Monday, February 29, 2016

Darkest Dungeon and Reinforcing Theme Through Aesthetics

One thing I really love about Darkest Dungeon is how aesthetically consistent it is. The symbol displayed in the launch announcement to the left is a reoccurring visual motif throughout the game. Of course, since it seems to be the mark or sigil of the eldritch evil affecting the setting, you'd expect it to be prevalent in the game, but is also shows up in a variety of more subtle ways in addition to the cultists' decorations:

Keep an eye out for that symbol in background elements, doors, weapons, clothing elements, wheels, enemy powers, various detritus, etc. Some examples:

The prevalence of that symbol, or at least of allusions to the symbol, do more than just add aesthetic consistency to the game. In a subtle way, it illustrates one of the themes of the game: the eldritch evil that the symbol represents is pervasive and has invaded the very fabric of the setting's reality. 

That's a technique worth stealing for role-playing games, by the way: if you want to reinforce an idea or theme in your game, insert it in a wide variety of forms; make it reoccur so that it can't be ignored; put it in the background and let the players pick up on it as the game moves forward.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Lord Byron on Player Characters

For the man was, we safely may assert,
A thing to wonder at beyond most wondering;
Hero, buffoon, half-demon, and half-dirt,
Praying, instructing, desolating, plundering;
Now Mars, now Momus; and when bent to storm
A fortress, Harlequin in uniform.
- Don Juan

What a strange hybrid is the player character!

For those who like to have a sense of who their character is before play begins—as opposed to letting a character's personality emerge during play—the following list of virtues and vices might be helpful for defining your character's personality. 

Each virtue and vice is arranged in a binary pair that represents a possible tension within the character's psyche; divide 10 “points” between the virtue and vice of each pairing to determine the extent to which the character favors the virtue or the vice. For example, a particularly superstitious character might have: Reason 3/Superstition 7 or a character torn between chastity and lust might have Faithfulness 5/Lasciviousness 5. 

You could even random-roll mechanize this to decide how your character (or an NPC) might react in a situation where you are unsure about what they would do. Alternately, you could use these pairings as the guidelines for handing out inspiration in 5e D&D.


  • Reason/Superstition – does your character confront the supernatural with the light of reason or do they resort to the ancient ways of folk belief?
  • Reserve/Passion – does your character exercise control over their emotions or do they give their impassioned impulses free reign?
  • Restraint/Excess – when exposed to drink, gambling, and other vices, does your character place limits upon their conduct or do they indulge past the satiation of their urges?
  • Faithfulness/Lasciviousness – are your character's romantic entanglements limited to one beloved object of affection or is your character prodigious with their lusts?
  • Forgiveness/Vengeance – does your character pass over the many slights offered by the world or do they swear to exact revenge against those who wrong them?
  • Authority/Liberty – does your character respect the temporal and religious restrictions imposed by the civilized world or do they value their personal freedom of action above all else?
  • Lawfulness/Criminality – does your character follow the laws of the land or are they inextricably pulled toward the underworld?
  • Piety/Worldliness – is your character's worldview colored by the hues of spiritual belief or are they instead drawn to the worldly glitter of wealth?
  • Valor/Fearfulness – does your character confront the world's darkness with bravery or do they cower in the face of danger?
  • Mercy/Cruelty – does your character temper their conduct with mercy for the weak and defeated or do they exult in the agony of others?

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

I Was Interviewed by a Ghoul!

Click here to read The Dark Mysteries of Professor Jack, an interview with yours truly by the lovely Mlle. Ghoul. I natter on about the Gothic, horror movies, mix tapes, and role-playing games, as I generally. Come and face the dire consequences of my world-shattering wisdom!

Speaking of Mlle. Ghoul, the Occult Activity book that she and Becky Munich put together (and which I contributed to) got featured on io9! Check it out. Sadly, the book is already sold out.

To speak again of the Ghoul, take a look at this fashionable ensemble she created inspired by my Krevborna campaign setting. It's not every game world that gets a haute couture nod.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Go See The Witch

Just do what I say.

Oh, you want reasons. All right then.

The Witch is that rare horror film that makes it into theaters without the benefit of the tropes and conventions that usually attract an audience: this movie has few moments that could be called jump scares, a distinct lack of torture porn or slumber party massacres, none of the recognizable camera tricks that telegraph "this is a horror movie," no found footage nonsense, and no easily merchandised villains. 

It's emphatically not that kind of movie.

