Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Character Advancement in the Book Should Only Be Half the Story

When you read a core book for an rpg, you get a sense of how characters will change as they gain experience. Whether that means getting more points to spend or gaining a level, characters tend to grow in expected ways: more "hit points," bett‚er skills, maybe a‚ttribute increases, new powers, etc.

And that’s great. Game designers have tended to a do a pre‚y good job plotting out the kind of advancements and increases that players can look forward to as their characters progress in the game.

That said, I think one of the coolest things a GM can do is to personalize the game by adding additions and advancements to characters in ways that are not in the books and that are tied directly to what has happened in the game as a result of player choices.

There are a few ways that characters change and grow in "power" that aren’t connected to "leveling up": magic items or special equipment being the first thing that comes to mind. Interestingly, a lot of GMs feel free to customize magic items for their campaigns, but they don’t seem to mess with the "by the book" notions of character advancement. The closest I’ve usually seen to that is characters changed by having to roll on mutation tables.

Here are a few examples of ways characters might advance that aren’t connected to the usual "level-ups":

Things That Happen in the Down Time

  • A character has been spending time living among the recently discovered Hill Tribes -> the character learns their language and gets a bonus to know things in Hill Folk lore.
  • A character has been working in-between adventures as a rat catcher -> the character could get a bonus to saves vs. disease, a knowledge of the sewers, or the ability to charm rats.

Things That Happen Due to Exposure

  • Characters who have spent an extended period in Faerie -> their aging process has slowed unnaturally.
  • Characters who have delved into the Genesis Pits of Amon Tut -> can now sense mummies and jackal-headed men with supernatural acuity.

Things That Happen Due to Trauma
  • A character who just barely survived a vampire a‚ttack -> could develop perfect night vision as a result of a minor vampiric taint that has been passed along.
  • A character who was turned to stone by a medusa and later polymorphed back -> could get a slight bonus to AC due to their flesh retaining some stone-like resilience.

Things That Happen Due to a Boon
  • The characters do a particularly arduous task in the name of the Church -> the priests perform a ritual that gives them a permanent bonus to hit demons.
  • The characters rescue the son of the Kung-Fu Queen -> she teaches them the Golden Sparrow Technique.
Customizing your game is cool. Character development and advancement is another place where you can add custom-cool.

Monday, August 29, 2016

5e Backgrounds: Witch-Kin, Knight of St. Othric, White Raven Agent

Backgrounds are by far my favorite new thing in the fifth edition of D&D. They add a good bit of flavor and differentiation between characters without adding a ton of mechanical cruft. More importantly, it's easy to make new backgrounds that are tied to the aesthetics and themes of your homebrew campaign setting. Here's a few I've cooked up for Krevborna:

Those who were born into families of witches. This background is particularly well-suited to characters who hail from the witch-town of Hemlock. Pdf here.

Knight of St. Othric
A member of an ancient knightly order reborn to fight the undead scourge that troubles the land. Heavily-based on the Knight of the Order background. Pdf here.

White Raven Agent
A member of an organization that specializes in hunting the most dangerous game--man himself. Heavily-based on the Faction Agent background. Pdf here.

* * *

  • The witch-kin background was inspired by Joseph Delaney's The Last Apprentice books, particularly by the character of Alice. I was listening to Gehenna's "A Witch is Born" while writing it, if that helps.
  • The Knight of St. Othric background came about directly due to player action in the current campaign I'm running. The Knights of St. Othric were just a throw-away dying organization I placed in a single adventure, but player interest in them (and interest in restarting the order) meant that now the Knights are totally a thing in the setting.
  • The White Raven Agent background was inspired a bit by Bloodborne, but I also wanted a background for the faction most likely to figure into the same aims that player characters tend to follow.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Common Tongue and the Tower of Babel

I’ve seen a good deal of pontificating about alignment languages over the years on forums and blogs; seems silly to me. 

What usually gets overlooked is the glorious expediency of the concept of Common as a language spoken throughout a campaign world. As anyone who has run a globe-spanning campaign set in a historical era of our world can tell you, it is a huge pain to juggle who can understand what based on where the players are and where they’re from. The presence of a Common tongue in a game setting side-steps all of that, giving a baseline of communication that lets you get on with the game.

But where does Common come from? It seems miraculous, really, so why not give it a miraculous origin? Here’s how I explained the existence of Common in my Ulverland setting, and how I plan on explaining it in Scarabae as well:

Every civilized man and woman in the world speaks the Common tongue because of the existence of the Lexicos Spire. Long ago the Spire was erected by wise Matriarchs who performed a ritual upon it that grants the world’s denizens knowledge of a shared language. Unfortunately, this shared language has done little to end factionalism and war as the Matriarchs had hoped it might.

(Obviously inspired by the Tower of Babel.)

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Grail Tomb Beneath The Church of St. Othric

Months have passed since the party killed Edgar Bolgakof, a vampire in league with the mysterious Master. 

Due to the valor and competence the party illustrated during the attack on the execution of Imogen Olashenko, as well as the mighty deed of having slain a vampire, the Church of Saintly Blood began to show a marked interest in the rebirth of faith in St. Othric that seems centered on the group. To this end, the Church sent Artem van Hoven, a member of the Choristers, to discuss bringing the burgeoning St. Othric movement into closer partnership with the Church.

