Monday, July 31, 2017

The Bloody Palm


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

- Kylic, half-elf life domain cleric
- Thane Ganymede, darakhul wizard
- Leonid, weretouched fighter

Objective: Locate four pieces of a glass object that Kylic saw in his vision.

Events: Kylic had been having recurring dreams of a a bloody hand print upon a wooden door, hog pens, and a journey north to the hamlet of Stenton. The most prominent feature of these dreams was a glass object that had been sundered into four pieces. Kylic knew that the pieces of this glass, if recovered, could be a powerful weapon against a force of darkness currently gnawing at the roots of Krevborna.

To draw together some companions to assist his pursuit of the vision, Kylic went to an outdoor market. He witnessed the attempted murder of an old man by a street ruffian; the would-be murderer was killed by the combined efforts of Thane and Leonid. Suitable compatriots had been found. 

(The old man was saved from the assassin's knife by a chain shirt he had been given on the streets of Chancel months ago in a previous session.)

Heading north, the party stopped at Stenton. Father Bray, the priest at Stenton's church warned Leonid away from a cave the locals believed to be haunted. Kylic learned that a farmer named Hamish lived in the vicinity, and that his hogs were widely considered to be of the best quality. Since the dream motivating their journey involved hogs, they made Hamish's farm their next stop.

Posing as a prospective buyer, Kylic distracted Hamish  (and healed Hamish's gout) while Leonid and Thane snooped about the premises. Leonid found a bloody hand print upon the door of the farmer's shed. What he found inside was worse: the body of a young man was hanging from a meathook, his blood draining into a metal basin at his feet.

When confronted with this information, Hamish tried to play it off as the body of an intruder he had killed on his farm, but ultimately he confessed that he had overpowered the man and tried to make him a replacement for his dead son. 

He also confessed to having another captive in the house, a man named Theodore who the party healed and set free. Hamish was subdued and the party decided to rest overnight within the farmer's house.

Their rest was interrupted by sounds of frightened yelling coming from the forest at the edge of Hamish's farm. The party ventured into the forest and found a cleric of the Church of Saintly Blood lying wounded against a tree. 

Her name was Vicar Dylia, and she explained that she was part of an expedition sent by the Church to find an artifact believed to be within an ancient shrine. She was convinced to take the party to the shrine.

The "shrine" was a short tower with a domed roof. Dylia refused to go inside because she was traumatized by the attack her group had suffered from the "skinless men" they had released from the shrine when they broke down its door.

Undeterred, the party entered. Inside the tower was a ledge surrounding a central pit of black water. A light spell was cast on a stone; throwing it down into the water revealed a corridor that ran beneath the water to a unknown location.

Leonid accepted the task of exploring the underwater corridor. He emerged at the other end in a circular chamber strewn with bones and debris. The domed ceiling of the chamber was painted with vivid scenes of gaunt, inhuman figures torturing and tormenting human beings.

The trio began to explore the chambers. They discovered a glass hemisphere giving off a blood-red radiance embedded in the floor of one chamber. Within the hemisphere could be seen the head of an inhuman woman whose lower face was obscured by a veil made of fine chain. 

Further exploration determined that the chamber below was responsible for the illuminating red light; the light was streaming from a gilded basin filled with inhuman blood. When Kylic swished the blood in the basin he discovered that the source of the light was a glass chunk at the bottom of the basin--it was one of the pieces of glass he had seen in his dream.

The party also found a ledge from which they could see more bones, debris, and swords lying in a cavern, as well as a statue that appeared to be the same chain-veil wearing women they had seen previously in the hemisphere. The chain veil on the statue was not a carved piece of the sculpture, and thus was duly looted--as was a chunk of gold with a blood-red gem embedded in it that had replaced one of her stone eyes.

The remaining three pieces of the glass artifact were located on an altar flanked by gaunt, monstrous statues bearing swords. Unfortunately, as the party was looting the altar a cloud of ash began to whisper into the chamber, with a sound like sand blown against stone, coalescing into two tall, thin figures bearing curved swords. 

The ensuing battle was brutal; the party took an early beating--both Thane and Leonid found themselves face-to-face with death (in Leonid's case, no less than three times), but Kylic's magic kept them alive. The tide eventually turned in the party's favor, and Leonid delivered the death blow to both of the ancient swordsmen.

Forgoing further exploration, the party left the shrine. Vicar Dylia attempted to take the glass shards from the party by force, but Kylic's last spell subdued her. They returned to Hamish's farm to recuperate. Before returning to Piskaro, Kylic killed Hamish for his murderous, cruel crimes and buried him in the family's small burial plot.

XP: 1083 xp each

- Violet garnet (90 gp)
- Gilded bowl depicted Lilituans sacrificing humans (100 gp)
- Chain veil (40 gp)
- Statue of a Lilitu noble wearing a chain veil (100 gp)
- Pouch containing 22 cp found on dead assassin

Magic Items:
Golden nugget with red gemstone embedded in it. (Once per day when you hold this item you get advantage on a Persuasion, Insight, or Deception check made against an undead creature.)

Sorrowsworn, a curved sword made of ancient metal, inscribed with runes in an elder language. (Magical short sword; inflicts an extra 1d6 damage against Lilituan descendants and vampires.)

Four pieces of magical glass, the purpose of which is currently obscure.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Lyssa's Torment

† Lords of Shadow 2 soundtrack - Carmilla †
† Funeral - Red Moon †
† Theatres des Vampires - Throne of Dark Immortals †
† Cradle of Filth - Funeral in Carpathia †
† Ancient - Lilith's Embrace †
† Rise of Avernus - Ethereal Blindness †
† Old Man's Child - Funeral, Swords and Souls †
† Ancient Ceremony - Shadows of the Undead †

Friday, July 28, 2017

Sins and the Dragons They Birth

The screencap to the left is of a Twitter conversation between Mike Mearls and Jon Dilley that is particularly useful for some world-building I wanted to do with Krevborna, a setting where dragons are born from horrific instances of sin. As such, Mearls's mapping of dragons to the "seven deadly sins" is a good starting point for what kind of dragon would be created from which human sins, but it leaves some sins and some types of dragons in the Monster Manual still on the table. Since metallic dragons aren't actually good in Krevborna, we can throw them in the mix as well--but we'll need to move beyond the "deadly sins," which is fine because there are all sorts of sins one can get up to in Krevborna. 

