RPT#200 – Scaring Players: 8 Tips
A Brief Word From Johnn
#200 And 4th Anniversary
In a strange twist of fate, Issue #200 also falls on the same weekend that I sent out Issue #1 four years ago to 11 victims, er, subscribers.
I’d like to raise my mug of Guinness and say thanks to the Tips community for your tremendous support. Here’s to another 200.
Enough with the small talk. On with the Tips!
*** from www.TheHeroFactory.com ***
Scaring Players: 8 Tips
By: Johnn Four
Three Big Fears: The Unknown, Uncertainty, Diminishment
There are many different types of gamer fears, but three of the biggest that you should seek to wield for player entertainment are:
- Fear of the unknown
- Fear caused by uncertainty
- Fear of character diminishment
The trick is to understand these fears and layer them into your encounters to build the likelihood of a successful fear effect. These three items aren’t just categories sitting on your screen, but principles and tools that you can actively use in your games.
Fear Of The Unknown
What the PCs don’t know might kill them. Fear of the dark, the future, and the closed door are deeply rooted in human psychology. As storytellers, we GMs can leverage this for maximum scare effect.
- Veteran players. These players know all the rules and adversary statistics, so game-wise, little is unknown to them. New game content, such as new monsters, custom villains, alien technology, and foe equipment can bring the unknown element back into the game for them.
- Mystery threat. The characters start receiving anonymous threats. Each threat gets increasingly personal and reveals more and more private PC information lending them credibility. Minor threats that would be difficult to carry out are often delivered and then successfully executed, letting the players know the source is serious, dangerous, and powerful. These threats are sprinkled throughout the regular campaign and get more frequent each session.
- In the basement of the ruined old church, where the dangerous transients dwell, there is a door. No one can open this door and it radiates a deep sense of unease. Blood stains and strange carvings cover it from top to bottom, and it is deathly cold to the touch. It is said that, one day, the door will open and then you will wish you were far, far away from that old church…
Fear Caused By Uncertainty
The enemy of fear is confidence and certainty. The player who’s sure of himself and what’s happening in-game is going to be very hard to scare. You need to use all your storytelling powers to shatter the character’s confidence and get the player in the mind space of uncertainty to open the door and let fear step in.
Although similar to the unknown, that element is embodied by the void. The unknown is about the complete lack of information, the potential of anything–benign or malignant. On the other hand, uncertainty has more to do with risk and lack of control. The threat or conflict is known or partially identified, but the outcome isn’t.
The battle has been fought long and hard but the creature is nearly finished. Though the characters are nearly spent, their foe has just been mortally wounded. One more round and it should all be over. Suddenly, the monster rips off the chain dangling from around its wrist. The chain is hollow! Gold liquid comes pouring out straight into the creature’s waiting mouth, and its wounds begin sealing up. The monster roars with new life and beats its chest furiously. The outcome of the battle is imminent no longer. Now what!?
Fear Of Character Diminishment
Character death would be the ultimate game fear for many players, especially if the PC has been played for a long time, is well-developed, or has won the player’s keen interest. However, if you think of this as the extreme end of a spectrum of character diminishment, then we now have a great range of options and opportunities for scaring a player through harming their character.
A core issue here is that players fear a character who is less capable then the others and/or they fear losing what they’ve gained. Weaker PCs must sit out during play more often, have fewer cool powers and abilities, sometimes feel like a fifth wheel, and can have a smaller impact on game play during conflict resolution. Roleplaying opportunities aren’t usually affected, but when push comes to shove, weak PCS usually get shoved.
Mind you, this is only a fear during the period leading up to the diminishment. Once his PC is weakened, a player is no longer scared (probably annoyed or bemused instead). So, your goal is to build-up–and play-up–the time period leading to the diminishment for as long as possible without overdoing it.
- Stat reduction. Players get scared when there’s a possibility their PC’s stats could be permanently decreased –especially if key stats are involved! Strength draining creatures and mind numbing traps are much maligned and feared.
- Poison and disease. These two little GMing gems cause great uncertainty because of their diminishment potential. Unless the affliction is recognized, suffering PCs will not know if they are doomed, if they’ll lose stats or abilities permanently, or if they’ll be weakened for a long period of game play time.
