Friday, September 30, 2016


I've got adventures involving spooky kids in a monstrous, Gorey-esque setting on the brain again. I blame it on the Miss Peregrine movie that just came out, reading David Mitchell's Slade House, watching the Harry Potter movies with my girlfriend, and getting my hands on Kim Newman's The Secrets of Drearcliffe Grange School

I've always wanted to do something with magical kids learning their spellcraft in a Gothic Hoggwarts, a sort of Harry Potter-but-Dumbledore-is-actually-Satan thing.

What better setting to do that in than the mythical Scholomance?

Here's the set-up I cobbled together while drinking my morning tea & brimstone:

Books: Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book and Coraline; Edward Gorey, everything; Kim Newman, The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School; Ransom Riggs, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children; Lemony Snicket, A Series of Unfortunate Events series
Films: Dario Argento, Suspiria; Robert Eggers, The Witch; Andrew Fleming, The Craft
Comics: The Books of Magic, Ragemoor

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Sauron, The Great Old One


I've never really looked at the Elder Sign from H. P. Lovecraft's mythos very closely before...

...oh crap, Sauron was a Great Old One all along.

No wonder it took him so long to reappear on Middle-earth after Isildur vanquished him–the stars weren’t right.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Fun Facts About Spell Components and Spells Per Turn in 5e D&D

More figuring things out for myself and posting it here so I can refer to it later.

Somatic Components
  • A spell that requires a somatic component can only be cast if you have a free hand (PHB 203).
  • You can cast a spell with a somatic component while wielding a two-handed weapon because a two-handed weapon only requires one hand to hold it, leaving you with one free hand. (Weapons with the Two-Handed property only require two hands when you attack with them, PHB 147.)
  • If you are wielding items in both hands (such as two-weapon fighting or wielding a sword and shield) you can stow one item for free and then cast a spell with a somatic component because you now have one free hand (PHB 190). On your next turn you could draw the weapon for free and attack with it.
  • You can't stow an item as part of a reaction, so spells that are cast as reaction and require somatic components can only be cast if you have a free hand. (Shield is a particularly troublesome spell in that regard.)
  • The War Caster feat allows you to cast spells requiring somatic components when you are holding weapons or a shield (PHB 170).

Somatic and Material Components
  • If a spell requires both a somatic and material component, your free hand can be used for both (SA).
  • Clerics and paladins can inscribe their holy symbols (their spell foci) onto a shield and use the shield hand for both somatic and material components (PHB 151).
  • However, if a spell requires only a somatic component (and no material component) and you are holding a spell focus in one hand and another object in the other, you need to stow one of them to be able to cast the spell (SA).

Spells Per Turn
  • If you cast a spell as a bonus action, you can also cast a cantrip with a casting time of 1 action on your turn (PHB 202).
  • If you have access to the fighter's Action Surge ability, you can cast multiple spells that require 1 action to cast. However, if you cast a spell as a bonus action, the spells you cast with your Action Surge actions must be cantrips (SA).

Monday, September 26, 2016

Gravedigger, Sawbones, Inventor, Demimondaine, Ratcatcher, Beggar

Gravedigger, Sawbones, Inventor, Demimondaine, Ratcatcher, Beggar--a fucked-up version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy?


I've written a six-pack of quick-and-dirty 5e backgrounds that are usable as-is. Someday I will probably flesh them out with their own tables of Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws, but for now I'd rather have these options available for my games and polish them later on down the road. 

The pdf below has details on my gravedigger, sawbones, inventor, demimondaine, ratcatcher, and beggar backgrounds. Most of them are pretty specific in application, but the demimondaine could be used for any level of prostitute, from courtesan to three-penny upright or rent boy. You could roll on Random Harlot Table in the AD&D DMG to find out if you have an aged madame or saucy tart on your hands, if that tickles your fancy. Similarly, the sawbones is a solid basis for any sort of doctor, country healer, nurse, or combat medic you might want to make--but Gary never got around to making a random table for that.

PDF here.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

A Tale of Two Fraudulent Spiritualists

No Krevborna play report this week due to scheduling issues and technological failures. Instead, here's a play report from many years ago that I've been thinking about because it has some elements I want to incorporate into a future Krevborna campaign.

Only two players could make it to the game: perfect time to do a one-shot. We rolled up a couple new characters, and played to see what would happen. 

I had them roll to see what horrible thing their characters' did before they became "adventurers." Both players rolled the same result, which indicated that both characters were charlatans. Their background: "You once worked as an exorcist; however, you had no especial skill or ability to banish demonic presences. In fact, while most of your cases involved people who were mentally disturbed, your last involved a young woman who slew her family while possessed by a particularly vicious devil—you were powerless to stop her. If your secret is ever found out you will be hounded as a fraud and perhaps confronted by church officials." 

As a group, we decided that both characters were failed "spiritualists." The two characters (one fighter, one rogue) worked as a team of exorcists, even though both were complete frauds. 

Of course, the job these two former charlatans got sent on related to the family they ripped off and exploited: they were to infiltrate the house where they failed to exorcise an entity from the youngest daughter of the family and retrieve a rare book that the family had stolen from an occult bookshop.

What these two low-lifes don’t know is that after the events of the failed exorcism, the family took the attitude of "If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em" and began to do the bidding of the presence inhabiting their daughter's body. They've had their agents steal the grimoire because the thing wants to open a gate to bring the rest of his foul cohort into the world.