Rounding out the current list of dragons in the Monster Manual adds:

Brass: Neglect
Bronze: Vainglory
Copper: Sloth
Silver: Lust
Gold: Hypocrisy
Shadow: Heresy

We can also expand the palette by including dragons from Kobold Press's Tome of Beasts:

Cave: Cruelty
Flame: Manipulation
Mithral: Theft
Sea: Neglect
Void: Apostasy
Wind: Tyranny

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Four Courts of Scarabae

Although the most obvious figure of political power in Scarabae is the Lord Mayor, it would be vastly unwise to discount the might of the Four Courts. Each of the Four Courts functions as an ur-guild, controlling and regulating a powerful facet of life in the city. 

The Court of Wands oversees the use of arcane magic, and the creation and sale of magical items. 

The Court of Cups holds sway over hearts and minds through their control of religious practice in Scarabae, and regulates hospitals both mundane and divinely-empowered. 

The Court of Coins holds all aspects of commerce--the minting of coinage, setting the norms of the services illicit such as assassination and prostitution, and trade agreement--in the palm of their well-greased hands. 

The Court of Swords provides what passes for law and order on the streets of the city, as well as command over the city's mercenary armies and naval forces.

The internal power structure of all of the Courts follows a similar structure: a Court's leadership is elected by its voting members to fill four positions at the top of a court's hierarchy. The positions, and their duties, include the King and Queen (who share final decisions and must agree before ratifying important legislation regarding Court business), Knight (who is charged with protecting the Court's interests and assets), and Page (who is entrusted with representing the Court to other Courts, city functionaries, and foreign powers).

My current vision of who fills those roles within each Court is to use well-known, or at least recognizable, characters from D&D's "canon" while twisting them into fresh faces based on this new context. Everyone old is new again! You can bet that my "version"of each of these characters is likely to give a purist apoplexy; in Scarabae, for example, Elminister's reputation for being goddess-favored, all powerful, and a total lady-killer is absolutely the end product of a massive propaganda campaign (that no one believes).

On to the Courts:

The Court of Wands
King of Wands - Mordenkainen, human wizard
Queen of Wands - Shandril Shessair, human sorcerer
Knight of Wands - Emrikol the Chaotic, human sorcerer
Page of Wands - Raistlin Majere, human warlock

The Court of Cups
King of Cups - Verminaard of Nidus, human cleric
Queen of Cups - Goldmoon, human cleric
Knight of Cups - Strongheart, human paladin
Page of Cups - Eclavdra, dark elf cleric

The Court of Coins
King of Coins - Harkon Lukas, wolfwere bard
Queen of Coins - Lidda, halfling rogue
Knight of Coins - Zarak, half-orc rogue
Page of Coins - Annah-of-the-Shadows, tiefling rogue

The Court of Swords
King of Swords - Jarlaxle Baenre, dark elf fighter/rogue
Queen of Swords - Kitiara Uth Matar, human fighter
Knight of Swords - Morgan Ironwolf, human fighter
Page of Swords - Peralay, high elf fighter/mage

Some interesting ideas arise from the names chosen for the above lists and how I imagine they relate to each other: 

The leadership of the Court of Wands is a very mixed group of magic-users...perhaps this degree of variance in approach carries over into internal Court politics and their is a lot of intrigue and infighting in the Court of Wands. Also, note that every member of the upper hierarchy is human! Is there some sort of human-centric bias at work within the Court that spills out into their policies as well?

The thing that strikes me about the Court of Cups is that its two pivotal members, Verminaard and Goldmoon, are absolutely opposed in religious belief and personal ideology. To me, this says that the Court of Cups is locked in stasis due to the inability of these two high-ranking members to come to compromises on policy.

The Court of Coins is the only Court to feature a list not dominated by humans. I want to think more about why this Court is more of coalition of differences than the others. The answer might be obvious: profit doesn't care about race.

Interestingly, the Court of Swords has a preponderance of broken, mercenary-minded people at its head. Does that change the nature of the kind of wars the Court is willing to fight or even in the ways it chooses to deploy military force? 

Also note that the more "rural" classes (barbarian, druid, monk, ranger) are effectively shut out of power currently. That probably says something about the urban nature of Scarabae.

(Shout outs to everybody on G+ who helped me populate the Courts: Clint Egger, Jurgen Mayer, Paul Vermeren, Scott Martin, Jeremy Murphy, Craig Hatler, Brian Mathers, Matthew B., Trey Causey, Daniel Davis, Path, Eric Diaz, Gustavo Iglesias, Tim Other, Chris P., Ahimsa Kerp, Dennis Laffey.)

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Boss Fights and Solo Monsters in 5e D&D

I've run a lot of 5e D&D at this point, so I feel confident in my anecdotal evidence when I make this statement: 5e isn't really built for party of adventurers vs. a single foe in combat. 

The reason why these fights don't work well in 5e D&D boils down to the "action economy"; a group of player characters will simply wear down a single foe because they have more actions (which equate to raw hit point damage and chances to inflict debilitating conditions) than their enemy (even if it has multiattack it likely can't output enough damage or debilitation on its own to keep up). Combat in D&D is essentially a war of attrition, so whoever has the upper hand in the action economy is going to grind down their opponent first--and when a party of adventurers has more actions to throw at a single foe, that beast doesn't really stand a chance.

I've got some ideas on how to even the scales to make for more exciting Big Fights, but first it's worthwhile to check to make sure that we aren't already tipping the balance toward disappointment by using a monster that isn't suitable as a boss. A "boss" or "solo" monster probably shouldn't be a "Medium" difficulty encounter according to the guidelines in the Dungeon Master's Guide. As the DMG defines it "A medium encounter usually has one or two scary moments for the players, but the characters should emerge victorious with no casualties. One or more of them might need to use healing resources" (82). In practice, it's highly unlikely that a party of adventurers will break a sweat in a medium combat, even against a like number of enemies, and you want your boss and solo fights to carry more weight than "they might need to use some healing resources." With that in mind, a boss or solo fight should start with a base difficulty of Hard or Deadly if you want it to have some dramatic impact and genuine struggle.

