Monday, January 16, 2017

The Shadow Falls on Duryn


Campaign: Adventures in Middle-Earth

Characters:

  • Heva the Small, Woodman Slayer -- a harrowed woman haunted by visions of the growing Shadow
  • Odo Hayfoot, Shire Hobbit Treasure Hunter -- a reluctant adventurer with a greed for gold
  • Thuradiel, Mirkwood Elf Wanderer -- a world-weary traveler who tires of life in Middle-earth
Objectives: To discover who or what is behind the Orc-host that is currently terrorizing the land.

Events:

  • Duryn is not as the characters left it prior to their journey to Falastur. Although the people of Duryn had previously expressed desires to aid and shelter their neighbors from Falastur, the refugees are greeted with thinly-veiled hostility. Strangely, the town seems to now be home to a proliferation of black cats who roam the streets.
  • The characters spoke to a number of prominent citizens in Duryn (Astrid, the baker; Ragnarr, the archer; Ormund the Grey-beard) but each gives a different and conflicting reason for the change of heart toward the people of Falastur. Astrid believes that the Falasturians engineered the downfall of their town for nefarious ends; Ragnarr believes that outsiders simply cannot be trusted; Ormund fears the drain on Duryn's resources that taking in the refugees will cause.
  • Walking the streets for reasons he kept to himself, Odo overhears guttural voices coming from inside a granary that indicate that someone named Beruthiel wishes to sow discord among the Men of Middle-earth. Odo rouses his companions, who rush back to the granary--discovering Orcs (accompanied by their great black cats) busy poisoning the stores of flour. The fray is joined valiantly, and the Orcs are put to the sword. 
  • Examining the ragtag armor worn by the Orcs reveals markings that seem to indicate that pieces of it were pillaged from a long-abandoned keep to the north. It is resolved that the party will seek that desolate fort to delve deeper into the mystery of the Orcish horde and their master Beruthiel.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Gathered Dust and Others

The stories in Gathered Dust and Others straddle the line between inventive weird fiction and Lovecraftian fanfic. There are excesses here that veer into the unpardonable: mauve! coils of hair! spooky flutes! Description sometimes strays into territory too purple (or perhaps mauve) for even my forgiving tastes, dialog becomes tin-eared, Lovecraft's cod-antiquarian vernacular gets tried on the way a boy tries on his father's shoes, and there are moments of self-consciousness that devolve into preciousness. 

Nevertheless, the great moments in these stories are truly great. At its sharpest, Pugmire's fiction adds a unique and fitting sensuality to the usual Yog-Sothery. There is a shade of desire inherent to the mythos that is rarely explored beyond hentai gymnastics, but here we feel the erotic charge of attraction that makes otherworldly belief, cult, and obsession possible. The same charge is explored within the context of Pugmire's literary influences as well; where Harold Bloom found the heart of the anxiety of influence to be primarily Oedipal, Pugmire's fictions treat it as a libidinally-charged undeniable attraction--Lovecraft, Poe, Wilde, Baudelaire, et al, become lovers, co-conspirators, and the vampire from which these stories feed.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Best Thrifting Finds of 2016


This will inevitably just take up space, but...there was no way I was leaving the market without it. $7.50! Seems complete, save for the vampire fangs--which I am totally okay with being missing because they likely would have been in a stranger's mouth at some point.

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This book gets mentioned in Alan Moore's Promethea, which I had just read two days before going to the flea market. I had assumed that the author and the book were both fictitious inventions by Moore, but then I found this 1896 edition waiting for me. As I was looking at it, the seller scurried up next to me and offered to sell it to me for half price. $5 later, it is now mine. Oh, and it was previously the property of the Lawn Tennis Club of Yonkers, according to the seal.

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I'm under-read in supermarket Gothic romances, but I'm sure this omnibus collection from Reader's Digest will help get me caught up. Bought purely on the enticement of the cover alone.

