Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Hexenjager's Bestiary

This document is the personal bestiary of a unnamed hexenjager, one of those unfortunate souls whose life is overtaken by the hunt for witches. As such, their account focuses on the various kind of witches they encountered, but in their travels they must have fought other agents of darkness as there are entries here detailing monsters unconnected to the foul rites of witchcraft.

From the passages detailed therein, it seems quite possible that this hexenjager patrolled Arksylvania's coastal region (perhaps being based out of Blighter's Manse), or at least specialized in the hunting of water-witches. What became of this hexenjager is unknown; may the Wounded God preserve them in their holy work or grant them a place of rest in heaven if the worst has come to pass!

(This is a pdf of reskinned monsters from the 5e Monster Manual, each given a folkloric or Gothic twist to fit the mood of Arksylvania. You can download it for free here. Twelve pages, twenty-four monsters.)

Monday, July 27, 2015


I'm surprised there hasn't been more talk about the watch-us-play-an-rpg series that Wil "King of the Geeks" Wheaton has been going on Youtube. What gives? Is it more fun to argue about why there isn't a history of the OSR and then argue about who is ideologically pure enough to write that history? Are people boycotting Wheaton because he isn't into GamerGate? Is Wheaton-mania sooooo 2012? Or is it just that recorded actual play is really, really hard to sit through? (My money is on that last one.)

Wheaton's Titansgrave is probably the best of this sort of thing that I've seen. The players are all personable, the game moves along at a good clip, and there are actual production values being leveraged here. I admit, I had it on in the background while I did other things, but usually I can't get through a minute of someone else's game. This might not be a bad video to show someone who wants to know what rpgs are like if they're on the fence about it. 

The Chapter Zero video is just Wheaton talking about how rpgs work and describing his homebrew campaign setting:

Chapter One is where the game gets going:

Friday, July 24, 2015

East of West

Creating a "Weird West" setting runs headlong into what I call "the Deadlands Problem." That is, the conventions that constitute the Weird West are already largely set: the discovery of a fantastical substance the powers uncanny technology, gunslingers returned from the grave to seek vengeance, the Ghost Dance was a real and powerful rite, something-something Civil War, the end is nigh, etc. The low-hanging fruit of the Weird West has already been picked and packaged as the expected tropes that come with mixing westerns with fantasy and horror. This is especially true in comics and gaming; too few creators really stray beyond the territory already marked out by Deadlands.

East of West, however, feels startlingly fresh. The comic mixes western, science fiction, and horror-fantasy ideas; it's drawing from the usual set of inspirations, but the end result is weirder and more inventive than the stereotypical sum of those parts. 

East of West is set in an America divided into seven nations: Armistice (a land of strange pilgrims), The Union, The Confederacy, the Kingdom (a nation of black freemen), the Endless Nation (the nation of the united native peoples), the Republic of Texas, and the PRA of Mao (a nation of Chinese immigrants). Unknown to most, there is a wide-reaching conspiracy afoot; each nation is represented by a member of the Chosen who seeks to foster and bring about an obscure prophecy known only as the Message. At its heart, the Message is apocalyptic; though cryptic, it spells out the end of days.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are real in the world of East of West, and three of them wish to further the Message. The Horsemen's aim of fulfilling the Message's prophecy is derailed when Death falls in love with a young woman named Xiaoling who is in line to take control of the PRA of Mao; they have a child, who is late has been taken by the remaining Horsemen and raised within a computer-generated virtual world to be the Great Beast who will usher in the apocalypse. Understandably, Death is none too pleased with this plan for his son and currently searches for his lost child--a quest that puts everyone and everything in harm's way.

While Death searches for his son, the world is falling to pieces. Political instability, arms races and technological advancement, assassination, war, manufactured debt crises, and more rise to make the world ripe for the apocalypse. Amidst it all, Death's son emerges as the most terrifying tool of destruction.

East of West is one of the most interesting comics being published at the moment. If a different take on the Weird West is at all appealing to you, definitely give it a try. I found the first volume a little slow, but was definitely hooked by the second collected edition. And now, the customary image dump:

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Monday, July 20, 2015

Theophile Quick

Let me tell you about my character...

Physical Description: Gray skin the color of a storm cloud, lithe, muscled like a dancer. Gray and black hair pulled into a topknot. Weather-beaten face, stoic expression save for a deep-seated anger in his cold blue eyes, body a topography of scars and nautical tattoos. Wears prayer beads interspersed with scrimshaw totems, wields a war pick made from a refashioned whaling harpoon.

Back-story: Theophile Quick was born into a family of farmers on the mountainous island of Windward Till, but he never felt that the bucolic life was for him. Addicted to books of seafaring adventure, when Theo turned sixteen he left the family farm and enlisted in Wunderspire's navy. 

