Thursday, June 27, 2019

Metal From the Dirt

Metal From the Dirt: Inside the Navajo Reservation's DIY Heavy-Metal Scene

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Venom and Coil

"Venom and Coil," written by Robin Laws and illustrated by David McClellan
"Venom and Coil" is an article in Dragon #305 that adds additional depth to the yuan-ti, D&D's evil snake people. Although it is perhaps unintentional, the article gets philosophical about human nature. You see, the yuan-ti strive against each other for pride of place in their hierarchical society. This isn't noteworthy in itself, but it takes on new meaning when you realize that the murderous impulse for dominance is far more common among the yuan-ti who are more human than snake. The purebloods, who appear mostly human, are the yuan-ti most likely to kill one another as they fight their way to the top of the heap. In a sense, this is a bit of worldbuilding that is saying To be human is to be violently competitive.

(The only thing I don't like about this philosophical tangent is that it falls under a heading that reads "Hissy Fits.")

The yuan-ti commit evil deeds in hopes that their vile actions will awaken Merrshaulk, their slumbering Snake God. However, only gratuitous evil acts committed in Merrshaulk's name count toward rousing the god from his sleep; if the yuan-ti receive a tangible benefit from an act of destruction, it doesn't count. Merrshaulk seems to be the god of pointless dickish behavior, but it does give the DM a license to put any old dumb plot in the hands of the yuan-ti: their end goal doesn't have to make sense or have a graspable motive, they're just doing whatever awful thing they're up to in hopes of getting their deadbeat dad to notice them.

Check out this dope Serpentor hat tho.
As you might imagine, yuan-ti are hatched from eggs. Yuan-ti priests are allowed to eat unfertilized eggs, but it is taboo for other yuan-ti to eat them. Yuan-ti are also eugenicists: their priests control the egg fertilization process, matching "male and female with careful calculation" to breed ubersneks. They also practice selective breeding to keep the correct caste ratios in place. Yuan-ti society is predictably patriarchal; only male yuan-ti get to serve as priests and other important positions. The article tries to make the claim that female yuan-ti are respected too, but falls back on the trope "the girl ones are really good at scheming!" to get there, which isn't very convincing.

As is the case with most evil races in D&D, the yuan-ti practice slavery. But if you thought we were going to get out of this article without some Fu Manchu-style orientalism, think again. The yuan-ti keep their slaves docile and pliable by getting them addicted to "white resin" (read: opium). The take-away from the article is that the yuan-ti are a combination of Howardian snake cultists, "racial scientists," internet shitlords, and the inscrutable yellow peril.

After reading the article, I took a look at the yuan-ti chapter in Volo's Guide to Monsters to see where 5e deviates from the older take on the yuan-ti. There's no mention of white resin in Volo's, but the taboo against cannibalism is also gone. The eastern Asian influence has been largely replaced with a broad Inca/Aztec vibe, which is an interesting continent shift but not necessarily an improvement.

Monday, June 24, 2019

The Hunter of Abominations and the Viscount

Two NPCs in Cinderheim

Jada Pahl is a catfolk hunter who often roams the demonically warped wastes looking for abominations to slay. The rumor that she was a tsarevna of her people in a now-fallen kingdom follows at her heels wherever she goes. She exults in the hunt.

  • Occupation. Ranger.
  • Appearance. Catfolk, black fur, green eyes, graceful build, predatory smile.
  • Abilities. Tracking, survival, beast slaying.
  • Traits. Sharp-tongued, takes trophies from her kills.
  • Ideal. Hunt the strange monsters of Cinderheim.
  • Bond. Other catfolk find her naturally regal.
  • Flaw. Shows little regard for the feelings of others.

The Viscount, so called because of his gallant manners and eloquence of speech, is a dark elf gunslinger with a fearsome reputation. The tall tales told of his prowess with a pistol are a mixed blessing—many give him a wide berth, but others are drawn to test their skill against his at high noon under the demon sun of Cinderheim.
  • Occupation. Gunslinger and gambler.
  • Appearance. Dark elf, slim, wears his long white hair in a ponytail, affects a wide-brimmed hat and red-tinted spectacles that protect his eyes from the sun’s glare.
  • Abilities. Marksmanship, gambling, intimidation.
  • Traits. Remorseless, poetic and philosophical.
  • Ideal. Die with a gun in his hand.
  • Bond. Affords everyone respect.
  • Flaw. Addicted to strong drink.

