Sunday, February 5, 2023

Alcesta von Karlok and Magnus Draghul

I detail two of the big villains of the Sibersk area of Krevborna below. This is one of the largest revisions of this bit of the setting; previously, Countess Alcesta was the undisputed ruler of the "vampire adventure" area of Krevborna, but now I'm convinced that having two powerful vampire lords who intrigue against each other offers so much more opportunity for drama and intervention by the players' characters.

While I'm here, I thought I would answer an interesting question someone recently asked me about Krevborna: "How are Krevborna's Big Villains different from Ravenloft's Darklords?" To my view, in Ravenloft each domain is an extension of its Darklord. In the earliest box sets for the settings, most of the world-building is tied up in the Darklords' tragic backstories. Each domain is a custom prison cell containing and frustrating the Darlord who lies within it; each domain is a reflection of their evil.

In contrast, each named villain in Krevborna is an exemplar of what's wrong with that region of the setting. For example, both of the vampire lords below are personifications of the feudal, class-based anxieties that Sibersk is meant to explore.


Countess Alcesta von Karlok

Alcesta von Karlok is a masterful gatherer of information and an adept manipulator. Alcesta favors indirect machinations; she prefers quiet assassination and complex stratagems over blatant aggression. She regularly holds salons in Castle Siebenhurst to stave off boredom and keeps a harem of beautiful, intellectual, and artistic men and women to provide her with whatever stimulation she requires.

    • Appearance. She is a breathtaking, red-haired beauty who refuses to be dressed in anything less than the height of fashion. 

    • Personality. She appreciates witty conversation and demands to be amused by those around her.

    • Motive. She wants to be privy to every secret and experience every possible pleasure—no matter how base or degenerate.

    • Flaw. She detests the inescapable ennui that comes with long centuries of undeath.

     

Count Magnus Draghul

Magnus Draghul only ever truly feels comfortable when striding across the battlefield clad in his blood-red armor and giving vent to his violent impulses against whoever dares to oppose him. Magnus has few close relationships, but his most trusted advisors are his three vampire brides: Lilandra, his cunning spymaster; Phaedra,  his private assassin; Maxima, his military strategist.

    • Appearance. He is a towering vampire of rigid, militaristic mien, with a long mane of hair, a sweeping mustache, and piercing eyes. 

    • Personality. If a subordinate does not bow and scrape before him, they will learn a grievous and painful lesson.

    • Motive. He is driven to seek glory through military victory.

   Flaw. His belief in the superiority of his martial skill sometimes blinds him to obvious danger.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Silver Under Nightfall, Deathless Legacy, Killadelphia, and More

Things that brought me delight in January, 2023:


Rin Chupeco, Silver Under Nightfall

When I first heard that Rin Chupeco's Silver Under Nightfall was inspired by the Trevor-Sypha-Alucard relationship from the Castlevania cartoon, I was a bit worried that the novel would be thinly veiled fanfiction. My love of stories about vampire hunters won out, and luckily the novel does have its own feel. The action in the novel feels quite Castlevania-esque, but the characters, plot, and worldbuilding do not.

The premise works: the last scion of a famed and feared house of noble vampire hunters finds himself paired with a seductive ancient vampire and his kindly, solar-empowered vampire fiancĂ©e. (That "has the power of the sun" thing does feel a bit too Grisha-verse in action.) Of course, they move from allies/enemies to lovers, forming an unlikely thrupple as they confront the mystery of a strange disease that is refashioning vampires and their victims into nearly unkillable, mindless monstrosities.

The main characters do not really map to Castlevania's protagonists in a direct way, which was my biggest fear going into the novel. There are parallels; for example, the human vampire hunter does have a whip-like weapon and hails from a notable family of monster hunters, but his personality is more "plagued by self-doubt" and "vengeful over this mother's death" than Trevor Belmont's cynical world-weariness. The male vampire character is emotionally closed-off and arrogant, but he's more a creature of desire than Alucard is. And the female vampire character is really nothing like Sypha; although both wield explosive power, she has none of Sypha's verve. To be honest, she's the weakest character in the novel, as she seems to exist to comfort and console the male characters or be the lynchpin around which they resolve their homoerotic desires.

Previously known for her work in the young adult vein, Silver Under Nightfall bears the marks of Rin Chupeco's transition toward a more mature form of writing. Despite this, in places the dialog is a bit too quippy and the characters often behave like teenagers, even though they're all adults and some of them are vampires who should have grown out of sulking by now. Still, the book has some nice bits of adventure and action, even if most of the tension resides in the triad relationship between the two vampires and the hunter of the undead. 


