Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Ravenloft Remix: Organizations III

The Ildi'Thaan are a cabal of warlocks who have made pacts with the Great Old Ones. All members of the Ildi'Thaan cult suffer from horrific nightmares; it is through these dreams that the Great Old Ones communicate with them. Their goal is to acquire a series of mysterious grimoires known as the 13 Tales of Thaan so that they might before a grand summoning of their otherworldly masters.

Commentary: The original version of the Ildi'Thaan are psionic-wanna-bes. Since the Great Old Ones are part of the core 5e setting assumptions, I thought they would work being blended in here.

The Kargatane are mortals who seek the gift of eternal life through vampirism. They serve a group of vampires known as the Kargat, and further their masters' agendas during the daylit hours. The Kargatane are blood-bound to their vampiric lieges. When the Kargatane meet, their rituals involve the drinking of blood in hellish imitation of their masters.

Commentary: From what I remember of Vampire: The Masquerade, there were "ghouls" who had tasted vampiric blood and become the thralls of the undead. I'd bring in more of that modern "blood-slavery" idea here. I'd play them like a thugee cult in service to the vampire Kazandra instead of Kali.

The Keepers of the Black Feather are a revolutionary society of vampire hunters whose goal is to overthrow and destroy Strahd von Zarovich. Each member of the Keepers has a specialized task: some are scholars who research the weaknesses of the undead, some are common folk who gather rumor and intelligence, and others are trained to combat the scourge of the living. A fact unknown to most members of this secret organization is that the leadership are all kenku.

Commentary: Of course Ravenloft needs a guild of vampire hunters. In the original presentation they're headed by wereravens or ravenkin or whatever, but I'm using kenku solely because I kinda love kenku.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Pietra Donna Sangino Captures More than a 'Likeness'

Pietra Donna Sangino is currently one of the most popular painters in the Iron Pricipalities. She is much sought after by nobles and rich merchants because having one's portrait painted by the artist and being seen as one of her patrons is guaranteed to be worth its cost when balanced against the social capital to be gained. One of Pietra's current projects is a massive set of paintings upon the ceiling of a chapel devoted to the Lady of the White Way in Rhema.

It is much-remarked upon that Pietra's rise to fame was meteoric; she appeared out of nowhere and now is the name on every aesthete's lips. Some have noted that many of the incidental figures in her paintings resemble the persons of her artistic rivals; the very artists she has eclipsed seem to be strangely referenced in her works.

The truth of the matter is that Pietra's art carries a dark secret. Although she is a talented artist, the secret to her success lies in her mastery of an occult formula she uses when painting: when she paints a person known to her, she doesn't just capture their likeness--she also captures a bit of their soul and binds it to her portraiture. In this way she has siphoned the souls of her contemporary artists and paved the way for her own success, as well as insuring her own popularity by ensnaring the spirits of her patrons.

Want to use this in Ravenloft? Change the Iron Principalities to Borca, Rhema to Vor Ziyden, and the Lady to Ezra.

(This post was a joint effort by Katie and myself.)

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Religion in Ravenloft II

Ezra is worshiped throughout the Core, but is especially prominent in Borca, Dementlieu, and the populated areas of Necropolis. Ezra is a goddess known as Our Guardian of the Mists; she is said to protect her followers from the world's insidious evil. Holy symbol: sword superimposed over a shield.

Commentary: Ezra is a goddess of protection, and given the areas in which she is most prominently worshiped she has a Catholic flavor in my mind. Since she's also associated with the mists, I'm going with a mix of Mother Mary and mystery religions.

* * *

Hala is worshiped in secret, mostly in isolated rural areas. Hala is a witch-goddess and her rites are decidedly pagan. Holy symbol: ouroborus of thirteen serpents devouring each other's tails.

Commentary: Hala's witch cult is cool because the "clergy" can be a mix of druids, nature-based clerics, green knights (paladins), and warlocks with fey pacts. I see them as ranging the gamut from kindly pacifistic pagans to omg-I'm-burning-in-a-wicker-man style pagans.

* * *

The Morninglord is worshiped throughout the Core, particularly in Barovia. The Morninglord is the god of survival and new dawns; his faithful believe that each new day is a gift against the darkness of the world. Holy symbol: a gold disc.

