Monday, February 27, 2017

Miles Behind Us

The first volume of The Walking Dead ended with the death of Shane, and there is no way that the second is going to let us forget that. We immediately get a flashback scene to the start of Lori's affair with Shane, which is in turn linked to the notion that to live during the apocalypse inevitably changes a person. Rick describes the change in Shane's character as "drastic," but that undersells it by quite a bit. It would be more accurate to describe Shane's descent as a "monstrous" change of heart. But even Shane's sudden, horrific willingness to kill his best friend is given an understandable explanation: the stress of survival is transformative, and whatever alterations it brings pose profound dangers to the self and the cohesive of the social units to which they belong. Any individual person can only endure so much before the breaking point makes them a liability to the survival of the group and an internal threat. Stress we cannot cope with makes us the enemy within.

As a way of exploring the idea that the group's survival is dependent on the individual's ability to handle stress, The Walking Dead starts loading its protagonist with new stresses to illustrate that not even a square-jawed hero is immune to the eruption of personal demons. First, Rick learns that Lori is pregnant. If the world hadn't gone to hell, this would be cause for celebration; but in a zombie-plagued landscape where the living are hanging on by a thread, being in the family way pushes new obstacles and concerns to the forefront for a guy who is already expected to provide for and protect both his immediate family and the larger familial unit of the group. When Lori and Rick break their news to the group, no one knows how to respond because, given the context, this isn't a joyous occasion. Of course, because The Walking Dead is a soap opera at heart, Lori's pregnancy carries an additional layer of stress in that Rick can't be sure that the baby is his. 

When The Walking Dead starts piling it on one character, it really unloads on them. With the prospect of a difficult addition to his family on his mind, Rick also has to deal with his son Carl getting shot during a hunting accident. This is the incident that pushes Rick past his personal breaking point and reveals that, although it might take more to get him there, he has the same sort of monstrosity lurking under his heroic exterior that we have already seen unleashed through Shane's murderous breakdown. Rick's blind rage and willingness to kill Otis for shooting his son is understandable, but it also delineates that even a good man might not hesitate to pull the trigger when the thing he clings to is being taken away from him. Perhaps we get a sense of why Lori is drawn to both Shane and Rick; they aren't so different, after all.

Of course, Rick doesn't end up killing Otis, but it's easy to imagine that if he did it would have a disastrous impact on the group's stability. Knowing what we do about Rick's sentimentality and hidden fragility, it is likely that he would soon spiral out of control and leave the group without its linchpin. The comic gives us a displaced version of how Rick might hypothetically response to loss; Allen's nearly-complete emotional shut down after the death of Donna could be taken as an alternate universe version of Rick's fate should he lose Carl, Lori, and his internal moral compass. Indeed, this chapter of the story gives us another instance of a good man who is pushed too far by hellish circumstances; after the death of his son and daughter in the barn, Hershel snaps and draws down on Rick the same way that Shane drew down on Rick and in the same way that Rick drew down on Otis.

Much of the stress depicted in this chapter is directly related to the assumption that if the group is it to survive it must have a leader who is both stereotypically male and stereotypically capable. Dale reveals that the reason the group hadn't moved camp earlier was because Shane--the default masculine authority--didn't endorse the idea. Now that Rick has assumed the role left vacant by Shane's death, it all falls to him to be the locus of authority they seem to expect and desire. Dale makes it clear that it has to be Rick: Dale is too old (and therefore too weak), Glenn is too young (and therefore not yet truly a man), and Allen is simply too incompetent (he later reveals that Donna wore the pants in their family, which is a damning sin according to the patriarchal order being established here). The oddest part of the exchange between Rick and Dale about the need for a man to lead them to the promised land of safety is that Rick doesn't question the imposition of the role or even the worldview behind it. Rick also seems to believe that the role is a natural requirement and that he is the obvious candidate to take on the mantle.

With all of this potentially fatal stress buffeting the group at every turn, the characters use sex as their release valve. There is a massive, and obvious, emphasize on sex, pair bonding, and the need for physical and emotional intimacy even in close quarters in this volume. Dale and Andrea are spotted having sex as a way of getting through Amy's death; Glenn and Maggie have sex to boost Glenn's feelings of inadequacy and give Maggie something of her own not related to her family; Chris and Julie have sex as a form of rebellion against life under what they perceive to be Tyreese's thumb; Tyreese immediately pairs off with Carol beause both need reaffirmation after their personal losses. Even the interactions of Carl and Sophie are viewed by the adults in the group through this lens; there is a heightened level of projection here that assumes that the children will ultimately end up together because they will inevitably need to rely on each other in the same way that the adults currently need each other as physical and emotional reassurance.

