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Detlef Sierck Presents: The Alchemist, by Ben Jonson

January 29, 2020 Leave a comment

subtle

 

I first got into roleplaying games through amateur theatre. I was a member of a couple of different local groups in the 70s and 80s, and while I was working at Games Workshop I joined Nottingham’s Lace Market Theatre and got a part in this play. I don’t think it inspired “A Rough Night at the Three Feathers” directly, but it is certainly similar in that it features a single location – in this case, a London town house – in which multiple plots collide over a short period of time.

The house’s owner, Mr. Lovewit, has gone to the country to escape an outbreak of plague, leaving his servant Jeremy to look after the place in his absence. Jeremy has plans of his own, though, and joins forces with two confederates to cook up a number of schemes. One is a con man named Subtle, and the other is a prostitute named Doll Common. Jeremy himself adopts the persona of Captain Face, with the social acceptability that brings, and lures prospective marks to the house.

Dapper is a lawyer’s clerk who wants better luck at the gaming tables. Subtle convinces him to seek the favor of the Queen of the Fairies (played by Doll) and the two subject him to various “fairy” tricks and humiliations while relieving him of all his valuables.

Abel Drugger is a tobacconist who wants his newly-opened shop to succeed. Under the guise of advising him on the luckiest stock and furnishings, the trio robs him of a lot of valuable tobacco.

Drugger introduces them to two acquaintances recently arrived from the country. Kastril is a quarrelsome young gentleman who wants to learn how to argue in the sophisticated manner of the town. His sister, Dame Pliant, is wealthy and recently widowed. The three smell profit in both of them.

Sir Epicure Mammon is rich, and would like to be richer – and younger, and more sexually vital. He is quickly convinced that Subtle is close to perfecting the Philosopher’s Stone that can turn all things into gold and is a key ingredient in the Elixir of Youth. Mammon hands over a fortune in household goods to pay for Subtle’s experiments. He also falls in love (or more likely, in lust) with Doll after catching an unintended glimpse of her. He is accompanied by Sir Pertinax Surly, a skeptical friend who tries without success to expose the con, dressing up as a Spanish nobleman at one point and allowing himself to be led towards a marriage with Dame Pliant.

Tribulation Wholesome and his sidekick Ananias are Anabaptists, members of a strict Protestant church with puritanical leanings. Despite this, though, they are intent on perpetrating a con of their own: using Subtle’s gold-making prowess to counterfeit Dutch money in order to advance their sect’s position there – increasing their own wealth and influence in the process.

Needless to say, the various plots collide horribly over the course of the play. The three con artists quarrel endlessly, refusing to trust each other because they are all liars and cheats. Subtle’s lab explodes at a critical moment. People from one plot arrive unexpectedly to interrupt the progress of another. In other words, farce ensues.

At the height of the chaos, the householder Lovewit returns unexpectedly. Despite his servant’s best efforts, the various plots are exposed one by one as things come undone. Subtle and Doll flee empty-handed rather than face the wrath of the law. Face – now Jeremy again – placates his master by offering him marriage to the wealthy Dame Pliant. The remaining plots are quickly wrapped up and the play ends with Lovewit triumphant and Jeremy chastened.


 

Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson by Abraham van Blyenberch, circa 1617

Ben Jonson was a contemporary of Shakespeare, and this play was first performed in 1610. His language is similar to Shakespeare’s, but includes more contemporary London slang. Don’t be put off by that, though. Any edition worth its salt will come with explanations and footnotes. If you can find a stage production, you will find that the frantic pace pulls everything together beautifully. I would recommend a film or TV adaptation, but there don’t seem to be any, which is a pity.

Alchemist cover

 

So there you have it. A town setting, multiple plots, colorful characters, greed, lust, chicanery – it’s all very WFRP, even though it’s not fantasy.

Watch out for more #DetlefSierckPresents posts, and I’ll share more of the things I was watching and reading when I worked on WFRP. Perhaps they will inspire you, too.

Troll à la Morceaux: A Warhammer Recipe

January 13, 2020 5 comments

This short piece of fiction was written in 1989 or 1990 for a never-published sourcebook on Ogres and Trolls in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. Marcel de Morceaux is mentioned in the adventure collection Rough Nights and Hard Days, and I might use him in some future adventure if the opportunity presents itself.

Marcel’s cookbook Adventures in Gastronomy includes some of the most ambitious – and dangerous – recipes ever published in the Old World. It is banned in many places, and of all its contents, Troll à la Morceaux is considered the riskiest. Even if every precaution is taken to ensure that the Troll does not regenerate back to life during the cooking process, one can never be sure….

Very few are brave or foolish enough to try this dish, but there are some in the Old World who will venture beyond the limits of convention and common sense in search of new and unique experiences.


Feast

Picture from Lure of Power: Nobility in the Empire (Fantasy Flight Games, 2009). Used without permission. No challenge intended to copyright holders.

The preparation of the flesh of the Troll requires the greatest care and the most trustworthy of assistants, but if the many pitfalls can be overcome, a chef who can present his lord with a dish such as Troll à la Morceaux will never want for employment. But you must remember, mes amis, that one mistake can lead to disaster, and such a disaster can lead to the gallows or worse.

Firstly, your Troll must be absolutely fresh. Do not trust those robbers who will sell you venison at ten times the price and tell you it is Unicorn or Troll. Great cookery demands that no short-cuts may be taken.

The butchering of a Troll presents several unique problems, but a chef who is truly dedicated to his art may be daunted by nothing. The Troll must be securely bound, with its head held in such a way that it cannot eat the ropes that bind it. As each cut of meat is removed from the carcass, it must be placed immediately in a strong marinade of vinegar – the strongest vinegar you can find, for the presence of acid will slow down the process of regeneration.

