Three fictions for your entertainment and edification:"The Empath"
Tuesday, December 28, 2021
Thursday, December 23, 2021
Episode 52: Best of 2021
Jack and Kate look at what they've read and watched in the year that was 2021 and make some recommendations in the world of books and beyond. The rules of engagement are simple: the hosts each choose one movie, album, TV show, and book that was the best experience of its kind encountered during the first half of the year.
Join your hosts for a discussion that ranges from various ways to hunt supernatural creatures to cursed hunks to weird acting choices by 80s pop stars.
Wednesday, December 15, 2021
Three worthy reads:On the Haunted Lives of Girls and Women
Sunday, December 12, 2021
The most hated NPC I've ever made
It is often remarked upon that Donesta Sangino’s rise to fame in the art world was meteoric, and indeed she seemed to appear out of nowhere to become the name on every aesthete’s lips, but her origins were actually quite humble. Donesta was born to a poor, working-class family in Ghastria. She evidenced a talent for art, particularly for portraiture, and she contributed to the family’s meager finances by sketching passersby in charcoal for a few paltry copper pieces.
In her teenage years, Donesta Sangino found a patron—a wealthy nobleman who dabbled in the occult. Her patron not only supported Donesta monetarily, raising her out of poverty, he also taught her the arts of wizardry as well. This tutelage would prove to be his undoing; Donesta was a quick study, and she soon mastered enough enchantment magic to mentally enslave her patron. She drained his wealth, used his contacts among the upper crust to establish herself as the artist of the moment, and finally abandoned him to a life of abject penury when his money ran out.
As she continued to ply the trade of a portraitist, though by now she had exchanged the charcoal of her youth for vibrant oil paints, Donesta discovered arcane ways of using her art as a medium for her magic. When she paints a person known to her, she doesn’t just capture their likeness—she also captures a bit of their free will and binds it to the portrait. Some have noted that many of the incidental figures in her paintings resemble her artistic rivals—the very artists she has eclipsed seem to be referenced in her works. In truth, she has siphoned away the agency of her contemporaries and paved the way for her own success by bending her patrons and clients to her will.
Donesta Sangino is currently one of the most popular painters in the Land of the Mists. Despite the isolation that afflicts many domains, she is an uncannily well-known figure throughout Ravenloft. She is sought after by nobles, rich merchants, and powerful members of the clergy. Having one’s portrait painted by her is guaranteed to be worth the extravagant cost when balanced against the social capital to be gained from being noted as one of her patrons. Of course, none know the true price of sitting for Donesta Sangino’s cruel art.
Donesta Sangino’s Traits
Ideal. “I will rise up in the world by bleeding the wealthy and prestigious dry.”
Bond. “I only feel secure when surrounded by sycophants or those who are under my control.”
Flaw. “A return to poverty would be a fate worse than death. I willingly take great risks to grow my wealth and status.”
Donesta Sangino’s Powers
Donesta Sangino has the statblock of an enchanter, though her Charisma is 16 and she is proficient in the Deception and Persuasion skills. She also possesses the Displacement ability of an illusionist, which recharges whenever she casts a spell of 1st level or higher. Donesta can channel her magic into her paintings in the following ways:
Monster Creation. Donesta Sangino can create any monster by painting it for a number of uninterrupted days equal to the creature’s challenge rating. At the end of the final day, the creature springs forth from the canvas and obeys her will.
Painted Portals. When Donesta paints a landscape, she creates a mystical conduit through the Mists to that location. As an action, Donesta can touch a landscape painting of her creation and be instantly teleported to that area.
Soul-Stealing Portraits. If a humanoid has had their portrait painted by Donesta Sangino, they make saving throws against her spells with disadvantage as long as the portrait is in her possession.
Adventures with Donesta Sangino
Donesta Sangino deftly maneuvers the rich and powerful into her web like a cunning spider. As a renowned artist, Sangino finds herself in demand—it is considered a mark of power and prestige to have your portrait painted by Donesta or to have the essence of your estate or home captured in one of her famed landscape paintings. Consider the following plots when featuring Donesta in an adventure:
• A friend of the characters has had their portrait painted by the famed artist Donesta Sangino. They will be horrified to discover that their ally is now seemingly under Donesta’s thumb, lavishing her with extravagant gifts and throwing ostentatious parties in her honor.
• Artists on the brink of success are being killed by monsters who bleed oily pigment when wounded. Following the trail of death and destruction will lead back to Donesta Sangino, who is using her painted monstrosities to murder artists she considers potential rivals.
• After a previous run in with Donesta, the characters learn that she has painted their portraits from memory. They have a vested interest in stealing or destroying these portraits before Donesta Sangino can use them to exact revenge against the characters.
• Donesta has decided that one of the player characters is her latest muse. She will stop at nothing to kidnap the source of her inspiration.
• Donesta’s peculiar skills with magical painting could provide exactly the aid needed for the characters to take down a greater evil, but what horrific price would the artist want in trade for her services?
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If you like this kind of content and you haven't check it out already, print copies of Strahd Loves, Man Kills are still available here. Only a handful of the first and second issues left, though!
Wednesday, December 8, 2021
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. In this bite-sized episode, Jack explains what he's learned about the world portrayed in Andrzej Sapkowski's Time of Contempt, the second novel in the ongoing saga of Geralt of Rivia and his various adventures and... not-so-adventures.
