Tuesday, December 28, 2021

The Empath, Procreation Myth, Teatime

Three fictions for your entertainment and edification:

"The Empath"
- Raquel S. Benedict, Blood Knife

"Procreation Myth"
- June Martin, substack

- Zin E. Rocklyn, Tor

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Best of 2021


Episode 52: Best of 2021

Jack and Kate look at what they've read and watched in the year that was 2021 and make some recommendations in the world of books and beyond. The rules of engagement are simple: the hosts each choose one movie, album, TV show, and book that was the best experience of its kind encountered during the first half of the year.

Join your hosts for a discussion that ranges from various ways to hunt supernatural creatures to cursed hunks to weird acting choices by 80s pop stars. 

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Time of Contempt

Valley of Plenty 4: Time of Contempt

Welcome to the Valley of Plenty! In these green and gentle pastures, Jack explains the plots of stories from the Witcher series to Kate, who feels like she already completed her tour of duty in this particular fantasyland. In this bite-sized episode, Jack explains what he's learned about the world portrayed in Andrzej Sapkowski's Time of Contempt, the second novel in the ongoing saga of Geralt of Rivia and his various adventures and... not-so-adventures.

Where do Witchers go for professional advice? What is terrible about going to a wizard party? What is a sound investment in this fantasy universe? All these questions will be answered in this episode of the podcast! 

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Strange Tales, Dragons, Victoriana, 1614, and More

Things that brought me delight in November, 2021:

Pu Songling, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio

Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio is an 18th-century collection of Chinese folktales. Published after Pu Songling's death, the book features a hundred and one tales that range from a paragraph in length to ten pages or more, but most are a scant few pages in length. Here's what I've learned from Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio: fox-spirits will probably cause you a lot of trouble if you meet one (but they might also do you a good turn, so I guess you roll the dice on that), guys will immediately have sex with strange women who enter their chambers at night even if there is a good chance that they're ghosts, and Taoists are extremely weird, possess magic, and are often in need of a thorough scrubbing in the bath.

Fizban's Treasury of Dragons

It's interesting how infrequently dragons actually feature into a game called Dungeons & Dragons. Fizaban's Treasury of Dragons aims to fix that by presenting dragon-themed character widgets (such as variant dragonborn types, two draconic subclasses, and feats), lore about the role of dragons in the D&D universe, lair information, adventure seeds, random tables, and a bestiary filled with new types of dragons and dragon-adjacent foes such as draconians, dragonblood oozes, and eyedrakes. Fizban's Treasury is essential for anyone who wants to run a dragon-centric campaign, but for the rest of us there are probably enough bits and pieces here to make this worth considering.

Victoriana: Free RPG Day

Victoriana's premise is right up my alley: imagine Warhammer-style characters going on steampunk adventurers in the nineteenth century and you've got the gist. I've owned previous editions of the game (each edition has used a different system), but I've never been able to actually get it to the table. I'm curious to see if the new edition, which is based on 5e D&D's rules, will be the one to do the trick or if this attempt to capture a segment of D&D's audience is destined to crash and burn. If nothing else, I can play through this Free RPG Day adventure to get a taste.

Opera Diabolicus, 1614

This will inevitably read like gatekeeping, but I believe that if you aren't into at least one ridiculously over-the-top band like Opera Diabolicus, you aren't a real metal fan. Opera Diabolicus's Gothic theatrics will definitely appeal to fans of King Diamond, Powerwolf, and Ghost. More playful Therion fans might also get something out of the operatic flourishes and symphonic bombast. Also, there are many songs out there about Erzebet Bathory, but 1614's "Blood Countess Bathory" is one of the best.

Peter Fehervari, Requiem Infernal

Tenebrous Kate and I have much more to say about Peter Fehervari's Requiem Infernal on Bad Books for Bad People, but for now it will suffice to say that this book will appeal to anyone who won't mind a little Event Horizon or Uzumaki atmosphere popping up in their Space Nuns with Guns fiction. The Warhammer 40k books continue to be much better than they have any right to be; isn't tie-in game fiction contractually obligated to be awful? If so, we have a clear breach of contract with Requiem Infernal, which is an engaging sci-fi horror novel in its own right. It's also an incredibly strange novel; it's quite surprising, though commendable, that Games Workshop is willing to publish books like this that run contrary to their established "lore."

