Thursday, July 28, 2016

Charles Dickens, Warhammer Game Master

Dickens would have been a hell of a Warhammer FRP GM.

You see, he already had a firm grasp on the careers system. Take Oliver Twist, for example; his career path would be something like: orphan–>laborer–>mourner–>street thief

Dickens was also no stranger to the "gribblies"; his stories feature spontaneous human combustion (chaos at work), gangs of child thieves (chaos cult, Fagin is turning those children into skaven), misshapen and uncanny young girls (Jenny Wren is a daemone‚ss of Slaanesh), a guy whose job is to fish corpses from the river (Gaffer Hexam–tell me that isn’t a Warhammer name!), and a passel of ghosts, ever-hungry Fat Boys, etc.

Of course, Dickens would also be quite generous as a GM. No matt‚er how lowly you started in his game, Wealthy Bourgeoisie would always be a career exit. And he’d hand out a ton of Fate points.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Lord Byron on Murderhoboes

Blood only serves to wash Ambition's hands!
- Lord Byron, Don Juan

You may be running a campaign in which murderhoboes aren't really a good fit for the kind of game you want to play. How do you discourage that before it becomes a problem?
  • Talk to your players and explain what kind of game you're interested in providing. Did you know that most play style dissonance can be solved by just talking to each other like human beings? Crazy!
  • It's great when players have ambitions for their characters, but it's easy to make clear in play that random acts of violence are a poor way to fulfill those ambitions. Make sure there are different, and better, approaches within the shared fiction for accomplishing a character's goals. You can also discourage murderhobo-ism by leveraging real consequences for antisocial behavior within the fictive world of the game itself.
  • Root the characters in the setting so they are a part of it, instead of being eternal outsiders. This "rooting" could be a "starting town" that you focus on to discourage the violent vagabonds archetype, or you could lean on the characters' backstories (like those generated by 5e D&D's backgrounds) to give them a defined place within the campaign world.
  • Give the characters (and players) things to care about. These attachments could be NPCs, organizations, goals, causes, etc. If they feel connected to the setting, or even protective of it, they will be less likely to draw steel as the solution to every problem. Offer a variety of things in the game that a player might take an interest in; take note when a player gets into one of the attachments on offer and make that a more prominent facet of the game.
  • Murderlooting at every opportunity doesn't have to provide mechanized benefits. Actions that are rewarded on a mechanical level are incentivized; remove the incentive and you remove the impetus for taking that course of action.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Gothic Fantasy Adventure Generator

Whenever I need the framework for an adventure or am stuck for something to insert into the Krevborna campaign, I roll seven d20s and use the results to complete the sentence in the top row of this table:

So, let's say I roll 12, 7, 5, 5, 5, 4, 20. That gives me the following adventure seed to build on:

"A patient fey is trying to derange a disciplined constable in a crumbling tower."

That's more than enough to riff off of; from here, start asking questions of the sentence to build outward: 

Why is the fey trying to drive this constable insane--did they do something against the fey long ago since the fey has been 'patient'? 

Why is the goal to drive the constable insane--is their disciplined nature what they value most about themselves and the fey wants to take that away?

What is the tower? Is it a guard tower now besieged by fey incursions? A pagan site the constable once defiled in some way? A trap that the constable has been lured into in a remote location?

Feel it out, sketch it down, fill it in. You're ready to go.

Note: You can swap columns two and five or columns one, four, and six for even more options.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Weighing the Soul of a Devil

Having returned to Chancel with two orphans rescued from being ground into bone meal by hags, Tristan made arrangements with the Sellvek family to have the youths taken care of. Tristan also had the unfortunate task of breaking news of Tarvin Sellvek's death to Luka, who had been cultivating his relationship with the White Ravens and pursuing other personal business in the interim. Tristan introduced Luka to Pen Bennett, an acolyte serving the faithful of St. Othric. The trio gathered to discuss a proposition put to them by Ivara Olashenko; Ivara claimed to have discovered the whereabouts of a supernatural being that they might use to fight against the forces of darkness coming to Krevborna from Barovia.

The meeting with Ivara was tense and fraught with disagreements and concerns. According to her research, the being in question was a devil trapped within an iron cage somewhere in a supposedly-haunted house near Krevborna's coast. This Driftwood House once belonged to a family of cultists, but had seemingly been abandoned and avoided for a generation or more. It was said that whoever released the captive devil therein would be granted some sort of boon: Ivara pushed the idea that they could ask the devil to fight against the new supernatural threat coming to Krevborna, effectively turning one evil being against another.

This notion was intriguing to Pen, Luka, and Tristan, but it was not an idea without real considerations. Pen pointed out the dangers of using evil as a tool, even if wielded for the greater good. Tristan worried about the trustworthiness of fiends; would such a creature honor its word once released? Luka fretted over the nature of the creature--if it had a soul and free will, would it not be wrong to force it into servitude? Ivara, for her part, pointed out that if those who wish to do good in the world were not the ones to utilize this opportunity, surely the coming forces of darkness would seek out this devil and gain its aid. Ultimately, the party decided to venture to the Driftwood House to investigate further.

Since Ivara was accompanying them south to the Driftwood House, Luka wanted to make sure that the young scholar would be as protected as possible. He took her shopping and advised her to purchase a leather jerkin and a pistol. Cue the training montage, as Luka took the time to take Ivara out into the woods north of Chancel for some target practice.

