Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The Tarokka Reading

During this adventure in the Ravenloft D&D game I've been running for my friends online, their characters found a tarroka deck in Doctor Hesselius Reichmann's cabinet of curiosities. The tarokka is Ravenloft's version of the tarot; it is a deck of symbolic pictorial cards used for telling fortunes. 

Since the party was accompanied by a Vistani named Bela, they figured that he might be able to use the tarokka deck to give them a glimpse into their futures. I hadn't planned for this in advance; to be honest the possibility didn't even occur to me, but I think one DM skill really worth honing is the ability to recognize a fun and interesting opportunity. 

Luckily, there was a physical tarokka deck on the shelf just above my desk--so I was able to just reach up, as if it were perfectly natural, grab the deck and roleplay Bela giving a tarokka reading for each of the player characters. (The deck I used is pictured above; it's a bespoke tarokka by Eleanor Ferron.) Now I can use these readings as hooks I can write into the game as it continues.

Here are the fortunes for each of the characters in the campaign:

13 Shattered Mirrors: Let yourself by guided by your keen intellect; the solution to a nearing problem hinges on a clever mind.

Al': Beware betrayal by someone you trust; a loss or weakening of faith approaches.

Tank Orkerson: An innocent of great importance is in danger; only you can save them.

Tekla: You must embrace the power of nature over that of civilization. You are the chosen one who will stop a calamity against the natural world.

Gnargar: Beware lies and deceit; a grand conspiracy involving shadowy forces has begun.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

A Ship on the Saragoss

Art by David Marmor
A Ship on the Saragoss
Our online D&D game set in Ravenloft continues.

The Characters
Tekla Vardagen, half-elf warlock
13 Shattered Mirrors, tabaxi warlock/rogue
Tank Orkerson, half-orc fighter
Gnagar the Bloody, kobold monk
Al', drow cleric

The party had decided that since he had already tried to have them killed once, it was time to deal with Doctor Hesselius Reichmann. Using a key they removed from the doll's pocket, they opened the door to the doctor's operating theater...and were confronted by a horrific scene! Doctor Reichmann was wearing a metal armature onto which was affixed surgical implements such as hypodermic needles, bone saws, and razor-sharp scalpels. The doctor was hunched over a human-animal hybrid on the operating table that he was in the midst of vivisecting. 

The ensuing fight against Doctor Reichmann was brief. The doctor managed to take Gnargar down with a hypodermic needle full of poison, but a well timed spell from Al' gave the rest of the group a golden opportunity to get their licks in while he was briefly incapacitated. 

With the doctor out of the way, the party explored the rest of the complex. They found the doctor's safe and a sword mounted above the desk in his office--Tank quickly became very enamored of the sword, preferring to use it over all other weapons. In the doctor's library they also discovered hidden notebooks in which Reichmann had cribbed ideas and formulas for creating hybrids from Frantisek Markov.

After opening the door to the building's long hall, they found the fruits of Doctor Hesselius Reichmann's experiments: eight cells of hybrid monstrosities, all of which were gripped in the throes of insanity and could not be reasoned with. They also found the basement where the doctor kept miscellaneous meat hanging from the ceiling on hooks--likely the corpses of failed creations and unfortunates who had been lured to the lighthouse. 

The wife's bedroom was raided for its jewelry. The group disconnected the wife's glass casket from the machinery that sustained it, on a hunch that she might revive on her own, but her body simply shuddered gruesomely as life left it entirely. In the morning, the party learned that the doctor had been truthful about at least one thing: a supply shipment arrived on the beach. The sailors who brought it to shore were a rough looking lot wearing red armbands emblazoned with the image of an eel; they found themselves immediately in combat against the crab woman and the hawk man as the heroes rushed to their aid. 