If you like the content above consider checking out The Liberation of Wormwood, a supplement for generating characters facing the invasion of their hometown by a usurping force, now available in print and pdf from DriveThruRPG.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Feast Your Eyes

Art I've been inspired by lately:

Bernard Zuber 

 James Tissot

 Travis Truant

 TB Choi

Dave Rapoza 

Dolores Previtali 

Erhard Amadeus Dier 

Sangsoo Jeong

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The New Progress

The members of the New Progress believe that Umberwell’s future is dependent on artificer magic—the fusion of mechanical technology and arcane spellcraft; they feel that the admixture of invention and magical artifice will propel unheralded innovations. The New Progress is a joint venture between the most speculative inventors from Umberwell’s scientific community and wizards seeking new applications for the ancient traditions of magic. The New Progress takes a dim view of the workers who construct the city’s technological wonders; they believe that the city will not truly prosper until it is ruled by an arcane technocracy.

The future lies at the crossroads between magic and machine.

  • Arcane magic is a natural phenomenon that should be studied scientifically.
  • Daring innovators are the great forces of history.
  • Those born without genius are nothing more than useful hands.
  • Accelerate the march of progress at any cost.
  • Lay the groundwork for a technocracy in Umberwell.

  • Eliminate a druidic preacher who advocates returning to primitivism.
  • Summon an extraplanar being to be dissected and studied to further important research.
  • Retrieve an artificer device that has fallen into the hands of the Children of the Ashen Sun.

If you like the content above (or any of the content here), consider checking out Umberwell: Blackened Be Thy Name, system agnostic New Weird city setting, now available in print and pdf from DriveThruRPG.

Monday, June 17, 2019

The Betrayal of Taltos Draghul

Premise: The characters were members of the Swords of Avernus, a mercenary company plying their bloody trade in the Borderlands. The Swords of Avernus was destroyed when the band's commander, Taltos Draghul, betrayed his brothers and sisters in arms by leading them into an ambush. 

Only four members of the Swords survived the onslaught: Anya, a clockwork assassin built in the guise of a young girl; Aries, a devilish paladin pledged to an oath of conquest; Brigid, a barbaric human storm-priestess from the hoary northlands; Vargen, a mutant ranger accompanied by Olaf, his wolf companion.

The game began with the party tracking Taltos Draghul across the Borderlands of Urazya. They knew that Draghul was not traveling alone. As they followed Draghul's trail, the adventurers spied a way station watchtower at dusk. Curiously, the tower's beacon was not lit even though night was approaching. The party argued about whether it was worthwhile to search the tower or not, but ultimately curiosity won out.

The tower eerily silent, but showed signs of enduring an assault: the door had been broken and hastily repaired, some of the furniture inside had been smashed during what appeared to be a pitched battle, and there were blood stains on the floor throughout the structure. However, there were no corpses to be found. While exploring the tower, the party was set upon by a group of degenerate humans and slavering ghouls who were hiding in the upper floor. The battle was brief, their enemies were slain, but the adventurers received dire enough wounds that they decided to rest for the night inside the relative safety of the tower before picking up on Draghul's trail.

Examining the corpses of their foes yielded an important revelation: although they didn't recognize the degenerate humans, the ghouls were all wearing the uniforms of members of the Swords of Avernus. In fact, Vargen recognized one of the ghouls--he had fought side by side with the woman in a past battle fought by the Swords.

In the morning light, the party could see a walled village in the distance. As they rediscovered Draghul's tracks, it was confirmed that the village would be their next destination. Perhaps the villagers would be able to help them find their traitorous former commander.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Fellowship, Love Ties, and Blood Feuds

Art by Giorgio Baroni
These variant rules for awarding and using inspiration can be implemented to further the bloody drama of The Liberation of Wormwood. When these rules are adopted, inspiration can be granted and used in the following ways:

When a player character protects another player character or a friendly nonplayer character from harm, their player can declare that they have a bond of fellowship with that character. When a player character has a bond of fellowship, they can invoke that amity to gain inspiration when they act to defend the character they are bonded to or when they act to further that character’s interests. Inspiration can be invoked by calling on a bond of fellowship once per session.

A player can declare that their character is in love with another player character or a nonplayer character. If the attachment is between two player characters, it is a good idea to discuss this at the table to make sure everyone is comfortable with it. Keep in mind that this love is not necessarily reciprocated. When a player character has a love tie, they can invoke that intimacy to gain inspiration when they place their trust in the person they love or sacrifice themselves for the loved one’s benefit. Inspiration can be invoked by calling on a love tie once per session.

When a player character is harmed by a nonplayer character, their player can declare that they have a blood feud against that character. When a player character has a blood feud, they can invoke that vendetta to gain inspiration when they act to injure the object of their hate or to frustrate their goals. Inspiration can be invoked by calling on a blood feud once per session.

