Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Strahd Loves, Man Kills Issue Three is now Free!

 

I'm happy to announce that I've sold enough print copies of issue three of Strahd Loves, Man Kills, my Ravenloft fanzine, that the pdf is now available to all and sundry at no charge. 

Issue three joins issue one and issue two as part of the communal offerings that anyone playing D&D can make use of. Issue four looks to join them quite soon.

Here's what is in issue three:

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

Two nonplayer characters for use in your games: Reverend Krast and Sister Vulcra

Two additional factions to Ravenloft from my home campaign and an alternate take on the Vhage Agency

Notes on 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 mechanics for making those secrets matter.

A bibliography of the dark fantasy genre for your edification and entertainment.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

RPGs for Reproductive Justice Bundle

 

My Krevborna setting is part of the RPGs for Reproductive Justice bundle organized by Hyrda Cooperative. Here's how they describe what it is and why it exists:

We organized this bundle in the wake of the leaked opinion from the US Supreme Court seeking to severely curtail the ability for people to seek abortions within the United States.

Abortion rights are human rights. 

All proceeds from this bundle will be donated to the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF).

With the amount of content you get in this bundle, it's a steal and the proceeds are going to a just cause. Check it out.

Sunday, May 1, 2022

Jane Eyre, Titane, The Unsuitable, and More

Things that brought me delight in April, 2022:

Jane Eyre

Ruth Wilson just absolutely kills it in the lead role in the BBC's 2006 production of Jane Eyre. She's actually quite obviously a beautiful woman, but she really knows how to sell "Plain Jane," choosing expressions that are unflattering. So much nuance. I think she's one of the best actresses out there at the moment. The rest of the cast manages to hold their own, bur she's a force of nature. I've seen many an adaptation of Jane Eyre, and I'd say this is among my favorites.


Titane

One of the cruelest things about getting older is losing your sense of wonderment. Even new works that want to off-the-wall or transgressive can feel dulled by the excesses we've already seen, already experienced. But every so often a film comes along that is so unlike anything you have ever seen before that it feels like being struck by lightning. I don't even know where to begin with describing Titane to do it justice; body horror, serial murder, the overwhelming abyss of grief, and the delusions we cling to when all hope is lost are all part of the mix. It isn't seamless, and it makes no attempt  to explain its own underlying logic, but in the end its endearingly affective. 


Molly Pohlig, The Unsuitable

Going into Molly Pohlig's The Unsuitable, all I knew about it was that the main character is haunted or possessed by the ghost of her mother--who died giving birth to her. On the surface, that sounds like an extremely Gothic premise, so I definitely was not expecting that the clash between the protagonist's spectral mother and hateful father would result in a dark comedy of errors. It's a funny novel, until it isn't.

And that's the trick of The Unsuitable. It softens you up, coaxes you into feeling quite warmly for its awkward, hapless heroine. And then it rips your heart out. 


Censor

It was interesting to watch Censor after Titane, since they both deal with the extreme lengths people will go to fill the hole left behind by an absent loved one. Even without that context, however, Censor would have been worth seeing. The movie is about a woman working at the British Board of Film Classification as a censor during the height of the "video nasty" hysteria; her sister went missing at a young age--a trauma she's never fully dealt with. When she becomes convinced that her sister is being exploited as an actress by perverse filmmakers in their gruesome little shockers, she strays further and further from reality and descends into the fantasy that if we edit the media that surrounds us into wholesome conformity, our lives will become smooth and frictionless. Of course, there is a price to be paid for paradise. Quite a strong debut film!


Clive Barker, Books of Blood, Vol. III

My long-overdue reread of Clive Barker's Books of Blood continued in April, though I did go out of order by tackling vol. III before vol. II. In retrospect, it's interesting that Barker's "Rawhead Rex" doesn't factor more prominently in discussions of the folk horror revival, as I suspect it's a sort of missing link that kept folk horror's ideas current at a time when they weren't a dominant flavor of horror. And obviously you just have to love the sheet ghost gag of "Confessions of a (Pornographer's) Shroud," but even eerier in 2022 is the way it presaged the idea of character assassination as motivating incident in a pre-internet era. But for my money, it's "Scape-Goats" that might be the most effective chiller in the entire anthology. 