Things...went badly. Botched plans, bad rolls, and chance encounters within the house led to a moment where one character (the fighter) was suspended above a pit of acidic ooze and was holding on to the thief's hand for dear life...and then he failed his roll to climb back up from the trap he'd sprung. The thief watched in horror as his friend and fellow cheat was dissolved. Unfortunately, the fighter’s death screams brought the rest of the family/cult running. The remaining character now surrounded by a circle of knife-wielding cultists, we closed the curtains on this sad scene.

Total party kill. The players loved it.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Image of the Beast and Blown

Kate and Jack discuss Image of the Beast and its sequel Blown by Philip José Farmer. Released in 1968 and 1969 by adult science fiction publisher Essex House, Kate describes these ultra-explicit, super-bizarre novels as "like the monster mash version of Georges Bataille's Story of the Eye." But that's only part of the picture as we follow private detective Herald Childe on his journey into a world of monsters, ritual murder, and warring horror memorabilia collectors.
 The guest reader is man of mystery Baron XIII, who has the distinction of being Kate's most frequently punched-in-the-head friend. Baron XIII reveals his seven-day drawing challenge in exchange for reading one of the most extreme passages from these books.
Are these books sexy? Will we learn anything about Philip José Farmer's sexual preferences? What lives in that one character's nether regions?  What does Lord Byron have to do with all of this? Tune in to this episode of Bad Books for Bad People to find out!
Listen here!

We're also now on iTunes and Google Play.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Grand Guignol, Reading Like a Victorian, Fascist Building

My dear friend and co-conspirator Tenebrous Kate has a great piece on the recently-reissued Theatre of Fear and Horror: The Grisly Spectacle of the Grand Guignol of Paris and an interview with the book's author, Mel Gordon. The book and the interview are must-reads. (by Tenebrous Kate for Heathen Harvest)

Want to read Victorian novels as they were originally read? This site does the heavy-lifting to give you the full Victorian experience: A Way to Read 19th-Century Novels Serially and in Their Cultural Contexts.

The Fascist Building in Upper Manhattan. (by Caroline Wazer for Atlas Obscura.)

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

How to Make Characters in Modern D&D for Old-School Players

I’ve seen a lot of old-school gamers complain that making a Pathfinder or 3e D&D or 4e D&D or 5e D&D character is too hard or requires too much work compared to old-school editions. They’d rather not have to make all those decisions about feats, skills, powers, etc. or even buy in to the system mastery needed to know what the good choices are; it would be better if you just got set things each level like in the earlier editions.

I can sympathize with that, to a degree. I don’t want to read 20 pages of feats either to pick out which one my 1st level character gets either. But then again, this is 2016 and the internet has already done the heavy lifting for you.

I’m here to help.

Let me show you how.

As you can see, if you do a search for just about any Pathfinder or 3e or 4e or 5e character class + "builds" or "guide" you will get a highly-detailed guide on how to make such a character. Just treat the "build" as a class where what you get is spelled out in advance each level. When you hit level 2, don’t worry about reading through all the feats to pick a good one–just go with the one spelled-out in the build document. The people who write those treat it like it’s a calling, so you aren’t likely to get burned.

Letting the internet make all the choices for you takes all the work out of it; now you can get on to the part you presumably like: killing goblins and collecting loot. Or maybe role-playing a character. Whatever you’re into.

My point is this: Pathfinder or 3e or 4e or 5e might not be your favorite editions, hell, you might even hate them, but if you get a chance to play with some cool people don’t let "It will be a drag to make a character" or "This edition isn’t my favorite one" be the things that stop you. That goes double for "Well, I only like playing D&D."

Personally, I’d rather play with people who are cool using a system that isn’t my favorite than with a system that I prefer and people who are terrible. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Final Projector

I accepted a challenge to watch the movie version of Wild Wild West and come up with something gameable from it. So, I bring to you a new piece of equipment that would be right at home in my Scarabae setting: the final projector.

As it turns out, the commonly-held belief that the last image a person sees is burned onto their retina as they die is true. The final projector can be used to unlock that last image: it is a device that bores a hole into the back of a deceased person’s head and shines a light through their eyes, which projects the last image they saw onto a prepared screen.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Occult Activity Book, Volume 2

The Occult Activity Book, vol. 2 is now available for preorder from Munich Art Studio. I contributed some writing to this, but trust me when I tell you that it is going to be full of absolutely amazing art and fun ways to idle away the hours until the midnight bell tolls.

The first volume sold out almost instantly, so don't be left out! Preorder here.

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Dove of Eisengraz

Anton Sellvek, who had come into a bit of coin as a consequence of having helped slay a vampire in his lair, did not accompany his compatriots on their journey to explore the under-levels of the Church of St. Othric. Instead, he opted to make a splash in the city of Chancel and grow his reputation as a man about town. 

One night while gambling among the upper-crust, he was approached by an attractive, middle-aged woman with red hair. The woman introduced herself as Mirella and thanked him profusely for paying for her treatment at an asylum. Unfortunately, Anton was positive that he had never seen this woman before and he certainly hadn't paid for anyone's stay in a madhouse.

Sellvek asked the woman to accompany him to the inn where he and his friends have been staying. None of them remembered her either, but she effusively thanked Anton for his kindness in using a large sum of his own money to pay for the rehabilitation of a perfect stranger. 

