Talking Heads

Originally published at: https://www.torchbearerrpg.com/?p=898

Hello friends!

The Sagas of Rimholm Kickstarter is well underway! In fact, as this post goes live there’s a little bit less than two days left in the campaign. I hope you’ll consider backing it if you haven’t already. It’s a zine, but also more than a zine! We zoom into a whole region of the Middarmark, from the Sakki Downs to the Temple of Black Skulls, and give you all the details and background for dozens of adventure sites. The hub of this region is Rimholm, and from any direction your adventuring party travels, there are rewards and dangers everywhere they go.

As an example of what we’ve been working on, I want to share a little bit about ghost fences.

When Koch first came to me to propose this project, he noted that he was particularly taken by a passing reference to “ghost fences” in the Middarmark Gazetteer. Could I write more about them?

I’m not sure, but I think I first stumbled across the concept in an issue of Mark Smylie’s Artesia comic, where the titular warrior-priestess character and her war band are caught out-of-doors on the night of the Wild Hunt after a battle. She makes a ghost fence from the heads of her defeated enemies to hide her warriors from the Wild Hunt.

I’ve read some suggestions that the Celts made such things, but there doesn’t seem to be much real evidence.

Anyway, the image was striking to me and I’ve borrowed it for the Sakki people.I should note that while the Bjornings would have you believe the Sakki are evil incarnate, and the practice of chaining ghosts to their severed heads is horrific, I don’t think the Sakki are any more or less evil than any of the other folk of the Middarmark. The cycle of violence and reprisal in the Middarmark is terrible and never-ending.Here are some rules for ghost fences and using them in your games. Enjoy!

Talking Heads

The Head-taker’s lips parted to reveal the skerry of incantations and the souls of the damned wailed from his dragging ghost chain.

—The Bjorningsaga

The Sakki were spirit-binders without peer, possessed of deep knowledge of the spirits of the land and a terrifying facility with enslaving and compelling the spirits of the dead. The thought that enclaves still linger in the deepest recesses of the Ironwold can turn the greatest champion’s bones to water. Many Bjornings believe Ukho the Head-taker, Sigrun’s bane, to have been the greatest of the Sakki witch-kings, though some brave or foolish few whisper that Gorm the Boneless, master of Svarttårn, had a Sakki witch for a mother.

Regardless, among those with the Wizard’s Sight, the story goes that the “dragging ghost chain” described in the Bjorningsaga was not a poet’s fancy. No. Those with eyes in the Otherworld, they say, could see the Head-taker holding a chain to which countless spirits of the dead were yoked by the neck.

Almost nothing is known of the Sakki that did not come from their enemies, but it is commonly believed that the Sakki pledged to serve their lords from the House of Death just as they served from the House of Life. Their Sakki followers pledged of themselves freely, but slaves had choice neither in life nor death. Enemies slain by Sakki witchfolk were not dissimilar from enemies captured alive; the only difference was whether one became a slave in the House of Death or the House of Life.

In the mist-shrouded Sakki Downs are the countless barrows of ancient Sakki kings, warded with ghost fences—rings of spears planted in the earth, upon which were set the heads of their enemies, bound to guard the tombs for all eternity.

—Sigrun’s Mirror and the Great Barrow, Middarmark, page 32

If one has the courage to venture among the barrows of the Sakki Downs, one can still see here and there the remains of a ghost fence, the last visible reminders of Sakki spirit-binding.

The Sakki would take spears taken from their enemies in battle and plant them in a ring about a place the Sakki wished to ward. They would place the severed heads of enemies upon the spears and then bind their ghosts to the rotting heads, forcing them to guard the place for all eternity rather than seeking a place in the Dry Lands. They have nothing to do save chitter and moan at each other through all the long ages to come. Most go mercifully mad before too long, but visitors excite them.

Ghost Fence

A ring of spears with severed heads impaled upon them, meant to ward something, usually a barrow. The eyes of the heads are lit with a baleful corpsefire. The heads chitter and rave. By turns they will shriek, threaten, plead for wine and meat, sob and beg for release from their torment.

Ghost fences exude horror. The victims who comprise the fence have been denied the Otherworld, severed from their ancestors and enslaved for eternity to another’s will, bodiless, lonely and bored. Their horror at their own terrible existence fuels the ward and projects it outward. The purpose of a ghost fence is to make anyone who attempts to enter the warded place flee, overcome by existential dread.

Trigger

The dread that rolls off a ghost fence can be felt from a long way off but its full force is only unleashed if someone approaches within easy speaking distance. The ghost fence affects people whether they are outside or inside the fence. Even if you manage to pass the fence and survive the crypt, you’ll have to face the horror again to escape. The area warded by a ghost fence is sometimes littered with the bones of would-be grave robbers who managed to get in but couldn’t get out…

Trap

Anyone who gets too close to a ghost fence must make a Will test, and the number of spirits chained to the fence determines its strength.

Trap Factors

A few spirits (4), nine or more spirits (5), dozens of spirits (6)

Each character that approaches the fence must test individually. No help is available. For a duration equal to margin of success, the character may pass between the spears to the warded area or interact with the spirits that comprise the fence. Anyone who fails is overcome by horror:

  • Suggested twist: They flee blindly from the ghost fence and drop whatever they were holding. They come to their senses lost and alone. The thought of the fence and what lies beyond fills them with dread.
  • Suggested condition: Afraid or Sick. Dread overcomes the character. They jump at their own shadow. Or they become feverish and nauseous just by thinking about the fence.

Dispelling a Ghost Fence

Breaking a ghost fence requires the Sign of Abrogation spell (Ob 4) or the Absolution of the Lord of Endings invocation (Ob 5). A banish conflict will not work on a ghost fence because the spirits are chained by the power of another.

Trap Reset

The effect of the ghost fence is permanent unless dispelled. It does not need to be reset. Characters who succeed on the Will test when faced with the fence may interact with it or bypass it for a duration equal to their margin of success on the test. Characters who fail but gain a condition may ignore the horror effect for one turn.

Speaking to a Ghost Fence

If one can overcome the terror and lure one or more of the heads into a lucid moment, one could converse with them. On the downs, there are fences made from the heads of Bjorning warriors of Bjorn’s and Sigrun’s times, but also more ancient fences of Sakki, Grælings and even some Skyrnir. They desire wine and meat and will beg for it. They know what lies within the space they ward and have been witness to anything that has transpired within eyeshot of the fence. Those close enough to other ghost fences to converse may have knowledge of things farther off. They beg for news or stories, something they haven’t heard a thousand times before.

For the purpose of social tests, ghost fences are Nature 4. They have descriptors appropriate to their tribe: Bjornings (boasting, demanding, sailing), Grælings (farming/fishing, suing, feuding), Sakki (climbing, skiing, spirit-binding), Skyrnir (storytelling, skygazing, herding).

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