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Chris Gardiner
Narrative Director at Failbetter Games. Worked on titles including Fallen London, Sunless Sea, and Dragon Age: the Last Court.
Narrative Director at Failbetter Games. Worked on titles including Fallen London, Sunless Sea, and Dragon Age: the Last Court.

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Is this move for a FOTF setting ridiculously over the top? I don't feel like I've got the balance between simplicity and versatility right in custom moves, and tend to overcomplicate. What's the best bit to simplify?

Rose milk is harvested in droplets from Col Fen's pale roses on misty mornings.

When you drink a cup of rose-milk, roll +CON. On a hit, forget your pain: recover half your lost hit points and write down the number you recovered. The next morning, take that much damage. Then, on a 10+, roll 1d6, add your Dose, and consult the table below. On a 7-9, roll 2d6, add your Dose, and consult the table.

1-6: Increase your Dose by 1
7: Forget your grief. Say what it was, then take INT damage equal to your Dose (min 1)
8: Forget your promise. Say which one, then take CHA damage equal to your Dose (min 1)
9: Forget your crime. Say what it was, then take WIS damage equal to your Dose (min 1)
10+: Forget your last hour/day/week/month/year. Each time you get this result, cross out the first entry on the list. If you role this result and all the options are crossed off, you forget your self and are no longer able to function as a player character.

I took a break from writing about Mistmarch for a bit because we got rather busy at work finishing and releasing the Zubmariner expansion to our Sunless Sea game. But! Now it is done, and I'm back to noodling at dark fantasy Freebooters. Here the first half of the almanac for Col Fen, one of the starter areas:


Then: A secluded garden-land of rose-bowers and orchards, ruled by three giant-brothers who guarded a well which allowed communion with the dead. The brothers were sworn never to drink from it themselves, but instead judged the appeals of this visitors who longed for one last moment with someone they had lost.

Now: A soggy, haunted fen. Pallid roses crawl across the pools. Knobbled trees jut from the waters. Its last handful of inhabitants offer sacrifices to the two giants that contest its dank pools.


- Skeletal trees, strangled by thorns and livid white roses
- Brown waters, still and quiet
- Pallid roses lying on the waters
- Ghostly mist, thin as a funeral shroud
- Statues with cat, crow or moth heads jutting from the pools
- Wicker pathways, muddy with small footprints
- Blue candle flames winding between the trees
- An abandoned hut, sinking in the marsh
- SPRING: bright yellow flowers studding the roots
- SUMMER: coils of steam rising from the water
- AUTUMN: a damp wind, smelling of mulch
- WINTER: a crust of ice on the pools

A Briar-Pool
Many of the deep, gloomy marsh-pools are clogged with drowned briars. Climbing out requires Defying Danger. Common risks include loss of and damage to belongings, or 1d4 damage from the thorns.

Knobbly toads the size of a haycart, that entangle prey with their long, sticky tongues. They use the marsh to their advantage, lurking in pools to complicate attacks and dragging victims into the waters.

Group, Large
Damage: Bite 1d8+1 (hand); Tongue 0 (near, entangle)
HP: 10 Armour: 1 (warty hide)
Special qualities: Long, sticky tongue; camouflage.

Instinct: to ambush unwary prey
- Lurk in a deep pool, and strike at someone injured or lagging behind
- Drag a victim stuck by its tongue into its mouth, then bite
- Perform a spasmodic leap to escape or crush

The Company of the Dead
If you look too deeply into the waters of Col Fen, you may the spirits of the dead. The GM will ask who see, and what unfinished business they have with you.

A saying: “The dead don’t speak”: Their voices are forbidden to them. They can gesture, nod, weep. Some exert power over beasts, using their cries and behaviour to convey messages. Others (or, on their behalf, necromancers) find ways to steal a living voice, through possession or sorcery (typically, this involves nailing a severed tongue to something).

