Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Singular Curiosities

This is a repost of an older blog entry because 

a) someone asked me to bring it back


b) Aos made this great post on his blog and I think it fits well with what he was talking about.

There is something to be said for games with very simple, fast character creation. Systems with a small number of classes are usually great for this; you just pick one, roll some dice, make a few choices, and you’re ready to go. 

However, the unfortunate side-effect of that kind of simplicity is often a feeling that every character of that class is essentially the same. A starting thief in B/X D&D is pretty much the same as every other starting thief–you might have slightly different ability scores or different equipment load-out, but things are what they are.

Yes, you can make characters feel different through back-story and role-play, but that’s not what I’m on about here.

What about adding on something small, "mechanical," flavorful, and player-defined, that makes characters feel different in practice?

Here’s my attempt for
Beyond the Wall’s three basic classes. (It would work for various retro-clones as well.) To give each character in the game a bit of differentiation, I’m stealing a page from 13th Age’s One Unique Thing and a bit of inspiration from the BtW playbooks: each player gets to write down a Singular Curiosity that is something special about their character not covered by the usual rules:

Singular Curiosity: Write down one thing that is peculiar to your character, something that differentiates them from the people around them. See below for some examples you can choose from or use as the inspiration for your own.

Singular Curiosities
• Your senses are linked to those of a loyal animal companion.
• Your dhampir lineage allows you to see perfectly in the dark.
• You have made a dark pact with an eldritch entity; each day you may ask the entity three questions and expect reasonably truthful answers.
• You are haunted by the ghost of an executed murderer. Once per day you can allow the specter to possess you; when it does, it gives you +2 to hit with melee attacks and damage, but afterward you suffer a -2 penalty to all rolls for the rest of the day.
• You were kissed by a dryad; once per day you may step into a tree and emerge out of another tree you are familiar with.
• Your father gave you a silver chain that has the power to bind witches.
• Your pilgrimage to an ancient shrine has blessed you with a miraculous resistance to disease.
• You carry your grandmother’s enchanted sword; it does +1 damage and will fly to your hand if you will it.
• Your master taught you how to cut spirits using a regular blade.
• You bear a special enmity against a type of supernatural creature; you get a +1 bonus to hit that creature and can sense when they are nearby.
• You have a profound connection to the spirit world and can converse with the recently deceased.
• Your photographic memory allows you to memorize any map you see with a stunning degree of accuracy.
• You have a face that is always missed in a crowd (when you want it to be).
• Your clockwork heart makes you immune to poison.
• You can still remember the things you learned in your past life.
• Your tattoos alter daily, revealing cryptic clues as to the things yet to come.
• You have access to a personal library that seems to have a volume on every imaginable subject.

• You are a changeling and the fairy folk are apt to give you respect. You have +2 Charisma when dealing with the fae.
• Your family follows the Old Ways; once per day you can transform into the form of an animal, such as a wolf, bear, or hawk.
• Your childhood in the slums has made your fists as deadly as a knight’s sword.
• Your grandfather gave you a key that opens all simple locks.
• You are a talking bear. Your claws do 1d8 damage and your AC is naturally 13, but you have trouble using your paws as hands.

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Sacrifice of Degenerate Art by Men Made of Salt

Oh look, the new Yvana Gallows album is out!
Campaign: Scarabae (Open Table, Google Hangouts, 5e D&D)

Characters: Mortimer Queensberry (human way of the fist monk), Traviata Manu (human alchemist artificer), Leonid Vok (weretouched fighter), Viktor (dragonborn sorcerer).

Objective: Recover the stolen master recording of Yvana Gallows's next album.

Events: The party was convened by Koska, one of the licensed quest givers in Redgutter. By the bucket of iced champagne sitting on her battle-scarred desk, it was obvious that Koska was trying to impress the client for whom she had arranged this meeting. Mortimer, Traviata, Leonid, and Viktor were introduced to Yvana Gallows, a famous black-maned and kohl-eyed chanteuse known for her the dissonant shrieks and moans. Gallows was wearing a black-plumed ensemble that made her look like a lounging vulture. Flanking her were two hulking bodyguards: a mangy, one-eyed gnoll named Cromgar and a grinning bugbear with green-dyed fur named Mint Julep. It turned out that a few of the characters Koska had called to this meeting were fans of Yvana Gallows; notably, Traviata was not.

Yvana Gallows had a problem: she had completed recording her latest album--etched, by audio magic, onto a glass disc that could be used to manufacture wax cylinders for sale--but someone had stolen the master from the recording studio! Gallows claimed to have no enemies in the music scene who might have stolen the recording to get back at her, but then she was so self-centered that she might not have noticed anyway. The idea of chasing up leads with sellers of bootlegs, over-eager fans, and rival musicians was considered, but the party decided to make their first stop the recording studio itself.

And so they made their way to Furiosa Deluxe, a studio owned and operated by a very intoxicated half-orc with dreadlocks and terrible tribal tattoos named Spandau. Spandau's offers to "party" with the adventurers were mostly ignored as they focused on their investigation. Spandau showed them the scene of the crime; someone had burst in through a sewer grate in a disused storage room. Near the broken sewer grate were large crystalline chunks that Traviata readily identified as being sharp bits of hardened salt. Viktor cast a light spell on his staff, and with the aid of a ladder brought in by Spandau, the party descended into the sewer to look for clues.

The waters of the sewer smelled, well, like a sewer, but Leonid's perceptive nose caught a strangely briny scent among the other odors. The party's exploration of the cobblestone walkway running alongside the sewer's rushing water discovered an area near the ledge that had foot and hand prints cast in salty residue; it looked as though something had slipped into the sewer, pulled itself back up onto the ledge, and left this strange residue behind. The party began to suspect salt-based creatures, perhaps a salt golem sent to steal the recording at the behest of a rival musician.

Further exploration in the sewers discovered an old worm train being held in rusty metal clamps above the water. Using Viktor's climbing kit, Mortimer ascended up to the worm train and made his way inside one of its segments. The interior was quite dusty, but the dust was undisturbed--Mortimer was the first person to be inside the worm train in quite some time. The rest of the party joined him, and they began to explore the train. Unfortunately, their combined weight was too much for the rusty metal clamps holding the train in stasis above the sewer's water; the worm train listed to the side before coming crashing down into the water.

