Friday, March 31, 2017

The House Locked in Enmity

Campaign: Krevborna (open table, 5e D&D)


  • Marek, human fighter, on the run for arming the folk against a tyrant
  • Elaria, wood elf ranger, affiliated with an alchemist's guild
  • The Captain, human barbarian, believes armor to be a crutch of weak cityfolk
  • Verdegan, kenku rogue, has flattered a powerful and feared pirate captain
  • Erasmus, tiefling barbarian, possessing of a monstrous rage

Objective: Travel to the haunted Easterly House and find Lucia, a missing librarian


  • The adventurers were asked to travel to the abandoned Easterly House at the behest of Father Eskil, a clergymen of the Church of the Saintly Blood. Eskil's friend, the librarian Lucia, had told him that she was venturing to the house to look for something in the Easterly's library, but since she hadn't returned he was concerned for her safety.
  • The party arrived at the Easterly House at nightfall, racing against the tide beginning to wash over the causeway that connects the house sits upon to the mainland. The house itself is dark; no light shines from its windows.
  • What the characters know about the Easterly House and its former occupants was handled with a series of flashbacks. Each player was given a list of NPCs and asked to pick one as the person who would tell them something of importance. From their contacts, they learned that the marriage of Thaddeus and Susan Easterly was an unhappy one that was arranged by their families for economic reasons; Susan had wanted to go to university, but was denied the opportunity by her marriage; Thaddeus was in love with a woman named Juliette prior to his marriage, and Juliette disappeared soon after the marriage took place; Thaddeus and Susan had a son who drowned in the marshlands at the age of ten; Susan hung herself from a balcony after her son's death; Thaddeus ended his days as a madman confined to an asylum.
  • Back to the present: Elaria scouted the perimeter of the building and discovered that there were entrances at the front, back, and both sides of the house. The party chose to enter by way of the front door--which was unlocked and creaked open ominously--and began to explore by the light of a lantern. 
  • Inside a closet used to store mops, buckets, and other cleaning supplies, the group heard a rhythmic beating sound. Further exploration indicated that the sound was coming from beneath the floorboards. Shining a light between the gaps of the floorboards revealed to the Captain that there was a pulsating organ about the size of a fist creating the noise; in a fit of madness or panic, the Captain hefted his greatsword and brought it down on the floorboards again and again, obliterating the fiendish organ beneath and quieting its hellish tattoo.
  • In the study, Elaria found a book lying on the desk. The book was a tome describing otherworldly entities worshiped before the conversion of Krevborna's populace to the faith of the Saintly Blood. The book had been left open to a chapter on the Watcher in Darkness. Inside the central desk drawer, Elaria also found an ornately-carved teak box that contained a full set of human teeth. Verdegan picked the lock on the other drawer and found three stoppered vials. Elaria's alchemical background helped her determine that one of the vials contained a potion of necrotic resistance. 
  • Back in the hallway, members of the party smelled smoke and noticed black ethereal wisps coalescing into eight skeletons that began crawling toward them. The specters all had malformed back legs and couldn't stand; they dragged themselves down the hall, slashing at the adventurers with their claws. Marek, the Captain, and Erasmus cleaved into the specters with their two-handed weapons, which combined with support fire from Elaria and Verdegan's bows to make tidy work of the broken, smoking skeletons.
  • After locating the stairs to the second level of the house, the party discovered a small room dominated by an antique clawfoot tub. Inside the tub was a thick greenish-gray murk. Poking at the murk with his weapon caused the muck to form a face that engulfed the blade of Erasmus's polearm. His attempt to pull the face out of the water caused the spirit to make more of a physical form from the mess; it took on the form of a woman. The thing responded to the name Susan, and the apology offered for disturbing of her home was accepted, but perhaps a little too well. She offered to let the party stay within her home "forever." She told them that Lucia was still alive inside the house, but did not tell them where. Unwilling to converse further, Susan sank back down into the mire in the tub.
  • Further exploration of the house resulted in the party finding the library, as well as the missing Lucia sleeping on a couch in the room. When awakened, she explained that she wished that the adventurers hadn't been sent to find her, as they were likely now as trapped in the house as she was. 
  • When pressed about being trapped, Lucia told them that all of her attempts to leave the house had been halted by either Susan's ghost or the ghost of her son, Nathaniel. The ghosts would attack her until she lost consciousness, after which she would awaken in one of the rooms of the house. Lucia was clearly unhinged by her experiences in the house, but to prove her point she led the party to the window in a maid's former bedroom, where she pointed out a spectral boy with luminous eyes staring intently at the house from the surrounding marshland.
  • The party decided to test Lucia's claims. Erasmus, Marek, and Elaria attempted the front door, only to be confronted by the Susan's specter, clad in mourning garb and trailing a noose from around her neck. Attempts to pass her to get to the door were met with stiff resistance; the dangling end of her noose encircled Erasmus's neck, causing his flesh to wither, burn, and rot.
  • Meanwhile, Verdegan attempted to leave via a side entrance and was confronted by the specter of Nathaniel. Nathaniel offered to let Verdegan play with him forever, and smiled. Nathaniel's smith began to become unnaturally wide, until his lips started to draw over his entire head, leaving behind a sphere that seemed to be comprised of nothing but teeth. Despite this horrific display, Verdegan parlayed with the specter; Nathaniel revealed that his mother had drowned him in the marshes because he reminded her too much of the husband she never wanted and she resented him for "robbing" her of the life she desired. Nathaniel offered a deal: find his mother's corpse in the crypts, destroy it, and he'd let the party leave the house.
  • Back at the front of the house, Erasmus was aided by Elaria and Marek in withdrawing himself from Susan's noose. As they retreated, Susan made an offer: find Nathaniel's body, destroy it, and she'd let the party leave the house.
  • The party debated which of the ghosts posed the biggest threat, and ultimately decided to search the house for Susan's resting place. They crossed a long gallery of oil paintings, and noticed that portraits of Susan and Nathaniel were positioned opposite each other--their eyes locked in a mutual, unflinching stare. Verdegan located a secret door that led down into the basement of the house.
  • The first chamber they searched was empty save for a brick wall that had a hole in it where the bricks seemed to be pushed out of place to fall onto the stone floor. Peering inside with the lantern revealed that the skeleton of a woman was chained in the alcove behind the wall. Further examination revealed that the corpse's skull was completely toothless. Erasmus tentatively began to fit the teeth that Elaria had discovered previously into the skull. Surprisingly, the teeth held their place--the skull even seemed to move itself into position so that Erasmus could better put the teeth into their sockets.
  • The second chamber the party ventured into was the family crypts. A number of stone sarcophagi lay empty, their stone lids leaned against the wall at the ready. Two sarcophagi were sealed: one for Thaddeus Easterly and one for Susan. The sound of something being dragged was heard coming from the adjoining corridor; the sound was Susan's noose dragging on the floor as she came to stop the adventurer's from interfering with her remains.
  • Marek, Elaria, and Verdegan held off Susan while Erasmus and the Captain set to wrenching the heavy stone slab from her sarcophagus. Inside were the remains of a woman wearing Susan's now-familiar black mourning garb and veil, the body's neck bent at an awful angle since she had died by hanging. Erasmus lifted the corpse, tore its head off, and crushed its skull beneath his boot. Susan's specter dissipated.
  • Returning to the previous alcove to give the body behind the brick wall a proper burial, the party discovered that the corpse was now mysteriously missing. Dawn was now breaking and the tide had retreated, so the party gathered up Lucia and found that they could now safely make their way out of the house and back to their carriage. 
  • However, once inside the carriage, a few members of the group noticed the ghost of Nathaniel reaching for the handle to its door. Before he could open the door and attack them, the corpse of a blonde-haired woman emerged from the marshy soil, bit into Nathaniel's leg with her perfectly white teeth, and dragged him down into the marsh before he could trouble our band of heroes. Returning Juliette's teeth had put her in their debt, a debt that she repayed by helping the party escape from the horrors of Easterly House.

