Tuesday, October 19, 2021

The Canopic Being

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 "The Canopic Being." Fair warning: spoilers lurk below.

The Characters

Elsabeth, human paladin played by Anne

Rufus, human barbarian played by Steve

Events

As is usual, Elsabeth and Rufus were called into a meeting with Horatio Lupa to receive their next assignment on behalf of the library. This time, however, Horatio was in a dark mood; he paced the room as he informed them about a book that had already been in the library's possession for nine months. The book was initially thought to be a tome related to ancient burial practices and therefore misfiled, but a scholar at the university named Maya Sadaar realized that it was actually a manuscript detailing the many ways to make an undead mummy. The book itself proved to have an unnerving appearance: it was bound in some sort of scaly hide that randomly sprouted reptilian eyes that seemed to watch everyone in the room.

Maya had deep misgivings about the book, but she had gone missing before she could relate her concerns to Horatio. Worse yet, at the back of the book was a list of "sacrifices" and two of Elsabeth and Rufus's coworkers in the SCD and a friend from two previous adventures were on that list: Rising Leaf, Tobias Wolfe, and Lady Valor's names were there alongside Alessia Baseer (a priest at Our Lady of the Sorrowful Vision) and Maya Sidaar's. Adding a further ominous tone to this list was the fact that both Rising Leaf and Tobias had been unexplainably missing from work. Even more disquieting was that the list of sacrifices ended with Rufus Clarke's name!

Since it appeared that Rufus could be the next target, he and Elsabeth attempted to set a trap for whomever might be after him. Rufus stationed himself in a tavern, with Elsabeth disguised in a hooded cloak at a nearby table. However, the person who approached Rufus surprised them: a woman dressed in clerical vestments, who looked like a fish out of water in the busy tavern, sought him out. Her name was Shira Endellion and she, like the missing Alessia, was a priestess at Our Lady of the Sorrowful Vision. She explained that she knew that Rufus and Elsabeth would be at the tavern because as a priestess dedicated to the saint of foresight she had been blessed with a vision of herself meeting the pair in this particular establishment. She also had a vision of taking the duo back to her church to help them solve the mystery that was currently before them.

At Our Lady of the Sorrowful Vision, Shira was able to add more information to the developing picture. She informed Elsabeth and Rufus that in the catacombs beneath the church lurked an uncanny older temple, and that Alessia had been occupied with researching its origins before she disappeared. She also noted that Rising Leaf, Tobias, Valor, and Maya has all come to the church bearing warrants issued by the Church allowing them access to the old temple complex. Rufus was able to discern that the writs were clever forgeries, but it was clear that all of the missing people had been lured into the old temple's depths.

Rufus and Elsabeth decided that they needed to venture into the old temple in hopes of finding their friends. The brick and stone of the catacombs gave way to strange material; the old temple was comprised entirely of glowing crystal that had been etched with draconic design elements. Like the book they had handled earlier, reptilian eyes would blink open on the walls, floor, and ceiling to spy upon them. Surprisingly, they were greeted by the missing priestess Alessia Baseer in the first chamber of the complex.

Alessia said she was there to welcome them to the temple on behalf of "the prophet" and that all of the people they were seeking were already deep in spiritual contemplation with him. She said they were free to explore the temple as they wished, but she did warn them against the dangers of the temple's hall of mirrors and its crystalline dais. With that, she left them to their own devices and entered her bedchamber. Rufus got the impression that whatever was speaking through Alessia and piloting her body was not the woman herself. Moreover, Elsabeth noticed a fresh scar that started near the woman's left collar bone and descended below her garments. Seeing an opportunity to gain some valuable, if grisly, information, Rufus burst through the door of her bedchamber and knocked the surprised priestess unconscious with a single blow. Alessia was then dragged out of the old temple to where Shira was waiting with four guards. With Shira waiting to provide divine healing, some impromptu exploratory surgery was performed, which determined that the heart beating in Alessia's chest was a shriveled, desiccated organ that smelled of resin and herbs--it was likely not her original heart.

Upon returning to the crystalline temple, Rufus and Elsabeth encountered several rooms of strange phenomena, including a room full of floating mirrors shards (when one touched Elsabeth, she had a vision of herself being sliced open by an unknown assailant) and a domed room where the ceiling gave a view of a far away land of shifting sands and pyramids (gravity was suspended in this chamber, causing the duo to float in mid-air). In another chamber the duo found the corpse of Maya Sadaar. She was lying in a pool of dried blood with a dagger and a strange object laying just out of reach, as if in death she had released her grasp on both. The object proved to be a withered pancreas that smelled of resin and preserving herbs. It appeared as if Maya had realized that she had a monstrous organ transplanted into her body and killed herself digging it out. 

Also found in Maya's pocket was a sheaf of notes that detailed a way to ensure that a mummy could not reform itself after the destruction of its corporeal form: its heart would need to be destroyed to keep it from returning. This knowledge would soon come in handy. After traversing a room full of floating motes of light, the pair found themselves in another chamber in which gravity was suspended. Floating in the middle of chamber was a figure that Rufus immediately recognized: it was Saretomet, the mummy that the SCD had set free in a prior adventure! Having noted the power of the group who had feed him, Saretomet had added them to the list of mortals he wanted to take over by transplanting his organs into their bodies. Rufus was the last "sacrifice" on his list.

The ensuing battle against Saretomet was harrowing. Saromet's hit the pair with some absolutely diabolic spells that left them greatly weakened or poisoned. A massive punch from the mummy left Elsabeth on the verge of death, but Rufus poured a healing potion down her throat in time to save her. A good move, too, as Elsabeth soon had Saretomet impaled on her blade...after which he promptly turned into a pile of dust. However, his dissolution also left behind a pile of healthy organs: a heart, a brain, an eye, a pancreas, and a pair of kidneys. The organs were taken by Elsabeth in hopes that they could be returned to their rightful owners.

