Thursday, June 29, 2017

Carpathian Crusade

Click here to listen to an 8tracks mix entitled

† Cradle of Filth, Hammer of the Witches
† Finntroll, Solsagan
† Moonspell, Medusalem
† Cadaveria, Out Loud
† November's Doom, Into Night's Requiem Infernal
† Lacrimosa, Kabinett der Sinne
† My Dying Bride, A Cruel Taste of Winter
† Therion, Nifelheim

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

This Sorrowful Life

Part six of our read-through of the collected volumes of The Walking Dead. Read the rest of the series here.

This Sorrowful Life begins with Rick, Glenn, and Michonne still imprisoned in Woodbury, but their imprisonment doesn't last long. Martinez, a former gym teacher and current citizen of Woodbury, helps Rick's crew escape--and they take along Dr. Stevens and Alice as well. The escape from Woodbury, and the Governor's clutches, is easy--too easy, in fact.

However, before we move away from Woodbury we get one last view of the way the Governor leverages the violence of his gladiatorial arena as part of his bread-and-circuses regime. After one of his usual arena combatants gets offed by another for smashing out the latter's teeth, the Governor approaches Michonne about "performing" in the arena for the populace's amusement. He sets the ground rules--they want to see a violent struggle, but no one is supposed to get seriously hurt. This is entertainment, and a way of channeling the citizens' violent impulses in a controllable direction instead of letting them coalesce into resistance to his rule.

But when it comes down to the arena fight, nothing can contain Michonne's deadly prowess; she kills her opponent, and destroys all the "biters" in the ring as well. This sequence illustrates Michonne's skill with a blade, but it also draws attention to the shaky dividing line between the kind of violence we're willing to accept as entertaining spectacle and the kind of violence we find gratuitous and wish to exclude where possible from our culture. 

The rules the Governor set before the "match" were meant to police that dividing line. He has a good sense of where the line is; after Michonne's massacre, one of the onlookers complains to him that the violence of the night's performance has overstepped the bounds--it went too far and wasn't the kind of violence acceptable for her children to see. Of course, the implicit critique troubles all sorts of arbitrary divisions we've erected regarding violence: is this a PG-13 movie or an R movie?; does this album or video game need an advisory label on it?; why are we more permissive about violence in general but puritanical about sex?; etc.

Although the rest of the group makes their departure from Woodbury, Michonne opts to stay behind to get payback on the Governor. At first, her confrontation with the Governor has the hallmarks of a classic standoff--which one of them will get to the katana first and kill the other?--but it quickly devolves into a torture-porn sequence in which Michonne uses pliers, a hammer, an acetylene torch, a spoon, and a power drill to exact revenge on the Governor for beating and raping her repeatedly. It's a deeply unpleasant sequence that leaves the Govenor maimed and dismembered.

And yet, despite its grotesquery, the Governor's torture rings a little hollow. It doesn't provide catharsis; the barbarism of the scene doesn't weigh itself against the brutality done to Michonne as a way of balancing the scales. Michonne realizes this herself--she vomits at the degradation she's inflicting and gains more trauma to deal with rather than purging the violation she suffered at the Governor's hands. If this scene is meant to emphasize the idea that people who are subjected to monstrous violence become violent monsters themselves, it's underscoring an idea the comic has already leaned on heavily in past issues. This particular depiction feels graphic for the sake of being graphic, like the comic is toying with the boundary between titillating its reader through ultraviolence while attempting to be critical of how, why, and on what terms we vicariously encounter violent media, but as much as that dovetails to the earlier questions raised about violence-as-entertainment in Woodbury (and Western culture in general), it also feels like it's raising questions it isn't really prepared to answer.

Back at the prison, Rick, Alice, Glenn, and Martinez arrive to discover that the safe haven has been overrun by zombies. (Dr. Stevens didn't make it there; we barely knew ye, Doc.) The zombies get pushed back, and it turns out everybody is okay. (Except Otis. Which one was he again? Oh, right, the racist one. We also hardly knew ye.) Once order is restored at the prison, Rick realizes why they had such an easy time escaping Woodbury: Martinez was helping them so that he could learn the location of the prison and then bring his people from Woodbury to it as well.

Rick heads out to catch Martinez before he can bring word of the prison's location back to Woodbury. Rick runs Martinez down with the RV and then strangles him to death with his one remaining good hand. Later, Rick explains to Lori how effortless it was for him to kill Martinez, even though Martinez was probably being honest about wanting to provide a new start for the "good" citizens of Woodbury (rather than the Governor's psychopaths). 

Rick doesn't really care about Martinez's motives; as he says, he feels nothing at having murdered a man. All of this should be harder hitting stuff, but like all of the other "a violent world diminishes our sense of humanity" themes currently orbiting around Michonne's plotline, we've seen this all before--and often in ways that were more subtle, compelling, and gut-wrenching. I'm a little worried that the series is running out of gas at this point and recycling its central themes. Put it this way: the return of Nihilist Rick does not hit as hard as the introduction of Nihilist Rick.