The party rushed to the worm train's controls at the "front" of the worm as it began to squirm its way through the sewer's waters, but no one in the party was particularly adept at driving--so their efforts only served to goad the worm into undulating at an alarming rate down the tunnel. As the worm train picked up speed, a couple members of the party noticed through the windows that they passed humanoid figures that had been camped further down the cobblestone walkway. They also heard a thump on top of the train as it passed those figures, a scream that died away as the train sped further, and then a pounding sound that reverberated from the ceiling of the train down into one of the passenger compartments. The party armed themselves and went in search of the sound's origin.

What they found was that two of the figures they had passed had leaped on the worm train as it sped by, and had hacked their way into the worm's interior with axe blades comprised of hardened, sharpened salt. (A third had attempted to make the leap as well, but missed...which accounted for the scream they had heard.) Attempts to parlay were fruitless; the strange men, clad in clothes made of palm fronds, charged the party. Both were quickly dispatched, and both shattered into shards of rock salt upon death. The party rushed back to the worm train's controls but arrived just in time to see that, somehow, the worm train had cleared the sewers while they were fighting off the interlopers; now the worm train was skipping along the surface of a larger body of water and was rearing up to crash directly into an island! The party braced for impact.

Luckily, most of the party made it through the crash with only bumps and bruising; Leonid, however, was knocked out cold. The conscious portion of the party left the worm train where it had embedded itself and got their bearings. The sun that hung in the sky was not the sun that shone over Scarabae; it instead looked like a chunk of irregular salt that emitted a pinkish-orange light, much like a large Himalayan salt lamp. To the left of the party's landing spot was a crater in the island's crumbly soil. The center of the island was dominated by a lush jungle of sharp-edged tropical trees. Two volcanic peaks jutted out from the center of the jungle. The tallest peak had a ziggurat carved into its side; at the foot of the ziggurat was a small village of huts.

The party opted to approach the ziggurat from the right, through the jungle. As they neared the structure, they spotted six guards standing vigilantly before the only visible entrance to the ziggurat. Each of the guards was armed with a spear tipped with a jagged salt-like crystal. People were going about their business in the village below. The party's attempt to stealthily approach the side of the ziggurat was unsuccessful; four of the guards rushed them, and were beaten down. Like the interlopers on the worm train, the guards exploded into salty shards when dispatched. Viktor used his magical slippers to climb up to the second level of the ziggurat and get the drop on the two remaining guards with a chill touch spell as Mortimer and Traviata charged them.

The guards cleared away, the party entered the ziggurat. From the six sets of shackles stapled into the walls, the first chamber was a place of imprisonment. The next chamber held a bier, on which a man-shaped body completely crusted over with salt crystals laid in eternal rest. The final chamber on this level of the ziggurat featured a back wall obscured by a constant cascade of water and walls completely covered by etchings and pictographs. Viktor studied the pictographs and realized that the ziggurat was a temple dedicated to Razo the Unlistening, a deity who commanded his faithful to disapprove of "degenerate art" such as writing, painting, and music. The salt-encased body they had found belonged, in life, to Razo's first prophet. Traviata was incensed at this religion for philistines!

The stairs in the final chamber of the first floor led up to a room on the second where the party surprised a number of priestly acolytes getting dressed in their ritual garments. Traviata intimidated the priests, getting them to reveal that their minions had stolen the master recording of Yvana Gallows's album so that it might be sacrificed at the ziggurat in the name of Razo the Unlistening. When Mortimer pointed out that the pictographs in the ziggurat were themselves a kind of art, they failed to comprehend his meaning; such is the way of religious hypocrites and zealots. Attempts to get the acolytes to reveal the location of the recording fell short; pushed too far, the acolytes began to chant "nonononononono," summoning crowns of salty crystals that flew at the party like daggers. The party fought back, taking some damage in the process, but Viktor's waves of thunderous noise softened the acolytes up so they could be dispatched by Mortimer's fists and Traviata's gun.

Spying through the gap between the floor and the door in this chamber revealed that someone on the other side had their back against the door to hold it closed. Traviata splashed the ankles of the person holding the door shut with acid, causing them to leap away from the door while cursing "Son of a Razo!" The party burst through and found the head priest of the saltfolk clothed in ritual garments made of fronds from the jungle. The priest summoned a hammer of salt that swung at the adventurers of its own accord. They struck back with blunderbuss blasts, pugilism, and spells. The high priest created an aura of cutting salt that felled both Traviata and Viktor, but the battle was decided by Mortimer punching his fist through the priest's midsection--causing him to dissolve into a pile of salt granules. 

Mortimer stabilized his comrades, and the party barred the door to the chamber to recuperate. They discovered a lump of pinkish-orange salt and a potion that proved to be magical, as well as a demonic green mask made of salt and a collection plate filled with coins. More importantly, they found the master recording of Yvana Gallows's next album--thankfully they had gotten to it before it had been sacrificed! The final floor of the ziggurat opened up on an aperture where works of art that the saltfolk disapproved of would be thrown to the ground below and destroyed as a sacrifice to Razo the Unlistening. 

The party desecrated the ziggurat's pictrographs with acid on the way out, and collapsed the salt-covered remains of Razo's first disciple. (The salt-encrusted form proved to be hollow, much like the faith of the saltfolk.) Back at the crashed worm train, but party found another set of controls at the worm's other, undamaged, end. Careful study of the controls under less frantic circumstances led to better results; they got the worm train to move in reverse at a less-than-breakneck speed. Returning the way they came revealed that the party had crossed through a planar portal while fighting the saltfolk who invaded their train; going through the portal from this side put them back in the sewers of Scarabae. Traviata and Viktor stopped to study the portal and learned the secrets of manipulating its energies; they closed it, for now, and made its location difficult to find.

Back at Koska's offices the party found that the quest giver had already spent a portion of her cut from Gallows on a new sign that read Koska's Adventuring Collaborative. There was a tense moment when Traviata's jealousy over Yvana Gallows's popularity tempted her to smash the glass disk that held the new album before handing it over, but either her better nature or the promise of payment stayed her hand. Yvana promised to include the adventurer's names in the liner notes to the new album. Mortimer played a tune on his harmonica to impress Yvana. Months later, the party would discover that the chanteuse had ripped off Mortimer's melody on her newest single.

