This article originally appeared in Pyramid #17
Men went to Catraeth, ready for battle;
Clear green mead was their feast, bitter was the after-taste.
Three hundred under arms and giving battle -
And after exultation there was silence.
- The Goddodin by Aneirin, c. 600 A.D.
GURPS Celtic Myth Designer's Notes by Ken & Jo Walton
A huge pile of books towers on my left side, most of them filled with slips of paper. The computer is almost buried in piles of old maps, atlases and redrawings of maps. Horslips' album The Tain is playing in the background. Seeing me pause to look something up, Ken interrupts from his desk to ask if I know when it was that Pryderi conquered Deheubarth. It's just another day hard at work on GURPS Celtic Myth.
When we had the initial idea, we'd intended basing the book entirely on the literature, helped out with a little archaeology. If we'd known how much we didn't know we might have gone on to suggest something better under- stood and simpler to reconcile into a roleplaying world, like GURPS Linear B. It's hard to approach the Celts directly. What's left of their literature is scattered, barely or badly translated and worse, misinterpreted and mis- understood by many of its modern admirers. Books on the Celts come in two main categories - very dry archaeology and totally speculative New Age. We decided early on that we would be guided by the authentic texts - the Irish stories of Cuchulain, the Tuatha De Danaan and Finn McCool and the Welsh Mabinogion. These have remained the major and most important sources. However much people quibble over the details, it is always possible to return to the originals and find them fresh. The Celtic spirit of delight in everything and death coming at the end of the day as only another adventure is what we've constantly tried to evoke in the book.
We also decided that everything would remain as authentic as possible, bearing in mind that authenticity in this case means authentic to the mythological and magical stories, not to reality. In any case, we've tried to avoid groundless modern speculation and cliches. To produce this book with its coherent campaign background we've had to reconstruct Iron Age Britain almost from scratch, pushing aside the intervening Roman, Saxon and Norman invasions. We've had to entirely rearrange the normal GURPS magic system to get the kind of magical balance found in the stories. We decided to base this on the tree alphabet found in Robert Graves' White Goddess. This meant looking at every spell and deciding not only which Tree College it ought to fit under but what its new prerequisites should be. Reading and writing about the druids has led to us creating an entirely new view of them. We've visited hill forts and museums, talked to modern pagans, convinced all the local librarians that we're mad with the selection of titles we've ordered. What we ended up with was a book where the view of time, place, magic and magic-users was drawn from its Celtic sources and came out as something strange and different.
On the whole, it's been fun. Playtesting it has been the most fun of all, seeing things like gesas (magical taboos and prohibitions that prevent you from doing something) working in practice. There's a temptation to use this space to boast about the authenticity - the time I converted the Latin tribe name "Verturiones" backwards into Celtic as "Fortriu" and then found the name "Fortriu" in Bede, meaning I'd got it right, the time . . . but that would be dull for anyone but the obsessed. The work is, and rightly should be, invisible to the finished game. What matters, what is fun, is the playing of it. Which is why what follows is a scenario. So you can actually play something. Which is what it's all about.
The Brown Men of Innis
The following adventure for GURPS Celtic Myth is for a group of characters who have reason to be traveling together. It would work well for a band of Fianna or other warriors, but can be played without any fighting at all if the PCs are not fighting characters. The adventure could easily be slotted into an ongoing campaign. It is set in western Eriu near the sea, but could just as easily be set in western Prydain or Alba.
GMs are encouraged to embroider details of the surroundings and culture of the duns, based on information given in the Culture chapter of Celtic Fantasy, especially if this is the players' first Celtic adventure.
While the PCs are traveling, they come upon the village of Cumhal, a hill-fort. The fields around it are deserted and look as if they have not been tended for at least ten days. Having slept out the night before, they go there looking for hospitality. When they get there, however, they find the place strangely silent. The gates of the fort are open. Anyone making an Eyesight roll will spot a brown thread stretched across the entrance, which on investigation proves to be wrapped right round the settlement. No harm will come to the PCs if they cut it or go under it - it is to keep the people in, not out.
When the PCs either enter the settlement, or shout in, a group of naked men and boys, with the marks of burns on them (particularly the palms of their right hands) will come out of their huts. They look tired and sad and hungry.
