Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Gangs of Umberwell


Due to the lack of a centralized police force or city-wide watch, criminal gangs flourish in Umberwell. Gangs involve themselves in all manner of criminal activities—drug dealing, protection rackets, thievery, the vice trade—and most operate in the open because the city’s authorities have no viable means of reining them in. Some citizens value the gangs for the protection they provide, but innocent lives also get caught in the crossfire of frequent clashes between rival gangs. Gang members in the city proclaim their allegiances with colorful tattoos. 

The 47 Rodents. A wererat gang that runs protection rackets and deal drugs. Known for their stylized leather armor decorated with rat skull insignia.

The Cardinal Queens. An all-woman gang specializing in smuggling contraband. They favor jeweled tiaras, torn gowns, and baroque hair ornaments.

The Cuckoos. The Cuckoos operate black markets for the sale of stolen goods and kidnap innocents for ransom. They wear top hats bedecked with colorful plumage.

The Empty Eyes. The Empty Eyes gang is comprised of ghouls. They specialize in smuggling illicit goods up to the city’s surface from the Slumgullian Warrens.

The Gauntlet Brothers. Membership in the Gauntlet Brothers is restricted to athletic men with hulking frames. They are often employed as dependable hired muscle.

The Knives of Purgatory. A gang of assassins who specialize in slaying mages; as part of their initiation, members swear an oath to avoid the use of arcane magic.

The Knuckle Syndicate. The Knuckle Syndicate operates underground boxing arenas, dog fights, and contests where trained drakes battle to the death.

The Onyx Viper Yakuza. The Onyx Vipers deal in narcotics. They sport silk waistcoats embroidered with snakes, and operate according to a code of honor.

The Redhooks. A goblin gang known for burglary and housebreaking. They ply their trade in the wealthier districts and wards, targeting estates and mansions.

The Slaughterdogs. All-purpose thugs and assassins. They wear canine masks, use a system of barks and howls as signals, and carry serrated short swords.

The Urn Street Soldiers. The Soldiers are dealers in military-grade arms. They affect posh accents, dress in sleek fashions, and favor ornate pistols.

The Violet Cross. Spiritual burglars who swear vows to Vondros to only eat food that has been stolen. They also operate several legal gambling establishments.

Monday, May 28, 2018

The Destined: Human Supremacists

A faction in Umberwell.

The Destined are a faction of human supremacists who believe that Umberwell is the human homeland foretold in an ancient prophecy. They believe that all demihumans—a pejorative term they use to refer to non-human citizens—should be deported from the city-state to transform it into a land of racial purity. Membership in the Destined is limited to those of full human ancestry; although most of the Destined’s members are drawn from the working class, the faction is secretly bankrolled by a select inner circle of wealthy businessmen and human aristocrats who see the rank-and-file members of the group as expendable shock troops in the war against “lesser races.”

Up with humanity! Down with the demihuman!

  • Umberwell is destined to be humankind’s racial homeland.
  • Non-humans are lesser beings than humans.
  • We need stricter immigration policies to stem the tide of non-humans arriving in Umberwell.
  • Push non-human citizens out of Umberwell.
  • Awaken racial pride in other humans.
  • Disrupt a dwarven cultural festival.
  • Gather blackmail material on a member of the Ministry of Altars and force them to back regulations against non-human temples.
  • Start a deadly street brawl, and make sure it can be blamed on the “naturally savage” catfolk.

Friday, May 25, 2018

A Plethora of Planescape

There hasn't been much in the way of support for the Planescape setting since 2e AD&D. It feels like WotC keeps teasing the return of the setting for 5e with things like including Shemeshka's preface in Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes, but nothing substantial has yet to materialize. That's okay; as always, it's the fans who have kept the fires burning. Here's some excellent Planescape-related content I've found:

A Planescape comic by don Fuflon (Alexy Shatohin) and Deusuum (Alexander Palkin)

Interactive map of Sigil, City of Doors

Trapped in the Birdcage
A streamed 5e Planescape game run by Holly Conrad

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Goddesses of the Covenant

D&D's baked-in ideas about gods are derived from an assumed "points of light amid the wilderness" setting and the need to fulfill basic fantasy archetypes. Which means that a lot of D&D deities aren't particularly well suited to a modernizing fantasy city that owes more to Weimar Berlin than it does Waterdeep. 

