This scenario originally appeared in White Dwarf 71 (November 1985) and for commercial reasons had to be dual-statted for Dragon Warriors and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. It later got resurrected for Magnum Opus Press's In From The Cold book, where James Wallis wrote of it: "A Box of Old Bones has been out of print [since 1985], though clandestine copies have been circulating among the game’s fans. Not only is its action set in the middle of Baron Aldred’s fief, at the heart of many campaigns — Osterlin Abbey is marked on the map on page 219 of the Dragon Warriors rulebook — but it also gives important insights into the organization and workings of the True Faith, particularly its institutions such as abbeys and monasteries."
Belatedly I should thank Penny Newman, who mentioned the brisk trade in stolen relics during the Middle Ages and thus gave me the idea for the adventure. One monastery could embarrass another by taking a relic, for if providence allowed the theft then presumably the original monastery wasn't worthy of the relic in the first place. Naturally there is no centralized authority that you can appeal to, and local lords will be only too happy to side with whichever monastery lies in their own fiefdom, as the presence of a relic brings pilgrims and hence wealth and prestige.
A BOX OF OLD BONES
An adventure for six characters of 1st-2nd rank
The life of an adventurer is constantly threatened by the powers of evil and darkness, and the advantage of owning a relic is obvious. Relics—the bodily fragments or personal effects of saints—possess sacred power, and are physical evidence of the truth and history of the religion. Monasteries prize these items for another reason, however. Possession of a relic gives the monastery status and prestige. Still more mundanely, a monastery that owns a renowned relic is more likely to attract notice, and to receive the rich endowments that nobles hand out in their pious moments. Men (even holy men) being what they are, this means that fake relics abound, and monasteries vie for ownership of the authentic ones with a zeal that is often all too secular.
This, then, is a tale of human greed.
Osterlin Abbey [marked in red on the map above] houses a priceless relic: the mortal remains of Saint Giles. Great lords and ladies come from far away to venerate the relic, often bringing lavish gifts for the Abbey’s coffers. The monks of Osterlin live well as a result.
Recently, a knight called Notker of Balcom was engaged by the monks of a rival abbey who wish to obtain the relic. They had already sent one of their number to join Osterlin as a novice and thus have a spy within the abbey walls. Their spy had assessed the lay brothers whose job it is to guard the relic. When the time was right, he bribed those he deemed most venal so they would allow Notker to enter the church at dead of night and substitute the bones of some nonentity for those of the famous saint.
The plan is for Notker to visit the abbey for a few days. One of the travelling-chests of his entourage will contain a skeleton which he can switch for the true relic on the last night of his visit. The theft should not be detected until he is long gone—if indeed it ever is.
But this elegant plan has developed a fatal flaw at its outset. The spy misjudged the character of one of those he tried to bribe; as soon as he pocketed the money, this man went secretly to the abbot and told him what had happened. Seeing a means to embarrass the local monks, weed out untrustworthy lay brothers, and even pick up a little cash from the bribes the spy was offering, Father Eorwin instructed him to give no indication that anything was amiss. ‘Accept further bribes as they are offered, invent difficulties for which you will need even more. Breathe no word of this to any other lay brother, for others may not have your own exemplary nature.’
As the lay brother left (perhaps happily contemplating the advancement which he had surely secured for himself ), the abbot began to make plans of his own. Calling the monks together in the Chapter House, he told them the whole story. Many were outraged, demanding immediate expulsion of the guilty lay brothers, and some form of action against the rival order. Eorwin lifted his hand for silence. ‘But if they want our relic so badly,’ he said with a smile half saintly and half rather devilish, ‘we should allow them to steal it...’
The relic was quietly removed to the abbot’s house for temporary safekeeping. Thus, unbeknownst to Notker and his accomplices, they will merely be switching their skeleton for another that is no more sacred.
You have often heard travelers mention Osterlin Abbey, famous for the bones of St Giles the Martyr that are kept in a reliquary in the church there. The hospitality shown to wayfarers is scarcely less famous and perhaps this is why, on your way to Hesard’s Ford (or any other destination), you consider it worth a slight detour to visit the abbey.
It is late in the afternoon as you approach. Sunlight sparkles off the brook that provides the monks with drinking water and a plentiful supply of fish. A few peasants in shabby rags wander in a line through the meadows. They have just collected pork and grain from the abbey’s almonry. Lay brothers have been hard at work tending the fields, but now they are hurrying back for vespers.
