“You give him back to me!” Ginny squealed.
“Walter's helping me look for the baseball card you lost,” Nico spat back as he clutched the tattered rabbit doll and scrambled away from his sister.
“I told you I didn't take your stupid card, now give me Walter, you're scaring him.” Ginny moved recklessly over crawling roots near the old oak tree in their front yard. Tears began to appear, “I'm gonna tell Mom on you Nico and then you'll be sorry.”
Nico's outstretched arm wrapped around the rough bark of the tree as he circled it and headed towards the large leaf pile his father had raked up earlier. A full four feet tall and twice as wide, the mound simply begged to be scattered. A vision struck Nico, his little sister on hands and knees rooting through the grimy pile for her rabbit.
Nico held the stuffed doll to his ear, “Walter says he left my baseball card inside the leaf pile, and he is off to fetch it for me.”
“But Nico,” Ginny cried as she saw her brother's arm swing toward the nearby leaves, ”Walter’s afraid of the dark.”
Nico saw the doll sail into the mound of leaves and disappear as he sprinted by. He slowed to a jog after he heard a second, larger crunch into the leaves. He turned, expecting to see Ginny thrashing about in the pile for Walter. The dormant pile was there, slightly mussed, but not Ginny.
He circled the pile at arm's length, just in case Ginny suddenly burst forth to pelt him with dirt and wet leaves. Nico crouched as he continued his wide circle. He looked intently at the leaves for any sign of movement and then stopped abruptly. Near the leaf pile's edge, Ginny's white shoe lay upturned with a broken strap. Splatters of crimson dotted the shoe's sides.
“Gin,” Nico said slowly, “you OK?” He received no response from within the pile and inhaled sharply. A crisp breeze tumbled the top layer of leaves to the side but the pile remained otherwise still. Nico dove towards the mound, arms wide and the pile exploded into disarray.
“Ginny!” he yelled, both hands clutching damp leaves as he repeatedly plunged them into the pile and threw the contents in all directions. Nico spread the pile over a wide area in a matter of moments. The clumps of leaves were no more than an inch deep with patches of grass showing in many places. Nico spotted something shiny and dark near his foot. He picked up a small button, one of Walter's eyes and squeezed his hand tight around it. His heart raced as his eyes darted around the yard, searching for the source of the trick.
Nico leaped from his filthy knees and sprinted towards the old oak tree. Its broad trunk was at least five feet across, covered in overlapping scales of gray bark. He expected to find Ginny curled up on the other side, clutching a one-eyed Walter with a suppressed giggle. He reached the far side of the ancient wooden sentinel, but was greeted with nothing except grass, a few leaves and smattering of acorns. His vision blurred and the air left his lungs as his back struck the hard earth, eyes rolling upwards.
His parents would later say they found him at the base of that oak tree. The police would have the yard surrounded in yellow tape that flapped and bowed in the late October breeze. His parents would listen to a blanket-wrapped Nico tell the officers his story for the third time as they hoped this telling might contain a forgotten clue. The search of the property would yield only the single, spattered white shoe.
Nico never showed anyone the button.
The time turned from days into months, but the grieving didn't diminish. Nico's parents would alternately blame him for not watching her and then console him that it wasn't his fault. The authorities labeled the case as 'probable kidnapping', but with no leads or new evidence, the folder sat in a faded green file cabinet for years before eventually it was retired to the basement archive at the precinct.
Nico's parents couldn't bear living on the ten acre property aside State Route 3 any longer. An out-of-town developer gave them enough money for the land to move into a nicely restored Victorian home, miles away from their old house. Nico would only glimpse the wretched oak briefly from the car window on their monthly trips to Aunt Melissa's. He'd silently grimace at it as he fingered the worn button in his pocket.
In time a strip mall was built on the property, a product of its prime location just off the highway and the town's steadily increasing consumer appetite. In a bit of green thinking they even left the old oak as part of the new landscaping, a curbed island surrounded by an ocean of asphalt and parallel white lines. The town even went so far as to declare it 'historic', erecting a nearby pedestal with a bronze plaque.
Nico, now old enough to drive himself, would visit the strip mall often but never to shop. He always arrived long after the stores had closed for the night and bearing used motor oil, or antifreeze, collected from his job at Vance's garage downtown. He'd tried to poison that sinister tree with gallons of industrial waste, even got caught trying to start a fire once, but still that ancient oak stood mocking him.
