Sunday, August 1, 2021

Poison Flowers and Pandemonium, Witchcraft, 'Twixt Dog and Wolf, and More

Things that brought me delight in July, 2021:


Richard Sala, Poison Flowers & Pandemonium

Poison Flowers & Pandemonium collects the last four comics that Richard Sala completed before his untimely death. The first comic in this collection, "The House of the Blue Dwarf," is a lengthy sequel to The Bloody Cardinal; though Sala's comics are often strange, this one has a decidedly Lynchian feel to it. "Monsters Illustrated" reminds me of Rob Zombie's maxim that only two things in life are important: monsters and hot chicks. "Monsters Illustrated" isn't really a comic per se; it's a series of pin-ups in which beautiful women are menaced by monstrous creatures, bookended by a loose (although quite humorous) frame narrative. "Cave Girls of the Lost World" is an illustrated series about a plane full of college girls who find themselves stranded on an island full of dinosaurs, Neanderthals, and even weirder creatures. The last story, "Fantomella," feels like an uncannily prescient summation of Sala's work. The comic is about a beautiful, knife-wielding revolutionary who is eliminating the evil masterminds who rule her society--and yet, there's a moment that feels like Sala's version of Prospero's famed speech about the relationship between artist and art.


Witchcraft

Nothing beats one of these creaky black & white horror flicks on a rainy Friday night. Witchcraft is a British Gothic horror film from 1964. Even with a running time that is in sleek fighting shape, Witchcraft packs a lot in: a dispute stretching back generations that is tied to accusations about witchery, a desecrated cemetery, star-crossed lovers, a witch returned from the dead, and Lon Chaney at his cranky best. Witchcraft is a movie that definitely deserves more appreciation; I highly recommend it for fans of The Old Dark House and similar fare.


C. F. Keary, 'Twixt Dog and Wolf

'Twixt Dog and Wolf is a brief collection of horror-themed tales written by C. F. Keary, an obscure turn of the century author better known for his study of Norwegian myth and history. The opening tale, "The Message from the God," creates a palpable feel of pagan dread. It would make a wonderful appetizer before re-reading Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan. "Elizabeth" is is one of the finest folk horror tales I've ever read. The fact that we don't have a cult film adaptation of this tale is proof that we live in a fallen world. "The Four Students" is a bleak tale of occultism amid the horrors of the French Revolution. The collection is rounded out by "Phantasies," ten strange, hallucinatory vignettes that emerge out of a lurid opium haze. Some of these nightmarish visions even seen to prefigure the peculiar terrors of Thomas Ligotti. Valancourt have done it again--what a fine service they've wrought making this available!


Rivers Solomon, Sorrowland

Rarely have I been as confounded by a book as I am by Rivers Solomon's Sorrowland. The novel feels at war with itself on an internal level. Great swaths of it have mounting literary ambitions. It wants to be lyrical, profound, and political, but it's forced to fight against action sequences that feel like they were cribbed from b movies, plot elements that don't really make a whole lot of sense, and characters whose actions and dialog beggar belief. 

Even just considering what's going on plot-wise makes my head spin. It's a lot. At first, Sorrowland is the tale of a young woman who has escaped the compound of the black separatist cult she grew up in. It then transitions into a story of survival in what feel like an almost allegorical forest patrolled by a "fiend" who leaves dead animals dolled up in children's clothing. And then the forest is left behind as the main character, already a too-liminal figure who is intersex, a Black albino, and possessing of a queerness that defies definition, begins to grow a monstrous fungal exoskeleton that grants her a suite of powers that would make the X-Men jealous. Then begins the techno-thriller tangent, as she is pursued by government agents, a rogue scientist, and another of her "kind." Vans are flipped over, hails of bullets shower everywhere, and there's more resurrections than one story can really handle. 

Sorrowland also has one of the most breath-takingly out there sex scenes I've encountered in recent memory. There is a complicated scene in which a ghost gives another ghost a rimjob. The ghosts are two gay men who died of AIDS. The main character, an intersex person, is describing what the two gay ghosts are doing to each other to her lover over the phone while they both masturbate. Eventually one of the gay ghosts starts also fingerbanging the main character, who is still on the phone, and the main character starts playing with her asshole as she watches the ghosts go at it, still giving play by play phone sex to her partner. 

Like I said, it's a lot. This feels like a book that wants to be counted among the likes of Beloved, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Parable of the Sower, and maybe even "I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter," but it contends too strongly against itself. It ends up feeling like a Bad Books for Bad People pick. Still, I'm including it in my monthly round-up because I'm still thinking about it weeks after finishing the book, and that counts for something.


Lord of the Lost, Judas

As I mentioned last month, I was greatly anticipating the release of Lord of the Lost's next album, but I was definitely not expecting Judas to be quite so compelling! The Gothic metal formula is still in place, but even after releasing a slew of albums over the years, the band has managed to find some new, bright-burning inner fire. Everything just sounds a little more intense. Judas is a good example of how "mellowing with age" isn't necessarily fait accompli.