Deathless Legacy, Mater Larvarum, The Gathering, Satunalia

Deathless Legacy has carved out a niche as a symphonic Gothic metal band that doesn't sound like other bands in that genre. Including Mater Larvarum here is admittedly a bit of a cheat, as I was listening to it at the end of December, but never got a chance to write it up. That said, this is a great album that mixes the "horror story" elements of King Diamond, bits of gothy power metal ala Powerwolf, and the usual symphonic and choral flourishes. One thing that's noteworthy about Deathless Legacy is that they never make the same album twice. The Gathering, for example, brings a lot of unexpected swing and cabaret influences into the mix. Saturnalia, on the other hand, goes all in on am epic historical narrative.


Barnes, Alexander, NCT, Killadelphia vol. 4

By its fourth volume, Killadelphia is in a weird place. It feels like now that vampire George Washington has joined the already crowded cast of undead founders (Abigail Adams, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson are already counted as present in the roll call) something has to give. Although I'm still enjoying the art, I think the ensemble of supernatural creatures (vampires! werewolves! witches! gods! angelic hunters from beyond the grave! something called the eterna!) has impinged on the important human element that made Killadelphia resonant in the first place. I'm still along for the ride, but I'm seeing the uneasy indications that this could be the beginning of a nosedive where the plot gets lost.


T. Kingfisher, What Moves the Dead

What Moves the Dead is essentially a riff off of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher." A "dying" Madeline Usher summons a family friend, and a former commander of Roderick's regiment, to the house for reasons that aren't immediately obvious; the Ruritanian solider, along with an American doctor and an English specialist in fungi, discover and come to grips with the true horror in the house. Overall, the book strikes a surprisingly jaunty tone, but the description of the "not right" hares inhabiting the countryside around the house were extremely well done and creepy; the horror plays very well off the otherwise adventuresome, picaresque tone of the book.


Cullen Bunn, Brian Hurtt, and Tyler Crook, Manor Black vol. 2: Fire in the Blood

The second volume of Manor Black is a tough one to talk about because it really feels like almost all of the story it manages to deliver takes place in flashbacks. Those dips into the backstory also have the most interesting visual flare: they are mostly muted in tone, except for the more vibrant colors that delineate the presence of magic. Unfortunately, the events taking place in the comic's present are left to proceed at a snail's crawl in comparison. To be honest, I thought this second volume was going to tidy up the story and end things--an expectation that probably only heightened how slow this saga is moving.


Madness of Malifaux

The way Wyrd does their supplements for Malifaux is a winning formula, in my opinion. Delivering the game's ongoing story through (surprisingly good) fictional vignettes instead of lore dump is practically unheard of, and the mix of art and stats in the back half of their books strikes me as an exceptionally clean way to arrange a splat. The new additions, and changes to old favorites, all seem pretty cool. Now, who do I have to talk at to get a rework of my girl Rasputina? Not feeling the icy feet and pith helmet look. Ushanka all the way.


Livia Llewellyn, Furnace

Within the first few stories in Livia Llewellyn's Furnace I was already impressed by the breadth of her writing. No variations on a theme here; each story feels like it comes from a totally different hell. It isn't even so much that Llewellyn pursues a variety of horrors; her writings style is so varied that if they weren't gathered under the covers of one volume, you might not suspect they were all the work of the same hand. I was especially pleased by "Wasp & Snake," which is the kind of story I wish the cyberpunk subgenre delivered, and "Cinereous," a truly venomous tale of the French Revolution. 


Shape of Despair, Return to the Void

Of course, in January you always have to play catch up on the releases from the previous year that managed to slip through your net, which is exactly what 2022's Return to the Void is for me. As funeral doom stalwarts, Shape of Despair know what to do: epic-length downers made of droning melancholy and relentlessly bleak atmosphere.


Shiwo Komeyama, Bloody Cross vol. 7-12

I continued with Bloody Cross in January and even managed to finish the series. Things take a turn at the midpoint toward spy vs. spy territory, with allegiances and alliances changing faster than the eye can follow. We're way past double agents here, so basically any characters' ultimate allegiances really don't even seem to matter. The best thing to come of the whirlwind of betrayal is the character Kanade, who seems to stir up drama and trouble solely because it turns her on to do so. Wild. Unfortunately, once Tsukiyima is brainwashed, she falls out of the narrative a bit--odd choice for one of your main characters. Once she's back in play everything ramps up to a surprisingly emotional climax. Bloody Cross really does pull it out in the end.


Guy Boothby, Pharos the Egyptian

Guy Boothby's Pharos the Egyptian is the focus of this Bad Books for Bad People episode, so click to hear our full thoughts on it. Suffice to say, in every one of these "Imperial Gothic" novels there is at least one big, wild idea that is worth the price of entry alone, and in that respect Pharos does not disappoint. It's a bit thin on character, but there are enough fun elements here that I feel pretty safe recommending it to people who enjoyed Bram Stoker's The Jewel of the Seven Stars or Richard Marsh's The Beetle. Add Dracula and War of the Worlds to that lineup and you'll have a solid handle on the Imperial Gothic as a whole, I reckon.


