by Steven Hammond

Well, as we say in the software world, 2020 has passed and good riddance. I want to take this opportunity to wish all of you all the best in 2021!

Transparency is one of our company’s values. In that spirit, I’d like to share with you a summary of what went well and not so well in 2020 and some exciting things we have to look forward to in 2021. If you have questions, reach out to me through the Black Book contact form (https://theblackbook.io/contacts/new). I’m happy to answer pretty much anything.

2020 In Review

We had 3 major goals for 2020, and we hit all three.

Launch the Black Book GM Tools: The first, and most important, goal was to launch the GM tools. The first beta of the GM tools that we rolled out in 2019 didn’t work so well, largely because of some early design choices, including database selection. We spent most of the first half of 2020 completely replacing the database (CouchDB -> PostgreSQL) and the basics of our API (Rest -> GraphQL). The launch of the GM tools was a tremendous success. The Rhode Island Historical Society shared their Lovecraft walking tour as part of our virtual launch party at Gen Con. We had a good crowd and the feedback on the GM Tools was very positive. I am super happy with how this went.

Improve our Integration Story: The most common feature request used to be integration with Virtual Table Tops. Of course everybody wanted a different one, and several of the more popular ones are difficult to integrate with. Also, several people (including a few Pelgranistas) felt that VTTs were too heavy and needlessly complex for GUMSHOE games. Through discussions with our community, we learned that there was one tool that almost everyone uses when they play on line. Discord! And Discord provides a robust set of tools for integration. So we launched Discord integration at Gen Con as well. This has also been an enormous success.

Financial Self Sustainability: Our last goal was financial sustainability. We needed The Black Book to grow to where it covers the technical infrastructure costs for itself and other company projects. We achieved this as well, with a little extra to invest back in the business. Someday I’ll be able to leave my day job behind and focus solely on software to make games better. But it is not this day.

That said, we didn’t get everything we wanted done in 2020. I really wanted to get support for Swords of the Serpentine and QuickShock launched and our bug queue is a lot longer than I want it to be. Finally, even though we met our financial goals, I don’t feel like we’re really getting the word out beyond Facebook. I would really like to take part in the broader GUMSHOE community in 2021.

What’s Coming in 2021

We have some big plans for 2021.

The Black Book

Our overriding goal for the Black Book in 2021 is to make it the go to tool for running GUMSHOE games online. You shouldn’t need a VTT in addition to the Black Book —  we’ll have you covered. Here is a roadmap for the Black Book, roughly by quarters. Note that these are just the major things, the usual steam of bug fixes and smaller features will continue.

Q1: Our first goal for Q1 is to support all GUMSHOE games except Mutant City Blues (more on that later). The second goal is to have robust support for one-shots and con games. This includes GMs creating and managing characters for the players, and support for libraries of pre-gens that can be reused.

We are proud to announce that “game complete” includes Casting the Runes from The Design Mechanism and Quill Media! They have generously agreed to allow us to add their game of Edwardian horror to the Black Book.

Q2: Mutant City Blues and support for QuickShock combat will arrive during Q2. We’ve been saying that for a while, but both are harder than they first seem and both are going to be exceptional!

Q3/Q4: The goals for the last half of the year are to round out the functionality needed to run a great game. This might include sharing image assets with players and integrating with one of the audio tools that are out there. It might also include some special functionality for the more popular games. Things like a Chase Track for Night’s Black Agents. We’ll be reaching out to all of you for help in defining exactly what the Black Book needs to fulfill the vision.

Thank you!

I want to take this opportunity to thank all of our customers and supporters. Without you, we couldn’t do it. 2020 was a tough year for all of us. You certainly helped us through it, and hopefully the Black Book helped you. Don’t hesitate to connect with us on Twitter, Facebook or at https://theblackbook.io.

Sincerely,

Steven Hammond

Founder, Northland Creative Wonders

Crown of Axis

The arena officially opens in a month! In the next Page XX, you’ll have the opportunity to purchase Wade Rockett’s PDF-only intro adventure. It’s in the middle of layout now and has been slotted into the schedule as Pelgrane’s March 1st release.

Until then we leave you with Simone Bannach’s illo of spirit-aided oratory from a noble of House Emberhill, dedicated to restoring Axis’ glory one decaying arena at a time.