Theo rose steadily through the ranks of the navy, eventually becoming an officer, until his ship was attacked and boarded by the crew of the Mandrake, a much-feared gang of pirates. Given the choice between death and serving aboard the Mandrake, Theo chose life and continued his career at sea as a buccaneer.

Engaging upon thievery upon the high seas made Theo a hardened and sometimes cruel man. However, even the brutal life of a freebooter could not prepare him for the sinking of the Mandrake during an unholy tempest. As he sank beneath the waves, certain that a death by drowning was to be his fate, Theo was contacted by a chthonic spirit of the ocean. The spirit promised Theo that he would rise again, reborn of the sea's blood, if he accepted the spirit's bargain. Once more preferring to save his own skin, Theo accepted the bargain. Theo awoke upon the shore the next morning; now his sleep is haunted by dreams of a great primordial whale that breaths its otherworldly plans into his restive mind. An ancient anger now dwells within him, waiting to be released in spectacular displays of violence that break upon his foes as would a great wave of the unconquerable sea.

With no ship to sail with at present, Theo has joined the Inquisitive Fellows Detective Agency to put his muscle and fury to good use, as well as to save enough coin to eventually purchase his own sailing vessel.

Character theme song:

Murder by Death, "Sometimes the Line Walks You"

Personality: I work hard so I can play hard.
Ideal: Freedom--what isn't Theo willing to compromise to preserve his own life?
Bond: In a harbor town, I have a paramour--a tiefling noblewoman named Miranda.
Flaw: Never question my courage, for I cannot still the hell that's in these hands.

(Theophile Quick, 5th level air genasi barbarian)

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

What Makes a Monster Interesting?

According to the four guys at that are still super mad that D&D 4e was replaced by D&D 5e, the thing that makes monsters interesting are the unique mechanics that express a monster's flavor. Kobolds are interesting, in this view, because they shift all over the battlefield--emphasizing what sneaky little bastards they are. Gnolls are interesting because they're pack predators and they get a mechanical bonus when fighting next to each other.

I can see how someone might see mechanics as the interesting bit about monsters in a game like 4e that uses a skirmish-level board game as its combat system. The mechanical differentiation is obvious because you see it in action as the miniatures or pogs or whatever are moved around the battle-map of one-inch squares. Certainly, it solves the "bag of hit points" problem: in practice, a bugbear isn't just a goblin with more stamina--it's got something that sets it apart. (5e seems to do this as well, at least with humanoid monsters, but I never see that mentioned.)

Also, 4e's mechanics had to do the work of making monsters interesting because whoever was writing the fluff kept committing hate crimes against flavor text like this infamous table of "Bear Lore":

Note that 4e actually made you roll to learn this stuff. Why?

I'm less convinced that in D&D games that aren't 4e mechanics can and should carry the burden of what makes a monster interesting. This is especially true for games that don't rely on battle-maps and miniatures; since the mechanics of pushes, pulls, swaps, slides, shifts, marks, blasts, and bursts are not defined in a tactile way in "theater of the mind" combat, those mechanics simply hold less weight when you're relying on shared imagination instead of object-defined positioning.

Of course, the notion of "shared imagination" always already suggests what makes monsters interesting in "theater of the mind" games: the interesting bit is how the monsters are described. After you've played in your tenth D&D campaign, goblins probably aren't that interesting anymore. But if you were to describe those goblins (without actually naming them goblins) as "diminutive, wizened, man-like fey, each wearing a cloth cap that appears to be dipped in blood" they suddenly become much more interesting than their stock description in your Monster Manual allows for.

Even a monster with a ton of mechanical options (such as the beholder) is only interesting until you've seen what it can do and it becomes familiar. Changing up the description ("re-skinning") can still breathe new life into what has become rote. To that end, I'm going to be posting a series of regular monsters from the 5e Monster Manual that have been re-flavored for use in my Arksylvania setting to illustrate how new description and changing the script adds interest to the same-old-same-old. 

My method for Arksylvania is to mine myth and folklore because that fits this particular setting, but you can go further afield in your own games. Get inspired by Clark Ashton Smith, comb DeviantArt for sci-fi monstrosities to be inspired by, roll on random tables if you must; re-skinning gets mileage out of the books you already have (no need to back the latest monster book coming down the pike on Kickstarter when you can DIY) and saves you the time spent crafting your own monster stats by hand (good luck doing that in 5e, by the way).

Here's a few previous examples from my blog, updated to a new (and I hope easier-to-look-at format):

The Arachne Sisters
Black Shuck
Kirk Grim