The Take:

  • XP: 190 each.
  • Loot: The promised fee from Eskil combined with selling off the jewelry and perfume you acquired in the house means you each get a share of the profits worth 158 gp.
  • Magic items: A potion of healing and a potion of heroism.
  • Inspiration: 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, March 30, 2017

The Easterly House

Here's a sketch I wrote years ago after watching The Woman in Black for the first time. I finally got to use it last night, and it worked very well.

The back-story: The Easterly House was a most unhappy home. Thaddeus Easterly and Susan Humphrey-Willis were joined through an arranged marriage, but it was a union destined to end in mutual loathing. Thaddeus was madly in love with another women, but his parents coveted the generous dowry attached to young Susan. For her part, Susan did not desire a husband or domestic life–she wanted to go to university, but was sacrificed on the marital altar by a family who cared far less about her dreams than they did about connecting their family line to the influential Easterlys.

The tragedy: After a solemn, joyless marriage ceremony, the new Mr and Mrs Easterly retired to a vast family home on the coast. The Easterlys must have fulfilled their conjugal duties as within a year a son, Nathaniel, was born to them. However, mysterious circumstances conspired to insure the family’s ruin: Nathaniel died on his tenth birthday and his mother was found hanged in the attic. Thaddeus began to appear in the village pub, complaining that his ancestral home was haunted by the ghosts of his son and wife; after his rantings became too severe, he was locked away in an asylum where he died a man broken in both body and mind.

The house: The house is an excuse to use all the trappings and conventions of a good haunted house tale in a game. 

The spectral phenomena will start small but build the longer the characters stay within it. They will hear unexplained sounds emanating from the attic, they will catches glimpses of unnatural things in mirrors, objects will go missing only to re-appear in odd places, and strange chills will descend suddenly upon anyone straying too close to the family’s papers. The phenomena will culminate in two apparitions (one a woman dressed in mourning garb, the other a young boy) who peer at each other through the windows of the house: the mother from the balcony on which she was found and the son from the doorstep. If the characters interfere with certain things within the house, they will be attacked by Susan. If the characters interfere with certain things near the marsh, they will be attacked by Nathaniel.

The twist: There will be two layers of clues in the house. The more obvious layer of clues will reveal that young Nathaniel’s body is somewhere in the nearby marsh, but was never properly laid to rest. These clues will indicate a course of action: find the boy’s body (preserved by the boggy marsh) and bury it in the crypt that houses the remains of his heart-broken mother.

Following that first layer of clues is a potentially a mistake. The second layer of clues, which will be a bit more obscure, will reveal that Susan hated her child because he reminded her too much of the husband that was forced upon her. In fact, there will be signs that indicate that Susan drowned her son in the marsh with her own hands and was subsequently driven to suicide by his ghost. Following the logic of this second layer of clues will also presuppose a solution: one set of remains (either Susan’s or Nathaniel’s) must be desecrated to appease the other’s unquiet spirit. It will be up to the characters to discern which ghost poses the least threat and which is the more malevolent spirit in need of banishment.

Points of inspiration: The Woman in Black
Ringu, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Navel Gazing in Scarabae

Over on G+, Jez asked: "What are the major conflicts in Scarabae?" A fair question, especially from a player who might want to get his character involved in some of those major conflicts.

