Monday, May 30, 2016

Ambrose Lynch, a Gunslinger

Let me tell you about my character...

Physical description: Thin and wiry
; his hair and beard are brown, shot through with gray, and have been left to run wild. Clothes were once nice have been allowed to become shabby and unkempt. Favors a long black armored coat and a wide-brimmed hat. His hand has the habit of straying to his holstered pistol at the first sign of trouble.

Back-story: Although he affects the life of a down-and-out ruffian, on his native plane Ambrose Lynch is the educated scion of a wealthy, land-owning rancher. Out of sheer perverseness he left his family (and the family fortune) to immerse himself in the seedy criminal underworld.

Lynch's steady aim and moral flexibility earned him a place as an enforcer and bodyguard for Roderick Hill, a merchant who presided over an empire of stolen goods and protection rackets. While in Hill's employ, Ambrose struck up an unlikely friendship with Severina Winthrope, a witch who provided the superstitious Hill with occult expertise and daily tarot card readings. Severina took Ambrose under her wing and taught him the rudiments of witchery--a power that Ambrose uses to bolster his deadliness and to manifest the primal unrest that lurks within his tempestuous breast.

Ambrose would still be working as Hill's red right hand, but again the imp of the perverse struck, causing Lynch to perpetrate some unspeakable crime against the crooked merchant. He fled to Scarabae to escape the wrath of Hill's vengeful family, but it's only a matter of time before they catch up with him. 

Personality - He revels in moments of violence and chaos; he values his freedom more than anything else; he is guilty of a terrible crime and desires redemption; if there's a plan, he'll forget it--it will all end in bullets and bloodshed anyway.

(Ambrose Lynch, 3rd level human ranger)

Friday, May 27, 2016

Into the Death House

Nobleman Tarvin Sellvek and his crafty servant Grimm Hogshead were making their way home after a night of drinking, cards, and gossip with the upper crust when a strange mist misdirected them from the familiar path. They found themselves on an alien street of boarded-up, abandoned houses...except for one house, which still seemed to be well-cared for. 

From within the mists the pair could hear the sounds of a child crying. As they ventured into the mists to discover the source of the crying, Grimm felt a tug at his sleeve; looking down, he saw a young girl and boy staring up at him forlornly. The children explained that they needed help; a monster was loose in their house and their baby brother was still inside. When asked which house was theirs, the girl pointed to the sole house on the street that still seemed occupied. Without further prompting, the adventurers entered the Death House of Barovia.

Exploration of the first floor revealed an empty, but otherwise expected set of rooms: kitchen, dining room, a hunter's den. Nothing too out of the ordinary...except wood paneling that seemed to add grotesqueries to its carved pattern (and spread to rooms where it hadn't previously been noticed) and a wolf pelt that must have crawled from the den to the main hall when the characters weren't looking.

The second floor was a bit more revealing. Moving a fake book in the library revealed a hidden chamber, in which was found a collection of grimoires and a heavy chest that was closed upon the remains of a slain adventurer. (Inspection of the remains showed that this unfortunate soul triggered a poison dart trap.) Underneath the skeleton was a collection of well-bound blank books, three scrolls, a signed will, the deed to the house, a deed to a windmill called Old Bonegrinder, and a letter from Strahd von Zarovich. Clearly, there was more to this history of this family than simple financial prosperity. 

As the adventurers ascended the red marble stairs to the third floor, they were met with an oppressive coldness that seemed to fall upon them from above. When they attempted to enter a door off the main landing for this floor, they were attacked by a suit of fire-blackened armor sporting a wolfen helm. Grimm managed to pry off one of the thing's armored arms, while Tarvin dealt it a destroying blow with his two-handed axe. 

