Monday, October 5, 2015

The Cittern of Cornelius Saltleven, Meister Dirgesinger

Few will ever know the depths of sorrow that fueled the art of the famed dirgesinger Cornelius Saltleven. It is reported that his songs could make a youthful man weep for weeks over a lost love that never even existed, that his funereal chants would move all assembled to wail and rend their black crepe garments, and that he was banned from performing in several villages due to the increased number of suicides that seemed to follow in his wake.

When Saltleven died, his tear-stained cittern was buried with him. Unfortunately, neither Cornelius nor his instrument were able to rest in their long-sought grave: Saltleven's body was exhumed by a doctor who wished to perform a post-mortem study of the singer's larynx to discover the biological cause of his voice's sweet melancholy timber, and his cittern was considered lost to illicit trade in morbid curiosities. 

Any bard who attunes themselves to the cittern immediately finds themselves knowing the words and melodies to these songs:

Like Ash on the Wind (fly)
The Greatest Sorrow is Unseen (invisibility)
We All Rise to Meet Our Lady of the Ravens (levitate)
Thee Old Salt Circle (protection from good and evil)
Eva Maeve and the Wolf (animal friendship)
The Manor House Aflame (protection from energy [fire only])
I Held the Devil's Asp (protection from poison)

The cittern functions exactly as an Instrument of the Bards (Doss Lute).

Friday, October 2, 2015

Last Chance on Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque Books

At the close of Halloween, 31 October 2015, the Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque books will be phased out. 

If you want a hardcopy of any of these, now is the time to pull the trigger. 

If you've been meaning to suggest these books to a friend, well, hip them to this sweet jazz now. Feel free to repost on social media and forums or wherever people gather to talk elfgames these days.

If you want to buy them all because one day they will be sought-after collectibles, well, go ahead but don't empty your retirement fund on these, okay?

There are still things within these books that I'm really proud of and would use in my own games; hell, I'll detail the best bits I'm still excited about below. But, at the same time, I now see what I could have done better; I've learned a lot about amateur publishing since I first started.

There is a small chance that some of this stuff will reappear in print in a different form at some point, but I don't know when or if that will happen. Ideally, I'd like to put these out again with better formatting and original art, but that means either finding the right collaborators to work with or really stepping up my pencil game. Interested parties know how to get in touch. We'll see how it works out. 

Buy 3 get the 4th one free coupon for Lulu: TRGE15
25% orders over $100 coupon: OCTBULK25

Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque 
- my first compilation of blogs posts detailing how to bend old-school rpgs in a Gothic direction. The random background table is still a great addition for adding a bit of Warhammer flavor to OSR D&D rule-sets. Also, the rules and tables for terror and horror are the best rules-facing things I've ever written, hands down.

Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque II
 - my second compilation of blogs posts detailing how to bend old-school rpgs in a Gothic direction. I still think all the random tables for vampires, werewolves, mummies, Igors, spiders, giant bats, flesh golems, and angry mobs are a lot of fun.

 Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque III 
- my third and final compilation of blogs posts detailing how to bend old-school rpgs in a Gothic direction. D&D has always needed Dandy and Spiritualist classes, and they're in this book!

Adventures on Gothic Earth 
- a compilation of blogs posts detailing how to bend old-school rpgs in a Gothic direction, but set in a version of our world's Victorian era. The new spells and bestiary stuff in this one are still pretty tight.

- A systemless "Gaslamp Fantasy" setting. Favorite bit: the setting-specific reason for Common being the default language.

Colonial Ethersea 
- Ulverland taken in the direction of Gothic Space Opera. Those orbital space stations tho!

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Blade Born of the Executed King

The blade of this battle-scythe was not forged as a weapon of war in its first incarnation; originally fashioned as the blade of a guillotine, its steel attained mystical properties when it was used to execute a particularly tyrannous king of ancient Arksylvania. The blood of royalty, even those corrupt and cruel, possesses divine power--power that was transferred to the guillotine's blade as the king's sacred lifeblood forever stained it. Centuries later the guillotine's blade was discovered by the Order of the Crimson Martyrdom; one of their runesmiths refashioned it into a wicked scythe.

Stats: Greataxe, with the properties of a sword of sharpness.

Monday, September 28, 2015

A Weird West Appendix N

As the summer heat burns itself out before autumn, I find myself thinking again of the Weird West...

