Sunday, January 16, 2022

Sanguinia

Below is my re-imagining of the domain of Sanguinia in Ravenloft, taken from the pages of the third issue of Strahd Loves, Man Kills, which just so happens to be available for purchase. (And I've already sold more than 2/3 of the print run, so don't sleep on this one.)

Sanguinia

Domain of Feudal Excesses

Darklords: Count Magnus von Karlok and Countess Yulia Skarnstein

Genres: Gothic horror and dark fantasy

Hallmarks: Oppressed peasants, decadent nobility, blood tithes

Mist Talismans: Bejeweled goblet, fragment of shattered crown

Sanguinia is a cold northern realm of defiled churches, sprawling castles, and humble farming communities. Once a land held in thrall by a single capricious feudal prince, Sanguinia is now a realm divided. Two vampire nobles vie against each other for control of Sanguinia. In the south, Count Magnus von Karlok holds sway over the territories encircling Fagarus. In the north, Countess Yulia Skarnstein rules the villages, towns, and hamlets that surround Kosova. 
A look of fear, resentment, and resignation is common in the eyes of Sanguinian serfs. The mortal peasantry who populate the land are forced to work the unforgiving and often barren soil of Sanguinia just to eke out a meager existence. Worse yet, they must pay a tithe in blood to the vampires who reign over them as undying lords. Although they are oppressed by undead nobles they cannot hope to overcome, revolts among the lower classes are becoming increasingly more common, incendiary, and dangerous in Sanguinia. These petty rebellions are always violently suppressed by the vampires who govern the domain.
Countess Skarnstein and Count von Karlok contest each other’s rule in both overt and subtle ways. Each wishes to usurp the other from their territory so that they might rule all of Sanguinia. Yulia Skarnstein has spies hidden within the Count’s household and plots to lure him into a cunning trap that will end his unnatural existence. Magnus von Karlok has marshaled his troops, annexed villages that belonged to the Countess’s dominion, and hopes to one day meet Yulia on the field of battle so that he might kill her personally. Neither can rest easy while the other still exists. The people of Sanguinia are caught in the middle of this ferocious and unending enmity. 

Noteworthy Features

Those familiar with Sanguinia know the following facts:

    • Sanguinia was once a united kingdom ruled by Prince Ladislav Mircea, but is now divided between the vampires Countess Yulia Skarnstein and Count Magnus von Karlok.

    • The oppressed peasants of Sanguinia are required to tithe their blood to feed their undead masters.

    • The worship of the gods has been outlawed throughout Sanguinia. The land’s many churches and cathedrals stand vacant or ruined, though some Sanguinians meet in secret to continue practicing their faiths.


Settlements and Sites

Sanguinia is a hard, unforgiving land of frost, cold winds, and rocky soil. Most of the populace live in villages and hamlets that are little more than open farmland dotted with crude shelters. It is only around the estates of Sanguinia’s vampire lords that anything approaching urban civilization can sustain itself.


Castle Guirgiu

Nestled at the foot of the mountains, Castle Guirgiu is an abandoned keep that was once the seat of Prince Ladislav. The people of Sanguinia have a pronounced dread of Castle Guirgiu. The castle is haunted by a spectral memory of the once-whole prince; he continually weeps over his currently divided state and inability to reconcile his warring passions.


Fagarus

The heavily fortified city of Fagarus is the seat of Count Magnus von Karlok’s realm in the south of Sanguinia. Count Magnus demands that the people of Fagarus suffer meekly under the imposition of austerity. Fagarus is the central hub of trade in southern Sanguinia, but the townspeople do not benefit from increased access to food or other goods. The Count stockpiles grain and other necessities for the war he wishes to wage against Yulia Skarnstein. Order is kept in Fagarus by the Count’s brutal enforcers, who are immediately recognizable by the ashen coats they wear and the executioner’s axes they carry as grim badges of office. Overlooking the town is Castle Myrkrana, Count Magnus von Karlok’s spartan and imposing keep.