SLA Industries, 2nd Edition

SLA Industries is one of those long and storied rpg lines that I know almost nothing about it, save that it has a byzantine backstory and a cultishly devoted niche fanbaseBut now that there's a second edition, there's no better time to check it out, right? SLA Industries might fill the hole for me that cyberpunk games have generally failed to satisfy. It's essentially a game about "operatives" being sent on violent, cloak-and-dagger missions, but it has the added edge of positing an extremely weird and idiosyncratic vision of the dystopian future. (As opposed to cyberpunk visions of the future that already seem as quaint and wholesome as 1950s rocket ship fantasies compared to where we've ended up in real life.) The cyberpunk comparison seems apt, as SLA Industries has page after page of weapon porn.

Ad Infinitum, Chapter II: Legacy

As a marker of how long the pandemic has been going on, I picked up Ad Infinitum's first album near the start of it all and now I've gotten their second and the pandemic is still ongoing. Chapter II: Legacy is a concept album about Vlad the Impaler; couple that subject matter with Ad Infinitum's brand of symphonic metal and I'm absolutely sold on the entire package. Interesting to hear some deathcore or djent influences creeping in, but I don't mind them in the least.

Dark Heresy, the whole line, really

As I become more and more enraptured by the idea of running a Warhammer 40k rpg, I've begun to look into possible sources of inspiration. Although I'm most likely to run Wrath & Glory as my system of choice for this endeavor, the old Dark Heresy line has absolutely become my go-to trove of ideas. These books really did come out of a special zeitgeist in gaming history. Yeah, the rules in them aren't great (they're fiddly and favor failure in a way I don't like), but the combination of evocative art and textual deep dive made them an extremely attractive package at the time and an unimpeachable resource today. 

The Veil

The Veil is an anthology series from the 1950s hosted by Boris Karloff, who often plays at least a minor role in each episode. "Horror" probably isn't the right descriptor for The Veil; rather, it is a show that dramatizes "unexplained phenomena," such as prophetic visions, hauntings, and the like. Think of it as a quainter Time-Life Mysteries of the Unknown: slightly spooky, but ultimately pretty cozy. As a bonus, one episode is set in my beloved Gloucester, MA.

Terror Thirteen: A Horror RPG

Everyone has encountered their fair share of fantasy heartbreakers at this point, but horror heartbreakers are a little thin on the ground. Enter Terror Thirteen, an obvious labor of love. I have to admit, it was the homeliness of the cover that drew me in; it is an apex of the "my little brother drew this" style of rpg art. And yet, at first blush, the game itself seems like a pretty solid option for horror gaming. There's evidence that thought about what goes into creating different flavors of horror has had some effort put into it, even if Lovecraft is hanging out in the Victorian horror section for reasons that elude me. I bought this on a lark for an extremely low price, but it actually seems fairly playable. It's mostly a trad rpg, with 3d6 + stat + skill vs target number as the basic resolution mechanic, but there are some newer school elements like bonds that factor into the design as well. I need to do a deeper dive into this, but it is a charming artifact in any case.

Andrzej Sapkowski, Time of Contempt

As part of the ramping up of excitement for the next installment of Netflix's Witcher, I'm back on my Sapkowski bullshit with Time of Contempt, the novel that picks up where Blood of Elves left off. I'll have more to say about this novel when Valley of Plenty returns to Bad Books for Bad People, but this is a pretty interesting book in that it doesn't give Geralt much to do (except get dragged by a wizard) and it poses interesting questions about the futility of trying to maintain a stance of neutrality in a world rapidly going to hell.

Kendare Blake, Girl of Nightmares

Girl of Nightmares is the sequel to Kendare Blake's Anna Dressed in Blood and the conclusion of the duology. Cas, a ghost hunting teenager armed with a magic knife, becomes obsessed with venturing into hell to retrieve the formerly murderous ghost girl he fell in love with over the course of the first book. There's not much ghost slaying in this one, but there is a sinister-ish order of pseudo-druids and a forest full of suicide zombies. Also, I have to say, the ending of this book really did take me by surprise! It didn't go for the expected happy ending; the curveball was much appreciated.