Now that we're clear on the base difficulty, we can consider modifying a creature to work better as a solo combatant. Consider adding a combination of the following to the creature's base stats:

Extra Hit Points: Since a solo monster has no minions to soak up damage, it will take every bit of damage the characters can toss its way. When I'm adding hit points to a boss monster, I tend to go with about 5 extra hit points per character for characters of 1st-4th level, 10 extra hit points per character for characters of 5th-9th level, 15 extra hit points per character for characters of 10th-14th level, and 20 extra hit points per character for characters of 15th-20th level. Those are just ballpark figures, you might use more or less depending on how many hit points the opponent has to start with. You want to add enough hit points to help the monster stay in the fight long enough to get its licks in, but you don't want to turn the fight into a grind.

Actions Outside Its Turn: The best solo opponents in the Monster Manual have Legendary Actions, a set of actions they can take in response to the players' turns in a round of combat. Adding these to monsters that weren't really intended as solo fights works really well in my experience. Personally, I like to use Legendary Actions as a way to add more color to a fight as well. For example, if a creature has a tail that it doesn't have a normal attack with, its fun to make a Legendary Action that lets it take a tail swipe in response to being attacked.

The Power of Nope: If you're adding Legendary Actions to a monster, you might also consider giving it Legendary Resistance as well: "If the monster fails a saving throw, it can choose to succeed instead." It's best to add this modification sparingly; at low levels, or in parties with few spellcasters, one or two instances of Legendary Resistance are fine. 

Bloodied Power: This is also a good place to steal one of 4e's better design elements--monster abilities that kick in once the players have reduced the beast to half its original hit points. Again, this is a place to add flavor--a fire elemental might get to drop a free fireball at half hit points, a giant might stomp the earth sending out a earth-rending tremor, a yuan-ti sorcerer might exude a miasma of poison, etc.

Better Defenses: You might also consider raising the creature's armor class and giving it bonuses to its saving throws, but in general this is my least favorite solution. In my experience it just tends to add more grind to combat and doesn't offer enough in return to make it worthwhile in most cases. If a monster has a naturally low armor class, though, it might be worth considered.

Let's put this all together and give an example of what a boss monster might look like:

Solo Basilisk
Size Medium, Type Monstrosity, Alignment Unaligned
AC 15 (Natural Armor), HP 72, Speed 30 ft.
STR 16, DEX 8, CON 15, INT 2, WIS 8, CHA 7
Senses Darkvision 60 Ft.

Passive Perception 9, CR 3


Petrifying Gaze: If a creature starts its turn within 30 ft. of the basilisk and the two of them can see each other, the basilisk can force the creature to make a DC 12 Constitution saving throw if the basilisk isn't Incapacitated. On a failed save, the creature magically begins to turn to stone and is Restrained. It must repeat the saving throw at the end of its next turn. On a success, the effect ends. On a failure, the creature is Petrified until freed by the Greater Restoration spell or other magic.
A creature that isn't surprised can avert its eyes to avoid the saving throw at the start of its turn. If it does so, it can't see the basilisk until the start of its next turn, when it can avert its eyes again. If it looks at the basilisk in the meantime, it must immediately make the save.
If the basilisk sees its reflection within 30 ft. of it in bright light, it mistakes itself for a rival and Targets itself with its gaze.

Miasma: When the basilisk is reduced to 36 or lower hit points, it immediately exudes a cloud of poisonous miasma. Any creature who starts their turn within 5' of the basilisk must make a successful DC 12 Constitution saving throw or become poisoned. This poison effect lasts for one minute, and an afflicted character can make a saving throw to end the condition at the end of their turn.

Bite: Melee Weapon Attack: +5 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 10 (2d6 + 3) piercing damage plus 7 (2d6) poison damage.

Legendary Actions
The basilisk can take 2 legendary actions, choosing from the options below. Only one legendary action option can be used at a time and only at the end of another creature's turn. The basilisk regains spent legendary actions at the start of its turn.

Claw: Melee Weapon Attack: +5 to hit, reach 5 ft. one target. Hit: 2d6+3 slashing damage.
Tail swipe: Melee Weapon Attack: +5 to hit, reach 10 ft. Hit: 2d4+3 bludgeoning damage and plus DC 12 Dexterity saving throw or be knocked prone.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Shooting at the Walls of Heartache Bang Bang

Nadya looks a bit like Kolin from
Street Fighter V, but her accent
is even worse.
I had the pleasure of helping playtest Paul V.'s GRIDSHOCK role-playing game. My character is a Soviet defector named Nadya Sibirskaya who joined the a secret organization who saw the SHOCK coming; she was trained as an agent of Harvest, placed in cryogenic suspension to ride out the apocalypse, and is now read to begin rebuilding the world. She's got psychic powers and is trained in Systema, so look out, evildoers. 

Here's what happened:

Vat a time! I awoke inside a Supremacy military vehicle, shackled to the wall with some sort of headgear placed on head. With me are talking dead man, American barbarian who makes smells, man who is cactus, and girl. Supremacy robot is standing guard. We struggle with shackles, eventually break free when vehicle is attacked. We feel vehicle lift from ground, we hear gunfire and yelling, explosions. I punch robot but is no good--metal body too strong for fist. Others deal with. We find our belongings; is good thing, Pat Benatar tapes and Walkman very rare.

We are greeted by large man call himself SlimJim. He is hulking brute, but is rescuing brute at least. He want to take us to his lead in Yankee Lake, is good. But his group going to execute Supremacy soldiers. Nyet! Is no good. Girl uses powers, crushes us all with heavy gravity until SlimJim relents. I control mind of man with blaster because he is weak to my superior mental powers. Now I have blaster. We negotiate deal. Supremacy prisoners go with us to Yankee Lake.