Artem, a no-nonsense man of middle years, offered money and labor to build-up the Bolgakof castle that Pen wanted to reclaim for Othric (turning it into a barracks for the training of future Knights of St. Othric), the watchtower built in Sellvek's Hollow (turning it into the hub of a proselytizing mission led by Seraphine), and the Church of St. Othric where Tristan and company saw an act of miraculous healing (clearing the caved-in entrance to the lower floors so that further mysteries of St. Othric may be discovered).

In return for such boons, the Church did insist on some degree of oversight of the reborn Knights of St. Othric to make sure that the sect is in compliance with its teachings and in no way harbors heretical practices or beliefs. The party agreed to these terms, and thus faith in St. Othric re-emerges as a bastion against the darkness once more. And it is sorely needed, as reports of the ravages of the undead and cropping up now with alarming frequency.

Luka has officially joined the reborn Knights of St. Othric. Tristan has been busy organizing the rebuilding of St. Othric's grandeur (and perhaps plotting future forays against the undead). An exploratory expedition was sent into underground level beneath the Church of St. Othric, but the vanguard reported that it was extremely cold down in the depths and the atmosphere was too unnerving for them to bear for very long. After meeting with Artem, the group decided that they would be the ones to explore what lies beneath the church. Artem explained what little he could uncover; he said that the Church of St. Othric rested on the site of a Grail Tomb--a structure build by the ancient Lamians, a civilization the predated the rise of mankind. Since part of Othric's lore was his dedication to sealing away evil beneath his holy sites, what horrors might lurk beneath the church that carries his name?

Luka and Tristan arrived at the Church of St. Othric to find a scene of bustling activity; new buildings were being erected around the church. They also found a tall, rangy man with uncanny features lounging upon the steps leading down to the church's door. After introducing himself as Kylic, and explaining that he had followed the "bones of the earth" to the Church, he offered to accompany Tristan and Luka down into the hypogean depths--he sweetened the deal by proclaiming that he had to the power to heal any wounds they might incur as they explored underneath the site.

After a quaff of ale (Luka needed to settle his head in the wake of Kylic's dazzling wordplay) and a bit of banter with one of the bandits the party had previously converted to the service of St. Othric, the trio descended into the uncovered depths via a wooden scaffold that had been built as part of the excavation. The most evident thing at the bottom of the scaffolding was the intense and unnatural cold; all three men began to shiver uncontrollably despite it being the dog days of summer above. The next thing they noticed was that the walls were covered with engravings depicting the Lamians--many of which featured grails and goblets as motifs.

Exploration happened.

Tristan kicked open a stone door, which promptly caused an explosion of necromantic energy that nearly dissolved his flesh. Kylic felt a disturbance along the skin of the world and flattened himself against a wall to avoid the blast; Luka's superior reflexes saved him.

The group discovered an inert man-like construction made of wood and iron, slumped against the wall of a chamber as if it were crying sorrowfully.

A trio of women in black lace dresses were discovered trying to open a stone door. They attacked our heroes with baleful necromancy, but were killed without mercy. The group got a key that opened some of the chambers they discovered.

They discovered two altars, one that had a carved skull atop it and another that supported an ornate mirror with a black surface. They shut the doors to those chambers without messing with either of those objects.

An ancient bedchamber was uncovered, the four-poster bed topped with golden eagles. The walls in this chamber were carved with images depicting St. Othric fighting against a dragon-like creature.
Another room was decorated with graven images that seemed to continue the story: these depicted St. Othric and a retinue of knights dragging a bound fiend up a mountain to be fed to the conquered dragon.

A shattered door opened up into a chamber littered with pulverized bones. When Kylic strode into the room and stood upon the bones, they began to rattle and vibrate, but they eventually stopped and nothing more happened. The room next door had piles of treasure--coins mixed with miscellaneous pieces of armor and weapons--scattered on the floor. The party shut this door as well, expecting a trap.

Another altar, but this one was attended by three cloaked figures praying to a glass eye upon a brass stand. Luka didn't wait for an invitation; he fired at one of them and combat began...but none of the creatures attacked the party as such. Rather they avoided the party's attacks as best they could, while simply gazing upon their foes with fiery red eyes. The mere gaze of these beings withered the flesh and shook the souls of the adventurers. Mid-combat, one of the creatures spoke to Luka, revealing a part of his past that he generally prefers to try to forget. The battle was harrowing, but the party eventually prevailed due to the curative magic provided by Kylic, whose words above about healing sundered flesh proved accurate.

After the battle, a mysterious voice reverberated throughout the chamber, saying "You have slain the last of my faithful. Who will worship me now?" In response, Luka said, "Not me" and sent the glass eyes crashing to the stone floor...which caused it to release wisps of blue haze that matched the color of the eye's iris. The voice then said, "You have served me far better than they," and then was silent.

Their resources greatly depleted and the cold quickly exhausting their vigor, Tristan, Luka, and Kylic decided to venture back to the safety of the church above and gather their strength before continuing to explore the Grail Tomb. As they climbed back up the wooden scaffolding, Kylic heard a woman's voice singing--intoning the kind of song a woman would sing while pacing a widow's walk, staring out to sea, even though she knows her love has been lost to the waves.

* * *

The Spoils
XP - 550 each

Inspiration - Kylic gets inspiration for his delightful and bewildering performance of his personality traits

Treasure - Three small books written in Abyssal, bound in black leather

Thursday, August 25, 2016


Did you know I do a podcast now with my dear friend Tenebrous Kate? Here's the pitch: "Every month (or so), Tenebrous Kate and Jack Guignol cover the weirdest, kinkiest, and most outrageous fiction they can unearth."

