Shadows in the Desert

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We’ve had a lot of fun with A Weekend in the Country, so I wanted to try out other story games that use prompts based on a standard deck of cards. Foretold: In Its Shadow by James Mullen is a GM-less RPG that takes inspiration from such games as For the Queen, Women Are Werewolves, and In a Wicked Age, as far as its mechanics go. Story-wise, it’s modeled on Dracula, telling the tale of a group of hunters pursuing and then fighting a supernatural creature. I had the opportunity to playtest In Its Shadow during its development, and today I’m sharing the write-up for a session I played with my family once the game was published.

This session: Four hunters pursue an ancient being across a barren desert.

Session Report


Landscape #2: a barren desert with a sparse population

Beast #4: an ancient being, released from their bonds

Dramatis Personae

(developed over the course of play)

Azeem, he/him, early 60s

Wali, he/him, late teens

Zainab, she/her, early 40s

“Beetle”, she/her, late 20s

The Hunt

Zainab/10♣: Zainab’s family bears a curse. Any member with green eyes cannot be outside under the noon sun. The only way known to remove the curse on an individual is for them to lose their sight.

Beetle/A♠: Beetle discovered a diary that has notes on how to lock the Beast away. As the text continued beyond the point at which the author enacted the ritual, the writing became more and more unhinged. The cost of ritual might be one’s mind.

Azeem/6♥: Azeem is the former governor of this region. After the Beast caused the death of his son Mohammad a decade ago, he became obsessed with finding it. This cost him his post.

Wali/3♥: Wali’s old drinking pal one day revealed his true form was the Beast. This started with shadows visible at noon that quavered and quaked unnaturally. Wali has blocked out most of the terrible memory, often with the aid of alcohol.

Zainab/2♣: Zainab was curious when she first saw the Beast. She reached out a finger to touch it, and now the Beast can read her thoughts. To block it out, she recites a mental list of the cursed members in her lineage and how they each died. But though she blocks it from her mind, she remains fascinated by the strange creature.

Beetle/6♦: As Beetle tracks the Beast, she sells warding totems to those left in its wake. They are inspired by things she has read in the diary she found. But those small scams pale in comparison to how she inadvertently got her friend Mohammad killed.

Azeem/5♦: Azeem bears a broken-tipped scimitar etched with flowing calligraphy that he picked up from the devastation left after the Beast destroyed an entire town, leaving just a red crater behind.

Wali/5♣: Wali’s pursuit of the Beast is partially funded by a patron who requests copious detailed notes on the Beast for maintaining a historical record of it, or so they claim.

Zainab/4♠: To get out of the sun as noon approached, Zainab broke a seal on a ruin, releasing the Beast. In return, it lifted the noon curse from her. She is thus the only unblinded green-eyed member of her clan who can be out at noon.

Beetle/8♣: Beetle does not know who her birth family is. She has a distinctive birthmark across the top of her face, though not on her eyelids. She wears a cloth mask tied around the top half of her face, with slits for her brown eyes to see through.

Azeem/J♦: The Beast tricked Azeem into killing his own son. Azeem thought he was attacking the Beast. The Beast took the emotional energy released when this treachery was revealed and warped it, destroying an entire town and leaving it a ruined crater.

Wali/Q♣: Wali’s parents first had a daughter, ten years before he was born, but she disappeared under mysterious circumstances. His parents continually compare him unfavorably to her. To prove to his parents that he is not a wastrel, Wali pursues the answer to her disappearance. The supernatural creature known as the Beast could hold that answer.

Zainab/A♥: Zainab’s family runs a secret society that reveres the Beast. When they learned that she no longer bore the family curse, her clan kicked her out for being an anomaly. She is now estranged from them. 

Beetle/9♣: Beetle is wanted by the authorities because she asks too many difficult questions. They want to silence her. Her hood and mask conceal her identity from her pursuers.

Azeem/3♣: Azeem knows that the way to the Beast is an oasis guarded by the secret society run by Zainab’s family. Of all the hunters, she will pay the highest price upon reaching it, since they will not welcome her back to those ruins.

Wali/7♣: A batty loon on the street once shouted out a prophecy that Wali was fated to kill the Beast, but Wali doesn’t believe it. He knows he’s not really a firstborn; he’s a drunken wastrel, a good-for-nothing. That is not the stuff of prophecies.