At Yankee Lake is Truck Night. Am disappoint that is not person named Truck Knight. We meet leader, Alpha Dog, and girl child who seem to call shots. Vat a place, this Yankee Lake. Alpha Dog vant us to go to Prism and find whatever Supremacy searching for. 

But this is problem because we see people of Yankee Lake treated horribly by Alpha Dog's gang. Is no better than treatment of Supremacy. Convening with new comrades we agree to overthrow Alpha Dog. But when? Is difficult situation. Is like how the Bruce Springfield say, we are dancing in dark.

Alpha Dog invite us to Truck Night. We watch truck with large tire crush other vehicles. Is stupid, decadent American entertainment. After truck crushing show, Alpha Dog have arena built--is going to make Supremacy prisoners fight exhumans. Nyet! Is also no good. Barbarian possess Alpha Dog, send him out window. Dead man also fly out window. Cactus punch SlimJim. I turn on Walkman, tape begin playing "The Warrior" by Scandal. It does me much inspire. I wrestle SlimJim, getting him in gulag leg-lock, but have feeling that he is strong like proud Russian bear. Vat vill happen next?

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Final Programme

Michael Moorcock is one of the most influential science fiction and fantasy authors of the latter half of the 20th Century. Chief among his contributions to speculative fiction is the creation of the Eternal Champion, a hero "doomed" to save the world. One such manifestation of the Eternal Champion is Jerry Cornelius, the central character of The Final Programme, a book deemed too psychedelic for publication in 1965 but finally unleashed upon the world in 1968. Jerry gets wrapped up in a wild scheme concocted by sinister computer scientist Miss Brunner to steal documents created by his dead scientist father from the clutches of his drug-maddened brother Frank. What starts as a heist story quickly reveals itself to be something far more bizarre.

How do ultra-decadence and flashy modernity mix? Which is more exciting: World Ice Theory or radical gender fluidity? Where does pro wrestling fit into all of this? Is Michael Moorcock a time-traveling wizard? Find out the answers to all this and more in this month's episode of Bad Books for Bad People.

Intro/Outro music: "Christ You Bring the End" by Sabbath Assembly

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.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Witch's Guest

† Interview with a Vampire soundtrack - Theatre des Vampires †
† Penny Dreadful soundtrack - Mother of Evil †
† Sleepy Hollow soundtrack - Into the Woods/The Witch †
† From Hell soundtrack - Death Coach †
† The Wolfman soundtrack - The Funeral †
† Van Helsing soundtrack - Attacking Brides †
† Dracula soundtrack - Vampire Hunters †
† The Village soundtrack - It is Not Real †

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Rise of the Forsaken Fangs

Campaign: The Forsaken Fangs (Scarabae, 5e D&D)

- Kaldwyn Nessilnor, half-elf sorcerer
- "King" Rance, cactusoid fighter
- Nestor, shadar-kai wizard
- Bellwether Hooks, human rogue
- Ambrose Lynch, human ranger

Objective: Steal Bargle's stash of opium and cocaine from the Mentzer Distillery.

Events: There's a new gang in the Toiler's Ditch area of Scarabae: The Forsaken Fangs. The Fangs' leadership is comprised of Kaldwyn Nessilnor, the nominal brains of the operation--a disowned son of an elf shipping magnate; "King" Rance, the gang's muscle--he claims that in his home country he was king until he was ousted by a coup; Nestor, the group's schemer--he's an acolyte in a horrible Cthulhu-worshiping cult; Bellwether Hooks--she says she's a society lady, but her accent and skill with lock picks say otherwise; Ambrose Lynch--a traumatized former soldier. 

The Forgotten Fangs want to enter into the local drug trade in a big way, but that niche is already filled by dealers working for Bargle the Infamous, an intoxicant-peddling wizard who is the current drug tsar of the district. Rather than take on his dealers in the streets and fight for territory, the Fangs decide to move in on Bargle's supply. 

Greasing the right palms in Toiler's Ditch gives them a lead: Bargle is storing his wares in the old Mentzer Distillery, a disused booze-yard at the edge of the ward. The locals who aren't on Bargle's payroll and aren't addicts are only too eager to help; it turns out that Bargle was responsible for the murder of a much-loved local cleric who always gave alms to the poor. The upstanding citizens of Toiler's Ditch would love for the wizard to get some comeuppance for that.

The Forgotten Fangs make their move at night. The sentry at the distillery's back door, a bugbear thug with a pet wolf, is taken out quickly and quietly. Inside, things are quiet. Too quiet. Disturbingly quiet. Where are all of Bargle's henchmen? Who is guarding the stash?

Opposition first comes in the way of a group of skeletons that Bargle had animated to scare off any trespassers. The Fangs manage to bottleneck themselves in a narrow hallway; Bellwether furiously tries to pick a lock so the gang might make their stand under better circumstances while the group's scrappers hold off their undead assailants. They make a hash of it, honestly.

Things get even worse when the gang is ambushed by Bargle's trained darkmantles. The darkmantles cut the lights, then begin to pick off each member of the Forsaken Fangs one by one, knocking them unconscious. When the Fangs awaken, the snickering, goatee'd Bargle is standing over them. He has an offer they can't refuse.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Bewildering Attitudes I Have Encountered in the Wild (part 8 of don't go away mad just go away)

  • This adventure is not a true sandbox because it fails to detail every possible place on the planet/multiverse that the players could choose to go to. What a railroad!
  • I am really mad that my gaming group wants to play D&D instead of this game that they find less fun.
  • It's problematic that players have to wait until 3rd level to get some of their big abilities! (Do you give 1st level characters access to 9th level spells?) No! Players should have to work for new abilities!!
  • The people in my small niche of the hobby are the only creative ones! We deserve awards and mentions in history books. And if we don't get them, we'll give ourselves awards!
  • When I ask who is doing interesting game design what I am really asking you to do is draw a circle around me and my friends.
  • I've created a revolutionary new mechanic. I'm calling it a "dice pool."