Unlike the rooms on the previous two floors, the rooms on the third were choked with dust and cobwebs. After observing from a balcony that the night sky had been obscured by the strange mist that had waylaid them, Tarvin and Grimm were met by the spectral presence of a skeletally thin woman who did not respond well to Tarvin's taunts. A fierce battle ensued, the ghostly woman fading in and our of existence, her distended jaws sucking precious life away from Grimm. Ultimately, the intruders within the house were victorious, but sorely in need of a rest. After their repast, the pair explored the most disquieting object in the room: a cradle draped with a shroud of funereal black. Inside the cradle was a heavy, infant-sized bundle. Unwrapping the bundle they found...nothing, and no justification for its uncanny weight.

They also discovered, behind a mirror, a secret staircase leading to the attic. Within the attic they found a room that likely belonged to the children who asked them to enter the house, save that there were two child-sized skeletons lying on the floor, indicating that the children they had met previously were not living, breathing things. When the dollhouse in the room was touched the children's spirits appeared and warned the adventurers that they did not appreciate anyone playing with their toys. They also revealed that the windows of their room had been bricked up from the outside. Although the children were insistent that there was a monster in the basement, they were even more insistent that the adventurers not leave them alone. When the pair left the children's room, the spirits disappeared but both Tarvin and Grimm felt a small, cold hand clutching at their hearts.

From the attic they descended a secret staircase down into the labyrinthine basement of the house. In the basement, the sound of chanting was everywhere, despite the absence of any human explanation for the persistent incantation. Exploration led them past the family crypts, and into the lair of a cult. Lifting a metal portcullis led them into a flooded chamber with a raised dais and altar at its center. Climbing the dais caused the appearance of thirteen black specters who demanded that someone must die--clearly, they expected the adventurers to turn on each other to provide a sacrifice. 

When Grimm and Tarvin decided to flee, the spectral cultists summoned the Decayer--a monster made of bog filth and carrion meat--who pursued them to complete the cult's desired bloodshed. As they fled, the pair heard the voices of the spectral children ring out in their heads: the voice of the boy told Grimm to run for his life, the voice of he girl admonished Tarvin to stand his ground and slay the monster. And stand their ground they did: Grimm was knocked unconscious and hovered at death's door, whileTarvin was saved from a similar fate by embracing a primal love of carnage. Reaching into the monster's body, Tarvin destroyed it by wrenching its twisted root from its decaying bulk.

The house was now quiet. Battered but unbeaten, the two eschewed further exploration and left the house to find that the strange mist had retreated. However, they found themselves met by a black carriage that seemed to have expected their eventual arrival...

* * *

For record keeping purposes, the spoils:

XP - 550 each

Treasure -
11 gp and 60 sp in a pouch made of human skin.
three moss agates (worth 10 gp each) in a folded piece of black cloth.
a black leather eyepatch with a carnelian (worth 50 gp) sewn into it.
an ivory hairbrush with silver bristles (worth 25 gp).
a silvered shortsword (worth 110 gp).

a jewelry box made of silver with gold filigree (worth 75 gp).
three gold rings (worth 25 gp each).
a thin platinum necklace with a topaz pendant (worth 750 gp).

three blank books with black leather covers (worth 25 gp each).
three scrolls (appear to be protective magic).
the deed to the house.
the deed to a windmill (Old Bonegrinder).
a signed will.
a letter from Strahd von Zarovich.
four sheets of blank parchment.

a shield emblazoned with a gold windmill on a scarlet field.
a longsword with a windmill-styled crosspiece.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Armageddon Rag

The Armageddon Rag, by George R. R. Martin

It's rare that I hate a protagonist this much. He's emblematic of that "my 60s generation was the best generation, man!" sort of guy. "Today's music sucks, our music was REAL ROCK! Just listen to the lyrics, man!" He's the type prone to baby boomer self-aggrandizement, but without anything to actually show for it. On one level, it seems like Martin is critiquing this 60s-Golden-Age type, but on another level I think we're  actually supposed to buy into his impotent angst and perhaps nod along in approval to his stale witticisms and toothless comebacks.