Noting their prowess and that they were well-armed, the first mate of the supply ship, a half-orc named Trask, offered to bring them aboard the Eel King to see if the captain would give them passage away from the island. They were brought below deck to meet Captain Maxim Duchain and his adviser, a Vistani woman going by the name Maledicta. Captain Duchain explained that his pirate crew, the Red Eels, had discovered a mistway that would lead to a rival crew's secret cache on the Saragoss. He told them he would give them passage to their next port of call if the characters would steal aboard the wrecked ship that the Gately Gang were using as a hidden stockpile--specifically, Captain Duchain wanted the group to locate a pair of special spectacles with interchangeable red and blue lenses among the Gately's hoard. Maledicta also told them that there were rumors that the Gately family, who formed the core of the Gang, had interbred with abominations from the sea.

The group haggled a bit and settled on terms: they would keep whatever else beside the lenses they salvaged from the cache and receive a little extra gold to sweeten the deal. The Eel King sailed into the mists, following a path to the Saragoss. The Saragoss proved to be a stretch of vegetation, seaweed, and kelp interwoven with wrecked and decaying ships that stretched as far as the eye could see. One of the ships locked into the mass's perimeter was the cache of the Gately Gang.

After climbing aboard, exploration went well until they began searching what was formerly the captain's cabin. When Gnargar looked under the bed, he saw a metal footlocker...and two horrid eyes staring back at him from a pallid, fish-like face. The fishman cast a spell that made it feel as though the room was plunged into the depths of the sea; the chamber became painfully cold, completely dark (even to their darkvision), and the group could feel monstrous tentacles moving around them. The battle against the Gately warlock did not go well; the group was taking damage each round from the cold and from acidic tentacles brushing against them--and the creature continued to cast spells that summoned more tentacles that dealt necrotic damage.

A damaging strike against the creature finally dispelled the magic that caused the cold and darkness. 13 Shattered Mirrors leaped onto the bed and stabbed the creature in the leg. It scurried out from under the bed, drawing a sword carved from whalebone from its belt. One after another, the members of the group fell to the creature's onslaught--until only Tekla and Tank remained. In the end, however, they were victorious and managed to slay the thing and save their friends from the brink of death. The group barricaded themselves in the captain's quarters to recuperate.

Once they had recovered a bit, the party resumed exploring the ship. After several mundane rooms below deck, they uncovered the Gately Gang's stash: coins, jewelry, an ebony statuette of a woman wearing a cloak of raven feathers, a staff topped with a carved dargon's head, a magical trident, and the sought-after lenses!

Greed may have gotten the better of them at this point. They ventured further down into the hold and found a room with two treasure chests inside. As 13 Shattered Mirrors attempted to search one of the chests for traps, his hand became mired in what turned out to be a mimic. The battle against the mimic was fraught, but again the party prevailed. 13 Shattered Mirrors then attempted to search the other chest for traps because surely it could not be another mimic, and yet...it was. This second battle against a mimic went somewhat better for our heroes.

After completing their search, they returned to their rowboat and made their way back to the Eel King where Maxim Duchain was happy to receive the lenses he desired. The Eel King plunged back into the mists and sailed into the harbor of East Riding on the island of Ghastria.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

The Teenage Goth Ravenloft Campaign

Here's a pitch for a Ravenloft game I'd love to run sometime:

  • Maximum angst and melodrama.
  • Aesthetic inspirations: The Crow, the Underworld movies, Evanescence, The Craft, metalcore (especially when it makes Tim Burton references), the peculiar scent you only ever experienced in a Hot Topic in the early 00s.
  • Limiting racial options to only the darque stuff: shadar-kai, drow, tiefling.
  • Limiting class options to only the darque stuff: Bard (College of Whispers), Cleric (Death or Grave domains), Monk (Way of the Long Death and Way of the Shadow), Paladin (Oath of Vengeance only), Ranger (Gloom Stalker), Rogue (Thieves and Assassins), Sorcerer (Shadow Magic origin), Warlock (only Fiends, Great Old Ones, Hexblades, and the Undying as patrons).
  • Any background, I guess, but your character is a LONER with NO FAMILY, okay?
  • Add inspiration rules that reward melancholic oration and edgelord behavior.
Maybe even throw this into the mix:

Anyway, what's the fantasy equivalent of a trench coat, katana, and Desert Eagle? I'm guess it's studded leather armor, a spiked chain, and a hand crossbow.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Doctor Reichmann's Menagerie

Doctor Reichmann's Menagerie
Our online D&D game set in Ravenloft continues.

