Thursday, July 22, 2021

Book of Cylinders

I've been running the adventures in 
Candlekeep Mysteries lightly reskinned for my Krevborna setting. The characters are all employed as members of Creedhall University Library's "Special Collections" department, aka adventurers. This is a recap of what happened in "Book of Cylinders." Fair warning: spoilers lurk below.

The Characters

Rufus Clarke, human barbarian played by Steve

Doctor Tobias Wolfe, human sorcerer, played by Dennis

Rising Leaf, human monk, played by Michael

Events 

The group were sent to retrieve a number of curious books being donated to Creedhall's library by Tobias's uncle Elbert. The books were of an unusual type: they were five cylinders marked with pictographs meant to be rolled onto wet clay to display the story they told. As they are ushered into Uncle Elbert's parlor, they couldn't help but notice that a serpent headdress-wearing mummy in a glass case dominated decor of the room. Things started to seem awry when Elbert produced three cylinders instead of the five that were promised. It was then that Tobias noticed the green devil face brooch pinned to his uncle's lapel--an item he recognized as part of a ritual of soul transference. The jig was up: someone or something else was inhabiting Uncle Elbert's body!

"Uncle Elbert" made a break for it, but Rising Leaf was hot on his heels. Leaf grabbed the strange brooch and tore it off Elbert's jacket. Elbert immediately collapsed, seemingly dead. When his body was turned over, his throat began to pulse ominously...and then a snake emerged from his mouth and slithered away. Back inside, Tobias examined the mummy, which began to communicate with the group. It said its name was Saretomet and that in life it had been a priest of the Five-Headed Empress. He pleaded to be released from the glass cage, promising to divulge the whereabouts of the remaining two cylinder books, but the trio were at first reluctant to do so. 

Leaf ultimately opened the glass case and the mummy began to move. Leaf tried to slam the case shut, but the mummy pushed back. They struggled over the door to the case to a stalemate. Eventually, the group decided to let the mummy out and see what he had to say. Saretomet claimed to have been removed from a temple and brought to Uncle Elbert's house by the same cultists who killed Elbert, commandeered his body, and made off with the remaining two cylinders. 

He drew them a map to the village nearby the temple and also used the remaining three cylinders to show the party what secrets they held. The cylinders told the story of a village of frogfolk who made their living catching giant crabs and selling their meat to traders. Their village was shown under attack by snakefolk, who decimated their dwellings. The only building that remained in their village was an ancient stone temple. Leaving the mummy resting in an overstuffed chair, the group decided it was time to take a boat from out back and head down the river in search of the two missing cylinders.

Arriving at the village meant crossing through a maze of crab cages, some of which had been damaged. Four giant crabs attempted to climb up into their rowboat, which necessitated a tense brawl, but the party managed to fight them off and make it to the docks. Past the docks were a series of hastily erected buildings decorated with claws and carapaces from the giant crabs; the place had the feel of a refugee camp. The party noticed that small frog-like humanoids were peering at them from the doorways of mud brick buildings. The frogfolk approached with makeshift weapons. 

Luckily, Tobias could speak Primordial, so they had a language in common. The frogfolk reported that their village had been visited by serpentfolk interested in excavating the temple on their land; these serpentfolk had been kind and generous, but soon a different group of serpentfolk arrived, taking the previous group hostage, destroying the frogfolk's ancestral village, and driving them out. Worse yet, these malign serpentfolk had taken over the breeding pools of the frogfolk and were eating their eggs!

The group decided to deal with serpentfolk guarding the eggs first. Tobias took the serpentfolk guards by surprise by plunging them into a void of otherworldly horror, while Leaf and Rufus engaged them in hand-to-hand combat. After a vicious slog of a battle, the group had dealt with this group of serpentfolk. They make a tactical withdrawal back to the frogfolk compound, where they were offered healing in a sacred pool. Strangely, they also emerged with knowledge of the frogfolk's language of croaks and ribbits.

