Friday, March 29, 2019

The Castlevania Timeline

Ever wonder how all the Castlevania games fit together? 

Well, wonder no more. GameThumbTV has done a fun series that explains the history of Dracula being whipped to death.

Part 1: Origins of Evil

Part 2: Destiny of the Belmont Clan

Part 3: Passing the Torch

Part 4: The End of Dracula

Part 5: The Lords of Shadow

Part 6: Tragedy of the Belmont Clan

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

The Tower That Should Not Be


Setting & System: Cinderheim, 5e D&D

Characters: Warleader Kro (human barbarian), Aeran (high elf wizard), Sylvester Tremaine (human mystic)

Kro, Aeran, and Sylvester had all been part of the Blackspear Company, a band of mercenaries fighting under the demon sun of Cinderheim. Their Company's last engagement ended with the mercenaries of their band being routed; they became separated from the rest of the Company during the retreat when a vicious sandstorm arose. They wandered the desert, depleting their food and water, until they crested a stony ridge and saw something that should not exist in the desert: a lone tower of gray stone surrounded by a forest of pine trees.

The group followed a path through the pine forest that brought them to the base of the tower. A man, whom they recognized as Margos--a medic of the Blackspear Company, had been impaled on a stake set into the ground to the side of the tower's wooden doors.

Eschewing tradition means of ingress, Kro climbed up the tower's wall bare-handed, smashed a stained glass window with his greatsword, and hauled his two compatriots up into the tower with a rope provided by Sylvester. They found themselves in a circular chamber with spiral stairs going down and four doors, each decorated with an engraved metal plaque that hinted at what lay beyond: a lit candle, two skeletons dancing, a eye surrounded by runes, and a worm ouroboros.

Later, when more doors were found on the second floor of the tower, they were similarly marked with a peacock, a half-closed eye, a tree with long roots, and another worm ouroboros.

The first order of business was descending the stairs which led them to a landing where four sections of the wall had bars set into the stone to form makeshift prison cells. A torch was lit and thrown into one of the cells, revealing a horrific prisoner: a young woman named Marceline whose body had been twisted and malformed. Conversation with her uncovered a few important facts: she was imprisoned for "failing" to learn the steps of a "dance" as a student of the Academy; her broken body and prolonged life were punishments for her failure; the well on the next level down contained pure water; the tower was inhabited by more students, a mistress named Svasta, and the whole enterprise was likely related to a demon cult who used dance to seal the pact with their patron.

The party offered Marceline the sweet release of death as she pressed her throat to the bars of her cell. Kro and Aeran dispatched her; Sylvester anointed her body with holy water and gave her the last rites.

The supposition that the tower is home to a cult that connects dance with the arcane was born out by further exploration: a library of dance manuals was found, and beyond that lay a library of occult histories and magical theory. An alchemy laboratory was located and the finished preparations therein were duly pilfered.

The party encountered a few things they were not yet prepared to deal with further: a profane chapel dedicated a being symbolized by a twelve-foot statue of a bloated man with the head of a rotting goat, a prism-like crystal statue of a peacock that sent strange rays of light cascading throughout the room, and a pool of mercury-like fluid that captured and distorted Aeran's image when he gazed into it--the image began to change into the visage of someone else, who called to them from the pool, but the adventurers left the chamber without interacting with them. They do know that the voice belongs to the sister of the the tower's mistress.

Another strange discovery within the tower was a greenhouse filled with fruit trees, flowers, and mossy soil in place of a stone floor. At the end of the greenhouse chamber was a door that opened up into a dark room containing an uncanny helm sitting on a small table, two robed corpses with gray skin lying face-down, and a huge "mirror" that did not reflect an image--instead, within its murky confines the shape of a nautilus could be seen.

Kro put his hand into the mirror--it was cold beyond the confines of the "glass," but his hand did not come away wet. He also put on the unwieldy helm. But before further experimentation could be attempted, the group was set upon by ten dismembered hands that had crawled up out of the greenhouse's soil bed!

