Friday, April 28, 2017

The Sack of the Emerald Citadel

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


  • 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, hill dwarf thief rogue (background: entertainer). Jester is a renowned juggler who can't help but steal things. Bit of a klepto, really.
  • Grayson, dragonborn battle master fighter (background: mercenary). Grayson is the disgraced son of a famous family of dragonborn mercenary captains; daddy issues.
  • Miranda Lowe, air genasi storm sorcerer (background: noble). Miranda is a noblewoman from a far-off country. She's on the run from something, but she doesn't want to talk about it.
  • Mulga, half-orc valor bard (background: acolyte). Mulga believes that the world would be better if we all joined in a drum circle and really felt the cosmic connection, maaaaaan.
  • Pharasmos the Abjurer, human abjurer wizard (background: criminal). Pharasmos insists that he is not an arsonist; rather, his experiments just get "out of hand," sometimes.
Objective: Obtain the other half of a treasure map.

  • Miranda had previously discovered that the other half of the treasure map was in possession of a fey lady inhabiting a mystical citadel deep in the forest at the center of the island. The fey lady, Mistress Marigold, was said to be an enchantress of remarkable beauty.
  • As the crew ventured through the forest to Mistress Marigold's they were set upon by brainwashed creatures whose minds had been bent to the fey lady's will. The opposition was a smattering of gnolls, orcs, ogres, and humans. The charmed minions put up such strenuous resistance that the party was forced to fall back and make camp and lick their wounds.
  • After a night of rest, the party pressed on. They encountered more enchanted creatures ready to make war on their Mistress's behalf. Ultimately, though, the party managed to break through the forest and reach the citadel--a gleaming emerald tower.
  • The interior of the tower did not exist on the material plane--entering it brought the crew into the feywild, and the "architecture" was suitably bizarre. It also proved dangerous; Mistress Marigold's abode entangled the party with vines, subjected them to sudden hailstorms, and confronted them with a cunning trap consisting of mirrors and doppelgangers.
  • And still, the crew went onward with guile and skill, until they reached Mistress Marigold's throne room. Despite the crew's obvious prowess, she would not surrender her half the treasure map without a fight. Battle was joined!
  • As she died, it was revealed that Marigold was not the comely eladrin maiden she presented herself to be; rather, she was a hag who had consumed the rest of her coven to gain their evil strength. 
  • Her tower was ransacked, her mind-controlled minions set free, and the needed half-a-map was located.
  • Pharasmos checked in on his gambling enterprise; verdict: more money, more problems.
  • Mulga again tried to get a drum circle going, again attracting few interested parties.
  • Miranda and Grayson both caroused; they woke up with more money in their pockets than they started with.
  • Jester and Edmund convalesced from injuries and illnesses acquired in the sack of the Emerald Citadel.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Your Maps Are Suck

Big, bulky hardcovers are a poor format for published adventures. As the Dothraki say, It is known. And yet, man, Tales from the Yawning Portal really takes the biscuit.

Why? The maps tend toward awful, and are borderline unusable in some cases.

See the pictures below and my accompanying notes on how this has all gone wrong. (Please excuse my poor photography; I was in a rush.)

The map of the first floor of the Sunless Citadel has over forty locations on it, and the map takes up less than a quarter of a page. That's far too many locations crammed onto a tiny map; I can tell you from actual play experience that it's a struggle to make out the numbers on a map that small, especially when you need to keep flipping back to that map because the description of its rooms take several pages. It was so bad that I ended-up googling a bigger version of the map from an older edition of the game, printing it out, and using that instead.

On the Hall of the Fire Giant King map I've put a red circle around the room numbers that have a helpful black background/white text for legibility. The numbers in the blue circle (and the rest on the map) are printed in a dark color on a dark background, rendering them almost unreadable. I just happened to choose this map to illustrate this problem; there are quite a few maps in the book that have dark numbers printed against a dark texture. Full-color may make a book look expensive and fancy, but it's murder actually using this for its intended function as a game aid.

Surely a full page map will fare better? Sadly, no. The map of the Doomvault has numbers in circles, which seems like a winning combination, but that combination as used here is actually a bad one: the numbers are so small that they're hard to read and, worse yet, the red of the numbers overlaps the red of the circles they're good luck making those out.

Maybe a two-page spread would work better? Well, take a look at the Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan map. Because it's bound in a hardcover, and the adventure is placed near the front of the book, the crease between pages swallows so much of the map that you can just about see that it says SEC(ond) TI(er).

Those maps are straight-up embarrassing. Even a smaller publishing imprint or a DIY effort should have put more effort into the legibility and usability of those maps, so to have the biggest name in the industry foisting maps of this limited utility in their flagship D&D line of products is just sad. 

Look, I don't want to be that guy, but I think that when you plonk down your money for a product you should expect better. People cooking up maps for their games do better than this every single day; this is already a solved problem: black & white maps, at a decent size, with contrast between the numbering of items on the map and the map itself.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Schismatic Spray

Schismatic Spray

Level:Sor/Wiz 7
Components:V, S
Casting Time:standard action
Range:60 ft.
Area:Cone-shaped burst
Duration:Probably forever
Saving Throw:See text
Spell Resistance:Yes

This spell causes seven shimmering, intertwined, multicolored beams of light to spray from your hand. Every creature in the area must make a Charisma saving throw. On a failed saving throw, each creature begins to bicker with others who share some form of group allegiance with other creatures who have been affected. 

