Thursday, June 17, 2021

Space Vampires of Mars

I've been reading a lot of Vampirella comics lately. The thought struck me: if Dynamite can have Vampirella team-up with Dejah Thoris, why not make a Space Vampire class for Aos's B/X Mars setting? The following class is presented with Aos's seal of approval; it just might appear in a supplement currently in the works. 

Also, did you know that Drivethru is discontinuing the format that the B/X Mars book is printed in? If you want a copy, do it before the end of the month!

* * *

SPACE VAMPIRE

A traveler from the Vampire Planet in a far-away solar system who has crash landed on Mars.

AC starts a 5 and goes down by one on odd levels.

Prime Attribute: Charisma. A Space Vampire with a 13+ in Charisma receives a +10% bonus to all experience awards

Hit Dice: D8

Starting hit points = Charisma

At first level:

Beguile: A Space Vampire can exert powers of animal magnetism over living creatures who are sentient and understand language. The target of a Space Vampire’s beguilement must make a Saving Throw vs. Warp. On a failed save, the target will try to reasonably accommodate the Space Vampire’s requests, but will not put tempt death on their behalf. This effect lasts for an hour. Creatures with more Hit Dice than the Space Vampire are immune to this ability. A Space Vampire can Beguile a number of times per day equal to 1 + their Charisma modifier.

Vampiric Immortality: Once they reach adulthood, Space Vampires cease aging and can live indefinitely. Space Vampires take damage when deprived of food and water, but they cannot die from deprivation; at worst, they are reduced to a single hit point. Most eventually succumb to either ennui or violence. Additionally, a Space Vampire’s fangs can be used to deal 1d6 points of damage to any creature that has blood, is biological, and is living.

Note: Like Terrans, Space Vampires do not gain access to the normal skills Martians possess (see page 9) until they reach 3rd level.

Beginning at level 2 and every other level thereafter, the Space Vampire may select one Mastery. The Space Vampire fights as fighter.

Space Vampires use the Princess’s Saving Throw table. (They'll have their own bespoke Saving Throw table in the final version.)

MASTERY

The following Mastery options are available to Space Vampire characters:

ALIEN HUNGER (Space Vampire) Any blood a Space Vampire consumes counts toward their daily water requirements. Additionally, when a Space Vampire drinks a living creature’s blood, they regain 2 hit points.

BATWINGS (Space Vampire) The Space Vampire can cause bat-like wings to sprout from their back at will. These wings give the Space Vampire a flying speed of 30’.

NOCTURNAL SUPREMACY (Space Vampire) When the sun sets, a Space Vampire’s  Strength becomes 19.

SHROUD OF MALKUTH (Space Vampire) This ability allows the Space Vampire to become invisible for ten minutes. Success against unwitting targets is automatic. Active searchers must make a successful Saving Throw vs Warp to locate the Space Vampire. This Mastery can only be used once per day.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Candlekeep Mysteries Review: The First Five Adventures

I've been running the adventures in Candlekeep Mysteries, a book of seventeen scenarios based around the legendary library of Candlekeep and the strange tomes kept within. The adventures in the book aren't necessarily meant to be played one after another; they're more geared toward being dropped in between adventures of your own devise, but playing them back to back hasn't been much of an imposition.

People moan about the cost of WotC's D&D books, but I paid $30 for Candlekeep Mysteries and have gotten seven sessions of at least three hours each from the first five adventures in it. That works out to about $1.40 an hour for fun with a bunch of friends, which feels like good value for the money to me. And there are twelve more adventures in it we haven't played through yet. 

But is Candlekeep Mysteries good? In this review I'm going to give my impressions of the first five adventures in the book, so you can better decide for yourself whether this is a sound purchase for you and your group.

The Joy of Extradimensional Spaces

Written by Michael Polkinghorn, edited by Hannah Rose

This adventure takes the characters in search of a scholar who has disappeared into to the extradimensional home of a wizard. Overall, this is a solid adventure. It's got a number of interesting features to explore inside the extradimensional house and the monsters, such as a bookcase that wields the tomes chained to like flails, are far more surprising and interesting than the usual fodder thrown at 1st-level characters. The house also traps the characters inside, and the solution of the puzzle that will release them works as both a motivation to explore the space and forces a non-combat resolution to the adventure. 