Becky Cloonan, Brendan Fletcher, Karl Kerschl, Gotham Academy Volume One: Welcome to Gotham Academy

Despite the in-universe tie-ins, Gotham Academy is something I was probably predisposed to like. I love stories about kids snooping around their haunted schools and getting in over their heads, which Gotham Academy has in spades. It's a bit like Scooby- Doo, with plenty of red herrings, though of course in the end something strange is actually going on in the school. Also, I like that Batman is portrayed as a lame-o cop in this. ACAB, Batman, ACAB. Similarly, Gotham Academy has a really great take on a villain from Batman's rogue's gallery that I wasn't expecting.


James Tynion IV, Alvaro Martinez Bueno, Raul Fernandez, Brad Anderson, Justice League Dark Vol. 1: The Last Age of Magic

Justice League Dark, on the other hand, I wouldn't say I was predisposed to like. There's way too much continuity wank in this comic, several characters just seem sort of along for the ride, I'm not convinced at all that John Constantine or even Swamp Thing work in the DCU, and it's a really weird move to retcon Wonder Woman into a character with secret witch powers. Also, what a misstep to give the Upside Down Man pants--nearly defeats any otherworldly horror he brings to the table. Still, although the premise of a "world shaking event" posing a danger that can only be defeated by a team of heroes is threadbare, there is some fun to be had here. A sword-wielding Detective Chimp makes my soul sing.


Rodney Barnes, Jason Shawn Alexander, Luis NCT, Killadelphia Volume 1: Sins of the Father

In general style and tone, Killadelphia will satisfy fans of Image's other horror comics. The book doesn't range too far afield, but there are some noteworthy twists here. The vampire epidemic afflicting Philadelphia has its origins in none other than John Adams, second president of the United States. As the subtitle implies, there is also quite a bit of father-son drama, which potentially verges on a cop-thriller version of Oedipus in its way. The art is the big draw, with some really thrilling panels throughout. One thing I was definitely not ready for or expecting: Abigail Adams as a big tiddy vampire slut.


Seven Spires, Solveig and Emerald Seas

Solveig, the debut album from Seven Spires, keeps the symphonic formula fresh by adding sonic touchstones that are usually alien to the genre. The band aren't afraid to let elements of black metal or death metal seep into their concoction. "The Cabaret of Dreams" even has some swinging, well, cabaret influences on full display. Emerald Seas is apparently a prequel of sorts to Solveig, despite being its follow-up; it feels more sure-footed, if perhaps a little less hard-hitting on average. I'm eagerly looking forward to their new album to drop soon.


John T. Brennan, Ghosts of Newport: Spirits, Scoundrels, Legends, and Lore

When on vacation, I like to pick-up a book about the local ghost lore where possible. While in Newport, I purchased this book in the gift shop of one of the mansions we toured. I read it in July to prolong the good vacation feelings, albeit through tales of spectral evidence that condemned a man to death for the murder of his mother, the famous vampire hysteria of the late nineteenth century, local kooks such as paranormal investigators and mentalists, a werewolf priest (!!!) confined to an abusive asylum, and more.


Fear Street: 1994, 1978, and 1666

The Fear Street-branded slasher movies were surprisingly fun! The first movie in the trilogy, set in 1994, was a little disorienting with the number of 90s tunes it was packing into every conceivable crevice, but the surprisingly intense violence really made it land with some impact. The second film, 1978's entry, plays into more classic slasher film conventions in a satisfying way. The final film, set in 1666, was the one I was most skeptical of; that said, it doesn't really fumble the historical framework (although it does perhaps sidestep it), and it does bring a solid bookend to the series as a whole. Much better than it had any right to be.


30 Coins

30 Coins is a Spanish horror series made for HBO Europe, but you can watch it on HBO Max in the US. A sleepy town in Spain becomes the epicenter of strange phenomena: a cow gives birth to a seemingly human baby, a seance whisks a teenager away to some other mysterious realm, a magic mirror reflects a slightly different reality, a missing man suddenly returns home with no memory of where he's been for the last two years. At the core of the mystery is a cursed silver coin--one of the silver coins given to Judas as payment for betraying Christ. A monstrous faction within the Vatican will stop at nothing to get their hands on it, and all that stands in their way is a renegade priest, a beautiful veterinarian, and the town's beefcake mayor. Nice special effects (well, until the last episode) and strong performances make this a potential cult classic. Things are wide open at the close of the final episode in anticipation of another season, but we'll have to wait to see if we get it.


Scar of the Sun, Inertia

The combined aesthetics on display in Scar of the Sun's third album shouldn't work, but somehow they come together into a coherent whole. The combination of melodic death metal and Gothic metal is already a little eyebrow-raising, but add lyrical and thematic content with a heavy science fiction bent and it could have felt too scattershot in its approach. Inertia's finest moments are its most technical; there is some really great guitar playing and songcraft on display here.


The Green Knight

The Green Knight might not ultimately warrant inclusion here, as it suffers from the fate of many A24 movies: it is extremely beautiful to look at, but the pace is ponderous and the aesthetics are hiding a distinct lack of meaning. The poster is pretty indicative of the way A24 movies "subvert expectations": the poster for the GREEN Knight is rendered in RED and YELLOW. That said, the film really is gorgeous; the fact that I'd like to look at it again has pushed me toward noting it as part of the month's delights.