From the hip:
  • There is no way that we've seen the last of the Governor, even though Michonne messed him up royally. I won't believe he's gone until we see the corpse.
  • When Rick runs off, leaving his family behind once again, Carl voices a question that the reader has likely been asking for a while now: if Rick is so concerned with protecting his family, why does he leave them alone and unguarded so often?
  • The first interaction One-Hand Rick has with Tyreese is Tyreese remarking that Rick is now less of an alpha male due to his disability. It's okay, though; they later make up and are bros again. But can they shake on it?
  • The introduction of Alice as a character who can help pregnant Lori give birth is a tad bit convenient.
  • Is Glenn looting dead bodies to find a wedding ring so he can propose to Maggie morbid or sweet? Jury's out.
  • Remember how I was talking about how all the references to the prison as a castle were priming the series for the introduction of a siege storyline? Called it! I mean, come on, it was like Chekov's gun.

Monday, June 26, 2017

That Spelljammer Belongs in a Museum!

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

- Boddynock, gnome bard
- Belaros, goliath paladin
- Trom, dinosaurian fighter
- Viktor, dragonborn sorcerer
- Dr. Aleister Wiffle, human fighter

Objective: Loot a crashed spelljammer for alien artifacts.

A strange thing was seen in the sky on a Saturday night in Scarabae: a large dark sphere, festooned with prickly spikes, was being pulled from the firmament toward the city itself by a pair of massive, green spectral hands. From separate locations (including a literary cafe, two taverns, and a laboratory) the party observed the approach of this unusual object--save for Viktor, who instead felt a powerful magic drawing nearer. Come Sunday morning, the adventurers' slumbers were interrupted by messengers sent by Koska. Koska presented a job opportunity: the observed object was an alien craft that had crash-landed in Scarabae; the Magpie Museum was looking for a crew of ne'er-do-wells to venture inside and make off with any extraterrestrial artifacts they could add to their collection.

Koska provided the crew with healing potions, an advance on their pay, and tickets to ride a Kyuss Industries worm train to the crash site. The craft was approximately seventy-five feet long from its spherical main body to its rear tail, it appeared to be made of a wood-like substance, it was covered in spikes and also slits and small apertures, and at the tail was a metal-reinforced hatch next to a flagpole--a flag depicting a cracked moon fluttered in the breeze. The crash-landing had flatted a number of buildings underneath the ship and around where it had embedded itself in the city. Guards had been posted around the perimeter; according to one of the guards, residents of the neighborhood had approached the craft only to be repelled by gunfire coming from the apertures. Small bipeds with big round heads had been spotted emerging from the hatch to inspect the outside of their craft.

Duly warned, Trom, Belaros, and Dr. Wiffle used a piece of roofing from the surrounding debris as a makeshift shield to give the group cover as they approached the craft. Gunshots rang out as they approached, but their portable cover protected them until they reached the ship and began to clamber up to the hatch at the tail. The hatch proved to be locked from the inside; no one was able to wrench it off, so they began to hack at the wood surrounding the hatch so they might more easily pull it free. While working away at the hatch, Trom was stabbed by a spear that shot out from an aperture in the sphere's hull, but finally the hatch was pulled free, revealing a ladder descending into a corridor within the craft. The wooden interior walls were pulsating with red light.

The end of the corridor seemed to make a u-turn at its extremity. Belaros and Trom pursued them, and both were peppered by darts from a trap in the wall. Once around the bend, the party found themselves in a chamber. Against the far wall was a small wooden chair or throne that seemed to grow out of the craft's wooden floor; the throne was decorated with metal banding inscribed with glowing, electric blue runes. There were also a number of bedrolls against the walls of the chamber and another metal hatch in the floor. Surrounding the throne were a group of goblins, carrying pistols and crystalline spears, and wearing rubbery suits and fishbowl-shaped glass helmets. 

Attempts to parlay with the goblins went well at first; the party learned that the goblins were on a space-faring pilgrimage to the Mind of Tiamat when some magical force in Scarabae pulled them off course and caused them to crash land in the city. The goblins repeatedly told the adventurers to leave their ship so they could finish repairs and return to their pilgrimage. Inevitably, communications broke down and the party found themselves in melee with space goblins. The goblins put up a good fight; their leader had a personal forcefield that made him difficult to wound, but Boddynock kept his side alive while Dr. Wiffle, Trom, Belaros, and Viktor hacked away with spear, sword, and spell. Once dispatched, the goblins and their bedrolls were searched; the party found a number of copper, silver, and gold coins that bore alien markings, and Viktor took the captain's forcefield belt.

Like this but with a goblin in a retro space
helmet instead of a person 
Being approximately goblin-sized meant that Boddynock was volunteered to sit on the throne. He found that the armrests had several divots that he could fit his fingers into. He also discovered that when he said directions, the ship would attempt to move in that direction, even though it was still held fast by its impact into the city. After monkeying with the throne, the party proceeded down the hatch into the belly of the craft. Things they found:

- An image of a goblin sitting in an ornate throne-chair operating arcane controls. The image was clearly aspirational, as the depicted throne was far more ornate and fancy than the one discovered previously.