The party traveled four days, following Ivara's map, arriving at the Driftwood House just after sunset. The house was a ramshackle building built of driftwood planks situated at the top of a sheer cliff overlooking the sea. A massive dead tree loomed over the house, its bare branches reaching and skeletal against the night sky. Crooked sets of wooden stairs wound a path up the cliff to the house. Sparse outcroppings of tombstones dotted the ground before the house. The sound of waves crashing against rocks could be heard coming from below the cliff. Thick bunches of twisted roots erupted from the rocky ground. Luka reconnoitered the house, discovering that the door was being guarded by three figures in long coats, hoods and hats pulled low over their faces, each armed with some sort of jagged spear. (Luka theorized that these figures were the walking dead due to their shambling gaits.) He also noticed that the house's guards worked in shifts; the three would enter the house, only to be replaced by three different figures. 

The party held off on their assault until morning, where they wouldn't be fighting under the fickle light of the moon. Luka and Ivara positioned themselves behind tombstones to take shots at the shambling figures, hoping to draw them into charging so that Pen and Tristan could intercept them for a melee. Luka's shot hit its mark, and the creature let out a wet bellow of surprise, which in turn caused his companions to scream in equally wet rage. Clearly, these things were not the walking dead. In the battle that ensued, it was revealed that they were fish-faced men with bulging eyes and mouths lined with piranha-like teeth, and that their "spears" were actually vicious harpoons. 

Monstrous guardsmen duly dispatched, and no indications of more trouble on the way, the party approached the door of the Driftwood House, which Pen promptly kicked in. In the center of the room was a statue carved from driftwood of a kingly figure, wearing a nine-pointed crown, his long hair and beard intertwined with seaweed. Pen kicked this statue over as well, sending its crown rolling into the corner. The crown was retrieved and given to Ivara for safe-keeping. Further exploration of this floor--which involved the ever-belligerent Pen kicking in every door--revealed a room with chairs, a table, and a number of old books written in a language the characters couldn't read, as well as a kitchen where a dish was piled high with day-old fish.

Ascending to the second floor uncovered a far more gruesome tableau. The party found themselves in a room dominated by a table, upon which was a piece of oilskin or perhaps old sail that was draped across a lumpen form that appeared to be a humanoid body. Pen drew the cloth off like a magician performing a trick, revealing the corpse of a dark-haired woman dressed as a sailor, her midsection pierced through and her entrails spilling forth. Further inspection of the body determined that patches of flesh had been removed from one of her upper arms; the lower arm was still covered in tattoos of a nautical nature rendered in a very dark blank ink.

Perhaps fearing that the corpse would rise to attack them, Pen chopped off the woman's head and made to throw it through a gap in the roof. However, as he hefted the decapitated head aloft, an inky blackness began to pour from its mouth, pooling and coalescing on the floor. As the black fluid arose, it formed a human-like shape--its face briefly took on the appearance of the decapitated head, then morphed into the face of someone that each character in the room knew who had died. The effect was chilling, but as the thing struck at Pen the group did their best to fend it off. A difficult melee commenced, with Luka being grasped by the thing as it sapped some of his life away. Nevertheless, some quick halberd work from Tristan sent the thing splattering about the room in a shower of inky gore.

Continued exploration of the upper floor brought the party to a disused bedroom. At the foot of the bed was a strange box-shaped lump of white crystal. Pen hacked at it, splintering bits of crystal off, but the group was no closer to figuring out what it was. Ivara examined it further with a dagger, then tasted it...whatever was inside was encased in salt. Working diligently to remove the salt encrustation unveiled a simple wooden box within. Pen threw caution to the wind and opened it...and narrowly dodged a stream of liquid that shot from the box, casting a film of hardened salt on the wall behind him. A few bags of coin, a bottle of black ink in a stoppered bottle, five sculptures of eels with ravening maws carved from bone, and a brooch depicting some sort of botanic motif were found inside.

The upper floor sorted as well as could be, the group descended the stairs into whatever was below the Driftwood House. And a long descent it was; the stairs seemed to go down and down without end. The air took on the clammy, briny smell of the sea as they went deeper into the cliff upon which the house rested. Finally, he stairs ended in a wet, slimy chamber carved from the rock of the cliff. An iron gate was to the left, a wooden door to the right, and a circular pool sat at the center of the chamber. A heavy chain was attached to the floor of the chamber, the end of which went down into the pool.

Ivara explained that the pool was what they had come looking for; the devil's cage should be attached to the other end of the chain--it was probably kept submerged for containment purposes. Luka scouted the iron gate and found that it led to a sodden hallway that stretched off to the sea--during high tide, the entirety of the chamber would be flooded. Luka and Ivara stood ready by the gate, while the muscle-bound Pen pulled upon the chain. 

The cage was nearly freed from the murky pool when the iron gate was heard to swing open--more of the fish-like men had emerged from the sea. One of them wore a strange mockery of a pope's mitre; his moist chanting sent waves of spectral, icy oceanic water cascading around the party, while his compatriots speared and bit at them. When one wounded Luka, it went into a hungry rage, but the party carried the day.

Picking up where he had left off--having used his sword to keep the chain in place--Pen hauled the cage free of the pool. Inside was a black cocoon of wings that unfurled to reveal a horned, red-eyed, and fang'd being within. Only Ivara could speak the devil's language, so she relayed the party's questions and the fiend's answers. Here, all those moral quandaries and conflicting motivations that were discussed before the party set out again reared their heads. Bickering, differing views, competing beliefs! Ultimately, Luka decided to cut the Gordian knot by walking up to the cage and firing into the devil's head while it was trapped within. The fiend became a sulfurous black mist that quickly began to dissipate, but Ivara again spoke it's infernal language and seemingly trapped it within an iron flask. 

