Ashly and her friends clustered around while Mustache held the gasping rider. He’d been hurt bad – his arms and legs were lacerated, and he had a deep gash across his chest. The man gasped out a few words in their strange language before lapsing into unconsciousness.
Another guard ran up. Mustache barked some commands at him, and the guard knelt next to the unconscious rider. Their mustached commander then turned to Ashly, Vera, Nick, and Marco, gesturing that they should follow, and hastened back through the gates, to a nearby stable full of black, brown, and gray horses. He indicated them, said something, and then started leading one out to the courtyard.
“Should we…” Nick started, looking at the others helplessly.
Mustache looked back, exasperated, and gestured again, shouting.
“Guess so.” Ashly approached one of the horses carefully. They were… well… big. She’d only been up close to one of the massive beasts once before, during an episode of Tara Knows Best where the gang went to a dude ranch, and she’d been intimidated then… sure, they were trained studio horses used to working with undisciplined actors, but she’d only been twelve.
She was sixteen now, but these horses… they didn’t seem so well trained. So patient. Somewhat reluctantly, she grabbed the horse-leash… reigns? Reigns… and led the animal outside.
Once they’d all gathered Mustache mounted up, gesturing that the others should do the same.
“Fuck.” Marco said. “Nick, you know how to ride a horse?”
“The fuck do I know about horses?” Nick asked, examining his mount’s stirrups.
“Don’t all you rich types ride horses and play polo and shit?” Marco asked.
“You’re rich too!”
“Yeah, but I’m nouveau riche,” Marco said. “My people never rode horses.”
GURPS: Mounting a horse is typically the sort of trivial act that nobody should have to roll for. However, not only do none of our PCs have the skill, most of them have never even seen a horse up close. So they’ll be rolling against their default Riding (Equines) skills of DX-5. However, because this is a relatively trivial task they get a +9 to their rolls.
In GURPS a skill rolled at +0 is for a typical adventuring use – like attacking a foe in combat, or a Driving roll in a car chase. Anything simpler – the simple tasks that most people go their lives taking – get bonuses. The players get an additional +1 to skill because these horses are trained as mounts – so, in effect, everyone gets a roll against DX+5. Failure is possible, but unlikely.
Everyone succeeds – Nick critically, Ashly barely.
“Man, whatever.” Nick put one foot in the horse’s stirrup and smoothly and without hesitation slipped up and over the mount, as if he’d done it a hundred times before.
“I knew it,” Marco said.
“I just got lucky!” Nick protested.
“Whatever, cowboy,” Vera climbed onto her own mount with a bit more difficulty.
Ashly followed suit, taking a few tries to get her leg up and over the animal without aggravating it, but managing in the end.
Mustache nodded once, briskly, then shook his reigns. His horse started trotting towards the gates.
Looked simple enough. She looked down at the horse she’d mounted – largely white, with brown flecks. She shook her reigns.
The horse stood still.
She tried again. “Go! Mush! Gidyap.”
Vera was doing the same. “Move, piece of shit.”
Marco’s started ambling sideways towards the stable.
Mustache stopped at the gate, turned around, and made an exasperated sigh.
Thinking back to the cowboy movies her dad liked, Vera brought her heels in, not too hard, against the horse’s ribs. “Go on!” Slowly, it started walking, and with great effort she managed to use the horse ropes… reigns, she reminded herself, reigns… to guide it towards the gate. “I got mine moving!” Looking back over her shoulder, she could see the others following suit.
Mustache led the way south from the gate, doubling back southeast along the wall towards the bridge crossing the river. A well worn road continued on southeast, but at the end of the bridge he turned southwest along a less distinct trail – there was a sign, but of course Ashly couldn’t read it. In fact, she didn’t recognize the alphabet – the letters weren’t Latin, they certainly weren’t Arabic, didn’t look like Asian characters or hieroglyphics. Maybe they were runes? Celtic or Norse?
She didn’t have long to consider it – Mustache was in a hurry.
The sun was beginning its descent by the time they reached their destination – they’d been riding at a steady pace for hours, across flat lands broken only by the occasional scattering of hills or field of prairie grasses. Fortunately Ashly hadn’t had to do much to encourage her horse forward, it followed Nick’s, who followed Marco’s, who followed Mustache’s. She was sore, though, more than she thought possible, the muscles in her thighs aching from gripping the horse beneath her, her back from maintaining her balance.
Ahead she could see a pillar of smoke rising from over the next hill. When they crested it, she saw its origin as a small walled keep, smaller than the town they’d ridden from, with a single square tower. As they rode down the hill towards it, one of the outer walls collapsed inward, sending up a cloud of ash and smoke.