However, as much as sex is one of the few pleasures they have recourse to in an anhedonic world, it is an imperfect form of release. Sex can function like any other stressor for the group and can threaten the group dynamic. Rick's worries over Lori's pregnancy, to say nothing of his anxieties that another rooster has been in the hen house, are the most stark illustration of this, but it crops up for the other characters as well. The introduction of Tyreese and the ease with which Tyreese catches Carol's attention puts Glenn in a mindset where he reconsiders his sense of belonging within the group; the sexual relationship between Chris and Julie sets Tyreese on edge because it is a facet of the social dynamic he's not fully in control of; catching Glenn with Maggie is the event that pushes Hershel into ejecting Rick's group from the safety of his farm. Sex, physical contact, and pleasure are things we cling to when the world upends, but they also leverage already extant cleavages in the social dynamic--pairing off with one person is always already a matter of exclusion, and exclusion is a luxury that survivors don't have.

From the hip:

  • It's interesting that the introduction of Tyreese--a powerful, former NFL player--doesn't shake up the masculine pecking order established earlier in the comic. He doesn't seem to challenge Rick's leadership of the group in any meaningful way. Is it assumed that the leader of the group will be white and this is just an unspoken part of the job's requirements?
  • The depiction of Glenn as not masculine enough to be a leader is reinforced by the later revelation that he is a virgin. But now that he's got some stank on his hang-low I'm curious to see how his place in the larger narrative evolves. Also worth noting: Glenn isn't positioned as a potential leader and he's also not a white guy.
  • I stopped watching the tv adaption of The Walking Dead once they reached the farmhouse because their stay there seemed interminable. The comic handles this episode at a much brisker pace; the comic's depiction of those events is quicker moving and ultimately more satisfying because of it.

Friday, February 24, 2017

One Night at Fayaz's

Campaign: Scarabae (Open Table 5e D&D)


  • Theobaldo, the Marques de Carabas - refined and gentlemanly tabaxi rogue
  • Mortimer - pugilistic human monk
  • Dr. Aleister Wiffle - human fighter conducting research into infectious diseases
  • Ash - human monk and accomplished sprinter
  • Zunx - fidgety little warlock mole-ish thing

Objective: To find a dwarf child in a Chuck E. Cheese gone mad and return him to his father