The group left the Driftwood House ablaze behind them as they left.

Back in Chancel, the group discussed possibly finding a religious rite to destroy the devil within the flask. But what might that require of them?

* * *

The spoils:

XP - 513 each

Treasure -

  • Copper, silver, and gold coins in the sacks that amount to 167 gp each for Pen, Luka, and Tristan.
  • Five statues of ravenous eels carved from bone (worth 125 gp in total; Ivara would like to study them further despite them being non-magical; she requests these in lieu of receiving a cut of the other treasure--let me know what you guys think about that).
  • The bottle of blank liquid turns out to be a bottle of magical tattoo ink; if you ask the right people you will be able to find a tattoo artist who can use it to inscribe a permanent enchanted rune upon one of you that is a persistent magical effect.
  • The brooch with the botanic theme is a brooch of shielding--it gives resistance to force damage and immunity to magic missiles.

Inspiration - everybody did a great job hitting their ideals, flaws, etc. in that last scene in the underground chamber, so everybody starts the next session with Inspiration.

Renown - 

Monday, July 18, 2016

Fin de Siecle Lovecraftiana

Much of my scholarship and teaching centers on the Decadent literature of the fin de siecle. While the "weird tales" of the 20th century have been mined extensively for use in RPGs, the work of the Decadent and Aesthetic movements is still ripe for adaptation. Here are a few off-the-cuff gaming ideas that riff off some classics of literary Decadence:

Joris-Karl Huysmans’s A Rebours: the novel takes place within one location–a decadent aesthete’s house; with a li‚ttle twisting, we get a dining room made to look like a ship’s cabin (what if it allows for real transportation through time/space?), monstrous plants, an organ that creates alchemical potions depending on what notes and chords are played, a library that mixes the sacred and the profane (enjoy sorting through the Latin pornography to find that grimoire, suckers), a funerary banquet for the host’s lost virility (or is that a ritual to summon Shub-Niggurath?), more enchanted paintings of Salome than you can handle, a bejeweled tortoise as vaunted treasure.

Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray: Where is Basil Hallward? There are rumors of his demise to be investigated; these rumors take the characters to high-society dinners, exhibitions of the Royal Academy, East End opium dens, and low theaters alike. Characters to meet and interrogate: Lord Henry and his Yellow Book (Yellow Book/Yellow Sign?), Sybil Vane (who seems possessed when performing on in some Hastur/King in Yellow here), the debased chemist Alan Campbell (whose suicide will happen right as the characters need him most, but was he laying the groundwork for Herbert West?), and of course Dorian himself (what if Dorian’s portrait isn’t merely the barometer of the state of his soul, but something that absorbs his evil nature and take on a life of its own?).

Oscar Wilde’s Salome: Not the events of the play itself, but rather the events surrounding the play. The Lord Chamberlain’s office denies the play’s performance not on the grounds that it contains biblical themes, but rather because they know the performance is a really a series of ritualized motions and incantations to let loose something otherwordly and monstrous. Of course, those degenerate French fail to see the metaphysical horrors at work and have authorized the play’s performance. How to stop it? Bonus game of "guess which is the avatar of Nyarlathotep": Lord Alfred Douglas (he did seem to have an uncanny power over Wilde), Sarah Bernhardt (another of Wilde’s great muses), or Wilde himself (what was it exactly that he learned amidst the stacks at Oxford)? Vatican involvement–what if the head of John the Baptist is kept somewhere as a relic...a relic that can speak and still has a horrible prophecy to deliver?

Friday, July 15, 2016

A Will is a Prophecy of Death Waiting to be Fulfilled

Since the party had inadvertently stripped the mining town of Uriel of its protection from bandits during their last adventure, Tarvin Sellvek busied himself in Chancel shaking the family tree looking for someone who could take over the duty of guarding the town. Aid came in the form of Abel Sellvek, a relative from a distant branch of the family. Abel is a veteran of eastern wars, and was able to muster a small band from his former mercenary company, the Sword of Sorrow. More importantly, Abel was in need of gainful occupation due to past follies.

Tristan also spent his downtime looking for help in securing Uriel and establishing a foothold for the religious mysteries of St. Othric. In Chancel he uncovered a small group of recent converts led by an earnest woman named Seraphine Krieger. Seraphine has a checkered past as a criminal. She was tried for her crimes and executed by hanging. However, she did not die upon the gallows; she hung from a rope for three days and experienced a vision of St. Othric. She survived the ordeal and was born again to spread the glory of the saint throughout Krevborna. She bears the scar of the noose around her neck as a reminder that her life should be forfeit. She also pledged to protect Uriel, while establishing a mission there in the name of St. Othric.

Tarvin had been looking into the family tree to find someone to marry Grimm to so that his "servant" might fully join him in fraternal loyalty. The solution to that aim was also found in Abel; Abel had daughter of marriage age named Erabelle, and he had reason to join his daughter to a man without family or noble status: he had acquired some gambling debts that he cannot clear himself of. If he is provided with eight-hundred gold coins to free him from those debts of honor, Grimm gains a wife. Erabelle, for her part, is no fool. She knows that this marriage is purely a transaction, but in truth doesn't mind overmuch--anything to get her out from under her father's roof.