Kosova

Kosova is the largest city in Countess Yulia Skarnstein’s northern realm and the acknowledged center of culture in Sanguinia. The Countess’s court attracts artists, dancers, musicians, poets, and actors who find the unnatural allure of undeath to be aesthetically inspiring. Similarly, the pleasures offered in Kosova dull the pain and monotony of toil on behalf of the Countess. Taverns, brothels, and gambling dens litter the streets of the city. At the center of Kosova stands Castle Siebenhurst, Yulia Skarnstein’s seven-spired fastness of gleaming white stone, elegant galleries, and stained glass windows depicting acts of carnal depravity.


Lake Argus

The winds blow cold and harsh around the shores of Lake Argus. Save for a few brief weeks in the height of summer, Lake Argus is sealed over with a thick crust of gleaming ice. Those who stare into the lake’s mirror-like surface on nights of the full moon are granted strange visions, such as glimpses of a wintry apocalypse that will make the land inhospitable to life or the presence of a sunken city lurking at the center of Lake Argus.


Tirgo

The town of Tirgo is caught at the border between the lands claimed by Count Magnus von Karlok and Countess Yulia Skarnstein. Ownership of the town and its farmland alternates between the two vampire lords of Sanguinia depending on the fluctuation of the border between the two vampires’ holdings.


Ladislav Mircea

Sanguinia is a domain possessing two Darklords, but it was once the province of a single man—Prince Ladislav Mircea. Ladislav knew he ruled his principality as an unloved despot. Though the suffering engendered by his rule troubled his conscience, rather than attempt to reform his tyrannical ways directly he enlisted a foul priest of a deity known as the Lawgiver to enact a ritual that would magically purge him of his most pernicious flaws.
Unfortunately, Prince Ladislav was a man of many sins. He was as warlike and bellicose as he was lusty and depraved. The ritual did not free him from his worst impulses—it instead rent him asunder, giving separate life to the failings that marred his essential self. His anger and love of exercising authority was encapsulated in Magnus von Karlok, the very embodiment of the imperious vampire. His licentiousness and ungovernable attraction to physical and spiritual corruption was given form as the vampire hedonist Yulia Skarnstein.
As equal portions of the same blighted soul, Yulia and Magnus hold each other in the deepest contempt and are cursed to forever war against one another in a battle that neither can win. The Dark Powers ensure that the hubris of Prince Ladislav’s vain attempt to free himself from his transgressions will be punished in perpetuity as the two halves of his nature are forced into a never-ending conflict to control Sanguinia.


Magnus’s Powers and Dominion  

Magnus von Karlok is a towering vampire of rigid, militaristic mien, with a long mane of hair and piercing eyes. He only ever truly feels comfortable when striding across the battlefield clad in his blood-red ancestral armor and giving vent to his violent impulses against whoever dares to oppose him. Magnus von Karlok’s stats are similar to those of a vampire warrior.

The Knights of Draghul. Magnus von Karlok maintains an elite band of warriors known as the Knights of Draghul who direct and lead his militias. The Knights of Draghul are mostly comprised of the scions of dragonborn families that the Count has allowed to settle in estates around Fagarus. Count Magnus trains each of his knights personally; they are fanatically loyal to him, viewing him as a veritable demigod of war who will lead them to blood-soaked victories. 

The Brides of von Karlok. Magnus has few close relationships, but his most trusted advisors are his three monstrous brides: Lithka is a cunning harpy who acts as his spymaster, Phaedra is a medusa who operates as his private assassin, and Maxima is an erinyes who assists in drawing elaborate battle plans for the conquest of Countess Yulia Skarnstein’s territories.


Roleplaying Magnus von Karlok

Magnus is inflexible, believes in a strict code of honor, and is a reactionary traditionalist at heart. However, his chivalrous nature is compromised by a domineering streak that flares into violent rage at the slightest provocation.

Personality Trait. “If a subordinate does not bow and scrape before me, they must learn a grievous and painful lesson.”

Ideal. “I am driven to seek glory through military victory.”

Bond. “I feel a kinship with all honorable warriors.”