XP: 429 each for Traviata, Viktor, and Mortimer. 75 for Leonid.

Coin: 32 gp and 5 sp each from the coins and green mask, plus 250 gp each from Yvana for a job well done.

Magic Items: Pinkish-orange salt driftglobe (claimed by Mortimer), potion of healing (claimed by Viktor).

Friday, August 25, 2017

Matt Colville's The Map is Not the Territory

Matt Colville, "The Map is Not the Territory"
It's rare to see this much truth packed into one video. Matt Colville makes an excellent point--D&D is not what is written in the rulebooks, D&D is what happens at the table. 

This has actually always been true. Gary Gygax didn't run AD&D by the books; by all accounts he never used all the cruft in that edition. From the numerous accounts of house rules he used with OD&D, it's clear that the D&D at his table wasn't the D&D in the little booklets either. When people made characters for his games he gave them all sorts of extra stuff, like unearned levels, bonus hit points, higher ability scores, spells per day, etc.; the game he played wasn't quite the scumbag murderathon people make OD&D out to be.

Side note: this is why I don't trust any primer, manifesto, forum, or movement that claims that there is a traceable way (via Talmudic study of rules minutiae or received wisdom of D&D's Golden Age) to play D&D as it was intended. It was never intended for long, never written down, and constantly in flux. Like all things.

This has continued to be true for other people that are looked to and questioned to find the True D&D. In the mid-period, it turns out that Rick Swan, long-time rpg reviewer for Dragon Magazine, didn't even use dice in his D&D games. (See his review of Everway in Dragon Magazine if you don't believe me.) 

In the modern moment, Mike Mearls admits that he only uses some of the rules from the edition he helped create; despite the Forgotten Realms focus in 5e, Jeremy Crawford runs his games in a homebrewed setting; if you watch Dice, Camera, Action you know that Chris Perkins rules things on the fly all the time. 

"You bought the books, own them."

Monday, August 21, 2017


Ernest G Henham's 1898 novel Tenebrae gets inside the mind of a morbidly-inclined young man as he spirals into madness and murder after he believes he has been betrayed by his brother. Published during the same late 19th century blossoming of the Gothic that saw the publication of books like Dracula and The Picture of Dorian GrayTenebrae hearkens back to earlier manifestations of that style of fiction. 
What hallucinogenic cocktails is our narrator's uncle cooking up? How much of a debt does this book owe to Poe? Can you ever truly own a woman? Find out in this month's episode of Bad Books for Bad People.
Intro/Outro music: "Demons of the Mind" theme composed by Harry Robertson
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.

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Three Sisters and Their Writhing Entrails

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

Characters: Kylic (half-elf life domain cleric), Thane Ganymede (darakhul wizard), Roland da Cernia (high elf arcane trickster rogue), Leonid Vok (weretouched monster slayer fighter)

Objective: Reassemble the glass item retrieved from a Grail Tomb last session, and learn its purpose.

Events: Kylic sent the shards of magical broken glass the party had uncovered to his friend, the scientific warlock Tobias Rune. Unfortunately, Rune could not make heads or tails of the item--save that it was magical in some way. However, when Rune sent the glass pieces back to Kylic he also enclosed a note saying that a 
Polnezna clan called the Borgavs were famed for their glass-blowing, and thus might be able to help unite the shards so it could be studied in its intended form.

After recruiting Rune's messenger (the aristocratic Roland da Cernia) and reconvening the party from the last adventure by way of fraudulent party invitations, Kylic, Thane, Roland, and Leonid set off for the village greens outside of Sabra where the Borgav clan was currently camped on the village green. The camp was comprised of seven house wagons painted in bright colors, circled around a large, blazing campfire. About two-dozen people were clustered around the fire, singing, dancing, and playing fiddles, squeezebox, and hand drums; they were dressed in colorful patchwork clothing and many were armed with short swords or hand axes at their belts. Four brown bears were chained to wagons.

A weathered man in his late forties, wearing a sky blue headscarf, approached the party--the rest of the Polezna parted deferentially to let him pass. He invited the group to share his clan's food and fire. Under the pretense of wanting to purchase a squeezebox, Kylic began to make inroads into getting Eli to trust him. Once a squeezebox had traded hands, Kylic impressed the Borgavs by playing a jaunty, yet disturbing tune; the Polnezna clapped and stamped their feet to his song. The party was offered a spicy rabbit stew served out of glass bowls.

As the night's entertainments continued, Thane was asked to dance by a young woman of the Borgav clan. It was quite a sight to see a monstrous alchemist with a ghoulish heritage dancing with a beautiful young woman, but somehow Thane managed to keep up with the skilled dancer--even though the tempo of the music played by the Borgav musicians kept increasing until it reached a fevered pitch. At the close of the dance, the assembled crowd gave a great cheer; the men of the clan clapped Thane on the back and gripped his hand in welcome, Aneeshka, the dancing girl, stole a kiss from Thane before scampering away.

Partaking so avidly in the clan's traditions had sealed an unspoken level of trust extended toward the group. Eli drew the group aside at the end of the evening and explained that his son, Donya, was engaged to Lelianne of the Varlik clan, who were camped three hours away by the trade road, to seal an alliance between the two families. There were rumors that an exile, a handsome black-haired youth named Hans, had been following the Varliks because he was in love with Lelianne. 

Donya was worried that Lelianne’s affections had been swayed by Hans, and also concerned that Hans may become desperate and hurt or kidnap Lelianne. Since the Borgravs were forbidden by custom to approach the Varlik camp before the wedding day, they were willing to pay the party in gold coin and repair the glass object if they delivered a gift to Lelianne (an ornate iron and paper fan), ascertained the current state of her heart, and (possibly) drive off Hans. Donya was particularly receptive to Leonid's idea that perhaps Hans should be castrated.

