Thursday, December 1, 2022

The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, Moonshine, and More

Things that brought me delight in November, 2022:


Silvia Moreno-Garcia, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau

I've been saving Silvia Moreno-Garcia's The Daughter of Doctor Moreau for a metaphorical "rainy day," but its time has finally come round at last. Moreno-Garcia's novel imagines that the Doctor Moreau of H.G. Wells's novel has moved his operations to an isolated house in the Yucatan. Moreau's dutiful daughter has come of age, which makes her a tool in Moreau's arsenal that he might marry off to a man who will fund his experiments. But what does she want, kept as she has been in a state of parental dependence in a world purposefully small and secluded?

The Daughter of Doctor Moreau is a slighter novel than Mexican Gothic, and its twist (if it can truly be said to have a twist) is fairly obvious straight away, but it definitely lived up to my expectations.


Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Rizzo, Moonshine Vol. 3 and 4

Well, I was wrong in my supposition that volume two was the beginning of the redemption arc, but there's only more pain, indignation, and misery to go around in volumes three and four of Moonshine. "Handsome" Lou Piro continues to struggle to keep his lycanthropy under control by self-medicating with booze, while Tempest Holt has moved to the big city to get a shot at taking down Joe the Boss--but instead gets lulled into accepting the easy life as a gangster's moll. I really liked the way these issues incorporated the Cleveland torso murders and Eliot Ness's razing of the Kingsbury Run homeless encampment into the narrative. Nice touch.


Crimes of the Future

I finally got a chance to see David Cronenberg's newest film! I found this film about an unspecified future where people are generating unheralded new organs and the powers that be are threatened by the implied redefinition of what it means to be human to be oddly relaxing. Buried within Crimes of the Future is a film noir mystery, but the languid pace and dream-like imagery never really gives the skulduggery the room to reach a point of narrative tension. This in itself is interesting; it is perhaps a way of gesturing toward the primacy of ideas and not action during moments of epochal change or epistemic shift.


Cadaveria, Emptiness

I've been waiting for quite a while for Cadaveria's Emptiness to filter down into the import sellers' inventory, as things being what they are, paying the shipping to get it from Italy proved prohibitively expensive. I am glad I finally got ahold of it though, as Emptiness is the strongest record in the Cadaveria catalog. The black metal fury is still there, but this is a much more layered, artistic, emotional, and exploratory album.


Kentaro Miura, Berserk vol, 41

The forty-first tankobon volume of Berserk is a bittersweet read, as it is the last we will get with Miura's direct involvement. Weirdly, and against all odds, it actually provides as fitting a conclusion to the series as could be hoped for under the circumstances. Although it doesn't give me as much of a resolution to Casca and Guts' relationship as I'd like, the way Guts struggles with wanting to be there for her and also wanting to confront Griffith feels like a decent place to end if that's the way the cards lay, but perhaps this is just a pause until Miura's team is ready to continue without him.


Zweihander Starter Kit

God-damn I gotta say that the Zweihander Starter Kit feels like the only modern beginner's box that is actually full of stuff. The box is surprisingly heavy and, when you open it, it isn't half-empty. The books inside might be a tad much for absolute rpg beginners, but you can't fault how comprehensive the overall package is.


Epica, The Alchemy Project

Ignore the insane cover of this album and instead marvel at the strange and beautiful collaborations between Epica and their guests on The Alchemy Project. Much like alchemical experiments, the combinations don't always work without caveat, but there are a number of collaborations that work well here. For example, Epica plus Fleshgod Apocalypse delivers maximum orchestral bombast, while Epica plus the singers from Delain and Myrkur really does feel like an embarrassment of Gothic symphonic riches.


Eric Powell, The Lords of Misery

The Lords of Misery is basically like "What if the Suicide Squad was a bunch of psychotronic weirdos headed up by the Goon?" Of course, that automatically makes it better than the actual Suicide Squad because the cast of characters is kept mercilessly short and the action actually gets underway in short order. 