Deep Purple, The Very Best of Deep Purple

I feel like the journey I started with revisiting Dio's back catalog, which led to revisiting Rainbow's first two albums, has culminated in a return to the glories of Deep Purple. Many will be surprised to learn that there is more to Deep Purple than the perennial bane of all guitar shops that is "Smoke On the Water." Don't believe me? Give "Stormbringer" a try.


The Pale Blue Eye

I had heard mixed things about The Pale Blue Eye when it came to Netflix, but I actually thought it was pretty good. Of course, this sort of "Gothic murder investigation in the grim 19th century" is pretty much my bag so take my opinion with a grain of salt. Even so, this story about murder and mutilation at West Point that pairs a retired constable with a young Edgar Allan Poe hit all the notes I wanted it to, although I do think the characters' relationships could have been fleshed out a bit more. One thing that's interesting is that it's functionally impossible to do a "gritty reboot" of Poe's life because his life was actually worse than you can believably show as part of a larger narrative.


Joseph Delaney, Brother Wulf: The Last Spook

My God, it really is a shame they went with that "modern cartoon" illustration style for the covers of this third arc in the Last Apprentice series; they totally undersell the folklore-based approach to fantasy and horror that Delaney excels at, even if these later books do feel a bit light in comparison to what has come before. It's funny, the things that happened in previous books that are alluded to in this one are reminders of just how dark things used to be in comparison. However, that's not to say that things don't get dark at points in this one. It had the feeling of a final volume, but apparently there's another on the way this year.


Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio

More media for children should be as grotesque looking as Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio. When the title character first appears, he is a nightmare homunculus child of wood and nails.  However, his grotesquery is nothing compared to the human monstrosity he encounters, particularly in the forms of an unscrupulous carnie and Italian fascism. No, really, Mussolini is in this! Although I'm told that this movie contains good messages for children, I am left wondering how many children will actually watch this--I hope it messes a few of them up in a good way, at least.


Bloody Hammers, Washed in the Blood

Ah, another album I missed last year! Bloody Hammers came back swinging with another slab of creature-feature punk-metal. I've said it before, but Bloody Hammers is fundamentally a "Planet Motherfucker band," by which I mean they fixate on the coolest stuff known to man: monsters, the devil, and big dark fun. Washed in the Blood feels like it will be a great album to blast with the windows down in the car come spring.


Agatha Christie, Poirot's Early Cases

My journey through the works of Agatha Christie continues! It's interesting to see that Poirot works just as well in short-form fiction as he does in longer novels; even with the space constraints, his fastidious character and cultivated arrogance, to say nothing of his dramatic and performative tendencies, manages to cut through. All that and Poirot meets an entrancing Russian jewel thief! 

Plus, check out the cover on this book! Absolutely unhinged.


Agatha Christie's Poirot: The Affair at the Victory Ball, The King of Clubs, The Double Clue

One nice bonus for having read Poirot's Early Cases is that it opened up a treasure trove of adaptations staring David Suchet as Poirot! These were all pretty fun, and it was interesting to see what directions they took when fleshing out some of the shorter stories.


Cults of Cthulhu

You would be forgiven for thinking that Cults of Cthulhu, a supplement for Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu, covers the concept of mythos-devoted cults in general, but the book has a narrower focus: it only treats cults that serve Cthulhu specifically. The book gets a lot of mileage out of that topic; it presents an impressively diverse set of Cthulhu cults, includes a section on creating new cults, npcs and monsters associated with Cthulhu, and even three adventures that pit investigators against the insane servants of Lovecraft's most famous creation. The Cthulhu cult that riffs off the Church of Scientology is especially fine and cutting.


Dan Abnett, Ravenor: The Omnibus

New Year, new push to finish the Ravenor series by reading Ravenor Rogue and the remaining short stories I hadn't gotten to yet. Ravenor Rogue finds the inquisitor and his retinue going off-the-books in pursuit of their arch-nemesis, Molotch. All the while, a more insidious and powerful threat lurks in their midst! Dan Abnett really knows how to land on a downer ending that is all the more powerful for not being apocalyptic. The Eisenhorn series ended with the deaths of beloved side characters and the main character compromising his deeply held ideals; Ravenor ends with its main character making an incalculable sacrifice to uphold his own inner light. Can't wait to see where Bequin takes me.


The Lovecraft Investigations: The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

Someone on my Discord posted a link to the BBC's The Lovecraft Investigations, a podcast within a podcast about two true crime and weird history investigators who get drawn into the hidden world of mythos-related strangeness. So far I've only listened to the adaptation of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, but I can tell you it's excellent and that I'm looking forward to listening to the rest of them. You can find it here.