The leader is King Osgar and he begs the PCs to help. The Brown Men of Innis came upon them in the night, nine nights ago. They cast an enchanted sleep upon the watchmen, then cast a thread about the fort, which the men could not pass. Then they put a gesa upon all the men of the settlement, that they could not bear weapons nor armor, nor clothing of any kind, without burning themselves upon it. And when these things were done, they stole away the women and girl children, and took them to their dun, seven miles away, through the hills. When asked what the Brown Men of Innis are like, he will reply, "Brown they are, brown skin and brown hair and brown eyes - brown their swords and brown their shields, brown their horses and brown their chariots. There are four of them, as alike as the berries of the rowan."
Journey to Dun Innis
The PCs journey to Dun Innis, where the Brown Men live. The journey takes four days over the Brown Moors of Innis, and on the way they see many strange sights. On the first day, they come across a mere, where four brown swans are swimming. On the second day they see four brown stags, far away on a distant hill On the third day they are attacked by four brown wolves. (Use stats in the sidebar on p. B145) On the fourth day they come to Dun Innis. If the PCs fight or attempt to hunt any of the creatures, they will react as normal until their hit points reach 0, when they will turn to a brown dust and blow away in the direction of Dun Innis.
Dun Innis is a small roundhouse surrounded by a palisade. The palisade is open and so is the door of the roundhouse. When they enter the door, however, they find it much bigger inside than outside. They are in an enormous hall, with walls of silver and a roof of gold. A long table covered in the finest of food runs the length of the hall, and at the far end the four brown men sit, their weapons by their sides, on thrones of gold inlaid with precious jewels. There are many women about, dressed in brown, waiting on the brown men. The men are brown all over, with brown clothing and brown hair, brown weapons and armor, brown teeth, etc. - there is nothing about them which is not brown. They invite the PCs to sit and eat with them. If anyone eats, they will find the food delicious and filling, and any HT and ST they have lost will be regained, but if later they decide to attack the Brown Men, they will have to make a Will-4 roll every round in order to perform an attack. The Brown Men will say that they can not remove the gesa from the naked men. They say that they will not return the women unless the PCs agree to rid them of an old woman who has moved onto their lands without asking, down by the sea. If the PCs attack the Brown Men, they will be impossible to kill, since any wounds will heal up immediately, and any bits of body chopped off will immediately fly back on again. The Brown Men have the Gesa: Can Only be Killed by an Apple from Tir na n'Og. If the PCs do fight, they will wound the PCs badly, then suddenly call a halt - they encourage the PCs to eat the food which will restore them to full HT. The women are enchanted and will not react at all to the PCs presence, except to serve them when the Brown Men tell them to - they are dull-eyed and obviously under an enchantment.
The Woman of the Shore
The Woman, who's name is lost in the mists of time, has lived by the sea for many years. She lives in a cave just above the high-water mark, facing onto the western ocean. She is half-Sidhe, and a very powerful magician. She will be friendly to the PCs, saying that she was "expecting them" (she has Undomancy - the ability to predict the future by watching the patterns of waves on the sea). If the PCs try to kill her, they should probably be able to - she is powerful, but not invincible. But if they do, they will lose their one ally against the Brown Men. The Brown Men will release the women, but the men of Cumhal must remain naked, and it won't be long before the Brown Men carry off the women from another settlement.
If the PCs are friendly to the Woman, she will help them. The Brown Men were created many centuries ago by a Sidhe King, to be his bodyguard. The King has long since passed over the sea, but his guardians remain. There is only one thing which will kill them - an apple from the orchards of Tir na n'Og. How it will kill them, she does not know, but she is willing to help them get to Tir na n'Og. She tells them to stay with her until sunset, when the gates to the Otherworld are open. In the meantime, she goes down to the shore with an eggshell and a splinter of wood. With incantations and the washing of these objects in the sea-water, she makes a large coracle and a paddle for it. She then tells the PCs to get in it and points at the sky. The sun is setting in a mass of clouds like islands. The Woman points to one of the cloud-islands and says "Yonder lies Tir na n'Og, the Land of Youth. Take care not to step on the shore."
