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Inklings

Jack-o-Lanterns

by Dan Norder
Oct 28,2003

 

Jack-o-Lanterns

By Dan Norder
© 2003

 


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.


Jack-o-lantern facts

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.

jack-o-lantern postcardHalloween 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 it works.

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 Mouth.

apple peel divinationGoing 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 capture it).

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!

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