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.
After reviewing Michael Thomas' Necropolis of Nuromen, I have been teased by the desire to make a contribution to Blueholme and its elegant, rather fey-themed setting. What I imagine is 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.
The remit of these mini-scenarios is:
The idea is that, when the party assembles to commence Necropolis of Nuromen, the PCs are already established, know their powers, have a sense of identity and know a few snippets of useful lore about the Delvingwood, Camlann, and/or the Necropolis.
Here's the first mini-scenario for a Lawful Fighter.
Oaths Not Lightly Given
1. The Wrecked Wagons
The Old Road from Zimrillas ends at Camlann Castle, where you hope to find honourable work serving the House of Lily, but a restful night in Camlann is still hours away. A bend in the road reveals an alarming sight. Wagons are overturned, one tipped into the ditch along the south edge of the road. Ravens and buzzards circle around the wreckage. Brigands have made bloody work of a merchant train.
The player should describe how they approach the wreckage. On the south side of the road is a deep ditch, about 10ft wide, beyond which marshy lands stretch away, bare except for a distant treeline. On the north side, the eaves of the Delvingwood Forest draw close, about 30-50ft away.
Searching the wagons reveals half a dozen corpses: wagoners and travellers, unceremoniously put to the sword or drilled with crossbow quarrels and then stripped and robbed of valuables. The attack probably happened earlier that same day.
You hear furtive movement. Someone or something is hiding in the wagon that has been tipped into the ditch. You sense you are being watched.
The PC can sneak up on the wagon or call out for the watcher to identify themselves. If the player decides to leave (or sneaked around the wagons without searching them), they will see the watcher break cover and try to run away before stumbling and falling: it is a child.
The watcher is a small girl, no older than 7 or 8, and badged with dirt and blood. She has the glassy eyes of a child in shock.
The child says only one word: ‘Frog.’ Since she has slightly bulging eyes, this is an apt nickname for her. If asked about her parents or carers, her eyes flick towards the corpses on the main wagon. She carries a letter in her pocket which reads:
Lady Leika of the Lily: We commend to you this child, Franne Ogden, and hope that, as your ward, she may prove herself apt to study and serve. Her parents died last year of the Sobbing Pox and we, her uncle and aunt, are committed to a perilous journey north to Blueholme and beyond in the service of your House – Your servant, Hyrcan Ogden
A Lawful PC will recognise an obligation to protect Frog and bring her to Lady Leika in Camlann. Ask the player if they wish to swear a formal oath to do this:
Ask the player what form this oath takes and what they swear it on. If the PC swears an oath, there is a rumble of thunder and a flash of lightning among the dark clouds far to the north. The Lords of Law have heard the oath and honour it.
While the Oath is in effect, allow the player to re-roll one failed (or unsatisfactory) die result, keeping the better roll, if this is an attempt to fulfil the Oath.
2. THE BANDIT BARRICADE
A mile on, the road is blocked by a crude barricade made from a felled tree, since the Delvingwood draws right up to the north side of the road here. Half a dozen armed men guard the barricade. They carry swords and crossbows. Frog reacts to the sight of them with recognition and terror.
If the PC approaches the barricade, the bandits will react to the sight of an approaching warrior by firing crossbows. The first volley will miss, but half a dozen quarrels will pass close by and there is still a distance of 70ft to close on the barricade. Advise the player that a head-on assault is reckless against overwhelming numbers armed with crossbows. The land to the south is bare marshland with no cover. The ditch is full of churning water and offers no safety. The only way off the road is into the Delvingwood Forest, where a narrow path presents itself.
3. DELVINGWOOD TRAILS
On either side of the path, the forest presses in close and is unnaturally still. The trees crush together so close there is not chance to leave the trail. Behind you, there are shouts from pursuers, crashing after you. The whine and zip of a crossbow quarrel tells you they are armed and murderous.
These trails are narrow, less than 5ft wide. The forest is unnaturally dense and attempts to cut into the undergrowth with an axe will be noisy and slow. Shortly after the PC enters the trail, there is the sound of pursuit from behind: 4 Bandits are pursuing. If the player is minded to stand and fight, advise them to seek a place where the pursuers can be ambushed and can’t use their crossbows.
Lothar’s Bandits (4) AC 7, 6hp, HD 1, DEX 10, AT sword or crossbow 1d6 dmg, XP 10
Feel free to adjust Bandit numbers. The point is, there are too many to stand and fight against and they will use crossbows rather than closing to melee. If the PC is strong and well-armoured (high HP, high Strength, plate mail), increase their numbers to 6 to drive the point home.
Frog slows the PC down and there is a 2 in 6 chance at the end of every trail that the pursuers will come within crossbow range and fire 1d4 shots. If the PC carries the little girl, a shield cannot be used but the pursuers will not catch up.
If the PC tries to return to the road by this trail, it will have disappeared: the Forest has mysteriously closed in over it.
4. THE HANGING MAN
In this clearing, a man hangs from a noose lashed to an overhanging branch. He is still alive because his hands are free, but his fingers have been broken, making it painful for him to support his weight. He wears similar clothes to the bandits.
Norfred of Urvekos AC 9, 6hp, HD 1, DEX 12, AT none, XP 10
If the PC cuts Norfred down, Norfred will become and ally. He cannot fight, but he can carry Frog. He can be questioned, but check to see if the Bandits come within range if the player pauses to do this.
Norfred reveals the following information each time he is questioned (necessitating another check for the pursuing Bandits):
Norfred is a dignified warrior who never complains, despite his broken fingers and the bruises on his throat that threaten to asphyxiate him. He regards his reprieve as nothing less than a divine intervention by the Lords of Law and intends to earn it by serving the PC and protecting Frog.
5. THE TRAP
Whoever is leading or carrying Frog blunders into a snare here. A rope draws tight around one foot, pulling the character into the air to hang upside down a couple of feet above the ground. Frog is grabbed by claw-like hands and pulled into a large hole under the roots of a tree.
Frog's terrified face can be seen in a cave-like opening under the roots of a big tree, then something yanks her into the darkness. She screams and there is an answering peel of diabolical laughter inside the cave.
If Norfred was caught in the trap, the PC will be free to grab Frog and tussle to save her. Otherwise the PC must cut themselves down and rush to the hole: Frog can be heard screaming inside.
The trap was laid by Goblins. Inside the hole, a Goblin is pulling Frog down into the bowels of the earth. The PC can attack this Goblin and if it takes any damage at all the Goblin howls, releases Frog and flees into the darkness. The Goblin will spend 1d4 rounds pulling Frog into a cave under the tree; when the time is up it has succeeded and then it can draw its weapon and attack the PC; at this point, there must be a fight to the death and the Goblin will not flee.
Goblin AC 7, hp 4, DEX 9, HD 1-1, AT saw-knife for 1d6 dmg, XP 7
The Goblin’s saw-knife is an odd weapon with the name SPIDERBANE carved on the hilt in goblin runes. It is a cursed weapon for non-Goblins: it imposes -1 To Hit/Damage and becomes the only melee weapon the PC can use; however, it inflicts double damage on spiders.
After rescuing Frog, check to see if the Bandits catch up. If the PC hides in the cave after defeating the Goblin, the Bandits will pass by, allowing the PC to double back down the trail. The chance of pursuers catching up drops to 1 in 6 until they do catch up, then it returns to 2 in 6 again.
6. SPIDER GORGE
The trail here dips into a gorge with steep sides and thorny brambles on either side. It grows darker and darker as you advance and looking up you see the sky is hidden by a ceiling of dark webs. There are webs to either side. The gorge is entirely surrounded by webs. Setting fire to it is self-destructive, since the PC is caught in the middle of the ensuing fire.
If the PC presses on into the gorge, they will have to do battle with a Giant Spider.
Normal Spider AC 8, 4hp, DEX 8, HD 1, AT bite for 1d4 + poison XP, 15
The spider will back away if presented with a burning torch, but then it will climb into the webs to move round and attack from the flanks. If the PC fails to save (at +2) vs its poison, they become paralysed and the spider will drag them to the end of the tunnel and wrap them up in webbing. Norfred will automatically be captured too. However, Frog will escape and emerge to free the PC while the spider is distracted by the pursuing Bandits.
7. AMBUSH POINT
The trail emerges from Spider Gorge and a low branch hangs over the gorge – an ideal point to ambush pursuers since it is hidden from view by the webbing.
If the PC waits in ambush on the branch, the 4 Bandits will emerge from the Gorge at intervals. If the Spider was still alive, one Bandit will have died fighting it. The other 3 will emerge 1d4 rounds apart and each will spend the first round climbing out of the gorge, unable to attack. In addition, the player gains a surprise attack at +2 To Hit.
If the PC needs to flee, they can jump from the branch and onto the trail with no penalty, with the pursuit resuming as before.
8. DRAGON FEAST
The snarls and gnashing of teeth warn of a great beast ahead. Peering into the glade, you see nothing less than a Dragon with slimy black scales feasting on the carcass of a big elk. The creature is lithe and majestic but in its cold eyes there is only malice.
This is the Black Dragon of the Delvingwood and is placed here as a warning and teaser for future adventures. After 1d6 rounds of feasting it will take flight northwards. Discourage the PC from attacking an opponent who utterly outmatches them: if they insist, they are bowled over and stunned by the monster's roar and awake to see it flying away.
If the PC tries to approach the dragon with an offer (in exchange for help against the pursuing Bandits) then the Dragon will consider this (swooping over the pursuers and annihilating them); it might accept the Spiderbane Knife but is more likely to demand instead a tasty child for its fee: if no deal is reached. The Dragon sneers at the PC and departs.
Conversing with a Dragon is a life-changing experience. Let the PC re-roll their Wisdom and Charisma, taking the higher score rolled.
9. TUMBLEDOWN STAIRCASE
A flight of ancient stone steps rises up the steep hillside here, cut into living rock by ancient hands. The hill ahead of you is bald of trees and the climb exposes you to any pursurers.