Zainab/8♠: Zainab believes the Beast has the answer to curing her family’s curse. What it is (touch? blood? pheromones?) she does not know, but if she can find it, she’ll get back into her family’s good graces.

The Twist

Beetle/Black Joker: Beetle has actually led the Hunters into a trap! She first encountered the Beast and was corrupted by it during her search for her parents. That was when she found the diary, which led her to the Beast years ago. The Beast promised her answers about her parentage if she brought it the people who are its biggest threat. She doesn’t yet reveal her betrayal to the others.

[At this point, red cards become health points for the remaining hunters. Azeem has 3, Zainab has 1, and Wali has 1. Beetle’s 1 red card is passed to Zainab to boost her health to 2. We decided to keep the Beetle character in play and the focus of the prompts drawn by her player.]

The Battle

Azeem/10♦: The emperor wants Azeem to make an offer of comfort and security to the Beast if it will allow the emperor to harness its power. Azeem isn’t supposed to kill the Beast if it accepts. But this won’t be the first time Azeem has defied the emperor.

[Hunter red draw: An Azeem red card passed to Wali to boost his health, so all hunters have 2 now.] 

Azeem gives Wali a reassuring squeeze to the shoulder as the hunters look down at the oasis from the top of a short cliff. Below, the shadows of the ruins begin to wobble. Some of them stream together and solidify into the form of Mohammad, Azeem’s son.

Wali/A♦: This expedition cost a lot to undertake, more than Wali could afford on his own. He is actually conducting it as a ranger/tracker for the military. He owes them 5 years of service.

[Hunter red draw: Elects not to pass a red card.]

Wali begins climbing down the cliff slowly and carefully, not thrilled about confronting the Beast. 

Zainab/7♥: Zainab wears a pendant with a picture of her true love. The form the Beast took when they first met was that of Azeem’s son Mohammad, so that is what is in the locket. When they last parted ways, she warned the Beast not to work for the Empire.

[Hunter red draw: Elects not to pass a red card.]

Zainab now scurries down the cliff, eager to reconnect with her infatuation.  

Beetle/J♥: Beetle wants Azeem to suffer. She is from what is now called Crater Town and blames him for the devastation that happened there, in his own jurisdiction. She lost all the research she had gathered and all the people she cared about in that catastrophe. 

[Beast red draw: Gives Azeem the new red card. Azeem now has 3.]

Beetle peels back her hood and takes off her mask, revealing her face to Azeem beside her. “Guess I’m the least of your worries, now,” she taunts him, an official of the government that wants her silenced. Then she hops off the cliff down to the sand below.

Azeem/4♦: The most precious thing the Beast has taken from Azeem is his son Mohammad.

[Hunter red draw: Elects not to pass a red card.]

Azeem is infuriated to see the Beast wearing his son’s skin. Further enraged by this second theft of his son, Azeem leaps down from the cliff and charges at the Beast, sword out, parrying shadowy tentacles that strike at him.

Wali/J♣: The best way for Wali to atone for his drunken debauchery is by staying sober and being fully present while confronting the Beast—though he’d really like to just drink the terror away.

[Hunter black draw: Lose a red card. Wali now has 1.]

Dancing shadows from the braziers within the walls of the ruins whip Wali about and fling him violently to the ground as he nears the oasis.

Zainab/A♣: Zainab wants to marry the Beast and emotionally manipulate it so that she can wield its power herself in order to overthrow the Emperor.

[Hunter black draw: Lose a red card. Zainab now has 1.]

As she rushes into the oasis, Zainab shouts at the Beast, berating it for enacting the wrong ritual. But the Beast is not alone here; its worshipful cult is present. When the cultists recognize the wayward exile, some charge at Zainab with sharp daggers, and one of them strikes her. The slash across her chest breaks the chain of her locket, which falls open on the ground.

Beetle/9♥: Beetle and Mohammad were once close friends. He urged her to never give up the search for her parents, but she turned away from that path as she fell further under the Beast’s sway. The broken promise stings her as she sees the Beast here in Mohammad’s form.

[Beast red draw: Gives Wali the new red card. Wali now has 2.]

Beetle casually strolls up to the oasis, watching the chaos unfold.

Azeem/2♥: The Beast seduced Azeem’s son, and the only way to free Mohammad from its power was death. Azeem faces that terrible truth of what he did in the past. But it hurts even more today, for clearly it didn’t succeed! Even in death, Mohammad is not free, as Azeem now sees.