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I picked this up because; 1) it's the one Dead Can Dance album I don't have and 2) the packaging has a weird nostalgia to it. Remember back when Tower Records existed and could charge $15.99 for a cd? Remember those silver holographic tabs they put on the edges to prevent theft? It was like 1995 all over again when I opened this.

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The dust jacket is beat to hell, but come on...Lon Chaney wrote the foreword! This is like my dream Monster Manual right here.

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I picked up a book by Arch Merrill purely on a whim; I saw that it was a book about upstate New York history, which you don't see that often, and the price was right. After reading it, I had to track down a couple more. Although the historical stories related in his books require a little modern fact-checking, they relate amazing pieces of forgotten history full of oddballs and oddities. These are the bits and pieces of strange local history that we lose as the world marches on, so it was truly thrilling to find such an able account of things I otherwise wouldn't know about the place I grew up in.

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Not a thrifty find, but rather a suggestion for refreshment after a long day of crawling the flea markets: the Jungle Bird.

1 1/2 oz Kraken rum
1/2 oz Campari
1 1/2 oz pineapple juice
1/2 oz lime juice
1/2 oz simple syrup

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Viderling -- Otterfolk Race for 5e

Viderling
To be honest, this was bound to happen.

Viderling Traits
Ability Score Increase. Your Dexterity score increases by 2, and your Intelligence score increases by 1.
Age. Viderlings have lifespans comparable to humans.
Alignment. Viderlings tend toward goodness, but their natures are also frequently colored by a strong streak of individualism so they are rarely lawful.
Size. Viderlings average about 3 feet tall and weigh about 40 pounds. Your size is Small.
Speed. Your base walking speed is 25 feet, and you have a swimming speed of 30 feet.
Darkvision. You have superior vision in dark and dim conditions. You can see in dim light within 60 feet of you as if it were bright light, and in darkness as if it were dim light. You can’t discern color in darkness, only shades of gray.
Amphibious. You can breathe air and water.
Nimble. You can move through the space of any creature that is of a size larger than yours.
Lucky. When you roll a 1 on an attack roll, ability check, or saving throw, you can reroll the die and must use the new roll.


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Based on the halfing, but more, umm, aquatic.


Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Codex Diabolus, Automatons, Whispersilk, Music, Mechanical Flowers

Oh, whistle, in Scarabae, and I'll come to you...

This is my attempt to describe a setting through its material culture, which is probably foolish since I'm not an archaeologist or anthropologist. 

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The Codex Diabolus (1)
The Codex Diabolus is a grimoire said to have been written by the Devil himself. The Codex is a sentient book with aims and goals. The book sometimes hires adventurers to further its own inscrutable agenda; it pays for any services rendered with desirable secrets.

An automaton (2)
When an automaton achieves sentience, is it a miracle of creation or a case of amnesiac possession by a ghost or worse?


Whispersilk thread (3)
Harvested from a variety of giant spider, whispersilk thread is favored by those who scale the loftiest of Scarabae's towers and spires because of its durability and strength.

A guitar belonging to Anders Deathshrike of the band Plutonian Howl (4)
A multitude of unusual musical styles find an audience in Scarabae, from the dissonant shrieks and chirps of Yvana Gallows to the melancholy dirges performed by the corpse-painted group Plutonian Howl.




Mechanical flowers (5)
Mechanical flowers are sometimes worn as boutonnieres, hair ornaments, or corsages. They frequently contain acid or poison jets, smoke emitters, or spark throwers that act as covert self-defense devices.

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(1) - Inspired by that magic book from Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels.
(2) - So many possible sources.
(3) - Inspired by Jay Lake's Green.
(4) - Black metal jokes.
(5) - Inspired by the Joker's lapel flowers, probably.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Total Skull - December 2016

Things that brought me delight in December 2016.