Keep in mind that you are definitely not required to follow through with the diminishment or make it permanent in every case. Your goal is to create a fear effect in the window of time you have available until the actual diminishment triggers. You can follow through with saving throws, resistance checks, and temporary effects to prevent your games from becoming a “killer campaign” that no one enjoys.
Take any encounter or plot line and analyze each NPC, foe, location, trap/puzzle, encounter, and so on. Look for ways to add in elements of the unknown, uncertainty, or character diminishment.
- The PCs are told to seek audience with Elminster or some other great and powerful sage. You had planned to make the NPC unavailable and have his apprentice give a scroll clue to the PCs when they arrive.
Instead, you switch things to be a meeting on the edge of a sinister forest outside of town just after the moon has set. When the PCs arrive, there’s a cold wind blowing, a hard rain falling, and a mess of blood sprayed around the whole site. There’s no sign of who (or what) fought nor of a winner. A careful search uncovers a scroll thrust into a tree hollow where it was kept dry. The NPC never shows up… [Unknown]
- The PCs are chasing the half-orc child who’s just robbed the warrior. The street makes a sharp turn into a cul-de-sac and the characters suddenly bump into a waiting gang of a dozen half-demons. The half-orc child turns around, laughs, and transforms into a powerful, demonic minion of the villain! [Uncertainty]
- The characters face a tough gang of demonic foes. The leader taunts them and says he has an ally of theirs–a powerful sage–held prisoner in a secret location and the PCS will have to beat the information out of him ’cause he’ll never spill. He gives the order to attack and the foes draw their weapons–only these weapons seem to be covered in a strange black substance. Moments later the first PC is hit and suddenly his strength bleeds away until he can barely hold up his weapon! [Diminishment]
Trap The PCs
Preventing the PCs from leaving their circumstances of conflict can scare players. A lack of a way to escape or means of convalescence increases the danger and uncertainty. If other horrific things are going on, then being trapped also forces the characters to face their fears–something scary in and of itself.
- Omnipresent foe. An adversary who can harangue the PCs any time, any place, is most fearsome. Pick key moments for the foe to appear, such as after big battles, when the PCs are fleeing or retreating, or during untimely social circumstances.
- A god or an AI
- A foe with teleport ability or great speed and a homing device tuned to the PCs
- A curse or bad luck flaw (also: fate, prophesy, karma)
- An NPC party member too powerful to send away
- A cursed magic item
- Pocket dimension. The PCs are taken to a place with no visible, obvious, or mundane exits. Perhaps getting out requires assembling a key, solving a riddle, or simply exploring–while one or more threats dogs the PCs’ heels.
- Sealed dungeon. The entrance closes or gets sealed once the party enters.
- Past the point of no return. The characters have journeyed too far and returning would kill them or is just not possible. Alternately, a threat too powerful to overcome was triggered or left behind, preventing retreat.
Reverse Engineer Monsters
Monsters and foes with wondrous powers, such as spell casters, are great opportunities for fear. The key is to plant a series of clues about the creature(s) prior to the encounter that keeps the players guessing, worried, and scared about the upcoming, mysterious threat.
Step one: Make a list or study up on each foe’s attacks, defenses, biology, and special abilities.
- How does the creature move?
- What does it attack with? Defend with?
- What does the creature eat? And how?
- What sounds or smells can the creature make?
- What special powers does it have that could leave a mark, sound, or smell?
Step two: For each item, think of what signs or evidence the ability or creature element would leave behind if it was used by the monster.
Step three: Plant the clues throughout your adventure or encounter area.
Step four: Dress-up, tweak, and “romance” each clue to make it as mysterious, compelling, and threatening as possible.
- Mysterious. You want to keep the players guessing as to what creature or NPC is in the area. Avoid clues that will give away the creature’s identity all at once. Make the clues informative enough to offer several possibilities though. For example, placing a beholder’s eye stalk along the path might be too obvious, whereas placing an eyeball presents more prospects.
- Compelling. Have the clue confer some kind of conflict or action. Make it tell a small story. And dress it up a bit. For example, rather than placing an eyeball along the path, you could have it impaled on a branch, burned on one side, teeth marks on the other.
- Threatening. Unless the clues support the image of some great, powerful threat, the players won’t be scared, just curious. Each clue needs to impart a little danger, threat, and power, so that when a bigger picture emerges from finding several clues, the PCs should be uncertain and more than a little worried.