Shelley

Shelley dares to ask the question: what if a baby had an extremely bad vibe? When a woman agrees to be the surrogate for the childless couple she works for at their isolated rural cabin, things go quite badly for everyone involved. What sets Shelley apart from other entries in the monstrous pregnancy and monstrous baby subgenres is that there is no clear instigator of the evil that falls over the household. This is more of a mood or atmosphere piece than a horror movie with big bloody action or creeping dread, but I found it pretty effective at what it was attempting.


Darkher, Realms, The Kingdom Field, The Buried Storm

Attention Chelsea Wolfe fans: you will find much to love in Darkher! Darkher's catalog won't be metal enough for some ears; there are swaths of Gothic etherealness here, bits of dark folk, and an inclination toward arty melancholy. But when the dying sun dips below the horizon, things get outright doomy. These records are all about the textures leading up to the crushing crescendo.


Mike Mignola, Christopher Golden, Bridgit Connell, Michelle Madsen, Lady Baltimore: The Witch Queens

There are days when I'm convinced that I enjoy the Baltimore series even more than I do Hellboy. Lady Baltimore continue the former's storyline after the death of its titular character, following Lord Baltimore's wife as she takes on the mantle of hunting monsters in his memory. Lady Baltimore doesn't reach the highest pinnacles set by the best Baltimore arcs, but it's a decent romp with swashbuckling, magic, and swordplay. If anything, I wish the story was a little less compressed; I really think this kind of Gothic adventure does benefit from being a bit more drawn out to give the characterization room to breath.


Andrzej Sapkowshi, The Lady of the Lake

Alas, I've reached the end of the road with the Witcher series! Which means, of course, that another episode of Valley of Plenty is headed your way in the near future. Taken as a whole, the Witcher saga is quite strange; at the outset, it's really all about Geralt's adventures, but by the end it almost feels like Geralt has all but disappeared from the story. Perhaps somebody in the marketing division didn't think this would sell as well as the Ciri Saga? But then, even that might be a stretch as she's missing in action for big stretches of this weighty tome too!


Clyde Robert Bula, The Ghost of Windy Hill

I found this book for younger readers at a local flea market. The story concerns a Victorian era art teacher who takes his family to live in the supposedly haunted house at Windy Hill in order to prove that it isn't really inhabited by a fearsome ghost. The story is quite fun, but the real star here is the moody black and white ink illustrations by Don Bolognese.


The Northman

I went into The Northman knowing very little about it. I knew it was about vikings and was directed by Robert Eggers, but other than that I was primed to be surprised and delighted by the film. I had no idea it would be bringing in proto-Hamlet story arcs or Russian fairy tales. There's really nothing I didn't like about it! The atmosphere is appropriately gritty and grim, the performances are strong, there are some pretty gross murders, the mystical imagery works, and Anya Taylor Joy is nice to look at throughout. If you see one movie in which Bjork plays a Norse seer this year, let The Northman be it.


Nick Tapalansky and Anissa Espinosa, Cast No Shadow

Ah, Cast No Shadow has one of my favorite conventions: a boy falls in love with a dead girl! That's honestly the least of his problems; he's also trying to get over his mother's death, trying to reconcile himself to the fact that his father's new partner is moving into their house, trying to navigate his best friend becoming the girlfriend of a guy he finds highly annoying, and oh yeah his shadow is a malevolent entity that acts on its own. Cast No Shadow is more "cartoonish" than what I usually go for, but overall this was a pretty fun read.


Spectral Wound, Infernal Decadence and A Diabolic Thirst

Spectral Wound specializes in the old-school, second wave black metal sound, but that doens't make either Infernal Decadence or A Diabolic Thirst mere nostalgia trips. Dripping with atmosphere and unyielding rage, these two albums earn a place in your black metal collection.