Drakkenhall: City of Monsters

Art is complete. I’d say design is complete except that J-M DeFoggi and Liz Argall came up with some new monsters to add while J-M is finishing development work on other chapters. J-M is working on his last development pass, the next step will be teaming up with me to handle final math and storytelling questions. We aim to turn the Drakkenhall sourcebook over to the editor the first week of March. I’m not sure when it will be out of editing and into layout.

Simone Bannach gets the art preview again, this time from a couple of the citizen-monsters who give the city its epithet.

Gareth’s New Book

Cat has turned Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan loose to work on his new 13th Age adventure. We’ve learned that when Gareth is unleashed, he soon returns home with a thick manuscript held between his jaws. So we’re not entirely certain that this wicked new adventure will be slipping into the schedule in this position, but we wouldn’t be surprised. Nor would we be upset, because it would be nice to publish an adventure in between two sourcebooks.

Behemoths: Paths of the Koru

Authors are working on their second drafts. Art hasn’t been commissioned and development hasn’t begun, so this sourcebook is still a ways off. We’ll find out soon whether it moves up the schedule or down.

Icon Followers

I’ve done less work on Icon Followers than expected, which sees it moving to later in the year. Playtesting of the pieces that are finished has gone well, and regular contributors including Cal Moore, J-M DeFoggi, and Liz Argall have been adding exciting bits, so I expect to announce this Bestiary of NPCs’ next steps later this year.

Speaking of announcements/heralds, that’s the flute and quill symbol of the Axis Bardic College, a touch added by ASH LAW and illustrated by Aaron McConnell.

[[Crown of Axis cover by Aaron McConnell and Lee Moyer, Drakkenhall cover by Roena I. Rosenberger]]

“He had lately become a devotee of the William Mortensen school of photography. Mortensen, of course, is the leading exponent of fantasy in photography; his monstrosities and grotesques are widely known.”

— Robert Bloch, “The Sorcerer’s Jewel” (1939)

William H. Mortensen, the “leading exponent of fantasy in photography,” was born in Park City, Utah in 1897 to Danish immigrants. In high school he caught the drawing bug from his art teacher, James Taylor Harwood, who attended the Académie Julian (1888-1890) and the Beaux-Arts (1890-1892) in Paris, his time at those schools overlapping as it happens with Robert W. Chambers.

Drafted into and released from the Army in 1918, Mortensen stayed in New York to study at the Art Students League in New York City under George Bridgman (another Chambers overlap, at the Beaux-Arts from 1883-1889). He left art school on an impulsive trip to Greece in 1920, returned broke, and after a year teaching art himself in Salt Lake City moved to Hollywood in 1921 as a chaperon for his 14-year-old fellow Utahan Fay Wray.

Incubus, by William Mortensen (1925). Model unknown, but probably not a dimensional shambler

While keeping Fay out of trouble and getting her into pictures, he worked with the directors King Vidor and Ferdinand Pinney Earle as a matte painter, and then on costume design with Cecil B. DeMille on his Ten Commandments (1923) then (as his photography business expanded) as a still photographer on King of Kings (1927). He designed masks for and learned makeup from Lon Chaney, Sr., with whom he worked on Mr. Wu (1927) and West of Zanzibar (1928).

Following a scandal exacerbated by Fay Wray’s mother, a brief dalliance with Jean Harlow, and the not-unrelated destruction of his marriage he leaves Hollywood for Laguna Beach in 1931. There he opens the Mortensen School of Photography, marries one of his longtime models Myrdith Monaghan in 1933, and breeds Persian Blue cats. Even at that remove, he retains his cachet with Hollywood: his 1941 photograph of aspiring actress Martha Vickers gets her a contract at RKO without a screen test. His Hollywood photographs regularly appear in Vanity Fair and Colliers, he writes a column for LA Weekly, he mounts exhibitions as far away as London.

In the 1930s, Mortensen reigns as the king of the “Pictorialist” school of photography, pioneering techniques of photo-manipulation with lenses and razors to create bizarre and impossible images, and defending his principles in books like Monsters & Madonnas (1934) and The Command to Look (1937). His success with the grotesque and unreal sparks the hatred of Ansel Adams and the “Purist” photographers of the f.64 movement. Adams despises Mortensen and everything he stands for: wishing him dead in print, calling him “the Devil” and “the Anti-Christ.”

