Thursday, June 28, 2018

Let's Read Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes (The Blood War and Devils!)

Where we've been so far: dwarveselvesdrow and eladrinshadar-kai and the Raven Queenhalflings and gnomes, gith. Where we're going: the Blood War and devils.

Somehow, the Blood War is the canonical D&D conflict that I am most familiar with--probably because of the 2e AD&D Monstrous Manual. The basic shape of the conflict is pretty simple: even though demons and devils are both principles of evil in the multiverse, they battle each other because they are aligned differently along the axis of chaos and law. There's a classic trope in there: evil fails because it can't help turning on itself.

The Blood War between the devils and demons is an eternal stalemate that is mostly confined to the Nine Hells and the Abyss. However, the Blood War does involve mortals. In fact, it goes a long way toward explaining why devils make pacts with mortals--granting them power in return for their souls. Hell needs soldiers, so forfeit souls generally become lemures or some other rank-and-file devil. Demons, on the other hand, have no use for errant souls, but they do encourage demonic cultists because even mortal fanatics can be used to disrupt diabolic plans.

Also, since both sides are locked in a war that neither can win--or even gain an upper hand--they scour the cosmos looking for artifacts, creatures, or...adventurers...who might be able to tip the balance and cause a decisive victory. Since most of the Blood War is fought in Avernus, the devils who die in battle are truly dead--unlike what happens when a devil dies on the Material Place. The demons who "die" are merely sent back to the Abyss, where they wander around like dummies, which effectively takes them out of the war.

The devils fight in the Blood War as a way of proving their superiority to the cosmos. They also see themselves as the heroes of the Blood War because they are keeping demons from overrunning the other planes. They're probably not wrong about that, actually.

The demons also fight in the Blood War as a way of proving their superiority to the cosmos. They also fight because they're really, really bored.

Another cosmic force--the agents of the Balance--step in to make sure that the devils never get the whip-hand over the demons and vice versa. Apparently Mordenkainen is one of those agents. They do things like stopping a crusade against deviltry because that would weaken the devils and possibly allow the demons to win the Blood War. It turns out that crying "both sides," as the agents of the Balance do, means that everyone else (rightfully) thinks they're douchebags.

Interestingly, there is no mention of Asmodeus, leader of the devils, being both a devil and a god--as he was in 4e. But we do get a story about how he was brought up on charges by a group of angels and asked that his case by judged by Primus, the Mucho Modron. Asmodeus argued that everything he did was by the book, and the angels kept heaping charge upon charge on him. Primus ruled that the angels were whiners, and that Asmodeus would have to carry the Ruby Rod--which forces him to be lawful. No, not this Ruby Rhod, unfortunately.

Zariel was one of the angels who brought Asmodeus up on charges. She was a bit of a Blood War fangirl, assigned to document the progress of the conflict. But she got drawn into the war, and took a contingent of mortals into battle against the devils. Asmodeus is a pretty decent CEO of Hell because he recognized initiative when he saw it and promoted her to archdevil status with a layer of the Nine Hells to personally manage.

Dispater is the arms dealer of the diabolic legions. He sends messages by carving them on the backs of imps, putting a little leather jacket on the imp to cover it up, and sending them on their way. Awww. But the leather jacket is linked to the imp's heart, so if anybody who isn't the intended recipient tries to take it off the imp dies and its body disintegrates before the message can be read. That's some diabolic Mission Impossible nonsense right there.

Mammon is a pretty generic greed-devil, but his minions have access to a book that gives the precise value of any soul. Nobody knows if Fierna and Belial are lovers, siblings, parent and child, or what--but it's clear that Fierna is the beauty and Belial is the brains of the operation. Their layer of Hell is home to the Diabolical Court, which is like People's Court but for devils. 

Levistus rules over the cold part of the Hells, and he's trapped in ice kinda-sorta like the Satan at the end of Dante's Inferno. His job is to offer escape to ne'er-do-wells in need--such as a thief about to be hung from the gallows--in return for their souls. Since he's trapped in ice, he has a lot of time to really focus on his work. Glasya, Asmodeus's daughter, rules the prisoner layer of the Hells where those found guilty at the Diabolic Court are imprisoned and tortured. Glasya is quite the ingenue; she runs hell's crime syndicate.