Where do Witchers go for professional advice? What is terrible about going to a wizard party? What is a sound investment in this fantasy universe? All these questions will be answered in this episode of the podcast!
Sunday, December 5, 2021
If you're starting up a campaign set in Ravenloft, and a player wants to create a character native to the Domains of Dread, you can't very well expect them to read the entry in Van Richten's Guide for every domain before making their choice. There's just too much material to synthesize quickly, and let's be honest, your players aren't looking for homework before the game begins anyway.
To that end, I've made a quick cheat sheet to give the basic gist of every domain, which you can access here, if it might be useful to you. Each domain gets a brief description and a media example that, to my mind at least, captures its general vibe.
Wednesday, December 1, 2021
Things that brought me delight in November, 2021:
Pu Songling, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio
Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio is an 18th-century collection of Chinese folktales. Published after Pu Songling's death, the book features a hundred and one tales that range from a paragraph in length to ten pages or more, but most are a scant few pages in length. Here's what I've learned from Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio: fox-spirits will probably cause you a lot of trouble if you meet one (but they might also do you a good turn, so I guess you roll the dice on that), guys will immediately have sex with strange women who enter their chambers at night even if there is a good chance that they're ghosts, and Taoists are extremely weird, possess magic, and are often in need of a thorough scrubbing in the bath.
Fizban's Treasury of Dragons
It's interesting how infrequently dragons actually feature into a game called Dungeons & Dragons. Fizaban's Treasury of Dragons aims to fix that by presenting dragon-themed character widgets (such as variant dragonborn types, two draconic subclasses, and feats), lore about the role of dragons in the D&D universe, lair information, adventure seeds, random tables, and a bestiary filled with new types of dragons and dragon-adjacent foes such as draconians, dragonblood oozes, and eyedrakes. Fizban's Treasury is essential for anyone who wants to run a dragon-centric campaign, but for the rest of us there are probably enough bits and pieces here to make this worth considering.
Victoriana: Free RPG Day
Victoriana's premise is right up my alley: imagine Warhammer-style characters going on steampunk adventurers in the nineteenth century and you've got the gist. I've owned previous editions of the game (each edition has used a different system), but I've never been able to actually get it to the table. I'm curious to see if the new edition, which is based on 5e D&D's rules, will be the one to do the trick or if this attempt to capture a segment of D&D's audience is destined to crash and burn. If nothing else, I can play through this Free RPG Day adventure to get a taste.
Opera Diabolicus, 1614
This will inevitably read like gatekeeping, but I believe that if you aren't into at least one ridiculously over-the-top band like Opera Diabolicus, you aren't a real metal fan. Opera Diabolicus's Gothic theatrics will definitely appeal to fans of King Diamond, Powerwolf, and Ghost. More playful Therion fans might also get something out of the operatic flourishes and symphonic bombast. Also, there are many songs out there about Erzebet Bathory, but 1614's "Blood Countess Bathory" is one of the best.
Peter Fehervari, Requiem Infernal
Tenebrous Kate and I have much more to say about Peter Fehervari's Requiem Infernal on Bad Books for Bad People, but for now it will suffice to say that this book will appeal to anyone who won't mind a little Event Horizon or Uzumaki atmosphere popping up in their Space Nuns with Guns fiction. The Warhammer 40k books continue to be much better than they have any right to be; isn't tie-in game fiction contractually obligated to be awful? If so, we have a clear breach of contract with Requiem Infernal, which is an engaging sci-fi horror novel in its own right. It's also an incredibly strange novel; it's quite surprising, though commendable, that Games Workshop is willing to publish books like this that run contrary to their established "lore."
SLA Industries, 2nd Edition
SLA Industries is one of those long and storied rpg lines that I know almost nothing about it, save that it has a byzantine backstory and a cultishly devoted niche fanbaseBut now that there's a second edition, there's no better time to check it out, right? SLA Industries might fill the hole for me that cyberpunk games have generally failed to satisfy. It's essentially a game about "operatives" being sent on violent, cloak-and-dagger missions, but it has the added edge of positing an extremely weird and idiosyncratic vision of the dystopian future. (As opposed to cyberpunk visions of the future that already seem as quaint and wholesome as 1950s rocket ship fantasies compared to where we've ended up in real life.) The cyberpunk comparison seems apt, as SLA Industries has page after page of weapon porn.
Ad Infinitum, Chapter II: Legacy
As a marker of how long the pandemic has been going on, I picked up Ad Infinitum's first album near the start of it all and now I've gotten their second and the pandemic is still ongoing. Chapter II: Legacy is a concept album about Vlad the Impaler; couple that subject matter with Ad Infinitum's brand of symphonic metal and I'm absolutely sold on the entire package. Interesting to hear some deathcore or djent influences creeping in, but I don't mind them in the least.
Dark Heresy, the whole line, really
As I become more and more enraptured by the idea of running a Warhammer 40k rpg, I've begun to look into possible sources of inspiration. Although I'm most likely to run Wrath & Glory as my system of choice for this endeavor, the old Dark Heresy line has absolutely become my go-to trove of ideas. These books really did come out of a special zeitgeist in gaming history. Yeah, the rules in them aren't great (they're fiddly and favor failure in a way I don't like), but the combination of evocative art and textual deep dive made them an extremely attractive package at the time and an unimpeachable resource today.