Norihiro Yagi, Claymore vols. 23-27

I couldn't hold off any longer; I just had to finish the series. At the end of Claymore, everyone is either a kaiju, a mecha, or a mecha-kaiju. Or, I suppose, a bystander. Claire and Raki are united against Pricilla. Clare and Teresa are also reunited against Priscilla, who ultimately comes off as a far more sympathetic villain than I would have ever guessed. Other than that, there are few surprises in Claymore's end game, which I am honestly fine with. I'm just pleased Norihiro Yagi didn't go for a downer ending, as I found that I had come to care about the characters more than I realized until the final pages were within sight. 

Anyway, mission complete: I read the entire season within one year--with five months to spare, no less! I went into Claymore looking for something to take the place of Berserk in the interim between volumes, but what I found instead was a great story that stands on its own merits.


Strahd Funko Pop

If you had told Ravenloft-loving me back in the 90s that there would one day be a mass-market Strahd von Zarovich toy, I would never have believed you. And yet, here we are.

Of course, the first thing I did was have Strahd make-out with Dracula from Castlevania.


Chibi Warhammer 40,000 Figures

Speaking of plastic bits that will likely collect dust in my home, I got this weird little kill team. What, no inquisitor figure? C'mon, Bandai!


Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Candlekeep Mysteries Review: The Price of Beauty and Book of Cylinders

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, and 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 Price of Beauty

Written by Mark Hulmes, developed & edited by Scott Fitzgerald Gray

The locale for "The Price of Beauty" feels novel; I can't think of many adventures that take place in a spa. The setting gives the adventure a whimsical feel that won't be for everyone, but I did think that the way it juxtaposes NPCs who are far too nice and accommodating against the growing dread that something is very wrong at the spa works well. Speaking of NPCs, the supporting cast here has plenty of opportunities for interesting interactions. However, there may be a few too many NPCs in the adventure; my advice is to thin the herd and only use the ones you find appealing. Overall, "The Price of Beauty" was a pretty fun adventure. We had a good time with it, and it led to some genuinely surprising moments of play. 


Book of Cylinders

Written by Graeme Barber, developed & edited by Kim Mohan

This adventure straight-up sucksThere was a bit of a furor when Candlekeep Mysteries first came out, as the author of "Book of Cylinders" was surprised at the adventure's final form when the book arrived. Apparently he had a lot of lore he wanted to add to the adventure (and to the Forgotten Realms as a whole) and more conflict between competing factions that was excised in the final version. He has a blog post about the content of his initial draft here. Some of his ideas that were cut might have helped, but I'm also not seeing anything in that post that assures me this adventure would have been good if left untouched by editors. 

Either way, we can't rely on speculation. I want to talk about the published adventure's many problems. To start with, the hook is very weak: as written, a librarian at Candlekeep approaches the players and asks "You're adventurers, right?" They are then tasked with going to a grippli village because the library has stopped receiving its regular shipment of...crab meat. Not exactly the stuff of thrilling adventure.

Also, there are no interesting NPCs to interact with in the adventure. The NPCs in "Book of Cylinders" exist to point the characters toward the objectives they're supposed to fulfill to end the adventure. If this was a video game, they'd have little arrows over their heads indicating that you should talk to them to advance the questline. Other than dropping plot points, they have no intriguing facets, no wants, schemes, or desires.

The biggest problem is that the adventure locations...are not actually adventure locations as I understand the term. There are certainly places the characters can go to, but they have very few interactive elements and there are no real exploration opportunities. The grippli village, the main adventure location, is hideously linear: fight or avoid crabs -> talk to the grippli -> go fight the yuan-ti -> end of adventure. 

The worst missed opportunity is the temple the yuan-ti have occupied within the grippli village. I've placed the map to the side of this paragraph because I do not want to be accused of exaggerating the issue here. Take a good, long look at that map. You can't go down into the sublevels because they're blocked by rubble. Note that there are only two keyed areas on the map. One is an anteroom that is essentially empty. It's a straight funnel toward the combat encounter in the other keyed area. There is zero, zilch, nada to explore. You're meant to move from obvious location to obvious location, killing the obvious bad guys along the way.

I don't know what happened here, but whatever it was resulted in easily the worst adventure in the book so far and one of the worst adventures I've ever encountered in a published product.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft: Creating Domains of Dread

Now that I've made posts covering all of the domains in Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft, I want to do a brief overview and review of the rest of the book's content. Last time we looked at Chapter 1: Character Creation, so now we're moving on to Chapter 2: Creating Domains of Dread.

The Creating Domains of Dread chapter is comprised of three sections: Creating a Darklord, Creating a Domain, and a discussion of Genres of Horror. The Creating a Darklord and Creating a Domain sections offer a combination of general advice, leading questions, and random tables to aid the DM in generating their own bespoke content for the setting. Everything here is pretty straightforward and feels sound; Darklords are perversions of virtue, they're irredeemably evil, and their domains are cages designed to torment them forever. 

