Friday, November 17, 2017

They Were Nearly Killed by a Percy Shelley Poem

Image by Odobenus
Campaign: Scarabae (open table, Google Hangouts).

Characters: Traviata (human artificer), Crumb (kenku artificer), Khajj (minotaur cleric), Dr. Aleister (human fighter), Viktor (dragonborn sorcerer).

Objective: Enter the jungles of Hygea and rescue Yuriko from the Children of Fimbul cult.

Events: The party arrived at the city of Zarubad via steamship, in hot pursuit of the Fimbul cultists who had abducted Yuriko in the last adventure. Before setting off into the jungle, the party bought provisions, including a barrel of water, additional rations, insect repellent, fishing tackle, and a canoe. 

They also learned as much as they could about the jungle: it is rife with disease and insects, undead servants of a fallen paladin prowl within it, there is a fabled "lost city" somewhere therein that is a likely location for the Children of Fimbul's ritual involving Yuriko. 

Finally, they hired a woman named Salome to be their guide; Salome told them that the other guides were either incompetent or charlatans, and that they she knew paths through the jungle unknown to anyone else.

The group departed Zarubad, choosing to canoe down the westernmost river to navigate their way more quickly through the jungle in hopes of finding the basin where the lost city was said to be located. The first noteworthy site they encountered was a camp at the foot of a massive statue of a man carrying a crocodile on his back. The camp was in ruins; there was evidence of both a fire and claw marks on the shredded tents.

The statue had an entrance built between its feet that was a passageway that led to a stone door within the statue. The group managed to guile their way past a pit trap and a scything blade trap, but when the stone door was pulled open it cause a magical explosion to erupt. The party all managed to flatten themselves against the wall and avoid the explosion...except for Salome, who was thrown through the air and nearly killed.

There were piles of large bones inside the revealed chamber that seemed to belong to giant lizards, as well as a carved central pillar with a set of stone stairs wrapping around it. Fearing that the bones would animate, Viktor conducted a magical detection ritual; the bones were not magical, but several of the stairs were enchanted with abjuration spells. Those stairs were avoided, and the safer stairs were traversed. 

At the top of the pillar was an enchanted earthenware jug. When Viktor removed the jug, pieces of the statue began to rain down upon the party; the statute was crumbling with the adventurers within it! A mad scramble to escape ensued, and it was a particularly fraught exit as several members of the party were knocked unconscious by the falling debris. Khajj's healing magic and everybody still ambulatory dragging their knocked-out compatriots to safety managed to avoid fatalities by a hair's breadth. As the unconscious party members were revived by Traviata's healing draughts, Khajj's holy magic, and Aleister's medical training, the statue was reduced to nothing but a pair of feet upon a rocky dais. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!

The party made camp and explored the rest of the surrounding carnage. Crumb was lowered into a horrible latrine because the corpse of a mercenary was discovered down in the pit; he retrieved a bag of gemstones from the body. A hatchling axe beak was found in the camp's animal pens; it was made friendly with some fish and kind treatment--now the party has a (dangerous) pet named Halberd.

After resting and recuperating in the remains of the camp, the party once again began traveling by canoe. The "river" they were on emptied out into a swampy basin rumored to be the home of lobsterfolk. (In truth, Salome had made a wrong turn down a tributary of the river instead of the main branch.) Beyond the basin was a plateau with a sheer cliff-face that rose above the jungle canopy. Using his magical slippers, Viktor was able to walk up the cliff with ease. He discovered rotten doors set into the cliff with a ledge running along it like a porch. Viktor attempted to use magic to open the doors, but they crumbled...and aroused someone from their slumber within.

A wizened, hunchbacked, and blind-looking old woman emerged asking who was at her door. Viktor introduced himself and the old woman wondered if this was the Viktor who used to deliver the bread. The old woman couldn't remember her own name and preferred to be called "Nanny." The rest of the party had arrived by this point, and Nanny was ranting about the "god-damn birdmen" in a nest on the cliff that were bothering her (she said this within earshot of Crumb, a kenku) and may have dropped some not-so-nice comments about "beasts" in front of Khajj (a minotaur). But she's blind and couldn't possibly be racist on purpose, right?

Well. 

Nanny also talked about her days as a young hellion practicing "dark magic," and when the group asked for any help she could provide finding the missing child she began to lick her lips hungrily. She offered to give the party a map to the where Yuriko was being kept if they agreed to bring her back some of the child to eat. The party agreed, Nanny went back into her cliff-side home to scry, and Traviata hatched a plan to poison her after she handed over the map.

