Perk (I’m a bit unclear about the distinction – they seem to be the same thing). Nozebliid has 5 of these. I take Brawling and Drug Tolerance (how punk rock is that?) along with Command (my cultists), Conspiracy Theory and Repair (I’m a welder, remember?).
The skills/perks add +10 to your percentage chance of doing something, which otherwise works off a related stat. So ordering people about involves MANIPULATION, which is 30% for Nozebliid, but the Command perk means that goes up to 40%. With that rubbish MIGHT, Nozebliid is only 18% for things like throwing a punch, but his Brawling perk takes it up to 28%.
If Nozebliid survives an adventure, I get to add +1D10 to spread between my stats. Just adding +2 to MIND would take it up to 30 and Nozebliid would acquire a new skill, probably something to help him get by in this zombie-infested world: Survival, Submachinegun or Heavy Melee are all contenders.
Combat has a fluid do-what-feels-right initiative system and rules for dividing or multiplying your chance to hit based on range and rate of fire. On a successful hit you invert the roll and apply it to the Hit Location table. So if Nozebliid punches a cannibal and hits with a 21, that turns into 12 on the table: a lovely throat punch that quadruples the damage! Damage is rolled on d10s, with plusses or minuses, and 10s ‘explode’ allowing you to roll an extra dice. A punch deals a D10 plus MIGHT, divided by 10. So if I roll 8 and add my Brawl-adjusted MIGHT, that turns into 36, rounding to 4 points of damage, quadrupled to 16 because of the throat location. That’s not bad. It would flatten a teenage girl (15 HP) or a child (10 HP), but it’s enough to make other adversaries reconsider messing with me. Weapons deal much more damage, of course, and armour deducts damage if it covers the area that was targeted.
It gets slightly more fiddly with automatic weapons, but there’s a quick’n’dirty system for rounding percentages to the nearest 10, converting them to a D10 roll instead of D100, then rolling a handful of D10s. Everybody loves handfuls of D10s.
SANITY deteriorates in a way familiar to anyone who has played Call Of Cthulhu. Roll d% against your SANITY, if you roll over, it diminishes by a D10. HUMANITY is tested when you have to do unconscionable deeds and drops in the same way. When SANITY hits zero, you’re a fruitcake; when HUMANITY hits zero, you’re a cold-blooded sonofabitch.
There’s a fun rule for games set in the early days of the zombie apocalypse, where your very first zombie encounter costs you 3D10 SANITY and the first loss of a loved one costs 5D10. If you create characters once the apocalypse is up and running, you suffer a 3D10 SANITY deduction to represent past traumas. Having loved ones around you adds a bonus D10 to your Humanity – until they inevitably get taken from you and then it’s bloody bloody revenge.
Nozebliid takes a 3D10 SANITY hit because the apocalypse has been happening for a while now, so his SANITY drops to 44. Since his punk girlfriend Klamija is still alive, he can boost his Humanity to a fairly-sensitive 64.
That is more or less it, as the rules go. The rest is detail. Different types of zombies (regular, rotting, skeletal, massive fatties) and lots of human opponents all get detailed,. The system is simple and the stat blocks won’t frighten anyone. The idea that female NPCs automatically have less MIGHT but more MANIPULATION than males will strike you as a quaint call-back to Old School roleplaying, a candid concession to human biology or a chauvinist dogwhistle, depending on where you sit on some graph of social attitudes. I’ll merely comment that the zombie horror/survivalist genre is full of tough-as-nails female characters and I’m pleased to see that character generation doesn’t impose any such skewing on player stats.
The charm of the game is that little preparation is needed with a set-up like this. Create your characters and decide where you’re holed up. The GM tells you that you need fuel but a bunch of cannibals have taken over the nearest petrol station. Yeah, they’re roasting their hapless dinners on big petrol barbecues. Throw in a cannibal girl who wants to reform and escape and a prisoner who looks like he wants to escape but who has really developed a taste for ‘long pig’ and intends to betray his rescuers – and we have a plot. Tip a herd of shambling zombies into the forecourt, drawn by the racket, and we have a climax. Damn. I really want to play that scenario!
What could go wrong?
The only problem is that Without Hope doesn't aspire to any more than this. It invites you to run through a string of these deadly, chaotic episodes, churning through characters and making grim, transgressive decisions. To what end?
OK, right, nihilism, to be sure, but even nihilism has more to it than that.
What about the other aspects of the zombie drama? What about the politics, the strained relationships, the moral debate? Without Hope disavows all this stuff. Examples of play from the rules include Jack, gunning down the creep who killed his newborn son. and Ted, assassinating the former-politician who is trying to abduct his 9-year-old girl to sell into slavery. Relationships are there to justify more mayhem. Just let your Id do the thinking.