The Characters
Tekla Vardagen, half-elf warlock
13 Shattered Mirrors, tabaxi warlock
Tank Orkerson, half-orc fighter
Gnagar the Bloody, kobold monk
Al', drow cleric

When we had last left our heroes, that had defeated Jiro and his undead servants but were left contemplating what to do about the skeletal throne that seemed to be the source of the curse that had befallen Daitsu. The party was wary of simply destroying the throne for fear of an unknown backlash. Tekla's magical investigation of the throne's properties assailed her mind with images of a flayed goat's head and a fearsome wand topped with a skull. Gnargar threw a shuriken at it from a distance; the throne was damaged but nothing unusual occurred. This gave Tank the confidence to smash the throne into pieces with a mighty blow.

Destroying the throne seemed to do the trick. The veritable army of the undead headed toward Daitsu could be seen strewn across the hill, their unholy march defeated by the throne's rupture. Ren was discovered dying of a wound inflicted by the town's constable, but he was healed by Al'. Ren declined the group's offer to escort him to Lady Shizu so he could explain what had happened in Daitsu; he feared immediate retribution for his family's role in the town's downfall. 

And so the party returned to Lady Shizu and told the story of what they had discovered in Daitsu; they also put the most glowing spin on the events as possible and noted the Ren had sent for workers from other villages to insure that the much-needed rice would be delivered shortly. Although Lady Shizu was not as pleased as she could have been, she did live up to her end of the bargain: each member of the party was given a bulging bag of gold and they were told that passage for them ad been booked on a ship called the Sea Raptor. The Sea Raptor was headed to the land's main continent; they were told to seek Leonora Vos in Lamordia--she could help them return to their own world.

Three days later, disaster struck while they were aboard the Sea Raptor. In the middle of a card game below deck, the ship was boarded by Kosti reavers; the captain gave orders to abandon ship in the midst of the assault. The characters grabbed Bela Drachenov, a Vistani who was the only other passenger on the Sea Raptor, got into a lifeboat, and rowed out to sea. A light was spotted; they went in search of it, hoping for safe harbor.

The party came ashore upon an island on which stood a lighthouse--the source of the light they saw asea. 13 Shattered Mirrors scaled the iron fence surrounding the lighthouse and the extended building connected to it in an attempt to reconnoiter the area, but he was stopped by two strange figures: one a hybrid of hawk and man carrying a spear and the other a hybrid of woman and crab--her claws clicking like knitting needles prior to the French Revolution. Luckily, the situation was diffused and the two mongrel-creatures offered to take the group to meet Doctor Hesselius Reichmann, the owner of the lighthouse.

The party were allowed into the first floor of the lighthouse, where they observed a number of stew pots in the fireplace, a cabinet of curiosities, and a life-sized porcelain doll dressed as a maid. When Grangar attempted to open a wooden box within the cabinet, the doll came to life and grabbed his hand--she possessed enormous strength. The doll explained that she was one of Doctor Reichmann's creations. She also let slip an ominous "I have meat inside me," which put the party on edge.

Eventually she went to find Doctor Reichmann. When he appeared, he was seen to be an older gentleman who walked with the aid of a clockwork brace on his legs. After hearing the group's tale of woe, he divulged that he had been crippled--and his wife killed--by a magical calamity in Darkon. He claimed to have fled to this lighthouse so he might pursue his research unhindered. (He and 13 Shattered Mirrors commiserated about the small-mindedness of scholars.) The Doctor invited the group to spend the night in his lighthouse; he was expecting a ship to arrive with supplies the next day, so they could surely depart with the traders bringing him additional goods.

The doll was tasked with giving the party a tour of the lighthouse while the Doctor went back to his work in the adjoining building. She showed them the room they were expected to bunk down in (empty save for a dusty cradle), a bedroom appointed in a feminine style, a floor with a locked room that the doll said was the Doctor's laboratory, and the lighthouse's lantern and mirror--which the group realized was oriented so that ships would be given a mistaken impression where the dangerous rocks were and thus be more likely to wreck themselves on the shore.