When questioned, she remarked that she had been under the care of Dr. Victor Velken, and that she felt indebted to Anton because it was unlikely that she would ever be able to fully pay him back for his charity. As the night wore on, she excused herself--she left her address with Anton should she ever be able to do him a service--and the group agreed that this mystery was worth looking into.

Two of the assembled party were feeling the ill effects of the curse brought upon them by a fiend encountered in the Grail Tomb beneath the Church of St. Othric. The black taint of Luka and Kylic's wounds was beginning to spread spider vein-like tendrils across their skin. Worse, similar tendrils of black began to seep in from the edges of their vision, as if a darkness was threatening to engulf them. That night, Tobias used the skull of Iokanaan to summon the shade of the wizard from across the astral veil; he asked the shrewd necromancer if there was a cure for the curse afflicting his friends. Iokanaan replied that they could travel to the village of Eisengraz, and seek one called Celestine the Dove. She could lift the curse.

Eisengraz was a village condemned to the fire, burnt to the ground for some unforgivable act of heresy. But some things die hard in Krevborna; it was known that despite the passage of time, the smoking remains of the village persisted. It had been utterly reduced to rubble before, yet some buildings that had been destroyed always seemed to come back. The wreckage still bore the marks of the fire that consumed the village, still smoking and reeking of immolation.

Before the group set out for Eisengraz they went to visit Dr. Velken to unravel the mystery of the red-headed woman. Victor Velken turned out to be a rather young, and wild-eyed man--overly enthusiastic and vainglorious of his considerable talent as an alienist. He naturally assumed that either Tobias or Kylic was a prospective patient to be treated (Anton preferred to remain anonymous for reasons of his own), but they quickly got down to business. 

He explained that Mirella was a former patient, and that her treatment had been paid for by a Mister Sellvek, but not by an Anton Sellvek. Rather, she had been placed at his asylum by a Mister Tarvin Sellvek. When the woman was restored to her senses, she badgered the doctor for the name of her mysterious benefactor--and he gave her only the name Mr. Sellvek. She had clearly been asking around after a Sellvek and had stumbled upon Anton by mistake and assumed that he must have been the man who had helped her regain her sanity. An enigma unraveled then; but, what was the cause of her madness, and what knowledge might still be locked in her mind? Questions for another day, surely.

The road that led to Eisengraz proved to be in disrepair; eventually it became simply a grassy path overgrowing what used to be a road in better days. The party's carriage thundered along without incident until they saw a crossroads in the distance. A gibbet hung at the crossroads, a corpse was within the gibbet, and three cloaked figures were in the process of attempting to pry open the gibbet's cage. 

As the carriage approached, the three figures conspicuously turned away from the passing vehicle to hide their faces, but in a fit of perversity one figure turned his head just enough to make the briefest of eye contact with Luka, Tobias, and Anton. The face under the cowl was snake-like and reptilian.

The carriage continued to travel apace until Luka decided he could not suffer such an abomination to live. He threw the reigns of the carriage to Anton, drew his musket and fired upon one of the figures. His shot hit true, and all three figures broke for the treeline--each seemingly carrying away part of the corpse with them. The carriage was wheeled around, and the wounded snake-like man was eventually put down by a combination of Luka's sharpshooting and Kylic's magic--Kylic crumpled the thing like a child might destroy an origami figure.

The remaining two cloaked figures made it to the treeline and disappeared within the forest. No one but Luka wished to give further chase, so instead the group examined the body of the snake-creature and the corpse in the gibbet. The snake-man's body was covered in grayish-green scales, his tongue forked like an adder's. He carried nothing save a wand of withered wood that he had not had a chance to use and one of the gibbeted corpse's hands. The corpse's other hand, and one foot, were also now missing. (Luka took body parts from the serpent-man for possible later identification.) Onward then, to Eisengraz.

The adventurers could smell Eisengraz before they even laid eyes upon it: it smelt of charred wood, the scent of a campfire grown monstrous. When the remains of the village did spill into view, it evidenced still-smoldering grass, blackened fields, and the occasional ember still glowing from within rubble that used to be a human habitation. Strange, for a village that was burnt to the ground over a century ago. Some buildings remained standing, scorched but largely intact. 

Luka extended his senses over the area and determined that there was a creature of divine origins nearby; was this the Celestine they were in search of? Anton led the exploration by examining a paddock; from the scraps of wool scattered around the fire-touched bones it was evident that this used to be where a farmer kept his flock.

The sound of a frenzied search could be heard coming from within the house across what used to be the village's high street. Tobias sent his imp, Malphas, through the house's broken window to investigate; through his familiar's eyes, Tobias could see three figures searching through the rubble within the house. The leader was a tall, thin man clad in ragged cloth and fur crudely shaped into a tunic and trousers, his face obscured by a mask of leather that has been haphazardly stitched together with black twine. The overall effect of him was of a ragdoll come to life. His compatriots were a man and a woman in tattered and dirty leather armor.

(At least one player assumed that the leader was a leper based on this description. I wish I had thought of that, actually.)