Nanny eagerly drank the vial that Traviata claimed was wine and was duly poisoned...but the poison didn't kill her. It soon became apparent that Nanny could see just fine, as she attacked the party. It also turned out that her wizened old hide was as tough as iron; even Aleister had trouble piercing her flesh with his singing spear. Khajj leaned that she was incredibly strong; she easily broke the minotaur's attempt to catch her in a bear hug. Nanny put up a tough fight, but ultimately it was Salome, the guide the party had largely discounted, who executed a perfect spinning slash that sent Nanny's head tumbling down the cliff. "And that's how the sausage gets made," she said, feeling that she had proved her worth to these naive city-folk. 

The party decided to make camp and heal up from the hideous wounds inflicted by the hag. Next time they may ransack her home and get on with the map Nanny had drawn for them.

Treasure: One 10 gp eye agate each. Alchemy jug.

XP: 1033 each.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Borne


Jeff VanderMeer, Borne
Borne is a post-apocalyptic novel about a scavenger named Rachel who finds a strange pod nestled in the fur of the giant, flying, mutant bear named Mord who terrorizes the ruined city in which she lives. The pod is Borne, an organism that grows wildly, changes mercurially, adapts precisely, and forms an emotional bond with Rachel amid a backdrop of the ominous biotech-meddling Company, the rogue Magician and her roving bands of horrifically altered children, and her hiding-something lover Wick. 

Borne ambiguously straddles the lines dividing apocalypse fiction, sci-fi, and fantasy. The novel never fully explains itself or resolves all the questions posed by its world building, which is ultimately one of the novel's greatest strengths. Critics have tended to name the fantastical ambivalence of the book as a tendency toward "fairy tale," but I see as essentially absurdist in quality instead; to my mind the admixture of elements that could be taken as silly (a massive flying bear!) with elements either richly emotional (Rachel's role in nurturing Borne) or grotty (the hardscrabble existence in a world riven by a man-made ecological catastrophe) feels more Max Ernst than Hans Christian Andersen.

I've yet to read a novel by VanderMeer that wasn't strongly constructed, imaginative, lyrical, and inventive, and Borne is no different. Nevertheless, despite how good the novel is, I'm confused by the critical lauding the book has gotten--not because it doesn't deserve it (it does) but rather because the reviews often evidence a real ignorance of how many great "weird fiction" books are out there. Take, for example, this starred review from Publisher's Weekly: "What’s even more remarkable is the reservoirs of feeling that VanderMeer is able to tap into throughout Rachel and Wick’s postapocalyptic journey into the Company’s warped ruins, resulting in something more than just weird fiction: weird literature." 

Is Borne the first of its kind to ascend to the vaulted plane of "literature"? No. It's funny, the claim made by the Publisher's Weekly reviewer is meant as a compliment, but it does a disservice to VanderMeer's work in toto. He's been opening the door to the "literary weird" for quite a while. If Borne was your entry point, and you like what VanderMeer does in the novel, consider checking out Annihilation or a book in his Ambergris series. Alternately, you might want to look at a couple anthologies he's edited with Ann VanderMeer, such as The Weird or The New Weird, either of which may open your eyes as to the variety, depth, and quality "the weird" has always possessed.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Pretty Deadly

Kate and Jack explore one of the creator-owned titles from the current Golden Age of Comics, the action-packed yet poignant Weird Western Pretty Deadly. Writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, artist Emma Rios, and colorist Jordie Bellaire create an immersive new mythology around the American frontier that features characters who are under-seen in traditional Western stories. Readers who like their operatic action served up with an emotional wallop, take note!
What is the Venn Diagram overlap between comics fans and midnight cinema maniacs? Can American creators take some lessons from manga? Who are the worst comic shop owners in the world? These questions and more will be answered in this episode of Bad Books for Bad People!
Intro/outro music: "Desert Ceremony" by Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats
Find us at BadBooksBadPeople.com, on Twitter @badbooksbadppl, Instagram @badbooksbadpeople and on Facebook. You can discover where to get all the books featured on Bad Books for Bad People on our reading list.

Listen here!

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Great Expectations

Ah, Dickens. 

Look, I know that high school trains you to dislike Dickens because you're busy being a hormonal teenager who is totally cynical about this Old Man's sentiments, but come back to Dickens as an adult. 