For example, if two creatures who fail their saving throw share an interest in old-school D&D, they will begin to argue about their hobby; one will accuse the other of some sort of bizarre payola scheme, the other will then accuse his fellow of being a troll. Accusations will fly about being out to get the OSR, of being an alt.right political reactionary, of frequenting the wrong websites, etc. Someone will get called a grog, someone else will get called an edgelord, etc.

Everyone who makes their save will feel vaguely embarrassed about the actions of those who failed their saving throws, but may otherwise act normally. Those within a circle of protection from drama have advantage on their saving throw. Those who have cast map the OSR, 10' radius have disadvantage on their saving throw.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Fu Manchu and Nude in Mink

British pulp author Sax Rohmer built a career on depicting the threat posed to the Western way of life by the Demonic Other. His most famous creation, Dr. Fu Manchu, is infamous not just for the hideous violence he wreaks on his enemies, but also for being a dreadful racist caricature. This formula of depicting the horrors of the non-British enemy worked so well for Rohmer that he would revisit it numerous times, even substituting "Asian" for "feminist" when creating his sexy supervillainess Sumuru. 

In this month's episode, Jack and Kate discuss the first Fu Manchu novel, Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu [1913], as well as the first Sumuru novel, Nude in Mink [1950]. What will they make of Rohmer's brand of phobic suspense? Do any of the characters stop mid-action to grab a cozy fish dinner? How does the author use smoking to convey character? How much more awesome are Fu Manchu and Sumuru than the bumbling protagonists who attempt to foil their plans? Just how inept are British men in dealing with beautiful, sexually available women? Find out all this and more in this month's episode of Bad Books for Bad People.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Slaughtering a Ratman Gang in the Weird Basement of a Black Metal Club

Campaign: Scarabae (Open Table G+, 5e D&D)


  • Mortimer, street fightin' human monk
  • Zunx, moleman warlock who receives power from his deceased ancestors
  • Dr. Wiffle, human fighter with a penchant for medical experimentation

Objective: Infiltrate the hideout of the 47 Rodents gang.


  • The Redgutter Ward recently became plagued by a strange infestation of black vines that seemed to break through the city streets and climb up the walls of the district's buildings. Occasionally these vines would form thick nodules that birthed bipedal creatures made of writhing kudzu; these creatures were wreaking havoc and casually murdering Scarabae's citizens. One building seemed particularly afflicted with these vines: Helveta, a tavern venue frequented by the corpse-painted fans of black metal bardery. Since a number of members of the 47 Rodents had been seen entering Helveta, the venue was possibly the secret hideout of the gang the characters had tangled with before.
  • Mortimer, Zunx, and Dr. Wiffle decided to investigate, and possibly take-on the 47 Rodents directly. Donning a disguise and performing blistering harmonica riffs at his "audition," Mortimer dubbed himself Death Piper & His Wailing Rats and got himself added to the bill as an opening act as a way of gaining entrance to the venue for the group. After his set opening for bardic black metal favorite Portrait of Ruin, during which he used his magical staff to command a group of rats to dance to his necro, trve, cvlt harmonica work, the group was free to explore the building.
  • Having spotted no members of the 47 Rodents in attendance at the gig, Dr. Wiffle explored the back rooms of the venue under the guise of looking for the privy. Dr. Wiffle discovered a large, bucket-like conveyance situated above a long shaft that disappeared into the earth. The crew clambered into the bucket, threw the nearby level, and began to descend ever downward.
  • The group expected the conveyance to take them to the basement beneath the building, but it kept going down and down into the dark. At the bottom of the surprisingly long shaft, the group found themselves in a cavern dimly lit by luminescent fungus. The cavern opened up at one end, revealing what appeared to be an ancient fortress that had sunk deep into the earth. The windows were dark, no movement was visible within. The walls of the fortress appeared to be made of a strange material that resembled petrified wood.
  • Crossing the crumbling courtyard of the fortress, the characters entered a ruined tower, in which they found the dead bodies of four ratmen wearing the insignia of the 47 Rodents. The ratmen had clearly died in a violent manner; one was pinned to the wall by a spear they recognized as belonging to Brunhilde, the warrior-cultist of the Children of Fimbul they had a run-in with back in Kojiyuma Temple.
  • Another room they explored featured a dragon-shaped door that was magically locked. Sifting through the petrified rubble in this room uncovered a giant rat that had been trapped by a small cave-in; the hungry rat attacked the party, but was swiftly dealt with.
  • A further room showed evidence of habitation: a recently-lit campfire sat in the middle of the room, and nearby was a bedroll from which could be heard the sound of whimpering. Also in the room was a large metal cage. Pulling open the bedroll revealed a cowering ratman named Skritch. Skritch was very upset; he explained that he had been put in charge of the dragon that the 47 Rodents had captured, but that the Children of Fimbul--who were inhabiting the lower level of this fortress--had turned on the Rodents, which explained the ratmen corpses the party found earlier. Skritch told the characters that the Children of Fimbul had stolen the dragon from his care, which had put him on the outs with Zot, the leader of the 47 Rodents. In exchange for a map to Zot's lair, the party agreed to let Skritch go.
  • On the way to Zot's lair the party passed through a chamber inscribed with runes and sigils belonging to the Children of Fimbul. Touching the symbols with a pole summoned three of the cultists to the chamber, where they immediately attacked the party. They were wiped out quickly, and the symbols were diligently scrubbed away before the party continued.
  • Following the map that Skritch penned for them, the crew found themselves in Zot's "throne room." No one knelt before Zot. The room featured a throne made of scrap petrified wood upon which Zot sat. a wooden chest Zot was using as a footstool, and a shaft leading deeper into the fortress with another bucket-like conveyance. Black vines snaked out of the shaft and crawled along the walls.
  • Zot wore a crown of scavenged wood with bits of jewelry bound into it. He was flanked by three large 47 Rodents gang members, and also accompanied by a sullen elf woman wearing the furs and rough robes of a Fimbul cultist. Zot parleyed with the group, playing up a threadbare kingly aspiration. He had the druid conjure forth a feast of mediocre cheese and disappointing wine. Things were going well until Zunx took offense at something Zot said and Mortimer mocked the gang leader by forcing nearby rats to dance for his amusement.
  • The ensuing battle was both hilarious and a close call. Zunx and the druid traded blasts of poisonous spray--neither of which able to accomplish much with the spell. The veteran members of the 47 Rodents stood their ground and acquitted themselves well in combat; at one point Zunx was injured, so he and Dr. Wiffle withdrew from the battle so that the Doctor could patch up the moleman. All the while, Mortimer held off the Ratmen but he was taking a beating as well. Ultimately, Mortimer kicked Zot so hard in the groin that he shattered the ratman's pelvis, killing him. 
  • When the dust settled, only the druidess, Shanna'del, was left standing. She surrendered, explaining that Zot had kept her enslaved with a magical band on her ankle that was linked to Zot's crown. She poses something of a problem; the party doesn't want to kill her or keep her enslaved, but she has also pledged to destroy the world. 
  • Since the party was running low on resources, they decided to loot Zot's war chest (an act which nearly killed Dr. Wiffle due to the chest being trapped by a poison needle), and return to the surface with Shanna'del in tow.