Climbers are the steps are exposed to missile fire from pursuers: check to see if the Bandits come within range on 1-4. If the PC chooses to make a stand here, the Bandits will fire one more volley of missiles (1d4 quarrels) then advance up the steps to come at them two abreast; the PC gains +1 To Hit always wins Initiative because of the height advantage.
If the Dragon (8) has not been encountered, then 1d6 rounds after the PC starts climbing the steps (or 1d4 rounds into a battle on the steps with the Bandits), the Dragon will take flight northwards. The stupendous spectacle will cause the bandits to break off from combat and flee back into the woods.
10. ELFIN KNOWE
An ancient monument dominates the bald crown of the hill, a dolmen worn smooth by the slow centuries. Three beings stand around the stones in quiet discussion. THeir fine features possess an unearthly beauty and a deep sorrow. They are Elves of the Delvingwood, garbed as hunters, and they turn their eyes to you with curiosity.
The bald summit of the hill is marked by a structure of tilted standing stones. It is a meeting place for the Elves of the Delvingwood and 3 Elves are here now. They had been hunting a great elk but broke off their hunt when the Dragon snatched their quarry.
Elves (3) AC 9 or 7, 5 or 7hp, DEX 15, HD 1, AT spear or bow, XP 15 or 10
The Elven leader, Hirazel (AC 9, 5hp), is a Fighter/Magic-User and she knows the spell Sleep.
The Elves are suspicious and reserved and will demand a full introduction and explanation from the PC before offering any themselves. If treated courteously they will respond kindly; if they realise the PC is protecting a child or has sworn a Lawful Oath, they will offer their assistance. Hirazel can incapacitate the Bandits with a single spell.
The Elves know of the White Company and hold it in high esteem, especially its leader whom they call ‘the Prince’. They have never heard of Lothar. They will offer to take Norfred under their protection and return him to the Prince.
The Elves will point out the path south that rejoins the road near to Camlann.
If the PC carries the Spiderbane, the Elves will declare it “an unchancy weapon better borne by those who serve darkness than those who fight darkness” and will offer to relieve the PC of it. On this special day, the Elfin Knowe confers on Elves the power to Remove Curse; they will then take the weapon and break it upon the stones of the Knowe.
Whether or not the PC chooses to relinquish the Spiderbane, the Elves will confer a gift of their own: a turquoise pendant worth 50gp that marks the PC as ‘Elfinlief’ or ‘elf-beloved.’ The PC gains the elvish immunity to paralysation from Ghouls and increased chance of spotting secret doors. This magic will not benefit anyone else if the PC gives the pendant away.
If you run The Necropolis of Nuromen, during An Unexpected Encounter the Elves will recognise the Elfinlief and take them into their confidence.
Returning to the Old Road, the PC might decide to hike back to the Barricade, surprising the remaining two Bandits. If battle is joined, one of them will flee, jumping the ditch and running across the marsh. The other will fight until he has taken damage, then surrender.
At Camlann Castle, the PC can present themselves to Lady Leika of the Lily. Delivering Frog along with the letter will earn a 100gp reward, taken from a fund set up by Frog’s uncle and aunt to provide for her. If any Bandits were captured, the reward is 50gp each. If the Barricade is still in place, Lady Leika sends out her Griffon Cavalry to break it up and chase the Bandits away. In Camlann, the White Company have a terrible reputation as kidnappers and murderers and Lothar is reviled as their leader.
The PC is now in Camlann with the goodwill of Lady Leika, considerable reward money, possibly a magical weapon and the Elfinlief pendant. Award XP based on the reward money, any monsters defeated and allies rescued or befriended. Do not award XP for the Dragon: re-rolling attributes is the reward.
The scenario is designed to allow a Lawful Fighter to conduct him or herself with honour and discretion and impress important allies. There are several possible ways of defeating the pursuing Bandits: set the Dragon on them (unlikely to reach an agreement however), ambush them in Spider Gorge, fight them on the Tumbledown Staircase or recruit the Elves to dispatch them with a Sleep spell. The PC could still engage in a victorious battle of their own by returning to the Barricade. It's not necessary to fight either the Spider or the Goblin to the death.
If the PC is 'killed' by a crossbow quarrel from the pursuing Bandits, let them call on their Lawful Oath and the Lords of Law will restore them to 1hp so that the Oath can be fulfilled.
Friendship with the Elves and familiarity with the factions within the White Company will help the party if they undertake Necropolis of Nuromen - as well an improved ability to spot secret doors!
The guardianship of 'Frog' is, of course, inspired by the character of 'Newt' in James Cameron's Aliens (1986). Her presence, and that of the crippled Norfred, gives an opportunity for someone other than the PC to be put into peril or injured - or to act as a rescuer if the PC is overpowered (as by the Giant Spider).
Do not go gentle into that good night,
In his astonishing, angry, heartbroken poem, Dylan Thomas urges us not to go gentle into the dark night of death. It makes a fine title for the new Ghost Hack expansion, which explores the Dark Night in depth but equips ghost PCs with the resources to go into it with very little gentleness about them.
It's been a labour of love.
All right, maybe not 'love' but certainly an obsessive sentiment that consumes my days and dominates my dreams and won't let me alone until it's been made real and I can hold it in my arms. Let's call it 'love.'
The Ghost Hack was a jolly little project and I knocked the first draft out in a weekend. OK, yes, I had a template to work from in David Black's The Black Hack and specifically Matthew Skail's The Blood Hack.
This took ages.....
Three Hacks: The Ghost Hack, grandaddy fantasy Black Hack and Matthew Skail's vampy Blood Hack
New Character Classes
The Ghost Hack introduced four 'Trades' (character classes) that aimed to be accessible. Banshees influence emotions, Poltergeists move things around, Revenants appear to the living. Nightmanes are a bit odd, as underworld-explorers, but you soon realise they're a cross between rangers and clerics. All plain sailing.
Do Not Go Gentle offers six more Trades and they get quite esoteric. Doppelgangers are simple enough: they're shapechangers who can heal easily and turn their ghostly bodies into weapons. Helgaunts are ghostly paladins who specialise in killing Wights but have forgotten what it's like to be human. Then it gets odder. Anubians are ghostly psychotherapists who have an intense relationship with a NPC client that they are forced to betray eventually. Their 'Dark Counsel' is an amazing benefit but it puts you in their power forever after. Fleshweavers and Morpheans are sorcerers - the Fleshweavers control Mortal Coils while the Morpheans build dream-realms. Grimliches are Wights - self-aware and rational, but still creatures of spite dedicated to making somebody's life miserable.
These guys fill out the world of Ghost Hack. Nightmanes now have warrior-companions in their forays into Hades. Anubians function as courtiers and viziers and have the power to extort potent NPCs. The spells of the Fleshweavers can reassign Mortal Coils, carve them up, burn them out or change them. Their ultimate accomplishment is the 'Liber Mortis' - a book where the intimate story of your life functions as if it were your Mortal Coil, a book which can then be sold to the highest bidder. Morpheans bring an element of wonder and magical creativity into play while Grimliches, well, no one likes them much.
Great pulp art from Nuelow (Copyright ©2015 Steve Miller) to set the tone
Cults and worse
The expansion is a chance to explore what it's like being a ghost and what the dead get up to. The pressing problem for most ghosts is that their Mortal Coil is always shrinking while their Grave Die is always growing. Eventually, they end up starved of Soul energy and turn into a depraved Wight.
The Misericordium is here to solve that problem. This shadowy organisation recruits ghosts to work as clerks in abandoned offices, writing their life stories in vast ledgers, supervised by stern overseers. As you write, your Mortal Coil is transferred into the ledger and then your Grave Die fades away too. You end up a faceless cipher serving the Misericordium, having sold away your personality and your past. But at least you got paid!
Players are unlikely to be tempted by the Misericordium's Kafka-esque dystopia, but what about the Temple of the Dragon Soul? Or the Church of St Thomas Repudiatus? Or the Entropic Research Unit? These 'cults' also promise to take away your Grave Die and/or your Mortal Coil - or in the case of the Entropic Research Unit, boost your Grave Die through the roof so you can make peace with your inner-Wight - but offer attractive benefits along the way. Martial arts, anyone?
These organisations - known as Heresiarchs - are likely to be the villains in a Ghost Hack campaign, but I suggest different ways of playing them as well-intentioned or outright dastardly, depending on who the Referee wants them to be working for.
Friends you haven't met yet...
NPCs and antagonists get a makeover, replacing the cryptic entries in The Ghost Hack. Demons, of course, of both the Judeo-Christian and mind-shattering Lovecraftian sort. Necromancers too, from frustrated Goths through noble shamans to narcissistic liches. Ghost Hunters and Psychics get several pages, looking at the hunters' technological toys and the psychics' extrasensory powers. A very nasty monster, the Skinreaver, can pose a particular problem for ghosts if it every develops psychic powers (by snacking on a psychic brain, since you asked).
Ghosts in this game are hurt by iron and repelled by salt, so both substances get an essay and more detailed rules on how exactly they affect ghosts in play. Watch out for Psychics with nail-guns is all I can say...
If someone's got one of these and a bunch of those (wrought-iron, hand-forged) you need to make them into your friend real quick
And Wights, of course. The Ghost Hack vaguely alluded to different types and the scenario Upon a Midnight Dreary clarified those: now we get the full explanation. Harrow-Wights are the things you turn into when you've been bashed to 0HP and you exhaust your Grave Die: off your go, screeching through Hades, homing in on your Mortal Coil to do hideous stuff to the people and things you love the most. Maybe, just maybe, a friendly Anubian can intervene and send you off instead to savage the Mortal Coil of one of his ex-clients. It sucks being the ex-client of an Anubian.
Hel-Wights are the mindless, gibbering monsters that inhabit Hades. Why are there so many of them? I offer some disturbing hypotheses.
Nether-Wights, now these are the arch-villains, the Ramsay Boltons and Professor Moriarties, of your campaign. They're ghosts who just Rotted away out of sheer badness. When they let lose on the mortal world, all hell breaks lose. Literally. Better hope they're not former-Fleshweavers, otherwise they'll latch onto your Mortal Coil and do unspeakable things to it.