Azzarello, Bermejo, Batman: Damned

In Damned, after the Joker is killed, Batman is left wondering if he is responsible for his arch-foe's death. True to character, Batman becomes obsessed with this question, which leads him into the depths of the DC Universe's supernatural underground. He meets several off-kilter versions of notable odd DC characters, such as a skinned Deadman, Etrigan as a rap god, and ranting, homeless Specter. The answers Batman seeks aren't easy, and the truth he finds might be worse than anything he's fought on the streets of Gotham. Damned has beautiful art throughout and a tense little story.

Kathleen Jennings, Flyaway

When a teenager trying her hardest to lead the most normal life possible discovers that the brothers she thought long-gone might be lingering near her rural Western Queensland home, she takes two former friends on a veritable odyssey in which the mythic history of small town life explodes into view. It's blood and magic all the way down, of course. 

There's a blurb praising Flyaway from Kelly Link on the back of the cover, which makes a lot of sense; if you like Link's deft language and peculiar magic, it feels safe to say that you'll like Kathleen Jenning's as well. Flyaway contains an amazing amount of world for such a slim novel; even more impressive is how it is all woven together by the final pages.

Vlad Dracula Tarot

I was interested in this tarot deck when I first saw it being kickstarted, but at the time the money just wasn't right for it. Luckily, it seems to be quite a success story: I recently found out it had entered into wider distribution. Lovely art, but you have to wonder: is it even possible to get a truly positive outlook on the future when using something called Vlad Dracula Tarot?

Perilous Garden: The Art of Der Orchideengarten 1920 (16-24)

Time has a way of running away from you; I got a notification that the newest collection of art from Der Orchideengarten was on its way to me, which prompted me to remember that I hadn't yet looked at Perilous Garden. Perilous Garden is essentially more of the same: a collection of the fantastic art that accompanied the stories published in the German precursor to Weird Tales. Interesting historical tidbits also abound; for example, one issue of Der Orchideengarten eschewed the usual focus on macabre and fantastical tales to instead offer a plea for the return of prisoners at war still suffering in Russia and Siberia.

The Great, season two

Comedies are not usually something I get too excited for, but the over-the-top cruelty of the first season of The Great really appealed to me. The second season is just as mean. Catherine manages a coup, tries to keep Peter under house arrest, and has to navigate pregnancy, her vision for Russia, her feelings for her husband, and the pig-ignorant decadence of her court. And no one, including Catherine, is particularly likeable or "good." Deluded, yes. Good? No. Fantastic stuff; I hadn't laughed that much in a very long time.

Andrew McClean with Mike Spicer, Head Lopper & the Island or A Plague of Beasts

Michael of Metal Earth recommended Head Lopper to me, and since I can't remember him steering me wrong with a comic, I got a copy of the first volume while it was on a deep discount. He has still not led me wrong. There's a Mignola energy to the art and a Robert E. Howard energy to the storytelling, which is a pretty perfect pairing. There's bog wizards, giant wolves, blue-skinned witches, and a whole lot of decapitations. What more could you ask for? Head Lopper: it does what it says on the tin.

Bitter Blossoms: The Art of Der Orchideengarten 1921 (1-6)

Of course, there was no way this series could draw to a close on a positive note, given the nature of the history involved. Der Orchideengarten was one more casualty of the terrible times that led to World War II. It's all downhill here here, I suppose, and there is one more volume to come by my math. Art became more sparse in the 1921 volumes, but what is here is, of course, remarkable. One fun bit of synchronicity: one of the tales that gets an illustration is one of the Pu Songling stories that I read at the start of the month!

Cowboy Bebop

The release of the live-action Cowbow Bebop got me interesting in watching the cartoon version, which I had never seen before. I can see why it is regarded as a classic. It's got heart, it's not derivative of other media, doesn't rely on cameos and Easter eggs to keep your attention, has great action...basically, it's everything everyone lies and says that The Mandalorian is. No way I'm watching the live-action version though.  

Tiamat and Warduke

I'm still in amazement that there is a line of D&D Funko Pops, particularly now that it has moved on to a couple cool characters I first encountered in the 80s cartoon and toy line. Tasha, when?