It doesn't have to be Great Expectations, though that is a great place to start. If you're really cynical about Dickens, start with Our Mutual Friend instead.

Once you've truly lived, you'll recognize what Dickens wants to tell us about the beauty of forgiveness, what he needs us to know about the real duties one person owes another, and what he'd like us to take away on the possibility of having a finer nature in the face of a difficult world. This isn't schmaltz; it's real because one day you will feel it to be real, and will know it to be real. If you don't feel the sharp sting of disappointment when Pip grasps onto the wrong ideal, the wondrous melancholy of Pip's unfolding relationships, or laugh out loud at the absurd world Pip learns to navigate, you need to read the book again until you do, or, perhaps, live a little bit more.

Monday, November 6, 2017

How to Finish Your Projects

It turns out that over the years I've done a lot of indie and small press projects. I've had people ask me how I manage to get these things finished; what follows is my best advice for cleaning your plate when you've got a creative project in mind. I make no promises that it will work for you, but this is what works for me:

You Have to Want to Do the Work
You have a great idea for a game, setting, adventure, or supplement. It is a shining, perfect idea. But it will remain an idea unless you actually want to do the work to make it an actual thing that exists in the world.

I know a guy who has been talking about the great movie he's going to make for over a decade, and he hasn't filmed a second of it. He's never going to make that movie. He likes talking about his plot, the themes, and how great the casting will be. But he doesn't want to do the work, so that movie is never getting made.

Don't be that guy. 

Before you start talking about your great idea, before you start making plans about where you're going to publish it and how you're going to market it, do a little reflection and make sure you actually want to do the work necessary to keep at it until it is done.

Survey the Field
Okay, you want to do the work, congratulations! But before you roll up your sleeves and grind it out, I think you should really dig into what other people have done that might be similar to your project. Surveying the field will help you find models of how to approach your project, and also give you ideas about how you can make your project stand out from the pack.

When you're surveying the field, do yourself a favor and look at products outside your comfort zone. If you're an old-school D&D fan, look at what's happening in the "storygames" community too, and vice versa. Look at everything. See what is out there and learn from it. If you have an informed idea of what format will work best, what design decisions will need to made, and what you want to include or exclude going into your project, you'll have already cleared one of your project's major hurdles.

Bite Off What You Can Chew
Break your project into small, bite-sized chunks that you easily accomplish. No, even smaller than you're thinking right now. Give yourself assignments like "I'm going to write up three NPCs a day" or "I will finish one random table a day." One "one NPC" a day is fine, really.

Make each task small enough that you can complete it and will have time and energy left over to do more than what you scheduled for. The feeling of going past your allotted goal will make you feel like a champion and feeling like a champion will keep you motivated to keep working because you will see yourself making progress.

Small, incremental goals are also easier to "make up" if you miss a day's goal. 

Make Your Lonely Fun a Little Less Lonely
Have your smart and talented friends give you feedback on your work while it is in process. Resist the urge to only show them a "polished draft"; let them see the warty, horrible thing that you are semi-embarrassed by. The feedback and suggestions they give you in the earlier stages is crucial; they will tell you useful things that help you right the ship before it's already on a collision course.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Total Skull, October 2017



Things that brought me delight in October, 2017.


Books

Gretchen Alice Felker-Martin, No End Will Be Found
A poetic, disturbing depiction of the abjection inherent to witch trials. Get your copy here.


Joseph Delaney, Slither
My plan was to re-read the last few Last Apprentice books before moving on to the follow-up trilogy, but maybe reading Slither, a novel about monster men who drain the blood out of young women, trade them as slaves, and discard them when they are "too old," was an ill-timed choice in the middle of the Harvey Weinstein news cycle.


Joseph Delaney, I Am Alice
The penultimate book in the Last Apprentice series lets us spend some time with the books' best character (Alice) and functions as a "greatest hits" of the series' villains before wrapping things up for the final confrontation between the forces of good and the Fiend. Unfortunately, the book is let down by a weak "well what this this all for anyway?" ending; unfortunately, this is one of the flimsiest entries in the series.


Joseph Delaney, Fury of the Seventh Son
A fitting and satisfied conclusion to the series...or is it? There are just enough hints threaded throughout that there is more to come.