Anton assumed a position by the window where he could hide and snipe if need be, while Kylic strode into the house to parlay with the looters. The trio were not happy to find other visitants in Eisengraz, but the leader of the crew offered to let the group loot half the town if they would pay a toll--he claimed a first-looter's right of domain. Communication eventually broke down when the group refused to pay the toll or divide the town with the looters. Kylic grabbed the leader's leather mask and channeled a massive amount of necrotic energy directly into his foe's face. Although deeply harmed, the man in the leather mask fought back and nearly cut Kylic down with wild swings of his great axe. Luka engaged the leader's lackeys, and Anton and Tobias took shots at them with bow and spell. Malphas stung one of the looters to death with his poisonous tail. Kylic's healing magic kept everyone alive until the three looters could be sent to their graves. Alas, all the looters had on them was a paltry handful of coin.

Further exploration of Eisengraz took the party to what had formerly been the village's inn and public house. Malphas was again sent in to investigate. Inside, the inn looked like it had been abandoned suddenly; soot and ash covered everything but plates of food were still on tables, jugs of ale were still waiting to be poured--even after the passage of the years. And yet, not a single person was evident inside. The rafters of the main room, however, were festooned with an unkindness of ravens. The birds' eyes turned toward Malphas, even though he was scouting invisibly.

Kylic entered here as well and addressed the ravens. The many birds in the rafters answered back with one voice. When asked if they might direct the party to Celestine the Dove, they replied that they might help if given something nice in trade. Kylic offered them carrion and tiny red tongues darted about black beaks in anticipation. 

Anton dragged the female looter's corpse into the inn and the group was stunned as the birds flew down from their perches and lifted the body into the air, where they promptly began to devour it as they held it aloft by the flapping of their sable wings. Sated with this offering, they directed the party to seek Celestine in the cottage at the furthest extremity of the village's eastbound arm.

The cottage was of better construction than the previous buildings they had seen--being of white stone touched by scorch marks instead of wood--and before they reached it the group could hear the rhythmic sound of metal striking metal coming from inside. The door was opened, revealing a woman wearing a leather apron hammering a piece of red-hot metal upon an anvil, her white-blonde hair tied back with a scrap of leather and a roaring forge at her back. She ignored the group as they entered...until Kylic cut his hand and cast his blood over her work. 

She was indeed Celestine the Dove. As the group spoke to her in an attempt to draw her out--and make her more amenable to the idea of removing the curse from Luka and Kylic--they learned that she was self-imprisoned in the uncanny remnants of the village (a chain shackled her to the forge) because she was an angel who had attempted to save the inhabitants of Eisengraz from destruction, but had failed and been forced to watch the village and its people put to the torch. 

And, she added, the arsonists responsible for the razing of Eisengraz were agents sent by the Church of Saintly Blood, the very religion to which she had been a servitor. Now, in imposed exile, she watches the days pass in the haunted figment of the village she could not save. 

When asked what she was forging, she replied that she made a sword, only to remake it anew when it was finished, in preparation for the day it could be put to use against the very church that she felt had betrayed its principles.

Anton attempted to appeal to Celestine's finer feelings for the people of Eisengraz, while others assured the Dove that the church could be brought around to the idea of sanctifying the village--perhaps to atone for the gross misdeeds of the past. But Celestine was not convinced; her heart was hardened to the church long ago. Instead, she offered to finish forging the sword--and to give it to the group so that they might take it and slay a priest with it. If they were to do such a thing, take the life of a holy man of the hypocritical faith, then she would lift the curse from not just Luka and Kylic, but from Tristan as well.

Luka agreed to take the sword and kill a priest in the name of Celestine. 

The group waited until the next morning before leaving haunted Eisengraz, and were presented with a beautiful finished sword whose blade is etched with runes and images of doves bearing blades in their beaks. A sword they must now bear, but toward what ends?

* * *

The Spoils

XP - 
750 each (let me know if anyone is leveling up; you'll need to spend your downtime and a little bit of gold training to get your new stuff and that new level smell.)

Treasure - 
Wand of Lightning Bolts from the snake-man (does not require attunement, but only has one charge per day)

17 copper, 28 silver, 10 gold from the looters' pockets

Sword of the Militant Dove (longsword, +1 to hit and damage, does an extra 3d6 damage to priests)

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Kindly Ones

There are few things I can tell you that are true of all works of literature, but I'm on solid ground with this one: if a story starts with three women--one young, one motherly, one bent with age--snipping a skein of thread short, well, the story in front of you is about fate and death.

At this point in its run, The Sandman is well and truly an epic--which dictates that the narrative must resolve itself according to the rules of the epic. Indeed, Sandman enshrines the idea of following the rules of story. Morpheus is made to face the ultimate price levied by the Furies because he has shed familial blood. Granting Orpheus an asked-for death may have been the kindest of boons, but it is an act that must be punished because that's the rules, that's how the game is played, that's what duty calls for.

The rules that guide the narrative conclusion of Gaiman's saga are drawn from the most classical of sources, the Greek tragedy: not only do we have the introduction of the Furies as a grand nemesis, we have Lyta Hall's transformation into a bereaved gorgon, Morpheus's enlarged and cosmic hubris, and a chorus of side characters who provide both counterpoint and collectively voiced commentary to the unspooling drama.

And so The Kindly Ones comes on like a beloved band on their farewell tour. All the greatest hits get played, and a few deep cuts sneak into the setlist to please the obsessive fans too. We revisit Rose Walker, Nuala & Cluracan, the Corinthian, Lucifer, Fiddler's Green, Matthew the Raven, Desire, Odin, Thessaly, Delirium, Lucien, Titania, Cain & Abel, Loki & Puck, etc, etc. &c. The audience can't leave without feeling sated. That's a rule too, and it must be followed.