My answer: There are four Courts that are essentially "guilds" that represent major loci of power. Each Court advises the Lord Mayor, and they wage a covert war against each other for influence and power. The Courts are: the Court of Swords (military--both official and licensed mercenary companies), the Court of Coins (mercantile consortium, organized to represent trade guilds), the Court of Wands (the most powerful arcane magicians and crafters of magic items), and the Court of Cups (the combined force of religion--they represent the interests of the Major Arcana).

Also the colonization of the Western Frontier is probably a big issue. The Western Frontier is essentially a gold rush situation, so whoever gets control of a sizable chunk of the territory is going to be a force to be reckoned with.

* * *
"It is courage to choose not what will make us happy, but what is precious."
 — Sofia Samatar, A Stranger in Olondria 

Since Jez was asking me about the upper-tier conflicts in my setting, I've started thinking about how much Scarabae is unintentionally a reaction to what's going on in the country I live in, and some shifts in Western politics overall, in the last year-plus. (That was one long election cycle.) 

Scarabae is designed as place where immigrants and refugees are encouraged to make their home. The first bit of lore in the setting doc states, "it is said that Scarabae is unique in that it welcomes the most disreputable and cast-off vagabonds to become its citizenry." It's a city-state that actually wants your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free. 

The reason why the list of races available for player characters stretches to two pages is because I want to see how cosmopolitanism works as a defining setting element. Racial disharmony isn't going to be common in the setting; more or less, different "species" get along, so the focus will be on how the individual fits in and makes their way in the greater polity. 

D&D, as a system, probably resists this a bit with its roots in pulp fantasy that inherited the colonial adventure tradition, but on some level my games always struggle with the game's framework anyway. None of these "themes" were posited by design; I guess they've just been on my mind as I've been working on game stuff. 

Too bad these ideas seem more appropriate in a fantasy setting than they do in reality, you know?

* * *

Thinking about all this led me to add another large scale conflict that didn't occur to me when Jez asked initially. I had been undecided about what demons and devils (and other fiends) were about in Scarabae. 

But I've figured it out: fiends are the inverse of the Major Arcana. Since the Major Arcana cards of the Tarot each have a contrary meaning when inverted, it makes thematic sense that the "gods" of the Major Arcana in my setting also have their antithesis--and it makes sense that their antitheses are demons, devils, and all that ilk. 

Each fiend bears the meaning of a cosmic principle in reverse. Every demon lord or archfiend is simply the opposite of one of the Major Arcana, but they're divided along an extremist axis of law and chaos regarding their ideal state. Devils are those who would bring order in its fascist form--in Scarabae, that means an end to cosmopolitanism and the dawn of nationalism, exclusion, and the notion of "making Scarabae great again." Demons are pure nihilism--everything is tainted, nothing is good enough, and so Scarabae must all effaced, forgotten, as if it had never existed.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Safety Behind Bars

The Walking Dead's group of survivors are, of course, in search of a safe haven--which leads them to an "abandoned" prison that seems like a good spot to stake a claim on. The prison has a lot to offer: secure walls, a stockpile of food, room for everyone to have at least a modicum of privacy, and land enough to start a self-sustaining farm. However, this is also a moment of irony: a prison is a place where we incarcerate the dangerous to keep the wider world safe, but now that the world has become unfathomably dangerous, the prison's thick walls become a place in which survivors incarcerate themselves for safety. There is also the implication that, whoever they may be, the inmates of a prison are always already dangerous. We might question whether a prison is actually the most thematically apt home for this particular group of characters.

Unmindful of the irony implicit in this situation, there is a preponderance of talk in this volume about civilization. When the characters speak about civilization they tend to talk in two directions; they speak about the reality of civilization's collapse and about civilization as a theoretical concept. Some of their talk strays into talking about civilization as a reified ideal. Rick's comments about the lack of civilization in the outside world during this apocalyptic moment is very telling: "From the looks of it, our government has crumbled. There's no communication, no resistance, any military presence, which I'll admit seems odd. It appears civilization is pretty well screwed." To Rick's mind, then, civilization equals the government and the military. It is something that can communicate to its constituents and it is something capable of resistance. Civilization is authority and control leveraged for the protection of the people.

Since Rick is a former policeman who still behaves as if he is on duty, this worldview makes sense for his character. Notice that he still wears his badge, as if it signifies anything without the society that lends it meaning. We've already seen him assume the mantle of authority by positioning himself as the surrogate of government and military force, and thus as the defender of an imperiled notion of civilization. Now that a potentially secure location seems to promise the opportunity to start a new life--their own private slice of civilization--Rick assumes more and more authority, but the assumption of leadership does not go as unquestioned as it did in the days when the group's survival was more in doubt.

Rick decides that he will return to Hershel's farm and get Hershel to bring what's left of his family to the prison. Although there is some talk of the prison being a better bet for the survival of Hershel's family, it feels like the real rationale is that the group will require Hershel's knowledge of farming to make a real go of transforming the prison into a community that doesn't depend on foraging for food in the dangerous world outside its gates. Rick never really stops to consider how Hershel might feel about packing up and moving to the prison. Hershel's skills are needed, and Rick sets out to make sure that his group will have access to them. That's not quite what we'd call civilization, but it is a combination of authority and force.

Rick's assumption of authority takes a darker turn when it is revealed that there is a killer in their midst. Hershel agreed to come to the prison at Rick's request, but there is a price to be paid for following what Rick thinks is best: two of his daughters are killed by someone within the prison walls. Blame immediately falls on Dexter, a black man who was imprisoned for the murder of his wife and the man she had taken up with. That's a crime of passion, not a cold-blooded murder like the one they're currently dealing with--but it doesn't matter, as the black man is considered a threat and his guilt is assumed. The real murderer turns out to be Thomas, a white man who claims he was in the prison because of tax evasion. Even in the post-apocalyptic world you're more in danger of a "lone wolf" white man snuffing out your life than anything else.