After the brawl with Saretomet, Rufus and Elsabeth continued to search for their missing friends. Inside a chamber that contained a number of canopic jars and a crystal sarcophagus, they were met with Leaf and Tobias, who were still clearly under the mummy's control. Another fight broke out, with the possessed Tobias unleashing bolts of psychic fury and Leaf using his peerless martial arts skills against his compatriots. Leaf managed to knock Elsabeth unconscious, but in the end both Leaf and Tobias were knocked out without killing them.

With their friends unconscious, Elsabeth and Rufus were free to explore the chamber. The canopic jars held mummified organs. The question of Lady Valor's whereabouts was soon answered when she appeared, with an eye not her own glaring out of her face, and attacked the duo. A command spell from Elsabeth caused Valor to drop her sword; Rufus promptly knocked her out as well. With Saretomet vanquished, at least for the moment, and their friends and their organs collected, Rufus and Elsabeth elected to stop exploring the temple and get down to the dirty business of restoring their allies.

The unconscious Leaf, Tobias, Valor, and Alessia were taken to Creedhall's medical college. The surgeons there worked in tandem with priests from Our Lady of the Sorrowful Vision to remove the mummy's organs from the unconscious victims and replace them with the originals. Once the surgeries were completed and everyone was stable and on the road to recovery, the mummy's organs, including his heart, were gathered in a metal pail and set afire. As Saretomet's chance to rejuvenate himself was destroyed, his voice came on the dying wind, promising that the SCD could not escape the greater doom he had foreseen in their future...

Sunday, October 17, 2021

The Book of Inner Alchemy


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 "The Book of Inner Alchemy." Fair warning: spoilers lurk below.

The Characters

Elsabeth, human paladin played by Anne

Rising Leaf, human monk played by Michael

Gnargar, kobold monk played by Heather

Events

A fatal incident had occurred in a restricted section of the library: two members of the Special Collections Department had been murdered and pages had been cut from a tome called The Book of Inner Alchemy. The book described ways of manipulating ki to serve as a shortcut to immortality. Examining the crime scene provided a few clues. Gnargar ascertained that the two SCD agents had been killed by someone wielding powerful martial arts. Also discovered in one of the SCD agent's hands was a scrap of black cloth emblazoned with a white skull. Leaf and Gnargar both recognized the insignia; it was the symbol of the Death's Head Killaz, a group of monks who had turned from the righteous path to operate as bandits in the Cloakwood.

Into the Cloakwood, then. As they traversed the forest looking for the hideout of the Death's Head Killaz, the group smelled a noxious scent and spotted a writhing darkness inhabiting a hollowed out petrified tree. Approaching the tree were two people wearing black outfits and with their faces painted to resembled skulls. The pair were pushing a wheelbarrow piled high with corpses. The group watched as the two Death's Head monks began to heave the bodies into the oozing darkness, which consumed the corpses. The group decided to follow the two monks back to their hideout.

The group followed the two monks into a clearing that sheltered three wooden structures and a larger stone edifice shaped like a blossoming lotus flower. Between the entrance to the clearing and the buildings stood a forest of stone pillars. As the group headed toward the smallest of the wooden buildings, they were spotted by monks clinging to the stone columns above them, where they were keeping watch. There were four lackeys dressed in black and a man with silver hair who was clearly their leader. The leader identified himself as Steel Crane, and his black jacket was torn exactly where the Death's Head Killaz skull insignia should have been.

Rising Leaf engaged Steel Crane in a high-flying martial arts duel as the two monks bounced from pillar to pillar trading blows. Gnargar and Elsabeth kept the lackeys occupied, felling them one after another. Back up amid the stone columns, Steel Crane swung a metal whip at Leaf; Leaf leapt up and ran along the thin steel coil, closing the distance to land a fearsome kick that knocked his opponent unconscious. Leaf rode his body as it fell, using it to cushion the impact of the fall.

Steel Crane was revived and interrogated. He revealed the Bak Mei, the leader of the Death's Head Killaz was currently studying the stolen pages in the lotus-shaped temple. Sneaking past the Death's Head Killaz acolytes in the compound's library, dojo, and sleeping quarters, the group burst into the stone lotus building. The center of the building was dominated by a pool of water filled with floating lillies, beyond which was Bak Mei, the elderly master of the Death's Head Killaz. Bak Mei was attended by a number of lackeys and by Jade Tigress, his facially scarred second in command!

Leaf engaged with Bak Mei, while Gnargar faced off against Jade Tigress and Elsabeth held the lackeys at bay. Rising Leaf found himself overmatched by the older martial arts master; Bak Mei's manipulation of ki left him stunned and wide-open to a flurry of attacks that knocked him unconscious. Gnargar triumphed against Jade Tigress and her poisonous strikes, but was felled when Bak Mei turned his attentions on him--Gnargar was also knocked out. Elsabeth managed the lackeys by knocking them into the pool of lilies and slaying them as they emerged one-by-one, but she now found herself alone against Bak Mei. Drawing on a previously known inner well of strength, she plunged her sword past the monk's canny defenses, ultimately ensuring the group's victory. The day was carried on a razor-thin margin. Leaf and Gnargar were revived, and  after gathering the missing pages from The Book of Inner Alchemy, the battered and bruised group fled the compound before more lackeys could intervene.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

The Wychbog

The Wychbog

A location in Ravenloft

The Wychbog is a swampy forest that can be placed in any domain that could feature a wooded fen. The woods are avoided by the populace of any settlements nearby, save by those seeking a cure to an otherwise fatal illness. Stricken individuals left within the Wychbog sometimes find themselves miraculously restored to health. However, most who enter the Wychbog hoping for a remedy disappear and are never heard from again.

Those who emerge cured from the Wychbog have encountered the Sisters of the Wychbog. Wicked Hattie, Crooked Nell, and Ada Rottentooth are three ancient hags who live in a rustic stone cabin deep within the wetlands. They have the stats of a night hag, green hag, and annis hag, respectively. The Sisters of the Wychbog never disguise their terrible natures under palatable illusions. All three sisters are corpulent and slavering; they wear leather butcher’s aprons stained with blood and viscera. 