And so, Tarvin and Tristan rounded up their newly-forged soldiery and headed back to Uriel to re-establish peace. Little had changed in the weeks they were gone, but the town proved very receptive to their plan for keeping Abel (and his soldiers) and Seraphine (and her converts) on a stipend to defend the town. Plans were drawn up to build a chapel to St. Othric that can also serve as a fortified watchtower. 

Following a lead on the Durst family that the adventurers hadn't had time to delve into on their last visit to Uriel, Tristan and Tarvin visited the local inn and tavern, which was operated by a tattooed former sailor named "Black" Durst. The innkeeper explained that his family had formerly been wealthy and prominent, but the main line of the family had fallen into the worship of dark powers. He knew of the windmill, the Old Bonegrinder, that Tarvin was looking for and was even able to provide a map to the mill's location. Tarvin and Tristan also paid Black Durst to keep The Passion of St. Othric under lock and key in the inn's safe.

Significantly, before leaving Uriel to visit the Old Bonegrinder Tarvin made out his last will and testament.

The way to Old Bonegrinder was treacherous: to reach the mill the pair would have to travel through the Silent Forest and venture near Hemlock, a town known to be overrun with witches and devil-worshipers. Just outside the forest, the party made camp...and during the night were approached by a stranger wearing a jaunty hat of black with a sable plume, his clothes made of trim black velvet and his black boots polished to a luster. The stranger offered the duo wine, which they both politely declined. He then sat down with them, by the light of a lantern, and began to talk of the difference between devils and demons. The stranger, who later revealed his name to be "Mikhail," expressed the view that demons are creatures of the flesh, of bodily desire. Conversely, devils are creatures of the spirit, of spiritual corruption. Thus, while most folk use the terms "demon" and "devil" interchangeably, they are opposites and are in fact antagonistic to each other. 

The stranger then posed Tarvin and Tristan a question: which did they suppose was more worth fighting against, demons or devils? Both men agreed the demons seemed more worthy of destruction, which pleased the stranger to no end. He felt about his person, then pulled out a parcel which he unwrapped, revealing two bronze daggers that he wished to give to Tarvin and Tristan to protect them from any demonic beings they might encounter. Suspicious about where this conversation was going, Tristan opened himself to otherworldly emanations and correctly determined that the stranger was, in fact, a fiend. Not wishing to take a gift from a fiend directly, they offered him a pair of coins in return for the daggers--which Mikhail gladly accepted. The daggers now in the hands of those that said they would slay demons, the stranger stood up and took his leave. The pair settled back into their camp, and heard the stranger call out to them one last time from the darkness, "Say hello to the Olashenko girl for me next time you see her! Tell her that Mikhail sends his regard."

Wishing to avoid the town of Hemlock, Tarvin and Tristan made their way through the Silent Forest and stuck to the hill line, leaving the witch-town below in the fog-shrouded valley. Eventually they spotted a windmill at the apex of a hill--the area seemed abandoned, the windmill in disrepair, and its windows grimed over with filth. Upon entering the windmill, the pair found themselves in a makeshift kitchen littered with broken pottery and dishes. The room held a peddler's cart, a coop filled with clucking chickens, a cabinet with flowers painted on its doors, and a wooden trunk from which issued the croaking of frogs. The room also contained an oven, which was filling the room with the sweet smell of baking pastries. Underneath the appealing smell of confections, however, was a sharp, acrid smell...that was determined to be coming from a barrel of vaporous green ichor placed by the stone stairs leading up to the next floor. Tarvin checked the oven, noticing that broken bones were scattered across the floor; the oven held a tray of pastries that looked not unlike those served to him at the dinner party hosted by Ivara Olashenko.

Tristan and Tarvin climbed the stairs to the second floor, where they found an old woman sweeping up great clouds of white dust and old bones. The center of the room was dominated with a mill stone attached to a wooden shaft that ascended through the ceiling. The pair debated sneaking past her to continue up the stairs to the third level of the mill, but their conversation drew her attention. She asked if they had come to buy her pastries, which led to a conversational game of cat and mouse. Pastries were purchased, but not eaten. The woman revealed that her daughters were upstairs. Cackling laughter was heard from above; the laughter seemed to shake the windmill. The old woman's unwillingness to let Tarvin and Tristan explore the rest of the windmill resulted in her lunging at them. The pair fought her off with axe and glaive, while she removed a hairpin from the gray bun at the back of her head and used it to repeatedly stab a rag doll--with each stab of the poppet Tarvin and Tristan felt their own bodies pierced through, though without obvious injury or blood. The battle was a pitched one, requiring that Tristan channel the healing light of St. Othric, but the pair proved triumphant.

Not wishing to stumble into an ambush on the next floor, Tarvin detached his shadow (a power he gained by accepting a bargain with the darkness when he had previously felt the icy grip of death at his throat) and sent it to scout ahead. The shadow scurried up the stairs and reconnoitered the situation; when the shadow rejoined him, Tarvin knew that there were a pair of women--one blonde, one dark--seemingly tied at the wrists to the mill shaft with rope. The room also held a stack of crates, a dusty bed, and the floor was strewn with discarded clothing.