But this scene is only about prejudice in a minor key way; it has much more to say about authority, how it is constructed, and whether it can allow itself to be questioned. The revelation of Thomas's guilt poses a problem for the civilization burgeoning behind the prison's walls: what are their laws and how will they administer justice? Again, Rick assumes authority; as a lawman, he acts as though his opinion is a binding logos. Rick says that a killer must be killed. "You kill. You die," he pronounces. The verbiage of his statement is chilling; the sparseness of the language feels unquestionable, the simplicity of it is asserted authority masked as truism. Most of the group agree with him, but there are fault lines here. Lori, for example, isn't so sure that Rick should have the ability to make that call for the group as a whole. She accuses him of acting like a father, of playing God; even if the group is better off without Thomas in the fold, she's correctly heard the tenor of Rick's dictum.

The most troubling thing about Rick's version of justice is its fundamental disconnect from the laws he upheld as a policeman. He does not talk about rights, about fair trials, or about juries composed of peers. His attitude is that when civilization is at its most fragile, it must be defended vigorously with force and the imposition of unquestioned authority--even if it means that the philosophical underpinnings of civilization must give way. Rick doesn't even bother with dispensing justice equally. He knows that Tyreese is guilty of killing Chris, but he covers up the murder that Tyreese committed. The appearance of justice is just as good as the real thing if it works in service of keeping authority inviolate. In his mania to forge a polity in the prison, Rick is willing to abandon the ideals that make a civilization worthwhile in the name of security and safety.

Of course, Rick's attitude is essentially fascist, and it is one that blows up spectacularly in his face. Enforcing his authority by pummeling Thomas moves Rick no closer to the locus of justice, and he manages to mangle his own hand in the process. The wound is castrating; his attempt to exert force renders him unable to deploy it as well as he could before--without his right hand, he's no longer the best shot in the group. 

Similarly, when Dexter acquires force of his own through access to the firearms stockpiled in the guard tower, we get a clear depiction of how the idea of "might makes right" ultimately works against Rick's aims; in the final panels of the volume, Dexter has assumed authority and power and is insisting that the group leave the prison, as well as all the hopes they've pinned on it as a safe haven, because he sees no place for people like them in his polity. Dexter calls them "crazies," and names their condition as "broken." He's not wrong; the only thing that differentiates Rick's group from the prisoners is numbers. In the end, who belongs in a civilization, who will have recourse to authority, and who gets to exercise power is all down to whose finger is currently on the trigger.

From the hip:
  • Startled by a zombie as they're clearing out the prison, Rick bemoans the idea of getting used to the ever-present threat that the zombies represent. This is interesting to me because, as much as Rick is always preoccupied with the idea of survival, he fails to see that getting used to horrific traumas is an essential part of the survival process.
  • The ways of opting out of the civilization the group begins building within the prison hardly look like pleasant alternatives. We have the suicide pact between Chris and Julie (that goes horribly wrong) and Tyreese's suicidal one-man rush against the zombies in the prison gym as nonviable alternatives.
  • Sex is still the troubled intersection where physical survival and human emotional needs collide. Deprived of female companionship during their incarceration, Dexter and Andrew have formed a sexual and emotional relationship. Axel insinuates to Andrew that the introduction of the women in Rick's groups of survivors threatens his bond with Dexter. Now that women are available, surely Dexter will be "switching sides" and abandon Andrew. There is a lot to unpack from this small scene: the way that necessity mediates the kind of relationships we have, fluidity based on circumstances, the human need to maintain connections, and the multiform ways in which those connections are threatened by "interlopers." 
  • Speaking of Andrew, I'm not sure if this was an intentional way of telegraphing his sexuality, but I think he's drawn in a very feminized way. I initially thought he was a female character, in fact.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Against the Frog Pirates

Campaign: The Situational Heroes (Scarabae, 5e D&D)

  • Grayson, dragonborn battle master fighter (background: mercenary). Grayson is the disgraced son of a famous family of dragonborn mercenaries.
  • Topper, human light domain cleric (background: doctor). Topper worships the sun; he's also a drunk.
  • Edmund Folderol, wood elf hunter ranger (background: outlander). Edmund Folderol says nothing about his past because he is super paranoid for reasons we don't yet understand.
  • Jester Jones, hill dwarf thief rogue (background: entertainer). Jester is a renowned juggler who can't help but steal things. Bit of a klepto, really.
  • Gabrielle Gladsword, dragonborn oath of devotion paladin (background: acolyte). Gabby's really nice. Probably too nice to be adventuring with this group of horrible, damaged miscreants.

  • The crew found themselves on Lupin Island, an isle off the coast of Scarabae. Casting about for work fit for crypt-kickers at the Salted Codpiece Tavern, they discovered that local shipping has been disrupted by the pirate crew of Bloody Jane Reed. The pirates were using a series of caves further up the coast as their hideout. The local militia had proven not up to the task of clearing them out.
  • The pirates' cave fortress was well guarded, and the pirates themselves turned out to be mostly a mix of vicious bullywugs and their slaadi overseers. Jester almost lost his life in a quicksand trap, but Grayson managed to sprint to his aid and pull him to safety.
  • Bloody Jane attempted to flee the assault on her headquarters, but the crew boarded her ship as she was preparing to set sail and put the dread pirate to the sword. Hurrah, a bounty was earned!
  • The rest of the crew surrendered after the death of their captain. They were given the option of joining the crew, or death. The party's ranks were swelled by the addition of a half-orc bard who had been frustrated by the pirates' lack of interest in drum circle-based spirituality, a storm witch with control over the trade winds, a tiefling warlock who can set things on fire with her mind, and a mysterious wizard who is always smoking a clay pipe. Grayson drowned those who refused to join the crew one by one in a barrel of pickled herring.
  • Of course, Bloody Jane's treasury was raided.

