Sunday, August 14, 2022

Rokushima Taiyoo

Below is my version of the Ravenloft domain of Rokushima Taiyoo, a Gothic burlesque on Sengoku-era Japan. If you like this write-up, consider purchasing a copy of Strahd Loves, Man Kills #6, which contains the write-up with a few more embellishments. Also available is Strahd Loves, Man Kills #7, which is similarly chock full of Gothic fantasy characters, settings, and adventure seeds for your home campaign. There's only about 10 copies of each left in stock.


Rokushima Taiyoo
Domain of Bloody Sibling Rivalry
Darklord: Haki Shinpi
Genres: Gothic horror, disaster horror, and dark fantasy
Hallmarks: Civil war, betrayal, nature’s revenge, contested inheritance
Mist Talismans: Ornate hairpin, chipped throwing dagger


The four remaining islands of Rokushima Taiyoo are locked in a deadly civil war. Haki Shinpi, the former warlord, left each of his children one of Rokushima Taiyoo’s isles as their sole dominion, but this bequest was not enough to satisfy their ambitions. Each of Haki’s heirs desires to rule a united Rokushima Taiyoo, and they are consumed with the idea of eliminating their siblings, annexing their territories, and assuming sole control of the nation.


The people of Rokushima Taiyoo suffer greatly as the Shinpi family battles against itself. Famine is rampant due to soldiers devastating farmland as acts of wartime sabotage, and deprivation has brought periodic outbreaks of virulent disease. Additionally, the four islands of Rokushima Taiyoo are wracked by natural disasters, such as typhoons and earthquakes, and are troubled by a resurgence of monsters prowling their countrysides.


Noteworthy Features
Those familiar with Rokushima Taiyoo know the following facts:

The rulers of Rokushima Taiyoo’s four islands wage perpetual war against each other. The conflict between them involves attempted invasions, skirmishes, and assassinations.

Organized crime syndicates fill the void left by the absence of Haki Shinpi’s rule. These criminal organizations, whose members are instantly recognizable by their elaborate tattoos, run black markets and operate protection rackets.

Hurricanes and other calamities afflict the isles.

Rokuan Characters
Characters from Rokushima Taiyoo have been forced to become accustomed to hardship and war. However, they continue to value industriousness, filial duty, and staying true to one’s principles. When players create characters from Rokushima Taiyoo, consider asking them the following questions.
Have you fought for one of the Shinpi heirs? The ongoing civil war in Rokushima Taiyoo presents opportunities for the young and the brave to pursue wealth and glory.
What natural disaster have you survived? Rokushima Taiyoo is assailed by floods, plagues, volcanic eruptions, typhoons, earthquakes, and stranger phenomena that defies explanation.
What supernatural threat bedeviled your home? Oni, hungry ghosts, and fey creatures have become emboldened by the conflict that tears Rokushima Taiyoo apart.


Settlements and Sites
Rokushima Taiyoo’s four major islands surround a body of water called Great Mirror Lake and are surrounded in turn by the treacherous Poison Sea. The islands are mountainous and heavily forested, with villages, towns, and cities often at great distance from each other. Although Rokushima Taiyoo is isolated by the Mists, the islands are visited by traders from Darkon, Lamordia, and Dementlieu.


Kage
Kage is the island realm of Hanzo Shinpi, a monk who broke his vow to abjure the pursuit of wealth and prestige when he realized that the defeat of his siblings would clear the path for him to assume rule over Rokushima Taiyoo. (Hanzo’s statistics are similar to those of a martial arts adept.) Kage’s deep forests hide villages where obscure clans pass down secret techniques of shadow magic. Hanzo often employs the adepts of these villages as his personal spies and assassins; they have managed to infiltrate
the households of all his siblings.


Kaminari
Kaminari is the dominion of Kanto Shinpi, an uncultivated ruffian who hopes to usurp his siblings through brute force. (Kanto’s statistics are similar to those of a gladiator.) The Orin River flows downward from the mountain range known as the Seven Towers in Kaminari, and it is famed for its curative powers. However, few dare drink from the Orin, as it is jealously guarded by fey creatures. The Seven Towers are dominated by tribal clans of humans and goliaths. These barbarians call upon the power of the tempests that rage across the mountains to aid them in battle.


Kiku
The beautiful isle of Kiku is ruled by Kazumi Shinpi, a wizard skilled in the arts of creating and commanding the undead. (Kazumi’s statistics are similar to those of a necromancer.) Though Kiku is renowned for its annual chrysanthemum festival, the isle hides dark secrets, such as the Forest of Ruined Hope—an infamous site of suicides. The few who have ventured into it claim that those who kill themselves within the forest are doomed to walk as the living dead.