- A series of interconnecting corridors, some normal-sized, others so narrow they would have to be crawled down on all fours. Viktor cast a light spell on a bag of shot and rolled it down one of the narrow corridors; about halfway down, the rolling shot triggered a pit trap to open.

- A table laden with bread and cheese on crystal plates; the food had obviously been left when the alert when up that there were intruders on board.

- A curving corridor that ended in a chamber holding a large crystalline tank of yellowish liquid. Floating within the liquid was a large insectoid creature. When Belaros put his hand to the glass, the creature pressed its clawed hand in the same spot. Belaros wanted to set the creature free, but the others were nervous about that course of action.

- Another curved corridor ended in a similar tank, but this one held a number of floating black globules...somewhat like the boba in bubble tea. Viktor conjured a mage hand inside the tank to nudge the globules, causing them to unfurl bat-like wings and try to engulf the magical appendage.

- A crashing sound was heard down another corridor. When the party went to explore the source of the commotion they found the broken remains of a crystalline canister. The yellow fluid was puddled on the floor among the crystal shards, but whatever creature or creatures were inside were missing. Dr. Wiffle and Viktor recognized the runes and sigils upon the floor and walls in this chamber--it looked as though the Children of Fimbul had entered the ship magically and made off with whatever was held in that tank.

The party also perceived the sound of murmured conversation. Crawling down a narrow tunnel toward the sound brought them to a chamber used for worship. There were prayer rugs and more bedrolls strewn about, and there was a crystal statue of Tiamat--with each of her heads crafted from a different chromatic color of crystal--at the center of the room. Along the walls were shelves containing crystalline jars filled with red jelly. Whoever had been in this chamber had obviously fled at the party's noisy approach. 

Trom tracked down the rest of the goblins by thundering down a corridor and greeting them with a sonic blast. These goblins were not dressed in the same style as those who had been previously encountered; these goblins wore sand-colored robes and their eyes were glowing with blue light. One of their number appeared to be the spiritual leader of the group; she wore a number of charms and brandished a crystal rod. Another bore a spear and shield, while the remaining two were simply fanatics armed with crystal daggers.

The leader of this group of goblins nearly did Dr. Wiffle a mischief with a chromatic orb spell, but luckily he was able to use his own magic to shield himself from the crackling orb of lightning. Viktor fired back a fiery orb of his own, which immolated the devotee of Tiamat. Boddyock was terrified by a mystical vision of a draconic behemoth slowly beating its wings through the void of the astral sea. The goblin with the spear proved to be a tough customer, but he too eventually fell beneath the party's onslaught. One of the fanatics was easily dispatched, the other was wounded, fell prostrate and hoped for mercy.

The remaining fanatic, Reznik the Believer, explained that his group thought that the party had broken open the crystal canister and released the "monster" therein. When asked if there were any other goblins on board, Reznik guided the crew to a chamber where the goblins kept the "abominations" chained to the walls--these were goblins who had become horribly mutated and driven insane by consuming too much of the red jelly. Belaros put the abominations to the sword--which caused Reznik to go a little bit sheepish as he expected that he may be next on the chopping block. To make himself helpful, he found some tools for Dr. Wiffle so the doctor could remove the throne and sell it to the Magpie Museum, and in the process also showed the party where to find a pair of odd crystal swords that were formed in the shape of bladed feathers. 

Having cleared the spelljammer craft of hostile, Tiamat-worshiping, drug-addicted space goblins, the party decided which items they would keep for themselves and which they would turn over to the Magpie Museum for a profit. They did not kill Reznik; rather, he was turned over to the museum as well so that he might help curate an exhibit of his people's items and their culture. 

As the last of the recovered artifacts were loaded onto the museum's wagons, the party spotted the approach of a number of carriages--all black, all bearing black flags emblazoned with white scarabs, the flag of Scarabae's government! Not wishing to have a conversation with government agents about helping the museum make away with items from a crashed spelljammer on Scarabaen soil, the party soon dispersed into the alleys, shadows, and side streets. One last glance back gave them a glimpse of an imperious, black-haired woman in a green gown step from a carriage to survey the now-looted spelljammer; Mayor Vor was not going to be pleased to discover that the prize had already been rifled!

XP - 246 each.

Coin - 523 each from the assorted goods turned over to the museum's agents, including eight jars of red jelly, a crystal statue of Tiamat, twelves crystal plates, a crystal rod, four pistols of alien manufacture, the helm from a goblin Porcupine spelljammer, a crystal dagger, a number of alien coinage, a cloth star map, six crystal spears, three glass goblin helmets.

Other - A couple of the party took pistols, Viktor took a crystal dagger.

Magic Items - Viktor took slippers of spider climbing from the priestess of Tiamat, and a personal Force Field (it has two charges left, each charge lasts 1 minute and grants a 17 AC for the duration) from the ship's captain; Belaros and Trom both took a feathersword, which is functionally a longsword +1. 