Sunday, November 28, 2021

We Played the Whole Thing


In early November, my online group finished playing through the adventures in Candlekeep Mysteries as a campaign. A grand time was had, and it genuinely feels like an accomplishment to have completed it. It's not every day that you managed to take characters from level 1 to level 16 and it's certainly not every day that a campaign establishes a true ending instead of petering out.

Really, that was all down to the players. So, thank you Michael, Anne, Steve, Dennis, Heather, and Ridgely! I literally could not have done it without you.

Of course, some concessions helped make this accomplishment possible too. Setting the game up as an open table of sorts, in which whoever was free to play in a given week was welcome to join, definitely helped, as did the episodic nature of the campaign established by stringing the Candlekeep Mysteries adventures together into a series. 

I managed to document it all--in two ways, no less. I wrote an actual play report for each adventure and managed to jot down a review of every scenario in the book. If a more comprehensive overview of Candlekeep Mysteries exists, I haven't seen it.

Links below, if you want the full monte.

Actual Play Reports

Candlekeep Mysteries Reviews

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Requiem Infernal

Episode 51: Requiem Infernal

Jack and Kate venture into the grimdark future of Warhammer 40K with this exploration of Requiem Infernal by author Peter Fehervari. Put aside your preconceptions around Space Marines and Orks and find out what hideous delights await you in the WH40K universe (nuns with guns, folks--it's got nuns with guns).

Will our hosts be able to sufficiently summarize WH40K lore in under 15 minutes? Why are Space Marines super-boring? What happens when the reader is made complicit in the untangling of the book's narrative? Haven't we all got a dark demonic monster lurking somewhere inside of us? Your hosts will explore all these questions and more in this episode of Bad Books for Bad People!

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Crawling King Chaos, Morning Star, Rex

Three howls of the damned for your sonic edification:

Cradle of Filth, "Crawling King Chaos"

King Woman, "Morning Star"

Vampire, "Rex"

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Candlekeep Mysteries Review: Alkazaar's Appendix and Xanthoria

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 hereThe Price of Beauty and Book of Cylinders hereSarah of Yellowcrest Manor and Lore of Lurue hereKandlekeep Dekonstruktion and Zikran's Zyphrean Tome here, The Curious Tale of Wisteria Vale and The Book of Inner Alchemy here, and The Canopic Being and The Scrivener's Tale here. In this review I'm going to give my impressions of the last two adventures in the book, so you can better decide for yourself whether this is a sound purchase for you and your group.

Alkazaar's Appendix

Written by Adam Lee

Developed by Michele Carter & Christopher Perkins

Edited by Michele Carter

"Alkazaar's Appendix" has a good premise: a search in the desert with a stone automaton for a lost scroll. However, the execution of that premise ultimately results in an average adventure because its strong points are counterbalanced by a few poor design decisions. The stone golem that the party teams up with has great potential to be endearing, but the shape of the adventure does have a bit of a "follow this NPC around" feel to it that the scenario could have done more to mitigate.

Another issue with the adventure is that each of the mapped locations are incredibly linear with few opportunities for exploration. The cave sequence, for example, is really just a straight tunnel with one blockage that needs to be moved out of the way. Since the tunnel leads to single chamber with six murals you need to describe so that the players get the gist of what's going on in the adventure, there is an obvious solution here: turn this tunnel into a branching cave complex with each mural located in a different chamber surrounded by additional points of interest. The necropolis at the end of the adventure is similarly linear: fight the guys at the top of it, go down the stairs, fight the monster down there, wrap things up.

This problem doesn't just appear in the adventure locations, it shapes the adventure itself. The overall plan of the scenario is a straight line: meet the automaton, go to the cave, go to the necropolis, finish the adventure. There are some optional encounters presented that could stretch the adventure into at least a two-session affair if you wanted, but unfortunately they don't really alter the direct course it sets the characters on.

Additionally, I don't really love the conclusion to this adventure as written, which seems to offer a choice between getting the scroll (which means opening a sarcophagus, which causes the prince held in stasis inside to rot away) and letting your new stone golem pal carry his beloved master into heaven. This is especially an issue because I don't think the content of the adventure really telegraphs the gravity of that choice well enough. I changed this in our playthrough; it absolutely wouldn't have fit the mood we had going on at all.