...and updating my Weird West Appendix N upon request. If you're looking for a little Weird West inspiration, these are my suggestions:

Novels & Anthologies
John Joseph Adams (ed), Dead Man’s Hand
K. J. Bishop, The Etched City
Emma Bull, Territory
Richard Brautigan, The Hawkline Monster
William S. Burroughs, The Place of Dead Roads
Nancy A. Collins, Dead Man’s Hand
Felix Gilman, The Half-Made World and The Rise of Ransom City
Stephen King, The Gunslinger series
Louis L’amour, The Haunted Mesa
Joe R. Lansdale, Deadman’s Road and Flaming Zeppelins
Joe R. Lansdale and Pat Labru‚o (eds), Razored Saddles
Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
L. Wyatt‚, The Terrible Tale of Edgar Switchblade and The Dreadful Death of Edgar Switchblade

Film & Television
The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.

The Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers
The Burrowers

Cowboy Bebop
Dead Birds
Dead Man’s Gun
El Topo

From Dusk ’til Dawn 3
The Good, the Bad, and the Weird
High Plains Drifter
High Plains Invaders

Jonah Hex
Outlaw Star

Silent Tongue

Strange Empire
Tremors 4

Undead or Alive
Way of the Warrior
Wild Wild West

Graphic Novels & Manga
Billy the Kid’s Old Timey Odditties
Cowboys & Aliens
Dead Irons
Dead West

East of West
High Moon
Jonah Hex
Justice Riders
Pariah, Missouri
Prett‚y Deadly
The Sixth Gun
Tex Arcana

The Wicked West

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Undercroft

To be honest, I've avoided the 'zines coming out of the DIY RPG scene. Most of them seem to be focused on kinds of fantasy I'm not that interested in, such as Gygaxian-flavored D&Disms, mighty-thewed sword & sorcery, and "generic weird OSR." Furthermore, the quick proliferation of 'zines made them really difficult to keep up with; when everybody seems to be putting out a gaming 'zine, it's hard to sort through them all to find the ones that will appeal to you. We are definitely living in a game 'zine renaissance.

It wasn't on purpose that The Undercroft fell into my hands. I ordered Into the Odd from Paolo Greco at Lost Pages, and he and Daniel Sells (the editor and mastermind behind Undercroft) generously offered to send me the first four issues of the 'zine for review. Being unfamiliar with the 'zine in question, I didn't really have any expectations for it; worse yet, I started to get a sinking feeling when I read the first lines of the introduction to the first issue: "In Heaven Everything is Fine. But not here. Here, everything is awful. If you aren't losing your limbs to obscure diseases you're having them lopped off by solicitors and disgruntled historical figures. Life is hard and short." You see, the miserycrawl style of RPG play really doesn't appeal to me. I have no desire to play or run games in which the characters are syphilitic beggars armed only with shit-covered sticks as they explore a crapsack world of filth where every NPC they encounter is, at best, a shitlord, or, at worst, a cannibal. 

But that's not what Undercroft is. Not really.

Yes, there is vileness here, there is Ligottian weirdness here, there are creatures and men who would love to gut you and dance in your entrails. But there is also humor here that reminds me of David Lynch at his most knowing, Poe in his sardonic moments, or the comical madness of Michael Chabon's "The God of Dark Laughter." Everything might be awful in the Undercroft, but tongues are lodged squirming in cheek and the humor is as black as you should take your tea.

Tone now described, what treasures await within the pages? Since Undercroft is a 'zine with many contributors, the content is a mixed bag--but there is a lot to love or at least give you pause for thought. For example, the alternate rules for disease presented in Alex Clements's article in the first issue are a fresh and interesting take that gives disease a number of "Disease Hit Points" that must be winnowed away by casting of the Cure Disease spell. Similarly, Barry Blatt's "The Treason of the Guitar" sets-up a clever and goofy adventure scenario that mixes historical Puritanism with groan-worthy modern allusions. There are plenty of new monster ideas to play with throughout the issues I sampled. 

The first two issues have a "Compatible with Lamentations of the Flame Princess" blurb on the cover, but let's be honest: you can figure out how to use this stuff in whatever game you're playing if you've a mind to. Early on, the art is mostly historical illustrations, but original art is added to the mix as the issues progress. Like the content, it is a mixed bag, but the good pieces are really good and there's nothing truly eye-searing given that this is a small-press publication.