Commentary: The Morninglord is definitely a god of the desperate, a kind of last hope against the swallowing darkness. Fatalistic, stoic, etc.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Psycho-Sexual Ravenloft: Heart of Midnight II

If you thought I was just whistlin' Dixie with all this "lycanthropy as metaphoric cover for unspoken gay desire," check out this description in which Casimir attacks a drunkard at a bard party in order to steal his fancy costume: "Even through the roses, Casimir could smell his prey--not the salty, natural tang of a commoner, but the sweet, liquor-tainted scent of a nobleman. His mouth was watering again. The man's odor brought a savory taste to his tongue. His heart felt suddenly hot in his rib cage" (45).

Nevertheless, that's not to say that Casimir isn't attracted to women as well. However, Casimir's desire for Julianna Estovina is also depicted in terms of male queerness; the quantity of his desire for her is matched by the quantity of his desire to be penetrated by her: "The kiss felt painfully hot, but Casimir didn't pull back. Her breath was sweet and intoxicating. Her small hands pressed him mercilessly against her, as though she hoped to cut him open and crawl inside. Casimir trembled. Her very soul seemed to force its way into him. The sensation was wonderful" (57). Though this encounter is but a dream, it seems that his subconscious is revealing the overall shape of Casimir's desires through an obfuscated trajectory. Another layer of sexual strangeness is added when Casimir and Julianna include the similarity of their coloring and appearance as part of what makes them want each other: "'It's as if we are blood kin,' Casimir ventured cryptically" (61). The inversion of desire toward one's family here replicates and compliments the attendant fear of the inversion of desire toward one's own gender.

Of course, this being a Ravenloft novel, Heart of Midnight at last goes Full Freudian on us. As readers we've already been party to Casimir's quest for revenge against Zhone Clieous, but now we learn that his vengeance is nothing less than the Oedipal Complex writ large: Zhone Clieous is Casimir's father. Casimir's revenge must go to the final extremity; Clieous is the phallus-wielding father who must be killed so that the son can come to terms with the man he is inside. "I want to kill my father, not just frighten him," Casimir is forced to admit to himself (86). In this case the symbolic phallus materializes as control over Harmonia; after killing his father, Casimir assumes his "scepter" and becomes the new lord of the land.

Casimir's metaphoric confluence of homosexual desire and lycanthropy isn't just staged in terms of violence in Heart of Midnight; it also informs the ways in which Casimir will be accepted or rejected for who he is both by himself and by others close to him. When Casimir transforms into wolf form and finally kills his father in a blaze of Oedipal glory, his long-time friend and companion Thoris witnesses who Casimir really is. Horrified by the revelation that his friend has a secret self that he cannot understand, Thoris takes to the streets where he is robbed and left for dead by thugs. Upon finding his crumbled and battered form, Casimir realizes that his secret has consequences for those he loves. This put Casimir at a crossroads: he can't change who he is, but he needs his friend to accept and understand him. "I can't go on without him," he says, acknowledging the painful interplay between what he is and how that endangers the homosocial bonds the nourish him. 

He also needs to find a way to accept himself. Indeed, self-acceptance is what Casimir finds most alluring in the masterful bard Harkon Lukas: "The scent that come from him was jaded, confident, sober. He was the first man Casmir had met who was perfectly at home in his own skin" (142). If we read Heart of Midnight as a bildungsroman, we might argue that this is what Casimir's coming-of-age moment will entail: self-actualization in the form of owning who he is both internally and to the outside world. Will he get there with Lukas's help? Let's see how things progress in our next installment.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Ravenloft Remix: Organizations II

The Circle, also known as the Knights of the Shadows, are a knightly order based in Mordent. Members of the Circle are knights errant; that is, they are questing knights who travel the land, bringing justice to the downtrodden and making war against the forces of darkness. 

Commentary: As far as organizations go, this is is a pretty bog-standard knightly order. That's okay, there's always one player who wants a knight and it's nice to have a standard option for that. You're obviously going to add-in Templar secrets here, right?

The Dark Delvers are a group of subterranean explorers who seek a supernatural being they call “the Hated Mother” in the Underdark; they believe that the Hated Mother is the source of all magical power, and the nexus from which all evil flows into the world. The Dark Delvers have their own secret language, which is called “the Mother's Tongue.” Their gathering places are usually caves hidden in the mountains; they are most active in Barovia, Markovia, Necropolis, and Tepest. 