In the morning, the party set off for the Varlik camp, which was three hours away along the trade road. The camp consisted of six house wagons, but where the Borgav's wagons were painted in garish colors, these wagons were painted in dull browns and greens. There were a dozen people working around the small campfire, polishing shields and fixing wheels, who eyed the party suspiciously as they approached. Kylic played a Polnezna song he had learned the previous night to signal their fellowship as the party made their way to the Varlik camp.

The group talked to Aydem, a scarred man in his early forties with powerfully muscled arms from his years before the anvil, and Grandmother Tazhlia, a gray-haired women missing most of her teeth. Aydem was curt and made it clear that he wished for the party to conclude their business quickly and leave his camp--he was clearly agitated about something. He also let slip two interesting tidbits: the party should tell him no lies, as Tazhlia had the Sight and would see right through them, and that there was another non-Polenzna within the camp at the moment.

Aydem refers to Lelianne and her twin sister Patreesa as the family's "treasures" because they are beautiful and can be used to help cement alliances with other clans. They are also gifted with the Sight. Unfortunately, the door to the sisters’ wagon was discovered hanging open yesterday, and both were gone. Aydem blamed their disappearance on "that whore’s son Hans," who had been lurking at the outskirts of the camp but was now nowhere to be found. It seemed obvious to Aydem that Hans forced the sisters to leave with him.

The adventurers, however, were not so sure. Left to their own devices, they investigated Lelianne and Patreesa's house wagon. The wagon was decorated with bunches of hanging herbs, beaded curtains, a small table, bunk beds, and dark scarves covering the windows. As he was snooping around the wagon, Leonid realized that the scarves were dark enough to obscure light from outside completely when they were tacked over the windows. He also detected the smell of vinegar throughout the wagon, and found two small casks of the stuff under the small table.

Thane attempted to detect magic, but nothing seemed noteworthy inside; more importantly, he found 
a layer of dark, earthy soil under the blankets on each bunk. Leonid found a piece of clothing worn by one of the girls he could use to track them with while in wolf form. Grandmother Tazhlia entered the wagon while Thane and Leonid were having a look around. She told them that a few eager youths had followed tracks into the woods, but without result. Tazhlia insinuated that she believed that the girls could still be found if someone went after them, but clearly Aydem had given up that hope.

Before taking any further actions, the party decided to ascertain the identity of the non-Polnezna in the camp. Knocking upon the lone tent revealed that its occupant was the mind-enslaving artist, Pietra Donna Sangino, whom Leonid and Thane had tangled with before. Due to the powerful blow Marek had inflicted on her with his greatsword, she now had a livid scar running the length of her face. Sangino assumed that the party had tracked her to the camp to kill her; the party assumed that she may have had something to do with the girls' disappearances. She claimed to be there merely to paint the occasion of the wedding ceremony; she was shaken by the appearance of adventurers she had fled from, but seemed to be telling the truth. When questioned about the portrait she had painted of the Master found in the pirate cave, she admitted that she had been hired to paint him--and also that he was the most terrifying being she had ever encountered.

Sensing that something was amiss with what they had learned thus far, the party ventured into the deep of the pine forest in search of Hans, Patreesa, and Lelianne. In wolf form, Leonid easily caught their sent and gave chase. After a few hours of tracking, the party happened upon two women with pale blonde hair--one in a riding outfit bearing two swords, the other in a frilly bonnet and dress. The woman with the swords warned the adventurers that the forest was home to a monstrous beast they had been tracking for days and that the forest was unsafe. The two groups parted ways.

An hour later, the party found the beast the women had been stalking: it was a monstrous, shaggy thing with an ursine body and a head erupting with plates of bone and curved horns. Kylic took up a defensive posture, Roland hid behind a tree stump, and Thane cast a spell that rendered him invisible...which left Leonid the obvious target of the thing's bloodthirsty anger as it charged through the woods toward the party's position. The thing grabbed Leonid in one paw, slashing him and attempting to pound his body into the forest floor. Roland landed bolt after bolt into its hide, dealing significant damage and fading back into cover where the beast could not find him. Kylic bashed at it with his mace. In the end, Leonid leaped free of the beast's grasp and tore out its throat before landing on his paws.

After this violent interlude, Leonid again picked up the scent and the party returned to the hunt. Their destination circle of thin, curved standing stones in a clearing. In the center of the circle was a hole with stone steps leading down into the darkness. The steps were rimed with frost, even though it was currently summer. Down they went, into a pagan burial chamber. The air was thick with piney resin; two corpses preserved in a brown-black substance lay upon wooden biers. A third bier stood empty, one corner was occupied by old chariot wheels, and a passage flanked by stone statues led to a long hallway. 

The hallway was engraved with images of three goddess-like figures--sometimes arranged so that the tripartite heads occupied the neck of a single figure--being offered sacrifices by human figures clad in furs. The hallway ended in three doors. The party chose to enter the door on the left, which unveiled a mystifying seen. In the center of the room was a coffin-sized block of ice, on top of which was the squirming figure of a dark-haired Polnezna man who was held fast by four hands of ice that emerged from the block's surface. Within the block was what appeared to be another human-shaped figure. Standing next to the block were two identical, slim women in the dour clothes of the Varlik clan. They were smiling ominously.

Those ominous smiles turned even more sinister as both sisters untied the velvet bands at their necks; their bodies slumped to the floor like rag dolls, but their heads floated in the air...trailing lungs, viscera, and writhing intestines beneath them! The sisters' heads swooped at the party, their entrails dripping with corrosive acid. Leonid tackled the two penanggalans head on with sword and axe; his flesh sizzled as grasping tendrils of viscera bludgeoned him, but he was dealing horrific damage in return. Thane and Roland tried to damage the ice block with fire and crossbow bolt, but the ice was resilient. Roland switched to his short sword to fend off the penanggalan that swooped at him.

Leonid continued to hold his own, hacking away at the entrails of the penanggalan assaulting him. Kylic grabbed a penanggalan by the hair and attempted to destroy it with a necromantic spell, but the energy dissipated harmlessly across its skin. The sister Roland was fighting got the best of him, the pain of its bite rendered him unconscious. The tide was turning against the party, so Kylic rebuked the undead, sending one of the penanggalans to cower in the corner of the room; Kylic grabbed Roland and dragged him out of the room. Leonid and Thane followed suit, exiting the chamber and retreating to safety. As they left, they could hear Hans's anguished cries as he was pulled into the block of ice, followed by the fiendish laughter of the two sisters.