  • XP - 308 each.
  • GP - 147 each from coins looted from bodies and Zot's treasure chest, silver moonstone earrings, silver moonstone necklace, two onyx gemstones.
  • Misc. - Zot also had a key on him.
  • ...and you have a mentally-enslaved apocalyptic druid cultist, what are you guys going to do with Shanna'del?

Friday, April 21, 2017

A Visual Guide to Scarabae Characters

I was thinking of how I envision my Scarabae setting, and decided to pick some representative images--something like Pathfinder's iconics--for each class in 5e D&D. Some of these I scavenged from one of Blizack's collections, others I had to search out on my own.

Aarakocra warlock

Dhampir warlock
Human sorcerer

Kenku sorcerer
Tiefling monk

Hill dwarf monk

Human fighter

Aasimar fighter

Dragonborn druid
Goblin druid
Triton cleric

Human cleric
Tiefling paladin

Earth genasi paladin

Yuan-ti pureblood bard
Rock gnome bard

Lizardfolk ranger

High elf ranger

Gearforged wizard
Eladrin wizard
Tabaxi barbarian

Stout halfling barbarian

Half-orc rogue
Lightfoot halfling rogue

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Bewildering Attitudes I Have Encountered in the Wild (part 3 of y'all be cray)

  • There is no gate-keeping in the hobby. Here is my list of people you shouldn't listen to or talk to.
  • We must decry the lack of imagination in this company's products! But we should discourage critical reviews of products coming from our camp, I mean, it's not like reviews matter anyway.
  • Characters should only ever be generated by random rolls. Here's my house rules for swapping stats around to get the character you want.
  • Games with disjointed mechanics are more streamlined than games with unified mechanics because you only have to remember ten ways of doing things instead of one.
  • Gamers are more well-read than other people. I have only read books listed in Appendix N of the first-edition Dungeon Master's Guide. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Knife Fighting

Daggers are pretty cool weapons, but they're generally not even that great as back-up weapons in D&D. Maybe a 5e feat could make them viable? For instance:

Dagger Expert

  • You gain a +1 bonus to attack rolls you make with daggers.
  • When you use a dagger, its damage die changes from a d4 to a d6. (This benefit has no effect if another feature has already improved the weapon’s die.)  
  • When you use the Attack action and attack with a one-handed weapon, you gain an extra attack with a dagger you are holding.

Notes: This is really just a first draft. I'm still not wild about the idea of feats giving bonuses to attacks rolls; that might encroach too much on 5e's bounded accuracy. It might also be not much of a big deal. Who knows?

