Several years ago, I ran a fantasy horror game for a group of teenagers from my church. It was their very first roleplaying game, and I felt both very privileged to have the opportunity to introduce them to the hobby and very responsible for keeping them on a godly path in their play. My own experience with roleplaying at that age was… Well, let’s say that some of the encounters were less than holy. In that light, horror might seem like a peculiar choice of genre—the kind of conservative Pentecostals of my home church are just as uncomfortable with horror films as they are with roleplaying itself. Nevertheless, although I don’t care much for the genre in film, it’s a gaming mode that I enjoy and that I think has much to offer. This article isn’t meant to be an apology for the place of the macabre in the Christian imagination, so to keep it short, I’ll offer this link to Christian Fandom’s essay list on that topic and chaplain M.J. Young’s previous articles Writing Fear, Faith in Play #5: Fear, and RPG-ology #11: Scared. Rather, I would like to look at one particular moment in that game and offer some observations on gaming, Christian fellowship, and courage. Read more
The Beckett family ventures into the Temple of Pholtus described in part 1 of this adventure narrative.
The session began with the PCs at a ruined temple of Pholtus, not far from the western shores of Blackwater Lake. They had already explored one outbuilding, where they found some hidden valuables in a buried stone vault. One such bauble was a silver decanter that slowly filled with fresh water. Daniel discovered this the hard way when it leaked through his backpack and breeches, giving the group a laugh.
Cast of Characters
Most party members are part of one large extended family—the noble Beckett family. A few are retainers. Characters in gray text were not present during this encounter.
Granny Beckett: Witch, eccentric matriarch of the family
Jade Cormallen: Half-elf ranger, distant relative to most
Lord Roger Beckett: Ranger, new family head
Acolyte Denston Beckett: Cleric of Pholtus, grumpy and dour
Daniel Beckett: Assassin, passionate and protective
Sir Callum Beckett: Cavalier, burly and jovial
Sir William Beckett: Cavalier, sarcastic and brave
Brother Lewie: Cleric of St. Cuthbert, erratic but insightful
Sven Ragnarsson: Barbarian, bastard of Granny, Bjorn’s twin
Bjorn Ragnarsson: Barbarian, bastard of Granny, Sven’s twin
Brother Liam: Cleric of St. Cuthbert, comrade of Brother Lewie
Sir Raynard: Cavalier, handsome and witty
Raymond: NPC (Fighter 1), stoic and responsible
Owen: NPC (Ranger 1), introverted and self-sufficient
Kieran: NPC (Magic User 1), gentle and intelligent
Sergeant Blaine: NPC Fighter, porter to the Beckett family
Dagis: NPC (Fighter 0), new squire to Sir Callum
This piece follows ‘Ants in the Darkness,’ a Beckett adventure of the Northumbria Campaign.
The session began with the PCs in an underground tunnel on Wycliffe Island, located on Blackwater Lake. After stumbling into a nest of giant ants, the party desperately fought its way out. A few caverns away, as they recovered, they had a stroke of luck and found a calcified chest containing many gems. Exhausted and wounded, they returned to the surface and sailed back to the small village of Lakesend. There they planned to rest, heal, and divide their loot.
FROM THE DM:
I found this session, which lacked any real combat, memorable because of the role-playing and the dialogue between players. You know that you have a good group when they can find great amusement and engagement without rolling dice. I just sat back and watched the how, taking notes. In addition, I had recently asked each player to cast his character with some famous person or Hollywood actor. I think this helped each player really visualize his character, and the dialogue seemed to come easy. This session also served one additional purpose for me as DM. The party had been unwittingly abusing the identify spell, forgetting that it requires a pearl each time. The write up helped to make this clear. Read more
Editor’s note: Gamemaster Michael Garcia runs two groups in the same Northumbria campaign on different nights. The Editor has no idea how he keeps things straight in his head. This narrative returns to the Winchester family, last seen in “Screams in Store.”