Friday, June 23, 2017

Gilded Needles

Michael McDowell's Gilded Needles is a captivating tale of two families from dramatically different circumstances, engaged in a bitter feud set against the backdrop of late 19th Century New York City. This grimy vision of the metropolis, populated by opium addicts, thieves, and lesbian brawlers, could easily have earned the moniker Fear City long before the first stag reels flickered onto the screen of a Times Square grindhouse. Get to know the Stallworths, a family with wealth and political ambitions, and the Shanks, a clan of criminal women who have found their place in lower Manhattan's Black Triangle. How do these families' lives overlap, why do they loathe each other, and what are the consequences of their battle?
Jack and Kate have kept this episode spoiler-free in an effort to encourage others to seek out McDowell's under-appreciated thriller.
Intro/Outro music: "How We Quit the Forest" by Rasputina
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.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Beguiled, My Cousin Rachel, The Alienist

2017 isn't doing a great job getting me excited to go to the theater. I was looking forward to XX, but it was a disappointment. I was excited for a good Dark Tower movie, but the trailer looks like garbage.

Please please please let these be good...

The Beguiled

My Cousin Rachel

The Alienist

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Your Problem is Not My Problem

"Your problem is not my problem" sounds more flippant that I really intend it to be, but one thing I've noticed in talking to people online about D&D is that a lot of people have concerns that just wouldn't have ever occurred to me on my own. In the examples below, I'm specifically talking about problems that some DMs encounter that don't factor into how I run games; some of these I understand, and some of these are just plain alien to how I approach gaming.

The Character Information Problem
Recently I was in a thread on G+ where several people expressed that they have difficulty keeping track of all the player characters' powers, spells, and abilities in medium-to-heavy complexity games. This one baffles me; when I'm running a game I don't focus at all on what the player characters can do--that's the job of the player of the character because I've got enough on my plate as it is when I'm busy being everything else besides the players' characters.

If I need to adjudicate a rule in play regarding a character's ability, I ask the player to tell me what it does or I have them read me the text of the ability from the book if we've got a question about how it works. It's their responsibility to keep track of it because it is an aspect of the game attached to their particular character. I think of it like this: if someone is playing chess, and they don't know how the knight moves so they never move it, well, that's on them. 

The Cleric Problem
This one I understand: D&D's archetypal cleric just doesn't fit into the campaign settings some DMs want to play in. As a character class, the cleric is such a D&Dism; it doesn't really have much in the way of antecedents in the literature that inspired the game, or even in fantasy in general until the fantasy began to respond to D&D's cultural and aesthetic influence. For example, if you want to run a game that is true to the sword & sorcery genre, the cleric fits badly. 

The most obvious "solution," simply taking the cleric out of the game, presents some mechanical difficulties; in many editions of the game, healing magic is mainly sequestered in the cleric's hands, and without it the game's balance can be thrown off. Luckily for me, the cleric class tends to fit my settings pretty well. In my Krevborna setting, for example, the idea of a divinely-empowered inquisitor, a fanatical exorcist, or a vampire-hunting priest hits the aesthetic conventions I'm going for. 

The Game With No Players Problem
Offering up a game is a way of putting yourself out there; I have sympathy for people who are trying to get a game together but are struggling to find players because if people aren't interested in your game, that probably feels like rejection. My sympathy ends, however, when that feeling of rejection becomes a jealous hostility toward people running games that have no problems attracting players who want to play in them. Instead of moaning "My game is more fun than that guy's game, why aren't people playing in my campaign instead of theirs?" consider what the people who are running successful, beloved games are doing to make their games attractive and figure out how to incorporate that into your own games.

Part of this problem is that a lot of DMs construct their philosophy of what makes a "good game" from bad sources. Instead of thinking about the things they could do to get the game experience they want, they default to theories and perspectives that have more ideological value when arguing about games on forums than they have in utility value for games being played. Not all advice about how to run a game is equal. I have my own opinion on this. Mathematically speaking: Advice from DMs who frequently and currently run games that people are excited about is greater than:

  • Advice from DMs who maybe ran some games "back in the day." 
  • Advice from "game designers" who don't actually seem to run games. 
  • Advice from people who design games that few people are interested in.
  • Grognard consensus about the "right" way to play D&D.

So instead of deciding to die alone on a lonely hill of bitterness because other people are running games that people want in on, consider asking them what they're doing and what is working for them. Maybe people aren't interested in your game because you're presenting limited player options, maybe you're so invested in the metaphysics or history of your setting players feel like they're just along for the ride--but you might not figure that out until you honestly compare your techniques and ideas against those of people who are getting the kind of results you want.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Martyr's Kiss

† The Howling Void, The Womb Beyond the World
† Funeral, From the Orchestral Grave
† Evoken, Where Ghosts Fall Silent
† Skepticism, Pendulum
† Rise of Avernus, Disenchanted
† Lychgate, Letter XIX
† Myrkur, Skadi
† Peccatum, Parasite My Heart

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Horror of Art

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


  • Gisbert Highforge, dwarf fighter exiled from his homeland
  • Marek, human fighter on the run from a tyrant lord
  • Tobias Rune, human warlock focused on the science of the arcane
  • Thane Ganymede, monstrous darakhul wizard 
  • Leonid, rough-living weretouched fighter 

Objective: Discover the whereabouts or untimely fate of Nikolai Rodescu, a member of Windermere Parish's watch.