Agnes

Rarely have I seen a promotional image mis-sell a movie quite as badly as the one to the right! Looking at it, you would be excused for thinking that Agnes is an entry in the ever-growing "nun horror" subgenre, but that wouldn't be further off the mark. While the movie does begin with a situation involving demonic possession, this is really more of a drama about crises of faith, disappointments, and where we look for guidance and salvation. Forget the bleeding from the eyes, the upside-down crucifix, and the "Face your demons" tagline, this one is a character-driven study about trauma that can't be left by the wayside. It wasn't what I expected, but all the more stronger for that.


Andre Bjerk, The Lake of the Dead

The Lake of the Dead is an acclaimed Norwegian horror-thriller, recently brought to an English-speaking audience by the efforts of Valancourt Books. The titular lake has a legend of death attached to it, and when an idle man takes residence in the nearby cabin it seems like the legend has tragically repeated itself, which sends his sister and his friends to the supposedly haunted lake in search of answers. The final bit reminds me of Psycho quite a bit, as a psychoanalyst puts all the pieces together for the reader's edification. 


Sloane Leong and Anna Bowles, Graveneye

I can't believe how negative some of the reviews of Graveneye I've read have been. My suspicion is that some readers don't know what to think about the comic because it just doesn't tick the boxes of conventions, style, and theme usually found in modern horror comics. Told from the perspective of the house where the action centers, Graveneye is the tale of a maid in an abusive marriage who comes to work for a strange, hungry woman. As in the various tellings of Bluebeard, there is a room that is forbidden to her. She wants to find a place, a sense of belonging, but any safety attached to that urge is an illusion. The spare palette of blacks, white, grays, and the occasional startling splash of red, emphasizes the ways Graveneye dwells on hidden savagery and bloody desire. Hunger is red, after all. 


Lake of the Dead

After reading Andre Bjerke's The Lake of the Dead, I decided to check out the movie version from the 1950s. As far as adaptations go, the plot remains faithful to that of the novel, though some things are simplified for the sake of an easier to navigate narrative. I definitely recommend Lake of the Dead for when you're in the mood for a light horror-thriller that doesn't go particularly hard on the thrills and chills. Interestingly, Andre Bjerke and his wife both have roles in this!


Semblant, Vermilion Eclipse

Semblant's Vermilion Eclipse has a hell of an album cover to live up to, but in my opinion it definitely succeeds. Semblant marry goth electronic and symphonic flourishes, heavy riffs, and the "Beauty and the Beast" style vocals. At times, the amount of sounds and ideas they're working with can feel a little overwhelming, but I'd always rather feel overwhelmed than underwhelmed. Generally, though, this is the good excess.


Katsura Hoshino, D.Gray-Man, Vols. 10-12

Lots of battles in these volumes of D.Gray-Man, but although several prominent characters appear to have died I'm doubtful that we've seen the last of them. Unfortunately, because these volumes are mostly lengthy battle sequences, there isn't much of a sense of the narrative moving forward. Also, maybe this sounds better in the original Japanese, but powers like "crown clown" and "clown belt" really don't hit my ear right in English; there's a very real lack of gravitas there for abilities that I think we're supposed to take seriously.


Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

It's easy to see why Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is considered a classic. Bette Davis's over-the-top delusional villainy is well known from the movie, but I reckon that Joan Crawford's more understated performance also deserves a revisit. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Demon Lord vs. DnD: Classes and Paths

 

I had big hopes and dreams for doing a series of comparative posts contrasting 5e D&D and Shadow of the Demon Lord. Last year I managed to write two of those posts: one on the games' basic mechanics and one on D&D's "races" vs. SotDL's "ancestries." Unfortunately, the series petered out for one reason or another. Since this incomplete series has felt like it's been hanging over my head, it's time to get back into the thick of things. In this installment, I'll be talking about the differences, similarities, and quirks of D&D's classes vs. SotDL's paths.

D&D's classes are so iconic at this point that they hardly need introduction; classes such as fighter, paladin, cleric, and wizard are part of the lingua franca of fantasy rpgs at this point, defining the character archetypes expected to be available to players. Each class comes pre-packaged with its own fictional conventions. For example, if you're thinking of playing a strong warrior who relies on heavy armor and a shield for protection, you pick fighter or paladin. If you want a more agile combatant, you probably opt to make a rogue or monk instead.

