02 December 2021
We head into the archives, where the ghost of Christmas past offers us this from issue 369
Conrad Kinch can be relied upon to provide us with entertainment that is ‘out of left field’ and here, he doesn't disappoint, with a spooky scenario that can be played in a historical or sci-fi context – or any genre you like. Get ready to be scared silly!
There will always be ghosts at Christmas, wrapping their chains with tinsel and groaning through the plum pudding. It is a warm time, my favourite time of the year in fact, but be it Marley or Nearly Headless Nick, it is always a season of spirits for me. I see ghosts flitting past the windows of the Cathedral overlooking my parents’ apartment as Dad and I prepare to fall asleep during The Great Escape. Tall, grey figures holding their heads under their arms or black, hairy, cloven-hoofed devils splattered with gore are as much a part of the season as the crib or the carol service. I should blame M R James. His Ghost Stories of an Antiquary formed part of the essential Christmas reading in our family although, ever since I saw Christopher Lee’s masterful presentation of James’s short works, Ghost Stories for Christmas, I have always heard the stories in his resonant tones.
With that in mind, I would like to offer the following as a Christmas entertainment for any group of wargamers. It requires an umpire, so if you’re interested in playing the game, as opposed to volunteering to stage it, please stop reading here.
I have run two versions of this game, one set in Spain during the Peninsular War and the other on the Planet Talitha IV in the spiky horrible future of a certain well known Science Fiction Wargame Franchise. Both have been fun and I would suggest that, if you are a historical wargamer, you use this scenario as an opportunity to play a game with the Science Fiction chaps at the club that you don’t get to play with very often.
It is 1812; the British and French armies are having a bit of a breather before embarking on the next offensive. Both sides are sending out patrols and foraging parties. The French have seized control of the Abbey of Saint James and are using it as a base for further aggressive patrolling. The British have dispatched a small force to clear them out. Meanwhile, the local bandits-cum-freedom fighters have got wind of the fact that there may be a treasure buried in the abbey and intend to make their way inside and steal it.
The backward planet of Talitha IV on the outskirts of the Eye of Terror was once occupied by the Fell Powers, but was reconquered generations ago by the Imperium. Unfortunately, a separatist movement has arisen and the planetary governor is attempting to put down a full blown rebellion. The rebels have seized control of the Abbey of Saint James and are using it as a base for further aggressive patrolling. The Imperial forces have been sent to clear them out. Meanwhile, ostensibly Imperial guerrillas (but more properly bandits) have got wind of the fact that there is a stash of tech buried in the abbey that they could use to buy their way off world. They intend to make their way inside and steal it.
Each player has a different brief. The player occupying the abbey has to drive off the intruders, the guerrillas have to secure the treasure and the attacking player has to reclaim the abbey. The individual briefings for each player set out their objectives and victory point conditions. I regret to say they are from the point of view of the game – a total fabrication.
Deep beneath the abbey there lies an ancient evil. Generations ago, before the construction of the present building, the battlefield was the site of a sorcerer’s tower. This powerful wizard trafficked with fell creatures that man was not meant to tamper with, and was only put down during the reconquest at great cost, but whether that was by the Knights of St James or the Ultramarines is entirely up to you. The survivors built the abbey on the cursed site in order to keep the horror locked away. However, when the Separatists/French entered the abbey, they slaughtered the brothers. That done, they began to loot the cellars and desecrate the altars within, breaking the wards that kept the horror at bay and releasing it from its long imprisonment.
At the beginning of the game, each of the players will be attempting to achieve their individual objectives, but as time passes, it should become increasingly evident that the situation has changed so much that that their original brief is meaningless and that they will have to work together and, at least temporarily, put their differences aside if they want to stay alive. Each player will have certain clues which, if they are shared with the other players, will allow them to piece together what they need to do to defeat the horror. This scenario requires three players, though I’ve found it runs best with four. Because the Blue player has the most figures to move and has to solve the puzzle, I have found that the Blue team benefits most from a second player taking on the role of the sergeant.
The Nature of the Horror
When I originally ran this scenario, I used my shiny new Reaper Miniatures’ Ghosts which I got from the Bones Kickstarter. These are cracking figures, made in a translucent green plastic. For the Rogue Trader game, we used a demon model one of the players had. What exactly it is, doesn’t really matter: the clues are generic enough to allow for any kind of supernatural baddy.
One horror or many? This depends entirely on how you want to run the game, I usually use multiple horrors as it makes it easily to corral the players figures on the board. About three is right. I have used a single horror once, but one of the players simply decided to flee the field and there wasn’t a great deal the single horror could do to stop him. Don’t be afraid to move the horrors around and try to subtly steer them in the direction of clues if needs be.