  • The crew was assembled in the early hours of the morning by Koska, who sent messengers to fetch them to a location on Porthos Street in the Redgutter Ward. The client is a male dwarf whose beard is threaded with gems. He sits in a gilded carriage and speaks to the party through the carriage window. He explains that his young son Allan attended a pizza party at Fayaz's Pleasure Palace for Children last night, but come this morning he discovered that neither his son nor the servant sent as his son's chaperone had returned. Surmising that his son was still at Fayaz's, he sent three armed servants into the building to find his son, but...they never came out again.
  • Gesturing to the building across the street, the dwarf pointed out Fayaz's. The building is a single story tall and built from new brick, with a faux gilt dome on top and a gaudy sign out front. Strangely, the building had no windows. Scouting the perimeter revealed that there is a front entrance and a side entrance that is probably used to bring in foodstuffs for the kitchen. Ominous black clouds whirled above the building, propelled by winds that no one on the street can feel.
  • The characters chose the front door for their initial point of entry. Inside the front door they found three ticket booths, all of which were occupied by the corpses of the ticket-sellers. The room was illuminated by an enchanted, glowing ceiling. Obnoxiously loud carnival music blared from speakers in every room of the restaurant. The corpse of a gray-haired elf lay face down on the carpet in front of a door marked MANAGER'S OFFICE. Examination of the elf's body indicated that he had been assaulted by something capable of both bludgeoning him and slashing his vest to ribbons. Rifling his pockets gained the party a set of keys that unlocked the manager's office.
  • The manager's office proved to be fairly mundane, save for a crystal ball on the desk. When fiddled with, the ball swirled with mist and then resolved itself into an image of what appeared to be a women's bathroom. The characters had tuned in just in time to see the door to the bathroom close--something was on the move. 
  • Further manipulation of the crystal ball showed them a room lined with mechanical rides and games such as a magic dart board and an automatized whack-a-mole. Seated upon the mechanical rides were three corpses armed with swords, presumably the dwarf's servants who had been sent in prior and who had not returned. The final image the party got out of playing with the crystal ball was a constructed pit filled with multicolored rubber balls. Also in view were what appeared to be naked, chubby pink legs walking out of view. The party wondered if these legs might belong to overgrown babies, and they weren't half-wrong. 
  • And then...the crystal ball suddenly went dim and the glowing ceiling extinguished, leaving the crew in total darkness.
  • A lantern now lit, the group decided to retreat outside and try the side entrance--which put them in a pantry filled with shelves of canned ingredients and bags of flour used to make the pizzas served at Fayaz's. Aleister opened a door to see what was beyond; he found the restaurant's kitchen and also two human-sized mechanical cherubs staring back at him blankly. 
  • Shutting the door quickly and informing his fellows of what was approaching, Aleister and co. readied themselves. Mortimer quickly tied a couple aprons together; when the cherubs wrenched the door to the pantry off its hinges he was able to throw it over a cherub's head to "blind" it. The rest of the party let loose a barrage of gunfire, rapier stabs, and fisticuffs that quickly brought the two automatons down. 
  • From the kitchen, the party entered the dining room where they found several long tables still laden with food and drink. Unfortunately, they also found many adults who were either parents or staff, all of them apparently dead save for one half-orc woman. At their right was a long stage full of mechanical cherubs going through their prescribed motions--some were dancing, others playing instruments. 
  • The half-orc woman muttered something about "the children" and "the control room." Aleister decided it would be best to carry the half-orc woman back into the kitchen where they could tend to her wounds; as he was carrying her back to kitchen, however, the fattest of the cherubs on the stage shot her with an arrow and things looked grim for her, and the party, at that moment.
  • Battle broke out between the crew, the fat cherub, and a cherub drummer who also left the stage to join in the fray. The party managed to put a lot of bullets into the fat cherub, but the situation become worse when the opposition was joined by four more of the mechanical monstrosities. (These four were the ones they had caught glimpses of in the crystal ball in the manager's office.) 
  • In the ensuing battle, the party started to take quite a beating. Two of the cherubs (including the deadly bow-wielding one) were taken down, but Mortimer and Theobaldo both went down as well. Sensing the tide of battle turning against them, the remaining members of the group dragged their comrades back to the relative safety of the kitchen where they were patched up by Dr. Wiffle.
  • Oddly, the cherubs did not pursue them into the kitchen. Exploring a different path through the building brought them to a janitor's closet and then to Fayaz's control room. Listening at the door let the crew hear whispering voices seemingly talking to themselves. How they would storm the room was much debated. At last, they threw open the door, ready to hack and slash one was inside.
  • Built into the desk were a number of switches and dials used to control the various enchantments at work in the building. Also on the desk were a crystal ball like the one in the manager's office and a large black egg swirling with shadowy power. Zunx used his magic to manipulate the control panel to restore the light throughout the building and (finally) kill the ever-present music. Zunx also picked up the crystal ball and...sent it crashing into the black egg, shattering both. (And, it should be added, severing the outside influence exerting control over Fayaz's mechanical cherubs.)
  • Although normalcy was restored, they still hadn't found any children. The next door the party tried opened into a long hallway lined with half-built or semi-repaired cherubs. Fearing that the automatons could come to life at any moment and overtake them, they decided to test their apparent inactivity. 
  • Ash volunteered to sprint the length of the hallway, turn around, and sprint back so that his fellows could pick off anything that came after him. Ash ran his race safely; nothing sprang out at him or followed in his wake. A more cautious exploration of the hallway revealed that several children were hiding behind the cherubs, including Alan, the dwarf boy they had been sent to rescue.
  • The crew ushered the children outside, reuniting Alan with his father--who certainly won't be winning any Parent of the Year awards, as he seemed to have trouble recognizing his offspring, but such is the way of rich folk who leave the upbringing of their heirs to servants. 
  • The party returned inside, as they knew that there should have been more children inside that they hadn't found. They were right, but there were no more children to be discovered within. What had happened to them? The only clue they discovered was a black ashen ring featuring leaf-like sigils burned into the floor of a workshop--a sign they recognized as belonging to the Children of Fimbul, a dark sect of druids that wish to begin the apocalypse to rid the world of machines and usher in the rebirth of a more natural age.

The Take:

  • XP - 205 each.
  • Assorted coins and jewelry looted throughout the premises and your fee from the dwarf: 318 gp each.
  • The crystal ball from the manager's office will allow you to see into any room of Fayaz's, which might come in hand if you ever need to peek into whatever business sets up shop in the building. Fayaz's is undoubtedly closed for business.
  • That smoke-able stash of drugs you found in the kitchen turns out to be magical; when smoked it functions as a potion of heroism.
  • Two of the now-dead parents were apparently in the habit of communicating to each other with a pair of sending stones.
  • One woman was wearing a bracelet of prayer beads; 5 of them turn out to be beads of force.
  • Talk among yourselves and let me know how you want to distribute the magic items.
  • Also, if you'd like to note some aspect of the adventure that was important to your character as a way to get Inspiration in an adventure to come, feel free. I've written up my Inspiration replacement rules here. Let me know if you have any questions about that.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Art of Gothic: Britain's Midnight Hour