Sir Garrett of House Winchester and his retinue were on Wycliffe Island in the middle of Blackwater Lake. Having come to the island at the behest of the local Guild to investigate a dry dock facility, they had found it overrun and burned, most of its personnel dead. Having already rescued four surviving guildsmen from a pack of wild worgs, the retinue began tracking a band of robber knights in an attempt to save a fifth surviving guildsman, named Marcel of St.-Martin. With the four guildsmen guiding them, the retinue was racing through the forest, atop the rocky plateau that runs the length of the island. Their hope was to reach the western ridge, descend the steep slope, and find the robber knights’ boat before they could leave the island with their hostage.
Bone-tired, Sir Garrett and his retinue knew that they had little fight left, yet Sir Garrett would not abandon the captive to an uncertain fate, nor allow the robber knights to go unpunished. The group pushed on, though they knew that they were racing against the sunset. It had been overcast for much of the day, and gray clouds still covered the sky like a leaden sheet. Even under the canopy of trees, though, the retinue could tell that the sun was setting. Everything was beginning to take on shades of gray.
In its hasty flight, the retinue had already stumbled upon a band of goblyns which gave chase. In a running battle, the retinue fought off the leading element. The party, while continuing to barrel through the forest, had then spotted the robber knights in the distance across a ravine. The knights had not seen them. Rounding a bend in the rocky terrain, they ran into another element of the goblyn war band and fought them off in another desperate, running battle. The retinue had just come to the western ridge, where the rocky slopes begin their descent to the beach, far below. The many trees obscured their sight so they could not spot the robber knights again. Hearing wolves and goblyn horns behind them, the group began a hasty descent, while trying not to tumble headlong some eight hundred feet down the slope.
From the DM:
Another session that almost ended in a TPK, this one was not due to player foolishness. Each PC played his role well, but the group had very few hit points left. The encounter did give the group a bitter foe for future sessions.
Cast of Characters:
Sir Garrett of Winchester: Paladin, Head of House Winchester
Lady Alinachka: Magic user, Garrett’s widowed sister-in-law
Brother Rolf: Cleric of St. Cuthbert, Garrett’s younger brother
Cousin Modrak: Thief, Garrett’s distant cousin
Odo: Fighter, Garrett’s friend, ward of the Winchester family
Maggie: Fighter, Odo’s sister, ward of the Winchester family
Master Magnus: Illusionist, Garrett’s butler/steward
Yeoman Guilliman: Ranger, longtime-servant of the family
Master Gimlet: Fighter, dwarven friend to Sir Garrett
Hugh the Porter: NPC, hireling to the party
Miles the Minstrel: NPC, bard who is seeking stories to tell
Despite a few slips and frightful slides, Sir Garrett and his retinue made the descent safely. Cousin Modrak reached the bottom first, as he was lightly clad and relatively unharmed. Upon reaching level ground, he noticed that the thick forest began to thin as it neared the sea. A stretch of rocky ground, about 50 feet in length and littered with smaller trees, lay between the foot of the slope and the pebble beach. Moving forward to the end of the tree line, cautiously but quickly, he spotted the beach, measuring only about 30 feet between the trees and the lake. Small waves of black water gently washed over the rocks and some gray driftwood. To his left, Modrak heard voices, though he saw nothing from where he sat crouched behind a tree. Creeping to his left, moving parallel to the shoreline, he soon spotted a large object of curious shape. He realized it to be a small boat, perhaps 30 feet long, covered with a pile of tree branches. The voices came from a short distance beyond it.