Kylic used his magic to stabilize Roland, and the party made a swift exit of the burial chamber. Thane decided to cast an invisibility spell on himself and return to loot the unexplored rooms in the ancient dungeon...alone. As he crept past the penanggalans under the cover of invisibility he had a moment of terrible realization: they could see him. Their attack left him dying on the cold stone floor. 

As his body died, Thane found himself in the a dark room facing a ghoul dressed in lordly attire upon a throne. The enthroned creature remarked that it was a pity that Thane's aspirations toward power and a noble title had gone unfulfilled. The room then expanded into a ballroom in which richly-attired people danced and feasted. Thane was being enticed with all the things that could be his, if only he lived. The enthroned man then asked Thane to take his hand and live to see those ambitions through. Thane clasped the stranger's hand and found himself healed and running away from the penanggalans toward the burial chambers' stairs.

The party reported the strange fate of the sisters to the Varlik clan, who immediately began to pull up stakes and move on from the cursed spot. The party also informed the Borgav clan of what had happened; the Borgavs were much more sorrowful than the Varliks had been over what had transpired. Kylic returned the fan to them, and in return they gave him a repaired item made from the glass shards he had brought: in its complete form it was a glass lens that resembled a human eye with a blue iris. Back in Piskaro, Kylic sent the lens to Tobias and then boarded a ship to parts unknown.

XP: 569 each.

Loot: Empty handed! 

Transformations: Thane's right hand and forearm are crossed with a network of jagged, recently-healed wounds that appear from wrist to elbow. He's made a pact with...something.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Dark Tower and the Three Fights You'll See in Every Damn Thing

I find myself still thinking about how cruddy a movie The Dark Tower was. What a missed opportunity. The movie was so bland that at a point early on in its (blissfully short) run time I found myself thinking more about the "action structure" that it shares with most fantasy films. When it comes to fight scenes and the way they are used to propel both narrative and theme, there is a commonality shared by most action-fantasy films: they all have versions of the same three fights:

  • The protagonist fights a big monster. This illustrates that good triumphs even against overwhelming force. The Dark Tower had this in the scene where Roland kills the demon. 
  • The protagonist fights a lot of evil minions. This illustrates that good triumphs over the amassed efforts of villainy. The Dark Tower had this in the fight against the Man in Black's minions in the village. 
  • The protagonist fights the film's avatar of evil, and wins. This illustrates that good inevitably carries the day against evil. It isn't much of a spoiler to tell you that Roland kills the Man in Black, right? Anyway, I'm doing you a favor so you don't have to watch this movie.

Bonus fourth convention:

  • If the film features a naive, young protagonist there will be a scene in which they narrowly escape the clutches of corrupt agents of the greater evil. This illustrates plucky resolve in the face of depravity, or some such thing. The Dark Tower had this in the scene where Jake runs away from the fake boarding school employees.

Think about that formula, the narrative structure it serves, and where you find it in any number of action-fantasy films--both good and bad. Of course, the difference between The Dark Tower and any number of better movies that use the same structuring conventions is that the better films have the decency to obscure their generic conventions with interesting characters, plot development, and non-wooden dialog.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Games (of mine) People Play

People say nice things about the games I run, so consider this my thank you! I wouldn't run these games if I didn't have great players coming to the "table."

Anne at DIY & Dragons has done two great write-ups of the Scarabae games of mine that she's played in. The first one, House Cleaning a Memory Palace, is here. I especially liked reading more about her character; Traviata is a really interesting character, so the deeper dive into the inspirations behind her was illuminating. The second one, Iditarod & Medvac in Scarabae is here. That one is a really good window for me into seeing how players perceive the setting and what they get out of it. It also sheds some light on my own unconscious influences. When she writes "This reminds me of what an abortion clinic looks like when it's being besieged by anti-rights activists," I don't think she's wrong at all--even if that isn't what I had immediately in mind. I find that things like that happen all the time with Scarabae; there seems to be a lot of channeling of contemporary, real world influences that sneak into the adventures without me noticing them. For example, the adventure in which the players explored a warped pizzeria seemed like the specter of Comet Ping Pong in retrospect.

Trey has a post over at his blog From the Sorcerer's Skull talking about the G+ Hangouts games he's been playing in, and he has some kind words for my ongoing campaign set in Krevborna. He also talks about the GRIDSHOCK playtest that Paul V's been running; since I also play in that one, I can verify Trey's claim that it's a good time. I would tell you that Trey's blog is great, but you probably already read it.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Made to Suffer

Finally, that long-awaited siege right? The pay-off for the previous collection's slow burn, yeah? Well, no, actually.

It turns out that The Walking Dead isn't particularly good at delivering big action set pieces. It wants to have the cadence of an action film at times, but I'm not convinced it really captures motion or moment-to-moment tension very well in the way its panels are composed. But there is a lot of carnage in this collection, so we can still pick through the bones:

One thing I like about Made to Suffer is that it shows Andrea being a badass, raining death from above like some kind of law clerk-turned-Valkyrie. I might actually be sad when Andrea dies, as I have no doubt she will at some point. I'm also glad that the tank we saw in the previous collection gets used during the siege. I guess it was Chekov's Tank after all.

When Michonne goes after the fleeing Woodbury crew with Tyreese, is she really trying to winnow their ranks or does she just want another shot at the Governor? The Walking Dead plays literary notions of revenge pretty straight; revenge is a bad impulse because it is over-reaching and always consumes the person who wants vengeance. Michonne's desire for further revenge against the Governor gets Tyreese captured and killed. The Governor's need to be revenged on Rick and Michonne leads him to endanger his people and put himself in a situation where his contagious violence ultimately turns back on him.

Tyreese's beheading at the hands of the Governor is intense and disturbing, which is the point, but it's somewhat uncomfortable that the most gratuitous scenes of violence in the comic all make the bodies of people of color the occasion of torture and degradation. Michonne's violation by the governor, the Governor's torture at the hands of Michonne, Tyreese's decapitation with Michonne's katana as wielded by the Governor are all scenes in which the extremity of violence is a thing visited by one person of color on another. I'm not sure what to make of that--it could be coincidental--but I also kinda think it isn't. 

