Monday, April 27, 2015

All Weal Little Woe (I. Zines)

The first in a series of posts detailing what I am currently finding inspiring.

I. Zines

Zines were a big part of my early 90s high school experience, so it has been interesting to watch them make a comeback in recent years. If you're currently in the grips of Zine Mania--whether through nostalgia or first-blush contact with small press insanity--you NEED to check out the zines put out by Heretical Sexts.

Heretical Sexts is a small-press imprint dedicated to producing "weird words on dead trees" and "publications for discerning creeps." Full disclosure: I've contributed writing or editing to the various Heretical Sexts projects, but believe me when I tell you that these things are the real deal. The writing is out there; the voices in these zines are unique; the art and production values are all top-notch. Thus far there are three stand-alone issues you might want to grab:

My Dream Date with a Villain: 14 contributors describe their romantic encounters with infamous characters from history and fiction. Always humorous, sometimes horrific and occasionally erotic, this fully-illustrated volume includes a range of subjects including Elizabeth Bathory, Doctor Doom, Ilsa She-Wolf of the S.S., the Hamburglar, Madame Defarge, and many, many more. (Include my tale of longing for Bellatrix Lestrange.)

Forever Doomed: 28 pages of essays and comics by Tenebrous Kate taking a tongue-in-cheek look at all things doom: The Metal Mid-life Crisis of "Black Roses"; Adventures at Maryland Deathfest; Erotic Rites of the Nazg├╗l; Dennis Wheatley: Unlikely Icon; Style Lessons from "Curse of the Crimson Altar"; "Let Sleeping Corpses Lie."

Witch Women: Witch Women is an exploration of the many facets of the relationship between femininity and the occult. The zine features original art and essays ranging from the esoteric to the light-hearted: “Hag Couture,” cheeky advice on fashion and ritual realness by S. Elizabeth; “Ace of Worlds,” an encounter with the tarot by Tom Blunt; “The Scarlet Women,” an illustrated history of erotic magic written by Heather Drain and illustrated by Tenebrous Kate; “Darkening the Coven,” an RPG supplement by Jack W. Shear; Art by Dana Glover, Becky Munich, and Carisa Swenson. (I actually think "Darkening the Coven" is the best RPG thing I've written.)

At $5 a pop, these are a steal. The BigCartel shop is here. You know what to do. You know what to do.

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Speaking of zines, I just got these in the mail from Thuban Press:

If you like the idea of kinky post-scripts to Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" and "The Fall of the House of Usher," definitely do yourself a pervy favor and check out "In Pace Requescat" and "The Hideous Dropping Off of the Veil." For a more traditional and lovely take on a Victorian fairy tale, Julia Gfrorer's illustrated version of Oscar Wilde's "The Star Child" cannot be beat.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Actual Play: Blades in the Dark

In retrospect, Wolfram Keel probably looks a bit like Captain Flint on Black Sails
I had the good fortune to play in a Blades in the Dark game run by Andrew Shields of the Fictive Fantasy blog. Andrew has his play report up here.

Before I get into my experience with the game itself, I just want to take a minute to say that Andrew runs a great game. I have the quick start of Blades in the Dark, but I wasn't really able to put together how it all worked in my brief read-through of the text; Andrew, however, made the game sing in practice. He presented the mechanical bits in a really easy-to-grasp way and offered enough introductory guidance to help us along without ever feeling like he was nudging us in one direction or another. Andrew also added a ton of on-the-fly detail to the game's setting and NPCs that made the game have a very particular feel. People talk about immersion; Andrew's ability to add details that popped was all about getting the feel of the setting (weird, gritty, ominous).