The Veil is an anthology series from the 1950s hosted by Boris Karloff, who often plays at least a minor role in each episode. "Horror" probably isn't the right descriptor for The Veil; rather, it is a show that dramatizes "unexplained phenomena," such as prophetic visions, hauntings, and the like. Think of it as a quainter Time-Life Mysteries of the Unknown: slightly spooky, but ultimately pretty cozy. As a bonus, one episode is set in my beloved Gloucester, MA.
Terror Thirteen: A Horror RPG
Everyone has encountered their fair share of fantasy heartbreakers at this point, but horror heartbreakers are a little thin on the ground. Enter Terror Thirteen, an obvious labor of love. I have to admit, it was the homeliness of the cover that drew me in; it is an apex of the "my little brother drew this" style of rpg art. And yet, at first blush, the game itself seems like a pretty solid option for horror gaming. There's evidence that thought about what goes into creating different flavors of horror has had some effort put into it, even if Lovecraft is hanging out in the Victorian horror section for reasons that elude me. I bought this on a lark for an extremely low price, but it actually seems fairly playable. It's mostly a trad rpg, with 3d6 + stat + skill vs target number as the basic resolution mechanic, but there are some newer school elements like bonds that factor into the design as well. I need to do a deeper dive into this, but it is a charming artifact in any case.
Andrzej Sapkowski, Time of Contempt
As part of the ramping up of excitement for the next installment of Netflix's Witcher, I'm back on my Sapkowski bullshit with Time of Contempt, the novel that picks up where Blood of Elves left off. I'll have more to say about this novel when Valley of Plenty returns to Bad Books for Bad People, but this is a pretty interesting book in that it doesn't give Geralt much to do (except get dragged by a wizard) and it poses interesting questions about the futility of trying to maintain a stance of neutrality in a world rapidly going to hell.
Kendare Blake, Girl of Nightmares
Girl of Nightmares is the sequel to Kendare Blake's Anna Dressed in Blood and the conclusion of the duology. Cas, a ghost hunting teenager armed with a magic knife, becomes obsessed with venturing into hell to retrieve the formerly murderous ghost girl he fell in love with over the course of the first book. There's not much ghost slaying in this one, but there is a sinister-ish order of pseudo-druids and a forest full of suicide zombies. Also, I have to say, the ending of this book really did take me by surprise! It didn't go for the expected happy ending; the curveball was much appreciated.
Azzarello, Bermejo, Batman: Damned
In Damned, after the Joker is killed, Batman is left wondering if he is responsible for his arch-foe's death. True to character, Batman becomes obsessed with this question, which leads him into the depths of the DC Universe's supernatural underground. He meets several off-kilter versions of notable odd DC characters, such as a skinned Deadman, Etrigan as a rap god, and ranting, homeless Specter. The answers Batman seeks aren't easy, and the truth he finds might be worse than anything he's fought on the streets of Gotham. Damned has beautiful art throughout and a tense little story.
Kathleen Jennings, Flyaway
When a teenager trying her hardest to lead the most normal life possible discovers that the brothers she thought long-gone might be lingering near her rural Western Queensland home, she takes two former friends on a veritable odyssey in which the mythic history of small town life explodes into view. It's blood and magic all the way down, of course.
There's a blurb praising Flyaway from Kelly Link on the back of the cover, which makes a lot of sense; if you like Link's deft language and peculiar magic, it feels safe to say that you'll like Kathleen Jenning's as well. Flyaway contains an amazing amount of world for such a slim novel; even more impressive is how it is all woven together by the final pages.
Vlad Dracula Tarot
I was interested in this tarot deck when I first saw it being kickstarted, but at the time the money just wasn't right for it. Luckily, it seems to be quite a success story: I recently found out it had entered into wider distribution. Lovely art, but you have to wonder: is it even possible to get a truly positive outlook on the future when using something called Vlad Dracula Tarot?
Perilous Garden: The Art of Der Orchideengarten 1920 (16-24)
Time has a way of running away from you; I got a notification that the newest collection of art from Der Orchideengarten was on its way to me, which prompted me to remember that I hadn't yet looked at Perilous Garden. Perilous Garden is essentially more of the same: a collection of the fantastic art that accompanied the stories published in the German precursor to Weird Tales. Interesting historical tidbits also abound; for example, one issue of Der Orchideengarten eschewed the usual focus on macabre and fantastical tales to instead offer a plea for the return of prisoners at war still suffering in Russia and Siberia.
The Great, season two
Comedies are not usually something I get too excited for, but the over-the-top cruelty of the first season of The Great really appealed to me. The second season is just as mean. Catherine manages a coup, tries to keep Peter under house arrest, and has to navigate pregnancy, her vision for Russia, her feelings for her husband, and the pig-ignorant decadence of her court. And no one, including Catherine, is particularly likeable or "good." Deluded, yes. Good? No. Fantastic stuff; I hadn't laughed that much in a very long time.
Andrew McClean with Mike Spicer, Head Lopper & the Island or A Plague of Beasts
Michael of Metal Earth recommended Head Lopper to me, and since I can't remember him steering me wrong with a comic, I got a copy of the first volume while it was on a deep discount. He has still not led me wrong. There's a Mignola energy to the art and a Robert E. Howard energy to the storytelling, which is a pretty perfect pairing. There's bog wizards, giant wolves, blue-skinned witches, and a whole lot of decapitations. What more could you ask for? Head Lopper: it does what it says on the tin.
