Friday, December 30, 2016

Mater Monstrum

Legends foretell the coming of a woman who will be known as the Mater Monstrum. She will become the bride of either a diabolic or demonic being; she will then birth a horde of unthinkable monstrosities that will usher in the last reign of darkness.

Plot hooks
  • If the players can figure out who the Mater Monstrum is, how would they go about making sure that she doesn't fall into the sway of a powerful demon or devil?
  • Would it be best to kill her before she becomes the Mater Monstrum? What if she is an innocent and this fate is not of her choosing? Is it better to sacrifice her for the greater good of Krevborna?
  • Might it be possible to play devil and demon against each other as they both attempt to claim the Mater Monstrum for their side?

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Blood-Fueled Industry, Slumgullian Warrens, Codices Malefica, Automatons


The magic-imbued blood extracted from the great krakens of the sea enables Umberwell’s magitek industry. The lamps which light the city's streets are fueled by galvanically rich kraken blood, many factories are powered by the fuel, and the hunting and processing of krakens on the high seas is itself a venture of massive economic importance. The Corinthia Trading Company is chief among Umberwell's blood-hunting fleets.


Some speak of the Slumgullian Warrens as a sovereign nation within Umberwell—the “city below the city’s streets.” Residents of the subterranean depths—such as kobolds, dark elves, gnomes, and goblins—find curious ways to adapt their environment despite the hardscrabble existence of each island’s portion of the under-city. Luminescent foolfire fungi is cultivated in the Slumgullian Warrens for the benefit of those races not blessed with darkvision.


The six known copies of the Codex Malefica are sentient grimoires possessing unfathomable aims and goals. The books sometimes hire picaros to further their own inscrutable agendas; they pay for any services rendered with desirable secrets or particular lore about the Abyss and its demonic masters. The six Codices sometimes work at cross purposes; although the books were penned by the same hand, each has its own desires and schemes.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

II. Those Who Worship the High Priestess

Many sects who worship the High Priestess view her as the guiding principle of navigable cosmic mystery. They believe that the High Priestess doles out esoteric evidence and divine inspiration to those willing to devote their lives to chasing obscure and occult knowledge. These faithful are divided: some believe that apotheosis is the end result of an accumulation of sacred learning, while others believe that the pursuit of knowledge itself is a form of spiritual rebirth.

In the eyes of another sect, the High Priestess is a holy principle who urges inaction. They view her placidity as an exemplar of proper living; to not act, to never choose, is what is best in life. Although their maxims are regarded largely as excuses for laziness and sloth, these adherents attain a level of calm that is untroubled by the necessity of living for themselves or others. When all is chaos, they remain serene and undecided.

Other, more militant, sects revere the High Priestess as an emblem of feminine superiority. To them, she is the encapsulation of intuition over deliberation and instinct over reasoned action. Some adherents support causes that hope to address inequalities; they seek to uplift those who are downtrodden precisely because of their femininity. More extreme members of the faithful actively work toward fostering inequality and the enthroning of a prejudicial matriarchy.

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An entry in an ongoing series about religion in Scarabae.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Bad Books for Bad People: Goosebumps

In the mid-1990s, R.L. Stine's Goosebumps series was a sensation, creeping out kids across the globe. The phenomenon of kid-friendly horror fiction is hardly a new one, so Kate and Jack tackle three Goosebumps titles and see how they stack up against the terrifying stories of their childhoods. Bring on the haunted houses, possessed dummies, and nightmarish theme parks!
This month's guest reader is Aunt John from Kindertrauma, the long-running website dedicated to all things childhood-horror-related. 
How weird are the Goosebumps books? Why do people love them so much? How do you say Goosebumps in Dutch? What highly inappropriate Freudian subtext can our hosts insert into their conversation about these stories for young readers? All these questions and more will be answered in this episode of Bad Books for Bad People.

See you in 2017, friends.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Krevborna: Player Objectives

I had previously sketched some ideas about how I wanted to run my Krevborna games (mostly as notes to myself), but I was recently inspired by The Nightmares Underneath's Player Objectives (captured in the image to the left) to sketch some objectives for how to play in Krevborna. Mine ended up being a bit different in purpose, but I suspect my game differs from the assumptions of Nightmares Underneath anyway, so that's to be expected.