You are met by a slightly built monk who seems to be the guest-master. ‘Alas!’ he says, shaking his head as you approach. ‘We cannot take you in. Sir Notker of Balcom and his retinue presently occupy the larger of our guest houses, while the other must be kept ready for a group of pilgrims who will be arriving shortly. I am sorry.’
‘What are you saying, Giraldus?’ calls out an elderly monk who has been helping pass out the alms. ‘Would you have these good people sleep in the fields, with this cold wind coming down from the north? There are a few pallets in the lay brothers’ dormitory, I’m sure.’
Brother Giraldus complies at once. As he leads you away towards the lay brothers’ dormitory, he tells you that the elderly monk was Eorwin, the abbot.
1. Smaller Guesthouse The guest-master, Brother Giraldus, and two assistants occupy a room here. The other rooms are empty, awaiting the arrival of a pilgrim group on the morrow.
2. Larger Guesthouse This is where Notker and his companions have been staying.
7. Orchard There are apple and pear trees here, and a number of beehives clustered by the cellarium.
8. Lay Brothers’ Dormitory This occupies the top floor of the building above the cellarium (store room) and lay brothers’ frater, or living quarters. The player characters will be sharing it with the menials from Notker’s entourage, and with fifty lay brothers and novices. Apart from Cadric, all the NPCs here are normal men with no combat experience.
9. The Cloister The hub of monastic life. The section adjacent to the church constitutes the scriptorium. Here, in bays called carrels, monks spend part of each day reading and copying manuscripts.
10. Water-Trough This stone bowl has running water for the monks to wash their hands before dinner.
12. Dining Hall
13. Calefactory A fire burns here throughout the day in winter, so that any monk who gets too cold while working in the scriptorium can come to warm his hands.
14. Monks’ Dormitory The dormitory is over the monks’ frater (common room), and extends above the chapter house and library right up to the south transept of the church. From here, the night stairs (24d) lead down into the church. There are some twenty-five monks usually resident in the dormitory, and none of these have more than basic fighting skill.
15. The Abbot’s Lodging This is Father Eorwin’s private house, usually also occupied by a couple of monks or lay brothers who act as his secretary and servant.
16. Reredorter, or latrine. An ingenious sewage system leads underground into the stream.
17. Chapter House This is on the ground floor, under the monks’ dormitory. The monks assemble here daily to discuss the running of the abbey and other secular business.
18. Library This houses about two hundred scrolls and five hundred books—many of the latter chained up. Even if they could gain access (it is kept locked and only the librarian, claustal prior and Father Eorwin have keys) most adventurers would find the contents rather boring.
19. Chapel This small place of worship is attached to the infirmary.
20. Infirmary This is for the treatment of sick and elderly monks. The infirmarian here is Brother Odilo, a jovial fellow whose cheeks are often flushed with drink. He sees to all medical treatment as well as the blood-letting which every monk enjoys twice yearly. In these tasks Odilo substitutes enthusiasm and goodwill in place of medical skill.
21. Infirmary Kitchen
24. The Church By night this is an eerie place, illuminated only by the red glare of the sanctuary lamp and the moonbeams streaming through stained glass windows. The first service of the day, consisting of Nocturns and then the Lauds of the Dead, takes place a half-hour after midnight. The various parts of the church are:
a. The nave
b. Rood screen: a large carved and painted screen surmounted by an ornate crucifix.
c. A newel stairway that leads up to the belfry and down to the undercroft. Several abbots and prestigious benefactors are buried in the undercroft, while others are in the graveyard outside.
d. Night stairs down from the monks’ dormitory. When the PCs come upon Notker et al, the stairway will be occupied by the ghostly manifestation of Adamnan’s magic Whispering Hat.
e. Chancel with altar and decorated with ornate paneling
g. Chantry chapel bequeathed by Gefmund, father of the present baron.
h. Reliquary chapel. The cause of all the trouble is kept here in a silver casket inlaid with mother-of-pearl and supported by two partly gilded silver angels. Tonight, of course, the remains of St Giles reside elsewhere and the bones of an old peasant are accorded a temporary honor.