Any waste and off-cuts must be burned immediately, or if you have arranged to sell pieces to a wizard or alchemist, he must be on hand to take them away tout à l’instant. Remember, and drum constantly into your servants, that not even the smallest scrap of the carcass must be left lying about.

You must be extremely careful when cleaning the carcass, Remember the great size of the stomach, and the immense power of the acid it contains. If at all possible, seek the guidance of a wizard or alchemist in carrying out this process; it is not too much to offer him the stomach in payment for his supervision, for a mishap with a Troll’s stomach can be a catastrophe véritable.

After the meat has stood in the vinegar marinade for two hours, inspect it closely; if it shows the slightest signs of regeneration, add more vinegar. Keep the meat in the marinade for as long as you can – the longer it stays there, the more tender it will be when cooked – but take no chances.

Enfin, we come to the cooking of the meat. This requires the greatest of care, and must be carried out in two stages.

First, the meat must be seared to prevent it regenerating once it is removed from the vinegar marinade. Use a large skillet of cast iron, and heat it until it literally begins to glow. Drop the meat in, turning it repeatedly until all sides are seared black.

This done, the meat is roasted, fried, or stewed in the same way as beef or venison, allowing double the normal cooking time.

A final word of warning. Do not – jamais, never – undercook Troll. When le patron demands his Troll medium rare, it is perhaps time to consider a change of employment.

Trolls in the Pantry

If something goes wrong, the result could be like this – but not as funny.

WFRP Memories: A Rough Night at the Three Feathers

October 27, 2017 4 comments

 

Orlygg at the Realm of Chaos 80s blog has just posted a very nice piece about “A Rough Night at the Three Feathers,” which I wrote back in 1987. I wrote it largely as an experiment, to see whether multi-plot adventures could even work: people liked it, and it has gone on to be one of the most-reprinted pieces written for WFRP. After its original publication in White Dwarf 94, it appeared in The Restless Dead, Apocrypha Now, and – with Second Edition stats – in Plundered Vaults.

I’ve returned to the same format twice for WFRP, and once for d20. “Nastassia’s Wedding” appeared in Pyramid #19 in 1996, with stats for GURPS Fantasy was well as WFRP, and the Third Edition adventure The Edge of Night included a society party where Skaven were just one of many problems. “The Last Resort” in Green Ronin’s Tales of Freeport returns to an inn location, on a night beset with mummies, assassins, loan sharks, serpent cultists, and more.

In 1987, though, all this was in the future. My initial impetus for writing “Three Feathers” was the popularity (at the time) of bar-room brawl scenarios. White Dwarf 11 started it off with “A Bar-Room Brawl – D&D Style” by Lew Pulsipher, which was reprinted in The Best of White Dwarf Scenarios. Others followed – including “Rumble at the Tin Inn” for RuneQuest – and when WFRP was published in 1986, we knew it would need some adventures and articles in White Dwarf to support it (more on that here). One possibility was a bar-room brawl scenario – they were simple in structure and should be fairly quick to write, which was just what was needed since there was no official budget and schedule for producing WFRP support material during work hours.

I set to work, coming up with the Three Feathers inn (though in my mind, the feathers were bunched together on the inn sign, like the three ostrich plumes of the Prince of Wales’ insignia) and a diverse cast of characters, each with a reason for being there and some cross-plots that would bring them into conflict with others. But, as I always do, I had way too much fun developing the characters and plots, and the concept grew beyond the needs of a simple bar-room brawl scenario. First, I thought I would pick one plot, develop it, and file the rest away for future use – but then I had an idea: why  not use all of them at once?

In my mind, the Three Feathers’ inn sign looked a little more like this – but without the crown.

As far as I knew (and still know) it had never been done in roleplaying games before, but there were strong precedents in other media. On stage, colliding plots have been an element of farces since Roman times. One commentator described “Three Feathers” as “a classic British hotel farce,” and anyone old enough to remember the names Ben Travers and Brian Rix will know exactly what he means. I wanted to capture the manic action of farces like Fawlty Towers, A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Forum, and so on, blending it with the sneaking action of caper comedies like The Pink Panther.

I had to think quite hard about how to present the adventure. There was no way to know what might happen with all these plots taking place at once, especially when a group of PCs got involved. So I simply described the location and the NPCs, outlined each plot, and compiled a timeline of what should happen if the PCs weren’t there. A few words of encouragement for the GM (which can be summarized in Douglas Adams’ timeless words, “Don’t Panic!”) and off it went to White Dwarf.

Honestly, I had no idea whether it would work or not. I knew that I could handle it as a GM, therefore it was theoretically workable by others, but had I set things out well enough? Would it just confuse people, or would it all come crashing down mid-game leaving players and GMs dissatisfied and angry? It was a great relief when the first positive responses began to come in.

Oh, and WFRP did get a bar-room brawl scenario of its very own, just a couple of months later. Jim Bambra and Matt Connell wrote “Mayhem at the Mermaid” for White Dwarf 96. Then the fashion for bar-room brawl scenarios faded, and as far as I know people simply stopped writing them. Today, they are a largely forgotten style of adventure: perhaps a blogger somewhere will trace the history of the form and assess its lasting contribution to RPG adventure design. I would certainly be interested to read it.

Oh, and one last piece of trivia. I got the title from a Western called A Rough Night in Jericho. I have never actually seen it, but evidently it includes a bar-room brawl scene, as I saw a still somewhere or other and the title stuck in my mind until I stole it for “Three Feathers.” Make of that what you will….

More
My Complete and Utter Warhammer Bibliography
The Restless Dead: The Forgotten WFRP Campaign