When the Sisters of the Wychbog encounter a dying humanoid in their territory, they make that person a poisonous offer—they will cure whatever ailment besieges the sufferer, but in return that person must bring them a living child as payment. If the Sisters take a shine to the child, it is transformed into a hexblood. If the child proves truculent or unpromising, it is eaten—the Sisters of the Wychbog find the flesh of children to be a delectable treat.

Dread Possibilities

If the Sisters of the Wychbog do not suit your purpose in adding this location to your game, consider replacing them with one of the following alternatives:

The slumbering angel. An angel was interred within the Wychbog in a deathless sleep after it nearly died trying to defend a penitent pilgrim from an attack by fiends. The healing power of the woods is simply the holy grace emitted by the celestial's presence. Learning of the link between the angel's fate and the curative aspect of the Wychbog poses a difficult moral quagmire: would it be better to unearth and revive the angel or keep it buried and retain the Wychbog as a place possessing supernatural therapeutic effects?

The kindly ones. There are two hidden factions who quietly make war against each other within the Wychbog. One faction is comprised of kindly fey creatures who heal the sick they find within the woods. The other is a coterie of necromancers who collect the bodies of the dying and use them as the raw materials needed to construct an army of the living dead. If the fey are not aided in stopping the necromancers, their undead army will eventually be unleashed on the land as a ravening horde of zombies, skeletons, and bog mummies.

A serpentfolk cult. The Wychbog is home to a yuan-ti cult who sometimes provide healing to those they discover within the marshy lands they have claimed. Individuals restored to health are sent back to their communities as living weapons—at any moment the healed person could transform into a monstrous giant snake and attack their fellow citizens.

The Feywild spring. Those who are cured in the Wychbog have discovered a magical spring whose healing waters originate in the Feywild. Unfortunately, the waters also affect their memories. At first, they find themselves unable to remember the spring that affected their miraculous cure. Once they return from the Wychbog, other memories begin to fade until nothing of the past remains accessible. 

If you like this kind of content, consider buying an issue of Strahd Loves, Man Kills for more Ravenloft content! Both the second issue and the reprint of the first are down to single-digit copies available.

Friday, October 8, 2021

Wait for Night, Judge Dee and the Limits of the Law, Bobby and Her Father

Three items for your reading pleasure as Halloween approaches:

"Wait for Night"

- Stephen Graham Jones, Tor

 

 

 



"Judge Dee and the Limits of the Law"

- Lavie Tidhar, Tor

 

 

 

 

"Bobby and Her Father"

- Gillian Daniels, The Dark Magazine

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Candlekeep Mysteries Review: Kandlekeep Dekonstruction and Zikran's Zephyrean Tome

 

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, and Sarah of Yellowcrest Manor and Lore of Lurue 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.


Kandlekeep Dekonstruktion

Written by Amy Vorpahl

Developed by Christopher Perkins

Edited by Scott Fitzgerald Gray

Kandlekeep Dekonstruktion has an exciting premise: an old tower is actually a rocket about to be launched into space by a tech cult. Unfortunately, that premise is let down by one of the banes of D&D: gamer humor. Kandlekeep Dekonstruktion is supposed to be funny, with the members of the cult using names like Alpaca Macadamia Nuts and Donkey Biscuits, but like Monty Python jokes, that kind of thing wears on me quickly. When we played this I omitted all the "humorous" content because there is no way my players would have enjoyed it. I was able to make something decent out of the skeleton that remained, but I should also note that my players got their teeth kicked in trying to enter the dungeon under the rocket-tower, so we didn't get to play through a big chunk of what was on offer in the adventure.


Zikran's Zephyrean Tome

Written by Taymoor Rehman

Developed & Edited by Christopher Perkins

This one was a surprise hit. On paper, it looks pretty standard, but the variety this one offers really gave my players a good time. I like that the adventure includes an actual dragon, which is something for a rarity for a game called Dungeons & Dragons. My players figured out a solid way to get the dragon on their side without fighting it, which made for a cool moment. The fortress of the spectral giants was also fun. The giants gave the place an aura of eerie menace, and my players quickly discovered that fighting the giants was a losing proposition, so them scurrying around the rest of the giants made for some nice cat-and-mouse moments. The final battle with the genasi was great. They loved that he had a magical elemental cannon and definitely enjoyed usurping control of the cannon to turn it on their enemy. Everyone seemed pretty stoked by the end of this adventure, so this one is definitely a sleeper hit.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

JoJo's Bizarre Adventure


Jojo's Bizarre Adventure is an epic manga series created by Hirohiko Araki that tracks the outrageously gory punch-em-up saga of the Joestar clan. The first installment of the series, Phantom Blood, takes place in Victorian England and features podcast fave themes of vampirism, so-straight-it's-gay manly action, and culturally insensitive gothic tropes. Join Jack and Kate on their maiden voyage into the Jojo-verse.

How could Jack the Ripper possibly be any worse? Are sandwiches the king of foods? What's something that happens in horror stories that's so bad, it almost stops your intrepid hosts from reading? What do YES and Emerson Lake and Palmer have to do with any of this? All this and more will be explored in this episode of Bad Books for Bad People.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Castlevania Artbook, Brimstone and Treacle, The Tritonus Bell, and More

Things that brought me delight in September, 2021:


Castlevania: The Art of the Animated Series

I absolutely loved Netflix's cartoon adaptation of the Castlevania video games, so it's probably not too surprising that I also loved this artbook as well. It does what you expect it to: it provides a showcase for character designs and settings, with brief notes on each. One thing I found particularly interesting was how an earlier draft of the designs for Trevor and Sypha featured the characters in a much more youthful, quasi-Disney style. They made the correct choice to ditch that and go with the designs that came later! I also learned of a few Easter eggs I didn't notice while watching the series.