  • Grayson spent time training the local militia in the arts of war so they might better defend their island. He persuaded the militia to practice with him by bringing a cask of rum to their barracks. (He would be missing in the next adventure because his character sheet was misplaced.)
  • Gabby gathered information about the local movers and shakers. The information would be there for us next session, but Gabby would have moved on. (Her player wanted to try a different class.)
  • Topper got too drunk to continue adventuring (the player had to step out of the campaign due to a new child, congrats!).
  • Edmund caroused most of his gold away.
  • Jester made money performing at the Salted Codpiece.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

For Those Who Must Sacrifice

Click here to listen to an 8tracks mix entitled For Those Who Must Sacrifice

† King Woman - Heirophant
† Chelsea Wolfe - Iron Moon
† Windhand - Crypt Key
† Mount Salem - The Tower
† Luciferian Light Orchestra - Church of Carmel
† Jex Thoth - When the Raven Calls
† Jess and the Ancient Ones - 13th Breath of the Zodiac
† Blood Ceremony - Hymn to Pan

Friday, March 24, 2017

Bad Books for Bad People - Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis

Have you ever wanted to hear me rant and rave about vampires-as-superheroes, crybaby ancient aliens, ghosts-with-bodies, pants, space-age polymers, and nipple-sucking clones? Well, you're in luck, the new episode of my podcast with Tenebrous Kate is up!

Beginning with her smash hit debut novel, 1976's Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice has spent a career detailing the lives, loves, and melodramas of a sprawling cast of supernatural characters. In interviews where she's discussed 2016's Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis, Rice promised a whole new spin on her beloved Vampire Chronicles. The concept of blending gothic vampires with new age science fiction is an appealing one, but does the author deliver on her promise? Jack and Kate dive into this latest offering from the queen of modern gothic horror.
How many of the Vampire Chronicles books have our hosts skipped? Will Kate's dreams of lots of characters she doesn't recognize meeting up with ancient aliens come true? Will we learn the vagaries of vampire science? Isn't a ghost with a body just a dude? How is Lestat doing after all these years? Find out all this and more in this month's episode of Bad Books for Bad People.
***Spoilers Abound***
Intro/Outro music: "Pictures of Betrayal" by Nosferatu.
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.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Sloppy XP Equals Sloppy Design

I have a pet peeve when it comes to rpg design: I really don't like it when designers leave the XP or advancement system undercooked. If the rules for advancement or leveling up don't feel finished and if they don't offer incentives for the players to engage with what the game is about, I think you didn't finish the job of making a game.


Stars Without Number
According to the Stars Without Number core rules, the game has a particular focus: "In Stars Without Number you play the role of an interstellar adventurer. Whether a grizzled astrotech, lostworlder warrior, or gifted psychic, you dare the currents of space for the sake of riches and glory" (5). Under that given premise, the game claims to reward things like seeking riches and glory: "Characters are awarded experience points by the GM upon accomplishing certain goals, defeating meaningful enemies, or plundering insufficiently guarded wealth" (64). 

But here's where it all falls apart: 
1) Getting XP for "certain goals" is already vague, but what a proper goal looks like and how much XP it should be worth is never spelled out, as far as I can tell. 

2) None of the "meaningful enemies" in the book's Xenobestiary have an XP value for defeating them. I can't find any guidelines for giving XP for defeating enemies in the book at all. 

3) Making off with "insufficiently guarded wealth" is intended to be the old-school D&D method of 1 GP = 1 XP since Stars Without Numbers is basically D&D-in-Space, but that's tucked away in a place that's not very intuitive--about seventy pages after the XP rules are given (131). 

It's also really clunky in its implementation; characters shouldn't get XP for a big-ticket item like a space ships, and you should increase the amount of money they're getting per adventure because space ships are money pits, but that extra money you have to throw at them now shouldn't give XP because there wasn't much effort put into the mechanics of this idea: "You should not be reluctant to increase adventure rewards or offer more remunerative opportunities to players with a starship to feed, though this should not increase the XP gained" (131). 

It's worth noting that if more defined rules are buried somewhere in the book, the index will not help you find them; "Level," "XP," "Experience Points," "Advancement," etc. do not have entries in the index.

Dark Heresy 2nd Edition
Dark Heresy has not one, but two systems for awarding XP. The first is to award a set amount of XP per session: "Under the abstract method, experience points are awarded for time spent gaming, ensuring a steady and even progression for all characters. For each game session composed of multiple encounters, every PC should receive 400 xp. This would allow them to purchase a minor increase in their capabilities approximately every session, or a more significant one every few sessions. This method assumes a game session lasts approximately four hours of active play time. For longer or shorter sessions, the GM can adjust the rewards accordingly" (371). What this system doesn't do is offer an incentive for doing anything during play, and only really rewards showing up to the game. As a system, it's easy and doesn't require much book-keeping, but it also strikes me as lazily designed because it doesn't connect to the premise of what the game is about.

Surely the more detailed system picks up the slack, right? Well, no, "It is also possible to award xp in a more detailed manner, in which every reward is tied to a specific difficulty or challenge. This allows the GM to match the PCs’ progression to the progression of events more closely, or to increase the players’ sense of accomplishment. However, it requires that the GM be able to evaluate each encounter and challenge and assign an appropriate amount of xp" (371). 