One piece of advice struck me as being both really good and an about-face from the 3e version of Ravenloft: "Don’t get bogged down with the particulars of a working society." Many Ravenloft fans love the detail in the 3e books produced by S&S and feel that it made the setting feel more "real" as a "living, breathing world." Personally, I don't need or want two pages of detail on the ten most common trees found in Falkovnia, so the 3e-era books often feel hideously bloated to me. 

That said, the way that the 5e version of the setting relies on "nightmare logic" to explain away anything truly strange doesn't hit the spot for me either. The problem here is that basing everything on "nightmare logic," which really is the horror equivalent of "a wizard did it," robs the setting of the power of the uncanny. It cannot be adequately expressed how important an uncanny atmosphere is to horror stories. Unfortunately, when there is no baseline of reality to subvert, the power of the uncanny has little room to operate. I've said it before, but if everything is weird, nothing is.

Rounding out this chapter is a discussion of different genres of horror to use as inspirations for your new Darklords, new domains, or adventures set in Ravenloft. This section covers body horror, cosmic horror, dark fantasy, folk horror, ghost stories, and Gothic horror in detail. Each of these genres is given a brief overview, as well as random tables of monsters, villains, torments, settings, adventure sites, and plot hooks specific to their generic conventions. This section also gives terser overviews of four other horror subgenres: disaster horror, occult detective stories, psychological horror, and slasher horror. I like the advice here to mix and match the genres instead of keeping them separate or discreet; horror fiction rarely plays by a set of tightly defined rules.

It is interesting that for this version of Ravenloft WotC has chosen to move away from the idea that Ravenloft is solely a "Gothic fantasy" setting. To be honest, before the book was released this was an facet of it that gave me pause. However, now that I've had time to read the book and digest its content, the move makes a great deal of sense to me. 

Perhaps one of Ravenloft's limitations in the past was a steadfast adherence to the Gothic at the expense of other creative, but still horror-based, tangents. And realistically, Ravenloft's Gothic basis has always been cribbed more from horror movies that inherited the Gothic second-hand, rather than the original Gothic texts themselves. In the end, any feeling that the 5e version has strayed from the setting's mission statement are likely misplaced. After all, all of the horror genres the setting now takes inspiration from have clear and obvious roots in the Gothic in the first place.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Book of Cylinders

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 "Book of Cylinders." Fair warning: spoilers lurk below.

The Characters

Rufus Clarke, human barbarian played by Steve

Doctor Tobias Wolfe, human sorcerer, played by Dennis

Rising Leaf, human monk, played by Michael

Events 

The group were sent to retrieve a number of curious books being donated to Creedhall's library by Tobias's uncle Elbert. The books were of an unusual type: they were five cylinders marked with pictographs meant to be rolled onto wet clay to display the story they told. As they are ushered into Uncle Elbert's parlor, they couldn't help but notice that a serpent headdress-wearing mummy in a glass case dominated decor of the room. Things started to seem awry when Elbert produced three cylinders instead of the five that were promised. It was then that Tobias noticed the green devil face brooch pinned to his uncle's lapel--an item he recognized as part of a ritual of soul transference. The jig was up: someone or something else was inhabiting Uncle Elbert's body!

"Uncle Elbert" made a break for it, but Rising Leaf was hot on his heels. Leaf grabbed the strange brooch and tore it off Elbert's jacket. Elbert immediately collapsed, seemingly dead. When his body was turned over, his throat began to pulse ominously...and then a snake emerged from his mouth and slithered away. Back inside, Tobias examined the mummy, which began to communicate with the group. It said its name was Saretomet and that in life it had been a priest of the Five-Headed Empress. He pleaded to be released from the glass cage, promising to divulge the whereabouts of the remaining two cylinder books, but the trio were at first reluctant to do so. 

Leaf ultimately opened the glass case and the mummy began to move. Leaf tried to slam the case shut, but the mummy pushed back. They struggled over the door to the case to a stalemate. Eventually, the group decided to let the mummy out and see what he had to say. Saretomet claimed to have been removed from a temple and brought to Uncle Elbert's house by the same cultists who killed Elbert, commandeered his body, and made off with the remaining two cylinders. 

He drew them a map to the village nearby the temple and also used the remaining three cylinders to show the party what secrets they held. The cylinders told the story of a village of frogfolk who made their living catching giant crabs and selling their meat to traders. Their village was shown under attack by snakefolk, who decimated their dwellings. The only building that remained in their village was an ancient stone temple. Leaving the mummy resting in an overstuffed chair, the group decided it was time to take a boat from out back and head down the river in search of the two missing cylinders.

Arriving at the village meant crossing through a maze of crab cages, some of which had been damaged. Four giant crabs attempted to climb up into their rowboat, which necessitated a tense brawl, but the party managed to fight them off and make it to the docks. Past the docks were a series of hastily erected buildings decorated with claws and carapaces from the giant crabs; the place had the feel of a refugee camp. The party noticed that small frog-like humanoids were peering at them from the doorways of mud brick buildings. The frogfolk approached with makeshift weapons. 

Luckily, Tobias could speak Primordial, so they had a language in common. The frogfolk reported that their village had been visited by serpentfolk interested in excavating the temple on their land; these serpentfolk had been kind and generous, but soon a different group of serpentfolk arrived, taking the previous group hostage, destroying the frogfolk's ancestral village, and driving them out. Worse yet, these malign serpentfolk had taken over the breeding pools of the frogfolk and were eating their eggs!