Nico lowered the dented tailgate of his well-aged Ford truck, reached in and pulled the long machine in the bed towards the edge. His left hand gently rubbed the smooth button he had worn as a necklace for several years now.
“Remember me?” Nico quipped at the old oak.
The wind stirred his hair and made the leaves of the old tree emit what sounded like long, low growl.
Nico grinned and then returned his attention to the idle chainsaw resting on his tailgate. He took a firm grip on the handle as the steel teeth roared to life and vapors of gasoline assaulted the inside of his nose.
“You've got something that belongs to me,” Nico howled maniacally over the blast of the engine, “Now give her back!”
Some boundaries, once broken, can never exist again
Another favorite writing exercise of mine is a setting vignette, a short piece of fiction narration that lays the groundwork for stories to explore and build upon. I imagine them as often being the back cover of a book or the lead in text scroll or voice-over narration in a film. There is no set format or length, things being just what they need to be to convey the message.
The oldest fear of mankind, written into our genes over
countless millennia, is a fear of the unknown darkness. We drove
back the physical darkness first with the flickering light from
our tribal fires. Then we evolved our myriad sciences to retrieve
knowledge from the dim recesses of ignorance. Somewhere along our
journey, the celebratory sounds of our own successes drowned out
the warning our bones were shouting at us from the past. We pushed
onwards with assaults on the very fabric of space-time using
high-energy physics. All in an attempt to open what we felt were
the final few doors hiding our rightful knowledge of the inner
workings of the universe. These reckless efforts indeed opened
doors hiding some of the universe’s secrets. These secrets though
have informed us of a dark gulf of knowledge deeper than we
thought possible, one where our universe wasn’t alone and
certainly wasn’t ours.
At first, the tears in the walls of our reality were just a few,
microscopic, short-lived anomalies to be studied. But as things
will often do, the few grew to many, the small developed into
large, the short-lived evolved into long-lived and metaphors of
doorways to other realities suddenly described ironically real
ones. When energy emerged from these portals, we rejoiced and our
scientists touted their incredible accomplishments. When matter and
alien flora began spreading from the thresholds the scientists’
willingness to take credit for the unfolding events disappeared and
our inner voice once again began sounding its ancestral warning.
When ambulatory, seemingly sentient things began crawling from the
portals our oldest fear caused our genes to scream.
Mankind knew how to tear open the fabric between worlds but alas
lacked the knowledge to mend the fissures. As the portals’ denizens
slowly spread their contagion across the countryside, the people
flowed towards the cities. The destructive might of our armies
formed an uneven breakwater against which the dimensional
encroachment stalled. A wave of humanity retreated like a beach at
low tide, leaving the abandoned remains of urban sprawl to decay
under the spread of the interlopers or be reclaimed by Earth’s
wilderness. The populace resigned itself to face man-made misery in
gilded prisons, often at the hands of their fellows, rather than
risk the alien predations at the edges of civilization. Men huddled
close together, as their ancestors did around the tribal fire,
whispering superstitions to each other in an attempt to give a
reassuring logic to the chaos. We were unaware that the genetic
scream had fundamentally changed the minds of some of these men.
The soaring edifices of concrete and steel, glowing with light
in this near future world, served as our tribal fires holding back
the night. The masses of mankind teemed along the web of
connections lacing the air and penetrating the ground in these
newly concentrated megacities. While the foundations of our cities’
architecture rested securely on pilings and bedrock, mankind’s
fractured ego still needed to heal from the realization that it
was not the special creation once thought unique. Our
superstitious whispers raced across the electromagnetic spectrum,
memetic ghosts in the machine.
The universe did not love us, did not evolve us for a purpose,
in fact did not take any notice of our existence at all. Our
scientists tried to codify our new reality, our politicians tried
to reconcile our new social structures and for some men, their
minds’ new abilities seemed to laugh maniacally at it all.
Classic Old School Games are enjoying a renaissance these days, some in the form of cloned rulesets and others in the form of new approaches to the intellectual property. Twilight 2000 is getting a fourth edition that is in the form of the latter thanks to the Swedish company Free League Publishing. There is Kickstarter campaign running through 3 Sept 2020 to bring this title back to market that is already knocking down stretch goals like an armored thrust through central Europe.