[Hunter red draw: Elects not to pass a red card.]

Azeem confronts the cultist attacking Zainab, slicing him with the broken scimitar.

Wali/9♦: Wali still has no intention of killing the Beast himself. He can just pick up evidence of its death once the others have dispatched it and submit that for the reward he is sure someone will offer.

[Hunter red draw: Elects not to pass a red card.]

Wali rolls away from the shadows, cowering out of the way under some collapsed rocks, head down and cradled under his arms.

Zainab/K♣: Zainab doesn’t have clear memories of the time before she met the Beast. Now, surrounded by her family, discordant memories return. She recognizes the cultist attacking her, the one Azeem just struck. Her husband! 

[Hunter black draw: Lose a red card. Zainab now has 0 and will die on the next successful attack.]

Zainab’s husband stabs at her again, but Azeem dispatches him. He falls to the ground, and with his dying breath, clings to the locket lying there, looking up at Zainab with betrayal in his eyes. Zainab reels from the mental blow.

Beetle/8♥: Beetle’s foster mother is a member of Zainab’s clan, a servant of the Beast. She taught Beetle that serving the Beast was the path to enlightenment. 

[Beast red draw: Gives Zainab the new red card. Zainab now has 1.]

Beetle is shocked to see her foster mother here, who she thought had died in Crater Town. Beetle enters the ring of ruins, but no shadows nor cultists attack her.

Azeem/9♠: The broken scimitar Azeem bears is decorated with a script that glows when the Beast is near. But it also forces on him visions of his son’s dealings with the Beast prior to Mohammad’s death.

[Hunter black draw: Lose a red card. Azeem now has 2.]

A crossbow bolt from one of the cultists hits Azeem’s shoulder as he draws close to the Beast to attack it directly.

Wali/7♦: Wali has naive ideas about how this will all play out. Somehow, he will parlay victory over the Beast into fame? Glory? Profit? He really is no good at thinking ahead.

[Hunter red draw: Elects not to pass a red card.]

Wali continues to cower.

Zainab/10♠: On part of the trip out here, the hunters traveled by windsurfing across the desert, using boards with sails to quickly travers the dunes.

[Hunter black draw: Lose a red card. Zainab now has 0 and will die on the next successful attack.]

A sandy dust devil spins up around Zainab as she looks down at her dead husband. It slams her into a stone column.

Beetle/2♠: Beetle knows that the most dangerous part of the Beast’s lair is the altar teeming with shadows underneath it. This is at the center, as shown on the map in the diary she has studied—but not shown to the others.

[Beast black draw: Targets Zainab to lose a red card, but Zainab has none and dies.]

Zainab gets too close to the altar now as she reels back from the column she just hit. Shadowy tentacles whip out and grab her. They crush her body and then cast it aside.

Azeem/Q♦: Azeem continues to wield the broken scimitar, a weapon that was once his son’s. Mohammad was a soldier, recently returned from a conquest when he fell under the Beast’s sway.

[Hunter red draw: Elects not to pass a red card.]

Seeing Zainab fall, Azeem fights with new fury, striking the inky tendrils with the sword. Each time they are cut, unearthly shrieks fill the space.

The End

Wali/Red Joker: Zainab’s body falls to the ground right near where Wali is hidden. Moments later, Azeem’s scimitar clatters to the sandy stone as well. Wali glances out and sees the older man has been disarmed, but Beetle isn’t helping. With courage he didn’t know he possessed, Wali scoops up the sword and charges. He strikes at the form of his old drinking body, delivering a killing blow, but is suddenly distracted. Beetle has just turned toward him, and he sees her face. “Sister?” he asks, recognizing the birthmark his parents have told him about. The Beast strikes back at Wali, injuring him fatally as it itself dissolves. Mohammad’s body flickers into shadow, and soon all the unnatural shadows in the oasis suck into the broken sword. 

The cultists flee, swearing off this place, but Beetle confronts one, stopping her from getting out so swiftly. She demands answers of her foster mother, who admits that she stole Beetle from her cradle in order to have a child who would not inherit the family curse. 

Wali drops the sword and collapses from his wound. Azeem rushes to him, cradling him as he dies, then closes his eyes.


With many different environments and possible beasts to pair up, this game has a lot of replayability. This session felt quite different from the first one I played. With our four players, it took about two and a half hours, so great for a short game night or to fill a gap when one of the players can’t make it to an ongoing campaign.