Friday, April 19, 2019

Stranger Things D&D Starter Set Review

I have a pet peeve: I hate seeing squandered opportunities.

The idea of a Stranger Things-themed D&D starter set has a lot of potential. Although the product is arriving a little late in the Stranger Things hype cycle as the show heads into its third season, it at least makes sense as a tie-in; the kids on the show play D&D, so linking the two brands doesn't immediately feel like a cash-grab.

The Starter Set contains the following bits and pieces:

  • The box itself is solid and not flimsy like the 4e-era box sets. However, the box is conspicuously empty when you consider the how slim the booklets inside are--most of the space seems to allow for the two included minis to be safely tucked into the packaging.
  • The Starter Set Rulebook is a nice presentation of 5e D&D's basic rules lightly decorated with still images from Stranger Things. (The pairing of images with the rules is slightly comical; I guess a kid with a walkie-talkie fits the Adventuring section well enough,but it's impossible to escape the feeling that the premise is being stretched here.) The Rulebook itself is fine, but I wonder if this is where the set works against the potential buyer's expectations: if you thought you were going to get a Stranger Things rpg powered by 5e's engine, you're going to be disappointed.
  • The Hunt for the Thessalhydra is an introductory adventure written as if it were penned by one of the child characters from the show. It's not an interesting adventure. Lost Mines of Phandelver, the introductory adventure in the earlier Starter Set, was criticized in some quarters for being a vanilla fantasy adventure about goblins in caves, but I think that's a silly criticism; that starter adventure at least gives a good feel for the basic D&D experience for new players. The Hunt for the Thessalhydra feels far less inspired (it's vanilla, all right, but not good vanilla), features a dopey riddle, has a questionable random dungeon generator, is presented in a "handwritten script" font that loses its charm quickly, possesses too much empty space that could have been filled with usable content, and ultimately feels unfinished (saying "there is 200 gp worth of treasure in this room" is way less helpful than breaking down each item and its value--players will ask, trust me).
  • The game includes sheets for pre-generated characters, each presented as the character played by one of the Stranger Things kids in their ongoing D&D game. I didn't check them for errors, but I will at least say that I like that the characters aren't all optimal--they're good examples of how an unusual race and class combination is fun even if it doesn't squeeze every last synergy out of the system.
  • You also get a set of dice. They're fairly standard, but don't feel cheap. It's a shame they didn't include two ten-siders for d100 rolls or two d20s for rolls with advantage or disadvantage.
  • The box comes with two "demogorgon" miniatures, one painted and one unpainted. They're nice sculpts, but since there is so little color on the painted version it seems a little pointless to have an unpainted one in the box as well. Placed side-by-side, they just don't look that different.
Overall, this is a squandered opportunity and I'm not sure what audience it's really aimed at. Stranger Things fans aren't going to find a lot of content directly related to the show. Anyone hoping to play in the Stranger Things universe is going to walk away empty-handed. Hardcore D&D fans aren't getting much new in this box. New or prospective D&D players are far better served by the original 5e Starter Set.

I generally think that critiques of WotC being "too corporate" are unfounded. (Just look at how small their actual team is, realize that they're always recruiting freelancers from across the hobby, etc.) But the Stranger Things Starter Set feels like the result of a crass marketing decision: brands are leveraged, but the actually offering is pretty hollow and slapdash.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty

Jack and Kate make a return trip into the realms of best selling author Anne Rice under the literary guise of A. N. Roquelaure. The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty is Rice's pseudonymous experiment to create a book that packed so many "hot scenes" into its pages that readers wouldn't need to bookmark the naughty bits. Loosely inspired by the fairy tale, the book finds our heroine swept away by a domineering prince and taken to a kingdom notorious for using elaborate sexual rituals to train nobles in the ways of good governance.
Just how steamy does this book get? Does the sex circus live up to its promise? Are there any Anne Rice Cinematic Universe crossover opportunities? What does Cardi B have to do with all of this? Find out the answers to all these questions and more in this episode of Bad Books for Bad People.
BBfBP theme song by True Creature 
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Monday, April 15, 2019

The Liberation of Wormwood is Now Available in Print and Pdf!

The Liberation of Wormwood is now available in as a print book and pdf from DriveThruRPG!

The blurb: Wormwood, the claypan frontier town in Cinderheim you call home, has been invaded by a hostile force led by a dangerous adversary. The usurper and their retinue came swiftly and without warning. The people of your town tried to resist them, but the town’s defenses were overrun and its protectors defeated.

The occupiers have put the town’s leader to the sword. The oasis farmsteads that surround Wormwood are now under the invader’s power; they have installed themselves as the ruler of the town. The people of Wormwood are broken. Most townsfolk now keep their heads down and offer only token resistance.

But this is your town, your home, your Wormwood.

You might be able to fight back against the occupiers and free Wormwood from their tyranny. You may be strong of arm and skilled with the instruments of war. You may have mastered a few arcane secrets. You may possess guile, deftness, and expertise in skulduggery. You may have the gods on your side. You and your compatriots are Wormwood’s only hope.