The horror is unstoppable except by means of the ritual – blades and bullets pass through it and it cannot be harmed by mortal weapons. Do let the players attempt to solve the problem with brute force – all horror movies require there to be a scene where the protagonists confront the beast and come off second best. This can require some careful handling to prevent the players from feeling cheated. Allow them to roll their dice to hit and then tell them that their shots have no effect. Be unequivocal about it, but don’t answer general questions. “This thing cannot be affected by mortal weapons” completely destroys the mystery and menace of the horror, but “Yes, your shot definitely hit, in fact, you saw it bounce off/pass through” is good because it gives the player information without removing all doubt. Watch the players carefully and judge your descriptions accordingly; you want the players rattled enough that they get a bit of scare, but not so much that they give up entirely.
In its turn the horror(s) will do one of the following.
1. Move with terrifying swiftness.
Move the horror a distance equal to twice the move distance of the fastest figure on the board. This can be leaping, using demonic wings or appearing and disappearing in the case of ghosts. Note: use this to head off figures that are attempting to flee the board.
2. Move and scare.
Move the horror a distance equal to the move distance of the fastest figure on the board. Target any group of figures within twelve inches. The targeted group must make a morale test or flee away from the horror one double move. If the group passes, the group falls back one move distance. Note: in playtests, this move has been very useful to force players together and make it clear that no one group is safe and the horror is the enemy of all.
3. Move and munch.
Move the horror a distance equal to twice the move distance of the fastest figure on the board and into close combat. Roll a d6. On a 1-4, lose one figure and flee one move. On a 5, lose two and on a 6, lose three. If you are playing a game like Legends of the Old West or Rogue Trader that allows for individual hero types, perhaps allow him to fight a round of melee to hold the horror off for a turn. If it would be thematically odd for the figures to be killed (such as when, for example, the horror is a ghost), but you can describe them being driven mad with fear or perhaps dying of fright, ideally clutching their chests and in a rictus of fear in classic gothic style.
4. Roar at the moon.
This is essentially wasting a turn and should be indulged in at least once every three turns or so. Ghosts will wail and gibber, demons will howl at the moon. Think of something dramatically appropriate for the horror to do. Monsters could pause to eat their victims.
It should be clear that whilst the horror can quite easily wipe the players out without further ado, you should resist the temptation to do so. The horror is a proper baddie and therefore will want to toy with its victims. Also, it makes for a really boring game if the players are exterminated without mercy. Your objective is to present enough of a threat that the players are willing to bury their differences and come together for the good of all – it is Christmas after all... Of course, if they stubbornly refuse to get with the Christmas spirit, the only rational response is to slaughter them like the dogs they are. And proper order too.
A Note on Timing and the First Clue
The game should begin with the Blue forces scattered around the Abbey and with the Red and Green forces moving onto the table as indicated on the map. Much of how the game proceeds from there will depend on whether your prefered ruleset allows for spotting or not. Proceed on the basis that visibility is poor and that the Blue forces will not be able to react until such time as they can see an enemy unit in range.
The turn (though the Umpire may vary this for dramatic effect) after the Red or the Green forces are spotted, the Blue player is informed that the group sent to the cellars has returned. The Sergeant has found the bodies of two of the troopers that were down there and they have been either horribly killed or driven out of their senses. Their bodies were found near what he presumed was a tomb that had been smashed open. The survivors recall that they had broken open the tomb in order to loot it, when the horror manifested itself and did away with the two dead men.
The Sergeant also returns with a copy of the following note, which was written in an archaic text above the tomb.
“In the time of the Reconquest we, the Brothers of Saint James, here found the tower of the Sorcerer Without a Face. He trafficked with fell powers and only at great cost was his evil defeated. But his evil is not dead, merely sleeping. Here lies a darkness beyond darkness and horror beyond the understanding of mortal man. We who have bound it here beg you not to disturb its slumbers, lest it come again in a time of strife and blood. No weapon shall harm the darkness and none shall stand before it. Until the sword of St James is wielded on holy ground by one not a boy, but not yet a man, shall this world know peace.”
While the Sergeant was trying to investigate what had happened to the men in the cellar, he spotted the inscription. Unfortunately the inscription was written on crumbling plaster and fell away from the wall shattering into pieces. Provide the Blue player with the inscription on a sheet of paper, but tear it into many small pieces before handing it to him. This should not prove too much of a trial as it’s basically a very simple jigsaw puzzle, but clues that are earned are much more appreciated.
