Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Show Your Work: Krevborna's Influences

It's fun to show the influences and inspirations that go into your world building, but often "Appendix N" posts don't give much in the way of context for how those influences and inspirations actually helped shape the setting. Sometimes they're essentially just lists of "things I like," which isn't too helpful either. Below are the primary inspirations for Krevborna; I'm going to take some time to explain what I stole what inspired me from each of my sources.

From Software, Bloodborne and the Dark Souls series
In the early days of working on Krevborna, I borrowed the most from Bloodborne. The paradigm of what the game is about--monster hunting--is ostensibly also the point of Krevborna; it's certainly what you have to do to level up your character in Krevborna. Bloodborne is all about monster hunting, but the way that different factions approach the war against monstrosity helped inform the various groups that players can interact with and join in my setting. Aesthetically, Bloodborne's mix of early modern, Victorian, and Gothic elements informed how Krevborna looks in my head--especially in regards to fashion. Bloodborne's Healing Church was also a direct inspiration for Krevborna's Church of Saintly Blood, and the idea of the Church taking the place of civic authority stemmed from From Software's game as well. The various saints detailed so far in Krevborna were somewhat inspired by the Dark Souls' Lords.
Similar Inspirations: Cristophe Gans's Brotherhood of the Wolf, Konami's Castlevania games, Hideyuki Kikuchi and Yoshitaki Amano's Vampire Hunter D light novels

John Logan, Penny Dreadful
Bloodborne aside, Penny Dreadful was the next biggest influence on Krevborna. The most important thing that I learned from Penny Dreadful was a fearlessness and willingness to reinterpret classic Gothic conventions. Although Penny Dreadful uses Dracula, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde, and Frankenstein as its source material, it isn't afraid to revise and update the ideas within the source material for its own ends. Similarly, there are a lot of ideas in Krevborna that are drawn from eighteenth and nineteenth century Gothic novels, but they've all been altered into something different within the context of a dark fantasy roleplaying game setting. Penny Dreadful's original ideas also helped shape some of the "mythos" underpinning Krevborna's horrors; the nature of demons and devils, the Wolves of the Holy Throne, and the prophecy of the Mater Monstrum are all things connected to the depiction of Vanessa Ives on the show.
Similar Inspirations: Alan Moore et al, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Kim Newman's Anno Dracula series, Wizards of the Coast's Curse of Strahd

Joseph Delaney, The Last Apprentice series
The horrors that aren't explicitly "Gothic" in nature in Krevborna are instead inspired by folklore. Joseph Delaney's Last Apprentice books were definitely my model for how to combine monsters, haunts, and magic from folklore with the fantasy adventure genre. The way that witches are depicted in Delaney's books were especially influential on the witch-controlled down of Hemlock in Krevborna. Although the Last Apprentice books mostly reinterpret British folklore, the way that the folklore is integrated into the books was really helpful even where I was bringing influences from Russian and Eastern European folktales into Krevborna's cauldron of inspirations.
Similar Inspirations: Alexander Afanasyev's Russian Fairy Tales, CD Project Red's The Witcher series, Matteo Garrone's Tale of Tales, Emily Gerard's The Land Beyond the Forest

Mike Mignola et al, Baltimore and Hellboy
Mike Mignola's Baltimore and Hellboy are both comics that are essentially about monster hunting, which as I stated above is a central concern for characters in Krevborna; if you want to level up at a respectable pace, you've got to push back against the darkness and kill off the things that haunt the night. Lord Baltimore's mindset is also how I envision the hardened perspective of a Krevborna adventurer: horribly damaged by the experience, but fanatically devoted to the cause of destroying supernatural evil. Both Hellboy and Baltimore were also influential in the way I've been integrating classic monsters, folkloric monsters, and Lovecraftian monsters into the fabric of the setting.
Similar Inspirations: Brian Clemens's Captain Kronos--Vampire Hunter, Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak, Robert E. Howard's Solomon Kane stories, Wizards of the Coast's Innistrad setting

Cradle of Filth, Dusk and Her Embrace and Cruelty and the Beast
I listen to a lot of music while prepping to run adventures set in Krevborna. Cradle of Filth is over-the-top and impossible to take seriously--which is exactly why there are on this list. Cradle of Filth wed Gothic conventions to cacophony, which is a bit of fun. And underneath all the horror, misery, and tragedy, the Krevborna experience is supposed to be fun above all else. Dusk and Her Embrace and Cruelty and the Beast are two great, ridiculous albums that remind me that all the dark stuff should also be a bit cheeky and ultimately as enjoyable as a Hammer Horror flick.
Similar Inspirations: The Howling Void's Shadows Over the Cosmos, Myrkur's M, My Dying Bride's The Angel and the Dark River

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Dracula vs. Capitalism

NBC's television adaptation/re-envisioning of Dracula (2013) was crazy. Aside from the Romantic love-beyond-death subplot, the cod Victoriana, and the Tesla-esque, the show's main theme was Dracula vs. Capitalism. 

The show unintentionally highlighted why capitalism has never been overthrown as the dominant political economy. Although Dracula disables the economic and political apparatus of the Order of the Dragon (aka oil barons) in England, it's clear that this was a local victory rather than the conclusion to a large-scale ideological war; the importation of help from the Italian branch of the Order of the Dragon intimates a truth about how capitalism weathers the revolutionary storm: it's a global regime, not a local one. Dracula may have crippled his enemies in London, but the global nature of capitalism makes it impervious to grassroots, localized revolt. A vacuum of power in one industrialized center of the economy doesn't create instability, it creates opportunities for other capitalists.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Wreath of Barbs

Campaign: Scarabae Open table (5e D&D Google Hangouts)


  • Bellicose, gothy human wizard
  • Mortimer, street fightin' human monk
  • Doctor Wiffle, dubiously doctorin' human fighter
  • Viktor, former hermit dragonborn sorcerer

Objective: Put an end to the machinations of the Children of Fimbul in the Redgutter Ward.

