Monday, September 30, 2019

Dirge of Urazya Zine Back in Print, Limited Quantities Available

Print copies of the Dirge of Urazya 'zine are now available again over on my Big Cartel site. There are only ten three copies left in this last batch of the first printing. Order now and get it by Halloween!

What is it?
Dirge of Urazya is a system-neutral roleplaying ‘zine designed to help your group collaboratively create a setting for their adventures. This ‘zine gives you the basic information about the land of Urazya—a setting that mixes ideas drawn from the Gothic, Western, post-apocalyptic, and science fantasy genres—but also presents a series of twenty prompts you can use to build your version of the setting as part of the first session of play. Read each section aloud with your group, then work together to answer the prompts posed at the end of each segment of setting description.

Additional worldbuilding prompts to generate factions, locations, items, and nonplayer characters are found after the initial setting sections, but these prompts can be addressed as needed and do not need to be part of your first session. Also provided are a number of example adventure seeds and archetypes, origins, and
backstory ideas to riff on when creating characters.

- inspired by Vampire Hunter D and Castlevania
- limited print run 
- 24 interior pages
- hand-painted cardstock cover
- copiously illustrated
- assembled by hand, just like in the 90s
- if you include the email address associated with your DriveThruRPG account, I'll send you a pdf of the 'zine (please put it in your Paypal "instructions to seller"!)

Kyle Maxwell did an excellent overview of the 'zine here that really captures what I was going for with this project.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Gunmages in 5e D&D

For better or worse, the idea of the gunmage--a character who uses magic to enhance their skill and deadliness with a firearm--is fairly well established at this point. And yet, partially due to some weird hang-ups in the fanbase I do not fully understand, the archetype hasn't really been explored as a mechanical option at this point.

There are some natural reskinning options: rangers can use their hunter's mark spell to good effect with pistols and rifles; a battle master fighter's superiority dice could be re-flavored as magic that helps them pull of feats of accuracy and trick shots; a kensei monk could focus on the pistol as one of their favored weapons; you could have a warlock who uses a pistol as the implement through which they cast eldrtich blast; hexblade warlocks might be able to work a firearm into their empowered weapon shtick. 

Here's a few house rules I use to expand the "gunmage" options:

Arcane Archer Ranged Weapons

The abilities of the Arcane Archer fighter archetype that apply to arrows, such as Arcane Shot, Magic Arrow, and Curving Shot,  also apply to crossbow bolts and firearm ammunition.

Paladin Ranged Smite

You can use a paladin's Divine Smite feature with ranged weapons, and the archery fighting style is available to paladins.

Warlock Improved Pact Weapon

The Improved Pact Weapon invocation can also conjure hand crossbows and firearms.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

A Guide to 90s Gothic Metal

Gothic metal was a mainstay in my discman and the neon purple cassette player in my Dodge Spirit in the 90s. As a distinct style, Gothic metal grew out of the death and doom scenes; in many ways, the bands that innovated in that style were combining the heaviness of death metal with the depressive atmospherics of doom metal. 

The Peaceville label was essential at establishing the early perimeters. Their roster included three bands--My Dying Bride, Paradise Lost, and Anathema--that set the pace and locked in the tone. Their work in the 90s transcended their niche genre; without their work we might not have had the Gothic infusion into black metal (as seen in Cradle of Filth and Moonspell), the heavy pop of Type O Negative, the deluge of symphonic metal bands fronted by pretty women with pretty voices, or any of the modern funereal doom bands.

But what of the original bands themselves? How has their music held up? Where were the creative missteps?

Consider what lies below a audiographic survey course.

I've always contended that there are some bands who only have three good albums in them. Anathema might best exemplify that thesis. The three heaviest albums of their career--both in terms of theme and musicality--are their first salvos. Everything after those records is lighter fare, but at the same time burdened with a curious leaden weight. 
Essential listening: Serenades, The Silent Enigma, Pentecost III/The Crestfallen
Jump ship at: the end starts with Eternity but you definitely want to gtfo by Alternative 4

The Gathering
Confession: I didn't discover the albums I like from The Gathering until much later than their original releases. Always... is a great example of the atmospheric doom variety of Gothic metal, but The Gathering reached their peak by introducing the heavenly voice of Anneke van Giersbergen into the mix. Things rapidly went downhill when the band began incorporating alternative and trip-hop influences into their sound. It's always a bad sign when bands who started out heavy start talking about Pink Floyd in their interviews.
Essential listening: Always..., Mandylion, Nighttime Birds
Jump ship at: How to Measure a Planet?
Try before you buy: Almost a Dance (musically solid, but the male vocals are an acquired taste (at best) or a hideous mismatch (at worst)