This sounds like a system that was fully thought out, and there is even a chart showing you how much XP to award per character based on seven categories of encounter difficulty. Unfortunately, however, although this system does create an incentive ("win" encounters), it is ultimately incomplete because the rules offer no guidance as to what constitutes as "easy" encounter or a "very hard" encounter. The designer has absolved themselves from providing what seems like a fairly crucial part of how XP will be awarded. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Tales of Old Rus by Roman Papsuev

An idle Google image search uncovered a treasure trove of images that were clearly evoking Russian legends through a modern fantasy lens. Before I set to tracking down the artist, I wondered if these were pictures from a Russian version of Red Box-era D&D or maybe the concept art for a awesome toy line we never got in the West. A few clicks more and I learned that the art was by Roman Papsuev, who has made it a personal project to reinterpret Russian folk tales in the aesthetics of Western fantasy gaming under the title "Tales of Old Rus." 

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Seeker of Knowledge and the Destroyer of Knowledge.

Two more figures of intrigue to be wary of in night-haunted Krevborna:

Rumored to be a professor of the dark arts at the Malcovat, Doctor Ulric Montmort makes rare appearances in Krevborna. The aim of these sabbaticals is almost always in service of discovering rare books of occult lore that would aid in his unhallowed researches, which center on the connection between the nature of nightmares and other planes of existence. 

Swithun Vanderhaus is a defrocked priest who served the Church by infiltrating the criminal underground to gather information. The truths he uncovered soured him to the Church's purpose, and he seeks further knowledge hidden by the Church that he believes is inherently dangerous and must be destroyed before it can pose a further menace to mankind.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Evil in the Depths of Kojiyuma Temple

art by JKRoots
Campaign: Scarabae (open-table online 5e D&D)

The Characters:

  • Zunx - fidgety warlock mole-thing
  • Mortimer - pugilistic human monk
  • Albrecht - halfling rogue with criminal connections

Objectives: Find Yuriko, the last of the missing children from the horrors at Fayaz's; stop an apocalyptic ritual