The player-characters and any companions they have with them are given pallets in the lay brothers’ dormitory. This is certainly unusual for persons of any standing (presumably some of the characters, at least, will be knights), but is sometimes necessary at important abbeys such as this, which may have to accommodate several groups at once. If any of the group are wizards of any type, they would know to keep quiet about it. Such folk, often thought pagan, are rarely welcome at a monastery.
Many of the lay-brothers were taken in by the monks at a very early age and have spent their whole lives around the cloister. Some were freemen who joined in later life but these are still for the most part young men. One is of the gentry—Cadric (see stats); he is still learning to be humble and may become very belligerent if the characters try to treat him in an overbearing manner.
Along with the lay brothers, they are sharing the dormitory with the menials from Notker’s entourage. If they care to question these menials they will soon discover they are not peasants from Notker’s manor (as might be expected) but were hired at a good rate from the village of Ashmore. Ashmore lies some three days journey away on the far side of Helfax Wood. It seems that when Notker first arrived there he was travelling with a group of monks. If the characters are beginning to show an interest in their tale the menials will expect a few silver pieces for the last tidbit: the monks who were with Notker were not from Osterlin Abbey.
Supper follows vespers. Everyone, including guests and lay brothers, eats together. The characters sit at Father Eorwin’s table along with Notker and his retinue, but no talking is permitted as one of the monks is reading aloud from Barnabas’s Life of St Giles. The long tables are a flurry of motion as the monks converse in sign language, while the abbot and his guests sit in quiet dignity.
Their first impression of Notker is of an intense, hard-faced knight in early middle age. He seems always alert, watching like a hawk, assessing everything and everyone with sharp intelligence. Not a man to cross. With him are four men and a woman. Three of the men are obviously knights, while the fourth—a short, pudgy fellow with short grey hair—may be Notker’s personal priest. The woman may be a nun, for she wears the black robes worn by nuns or widows.
Supper is frugal for all but the abbot and his guests—but this is after all one of the more luxurious monasteries. Most serve only one meal a day. The meal over, the brothers and lay brothers file off to the church for the short service of compline. Most will then retire gratefully to their dormitories, exhausted from their long day, though a few may walk a while in the cloister, or spend half an hour chatting in the parlor.
Father Eorwin, with Giraldus the guest-master and the claustral prior Willibrord, take all the guests to the abbot’s lodgings. They are offered some of the fine minty liqueur that the monks prepare, and there is the chance for a little conversation. Astute characters may notice a certain coldness between Adamnan (the grey-haired tubby priest) and Lady Marianna (the nun). Notker himself talks distractedly, as if preoccupied. The three knights—Einhard, Grest and Denchille—are glum military types who keep themselves to themselves and seem uncomfortable with small talk, though they can be drawn into enthusiastic discussion on such subjects as campaigning, warhorses, jousts and the finer points of swordplay.
Before very long, Notker gets to his feet. He thanks the monks for their hospitality and, noting their tiredness, bids them goodnight. All the guests see this as the cue to turn in. Willibrord shows the characters back to the lay brothers’ dormitory.
You can approach this sequence in two ways: you can simply tell a PC of your choice what happens, or you can role-play through it, as they wake in the middle of the night with a feeling of dread. Whichever you choose, try to create a sense of strangeness, of the world not being quite right, as if the character is still half in a dream—perhaps the residual effects of the Hand of Glory, or something more sinister.
One of the characters comes awake to see a grotesque shadow looming over his pallet. He sits bolt upright, but manages to stifle a cry of alarm when he sees that it is just a shadow cast by one of the stone figures that adorn the cloister roof. Sweating, he gets up and goes over to the window to breathe in the fresh night air. The stone figure squats outside the narrow window. Whimsically following its gaze, he sees a strange thing: a man in a large cloak steps furtively from the dark cloisters into the courtyard below. Starkly visible for a moment in the light of the moon, he dips his hand into the water-trough and brings out a small item that was concealed there. After a quick glance about, he darts back into the enveloping shadows of the cloister.
The referee should select a responsible and responsive player-character for this—one who will realize that something suspicious is afoot and wake his companions. Attempts to wake the lay brothers will be mostly unsuccessful. This is because Adamnan the sorcerer is using his Hand of Glory, an occult talisman which holds 0th-rank characters in deep sleep. If they go around the whole dormitory, they will be able to awaken only Cadric, Gondris the spy and three others whose monastic discipline makes them equivalent to a ranked character. Of course, if Gondris is woken then he will slip away at the first opportunity and hurry straight to the church to warn Notker.