But if The Kindly Ones is a Greek tragedy, whose tragedy is this? Who stands at the center watching everything fall apart around them?

Morpheus is the obvious choice, but his inevitable death is confronted with a stoic indifference--shot through though it may be with moments of pathos--that derails the utmost gravity of the events that have unfolded. 

What of Lyta Hall, then? She plays both the villain and the tragically condemned; she pursues revenge against Morpheus because she believes he has stolen her son (he hasn't), invoking the incessant Furies against him. But at the realization that Morpheus isn't the guilty party she's been seeking, this new gorgon would call back the Furies, but she cannot. The Furies do not pursue Morpheus for the crime Lyta accuses him of; rather, they pursue him for different transgression--a transgression of which he is guilty and must answer for. Those are the rules, and Lyta realizes too late that she can't change them. 

We etch commandments into stone for a reason--once set down, there is no revision possible. Only the slow erasure afforded by time allows for the rules to eventually be rewritten. When the slate is clear, we can start over afresh. Never before.

Lyta feels the injustice of that, and it turns into self-condemnation. Lyta has gross, glaring flaws, flaws that is often blind to, and it is the unseen flaws that ultimately consume her. Even the act of becoming a gorgon resonant with mythological structures of revenge partially erases who she is; reshaping yourself to fit an archetype means losing personal identity. Gaiman pairs her mythological ascension with earthly madness for a reason: whether high or low, both states are changes that deprive her of access to who she was and who she could have otherwise continued to be.

Worse yet, her single-minded quest to avenge her son sets in motion the events that will forever part him from her. After Morpheus's death, Daniel Hall assumes the mantle of the Sandman. This is a loss doubled, then; if Lyta loses part of herself in becoming an archetypal avenger of wrongs, that process ensures that Danial will lose part of himself as he is in turn transformed into the archetypal King of Dreams.

We've already learned Morpheus's lesson in the previous issues. Now we learn from Lyta's mistake, her tragic placement within circumstances she doesn't fully understand--and which we, as readers, are left to puzzle over because it is not clear who manipulated events to bring this ending to pass. And that's the song the chorus sings, in the end.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

BleakWarrior, X's For Eyes, Promethea

Alistair Rennie's BleakWarrior is like if Soul Calibur were a porno directed by Jodorowsky. 

And it is also like if there was an x-rated Highlander vs. Mortal Kombat comic book drawn by Simon Bisley during an existential crisis.

And also like 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. 

Want to hear more about it? Check out the podcast Bad Books for Bad People, in which Tenebrous Kate and I discuss the finer points of the book.

* * *

This is a book I can accurately describe in a single sentence: Psychotronic Venture Bros. vs eldritch beings of cosmic caprice. 

* * *

Promethea begins as a more mystical Wonder Woman-esque comic about a college student who finds herself imbued with the might of a goddess, but the story becomes a soap box for Alan Moore to talk about his view of the occult in the middle of the run. The story picks up again toward the end of the series, but never fully recovers--too much lost momentum, character and plot eclipsed by meditations on the Kaballah, the tarot, the nature of divine archetypes, and an uncomfortable amount of Crowley-wank. 

Oddly, if the series is derailed a bit by Moore's occult Wonderland sequences, it's also marred by its later adherence to the comic book trope of the crossover; the introduction of Tom Strong and his crew felt both too in-genre and like a stopgap for a diminished narrative focus. 

Williams and Gray's art remains astounding throughout, easily worth the price of admission. The range of styles and aesthetics that are woven into the story are remarkable; you will return to these pages just to stare in awe.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Adventures in Middle-earth Player's Guide Review (1)

The Adventures in Middle-earth Player's Guide is the vanguard book in Cubicle 7's new line that aims to bring Tolkien's beloved fantasy world to the rules of 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons. Let's take a look at how it attempts to marry the world of Middle-earth to the current rule set of the world's most popular fantasy roleplaying game, as well as how well it succeeds at that task.

First things first: I would be remiss if I didn't note that the interior art is leagues better than the cover of the book. I'm not sure why they went with "Gandalf as arsonist fleeing the scene of the crime" as the face for this line of products, but rest assured that the interior illustrations--which I gather are from Cubicle 7's other Tolkien rpg, The One Ring--are lovely and give an excellent taste of the atmosphere you would expect from a game set in the world of the Lord of the Rings novels.

Second things second: the book begins with a nice introduction to and overview of the recent history, peoples, and places of the Wilderland in Middle-earth. If you've got your heart set on playing in some other corner of the setting, you aren't going to find much support for that. If you're totally new to Middle-earth, you shouldn't be lost after reading this section, but I imagine it wouldn't hurt to supplement the information presented here with a bit of Tolkien's fiction.

Essentially, Adventures in Middle-earth bends D&D to Tolkien's fantasy epic to in two ways: 

  • it changes up most of the facets of character creation to produce characters tailor-made for Tolkien-esque adventures
  • it adds new rules subsystems to tilt the game in favor of the fantasy conventions Tolkien relied upon in his fictive work

In this part of the review, I'm going to focus on the former. How does this book guide you toward making characters who live and breathe in the same world as Bilbo, Aragorn, and Legolas?

