Monday, May 20, 2019

When You Call on the Dark

With all the talk of rules for diabolic bargains coming in the forthcoming Baldur's Gate: Descent into Avernus book, this seems like a good time to post my guidelines for demonic bargains in The Liberation of Wormwood. I see these as a baseline way to approach dealing with demons; since demons are creatures of chaos, there's certainly room to add other possibilities here as well.

Those who crave power in Cinderheim often draw upon the unholy might of demon lords to make their desires manifest in the world. Survival is fraught amid the deadly wastelands of Cinderheim; growing stronger through demonic aid can mean the difference between seeing another sunset and dying unknown and unmourned.

Magical power is sometimes gained from demons through unconscious, pernicious influence. Although they are often blunt instruments of chaos, some demon lords are crafty enough to bend mortals to their will without attracting notice.

Sometimes a character consciously strikes a bargain with a demonic entity and trades their service and their immortal soul for a supernatural gift. Demons are little more than power given hateful substance; they have no qualms about sharing that power with others who might advance their aims and be corrupted to their chaotic, destructive purposes.

A player character should always be aware that they have the option of pursuing a bargain with a demonic force to gain additional power. A powerful demon, such as one of the demon lords trapped beneath the encampments of Cinderheim, might offer temptations subtle or otherwise—dangling the promise of power in front of a character caught in a precarious situation.

Accepting a demon’s offer of power, whether consciously or unconsciously, is always an act that damns a character’s soul. When they die, their soul is forfeit to the Abyssal Disunion and cannot be resurrected. A lost soul is initially refashioned as a lowly manes within the Disunion. As the newly formed demon spreads disorder, chaos, and violence, it grows in power and might evolve into a more potent form of demonkind. It is even possible for a tainted soul to eventually become a demon lord as powerful as those who have warped Cinderheim into a vast abyssal infection of tainted deserts and corrupted wastelands.

The gifts granted by the demon lords of Cinderheim fall into these categories found in the Other Rewards section of the DMG:
  • Charms. Charms are often the initial offering a demon grants to a bargainer. Because charms are a finite, exhaustible resource they function as a form of addiction. A demon uses the promise of renewed charms to lure a bargainer into dependence upon them for magical aid. Demon lords withhold charms from those who do not feed their needs and desires.
  • Dark blessings. Dark blessings are the demonic equivalent of the blessings bestowed by the gods. The demon lords of Cinderheim are powerful enough to offer dark blessings in return for a character performing an act that significantly advances their aims. The promise of a dark blessing is used to coerce characters into service. They are often accompanied by bodily corruption that marks the recipient as being favored by a demon lord.
  • Training. Demon lords visit the mortals they corrupt in their fevered dreams to teach them proficiency in skills, grant them feats, or give them inspiration. This training is frequently also used to test the bargainer’s loyalty and cement the bonds of servitude. Through training, a demon shapes a bargainer into a useful tool. The training offered by a demon lord may also change a character’s personality traits, ideal, bond, and flaw.
  • Epic boons. Epic boons are only granted to a demon lord’s most powerful champions. These gifts are bestowed exclusively upon faithful and fanatical disciples who have served their masters well. When a demon lord offers an epic boon, it is a sign that they feel assured that their servant’s loyalty is beyond question.

Due to the influence of death-hungry demons in Cinderheim, a death saving throw succeeds on a roll of 15 or higher.