I wouldn't mind seeing more of La Diabla; imagine that, introducing a cool, NEW character that the audience can get interested in. Capes comics, take note.


Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities

I enjoyed Cabinet of Curiosities overall, but in fairness I can't claim it as an unparalleled success. For one thing, each episode is about 10-20 minutes too long; as it turns out, one thing that surprisingly made the horror anthology shows of yore stronger was having to fit each episode into a standard-issue tv slot complete with commercial breaks.

There are also some strange choices that are made, particularly in the episodes that adapt H.P. Lovecraft stories. What's up with the accents in the "Pickman's Model" episode? And why is Brown Jenkin's name changed to "Jenkins Brown" in the "Dreams in the Witch House" episode? At its worst, as in "Dreams in the Witch House," the episodes sometimes feel like they would be better without even referencing the material that they are diverging so far from.

At its best, however, Cabinet of Curiosities serves up some fun Tales From the Crypt-style anthology horror. Oddly, critics didn't seem to like "Lot 36," but I thought that one was a lot of fun. 


Dio, Holy Diver, The Last in Line, Dream Evil, Lock Up the Wolves, Sacred Heart

Ever since we played that game of Tales From the Loop last month and Aos picked "Holy Diver" as his character's anthem, I've been on a Dio kick. Listening to old Dio records really does reveal how different the philosophy of arranging songs on an album used to be. There was a time when all the good songs weren't front-loaded on a record in hopes that you'd just skip a lackluster back half. Witness Holy Diver, where "Rainbow in the Dark" is a late-album cut!


Brown, Walker, Greene, Dodgson, Cowles, Bitter Root Volume Two: Rage & Redemption and Volume Three: Legacy

In November, I picked up where I last left off with Bitter Root, a comic about a monster-hunting family operating during the Harlem Renaissance. Having finished all of what's available for Bitter Root, though I hear it's coming back next year with a time jump into the 1960s, I'm left thinking that it's an interesting comic with fun art, but I always wonder if these books go in the wrong direction when they portray human evils (like racism) as something external instead of as a part of human nature that isn't particularly special or inexplicably--or even of that cloaking hatred's root cause as "supernatural" isn't a form of narrative abdication of dealing with the issue. The notion that otherworldly forces of evil are causing bigotry to transform people into monsters isn't that far afield from "the Devil made me do it." 


Agatha Christie, Murder in Three Acts

I'll have more to say about this one on Bad Books for Bad People, but suffice to say that buying a huge lot of Agatha Christie books was a really sound investment as I'm enjoying these mysteries immensely. One thing I can say about Murder in Three Acts, in comparison to last month's Hallowe'en Party, is that this one struck me as being quite funny. Perhaps not always intentionally, but there are some genuinely good lines in there!


Judas Priest

I've also been on a huge Judas Priest kick lately, revisiting all the albums before the split with Rob Halford. (Well, accept for that one album that everyone agrees isn't good.) It's honestly pretty refreshing to look back to an era where rock songs could just be about rockin'. There's something almost pleasingly naive to the Judas Priest discography, like it's music that comes from a metalhead Neverland.


Eric Powell, The Goon: Ragged Return to Lonely Street, The Deceit of a Cro-Magnon Dandy and Roger Langridge, Mike Norton, Marissa Louise, The Goon: Fishy Men, Witchy Women, and Bitter Beer

Hot off of finishing the omnibus editions of The Goon and The Lords of Misery, I'm back on my Goon shit. A Ragged Return to Lonely Street has the Goon and Franky slouching back to their old stomping grounds, where they are faced with the messy prospect of once again cleaning up the place and getting the supernatural/criminal element back in check. Things heat up in The Deceit of a Cro-Magnon Dandy, where the machinations of a behind-the-scenes villain threaten to ruin the Goon's semi-good reputation. Oddly, the last volume of Goon comics isn't by Eric Powell at all. Fishy Men, Witchy Women & Bitter Beer is decent, but it doesn't quite have the verve of the original recipe.