Perhaps Adams fixates on those terms thanks to Mortensen’s series of photographs depicting witches, demons, and monsters. Mortensen begins what he calls his “Pictorial History of Witchcraft and Demonology” around 1926, continuing it through at least 1935. He consults with his friend the occultist Manly P. Hall on the topic, freely borrowing from Hall’s library of 20,000 mystical tomes. At some point in the late 1930s he suddenly stops creating grotesques, switching almost entirely to nudes and rural workers (sometimes clad in Renaissance garb) as his subjects. At least a third of the approximately 150 images he created for his witchcraft and demonology series have disappeared.

The Shadows From the Shutter

“That is why the beings cannot be photographed on the ordinary camera films and plates of our known universe, even though our eyes can see them. With proper knowledge, however, any good chemist could make a photographic emulsion which would record their images.”

— H.P. Lovecraft, “The Whisperer in Darkness”

Adams’ enmity, and changing public tastes, eventually drove Mortensen into obscurity and penury. On August 12, 1965, William Mortensen dies of a nosocomial infection in the La Jolla hospital while undergoing treatment for leukemia. Myrdith sends a file of his negatives, prints, and scrapbooks to small time Hollywood publisher O. Howard Lucy (b. 1900?); he publishes botched editions of Monsters & Madonnas and The Command to Look in 1967.

And at some point, DELTA GREEN hears rumors about “The Last Mortensens,” a series of pictures briefly offered to collectors in the late 1950s. Supposedly the culmination of his “History of Witchcraft and Demonology,” taken in 1937 or thereabouts, they depict his most grotesque images yet: thoroughly alien shapes and beings in stark silver-gelatin prints. Perhaps a dead occultist (stumbled over or produced in the course of a previous investigation) has one print, and his eager letters point to more out there.

The Agents head for California, to interview Myrdith: she claims she only got half the material back from Lucy. Lucy says he gave it to his photographer partner Jacques de Langre (b. 1925), a lecturer on alternative healing and enthusiast for the magical powers of salt. De Langre claims he returned everything to Myrdith’s “intermediary,” who may never have existed. Manly P. Hall (b. 1901), an increasingly grumpy and neglected guru in Los Feliz, happily discusses Mortensen’s theories and learning but likely has no lead on a missing folio.

The Agents might also look up Mortensen’s old friend, model, and collaborator on his books, the former stage actor and director George Dunham, currently living in Corona del Mar. Or they might be attracted to the rumor that San Francisco magician and publicity hound Anton LaVey uses insights from The Command to Look to develop the “lesser magic” and psychological manipulation core to his new Church of Satan. (LaVey dedicates the 1969 edition of The Satanic Bible to, among others, “William Mortensen, who looked … and saw.”)

Another lead (via the dead occultist or a LaVey hanger-on) points to another interesting Mortensen collector: the psychic investigator Hereward Carrington (1880-1958). When the Agents go to his home in L.A., they discover that his widow Marie keeps Carrington’s immense collection of journals and photographs intact as an archive. Has it been robbed? Who can tell? What other secrets does it hold?

Perhaps it holds the patchy records of Carrington’s work with a band of Investigators in the late 1930s who selflessly rescued renowned photographer William Mortensen from the hideous Things he had unwittingly called up with the angles and alchemies of his lenses and emulsions. Shaken, he resolves to abandon grotesquerie and return to Myrdith. But, bitter and impoverished twenty years later, he made one last set of prints for a few rich and eminent collectors …

Fall of DELTA GREEN Handlers can riff on “From Beyond,” “The Trap,” and “The Whisperer in Darkness,” and on the images of monsters retained in glass in “The Unnamable,” for that prequel Trail of Cthulhu adventure. Did Mortensen learn these hypergeometric techniques in Greece, and Carcosan ratios from Chambers’ friends? Did he find unnatural clues in Manly Hall’s library, or in a Hollywood horrorist’s drunken rant? This works even better if you ask the players to describe the photos when their Agents find them in the 1960s (“oh, it’s a boiling sphere covered in eyes”). Then, in the 1930s, their Investigators have to face those unnamable models from their own imagination – and save Mortensen from them.