Bitter Blossoms: The Art of Der Orchideengarten 1921 (1-6)
Of course, there was no way this series could draw to a close on a positive note, given the nature of the history involved. Der Orchideengarten was one more casualty of the terrible times that led to World War II. It's all downhill here here, I suppose, and there is one more volume to come by my math. Art became more sparse in the 1921 volumes, but what is here is, of course, remarkable. One fun bit of synchronicity: one of the tales that gets an illustration is one of the Pu Songling stories that I read at the start of the month!
The release of the live-action Cowbow Bebop got me interesting in watching the cartoon version, which I had never seen before. I can see why it is regarded as a classic. It's got heart, it's not derivative of other media, doesn't rely on cameos and Easter eggs to keep your attention, has great action...basically, it's everything everyone lies and says that The Mandalorian is. No way I'm watching the live-action version though.
Tiamat and Warduke
I'm still in amazement that there is a line of D&D Funko Pops, particularly now that it has moved on to a couple cool characters I first encountered in the 80s cartoon and toy line. Tasha, when?
Sunday, November 28, 2021
In early November, my online group finished playing through the adventures in Candlekeep Mysteries as a campaign. A grand time was had, and it genuinely feels like an accomplishment to have completed it. It's not every day that you managed to take characters from level 1 to level 16 and it's certainly not every day that a campaign establishes a true ending instead of petering out.
Really, that was all down to the players. So, thank you Michael, Anne, Steve, Dennis, Heather, and Ridgely! I literally could not have done it without you.
Of course, some concessions helped make this accomplishment possible too. Setting the game up as an open table of sorts, in which whoever was free to play in a given week was welcome to join, definitely helped, as did the episodic nature of the campaign established by stringing the Candlekeep Mysteries adventures together into a series.
I managed to document it all--in two ways, no less. I wrote an actual play report for each adventure and managed to jot down a review of every scenario in the book. If a more comprehensive overview of Candlekeep Mysteries exists, I haven't seen it.
Links below, if you want the full monte.
Actual Play Reports
Candlekeep Mysteries Reviews
Thursday, November 25, 2021
Jack and Kate venture into the grimdark future of Warhammer 40K with this exploration of Requiem Infernal by author Peter Fehervari. Put aside your preconceptions around Space Marines and Orks and find out what hideous delights await you in the WH40K universe (nuns with guns, folks--it's got nuns with guns).
Will our hosts be able to sufficiently summarize WH40K lore in under 15 minutes? Why are Space Marines super-boring? What happens when the reader is made complicit in the untangling of the book's narrative? Haven't we all got a dark demonic monster lurking somewhere inside of us? Your hosts will explore all these questions and more in this episode of Bad Books for Bad People!
Sunday, November 21, 2021
Nova Vaasa is one of the Ravenloft domains that got demoted from a Core domain to a paragraph blurb in Van Richten's Guide. The version of Nova Vaasa I'm presenting below takes the vibe of the blurb and adds some Weird West inspiration. If you like this sort of thing, check out Strahd Loves, Man Kills. There's a handful of both issues left in stock.
Domain of the Accursed Frontier
Darklord: Myar Hiregaard
Genres: Disaster horror and dark fantasy
Hallmarks: Manifest destiny, bandits, wagon trains, homesteaders, miners and prospectors, the Wild West
Mist Talismans: Tarnished sheriff’s badge, noose, scrap of bloodstained flag, rusty horseshoe, ace of spades playing card
The people of the Nova Vaasa frontier were once tribal nomads, but they were united into a nation called Vaasa by a great warlord named Myar Hiregaard. She ruled with strict fairness, though her bellicose nature ultimately made her a poor leader for a populace who desired to set down roots, adopt the ways of settled civilization, and build enduring communities.
Vaasa was shattered by a civil war known as the War of the Five Stewards. The violence of the conflict, combined with the bloody lengths Myar pursued to stamp out the hostilities, ruined the Vaasans’ attempt to forge a lasting union as a burgeoning nation. In the aftermath of the hostilities, the towns and villages of Vaasa lay devastated, and the land itself was incurably poisoned by the conflict. No crops would grow in the soil tainted by the blood spilled in the War of the Five Stewards. The Vaasans were forced to resume their ranging and roaming. Leaving the ruins of Vaasa behind, they headed into the western frontier to seek Nova Vaasa, literally “the New Vaasa,” to rebuild what they had lost.
Nova Vaasans now find themselves trapped a life of perpetual westward migration. They dearly want to settle permanently, but the land allows them no such stability. Rich veins of ore in the hills and mountains tempt pioneers into establishing mining camps, but lodes mysteriously vanish. Farmsteads are decimated by plagues of locusts. Villages are raided by undead bandits.
On the frontier of Nova Vaasa, nothing is permanent and plans for the future always comes to ruin in the end. When nascent communities inevitably fail or fall to catastrophe, they become part of the desolated east as the pioneers of Nova Vaasa up stakes and move further into the unexplored west. The frontier promises a land of plenty and a chance of establishing permanent settlements, but the Nova Vaasans are chasing a dream that will never be fulfilled.