Brimstone & Treacle

Brimstone & Treacle is a film adaptation of a teleplay that was originally created as part of the BBC's Play for Today series, but remained unaired for years due to its content and nihilistic sentiments. The film is about a young man who worms his way into a troubled household: the daughter is a mentally incapacitated invalid, the mother worn down by the caregiving her daughter requires and her husband's lack of faith, and the husband haunted by his guilt over his daughter's condition.

There's something going on in this film about the meaninglessness of language. The father works as a writer of hymns and religious verses for the bereaved, but he rejects the idea of a loving, caring god. The young man who infiltrates their household uses empty words to get what he wants; he invents a past relationship with the daughter to gain entry into the home, and once inside uses empty rhetoric to get his hooks into the family. And what he does once inside is just absolutely bleak and astounding. It's amazing that Sting saw this role and said, "Yes, I would like to play this character." Brimstone & Treacle is easily one of the most unsettling things I've seen in recent memory.


Hooded Menace, The Tritonus Bell

As I mentioned last month, I was really looking forward to The Tritonus Bell, the latest album from Hooded Menace, and now that it has arrived I am not at all disappointed. The crypt-worshipping sound of Hooded Menace is still present, but The Tritonus Bell does a slight swerve by throwing an unexpected King Diamond influence into the mix. This is absolutely poised to be the perfect album for Halloween.


Robin Redbreast

Robin Redbreast is great, creeping folk horror tale from the program Play for Today. A middle-aged woman from London goes to stay at the rural cottage she bought with the partner she just broke up with. The rural folk conspire to get her to stay for their own purposes, which includes pairing her off with a much younger, virile man. The details are what seals this one as unique. In her first encounter with the young man, he's nearly naked, in the forest, practicing...karate! When she invites him to dinner at the cottage, he can't shut up about the history of the Waffen SS. It is a god-damn crime that I never see people talking about this one!


Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Uncle Silas

At least fifteen years had passed since I last read J.S. Le Fanu's Uncle Silas. One thing Le Fanu is particularly good at in this novel is giving us a narrator and protagonist who is self-assured in her own judgment, but also allowing the audience to see her as flighty, ignorant, neurotic, and honestly a bit hormonal. But despite her flaws, it's easy enough to sympathize with her plight: offered up as a gambit to purge her uncle's blackened name of scandal, she finds herself living in an isolated, delipidated house, surrounded by sinister servants and fearsome family members who do not have her best interests in mind.


Yana Toboso, Black Butler vol. 1-5

I picked up a bunch of beat-up Black Butler tankobon years ago and have finally gotten around to reading them. Black Butler's tone is generally light, with the bumbling servants of a wealthy British household in awe of how competent the butler is, but it's punctuated with violence when Sebastian is called upon to wreck faces. The butler is, of course, a demon that the child head of household has made a pact with so that he might be avenged against his family's enemies. 

It's crazy how one arc will be about solving the Jack the Ripper murders, complete with contemplating whether it is worthwhile to let an innocent die so that the fiend can be dealt with, and the next is about a curry cooking competition. Despite the whiplash transitions between comedic chapters and violent confrontations with the underworld, Black Butler is a very libidinal work. The butler's competency is itself a kind of fantasy--the all-skilled servant who caters to the every whim of his master. And yet, there's also a layer here of seduction and manipulation. Though a servant, the butler arranges circumstances that often invert the power dynamic; he finds a need to dress his master as a young woman and dance with him at a ball, for example. Add to that the obvious question of age, tutelage, pacts, and the notion of submission, and there's a potent tangle brewing.


Sigh, Imaginary Sonicscape, Gallows Gallery, Heir to Despair

Sigh was one of the first black metal bands I got into. Of course, they didn't stay a pure black metal band for very long, as Imaginary Sonicscape attests. There is a little of everything on this album, from thrash metal to psychedelic textures. There are even a few moments that feel like they should be the soundtrack to a giallo film. Perhaps this is a place where prog fans and black metal purists can meet on common ground.

Gallows Gallery is a strange one, even in Sigh's diverse discography. It's also the album that long-term fans are most likely to revile. I've heard it called Sigh's "power metal" album, but I don't find that to be an accurate summation. I can kinda-sorta see the association, as there are many major key moments on the record and "Messiahplan" answers the charge, but I think Gallows Gallery takes on another life entirely if we view it as presaging the arrival of Ghost.

Heir to Despair starts of with lurching prog metal that wouldn't be out of place backing a Cirque du Soleil performance, but the album isn't going to let you stretch out and relax; hot on the heels of the opening track comes a feral take on Slayer. Which is, I suppose, the point of Sigh: you never know what will happen next.


Too many people to note, Wonder Woman and the Justice League Dark: The Witching Hour, Justice League Dark vol. 2-4

The Witching Hour picks up where the Justice League Dark: The Last Age of Magic leaves off: Hecate is manipulating her "children," which includes Wonder Woman, to take control of the multiverse's magic and change it into something detrimental to the cosmos as we know it. The comic has some strong panels and good ideas, but like many attempts to weld superheroes and esotericism together, it relies far too much on a big info dump about "the nature of magic" to find resolution. 

Justice League Dark vol. 2: Lords of Order doesn't fare quite so well; the problem is in the villainy: the Lords of Order are just too goofy to be compelling. It's also starting to feel like the only solution on offer in this series is "a dark, magically empowered Wonder Woman." So far we've had two versions Wonder Woman Dark, and that seems like a card you get to play once. The only thing that saves this volume is the inclusion of the annual, which is a pretty decent horror story about the tragic guardian of the Green that replaces Swamp Thing.

So, Circe is in this arc. (And comically the lettering calls her Circle at one point.) Her whole deal seems to be wiping out the "magical world" in the DC Universe. But the more the magic characters talk, the more I'm like "Circe has a point." The Odyssey all over again. Though, I'm not sure why Circe is dressed like a member of the Lonely Hearts Club Band. 

Vol. 3: The Witching War at least has some decent body horror in it. I don't buy that Wonder Woman sleeps in a t-shirt, however. Things get wrapped up in Vol. 4: A Costly Trick of Magic in what I can only call "Gaimanesque Minor," which is never my favorite resolution tactic. Also, the superhero genre's aversion to loss is writ large--a beloved character is killed off, only to reappear mere pages later!