Flaw. “My belief in the superiority of my martial skill sometimes blinds me to obvious danger.”



Yulia’s Powers and Dominion

Yulia Skarnstein is a vampire of breathtaking beauty who refuses to be dressed in anything less than the height of sumptuous fashion. She is a masterful gatherer of information and an adept manipulator. Yulia favors indirect machinations; she prefers quiet assassination and complex stratagems over blatant aggression. Yulia Skarnstein’s stats are similar to those of a vampire spellcaster, though her spells lean toward enchantment, divination, and magic drawn from the darker end of the cleric’s spell list.

Cult of the Razor’s Kiss. Yulia is the high priestess of a pleasure cult that venerates Malcanthet, the Demon Queen of Succubi. The cultists of the Razor’s Kiss view pain and degradation as the highest forms of beauty and art; they venerate Malcanthet through sadomasochistic rituals that test their endurance and devotion to the Demon Queen. As Malcanthet’s chosen prophet, Yulia Skarnstein has a number of skilled enchanters, cambions, and succubi from the cult sworn to her service.


Roleplaying Yulia Skarnstein

Countess Yulia fears the inescapable ennui that comes with long centuries of undeath. She regularly holds salons in Castle Siebenhurst to stave off boredom and keeps a harem of breathtakingly beautiful intellectual and artistic men and women to provide her with whatever stimulation she requires.

Personality Trait. “I appreciate witty conversation and demand to be amused by those around me.”

Ideal. “I want to be privy to every secret and experience every possible pleasure—no matter how base or degenerate.”

Bond. “Whoever gratifies my desires is my current favorite, but my favor is forever fickle and inconstant.”

Flaw. “I cannot conceive of others as anything else but playthings.”

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Baptism of Fire

 

Valley of Plenty, episode 5: Baptism of Fire

Welcome to the Valley of Plenty! In these green and gentle pastures, Jack explains the plots of stories from the Witcher series to Kate, who feels like she already completed her tour of duty in this particular fantasyland. In this bite-sized episode, Jack explains what he's learned about the world portrayed in Andrzej Sapkowski's Baptism of Fire, the third novel in the ongoing saga of Geralt of Rivia and his various adventures and... not-so-adventures.

What will we learn about vampire mythology in the Witcher universe? Are there any fantasy lawyers in this book? What if the real treasure was the soup we made along the way? All these questions will be answered in this episode of the podcast!

Sunday, January 9, 2022

2021 in Review

Another year in the End Times. Here's what I got up to in 2021:

According to Goodreads, I read more in 2021 than in any other year that I've kept track of. Apparently spending the majority of your time indoors because there is a pandemic going on will give you a lot of book time, who knew?

My favorite books of the year: Catriona Ward's Rawblood, Andrew Kelly Stewart's We Shall Sing a Song Into the Deep, Caitlin Starling's Yellow Jessamine, Carmen Maria Machado's In the Dream House, and Tanith Lee's At the Court of the Crow. In general, it was a good year for novellas, but maybe that's just where my attention span was at in 2021.

I also caught up on or finished two lengthy manga series: Claymore and Black Butler.

If you want to hear more about my favorite stuff of 2021, check out the Best of the Year episode of Bad Books for Bad People.

Speaking of the podcast, we came out of our unplanned for hiatus and managed to get seven episodes out into the world despite months of dormancy. Our episode on Requiem Infernal already seems like a fan favorite.

On the publishing front, I published the first two issues of Strahd Loves, Man Kills and wrote five more issues for publication in 2022. The third issue just dropped, so if you haven't picked it up yet keep in mind that I've already sold more than half the print run. You can expect the zine to get a little bigger in 2022--I'm expanding it from 28 pages of content to 32. I also contributed to the second issue of KNOCK, The Book of Gaub, and another rpg project that should see the light in 2022.

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Strahd Loves, Man Kills: Winter, 2022

 

A new year has arrived, and with it a new issue of Strahd Loves, Man Kills, my Ravenloft fanzine. My hope is that SLMK will give you new toys to play with and inspire your own unique take on Ravenloft. 