The black vines that have been infesting Redgutter Ward had become even more pernicious, spawning vicious bipedal horrors made of black kudzu that were attacking the residents of the borough with alarming frequency. Mortimer and Dr. Wiffle knew that the Children of Fimbul, the apocalyptic cult responsible for the infestation, made their lair in a cavernous underworld beneath the Helveta tavern, so they assembled a crew of crypt-kickers to put an end to the evil druids' plans.

Since their last expedition beneath Helveta, the tavern had closed without warning, its windows boarded up and its doors locked. Under the cover of a distraction provided by Bellicose and company, Dr. Wiffle picked the lock and gained entry. Nothing appeared out of place inside. Using the bucket-like conveyance they had found on the prior expedition the crew descended down the long shaft into the caverns beneath the tavern. The ancient fortress within the cavern appeared to have been pulled out of the earth, revealing a sublevel that the adventurers had not explored last time.

A fissure in the fortress's petrified wood walls was the only visible entrance. Using his familiar to investigate beyond the fissure, Bellicose discovered that the chamber was currently occupied by two animate skeletons busily turning the soil, weeding, and spreading compost. There were also doors at the opposite side of the chamber and on the right-hand wall, and a fissure interrupted the left-hand wall.

The skeletons paid no attention to the adventurers as they entered the chamber. Investigation of the door on the opposite side of the chamber revealed that it opened up into a hallway containing carved pillars and tables strewn with herbs, botanical specimens, and mortars and pestles. However, while exploring the room, two vine-men were spotted emerging from the ground and approaching the hallway.

The party engaged the two vine-men, who were joined in the fray by the two shovel-wielding skeletons. The vine-men were decimated by Dr. Wiffle's swordplay and Viktor's necromantic magic, and the skeletons fell apart under the combined assault of martial arts, magic, and sheer brutality. But before the battle was over, a dark-skinned man with dreadlocks, wearing a patchwork robe of furs, skins, and leather, emerged from the unexplored fissure. He let lose two giant rats from their chain leashes, and they promptly charged the party. The rats were dealt with speedily, and the man was pummeled and then lulled into sleep by a timely spell from Bellicose before he got a chance to strike back with the crowbar he was carrying. The fungus and stunted, pale saplings the skeletons were tending were trashed for good measure.

The dreadlocked man was tied up, questioned, and then gagged when he proved unhelpful. The party went back to exploring the hallway. Snoring could be heard behind one of doors to an adjoining room. Opening the door quietly revealed three figures--a male dwarf, a human man, and a halfling woman--all asleep atop a pile of furs in the center of the room. All three figures wore the robes of Children of Fimbul cultists.

Sensing an opportunity to get information from the sleeping cultists, Bellicose cast an illusion of a cage with inward-pointing spikes around them; the cultists were then prodded awake and made to believe that the party had trapped them with powerful magic while they slept. The dwarf proved especially open to negotiating for his life; he explained that he was the second son of a wealthy guild leader so his aimless life had led him to joining the cult--but he had been having severe doubts about their mission. 

The dwarf told the crew that there were about thirty cultists scattered throughout the lair, that the leaders of this cell of the cult slept apart from the others in a large cavern that was off-limits to everybody else, that whatever was creating the vines in Redgutter was surely within that cavern, and that the most fearful things in the lair was Brunhilde (the cult's spear-wielding champion), Freya (a powerful spellcaster), and Bella (the cell's leader). 

The dwarf also drew the party a map that would lead them to the cavern in question, allowing them to bypass exploring much of the fortress. He and his human compatriot gladly signed contracts drawn up by the crew, swearing that they forsook membership in the Children of Fimbul. The young halfling woman had her hand forced (literally) by the dwarf, who dragged her off in the end, stating that she was too young and dumb to know what was good for her.

Pressing on, the crew passed through a small room where the cult stored scimitars and short bows--the strings of the short bows were cut for good measure, just in case. Following the map further brought the party to a series of garden galleries in which the walls had been shaped into pictorial narratives; the soil of the floor was sprouting a variety of pale plant life. The second gallery was patrolled by a cult member brandishing a glaive; the party managed to take her down, but not before receiving enough injuries in the fray to give them pause. Their foe had a vial of pale green, mouthwash-colored liquid on her person. The crew holed themselves up in an empty room to catch their breath and tend their wounds before carrying on.

Their rest was uninterrupted, and the party continued following their map to the cavern. They passed an arboretum of toadstools and lichens, and listened at the next door; beyond it they heard the voices of four people arguing about where to put various items. Opening the door slightly and using Bellicose's familiar to scout gave them a view of four cultists standing at a table sorting herbs and cuttings into various piles. 

Dr. Wiffle threw open the door and tossed a bead of force inside. One of the cultists got caught in the blast and had her neck broken as she was slammed against the wall; the other three managed to scramble underneath the table for cover as they drew their scimitars. Their defense was short lived; Mortimer's martial arts and the combined efforts of his fellows polished them off quickly.

Instead of a being fully enclosed, the chamber's right side opened up into a massive dark cavern--far bigger than should have been possible within the fortress's confines. Viktor cast a light spell on the severed head of one of the cultists, and Dr. Wiffle threw it into the cavern to test how far it went--but it stretched well beyond his throw. However, the illuminated head did reveal that the cavern was dotted with nodules of the black vines that had been spreading throughout Scarabae.

Mortimer decided to scout the cavern, but his stealthy approach was betrayed somewhat by the fact that he was carrying a lantern while doing so. Suddenly, a spear sailed out of the darkness--but as a dexterous monk, Mortimer was able to snatch the spear from the air before it could harm him. Clearly, Brunhilde was present. The rest of the party rushed in to aid their friend.