Signaling up to the rest of the group, which had almost reached the bottom of the slope, Modrak pushed through the low vegetation, trying to stay out of sight. The lapping sound of the waves helped to mask his movements, but the thinning trees hindered his ability to hide. He made for the boat. There was no one there, and it seemed intact. Seeing a gap in the pile of cut branches that covered the craft, Modrak slid his bow and quiver inside and then pulled himself over the side. Meanwhile, Yeoman Guilliman had seen Modrak’s signal and broke to the left, staying inside a belt of wide, silver maple trees. From his vantage point, he spotted the quarry. A second boat, maybe 30 yards to the left of the first, lay uncovered on the pebbles at the edge of the surf. About a dozen men in various forms of armor, bearing mainly longbows, halberds, and spears, surrounded the craft. A few looked to be readying it for sailing. Two of the men wore full plate harnesses. His mind raced: They have two boats. At that moment, five of the other men-at-arms began to walk away from the rest, moving slowly to the right, toward Modrak and the concealed boat, bantering to each other about something. The cool wind off the lake, carrying a strong odor of humidity with it, made their comments inaudible. Looking up the slope at his companions, Guilliman whistled sharply and gesticulated rapidly before grasping his axe.
Hearing the whistle and stumbling down the rocky slope, Master Gimlet muttered under his breath, “Great. We run, then we fight, then we run while fighting, then we fight while running, then we stumble down a hill, now we fight some more. What’s next, swimming?” Maggie, Odo, and Sir Garrett, already crouching behind the concealed boat, silently slid their swords from their scabbards. A second group came straight down the slope, finding themselves to the right of the concealed boat and somewhat out of harm’s way. In this group, Brother Rolf, Hugh Redoak, and Miles the minstrel helped along the four, wounded guildsmen, Lady Alinachka, and the exhausted Master Magnus. Hearing voices drawing nearer, this group ducked into a shoulder high thicket of butterfly weed, bristling with small orange blossoms.
Four of the five armed men reached the edge of the concealed boat, oblivious to any danger, but the fifth, carrying a spear, stopped abruptly and looked up to his right. Yeoman Guilliman cursed under his breath, seeing that they had only seconds. As he jumped to his feet and charged down the slope, all hell broke loose.
From behind the boat, sprang Sir Garrett, Odo, Maggie, and Master Gimlet. With a single deadly stroke, each crushed or cut the life from one of the four men-at-arms. Two crumpled almost soundlessly, gurgling as blood erupted into their throats, but two others screamed as they fell, mortally wounded. The spearman in the rear turned and bolted immediately. Sir Garrett led a charge across the pebble beach, shouting, “To the boats!” Emerging suddenly from the thicket of butterfly weed, some twenty yards behind, Brother Rolf also charged headlong to support his older brother, flail raised high. Meanwhile, bow in hand and arrow already nocked, Modrak stood upright in the bow of the concealed boat, knocking aside many tree branches. He proceeded to loose a steady stream of arrows toward the robber knights’ other boat. Charging down the slope on a diagonal, knocking aside branches and trampling the underbrush, came Yeoman Guilliman, battleaxe raised high.
The sudden flurry of activity, along with shouts, screams, and the staccato clanking of armor, produced an instant reaction among the robber knights. One man in full harness barked orders and grabbed for his longsword, though the blustery wind off the water drowned out most of his words. A taller man in a plate harness casually let his battleaxe fall to the pebbles at his feet, opened a pouch on his belt, and drank from a small vial. He then picked his great helm off the ground and placed it on his head. Meanwhile, half of the men-at-arms, mainly archers, jumped aboard the small boat and pushed it into the lapping surf, grabbing for oars once inside. The other half, mainly spearmen and halberdiers, lowered their weapons to stop the charge that bore down on them.
