Episode 64: I Have Nightmares That Are Like That

This month, Roger and Mike consider a historical mystery, ponder how little you can get away with telling your players, and wonder whether a rigid lack of metaplot can be as bad as having metaplot in the first place.

We mentioned

Bella in the Wych Elm, With a Long Spoon, The Good Place, GURPS Cabal, Play Dirty, The Wonderland Gambit, The Strange, Nine Princes in Amber, the Doctor Who story The Mind Robber (Michael was confusing The Celestial Toymaker with this story. They are both dead weird), Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, Roger’s WWII game, GURPS Banestorm, the Nika riots, MegaTraveller and new Era, and Microscope.

Music by Kevin MacLeod at incompetech.com.


It seems to me that with Bella in the Wych Elm, the only thing you really have is the wych elm — otherwise it’s a very quotidian murder — so you have to make the wych elm significant. If you come at it from the point of view of the PCs investigating the crime, then the fact that the killer put the body in the wych elm has to be the key to the solution, and if you come at it from the point of view of the PCs as the killers then there has to be a particular reason for them to put the body there. In fact it was probably just a convenient place of concealment that the killer knew about, but in a mystery adventure (I think) it has to be crucial or else it becomes Chekov’s Wych Elm.

One possibility that you did not discuss is that perhaps the killers had to put Bella in the Wych Elm because that was the only way to kill her or ensure that she stayed dead. I am minded of the undead dwarf Abhartach, who had to be buried head down to prevent his return. Perhaps Bella was some sort of enemy fay who could only be prevented by her imprisonment in the tree from striking some dread stroke against England.

I am obliquely put in mind of the sorceress or fairy Nimue, a figure in Arthurian lore who imprisoned Merlin in an oak, amongst other crucial deeds. Perhaps the only way to get Arthur out of the Oak was to put Nimue in the Elm.

For a north Worcestershire lad like myself Bella in the Wych Elm is an enduring and still mysterious local tale. I hadn’t considered using it for gaming before but I am now wondering if I could tie it into another local tale, involving one of the Devil’s very own imps getting turned to stone. Creativity level is rising!

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One trick is that it’s not a particularly exceptional tree (and it’s been suggested in at least one source that it was probably actually a hazel bush). If you just needed the tree/bush to be of the right species, there are places you could do it that would be much harder to find.

I seem to remember that an elm grew when Orpheus and Eurydice rested after escaping from the Underworld. Orpheus sung her a love song, and the elm grew on the spot. Maybe the association with love and returning from the dead means that this was a botched resurrection and not a murder?

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Decans are great for gaming. They help to explain anything. Elm is associated with Bianakith, the decan of mankind, or at least their physical bodies.

A simple magical explanation is that it was a sacrifice that worked. Giving the timing, there’s an obvious possibility: that there was someone from the area on one of the early PQ series convoys to Arkhangelsk, and someone decided to try to ensure his safety.

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Maybe the magic is so subtle and profound that it is hard to see what has changed. The PCs’ job then becomes to determine what the working did, perhaps under the guise of investigating the murder.

In this scenario magic is almost like temporal manipulation. Once the change has happened it has always been that way.

I liked the train of thought that the victim was a sacrifice in a ritual, moreso the thought that it had to happen in every country involved.

I would take it further and say that the sacrifice insured warlike behaviour of the country in question. The players find out that the same sacrifice happened in Germany to start the war; England to insure their survival of the blitz.

In '41, the players could be in the moral quandary of wanting a sacrifice to occur in Japan (to force Pearl Harbor to happen) or to occur in US (to insure entry into the war), but trying to stop them in other countries.

Would also open interesting parallel world/time travel possibilities.


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As for driving the PCs into ritually sacrificing an innocent, I have actually done that once. It was a seven-part adventure that I ran in the second half of second semester 1986 at ANU, strictly constrained to end before swot vac. So I didn’t have to save anything for later. By the time I got to the climax one PC was dead (having made a despairing suicide bombing to take out the B-plot bad guy) and four of the players were kind of stunned into ineffectuality (I interpreted it is their characters being in stress reaction). The remaining two* kidnapped a Greek Orthodox nun with brutal resolve and killed her on the Omphalos at Delphi.

* One had been going steadily crazier since the thing in Japan — it was a stressful campaign for the PCs. The other was the bloke who had introduced the practice of human sacrifice to the Aztecs.