This issue features 28 pages of content. The zine is professionally printed by the fine people at Best Value Copy. Additionally, I will send a pdf version of the zine to the email address attached to your order!

This issue's contents include:
  • A version of Sanguinia inspired by the Gothic fear of feudalism’s oppressive excesses.
  • A new background for characters: penny dreadful writer.
  • Two adventure seeds you can use to craft scenarios set in Ravenloft: the grim possibility of a war between Dracula and Strahd and a campaign framework based on stopping a malefactor from resurrecting the Darklord of Barovia after his demise.
  • Two nonplayer characters for use in your games: Reverend Krast and Sister Vulcra, two witchfinders corrupted by fanaticism and zealotry.
  • Two additional factions to Ravenloft from my home campaign and offers an alternate take on the Vhage Agency detailed in Van Richten’s Guide.
  • Ideas for sinister spiritualists you might create as characters for games set in the Domains of Dread.
  • A table that generates Dark Secrets for the characters in your campaign and suggests mechanics for making those secrets matter.
  • A bibliography of dark fantasy works for your edification and entertainment. 
  • Cover art by Michael Gibbons.

A few copies of earlier zines remain:
  • SLMK #1 (8 copies of the second printing left)
  • SLMK #2 (3 copies of the first printing left)
  • Dirge of Urazya (8 copies of the second printing left)
These are unlikely to be reprinted anytime soon, so if you want a copy--now is the time!

Monday, January 3, 2022

Black Butler, Last Night of Fall, India Fan, Silver Bayonet, and More

Things that brought me delight in December, 2021:


Yana Toboso, Black Butler Vol. VI-XXX

I made the executive decision to make as big a dent as possible in the Black Butler series in December. I can't believe I managed to catch up on all of them! The individual arcs are quite good: the mysterious disappearances of children at an ominous carnival, a locked room murder mystery that ends up inspiring Arthur Conan Doyle to write more Sherlock Holmes stories, a horrific episode about the creation of scientific zombies aboard a luxury liner, a Tom Brown's School Days-esque mystery in a British public school (with bonus left turn into sports manga with a big cricket match), a detour into boy bands and the strange venue that seems to be drawing fans of all social classes into a vampiric scheme, the main cast finding themselves on the run when a doppelganger appears, the maid infiltrating a nefarious manor on the Yorkshire moors, and that's where the series leaves off for now. Can't wait for a new volume to drop in May.


False Memories, The Last Night of Fall

False Memories deals in the kind of Gothic metal that comes from the Nightwish and Within Temptation branch of the family tree. Their sound is accented with touches of symphonic metal and power metal, but it is just a little heavier than many bands working that vein and perhaps even a bit more progressive. Of course, the true test of any band of this ilk is the vocals, which are powerful, melodic, and melodramatic over the course of The Last Night of Fall's runtime. 


Victoria Holt, The India Fan

You'll hear much more about my impressions of Victoria Holt's The India Fan on a forthcoming episode of Bad Books for Bad People, but suffice to say: I'd recommend this novel especially to Jane Eyre fans who want an extra helping of Orientalism as a side dish. We've got a "plain" but "highly intelligent" woman acting as a governess, falling in love with a man of a higher class, the Sepoy Rebellion, the sexual foibles of the beautiful and rich, and a peacock-feather fan that may or may not carry a baleful curse. You know, the usual.


The Silver Bayonet

There is something very appealing to me about the idea of buying a bunch of cheap plastic Napoleons and zombies and making them fight each other using the rules in The Silver Bayonet. Beats shoveling snow, that's for sure.

Green Carnation, Leaves of Yesteryear

Green Carnation is one of those bands that is like an old friend arriving unexpected to the party in a disguise--you never know quite what to expect or when to expect them. The title track on Leaves of Yesteryear possesses what a reviewer termed "gentle proginess," and that's a hard assessment to argue with. Things do get a bit heavier on the other tracks, but it's definitely not a unified style or aesthetic that they're going for. Rounding things out is an acoustic cover of Black Sabbath's "Solitude," a perfect parting shot for the end of a party, really.