Welcome to Hades, population: growing
Hades is a vast world - perhaps an entire universe - that ghosts can enter through Portals. The Ashen Path offers safe travel, better still if you can find one of the paved Necroducts that hint at some long-vanished Civilisation of the Dead that no one remembers. Off the Ashen Path, the Dread billows and swirls: freezing clouds of ectoplasm-shredding acid with nasty Wights capering inside it. Every now and again, the Dread rises and you had better hurry on to the nearest Fane or Tollbooth. Just your luck if it's run by the Misericordium and they make you work of your entrance fee at their awful ledgers!
Precious Soulfire gets more consideration, as well as different types of Fanes and other realms in Hades: Pyrocrypts and Mausoleums, Infernos and Paradises, Fantasia dream-realms - and the great River Lethe that separates the Hades we know from the Tartarus we can only guess at.
The great thing about Hades is that its filled with everything that was ever lost, sacrificed or violated. A group of ghosts can travel through the bombed out villages of WWI Flanders, pick over the ruins of Minoan temples, flee across the plague-pits of 14th century Europe and take shelter in the burning buildings of London's Great Fire. Soulfire needs to be mined and the only way to transport it is for ghosts to immolate themselves in it - and the only fuel to keep it burning is the Kindling made from the shredded ectoplasm of ghosts. It pays to have some mindless Echoes in tow because, hey, better them than you, right?
I'm trying to convey Hades with elements of Steve Ditko's mystical landscapes in Doctor Strange and the purgatorial journey in Sam Mendes' 1917 (2019)
More than a game, it's a setting
Most ... Hack games are intentionally loosey-goosey rules that you can hang any scenario you like on. Do Not Go Gentle turns The Ghost Hack into something a bit more ambitious: a RPG with its own setting, tone and themes. It's still intentionally open-ended and sketchy, but it's a more sophisticated product now.
The elephant in the room is classic '90s Storyteller game Wraith: the Oblivion. Obviously, Ghost Hack is a hommage to Wraith. But is it significantly different, or just 'Wraith-for-Dummies'?
I don't want to dwell too much on levels-and-character-classes or distinctions like ghosts being harmed by salt and iron. What I like about Ghost Hack is open-endedness. Wraith has this big oppressive 'Empire of the Dead' bearing down on the lives of PC wraiths (or it did in the '90s; I think they overthrew it in an end-of-franchise apocalypse). It's got a detailed alternative history (as all World of Darkness games do) with real-world events corresponding to the rise and fall of wraith power blocs. I can't be bothered with that now, much though I adored it in my 20s.
I'm much more intrigued by an ambiguous afterlife with genuine mysteries. Is there a 'fabled City of Dis' on the other side of the Lethe? Was there once a Hades-spanning empire of spirit-beings? Does the Dread serve the mythical Wight Queen? Are the angels and demons just deluded ghosts or genuinely numinous beings? Whom does the Misericordium work for?
The thing is, I don't want to set out a canonical setting and answer all these question. I want players and Referees to go and produce their own answers. And, y'know, drop me an email and tell me what happened.
Having said that, the next big project for the game is an epic scenario called Tears Such As Angels Shed which will take the players to Tartarus itself. So am I going to violate my own "no definitive answers" rule? I guess I'd better come up with something that leaves more quotations in place of any it answers...
I guess it's like Dylan Thomas' poem, which like all poems is as much about writing poetry as it is about the deaths of fathers. We want to fork the lightning by seeing our imagination captivate someone else and be carried forward by their enthused creativity. That's why we keep composing, raging against the dying of the light as the last page is turned and the final full stop inked. So we write again. And again and again. It's not human to leave things as they stand.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
DM's Guild is a fantastic resource if you're looking for D&D scenarios with a high quality bar. Babbling Wizard has a set of scenarios and mini-campaigns and I looked at Secrets of Leaf Grove because it is a module that can progress a small group of D&D characters from 1st-4th level over 4-6 sessions.
Leaf Grove is the sole work of David A. Hughes and an attractive piece of work it is too: beautifully laid out, some on-point colour art, attractive maps, clear stat boxes and information captions and a lucid and (almost) typo-free style. At 40 pages, there's plenty here for a DM to be getting along with, but it could also be used as pick-up-and-play if you want to jump straight into the first scenario.
SPOILERS AHEAD I'm afraid: I want to talk about the plot (although, to be fair, the front cover gives away the nature of the main antagonists).
Welcome to Leaf Grove
Leaf Grove is an idyllic rural community surrounded by corn fields. If this were a Stephen King story, the children here would have murdered the adults long ago. There's a nice village hall and the 'Corn & Cob' Tavern that can seat seventy people (so it's half the size of my local Wetherspoons). There's a vigorous local democracy that entrusts power in three Councillors named Thorpe, Berry and Linwood. Everyone is sturdy and prosperous. It's like Maycomb, without the racism, or Bedford Falls, if Henry F. Potter didn't own the town.
Small town America: To Kill A Mockingbird's Maycomb and It's A Wonderful Life's Bedford Falls
David A. Hughes may be British, but this is a very AMERICAN setting, with its democratic traditions and vast cornfields and homely goodness. The villagers are holding a local festival when the scenario starts and you can't help but imagine the Fourth of July, with fireworks and corndogs. But, like most narratives set in such small towns, there's a darkness behind the facade. No, not racism or robber-capitalism, but a conspiracy nonetheless, a conspiracy aimed at benefiting the town that has unwittingly drawn monsters into the community.
People have been disappearing under odd circumstances and the PCs have been invited here by Clr William Berry to investigate. The players enjoy the fun of the fair and meet the locals, some of whom are unaccountably hostile or secretive, before hiking out to Miles Hogan's farm to investigate his missing wife Alice and the odd disappearance of Clr Linwood.
Investigating the conspiracy in a small village is a plot hook that goes right back to the good old days of D&D. The Village of Hommlet (Gary Gygax, 1979) hid evil agents in its midst and Against the Cult of the Reptile God (Douglas Niles, 1982) pitched the players into a village that was in the process of being subverted by a monster cult, with more NPCs going over the reptile god each night, evoking chilling Invasion of the Bodysnatchers paranoia.
Innocent-looking fantasy villages harbouring dark conspiracies go back to the roots of D&D
Writing a scenario in this genre puts you up against the stiffest competition there is. David A. Hughes' solution is to double down on the homeliness. There's no cultic conspiracy, more a sort of misunderstanding. One of the Councillors is a Wererat trying to ingratiate himself into a Lycanthropic gang by preying upon the community, along with his band of Kenku outlaws who have been abducting anyone who gets suspicious. The Kenku have been over-enthusiastic in their remit, the PCs have arrived to poke about, and the Wererat is spooked and does a runner. The plot rolls out from there.
A lot of scenarios stand or fall by their setting. Michael Thomas' Necropolic of Nuromen creates a low-level setting with Camlann set in a fairy forest that is steeped in otherworldly resonance. David A. Hughes' setting goes to the other extreme: Leaf Grove is so cosy it could be nestled at the foot of Walton Mountain.
That is not necessarily a bad thing. The decency and simplicity of Leaf Grove and its innocent citizens stands as a contrast to the bestial Kenku and corrupt Lycanthropes in their midst. Moreover, if you're American, the setting perhaps won't strike you as so un-medieval. I'm reminded of the Apple Lane (Greg Stafford, 1978) supplement for Runequest, which located Glorantha's wild barbarians a township that could easily have had Tom Sawyer for a resident.
There's a place for the low-key and the folksy in fantasy RPGs. I balk a little at medieval villagers with names like 'Darwin' or taverns named 'Corn & Cob' but the author leans into this. Later in the scenario, the village will come under attack and its fundamental homeliness will be important for giving the players a motive to fight (against stiff odds) to defend it.
Dastardly Bird People
The first scenario sends the PCs off to find Alice Hogan, who disappeared while fixing her scarecrow.
I wonder if the allusions here are intentional, and not just to Children of the Corn. Has Alice been swept away to Oz? Slaughtered by the Jeepers-Creepers monster? I suspect that the players will be far more alarmed than they need to be. The truth - that the Kenku have bundled her into a nearby abandoned shrine - will probably come as a let-down. But the clawed footprints of something that seems to have dropped down from the scarecrow's post and made off with Alice will have players scanning the sky for the indestructible Creeper's reappearance, not looking underground for malevolent canary-people.
Underground we must go. There's a nice scene where PCs descend on ropes into a long-abandoned tunnel. There are monsters to scrap with and good advice for making the setting as eerie as possible as the Kenku call to one another and imitate voices. There are some surprise undead locked away in a side room. There is Linwood the Wererat, pretending to be a prisoner, till he gets the drop of the PCs and can fully rat-out. At this stage in their careers, PCs will struggle to overpower a Wererat unless they were prescient enough to bring silver daggers (to be fair, in any group of players, there's always one..).
As with Leaf Grove, the problem here isn't what the author delivers, so much as the expectations he allows to rise first. The missing woman, the endless cornfields, the sinister scarecrow... that seems like a set-up for a brilliant Call of Cthulhu mystery. The Kenku in the tunnels are a disappointment after that. It's like finding a coffin with a mouldering corpse impaled by a stake through the heart, then learning you have to do battle with Kobolds. For all that the Kenku lair has artful layout and good atmospheric tips as well as an investigation, it's like a film that can't live up to the promise of the trailer.
I'm not a 5th edition gamer, so I can't comment on the threat/reward balance. I know if this were 1st edition AD&D, a bunch of Kenku would be deadly opposition for first level characters. By old-school standards, the treasure is stingy. But the stat boxes detail the monsters as easy/medium threat and I presume the encounter is such that, when they leave it with the prisoners freed, the PCs will be ready for second level.
They'd better be. Werewolves are coming.
Wolves in the Sheepfold
The Werewolves arrive in Leaf Grove to reclaim their buddy, Linwood the Wererat. They swagger into town like Eli Wallach in The Magnificent Seven, with a bunch of demands, then bust into buildings, terrorising people. The PCs have to barricade themselves inside and deal with the monsters that get in.