The Sword of St James
The treasure the bandits are looking for is one beyond price, the Sword of St James. It is buried near a marker stone on the hill of two trees. It will take two men two turns to dig it up, and it is concealed in a wooden box. The sword itself is a battered steel longsword. Bound about the hilt with mouldy leather, it is still surprisingly sharp and any figure of above average skill in melee will pronounce it admirably balanced. It is, however, unlikely to command a vast sum at market, which will no doubt disappoint the bandits.
The sword can be used to force the horror back one move, if the figure wielding it wins a round of melee combat. The sword will automatically deliver a mortal blow to the horror, slaying it – if it used by one “...not a boy, but not yet a man…” (one of the red player’s scouts/youthful militiamen) on sacred ground (within the grounds of the abbey).
Place the Abbey in the centre of the table with some open ground around it. This scenario was actually inspired by Italeri’s 1/72 plastic church, which is a wonderful kit. Leave a clearing around the Abbey and then add some blocking terrain. I have used either ruins or trees, but include plenty of cover to allow the Red and the Green players some means of sneaking up on the Blues. Make sure to include one hill with two trees on it; in fact, to prevent confusion, I made sure not to place any trees on any of the other hills, just so the Green player doesn’t waste time looking at the wrong hill. Of course, if your Green player has some means of moving quickly around the table (like jetpacks or fast cavalry), feel free to add more than one wood-covered hill.
I also scattered a few deceased monks about the place to set the scene, but obviously such things are dependant on what figures you have in your collection.
I’ve run this particular game three times, twice using Savage Worlds (a miniatures friendly roleplaying game by Pinnacle Entertainment) and once using Warhammer 40,000 Rogue Trader. Rogue Trader is quite a skirmishy sort of game and it is the version of that particular ruleset that I have had most fun playing. Any set of skirmish rules should do, though to be fair, the only real requirement is that it can handle multi-player games. In Savage Worlds for example, players are each dealt a card from a standard deck of playing cards and then act in order. Given that communication, co-operation and figuring out the puzzle are the main points of this scenario, I would not concern myself too much with rules and would use whatever set your group of players is most familiar and comfortable with.
Time Limit and Victory Conditions
As Umpire, I would hint to the players that there is a time limit, but that is more a means of enforcing the horror movie style pacing of the scenario than anything else. Keep a note of the turns and don’t be afraid to speed things up (e.g. by having the horror munch multiple troopers) if the tension is beginning to flag. If the players are resolutely refusing to work together, exterminate them without dragging things out too much and allow a single crazed survivor to flee the table to carry the news of the outrage back to base.
Then prepare for “An Incident in the history of the Abbey II – Return to the Bloody Abbey” where the players return with tanks and cannon and blow the monsters all to glory. That is, if you haven’t been lynched.
As for Victory Conditions, it should be relatively clear to all the players that once gribbly monsters start leaping out of the woodwork, their victory conditions are irrelevant. The players will either score a joint victory for Mankind by putting the beasts down or a joint defeat where they all get eaten.
Red Briefing (British/Imperials)
The enemy have taken control of the Abbey of St James and you have been given the task of chasing them out. It should only be lightly guarded, which is no harm as some of your troops are wet behind the ears – new drafts who’ve never known a woman’s touch. You’d be surprised if all of them are shaving. You know that you’ve been given this task to season your new men, so it won’t be any good if you get them all killed. While you have a job to do, destroying your command to do it would be pointless. Dusk is falling and you intend to attack as night falls with the element of surprise in your favour.
- Captain MR James
- Sergeant B. Lumley
- 7 Riflemen
- 7 light infantrymen (recent drafts from the militia, young and eager, but unschooled)
- Captain MR James – Space Marine Minor Hero
- 5 Space Marines with bolters and one marine armed with a missile launcher.
- 5 Space Marine Scouts armed with bolt pistols and combat knives.
Note: one issue that arose in playtesting was that the Space Marine Player didn’t think that his men could bring themselves to compromise with rebels. If you think this is likely to be an issue simply use Imperial Guard Troops rather than Space Marines and emphasise that the rebels are separatists, rather than heretics. If you have access to the Warhammer Compendium, make one squad of the Red Troops White Shields rather than scouts.
Blue briefing (French/Separatists)
You have been given the task of taking and occupying the monastery of St. James – which you have achieved easily. Putting paid to the objections of the previous occupants took a little longer than expected, but your adjutant assures you that he will have the blood stains out of the tablecloths before dinner.
