Wednesday, May 27, 2015


Bloodborne has been a big influence on the Krevborna setting I've been posting about. There is a bit of Bloodborne's Healing Church in the Church of Saintly, a bit of the Hunters in the Sacred Butchers, and the game's mix of Lovecraftian and Gothic horrors seeped in as well.

But more than that, the aesthetics of the game really inspired me anew. I mean, come on, just look at this stuff:

That's pretty much what it looks like inside my head.

And the monster designs? Well, this stuff is gorgeous:

The game's lore is suitably upsetting and mysterious. Warning, the following video contains spoilers:

And can we talk about how utterly fantastic the soundtrack is?

And not for nothing, the Bloodborne Strategy Guide is full of maps and hooks you could re-purpose for a tabletop RPG.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Penny Dreadful, season 2

After what felt like a drought of entertaining television, every show that interests me (or that I watch out of a grim determination to see things through to the end) came back within a few weeks of each other. The latest seasons of Mad Men, Game of Thrones, The Lizzie Borden Chronicles, and Salem all started recently.

Of course, all of those shows pale before the return of Penny Dreadful.

It's rare that I find myself in the demographic for a show--or experiencing the feeling that a show was made with someone like me in mind--but Penny Dreadful loves me and wants me to be happy. We're only a few episodes into the season and already we've got enough Victorian Gothic to keep me pleased for a long time.

If you're not watching it but like the kind of stuff I post about on this blog, you probably should give it a chance. If you like fun and insightful recaps, you should be reading Tom Blunt's take on the show. Check out his recap of the first episode herethe second here, and the third here.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Art of Abigail Larson

I just added another of Abigail Larson's prints to my walls. I mean, come on, this is a skull-faced Lizzie Borden, how could I resist? Here's what I've got so far:

If you'd like to darken up your home with some of Larson's work, you should definitely check out the Kickstarter for Sarah Faire and the House at the End of the World

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Actual Play: The Horror at the Lighthouse (part 3)

When we last left our heroes they were confronting the insane Doctor Hesselius Reichmann in his laboratory.

Kahl attempted to destroy the Doctor's machinery, which did little more than send electricity speeding up his mace and into his fragile body. Kahl then turned his attentions to the Doctor himself; all were dismayed when Reichmann's clockwork frame produced a series of Liston knives that slid into place as ready weapons for the mad scientist (1). Oskar and Philip rushed to free Martinus from the table. Herman used potent magic against the tortured Reichmann; first, the Doctor felt his inner doubts about his ability to revive his wife surface and cloud his mind, then whispering voices reminded him of the litany of his failures (2). This last spell broke his resolve and sent him fleeing down the stairs.

Reichmann's retreat gave the players the space to plan out their next move. This was where the big moral quandary came into play: even though Dr. Hesselius was causing shipwrecks and experimenting on human subjects, his reason for doing so had some semblance of nobility; at heart, he was just a man pushed to the brink and willing to go to extremes to save the life of a loved one (3). As such, the players didn't really feel comfortable just killing him, but at the same time they couldn't just leave and let him continue on with his murderous ways.

Kahl attempted to heal Jacine with divine magic through the glass coffin, but the spell only caused her to shudder violently before returning to her non-responsive state (4). A plan using a tripwire was briefly considered, and then abandoned. The Doll came up the stairs to inform the characters that Dr. Hesselius wished to just end this stand-off (remember, they had access to his wife's inert form and he was now downstairs) and let them go on their way. At one point he even sent the Doll back with a device that promised to deactivate all the clockwork crab sentinels on the island.

When the party descended from the laboratory, they found Dr. Hesselius a broken and disappointed man. He sat by the dying embers of the fireplace and had clearly been weeping. He begged the characters to just leave him to his misery, but again they were uncomfortable departing without some assurance that he would end his ship-wrecking ways.

A cunning ruse was tried: Herman assured the Doctor that his wife's soul had departed her body, and even used a minor illusion to show him an image of her body in repose. The Doctor, who felt the weight of his curse, refused to believe this ploy but insisted upon seeing his wife for himself. Another fracas ensued, but Herman found an opportunity to cast sleep on the Doctor, which caused him to fall into a magical slumber at the foot of the staircase he so desperately wanted to climb.

This bought the party time. Figuring that the clockwork frame around his body was the key to grounding Reichmann, the party set to taking the brace off of him--and the Doll helped render her creator powerless. While the Doctor was asleep, Oskar and Philip destroyed the lighthouse's lens and emptied his supply of lamp oil over the side of the tower. While upon the promenade, the duo noticed that there was a ship upon the sea and signaled to it.