If a character enters into a bargain with a demon lord and has the Spellcasting or the Pact Magic class feature, the demon may add additional spells to the spell list for their class, thereby expanding the spell options available to them.
The demon lords of Cinderheim’s major encampments grant the following spells to their followers, cultists, and champions:
  • Druuz. Identify (1st level), augury (2nd level), speak with dead (3rd level).
  • Narah. Expeditious retreat (1st level), enlarge/reduce (2nd level), gaseous form (3rd level).
  • Raaz. Hunter’s mark (1st level), enhance ability (2nd level), haste (3rd level).
  • Thanor. Charm person (1st level), suggestion (2nd level), vampiric touch (3rd level).
  • Yaza. Dissonant whispers (1st level), phantasmal force (2nd level), animate dead (3rd level).
  • Yrkali. Wrathful smite (1st level), spiritual weapon (2nd level), aura of vitality (3rd level).
  • Zulor. Bane (1st level), beast sense (2nd level), erupting earth (3rd level).
The independent demon lords listed below grant the following spells to their followers, cultists, and champions:
  • Abrigrax the Deceiver. Disguise self (1st level), invisibility (2nd level), hypnotic pattern (3rd level).
  • The Flayed Horror. Ray of sickness (1st level), ray of enfeeblement (2nd level), bestow curse (3rd level).
  • Kyrus Vor. Searing smite (1st level), hellish rebuke (2nd level), fireball (3rd level).
  • The Motley Princess. Hideous laughter (1st level), crown of madness (2nd level), blink (3rd level).
  • Sadireth the Vile. Grease (1st level), web (2nd level), slow (3rd level).
The demonic nature of Cinderheim can physically corrupt those living within it, and those who bargain with demons often find their bodies altered in strange ways. Players may roll on the following optional table to see how the demonic forces of the desert have transfigured their characters or they may simply pick a result that appeals to them if they so choose.

Bestial horns grow from their head.
Spiny ridges or coarse patches sprout from their body.
Their body is covered in fur, scales, or feathers.
Their body is covered in boils or weeping sores.
Their body is entirely hairless or exudes a slimy sheen.
Their ears are oddly shaped or their nose is nonexistent.
Their hair, eyes, or tongue is unnaturally colored.
Their limbs are unusually long or are strangely gnarled.
Their skin is leathery, withered, or oddly textured.
Their skin is unnaturally colored, patterned, or marked.
Their spine is crooked or abnormally twisted.
Their teeth are long fangs or protruding tusks.
Their tongue is forked, elongated, or otherwise uncanny.
They have a misshapen head or are animal-headed.
They have extra or fewer fingers than usual.
They have ferociously clawed hands or misshapen digits.
They have hooves instead of feet or misshapen feet.
They possesses a tail or other extraneous appendage.
They possesses extra, although sightless, eyes.
Useless, vestigial wings sprout from their shoulders.

If you like the content above consider checking out The Liberation of Wormwood, a supplement for generating characters facing the invasion of their hometown by a usurping force, now available in print and pdf from DriveThruRPG.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Salon Sublime

The Salon Sublime is a faction comprised of hedonists, sybarites, and aesthetes devoted to seeking the most rarefied forms of pleasure and bodily gratification. Because the novelty of pleasure is fleeting, members of the Salon constantly seek new intoxicants, erotic rites, and outré experiences to excite their jaded appetites. A typical meeting of the Salon resembles an outlandish party featuring orgies, drug use, and unusual combinations of pleasure and pain. Members of the Salon tend to dress in the latest fashions, even to the point of adopting flamboyant or risqué garb that causes shocked reactions when worn in public.

Pleasure is the ultimate truth.

  • The yearnings of the soul are sated through the body.
  • Pleasure is the only thing that makes a life worth living.
  • Aesthetic discernment is the highest virtue.

  • Secure connections with Umberwell’s various gangs to obtain supplies of new, experimental drugs.
  • Maintain relationships with authority to ensure that they turn a blind eye to the Salon’s dealings.

  • Smuggle a new intoxicant into the city-state.
  • Provide material to blackmail a wealthy family into throwing an extraordinary masquerade ball.
  • Recruit a beautiful cabaret star to the Salon.

If you like the content above (or any of the content here), consider checking out Umberwell: Blackened Be Thy Name, system agnostic New Weird city setting, now available in print and pdf from DriveThruRPG.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Ultimate Fashion History: The Weimar Republic

Becky Munich, whom you might remember from the cover and chapter art in Krevborna, passed this video about the fashion of the Weimar Republic along to me. 

