Monday, June 25, 2018

A City of Artifice

Magic is commonplace in Umberwell; it is used in conjunction with technology to achieve marvels such as ethergram communication, industrial factories, airships, automatons, worm trains, and mechanized replacement limbs.

PURPLE WORM TRAINS
You may wish to ride one of the city's purple worm trains—each a massive invertebrate annelid shaped by powerful transmutations and animated by necromantic magic—if you've a need to travel across the city, especially if you want to travel from one of the city-state’s islands to another via the city’s undersea tunnels. Umberwell's worm trains are owned and operated by Wyrmwyck Industries, a corporation of questionable motives that is tolerated because they keep their fares cheap enough for the common citizen to afford.

THE COMMON TONGUE
The Lexicos Spire, a tower in Shrewsbury erected by the magical rites of the Lost Matriarchs, is an enchanted edifice that transmits knowledge of the Common tongue to all within Umberwell so that the citizenry might communicate easily. Gyragrol, an ancient dragon, has designs on destroying the Lexicos Spire to break the fellowship of Umberwell's citizens.

BLOOD-FUELED INDUSTRY
The magic-imbued blood extracted from the great krakens of the sea enables Umberwell’s magical industry. The lamps which light the city's streets are fueled by galvanically rich kraken blood, many factories are powered by the fuel, and the hunting and processing of krakens on the high seas is itself a venture of massive economic importance. The Vortuga Trading Company is chief among Umberwell's blood-hunting fleets.

WONDROUS INVENTIONS

  • Transportation. Turbine-driven ships and submarines fashioned from giant nautiluses patrol the seas. Elementally powered airships, gas-filled dirigibles, and giant dragonflies transmuted into ornithopters make aerial travel expedient.
  • Recording and transmission. Solograph cameras capture sepia-toned images on paper coated with silver and gelatin. Auriphones play music recorded on wax cylinders. Voxcast radio transmissions bring news and entertainment into the homes of Umberwell.
  • Artifice modernity. Replacement limbs and organs made of magic-grown flesh and clockwork mechanisms can replace lost or wounded body parts. Transmuted giant cockroaches hybridized with machines scurry up and down the sides of buildings, acting as elevators disgorging their passengers at the selected floor.

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Affair of the Poisons

Episode 22: The Affair of the Poisons
Anne Somerset's The Affair of the Poisons: Murder, Infanticide, and Satanism at the Court of Louis XIV tells the all documented, all true story of a years-long scandal that rocked the court of the Sun King, leading to prominent members of the French court being accused of poisoning and black magic. Join Kate and Jack as they approach the true crime genre in their own trademark style (to whit: "Old Timey"). Get ready for a too-wild-for-fiction tale of intrigue, fancy dress, nonexistent plumbing, and questionable police practices!
Why is Louis the XIV one of the most obnoxious figures in history? How bad was the toilet situation at Versailles? When is a "convent" more like a "spa?" How many mad priests get mixed up in this junk? All these questions and more are answered in this month's episode of Bad Books for Bad People.
BBfBP theme song by True Creature 
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Thursday, June 21, 2018

Let's Read Mordenkainen's Tomb of Foes (Halflings and Gnomes!)

Where we've been so far: dwarves, elves, drow and eladrin, shadar-kai and the Raven Queen. Where we're going: halflings and gnomes.

If Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes is about the conflicts of the D&D multiverse, halflings and gnomes are the outliers in that they don't have any epic betrayals, civil wars, or unending feuds in their histories. Interestingly, it is posited that their innocence is the explanation for the halfling's supernatural luck: good luck is their cosmic reward for not being shitlords like everybody else in existence.

We're also told that halflings judge people by the content of people's characters--they don't mind a kindly butterface at all. They've also internalized a pile of self-help books, as they're all about "living in the moment."

Halflings love stories, and love objects for the stories they're connected to. They're also animistic, believing that objects have their own spirits. 

Halfling villages are hard to find; they're obscured from view by the primary goddess of the halfling pantheon--which is a far more useful thing than most of the crap D&D gods tend to lay on their followers. Overall, halfling religion is nicely differentiated from the elves and dwarves: they don't see their gods as divine creators, but rather as folk heroes who have ascended to godhood. Halfling gods are basically successful Gloranthan cultists. As such, their gods aren't really worshiped so much as emulated.

Did you know that the rare halflings that break oaths and sever communal ties eventually become twisted caricatures beset with paranoia and misery? The allusion is pretty heavy-handed, right?

On to gnomes then. Gnomes have always had trouble differentiating themselves from halflings and dwarves in D&D. One has the small friendly folk covered, and the other has the stout makers-of-things shtick covered. Whence gnomes?

They have a love of discovery based on a psychology of endless curiosity. From nature to mechanism, from magic to gem-cutting, they want to know how things work. Gnomes are the Mythbusters of the D&D multiverse.

Gnomes also don't mind drudgery, are never bored, and don't feel bad when a research tangent leads to a dead-end. This means that gnomes would be the ideal grad students.

We get a sidebar about the master gnome artificers of Bytopia who make "celestial toys," which are basically as good as magic items. We also get a sidebar about the tinkerer gnomes of the Dragonlance setting. As with an earlier sidebar about kender, the book is really trying not to paint Krynn's races as insufferable.

Gnome religion feels a bit more "realistic" than much of what we get from the other religions, as gnomes don't tend to agree about the "facts" of their gods. Some gnomes see their gods as all male, others see them as all female. Some gnomes see the gods in the guise of animals, others believe they are constructs created by Garl Glittergold. (Sidenote: Garl Glittergold is the worst name in D&D; beats out Iggwilv for the title.)

