I managed to go a whole year without getting a cold or sick, and was becoming all too smug about it – and now I find myself on Christmas Eve laid up in bed unwell! Well next year I shall do better. Anyway I did not manage to sort out any Christmas cards, apart from a few for my family I shall take home when I visit mum and dad next – because what sibling would not want a Christmas Card in mid-January? Anyhows, I figured I’d make a Christmas card, and then if people want it they can download it and read it, and if they don’t, they don’t have to and I won’t know anyway and we can all live happily ever after.
Now if you know me you have probably guessed that my saving on rewarding Clinton Card’s shareholders and saving Wicked Postmen DC, the lugubrious Postmen Ben and Tom “Christmas Temp” Nowells’ backs as they heft mailbags is not why I did not send cards. I am of course, a notorious Scrooge, and chose to pay the rent rather than do it. That is not the only reason Scrooge appears above though, for this card is about to turn in to an account of the horrors that have recently visited me!
‘Twas three nights ago, and I was soundly sleeping the sleep of the just, having been reading the latest Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (henceforth SPR). “I’ll just read this fascinating article and then…” – and of course I was snoring away. The cats padded around mewling, looking for food: from somewhere in the house came snoring, but in my room all was peaceful. And then it happened – I awakened to find two terrible shades, clanking chains and moaning their guilt, calling upon me to repent and mend my ways! (See illustration above). Yes; I was faced by the shades of Derek and Harry, forever banished in to the outer darkness for their sins against psychical research!!! These former ghosthunting associates of mine wailed upon me to REPENT! REPENT! I was immediately filled with curiosity, sat up, grabbed a pen and started to take notes. Derek (and Harry) were alive: There is no doubt whatever about that.
“Oh Frightful Shades summoned forth from my mis-spent youth” I cried, “you two are still very much with us, which means you have probably not run in to the SPR committee recently. You are therefore clearly ‘Phantasms of the Living’? So are you actually telepathic projections from the appearant, namely yourselves, hallucinated by me as percipient, or are you actually caused as Gurney appears to suggest in some of his later writings telepathically generated by me after I passively survey the environment using ESP powers?”
The two phantoms stopped clanking, and looked extremely annoyed. No one likes a smart arse., especially one who has spent the last 15 years since they gave up on this stuff studying theories of apparitions. The phantasmal Derek wailed a lament “You are supposed to say ‘You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!’”.
I was too interested to remark on how our understanding of hallucinations in the sane had moved on a bit since disordered digestion was commonly blamed, I was now far more interested in learning all I could about the two “Marleys”. ‘Are you consciously aware of your projecting status? Can you supply me with some veridical data, that I can note down and subsequently show to prove that you were external entities not mere dreams? The winner in the 2.15 at Aintree, your current bank accounts details and sort code and security three digit code, that sort of thing?” I inquired hopefully.
The phantom Harry now responded, in good old fashioned Anglo-Saxon, and with a muttered threat about three more ghosts they vanished wailing through the floor.
Oh well, I’d be ready for them now…
The Ghost of Christmas Past never stood a chance. No sooner had he walked through the wall, the blinding flashes of my cameras froze him in terror. I was upon him with a dictaphone. “Right, spook, I’ve waited years for this chance. First question, are you composed of normal matter and energy? That is, are you physical?” I rammed him unapologetically in the bottom with an EMF meter, and the poor spook let out a howl of horror. “Ah fairly physical.” I prodded his ectoplasmic bulk again, and then scraped off some of his beard in to a Petri dish for analysis. “Right, Second question, are you a telepathic projection, or are the discarnate spiritual remnants of a deceased human as Spiritualists suggest?” It seems the question was too much for the poor spook: he turned, and with a truly melodramatic wail launched himself up the chimney. Never mind. Two more to come…
Like any Big Game Hunter, I have patience. And kit. The unquiet shade of Christmas Present was not leaving until I had thoroughly grilled him on the conditions of the hereafter, and advanced parapsychology 200 years and won a Nobel. Ha! Dawkins and Randi will never recover! All thoughts of Goodwill to All Men, Women, Ghosts and Small Fluffy Animals had left. I had my chance and I was going to take it – these ghosts were gonna talk, or else! My only problem was I do not have a Proton Pack, PKE meter or any of that fictional stuff. What I have is vast amounts of peer reviewed parapsychological literature on ghosts, and that seems to be singularly lacking in practical advice in how to grab one and interrogate it. However soon I had a plan!
I have always said Gauld and Cornell’s 1979 magisterial study Poltergeists is a wonderful book, and as the Ghost of Christmas Present came through the wall, I took my chance to finally use it’s 389 page bulk, and deftly clumped the spook over the head with it. To my horror the book just passed straight through it, and the ghost of Christmas Present flailed about horrified as cameras flashed and my webcam recorded every gruesome detail. “Hey” I said “you looked like John Travolta there pulling those dance moves” The spirit looked indignant, and I hastily pursed my advantage. “OK ghostie, I have you on video to show the world. Now we can do this nicely – or I can dub Staying Alive on that little performance of yours, and post it to YouTube? You will be a laughing stock. So sit down and start telling me everything.”
I felt just a tiny bit mean, but this was for Science! The poor old ghost knew when he was beaten, and sat miserably down. “please” he muttered “ just don’t start on about paradigms, phenomenology or the nature of consciousness. I’d prefer to sit through Skeptics In the Pub than that any day!”. Now I had him! I prepared to discover who was right on apparitions – McCreery and Green, Tyrell, Hart, Myers, Podmore or Gurney! Now I could revolutionise the field.
And at that moment, Marmalade came hurtling in the room, chasing Cuddles, in some 3am feline game. I was distracted, and as I turned to shoo the cats out, the Ghost of Christmas Present grabbed my webcam and apported it to another dimension, before leaving up the chimney in a flash of spectral smoke.
I had twenty minutes to modify the hoover, and I used all I know of Paraphysics and Weird Science. This time the spook was not getting away. I have never built a Carnacki Electric Pentacle before, but I have now, and it glowed beautifully in neon colours on the floor, ready to trap and contain the third pesky ghost. This time, I was READY for them! I had donned a set of painter and decorators overalls I keep for when Hugh is called upon to help out (frequently), and had strapped Lisa’s GOBLIN hoover on my back, and looked for all the world like a cut price DIY ghostbuster…
Anyway, you can guess how it all ended. If the Ghost of Christmas Future is not something you have ever seen it, imagine it as a sort of balefully spooky version of Metal Mickey the robot from the 80′s kid’s show. The electric pentacle did its job well, and I was able to suck the ectoplasmic shade up in to the bagless hoover, but then it all went wrong. The hoover became possessed, and even as I struggled Becky up to witness the apparition, so at least it would count as a collective case (she muttered something about “already passed my VIVA” and went back to sleep) the hoover ran around and around in circles, bleeping eerily, and waving its hose in the air in a frighteningly Freudian manner. Even as I prepared to leap upon it and unplug it, prepare dot bear it in triumph to the SPR office at Marloes Road, the blasted thing managed to open a vortex to another dimension.
Now I, being a generous soul, had of course bought an exquisite, expensive and lovely presents for you all. Unfortunately as the ghost and hoover vanished through the TV to another dimension, it took with it all my carefully purchased Christmas gifts. And this is why I don’t have much research to show the SPR for their generous research grant this year, and why I have not given any of you Christmas Presents and Cards – because a spectre telepathic descending from my attic came and spirited them away, hey?
So it simply remains for me to wish you one and all a Wonderful Christmas time, and a truly magical 2013.
All the best
I’m extraordinarily tired, so what follows may make painfully little sense. Before I collapse in to my bed however I would like to quickly record my impressions of a wonderful weekend spent at a games convention called Consequences F. Don’t stop reading just yet though — this is not just about my usual roleplaying games hobby.
This weekend I have been Lord Emsworth of Blandings Castle, a spiritualist medium in 1920′s Arkham attending a gallery opening, a troubled English aristocrat in 1938 England, a brave (but rash) young Viking warrior trying to prove himself, an industrialist on a backwater planet, an AI programmed to open a stargate, and … well the list goes on!
You may be familiar with the idea of murder mystery games, often played at dinner parties, where people dress up and play a character, trying to solve a mystery. They are a type of roleplaying game, but unlike “tabletop” games which are played with a group of frreinds, dice pencil and paper around (as the name implies) a table, these “freeforms” are a form of LARP (live action roleplaying). You walk around, talk to other players in character, and physically interact. Unlike the kind of LARP you occasionally see on Facebook or even the TV, these games are played without bashing one another with foam rubber weaponry. I think the Americans call this “theater style gaming”, but I’m not sure that is much more use, unless you realise all the actors in the game have freewill, and the script is determined by their actions and in character actions. No one knows whether the mystery will be solved, your chap will get the girl, your pig will win the contest, you starship will survive the battle; until it happens! A hard working teams of referees (GM’s) write the games, and cast characters, and you take your role and try and achieve your goals while everyone else tries to achieve theirs! The rules cover the outcome of inevitable conflict, but your ability to piece together information, understand clues, scheme and manipulate others or just convince folks your character is a nice person, that is what determines how you do.
Anyway Consequences (so called as it is held nine months after another games convention for tabletop games called “Conception”) is an annual freeform game convention held down in Naish, near Christchurch, Dorset. The site is a holiday camp, and all the players stay in chalets on site under bleak November skies, gathering in the main building to play whichever of the many games on offer have taken their fancy.
Now I can’t afford to go on holiday: I really, really can’t. However this year I went to another great gaming convention dedicated (mainly) to tabletop roleplaying games called Continuum up in Leicester, with my friends Lloyd and Hugh. There we met some lovely people (who shall remain nameless – I’m not going to name any other names, because people may not want their gaming hobby exposed ) who persuaded me that after five years of reading about Consequences this year we should all attend. So we saved up £78 each for a chalet for four nights (!!!) , Hugh agreed to drive, and we paid our £30 booking fees to attend the con. I had always thought Consequences sounded pricey – but that was because I mistook £312 or whatever a chalet costs as being the cost per person. Nope that is the cost per chalet, each of which has two twin and two double rooms — so in theory you could have 8 people stay for four nights for just £312 – less than a tenner per person per night. The trick is to go with a friend or two, and as the chalets are self catering this is possibly the cheapest holiday I have ever had, and i specialise in pretty cheap holidays when I taken them at all.