I've been quite critical of several components of this adventure, so to cap this review off I do want to note that we had a good time playing through it. The interactions with the stone golem were very fun to roleplay and actually lent themselves to an unexpectedly emotional session. Also, the addition of lair actions to the dracolich made that fight feel varied and interesting--it absolutely did not fall flat as a boss fight. Though there are some issues here, this was a decent adventure overall.


Written by Toni Winslow-Brill

Developed by Bill Benham & Christopher Perkins

Edited by Kim Mohan

As the last adventure in Candlekeep Mysteries, "Xanthoria" has a suitably strong premise: a fungal disease has swept the world, and it's up to the players to stop it. One thing I was slightly concerned about is that the premise hits at an odd moment; an adventure about a plague takes on a new meaning for people who are still dealing with the fallout of a real-world pandemic. It's not something the people who worked on the adventure could account for, but it nonetheless remained a potential for resemblance I tried to mitigate in play.

I also altered the adventure to make it a suitable conclusion for my campaign; instead of largely taking place in cave of the Lykortha Expanse, our playthrough took place on the moon--which gave the players a reason to fly their rocket tower to their final adventure, which I know was something they were really looking forward to.

Exploring the cave complex was the bulk of the session, and I think it works pretty well as a dungeon. There's interesting stuff that happens in there, unusual encounters (though I did pare some away to fit our time slot), and a good deal of atmosphere. You can get a good bit of mileage out of describing gross fungus and mold. In general, I'd say that the small- and mid-sized dungeons in Candlekeep Mysteries are frequently successful at providing site-based adventure. 

The lichen lich's stats, which are bespoke to this adventure, evidence a solid understanding of what an upper-level threat should be able to do. This is especially obvious if you compare its stats against those of a regular lich from the Monster Manual. The lichen lich is easier to run, has more interesting options, and also feels appropriately dangerous. 

The moral quandary posed at the end of the adventure is also fairly well done. Used as the conclusion of a campaign, "Xanthoria" gave me all the tools I needed to end the game in a way that I was really happy with.

Sunday, November 14, 2021


I've been running the adventures in Candlekeep Mysteries lightly reskinned for my Krevborna setting. The characters are all employed as members of Creedhall University Library's "Special Collections Department," aka adventurers. This is a recap of what happened in "Xanthoria." Fair warning: spoilers lurk below.

The Characters

Elsabeth, human paladin played by Anne

Gnargar, kobold monk played by Heather

Aula, human rogue played by Ridgely

Rufus, human barbarian played by Steve


The troubles began when the Bone Moon turned a sickly green, a pernicious infection spreading across its surface. Then, the meteors came. Scholars who studied the sky from Creedhall’s observatory claimed that the meteors seemed to originate from the darkest part of the moon’s infection. Where they fell to earth, the meteors left behind craters filled with mottled green and purple fungal matter.

The researchers who studied this fungal stain were the first to become infected. Their bodies became infested, they sprouted hideous growths comprised of mold, mildew, and mushrooms. As their bodies were taken over, so too were their minds usurped; the fungal disease transformed them into ravaging fungal ghouls who spread the sickness throughout Creedhall and perhaps all of Krevborna. The afflicted could say nothing save chanting one word over and over: Medlozka.

The doctors of Creedhall were unable to treat this ailment, and the Church’s agents were also powerless to cure it. The fungal infection hit to home for our heroes. Lady Valor, who had been staying with Elsabeth while recuperating, fell victim to it. Their superior at the library, Horatio Lupa, also fell prey to the illness and had to be locked away in a library vault. The only avenue unexplored was to fly the Old Tower to the moon and investigate the source of the corruption.

Our champions loaded supplies into the Old Tower, fired up the rockets hidden beneath it, and commanded it to take them to the Bone Moon. The source of the fungal plague was obvious when the moon came into view: its white, rocky surface was infested with fungus with a dark lump sitting like a tumor in the center of the infection. The tumor had a number of silo-like tubes projecting from it--possibly used to launch the meteors at Creedhall. That tumor-like structure proved to be a natural cave that had been taken over by mold, mildew, and mushroom. 