However, we can probably come up with something that works by thinking about what ideals the citizens of a city value and how to bend the usual fantastical divinities toward life in the metropolis. Working off the ideas posted here about a syncretic pantheon of borrowed deities that has evolved over time through processes of cultural adaptation, here are the goddesses of the People's Covenant in Umberwell:


Eska, goddess of community

In the distant past, Eska was likely a deity associated with a particular homeland or nation, but she has come to represent the idea of a community woven together from disparate strands.

  • Alignment. Neutral good.
  • Province. Community, diaspora, funeral rites, celebrations, liberty, family.
  • Suggested domains. Grave, life, nature.
  • Symbol. A length of knotted rope.
  • Faithful. Healers, athletes, artists, farmers, cooks.
  • Creed. Find common ground, promote unity, fight oppression and division at every turn.
  • Avatar. A wise woman sitting before a loom.

Komoa, goddess of commerce
Formerly a fearsome goddess of storm and sea, Komoa has evolved into the goddess of travel and commerce. Travelers, merchants, and those who ship goods by air and water make offerings to Komoa for luck and prosperity.
  • Alignment. Neutral.
  • Province. The sky, storms, the sea, wealth, opportunity.
  • Suggested domains. Nature, tempest, war.
  • Symbol. A hand holding three lightning bolts.
  • Faithful. Travelers, merchants, bankers, sailors.
  • Creed. Conquer the horizon, take what you deserve, fortune favors the brash.
  • Avatar. An imperious shark-headed figure, her mouth wide to display a multitude of teeth.

Orthea, goddess of progress
Orthea was once a goddess associated with the preservation of ancient lore, but her duties have expanded to include modern applications of knowledge such as industry, science, and magitek.
  • Alignment. Lawful neutral.
  • Province. Progress, creation, learning, industry.
  • Suggested domains. Arcana, forge, knowledge.
  • Symbol. An open book.
  • Faithful. Artisans, scholars, laborers, wizards.
  • Creed. Master your craft, always move forward, let no hour be wasted.
  • Avatar. Alternately depicted as a laborer bearing a massive hammer or as a prim librarian shackled to a heavy tome.

Ravsana, goddess of pleasure
As the goddess of pleasure, Ravsana holds dominion over a varied array of gratifications: intoxication, love, art, the city’s entertainments, and the beauty of nature. Ravsana is also venerated by gamblers, thieves, and criminals whose livelihoods are connected to vice.
  • Alignment. Chaotic neutral.
  • Province. Pleasure, love, lust, ecstasy, crime, sin.
  • Suggested domains. Life, nature, trickery.
  • Symbol. A crescent moon.
  • Faithful. Decadents, artists, gamblers, criminals.
  • Creed. Seek new experiences, foster beauty in the world, love without limits.
  • Avatar. An alluring woman whose features are obscured by either a silken veil or carnival mask.

Verasti, goddess of justice
Once a goddess of bloody war and conquest, Verasti’s ethos of imposing order by force has been adapted to notions of civilized justice and lawful judgment in Umberwell.
  • Alignment. Lawful neutral.
  • Province. Justice, courage, excellence, fairness.
  • Suggested domains. Light, tempest, war.
  • Symbol. An unsheathed sword.
  • Faithful. Warriors, thief-takers, lawyers, the vengeful.
  • Creed. Be vigilant, protect those who are important to you, honor the law.
  • Avatar. A four-armed woman holding scales, a skull, a blade, and a scepter.
Vokara, goddess of danger
Vokara is a goddess prayed to out of fear rather than devotion; she represents a multitude of dangers that the citizens of Umberwell wish to keep at bay, such as random acts of violence, disease, accident, and untimely death.
  • Alignment. Chaotic evil.
  • Province. Danger, death, disease, calamity.
  • Suggested domains. Death, tempest, trickery.
  • Symbol. A curved blade.
  • Faithful. Those who wish to avoid misfortune.
  • Creed. The world is full of perils, offer prayers to be spared an ill reckoning, darkness demands sacrifice.
  • Avatar. A withered woman enfolded in ragged robes with an eye is embedded in each of her palms.

It's a common trope of fantasy religions to have the gods be "powered" by the faith of their followers. I think there is potential in going further with this: what if the gods' personalities are shaped by the needs of their followers as well?