In this episode, Kate and Jack talk about BleakWarrior, Alistair Rennie's 2016 novel in the New Weird genre that at least one reviewer has linked to black metal. Jack provides some far more accurate (and alluring!) descriptions: "as if Soul Calibur were a porno directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky" OR "as if you got your weirdest friend drunk on cheap tequila and asked them to describe what He-Man would be like if it were dirty and a bit Shakespearean." A race of super-humans leaps through time and space in search of ultra-violent battles and super-kinky sex in this sordid tale that your hosts enjoyed far more than they should have.
The guest reader for this book is Degtyarov, founder and editor of Black Ivory Tower, a website and zine devoted to esoteric black metal and related musical genres. How black metal is this book? Do your hosts care very much? To what extremely obscure and unlikely things will they compare this novel? Will the guest reader be able to hold it together through the entire passage he's forced to read that contains all manner of abominable human behavior? Tune in to this episode of Bad Books for Bad People to find out!
Listen here!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Hangman's Daughter

If you like Warhammer, boy do I have a book recommendation for you! Definitely check out Oliver Potzsch’s The Hangman’s Daughter. While it doesn’t have orcs, elves, or griffin-riding emperors, it does have:

• An early modern setting: Bavaria, after the Thirty Years’ War.
• A less-than-heroic cast of protagonists: a hangman (ex-soldier), a physician’s apprentice, and an herbalist.
• A plot concerning murdered children whose bodies show the marks of witchcraft, which leads to the threat of a witch-hunt hysteria.
• A murderous villain with a skeletal hand.
• A dungeon crawl through some "dwarf hole" tunnels beneath what will become a leper colony.

To me, that’s "more Warhammer" than any of the official game-related novels that feature vampire protagonists or magic-laden, invincible poets.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Magic, Dragons, and Saints in Krevborna

A typical scene of adventure recruitment in Krevborna

More Krevborna setting lore 

Krevbornites react differently to feats of magic depending on the enchantment's apparent provenance. Magic that is connected to the Church's teachings or seems saintly in origin would likely be regarded with awe and reverence. Magic that appears to originate in esoteric study and occult lore will probably arouse suspicion. Magic that carries a whiff of the infernal would certainly cause panic and revulsion, and might possibly result in an angry mob forming or the intercession of the Church's witchfinders. In more rural areas, pagan folk magic often exists uncomfortably side by side with belief in the Church's saints. In Lamashtu, the vampire lords attach no stigma to the use of any form of magic; in Hemlock, witchery and deviltry is unusual, but also unsurprising.

Dragons in Krevborna are also known as the Beasts of the First Sin. Ancient texts record that mankind's first transgressions against the commandments of the gods coalesced into the form of a dragon that punished human frailty. Great sins, whether personal or communal, continue to give birth to dragons. It is debated whether dragons exist as a scourge that punishes mankind for its moral outrages or are simply the unintended consequences of man's flawed and immoral nature.

Here is a list of saints reverenced in Krevborna with a bit of lore related to them.

St. Othric
Things we know about St. Othric:

  • In life, Othric was a slayer of the undead; he was martyred by the vampires of Lamashtu for his crusades against them.
  • The holy symbol associated with St. Othric is a downward pointing greatsword.
  • There was once an order of knights dedicated to St. Othric, which had dwindled over the generations and had essentially died out when bandits killed the last of them at the Church of St. Othric. 
  • Nevertheless, the Knights of St. Othric have begun to experience a rebirth due to the actions of players in my current game. The bandits mentioned above were converted to the faith, and a number of recent converts were placed in control of a watchtower in the town of Sellvek's Hollow.
  • The Knights of St. Othric used the vaults beneath their churches and cathedrals to imprison supernatural creatures who could not otherwise be destroyed.
  • Pen Bennett's research uncovered the location of a mythical, sacred being called Volamnus the Holy Flame, who once devoured a demon on behalf of the Knights of St. Othric.
  • The skull of St. Othric possesses healing powers when used according to an ancient rite within his northern church. 

* * *

All of the above is setting information prompted by questions from current players in the campaign. Writing what is needed and filling in details as they come up is proving to be a much better method than drafting a giant setting Bible before play even begins. As always, I'm showing my work on the exam and pointing out my influences:

  • The place of magic in the setting was inspired by Innistrad and The Last Apprentice novels in about equal measure.
  • The stuff about dragons is mostly original ideas I've been hashing out forever; there is a bit of Dark Souls in the saints document. Note that the number of saints in Krevborna matches the number of clerical domains currently in 5e D&D. I could spell out which saint matches which domains, but also I don't care which domain and saint players pick for their clerics, so...
  • St. Othric started as a throw-away setting bit that was only going to factor into one adventure, but since some players took an interest in the saint he has become a part of the themes running through the campaign overall.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Worlds' End

Of course, after the momentous Brief Lives arc, the narrative of the Sandman Saga needs a pause to regroup before pushing forward--and that pause comes in the form of self-contained, single-issue stories that connect to the main plot in only minor ways. The conceit of the stories in Worlds' End is that each issue is a story told by a traveler who finds themselves stuck at the Worlds' End Inn while they wait out a "reality storm." The tales told, as well as the tellers themselves, are remarkably varied; we get a man who falls into the dreams of a city, a tale of faerie trickery, etc. Morpheus makes brief appearances in the stories, but none of the stories are really about him. 