Senso
Senso is the isle ruled by Tomoe Shinpi, the most skilled warrior of her clan’s current generation. (Tomoe’s statistics are similar to those of a warlord.) Tomoe is served by human and hobgoblin warriors sworn to her service as vassals; their loyalty to her is fanatical, bordering on romantic or spiritual devotion. In the far north of Senso stands Mount Frost, the home of a gold dragon who has become corrupted by the evil that permeates the domain. Cultists worship the dragon, whom they regard as a god.


Haki Shinpi
Haki Shinpi is a particularly powerless Darklord, doomed to watch his children squander all that he built over his lifetime.


Haki Shinpi’s Powers and Dominion
Haki Shinpi now exists as a wraith who haunts the land. Closing the Borders. When Haki Shinpi wishes to close the domain, toxic vapors rise from its bodies of water.


Haki Shinpi’s Torment
Haki Shinpi is cursed to watch as his children tarnish his legacy, destroy the nation he united, and bring dishonor to his name:
Haki’s cannot harm his own children.
If one of his heirs dies by their sibling’s hand, the island they were deeded in his will sinks into the sea and is destroyed. This has already happened twice. Rokushima Taiyoo was originally a nation of six islands—until two siblings killed each other in the ongoing civil war.

Roleplaying Haki Shinpi
In life, Haki Shinpi was ruthless and exacting. As wraith, he seethes at the state of the country he once ruled as warlord. 
Personality Trait. “I hold my accomplishments in the highest regard.”
Ideal. “Rokushima Taiyoo is my legacy.”
Bond. “I hoped that my bloodline would become a lasting dynastic power in Rokushima Taiyoo.”
Flaw. “My rage toward my children is boundless.”

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Wanted: Papa Juice Tank and Trixie LePoon

I got a chance to playtest a new version of Planet Motherfucker for a couple players last week, here's what went down:

The Characters

Marion Clarence, a Face-Breakin' Goon

Violet Hacks, a Chainsaw Paladin

The Adventure

Marion and Violet had been tracking Papa Juice Tank and Trixie LePoon, two notorious outlaws, and had nearly caught up to them on numerous occasions, but the duo managed to slip away. They had heard that Trixie and Juice Tank had holed up in a small mining town called Contrition in the Militialands. The town stood at the foot of a mine bored into the mountains; off to the side was an abandoned sawmill and a foothill strewn with gravestones and crosses serving as the local burying grounds. As they approached Contrition, they could see that it consisted largely of abandoned buildings, dotted here and there with businesses (mostly bars and brothels) with lit neon signs.

Of course, they were immediately jumped by a couple of hoodlums, one wearing a Limp Bizkit jersey and the other sporting a fried chicken bucket as a hat. "Your money or your wife," cried the Limp Bizkit fan, brandishing a pistol. The two would-be thugs were quickly dealt with; Marion and Violet moved on into Contrition. 

The first stop in their search to find Juice Tank and Trixie was a bar called The Road to Ruin. The Road to Ruin was a rough bar catering to the local miners; a bar brawl seemed to have sprung up solely out of boredom and a lack of entertainment options. A group stood nearby the fight, cheering on the combatants. Among that group was a man who looked like Papa Juice Tank picture in the wanted poster in their possession: he was tall and thin, wearing a stylish pimp coat, a necklace of shark teeth, and a top hat decorated with a skull emblem. 

Marion and Violet sidled up to Papa Juice Tank and took him by surprise. Juice Tank got a gut-punch for his trouble, then he reached into a pouch of "graveyard dust" at his waist and blew it into Violet's eyes, blinding her. Marion was about to clobber Juice Tank again when he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned his head and was immediately popped in the face with the butt of a shotgun by a guy with mutton-chop sideburns, a ten-gallon hat, and leather chaps. As Violet and Marion turned their attention to the interloper, Papa Juice Tank took the opportunity to flee. The interloper was dealt with by a combination of a beer bottle broken across his face and a heft punch to the jewels.

Unfortunately, when our heroes finally got out to the street, there was no sign of where Juice Tank had gone. They scoped out an unpopular brothel called The Cootchie-Coo, Keno Harry's House of One-Armed Bandits, a noodle bar called Miso Horny, and the local mines. Papa Juice Tank was not hiding out in the mines, but the duo discovered that the miners of Contrition were not extracting anything as mundane as gold or silver--they were mining glowing green rock that pulsated with light and felt cool to the touch. Violet stuffed a few fragments of the weird rock into her pockets for later examination.