This is a great scene and, once again, pure Americana. Small town detail that seemed twee or un-fantastical at the outset pays out now, because this is a Western, with the PCs defending the range, like Shane or John goddam Wayne, against the furry banditos that roam up and down the main street and jump through windows into the cantina.
Calvera (Eli Wallach) menaces the innocent villagers in John Sturges' The Magnificent Seven (1960). Don't watch the recent re-make.
True to the playbook, Marina (check the Latina name) who runs the cantina shows her mettle against these gangsters. She's a Lycanthrope too, a Weretigress with a heart of gold, and she flings the mutts about and chases them out of town.
Look, I love this scene. Werewolves super-outclass PCs at this level, but the author provides a bunch of options to scale the difficulty, based on the PCs' toughness and access to silver weapons. They might end up just scrapping with ordinary Wolves while the proper lycanthropes menace the NPCs. The arrival of a super-powered NPC deus ex machina will be very welcome by the end of this.
This is going to be the most memorable scene in the scenario (with one possible rival later on) and a gleeful DM will want to stretch it out for maximum drama. We want children in peril. We want the townsfolk to rally armed with household utensils. We want a werewolf on fire to fall out of an upstairs window and roll about howling in the dusty street. Pure film!
Since this is the beating heart of the scenario, which brings the true threat into focus and establishes what the PCs are fighting for, I think it's a shame the Western motif wasn't grasped more firmly. The tavern makes more sense as a Cantina. There ought to be a drunken sheriff and a feisty schoolma'am. Everyone should have Latin-inflected names. We should feel like we're in a Spaghetti Western, not The Shire.
But that's just my imagination getting fired up.
Marina knows the truth about the Lycanthropes - their leader Vrell passed his Weretiger curse onto her - but not where the monsters are based. To find that out, a trip into the woods is needed, to consult a Halfling Druid.
This part of the scenario offers a less linear plot. There are random encounters in the forest, an optional encounter with orcs and half-ogres and a final showdown with the boss Ogre, before the Druid turns up with a side quest: rescue a relic called The Leaf Scripture from a spider-infested cave. There's a double-cross, because the Druid isn't who he appears to be, but the PCs will end up with directions to the Lycanthrope Lair, by either a safe or a dangerous route.
These side-quests bedevil RPG video games and are a fixture in TTRPG modules too, so I shouldn't complain to find one here. They pad out a storyline, allowing PCs to level up or pick up magical weapons or allies, before reaching the final showdown. They add an air of verisimilitude, because life is a winding road with cul-de-sacs and double-backs, so they dilute the sense of being railroaded to a predetermined outcome. They create a sense of a wider world with things going on in it that don't pertain solely to the PCs' concerns.
The problem is, they break up theme and atmosphere, and that's what this digression does. The Leaf Scriptures haven't been foreshadowed in previous investigations and the fate of Eldon the Druid lacks punch because he's not been prepared for. Indeed, the players probably never learn what befell him.
Coming after the gripping Werewolf Attack on Leaf Grove, a skirmish with big bugs in a cave system feels like workaday dungeon-bashing. Don't get me wrong: this side-quest isn't bad. It's just a bit unmemorable. But fear not, because better things are ahead.
The Weirdness of Wolf Tower
If the PCs get the safe route, they arrive at a magical tower where the were-beasts are holed up. Getting past the Wererat guards without alerting everyone inside requires some ingenuity.
Alternatively, the PCs might arrive by the more dangerous route, descending into a rocky gorge that's the territory of a Gorgon.
There's a great build-up to this. The gorge is an eerie place. You notice the odd rocks. They're like fragments of larger stones. You see human features: fingers, eyes, mouths, in the shattered statues. Then the massive Gorgon comes snorting out of its lair.
It's a great D&D moment, worth the price of admission all by itself, and the players get rewarded for the risk by finding a secret entrance to the tower down here.
The Tower itself is an entertaining skirmish with were-critters, lent an extra twist of weirdness by the architect's magical legacy: the stairs between floors don't connect spatially, so characters move to unexpected levels. This could prove hilarious if the party get split up, or terrifying if the occupants are alerted and use the bizarre geography to ambush the PCs. The final showdown with Vrell the Weretiger is wisely curtailed: he will surrender if wounded, so that he can enjoy vainglorious threats and mind-games before being hauled off to face justice in Leaf Grove.
Showdown, baby: roll initiative.
This is a solid climax. The Gorgon Gorge is a great cinematic moment. The layout of the Tower throws an Escherian curveball at attempts to map the place. Vrell is an entertainingly despicable villain.
And yet, it's just a big fight, really. In dealing with the Kenku, there was a rescue mission; this is search-and-destroy. That's valid. Lots of players love it. But there's no option for players who prefer trickery or diplomacy or were hoping for spine-tingling mysticism. The Lycanthropes aren't opening a gate to the Feral Realms or wrestling with their humanity. They're just a bunch of chaots waiting for the PCs to bring the cleansing (silver) sword.
Secrets of Leaf Grove is a solid D&D adventure. Really solid. It offers new PCs a setting they can easily relate to (especially if you're American), a mystery and a quest, then it ups the stakes, sends you on a wilderness journey and then lets you assault the monsters in their magical fortress. The threats scale, there are opportunities along the way for negotiation and problem-solving and, though the story is essentially linear, there are a few scenes where the players' creativity can determine the outcome instead of the script.
What holds me back from giving it more enthusiastic endorsement is that there are moments here that are better than solid, and one scene that is A++ Great, which shows you how much more awesome this scenario could have been.
The roof-raising scene is the Werewolf Attack. The inspiring moments are the scarecrow in the cornfield, the chamber of the Leaf Scriptures, the appearance of the Gorgon and the spatial anomalies in the tower. The monster encounters that link these moments together are a little pedestrian. I wish the Dryads had mysteries to tell and lost lovers to pine for, I wish there were Wererats battling with their curse and seeking redemption, I wish Eldon the Druid had died a more meaningful death to a more satisfactory opponent, I wish there were precipices to hang from and slaughtered pioneers to avenge. I wish the forest had more intriguing threats in it than Orcs and Ogres.
The setting itself serves its turn by making the players want to defend it. But it has no value as an ongoing base. There are no loose ends in Leaf Grove, no ongoing conflicts or campaign hooks. Once the Lycanthropes are defeated, there's no reason for the PCs to stay here.
But that's just me. I'm a romantic who likes messy outcomes. New players to D&D 5ed. will ease right into this adventure. The fright they get when the Werewolves show up at their windows will lend extra tang to the payback they deliver in the tower at the end. Hommlet and the Against the Cult of the Reptile God won't be losing any sleep, but Leaf Grove will be the memorable start to somebody's lifelong love of D&D.
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
For great poems about (possibly) haunted houses, there's Poe and Walter De La Mare's The Listeners, but Poe describes the situation where the ghost is trying to get in - which is the theme of the second scenario for The Ghost Hack.
UPON A MIDNIGHT DREARY underwent a playtest last week and here's the session report. Of course, massive SPOILERS ahead.
Evocative cover art by Bob Greyvenstein. Interior art (used below) is copyright Steve Miller (2015). Click image to link to drivethrurpg.
The scenario played out over two sessions, with a shifting cast of PCs:
After the events of HELL HATH NO FURY, the PCs are all second level and Joshua Pflint has a wightblade sword (for a while longer anyway).
The story begins (as they usually do) with the PC ghosts checking on their Mortal Coils.
Lexi is furious to find a new manager at her beloved bar, The Crash Lounge, has installed a massive TV screen to play noisy sports to customers. She uses Ghostly Caress to change the password on the satellite box, locking it down.
Oscar visits his wife, who has moved the children to a new home in an old signalman's house beside an abandoned railway line. There's a crisis when his son Dale goes missing. Oscar finds the boy in the railway cutting, playing safely and watched over by another ghost. This ghost is an old signalman and introduces himself as Edwyn Sullivan - or 'Sully'. He manifests in order to return Dale to his mother and asks in return that Oscar helps him. Sully haunts the old Trevalyan House, but a team of Ghost Hunters has moved into it, using salt to lock Sully out and trap his ghostly wife inside. Oscar agrees to find a way into the House and rescue the ghost trapped inside.
In fact, 'Sully' is really evil Dr Reinhardt, a dead serial killer, using Apparition to take another form. The bit about the Ghost Hunters and his wife is true. He hasn't mentioned the cellar full of ghostly victims he and his wife have been torturing for half a century, now all dangerous Wights.
Who ya gonna call?
Oscar assembles fellow-ghosts Gregg and Lexi to visit the Trevalyan House. They can see it's been recently renovated but then abandoned. A crazy old lady sticks up posters warning people to STAY AWAY - EVIL LIVES HERE! A mysterious blonde girl takes photographs of the building until the old lady chases her away. The PC ghosts decide to enter.
The two mortals are important NPCs. The crazy old lady is Kathleen Dawson who escaped from the Trevalyan House 50 years ago when she was just a young woman, bringing the Reinhardts' murder spree to an end. The younger woman is Michelle 'Misty' Quint, a wannabe serial-killer under the spell of Dr Reinhardt's evil ghost. The players debate for a while and decide it would be best to ignore these blatant plot-hooks.
The building has been warded with salt, making it hard to pass through the walls. Gregg enters the back pantry and finds one of the Ghost Hunters there, making lunch for the team. When Oscar joins him, they accidentally set of the EMF Meter the hunter is carrying. The young man lashes out with a wrought iron baton. These hunters are well-equipped to deal with ghosts! Oscar retreats out of the house but Gregg stays at a safe distance and observes.
The hunter, Lloyd, is joined by an older man in an iron wheelchair. He is Fyodor Herzog and he has trapped a ghost in the kitchen, inside a circle of salt. Gregg notes with dismay that the trapped ghost is a feral Wight that bashes the kitchen table about in impotent rage. Herzog appears to be trying to interview the creature, as if he can actually hear it. More Wights are trapped in the cellar, including one who is a witch-like woman who seems to possess more rationality and wickedness than the others.