The group decided to deal with serpentfolk guarding the eggs first. Tobias took the serpentfolk guards by surprise by plunging them into a void of otherworldly horror, while Leaf and Rufus engaged them in hand-to-hand combat. After a vicious slog of a battle, the group had dealt with this group of serpentfolk. They make a tactical withdrawal back to the frogfolk compound, where they were offered healing in a sacred pool. Strangely, they also emerged with knowledge of the frogfolk's language of croaks and ribbits.

Moving further up the river, they sought out the temple and managed to interrupt a fiendish ritual. The last remaining "good" serpentfolk from the first group who encountered the frog people was tied to a stone altar, about to be sacrificed by serpentfolk cultists. Leaf engaged their leader one-on-one, managing to destroy him with volley after volley of sword cuts and kicks to the face, while Rufus and Tobias finished his two serpent-headed followers. 

After the savage melee, the group released the serpentfolk's captive, and found the mummy's sarcophagus--which held some treasure for them and also the two remaining cylinder books. Viewing their picture-story revealed something shocking: they depicted Rufus, Tobias, and Leaf coming to the frogfolk village and liberating it from the serpentfolk cultists! All along, the cylinders had been "books" of prophecy foretelling the party's victory over the decadent serpentfolk.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Strahd Loves, Man Kills Reprinted and the Final Printing of Dirge of Urazya

Firstly, a huge thank you to everyone who bought a copy of the first issue of Strahd Loves, Man Kills or promoted it on social media. With your help I was able to sell out my print run in a week--which makes it the fastest selling project I've done to date! That encouragement will keep me going; more on that below.

If you missed out on grabbing a copy of SLMK, have no fear: it has been reprinted and is ready to ship! If you want a copy, you can find it here on my Big Cartel page.

Secondly, my Dirge of Urazya zine has also been reprinted. I had hoped to do another run of it sooner, but then the pandemic happened. If you want a copy of Dirge of Urazya, it is available here, but be forewarned if you were thinking of waiting: this is likely the final print run of that zine. Once it's gone, it's probably gone for good.

Thirdly, some news: the reception of Strahd Loves, Man Kills has been so rewarding that it is officially becoming a quarterly publication. There is more Ravenloft to come. 

In fact, can you keep a secret? The second and third issues of Strahd Loves, Man Kills are already written. Here's a taste of what will be in the second issue:

  • A Gothic wild-west themed take on the domain of Nova Vaasa
  • Dandy and inquisitor backgrounds
  • Advice on running Candlekeep Mysteries as a Ravenloft campaign
  • Seven classic factions from Ravenloft's past updated with a fresh coat of shadowy paint
  • Two nonplayer characters: the horrific artist Donesta Sangino and the doomed gunslinger Elleri Ban'Ethyn
  • Ideas for making gunslinging characters of your own
  • A bibliography of body horror inspirations
The second issue will drop in early October, just in time for it to make it to your doorstep by Halloween.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft: Character Creation

Now that I've made posts covering all of the domains in Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft, I want to do a brief overview and review of the rest of the book's content. Let's start with Chapter 1: Character Creation, which features the book's player-facing goodies.

The first chapter begins with advice for players about how to engage in a horror-themed adventure or campaign. This is a particularly worthwhile discussion, as one of the elements of playing in a horror game that is rarely addressed is the importance of player buy-in. It's not uncommon to see players complain online about how horror games aren't "scary," when the issue is that they're the ones who aren't leaning in to the genre. The advice in this section includes the admonition to "limit comedy," which is a deceptively important piece of advice. Of course you aren't going to achieve a horrorific atmosphere if you're cracking the same tired Monte Python jokes.

This section also includes three lineages for player characters. Lineages differ from "races" in that they can either be chosen at character creation or added to an existing character in play to mark their transformation into some more horrifying. The three lineages are dhampir, reborn, and hexblood. The dhampir and reborn cover classic horror archetypes; they're vampiric beings (without being fully undead) and creatures brought back from the grave ala Frankenstein's monster. The hexblood has less of an origin traceable to classic horror tropes: they're people who have made bargains with hags and found themselves transformed as part of the pact.

This section also includes rules for Dark Gifts, abilities that grant useful powers and act as limited curses that could bedevil the characters. Dark Gifts are usually "boons" granted by entering into a compact with an evil supernatural entity, but they can also be used to represent the ways that characters in Ravenloft are warped by the setting itself. In that sense, they take the place of the Dark Powers Checks of previous editions, though they are different in one important respect: a player has the agency to agree to a Dark Gift being bestowed upon their character, rather than being foisted on a character as punishment for "playing wrong." There are eight Dark Gifts detailed in the book, which of course leaves plenty of room to invent your own to fill in the inevitable gaps.

Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft also details two new subclasses: the College of Spirits bard and the Undead patron warlock. Bards of the College of Spirits use ghost stories to fuel their powers; they're very much in the mold of Victorian spiritualists. The Undead patron is essentially a replacement for the Undying warlock patron, which was widely deemed to be underpowered. A warlock who selects this patron serves a powerful undead creature; several big name undead in the D&D multiverse are name-checked as potential patrons. Oddly, Azalin Rex is mentioned even though he's "missing" in the setting as presented in the book. I've never been particularly concerned with mechanical balance, so I won't evaluate these subclasses in that regard, but they both have a number of interesting and compelling features that fit their themes.