The Fall of DELTA GREEN adapts DELTA GREEN: THE ROLE-PLAYING GAME to the GUMSHOE investigative roleplaying system, opening the files on a lost decade of anti-Mythos operations: the 1960s. Players take on the role of DELTA GREEN operatives, assets, and friendlies. Hunt Deep Ones beneath the Atlantic, shut down dangerous artists in San Francisco, and delve into the heart of Vietnam’s darkness. Purchase The Fall of DELTA GREEN in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

In the latest episode of their less than wholly Roman podcast, Ken and Robin talk Morning of the Magicians in FALL OF DELTA GREEN, mid-century gothic cinema, our favorite Old Ones, and the final meeting of the Prince-Electors.

In the latest episode of their myrrh-swaddled podcast, Ken and Robin talk phoenix T-shirts, John le Carré, 50s science horror, and the giant of Kandahar.

So, you’ve been bitten by the werewolf. Infected by the zombie virus. Snacked on by Dracula. Discovered that your grandmother came from Innsmouth, or that you were conceived in the Outer Dark. You’re a monster, and soon you’re going to succumb to the darkness in you and turn on your comrades.

Up until then, though, you can use your supernatural abilities to help your friends. You’re doomed, but maybe they’re not…

Monster Rules

The following rules apply to player characters turned monsters.

  • Dark Gifts: You can spend Stability as Aberrance at a 2-for-1 rate. If the monster you’re connected to has an Aberrance-fuelled power, then you can access that power by spending Aberrance. For example, an Ovvashii can use Aberrance to compel a victim to reveal secrets to it – if you’re tainted by an Ovvashii, maybe you can use this dark gift to question creatures of the Outer Dark!
  • More Than Human: You can also spend Stability to temporarily boost any of your Abilities or any of your Modifiers (Armour, Damage, Awareness and so on) – but you’re limited by the scores of the connected monster. So, if you’ve been infected by a werewolf (Damage Modifier +2), you can spend Stability to boost your Damage Modifier for one attack, to a maximum of +2.
  • Dark Insight: You gain a new Investigative Ability, Dark Insight, giving you, well, insight into the intentions and inhuman motivations of the monster. It’s not at all reliable, but can give you some inkling of the monster’s next target, its weaknesses, or its origin.
  • Degeneration: When you start Losing It (Stability -1 to -5), you gain a Stigma – a permanent and visible sign of your inhuman nature. This can result in changes to your character’s statistics – maybe your hands become claws, giving you a Damage Modifier. When you’re Shattered, you gain a second Stigma. Finally, when reduced to -12 Stability, you become a monster.
  • No Redemption: You gain only half the benefit from Shrink spends – and if you spend Stability for Dark Gifts or More Than Human, you must also reduce your Rank by the same amount.

A Monster From The Start

If the GM allows it, you can declare at the start of a campaign that your character is monstrous. You start with Dark Insight. Typically, being monstrous is a restricted concept, just like psychics. You don’t know what your monstrous nature is at the start of the campaign, and the GM is encouraged to mislead you with red herrings and cryptic allusions.

New Monsters

Both of these monsters work as potential connections for tainted investigators.

Paternals

Paternals are semi-parasitic creatures from the Outer Dark. They bind themselves to human anchors to keep themselves on this side of the Membrane. Once attached, Paternals protect their mortal anchors for the rest of the mortal’s life, defending the mortal against external threats, and only moving on only when it becomes clear that the mortal is dying of natural causes. The trouble is that the Paternal’s definition of “threat” is malign and erratic – your neighbour bought a new set of garden shears? Clearly, the neighbour’s plotting to murder you – better kill him first! Paternal Anchors find themselves at the epicentre of a spate of unexplained deaths, brutal murders, and supernatural weirdness. Moving to a new home provides a few months of relief, but sooner or later, the Paternal will find its anchor again…

(Some anchors have tried living alone in the wilderness, which works for a while – but eventually, the Paternal gets bored of having nothing but small animals to eviscerate, and starts roaming further and further afield…)

Paternals are almost invisible, appearing only as a shadow or stain. When actively attacking, the Paternal manifests as a vaguely male figure, shrouded in dark mist – imagine a statue of a Greek god made of boiling smoke.