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Mortzengersturm, the Mad Manticore of the Prismatic Peak

Let's be upfront: I was one of the editors of Mortzengersturm, Mortzengersturm's author plays in two of my online D&D games, and I consider Trey Causey to be a friend even though we've never met in meatspace. With that disclaimer out of the way, I highly suggest you check out Trey's newest adventure, Mortzengersturm, the Mad Manticore of the Prismatic Peak. It's really, really good.

Here's why I think it's a great adventure:

  • Most adventures--whether published by the major companies or by small-press auteurs--tend to do a poor job of presenting information in a way that makes them usable at the table. Mortzengersturm feels like it was designed with utility in mind. The copious use of sidebars and short, descriptive text is illustrative of the best practices in presenting an adventure.
  • Mortzengersturm fills a gap and shows that 5e D&D can do more than just Forgotten Realms-style fantasy. The mood of Mortzengersturm is not high fantasy; it's a bit Wizard of Oz, a bit Saturday morning cartoon, and more than a bit satirical and whimsical. It's refreshing because it occupies a thematic space sorely neglected in the current range of adventures for the modern incarnation of D&D.
  • Jeff Call's art style--a cross between children's book illustration and Rankin-Bass--feels fresh and doesn't pander to expectations about modern or old-school game art.
  • It's inventive and fun. Mortzengersturm gives you a solid depiction of an adventure location and its major players, but it's open enough that it will survive contact with your players' crazy plans. It could be straight-up hack-and-slash or it could be run with stealth, diplomacy, and exploration as the order of the day--either way it would make for a fun session.
  • It's got monsters you would never have thought up.

The bottom line: it's no secret that I think most published adventures are either lacking in quality, simply don't fit with the kind of game I like to run, or require a lot of work on the part of the DM to be interesting. Mortzengersturm isn't like thatMortzengersturm is the rare prefab adventure I'm actually looking forward to running in my own campaign. That's really the best praise I can give.

The pdf of Mortzengersturm is available here.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Curse of the Moroi

Campaign: Krevborna open table G+ campaign (5e D&D)


  • Marek, human fighter
  • Elaria, wood elf ranger
  • Erron, half-elf bard
  • Erasmus, tiefling barbarian

Objective: Bring the murderer of Evanus Ogarski to justice.