The Krevborna Manifesto

Player Objectives

To roleplay your character as much, or as little, as you like. Make decisions for your character to show how they respond to the settings and situations they encounter during play. You are rewarded with Inspiration for having your character act in accordance with their Personality Traits, Ideal, Bond, and Flaw. Feel free to gently nudge the DM if they don't see that you're hitting those marks.

To light a candle in the dark. Krevborna is a land oppressed both explicitly and covertly by the forces of evil. Your character should fight back against the encroaching darkness. You are rewarded with Experience Points for killing the horrific monsters and corrupt villains who plague the land.

To pursue the goals of the group, as well as your character's ambitions. Work with your fellow players to portray a cohesive group of adventurers who share common goals within the setting. Work with the DM to make your character's specific aspirations and desires part of the game. The characters are the protagonists; the group doesn't have to be completely free from strife, but even where they have competing goals or motivations remember that we're all playing one game together. You are rewarded with Experience Points for pursuing both group and individual goals.

DM Objectives

To unravel the darkness. Play the opposition fairly, but ruthlessly. Keep pushing the various factions' and villains' agendas, especially where they intersect or contradict what the players' characters are pursuing. The goal of the game is to see how the characters push back against the darkness. It doesn't have to be easy, but it should be both possible and a goal that becomes worth pursuing for them. You want to see them struggle, and you want to see them succeed—but at a cost.

To keep the game consistent and interesting. The Devil is in the details:
  • Ask for intent and method before letting the dice fall.
  • Remember concentration checks, ongoing saving throws, action economy, light sources.
  • Shine the spotlight on what the players take an interest in.

To describe a haunted world. Drench the setting in Gothic description. Go darker. Press hard on fear and horror. Unnerve with the uncanny. Play with madness. Never show too much; keep the shadows close.

Monday, December 19, 2016

You Can Not Have a Meaningful Campaign if Strict Records are Not Kept

...but they might not have to be time records, you know? 

Maybe tracking time isn't lending anything meaningful to your campaign. It sure as hell doesn't make my games more fun. And yet, I do find that my campaigns are improved if I keep records of game elements other than the passage of time. For my games, keeping track of the various factions that are pushing their agendas in the campaign setting, what the various NPCs that the characters have met want and what they can do for the characters, and the general shape of the campaign's accumulating adventures is where the action is at.

If your campaign benefits from the same things as mine do, consider the record-keeping sheets below to be your early holiday presents. Now you can keep strict records and have a MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN.

XVI. Those Who Worship the Tower

Some come to worship the Tower only after they have suffered great tragedy. Having what they love torn from them sends them spiraling into alignment with the Tower's cosmic principles. They do not embrace the Tower because they value the force of destruction it represents; rather, they entreat the Tower because they pray that those who have brought them ruination will suffer an equal plunge into the abyss of bleak hopelessness. 

Others worship the Tower because they perceive the world and its people to be worse than nothing. This strain of theology is written in the breviary of fatalism; it is a belief that the disease is worse than cure, and thus obliteration of all and everything is preferable to the continuation of a miserable existence. These faithful give praise to the Tower through acts of sabotage, erasure, and random terrorism. When nothing remains to be broken, the Tower's will be done.

A third sect beseeches the Tower through acts of appeasement. They view the Tower as a principle of hunger that may be sated. Once satisfied with orchestrated acts of ritual destruction--such as the razing of grand effigies or the sacrificial killing of a king--surely the Tower will, for a time, not move the world toward a horrific apocalypse. "Come Armageddon, come," these adherents say to each other in greeting, "but not too soon."

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An entry in an ongoing series about religion in Scarabae.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Talislanta and the Gothic

My friends and I played a bit of Talislanta in high school, but it proved to be a difficult setting to get across to my peers at the time. It was too weird, too alien, too unlike the usual mash-up of Lord of the Rings and Conan that fantasy usually fell back on. The fourth edition of Talislanta's core book advises you to pick one general area to start out with, focusing on that slice of the setting and building outward once you're comfortable with it. Either the edition I had never mentioned that or I missed it or the idea of only using one smaller area of the massive campaign world never occurred to me because in practice it was a nightmare trying to convey this unique setting as a teenager to other teenagers.