When it’s time to take a new anchor, the Paternal looks for a young child, especially one that’s in danger. It then saves that child from peril, impressing itself onto it and detaching from the previous anchor – who it then sees as a potential threat that must be destroyed. Horribly, Paternals do seem to have some degree of genuine affection for their anchors, and never attack them if they have any other recourse.

Abilities: Aberrance 10, Health 12, Scuffling 16

Hit Threshold: 5

Armour: None, but most attacks go right through the Paternal’s shadowy form. A Paternal can only be injured after it manifests.

Awareness Modifier: +2

Stealth Modifier: +2

Damage Modifier: By telekinetic weapon or +2 (when manifest)

Telekinesis: A Paternal can spend Aberrance to fuel Telekinesis, as per the psychic gift (Fear Itself, p. 76). Paternals use this power to eliminate perceived threats.

Manifest: Normally, a Paternal is immaterial and mostly invisible. It can spend 1 Aberrance to become solid and visible for a round, allowing it to use its Scuffling.

Monstrous Strength: When manifest, the Paternal can spend 2 Aberrance to perform feats of incredible strength, like throwing a car or smashing through a wall.

The Unkind

The Unkind are almost human. Their ancestors were human. To be precise, their ancestors were all members of the Church of the High Rock in 19th century Massachusetts. The crazed preacher, Henry Sparrow, somehow tore a hole in the Membrane, cursing the members of the congregation assembled in the chapel on that fateful night. They became attuned to the Outer Dark, able to slip across the Membrane to the other side much more easily than normal humans. Worse, over time, the curse would transform them into creatures of unremitting horror.

Most of the congregation fled after Sparrow’s ritual. However, the curse is heritable, and their descendants are all doomed to fall through the Membrane to the Outer Dark, or become monstrous on this side of reality. Some of Sparrows’ followers have given into their corruption and worship the lords of the Outer Dark; they now seek out their lost cousins so they can bring them into the service of the horrors.

‘Mature’ Unkind – those who have crossed over enough times for their monstrous genetic heritage to come to the fore – are spindly, spidery things, with skin like yellowing paper and far too many joints. Their teeth migrate back down their mouths and throats, with replacement teeth sprouting in the gums – an Unkind might grin with seven or eight circles of sharp, sharp teeth. They also develop a third eye, located in the throat; this eye can see places where the Membrane is thin.

Abilities: Aberrance 6, Health 6, Scuffling 8

Hit Threshold: 4

Armour: None.

Awareness Modifier: +0

Stealth Modifier: +1

Damage Modifier: By weapon or Bite +1

Slip: An Unkind can spend 1 Aberrance to slip through the Membrane into the Outskirts of the Outer Dark, a parallel realm that looks like a shadowy, desolate, monster-haunted version of our reality. If the Unkind spends 3 Aberrance instead, it can open a small tear, allowing it to transport up to five other people.

Spy: An Unkind can look from the Outskirts into the ‘normal’ world, or vice versa, by opening its third eye. This costs one Aberrance.


Fear Itself 2nd Edition is a game of contemporary horror that plunges ordinary people into a disturbing world of madness and violence. Use it to run one-shot sessions in which few (if any) of the protagonists survive, or an ongoing campaign in which the player characters gradually discover more about the terrifying supernatural reality which hides in the shadows of the ordinary world. Will they learn how to combat the Creatures of Unremitting Horror from the Outer Dark? Or spiral tragically into insanity and death? Purchase Fear Itself in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Along with many other historical figures of 1895 Paris, characters in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game can meet Alphonse Bertillon, who pioneered both the scientific and pseudoscientific strains of criminal forensics. He appears in the Paris book; we also discuss him in this episode of Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff.

The mug shot remains his most credible lasting contribution to criminology. His effort to increase the reliability of police identification left behind a historical record you can now access via the Metropolitan Museum’s open access collection.

In other words, Bertillon left YKRPG GMs a rich trove of handouts for their Paris games. Obligingly, he took these in the exact historical era the game focuses on. As you’d imagine from a photographic record of arrests, many of the folks pictured clearly hail from the hardscrabble side of life. However you also see a number of dapper individuals, because many of the shots are of suspected anarchists. Given the era, they might indeed have been involved in deadly bombing plots—or were rounded up simply for their radical views or connections.