A furious battle ensued. Sylvester climbed onto the table to protect himself, Kro charged the horde of claws, and Aeran destroyed five of the claws with a well-placed (and literally true) burning hands spell. And then things took a turn against the adventurers. Sylvester was taken down by the claws' leaping slashes, then Aeran fell to them after destroying another with a fire bolt, and Kro was forced to invoke the name of Crom and fly into a rage to protect himself from the deadly assault. Kro managed to dispatch the remaining claws, but it was too late for Aeran--the high elf had bled out among the two other corpses that previously fallen before the dark mirror.

The game ended with Kro badly injured and Sylvester unconscious but stable. How will our heroes safeguard themselves in the meantime and what will they do next in...The Tower That Should Not Be???

Monday, March 25, 2019

The Crowfield Curse and The Crowfield Demon

Pat Walsh’s The Crowfield Curse and The Crowfield Demon are two novels for young readers that take us back to the Middle Ages for a tale of the mysterious supernatural circumstances surrounding a monk’s abbey, the fey creatures nearby, and a young orphaned boy that the monks have taken on as a servant. Jack and Kate take a journey into a gentler variety of genre this month in an effort to understand what's up with the youth.
How is learning to play the flute a lot like growing up? Isn't teaching monks that the fey folk are on their side something that the devil would do? Just how bad was the medieval diet? All these questions and more will be explored during this 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.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Feast Your Eyes

The semi-regular collection of art that has inspired me lately

Becky Munich

Gustave Dore

 Eldo Yoshimizu

Joy Ang (work in progress)

Artist unknown (but the image is the Beast of GĂ©vaudan)

 Tom Scioli (from American Barbarian)

 Kentaro Miura (from Berserk)

Tom Scioli again because this is the most bonkers comics sequence I've seen in a while

Claudia Cangini

Alexis Flowers (from I Roved Out)

 Nicholas Virviescas

Art from the forthcoming 3rd edition of Malifaux
(wish they were better at crediting their artists)

Calum Alexander Watt

Ellen Rogers

Sam Hogg

Ignasi Monreal

Andrea Sorrentino (from Gideon Falls)

John Stokes (from a Star Wars comic)

Damien Worm (from The October Faction)

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

My 5e House Rules

I don't have many house rules, hacks, or mods for 5e D&D, which is a pretty good indication that it's working well for me as a set of rules. (Let me know in the comments if you see any problems with how these work.) 

These are the only house rules from my games I've bothered to codify, with footnotes no less:

To determine their place in the initiative order, every participant makes either a Dexterity check or an Intelligence check. (1)

Inspiration may be expended to either gain advantage or to re-roll an unsuccessful attack roll, saving throw, or ability check. (2)

Hunter and beast master rangers gain a thematically appropriate spell known of their highest spell slot at 3rd, 5th, 9th, 13th, and 17th level from any class’s spell list. (3)

When you engage in two-weapon fighting, the additional attack does not use your bonus action but cannot be used on the same turn as another ability that grants attacks with a bonus action. (4)

A player can choose Intelligence instead of Charisma as the ability score that modifies their character’s warlock features, such as spell save DCs, spell attacks, and eldritch invocations. (5)


Existing weapons can be re-skinned as different armaments. For example, the properties and damage dice of a rapier could be re-skinned as a light thrusting spear. Feel free to change damage types as needed. Similarly, a player may opt to alter the type of damage dealt by a spell or ability when it is gained with the GM’s assent. Be careful with the force and psychic damage types; few enemies have resistance to those types of damage. (6)

* * *

(1) - Intelligence is the least utilized stat in 5e; this house rule gives a tiny additional incentive to not dump it.

(2) - I've found that if you just let inspiration grant advantage, as per the rules as written, no one ever uses it because no one wants to gamble on a limited resource that they might not need to use. Having it offer a re-roll gives a greater chance that it will actually get used in play.

(3) - Rangers should have gotten additional spells known in-line with other half-caster classes. It looks like WotC realized that error, as all of the newer ranger subclasses give additional spells known. I could make a codified list of what those spells should be for the hunter and beast master, but I'm lazy and also fine with letting players pick the spells that fit their idea of what their character is all about.

(4) - This is a revision of the rules I proposed (and tested) here. It turns out that you don't really want two-weapon fighting adding on top of the monk's bonus attacks, as an astute commentator pointed out at the time. They were right.