Baalzebul once tried to usurp Asmodeus; as punishment he was cursed--if he lies to another devil he turns into a giant slug for a year. He finds this so embarrassing that he doesn't lie anymore. Oh shit, Mephistopheles also rules a cold layer of the Hells. (There's two of them??) Anyway, his layer is the magical laboratory of the Hells, and he hates distractions so much that he disintegrates his minions if they interrupt his thoughts. I get, Meph, I really do.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Let's Read Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes (Gith!)

Where we've been so far: dwarveselvesdrow and eladrinshadar-kai and the Raven Queen, halflings and gnomes. Where we're going: the gith.

One of the central tensions in D&D's official worldbuilding efforts is the way that the desire to create the most Approachable Vanilla Fantasy collides with the desire to create Unique Recognizable Branding. If you look at where we've been so far, so you can see this in action. D&D is the inheritor of Tolkien's fantasy races, but over the years the various stewards of the D&D brand have attempted to stamp those races with marketable product identity to sets them apart from what other fantasy rpgs are presenting. We have the usual trifecta of dwarves, elves, and halflings--but with the additional, particular flavorings of Corellon, Moradin, duergar, shadar-kai, drow, tinker gnomes, Garl Glittergold and Yondala and all the rest.

The gith sidestep D&D's connections to generic fantasy and insert an element that is particular and Very D&D. The gith, like many other beings in the multiverse, are former slaves of the mind flayers. The gith rose up against their squid-faced masters, threw off their shackles, and...promptly split into two factions who hate each other: the githyanki and the githzerai. The githyanki and githzerai are the D&D version of the Romulan/Vulcan split.

You can tell that the githyanki are the bad guys because they're down with slavery. The githzerai are secluded monks seeking enlightenment. As usual, the bad guys are the more interesting of the pair: the githyanki rove out from a city built atop a dead god (!!!), serve a lich-queen who sits upon a throne made of mind flayer skulls (!!!), and ride dragons (!!!). The githyanki live at the intersection of heavy metal album cover and sci-fantasy paperback book cover and are all the more awesome because of it.

Vlaakith, the githyanki's lich-queen, is shady as fuck. Back when the gith were rebelling against the mind flayers, she encouraged Gith--the leader of the rebellion who granted a name to the gith people--to venture down into the Nine Hells to strike a deal with Tiamat for a little red dragon back-up. Gith never returned from the Hells, but the gith did get some dragon allies. Once the mind flayers were defeated, Vlaakith declared that the githyanki would pick up where the mind flayers had left off: taking slaves and plundering the Material Plane as they saw fit.

Vlaakith is also running a scam on her own people. She has spread the idea that her best and most loyal warriors will be rewarded by admission into a Special Paradise. As part of the preparation for this righteous ascension, there is a private which Vlaakith sucks out their souls and gains their powers, Highlander style. This is not the 100 Virgins they were promised.

Oh, and Gith's fate? Nobody knows. Arcane pellcasters who try to look into it trigger a curse that turns them into allips--insane, undead shadow-ghost things. Anyone who tries to look into it with divine magic just experiences a fucked up cosmic void: "Those who try experience a strange sensation, as if their minds were teetering on the edge of a great abyss, one that spans time, space, and memory."

Githyanki are hatched from eggs! And they are raised in a militaristic society where they are forced to fight each other until only the strong survive--so there is a touch of Evil Sparta to their culture. Vlaakith doesn't understand the importance of cannon fodder, apparently. When they aren't fighting and raiding, the githyanki are languid and decadent--a bit Melnibonean, actually. Vlaakith has to invent shit for them to do just to keep them occupied--she literally sends them on scavenger hunts because left to their own devices the githyanki are people who can't manage to finish anything they start.

Githyanki have spelljammer ships, but I don't think they're ever actually called spelljammers in the text even though they reference the helms and the need for spellcasting pilots. Why didn't they use the word spelljammer?