Katatonia's best years were their early period of sorrow-infused, death metal-influenced craftsmanship. Unfortunately, the combined efforts of vocal cord issues and a change in musical direction siphoned off that initial creative spark, resulting in an "alternative metal" sound that isn't very distinctive. In interviews, the band claims to have never really fallen into the Gothic metal camp, but their first two records fall well within the pantheon for me.
Essential listening: Dance of December Souls, Brave Murder Day
Jump ship at: Discouraged Ones

My Dying Bride
The most important of the "Peaceville Three" bands that refined the idea of Gothic metal in the 1990s, My Dying Bride are a band that I can't fault at any point in their now-lived career. There was a time when I considered 34.788%...Complete hot garbage, but I've come around to it in more recent years. (I still think it's one of their weaker albums, but even a weak My Dying Bride album is better than what most can achieve.) Hardcore fans have mixed opinions about the band's recent offerings, but I'm pretty much down to hear whatever My Dying Bride is currently up to at any point.
Essential listening: Turn Loose the Swans, The Angel and the Dark River, Like Gods of the Sun
Jump ship at: Give 34.788%...Complete a listen and make up your own damn mind

Paradise Lost
Considered pioneers of two genres--death-doom and Gothic metal--Paradise lost released a series of unimpeachable albums that have since been oft-imitated but never equaled. The members of Paradise Lost were consummate workmen; over the course of six years they released five massive albums. However, for reasons that are still obscure to me, they decided that what they really wanted was to be a slightly more muscular version of The Cure--and it didn't really work. Nevertheless, this is a story with a happy ending. They found their fire again.
Essential listening: Lost Paradise, Gothic, Shades of God, Icon, Draconian Times
Jump ship at: One Second
Jump back on at: The Plague Within

Theatre of Tragedy
Theatre of Tragedy erupted onto the scene with a unique style: heavy guitars, a melancholy atmosphere, lyrics penned in the style of Early Modern poetry, and the "beauty and the beast" style of vocals that pitted Raymond István Rohonyi's guttural-but-kingly voice against the clear, ethereal singing of  Liv Kristine Espenæs. Unfortunately, after two absolutely monumental Gothic metal albums, the band took a turn toward synthpop, lost Liv Kristine, and eventually ended up a rather pedestrian industrial metal outfit.
Essential listening: Theatre of Tragedy, Velvet Darkness They Fear, Aegis
Jump ship at: Musique

Tiamat is easily the most experimental band on this list, but their sound has always at least touched on the world of the Gothic. Whether or not the music is actually good is another story. Make no mistake, despite the variety of music the project has produced Tiamat is actually a pretty reliable listen--but where you find pleasure and what you should avoid is tricky to gauge as there is much more room for idiosyncratic personal taste to decide within their discography. Their first album, Sumerian Cry, is a bit too straight-ahead death metal for my tastes, but that album was followed by records that absolutely need to belong in your collection if you love this style of music.
Essential listening: The Astral Sleep, Clouds, Wildhoney
Jump ship at: A Deeper Kind of Slumber
Try before you buy: Skeleton Skeletron, Judas Christ
Jump back on at: Prey

Within Temptation
The vast majority of their career has been spent making music that's too soft for me, but that first album is a killer. Although everything that came after tends be to about love, nature, and fantasy, Enter is chock full of songs about ghosts and tragedy. Musically, Enter is the album where they really let the music breathe; the instrumental passages are more expansive, punctuating by the lovely female vocals (which would later become the main focus) and even occasional male growling vocals.
Essential listening: Enter
Jump Ship at: anything after Enter

Thursday, September 19, 2019


Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre composed the 32-novel saga of Fantômas in the three years between 1911 and 1913. Over the course of the series, France's elusive master criminal commits a litany of heinous deeds that unfold at a baffling breakneck pace. The books are early examples of the crime procedural genre, putting significant narrative weight on forensic science, police methodology, and courtroom drama. Far from today's pro-authority narratives, however, the Fantômas novels incorporated Grand Guignol violence, mistaken identity, and social upheaval, making the titular character a favorite of the Surrealists. Jack and Kate tackle the first book in the series and get a taste of decadent, vintage criminality.
How hard is it for a Frenchman to pronounce "South Steamship Company" and can one of our listeners demonstrate this? When is a character a misunderstood genius and when is he just demonstrating a profound misunderstanding of detective work? What the hell is going on with the American Gladiator-style competition between those porters? How long will it take for this episode to descend into filthy-nasty Fantômas fanfic? All these questions and more will be 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.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

How to Give a Good Recommendation

A simple concept often misunderstood: how to give a good recommendation. 

