Workshop 001 Results

I'm happy to present the results of Workshop 001: The Haunted Attic. This exercise had seven entrants: a mix of newcomers, occasional writers, and seasoned professionals. These filtered in from (at final count) 24 interested writers, a few of whom I'm sure we'll see more from.

A round of salutes, please, for those who made it all the way! This is fairly tough stuff: a purpose-built exercise which takes a doughty band of writer/designers, straps their designing arms behind their backs, removes their shoes, and asks them to scale this ridiculous indoor rock-climbing wall, two to three hundred words tall.

I've presented the entries in random (die-rolled) order, without the authors' names attached. I've done my best to preserve the original spelling, punctuation, and formatting of each entry, to the extent possible in the space between Blogger's WYSIWYG HTML and my own primitive grasp on tweaking it.

Whether you're one of the authors, or a reader following along: thank you for being here! I think just observing the workshops has value, too. My advice for studying the entries is just: take your time. Don't skim. If need be, lay this blog-post aside for later, when you can really pay each writer's efforts their due attention. After the entries, I'll offer my closing notes.

Entry #1

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The attic is mostly filled with forgotten, worthless junk. The only notable features are an empty chair, and next to that, the dry, misshapen corpses of Abigail Whitehouse and her dog, Bo. Abigail died, 91 years old, after she (with her faithful hound at her side) had finished killing her family. After her murderous task, she and her dog retired to the attic – it’s a comforting place for her, a favored place to hide as a child, and now, a place to rest content. She fed morsels of her slain granddaughter's flesh to her dog as she awaited the reaper. Once she was gone, with no other food or means to leave, Bo took to feasting on Abigail’s corpse until he too died, curled up to his beloved owner. Abigail’s desiccated corpse still shows signs of Bo’s voraciousness. Exploring the attic’s contents will awaken Abigail’s spirit. She will appear in the chair and, after a moment, notice her own corpse. Unfazed by her own demise, she’ll seem troubled by the corpse of her cherished pet. She’ll regard the PCs passively, responding only if spoken to or threatened.

If spoken to, Abigail is willing to describe and confess to her grisly crimes, in casual, conversational tones. Any other lines of questioning will be politely ignored.

If threatened, Abigail will call on Bo, who’s ghost will readily appear to protect her. Abigail herself lacks the ability to cause any harm, but Bo has a freezing, spectral bite that causes paralysis and potentially fatal tissue damage. The ghostly pair can only be harmed by magical or psychic means. Bo’s only other weakness is the hunger he still feels – his aggressions can be deterred with an offering of meat.

Entry #2

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Read or paraphrase the following.

At the top of the pull-down stairs, you peer into an attic strewn with broken furniture, and a single intact chair. Oh, and two bodies on the floor. One body is human, and looks partially eaten. The other is a dog, curled around the remains of the other form.

At least the bodies are dry and twisted from the passage of time rather than moist and noisome.

If the player characters poke around the room, a ghostly presence appears in the chair. An old woman, looking content. They might recognise Abigail Whitehouse, the family matriarch, from portraits. She died at the age of 91 at the same time as the rest of her family. The solution to the entire mystery of the house could be here!

Abigail looks at her corpse, then the dog. "Poor Bo! He must have been terribly hungry after I died. Still, at least he enjoyed the last meal I gave him."

Abigail will cheerfully elaborate if asked questions. Bo's last meal was the hand of Abigail's sweet granddaughter. Indeed, Abigail killed her entire family. After that, the matriarch was able to rest, satisfied, in the attic where she so often hid back when she was a child.

At this stage the player characters might seek to do Abigail harm. As a ghost, she is invulnerable to physical attack, and cannot hurt the player characters. She is vulnerable to magical and psychic damage, and if threatened she calls upon her faithful hound Bo.

Bo died hungry, and unlike most ghosts is still able to affect the material world. His bite causes cold damage and potential paralysis. Bo still believes he is material. He can be distracted by meat. The meat doesn't even have to be human flesh.

Entry #3

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Entering the Attic

After climbing the creaky pull-down stairway, the characters will find a dimly lit attic room. A shaft of light from a small window shines down on two bodies laying in front of a dusty chair. It is the body of an woman in a tattered house dress slumped over and a large hound curled up next to her. The dry attic heat has mummified them, stretching their skin tight over their desiccated corpses. Looking closer, the characters will find tears near the hem of the woman's dress and cavities on her legs where chunks of flesh have been torn loose, exposing the bone. A steamer truck and various boxes of knickknacks line the perimeter of the room. The sill of the attic window is covered in animal scratches.