However, there is one bit of this scenario that falls a little flat: when the characters encounter the sage they've been looking for, he asks them to continue to explore the extradimensional space on his behalf while he skedaddles back to the real world. The rationale for continuing to search the house once he's been found feels pretty thin, and unlikely to be satisfying to players who aren't content to go along with it just to further the plot. Grade: A-


Mazfroth's Mighty Digressions

Written by Alison Huang, edited by Hannah Rose, developed by Hannah Rose & Christopher Perkins

This adventures centers on discovering the source of books that have been transforming into monsters and attacking the unaware. Overall, the early portions of the adventure feature really good opportunities for investigation; my players were asking questions, shadowing suspicious individuals, and staking out a potential hotspot of cursed tomes in short order. 

This adventure gives a lot of options for resolving the conflict non-violently, which was completely wasted on my group; once inside the house of the culprits, this adventure turned into a bloodbath. To be honest, I can't blame my players one bit for the path they took. Although the creators of this adventure took great pains to give alternatives to the D&D's typical "solve the problem with bloodshed" paradigm, they didn't really build-in any compelling reasons not to. The villains are up to no good, they're actively harming innocents just to sow some chaos, so why not put them to the sword? Grade: B+


Book of the Raven

Written by Christopher Perkins, edited by Kim Mohan

"Book of the Raven" is easily the biggest disappointment out of the early adventures in Candlekeep Mysteries, which is surprising since it was written by Christopher Perkins, the guy in charge of D&D's adventure storylines. There's a creepy "abandoned" house to explore in this adventure, which works well enough, but the narrative links between the house's past, the wereravens currently squatting there, and a trip to the Shadowfell at the end are seriously lacking. 

The pieces just don't fit together into a coherent whole; of all the adventures in the book I've played through so far, this one required the most rewritting and revision to make it work. To be honest, this adventure really felt like an excuse to lore-dump about the Vistani, which is weird because they don't factor into the actual action of the scenario at all. Grade: C+


A Deep and Creeping Darkness

Written by Sarah Madsen, developed & edited by Michele Carter

This is a pretty good adventure that leads the players into exploring an abandoned mining town haunted by unusual monsters. Overall, this was a pretty enjoyable adventure; a hallmark of a good mystery, such as what doom befell this town, is how much it makes the players conjecture about what's going on--and my players certainly had a lot of competing theories about the fate of the town and people who lived there. 

There are a couple small missteps and missed opportunities here, though. The characters have the option of stopping at another town for information prior to arriving at the abandoned mine, but I wish more happened there. Also, though the early portions of exploring the town work for creating an atmosphere of dread, I do wish that a few more opportunities for explosive encounters were seeded in; things come to a nice climax at the end of the adventure, but I think the earlier portions needed a bit more action. Similarly, this adventure would benefit from additional "set dressing" and detail. Overall, though, this is a pretty good adventure. Venturing into the mine at the end felt sufficiently eerie. Grade: B+


Shemshime's Bedtime Rhyme

Written by Ari Levitch, developed & edited by Michele Carter

Shemshime's Bedtime Rhyme is an excellent adventure. It's a bit of a "bottle episode," with the characters locked into a subterranean library with a cast of interesting NPCs because they've all been "infected" with a supernatural tune that they must continually hum and sing. Although this adventure is very light on combat, with one fight at the end that can end very quickly if the players have pieced together what they need to do, the lead up to that is fantastic. There are NPCs to question and secrets to uncover. The claustrophobic atmosphere of the adventure and loss of control experienced by the players works really well. Although the adventure revolves around a nursery rhyme, it all comes off as suitably creepy and a little unnerving.

The adventure also gives you two options when playing it out: you can have the events of the scenario occur slowly to heighten the dread of the adventure or have the events proceed at a breakneck pace so that the players barely have time to breath as the problems begin to mount. I went with the latter option and it worked well; things moved along briskly, but the players were able to suss out the cause of the issue and its solution in good time. Admittedly, I did amp up the tension in ways that the adventure (written for a more general audience) wasn't ready to commit to. That said, this adventure worked really well with my style of DMing and this was a great time. Grade: A


Candlekeep Mysteries Overall Grade: B+. 

So far, we've had a very good time with these adventures. They hit above well above average, and I've appreciated how little work it takes to prep them. Although I've made alterations to them here and there, that's par for the course with published adventure scenarios, so that's no cause for demerits. Of course, the adventures are hampered a bit by WotC's usual presentation, particularly in sections where the boxed text doesn't include all of the immediately obvious facets of a room or area, but the content has worked really well for me thus far. I'm definitely looking forward to playing through more of the adventures in Candlekeep Mysteries. If they maintain this level of quality throughout, I would be confident in calling the book a resounding success.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Shemshime's Bedtime Rhyme

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 "Shemshime's Bedtime Rhyme." Fair warning: spoilers lurk below.