The Art of Gothic: Britain's Midnight Hour
There is a hallowed tradition with this sort of BBC documentary: at some point it's going to go comically off the rails. The first third is the strongest bit; it gives a lively and informed overview of the Gothic as a historic term, a style of architecture, and a burgeoning literary form that officially started with the publication of Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto but already had deep roots in British literature. If I had a nit to pick with the first episode of the series it would be that Ann Radcliffe didn't get nearly as much spotlight as she deserves as an innovator in the mode. Radcliffe's short-shrift is emblematic of a recurrent problem throughout The Art of Gothic; this documentary seems to imagine the Gothic as the province of male thinkers and male artists without daring to peer outside that blinkered view. (Mary Shelley and Jane Austen are the exceptions, but then, they always are, aren't they?)

But it's in the second act where things start to go a bit strange. The documentary is forced to grapple with a time line in which the Gothic enters a fallow period in the mid-nineteenth century, and thus it starts creating dubious links between cultural artifacts and a larger Gothic worldview to fill in the gaps. Analysis of Augustus Pugin's work on Westminster Palace gets spun-out into grandiose feelings about the inherent darkness of his architectural and decorative ideas (with Charles Barry's work on the Houses of Parliament oddly downplayed to fit the narrative), and the discussion of renaissance faire cod-medievalism is a square peg being fitted to a round hole. 

Worse yet, untenable claims begin to crop up. The idea that the nineteenth-century Gothic made self and identity the site of phantasmagoric horrors is advanced, seemingly without knowledge of James Hogg's eighteenth-century work in the same vein or a consideration that the horrors of self and identity informed the Gothic's literary ancestors. A case is made for Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater as the invention of drug usage as escapism, which conveniently ignores a long history of European alcoholism at the very least.

The third acts starts briskly by giving pride of place to Bram Stoker's Dracula and the various cinematic terrors it inspired, but the documentary ultimately does what many contemplations of the Gothic attempt--it aims to make the Gothic more respectable by tracing its lineage to markers of Real Culture in the twentieth century. Sure, we can read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness as colonial Gothic, but then T. S. Eliot is dragged in, one imagines against his will, as is Francis Bacon. All the insight displayed in the first hour of the series falls away, leaving us with the lazy notion that if a thing is grotesque it's probably Gothic. The ending moments are the most cringe-worthy, as they reveal--in what is probably the most British flourish ever--that the mobile phone is the true modern form of the vampire! Muahaha, the call is coming from inside the house!

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Bad Books for Bad People: The Incal

After failing in his quest to find financing for his 18- to 24-hour-long film version of Frank Herbert's Dune, Chilean-French filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo and Santa Sangre) partnered with French artist Moebius to create a science fiction graphic novel titled The Incal. This epic, first published between 1981 and 1988, takes its hapless hero John DiFool across strange galaxies while providing a platform for Jodorowsky to explore his esoteric ideas, which blend shamanism, the tarot, Freudian psychoanalysis, and theater. As you might gather, there's a lot going on here.
Jack and Kate break down how Dune's DNA exists within The Incal even though its creators take the tale in a direction that's far more madcap, alchemical, and... well, French.
Can a work of art succeed at being both serious and light-hearted at the same time? Why are women so goddamn allegorical? Is there such a thing as an unfilmable graphic novel? Who is Kill Wolfhead and why is he the best? Find out all this and more in this month's episode of Bad Books for Bad People.
Intro/Outro Music: "5:55" by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Air.
Find us at, on Twitter @badbooksbadppl, Instagram @badbooksbadpeople and on Facebook. You can discover where to get all the books featured on Bad Books for Bad People on our reading list.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Three Wells I Drink From to Bring Them Pain and Torment

A lot gets written about RPGs. A lot of it is forgettable. (I know because I write a lot about RPGs and then immediately forget about it.) Here are three articles/essays/whatever that I keep coming back to, and what I've learned from them:

Yes I Sank Your Barge, by James Wallis
Lesson learned - If you want your game to be dramatic and fun, you can't allow the characters or their players to become complacent. You have to keep their lives "interesting," by which I mean "terrible."

A 16 HP Dragon, written by Stras, archived at Sage LaTorra's page
Lesson learned - It isn't the numbers that players should fear in your game, it's how you use words to make the opposition worthy of fear.

Grand Experiments: West Marches, by Ben Robbins
Lesson learned - How you set up the social aspect of the game changes how the game is played. It's worthwhile to think about how you can arrive at the kind of game-play you want through altering the relationship of the players to the game.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Darkness is Eternal, Unfettered, and Hungry.

Campaign: Krevborna (5th edition D&D)

  • Kylic, fey-blooded half-elf cleric who feels an evil at work in the bones of the world
  • Luka, self-sacrificing human ranger who has lately converted to religious service
  • Tristan, human paladin who has sworn an oath of vengeance against the undead
Objectives: To kill the Master!