The clash was sudden and violent. Yeoman Guilliman, rushing down toward the beach on an angle, bypassed the waiting spear points and thundered right into the knee-high surf. In one graceful move, he swept aside a man’s longbow with his battleaxe and threw himself over the side of the boat, landing on his side with a thud and causing a host of screams from those inside the boat. Following right behind him was Maggie, who leaped into the boat with surprising agility, landing squarely on top of a surprised man-at-arms. Both lost their footing and toppled to the algae-lined floor of the boat. As for Sir Garrett, Master Gimlet, and Odo, they smashed into the waiting line of spearmen, driving through them and scattering them. Their victory evaporated immediately, for a knight in plate harness, wielding a longsword and heater shield, unleashed a violent series of attacks against both Odo and Master Gimlet. The other taller knight squared off with Sir Garrett, and the two made numerous passes at each other. The tall knight’s battleaxe bit deeply into Sir Garrett’s shield, sending splinters of wood flying and slicing off part of the leather edging. The Lord of House Winchester returned the blow with fury, not once, but twice. Yet, twice did the tall knight deflect the blow. Just to Sir Garrett’s right, Odo and Gimlet were reeling under the attacks of the shorter knight. However, Brother Rolf finally arrived at a full charge, throwing himself into the mix and pushing the knight back onto his heels. Screams, shouts, and grunts mingled with the splashing surf, clashing steel, and the loud rustle of the wind off the water.
Some thirty yards down the beach, Hugh Redoak led the other non-combatants in uncovering the concealed boat. From all sides, branches flew off the weather-beaten, algae-stained boat. Modrak continued to loose arrows from its bow, until the others yelled for him to get off. He leaped down with agility and continued to let arrows fly. Two archers in the distant boat already had his goose-feather shafts protruding from their torsos. With the branches finally cleared off, Hugh and the others began pushing the boat toward the shore. They were about 20 yards away when they heard a horrible sound from the rocky slopes above. A triple blast of a throaty signal horn carried on the wind above the beach. Hugh and the others looked up in despair to see a wave of goblyns descending the dark slope like an avalanche coming through the trees. There had to be dozens of them, if not scores. Mingled with the rustling of the bushes was an odd clicking or scuttling noise, almost like that made by insects. Master Magnus, exhausted and ready to faint, found a new source of strength—fear. He screamed, “Push! The whole damn lot of you! Get this thing in the water!” Crude arrows with wicked, blackened, iron heads began to pepper the area around the boat. Four shafts sank into the bow, some skipped off the pebbles by Hugh’s feet, one pierced Alinachka’s leather backpack, and another two struck a pair of guildsmen.
Inside the robber knights’ lead boat, Maggie tried to get to her feet, surrounded by shouting enemies. Two men rained blows on her, but she blocked them all with the forte of her longsword. Unfortunately, she lost her footing and again dropped to the floor of the boat. At the bow, Yeoman Guilliman went for the captive guildsman, who was trussed up with ropes behind his back. A longbowman stepped directly into his path with an arrow nocked at pointblank range. Without thinking, the ranger instinctively dropped to a knee as the man let the arrow fly. Like a lightning bolt, the shaft whistled past his scalp and sank into the shoulder of a spearman in the rear of the boat. Without hesitation, Guilliman threw his weight against the surprised archer, hurling him over the side and into the surf. Maggie got to her feet again, only to have a halberdier try to hurl her from the boat. She dropped to her knees and covered up as best she could, and instead of throwing her overboard, the halberdier almost went head over heels. Only by wrapping his left arm around her neck did her stay in the boat. They continued to grapple. Unable to throw Maggie from the boat, the frustrated halberdier settled for smashing her head against the rail. With the coppery taste of blood filling her mouth, Maggie hauled back and punched him in the neck with her mailed fist. Coughing and gurgling, his hands shot to his throat, releasing her. With all of her strength, she continued to punch.
The robber knights fought with disturbing poise. Sir Garrett and the taller knight were locked up, elbow to elbow, with their weapons above their heads. Seeing the goblyns streaming down the slopes, Sir Garrett made one logical plea to his adversary, “We have to get off this beach now, or we shall all surely die!” Unmoved, the taller knight gave Lord Winchester only a look of disgust before trying again to brain him. Garrett then saw his opening. Drawing back with all of his strength, he feinted and then delivered a terrible stroke to his enemy’s great helm. The sword struck with tremendous force, cutting deep into the temple of the helm and twisting it on the man’s head. Lord Winchester was certain that his enemy would crumple, for never had he hit an opponent harder or more cleanly. To his horror, the tall knight merely jerked his neck, causing the helm to spin back into place. He was unmoved and seemingly unfazed. That clarified things for the Winchester knight. He shouted to his companions, “Get out of here! Get to the other boat! Move! This is fruitless!”