* * *

This book was made for people who:
  • Love letting random tables generate setting elements.
  • Prefer characters that are tied to a location rather than rootless vagabonds.
  • Want a starting scenario they can riff off and build on rather than a pre-made dungeon.

Included in this book:
  • Tables for determining who has invaded Wormwood.
  • Tables for creating characters that tie their backgrounds to who in the town raised them and their classes to which mentor took them under their wing.
  • A brief system for creating a map of the town.
  • Six "opening scenes" with which to start play.
  • Tables for events that could happen in your campaign, random encounter tables, genre conventions to draw on, and NPCs to populate the town.
  • Alternate rules for inspiration.
  • Rules and guidelines for demonic bargains.
  • Optional house rules for your consideration.

The Liberation of Wormwood is a supplement intended to help you start a campaign set in Cinderheim—an apocalyptic desert land corrupted by demons. By following the procedures in this book, your group will define Wormwood’s invader, create a cast of player characters with a deep-rooted interest in freeing their town from an occupying force, and describe an opening scene that establishes the beginning of your campaign.

Although designed for the Cinderheim setting, this product can be used with any fantasy setting. Similarly, some rules are orientated toward the fifth edition of the world's most popular roleplaying game, but it is largely stat-free and compatible with whatever system you prefer.

Obligatory pictures of the book as a physical artifact:

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The Third Eye

The Third Eye is a religious movement that believes the true goal of spiritual practice has been perverted; rather than seeking cosmic meaning through understanding the gods, the members of the Third Eye believe that the purpose of faith is apotheosis—they want to evolve into gods and goddesses capable of reshaping the world. Agents of the Third Eye tend to be mystically minded, and their members are recruited from among eccentrics interested in theology, mythic cycles, and the nature of divinity.

Life is the proving grounds of godhood.

  • The truth about divinity has been intentionally obscured by those who hold spiritual power.
  • It is possible to transcend mortality and become a god.
  • Myths are routes to godhood that can be emulated.
  • Seek out suppressed religious texts.
  • Achieve apotheosis and join the gods in the Upper Planes.

  • Undermine a church that preaches subservience to the will of the gods.
  • Make contact with a demiurge.
  • Capture a foreign priest and force them to divulge the truths of their mystery religion.

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, April 8, 2019

Wet Degenerates

(continuing the adventure that started here.)

Setting & System: Cinderheim, 5e D&D

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


Warleader Cro came down from his rage to find himself surrounded by the remains of ten crawling claws, two mysterious corpses face-down in from of a giant misty mirror, the corpse of his compatriot Aeran, and the unconscious body of Sylvester. Cro entered the mirror to investigate the mollusk-like shape that could be seen beyond the dark glass. Sylvester regained consciousness and turned over the mysterious corpses--which turned out to be the bodies of mind flayers.

The mollusk-shape turned out to be a strange vessel held within a smooth, featureless chamber. Inside, Cro found six storage tubes--two of which contained humanoids in suspended animation. Palming the orange hemisphere on the wall next to the tubes released the two captives, thereby adding Blatherskite and Lilai to the party. 

Further exploration revealed that the mollusk vessel's head was a kind of cockpit. When Cro affixed the oddly shaped helmet he had acquired preciously to a disquieting umbilical cord-like cable the vessel addressed him as "the Voidnaut." When he asked the ship to take him somewhere "bad-ass" it replied that it required INTOXICANTS to continue its journey. A maw-like compartment on the vessel's console was fed the last of Aeran's stash, but it wasn't enough to sate its ravenous needs.

And so the party set off to explore more of the tower in hopes of finding INTOXICANTS. A dormitory with beds arranged barracks-style was found and the beds therein were duly despoiled. The wardrobes in this room only contained dance costumes. Cro kicked in a door, sending it ricocheting off a coffin in the next room. This windowless chamber contained six coffins standing on wrought iron biers. Suspecting vampires, the party decided to experiment. Lilai and Cro dragged one coffin into the dormitory, broke one of the room's window to let in more light, and then wrenched the coffin lid open so that the sunlight would fall on whatever was inside. The coffin contained only a thing layer of soil at its bottom.

After this, each coffin was dragged into the dormitory to be forcibly ejected through the window onto the ground below. All six coffins were tossed out, resulting in a pile of broken dark wood and soil three stories down at the foot of the tower.

Moving on, a room full of weapons was discovered. Cro looted a blunt greatsword and a cestus, Sylvester took a barbed whip, and somebody else took a chakram. They also found the first black chamber, which featured a four-poster bed, a wardrobe, and a vanity with a smashed mirror. Lilai looted several bags of coin from the wardrobe and noted that it contained both dance costumes and black dresses. In an adjoining chamber they group found a hot kettle full of tea waiting for them, along with four bone china cups. A lantern hung above the small table in this room, sending rays of multicolored light throughout the chamber. Previous experience with the crystal peacock statue had alerted them to the fact that the colorful light had some sort of magical property; however, when Warleader Cro attempted to wrap the lantern in a blanket to stifle its effects it caused his body to be suddenly covered with a thick pelt of fur.

