My dear unknown friend,
With the success of the Netflix series Stranger Things, D&D is seeing a resurgence of popularity within our corner of social media. We are certainly used to playing Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu but as James MacGeorge and I recently discussed, CoC does not sit well with certain players or it can be the victim of its own success. With its reputation of “We will all be insane or dead in the end,” I’ve experienced people who have never played a single session of CoC arriving with exactly that mindset either through prior word of mouth or a quick on-line search. Spend time on any RPG forum and you’ll find this isn’t an isolated experience. My favorite tactic for unleashing the weird in a role-playing setting for the past several years is to follow the advice of James Raggi, creator of the D&D retro-clone Lamentations of the Flame Princess, which is briefly, keep the fantasy elements low, the magic more so, and concentrate on believable scenarios so when the weird is introduced it instills a genuine feeling of “What the hell is that?”
Most feel as if D&D is the land of Tolkien yet to anyone familiar with Appendix N of AD&D’s Dungeon Master’s Guide will recognize this paragraph:
“The most immediate influences upon AD&D were probably de Camp & Pratt, R. E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, H. P. Lovecraft, and A. Merritt; but all of the above authors, as well as many not listed, certainly helped to shape the form of the game. For this reason, and for the hours of reading enjoyment, I heartily recommend the works of these fine authors to you.
– E. Gary Gygax, 1979, AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, p. 224”
By way of example I’d like to introduce to you two adventures by Zzarchov Kowolski, “A Thousand Dead Babies” and “The Pale Lady”. Kowolski’s work is uniformly excellent, to the point where when I see he has released a new pdf I invariably end up purchasing it. As much as I enjoy creating my own adventures there are those times when either I haven’t finished a project or it’s simply fun to run another’s creation. I can rest assured that even if I don’t run one of Kowolski’s creations wholesale I will always find parts to cannibalize for my own.
Part of my enjoyment for Kowolski’s work is his utilization of folk horror tropes including the myths and legends of the British Isles. This element is front and center in both “A Thousand Dead Babies” and “The Pale Lady”. Fans of Robert Egger’s The Witch will find much to love in the former as thankfully, the cover is indeed a fine representation of the contents within.
“The Pale Lady” was written with character stats given for the adventure being run with the Lamentations of the Flame Princess rules yet like all OSR products (if you find yourself thrown by the terminology may I suggest my earlier review of Black Sun Death Crawl where I gave a brief overview of the topic) it is an easy matter to convert them to your system of choice. With “A Thousand Dead Babies” Kowolski provides stats for both his own system, named Neoclassical Geek Revival (abbreviated NGR), and also OSR games. The OSR stats have a simple elegance to them that any experienced DM familiar with their own system of choice will have no problem making the conversion. Example: “3 hit dice, AC as leather, Attack as weapon or gore for d6.”
“A Thousand Dead Babies” concerns a town that converted to Christianity a generation ago. The town’s young, idealistic priest has started to hear rumors of paganism, witchcraft, and devil worship in the surrounding countryside and within the aptly named Thousand Acre Wood. The priest hires a party to investigate these rumors of demon worship. Most of the townspeople have embraced the Church and wish to see the pagans with their worship of the Old Gods driven from the forest and the countryside.
South of The Thousand Acre Wood lies New Smithwald, a hamlet with a hall and a dozen huts. Here resides Sir Gallan Darnan, the last pagan knight fiercely loyal to the local lord and allowed to maintain his ways thanks to that loyalty. Within the Thousand Acre Wood lies at least one grove sacred to the pagans and a lumber camp where the townspeople come to work as a means of paying their taxes to the local lord. Sam, the cook and foreman of the lumber camp, is willing to reward anyone who can unearth the reason for the sound of infants crying that echoes through the woods at night and can put an end to it. The pagans themselves are equally distressed as to the source of these sounds.
Another reason I am a fan of Kowolski’s work is that he designs his products for ease of use at the table. There are no large blocks of text to be read aloud to the players, the layout of the adventure is compact and intelligent. The inside cover is the area map, the first page is a three paragraph intro, a few paragraphs describing the town of Corroc, a few more describing the people of Corroc, and then on the next page we’re into the Non-Player Character sketches of key figures the players will interact with in their investigation. Do not mistake this brevity as a weakness. Kowolski’s writing is evocative. Each description provides plenty of hooks for a DM to improvise with deeply while at the table. With the module coming in at 16 pages it is very easy to read it through a couple of times before play and know exactly where one needs to turn to should a question arise while at the table.