Instead of choosing from D&D's standard list of race options, a character created with these rules will instead choose a Culture:

  • The Cultures function similarly to 5e's races, granting Ability Score bonuses, Skills, Languages, special abilities, etc. Indeed, the cultures of the Dwarves and Elves look very similar to their counterparts in the D&D Player's Handbook
  • However, one notable difference is that the Cultures in this book differentiate between the various cultures of Men you can choose from. Where D&D makes "human" a generic category, in AiME each human culture is designed to feel different in play. For example, Men of the Lake are naturally charismatic and are proficient in Persuasion since they belong to a culture that values trade. 
  • Each Mannish culture also begins play with a Cultural Virtue, which is essentially a feat that further emphasizes how each region has its own distinct flavor. (More on Cultural Virtues below.)

Adventures in Middle-earth completely eschews the standard D&D Classes and offers its own options in their place.

  • Characters in AiME can be Scholars (healers and loremasters), Slayers (barbaric warriors), Treasure Hunters (thieves), Wanderers (rangers), Wardens (magic-less bards), or Warriors. 
  • What is immediately evident is that AiME has no interest in D&D's usual level of magic-saturation; with no D&D-style spellcasters available, the game definitely falls more into line with Tolkien's fiction--magic is a rare and mystical thing beyond the reach of even most adventurers. 
  • The classes in AiME are definitely not balanced against those in the D&D Player's Handbook; 5th edition D&D characters all tend to be basically competent in combat, but here there is a greater disparity between classes designed to excel in combat and those that are designed to excel at other parts of the game. 
  • Some of the fighting options in AiME might even be better than their counterparts in the PHB; for example, one Slayer option gives you access to rage while in heavy armour!
  • Folks who have been hoping for a magic-free ranger take note: with a bit of tweaking, the Wanderer class might make for a solid framework to add that kind of character archetype back into D&D.
  • Many of the classes presented here also make more use of the Inspiration mechanic than in default D&D, using it to power some of their special abilities. It appears that the assumption is that Inspiration will be a more free-flowing commodity than D&D generally allows for.
Virtues replace D&D's Feats

  • Virtues come in two types: Open (any character who meets their requirements can take them) and Cultural (only characters of a matching Culture has access to them).
  • The way Cultural Virtues are used in AiME is very interesting: they essentially take variants of common feats and make them exclusive to certain types of characters. This isolation of certain bonuses and abilities to specific cultures really does an excellent job enforcing niche protection and making the game conform to Tolkien's vision of Middle-earth. 
  • For example, If you want to play a great archer, you're going to want to be an Elf of Mirkwood, Man of the Lake, or Bardling. And yet, the variety of the Cultural Virtues between those three Cultures will also give a different feel to a character; stacked up against each other, archers from those three Cultures are not going to feel the same.
  • The closest you're going to get to magic in AiME is in the rune-based Cultural Virtues of the Dwarves or the Cultural Virtues of the Elves.
Other changes:

  • AiME uses its own Backgrounds. These function almost identically to 5e D&D's Backgrounds, though they use Distinctive Qualities, Specialties, Hopes, and Despairs in place of D&D's Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws.
  • Where D&D's Backgrounds are very general and encompassing to fit generic fantasy worlds, AiME's are geared toward replicating the kind of backstories present in Tolkien's fiction.
  • There are a handful of new Skills to handle situations that are more likely to crop up in Middle-earth than in, say, the Forgotten Realms. (More on this when we talk about the new systems that AiME adds to the game.)
  • AiME has its own equipment lists, giving new weapons and new armor. Since Middle-earth doesn't feature plate mail, the new heavy chain and great shield help shore up the armor classes of martial characters to keep them within the expected parameters of 5e's bounded accuracy mechanic.

Overall, the net effect of AiME's modifications to the way modern D&D generates characters will certainly produce characters thematically-consistent with Tolkienian adventure. This is an objective the game sets itself that is clearly achieved.

However, not everything in AiME is an unqualified success; in particular, there are a few places that seemed to have been written by someone who wasn't as familiar with the 5e rule set as they should have been:

  • For example, the Scholar class has the option of taking proficiency in the "healing kit" (presumably they mean the healer's kit in the PHB, as there are no separate rules for a healing kit to be found in AiME). The problem is that the healer's kit doesn't require a roll to use--anyone using one does so automatically, which means that proficiency in the kit doesn't actually do anything. NOTE: this was fixed in an update to the pdf.
  • Similarly, one of the Wanderer's special abilities regarding the exhaustion mechanic cites an example that doesn't match up with the actual rules for exhaustion. (Maybe we're getting new exhaustion mechanics in the Loremaster book?)
  • And why do the stats for servants in the game note that they are lawful neutral when alignment doesn't appear to be used anywhere else in the book? (The table of contents says that alignment is replaced wholesale by the Corruption mechanic.)  NOTE: this was fixed in an update to the pdf.
None of these issues is game-breaking, but since these are just the items I found on a casual read-through I'm left wondering what other gaffs lurk in the text. NOTE: Cubicle 7 has made a great attempt to fix typos and mechanical gaffs, which is commendable.

All in all, though, finishing the section about AiME's alterations to baseline 5e D&D made me want to make a character and explore Middle-earth. So far so good; next time, we tackle the new mechanics that the Adventures in Middle-earth Player's Guide offers. Ere the sun rises!