Our heroes ascended the stairs. The women claimed that they were abducted from a nearby farm and that the witch below had planned to grind their bones into flour for her pastries; they pleaded to be freed. Noting that their tattered gowns were not the clothing of farm girls, Tarvin saw through their lies and attacked them. The women, of course, were not truly bound to the shaft at all, but merely attempting "the succubus gambit," which any seasoned adventurer was sure to see through. "I told you it wouldn't work, Ophelia!" the blonde hissed to her dark-haired sister.

The resulting combat was edge-of-the-seat tense. Tarvin did massive amounts of damage to the blonde woman, but she dealt him massive amounts of damage in return with her iron-hard claws. Tristan was having difficulty landing solid blows with his glaive and eventually switched to the enchanted Sword of Armin and the bronze dagger from the stranger to do more reliable damage. As the fight wore on, the two women dropped the facade of being damsels in distress; their youthful skin began to slough off, revealing the women to be wicked hags. Slipping through Tarvin's guard, the blonde witch caught him with a terrifying blow that robbed him of consciousness and sent him bleeding to the floor. Now faced with two foes, Tristan opted to stand his ground even though he was grievously wounded and had exhausted the holy power he could call upon. He managed to dispatch each of the women by penetrating their foul hearts with the bronze dagger, but it was a very near thing.

Tristan immediately attempted to staunch Tarvin's bleeding, but to no avail. With a gasp and a death rattle, the light fled from Tarvin Sellvek's eyes forevermore.

Hearing whimpering sounds coming from the crates in the room, Tristan left the side of his fallen friend and found that the crates were actually wooden cages--two of which held a boy and a girl respectively. They begged to be released and claimed that the witches had kidnapped them to ground their bones into flour. Suspicious of this twice-told tale, Tristan again opened himself to the emanations of the supernatural, but these children proved to be just children. Tristan released them from their prisons and searched the rest of the room. The tattered and musty bed seemed unused, and he found that several pieces of jewelry had been sewn into the mattress for safe-keeping.

Gathering the children, whose names are Myrtle and Franklyn, as well as the corpse of Tarvin Sellvek, Tristan decided to head back to Uriel. On one night within the Silent Forest during the return journey, Tristan saw the light of a bonfire deep within the forest and heard ominous chanting in a language he did not understand, but decided against investigating further for fear of leaving the children in danger.

In Uriel, Tristan alerted Abel Sellvek about his kinsman's death. A funeral service and burial was arranged for the next morning. Dr. Robisard, Black Durst, the newly-installed soldiery and clergy, and a few of the brothel women attended the last rites. Tristan gave a moving oration about the bravery and darkness within Tarvin--an example of mankind's dual nature and an expression of the hope that it is our good deeds that win out in the end. A marker of cold gray stone was placed at the head of the grave, providing a lasting monument to the man who had so recently ushered in a new era of prosperity in Uriel.

After the funeral, Tristan was approached by a woman with curly, dark hair wearing a mourning veil. She introduced herself as Ivara Olashenko, an acquaintance of Tarvin and Grimm's from their misadventures in the foreign lands of Barovia. She offered Tristan some consoling words on his loss, and requested that he accompany her back to Chancel to inform Grimm of his friend and master's untimely demise. Tristan agreed, Ivara placed a bouquet of white flowers on Tarvin's grave, and the two decided to depart the next morning. As Tristan and Ivara left Uriel the following day, they saw that the wooden sign displaying the town's name was being removed and replaced. The workman hung a new sign above the wooden palisade encircling the town--it was now to be known as Sellvek's Hollow.

* * *
The spoils
XP - 900
Treasure - 

  • Six pieces of semi-valuable jewelry worth 150 gp in total
  • Two bronze daggers (magical, +1 vs. demons)

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Brief Lives

In Brief Lives, Dream is approached by his sister Delirium; she has been petitioning members of the Endless to help her find their lost brother, Destruction. Surprisingly, Dream agrees to help her on her quest. He doesn't do so altruistically; he acquiesces to her request mostly to forget that he was recently spurned by a lover.

Before Delirium asks Dream, she asked their sister Desire for aid. Desire's refusal is expected, but cruel. It's also unsurprising. Desire has been portrayed as cruel, petty, vindictive, and heartless throughout the series. (The irony of Desire's heartlessness is that it lives within a gigantic heart and the heart is its gallery sigil.) Desire is clearly set up to be one of the great villains of Sandman, a libidinal antagonist set against Dream's mopey ego-driven romanticism. Indeed, Dream is suspicious that Delirium's mania to find Destruction has been caused or inspired by Desire as some sort of trap. Desire swears a weighty oath that it isn't responsible for Delirium's fixation on uncovering the whereabouts of their errant brother, but what Dream expects is enough to color our perception of Desire's place in the narrative. Setting an early precedent, Gaiman tells us in The Dream House collection, "Desire is always cruel."

Each of the Endless hovers in the gray area between character and abstract concept. As such, the very idea of Desire seems tainted in Gaiman's story--if Desire-the-character is forever plotting and scheming for malignant ends, then it follows that desire-the-concept is a similarly corrosive motivating force. The correlation is odd, but informative. In reality, few of us think of desire as a pointedly negative thing. We believe that desire is powerful (1). We know that desire leads us toward pleasurable fulfillment (2). It's not even bad as a consolation prize (3).