In some cases you might want to leave on the framing matter, and present the players with actual mug shots—perhaps provided to them by Bertillon himself. I’ve left on the frame for the first of the examples below.

To use them as images of GMCs the art students talk with during their investigations, simply crop off the frames.

As their arrests took place nearly a 130 years ago, I’m sure the subjects won’t mind being recast as fictional figures in your game. You could invent characters and then search for a mug shot to match. Some tantalizing historical details remain attached to the images. You can use them as the basis of your GMCs. With these as starting inspiration, you might flesh out your characters and then build a scenario around them.

This fashionable fellow was Alphonse Grégoire, a 27 year old mechanic arrested as an anarchist. The naive observer would attribute his dazed expression to the flash of a late 19th century camera. We know better: obviously he recently read the forbidden play, and sees visions of Carcosa behind the lens.

Men outnumber women in the mug shots, as they do in any lock-up. Again the political arrests help us out here, as in the case of accused anarchist Caroline Herman, a 33 year old couturier. You could cast her as any middle class woman of formidable aspect.

Okay, clearly a player character snuck into the mix here. I kid you not that this is a 19 year old sculptor named Minna Schrader, charged for “associating with malefactors.” What investigator hasn’t been booked by the gendarmes while gathering scuttlebutt in the wrong cafe? As a seasoned occult-buster, she knew to blink during the shot, rendering it less useful to police.

Images of working class folks also abound. House painter Émile Barbier might have seen something unwholesome from high up on scaffolding. He also looks like he could take care of himself in a dust-up, and might be anything from a henchman or mastermind in a Yellow Sign conspiracy.

The collection gives you some selection of older characters. This 72 year old mattress maker gave the surnames Guelle, or Guelle, but was also known as St. Denis. He looks like he’s been drinking away his hallucinations after glimpsing the shores of Lake Hali.

These are just a quick sampling, so be sure to check out the full assortment.


The Yellow King Roleplaying Game takes you on a brain-bending spiral through multiple selves and timelines, pitting characters against the reality-altering horror of The King in Yellow. When read, this suppressed play invites madness, and remolds our world into a colony of the alien planet Carcosa. Four core books, served up together in a beautiful slipcase, confront layers with an epic journey into horror in four alternate-reality settings: Belle Epoque Paris, The Wars, Aftermath, and This Is Normal Now. Purchase The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

In the latest episode of their psychedelic podcast, Ken and Robin talk dramatically active red herrings, the old Cincinnati Public Library, 40s horror movie essentials, and the occultism of Timothy Leary.

by Kevin Kulp

Want to set a Swords of the Serpentine game outside of Eversink? See Page XX will periodically give you starting ideas for alternate game settings, including Allegiance information. This month we’ll look at Joining, the small town I’m using to test future rules for non-human heroes. I wanted a setting that starts low-powered but which can ramp upwards in complexity and population, and which starts small and cozy but can easily accommodate a more cosmopolitan population as the game progresses.

Player Pitch: The Town of Joining

Massive, ancient trees stretching straight up to the sky. Dappled green sunlight. Burbling icy streams. Peaceful hollows of mossy rocks where silence sits and comfortably waits to be broken. A surprising quantity of ruins. Hints of an ancient metropolis. Inexplicable strangers. And rumors of ghost worlds between the trees.

Joining is a small town hidden deep in a vast and mighty forest known as the Cathedral Woods. The trees here are similar in size to the giant sequoias of Northern California, and the town of Joining is small, fewer than a thousand people. Its people feed themselves through hunting, fishing, and organized foraging, alongside the help of foreign caravan leaders who arrive with trade goods from larger cities far away and leave with Joining’s rare plants, mushrooms, and herbal poisons. Joining is a great place to grow up, and should be a place of deep and serene peace.

But.

But there are hints of oddness. Ancient and feral forest gods; druids who lair within the forest; wardens who patrol the area and discourage exploration; occasional glimpses of other worlds from between trees; far too many crumbled unexplained ruins; monsters emerging from the forest that have no right to be there; and hints through family heirlooms that Joining was once an extraordinarily rich town, with no hint of how that was or why it stopped.