The party still didn't trust the Doll wholly, and for a time she was tricked and trapped in the cellar. After all, if she were loyal to the Doctor she might aid him or attack the characters. 

When the Doctor awoke, he could do little else but pull himself into the fetal position and let his despair overtake him. 

Dawn was now breaking. On the shore it was apparent that the sailors from the ship spotted at sea had rowed to the island to examine the wreckage of The Sea-raptor. However, those sailors were currently in a life-and-death battle with the mechanical crabs. The deactivation device was used, and the newcomers were spared. A parlay between the characters and the sailors began. The newcomers were definitely sailors of a rougher sort, most likely unsavory pirates and brigands, but their spokesman, a caliban named Silas, promised them safe passage aboard The Eel King. 

The Doctor was not dead, but at least at last the party felt secure in leaving him to his dead wife and his lonely lighthouse. The Doll announced that she would like to join the party and leave the island; perhaps there was a life to be lived for her out in the wider world (5). She nudged the pieces of Hesselius's brace toward him as he rocked and cried, perhaps a last, callus gesture to the one who made her into the thing she is. 

As the group made their way to the waiting rowboats, the Doll gave them a few of Reichmann's alchemical mixtures: three syringes of a thick, blood-like liquid, two flasks of a yellow fluid that are labeled "energizing serum," and a faintly-glowing blue bottle that the Doll claims is a sedative (6). Perhaps the most important bit of treasure, though, was Martinus's new-found respect and loyalty. He pledged that should the party ever find themselves needing help in Borca, they had merely to send him word and he would do all he could to aid them. Given that he has wealth and connections, that might be a considerable promise (7).

And thus, the party left the lighthouse and its horrors behind. Now in the company of savage men, they are headed toward a port town called Blighter's Manse--a notorious haven for pirates and smugglers plying their trade off the coasts of Darkon.

(1) - 5e doesn't have ready-made stats for mad doctors in clockwork exoskeletons, so I just used the stats for the "goblin boss" here. The entire adventure just made use of the stats on the goblin page of the Monster Manual. I did give Hesselius a higher Int score and proficiency in Intelligence saving throws though.

(2) - The spells used were vicious mockery and dissonant whispers, for those keeping track at home. Thematically, they fit really well with the adventure. Mechanically, man, bards are pretty fierce in this edition!

(3) - I actually didn't expect the amount of moral questions that this adventure was going to raise. But here's how I run games: whatever the players lean towards, I focus on. Since the moral complexities were getting the spotlight, I let things go in that direction. I figure this is why we play games: to figure out who these characters are, what they believe, and what the world around them is like. Somewhat inadvertently, it all turned more Gothic than I was even planning for--which I dug. Hopefully it didn't get bogged down for the players, but I think everybody was having a good time working through what the best course of action would be.

(4) - I'm really glad the party didn't try to break Jacine out of the glass coffin. Just sayin'. There is also a good possibility that Jacine's story has not fully run its course. 

(5) - The Doll definitely has the potential to be a reoccurring character. Because of her naivety about the world, I could certainly see her needed to be bailed out of some bad situations in the future...

(6) - The three syringes contain modified blood that acts as a potion of healing when injected. (Shades of Bloodborne again.) The energizing serum is potions of heroism. The sedative is torpor poison. Yes, I realize that players can read this, but...look at the lax rules for identifying magic items! They would have it figured out before they land on Blighter's Manse anyway.

(7) - Does Martinus know the Boritsis? Yes, yes he does.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Actual Play: The Horror at the Lighthouse (part 2)

When we last left our heroes they were about to meet their host for the evening...

The Doll went upstairs to fetch her creator, Dr. Hesselius Reichmann, which gave the characters enough time to replace all the stuff they had pocketed from his cabinet of curiosities. When the doctor descended the stairs from the upper floors of the lighthouse it was discovered that he was a stout, balding man of middle years with a black beard flecked with white. His physique showed the signs of having once been powerful, but had since been wasted by calamity or disease; his mortal frame was encased in a clockwork brace that allowed him to walk.

Far from being threatening, the Doctor offered the characters shelter in his lighthouse and set the Doll to work making them a hot meal. When asked about his life, he revealed that his body had been ruined by a supernatural cataclysm, and that his wife had been left in a comatose state by the disaster as well (1). Dr. Hesselius claimed that he had retreated from the world in the wake of this personal tragedy and taken up residence in the lighthouse so as to have an isolated haven in which to attempt to revive his wife through science and alchemy. He also explained that the clockwork crabs were his creations and acted as sentries on the island; he apologized for any inconvenience they may have caused the shipwreck survivors.