But, if Desire/desire is more often damaging than not in Gaiman's fictive universe, surely Dream is established as the antithesis? No, Dream is a collaborative; the strife between Desire and Dream isn't due to their difference, it's caused by their congruence. What are dreams, after all, than manifestations of desire in the unconscious mind? Desires are ephemeral and fleeting, as are dreams. We wish each other "sweet dreams," and advise each other to "have a good time" in the company of others because we place a value on pleasure both solitary and communal. Both carry the connotation of aspiration--what do you desire, what do you dream of?

If Desire's flaw is an inherent streak of cruelty, consider that Dream is frequently guilty of the same error: his treatment of Nada and Orpheus evidence an abundance of that fault. The Sandman, then, is not really a tale about a clash between cosmic principles; it's about Dream's growth as a character through the purgation of cruelty from his own oneiric form of desire--a process only made possible by Desire's cruelty. This idea was threaded into the story early in the saga; Gaiman writes, in Dream Country, "But he did not understand the price. Mortals never do. They only see the prize, their heart's desire, their dream... But the price of getting what you want, is getting what you once wanted" (emphasis mine). As it turns out, mortals aren't the only ones who do not understand the price of this growth. Dream will pay the price for this newfound self-knowledge as well.

* * *

(1) - “Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.” ― William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

(2) - In this moment, everything is suspended: time, law, prohibition: nothing is exhausted, nothing is wanted: all desires are abolished, for they seem definitively fulfilled... A moment of affirmation; for a certain time, though a finite one, a deranged interval, something has been successful: I have been fulfilled (all my desires abolished by the plenitude of their satisfaction).”
― Roland Barthes, A Lover's Discourse: Fragments

(3) - “Sex is the consolation you have when you can't have love”
― Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez, Memories of My Melancholy Whores

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Penny Dreadful Blues

Penny Dreadful has wrapped up, which may have left you bereft and in mourning. It's okay, we can get through this together. Below are some suggestions for other avenues to explore now that you have been deprived of your exquisite Gothic Victoriana fix.

If you liked the Dracula plot line...

...then give Kim Newman's Anno Dracula or Richard Marsh's 
The Beetle a try.

* * *

If you liked Ethan's Wild West adventures...

...take a look at Molly Tanzer's Vermillion or Witchfinder: Lost and Gone Forever.

* * *

If you liked the plot between Frankenstein and Jekyll to science Lily into submission... really ought to read Arthur Machen's stories "The Inmost Light" and "The Great God Pan."

* * *

If you liked Lily's intersectional murder-feminism...'re ready for the one-two punch of Dr Jekyll Sister Hyde and The Hands of the Ripper.

* * *

If you liked Vanessa's foray in the world of alienism...

...then pick-up Patrick McGrath's Asylum or John Harwood's 
The Asylum

* * *

If you liked the vampire slaying action of Catriona Hartdegen... might be time to revisit Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

* * *

If you liked the idea of monsters redeemed...

...maybe Tanith Lee's Darkness, I or Caitlin R. Kiernan's Silk will be your jam.

Friday, July 8, 2016

The Fiend of Uriel

During his downtime in Chancel, Luka met with Horace Willoughby, an investigator with the White Ravens guild. Sensing that Luka's hunting, tracking, and firearm skills might make a fine addition to the guild's roster, Horace gave Luka a task: keep an eye on what transpires in the woods just north of Chancel. Luka observed the movements of misshapen animal men within the forest, gaining a bit of favor with the White Ravens. To further cement this new connection, our group of adventurers (consisting of Tarvin, Grimm, Tristan, and Luka on this outing) decided to pursue a bounty that the White Ravens had placed on a "man" named Ezekiel who had killed one of the their members.

The group traveled by carriage to the mining town of Uriel, Ezekiel's last known location. On the way to Uriel, the party spotted a wayside bothy made of stone. As they approached the bothy they began to hear a man's screams issuing forth from within; the door was kicked open from the inside and a group of misshapen ruffians emerged, one dragging a handsome man along by his golden hair. When the party intervened, they were told to mind their business by one of the ruffians, and thus, battle was joined. 

At first, the ruffians had the upper hand, dealing tremendously dangerous blows with their two-handed butcher's blades. Grimm was cut down by an assailant, but the timely intervention of Tristan (and the grace of St. Othric) brought him back from death's door. Luka scurried about the roof of the carriage, firing at the ruffians as his friends wounded them with sword, axe, and glaive; one ruffian was terrified by Tristan's holy wrath and attempted to flee, but was dropped in his tracks by a difficult musket shot from Luka. Seeing that one of the ruffians was attempting to sling the blonde man onto the back of a horse to make off with him, Tarvin hamstrung the lout and then delivered the killing blow. Eventually, all the ruffians were dead in pools of their own blood.

Foes dispatched, the party could now converse with the man they had just saved from abduction. The astonishingly handsome man introduced himself as Madrigal Harpur (a nom d'artiste that immediately made some members in the party suspicious that he wasn't who he would claim to be). Madrigal told them that he was fleeing from Uriel, as the town had dashed the hopes of his life on the cruel rocks of despair. His fiancee, Tamara the town's constable, died mysteriously; Uriel's doctor claimed that a weak heart ended her life, but this didn't make sense to Madrigal as Tamara was "as strong as an ox," and was a former crusader and soldier in the prime of her life. No, Madrigal blamed Markman Hull, the proprietor of Uriel's brothel and Tamara's former lover.