Moving further up the river, they sought out the temple and managed to interrupt a fiendish ritual. The last remaining "good" serpentfolk from the first group who encountered the frog people was tied to a stone altar, about to be sacrificed by serpentfolk cultists. Leaf engaged their leader one-on-one, managing to destroy him with volley after volley of sword cuts and kicks to the face, while Rufus and Tobias finished his two serpent-headed followers. 

After the savage melee, the group released the serpentfolk's captive, and found the mummy's sarcophagus--which held some treasure for them and also the two remaining cylinder books. Viewing their picture-story revealed something shocking: they depicted Rufus, Tobias, and Leaf coming to the frogfolk village and liberating it from the serpentfolk cultists! All along, the cylinders had been "books" of prophecy foretelling the party's victory over the decadent serpentfolk.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Strahd Loves, Man Kills Reprinted and the Final Printing of Dirge of Urazya

Firstly, a huge thank you to everyone who bought a copy of the first issue of Strahd Loves, Man Kills or promoted it on social media. With your help I was able to sell out my print run in a week--which makes it the fastest selling project I've done to date! That encouragement will keep me going; more on that below.

If you missed out on grabbing a copy of SLMK, have no fear: it has been reprinted and is ready to ship! If you want a copy, you can find it here on my Big Cartel page.

Secondly, my Dirge of Urazya zine has also been reprinted. I had hoped to do another run of it sooner, but then the pandemic happened. If you want a copy of Dirge of Urazya, it is available here, but be forewarned if you were thinking of waiting: this is likely the final print run of that zine. Once it's gone, it's probably gone for good.

Thirdly, some news: the reception of Strahd Loves, Man Kills has been so rewarding that it is officially becoming a quarterly publication. There is more Ravenloft to come. 

In fact, can you keep a secret? The second and third issues of Strahd Loves, Man Kills are already written. Here's a taste of what will be in the second issue:

  • A Gothic wild-west themed take on the domain of Nova Vaasa
  • Dandy and inquisitor backgrounds
  • Advice on running Candlekeep Mysteries as a Ravenloft campaign
  • Seven classic factions from Ravenloft's past updated with a fresh coat of shadowy paint
  • Two nonplayer characters: the horrific artist Donesta Sangino and the doomed gunslinger Elleri Ban'Ethyn
  • Ideas for making gunslinging characters of your own
  • A bibliography of body horror inspirations
The second issue will drop in early October, just in time for it to make it to your doorstep by Halloween.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft: Character Creation

Now that's I've made posts covering all of the domains in Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft, I want to do a brief overview and review of the rest of the book's content. Let's start with Chapter 1: Character Creation, which features the book's player-facing goodies.

The first chapter begins with advice for players about how to engage in a horror-themed adventure or campaign. This is a particularly worthwhile discussion, as one of the elements of playing in a horror game that is rarely addressed is the importance of player buy-in. It's not uncommon to see players complain online about how horror games aren't "scary," when the issue is that they're the ones who aren't leaning in to the genre. The advice in this section includes the admonition to "limit comedy," which is a deceptively important piece of advice. Of course you aren't going to achieve a horrorific atmosphere if you're cracking the same tired Monte Python jokes.

This section also includes three lineages for player characters. Lineages differ from "races" in that they can either be chosen at character creation or added to an existing character in play to mark their transformation into some more horrifying. The three lineages are dhampir, reborn, and hexblood. The dhampir and reborn cover classic horror archetypes; they're vampiric beings (without being fully undead) and creatures brought back from the grave ala Frankenstein's monster. The hexblood has less of an origin traceable to classic horror tropes: they're people who have made bargains with hags and found themselves transformed as part of the pact.

This section also includes rules for Dark Gifts, abilities that grant useful powers and act as limited curses that could bedevil the characters. Dark Gifts are usually "boons" granted by entering into a compact with an evil supernatural entity, but they can also be used to represent the ways that characters in Ravenloft are warped by the setting itself. In that sense, they take the place of the Dark Powers Checks of previous editions, though they are different in one important respect: a player has the agency to agree to a Dark Gift being bestowed upon their character, rather than being foisted on a character as punishment for "playing wrong." There are eight Dark Gifts detailed in the book, which of course leaves plenty of room to invent your own to fill in the inevitable gaps.

Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft also details two new subclasses: the College of Spirits bard and the Undead patron warlock. Bards of the College of Spirits use ghost stories to fuel their powers; they're very much in the mold of Victorian spiritualists. The Undead patron is essentially a replacement for the Undying warlock patron, which was widely deemed to be underpowered. A warlock who selects this patron serves a powerful undead creature; several big name undead in the D&D multiverse are name-checked as potential patrons. Oddly, Azalin Rex is mentioned even though he's "missing" in the setting as presented in the book. I've never been particularly concerned with mechanical balance, so I won't evaluate these subclasses in that regard, but they both have a number of interesting and compelling features that fit their themes.

Closing out this section are a number of new background features, such as the ability to navigate the Mists or communicate with ghosts as a spirit medium, a reprinted (and corrected) haunted one background, the investigator background, random tables of characteristics suited for characters in a horror game, and a table of horror-centric trinkets that a character might begin play with.

* * *

If you made it to the end of this post, you must really like Ravenloft. And if you really like Ravenloft, you're going to like Strahd Loves, Man Kills, my Ravenloft fanzine, which can be purchased here.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft: Tepest and Valachan

There have been many people covering the rules content in Van Richten's Guide, such as the new lineages, new subclasses, dark gifts, and other widgets, but I want to talk about the domains as a long-time fan of Ravenloft. How do they stack up, what alterations have been made, and how gameable does this iteration of the Domains of Dread feel? I've covered Barovia, Bluetspur, and Borca herethe Carnival and Darkon hereDementlieu and Falkovnia here, Har'Akir, Hazlan, and I'Cath here, and Kalakeri and Kartakass here, and Lamordia, Mordent, and Richemulot here. We're finishing out tour of the major domains by looking at Tepest and Valachan.


Tepest

The 2e version of Tepest always struck me as a good concept poorly executed. It's main issue is that it combines two ideas that are quite strong on their own, but don't really fit congruently together. On one hand, Tepest is a realm that draws on Celtic folk tales to posit to domain haunted by evil fey creatures. On the other, it's also a domain that emphasizes the abuse and intolerant ideology of organized religion, as is often demonstrated by Gothic novels such as The Monk. The church in the old Tepest creates an atmosphere of hate and fear directed toward all fey creatures, whether they are malign or not. However, some odd choices were made there; for example, the church in Tepest is based on the Celtic pantheon, which feels like a weird fit for a religion supposed to be oriented against the fey.

The new version of Tepest takes on aspect of the old version, a leaning toward folk horror in regards to the fey, and explodes that into the overarching theme of the domain. The Tepest presented in Van Richten's Guide is boiled down to a single settlement, the village of Viktal, and makes it the centerpiece of the premier folk horror domain in Ravenloft. As such, the influences are obvious: both The Wicker Man and Midsommar loom large here. Viktal is a simple rural community of friendly villagers...who prove to be a little too friendly. In truth, their survival is contingent on offering a sacrifice to a hag known as Mother at a seasonal celebration known as the Tithe.


Valachan

I've posted before about how I feel that the former Darklord of the 2e-era Valachan, Baron Urik von Kharkov, was a huge missed step. His backstory is hopelessly convoluted and pointless (he was originally a panther, who was transformed into a man, and later became a vampire), and it was always gross that the sole black Darklord of the Ravenloft's Core was a beast at heart. If there was a single domain that was badly in need of revision, it was Valachan.

Thankfully, the version of Valachan in Van Richten's Guide is absolutely amazing. A strong and compelling theme emerges: the fear of being hunted. The Darklord of the new Valachan is a woman named Chakuna, and like her literary antecedents in "The Most Dangerous Game" and The Sound of His Horn, she hunts those who have had the misfortune of finding themselves in her jungle domain. I love the ways that this new version of the domain has connections to both the domain's past and its use of D&D's trappings; Chakuna explicitly slew and overthrew Baron von Kharkov and she hunts her prey with a pack of displacer beasts!