Books

This is a jumble of adjectives to throw at a novel, but it's a fair estimation to call London Revenant a New Weird urban horror fantasy. Imagine if Neverwhere was also Confessions of a Justified Sinner, but with the heart of The City of Dreadful Night. Themes of personal identity, the duality of man, urban alienation, and failed relationships get tangled up in a bewildering and apocalyptic narrative that strings together a serial killer and his cult of allies, a secret world existing in disused Tube tunnels, narcolepsy-as-fugue, pockets of hidden realities within the metropolis, et al. The prose is a bit too glib at times, but I liked this far more than I should have.


Everybody knows that wizards are boys and witches are girls, until the wizard Drum Billet blunders in his last moments and bestows his magical legacy on newborn Eskarina Smith. When her budding magical abilities begin to act out, she is sent to learn the ways of witchery from Granny Weatherwax. Which doesn't work because against all convention, Esk is a wizard. And so Granny and Esk must venture to Unseen University, an academy for wizards that doesn't believe in admitting women. The book's take on entrenched sexism is never heavy-handed and never outpaces the story or the jokes. This is a great light-hearted read, and quite probably a great place to dip into Pratchett's Discworld novels to see if you'll enjoy them.


From the beginning of Molly Tanzer's Rumbullion it is clear that this isn't the sort of mystery that will be fully explained in the end. Mostly epistolary in form, the story revolves around the strange doings at an eighteenth-century dinner party that may have resulted in someone being murdered and cannibalized. The narrator writes to his dinner guests, attempting to piece together the events of the evening so that he might understand why and how his cousin died, why his fiancee has gone mad, the true nature of several of the guests, and to possibly exonerate his cousin's slave of the crime of said cousin's death. The more he uncovers, the weirder it (and he) gets.

Comics

You probably already know about Saga, but if you don't it's currently one of the best ongoing comics. It's science fiction and a bit fantasy, but with more heart than most. The story is sprawling at this point, but it's mostly about the child of two parents who are supposed to be mortal enemies locked in an endless war with each other. Now they're on the run from their governments, bounty hunters, tv-headed robots, etc., and the story has expanded-out to cover a host of side characters who are just as interesting as the "main cast." I read volumes three through six because I couldn't remember where I had left off in the series, but I'm glad I spent some time catching up on it even if I re-read some bits; Saga is well worth reading through more than once.


Sometimes it feels like the primacy of body horror as a vehicle for talking about how Western culture handles women is the medium perfectly mirror the message. Insexts is Victorian body horror--two women lovers are in a state of becoming monstrous as they grapple with the societal strictures of the nineteenth century, both in forms mundane and supernatural. I enjoyed the first collected volume of Insexts, but if I had a criticism is that the comic feels like it is rushing toward action and plot; I wouldn't mind if the story slowed down a bit to focus more on character and a deeper take on its main themes. I will definitely keep reading though.

It must be a bit awkward if you're a woman about to lose her virginity when suddenly a demiurge appears, thrusts a megaweapon into your head, and then a horde of multidimensional knights storm in and take your boyfriend away. Such is the plight of Allison in Kill 6 Billion Demons. The story is a bit confusing in places because this is some high-concept deep-lore fantasy, but the art is amazing and when things come together the narrative really works. Unfortunately, the print collection of the comic's first arc is a little disappointing in its physical quality: the book is small, which makes the comic's frames feel cramped--especially at the margins--and the images are reproduced a bit too darkly compared with the original webcomic.

Film

I love Park Chan-wook's other films, and I love Sarah Waters's Fingersmith (the book this film adapts), so The Handmaiden was either going to be a triumph or a crushing disappointment. Thankfully, it was the former. The film adds a nice twist to the novel's story that took it someplace entirely else. The acting is superb, it has some great decadent elements, and the cinematography was beautiful all around. Korean Gothic was already a thing, but this film's combination of psychological thriller and eroticism establishes it as an aesthetic force.