Dan Abnett, Ravenor

I know I started reading the Ravenor series at one point, but I have no idea where I fell off. Since I enjoyed Abnett's Eisenhorn books so much, I'm digging back in. Ravenor is pretty fun! None of the retinue characters have grabbed me yet (well, Kys has potential since I love a creepy icequeen), but Ravenor cuts an interesting figure as an inquisitor of the Imperium. Since he's incapable of physically leading the charge against Chaos, he's a much different inquisitor than Eisenhorn, but the way he is present psychically (and by sometimes possessing the bodies of members of his retinue) does make for an interesting dynamic. 


Therion, Leviathan II

Therion hasn't exactly been on a roll lately with their last few albums. Beloved Antichrist was interesting, but far too sprawling to really have a tremendous impact, despite its epic three-disc runtime. The first Leviathan album was good, but it didn't really have any songs that stuck with me. With those previous records in mind, I wasn't chomping at the bit to get my hands on Leviathan II. And yet, Leviathan II is great! I'd say it's definitely a return to form. Yes, the symphonic and choir elements are still quite complex, but this puts me in mind of Vovin, my favorite Therion album.


Tragedy in Three Acts

After finishing reading Agatha Christie's original novel, I found some time to watch the David Suchet-helmed adaptation of it, my first foray into the much-loved Poirot series. And it was quite fun! I think I could make a hobby of this: reading a Christie novel, then watching its adaptation.


Chin, Benitez, Ching, Montiel, Sotelo, Lady Mechanika vol. 6: Sangre and Benitez, Sotelo, Heisler, vol 7: The Monster of the Ministry of Hell

Sangre pits Lady Mechanika against...vampires! Finally! It's actually a pretty well-done tale about prejudice and discrimination, and I really appreciate the lively action scenes in Lady Mechanika. The Monster of the Ministry of Hell dips back into Lady Mehcanika's origins, telling the story of her treatment in a brutal Victorian asylum for the strange and unusual. Interestingly, this one shows exactly how warped by trauma she is; this may be the first time that we see Lady Mechanika as a deeply fallible character.


Hallowe'en Party

After having such a good time with Three Act Tragedy, I decided to watch an adaptation of the other Poirot novel I read: Hallowe'en Party. This one is a bit slower than the previous one I watched, and it's funny how they re-arrange the plot so that they don't have to film any scenes outside of the main settings, but overall I had a good time with this one too.


Grim Hollow: The Monster Grimoire

I am, admittedly, a sucker for well-done monsters books, but a well-done monster book that focuses on horrific, dark fantasy, and Gothic monstrosities? Easy sell. I especially like that there is a separate chapter on vampire villains at the back of the book; given the kind of lackluster vampire in the 5e Monster Manual, that's something I will definitely get some use out of that in my games. Also, I enjoy the "salvage" section of each entry that details the kind of treasure you get from a given monster or what you might do with the remains of the monster you've just slain.


Agatha Christie, And Then There Were None

My Agatha Christie binge continued with And Then There Were None. Rather than picking books of hers at random or because they felt seasonally appropriate, I decided to make a conscious effort to tackle one of her acknowledged classics. And Then There Were None definitely deserves its reputation, though I would hazard to say that it could have ended about two chapters earlier--without the full reveal--and I would have been just as happy with it!


Slipknot, The End, So Far

It's not unusual for Slipknot to throw a curveball at some point on their later albums, but I don't think they've ever made as bold a move as starting The End, So Far with a bit of indie neo-soul. No, really, check it out. The rest of the album is the kind of aggression you'd expect, but this one makes my mind churn.