      Wednesday, July 19, 2017

      Into the Tomb of Lornegreene

      art by Fnautic
      Excerpted from the diary of Cassie Mabcrowe, teenage warlock currently adventuring in Wampus Country:

      Dear Diary,

      I come from a land of nightmarish horrors, but Wampus Country manages to be unnerving in hitherto untold and unimaginable ways. I found myself in Thistlemarch with a odd assortment of fellow travelers, being offered employment by a talking duck! Can you imagine such a thing? If only my employer knew how delicious he would be considered in my homeland. In any event, the duck was willing to outfit us for an expedition to explore (and apparently rob) the tomb of some ancient king I've never heard of. So off we went.

      We found ourselves in a canyon, but the desolate place was not uninhabited. A tribe of barbarians whose totem is the Black Eagle had made their camp below. One of our number, a maniac named Soq, crept down to their encampment of yurts and...set fire to their dwellings. Dear Diary, I have begun to suspect that my companions on this journey are madmen. 

      The barbarians came out of their yurts and put out the fire, so this seemed like as good a time as any to approach them and signal that we mean no harm. I bluffed their leader by claiming that we spotted the fire and came to aid them; I patted my satchel of herbs and surgeon's tools and inquired if any of them required aid. A little false deference to their "noble savagery" and protestations of rural kinship went a long way. We discovered that their shaman had disappeared down a mysterious hole and had not yet returned. The Black Eagle warriors seemed to fear the worst, but also not really care if their shaman made it back or not.

      We began to ascend a weird, pillared platform so we might descend down into the aforementioned hole when we were attacked by a gaggle of...murder blankets. I blasted one into oblivion and felt the invigorating thrill of bringing death into the world. (Jezamine, my diabolic tempter, smiled with delight at this wanton viciousness.) But then my face was engulfed by one of the carpets. One of my compatriots graciously cut the thing off of my face before I was smothered. It tasted like a babushka's afghan. 

      Down into the hole, which now appeared to be the entrance to a sunken tower. We found a trail of blood that led us to where the Black Eagle shaman and his fellows were hiding from sand creatures that we never saw. One of the shaman's companions was badly injured, but my divine gift kept him on this side of the Black Door. (Evelyn, my guardian angel, smiled beatifically at this act of kindness.) I also got to show these primitives what a little book learning can do; I used my surgical implements and midwifery to expertly amputate what remained of the wounded man's arm.

      Despite their reputation for barbarism, the Black Eagles had no stomach for exploring the tomb. They returned to surface, but we kept delving. Mosquito, the dwarf in our party, seemed obsessed with detecting magic. We encountered some sort of undead monstrosity, whose head I exploded much to devilish Jezamine's amusement, and another undead thing that seemed to be a reanimated butler. Do all rich people employ the deceased to press their dainty underthings? The mind boggles. Anyway, Mosquito asked to be alone with this one to speak to it privately. 

      Note to self: keep an eye on this Mosquito person; something isn't quite right there. Why does he wear a mask all the time? Why is there an arrow on his hat? Why does he want alone time with dead people?

      Note to self #2: Mosquito did not like the "short" jokes Alesandro and I were making about him. 

      Note to self #3: Keep making those jokes. Even Evelyn doesn't tsk me for them.

      We later discovered some giant pale ants ransacking a room and trying on clothing or somesuch. We killed one of them, and the other fled down a tunnel. With few other options for exploration open to us, we eventually went in pursuit. What we found was an ant-woman hybrid, hideous of aspect and querulous of character. Alesandro and Mosquito parlayed with the unnatural beast and her entourage while Soq and I waited for the inevitable violence to break out. Parlay came to a crashing halt when the ant-woman began to demand that we bring her a harpsichord in return for her permission to explore deeper within the tomb. 

      And then we slew them all, even the larvae. We gathered up an astounding array of treasure--I believe I have enough saved up now to buy my own horse! Dear Diary, whatever shall I name her? 

      We also brought up some larvae to roast and eat. Can't be worse than snake, I reckon.

      And so, Dear Diary, goodnight!


      Monday, July 17, 2017

      Post Traumatic Adventure Syndrome

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

      - Leonid Vok, weretouched fighter
      - Traviata Manu, human artificer
      - Lavender Wildrose, human rogue
      - Alesandro, half-elf rogue
      - Jupiter Jones, (something short, I think?) mystic
      - Khajj Khala, minotaur cleric

      Objective: Restore a dead adventurer's apartment to normalcy.

      Events: The party was assembled by Phineas Smiley, a representative of the Smiley Bank--a smarmy dwarven banking institution whose motto is "Give Us Your Money and You'll be Smilin'." Phineas explained that the bank had taken ownership of an apartment after the loanee, a former adventurer, had died with his loan left unpaid. The Smiley Bank wanted to employ a group of adventurers to venture inside to "fix" the second floor of the apartment; the second floor was experiencing some planar weirdness, and the bank needed that corrected so they could flip the property and sell it off.

      Key in hand, the party traveled to the tower apartment complex. The tower's elevator was on the exterior of the building; it took the form of a mechanically-modified giant roach--the wings opened like doors and inside were buttons to press corresponding to the desired floor. The party opted to start at the first floor of the adventurer's two-floor apartment; the cockroach lurched and clambered up the building, depositing them on the twelfth floor.

      The kitchen and living room area were arranged on a open plan, with a sliding glass door leading out to a balcony. In the living area the party discovered a mechanical device shaped like a cardinal; the cardinal's beak was open and the interior covered with a metal mesh. A wax cylinder was held in the cardinal's claws. As a former opera singer, Traviata knew how to operate the device; pressing one of its feathers set the cylinder spinning--the apartment was soon filled with the mournful sound of film noir-style jazz. Horrid saxophone solos and all that.

      The desk in the corner of the living room had a large metal turtle on its scarred surface that turned out to be a typewriter. Someone had typed "Only blood can open the silver door of the mind" on the paper still stuck in the machine. Alesandro noticed that the balcony was covered with some sort of hive, but when a number of gigantic buzzing bees emerged he quickly shut the door and decided that they were better left undisturbed. A further strange message was found etched into the bottom of an enamel wash basin discovered in the laundry room: "GUILTGUILTGUILT NEVER CLEAN AGAIN CANNOT WASH MYSELF CLEAN I REMEMBER IT ALL." Further exploration located a walk-in closet. Inside was a single wardrobe that held a former adventurer's gear: a set of unmended and blood-stained leather armor, a bag containing thieves' tools and a number of coins, and a rusty shortsword. The adventurer's bedroom evidenced that his life had taken a turn; the sheets were soiled, the bed was unmade, and a pipe was found on the side table. 