  • The party convened at the behest of Kylic, who used his network of urchins to pickpocket both Luka and Tristan and lead them into a dead-end alley where he could dramatically tell them that he felt the eyes of the Master elsewhere for the moment. With the Master distracted, his mind on other matters, Kylic felt that this was the time to strike and rid the land of his vampiric menace!
  • Two days later, the party took to the road. The weather had turned unseasonably cold, and what remained of the harvest still lay in the fields--but it was now blanketed by snow.
  • As the party traveled southeast toward the coast, they encountered a vagabond woman named Annoushka and her child making camp for the evening. Tristan approached the woman and discovered that she is a tinker. As she posed no danger, the group joined her camp for the evening and partook of her lentil stew. 
  • When asked if she knew anything about the Master's castle, Annoushka informed that she had passed it but had given it a wide berth. She said that a forest of impaled bodies stood before the castle now, and that it was a place "where hope goes to die," which proved to be oddly prophetic. Much of the conversation proved to be unplanned foreshadowing; when Tristan expressed his burning need for vengeance against the undead, Annoushka warned him that this was something that could consume him. Similarly, much was made throughout the session of the notion of Luka as a self-sacrificing man whose fate tended toward doom.
  • The party arrived at the black castle of the Master after a few days of additional travel. The iron gate was wide open, which marked a change since the last time Kylic had ventured inside. Annoushka had informed them truly of the forest of the impaled; Luka would diligently to behead each corpse in fear that they might rise up against them if they had to make a sudden retreat from the castle. Sadly, there would be no retreat for most of the party.
  • The heavy, iron-studded doors of the castle swung open easily; either the party was expected or the residents generally had no fear of intrusion. Inside, the group began to explore. Kylic, in particular, was driven to reach the highest points of the castle. 
  • The dining room in which hung the painting featuring the now-deceased Anton Sellvek was rediscovered. A bell tower was ascended as well, but so far there was no sign of the castle's inhabitants.
  • The music room, however, did prove to be occupied by a woman in a white lace dress seated at a harpsichord. Since her back was turned to the party, Luka decided that the best course of action was to sneak up behind her and attempt to end her life abruptly. Although he did get the drop on her and managed to inflict grievous wounds that turned her white lace to a crimson field of gore, she managed to find her feet and transfixed Luka in place--his lungs felt like they were filling with water and he found that he could not move from the spot.
  • Tristan and Kylic moved to Luka's aid. A door in the music room flew open and a thin, young butler with slicked-back black hair entered the room. The wounded woman was easily dispatched, but a wave of hatred and anger emanated from the servant that inflicted horrid pain on the party. The butler did not attack them directly, but whenever his stare fell upon one of our heroes it brought horrible thoughts and images to their mind's eye. 
  • This was to be the first to two battles that went back and forth; characters repeatedly went down under the barrage of negative emotions and psychic attacks rippling from the butler, bringing them to death's door, only to be revived by healing magic so the fray could continue as things spiraled dangerously out of the party's control. Ultimately, they were victorious and the butler fell has Tristan split his head with a deft halberd attack. The party barred the doors and recuperated as best they could.
  • Further exploration revealed an iron spiral staircase leading up into a clock tower. Amidst the machinery, Kylic sensed their quarry looming in the shadows. After a very short burst of banter that confirmed to Kylic that the slender, bearded "man" was indeed the Master, Kylic attempted to take him by surprise with a blast of holy power, but unfortunately his spell missed and the time for talk was now over. 
  • Much like their previous battle, this one was back-and-forth. Tristan, Kylic, and Luka all went down at some point only to be brought back to fight again until...a stalemate, of sorts. Tristan had previously abjured the Master with powerful magic that had made the vampire feel fear, but the Master had felled Luka with a vicious claw attack and now held him on the point of death as a hostage. 
  • Tristan attempted to barter for Luka's life, but all the Master wanted was for Tristan to break his oaths as a paladin and devotee of St. Othric--which Tristan could not bring himself to do. Seeing the catastrophe unfolding before his eyes, Kylic fled back down the stairs, out of the castle, and ran toward the party's carriage. Tristan considered running as well, leaving Luka to his fate, but ultimately it was in his nature to stand against the darkness even at the cost of his own life. Tristan made one last valiant attempt at slaying the master, but he too fell before the count's rending claws. 
  • Both Luka and Tristan had moments of lucidity as the horror that is the Master remade them in his own image. Through a blood-red haze they saw the Master bending toward them, they could feel a rush of anguish and pleasure as the vampire feasted upon their blood. When they regained consciousness they were no longer men of valor and conviction; they were now accursed creatures of the midnight hour bent to the will of a greater evil.
The Spoils:
  • XP - Kylic receives 1000 XP