Rereading the fourth edition made me realize where I should have started when trying to run a Talislanta game. What immediately caught my a‚ttention was the description of the Western Lands: "Opposing religious factions, witch hunters, and secret cults make this a good starting place for local-scale campaigns based on intrigue and subterfuge" (430). 

Hold up. Religious factions? Witch hunters? Secrets cults? This sounds downright Gothic to me! Cue to me flipping to the larger detailing of the Western Lands. The High Orthodoxy of Aaman, with its inquisitors, monastic orders, and templars, would make a dandy stand-in for the Gothic’s vision of the Catholic Church; Necron, City of the Dead, is haunted by necrophages (read: ghouls) and ghasts (liches); the Sarista of Silvanus are literal gypsy analogs; the Dhuna of the Witchwood have enough wiggle-room in their occult orders to be either kindly druids preserving the lost ways of an Old Faith or Wicker Man-style evil pagans; the Werewood is home to banes (vampires) and werebeasts; the Zandir work as a decadent, corrupt culture; etc.

I think if I had scaled down the setting to focus on Talislanta as a Gothic Fantasy game set in its Western Lands I would have had more success getting the game going. I certainly would have had a better idea about what to do with it.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Monstrous Vermin, Intoxicant Trade, Lexicos Spire


There is good money to be had for adventurers willing to clear out nests of blood-seeking stirges or infestations of giant rats. Wolfcove & Sons is a trusted name in the vermin removal business. The exterminators employed by Wolfcove & Sons are recognizable by their covered wagons which display the image of a roach being crushed by a warhammer on their canvas sides.

The illicit manufacture and distribution of intoxicants is a booming business in Umberwell. Black lotus powder, opiate tentacles, dream-milk, hallucinogenic runes, and snowleaf are peddled by alchemical drug cartels run by Matan the Black and the fractious sibling warlocks Liutang and Shijin Chung, as well as by independent dealers such as Quivering Nym.

The Lexicos Spire, a tower in Shrewsbury erected by the magical rites of the Lost Matriarchs, is an enchanted edifice that transmits knowledge of the Common tongue to all within Umberwell so that the citizenry might communicate easily. Gyragrol, an ancient dragon, has designs on destroying the Lexicos Spire to break the fellowship of Umberwell's citizens.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Firearm Problems in Old-School and 5e D&D

Old-school D&D is a pretty abstract game when it comes to the mechanics of combat (see, for example, hit points, armor class, the functional similarity of dissimilar weaponry), and yet when it comes time to introduce black powder firearms suddenly people start talking about using different damage dice versus specific armor types, period-accurate reload times, and translating the peculiarities of smooth bores vs. rifling, to say nothing of detailed comparisons of matchlock and flintlock firing mechanisms.

Suddenly a game that privileges ease of play over realism is bogged down in a mire of special properties, edge cases, and bolted-on house rules that seem at odds with the base system.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess is a pretty good example of this effect in action. LotFP is a game content to abstract melee options. It doesn't have a big detailed chart of everything you can use to bludgeon or stab someone to death with in the game; instead, weapons are ranked great, medium, minor, or small, and you're left to fluff them accordingly. 

(There are a few weird outliers, like the cestus, polearm, and spear which have some special-case rules, but generally things are kept simple and consistent rather than realistic and detailed.)

And then you get to the firearms appendix and all that simplicity and consistency flies out the window. Now you've got bullet-pointed lists of special rules for firing mechanisms (with asterisked exceptions), gun and barrel types, and any firearm accessories with mechanical add-ons (such as apostles) that you're bringing to the party. 

My own firearm rules back when I was playing Labyrinth Lord had moments of being equally as convoluted and contrary to the free-wheeling spirit of the rules. At various points I had bespoke rules about range and reloading based on some way-too-intensive research, exploding damage dice rules, etc. It was a mess and it added nothing good to my games.