Junji Ito Maniac: Japanese Tales of the Macabre

As a big fan of Junji Ito's horror comics, I was curious how well they would make the transition to cartoon form in Junji Ito Maniac: Japanese Tales of the Macabre. Pretty well, as it turns out. I do think that being armed with familiarity of the source material is best, as I'm not sure there is a comparable experience to seeing Ito's art on the page in stack black and white; any page flip might just reveal the most fucked up thing you've ever seen. 


Missouri Williams, The Doloriad

Missouri Williams's The Doloriad might be one for the "vibes over plot" crowd, especially if they happen to prefer the vibes to be bad. The writing is definitely Faulkner-esque, but it's kinder and gentler, or at least easier to follow. Still, the humid dream of the prose washes over you; it's easy to lose yourself in the riptide of a floating perspective that shifts between the novel's characters as they contemplate the large-scale post-apocalypse they live within and the small-scale apocalypse that threatens to tear their ramshackle community apart. 

The prose style may be milder than Faulkner's, but the story is not; when the Matriarch of a brood of mutant children sends the most disposable of her daughters into the woods as a scapegoat offering her rule trembles with new tensions when the daughter returns unscathed after crawling back to what now counts as "civilization." The rest plays out like a post-apocalyptic, Southern Gothic Lord of the Flies.



Sunday, January 29, 2023

The Dream of Dungeons & Dragons

Way back when I was a kid, I knew about Dungeons & Dragons long before I got to play it. This was the era where D&D toys were on the shelves and a D&D cartoon played on Saturday mornings. There were commercials on tv for D&D and ads in comic books promising untold fantasy adventure. I was captivated by it, so much so that I vividly remember having a dream about what it must be like to play D&D.

In my dream, D&D was more like a board game than an rpg because I didn't yet really understand what an rpg was. As I imagined it, the players gathered around a special table that had been set up with a three-dimensional dungeon map. They bought figures for their characters and the monsters they wanted to use--each sold separately, of course. The map had walls with secret doors embedded in them, pit traps that would drop your character's figure into peril, and portals from which monsters would emerge to challenge you. The table had built in special FX: you could trigger sounds of agony when a character was slain, the crack of a bolt of lightning being unleashed, the creak of an iron-bound door being opened...

It was probably possible to play D&D like that in the 80s if you had the time and money to put into it, but when I finally got my hands on a Basic D&D box set we instead made do with graph paper and our imaginations. We were young teenagers lucky to have weird-shaped dice; even lead miniatures (yes, they were made out of lead then) were often out of our economic reach.

Oddly, I think WotC's future plans for D&D are a lot like my dream of what it was like--save for the fact that they plan to dole out the special table, the interactable map, the characters, the monsters, the special FX, and everything else virtually. Linking D&D more closely to a virtual tabletop, parceling out fun bits of the game as loot boxes or as a subscription service is not that far from what I envisioned.

And therein lies the rub. I got into D&D because I thought it would be fun to have all that fantasy stuff at my disposal, but I kept playing D&D because it was fun to make my own fantasy stuff. 

I have no use for a virtual tabletop--I mostly play online and I've never felt the need for one. I haven't pushed a miniature around a series of one-inch squares in years. Special FX? That's what our words and our minds are for; our FX budget is higher than anything you could try to sell us.

I think the fight over the OGL 1.0 is largely a red herring. The OGL has never been as good a deal as people make it out to be. In fact, I tend to think of it as a byproduct of people internalizing the idea that they need corporate permission to be creative, and to me that is a horrifying, stultifying notion. But don't take my word for it: here's the Electronic Frontier Foundation's analysis of it.

The good news is that however the OGL shakes out, it doesn't matter that much for the hobby. Tired of Hasbro's shenanigans? Yes, there are other games you could try, and it looks like a whole bunch of new Not Quite D&Ds are headed our way from teams with the experience to pull it off. And you already probably own enough D&D books to keep playing until they throw handfuls of dirt on the lid of your casket.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

The Smugglers' House

Although the "Savage Krevborna" game I ran was intended to be a one-shot, the way things ended up gave me some ideas that were so compelling that I wanted to follow it up with another. It helps that the characters my players came up with were extremely cool.

The Characters

Doctor Pendleton Torst, a sinister surgeon and anatomist

Countess Catarina Redmoore, a young and mysterious widow


Events

Three years had passed since Doctor Torst and the Countess had revived the "goddess" revered by a cult in Lachryma and turned a tome known as the Song of the Nightsea over to a mysterious woman named Belle Silvra. Things are different now in Lachryma: the Children of the Nightsea cult has effectively pushed the Church of Holy Blood to the sidelines, fishfolk from Fathom's Reach now walk openly in the town, and Belle Silvra has assumed control of the area in a decidedly unelected capacity.