Pressing Madrigal for more information, the party learned that Ezekiel works as Markman's enforcer in town, keeping the peace. Since the town's silver mining operation proved successful, Uriel had been prey to raids by bandits. Local law had proven ineffective at safeguarding the town...until Markman arrived with his band of ruffians--all of whom looked a bit like Ezekiel, though smaller and less imposing (or, perhaps, less fully formed). Madrigal also revealed that there seemed to be no end to Markman's enforcers; as soon as some died fighting off bandits (or just in regular drunken brawls) more would appear within a few days to take their places. 

Madrigal believed that the now-dead enforcers had been sent by Markman to take him back to Uriel to be tortured or killed because Markman had never gotten over being cast aside by Tamara in favor of Madrigal. (While he told his tale, Tarvin listened intently for any falsehoods, but Madrigal seemed to speak in earnest; Grimm deftly rifled the man's back to make sure his story checked out, but all he felt in his cursory search was some sort of stringed instrument and the expected personal effects.) Thanking the party profusely for rescuing him, Madrigal set off to put Uriel forever behind him.

Onward to Uriel, a ramshackle "town" surrounded by a wooden palisade. The town itself was simply a street of wooden buildings surrounded by miners' tents and rough shanties. Passing by a tavern, a general store, and the town's doctor's office, the party headed straight to the brothel, a two-story building whose windows were thickly curtained. Entering the establishment, they were greeted by the sight of a wooden stage where a prostitute danced perfunctorily, a man in the corner playing a harpsichord, a bar running the length of the opposite wall, and a scattered crowd of drinkers, card players, and whores--all overseen by a tall, muscular man with arms crossed, hat pulled down over his eyes, and tusks jutting from his lips. The party recognized their mark, and Luka recognized that this "man" was actually an orc (1).

(1) - In Krevborna, orcs aren't so much a race as a type of being that can be grown via sorcerous means. They're sometimes referred to as the "cauldron-born."

The group converged at the bar to hatch a plan to bring Ezekiel in, where they had some banter with one of the fallen women and a bartender who wanted to make sure they understood the purpose of a brothel. In the end, they favored the most direct of approaches: Luka grabbed a bottle of liquor from the bar, walked over to where Ezekiel was standing, offered him a drink, was rebuffed with a terse "Don't drink," and then Luka threw the bottle at Ezekiel's head and went for his pistols. Ezekiel proved quick on his feet; he dodged the bottle and managed to bring a meaty, iron-shod fist into Luka's ribs. Although faster than he looked, Ezekiel was soon surrounded by the party, who quickly began stabbing and shooting him like so many senators on the Ides of March.

The stabbing party was interrupted by a paunchy, middle-aged man with thinning hair, a salt and pepper mustache, and a striped waistcoat thundering down the stairs, yelling that there didn't need to be any violence under his roof. The man caught Tarvin's eye and immediately Tarvin knew that this man was his great friend. Tarvin agreed that perhaps there was no need for violence, so the melee was halted (despite a parting pistol-whip from Luka). Everyone (except Ezekiel, who slunk upstairs to lick his wounds) retired to the bar where the newcomer introduced himself as Markman Hull, proprietor of the Green Flute brothel. 

Tarvin broached the idea of giving Markman some recompense for letting them take Ezekiel into custody, but Markman wouldn't hear of it. He explained that Ezekiel was necessary and integral for his operation. He offered to show the group exactly why Ezekiel was so important, asking them to follow him down into the basement... Tarvin and Grimm followed him, but Luka and Tristan managed to slip away unnoticed.

Down in the basement, Markman unlocked a door at the end of an ale cask-filled basement, revealing a series of black iron cauldrons filled with bubbling greenish fluids from which escaped wisps of noxious vapor. Markman told Tarvin and Grimm that the inhuman Ezekiel was like a plant one could take cuttings from...and grow more orcs within the cauldrons by using a "special family recipe." The orcs were important because they were the only things so far that had proved strong enough to keep bandits from raiding the town and killing the miners. Protected miners means silver flowing into the town, which means money that could be spent at Markman's brothel. (What he didn't say is that he fed off the pleasures enacted under the roof of the Green Flute.) Without Ezekiel, he couldn't grow more enforcers to keep the peace and the town would surely die off due to the predation of bandits.

Cut to Tristan and Luka, climbing the stairs to the second floor, easily following the trail of blood left by Ezekiel. They find Ezekiel sitting on a bed, head down, clutching his wounds. Luka pulls a pistol. Ezekiel says "Had it coming," and is dispatched point-blank by the ranger, who then takes Ezekiel's head as proof to collect to the bounty.

Cut back to the basement, where Markman hears the gunshot ring out and realizes that he's let some of these interlopers out of his sight. He tries to rush back up the stairs, but Grimm attacks him. Tarvin, still believing that Markman is his great friend, grapples Grimm to stop his two best friends from fighting. While grappled, Markman bends his face to Grimm's, their lips touching...and then everything goes black for Grimm. In that twilight place between life and death, Grimm hears a woman's voice behind him, her breath hot on his neck. She says, "It doesn't have to end like this. Your friend, the master to whom you are loyal--and you are the most loyal man I have ever met--is bewitched by that creature. Without you, his chances of leaving alive are slim. Will you accept the darkness to fight on?" Grimm recognizes the voice; it is Ivara Olashenko. 

Grimm accepts the bargain, and finds that he lives and breaths once more. He breaks Tarvin's hold, and continues to battle Markman, whose arm has now transformed into a hideous, elongated claw the color of old, congealed blood. Tristan and Luka venture down the stairs, into the pitched and confusing fray. Grimm rushes Markman, throwing him to the ground; Luka sends a bullet through Markman, that ends what passes for his life. The man's body changes form, becoming a monstrous thing with a horned head and bat-like wings. His head is taken as a trophy as well.