Inside the cave's entrance, they could hear the sound of a woman weeping off to their left. Reconnoitering the area, Gnargar found a woman, whose body was encrusted with fungal matter, crying in the fetal position. She revealed that her name was Thalia and that the cave complex was the headquarters of a cult who had come to the moon to fulfill their leader's demonic plan: join all life into one fungal hivemind to put an end to individual cruelty. Thalia explained that the cult was lead by Dahlia Medlozka, but she couldn't remember how many members of the cult remained. However many there were, they were sure to be warped into fungal forms.

With Thalia in tow, the group explored the cavern complex. Toward the back of the first cavern, they found two semi-transformed cult members suspended from a web of mycelia. They discovered an alchemy lab, complete with a moldering book that explained the process for transforming rocks into biological weapons that could be fired at the world to spread the fungal disease far and wide. Continuing on, they found a chamber used in Dahlia Medlozka's experiments in fusing fungus with human flesh. This room held a number of cages, each holding a corpse. Thalia was distraught to find that her friend Boris, a fellow member of the cult, had died from the experiments that had been inflicted upon him. 

They also stumbled upon a ring of lurid giant mushrooms. When Gnargar stood in the center of them, he had a vision of a post-apocalyptic world overrun by fungi. In the vision, a huge woman made of mushrooms and rot grabbed him, her tendrils boring into his face. He tore her hand off, but this did not faze her. Before he was released from this horrid vision of the ruinous future, she leaned close to Gnargar's ear and whispered "Soon." For the rest of his time within the caves, Gnargar's perceptions would be periodically and momentarily overlaid with the sight of this fungal hell.

Upon returning to the central chamber, the group spotted two large vulture-headed demons and a fungal cultist descending from the mycelia web. A difficult battle ensued, but the party vanquished their foes and continued exploring after licking their wounds. After traversing a long corridor that rained dangerous necrotic spores down upon them, the group found Dahlia Medlozka, her humanity forever lost to the transformation into the fungal equivalent of a lich, vivisecting a deer upon a stone worktable. A young boy in a cage was by her side, creepily eager to see Dahlia at work with her knife. When Dahlia noticed the group's approach, she commanded a massive mushroom-man and a boar-headed demon to kill them.

Rufus engaged the fungus-encrusted boar demon, keeping it at bay, ferocious beast to ferocious beast, as the other scrambled to fight their way toward Dahlia. Dahlia cast a spell that drew the life from the boy in the cage, rendering him a withered husk and creating a sphere of magical protection around her. When Aula tried to charge Dahlia, she found that she could not move through the sphere. Instead, she threw her dagger at Dahlia; infused with a saintly relic, the dagger caused Dahlia to lose concentration on her spell, and the sphere shattered.

Dahlia proved to be a powerful druidess. She conjured fire that surrounded each member of the party. She threw bolts of roiling necrotic energy. She attempted to steal their lifeforce to empower her own. She grabbed Aula's stone golem, channeled horrible power into it, and caused it to shatter into rubble. She also caused a pile of fungal matter to animate as a hulking, fetid mass. The boar demon and the mushroom-man were dealt with, so Rufus now held the shambling mound in combat. Gnargar smashed Dahlia with his nunchaku, dislodging her lower jaw before landing the killing blow. Freed from that melee, Elsabeth flew to Rufus's side and ended the fetid mass's unholy existence.

Searching the stone table, the group found another rotting book that detailed both how to create the biological weapons Dahlia had crafted and how to brew a medicine to treat the illness. However, reading the book also unveiled a hideous truth: as a lich, Dahlia would return to unlife eventually if her phylactery was not located and destroyed. A search of the rest of the cave complex commenced. In Dahlia's former bedroom, they found the woman's diary, which disclosed that Thalia was the phylactery into which she had placed a vital part of her soul. 

Thalia was reluctant to give up her life. The group didn't really give her an option, however. They viewed her life as a necessary sacrifice so that the world might live. Ultimately, Thalia was convinced to lay down her life for the greater good. Before accepting Elsabeth's sword through her heart, she made the group promise that they would take her and Boris's bodies back to Krevborna and give them a proper burial.