The wrinkle that 5e introduced to D&D's class structure is the notion of picking a subclass. At first, second, or third level (depending on the class in question), you pick a subclass that tailors the "generic" class toward a more focused or specific archetype. For example, a rogue might be an assassin, a thief, a swashbuckler, or a scout. This choice adds different abilities and skews the character toward a particular style of play. If you pick scout as your rogue subclass, expect to use your nature skills; if you pick swashbuckler, you're likely to take more of a social role and engage in melee duels where possible. 

Subclasses provide a nice bit of differentiation between characters of the same class and expand the available options. They're necessary, as 5e has been quite reluctant to introduce new base classes. (The only new class to appear outside of the Player's Handbook is the artificer introduced in the 5e Eberron book.) A good subclass can make a class that was previously unappealing seem interesting and worth a try. That said, not all subclasses are created equal in 5e. Without house rules, the Way of the Four Elements monk subclass is notoriously disappointing, and the pre-errata Beast Master ranger in the PHB doesn't really satisfy the fantasy of having a powerful animal pet. 

Additionally, it's a shame that many of the subclasses are held off until you reach third level; this can lend the feeling of not really getting to play the character you want for the first few levels. On the other hand, the first two levels in 5e D&D go by fairly quickly, often in about three sessions, so it might not be too arduous of a wait. Nevertheless, it does feel strange that some characters get their subclasses earlier than others.

In contrast to D&D's classes, SotDL has paths. Paths are divided into three tiers: novice, expert, and master. These are somewhat analogous to 4e's heroic, paragon, and epic tiers, though they are much less "high-powered fantasy" in execution. Characters obtain a novice path when the party reaches first level. Novice paths represent broad fantasy archetypes: magician, priest, rogue, and warrior. Each defines a basic direction for your character. Warriors specialize in fighting, magicians excel at magic, and priests split the difference between them (and have a slight emphasis on providing bonuses to others). Rogues are like a very small salad bar; you can choose abilities from their available options to make the classic "thief," but you can also grab a little magic or other specialties to stray from D&D's vision of the fantasy scoundrel. The novice path you choose at first level provides additional abilities at levels two, five, and eight.

Expert paths function a bit like 5e's subclasses. You pick an expert path when your party reaches third level to further specialize and tailor your character's abilities. You might pick an expert path that builds on the abilities you already have, such as picking the fighter expert path to emphasize your warrior's martial prowess, or you might pick an expert path that gives you access to a totally different suite of abilities, such as picking the sorcerer path to add some magic to your warrior. Your expert path provides additional abilities at levels six and nine.

When your party reaches seventh level, you pick a master path for your character. Master paths are essentially "capstones," providing one final piece of differentiation for your character. As with expert paths, you have free rein to pick whatever master path appeals to you. You might top off your fire-wielding magician by picking the pyromancer master path or polishing off your archery-focused rogue by picking the sharpshooter master path. Your master path provides additional abilities at tenth level--the final level in SotDL's progression.

D&D has a potential issue in that there are no meaningful choices to make about your character's growth once you've picked your subclass; after that, your character's mechanical development is more or less set in stone. SotDL solves that issue by allowing players to shape their character over the course of their growth at steady intervals. Since there are no restrictions on which expert or master paths you can pick, you aren't bound by a sense of linear progression. There are hundreds of expert and master paths scattered throughout SotDL's supplements, so the amount of personalization and variation you can achieve is astounding. 

However, some combinations of paths are more likely to see play than others. There probably isn't much cause to pick warrior, oracle, and illusionist as your novice, expert, and master paths, since the abilities from those paths don't have much synergy and it's hard to imagine what that character is all about from a roleplaying perspective.