Trying to wake the lay brothers would cost the player-characters time that they may not wish to waste. The same can be said of armoring up, and in fact only the most wretchedly uncouth of characters would don heavy armour in the monastery without a very good and proven reason. The GM may allow a boorish and timorous barbarian to pull on a mail shirt if he insists on doing so, but others barely have time to put on leather jerkins.
After descending the stairs to the cloister, the characters will notice a flicker of lantern light beyond the scriptorium. This is quickly cut off by a heavy door closing. Someone is in the church—and there is no sign of the four lay brothers who should be standing guard on the church steps.
Interlude: Notker’s PlanBy means of his bribes Notker has ensured that the church keys would be secreted in the water trough where he could easily obtain them. The four lay brothers who should have been guarding the church have been paid off. At Notker’s signal they fetched out the two monks who normally stand watch directly in front of the reliquary chapel, claiming they had seen intruders crossing the lawn between the infirmary and the graveyard. The monks (who were pleased to go along with this diversion) took two of the lay brothers on a tour of the abbey grounds. The remaining two guards waited until they saw Notker approaching and then hurried off towards the orchard. If anything goes wrong with the theft, they can later claim to have gone looking for the others.
At this point it is about a quarter to midnight— almost an hour before the monks are due to come down to sing Nocturns. Notker’s intention was to enter the church, have Adamnan place the Whispering Hat (q.v.) at the bottom of the night stairs so no sleepless monk would overhear anything, then quickly substitute his bag of bones for what he thinks is the true relic.
He has nearly accomplished this when a complication arises. A monk called Cedric has been travelling from Clyster Port for the last few weeks and has returned at this late hour. He is accompanied by a man he met on his journey, Ruttgur of the Knights Capellar. Both men being extremely devout, they have entered the church by the porch door at the west end of the nave (normally locked of course, but Cedric has a key) in order to say a short prayer before retiring. Thus neither knows anything about Notker’s theft, or Father Eorwin’s plan to turn the tables on him. As they round the rood screen they come face to face with Notker and his group. With the gate of the reliquary chapel open and the keys in his hand, they have caught Notker in the act of committing the crime. The player characters should arrive on the scene around this point in time.
The villains of the piece
Notker of Balcom intends to divest the abbey of its great relic, the bones of St Giles. With him are three trusty retainers—Einhard, Grost and Denchille. His monastic employers hope for a smooth and uneventful robbery which may not be detected for many months, but just in case anything goes wrong they have provided two magical helpers in the form of Adamnan the sorcerer and Lady Marianne. If anything should upset the plan (as Ruttgur, Cedric and the player characters hopefully will) Adamnan’s Astral Gate scroll should allow for a dramatic exit. Remember that it will take Adamnan four rounds to prepare this spell if he needs it: one to take out the scroll and three to visualize his destination—an ancient stone circle near the village of Ashmore.
Notker of Balcom
Formerly a knight of the most chivalrous and noble sort, Notker became embittered by the atrocities he witnessed on the Crusade. In middle age he has become a sometime adventurer and agent for anyone who can pay him to do their dirty work. This is more out of world-weariness than greed or bad character. He has no desire to see anyone hurt, and his sword has remained sheathed until the point where Ruttgur attacks him in church. Years of adventuring have taught Notker to think on his feet—he can change his plans quickly and cleverly. If things are going very badly, he will abort the mission (probably escaping through Adamnan’s Astral Gate) rather than struggling on to the bitter end.
A small, fat man who is impressive more for the magical items he possesses than for any personal power. He is timid, and in any confrontation will keep well out of danger. His face is often damp with perspiration and his eyes may be a little watery from too much drink. The latter, combined with his reluctance to use sorcery on consecrated ground, gives him a 10% chance of miscasting any spell.
Adamnan’s special Items
The Whispering Hat If turned inside out and placed on the floor in front of an arch or doorway, this black felt hat gives rise to an insubstantial shadowy figure. The figure has the vague outline of a tall man in a spreading cloak and felt hat. It does not attack or move, being merely a visual manifestation of the spell involved. Even the loudest clamor and shouting is muffled by the spell so that from the other side of the figure it can be heard only as a faint whisper – hence the name.