For example: the bloodthirsty war god of a conquering horde might well be chaotic evil...until they settle down in their hard-won lands, start laying down roots, and turn their swords into plowshares. Those settled people are turning toward the law of civilization, so maybe their god moves along with them...ending up somewhere on the lawful spectrum and emerging as a god of justice or protection.

Undoubtedly this idea has been explored before, but I wanted to put a pin in it here for future reference.

Monday, May 21, 2018

The City's Songs

A multitude of unusual musical styles finds an audience in Umberwell, from the dissonant shrieks and moans of Yvana Gallows, a black-maned and kohl-eyed cabaret chanteuse, to the melancholy dirges performed by the corpse-painted “black skald” band Plutonian Howl. Popular and underground musicians alike magically record their songs on wax cylinders so that their wealthier fans may enjoy their music in the comfort of their own homes.

Jeremiad Street Asylum, by Traviata Maru. A tragic opera aria about a woman who visits her lover in a madhouse after he has been exposed to an unspeakable horror from the Far Realm.

Up to No Good, by Skinny Wailer. A raucous, upbeat tune about a wild, champagne- and drug-fueled night out on the town in Umberwell.

In the Dark of the Night My Lover Went Cold, by Yvana Gallows. A morbid murder ballad about a woman who slays her cheating beau—the story is related from her perspective while she awaits execution.

The Elfshine Blues, by Berrian Liadon. A comedic cabaret song about a pair of elven brothers brewing up a batch of moonshine for an underground speakeasy.

Glory in Decay, by Plutonian Howl. A grim blast of black skaldism that features the band’s typical combination of magically distorted lutes and unearthly screeched vocals.

* * *

Traviata Maru is Anne's character in my campaign. Now she has a hit song!

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Don't Hate the Flayer, Hate the Game: Playstyle Preferences

Preferences: everybody has them, and it's okay to talk about them as long as you aren't asserting them as objective truths or the One True Way to play D&D.

These are some of mine.

There are two playstyles I really don't enjoy. The first is what I call Old School Avoidance, where the goal is to avoid or bypass as many encounters as possible. I play in people's games because I want to interact with the weird stuff they've dredged out of their imaginations; avoiding monsters, strange objects, and potentially dangerous locations makes it feel like the point of the game is to play the game as little as possible, and that's the opposite of fun for me. This goes double if your game has a mechanic where you can roll to bypass an encounter; that feels like pressing X to skip the game play to get to the next cut scene.

The second is one I call Small Business Owners, where some of the players want to take over a business, run an inn, or just sit around in a castle they've taken over instead of adventuring. Again, this feels like a playstyle that wants to avoid interacting with any of the imaginative stuff in the game in favor of safety and mundane middle-class life. I can understand getting attached to your character or wanting to play out their self-interest, but I also think games are more fun if you drive your character like a stolen car. If you ain't come to dance, why'd you put your shoes on? If you try to play this way in one of my games I will inevitably sink your barge.

Monday, May 14, 2018

The People's Covenant

The immigrants and exiles who settled in Umberwell inevitably brought their gods with them. Some deities fell by the wayside, and are now only remembered by obscure sects and dying cults. Other gods thrived in Umberwell's rich tapestry of cultural exchange. Over the generations, a patchwork pantheon emerged; six goddesses of various races, lands, and systems of belief were blended together into a polytheistic, syncretic faith known as the People's Covenant. Over time, the goddesses of the People’s Covenant have come to represent the aspects of life in Umberwell that its citizens find important.

The places of worship devoted to the People's Covenant may focus their reverence on a single goddess, a grouping of goddesses within the Covenant, or the entirety of the pantheon. The various temples of the Covenant do not necessarily agree on the proper way to worship the deities they hold in common. Rites, liturgy, and ceremonies vary wildly from church to church. It is not unusual to see the goddesses of the Covenant depicted in a multitude of forms and as a myriad of races—time has worn away much of their traditional cultural meaning and specificity.