My fellow player in the game was Bryan, and he pushed things forward into ever more dangerous territory at every turn (which was much appreciated by me). Bryan's character, Aldo Nyman, had all the social skills mine lacked; yet, despite our different skill sets we both chose "Daring" as our special abilities. This emphasis on "daring" came to define our new crew of thieves: we were looking to make a name for ourselves by taking on jobs (and approaching the way we completed job) in audacious ways that more careful crews would never even consider. My character, Wolfram Keel, was a weathered, perpetually furious ex-whaler whose skills leaned toward violence and skulking about. He may have killed an experienced duelist with a gaff hook in a water closet; Aldo may then have taken the dead man's identity so we could pull off an abduction. These are our unrecommendable methods, but they work.

I was impressed by how brisk the pacing is in Blades in the Dark. In a three hour session we generated our characters, generated our gang of thieves, went on two "heists," and did two episodes of downtime. The heists were short, but fulfilling. Our first adventure was kidnapping the leader of a powerful faction; through Aldo's guile, Wolfram's willingness to step into the fray, and a little help from our weirdo occult adept minions we were able to pull off a pretty amazing score. The second heist involved sneaking onto a whaling ship in plain sight so that we could steal away with some rather unusual gunpowder stored in a literal hog's head. 

Oddly, or maybe not, our most nail-biting encounter in the entire session was with a sexed-up harpoonist who probably isn't even human; let's just say she has scrimshaw teeth, has a penchant for looking into the depths of murderous souls, and has an arm made of bone that was animated by plunging it into a leviathan's eye. Not the kind you take home to mother.

Even though each heist didn't take long to resolve, they felt meaty and compelling. There wasn't really any lull in the game where we planned out our strategy and prepared for contingencies. The way the game works lets you largely accomplish all of that on the fly, adding detail and depth through action and flashbacks. It felt like we got an amazing amount of fun gaming in within just three hours. In other games I've played there are interminable stretches were you're waiting for the fun parts; this was all good parts all the way through. Part of that was undoubtedly the people involved (thanks again, Andrew and Bryan), but part of it was the tight design of the game. Blades in the Dark seems like a clear winner; can't wait to play again.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Ravenloft Remix: Mists Clerical Domain for 5e

In the Ravenloft setting, priests of Ezra have a mystical connection to the Mists that permeate the landscape. In previous editions, clerics of Ezra have had access to a specific "Mists" domain; this is my attempt to work-up something thematically appropriate for 5e Dungeons & Dragons.

Mists Domain
Though much-feared as an unpredictable, mysterious force by the people of the Core, the clerics of Ezra can channel the power of the Mists to help protect the people of the land.

Mists Domain Spells
Cleric Level
entangle, fog cloud
gust of wind, misty step
gaseous form, wind wall
confusion, dimension door
modify memory, teleportation circle

Bonus Proficiency
When you select this domain at 1st level, you gain proficiency with heavy armor.

Wayfinder's Blessing
Starting when you choose this domain at 1st level, you can use your action to touch a willing creature other than yourself to give it advantage on Wisdom (Survival) checks and checks using Navigator's Tools. This blessing lasts for 1 hour or until you use this feature again.

Channel Divinity: Shield of Mist
Starting at 2nd level, you can use your Channel Divinity to envelop yourself in film of luminous mists. This misty barrier around yourself that lasts for 1 minute, or until you lose your concentration (as if you were concentrating on a spell). While protected by this barrier you have resistance to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage.

Channel Divinity: Guardian of the Mists
At 6th level, when a creature within 30 feet of you is attacked, you can use your reaction to conjure a protective shield of mists around it that grants that creature resistance to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage for 1 minute, using your Channel Divinity.

Divine Strike
At 8th level, your gain the ability to infuse your weapon strikes with divine energy. Once on each of your turns when you hit a creature with a weapon attack, you can cause this attack to deal an extra 1d8 cold damage to the target. When you reach 14th level, the extra damage increases to 2d8.

Champion of the Mists

At 17th level, you gain advantage on saving throws made against enchantment spells.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Poe's Philosophy of Composition and Campaign Setting Delivery

art by James Carling
I've published three system-neutral setting books at this point: Planet Motherfucker, Ulverland, and Colonial Ethersea. Each one of those books is small; they're all trade paperback format and the longest is under sixty pages. They're calculated to fit within my personal preferences: concise over compendious, flavorful rather than all-encompassing, lots of "holes" to be filled in as you want instead of completely defined.