A sidebar tells us that the kobolds hate gnomes because the Gnome God pulled a prank on the Kobold God. Again, Mordenkainen's inadvertently puts me on the side of the bad guys because pranks are the fuckin' worst so yeah, fuck Garl.

Some gnome communities send the youngins out to explore the world before they're allowed back to Gnomeville. GNOME RUMSPRINGA! Gnomes also sometimes feel a pull to explore the cosmos or the planes--were gnomes a big part of Spelljammer? Seems like a hint is implied there.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Role of Adventurers in Umberwell

My favorite campaign structure for games set in Umberwell is an open table of adventurers for hire—each player creates a down-on-their-luck character looking for work and out to achieve wealth and infamy in the city. Whoever shows up to a session plays their part. To further their reputations as adventurers and bolster their coffers, player characters in Umberwell routinely engage in unlawful enterprises, protect their neighborhoods, fend off predatory gangs and less scrupulous adventurers, and keep clear of entanglements with authority. 

The mindset of a resident of Umberwell can be stark or bleak. Adventurers profit from misery because misery reeks of opportunity to make coin when things have gone horribly sideways. The city’s citizens are vulnerable prey in a metropolis filthy with predators; they suffer when they feed their addictions and when they’re offered false salvation. Credible threats of violence are a functional insurance policy that keeps the city’s machine in motion. When your moral compass points only to the downward spiral, damnation feels like a foregone conclusion.

However, the adventurers created by the players might be a strategic intervention into the black beating heart of the city. Adventurers represent a line of flight away from authority and the depredations of misery. A literally violent break occurs here: an adventurer’s purpose is to disrupt, to tip the balance, to right wrongs—even if only by accident or because there was money in the chase. Adventurers are a fraught crack in the city’s ecosystem because a continual, nomadic becoming-picaresque is a process that veers dangerously toward re-assemblage within the metropolis's appropriated war machine.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Maelstrom: Demonic Cultists

A faction in Umberwell:


THE MAELSTROM
The Maelstrom is a confederacy of demonic cults that believes that fostering chaos in Umberwell is a needed public service. The cults who belong to the Maelstrom sometimes manage to set aside their madness to coordinate acts of public mayhem. Members of the Maelstrom feel that regimented, orderly life is an addicting, stultifying existence—the faction aims to “help” the people of Umberwell by disrupting their lives through harmless pranks and violent pandemonium alike. Of course, due to the tumultuous, individualistic characters of the cultists involved, the Maelstrom’s epic plans for destruction and upheaval are often foiled by their inability to work together to achieve a common end.

Motto
Laugh while the city burns.

Beliefs
  • Life should be interesting above all else.
  • Cause chaos wherever possible.
  • There is no bigger crime than to follow the rules.

Goals
  • Recruit potential cultists from among the terminally bored and ennui-ridden.
  • Shake  the citizenry out of their self-imposed stupor.

Quests
  • Steal a rare manuscript of deadly practical jokes.
  • Switch a wizard’s grimoire with a text that will unleash an uncontrollable tide of magic.
  • Set up an important personage in the city to look like a fool during a prestigious event.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Mary Shelley, Suspiria, Mortal Engines, The Little Stranger

Sometimes you find yourself looking forward to movies that might not actually be good because hope springs eternal. Below are four I'm interested in. I have the highest hopes for The Little Stranger; I absolutely love that book--I think it's one of the best modern haunted house stories--so hopefully it follows through on the source material. Mary Shelley looks a little Dawson's Creek. I'm not sure I trust Peter Jackson with Mortal Engines after all those Hobbit movies. And I'm not sure what the point of a Suspiria remake is, but I'm willing to give it a try.

Mary Shelley

Suspiria

Mortal Engines

The Little Stranger

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Let's Read Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes (Shadar-Kai!)

We've seen dwarves, elves, and some more elves, but where the goths at?

Remember back in 4e when the shadar-kai were emo humans? Well, they're back to being fey-derived as they were in 3e--but now they serve the Raven Queen. Speaking of which, I like this new take on her that makes her creepy as fuck; she's described variously as "a terrible shadow that clawed at their innermost thoughts, pale and regal elf who exploded into an untold number of ravens, a shambling tangle of slick roots and sticks that overwhelmed them with dreador an unknown presence that pulled them screaming blindly into the gloom." 

That's hott.

I think the Raven Queen's origins have also been revised: she was an elf queen who sought to become a deity during Corellon and Lolth's spat so she could make them shut up and come to an accord. The shadar-kai were the elves who were feeding her some of their soul-stuff so that she could undergo apotheosis; unfortunately, they were all betrayed by some evil wizards, the Raven Queen used more of the shadar-kai's souls to rain hell down on them, the ritual went wrong, and they all got sucked into the Shadowfell--where the elf queen became the Raven Queen and the elves who followed her became the gothy shadar-kai.

Oh, by the way, the evil wizards survived but were also changed; they became the nagpa, which are basically the skeksis from The Dark Crystal.

The Raven Queen now inhabits the Fortress of Memories, where she collects the memories of dead gods (!!!) and mortals alike. Best. Wunderkammer. Ever.

The Raven Queen might be crazy or she might be a cosmic sin-eater who purges the traumatized of their pain. She's your goth therapist.

Vecna is her stalker. You know he likes all of her pictures on Instagram. Also, maybe my 'ship is coming in: "Some sages posit that she iusing people as pawns in an inscrutablgame, the rules of which are known only to her and thLady of Pain." RQ + LoP = OTP.

When they are outside of the Shadowfell, the Shadar-Kai look all gothy and hot, but in the Shadowfell they look tired and busted. Anyone who has been in a goth club at the end of the night when the lights come on will be familiar with this phenomenon.