Speaking of violence, the comic uses the two-part siege as an opportunity to divest itself of some minor characters we probably aren't going to miss anyway: goodnight and thank you, Axel, Patricia, Billy, Hershel, and Alice. The sloppiest death here is Alice's because it just seems like her purpose in the narrative was to delivery Lori's baby and then die.

Speaking of Lori and her baby...okay, I can't imagine being a reader of this comic and not seeing their deaths coming. Once the minor characters are cleared off the board, you gotta kill someone important to give the reader that gut-punch feeling, right? Unfortunately, their deaths feel as cheap as Alice's death--as if the baby was introduced just so we'd be shocked when she gets caught in the crossfire with her mother. 

And we have every indication that it is supposed to be an outrage that we feel personally affronted by because that's exactly how Lilly, one of the Woodbury crew, reacts to it in our place as a fictional proxy for the read. Her reaction is at once didactic and intended as catharsis; even though she's on the Governor's side, and the one who pulled the trigger on mother and daughter, the deaths of Lori and Judith spur her to shoot the Governor and toss him to the zombies.

From the hip:

  • Lots of rhetoric used on both sides of the siege that sits uncomfortably with our modern political moment. Lots of talk about the safety of fences, lots of pleas to "think of the children," plenty of "the other side are evil savages and they are the ones responsible for the existence of crime in the world."
  • Oh hey, Rick gets wounded again. 
  • Oh hey, I guess the Governor makes out with his zombiefied niece? Like we didn't realize he was the bad guy or something, this had to be thrown in there?
  • Hah, Michonne and Tyreese ambush a guy when he's peeing. This is such a modern trope: you can tell when a drama, particularly a "prestige format" television show is trying to convince you that it is GRITTY and REAL when it includes somebody taking a piss.
  • Also, it's comical that Michonne can slice through anything in one swing with her sword, but the Governor takes forever to behead Tyreese.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Incursion at the Heigelman Clinic

Campaign: Scarabae Open-Table (5e D&D)

Characters: Traviata Manu, human alchemist artificer; Tobias Rune, human chain pact warlock; Mortimer Queensberry, human open hand monk; Erron, half-elf bard.

Objective: To deliver medicine to Alphonse Damajin, a patient at the Heigelman Clinic.

Events: The party was hired by Koska, a local quest giver in Redgutter, to enter the Heigelman Clinic and deliver necessary medication for Alphonse Damajin, a patient at the clinic. Adventurers were being hired for the task because the Heigelman Clinic was currently surrounded by fifty white-shrouded figures bearing axes and knives who were not letting anyone into or out of the clinic. Previous attempts to enter the clinic had been met with violence from the robed and mysterious figures.

The Heigelman Clinic was nestled between two multi-story towers with bridges and catwalks connecting them high above. The clinic itself was a two-story building consisting of a rounded tower on the left attached to a square central building with a rectangular wing attached to the right. The facade was comprised of sheets of scrap metal interrupted by the occasional oddly placed window. The shrouded figures surrounding the clinic were absolutely still and uncannily silent. There were patches of blood on the cobblestones from previous attempts to breach their perimeter.

Instead of approaching the clinic directly, the party decided to enter one of the towers next to it and descend by rope from one of the catwalks above it. Traviata went down first, Mission Impossible-style, ascertaining that the clinic's skylight could be melted open with her corrosive acid. Dropping down into the second floor of the clinic, the party found two hallways--one running above the building's central structure, the other running above the extension wing--and a door to the building's tower. Both hallways featured a number of open doors, but both had a single door that was currently closed. There was also a staircase and mechanical elevator leading down to the first floor.

The tower was attempted first. An extra-wide bed took up much of the circular room. The room was decorated with a family crest depicting a scalpel being forged on an anvil and a portrait of a dwarf family in oil paints--all are wearing lab coats and holding scalpels like they’re swords--in a gilded Art Deco frame. The bookcases held a mix of medical treatises, histories of medicine, and also occult books written in Deep Speech. The side table was looted, the coin and pocket watch within taken into protective custody by the adventurers. The wardrobe contained dwarf-sized garb, mostly basic clothing, white lab coats, leather aprons and gloves worn during surgeries. There was also a spiral staircase in the chamber leading down to the first floor.

The party used Tobias's imp, Malphas, to scout the open doors in both hallways. The rooms were nearly identical and clearly intended for convalescing patients; each room had a iron-frame bed with heavily starched white sheets, a metal rack with hangers for the patient’s clothes, and a single worn chair for visitors. The first of the closed doors they opened exposed them to a horrific sight: a halfling patient lay on the bed, his head burst open with a corona of blood splattered on the wall behind him. A creature sat on his chest, pecking at the body. The monster was apparently comprised of the halfling's own brain, which had grown tentacles and a beak before erupting from the poor man's skull.

Erron attempted to slam the door shut on this disturbing scene, but unfortunately wasn't quick enough and the thing leaped at the adventurers. In the ensuing battle, the creature attempted to pierce the flesh of its foes with barb-tipped tentacles while entrapping their limbs in its writhing appendages; both Traviata and Erron were left with scars from its attacks. Ultimately, Mortimer grappled the creature while Tobias blasted it into oblivion. After this vicious fight, the party took refuge in an unoccupied room to patch their wounds and catch their breath.

The other closed room also had a patient inside, but the tiefling man in this room was still alive--but clearly in pain. He proved to be Alphonse, the man that had been sent to deliver medicine to. They injected him with his medication, and he told them that he was being treated for a degenerative disease that rendered him unable to walk. He also revealed that he had been attacked by the brain-thing the party had killed, but it had wounded him; his wound was deep and still open. The party considered leaving the way they came in now that their job had been technically fulfilled, but Alphonse pleaded with them to find anyone else who was still alive in the clinic. He was especially interested in the welfare of Akiko Arthmore, one of Heigelman's apprentices who had been particularly kind to him.