A bad recommendation is just you recommending something you like regardless of your audience's interest.

A good recommendation is you recommending something you enjoy to someone whose preferences and sense of aesthetics you are taking into account when you make the recommendation.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Nine Assumptions in Game Design

There are a lot of unspoken and unconsidered assumptions that influence the design of role-playing games. These are the major ones I want to think about, so I'm posting this here for when I want to return to the topic:

  • Assumption #1: The people playing this game will be constituted by the same group at your table week after week as the game progresses. 

  • Assumption #2a: The game is meant to be a pleasant object to read cover-to-cover.
  • Assumption #2b: The game is a resource designed to be referenced in play. 

  • Assumption #3: There is a correct balance between the "work" of gaming and the "fun" of gaming. 

  • Assumption #4a: Everyone at the table is looking for the same kind of fun out of the game. 
  • Assumption #4b: People at the table are looking for different kinds of fun but the game itself navigates that divide.

  • Assumption #5a: Advancement systems for characters should encourage a certain kind of play.
  • Assumption #5b: Advancement systems for characters should reward simply playing the game.

  • Assumption #6a: Roleplaying is part of the game and should be included mechanically in the game's rules.
  • Assumption #6b: Roleplaying is separate from the rules of the game, whether incidental or just not in need of a connection to the game's rules.

  • Assumption #7: Any time the word "story" is used, whether for or against in gaming, there is likely an assumption about the nature of rpgs in play.

  • Assumption #8: A game's rules should be tied to setting and/or genre.

  • Assumption #9a: Ideally, a game's rules should "get out of the way" and fade into the background until needed. 
  • Assumption #9b: A game is about its rules; engagement with the rules should be a fundamental part of play.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Zero Level Characters in 5e Dungeons and Dragons

Someone asked me how I would do 0 level characters in 5e Dungeons & Dragons:

  • Assign ability scores as usual. Roll for it, use the array, point-buy, whatever it is you lot do at your table.
  • You get to pick your race as usual.
  • You get to pick your background, so you start with a couple skill proficiencies and some combination of tool proficiencies and languages.
  • All of your equipment comes from your background.
  • You start with 4 + Con mod hit points. When you acquire a class, just replace this with the class's starting hit points. (1)
  • Your proficiency bonus is +1. It becomes +2 when you acquire a class.
  • You have no saving throw, weapon, or armor proficiencies unless they came from your racial abilities. 
  • Gaining a class after one adventure, assuming your character survives, feels appropriate.
(1) - Maybe 6 + Con mod, if you're feeling generous.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Comic Books for Video Gamers

Into video games? Want to get into comics? I've got some suggestions for things you might like:

If you like Dark Souls, you should try Berserk.

If you like Persona, you should try Shutter. (Frankly, everyone should try Shutter; it's the most criminally under-read comic I can think of.)

If you like Castlevania, you should try Baltimore.

If you like The Order: 1886, you should try The New Deadwardians. (Admittedly, no one likes The Order all that much.)

If you like Control, you should try Injection.

If you like Dishonored, you should try Lady Mechanika.

If you like Alice, you should try Pandora Hearts.

If you like BioShock, you should try Monstress.

If you like Metal Gear Solid, you should try Doom Patrol.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Thinking About My Early Homebrew

Possible cover inspiration for Mystic Medieval
There comes a moment in many young roleplaying gamers' lives where they get the itch to try their hands at making their own game. Some never really lose that urge. Here are the games I remember creating as a teenager:

Mystic Medieval. Mystic Medieval was my fantasy heartbreaker. It was created because one of my friends was not allowed to play D&D, but was allowed to play any other rpg that was not named D& I made something like D&D that he could be included in. I don't remember much about the rules (I know it had class-based character creation and also some sort of skill system that used the success/failure tables from Talislanta), but what I do remember was that the rules were housed in a purple three-ring binder with a bitchin' grim reaper I drew for the cover.