A giant, thorn-encrusted frog emerged from the darkness of the cavern and attacked Mortimer, biting him and holding him in its barbed mouth. Mortimer attempted to kill the thing with a bead of force, but it managed to dodge out of the way, taking him with it. Chanting was heard from the shadows, but the woman (Bella) invoking who-knows-what-horrors remained unseen.

A gaunt woman with bedraggled hair (Freya) also emerged from the shadows, casting a spell that sent three thorns shooting from her outstretched palm and into Mortimer's flesh. Dr. Wiffle moved to engage Brunhilde behind the remains of a ruined wall. The statuesque spear maiden drew her enchanted weapon and the sound of operatic singing filled the echoing space of the cavern. Brunhilde inflicted devastating wounds, but ultimately Dr. Wiffle's rapier was able to piece Brunhilde's armor and sink down to her heart.

Viktor tried to keep at range, blasting his foes with necromantic magic, but a blast of wintry fury from Freya caught him and sent him to the ground. Mortimer finally managed to rabidly punch the giant frog that was holding him until it, err, croaked. Viktor came very close to death's door, but the timely intervention of Mortimer and Dr. Wiffle got him back on his feet in the nick of time. (Somebody killed Freya at this point, but honestly I don't remember who got the deathblow.)

Bella, the leader of this cell of the Children of Fimbul, emerged from the shadows where she had been chanting a profane liturgy to the destruction of the world. She was a blonde woman of middle years, a mad gleam in her eye. She cast a spell upon Mortimer, but the effects were not immediately obvious. 

Low on resources and stamina, the crew decided that taking on the cult's most powerful member was not likely to proceed in their favor. Wisely, perhaps, they ran, and attempted to regroup. They considered making another run at Bella but realized that after checking to make sure Freya and Brunhilde were beyond saving, the druidess had summoned seven of the vine-men to her side. Since the odds were not in their favor, they ran back to the bucket mechanism and began to ascend to the surface.


XP: 313 XP for Bellicose, 396 XP each for Mortimer, Dr. Wiffle, and Viktor.

Magic Items: The "pale green mouthwash" colored liquid is a potion of healing.

Brunhilde's spear functions as a spear +1, and once per day the person attuned to it can use their reaction to impose disadvantage against a melee attack against themselves or another creature within 5 feet. However, when wielded in melee the spear fills the air with the sound of operatic singing. It's really, really loud.

Friday, May 26, 2017

A Miserable Little Pile of Secrets

Do you have a favorite fictional map? 

I do: it's the map from Castlevania II: Simon's Quest that was published in Nintendo Power. The version of the map featured in Mondo's new vinyl release of the Castlevania II soundtrack is even better. As it turns out, the map works really well for my Krevborna setting. See my hack of the map above where I've added my place names to the Castlevania map; it's certainly more attractive than the intentionally unhelpful map I've been using in my games.

Speaking of, I'd be remiss not to post the teaser trailer for the upcoming Castlevania cartoon on Netflix: 

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Allure of Thrones

† Black Magician, Full Plain I See, the Devil Knows How to Row
† Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats, Ritual Knife
† The Devil's Blood, Within the Charnel House of Love
† Blood Ceremony, Eldritch Dark
† Jess & the Ancient Ones, Astral Sabbat
† Jex Thoth, Damned and Divine
† Serpent Venom, Blood of Serpents
† Electric Wizard, Frisson des Vampires/Zora

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Best Defense

Even though the previous collection of The Walking Dead ended with Rick's nihilist pronouncement that he and his fellow survivors are ontologically equivalent to the zombies all around them, The Best Defense picks up at a moment removed from Rick's descent into existential pessimism. Instead, we see something of a return to the old Rick of earlier issues; he's busy organizing and fortifying the prison into a stronghold that will enable the group's survival. With the discovery of a cache of weapons and riot armor, the prison becomes a feudal castle; when Rick and Glenn don riot gear to venture beyond the prison's barricades, they do so as armored knights errant sent to protect the kingdom from invaders. These images and the actions they foreshadow gesture toward a stark possibility about the prison: if it is to be the group's castle, it must be a castle that can withstand a siege.

Glenn and Rick's knightly quest for gasoline is interrupted when they observe a helicopter go down a few miles away. Off they go, with ronin Michonne in tow, on a further quest to discover crash survivors on the boundaries of their domain. Back within the prison, Lori again feels (rightfully) abandoned by Rick's willingness to always be the one who takes action far afield instead of staying near his family. 

While Rick is away, Carol takes the opportunity to make an unusual proposal to Lori: she suggests that she "wed" both Lori and Rick, becoming part of their family. Carol explains that in this new world of survival against the walking dead, the old rules don't have to apply. And she's right. Since survivors will be forced to remake the world one way or another, they need not be bound by traditions, customs, or mores that no longer fit the world in which they're forced to live. 

But Lori will have none of it; she's not an open-minded woman--she cites the effect that a polyamorous relationship might have on the children--and rejects Carol's idea out of hand. Through this odd-yet-stereotypical interaction, Walking Dead poses a series of questions about our adaptability: if we had to rebuild the social world through which humanity coheres, could we do it anew or are we, as a species, inextricably bound to the social formations we've inherited? Is change, even when it might abet our survival, something we have difficulty navigating? Do the lines, rules, and strictures of interpolation and tradition have too tight a hold over not just what we think, but how we think and what we're able to imagine?

