By Dan Norder
The obligatory intro
If you've ever wanted more ideas for use in your role-playing
game, this new column is for you. Well, it won't always fit your
specific individual game, but I'll take all reasonable efforts
to look at as many of the main genres as possible and rotate through
some of the minor ones too. The plan is to focus on a specific
topic (object, setting, situation, or anything else that comes
to mind) and then think of ways it might be incorporated into
a game. I'll be throwing out lots of ideas, some more developed
than others, as well as occasional links to other websites that
might spark even more ideas. The game stats and other specifics
are up to you.
Gamemasters and designers will probably get the most value
out of reading this column. Players and even those aspiring fiction
writers who hang around here even though they haven't gamed for
years (didn't think anyone knew about that, did you?) should be
able to find something useful too.
Halloween is fast approaching as I write this, so I decided
to pick something appropriate for the season as the first topic.
For those who aren't familiar with this tradition (and before
anyone decides to chew me out for talking down to people, it isn't
celebrated in all countries), Halloween is a holiday that occurs
in the United States on October 31. What we now know of as Halloween
was originally the Celtic end of the year harvest festival, when
the sun was thought to die and large fires had to be built to
encourage it to come back again later. Being the transition between
warm weather and winter meant it was also a time between life
and death, when great magic could be performed and supernatural
creatures had more power than normal.
itself is a bit too broad of a topic to cover in a column like
this, so after a little thought and internal debate, I chose to
focus specifically on jack-o-lanterns. They are (again, for those
who need an explanation) pumpkins with the seeds scooped out,
a face (or occasionally another design) carved into them, and
typically a light source (originally a candle, but now light bulbs
or glow sticks are recommended for safety reasons) on the inside.
In theory they are supposed to scare off evil spirits, kind of
like a gargoyle. In actual practice, though, they are woefully
inadequate protection against even just neighborhood teenagers
bent on mischief, let alone supernatural entities.
The jack-o-lantern name comes from an interesting bit of folklore
from the British Isles. There was a man named Jack (as an unusually
high number of males in such stories are named) who was banned
by God from heaven for his sins but unwelcome in hell for the
tricks he pulled on the Devil. Basically a "Heaven doesn't
want me, and hell is afraid I'll take over" kind of guy.
So Jack is forced to wander the world between life and death until
Judgment Day comes, with only a coal inside of a turnip to light
the way. This faint burning light is said to appear like a Will
o' Wisp, floating through the night. People had already been putting
candles with harvest produce and carving faces into turnips, and
they adopted the Jack-o-Lantern name from the story for this purpose.
Immigrants brought the practice to the American colonies, where
pumpkins proved more popular.
Jack-o-lantern story ideas
If you run a sci-fi campaign, it may be tempting to
come up an alien that looks like a jack-o-lantern. I'm not sure
how well that would work, though, if you want any sort of realism.
I mean, what's it going to do, roll around like something out
of the Attack
of the Killer Tomatoes! movies? But if you use that as
a jumping off point, maybe there's an alien creature that looks
vaguely reminiscent of a pumpkin patch, and the orange semi-spherical
parts are sense organs of some sort. Eyes wouldn't make sense,
but possibly they'd be for detecting sound and vibrations. And
then the vines connect all of them together, with some appendages
that serve some other functions. Vegetables don't normally have
the kind of biochemistry to have enough energy to get up and chase
people or anything, so either you could work that into the story
(maybe someone goes out picking "pumpkins" and gets
away with it at first because it can't lash out effectively...
but causes problems later as it collects its thoughts) or come
up with some other sort of biology for the creature. Maybe it
only looks like a vegetable. Maybe it's a vegetable that merged
with some animal cells in a symbiotic relationship early in its
evolution (I think I read once that the mitochondrial cells inside
of animals may have been a similar process) to become an "animable"
kind of thing, with the more dynamic animal parts on the interior
of the vine-like tendrils and not normally seen. With that kind
of hypothetical construction it could lash out at people trying
to harvest bits off of it. Of course, it couldn't just get energy
through photosynthesis, it'd have to eat something. And maybe
that's two birds with one stone, plot-wise.
Another aspect to consider is how the decorative jack-o-lantern
of the future might be different from the low tech ones we have
now. Maybe there could be holographic projectors that make balls
of floating orange light, and when the kids learn how to "carve"
them they are getting practical experience manipulating a modeling
program. Or they could implant glowing paint particles across
the surface of a puffed up globe of artificially colored synthetic
spider silk instead. Or maybe they can grow actual pumpkins (genetically
modified to be seedless and grow to full size in only a few hours,
of course) in a closet-sized hydroponics garden.
