Review: The War on Christmas (OSR adventure)

System: Lamentations of the Flame Princess/OSR Compatible
Level: Low to Medium
Designer: Andrew Marrington
Publisher: Grimm Aramil Publishing
Price: $2.99 (PDF), $10.99 (POD hardcopy + PDF) from DrivethruRPG.

The War on Christmas – PDF cover

Before I start this review, let me say that designer Andrew Marrington is a friend of mine. We have gamed together many times. Whether or not you think this influences my review is up to you. I’ve not played this scenario, nor discussed this review with him.

Let me also say that I have a general dislike of fantasy adventures tied into real-world festivities just so the gaming group gets to enjoy a seasonally adjusted scenario.

The War on Christmas nicely sidesteps the issues I have with such scenarios in two ways:

  1. It’s set in real world history, just after the English Civil War, when the Commonwealth of England had outlawed Christmas.
  2. Santa does not make an appearance. Nor do his elves, nor Rudolph nor anything Santa-related.

What then, is The War on Christmas about?

Initial thoughts

In a nutshell, it’s a variant on the tried and trusted defend-the-village scenario, akin to The Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven and Battle Beyond the Stars. In this case the attackers are not bandits, but Parliamentary cavalry troopers under the command of the Puritan fanatic Captain Ezekiel Walker. And the villagers are illegally celebrating Christmas with a feast.

What marks the 33-page scenario out is its attention to detail – both its historical detail and its gaming detail. It’s written in straightforward English, well presented and should be easy to run either as a pick-up game or as part of an ongoing Civil War era campaign.

Its history is well researched, but not particularly intrusive. I think any GM running this would want a basic understanding of the English Civil War period, but a detailed knowledge isn’t necessary.

There’s a lot of playful humour in the presentation of what is a rather bleak scenario. There’s a delight in the occasional use of 17th century English in some of the décor text, and a real delight in presenting the rival views of the Anglicans and Puritans and their mutual loathing of Catholicism – a delight made all the sweeter as Dr Marrington is himself Catholic (or, as he describes himself in the title page, a Papist malignant).

The Adventure

First, you get a one page introduction to the scenario, then two pages of historical background. This consists of a table showing the weekday of Christmas during the 14 years the Commonwealth existed, and the text of Parliament’s two ordinances banning Christmas and other Romish festivals. (Occasional boxes elsewhere add useful historical background where relevant.)

Next is a 13-page description of the village where the action takes place, with a rather nice colour map. The village church and every house is described, with its residents – parents, children and servants (if any). Given that the Puritan troopers intend to loot the village, it’s a nice touch that not only is each family’s valuables listed there’s also a note on what they’re prepared to bribe the troopers to leave them alone.

Next is a three-page description of Captain Walker and his Troop of Horse. I particularly enjoy the description of Captain Walker’s equipment, which not only includes his arms and armour but “The Souldiers Pocket Bible, and a fanatical hatred of popish superstitions like Christmas.”

A one page description of Christmas in the village goes into lavish detail about each of the three feasts being held – what meats and delicacies are served, and who is invited to each party. This matters because the player characters could be at any of them, and which parties are attacked in the first wave of the Puritan assault is randomised, in true old school fashion.

Dr Marrington uses a dice-drop method to determine the first wave – drop one six-sided die for each player character on a map of the village, and the result is how many troopers attempt to storm the nearest building.

The second wave is somewhat more threatening, with 20 troopers attacking, and the final wave brings Captain Walker and any of his 46 sergeants and troopers not killed or captured in previous assaults. A nice touch is a page giving a silhouette of each trooper, making it easy for the GM to keep track of how many troopers have been killed or captured.

There’s a decent discussion of trooper tactics and objectives for each wave, which varies depending on player character actions, particularly if they use magic. And there is a reminder to use morale rules so that troopers flee rather than be slaughtered.

A two-paragraph epilogue discusses the likely outcome of resisting the troopers’ assaults. It notes that the third wave may be overwhelming for the player characters, who may well flee rather than be slain. In this case they will become wanted criminals, pursued by the forces of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth is also likely to take its revenge on the village, whether or not the PCs defeat the final wave.

The last page is a reproduction of a Civil War folksong about ordinary people’s reaction to the abolition of Christmas.

Presentation

The adventure has a mix of period woodcuts, as might be found in broadsides of the period, colour illustrations and maps, and moody public domain colour illustrations of Parliamentary troopers.

Conclusion

I love it. For me, it has the perfect blend of dark humour and historical detail. It’s a simple adventure, but an intelligent one. The thoughtfulness comes not so much in the plot but in the setting; Dr Marrington clearly understands and delights in the nuances of the period.

Tying the scenario in to a particular period is a two-edged sword, of course. If your game isn’t set during the Commonwealth of England, you’ll have some work to do to come up with another justification for the troopers to attack the village.

But whether or not you use the adventure as is, there is value in The War on Christmas. The un-named village is a detailed settlement that can be adapted to any game. Captain Walker and his Troop of Horse make wonderfully fanatical villains for any game – Walker is one of those great villains who believes fervently in his own righteousness. He reminds me very much of the vicious redleg colonel in The Outlaw Josey Wales: “It ain’t over. It’ll never be over. Doin’ good ain’t got no end.”

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