Spawn of Possession, Cabinet, Noctamnulant, Incurso

September felt like the right month to listen to tech death. For those unfamiliar with the subgenre, technical death metal is a fusion of death metal's brutality with classical levels of technical skill. For my money, if you want to check out tech death, Spawn of Possession is the best place to start. While every album of their too-brief three record discography is top-shelf stuff, Incurso in particular is a masterpiece. I still can't believe how intense and skillful "Apparition" is. 


The Stone Tape

The Stone Tape is another film I've been meaning to lay eyes on for years, but it never occurred to me to check Youtube for it. The Stone Tape has the feel of Tom Baker-era Doctor Who: there is a particular combination of science fiction and horror from this era that has never been adequately replicated. 

In The Stone Tape, a group of scientists have taken over a manor house with an ancient foundation, establishing a laboratory to discover a new storage medium so that Britain's technology sector can rival that of the Japanese. What they find is that the ancient stones of the edifice may be a recording device of sorts that has absorbed the ghosts, or at least the traumas, of the past. 


Archspire, The Lucid Collective and Relentless Mutation

Continuing this month's foray into technical death metal, I've been listening to a lot of Archspire in preparation for their new album dropping at the end of October. The pitfall of tech death is that the technical aspect can potentially overwhelm the brutality. It's a fine line, and Archspire treads it well. Also, absolutely noteworthy vocals: they function more like a percussive element in the music, freeing up the bass to weave between rhythm and melodic textures.


Steven Rhodes, My Little Occult Book Club: A Creepy Collection

My Little Occult Book Club is a collection of the retro 70s-style spooky art of Steven Rhodes, presented under the guise of a mail order catalog of fictitious occult tomes meant for children. I've always admired these images whenever I've seen them plastered across t-shirts for sale at the mall, so it's nice to have them all collected in one place. The book's conceit works too; My Little Occult Book Club successfully joins Scarfolk and Welcome to Nightvale in the pantheon of hauntological kindergoth.


Penda's Fen

Penda's Fen isn't quite the folk horror that its reputation would have you believe. Instead, the film is about a sixth form student struggling with his homosexuality, the sentiments of nationalistic authoritarianism rubbing up against revelations about his origins, and Britain's pagan roots. Which is a pretty strong cocktail, all things considered. Absolutely astounding that this appeared on television in the 70s. While there are touches of something you could call "folk horror" here, Penda's Fen is certainly worth viewing for its other merits.


Seven Spires, Gods of Debauchery

It's tough to talk about Gods of Debauchery without implying that Seven Spires has an identity crisis. In truth, they just cover a startling amount of sonic territory. The basic recipe is symphonic metal, but there are touches of much lighter pop metal that play off against moments of extreme metal. In lesser hands this would feel schizophrenic, but with Seven Spires it's just evidence that they're too good at myriad of styles.


Flames of Freedom

I tend not to think of myself as a fan of chonky rpg books, but Flames of Freedom is one massive chonking tome. Premise wise, Flames of Freedom is an update of the Colonial Gothic rpg, a game that explores the supernatural possibilities of the American Revolution. System wise, the game is powered by Zweihander. The match between the two goes a great deal toward fixing the issues I had with Colonial Gothic, even though I quite enjoyed that game. I always found the system in Colonial Gothic to be a little counter-intuitive, but Zweihander is a good fit for the era and themes. In terms of presentation, Colonial Gothic always suffered from a lack of original art--something that Flames of Freedoms has in droves. I haven't delved as far into this yet as I would have liked, it is, as I noted earlier, quite a chonker, but I think this is the ideal game to play through an idea I've had for quite some time: a tale of Warhammer's Old World colonizing the setting's New World analog.

Dan Abnett, Hereticus

Hereticus is the last novel in Dan Abnett's Eisenhorn trilogy; it shows the titular Imperial Inquisitor at his lowest point--an old enemy has resurfaced, the network of allies and compatriots he's spent decades building has been destroyed practically overnight, and he has found himself tempted to toy with the eldritch might of Chaos in pursuit of a route toward "the greater good." Hereticus has some surprisingly wrenching turns to it, as well as some twists that are telegraphed a little too hard, but overall it is a fitting conclusion to the trilogy. It's easy to see why these novels are the gold standard of 40k fiction, and among the best of tie-in game fiction overall.


Wrath & Glory

One thing that held true after reading each of Dan Abnett's Eisenhorn novels is that they made me want to run an rpg about the exploits of an inquisitor's retinue. I played a little Dark Heresy when that was out, but I never found it satisfying; the characters felt a little too much like chumps for what I had in mind. Wrath & Glory might be a better fit. I'm still wrapping my head around the rules, but it looks like a better alternative for a high action 40k game. Although it isn't specifically focused on agents of the Inquisition, it looks like most of the elements I'd want and need are in here. Character creation does look like a bit of a bear, though.


Brand New Cherry Flavor

I've written a bit before about the "Hollywood Gothic"--a nascent subgenre dealing with the hollow spectacle used to promote and maintain the equally fascicle American Dream; Brand New Cherry Flavor very much feels like a prime example of the Hollywood Gothic's conventions in action. A young filmmaker arrives in Hollywood, beckoned by the promise of getting to direct her first film, but she's almost immediately betrayed by a struggling producer for the most fragile of reasons. Of course, no one's hands are ever clean beneath the glitz and glamor; our young would-be director has left some broken bodies in her wake as she climbs upward as well. 

Lisa, our protagonist, turns to a witch and her promised ability to lay a curse on the producer who steals her movie out from under her. What follows is a surreal mix of vengeful spirits, puking up kittens, inept hitmen, body-swapping, and more. I enjoyed Brand New Cherry Flavor, but it's definitely not a limited series that will appeal to everyone; you'll need a taste for the surreal and a willingness to forgo easy answers to make it through this one. Rosa Salazar, who plays the lead, is just tremendous throughout.