Sensing that they had momentum, both robber knights pushed forward to finish their enemies. The shorter knight seemed to attack Odo, Brother Rolf, and Gimlet at once. Though they almost surrounded him, they fell back under the weight of his attack. He saw only a blur of dark fur out of the corner of his eye before a large growling hulk leaped upon him and brought him violently to the ground. Alinachka had unleashed Booj, who seemed twice his normal size as he tore at the knight’s throat. The knight’s aventail fell aside as he landed, and the hound ripped and tore the flesh beneath it. The man flailed, writhed, and groaned, as crimson splattered and stained the pebble beach. Lord Winchester, still yelling for his companions to withdraw, did his best to tie up the taller knight.
Hugh and the non-combatants, using their last ounces of strength, managed to get their boat to the waterline, but it seemed that they were too late. Hugh was shot twice, and both arrows protruded grotesquely from his back. Magnus fell face-first into the boat. Two guildsmen managed to get in and were fumbling with the oars, but another two were shot a second time by goblyn arrows. One tumbled face-first into the surf. Miles the minstrel, of all people, wide-eyed and manic, grabbed the downed guildsman by the tunic and lifted him like a sack of turnips over the side of the boat. A goblyn arrow then sliced his arm, leaving a red gash. Alinachka, her gray robe drenched from the surf and heavy, threw herself into the boat and fumbled for an oar. It was then that the first goblyns reached the boat. Hugh swung an oar in a wild arc, striking the foul creature in the temple and knocking it loose. He struck another as he screamed, “Row! For the love of St. Cuthbert, row!”
On the robber knights’ boat, time seemed to slow for Guilliman. He was exhausted and growing weary. He knew that unconsciousness was not far off. Though only feet from the captive guildsman, he now had three men-at-arms closing on him. He also heard Lord Garrett yelling for everyone to withdraw. His mind raced. If I get the captive, everything changes. Yet, I cannot get him out of the boat and untied before they hit me at least once. One hit and I am dead. If he is still tied, he drowns. I can do no good here. At that moment, his eyes gazed down the beach and spotted a horde of goblyns closing on the other boat, containing his friends. A primal anger swelled in him. A fraction of a second later, Maggie also realized that the situation was lost, and she threw herself overboard before an angry halberdier could cut her throat with his drawn dagger. Yeoman Guilliman then leaped into the knee-high surf, scrambling back toward his friends. A longbowman grabbed for his bow to finish the badly wounded ranger, but his companion screamed at him, “Row, you fool. He’s dead anyway!”
Sir Garrett saw his friends falling back. He waited for a few seconds, blocking another deadly blow of the knight’s battleaxe, until he saw Maggie’s head pop up out of the surf. She too was on her way towards the other boat. Lord Winchester then withdrew, cursing under his breath. The tall knight, clad in black, lowered his axe for a second and glanced at the now-motionless body of his fellow knight. The surf began to lap at the fallen man’s legs, but the large pool of crimson around his head remained. His neck looked like entrails at a butcher shop. For a second, Sir Garrett groaned and thought: Where is Booj? However, he spotted the hound in the surf, headed towards the boat containing Alinachka. He then noted that they were still in dire trouble.
Hugh Redoak upended another of the foul creatures that had climbed over the side of the boat. Two more arrows now protruded from Alinachka’s leather backpack, making a total of three. The stern of the small craft was riddled with arrow shafts. Modrak screamed in distress as three goblyns, up to their waists in the surf, latched on to the rear of the boat and were trying to pull it back to shore. Then Yeoman Guilliman arrived, swinging his battleaxe with wild abandon. He cleaved one from head to hip, sending a geyser of black ichor into the air. The smell of raw sewage wafted over him and made him gag, but he battered another creature with the haft of his axe, smashing out its pointed teeth and causing it to slip beneath the waves. He turned to the third, only to see a scimitar descending towards his face. He knew that he could never block or move in time. The blow never landed. Instead, a goose-feather shaft seemed to sprout from the creature’s neck, and it toppled backwards into the dark surf. Modrak, bow in hand once again, shouted, “Get in! Get in!” Now on his knees in the back of the boat, Hugh hung his right arm over the stern and grabbed the bloodied ranger. With difficulty, he hauled him over the rail.
