Friday, January 29, 2016

The Death of Needless Aspirations

The Uncaring
Chelsea Wolfe - Maw † My Dying Bride - The Whore, the Cook and the Mother † Sabbath Assembly - Risen From Below † Huntress - Four Blood Moons † The Black Dahlia Murder - Vlad, Son of the Dragon † Myrkur - Skadi † Paradise Lost - Forging Sympathy † Ahab - Red Foam

The Death of Needless Aspirations
My Dying Bride - Vast Choirs † Anathema - Sleep in Sanity † Paradise Lost - Rapture † Katatonia - Murder † Tiamat - Scent of Incense † Lychgate - Truimphalism † Burzum - Naar Himmelen Klarner † Emperor - The Ancient Queen

Remember mixtapes? These are mine.

This one isn't mine, but it's also great and worth your time:

The Sexuality of Your Shadow

Monday, January 25, 2016

Krevborna: Building an Open-Table Setting

Since I want to run an open-table, episodic style of game, I thought I'd make a new setting to match the goals I expressed here. A lot of this stuff is recycled from my Arksylvania campaign, but there were world-building elements there that don't fit what I want to do in gaming right now.

I asked around for the bare-minimum people want out of setting information, and the consensus seems to be that you need three things: places with potential as adventure locations, NPCs with schemes and job that adventurers could do, and factions whose plans the PCs will inevitably get tangled up in. 

Here's what I'm working with right now with Krevborna:

Locations of Note
The scent of incense hangs heavy in the air of Chancel, a city that is at once a den of immoral decadence and religious fanaticism. Although Chancel is under the theocratic rule of Brother Lazarus and the Church of Saintly Blood, raucous taverns, brothels, opium dens, and music halls abound. The tension between the saints and sinners of Chancel is palpable.

Creedhall is a melancholic town governed by Proselyte Wolfstan. It is home to the renowned Creedhall University, which is said to possess a vast library of obscure and forbidden tomes. Creedhall is situated on the shore of Loch Riven, a lake whose depths sometimes disclose strange shapes and hideous portents on nights of the full moon.

It is rumored that a school of black magic is hidden within the Nachtmahr Mountains.

Avoided by god-fearing folk, the mining town of Hemlock has abandoned the Church of Saintly Blood to follow vile pagan ways. Hemlock's most powerful family, the Graymalks, are rumored to practice the darkest arts of witchcraft and to have made pacts with the Devil. Seances are a popular pastime for Hemlock's prosperous citizens.

Ruled by the vampire Countess Alcesta von Karlok, Lamashtu is a cold northern realm where the populace must pay their undead sovereign a tithe in blood. Despite the obvious horrors of this kingdom, the court of Castle Lamashtu attracts artists and writers who find undeath to be aesthetically inspiring.

Piskar is a salt-blasted canal town, a center of thriving maritime trade, and a haven for pirates. Although it is governed by the Brine Priest of the Church of Saintly Blood, grave heresies are thought to have taken root in Piskar. A series of brutal murders has troubled the town in recent years; it is believed that these murders have occult significance.

Though sublimely beautiful, the Silent Forest is haunted by unnameable monstrosities.

Although it was set ablaze to purge it of evil, the forbidden town of Veil is still home to the desperate and depraved.

Ancient catacombs deep within the earth, the Hypogeal Tombs are the remains of a civilization that predates the rise of man.

Famed Personages
Almeric Dalloway is the captain of the Sacred Butchers. He desires vengeance against Countess Alcesta for murdering his mentor Leonidas Mayhew.

Eurania Linton is an aged but still formidable bounty hunter who hails from foreign lands.

Now bound to a wheelchair due to horrific injuries, Galenus Wright gives sage advice about hunting the forces of darkness to those who visit his workshop in Chancel.

Granvile Fray is a hunter of lycanthropes with a known passion for music.

Isoline Josefson is a young plague doctor who runs the Andronicus Asylum in Chancel where the afflicted often find solace.

Brooding twin sisters of pale aspect, Pandora and Morrigan Rue dress in the manner of Lamashtu noblewomen. They sometimes hire adventurers for inscrutable investigations.