Instead of coming up with new cruft to add to the game, I should have taken inspiration from Erik Jensen and just used the rules for ranged weapons that already exist in the game. At the level of abstraction that most old-school D&D games default to, you're just better off using the stats of bows or crossbows and reskinning the fictional aesthetics of the weapon than detailing all sorts of new rules to make it "realistic." John Bell gets it. Brian Mathers gets it

5e D&D has somewhat of the opposite problem. Firearm rules are buried in an optional section of the Dungeon Master's Guide (267-268). Generally, the rules are pretty simple: the black powder firearms follow the rules already extant for crossbows, except they do a bit more damage. More modern firearms also have similarly efficient rules for their use. No problem, right?

Well, no, not exactly. Since they aren't part of the default game assumptions, they don't really interact well with things like special abilities or feats. If you use them as-is, there's no real reason to pick a firearm over a crossbow; if you start house ruling to make similar feats available for firearms, there's no reason to use anything but a firearm because their damage is just plain better.

Oddly, the solution to 5e's problem is the same as the solution to the old-school problem outlined above: just use the stats for crossbows, since they are already integrated into the game, and refluff the descriptive fiction as black powder firearms. A heavy crossbow could certainly be ye olde arquebus, a light crossbow could be ye olde musket, and the hand crossbow could be ye olde pistol. You don't have to invent rules about which class is proficient with which; just look to see which crossbows they can already use with proficiency and apply it to firearms as well. You don't have to come up with new feats; change the wording to Crossbow Expert and you're good to go.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Jodorowsky's Dune

Jodorowsky's Dune is an odd documentary; instead of chronicling the making of a feature film, it charts the strange life and stillborn death of Alejandro Jodorowsky's attempt to film Frank Herbert's classic science fiction novel. 

The early portions of the film where interviewees speak on the formation of Jodorowsky's dream-team of collaborators and co-conspirators (a formidable list including Moebius, Chris Foss, H. R. Giger, Pink Floyd, Salvador Dali, Dan O'Bannon, Orson Welles, and David Carradine) plays out like Hannibal assembling a psychedelic and cinematic A-Team. Indeed, the process of finding the right people for the job feels like a trope straight out of Jodorowsky's work: he insists that he chose the people he wanted to work with based on their suitability to be "spiritual warriors" dedicated to the mind-expanding power of his vision for Dune. Even the stories Jodorowsky tells of saying the right metaphysical or philosophical thing at the exact right moment to hook his collaborators into working on the project has more than a bit of trickster mythology clinging to their edges.

It all comes crashing down when it turns out that no movie studio wants to put up the money for Jodorowsky to film his (let's go with) ambitious version of Herbert's novel. I am almost always on the side of artists in matters that pit creativity versus economics, but in this case Jodorowsky is a little disingenuous in his outrage with the way movies do or don't get made. Jodorowsky was proposing filming Dune as a fourteen-to-twenty hour film; it is something less than shocking that no major studio was willing to foot the bill for a project of that size that about a hundred people would watch. Of course, that is if the project didn't derail itself before completion, which frankly seems a likely outcome given the volatile personalities and overreaching intentions involved. 

Similarly, Nicholas Wendig Refn is completely full of shit when he claims that the reason Jodorowsky's Dune didn't get financed was because Hollywood was scared of the ideas the film might impart or inspire. Hollywood is afraid of only one thing: not making money.

You do feel for Jodorowsky when he talks about how he felt when he heard that David Lynch had successfully directed a version of Dune that was due for theatrical release. You can also easily excuse any spite on his part when he reports feeling relieved at discovering that Lynch's movie was a tremendous artistic blunder. Therein lies the silver lining; even if Jodorowsky had been able to bring his vision to the big screen, there is every chance that it would have been as titanic a misstep as Lynch's film. Jodorowsky didn't fail--he dodged a bullet.