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Autobiography by Morrissey

If autobiography is an act of post-facto self-invention, than surely the expansion or contraction of experienced time in one's narrative is the primary tool of emphasis trending toward definition. For most, Morrissey is defined by being (in) the Smiths; but in his Autobiography this is a time in his life that simply happens and then ends once it has run its course, with no delineation of change or effect on the subject. It's a period of his life that is barely there, or more properly, he's barely present within it. 

Instead, Morrissey is defined, to Morrissey himself, by the war between a monolithic, derelict childhood that is pervasively always present and the momentary transcendence found in early discoveries in poetry, pop music, glam icons, and film. Once childhood is over, or the poem ends or the needle leaves the groove or the idol disappoints or the credits roll, it's all still there--an eternal struggle of grey versus starlight, waiting to swallow us whole. 

The earliest tale-telling here is Morrissey at his best. It evokes a place, a time, and a person at odds with the previous. It hurts to read, such aches and stifled longings that are dimly understood, and yet it is thrillingly stated, equal parts sophisticated and salted, and eminently quotable. Read it aloud to your friends, and demand that they read it back to you. Nevertheless, as Morrissey's life takes off, the singing of that life slows down.

At points it crawls.

Later on in years, it seems as though the Smiths were only experienced through the endless court case surrounding who gets what money. And it reads as if endless; perhaps that was purposeful—the reader experiences the interminable disappointment of legal wrangling—but it's deadening and deadly to actually read. They're too strenuous, too burdensome, these private lashings in the dark, and the book never really recovers from this hefty section of recrimination and condemnation. (Other people's money is never that interesting.) Morrissey continues on his narrative, but it's plain that he's exhausted himself somewhat. There are still moments of sharp wit and keen observation, but they come on fewer in number and slackened in pace. More self-quotations seep in to fill the gaps, but instead gasp and wheeze for air. Worse, after the uphill climb the reader must be exhausted.

At least Morrissey tells a ghost story (maybe; hopefully; the alternative is too gruesome to contemplate) and notices some raccoons.

Tour dates, yes, but this is formulaic. Played at ____; the crowd was young and beautiful and especially young; ________ is a wonderful place; Kristeen Young (for some reason); ________ died and I cried myself empty; saw __________ backstage and we exchanged knowing smiles. Yes, and? Morrissey slinks away into the night.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Why Adventures Start in Taverns

Dreaming when Dawn's Left Hand was in the Sky
I heard a voice within the Tavern cry,
"Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup
Before Life's Liquor in its Cup be dry."
- The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

Adventurers are people who realize that life, and all its attendant pleasures, is fleeting. Even reaching name level--that glorious height of being known, respected, and possibly feared--is but a respite before the dust of ages erases all fame and infamy from the book of life.

And so they go to the tavern to await the next clarion call, these "Little ones" of oft-ill repute, that rouses them to grasp at Life's liquor in dark, dangerous places before the inevitable drinking of that fated and final cup. To always seek that next ephemeral hoard of gold and glory, the vain hope to forestall the inevitable by conquering or building a kingdom, to pursue the great dream with the coming of the dawn--that is what is best in life.

Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly---and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Under the Demon Sun

The way to Golgotha from Scarabae was long and hard; it left dust in their mouths and grit between their teeth. All they wanted was a drink to wash it all back down, but no such luck, partner. Outside town they were greeted by the sight of a group of men frantically digging graves with spade and shovel. Suspecting them to be waylayers or worse, the duo questioned the men closely. 

Apparently the dead men to be buried hastily were discovered in the grip of rigor mortis; the working supposition was that they were loggers from a nearby camp. Before they were tossed down six feet into the waiting earth, Erin Landry got off her horse and examined the bodies. Erin had been a nurse in the Kobold Wars; some say she knew more about the frail mortal shell than most doctors. To her eyes, the corpses appeared to be badly bruised, and they evidenced puncture wounds not caused by blade or bullet. The wounds also oozed a thick green fluid that wasn’t blood.

Leaving the gravediggers to their task, the pair quickly located a saloon with the inauspicious name "The Forty Widows." About to kick back their second bourbon each, Erin and Saul had front row seats for a gruesome display: another customer pushed back his chair from his table, doubled over, and began spouting blood like a sanguinary fountain. His back erupted in a rather unappetizing shower of gore as two tendrils sprouted from his convulsing

God damn it.

The scant few other patrons panic, of course, and stampede for the doors–but not before the writhing, tentacled man picks off a few of them. Saul sighs, slaps leather, and lets his two six-guns sing their songs of death and destruction. Ever more cautious, Erin unslings her rifle, keeps a wide circle of distance between herself and the thing that used to be a man, taking shots calculated to put it down hard.

If that wasn’t enough of a spit in the eye, in come crashing a posse of shambling, dead-eyed fucks drooling a viscous green mess all over themselves. Hell’s bells, they’re the loggers Saul and Erin saw being buried outside of town.

The monstrosity and his shambling pals get a few licks in on them, but at last the gunfire puts paid to this high weirdness. The shambling men lie inert, and the tendril-sporting fella crashes to the sawdust dead. It took more bullets than any living thing ought to.