In some campaigns a beholder is a flying creature whose powers include disintegration, finger of death, flesh to stone, and telekinesis. You decide to set the stage by having an NPC group come through the area recently and encountering and attacking a beholder. The clue trail involves discovering and interpreting signs of the battle as it raged on.
- Tracks of a group of people following the same trail the PCs are.
- Signs of a skirmish along the trail. Spell fire, blood, and other clues indicate a strong foe, however, other than the footprints of the NPC party, there’s no tracks of any foe(s).
- The NPCs turn off the path into the woods. Signs of a large creature in front of or following behind them are present, though still no tracks.
- A strange pile of dust lies on the ground. It appears that the NPCs stood around the pile in a circle before moving further into the woods. Astute PCs might notice one less pair of footprints heading onwards…
- The PCs find a body! The dead warrior’s face is a mask of horrible pain, yet he bears no wounds and the cause of his death is a mystery.
- Another body is discovered. This one is a halfling who’s been petrified in mid-stride, apparently running away in great fear from someone, or something.
- A small quarry. 300 pound rocks are strewn all about, and markings on trees, a stone wall, and other rocks indicate they were thrown by something very strong. In addition, a body of a human is lodged high up in the rock wall, as if it were hurled there…
Confront The Players With Horrific Dilemmas
Escalate the dilemmas and tough choices in your campaigns to include fearsome or macabre elements. This will engage your players’ emotions and increase the fear potential should they choose to play along and empathise with their characters. Add a downside, penalty, or negative effect to each available option so that the situation changes from picking the best alternative to picking the best of the worst.Don’t forget to layer in elements of the unknown, uncertainty, or diminishment.
- The hole. The lever to active a secret door resides in a deep hole. The device has a trigger and buttons, so it requires manual operation (i.e. PCs cannot bypass by using a 10′ pole :). Someone’s gonna have to stick their arm in and operate the lever.
- Unknown: The hole is filled with a magical darkness. Who’s gonna stick their arm in now?
- Uncertainty: There’s acid burns and fire marks all around the hole (from previous hack attempts by NPCs). Or, perhaps small red spiders crawl out of it every once in awhile. Maybe there’s a couple of bodies nearby that are just dry husks…
- Diminishment: 1″ of a sharp, cold steel blade can be seen protruding from the upper lip of the hole. Who knows how many other blades are hidden in the darkness? Perhaps a filthy, ragged old man sits weeping against the wall as well. He’s clutching the bloody stump of his wrist and, curiously, his clothing and armour are far too big and heavy looking for his withered frame…
- Feast of Kings. The PCs return victorious with the traitors who tricked the neighboring Lord into thinking it was the characters’ King who had ordered the assassination attempt. Having staved off the impending war, the heroes are invited to a victory feast at the Lord’s table. The feast begins and all sorts of strange and disgusting food is served. However, to refuse to eat is to insult the Lord and renew hostilities.
GM: As you scan the room and notice the strangely vacant chairs, the stranger beside you leans in and says, “So, when you are passed the cup, do you intend to drink from it?”
Player: What do you mean?
NPC: Why do you think so many are absent?…
Player: What’s in the cup?
NPC: Shhhh. Not so loud. Look–there it is. Best make up your mind now.
Player: So, m’Lord, what will you do with the traitors?
GM: The Lord looks down at his soup and a strange smile spreads across his face as he pokes an eyeball with his fork. He starts to giggle, then laugh, and soon everyone is laughing uproariously, though it seems to be a strange and uneasy mirth. A servant comes up behind you and ladles a thick broth into your bowl. In the broth surfaces not one, but two eyeballs…
Lord: Come here, my loyal fool. That’s it. [Lord gazes directly at the PCs.] Do you see this man? He was once a great wizard. A great mage indeed, known by all, and my most trusted advisor at one time. He wields a jester’s wand these days. [Knocks on the fool’s head.] He’s too stupid now to even understand his own humiliation. He dined with me one night, just as you will soon. And he was stubborn, just as you should not be….
One good technique is to find out your players’ fears and put them on one or both horns of the dilemma. Will the PCs walk through the pit of snakes or tread the thin rope the thief’s strung high above it? The usual caveat applies here: avoid getting too personal or doing anything that would upset a player.