If you like the content above consider checking out The Liberation of Wormwood, a supplement for generating characters facing the invasion of their hometown by a usurping force, now available in print and pdf from DriveThruRPG.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Folklore and the Monsters It Brings

Since I currently have an HBO subscription to watch the end of Game of Thrones and the Deadwood movie, I thought I'd poke around their other offerings to get my money's worth. One show that I stumbled upon was Folklore. Folklore is an original miniseries; each episode is a self-contained story taking place in a different Asian country that showcases some facet of that culture's horrific folklore. 

Here's the trailer:

The episodes range wildly in terms of tone and aesthetics. I thought they were all roughly "good," but the real interest for me was being introduced to monsters that I might want to research further for my own projects. Here's a breakdown of which folkloric element is featured in each episode, in case you want to delve into the stacks too:

  • A Mother's Love (Indonesia): Wewe Gombel, the menacing spirit of a woman who adopts abandoned children.
  • Tatami (Japan): A haunting caused by memories and emotions seeping into tatami mats. 
  • Nobody (Singapore): Pontianak, the specter of a woman who died while pregnant.
  • Pob (Thailand): Pob, a murderous spirit that feeds on human flesh.
  • Toyal (Malaysia): Toyal, a childlike creature controlled by black magic who is used to bring luck and bestow curses.
  • Mongdal (South Korea): Mongdal, a virginal male ghost who desires to marry a woman's ghost to find peace.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Japanese Song of Ice and Fire

Check out the cover art on these Japanese editions of the Song of Ice and Fire books:

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Races and Ability Score Modifiers in 5e Dungeons and Dragons

Not all elves skip ab day.
One thing I maintain for my game group is a chart of all the official race options in 5e D&D. The document is here. It might be of use to you too!

I mention it because I recently added the ability score modifiers that each race grants. It's helpful to have those all in one place and it helps finding which races might be the best fit for a given class.

Ay, there's the rub! I wish picking a race to go along with a class's ability score needs wasn't actually a consideration.

I think that eventually Dungeons & Dragons will free itself from linking races with ability score modifiers. Yes, there is some degree of flavor attached to them; we generally envision elves and lithe and graceful, so of course they get a bonus to Dexterity to model that. Unfortunately, the linkage between ability score modifiers and race carries some obvious baggage. So much so that many modern games occupying a similar fantasy adventure design space have opted to ditch the word "race" entirely. (Shadow of the Demon Lord uses "ancestry," Forbidden Lands uses "kin," and the fourth edition of Warhammer is going with "species.")

Until the day this officially changes in D&D, here's a quick and easy house rule I use for ditching the racial ability score modifiers altogether:

You may assign your racial ability score increases to different ability scores than the ones indicated for your race.

* * *

What this means is that your wood elf cleric might slap their +2 ability score increase on Wisdom and their +1 ability score increase on Constitution. 

But what about racial abilities that have a DC calculated off an ability score that they're designed to get a bonus to? Keep it the same or calculate the DC based off of one the ability scores that the player assigned an ability score increase to, whichever you find works best for your group.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Cat Diary, Slit Throat Requiem, Letter of Red, Mortal Engines, Cast a Deadly Spell

Things that brought me delight in May, 2019:

Junji Ito, Cat Diary: Yon & Mu
The auteur thing is weird, isn't it? If an artist is known for a particular style or mastery of genre, for example--horror manga, do we even want them to be adept at other forms or other voices? Or does that feel like an unfair overstepping of bounds? In Cat Diary, the Japanese master of weird horror let's us in on a secret: despite his proclivity for the macabre, he also has a studied eye for the cats that enter and enrich his life.

Garsdghastr, Slit Throat Requiem
Otherworldly black metal that is both tumultuous and impeccably orchestral. And that cover! (Bandcamp link)

Sabbath Assembly, A Letter of Red
One of the superior Sabbaths, if you ask me. Why is it that it has fallen to these psychedelic doom bands to knock out the only respectable goth albums we're likely to get in this millennium? No matter the answer, we shan't grouse about it; A Letter of Red is fantastic from top to bottom, and it's full of surprises. (Bandcamp link)

Philip Reeve, Mortal Engines
I had planned to re-read this before seeing the film adaptation; if I had, I would have liked the movie even less than I did at the time. Peter Jackson & co. made a cowardly film out of this book. He didn't dare to include a disfigured heroine, a villain motivated by base cowardice, the noble sacrifices, the rejection of revenge and the power of remorse, or the themes that indict capitalism's ravenous paradigm. The book doesn't flinch away from any of those ideas and it is all the more strong and worthy because of it.