The Witch moves at a morbid pace. The narrative isn't additive to propel plot progression; instead, the film is a series of vignettes separated by black screens that mark off each narrative segment. The film doesn't flow from one scene to the next to build toward unveiling the horror at the heart of it all; rather, each vignette functions to further an atmosphere of dread as each segment iterates a new way in which corruption visits a cast-out family living on the cusp of the archetypal dark forest.

In The Witch, dread is all encompassing. The film doesn't rely on gore to generate fear, and it certainly doesn't rely on mystery either. In fact, the cause of the family's misfortunes is shown plainly throughout the movie. The audience isn't given the necessity or the space of wondering at what is going on; we know what is going on (more or less) and film's central terrifying conceit is that being privy to the problem confronting this family fails to safeguard you from experiencing the mounting dread of watching horrors unfold even if we know the cause.

The besieged family in The Witch is placed in a similar position. Deep down, each character is cognizant of their own failings and recognize how their trespasses and lapses have made them prey. But knowing the root causes of their bedevilment in no way helps them steer clear from moral, physical, and spiritual destruction. The Witch is a film that pessimistically dwells on the inconsequence of knowledge and faith when confronted by the void.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Playing Card Initiative in MY Retro-Clone?

It's more likely than you think.

One of the things I like best about Savage Worlds (and want to import to other systems where possible) is the use of playing cards for initiative. When using individual dice rolls for initiative sometimes it’s hard to see who rolled what from across the table; playing cards have the advantage of being big and bright enough to make initiative order readily apparent.

Here’s how I’d do playing cards for initiative in old-school D&D-like games that have some sort of small-range bonus to initiative rolls. For example, B/X has the optional initiative modifiers that you could use for this. When a new round of combat starts, each player is dealt a card; if the character has a bonus to initiative rolls, they get a number of extra cards equal to that bonus. Here’s an example of what initiative might look like for a party of four characters:

The character whose initiative cards are on the far left (an agile rogue) got one card just for being involved in the combat, and then two more cards for having an initiative bonus of +2. The next character, a quick-witt‚ed warrior, got the standard card and a bonus one for their initiative bonus of +1. The next, a mage untrained in the art of war, has no initiative bonus, and thus only gets one card. The last character, a deft ranger, has a +1 initiative bonus and gets an extra card because of it.

Players then arrange their cards highest to lowest; high card goes first, and everyone follows in descending order. Alternately, if a player would rather take their turn on a lower value card than their highest, that’s okay too.

In the case of a tie, break it in alphabetical order of the suits: Clubs beats Diamonds beats Hearts beats Spades.

What about that Joker? A player who gets the Joker on their turn can act whenever they want in initiative order and gets to re-roll any one roll during the round. Fortune favors fools.

For foes controlled by the GM, instead of dealing cards for each enemy, deal them into groups based on their types. For example, if the GM has 4 Mud Ghouls (initiative bonus +1) and their leader Morgash of Tarr (initiative bonus +0) in the fray, the GM’s initiative cards would look like this:

One pile for all the Mud Ghouls, one pile for Morgash.
So, bringing it all together, here’s the initiative order for the round:
1st - Warrior - Joker
2nd - Mud Ghouls - Ace of Diamonds
3rd - Rogue - Aces of Spades
4th - Ranger - 10
5th - Morgash of Tar - 9
6th - Mage - 8

Easy, right?

I recommend having two shuffled decks on hand with different backs; that way if you run out of cards you don’t have to stop and shuffle...just break out the other deck and keep going. Sort out the cards after the game, or have a player shuffle the deck you ran through after they’ve taken their turn.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016


I recently had the chance to re-read John Buchan's masterful horror story "Fullcircle." The tale is about an urban couple who gradually give up their hectic ways as they're seduced--perhaps possessed--by the quiet house they've bought in the country. Their fast-paced lifestyle gives way to living according to the pagan cycle of rural England as they become uncanny, changed doubles of the people they once were.

As I thought more about the story, I began to think about how Tolkien represents hobbits. The stereotypical hobbit is much like the altered couple in Buchan’s story: simple creatures of the countryside who enjoy nothing more than putting their feet up while smoking a pipe and gazing with pleasure upon the green hills.

Of course, we can take this for a darker turn.

Now, return to Tolkien's well-known novel and imagine that hobbits--diminutive personifications of England's largely-forgotten rural life--have the same sort of power as the haunted house in Buchan's "Fullcircle." 

The uninvited dwarfs show up, as does a wizard, to tempt our hobbit into adventure. He resists, but cannot manage to eject his visitors. In the morning, before they set out, the hobbit plies them with an enormous breakfast that stretches on and on; the wizard and dwarfs know that they must set out soon, but the food is so pleasing and the company so enjoyable.