And, at first blush, the stories don't seem to be about anything in particular. They don't connect, they don't cohere into a larger narrative moment. In a sense, they make the reader feel like they too are stuck in the Worlds' End Inn, waiting for something greater to happen.

But that feeling of suspended moments whiled away--in which stories told help us to kill time--might be the larger point in itself. What if, despite our best pretensions to the contrary, stories are only ever about passing time? What if all that muck about "expanding our point of view," "enlarging our ethical sympathies," and "coming to self-knowledge through the mirror of fiction" is all just empty justification for what we're up to when we give and receive stories? Maybe we're not making sense of the world at a fictional remove, maybe we're just watching the hour hand move round the dial at a glacial pace.

If that's what Gaiman wants us to realize, then Worlds' End is provokingly placed since it comes just before the big climax of his now epic-length series. A moment of self-doubt perhaps? (Why have I spent all this time working on this story if it has just been a distraction for the audience?) A dire warning to the reader? (This all means nothing, in the end. We're just passing the time, each and every one of us.) Toying with expectations? (I'm telling you this is a waste of time, but maybe the big stuff will start to happen and you'll have to reconsider the importance of storytelling for yourself...)

My money's on that last one.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Youtube Theatre: The Best DM Advice

Ah, Youtube, home of cat videos and the most venomous comment sections known to mankind. But, there's also some folks making decent videos with advice for their fellow DMs about running games. I don't agree with everything said in the videos posted below, but these are my picks for the most helpful videos of this sort.

Being Everything Else playlist (Adam Koebel and Steven Lumpkin. This series of videos is a good walk-through for the starting DM; they cover the basic of what a DM does, the best ways to prep for a game, how to make memorable NPCs, etc.)

Running the Game playlist (Matt Colville. Another good series for the beginning DM, especially if you're planning on playing D&D specifically; he covers expectations for your first session, how to make the starting location for your game, etc.)

Office Hours playlist (Adam Koebel. Koebel answers questions sent in by viewers; he hits a wide variety of topics from how to use cinematics in your game to how to be confident speaking in front of your players.)

Matt Mercer's DM Tips playlist (Matt Mercer. General advice, mostly with a modern D&D flavor. Covers things like how to build social encounters, and how to roll with it when your players do unexpected things.)

RPG Discussion Topics & Advice playlist (aFistfulofDice. This series is a bit scattershot, but has interesting videos on how to introduce new players to RPGs and how to be a better roleplayer.)

Hack Attack playlist (Adam Koebel and Steven Lumpkin. This series is all about how to hack an existing game to get the experience you want out of it. This is based in real-world application, as you get to watch them hack 5e D&D, Shadowrun, and Star Wars for their Rollplay shows on Twitch.)

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Slang in Scarabae

Is bespoke slang for a setting annoying? I've definitely seen people complain about it in Planescape, and a bit in Shadowrun as well. Nevertheless, I'd like to think that a little slang could go a long way toward establishing aesthetics and tone--if you don't let it become overbearing, it doesn't obscure meaning, and doesn't become a barrier to entry. 

Or I could be entirely wrong. But I'm willing to see where this takes me; here's a slice of what you might hear on the streets of Scarabae, most of which has been adapted from real-world Victorian slang:

Adam/Eve – a naive person, a rube
Bite o' Pie – an attractive person
Bobbin – money, especially ill-gotten lucre
Buttoner – a thief-taker or bounty hunter
Crossed-Off – dead, deceased
Crypt Kicker – an adventurer
Don't Sell Me a Sausage – don't lie to me
Get the Stitch – to be patched up by an illicit doctor or healer
Give Them the Brick – to approach fearlessly
Gone Grave Digging – to be melancholic
It's Enough to Make the Taxidermy Laugh – something preposterous
Mammoth – an important person
Name Level – when a crypt kicker's fame is great enough that they are infamous in the city and their name is well known
Pigeon Chaser – an easily-fleeced idiot
A Real Rumchug – a bad situation
The Slosh – rumors, circulating gossip
Squeal Stick/Squealer – a weapon
Tiddlywags – dandies, wealthy wastrels
Tattletrap – mouth
They've Had Their Afternoon Tea – a well- informed person
Tossed to the Rats – drunk or intoxicated
Wormwood Licker – a crazy person

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Autothysis Trap

Wikipedia has this to say on the subject of autothysis: 

Autothysis (from the Greek roots autos- αὐτός "self" and thysia θυσία "sacrifice") is the process where an animal destroys itself via an internal rupturing or explosion of an organ which ruptures the skin. The term was proposed by Maschwitz and Maschwitz in 1974 to describe the defensive mechanism of the carpenter ant (Camponotus saundersi). It is caused by a contraction of muscles around a large gland that leads to the gland wall breaking. Some termites (such as the soldiers of Globitermes sulphureus) release a sticky secretion by rupturing a gland near the skin of their neck, producing a tar baby effect in defense against ants. It is a form of suicidal altruism.

D&D tells us that there are a lot of giant versions of bugs around. Some of these bugs must be capable of autothysis.

We can make a trap out of this.

A clan of Krevbornite witches might keep giant termites chained up in their dungeons as a kind of biological defense system. 
Anyone who doesn’t smell of witchery who approaches one of these termites (or tries to pass by one to get down a corridor) sets it off; it ruptures into sticky goo that roots the hapless adventurer to the spot (saving throw pending, of course).