The salt wards are salt crystals stuck to adhesive tape that the Hunters have slapped down across doorways and windows, making entire rooms impenetrable to ghosts. As starting characters, the PCs have relatively un-rotted souls (in game terms, their Grave Die is only a d6) so they can push through walls and doorways with effort - they have to make a CON test at a penalty. This creates a lot of anxiety as some PCs succeed and others fail, splitting up the group, while those who get inside worry about being able to get back out again.
Lexi enters the study instead and finds the team leader, Greta, working on salt-based grenades. Staying clear of Greta's EMF Meter, Lexi reads Greta's notes on the house, learning about 18th century murders who laired here and a more recent spree of murders in the '70s.
Greta, leader of the Ghost Hunters
P.A. arrives and investigates the team's van. He discovers that the team is from The Ghost Society and has been recruited by the house's new owner, Jerome Maxwell-Goode, to investigate the strange goings-on in his new property.
The Ghost Hunters are a complex bunch with dynamic interpersonal relationships. Lloyd's boyfriend Harvey is down in the cellar, being driven mad by the Wights. Herzog is having a nervous breakdown. A love triangle is leading to a violent resolution between Bernard, Lee and Anushika. A random encounter table mixes these developments up so that no two scenarios unfold in quite the same way.
Trouble on the Tracks
Lexi and Oscar decide to find and possess someone with the authority to enter the House. Lexi possesses a woman police officer, Chayan Kaur, and Oscar rides along unseen. Kaur is visiting a house where a child as gone missing and Oscar realises it is his own family. Dale has disappeared again and this time has not returned. Lexi guides PC Kaur and her partner PC Gill down the old railway track, to an abandoned siding where there is a big shed full of iron chains and an abandoned wagon.
They realise that there are people locked inside the wagon, but the iron in the frame makes it impenetrable to ghosts. One prisoner is a ghost and he identifies himself as the real Edwyn Sullivan - the 'Sully' who introduced himself to Oscar was an imposter. The imposter reveals himself soon after as a vicious ghost with scalpel fingers who possesses PC Gill and attacks the PCs, along with his human accomplice, the blonde girl who swings an iron chain.
Lexi knocks the evil ghost out of Gill by pushing him into the iron chains in the shed. She abandons Chayan's body to attack the ghost in person, but is outmatched. The ghost carves her up so badly she turns into a Wight herself and slips into Hades. Consumed by hatred, she visits her Mortal Coil and demonises the place, chasing out terrified staff and customers.
Seeing what happened too Lexi, Oscar flees. The only good outcome is the PC Gill phones in a report to his superiors, so police will come to open up the wagon.
Reinhardt's deadliness took the players by surprise. Lexi was unlocky to exhaust her Grave Die when she reached 0 HP but those are the breaks. Her Mortal Coil ended up shrinking by one dice step and she reformed amidst the wreckage she had caused, on 2 HP, feeling very traumatised.
The survivor's story
Gregg and P.A. have followed the crazy poster lady back to her cat-infested bungalow. They realise she's Kathleen Dawson and is obsessed with the Trevalyan House because she's the sole survivor of a string of murders there in the '60s and '70s by husband-and-wife serial killers Fitz and Beverley Reinhardt. As well as postering the house, she's pestering its new owner, Jerome Maxwell-Goode, but he is away on a cruise.
The mysterious blonde woman arrives at the door and threatens Kathleen, telling her that Dr Reinhardt misses her and wants to see her again. She chases Kathleen into the kitchen where the old lady suffers a heart attack. Gregg manifests in his Charnel Form of a burning corpse and chases the young woman out of the house. Using ghostly caress, they contrive to get Kathleen her heart medication.
Reinhardt was planning for Misty to kill Kathleen so he could chain her ghost up in chthonic fetters and take her to his wife Beverley as a gift. Now he's properly angry with the PCs for interfering.
Meeting together, the PCs conclude that the evil ghost who has engineered everything is Dr Reinhardt, the serial killer, and his wife must be the powerful Wight trapped in the cellar, which puts the Ghost Hunters in danger. They suspect the blonde woman is a murderess that Dr Reinhardt is mentoring to carry own his murderous legacy. They resolve to warn the Hunters and are joined by the Poltergeist Joshua Pflint.
Return to Trevalyan House
Back at the House, events have moved on. The Ghost Hunters have lost one of their number, Harvey, who disappeared investigating the cellar. The team's mechanic, Bernard, is working on drones to fly downstairs and investigate. Greta has nearly finished her salt bombs. Herzog has had a breakdown after psychic abuse from the Wights in the cellar. Tensions are brewing between Bernard and his girlfriend Anushika over team-mate Lee's attraction to her, which is clearly reciprocated.
Beverley Reinhardt (in pre-Wight days)
Oscar enters the kitchen and manifests to warn Bernard about the ghosts in the cellar. However, the team has no intention of leaving while team-mate Harvey is still missing. Greta (followed by Gregg) goes to try to shake Herzog out of his funk and Bernard (followed by Joshua) runs upstairs to find Lee and Anushika embracing. That produces a fight which sees Bernard badly beaten.
Meanwhile, Lloyd, who is Harvey's lover, is lured into the cellar by Beverley Reinhardt, imitating Harvey's voice using manifest and apparition. Once down there, he is possessed by her and calls for help. Greta descends and the two of them drag Harvey up the steps, with the possessed Lloyd contriving to drop Harvey on the top step, breaking the salt ward there.
Gregg decides to reveal himself to old Herzog, warning him about the Wights in the cellar. He advises Herzog to get to safety behind salt wards, ideally upstairs. However, he is too late to avert catastrophe.
Herzog, the psychic
The events in the house have triggered "the Crisis" - this is when the Ghost Hunters enter the cellar and unwittingly release the Wights.
The rest of the team convenes in the kitchen to examine Harvey's body. Beverley Reinhardt steps out of Lloyd and summons her Wights up the stairs.
Joshua uses his Poltergeist powers to snatch one of Greta's salt grenades and throw it into the cellar staircase, driving the Wights back. He attacks Beverley with his wightblade sword, but to no effect. Beverley demonises the room, shattering windows and flinging knives about, then blowing up the boiler. The humans are killed or traumatised in the carnage. Greta escapes but her salt grenades detonate, stunning her. Joshua resolves to hold the room against a small army of Wights.
Spying on the outside, Oscar sees a taxi pull up. Out step the ghostly Dr Reinhardt and his mortal apprentice, Misty. The blonde girl starts to break upon the front door to the house with a crowbar.
Misty, serial-killer apprentice
Joshua escapes, dragging the unconscious Anushika out of the house and leaving the other hunters for dead. Greta drags Herzog to the front door, only for it to be opened by Misty, the young serial killer. She smashes Herzog's skull with an iron bar. Gregg tries to intervene by manifesting again in his burning-corpse form but Beverley appears and is far too strong, throwing him through the walls, gravely injured. Oscar contrives to get Greta to safety, by keening positive emotions into her and guiding her out through the study.
At this point, the players realise they are overwhelmed. Four Wights would be a challenge on any day, but added in super-Wight Beverley, evil Doctor Reinhardt and Misty with her iron chain and the PC Ghosts realise they have to escape..
The Wights escape the house. They are the tortured spirits of the Reinhardts' old victims and now they desire only to find their own Mortal Coils and visit terrible sufferings on them.
Dr Reinhardt is taken aback to see his wife is now a Wight. Beverley is furious to see he has been grooming a mortal protege. In a jealous rage, she attacks Misty and, gripped by a noble impulse, Reinhardt attacks his monstrous wife. They are lost to sight as the house burns down.
Post Credit Scenes
The PC Ghosts realise that the four Wight victims of the Reinhardts will race back to their Mortal Coils to visit unspeakable horrors on them. AS they are partly responsible for releasing them, the PCs stand to increase their own Grave Dice if they allow this to happen. So we have a follow-on scebnario: finding the Wights' Mortal Coils before the Wights do. In their favour, 50 years have passed since the Wights died in the cellar so the monsters will be a bit confused about where things are now.
A closing scene has frail Kathleen Dawson recovering in hospital. She tells a kind nurse she is feeling much better and hopes to go home soon. This is greeted by cruel laughter from the patient in the next bed. The patient is Misty, recovering from her injuries in the Trevalyan House. She turns her burned face towards the terrified Kathleen and keeps laughing.
The scenario unfolded beautifully. The PCs failed in the primary mission (defeating the Wights and Dr Reinhardt) but they did save a couple of Ghost Hunters from the House at the end.
HELL HATH NO FURY had a linear plot that unfolded in a string of encounters in a more-or-less fixed order. Successful players were well-equipped for the final showdown. This scenario has a different structure. The House is a location with a cast of NPCs and monsters inside and a random encounter table dictating their interactions. The players can interact with this setting in any way they like. This makes UPON A MIDNIGHT DREARY far more open-ended.
Exploring the Trevalyan House was delightfully tense, because of the difficulty with crossing the salt-wards separating each room. PCs were often in danger of finding themselves trapped in a room, unable to press on or retreat. Later, they found ways to disrupt some of the wards, making movement easier. But of course, easy movement for the PC ghosts also means easy movement for the horrid Wights.
The players engaged with several plot strands (the wagon in the old railway siding, Kathleen Dawson, the history of the House, the team of Ghost Hunters) but never really pursued any of them. As a result, when the Crisis blew up, it caught the players on the back foot. Gregg (played by Karl) was only just revealing himself the the psychic Herzog. If that had happened earlier, things could have unfolded differently, with the Ghost Hunters as well-armed allies helping the PCs take on the Wights.
As it turned out, the players found the least-optimal outcome and also the most alarming one, with the Wights rampaging through the House, the salt wards failing, the humans dying horribly... bad times.