Waiting for them at the entrance to the mine was Ten-Gallon Hat. He was still walking funny from the pummeling he took to the nads previously, and he was insistent that Marion and Violet were not going to steal the bounty on Juice Tank and Trixie out from under him. He let fly with a blast from his shotgun, but the pair laid him down for dirt nap. Marion took the badge he was wearing, which turned out to be the prize from a box of Buckaroo cereal.

Their next stop was VoltzMart, the local convenience store. As soon as they walked in, the proprietor turned a paranoid shotgun on them. Perhaps a little frustrated by their hunt for Juice Tank, Violet and Marion were not having it. Marion grabbed the barrel of the shotgun and laid the guy out with a punch. After tying him up and rousing him back to consciousness, he was questioned quite forcefully. The man told them that Contrition had formerly been devoted to logging and lumber production until Mr. Eyres, the owner of the town's sawmill, discovered veins of the strange glowing rock in the mountains. After which, he immediately closed his sawmill and employed his workers as miners. Although the man didn't know what the rock did or what special properties it might possess, he did let slip that men came into town to cart away the rock--and that the men wore what sounded like hazmat suits of some kind the whole while.

Violet promptly discarded the slivers of glowing rock she had taken from the mine, just in case.

The man also told them that Mr. Eyres still lived in the depths of the abandoned sawmill. Deciding that they need to have a chat with Eyres, they descended into the sawmill's creepy basement. An eerie green glow coming from a room in the basement seemed to call to them. Inside, they found old man Eyres hooked to an elaborate machine. They looked on in horror and awe at the monstrosity that was Mr. Eyres. Unphased by their entrance, Eyres answered their questions. When asked about the glowing rock, he showed them how it served to power the machines he was hooked up to and revealed the glowing patches of mutant skin on his body that were doing battle with an end-of-life illness to keep him alive. He claimed that the rock was a lucrative venture, and that his business partners shipped the rock to other ailing and wealthy oligarchs through America.

Ultimately, Eyres point the duo to Boot Hill as Juice Tank's likely plan was to use his voodoo to raise a little backup from the dead. They set off to the cemetery, only to find that Papa Juice Tank was headed back down to find them--with a posse of zombies and glowing mutant miners in tow. Violet revved up her chainsaw and made a mess of Juice Tank's zombies. The battle was joined by a whip-wielding Trixie LePoon, but Violet shredded her whip, rendering her mostly defenseless--except for her steal-toed cowboy boots. Juice Tank offered prayers to his voodoo gods and called down lightning strikes against our heroes, but a well-placed shot took him down. Their morale broken, Trixie and the remaining miners surrendered. 

Papa Juice Tank's head was taken to fulfill the bounty and Trixie was tied up to be marched out of Contrition to face justice for her crimes. But where had the strange rock from the mine been going and who was being changed by its strange, and perhaps unholy, properties?

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

The Black Spider, Orphan of Agony Isle, Deathwhite, and More

Things that brought me delight in July, 2022:


Jeremias Gotthelf, The Black Spider

At its heart, Jeremias Gotthelf's The Black Spider is a tale of Faustian bargains. Beleagued and abused peasants make a literal deal with the Devil in his guise as the "green man": he will do the impossible labor they've been assigned by their lord if they agree to give him an unbaptized infant! When they refuse to fulfill the terms of their pact with the Devil, he torments them in the form of a giant black spider who brings death and destruction in its wake. Although the novella is essentially a Christian allegory, it weaves together elements of Gothic horror, folk horror, and even some aspects of the mythical Green Man.

One thing that struck me about the writing in The Black Spider is how well Gotthelf is able to portray the simple and unspoken rules of social obligation. In the opening frame narrative, we see the godmother being plied with food she dare not refuse, even to the point of feeling overfull and sick. Similarly, the rhetorical dance attached to the giving of gifts, one side deploring the poor quality of the presents they've giving while the other exclaims that the gift-giver has gone to too much expense, rings particularly vivid and true.

The Black Spider also features some impressive moments of body horror, particularly when the titular spider grows from the face of the woman who made the initial deal with the Devil. Although a moralizing fable isn't my usual cup of tea, The Black Spider provides more than enough strangeness to make up the difference.


Ravenloft: Orphan of Agony Isle #1 and #2

The Ravenloft Renaissance continues! The latest addition to the microgenre of "things I would not have dreamed would exist back in 1993" is a comic series focusing on a mysterious young woman with amnesia who has fallen into the hands of Doctor Mordenheim. Admittedly, I'm not usually a single-issue guy, but since it's Ravenloft I even ventured out to three comic shops in my area to find this--to no avail, as none of them had it on the new release rack. Alas, at least the internet provides.