  • Marek and Elaria were summoned to the home of Andullah, Piskaro's most notorious sea witch, in the midst of a torrential storm blowing in from the sea. Andullah asked them to investigate the murder of her old friend, Evanus Ogarski, and to bring her the head of his killer. Andullah did not offer gold as a reward for the completion of this task; rather, she offered to give both of them a potion of healing upfront and to brew whatever kind of potion they desired should they succeed in their mission.
  • Andullah took them to meet with Ivanna, Evanus's widow. Ivanna sat in a rocking chair in front of the house she shared with Evanus, smoking a clay pipe. Inside the house, Elaria and Marek examined Evanus's corpse; no ordinary murder, this, for Evanus had been turned to greenish-gray marble by his killer! In fact, it looked as though petrification had inadvertently been the cause of his death: after being turned to stone, he had fallen to the floor and his head and left hand had broken off his body. Examination of his petrified form also revealed that he had been wounded before being turned to stone; his body and clothes showed the work of a serrated bite--but the pattern of teeth marks didn't match any animal that Elaria was familiar with.
  • Further investigation of the house revealed signs of a struggle, and broken glass that seemed to be from a shattered bottle of "Doctor Voke's Blood-Cleansing Tonic." Erron arrived to help with the investigation at this point and noticed an usual object that didn't belong in the house under a fallen bookcase--a farrier's rasp.
  • The adventurers found their way to Doctor Voke's Apothecary, where they found the walrus-mustached man vending his tonics and patent medicines of dubious efficacy. Inquiry about his blood tonic revealed that Voke had run out of the stuff, that it was hard for him to keep it in stock, and that it was concocted from rare roots and herbs. 
  • Voke was distressed at the idea that one of his products had been found at a crime scene, and mentioned that the blood tonic seemed to be causing no end of problems lately. When pressed as to what he meant by that, he explained that he had sold his last bottle to Evanus Ogarski, but right after Franz Melville, a local farrier, had come in to buy a bottle for his afflicted daughter. Franz was distraught that there was no tonic for sale, and demanded Evanus's address so that he might try to buy that last bottle from him.
  • Sensing a strong connection, the group again traversed the rain-swept streets of Piskaro to the home and business of Franz Melville. Before they reached his home, their approach was spotted by a teenage girl with blonde hair in a calico dress. She ran into the entrance of the farrier's and the party overheard a man saying, "Stay in the house, Yetel, and do not let yourself get upset. I will get rid of them!" The group entered Franz's shop and found him to be a bald, middle-aged man with a sunburned face. Perhaps trying to put Franz off his guard, Marek quickly and directly accused him of the murder of Evanus Ogarski.
  • Franz denied murdering Evanus, even when it was pointed out that there was an empty space on his rack of rasps where the tool recovered from the scene of the crime aught to go. Yetel rushed in from the house, clutching her stomach, obviously upset at the party's intrusion and accusations. Suddenly, she fell to her hands and knees and began to change into a beast covered in green feathers, scales, and with a beak full of serrated teeth. The transformed Yetel lashed out at Marek, but luckily he was not turned to stone. Elaria managed to sink an arrow into her, and Erron assaulted her mind with magic. Marek grabbed the girl and bore her to the floor; he could feel her changing back into her girlish form underneath him. 
  • A barrel was used to keep Yetel confined. Franz explained that yes, his daughter had killed Evanus while in her transformed state. He had gone to buy the blood tonic from Evanus, and they argued when Evanus would not sell him the tonic. Yetel became upset and transformed into her monstrous form--a form in which she has no control over her actions. Franz further related that Yetel's affliction was a curse. When he and his wife were courting, they would meet at Marsburg Swamp to spend time in each other's company. Their joy, however, offended an Unseelie fey spirit who lived in the swamp. This moroi was a bear-like thing with the fangs of a vampire; it cursed Franz and his wife, saying that their joy would become their sorrow. The curse did not affect them directly; it fell upon their pride and joy, poor Yetel Melville.
  • Even though their task was to bring the head of Evanus's killer to Andullah, no one in the party wanted to kill Yetel. Franz proposed that they might seek out the moroi, kill it, and bring the witch its head in place of Yetel's since it was more properly the cause of all this horror. The party sought out Andullah to see if this would be agreeable to her, and she let them decide how they might best mete out justice. Erasmus joined the group's venture at this point.
  • Using a map provided by Franz, the party set out the next day and arrived early at Marsburg Swamp. As they stood on the bank, they observed that a massive fallen tree acted as a bridge across the swamp's water to the cave known to be the lair of the moroi. Erron used an illusion to simulate the sound of people walking across the tree to see if it would attract the interest of any waiting creatures, and it did. A deer's head emerged from the surface of the swamp. Noting that deer are not generally submersable creatures, Marek fired his crossbow into it, wounding it--but it didn't seem phased by the pain. In fact, it declared his action rude in a human-like voice. Erasmus then began to parlay with the creature; it offered him information on the moroi if he would pluck the bolt from its body. As it drew near, more of the deer's body became visible--well, what was left of it. The creature only had two front legs and half a body; its entrails spilled out behind it like a tail of viscera. Erasmus pulled the quarrel from the being, who introduced itself as Lashenka. Laskenka explained that the moroi could not be trapped within the cave, that the moroi had evil fey allies within the cave, and that in the old pagan days men used to bring their firstborn to the moroi as sacrifices.
  • Now thusly armed with some knowledge about the beast in the cave, the party traversed the fallen tree and dropped down into the cold water of the swamp, making their way into the cave. During their exploration, they encountered the spirits of those slain by the moroi, and the spirits demanded payment from the living to be allowed to pass within; they found and restored a statue of St. Elusia, the found the valuables the moroi took from the bodies of its victims, and they found the moroi itself. Lured from deeper within the cave by the party so that they might fight it in a larger chamber of the cave system, the moroi emerged as a bear-like monstrosity covered in patches of thick vegetation. It attacked with talons and blood-drinking fangs; its bellowing cry turned their blood to poison within their veins. Even so, the crew made quick work of their foe, and severed its head to take back to Andullah.
  • The party knew that the moroi had allies within the caves, and they had previously heard what sounded like the giggling of children coming from one of the unexplored passage. Was it a sense of completionism or greed that drove them to explore further? Whatever it was, it nearly ended in tragedy. They came to a junction where the waist-high water in the cave grew warmer and was bubbling softly. Suddenly, a gremlin-like creature made of mud erupted to the surface and vomited a stream of filth onto Erron that fixed him in place. Battle was joined. 
  • At first, the moroi's minions proved ineffective, but then the tide of battle turned. Marek was bludgeoned to death's door, then Erron fell beneath their hands, and then Erasmus found himself breathing what might be his last. Elaria stood alone against three of the monsters. While her compatriots fought against the dimming of their life's lights, she slew two with her short swords; as the final creature attempted to pull Erron under the murky water, she fired one last shot from her bow and destroyed the monster. Elaria managed to revive the rest of the party using their healing potions before any of them slipped into whatever awaits them in the afterlife.
  • The party returned to Andullah's house and presented her the head of the moroi. Marek also paid a visit to the Melvilles' house, where he was showered with affection from Franz--and a tentative embrace from Yetel. The curse afflicting the girl had been lifted!


  • XP: Marek and Elaria each gain 279 XP, Erron gains 251 XP, and Erasmus gains 190 XP.
  • Treasure: Marek, Elaria, and Erasmus each get 136 gp from the coins and gems found in the moroi's lair; Erron gets 86 gp since he left a gem as tribute to the statue of St. Elusia.
  • Magic Items: Marek has a potion of superior healing; Elaria has two potions of superior healing, and Andullah will brew her three potions of her choosing in addition; Erron has a potion of superior healing and the promise of magical training from Andullah; Erasmus has a potion of superior healing and a bag of vicious, primordial teeth (they would be a good material to have enchanted and added to that sword you already had, if you wanted to search out someone capable of such).