OK, so what happened? Well about a month ago, having paid up front in July, I suddenly realised I had best sign up for some games. I chose Starship Aries, a Star Trek style game, Dulce et decorum est (set in 1938 during the Munich Crisis), Midsummer Mischief based upon the characters of PG Wodehouse, Gallery of Shades a Cthulhu game set in the 1920′s and Come Hel or Hiawatha, a game set in Viking Vinland. There were many many more games, Tolkien inspired, Science Fiction – the space marines were very colourful to look at, and even some games set in Zelazny’s fantasy worlds of Amber. Hugh played a cyberpunk game Marlowe 2020, and a different one, Collision Imminent, set on a spaceship (he had a great time in both!)
OK my experience: after Continuum where the costuming had astonished me – people REALLY dress up – I was dreading having to costume for 5 games. However, I need not have worried as much – while my costumes were fairly cheap, as I borrowed, scrounged and improvised what I needed, anything from perfect historical dress to theatrical minimalism – a pair of mirror shades say for cyberpunk – was perfectly acceptable, and some folks who stepped in at the last moment for games did not costume at all. I could not costume for Gallery of Shades because I did not see my character till the day of the game, so I used the same outfit for the 1920′s as I had for 1938 — and that worked fine, but actually I found that dressing as a character and having a single prop (a book, a cabbage, whatever) helped me get in to character and probably enhanced my enjoyment of the game!
Getting down to Christchurch was a nightmare. Lloyd went ahead, and Mark a friend we met at Continuum who was sharing the chalet with us also drove down earlier. Hugh and I planned to set out quite early, but by mid afternoon gales and widespread flooding not to mention torrential rain had closed many roads, and we finally waited till 9.30pm before setting off, missing the first half day of the con. Luckily neither of us had signed up to any games till Friday. When we set off we agreed if conditions were too bad on Salisbury Plain we would just turn back, and the trip was to be honest pretty harrowing. The worst of the weather had passed over by the time we set out, but I honestly did not think we would be able to make it. Still by Marlborough I was more confident, and once we passed Salisbury things improved, and we arrived on site by half midnight.
Of course we were too late to sign in: luckily I knew the chalet number, and the others were there with keys, but if you have ever looked at the ranks of chalets in a holiday park in pouring rain in the teeth of a howling gale a hundred yards from the cliffs down to the English Channel on an icy November night, wondering just where ML65 might be, well you will appreciate our concern as we stood in the car park looking at a scene devoid of human activity, outside a locked reception!
Just then Lloyd hailed us. Quite by chance he had gone back to some folks chalet for drinks, and considerably the worse for wear had got lost wandering back, and had returned to Reception to get his bearings. We fell upon him like a guardian angel sent to deliver us – we might have kissed him had he not seemed so bewildered at our great joy in seeing him a few hours after we last had in Cheltenham. He directed us to the chalet, and we unloaded our many bags of costume, food, and necessities.
Wow! Chalets are far more luxurious than I recall. We had two toilets, a proper bath, a fully equipped kitchen, a TV, and it was all toasty warm. Despite the late hour we knocked up some food, greeted Mark with equal joy, and played a quick game of Dominion (a board game) before crashing out. I really recommend Naish as a holiday venue, though obviously it costs more in high season.
Friday morning saw me up at 8am, ready for the 9am start of Starship Aries, a game run by friends of mine. It was what is called a “horde” game; a very clever device by which some folks play one character for the whole game ( the starship bridge crew in this case) and others like me had up to 5 different roles to play, sequentially. I really enjoyed this — I was Ambassador Lexington, out to make contact with a frontier world, then I was … anyway I can’t really say. The wonderful thing about freeforms is you can run them many times with different players — and I can’t give spoilers, because I am sure this one will run again. Costuming required was also minimal – any black trousers and something red as a shirt , or blue if you were bridge crew. This worked just fine. The game lasted 3 or 4 hours, but I had no time to grow bored, as I had to keep changing roles and the fiendishly clever plot was worthy of (several) Star Trek episodes. I took part in a coup, failed to keep my secret relationship with my professor very secret, and almost destroyed the Starship Aries: but they are not spoilers, as if the game runs again whoever runs the characters I had will do things completely differently I’m sure.
After Starship Aries it was back to the chalet to dress in white tie, or some semblance thereof, for dinner at Markyate Manor, home to the Viscount Markyate. The Athertons in 1938 are a troubled family, and Geoffrey who I played was certainly troubled with reason. I am afraid I can say almost nothing about him or what transpired, but this was emotionally intense dramatic gaming about people more than plot, and was one of the best games I have ever played of any type, freeform, tabletop or whatever. It helps (if a chap at least) if you have some knowledge of the period, and the politics and issues of the time, but after the first half hour that need faded for me as Geoffrey’s own personal issues and goals became increasingly paramount. The character sheet was brief, and I had no clearly laid out goals; nor did it tell me how Geoffrey felt about things, leaving that for me to decide. I knew facts about what had happened in the past – my own response to them was however left to me as Geoffrey, and a few very simple events quickly spun me in to a web of intrigue, mystery, complicated romantic and familial relationships and an increasingly rising pace until I suddenly heard a referee call “5 minutes left” and realised I had spent three or more hours completely immersed in being Geoffrey, and that I needed to do something to try and resolve the desperate situation I found myself in. Geoffrey had a final scene talking with his father, a terribly fumbled pass at a French opera star as he stalked out, and a rather harrowing leave taking of his family. Even I don’t know exactly what he did after he shouted his final sardonic farewell to the assembled guests and walked out in to the night. Epic stuff! I’m no actor, and I hope my bumbling at times portrayal of Geoffrey did not spoil anyone else game, but I did really get in to this one, and liked the character a great deal, whatever his (many) flaws. Dulce et decorum est is certainly an apt title for this game: very highly recommended.
After a quick meal in the chalet I was back to gaming, this time in the 1920′s for Gallery of Shades. I had mixed feeling about this one. I have loved HP Lovecraft since boyhood, love the Cthulhu Mythos, and am particularly fond of Robert W Chambers King in Yellow cycle. I have written a book for Call of Cthulhu; I own almost everything for that game, and loved Cthulhu Live, running a very successful Cthulhoid larp with it over seven weekends in the year 2000. Yet recently Cthulhu has become a constant geek cliché, and is endlessly parodied, and HPL has become increasingly reinterpreted in more and more parodic and playful ways. There is even an episode of Supernatural I am told that references Lovecraft and the game Call of Cthulhu! Furthermore I know from experience of running my own games that doing scenarios about the king in Yellow and Hastur cycle are extremely hard, if the players are to have any meaningful input in to the outcome. I fear my reservations on this as least proved true.
I finally signed up for Gallery of Shades because the referee is known to be outstanding, and the level of game prep in terms of the game environment was very high. That however is no replacement for a pre-game issue at least the day before of a character sheet so one can dress for the part, and think about how to play the role. I actually liked the character, someone who had experienced an apparition with an enigmatic message and had become a medium — but I would have asked to play a very different role if I had the chance to fill in a casting questionnaire. The reason why was the fist few minutes of the game, when none of us were sure if we were “in character” or “out of character”. Some poor soul asked me “what can you tell me about the theories of ghosts?” I was really pleased someone was interested in my research and replied in character (just in case) limiting my response to the state of the topic in 1927. I fear I may have bored them to death — this essay of mine is pretty much what I related, though it brings the survey of the field up to date. At least I was not asked to play a parapsychologist (though Tischner does not coin that phrase I think until 1929 — So I mean psychical researcher I guess )
There was another moment once the game was in full swing a while later that shows the perils of trying to keep in character and out of character knowledge separate – my character had been intensely religious in youth, so when it came to the inevitable debate with a vicar suspicious of my spiritualism, I was ready to quote scripture and make theological arguments. The poor vicar’s player of course can not be expected to counter that, as they have probably not thought about the issues quite as much as an Anglican ghost hunter like the real life me — but they took it in good grace, and we laughed about it, and broke off the conversation when it was clear that I was going to go the full ten rounds. I still felt a bit of an arse about it, and thereafter limited myself strictly to what it said on my character sheet, however likely I thought it the character would know something about Spiritualism.
Anyway this started out as a great game: and it ended wonderfully, with some incredible effects. However… I am not one to critique others games. I have written what I am sure were lousy games, and some players probably avoid me after one bad experience. The set up here though became intensely frustrating – it was not that we could not do things – we did all kinds of things, and there were some wonderful pieces of characterisation, the suffragette was amazing, the decadent flapper Greta a perfect mix of boredom, indifference and sensual amorality, the utterly insane (literally) lady in the burgundy dress was magnificent, and Walters, Bream and others fine characters and great fun to play with – the PI and I had our moments too – nothing wrong with the characters, they were all great, or the players – nope, the problem was we felt we could not do anything to resolve the issue we faced. The game went on an hour to long, because the person who needed to act in a certain way to provoke the next scene did not realise it, and despite my best efforts to find the catalyst, it seemed a very long time till the resolution, while a few players appeared to me bored and not committed, as they felt there was no way to influence the outcome?
This is a game by one of the finest freeform authors there is: it has a magnificent climax, but in disempowering the characters, and driving them to madness frustration and a realisation of cosmic futility, it is important not to alienate the players. That is a very hard trick to pull off. For a few I don’t think it worked. This was a first run, and Gallery of Shades should certainly run again, but it needs a few minor tweaks to give those battling to save their characters sanity a sense of small gains, and large losses, rather than a static brick wall of frustration and inevitable doom, no matter how Lovecraftian that may be in essence. Recommended for future runs, but needs a tiny bit of work. I enjoyed it though.
Friday night the Belgian contingent threw a wonderful chalet party, and I got to chat to some of the other delegates I had not met before. This was a great part of the whole experience. I woke up late on Saturday, perhaps at ten, and I had taken a whole day off gaming. A friend came down to visit us, and we enjoyed a long walk with Lloyd around the beach and cliffs, and down the “bunny” and back. In hindsight I probably could have played another game on Saturday – everyone has their own endurance on how many games they can face in a day,and two I think might be my limit really; perhaps tiredness leads one to not enjoy a game as much as you should.
Saturday night however was to prove amazing, for me at least. I was off to Blandings Castle – my castle in fact, for I was Lord Emsworth, and with the county fete just four days away I was determined the Empress of Blandings my prize pig would take the prize. Midsummer Mischief is a perfect slice of pure Wodehouse, and whoever the authors were, I wish to thank them for this heavenly madness. There referees did an outstanding job, time flew by (one day an hour, and four hours till the end) and one had a real sense of freedom to scheme, plot, interact and do some pretty odd and very very silly things.