A better version of this technique is to plant things into your dilemmas that scare you. What do you fear? What makes you uneasy? Dark holes, cannibals, torture, maggots, public speaking? Wrestling with your fears and gaming them often adds a contagious edge to game play and brings out the best of your storytelling ability.
Use Repetition Then Twist It
Re-use game elements until they become familiar. Then add a nasty twist to catch the players off-guard or to escalate the tension and promote a fear response.With familiarity comes confidence, comfort, and support. Even if the players don’t intend to become dependent on what you’re familiarizing them with, the act of repetition, gaming the same thing over and over, will inevitably create a sense of ease, routine, and trust in the players.
Once you’ve achieved this, you break it hard and fast. This’ll upset the players’ thinking and open the way to fear through the unknown, uncertainty, or diminishment.For example: The traditional foe. You set up a standard foe for the campaign area, such as goblins, gang members, or alien cruisers. You create several encounters with these enemies over several sessions until the players are familiar with them, know their tricks, and feel confident during encounters with them.
Meanwhile, other plot elements are triggering and encounters happening to keep the game interesting and moving along.Then comes the encounter where everything is turned upside down. The carpet is pulled out from under the PCs’ feet, the players are off balance, they don’t know what’s happening or why, and fear creeps in.Perhaps the goblins have allied with an alchemist and quaff potions of enlargement and firebreath before they ambush the PCs. Maybe the gang members shouldn’t have uncovered that old tunnel and caught that horrible skin disease.
Perhaps the alien cruisers mysteriously retreat and the new ultra- battleship makes its first campaign appearance.
- Bigger and meaner suddenly becomes monstrous. The players note a steady progression in monster size/lethality as they journey deeper and then are caught off-guard by a sudden escalation.For instance, the PCs’ first encounter involved a room full of spider webs. Then there was the spider mites with the stinging bites. Then the encounter with the thumb sized arachnids. Next was the tarantula room, followed by the head-sized wolf spiders’ lair.The PCs smile grimly at each other outside the door, hefting their weapons, and expecting the inevitable human-sized giant spider combat. The rogue silently gives the all clear sign and opens the door. The warrior charges in first, followed by the priest and mage…straight into the waiting maw of a 50′ high black widow female surround by her bear- sized guards! Poison drips from stalactites, burning the floor, and a nest of giant, slimy eggs against the far wall are quivering and cracking.
- Powerful foes become weak. Imagine how the players would react if the ogres they’ve been fighting for months suddenly start dropping after taking only minor damage. The first couple of kills would be celebrated. Then the scene would start to get strange and eerie as the PCs continue to drop adult ogres with single blows. The players become nervous, uncomfortable, maybe even scared, as they are confronted by this sinister change of fortune. Are they being set up? Is the GM messing with them? Has another, more powerful foe weakened them? What’s happening!?
- Mutations. Randomness can impart the unknown, uncertainty, and diminishment quite effectively. For example, the Warhammer FRPG game has some great chaos mutation rewards that can affect any NPC or creature who turns to the powers of Chaos for succor or service. The friendly old bartender who’s been serving the characters drinks since the first session–and recently reporting to the Chaos priests about the PCs’ activities–is rewarded with a pair of chaos mutations: a scorpion tale and an irrational hatred of the PCs. Next time the PCs are thirsty they’ll have a scary surprise waiting for them at the bar.
Wield Your Plot Well
Give clear direction about PCs choices, goals, and opportunities, but don’t always explain things in their entirety at the beginning. Think in terms of clues and evidence and let PCs experience those instead of clear answers handed to them on a plate. This disguises or hides upcoming dangers and threats, which will put the players on edge and make them fearful.
For example, the PCs are asked by the friendly widow to go to the family mausoleum at full moon to find something she’s lost. She refuses to answer, or is evasive, as to why the heroes must go there at night or what exactly they are supposed to find. “You’ll know it when you see it. Oh yes, you’ll know it…”When asked, NPCs who know of the mausoleum make a superstitious warding gesture and plead with the PCs not to go there–but they won’t say or don’t know why. Further investigation reveals that the husband died fifty years ago in a horrible accident.