There are no bars in Tu'narath, the githyanki city. Bummer.

The githzerai live in a terrible neighborhood. They are deeply lawful beings who live in Limbo--a plane so chaotic that they have to constantly use their mental powers just to keep the environment at bay. The githzerai were led into this property blunder by Menyar-Ag, who is now a bit like the Emperor in Warhammer 40k: a decrepit but powerful leader who can't do anything physically but is still alive mentally. Also, similar to the 40k psykers who keep the navigational beacons going, there are githzerai anarchs who harness the psychic powers of their people to keep Limbo from consuming their communities. The githzerai also have a space marine analog in the zerth--githzerai "chosen ones" who await the return of the Emperor Zerthimon, the githzerai messiah.

Life in Limbo, for the githzerai, takes place in monastery fortresses drifting through the plane. When the githzerai venture to other planes, they take adamantine citadels with them. They have missionaries who like to recruit psions to the philosophy of Zerthimon: "Have you heard the good news?" And there is a gith reunification movement. Good luck with that one.

The emergent theme of Mordenkainen's Tome is that conflict divides people and short-circuits their ability to get shit done. If the githyanki and githzerai joined forces, they could really stick it to the mind flayers, but they're too busy fighting each other to exterminate the illithids. 

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Affair of the Poisons

Episode 22: The Affair of the Poisons
Anne Somerset's The Affair of the Poisons: Murder, Infanticide, and Satanism at the Court of Louis XIV tells the all documented, all true story of a years-long scandal that rocked the court of the Sun King, leading to prominent members of the French court being accused of poisoning and black magic. Join Kate and Jack as they approach the true crime genre in their own trademark style (to whit: "Old Timey"). Get ready for a too-wild-for-fiction tale of intrigue, fancy dress, nonexistent plumbing, and questionable police practices!
Why is Louis the XIV one of the most obnoxious figures in history? How bad was the toilet situation at Versailles? When is a "convent" more like a "spa?" How many mad priests get mixed up in this junk? All these questions and more are answered in this month's episode of Bad Books for Bad People.
BBfBP theme song by True Creature 
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 About Page.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Let's Read Mordenkainen's Tomb of Foes (Halflings and Gnomes!)

Where we've been so far: dwarves, elves, drow and eladrin, shadar-kai and the Raven Queen. Where we're going: halflings and gnomes.

If Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes is about the conflicts of the D&D multiverse, halflings and gnomes are the outliers in that they don't have any epic betrayals, civil wars, or unending feuds in their histories. Interestingly, it is posited that their innocence is the explanation for the halfling's supernatural luck: good luck is their cosmic reward for not being shitlords like everybody else in existence.

We're also told that halflings judge people by the content of people's characters--they don't mind a kindly butterface at all. They've also internalized a pile of self-help books, as they're all about "living in the moment."

Halflings love stories, and love objects for the stories they're connected to. They're also animistic, believing that objects have their own spirits. 

Halfling villages are hard to find; they're obscured from view by the primary goddess of the halfling pantheon--which is a far more useful thing than most of the crap D&D gods tend to lay on their followers. Overall, halfling religion is nicely differentiated from the elves and dwarves: they don't see their gods as divine creators, but rather as folk heroes who have ascended to godhood. Halfling gods are basically successful Gloranthan cultists. As such, their gods aren't really worshiped so much as emulated.

Did you know that the rare halflings that break oaths and sever communal ties eventually become twisted caricatures beset with paranoia and misery? The allusion is pretty heavy-handed, right?

On to gnomes then. Gnomes have always had trouble differentiating themselves from halflings and dwarves in D&D. One has the small friendly folk covered, and the other has the stout makers-of-things shtick covered. Whence gnomes?

They have a love of discovery based on a psychology of endless curiosity. From nature to mechanism, from magic to gem-cutting, they want to know how things work. Gnomes are the Mythbusters of the D&D multiverse.

Gnomes also don't mind drudgery, are never bored, and don't feel bad when a research tangent leads to a dead-end. This means that gnomes would be the ideal grad students.