Essentially, the kind of setting material I value fits into the theory of writing that Edgar Allan Poe outlines in his essay "The Philosophy of Composition." Although Poe was addressing what he valued in literature, it's a pretty good fit for explaining what I value in setting products. Poe's essay outlines three central tenets of literary composition:

As Poe states in "The Philosophy of Composition," "It appears evident, then, that there is a distinct limit, as regards length, to all works of literary art — the limit of a single sitting — and that, although in certain classes of prose composition, such as 'Robinson Crusoe,' (demanding no unity,) this limit may be advantageously overpassed, it can never properly be overpassed in a poem." Clearly, Poe favors shorter literary works--works that can be consumed within "the limit of a single sitting." To Poe's mind, the immediacy of a short story trumped the expansiveness of a novel. (This is also evident when you consider the typical length of his own literary productions.)

For me, the best settings are ones that I can digest in a single sitting. I'm currently dipping into the Eberron campaign setting, and honestly there is no way I could read that hefty tome in one go. It also points to a matter of subjective taste: I prefer my settings sketchy, with room to improvise. A setting that takes more than one sitting to read through will always be too developed, or too large, to interest me fully.

Poe took issue with the artistic myth-making perpetrated by the Romantic poets. According to authors like Wordsworth and Coleridge, the archetypal Romantic was someone who would retreat into nature, become inspired by the natural world because of their rarefied aesthetic sensibilities, and experience a "spontaneous overflow of strong feelings" that would be recorded as poetry. This spontaneous overflow was supposedly the raw lyricism of the Romantic poet, unleashed from the confines of the rational mind; but Poe knew better. Although the Romantics captured their impressions as they occurred, they were also ruthless editors who produced draft after draft as they polished their work before presentation. The myth of the perfect first draft as the shining evidence of the poet's soul is just public relations.

Or, as Poe would have it, "Most writers — poets in especial — prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy — an ecstatic intuition — and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought — at the true purposes seized only at the last moment — at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view — at the fully matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable — at the cautious selections and rejections — at the painful erasures and interpolations — in a word, at the wheels and pinions — the tackle for scene-shifting — the step-ladders and demon-traps — the cock’s feathers, the red paint and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of the hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio." The value for campaign products is evident here as well: as much as I like seeing an explosion of inspiration, I want that inspiration to be tempered by well-chosen edits and a serious consideration of how all the setting elements cohere together.

Unity of Effect
Taking his poem "The Raven" as a paradigmatic example, Poe argues that all great literature should strive to express one feeling or atmosphere. Everything within the work--characters, tone, word choice, setting, symbolism, etc.--must work in orchestrated unity to produce a singular effect for the reader.

A good setting, in my estimation, does one thing only but does that one thing well. There's a reason why kitchen-sink settings are sometimes maligned; in attempting to be everything to everyone, they're often rendered bland in the process. My preference is for a setting that has one theme or feeling or aesthetic experience writ large.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Magic Summary for Beyond the Wall

I found myself wishing there was a summary of all the cantrips, spells, and 1st level rituals in Beyond the Wall (with governing attributes for cantrips and rituals, no less), so I made one for myself. Maybe this will be helpful to you too.