Hand of Glory This is the severed, preserved and treated hand of a suicide. The candle gripped in its stiff fingers gives off a light that only Adamnan can see by. While alight, it prevents slumbering characters of 0th rank/level from awakening. This effect extends over both dormitories, though in fact many of the monks count as higher than 0th level by virtue of their spiritual tranquility and strength. The hand of glory will burn for about fifteen minutes, and can be extinguished only by blood (of which Adamnan carries a vial), milk or holy water.
Scroll. This fine parchment contains an Astral Gate spell. It was scripted by a sorcerer in Beltayn and obtained for Adamnan’s use in this specific mission at considerable expense to his employers. It is designed for affording a rapid escape route if anything should go wrong.
The Casket of Fays This is Adamnan's most extraordinary item, though he does not fully understand its workings. It is a small silver-bound pine coffer. Each time it is opened, some strange and unpredictable effect results. Adamnan believes that it may be used twice a day but, if opened a third time, all the fays would escape and its power would be gone. Actually he is mistaken; the casket may be opened any number of times without draining its power, though eventually it will be retrieved by its makers (see 13 below). The casket's effects are:
- A tendril of green flame snakes out of the casket to strike a single target within 10m. The user can specify the target, but if he does not then the flame will double back and hit him. (Treat as a Dragonbreath spell.)
- Everyone within 10m is struck dumb for one minute.
- A haunting siren song emanates from the casket. Characters must roll equal to or under their rank/level on 1d20 or stand entranced. The roll must be made each round unless the character can block his ears. The duration of the song is set by a Spell Expiry Roll, unless cut short by closing the casket.
- A foul plague of grey rats pour from the casket and rush away in all directions, only to vanish mysteriously when they reach cover such as a wall, thicket or shadows. They attack no one, but all characters in the vicinity have a 10% chance of contracting the Black Death.
- A random sorcery spell of 1st-8th level is cast upon any one specified character within 10m. The user of the casket does not know in advance what this spell will be; it could just as well be baneful as beneficial.
- Utter darkness fills a zone of 10m radius, and no creature or spell can see within it. This effect also prevents the user from seeing. The darkness lasts until cancelled by a Spell Expiry Roll or until the lid is closed.
- An illusory duplicate of one (randomly determined) character within 10m is formed. This moves and speaks according to the casket user's mental commands, but has no power to harm a character even if believed. Unless dispelled by shutting the lid, it lasts until its Spell Expiry Roll comes up.
- An unaccountable blizzard blows out of the casket, affecting anyone in front of it in a roughly 90° arc to a distance of 10m. Torches and unshuttered lanterns are extinguished and characters must roll under their strength on d20 each round or pass out from the extreme cold. The blizzard lasts 1-6 rounds whether or not the lid is closed. A character caught in it for more than four rounds suffers 1d6 HP frostbite damage (but only 1d4 if clad in thick furs, protected by a Survival spell, etc).
- The user opens the casket and pulls out a spriggan. ATTACK 9; DEFENCE 9; barbs (d10,1); AF1; 1d4+1 HP; EVASION 8; MAG ATT 16; MAG DEF 6; move 25m. There is a 70% chance that the spriggan will attack a character whom the user points out, and a 30% chance it will attack one of his own companions, though it will never turn on the user himself. In addition to normal attacks, this vicious little fiend can lay a curse seven times a day. This ability affects one victim within 15m; use the normal curse rules or the special table in The Elven Crystals.
- A booming voice from the casket's depths speaks the name of the most powerful character within 10m. Only if there is no other person within 10m will the user be named. The victim suffers a 1d20 fright attack which may leave him rigid with fear for 2-8 rounds.
- A storm of pine needles streams from the casket. Anyone within 10m who was facing the user must roll under reflexes on d20 or be blinded for the next 2-12 rounds. The effect lasts for five rounds, and no one can approach the user until it subsides. It is impossible to close the lid while the pine needles are shooting out.
- Seven vampire bats flap out of the casket and swoop to attack a foe indicated by the user. Unless slain, these creatures remain until dissolved into shadows by a Spell Expiry Roll. If the casket is shut before they have vanished, they abandon their original victim and return to attack the user.