Our collective inability to break free from the hegemony of old patterns is underscored in several ways. When Rick, Glenn, and Michonne find themselves in the clutches of the Governor, he imparts a missing piece of why everything has gone to hell in the big cities: when the National Guard was called out to turn metropolises into sanctuaries, the men and women of the Guard couldn't let go of the idea that they needed to protect their families first and foremost. And so the cities went undefended because those with the power and mandate to make a difference simply couldn't think beyond the basic survival of their immediate tribe. They couldn't bring themselves to do something unprecedented in response to extraordinary circumstances.

The other way we see old habits dying hard is in the ridiculous artifacts of more civilized times that the various characters crave even though those artifacts have no meaningful place in the dangerous world that confronts them. Foremost of these misfit artifacts is entertainment. Carol is thrilled at the prospect of having access to the prison's library, and positively overjoyed at the thought of being able to watch a movie once they get the generator working in the prison. The possibility of movie night again rears its head as a form of escapism that might allow the survivors in the prison to forget, at least momentarily, that Michonne, Rick, and Glenn haven't yet returned from their expedition.

The craving for entertainment takes a darker form in Woodbury, where the Governor has arranged for gladiatorial combat to keep his populace dependent on the bread and circuses he provides. As the Governor states, "There's a lesson there. You gotta keep people occupied or they'll turn on you. Reading and fucking will only keep people busy for so long." Entertainment, then, is both a instrument of social control and a numbing form of self-medication and self-distraction. The ways that entertainment, especially bloodsport, appeases the populace is gruesome, but its not nearly as horrific as the populace's willful complicity in allowing that bloody spectacle to effect who they are and what they will accept as human beings.

The Walking Dead posits that our habitual desire to be entertained renders us vulnerable to a corrosive habit of distraction that has the potential to eat away at our humanity--or at least sedate it into quiet compliance. The reliance on spectacle, then, is just one more pattern that we cannot leave behind, even though distraction can be fatal in a post-apocalyptic world and escapism is a weakness when the current situation demands all of your focus purely as a matter of survival. Notably, despite the Governor's understanding of the role that entertainment plays in the community he leads, he isn't immune to it. The Governor keeps the severed heads of his victims in tanks as if they were so many television screens competing for his attention. He's seemingly aware that watching the heads diverts him for his purpose--he ironizes the moment by saying "Fifty-seven channels and nothing on"--but he still can't tear himself away from this macabre pageantry of his own creation.

But nothing in The Best Defense even comes close to the Grand Guignol grotesquery that is the Governor's repeated rape of Michonne. Michonne's abuse is framed as a form of entertainment for the Governor. Sexual gratification doesn't seem to figure into his ends; the pleasure he finds is in breaking the will of a strong woman. And yet, the sexual violence the Governor inflicts on Michonne is largely without purpose. Despite claiming that he does terrible things in the name of survival and keeping order, he knows that he's never going to get the information he wants about the prison from her. 

Michonne's assault is essentially a private theater of brutality that stages savagery for the benefit of a sole sadistic viewer in the comic's fictive world. The Governor's hope is that he can lead her to the final cathartic scene he desires--to crush her spirit to the point where she takes her own life. All of which means, of course, that Michonne's rape is another distraction that dehumanizes, another spectacle that unmans, another entertainment that functions as negation. This critique becomes more pointed when we realize that it is being delivered through a piece of entertainment media that is currently horrifying its audience with a depiction of sexual assault--and yet, we aren't likely to break the cycle of reliance or the pattern of mediation either. Instead, our complicity is likely unnoticed or perhaps just brushed away; we reach for the next issue because we must be entertained.

From the hip:

  • If donning the riot gears transforms Rick and Glenn into post-apocalyptic knights, it is playing with the imagery of a particularly fascist knighthood. If Rick's authority as a former policemen reached troubling extremes before, it's chilling to think of how that power might be exercised when given the equipment of militarized police intended to crush dissent.
  • While siphoning gasoline outside the prison, Glenn takes a moment to ask Rick if he thinks that Maggie would think less of him for being so proficient at sucking gas through a rubber tube. Glenn's need for reassurance about his masculinity is almost comical at this point, but it is noteworthy that he seeks affirmation from a man and not from women.
  • A point of comparison: Rick is unwilling to do what the National Guard was not--he's always running off instead of staying put to defend his immediate family, as Lori wishes he would.
  • Andrea reinforces the idea that the prison will have to sustain a siege when she stands atop its walls and mentions that some day they may be called upon to keep humans, not just zombies, out of their fortress. It's Chekov's castle.
  • Of course, the violent, power-mad, survival-obsessed Governor is essentially what Rick would have become if Tyreese hadn't intervened.
  • Something tells me the Governor's not going to get the ending he's dreaming of with Michonne.
  • As a person possessing an advanced degree in literature, I am legally obligated to whisper "Symbolic castration" in your ear during the scene in which the Governor chops one of Rick's hands off.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Strangely Beautiful

Author Leanna Renee Hieber has created an alternative Victorian London that merges ghost-hunting, Jack the Ripper, capital-R Romantic love, and a healthy dose of post-Harry-Potter magic in her novel Strangely Beautiful. Originally published as two books in 2009 and 2010, Hieber's story features a beautiful, innocent young woman raised in a convent and dropped into a supernatural battle that will change the course of her life. She describes this book as "Victorian Ghostbusters" and seeks within its pages to create a new brand of Gothic with a modern sensibility.

How will Jack and Kate react to this fanciful new spin on tried-and-true suspense tropes? Why does Kate loathe the male lead more than any other character from any other book they've read so far? When does a wish-fulfillment fantasy for a teenager become a horror story for a middle aged person? And how do Jesus, Snape, and Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS figure into all of this? Find out all this and more in this month's episode of Bad Books for Bad People.

Listen to the episode here!