Those familiar with Nova Vaasa know the following facts:
• The people of Nova Vaasa continually travel west across the frontier in hopes of finding habitable sites that will blossom into towns, ranches, and farmsteads.
• The land itself seems to reject settlement. Accidents, violence, and strange phenomena push the Nova Vaasans to continue their westward march.
• Nova Vaasa’s temporary forts, encampments, and wagon trains are sometimes attacked by a bandit called Malken and her posse of undead riders.
• As they move westward, Nova Vaasans encounter mysteriously abandoned ghost towns and horrific creatures who hunt in the untamed wilderness.
Settlements and Sites
Nova Vaasa is a domain of endless rolling plains, black hills, canyons and gulches, and sweltering deserts. Due to the curse that afflicts the land, it has no permanent settlements or persistent sites. Most communities last a few scant years at most, and some are forced to move on after only a matter of months. Once the settlers flee further west, the remains of their failed attempt to settle are swallowed by the Mists. Some settlers stick together on the long trail west, continually reestablishing their communities before inevitably having to abandon their current location to try again in another area of the Nova Vaasan frontier.
Bergovitsa is a community of ruffians who travel westward through the mountains and hills of Nova Vaasa looking to establish a profitable mining operation. Though he wields little real authority in Bergovitsa, Soren Rivtoff acts as its impulsive and unreliable sheriff. Whenever Bergovitsa reestablishes itself as a mining camp, it is eventually consumed by bouts of raucous drunkenness, bitter vendettas, and deadly gunfights.
Nova Vaasans sometimes discover eerie ghost towns as they move west. These towns are always dilapidated and appear to have been long abandoned. Searching a ghost town reveals few clues as to the identities of its former residents. However, some Nova Vaasans have noticed architectural elements or stray items that remind them of the towns and villages they’ve left behind in the east—pieces of the lives they’ve forsaken seem to reappear as grim reminders of their fate as rootless, wandering pioneers.
Kantora is a traveling tent revival and missionary movement led by the renegade priest Othmar Bolshnik. The preachers of Kantora believe that their god, a tyrannical deity called the Lawgiver, has ordained that a paradise awaits the Nova Vaasans somewhere in the west. The religious leaders of Kantora favor a fire and brimstone style of sermonizing, and they include speaking in tongues and handling poisonous snakes as part of their rites.
Led by a scheming brothel madame named Lara Vistin, Liara is a community of swindlers who survive by providing services such as gambling, saloons, and prostitution to other travelers on the frontier. The trajectory of Liara’s wagon train frequently intersects with the paths of other would-be settlers. Liara attaches itself like a parasite to drain both coin and resources before moving on to the next marks further down the trail.
A celebrated warrior of the Hiregaard clan, Myar united the nomadic tribes of the vast plains of Vaasa. However, Myar Hiregaard made a poor peacetime leader. When brutal games could no longer hold her interest, she incited hostilities between four of her vassal tribes that resulted in a bloody civil war, then led her own forces to crush the opposing belligerents. The wide-ranging conflict of the War of the Five Stewards tore the nation apart and caused a supernatural doom to befall the land.
After Myar’s greatest massacre, the Mists enfolded the land and split Myar’s being in two. By day, she leads her people west across an accursed, ever-expanding frontier, but by night she transforms into an undead bandit called Malken who preys upon the settlers who follow in her wake across the expanse of Nova Vaasa.
Myar’s Powers and Dominion
By day, Myar Hiregaard appears to be a hardened woman still wearing the uniform she donned during the War of the Five Stewards. Her statblock is similar to that of a veteran. By night, Myar’s becomes a desiccated revenant clad in a moth-eaten duster who sports a black wide-brimmed hat and two matching pistols that spew hellfire.
Malken’s Posse. In her guise as Malken, Hiregaard is attended by a group of wights mounted on nightmares. Malken’s posse is the terror of the frontier, thundering across the plains to assault any travelers or settlements they encounter.
Closing the Borders. When Hiregaard closes the borders of Nova Vaasa, brutal winds carrying abrasive grit begin to tear across the frontier. Those who attempt to reach the Mists find themselves trying to push through a sea of tumbleweed as the biting winds render the border always just out of reach.
Myar Hiregaard wants to be viewed as the founder of a great and enduring nation, but the Dark Powers and her own aggressive impulses conspire to make that impossible.
• During the day, Myar Hiregaard acts as a leader of her people and a bringer of order.
• With the coming of night, Malken is driven to cause chaos and wanton destruction.
Myar Hiregaard is a difficult woman, hard to please and expectant of deference. Malken is an unhinged maniac who delights in slaughter and the look of fear in her victims’ eyes.
Personality Trait. “I must take pains to keep my savage and unnatural alter ego in check.”
Ideal. “Nova Vaasa will emerge as a lasting nation, and I will be revered as the mother of that nation.”
Bond. “I need to be seen by my people as a leader. I can never appear weak or indecisive in their eyes.”
Flaw. “I cannot still the hell that’s in these hands.”
Thursday, November 18, 2021
Tuesday, November 16, 2021
I've been running the adventures in Candlekeep Mysteries, a book of seventeen scenarios based around the legendary library of Candlekeep and the strange tomes kept within. The adventures in the book aren't necessarily meant to be played one after another; they're more geared toward being dropped in between adventures of your own devise, but playing them back to back hasn't been much of an imposition.