From the description: "People often ask me which moment in the past do I think has had the greatest impact on fashion today. Without hesitation, I answer; 'The Weimar Republic!'  The 'divine decadence', cabaret scene, sexualization and 'the outsider as insider' of Germany 1919-1933 gave birth to some of fashion's most immediate signifiers.  So WILKOMMEN to this Ultimate Fashion History special."

Check it out:

Also, while we're on the subject, y'all know this is out, right? 
Good god, that cover!

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Jojen Paste and All Your Other Game of Thrones Needs

"Did...I get eaten??"
With only two more episodes left until Game of Thrones concludes, it feels like Thronz Mania is in full swing. If you need a source for episode recaps, livestream chats, and fan-theory summary, I think you could do worse than checking out the Alt Shift X Youtube channel.

(It also covers other shows like Westworld, but nobody is really excited about that, right?)

Here's my favorite insane theory Jojen Paste: Does Bran Eat Jojen?

Monday, May 6, 2019

Five Wanderers Who Settled in Wormwood

Five Wanderers Who Settled in Wormwood
Five of the mentors on the random table that determines who taught your character the ways of their class in The Liberation of Wormwood are based on characters from my first Cinderheim campaign. I suppose this is a bit of an Easter egg for those players, but here's some of their characters' origins:

Goblin bard
Majidah was sent to the deserts of Cinderheim by her mysterious master to uncover forgotten lore pertaining to demonkind. She settled in Wormwood to teach the residents of the town the magical songs of her people.

Gith sorcerer

Yrraza is the lone survivor of a githzerai craft that crashed in the desert; she was searching for a way to return to the Astral Expanse, but settled in Wormwood to further study the power of inherent magic.

Hill dwarf fighter
Grimnor, a veteran of the War of Blue Orchids, came to Cinderheim to find his wayward son. He settled in Wormwood to serve as the town's stalwart sheriff.

Tortle druid
Banj abandoned his hermitage for reasons he never revealed. He settled in Wormwood so he could commune with the nature spirits living nearby.

Anne Bonny
Human rogue
Pulled into Cinderheim from our historical earth by strange force, Bonny resumed her career of marauding on the sand seas of the abyssal desert. She settled in Wormwood with a cache of ill-gotten booty.

If you like the content above consider checking out The Liberation of Wormwood, a supplement for generating characters facing the invasion of their hometown by a usurping force, now available in print and pdf from DriveThruRPG.

Friday, May 3, 2019

A Drug-Fueled Ship Sailing the Silver Sea

(continuing the adventure that started here and then continued here.)

Setting & System: Cinderheim, 5e D&D

Characters: Warleader Kro (human barbarian), Sylvester Tremaine (human mystic), Blatherskite (kenku fighter), Lilai (human cleric)

Events: A lot of time has lapsed since this part of the adventure was played; I'm going on hazy memories here, but this is what I remember happening:

Lilai took an instant dislike to Petros. She sidled up to him casually, then kicked his barbed staff across the room and brought her maul down on him.The group's combined efforts took him out swiftly. That wet degenerate never had a chance.

While exploring further, the party found a kitchen in which robed skeletons were mechanically chopping vegetables and adding them to a simmering stew pot. Warleader Kro ate the stew to no ill effects, although he has now unwittingly committed cannibalism.

In the back of the larder, the group discovered another member of Kro and Sylvester's mercenary band hanging by meat hooks that pierced his ankles. The body appeared to have been drained of blood. Sylvester and Lilai tried to get him down but the body began to shudder and convulse as it came to unlife and attacked. The skeletons from the kitchen joined the fray, but a well-timed turn undead stemmed the tide.

The search for intoxicants with which to fuel the vessel they discovered in the prior session continued. The smell of opium greeted the party as they discovered another young dancer blissed out of her mind in her bedroom. They took her stash, and Kro slung her over his shoulder.