The barman reappears from cowering behind the bar. A brief conversation discloses that the man was also a logger from the nearby camp. This sounds like something that the town fathers might pay to have looked into. Time for a conversation with whatever passes as a mayor in Golgotha about the possibility of a reward.

Tomorrow they ride for the logging camp.

* * *

Before violence between our duo and these gristle-faced loggers even has a chance to rear its ugly, misshapen head, a third party introduces itself to the situation: the loggers from the camp return, but not in their natural states. Like the loggers who came crashing into the saloon yesterday, these men and women have been rendered dead-eyed and shambling. As they emerge from the treeline, they moan and stumble toward their camp, each drooling a thick, green mucus that fills the air with a strange arboreal smell. 

Accompanying the loggers is a black bear whose fur erupts in enormous briars and thorns. Someone has strapped metal plates to the bear as a kind of makeshift armor. 

Hands up, who wants to die? The loggers from the other camp cut and run, like a bunch of gizzard-licking cowards. Not Saul and Erin, though. Guns out, blazing, filling the air with that fire-and-brimstone ricochet of bullets. Erin and Saul play cat-and-mouse with the shamblers, using tents and hastily-erected lean-to buildings for cover as they lure the drooling beasts out into the open to be shot down. There’s no getting around the bear, though; it charges Saul, knocking him down and sending his six-shooters flying from his grasp. As its claws come down, a blazing red shield springs up and takes the worst of the bear’s assault.

It’s a good thing he offered unholy prayers to the red-handed Hanged Man that morning, else the bear would have torn him open from stem to stern. Saul hacks at the beast with a tomahawk he "liberated" from a tribe of serpent-worshiping savages, and the ever-mauling bear makes a break for it and begins to run through the woods. Erin wings it with her rifle, but doesn’t drop it. Nevertheless, now they’ve got a convenient trail of blood to follow if they so choose.

* * *

Hard decisions.

With that monstrous, thorn-bedecked bear run off, Erin and Saul could sit a spell and tend to their own wounds (which are, at this point, considerable). But the bear is their best lead in finding out what flavor of hell has broken loose out here among the logging camps, so maybe they should follow it now before the trail goes cold. Then again, this might be a good time to head back to Golgotha and renegotiate with the town fathers for taking care of this spate of trouble.

Much as it pains him to admit it, Saul grudgingly knows that he’s in no shape to go after the bear. Erin has a solution; she rustles around in her saddlebag until she finds a fresh bottle of whiskey, sits down with it in the lotus posture, closes her eyes and begins to chant. Now, Erin Landry is what you’d call a "plain woman." You wouldn’t turn your eyes from her in disgust, nor would you ever spare a second to think her beautiful. But as she chants, Saul stares in wonder as face changes–becoming bright, alluring, and wicked. Saul feels a sick feeling awaken in his gut as he looks at her, for the low words she repeats are words given to her by the Empress.

When the chant ends, Erin is road-worn again, no longer comely and fair and serpentine. She offers the bottle of whiskey to Saul; the slug he takes from the bottle burns going down, but it also stitches his wounds together from the inside. They pass the bottle back and forth, and are restored. 

Time to see about that bear.

The trail is easy enough to follow, up to a point. Then the way branches off in two directions with no clear indication where the bear went. Misdirection is afoot. Saul and Erin choose the right-hand path, which carries on for a bit before opening out into a small clearing. At the center of the clearing is a large wooden cross; the lumber used in its construction looks an awful lot like the rough wooden plants used back at the logging camp. Nailed to the cross is the twisted and broken body of a logger.

"Aww, hell no," Saul growls. He unholsters his pistols and puts lead into the body on the cross. His intuition served him well, as the woman’s eyes flutter open and her face twists into a grin as she rips herself free from her own crucifixion. The thing eats dirt before it can even reach Erin and Saul. 

Pushing on, then. Deeper into the woods they go, until they arrive at another, larger clearing. At this center of this one is an enormous, warped tree that heaves and shakes as though breathing. Surrounding it are the men from the second logging camp who ran off during the fight with the transformed woodsmen. They glare at Saul and Erin. 

"You shouldn’t have come here," one of them mutters.

Something like a man, but green of skin with gnarled branches for arms, acorns for teeth, and leaves for hair emerges from the pulsating tree. The bear emerges behind him, its wounds bandaged with greenery. Guns unslung, of course. "Let’s parlay, if you’re able," says Erin.

The Green Man gestures for the loggers to hang back a pace. In a voice ancient and deep, he explains that Saul and Erin now stand at the Sacred Heart of the Woods, and that the loggers from Golgotha had begun to cut too far into forest for their lumber. Only these loggers, he gestures to the men around him, have offered the proper blood sacrifice to maintain the balance. Perhaps the town fathers of Golgotha would be willing to pay a blood tithe to the Woods so that all could remain in agreement, and no more violence or transformation of its men would be necessary? Such a bargain would require a lot of blood...

This is a dark bargain to strike, but in their heart of hearts both Erin and Saul know that it is one that the town will readily assent to. Part of them would like to just open fire and put an end to this here and now, to strike a blow for progress against this demon-twisted aspect of nature. But this isn’t that kind of world anymore; continued existence is paid for in shed innocence. And so they deal; the Green Man agrees to a truce, Saul and Erin will take his offer to the town and return in the morning with an answer. Blood will water the soil and strike the balance between the natural world and man’s coexistence with it once more. So it goes under the demon sun.