When I first heard Orphan of Agony Isle was coming out, I was excited that it focused on Viktra Mordenheim. Of the "revamped" Darklords, I thought she got some of the the best alterations. In previous editions, the Darklord of Lamordia was Victor Mordenheim, a pretty bare Frankenstein pastiche. Her characterization in the comic is pretty much exactly how I imagined her. I also like that the comic gives a glimpse of how regular people deal with living in a land of horrors. 

Thus far, we don't get much in the way of plot or action: we have the introduction of "Miranda," a woman supposedly saved from death by Mordenheim's experiments and also the scene of a woman who dies protecting her son from a hag in Lamordia. The second issue features a nice foiled escape from Falkovnia and the introduction of a fun severed hand servant for Viktra. Of course, as the first two issues of Orphan of Agony Isle you're left wanting more. How the various stories it's telling fit together remains to be seen, but that's the work of issues the final stretch, I suppose.


Deathwhite, For a Black Tomorrow, Grave Image, and Grey Everlasting

The titles of Deathwhite's three albums accurately tell you what you're in for: For a Black TomorrowGrave Image, and Grey Everlasting alert you to the fact that these records are somber affairs. There are clean, chorus-drenched guitars throughout that wouldn't be out of place on a goth rock record, but that isn't to say that Deathwhite doesn't know when to bring the crushing pain when the time is right.

For a Black Tomorrow and Grave Image are great, but I wanted to leave a few words specifically about Grey Everlasting because I think it has the strong potential to be my "album of the year" pick when we record our Best of 2022 episode of Bad Books for Bad People. In my estimation, Grey Everlasting is the most downtrodden and desolate album in Deathwhite's discography; there's something about the vocal timbre and songwriting that feels particularly overwrought, but in the most affective way. It's extremely powerful stuff and highly recommended.


Ravenloft: Gazetteer V and Legacy of the Blood

I got ahold of the last two books to complete my 3e-era Ravenloft collection! 

Gazetteer V covers the last of the Core domains: Nova Vaasa, Tepest, the Shadow Rift, and Keening; there's useful and interesting stuff here, but you also get a sense of why the line might have been discontinued; it does feel like the well was running dry at this point. Although their were areas of the setting yet to be "fully developed," this book perhaps serves as an example of how that full development was choking off the more interesting directions Ravenloft could have gone. Again, there is material here I'll definitely make use of--but in my own idiosyncratic, transformative way.

Ravenloft has always had a "focus on the family"; the original Realm of Terror box set came with full page cards with family portraits on one side and family trees on the other. Legacy of the Blood does an even deeper dive into the twisted families of prominence in the setting. Though much of this material is incompatible with the new iteration of the setting, it seems like there is still plenty to plunder here as well. As a supplement, Legacy of the Blood is a really slick idea, and it's odd that it hadn't occurred to anyone to make something like this before for Ravenloft. After all, twisted families (with all their buried secrets, horrible schemes, and ancestral curses) are so very central to the Gothic's conventions.


Alexis Henderson, The Year of the Witching

"The Year of the Witching is like if The Handmaid's Tale was folk horror," is probably a terrible pitch, but the premise of Alexis Henderson's novel isn't far off that mark. Immanuel is the daughter of a woman suspected of being a witch and a father who was burned in a pyre by the puritanical society in which she lives. Due to her heritage, she fits uneasily into the patriarchal theocracy of Bethel, especially since she feels drawn to the mysteries of the forbidden Darkwood.

When a series of plagues strike Bethel, Immanuel is forced to delve into her past, her mother's witchery, and the gendered legacy of hypocrisy that sustains their culture. I appreciate that in The Year of the Witching there are no easy answers; every solution that Immanuel is offered leads to deeper, darker questions. Apparently this novel is the first in a series, and I can say that I am definitely eager to read more.


Leah, The Quest

Some bands look at their albums as a rising movement that culminates in the biggest, most epic, moment they could summon for the occasion. Leah bucks that trend by storming straight out of the gate with the title track, a ten minute, bombastic statement of purpose.

Over the course of their recorded output, the Leah project has evolved into a showcase for Leah McHenry's powerful voice; the heavy guitars, Celtic and Middle Eastern elements, and symphonic flourishes serve more as a backdrop than as equal partners. However, that doesn't stop tracks like "Abyss" or "Ghost Upon a Throne" from hitting just right; top-notch songcraft on those two delights, in particular.


Katsura Hoshino, D.Gray Man volumes 22-27

After the more light-hearted interludes in the last batch of D.Gray-Man volumes, things resume a serious, high-stakes tone. Allen is held prisoner by his own Order, and seemingly threatened with assassination at the hands of a sentient Innocence named Apocryphos. 