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.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Three Guns of Scarabae

Discovered in a hidden underwater burial chamber, the legendary sword Hexenburn belonged to a king of a rain-soaked and dismal island. The machinations and maneuvers that brought the sword to the Western Territories are many and lurid; a number of tall tales circulate about the weapon’s westward move–its own sacred Manifest Destiny–and all of them feature some admixture of assassination, seduction, unholy curses, and base deceit.

Hexenburn’s form was changed–though its nature remains the same. The fabled blade was melted down and its metal used to craft an exceptionally fine pistol. 
The newly-reborn Hexenburn has had a number of supernatural powers attributed to it. It’s said to give its bearer a powerful, commanding presence. It’s also a boon companion for gunfighters; when drawn from its holster, it emits a blinding flash that often stuns rival shootists. The holster is at least as remarkable as the weapon it holds. The wearer of Hexenburn’s holster may be wounded grievously, but his or her wounds never bleed. 

Mortal Pain
The ornate, enchanted rifle known as Mortal Pain is adorned with scrimshaw inlays carved from the bones of a great sea serpent. The rifle itself is beautiful, but mundane; it is its scrimshaw ornamentation that holds the weapon's deadly magical power. Mortal Pain is often thought of as a weapon of last resort--it has been used to kill brothers and sons who refuse to quit their quarrels with their siblings and fathers.

Shot fired from Mortal Pain hits with the force of seven pieces of ammunition; indeed, each ball fired from the gun splinters into seven separate projectiles within the body of its target, causing tremendously damaging wounds. Anyone wounded by the rifle can never heal completely from its shot–whether through natural healing or magic–until the shot is removed. 

Built from materials salvaged from an ancestral relic, Oathbreaker is a fearsome double-barreled pistol with a curious history. In its original form, the weapon that would become Oathbreaker was passed down through the generations by the scions of a blooded family of the northern reaches. When the current bearer of the gun was executed for treason, it was disassembled and refashioned into two powerful weapons, one of which was named Oathbreaker.

Oathbreaker given to a warrior by his noble father as an incentive for the son to give up his knighthood and govern the familial seat, but the knight refused his father's offer and instead gifted the weapon to a woman he tasked with finding and protecting the daughter of the supposedly treasonous northern lord. Anyone bearing Oathbreaker is effected by a powerful geas to complete the task of import. The first barrel transmogrifies its shot into a ball of abyssal flame. The second barrel transmogrifies its shot into a blast of elemental cold.

Friday, May 19, 2017

People Kicking Around in My Sandbox

Over at The Vanishing Tower blog, Jay Murphy has adapted my World Between setting for the Renaissance d100 system. I think that system is a really good fit for the campaign setting.

B. W. Mathers has been running a campaign set in my Scarabae setting. Here's an actual play report.

Mr. Mathers has also continued to do cool stuff with the Major Arcana of the Scarabae setting. Here's his take on The Fool, The Magician, and The High Priestess.

...and The Empress, The Emperor, and The Hierophant.

Information on the Courts of Swords, Cups, Coins, and Wands.

...and he rolled-up a character I hope I get to see soon in my online Scarabae games.

Check out these five islands for Scarabae.

House Stillwater, a woman-run criminal syndicate in Scarabae.

This post of mine on Sloppy XP got discussed a bit on the ggnore podcast. They agree with me because I am very correct. Now I just need to convince them that it's okay to describe combat in an rpg and that rolling to check for stuck doors is goofy and my grand work will be complete.

I think I linked this before, but G. S. Smith used my Thirteen Questions to make a City of Intrigue.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Ides of Gemini, Igorrr, Volur

Both of these two music videos feature currently as part of the Krevborna soundtrack that exists only in my head:

Ides of Gemini, "Heroine's Descent"

Igorrr, "ieuD"

Volur, live at the Music Gallery (thanks to Cole Long for this one)

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Playing D&D in Virginia with Goths, Punks, and Metalheads Who Have Important Jobs


Over the weekend I drove down to Virginia to play some D&D with a convergence of friends from the DC/NYC/NJ/Toronto areas. The drive was made much more pleasant by listening to the Boiled Leather Audio Hour on the way.

BLAH is a Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones podcast hosted by Sean T. Collins and Stefan Sasse. I don't agree with everything they have to say--I still don't buy that Game of Thrones isn't exploitative in its presentation of violence--but they raise a lot of interesting questions and have solid insights into the franchise.

I made a new first level character for the weekend's game:

Ivy Valerio, half-elf knowledge cleric. Ivy was abandoned or orphaned as a baby and left on the doorstep of an ascetic devoted to Jergal. Ivy grew up being trained as an undertaker and priestess of the forgotten god of death. Ivy was designed to be bad at combat; her low strength and dexterity meant that she is better off not using her mace or crossbow. Instead, she relies on her magic (sacred flame and inflict wounds) for damage--which was slightly a problem when I had to help destroy a magic diamond since I couldn't target it with any spells since it wasn't a "creature." Oops.

The rest of the party: gnome barbarian with an abiding hatred of goblins, dragonborn rogue who was formerly a fashion designer, human dandy highwaywoman, and a vengeful half-elf paladin.

Things that happened in game:

  • Our most harrowing fight was against giant badgers.
  • We may have used oil and ball bearings to remove a dead giant from a hole in the top of a stone pyramid.
  • It is inappropriate to call a magical barrier a "hymen."
  • Giorgio, the dragonborn rogue, nearly died and was brought back from death's door by magic so many times that he began to prefer the idea of death to constantly being brought back from beyond the pale.
  • Other things fought: tiny shrunken goblins, orbs with tentacles and a hovering magic diamond, kobolds, magma men.
  • We callously killed a small bear, which is probably for the best as it is likely we would have used it as a canary in a coal mine if we had kept it alive.
  • A small giant is just a dude.
  • I tried to use my character's shield as a stepping stone to cross a river of lava and rolled a one on my Athletics check. But fuck it, I survived and messed up a magical sigil of the Prince of Evil Elemental Fire. Fuck that guy.
  • We hit second level, y'all.