Of course, you can build these complexities on top of the basic system, adding whipped cream and fruit layers to the simple spongecake that Without Hope offers.
However, Without Hope doesn’t really invite this. The chatty, enthusiastic text urges you to plunge into the viscera and brutality and advocates a GMing approach that is best termed ‘punitive’: if players show weakness, the GM should be merciless in response.
The system provides simple yet flexible combat rules, but no similar rules for interpersonal dealings. Skills that have combat applications are expanded upon, but what do you do with Art or Seduction exactly? A rock-paper-scissors mechanic is implied with a trio of traits called Attractive-Cute-Sexiness but there’s no explanation of how this is works in play. There are no rules for Morale, Loyalty or Love. There are no mechanics for defeating security systems or infiltrating communities, beyond the barebones MANIPULATION test with a Perk. There is no system for extended tasks or cooperative activities. The implication is that players might occasionally make a roll to befuddle a guard or locate a fusebox, but they are going to shoot their way into and out of every problem.
What I’m saying is, there’s room for more development in Without Hope. The publisher promises “a Zombie Survival Horror RPG that has a different take on it all” but that’s not apparent yet. It would be nice to see the core mechanics applied to situations other than combat and the Sanity/Humanity system applied to problems other than people being killed. The setting invites something like Alignment or Personality Archetypes to determine who benefits from finding safe communities and who thrives on solitude, who stands to gain from forming relationships and who thrives on sabotaging them. Of course, you could just improvise all that stuff, but the game’s direction of travel is towards Transgressive Nihilism in which everyone acts in the same, reductive way. It needs a counterpoint to that.
The perception that Without Hope is a work in progress is strengthened by its presentation. On the plus side, the text is clear and written in a sharp, friendly style. It’s got an engaging authorial voice. There’s a lot of art, mostly photographs (of cos-players?) treated with a sort of bleached-out format that adds a satisfying patina of dread. Some of these (like the Watch-Out-Behind-You! scene on p89) are really effective. There’s a great piece of original art on p70 and Victoria Bellard’s cover art (of severed hands and eyeballs!) is striking and professional.
But the layout is cluttered: long paragraphs, a lack of subheadings, processes buried in the text rather than illustrated in charts or tables. There’s a lengthy discussion of Sanity/Humanity before we get round to Skills; combat mechanics get elucidated in detail before we find the Hit Location table. There are no interior page references. The table of contents runs to 4 pages, so it’s functioning more like an index.
Like many RPGs, it makes a fine introductory explanation, but it’s frustrating as a reference tool once you want to find how to do something. How I long to tidy it all up, create box-outs for examples, flow charts for processes and side-bars for the authorialising. I want the lists of gear at the back, on reference pages, along with a summary of character creation and simple stat-lines for each opponent.
Without Hope, ironically, offers a lot of hope for a satisfying survival-horror RPG built on its simple, bloody combat mechanics and loosey-goosey “just go with it” approach to character creation. As it currently stands, it offers an evening of improvised mayhem, in which everyone feels a bit queasy afterwards about the things their characters did and the gruesome ends they came to. Personally, I don’t feel the need to indulge in that more than once. If you want to build a campaign from this rules set, you run into problems. Not least, the questions of: “Why not use Apocalypse World RPG” (if you like things loose and creative) or The Zombie Hack or even good ol’ All Flesh Must Be Eaten?
All Flesh Must Be Eaten (AFMBE) is on the crunchier end, system-wise, but it offers a terrific range of settings and truly inspirational short fiction establishing each variation on the zombie apocalypse. Eric Bloat’s The Zombie Hack is a fast-and-fun 34-page manual for pick-up-and-play zombie-bashing.
Without Hope’s main asset is that it falls between these extremes: it’s more brutal and unforgiving than the cheerful Zombie Hack, with a darker, more disutbing aesthetic and characters who are flimsier and more vulnerable; it’s more spontaneous and improvisational than AFMBE, which can make combat and character creation a bit too arduous.
So there’s a place in the firmament for Without Hope if it cleaves to its grim Nitzchean philosophy but dares to go beyond gunplay in search of survivalist horror. The authors have plans to support the game, including material for campaign play, social conflict and personal development. In the meantime, maybe it's fine as it is, if you want to dive into nihilistic despair and just get soaking wet.
30 Minute Dungeons
Essays on Forge
I'm a teacher and a writer and I love board games and RPGs. I got into D&D back in the '70s with Eric Holmes' 'Blue Book' set and I've adopted Forge Out of Chaos to pursue my nostalgia for old school RPGs.
The shoddy PDF rulebook available at drivethrurpg is missing pp 66-67, 82-83, 86-87, 126-127, 140-141 and 162-5. You can read or download these below: