Tuesday, August 11, 2020

The Soparla

The Soparla
A faction in Krevborna

The Soparla is a criminal organization that operates in the cities and towns of Krevborna. It is particularly active in Chancel and Piskaro; some say that it is connected to a larger, more secretive, criminal organization called the Blind Consort. Though the Soparla’s members do plan and execute mundane crimes such as heists and other robberies, their true specialties are dealing in alchemically enhanced intoxicants and assassination via summoned demons.

The shadows sing the song of gold and silver.

  • The criminal underworld can wield as much power as the Church or secular authority.
  • Any form of magic, no matter how diabolic or necromantic, can be put to use to make a profit.
  • True freedom comes from seizing power for yourself.

  • Gain control of Krevborna’s docklands and ports.
  • Assimilate or destroy rival criminal organizations.

  • Murder a watchman who is investigating the Soparla’s dealings too closely.
  • Expose a rival criminal organization to the law’s wrath.
  • Steal the formula for a new form of magical intoxicant.

* * *

Director's Commentary
One thing I have previously under-emphasized in Krevborna is the role of organized crime. It's easy, in a Gothic-influenced setting, to get wrapped up in all the vampires, witches, and ghouls. A little basic human criminality helps grounds things remarkably. Of course, in a fantasy game you always have the option of augmenting your main thieves' guild with a little black magic; the Soparla deal in magically enhanced drugs and aren't adverse to summoning demons to aid in their assassination plots.

Monday, August 10, 2020

The Nachtmahr Mountains

The Nachtmahr Mountains
A location in Krevborna

Though the Nachtmahr Mountains are desolate and dangerous, they are also home to rugged tribes of barbaric humans descended from immigrants from the Skalloche Isles. The Malcovat, a school of black magic, is hidden within the Nachtmahr Mountains. Otherworldly beings also inhabit the mountains; the primeval wolf Old Gray Hildur guards the grave of a holy warrior who died sealing a gateway to the Abyss, and Thronzeker and Nochvanator, two ancient dragons, prowl the mountains in search of champions to further their sinful aims. 

  • Immense, fang-like mountains of sublime beauty and terrifying aspect.
  • Sudden and unrelenting thunderstorms amid the peaks.
  • The sinister sound of an unseen bell tolling.

Interesting Things About the Nachtmahrs
  • Despite their danger, the Nachtmahr Mountains are sublimely beautiful.
  • The Nachtmahrs are home to a variety of ancient evils who find refuge among their peaks.
  • Like vermin, practitioners of black magic seek places of darkness such as the Malcovat to propagate their trade.

  • Discover the location of the Malcovat and seek knowledge from a mad scholar within its walls.
  • Hunt a tribe of villainous barbarians who make the mountains their home.
  • Cleanse a system of caves that have become infected with the unholy stain of the Abyss of Hell as it encroaches on the mortal world.

* * *

Director's Commentary
Every Gothic setting needs ominous and sublime mountains. The Nachtmahr Mountains are Krevborna's Carpathians, complete with a hidden school of black magic. The Malcovat is based loosely on the mythology of the Scholomance. In one adventure I ran, the player characters had to infiltrate the Malcovat; I had a lot of fun writing-up the various guardians that the school has. I would like to run a campaign where the characters are all students at the Malcovat, but so far the opportunity hasn't presented itself beyond one game that just didn't get off the ground.

The Nachtmahrs are also a go-to location if you want to do something with demons and devils from the Abyss of Hell. There are gateways to the Abyss within the mountains, some sealed, some seeping hellish corruption. Of course, if you want to open the most obvious gate to the Abyss, you're going to have to content with Old Gray Hildur, an ancient wolf spirit who guards the entrance.

The Nachtmahr Mountains are also home to two ancient dragons who wish will upon mankind. One is responsible for the destruction of Krevborna's royal line (but perhaps not completely), and the other wishes to plunge the world into never-ending winter (much like the Helvinter cult...and there's probably a connection there.)

And, of course, there are human foes as well. No Gothic mountain range is complete without clans of deranged and inbred hillfolk. 

Thursday, August 6, 2020

The Beast Awakens, The Little Stranger, The Blood of Roses, and More

Things that brought me delight in July, 2020:

Joseph Delaney,
Aberrations: The Beast Awakens
I loved Joseph Delaney's Last Apprentice series. The Beast Awakens, the first book in the Aberrations series is strong stuff. The set-up is that an expanding, mutating patch of unfathomable darkness has settled over part of Lancaster; it's a bit like Annihilation in that the darkness, known as the Shole, is confounding and full of monsters. Crafty, the book's protagonist, is a kid assigned to work as a "gate grub"; his Fey blood allows him to enter the Shole through portals to do jobs for adults who monitor his progress from a safe remove. There's a bit of a Harry, Dumbledore, Snape triangle in the relationship between Crafty, the head gate mancer, and a villainous gate mancer nicknamed Viper. However, instead of just shaking their fists at the Snape analog, the kids are actively planning on murdering him. The Beast Awakens gets dark. Another episode enters the intersection of folk horror and body horror; the kids have to dart into the darkness to attempt to recover the duke's son, but when they find him, they discover that his lower body has been transformed into roots that extend into a hellish bog. They have to dig him up like a mandrake while he screams in agony. But perhaps the most horrifying element of the novel is the callous disregard the adult gate mancers have for the children employed as gate grubs. To the gate mancers, the grubs are simply expendable tools.

The Little Stranger
I love Sarah Waters's novel The Little Stranger. To my mind, it's one of the best haunted house stories of all time. However, there's never a guarantee that a movie adaptation of a beloved novel will hit the right notes. I can happily report that the film version of The Little Stranger is actually very good. The novel is not a short, compact read, so obviously some things needed to be truncated to keep to a reasonable run time, but all the important elements of the plot and characterization made it into the final cut. After watching the film, I looked at the reviews of it and was somewhat surprised by them. I probably shouldn't have been. The Little Stranger is not really a horror movie or even a conventional ghost story, so it makes sense that an audience more used to Paranormal Activity part 8 didn't really get what the story is doing.

Tanith Lee,
The Blood of Roses, Volume I: Mechail, Anillia
Previously only available in the UK, Immanion Press has done the holy work of publishing Tanith Lee's The Blood of Roses as a two volume set for a wider audience. Even though I've only read the first volume, I feel confident in gesturing toward The Blood of Roses as further proof that no one has mastered Gothic fantasy as well as Tanith Lee. A young prince is accosted in his crib by a black moth that resembles Christus impaled upon the sacred tree; he grows up crooked and broken, only to be refashioned by a fate beyond life and death. Things spirals out from there--a chaos of desire and confusion that always collapses into a neat web of a supremely ordered plan. Anjelen, a magister of the church and Knight of God, sits at the center. The mother, a witch and far more besdies, rises against the tide. Another girl, born from the pursuit of the black moth, defies the flames of damnation to become something else entirely. Faith, and blood, and vampires.

Sasha Graham and Abigail Larson,
Dark Wood Tarot
As soon as it was announced that Abigail Larson had done the art for a deck of tarot cards, I knew I'd be adding them to my collection. And what a set this is! Not only are the major and minor arcana all illustrated with original art by Abigail Larson in her easily recognizable Gothic Fairy Tale style, but the set includes a deluxe over-sized box and a hefty illustrated guide written by Sasha Graham. The illustrated guide is great; it provides details on the symbolic meanings of the cards and different spreads. It also provides a larger reproduction of the art from each of the tarot cards, which is helpful as the cards themselves are on the small side and the art really deserves to be seen in the larger format.

Empire of Dark Salvation, Gothic Electronic Anthems, The Other Side, Utopia
Gothminister is a band with a limited trajectory of evolution. Their earliest efforts are stomping Gothic industrial. Think Rob Zombie, but for the Vampire Lestat crowd. As their albums progress, heavy guitars come to the fore. Think Rammstein, but for the Vampire Lestat crowd. However, the basic formula remains the same--this is big, silly, Halloween music. The name encapsulates the concept nicely: Gothminister is a ridiculous, theatrical appellation, but it's not without its appeal. Darkness as anthem, you might say. 

Gordon Rennie, Emma Beeby, Tiernan Trevallion, Jim Campbell,
Robbie Burns: Witch Hunter
The premise behind Robbie Burns: Witch Hunter is simple enough: what if, aside from his poetical and womanizing ambitions, circumstances forced Robbie Burns to adopt the role of a witch hunter? After spying a coven at their blasphemous rituals, Burns is saved by a duo of experienced witch hunters--but in their flight from the demonic host, Burns is marked as a sacrifice. The pair have three days to turn the rough ploughman into a witchfinder. Of course, Robbie can't help but fall for the beautiful, red-haired witch hunter Meg. But what of his poems? Well, suffice to say that Robbie Burns: Witch Hunter does as clever as a trick with "My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose" as is possible. The art style is definitely in the mold of the Mignola-esque, but given the topic and the time period that really works well here. The monsters are suitably gribbly and the women suitably buxom. All in all, this felt like a fun celebration of Robbie Burns while also speculating on an alternate life that the author of Tam o' Shanter could have led.

Marilyn Ross,
Dark Shadows
I had long wished that it was easy to pick up the Dark Shadows novels published in the 1960s; thankfully, they have begun to be reprinted! The alternate Dark Shadows timeline posited in the first book is pretty wild, but it's a different flavor of wild than what I found in Lara Parker's Dark Shadows novels. It's been a while since I watched the early episodes of the show, but these novels feel much more concentrated in their distillation of the Gothic, perhaps because they have to squeeze a plot line into 150 or so pages instead of endless episodes of a daytime show. In this novel Victoria Winters feels even more driven by need, and the mystery of her parentage seems more acute. Her instant desire to fit into the household or to discover that she is a secret Collins heir reminds me a lot of how the doctor in The Little Stranger desperately wants to have some claim over the old mansion. Within days she is in a desperate romance with Ernest Collins, a concert violinist cousin of Elizabeth Stoddard who does not exist in the television show, forming attachments quickly so she can't be ousted from the object of her desire. Victoria as unreliable narrative is a bold move, but then again all of the versions of the recognizable cast feel at least slightly cracked: Elizabeth is keeping more secrets than usual, Roger is a sexual predatory on top of being a drunk, Carolyn is Id personified, etc. The overall feeling is something like "David Lynch's Dark Shadows." The most fraught moment: Carolyn asks Victoria, "Do you frug?" She does not. Too consumed by neuroses for that.

Squishable Plague Doctor
I made a new friend during these "unprecedented times."

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The House of Skarnstein

The House of Skarnstein
A faction in Krevborna

The nobles of the House of Skarnstein are the sages and councilors of the Lamashtuan vampires. The members of House Skarnstein relentlessly pursue knowledge; their libraries rival those found at Creedhall University. The vampires of the House of Skarnstein are particularly interested in the technological marvels left behind by the Lilitu. Like most aristocratic houses in Lamashtu, the family’s leaders are vampires. The house’s vampiric bloodline is tainted; the body of anyone transformed into a vampire by a member of House Skarnstein is warped into a hideous, gargoyle-like form. The house is currently led by Baron Nikolai Skarnstein.

We are monstrous in form, but wondrous in our thoughts.

  • Knowledge must be recovered and preserved at all costs.
  • Untold wonders exist within the Grail Tombs.
  • Only the most intelligent mortals should be offered the black kiss of vampiric immortality.

  • Master the technology left behind by the Lilitu to usurp the throne of Lamashtu.
  • Purify the Skarnstein bloodline of its monstrous corruption.

  • Exchange innovations with the Apostles of Dawn.
  • Uncover the means to cure the Skarnstein of their accursed appearances.
  • Seduce a genius into the fold of the House of Skarnstein.

* * *

Director's Commentary
The House of Skarnstein represents the intellectuals of the vampire world. And like most circles of intellectuals, they are absolutely hideous. Which of course means that there's room for classic Nosferatu-style vampires in Krevborna. This felt especially necessary since there is a nosferatu-style vampire on the cover of the Krevborna setting book. 

Sunday, August 2, 2020

In the Court of the Vampire Queen

Photo by Josipa Juras at unsplash.com
Photo by Josipa Juras
at unsplash.com
As they rode through the imposing iron gate that served as an entrance to the walled city held in thrall by Alcesta von Karlok, Casimir asked Denvanya, "So, how do you propose we get an audience with a vampire lord who can tell us where Khamad's brother might be going?" "Simple," she said, "we're going to drop my name at castle and they are going to admit us."

As they approached Siebenhurst Castle, it quickly became evident that the the court was currently abuzz with activity. Great wagons bearing provisions and casks of wine wheeled to and fro, servants scuttled about underfoot, and perhaps most tellingly, black carriages displaying the coat of arms of Lamashtu's noble houses had begun to line up in a long, serpentine queue. Khamad stopped a serf and asked him what was afoot. The man replied, "The Countess has broken the will of the nobles who opposed her. She has their consent to be raised to a Queen! Our Queen! Long live the Deathless Queen! May her sanguine majesty rule forever!"

When they reached the gate of the castle they were confronted by four Knights of Lilith who eyed the group suspiciously and asked to see their invitation to the queen's coronation. Devanya leaned forward in her saddle and declared, "We have no invitation. I am Devanya de Francesca-Almordante, and I am here to offer the Church's blessing to Queen von Karlok on the day of her coronation." 

The knights exchanged troubled glances. One of them stepped away briskly. 

Khamad whispered to Devanya, "You know that your religion is outlawed here in Lamashtu, don't you? You may have just signed out death warrants."

Devanya smiled. "No, I've presented them with a curiosity. They're going to let us in on the off chance a priest of the Church is prepared to bend the knee and give praise to an unholy monarch."

"Aren't you worried about being defrocked if your precious Church hears about how casually you toss around the authority you assume in its name?" Sable asked.

"I'm not on particularly good terms with my Church," Devanya replied.

Sable suddenly grabbed at Devanya's shirt, pulling the garment down at the back to expose a brand that had been burned into the other woman's flesh. "I knew it. A heretic's mark. You're a priest, all right, but not of the Church as we know it."

Just then, the knight returned and whispered something to his compatriots. The group were asked to dismount; then they were led to a private meeting with Vrey von Karlock, a minor member of the noble House of von Karlok. Vrey listened patiently as their ruse was explained. They told him that they had reason to believe that a vampire lord of Lamashtu had given Malak, Khamad's brother, a magical weapon of unimaginable power.

Vrey offered them a slight correction. He was aware that an object had traded hands between a member of House Skarnstein and Malak, but that object was not the weapon itself. The object in question was a key to unlock the sought after weapon from some hidden place of imprisonment. Only the Skarnstein know where Malak has gone with the key. But Vrey had an offer for the group: the Skarnstein vampires were the last to concede to Alcesta von Karlok's desire to be crowned queen, so they must be reminded of their place. If the party would help Vrey entrap a few members of the Skarnstein family in a situation that revealed their dissidence, Vrey would see to it that the information about Malak's destination would be disclosed to them so they might continue their pursuit.

The trap was baited: Devanya approached an enclave of suspected Skarnstein rebels as a cleric willing to use her divine power to thwart the queen's coronation. The small group of nobles she was negotiating with were caught out agreeing to what amounted to a treasonous plot. Hidden Knights of Lilith, as well as Casimir, Sable, and Khamad, leaped out of concealment as soon as the treachery was uncovered. A fierce battle ensued as they rebels attempted to escape, but the Skarnstein betrayers were either slain or taken captive. Those who still possessed their lives--or unlives--would be made an example of, sacrificed as part of the pomp and circumstance of the crowning of Queen Alcesta von Karlok.

* * *

Thursday, July 30, 2020

To Outlive the Gods, End of Time, Beneath Broken Earth

A few howls of the damned for your listening pleasure:

My Dying Bride, "To Outlive the Gods"

Lacuna Coil, "End of Time"

Paradise Lost, "Beneath Broken Earth"

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

The Yadezhda Lodge

The Yadezhda Lodge
A faction in Krevborna

Members of the Yadezhda Lodge believes that to fight beasts one must become a beast; they consume vermin both mundane and unnatural to gain their power. The Yadezhda Lodge is essentially a cult of monster hunters; however, unlike most beast slayers, they do not pursue their ends in hopes of protecting civilization—they revel in the hunt itself and glory in primal bloodshed. The members of the Lodge are quite competitive; each strives to have the most impressive kill to boast of among their fellows. Trophies taken from their kills are proudly displayed in meeting places frequented by members of the Yadezhda Lodge.

If blood makes the beast, we must be as beasts.

  • Devouring monstrous flesh imbues the consumer with the strength and prowess of beasts.
  • Civilization has made humanity weak and should be abandoned.
  • The only way to survive in a savage world is to become savage.

  • Overcome mankind’s limitations by embracing a more monstrous nature.
  • Foster predatory instincts.

  • Hunt a fearsome beast to gorge upon its flesh and blood.
  • Test the members of a secret society of pit fighters to determine who among them is worthy of induction.
  • Prove your mettle by scaling a haunted mountain.

Director's Commentary
The Yadezhda Lodge is my riff on the obscure Ata-Beestal secret society in Ravenloft. The Ata-Beestal has a really cool core idea--a faction that is anti-civilization and desires to transform its members into beasts--but the execution is fairly poor. They're lightly sketched, at best, have contradictory aims, and are basically locked away in G'henna, a part of Ravenloft that is more thematic than gameable.

With the Yadezhda Lodge, I'm taking one of the focal points of Krevborna--hunting monsters--and illustrating how that isn't always a noble-hearted or altruistic thing in every case. While the Yadezhda do slay monsters and other ravening beasts, they also admire the savage ferocity of such creatures and wish to emulate them. This desire is honed by their animistic belief that consuming the flesh and blood of monsters will make them stronger and more primal. 

Think of them as another facet of the idea of vampirism, with a bit of John Zerzan and The Most Dangerous Game thrown in for good measure.