However, Lilai felt that they had unfinished business with Navara. Navara felt the same way; she was waiting for them in one of the central tower chambers. Since they were unwilling to do her bidding, combat witht he group was inevitable. Navara's limbs turned into hideous flesh-whips tipped with demonic barbs. Blatherskite was nearly felled when one of those barbs caught him and sent poison coursing through his body. Lilai was also pierced by one of the barbs, but instead of being poisoned she was cursed. She now bears a demonic mark upon her skin that she is not best pleased by. And yet, Navara was ultimately no match for the party that opposed her.

Returning to the vessel, the group fed opium into the ship's "control maw." Acrid smoke filled the interior of the vessel, which sighed contentedly. Then, suddenly, the ship was no longer in the stone chamber in which it was discovered; it was now sailing a silver sea.
After a few hours, the vessel exited the silver sea and appeared in a cavern. A passage was carved in the rock, and a number of rope ladders run down from apertures in the cave's ceiling where the light of the demon sun streamed into the chamber.

The characters climbed the rope ladders to get some idea of where they were. At the top, all they could see was sand and desert stretching as far as the eye could see. However, they also realized that the "cave" below was the interior of a great statue. The apertures they had ascended through were the statue's eyes and nostrils. The rest of the statue's body was buried in an enormous sand dune.

They descended into the cave to explore and were greeted with a horrific smell that was like a combination of spoiled milk and rotting rice. They surprised the source of the stench as they stumbled into a den of troglodytes who fled at their approach. Sylvester's attempts to communicate psionically were no use; the trogs ran for it and attempted to steal away with their treasury (but only secured about half) before collapsing a passage behind them in a rain of rubble.

Currently, the characters are regrouping within the "cave system" with other passages yet to be glimpsed.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Yn Ol I Annwn, Tablet of Destinies, Safari Honeymoon, Vision, Mapping the Interior

Things that brought me delight in April, 2019.

Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard, Yn Ol I Annwn
Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard specialize in ethereal doom, but with Yn Ol I Annwyn they rocket straight into the deepest corners of the cosmos. (Bandcamp link)

Chen, Benitez, Montiel, Garcia,
Lady Mechanika, vol. 2: The Tablet of Destinies
Don't write this title off as steampunk nonsense or a Bad Girl book. This is pure pulp action that has everything you could want: Rocketeer-style jetpacks, evil Germans, a lost tomb with ancient nukes in it, secret societies, warrior women tribes, snake people, etc.

Jesse Jacobs, Safari Honeymoon
Man's separation from the natural world and how societal power means nothing in a state of nature.

Julia Gfrorer, Vision (part one)
Disturbing as always. In a Julia Gfrorer comic you can never really be sure if the protagonist is addressing a demonic entity or some part of themselves they dare not name or both. I can't wait for part two. (Etsy link)

Stephen Graham Jones, Mapping the Interior
When a Native American boy encounters the spirit of his father in full regalia he's forced to confront what it means to number among those cast-off in a land that was once his birthright.

Art by Tenebrous Kate
Tenebrous Kate, my podcast partner and the artist responsible for bringing Umberwell to life, is closing her merch store down so everything is currently priced to move. I got a couple original pieces of art, a shirt, and the above hand-painted coffin box. You should get in on this sale before it's too late; her storefront is here.

Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, Series 3
Payoff on the will-they-won't-they plotline and the usual murder-solving skulduggery. I remain convinced that Phynie is one of the most satanic characters on television.

 Ungfell, Mythen, Maren, Pestilenz
This was one of Tenebrous Kate's favorites from last year, and she was right--tremendous album. (Bandcamp link)

High on Fire, The Art of Self Defense
The vocals and guitar solos occasionally rise to the surface, only to be consumed again by the roiling molten slag.