The Choristers are the elite upper echelon of the Church of Saintly Blood. They control Church doctrine and believe that the human condition is something to be transcended through the consumption of sanctified holy blood.

Sworn to the service of Countess Alcesta, the Knights of Lilith scour the world to find the one who will help the Countess to conceive her deathless child.

The Incendiary Guild are an order of wild and romantic inventors who share the goal of pushing science beyond the boundaries of rational thought.

The League of Rat-Catchers believe that to fight beasts one must become a beast; they consume vermin both mundane and unnatural to gain their power.

The Promethean Sparks are a cabal of scholars who hope to discover the secret of giving life to inanimate matter.

The Sacred Butchers are a group of templars associated with the Church of Saintly Blood pledged to purge the world of the undead. Their goal is the destruction of Lamashtu and the execution of Countess Alcesta.

A militarized branch of the Church of Saintly Blood, the Luminous Hunters act as witchfinders, inquisitors, and crusaders.

The White Ravens are a loose guild of investigators, bounty hunters, and—some say—assassins.

* * *

Some notes on religion
One thing I'm doing with Krevborna is having the central religion be one that venerates a multitude of saints. What this means in terms of playing convenience is that players bringing in characters from other campaigns can discover that their character's religion fits into the syncretic faith of Krevborna.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Irish Horror Renaissance?

In the latter half of the Victorian era, the authors who were at the forefront of the resurgence of Gothic literature tended to be written by the Anglo-Irish: Bram Stoker's Dracula is a key example, as are Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla and Uncle Silas. Indeed, the literary critic Terry Eagleton identifies this strain as the "Irish Gothic" and argues that such fictions were a way to grapple with the haunted history of the Protestant Ascendancy, Ireland's political colonization, and the horrors of the potato famine.

Based on The Canal (2014) and The Hallow (2015), I'm tempted to argue that we're in the midst of a similarly rich period in which Irish filmmakers reinvigorate the tired cliches of the horror film. Both films are good examples of the "Irish Gothic," as each addresses contemporary Irish fears in fictional form while breathing new life into the conventions that define the horror genre.

Ivan Kavanagh's The Canal deals with a heady cocktail of infidelity, work-stress, the difficulties of single parent homes, and the specter of domestic violence.

Corin Hardy's The Hallow, on the other hand, deals with fears about the Irish economy, issues of conservation, and the tension between the beliefs of the past and the shambles of modernity.

Both come highly recommended.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Curse of Strahd

Looks like Ravenloft is back

But which Ravenloft is this? Is it the Ravenloft of the original AD&D module, the 2e campaign setting, the aborted 4e reboot, or something new? Well, let's see what we can glean from some choice quotes from this interview at Geek & Sundry:

“What we’ve done in Curse of Strahd is given you a bigger sandbox. The land of Barovia is more detailed than it has been previously, and there are more cool places to go and more cool people to meet, and a mechanism to guide you.”

This definitely makes it sound like Curse of Strahd isn't a 5e update of the Ravenloft campaign setting. According to Chris Perkins, we're going to get a lot more information on Barovia, but I'm doubtful from what's said here that we're going to get much in the way of a bigger picture of the other Domains of Dread, if they're mentioned at all. 

I'm...strangely okay with that. It might be nice to see them start small with Ravenloft and built outward into something different. I thought what I wanted was a big reboot of the entire campaign setting, but what I might really want is a series of adventures set in disparate, not-really-connected domains that are fleshed out in the adventures. (The Mists make everything connected enough for any purpose.)

"Curse of Strahd incorporates material from the original adventure and expands upon it. It shows you more of the vampire Strahd’s domains and the people who live there, and all kinds of crazy shenanigans.”

Ah, so this makes it sound like Curse of Strahd is at least partially a reimagining of the original Ravenloft adventure, and possibly its derivatives like House of Strahd and Expedition to Castle Ravenloft. I'm fine with that being the basis, but I hope there's enough new material to make this exciting for Ravenloft veterans.