Now one of my biggest fears in any game where I get a chance to play an over the top character is that I will spoil it for others with my rather exuberant performance in the role – I certainly never wanted it to get too silly, because then comic characterisation fails as absurdism creeps in. It can work in a Monty Python sketch, but there is one episode of Father Ted that I felt became just marginally too surreal: for me a brilliant comic character is like Basil in Fawlty Towers extreme but (just about) believable. I’m hoping I managed to stay just the right side of the line, and keep dear old Emsworth eccentric but acceptably so, rather than making him a thin parody! However some players clearly liked my Emsworth, which genuinely surprised me, but I guess it was my sheer love of the character and the enthusiasm and real joy I found in playing the role that shone through, whatever the deficiency in my “acting”. Beach was absolutely perfect in the role, Connie and the other two sisters present were fantastic, and Pru and her bloody cats, Vee and Aggie and their romantic arrangements, blasted Freddie my son and the insufferable Popjoy all kept me running around in increasing panic, while bloody Huxley — I can say no more. Maudie the librarian was great, and Lord Vosper with the pig kept me so so paranoid, while that slime Parsoe-Parsoe (beautifully played) outwitted me as I expected. I should have asked Gally to biff him!
This is an older game, and the use of item cards can to me be distracting, as can the multiple envelopes and sub-systems of the rules certain players need to know, but it all works perfectly. I don’t recall speaking to a ref once in Dulce in decorum est – there was simply no need, the game ran itself. Gallery of Shades needed a couple more refs, Starship Aries was just right, but the three referees in Midsummer Mischief were worked off their feet and served admirably. They were marvellous, simply marvellous. I can not give a best game, as they were so VERY different, but Dulce and Midsummer are certainly among the best games I have ever played, and if you love Wodehouse you must play this game!
Saturday night saw an amazing chalet party, and astonishingly good hospitality, plenty of booze (which I did not partake of ) and great company. I’d like to thank our hosts, and hope the chalet survived the influx! I was home by 4.30am and in bed by five — shame I had to be up at eight thirty today…
The final game of the weekend for me was Come Hel or Hiawatha, a fun game set in Vinland. Some Vikings have landed in the wake of an earlier failed expedition, and met the natives, the Skraelings. Plots involve the tense negotiations between the two parties, tempered by romances, personal ambition and the epic consumption of mead. Strange things are afoot, and my character was a rash young Viking warrior, who I played as wildly impulsive, hotheaded and not exactly bright. I hope that I did not take it too far, but I did really enjoy the character, and while he had the same name (Gunnar) as my dad, they were very very different Vikings! My character married the girl of his dreams and gave up on a career as a warrior to farm ducks. I called them all Anders, in case you were wondering.
This is a gem of a game, that could be played slightly comically, or totally straight. We played it straight, with my character providing occasional moments of mild comic relief from the tense negotiations. Well crafted, definitely worth playing!
OK, so we left after the closing ceremony, Hugh driving back through driving rain, but finding time to take in the Rufus Stone, Stonehenge and Avebury en route. I had a great weekend, and if anyone is interested in learning more about Consequences or Freeforming do check it out or email me: a good place to start with friends at home might be these excellent games.
A wonderful memorable weekend, but I’m off to bed.
‘Tis Halloween night, and CJ can look out on the street, confident that soon ghosts will come a rapping and knocking at his door. Goblins and Vampires too – and while recording the knocks echoing through the maison CJ will not add anything to Dr. Barrie Colvin’s research efforts, these rather tangible spooks will need feeding, so I have bought in some chocolate bars. The wind is howling across the roof, and the rain lashes the window – how long till we hear the low rumble of approaching thunder? Perfect Halloween weather I guess!
Since the early 90′s I don’t think I have had many Halloween’s at home. It’s TV, or radio, or a public lecture, but this year while the Trick of Treaters will come knocking, the media haven’t. I can’t say I mind. I could do with the money; a sum like that with things as they are– but actually, if you think paranormal TV or writing on spooks make you rich, you are (as you may have gathered from this blog) seriously misguided. Nope, it will be nice to be home, and yet I feel a trifle neglected.
Yesterday Becky successfully defended her thesis on “A Century of Apparitions”, for her PhD on spooks. She still has revisions to make to the thesis before final submission, but I guess it’s nice to have a girlfriend who is an expert in the area. Sadly she is in Derby tonight, so I’ll be warding off the undead without her expert advice. I received a research grant this year from the SPR to look at poltergeists: well I will, and am actively researching. Not tonight though! You might think with my background in this area I might want to go out and party, or sit at home and watch The Exorcist or something, but actually I have asked some friends round to play a Halloween roleplaying game. Yeah, I know, a bit dull for this old ghostbuster. I’m really looking forward to it though.
Now I could write a lot about the history of Halloween, and why it’s really a Christian festival not a pagan one historically, and why I don’t think that matters a fig and wish all my pagan friends a wonderful Samhain, I won’t, because I have done no original research on the matter. I will just point you to Prof . Ronald Hutton’s Stations of the Sun, if you are outraged by this claim, and you can read his brilliant academic work in the area. Ron is a pagan, and he can say these things without the local moot throwing chairs at him, unlike me. Ah the good old days!
Nostalgia, it’s not what it used to be. Anyway I think back to 1985, when Hugh and I ran our first Cthulhu based live action roleplaying game on Halloween. My parents were away, and we had a group of friends investigate a mystery in our “haunted house”, which had other players dressed up as ghouls in truly horrific monsters, and all kinds of carefully created special effects. Some Trick or Treaters knocked on the door, and were greeted by JB in a full monster costume made for horror impact not Halloween kitsch, and offer them a huge (real) heart. They fled: it was an ox-heart, we had acquired from the butchers – kidney, sheep’s eyeballs and other visceral props were carefully positioned, but I kind of feel sorry for those poor kids. I’d have stopped JB if it had not coincided with one of the players stepping through the cucumber frames in the dark – luckily Axel was not seriously hurt. Anyway the game was fantastic, the players genuinely scared, and the final scenes in the woods near Fornham absolutely terrify, even tome as referee. I hope Hugh dug up the bones he had placed in a parka anorak, and removed the dummy swinging on from the tree afterwards. It was the first “murder mystery” type horror game I ever ran, and while I have run many many more the first is always the best in some ways! Nowadays we would use less fake blood and real meat, and actually use more sophisticated props, but hey we were just kids. If anyone ever wants a game like this run for their friends, you can email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and my new more vegan-friendly games I will happily run for you and your friends I guess, though it would help if you offer to pay me!
It probably helped that I did not believe in ghosts back then – that was not to change till 1987 and the Thetford Priory incident. I guess if you want a Halloween ghost story, that is as good as any…
Soon after I was off to study for my degree, and in the small Church college I attended Halloween was regarded with deep suspicion by many of the Christian Union. Nothing like the suspicion they regarded me or wicked Uncle DC with. Still the uni (as it became) had Halloween Discos, I think only Hugh ever managed to traumatize people with his Halloween costume. Once I joined the SPR I used to argue I should get the discount for fancy dress as I was dressed up as a ghosthunter, and I did actually manage this one year, so notorious was I. Soon after I founded the Student Parapsychology Society, and every day was Halloween then, not just Halloween at Christmas. My years in the CPRG, SPS and various other groups meant I was often running around at Halloween, and paranormal TV meant it was a time you were always at work.
Hey I could reminisce all night, but soon the ghosts and goblins will approach my door. I had best go and stock up on more chocolate, and buy some tacky Halloween mask I guess just for once I should enter in to the spirit of the season, but to be honest, Halloween is probably one f my least favourite events of the year: perhaps because it normally means work, perhaps because familiarity breeds contempt. For every else, have a wonderful safe and happy Halloween folks, and I’ll pray for you benighted souls as the forces of darkness creep closer to your doors…
And as a strange sadness creeps over me, I’m thinking of Crowley-cat, his shade prowling round his old home tonight I’m sure! I miss you boy, I really do. And on that note, here is my favourite Halloween song, with the best video I can imagine for it. Tonight, while the ghosts of Houdini and Lovecraft play checkers in the hereafter, I’ll remember those great sceptics too, and hope you enjoy this little slice of American Gothic.
First up, do me a favour. If you don’t know or care about Ars Magica, but you enjoy strategy games, or fantasy games, or history games, go to this Kickstarter and think about pledging $20. If it funds, you get a download of the game when it is completed. If the funds aren’t raised, your money never leaves your account. $20. Do it for CJ I’m not involved with the project, but this is a computer game based on the rpg I spend my life writing books for, so I’m keen to promote it as hard as I can If you help fund, and later play and enjoy the computer game,perhaps one day you will understand what this whole Ars Magica thing is about So $20 – and you either don’t have to pay if it fails, or you do and get a cool game.
I’m pretty sure all fans of Ars Magica were delighted to hear about the kickstarter to raise funds to allow the funding of an Ars Magica based computer game set in the Schism War, and a lot of people would like to know more. Funding is going well, but after 4 days the project is still only 10% funded, so I think it’s vital now to push it as hard as possible, and let as many people hear about the project as I can. I think it probably will fund, but I am an optimist: yet very few roleplaying games have the beauty of setting and design that Ars Magica provides, and a lot of people who might never want to play the tabletop rpg might be excited by a game of wizards in England in the century of the Norman Conquest. Atlas Games have licensed it: if funding allows it will go ahead!
Now I won’t explain in detail what a Kickstarter is, or what Ars Magica is - basically a Kickstarter is a way to raise funds for a creative project, and you buy in at a certain level, pledging money if the project funds. If it funds in 30 days your money is debited and you receive certain rewards, based upon the level of your pledge – if the project is even a dollar short of the total, no one pays anything at all, and the project never goes ahead.
The guys at Black Chicken have a history of delivering high quality computer games, and are also genuine fans of the Ars Magica system – so here is my (slightly redacted) light hearted interview with them!