* * *

  • This turned out to be an action-packed session that was a roller coaster of hit points lost and gained, more death saves than any one session has ever called for, and the tragic death of Krevborna's two longest-lived and much-beloved player characters. As much as I'll miss having Luka and Tristan in the game, that's where the choices led and where the dice fell. 
  • For much of the session it felt like the players were doing a "speed run" to the final boss; they pushed hard and fast in their exploration, focusing on finding and fighting the Master. Unfortunately, that had repercussions. Luka's attack on the woman in white did a good job of taking her out quickly--but ambushing her actually removed a potential ally for the party who knew the ins and outs of the castle and the Master's various weaknesses. 
  • Similarly, the rush to the clock tower left much of the castle unexplored; there were a number of things to be discovered that hinted at better tactics or points of leverage, but they went unseen. At one point Kylic had the idea that the clock tower's mechanisms were connected to the Master's invasion of Krevborna from the nightmarish realm of his origin--this wasn't correct, but he was on the right track that the clock tower did have a purpose that the party could use to their favor. 
  • Of course, in any game with dice it's also going to come down to where the bones fall. The Master was tough opposition, but not insurmountable. What did tip the scales in his favor was that I rolled two critical hits against Luka and one against Tristan, which turned the tide greatly in his favor since the party was running low on healing resources. Conversely, some of the characters were faced with bad luck on their rolls--such as Kylic's spell attacks.
  • I was on the edge of my seat during the battle against the Master, that roiling feeling present in the belly as everything fell apart for the characters, and the next day I was fairly bummed out about their dooms. All this means, of course, that the players were doing their jobs and created characters worthy of emotional investment.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Pyrads, the Keepers of the Flame

Pyrads are fey maidens who tend the sacred bonfires that are said to be the fey's source of endless rebirth and immortality. As long as such bonfires remain lit, the fey host will always return to soulless life after death. It is the duty of the pyrads to feed, nurture, and protect the bonfires to which they are bound. 

A pyrad's demeanor changes with the season. In the spring and summer, they are wild and frivolous, dancing and frolicking amidst the flames of their bonfires. In the autumn and winter they grow solemn and vicious as the flames of their fires gutter and weaken.

Medium fey, chaotic neutral
Armor Class 13; Hit Points 22 (5d8); Speed 30ft.
STR 10 (+0) DEX 16 (+3) CON 11 (+0) 
INT 14 (+2WIS 15 (+2) CHA 18 (+4)
Skills Perception +4, Stealth +5; Senses darkvision 60ft
Perception 14; languages Ignan, Sylvan; Challenge 2 (450 XP)
Innate Spellcasting. The pyrad's innate spellcasting ability is Charisma (spell save DC 14). The pyrad can innately cast the following spells, requiring no material components:
At will: produce flame
3/day each: faerie fire, thunderwave
1/day each: resistance, heat metal, flame blade
Magic Resistance. The pyrad has advantage on saving throws
against spells and other magical effects.
Speak with Beasts and Plants. The pyrad can communicate
with beasts and plants as if they shared a language.
Leaping Ember. Once on her turn, the pyrad can use 10 feet of her
movement to step magically into one bonfire within her
reach and emerge from a second bonfire within 60 feet of
the first fire, appearing in an unoccupied space within 5 feet of '
the second fire. Both bonfires must be large or bigger.
Flame Blade. Melee Spell Attack: +6 to hit reach 5 ft., one target. Hit
10 fire damage
Fey Charm. The pyrad targets one humanoid or beast that she
can see within 30 feet of her. If the target can see the pyrad, it
must succeed on a DC 14 Wisdom saving throw or be magically
charmed. The charmed creature regards the pyrad as a trusted
friend to be heeded and protected. Although the target isn't
under the pyrad's control, it takes the pyrad's requests or
actions in the most favorable way it can.

Each time the pyrad or its allies do anything harmful to the target, it can repeat the saving throw, ending the effect on itself on a success. Otherwise, the effect lasts 24 hours or until the pyrad dies, is on a different plane of existence from the target, or ends the effect as a bonus action. If a target 's saving throw is successful, the target is immune to the pyrad's Fey Charm for the next 24 hours.

The pyrad can have no more than one humanoid and up to three beasts charmed at a time.