  • We open on Zunx, Mortimer, and Albrech on a kraken oil-powered paddle boat taking them from the Redgutter Ward to Kojiyuma Island. Albrecht has used his criminal connections to "borrow" the ship.
  • The reason why the party is on a boat, headed to parts unknown, gets handled in flashbacks: in his spare time, Mortimer had been looking into the identities of the missing children and the slain parents from the last adventure at Fayaz's. Everyone was accounted for, except a young tiefling girl named Yuriko. Yuriko's mother was among those killed, and she had no other family. 
  • The other missing children had begun to re-appear in Redgutter. Each had the same story of having been abducted from Fayaz's by men and women wearing coarse robes and furs--clearly the Children of Fimbul, a sect of apocalyptic druids looking to kick-start the end of days.
  • Koska, the party's sometimes employer, had called on her network of informants and uncovered that a girl matching Yuriko's description had been spotted on Kojiyuma Island, an isle to the north that serves as a beach resort for the well-to-do. Koska offered the party money from her own account to go to Kojiyuma and rescue the girl should she be found in nefarious clutches.
  • Before they departed, the crew got more information from Koska and also made visits to Aurulent Masque (drow warlock), Voone Jaskar (kappa fence), and Wick (fire genasi barkeep) to learn what they could. They learned that: one of the island's main tourist attractions is Kojiyuma Temple, an ancient tiefling structure dedicated to the major arcana of Strength; the temple and island had been ruled by the Koji clan of tieflings, a group of renowned mercenaries and weaponsmiths, but the family was believed to have died out long ago; the temple was taken off the island's tour a few years ago in the name of "rennovation," and campfires and guards were spotted near its now off-limits site; if a ritual was being performed at Kojiyuma Temple, it probably involved the invocation of fire and strength for some unknown purpose.
  • Cut back to the steam ship and its arrival at Kojiyuma Island. Things in view: the bungalows of the wealthy, a number of resort hotels, plenty of beachfront bars teeming with half-drunk tourists, and the Aztec-like step pyramid of Kojiyuma Temple peeking over the tops of a forest of palm trees. 
  • A hen party of rich tabaxi women are on the prowl, celebrating one of their party's recent (and financially gainful) divorce, but wisely our adventurers steered clear. The crew talked to Felix, a dwarf bartender manning a Tiki shack and shaking innumerable mixed drinks, to get the lay of the land before setting off along the path to Kojiyuma Temple. 
  • They found a camp of sorts at the pyramid's base, complete with tents, cooking equipment, and the like. Inside the tents, the group found robes that matched descriptions of those worn by the Children of Fimbul cultists. They found robes of the appropriate sizes, and put them on, hoping to blend in with any cultists they might encounter.
  • The party ascended the steps to the top of Kojiyuma Temple, where they found a shaft leading straight down into the temple's depths. Affixing their grappling hooks and ropes to holes bored at the lip of the aperture, they went down into the temple.
  • At the bottom of the shaft, the party found themselves in a long stone hallway lined with large marble statues of tieflings in highly-detailed armor and bearing meticulously-crafted armaments. Torches flicked in brackets upon the walls, and the disturbed dust on the floor evidenced quite a bit of foot traffic. Six stone slab doors, three on the right and three on the left, flanked the hall.
  • Picking a door to open and explore revealed a room with stone rubble that appeared to have once been the remains of a table and other furnishings pushed against the wall. A colorful mosaic in the room depicted tieflings presenting food and drink to a cohort of human, dwarf, and elf visitors. A similar mosaic found later showed tieflings cooking...but they seemed to be cooking human beings.
  • Further search of the room unveiled a hidden door, beyond which they found a party of four Children of Fimbul cultists (male and female elves who appeared to be twins, a dwarf, and a kobold) clustered at the center of the room in conversation. 
  • The Children of Fimbul were startled by this intrusion, but the streams of nonsense coming from Albercht and Mortimer combined with the more quick-thinking stream of nonsense coming from Zunx (particularly his mention of Yuriko) and their scavenged cult robes to trick the Children into believing that the party were members of their faction who had come with important information for their leader.
  • The group was guided through a series of secret doors to a larger chamber where a strange scene was unfolding: upon a dais was a stone basin from which rose shimmering waves of heat; four large anvils sat at the corners of the room, glowing red-hot; an old, white-haired woman in rough robes struggled to maneuver a chain threaded through a hook in the ceiling of the chamber, at the end of which was a metal cage containing two drakes that the women was trying to position above the steaming basin.
  • Parlay and deception ensued! Zunx convinced the old woman that they had the wrong child for their ritual, and managed to get her to show him where the child was--she was at the bottom of the basin, giving off an enormous amount of heat, but strangely unharmed. 
  • To show Zunx where the girl was secreted, she had handed the chain she was maneuvering to Mortimer because he looked to be the strongest of lot. Albrecht managed to sneak behind an anvil and hide himself while the malarkey continued.
  • Zunx used his magic to unlatch the drakes' cage while he had the women, Merrihel, distracted. The drakes climbed out of their cage and began to scamper down the chain. While talking to Zunx, Merrihel looked up and noticed the drakes escaping. Sensing the opportunity to end this ritual, Zunx declared his deception and Merrihel yelled to her fellow cultists to stop these interlopers.
  • From his hiding spot, Albrecht managed to snipe the dwarf cultist with a single shot from his pistol. Mortimer bludgeoned Merrihel into unconsciousness with his fists, dodged vials hurled by the one of elf twins by swinging on the chain he was holding, arcing around to execute a kick-knee combo that left the elf woman unconscious. Once the drakes had scampered down the chain to safety (where they began to run around like overexcited puppies), Mortimer used the chain to entangle the male elf. Zunx was having some trouble with the kobold cultist, who was stabbing him with a knife carved from a femur, but Albrecht managed to shoot him down as well.
  • The male elf surrendered when his unconscious twin was threatened. Interrogation disclosed that the intention of the ritual was to use Yuriko, as the last surviving member of the Koji clan's bloodline, to channel the power of the temple and turn the drakes into ravening dragons they could set lose on Scarabae to sow destruction and chaos. 
  • He also let slip that the cult was working with the 47 Rodents, and that the ratfolk gang still had a headquarters beneath a brothel somewhere in Redgutter.
  • He further informed them that three more members of the cult were still within the temple: Brunhilde, their greatest warrior, and her two servants.
  • Now that Yuriko had been rescued from the basin, the party determined it was time to depart with her and their captives (the two elves and Merrihel), but it was also determined that three captives was too many to take. The male elf was knocked out and left with his unconscious sister.
  • On the way out, the party decided to unlock the single iron chest that remained in the room of wrecked wooden boxes. The lock and gas trap were successfully negotiated, gaining them silver coins, gems, and two vials of mysterious liquids.
  • Back in the initial hallway, Zunx carried the girl as he climbed to the top of the pyramid. But as Albrech began to ascend they were taken by surprise by a spear thrown by a woman wearing Wonder Woman Amazonian-style leather armor. She was accompanied by two smaller women carrying an assortment of spears and javelins. Clearly, Brunhilde had found them.
  • Mortimer tried to threaten Brunhilde by swearing to harm the still-unconscious Merrihel, but Brunhilde threw a spear into Merrihel, killing her, by way of reply. Albrecht took some shots at Brunhilde as he scurried up the rope, but her armor proved impervious to his bullets. Mortimer joined Albrecht on the rope as they made their retreat as spears sailed by them. 
  • As her foes fled up the rope to the top of the temple, Brunhilde took a spear and drove it point down at the stone floor. She and her companions turned to ash and dispersed, leaving behind a familiar arboreal sigil in gray soot on the temple's flagstones.
  • Fearing an ambush, the party chose to return to the beachfront via the forest instead of the path; the crew emerged bloody, battered, and bearing a scared tiefling child in the midst of a party. The awful steel drum music trailed off and all eyes turned toward them. Mortimer bellowed "We're the stork, and we're delivering a baby!" which drew a cheer from the intoxicated crowd. The steel drums began to play again and the partying continued.
  • Albrecht and Zunx made their way back to their ship with Yuriko. Mortimer located Bembe, a dreadlocked half-orc who runs the tourist trade, holding court at a table strewn with liquor, glasses, and ashtrays in a party-hut, a lady-plaything on his lap. 
  • Bembe played the part of the King of Parties, until Mortimer told him of the corruption going on at Kojiyuma Temple, at which point he pushed the girl off his lap and got serious, offering money to Mortimer not to mention the trouble at the temple. Was he bribing Mortimer so as not to harm the tourist trade on the island or was he involved with the Children of Fimbul's plan? Mortimer couldn't be sure, but pocketed the money and left.
  • Back in Redgutter, the crew brought Yuriko to Koska's house. Despite her previous comments about "children cramping her style," she had had a change of heart and had set up a bed for Yuriko. Since Yuriko has no known family left, the only other option was to turn her over to an orphanage, and since Yuriko and Koska hail from the same far-away country...Koska felt moved to adopt the girl into her household. Koska marveled at the party's abilities to get things done, and paid them handsomely for completing their task.
  • The camera cuts back to the Redgutter docks. A ship moors, and a single passenger disembarks. She's wearing ornate leather armor, and carrying a bundle of vicious spears. Brunhilde has arrived in Scarabae.
The Take
  • XP: 225 each
  • Loot: 183 gp (payment fro Koska and the vale of the gems) and 166 sp  each, 
  • Magical Items: potion of climbing, potion of healing
  • Mundane items: 3 vials of alchemist's fire, 3 vials of acid, 4 vials of poison (all looted from the elf cultists)
  • Metal 47 Rodents insignia
  • Mortimer got bribed another 150 gp in gems.
  • Inspiration: 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, March 16, 2017

Redgutter Ward

Yesterday I posted this series of questions you can use to generate a starting neighborhood in your fantasy city

G. S. Smith already had a crack and it and came up with this, which I shall certainly be stealing from in the future.

Below are the details for the Redgutter Ward of Scarabae, created from those questions by Trey Causey, Duncan Eshelman, Scott Martin, Jez Gordon, Gus L., and B. W. Mathers. I've put my own spin on their answers, but they did the real work.