Events: The party was hired by Alice van Kemper, a watchwoman employed by the Parrish Church of St. Ophelia, to investigate the disappearance of her fellow watch member, Nikolai Rodescue. Nikolai had been investigating the murder of six local drunkards, each found throughout Windermere Parish with strange piercing wounds, before his own mysterious disappearance. Alice had been investigating Nikolai's whereabouts herself, but had been told to cease her search by her superior, a clergyman named Father Raspard. Raspard claimed that Nikolai's experiences as a soldier had traumatized him, and that it was only a matter of time before he ran off. Alice gave the party a key to Nikolai's apartment.

They considered dressing one or more members of their crew as inebriates to stake out the parish, but first the party decided to investigate Nikolai's apartment. On top of his desk was a note that read:

  • Stale beer
  • Beliza, Old Dieter, Coppermop, Rose, Callister, Vargo
  • Woman in paint-stained cloak
  • North Street Smilers
  • (the last item on the list is a sketch of a winged monstrosity with an elongated snout)
The party deduced that the the six names in the second line of the list were the names of the six murdered drunkards. Marek knew that the North Street Smilers were a gang of ruffians and thieves operating in Windermere Parish who could be identified by tattoos of open straight razors on their left hands. Rifling through the drawers of Nikolai's desk discovered a potion of healing and an arcane scroll.

Further investigation of the apartment revealed a flat parcel wrapped in oilcloth sitting on Nikolai's kitchen table. Leonid examined it and found that the parcel had been unwrapped before and later re-wrapped. Removing the oilcloth unveiled a portrait of Alice van Kemper--with her throat slit! There was a three-part signature in the corner, but the name was impossible to make out. Gisbert's investigation of Nikolai's bedroom turned up the watchman's sword from his soldiering days underneath the bed and, strangely, a mix of both men and women's clothes in his trunk.

Reporting on what they had discovered to Alice added more pieces to the puzzle. Alice told them that the reference to "stale beer" in Nikolai's list likely indicated a nameless tavern that sold the old beer from other establishments to a particularly destitute and downtrodden clientele. When shown the oil painting of herself with her throat cut, Alice was aghast with horror; she knew nothing about it, but did give the address of an art dealer who might be able to help them track down its painter. Pressed about the presence of women's garments at Nikolai's apartment, she admitted that their relationship was more than just comradeship in the parish watch.

The group ventured to the poorer, more lawless, section of the parish, reconnoitering the headquarters of the North Street Smilers and eventually entering the stale beer tavern. Banter with Wolfric, the dandy bartender at the tavern, added the fact that a nobleman had visited this down-and-out establishment offering hard money for the address of Nikolai Rodescu--the nobleman claimed that he had a parcel to deliver to the watchman. Wolfric pointed out an old, broken-down man who had given up Nikolai's address; plying the old man with beer made him very agreeable to leading the party the nobleman's residence.

The party followed the staggering old man to a small stone cottage in a nicer section of the parish. Through the front window, they spied a man with a long blond mustache wearing finery and military medals he almost certainly hadn't earned. The party split up--with Gisbert, Leonid, and Thane covering the back door in case the noble tried to run, and Marek and Tobias at the front to try to get information from him by persuasive means. Marek knocked at the door...and was surprised that the face of the nobleman who answered bore a striking resemblance to the tyrant he had armed his countrymen against. 

The conversation that followed indicated that the nobleman had been acting in service of Pietra Donna Sangino, a portrait artist of high repute in Krevborna, because she held leverage over him. He stated that the portraits she created gave her power over their subjects. The nobleman assumed that Tobias and Marek were in the same boat as he was, and had come to him for the woman's address, so he made them an offer: if they would agree to steal back the portrait that she had painted of him back, he would take them by carriage to her home.

The party regrouped and set off in two carriages to the three-story home of Pietra Donna Sangino. Unlike it neighbors, this house did not have an entrance at the ground floor; rather, a set of wrought iron stairs led up to an entrance at the second floor. Two ruffians, one in a top hat eating an apple and one shuffling a pack of cards, sat on the bottom stoop of the stairs--clearly hired protection from the North Street Smilers. There were no lights on in the house save for the third floor. Thane had his raven familiar scout the perimeter; the raven saw that there was an open skylight at the third floor, and that the entirety of the third floor was an artist's studio. Inside sat a plain woman with black curls in a painter's smock, working away at what appeared to be a wintry landscape in oils. 

Thane made an ill-fated attempt to stroll by the front of the house and cast a casual sleep spell on the two toughs, but never were affected. Backpedaling Thane's strange gestures and arcane words into a religious greeting, Marek thrust Nikolai's list at them as if it were a religious pamphlet, but the thug in the top hat visibly recognized the drawing of a monster at the end of it, which prompted both of the ruffians to draw their weapons. 