“The Pale Lady” also mines folk horror terrain and mythology for its sense of unease. With this one the sense of playing a creation straight from the heyday of Hammer Film Productions is even stronger. This adventure concerns the legend of a witch who lives deep within the forest, deep within every forest. Known as The Pale Lady or The Flower Mistress there’s just one catch. She’s not a witch at all. Of course the finer points of this distinction matter little to the peasants who lose children to her every spring. Two years ago a madman appeared claiming he was one of those lost children. He spoke of being kidnapped by the Pale Lady’s thralls, forced to work as a slave in her fields, of seeing human magicians visiting her court to barter for lessons in the dark arts. The madman watched, listened, and survived until he learned the way into and out of her domain and then he escaped. Except now that he’s returned home no one believes him. No one except the nuns. The Abbess has her own reasons for outfitting an expedition to explore the Pale Lady’s domain yet putting an end to the Flower Mistress’s kidnapping of children will more than justify the expenditure to anyone who should think to ask.
All points I wrote about “A Thousand Dead Babies” applies to “The Pale Lady” as well. Compact, intelligent layout combined with evocative writing means both of these adventures are punching well above their weight class and more importantly give the person responsible for running the game and creating a memorable experience precisely the tools required for the job and then gets out of their way.
I shouldn’t need to stress that “The Pale Lady” deals with adult themes. There is no excessive nudity nor gore within its twelve pages yet the Flower Witch, the dark magic she trades in, the object of the Abbess’s desire and the choice it leverages upon the players are mature topics. As Kowolski writes:
“If this doesn’t cause a debate about the nature of self long enough for you to make that fresh cup of coffee with plenty of time to spare, then I must say I am surprised about the uniformity of your group’s opinions. It is almost certain that when you get more than four people together and discuss the ship of Theseus someone will have a beef with your views.”
I also do not feel as if I am revealing too much in saying a copy of Robert Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies and Ann K Schwader’s Dark Equinox and Other Tales of Lovecraftian Horror will go a long way in preparing one to establish an appropriate mindset for playing the Flower Mistress. Kirk’s volume not only for the treasure trove of myth and folklore it contains but also the fascinating back-story of its creator, a 17th century Scottish minister obsessed with faeries, wraiths, doppelgängers, Highland seers and other phenomena who apparently fell into a swoon and passed away while strolling over a dun-shi or fairy mound. Strangely, relatives swore he appeared to them saying he’d been stolen away to Fairyland and could be rescued if his dirk was thrown over his newly born child’s head at that child’s christening. (This link will take you to a free online version at Sacred Texts.) Dark Equinox I recommend because as I wrote in my previous review, “Schwader is tellingly aware of the fearsome aspect of the Other and the most effective communicator of the corrosive effects of contact with the Other I have come across in years.” Reading Schwader’s collection with her skillful use of mythological elements would be an exemplary guide in how to roleplay the Pale Lady.
Zzarchov Kowolski’s adventures are a lesson in minimalist narrative design. He provides precisely enough description in the setting to fix the landscape in place, the Non-Player Characters have clear motivations to provide plenty of interactions not only with the players but also with and against one another, and the goals achieved in these adventures provide story hooks with far-reaching implications that few players may have taken the time to consider when setting out on a purely reactive course of action. Once you have run one or two of his adventure it is very hard to go back to what passes as the standard today. I have seen very few adventures that cause the reactions and discussions his creations bring to the table and this, coupled with the fact they are as fun to run as they are to play, may be the strongest recommendation I can give them in the end. Both are available in pdf format for $5 a piece or you can keep your eyes peeled for one of several charity bundles Kowolski regularly participates in. Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition has a basic set of rules available online for free as does Lamentations of the Flame Princess (it’s the rules simply without the art) so if you don’t already have a gaming group and want to face the Demogorgon, the fee for entry is low. Finding a kid as lovable as Dustin may be another matter entirely.
Dungeons and Dragons basic rules may be found here.
Lamentations of the Flame Princess free rules may be found here.
Neoclassical Geek Revival Art Free Edition rules may be purchased here
“A Thousand Dead Babies” may be purchased here.
“The Pale Lady” may be purchased here.
For a soundtrack may I suggest Melmoth_the_Wanderer’s Harvest Hymns mix. Featuring tracks by Current 93, The Mortlake Bookclub, Third Ear band, Arrow Wood, and many more it provides the perfect accompaniement to these adventures. As the description says, “From the twisted roots to the sweet fruits of Folk Horror music……if you go down to the woods today you had better not stray from the path.”
This review by Acep Hale.