And Then There Were None

Since Poirot isn't in And Then There Were None, there is no David Suchet-helmed adaptation. However, I was turned on to this absolutely perfect miniseries adaptation with a stellar cast instead. You really can't go wrong with anything with Maeve Dermody and Aidan Turner in the leads--especially when they have such tremendous chemistry with each other--but add the talents of Charles Dance, Toby Stevens, Burn Gorman, and Miranda Richardson and you can practically guarantee that it will dazzle. Darker and more erotic than Christie's novel, this is one of the few adaptations were every addition and alteration really works to bolster the themes of the source material.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Fixing the Misprinted IKHON Booklets for MORK BORG

Back in January of 2021, I backed MORK BORG kickstarter for Heretic and IKHON. IKHON sounded especially cool to me. The gimmick, and it is a gimmick in the truest sense of the word, is that you would have a black box containing four small booklets. Each booklet was supposed to represent an "Old God." When a player called upon one of these Old Gods for aid, they were supposed to randomly pick one of the booklets, roll a die, and whatever the result was according to the booklet--that's what happened.

Unfortunately, the printer who made IKHON didn't understand the assignment; the booklets were each supposed to have a nondescript black cover so that picking one was truly random. Instead, they flipped the covers inside-out, which made it extremely obvious which Old God each booklet corresponded to. Which, of course, defeats the whole point of the gimmick.

Oh, dear.

As you can see from the picture below, the name of the Old God is spelled out at the top of the "cover" page of the booklet.






It was awful nice of Free League Publishing to offer to reprint the IKHON boxes and send out "corrected" copies to backers who got misprinted ones at no cost. Unfortunately it appears that if you live in the US you got send another misprint.

However, if you have a longarm stapler, you can fix them. I mean, I could wait to see if Free League will send me a another, actually correct box, but my experience contacting them has indicated that they might not be the most responsive company operating in the rpg space. 

So, longarm it is.




The problem we're correcting is that the "cover" pages are supposed to be interior pages. The plain black pages are meant to be the cover. Simply take the staples out and reverse that page for each booklet, then re-staple with the longarm.




The above is what each booklet should look like when you turn to the first page.

Note that this won't be a seamless process. For example, this one pictured below wasn't quite tough enough to be unstapled, refolded, and stapled again without the "spine" breaking down a bit.



I put some washi tape on the "spines" to reinforce them and make them uniform. I put a little craft glue down before adding the tape for extra adhesion. I also painted some glue overtop to prevent future "fraying."
 


Now they look identical enough that a player could choose one without knowing which Old God they'll be invoking. The gimmick is now functional.

Although IKHON came with a craft project I didn't really want, I can at least get some use out of them at the table. Hopefully, the above will give you some ideas on how to fix them yourself if you have a need for it.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

The Funeral Gardens and Havenhill

Below are two locations that might be explored in adventures in Sibersk:

The Funereal Gardens

On a small parcel of land in Sibersk sits the abode of Eurysa Margrave, a celebrated “sculptor,” and her famed garden of statues.

    • Eurysa is a medusa, a fact she takes pains to hide. 

    • Her sculptures are simply men and women who have been kidnapped and turned to stone under her dreadful gaze. 

    • Eurysa prefers to capture her subjects either in moments of pleasurable abandon or at the panicked heights of fear. 

    • The vampire lords and ladies of Sibersk make it a point to visit the funereal gardens to view Eurysa’s latest creations.


Havenhill

Havenhill is an orphanage located in Morgundy where foundlings, forsaken children, and parentless waifs are housed and fed. 

    • The orphanage also secretly offers a hospital wing where women who have become pregnant out of wedlock can bear their children in privacy. 

    • However, many of these women fall prey to a hantu penanggal who masquerades as a kindly nurse by day. 

    • Havenhill is haunted by the ghosts of the women who died as victims of the hantu penanggal’s hunger for the flesh and blood of the innocent and unborn.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Sins of Our Elders Review

Now that I'm running the adventures in Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel, I'm going to be writing reviews of them informed by my actual play experience, much as I did previously with Candlekeep Mysteries. Next up, "Sins of Our Elders." Warning for those who plan on playing these adventures: spoilers ahead!