The thug in the top hat flicked his fingers out, revealing blades at the end of his gloves; his compatriot merely had a straight razor. Leonid assumed his hybrid werecreature form, Marek hefted his greatsword, Thane and Tobias readied their spells, and Gisbert stood fast with his shield and pick. The combined efforts of the party eviscerated the North Street Smiler gang members in short order, but as the last thug died he exploded in a shower of wet pigment--luckily everyone was able to dodge out of the way in time.

The immediate opposition eliminated, the party made their way up the stairs to the second floor. They entered Sangino's parlor, traversed the back hall, and found stairs that went to both the first and second floors. They deliberated whether to search for Nikolai on the first floor or head directly to the third to challenge Pietra Donna Sangino. They chose the latter. Approached in her studio, the group attempted to parlay with Sangino, hoping to get her to let them leave with Nikolai--but at the mention of his name it was clear to her that if they knew about him than they certainly knew too much about her to live! 

Her opening salvo was to cast a wicked spell upon Tobias and whistle shrilly; his mind was wracked with an image of all his diabolic research amounting to nothing in the end--the mental damage from his psychic assault nearly ended the warlock. While the party attacked her in return, the creature she had whistled for--a large, mosquito-like monstrosity that matched Nikolai's hasty sketch--arrived at the open skylight and flew in to join the fray. 

Sangino proved to be a slippery opponent; sometimes an attack that seemed to hit her would reveal a simulacrum that dissolved into oily paint upon the studio floor. Ultimately, she lost the upper hand and attempted to run back to the landscape painting she had been working on--as she retreated the party took their parting shots at her, nearly killing her before she reached the painting, but reach it she did and...she disappeared as she touched the canvas. Left to face the party on its own, the mosquito thing traded piercing strikes from its proboscis before falling to a fiery blast from Thane.

Among the blank canvases in the room, the party discovered three portraits--including the one they had been asked to retrieve by the nobleman who took them to Sangino's studio. On the first floor, Thane rescued a battered and weary Nikolai from where he lay tied in a sack. Unfortunately, Thane's attempt to detect magic in the house was interrupted by the arrival of another mosquito-like beast. Having secured the kidnapped watchman, the party chose retreat over further acts of valor--but not before the mosquito-thing destroyed Thane's raven familiar as it sat perched at the skylight.

The nobleman had his portrait returned to him, for which he gladly returned the group via his rented carriages to Windermere Parish. Gisbert opted to stay with Nikolai in his apartment--where he fortified the watchman with dwarven liquor--while his compatriots found Alice and told her of Nikolai's restoration. Alice and Nikolai's reunion was emotional, but restrained--used to hiding their relationship, they weren't performing their joy at being brought back together, but to them it was everything.

Nikolai confirmed much of what the party had already surmised: he was on the trail of the murderer of the drunkards when he was told about one of the victims being seen in the company of the a woman in a paint-stained cloak; he had also heard the inebriated ravings of a homeless man who ranted about a "thin-winged monster" that chased him through an alleyway; he got a tip that the North Street Smilers were involved; apparently his inquiry had been noticed by Sangino and she had done a little investigating of her own--she had sent him the portrait of Alice with her throat slit and a note that he was to come--alone--to her residence or Alice would be killed; he was overpowered at Sangino's studio and confined to the basement.

Mystery solved!

The Spoils:
XP - 335 each.

Coin - 50 gp each from Alice +5 gp each looted from the pockets of the North Street Smilers.

Salable Items - Two paintings by Pietra Donna Sangino, price depends on if you sell them anonymously through a fence or take them to a reputable art dealer; you also have the painting of Alice with her throat cut, which would require find a morbid sort of art buyer. The first two paintings detect as magical, but how you would use them is unclear.

Magic Items - Potion of healing, scroll of phantasmal killer (I believe Thane took these).

Intangibles - Alice and Nikolai will provide you with whatever help they can muster on a future occasion.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Carach Angren, Igorrr, Sabbath Assembly

Music videos...remember when those were on tv?

Carach Angren, "Blood Queen"

Igorrr, "Opus Brain"

Igorrr, "Cheval"

Sabbath Assembly, "Does Love Die"

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Some of the Hardest People to Run Games For

Can you imagine trying to run a game for this prick?
In my experience, other DMs can be some of the hardest players to run games for. 

This isn't aimed at anyone in particular; most DMs keep their shit together when they're playing a character in someone else's game. If anything, it's a reminder to myself for when I play in someone else's games.

It makes sense: people who run their own games tend to be heavily invested in roleplaying games as a hobby, they're often the people who like building their own worlds and settings, and they tend to have strong feelings about how game systems and mechanisms should work.

The thing is: I'm not sure you should do anything differently when you have a fellow DM playing a character at your table. The way you run your game is a series of choices you should make about the kind of game you want to have; people will either like it and keep playing in your game, or they'll hit the bricks and find a game more to their tastes.