  • Beast Ken – speak with animals (Wis)
  • Blessing – gives a bonus to rolls for a specific task (Wis)
  • Conjure Sound – create illusory sounds (Int)
  • Druid's Touch – make plants grow (Wis)
  • Hexing – gives a penalty to rolls for a specific task (Wis)
  • Glamour Weaving – create silent images (Int)
  • Mage Light – create light (Int)
  • Second Sight – see spirits and command them if you know their true name (Int)


  • Abjuration – banish a spirit
  • Banish Undead – make undead creatures flee
  • Bar the Way – magically lock a door or gate
  • Blight of Loneliness – victim fails all Charisma checks
  • Brave the Flames – gain immunity to fire
  • Burning Hands – flames leap from your hands
  • Call the Swarm – summon a swarm of small animals
  • Commanding Word – force the victim to obey an order
  • Clear Eyes – you can see through all illusions
  • Conjure Darkness – creates impenetrable darkness
  • Entanglement – the victim is held fast
  • Evade the Dead – you are invisible to the undead
  • False Friend – bend the victim to your will
  • Feather Fall – save the recipient from a dangerous fall
  • Flame Charm – control fire
  • Flash of Brilliance – blind everyone nearby
  • Forgetful Mind – cause the victim to forget almost everything of importance
  • Friend's Call – alert your allies to your location
  • From the Brink – stabilizes a dying creature
  • Great Endurance – fill your companions with vigor; ignore fatigue and poison
  • Greater Illusion – create audio and visual illusions
  • Healing Touch – heal wounds
  • The Howling – create a deafening cacophony
  • Inspiration – give allies a bonus to attacks and saving throws
  • Magic Missile – cause damage at a distance
  • Masked Image – appear as someone else, but not a specific individual
  • Mystical Shield – gain a bonus to your armor class
  • Obscurement – become hazy and difficult to see
  • Opening Touch – open an ordinary door or lock
  • Pass Without Trace – leave no tracks that can be followed
  • Petrifying Gaze – freeze the target in place
  • Phantom Skill – grant the recipient a skill for a limited time
  • Reanimation – create skeletons and zombies from corpses
  • Sanctuary of Peace – make it difficult for others to attack
  • Sense Nature – sense supernatural influence and general disposition
  • Silence – create an area of utter silence
  • Smuggler's Luck – one item in your possession becomes undetectable
  • Spider Climb – the target can scale surfaces
  • Swift Step – gain unnatural speed and grace
  • Terrifying Presence – cause fear in your enemies
  • Tinker's Gift – mend a broken object
  • True Strike – gain a bonus on your next attack roll
  • Veil of Sleep – put the target to sleep
  • Web – fill an area with sticky webbing
  • Whispering Wind – send a message to another person
  • Wild Call – summon animals
  • Wind Ward – make an area immune to missile attacks and flying creatures
  • Witch Laugh – cause the target to be distracted and incapacitated by laughter
  • Word of Courage – you and your allies immune to fear


  • Arcane Experiment – determine the properties of a magical item (Int)
  • Bind Familiar – summon a familiar spirit (Int)
  • Circle of Protection – create a barrier against supernatural creatures (Int)
  • Gather Mists – fill an area with blinding mist (Int)
  • Goodberry – create berries that heal when eaten (Wis)
  • Mage Armor – grant yourself magical protection from damage (Int)
  • Staff of Might – enchant a weapon (Wis)
  • Steed of the Sorcerer – summon a ghostly steed (Int)
  • Unseen Servant – summon an invisible spirit to perform tasks (Int)
  • Witch's Watchman – create a warding alarm against ambush (Int)
  • Wizard's Mark – inscribe a permanent rune on a surface (Int)

Monday, January 26, 2015

Undead Templates for 5e

I wanted to make an undead wizard for 5e that was less powerful than the lich, so I sat down with the Dungeon Master's Guide and went to work with the monster creation rules. Aaaaaaaand, I promptly got bored because it was too much accounting and looking things up on a chart for me.

And then I realized that all I really needed to do was slap a few resistances and immunities on one of the NPC wizard statblocks in the back of the Monster Manual and call it a day. 

Using the cheap-n-cheerful templates below you can make undead archmages, bandits, cult fanatics, gladiators, etc. Need an undead knight that is less powerful than the death knight? Major Undead template + Knight stats. Undead viking? Minor Undead + Berserker. 