But also, good times. The players have a clear follow-on scenario to protect mortals from the spirits of as tragedy half a century ago now released and bearing down on unsuspecting families, former lovers, homes and grandchildren. Then there's Beverley Reinhardt, already established as a great villainess, and the merrily deranged Misty, the apprentice serial-killer, now operating without her beloved Dr Reinhardt guiding her murderous steps.
The playtest threw up some valuable rules tweaks too, mostly to make the ghostly 'Crafts' more consistent in how they work. The 2.1 rules set on drivethrurpg incorporates these changes.
Michael Thomas' Blueholme Prentice RPG introduced Eric Holmes' 1977 Basic D&D rules to a new audience. His Blueholme Journeymanne positions the game as a serious retroclone contender, muscling up against White Box and Delving Deeper for the title of 'Heir to Seventies D&D.'.
The last blog reviewed these two: Blueholme Prentice for 1st-3rd level PCs; Blueholme Journeymanne for up to 20th level. Click the images for drivethrurpg links.
Blueholme has an advantage over its competitors. They have to draw something coherent out of the jumble of Original D&D materials, picking and choosing their rules and supplementary material and trying to give it a character of its own (I feel White Box succeeds at this; Delving Deeper less so). Blueholme is channeling one man's singular vision of D&D. It has distinctiveness built-in.
The trick is to reveal it. The solution is an introductory scenario. So welcome to THE NECROPOLIS OF NUROMEN, Blueholme's first module for starting characters.
The contender: Michael Thomas' Necropolis of Nuromen (click image for link to download).
The reigning champ: Eric Holmes' Ruined Tower of Zenopus from the 1977 Basic D&D Rules Set.
The brief for this is a tough one. Of course, it has to be an excellent dungeon-crawl that will challenge and intrigue experienced players paddling at the shallow end with first level characters but also work well for newcomers. More than that, it has to showcase what's special about Blueholme: how does this version of OSR roleplaying help tell stories that the others don't?
The scenario has a collaborative history, emerging from Justin Becker's 'Forbidden Mazes of the Jennerak' campaign, which is being adapted by Michael Thomas into a 3-part scenario series, of which this is the first. This gives context to some criticisms I make later.
Leaf through Blueholme Prentice and you'll see that Michael Thomas has a gift for sourcing public domain art with a fantasy vibe. The cover here looks like an Ayleid Ruin from Elder Scrolls IV, but it's a piece of stunning Romantic art by Caspar David Friedrich, a 19th century German landscape painter with a taste for the spinetingling. He's best known for that one where the chap stands with his back to you on a mountain top, looking down on the clouds.
Monastery Ruins in the Snow (1819) - which is going on ALL my Christmas cards from now on - and Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) which seems to be a painting about both nature AND humanity.
Friedrich's landscapes defy improvement (that sky!!!) but Michael Thomas gives the whole thing an eerie blue tint, because branding, right? It's a great cover that sets the tone for his game.
The scenario is only 20 pages long, but Thomas devotes the first 4 pages to the setting. This is a bit of a gamble. Some people just want to wrench dungeons out, bleeding, from their settings, like Molam Ram plucking out hearts for Kali. You can do that. Just skip this stuff and go straight to the dungeon. But you're missing out!
Don't be this guy.
The setting is a distinctive High Fantasy realm. The town of Camlann gets its own map, its mystic porcelain tower, Lady Leika of the Lily and her griffon-riding guards. There are local celebrities, rivalries and gossip. This takes the lightly-sketched idea of Portown and the Green Dragon Inn from Holmes' sample dungeon and improves on it. The Camlann setting has its own magical quality, while rooted in the earthy down-homeliness that's needed to make a journey away, out into the darkness and danger, so compelling.
Outside Camlann is the Delvingwood where the local Elves are declining and the Goblins are advancing, turning the fairy forest to evil. This is an evocative setting, with more of Narnia to it than Middle-Earth. A broad grassy road, the Elfway, cuts through the woods but if you leave this highway and enter the trees, why, you're stepping into the Otherworld, crossing Joseph Campbell's Threshold for the Hero's Journey. This is all very nicely structured.
Holmes' 'Zenopus' dungeon had a menace to it and Thomas parallels this. Instead of the morally-murky Zenopus, we have Nuromen who's an outright rotter. This necromancer sets up a Chaotic enclave in the woods called Law's End but his gang of villains are blasted by an unspecified catastrophe, doubtless of his own making. His underground Necropolis stands unguarded beneath a 'ghost town' in ruins with the forest advancing over it.
As is standard, the PCs are greedy and ambitious dungeon raiders looking for a fortune and a name for themselves. However, Thomas adds a feature that Holmes misses. The PCs encounter the Elves on their way to the dungeon and are tasked with the recovery of a magical heirloom. This gives the players a focus and a sense of dignity to their mission: they're not just looters.
I really like this set-up. The tone is very effective: an elegaic sense of decline and lengthening shadows, an evil from the past, a noble mission and a wilderness journey, all set in a fairy tale kingdom with just enough darkness to it to head off sentimentality. It reminds me of the setting sketched out for Jean Wells' Module B3: Palace of the Silver Princess (1981). If Holmes drew inspiration from Robert E. Howard and Lovecraft, then the world of Justin Becker/Michael Thomas feels like it owes more to Lord Dunsany and Lloyd Alexander's Prydein Chronicles.
The downside is that this material is not well laid-out. The text starts with the description of Nuromen's downfall, then outlines the geography of the forest, then the set-up in Camlann. There are NPCs and Rumours in Camlann, then back into the Forest we go, with Wilderness Wandering Monster Tables for on and off the Elfway landing us back in the Ruins of Law's End and the abandoned Necropolis. It's an odd structure, involving repetition and redundancy while also allowing you to forget or muddle important material. A bit of editing would help here: Camlann > Elfway > Delvingwood Forest > Law's End/Necropolis is the structure that GMs need.
It's a shame that this background material is (slightly) impenetrable, since it encourages careless readers to skip it. A lot of thought has gone into offering low level characters a wilderness journey with real dangers but balanced encounters and a metric ton of theme.
Jeff Jones' Dunsany-inspired art also captures the world Thomas is exploring
The dungeon is a two-level affair, but it's built to an epic scale. The party have to drop down into a vast shaft - 50ft across and 100ft deep - using ropes that a squad of Goblins have left behind. Deep underground, the PCs move through corridors and chambers carved out of the limestone crag. Holmes' dungeon evoked suffocating darkness, opening out into immense, echoing chambers; Thomas' Necropolis is different, it has an eerie but sinister beauty in its carved murals and looming doorways.
There are 20 rooms on the First Level, 6 of them empty and the rest more often interesting than dangerous. A gigantic subterranean courtyard offers a safe hub that the party can branch out from in their explorations. Most of the traps can be avoided with forethought. There are ghosts and illusions and remnants of Nuromen's old spells. Aside from the Goblin raiders, the monsters are largely dungeon pests and mindless undead, but the Big Bad on this level is a nest of Harpies who could easily overwhelm an incautious party. There's treasure to collect but not much: a couple of thousand GP total, so no one is levelling up by clearing this out. There are magical items to pick up, especially for Magic-Users.
The highlight of the First Level is the study and workshops of Nuromen himself. There are lots of things for players to tinker with and surmise, plus a few windows into the dead wizard's psyche and rewards for players who can figure out what motivated the old villain. Unlike the opaque figure of Zenopus, Nuromen is present here in spirit if not in body. There are signs of his handiwork everywhere.
If the First Level is a slow-paced investigation into long-dead mysteries, down on Level Two things take a turn for the weird and the wonderful. There are 15 rooms, but only 3 are empty, so it's more densely packed and more unforgiving. There are nastier traps (an over-reliance on poison, which I hate!), riddles, some quirky magic items and chilling scenes of evil occultism. Troglodytes will give first level characters a run for their money. The climax comes when the party access Nuromen's Tomb and go up against Nuromen himself, now a very dangerous undead antagonist. The treasure here is stupendous, so survivors are definitely leveling up.
The dungeon is beautifully structured, offering players radiating spokes to explore on the First Level while the Second Level funnels them towards an inevitable showdown with Undead Evil. The maps look lovely. They are all tucked at the back, after the OGL pages, which confused me at first. It would be nice if the maps appeared alongside the room keys, making it easy to read off the screen/page and hold a picture of the layout in your mind as you do.
Similarly, there's a lot of high quality description, but it's usually mixed in with exposition and mechanics. The Dungeon Key would benefit from introductory descriptive paragraphs for each location: something the GM can read aloud, providing all the visual detail for players, with the GM-only material underneath.
It's a pity that the Rumours back at Camlann don't help the players make more sense of what they encounter in the Necropolis. For example, there's Robin the Thief, now turned into a riddling Ghoul and guarding some of Nuromen's treasure. How much better for the PCs to hear the tale of Robin's hideous fate back in Camlann, then recall it here, rather than the GM having to info-dump for Thieves in the party. Other snippets about the Cult of Gamosh and Nuromen's wife and child would make helpful Rumours too.
The stinginess of treasures is a problem. Blueholme sets its XP rewards for killing monsters quite low and, in any event, there's not that much combat to be had. It's desirable that at least some of the party be second level by the time they go up against Nuromen. If (say) the Thieves and Clerics are going to get to second level, then a party of 4 needs to earn over 5,000 XP. There just aren't enough combat encounters or valuable treasures to do this. I think doubling the treasure rewards in the dungeon and halving the size of the big hoard in room 25 could result in a party of mixed 1st/2nd level characters going up against Nuromen at the climax. Some of those second level characters will probably lose a level in the fight. 'Nuff said.
Alternatively, instead of placing the key to the treasure chamber (25) around the undead necromancer's neck, it could be found instead upstairs in his chambers (12 or 13), perhaps with a map indicating the presence of a secret vault, reached through the caves on the lower level (18). This would allow canny players to access the treasure before they run into Nuromen himself: flight is then the prudent choice.
Certainly, when the PCs emerge blinking from the Necropolis at the end, they will feel that they have earned their spurs.