In the dying light, it became difficult see to see any detail. The whole lake area—water, surf, shore, and forest—seemed to be a blurred mosaic of gray. Moreover, a light haze or mist seemed to settle on the water. Alinachka, largely unharmed, directed the rowers to veer left, parallel to the shore. As arrows continued to whistle overhead, her companions finally saw three figures through the gloom. The sight caused shouts of distress from everyone. Sir Garrett was waist-deep in his plate harness, wading out to the boat. Floating face down was Odo, who had three arrows embedded in his chain hauberk. Just reaching his side was Master Gimlet, whose head was barely above water. Then the companions in the boat saw a fourth figure. Brother Rolf appeared behind the dwarf, lifting him up and into the boat. Arrows ricocheting off Lord Winchester’s harness sounded like raindrops pelting a window. Together, the two Winchester brothers lifted Odo’s motionless form into the boat. At that point, Maggie reached the front of the boat and climbed in with great difficulty. Brother Rolf fell into the boat with all the grace of an anvil, but he immediately went to work, tending to Odo. Lord Winchester, up to his chest in the black water and now unable to see the trees on the shore or the robber knights’ boat, counted heads. Only when he saw everyone did he throw his longsword and shield into the boat and allow himself to be hauled in.
The arrows continued for another minute or two, but they grew less frequent. Everyone was breathing hard, and many were coughing up water and phlegm. Brother Rolf, exhausted, continued to tend to Odo, who finally coughed up a tankard-full of lake water. Maggie was spitting blood, and Guilliman finally collapsed. Magnus, though his eyes were alert, lacked the strength to sit up. Miles, the minstrel, still wide-eyed and manic, was paddling strenuously with his oar. Hugh, arrows still protruding from his hauberk, had to yell for him to stop, as all others had stopped rowing once the boat seemed far enough away from the shore, and Miles’ paddling was just sending the boat in circles. In the gloom, the retinue could not see the robber knights’ boat, but faint hints of splashing water in the distance did give away its general direction. Modrak was the first to speak, “Cousin, if we are to overtake them, we need to start rowing now, but it think it safe to say that we are less than combat effective.” As if to punctuate the statement, Odo vomited in the back of the boat. Gazing off into the gloom, Master Gimlet said matter-of-factly, “I saw this day going differently.”
Another memorable play session from Michael Garcia, this one from his more recent Northumbria campaign. Mike is running two groups in the same campaign. “Screams in Store” followed the Winchester family; this story is about the Becketts.
The session began with the PCs in a narrow tunnel, which is part of a series of natural limestone caverns that run throughout Wycliffe Island, located in Blackwater Lake. The party had stumbled upon a secret door inside an unmarked crypt on the island, and they started to explore the tunnel beneath it. The group is rather large and the tunnel very tight so they were in a long line, strung out.
From the DM:
Sometimes your players do innovative and bold things at the table, reflecting years of gaming experience. Other times, they shock you by doing silly things or NOT doing the obvious. The following game session began with a casual moment of stupidity that almost killed the entire party, but there were some heroics too. The monsters were not terribly interesting, but stock monsters can sometimes prove surprisingly tough when one small detail escapes your notice at first. In this case, the party (second level on average) ended up slugging it out with over sixty-three HD2 monsters that effectively had platemail! When I realized their plight, just before the battle began, I gave them a short piece of advice: “It’s time to get creative and pull out the heavy artillery or become food!” Read more