In the interim, Countess Catarina used her wealth to found a rather unconventional convent dedicated to the being worshiped by the Children of the Nightsea.(1) Unfortunately, two of her novices had recently disappeared from the convent, leaving their belongings behind. Doctor Torst returned to Lachryma just in time to help Catarina search for the missing girls.

The pair's first stop was The Sick Rose, since they figured that the tavern might be a hotbed of gossip and potential clues. The Sick Rose had also changed in the intervening years; where its clandestine operations were once confined to the tavern's secret basement, the tavern was now openly a gaudy den of sin. The trip did yield results: they learned that teenagers in Lachryma had recently been daring each other to spend the night in a supposedly haunted house found further up the shore. Some of the adolescents thought to have spent the night at the house never returned. Could it be possible that Flora and Anabeth, the missing novices, had absconded from the convent to dare the unknown at the isolated house?

Pendleton and Catarina engineered their time of arrival so that they could explore the house by daylight.(2) The house was much as they had expected: a two-story building in a poor state of repair, perilously perched upon a chalk cliff overlooking the sea. 

Inside, the house was also much as they expected. They encountered mold, mildew, and disrepair. They nearly fell through the rotten floor of the upper story at one point. They found decaying clothes and evidence of vermin. However, they also discovered signs that indicated that the house had been occupied recently: new boots in a wardrobe, a stack of clean dishes and cutlery in the dining room, a copy of The Book of the Saints that was not waterlogged like the other books in the house, a suspiciously dust-free desk. 

Interestingly, the hints of habitation had a religious flavor to them; aside from The Book of the Saints, they also found one of the Church's holy symbols on a chain  and a cloak that had a religious insignia sewn into its lining.(3) 

Also interesting: from the house's widow's walk they spied a ship skimming the coast--though there was no discernable reason for a ship to be traveling this stretch of sea. In another chamber they found a signal lantern hanging outside a widow that faced said sea.(4)

Further in the house, they found a bound and gagged man who, when released, told them his name was Nedric Tull. Nedric claimed that he was merely a treasure hunter looking for valuables in the house and that he had been struck from behind, knocked unconscious, and left in restrained in the room. After his clothes were fetched, Pendleton armed Nedric with a iron poker from the fireplace.(5) Nedric didn't want to leave on his own, so he agreed to help them search the house for the missing novices.(6)

The group had put off searching the cellar because they knew that's always where the worst things lurk, and they were entirely correct. Down in the house's wine cellar they found the corpse of Flora.(7) Flora had been stabbed to death by a variety of blades, apparently as she tried to flee from person's unknown. Opening the hidden door from which Flora had fled revealed a makeshift barracks--currently occupied by three "smugglers" and a captive Anabeth who was being forced to serve the smugglers as a maid!

Combat immediately erupted, of course. Unfortunately, at this moment Nedric turned on his liberators and began bludgeoning Pendleton with the iron poker. While battling it out with these ne'er-do-wells, another figure emerged: a man wearing churchman's robes with wild hair and an unkempt beard.(8) This figure called forth the light of the heavens, which speared through the air to impale Catarina and Pendleton in the desperate melee.

The duo was ultimately triumphant. A combination of dagger stabs and shots from Catarina's pistol felled all but one of the smugglers, who fled to another hidden door. She tried to escape down into the caverns below the house, but was stopped in her track with a well-placed bullet. Down in the caverns, Pendleton and Catarina found the spoils of the smuggling operation: the "smugglers" were actually agents of the Church who were smuggling holy books to the faithful and arming an insurgency movement with swords!(9)

Anabeth was able to fill in the other gaps: she and Flora had dared each other to spend the night in the supposedly haunted house, but discovered that the house was being used as a front for the Church's operations. The signal lantern could be used to send messages to the ship out at sea. Flora and Anabeth has been taken captive by the Church's agents, and Flora had been killed during an ill-fated escape attempt.

But now the duo know that the Church is planning a counter-offensive against the Children of the Nightsea. What will come of this?


Notes

(1) - Catarina's player came up with this idea at the end of the first session. Look, if one of your players hands you a hook like "My characters starts a creepy convent," you run with it.

(2) - In my experience, players will always opt to explore a location during the day. Cowards!

(3) - The players correctly deduced that the hidden insignia could be flashed to identify other conspirators as aligned with the Church.

(4) - The signal lantern and the ship they saw were connected, of course.

(5) - As he handed the poker to Nedric, Pendleton's player remarked that he would probably be bludgeoned by it later in the adventure. He was, in fact, correct.

(6) - Nedric's purpose in staying with the characters was to take any opportunities to convince them to leave the house. When the group encountered a "spectral voice" telling them to leave (actually a pre-programmed spell effect) he tried to impress upon them that fleeing was the right course of action.