The Characters

Rufus Clarke, human barbarian played by Steve

Doctor Tobias Wolfe, human sorcerer, played by Dennis

Events

Rufus and Tobias were assigned to help in the restoration of the Firefly Cellar, an old underground library archive famously lit by fireflies kept in lanterns and jars down in the depths. The duo descended into the Firefly Cellar via a book lift; they first encountered an elven scribe named Varnyr who asked them to take a load of books into the level below to a man named Ebder. 

Ebder, however, didn't have a use for the books, so he sent them even further down in search of K'Tulah, a tabaxi scholar currently researching folk magic. They also noticed that the ceiling of this floor featured a ridiculous statue of an open book suspended from chains. The words "BE CURIOUS" were etched on its front cover. After poking around in the lowest floor, they startled K'Tulah by abruptly bursting into her bedroom. Once things were smoothed over by the delivery of the books, K'Tulah showed Rufus and Tobias to their chambers for the night.

In the morning, both Tobias and Rufus awoke with a song stuck in their heads. The song didn't seem familiar, but the melody was insistent. At breakfast with the assembled group working in the Firefly Cellar (Varnyr, Ebder, Ebder's daughter Gailby, K'Tulah, and Crinkle the kenku caretaker), everyone began to hum the song. In fact, it was only with force of will that anyone could avoid humming the tune long enough to speak! Everyone was perplexed by this phenomena; no one recalled hearing the song before, but humming it was irresistible.

Varnyr got up from the breakfast table and made her way upstairs. Everyone could hear the book lift ascend, followed by the sounds of the hatch leading down into the cellar being locked multiple times in a myriad of ways. Varnyr explained that when she had first arrived at the library over six hundred years ago the librarians were concerned about an outbreak of "singing sickness." Because the sickness was communicable, Varnyr had alerted the librarians above about what was happening in the Firefly Cellar and had sealed off access to the wider world. Everyone was now trapped below, hoping that those above could discover a cure. K'Tulah did not take this well and began to panic. When asked what could be done, Varnyr gestured to the library around them and stated that perhaps a clue to a cure was somewhere amongst the mess.

A high-pitched wail broke the silence. Tobias and Rufus ran to find the cause and discovered Ebder on the ground, his eyes bulging as he screamed. His daughter ran to him, with Crinkle trying to comfort her. As the duo examined him, the bookshelves in the room began to divest themselves of tomes in a barrage that battered everyone in the chamber. When the assault had subsided, Ebder stopped screaming, though now the song began to alter. Instead of just a hummable tune, the song began to have lyrics and everyone in the Firefly Cellar began to sing. The song seemed to be a nursery rhyme about the doom that befell a family: a wife who slays her husband with a scythe, a dog that bites off the mother's hand, a son who drowns...all hinted to be caused by a supernatural being called Shemshime. 

Rufus and Tobias noticed that a voice not belonging to anyone present had joined them in singing Shemshime's song. They followed to voice to its source: a secret alcove in Crinkle's room. Inside the alcove, they found a collection of items that Crinkle had stolen from the others and a strange mechanical pop-up book whose pages illustrated the tale told by the song. The book's spine was also a music box, though it was obviously damaged. 

Calling a meeting of all within the cellar resulted in Ebder and Crinkle coming to blows, as one of the things Crinkle had stolen was an amber ring that belonged to Ebder's deceased wife. A calm emotions spell from Tobias broke up the fray. K'Tulah lost her grip on sanity, fled to the first floor of the cellar, and began to use her cat-like claws to climb up to the sealed hatch. Her attempt was in vain; she could not open the hatch, she lost her balance, and plummeted to her death on floor below. 

After the remainder of the group reassembled, another death occurred. Seemingly in a daze, young Gailby picked up the mechanical book and brained Crinkle to death with it. Varnyr picked up a small knife used to repair books and began to advance on Tobias and Rufus, but Tobias cast a charm person spell that brought her to her senses before she could act under Shemshime's influence. Ebder agreed to let Tobias put them into a magical sleep so they couldn't be taken over by Shemshime. As an elf, Varnyr was immune but she agreed to lock herself in her chambers while Tobias and Rufus figured out what to do.