The core gameplay uses the hexcrawling system established in Mutant: Year Zero and Forbidden Lands RPGs (both Silver ENnie winners for Best Rules, in 2015 and 2019), developing it further to fit the gritty world of Twilight: 2000. The core rules build on the Year Zero Engine, but heavily adapted to fit Twilight: 2000 and its focus on gear and gritty realism.
Free League Publishing
For those of you who are not familiar with the previous incarnations of Twilight 2000 let me provide a short synopsis of the setting.
In the first edition of the game, a Sino-Soviet border war escalated into nuclear exchanges while military officers from West and East Germany tried to reunite their nation with aid from NATO leading to a larger Warsaw Pact conflict across central Europe. The culmination of the conflict is a surprise Thanksgiving Day nuclear first strike by Soviet forces on the US and UK mainlands which is responded to in kind leading to a “nuclear autumn” and breakdown of civilization with casualty figures somewhere around 50%. The conventional war front across Poland and the Baltics grinds to a stalemate and a final NATO push is met with the last remnants of the Warsaw Pact, effectively grinding both armies into shambling ghosts.
The characters are assumed to be the survivors of the US Army 5th Division, cut off from command and supply in Poland and left to fend for themselves. The result being a sandbox full of combat trained and equipped characters having to deal with hostile troops and civilians as they try to survive. Do they try to make their way home, become another band of roving warlords or make alliances with the friendly civilians who need protection from the predations of other military remnants?
The second version of the game, faced with a post-Soviet collapse world, posited a successful 1991 coup where Gorbachev and Yeltsin were eliminated and Communist hardliners maintained the Soviet state control with a similar follow on of events causing a nuclear exchange and societal collapse.
The end result was a popular setting where you had armed military and civilian survivors, surrounded by a dangerous environment where power was taken and free-will was enforced at gunpoint. This was a gritty and realistic exercise rather than the mutant fun of Gamma World. Exploration was required for food, fuel, supplies and news so there was always potential for conflict. There were many adventures and supplements produced to expand the coverage of events in the US, UK, and Middle East along with various equipment catalogs of eastern and western military hardware.
So if you are a fan of Cold War fiction and post-apocalyptic or military gaming check out the upcoming version of Twilight 2000. From what we have seen so far, Free League Publishing is making great strides at adapting the Mutant Year-Zero engine to the Twilight 2000 setting and the end result should be well worth it.
Another in a series of simple scenes, written in screenplay format, to provide a creative prod to readers who might want a spark to influence their game’s scenario or encounter creation efforts.
EXT. RUSTIC CABIN - NIGHT
A TALL MAN, 40's wearing a wool jacket and jeans, leans
against the porch railing, outlined in shadow by the light
spilling out of the open door behind him.
His hand makes a sudden upward motion and a match HISSES
with yellow light, briefly illuminating his face. He lights
the cigarette in his mouth and shakes the flame out,
tossing the match away.
He turns towards the open front door of the cabin.
TALL MAN (LOUDLY)
We don't have all night dammit!
They ain't waiting for us a second
The tall man returns his eyes towards the front yard as
another man scurries into the open doorway. ANDY, a man in
his 30's with unkempt hair, is fumbling with his handgun,
trying to insert it into a shoulder holster but failing.
I couldn't find my new one so I
had to dig out this old one. I
don't think it fits any more.
The tall man, facing away from Andy, exhales a lungful of
smoke off the front porch.
Andy continues to struggle with the holster and grunts in
frustration. The tall man turns around and looks surprised
at seeing Andy's gun and holster, letting the cigarette in
his mouth droop on his lip then squeezing it with his lips
as he begins to talk.
TALL MAN (CONT'D)
What the fuck 're you doing?
Andy finally gets the handgun into the holster with the
clasp closed over the handle. He looks up innocently with
The tall man slowly takes the cigarette out of his mouth
with his thumb and index finger, eyes locked on Andy, he
puffs a quick burst of smoke out. He points the unlit end
of the cigarette at Andy.
What's with the iron Dirty Harry,
plan on making somebody's day?