The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Adapting media you enjoy so that you can play in its sandbox feels like a pretty natural step, and my first attempt was an rpg based on Douglas Adams's Hitch-Hiker's Guide books. This one was really rules lite; I remember the mechanic being something similar to how RISUS works. One of my friends back in middle school proclaimed that this was his "favorite rpg" at the time, and I was dead chuffed about that.

Hellbreakers. Hellbreakers wasn't quite an adaptation, but it was heavily inspired by Hellraiser. It may also have been in all caps: HELLBREAKERS. The premise was that the characters were all survivors who had fought their way back from imprisonment in hell and had emerged from the underworld with cool powers that they would use to fight against bondage gear-clad demons who were not unlike the Cenobites. It was something like a horror/superheroes hybrid in tone. Frankly, I still think that premise has legs.

The one with the monsters. Did it even have a name? I certainly can't recall. This was another game that was loosely based on Clive Barker's fiction and the movies derived from them. This time, the inspiration was Nightbreed. The player characters were monstrous creatures running amok in modern-day America. We played this one during a Halloween party at my house; I remember a liquor store being blown up as part of the climatic battle. I wonder if I made this one before or after White Wolf's World of Darkness dropped?

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Intimations of Death, Suicide Forest, Lady Snowblood, 20 Buck Spin

Things that brought me delight in August, 2019:

Felix Timmermans, Intimations of Death
Although he is better known for his humorous tales of the Flemish countryside, Felix Timmermans wrote this collection following a near-fatal illness. Poe-like fixations are on full display throughout the five stories collected here: morbid obsessions, displaced psychosexual yearnings, deathly harbingers, and nerves strained to fevered breaking points. The most outlandish of the tales, "The Cellar," was like Poe's "House of Usher" but instead of brother and sister it's a husband and wife who live in an old house to study "the secret science." The husband is obsessed with staying sexually "pure" to master the occult but the wife discovers carnal desires and it drives them both past the brink of sanity. 

Suicide Forest, self-titled
As you might guess from the project's name, Suicide Forest play depressive atmospheric black metal. (Bandcamp link)

Lady Snowblood
A sublime tale of revenge. I had been meaning to watch this for a long time, but never got around to it until a recent power outage left me with just enough laptop battery to watch it.

Filthy death metal from 20 Buck Spin
 20 Buck Spin is an independent record label specializing in extreme ends of the metal spectrum. I've had a real craving for especially filthy, abject death metal and the label has been scratching that itch. Tomb Mold's Planetary Clairvoyance, Fetid's Steeping Corporeal Mass, and Ulthar's Cosmovore albums have been my repugnant aural repast lately. (Bandcamp link.)

Richard Sala, The Bloody Cardinal
A book written by a presumed-dead murderer poses more questions than it answers as it draws people into a nefarious web. Sala's art is, as always, a rare treat.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
As a huge fan of the books, I experienced more than a little trepidation about the movie adaptation after watching the first trailer. Honestly? This is a great horror flick for a pre-teen audience and it has just enough interesting contextual grit (Vietnam, the draft, Nixon) to keep an older audience in their seats without trying their patience.

Phil Hester & Friends, The Wretch omnibus
I had been unfamiliar with The Wretch comics until Trey from Sorcerer's Skull brought this omnibus to my attention, but now that I've read it I can confidently say that Glass City is no place to settle down and raise a family. All aspects of American Weirdness seem concentrated in Glass City, and the only thing standing between its citizens and Fortean weather, monstrous toys, and demons created by playing heavy metal records backwards is a silent, oily "hero" named The Wretch (also known in his earliest incarnation as The Creep). The individual stories in the collection, which tend to be brief, veer wildly from Deadpool-esque superheroics to Kirby pastiche and Ted McKeeveresque horror, but they're all excellent, bite-sized bits of story perfect for times when you need a comic you can pick up and put down as needed.

Vesania, Deus ex Machina
Vesania's symphonic black metal has always had a carnivalesque edge to it. Deus ex Machina, in particular, feels like the soundtrack to a diabolic masquerade ball.

Kameron Hurley, Rapture
The final book of Kameron Hurley's Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy is a case study in how you conclude a series. One thing I appreciate about the trilogy is that it has no qualms abut presenting a war-torn world as unthinkably and unpredictably dangerous. An important character dies out of nowhere at a fairly low stakes moment because that's the brutality of war. No character arc, no final moment of heroism, just a bright candle snuffed out without warning. I also really liked the introduction of a powerful sorcerer who is basically like Gandalf if Gandalf were a woman and also basically a walking magical nuke who was just amused to be unleashed on the world again.