Commentary: One of the problems with Ravenloft as it appeared in official books is that it's often bland, but man oh man this organization is anything but bland. There is so much weird Freudian subtext here I don't even know where to start or even where to stop. "Hated Mother," indeed!

The Fraternity of Shadows is a coterie of illusionists who wish to harness the innate power of the land so that they might master it and make slaves of the populace at large. The aim of the Fraternity is to control the world through hallucinogenic magic and phantasm. This secret society has cells within many of the schools that teach magic, as well as within all of the world's major libraries. Though the society is called a “fraternity,” it does have some few women among its numbers. 

Commentary: One part Death Eaters, one part The Prestige, and one part evil psychedelic svengalis.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Ravenloft Remix: The Weird West comes to Liffe

I was skimming through a Ravenloft book a while back and hit upon the town name of Armeikos, which I momentarily misread as Amerikos. Which got me thinking: what Ravenloft really needs is a Weird West domain.

Liffe is as good a place as any to set the stage for "horror western" themes because there's not much going on there. After consulting the various sources I have on hand, this was my terse description of the domain "a large island of cattle farms, home to three towns: Armeikos, Claveria, and Moondale." That isn't a lot to go on, but at least "cattle farms" suggests the possibility of rustlin', cattle barons, and such. Otherwise, Liffe just has some vague Dragonlance tie-ins (the Darklord of the domain is from Krynn) and three adventures set there in the Book of Crypts--none of which really give the island its own flavor.

However, Jester's map of Liffe gives us enough to build on. The major settlement in Liffe should probably be Claveria; since it has a central location and is near Baron Evensong's mansion, it makes sense as a hub of power with tendrils radiating outward and into all the nasty business going on elsewhere in the isle.

Baron Evensong doesn't have total control over Liffe; rather, he just has access to the most money and brute force to help things go his way. His power is contested by other barons based out of both Claveria and the other larger towns on the island. I picture Baron Evensong being more than a bit like Calvin Candie in Django Unchained: he's interested in maintaining position, but perhaps more interested in projecting an air of gentility that covers his shallow evil. Why else spend so much time at that damned harpsichord? There's even an absurdly-named Candieland equivalent in the Baron's Neverwhere Manor.

Since Moondale is near the only large forested area on Liffe, I see it as a growing town largely devoted to the business of logging--somewhat analogous to the community of  Presbyterian Church depicted in McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Perhaps a business-minded "gunfighter" has recently come to Moondale and is shaking-up the established order...

Being that Risibilos and Aferdale are located in the mountains, they'll make for dangerous mining communities. Think Deadwood and the Nevada Comstock Lode and you're on the right track; both towns are places where a man or woman might make a fortune, but they're also violent, ungovernable places driven by greed.

Armeikos figures to be the great shipping port and point of entry for Liffe. Notice that although the western side of the island faces the Core continent, there are no beachheads to land a ship on. I reckon that ships must go around the island, into the Straight of Liffe to port at Hordum Bay, and then send their goods (or immigrants) up the river to Armeikos. The western side of the island might be sheer, daunting cliffs...or perhaps some sort of permanent supernatural maelstrom makes it impossible to lay dock there.

That brown line that links the major settlements is the major shipping route, traversed by trains build by Lamordian engineers in the pay of Baron Evensong. Yeah, he's not just a Baron-baron, he's also a rail baron taking a cut of everyone else's shipping. You could even base a campaign around Hell on Wheels-style quest to complete the railway by having a rival trying to establish their own line.

The southeastern tip of Liffe looks to be largely unsettled, which makes it perfect for a twisted sort of Manifest Destiny. Of course, settlers moving into this area (and Ravenloft gives people in other domains plenty of reasons to want to leave their places of birth) are going to have to contend with the natives who originally called the land home. These native tribes are, of course, related to the Abber nomads of the Nightmare Lands--who are already a weird pastiche of Native Americans straight from the movies.

Let's talk monsters: werewolves, dryads, and yetis in the Moondale Wood; hill(billy) giants and inbred formorians in the mountains; sand-blasting air elementals in the southern deserts; all manner of undead horrors clustering around Neverwhere Manor. Hell, I might even put some ancient pyramid-tombs belonging to a lost civilization out in the wastelands. Maybe I've just been reading too much Sixth Gun though...