* * *

Based on the dryad, obviously.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Ascend in Winter, Descend as Fire

† Isa - The Tree 
† Katatonia - Tomb of Insomnia 
† Imperium Dekadenz - An Autumn Serenade 
† Opeth - The Grand Conjuration 
† Ahab - The Sun Below 
† Evoken - The Mournful Refusal 
† Neurosis - Fire is the End Lesson 
† Der Weg Einer Freiheit - Requiem

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Momentous Events: A Replacement for Inspiration in 5e D&D

Generally, the way you get Inspiration in 5e is by roleplaying in accordance with your character's Personality Traits, Ideal, Bond, and Flaw. This means that the ways in which your character gets Inspiration are largely determined at character creation; a good DM would likely give you the option of changing Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws as you play, but whether you roll on the random tables provided for your character's background or invent your own you've got them set up before play even starts.

But what about tying the Inspiration mechanic to the events of the game as it is played instead? Below is a hack I wrote inspired by an idea that Erik of Wampus Country floated on G+:

  • Get rid of Personality Traits, Ideal, Bond, and Flaw on the character sheets for your game. Have a blank space titled Momentous Events or Legendarium or Tall Tales or whatever best fits the aesthetics of your game.
  • After each session of play, ask each player what the most memorable moment (a "Momentous Event") for their character was in the session. Have them write that event down in a single line in that blank space you've made on the character sheet.
  • Some examples of appropriate Momentous Events: "Punched Tiamat and lived to tell the tale," "Convinced the Frost Giant Jarl to end the War of the Nine Planes," "Lone survivor of the Bullywug Marches expedition," "Contracted the plague," etc.
  • Each event that a character accumulates after sessions of play can be invoked once per session to grant the character advantage if they can relate how their past experience is helping them out in the current situation. Essentially, calling on that event grants them immediate Inspiration--as long as the DM or maybe maybe group consensus agrees that the event if applicable.
  • A character can only have three Momentous Events from past sessions on their character sheet at a time. After accumulating three events they can choose to swap an old one for a new event they've just experienced after a session concludes--basically, they get to choose which events are shaping their character's personality, outlook, or legend. Or maybe traumas endured, depending on your game.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Green Inferno

Spoilers ahead, I guess, but if anything I'm doing you a favor by spoiling this film.

tl;dr summary: The Green Inferno is like when a particularly exploitative issue of National Geographic has a baby with a gag-laden issue of Fangoria.

It turns out that building a movie from lazy, stupid stereotypes makes for a lazy, stupid film. College kids are ~ignorant and ~arrogant, activists are ~the real problem, brown people are ~savages, women are ~catty, etc. Oddly , the film feels like it was made by someone with very little life experience who is relying on the echo chamber of narrow minds for ideas. Things it appears Eli Roth does not understand: how undergrads talk, how marijuana works, what an interesting film might be like.

Eli Roth's usual mixture of gore and slapstick humor is especially cack-handed here; at every turn it works against the premise of a horror film. I think we're supposed to feel traumatized when the plane goes down in the rain forest, but that's undercut by one character puking on himself during the descend and another RUNNING INTO A PROPELLER like a Looney Tunes character once they're on the ground. I think we're supposed to feel dread when these dopey undergrads are taken captive to be cannibalized, but that's undercut by weed humor, one character beating off in front of the others so he can "clear his head," and another experiencing some very explosive diarrhea. Anything that could add terror or horror or abjection to this tired pile of cliches is undercut almost immediately.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Case of the Abducted Drake