      Due to her training as an alchemist, Traviata identified the pipe as a "runeburner" and the translucent parchment as hallucinogenic runes. She understood that the runes on the translucent parchment were a type of drug taken by people looking for a way erase traumatic memories; however, she also knew that in some cases these drugs could actually make traumatic memories manifest as reality in the world. This information, combined with a psychic impression that Jupiter received, went a long way to explaining what had gone wrong in the apartment. Jupiter had a vision of someone in leather armor desperately picking a lock in a dungeon while their compatriots screamed for help behind them.

      Ready to tackle the second floor, the party ascended up the apartment's spiral staircase. Whereas the first floor held evidence of residency by a disturbed person, the architecture of the second floor was itself disturbed and deranged. Instead of a series of rooms that matched those on the previous floor, the party exited the spiral stairs and found themselves on a short stone landing surrounded by rough brick walls that would be more at home in a dank dungeon than a rental property. The only feature before them was a heavy stone slab door with half a silver bowl embedded in it. Above the bowl was carved "FEED YOUR PAIN," and the bowl had the remains of dried blood within it. Leonid sought to cut his hand to drip a few drops of his blood inside, but he was gripped by a mania to cut deeper--his blood splattered within the bowl, and the door groaned open.

      Beyond was a tunnel of rough stone bricks that opened into a small chamber and then turned right. The party followed the right turn and found themselves in a circular chamber. A pile of small rectangular stones sat the the middle of the chamber; a hole of utter blackness floated at the top of the domed ceiling directly above the pile--every so often another rectangular stone block would drop from the hole and tumble down to the pile. Another stone slab door--this one with a small hole in its center--made up a portion of the circular wall. Examining the stones revealed that each was inscribed with the word "BURDEN"; an inscription above the door read "YOUR SHAME GIVES YOU SUBSTANCE." 

      While investigating the room, the adventurers were subjected to a sudden flash of light. When the light receded the party was confronted by three menacing shadows that attacked them. The battle was dangerous; Khajj and Traviata used their healing magic to keep their compatriots from death. The party was triumphant; the shadows were dispatched--they faded away, leaving behind three moss agates and three black feathers. The party then decided to experiment with reenacting the vision that Jupiter experienced earlier; they brought the apartment's former occupant's adventuring gear up from the first floor--and the trip to fetch the gear revealed that a previously-missed door had opened in the first tunnel they had ventured down.

      This door was connected to another winding tunnel that terminated in a chamber whose only feature was a massive stone altar crowned by an amalgam of "sacred" statues. As a priest, Khajj had the insight that the statues were a confused admixture of extant deities; it was as if they were the imagined fancy of someone with only a vague understanding of the religious practices that comprised the statuary. Six figures, each garbed as a member of an adventuring party, knelt before the altar, their heads bowed in prayer. Attempts to get their attention discovered that each of the six was an ambulatory corpse--once disturbed they closed on the party to engage in melee. Lavender was particularly excited to throw a dagger into the undead bard. The monsters were resilient but slow; when the dust cleared, the bodies of the undead adventurers quickly rotted away--each leaving behind a gemstone and a withered, blackened heart.

      The party tried out a few theories by placing various items upon the altar; the religious statues animated and reacted in a myriad of ways to these "offerings." Next, the party experimented with placing a BURDEN stone in the hole below the legend that read YOUR SHAME GIVES YOU SUBSTANCE in the circular chamber. The door opened, revealing another curving tunnel that ended in a briny-smelling room whose only feature was a wooden chest. Inside the chest, laying on a bed of gold coins, was an ornate set of scales. Inscribed on the scales was this message: "Here be the truth, all things are not balanced, and neither guilt nor forgiveness can be weighed against the other." The feathers collected from the shadows were placed in one of the scale's pans, and the hearts harvested from the dead adventurers were placed in the other. 

      The scale did not sit in equilibrium, but even attempting such caused something miraculous to happen: the "dungeon" of the second floor of the apartment began to crumble away into dust. The party decided to run back to the stairs; a stolen glance over the shoulder showed that even though the environment around them was flaking away like ash, it was revealing a normal, empty second floor of the apartment that was living underneath. They had successfully intervened against the traumatic memories of the dead adventurer made manifest in the world.

      XP - 152
      Coin - 163 gp, plus 75 gp each from Phineas Smiley.

      Gems - (each worth 10 gp each) - turquoise (opaque green-blue), two tiger eyes (translucent brown with golden center), three moss agates (translucent pink with green swirls), lapis lazuli (opaque dark blue yellow flecks), hematite (opaque grey-black), blue quartz (translucent pale blue). (All claimed by Lavender.)

      Items -Weird scales (75 gp), turtle-shaped typewriter (50 gp, claimed by Khajj), cardinal-shaped phonograph (75 gp, claimed by Traviata),

      Magic Items - Two hallucinogenic runes.

      Sunday, July 16, 2017

      Welcome to the Night, Vanessa

      † Bloodborne sountrack - The Witch of Hemwyck †
      † Luciferian Light Orchestra - Taste the Blood of the Altar Wine †
      † Electric Wizard - Lucifer's Slaves †
      † Blood Ceremony - Coven Tree †
      † Black Magician - Chattox †
      † Windhand - Amaranth †
      † Opera IX - Act IV: Congressus Cum Daemone †
      † Nox Arcana - Hall of the Witch Queen †

      Friday, July 14, 2017

      Shining the Spotlight and In Media Res

      The "rise of the celebrity DM" has been pretty weird to watch, yeah? People tune in every week to watch a game they don't get to play in, we've got competitive GMing events, and livestreaming has begun to generate its own products for other people's home games. Niches within niches!