Following his escape, he vows to remain an Exorcist locked in battle with the Noah, but he leaves the Order behind. Joined by Kanda and Johnny, the trio find themselves stalked by both former comrades and the Millennium Earl, all the while Allen struggles to contain the "14th" that lies within him.

The emergence of the 14th Noah causes Allen Walker to delve back into the past and how he is personally tied to the tragic history between the 14th and the Millennium Earl. The last volumes here feel like the series is winding up to a conclusion, but with a manga you can never really tell. In any case, now I'm all caught up on the volumes of D.Gray-Man that have been published in English!


Jose Luis Zarate, The Route of Ice & Salt

The Route of Ice & Salt tells the tale of the crew of the Demeter, the doomed schooner that brought Dracula to England. Told from the perspective of the Demeter's captain, the first section of The Route of Ice & Salt is a private memoir detailing the captain's unquenched queer desires and his fixation upon the masculine bodies of his crew. The second section is where all hell breaks loose: the captain begins using the ship's log to record the strange predation that is eliminating his crew one by one. The third and final section of the novel records a message in the bottle left by the captain to bare both his soul and the method by which he purged the undead evil from the bodies of his now-vampiric crew.

The Route of Ice & Salt is a deeply personal and lyrical novel that explores the thematic connection between queer desire and the image of the vampire; both are regarded as unnatural, inhuman, and predatory, but in considering his desires against the Count's the captain comes to understand the point at which they diverge thematically and ethically. The Dracula Industrial Complex is rife with spinoffs that will waste your time, but The Route of Ice & Salt is so philosophically rich you're only stealing from yourself if you don't read it.



Crematory, Inglorious Darkness

With something like fifteen records under their collective belt, Crematory is a certifiable institution at this point. But they're an odd institution, one whose longevity and success I find difficult to explain. I know why their music appeals to me: there is something in their combination of Gothic, metal, and industrial that feels like sonic comfort food to me. 

They have a sound that takes me back to my goth club days. I don't want to put this too derogatively, but it was a time when you didn't always hear the most artistic music--you just wanted groove and darkness, two things that Crematory has in excess. On Inglorious Darkness, as with many of their albums, Crematory verges on fishtailing into utter cheese, but they manage to just about keep things on the rails. You have to lean into what sounds like the singer going "Bwahahahaha" on the title track, for example.

Ultimately, Inglorious Darkness scratches an itch adjacent to the one left unfulfilled by Rammstein's latest offering. If you need something in your life that's dark, stompy, and fun, give Inglorious Darkness a listen. Clove cigarettes optional, but highly recommended.


Let Me In

I've always assumed that Let Me In exists solely because Americans are adverse to watching films with subtitles. Why else would you choose to watch Let Me In when the brilliant Let the Right One In is already available?

If you haven't seen either, they both tell a refreshed story about vampirism; this time, the blood-drinking fiend is a twelve year old child who befriends a misfit kid--someone who is bullied at school and neglected at home. 

Thinking about it further after I watched Let Me In, I suppose that although it's lamentable that some people won't budge from their popcorn comfort zones, the movie does at least let you share a really excellent cinematic experience with family members who would otherwise be put off by the "foreign" Let the Right One In.

When the dust settles, I still prefer Let the Right One In, but Let Me In is still a credible film in its own right. It's beautifully filmed and the leads all turn in strong performances. There are even a few noteworthy differences that make watching Let Me In worthwhile even if you've seen the original; Let Me In is more viscerally violent, the narrative is slightly complicated by a nonlinear structure, and there's an added scene that is pretty effective. Hell, let them all in, I say.


Dark Shadows (Innovation comic)

Innovation's short-lived Dark Shadows comic was a tie-in for the equally short-lived revival series that aired in the 90s. The comic's run covered three different arcs, each with its own team. All three use a painted comic style, though to differing effect. The first series is perhaps a bit too close to "realistic," which sometimes wanders inadvertently into the grotesque. Things pick up in the second arc, but it's the third arc's unique, creepy look that I found most visually appealing.

Narratively, all three arcs venture into wilder territory than the show was likely to explore. The first arc concerns Barnabas and Julia taking a trip to a town overrun by inbred mutants and their hellfire preacher leader. The second involves an encounter with the Greek gorgons, who just happen to live next door to the Collins family. The third, which sadly only got one issue before the comic was canceled, seemed to be telling a tale about ghostly children. Angelique hovers in the background in all three arcs, but sadly she never got a story in which to shine.

The thing I love about Dark Shadows ephemera is that it all carries on in unheralded tangents. In that regard, Innovation's Dark Shadows comics punch well above their weight.


Claymore

Although I started reading the Claymore manga as a stopgap replacement for Berserk, by the end of the series it had become one of my favorites purely on its own merits. When I noticed that Hulu had the Claymore anime available, I made time to work through it in July.