Perhaps the witches assume they will discover any adventurers held in this way in due time and use them as sacrifices to dark powers. Perhaps once an adventurer is stuck in place a secondary effect is triggered: descending ceiling spikes are a favorite, as are a flood of hungry fire ants unleashed in the vicinity.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Life and Religion in Krevborna

Daily Life in Krevborna
The average denizen of Krevborna lives a life of quiet desperation, oppressed by the knowledge that an unfathomable darkness haunts their land and endangers their lives. Most Krevbornites go about their lives stoically and pragmatically; they work hard, protect their own, and take what joys they can before the coming of night. Some break down under the constant reminders that theirs is a land of horrors and terrors, and give in to lunacy, barbarism, or worse.

Once a land ruled by a hereditary nobility, Krevborna is a now without centralized authority. The Church of Saintly Blood holds sway in many areas—especially Chancel and Piskaro—but it is a highly factional organization that has difficulty managing secular matters. The people of Hemlock have turned to witches for protection and insurance against bad harvests. Lamashtuans live under the thumb of vampire masters who demand blood-tithes in return for what little prosperity they are allowed. Some domains remain under the control of feudal nobility.

Religion in Krevborna
It is believed that the gods once reverenced throughout Krevborna have withdrawn their influence. Some say that the gods abandoned mankind to its dark fate due to unforgivable transgressions. Others believe that the gods retreated after they were betrayed by the rebellious angels who became the demons and devils. Some even claim that the gods were killed and consumed by cosmic forces of darkness.

The Blood of Saints
Although the apparent absence of the gods is felt keenly, divinity still maintains a foothold in Krevborna through the legacy of the Church's saints. Those of holy blood transmit their sanctity down through the generations; men and women who evidence a touch of the divine spark are regarded as heirs to the saints and their blood is viewed as sacred. The rites of absolution and healing practiced by the Church of Saintly Blood involve imbibing the blood of these saints—often mixed with the mundane blood offerings of the faithful—or blood baptisms given in ancient fonts.

Heathens and Apostates
Some folk have turned to the worship of fae spirits, demons, devils, and other powerful entities in place of revering the saintly blood. The Church regards these people as heathens and pagans to be converted or exterminated.

The Dual Nature of Evil
For most Krevbornites the words “demon” and “devil” are interchangeable, but these beings represent distinct figurations of supernatural evil. The angels who rebelled against the gods wore cleaved in twain by the loyal archangels; the spirits of the fallen angels became devils and their bodies became demons. As such, they crave wholeness but are doomed to opposition against each other—thus does evil forever war against itself. True to their nature, devils tempt mortals to commit spiritual transgressions, and their agents are wraiths and specters. Demons tempt mortals to commit bodily sins, and their agents are physical monstrosities such as vampires, ghouls, and werewolves.

* * *


The above items are all stuff that has either been kicking around in my head about Krevborna that I hadn't written down yet or stuff that players have asked me about recently. Here are the influences that went into these bits of world-building:

  • The bits about daily life and the lack of central authority was inspired in equal parts by Ravenloft and Innistrad.
  • The religious lore was definitely informed by Bloodborne, and there's a touch of Innistrad in there as well. The stuff about pagans and apostasy was lightly-flavored by the Last Apprentice books.
  • The dual nature of evil regarding demons and devils was inspired by Penny Dreadful's twinned protagonists--the devil wants Vanessa Ive's soul, while Dracula wants her body in a far more literal sense.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Assault on Bolgakof Castle

Tobias, Tristan, Luka, and Pen were joined by Anton Sellvek as they looked upon the fortress of Edgar Bolgakof, a vampire belonging to the family responsible for the death of Tristan's parents. Malphas, Tobias's imp familiar, scouted the great hall beyond the iron bars of the portcullis, looking for stairs descending into the depths of the fortress. When Malphas reached the only visible door in the hall, the fungus-encrusted corpses seated at the feasting table rose, their heads turning toward the familiar. Malphas was quickly recalled, and the fungi-infected undead resumed their seats.

Deciding upon a more direct approach, Pen broke a window and clambered into the great hall. Once inside, Pen pulled the lever that raised the portcullis; the party took up their positions, and fired upon the monstrosities seated before them--taking one down instantly as it sat inert. The others rose and began approaching the party in response--save one who moved to the back of the room. The shambling horrors were dispatched one by one, but though Pen attempted to grapple the lone creature that was moving away from the melee it managed to reach the back of the hall and began pounding upon the bricks. After the brief battle, it was discovered that the creature had been hitting a specific brick that was a cunningly-disguised trigger of some sort.

The party regrouped and decided to open the door on the western wall...revealing three bone-pale, shaven headed creatures dressed in servants' garb, their long black tongues lolling wildly from mouths lined with sharp fangs. The battle that ensued was harder fought than the previous one in the great hall, but again the heroes were triumphant. Once the dust settled, they searched the room. An iron stove sat in one corner, shelves of dusty spices and seasoning lined the walls, and a wooden table occupied the center of the room--above which hung a number of pots and pans. The room also had three unexplored doors and a set of stone stairs leading upward to the next level of the castle.

They took the stairs, entering a room that held two large locked metal cages. One cage held a bald elderly man, slumped and broken; the other held a teenage girl with dark, unkempt hair who rushed wide-eyed to the bars of her cell when she spotted the entering party. Pen attempted to wrest one of the cage's doors from its hinges, but the metal loudly protested against his abuse and held fast. Anton nonchalantly proceeded to pick the locks, releasing both prisoners. Attempts were made to revive the old man, when suddenly the door that Pen had been watching swung open--more of the black-tongued servants of Edgar Bolgakof stormed into the room. Battle was once again joined, but this time a few members of the party sustained substantial injuries before besting their foes.