Much like the party, Reichmann took an instant dislike to the haughty empty-headedness of Martinus di Rosalba. Rosalba's obvious life of leisure and casual disregard for the pain of others rubbed this haunted man the wrong way.

However, not all was well with Dr. Hesselius. As Kahl discovered, Reichmann was clearly lying about the lighthouse's lantern. Although he claimed that the light was badly aimed because he lacked the proper materials to make it function correctly, his body language (and obvious technological resources) betrayed him on this point (2).

And yet, there was no where else to go on this horrific night, so the party took Reichmann up on his offer of a place to sleep for the evening. After they had eaten and talked, Dr. Hesselius led the party to the next floor where they were invited to bunk down. The room was dusty and disused. From the pink and yellow patterned wallpaper, this room was clearly meant to be used as a nursery, but was for an old cradle standing in the middle of the room that no one wanted to comment on (3).

Unused to sleeping rough on the floor, Martinus demanded a proper bed to sleep in. Reichmann led him up a further flight of stairs to his wife's bedroom, and then went further up to seek his own quarters. Wary of the Doctor's motives, the party wisely decided to sleep in shifts. During the first watch, a man's scream was heard upstairs.

Something was happening to Martinus. A quick check of the bedroom that the fop had been led to disclosed that he had slept in the bed, but no longer occupied it. Before venturing up the stairs to investigate, Herman decided to check downstairs to make sure that Martinus hadn't fled in that direction while the others suited up for potential trouble. Herman came face to face again with the Doll, and had a rather disturbing conversation with her in which she stated, nonchalantly, "I have meat inside me." The Doll acquiesced to a palpitation of her person, which revealed that somewhere within her artificial body beat a live human heart (4).

This is where the party's first moral quandary presented itself: Martinus was clearly a bit of a shit, but was it right to let an unwholesome fate befall him if it could be helped? It was decided that he was one of them, even if he was useless and craven. Up the stairs, then, and into the fray. The floor above the wife's room proved to be Dr. Hesselius's living quarters and laboratory. Fantastic and obscure machinery whirred, flasks of unknown chemicals burbled and boiled, and arcs of lightning leaped between arcane devices. Before the party lay two tables. On one, Martinus was bound and gagged, machinery poised to pierce his body for nefarious purposes. On the other lay a glass coffin containing the body of a pregnant woman--Jacine Reichmann, the catatonic wife of Doctor Hesselius (5).

Here, Hesselius's Reichmann's evil was unveiled: he was using the treacherous lighthouse wreck ships upon the reefs in hopes that survivors would come be used in the hellish experiments that he believed would restore his beloved wife to him.

But how to stop this evil, and was Martinus worth saving?

(1) - Both Dr. Hesselius and his wife were victims of diabolic intervention.

(2) - An excellent Insight check blew right through the Doctor's deception.

(3) - This floor riffed on Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wall-paper," and also about a hundred other Victorian-era ghost stories that I've read. Never underestimate the power of a room empty save an abandoned cradle.

(4) - The "I have meat inside me" bit was ad-libbed in the moment. In retrospect, I'm glad no one attacked the Doll during the adventure as over the course of the game I really came to appreciate what she was adding to the adventure. She was a note of uncertainty for much of the game; she never did anything forceful or aggressive towards the characters, but her seeming loyalty to Hesselius made her an unknown factor in how things might play out.

(5) - I knew I was drawing on something here for the whole "wife in glass coffin waiting to be revived," but I couldn't quite place it. One of the players figured it out afterward: I was referencing The Abominable Dr. Phibes without realizing it.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Actual Play: The Horror at the Lighthouse (part 1)

Over the weekend I had the chance to run a 5e game set in Krevborna (1). The characters included Kahl, a cleric who has had previous experience with the darkness that overruns the land; Herman, a former whaler and current bard who seems to have bad luck at sea; "Philip," a rather more savage whaler who is rather handy with a javelin; Oskar, a revolutionary-minded printer and wizard who is currently on the run.

Each member of the party had boarded the ship The Sea Raptor at various southern points heading west. However, such an uneventful passage was not to be.