You could also use these with regular animals, you know, for when you need a ghostly Killer Whale.

Minor Undead
Damage Resistances necrotic
Damage Immunities poison
Condition Immunities exhaustion, poisoned
Senses darkvision 60 ft.

Major Undead
Damage Resistances bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from nonmagical weapons
Damage Immunities necrotic, poison
Condition Immunities charmed, exhaustion, frightened, paralyzed, poisoned
Senses darkvision 60 ft.

Incorporeal Undead
Damage Resistances acid, fire, lightning, thunder; bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from nonmagical weapons
Damage Immunities cold, necrotic, poison
Condition Immunities charmed, exhaustion, frightened, grappled, paralyzed, petrified, poisoned, prone, restrained
Senses darkvision 60 ft.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Reskinning 5e Classes

5th edition D&D has many classes to choose from; taken as a whole, they offer a wide range of thematic archetypes. Better still: they're easily reskinnable to emulate archetypes that the designers probably weren't thinking about. Some ideas:

D. Gray-man-style Exorcist: If you haven't seen it, D. Gray-man is a manga and anime series about "exorcists" who hunt demons. Each exorcist is bound to "Innocence," a supernatural force for good that gives them otherworldly powers to fight against darkness. The protagonist of the series, Allen Walker, has an arm that can transform into fearsome weapons. If I wanted to make a character like Allen Walker, I'd pick the Warlock and reskin one of the patron types as "Innocence." Since the Pact of the Blade gives you proficiency with whatever sort of weapon you want to manifest, it could easily simulate the various weaponry he uses--just reskin his arm with the stats of weapons from the equipment section and you're good to go.

* * *

Spiritualist: It's an odd fit, but the Totem Warrior Barbarian gets a variety of spirit-based powers and the Spirit Walker ability could be reskinned as the ability to conduct a seance. Levitation? Check out the 14th level Eagle Totemic Attunement ability. 

The warlock is probably a more easy-to-visualize pick, what with its Speak with Dead invocations and powers granted from a patron spirit. There you go, two ways to skin that cat.

* * *

Gunslinger: I noticed the other day that many of the Battlemaster Fighter's maneuvers don't necessarily have to be used in melee; many of them can be used at range as well. Maneuvers such as Disarming Strike, Distracting Strike, Feinting Attack, Goading Attack, Maneuvering Attack, Menacing Attack, Precision attack, Pushing Attack, and Trip Attack to simulate trick shots, blowing a foe off their feet with a rifle blast, shooting the weapon from a villain's hands, etc.

* * *

Serial Killer: Usually the Berserker Barbarian is thought of as a primal warrior with an innate bestial rage. But a "barbarian" could just as easily be a normal person who becomes overcome with a murderous rage. They could be a scientist whose self-experiments resulted in a Jekyll/Hyde condition, an aristocrat with murderous impulses ala some theories about Jack the Ripper, or a normal person who is sometimes possessed by the spirit of a murderer.

* * *

Swashbuckler: If you're willing to squint at the ki mechanic, the Monk makes a surprisingly good swashbuckler. (You'll also need to reskin the short sword, which monks are proficient with, as a fencing blade, but that seems easy enough) A Monk's Martial Arts ability lets you rely on a high dexterity for your attack and damage rolls with your sword, gives you a bonus to unarmed strike damage, and lets you get a bonus unarmed strike in when you attack with your sword--just like in the movies, your swashbuckler is slicing and punching all over the place. You can spend ki for daring-do like Flurry of Blows, enhanced dodging, and Step of the Wind. There's also a ton of mobility powers that fit the theme, and Unarmored Defense gives you a reason not to be an armored tank in combat.

* * *

Street Fighter: As with the swashbuckler ideas above, you could use the Monk as the basis for a back-street brawler. Brass knuckles should definitely qualify as "monk weapons."

* * *

The Other Kind of Street Fighter: The elemental Monk has all the right moves for all the hadokens and shoryukens you could ask for.