The anime is actually a very faithful adaptation of the manga. The pitfall that adaptations can run into is avoided here: there are no moments that really rub up uncomfortably against how I imagined the manga "moving" in my head. Sure, there are a few moments where the physicality of the fight scenes makes more visual sense on paper than it does in motion, but there are no real missteps here. The picture is sometimes a hair too dark, and it's a shame the anime ended before reaching the conclusion that the manga did, but this was pretty fun. I think fans of the manga will get the most out of it, but it's a decent choice for a little animated entertainment.


Eric Powell, The Goon: Bunch of Old Crap Omnibus Volume 2

I really shouldn't have waited so long to re-read Eric Powell's The Goon comics because these things are nothing but piles of two-fisted fun. One thing I particularly like about reading them in the omnibus format is that the collections compile comics with very different styles. 

As much as I liked the Goonified riff on Dickens's A Christmas Carol, in which Scrooge takes the beating we've all wanted to see him get, the real gem of this omnibus is Chinatown and the Mystery of Mr. Wicker, which was originally published as a stand-alone graphic novel. Delving into Goon's tragic past, Chinatown and the Mystery of Mr. Wicker alternates between detailing Goon's memories of his greatest pain and the present events that echo them. The use of color here is especially impressive; the past is rendered in sepia tones, while the present lives on in muted colors. They're clearly different, but the palettes aren't so far afield that you can't sense the deep connection between them. And the pages of the Goon looking at his distorting face in the mirror after experiencing heartbreak? Unimpeachable visual storytelling.


Converge & Chelsea Wolfe, Bloodmoon I

Back in the day when I listened to a lot of hardcore, Converge were one of my favorites. They were always a little darker, a bit more unhinged, and more drawn to the occult and the experimental. Of the Gothic chanteuses battling for nocturnal supremacy, Chelsea Wolfe has emerged victorious--at least in my eyes. Given their pedigrees, this collaboration had a lot to live up to.

And it does. Rather than merge their styles into a standard template for their combined songcraft, both parties weave in and out of the songs, each leaving wounds and scars. The track "Viscera of Men" is a great example: it begins as a punky burst of frantic violence from Converge, then it becomes a doomy dirge; Chelsea Wolfe arrives like a demoness summoned from the lower circles, then the track evolves into what feels like a cult's profane liturgy. By the end, these different elements mix into a crescendo. No two tracks on Bloodmoon I are similar, much to me continued delight.


The Heart, She Holler

I have no idea how The Heart, She Holler escaped my notice until July of 2022. Nominally about a political heir to control of an isolated Southern hick town, who has been kept in cave until his father's death, and his conflict with his sexually monstrous sister and his psychically empowered sister, The Heart, She Holler is a dark, surreal mixture of horror and comedy. The comedy, and the horror, are often wickedly inappropriate. Tonally, The Heart, She Holler is like if Twin Peaks or Lars von Trier's Kingdom Hospital would be like if they were Southern-fried comedies.

The last episode of the series is really something. Dueling TVs deliver a presidential speech by Jimmy Carter while strange things happen to the remaining townsfolk of the holler. Utterly unlike the rest of the series, the finale muses on the political vision we once had of a better America and the sad fallout we've inherited instead. Absolutely unnerving way to close things out, yet how could it have gone any other way?


Ava Inferi, Burdens and Blood of Bacchus

Sometimes you only get into a band after they have become sadly defunct. Such is the case with Ava Inferi; I took a chance on two of their records on a clearance sale, and what a serendipitous find they turned out to be!

Ava Inferi play a fusion of Gothic metal and doom, not too far afield from modern My Dying Bride, albeit often at a mid-tempo. The guitars crunch long, but there are also beautiful, shimmering passages as well. The vocals are the highlight for me, as they address a minor grievance I have with the genre of female fronted Gothic metal bands: with the predominance of the symphonic metal style of vocals, the genre doesn't have much variety or versatility. Ava Inferi challenges the trend by utilizing vocal styles that wouldn't be misplaced on a Projekt record. I absolutely love the pairing of those vocal techniques with this kind of metal, and I wish more bands went for something farther afield like this.


Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread follows the relationship between a brilliant couturier and the latest in what can be assumed to be a long string of women plucked from obscurity and thrust into a largely ornamental role in his life. 

The film progresses slowly, letting you digest its ideas about what it might be like to live with a narcissistic "genius" and how many narcissists might actually be conscious of how difficult they are--yet perhaps they may be unable to curb their own behavior without unconventional outside intervention.