His friends are scarcely better: we have the ex-radical hippie professor who tries to get into his students' pants, the free-love hippie mama getting in touch with motherhood and mother earth on a dippy commune, the drug-blasted hippie wastoid, and a flabby reunited hippie band it is impossible to care about. Hanging is too good for the lot of them.

A thing we could do without: aging white authors writing about aging white authors who, despite everything, get exotic tail and just accept it like it's their due. Of course the smokin' hot black woman goes for the white author-proxy with nothing going for him, and of course it never occurs to him that this is anything more than the natural order of things. Because he's from the 60s, man.

Another thing we could do without: Martin puts variations of the phrase "Yessa Massa" into way too many scenes. Creepy.

The only way that this book could have been salvaged for me is if the aging hippie and all his friends had their noses rubbed in their collective generational failure, like a pack of dogs who had messed on the carpet. Alternately, I would have accepted a particularly violent demise for the main character. Sadly, I got neither.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Chapel of the Fungi Queen ancient-seeming chapel, dedicated to the worship of the Fungi Queen, located at the end of a tumbledown alley in the Algolial Ward of Scarabae. 

Each color on the map represents a separate colony of fungi growing upon the walls of the chapel; each colony is sentient and capable of speaking, but different colonies have varying motivations. 

The blue fungus will lie to the characters and lure them to their deaths, tempting them with tales of riches in horrifically dangerous locations. 

The green fungus will try to help the party with good advice (that of course won't be trusted because the green fungus speaks the truth in a voice that sounds like it peddles badly-told lies). 

The yellow and purple colonies are at war with each other and try to bribe the party with promises of treasure to wipe out their foes. 

The orange fungus will try to convert the characters to the worship of the Queen of Fungi; it has no other conversation than fungoid theology.

May Zuggtmoy smile upon thee and grow ever vaster in the dank darkness of thine heart!

Friday, May 20, 2016

Barozzi; or, The Venetian Sorceress

I was in the mood to read a Gothic novel I hadn't encountered before, so I chose Barozzi; or, The Venetian Sorceress (1815), an obscure text by Catherine Smith (or, as she is sometimes enigmatically known, "Miss Smith" or "Mrs. Smith"). This a doozy.

There is a running joke among my friends about Italy's police being as incompetent in real life as they are portrayed to be in giallo flicks; the reportage about the "Monster of Florence" is a case in point: the police seemed so incompetent that no less than four suspects have been convicted of the crimes without conclusively or convincingly proving guilt--for which the police justly faced a good deal of scorn and ridicule. Apparently this dim view of law and order in Italy is nothing new; this early 19th century novel offhandedly remarks that Venice is a place were murders...just sort of happen...without the authorities that be getting interested in putting a stop to that sort of thing.

Okay, so the setting makes Venice seem like a squalid murderdump where life holds no value. Surely the protagonist will contrast such a sordid backdrop? The "hero" of this Gothic romance is essentially Blue Velvet's Frank Booth in Gothic drag. He overhears a plot to kill someone, but...doesn't really feel arsed to get involved. He does, however, learn of a plot between a rich woman and her side piece to run away together. Since it is the night of the Carnival, he decides to dress up as said side piece, worm his way into the rich lady's mansion, and have sex with her. (He's wearing a mask when he comes in and the lights are out when they clamber into bed, see, so she can't tell!) Afterward, he runs away with her (still in the mask) and eventually takes it off in another town to say "lol, I hit that!" Happy that he got into her skirts, he ditches her after dropping the mortifying knowledge that she just got tricked into having sex with a stranger.

When he comes back to his own familial mansion he blurts out something that he shouldn't in front of the help, so he pulls out a dagger, puts it to the throat of his servant, and makes him swear on the Virgin Mary that he won't repeat his unfortunate mouthsounds. 

This guy is the protagonist. The novel is named after him.