Tomas, the revived old man, told the group that he had been kept by the ghoulish residents of the castle as Edgar Bolgakof's nightly meal; Cassie, the teenage prisoner, feared that she was to be the vampire's next meal once Tomas was bled dry. The party decided to safeguard Tomas and Cassie by having them wait outside by the carriage while they took a short rest in the castle's main hall to lick their wounds. However, on the way to the great hall they discovered a trapdoor in the floor of the kitchen--now open. Stairs descended from the open hatch down into the depths of the castle.

After their respite, the party ventured down the stairs and discovered the vampire's crypt at the end of a winding passage carved from stone. The room was lit by a number of flickering candelabra, and a black coffin, its lid thrown open and its interior lined with soil, was ominously placed in the center of the chamber. A small alcove to the side had been outfitted with a metal bar--from which hung a number of articles of finery in velvet and other costly materials.

Pen sprinkled holy water upon the soil within the vampire's coffin, while Tristan set to work destroying the vampire's wardrobe (!!!). While hacking away at Edgar Bolgakof's collection of clothing, it was found that the alcove expanded behind the rack of finery, revealing three stone coffers holding the vampire's personal treasury and a number of curious items. It was then decided that merely defiling Bolgakof's coffin was not good enough; it was carried outside to the castle's moat and unceremonious chucked into the cloudy green mire.

Searching the rest of the doors leading from the kitchen uncovered a larder containing rough food to feed the vampire's captives, a "nest" of sorts used by his ghoulish servants, and a passage that led to the spire behind the castle. The first room of the circular spire was found to contain a number of partial corpses hanging from meat hooks, and a number of small tables upon which were piled hideous clumps of garish fungal matter. The second floor was lined with glass cases apparently meant for the growing of the fungi used in the construction of Bolgakof's undead servitors, and the third floor contained shelves of strange chemicals in glass jars. 

The third floor of the tower also featured a door that opened out onto a narrow stone bridge that connected the upper level of the spire to the balcony above the main hall of the castle. Standing at the stone rail of the balcony was Edgar Bolgakof, his back turned to the party. He gestured to the peasants waiting by the group's carriage and said, "You seem to have stolen my dinner." Pen and Tristan moved forward to attack him, while Bolgakof rushed toward them with supernatural speed. 

The party barraged him with halberd thrusts, sword cuts, pistol shots, magical blasts, and arrows--but the vampire seemed to heal rapidly from the wounds they were inflicted. Bolgakof also became more and more enraged as the battle wore on, clenching his fist so hard that his own claws bit into his flesh and drew blood. His attacks grew wilder and more ferocious, but his defense became lax. He grabbed Tristan and attempted to drain his life as he had his parents, but the paladin managed to break free from the monster's grasp. Ultimately, a dangerous spell from Tobias caused the fiend's heart to implode while his body rapidly disintegrated into the dust of the grave.

The remaining rooms of the castle were searched, uncovering a portrait gallery of painting of similarly-blonde vampires belonging to the Bolgakof family, as well as a defaced portrait of Countess Alcesta of Lamashtu. Bolgakof's library was also located; it contained a number of books hand-written by members of the vampire family detailing the history of their kind--a veritable treasure trove of information for those who would hunt them.

After this tumultuous trek into a ruin of undeath, Pen decided that the life of an adventurer was not his calling; instead, he would reclaim Bolgakof's fortress and turn into into a sacred site from which to continuing building upon the rebirth of interest in St. Othric.

And so, the scene ends with Tristan seated in a room decorated with the portraits of the vampires responsible for his family's demise, plotting which will be the next to face his holy vengeance.

* * *

The Spoils
- 900 each.

- 639 gp each (in assorted copper, silver, gold, and platinum)
- A red pearl in velvet-lined box (Pearl of Power)
- A scroll of Crown of Madness in a lacquered wooden case
- An iron pendant shaped like a droplet of water (Necklace of Adaptation)
- 10 black iron masks chased with silver (worth 25 gp each)
- A library's worth of books about vampire history and bloodlines (do you let your recent acquaintance in the Sacred Butchers know about this library?)
- 13 oil paintings of vampires of the Bolgakof family (value depends greatly on who you find to buy them, if you can find a buyer)

- Tristan definitely gets inspiration for single-mindedly hunting down Edgar Bolgakof.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Faces in the Sacrificial Rose Clouds

Blood Ceremony - Rogue's Lot † Purson - Electric Landlady † Hexvessel - Drugged Up on the Universe † The Devil's Blood - Christ or Cocaine † Sabbath Assembly - Hymn of Consecration † Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats - Melody Lane † Mount Salem - The End † Jess and the Ancient Ones - Equinox Death Trip

* * *

The Howling Void - Where Once a River Flowed † When Nothing Remains - A Lake of Frozen Tears † My Dying Bride - A Pale Shroud of Longing † A Dream of Poe - The Isle of Cinder † Isa - Night-Day-Night † Fuath - In the Halls of the Hunter † Summoning - The Mountain King's Return † Lychgate - Against the Paradoxical Guild

* * *

Patrick Doyle - To Think of a Story † Oscar Araujo - Castle Hall † Trevor Jones - Whitechapel Murders † Danny Elfman - The Funeral † Wojciech Killas - Vampire Hunters † Motoi Sakuraba - Nashandra † Abel Korzeniowski - Mother of Evil † Ryan Amon - Queen of the Vile Bloods