The party went back to the tower chamber and sent Malphas down the stairs to discover what was in the room below. The first floor of the tower was the clinic's kitchen. A small, wooden table sat in the center of the room with four unmatched chairs surrounding it. There was a small black iron stove with a scuttle of coal beside it. On top of the stove was a large pot of oat porridge and two small pans in which surgical implements were being boiled--all cold now that the fire had died out. A rack near the stove held tin dinner trays and a can full of spoons, forks, and knives. The party went down the spiral stairs, crossed through this room and exited into the clinic's central building.

They crossed into the clinic's waiting room. It smelled of antiseptic cleaning products. Six rickety wooden chairs, a table piled with penny dreadfuls and old broadsheets, and a wooden counter serving as the reception desk made up the room's furnishings. The walls were decorated prints reminiscent of DaVinci’s Vetruvian Man, but they covered a range of physiognomies from human to orc, gnome, kenku, and lizardfolk. A door to the right led to the building’s extension wing, and there was an entrance to the staircase leading to the second floor.

The adventurers entered the extension wing and found themselves in the clinic's surgery. The walls were decorated with pages torn from anatomy text books--but again, non-human anatomy was heavily represented. The room also featured three rickety wooden chairs similar to the ones in the waiting room, a sink, cabinets containing medical supplies and drawers of medical implements, the door to a mechanical elevator, and a door with a glass pane set into it on the right.

The most noteworthy thing in the room was an old, iron-and-wood examination table upon which was the body of a trollkin male, his chested riddled with inch-diameter puncture wounds. The trollkin was clearly deceased; the party debated setting his corpse on fire just in case, but fear of causing a conflagration stopped them. There was also a wheelchair in the room, which the adventurers moved to the waiting room so they would have an easier time transporting Alphonse later. Peering through the glass pane set into the door revealed that there was a storage room beyond.

Deciding to leave the corpse on the operating table as they found it, the party explored the supply room. Racks and shelves cluttered the room. On them was a haphazard combination of glass vials, cardboard cases of syringes, surgical implements, and prosthetic limbs. A wooden door at the back of the room was open about two inches. Pushing the door open disclosed another storage room piled with debris such as waxen anatomical Venuses, stacks of old textbooks, and surgical reference charts. At the back of the room cowered a young water genasi woman wearing a white lab coat. She was shaking and clutched a scalpel in both hands. The party had found Akiko, apprentice to Dr. Heigelman, who kept insisting “We’re all gonna die in here!”

The party had no intention of dying in the clinic, of course. With Akiko in tow, they returned to the surgery, only to find that three large spider-like creatures with their eyes at the ends of articulated stalks had emerged from the trollkin's wounds. Erron's sleep spell took out one of the spiders immediately, but the other two proved to be difficult to handle; the spiders' poisonous bites were taking their toll on the party, but they pushed on in this desperate situation. The spiders disconcertingly cried out in the voices of children as the adventurers wounded them. This battle ended in much the same fashion as the previous one: Mortimer grappled a spider-thing while Tobias ended its wretched life with a bolt of magical force.

Having cleared the first floor, the part set foot in the basement of the clinic, where Akiko said that Dr. Heigelman had a private office. There was a large desk, carved with dwarven runes and kingly dwarven figures, down there. The dwarfs carved into the desk had been defaced with a sharp object. The paperwork from the desk's drawers had been reduced to ashes on the desk's surface. Worryingly, a trail of discarded clothes--pants, shirt, lab coat, shoes, cravat--lead to the back of the room, where a jagged hole rimmed in greenish, luminescent slime had been broken through the wall.

In their wounded and weary state after the melee with the spider-things, the party decided that whatever was beyond the wall was more than they wanted to deal with. They instead returned to Alphonse. Akiko pulled a wriggling green grub with a face full of tentacles from his wound; the grub was taken as evidence of what had befallen the clinic, along with the crushed body of a spider-thing and some tentacles from the brain-monster. The party, Akiko, and Alphonse ascended through the skylight and made their way back to the catwalk above the clinic. Glancing downward, they observed the white shrouded figures that had encircled the clinic now began to enter the clinic through the front door, single-file, until they had all disappeared inside.

Alphonse was handed over to Koska so that he might be returned to his family; clearly, he was going to need to seek treatment at a different institution. The monstrous remnants the party had collected were turned over to clerks from the Court of Wands, but given that all the Courts in Scarabae are burdened by bureaucracy and red tape the party got the sense that the Court of Wands was not particularly concerned about whatever had gone down inside the walls of the Heigelman Clinic.

XP: 387 each.

Coin: 148 gp each.

Items: Gold pocket watch with inset rubies (worth 40 gp).

Magic Items: 2 bottles of Dr. Mysterio's Invigorating Tonic (potions of greater healing); 1 jar (2 uses) of Keoghtom's ointment.

Lingering Injuries: Both Erron and Traviata have scars from the fight the brain-thing that will only disappear if they get healed by 6th level magic.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Angelique in the Cathedral

† Arcana - The Fading Shadow †
† Therion - The Rise of Sodom and Gomorrah †
† My Dying Bride - Like a Perpetual Funeral †
† Wolves in the Throne Room - Wandered Above the Sea of Fog †
† Dimmu Borgir - Blood Hunger Doctrine †
† Graveworm - Legions Unleashed †
† Chthonic - Blood Waves of Sorrow †
† The Protagonist - Kamfende Pferde †

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Hand That Holds the Knife

A scene from any number of movies or television shows: Character A is approaching Character B. Character A is attempting to express that they mean Character B no harm but we, the audience, can see that Character A is holding a knife out of Character B's line of sight. Character A is saying calming things, making conciliatory gestures with their free hand, signaling with their body language that they aren't a threat to Character B.Character A closes in on Character B and then STAB! Character B never saw it coming.

* * *

5e D&D has rules to adjudicate what happens when you sneak up on a foe and attack them or are in hiding when you attack an enemy ("Unseen Attackers and Targets," PHB 194-195). But how can we model the above scenario in which the target can see their attacker, but don't see the attack coming?