Tobias decided that the best course of action was to attempt to repair the music box on the book's spine. However, as he fiddled with the book, it attacked his mind with psychic force. Although repairing the book brought him within the reach of death, Tobias managed to fix it. Doing so revealed that there was more to the story: another page turned and the pair were treated to the image of a young woman tricking a shadowy form into standing beneath a millstone, which she then cause to be dropped on top of him. The song they were singing also added a new verse that told this part of the tale.

The music box began to leak black steam that coalesced into a human-like form: Shemshime was here. Wasting no time, Rufus flew into a monstrous rage, climbed onto the granite table, leapt into the air, and grabbed onto the stone statue of a book. He pulled it from its chains and sent it crashing down on Shemshime. An explosion rocked the chamber as the statue shattered...but Shemshime was vanquished. Everyone could finally stop singing.

In a few days time, the Special Collections Department sent a squad of heavily armed and armored goons down into the Firefly Cellar (whether to cure the afflicted to exterminate them before the magical singing contagion could spread, who can say?) but they found that the problem had already been decisively dealt with by Rufus and Tobias.

Previous Adventures

The Joy of Extradimensional Spaces (part 1)

The Joy of Extradimensional Spaces (part 2)

Mazworth's Mighty Digressions

Book of the Raven

A Deep and Creeping Darkness (part 1)

A Deep and Creeping Darkness (part 2)

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

A Deep and Creeping Darkness (part 2)

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 the second half of "A Deep and Creeping Darkness." Fair warning: spoilers lurk below.

The Characters

Rising Leaf and Raging Storm, human monk, played by Michael

Rufus Clarke, human barbarian played by Steve

Doctor Tobias Wolfe, human sorcerer, played by Dennis

Events

We last left our heroes in the midst of searching for a safe place to bunk down in the abandoned mining town of Vermillion. They had just explored the blacksmith's shop and had now turned their attention to the stonemason's residence. Unfortunately, the stonemason's shop looked like it had been ransacked. The front door had been torn off its hinges and lay forgotten in the grass. 

Inside, it appeared as though someone had also thought to use this building as a shelter; they found a bedroll and pack. However, the bedroll was spattered with bloodstains that were neither old nor entirely fresh. Checking the nearby pack revealed that whoever it belonged to had stolen a number of diaries from the burgomaster's residence. The first few volumes documented the town's day-to-day operations, but the volume that would have held the juicy details of the doom that had befallen Vermillion appeared to be missing.

Since the stonemason's door was compromised, the group decided to spend the might in the smithy instead. During his watch, Tobias heard a strange scratching at the window. Then, the door to the smith's cottage began to shake. A closet door flew open, shadowy tendrils emerged and wrapped around Elsabeth--who was then pulled into the closet, which shut with a slam. (Later, when the closet was re-opened, there was no sign of Elsabeth inside.)

Rising Leaf had had enough; he kicked the door open and saw that their shelter was under assault by three small insect-like humanoids with crab-like claws, clacking mandibles, and bodies covered with coarse quills. A brief skirmish decided the victor: the party emerged a bit worse for wear, but their foes lay dead before them.

In the morning, the group headed toward the opening of the mine. Inside, they found that the darkness strangely seemed to repel the light of their lanterns and torches. Rufus and Rising Leaf both heard a cacophony of voices drifting forth from the tunnels, but Tobias heard nothing unusual. As they explored, the group found a mossy trap and strange pools of black water. Farther into the mine, the tunnels that had been dug into the mountain became oddly smooth and showed no signs of having been created with conventional mining implements. The walls of these tunnels were covered with a strange black fungus.

After following a number of branching tunnels, the group found themselves in a larger, perfectly round chamber supported by four fungus-encrusted pillars. Also within this chamber were a number of stone slabs, one seemingly occupied, and another group of the creatures who had attacked the blacksmith's shop. The combination of Rising Leaf's martial arts, Tobias's mentalist magic, and Rufus's werewolf-like transformation into a powerful beast again carried the day.

When the dust had settled, the occupant of the slab turned out to be the man who had tried to seek shelter in the stonemason's shop. Unfortunately, he was half-transformed into one of the creatures haunting the town! The man was anguished and panicked over the alterations made to his body, but the group managed to talk him down with promises of finding him help once they arrived back in Creedhall. A pile of aborted transformations was later uncovered--clearly the process didn't always result in a success. Also discovered in a heap of rubbish was the missing diary. The group loaded the man and their treasure trove of books onto their wagon, and headed back to the University Library with their spoils.