Your lads have got a little over enthusiastic down in the cellar, where they keep the barrels of altar wine, and you’ve had to send a sergeant with some men down to sort things out. Anyway, the night is closing in and you can smell beef roasting in the refectory, and hopefully the sergeant will return with a decent vintage.
- Captain Gaston Leroux
- Sergeant Major Guy de Maupassant (who is presently down in the cellar)
- 20 line infantrymen (ten of whom are presently down in the cellar)
- 5 grenadiers
Warhammer 40K (use Imperial Guard statistics)
- Captain Gaston Leroux – Human Minor Hero
- Veteran Sergeant Guy de Maupassant (who is presently down in the cellar) – Human Champion
- One squad of nine troopers armed with lasguns and one trooper with a heavy bolter (five of whom are down in the cellar). Flak armour.
- One squad of nine troopers armed with lasguns and one trooper with a missile launcher. Flak armour.
Green Breifing (Geurillas/Bandits)
The dastardly invaders have taken the Abbey of St James and slaughtered the monks there. One of the fleeing brothers reached your band and told of a great treasure concealed at Two Trees Hill. He died before he could tell you any more. Now you want to drive the terrible scourge of the invader from your lands, but the abbey is held by the enemy in great numbers and it would be foolishness to spend your lives needlessly. Better to sneak in and take the treasure. Who knows what it is or how a man might spend it? You’ve waited until dusk to make your approach and the invaders are still busy looting the Abbey, so you reckon you should be able to sneak in and out without difficulty.
- Guerilla Leader Guillermo Del Toro
- 15 shifty-looking militia types. Poorly armed, but move without penalty through difficult terrain.
- One leader Guillermo Del Toro – Human Minor Hero
- Three squads of five human troopers armed with a mix of autoguns and shotguns. They may move without penalty through difficult terrain.
The Blues should be set up in the abbey, but allow them to set two sentries. They may not move until they have spotted the advancing enemy. The Green player should deploy on a table edge that will allow him to get to the hill of two trees within about four moves. Too far away and he may run off once the monsters show up, but if he finds the treasure too quickly, he may doom the rest of the players by running off with his prize. I find it best if the Green player be about two moves away from his objective by the time the alarm is raised and monsters start to appear. Wherever he deploys, it should be as far away as possible from the Red player so that they can’t confer too soon.
This game was played using the Savage Worlds rules and set in the Peninsula in 1812.
It was a week before Christmas and a weary Rifles officer trudged through the snow, leading a handful of men in what he suspected would be a fools errand. In the failing light of dusk, the sounds of singing and merriment, punctuated by the occasional musket shot could be heard. In the Abbey of
St James, the French troops were making merry and Captain Leroux despatched his sergeant to the cellar to find out where the men sent to get the wine for his dinner had got to. Meanwhile, the Spanish guerillas crawled through the undergrowth, noting the French sentry in the bell tower.
This continued for a turn or two, the two French players swapping insults in ridiculous accents while both the British and the Spanish edged forward from opposite sides of the board. “Right, better find out how many of the swine are in there” opined Captain James, sneaking forward with two picked riflemen. The French players had cleverly concealed their forces inside the model abbey and were disinclined to volunteer any information, so neither the British or the Spanish knew how many of the enemy there were.
Meanwhile the Spaniards, led by “El Guapo” (who didn’t feel that Del Toro was a suitably guerilla name) wriggled forward and paused, spotting another French sentry. Inside the abbey, a shaken Sergeant de Maupassant was dragged outside the wargames room and informed that down in the cellar, two of his men were lying on the ground next to a broken tomb, seemingly dead of fright with hair turned prematurely white and horrid, staring faces. Just while the player processed this and, to be fair, it was the first time in the game so far that his ridiculous French accent had slipped, I pressed a box containing the inscription pasted onto card and then cut up into his hands and sent him back to the other players.
The French sentry in the tower had finally spotted the British and let off a shot, which dropped one of the militiamen. The British took refuge in the treeline and soon the Rifles were responding, pinning the unfortunate Frenchman. While a confused Sergeant de Maupassant assembled the card pieces of the inscription, a hideous green spectre erupted out of the ground and charged several of the French, causing them to flee out of the abbey and towards the board edge.
The Spaniard paused, assessing this new development.
“Is that a ghost, El Gaupo?”
“Indeed it is, Jeffe, and a patriotic Spanish ghost at that. Let us assist him.”
