Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Curse of Strahd Review

"X is a love letter to Y" has become the tired workhorse of RPG product reviews. And yet, it's hard to escape the feeling that Curse of Strahd is a love letter to I6: Ravenloft. Curse of Strahd lovingly recreates the original Ravenloft adventure; it also expands on the ideas of the classic module and crafts a thematically-cohesive sandbox that should give you enough material to run a 5e D&D campaign that spans levels 1-10. To give you a sense of how much Curse of Strahd is intended as a love letter to Ravenloft, note that they brought I6's authors, Tracy and Laura Hickman, on-board as consultants for the book.

If you're unfamiliar with the original Ravenloft, it brought a heavy dose of Gothic and Hammer Horror-inspired atmosphere to the usual S&S-meets-Tolkien "milieu" of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. The adventure centers on defeating a vampire lord, Strahd von Zarovich, and exploring his haunted Castle Ravenloft. Although the module plays out in a fairly typical way, it did innovate a bit by adding randomized story elements, such as the placement of important magic items and the main villain's motivation. I6: Ravenloft is generally regarded as a classic, and justifiably so.

Curse of Strahd, the Adventure
Curse of Strahd preserves the experience of exploring Castle Ravenloft (as well as its randomized elements)--with some canny additions. Although there are additional NPCs and new situations to encounter within Castle Ravenloft, the content surrounding castle is even more expansive and noteworthy. Curse of Strahd makes Barovia (Strahd's valley domain of bleak villages, perilous mountains, and dark forests) a proper sandbox for in-game exploration. And it is a proper sandbox; though certain sequences of events are more likely than others, the players are given the room in the adventure to travel where they want, explore where they want, and generally take agency over what comes next for their characters.

The adventure areas that comprise the Barovian sandbox utilize Gothic tropes particularly well; it details accursed temples, a mobile witch's hut, an asylum wherein horrible deeds are committed, et al. The non-player characters seem well conceived; each fits a Gothic stereotype, but also have enough clear-cut motivation to work in the context of the game. (My favorite bit is definitely the asylum; that particular mix of characters in a creepy setting has a lot of strong inspiration behind it.) Although Barovia seems like a small area for sandbox adventures, is also feels like there is a lot to do--and a good variety of plots to become involved with and characters to interact with--within its span. There also seems to be enough "blank space" to add whatever side-treks or adventure tangents into the campaign if you want to extend it further.

Curse of Strahd, the Gazetteer
The original Ravenloft adventure inspired an entire campaign setting of the same name, a somewhat patchwork setting that stitched together every cliche to be found in Gothic fiction and Universal monster movies. Fans of the 2e AD&D-era Ravenloft setting might be disappointed in Curse of Strahd, as it only focuses on Barovia and is noticeably silent about the larger world outside Strahd's domain. However, though Curse of Strahd isn't billed as a setting sourcebook, it functions very well as a gazetteer of Barovia. There is enough setting material in the book to successfully run other adventures in Ravenloft. The supernaturally-malleable nature of the domain also makes it easy to add whatever setting elements you like without having to rewrite Barovia from the ground up. Barovia, as presented in Curse of Strahd, could be part of the 2e Domains of Dread, but it could just as easily be slotted into some obscure corner of just about any setting.

Surprisingly, the background information presented on Barovia in Curse of Strahd fixes many of the problems I had with previous incarnations of the Ravenloft setting. I like the smaller, claustrophobic focus on Barovia, its master, and its inhabitants. The level of detail feels just right: the information on Barovian superstitions, local religion, the Vistani, etc., is more fleshed-out than what we got in the Realm of Terror boxed set, but not as stifling and overly-detailed as the 3e version of the setting. (And this time the people of Barovia know that Strahd is a vampire! Finally.) The default set-up of the player characters being drawn into Ravenloft and trapped there works well here because it doesn't assume that the characters will have an easy escape; this isn't the "weekend in hell" style of 1990s Ravenloft. As presented, this version of Barovia feels internally consistent, thematically tight, and rich in adventure possibilities. 