      Even weirder is the sometimes-attendant assumption I've seen that posits that DMing is this really hard thing that you need to be a pro to be able to pull off. 

      I've got a couple assumptions of my own when it comes to DMing: a) like anything else, the more you do it the better you'll get at it, so yeah, maybe you'll be nervous or it will seem hard at first, but you'll get better with practice and b) you don't need advice from "pro DMs," advice from anybody who successfully runs games will either help you out or at least give you another perspective. 

      In the interest of offering advice and giving my perspective, here are a couple techniques I've been using a lot lately to good effect:

      Shining the Spotlight - No matter how carefully you construct your setting, no matter how fully realized your key NPCs are, no matter how grandiose the narrative you deploy, the truth is that there will be things about your game that you think are so cool that your players will just not be interested in. Conversely, they will take an interest in disposable setting elements, minor characters, and relatively unimportant events that you never intended to be focal points. My advice: keep an eye out for the things that pique your players' interest and catch their imagination, then give them more of that. Shine the spotlight on the things that grab them.

      I can give a concrete example of this: in my Krevborna game, the players took an NPC to the mysterious Church of St. Othric so she could have horrible curse lifted. I intended the faith of St. Othric to appear in that one adventure--it was more or less a throwaway. Except...the players got really interested in St. Othric, so I threw more St. Othric at them as the campaign progressed: they adventured into the saint's tomb, a player's paladin character devoted himself to the saint, and the group became heavily involved in re-establishing the faith's knightly order throughout the setting. Now it's a major part of the setting that's really cool, all because I picked up on what had grabbed their attention and ran with it. I got a ton of mileage out of paying attention to their interest and moving the spotlight to accommodate it.

      In Media Res - Everybody knows that "starting in media res" means "starting in the middle of things" in fiction, right? Well, it's a technique you can use it in your games too. You don't have to start your sessions with "You all meet in a tavern"; why not start your game with the characters in the thick of some treacherous situation? Once the situation is resolved work backwards to establish how they got in that situation and what they're doing. 

      I've been starting in media res a lot in my Google Hangouts games because we have limited time and it turns out that dickering around with negotiating a fee to go on an adventure is boring every time. Now I just start with explaining what the job or task at hand is, and let the players steer the ship from there. It's cleaner, makes better use of our time playing together, and gets the game moving faster and in a more focused direction.

      Thursday, July 13, 2017

      Bewildering Attitudes I Have Encountered in the Wild (part 7 of Jeeves, show these gentlemen the door)

      • I am so surprised that WotC isn't supporting this setting that ranks low in their polls of settings that people want to see support for! 
      • Using a grid map ruins my immersion. Excuse me while I get my action figures miniatures and set up my playset Dwarven Forge.
      • I am going to phrase the reason why I play OSR games in the form of a religious conversion narrative because my preferred way to play elfgames is a load-bearing pillar of my identity as a person.
      • My small niche of the hobby has won because of X! (Footage of what was won and why this is important unavailable at this time.)
      • This character build does four fewer points of damage per round than this other build. This game is unplayable and broken!
      • I approach diagesis diagetically, which is to say, I got nothin'.

      Wednesday, July 12, 2017

      The Burning of the Elegy

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

      - Kylic, half-elf life domain cleric
      - Marek, human battlemaster fighter
      - Colonel Kaffshyth, human champion fighter
      - Elaria, wood elf beastmaster ranger
      - Erasmus, tiefling totem barbarian
      - Wilem, human oath of enmity paladin

      Objectives: Discover how Captain Oleg Sigismund came to own the Elegy, how the slaves aboard were acquired, where the Elegy departed to, who bought the Elegy’s slaves, and proof that the Elegy had a cargo of slaves.

      Events: This adventure picked up right where the last one left off.

      After catching their breath and patching their wounds, the party ventured further into Oleg Sigismund's cave, where they discovered several wooden cages imprisoning the remaining slave. The slaves were clearly cast-offs from the plantation; they were the maimed, sickly, and elderly. Only one of the slaves, a young woman named Octavia, spoke the common tongue. She explained that the other slaves had been drowned in the previously discovered pool, reanimated as the living dead, and taken back aboard the Elegy.

      She also relayed the party's promise of rescue to the rest of the slaves. The slaves were released from confinement and told to wait by the crates of food and casks of water with Pryce while the crew took care of the two priests, the mysterious helmed man, and the cargo hold full of zombies.

      Spying the two corrupt priests on the deck of the Elegy, the party decided it was time to take action. Erasmus, Kylic, Marek, and Wilem boarded the ship (some carrying barrels of lamp oil), Kaffshyth made ready to set fire to the wooden dock, and Elaria began firing flaming arrows at the ship from the beach. Barrels were thrown at priests, oil was spilled everywhere, priests summoned silver scythes that cut through the air with ferocity! Marek attempted to trip a priest and instead cut his legs out from under him. The ship was beginning to smoke from Elaria's arrows.

      Heavy, armored footsteps could be heard approaching from below deck. Wilem attempted to stand on the hatch to halt the progress of the nearing villain, but the armored "man" coming up the stairs burst through and sent Wilem flying. The figure that emerged from below deck was clad in ornate, old-fashioned armor; his face was seemingly obscured by shadows inside his helmet, and he bore a halberd. The party engaged him, but their weapons seemed to do very little against him. Marek, however, managed to grab the enemy in a bear hug, drag him to the side of the ship, and toss him overboard into the sea.

      The Elegy was beginning to smoke as it caught fire. A few members of the party rushed below deck to salvage any treasure they could and came away with a locked chest, a shield, and a parrot in a gold cage. Back on the beach, the party waited for what seemed inevitable: the armored fiend would simply walk out of the ocean and continue his onslaught. They were right.

      The battle on the beach was long and harrowing. Wilem was sent to death's door again, but he was rallied back to consciousness by Marek. Erasmus felt blood pouring from his eyes and mouth; the blood slid through the air in strands that entered the armored man's helm. Erasmus wrenched the helmet free of the beast's shoulders, only to find a glistening shadow where a head should be.