Additionally, although SotDL adds a ton of options through its path system, it may still suffer from one issue that 5e also shares: you may have to wait for quite some time to feel like your character is really fulfilling the archetype you have in mind. It's entirely possible to make a character with a background in entertainment who focuses on song magic, but if you want to play a "bard" and will not be satisfied until it says "bard" on your character sheet, you're going to have to wait until seventh level because bard is a master path in SotDL. Similarly, if you want a "beastmaster" ranger, you're going to need to bide your time until the master path for that becomes available. That's an even longer wait than what D&D's subclass system makes you endure; seventh level is basically the start of SotDL's endgame tier--the beginning of the end, so to speak.

Of course, one thing that has to be addressed is the question of balance. It's here that an interesting difference in culture between fans of the two games is evident. Hardcore D&D fans on the internet seem to constantly moan about how some classes are "overpowered" and others are so underpowered that they are "broken." I generally think these concerns are overblown (most casual D&D fans don't even notice any power disparity between the classes in my experience), but there are issues that can come up in play. The paladin class, for example, does just seem to be better designed to fulfill its role than the ranger class does, for example. That doesn't make rangers unplayable, but it does feel like an area of 5e that didn't come out of the oven fully baked.

Some online SotDL fans, on the other hand, are more insistent that the paths are all exquisitely balanced, but I don't think that's entirely accurate either. In the novice paths, for example, there is a strange quirk at first level where rogues feel like they're better in combat than warriors. Warriors can take a negligibly higher amount of damage and get a bonus to their weapon attacks, but rogues get a bonus to their attacks and a bonus to their damage. The rogue's bonus can also apply to most rolls you'd want to make, not just attacks. It's hard not to feel like the rogue is just an immediately superior choice.

Also, it's odd that magician is the only novice path that doesn't ever get a boon to use for its core shtick: casting spells. This means that rogues and priests can potentially feel like more proficient spellcasters than the class that supposedly focuses on that ability. Again, the rogue rears its "pick me!" head: the rogue's ability to get a boon to attacks can apply to spell attacks and their bonus to damage can apply to spells--the latter another thing that neither the magician or priest get. Although the magician may get access to more magic than the rogue, the rogue's combo of bonus to spell attack rolls and spell attack damage sometimes makes them feel like the superior spellcaster in a lot of situations.

Balance issues are potentially exacerbated by expert and master paths that can vary wildly in power level. Remember, there are literally hundreds of them; it beggars belief to think that they have all been exactingly balanced against each other. It's hard to really say that paths that grant abilities to instantly slay a foe if the conditions are right, such as assassin, or the straight-up buffs that fighters get are equivalent to the bonus to nature skills and the ability to teleport between trees that the druid gets. 

Again, this doesn't mean that some paths are "traps" or that others are godlike in power, but it does mean that not every path is the equal of its peers. The disparity only becomes more apparent when you look at the expert and master paths from the less well-vetted supplements that followed after the core book, some of which have absolutely mind-bogglingly more powerful abilities when compared to the initial paths in the core rulebook. This also happens with some of the variant novice paths that have been written for the game; as an example, whenever the spellguard path comes up in conversations on the SotDL Discord...well, get ready for a lot of bitching about it. To be honest, "power creep" is an issue. 

The insistence that SotDL's paths are finely tuned things of beauty contrasts badly against the amount of conversation in SotDL spaces about "builds" and optimization. Ironically, this is the sort of thing that SotDL fans often accuse D&D fans of being obsessed with, but it's not at all uncommon among SotDL fans in my experience. Here's an example from the SotDL reddit:

Power gamers and minmaxers, like the poor, will always be among us. I think Jesus said that.

It's widely accepted that 5e D&D has balance issues in the higher levels; even if the "martial classes" are consistently capable, they're outpaced by the miraculous things that spellcasters can eventually do. There is some validity to that complaint, but I think it's both overstated in some ways and also highly dependent on the people you're playing with in others. 