Tale of Tales is an adaptation of Giambattista Basile's Pentamerone, one of the oldest known collections of European fairy tales. The film, which follows three different tales until they briefly entwine at the end, turns the fairy tale into Gothic fantasy...which is probably what fairy tales are in the first place. In Tale of Tales we've got abduction by ogre, the price a barren queen is willing to pay to have a child, an old woman out to ensnare the interest of a king, and more. I do wish that the movie went a little darker--a quality the trailer might have over-emphasized--but the striker visuals and fairy tale logic of the stories was well worth the watch.

Music

The last album in Blut aus Nord's 777 trilogy serves up the immerse, infernal darkness. This is a record to listen to by yourself, in seclusion, with the lights out. The atmosphere deepens and becomes more spacious on Cosmosophy, becoming a dissonant abstraction of the trilogy's musical themes and earlier aggression.


You hear the phrase "wall of sound" a lot when people talk about certain production techniques, especially Phil Spector's recordings of the Righteous Brothers and the Ronettes, but somehow it never sounds like a wall of sound to me. Skepticism's Alloy, on the other hand, produces a wall of sound--a dense, rippling curtain of crushing guitar, funereal organ, and gnarled vocals. 

Gaming

Maybe it's the cold weather, but I've been thinking about Dark Sun again lately. It's funny, the D&D settings that interest me most (Ravenloft, Dark Sun, Planescape) are in many ways the least D&D-ish of the official published settings. Also, while 4th edition D&D gets more than its fair share of drubbing, it had a couple of really well-presented and concise setting books, of which the Dark Sun Campaign Setting numbers among. The original 2nd edition version of the setting was eventually encumbered by supplement bloat and metaplot shenanigans, most of which the 4e version strips away. Worth noting: hey look, a setting where dragonborn fit in pretty nicely! The art isn't quite up to the standards of the Brom-created Dark Sun covers from the original books, but the interior art is pretty damn good on its own merits.

Art

Of course, returning to Dark Sun means returning to Brom. Dark Sun, to my imagination, is shaped less by the prose that describes it and more by the art that made it real. The old adage "Show, don't tell" rings true. Brom is a master of post-apocalyptic art; his many versions of the apocalypse capture grit and heart, but most importantly he displays the performativity of survival in his paintings. I also went and dug out my battered copy of Darkwerks as well, which features even more of Brom's Dark Sun pieces.


Monday, January 9, 2017

The Poisoning of Falastur


Campaign: Adventures in Middle-Earth

Characters:

  • Heva the Small, Woodman Slayer -- a harrowed woman haunted by visions of the growing Shadow
  • Odo Hayfoot, Shire Hobbit Treasure Hunter -- a reluctant adventurer with a greed for gold
  • Thuradiel, Mirkwood Elf Wanderer -- a world-weary traveler who tires of life in Middle-earth


Objectives: Escort the beleaguered people of Falastur to safety in Duryn.

Events: 

  • On the way to Falastur the party is ambushed by Orcs, who are dispatched with some difficulty.
  • Also discovered: a ransacked warden's tower; the wardens lay slain inside, but are given hasty burials as time seems to be of the essence. It's clear that the wardens were killed by brutish blades, but some also bear the marks of beastly fangs. A dark army is on the march.
  • Arrival in Falastur unveils that the town has been repeatedly raided by a horde of Orcs riding gigantic black cats. The people of Falastur are not just terrorized; they have become distrustful of each other and quick to anger--the Shadow is upon them!
  • An audience with the town's elders reveals that the Orcs seem to be searching for something or someone. It is also discovered that the town's granaries have been pillaged and the town's well has been defiled with poison. Words of debased Black Speech have been left to on both to mark their desecration.
  • Before an orderly exit from Falastur can be organized, the horde attacks again in numbers scarcely believable. The party holds off the horde as best they can as a train of wagons is put into motion so that the folk may seek shelter in Duryn. The cat-riders harry the train, but ultimately are dissuaded from giving pursuit.
  • Falastur is set aflame behind them as they flee, but its people are safely escorted to the walls of Duryn. An unforeseen Shadow lengthens across the land--whose impure strength guides this horde of Orcs and dire panthers to march upon Middle-earth?