This is where you grew up. You’re becoming an adult, the town is starting to feel small, and no one is answering your questions.

Welcome to Joining.

Interesting Features

Before beginning play, ask each player to specify an additional interesting feature of the town. This can be a location, a person, or an occurrence such as a holiday. Starting interesting features include:

  • Instead of naming streets, individual trees are named.
  • Buildings are built both on the ground and in the trees on carefully-balanced platforms that don’t hurt the trees themselves. The most prestigious (and safest) architecture is that highest up the trees. Ramps, ladders, bridges, and hoists give access to elevated buildings.
  • Rumors have always persisted of ghost-lights flickering between trees; wildly distant places are said to be visible in the pale and shuddering light. This hasn’t been proven to anyone’s satisfaction.
  • There’s a monthly tradition named Door Day, the night of each month’s new moon, when lovers anonymously leave small and unexpected presents outside the door of their intended. This often fuels romantic speculation.
  • Everyone looks forward to the summer festival of games, feasts, competition, dancing, and celebration. Apprentices are chosen during the summer festival.
  • The Grove of Arches is near Joining, and is a flower-filled forest grove so beautiful and quiet it inevitably feels holy.
  • Every few years a stranger comes to town looking for The Inn (always pronounced with capital letters.) When they see the actual inn, with all four rooms for rent, they inevitably go away dissatisfied. Someone is spreading rumors that reality can’t match.
  • There’s been a feud going on between the Tavish family (most of whom serve as guards and hunters) and the Daunton family (proponents of the old gods, and traditional foragers) that’s lasted seven generations now. Each side claims the other side started it, but it’s erupted in bloodshed a dozen times or more. Each family often strives to elect a mayor of their own blood.
  • It’s believed that somewhere out there in the woods are terrifying, deadly shapeshifters who stalk humans as prey. Don’t get caught alone in the forest.
  • Ruins are everywhere, crumbling stone edifices that speak of a time no one can remember. One particularly large set of stone foundations exists a mile upriver and is considered taboo and bad luck to discuss, although is sometimes referred to as Old Joining by the elderly. The hunters don’t follow prey into its boundaries.

Available Allegiances

  • Town government – specifically the mayor, an elderly and non-nonsense pragmatist who’s focused on keeping her town safe. An ally here means you have a trusted role in the town infrastructure; an enemy here means the mayor considers you a dangerous bother they’d be better off without.
  • Townsfolk An ally here means you’re a popular citizen of Joining; an enemy here means that locals consider you a bad influence or from the wrong sort of family.
  • Local sheriff and deputy, who spend most of their time dealing with drunkenness and an occasional monster. An ally here means the sheriff trusts you and will give you the benefit of the doubt; an enemy here means the sheriff goes out of her way to pin crimes on you.
  • Wardens (and possibly the supposed druids who watch the woods), mysterious figures glimpsed in the trees. An ally here means you are a warden yourself (possibly secretly) or are privy to their secrets; an enemy here means the wardens consider you a threat to Joining, possibly for asking the wrong sort of questions.
  • Outsiders (including hedge witches, tinkers, and traders who come to town). An ally here means you have a reputation outside of Joining as a good person to namedrop or contact; an enemy here means you once treated an outsider cruelly, and word has spread.
  • Church of the new gods, led by a charismatic young Tavish man who left Joining and came back from the city as an ordained minister. An ally here means you’re an active member of the congregation; an enemy here means they consider you a heretic or heathen, perhaps because of something they think you or your family has done, or because you espouse another religion.
  • The Tavish family (former mercenaries who lead most of Joining’s professional hunters). An ally here means the Tavishes trust you and think you keep their best interests in mind; an enemy here means the Tavishes think you’re a lackey of the Daunton family.
  • The Daunton family (proponents of the old gods who lead many of the foragers combing the forest for plants and food). An ally here means the Dauntons trust you and think you keep their best interests in mind; an enemy here means the Dauntons think you’re a stooge of the Tavish family.

Note that I’ve only included eight allegiances instead of the normal 12, as befits the feel of a smaller town. GMs should feel free to add their own or to change what’s here. Also note that “new gods” and “old gods” are completely undefined, other than a suspicion that the old gods are those of the forest, of nature, and of whatever it is that makes Joining particularly unique (see below).