Previous Adventures

The Joy of Extradimensional Spaces (part 1)

The Joy of Extradimensional Spaces (part 2)

Mazworth's Mighty Digressions

Book of the Raven

A Deep and Creeping Darkness (part 1)

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft: Kalakeri and Kartakass

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 here, the Carnival and Darkon here, Dementlieu and Falkovnia here, and Har'Akir, Hazlan, and I'Cath here. In this installment, I'm discussing Kalakeri and Kartakass.


Kalakeri

When it was first teased that Kalakeri was going to be one of the domains included in Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft, I assumed that it was a new Indian-themed domain that was replacing Sri Raji, a similarly themed domain from the second edition version of the setting. It turns out that my assumption was only half true. Kalakeri is a remake of Sri Raji that preserves the name and monstrous nature of the land's former Darklord, the rakshasa Arijani, though it replaces his backstory entirely.

Kalakeri is now a land of civil war and betrayal. Control of the domain is contested by three siblings: the new Darklord of the domain is Maharani Ramya, a death knight risen from the grave after being betrayed by her siblings, who is cursed to fight endlessly against her Arijani and Reeva, her brother and sister who have been transformed into a rakshasa and an arcanaloth respectively. The overall effect reads as an Indian-esque, scaled-back "War of the Five Kings"-era Game of Thrones, with additional secret monstrosity thrown in the mix. As a war-torn land, Kalakeri feels well-suited for the horrors of battle or shadowy intrigues. It's actually a potent change for Kalakeri because it's previous felt a bit underwhelming as a location of high drama and adventure.

This particular remake has had some care put into it. Gone are any references to actual Hindu deities. There's also a nice set of rules for using the renown system from the DMG to track the characters' standing with either Ramya's loyalists or the rebels who have rallied around Arijani and Reeva. I do think that the "horror" content feels a little light in this domain, however. A clever DM could amp it up easily, but I would have liked to have seen more guidance about how to emphasize the horrific aspect of this domain.

One thing that seems odd, however, is Maharani Ramya's status as a Darklord. Becoming a Darklord is supposedly a punishment for horrific, unconscionable sins, but it isn't clear from the backstory exactly what terrible deeds Ramya is guilty of. She didn't usurp the nation's throne; she was hand picked by her father to receive it. She didn't work against her siblings; they grew jealous of her power and murdered her. As far as I can tell, Ramya was about as moral as several NPCs from other settings who are explicitly labeled as the good guys. It's strange that she is Kalakeri's figure of tormented evil.


Kartakass

Kartakass is a strangely beloved domain from the 2e-era of Ravenloft. The premise of Kartakass has always been "land of bards," so it's popularity has always perplexed me a bit given how many people loudly proclaim their hatred of bards. The version of Kartakass presented in Van Richten's Guide will do nothing to salve the bard-hate, as it is now a land of try hards

To outsiders, life feels staged and surreal in Kartakass, as every plant and beast, every peasant and performer strives to prove their greatness. Trees and flowers burst into bloom and then wither after their extended spring, while songbirds sing themselves hoarse. And every local, from the youngest child to the most venerable elder, knows that dreams, fame, and immortal adulation are theirs for the taking—if they prove worthy.

Essentially, entering Kartakass will feel like walking through the doors of a Denny's a 2am when the drama club kids hold sway, high off a fresh performance of Little Shop of Horrors. Truly a horrifying prospect.

Familiar touchstones remain. Each settlement in Kartakass is independent and ruled by a meistersinger. Meeklebrau gets a shout out. And yet, the strange and fantastical elements get bolstered this time out as well. There's a village comprised entirely of actors who stay in character around the clock and there is a musical venue inside a massive geode. One of the towns has an evil record label feel, as the aging powermongers in it are always on the lookout for ways to exploit the talents of young and gullible performers.


I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the changes to Harkon Lukas, the domain's Darklord. Apparently many people are upset that the illustration of Harkon Lukas does not feature his trademark monocle. I admit that I've never paid much attention to Lukas, but even though I read an entire novel about the guy it never sunk in that wearing a monocle was a central facet of his character. Additionally, Lukas is no longer defined as a "wolfwere." Now he's a loup garou, which are basically super-charged werewolves. I love this change because the concept of the "wolfwere" is some truly goofy D&D nonsense that's right up there with space hamsters. Lastly, Van Richten's Guide presents Harkon Lukas as a black man, which some people are also upset about. To which I can only say, "Hold that L and die mad about it."