After they made a pretext of turning in for the evening, the group went back up to the locked door of the laboratory and finessed their way inside. They discovered a number of strange apparatuses connected to a glass coffin in which lay the Doctor's pregnant wife! Their intrusion into this chamber was detected; knock-out gas filled the room and rendered a few of them unconscious. The doll came back up the stairs and wanted to take Bela away as fodder for the Doctor's experiments, but Tekla invoked the fey power of her patron and became even more ethereally beautiful; she was able to momentarily convince the doll to leave them for the time being.

It was decided that the doll was a problem that needed to be dealt with before she made another attempt on their lives. 13 Shattered Mirrors planned a cunning ruse in which the doll would be lured up to the Doctor's laboratory, pushed inside, and then locked in. However, she turned the tables on him, pushing him into the lab and locking the door. The rest of the party sprang into action; Tank and Gnargar kept her pinned in the doorway; 13 Shattered Mirrors was able to open the door and attack her from behind; Tekla and Al' used witch bolts and sacred flame to hurt her from afar. A brutal strike from Tank did the lion's share of damage to the doll; she eventually collapsed on the floor--and was proven to be an amalgamation of inorganic and biological components. 

Since he was clearly trying to kill them, the group then decided they needed to confront the Doctor directly...

Friday, April 17, 2020

The Bounds of Reason

Valley of Plenty 2: The Bounds of Reason

Welcome to the Valley of Plenty! In these green and gentle pastures, Jack explains the plots of stories from the Witcher series to Kate, who feels like she already completed her tour of duty in this particular fantasyland. This bite-sized episode covers "The Bounds of Reason" from Andrzej Sapkowski's short story collection The Sword of Destiny.  This story was adapted as part of Netflix's Witcher TV show as "Rare Species," probably the most underwhelming tale of the lot. Will this story deliver more of the wild flavors that your hosts are looking for? Tune in and find out!

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Remont Forest

Art by VelesPhotos
Remont Forest
Remont Forest is a small but dense woods that straddles the border between Richemulot and Borca. The forest is generally avoided, save by those seeking a miracle cure to an otherwise fatal illness. Remont Forest possesses a strange property; sometimes stricken individuals left deep within it find themselves supernaturally restored to health. 

However, most who enter Remont Forest hoping for a remedy disappear and are never heard from again.

Dread Possibilities
What heals the ill who dare venture into Remont Forest? Any of the following possibilities might be true:
  • Remont Forest is inhabited by a night hag named Honorine. Most of the sick who are left in the woods are slain and added to Honorine's stew pot. Sometimes she chooses to use her magic to cure whatever disease afflicts them. Her mercy appears to operate according to whim, but perhaps she spares those who carry a dark purpose.
  • An angel was interred within Remont Forest in a coma-like stasis. The healing power of the woods is simply the holy grace emitted by the power of the celestial's blood. Learning of the link between the angel's presence and the curative aspect of the woods poses a difficult question: would it be better to unearth and revive the angel or keep it buried and retain the woods as a place of supernatural therapeutics?  
  • There are two hidden factions who quietly make war against each other within Remont Forest. One faction is comprised of kindly fey and sylvan creatures who heal the sick they find within the woods. The other is a coterie of necromancers who collect the bodies of the dying and use them as the raw material of an undead army. If the sylvan and fey are not aided in stopping the necromancers, the undead army will eventually be unleashed on Borca and Richemulot.

Monday, April 13, 2020

The Dead Walk in Daitsu

The Dead Walk in Daitsu
Our online D&D game set in Ravenloft continues.

The Characters
Tekla Vardagen, half-elf warlock
13 Shattered Mirrors, tabaxi warlock
Tank Orkerson, half-orc fighter
Gnagar the Bloody, kobold monk
Al', drow cleric

The last adventure ended with the House of the Dragon collapsing in upon itself and the fortuitous arrival of a black carriage. The party let the carriage take them to their next destination: a meeting with Lady Shizu, agent of Lord Yami Shinpi. Lady Shizu explained that the group had fallen victim to a known phenomenon: the land sometimes uses strangely thick mists and fogs to abduct people from other worlds and transport them to the world of Ravenloft. 