GM Pitch: The Town of Joining

Warning: this section contains spoilers! If there’s any chance your GM will use Joining, please don’t read this. You’ll spoil some fun secrets.

Almost no one who still lives there knows it, but until 300 years ago Old Joining was one of the most famous cities in a half-dozen worlds. Driven by magical rules no one understands, each week portals in the nearby trees would open up to a specific different site in both this world and others. Adventurers, travelers, and traders used Joining to travel between realities or across their own world; they’d have a week to pass through the doorways from their own location to Joining, then they’d stay at The Inn of Arches until a magical portal opened up to their intended destination.

Back then, Old Joining (just named Joining at the time) was a metropolitan center of fantastic magic and culture. It was a joining (hence the name), a melting pot where important and interesting people from some 50 different locations across at least six worlds met, mingled, and exchanged information. Often times monsters would come through those gateways between trees, and when they did the elite wardens and their powerful druidic allies would destroy them, imprison them (crumbling prisons which still exist today) or send them back to where they came from.

No one is sure what caused the gateways to stop working and the city of Old Joining’s inhabitants to be ripped out of our world. Probably either a Tavish or a Daunton is responsible, and the other family tried to stop them and only made things worse. Perhaps some sort of magical anchor-stone was stolen that linked the many worlds and places together (a stone that now is somewhere around Joining today, although no one realizes its significance); perhaps a petulant god was offended; perhaps blood was spilled in a sacred place. Regardless, everyone in the city at the time – and almost every single object that wasn’t stone – was swept away into another place of your choosing. Faerie? Hell? A tropical island? Another huge city? It’s up to you. The gates winked out that night and haven’t consistently returned, and only people outside of the city at the time survived to found the current town. Led by religious extremists in the aftermath of the disaster, they didn’t make their tale public knowledge. The truth of the matter is now hidden or taboo. The Heroes will have to find out the secret gradually as they adventure, and then decide what to do about it.

Restore or fix whatever made the nexus of worlds possible, and the gates between worlds will open up again once more, resuming their schedule of one week per location before shifting. Alternatively (or additionally), the city of Old Joining (or whatever it has turned into!) might return if the Heroes can find a way to bring it back. The tiny town of Joining may find itself a gradual or sudden metropolis, and their world might change spectacularly as Joining becomes a center of commerce and adventure once again.

Structuring a Campaign Around Joining

Swords of the Serpentine campaigns are structured in series, a finite arc of adventures that’s treated like short stories in an anthology or a season of television. Series are usually 6-12 adventures long.

In Series One, the Heroes get to know Joining; perhaps they’re fledgling heroes still in their teens, or more competent heroes who have come to the town in search of something indefinable. They uncover clues about the town’s rich past, meet the wardens and druids, uncover ancient prisons, and learn some secrets about what used to be here. At the end of the series they might restore the nexus, and the gates between worlds are once again open.

In Series Two, complexity ramps up as people and creatures discover the gates have returned. Political factions form as Joining grows, and more Allegiances become possible. Internal and external threats develop from people who demand the town return to its old ways, something that may no longer be possible. Perhaps the heroes delve through the gates themselves, examining other places on this world and other planes of existence. In doing so they learn the fate of Old Joining and learn they can bring it back – if they want.

Future series may focus on Joining becoming one of the most important locations on multiple worlds; powerful external factions trying to seize it by force, invading through the gates; the cross-cultural growth coming from Joining’s unique role; and how the Heroes’ once-simple friends and enemies in Joining adapt to fit this new reality.

And of course, you may decide to transition your campaign to a different setting! If so, it’s as simple as the Heroes walking through a doorway between worlds—a doorway they made possible.

 


Kevin Kulp (@kevinkulp) and Emily Dresner (@multiplexer) are the co-authors of Swords of the Serpentine, to be published in 2021. Kevin previously helped create TimeWatch and Owl Hoot Trail for Pelgrane Press. When he’s not writing games he’s either smoking BBQ or helping 24-hour companies with shiftwork, sleep, and alertness.

In the latest episode of their golden-garbed podcast, Ken and Robin talk expensive goods as period investigative hooks, a propagandistic first person shooter and the use Dracula made of it, 30s horror movies, and time-machining the invention of paper.

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