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Corominas's Dorian Gray, Castlevania, Van Richten's Guide, and More

Things that brought me delight in May, 2021:


Corominas, Dorian Gray

Have you ever bought a graphic novel written in a language you can't fully comprehend based solely on the strength of the art? Of course, when it comes to an adaptation of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, a novel I've read possibly a hundred times, the language barrier is no obstacle. But even if it were, Corominas's art would still manage to make the experience worthwhile. By turns elegant and lurid, Corominas absolute gets the source material on a visceral, fundamental level. Rarely have I seen a comic this unrelentingly beautiful. It would be remiss to deny you a glimpse into the book itself; click here to be whisked away to my instagram post showcasing a few interior pages of this adaptation.


Castlevania season 4

The only balm that soothes the sadness of a beloved series ending is for that series to get the ending it deserves. Castlevania's fourth season definitely delivers on that front. If the third season was ultimately about disillusionment, the fourth is about the possibility of rebuilding. Of course, not all visions of restoration are positive; true to the Castlevania games, a plot to resurrect Dracula is afoot. (I'm glad they included that as part of the overarching plot, it's such a central piece of Castlevania's history.) Despite crafting a wide-ranging cast of characters, the series manages to tie everything together in a satisfying way. Also, this season had some of the best epic fight scenes and action sequences.


Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft

I probably don't need to mention that I'm a huge fan of Ravenloft at this point anymore, right? Well, it is with a long-time fan's eye that I evaluate Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft. I'm going to say something that I didn't suspect I'd believe after reading it: this is the best single-volume presentation of Ravenloft yet. 

Of course, not all of the changes the book brings sit right with me. I still believe Ravenloft works better as a more cohesive setting with its own internal interconnection. Some of the domains as presented leave me scratching my head as to what I'd do with them. That said, the positives outweigh the negatives for me. Some of the domains have been heavily revised and altered for the better. The sections discussing different kinds of horror are well thought out. There are widgets such as the new lineages, subclasses, monsters, and dark gifts that I could find a use for in any setting. Ultimately, Van Richten's Guide is the best kind of setting book: it presents ideas attached to genre conventions I like, but it also gives me the space to do whatever I want with them.


Carmen Maria Machado, In the Dream House: A Memoir

In the Dream House is Carmen Maria Machado's account of her experience being in an abusive lesbian relationship. The book is a memoir formatted as a series of vignettes--each told through the frame and lens of a different genre. The overall effect is kaleidoscopic; the uneven, and sometimes disorienting, shift between generic conventions brings new facets of abuse into the light. I'd posit that the over-arching genre is the Gothic novel--we have an imperiled heroine, a traumatic house, and we, as readers, end up haunted as well.

Do you know the palpable tick-tick-tick sensation that rattles through your body when you're on a rollercoaster on its way up to the first plummet? The early portions of the books feel like that; the rush of new, consuming love when you know that a fall is just on the horizon. After that, the free fall--all the different ways you find yourself robbed of breath when you want to scream. It never feels exactly right to say that you enjoyed a book like this, but it really is an amazing work--an absolutely essential voice speaking back the the archival silence that denies the reality of faulty queer relationships.



True Detective season 3

I know the first season of True Detective captured people's imaginations with its rampant Ligotti-isms, but as much as I enjoyed it, in the end I think it comes off a bit cartoonish in its expression of cosmic nihilism. (Keep in mind, however, that I also think that Ligotti comes off as a bit cartoonish in his expression of cosmic nihilism as well.) Season 3 might just be my favorite. There's something about the dueling mournful elegies--one regarding the unclosed case of a missing girl, the other about the main character's descent into senility as he's haunted by the unresolved case--that I found particularly effective.


Batushka, Hospodi

Batushka's Litourgiya was a dark revelation upon first release, but the enthusiasm for the project took an irreparable hit during the drama that followed, with two Batushkas staking a claim to the name and labeling each other as pretenders to the pulpit. Hospodi is generally regarded as the output of the "false Batushka," but let's disregard that for the moment and treat it as a new album by a hitherto unknown band. Taken on its own merits, the album's combination of heaviness and Eastern Orthodox religious influences really works. Taken in a comparison with Litourgiya, the religious elements hit with less impact, though I do think Hospodi is slightly more successful as a heavy metal record.


Caitlin Starling, Yellow Jessamine

In the study of Gothic fiction, some scholars note a division between the "female Gothic" and "male Gothic" that is legible in both tone and content. The female Gothic tends to focus on women's issues, and dwells on psychological terror rather that gore. The male Gothic is bloodier and less restrained by notions of propriety. Yellow Jessamine makes me wonder if a similar division might be possible within the "genre" of grimdark fantasy.