- Dank fog swirls around the user. There is a smell of soil and trees and cloying mushrooms. Tall figures glide forward, then half-glimpsed hands wrench the casket from him. The fog dissipates, leaving no trace of the mysterious figures or the Casket of Fays.
Unless otherwise stated above, the user of the casket is not affected by its powers.
A slender, imperious woman in early middle age (about thirty). She affects the somber habit of a nun or genteel widow, though she belongs to neither category. The reality is that she is a mystic. She was hired, like Adamnan, to provide magical back-up on this mission: the two of them maintain a vitriolic rivalry.
Einhard, Grost and Denchille
These three stalwarts have been with Notker for years. He paupered himself to get the four of them to the Holy Land, and they have been doggedly loyal to him ever since. They are very unimaginative except in matters military and for the purposes of this scenario they may be treated as average in all characteristics (including Reflexes of 11).
The other two NPCs who will definitely become embroiled in the adventure are Ruttgur and Cedric. They will be fighting against Notker’s group—probably, but not certainly, alongside the PCs. One of the lay brothers, Cadric, is also detailed here as he may get involved. Other monks should be treated as untrained normal men, if needed.
A tall, broad-shouldered warrior who recently returned from the Crusade. His white tabard with eight-pointed indigo cross on the chest marks him out as one of the Knights Capellar, a fighting order formed in the last few years to protect pilgrims and settlers in the Holy Land. Unlike most people, Ruttgur has no reservations about spilling blood in a church or anywhere else. He is a violent fanatic, and behaves in just the way that a good Capellar is supposed to behave.
Cedric, an intense dedicated man, has been absent from the abbey for over a month. Consequently he knows nothing about the plot and counter-plot. If the player-characters side with Ruttgur then he may leave them and run to wake the monks. Remember that he will have to pass through the shadowy figure formed by the Whispering Hat in order to reach the night stairs, and he has no way of knowing that it cannot hurt him. If the player characters throw in their lot with Notker, Cedric will have to take up his staff and wade in—he will not leave Ruttgur to fight them alone, and the Capellar will not retreat.
A young gentleman who recently joined the abbey as a lay brother. He has a quick temper which he is trying to curb. He occasionally guards the relic though not tonight; and for this purpose he keeps a heavy iron-shod crucifix by his pallet. In the event of trouble, this serves very effectively as a mace.
The lay brother who has been acting as Notker’s cloister spy. At the first hint of trouble he will try to warn Notker, if this seems possible without jeopardizing his own safety. After that he will make his getaway over the orchard wall.
The scenario should allow for a talked-out solution or a denouement with drawn swords, according to the tastes of the gaming group. But PCs who prefer a subtle approach, and would rather offer Notker a chance to give himself up, will have their hands full calming Ruttgur down.
If Notker escapes with the skeleton, Father Eorwin may offer the characters the job of going after him. This is only for the sake of appearances—he doesn’t care about getting the bones back, but the rival monks would be suspicious if no force was sent out to retrieve the ‘relic’. Eorwin wants them to put their stolen skeleton on show with all pomp before he reveals it to be fake. This alternative leads to the player-characters becoming innocent dupes of course—the pawns in a game played by far more influential men—but any grudges they develop against the NPCs in question can only be good for the long-term campaign.
If Notker is caught, or at least prevented from accomplishing his theft, the characters should expect some gratitude from the monks. Some, but not much—they may have acted from the very best of motives, but in effect they only blundered in and spoiled a perfectly good bluff. Small consolation comes from the fact that they now have firm friends in Brother Cedric and Ruttgur, who might have been in for a long spell in the infirmary if they hadn’t come along when they did.
Characters who try something crazy like teaming up with Notker or dashing through the Astral Gate after him will not benefit much from the adventure. They should get few experience points, and Notker will soon manage to lose them.
The version of the scenario in In From The Cold included some interesting idea from the Magnum Opus writing team. One possibility was that if Notker saw the game was up, he might turn the tables on the player-characters, accusing them of being the thieves in order to buy time to make a getaway. There was also a suggestion for how Father Eorwin might reveal the stolen bones to be fake by having previously concealed a note rolled up inside the cracked thigh-bone.
*There may be another freebie on Christmas Eve btw. Maybe. Drop by and take a look under the tree.