The upstairs rooms are duly looted, with the coin, silver nuggets, and gems expertly extracted from a locked safe by Grimm. Outside, the fallen women who worked at the brothel openly wondered about who would protect them. They were joined by Dr. Robisard, the town's pipe-smoking doctor, who also wondered who would keep the bandits away from Uriel without Markman and his army of orc spawn acting as a deterrent. The characters succeeded in their goal of collecting the bounty to bolster their relationship with the White Ravens, but at what cost to the town of Uriel? Yes, they killed a fiend and his henchmen, but what if they were a necessary evil? The characters are not immune to this consideration, already plans are underway to find a relative of the Sellvek family, arm them with some hired soldiers, and set them up to usher Uriel into a new era of safety and prosperity. And maybe, if things go well, there will be a financial benefit for the Sellvek family as well. Perhaps Uriel will one day be rechristened Sellvek Heights, eh?

Returning to Chancel, Grimm finds a letter from Ivara waiting for him. It says, simply, "We should talk."

* * *

The spoils
XP - 
400 each

Treasure - 

  • 337 gp each in coin, silver nuggets, and flawed gemstones (includes bounty paid by the White Ravens)
  • The Black Resonant Bell (which will need to be identified)
  • Ezekiel's greataxe (which is a magical greataxe +1)

Inspiration - 
Tarvin has Inspiration for the best roleplay of a charm effect I've ever seen
Luka has Inspiration for single-mindedly pursuing his prey/goal
(note that you can only have one "point" of Inspiration at a time)

Other - 
Grimm rolled an 11 on the table

Renown update -

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Unforgivable Curses...of Game Mastering

In the wizarding world of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, there are three spells so vile that they are classified as Unforgivable Curses: the Imperius Curse (which takes away personal agency, reducing the victim to a puppet), the Cruciatio Curse (which tortures the victim with immense pain), and the Killing Curse (which takes the life of the victim). The use of any of those three spells is so reviled that they're a one-way ticket to the wizard prison, Azkaban. 

We can take the proscriptions against these spells as sound Game Mastering advice:

  • The Imperius Curse - At it's heart, the reason why the Imperius Curse is regarded as unforgivable is because it robs its target of their will and agency. As a Game Master, you should be careful not to rob your players of the agency to make decisions about their characters. Outside of brief effects (charm person, truth serum, fear and sanity rules), the player should be making the majority of decisions about what their characters do and how they react to the setting of the game. It's the players' job to pull their characters' strings, not yours. This goes double for putting the characters in situations where they don't have agency, can't make real decisions about the outcome of the game, and can't really affect the direction the game goes in.
  • The Cruciato Curse - You should also be careful about torturing your players. (But maybe not their characters; as a GM your job is to put the characters in tough spots and to get the players to make difficult choices about them.) How do you torture the players? Long-winded soliloquys from the game's villains, info-dumping quest givers with too much to say, setting descriptions that slow the game to a crawl, stopping play for a Talmudic study of the rule book when a question about game mechanisms comes us, etc. As a GM, you probably have more control over the pace of the game than your players do; keep things moving, and resist the temptation to bog the game down with your beautiful prose poetry, scripted NPC reactions, and desire to get the rules perfectly "right." It's fine to dwell on a particularly fine moment of play, but be conscious of the amount of player buy-in you're getting and move on when you see it fading.
  • The Killing Curse - In most games, character death is on the table to provide the utmost extremity of the tension that stems from danger. (Player death, on the other hand, is still illegal in most localities.) However, although the threat of death can create great moments of tension, that doesn't mean it's the most interesting option at your disposal as a Game Master; often, killing a character is the least interesting thing you can do to them. Instead of putting the characters in situations where death is the most obvious outcome, consider how you might put them in situations that ramp up tension by making their lives more difficult or by putting them in situations where the possible outcomes feel worse than death--and are therefore richer in drama. Endangering beloved NPCs, having the characters' goals slip away from them, injuries that are debilitating rather than fatal, cruel reversals of fortune, etc. are all useful things that complicate the players' relationship to the game and their characters' place in it, and they're also often far more interesting than the bland finality of death. That said, if they gotta die, they gotta die.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Total Skull - June 2016

Things that brought me delight in June 2016.

Maurice Level, Thirty Hours with a Corpse
(Each story in Thirty Hours with a Corpse is about five pages long and feels like the end to an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which means I loved it.)

Robert Aickman, Cold Hand in Mine
(Scott Driver was kind enough to send me this collection of short fiction by Aickman, the master of understated terror. Bonus content: here's an audio recording of Aickman's "The Same Dog.")

(I'm still in mourning over this. Bonus content: an article, "Penny Dreadful: dismembering and assembling the Victorian Gothic.")

(Wolves in the Throne Room's first album; a new strain of black metal started here.)

(A discordant funeral.)

(A 1972 Czech film, resplendent with Gothic familial strife, poisoning, and fantastic couture.)

(Five Poe tales brilliantly adapted as short animated films. Voices by luminaries such as Del Toro, Christopher Lee, Lugosi, Julian Sands, and Robert Corman.)

Fright Night (1985)
(The 1980s were the Golden Age of "vampires as metaphor for polymorphous perversity.")