Sunday, July 4, 2021

The First Issue of Strahd Loves, Man Kills is Released!

The first issue of Strahd Loves, Man Kills has been released! That link will take you to my Big Cartel page, where the zine can be purchased for a mere $6 in print, with a complementary pdf to follow.

I bid you welcome...to the inaugural issue of Strahd Loves, Man Kills, a Ravenloft fanzine for the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons. This zine was inspired in equal parts by my enduring love of the Ravenloft setting and by the recent release of Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft. Keep in mind that this zine presents my own idiosyncratic vision of the setting. You will find much within these pages that diverges from the setting’s canon, but my hope is that SLMK will give you new toys to play with and inspire your own unique take on Ravenloft.

The first issue contains the following features:

  • Lurid Locations. This feature is dedicated to new and revised areas of the Ravenloft setting. In this installment, I present Strega Hollow and the mysterious and miraculous wilds of the Wychbog.
  • Baleful Backgrounds. This feature presents three new backgrounds for characters: country squire, cultist, and cut-wife.
  • Seeds of Evil. This feature details an adventure seed you can use to craft a scenario set in Ravenloft. This issue’s installment, entitled “The Thing in Elbert’s Parlor,” posits a visit to an uncle who has just added a mummy to his collection of antiquarian artifacts.
  • Cryptic Alliances. This feature adds additional secret societies and factions to Ravenloft. In this installment, I detail the Cult of the Rotmaiden, a circle of druids devoted to Zuggtmoy.
  • Tragic Heroes. This features give advice on creating characters who fit Ravenloft’s horrific mood. This installment focuses on troubled troubadours.
  • Random Ruin. This feature presents a random table to enrich your game. This installment is a table meant to generate a grandiose title for your campaign arc.
  • Forbidden Tomes. This feature presents a bibliography of a particular genre of horror for your edification and entertainment. This installment explores folk horror.
This is a fanzine in the truest sense: it is a labor of love crafted in the DIY style. If you're a Ravenloft fan you might not want to miss this one. If you missed the link to the Big Cartel page, here it is again.

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Rhode Island Vacation, We Shall Sing a Song Into the Deep, Vampirella, and More

Things that brought me delight in June, 2021:


Rhode Island Vacation

I had the pleasure of a vacation in Rhode Island with my girlfriend at the start of the month. Things I saw: the Dark Shadows house (pictured to the right), The Breakers, Marble House, a topiary garden, another fancy house and gardens (the name of which escapes me), the grave of Mercy Brown (Rhode Island's famed "vampire"). Things I ate: a sundae from Newport Creamery and Dell's lemonade. Too many great things to list here; trust me, it was a wonderful time. Although! We did hear the ominous sounds of someone walking around the upstairs of our AirBnB, which caused us to do a room by room perimeter sweep in search of intruders the first night, heh.


Andrew Kelly Stewart, We Shall Sing a Song Into the Deep

We Shall Sing a Song Into the Deep has a very cool premise: a nuclear submarine is inhabited by monkish ascetic sailors bearing one final warhead that they plan to launch to render the final judgment on the post-apocalyptic world above the waves. Thankfully, the book lives up to that premise. A raid against the topside dwellers brings a mysterious scientist into the enclosed and fanatical world of the submarine, triggering a crisis of faith that promises to forever change life aboard the submarine. This is quite a short novel, but despite its brevity it creates a claustrophobic atmosphere that explodes like a powder keg. One of the best things I've read all year.


Blackbriar, The Cause of Shipwreck and Snow White and Rose Red

The Cause of Shipwreck is Blackbriar's debut full-length album, and it follows in the footsteps of their prior EPs with a sound that is part symphonic metal and part Gothic pomp. The album certainly does not let down the momentum they had gained over the course of their smaller releases; the record is clearly their most polished and cohesive effort yet. This one is going to be easy to spin all summer long. I also picked up the Snow White and Rose Red single. Although it only features three versions of the same song, it's a good song. No complaints!