(5) - This one has seen extensive playtesting in one of my campaigns and it worked just fine.

(6) - This one has also been playtested a lot in my games. It builds off this post

Monday, March 18, 2019

Philadelphia Sales and What I Got There

One of the local department stores we had when I was growing up was Philadelphia Sales. The one I went to most as a kid was not the Binghamton location (shown to the left); we went to the Endicott store because it was closer. I can still smell the dueling aromas of fresh buttered popcorn and animal feed that would hit you as soon as you walked in the door.

I don't even know if they sold animal feed.

Philadelphia Sales had a nice toy department (I think I got my first He-Man there), was a good place to get cheap Chuck Taylors, and had a lot of discount clothes--which was helpful when there wasn't a lot of money to go around. 

(Although, it did seem like a lot of the pants they sold did have legs of varying lengths.)

I don't remember ever seeing any role-playing game stuff on the shelves of the toy department or wherever they kept the books, but there was a jumble-sale series of folding tables that held deeply discounted goods over toward the fitting rooms on the right side of the first floor. Occasionally I'd find an rpg supplement among the mess of tchotchkes and torn packages, but never the core books to go with them. These were some of my first game books.

Starspawn of Volturnus
Prior to getting my hands on this, I don't think I was really too aware that there were any rpgs in the world aside from D&D. The game we were playing was a Frankenstein's Monster made up of Basic D&D and AD&D hardcovers inherited from older siblings and parents, stuff we found in the back of old drug stores, and whatever was on the shelves of Waldenbooks and Coles in the mall. I'm pretty sure Starspawn of Volturnus got added to that mix piecemeal; we can no idea how Star Frontiers was supposed to work, so we cannibalized it for parts.

Conan: The Buccaneer
This module introduced the word "buccaneer" into my vocabulary and caused much wonderment among us because the included pre-generated characters were differentiated by talents and flaws. That seemed revolutionary and mind-altering at the time; it hinted that not all 5th level fighters had to be the same character, mechanically speaking. Again, we had no frame of reference for the Conan game, but this one was easier to incorporate into the mix of our games. 

Secret Wars
This one was beyond our ability to loot, so it pushed us toward another vital step in the lives of young gamers: even though we didn't have access to the Marvel Super Heroes rules, it inspired us to kit-bash a rules system together around the numbers it gave us to work with. We definitely didn't arrive at the color-coded table that we were meant to use. I think we came up with some sort of roll-under percentile system based on the ability scores given in the module.

I think this one did get reused as a D&D adventure, possibly as a sequel to Dungeonland. Either way, this adventure gave me a life-long distrust of both gingers and men in bow ties.

Not pictured, but I also scored a copy of Left Hand of Darkness off those discount tables as a teenager, so Philly Sales continued to serve up the good stuff right up until it closed its doors.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Amuneta, the Liberator

Amuneta—the Liberator of Cinderheim—was imprisoned in Umberwell for sedition against the government. She escaped Bleakbone Gaol, and sought freedom in Cinderheim; other former prisoners and outcasts flock to her leadership—she promises liberty to all who can reach the Narak oasis.
  • Appearance. Half-orc, slate gray skin, short black hair in a ragged pixie cut, muscled like a warrior princess.
  • Abilities. Political history, deadly with a khopesh.
  • Traits. Idealist, more comfortable among criminals than the law-abiding.
  • Ideal. Create a homeland for the unjustly punished.
  • Bond. Amuneta maintains contact with political revolutionaries in Umberwell via sending stones.
  • Flaw. Prone to leaps of faith.
  • Warband. All able-bodied residents of the encampment can be mustered to fight on its behalf.

  • Scorpion Knights. Narak’s Scorpion Knights are the encampment’s elite troops. They are drawn from the most violent criminals who found freedom at the oasis.
  • The Dedicated. The Dedicated are a small enclave of cultists who revere Narah, the Breaker of Bonds.
  • The Children of Amuneta. The Children of Amuneta are spies and saboteurs who follow the half-orc warlord. They insinuate themselves into other encampments to sow discord and wreak havoc.