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Just Use Bears

So, the characters in your old-school D&D game go somewhere you haven’t yet prepared and you describe some cool, weird-ass monster that you don’t actually have stats for: "At the bottom of the Bone Pit of the Succulent Orb a vast form rises from the sinkhole; its reptilian body glistens with antediluvian slime and its pteroid jaw opens, revealing rows of serrated fangs in what appears to be a most unholy welcome." In situations likes these, I just use the stats for a bear and no one is the wiser. Re-skin appearance, methods of attack, and add special abilities on the fly if you absolutely must...but when in doubt, just use bears.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Fun Facts About Ranged Attacks in 5e D&D

I've sat down and figured out how some obscure rules regarding how ranged attacks work; I'm posting this here so I can refer to it later when making rulings in-game, but maybe it will have some use for other DMs and players out there.

1) You can't use two-weapon fighting with ranged weapons. The rules for two-weapon fighting are for melee weapons only (PHB 195).

2) You can, however, throw two weapons with two-weapon fighting. Since thrown weapons still count as melee weapons (PHB 195). Note that the weapon in question seems to require both the light and thrown properties, limiting your choices to daggers, handaxes, and light hammers.

3) The Crossbow Expert feat lets you fire two loaded hand crossbows, but only for one round. You can use your Attack action to fire the first hand crossbow (since it is a one-handed weapon) and your bonus action to fire the other hand crossbow (since it is specifically a loaded hand crossbow as required by the feat).

4) However, you can't fire two hand crossbows round after round. Since hand crossbows have the ammunition property, you need a free hand to reload your hand crossbows, which you can't do while holding two weapons. If you fire two hand crossbows, on the next round you need to use your free object interaction to stow one hand crossbow, freeing up a hand to load and fire the other hand crossbow (PHB 146).

5) And yet, if you want to fire the same hand crossbow multiple times the Crossbow Expert feat basically gives you a bonus attack per turn. According to the Sage Advice ruling, at least--which honestly doesn't seem to support a rules-as-intended reading (SA).

6) You can only draw or stow one weapon on your turn (PHB 190). If you have the Duel Wielder feat you can draw or stow two weapons on your turn (PHB 165).

7) If you gain the Extra Attack feature, you can't use it with crossbows (unless you also have the Crossbow Expert feat) or black powder firearms due to the loading property of those weapons (PHB 147). You can fire multiple arrows from a longbow in a round as bows do not have the loading property, but cannot fire multiple bolts from a crossbow during a round--unless you have the aforementioned feat.

8) Firing at enemies in melee range gives you disadvantage on the attack (PHB 195). This applies to ranged attack spells as well. However, the Crossbow Expert feat negates disadvantage on attacking in melee range. The feat also negates disadvantage for spell attacks, oddly enough.

9) Firing at enemies engaged in melee or with friends whose bodies give it cover means that the enemy gets +2 to its Armor Class (PHB 196). The Sharpshooter feat negates that bonus for weapon attacks, the Spell Sniper feat negates it for ranged spell attacks.

10) As near as I can tell, there is no way to hit a friend when firing into a melee.

11) You don't get your proficiency bonus when attacking with alchemist's fire, holy water, or oil. Both are treated as improvised weapons used to make a ranged attack, so you get your Dex modifier to the d20 attack roll, but do not get your proficiency bonus added to the roll (PHB 147, 148, 151, 152). However, the Tavern Brawler feat gives you proficiency with improvised weapons, which would mean you can throw the above items at full proficiency (PHB 170). Although it isn't spelled out in explicit terms, it looks like you also don't get your proficiency bonus when attacking with a torch as a melee weapon.

12) The Archery fighting style does not give you a bonus to ranged attacks with thrown weapons. Since thrown weapons are still melee weapons, the bonus from the Archery fighting style doesn't apply to them (PHB 72).

13) You can't choose to knock a foe unconscious instead of killing them when you drop their hit points to zero with a ranged weapon. Only a melee attack can be used to knock a foe unconscious (PHB 198). Thus, you cannot knock an opponent out with a thrown rock or a sling stone. And you definitely can't use a ranged spell attack to knock someone unconscious.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

The Bloodbath at the Gallows

Pen Bennett, Tobias Rune, Tristan of St. Othric, and Luka Lilithian answered the Church of Saintly Blood's call for extra security during the execution of Imogen Olashenko--the witch they captured and turned over to the Church's authority last session. The execution was scheduled to take place in a cul-de-sac at the end of a street lined with houses and businesses; a gallows had been hastily erected within the cul-de-sac. The characters were instructed to look out for anything "unusual" and to provide crowd control if necessary. Imogen stood manacled upon the gallows' platform, awaiting her demise as a priest read out the details of her conviction. The characters milled about the expectant crowd, on watch for anything that would require their attention.

The enclosed cul-de-sac provided a good deal of security from the execution being interrupted by a threat coming from the crowd, but it didn't provide much in the way of defense from an airborne assault. The sky began to darken, and then piercing screams were heard; a number of witches astride broomsticks, goats, and massive hogs descended from sky to rescue Imogen from the noose. At the sight of the witches, the crowd panicked and people began to flea the cul-de-sac. Which, of course, posed a problem for Pen, Tristan, andTobias--they wanted to make sure the execution proceeded as planned, but they would have to make their way through a stampede of frightened citizens to reach the gallows.