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Watcher in Darkness Opens His Eyes

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

  • Verdagan Wils, kenku rogue
  • Thane Ganymede, darakhul wizard
  • Tobias Rune, human warlock

Objective: Find a Father Nicholaz, a missing priest.

  • The party was hired by Father Eskil to find his friend, the missing Father Nicholaz. Nicholaz had a history of strange events befalling him: during his adolescence his personality changed suddenly, making him irritable and violent-tempered or fearful and paranoid; he acquired the ability to speak in tongues (or at least in a language his fellow faithful could not understand); he began to spend much of his time in the Church's archives, searching for something he would not name.
  • Months after these alterations in his personality, he was expelled from the Church for violating a tenet of the faith. After his, he disappeared for four years. When he returned, Nicholaz begged to be readmitted to the Church's grace and, after a private meeting with Father Claudio, was invested into the priesthood. After eight months of service to the Church, Eskil noticed that Nicholaz looking haggard; Nicholaz confessed that he was haunted by dreams of a great bleeding eye that gazed at him unflinchingly from the darkness of the night sky. 
  • Four days ago, Nicholaz disappeared--and now it is up to the party to find him. Eskil didn't say that he suspects foul play, but Father Claudio's reaction to Nicholaz's disappearance struck him as strange. Also, Lucia, who had been rescued from the Easterly House in the last game, was researching a connection between Nicholaz's dreams of a baleful eye and an unearthly entity known as the Watcher in Darkness or the Elder Scholar. The party has some vague ideas about the Elder Scholar--it is an entity that some warlocks formed pacts with in the past, but such bargains have been unknown in recent memory.
  • After Tobias's imp scouted Nicholaz's home, the group used the key given to them by Eskil to gain entrance. The young priest lived in a very small, bare house with very few furnishings. Verdagan unlocked a desk drawer and discovered Nicholaz's journal; from the journal, the party learned that Nicholaz's dreams involved "great eyes that descended from the cosmos to bleed upon a blighted earth," that he remembered nothing of the years he was missing from Piskaro, that the dreams had recently started again, and that Father Claudio told him to simply forget the past and move on.
  • The trapdoor in Nicholaz's main room led down to a library chamber. The shelves of the library were obviously new, and the room held an impressive array of books on theology, the lives of the saints, collections of sermons, and the like. There was a noticeable gap among the packed shelves; clearly, about three or four volumes usually shelved there were missing.
  • The group decided that their next stop should be the Church of St. Nephemias by the Docks, the church that Nicholaz, Eskil, and Claudio were attached to. The party arrived just in time to take seats in the pews and hear a sermon from Father Claudio, an old man with long white hair and a large, bushy white beard. The congregation was comprised of sailors, fishers, and their families, and the sermon dealt with the rest and succor that St. Nephemias provides for those lost at sea.
  • After the sermon, the group posed as a group of hungry immigrants, which caught the attention of one of the church's younger priests; she took pity on the "newcomers," and led them to one of the church's kitchens, where she provided them with a meal of bread, butter, cheese, and rum. While eating, they plied her for information and eventually made it clear that they had an interest in the whereabouts of Father Nicholaz. Sister Vittoria claimed that Father Claudio blamed Nicholaz's disappearance on his weakness for strong drink. She also arranged for the group to talk to Claudio himself.
  • The party was led to Claudio's office, where he sat in a leather chair, writing steadily, barely looking up as the group put questions to him. Claudio described Nicholaz as a good priest, but also as someone prone to making poor decisions. Claudio would not divulge the reason why Nicholaz was initially expelled from the Church; since he was Nicholaz's confessor, that would be a breach of ethics. He let slip that Nicholaz's re-entry into the fold was enabled by Nicholaz presenting Claudio was some very rare books, which Claudio claimed were texts of a religious nature. Claudio declined to let the party see the books; he said that there were still in the process of being cataloged for the Church's archives.
  • After their audience, the party decided to return to the Black Albatross, a tavern where they could send word to Eskil. On the way, a shot rang out in the deserted, rain-swept street; someone had shot at Verdagan! The group quickly realized that two ruffians with cutlasses were approaching from the front, and a further ruffian and a woman with a rifle were closing in behind them. A fierce battle ensued in the midst of the storm, but the party was triumphant. Thane's fiery bolts immolated the riflewoman, and his sleep spell knocked another thug out of the fight. Verdagan managed to render another thug unconscious, giving the party a total of two captives to work with.
  • Once roused, the sleeping captive revealed that his group of mercenaries were hired by a man with white hair and a big, white beard to eliminate the party before they got too close to Nicholaz's whereabouts. Recognizing that the mercenaries' employer was likely Claudio, the party realized that Claudio had been keeping his eye on Eskil and knew that they had been hired to delve into this mystery. Their would-be killer bartered for his freedom by offering to show the group the secret lair of his employer.
  • The building the mercenary led them to was an old brick building in a row of abandoned warehouses. Verdagan picked the lock easily, allowing them access into a small room lined with large casks of wine. One of the wine barrels was hollow; further investigation revealed that the barrel was a false front for a tunnel leading down into the subterranean depths.
  • The first room explored in the depths was a chamber in which the walls and ceiling had been painted black. The ceiling was further decorated to resemble a starlit sky. An altar, decorated with golden candelabras, incense burners, and a glass disk resembling a human eye, stood against the back wall. The center of the room was dominated by a strange sculpture formed from porous black rock; the sculpture was essentially a roughly-formed pillar that had handholds, as if it were meant to be climbed. Verdagan decided to see what would happen if the pillar were surmounted; once at the top, the stars painted onto the ceiling began to twinkle, the skyscape began to move, and the stars blossomed into eyes that stared down at the assembled adventurers. A disembodied voice then asked Verdagan if he desired to make a pact, and then it told him to bring a suitable sacrifice to seal his devotion. When Verdagan climbed back down the pillar, the ceiling returned to its normal state.
  • Another chamber contained a small desk. Upon the desk were four books: The Book of the Unkindled Scholar, Rebirth of the Old Ones, Spawn of the Stars, and The Cult of the Icarus Heart.
  • The party also discovered what appeared to be a treasury; there were four chests in this chamber, and two skeletons sat upon a pair of them. The skeletons appeared to be normal human skeletons, except the eye holes of their skulls had merged into one vacant, cyclopean socket. The party initially left this room alone, but returned because Thane detected magic within the chests. He also detected that the skeletons were magical, so it was no surprise when the skeletons animated and attempted to keep them away from the contents of the chests. A hard-fought battle spilled out of the chamber and into the hallway. Verdagan's life was endangered by a fierce blow from one of the skeletons, but Thane managed to revive him by pouring a potion of healing down his throat. In the end, the party was harried but victorious; fleeing and sniping with magic and bow carried the day.
  • The last chamber explored was the largest yet; it featured six pillars of black porous rock that resembled columns of unblinking eyes, a central altar to which was chained a beaten and bloody man who matched the description of Father Nicholaz, and two figures who had their backs turned to the characters: one who was clearly Father Claudio, the other was a younger acolyte in a black robes. Verdagan attempted to sneak up on the pair, but they were ready and waiting for the party's approach. Claudio attempted a dire black magic spell against Tobias, but Tobias's fiendish pact warded off the "clergyman's" spell; in return, Tobias made quick work of Claudio--his eldritch blast hurled the old man against the altar, breaking his back in the process. The acolyte drew a knife and charged at the party, but a sleep spell from Thane subdued her easily.
  • The group released Nicholaz, who wanted to beat a hasty retreat from the place of his imprisonment, and the group reunited him with Eskil back at the Black Albatross. Nicholaz explained that he truly had no memory of the events that transpired during the years he was missing from Piskaro, but that he had discovered that when he was abroad he collected rare books--seemingly under direction to give tomes about elder beings to Father Claudio. Claudio believed that Nicholaz knew more than he let on, and that the young priest was keeping back important secrets relevant to Claudio's secret occult aims, and so had abducted the priest and had begun to torture the information out of him. 
Loose Ends: 
  • What is this Watcher in the Darkness, this Elder Scholar, and what danger might it still represent in Krevborna?
  • The party discovered a note on Claudio's body that reads: “Our preparations are almost complete. We will arrive in Piskaro on schedule. Make sure that all is ready for us. The Brethren are counting on you – Neria”
  • The party took the young cultist captive; what are you doing with her and what questions do you put to her?
  • XP - 408 each.
  • Treasure - Tobias and Thane receive 513 gp each in assorted coin, Verdagan takes four onyx gems (worth 60 gp each) and 273 gp.
  • Magic Items - a potion of healing, the shield of Sir Malafort (as a sentinel shield in the DMG).
  • Other - Father Eskil owes you a favor to be redeemed at a later date.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Heart's Desire