Rosalie Cunningham, self-titled
Rosalie Cunningham, previously the lead singer of the now-defunct band Purson, re-emerges with her first solo album. This self-titled record is similar in tone and approach to the work produced by her former band; the genre is still psychedelic rock, but here the cabaret sound really comes to the fore.

Glow, season three
Rapid fire: brutal season opener, still great character development, kinda miss the wrestling because women being physically triumphant on tv is still a rarity, Gina Davis was a great addition to the cast.

Michael Chabon, Gentlemen of the Road
Excellent picaresque adventure tale in which two Jewish vagabonds inadvertantly fight to restore the former ruling family to Khazaria. How unfortunate that Chabon felt it was necessary to write an afterword to address the fucked-up wrongheadedness of both the "literary" and "genre" fiction camps. Literary readers have to be told that it's okay to write an adventure story; genre readers have to be told it's okay for the adventurer heroes to be Jews. In any case, beautiful language and a ripping yarn require no explanation.

 The Autopsy of Jane Doe
I have some doubts about the movie's big revelation and resolution, but The Autopsy of Jane Doe managed a real tension throughout must of its run time.

Three kids are menaced by a babysitter who isn't who she claims to be. Emelie gets away with some pretty fucked-up things happening to those kids and it's made all the more horrific by focusing on their reactions instead of showing the nastiness itself.

Stephen King, Elevation
I found Stephen King's Elevation to be oddly whimsical. Not just in that folksy New England Castle Rock way (though that's in there too), but there's something nearly twee about this guy using his newfound weightlessness to footrace against the lesbian he's trying to befriend. Interesting to see him return to an old idea (the premise isn't dissimilar to Thinner) but with a vastly different tone.

Baroness, Gold & Grey
It's hard not to welcome a new Baroness album, even the one's like this that are a little distractingly noisy and overlong. The second half, which takes a moment to breath, feels like the stronger part of the record.

Winter's Bone
Powerful film about the grinding cycle of poverty, violence, crime, and authority that has no clear vision of how it all works.

Ready or Not
Like Winter's Bone above, this is a movie about a blonde woman fighting for survival. Very different tone, of course; whereas Winter's Bone is grim and harrowing, this is a lighthearted grindhouse navigation of murderous in-laws. Rich people, it turns out, are just the god-damn worst.

False, Portent
Strangely triumphant black metal. (Bandcamp link)

Scott Snyder, Rafael Albuquerque, Jordi Benet,
American Vampire Volume Four
Exploring the mythic underpinnings and evolving anxieties of America through the lens of vampire fiction continues! There are three stories in this volume. "Beast in the Cave" is the weakest link; that said, I do appreciate the turn: Skinner Sweet is not the first American vampire; that honor goes to a Native woman whose history has, of course, been erased and replaced with the tale of a descend of white colonialism. "Death-race," which pairs vampires with drag racing, is good fun. "The Nocturnes" grapples with the changing face of America in the 1950s--we've got war veterans and doo-wop, but things aren't what they seem.

Hideyuki Kikuchi and Yoshitaka Amano,
Vampire Hunter D: Mysterious Journey to the North Sea, Part One
The first multi-part Vampire Hunter D story! D comes into possession of a strange bead that leads him to the remains of a resort town that once catered to the pleasures of vampires. Along the way he faces a coterie of strange assassins sent by a Baron Harkonnen-like crime boss to steal said pearl. We meet the only woman so far in the series immune to D's beauty; well, until he gives her a piggyback ride...after that she get's a "warm ache in her loins." As you do.

Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert, 
Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?
No one ever dies once; every version of them remembered by another person dies a death in multiplicity. Worth noting, the other issues collected here are top-notch. "Original Sins/When is a Door" might be the antidote to all the Gritty Batman reboots. "Pavane" was like the horror anthology segment you didn't know you feared.

Dark Sun: Dragon Kings
I find it fascinating to watch the retconning in motion. If I'm not mistaken, in some versions of Athas there is only one dragon in the setting. In Dragon Kings we learn that all of the Sorcerer-Kings were dragons in one stage of development or another. We also get rules for characters turning into dragons. And TENTH levels spells--really interesting seeing what that design space meant at the time.

Lost Laboratory of Kwalish
Plenty of science-fantasy stuff I can steal for Urazya games in this one.