Pen used his shield like a plow to rush his way through the crowd; Tristan parted the crowd by invoking the authority of St. Othric; Tobias used his magic to move through the fray and take shots at the witches on the gallow's platform. (Luka was stationed on a rooftop above the chaos.) On the platform the witches were engaging the templars acting as guards in a bloody conflict to rescue Imogen. Tobias, Tristan, and Pen continued to work their way toward the gallows. An eerie black shadow began to seep from the ground around the gallows; from this writhing, shadowy emanation stepped a number of man-like things covered in garish, fungal protuberances. The fungal men staggered forward to grab Imogen and drag her back into the shadows from whence they came.

Pen, Tristan, and Tobias reached the platform. Pen and Tristan charged the gallows while Tobias turned his dire magic on the witches from below the platform. Pen attempted to pull Imogen away from the fungal men; he could not wrest her from their grasp, but he did engage in a bit of tug-of-war with the condemned's body. Ignoring the other foes on the gallows, Tristan speared Imogen through the midsection, making certain that she would not escape the grave this day. At first, the group assumed that the fungal men were allied with the witches, but as they began to engage with templar and witch alike it became clear that they were pawns of a third party.

The fungal men pummeled Pen with their fists, angered perhaps by the damage he was causing them. Luka took musket shots at the creatures attacking his friends on the gallows. Another figure appeared from the encircling shadows, a tall, thin, aristocratic figure dressed in old-fashioned finery. Tristan recognized this newcomer instantly; it was Edgar Bolgakof, one of the vampire clan who had killed Tristan's family. Strangely, Bolgakof's lip curled in malicious recognition, even though Tristan was a mere child when his family was slain by the Bolgakofs. Pen attacked Bolgakof, embedding his sword in the torso of the monster. Tristan kept the hated monster from retreating with harrying halberd attacks. Eventually, Edgar was able to slip away from Tristan and retreat into the writhing shadows with his remaining minions. The shadows receded, leaving the party on a gallows crowded with fungal-covered corpses, dead witches, and injured warriors of the Church.

The sun still shown in the wake of the shadow-magic, but strangely it seemed dimmer now, as if a veil had been drawn over its luminescence. In the days that followed, the sun remained inexplicably diminished in strength. 

After reconvening in the basement of their church, the characters decided to cast a wide net for further information to guide their next move.

  • Tobias met with Ivara a few times. She told him that the attack they thwarted was due to her mother's coven sending witches to rescue Imogen from the clutches of the Church. She also told him that Bolgakof has likely attempted to abduct Imogen to use as a hostage to keep the coven from opposing the vampire lord--known only as "the Master"--that Bolgakof serves. The Master is, of course, the "darkness coming to Krevborna" that Ivara has been working to thwart. She provided Tobias with a map to Bolgakof's fortress when informed that Tristan has designs on killing him. She also mentioned that she could arrange a meeting with her mother if the party wanted to form an alliance with the witches.
  • Pen kept an ear to the ground within the Church itself, fearing that there is some sort of nefarious connection between Bolgakof (or his Master) and a plot within Church. He only heard idle talk about how horrifying the incursion of supernatural forces in Chancel was deemed to be.
  • Luka found his mentor Horace drinking a disgusting-looking hangover cure and pressed him for information about vampire slaying. Horace stressed that not all vampires are of equal strength; those from weak bloodlines can be bested by a group of skilled adventurers who are prepared for the hunt.
  • Tristan made a new contact, Arleth Latunsky, a member of the Sacred Butchers--a specialized branch of the Church of Saintly Blood that is devoted to the extermination of the undead. Latunsky, an older man who now drills young recruits in martial matters, told Tristan that the Bolgakof vampires have one great weakness: they were prone to anger and when enraged were liable to fight with abandon and disregard for their own safety.

The group then decided it was wisest to pursue at least a truce with the witches before moving against Bolgakof. Pen found an ancient cemetery to serve as the neutral ground for their midnight meeting. Atop a hill, flickering lanterns placed to give them some light among the tombstones, the group spied a woman in a satin gown, smoking a cigarette from a carved holder, winding her way toward them in the darkness. She introduced herself as Nadine Olashenko, and told them she admired the steel of their spines for choosing to meet with her in such a desolate and moribund location. She quickly dispelled the fear that she might bear them animosity for the death of her daughter; she explained that she had many daughters, and to lose less essential ones was but the price of war against the invasion of the foreign Master. She was willing to consider the group allies, especially when they expressed interest in tracking Edgar Bolgakof to his lair. She told them that the use of holy power could at least momentarily halt the vampire's supernatural ability to heal himself, and wished them happy hunting.

Before departing to find Bolgakof's fortress, the group bought pistols, holy water, and a boat to strap to the roof of their carriage. They arrived at the silent fortress without incident. Tobias used his fiendish familiar to scout the outside of the fortress. Beyond the portcullis behind the drawbridge, the familiar could see a long dining table, at which was seated four fungal corpses sitting in absolute stillness. A glance in the windows of the tower revealed a workroom filled with piles of strange fungal matter and a dismembered corpse hanging from a hook on the first floor, a fungal greenhouse on the second, and an observatory of sorts on the third. Several blackened windows prevented further spying.

And there they stand, considering their options for how best to tackle the vampire's castle.

* * *

The Spoils

XP - 375 for Pen, Tristan, and Tobias. 175 for Luka (didn't arrive until after the big crowd panic)

Inspiration - everyone gained Inspiration during the big discussion of what to do next: ideals, flaws, bonds, etc. were all in motion for sure.