We get a sidebar about the master gnome artificers of Bytopia who make "celestial toys," which are basically as good as magic items. We also get a sidebar about the tinkerer gnomes of the Dragonlance setting. As with an earlier sidebar about kender, the book is really trying not to paint Krynn's races as insufferable.

Gnome religion feels a bit more "realistic" than much of what we get from the other religions, as gnomes don't tend to agree about the "facts" of their gods. Some gnomes see their gods as all male, others see them as all female. Some gnomes see the gods in the guise of animals, others believe they are constructs created by Garl Glittergold. (Sidenote: Garl Glittergold is the worst name in D&D; beats out Iggwilv for the title.)

A sidebar tells us that the kobolds hate gnomes because the Gnome God pulled a prank on the Kobold God. Again, Mordenkainen's inadvertently puts me on the side of the bad guys because pranks are the fuckin' worst so yeah, fuck Garl.

Some gnome communities send the youngins out to explore the world before they're allowed back to Gnomeville. GNOME RUMSPRINGA! Gnomes also sometimes feel a pull to explore the cosmos or the planes--were gnomes a big part of Spelljammer? Seems like a hint is implied there.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Mary Shelley, Suspiria, Mortal Engines, The Little Stranger

Sometimes you find yourself looking forward to movies that might not actually be good because hope springs eternal. Below are four I'm interested in. I have the highest hopes for The Little Stranger; I absolutely love that book--I think it's one of the best modern haunted house stories--so hopefully it follows through on the source material. Mary Shelley looks a little Dawson's Creek. I'm not sure I trust Peter Jackson with Mortal Engines after all those Hobbit movies. And I'm not sure what the point of a Suspiria remake is, but I'm willing to give it a try.

Mary Shelley


Mortal Engines

The Little Stranger

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Let's Read Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes (Shadar-Kai!)

We've seen dwarves, elves, and some more elves, but where the goths at?

Remember back in 4e when the shadar-kai were emo humans? Well, they're back to being fey-derived as they were in 3e--but now they serve the Raven Queen. Speaking of which, I like this new take on her that makes her creepy as fuck; she's described variously as "a terrible shadow that clawed at their innermost thoughts, pale and regal elf who exploded into an untold number of ravens, a shambling tangle of slick roots and sticks that overwhelmed them with dreador an unknown presence that pulled them screaming blindly into the gloom." 

That's hott.

I think the Raven Queen's origins have also been revised: she was an elf queen who sought to become a deity during Corellon and Lolth's spat so she could make them shut up and come to an accord. The shadar-kai were the elves who were feeding her some of their soul-stuff so that she could undergo apotheosis; unfortunately, they were all betrayed by some evil wizards, the Raven Queen used more of the shadar-kai's souls to rain hell down on them, the ritual went wrong, and they all got sucked into the Shadowfell--where the elf queen became the Raven Queen and the elves who followed her became the gothy shadar-kai.

Oh, by the way, the evil wizards survived but were also changed; they became the nagpa, which are basically the skeksis from The Dark Crystal.

The Raven Queen now inhabits the Fortress of Memories, where she collects the memories of dead gods (!!!) and mortals alike. Best. Wunderkammer. Ever.

The Raven Queen might be crazy or she might be a cosmic sin-eater who purges the traumatized of their pain. She's your goth therapist.

Vecna is her stalker. You know he likes all of her pictures on Instagram. Also, maybe my 'ship is coming in: "Some sages posit that she iusing people as pawns in an inscrutablgame, the rules of which are known only to her and thLady of Pain." RQ + LoP = OTP.

When they are outside of the Shadowfell, the Shadar-Kai look all gothy and hot, but in the Shadowfell they look tired and busted. Anyone who has been in a goth club at the end of the night when the lights come on will be familiar with this phenomenon.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Let's Read Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes (Eladrin and Drow!)

We're back, after covering the Regular Elves and dwarves, so now we're moving on to the Other Elves. First up are the eladrin, which are basically the Most Elvish Elves. Instead of hanging out in the various Prime Material planes of the D&D multiverse, the eldarin put down roots in the Feywild--which apparently is like being on a perpetual ecstasy high in the most-breathtaking natural vista.