The spirits are restricted to the mire’s waters. But should you enter one of the pools, they can touch you. Their hands are cold and slight; it would take a half-dozen of them to overwhelm a living person.

Flickering blue candle-flames, glimpsed between the trees. Spiteful spirits that lure travellers to their deaths in the fen. It is not widely known that willowicks are the jealous spirits of those the Fenfolk have drowned in their rites.

Willowicks can possess other spirits by roosting in their throats. As long as they keep their new mouths closed, no one will see their telltale blue radiance.

If you see the willowicks dance, roll +WIS. On a 10+ you resist their lure, and are your own master. On a 7-9 you may resist the lure by exerting your will; take 1d3 Wis damage. On a 6-, you are enthralled and follow them into the mire, dreaming of being bound and sunk under the waters. The GM will tell you when and where you recover your senses. Mark XP.

As spirits, they can be driven away or bound with appropriate magics. They fear the Fen’s giants, and will flee if one draws near. Willowicks are lulled by music, particularly the songs the Fenfolk sing when offering bodies to the marsh.

The Fen-folk
The folk that dwell in Col Fen are pale, slight, dark-haired and wary. Their homes are stilted wicker-huts, jutting from the marsh. Hunters and fishers, they also peddle rose-milk coaxed from the marsh’s briars. They have no villages, but live as scattered families tangled in a web of alliances and feuds.

To avoid the predations of the fen’s two giants the Fenfolk offer them tributes of food - specifically human victims, bound and drowned in the mire to marinade in the noxious waters. Sometimes one Fenfolk family will bribe a giant to attack another family, or to drive off intruders. To this end, the Fenfolk always keep an eye open for potential sacrifices. Though unlikely to attack an armed, organised party, they are quite prepared to pick off stragglers, or offer a trade of food or rose-milk for an obviously ailing companion.

When you encounter Fenfolk, roll on the following table:
1. An eel-fisher, with or without her retriever-cat, fleeing from pursuit
2. An injured rose-milker, dying in the mud
3. A bent old wickerweaver, mending an ancient path
4. A curious child, following the party at a distance
5. A candlelit procession bearing a wriggling, wrapped victim to be buried in the bog
6. A pair of crow-hunters with a brace of black birds

I'm looking for some help with this move for one of the Mistmarch almanacs. I think there must be a better way to deal with this than using Hold (especially GM hold - who'll ever remember that?). And the 7-9 result feels like a fail, not a compromised success. Advice appreciated!

Encounter - the company of the dead

The dead haunt the waters of Col Fen. When traveling, you’ll often glimpse reflections of other figures walking beside you.

When you look too closely at the reflections in the fen-water, roll +LUCK; on a 10+ the GM will ask you the first question from the list below; on a 7-9 they will ask you the second or third question. On a miss, the GM makes a move as normal (WIS damage is a good fallback).

- Name someone close to you, now dead (hold 1)
- Name someone you killed, or whose death was your fault (GM holds 1)
- Name someone who was alive, when last you saw them (hold 1)

You may spend hold to call upon the spirit’s aid in one task (+1 to the roll, just like a standard Aid action. However, the spirits cannot touch anything, or speak). The GM may spend their hold to have the spirits interfere with you on a task (-2 to a roll).

The spirits you see in Col Fen always belong to people you knew. They are solemn, usually harmless (however, see the entry for Willowicks), but may convey messages or pass judgement. If you submerge, the spirits are clearer, appearing as drowned, drifting figures under the water. They still can’t touch you - except at the Heart of the Fen.

Maybe I should just lose the Hold and the Aid/Interfere stuff altogether. But then 7-9 feels even more like a failure. Maybe that's ok?

I've been doing some more work on my dark fantasy treatment for Freebooters on the Frontier, which I'm calling Mistmarch.

First up, I've written the third of the magical traditions: the knotty sorceries of the Witches of Pelethé. Link here:

This document also includes a revised draft of all the traditions. Thanks to critique from +David Perry I've carved each table down from 20 entries to 12. They generate more provocative spell names, now, and spit out fewer clunkers.