The Characters
  • Theobaldo, tabaxi gentleman rogue
  • Volgo, monstrous barbarian who threatens to eat his foes
  • Mortimer, street fightin' human monk
  • The party arrives at the office of their sometimes-employer (Koska, a tiefling woman with prehensile hair) to find her taking coffee with another tiefling woman wearing a white carnival mask. Koska explains that the woman is their client, and that her pet drake was stolen from her apartment. The job is to find out who abducted the woman's pet and to retrieve it. Due to necessary discretion, the party won't be allowed to search the scene of the crime, but they are assured that the woman's servants have been cleared of any wrongdoing and are told that the drake must have been smuggled out of the small window in the room in which it was kept.
  • The party's first stop on their investigation is to see Voone Jaskar, a turtleman who everyone knows buys and sells illicit goods at his pawn shop in Redgutter. No one has tried to sell Voone a drake lately, and he remarks that there isn't much market for rare pets like that in the local underworld. He does offer to put the characters in touch with the Kneecutters, a local gang of "half-pints" (halflings, goblins, kobolds, etc.) who run the local protection racket.
  • Next, the party stops by Goodneighbor's Emporium, the only department store in Redgutter Ward. They ask the clerk about a cage big enough for a drake, and find out that the store had just sold a cage of the same make and model a few days prior. Pressing for details, they find out that the cage was sold to a ratman named Creel, but unfortunately the address he gave at the time of purchase proves to be fictitious.
  • On the way to ask Wick, the fire genasi bartender at the Bullroarer Tavern, Brewery, and Sauna about Creel, the party realize that they are being clumsily shadowed by four figures--two kobolds, a goblin, and a halfling. Mortimer uses his amazing agility to scale a wall unseen and drop down behind the pursuers, while Volgo approaches the halfling and immediately begins to threaten to eat him. Picking the halfling up like a sack of meal, Volgo brings him to Theobaldo for questioning. The party learns that the half-pints are all from the Kneecutter gang, that Creel is the leader of a rival gang called the 47 Rodents, and that the group can call on the Kneecutters if they make a move against the 47 Rodents because, hey, one less gang in Redgutter means less competition for the Kneecutters.
  • At the Bullroarer, the party refreshes themselves with ale and goat curry. Wick tells them that the 47 Rodents are no longer welcome at the Bullroarer, and she gives the party the location of their hideout along an abandoned stretch of Redgutter's docks.
  • Hoping to scope out the hideout of the 47 Rodents before attempting to find the missing drake, Theobaldo hides in the rubble of a ruined warehouse, Mortimer climbs a ladder to the roof of a still-extant warehouse, and Volgo pretends to fish off the pier. The sound of a metal door opening is heard and Volgo sees a man dressed in a robe of filthy furs exit the warehouse that Mortimer is atop of; the man makes his way to the ladder at the side of the building, but is arrested by Theobaldo, who pretends to be an officer of the law demanding information. The man says that he is a priest and a neighbor of the 47 Rodents.
  • Mortimer descends from the building by scaling down its rough stone walls, but unfortunately he nearly slips and lets out a loud grunt. He and Volgo explore the priest's warehouse, where they find his cot, some personal effects, and an altar on which is a stone statue of a hideous, horned, multi-eyed rat. 
  • Mortimer's grunt had been heard in the warehouse next door; the party hears a door shut softly and the approach of malefactors. Two ratmen with wicked curved knives and one ratman with a drawn pistol stand at the ready. They're all wearing leather armor with an insignia featuring a 47 above a rat skull. Mortimer rushes one of the knifemen and shanks him handily, then punches the other in the face. Mortimer is stabbed in return by the dead ratman's compatriot. Volgo rushes at the gunman, but the gunman is toppled by a shot from Theobaldo. 
  • Another shot rings out. Someone is firing at the party from below! Volgo lops the head off the remaining knifeman and leaps through a hole in the dock to land next to a larger ratman below. The ratman drops his pistol, draws a cutlass, and nearly kills Volgo in one horrendous swipe. Volgo is enraged and destroys his foe mightily. 
  • Topside, a hairless rat clambers up the wood of a ladder from down below. It staggers like a poisoned thing, its skin bubbling up like cheese under a broiler. It splits into three hairless rat things, and they all charge at Theobaldo. Theobaldo spots the priest attempting to flee the scene, pounces at him with great alacrity, but only manages to grab onto the man's gross robe of pelts, which comes away in his hand, leaving the priest running down the street naked. When Mortimer threatens to destroy the priest's rat idol, the man turns and shouts "I'm thinking about converting to another religion! The rat god isn't working out." He escapes.
  • Meanwhile, Mortimer and Theobaldo deal with the multiplying rat beasts by throwing flaming debris at them and by creating a makeshift gunpowder trap. However, Theobaldo is bit in the melee, and contracts a horrifying disease that will later cause him to wake up next to an inert copy of his own body that he shed overnight.
  • Volgo discovers the rat leader's shack of corrugated metal beneath the boardwalk, and finds a pile of looted goods and a sleeping drake in a cage that matches the one they saw earlier at the Emporium. The drake is asleep, apparently drugged by the rat men to keep it docile.
  • The drake is returned to its owner, a sample of the weird rat-thing's flesh is taken in case Theobaldo turns out to be infected (he is), and a hit list against the Kneecutters found in the 47 Rodent's stash is turned over to the rival gang, who promise to take out whatever remains of the ratmen upstarts.
The Take
  • XP - 283 each
  • 270 gp for returning the drake
  • 73 gp 190 sp 9 cp
  • Statue of THE CHITTERER (50 gp)
  • Copper hairpin topped with a bawdy mermaid in silver (5 gp)
  • Copper teakettle (1 gp)
  • Polished brass buttons (5 sp)
  • Silver fork (1 sp)
  • Sapphire earrings (275 gp)
  • Silver dagger (50 gp)
  • Gold ring with inset emerald (310 gp)
  • Engraved parade helmet (5 gp)
  • A ring of old keys
  • Four syringes of sedatives, six syringes of adrenalizer 
  • The priest's staff (allows the wielder to speak with rats and summon a rat swarm once per day)
  • --> 353 gp 2 sp 3 cp each for the salable items, unless somebody wants to keep any of this. Also, who's taking the staff?