This is my rule: Character A makes either a Charisma (Deception) check (if they are relying on words to disguise the incoming attack) or a Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) check (if they are use agility to misdirect attention from or conceal the weapon they're holding) against a DC set by either Character B's passive Insight or a Wisdom (Insight) check. If character A is successful, their first attack counts as coming from an unseen attacker as per the rules on PHB 194-195; that is, Character A's first attack against Character B is made with advantage. Note that this might allow a rogue to apply sneak attack damage if the attack is successful.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

With the Power of Conviction, There is No Sacrifice

A continuation of the GRIDSHOCK playtest recorded here.

I have SlimJim in leglock; is probably bad idea because he is so strong. Tactical error is fixed by help of new comrades. Zdravstvuyte! Is black knight who wrap SlimJim with chain. New comrade is like rainbow in the dark. SlimJim's muscles get deflate, now I am stronger so I crush him! New comrade knock him out while I crush. 

Girl and cactus get zapped by cobalt power; they disappear. Will miss them. Dos vedanya, comrades.

Now is time to shoot exhumans from observation deck. I shoot like Lyudmila Pavlichenko by using psychic adrenalizer. Riot break out, now people of Yankee Lake get taste of freedom! Comrade Deadman move exhumans with mind! Comrade barbarian put psychic axe into Alpha Dog's head!

We subdue remaining Youngman Mutts. I carry barbarian ghost man down stairs before psychic strength deplete. Alpha Dog threaten, but what can decadent tyrant do, da? Tables have turned on his regime, is victory for liberty. More gang arrives; we negotiate. People of Yankee Lake are very disappointment; they want ruler, even Supremacy, instead of self-determination! American spirit very weak here.

Deal is struck. We will go to Prism with SlimJim and Youngman Mutts to find special thing. In return, power structure in Yankee Lake is restructured. Is mess, but we sort that out later. At Prism, which is mirrored structure with no door, we make bagman open cylinder key. It contain...hand and head of GI Joe man named Skyline. Honestly, is bad start. Where the vodka?

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Calm Before

As the name implies, the issues that make up The Calm Before provide a lull in the action to build up to the big confrontation when the Governor's forces assault the survivor's prison compound. Although there is some action in The Calm Before--it's not all navel gazing--the theme of this collection is vulnerability.

In The Walking Dead, vulnerability takes two primary forms. Vulnerability can be a structural or systemic weakness that decreases the possibility of survival. When Dale points out that the survivors in the prison have a scarcity of guns and manpower compared to the residents of Woodbury, he's pointing out a structural flaw in their defenses that may endanger them in times of siege. When Alice expresses her concerns about her ability to successfully deliver Lori's baby, she's gesturing toward a deficiency in the group's survival capabilities--are they equipped to take care of routine medical needs, let along emergencies? Even the presence of a pregnant woman is emphasized as a potential risk to the system they have in place.

The deeper, more formidable and pernicious, kind of vulnerability in The Walking Dead is personal, emotional vulnerability. This form is more challenging for the characters to address; a depleted stockpile of bullets has an easy solution--you scavenge for more bullets. But personal vulnerabilities prove to be just as dangerous, since they threaten to break the bonds that allow the survivors to act with unity and purpose, but with the added problem that their deep-seated emotional nature means they can't be addressed head on. Vulnerability is difficult to unpack because the process that addresses it opens up further vulnerabilities before reaching any possibility of closure.

Personal vulnerabilities in The Calm Before range from minor tensions to major issues simmering beneath the surface that threaten to explode if tapped too hard. We find examples of minor-key issues in Patricia's feelings of being excluded after aiding Dexter and Andrew against the group, the lack of effort to integrate Alice into the group's community apart from reliance on her medical skill, the religious-familial disagreements between Maggie and Hershel, and Dale experiencing jealousy at the thought of Andrea and Tyreese becoming closer.

The more fraught vulnerabilities are positioned to affect the leaders and doers of the group--heavy is the head that wears the crown, perhaps. We're accustomed to seeing Michonne as a stone-cold badass, but it's clear that her sense of self was deeply damaged by what she endured at the Governor's hands--or damaged by the kind of revenge she took against him. Rick gets at least two kinds of vulnerability: it's pointed out during a basketball game that he isn't as physically useful since losing a hand in Woodbury, and he can't even bear to have a conversation with Lori about her relationship with Shane or the possibility that he might not be the father of the baby that is on the way. 

Of course, although the comic illustrates the ways that vulnerability is a minefield to navigate, it also demonstrates that when vulnerabilities are allowed to fester they eventually take the shape of tragedies. Carol, feeling cut off from any sort of human connection that would make survival worthwhile after being rejected by Tyreese, Rick, and Lori, decides to feed herself to a zombie. There is a poetic resonance here: her feelings of alienation are so complete that she decides to alienate herself from the group by becoming something other than human. Her self-abjection is horrifying because it is grotesquely terminal and pointless, particularly since it was entirely avoidable--but vulnerability is the bruise that no one wants to touch.

From the hip:

  • When Dale works through the vulnerability he feels at the thought that Andrea would prefer to be with Tyreese (especially sexually) he arrives at an option that Rick and Lori thoroughly rejected when it was broached by Carol: he tells Andrea that he's okay with her fucking Tyreese, if that's what she needs. It's kind of nice to see the notion of "the rules change in the apocalypse" actually explored as a possibility instead of something the characters have a reactionary response to. 
  • It's also noteworthy that it is one of the older characters who can make peace with the idea of a plural relationship; very interesting development, that. Perhaps with age comes a realization that the times change, and you either change with them or get left behind. The younger characters may not have had to even consider that yet.
  • Speaking of Dale, he loses a foot in a zombie attack but the quick amputation seems to have spared him from becoming a zombie himself--something that was tried earlier in the series without positive results. Perhaps the group can figure out how to arrest the "infection" in time.
  • Although the comic is dealing with deeper emotional territory than most popular comics attempt, it's interesting to chart the ways that The Walking Dead still indulges in comic book-isms. Michonne's katana, for example, easily lops through both of an enemy's wrists with one swipe--shades of Wolverine, you know? Additionally, the final panel of the collection shows the Governor perched on a god-damn tank like a G.I. Joe villain as he charges the prison compound. I mean, come on, check this out:

Previous Read-Throughs of The Walking Dead:
Days Gone Bye
Miles Behind Us
Safety Behind Bars
The Heart's Desire
The Best Defense
This Sorrowful Life