Journey to Tir na N'og
The coracle rides over the waves, toward the setting sun. At first it is rough and choppy, but it becomes much calmer, and it becomes evident that the sea is falling away below them and they are riding up into the sky, though it still appears that they are on the sea. The islands are spread around them. It takes all night to reach Tir na n'Og, and on the journey they see many marvels. On the islands they see:
"Cities and duns and lime-white houses, and shining sunny-houses and palaces. At one time you see beside you a hornless deer running hard and an eager white red-eared hound following after, running hard. At another time you see a young girl on a horse and having a golden apple in her right hand, going over the tops of the waves; and there is a young man following after her, riding a white horse, and having a crimson cloak and a gold-hilted sword in his right hand. Soon after than a storm comes up, and you are tossed about in the waves (HT rolls to avoid sea-sickness) but after a few hours the storm dies and the stars come out. The night passes, and the sun rises in glory in the east, bigger than you are used to seeing it, and ahead of you is a delightful country under full blossom and smooth plains in it, and a king's dun that is very grand, and that has every color in it, and palaces of shining stones, made by skilled men. And coming out to meet you see three fifties of armed men, very lively and handsome. And after that come out a hundred beautiful young girls who bid you welcome to their country and try to encourage you to land on the fair golden sand you see ahead of you."
- Adapted from Lady Gregory's Gods and Fighting Men
It is up to the PCs to persuade the girls to give them an apple. The girls will do their best to get them to come to shore (as will the men). They are extremely good-looking and the PCs must all make Will rolls to avoid being persuaded. Any who succumb will begin climbing out of the boat and have to be restrained by the other PCs. If any one steps out of the boat and reaches shore, when the PCs get back to Eriu, they will find that 100 years have passed while they were gone (see below).
The PCs must persuade the people on shore to give them an apple. They will ask what they will get in return, and the PCs must offer something of value to themselves in return. They must also "sell" it to the people on shore, as something of worth. Eventually, they will be given an apple, and can return the way they came.
Return to Dun Innis
The return journey to Eriu is uneventful, and as their boat touches shore, the coracle turns back into an egg-shell, leaving them spluttering in the waves, with any unprotected equipment wet. They must then return to Dun Innis, where all will be as it was before.
The Brown Men of Innis only have to touch the apple and all four will turn to dried brown apple-tree leaves. So the PCs have only to throw the apple at them in order to win. They will probably try to persuade, or trick, the Brown Men into eating it. The Brown Men will not eat apples ("We don't like apples"), but if they can be tricked into doing so, all four will die if a little touches the lips of any one of them.
Death of the Brown Men of Innis
As the apple touches one of the Brown Men, all four give a hideous cry, and begin to shrivel before the eyes of the PCs. The room seems to shimmer around them and grow misty. When the mist clears, the PCs find themselves in a small, squalid hut, before a table on which a large plain iron cauldron stands.
On the floor beside the table are four dried brown leaves, leaves of an apple tree. The women and girls crowded into the room shake their heads as if waking from a dream. When they realize where they are and that the Brown Men are gone, some begin to cry and some begin to laugh, and all thank the PCs profusely.
The cauldron on the table is a magic cauldron of plenty. It is constantly full of delicious hot mutton stew, which will never spill, no matter which way up the pot is. If any stew is removed, the pot will refill itself. This useful item, however, weighs 30 lbs. and is too hot to touch with a naked hand, which makes transportation difficult.
The women will encourage the PCs to escort them back to Cumhal, where there will be a big party with the mead flowing freely, and wild boar roasting on a spit.
King Osgar encourages the PCs to tell their story (if there is a bard or druid in the party, it should be them). A good re-telling will result in each PC being given a golden arm-ring each.
A Changed Land
If the PCs go ashore in Tir na n'Og, they will find when they get back that the woman is gone, and all traces of her presence erased by time. The Brown Men of Innis will be there, but the women will be different - fewer of them, and none of them young. Many of the women will be brown like the men. When the PCs beat the Brown Men, they will return to Cumhal to find the place deserted and tumbledown, overgrown by the forest. On the edge of the forest they will meet an very old man living in a rude hut. He is naked. He will remember seeing the PCs come when he was a small boy, and how everyone waited until they realized they were not coming back, then drifted off, naked into the world, hoping that away from their village the gesa would be removed. Many rushed unarmed into the forefront of battles when they realized it would not. A hundred years have passed, and everyone the PCs knew is dead.