So it all started with a rather romantic notion. I have often joked that I will give up spook investigation and take up Mermaid Investigations; let’s face it, the field is less crowded. And then it occurred to me – were there not in 19th century America reports of real live flying Pterodactyls over Texas, originating as journalistic yarns and in the infamous lying contests? I vaguely recall having a book as a child in which there was a picture, daguerreotype style, of some cowboys holding a shot pterodactyl by a barn. Actually I soon found out, chatting about with friends on Facebook, that I may have be suffering from a False Memory – lots of other people remember the same picture, or something similar, but no one has ever been able to find it again. It seems the photo is as mysterious as Live Pterosaurs. In fact a photo that seems to be the one mentioned is doing the rounds — but it is nothing like my recollection. Then you can easily find a shot that was staged for a recent documentary (scroll down the page to see it though worth enjoying whole article) — again clearly not the mystery photo. After much reflection I have come to the conclusion the book I read in the 1970′s probably referenced the alleged photo, and I came to believe I had seen the actual photo in the book – I think that entirely possible. Still it is all rather interesting, if only in demonstrating just how questionable memory can be.
Anyway, do these things really still fly? I want to believe in big flying dinosaurs roaming the skies, but experience and common sense argue against it. So far I have never been chased by one as I wander through town. Still, I figured I knew a bit about them — as a child I was rather obsessed with dinosaurs, as many young boys are, and read everything I could find on them, and I thought I knew about Pterodactyls, Pteradnodons and a few others like the Rhamphorhyncus. So I recalled they were all Pterosaurs, and looked up the Order. First surprise is technically they were not dinosaurs at all (and neither were plesiosaurs and various other marine reptiles). Secondly there were incredibly diverse, and many of them looked nothing like the beasties I think of when I hear the word “Pterosaur”. And thirdly, they are very definitely extinct, dying out 65.5 million years ago, but already in decline by then. So sayeth the Wikipedia article – I did not research any of this throughly.
Interesting, but rather lacking emotional satisfaction. I wanted to read about people who had been chased by pterodactyls! So I started to Google for any eye witness testimony, uncovered a funny but utterly unconvincing YouTube video, and then suddenly found that there actually was a “Living Pterosaur” research community, a fringe even within cryptozoology. Even better, there were several books. Most of the research appears to be on “Ropens”, allegedly living Pterosaurs in Papua New Guinea. Now I’m afraid I have not read anything on that, and can’t really comment, for as I browsing I spotted a book “Live Pterosaurs in America” by Jonathan David Whitcomb, a nonfiction analysis of actual sightings in the USA. This I had to own, so I immediately ordered it from Amazon, and a few days later it was mine! And you know what — I’m glad I bought it, and have enjoyed reading it.
The book contains 35 contemporary eye witness accounts from the USA of what appear to be live pterosaur sightings, and a great deal of analysis. Undeterred by the intrinsic seeming absurdity of believing that Pterosaurs can remain undetected in the USA (which as Whitcomb points out is a fallacious argument: they have not remained undetected at all, or he would not have eyewitness testimony — “largely undetected” perhaps?) the author has actually taken seriously and tracked down people who claim to have seen these things, talking to them on the phone and by email. He is not alone – as well as the various expeditions to PNG to look for the alleged pterosaurs there, there appears to be a small but very active research community looking for live pterosaurs in the USA. I get the impression form the book it is rather competitive, and political, and perhaps as backstabbing as any other part of cryptozoology seems to be — but then again maybe not. You see Whitcomb, and the majority of the researchers are Creationists, and not shy about proclaiming the fact.
So here I am, a very convinced “Evolutionist” who has written a great deal on Darwin, Chambers, Russel Wallace etc reading a book on Live Pterosaur sightings by an out loud and proud Creationist. And you know what? It really makes no difference to the case. So Whitcomb believes in living pterosaurs? The sceptics who attack his research are equally convinced they are extinct. It’s an issue it is rather hard to maintain a strict impartiality on. To be honest, I have no problem with people holding strong beliefs on any issue, so long as they are aware of them and their potential biases, and so long as they declare them openly. I worked out Whitcomb was a Creationist by a third of the way through his book, but the last couple of chapters make it totally explicit. I was rather amused that he agrees with Dawkins that it is impossible to hold a considered Theistic Evolution viewpoint, and I was too tired to really get what he thinks of I.D – it is a good thing I gather, but not Creationism, as far as he is concerned — but I am convinced that the Creationist beliefs of the living pterosaur folks are going to stop a lot of people in the UK at least from even bothering to look at their stuff, which is a shame. You see I think you might have to be a Creationist to actually stick your neck out and look for these wonderful flying beasties, and if they do exist it would be no surprise if only the “Creation Scientists” went looking for them. Creationism actually does not play much of a role in the theories in the book, and I’m still very vague about what exactly a living Pterosaur would prove from a Y.E.C perspective, but I am happy to put away any prejudices and read the book on the strength of the evidence and argument provided, and lay aside my philosophical and scientific differences with these guys. If they can convince me of living pterosaurs, I guess they might convince me of other stuff Let’s face it, convincing me pterodactyls are swooping over California as I type is going to take a lot.
And ultimately, I am afraid I still doubt it is true. However, I am more open to Pterosaurs in other parts of the world than I was before, and I am much more open to the possibility of live Pterosaurs. I actually find it hard to type those those three words together “possibility” + “live” + “pterosaurs”, so strong is my ingrained prejudice against the case. After all, during my dinosaur phase (aged 5-10 roughly) the one thing I knew absolutely was that they were all extinct. (and watching the USAF fly overhead, and listening to the Cold War sabre rattling, I gloomily pondered as a very young child how soon humanity might join them; vague fears that still manifest sometimes today )
Whitcomb’s eyewitnesses don’t really convince me greatly, though they are at the heart of his case. 35 is really not very many, and given there are radio controlled Pterosaur models out there, some of the sightings do seem to be questionable. The testimony given is rather bare, culled from emails, but it could be that Whitcomb’s writing style (generally readable, occasionally jars, perhaps a cultural thing) without all the usual journalistic fluff like “Ada was just putting the kettle on as sunshine played across the blinds…” — none of that in Whitcombe’s reports, just his questions asked and the answers rendered verbatim — doe snot really sell the witnesses. He is definitely sceptical of the testimony he receives, and shows critical thinking about testimony issues, and I must say is an intelligent bloke by the sound of his book.
Nope, my problem is that thousands of Americans have reported being abducted by Flying Saucers. Dozens of people in the UK in the last decade have reported seeing leprechauns or fairies. Bigfoot is still big in the USA; and mystery black cats, usually pumas, roam across the British countryside. As to ghost sightings, well they are so common as to pass without remark. Now I’m not a priori dismissing any of these ideas, and I have certainly spent a good part of my life working on the ghosts issue. My point is that people seem to have a huge range of high strangeness encounters with very odd entities. I would be rather more surprised if no one at all was seeing Pterosaurs in the USA. I do wonder if any have been reported in the last century or this in the UK? The fact people experience something,and it seems very real to them, does not necessarily tell us anything about its ontological status. While Whitcomb addresses hallucinations as an explanation for experiences and dismisses it, well I’m not so sure as I know hallucinations can be surprisingly common in the sane from the medical literature, and ultimately I agree with Whitcomb it does not explain collective cases (ones with multiple witnesses) well. Note I’m not actually proposing any mechanism for the weird Fortean encounters – people have proposed all kinds of explanations from ultraterrestrials to demons to irruptions of the unconscious in to normal life (I guess all three might be the same thing!?) — I’m just noting that it seems hard to accept the evidence for living pterosaurs as more compelling than say the evidence for alien abduction or phantom black dogs. In terms of quantity, and richness of the testimony offered, I must say it seems rather less, by an order of magnitudes in the first case and a great deal compared with Black Shuck. Still, if one of Whitcomb’s witnesses was right about what they saw, and it was a physical real living beastie, well his case wins. I really want it to be true, because — well living Pterodactyls, how cool?
So if I am not that impressed by the individual witness reports, why do I think Whitcomb’s book is worthwhile and interesting? Because while the individual cases are perhaps weak, he draws a good statistical case that something is going on from his tiny sample. Put simply, the physical traits of the pterosaurs described by the witnesses do not seem to reflect the Hollywood stereotype of the pterodactyl we all know. There are different types of creature which emerge from the data, and the majority have attributes which are surprising. I won’t discuss what these are here, because it makes faking easier, but you can find out by buying his book. Unfortunately the descriptions could be just down to a misremembered mismatch of picture of pterosaurs in books, and yet if you accept his hypothesis that not one but two and perhaps several species of Pterosaurs have survived in the USA, well then I guess it’s a good argument. However witnesses vary greatly in physical descriptions – wing spans he cites in the stats section range from 2 to 30 feet, with a bizarrely even distribution. I say bizarre because I would have thought hoaxes and hallucinations would have been clustered more in the larger range, and ditto if common sources like movies or dinosaur documentaries informed the sightings. The even distribution may well be down to the actual problems of identifying the wing span of a bird in flight – try it, I’m rubbish at judging height, and you have little to compare it with. Misidentification of birds or bats is not ruled out by the data, and some of the sightings were close and on the ground, but still I am rather surprised at the distribution of estimated wing spans. Something that Whitcomb does not address is the range of colours seen – browns, tans, greys and black predominate, but one brightly coloured alleged pterosaur stood out as fairly convincing for exactly this reason. As no one knows what colour they were, the lack of agreement among witnesses is worrying if these are real creatures.
Another interesting feature is that witnesses reported they either definitely did not have feathers or probably did not have feathers. This may be down to Whitcomb’s selection criteria; he states he does not investigate reports of feathered sightings, leaving that to bird watchers. Now recently I have read in the media reports of new fossil pterosaurs with feathers, but tracking down the reports has shown these are proto-feathers, the bristles already known to be a feature of pterosaurs, just more evolved. It may provide some evidence for the currently heretical idea that birds may have evolved from pterosaurs not dinosaurs, or it may be an interesting case of parallel evolution (or Creation, if you are a Live Pterosaurs investigator ) but it is not a fatal objection – pterosaurs were not feathered, though with 65 million years to evolve they might not look much like the fossils we have (Whitcomb interestingly holds an Old Earth, Young Life model of Creationism, not YEC). He makes the rather good point that a lot of witnesses actually were not sure if the thing had feathers or not, but were inclined to say not. I think that certainly does reduce the likelihood of hoaxing – a hoaxer’s story or a hallucination would surely definitely not have feathers, but it does not rule out genuine misidentification of big birds.
I still have not really made much of a case for why I found the book engaging, but the answer is that Whitcomb surprised me. A number of the sightings suggest bioluminescence. I really did not expect that. Glow in the dark pterosaurs in the USA? It just gets weirder. I was not particularly convinced by the chapter linking pterosaurs to the Marfa Lights, but they hypothesis linking bioluminescence to bat hunting activities made sense I guess, and this very unexpected aspect of the sightings really did make me think he could be on to something. I found this feature by far the most intriguing: if I was going to invent a pterosaur story it would never occur to me to say the creature glowed, flickered or shone in the dark! It is apparently a feature of the PNG reports, so I guess people who have read Whitcomb’s book on that may add such a detail, but it really is rather odd.