Andrzej Sapkowski, Baptism of Fire

Another book in the Witcher series down, another episode of Valley of Plenty to come on Bad Books for Bad People. It's interesting how each of the novels in this series has a different purpose, and therefore has its own bespoke structure. The previous novel was all about unveiling the explosive start of the war and establishing who is doing what and where they are doing it. Baptism of Fire, on the other hand, is a more conventional fantasy journey through the horrors of the war already underway. As such, it's more about Geralt finding his fellowship with companions, though of course, since this is the Witcher, he'd much rather be going it alone.


Cold Hands Dark Hearts

Cold Hands Dark Hearts is a supplement for the Big Eyes Small Mouth rpg, an anime-inspired game that I have zero experience with. The premise of the supplement is that players will play Darkstalkers-style monsters with an anime flair, fighting against a greater threat to the supernatural world. Characters could include vampires, mummies, shapeshifters, oni, and other staples of Gothic horror drawn from both Eastern and Western traditions. 

The book is fairly terse; I'm not entirely convinced that it gives you everything you'd need to play it the way it wants you to play. Also, the art style is definitely not going to be for everyone. (It is not, in fact, for me.) It's got a heavy manga influence, but done in a cutesy way that reminds me of Slave Labor Graphics' comics for goths. However, there is one innovation here that I think is very worthwhile: instead of text or a timeline describing the events of the setting's backstory, it uses a comic to convey all that info. That's such a huge improvement, it's a shame that hasn't become a more standard practice.


Opera Diabolicus, Death on a Pale Horse

Opera Diabolicus specialize in over-the-top, theatrical metal. Death on a Pale Horse is their second album; even though it arrived about a decade after the first, it is still obviously a continuation of the same project. The choral and operatic elements are present, as are the heavy riffs and dramatic vocals, but there are some new bits to enliven the proceedings, such as progressive touches that verge on giallo soundtrack vibes.


Tanya Kirk (ed.), Spirits of the Season: Christmas Hauntings

Since Valancourt didn't release a book of Victorian Christmas ghost stories last year, my girlfriend bought me this volume from the British Library's Tales of the Weird series to fill the holiday gap. Spirits of the Season collects a number of spooky Christmas tales, with authors ranging from well-regarded innovators in the field of spectral literature such as Edith Nesbit and Algernon Blackwood to lesser-known scribes like A.M. Burrage and H. Russell Wakefield. Some stories are fairly light, but some are also surprising in their brutality.


Heretic, Ikhon, and GM Wall of Doom

Enough time had passed that I had forgotten what I pledged for from this Mork Borg kickstarter. I'm not going to call Heretic a zine (because it isn't, sorry), but it is a nice expansion of odds and ends for Mork Borg, including new classes, rules for firearms, and a handful of adventure sites. Ikhon seems a little over-produced for what it is; shame it was misprinted, too. The Wall of Doom is quite sturdy; I have no doubt that it would quickly prove invaluable for anyone running the game.


The Murder of My Sweet, A Gentleman's Legacy

The Murder of My Sweet is definitely on the lighter end of things I usually listen to, often placing themselves more in the poppy hard rock arena than the metal one I tend to enjoy more. Still, this is a pretty fun album. I take it that it's the "sequel" to the through-line story initiated on another band's album, but I can't follow that thread at all. Good record to unwind to, even if the vocals are maybe a little too prominent--often overshadowing the instrumentation to a degree.


The Witcher season 2

I was really looking forward to the second season of The Witcher, but I have to admit that I merely liked the season rather than loved it. On one hand, I think it is more important for any adaptation to chart its own course rather than stick slavishly to the source material. On the other hand, there were some big narrative decisions that just didn't thrill me. The main cast continues to be great in their roles, but the story feels a little off the rails to me. There are great moments, but I'm not sure how well the whole thing hangs together--the season does feel a bit like a side-story by the end of it. Still, I'm game for another season, even though the tv show is my least favorite iteration of The Witcher.