There’s always more drink to be had, more laughs to be shared, and more pipes to be lit. Soon enough, a luncheon is served. The hobbit host talks of how perfect the weather is for a little lazy fishing in a slow-moving stream by a secluded meadow. 

The dwarfs and the wizard begin to forget their quest, and instead daydream about hunting for stag, walking the hills to observe the various trees of the Shire, of trading their axes for gardening spades...

Before they realize it, the dwarfs and the wizard find that years have passed; their new lives of quiet appreciation of country life allow no thoughts of adventure, so any inkling of once more taking up their adventure quickly flits away from their thoughts. After all, the fish might be biting down by the brook, the dwarfs say. The wizard sighs, and decides to read a book of idle poetry in a wicker chair and listen to the birds’ songs. Leave the Dark Lord’s rise to others; fully seduced by a hobbit’s life in the shire, he’d rather watch the sun set.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Van Richten's Guide to Fiends

Van Richten’s Guide to  Fiends is written as the thoughts of Ravenloft’s famous monster hunter, Rudolph Van Richten, with additional gray text that represents game mechanics related to Van Richten’s observations and hypotheses concerning “fiends” (a catch-all category for demons, devils, daemons, etc.). 

Van Richten’s musings begin with him receiving a number of esoteric tomes as a bequest from a departed friend. Among these books are a sixteen volume set called The Madrigorian. Though these texts are said to amount to two piles that stand at chest-height, Van Richten manages to digest them over the course of nine days. (I’m guessing the author of this supplement has never had to actually engage in that magnitude of scholarship. Van Richten’s fellow academic, O‚elie Farringer, manages the feat in only six!) Though initially dismissed as the ravings of a lunatic family, it is discovered that The Madrigorian is actually the record kept by a fiend who possessed many members of the same familial line.

The supplement offers a number of interesting theories that could come up in-game to explain the existence of fiends. One theory is that fiends are a stage in the development of the lich. Once such a being leaves behind the last of their physical remnants as a demilich behind, perhaps their unholy spirit is reborn as a fiend. Another theory holds that fiends are created through the accumulation from the malignancy of human actions within Ravenloft. It is also suggested that instead of summoning fiends from afar, magical conjurations actually will fiends into being.

Of course, it is also suggested that fiends are an influence from another plane of existence that is beckoned into Ravenloft through the horrific sins of the demi-plane’s residents. This last theory is particularly well-fleshed out with game mechanics; offered within the supplement is a system through which a character can be slowly taken over (both physically and psychologically) by a variety of fiends. There is great potential for both body horror themes and the
conventions of possession and exorcism to enter the game here. The mechanics are similar to those of Ravenloft’s usual Dark Powers checks, but instead of turning into a monster the character is sent to a hellscape and replaced with a fiendish power who is now trapped in the demi-plane. 

Unfortunately, this early section of the supplement also evidences its biggest problem—and one of the biggest problems with TSR’s mindset during its contemporary era. While it’s clear that fiends in Ravenloft should be unique, singular beings of immense terror, the text bends over backwards fitting that idea into the already extant framework of demons, devils, etc. (in their sanitized 2nd edition forms). The usual demonic and diabolic types seem a poor fit for
what the supplement is trying to achieve, but it’s shoe-horned in anyway because all of D&D’s settings are supposed to share the same common conceits. The Blood War, in particular, feels especially like a square peg being forced into a round hole in this context.

While I was initially finding a few interesting bits in the early sections of this supplement, the middle section drags on and on. Once the book turns to the explication of the various powers that fiends possess, you realize that what it’s really doing is blowing up what should be a single line description of a power in a monster write-up into a full paragraph (or more) that adds nothing new. For example, "Only hit by +2 or better magic weapons" becomes...thirteen paragraphs of text, including *shudder* in-character epistolary fiction. This is the sort of bloat that pads out much of the 2e AD &D era’s books.

The section on additional powers granted to fiends by the various Ravenloft domains they might find themselves trapped in is at least useful and a bit interesting. But then we hit the section on cults that serve fiends. That absolutely should be fascinating; cults are awesome antagonists. For example, look at the best of Warhammer’s adventures, Runequest’s deeper look at fantasy religious allegiance, or even the cult-centric nature of 5e's published campaigns. But it’s difficult to imagine a section on cults that is more lackluster than what we get here. We learn that cults lure in their prospective adherents, that they swear an oath of fealty to the fiend, and that this oath is corrupting. It’s almost as if the book is trying to describe a cult to someone who has never heard of the phenomenon before.