Once you pick an option there, the fun comes from figuring
out why that might be useful in a game. Holographic pumpkins might
be able to be piloted remotely and flown into the face of a pursuing
enemy. Expanding the synthetic silk puffballs around someone's
arm might trap it until the right tool to remove it safely could
be found, either as a way to slow down an enemy or as a makeshift
cast for a broken bone. And a hydroponics cabinet might be a place
to hide in or to avoid at all costs, depending on how you decide
If your sci-fi game is more of the cyberpunk / virtual reality
variety, clever coders could cause some mischief by tapping the
avatar-displaying subroutines of the net interface and replacing
the standard heads of people within it with jack-o-lanterns. While
people used to be worried about being hacked, now they could fear
being "jacked." This could be a one time massive attack
to try to extort credits from a powerful corporation or just an
occasional nuisance used to strike back at certain specific individuals
they don't like.
Time travelers could pop in on one of the original Celtic
festivals as part of an assignment and run into the other Jack-o-Lantern,
the one said to be caught between heaven and hell. And, wouldn't
you know it, it's really another agent of the time travel organization
stuck out of phase with the normal time continuum. The players
may be out to rescue him but wonder if he got that way by accident
or on purpose for some reason. Our Jack may have gone rogue and
is up to no good, or maybe not being connected up with the normal
universe has made him mentally unstable. And while the locals
are building bonfires
at the end of their year to try to ensure that the sun will actually
come back and the world won't fall into perpetual darkness, the
players might have to be making sure that whatever they are doing
to try to manipulate the time flow and free Jack from his carved
up existence doesn't make the entire timestream itself end. You
get bonus points for style if the bonfire itself somehow saves
the universe. Maybe a player can make the technogadget that Jack
would try to use fall into the flames before it can do its thing.
But don't force it. Scripted endings work great for authors, but
not so well for GMs. It's not railroading, however, if you provide
the opportunities and the players choose to use them.
The superhero genre is already filled with examples
of Halloween-themed pumpkin characters and weapons. Perhaps this
would be another place the Will o' Wisp style version could be
used, just so you don't beat a dead horse (or smash a rotten pumpkin,
as the case may be) trying to come up with another bad guy with
an orange head. I'd feel bad not coming up with specific suggestions
this time around for the caped crusader crowd, except not only
does the genre have the kind of flexibility that any of the suggestions
listed here might work, but other columns will undoubtedly have
a lot of ideas for this style of game, as it's one of my favorites.
Action-adventure games set during Halloween could have
the carved pumpkins hiding surveillance equipment or, more along
the general fire theme, explosives of some sort. And I bet if
ol' Jacky were filled with some nitro and set out at the end of
a sidewalk instead of on a porch, he would eventually put an end
to the kids who like to go around smashing him and his brothers.
Of course your players' police officers, private dicks or intrepid
adventurers might not consider that exactly fair play.
Fantasy campaigns have a whole string of possibilities
to work with. Jack-o-lanterns were supposed to scare off monsters,
so maybe they actually do, if properly enchanted. They could just
be general protective talismans, trigger fear spells (or Turn
Undead somehow) when approached, or be set to fly up at targets
and burst into flames (the last might even be able to be rigged
by a thief using a tripwire and some alchemist's fire). The faces
that are typically carved into the pumpkins could be used as the
focus of clairvoyance spells or the D&D-style Magic
along with the basic concept might mean that certain spells could
be performed by mixing a certain type of fruit or vegetable with
a specific symbol or image. There could be a whole class of harvest-themed
magic. And, historically, there were actually -- peeling apples
to use the skins to divine who you would marry by how they land
on the ground, tossing nuts into a fire to tell the future by
which ones would spark and jump, picking cabbage stalks to see
who was good and who was evil, and so forth. It seems to me that
having different spellcasters know different themes of magic is
better story-wise than campaigns in which everyone has an ill-defined
magic missile and generic fireball.
Another thing to consider is how any given community in a fantasy
world might throw its own harvest festival. Orcs might use it
to purge the weaker members of the tribe before harsh winter weather
comes, while fairies would probably take the occasion as an excuse
to dance up a storm -- maybe even literally!
And, of course, the obvious genre for this topic, and the one
still left to discuss, is supernatural horror. Some of
the ideas already presented could certainly be used for this type
of game, but they may be a bit too out there to keep the proper
mood. Having an alien pumpkin patch try to eat you for breakfast
is certainly no picnic (well, at least for the players), but it
might be a tad on the unbelievable side for a horror game. All
it'd take is someone saying, "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!"
and nobody would take it seriously anymore. So I needed to scare
up a really frightening concept.