I think by this time if you have read this far you will want to see an actual witness report. here are a couple of extracts from Whitcomb’s blog, the first from Virginia, the second from Georgia. They give you a pretty good feel for Whitcomb’s terse style, and his rather short reports on what was seen. I am delighted howver to see he has set up a game camera in a Southern California site, and is getting lots of shots – maybe one will show the elusive pterosaur seen by the witnesses in their backyard. I certainly shall follow his Live Pterosaur blog in the future. However again we see another niggling problem for me — if all the sightings were in say Nevada, I could buy it much easier than I can the idea these things live all over the USA but never get photographed. OK, there are rare big animals like as Whitcomb points out mountain lions that are rarely seen, but they don’t flap around in the sky! If nocturnal predators, maybe, just maybe. I would not stake my money on it, but I’m not the expert.
So in conclusion, what do I think of the book? It’s not polished, it’s not gripping at least in style (though the accounts are fascinating and Whitcomb makes some clever arguments) and it’s all way beyond my boggle threshold: I’m slightly more inclined to believe in live pterosaurs in the USA now than before I read it (which is to be fair not very surprising at all, given my ***almost*** complete disbelief before I read the book) , but I’m afraid I think the possibility is still very very remote they exist, but it certainly is worth investigating, and I must applaud all the work Whitcomb and colleagues put in. I fear many sceptics won’t even bother to go look for themselves (unless we get sightings in the UK that is not an option for me) or bother to carefully read Whitcomb’s book and look at his case. It is definitely worth reading, and well argued in the main. I would recommend buying his book available from Amazon.co.uk here for under £9. I’m humble enough to admit my opinion on the matter is pretty worthless, as I have not read the literature, have not investigated a single sighting, and know almost nothing about pterosaurs living or fossil. A sceptic of living pterosaur claims who does know his stuff is palaeontologist Glen Kuban and has his critique of living pterosaur claims can be found here. I found him from Whitcomb’s book, and I still think you should read the book as well as Kuban’s page, just in case you were planning some lazy debunking.
I may be a sceptic at heart, but I have no simple answers to what people are experiencing. The 35 cases Whitcomb gives may be the tip of the ice berg – he has estimated I believe 14,000 sightings in the USA, but I think that is extrapolation based on the fact most witnesses won’t come forward. You don’t hear a lot about local newspaper reports of pterosaur sightings though, and one thing that would be really interesting is if anyone could search archives for such, and link them on a web page. I respect the work and dedication of these chaps, and one thing I am certain of.
I still want to see a living pterosaur, because it would be a mindblowing thing to witness! I just hope they are real
It just struck me that I have never written about ghosts of Cheltenham, and considering former SPR President Robert H. Thouless wrote that one of our famous apparitions was among “the best attested in the annals of haunting” I thought I should. It’s tempting to start there, with the famous Cheltenham Ghost, as I have done a lot of original research on the case over the years, but I’m pushed for time today so instead I will write briefly about some other Cheltenham spooks.
A Rosehill Ghost Busted!
It seems fitting, as I first came to Cheltenham to attend the university (then the College of St. Paul and St. Mary) to begin there. Let’s go back to late September/ early October 1987, when I have just arrived and lived on the Rosehill Campus (which no longer exists). I was living in the East Wing Flat of John Priestley House, with a couple of other lads, in Halls of Residence (and shortly thereafter moved to Fullwood Halls on the Park Campus as it happens). I had had my experience at Thetford Priory only a few months before, and another strange experience I rarely tell back in Suffolk. I was very open to ghost stories at this time in my life!
One morning I woke up to find my flat filled with some of the Rec Studies students, big hefty sport lads. Turned out they had fled their rooms in one of the modern brick houses surrounding JPH (also Halls) because of a ghost! In fact I seem to recall some actually stayed in our flat for a few days. My memory is rubbish now, but I do recall the story pretty well though I have not told it as much as I have the Thetford story. If anyone can add more, or correct me, do comment or email me.
It seems that the “ghost ” was actually pretty innocuous – it was the sound of a ball bouncing down the main staircase, heard every night at the same time. At first it had gone unnoticed, until they were told the story of a depressed student who had hanged him or herself by the rather strange method of balancing on a medicine ball at the top of the stairs, and kicking it away, before dying. The ball bounced down the stairs, and that is the sound heard today – so the grim legend went. Of course, it all makes very little sense, but interestingly the witnesses were clearly hearing something.
I was caught up in the first week of college and homesickness, but I found time to make enquiries. No student had committed suicide in the building in question (and indeed any on that campus, and given it was with the exception of JPH fairly modern and the people I asked had all been around before it was built they would know!) and the legend was just that – a story that had arisen to scare Freshers. However, my flatmates and others went and heard a dull thudding sound, as described. In fact I seem to recall I gave them a flat bed Panasonic tape recorder to tape the sound, but whether they did or not I know not. It was getting softer over the two or three days of the phenomena, less audible.
The cause of the spook was now discovered. In the buildings the hot water tank and gas boiler were in a sort of cupboard area under the stairs, safely locked away. The building, empty of students and unheated over the summer holiday had become damp and cold; as the heating came on each evening the stair joists dried out, warmed up and expanded, causing the thudding. No ghost – just building noises. You can always find out of a “ghost” is caused by this by resetting the time your central heating turns on and seeing if the “ghost” follows suit. It only happens normally when you first turn it on for the year, in England in late September/early October, in other words about the time students come back.
Sadly nearby Pittville Campus had no ghost stories I am aware of.
Frances Close Hall really looks like it should be haunted, though doubtless Dean Close chased all the spooks of The Marsh as the area was called before he developed it and built the college around 1849 away. Tennyson called him the “Protestant Pope of Cheltenham” and despised him, and even today his reputation seems to be of an incredibly strong and rather scary religious fanatic, though he was greatly loved by the working people of Cheltenham at the time. I have been all round FCH at every time of day and night and seen and heard nothing, though there was in the late 1980′s a story that the corridor from the main staircase to the library which has a modern faux-Roman mosaic with the Latin phrase for the “legend lives on” was haunted, and students avoided collecting their post at night for fear of what they might encounter. Some said it was the ghost of a Roman legionnaire, which seems rather unlikely given the modern date of the mosaic! I never lived in halls at FCH (no longer a Hall of Residence but still very much a campus) and so am reliant on J.K. and Steve Wood for these vague rumours. If you know more, do email me! While a Roman soldier is out of place at F.C.H it would make perfect sense at Oxstall Campus i believe, but again I know of no alleged hauntings there.
Again, Hardwick Halls had no ghostly reputation that I am aware of, and neither did The Folley. Shaftesbury Hall did have rumours in it’s declining days after it’s sale by the college when it was being run as a jazz club and community centre in a state of increasing dereliction, but I never found any evidence of any haunts (some of the buildings opposite do have good stories however.) The only story I heard that seemed to have a slight ring of authenticity was stories about the Theatre being the source of loud noises and annoyance to the priests who live nearby after it was derelict and long boarded up and empty. I suspect they were hearing noises from Gas night club (later Chemistry I think) across the road, or the short lives Rhythm Rooms in the old Shaftesbury bar. However there is an interesting ghost story concerning the public passageway which runs behind the former Shaftesbury Campus and St. Greg’s church next door, where you can still walk it being a public footpath. I won’t tell it here now because it is not technically a university ghost, but will return to it later!
Ghosts of the Park Campus
And so we come to the place I know and love the best, the Park Campus. I still recall the legend of the Black Duck of Fullwood, a giant black vampire duck that ate Freshers, invented by Martin Peters I think to take the mickey out of my interest in spooks in 1987. It was a running joke. There is one oddity that if I was more inclined to believe my own senses might have been construed as a time-slip. Soon after arriving to live in Fullwood Halls (since demolished; the villas are on the site, but the Refectory and Principal’s House still stand) I wandered down to the lake with my good friend J.K, and turning right we found a lovely paved areas with a bench and little well tended area. A couple of days later we returned, finding the whole place far more overgrown than we remebered, and the bench missing. (if you find the paved spot and look in the water you will see what is probably the legs of it). We remarked at the time that it seemed to have all changed. The most likely explanation is someone threw the bench in the water; still it was replaced, and there is still one there today.
I love the lake and will haunt it one day. Sadly the swans seemed to have gone and been replaced by geese, but I wonder if the 6′ plus catfish still lurks in there? He was immense and monstrous, and it took several sightings by me before my friends believed me after I saw it.
Fullwood inevitably had a ghost story, told by a porter, though I never tracked the fellow in question down, and I knew many of them. It is recounted in Bob Meredith and Peter Reardon’s little book on local ghosts Cheltenham Town of Shadows, and having not asked for permission I will not repeat it here. You can still find it in some shops or second hand here – I can’t believe people are selling it new for £20 and £70, when it is really a very small booklet! Recommended. Ross Andrew’s Paranormal Cheltenham is well worth picking up – I reviewed it for the SPR here.
Anyway the ghost story took place on I think D South, far above the roofs of the current villas, in the now demolished Fullwood Halls. What the bombs of the Luftwaffe failed to achieve (they damaged the north wing in 1941) improved fire regulations made inevitable, but I knew the area well, and lived on B floor for three years without ever hearing anything of the ghost! Still, we do have one real ghost story where I interviewed the witness myself from the Park Campus, and being pushed for time I shall recount it here and then sign off for today. Here is the story as it appeared at the time on the uni website, written by, as usual, me… I have updayted it in [square brackets] where clarification is needed thirteen years later.
Cheltenham, May 3rd 1996
The SPS is based here at the Cheltenham & Gloucester College of Higher Education [today the university of Gloucestershire - CJ], and it is interesting to be able to report our first College ghost story in the society’s history. Pseudonymns have been used throughout, but the facts are all correct. I would like to remind would be ghost-hunters that the College is private property and that trespassers are likely to be eaten by the famous College guard dogs and security officers!
The setting for the sighting is Fullwood Hall of residence, which was my home for three years in the late 80′s. I must state at this point that I have never in my ten-year association with the College heard of any similar sighting, so we must assume this was a one-off…
On Friday 3rd of May 1996 the college staged a ‘May Ball’. It was a fancy dress event, on the theme of 60′s/70′s/80′s music. A good time was had by many.