The dissolution of a project, even of a dream project, is not always an artistic tragedy. That a Dune shot by Jodorowsky never materialized was a hidden blessing; although he didn't get to put his own personal stamp on Arrakis, he was able to later return to the ideas he had for the Dune film and craft them into a series of stunning comic books. The Incal, Metabarons, Technopriests, et al, are the inheritors of the inspirations Jodorowsky accumulated for Dune, but in execution that are better for not being fettered to a film adaptation of another artist's work. The comics are purer expressions because they are individualist expressions rather than adaptive ones. They still contain the strands of Jodorowsky's Dune-inspired mania, but they are works that reinterpret and reinvent with a freer hand and freer spirit. I certainly wouldn't trade them for another shoddy silver screen run at Dune.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Monstrous Vermin, Intoxicant Trade, Lexicos Spire


There is good money to be had for adventurers willing to clear out nests of blood-seeking stirges or infestations of giant rats. Wolfcove & Sons is a trusted name in the vermin removal business. The exterminators employed by Wolfcove & Sons are recognizable by their covered wagons which display the image of a roach being crushed by a warhammer on their canvas sides.


The illicit manufacture and distribution of intoxicants is a booming business in Umberwell. Black lotus powder, opiate tentacles, dream-milk, hallucinogenic runes, and snowleaf are peddled by alchemical drug cartels run by Matan the Black and the fractious sibling warlocks Liutang and Shijin Chung, as well as by independent dealers such as Quivering Nym.

The Lexicos Spire, a tower in Shrewsbury erected by the magical rites of the Lost Matriarchs, is an enchanted edifice that transmits knowledge of the Common tongue to all within Umberwell so that the citizenry might communicate easily. Gyragrol, an ancient dragon, has designs on destroying the Lexicos Spire to break the fellowship of Umberwell's citizens.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Dirgecraft: Krevborna Edition

What did I listened to as I worked on Krevborna? These mixes will give you an idea. Click the links to open the mixtapes at 8tracks.

Red Acid Haze
Trackist: Blood Ceremony - Lorely † Hexvessel - Earth Over Us † Purson - Dead Dodo Down † Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats - Downtown † Earth - From Zodiacal Light † Sabbath Assembly - I, Satan † Jex Thoth - Into a Sleep

The Quiet of Arboreal Graves
Tracklist: Mike Reagan and Chris Velasco - Darksiders Theme † Glenn Danzig - Bridal Ceremony of the Lilitu † Salt and Sanctuary - Sacrifice † Abel Korzeniewoski - Transgression † Dark Souls - Aldritch, Devourer of Gods † Howard Shore - The Defiler † Dead Can Dance - I Am Stretched on Your Grave † Mark Korven - Witches’ Coven † Myrkur - Skogen Skulle Do

Orchestrated at the Edge
Tracklist: Peccatum - Murder † Haggard - Of a Might Divine † Finntroll - Ett Norrskendad † Porta Nigra - Fin de Siecle † Summoning - Nightshade Forests † Lacrimosa - Thunder and Lightning † Therion - Polichinelle † Skepticism - Pouring

Chancel by Night
Tracklist: Myrkur - Onde Born † Cradle of Filth - A Gothic Romance † Dimmu Borgir - The Night Masquerade † Therion - To Mega Therion † Theatres des Vampires - Lilith Mater Inferorum † Ancient Ceremony - Brides Ghostly Dance † Opera IX - The Sixth Seal † Moonspell - First Light

Friday, December 9, 2016

Pickers, Liftmen, Jobs for Picaros

A Faction in Scarabae - The Pickers 
There are those in Scarabae who believe that the future lies in reclaiming the things of the past; they call themselves "pickers," and they can be found scrounging through scrapheaps, old barns, and warehouses looking for “rusty gold” to salvage. These scavengers are always on the look-out for “tonnage” of “farm fresh” junk. They’re always willing to “break the ice” and “pull the trigger” on any “honey hole” or “mega pick” they encounter as they cross the blighter urban cityscape.

Want to play a Picker in Scarabae? The Scavenger background in Kobold Press's Unlikely Heroes is a perfect fit.

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Also, while we're at it, check out these two Scarabae-ready creations from Brian Mathers's blog:

The Liftmen
Jobs for Picaros

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Total Skull - November 2016

Things that brought me delight in November 2016...


Penguin has done an exemplary service by collecting the poetry that burns gemlike in this collection of fin de siecle verse. This is the prefect introduction for readers new to the Decadent movement of the late nineteenth century, as it includes many seminal poems, but it also compiles enough obscurities to be of interest to devotees. Themes of lust, decay, intoxication, artifice, and imagination resound throughout. If nothing else, this volume has made it clear that I need to read more Sarojini Naidu.