Redgutter Ward

Background: In its heydey the Redgutter Ward was home to busy docks and profitable maritime trade. Unfortunately, Redgutter didn’t keep pace with the changing world and was eventually displaced by larger, better-situated docklands to the north and south. The largest employer in Redgutter is the Caldwell Refinery, which processes kraken oil for use throughout Scarabae. The neighborhood is solidly working class, but teeters on the edge of falling on harder times.

Of late, you’ve been doing odd jobs of an adventuresome nature for a tiefling woman named Koska. She pays fairly and is upfront about the dangers that her jobs entail, which is more than you can say for most “fixers” in Scarabae.

1. Tell me about a church, temple, ashram, etc. in this neighborhood

The Spokehouse
  • Local branch of the Temple of the Wheel, the high priest is Rota tu Volubilis.
  • The stone entrance is low; you must “bow to the wheel” as you enter.
  • Also a fully-functional gambling house.
  • Clergy teach mountebank skills on slow nights.

Ordo Gemfotter
  • Ashram also devoted to the Wheel of Fortune; in competition with the Spokehouse.
  • Financed by gemcutters, jewelers, and artificers, especially gnomes, dwarves, goliaths, earth genasi, etc.
  • Big golden doors at the front; interior serves as jewel emporium as well as place of worship.

2. Tell me about a shop that sells standard equipment and one of the shopkeeper's quirks

Goodneighbor's Emporium
  • Run by Helena Goodneighbor (f, dwarf) who is known for fair prices and access to dwarf-made cookware (some of the best iron skillets, coated with a gnomish no-stick alchemy concoction).

3. Tell me about someone who sells something illicit in this neighborhood

Voone Jaskar (m, kappa rogue)
  • Fence who sells illicit items brought by various gangs.
  • He's also known as the 'Tonguetaker' as he is known to take the tongues of his enemies as trophie. His method of attack is with curved flick blades (with a flick of the wrist this blade flicks out and slashes).

4. Tell me about a powerful wizard, sorcerer, or warlock in this neighborhood

Aurulent Masque (f, drow warlock)
  • Reputed to be the latest visitation of an immortal astral wizard, only occasionally incarnate in human form.
  • She's "name level"

Cambridge of Oleander (m, human abjurer)
  • Does not seem to wear his riches, but he owns own an estate.
  • The word is out that his true riches are hidden there, behind some of the most strongest wards in the city. A lot of bravos that boasted they'd break Cambridge's house have yet to return.

5. Tell me about a feared warrior who lives in this neighborhood

Urthoga (f, trollkin veteran)
  • She doesn't flaunt that he is a badass, but she's taken on street gangs who thought she would be easy pickings.
  • Urthoga has a brother named Gunther who owns a steam-powered ship.
  • Like Gunther, Urthoga spends time down at the Bull Roarer.

6. Tell me about someone who is wealthy in this neighborhood

Captain Chandler Caldwell (m, triton)
  • He was a whaling captain as a younger man who, rumor has it, made his money when his ship ran afoul with a Dragon Turtle.
  • His initial money came from the Dragon Turtle's horde which he used to fund buy stock and eventually own a factory (Caldwell Refinery )that refines kraken oil.
  • Very insistent that nobody says his name on the open seas. He is worried that the Dragon Turtle he slew has family that might take vengeance on him.

7. Tell me about someone you can go to for help in this neighborhood

'Gaff' Redspark (m, gnome arcane trickster)
  • "Home Security Expert”; specializes in helping homeowners prevent or track down burglars.

8. Tell me about someone you can go to for information in this neighborhood

Wick (f, fire genasi)
  • Owner of the Bull Roarer Tavern, Brewery, and Sauna.
  • She not only keeps people in their cups, she also keeps a keen ear out for talk.

9. Tell me about a gang or criminal organization operating in this neighborhood

The Kneecutters
  • They are noted protection gang of smaller-stature races (Goblins, Halflings, Kobolds)
  • They retaliate by slashing at knees, tendons, anything that can fell a biped.
  • Voone is a friendly associated, but not a true member of the gang.
  • Currently pushing the 47 Rodents gang out of their territory.

10. Tell me about a pub, club, cabaret, gymnasium, bathhouse, etc. where adventurers hang out

Bull Roarer Tavern, Brewery, and Sauna
  • This large building is a combination of a tavern, brewery, and sauna.
  • It's kept *very* hot in there, as that is the way Wick prefers it.
  • Wick's prize of decoration is a taxidermy displacer beast.

11. Tell me about a problem in this neighborhood

12. Tell me about a popular form of entertainment or a popular entertainer in this neighborhood

The Necroleseum
  • Necromancers reanimate the condemned and executed so they can duke it out in the arena.

The Painted Grounds
  • A dingy pit for bloodsport in a former tea warehouse.
  • The rear is entirely filled with cages, cells and crates, forming a sickly menagerie of toothed, fanged and clawed animosity.
  • For a significant bet patrons may set their own animals (self or companions) against 'the house choice' - a beast pulled more or less at random from the ranks of cells.
  • The owners will buy captured thing from anyone who wishes to sell.

13. Tell me about a food or drink that is popular in this neighborhood


  • Rramil beetles are endemic, feeding on the hair of murder victims and goat carcasses.
  • Their oblong abdomens discharge a high alcohol content slurry.