Curse of Strahd, What Might Not Work For You
Of course, it's not perfect because that is the way of published adventures:
  • The adventure material in Curse of Strahd is presented in typical fashion, which means: its descriptions can be over-long, you're going to have to read the whole thing through before you start running it, and you'll probably need to take some notes to get your head around all the characters, places, and events in the adventure.
  • It has boxed text, which might put you off. Oddly, the boxed text that is mercifully short is the worst. Check out the boxed text for randomly encountering a corpse: "You find a corpse." The lack of effort and imagination that went into those four words is astounding.
  • It's a little weird that most of the peasants in Barovia are lawful good, but most of the Vistani gypsies are chaotic neutral (or some shade of evil) and the dusk elves are similarly differently-aligned than the strangely paragon Barovians.
  • The only new background in the book, the Haunted One, is noticeably inconsistent with the mechanics for backgrounds in 5e: it only grants one skill instead of the usual two, only grants one other proficiency, and its special ability gathers peasants to fight evil alongside you--which seems an awful lot like the kind of combat effect the 5e DMG warns you against giving new backgrounds. Also, it seems to be the only background that doesn't grant you any starting money--even the lowly Hermit gets 5 gp. (Perhaps having the pricey monster hunter's pack is supposed to compensate for that). WotC has released an updated version of the background here that gives it two skill picks. That should have made it into the book.
  • There is a pull-out map in the back. People love poster-sized maps! Except this one is a poster-sized map made up of small maps, which makes it really difficult to use at the table. Thankfully, WotC has made the maps and handouts available as pdfs here and here.
  • The adventure makes some definitive statements about the Dark Powers of Ravenloft, which may be off-putting to people who preferred that they were never defined. There's also some canon-busting, if that sort of thing bothers you.

Curse of Strahd, Other Things to Praise

  • I like the art. It's moody, has a strong Gothic flavor, but still manages to look like it belongs with the rest of 5e's product line. The new ethnic diversity to be found in Barovia is non-intrusive; visually, the idea of a more cosmopolitan populace trapped in Ravenloft works well.
  • The muted tone of the page backgrounds make this one of the easier to read 5e books. It simply looks less "busy" on the page.
  • The use of cosmetic changes to a few spells to signal that things in Ravenloft work differently than in most fantasy worlds is a nice touch without being the similar-but-difficult-to-reference screw-job that was in the 2e setting.
  • The brief discussion of how to bring horror elements into a D&D game has solid advice.
  • Everybody loves new monsters, and Curse of Strahd has creeping huts, animate brooms, guardian portraits, accursed armor, witches, tree blights, mongrelfolk, phantom warriors, Strahd's zombies, wereravens, and a whole host of fully-stated NPCs.
  • This version of Strahd seems like a tragic Gothic villain rather than a tragic Gothic antihero. Also, the did not give us any Smurf Strahd illustrations, for which I am grateful.

For me, this is one of the best adventures yet for 5e--it's right up there with Out of the Abyss, but admittedly even more geared toward my personal tastes. I definitely recommend it if the idea of Hammer Horror-meets-D&D appeals to you, or if you'd like to experience (or re-experience) a classic from D&D's storied past. I would warn you off Curse of Strahd if what you are really interested in is a more traditional fantasy adventure, or if what you really want is a repackaged version of the 2e-era campaign world. For me, this is one of the rare adventures I've read where I've wanted to run it immediately. 

Monday, March 28, 2016

What Guards the Purity of Melting Maids?

What guards the purity of melting maids,
In courtly balls, and midnight masquerades,
Safe from the treach'rous friend, the daring spark,
The glance by day, the whisper in the dark,
When kind occasion prompts their warm desires,
When music softens, and when dancing fires?
- Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock

The ritual is a boon to concerned parents and a curse to amorous-minded young men (to say nothing of the feelings of the frustrated young women who may be just as amorous as their prospective lovers), but it functions like this: it is a spell cast upon a young woman; it is unbreakable by normal means, but dispels itself on the maid's wedding night; any time her honor is at stake while the spell is active, a stern celestial guardian (stats as a planetar) appears to check any errant desires--with force, if it comes to it.

A few encounter ideas:
  • A stymied young Don Juan hires the party to break the ritual so that he may tryst with a beautiful young woman protected by it without having an angry angel showing up and thumping him about the body and head for his troubles.
  • An adventurous coquette hires the party to break the ritual's interference in her love life as she is tired of it interrupting her intrigues. 
  • The party is hired by parents who wish to marry off their daughter into an aristocratic family, but the ritual has been cast upon the daughter by a rival family trying to establish matrimonial ties with the same bachelor's house.
  • The ritual has been cast upon the party's rogue, whose usual modus operendi is seduction. This, of course, cramps her style greatly, so a cure must be found.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Dream Country

Since Dream Country collects four stand-alone issues of The Sandman, it doesn't contribute an arc to the overall saga. But each story does add threads of narratives or backstory that will be explored in more depth later or actively works to reinforce the larger themes of the series.