A fusillade of shots rang out and all but one of the Frenchmen outside dropped. Meanwhile, more hideous creatures emerged from the cellar
and flushed out several more of the Frenchmen. Captain Leroux, who had been ordering men to man the windows, immediately screamed “Fire” as the spectre stalked the nave of the Abbey. The infantrymen turned and fired as they were bid. There were several loud bangs and the nave filled with smoke; one of the Grenadiers fell to the ground clutching his chest as a shot passed through the rampaging ghost and hit him. Passing their morale, the French fell back towards the tower.
The British, having finally managed to hit the sentry in the tower, moved in closer. Captain James gave the order to “fix swords” to the Riflemen as they prepared to deliver a bayonet charge. This was rudely interrupted by the appearance of a green flickering creature that emerged from the tower with a wail and sent the militiamen scurrying for the nearest cover.
“Err” said Captain James.
Sergeant De Maupassant, who had just finished assembling the cracked parts of the inscription, was reading it with some alarm and immediately started asking his men whether any of them had found a sword during their looting. “El Gaupo” and his merry men had run from cover to finish and loot the bodies of the slain Frenchmen, while Captain Leroux tried to parley with Captain James. There was some debate over whether Captain James spoke French, to which he responded, “I am an officer and gentlemen. Of course I speak French.”
While the French and the British were negotiating, the Spanish had fallen prey to the “patriotic” spectre, which killed two of “El Gaupo’s” men and sent them fleeing, coincidentally in the direction of Two Tree Hill. After some toing and froing, both Captains had agreed to talk face to face. Unfortunately, while the Riflemen were walking towards the tower, Sergeant De Maupassant and several men arrived who weren’t privy to the parley. They opened fire, missing the Riflemen completely, but hitting Captain James, causing a slight wound. Cursing the treacherous enemy, the Britishers ran for the nearest cover, which turned out to be Two Tree Hill.
After a second attempt to befriend “..our gallant comrades from beyond the grave,” had failed spectacularly “El Gaupo” and his men, somewhat reduced in number, sprinted for Two Tree Hill and joined the Riflemen skulking behind the trees. He was then addressed by Captain James in English spoken very loudly and very slowly.
The French were poring over the inscription and searching the building for an old sword, when they were driven from the Abbey wholesale by two of the howling gibbering ghosts, losing several of their number in the process. Meanwhile, the Spaniards had dug up the treasure of Saint James and were extremely disappointed to discover that it was a mouldy old sword rather than the gold and silver they had been expecting. However, when Captain James, who had been asked earlier about a sword by Captain Leroux expressed an interest, he and “El Gaupo” began to negotiate.
While this dickering was taking place, the French, who had been hounded to almost to the table edge, rallied. Unfortunately, they were attacked again and fled back into the abbey. Captain James, having parted with twenty guineas for the Sword of St James, rallied his men to retake the building. As the Riflemen, anxious militiamen and Spaniards approached the abbey, the doors were thrown open and Sergeant de Maupassant rushed out yelling “Suivez imbeciles!” (French was never that player’s strong point), but the meaning was clear.
The men rushed in, only to see a ghastly green figure advancing on them. A small multi-national huddle formed at one end of the nave, firing fruitlessly into the hideous creature. “El Gaupo” was despatched the back of the huddle to grab Perkins, the most youthful of the militiamen and the Sword of St James was pressed into his hands. Perkins was unceremoniously shoved to the front of the press and rolled his melee attack.
The dice rattled across the table, scoring a hit, and a roar erupted from the players. The skull-faced spectre collapsed in a rattle of bones and an unearthly howl and all was peace on Earth and goodwill towards men.
Four things must occur for the horror to be defeated. Firstly, and most importantly, the players must realise that co-operation is not only desirable, it is vital if they are to survive. The Blue player must successfully decipher the warning found by his sergeant. The Green player must find the treasure, the sword of the Knights of Saint James. The Red player must not get all his youngsters killed.
I really enjoyed this game and I’ve run it three times in total. What I like about it, is that it challenges the players by presenting them with a situation that is completely different from the one they were expecting. I’ve worked hard to ensure that it is adaptable to most collections; only a handful of figures are needed and the scenario itself should work in any era. As I noted before, the instance where it failed was where one of the players refused to accept that co-operation was even a possibility, so try to take account of that when selecting sides. That did lead to an amusing horror movie style ending where the players’ models were all murdered one by one and only a single shell-shocked survivor managed to make it off the board alive.
However, I preferred the hopeful ending, where the players put their differences aside and focused on the common problem, something I wish we could all do a little more often. Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and peaceful and prosperous New Year.
This article originally appeared in issue 369 of Miniature Wargames. You can pick up your issue of the magazine here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.