Although the People's Covenant is the most popular faith in Umberwell, the religious atmosphere in Umberwell is inclusive and permissive. Only religions that espouse murder or practice objectionable rites are forbidden by the city's Ministry of Altars. The clergy of less prominent deities maintain shrines and temples throughout the city. There are also dissenters in Umberwell who choose to place their faith in fiends, archfey, Great Old Ones, and other powerful extraplanar beings instead of in divine forces.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

How Thief's Stealth System Almost Didn't Work

Pretty interesting little video about how a crucial aspect of Thief's gameplay almost didn't come to fruition--and a pretty good argument for sticking with iterative design. The solution to their gameplay problem--adding more mechanical clarity for the player--is also a solid take-away worth thinking about.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Niu Bo Wei, the Hobgoblin Opium King

The forthcoming book Under the Demon Sun: The Warlords of Cinderheim details the Cinderheim Reaches, a large desert on the wild continent of Hygaea. An unrelenting sun beats down on the arid dunes of Cinderheim, making it the hottest place in the world during the brutal summer months. Despite being a largely barren wasteland, the desert has become a dangerous refuge for outcasts, barbarians, the desperate, and the depraved.

The population of Cinderheim centers around seven oases within the desert that provide potable water and stable agricultural production. Each oasis is under the control of a warlord and their band of warriors. Life under the aegis of a desert warlord sometimes approaches serfdom for the people of Cinderheim, but each warlord provides protection and a degree of security. All seven oases boast permanent encampments that create a microcosm of civilization within the desert wastes—life within the fortified walls of an oasis encampment is the safest bet for the people who live within the Cinderheim Reaches.

This is one of the seven warlords, as selected for this preview by the good people of Google+:


The Prince of Pleasure
Niu Bo Wei is a sybarite and hedonist; he does not care for the responsibilities that leading the Thanorek encampment imposes on him, but he does enjoy the pleasures that his position allows. Niu Bo Wei maintains power mostly through his intense charisma and charming decadence—he sees his encampment as the indispensable desert bagnio where all are welcome and where all appetites are satisfied.

  • Appearance. Hobgoblin, dusty rose skin, flashing blue eyes, dresses in loose silk robes and slippers. 
  • Abilities. Intoxicant alchemy, persuasion. 
  • Traits. Pleasure-seeking, makes other feel at catered to. 
  • Ideal. Make Thanorek a place where peace is brokered between the other encampments. 
  • Bond. Cares for his children more than most expect. 
  • Flaw. Chafes under imposed obligations and duties. 
  • Warband. Thanorek’s ragtag band of goblinoid raiders is bolstered by companies of dragonborn mercenaries. 


  • The Night Wives. Niu Bo Wei is polygamously married to a harem of women—each of whom is a skilled assassin. Niu Bo Wei’s Night Wives eliminate his rivals. 
  • Daiyu. Daiyu is Niu Bo Wei’s favored child from among his many progeny. What few know is that the teenage girl is actually a weretiger. 
  • The Tenebriate Guard. The Tenebriate Guard are the elite hobgoblin war-chiefs who lead Thanorek’s warbands. Most are loyal to Niu Bo Wei, but if his leadership were to be opposed the challenge would most likely come from within the Tenebriate Guard. 

THANOREK Thanorek is the least powerful encampment in terms of its ability to wage war, but it provides a useful outlet for the Cinderheim Reaches—it is widely regarded as a place of pleasure and excess where successful raiders can purchase all manner of intoxicants and carnal experiences.
  • Population. The majority of Thanorek’s population is comprised of goblins, bugbears, and hobgoblins. 
  • Aesthetic. Round yurts and pleasure domes pigmented in garish, eye-searing colors. 
  • Supplies. Opium, spices, beans. 


  • The Dancer’s Quarter. The euphemistically styled Dancer’s Quarter is where the pleasure palaces of Thanorek are located. The Dancer’s Quarter is home to numerous taverns, brothels, opium dens, and “dancing halls.” 
  • The Brazier. The Brazier is a fire pit made of rune-etched iron in which an efreeti is bound by magic. The goblins of Thanorek worship the “Flame Lord” as a god, but the efreeti wishes to be freed. 
  • The intoxicant fields. The encampment’s poppy fields along the sheltered mountain slopes are closely guarded; the drug trade is the major component of Thanorek’s economy. 


  • Support Niu Bo Wei against one of the Tenebriate chiefs who wishes to seize power. 
  • Break the enchantment of the Brazier that holds the Flame Lord captive on the mortal plane. 
  • Protect a caravan load of intoxicants from Thanorek to another encampment in the Cinderheim Reaches. 
  • Retrieve a wealthy patron’s wayward child from the depths of the Dancer’s Quarter’s depravity.