Sins of Our Elders

Written by Stephanie Yoon

"Sins of Our Elders" does a lot right. I love a ghost story, and having the heart of the haunting in this scenario be a spirit who is angry at how she has been erased from the historical record and not given her due is a strong motivation that feels unusual and unexpected. 

I also really appreciate that the characters are given a number of leads that they can tackle in any order they want; unlike some of the adventures in Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel, this gives the players the room to guide their own involvement in the adventure and gives them variable ways of piecing together what's going on with the ghost, its attacks, and the strange effect of the populace not remembering the ghost's assaults on them after the fact.

Speaking of that effect, here's how it works: the angry ghost has been attacking the populace, even leaving corpses behind, but the people cannot remember the attacks after they've occurred. There's a nice symmetry there; since the ghost is angry that her good deeds have been forgotten, she is afflicting the people with selective memory loss. I'm of two minds about it in practice, however. On one hand, it's clearly a contrivance to make the scenario work, but on the other it makes the characters special since they can remember the ghost's predations. It does give the players a good reason to get involved since they're one of the few parties who can effectually investigate the haunting.

I do have a few minor criticisms of the adventure. The ghost has multiple ways of attacking the populace--appearing in its own form, manifesting gargoyles bearing the ghost's anguished face, and...giant blue tigers. The tigers feel thematically disconnected; it may not be immediately obvious how they connect to the ghost the way the gargoyles do. My solution was simple: give the tigers the ghostly woman's face too! That's both uncanny and connects all the imagery.

Additionally, I wish the "gwishin" (the name given to this particular kind of ghost) had its own original stats instead of just using the standard-issue ghost stats from the Monster Manual.

Overall, though, this was a strong adventure as written and it was a ton of fun to play. The cast of nonplayer characters is varied and interesting, and this is one of the adventures where negotiating with the villain, instead of slaying them in a climatic "boss fight," works particularly well. Because the players have to propose a solution to the ghost, rather than just talking it down from villainy, it feels more like they did something creative rather than simply succeeding at a well-timed Persuasion roll.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Sibersk: The Realm of Feudal Vampires

As promised in a previous blog post, I'm hard at work revising the Krevborna book for a second edition. I poled the folks over on my Discord about which revised region they'd like a peek at first, and "Lamashtu" was tied for the top spot. 

It's a good place to start, as this region has received some of the heaviest revisions. For one thing, it's no longer known as "Lamashtu"; it's been renamed Sibersk. For another thing, as you'll see Alcesta von Karlok is no longer the undisputed sovereign of the area. This change is fallout from events that took place in my home campaign, but the idea of Alcesta having a rival makes for a setting with more drama and more possibility for the characters in your game to get mixed up in intrigues and machinations.

Below is the overview of Sibersk.



Sibersk

A Cold Realm Ruled by Houses of Feudal Vampires

Once part of Krevborna in the era of the tsars, Sibersk was annexed centuries ago by vampires who arrived with armies of undead marching under their banners. After the land was conquered and subjugated to the will of its new undead masters, Sibersk was divided into fiefdoms, each ruled by a noble house of vampires. 

House von Karlok and the House of Draghul are the most powerful and prominent. They do not yet war against each other openly, but they do commit acts of espionage and venture the occasional assassination attempt against each other. It is inevitable that Countess Alcesta von Karlok and Count Magnus Draghul engage in an overt battle for control of all Sibersk. The conflict is destined to be bloody and ruthless.

Since the coming of the vampire lords, the winters have grown longer and colder in Sibersk. Once Krevborna’s breadbasket, the people of Sibersk must now fear famine in addition to the predatory whims of their vampire overlords.

Hallmarks

The following elements and aesthetic notes define Sibersk:

    • Sibersk is a cold northern realm of defiled cathedrals and sprawling castles.

    • The mortal peasantry must pay a tithe in blood to the vampires who rule over them as feudal lords. 