And secondly, here's the introductory text for players:

Listen, oath-breaker, and I will tell it. The mists have lifted, the storms have stilled, the fires have died. This is the Age of Stone.

For a thousand years the wall has stood. Giants built it to guard their primordial thrones. Behind it, giants swore oaths to giant-lords, who swore oaths to the gloomy Mountain-King. But a generation ago, the earth heaved and the wall cracked. Those first souls who ventured through found its sentinels long-dead: mounds of great, graven bones.

Joda, the Queen of Nails, had long dreamed of the jeweled halls of the giants. Forsaking her king, she led her armies beyond the wall. Her champions accompanied her:

The Knight-Judge Laurentine, the Queen’s executioner.
Noske Knee-breaker, last of the giant-killers.
The Abbess of Owls and her prisoner: Bernhardt, the Living Saint.
The Six Sisters and their seven masks.
The leveler of kings, Eiron the Rhymer.
Twice-hanged Scholovander, the thief of days.
And the wanderer Spiral, who promised nothing.

They soon learned that not all the giants were dead. Some the Queen drove from their halls. Some she nailed to the grey hillsides. But the Mountain-King had champions of his own: the titanic Knights of the Chalice. The Queen’s March ended in ruin beneath a trembling sun, brave soldiers ground to paste.

Now, the Queen’s folly is condemned, and the lands beyond the wall forbidden. To all except you, oath-breaker. There is the gap, grey with mists. There is your new home. Go, and trouble us no more.

Another magical tradition for my dark fantasy Freebooters game, in the same style as this one:

This time, I added a cut-down custom spell template table (to prevent some clunky configurations of the words I picked), and a minor tweak to equipment and spell generation to emphasise the tradition's focus on staves.

It's interesting seeing how classifying the same word as either a Form or an Element changes the outcome of spell generation. I moved 'Hound' back and forth between the Form and Element lists before settling on Element. Freebooters is an enormous amount of fun to fiddle with. Very keen to see what you do with the second edition, +Jason Lutes!

The Wanderers

In ages past, a tribe of winds was driven from the vaults of heaven. Among them were the Wending Wind, the wise Serpentine, the Weeping Wind, the Graven Wind, the Wind of Pyres, the Thief-Wind, and the Ravelwind. Banished to the corners of the earth, the Pariah Winds withered and died.

But here, centuries later, come the Wanderers: grey-cloaked; bearing staves; never lingering. The wizards of Aulderley, with their close smiles and their secret speech.

A Wanderer always begins with a staff as a magical focus. When rolling her initial spells, she may change one of her Form words to “Stave”.

Wanderer Spell Template Table
1. [Element] [Form]
2. [Form] of [Element]
3. [Form] of the [Adjective] [Form]
4. [Form] of [Adjective] [Form]
5. [Wizard Name]’s [Adjective] [Form]
6. [Wizard Name]’s [Adjective] [Element]
7. [Wizard Name]’s [Form] of [Element]
8. [Wizard Name]’s [Element] [Form]

1. Aspect
2. Bane
3. Boon
4. Breath
5. Charm
6. Company
7. Hall
8. Glyph
9. Incarnate
10. Mantle
11. Mastery
12. Portents
13. Oath
14. Road
15. Seeming
16. Sight
17. Spell
18. Stave
19. Spear
20. Word

1. Ages
2. Blight
3. Bronze
4. Change
5. Fury
6. Hound
7. Might
8. Moon
9. Oak
10. Pyres
11. Quicksilver
12. Rain
13. Roads
14. Secrecy
15. Sense
16. Stones
17. Thunder
18. Will
19. Winds
20. Wrath

1. Binding
2. Bright
3. Exiled
4. Ensorcelling
5. Far
6. Fleet
7. Graven
8. High
9. Howling
10. Last
11. Ravelling
12. Restless
13. Serpentine
14. Singing
15. Thieving
16. Weeping
17. Wending
18. Wild
19. Wise
20. White

Further dark fantasy noodlage! This time, a tweak to the cleric class. This one is partly motivated by D&D clerics being weird as shit and me not knowing what to do with them, and partly because religion is such a critical part of a fantasy setting's tone. I want something a little gothic and baroque.