Over the course of the four issues of Undercroft that I've read, I went from having no prior opinion on the 'zine, to being wary of introduction's tone, to enjoying the thing thoroughly, to buying issues five and six to round out my collection. I wasn't looking for a 'zine to support, but I found one anyway.

Or did it find me? I shudder at the prospect.

Print copies of the 'zine are available here, and the last time I checked they were ON SALE. PDFs can be had here.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Master of the Hill Cantons: An Interview with Chris Kutalik

When I first joined Google+, everybody over there seemed to be talking about how cool Chris Kutalik's Hill Cantons campaign was. Haven't heard of it? Well, here's a quick primer on what you've been missing out on. Over the years, Chris has not only kept up with his blog, he's also put out quality gaming materials such as By This Axe, Slumbering Ursine Dunes, and Fever-Dreaming Marlinko -- he's truly a model of self-publishing efficiency without any of the crowd-funding goldrush flim-flam.

Q: The Hill Cantons is one of the best-regarded and long-running campaigns to come out of the old-school blog scene. One thing I've always wondered about the setting: how to you balance the folkloric inspirations in it (Slavic myth) with the more humorous aspects (pantsless barbarians, Church of the Blood Jesus, etc.)?

It's funny and a bit sad, I suppose. When I launched the Hill Cantons campaign in 2008 it was like just most any leisure thing you do as an adult: something I thought this would be fun distraction for a few months as I get through some big life changes. The blog started as something totally modest, a player-info clearinghouse for house rules, play reports and the like.

I don't think I had any pretensions other than I want the game to be a radically-plotless West Marches-like sandbox and the setting background to be a fantasy mirror of Bohemia during the insanity of the Hussite Wars mixed in with heavy dollops of Jack Vance absurdity and tone, Moorcock Eternal Champion-era fever dreaminess and J. Eric Holmes's anarchic gonzo. Which of course is a totally pretentious and contradictory, unsustainable trainwreck of an idea.

The West Marches “no town adventures and no overarching plots” was the first casualty to actual play and years of playing just starting growing more and more layers over the tiny 30-by-30 mile sandbox that was the starting core. One of the first of those layers was adding pre-Christian Slavic mythic elements (which filled in a lot more as the play groups hit mythic wilderness areas like the Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Feral Shore). It just hits some satisfying nerve in me.

Leaving aside the balls-out gonzo, elfgame elements, much of the comedy comes straight out of the two strands in Czech humor/culture that are lodged some deep, cracked place in my own psyche: a dark, dry gallows humor (the kind of culture that produces one-liners like “an optimist is someone who thinks things can't get worse”) and the slightly absurd and satirical school that produced such things as Hasek's Good Corporal Svejk or Capek's War with the Newts. (Not that I claim to be doing anything like their work when running or writing about D&D ferchrissakes, just nodding at their influence.)

Q: In what ways has the Hill Cantons setting changed over the course of the campaign due to the players' actions? Is there any advice you'd give to a fellow DM about how to make their world responsive to the characters over the long haul?

It was completely transformed by their actions as I kind of hint at above.

As a kid or teen I just played with the people around me: my brother, close friends and camp mates. These days I have been super lucky (and intentional) about getting players into the game who are pretty dynamic and thoughtful people. It's a waste to not try and build an environment that gives them free rein.

At one point the players decided to just up and leave the campaign area in the Hill Cantons proper and really never came back. They moved their center of activity to a half-ruined city a couple hundred miles away and I had to scramble to build almost build a whole other campaign--and they did another big move to a colony-building effort in the Feral Shore two years back. I love that kind of player-driven surprise and challenge.

That last part is a big question and I have to admit that I am kind of stumped for a concise answer. One of the pillars to a long-running campaign with high player buy-in is being very deliberate and regular in soliciting honest feedback (and actively listening to that feedback). A second I believe is finding a sweet spot in between having enough material fleshed out to give players options but not so much detail that you waste material. Practice just-in-time production.

Also learn to let go of your own precious ideas, NPCs, sites whatever that just don't get picked up by the players. While I think it's more than fine to recycle/reskin unused material, don't oversweat it if something doesn't stick. Like say a big underwater ruined city, cough, cough. Not that I am bitter.

Q: Aside from Hill Cantons, I think of you as a guy who makes time for the occasional game of Traveller. Is there something about Traveller that scratches a gaming itch that your usual D&D can't reach, aside from the obvious change of genre?

Traveller has always been my “second game.” Technically, it's the first rpg product I ever picked up. I remember buying a model kit for a tank around 1979 and reading through 1001 Characters which is just this collection of hexametric numbers for character stats, strange skill notations and military rank. It seemed so esoteric, so otherworldly. I played an ungodly amount of it starting a few months after playing rpgs (good old Holmes Basic).

It's funny sticking with it now as an adult because most of the Campbellian hard-SF buzzcut books that influenced it I am just not a big fan of. I do however still love the shit out of the lifepath character generation, tramp steamer/heist mode of play and the softer, aesthetic overtones of say the Terran Trade Authority books and other 1970s SF art which filled in the gaps of those art-free little black books back in the day. So it stays in my rotation. 

Q: One thing you're known for is asking your Google+ circles what they've been reading lately, and if it is good. Turnabout is fair play: what have you been reading lately, and is it good?

I am mostly fishing for new things to read. Right now I am reading Bathhouse at Midnight by W.F. Ryan which is really not about half-ogre handjobs but a thorough (and credible) exploration of folk magic in Russia. Holy shit is it good.

One of may favorite chapters is about zagovory (“false prayers”) which are these lyrical invocations. Take this actual Russian 17th century folk magic spell against erectile dysfunction; "I, servant of God N. shall arise, blessing myself and I shall go crossing myself into the open field under the beautiful sun, under the bright moon, under the crowding stars, past the grave of the bones of the giants, and just as the bones of the giants do not bend or break so may my member not bend or break against woman's flesh and parts and memorial bones. And I servant of God N. shall take my red elm stick and go into the open field, tossing up its head and looking into the sky and moon and Great Bear...and strike the three-year-old bull on its horn.”

Predictably I have been trying to figure out ways to shoehorn that beautiful, unintentionally hilarious weirdness into gameable form for the campaign.

Q: What is the Hydra Cooperative and what is the benefit of producing game materials as part of a group as opposed to working as an auteur?

I am hesitant to universalize the experience. There are any number of highly creative people—most of whom are putting out all of their work free or at-cost—with intensely personal visions about how to design games or adventures who just work better as one-man operations. And there are any number more of people in hobby publishing who just plain don't play well with others.

I come out of a couple of decades (journalism, labor organizing) of working with small, tight-knit groups of intense, passionate people focused on common projects. Personally I thrive in that kind of work environment and tend to find cross-inspiration working alongside creative or driven people. I know you are required to politely say things like I really love working with folks like Trey Causey, Robert Parker, Anthony Picaro, Mike Davison, Humza K, Luka Rejec, Jeremy Duncan, David Lewis Johnson and Jason Sholtis. But I really do. It's like a dream team of my DIY gaming soul. 

Q: I consider the Kickstarter you did for Slumbering Ursine Dunes to be a mega-success in that it funded, people love the gaming content that came out of it, and you managed to deliver the product without squandering the backers' money. What tips would you give a new game publisher about to embark on their first foray into crowd-funding?

I was fairly critical as a hobby blogger of the first wave of gaming Kickstarters. It seemed a bit too close to the unchecked insanity of the pre-crisis financial industry of last decade where you had too much easy money floating around with little to no consumer accountability. No wonder it produced so many trainwrecks.

But inside of all that you had people like Kevin Crawford creating great, responsible and ethical counter-examples. The lessons as I see them are first and foremost to treat backers not as wallet-things or pre-order buyers, but as people who are taking a risk and supporting you. Secondly to have something written and ideally ready to go when the Kickstarter ends (expecting the reward first and then the writing to follow is really kind of foolish). And the third is work like hell and don't quit. (A big hats off to Robert Parker who faced some real world grief and who still pushed through to not just edit but to add sections of his own to Marlinko.)

Well we are still a year later working on the stretch goal adventures, but we are intentionally over-fulfiling them, having turned them from was supposed to be sketchy “further adventures” outlines of 15-20 pages each to fully-realized products (Fever-Dreaming Marlinko was 6,000 words longer than the Dunes even). I feel pretty proud of how we handled the Kickstarter, in the main getting the main adventure out right before the December 2014 deadline as we promised.

Q: What's next for Chris Kutalik?

I am going to drink a lot and stay up all night!