Narak is positioned as a promised land for escaped criminals, outcasts, slaves, and the persecuted. It is the only encampment that eschews the horrid practice of slavery; any who enter the encampment are considered free within its walls. Many slaves, imprisoned criminals, and half-orcs dream of reaching Amuneta’s oasis and finding liberty.
  • Population. Half of Narak’s population are half-orcs gathered to Amuneta’s banner from Umberwell. The other half of the population are mostly tieflings, catfolk, and humans.
  • Aesthetic. Buildings of stone and brick, exteriors decorated with carvings of beasts and scarab beetles.
  • Supplies. Gemstones, silver, textiles, iron. Water is drawn from a deep reservoir beneath the encampment.
  • The Purple Lotus Academy. The Purple Lotus Academy is a small school of wizardry that was founded by mages who fled persecution in other lands.
  • Monument Hall. Monument Hall is a small museum dedicated to insurgents, revolutionaries, and radicals; within the museum are statues of the world’s most renowned iconoclasts and rebels.
  • The Pyre. The Pyre is a crematorium where the bodies of the dead are burned to ash as tributes to Narah, the Breaker of Bonds.

  • Escort an escaped slave to freedom in Narak.
  • Sift through the ashes of the Pyre to find a magical artifact.
  • Discover a traitor within the Scorpion Knights who plots Amuneta’s assassination.
  • Pilfer a book of dark magic from the Purple Lotus Academy.

If you like the content above (or any of the content here), consider checking out Cinderhein: The Land Under the Demon Sun, a system agnostic apocalyptic fantasy setting, now available in print and pdf from DriveThruRPG.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Dungeoneering and "The Pit and the Pendulum"

Thesis: Edgar Allan Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum is the best source of instruction about how to approach D&D-style dungeoneering.

The dungeon that the protagonist of Poe's story is trapped within enters the narrative as an unsolved question. It is tabula rasa; it is pure unknown possibility. It is only through making use of what little he has with him that the protagonist is able to learn anything about its environs:

My outstretched hands at length encountered some solid obstruction. It was a wall, seemingly of stone masonry -- very smooth, slimy, and cold. I followed it up; stepping with all the careful distrust with which certain antique narratives had inspired me. This process, however, afforded me no means of ascertaining the dimensions of my dungeon; as I might make its circuit, and return to the point whence I set out, without being aware of the fact; so perfectly uniform seemed the wall. I therefore sought the knife which had been in my pocket, when led into the inquisitorial chamber; but it was gone; my clothes had been exchanged for a wrapper of coarse serge. I had thought of forcing the blade in some minute crevice of the masonry, so as to identify my point of departure. The difficulty, nevertheless, was but trivial; although, in the disorder of my fancy, it seemed at first insuperable. I tore a part of the hem from the robe and placed the fragment at full length, and at right angles to the wall. In groping my way around the prison, I could not fail to encounter this rag upon completing the circuit. So, at least I thought: but I had not counted upon the extent of the dungeon, or upon my own weakness.

Note, though, that exploration and making use of unconventional tactics is itself an incomplete strategy. It's missing an essential underworld logic. It surveys the field, and the narrator learns that the space is "fifty yards in circuit," but it does not in itself provide an answer that solves the dungeon. Ultimately, the dungeon is only subverted by meeting it on its own illogical, madness-inducing, mythological terms. 

In fact, the protagonist's initial measurements may have been incorrect; the logic of the mundane world holds no sovereignty in the mythic underworld. There is no Enlightenment where there is only flickering torches.

As the pendulum begins to swing down, it is only through indulging in dungeon logic that the protagonist figures out how to use the rats to escape bondage and certain death:

Observing that I remained without motion, one or two of the boldest leaped upon the frame-work, and smelt at the surcingle. This seemed the signal for a general rush. Forth from the well they hurried in fresh troops. They clung to the wood -- they overran it, and leaped in hundreds upon my person. The measured movement of the pendulum disturbed them not at all. Avoiding its strokes they busied themselves with the anointed bandage. They pressed -- they swarmed upon me in ever accumulating heaps. They writhed upon my throat; their cold lips sought my own; I was half stifled by their thronging pressure; disgust, for which the world has no name, swelled my bosom, and chilled, with a heavy clamminess, my heart. Yet one minute, and I felt that the struggle would be over. Plainly I perceived the loosening of the bandage. I knew that in more than one place it must be already severed. With a more than human resolution I lay still.