But is Candlekeep Mysteries good? I reviewed the first five adventures here, The Price of Beauty and Book of Cylinders here, Sarah of Yellowcrest Manor and Lore of Lurue here, Kandlekeep Dekonstruktion and Zikran's Zyphrean Tome here, The Curious Tale of Wisteria Vale and The Book of Inner Alchemy here, and The Canopic Being and The Scrivener's Tale here. In this review I'm going to give my impressions of the last two adventures in the book, so you can better decide for yourself whether this is a sound purchase for you and your group.
Written by Adam Lee
Developed by Michele Carter & Christopher Perkins
Edited by Michele Carter
"Alkazaar's Appendix" has a good premise: a search in the desert with a stone automaton for a lost scroll. However, the execution of that premise ultimately results in an average adventure because its strong points are counterbalanced by a few poor design decisions. The stone golem that the party teams up with has great potential to be endearing, but the shape of the adventure does have a bit of a "follow this NPC around" feel to it that the scenario could have done more to mitigate.
Another issue with the adventure is that each of the mapped locations are incredibly linear with few opportunities for exploration. The cave sequence, for example, is really just a straight tunnel with one blockage that needs to be moved out of the way. Since the tunnel leads to single chamber with six murals you need to describe so that the players get the gist of what's going on in the adventure, there is an obvious solution here: turn this tunnel into a branching cave complex with each mural located in a different chamber surrounded by additional points of interest. The necropolis at the end of the adventure is similarly linear: fight the guys at the top of it, go down the stairs, fight the monster down there, wrap things up.
This problem doesn't just appear in the adventure locations, it shapes the adventure itself. The overall plan of the scenario is a straight line: meet the automaton, go to the cave, go to the necropolis, finish the adventure. There are some optional encounters presented that could stretch the adventure into at least a two-session affair if you wanted, but unfortunately they don't really alter the direct course it sets the characters on.
Additionally, I don't really love the conclusion to this adventure as written, which seems to offer a choice between getting the scroll (which means opening a sarcophagus, which causes the prince held in stasis inside to rot away) and letting your new stone golem pal carry his beloved master into heaven. This is especially an issue because I don't think the content of the adventure really telegraphs the gravity of that choice well enough. I changed this in our playthrough; it absolutely wouldn't have fit the mood we had going on at all.
I've been quite critical of several components of this adventure, so to cap this review off I do want to note that we had a good time playing through it. The interactions with the stone golem were very fun to roleplay and actually lent themselves to an unexpectedly emotional session. Also, the addition of lair actions to the dracolich made that fight feel varied and interesting--it absolutely did not fall flat as a boss fight. Though there are some issues here, this was a decent adventure overall.
Written by Toni Winslow-Brill
Developed by Bill Benham & Christopher Perkins
Edited by Kim Mohan
As the last adventure in Candlekeep Mysteries, "Xanthoria" has a suitably strong premise: a fungal disease has swept the world, and it's up to the players to stop it. One thing I was slightly concerned about is that the premise hits at an odd moment; an adventure about a plague takes on a new meaning for people who are still dealing with the fallout of a real-world pandemic. It's not something the people who worked on the adventure could account for, but it nonetheless remained a potential for resemblance I tried to mitigate in play.
I also altered the adventure to make it a suitable conclusion for my campaign; instead of largely taking place in cave of the Lykortha Expanse, our playthrough took place on the moon--which gave the players a reason to fly their rocket tower to their final adventure, which I know was something they were really looking forward to.
Exploring the cave complex was the bulk of the session, and I think it works pretty well as a dungeon. There's interesting stuff that happens in there, unusual encounters (though I did pare some away to fit our time slot), and a good deal of atmosphere. You can get a good bit of mileage out of describing gross fungus and mold. In general, I'd say that the small- and mid-sized dungeons in Candlekeep Mysteries are frequently successful at providing site-based adventure.
The lichen lich's stats, which are bespoke to this adventure, evidence a solid understanding of what an upper-level threat should be able to do. This is especially obvious if you compare its stats against those of a regular lich from the Monster Manual. The lichen lich is easier to run, has more interesting options, and also feels appropriately dangerous.
The moral quandary posed at the end of the adventure is also fairly well done. Used as the conclusion of a campaign, "Xanthoria" gave me all the tools I needed to end the game in a way that I was really happy with.
Sunday, November 14, 2021
I've been running the adventures in Candlekeep Mysteries lightly reskinned for my Krevborna setting. The characters are all employed as members of Creedhall University Library's "Special Collections Department," aka adventurers. This is a recap of what happened in "Xanthoria." Fair warning: spoilers lurk below.
Elsabeth, human paladin played by Anne
Gnargar, kobold monk played by Heather
Aula, human rogue played by Ridgely
Rufus, human barbarian played by Steve
The troubles began when the Bone Moon turned a sickly green, a pernicious infection spreading across its surface. Then, the meteors came. Scholars who studied the sky from Creedhall’s observatory claimed that the meteors seemed to originate from the darkest part of the moon’s infection. Where they fell to earth, the meteors left behind craters filled with mottled green and purple fungal matter.
The researchers who studied this fungal stain were the first to become infected. Their bodies became infested, they sprouted hideous growths comprised of mold, mildew, and mushrooms. As their bodies were taken over, so too were their minds usurped; the fungal disease transformed them into ravaging fungal ghouls who spread the sickness throughout Creedhall and perhaps all of Krevborna. The afflicted could say nothing save chanting one word over and over: Medlozka.