      The battle was not going well for the party; their attacks were landing true, but appeared to be doing very little damage--the thing did not bleed! Elaria broke open the looted chest, trying to find something that might help--but the brass crown she found inside didn't gain her control of the abomination.

      The tides turned when Kylic cast a spell that paralyzed the knight. The rest of the party descended on their now-helpless foe like a pack of wolves. Deadly blows were landed, Marek knocked the monster off his feet, and everyone again hewed and hacked at him. At last his breastplate was rent and whatever darkness animating him was dissipated.

      By now the smoke from burning Elegy had attracted the attention of Captain Redmayne's crew, who sent longboats to the island to transport the party, Pryce, and the freed slaves back to the waiting ship. During the return journey back to Piskaro, it was determined that the shield and a chain mail shirt within the pilfered chest were both magical. Also inside the chest was a painted portrait of a tall, pale man with black hair; the portrait was signed by Pietra Donna Sangino.

      Bringing both Pryce (who signed articles to join Redmayne's crew) and Octavia before Vanessa Redmayne brought the pirate captain the evidence she was seeking that proved that Oleg Sigismund was involved in the slave trade. She paid the party the promised reward and was best pleased; now she had reason to move against her old foe, and none of the other pirate lords of Piskaro would stand in the way. A pirate war was coming to Piskaro!

      XP - 675 each

      GP - 1501 each from coins and selling off the bloodstone ring, two tapestries, golden cage, bronze crown, plus 175 gp each from Capt. Redmayne.

      Other Items - portrait of the Master, painted by Pietra Donna Sangino. (A buyer will need to be located for this one.)

      Magic items - Sentinel Shield -- Grants the user advantage on initiative and perception (Wisdom). (Claimed by Kylic.)

      Adamantine chain shirt -- AC 13 + Dex mod (max 2). While you're wearing it, any critical hit against you becomes a normal hit. (Unclaimed, would also need someone to find a buyer.)

      Tuesday, July 11, 2017

      Show Your Work: Scarabae's Influences

      I did a post about the world-building influences that helped shape Krevborna here, so it's probably time to do a similar post on the world-building influences and inspiration for Scarabae.

      TSR, Planescape
      It's a little paradoxical that Planescape is probably the biggest influence on Scarabae. Planescape was coming out just as my high school D&D days were winding down, so I never picked up any of its setting books or adventures at the time. But I liked the idea of Planescape, particularly of Sigil--a city that acts as a melting pot for all of D&D's wacky possibilities. The thing is, I don't know all that much about Sigil; most of what I've read about it has come from 4e D&D books. So essentially Planescape is a big influence on my setting in that Scarabae is a bit like what I imagine Sigil to be about without really knowing much about Sigil. Scarabae is what I'd want Sigil to be if I opened up the Planescape boxed set and started reading. It's a hypothetical that looms large instead of being a direct influence.
      Similar Inspirations: William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch; Aurelio Voltaire, Chi-Chian; K. J. Bishop, The Etched City

      Tanith Lee
      Tanith Lee is, without question, my favorite fantasy author. I find her fiction to feel authentically fantastical; she isn't indebted to or burdened by any sort of tradition--there's no glaring anxiety of influence in her works. I also admire the range of fantasy found in Tanith Lee's bibliography. As far as influences on Scarabae go, the books to look at are her Secret Books of Paradys series, Secret Books of Venus series, Reigning Cats and Dogs, and A Different City. All of those are her takes on urban fantasy; each takes the basis of real world metropolitan life and turns it into the stuff of dreams. Oh, and the name Scarabae was taken directly from her Blood Opera sequence, so consider the setting to be something of a tribute to my late fave.
      Similar Influences: Felix Gilman, Half-Made World; China Mieville, The City and the City; M. John Harrison, the Viriconum stories; Michael Moorcock, the Eternal Champion novels (in various ways)

      Like Planescape and Tanith Lee's city-based fantasy novels, Dishonored gave me another blueprint for what a gritty urban setting could be like; certainly, aspects of Dishonored's Dunwall crept into Scarabae, such as outbreaks of disease, infestations of vermin, and political intrigue. More importantly, though, what Dishonored gave me was a sense of what adventures in the setting could be like. The gathering of information (far more valuable than currency), the sneaking about in a city, the striking with surgical precision, the feeling of getting in over your head, and the skulduggery in general are what I hope to capture in games set in Scarabae. Influences that define what a setting is are great, but you've got to balance those with influences that show you what happens in that setting.
      Similar Influences: Eidos, Thief; Brandan Graham et al, Prophet; Cherie Priest, Boneshaker

      Terry Pratchett, the Discworld novels
      I think it's really difficult to make a setting humorous in a way that doesn't seem obvious or forced. If you want to see how to add humor to fantasy, though, you need to read Pratchett's Discworld books. Pratchett is the master at mixing humor with heart. I knew I didn't want Scarabae to be all dour, all bleak, all grot. I wanted the dour, bleak, grot, cut with absurdity, so Discworld's Ankh-Morpork became my go-to source for techniques that would let me add some silliness into Scarabae's mix. So far, I think it has earned its place; one of the biggest compliments I've gotten so far from a player in the campaign has been "I'm surprised at how funny this game is."
      Similar Influences: Alistair Rennie, BleakWarrior; Jeffrey Ford, The Physionomy; Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

      Clive Barker, the Abarat series
      Clive Barker's Abarat series, like the other novels on this list, is fantasy--but it is young adult fantasy. Strangely, despite it being intended for a younger audience, what I got from Barker's Abarat books was a way to add a touch of horror to the other weird, urban fantasy elements I already had brewing. I don't want Scarabae to be a horror setting, especially not in the way that Krevborna often is, but a touch of darkness was crucial. But it had to be a tempered touch of darkness. Abarat showed me how to get the horror/fantasy admixture just right. Also, the islands in Barker's novels were the direct inspiration for Scarabae being an island spread over a number of isles.
      Similar Influences: Laird Barron, The Light is the Darkness; Kathe Koja, Cipher; Jay Lake, Mainspring; R. S. Belcher, The Six-Gun Tarot