Grant Morrison and Mark Millar, Vampirella: Masters Series Volume One

Grant Morrison and Mark Millar go uncharacteristically hard in the first three-issue arc in this collection. It reads more like a Garth Ennis joint; to wit, it's got: vampire AIDS (developed by Saddam Hussein and tested on the Kurds, no less), lesbian incest, a daughter who is repeatedly forced to call her gangland father a "dirty wop" at gunpoint, and this charming phrasing: "She'll go down easier than a transexual hooker on the Nutty Professor himself." Also, between the warrior nuns dolled up in "chastity latex" in the second arc and Seven Soldiers, I feel confident that Morrison is a fetishist of a very particular stripe. Overall, this volume is a good example of the dueling intentions behind the comic: it tries to be both an excuse for pin-up shots and tell a rip-roaring action story, which could theoretically be paired to work in tandem, but isn't entirely successful here because it can't fully commit to either. Additionally, for a character we're supposed to take as a bad-girl babe, there sure are a lot of panels where Vampirella has a busted face.


Carach Angren, Frankensteina Strataemontanus

Carach Angren specialize in the style of theatrical black metal pioneered by Cradle of Filth. Like Cradle, Carach Angren also has a penchant for concept albums; Frankensteina Strataemontanus is, as the name suggests, their retelling of Frankenstein. I can't get enough of these unhinged monster tales wrapped in the trappings of black metal bombast. Essential listening for anyone preparing a campaign set in Lamordia, if you ask me.


Warren Ellis, Vampirella: Masters Series Volume Two

My journey through the trashy 90s Vampirella comics of the Harris era continues! This one is written by Warren Ellis, but has the same art team (Conner and Palmiotti) as the first volume. I wonder if they liked this material better than the stuff Grant Morrison and Mark Millar were doing or if they were given a more relaxed pace to work at...because the art is definitely less sloppy here. It's interesting to me that someone felt the need to retcon Vampirella's origins; I guess "space vampire" didn't cut it at the time, though to me that still feels more fresh than "child of the biblical Lilith." The real treat is the fully painted mini-story that rounds out the volume. But then, I'm a mark for painted comics. 


The Dark Element, self-titled and Songs the Night Sings

It's always interesting to see how well former members of Nightwish adapt to life outside that band. In The Dark Element, Anette Olzon doesn't veer too far from well-trod paths. The Dark Element has the same kind of symphonic metal bombast as her tenure with Nightwish, though overall The Dark Element's albums are less focused on overarching themes. There's also an element of electronic flourish here that feels different from her previous work. I think "My Sweet Mystery" is a bop and I don't care who knows it.

Brian Keene, Urban Gothic

Brian Keene's Urban Gothic is basically a splatter-slasher horror movie in novel form. Six suburban kids end up in the ghetto when their car breaks down and they seek shelter in an abandoned house that happens to be occupied by inbred mutant killers. And then some black teens, a middle-aged man who is too old for this shit, and a guy out to steal the plumbing get involved. Don't expect much character development, backstory, or deep social commentary; rather, brace yourself for gross-out moments. The mix here is The Hills Have Eyes, C.H.U.D., and those grade Z gorefests that you can never remember the name of after the final reel. 


The Murder of My Sweet, Bye Bye Lullaby and Echoes of the Aftermath

My journey into the poppy symphonic metal of The Murder of My Sweet began last month, but I soldiered on by listening to Bye Bye Lullaby and Echoes of the Aftermath this month. Bye Bye Lullaby struck me as having less of an electronic influence that I supposed usual for the band; some of the tracks even had a faint noir vibe to them. Echoes of the Aftermath, in contrast, does acrobatic flips trying to reconcile the pop with the symphonic heft. I like the whiplash, frankly.