Strixhaven: A Curriculum of Chaos

Strixhaven is admittedly a bit of a niche D&D product. Unlike other books that adapt Magic: The Gathering sets to 5e, Strixhaven is less of a setting book and more a campaign meant to cover the exploits of a group of students as they navigate their educational journey at a school of magic. The rest of the book, which includes a brief overview of the school as a setting, bits and bobs for creating characters, and a bestiary of fellow students, mages, and monsters, is meant to support the campaign rather than the other way around.


Green Lung, Black Harvest

Green Lung sound like Black Sabbath headlining a festival on Summerisle. There is a great deal of warmth, if not outright sunlight, on Black Harvest, but it's always in service of illuminating the dark pagan underbelly that this doom outfit excels at. The retro vibes at work aren't just a throwback or dull pastiche; Green Lung adds something to the tradition all their own.


Zin E. Rocklyn, Flowers for the Sea

Flowers for the Sea is one of the short novella-length fictions that Tor seems to specialize in lately. A pregnant woman aboard a seemingly doomed ship, itself floating amid a dimly defined apocalypse, readies herself to give birth to the child she can only ever think of as a parasite. And once the child is born, we're knee-deep in a chosen-one style story that is more The Omen than it is the coming of the Christ child, if you catch my meaning. I'm not sure I've read a more brutal depiction of birth, and this is certainly not a feel-good story that eases the anxieties that come with global climate change.


Light of the Morning Star, Charnel Noir

Charnel Noir was Tenebrous Kate's pick for album of the year over on this episode of Bad Books for Bad People. Since Kate is one of the few people whose musical taste matches my own with an unusually high incidence of congruence, I had to check it out. And she was right, it's great! Light of the Morning Star are like the hypothetical answer to the question "What if My Dying Bride came out of the black metal scene instead of death metal?"


Andrew Maclean with Jordie Bellaire, Head Lopper vol. 2-4

After finishing the first volume of Head Lopper, it was a foregone conclusion that I'd need to read the rest of it. So, onward into a fantasy land rife with monsters and decapitations. The second volume, Head Lopper & the Crimson Tower, is a bit of a dungeon crawl. The third, Head Lopper & the Knights of Verona, explores the Head Lopper's backstory in greater depth. Things move into fantasy political intrigue in Head Lopper & the Quest for Mulgrid's Stair. No matter what mode of the genre the comic is currently exploring, the big action get underwritten by a surprising amount of heart.


The Black Sepulchre

It's weird that the first bit of this Dark Heresy adventure series seems harder to come by than the next two parts, but now it is mine. It's incredible that they felt the need to make this rather thin book a hardcover to match everything else in the line, but the adventure itself does look sound. I'll probably end up adapting it to Wrath & Glory rather than playing it with Dark Heresy, but the base potential is there--which really is about all you can hope for with published scenarios, I reckon.


Yana Taboso, Black Butler Artworks vol. 1-2

Not only did I read all of the Black Butler manga over the last three months (well, all of it that has been translated into English), I also spent some time browsing the first two artbooks for the series. They reproduce the covers and color pages from the manga, as well as including promotional art and crossover bits as well. Surprisingly thick and luxurious paper in these volumes!


Eve's Bayou

Eve's Bayou is probably a weird pick for the holiday season, but I saw it was soon to be leaving one of my streaming services, so the time was ripe. If you haven't seen it, the movie centers on a well-to-do family in Louisiana, particularly on the father's infidelities and the effect that has on his wife and daughters. There's also some interesting intersection with hoodoo, history, and fate that take this to a Southern Gothic place, rather than just a standard drama. The hoodoo angle becomes especially captivating as a lens into the way children want--badly want--to have some sort of power to steer the adults who are failing them.

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

The Empath, Procreation Myth, Teatime

Three fictions for your entertainment and edification:

"The Empath"
- Raquel S. Benedict, Blood Knife






"Procreation Myth"
- June Martin, substack





- Zin E. Rocklyn, Tor