Giorgio's player is the least experienced with D&D, so I made her this icon-coded character sheet. So when she was like "What is my speed?" I could say "It's by the boot." I also brought a set of color-coded dice so I could say "The blue one is the d4." She said that both were helpful.

Also, I drank a liquor called Incredible Hook.

Opinion was split on the merits of Incredible Hook; reactions ranged from "disgusting poison to "delicious, smooth poison." I was in the latter camp.

My partner-in-podcast brought me back this rad vinyl soundtrack to Castlevania from the Roadburn festival. 

The hostess of D&D weekend gave us all prints from her recent art show. This is now mine.

Gotta find some wall space for it.

What did I listen to on the drive back?

I ran out of Boiled Leather podcasts to listen to, but I can tell you that this Ides of Gemini album is real good.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Land Born of Blood Crawls Forward Inexplicably

I've done a revision of the setting document for Krevborna. Initially, I started doing the revision for a mundane reason (I noticed that I had been using two different fonts for body text, ugh), but then I decided that since I had the files open I may as well make some changes and additions. The updated setting document is here.

Consider this the changelog for the setting document.

1. Added more points of interest to the Nachtmahr Mountains, including the presence of primordial entities and a school of black magic. This felt important since one of my current games is set at the Malcovat.
"It is rumored that the Malcovat, a school of black magic, is hidden within the Nachtmahr Mountains. The chthonic Mother Wolf and Father Spider prowl the mountains in search of converts and prey."

2. I've changed the information in the document about the people of Krevborna to account for the wider range of race options that are currently in the setting, as well as the possibility of bringing in characters from other settings.
"Most residents of Krevborna are all too human. Krevbornites are a people of mixed ethnic origins who share a common culture of folk tales and superstitions.

Krevborna is sometimes visited by people hailing from different lands—or perhaps different worlds—who are drawn into the land by its mystifying shrouds of fog.

Not all human bloodlines are pure. Some evidence the taint of angelic or fiendish ancestry, and others have becomes something entirely else due to accursed lineages or the corruption of undeath.

Though rare, descendants of the fey live alongside mankind."

3. Removing some of the information on the denizens of Krevborna freed up some space to include current threats to the land that the players might get interested in confronting during play. I've covered most of these menaces here, here, and here.
"A feral assassin, Mad Barnabas stalks the enemies of the Church. Sister Artemisia is the Church's cunning spymaster. Once a revered nun, Reverend Emeriana fell ill with a disease that transformed her into a horned beast that stalks the Silent Forest.

Lady Adeliza Kolokov, an agent of Countess Alcesta, engages in intrigues in Chancel. A dhampir duelist, Lord Hamlet Petrovich is always on the hunt for prey. 

Doctor Ulric Montmort searches for eldrtich secrets. Swithun Vanderhaus is a defrocked priest searching for answers that the Church has hidden.

The phantom of Queen Lilith, the last monarch of Lilitu, haunts the world for reasons unknown."

4. Fixing the fonts gave me some room to add folklore about the Wolves of the Holy Throne.
Though lycanthropes are greatly feared throughout Krevborna, ancient folktales tell of a group of pious werewolves who can control their transformations. These Wolves of the Holy Throne are believed to use their bestial might to combat evil in the names of the saints."

5. Also found some room to mention the twin clock towers owned by the mysterious Rue sisters.
"Brooding twin sisters of pale aspect, Pandora and Morrigan Rue dress in the manner of Lamashtuan noblewomen. They own identical clock towers in Chancel and Piskaro, and often hire adventurers for inscrutable ends."

6. Changed the name of the Sacred Butchers to the Sacretta Carnifexa because I think the new name is cooler.
"The Sacretta Carnifexa are a group of templars, witchfinders, and inquisitors associated with the Church of Saintly Blood. Their goal is the destruction of Lamashtu, the persecution of the undead, and the execution of Countess Alcesta."

7. Added two new saints, which are currently of importance in my Piskaro-based campaign on G+.
"St. Ophelia – The Spear of Faith
• Followers of St. Ophelia are dedicating to rooting out corruption within the Church
• Portrayed as a slender woman in armor bearing a spear

St. Seska – The Moon Sister
• Patron saint of those who fight on behalf of others
• Portrayed as a slim young woman dressed in boyish garb carrying a crescent shield"

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Bewildering Attitudes I Have Encountered in the Wild (part 4 of old-school.txt)

  • This set of abstract mechanics is okay, but this other set of abstract mechanics breaks my immersion. Disassociated!
  • When I talk about reading old D&D books, I use the word exegesis because these are ~sacred texts~.
  • OMG I can't believe the prices that WotC and/or Paizo charge for these books! The hobby doesn't need these huge books packed with artwork! (minutes later) I just dropped a hundred bucks on this 300+ page, profusely illustrated book from my favorite OSR publisher!
  • You want to run a game full of characters options, modern design sensibilities, focused on character interaction? Have you considered using OD&D or Swords & Wizardry for that?
  • This person's horrible personality and inexcusable behavior are worth putting up with because he made a good blog post five years ago. I mean, we're all gamers, right?

Monday, May 8, 2017

Total Skull - April, 2017

Things that bought me delight in April, 2017.


Caitlin R. Kiernan, Agents of Dreamland
Agents of Dreamland is for the Lovecraft fans who also happen to be X-Files fans. This is a short novella, but it packs a good amount of skin-crawl and mind-fuck into its few pages. Shadowy government agents investigate the aftermath of a transcendental cult that preys on the lost, but the transcendence its members are pushing toward is extra-dimensional in nature. The really eerie bits are emergent rather than explicit; although the narrative's here-and-now is awful enough, its the looming shape of things to come that truly unsettles. Comes with a minigame: can you spot all the wry allusions to Lovecraft's tales?