Joseph Delaney, A New Darkness
A New Darkness begins a trilogy of books that picks up where the Last Apprentice series left off. The seeds planted in Slither begin to bloom, taking the narrative in a different direction: with the return of the rape-monsters from Slither, the scenes of an abusive stepfather, more revelations about a misogynistic ghost, the casual sexism of the story's setting, and the introduction of the first woman "spook," we're definitely in much deeper waters. If anything, this is a nice counterpoint to some of the assumptions of the earlier books (there are dangerous witch women out there and a man is needed to put them in their place). That deconstruction had already begun (mostly through witch-women characters who were complex and challenging) but here that theme is working full force.

 Joseph Delaney, The Dark Army
Rise and fall, I suppose, between A New Darkness and The Dark Army: the concentration on themes goes missing, a textbook deus ex machina can't really fill the void.

Joseph Delaney, The Dark Assassin
The first thing I want to note is that the powerful focus on a particular theme in A New Darkness has disappeared almost completely here at the end of the series. After some missteps in this trilogy (and toward the end of the longer previous series), this finds sure footing to wrap things up, but, noticeably, the door is left open.


Thomas Ligotti, Grimscribe
A not-so-simple question, What is the proximity of evil? In Ligotti's hands, the Weird tale morphs into something else: an eldritch key does not reveal the coldness of the uncaring cosmos, but rather unlocks the knowledge that malignity comes from within. Dreams, then, are miasmatic reminders of the internal burden that can never be cast aside.







Comics


Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Robert Hack, 
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, vol. 1
My buddy Kreg hipped me to this one; I probably would have passed it by, thinking it was too kooky and squeaky clean, without his nudging. It's...far more intense than I expected from a comic from the Archie universe.


Cullen Bunn, Brian Hurtt, Bill Crabtree,
The Sixth Gun, Book 9: Boot Hill
I've been waiting to read the conclusion to The Sixth Gun's run for a while now, mostly because I didn't really want the story to end. It's true that the narrative had lagged a bit in some of the later installments, but the final volume was suitably quick-moving and epic for the battle over who gets to remake the world.


Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows, Providence Act 1
I'm writing these entries as I finish volumes of Providence so we can see where these take me. Usually, I want no part of Lovecraftiana fanfic, and I submit that there are elements in the first act of Providence that feel like fanfic, but this was intricate enough to get my attention. 


Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows, Providence Act 2
Although the weaving-together of an alternate Lovecraftian mythos continues to be interesting, the renaming of the constituent threads becomes a little much in the second act. And, of course, a rape scene arrives right on schedule because hey, it says Alan Moore on the cover. If this turns all messianic about Lovecraft in the last act I may howl in frustration.


Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows, Providence Act 3
Providence's last act is the weakest of the series. I can usually accept the whole "this is a story about the important and power of stories" theme, but Moore leans far too heavily on it here without anything satisfying to shore up what is already one of his more well-worn conventions. The Lovecraftiana-as-Christianity conceit was a heavy-handed treatment, as I expected. Also, bonus S. T. Joshi cameo--and he seems as annoying a fictional character as he appears to be in real life...hurrah?


Junko Mizuno, Ravina the Witch?
Acid-trip fairy tale that's actually about the plight of women. Astounding art.


Junji Ito, Dissolving Classroom
My brain melted. If only I had read this before putting in the book order for my Uncanny Bodies course!











Music


Chelsea Wolfe, Hiss Spun
Ice cold dirges.

Wolves in the Throne Room, Thrice Woven
Autumnal, arboreal black metal.

Nox Arcana, Season of the Witch
It's probably true that there isn't much difference between Nox Arcana albums, but I look forward to a new album of spookhouse atmosphere every year just like I look forward to an extra slice of apple pie.









Gaming


Kenneth Hite, Night's Black Agents
Kreg (see Sabrina above) sent this to me a while ago; I pulled it back out for inspiration for the spy game I want to run and now I just want to run a game that is like Atomic Blonde vs. vampires.

Kenneth Hite, Trail of Cthulhu, Rough Magick, Bookhounds of London, Shadows Over Filmland
Heretical opinion #f'taghn: I think Trail of Cthulhu is a better Lovecraftian rpg than Call of Cthulhu. Here's why: 1) CoC is burdened by all the cruft from Runequest that doesn't really fit Lovecraft's fiction and 2) CoC is way too into taxonomy and definition than "unknowable horror." Trail leaves the nature of the mythos wide open (and details some really awesome possibilities), and was built from the ground up for investigation-based games.