The City & the City isn't fantasy or sci-fi in a technical sense, but it's a noir-ish police procedural that is somehow adjacent to fantasy and sci-fi. It's got me thinking about William S. Burroughs and Deleuze again. I think the idea of citizens of two cities that share the same space who are trained to ignore (unsee) each other would be contrived in the hands of a worse writer, but I was surprised at how well the conceit works in the novel. It's more a statement about how political control shapes how we perceive the world (and especially boundaries) around us. As for the overall writing, I think Mieville did a good job taking on the spare, vigorous style of the police procedural style of mystery. There are moments of more fanciful description, but they're used more like punctuation than syntax. I feel like I haven't read enough Mieville to have a favorite yet, but this is probably the best of his books that I have read; thankfully, he didn't flub the ending to this novel the way he did in Perdido Street Station.

Wylding Hall is the book that I wanted George R. R. Martin's Armageddon Rag to be. The story of Hand's novel is told in the form of interviews with the former members of a British 70s folk band and their immediate hangers-on. The horror of the tale is understated, and slightly Wicker Man-flavored. In the end, the horror might be a little too understated, but this does manage to be a creepy little book that mines the connection between folk culture and darker folk practice.


I re-reading the Prophet comics in preparation for reading the Earth War series. After this second read-through I think I understand 80-90% of the story at this point; a new reader might actually be better served by reading the Strikefiles first, as they explain some of the major characters, events, factions, etc. in a clearer way than the comic's narrative. You can safely avoid the Liefeld original comics if you have an interest in the most recent series--the New Weird post-apocalyptic space opera madness of the new books stands entirely on its own.

I read Julia Gfrorer's Laid Waste and Black is the Color at the same time, so consider this a recommendation of both of them. No one does haunting tales of loss (and loss to come) laced with absurdist and erotic touches quite like Gfrorer. I've read as many of her minicomics as I've been able to get my hands on, and I keep coming back for more. It is crazy that her work doesn't garner more attention.


The setting I most regret not getting into when it came out is Planescape, and I feel that regret in large part to all the great art from Tony DiTerlizzi that I missed out on. Luckily, Realms fills that gap by presenting works drawn from DiTerlizzi's career. This book gives me a millions ideas all at once.


My exploration of the Opeth back catalog continues! This one is excellent. Ghost Reveries still got a lot of heavier influence from their earlier work, but it's married really well to the progressive elements they began to work into their sound. 

Katatonia's Dance of December Souls is absolutely essential if you love that particularly 90s flavor of doom. 


I got three of Kobold Press's books of races for 5e: Unlikely Heroes, Southland Heroes, and Midgard Heroes. The new races and backgrounds presented in these books are cool, and seem very well balanced for a third-party publication. These are all definitely going to see use when I run Scarabae. (Plus, if anyone ever wants to play a dhampir in Krevborna now we're set.) Also, I want to say something about Kobold Press's customer service. My books arrived a little bit chewed up by the postal system. I wrote to Kobold Press, not asking for a refund, not asking for new books, just offering some packaging feedback. The fellow who replied to my email sent me new copies of the books in a sturdy box, no questions asked. Between their high-quality content and great customer service, I'll definitely be buying more from Kobold Press. They're doing it right.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Palmer

The Palmer was originally a bogeyman used to parents to scare their children into submission. "Don’t fuss," they’d say, "or the Palmer will get you!" Parents described the Palmer as a husky, short man with a gleaming bald head; he might even pass for human if his eyes did not register an obvious and burning supernatural malevolence. "Finish your milk, or the Palmer will come in the night and give you poison to drink!"

There is a funny thing about belief: as soon as enough mothers and fathers had filled their progeny’s heads with scare-tales about the fictional bogeyman, he became real because the children believed he was real. Now the Palmer stalks the night, seeking children to poison.

* * *

Stats: use the stats of a Shadow (Monster Manual 269), but replace its necrotic damage with poison damage.