"Calliope" tells the tale of an author desperate to follow-up on the success of his debut novel. So desperate, in fact, that he acquires the muse Calliope, imprisons her in his home, and rapes her for inspiration. While it's clear that Gaiman is saying something about the often troubled relationship between artists and the sources of their ideas, I'm honestly surprised he hasn't caught more flack for the prevalence of rape as a recurring plot point in Sandman. Alan Moore, perhaps Gaiman's closest contemporary in the world of modern comics, has been taken to task repeatedly for the predominance of scenes of sexual violence in Watchmen, Neonomicon, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and especially Lost Girls. The tonal difference between how rape figures into Gaiman and Moore's plots, or if there is one, bears thinking about--as does a consideration of differing public reaction. But this humble blog post is not that place.

Calliope is ultimately set free at the behest of Morpheus, who attempts a bit of poetic justice by giving the author a surfeit of inspiration that drives him to madness. As it turns out, Calliope was a former lover of Morpheus's, and the two had a child together--Orpheus, of Greek mythological fame. This is an instance where a future narrative strand is being seeded, and it is interesting that Gaiman does so without much fanfare. The mentions of Orpheus, and the violence of the Furies, occurs almost in passing, but will certainly factor into the series in a more profound way in later issues. Speaking of comments that are slipped in slyly, there is a commentary about the continual difference in cultural cache afforded to "real literature" and the disapproval that often meets genre fiction in this story that sits neatly alongside the commentary about authors and their muses. Note the shout-out to Clive Barker; oh, to be back in the early 90s again.

"A Dream of a Thousand Cats" is one of the most beloved Sandman stories. It features a gathering of cats to hear one who is like a wandering prophet of their kind: she preaches the idea that if enough cats dream of a world where they are the dominant species--not merely the pets and prey of human beings--they can effectively make that alternate world a reality. The theme of the story puts a slight spin on the idea of dreams shaping the world around us: the story isn't really about individual change achieved through a private dream, but rather it is interested in how a communal dream can change the world. The story reminds me a bit of Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem Queen Mab and his essay "A Defense of Poetry," but with a twist; whereas Shelley claims in his poem and essay that the power of imagination is the inherently human quality of effecting positive change in the world, Gaiman expands this faculty to all the creatures of the world--well, at least those capable of dreaming.

Often cited as one of the best issues of the series, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" won the World Fantasy Award for short fiction in 1991. The story concerns the debut of Shakespeare's play of the same name; in Gaiman's version of events, the play is performed for an audience of faerie folk--including Auberon, Titania, and Puck (who puckishly sneaks his way into the performance). Like "A Dream of a Thousand Cats," this story meditates on the power of dreams; specifically, the story toys with the idea that things that aren't true (such as fictional drama) can still function as markers of truth by telling a story that possesses an essential verity. 

Shakespearean allusions in fiction are always interesting because they never seem to be used without a distinct purpose. Of course, this story isn't the first time Gaiman has drawn on the work of Shakespeare in Sandman; quotes from Shakespeare's plays appeared in some of the earliest issues of the saga, and we have previously seen Shakespeare strike a bargain (two plays in return for access to "the great stories") in the issue "Men of Good Fortune." It strikes me that the use of Shakespeare is different in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and that allusion is used here as a force of literary alignment. Since Shakespeare is often regarded as the foundational man of British letters, a patron saint of the epic in English, I'd argue that Gaiman weaves his story into Shakespeare as a way of subtly saying that Sandman, his epic, belongs to the same artistic lineage as the Bard himself. In fact, this has long been a strategy by which authors of fantastical fiction claim alignment with Shakespeare to forestall criticism of their creations as "genre work." You see it in Horace Walpole's statements about his comedic borrowings from Shakespeare, as well as in Ann Radcliffe's appropriation of Shakespearean quotations as chapter headers in her oft-derided Gothic novels. In a sense, this story is Gaiman feeling himself and feeling that his story has (finally, perhaps) taken shape and is headed in the majestic direction he had always hoped it would. You could call that presumption, but as Sandman is regarded as a modern classic it's not too hard to excuse the man for it, really.