The Pray, Bless and Curse moves in the FotF cleric class are fantastic. I've limited my change to the Disciple move, and plugged it into the existing system. This version grant two domains rather than one because (a) I've added weapon restrictions, and (b) some of the domains are narrow or favour colour over practicality.

You belong to a holy order of the Peregrine Church. Choose your sect from the list below and record its domains. Invent and record the tenet of your order which you deem the most important.

The only weapons you know how to use are the staff, the sling, the cudgel, the dagger, and one more associated with your order's saint (often, it's the weapon that martyred them).

The Crescent Order of Saint Beliphas the Bookbinder. Ink-stained scholars and historians, frequently reviled. Domains: Lore and the Moon. Arms: the spear.

The Owls, an order of St. Vigea of the Watchpost. The Owl, in her cloak of feathers, is teacher to the ignorant, pardoner to the penitent, and wolf to the heretic. Domains: Truth and Winter. Arms: St. Vigea's followers may carry a sword, but only as long as they forsake armour (the truth is two-edged, and its weirder must not fear its cut).

The Ashen Order of St. Colchis, the Lampbearer. Silent shepherds of the lost: black-fingered and often blind. Those who Stray from the Path. Domains: Fire and the Wild. Arms: a forester’s axe.

The heretical followers of St. Bernhardt the Smith, who gather in fire-flickering caves to perform rites of toil in honour of their Living Saint. Domains: Craft and the Winds. Arms: a smith’s hammer.

The Rooks, an order of St. Astea the Gravedigger. A smiling sect that tends the dead, watches barrows, and salts graves. Domains: Protection and the Dead. Arms: the bow.

I have a bunch more notes on these guys, but I think the above is probably more than enough for players to deal with in character creation.

More dark fantasy FotF noodling - this time on magic. Rather than having one big list of forms, elements and adjectives to generate spells, I'm hoping to convey setting flavour through distinct magical traditions. Each tradition gets its own custom table for spell names.

During character creation, magic-users choose which tradition they wre trained in, and roll their spells on its tables. In play they can learn new words - even from different traditions - as normal. Here's my first stab at a tradition:

The Empty House
The bleak arts studied by the necromancers of the Cairnwoods. Their study requires the imbibing of poisons grown on abandoned graves, provoking vision-explorations of a vast, silent house. Its hearths are cold. Its doors are numberless. But behind one of them, it is said, lies the Ivory Crown once worn by the King of the Dead.

1. Call
2. Candle
3. Circle
4. Crown
5. Cup
6. Curse
7. Subtlety
8. Door
9. Feast
10. Guide
11. Guise
12. Mark
13. Mouth
14. Noose
15. Oath
16. Sentinel
17. Servant
18. Shroud
19. Tongue
20. Whisper

1. Ash
2. Bone
3. Clay
4. Cold
5. Death
6. Dust
7. Ghosts
8. Gloom
9. Glory
10. Gluttony
11. Grave-gold
12. Mist
13. Midnight
14. Palefire
15. Poison
16. Quiet
17. Sight
18. Solitude
19. Spite
20. Cairn-stone

1. Bleak
2. Binding
3. Colourless
4. Deep
5. Harrowing
6. Hollow
7. Hungry
8. Icy
9. Joyless
10. Last
11. Lingering
12. Lonely
13. Moonless
14. Old
15. Patient
16. Sapping
17. Stirring
18. Thirsty
19. Unseen
20. Untiring

I don't think this is quite there, yet. Some fruitier words would give it some sparkle. Also, I feel like this might benefit from a custom spell name template table as well, but I haven't worked that out yet.