Black Narcissus (FX)

Full confession: I've never seen the original Black Narcissus, though now that I've seen this newer version made for FX I dearly want to. A group of nuns are sent on a mission to establish a school in an old, remote palace in the Himalayas. The palace was once a pleasure palace for a raj, and is still filled with erotic art, which prefigures the drama of repressed desire that springs forth as the nuns attempt to repurpose the space, and their young Indian charges, as something more befitting their Catholic hegemony. Of course, things get a bit Gothic when either madness or the ghosts of the past (or conceivably both) intrude on their spiritual purpose, threatening to unleash all that has been repressed. I thought this was quite good, but I bet the original movie and the novel are even better. Things to look forward to, track it back to the source, etc.


Saint Maud

Although many will disagree with this sentiment, I feel a distinct sinking feeling every time I see the A24 logo appear on the screen right before a movie starts. This time, however, I was pleasantly surprised as Maud joins The Witch in the vanishingly small niche genre known as "A24 movies I actually enjoyed." While it certainly isn't perfect, and in fact features one aesthetic misstep that made me audibly groan, this film about a hospice nurse who has recently become a fanatical convert to Roman Catholicism and her "mission" to save the soul of a hedonistic dancer dying of cancer worked for me. 

It's a slow film despite its relatively short run time, but it manages to be simultaneously difficult to look at and difficult to look away from. The merger of body horror and psychological horror in Saint Maud is particularly noteworthy; we've been told that these varieties of horror are distinct and oppositional, but their confluence here underlines their potent interconnection.


Dan Abnett, Xenos

Warhammer easily has the best tie-in game fiction. There's a ton of it out there, so I assume most of it is garbage, but at the top end it's actually decent stuff. Of course, the stuff you can compare it with is generally terrible, so maybe that isn't much of an accolade. But anyway, Dan Abnett's Xenos is a surprisingly fun read.

The opening chapters have a pretty badass premise too: the main character has chased a criminal psychic to a planet where the population is kept in cryogenic storage for most of the year due to the climate having an insanely harsh winter. The psychic has caused these people to awaken from cryogenesis early, and there are no medical staff to guide them back to life, so there's just people thawing out and dying everywhere. 

One of the things I appreciate the book is its willingness to branch out from the main aesthetic to keep things fresh. Most of the book is a film noir-ish investigation story, perhaps a bit like a sci-fi James Bond in places, but there's also a nice sword & sorcery moment when  the main character and his crew have been captured by baddies, and interrogated, and then thrown into a fighting pit where they have to fight off some saber-toothed tigers. There's also plenty of action sequences and even a dogfight in space!


Lord of the Lost, Fears

Fears is slick Gothic metal in the vein of HIM, The 69 Eyes, and Lacrimas Profundere. Originally a solo project, Lord of the Lost grew into a full band when it became evident that a filled-out roster was needed to pull off Chris Harms's creative vision. The end result, Lord of the Lost's debut album Fears, is a driving effort with plenty of melodrama and melancholy. I'm really looking forward to their new album dropping next month.


Norihiro Yagi, Claymore vols. 19-22

Things begin to move into the endgame of Claymore's narrative trajectory. (I think? We may be in for another hefty time jump.) Phantom Miria inspires a revolt among the Claymores against the Organization and gets some cool new scars; Clare is swallowed by and assimilated into a monstrous creature. The Organization unleashes yet another type of killer lady/demon hybrid on the world (and, of course, the Claymores who have rebelled against them). 

Fender Jaguar

I've been playing a lot more guitar lately, and serendipitously was gifted with this Fender Kurt Cobain Jaguar by a friend who found it abandoned in a street a few years ago. He valiantly tried to reunite it with its owner in case it was lost, but his attempts came to naught and now it is mine! The timing is perfect, as I was considering buying something with humbucker pick-ups to play in addition to my single-coil Strat. Also, I can say without hyperbole that even despite the battle damage on this guitar, it is easily the nicest instrument I've even had the pleasure of owning. It's surprisingly heavy, but ridiculously easy to play. Now, all I have to do is figure out what all these switches and knobs do.


Figurines of Adorable Power: Giff

My girlfriend gave me this friendly little giff, who now sits on my desk when I'm running my online D&D game. What a sidekick!