Thomas Ligotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer
It's interesting to look at the rise of Thomas Ligotti as the favored son of underground horror fiction from the genesis point of Songs of a Dead Dreamer, his first collection. Like Poe and Lovecraft, his obvious literary ancestors, Ligotti has a particular set of thematic anxieties that recur across his fiction. Indeed, reading the stories collected in this book one after another somewhat weakens their effect, as you begin to see where things are headed as soon as one of Ligotti's conventions rears its misshapen head in a particular story. "Ah, yes, another clown/doll/marionette gesturing at the laughable meaninglessness of the human condition in an uncaring cosmos," you'll say, to the shadows. Taken on their own merits, given the space to breath, even these early stories can be quite strong--especially when Ligotti tries out fresh territory beyond what his predecessors have already staked out. (You can see him wrestle with Lovecraft's shadow in "The Greater Festival of Masks," for example.) I defy you to read "Alice's Last Adventure" and not feel a deep, primal unease as an author is swallowed whole by that part of her creation that she cannot name.

Hideyuki Kikuchi, Vampire Hunter D
I can't believe I enjoyed reading the first "light novel" in the Vampire Hunter D series as much as I did. I saw the Vampire Hunter D anime as a teenager, of course, but it turns out that the animated version is a far more serious prospect than the source material it's based on. This book is incredibly pulpy, action-packed, childlike, and strangely girlish. (After the many times D is described as gorgeous or how Doris blushes when he is near, I was surprised to see that the author is a man regarded as "the Stephen King of Japan.") The writing is charmingly naive, and doesn't let a single plot point go unexplained for more than a few sentences. I can't tell if the original writing or the translation is to blame, but you couldn't call Vampire Hunter D's prose good or well-executed; and yet, if you want an easy read about hunting supernatural beasties in the post-apocalyptic Gothic future, this will prove very entertaining. This one comes with a minigame too: spot all the allusions to Hammer Horror and pulp fiction and you just might win a prize.

Leonora Carrington, Down Below
Part memoir and part surrealist survival story, Down Below charts Leonora Carrington's attempt to flee France after the German army invades and sends her lover, the artist Max Ernst, to a concentration camp. Carrington and her compatriots make it to Spain, but she suffers a mental breakdown after Ernst's arrest--much of the book details her flight from that painful reality and her stay in a sadistic asylum. The prose is beautiful, but the tale is harrowing; most notable, however, is the utterly unflinching way that Carrington details her madness and the horrors in the world around her that birthed it. There is a compelling argument here: is not madness the only suitable response to a world gone mad?


Black Sails, Season 4
Confession: I've always loved a good pirate tale. Which is a shame, really, as so many pirate stories end-up either being sanitized for a younger audience, cranked up with Disneyfication, or both at the same time. Black Sails took a different path; as a gritty re-imagining of the lead-up to Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, over its four seasons Black Sails became a violent jeremiad lamenting a notion of freedom that the modern world has largely abandoned. At times, the show could be troubling; the rape-revenge plot of the first season was a bit off-putting, and the show never pulled punches when displaying the barbarism of pirate life. And yet, by this fourth and final season Black Sails transcended being the nautical Game of Thrones, and resolved itself as something different than just tits & peg legs. Also, the end is remarkable for being an actual end in an era where shows aren't often allowed to bow out gracefully.


Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook, Harrow County: Countless Haints
Mixing folktales and modern horror, Harrow County introduces us to Emmy, a young woman discovering her connection to the supernatural world that lurks all around her in the rural community she calls home. Countless Haints gives us the folk horror version of the bildungsroman; growing up, for Emmy, means not only negotiating the new world of adulthood, but also reconciling that new world with old world superstitions and magic. For Emmy, adulthood means becoming a woman and also becoming a witch both beloved and feared. Since this is only the first collected volume of Harrow County, I've got more to look forward to. Dark, rich stuff.

Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey, Jordie Bellaire, Injection vol. 2
I read the first volume of Injection back in January, and liked it quite a bit. The second volume is even better than the first; in this arc, the rogue artificial intelligence called the Injection is using folklore and magical belief to manipulate people with the death of loved ones, cannibalism, and the quest for the philosopher's stone. This volume focuses on Vivek Headland, a detective in the Holmesian mold, but with a bit more worldliness to him and a bit more bite where it counts. As an aside, while the premise of Injection is admittedly strange, I'm perplexed as to why many comic fans find the plots in this series to be difficult to navigate. The comic does obfuscate things a bit in its early pages because it is presenting a mystery--but when the pieces come together, it seems rather clear to me how it all fits together.

Enki Bilal, The Nikopol Trilogy
The Nikopol Trilogy (made up of The Carnival of Immortals, The Woman Trap, and Cold Equator) is a weird science fiction series that centers on a man accidentally returned to earth from his orbital cryogenic suspension prison who finds himself embroiled in the political machinations of a France now under fascist rule and an Egyptian god who wants revenge against the power-hungry members of his pantheon. Add to that already heady mix: mind-bending drugs, noir-style murder mysteries and femme fatales, copious Baudelaire quotations, and...chess boxing. No, really, this is the comic that inspired the real-world sport of...chess boxing.

Jim Starlin, Marv Wolfman, Jim Aparo, George Perez, Batman: A Death in the Family
Another confession: I'm not much of a superhero fan at all. Nevertheless, there are a number of Batman comics I enjoy--not because of the titular character, but because some of the comics he stars in are the occasion for some really strange four-color madness. Take A Death in the Family, for example; it's fascinating how anxieties about terrorism and Middle East become more and more reality-based as this series proceeds: the rogue's gallery of villainy usually found in Batman comics gives way to the villainy ascribed to real people--Ayatollah Khomeini makes an appearance here! DC's fictional locales give way to a threat lodged against a real US city--it isn't Metropolis or Gotham that is endangered, it's New York City. Couple that with the supreme cynicism of having a 900 number that people could call to determine whether Robin lived or died, and yeah, I'm hooked.