Of course, now that I've just puffed Gaiman up a bit, I have to knock him down directly after because I just don't like "Facade," the story that concludes Dream Country. "Facade" doesn't feature Dream at all--though Death is a character in it; this is instead another story that takes an obscure DC superhero (in this case, Element Girl) and attempts to elevate the source material. The problem is that the story essentially plays out like a vampire story, something-something the pain of immortality, but without the bite. I've always felt that the Sandman stories that try to work-in bits of the DC universe were on shaky ground, but this one just doesn't go anywhere. Yes, it plays with the theme that even immortality might have an end (which could be important for Dream and his fellow Endless), but the ironic O. Henry-style ending just rings a bit false.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Lord Byron on Servile Reviewers

Rough Johnson, the great moralist,       profess'd,
       Right honestly, 'he liked an honest hater!'-
     The only truth that yet has been confest
       Within these latest thousand years or later.
- Don Juan

If the vast majority of your reviews are "FOUR out of five, nay, FIVE OUT OF FIVE WOULD BUY EVERY DAY," you're not an honest reviewer; you are a fan and I have a lot of troubling taking your "reviews" seriously. No critique? No honesty, either.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Hollywood Gothic

Hollywood Gothic necessitates a different kind of narrative logic. The Gothic mode usually proceeds by uncovering the dark, rancid heart that beats beneath a skin of normality; the feeling of profluent movement is encapsulated in the coming-to-light of an unkeepable secret that propels Gothic narratives. But in the Hollywood Gothic, there is no coming-to-light, no return of the repressed. Instead, in its place we have only confirmation. Hollywood Gothic operates on the realization that the corruption we all assumed was there all along is in fact the reality we can reliably expect. Hollywood Gothic offers no surprise, no revelation; it gives affirmation to our fears about Hollywood.

I. Coldheart Canyon
When I first read Clive Barker's Coldheart Canyon, I was disappointed. I felt let down that the book didn't try to leverage its ghostly promise. The premise had the potential to work as a traditional Gothic novel: there was something lurid, grotesque, and uncanny about the possible spectral return of the 1920s film vamp. Instead, we get the ghost of a modern plastic surgery disaster movie star sporting a ludicrous erection for all eternity. What I didn't see at the time is that that was the point: we know Hollywood is absurd, we know it is a vortex for narcissists, their egos, their wealth, their ultimately sad desires. The pathetic specter with his unflagging rigidity may not be what we want, but deep down we know its the only ghost Hollywood's necromancy can invoke.

II. American Horror Story: Hotel
Hotel was a welcome return to form for the American Horror Story franchise. Where AHS goes wrong is when it attempts to take itself seriously; it just can't sustain any sort of narrative weight without collapsing into itself, like a cathode ray black hole. But when it brought its narrative around again to Los Angeles, and evoked the particular shades of old Tinseltown, it found its way back on track. The reason why is simple: Hotel gave the show the freedom to focus on shallowness. Everything in Hotel exists on a surface level; scratch the surface and you only get more surface. The themes and plot actively resists deeper reading. The show knowingly mocks its own shallow depth and winks at its own essential emptiness in the end. This is, again, confirmation of what we expect: everything in Hollywood is plastic to the core, and cruelly dispossessed of meaning.

III. Maps to the Stars
On first blush it appears that Cronenberg's Maps to the Stars deals in the standard Gothic convention of incest, but the film turns that well-worn thematic to a particular, and elusive, use. In most Gothic tales, incest functions as the thematic shape of uncontrollable desire or an irrepressible secret within the body familial, but in Maps to the Stars the incest is more akin to the ideas put forth by Anais Nin's House of Incest. That is, incest in Cronenberg's film is really symptomatic of an excessive self-love, a narcissism that can only recognize the self as an object of desire. The incestuous relationships in the film do not extend their erotic energies outward; they are instead essentially masturbatory and inward-facing. The reality we feared is real; in the dark masque and mummery of the Hollywood Gothic, the only love that exists is a loop of celluloid forever entwined with itself--an ouroboros of inverted libidinal economy that chokes on its own tail, forever.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Amour Class

Yeah, "amour" is just a typo in Something Stinks in Stilton, but now I'm daydreaming about a game where that stat would matter. Don Juans & Dragons, perhaps.