Noodling with ideas for a dark fantasy Freebooters game. I want to get rid of demihuman races and alignment, and am planning to replace them with heritages. A heritage grants a choice of bonus stat and a selection of virtues and vices from which you pick one of each.

I haven't decided what to do about the special moves that demihuman races get in FotF. Tempted to skip them, but maybe I should invent some new moves for each heritage.

Aulderly: A mizzly land of shepherds, rhymers, and wizards. There are no roads in Aulderly; its inhabitants navigate by standing stones, jutting lonely on the heaths. Do not read what is engraved on them; the Devil adds to them in idle moments.
- +2 CHA or +2 LUC
- Virtues: Generous, Courteous, Dependable.
- Vices: Boastful, Liar, Doubtful.

Tantea: The plague-raddled, festival-addicted City of Steeples. Listen! Plainsong from the churches. Debauches in the golden palaces. Doctors droning to draughty lecture halls. Anguished curses from the Yellow Quarter.
- +2 INT or +2 CON
- Virtues: Tactful, Pious, Patient.
- Vices: Ruthless, Vain, Zealous.

Dolor: a brooding land of forested mountains, where the Beliphasean knights war upon the old clans of pass and peak and their grey, wicked gods. Silvered helm against mouthless war-mask. Hammer against spear.
- +2 STR or +2 WIS
- Virtues: Loyal, Defiant, Disciplined.
- Vices: Inflexible, Moody, Merciless.

The Cairnwoods: A pale forest, populated by scowling trappers, silent hunters and cats. Tread softly: when the moon is narrow, ragged necromancers pick over the ancient, stony graves.
- +2 DEX or CON
- Virtues: Humble, Focused, Resourceful.
- Vices: Obsessive, Disloyal, Irritable.

The Riverlands: A wolf-land; a honey-land. Where creaking lords cradle grievances in their oaken halls, hounds curled at their feet. Crow-flocked trees. Blood in the snow. Swords of blue steel.
- +2 STR or WIS
- Virtues: Just, Cautious, Generous.
- Vices: Reckless, Vengeful, Envious.

Scathe: The white wasteland. Birthplace of the counter-Church. Graveyard of saints. Its people are travellers, riders, falconers. Their old dynasty has fled, their crowns stolen by the Thief-Kings who reign in the black-towered cities.
- +2 INT or DEX
- Virtues: Forgiving, Frugal, Ambitious.
- Vices: Cruel, Greedy, Hasty.

After choosing a heritage, you answer the following question:

Are you:
- kind of an asshole? Choose an extra vice from the general list.
- striving to be better? Choose an extra virtue from the general list.

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Our village church strikes me as deeply Dolmenwoody, so I went out and took some photos.

It's surrounded by higgledy-piggledy gravestones, including a ludicrous 19th-century one shaped like a colossal broken pillar bearing the inscription "BE YE ALSO READY". Because you sinners need to take this shit seriously.

For a smallish village, the church is kind of ridiculous. It boasts the tallest steeple in AAAALLLLL OF LEICESTERSHIRE. From the 14th century it was the burial-site of the nearby lords of Bevloir (pronounced "Beaver" - stop giggling), and they wanted it to look nice.

The chancel is crammed with their tombs, all preposterously ornate. Tucked at the back is a smaller marble tomb bearing the statues of two little boys. Both are robed; both carry skulls. It's called the Witchcraft Tomb.

An inscription on the the adjacent tomb of Duke Francis mostly talks about the parties he went to while travelling among the courts of the princelings of Europe, but it also says: "In 1608 he married Lady Cecilia Hungerford... by whom he had two sons, both who died in their infancy due to wicked practice and sorcerye."

Three women from the surrounding villages were accused of witchcraft and killed for the dukelings' deaths (correction: two of them were put to death. The other was killed by a sandwich). I've attached a summary of the witches' story among the photos.

(What I love about Dolmenwood is that it it feels perfectly like this sort of local, messy, parochial folklore.)
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