More Caspar David Friedrich: Evening (1820-1) makes a great image for the faerie Delvingwoods
Epilogue: Bandits, grr-rrr
The scenario doesn't end there. Back in Camlann, bandits are up to no good. A breakaway faction of the outlawed White Company is kidnapping merchants. Tracking them back to their cave lair is in order, then bloody retribution.
This is a welcome epilogue. The Dungeon itself was mostly investigation, mystery and puzzles, with just a handful of combats, the latter ones very stressful. Some players might be in the mood for uncomplicated monster-bashing as a way to unwind, especially if everyone is second level now. Bandits make great punchbags.
Well, guess again. The Bandits all have 6hp, so they're surprisingly resilient. Their boss, Lothar, is a 6th level fighter, also with above-average HP, and he's got half a dozen Gnolls backing him up. There's an Owl Bear in there!
The good news is that Lothar is sitting on a hoard that should get all the survivors up to third level. However, his treasure is the only loot in this place, so if the Bandits send the adventurers away with their tails between their legs, they'll have nothing to show for the adventure but bruises.
This section of the adventure feels undercooked. The Bandits are well-organised in defense of their lair, but there's no option but to slog through them.
Lothar is supposed to be defying the Bandit Prince who leads the White Company. It would be helpful if some of the Bandits were loyalists who would turn against Lothar. There's a prison pit, crying out for a prisoner to occupy it, a useful NPC who knows the caverns and could guide the PCs.
As it stands, this side-quest is a brutal skirmish that will probably overwhelm second level characters and doesn't offer much to reward experienced players who want to try more devious or diplomatic strategies. Of course, the party don't have to take on Lothar. They could just rescue the merchants and claim a modest reward. But c'mon now, is that what HEROES do?
Michael Thomas confirms his intention that PCs do NOT fight Lothar to the death, but instead try to capture Bandits for the reward (50gp a head!). Blueholme doesn't provide any mechanism for subduing enemies nor does the scenario suggest one, but here's a thought. The GM could rule that, with any group of Bandits, once half are dead, the other half surrender. This makes skirmishing in the caves easier and more lucrative. Alternatively (or additionally) a force of 2d6 1st level Fighters from the Camlann Constabulary could bolster the PCs in the final showdown with Lothar - and Lothar could surrender once he has lost half his Hit Points.
Can't get enough Caspar: Cairn in the Snow (1807) is great for the entrance to Lothar's Lair
This is a deeply atmospheric dungeon in a great High Fantasy setting. It's got a distinctive mystical vibe to it that takes its cues from Eric Holmes. It's clearly a Blueholme Dungeon and it promotes its brand.
The Dungeon is structured around exploring and investigating rather than fighting. There are treasure troves to pick up but not enough to level up. The massive hoard at the end (should it be found) will level everyone up, perhaps placing Thieves at third level. That feels 'off' - especially considering the climactic battle the players have to endure to get the key. It's tempting to dial back the danger (Nuromen would be quite deadly enough as a Ghoul or a Wight) or shift some of the loot out of the hoard or put the key elsewhere in the dungeon; that way, PCs could retreat to their camp, level up, then descend to vanquish Nuromen or run away from the encounter with him.
The problem is even more pronounced in the Lothar epilogue. Lothar's hoard exceeds 10,000gp, so half a dozen PCs could level up from that, but he's 6th level and protected by Gnolls! Part of the charm of Blueholme Prentice is its third level 'ceiling'. Why can't Lothar be a really nasty 3rd level Fighter? Couldn't his loot be scattered throughout the lair so that PCs can pick some of it up during other skirmishes? Alternatively, rules are needed for capturing and subduing the Bandits rather than battling them to the death.
These aren't damning criticisms. It's easy to adjust treasure and threat, based on how quickly you envisage the PCs progressing through the levels and how many need to die doing so. GMs will need to make their own minds up about what they expect players to accomplish and whether The Necropolis of Nuromen is supposed to end in hard-won victory, tactical retreat with riches or an ignominious death.
However, set all that aside. The scenario has much greater strengths. The journey down the Elfway, into the Delvingwood and then deep down below ground, into the vaults of the Necropolis: this is a deeply memorable start to anyone's campaign and a calling card for Blueholme as an RPG with a distinctive style.
Michael Thomas is working on a new scenario that will function as "a real introductory adventure" to Blueholme (rather than just being a low-level adventure): The Shrine of Sobek should be out next year but I hope The Necropolis of Nuromen gets its sequels too.
No, not the sensational 1959 Miles Davis album, but the equally seminal 1977 'Blue Book' D&D rules by Dr J. Eric Holmes. I want to review Holmes' treatment by a pair recent retroclone RPGs: Blueholme and The Blue Hack, both by Michael Thomas.
If one of these things interests you more than the other, you MIGHT be in for a disappointment with this blog...
Holmes' 'Blue Book' rules set has a legendary status among D&D fans, and deservedly. Before Holmes volunteered his services, D&D was a rag tag collection of cheap booklets and magazine articles supplemented by fan products of varying credibility. Since few gamers owned them all, no one who played D&D was really playing the same game and the game itself was pretty impenetrable if someone hadn't shown you how to play it first.
Eric Holmes changed all that. His 50-page softback manual set about building the Original D&D game from the ground up, starting with character creation, rules for combat, spells, monsters, treasures and concluding with his wonderful sample dungeon, the 'Tower of Zenopus'.
By modern standards of rules design, Holmes' book is cluttered in places, sparse in others and confusing all over the place, but compared to what had gone before this was a lean, modernist take on the baroque grotesquerie that D&D had quickly become. Oh, and it only went to third level for PCs. To go further with the game, the reader was directed to the then-forthcoming Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules set that Gary Gygax had been working on and was to emerge, with the Players Handbook, the following year.
AD&D pulled down the tower that Holmes had built. In Holmes' game, rolled attributes counted for very little. Your prime requisite (e.g. Intelligence for Magic-Users) boosted your earned XP. Dexterity awarded you +1 or -1 to hit with missiles. Constitution earned you +1, 2 or 3 Hit Points. That's it. No Strength Bonuses. No extra spells for Clerics. No Armour Class modifiers. Oh, and all the weapons dealt 1d6 damage, whether they were a dagger or a two-handed sword.
The effect of this was to de-emphasise combat as the central pillar of What D&D Is All About, in favour of exploration, traps, riddles, puzzles and NPC encounters. PCs are individuated, not by their attributes, but by the player's imagination. Since a Strength 17 Fighting Man functioned no differently from a Strength 7 Fighting Man, the colour had to come from characterisation. Holmes offers the standard D&D classes (including Thieves and Dwarves, Elves and Halflings functioning as classes too) but offers encouragement to go beyond this, citing his famous example of a diverse party of adventurers:
Thus, an expedition might include, in addition to the four basic classes and races (human, elven, dwarven, hobbitish), a centaur, a lawful werebear, and a Japanese Samurai fighting man
In a 1981 article in Dragon Magazine, Holmes is quite explicit about his free-wheeling approach to character generation:
Most game systems rather rigidly specify what kinds of characters players may assume, but the majority of referees are lenient. If a player particularly wants to be an unusual or inhuman character, many referees will let him. It's not unusual to encounter player characters that are werewolves, Vulcans, samurai, centaurs or whatever. Fantasy role playing is, after all, an exercise in imagination
In another Dragon article, Holmes confesses his own preferences for non-canon characters:
For several years there was a dragon player character in my own game. At first level he could puff a little fire and do one die of damage. He could, of course, fly, even at first level. He was one of the most unpopular characters in the game, but this was because of the way he was played, not because he was a dragon. I enjoyed having dragons, centaurs, samurai and witch doctors in the game. My own most successful player character was a Dreenoi, an insectoid creature borrowed from McEwan’s Starguard. He reached fourth level (as high as any of my personal characters ever got), made an unfortunate decision, and was turned into a pool of green slime.
Uh-oh. Dreenoi. Roll for initiative.
Gary Gygax dismantled this approach with AD&D. Character attributes were exalted and character classes nailed down to very specific collections of powers and advancements. Whereas Holmes might identify his character as a 'Lawful Werebear', AD&D invited you to become a a 4th/5th level Half-Elven Cleric/Thief with a 17 Dex and a 16 Wisdom.
Perhaps that's the fascination with Holmes' work: it offers a brief window into a year (1977) when D&D could have gone another way. If AD&D was prog rock, with complexity and grand pretensions, then Holmes was that other flower of 1977: punk rock, with its three-chord simplicity and vigorous DIY ethos.
Eric Holmes. Johnny Rotten. Rarely mistaken for one another.
Two figures bestride the Internet, bearing the Holmsian lamp aloft. Zach Howard runs a fantastic Holmes blog and website, the Zenopus Archives, making the case in fair weather and foul for continuing to play D&D the way Holmes envisaged. He has done fantastic advocacy for the 'Tower of Zenopus' dungeon and delved into Holmes' manuscripts to explore how much Gygax diluted and redirected Holmes' intentions.
Click the image to explore the underworld of Holmes Basic.
The other is Michael Thomas, over at Dreamscape Design, who has published two loving Holmesian D&D retroclones: Blueholme (in two versions) and Blue Hack.
Blueholme Prentice is pay-nothing on drivethrurpg; Blueholme Journeymanne is quite cheap on drivethrurpg or there's a nice hardback from Lulu; Blue Hack costs next-to-nothing on drivethrurpg
The 2013 Blueholme Prentice rules (62pp) is a fairly standard OSR retroclone. Thomas takes Holmes' rules set and presents it in his own words, with the orderliness we now expect in good games design. There's a bit of advice on how to play the game and how to referee it. There's nice (public domain) B&W art. The ambiguities (e.g. elven fighter/magic-users) are cleared up. The attributes still offer almost no distinctions. Weapons all deal 1d6 damage. This is vintage Holmes, straight from the cellars. Carrion Crawlers get a copyright-dodging name change but I think Johnny Rotten and other veterans of 1977 will feel right at home here.