Worse yet, the example cult that serves "the Black Duke" is so devoid of imagination that there is nowhere to go with it. Even the names of the people involved reek of generic fantasy: meet the rogue Scarhand and Sir Ironhand. (I suppose the mighty mage, Merlin Wandhand, was elsewhere at the time.) The cult is called the Brotherhood of the Whip, which barely has potential, but then we’re immediately told that they are so named because the Black Duke carries a whip. It’s all a bit on the nose...and that's the problem with Van Richten's Guide to Fiends overall.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Occult Activity Book

Coloring books for adults are all the rage right now, but if you're of a somewhat darker bent you might be feeling left out of all the fun. Well, witch-friends, the answer to your prayers to the Gods of Dark Laughter have been answered with the arrival of The Occult Activity Book. I contributed some eldritch Mad Libs to the book, which sit nicely alongside the Elizabeth Bathory paper dress-up doll, diabolic "spot the difference" games, fiendish crosswords, and more.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Preludes and Nocturnes

I'm not big on New Year's resolutions, but when I do set one I like to keep the bar nice and low. This year's resolution is to re-read the original run of the Sandman comics. I'm pretty sure I never read every single issue as they came out in the 90s, and I'm also fairly sure that I didn't read it in a strict order at the time.

The Sandman was the first comic series that I at least read semi-religiously; prior to that, I read a comic here and a comic there, but was never really devoted to picking up every issue as they came out. Will Sandman hold up to my amber-colored memories of being engrossed in it? Let's find out.

Aesthetically, I love the way the early sequences in which Morpheus is held captive by Roderick and Alex Burgess adopt the style and look of DC's horror comics from the 70s, and then effectively segues into Morpheus encountering Cain, Abel, Destiny, and the hosts of The Witching Hour

That those cameos are inserted in such an interesting and clever way rubs uncomfortably against the avalanche of cameos that follow. Some of these cameos work well (Doctor Destiny is especially well-appropriated as a villain--his occupation of the diner is easily one of the darker turns in the Sandman series) but others (John Constantine, Etrigan, fucking Martian Manhunter) feels a bit too much like fanservice and inclusions that exist just to let you know that you're in the DC Universe. My memory tells me that as the series progresses it becomes a bit more deft at reinventing DC characters and mixing them with characters of its own inventions, but we'll have to see how that plays out.

One thing I hadn't counted on before starting this re-read was how heavily the specter of AIDS/HIV would loom in the background of the narrative. It's easy to forget it now, but at the time Sandman was coming out the disease was a predominant, era-defining anxiety. I'd hazard to guess that the Death Talks About Life mini-comic taught a lot of people about AIDS awareness and how to put on a condom because that specter was always in the shadows.

Speaking of Death, Preludes & Nocturnes concludes with "The Sound of Her Wings," which was the first bit of Sandman I got hold of. In retrospect, it's a weird place to start: it's a bridge between the just-concluded arc of Morpheus regaining his tools and the next arc about Morpheus chasing down errant dreams. Still, reading it again makes it clear why it inspired me to go back and read what I had missed; "The Sound of Her Wings" was like a revelation that comics could be so much more than how we usually imagine them within the strata of pop culture.

Friday, February 5, 2016

London's Past, Gorey-esque, My Muse is Not a Horse

Aos sent this along to me and, who knows, it might prove useful for you too:

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Trey sent along this great Gothic & Gorey cartoon. Definitely worth your time!

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An important gif:

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Kylie Minogue reads Nick Cave's letter to the MTV Awards. Words to live by.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Ones Left Behind

Pale hands reaching out of a swirling cloud of shadow and ethereal luminescence--they are the remnants of a cosmic being, shattered by contact with the madness of mortal men, and left behind by their fellow travelers of the universal void.

Each hand frantically signals a single word in sign language. Driven mad by a desire to be understood--and destined to never be fully comprehended--the Ones Left Behind are plunged into a despair that quickly turns to rage. Rage leads inexorably to the hands pronouncing doom on those who cannot, or refuse, to understand them. Each hand is also capable of creating a baleful magical effect. 

Stats as beholder; exchange eye stalks for hands, etc.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Carcosa, The Urantia Book, Herbal Tea, Racism [???]

Is the Urantia Book the ultimate supplement for Carcosa games? Well, it does have multi-colored people in a horrific sci-fi/mystical/alien backdrop:

“The earlier races are somewhat superior to the later; the red man stands far above the indigo — black — race,” says Paper 51 of The Urantia Book, and “each succeeding evolutionary manifestation of a distinct group of mortals represents variation at the expense of the original endowment.” Furthermore, “The yellow race usually enslaves the green, while the blue man [which corresponds to Caucasians] subdues the indigo [black].”