The best thing about the eladrin is that they don't give a fuck about Corellon. Rather than holding out hope that Elf God will forgive them someday, they believe that they will go through the cycle of reincarnation until the end up on the Seelie Court, Unseelie Court, or as immortal archfey. That sounds like a much better deal than the Regular Elves get.

Next up, the Bad Elves, the drow. Like the eladrin, the drow found a new home--the Underdark--and it changed them. One thing I like about the drow: their Ride Or Die attitude. Check it: "Drow view
the elves of the surface world as cowardly children who defy their parents when they're not around but cower in the corner when their parents return, terrified of having their bad behavior found out."

Unlike Corellon, who has put the Regular Elves into perpetual Time Out, Lolth is a more hands-on parent when it comes to the drow: "She sometimes tests her most faithful by drawing their spirits to her in the Demonweb to undergo her judgment. Followers never know when or if they are to be tested."

Woah, drow cities are made within giant stalactites or stalagmites? That's pretty dope. The drow practice slavery, which is one of the ways we know that they're villains, but it's interesting that the book points out that slavery is an economic necessity for them because they just don't have the numbers to survive on their own down in the Underdark. But drow are still elves, of course, so they also use slaves as status symbols.

Drow also get a better deal than Regular Elves: when they go into a trance, they remember nothing. No past lives, just the void. That sounds super relaxing, actually. This also means that drow might not reincarnate; instead, Lolth just makes more drow souls as needed. If true, this means that the drow could potentially out-breed regular elves (since there is a finite number of them) and swamp them en mass eventually.

Blah blah #notalldrow blah blah.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Architectural Tour of Dunwall

I love the videos that follow below: they are a deep dive into the visual aesthetics and world-building in the game Dishonored by a smart fellow named Simon with a PhD in architecture. Throughout the series, Simon analyzes the architectural styles, construction materials, and ornamentation to give a really compelling and unique reading of the game. I hope that he digs into Dishonored 2 at some point.

Welcome to Dunwall

Coldridge Prison

Dunwall Sewers

Hound Pits Pub

Distillery District

High Overseer's Office

The Golden Cat

Kaldwin's Bridge

Boyle Estate

Dunwall Tower

Flooded District

Kingsparrow Island

Rothwild Slaughterhouse

Brigmore Manor

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Let's Read Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes (Elves!)

We started a read-through of Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes by looking at the lore of the neckbeards dwarves, but now we're moving on to the elves. I'm probably going to need two posts to tackle elves; their section feels heavier than the one on dwarves.

Let's talk about the origins of D&D's elves: they're literally the children of a god, rather than the creation of a god. Kind of. Actually, they're Corellon Larethian's blood--literally.

From "his" description, Corellon sounds like a genderfluid Freddie Mercury, prancing throughout the multiverse with swagger, changing gender and shape (seriously, sometimes he's, like, a flock of birds or a swarm of birds or whatever).

Gruumsh, god of the orcs, took exception to Corellon's flamboyant fluidity, which leads to their big fight in which Gruumsh loses an eye. If you look at this slightly sideways, it makes Gruumsh into the avatar of homophobia or transphobia or some other weird prejudice.

Seriously, check me on this. This is what the text actually says: "Corellon's flamboyant, mercurial personality showed through no matter which form the entity took. Corellon loved wholeheartedly, broke oaths without reservation, and took pleasure from every encounter with the other divine beings of the multiverse. Most of the gods accepted Corellon's mutability and passionate behavior, but these traits infuriated Gruumsh, the greatest of the orc gods."

Interestingly, Corellon's rift with Lolth (which leads to the rift between Regular Elves and Drow) is also thrown into strange waters: Lolth's "betrayal" was to urge the elves to adopt stable, mortal, gendered forms instead of following in Corellon's footsteps as ever-shifting fey creatures. This makes the problem with Lolth that she is a gender essentialist. It's noted that Lolth insisted on being a "she."