Closing out this section are a number of new background features, such as the ability to navigate the Mists or communicate with ghosts as a spirit medium, a reprinted (and corrected) haunted one background, the investigator background, random tables of characteristics suited for characters in a horror game, and a table of horror-centric trinkets that a character might begin play with.

* * *

If you made it to the end of this post, you must really like Ravenloft. And if you really like Ravenloft, you're going to like Strahd Loves, Man Kills, my Ravenloft fanzine, which can be purchased here.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft: Tepest and Valachan

There have been many people covering the rules content in Van Richten's Guide, such as the new lineages, new subclasses, dark gifts, and other widgets, but I want to talk about the domains as a long-time fan of Ravenloft. How do they stack up, what alterations have been made, and how gameable does this iteration of the Domains of Dread feel? I've covered Barovia, Bluetspur, and Borca herethe Carnival and Darkon hereDementlieu and Falkovnia here, Har'Akir, Hazlan, and I'Cath here, and Kalakeri and Kartakass here, and Lamordia, Mordent, and Richemulot here. We're finishing out tour of the major domains by looking at Tepest and Valachan.


Tepest

The 2e version of Tepest always struck me as a good concept poorly executed. It's main issue is that it combines two ideas that are quite strong on their own, but don't really fit congruently together. On one hand, Tepest is a realm that draws on Celtic folk tales to posit to domain haunted by evil fey creatures. On the other, it's also a domain that emphasizes the abuse and intolerant ideology of organized religion, as is often demonstrated by Gothic novels such as The Monk. The church in the old Tepest creates an atmosphere of hate and fear directed toward all fey creatures, whether they are malign or not. However, some odd choices were made there; for example, the church in Tepest is based on the Celtic pantheon, which feels like a weird fit for a religion supposed to be oriented against the fey.

The new version of Tepest takes on aspect of the old version, a leaning toward folk horror in regards to the fey, and explodes that into the overarching theme of the domain. The Tepest presented in Van Richten's Guide is boiled down to a single settlement, the village of Viktal, and makes it the centerpiece of the premier folk horror domain in Ravenloft. As such, the influences are obvious: both The Wicker Man and Midsommar loom large here. Viktal is a simple rural community of friendly villagers...who prove to be a little too friendly. In truth, their survival is contingent on offering a sacrifice to a hag known as Mother at a seasonal celebration known as the Tithe.


Valachan

I've posted before about how I feel that the former Darklord of the 2e-era Valachan, Baron Urik von Kharkov, was a huge missed step. His backstory is hopelessly convoluted and pointless (he was originally a panther, who was transformed into a man, and later became a vampire), and it was always gross that the sole black Darklord of the Ravenloft's Core was a beast at heart. If there was a single domain that was badly in need of revision, it was Valachan.

Thankfully, the version of Valachan in Van Richten's Guide is absolutely amazing. A strong and compelling theme emerges: the fear of being hunted. The Darklord of the new Valachan is a woman named Chakuna, and like her literary antecedents in "The Most Dangerous Game" and The Sound of His Horn, she hunts those who have had the misfortune of finding themselves in her jungle domain. I love the ways that this new version of the domain has connections to both the domain's past and its use of D&D's trappings; Chakuna explicitly slew and overthrew Baron von Kharkov and she hunts her prey with a pack of displacer beasts!

Sunday, July 4, 2021

The First Issue of Strahd Loves, Man Kills is Released!

The first issue of Strahd Loves, Man Kills has been released! That link will take you to my Big Cartel page, where the zine can be purchased for a mere $6 in print, with a complementary pdf to follow.

I bid you welcome...to the inaugural issue of Strahd Loves, Man Kills, a Ravenloft fanzine for the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons. This zine was inspired in equal parts by my enduring love of the Ravenloft setting and by the recent release of Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft. Keep in mind that this zine presents my own idiosyncratic vision of the setting. You will find much within these pages that diverges from the setting’s canon, but my hope is that SLMK will give you new toys to play with and inspire your own unique take on Ravenloft.

The first issue contains the following features:

  • Lurid Locations. This feature is dedicated to new and revised areas of the Ravenloft setting. In this installment, I present Strega Hollow and the mysterious and miraculous wilds of the Wychbog.
  • Baleful Backgrounds. This feature presents three new backgrounds for characters: country squire, cultist, and cut-wife.
  • Seeds of Evil. This feature details an adventure seed you can use to craft a scenario set in Ravenloft. This issue’s installment, entitled “The Thing in Elbert’s Parlor,” posits a visit to an uncle who has just added a mummy to his collection of antiquarian artifacts.
  • Cryptic Alliances. This feature adds additional secret societies and factions to Ravenloft. In this installment, I detail the Cult of the Rotmaiden, a circle of druids devoted to Zuggtmoy.
  • Tragic Heroes. This features give advice on creating characters who fit Ravenloft’s horrific mood. This installment focuses on troubled troubadours.
  • Random Ruin. This feature presents a random table to enrich your game. This installment is a table meant to generate a grandiose title for your campaign arc.
  • Forbidden Tomes. This feature presents a bibliography of a particular genre of horror for your edification and entertainment. This installment explores folk horror.
This is a fanzine in the truest sense: it is a labor of love crafted in the DIY style. If you're a Ravenloft fan you might not want to miss this one. If you missed the link to the Big Cartel page, here it is again.