Malignant

Malignant is an incredibly dumb, but surprisingly fun horror movie. I had heard about how it was indebted to the giallo tradition (I can see the influence, but to be honest I think that connection is fairly slight, so much so that if you go into it wanting a giallo hit, you're going to be disappointed), yet I was not expecting it to be so influenced by wuxia wire-work. Raquel Benedict called Malignant a "perfect beautiful idiot himbo of a movie," and that is so absolutely spot on that there's really nothing else that needs to be said about it.


The Art of Blasphemous

I've never seen a game with as specific an aesthetic as Blasphemous, so it's fantastic to have an art book that chronicles its development. Blasphemous's signature style is a bloody take on Spanish Catholicism; piety, sorrow, and sacrifice are linked to bodies broken and degraded by penitence. The reproduction of pixel art, concept art, and inspirational pieces is exquisite. One thing I really appreciate is how meticulously the book documents its inspirations, displaying a deep knowledge of and appreciation for the great Spanish painters who came before.


The Eternal: Kiss of the Mummy

The box art makes The Eternal look an excursion into that curious 90s subgenre of horror that can only be called "slutty Gothic," but that's just a ruse to get you to watch this shakily plotted, ambitiously arty flick about a pair of alcoholics faced with a druid priestess bog mummy who just happens to look like one of the protagonists. The film doesn't make much sense, and I can't in good faith qualify it as a "good" movie, but The Eternal has something interesting to it that I can't quite put my finger on. Is the movie an ill-fated entry in the folk horror canon that can't quite pull off a 90s version of that 70s witchy vibe? Hard to say. Fun to see the great Jared Harris as a younger man, in any case.


Powerwolf, Call of the Wild, The Sacrament of Sin, Blessed & Possessed, Preachers of the Night

I'm not really much of a power metal guy, but there's just something about the insanity of Powerwolf that does it for me. Is the gimmick that they are a group of werewolf inquisitors or something? Eh, who cares; their music is ridiculously over the top and fun.


Hallie Rubenhold, The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper

Hallie Rubenhold's The Five is essentially a biography of the five canonical victims of the Victorian serial killer known only as Jack the Ripper. The book's project is essentially recuperative; it aims to gives us a view of these women as not just prostitutes--and, indeed, it argues that most of them weren't prostitutes--to humanize them and give them more dignity than a reduction to a serial killer's targets allows for. Rubenhold's aim is laudable, but while I understand the urge to rehabilitate their names, it really shouldn't matter if they were prostitutes or not. Either way, they were women who didn't deserve to die in the streets. Indeed, though Rubehold stresses the point of their common humanity, her book sometimes lapses into an uncomfortable moral judgment of women involved in sex work; for example, at one point Rubenhold imagines a household of prostitutes as "soul-dead," which rubs uncomfortably against the feminist purpose of the book.

The main issue with The Five is that it is as guilty as the conventional "Ripperology" accounts that it contests: the historical record is so scant and incomplete that it is forced to rely on conjecture and, at best, an educated guess to make its case. There are many instances of phrases such as "It must have been the case that," "It seems likely that," and "One imagines that their reaction was one of" all of which are signal phrases that alert the reader that the events being described are not actually documented. If a fault of traditional Ripperology is that it fills in the gaps with the story its proponents want to be true, I think we must also conclude that Rubenhold engages with a similar level of projection.

This issue is especially true when The Five considers the life of Mary Jane Kelly, a woman we know almost nothing about. Because of the mystery surrounding her origins and much of her adult life, her tale is filled in with the possibility that she was a victim of Victorian sex trafficking. While this is possible, the way it is presented feels fantastical. Tellingly, much of this section of the book is enlivened by ideas from My Secret Life, a supposed memoir of a man deeply involved in the sexual demimonde. However, since My Secret Life is an anonymous publication offered as pornography and nothing in its contents can be corroborated or verified, it really shouldn't be allowed to stand as part of the historical record--it is likely at least a fictionalization of events, if not an outright creative invention.

Of course, that is not to say that the ideas advanced in The Five are without merit. The homelessness of most of the victims needs to be front and center to understand why these women were vulnerable. Whether they were killed while sleeping rough on the streets of the East End or not, the housing instability that shaped their lives put them in danger. Also, it's interesting how few accounts really follow through on one common thread that unites all five victims: they were alcoholics. That strikes me as particularly relevant since a shared addiction defines another way in which they were vulnerable and all too human.


Carnifex, Graveside Confessions, Slow Death, Die Without Hope

Deathcore is one of the least respected branches on the heavy metal family tree, but I have to say that I've come to appreciate Carnifex. It's not all brutality all the time in the Carnifex camp; there are enough black metal elements (tremolo passages, dark orchestral flourishes) that keep things interesting. But when they bite down, they bite down.


The Wild Beyond the Witchlight: A Feywild Adventure

It's going to take me a while to digest how everything in The Wild Beyond the Witchlight hangs together into a coherent whole, but for now here's some of the highlights thus far: the other half of Ravenloft's Carnival (which I predicted, thank you very much), lots of new creatures who look like friends, an awesome new hag coven, the return of all those characters from the 1980s D&D toy line (that gum you like is going to come back in style), two new backgrounds, and two new races.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Strahd Loves, Man Kills Review at Halls of the Nephilim

 

Justin Ryan Isaac was kind enough to post a review of the first issue of Strahd Loves, Man Kills on his blog Halls of the Nephilim. It is, of course, pleasing to see such laudatory things said about my humble zine, but I wanted to pick out one particularly line in Justin's review because he really hit upon something I'm trying to do with the zine: "It's not flashy and feels like a throwback. I really like that aspect of it."