Seriously though, I see a full docket ahead. We have Jason Sholtis's Operation Unfathomable coming down the line and I look forward to switching out of writer/designer hotseat mode. We also may have a Big Fucking Surprise coming down the pike in early 2016. And of course there's still all kinds of things I want to write or design from undercities to microgames.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Demons, Devils, and Death Drives

I've been revisiting some Edgar Allan Poe stories I haven't read in a while, which has got me thinking about Freud's theory of the death drive. And somehow that has filtered into thinking about Arksylvania's demons and devils.

One of the grand things about making your own campaign setting for D&D is that you can choose to exclude as much of the inherited D&Disms into your world as you want or bend those D&Disms in a way that wouldn't necessarily work in an already established setting; you can pick and choose from the "canon," or discard it entirely.

Since Arksylvania was my first "5e setting," I wanted to play around in D&D's sandbox without feeling beholden to the way D&D tends to do things. For the purposes of illustrating what I'm getting at here, I'm going to talk about what differentiates demons and devils in Arksylvania.(1)

According to the 5e Monster Manual, demons are "the embodiment of chaos and evil--engines of destruction barely contained in monstrous form" and devils "live to conquer, enslave, and oppress." Looking at those two basic building blocks of differentiation reminded me of Freud's theory of the death drive. According to Freud, the instinct toward death, destruction, and dissolution can take a myriad of instinctual forms. As he states in "The Economic Problem of Masochism," "The instinct is then called the destructive instinct, the instinct for mastery, or the will to power." Demons, then, with their "embodiment of chaos" and function as "engines of destruction," are clearly manifestations of the death drive as a pure destructive instinct.(2) Devils, on the other hand, as beings who "live to conquer, enslave, and oppress," are manifestations of the death drive as the instinct for mastery and the will to power writ monstrously large.(3)

Sure, that's a neat theoretical congruence, but what does it mean in terms of world building? First, it helps explain the "Blood War" between demons and devils that was a big part of 2e's canon. As manifestations of a cosmic death drive, you might expect that devils and demons should be allies against the life-loving races of the world, but although they are manifestations of the same force each group is so focused on their particular flavor of the death drive that it excludes the methods and schemes of the other. The will to power of the tyrannical devils is simply incompatible with the demons' chaotic urge for obliteration, and vice versa. A libido divided against itself cannot stand.

Second, this strife between two supernatural forces out to either enslave or destroy mankind gives mankind a profound weapon against both: as more and more of the nature of these beings is revealed in play, it gives the characters a natural tactic that can aid them in the struggle against cosmic darkness: either side could be carefully leveraged against the other to keep both of these death instincts in check--a kind of libidinal stalemate. Even if the total defeat of demons and devils is impossible for mere mortal agents--and can the death drive ever truly be banished entirely?--the way in which they can be pitted against each other keeps things in necessary stasis. It isn't so much that the Moorcockian struggle between law and chaos is a substitute for good and evil, it's the notion that destruction and tyranny must be maneuvered into a stable state for the greater good of the continued existence of all.(4)

Arksylvania setting pdf is here.

(1) - The general populace in Arksylvania would recognize no practical difference or theological distinction between demons and devils, of course. Superstition and inherited belief masks the real cosmological truths that govern the universe.

(2) - Since Orcus is a a demon lord associated with the undead, this also colors the setting's view of what undeath is: it isn't an orderly process, it's life inverted into deathless chaos and always already an impulse toward decay. 

A tangent: liches, then, wrest the power of undeath from its chaotic roots and transform it into a kind of perverse order to defeat the natural entropy of mortal existence. The results of this, however, ripple outwards in a fractalized, chaotic pattern, once more serving the ends of destruction.

To keep the "D&D canon" a little distant, instead of referring to demon lords by their more familiar names I think cults devoted to them in Arksylvania will call them by their more obscure epithets. Blood Lord for Orcus, the Sibilant Beast for Demogorgon, etc.

(3) - Asmodeus, chief of devils, is simply referred to as the Devil by the Church of the Wounded God.

Also, it is interesting that the Monster Manual gives a genesis point for demons (they are spontaneously generated by the Abyss) but there isn't an origin attached to the devils. For now, I'm going with the fallen angels archetype.

(4) - Of course, this doesn't have to come into play just in the late game of high levels; it can also be something that texturizes the more obvious intrigues and power struggles in the setting as well. The vampire lord of Arksylvania, Gabriel von Karlok, is Orcus's son. His enemy, Countess Lucrezia Vittorio, is a succubus agent of Asmodeus. Which basically means I've mashed together D&D's demon/devil enmity with the battle between Dmitry and Morrigan in Dark Stalkers.