“In our stories… there are black people in Barovia. There are powerful women… Even Strahd’s tastes are more open-ended than they used to be. If you look at Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Dracula himself is not beyond romancing a man. Strahd the vampire is attracted to charismatic, magnetic people. Period.”


Also, I like that cover image and am glad they ditched Smurf Strahd. I like this gaunt, ennui-ridden Strahd who is tossing tarroka cards by the wayside because he knows that it is his hand that guides your stupid mortal fate. However...I don't really understand the background behind Strahd.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Lord Byron's Eldritch Deformity

Want to start an argument among a group of Romanticists? Casually drop this query: "Byron had a club foot, didn’t he?"

Suddenly, the room will be aflame with scholars each advancing their own theory as to what afflicted Byron’s limb. I’ve heard everything from infantile paralysis, dysplasia, and a persistent inflammation of the Achilles tendon–alongside the more widely talked of clubfoot deformation.

Despite of whatever his disability actually was, Byron was quite athletic and noted as a fantastic swimmer. Actually, it might be more accurate to say that he was physically fit in spite of his medical condition; as John Galt noted, Byron would exercise ”violently” perhaps to compensate for his emasculating limp.

But what if Byron’s strange limb and notable swimming prowess had a far more disturbing link? What if the same tainted blood that resulted in the dreadful ”Innsmouth look” also flowed through Byron’s veins? Byron’s scandalous relationship with his half-sister August Leigh seems almost natural in light of the inbreeding practiced in that horrid Massachusetts port.

Byron’s deformity wasn’t a was a flipper.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Game Style and Player Expectations

After talking about the social contract here, I starting thinking about how I would advertise a new game and set player expectations at the same time. Here's my attempt at describing what I'm up for running at the moment:

Open Table
I don't expect the same group of people to be available to play each session; drop-in, drop-out when you can, if you want. Or play every session. 

Filthy Casuals Are Welcome
You don't have to be a seasoned veteran of D&D to play in this game. New players are welcome. I'll help you out as much as you want; just ask.

Big Damn Heroes
I expect that characters can get away with stuff that "normal" people can't. Death and failure are on the table, but your character can certainly be larger-than-life.

Dark Fantasy
The over-arching aesthetic I'll be going for is informed by the conventions of Gothic literature. Think Bloodborne, Penny Dreadful, Dracula, Crimson Peak, and you've got the idea. There will be "horror" and "folklore" themed content.

We're Not Partisans Here
If you're going to be grumpy that this game isn't using the rules from your favorite edition, "school" of rpgs, or flavor of game, you'll be happier if you find a different game that fits what you're looking for.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

System Matters, But Not as Much as the Social Contract

The creeping dread you experience while looking at
this picture is analogous to the dread you should feel
at reading this essay/extended musing as it has no
gameable content. Proceed with caution.
I know it's a well-flogged dead horse at this point, but people continue to debate whether Ron Edwards's "System Does Matter" holds any weight. Generally, the idea of systems mattering is usually staked most explicitly by "new school" (whatever that means) game enthusiasts, but I think the idea is far more widespread than that. For example, although they rarely come out and name it as such, many OSR fans believe that system matters whether they realize it or not. Every argument that old-school D&D is "well-designed to emulate the kind of fiction in Appendix N" or "D&D is really meant to be a game of dungeoncrawling, hexcrawling, miserycrawling, etc. due to the way the rules are set up" is essentially an argument that system matters because it presupposes that the rules are there to create a kind of game that the system inherently supports.

I think that system does matter, to a point. One of the initial premises of Edwards's essay is phrased like this: "I'm suggesting a system is better insofar as, among other things, it doesn't waste Herbie's [our hypothetical GM] time." That's hard to disagree with. I love it when the writer of a game, game supplement, or adventure doesn't waste my time. (And don't fool yourself: time-wasters are as abundant in the small-press and DIY publications as much as they are in the big dogs of the industry.) And yet, while not wasting anyone's time is incredibly valuable and generous, it doesn't explain why so many games that do waste your time by being badly designed can be both popular and startlingly fun. In Edwards's example, Herbie is just a great GM who could make anything fun, but that doesn't really seem to fully answer the question of how one talented GM can make a game system that is working against him fun for an entire group of people.

