Spooky Spots: The Pillbox at the Crossroads
Phil Nicholls blogs at Tales of a GM, where he writes about narrative gaming, faster prep and more story. He is currently running a HeroQuest Glorantha campaign in a homebrew setting. Phil has written for Johnn Four’s Roleplaying Tips newsletter and has a selection of self-published pdfs.
This essay is taken from the archives at Tales of a GM.
Spooky Spots was the theme for the October 2013 Blog Carnival. This roving Carnival of gaming goodness was hosted by Scot Newbury at his blog Of Dice and Dragons. As might be expected for this time of year, Scot chose a Halloween theme. This was my contribution.
The Pillbox at the Crossroads.
For those readers outside the UK, a short explanation. Pillboxes are small concrete hexagonal fortifications. They were built around 1940 as part of the defences against a feared German invasion.
Despite the passage of time, there are still many Pillboxes scattered around the UK. They are a relics of an invasion that never happened, but I find them spooky for more reasons than this.
Little Blots on the Landscape
The Pillbox at the Crossroads was built at a time of national crisis, fearing invasion by the mighty Wehrmacht which had already crushed Western Europe. It was built for functionality and not beauty. Yet, like all Pillboxes, this does not make the one at the Crossroads any prettier.
There is nothing more out of place in the English countryside than a squat lump of concrete. By being hexagonal, they have more sharp angles. The surrounding landscape is smooth, flowing and alive. The Pillbox is sharp, angular and dead, almost alien in its otherworldliness. It clearly does not belong in a peaceful rural landscape, it is a structure from a different world.
Nor is the Pillbox any better from the inside. As to be expected, it is filled with bits of old rubbish and dead leaves. The years have not been kind, and the open windows allow wind and rain to enter. The Pillbox at the Crossroads is dirty, damp and smelly.
The ceiling is low, the walls are rough. Somehow the weight of the structure seems to bear down on the visitor. This is not a happy place. The Pillbox was designed for war. Had it been needed, if Operation Sealion had occurred, then the Home Guard militia who garrisoned it, would assuredly have been killed.
The strategic purpose of the Pillbox to slow the invasion and give the regular army time to react. In real terms, this meant buying time for the Army with the lives of the Home Guard. If a building can take on the essence of its function, then this Pillbox is grim at best, and positively reeking of death at worst.
A Sense of Menace
Over the years, The Pillbox at the Crossroads has settled further into the ground, almost as if it was trying to hide. Plus it has been claimed by the nearby foliage, covered in ivy and surrounded by greenery. The Pillbox seeks to remain unnoticed.
Yet, the blank, square windows suggest it is watching us. Designed to guard this strategic location, the sense of alertness remains. This is an alien, hidden structure watching everyone who passes.
Naturally, these “eyes” are blank, as the interior is dark. These lifeless eyes stare out across the Crossroads, creating a strong sense of unease. Somebody easily could be watching from within. Highly unlikely, but a passer-by could not tell.
Pillboxes in your Game
There are several ways of weaving The Pillbox at the Crossroads into your game:
First of all, it is simply haunted by a member of the Home Guard who died on exercises in 1940. His ghost has been awoken by the latest roadworks at the crossroads, the excavation disturbing his bones. The Guardsman, confused by modern technology, assumes the Germans have invaded and is doing his best to protect King and country.
He starts by firing from the Pillbox, but ghostly bullets are unlike to harm anyone. Or would they? He could increase his activity by trying to bayonet passing cars, or knife a cyclist. Again, all ghostly attacks, but frightening nonetheless
Alternatively, for a slasher-type scenario, maybe he can harm the living. When a string of people are found dead at the crossroads with slash wounds, the Police are likely baffled. Cue the Players. Or even have a High School camping trip in the adjoining woods, for a more clichéd scenario.
The next possibility is a time portal within the confines of the claustrophobic Pillbox. The Players wander in, perhaps to shelter from a storm, only to find they have traveled back to 1940 when they emerge.
This could turn into a frantic chase, as the Players are assumed to be German spies by the authorities. Meanwhile, the Players try to evade capture and work out how to return.
Or, up the ante, and have the Players emerge into an alternate 1940 where the Germans have invaded. The bewildered Players stumble out of the Pillbox, are assumed to be Home Guard reinforcements and thus handed inadequate weapons as the Panzers roll ashore. Cue fierce heroics in the face of better technology and overwhelming odds.
Gateway to underworld
The last option is a more magical one. The surviving Pillboxes are the ones built on the ancient ley line network. Each Pillbox is thus a magical nexus that can be linked to all sorts of effects:
1. A Seelie Court watch fort with Fey Guards
2. Turrets to a vast, buried Fey castle
3. Gateway to the Underworld
4. Portals to an alternate England
Or even combine this with the time portal option. This pillbox holds a doorway to a network of tunnels leading to the resting place of Arthur and his Knights. The Once and Future King is about to sally forth in Britain’s time of need and repulse the advancing German army: armoured knights versus Panzers!
More than just in England
Despite the fact that the Pillbox is an English structure, the principles can be applied to any type of small fortification. World War Two left many of these small structures scattered across Europe. France had similar fortifications in World War One.
A network of small, defensive structures could be the result of a war in a fantasy setting, think of them as small, single-story towers, and the associations are much the same.
How would you use a pillbox in your game? Are you tempted by Arthurian knights versus German panzers? Share your thoughts in the Comments below.
For more essays from Phil, and updates about his latest campaign, visit Tales of a GM. http://talesofagm.com/