Friday, August 23, 2013

The Witches of High Helmsley - An Encounter Discussion

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
--TS Elliot, The Hollow Men

A desperate, pox-ridden man stumbles out of the underbrush and into the lane ahead of the party, crying out for help.  Aged and covered in diseased sores, the exertion is too much for his frail state, and he dies after gasping out… "three… they did this to me, they tricked me…"  The dead man has a distinctive hunting knife and sheaf stuck into his loose-fitting belt, assuming anyone overcomes their disgust to get close enough to search him, along with a hand-made fetish around his neck.  Looking down at the map, the main track continues to skirt the moors towards the old abbey and the village of Helmsley down in the river valley, but an underused trail leads off towards the moorlands and the small hamlet of High Helmsley in the direction the man came.
There are big differences between different "versions" of an encounter:  how the encounter area looks in my raw notes, how I'd use those raw notes at the table to bring a scene to life, and how it could be presented as a written piece for an audience.  These variations - it's surely worth some Friday conversation!

For instance, the little excerpt written above would never actually be written out by me as game prep.  I'd probably improvise that scene  (or something similar) as a random encounter for a group that happened to be trudging towards the market town of Helmsley as a combination teaser / plot hook to investigate the witches of High Helmsley.  The encounter teases just enough to indicate there might be something fishy going on in the small community further on.  If they continue on to Helmsley proper, they might learn the hunting knife belonged to a robust young man from a neighboring farm, someone not at all resembling the horrible pox-ridden corpse left behind on the lane.  Following the lead out to the remote farm where "Oswyn Hardaker" recently went missing, they discover he left behind a morose young bride and a now ill-tended farm.  "He was spending too much time climbing up toward High Helmsley, he was, he had eyes for a girl there, I just know it, and now he's left me for her", bemoans the abandoned wife.

A written description of Helmsley as an encounter site might go like this:

The Witches of High Helmsley:
Subtle fear of curses and malevolent spells allow a trio of beautiful witches (Agatha, Rhea, Clara) to rule over the misty Hamlet of High Helmsley from within the small traveler's inn there, The Hanged Man.  The trio long ago signed their names into the Black Book in return for their eternal youth; the Horned Man taught them the Scapegoat Ritual, a piece of dark magic to transfer their illnesses, years, and imperfections onto a sacrificial victim through a hand-crafted cursed fetish, which quickly ages and overwhelms the host.  It's been a few years since they last enacted the ritual, and Agatha is beginning to show a few wrinkles near the corners of her eyes again… 
High Helmsley is a tiny settlement on the edge of the moors, home to clannish shepherds and folks that mutely ignore outsiders and close windows and doors to strangers.  The vicarage has gone abandoned and the church lies in disrepair; only the small tavern shows a sense of upkeep and displays any welcome on a dark evening.
[ I'm omitting the actual game stats and descriptions for the 3 witches since they're not pertinent here]

My actual handwritten notes are even more sparse, since it's mainly sentence fragments and jotted thoughts with a few ideas on how a wandering group might learn all is not well in that remote Hamlet of High Helmsley.

The OSR is as much about publishing (either via blog or book) and sharing creative thoughts as it is about rules and the old games themselves.  We're a movement with many facets, but doesn't it always come back to the table top?  It's difficult to convey the nuts and bolts of the DM's craft via the written word; the presentation of the material can vary based on the decisions and interpretations made during "run time" by an imaginative DM with a bunch of energized people around the table.

Another way of offering the question is the problem of Voice:  how much authorial voice is necessary to convey meaning?  I find it's analogous to presenting an oral play, a drama, with or without the staging or reading directions.

The description of the Witches of High Helmsley encounter is bland, although there's probably enough there for a referee to give the hamlet a foreboding, ominous character when a group wanders into the place.  But if I absolutely wanted someone at home to have the same patented "Beedo Experience™ " as me and mine, I would need to recommend \ encourage \ dictate that they stage the whole thing nearly the same way as me - including that lead-in encounter with the recent victim of the Scapegoat Curse in the prologue, who stumbles out in front of the party,  dripping with corruption like Dorian Grey's secret portrait.  And even then, you can't commoditize an experience or guarantee it would work the same at your table.

There was a kerfuffle some time last year when the drafts for Dwimmermount started to surface after the successful Kickstarter - I think it was Tenkar's copper pieces group that ran one of the levels, sans any kind of embellishment or DM creativity (as a kind of experiment), and then said players complained about how flat and boring was the game.  "But James Mal's sessions lead to such interesting game reports!  We wanted that patented James Mal™  experience at our table, too."  It ended up being hollow.

This is a fascinating dichotomy for me - the contrast between strong, directive encounters vs bare bones - since I favor megadungeons and similar material that's usually meant to be improvised off of sparse notes; contrast that with the micro-setting approach where numerous encounter details are often plotted, scripted, and/or scheduled using timelines.


  1. Strong, directive encounters are pretty much useless to me at the table. They can be inspirational to read, as they can communicate a general ambiance. But give me sentence fragments and jotted notes over walls of text any day. Too many encounter details are also not practical if outcomes are not predetermined.

  2. There is a huge range between walls of text and sentence fragments. I don't run other people's material as a rule, but were I to do so, I would be rather put out if I put down cash and got an elevator pitch in return.

  3. @Aos

    I don't think Beedo was so much addressing issues of monetary value (he can correct me if I'm wrong), but rather analyzing how to communicate an area or encounter in and of itself. For sake of the discussion, perhaps we can assume DIY/free and just talk about content. As in, what is most useful to you, all else being equal?

  4. To me the key for successful published game notes is how evocative they are. Length is not especially important (I'm a fast reader) as long as a few great ideas, details and images are there that I can lay out.

    Example Encounter (bland): 4 Orcs,, camped by road.
    Example Encounter (useful): 4 Orcs disguised as lepers, 3 brothers led by elderly Uncle. In camp, cooking halfling on spit. Leader wears fancy noblewoman's red scarf wrapped around face.

    These are the same mechanical encounter, and if I was running the encounter from the first I might be able to pour in some details quickly, but with the second I don't need to. Additionally invented detail is less likely to fit with the adventure as a whole, and with pre laid detail one can have clues to connections between things (missing halfling farmer, or an orc mother with worry charms for four sons for example).

  5. @Brenden the mention of Dwimmermount made me think otherwise. See the first sentence of my comment for my main point.

  6. I think it's easier to discuss whether something is communicating its ideas well, by using commercial products as examples; if someone paid money for something, there's entitlement to looking at it critically. (Most) Bloggers are civil such that I don't see folks tearing apart freebies for not meeting a certain quality.

    Gus L's example is perfect; I've been running the kiddos through Keep on the Borderlands as an intro to gaming, and it's remarkable how little flavor there is in many of the rooms beyond simple mechanics and maybe a tactical note (if you're lucky).

    I tend towards the positive view - even the omission of named characters in the keep (ie, SERGEANT OF THE GUARD, THE PRIEST, etc) is an invitation for creation. But the extra details in Gus's sample encounter fire the imagination - the ideal balance has to be somewhere beyond bare notes but before the "wall of text".

    What kind of books really get it done for you? Could be worth a follow up post and a stroll through the back catalog.