I cut out of The Walking Dead tv show before Michonne showed up in it, but I distinctly remember being in a bar the day after her debut episode, listening in on a couple nerds (and I mean that lovingly) gush about how cool a character she is. And she is cool, in the classic metaphoric sense. Armed with a katana, Michonne is the samurai counterpoint to Rick Grime's whitehat cowboy shtick. She's deadly, stoic, fatalistically self-contained, possesses the ability to explode from silence into action, and (deep down) is more than a little tragic in the Romantic sense. Cool.

But if Michonne is a samurai, she's definitely the masterless ronin sort; her coolness also manifests as a distinct detachment from social bonds and a disregard for the bonds of others. When Michonne wants sex from Tyreese, she simply asks for it--with no thought given to how that will impact his relationship with Carol or the group dynamic in place before she arrived. Of course, since The Walking Dead is at least partially a soap opera, Carol catches an eyeful of the blowjob that Michonne gives Tyreese. In what is one of the sadder scenes in the series so far, that night Carol attempts to give Tyreese head--an act she's not comfortable with. She's trying to give him something he must need (why else would he get it with another woman?), but it's really a moment of internalized emotional coercion--and she knows it. Her bond with Tyreese, a bond that had sustained them both through the horrors of the apocalypse, is now broken, and leads Carol to attempt suicide by slitting her wrists. 