I'm so glad someone noticed that! We live in an era where small creators have the tools to make things that are on par, quality-wise, with major publishers. And that is fantastic, I don't begrudge anyone going full flash at all, but I wanted to make something that felt like the product of an excited amateur that harkened back to the first zines I encountered in the early 90s. I'm going for the feel of a "fanzine," nothing glossy, nothing too polished. I'm working from high quality photocopies, stapling them together by hand, and addressing every envelope that gets sent out. I hope people appreciate the personal touch that goes into it, even if it results in an imperfect-yet-enthusiastic zine.

Plus, it helps me to keep the price down. $6 for 28 pages of gaming content is a pretty good deal, I reckon.

I have a few copies of the first issue still available here, and the second issue is also still available but going fast.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

The Curious Tale of Wisteria Vale

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 "The Curious Tale of Wisteria Vale." Fair warning: spoilers lurk below.

The Characters

Elsabeth, human paladin played by Anne

Rufus, human barbarian played by Steve

Gnargar, kobold monk played by Heather

Rising Leaf, human monk played by Michael

Events

Elsabeth, Rufus, Gnargar, and Rising Leaf were pulled into a meeting with Horatio Lupa, their superior in the library, and a member of the Rooks named Rilka. They all knew about the Rooks' reputation; they are bounty hunters and thief-takers for hire, but also can be hired for less savory work such as strike-breaking. The group was shown an oversized green volume that looked like the text of a play. 

Rilka explained that years ago the Rooks had trapped a member of their organization named Arrant Quill inside a demiplane bound to the book when he had become infected by an evil influence. This was intended to keep him sequestered until a cure could be found. The cure had now been found; Rilka showed them a crystalline dagger with an inner light that beat like a heart. To free Quill from evil, the dagger needed to pierce his flesh. Unfortunately, the Rooks had lost the knowledge of how to enter the book's demiplane. Rilka offered them a substantial amount of money to figure out how to enter the book's demiplane and deliver the cure to Quill.

Left to their own devices, the group decided to read the play for clues. The play's plot concerned a young man named Vargan who was slashed across the face by a cruel lord after his village was burned to the ground. Vargan swore to seek revenge. In the second act, he joins a Rooks-like organization and tracked down the cruel lord, killing him during a feast at the lord's manor. However, in the third act he comes to believe that his allies have gotten too powerful and plots to betray them; they imprison him in another world. Something less than allegory is clearly being expressed here.

Following a clue they gleaned from noticing that a particular line of the play had been underlined, they shined a light on the book through the crystal dagger they were given, which revealed the phrase "Rooks at twilight." They followed a bunch of potential leads, such as staking out the Rooks' headquarters at twilight and visiting a bar called The Rook's Rest, where they led a bunch of drunken students in performing the play. 

The secret of the book was cracked when Leaf said "Rooks at twilight" out loud, which caused pages to tear themselves out of the book and rearrange themselves into an arched doorway. Pushing through the archway allowed the party to enter what appeared to be an idyllic, too perfect farming community surrounded by a pine forest. The group were spotted by a mob of strangely clean peasants who pointed at them and yelled "Outsiders!" The peasants began to approach, but they didn't have violent intentions. Instead, they began hugging the party in welcome.

When asked about Arrant Quill, a peasant woman holding a basket of bread told them that he was the kindly lord of the land, not the tyrant they supposed. The peasant also pointed out Quill's manor house at the northern end of the village. The front door of the manor house was locked and ringing the bell and knocking did not get anyone's notice, so Leaf kicked the door in. Two paintings in the lounge caught their interest. One painting showed a handsome man wearing luxurious clothes with a scar on his face; this was presumably Arrant Quill. Alongside this man was a woman whose face had been scratched out with black ink. Elsabeth realized that the woman was likely a younger Rilka. Elsabeth also discovered that the landscape painting of a forest acted as a portal to an extradimensional space.

Forgoing extradimensional tomfoolery for now, the group continued to explore the house. They found themselves in a kitchen, where a cook was preparing food for a feast that was to be held at the manor later. Gnargar stole a few sandwiches. Elsabeth learned that Arrant Quill didn't have a scar, at least according to the cook, as he did in the painting.

It was decided that Leaf and Gnargar would enter the painting while Rufus and Elsabeth stayed behind. Inside the painting, Leaf and Gnargar found themselves in a room where the walls had been painted to resemble a forest scene. Confusingly, there were three doors in the room, each of which seemed to lead to other extradimensional spaces. The room where a massive bird of prey was lairing was studiously avoided. They instead chose to enter a room laid out with a banquet. The pair began to experiment with the food. Eating steaks made them feel healthy and empowered. However, when Leaf ate a cheese-stuffed pepper, he immediately passed out.

Leaf eventually revived, much weakened by the experience, and the pair resumed their explorations, which culminated in finding Arrant Quill lounging on a fainting couch. He asked them if they had any food or water; Gnargar gave him a cheese-stuffed pepper, which caused him to immediately pass out. Leaf slung the unconscious Quill over his shoulder and they entered another door. This one led to a room inside the manor house where peasants from the village were gathered at the promised feast.

Stepping inside, they found that there was another Arrant Quill attending to his guests--this one quite awake and ambulatory. Rufus and Elsabeth heard the commotion and quickly joined Gnargar and Leaf in the ballroom. This second Arrant Quill was quite astounded that they were carrying someone who looked exactly like himself. He also mentioned that the ball was being held in honor of Lord Renekor. The assembled peasants referred to Lord Renekor by a number of alternate titles, such as "The Lord of Eyes" and "The Watchful Lord." 

Elsabeth used some of her healing magic to revive the unconscious Quill. The two Quills began to circle each other, each regarding the other as an imposter. The peasants were happy to eat, drink, and watch the uncanny spectacle of two Quills ready to go at each other's throats. As if things couldn't get much worse, Lord Renekor's arrival was heralded by the sound of a trumpet. Lord Renekor proved to be a beholder wearing an Elizabethan ruff. Oddly, when presented with the crystal dagger, he begins to quote from Macbeth. At one point, Lord Renekor broke the fourth wall and cast a glance and a comment to an audience that wasn't there.