* * *

This monster was inspired by the real-life Victorian murderer, William Palmer. You can read all about him in Stephen Bates’s book Poisoner.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Master and Margarita: Absurdity and Writing

The characters in Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita live in an obviously absurd world. The extremity of that absurdity is such that instead of creating a rich tapestry of fantasy or magic realism, it instead renders the plot—such that it is—annoying to many readers. And yet, I don't think that annoyance is truly rooted in an utterly unrecognizable heft of absurdity permeating the plot, characters, and setting; rather, the absurdity in the novel is vexing because it echoes a fear we have about our own existences: our world is also absurd, and if it isn't as profoundly absurd, it is at least persistently absurd. There is an uncomfortable resonance there, which is why the narrative chafes.

Many of the characters in the novel attempt to make sense of the absurdity that surrounds them in a way that is recognizable to many of us: they attempt to write their way toward sense, order, and understanding of the world around them. Take Ivan, the poet, as an example:

'The poet’s attempts to compose a report on the terrible consultant had come to nothing. As soon as he received a pencil stub and some paper from the stout nurse, whose name was Praskovya Fyodorovna, he had rubbed his hands together in a businesslike fashion and hastily set to work at the bedside table. He had dashed off a smart beginning, “To the police. From Ivan Nikolayevich Bezdomny, member of MASSOLIT. Report. Yesterday evening I arrived at Patriarch’s Ponds with the deceased Berlioz …”

And the poet immediately became confused, largely due to the word “deceased.” It made everything sound absurd from the start: how could he have arrived somewhere with the deceased? Dead men don’t walk! They really will think I’m a madman!

Such thoughts made him start revising. The second version came out as follows, “ …with Berlioz, later deceased …” That didn’t satisfy the author either. He had to write a third version, and that came out even worse than the other two, “… with Berlioz, who fell under a streetcar …” What was irksome here was the obscure composer who was Berlioz’s namesake; he felt compelled to add, “ …not the composer …”' (Chapter XI: Ivan is Split in Two).

Even those most comforting pastimes and passions of the intelligent and creative—writing, words, literature, art—fail to give sufficient structure or stability to a world seething with nonsense, surreality, coincidence, and chaos. Words might comfort us, but in the end they don't work; language becomes so slippery and imprecise that even Ivan's third draft of his account refuses to give a definite shape to his experience.

So it goes with all of us, but perhaps writers feel this failure more keenly. Bulgakov certainly does: the novel is brimming with writers and other creatives who turn to writing or storytelling as a bulwark against an uncertain world, only to have a chance for greater meaning slip away into the tumult of a world that cannot be tamed by words alone. Ivan feels this, as does the Master, as does Margarita, as does anyone connected to MASSOLIT, as does Pontius Pilate and Levi Matvei as they witness The Story of Stories unfolding. Does Bulgakov? I'm terrifyingly certain he did.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Incarnate Zones, Purple Worm Trains, Law and Disorder


There are magical regions scattered throughout Umberwell called Incarnate Zones where reality itself goes wrong—areas of planar breach where magic is behaves strangely or the veil between worlds grows thin and allows outsiders to enter the material plane. At the heart of every Incarnate Zone is a Delphic Hole—a black void of negation that has desires and must be fed.


You may wish to ride one of the city's purple worm trains—each a massive invertebrate annelid shaped by powerful transmutations and animated by necromantic magic—if you've a need to travel across the city, especially if you want to travel from one of the city-state’s islands to another via the city’s undersea tunnels. Umberwell's worm trains are owned and operated by Wyrmwyck Industries, a corporation of questionable motives that is tolerated because they keep their fares cheap enough for the common citizen to afford. 


Due to a culture the prizes parish sovereignty above metropolitan cohesion, Umberwell has no official city-wide police force. A number of independent thief-takers, borough watchmen, and phrenological detectives (those who detect crime by studying features and head-shapes) operate as law-for-hire. The truly desperate turn to the members of Blind Justice—though they do not see, they sense crime and purge it with great violence. The most dangerous criminals in Umberwell are incarcerated in the supposedly inescapable Bleakbone Gaol in Rendchurch.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Warlock Patrons in Krevborna

Warlocks make pacts with otherworldly beings to gain their powers, which opens up a good place to do some world-building. Plus, any of these can double as antagonists or allies, depending on how the players situate their characters in the world

I'm not sure it's obvious from the terse descriptions below, but I've tried to craft each set of otherworldly beings (Demons, Devils, Great Old Ones, Archfey) with a different "theme." Demons are all about inspiring destructive and chaotic impulses that undermine civilization, Devils seduce mortals into seeking personal power, Great Old Ones inspire their agents to unravel cosmic mysteries and seek unknowable truths, and Archfey embolden the connection between mortals and the natural world.