A minor thief lord, who learns of the PCs’ inquiries, decides he wants the “treasure” and tries to discourage their participation through thugs, traps, framings, and other nasty tricks. But then the lord’s body turns up in a PC’s bed, disfigured and mutilated, with a bloody tattoo on his forehead: “do not disappoint me”.In this example, the PCs have a clear goal, should they decide to do it, but they have few facts and a number of strange and chilling encounters to show for their efforts. The mystery [unknown] and danger [uncertainty] unsettles the players.
Create Critical NPCs Then Slay Them
If players feel safe, they won’t feel scared. A good story device to help reduce the degree of safety players feel is to kill off important NPCs unexpectedly. Send the message that anything is possible, nothing is safe–not even the PCs.Be careful when doing this though, as you don’t want the event to be a transparent GM trick. Also, if the kill is seen as a way to advance the plot, then the players will think “it was meant to be” and not feel worried.
For example, if the PCs meet with the King for their next mission, and the King says, “Wait, there is one more thing I must tell you…” and is then assassinated, the players will just chalk the moment up to GM plotting.Try this instead: the King assigns his personal bodyguard to help the PCs and then the NPC gets slain in an early encounter fighting off a powerful beast. Without the NPC’s help, the monster would have chewed the party up. Now, with the NPC unexpectedly dead, the PCs are on their own, praying they don’t encounter another such creature.
Advanced tip: A twist on this is to kill a character unexpectedly–but on purpose. Then you provide the means of resurrection so there’s no permanent injury other than imparting a feeling of mortality amongst the players. This event must be carefully arranged because, if the players feel the whole thing was set-up, their feeling of safety will return. Provide the means of resurrection before the death so that it’s availability won’t feel contrived.Another important key is to remain open to the PC surviving.
You don’t want to force a PC death “no matter what” or the players will know something’s up. If the players play well, luck is in their favour, or you mis-manage something, let the game move on, Players 1 GM 0.This is, obviously, an advanced and sensitive tip. My rule of thumb for the ezine has been to cut out any tip that requires more space for warnings, caveats, and cautions, than the tip itself. In this case though, I’ve used it successfully myself and it harmonizes with the goal of creating player fear.
I’ll leave you with a plea to use this technique responsibly, impersonally, rarely, and with full consideration of player feelings, potential player entertainment value, and game benefits.
Some quick, miscellaneous tips:
- Avoid gore. Save it for carefully timed encounters. In the meantime, cut down on the gory details and just imply gore where possible. For example, rather than revealing a series of clawed up, terrified victims, have the PCs encounter a number of crime scenes drenched in blood with signs of struggles, but no bodies. As the characters get closer to the killer, the crime scenes become fresher, desperate screams can be heard one time, and in the last encounter, the PCs spotted a victim’s body being dragged into a dark portal before disappearing. Gore is implied, but not explicitly provided…until the right moment.
- Avoid long combats during the build-up stage. If your plan requires a quick pace to build up tension and fear, avoid long combats that can dissipate any mood and atmosphere earned from good storytelling.
- Avoid situations that require player planning. Just as with long combats, planning and discussion can slow down the game and wreck any emotional build-up. To create fear, you sometimes need to keep things moving, and keep the experience of being in the game flowing smoothly, even breathlessly if you can manage it. If the players stop to plan or discuss, the game stalls. Also, player analysis often de-mystifies any unknowns you’ve set-up, bolsters confidence–which reduces any uncertainty, and provides a preparation opportunity–which counteracts diminishment.You don’t want to railroad the PCs, or not allow them to plan, so provide encouragement to keep them gaming forward, such as being chased by something powerful or a time limit.
- Be serious. Set an example by running your game (or the particular session or encounter) in a mature, serious manner. This should hopefully reduce player joking and inattentiveness–a definite mood killer for scaring.
- Do not acknowledge player fear. Keep GMing, intensify the game, and outwardly ignore the players’ fear in order not to break the mood. Self-awareness can ruin a good scare, as can the urge to think you’ve pulled something over on your friends (“Haha! Scared you all!”), or to feel like a puppetmaster and gloat over it. Instead, give yourself a pat on the back for good storytelling.
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Readers’ Tips Of The Week:
The Anatomy Of A Clue
From: Ryan McHargue
A successful clue should contain a tie-in, the clue, and the action. The tie-in determines if the clue is going to be tied to a person, place or thing. The clue is the information passed to the player characters, and the action is what they are supposed to do with the information.