Modern concerns aside, there is also an element of Edenic myth to the story. Once the elves chose physical forms over changeable fey-ness, Corellon locked them out of Elf Heaven. When elves die, their souls can go to Elf Heaven maybe for a little bit, but they're doomed to reincarnation. At least this explains why there are so few elves despite their long lives: there are only a finite number of elf souls to go around.

But, I also want to point out that Corellon doesn't seem nearly as chaotic good as he's supposed to be. The elves' only hope to get back to Elf Heaven is Corellon changing his mind--which you think a chaotic god might do--but he seems pretty steadfast in punishing the elves' transgression.

Second, he doesn't seem particularly good--he doesn't seem to value forgiveness or really give a fuck about his "children." Particularly when you realize that the "trance" elves go into instead of sleeping is a time when they have to relive all their past lives with the knowledge that they're in a perpetual, unwanted cycle of death and rebirth, it seems a little cruel.

So, if you ever wondered why elves were jerks, it turns out they came by it honestly from their parent.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Let's Read Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes (Dwarves!)

I opened Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes up randomly to the chapter about dwarves, so that's where we're starting. In general, I find dwarves to be a pretty uninteresting Tolkienism in D&D. But there is some cool stuff here:

We get details on the duergar, who were originally a clan of dwarves influenced by the mind control powers of the illithids to abandon their usual dwarven nonsense and dig farther down than dwarves are wont to go.

Once they got to Mindflayerville, they were promptly enslaved. Their escape from bondage came when they made a pact with Asmodeus, promising to fight against Lolth's drow.

This means that duergar are fucked up in multiple ways: the mind flayers experimented on them because dwarves are hardy and resist poisons (so they're probably mutated in fun ways *edit* yep, we get stats for derro in the bestiary section and they are the experimented-upon duergar) and they were probably changed by a literal devil's bargain (so they're spiritually and physically corrupt in fun ways that sets them apart from the Gimli clones).
When they got back to their dwarven brethren, they were written off as heretics. Pleas of "But bros, fuckin' mind control" fell on deaf ears. But here's the thing: the duergar are actually right. In a world where de facto agency-stripping Charm Person spells are possible, it feels kinda gross to blame the victim.
Long story short, the duergar pull a "Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven" (they literally want to kill Dwarf God and take his throne) resulting in a guerrilla war that doesn't accomplish anything for either side. The rest of the world doesn't really know the scope of the conflict, and maybe dwarves keep it that way because The Petty War is probably pretty embarrassing, just like Edition Wars are on gaming forums.
Campaign seed that occurs to me: a party of duergar hell-bent on finding proof that the mind flayers bent them to their will in hopes of reuniting the dwarven people and calling off their dumb war.

Anyway. Reading more about dwarven natures makes me realize why I've never been that into them:
  • Their religious bent seems kind of extreme. Moradin comes with a lot of daddy issues; there is literally a Gordon Gecko "Greed is Good" god.
  • They care as much about their crafts as they do living beings, which is fucked.
  • They care about communities in that tribal us vs everyone else way that makes my skin crawl.
Basically, dwarves are neckbeards.

Did you know that drunkeness affects dwarves differently?
When in the presence of their comrades, beer evokes communal memories. When a dwarf drinks alone it sends them into a depression spiral of loneliness. (As Anne pointed out, this isn't actually that different from how alcohol works on people in the real world.) When duergar drink too much they have ptsd visions of being tortured by mind flayers, so they don't drink much, understandably.

Did you know that Gruumsh, god of the orcs, operates a tip-line? He lets the orcs know when dwarven fortresses are at their weakest and open to raids. OMG the duergar do that "assigned mates" thing that incels are into. Of cooooourse they do. All the pieces are falling into place.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Best of 2018 (So Far)

Jack and Kate are back from vacation! We're just about at the midway point of the year and your hosts are ready to take a look back at some of the things they've enjoyed during 2018 so far. The rules of engagement are simple: the hosts each choose one movie, album, TV show, book and "wild card" from any category that was the best experience of its kind encountered during 2017.
Join us to hear about sinister funeral directors, sexy adventurers, historical melodrama (always historical melodrama), and ninjas.
BBfBP theme song by True Creature 
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 About Page.