Several figures lay in the dirt near the base of the keep’s walls, and as Ashly passed by them on the way to the gate, she was startled to see that they weren’t human but… reptilian. Almost like the Velociraptors in the Jurassic Park movies, but slightly less birdlike, with shorter snouts and more human-like hands – and unlike the ‘raptors, they were wearing ornate feathered belts around their hips and over the shoulders, and carrying crude wooden spears.
She looked back at Vera, mouthing what-the-fuck.
Vera stared down at them, but seemed unable or unwilling to get her horse to linger.
“Did you see that?” Nick called back at them. “What… what were those?”
The horses carried them into the courtyard, following Mustache, out of view of the creatures. It was obvious that they’d attacked, burning several wooden structures, though none of the corpses lay within the walls.
A middle-aged woman came running up to Mustache, her hair wild behind her, wearing what may have been a fine powder blue dress now torn and covered in soot. Ashly didn’t need to understand her tongue to hear the anguish in her voice, see the tears streaking her dirty face.
“This… this can’t be earth.” Nick watched Mustache try to console the woman. “Those things back there never… knights and castles never coexisted with dinosaurs. And those lizard men never existed.”
“Neither did zombies,” Vera said. “Or monster children, or those flying shape-shifters, or-“
“Lizard Men.” Marco sounded thoughtful. “You said Lizard Men, Nick.”
“Well, look at ‘em.”
“I thought they looked like the ‘Raptors from Jurassic Park,” Ashly said.
“Those weren’t real either,” Marco said. “But think, man, this… this is kind of medieval Europe but it isn’t really. That language…”
“Yeah, did you see the road sign?” Ashly said. “I have no idea what language that was. Looked like runes.”
“Not Norse,” Nick said. “But maybe Celtic?”
“Did any Celts build stonework like this?” Vera asked.
“No,” Nick said. “Fuck, where are we?”
GURPS: Making a Games (RPG) roll for everyone – Marco and Ashly roll at default. Marco gets a critical success.
“Dungeons and Dragons.” Marco said.
“What?” Ashly asked.
“We played it that one time, remember? The thing with the skeleton king?”
Ashly shook her head. They’d played a lot of short quick games over the last year, and Dungeons and Dragons was probably one of them, but she enjoyed the social games better than the beat-stuff-up-and-rob-them kind. Besides, Josh ran it, and he was a shitty GM. “Kinda, but there weren’t lizard monsters in it.”
“No, but Lizard Men are a standard DnD monster,” Nick said. He looked around, watched Mustache and the woman speaking. “That doesn’t sound like Common, though.”
“What does Common sound like, genius?” Vera asked.
“Common?” Ashly asked.
“The Common Tongue,” Nick said. “It’s like… the default language everybody speaks in a DnD game.”
“No reason it would be English, just because that’s what we use at the table,” Marco said.
“You think we’re inside a DnD game?” Ashly asked, thunderstruck. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!”
“Makes about as much sense as time travel,” Vera said. “Especially when you consider that this definitely isn’t historical Europe.”
Ashly shook her head. The idea just… just didn’t make sense. “But it’s just a game! It’s not real!”
“Hate to sound like a broken record, but neither are zombies or shape-shifting alien monsters, or time travel.”
Nick snapped his fingers. “All Flesh Must Be Eaten!”
“What?” Ashly asked.
“It’s… it’s another role playing game. One about zombies. Normal people fighting zombies. Like we did in the Florida office building.”
“And the thing in Austin?”
“I don’t know,” Nick admitted. “Some kind of horror game? But they’re usually… subtler.”
They grew quiet as Mustache approached them, grim expression on his face. He made eye contact with each of them, then held up a scrap of cloth, some kind of flag, Ashly thought. He pointed at the woman, who was standing off by the side, shook the scrap, then pointed towards the gate and the swamp beyond.
GURPS: The Gesture skill covers casual non-verbal communication; either the ‘signer’ or the ‘signee’ must make a skill roll to convey concepts.
Does Mustache have the skill?
1: No, and neither do the PCs, as we know.
So we roll Gesture’s default of IQ-4 for each PC to see if anybody gets the gist. Everyone fails. Marco uses his Luck, granting two re-rolls… both of which fail.
Ashly had no idea what he was trying to say. Something about the swamp? Maybe that’s where the Lizard Men came from.
Mustache sighed, rode past them, and gestured that they follow.
With some effort Ashly and the others managed to get their horses pointed in the right direction, following their commander.
“You know what would cinch it?” Nick said. “Magic. DnD style magic. It’s mostly unlike anything real world occult traditions teach.”
Ashly wondered how he knew that. “The Professor could read the past. Feel emotions.”
“That’s more of a psionics thing? But we’d have to see the magic in this world.”