The party tried to draw the Quills to another room for a covert stabbing, but the two could not be pulled away from each other and Lord Renekor was poised to intervene. Something clearly had to be done, and being members of the Special Collections Department, that something was violence. Elsabeth, Rufus, and Leaf engaged Lord Renekor, while Gnargar attempted to stab the Quills with the crystal dagger. Their foes proved to be extremely deadly. Lord Renekor's eyestalks afflicted the group with a variety of ills. The Quills' cutting remarks caused massive psychic damage. Rising Leaf was taken out with a magically empowered comment on his drinking habit. Grangar was almost turned to stone by one of the beholder's rays, but was spared due to the salted egg he had eaten earlier. Elsabeth managed to slay Lord Renekor and Gnargar stabbed the real Quill with the dagger, which emptied its curse-lifting magic into his bloodstream.

With Arrant Quill cured of his evil infection, the demiplane began to unravel. The group found themselves back in The Rooks' Rest, now long after closing time. With them was a confused, but restored, Arrant Quill. The party helped themselves to the "open bar" before taking Quill back to Rilka and receiving their rich reward from the Rooks.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Strahd Loves, Man Kills #2 Now Available!

Ah, the first day of fall...a certain crispness tinges the air, which can only mean that the second issue of Strahd Loves, Man Kills, my Ravenloft fanzine, is now available for purchase! 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. My hope is that SLMK will give you new toys to play with and inspire your own unique take on Ravenloft.

The second issue features 28 pages of content. The zine is professionally printed by the fine people at Best Value Copy. Additionally, I will send a pdf version of the zine to the email address attached to your order! If you buy a copy soon it should get it to you well before Halloween.

This issue's contents include:

Lurid Locations explores a Wild West-themed version of Nova Vaasa.

Baleful Backgrounds presents two new backgrounds for characters: dandy and inquisitor.

Seeds of Evil gives advice on using the adventures in Candlekeep Mysteries in the context of a Ravenloft campaign.

Cryptic Alliances revisits and updates seven classic factions and secret societies from Ravenloft’s prior iterations.

Portraits of the Damned details Donesta Sangino, a villainous artist who crafts monsters from paint and canvas, and the Viscount, a drow gunslinger haunted by his violent past.

Tragic Heroes focuses on grim gunslingers you might create as characters for games set in the Domains of Dread.

Forbidden Tomes provides a bibliography of a particular genre of horror for your edification and entertainment. This installment explores body horror.

Check it out on my Big Cartel page. If you need to catch up on the first issue, I've got a few copies left.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Guide to Mordavia: Land of Horror Review

Guide to Mordavia: Land of Horror is a short setting supplement for the Leagues of Gothic Horror roleplaying game. Mordavia is essentially a Gothic Ruritania. If you're unfamiliar with the term, Ruritania was a fictional central European nation in the novels of Anthony Hope; in its more modern usage, a "Ruritania" is any invented minor European nation--generally a backwater free from the constraints of real-world history. In this case, Mordavia is a small isolated nation that occupies the land that is in our world Maramures county in Romania. Of course, since this is a supplement for the Leagues of Gothic Horror rpg, this particular Ruritania possesses a Gothic atmosphere and a haunted history.

Unfortunately, the deployment of that haunted history runs up against one of my pet peeves in setting supplements. Guide to Mordavia gives too much history that isn't immediately applicable to the game's current moment; the historical overview starts with prehistory and works its way into the modern era. Even though the historical entries are mercifully short, it still feels like too much. The overall gist is fairly simple: the land of Mordavia has always been connected to worship of an eldritch worm-serpent-dragon thing; that worship has often taken the form of degenerate cult activity; the cult has been purged multiple times, but it always comes back after being driven underground.

The second chapter further forestalls getting to the good stuff: "Before we get to the supernatural, we must first take a look at the mundane." The chapter covers how one might get to Mordavia by airship or train, the local geography, the climate, flora and fauna, currency (though it tells you in no less than two places to basically hand-wave it anyway), ethnic demographics, language, accommodations, fashion, communications, cuisine, etc. I'm sure the thought here was that having this information all in one place would be helpful to Game Masters; the problem is that if you already have an image in your head about what an Eastern European Gothic backwater is like you already know all the information this chapter provides. I'm fairly sure that anyone could come up with getting a carriage, riding a horse, or walking as your options for getting place to place, for example.

The third section of Guide to Mordavia details specific locations and their inhabitants. This chapter is the meat of the supplement, as it gives the GM the raw material that is actually useful for creating adventures in the setting. However, in many instances the material is perhaps a little too raw; the locations and the haunted residents within often feel both a tad generic and like they hint at more interesting possibilities that are never fully spelled out. For example, one location is an observatory inhabited by an Austrian astrologer. His nocturnal lifestyle has aroused suspicious that he is a vampire, and he sends his hunchbacked assistant to request strange scientific equipment. Good enough start, if a little cliche, but what is he up to? 

These questions are only answered in the last section of the book, which adds further detail about the NPCs living in the locations described in the previous chapter. Our Austrian astrologer, for example, turns out to have made contact with Azathoth. The way information is spread out is slightly inconvenient; I would prefer to have the NPCs more cleanly delineating when they're first described so all that information is in one place. 

However, although I wish there was more guidance on how to use the setting, what's going on there, and that there were some suggested adventure seeds, the final chapter does at least tie things together. The two cults described at the end of this chapter, one devoted to the Great Wolf and another who venerate the previously mentioned worm-serpent-dragon, bring things full circle. Additionally, I like that the section on the worm cult gives you options for presenting the worm as a Lovecraftian monstrosity or an actual dragon.

Overall, I think Guide to Mordavia is a fairly average setting book. Although it is a short book, it does feel like it wastes a bit of space on mundane detail, and when it does get down to the more interesting bits it could have been pushed a little farther. Also, the book could have used another editing pass. For example, "Those who prefer waltzes and other more gentile dances can do little but hope for an invite to a ball at the duke’s castle" is humorous, even if the word they were looking for was genteel. At least they didn't reference genital dances, I suppose.