Instead of addressing that issue, SotDL merely reverses its polarity. It's noticeable that SotDL's "martial paths" tend to deal more damage with their weapon attacks than its spellcasters do with their magic. Low-level damage-dealing cantrips feel like a poor choice, since they are a limited resource (no all-day cantrips here) that deliver damage on par, if not inferior to, basic weapon attacks. Even taking into account access to "area of effect" spells (which have their benefits mitigated by the fact that's better to deal a killing blow to one foe than it is to damage multiple foes due to the vagaries of the action economy), spells just aren't on par in a game that is, like the D&D chassis it's built upon, focused on combat. The end result in SotDL feels like an over-correction to D&D's fetish for magic This issue is only more pronounced when the characters face higher difficulty monsters, which tend to halve damage taken from spells.

One thing I do tend to like about SotDL's paths is how condensed they are in terms of information and the delivery of mechanics. As an example, consider the D&D paladin's Lay on Hands ability (on the left below) versus the SotDL paladin's Faith Healing ability (on the right below). They have the same intent, but the SotDL version is much terser and less "fatty" in terms of verbiage:

Since SotDL's paths only need to account for ten levels of play, versus D&D's twenty levels of character progression, there is far less cruft or "ribbon" abilities that are there for flavor. SotDL characters feel lean and mean; they have interesting abilities, but at no point does your sheet feel like it has too much stuff to keep track of on it. In comparison, a 5e character sheet often feels littered with things you've never used and probably never will. That said, their paired-down suite of abilities can sometimes make SotDL characters feel a little incomplete. Because abilities are tersely defined, parceled out according to a strict path progression, and few in number, sometimes there isn't room in a character's lifespan to get an ability that feels like it should be a natural feature of your character. 

Sunday, April 24, 2022

The Viscount

The Viscount

An NPC from my Ravenloft campaign

Elleri Ban’Ethyn, more commonly called the Viscount because of his gallant manners and eloquent mode of speech, is a drow gunslinger with a fearsome reputation. Originally hailing from Faerûn, Elleri was once an enforcer employed by a crime syndicate in Waterdeep. The mastermind at the head of the syndicate used Elleri and his deadly skill with firearms to eliminate her rivals one-by-one, until the survivors were forced to band together to end her reign of terror. As his boss lay bleeding to death, Elleri tried to flee the city by night, but his flight plunged him into the midst of a disorienting fog that transported him into the Domains of Dread.

Elleri has attempted to atone for his misdeeds by living the peaceful life of a wandering gambler in this accursed land, but his reputation always uncannily precedes him in the form of a mysterious woman in black who tells tall tales of his matchless aim and his past as a remorseless hired gun. These tales cause many to give the fabled Viscount a wide berth, while others treat him with contempt as they have already judged him to be a cold-blooded killer. Few look upon the Viscount as a friend.

The stories told about Elleri also draw unwanted bravos into his orbit. These fellow gunfighters seek a duel against the Viscount to test their skill against his under the glare of the sun at high noon. Thus far, Elleri has emerged the victor from each challenge, but the death of every gunfighter he sends to the grave weighs heavily upon his already burdened soul.

The Viscount’s Traits

Ideal. “I want to die having made peace with who I was and what I did in Waterdeep.”

Bond. “I must discover the identity of the woman in black who tells tales of my crimes and deadly deeds.”

Flaw. “Although I try to atone for my bloodthirsty ways, I still take pleasure in felling a foe with a well-placed shot.”

Adventures with The Viscount

The Viscount has the statblock of a drow gunslinger. As long as Elleri wears his trademark pair of violet spectacles, he does not suffer from the Sunlight Sensitivity trait. Consider the following plots when featuring Elleri in an adventure:

  • Angry townsfolk believe that Elleri is responsible for the murder of a beloved citizen. The characters know him to be innocent of the crime, but will they be able to apprehend the guilty party and clear Elleri’s name before he’s forced to shoot his way out of a difficult situation?
  • The Viscount has mistaken the characters for a group of assassins sent to take revenge on him over the outcome of a previous duel.
  • Elleri has devised a method of creating bullets that detonate with the force and effect of a fireball spell, but he needs help obtaining the ingredients needed to make his incendiary dreams a reality.
  • Tired of chasing the woman in black, the Viscount needs aid concocting a scheme that will bring the mysterious woman after him instead.