Sometimes coolness cuts like that.

If the Carol-Tyreese-Michonne love triangle exemplifies the thwarting and complication of this volume's title--The Heart's Desire--Rick's continued progression into a fascistic worldview is the extension of his desire for control as a means to gain safety, both personally and for the group he feels responsible for. Rick's behavior is disturbing. He decides who is allowed weapons--the tools of survival--inside the prison; members of the group only have guns at Rick's permission, and Michonne is told to surrender her sword if she wants to stay inside the prison. Rick also apparently has the authority to restrict movement and agency; some of the prison's residents are locked inside their cells at night because they have not yet earned Rick's trust.

Aside from controlling the movements and vulnerability of the group, Rick also feels empowered to enact force upon their bodies. When Allan is bitten by a zombie, Rick decides to amputate his leg to see if they can prevent Allan from turning into one of the undead. Although Rick's action may be altruistic (it may also be an experiment with a human test subject), it's important to note that he makes the decision to remove Allan's limb without Allan's consent or even group consensus. Rick is free to act because he feels that there is no one he answers to; he is the only sovereign agent within the prison.

The most egregious abuse of his position of leadership occurs when Rick kills Dexter. During an incursion of zombies, Rick sees an opportunity to rid himself of Dexter--the man who was just holding him at gunpoint and threatening to kick Rick's group out of the prison's sanctuary--and he takes it, shooting him down and later blaming his death on friendly fire. This is murder followed by propaganda to disguise murder. The art accompanying this scene shows Rick's face totally obscured by shadow; he has become unrecognizable as the protagonist of the story. 

This is, of course, a moment of snarling fascist hypocrisy. Rick casually violates his own law, "You Kill. You Die," because the king's word is only ever binding upon those subject to his will. Just as God cannot create a boulder he cannot lift, Rick cannot utter a pronouncement that sets limits upon his own actions. Since he feels that his actions are always to the group's benefit, to be forced to play by his own rules would be to risk the group's safety. Rick has unconsciously begun to live within his own personally engineered state of exception.

Rick's desire for safety has fully become synonymous with a desire for power. His assumption of authority as the means of security illustrate the fundamental tension in every fascist regime: fascism requires that the community feel threatened, but also requires that the threat be conquerable by the authoritarian's infallible authority over the community. As Umberto Eco wrote, fascism requires that the people living under it "feel threatened" by the "force of their enemies." As such, life is only seen as struggle and struggle becomes viewed as a way of life--which is certainly true of the traumatized survivors of the zombie apocalypse. And yet, despite the overwhelming threat of zombies without and enemies within, Rick feels self-assured that the struggle can be won and the group can survive--as long as they are willing to surrender their agency to his authority, his law, his will. 

The tension between the struggle for existence and Rick's insistence that if they follow his lead he can guarantee the group's survival explodes quickly because the theater of Rick's power has an audience too small for uncritical mass acceptance; fascism is a syncretic faith that cannot withstand the scrutiny of the individual's faculty for critical analysis. When Tyreese challenges the hypocrisy of Rick's actions and decisions, and thereby exposes the dark truth that Rick's desire for control has been masked by the notion of protecting the group, Rick has no rational justification for his behavior or the ideology behind it. His only response is a violent outburst intent on keeping and consolidating his power.

However, Rick meets his match in Tyreese, both intellectually and physically. Every accusation that Tyreese hurls at Rick is correct, and Tyreese is strong enough that Rick can't simply beat him into submission. Both men tumble over a railing, and Rick is knocked unconscious. When Rick awakes more than a day later, he is a changed man. But he isn't changed for the better. Rick's fascism gives way to nihilism. Initially, Rick seems glad to be free of the burden of leadership. In his absence, the group has decided that a more democratic, committee-based way of making decisions is wiser than leaving authority in the hands of one man. 

Rick approves of this change, but not because he has seen the monster he was becoming; he approves of the change ambivalently because he no longer feels that any of it actually matters. When Rick says "We are the walking dead," what he means is that the only difference between the survivors and the zombies is a matter of time--the former will inevitably become the latter, and the notion of exerting authority to forestall that becoming is nothing more than fantasy. Rick simply can't believe in a world in which security is made possible without his own unconstrained authority.

From the hip:

  • While in the prison, the group trades in their old, smelly clothing and adopts spare orange jumpsuits from the prison's supply--further underlining that life under King Rick I is a kind of prison sentence.
  • Racism is often bubbling under the surface of The Walking Dead, but Otis accusing Patricia of being a race traitor for aiding Andrew and Dexter is one of the comic's more pointed expressions of rising racial hostilities within the group of survivors.
  • Of course there are no women on the leadership committee formed after Rick and Tyreese brawl. Of course there aren't.
  • The Walking Dead does an interesting reversal in Rick's transformation from authority figure to bleak malcontent; usually disenfranchised white guys go from nihilism to fascism, but Rick walks backwards here.