Lady Chillingsworth is as cold-hearted as full plate, but her son Phineas is as pliable as studded leather.

Friday, March 4, 2016

The Doll's House

Ah, how the memories come flooding back! The Doll's House was definitely my starting point with The Sandman. I read the issues that comprise the Preludes & Nocturnes tpb as back issues after working my way through The Doll's House

After repeating "The Sound of Her Wings," which closed out the last collection, we get "Tales in the Sand," which adds a crucial bit of ancient backstory to Dream's saga. Told as an African folktale passed down through the oral tradition as part of a coming of age ritual, the story of Morpheus's forbidden love for the human queen Nada will come to have larger consequences in the overarching narrative--but we'll get to that in later issues as it comes up. 

"Tales in the Sand" also has a more immediate effect because it potentially changes how we view Dream as a character. When Morpheus condemns Nada to torture in Hell for what he perceives as her rejection of him, it both adds to what we know about his character and diminishes him in our view. While the Dream of past issues seemed aloof, angsty, and somewhat unknowable, it was still easy to forge a line of sympathy between him and the reader. "Tales in the Sand" changes that; here we see Dream acting petulant, demanding, and cruel. We see that he is more than just the brooding hero of the series. He is flawed, deeply so. Our sympathy for him has to alter because it is touched by now knowing that his passions can run self-centered and imperious.

Is Dream a full-fledged Byronic hero? It's a possibility well worth keeping in mind as the series progresses. 

After the prologue of "Tales in the Sand," The Doll's House sets upon two intertwined plots: Morpheus tracking down four errant dreams who escaped his realm while he was imprisoned by the Burgess family and Rose, who is a a "dream vortex," tracking down Jed, her missing brother. These two plot lines are intertwined because Rose is the granddaughter of Unity Kincaid, a woman who succumbed to the "sleepy sickness" when Morpheus was trapped in the Burgess's house; both the escaped dreams and Rose's status as a vortex are tied to Dream's captivity.

The narrative strands converge at a "cereal convention," which is really a clever, dark ruse for what is, in fact, a convention of serial murderers. (The latest season of American Horror Story, Hotel, "borrowed" the serial killer party idea something fierce.) I love the cheeky send-up Gaiman gives to serial killer fanboys; the real serial killers catch a wanna-be 'zinester (who I am pretty sure is a pointed mockery of Peter Sotos; the fictional counterpart writes a 'zine called Chaste, while Sotos wrote an infamous serial killer 'zine called Pure) in their midst and show him what cold-bloodedness is really all about.

Since Rose is the dream vortex--a force that threatens to undo the chaotic order of the dreamworld--it is Morpheus's duty to kill her to keep his realm from collapsing and taking humanity along with it. Until, of course, Unity Kincaid steps in and assumes her rightful place as the vortex in an act of self-sacrifice that preserves Rose's life. As it turns out, Rose being positioned as the sacrificial vortex was a stratagem on the part of Dream's sister-brother Desire, another of the Endless. 

After the fact, Morpheus learns a horrible truth: Desire had fathered Rose's mother on the sleeping Unity, and if Dream had killed Rose he would have been guilty of killing one of his own blood. Why that crime is so portentous isn't clear at this point in the series, but there are two items of Sandman lore worth keeping in view after the events of The Doll's House: taking the life of one of Endless blood is an unpardonable crime and the three witch horror-hosts of The Witching Hour have appeared in this section of the story to hint at another function they serve--that of avenging furies, the Kindly Ones.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

So, You Saw The Witch...

So you heeded my advice and saw The Witch, but where do you go from there? Trey made a blog post about the movie here, which includes a dandy link to the New York Public Library's reading list for the movie. But what if you want more fiction in that vein? 

I'm here to help.

If you liked the mounting dread that accompanied the distrust and paranoia among the family in The Witch, check out Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown."

If you enjoyed the theme of complicity in The Witch, check out Elizabeth Gaskell's Lois the Witch.

If the violence simmering underneath the Puritan beliefs at the heart of The Witch excited you, go buy Daniel Mills's Revenants. (No free read on this one unless you have a Kindle.)

If you want a view back at the haunting legacy of the colonial era, Lovecraft's "The Dreams in the Witch House" should be your first stop.