Most grimdark fantasies written by men seem to center on war; they're tales of people who fight, and also of the people caught up in warfare as bystanders. Yellow Jessamine, a short novel about a dying empire riven by a military coup, doesn't focus on soldiers or mud and blood. Instead, it follows the maneuvers and machinations of a woman who is at the head of a wealthy shipping business. She's also a adept poisoner. 

Yellow Jessamine uses its main character as a rejoinder to the "male grimdark." The book and its central character run contrary to the expectations of the "grimdark genre." There is a war going on, but the point isn't "war is hell" or even "people are fallible moral agents drawn to depravity in times of violence," but rather the more sinuous downer that "everything you love will be taken from you and frankly you deserve it, it's all your fault."


The Irregulars

The Irregulars belongs to one of my favorite narrow genres: Victorian urchins embroiled in supernatural nonsense. There's also a connection to Sherlock Holmes, with Holmes and Watson figuring more and more into the plot line as the series continues, though these aren't quite the versions of those characters you might expect. The Irregulars isn't great; there's some iffy characterization, the apocalyptic stirrings feel a little mild, and the plot feels haphazard in places. (Also, I can't figure out where our urchins live...some sort of basement flat with an open sewer running through it?) That said, ultimately this was a pretty entertaining series. I hadn't watched a "monster of the week" show in quite some time, and the episodic formula still holds my interest. Alas, this is likely all we'll get of it as Netflix has already given it the axe.


Icy Sedgwick, Black Dog & Other Gothic Tales

Black Dog & Other Gothic Tales is a collection of short fiction written in conformity with the old school of horror stories. Although not all of the stories are set in bygone eras (though most are), they have the feel of late Victorian or early twentieth-century terrors. Some may find the style a little creaky, but I have much fondness for it! I especially liked the stories that featured a bit of historical interest, such as the riffs on Black Shuck and the Winchester geese. Not every tale in this collection landed for me, but I particularly enjoyed "A Woman of Disrepute," "The Cursed One," and "Something Wicked This Way Slithered." 


Eleine, Dancing in Hell, Until the End, All Shall Burn, self-titled

Eleine's music falls squarely in the symphonic metal world, but they differentiate themselves in that crowded field with a ferocity that is often neglected in the genre. Although there are a variety of styles evident on their albums, I especially appreciate the tracks that aren't afraid to get a little thrashy. The band also has moments of unrestrained bombast, such as the overwhelming, and nearly claustrophobic, orchestration of "Die From Within." Eleine are highly recommended for fans of Epica and Nightwish.


Hernan Rodriguez, Black Fire

Aos of the Metal Earth blog recommended Black Fire to me a long time ago. I started reading it once, got about a fourth of the way through, then got sidetracked and forgot about it. Luckily, in time I remembered it and picked it back up. This is a comic I'd definitely recommend to fans of Brotherhood of the Wolf and Slavic horror. The premise is that a group of survivors from Napoleon's retreat from Russia end-up in a deserted village that imprisons something horrible. Fair warning, the story is fairly brutal and doesn't really pull any punches with what it's willing to depict on the page; the art sometimes reminded me a bit of certain stories from Epic's Hellraiser comics.


The 69 Eyes, Paris Kills and West End

Paris Kills is one of the great unrecognized goth rock albums. It hits somewhere between Vision Thing-era Sisters of Mercy and The Cult's darker moments. I don't know if hot goth summer will ever be a thing, but Paris Kills should be its soundtrack. West End is also a really solid album. It was hailed as something as a "return to form" at the time it was released; it's a little tame, fades into the background, but when you snap back to attention it's good stuff.

Norihiro Yagi, Claymore vol. 15-18

We have officially reached the point in the story were revelations are needed. In issue 15, we get confirmation that "the land" that Claymore takes place in is basically an isolated testing ground for biological monsters meant to be used in some larger war in a different part of the world. In issue 16, we learn that Clare's "handler" is actually a spy working against the Organization. Also, some really creepy zombie-women are introduced. In issue 17, we get a new pair of menaces greater than anything yet encountered! (This does begin to feel like an arm's race.) By issue 18 I was just praying that somebody finally kill Dauf. I hate that guy.