At about 1.30am Amy and her partner Bill had returned to Amy’s room on ‘D’ West on the third storey of the building. The room’s window overlooks a semi-quadrangle, open at one side, covered in grass and with two trees. [Note: this area is immediately north of the Principal's House, D West being the then designation for student rooms up there. The grass area still exists as far as I recall, near the modern villa's]
Amy was looking out of the window, when she saw a woman standing by a tree. The woman was wearing a white dress, had dark hair, and a broad brimmed white hat with several large white feathers protruding. The style of dress was described by the witness as that of an Edwardian lady.
Amy was interested in the woman and observed her for what she estimates to have been three minutes. The woman then walked around the tree and stared at the [presumably "in the direction of" - the line of vision would be blocked by trees and the rise] lake. The area is very well lit; Amy noted the shadow of the tree but no shadow from the figure, which appeared perfectly solid.
Suddenly panicked she went to call Bill who came to the window – taking perhaps thirty seconds. The figure had vanished. It seems highly unlikely that the figure could have ran out of sight in that time, though the possibility of entering the building by a door or window must be admitted, and in a brief test I was able to sprint up to trees and cover in about twenty seconds.
You can read an account of a poltergeist investigation in a student house I did on my blog here.
The University’s Student Parapsychology Society (Defunct!)
For about a decade the university had a student society, the SPS or Student Parapsychology Society, founded by me and deeply involved in investigating spooks etc. (I’d like to see it reborn – contact me on email@example.com if you want to talk about this, or tell me a uni or college ghost story, or comment below). I was rather amused to find the old programme of events…
SPS Meetings Spring Term 2000
SPS meetings are held from 5.30pm – 7.30pm every Wednesday of term, and are open to all students. Students should e-mail John Madden for details of lecture locations.
Wk 1 Careers in Parapsychology… CJ
Wk 2 Theories of the Poltergeist
Wk 3 Experimental Psi Research
Wk 4 Modern Resarch in Survival of Bodily Death
Wk 5 The Case for Survival; A Debate
Wk 6 Investigations in the History of Psychical Research… CJ
Wk 7 Do we need a new Psychical Research?
Wk 8 Guest Lecture… speaker to be announced
Wk 9 Psychiatry and Psychical Research
Wk 10 Christianity and Psychical Research: The Power of Prayer?
Wk 11 The Ley of the land; Parapsychology, Earth Mysteries and Cultural History…CJ
I note with wry amusement that 9 weeks talks were given by me, and they really were lectures with handouts, coursework and everything! Oh how I miss those days with the “spusslings” and our bottles of little dead guy wine – they still sell it in what is now Sainsbury’s Bath Road I noticed today! One grows old so fast.
If you have any university or otherwise ghost stories do share them with me – firstname.lastname@example.org, or comment below
OK, many of you will know I play a game called Ars Magica about medieval wizards and have written on a lot of books for the line over the last nine years or so. I really enjoy the game, but even hardcore gaming friends of mine don’t really know what it is all about often. Well soon my blog will be filled with stuff on poltergeist cases and research related to that again, so I thought it would be nice to try to explain a little bit about the game. I have set out to teach it to ten new people this month by playing games with them, and so far have managed to play with 9 people but only four so far completely new to the system. Still we are only four days in to September. If you’d like to play a game and live near Cheltenham just email me on email@example.com
Annoyingly I somehow missed out the following slide, so before you scroll down and have a look at the presentation some absolute basics–
My little presentation below was developed really for people who know roleplaying games a bit, but non-roleplayers should get the idea too, and learn enough to be able to join in a game and have some idea of what is going on. It’s in several bits, but you don’t need to know anything or own a rulebook to understand this first presentation. Even if you have no interest in games you may find it mildly amusing as an exercise in playing with Latin words and thinking about how a medieval wizard might solve problems, if you stick with it for the quizzes and exercises. Click on the presentation controls at bottom to change slides.
The bits useful to print as a cheat sheet are here for convenience -
I have written a lot on games recently and not much else, but back to the normal soon. Despite the title this post is as much about real English history as my game, and therefore possibly worth reading — you can skip the sections with green headings and read the ones with dark blue heading to find the fact rather than the game stuff! I have just finished hosting Grand Tribunal 2012 the Ars Magica roleplaying game convention, and so am still full of enthusiasm for my gaming exploits. This year saw a rather unusual one — trying to recreate a rather important if obscure event in English history (a battle at Fornham, just outside Bury St Edmunds in 1173) with a combination wargame/freeform/rpg game set in the world of Ars Magica, using the 5th edition rules.
However, let’s start with the real world history…
Why was there a battle at Fornham?
During the reign of Henry II Henry was persuaded to grant his son (also called Henry) a coronation, making him effectively “junior king”. From this time on he is referred to as “Henry the Young King” to differentiate him from his father. This was deemed necessary to ensure a smooth succession on Henry II’s death — after The Anarchy of the 1150′s when the rival camps of the Empress Matilda and King Stephen fought a bitter civil war in England over the throne, it seemed like a good idea.
Unfortunately Henry the Young King felt his father had given him the title but none of the power, and rebelled against his father. The rebels fought a campaign in Normandy, then part of the Angevin Empire which Henry II ruled over. Henry, Geoffrey and Richard all attacked their fathers castles, and various baron’s including Hugh Bigod, Earl of Suffolk and Robert Beaumont Earl of Leicester rose in support of the siblings against their father.
Henry II however fought a brilliant campaign, and the rebels were smashed in Normandy despite the French joining them and the Scottish too entering in to the alliance and invading England in the north. Humphrey III de Bohun (the Constable of England) crushed the Scottish invasion and pursued them back north of the border forcing them to end hostilities, while Richard de Lucy (the Justiciar) took the rebel stronghold the city of Leicester and besieged Leicester castle.
In October 1173 Leicester tried a last gasp invasion of England, landing at Walton on the Naze with a formidable force of Flemish mercenaries. He attempted to take the port of Dunwich (which no longer exists, a victim of coastal erosion, except as a couple of gravestones on a cliff and a fish and chip hut as I recall from my last visit) but the townsfolk closed the gates against him and bombarded the besiegers with rocks and the contents of chamber pots.
Leicester withdrew, probably to Framlingham, where he met up with another powerful rebel Hugh Bigod. English history often turns on minor events, and in this case it was a squabble between two women. Bigod’s wife Gundreda and Petronilla de Grandmesnil, wife of Leicester, fell out soon after meeting. The two women simply could not stand each other — and all plans for a united rebel attack on London faltered. This may well have proven to be the disastrous moment for the rebel alliance. Leicester decided march east and try to reach his power base in the East Midlands, and perhaps relieve Leicester castle. Bigod was to proceed south through Essex. However once Leicester reached Bury St Edmunds where predictably the townsfolk closed the gates against him, and the monks raised a huge force of 1,200 men to repel him, he discovered the forces of Humphrey III de Bohun and Richard de Lucy waiting to prevent him crossing the River Lark.
Where was the battle?
As far as I can make out, the area bounded by Fornham St Martin, Fornham St Genevieve, Fornham All Saints and the Tollgate, Bury St. Edmunds. The Priory near the tollgate had a mural bridge across the Lark, heavily defensible (similar to the one you can see in Eastgate Street, Bury St Edmunds on the edge of the abbey ruins – a few flint remains exist which I discovered when I was fourteen and lived on the battlefield, behind the supermarket car park and to the right – also many oyster shells from the staple diet of the times in a midden slowly collapsing in to the river!)
You can walk along a footpath from Fornham All Saints Bridge down to the Mildenhall road which crosses the golf course and gives you a great view of the battlefield if you wish to take a look, and many artifacts from the battle included some wonderful swords and crested helmets (far more elaborate than I had expected from Ars Magica artwork, looking more like later full plate helms) can be seen in Moyses Hall Museum on the Buttermarket, Bury St Edmunds (admission free to Bury residents btw!). I worked out where I thought the troops were on the morning of October 17th 1173, and then assigned starting positions, though players had considerable flexibility in their exact set up.
How did we build the battlefield?
I have fought Fornham twice before – once as an Ars Magica adventure as part of my ongoing saga, using tabletop rpg rules, and once as a skirmish wargame. For Grand Tribunal 2012 I decided to combine the two. Counters would be used for the main units, plastic 20mm toy soldiers from the Airfix Robin Hood and Sheriff of Nottingham packs for the leaders and unique characters (each represented by a player) and then a light green king-size bed sheet was painted with the River Lark, villages, fields and water meadows. With help from Tom Nowell, Becky Smith, Phil Jenkins and Hugh Wake we ended up with a simple, cheap-ish and visually appealing set up for the game.
Becky made up paper models of the Priory and two churches, and the remaining church was one Hugh and I had built. They were lightweight and actually all looked rather good on the table, and dark green cloth cut t shape made excellent woods. We had planned to use books to make the hills (just placing them under the sheet) but I forgot to mention it to Hugh who did the set up and this being Suffolk they are more ‘slight rises’ than hills, except for Tut Hill and Barton Hill at opposite corners of the map which are still very low in the terms of anywhere but East Anglia, and almost entirely off map.
The actual Lark Valley is really quite flat, only rising behind my parents’ house as you proceed up what is now the Mildenhall Estate to a ridge line that divides it from the Howard Estate. I created the counters in Paintshop Pro, researching and pasting the correct heraldry on them, and colouring them perhaps confusingly according to the heraldic colours of their leaders, which meant many counters ended up red & yellow, blue & yellow, and so forth despite being on different sides. Reginald the Ear of Cornwall and Robert Earl of Leicester both ended up with blue & yellow counters, which makes it hard to see on the photos who is who. The actual counters used however were very clear as you could see the shields of each leader, though perhaps there was scope for some confusion over heraldry — which would be historically very appropriate – but on the day it never happened. The counters were printed on thick card, then pasted carefully by Phil Jenkins on to cork cut to size. It was all a bit Blue Peter!
The whole construction process took place over two weeks, though two days would probably be enough if a few of you were involved. The most laborious task was Becky’s - building the churches and Priory, though really this was entirely for scenic effect. You could miss that bit out. Alternatively if more ambitious you could build the houses for the three Fornhams and the tollgate, mural bridge and Fornham bridge. The ground scale used was 1cm to 7 meters, which meant the battlefield was a seventh the size of the real one, as everything in the game worked on 1cm to a meter, roughly the scale of the figures and buildings.