Kentaro Miura, Berserk vol. 31-36
The saga continues! Guts 'n' the gang finally get their boat and the Demon Womb bears fruit. (Yes, this is how I would write the description for Netflix's episode guide.) Volume 34 is an especial trat if you're into the gribbly monster bits in Berserk; it also features a pretty dark psychedelic wrap-up, if that's your thing.

Messa, Belfry and Feast for Water
Eerie stoner-doom; a wind blows out of the desert carrying the lonesome cries of a demon. (Bandcamp link)

There is a certain kind of movie that is heavy on the cgi and focused on monsters getting punched that always gets bad reviews but I end up enjoying anyway. Hellboy joins the hallowed ranks of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

Jex Thoth, Totem and Witness
Revisiting some witchy realness in ep form.

Marissa Nadler & Stephen Brodsky, Droneflower
There must be an x-gaze moniker that fits this collaboration, but I struggle to grasp at it. Less drone than you might imagine, but the flower is decidedly dusty rose. (Bandcamp link)

John Langan, House of Windows
In the intro to House of Windows, John Langan notes that the book had a hard time finding a publisher because it's a combination of ghost story and academic fiction. That combination is precisely why I'm enjoyed reading it. 

Sharp Objects
When I started watching Sharp Objects I suspected I was in for some trash that I would quickly bow out of, but what I got was a nice, thick, grotesque slice of the Southern Gothic. I guess I'm an Amy Adams fan now.

 The Complete Gladiator's Handbook
Worth it for the arena floor plans alone, but like the adventure below there's a lot to steal from here. Also, it adds a "massage" proficiency, which is an oddly endearing touch.

Sam Witt, Black Flames
I probably wouldn't use this adventures wholesale or without some tweaks, but there's a lot of content I can re-purpose in Cinderheim.

Monday, April 29, 2019

AD&D Toys and Quest for the Heartstone

Maybe somebody out there can explain this to me. The toy line from the 80s was branded as Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, yeah? (Official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, no less!)

So why did the characters from the AD&D toy line only appear in a Basic Dungeons & Dragons module, XL-1: Quest for the Heartstone?

This is a completely unimportant question, but I've always wondered what happened there. 

I still have a few AD&D toys from my childhood; I've got an ogre, a roper, a carrion crawler, a Strongheart, and the bronze dragon. Oddly enough, I was able to buy a Warduke and a nightmare as a highschooler (about a decade after they first hit shelves) from a failing chain store that only seemed to stock toys that were discovered in the backs of warehouses ten years down the road. Thanks, Ames! (Sorry all your stores closed.)

Friday, April 26, 2019

Scene or Event-Based Game Sessions (And How I Prep Them)

Sometimes I run traditional location-based adventures that make use of a predefined, keyed map. Other times I run "scene" or "event"-based adventures. (Most adventures even manage to combine both.) To be honest, I don't find them to be all that different as modes of adventure in terms of preparation or execution.

There are a lot of strange assumptions that orbit the notion of "scene" and "event"-based play. I've seen accusations that these styles of adventure are "scripted," as in they provide a predetermined plot line into which the DM merely inserts the player characters. This assumption often implies that the players have little or no agency and must follow the DM's "story" as it was envisioned at its creation.

I don't find that assumption to be particularly accurate in terms of how I prepare for game sessions or how they play out at the table. Here's why:

When I prepare for a scene or event-based game session, I only prep a situation--something that happens that will draw-in the player characters, a problem to be solved (or not) by the players' actions, something that demands confrontation. 

Here's what I don't prep: the way the situation must be addressed. The situation is an open-ended problem; certainly, possible solutions probably suggest themselves to me, but I place no importance on one of those outcomes coming to pass. I'm open to the players approaching the situation from an angle I haven't considered; frankly, it's more fun for me if they come up with something I haven't accounted for or didn't expect.

Think of a situation as a question, but consider that posing a question doesn't presuppose a known answer. I think this is what people mean when they say "Play to find out what happens."

The shape of the adventure is a series of "scenes" or "events" that I have prepped ahead of time. In more concrete terms, this means I have prepared places they might visit, NPCs they might interact with, and fights they might get into.