Here's what the entries for Niu Bo Wei and Thanorek will look like in the print version of Under the Demon Sun:

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Total Skull: Hellbound Heart, Elderflower and Gin, Mandrakes

Things that brought me delight in April 2018:

Clive Barker, The Hellbound Heart
The opening image of Frank working at the puzzle box is an image of a starving man striving for an answer or a solution. This is, of course, classic dissatisfaction. The mirrored interior of the box does not reveal Frank’s totality of self; rather, the reflection shows him to be ego-fractured, morally deformed, a slave to craving. The building, layered tune played by the puzzle box is deft metaphoric foreshadowing of the unbearable, heightened palimpsest of pleasure Frank will endure at the hands of the Cenobites. It’s the fever pitch that erases melodic pleasure. The Cenobites are ill-suited to be Frank’s salvation from the mundane: they are demons of pleasure, but they represent a spirituality of the flesh that transgresses the idea of the body as unclean, base matter. Frank's flaw is that he is incapable of a wider view. The ritualistic backdrop of this scene underlines the sanctification of the flesh but Frank doesn’t see it; he is surrounded by objects of abject defilement, but fails to realize that the Cenobites come to sweep it away as a purifying fire. 

When the Cenobites arrive, they are not what Frank expected; he has an infantile understanding of pleasure and cannot imagine beyond the boundaries of his ego. He expects...harem girls. You can almost feel sorry for Frank when you see what he imagines is the reward. But the Cenobites are beyond bodies, beyond physicality and the work of cultural coding—their wounded flesh, their ambiguous gender heralds that the abject can transcend abjection. All along, Frank’s quest has been that of the jaded aesthete; his hedonistic life has inured him to mundane pleasures. He hasn’t bargained on the pain that heightened sensation brings, or the crossing of the boundary between pain and pleasure. Frank is, ultimately, a tourist. The brilliant transition between all of this occurring in the first chapter and the ultra-mundanity of Rory and Julia having a suburban tiff at the start of the next chapter is a masterstroke.

Fentiman's Elderflower + Gin Lane 1751 Victoria Pink
You can tell the end of the semester rush is on because my leisure reading is at an all-time low, but my adult beverage consumption is on the rise. Traditionally, I've not been much of a gin guy, so this is a whole new world for me and I have no regrets with this particular combination.

Mandrakes and Personal Scapegoat by Goblinfruit Studio
Look at these cute lil roots that were plucked screaming from the unhallowed earth! And look at there little friend the scapegoat! You can, and should,  purchase wonderments from Goblinfruit Studio here.

Nile, In Their Darkened Shrines
I saw Nile back in the 90s before they blew up on the strength of their debut album, Amongst the Catacombs of Nephren-Ka--they played at a local sports bar (The Strike Zone!) and were clearly too talented for the venue, but such are the early days of being a touring act. Since then, Nile's always been in my peripheral vision; death metal is not what I usually reach for, even when I want a brutal listen, but they're always had enough of their own idiosyncratic style to keep their discs in occasional rotation. Of their now-extensive back catalog, Within Their Darkened Shrines is my favorite. The mix of technical death metal and delicate ancient-Egyptian-themed embellishments is pretty much perfect on this one.

Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout
Holly Conrad mentioned this beer on a Youtube video and her description of it absolutely sold it. And you know what? This beer has measurably improved my life. I love stouts, but this one is a great overall experience: slightly sweet and chocolaty to start, then a pleasing bitter finish. And the alcohol content stands up to you, won't take any of your nonsense.

Rasputina at the Haunt in Ithaca
I've lost count of how many times I've seen Rasputina live (or even the number of times I've seen Rasputina live at the Haunt) but I've never been disappointed. This time the lineup had a single cello, percussion, beatboxing, and keyboards; the different instrumentation definitely felt unusual, but it was nice to hear a song like "Gingerbread Coffin" or "Thimble Island" live.

Honorable mentions
Tanith Lee, Dark Dance (which we did a podcast episode on here)
Kentaro Miura, Berserk vol. 7
Steve Niles and Damien Worm, October Faction vol. 1
Monte Cook, The Planeswalker's Handbook
Pauline Reage, Story of O
Ancient, Det Glemke Riket
Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz, Elektra: Assassin
Lychgate, The Contagion in Nine Steps
Black Mirror, series 4