This contraction does not matter because the units counters were made to roughly ground scale, and then cavalry scaled up by a factor of four to show them milling around and their greater “reach” on the battlefield. These choices may seem odd, but they were very carefully designed to make the game run smoothly, and worked very well in practice!
The game as written has 19 characters and supports 19 players. Yes, really. However we fell short of this by a few on the day (some folks were tempted away to play The Jerbiton Summit freeform or other games: there is always a lot of games on offer in each slot at Grand Tribunal), and Jocelin of Brakelond is an optional character who need not be played, and if is should be used to replace someone who has died already.
We did the same with Binna & Banna, and Maggy, and doubled up one of the Royalist commands, and had Walter de Wahull arrive on the battlefield late when a last-minute player showed up. Reading the character sheets will show you who can be doubled up with who to give a player two commands. You could of course play Fornham as a straight battle if you so wish – just get rid of all the “oddball” characters, and fight it with any wargaming rules? Each of the characters had a full Ars Magica character sheet, and I used rules from Hedge Magic Revised, ROP: The Divine, ROP: The Infernal, ROP: Magic and ROP: Faerie as morale rules from Lords of Men and the core Ars Magica 5th combat system, and especially the group combat and leadership bonuses rules.
I explained all the relevant rules in the character sheets though so in fact we did not have to consult any books during the game! Each character was written with specific aims, often very tangential to actually winning the battle: these victory objectives each scored seven points in the final scoring, and there were a few bonus points available to each character. Highest score on the day was I think 24; average around 14, and a few players managed to score zero! The victory points system was important because it gives a) competitive players a reason to play in character b) gives the rebels, outnumbered six to one a good chance of actually winning and c) made it quite clear what everyone wanted out of the battle. You could ignore it though if you wanted. The characters were of three types; rebels, royalists and oddballs. The oddballs were various minor characters with no troops but whose action was to have a profound effect on how the day actually turned out, and one of them did end up commanding a unit of knights at one point.
- ROBERT BEAUMONT. Earl of Leicester
Commands 4 groups of trained knights (36 knights)
- PETRONILLA BEAUMONT, the Earl’s scheming wife.
Has a bodyguard group (4 knights)
- DIGGO OF KASSEL,leader of the Flemish Crossbowmen mercenaries
Commands 5 units of crossbowmen (100 crossbowmen) and 2 units of archers (40 archers)
- MENFRID OF GHENT, leader of the Flemish spearmen Commands 5 units of spearmen (100 men)
- BROTHER SAMSON OF BURY ST EDMUNDS
Commands 5 groups of knights (25 knights) and 10 groups of Bury Townfolk (1,200 untrained men with improvised weapons)
- RICHARD DE LUCY, JUSTICIAR OF ENGLAND
Commands 12 groups of knights (96 knights) and 3 groups of untrained spearmen (120 men)
- HUMPHREY III DE BOHUN, HIGH CONSTABLE OF ENGLAND
Commands 10 groups of knights (90 knights)
- WALTER FITZ ROBERT OF LITTLE DUNMOW
Commands 5 groups of knights (30 knights)from Essex
- WILLIAM D’AUBIGNY, EARL OF ARUNDEL
Commands 5 groups of knights (30 knights) from Castle Rising, Norfolk
- WILLIAM FITZ ROBERT, EARL OF GLOUCESTER
Commands 5 groups of knights (30 knights) from Bristol
- REGINALD DE DUNSTANVILLE, EARL OF CORNWALL
Commands 3 groups of knights (15 knights) from Truro
- WALTER DE WAHULL, ROMANTIC KNIGHT
One group of himself and bodyguard (3 knights)
- BINNA & BANNA
A little girl & her brother.
An elderly lady out collecting sticks
- JOCELIN OF BRAKELOND
A monk in the wrong place at the wrong time
- LUCIAN OF GUERNICUS
A Quaesitor on important business!
- RED HANNAH
A lady of Fornham St. Martin who has not fled her home.
- PRIOR ROBERT
His house is in the battlefield, but he seems strangely distracted!
- A MYSTERIOUS NOBLEWOMAN
She rides alone across the battlefield. What does she want and who is she?
The accounts of the (mythic) battle!
Rather than say what actually happened and spoil it in case there is a re-fight, as happened historically Leicester lost. Here follow the accounts of some of the main protagonists, emailed to me by their players after the battle. I think reading them gives you a sense of the fog of war, and I have provided another map of the battlefield in which I have shown the approximate positions and movements of each of the protagonists whose accounts are listed below. Hopefully it is amusing, even if you were not there on the day, and reading it really shows why medieval chronicles are often rather hard to understand when we try and sort out what actually happened in many battles!
Robert de Beaumont, Earl of Leicester.
Poor Robert of Leceister – Luck and God was certainly not on his side that day! His overconfidence led him to lead a heroic charge to destroy the southern bridge (over a drainage ditch), where he was met by Reginald de Dunstanville, Earl of Cornwall. A battle ensued between the knights of Leceister and Cornwall as the Leceister knights attempted to destroy the bridge. Leciester’s knights suffered 3 casualties and took 3 Kent knights prisoner, but Robert himself was gravely wounded against the Cornish lord, who smote Robert’s head open. Eyes full of blood, Robert botched his retreat and fell from his horse. Taken prisoner by Cornwall, who took him bound to the Priory, he remained there for the rest of the battle. His leaderless knights were overwhelmed by the Royalists, and Cornwall impaled Robert on a red hot poker and hung him from the Priory walls, as a warning to all other godless rebels.
Historically Leicester’s fate was kinder – see below!
Menfrid of Ghent, Flemish Mercenary Captain
Boldly did Menfrid send his hundred Flemish spearmen up the road to act as a vanguard and escort for the baggage train. Menfrid himself went into the church of St. Martin and prayed and prayed for the intervention of Saint Dympna. Forty of his men formed a defensive line outside the church to hold the knights coming along the road from the north whilst the rest moved back to defend the baggage train from the knights approaching from the Priory. Suddenly a terrible soul rendering howl emminated from the woods and his men holding the northern road fled into the church leaving their spears behind. They rambled about some big black dog or other. Finally Saint Dympna intervened and Menfrid rallied his men, twenty of whom went off to capture knights lying wounded on the field outside the church for ransom whilst he led another twenty men to relieve the Flemish crossbowmen outside with the aid of another twenty spear men who moved away from the baggage train as needed. The last forty men “escorted” two wagons of the baggage train off the field of war and sensing that the battle was lost Menfrid made a deal with Sir Reginald’s knights and gave up his hostages for safe conduct off the field.
Menfrid’s men escaped, but the Flemish crossbowmen were massacred by the knights of Humphrey. Only their leader, Diggo of Kassel, was to escape. Let us move on to the royalist accounts…
Reginald de Dunstanville, Earl of Cornwall.
That mumbler Damson (Editor: He means Samson - poor Reginald was deaf in one ear) bungled things from the start by lining his forces up behind the unfordable river where they’d never get into the fray, despite my protestations. The IDIOT actually thought he knew what he was doing! God may move in mysterious ways, but not as mysterious as Damson’s men, ha!
The key to the battle was clearly the bridge in front of the priory, which Damson’s bungling had thankfully left the path clear to for my household. So along the road we trotted, spotting Leicester and some of his knights attempting to take the bridge. Putting spurs to our horses flanks we smashed into them, driving them off the bridge and back into their camp in disarray. In the ensuing melee, several of his knights fell and I personally defeated and captured the rebel Leicester. My knights having the better of the combat, I left them to it and escorted Leicester back to the Priory where Damson (bloodthirsty bugger) insisted he be impaled. I returned to my Knights who were finally receiving some support from the knights under the supposed command of Damson, come belatedly to the battle (the men-at arms never made it, and a good thing too, as all they are good for is holding castles and being ridden underfoot) By this time the left wing of the army had found a fording point and were rolling up the remnants of Leicester’s forces from the North, I having pinned them in their camp to that end. The battle was over.
I did hear after the battle that all manner of weird and wonderful happenings had been reported. The wild imaginings of men green to war if you ask me, inventing stories to excuse their own shortcomings. I never saw or heard anything of the sort!
Brother Samson of Bury Abbey
My Lord Abbot, I beg to report that through Divine favour we have been victorious this day ! I grieve for those who have died in pursuit of our cause but I know that Our Lord will grant them a place of honour at His table for their service. By the Lord’s Grace, I gathered some 1200 men of the area who love their rightful king and 25 knights who owe service to the Abbey and we arrived at Prior Robert’s house in time to stand against the rebel, Leicester. As you know, there is but a small and defensible bridge across the Lark here and the rebel forces appeared few so I gave instruction to Sir Reginald, who had accompanied us, and our own knights to ride forth and seek battle with the ne’er-do-wells while I held back the citizenry to defend the House of God and the crossing of the Lark. I had hoped that some of the local men might know of a ford across the Lark so that they could support the knights but also their knowledge proved false so the entire host was required to slowly cross via the Prior’s house’s bridge.
I believe that to the north the men of the Constable and Justiciar manoeuvred also to bring the enemy to battle, though My Lord de Lucy seemed much hampered by the Lark’s swift flow and thereafter succumbed to diverse diversions rather than pursuing the enemy with his customary vigour. Surely God’s light shined upon Sir Reginald though for in Our service he rode hard for the traitors and he and his knights struck mighty blows against the enemy forces, including Leicester himself. Such was Sir Reginald’s prowess enhanced by God that Leicester himself has struck down and captured ! Truly God moves in mysterious ways for who would have thought that Sir Reginald, in his dotage, should be the instrument of Leicester’s downfall ! However, as the knights directly under my command also advanced to drive off Leicester’s men there came a dreadful smell of brimstone and I was affeared that the chapel in the Prior’s house had been sore afflicted by great evil ! Indeed, such an evil must have been present and must have touched Prior Robert for he joined me on the walls only to give orders to our knights that they should support Leicester ! Surely he was in the thrall of Lucifer !
As my superior though I could not gainsay him but made my way clear of the infernal stench and called upon St Edmund to show him the error of his ways. Ah, glorious day ! I had not thought to be so blessed that I should see such a saint walk upon God’s earth but it was so – St Edmund himself castigated the Prior in such tone that the Prior immediately repented his actions. Alas, the infernal dominion was strong here though for Satan’s minion challenged St Edmund for the Prior’s soul; but no one can match the power of Our Lord and St Edmund carried the Evil One away. Prior Robert is even as I write reconsecrating the chapel. But what of the battle ? Well, I am sorry to say, Your Reverence, that the fighting was so heavy with Leicester’s forces that ten of our knights have fallen and drawn their final breath on this Earth. They shall surely be rewarded in Heaven ! But none were captured – and in conjunction with Sir Reginald’s men we took some nine knights of Leicester captive.