AleyusThe Butcher
  • Inspires mortals to wantonly shed the blood of their fellow men
  • Portrayed as a hulking beast with a horned, animalistic head

BeldamusThe Bringer of Madness
  • Inspires mortals to drive others into the arms of insanity and nihilism
  • Portrayed as a many-headed monstrosity that screams and whispers from its many mouths

OzogaThe One Who Slithers
  • Inspires mortals to spread illness and disease to the innocent
  • Portrayed as a monstrous snake or worm whose mouth is lined with venom-dripping fangs

PyoricThe Child of Flesh
  • Inspires mortals to commit carnal excesses and breed demoniac progeny
  • Portrayed as a slavering, wanton beast of ambiguous gender

YanakusThe Father of Undeath
  • Inspires mortals to reanimate the dead as creatures of darkness
  • Portrayed as a grave-bloated and pale man with the head of a rotten goat


AbzulaThe Sweet Seducer
  • Inspires mortals to use lustful means to gain power and influence over others
  • Portrayed as a beautiful woman clad in the furs and diadem of a wealthy noblewoman

AgrazusThe Iron Hand
  • Inspires mortals to take power by martial means and force of arms
  • Portrayed as a soldier wreathed in flames and holding an impossibly-heavy hammer

DamazuFirst Among Hell
  • Inspires mortals to bend others to their will through guile, stratagem, and intricate scheming
  • Portrayed as an imperious man with cloven hooves who holds a bloodied scepter

Malistrad – The Infernal Sage
  • Inspires mortals to seek knowledge hidden by the Church
  • Portrayed as an old man bound by stout iron chains to a ponderous book of lore

MenochThe Apostate Minstrel
  • Inspires mortals to use religion to enrich or empower themselves at the expense of others
  • Portrayed as a young man or woman holding an ornate musical instrument

Great Old Ones

The Envoy of the Black Stars
  • Associated with planar communion and otherworldly contact
  • Portrayed as a luminescent, fungal abomination

The Maiden of Dust
  • Associated with prophecy and despair
  • Portrayed as a ravening maw

The Bloodletting Beast
  • Associated with nightmares, doom, and unnatural births
  • Portrayed as an empty shroud laden with chains

The Pallid Emergence
  • Associated with dreams and the moon
  • Portrayed as an impossible thin and pale figure with writhing hair

The Elder Scholar
  • Associated with forbidden knowledge
  • Portrayed as a mass of unblinking eyes

The Inchoate Presence
  • Associated with mystery, chaos, and unfathomable plans
  • Never Portrayed directly

The Hunger of the Void
  • Associated with senseless violence and ceaseless propagation
  • Portrayed as a monstrous, spider-like thing


The Foolish Maiden
  • Emboldens mortals to abandon themselves in dreams and reverie
  • Portrayed as a laughing woman crowned with wildflowers

The Lover of Midnight
  • Emboldens mortals to seek dark pleasures in the deep woods
  • Portrayed as a cruel woman clad in cobweb and frost

The Mountain Lord
  • Emboldens mortals to join the Wild Hunt against those who have offended the fey
  • Portrayed as an arboreal man with antlers wearing furs

The Tempest Princeling
  • Emboldens mortals to give in to their destructive and impetuous impulses
  • Portrayed as an angry young man wearing a raiment of dark clouds

The Verdant Knight
  • Emboldens mortals to make war against civilization
  • Portrayed as a towering knight clad in green armor and bearing a greataxe

The Wild Queen
  • Emboldens mortals to protect the natural world
  • Portrayed as a shining woman gowned in waves of spring water and fallen leaves
Nicely formatted pdf of these here.