Returning to the bedroom, they were met by a damp, dark-haired woman wearing a robe who was unperturbed by their presence in her rooms. She introduced herself as Navara. While sealing her despoiled bed back together with magic, she explained that the Cro and Sylvester's approach of the tower (and the parties exploration throughout) had been monitored. When questioned about their dead compatriot at the tower's entrance, she said that he had refused the offer of employment that had been made to him...and that it was expected that since they had taken the money in her wardrobe she assumed the group was prepared to take up the task. What she wanted the party to do was travel to a nearby village and take note of how many children lived that the Academy's would have an idea of how many potential "recruits" might be living there.

The group neither agreed nor refused her offer, but she nonchalantly told them to explore the tower further, if they desired, and to find her again when they had an answer.

And so they explored further. Opening the door decorated with a danse macabre plaque unveiled a dance studio, its walls and ceilings covered with mirrors and its perimeter ablaze with lit candles. Music suddenly flooded from the room; robed skeletal figures played a harp and kettle drums to provide music for the woman in a red costume who practiced the unnerving, brutal, rhythmical movements movements of an occult dance. As she danced, the woman made eye contact with the group--seemingly pleased to have an audience.

Lilai, however, was not pleased. Unwilling to speak further with the maniac inhabitants of the tower, she cast sacred flame on the dancer. The divine radiance hit the dancer but did not break her stride; she summoned a bladed chain that she swung while she continued her dance. The skeletons ceased their music--although arch-mimic Blatherskite picked up the tune--and joined the fray. 

The dancer proved hard to pin-down; she easily avoided the first few attacks sent her way and wheeled away from her foes without exposing herself to injury. A strike with her bladed chain nearly took out Lilai in one swipe. The skeletons also endangered Blatherskite as they raked at him with their claws, but he stayed focused on sending arrows at the dancer. Cro's newly acquired cestus smashed through the skeletons' brittle bodies. A well-placed arrow from Blatherskite caused the dancer to stumble out of rhythm, and Sylvester finished her off with a mental assault. The skeletons were dealt with by Blatherskite's rapier and Cro's encased fist.

As Cro beheaded the dancer's corpse, applause could be heard coming from a blonde man standing in a doorway. Like Navara, he was noticeably damp. He introduced himself as Petros and explained that he was happy that they had slain his rival--she was a better dancer, he said, and with her out of the way maybe he would be accepted at the Academy.

Is Petros destined to help or hinder the party? We'll find out as the adventure continues.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Notes on Jason X

I watched Jason X. Yeah, the Friday the 13th sequel that takes place in space. Mistakes were made.

Running commentary as the film rolls.

Hey wow, it's got David Cronenberg as...a creepy doctor! I appreciate that this is basically the only role he plays. Unfortunately, there isn't enough of him in this movie.

Also, ever notice how many secret research labs in these movies often look like badly lit parking garages?

Okay, now we're in the future. All the girls in the future are wearing crop tops. One girl has two sweaters on but neither covers her stomach. That's just how you roll in space.

When Jason is discovered in cryo-suspension he is knocked over and the machete he's holding cuts a dude's arm off. He's basically a really dangerous statue. 

The outfit the student puts on to seduce her Space Professor is oddly less fetishistic than what she wears when she's just walking around the spaceship. But her professor is wearing lady's lingerie and they are using some forceps as part of their umm scenario. There are a few sex scenes in this movie, but none of them really look like people having sex.

The lady android is sad that she doesn't have nipples like a "real girl." This is a weird riff on Pinocchio.

Jason reviving from suspended animation is juxtaposed with two Space Teens getting it on. Jason bolts upright suddenly: "I hear fuckin', time to kill!"

They gave the woman who was frozen along with Jason back in the past a crop top to replace the shirt Jason previously stabbed up.

One of these kids is named "Azrael." Were his parents Space Goths? You won't feel bad when this kid gets killed.

The nipple-less lady android just got made-over as Trinity from the Matrix and now she can do kicks, flips, gun shoots, and dumb quips.

The ship's computer malfunctions (or something) and rebuilds Jason as...CYBER JASON. It even makes him a steel hockey mask, which feels strangely considerate.

The big solution is to trap Jason in an Oculus Rift game. A sexy Oculus Rift game.

The triumphant, Star Trek-style music is an odd fit throughout, but our self-sacrificing hero rides Jason into planetary re-entry.

Note: I also watched Jason Goes to Hell, which wasn't really worth talking about, but I will tell you the premise: Jason loses his body and possesses other people to do his Jason-y things. He moves from body to body by having his current form French kiss the new body with a tongue that looks like a big dry dog turd.