Glory be to God that Leicester himself was also returned to the Prior’s house. I am sad to say though that due to a miscommunication between Sir Reginald and myself, Sir Reginald had him put to death before he could be handed over to the King’s Justice. We have won great victory here, Lord Abbot. A traitor halted, an evil taint removed and a few pennies for Mother Church’s Holy Cause as well ! Truly the Lord smiles upon us ! Your Servant, Brother Samson
Richard de Lucy, Justiciar of England
Finally chased Leicester down just north of St Edmund’s Bury. Gave out my orders. De Bohun ranting about killing mercenaries as usual. That Samson is an awkward so-and-so, didn’t take the hint about the toll-gates. Both spent too much time talking about God and not the task in hand. And so we rode out to do the King’s will and crush the rebels, myself in the centre, de Bohun on the left and Samson on the right. FitzRobert kept pestering me about some legal document he wants me to put my seal to. Have to watch him. And so, we rode out onto the field. Tricky fellow, Leicester, got lots of archers. Hope we can buy them off, told de Bohun that we want them alive. He may have been listening. And so we rode forth, our pennons flying proudly in the breeze. The King’s men were arrayed in serried ranks, arms gleaming, before us lay the river. Distant sounds of battle came from the right and to the left the unearthly cries of some hunting beast, howling like a great hound, as I said to Sir Hugh. Most odd. The host rode forth, as yet unopposed, the enemy holding to their positions beyond the river.
At one pint, the treacherous bank gave way, plunging both me and my horse into the torrent. Emerging, I espied a most curious sight - two children, with skins as green as beans. Yes, most certainly like green beans. A very memorable simile, suitable, indeed, to be sung by minstrels. Their conversation was most charming, as they danced in the meadows. Indeed, I was strangely inclined to dance with them myself. However, sterner tasks called. So I bid Sir Hugh to gat down and give his horse to the green children, as I could not bear to be parted from such enchanting creatures, and we rode forth once more. Passing some fleeing knights of de Bohun, we stormed across the river and shortly thereafter a great victory was won, with the news that Leicester himself was taken by Reginald de Dunstanville and his forces destroyed. (Shame about the mercenaries). Good show!
Humphrey III de Bohun, Constable of England
Sir Humphrey’s battle diary Good. Run Leicester to ground without most of his allies. Bu**er still has his ru**y mercenaries with him though I see. De Lucy has given me command of the northern flank along with some rubbish about trying to save Leicester’s mercenaries so he can buy them out. I’ve told him that they are all spawns of Satan and he’d be mad to even consider using them. We agreed that any left alive after the battle would be his to recruit so I’ve given orders to my lads to make sure that none of the da**ed crossbowmen survive at least. Lost too many good men to them in the past to let them get off lightly now ! Sound fellow Fitz-Robert ! Wants to go charging off to have at the traitors. Solid fellow ! I’ll follow up with my lads and we’ll crush this treasonous lot my lunch time ! Some rum goings on with that de Lucy bloke. Capering about like some kind of madman. Always thought he was going a bit soft. Probably his age. Wish he’d get his men across the Lark though as we might need his knights to keep Leicester’s footmen off while we kill the crossbowmen. Well, got my lads across the Lark and well on the road to dealing with those ba**ard crossbowmen and what do you know but I come across, Margaret, the young filly who is betrothed to me. Can’t leave the lads for too long during the battle but best get her to a church. Silly gel, doesn’t know what’s good for her like most of her high strung gender !
Tried to run off – probably in terror with the battle only half a mile away. Still, now she’s cracked herself on the noggin she’s appropriately docile. I’ll have a priest look her over and make sure she was just lost round here. Can’t be too careful given her family connections. Time to get back to the lads ! Bl**dy idiots. Some baying dog has scared over twenty of them into the Lark. Serves them right if they drowned for being such lightweights ! Still, they have at least found a ford for de Lucy. Lord knows, he appears to need all the help he can get ! Ha, just getting up towards my boys and they seem to have overrun the remains of Leicester’s baggage train and have arranged a parley with what is left of Leicester’s forces. Da**ed good lads have also dealt with the crossbowmen as well. Never suffer one of those evil little bu**ers to live, that’s what I say. De Lucy can have the mercenary footmen and good riddance to them. Assuming de Lucy ever actually gets here of course. Hopeless. Married Margaret. Not bad but I’ve had better. HdB
The game was run using the Ars Magica 5th edition rules. Yes, tabletop rpg rules! The group rules made it very easy to run the battle. Each unit had statistics for an average member, and we used a simple method to declare if the leadership bonuses were being applied to attack or defence each turn. The movement rates (given on each character sheet) were taken from Lords of Men, as were the average stats for the units and the crossbow rules and ranges. Crossbows actually proved fairly ineffective against well armoured knights, perhaps surprisingly. The answer would be to use the knight’s Brawl (Dodge) or Ride as a Defence rather than there melee Defence when receiving missile fire – see Lords of Men for a discussion. We didn’t, because I have not included that on the character sheets. Add Ride + Quickness to work it out and archery will be much more effective; however as those stats are not given on the sheet for the units I’d default to Defence 5 against crossbows. The most important rule was only characters could take actions against other characters. So no matter if all your men were shot down by Flemish croissbowmen, only the leader of them (a player character) could shoot at your character. The game ran in four phases per turn.
1. Movement. Everyone moved simultaneously. If we had used initiative it could have taken much, much longer. You need a lot of rulers,.and if people come in to contact you work out where. It worked well.
2. Talking. The noise rules were important. Communication was 50cm (Voice range in Ars Magica), or 35cm if a melee combat or baying hound or something else noisy was within 50cm of you. You could shout a few words to any other player in that range. In reality we let people talk in character for a couple of minutes (not the few seconds of the Ars Magica combat round) to anyone they were in communication with.
3.Combat We calculated Initiative normally for each normal melee as it happened. Powers and spells used in combat were resolved in this phase using the normal initiative rules. For determining how the Leadership bonus was applied we used a sort of Paper-Scissor-Stones – players chose scissors for attack, or stone for defence, and their Leadership modifier was applied to the relevant combat score. Despite the madness of trying to run a full scale battle using table top rpg rules, it all went surprisingly smoothly, and even those who had never played Ars Magica before soon got their heads around the combat system. We allowed player characters to expend fatigue levels to boost rolls as in the normal combat rules, but ignored this option for units for the sake of simplicity.
4. Powers Magic and special character powers were resolved in this phase, in order of initiative, unless we had resolved them earlier. A second Storyguide (referee) could have sped things up here significantly, as each involved secret discussions between a player and the referee.Still it was all pretty fast. I think we resolved 9-10 turns in the three hour slot, including all discussion and rules explanations etc. Most people had their characters and a copy of the battlefield of map a few days before the game to plan, which is probably a good idea as some of the characters run to about ten pages or more.
So what really happened at Fornham in 1173?
The historical outcome was not that dissimilar to the game one (though I suspect Black Shuck and the Green Children played a less important role in proceedings). ”During the troubled reign of Henry II the Earl of Leicester staged a rebellion. He landed at Walton-on-the Naze with 300 Flemish mercenaries, a body of archers and some forty knights he had persuaded to join his cause. After unsucessfully attacking Dunwich (then an important port) he marched on to Risby, en route to Leicester where presumably he intended to raise a more substantial force” I wrote in my book Spectral Suffolkback in 1990.
“In the meantime the King’s loyal supporters had not been idle. The Lord Chief Justice of England Sir Richard de Lucy gathered together 300 knights and proceeded to Bury where he was joined by the High Constable Sir Hugh de Bohun and the earls of Gloucester, Arundel and Cornwall. Between them they raised a force of some 1,200 Bury men who were willing to fight for their cause and the future of the Crown. (It is ironic that forty two years later the Barons met again at Bury to draw up and prepare the Magna Carta, designed to limit the power of the Crown.) Battle was inevitable. The Rebel forces took the high ground on Barton Hill, and Leicester’s tiny army attempted to ford the Lark. It is said that the Earl’s men were unable to find a crossing place, although this seems hard to believe today, for the river rarely exceeds four feet in depth, although things may have been different then. Perhaps Leicester decided the crossing would disorganise and weary his men and allow the enemy to fall on them from behind. Leicester must have realised defeat was inevitable. None the less he drew up his men and prepared to make a stand on Fornham meadows with the river protecting his right flank. He made a heroic speech, and seems to have truly inspired his road weary and out numbered forces. The battle began with the heroic charge of Walter Fitz-Robert who was beaten back. Then the Earl of Arundel marched forward, only to be met with withering fire from Leicester’s archers. This was followed immediately by a charge by the High Constable’s knights. It is fascinating to try to imagine the armour, plumes and pennants fluttering from the steel tipped lances as the mighty war horses thundered down the hill and across the meadows towards Leicester’s tired men. One hundred men, mainly archers were captured yet still the rebel ranks held.
De Lucy decided enough was enough and through his main force forward to the attack. Leicester’s wife now fled in terror, losing her jewellery and to no avail as she was captured by the (hopefully) gallant knight Sir Walter de Wahull. Leicester saw his mercenaries cut down and no realised the day was lost. Falling back to the parish church of St. Genevieve (this particular building burnt down in 1782) he and his knights made a desparate stand, until overwhelmed by weight of numbers they chose surrender rather than death. It was a wise choice, for the prisoners were merely deported to Normandy and then confined to Calais for their treason… “
I thoroughly enjoyed the project, though some one hundred and twenty man hours went in to the preparation and construction of the game. Still all worth while, and possible because of the team of people who worked on it: Becky Smith, Hugh Wake, Thomas Nowell, Phil Jenkins and Lisa Langood all played significant roles in getting the game to fruition, and I wrote the characters and designed the whole things of which I am just proud. I have made the game available to Mark from Grand Tribunal America for use their perhaps in the future, and am happy to share with other Atlas Games promoters from the Atlas Games Special Ops demo team who attend games conventions promoting Ars Magica by running games. Many thanks to John and Michelle Nephew at ATLAS Games, everyone who played and all the delegates of Grand Tribunal 2012.
I’m occasionally approached by other game companies to promote their game by a one off event at a convention – well if I enjoy your game I’m happy to consider it, and you can email me on firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks for reaading cj x