Cast a Deadly Spell
I don't think I'd seen this since it was originally on cable, but it's still way more fun than it ought to be. Cthulhu + noir + magic + big rubbery monsters? Absolutely a good time.

Fauna, Avifauna and The Hunt
Two classics of Cascadian black metal have been re-released by Prophecy Records. (Bandcamp link)

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
I'm surprised at how much I enjoyed this, especially since the first Jurassic World felt like purgatory. It helps that the final reel is basically a Gothic narrative: a man-made monster stalks the heroes through an old mansion while a storm rages outside. There's even a doppelganger of sorts.

Sunn O))) discography
One of my projects for May was to get to grips with Sunn O)))'s discography. All the elements I like are there, but something was holding me back. Repeated listens and deep exploration of their catalog has unearthed the peculiar joys of their doom-drone. (Bandcamp link)

The Howling Void, Bleak and Everlasting

Bleak and Everlasting is unrelenting. The previous album eased up on the crushing despair to wonder amid a little arboreal speculation, but with this album the never-ending funeral is back in full force. (Bandcamp link)

Ravenloft: 3.5 Player's Handbook, Champions of Darkness, Denizens of Darkness, Secrets of the Dread Realms
Despite my love for Ravenloft and a long-running 3x Ravenloft campaign that got me back into D&D during grad school, I never owned any of the 3x edition books outside the first campaign setting tome. I picked these up from DriveThru's POD store; some interesting stuff--even now--but damn if the actual book covers and their titles impossible to keep straight. Which one of these is the Monster Manual again?

Kentaro Miura, Berserk vol. 37, 38, and 39
I made a big push to finish up the remaining Berserk volumes that have English translations. I really like the different art styles used to indicate whose dream we were seeing in the quest inside Casca's traumatized mind.

Ken Greenhall, Childgrave
We did a Bad Books for Bad People episode on this one that you can listen to here.

Leviathan, Scar Sighted, Massive Conspiracy Against All Life, A Silhouette in Splinters, Tenctacles of Whorror
Leviathan is perhaps only second to Elend when it comes to making the soundtracks for Hell. (Bandcamp link)

As You Like It
Kenneth Branagh's Shakespeare adaptations are hit or miss, but I'm glad I caught this one. It could have done more with the Japanese backdrop, but overall this one hit the right notes for me.

Agalloch, The Mantle and Pale Folklore
One issue that many black metal acts have is a lack of variety across an album. Neither The Mantle nor Pale Folklore have that problem; there is so much variation here, so much texture, that it's impossible to overstate how much Agalloch put their own stamp on the genre. (Youtube link.)

Earth, Full Upon Her Burning Lips
Full Upon Her Burning Lips is the kind of album that makes you want to drive down dusty roads headed into the desert.
(Bandcamp link)

Ghosts of Saltmarsh
Pretty bad-ass re-imagining of the Saltmarsh modules and the riffs on them that appeared in old Dungeon magazines. This is something I am definitely going to run--and it looks like something I can get on the table with minimal tweaking.

Rise of Avernus, Eigengrau
Australian orchestral death doom that opts for majesty over sorrow.(Bandcamp link)

The Hateful Eight
I went in expecting a Tarantino-violent Western and got a locked-room mystery hybridized with a black comedy that was Tarantino-violent.

Pantopticon, discography
Panopticon is a band that Tenebrous Kate brought to my attention a while back. I bookmarked their Bandcamp page and then...promptly forgot to go back. Until not. Amazing combination of American folk traditions and black metal. (Bandcamp link.)

Septicflesh, discography
Another band whose back catalog I've been diving into is Septicflesh. Amazingly varied output, from death metal to goth opera to industrial dystopia. (Bandcamp link.)

Scott Snyder, Rafael Albuquerque, Stephen King, 
American Vampire Vol. 1
It's amazing that we're still turning the question of how America is different from Europe over and over in our hands like we're hand-tumbling a stone into a smooth answer. Anyway, I like the silent screen vamp, but not her tattoo and I appreciate that instead of being an anti-hero who is just a hero on a bad day Skinner is legitimately terrible.

Julia Gfrorer, Thuban Press Guide to Analog Self-Publishing
The Thuban Press Guide to Analog Self-Publishing preserves the art of making a 'zine by hand--it does the Lord's work of passing down the how-to knowledge about how to make a thing on the cheap without the need for digital tools. The info is available here, but you can always spot Julia Gfrorer a dollar and get a print copy.

Deadwood: The Movie
Absolutely stunning that they could pick up thirteen years after the third season and deliver such a carefully wrought continuation of the show's characterization, themes, and tone.