Last night I ran episode 13 of my playtest game. It just happened to be a Halloween special of the series and I had a lot of fun coming up with the case they ended up in the middle of. It was also a lot of fun watching my players try to guess what they would be facing before the game started. I don’t think any of them saw it coming, but there was a good reason for that. It’s not easy to make a “show” already about ghosts, demons, and werewolves even more Halloween related.
The Trouble with Halloween
In your non-supernatural setting, be it a TV show or game, Halloween episodes are often a time to bring in hints or outright demonstrations of the supernatural that would otherwise not fit into show’s genre. Cops might encounter ghosts or witches and struggle to deal with the unexplained. These hints of magic and monsters are fun and out of the ordinary, making the holiday special live up to its name. However in modern horror/supernatural settings, the supernatural is normal, even if most of the rest of the population is oblivious too it. Simply adding in ghosts or witches won’t make the episode all that special by comparison, as that could be just about any other episode in the series.
Worse for supernatural settings, the holiday itself is a mixed bag. On the one hand it’s a holiday traditionally filled with monsters and magic, and including very old fables involving spirits entering the world unbidden and needing to be appeased to ensure a safe winter. Great stuff to working into a game about the supernatural. On the other hand, the modern version of the holiday is full of fun, costumed children roaming the streets in groups collecting candy, and rather a large amount of partying. In real life, children are actually rather safe on Halloween, with car accidents being the real danger, although that’s hardly fitting for a Halloween episode. Halloween no longer resembles the harvest sacrifices and appeasement of the spirits that it once did. This disconnect between the mythology associated with the holiday and the modern experience of it is something that needs to be addressed in a modern horror setting if a “Halloween Episode” is to be had.
Shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer take the concept of Halloween being a night of magic and monsters and reverse it. To quote fan favorite Spike “In my day, no self-respecting creature of the night went out on All Hallow’s Eve. We left that to the posers, the blighters who had to dress up and try to be scary.” In Buffy’s world undead are something you battle most every-night, but once a year on Halloween, you can actually take the night off and relax, although of course there a number of Halloween Episodes in the series where that are an exception.
The Dresden Files modern-fantasy detective book series takes a different path. In Dresden’s world, Halloween really is a night when creatures from the spirit world enter the world seeking prey. The trick for the setting is that these spirits become a hunting pack, and simply grabbing a few children isn’t the kind of prey they want: they hunt other monsters. In the world of Harry Dresden, Halloween is a night most monsters stay home and hide, or go out hunting other monsters in the Wild Hunt. It also happens to be Harry’s birthday.
Jack and Harvest Lord
For my game of SINS I decided the world needed a good excuse for Halloween to be safe for children. I also really liked the Buffy concept of it normally being a night off for the monster hunters. At the same time, I wanted the Halloween episode to have a strong tie to the holiday. My usually trick for SINS games is to look at real world history and mythology, as truth is often far stranger and more interesting that fiction. Halloween, like many modern holidays, is a mix of a number of old traditions and religious holidays. A few jumped out at me as directly useful to inventing a Halloween mythology for my SINS game. Here’s what I found and kept:
In ancient pre-Christian Ireland, a harvest festival, held around what we now call October 31st/November 1st, celebrated the end of summer, the bounty of the Harvest, and the bringing the herds down from the mountains, etc. It was said that on that night the fey traveled the land. Many cultures made sacrifices to appease them and ensure a safe winter. In particular, although it’s authenticity is questioned, Caesar describes living human sacrifices being burned on large wicker men by druids.
More recent fables describe a roguish man named Jack who managed to trick and trap the Devil, securing a promise from him for his release. The exact nature of the trick Jack pulled on the devil varies widely from telling to telling, but some versions of this myth are the basis for the “Jack-O-Lantern” carried by disguised children on October 31st for hundreds of years.
The True History of Halloween in SINS
For long ages the people of northern Europe celebrated the end of Summer and start of Winter with a harvest festival culminating on the night halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. On that night each year a powerful Fey Noble called the Harvest Lord entered the world, and each community made a sacrifice to appease him by burning a person, alive, frequently in a wickerman. Each community was responsible for selecting their own sacrifice, often using a criminal, or foe captured in war.