One way I brainstorm for ideas is to think of common stories
and try to turn them inside out. One with theme at least sort
of related to jack-o-lanterns is the old nursery rhyme that goes:
Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater,
Had a wife and couldn't keep her;
He put her in a pumpkin shell,
And there he kept her very well.
That's just odd enough that it presents several twisted possibilities.
Peter might not be a man who eats pumpkins, but a pumpkin that
eats men... of course that's right back to our alien pumpkin patch.
But then maybe it's not literally eating them, but eating their
souls. But what's the wife in the pumpkin shell all about? Did
he cut her all up into pieces and stuff them into jack-o-lanterns
around town? Well, that's certainly grotesque, but it doesn't
really add much potential to the player characters' interactions
with the storyline.
If we commit to the idea that Peter is eating souls, maybe
that's what got put into the shell. But what does it mean to trap
a soul and not destroy it? In some stories, moving the soul means
the person or creature is now immortal until the soul is found
and destroyed. Some legends have the person sicken and die
or become especially vulnerable to the magical powers of the one
who stole it. The wife could be in a coma or wandering around
in a daze with no willpower of her own and easy to control. Or
you might decide that she has lost the part that makes her a rational
human and now she's just bestial and crazy. There are plenty of
options to choose from.
But what if the soul was pushed out and somebody else's went
in, like some demonic spirit or possibly a ghost? If the husband
did this on purpose, it may be a succubus or ghost of a dead lover,
or the spirit of an ancient wizard or demon that he is now trying
to learn more spells from. So Peter could be evil or just someone
who accidentally summoned something nasty that ate his soul and
took his body. The soul of the wife could be sitting around in
the pumpkin either because the husband (if it's still him) doesn't
really want to kill her or because the demon that took his body
needs time to digest Peter's soul before he has another.
So then you need to figure out how the whole soul capturing
process works. It might be that a special candle has to be prepared
that, when lit inside of a container (the pumpkin shell in the
case), immediately traps the soul of the first person who sees
the light. If so, there may be some spares around that Peter can
try using on the players. Or maybe the container has to be carved
with symbols that spell out the intended target's name. Or certain
items -- like mirrors, natural items with faces carved on them,
whatever -- become soul-trappers automatically when enough bad
psychic energy is released nearby (and looking into the reflection
or face or so forth is the trigger to actually draw it out and
There is also the question of how to get the souls back. Just
smashing the pumpkin could put the wife into her own body again
(which would be convenient for trapped players too), or it could
free the soul up to try to make it's way back. Of course if there's
already a different soul there it may have problems (which might
be one way to make it easier for player characters to get back
than for her). If there's a magic-using character, he or she might
have to research a soul transference spell (to move it back if
it doesn't happen automatically) or an exorcism (to get rid of
the possessing spirit), which could be the climax of the scenario.
To add some more substance to the plot line, the father could
have killed or be plotting to kill anyone who investigates things
too closely or gets too close to the special pumpkin. The players'
first indication that there is something evil out there could
be the death of a neighbor or, if there are kids in the afflicted
family, a teacher or social worker. There may also be minor demons
summoned up into other jack-o-lanterns (either physically inside
or possessing them) to act as guards.
Another added twist is that there could be a gang of teenagers
going around smashing pumpkins, like many do during the Halloween
season. It's possible that they are mean-spirited kids who just
stumble upon a dangerous situation, in which case they make good
cannon fodder. But there
may be a leader who knows, through psychic dreams or another way,
that some evil pumpkins in town have to be stopped and has the
group destroy any they come in contact with. In this case they
make good backup forces if the going gets too tough, although
the GM should avoid turning them into the ones who save the day
if at all possible.
And now, just by dreaming up ways to use a jack-o-lantern in
a story, we have most of a scenario already started, along with
several different angles to pursue it from. All you'd really need
to do at this point is maybe sketch out the house they live in,
create some stats for the characters and creatures involved (or
just steal them from something you already have written up for
your game system, as nobody is going to know that your pumpkin
demons are really just, say, fire elementals with some tweaking)
and get your characters interested enough to investigate. You
wouldn't even have to settle on the exact details of who is possessed
and who isn't until you're in the middle of running it.
The quick close
For even more of the same on a different topic, be on the lookout
for the next column in this series. In the meantime, please leave
feedback in the forum section to let me know what you think. Happy Halloween!