(7) - Why have Flora be dead? If you want to light the fire of bloodthirst in a player, have them find the body of a character they feel responsible for.

(8) - This guy was actually a Church inquisitor.

(9) - No mundane smuggling operation here; in Krevborna, the bad guys smuggle Bibles and swords intended for the hands of fanatics.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Pharos the Egyptian

Bad Books for Bad People, Episode 63: Pharos the Egyptian

Guy Boothby’s 1899 novel Pharos the Egyptian is a gothic horror tale that finds a hapless British artist crossing paths with a sinister elderly man who seems to have some connection to ancient Egyptian culture. Join Jack and Kate on a globe-trotting adventure filled with intrigue, magic, romance, and Neapolitan loafers.

Is there a difference between magical Egyptian hypnotism and garden-variety gaslighting? Why are all German pharmacists so annoying? What are the unspoken dangers of weed? All these questions and more will be explored in this episode of Bad Books for Bad People.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Winterholt and Zagrev Castle


Two more locations in the Sibersk region of Krevborna: a place of blood sport and a bastion of "honorable warriors" who are not what they seem.


Winterholt

Winterholt is a small coliseum that was built in Myrkrania at the behest of Count Magnus Draghul. It serves as the venue for gladiatorial games in which serfs who have displeased the Count must face each other in battles to the death before a rapt audience.

    • The blood sport that takes place in Winterholt provides a spectacle that pleases the most sadistic of the Count’s subjects and offers as a bloody reminder of the price of disobeying Magnus Draghul.

    • It is possible for the gladiators of Winterholt to rise in popularity and fame if they prove proficient at cutting down their fellow combatants. 

    • However, if a gladiator’s prestige rises too highly, they are inevitably matched against Astor Krory—an unbeaten vampire pugilist who has thus far killed all of his opponents with nothing more than his bare hands.


Zagrev Castle

Zagrev Castle is a baleful fortress in Mykrania that is under the control of the Hara clan, a family who claims to have immigrated from an unknown country to the far east of Krevborna.

    • The Hara clan pledged their fealty to the House of Draghul and are fully prepared to fight on the Count’s behalf should their aid ever be requested. 

    • The Hara family do not take their oath to Magnus Draghul lightly—the more bellicose members of the family are even eager to prove their worth to their generous benefactor.

    • The Hara clan hide their true natures behind the carefully maintained facade of being honorable warriors from abroad.

    • The Hara clan are not actually a “family”; they are demons who were chased from a faraway land by exorcists and monster hunters native to that distant island nation. 

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Song of the Nightsea

I ran my first game of the year: a Savage Worlds game that took place in my Krevborna campaign setting. We played for less than three hours, but a lot happened. Buckle up, this is going to be a long one.


The Characters

Doctor Pendleton Torst, a sinister surgeon and anatomist

Dalton Thayer, an explorer who collects rare specimens

Countess Catarina Redmoore, a young and mysterious widow


Riverboat Horrors

The characters were all travelers aboard the Dawnskimmer, a paddle steamer heading upriver to the town of Lachryma.(1) Traveling with them was Reverend Emmanuel Sartoris, a priest of the Church of Saintly Blood, his young castrati acolyte Sebastian, and a Polnezna violinist named Euphram. The group was lounging in the ship's common room when a sailor hurriedly burst in and whispered something to Captain Laurent, who departed the room in haste. Although the ship's paddle was still churning through the water, it was evident that the Dawnskimmer was no longer moving forward. 

A strange fog was also now pouring in from the river, filling the cabin. The group began to see shadowy forms in the room with them, and they could hear the two newcomers speaking to each other; they spoke of being pursued and of trying to evade their captors. The man and the woman who were speaking emerged from the fog, seeking succor. Just as Doctor Torst was about to hide them in a storage closet, another figure emerged from the mists--a man wearing a crow-like mask and wielding a cat o' nine tails. He whipped the man and woman, commanding them to attack!

Although obviously reluctant to do so, the pair flew at Catarina and Dalton while the whip-wielder attacked Pendleton. Reverend Sartoris and Sebastian fell to their knees, babbling out prayers, while Euphram hid in a corner of the room. Dalton acted quickly, plunging his sword into the chest of the man and then turning his attentions to the masked figure--whose throat he slit with a dagger. Neither bled; each simply faded away into the mist, leaving the woman the only one standing.

Now that the masked figure was "slain," the woman was free of its control. Questioned about what was going on, she explained that her village had been attacked by raiders from a ship called The Vulturis and that the raiders took her and many others as slaves. As the ship sailed away from the coast, a woman taken as a captive produced a strange book and claimed that if others joined her in prayer to a strange entity, they would be spared from a life of slavery. Some of the captives, desperate to avoid a wretched fate, joined the woman in entreaty an otherworldly being for aid. A storm suddenly came up, wrecking The Vulturis and sending it to the bottom of the sea. At this point, the woman realized that she had drowned that day and was effectively a revenant, at which point she too began to fade away as the fog receded. 