The things is, part 2: If you are a DM who is playing a character in a game that someone else is running, I think it's a fine idea to let go of your preconceived notions and go with the flow of the game as it is being presented to you. There should be onus is on players-who-are-also-DMs to not to be difficult at the table--because, frankly, you should know better.

My Advice for Players-Who-Are-Also-DMs

  • If you are a DM, you likely have some strong opinions about what game systems or even editions are best, what kind of mechanisms are most productive for a certain style of play, or how play in general should proceed. That's fine, but when you're a player do not interject your disappointment that the game you're playing doesn't work the way it would if you were the one running it. You aren't running the game this time; it's not your purview to make that call as a player.
  • You can, of course, ask for rules clarifications and try to meet the DM halfway, just as any player at the table can. But if you approach it as an exercise in "Well, that's not how I do it..." you're likely making the game less fun for everyone at the table. You may truly believe in your heart of hearts that games should have a wound system, extensive critical hit charts, damage-reducing armor, and rules for infection--but if the DM is just using plain old abstract hit points in their game, those feelings are best kept to yourself.
  • Also keep in mind that the world you're playing in is not your own, and it might be overreaching to assert authorship over it without checking in to see if that's cool. Many DMs love to homebrew their own bespoke settings, which is a great, hallowed pastime. What isn't great, however, is when a player-who-is-also-a-DM tries to take over someone else's setting by asserting background details, making up content unasked for, and generally trying to steer the setting from the backseat. 
  • As a player, you already have an important piece of world-building to attend to: your character. The world around your character is essentially the DM's character. You wouldn't want anyone else making up the details about your character, right? Extend the same courtesy to the DM's world. 
  • Some DMs like for players to "co-author" the setting with them to varying extents. The best policy is to ask how much input and what kind of input the DM might want from you. If the answer is "none," accept that! It's far better to ask if a contribution you want to make fits the DM's setting, the adventure they've devised, or the tone of the game they're running for you than to simply tell them that this new thing they hadn't accounted for exists. 
  • You know how you like your players to be excited about the game? Be that player when you play in a fellow DM's game! Don't take it over or commandeer the game, just be a player who wants to work with everyone else at the table to have a good time.
  • When you're taking the role of a player in someone else's game, the passion you have for RPGs is best spent in being the exemplary player. Be the player who shows up on time, the player who plays to the hilt, the player who passes the spotlight graciously, the player you'd love to have at your own table.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Bewildering Attitudes I've Encountered in the Wild (part 5 of to the moon, Alice!)

  • Other people's issues are just a distraction; my issues, however, are very important.
  • I don't judge a game by its rules-as-written; I judge it by the terrible house rules I've added to the game.
  • When I say "Lovecraftian" I mean "what I imagine Lovecraft's fiction to be like because I haven't read much, if any, of it." I do, however, own a Cthulhu t-shirt.
  • I HATE this game, even though it is the only game I talk about in every thread I post in at I don't like anything this company makes, but I follow what they put out more closely than any of their fans.
  • I have a very aggressive avatar, but will react like a sensitive hothouse flower to the smallest perceived slight.
  • You know you had a good session when no one had fun at the table. (Two days pass.) I don't understand why I can't get my gaming group together to play again!

Friday, June 9, 2017

500+ Pages of an Aging Hippie Sneering at Your Record Collection

For the first mini episode, Kate and Jack tackle the book that is the origin story of the podcast. Sure, a George RR Martin novel about the dark and violent side of the 60s focusing on ritual murder and a band called the Nazg├╗l sounds amazing, but is it? No. No it is not. Armageddon Rag has taken on borderline symbolic value to your hosts as the quintessential work of wasted potential.

How sad is it when middle aged people worry about "sell outs?" Are all young people doing counterculture wrong, or are hippies just the worst? How many uncomfortable sexual elements are incorporated into the plot? Why would anyone name their magazine The Hedgehog? Find out all this and more in the first mini episode of Bad Books for Bad People.

Intro/outro music: "Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival

Find us at, on Twitter @badbooksbadppl, Instagram @badbooksbadpeople and on Facebook. You can discover where to get all the books featured on Bad Books for Bad People on our reading list.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Advice for New DMs

I was wondering why my blog was getting so many hits from Youtube recently; it turns out that Web DM linked to my post "World Building: When is Enough Too Much?" in the notes to their video--which is much appreciated! Check it out, they've got a lot of great advice for new DMs:

Monday, June 5, 2017

Dragonslaying in Swampy Majere

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.

Now that the party had acquired half a map from a murder brothel and half a map from an evil fey sorceress, they used the ship they stole from a pirate to sail upriver to Swampy Majere, a basin of hellish bog at the center of Lapin Island.

The journey to the treasure was punctuated by hit-and-run guerrilla warfare on the part of a tribe of crocodilefolk in league with the treasure's owner. One ambush in particular was so fierce that the crew had to veer off-route and take refuge in a cave to heal-up and recover. "Crocs are no joke," says Jester Jones.