Nor had I erred in my calculations -- nor had I endured in vain. I at length felt that I was free.

The dungeon is merciless when confronted with conventional tactics. Freedom comes only with the cessation of struggle and the existential renunciation of the outer world. In the dungeon, it's fiery pits and green devil faces all the way down:

I struggled no more, but the agony of my soul found vent in one loud, long, and final scream of despair. I felt that I tottered upon the brink -- I averted my eyes --

And then catharsis. Not the pit and certainly not the pendulum. Instead, the French army enters Toledo. "It's okay," they say, "Gary sent us."

Friday, March 8, 2019

When a Shadow is Forced Into the Light, Manor of Infinite Forms, Black Company

Things that brought me delight in February, 2019:

Swallow the Sun, When a Shadow is Forced Into the Light
Magisterial. I was really looking forward to this one and it did not disappoint one bit.

Gallhammer, Ill Innocence and Gloomy Lights
Apparently a significant number of listeners find Gallhammer too repetitive; I can see the merit in the critique, but I find it hypnotic instead. The occasional vocal that sounds like the squeaking of a rubber duckie is a bit mystifying, admittedly.

Tomb Mold, Manor of Infinite Forms
You guys, I found Zuggtmoy's favorite death metal band.

Glen Cook, The Black Company
After finishing The Worm Ouroboros (see below) this was a very welcome change of pace. Out with the Jacobean language, in with the tale of a famous mercenary band in a world where great wizards are called Dominator and say things like "Absodamnlutely."

E. R. Eddison, The Worm Ouroboros
We did a Bad Books for Bad People episode on this one that you can listen to here.

Rotting Christ, Rituals
The tension between the modern metal style and the spectral presence of antiquity on this one absolutely works.

Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, series 1
Yeah yeah yeah, solving murders, but that wardrobe! My theory is that she's an agent of chaos; not only do murders happen around her with alarming frequency, but she corrupts everyone she pulls into her orbit. Dot has strayed from her religion and is dating a Protestant. Detective Robinson no longer upholds proper procedure and lets her do whatever she wants at crime scenes. Bert and Cec have lost their communist ideals and become enslaved by her capital. She's the devil: seductive, charming, and tempts everyone into betraying their beliefs.

Eyehategod, Dopesick, Confederacy of Ruined Lives,                  In the Name of Suffering
Ever since Tenebrous Kate reported that she was in a New Orleans sludge metal bar I've been on an Eyehategod kick.

Roadsmary's Baby
I forgot a bought a six-pack of this pumpkin beer back in October, but it was a damn pleasant surprise to find it in the cupboard.

Death, The Sound of Perseverance
Amazingly precise.

Hal Duncan, Sodom/New Sodom
Where The Wasteland stops making sense, this begins to.

 Abyssic, A Winter's Tale
I can't believe I was able to pick this up for a mere $4. Amazingly grandiose death-doom with orchestral arrangements.

Entombed, Wolverine Blues
An unearthed classic. Listening to this again reminds me of the hours spent paging through CMJ issues in the 90s, looking for the one heavy album they were going to feature.

Rotting Christ, The Heretics
Rotting Christ's new album is great, don't get me wrong, but it's a little talky...even by Rotting Christ standards.

Michael Moorcock, City of the Beast
Blasphemous opinion: I enjoyed this much more than ERB's Princess of Mars, mostly because of its concision.

Kentaro Miura, Berserk vol. 27 and 28
The splash pages continue to amaze, even if Locus's apostle form looks like a car hood ornament.

Linda Sejic, Blood Stain volumes 1, 2, and 3
Kind of like Northanger Abbey in comic form; terrible Gothic possibilities dissipate into the horrors of mundane existence--like bad coffee and tidying up.

 Carcass, Heartwork
Death metal doesn't have to be all about brutality--this classic record is 100% groove.

The premise is great: vampires invade an isolated, rural village and begin to take over. What I wasn't expected was how emotionally violent this one would get. Strong stuff.

Live and Let Die
Rewatching it, it turns out that my favorite James Bond movie is the least James Bond of all the James Bond movies.