The group noticed that an unusual spiral pattern had formed in the condensation on the cabin's windows. Catarina recognized the symbol as belonging to a book of occult lore. Reverend Sartoris was also openly staring at the sigil, studying it. The Dawnskimmer lurched forward, now free of whatever had held it in place during the encounter. Reverend Sartoris took the events he had just witnessed as a a sign from the heavens, he believed that he and Pendleton, Catarina, and Dalton had been brought together to pursue a divine plan.(2) He offered to pay for the group's stay at an inn called The Vinter's Rest and hoped that they would meet with him at the local church to discuss a matter he believed concerned them all.

Diving Down to Fathom's Reach

At the church the next day, Reverend Sartoris explained why he thought their fates were all linked: he believed that the party was destined to retrieve a book called the Song of the Nightsea for him. The cover of the Song of the Nightsea was emblazoned with the same symbol that was left on the windows of The Dawnskimmer. The reverend believed that obtaining the book was the key to fully converting a group of "savages" he had been trying to draw into the light of the "true religion." These "savages" were degenerate fishfolk who lived within a secret undersea city called Fathom's Reach.(3)

In return for finding the book for him, Reverend Sartoris offered them each a lot of money. When that failed to get them all onboard with "the divine plan," he slid each of them an envelope containing a letter that detailed the leverage he had over each of them: he knew about Pendleton's anatomic experiments that might not be above board, he knew about the circumstances under which Dalton had obtained some of his specimens, and he knew something about the death of the Countess's husband.(4) They now agreed to act as his agents, but it is safe to say that they now viewed the reverend as a sinister character. Blackmail will do that.(5)

After leaving the church, the three split up. Pendleton had a hunch to follow up on at Lachryma's library; he discovered that prior to the slave ship sinking the Church had been investigating cult activity in the village.(6) Countess Catarina returned to the inn to knit; she fell asleep and dreamed of plunging into the depths of the ocean, where she came face to face with a being who had the upper half of a beautiful woman, and a mass of writhing tentacles as her lower half.(7) Dalton went in search of a drink and found himself encountering a mysterious veiled woman who introduced herself as Belle Silvra. She broached the idea that the group she represented would be a better recipient for the Song of the Nightsea than the Church and gave him tickets that would admit the group to a meeting to discuss that matter further, if they were interested.

They were interested, as it turned out. Although The Sick Rose (8), the tavern they had been directed to, was absolutely bog-standard, they spotted a fop giving a ticket (identical to the ones they had) to an employee who then ushered them down the stairs into a clandestine basement. They followed suit. In the basement of The Sick Rose, they found an orgiastic den of sin and vice.(9)

They also found Belle Silvra waiting for them; she offered them double what the reverend was willing to pay if they were to deliver the book to her instead. She made it clear that she was a representative of a cult known as the Children of the Nightsea; she believed that they could use the book to pry the town from the grip of the corrupt church.(10) The group didn't make her any promises, though they noted she wasn't blackmailing them to get what she wanted. They left it open-ended: they set up a time and place for the hand off if they could figure out a way to get her the Song of the Nightsea.

In the morning, they met Reverend Sartoris, Sebastian, and four church soldiers at the Dawnskimmer, which set sail for the spot where the group could dive down to the undersea city of Fathom's Reach. Countess Catarina was adamant that Sebastian join them on the expedition.(11) Outfitted with diving suits, waterproof lanterns, and air tanks created by church artificers, they reached Fathom's Reach in the depths--it was a city of black, greasy looking stone. 

After entering through a decompression chamber, they were escorted by fishfolk guards, their flesh like pale underbellies, to see their leader--a corpulent fishman wearing religious vestments and a pompous miter. After convincing him that they were emissaries from Reverend Sartoris, and that putting the Song of the Nightsea into the reverend's hands would bring his people closer to a full conversion to the Saintly Blood faith, he gave them directions to find the book's location: the sunken wreck of The Vulturis.(12)

The Sunken Slave Ship

The group found the broken bow of The Vulturis crashed on the ledge of an undersea trench. The entered the wreck through a hole staved in the side of the ship. Inside, they found the skeletal remains of the villagers who were taken as slaves and their captors, as well as two tunnels leading down into the trench shelf. In a somewhat cowardly play, they sent Sebastian down one of the tunnels to scout ahead. They waited for his return. And waited. And waited.(13) 

Eventually, they went after him. The end of the tunnel culminated in what looked like, at least from afar, as a curtain of fabric that waved in the current. As they got closer, they realized in horror what the "curtain" really was: it was comprised of a number of corpses wearing diving suits exactly like theirs.(14) They also found that the corpses had ahold of Sebastian and had apparently torn his diving helmet off--the youth had drowned in their grasp. Dalton kicked the corpses out of the way so they could explore further.