The crew discovers why Edmund Folderol is paranoid, jumps at every sound, and is constantly on the look out for inevitable betrayal: he owes a great deal of money to the crocodilefolk clans on the island and they've put a hit out on him. This is the explanation for why he joined this adventuring party of crypt-kickers on Lapin Island: he had hopes that he would be either able to make enough money to pay his debts or maybe just end up in a position to help slaughter off the people he owes money to. 

The party also learns that Miranda had been holding back some information about the treasure they're seeking in Swampy Majere: it's already the property of a dragon. Would have been nice to know that ahead of time, Miranda. "I play by my own rules," states Miranda as she shrugs. When pressed on this, she reveals that the reason why she is pursuing this adventure is in hope of getting enough of the dragon's hoard to replenish her noble family's squandered treasury.

Health restored and morale lacking, the crew presses on through the boggy terrain. More crocodilemen are fought, but luck is on the crew's side throughout the day. Eventually they arrive at a sinkhole marked with an X on their map. Rappelling down into the sink, everything is far too quiet. Bound by chains within the dragon's lair is a halfling man named Otto Bellringer. Jester recognizes Otto, as the halfling is his great rival in the local juggling circuit. Before releasing him, Jester makes Otto admit that he stole crucial parts of his act and will admit so in public. Sweet comeuppance is short-lived as...

The dragon, all black-scaled and hideous, emerges from the murk and has a mind to parlay. He tries to convince Grayson, a dragonborn, that it is totally racist for him to side with elves, dwarves, genasi, men, half-orcs against a dragon--where's the solidarity with this people? Grayson is unmoved by this patter and reveals part of his own backstory: he is an adventurer because he disgraced himself in front of his warrior father by fleeing in terror from a dragon he faced as part of his dad's mercenary company. Now it's time to conquer that fear and swallow that shame.

The party spreads out to minimize damage from the dragon's acidic breath. Jester, Grayson, and Mulga take the dragon on directly, while Edmund, Miranda, and Pharasmos pepper his hide with arrows and blasts of magic. Mulga sings a crazed song about dragonslaying; her song reveal that her deepest-seated desire is for her friends to convert to her religion of cosmic oneness. She is bitten in twain by the dragon before any of her friends can consider their place in the cosmic unity. Thus always to hippies. 

Jester delivers the killing blow. Who knew a dwarf could look so graceful sailing through the air like that?

The dragon's hoard is duly looted and loaded upon the ship. Pharasmos tells his compatriots that he has been eager to get his gambling enterprise underway because he burned down his friend's gambling hall and this is to be a present to repair their soured friendship. The party, now wealthy enough to retire if they so choose, sails away from Lapin Island. Roll credits!

Friday, June 2, 2017

Buckets of Character Creation

If you're designing a game, I think it's useful to think of all the choices or separate procedures a player makes while creating a character as belong to different "buckets." For example, if character creation in your game means choosing ability scores, race, class, and starting equipment, you are asking players to dip into four different buckets to make their character. Consider how quick you want to character creation to be and how complicated you want the process to feel when designating how many "buckets" make up a new character.

Examples of how choosing your buckets affects the speed and complexity of character creation: in Shadow of the Demon Lord you only have to pick from one bucket to start with (you choose your character's ancestry) vs. in 5e D&D you have to pick from at least four buckets (ability scores, race, class, background).

Speaking of SotDL, I really like the character sheet for Shadow of the Demon Lord precisely because it's clean, evocative of its genre, and doesn't look like a tax form. If you're thinking about character creation in terms of "buckets" it's also useful to think about how you're going to present those buckets visually to help make character creation feel less like work.

Note, however, that it goes without saying that sometimes a "bucket" is actually buckets-within-buckets. For example, in 5e D&D picking a class might also mean making choices within the class you settle on; if you pick "cleric" from the bucket of class options, you're also going to have to pick your cleric's specialized domain. Buckets-within-buckets aren't uncommon, but if you're writing your own game you should probably try not to let the number of buckets hidden in other buckets get out of hand.

Since we're talking about buckets-within-buckets, you know what really grinds my gears? Extraneous attributes in the ability scores bucket. This most often takes the form of keeping D&D's baggage of six ability scores (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma) when a slimmer set of ability scores or a different array of score more appropriate to the game's genre would have worked much better. Seeing Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma on a character sheet for a game that isn't D&D is practically a deal-breaker for me at this point.

It's also worthwhile to think about what needs to be a "bucket" and what does not. For example, I'll never understand why Dungeon World seems to think that you need to choose one of three options when it comes to your character's eyes, hair, or clothes. On one hand, that feels insulting; did the game's authors think that the reader couldn't handle that on their own? (It should also be noted that the options they present an invariably lame.) On the other hand, it feels like they're wasting your time since the "bucket" of appearance isn't a real mechanical choice that matters.

In summation: if you're writing a game, think about how many choices and moving pieces you want a player to navigate during character creation; consider how the buckets you're using are going to be presented; don't let your buckets-within-buckets spiral out of control; put some thought into what ability scores actually matter in your game; don't make me pick dumb stuff like "fiery eyes" or "wise eyes," please--make sure the buckets you choose actually matter.