The idea that "system matters" becomes even muddier with the introduction of the thesis that there are essentially three ways to approach an rpg, and there is little to no overlap between these differing styles: "Three player aims or outlooks have been suggested [gamist, narrativist, simulationist], in that a given player approaches a role-playing situation pretty much from one of them, with some, but not much, crossover possible." This is treated as a given, but without good reason. I have two objections here. First, it's silly to posit that there are only three primary ways through which to approach gaming. The dead giveaway is the notion that there are three of them; three is the go-to number for shaggy assertions, wherever you may find them, because it looks like a number of possibilities have been suggested without burdening the reader with a more comprehensive consideration of the actual number of possibilities. Three is too neat, too tidy, and altogether suspect; never trust three

Second, the notion that there isn't much crossover between those categories does not map to my experience. I could not tell you which of those categories I favor more because I honestly think they may change from game to game or session to session, if not from scene to scene or moment to moment. And I don't think that I'm unique in that at all; in my experience, other players also shift their approach during play or approach different games in different ways. Far from there there being little crossover, I'm left wondering if those definitions have any utility when leveraged as they are in Edwards's essay. Even if we do endorse the idea that a system should be engineered to fit one of those styles of play, how a well-designed game is meant to only attract the players whose approach fits its authorial intention is left unanswered. Okay, so you've designed the best narrativist game ever made--how does it manage to warn off gamists and simulationists and how do we explain what has happened if they do have fun playing a game that isn't supposed to "matter" given their approach?

The answer isn't in the GM or the game system; the answer is in the social contract at the table. While I would certainly prefer that all games be more thoughtfully designed to create the kind of experience they're meant to evoke, I'll always prefer playing with a group of people who have embraced the social contract that it is a good thing to sit down with a group of people and create a fun experience for each other while playing a game. 

There are games that I'm willing to accept as being poorly-designed. RIFTS and Vampire: The Masquerade are two games where the actual systems involved work at odds with the themes, imagery, atmosphere, and aesthetics belonging to those games. Yet, both of those games are much-beloved and it is impossible to deny that they've given a significant number of gamers a lot of pleasure over the years. While the game systems might not help create that fun, they also clearly not capable of stifling that fun either. Sure, both of those games could do better jobs at enabling fun at the table, but the prevalence and prominence of positive experiences people have with those games indicates to me that system always already takes a backseat to the social contract wherein a group of people sit down together and agree "These are the ideas we're interested in, let's have some fun."

In literary studies we've had Roland Barthes's thoughts about the disconnect between authorial intent and textual interpretation as an idea of merit for a long time; perhaps it is time to think about the disconnect between game design and games played under interpretation by gamers whose social contract dictates what they want from the game, how it should be played, which rules matter, etc. If the author of a text is "dead" as soon as it is in the hands of a reader, is not the design of a game "dead" when it becomes the imaginative property of the people playing it?

It's odd to me that the social contract is such a powerful director of our experiences in the hobby, but it's seldom talked about. It helps explain a lot. The social contract covers everything from player expectations to what lines people would rather not cross in a game, as well as how we might best contribute to a shared, mutual, and positive experience instead of diminishing it. Not only does it explain why we can get a great deal of enjoyment out of playing badly-designed games, it also bears thinking about in the context of whose job is it to create an entertaining game (see here and here for a spirited exchange on the subject) and also when thinking about why some campaigns fail to get off the ground or falter along the way. "System" can't address much of that, but the largely un-examined social contract does.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Rey from The Force Awakens, Dungeons and Dragons-Style

Can you make a cool character like Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 5e D&D? You bet your nerf herder you can. Umm, spoilers below or something, but why on earth haven't you seen the movie yet? Where do you live? (I'm betting Wisconsin.)