This is all fifty pages in.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

A Game of You (part 2)

To reiterate the question posed by A Game of You: what is a woman? This question echoes in a multitude of ways throughout this arc of The Sandman. We see it in the various ways that Wanda is judged not to be woman enough--how she's drawn, how others perceive her, the shape of her own nightmares, how her family chooses to remember her after her death. We have it in Barbie's neighbors, who struggle to maintain their identities as they attempt to rescue her--Hazel and Foxglove must cope with managing their identities as lesbians as they also deal with an unexpected pregnancy, Thessaly must drive herself with thoughts of revenge to continually reconstruct her self-identity as someone powerful and not to be trifled with. And of course the question defines Barbie's quest in the Dreaming--it turns out she is not there to save the land she has dreamed of (it is inevitably destroyed in the end as part of a compact that cannot be mitigated), but is instead there to find out who she is and what she can be. A Game of You is literally the "game" of figuring out who You are, but it's a game with ferociously high stakes when you're a woman.

The villain of the arc, the Cuckoo, is not an external threat. She is instead a part of Barbie's identity, a malicious refashioning of the inner child. The Cuckoo is a remnant of Barbie's rich childhood fantasy world, but she is a particularly feminine remainder of the imagination. We're told by the Cuckoo that there are differences between the fantasy worlds created by boys and girls: boys dream of themselves as empowered heroes, while girls dream of familial belonging and domestic happiness. Although we might wish to disbelieve this way of defining imagination according to a gendered binary--it comes to us, after all, from a seemingly insane villain--the surrounding fictive world of the comic goes some length to reify that idea. It is Wanda (never woman enough) who reads superhero comics; Barbie, on the other hand, has a terrible experience when she goes into a comic shop because she is too obviously a woman in a space that caters to products for and by the male imagination. (And damn, that scene is one solid punch Gaiman aims at the jaw of mouth-breathing comic guys. FATALITY.)

Of course, this leaves us with some room to postulate that the gendering of imagination is wholly culturally-constructed, but I'm not convinced that A Game of You really hammers that nail into the coffin. If this arc is about Barbie's search for an authentic self in the wake of her divorce, she plays an amazingly passive role in the resolution of it; it's Morpheus (absent for the majority of the arc) who swoops in to make the big changes. Barbie earns a boon from Morpheus for her role in fulfilling the compact, but she spends it on protecting her new "family" of neighbors--reaffirming that her imagination is still defined by domesticity and belonging. And though there is a sense of Barbie honoring Wanda as a woman by painting over the birth name etched on a tombstone that forcibly re-inscribes her as essentially male, it's worth noting that the lipstick Barbie uses to write "Wanda" over "Alvin" is temporary--it will wash off, and the name cut into the cold stone will surely outlast it.

What is a woman?

It seems like we still don't know.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Weapon Skills for Old-School Fighters

Fighters in old-school D&D are powerful, but they're mechanically pretty dull. You get...better at hitting stuff, and better at avoiding death and dismemberment. That's it.

This is one potential way to make them more interesting and adding nuance to how they play in combat.

You know how "specialists" in LotFP have skills that you can improve by filling in pips on six-sided dice as they level up? What if fighters had weapon skills--that only they have access to--based on the properties of whatever weapon they happened to be using?

It would work like this: when you roll a d20 to make an attack role with your fighter, you also roll a d6 for their weapon skill at the same time. If the d20 indicates a hit and the d6 roll is equal to or less than the number of pips they have in the corresponding weapon skill, the attack is a hit and deals damage, plus the weapon's special property comes into play.

