In which our intrepid hero scares himself half to death, and comes up with some ideas for his WoAdWriMo adventure.

A couple of weeks ago, my ex-girlfriend Kathryn came up to Sydney with her fiancé to browse for engagement rings, and we caught up for lunch at Café Tiffany’s, a long-time favourite out-of-the-way meeting spot in the city.

Amongst the idle chitchat, she asked a pointed question: are the Hyde Park Barracks haunted? Something had apparently spooked her whilst on a tour there.

A couple of days ago, I finally got around to checking it out. Richard Davis’ The Ghost Guide to Australia had a fair bit to say on the place, as it does many sites around the country. It’s a great little book, mixing accounts of apparitions and weird happenings with historical information, and is well-written enough to be a good source for either.

I spent most of the following night flipping to random points in the book. The Ghost Guide creeped me out until about 4am, when, finally exhausted, my head hit the pillow. But it gave me an idea.

One of the central characters in the adventure I’m writing for WoAdWriMo is a ghost. At heart, it’s a murder mystery.

Now, many authors treat ghosts in D&D much like they would any other monster. This is a shame, since not only do they have a number of unique abilities in-game, but they also tend to behave in a much more straightforward manner than their “real-life” or literary fellows, which really dampens their ability to evoke horror. (After all, what better device than ghosts to scare the crap out of your players?)

In fact, Castles Forlorn is about the only D&D product (in this case, for the 2nd-edition Ravenloft setting) that I recall actually approaching a haunting in a well-contructed horror sense, rather than just a hack-and-slash requiring different tactics.

So, I decided to do a bit of research. Whenever I have to do any sort of folklore research, Westwood and Simpson’s The Lore of the Land is my first stop. It’s a collection of English folktales, broken down by county and location, with two-page spreads on common themes in English folklore.

It’s certainly not as detailed as The Ghost Guide to Australia, but it does give a good feeling for the myths surrounding the unusual, rather than The Ghost Guide‘s blow-by-blow accounts.

Anyway, as I was browsing Lore‘s various articles on hauntings, I came across the following account, from Highgate in London, which I thought I’d share:

Spectral animals and birds are common in British folklore, but it is fairly unusual for them to be interpreted as the ghosts of specific individual creatures that died in known circumstances. Among these, the one haunting Pond Square in Highgate is unique, for it is the ghost of the world’s first frozen chicken.

On a snowy day in March 1626 (as John Aubrey records), Lord Francis Bacon, politician, philosopher, and one of England’s first experimental scientists, was riding in his carriage through Highgate and pondering on the preservative effect of snow and ice. How effective might this be with meat? He told his coachman to buy a chicken from the farm they were passing (Highgate was a rural area then), kill it, pluck it, and clean out its innards. Then Lord Bacon himself began stuffing the bird with handfuls of snow and stashing it away in a bag filled with more snow. While doing so, however, fits of vomiting and shivering which he had already felt on the coach journey from Gray’s Inn to Highgate grew worse, and he took refuge in a friend’s house in Highgate, where he died a few days later.

It is not known in what icy hell the chicken’s spirit spent the next 300 years or so, but (according to Peter Underwood and other modern writers) during the air raids of the Second World War several aircraftmen, firefighters and residents of Pond Square reported seeing a fairly large bird, unable to fly because almost all its feathers had been plucked, running round in circles and pathetically flapping the stumps of its wings. It was reported again in the 1960s and ’70s, apparently dropping out of the sky with a pathetic squawk. Whenever it is seen, it is shivering.

Although it opens up intriguing new possibilities for hauntings (and The Ghost Guide to Australia features one or two food-related apparitions), I think I’ll have to save it for another adventure; it’s a bit beyond the scope I’m trying to achieve with this WoAdWriMo submission. Maybe next year.

Still, the sheer variety of hauntings in these books (and a few others I’m researching) has inspired me to think laterally. I need to treat the ghost character as a haunting, rather than simply as an opponent for the PCs with a Ghost template attached.

It needs to behave more as a traditional apparition, and make better use of its D&D abilities, not just to enhance its combat capabilities, but also to scare the willies out of my players (and their characters) and to achieve its goals. And more than any other beastie in the Monster Manual a ghost’s goals are important…