Stirring the Spirits

Should the characters disturb any of the items in the room, the apparition of Abigail Whitehouse suddenly appears in the chair. She looks down at her body with a crooked smile, and speaks in a scratchy voice, “Oh, Abigail. After 91 years, you are finally ready to meet your lord and join the rest of the family. But, where is Bo? He is always so hungry? I thought a piece of the little one would tide him over.” If the characters inquire about her family, the ghost describes in shocking detail how she murdered them. Otherwise, she watches them impassively with her wild eyes. Should the characters try to disturb or attack her in any way, the ghost of the hound appears from the shadows and attacks. Its bite stabs into the flesh like icy needles, paralyzing with a shock of pain as it freezes and tears the flesh in gruesome fashion. Being incorporeal, the ghosts may only be harmed by supernatural means. The characters cannot physically interact with the spirits.

Entry #4

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The first character climbing the folding stairs to the attic comes face-to-face with the smiling, desiccated body of an old woman sprawled on the floor...presumably Abigail Whitehouse. The shriveled body of her faithful hound, Bo, snuggles in the twisted comfort of her body. Closer examination reveals something long ago gnawed portions of her arms and legs; crusty blood mattes the fur around Bo’s muzzle. An upholstered wing-back chair looms in the center of the room. Gnawed bones, possibly the arm of a little child, lurk under the chair. A heavy blanket of dust covers everything: the chair, bodies, and the piles of rag dolls, dilapidated puppet theater, and the decrepit dollhouse stacked under the eaves. Anyone rooting through the attic contents rouses Abigail’s ghost. It appears seated in the chair, swaying contentedly. She gazes at her own body on the floor, but her brows twist in sadness when she notices Bo’s lifeless form. She peers at the characters inquisitively. Attempts to speak with her ghost only draw memories of her crimes: “Abigail took care of them all,” she rasps. “Needful sons, nagging spouses, spoiled children, cursed Whitehouses. Throats slit, nice and neat, stacked in the basement like so much meat.” She ignores all other topics, preferring to dwell on her butchery. Should anyone threaten Abigail’s ghost (verbally or physically) she calls for Bo. The dog’s spirit coalesces in front of her, sniffs at the bones beneath the chair, licks ghostly Abigail’s legs, then turns to growl at the characters. Physical attacks don’t harm either ghost, though both remain vulnerable to psychic and magical attacks. Bo snaps at anyone seeking to harm his mistress. His ghostly bite stings with sharp cold, possibly paralyzing characters and draining their life-energy without proper psychic treatment.

Entry #5

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Cluttered with worthless junk, this attic contains nothing of interest, except for a gnawed corpse on the floor and the dog carcass curled up next it. Both are shriveled with the passage of more than a century, yet the corpse still bears a satisfied grin. This was Abigail Whitehouse's favorite hiding place as a child, but she had lived 91 years when she returned here to die, just after murdering her entire family. Her hound Bo became trapped with her, and though recently fed on the flesh of her granddaughter, starvation drove him to feed on Abigail as well.

Exploring the junk will cause Abigail's ghost to appear, seated in the chair she died in. She will study her own remains, lamenting for Bo, then turn her gaze upon those who have awoken her. She will only respond if asked about her crimes, confessing them in detail. If she feels threatened she will rouse Bo's ghost, though he can be distracted with meat, as he can never forget his hunger.

Abigail and Bo cannot be physically harmed, but are vulnerable to psychic and magic attack. While she is harmless, his bone-chilling frost-bite can injure, paralyze, or kill.

Entry #6

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The attic is a dusty hodgepodge of items stored and forgotten, none of particular value. Near a chair to one side of the entrance, the bent and dessicated body of an old woman lies on the floor. Something has taken a few bites of her arms and waist. Curled next to her is the body of a hound dog, similarly dry and twisted but fully intact. If the player characters explore the stored items, the spectral form of an elderly woman appears, seated in the chair. The ghost looks at her body, and then the body of the dog, and shakes her head. "Poor Bo," she says. "Guess he got a little hungry a'fore the end. Pity he couldn't find a way out on his own." Then she looks to the PCs. She responds if spoken to, though she only speaks of her last day and ignores questions on other topics, humming cheerfully to herself.

Abigail Whitehouse died in this very chair, very pleased and content, at age 91 years. This attic was her favorite hiding place as a child — "her little refuge" — and the place to which she retired after murdering her entire family, root, branch and twig. (If pressed for a reason, she says only "It was the right thing to do.") She led Bo upstairs to keep her company to the end, using a granddaugher's left leg as enticement.

If Abigail's ghost feels threatened, she whistles up Bo's ghost to defend her. Neither ghost can be harmed physically, but both are vulnerable to psychic and magic attacks. Abigail's ghost can do no harm, but Bo's intangible bite can freeze limbs or hearts. Bo's ghost still remembers his final hunger and so can be distracted by meat.

Entry #7

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What happened here: At the age of 91, Abigail Whitehouse murdered her entire family, then withdrew with her dog Bo to the attic, which was her childhood hiding place. She fed Bo a little flesh from her granddaughter’s body, then sat down in a chair and died, content. Bo, unable to escape the attic, fed on Abigail’s corpse, and eventually died. Immediately visible: This is a small attic, choked with the smell of decay. Abigail and Bo’s corpses lie on the floor, side by side, dry and misshapen with age. Hunks of muscle from Abigial’s arms and legs are missing, torn away by canine jaws. Household clutter collects dust in the corners, and a single chair sits in the center of the floor, underneath a long-dead incandescent bulb.