Some examples of possible weapon skills/properties:

Assail -- when this weapon property activates you can make a second attack against the same foe, but you do not get to roll your weapon skill die for this bonus attack. 
Weapons that might have this property: dagger, sling, quarterstaff

Brutal -- when this weapon property activates you can roll twice for damage against your foe and take the higher result.
Weapons that might have this property: battle axe, maul, claymore

Defend -- when this weapon property activates your armor class improves by one point until the start of your next turn.
Weapons that might have this property: poleaxe, dueling sword, main gauche

Hack -- when this weapon property activates you get a +2 bonus to your next attack against the same foe.
Weapons that might have this property: sword, axe, falchion

Stagger -- when this weapon property activates you cause your foe to drop one spot lower in initiative order. (I'm assuming d6 per side initiative.) If your foe's initiative drops below 1, it is stunned for one round and must roll initiative again on its next turn.
Weapons that might have this property: flail, mace, warhammer

Weaken -- when this weapon property activates your foe's armor class gets worse by one point.
Weapons that might have this property: spear, planson, longbow

I'd assume that fighter's start with one pip in each weapon skill, since they're trained in using all weaponry. Not sure about the rate they should gain pips to spend on improving those skills yet; this is all untested material in the spitballing stage.

Friday, May 13, 2016

An Unholy Misc.: Dungeons and Dragons Links Edition

It seems like people have been asking "Why doesn't Wizards of the Coast make their Magic: The Gathering settings into Dungeons & Dragons settings?" for ever. Well, they've started doing just that with this pdf for Zendikar. Fingers crossed that they'll do Innistrad as well.

Confused by how the mechanics of magic & combat intersect in 5e Dungeons & Dragons? This post will sort you out.

It's hard to explain what playing D&D is like to people who haven't experienced an RPG before. These videos might help.

Did you know that Wizards of the Coast has a Twitch channel?

This interview with Jeremy Crawford is surprisingly interesting. Did you know he almost became a monk? Like, a literal monk--not the character class.

This is a decent starting place on how to write a D&D adventure.

Did you know that you can read Dragon+ online without using an app? I didn't.

Grognards predictably shat themselves when John Wick gave Caesar's thumbs-down to Tomb of Horrors, but I have to agree with him about the best D&D adventure of ALL TIME.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

A Game of You (part 1)

There is always a point where every imaginative author wants to try their hand at riffing off the classics of "children's fantasy." Gaiman isn't exactly shy about his inspirations for the A Game of You story arc: one of his characters directly alludes to Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland by noting that things seem to have slipped "down the rabbit hole"; the Yellow Brick Road of Oz gets a mention and the strange animal companions that rally around the protagonist of the arc rewrite Dorothy's companions; the perils faced by Bilbo in The Hobbit give shape to Gaiman's protagonist's fears.

Gaiman's iteration of a fantastique tale involves Barbie (a character last seen in the apartment building that Rose Walker lived in during the Doll's House arc) being drawn into her dream world--a children's fantasy realm that faces destruction at the hands of a calamitous being known as The Cuckoo. While Barbie lies in a coma-like state in the real world--her dream self is free to adventure--the other residents of her apartment building find themselves attacked in the night by powerful nightmares set loose by an agent of the Cuckoo. In a nice bit of fairy tale logic, the Cuckoo's agent can't directly destroy the dream stone that allows Barbie to enter the Dreaming, but he can potentially use Barbie's neighbors as the tools of its destruction. The Cuckoo's strategem is foiled by one woman living in the apartment: Thessaly. Yes, she is one of those Thessalians from Greek myth.

After gathering the other residents of the apartment, Thessaly convinces them that they need to venture into the Dreaming to aid Barbie on her quest. Being a witch of remarkable power and experience, Thessaly calls down the power of the moon so that they might enter the dream world. (She also notes that they could enter with the permission of Morpheus, but the reason why she chooses the Moon Road instead become clear later in The Sandman.) Gaiman takes a jab at New Agers (and Wiccans in particular) with his depiction of Thessaly's witchcraft; Thessaly's magic is of the old tradition: it is all blood, violence, and unflinching sacrifice. And it gets results, whereas Foxglove notes that her more modern flirtations with a fluffier form of witchery had no real effects.