Frank Miller and Kalus Janson, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
As with The Nikopol Trilogy, there is a strange prescience to the vision of the future presented in The Dark Knight Returns. Was the idea of active Nazi-idolizing gangs a way of marking social collapse that seemed outlandish and extreme when this comic was originally published? Now it just seems...very "welcome to 2017." Same with the governmental refusal to accept accountability and responsibility, but maybe that's more a case of the more things change the more they stay the same. Anyway, yeah, the comic: ultimately it isn't a tale of good vs. evil, but rather a visual narrative of what happens when different ideologies that define themselves as good prove to be mutually exclusive and fundamentally incompatible. The gritty reboot starts here.


Cultes des Ghoules, Henbane
Kate, my partner in podcast crime, turned me on to Cultes des Ghoules' Coven--a complex, sprawling, and challenging record that is altogether excellent. After enjoying Coven, I decided to dig deeper in Cultes des Ghoules' catalog and discovered that Henbane is also excellent. Unlike Coven, Henbane is a pretty direct affair. The overall sound is a blasting grind of metal with touches of punk thrash. There is something about the calculated precision of Henbane's blackened brutality that is especially pleasing--I suspect it's due, at least in part, to the album going out of its way not to be pleasing. There is a certain contrariness, a poisonousness, that is refreshing--such is the taste of nightshade. Recommended track: "Vintage Black Magic."

Harrow, Fragments of a Fallen Star
Folk-bolstered ritualistic, arboreal black metal is Harrow's purview. Fragments of a Fallen Star conjures a lot of space--song passages recall cold, bleak Nordic vistas, while others invoke the deep of the primordial woods, medieval battlefields, and psychedelic trips through the astral plane. And yet, the end result of this cosmic journey never feels self-conscious, inauthentically-arranged, or smirkingly postmodern. Fragments of a Fallen Star manages to be both fluid and ominous. Why don't more people know about this band? Recommended track: "Fragments of a Fallen Star."

Oathbreaker, Rheia
Oathbreaker's Rheia got a lot of buzz the year it was released, appearing on several Best Of lists, but I have to admit that I slept on it. Don't make the same mistake; let this be the soundtrack for when a dolorous night turns to rage and then back again. Rampaging black metal passages evolve into more sorrowful excursions--the crushing breakdowns, complex drumming, and discordant riffs evidence a bit of post-hardcore influence that should seem out of place, but doesn't. Recommended track: "Being Able to Feel Nothing."


The Huntsman: Winter's War
Let's get this out of the way: I watched a lot of junk over spring break because I just wanted to be entertained, and I have a strange soft-spot for glossy modern fantasy movies that reinterpret fairy tales and folklore in really generic ways. A further confession: I thought that the previous Snow White and the Huntsman was a really fun movie. The Hunstman: Winter's War doesn't quite hit the shameful spot like its predecessor did--it feels lower budget in terms of both script and effects--but you could still do worse for an afternoon's entertainment. In this one the huntsman, his violent ex-girlfriend, and a bunch of comic relief dwarves go on an adventure to stop a snow queen from using the evil magic mirror. Spoiler alert: the climax involves fighting, CGI magic, and scenery chewing.

Jez Gordon made the bold statement that Blade is the best movie in Marvel's stable of adaptations. It's feels more like a comic book than the modern capes movies do. The characterization, action scenes, and especially the climatic resolution of the movie all feel like they were ripped straight from four-color panels. And honestly that's a lot more fun that sitting through a superhero movie that takes itself so seriously that it needs an hour of exposition and is shot through the grim-urban filter. Blade is also a ridiculously 90s-feeling film; I mean, come on, that rave scene! If you don't have nostalgia for that particularly 90s style of film-making, this might actually be a detrimental aspect of the movie for you. Also noteworthy is the diversity of the cast; I saw Blade in the theater when it was released and the number of people of color in the cast didn't seem like a talking point, but, now in an era where representation is increasingly siloed, Blade somehow feels like it solved that problem and we've been backsliding ever since.

Underworld: Blood Wars
This one felt like a mistake, but what else can you do on Easter when you're just waiting for someone to give you some carrot cake? In actuality, this was another fun, but dumb, watch. Sure, the plot feels very convenient in places, yet if you go into it with the mindset that just wants to see some vampires flip around while fighting werewolves armed with machine guns--this is a movie that will entertain you. Even though this is the fifth (how is that possible?) movie in the Underworld franchise, don't feel like you need to watch the previous movies; the plot doesn't really require you to pay attention to what's happening. Also, someone check to make sure that Kate Beckinsale isn't really a vampire--she doesn't seem to be aging.


Welcome to Night Vale, All Hail
Over spring break I also got to go see the Welcome to Night Vale production All Hail. To be honest, I think Night Vale is a bit hit or miss, and I wasn't sure how well the podcast would translate to a live event. It actually worked pretty well; there was too much audience participation for me--although given the younger age of the typical fan in attendance I can see why they went that route--but overall it was an enjoyable experience. It helped that this production was all about my favorite part of Night Vale, the Glow Cloud.


Elvira: Mistress of the Dark
This oversized art book collects pictures from throughout Elvira's career, charting the origins and evolution of the character from local horror movie hostess to Halloween pin-up par excellence. It's chock full of great images, and the brief bits of text in which Cassandra Peterson talks about her history as Elvira are fascinating. Tell people that you're "reading it for the articles," if you must.