Abigail: If someone disturbs the family possessions stored here, a figure of wintry mist will coalesce in the chair, taking the form of an old woman who resembles the human corpse on the floor. She’ll see the two bodies and will regard the dog with fond sorrow. “Such a good dog,” she’ll say, in a nearly inaudible voice. If questioned, she’ll willingly confess what she did to her family, in calm, painstaking detail. She’ll ignore any other topics. She cannot affect the material world and cannot suffer physical injury, though supernatural forces can harm her.

Bo: If Abigail feels threatened, she’ll call to Bo, and he’ll manifest as a savage wolf-like apparition whose growls rattle the house. Like Abigail, Bo’s ghost is immune to physical violence, but vulnerable to supernatural forces. Once awakened, he’ll attack all trespassers, and though he has no physical strength, his bite lands with a sharp chill, intense enough to paralyze and potentially kill. Bo died hungry, and the sight of meat can distract him.

• • •  The Roundup  • • •

Did some of the participants get their designing arm wriggled free, just a little? Absolutely, those straps were designed to loosen in event-legal ways, so that the writers might constructively waggle their elbows: the contents of the attic, for example, were left for the writer to determine or ignore. Abigail's sentiment about Bo was defined, but not scripted, and more. There's also a general allowance on details which follow inevitably from established facts.

Did some wriggle a bit freer than that? Yes, alas. But we caught it all on camera. Each RPG-writing athlete will decide for themselves if they made the climb to their satisfaction, and challenge themselves with more discipline in future exercises. It's a given that these writers could do more with more words, could do more with more design freedom. But I hope they were happy to discover what they could achieve with less.

Which brings us to the broader topic of judgement. In this series of exercises, that's not what I'm here to do, despite my established nature as an opinionated so-and-so. If it pleases you, enjoy this guide to roleplaying as me, and apply my exacting standards to the work shown here. More to the point, apply the standards of the workshop and the rules of this particular exercise. As author or reader, ask yourself how well each entry delivers on the needs of the piece: does it get you, as the GM, in the right mindset for creeping out your players? How does it achieve that? By creeping-out the GM out in advance, to set a mood? By highlighting the mood-potential of what's in the attic? Both? Does each piece deliver all the required facts? Does it deliver them with clarity? Could you find them easily in play? How does each piece serve different GMs' prepping styles? How would it serve yours?

What would a version assembled from the best of all of these look like?

If you're inspired to share your take on any of this, on social media or your own blog, let me know! I'd love to read it, and (with your permission) link to it in a future post so others can enjoy it, too. There's a lot left to unpack here once the roundup is done. Note also that while I'll never reveal the participants' identities, they're welcome to do so, if they'd like to 'fess up or brag! None of the authors know the identities of the other authors, so they can only "out" themselves.

I believe each of these writers has something to teach us. Here are some of my favorite bits from each entry:

  • Entry #1:  Awaiting the reaper. "Feasting" and "beloved" in such near proximity. The framing of Bo's distractibility as a "weakness" highlights it well, and I like the phrase "an offering of meat" a lot.
  • Entry #2:  "From portraits." The choice of the granddaughter's hand as the meat Abigail gave Bo. The wry note about which meats might distract Bo. The use of boxed text gives me a nostalgic grin.
  • Entry #3: Tattered house-dress. "Mummified." The tell-tale scratches from Bo's clawing. Delivering the granddaughter detail via Abigail's musings. "Supernatural means."
  • Entry #4: "Twisted comfort." The bloody muzzle. Shamelessly exploiting the traditional creepiness of dolls and puppets. Ghostly dog behavior, with the sniffing and licking. Abigail's rhyming confession.
  • Entry #5:  Exceptionally tight discipline. The enduring "satisfied grin." Use of "study" for Abigail looking down at her body. "He can never forget his hunger." Very nice use of "frost-bite."
  • Entry #6: "Dusty Hodgepodge" is my next character's name. Describing Abigail's body as "bent;" that's a choice word in this context. Leaving the "something" that chewed Abigail's body implicit. Abigail's dialect. "His final hunger."
  • Entry #7:  The bulb. The "nearly inaudible" note for Abigail's comment to Bo. "Supernatural forces." Overall sense of organized presentation. The balance of mood-setting approaches.

Thanks again, to every author who participated, every author who meant to, and everyone reading along. This has been the first in an intended series of RPG writing workshops, each designed around different (and comparably specific) challenges. Whether you're a hobbyist or a career RPG writer, I welcome you to participate in future challenges as they appear. The next one planned will have half the target wordcount as this one.* That should make it easier ... right?

* Half-ish, says S. John From the Future.