She also informed them that Lord Yami Shinpi was currently at war with his brothers over control of the island nation of Rokushima Taiyoo. Since the party had proven themselves useful in dispatching the dragon cult led by Noriko Sato, she had an offer for them: if they would travel to the village of Daitsu and discover why their shipment of rice for Yami Shinpi's army was late, Lord Shinpi would give them information about a route back to their homeland.

The party were given a skiff and directions to follow the river down to Daitsu. Along the way, they heard the lonesome sound of a flute as a shack on stilts came into view. Reconnoitering revealed that the house belonged to an unkempt young man who had the unnerving habit of staring through people instead of at them. Aside from a flute, he had a book of haiku with an inscription that indicated that his name was Ren and that he had a brother called Mako. Since he had plenty of food and water, the party decided to leave him well enough alone and continue on to the village.

They arrived at Daitsu in time to see a solemn procession carting a shrouded corpse up to the village's cemetery. Oddly, the corpse was not just covered with a funeral drape, but also wrapped in chains. As the village's priest intoned the last rites and the body was lowered into a cairn, the corpse began to twitch and convulse. Clearly, something was horribly wrong in Daitsu.

Investigation and questioning the locals commenced! For the past three weeks villagers had either been disappearing or dropping dead without warning only to rise again as the walking dead. A number of red herrings began to pile up: red bean paste candies found at the scene of disappearances (that were probably actually murders); Master Botan, the village priest, was spotted entering the woods, which he had previously avoided; the village blacksmith blamed foreigners for bringing the death cult of a god named Vecna to the village.

The group also met the most annoying bard in the world: a man named Duncan from Kartakass who had traveled to Rokushima Taiyoo in order to learn the songs of the rice paddy workers...so he could then appropriate said music and claim it as his own. Later, the group would discover that Duncan transformed into a ravenous zombie. They likely took great joy in dismembering him and knocking his corpse into a fireplace.

To get to the bottom of the situation, half the party followed Master Botan into the woods and watched as he unmoored a boat and set off down the river. The party followed "stealthily" in their skiff (Can you boat stealthily? That is the question) and found out that Botan was responsible for the fresh food and water being delivered to Ren. 

The other half of the party staked out the manor house of the town's governing family. When no lights were lit and no activity inside was detected, they decided it would be best to break in and explore. The first floor was full of expensive furnishings, but seemed abandoned. However, a few members of the group felt like someone was watching them. They discovered that the walls formed a hollow perimeter throughout the house replete with peepholes...and stairs leading to a hidden door on the second floor of the house.

Both halves of the party reconvened at this point and climbed up to the second floor. The smell of rotten meat inundated the air. The party found Jiro Daitsu, headman of the village, dinning on corpses with a number of his servants! Blackened windows were broken in hopes that the sunlight would weaken the undead monstrosities, but that had no effect. A combination of spells, axe blows, and martial arts carried the day.

As they exited the house, the party saw that the storm that had been threatening to break was now in full downpour. They also noticed that the workers in the rice paddies were all standing stock still, despite the inclement weather. It quickly became obvious that with the coming storm the workers had died and risen again as the living dead.

After resting at the inn, the party was given a few helpful artifacts by the town's dwarf shopkeeper: a magical katana, six magic arrows, and three potions of healing. Ren reappeared, now recovered from the temporary insanity that had rendered him mute. He offered to lead the group to the source of the affliction: the tomb of his eldest brother Mako. Down in the tomb, the party found the zombiefied Mako and the first of his victims who had been turned into the undead. A brutal battle ensued, but the group emerged victorious. 

They also discovered a throne made of bones that was hiding an accursed book of black magic...perhaps these will offer a solution that could lift the pall of undeath from Daitsu?