The Brown Men of Innis
The four men have identical stats, as follows:
Apparent age, 50, 5' 11", 170 lbs., brown hair, brown skin, brown eyes, brown teeth, brown clothing and equipment.
ST 14 IQ 16 Speed 7.5
DX 15 HT 15 Move 6.5
Damage: Thrust 1d; Swing 2d
Dodge: 6.5 Parry: 8 (Sword)
No armor; no encumbrance
Advantages: Handsome Appearance, Charisma +1, Magical Aptitude +2, Alertness +2, Unfazeable, Allies: Other Brown Men (all the time), Natural Spellcasting.
Sidhe Advantages: Feth Fiada, Sidhe Blood +5, Unaging, Wild Mana Generator, Heroic Running, Hawk Eyes.
Disadvantages: Odious Personal Habit: Capricious, Sense of Duty: to other Brown Men, Celtic Code of Honor.
Gesas: Must always offer hospitality (-5), Can only be killed by an apple from Tir na n'Og (+40).
Quirks: Everything they wear or carry becomes brown while it's in contact with them.
Skills: Bard-15, Brawling-13, Broadsword-17, Games: Fidchell-14, Poetry-11, Shield-14, Spear-15, Spear Throwing-16.
Weapons: Broadsword (cut 1d+1, thrust 2d+1).
The Brown Men of Innis are extremely powerful Sidhe, created by a Sidhe Lord many centuries ago to be his bodyguard. The lord is now dead, but they are still around, due to their gesa, "Can only be killed by an apple from Tir Na n'Og," which means that any wound they get from any weapon heals instantly, and any limbs, etc., hacked off will fly back to their place and heal up also. There is really no way for the PCs to harm these people without an apple from Tir Na n'Og.
The Woman of the Shore
Apparent age 25; real age 337, 5'6", 130 lbs., red hair, green eyes.
ST 12 IQ 15 Speed 6.75
DX 13 HT 14 Move 6.75
Damage: Thrust 1d-1, Swing 1d+2
No armor; no encumbrance
Advantages: Beautiful Appearance, Charisma +1, Magical Aptitude +3, Animal Empathy, Voice.
Sidhe Advantages: Sidhe Blood +4, Unaging, Amphibious, Speak with Fish, Toad Eyes, Walk on Liquid.
Disadvantages: Celtic Code of Honor, Curious, Enemy: The Brown Men of Innis, Odious Personal Habit: Arcane.
Gesas: Must Live within Sight of the Sea (-10).
Quirks: Talks to herself, Likes living in a cave.
Skills: Advanced Tree Lore-14, Animal Handling-13, Breath Control-15, Herbary-15, Secret Language: Riddles-15, Survival: Island/Beach-17, Tree Lore-17, Weather Lore-13.
Spells: The Woman of the Shore has many spells, mostly of the sort which will aid her in communing with the fishes. But she has a small battery of Hawthorn spells for seeing off unwanted visitors.
Clumsiness-15, Curse-17, Pain-11, Paralyse Limb-14. She also has Seek Gate-15, and Great Shapeshift-17.
The Woman has a Druid Rod with the spell Celtic Shapeshift Others-17 on it, which she will have no qualms about using on any PCs who annoy her. (She will probably use it to turn them back again, if the other PCs ask nicely). She is most likely to turn them into a hedgehog or a hare, but if very annoyed will choose a fish. If a PC is turned into a fish, his companions have HT rounds to get them to water before they start losing hit points!
The Woman of the Shore has been living in her cave by the sea for the last 300 years, and is consequently rather old and crotchety, despite looking young and beautiful.
She values her privacy, and doesn't like to be intruded upon, but is not actually hostile, and will help the PCs if they speak to her nicely. Her main defense against hostile attack will be to turn herself into a gull and fly out to sea, diving down and turning into a salmon above deep water. She will wait until the PCs calm down, then come back in human form and try to make friends with them, if they hang around her cave.
Article publication date: February 1, 1996
Copyright © 1996 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved. Pyramid subscribers are permitted to read this article online, or download it and print out a single hardcopy for personal use. Copying this text to any other online system or BBS, or making more than one hardcopy, is strictly prohibited. So please don't. And if you encounter copies of this article elsewhere on the web, please report it to firstname.lastname@example.org.