Phantom Thread is beautifully filmed and exquisitely acted, but I have to confess that I thought the film was unraveling its plot in a slightly disappointing way for the first half of its runtime. However, there is a "quiet twist" right at the end that wrapped the whole thing up in a really interesting and provoking way.


Kuolemanlaakso, Kuusumu

Kuolemanlaakso--not exactly a name to conjure with. Kuusumu is my first foray into the band's discography; I gather they have a rather spotty track record, with a heavy death doom origin and a less well-received period of gothy hard rock, but I like what I hear on Kuusumu.

The band has perhaps reverted to their death-doom origins, but elements of gothic metal remain to add a more emotive strain of melancholy to the proceedings. The guitar work is crushing in places and elegiac in others. I'm quite impressed with the varied vocal textures used on Kuusumu, which range from blackened rasps, clean passages, spoken word sections, and guttural death metal growls. Love the heavy Peaceville Three vibes on "Surun Sinfonia."

Monday, July 25, 2022

Strahd Loves, Man Kills Issues Six and Seven

Strahd Loves, Man Kills, my Ravenloft fanzine, is back with not one but TWO new issues! Check them out here at my Big Cartel page.

Issue Six has the following contents:

Lurid Locations explores five locations in the Land of the Mists: the Iscarion Academy, the Trilobite, I’Cath, Rokushima Taiyoo, and Grauwald.

Baleful Backgrounds presents two new backgrounds for characters: rat-catcher and stage magician.

Wicked Wanderings expands on the idea of creating Vistani characters by reconsidering the specialties of several Vistani tribes from past editions of the Ravenloft setting.

Seeds of Evil details several adventure seeds you can use to craft scenarios set in Ravenloft.

Portraits of the Damned presents three nonplayer characters for use in your games: the Black Iron Widow, the Blood-Soaked Diva, and Ivahn Katavarg.

Cryptic Alliances adds the Corvidians, a folk religion that worships the Raven Queen, to the factions detailed in Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft.

Tragic Heroes focuses on metropolitan miscreants you might create as characters for games set in the Domains of Dread.

Random Ruin features tables for detailing the horrors haunting the city of Paridon in Zherisia.

Forbidden Tomes provides a bibliography of the Gothic horror genre for your edification and entertainment.

Issue Seven has the following contents:

Lurid Locations gives Invidia an expansive treatment.

Cryptic Alliances unveils the treachery and horrors of the Church of Holy Blood.

Portraits of the Damned introduces three troublesome priests vying for the hearts and souls of the Invidian people.

Baleful Backgrounds adds apothecary to the roster of possible character backgrounds.

Seeds of Evil outlines several adventure seeds you can use to craft scenarios set in Ravenloft.

Midnight Horrors offers templates for transforming mundane nonplayer character statblocks into ermordenung and undead monstrosities.

Forged in Shadow describes two magical weapons that might be found in Ravenloft.

Tragic Heroes suggests ways to create violent visionaries as characters in your games.

Random Ruin presents a table of art-related adventure seeds for use in the domain of Ghastria.

Forbidden Tomes provides a bibliography of the disaster horror, occult detective story, psychological horror, and slasher horror genres for your edification and entertainment.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Ohrbach Tower

Below is a location from my Ravenloft campaign--it serves as an area that can be explored when the players and their characters need answers to questions of deep lore. If you enjoy this write up, you can get it nicely formatted in issue five of Strahd Loves, Man Kills, my Ravenloft fanzine. There are only four print copies left, so I wouldn't wait too long!


Ohrbach Tower

Ohrbach Tower is a lonely clock tower constructed from a weathered material that appears to be stone, but is in fact the petrified flesh of a dead god. No matter the climate or weather, the tower’s “stone” is uncannily warm to the touch. 

The tower has no fixed location in the Land of the Mists. The Mists arise, seemingly at random, to momentarily surround the tower; when the Mists recede, Ohrbach Tower has been transplanted to a new location. As such, Ohrbach Tower can be found in any domain. The length of its stay in any one place is unpredictable. Some Vistani claim that Mist talismans exist that allow their bearers to unerringly find Ohrbach Tower.

The interior of Ohrbach Tower is dominated by floor after floor of library shelves, all of which are tightly packed with rare and ancient tomes. Books from across the multiverse find their way to Ohrbach Tower; it is a repository of knowledge that has been preserved for posterity via magical means. Scholars of the occult postulate that one copy of every book that has ever been written, even those that were never copied by mortal hands, exists somewhere amid the convoluted stacks of Ohrbach Tower.

The Librarian of Ohrbach Tower

If an obscure piece of lore needs to be uncovered, the dusty shelves of Ohrbach Tower likely hold a tome or scroll that can provide the information sought. However, finding the right book among the tower’s sprawling libraries poses a challenge. The surest way to find what you seek in Ohrbach Tower is to consult its current librarian. Roll on the following table to determine who the characters encounter within Ohrbach Tower.