The doctors of Creedhall were unable to treat this ailment, and the Church’s agents were also powerless to cure it. The fungal infection hit to home for our heroes. Lady Valor, who had been staying with Elsabeth while recuperating, fell victim to it. Their superior at the library, Horatio Lupa, also fell prey to the illness and had to be locked away in a library vault. The only avenue unexplored was to fly the Old Tower to the moon and investigate the source of the corruption.
Our champions loaded supplies into the Old Tower, fired up the rockets hidden beneath it, and commanded it to take them to the Bone Moon. The source of the fungal plague was obvious when the moon came into view: its white, rocky surface was infested with fungus with a dark lump sitting like a tumor in the center of the infection. The tumor had a number of silo-like tubes projecting from it--possibly used to launch the meteors at Creedhall. That tumor-like structure proved to be a natural cave that had been taken over by mold, mildew, and mushroom.
Inside the cave's entrance, they could hear the sound of a woman weeping off to their left. Reconnoitering the area, Gnargar found a woman, whose body was encrusted with fungal matter, crying in the fetal position. She revealed that her name was Thalia and that the cave complex was the headquarters of a cult who had come to the moon to fulfill their leader's demonic plan: join all life into one fungal hivemind to put an end to individual cruelty. Thalia explained that the cult was lead by Dahlia Medlozka, but she couldn't remember how many members of the cult remained. However many there were, they were sure to be warped into fungal forms.
With Thalia in tow, the group explored the cavern complex. Toward the back of the first cavern, they found two semi-transformed cult members suspended from a web of mycelia. They discovered an alchemy lab, complete with a moldering book that explained the process for transforming rocks into biological weapons that could be fired at the world to spread the fungal disease far and wide. Continuing on, they found a chamber used in Dahlia Medlozka's experiments in fusing fungus with human flesh. This room held a number of cages, each holding a corpse. Thalia was distraught to find that her friend Boris, a fellow member of the cult, had died from the experiments that had been inflicted upon him.
They also stumbled upon a ring of lurid giant mushrooms. When Gnargar stood in the center of them, he had a vision of a post-apocalyptic world overrun by fungi. In the vision, a huge woman made of mushrooms and rot grabbed him, her tendrils boring into his face. He tore her hand off, but this did not faze her. Before he was released from this horrid vision of the ruinous future, she leaned close to Gnargar's ear and whispered "Soon." For the rest of his time within the caves, Gnargar's perceptions would be periodically and momentarily overlaid with the sight of this fungal hell.
Upon returning to the central chamber, the group spotted two large vulture-headed demons and a fungal cultist descending from the mycelia web. A difficult battle ensued, but the party vanquished their foes and continued exploring after licking their wounds. After traversing a long corridor that rained dangerous necrotic spores down upon them, the group found Dahlia Medlozka, her humanity forever lost to the transformation into the fungal equivalent of a lich, vivisecting a deer upon a stone worktable. A young boy in a cage was by her side, creepily eager to see Dahlia at work with her knife. When Dahlia noticed the group's approach, she commanded a massive mushroom-man and a boar-headed demon to kill them.
Rufus engaged the fungus-encrusted boar demon, keeping it at bay, ferocious beast to ferocious beast, as the other scrambled to fight their way toward Dahlia. Dahlia cast a spell that drew the life from the boy in the cage, rendering him a withered husk and creating a sphere of magical protection around her. When Aula tried to charge Dahlia, she found that she could not move through the sphere. Instead, she threw her dagger at Dahlia; infused with a saintly relic, the dagger caused Dahlia to lose concentration on her spell, and the sphere shattered.
Dahlia proved to be a powerful druidess. She conjured fire that surrounded each member of the party. She threw bolts of roiling necrotic energy. She attempted to steal their lifeforce to empower her own. She grabbed Aula's stone golem, channeled horrible power into it, and caused it to shatter into rubble. She also caused a pile of fungal matter to animate as a hulking, fetid mass. The boar demon and the mushroom-man were dealt with, so Rufus now held the shambling mound in combat. Gnargar smashed Dahlia with his nunchaku, dislodging her lower jaw before landing the killing blow. Freed from that melee, Elsabeth flew to Rufus's side and ended the fetid mass's unholy existence.
Searching the stone table, the group found another rotting book that detailed both how to create the biological weapons Dahlia had crafted and how to brew a medicine to treat the illness. However, reading the book also unveiled a hideous truth: as a lich, Dahlia would return to unlife eventually if her phylactery was not located and destroyed. A search of the rest of the cave complex commenced. In Dahlia's former bedroom, they found the woman's diary, which disclosed that Thalia was the phylactery into which she had placed a vital part of her soul.
Thalia was reluctant to give up her life. The group didn't really give her an option, however. They viewed her life as a necessary sacrifice so that the world might live. Ultimately, Thalia was convinced to lay down her life for the greater good. Before accepting Elsabeth's sword through her heart, she made the group promise that they would take her and Boris's bodies back to Krevborna and give them a proper burial.
With their tragic burden in tow, the group boarded the Old Tower and began the journey back to the library. As they left, they used the tower's elemental cannon to destroy the cave complex's silos. Upon returning, they gave Dahlia's books to Creedhall's doctors, who were able to affect a cure for the afflicted.