    • A look of fear, resentment, and resignation is common in the eyes of the Siberskan serfs. 

    • Although they are oppressed by undead aristocrats they cannot hope to overcome, revolts among the serfs are becoming increasingly violent and dangerous.  

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Suspicious Statues and a Space Mummy

Aos's Spelljammer campaign continues! The first adventure is chronicled here, the second is here, and the third is here. Here's what went down in the latest installment:

The Characters

Ted, bugbear ranger

Xastra, githyanki warlock

Professor Nefarious Jones, goblin artificer

Suspicious Statues and a Space Mummy

Although the gang had gotten sucked out the door they had opened in the last session, they did not find themselves floating in space as they feared; they were merely propelled out onto a star-shaped platform overlooking the exterior landscape. Once back inside the pyramid, Ted, Xastra, and the Professor took a rest and re-oriented themselves. At some point, they had lost track of Captain Cook, who either ran off, got captured by something, or is otherwise up to no good.

The party explored a large swath of the pyramid complex over the course of this adventure. When the group began finding a series of "mind flayer statues," Xastra became suspicious that there was a medusa or basilisk afoot when she noticed that the mind flayers had been captured in moments of fear and anger. She was also attacked by a cloaker while examining the statues, but a handy misty step allowed her to magic her way out of its murderous embrace.

Xastra was right; the group later encountered a basilisk, which caused them to retreat behind a closed door and debate whether or not they could kill it without getting anyone turned to stone. They decided to go for it, and defeated the basilisk fairly easily. They also found two basilisk eggs that they may go back for if time and safety allows.

They also encountered a mummy, that they absolutely obliterated. Also discovered in their exploration: magic jumping boots, a necklace that allows for breathing in the void of space, and a dwarven axe. Sites within the complex that have been located: aviary, reptile house, observation chamber, and an orrery. 

Exploration to continue next session!

Friday, November 18, 2022

Wages of Vice Review

Now that I'm running the adventures in Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel, I'm going to be writing reviews of them informed by my actual play experience, much as I did previously with Candlekeep Mysteries. Next up, "Wages of Vice." Warning for those who plan on playing these adventures: spoilers ahead!



Wages of Vice

Written by T.K. Johnson

The premise of this adventure is fine--someone is killing off the children of the most prosperous citizens of a city, that's nice and dramatic--but unfortunately it's badly let down by the execution. The central problem is that the adventure is far too linear; the characters move from point A to point B to point C, largely having the same encounter (someone innocuous attacks the child of someone of importance) until they get a big backstory loredump.

"Wages of Vice" would greatly benefit from a more open structure, and a little site-based exploration would have been appreciated too. Why not have the adventure's quest-giver point the characters in a number of investigative directions and let them choose how they tackle the leads they've been given? 

Speaking of the quest-giver, this adventure suffers from a problem common to the adventures in Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel: it presumes that it doesn't strain credulity to have characters show up as strangers to a troubled location and get immediately hired by a quest-giver to sort things out. It's expedient, but as a start to an adventure it beggars belief if the residents of an imperiled site assume that the characters, who are as likely as not a motley crew, are both competent and altruistic enough to risk their lives on behalf of someone's else's issue.

The "hired on first meeting by the quest-giver" isn't the only aspect of "Wages of Sin" that feels repetitive. This adventure is the third in a row that takes place during a local festival. On one hand, I get it: on the surface, a festival is a good in-game event to express the flavor of a ficitonal place. On the other, it starts to feel like lazy shorthand when so many adventures in the book feature one.

Another repetition: The villain in "Wages of Sin" uses a poisonous substance to turn innocent townsfolk into mindless murderers...which is also more or less an idea that appeared in the earlier "Written in Blood" too. "Wages of Sin" suffers from these similarities, as they just make you think of adventures that did something equivalent, but better. 

As written, I think this is the weakest adventure in Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel so far. We had a decent time with it, but the adventure didn't do itself, or us, any favors.