One of the Barbie's assembled friends cannot travel along the Moon Road; as a transgender woman, Wanda is apparently not woman enough to make use of magic so closely associated with the feminine. This is an interesting distinction, though not entirely a comfortable one. Compounding that is the slightly grotesque way that Wanda is drawn throughout this story line: the line work of her face tries too hard to convey that she was born male. There are also a number of panels in which she is in her underwear and a masculine bulge is ever-present. It's a bit odd that the art isn't allowed the space for its own interpretation by the reader. Rather, the comic does not let this stand as a subtle distinction; one of the neighbors points out that Wanda's body fails to be stereotypically womanly--the "irony" being that the lump in her underpants is pointed out by a butch lesbian who functions as the most outwardly-masculine character in the building. And yet, because of biology (and a weird tangent by which the butch lesbian has become pregnant after having a drunken fling with a "mostly gay" man [!!!]) she's allowed the space to be a "real woman."

But what is a woman? That is the question to be resolved (perhaps unsatisfactorily) in A Game of You, and one we'll turn to in the second installment on this part of the Sandman saga. 

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Howls of the Damned: Fuath, A Dream of Poe, When Nothing Remains, Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard

Fuath, I
"so very deep and desolate. vocals set against riffs like a solitary figure walking a mountainside. human presence, dwarfed. a landscape of enormity. scale, grandeur." Click here to listen.

A Dream of Poe, An Infinity Emerged
Five long tracks, with an average duration of 11 minutes, reflect the evolution of a character, defeated just after gaining consciousness that the practical side of things is always harder than the theoretical side and that all is knowledge of the world didn't prepare him for the experience. Symbolically, the album is a process of destruction, as the initial stage of the renovation process (which corresponds to the symbolism of the card "Tower" from the Tarot deck), so the themes of death, murder, and the constant reference to water as a symbol of change are essential for «An Infinity Emerged». Click here to listen.

When Nothing Remains, In Memoriam
The third album by the Swedish masters of atmospheric doom death metal features everything the band is loved for: melodic compositions decorated with catchy guitar solos and atmospheric keyboards, with a harmonious blend of clean vocals and growl. At the same time, the symphonic sound is now the key element, which gives the material a special expression, epic and originality. Click here to listen.

Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard, Noeth Ac Anoeth
3 ape descendants and an astral seraphim combining their powers to generate colossal interstellar arias of plutonium weight. We are the ideal soundtrack to your next intergalactic voyage or black hole exploration. Druid Doom Riff Technologies v1.6. Click here to listen.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016


I decided that what the world needed was a 5e Dungeons & Dragons background based on Joan Clayton--the cut-wife of Ballantrae Moor--from Penny Dreadful

Fair warning: this background is for "mature audiences," deals with a delicate topic, and definitely won't have a place in every game or at every table.

A pdf of the cut-wife background can be had here.

Monday, May 2, 2016

A Ring Thrice Blackened: Black Metal Middle-Earth

A strange confluence of influences: I've been thinking about the Lord of the Rings D&D that's coming out (and the odd lack of information about it), I watched the last Hobbit movie recently, I've been listening to Emperor's In the Nightside Eclipse a lot lately, and I've been having recurring dreams about the Nazgul.

All of this got my thinking about how I would run a game set in Middle-Earth, but with a bit of a "blackened" miasma clinging to the setting like a cloak of despair. Some basic guiding principles:

  • set the game between the events of The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring, emphasizing the rise of Shadow and the darkening of Arda
  • clear the board of the major protagonists from Tolkien's novels; make room for a different fellowship to do the heavy lifting
  • foster the atmosphere of a black metal saga
If you want to take a glimpse at what I've come up with, the pdf is here.

* * *

Bonus mixtape to get you in the mood:

Gravelord Nito † Emperor - Into the Infinity of Thoughts † Satyricon - Nemesis Divina † Summoning - Nightshade Forests † Darkthrone - Under a Funeral Moon † Burzum - Black Spell of Destruction † Mayhem - From the Dark Past Scorpioness Najka