However, it's important to emphasize that none of these events or scenes have to be played out necessarily for the game to progress. It's also worth noting that I don't plan how these scenes or events will resolve--that's in the hands of the players as they make decisions for their characters and sometimes determined by how the dice land if it comes to that.

Realistically, some outcomes are more likely than others. Based on initial descriptions, the players are likely to have a short list of places they might want to go to or people they might want to talk to. Those scenes suggest other places to go and other people to talk to through things like clues obtained during investigation, further knowledge provided in conversation with NPCs, and details discovered by exploring locations. 

In this way, an scene-based adventure does have a certain shape, but the shape is malleable and definitely not predetermined. In fact, the choices the players make inevitably change the shape of the adventure because the actions their characters take have consequences; the world reacts to the characters, the situation changes in response

If the players decide on a course of action I didn't see coming...I improvise. There is no urge to get them back on track; I'm happy to go where they lead. There is no plot to be followed and no story that needs to arrive at a foregone conclusion; rather, there is a web of connections to be navigated as the players choose.

Which, to my mind at least, is not all that different from location-based adventure design. Each room where something might happen in a location-based adventure is essentially a "scene"; it's part of the larger situation that can be addressed with exploration, stealth, roleplaying, violence or a combination thereof. When you key a map, you're keying scenes and events that might come to pass when and if the player characters arrive there and choose to engage. 

The web of connections is there in the corridors, intersections, a stairs; it too is to be navigated as the players choose. The web of connections is present in every hexcrawl; each border is defines the shape and scope, each numbered hex points to scenes to come or to be skirted at the players' decisions. Admittedly, my scene-based adventures tend to use a lot less graph paper than my location-based ones.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

There Are Two Competing Urges in the Heart of D&D

One one hand, D&D possesses an impulse toward taxonomy; the urge to classify, categorize, and label is built into the structure and assumptions of the game. This is perhaps a place where we see some tangent of the "colonial accusation" made apparent: even if we turn our eyes from the looting of the Other, we see that the style of play rewards learning about the capabilities, origins, and defining characteristics of the Monstrous. We know that demons are different from devils; all things are sorted to their place, and this is useful information for surviving an encounter with of the Lower Planar type. Murderhobos on one hand, taxonomists on the other, shaking hands forever. 

On the other hand, there is an urge to accumulate and preserve the evolving folklore; it is the mania to track changes and deviations rather than set, unchanging categories. We know that Kord was in a god Greyhawk, and then a slightly different god in Nentir Vale, because we've collected the oral tradition--often in pdf form, ironically enough. Think of this as D&D's version of Deleuze & Guattari's arboreal model versus the rhizome. Or, if you want to be all Appendix N about it, it's the internal battle of law versus chaos as guiding principle. Taxonomists & mythopoets, glaring at each other across the Maginot Line of the Blood War.

One of my favorite things about D&D's hypothetical ur-text is when those two impulses come into conflict. Tiamat, for example, is the queen of the evil dragons. Or maybe she's the god of evil dragons. But when you check her most recent stats, you see she's actually a fiend. But not a devil (even though she lives in the Nine Hells) because she's chaotic evil. But she's probably not a demon either because she doesn't speak the language (1)

That's the accretion of Tiamat's story working at cross purposes with her place in the taxonomy. Neither is wrong. Neither is right.

We can use this as grist for the mill. This is potential. No need to tweet at Crawford for clarification, and then at Mearls when Crawford doesn't say what you were hoping to hear. The confusion or undecidability at that nexus means that she could empower your cleric (she's a god!) and also make a pact with your warlock (she's a fiend!). Ultimately, Tiamat unites us all and we'll never know who would win in a fight: the Lady of Pain or the Raven Queen.

* * *

(1) - My favored take is that whatever she was (god or dragon), Tiamat has been changed by her time in Hell--the nature of a fiend is acquired, rather than natural fact.