Class & Level: Monk 1     Race: Human (variant)     Background: Uthgart Tribe Member
Str: 12    Dex: 18    Constitution: 14    Intelligence: 9    Wisdom: 16    Charisma: 13
Hit Points: 12     Armor Class: 17 [1]

Skill Proficiencies: Athletics, Insight, Persuasion, Stealth, Survival
Tool Proficiencies: Tinker's Tool, Vehicles (?) [2]

Feat: Magic Initiate (Sorcerer, Cantrips: Mage Hand, True Strike, Spell: Charm Person) [3]

Abilities: Unarmored Defense, Martial Arts [4]

[1] - There are a lot of solid class options for making a Jedi-like character in 5e D&D. As various boffins on G+ pointed out, valor bard, eldritch knight, or arcane trickster could all work. And Paul V. pointed out this pretty amazing homebrew Jedi path. I went with monk because it seemed like the easiest way to be a Rey-esque character at 1st level without having to wait for things to kick in from later levels. 

The Uthgart Tribe Member background requires refluffing, but just make the survival ability apply to deserts and we're good.

I randomly rolled those ability scores and went with my heart. Rey isn't stupid, but her lack of formal education made Int the dumpstat by default.

[2] - For skills, I picked Athletics because Rey does a lot of running and climbing, Insight and Persuasion because of the scenes where she reads Kylo Ren's emotions and gets one over on the stormtrooper, Stealth because she hides and sneaks a lot through Starkiller Base, and Survival for her desert wastleland origins. I wish there was a way to shoehorn Perception in there. For tools, I swapped out the one from the Uthgart background for Vehicles. If your game has spaceships, make it about that. Otherwise, land vehicles might make the most sense. Tinker's tools proficiency for repairing ships and such, maybe.

[3] - Okay, we need to get some Jedi powerz up in here. Since we get a free feat from picking the variant human as our race, we can take Magic Initiate which nets us mage hand (telekinesis), True Strike (for that moment Rey concentrates and then beats the crap out of Kylo Ren), and Charm Person (for those Jedi mind tricks).

[4] - Assuming we outfit our Reyalike with a quarterstaff (like Rey uses in the early bits of the movie), she gets to make a staff attack and a martial arts attack each round. Average damage if both hit: 16. That's...really good for 1st level! Later on you could pick up a magic shortsword for some lightsaber action and the damage will actually scale as you level up due to Martial Arts.

Monday, January 4, 2016

H(arry) P(otter) Lovecraft

What if ”He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” was so called not just because it was dreaded to speak his name, but also because he hailed from the Nameless City located somewhere on the Arabian peninsula? Forget all the nonsense about Tom Riddle; that’s just a red herring. This Voldemort has ventured forth from that ancient city built by antediluvian reptilians (which explains Voldemort’s snake-like visage and natural skill at Parseltongue) to retrieve the occult knowledge stolen by the Mad Arab. The reason why he wants to take over Hogwarts: where do you think they keep the true copy of the Necronomicon?

What most folk don’t realize is that the street sign that reads ”Diagon Alley” is actually a misprint; the proper name is Dagon Alley. Consider this: Diagon Alley is a center for commerce in the wizarding world, and Dagon was known as the Sumerian god of fish and grain–he was a god of plentiful goods. Each wand and owl sold there brings Dagon another step closer to ascendancy.

Everyone knows that Hagrid is only half-human, and most people assume that he’s half-giant. A clever enough ruse, but his real lineage is easy to uncover if you know Hagrid’s full name: Rubeus Hagrid-Whateley. Note that his brother, Grawp, is barn-sized and monstrous.

There’s never been any doubt that the Weasleys are Deep One hybrids, has there? Gingers = the "Innsmouth look." And check out the picture above of their family vacation to the land of Nyarlathotep.

Some will tell you that Hermione got the Time-Turner from Professor McGonagall, but those bett‚er informed know that it was a gift from the Great Race of Yith. Was Hermione’s advanced intelligence merely noted by the studies of the Great Race or did they tamper with genetic ancestors? The mind reels at the possibilities.

And that symbol on Harry’s forehead looks more like an Elder Sign than a lightning bolt to me.