Then one year, hundreds of years ago, a man now remembered as Jack (actually “Sheain” in Gaelic) convinced a community to make no sacrifice. The Fey spirit appeared to Jack to ask him why he had done this, and Jack explained that the community no longer wished to choose their own sacrifice, as it was difficult to come to an agreement within the community. He struck a deal with the Harvest Lord that each year the spirit could select its own sacrifice, even agreeing to specify that he could take children, a more desired offering to fey in particular. The Fey spirit agreed, eager to collect the souls of a children instead of prisoners and captured foes. Having convinced the Spirit that it was getting the better of him in the bargain, Jack then sprung a trap, tricking the spirit into a circle of iron chains. Thus bound, he made the spirit promise not to take Jack’s own son or to ever take his kin as sacrifice. The Spirit, grudgingly agreed to this “minor change” to the deal, and declared he would take no child who displayed the Fey Lord’s own mark on a gourd each Halloween night. Jack, being cunning, had planned for this all along. When the spirit lord left Jack’s house, he found every house in the town already had a lantern gourd in their window or doorway, and the Spirit was unable to claim any children in that village ever again, and as the tradition spread, the Fey Lord was eventually prevented from taking anyone, especially children, on his own sacred night.
An angry feylord is something to behold, and jealousy is not above a fairly lord. For hundreds of years, any spirit that harms a child on Halloween has been stalked down by the angry fey lord. The monsters that stalk humanity have learned, over the centuries since Jack’s trick, not to mess with children on Halloween. Further this has survived as a tradition of kids dressing up in monstrous costumes, attempting to look as frightening as the thing that hunts monsters on Halloween.
My Halloween Episode
For the SINS Halloween episode I decided the best way get the story going was to break the status quo established in the back story. Jacob “Jay” MacSheain (“Son of Jack” in Gaelic), a direct descendant of the fabled Jack, not that he knows it, finds himself in deeply in debt to the local NOLA mob. With his debt coming due at the first of the November, and it being late on the 30ths of October, he takes to drinking and combing through his belongings for anything that can help. While digging through an old chest left to him by his grandfather just past midnight, he finds an even older box with ancient documents written in old Gaelic. That’s when he gets a knock on his door, and meets a man claiming to represent the other party in a very old agreement with his family. Although Jay can’t read the old document, and the other man is very evasive in describing it’s outcome, they eventually come to an agreement. Jay doesn’t accept nullification of the entire agreement, but he does eventually accept altering a single word in the contract with assurances that it would have no effect beyond one minute on one day once a year. In exchange he was given a sizable payment, in odd gold coins. Weird sure, but in desperate times Jay couldn’t refuse the gold.
The next day, Halloween, children in the various neighborhoods around New Orleans start going missing, including Jay’s own daughter, though he doesn’t know it yet because he is estranged from her mother. Jay makes a trip to his favorite pawn shop in the 9th Ward to sell his payment, and unfortunately gets mugged losing all but one of his coins, and getting pistol whipped resisting. He wakes up in an ambulance headed to the ER.
My players found themselves with two unrelated looking cases, that eventually converge on the return of Harvest Lord Fey Noble. He had begun collecting children in anticipation of the final minute before midnight on the 31st of October when he could claim them as his due sacrifice. Over the course of the nightshift, the players discovered evidence of Fey involvement, rescued a mobster being attacked by an animated Wickerman, translated the old contract, faced down a corner full of gangbangers, and navigated a corn maze overgrown with brambles and pumpkins, and eventually faced the Fairy Harvest Lord in combat before a massive magical bonfire.
In the end they managed to save the children and claim the Fey Lord’s magic scythe. They also managed to get one of the detective assigned to mandatory sexual harassment training, and by the end of the night found themselves facing a probable Internal Affairs investigation. Worse, they failed to realize that simply defeating the Fairy Lord would only save the children this time. With the contract still changed, he’ll be back next Halloween.
Harvest Lord in Your Game
I’ve put together a PDF with the Savage Worlds stats for the Harvest Lord for download and use in your own games. He’s designed around the Fey Noble from the SINS setting book, but he’s much tougher and faster. Do note that he works best when he can get a good solid Wind Barrier spell working, and be sure to make good use of his reduced multi-action penalty. Have Fun with him!