Head Librarian

1 Nikolai Valpurga, a nosferatu who is only coherent and lucid for a few hours after he has fed on blood.

2 Azrafina, a fallen planetar who rebelled against the gods by hiding eldritch tomes that were slated for destruction.

3 Varushka, an unusually studious marilith with a keen interest in dragon chess.

4 Menoch, a berbalang who carved the tower from the remains of a calcified god.

5 Ul’vora, an ill-tempered spirit naga who is attended by a number of lizardfolk assistant librarians.

6 Khelana, a drider who was punished by the matron of her house for safeguarding texts related to Eilistraee.

7 Malistrad, a beholder with a disturbingly large collection of illustrated erotica.

8 Kaylisti, a lamia condemned by the demon lord Graz’zt for preferring quite contemplation to the tyranny of seduction.

9 Marovik, an overly chatty lich with a passion for amateur astronomy.

10 Damophet, an arcanaloth who engages in protracted negotiations before agreeing to provide aid.

11 Tserberon, a satyr who refuses to help anyone who will not first consent to a night of raucous drinking.

12 Strixa, a dusk hag who insists on reading the palms of anyone who enters Ohrbach Tower.


Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Forgotten Realms Factions in Ravenloft

I like to think that nearly anything that exists in the D&D multiverse has a place in Ravenloft. However, anything brought into the Land of the Mists is likely to be warped by the darkness that permeates its domains. This post explores what the Forgotten Realms’ factions might look like if they found their way into Ravenloft and were irrevocably changed by the Domains of Dread. If you enjoy this write up, you can get it nicely formatted in issue five of Strahd Loves, Man Kills, my Ravenloft fanzine. There are only a few print copies left, so I wouldn't wait too long!


The Emerald Enclave

The Land of the Mists abhors balance, which has greatly upset the Emerald Enclave’s goal of maintaining equipoise between civilization and the natural world. The members of the Emerald Enclave have become eco-terrorists who believe that the only way to save the land from evil is to destroy civilization and let the natural process of death and rebirth cleanse the land of its curse. Agents of the Emerald Enclave engage in violence against logging communities and threaten those who would expand the reach of civilization by taming the wilderness. 

For an additional wrinkle, it may be the case that the Emerald Enclave has been infiltrated by members of the Children of Winter cult from Eberron.


The Harpers

Even the Harpers are unable to maintain the dignity of their cause under the Dark Powers’ corrupting influence. The Harpers have grown more secretive, insidious, and willing to entertain less than ethical approaches to fighting against evil. Many Harpers feel that the end justifies the means and that it is sometimes necessary to sacrifice the lives of innocents for the greater good. 

Because members of the Harpers tend to be fiercely independent and self-reliant, they sometimes clash against other agents from their organization who are pursuing a different angle on the same problem. Rather than being united in purpose, their skulduggery causes them to come into conflict. Consumed by paranoia about being exposed, their cloak and dagger operations are often stymied by a lack of coordination.


The Lords’ Alliance

The original purpose of the Lords’ Alliance has become perverted by the fell influence of the Land of the Mists. Now a faction of lickspittles and lackeys, the Lords’ Alliance works to prop up the power and reach of the wealthy and aristocratic. Fierce defenders of the status quo, members of the Lords Alliance are partisans who protect the interests of the elite.


The Order of the Gauntlet

The Order of the Gauntlet has become a faction consumed by religious zealotry and fanaticism. Members of the Order of the Gauntlet believe that the only way to live a righteous life that will be rewarded in the world to come is to endlessly crusade against the forces of supernatural evil. 

The Order of the Gauntlet’s efforts are usually directed toward combating fiends and the undead. They harbor a particular hatred for vampires, whom they consider to be abominations in the eyes of the gods they serve. The Order of the Gauntlet seeks the location of the vault of the Bellegard family, which is said to contain a trove of blessed weapons and ancient manuals describing the family’s techniques for fighting against monsters.


The Zhentarim

The Zhentarim have evolved into an organized crime syndicate that operates throughout the various domains of the Land of the Mists. The Zhentarim specializes in dealing illicit substances, assassination, protection rackets, and supplying mercenaries, bodyguards, and other thugs-for-hire. Some of the intoxicants peddled by the Black Network’s coterie of dealers have been modified by magic and alchemy to make them both more intoxicating and more addictive. 

For those willing to pay a premium, the Zhentarim employs a number of black magicians who summon demons to perform assassinations in cases where a mortal killer would be unlikely to successfully commit a desired murder.