Monday, 25 July 2016

bell hooks

‘During the seventeenth century the bonshō [large bronze bell] was also a symbol of a temple's leadership; possession of the bell indicated ownership of the associated temple. As a result, bells were often stolen.’ - wiki

There are people out there in the world right now complaining that they don’t have a good idea for an adventure, and yet the world is full of sentences like this, just sitting there, waiting for you to graft the edition of your choice onto them. This post contains (d)10 bell-centric adventure hooks and some ponderings thereon. I like some of them enough that I'll probably flesh them right out in future posts.

Bells are great. They are interesting physical objects - conceptually simple enough that they
Japanese belfries - great, but harder to ambush
your players with bats in them
crop up in many cultures but difficult and fiddly things requiring very specialised craftsmanship to make. The big ones are also spectacularly heavy - they were probably the largest pieces of worked metal in the world until cannons became common, and individual ones became hugely important spiritually and politically: in Japan a war was fought using a bell inscription as a pretext, and in Burma the world’s largest bell inspired endless conflict and still does, despite having been lost at the bottom of a river for four hundred years (there are like nine adventures in that wiki article alone, people). In Russia there is a broken bell so big it was used for a time as a chapel. From this it is clear that bells are also good for you because the cultures that have centred them have often been non-Western, and researching them will take you interesting, non-Tolkeinian places. Yoon-Suin is probably full of bells. Bells are also obvious locuses for magic, which I haven't even really gotten to here - Garth Nix raised this to a particularly high level in his Old Kingdom books, which would make a wonderful campaign setting - but even mundane ones have the interesting property of making sound, which is useful and risky in equal measure.

My party presently carries a couple of silver handbells which are technically magical but no longer useful in that way, in that they were used as alarm-bells to magically alert the guards in a mansion the party ended up robbing. Presumably the surviving guards lost their jobs, but quite possibly they still feel the magical pulse in their heads when the party, now many miles away, rings one of them. The bells still make a sound, though, and the PCs mostly put them against the bottom of doors to alert themselves to possible pursuers or disturbers of their rest, which is sensible but of course also alerts the pursuers. (At time of writing one of the bells is also disabled after the druid, in giant spider form, filled it full of silk to silence it.)

The inside of the belfry in the cathedral of Split,
 which I am still going about, yes.
Best of all, bells imply interesting buildings: monasteries and temples and manors and castles and universities, all of them with the requisites belfries and towers. Spaces like this are clearly places you wish to set a fight, and no adventurer worth their salt misses the chance to swing from a bell-rope or indeed to ride a bell itself as it rings or as it is cut loose and crashes successively through seven floors of belfry (ideally landing on someone who has been persuaded to stand just there. Most of these 10 ideas imply such places: not just religious ones but secular ones too, since bells were useful for local lords trying to assert control from their homes.

1 - The party is hired to steal the great bell from a nearby monastery, for by long-standing and divinely inspired precedent whoever possesses and rings the great bell controls the monastery, and with it considerable spiritual and temporal power. The monastery is well-guarded, and the bell, which is near the centre of the complex, weighs twice the weight of the heaviest party member.
2 – The party is contracted to recover a once-famous bell from a submerged temple in a river valley which was flooded many years ago. Locals, who live higher up the slopes of the valley nowadays, say they sometimes hear it toll underwater, but nobody has shown much interest until recently when a scholar arrived nearby offering good money for its recovery. It’s a good 100ft underwater and weighs as much as the heaviest party member.
3 – By long tradition, the death of the local lord is announced by the tolling of a bell in the tower of the manor, from where the whole household and village can hear it. His lordship is on the edge of death and has been for weeks, and his heir has ordered the bell rung, but his lordship’s wife, who is exercising power in his name, has refused. Both sides are willing to use subterfuge. The bell is the size of a man’s torso and about as heavy.
4 – The peasants around a manor have come to believe that the old bell that rings the end of the working day is cursed in some way, and that its peal distorts time and forces them to work longer. They want it destroyed, or at least uncursed. The lord of the manor thinks this is nonsense. The truth of it is up to you. The bell is certainly odd: small but very dense with an uneven tone.
5 – An ageing and wealthy noble is gifting a fine new bell to a monastery, at enormous expense. It’s huge and massively heavy – it’s being drawn to the remote hillside of the monastery by a team of eight oxen. It needs guarding, and it moves horribly slowly. The benefactor in question is probably dying and is widely despised, including by the monks, but they don’t feel able to turn down the bell.
6 – Per ancient law, all those farms within the sound of the manor’s bell owe tithes there. For centuries the boundary has not changed, the ‘sound of the bell’ thing being interpreted as a poetic and dated way of saying ‘a mile or so’, but an ambitious new steward thinks he can be getting much more income by actually sounding it and testing the boundaries. The party are the kind of outsiders who could act as neutral – or easily influenced – arbiters. The bell itself has not been rung in living memory: it’s a beautiful bell of tarnished silver.
7 – A new bell of implausible magnificence has been commissioned for a temple, and the foolish bellmaker, boggled by the size of the commission, has agreed to it without considering where they will get all the necessary bronze, which needs to be remarkably pure. Can the party source some? It need not necessarily still be in the ground, if they can find sufficiently pure objects that nobody will miss.
8 – A decree – the birth of a new prince, maybe – has ruled that the bells of all monasteries throughout the land shall be rung from sunrise until sunset on a certain day, on pain of confiscation of the monastic property: but the monks here have all been incapacitated with a strange sickness. Shouldn’t be too hard, right? They want someone to do it for them. They might not mention the land-hungry aristocrat up the road.
9 – By law, all those infected with leprosy – or similar – must carry bells to warn the clean of their approach. Around these parts this law has long been ignored, since the nearby leper colony largely keeps itself to itself – but someone has now decided it needs serious enforcing, and wants the party to do the dirty work of delivering the bells and persuading the lepers to start using them.
10 – To kill the monstrous eagle would be sacrilege, as well suicidal: on this everybody agreed. And for it to take a few sheep now and then is a fair price to pay for the sheer sight of it. But in the last month two shepherds too have been killed. If only there was a way of making its approach less silent, and some adventurers willing to give it a go.

But also, yes, I did this post for the title. Not sorry.