The Murder of My Sweet, Beth Out of Hell and Brave Tin World

The Murder of My Sweet go all in on the wild, carnivalesque on Beth Out of Hell, a synth-poppy symphonic metal concept album about something-something angels and demons. It's also worth noting that The Murder of My Sweet is the rare metal band where the guitars are not of primary importance; they do their job, but they're one color among a wider palette. The most track here is "Requiem for a Ghost," a proggy, Scooby-Do-esque crossover. I've also been spending some time with The Murder of My Sweet's latest, Brave Tin World. Brave Tin World manages to be even poppier. Just be happy I didn't post the cover art, as it's one of the worst covers in my collection, easily.


Scott Snyder, Scott Tuft, and Attila Futaki, Severed

Severed is a really excellent horror comic. It's got a lot going for it: a good kid turning hobo to ride the rails straight to an idealized father he's never known, a streetwise friend made along the way, and...a monstrous killer with sharp teeth and a taste for the flesh of children. Which is horrific enough, of course, but the real terror of Severed is in how easily it is for us to be lead by nose when someone dangles our hopes and dreams in front of us. The art is amazing, the writing is tight, and I'm so glad they went indie with this comic as it lets them get away with exactly whatever they wanted to do.


Antique sickle

Now that I'm fully vaccinated, I've been returning to my old stomping grounds: antique markets and auction houses. One of the things I picked up on my first trip back was this sickle. It makes a fine addition to my collection of vintage rural murder implements. I think I'll name this one "Exhibit B."

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft: Har'Akir, Hazlan, I'Cath

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 here, the Carnival and Darkon here, and Dementlieu and Falkovnia here. Today we're talking talking about Har'Akir, Hazlan, and I'Cath.


Har'Akir

Har'Akir was conceived of as Ravenloft's Egyptian analog, and so it remains. It's got mummies, pyramids, vast dangerous deserts, etc. There are a couple of nice twists, such as animal-headed mummy-priests in service to the domain's Darklord and the fact that all of its labyrinthian dungeons are connected beneath the waves of sand. Har'Akir has never really sparked my imagination in its past versions, and the new version doesn't really light my world on fire either.  It's fine! It's perfectly functional! It just doesn't call to me. You could do your The Mummy adventures here, or do something a little Dark Sun-esque but with a more Egyptian flavor.


Hazlan

Hazlan is "wizard hell," a domain ruled by selfish arcanists whose experiments have created an unstable land of wild magic. Hazlan also has a bit of a "Big Brother is watching" feel; Hazlik, the domain's wizardly Darklord, can see through magical sigils that are inscribed everywhere throughout the realm. Of course, as "wizard hell," you can basically use that as an excuse to use any monster you want and call it an escaped magical experiment. 

Hazlan functions as an amplification of anxieties about environmental degradation due to industrialization, only here the environmental impacts are given a magical gloss, such as toxic marshes polluted by alchemy, an area where the land is simply disintegrating, and Dune-esque sites where purple worms gather. I do wonder if there is a bit too much conceptual overlap with Darkon, but the environmental disaster aspect does at least help it stand out. If you really pushed that angle, you might even up in Jeff VanderMeer territory.


I'Cath

In the 2e-era, I'Cath was a domain suitable for exactly one minor adventure. (And it wasn't even a good adventure.) Once that adventure was complete, there was really nothing else there to interact with. The 5e version of I'Cath is...quite high concept. On the surface, it's "Gothic China'; the real premise is that by day I'Cath is a delipidated realm of misery, but most of its residents have fallen prey to an enchanted sleep. While they slumber, they exist in a different version of the setting in which they labor to create the perfect city in their dreams. It's all a bit Dark City, but I've read this section several times and to be honest it's still a little unclear to me how this works and what kind of adventures this domain is meant to inspire. 

One thing that struck me about I'Cath is that it feels even more referential to ethnic stereotypes than the past version, which is strange for product coming out of WotC's zeitgeist of sensitivity and the rehabilitation of old tropes. Perhaps I'm reading too much into this, but Tsien Chiang, the Darklord of I'Cath, is presented as a mother who wants her daughters to love her, wants everyone around her to be perfect, and is also doomed never to be satisfied--which feels like a magnification of the "tiger mom" stereotype. The "escape the horrific real world by venturing into the phantasmagoria of dreams" angle in I'Cath feels like it leans on the "Chinese opium den" trope, although it sidesteps any drug references and replaces opium with the ringing of an enchanted bell. However, since that bell was created from the body of a dragon, it's still a version of "chasing the dragon" in an almost literalized sense.