The captain of the ship, Guile Robart, invited his guests to take dinner with him in his cabin. The passengers were joined by a young, curly-haired fop named Martinus di Rosalba (2), the son of a wealthy family. As each guest took turns divulging as much of their story as they were comfortable with, Martinus revealed that he had left his ancestral seat to seek his wayward sister Emilia, who had fallen prey to a romance with a member of the family's help and run away from home (3). The characters seemed to take an instant dislike to Martinus, as his conversation was peppered with classism and a casual disregard for the common man's plight.

In the late hours of the night, the passengers were awoken by the sound of frantic yelling and hammering in the holds below. After investigating, they discovered that the ship's hull had been breached upon a rocky shoal and was taking on water. Captain Robart, mindful of his passenger's life and limb, took his guests to a lifeboat, instructed them to row for the lighthouse that could be seen in the distance, and hoped that the gods would be with them (4).

After a life-and-death battle with the sea, our heroes managed to drag themselves onto the shore of the lighthouse's island. As they approached the lighthouse amidst a terrible nor'wester, the party realized two things: the lighthouse's lamp was aimed in such a way as to deceive passing ships into foundering on the rocks and that they were being approached by crab-like things whose tread sounded oddly like the march of armored men. 

As it turned out, the crabs were not natural things, but rather mechanical constructs with awful scything claws (5). Scything claws that they didn't manage to do anything with; Herman quickly lured a few of the crabs into position where a boulder could be dropped on them by his allies. A few magic missiles, rapier thrusts, and thrown javelins later, and the scuttling nightmares were nothing more than piles of twisted wreckage.

More crabs appeared along the shore, so the party decided it was time to seek shelter in the lighthouse. The first floor was sparsely furnished: there was a staircase leading to the next floor in the center of the room, rough-hewn table by the fireplace, and a cabinet of curiosities against one wall. Oh, and a life sized-doll standing beside the cabinet. A life-sized doll dressed in a frilly dress and bonnet. A life-sized doll with dead eyes and a spiderweb of cracks spreading along her cold, white porcelain face (6).

The cabinet of curiosities was cautiously explored. It contained a number of human and animal skulls (including a beauchene skull), a grisly shrunken head, three chipped obsidian daggers (later revealed to be used be an obscure, ancient cult in G'Henna that practices human sacrifice to appease the god Zhakata), an obscene paperweight, and a black-lacquered box containing tarokka cards (7).

The Doll was motionless and inert as the party poked around the ground floor. However, when examined closely, she tilted her head and greeted the interlopers with a kindly, "Hello." The Doll's movements seemed...too natural, too human-like...two of the party members found themselves disturbed by her presence. Nevertheless, when questioned the Doll explained that the lighthouse belonged to Dr. Hesselius Reichmann (8), who was sleeping upstairs, and would the party like to meet him?

And meet him they would.

(1) - The basic seed of the adventure was borrowed from the "Bride of Mordenheim" adventure in the Book of Crypts 2e Ravenloft supplement. I made heavy modifications to it and added a lot of complexities that aren't there in the original. (I find this is the only way to make published adventures actually usable, but I digress.) I also didn't want the characters to encounter a major villain like Mordenheim straight away, so I changed things up and substituted my own Dr. Reichmann instead.

(2) - Martinus di Rosalba's name was inspired by Ellena di Rosalba in Ann Radcliffe's The Italian, but I played him as Ellena's inverse: instead of a pure-hearted character who is unaware of her noble origins, Martinus is all-too invested in his aristocratic family's privilege and a bit of a foolish knave to boot. The disdain the players developed for him would factor into the moral quandaries to come.

(3) - I threw in Emilia's (possible) elopement because I had just re-read Thomas Hardy's "Barbara of the House of Grebe" a few weeks ago. Her story could be something that comes up again later if we continue with this as a series of adventures.

(4) - Herman's back-story of having been a crew member on other ships that had gone down fit perfectly here. Here's another (presumably) sunken vessel he can write a tragic song about.

(5) - 5e doesn't really have any low-level mechanical monstrosities, so I just reskinned some regular goblins for the crabs. Shhh!

(6) - I stole the idea for The Doll from Bloodborne's Plain Doll in the Hunter's Dream.

(7) - I will take any opportunity to add a cabinet of curiosities to a game.

(8) - I went through a lot of potential names before I settled on Dr. Hesselius Reichmanm. The Hesselius bit comes from the doctor in Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's In a Glass Darkly, while "Reichmann" had just the right "Nazi doctor" vibe. Not that I'm saying that Reichmann is up to some terrible experiments on human subjects. What would give you that idea?