Is there a use for this sort of game, besides nostalgia? After all, Charlie Mason's White Box: Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game one-ups Blueholme by going back to the original D&D rules set, but compressing character progression into 10 levels and adding variable weapon damage (well.... 1d6-1, 1d6 or 1d6+1 but it's variable!). It only slightly expands the modifiers for high/low attributes, it's got a low price point and it's rather more lovely in its typeface and old school William McAusland art.
The appeal of Blueholme Prentice is precisely its strict boundaries. It offers a D&D experience with just three levels of experience. The King of the Realm, he's a third level Fighter. His Court Magician? He's a third level Magic-User. The Guildmaster Thief? Third level too! This is a world with a ceiling on it and, rather like crafting a haiku, composing scenarios within such limits draws forth surprising creativity.
If you're not psyched by a 3rd-level-campaign, fear not! In 2017, along came Blueholme Journeymanne (118pp) on the back of a successful Kickstarter, with hardback rules and lots of original art by old school veterans like Russ 'Firetop Mountain' Nicholson that has a great late-Seventies vibe.
Russ Nicholson's homage to David C Sutherland III's art panel that introduced the original Holmes Basic Set makes me feel happy in ways only the Germans have words for.
All of this and twenty (count them, TWENTY) character levels, spells up to 7th level, hirelings and strongholds and VARIABLE WEAPON DAMAGE. Yes, at last. But not just different dice for different weapons. Oh no. All weapons still roll d6s (take THAT, Gygax) but puny daggers roll two dice and pick the worst while heavy weapons roll 2 or 3 dice and pick the best. Delightful!
In just over a hundred pages, Blueholme Journeymanne muscles up alongside White Box and thoroughly intimidates it. Actually, they're both great games. It really boils down to whether you want your D&D campaign concertina-ed into ten levels or twenty. White Box has a cool fey-themed thing going on with its monsters but Blueholme Journeymanne is more Sci-Fi, with Lovecraftian Mi-Go and Deep Ones in the mix alongside Dreenoi. Yes, Dreenoi.
Human, Dwarf and Dreenoi, together at last. Watch out for that Green Slime!
This is where Journeymanne plays its Holmsian trump card. Character races are gone: poof! Instead, this:
It's been a long journey, but we finally got there. You can play that Lawful Werebear at last. I like to think John Eric Holmes (who sadly died in 2010 and missed this renaissance in RPGs) is smiling upon this, up there, in the Outer Planes of Chaotic Neutral. Journeymanne gets the next-best endorsement from his son, Chris Holmes:
These cyclopean corridors of peril await you and your players as they did my friends and me in 1976 when we explored the dungeons of John Eric Holmes.
If this doesn't bring a tear to your eye, then you ought to be reading reviews of Miles Davis jazz albums.
The Hacks I like, all on drivethrurpg (click on images for links)
Blue Hack is a different beast. It's a variation on David Black's The Black Hack (2016), which offered an alternative streamlined take on D&D, with attribute tests replacing skills and abilities, ten character levels, super simplified classes, monsters and spells and groovy Usage Dice replacing tallying arrows, torches and rations. It spawned a host of imitators with various degrees of professionalism. Karl Stjernberg's Rad Hack is a fantastic pop art take on Gamma World, while Matthew Skail's Blood Hack is a cheerfully amateur (but very imaginative) interpretation of Vampire: The Masquade.
All well and good, but how do you Holmesify The Black Hack, which is about as stripped-back as an old school fantasy RPG can get? How is Blue Hack any different from The Black Hack?
The answer, oddly, is to make it more like the sort of D&D that Black Hack is trying to escape from.
The Black Hack enjoyed a recent Kickstarter and there's a fancy Second Edition out there but the original rules are a trim 20 pages that are a master class in clarity and elegant graphic design. The 'Big Six' stats here here (STR DEX CON INT WIS CHA) and four classes (Warrior, Cleric, Conjuror and Thief). Going up a level boosts your Hit Dice and lets you improve your Stats. Spells are summed up in no more than a dozen words each.
This is the spell description for Power Word Kill:
A Nearby target with 50HP or fewer dies and cannot be resurrected.
Blue Hack takes all this and stirs back in some recognisable D&D. Dwarves, Elves and Halflings re-appear as character races, adding familiar flavour abilities, and Fighter-Mages are added to the class roster to accommodate those mystical elves. The presentation is a bit more expansive (it runs to 26 pages) and illustrated by the ubiquitous William McAusland's adorable B&W art, but the descriptions retain that charming "figure-it-out-yourself" brevity. Here's the explanation for the spell Limited Wish:
Change reality in a limited way or time.
When I think of the ink that's been spilled in D&D rulebooks and magazines trying to codify, limit, clarify and define what a 'wish' spell can do, this makes me want to break down and cry.
Like a lot of Hack RPGs, Blue Hack feels like a slap in the face. Why did you just spend all that time and effort mastering Blueholme Journeymanne (never mind freakin' Dungeon Crawl Classics or D&D 5th ed.) if you could play fantasy RPGs as simply as this? Like a stage magician's prestige, it makes you blink your eyes and look for the trick. Can it really work like that?
Well it can and it probably should, but something is lost. Perhaps what's lost is Holmes himself, whose genial ghost presides over every page of Blueholme in both its iterations but seems absent from Blue Hack, which is really just a pretty version of any already pretty game, given a more recognizably D&Dish spin. No rules for Dreenoi PCs. No Lawful Werebears. Maybe that's my beef with it.
Skip to the end. My feeling is that, while the Hack RPGs are a fantastic development in roleplaying rules, they're not necessarily the way I want to go with old-school dungeonbashing. Sometimes, the flavour is in the rules themselves and, with minimal rules, you often get minimal flavour. With, say, the Rad Hack, the flavour is in the whacky radioactive post-holocaust setting. But with D&D-hacks, the flavour is in the D&D, which is exactly what you're taking out.
Blueholme does a stunning job at honouring Holmes' legacy and provides a set of OSR rules that should be right up there for anyone wanting to explore the wild frontier of '70s-style D&D. Blue Hack is a solid Hack version of D&D, but I guess I don't really have a need for such a thing when the more conventional OSR D&D retroclones are already so sweet, simple and inspirational.
There's a module for Blueholme - The Necropolis of Nuromen - which I'll review later this week.
The Ghost Hack has launched on a surge of enthusiasm. There's a welcome pack over on drivethrurpg now, with quick start character templates, fillable character sheets and an introductory scenario, Hell Hath No Fury. The scenario was playtested last week and held up beautifully.
Here's a peek at the second wave of material over the next month.
Cover art by Bob Greyvenstein (left) and Christopher Smith-Wong (centre and right)
I want to take a moment to unpack these projects...
Upon a Midnight Dreary
The brief for Hell Hath No Fury was to write a scenario that showcased important features of The Ghost Hack, such as how ghostly powers affect the living, the Dread and the importance of Fanes, Wights, Portals to Hades and the currency of the Afterlife.
That still leaves quite a bit still to cover, like mortal Psychics, the baneful properties of iron and salt, the importance of Mortal Coils and the Rot.
So this is a second introductory scenario, something that could follow on straight after Hell Hath No Fury, and it tackles some of the more esoteric ideas in the game. The assumption is that the PCs are all second level by now.
Upon a Midnight Dreary starts off as a classic case of bio-exorcism. A NPC ghost has been evicted from his home and Fane by a crew of psychic investigators who understand iron and salt. Moreover, his ghostly wife is still stuck inside the property. The PCs have the job of breaking into a salt-warded house and chasing away knowledgeable interlopers who are equipped with ghost-fighting tools.
Of course, it turns out to be nothing like as simple as that.
Do Not Go Gentle
This is a bigger project. It's billed as the 'Hades Expansion.' The Ghost Hack offers all you need for quick'n'easy post-mortem roleplaying but there's a lot more setting to be explored, most of it relating to the realm of Hades to which ghosts can travel.
First off, there are new Phantom Trades (character classes), with three previewed on this site. The Anubians are members of a secretive sect that can hold back the Rot and master Wights, but leverages its mystical abilities for power. The Helgaunts are ghostly paladins, hunting down Wights and putting them to the soultempered sword. Grimliches actually are Wights, albeit Wights with Mortal Coils. The thing is, they hate their mortal attachments and want to torment them in every way.
I'm planning a few more Trades, such as the Soulforgers, who craft things out of ectoplasm and Soulfire, and the Vivimancers and Phantasms, who practise schools of magic relating to the Living World and Dreaming World respectively.
I want to look at Wights in more depth and explore both Paradises and Infernos and the angels and demons that rule them.
Finally, there's politics. I want to introduce the Misericordium, the vast bureaucracy of the dead that services the fabled City of Dis. The Misericordium offers to take away your Rot (in game terms, no more Grave Die) in return for draining your individuality. Ghosts are recruited as clerks to record every detail of their mortal existence in magical ledgers, not realising (or maybe not caring) that they are transferring their Mortal Coils to the service of Dis. As their memories fade, they become the unquestioning footsoldiers of Dis and ultimately mindless Echoes of their former selves. It's not pretty, but for a lot of ghosts it's better than Rotting. And for the rest, well, they weren't really offered a choice...
Tears Such as Angels Shed
This is the biggest project and might take most of the summer. Hell Hath No Fury and Upon a Midnight Dreary are both introductory scenarios of the sort that can be played out in a couple of sessions or raced through in one. Tears is a bit more epic in scope and build on the world-building in Do Not Go Gently.
It concerns an Angel who approaches the PCs with an unusual quest: to cross Hades in search of a particular Inferno and rescue one damned soul from there.
The resulting journey will take the PCs to hell and back - literally - and skirt the suburbs of Dis and the caverns of Tarterus, where the Wights go to dwell and from which the Dread emerges. It should take PCs from 3rd to 7th level and position them as movers and shakers in the politics of Hades.
It also might just introduce the Fey, heralding the next ...Hack RPG on my to-do list.
The Fey Hack
Yup. That's the next one. Saddle up the Wild Hunt. It's time to ride out...
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 started writing my own OSR-inspired games - as well as fantasy and supernatural fiction..
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: