Session Review: A Folklore Bestiary & Jack-in-Irons

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"Least ugly creature on the British Isles"
Art by Letty Wilson, for A Folklore Bestiary.

I recently got my hands on A Folklore Bestiary by the Merry Mushmen and I had friends in from out of town who wanted me to run a session for them. Running a session with a strict time limit is always challenging, so let’s review how I designed the adventure and what decisions I made while running the game.

Introducing Tonight’s Villain: The English

Jack-in-Irons – a legend from the north of England – is one of the many creatures in the Folklore Bestiary, a wonderful and gorgeous book full of inspiration. However, not all of the creatures in the book make good adventure material – some might work better as standalone encounters – and others still don’t make good one-session adventure material – working better in the context of a campaign. The adventure I ran wasn’t really about Jack-in-Irons, though he was the primary conflict. Effectively, the players were tasked with plundering a cursed monastery while Jack harassed them. I was definitely inspired by the legend as written in the book but adjusted it to work within the context of the adventure. I’ll recount my version below, if you want to know what’s in the book: buy it!

Amongst the northern forests of the Kingdom of Driuba once stood a remote monastery. It radiates as a beacon of warmth and hope through the dense woodland surrounding it. But the pagan people of the nearby village of Drwm-y-dal saw the monks as intruders. And so, after many years of the monks taking their crops and their cattle as a tithe, the villagers had had enough. On a cold winter’s night, as the moon hung high, the people of Drwm-y-dal descended upon the monastery in a fervorous rage. The monks inside, the tomes of knowledge, the relics held within, all were destroyed, when the priory was put to the torch.

It is said that, very rarely, when the moon is full on the Winter’s solstice, the monastery is restored to its former glory. The pious chants of the monks, the stained glass windows, the priceless relics, all is restored. The stories of gold and gems have excited adventurers such as yourselves, and so you find yourself marching through the snow and blistering cold, on your way to Drwm-y-dal.

You have come to Drwm-y-dal to witness the legend for yourself. You had planned to arrive here with a few days to spare, but delays in the capital and poor road conditions held back your journey. Tonight will be the winter solstice, a traditional holiday around the continent, and tonight there will be a full moon. Legend tells that the Scepter of White Ash, once wielded by Saint Aldria, is still held within the abbey. With any luck, you’ll uncover it. You had best start making preparations for tonight.

It’s December currently and it’s cold so a winter-themed adventure felt more than appropriate. The setting – the Kingdom of Driuba – is a pretty standard not-quite-celtic rural kingdom, with dangerous, dense pine forests and superstitious locals. You’ll note that, for an adventure about Jack-in-Irons, he’s actually not in the legend. His background is similar to that given in the book, but the players would have to figure out all this through play; the legend as detailed above was told to them by me at the start of the session. Effectively, he was captured by the monks of the monastery and died when the pagan villagers destroyed it. He now haunts the forests near the town and the monastery, gruesomely murdering any humans who dare venture out after sundown.

Planning the Adventure

I had friends in from out of town – one who had never played before – and so I was pretty constrained in my options. I knew I had exactly four hours to run the adventure with little margin for going into overtime. The structure I had for the adventure reflected this, which would roughly look like this:

  1. Spend the afternoon in Drwm-y-dal, harassing the townsfolk with questions about the monastery
  2. Depart at sundown, and travel to the monastery
  3. Either plunder the monastery for treasure or bring peace to Jack

The first scene would last exactly an hour, after which they would be invited to join the Yulefeast celebrations and then depart town. That effectively constrained how much they could learn and how long they could loiter. The final scene would see them plundering the monastery for treasure (the default assumption) or attempting to lay the spirit of Jack to rest in order to bring safety to the villagers. They would have to discover the possibility of this alternative solution either during the investigation in the town or come up with it themselves. This final scene would take up the last hour of the session.

The second scene thus had a variable length, depending on how fast the players completed the first, but the assumption was about 1.5-2 hours. I had prepared several relatively unconnected encounters that I could add or remove as time required it.

Game Night: Scene 1 – The Town

After telling the legend to the players, I introduced some premade characters I created and had them pick one each. Also, I was running Worlds Without Number, but that’s hardly relevant. I introduced the village and let the players interact with some of the townsfolk: the matriarch, the hunters, the smith. All in all, this adventure turned out very tropey, but for a one-shot and someone’s first gaming experience, that’s just great. They learnt of Jack-in-Irons haunting the woods, and that the burning of the monastery was a bit of a sore point for the villagers.

I had prepared a list of facts I could tell them about the legend, the monastery, the forest, Jack, etc., but ultimately an hour is quite short and they didn’t get to figure out most of it. Either way, it was a low-stakes environment where I could introduce concepts like Ability Checks and Skills, and it ended with a feast at the town’s central longhouse and a stern word of warning from the village matriarch. Ultimately, the scene set the tone of the adventure, gave the players valuable information, and let me introduce some basic game concepts.

Game Night: Scene 2 – The Forest

I had prepared three encounters for this part and was willing to pull a fourth from my behind if required. The goals were similar to the first scene: build tension and introduce game mechanics. After departing the town, the players quickly got caught in a blizzard which would stay with them for the rest of the night. Ultimately, I did not run this as well as I ought to have. Beyond mentioning the heavy snowfall, the blizzard did very little and never really impacted the players. I should have focused more on the extremely poor visibility and danger of getting lost, but this was unfortunately not something I managed to integrate well into the session.

The first encounter was a pack of 2d6 wolves. The idea was that either this will be an introduction to a basic combat or they will figure out a way to get out of fighting, in which case it was a good tutorial on thinking outside the box. They ended up opting for the latter, using their rations to get the starving wolves to leave them alone. A simple but ultimately not particularly memorable encounter.

The second encounter saw them running into a group of refugees who had gotten lost and were now caught out in the blizzard at night. Possible solutions I foresaw were either taking the refugees back to town or leaving them to their fate, possibly giving them directions but ultimately going separate ways. The former would have cost them serious time, which might make them not arrive at the monastery before daybreak. The latter would see the refugees slain by Jack.

I had made sure to mention hearing Jack in the distance at several points during the first two encounters, but they ultimately wouldn’t interact or even see him until the third scene. This worked pretty well at keeping the creature at the back of their mind and putting (imagined) pressure on them, as a way of building tension

The players opted to take the refugees with them to the monastery, hoping to ride out the blizzard there. A solution I had not considered, but a very reasonable one all the same. I should have used the opportunity to play up the frostbitten, poor refugees a bit more. They could have made demands or otherwise been troublesome during this scene or the final climax.

Finally, they encountered a dancing light in the forest. The new player was not familiar and snuck out to investigate, but the mention of white, dancing light was enough to tip two of my experienced players off that this was probably a will-o’-wisp. They were absolutely right and it would have led them to a dangerous trap. Well-played on their behalf, but also not very exciting.

Game Night: Scene 3 – The Monastery

Following a ghostly procession of spirits marching to the monastery – reflecting the pagans marching to the monastery in the legend – they found it sitting on a hill, pristine and inviting. They arrived here about an hour and a half before the end of the session – which ended up being a good thing. They had at this point devised that they could probably destroy Jack if they could put his spirit to rest, but were not aware of the fact that this would destroy the curse on the monastery and thus the treasure. I quickly mapped a 5-room dungeon, as I figured that they might want to explore the monastery more carefully given the time they had left. Beyond the entrance hall where they left the refugees, there was a chapel, library, dormitory and kitchen & cellar.

Inside the cellar they found the bones of Jack, still chained up against the walls of the monastery. I informed the paladin that burying the bones and saying a divine incantation would be sufficient to put Jack to rest. This is different from the description in the Folklore Bestiary – which involves an extensive quest to put Jack to rest – but this worked just fine as a climax to my adventure.

Finding the library next, the Paladin figured that here she might find an appropriate incantation to perform the ritual. They plundered the library and found what they were looking for. Unfortunately, I still haven’t figured out a way to adjudicate these “everyone helps with this one thing” actions. Obviously, searching a library with four people goes faster than with just one person. Do I make 4 different checks? Give a bonus to the Paladin? Give a bonus to the character with the highest skill? Why not argue about it in the comments below.

At this point, they could hear Jack approaching outside. They quickly plundered the chapel, taking the relics they came for, though this would of course be moot if they performed the ritual successfully. They did not know this. Outside, two characters got to work digging a ditch in the monastery’s graveyard. The thief snuck out to see if they could see Jack, and the Paladin rallied the refugees to help her carry the bones of Jack from the cellar to the graveyard.

Jack is now quickly approaching the monastery. The thief attempts to distract him but Jack pays him no mind. The refugees dump the bones near the half-finished ditch. They continue digging, the Wizard casts a spell and does a pitiful amount of damage. Jack strikes at the thief first, who goes down immediately. The digging continues. A piercing wail reduces the Wizard to a crying ball, sobbing on the ground. The digging continues. Jack rampages through the refugees, and about half of them die. The two remaining characters throw the bones in the hole, cover it up, but Jack notices them. He lifts his chains above his head and brings them down upon the Paladin. She says a prayer and completes the ritual just before the chains strike her. Jack vanishes, the monastery is returned to ruins, and the treasure is gone.

Closing Thoughts

We spend the next fifteen minutes finishing up the adventure. They stabilize the thief through some lucky rolls, and take the refugees back to the village. The sun comes up as they make their way there, and the blizzard stops. The villagers thank them kindly, and the party leaves empty-handed but with a good deed done.

Ultimately, the adventure went pretty well and had a satisfying narrative. The encounters in the forest were a bit bland and unconnected, and I should have planned for more time in the monastery. The only reason it worked out is that they got there earlier than I planned. The pacing and theme were great, and I think I did a good job setting everything up. I would definitely run another Folklore Bestiary monster this way – the product is great and this style works great for them. I also trialled some of the Worlds Without Number Deluxe classes. Maybe I will review those in another post: I have a lot more to say about WWN than fits in this article.

Finally, this is the first time I’ve written an After Action Report. Let me know if you feel that you missed anything, would like clarification on or felt was superfluous. Thanks!

A Folklore Bestiary: PDF (€19), Print (€39 + shipping)
Worlds Without Number: Free Version, Deluxe Version (PDF $20, Print $60)

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  1. Vincye

    As you mentioned, adjudicating these ‘everyone helps with this one thing’ actions continue to be a pain in the ass for me as well.

    I tend to look at the situation my players are in, and then try to ascertain what works best. For example, if a character tries to force open a trapdoor, and another player assists in this exercise of vandalism, I’d give the player that initiated the action a bonus (an advantage if we’re using D&D 5e terms).

    However, if they are all looking for certain knowledge as in your library example, my preference goes to giving all players an individual roll. Based on the difficulty of that role, I’ll give them all snippets of information, more if rolling higher, less (or nothing at all) if rolling lower. It feels more natural this way, as they are individually searching for something.

    For consistency sake, I would understand a GMs decision to simply give a bonus to the player initiating the action in teamwork cases.

    I’m curious to what others think 🤔

    Another interesting article, nonetheless!