Mustache glared back at them, and Nick fell silent. He went back to staring at the ground, and Ashly followed his gaze – there were hoof-prints heading off away from the keep towards the swamp.
So they were following someone, she guessed… assuming the Lizard Men didn’t ride horses.
So the players have figured out that they’re in ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ and are open to the possibility that the other scenarios were other game worlds as well, even if they don’t fully believe it yet. More specifically, Season 3’s adventure is the 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons scenario “Lizard Raid” from the Under Illefarn adventure module.
This gives us a break from an explicitly horror scenario, but as we’ll see the realities of sword and sorcery epic fantasy are terrifying enough.
Entering the marsh was like entering another world, thick with lush vegetation, reeds growing higher than their heights, even on horseback.
Module: Random Encounter Check (1 in 6)
Ashly wanted to talk to the others. To explore the idea that they were in a fictional world… it was fantastic, nonsensical, but Vera had been right – it didn’t make any less sense than them jumping to random other time periods to take part in supernatural disasters that had never happened. A part of Ashly wanted it to be true, wanted to grab onto some uniting thread, some reason why this was happening… but a larger part of her rebelled from accepting the absurd.
But whatever the reason, they were tracking lizard monsters through a swamp, armed only with medieval spears. So she’d wait, for now.
Half an hour into their trek through the swamp the group pushed past some weeds into a large clearing – no, an area where the tall marsh reeds had been flattened by a fight. Dead men and horses were sinking slowly into the mud on either side of the path.
Mustache dismounted his horse, going from body to body, examining them. He stopped at one – an older man, middle-aged, perhaps a bit finer-dressed than the others. He lifted the man’s hand by the wrist, examined his hand, then let it go back into the mud. He stood, staring down at the body, then as if remembering they were there looked up at Ashly and her still-mounted friends.
Mustache started to say something, stopped, then held up his own left hand, circling the right’s index and thumb around his third finger.
GURPS: Gesture Default.
6: Nick gets it.
“Ring.” Nick circled his own right ring finger. “He’s looking for a ring?”
Mustache nodded once, briskly, then remounted his steed. With a final glance down at the dead men, he urged his horse on deeper into the swamp, more slowly this time, spear readied.
Ashly examined the spear she’d been given. It seemed sturdy, though she couldn’t really say she had much basis for comparison… she’d never even held one of the weapons before. The tip, though, was reassuringly sharp, a narrow head that came to a wicked tip.
The others were ill at ease as well – watching the reeds, the path, even the sky. If they really were in some kind of Dungeons and Dragons adventure, monsters could come from any angle, attack in unexpected ways, even with magic.
But was that it? Could it really be true?
She could feel sweat beading on the back of her neck, dripping down the back of her armor, and she squirmed, trying in vain to scratch her back against the interior of her leather armor. Even though the air of the plains had been cool, the marsh itself was warmer, more humid, moisture rising from the stagnant water and thick mud. With the heat came mosquitoes, and her thoughts went to malaria, parasites, every other ill they carried. The last thing she needed, the last thing any of them needed, was to fall ill here – in the world before antibiotics-
Her thoughts were caught off as a shape the size of a large dog burst forth from the reeds, flying right towards Marco. He pivoted away from it, over-correcting, and tumbled from his horse onto the trail, and the creature disappeared into the reeds on the opposite side of the trail.
Ashly could only see the creature for a moment, but it was unmistakably frog shaped – a pale green and yellow, bulging eyes, snapping mouth – but far larger than any she’d ever imagined.
Module: Random Encounter Check.
A Giant Toad attacks a random PC. Marco drew the short straw.
The toad hits, but Marco manages a dodge, failing his Riding roll to fall off his horse. He takes no damage.
It was all Ashly could do to keep control of her horse, but Mustache reared around on his mount, bringing his spear to bear in an overhand grip, focused on the spot where the creature had disappeared. The others were doing their best to do the same, keeping one hand on the reigns, the other on their weapons.
Moments passed in silence aside from the jingling of the nervous horses tack as Ashly strained her ears to hear anything moving in the reeds.
Moments turned into minutes.
Finally, Mustache appeared to relax. He dismounted and helped Marco to his feet, and, after a glance at how much difficulty the others were having with their mounts, gestured with a flat palm towards the floor before returning to lead his mount by the reigns.
Ashly slowly and carefully dismounted, feeling an ache in thighs that had been, for too long, used to poorly control a horse.
GURPS: Checking for Ashly’s Chronic Pain; it doesn’t return at this point.
CP awards. Everybody gets 1. Everyone makes the IQ roll to see if they can pick up Riding (Horse)… Nick fails, but everyone else has picked up the basics.
Next Time: Red Eye.