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Rhode Island Vacation, We Shall Sing a Song Into the Deep, Vampirella, and More

Things that brought me delight in June, 2021:


Rhode Island Vacation

I had the pleasure of a vacation in Rhode Island with my girlfriend at the start of the month. Things I saw: the Dark Shadows house (pictured to the right), The Breakers, Marble House, a topiary garden, another fancy house and gardens (the name of which escapes me), the grave of Mercy Brown (Rhode Island's famed "vampire"). Things I ate: a sundae from Newport Creamery and Dell's lemonade. Too many great things to list here; trust me, it was a wonderful time. Although! We did hear the ominous sounds of someone walking around the upstairs of our AirBnB, which caused us to do a room by room perimeter sweep in search of intruders the first night, heh.


Andrew Kelly Stewart, We Shall Sing a Song Into the Deep

We Shall Sing a Song Into the Deep has a very cool premise: a nuclear submarine is inhabited by monkish ascetic sailors bearing one final warhead that they plan to launch to render the final judgment on the post-apocalyptic world above the waves. Thankfully, the book lives up to that premise. A raid against the topside dwellers brings a mysterious scientist into the enclosed and fanatical world of the submarine, triggering a crisis of faith that promises to forever change life aboard the submarine. This is quite a short novel, but despite its brevity it creates a claustrophobic atmosphere that explodes like a powder keg. One of the best things I've read all year.


Blackbriar, The Cause of Shipwreck and Snow White and Rose Red

The Cause of Shipwreck is Blackbriar's debut full-length album, and it follows in the footsteps of their prior EPs with a sound that is part symphonic metal and part Gothic pomp. The album certainly does not let down the momentum they had gained over the course of their smaller releases; the record is clearly their most polished and cohesive effort yet. This one is going to be easy to spin all summer long. I also picked up the Snow White and Rose Red single. Although it only features three versions of the same song, it's a good song. No complaints!


Grant Morrison and Mark Millar, Vampirella: Masters Series Volume One

Grant Morrison and Mark Millar go uncharacteristically hard in the first three-issue arc in this collection. It reads more like a Garth Ennis joint; to wit, it's got: vampire AIDS (developed by Saddam Hussein and tested on the Kurds, no less), lesbian incest, a daughter who is repeatedly forced to call her gangland father a "dirty wop" at gunpoint, and this charming phrasing: "She'll go down easier than a transexual hooker on the Nutty Professor himself." Also, between the warrior nuns dolled up in "chastity latex" in the second arc and Seven Soldiers, I feel confident that Morrison is a fetishist of a very particular stripe. Overall, this volume is a good example of the dueling intentions behind the comic: it tries to be both an excuse for pin-up shots and tell a rip-roaring action story, which could theoretically be paired to work in tandem, but isn't entirely successful here because it can't fully commit to either. Additionally, for a character we're supposed to take as a bad-girl babe, there sure are a lot of panels where Vampirella has a busted face.


Carach Angren, Frankensteina Strataemontanus

Carach Angren specialize in the style of theatrical black metal pioneered by Cradle of Filth. Like Cradle, Carach Angren also has a penchant for concept albums; Frankensteina Strataemontanus is, as the name suggests, their retelling of Frankenstein. I can't get enough of these unhinged monster tales wrapped in the trappings of black metal bombast. Essential listening for anyone preparing a campaign set in Lamordia, if you ask me.


Warren Ellis, Vampirella: Masters Series Volume Two

My journey through the trashy 90s Vampirella comics of the Harris era continues! This one is written by Warren Ellis, but has the same art team (Conner and Palmiotti) as the first volume. I wonder if they liked this material better than the stuff Grant Morrison and Mark Millar were doing or if they were given a more relaxed pace to work at...because the art is definitely less sloppy here. It's interesting to me that someone felt the need to retcon Vampirella's origins; I guess "space vampire" didn't cut it at the time, though to me that still feels more fresh than "child of the biblical Lilith." The real treat is the fully painted mini-story that rounds out the volume. But then, I'm a mark for painted comics. 


The Dark Element, self-titled and Songs the Night Sings

It's always interesting to see how well former members of Nightwish adapt to life outside that band. In The Dark Element, Anette Olzon doesn't veer too far from well-trod paths. The Dark Element has the same kind of symphonic metal bombast as her tenure with Nightwish, though overall The Dark Element's albums are less focused on overarching themes. There's also an element of electronic flourish here that feels different from her previous work. I think "My Sweet Mystery" is a bop and I don't care who knows it.