In another chamber of this undersea catacomb they discovered a tunnel leading down--there was something pink and glowing at the bottom of it. Countess Catarina dove down and had the eerie experience of her dream being replicated: as she approached the glowing object, it began to rush up to meet her. It was, in fact, an icon of the tentacled woman from her dream!(15) Catarina brought the icon back up to her waiting friends. 

When they examined the icon, they saw that it had dark stains around its mouth. At this point, they made a momentous decision: they retrieved Sebastian's corpse, slit his wrist, and fed the icon his blood--which flowed into its mouth as if being drawn in.(16) The icon transformed into flesh--the entity that the woman on The Vulturis had directed the desperate to pray to had been awoken once more!

The "goddess of the sea" regarded the group as saviors, in some twisted sense, and offered to reward them.(17) At their behest, she retrieved the Song of the Nightsea and put it into their possession. She agreed with them that it was better to give the book over to Belle Silvra, especially as she knew that Reverend Sartoris planned to kill them and take the book for himself.(18) As a further courtesy, the "goddess" destroyed The Dawnskimmer, drowning all aboard, and commanded the waves to bring the group safely to the surface and then to shore.(19)

As the stepped onto the beach, they found that the Song of the Nightsea was completely dry and undamaged, despite being undersea for hundreds of years. The book was traded to Belle Silva, and the group all went their separate ways. For now, at least.(20)

Notes & "Director's Commentary"

(1) - It's funny how anything you happen upon can be the seed of an entire adventure. Just prior to writing this one I had watched a video about a paddle steamer that mysteriously disappeared.

(2) - Reverend Sartoris really believed this was an act of providence that brought them together because, despite his fastidious appearance and friendliness, he was a fanatical monomaniac.

(3) - The fishfolk in Fathom's Reach are the descendants of the villagers who were taken as slaves and joined the woman on The Vulturis in prayer for rescue. "Rescue" took the form of calling out to a supernatural entity using the Song of the Nightsea and being transformed into fishfolk as the ship sank.

(4) - I had the character concepts in hand before I had even considered that Reverend Sartoris would blackmail them. It just so happened that the character concepts they gave me each had a fantastically dark secret that could lead to manipulation.

(5) - Of course, this continues the trend in Krevborna games where the Church and its agents are just the fucking worst.

(6) - The woman who had the Song of the Nightsea in the ship was the leader of the cult that was under investigation.

(7) - I improvised this dream sequence on the spot; luckily, it paid off later in the adventure.

(8) - Yes, that's a Blake reference.

(9) - Mattie surprised me by perceiving the joke I inserted here: the basement of The Sick Rose is literally "sub rosa."

(10) - In fact, she plans on using the book to call upon the entity it describes to wage war against the Church.

(11) - I couldn't figure out why Catarina's player wanted Sebastian along for the ride so badly, but later she said she planned on using him as leverage if Reverend Sartoris tried to double cross them. It makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, the reverend would gladly sacrifice anyone to get what he wants.

(12) - Reverend Sartoris arranged for them to meet with "the fish pope" to make it seem like he was on the up-and-up concerning converting them to the faith. In fact, he knows where the book is already, but wants the group to think they are the first to be sent after it. Also, meeting with the fishfolk showed that they were split on whether the Church was better than the old faith they used to have.

(13) - I love that they sent that kid to his death with no prompting from me.

(14) - I watch a lot of Youtube videos about cave diving disasters, and the worst ones are the incidents where someone dies in an underwater cave and then a bunch more people die trying to retrieve the body--making a human blockage in a tunnel. That's the idea I borrowed here.

(15) - In a perfect bit of synchronicity, Catarina's player volunteered to go down that tunnel, which exactly fit the dream sequence I had improvised earlier. Couldn't have planned it better!

(16) - The dried blood around the icon's mouth was only going to be evident if they specifically inspected it--and they did! Didn't foresee them feeding Sebastian to it, of course, but that was delightfully twisted.

(17) - Whatever she is, she's definitely not a real "goddess."

(18) - The reverend believed that removing the book from proximity to Fathom's Reach would mean it could no longer influence the fishfolk who hadn't embraced the Church of the Saintly Blood.

(19) - There was one survivor of The Dawnskimmer's wreck: Pendleton spotted Captain Laurent in the town as he left it. What's going on there??

(20) - If the characters revisit Lachryma, they will find it greatly changed: churchmen murdered and left as warnings, the Children of the Nightsea pulling the strings, brazen visits from the fishfolk, an otherworldly entity exerting its influence...