There is a great multitude of tie-ins to choose from. When deciding on what to use try not to make it a ‘have to’ tie- in (or in other words written in stone that the farmer’s daughter has to tell the PCs).
Clues need to be many and close together. The first thing you will discover when running a mystery is that the players will do one of two things: over-simplify or over- complicate. The only way to combat this is to have an arsenal of clues at your side that can be tied to an unexpected person, place, or thing at anytime during the game.
Although some clues need to be tied to a place such as a dead body (but even it has finger prints and other forensics that need to be taken to a professional) not all require it, and these are the clues that need to be the most plentiful. Look at them as seasoning for the adventure.
Some clues are important and the PCs need to get them no matter how far off the path they stray. In order to get them the proper information use these ‘wandering’ clues as both your most informative and as the train tracks. This way you direct your players towards the climax and allow them the ability to do whatever they want to get there.
Even with your stack of clues, the players will miss them, not understand them, or worse, misinterpret them (although misdirection is fun, it gets old after the players have been playing the same scene for 3 hours). So, your clues should be varied from straight forward (e.g., “I saw John the town bard stab him”), to cryptic (e.g., “333, 543, 9833”). I also like to have some clues prepared that are in another language (using Babblefish to translate) that way the characters have to try and find a translator to get that clue.
The last part of a clue you should write is the action. What does the clue direct the players to do? All clues need to move the player characters to act.
There are two different types of action, Active and Passive. An Active action directs the characters to do something immediately (e.g., “You hear a scream.”). These clues should be very direct and to the point. The Passive action type is usually part of a bigger clue (e.g., “The room has been ransacked”). In and of themselves these clues don’t point the characters to the villain’s front door; instead they direct the characters to look for another related clue (e.g., “In the room you find that the victim’s will is missing from the top desk drawer.”).
But remember, both Active and Passive clues need to direct the characters to action. So, after collecting all of the parts to a Passive clue, the characters should be able to charge forward another step towards the climax.
In summary, clues are important in any adventure but especially in a mystery. So take the time to prepare an abundance of them before hand. The more clues you have to draw on the more fun you and your party will have. Try to look at each clue as a scene within itself, because if played right they can and will become one.
As an extra reward for the group, write up a bonus scene that only happens if the players decipher a hard clue or a series of them. Then at the end of the adventure you can tell them about the bonus scene and give them higher rewards for deciphering it. Or, if you are an evil GM like me, you can write up a bonus scene that only happens when they miss a hard clue and have bad, evil, terrible things happen in it. Oh the fun that is evil!
Some Simple Tips For New DMs…
From: Jeff Wilder
I’m taking a break from DMing my group for a while and a friend of mine is taking over. He’s GMed some Star Wars, but this is his first “real gig,” so to speak. I took a few minutes and jotted down an email of the most basic things a new DM should know:
- Be as prepared as you can. (i.e. fill out combat sheets, photocopy maps and make notes or highlight them). Believe it or not, this is mostly for YOUR benefit. If you’re prepared, you’ll be more relaxed and run a better game.
- If you ever feel like things have gotten “stuck” make something happen. Create action. Maybe the PCs get ambushed or there’s an attack on the village by orcs, or a pickpocket tries to steal something from a PC. Whatever.
- Allow dice to make close decisions. Use the “Even is Good” and “Higher the Better” rules of thumb. If you’re torn between whether something should happen or not, “even is good” for the PCs. If you’re not sure HOW good, “higher the better” for the PCs. These will help you decide ANYTHING, and fairly. Nobody blames the DM for what the dice decide.
- If you can’t remember something and don’t want to spoil the mood by searching for it, make it up. Nobody cares if the goblins in the module were actually armed with short spears rather than the short swords you said.
- Only retcon the WORST problems, even if it’s only been a round or two of game time (retcon is short for “retroactive continuity”–basically, a “do over”). The universe is chaotic. Sh– uh, stuff happens. The retcons you decide NOT to do WILL even out for and against the group, so just keep the action moving. Obviously, something like a PC death is a valid excuse to retcon, but for most things, just make up an explanation and go for it.
- Worse comes to worse, remind us that you’re a new DM and to give you a frickin’ break. Take five minutes to gather your thoughts and then climb back behind the screen.
Medieval Resource URL
From: Alice Brindle
This is a great website for information about almost any aspect of medieval life.