Brian Keene, Urban Gothic

Brian Keene's Urban Gothic is basically a splatter-slasher horror movie in novel form. Six suburban kids end up in the ghetto when their car breaks down and they seek shelter in an abandoned house that happens to be occupied by inbred mutant killers. And then some black teens, a middle-aged man who is too old for this shit, and a guy out to steal the plumbing get involved. Don't expect much character development, backstory, or deep social commentary; rather, brace yourself for gross-out moments. The mix here is The Hills Have Eyes, C.H.U.D., and those grade Z gorefests that you can never remember the name of after the final reel. 


The Murder of My Sweet, Bye Bye Lullaby and Echoes of the Aftermath

My journey into the poppy symphonic metal of The Murder of My Sweet began last month, but I soldiered on by listening to Bye Bye Lullaby and Echoes of the Aftermath this month. Bye Bye Lullaby struck me as having less of an electronic influence that I supposed usual for the band; some of the tracks even had a faint noir vibe to them. Echoes of the Aftermath, in contrast, does acrobatic flips trying to reconcile the pop with the symphonic heft. I like the whiplash, frankly.


Black Narcissus (FX)

Full confession: I've never seen the original Black Narcissus, though now that I've seen this newer version made for FX I dearly want to. A group of nuns are sent on a mission to establish a school in an old, remote palace in the Himalayas. The palace was once a pleasure palace for a raj, and is still filled with erotic art, which prefigures the drama of repressed desire that springs forth as the nuns attempt to repurpose the space, and their young Indian charges, as something more befitting their Catholic hegemony. Of course, things get a bit Gothic when either madness or the ghosts of the past (or conceivably both) intrude on their spiritual purpose, threatening to unleash all that has been repressed. I thought this was quite good, but I bet the original movie and the novel are even better. Things to look forward to, track it back to the source, etc.


Saint Maud

Although many will disagree with this sentiment, I feel a distinct sinking feeling every time I see the A24 logo appear on the screen right before a movie starts. This time, however, I was pleasantly surprised as Maud joins The Witch in the vanishingly small niche genre known as "A24 movies I actually enjoyed." While it certainly isn't perfect, and in fact features one aesthetic misstep that made me audibly groan, this film about a hospice nurse who has recently become a fanatical convert to Roman Catholicism and her "mission" to save the soul of a hedonistic dancer dying of cancer worked for me. 

It's a slow film despite its relatively short run time, but it manages to be simultaneously difficult to look at and difficult to look away from. The merger of body horror and psychological horror in Saint Maud is particularly noteworthy; we've been told that these varieties of horror are distinct and oppositional, but their confluence here underlines their potent interconnection.


Dan Abnett, Xenos

Warhammer easily has the best tie-in game fiction. There's a ton of it out there, so I assume most of it is garbage, but at the top end it's actually decent stuff. Of course, the stuff you can compare it with is generally terrible, so maybe that isn't much of an accolade. But anyway, Dan Abnett's Xenos is a surprisingly fun read.

The opening chapters have a pretty badass premise too: the main character has chased a criminal psychic to a planet where the population is kept in cryogenic storage for most of the year due to the climate having an insanely harsh winter. The psychic has caused these people to awaken from cryogenesis early, and there are no medical staff to guide them back to life, so there's just people thawing out and dying everywhere. 

One of the things I appreciate the book is its willingness to branch out from the main aesthetic to keep things fresh. Most of the book is a film noir-ish investigation story, perhaps a bit like a sci-fi James Bond in places, but there's also a nice sword & sorcery moment when  the main character and his crew have been captured by baddies, and interrogated, and then thrown into a fighting pit where they have to fight off some saber-toothed tigers. There's also plenty of action sequences and even a dogfight in space!


Lord of the Lost, Fears

Fears is slick Gothic metal in the vein of HIM, The 69 Eyes, and Lacrimas Profundere. Originally a solo project, Lord of the Lost grew into a full band when it became evident that a filled-out roster was needed to pull off Chris Harms's creative vision. The end result, Lord of the Lost's debut album Fears, is a driving effort with plenty of melodrama and melancholy. I'm really looking forward to their new album dropping next month.


Norihiro Yagi, Claymore vols. 19-22

Things begin to move into the endgame of Claymore's narrative trajectory. (I think? We may be in for another hefty time jump.) Phantom Miria inspires a revolt among the Claymores against the Organization and gets some cool new scars; Clare is swallowed by and assimilated into a monstrous creature. The Organization unleashes yet another type of killer lady/demon hybrid on the world (and, of course, the Claymores who have rebelled against them). 

Fender Jaguar

I've been playing a lot more guitar lately, and serendipitously was gifted with this Fender Kurt Cobain Jaguar by a friend who found it abandoned in a street a few years ago. He valiantly tried to reunite it with its owner in case it was lost, but his attempts came to naught and now it is mine! The timing is perfect, as I was considering buying something with humbucker pick-ups to play in addition to my single-coil Strat. Also, I can say without hyperbole that even despite the battle damage on this guitar, it is easily the nicest instrument I've even had the pleasure of owning. It's surprisingly heavy, but ridiculously easy to play. Now, all I have to do is figure out what all these switches and knobs do.


Figurines of Adorable Power: Giff

My girlfriend gave me this friendly little giff, who now sits on my desk when I'm running my online D&D game. What a sidekick!