Andy looks down at his holster as he realizes what JAMES is
pointing at. He quickly looks up with outstretched,
We have to be able to protect
ourselves this time.
This time? Who're you saying we
need protection from exactly?
Well the cops of course!
Andy shoots James an open mouthed look of disbelief.
We nearly got caught on the last
run and I don't want to risk that
James flicks the spent cigarette down against the wooden
porch. Andy reaches behind and shuts the cabin door.
The deputy drove past us going the
other way and waved fercrissakes.
I don't think he aims to set up a
roadblock next time we meet. Plus
it's night out.
Andy inhales and puffs his chest out, defiantly pushing
past James and stepping sharply down the porch steps.
Everybody knows night brings out
the bad elements in this town. You
never know who we might run into.
James descends the steps following Andy, fishing for the
keys in his pocket and gently shaking his head in disgust.
We are the bad elements in this
town ya moron.
Andy ignores the remark, enters the passenger side of a
well worn Ford pickup and SLAMS the door.
JAMES (CONT'D) (TO HIMSELF)
I'm glad paps ain't alive to see
James looks up at the stars overhead and pauses for a a few
He opens the truck door, climbs into the driver's seat and
shuts the door. It doesn't latch properly and he must
re-open it and pull it hard to SLAM it closed.
The taillights flash red and the exhaust belches to life as
the truck bounces down a dirt driveway and disappears
behind a row of tall pines.
A new feature where I share short scenes that can be used to prod the imagination, all written in the standard screenplay format to aid visualization. I’m not sure if it is just me or not, but I find the screenplay format an easy style to use that doesn’t seem so hung up on grammar as with short stories. They tend to be very efficient story devices where a page is assumed to be about a minute of filming time and so lacks a ton of exposition that would be filled in by visual elements on the screen.
These snippets can be used by readers to influence elements for their games because often all it takes is a slight spark from a 3rd party to trigger the creative process in scenarios and encounters. The indent structure of screenplays is pretty specific but I haven’t been able to get the blog to match it quite correctly yet so you’ll have to bear with me.
EXT. ROMAN FRONTIER FORT - BRITANNIA - EVENING
CASSIUS kneels beside a tall pile of dried tree limbs a few
hundred feet away from a Roman frontier fort. His weathered
hand lowers a torch, dull red and nearly extinguished, into
the pile. Flames rise to life as a crackling hiss turns
into a low roar. He raises his head and directs his
attention to the shadowy tree line nearby.
Do you hear that?
MARIUS, pacing on the cleared dirt around the fire near
CASSIUS, furrows his brow and angles his gaze into the
I hear nothing, save the fire.
Even the insects are in quiet
hiding from them tonight. I can
feel their eyes on us from the
Rising to his full height, CASSIUS rubs the stubble of his
rough beard and scans left and right across the meadow
clearing. His gaze lingering on the nearby wooden palisades
surrounding the legion's camp.
(CONT'D) (NODDING AT THE FORT)
Tell them to send out the hounds.
The handlers will curse your name.
If they can curse me it means they
are still among the living.
You know they won't see it that
MARIUS extends his arms over his head, each brandishing a
flaming branch in an X.
Shouts can be heard from the camp and in the following
moments the unmistakeable baying of dogs reaches CASSIUS.
He exhales slowly, watching the last of the sunset's orange glow
fade to black. He reaches down and pulls a hatchet
from the ground and puts into a holster on his belt.
So you believe the report from
Angicet? About the demon spawned
wolves that can scale walls and
The pair of men walk back towards the fort as other flames
erupt in the meadow, watch pyres being set like their own.
I wasn't there but the runner was
certainly covered in gore and
shaken badly. Something happened.
A dog handler with a pair of wolf hounds on a lead walks
past them towards the watch pyres.
We wont know for sure until the scouting
party gets back in the morning.
You mean if they come back.
CASSIUS slaps MARIUS on the shoulder like old friends.
When, or if, still gives us an
answer of some sort, which is more
then we have right now.
Marius smiles warmly at Cassius and shakes his head.
Well I've kept you alive so far,
one more night isn't going to kill
Marius turns his head in reaction to some of the wolf
hounds barking excitedly in the distance.
(CONT'D) (TO HIMSELF)
At least I hope so