Throughout their time with the Special Collections Department, our heroes were librarians, adventurers, and sometimes even agents of chaos guided by a skewed moral compass. Their adventures took them to strange places, even into the wilds of other planes. They encountered the uncanny, nefarious, and unusual, such as a demonic nursery rhyme, a spa overrun by evil, and a lurid fairytale come to life. They slew a mummy lord, a beholder, and more than a few cults. They saved a few innocents and managed to keep a fair number of fell tomes out of the reach of the foolhardy.
But in the end? In the end, they had saved the world.
Friday, November 12, 2021
I've been running the adventures in Candlekeep Mysteries, a book of seventeen scenarios based around the legendary library of Candlekeep and the strange tomes kept within. The adventures in the book aren't necessarily meant to be played one after another; they're more geared toward being dropped in between adventures of your own devise, but playing them back to back hasn't been much of an imposition.
But is Candlekeep Mysteries good? I reviewed the first five adventures here, The Price of Beauty and Book of Cylinders here, Sarah of Yellowcrest Manor and Lore of Lurue here, Kandlekeep Dekonstruktion and Zikran's Zyphrean Tome here, and The Curious Tale of Wisteria Vale and The Book of Inner Alchemy here. In this review I'm going to give my impressions of the next two adventures in the book, so you can better decide for yourself whether this is a sound purchase for you and your group.
The Canopic Being
Written by Jennifer Kretchmer
Developed & Edited by Scott Fitzgerald Gray & Christopher Perkins
"The Canoptic Being" has a great, and pretty creepy, premise: a mummy lord has been inserting its organs into folks to make them into "golems" under its control. That's a sick-nasty idea, in a good way, no question about it.
I did make some changes to the opening bits of the adventure, but they were the kind of alterations I think you absolutely should make to every published adventure where possible: I used every opportunity to personalize the adventure for my players. As written, the adventure gives you a list of the mummy lord's victims. I swapped out these characters for beloved NPCs and the characters of players who couldn't make it to the session for additional impact; I rightly figured that the players would care a whole lot more about rescuing their characters' friends from the mummy's scheme than they would about new NPCs they had never encountered before.
The dungeon portion of the adventure worked well. There are some "funhouse" elements to the dungeon, such as antigravity rooms, that don't really serve much purpose other than adding some flavor, but that's par for the course.
"The Canopic Being" does reveal some issues with the "monster math" at high levels, however. The mummy lord is positioned as the big villain of the adventure, but if you use the standard stats from the Monster Manual he will be a complete pushover, especially in comparison to the golems under his control. The golems clearly use newer monster math that takes the amount of damage that characters can dish out into better account. That said, this is more of a systemic problem than an adventure problem, so I don't hold it against the adventure's author at all.
The Scrivener's Tale
Written by Brandes Stoddard
Developed by Christopher Perkins
Edited by Scott Fitzgerald Gray
I'm not sure whether to place the blame on my general level of fatigue or the convolutions of the adventure's backstory, but I had some trouble understanding the premise of "The Scrivener's Tale" and how all the pieces of the adventure fit together. This one took a couple read-throughs to fully grasp. On a basic level, it's simple: an evil archfey wants to be released from the book they're trapped in and they put a curse on the characters to maneuver them into setting them free.
I will say that I don't think the intro as written is very good. The suggested start is that a bumbling librarian gives the players the wrong book--which inadvertently curses them. Instead of going that route, I started things in media res by having someone else trying to get the book stage an assault on the library while the characters happen to be there to stop it. The curse came about at the close of this encounter and left me a nice bit of ambiguity about whether the curse was the work of the Princess of the Shadow Glass or the Queen of Air and Darkness.
I also cut some of the adventure for either reasons of time or simply because they just weren't needed. There was an entire segment devoted to going to a noblewoman's estate to get information about the titular book's provenance, but my players were on the trail of resolving things without that side trek. The NPC in that part of the adventure seems interesting enough, but this was an easy omission.
I also cut out the waves of golems and mummies that can be encountered in the dungeon portion of the adventure. I made that cut for time, mostly. If I had been more willing to stretch this adventure over two sessions, I would have left that fight in, but I do have some reservations about whether the multi-part war of attrition it posits would be fun. Also, its a little weird that the enemies in the last batch of adventures is a bit repetitive: the previous adventure in the book also featured a mummy and golems, so on some level this feels like more of the same. Of course, you aren't really meant to play the adventures in Candlekeep Mysteries in sequence, so part of the issue is something I am bringing to the table that the book isn't meant to address.
To give this adventure some shine, I will say that the fight against the Princess of the Shadow Glass is very fun. Whoever made her stat block did a great job: she has a lot of flavorful attacks that lend themselves to cool description and keep the players on their toes. She's a great example of what a higher-level foe should look like.
As an aside, there is one thing I want to comment on about the higher-level adventures in Candlekeep Mysteries: many of them feature a sidebar about how to address certain spells that can "ruin" the mystery of the scenario. Luckily, no one I've been playing with is playing a caster with access to these spells, but I think this points to a potential design issue with the game as a whole. If there are known spells that can mess with the fun of players solving a mystery, those spells might need to be addressed in a way other than "here's how to make sure the spell doesn't work as written in this adventure."