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Lammas Night

Mini Episode 19: Lammas Night

In this mini-episode, Kate occult-splains the 1983 novel Lammas Night by Katherine Kurtz to Jack. The book promises the tale of a coven of British witches that is all that stands between the UK and devastation at the hands of Hitler's black magicians. What it delivers is plentiful inter-coven politicking, intricate descriptions of British military dress, and in-depth descriptions of other people's tarot card readings. 

Will there be enough grotty Nazi occult action to hold Kate's interest? Doesn't "cone of power" sound like a Pokemon attack move? How would Americans solve this scenario differently? The answers to all these questions and more exist within this mini-episode.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

The House of the Dragon

The House of the Dragon
As quarantine continues, a new online D&D game set in Ravenloft begins.

The Characters
Tekla Vardagen, half-elf warlock
13 Shattered Mirrors, tabaxi warlock
Tank Orkerson, half-orc fighter
Gnagar the Bloody, kobold monk
Al', drow cleric

The characters were traveling as part of a religious pilgrimage when a strange, impenetrable fog began to seep from the land itself. They soon found themselves separated from their traveling companions in the caravan. They emerged from the mists to find themselves leaving a forest of white birch trees, a manor house sounded by broken stone walls standing in the distance.

Some fortuitous scouting of the maze of ruined walls by Gnargar uncovered that a man wearing an unusual metal gauntlet seemed to be using said gauntlet to guide a mechanical bird of prey down toward the party. A well-placed spell from Al' quickly caused the man to surrender. He revealed that he had thought it best to kill the party before they went into the house because the house belonged to a cult looking to end the world--and that one of the party was the intended sacrifice to cause the apocalypse.

Unafraid of the potential consequences, and frankly judging the previous party that were murdered while attempting to explore the house as "weak," the party ventured into the manor. The interior was all ornate wallpapers and sliding shoji doors. By observing a series of paintings throughout the house, the party gleaned that the owners were an imperious, sword-wielding woman with an eye patch and a man with curly gray hair, a beard, and whose hand had mutated into a reptilian claw.

They discovered a letter to the mistress of the house, Lady Noriko Sato, that rebuked her for an impious suggestion that her dragon goddess, the Five-Headed Empress, could be the key to winning the civil war currently being waged across the land. The letter was signed by Lord Yami Shinpi.

When no stairway to the attic was obvious, Shattered Mirrors exited a window on the third floor, and took to the roof to gain access for the party. Ghosts were encountered. First the specters of the couple's children, Akira and Makoto, told the party that they had been killed by their parents as sacrifices meant to make the Five-Headed Empress manifest in the world. (The ritual failed.) They also encountered the ghost of the children's nanny, who was murdered for resisting the children's sacrifice.

The also encountered a man in a sack known as the Apostate. His body contorted and split; three dragon-like beasts emerged from his body to attempt to devour the party. He was dealt with violently.

Down in the caverns below the house, the party discovered a ritual chamber. When Tekla placed a creepy doll with the head of a dragon onto the altar's surface, five stone dragon heads erupted from the floor, forming a kind of cradle around the altar. Lady Noriko Sato, her husband Guiseppe Sato, and two cultists wearing dragon masks emerged from the walls. Noriko pointed one of her swords at Gnargar and proclaimed that he was the sacrifice that would release the Five-Headed Empress from Hell!

Lady Noriko was the first to be taken out; Tank chopped off one of her arms, then let the momentum carry him forward to behead her as well--she was a veritable chanbara fountain of blood. Guiseppe fell next, then the two masked thugs. With the ritual disrupted, the caverns began to shake--the house was going to collapse. After a frantic run down a tunnel, Tank was able to push open a partially buried trapdoor that opened up some distance from the house. They exited just in time to see the House of the Dragon collapse in upon itself.

As they watched the dust settle, a carriage shrouded in funereal black emerged from the mists near the forest. It stopped near them, the carriage door slowly creaked open, and...we left it there.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Fall From Grace, Dim Days of Dolor, Year of the Rat

A few howls of the damned for your listening pleasure:

Paradise Lost, "Fall From Grace"

Sirenia, "Dim Days of Dolor"

Tristania, "Year of the Rat"