With their tragic burden in tow, the group boarded the Old Tower and began the journey back to the library. As they left, they used the tower's elemental cannon to destroy the cave complex's silos. Upon returning, they gave Dahlia's books to Creedhall's doctors, who were able to affect a cure for the afflicted. 

Throughout their time with the Special Collections Department, our heroes were librarians, adventurers, and sometimes even agents of chaos guided by a skewed moral compass. Their adventures took them to strange places, even into the wilds of other planes. They encountered the uncanny, nefarious, and unusual, such as a demonic nursery rhyme, a spa overrun by evil, and a lurid fairytale come to life. They slew a mummy lord, a beholder, and more than a few cults. They saved a few innocents and managed to keep a fair number of fell tomes out of the reach of the foolhardy.

But in the end? In the end, they had saved the world.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Candlekeep Mysteries Review: The Canopic Being and The Scrivener's Tale

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 hereThe Price of Beauty and Book of Cylinders hereSarah of Yellowcrest Manor and Lore of Lurue here, Kandlekeep Dekonstruktion and Zikran's Zyphrean Tome here, and The Curious Tale of Wisteria Vale and The Book of Inner Alchemy here. In this review I'm going to give my impressions of the next two adventures in the book, so you can better decide for yourself whether this is a sound purchase for you and your group.

The Canopic Being

Written by Jennifer Kretchmer

Developed & Edited by Scott Fitzgerald Gray & Christopher Perkins

"The Canoptic Being" has a great, and pretty creepy, premise: a mummy lord has been inserting its organs into folks to make them into "golems" under its control. That's a sick-nasty idea, in a good way, no question about it.

I did make some changes to the opening bits of the adventure, but they were the kind of alterations I think you absolutely should make to every published adventure where possible: I used every opportunity to personalize the adventure for my players. As written, the adventure gives you a list of the mummy lord's victims. I swapped out these characters for beloved NPCs and the characters of players who couldn't make it to the session for additional impact; I rightly figured that the players would care a whole lot more about rescuing their characters' friends from the mummy's scheme than they would about new NPCs they had never encountered before.

The dungeon portion of the adventure worked well. There are some "funhouse" elements to the dungeon, such as antigravity rooms, that don't really serve much purpose other than adding some flavor, but that's par for the course. 

"The Canopic Being" does reveal some issues with the "monster math" at high levels, however. The mummy lord is positioned as the big villain of the adventure, but if you use the standard stats from the Monster Manual he will be a complete pushover, especially in comparison to the golems under his control. The golems clearly use newer monster math that takes the amount of damage that characters can dish out into better account. That said, this is more of a systemic problem than an adventure problem, so I don't hold it against the adventure's author at all.

The Scrivener's Tale

Written by Brandes Stoddard

Developed by Christopher Perkins

Edited by Scott Fitzgerald Gray

I'm not sure whether to place the blame on my general level of fatigue or the convolutions of the adventure's backstory, but I had some trouble understanding the premise of "The Scrivener's Tale" and how all the pieces of the adventure fit together. This one took a couple read-throughs to fully grasp. On a basic level, it's simple: an evil archfey wants to be released from the book they're trapped in and they put a curse on the characters to maneuver them into setting them free.

I will say that I don't think the intro as written is very good. The suggested start is that a bumbling librarian gives the players the wrong book--which inadvertently curses them. Instead of going that route, I started things in media res by having someone else trying to get the book stage an assault on the library while the characters happen to be there to stop it. The curse came about at the close of this encounter and left me a nice bit of ambiguity about whether the curse was the work of the Princess of the Shadow Glass or the Queen of Air and Darkness.

I also cut some of the adventure for either reasons of time or simply because they just weren't needed. There was an entire segment devoted to going to a noblewoman's estate to get information about the titular book's provenance, but my players were on the trail of resolving things without that side trek. The NPC in that part of the adventure seems interesting enough, but this was an easy omission.

I also cut out the waves of golems and mummies that can be encountered in the dungeon portion of the adventure. I made that cut for time, mostly. If I had been more willing to stretch this adventure over two sessions, I would have left that fight in, but I do have some reservations about whether the multi-part war of attrition it posits would be fun. Also, its a little weird that the enemies in the last batch of adventures is a bit repetitive: the previous adventure in the book also featured a mummy and golems, so on some level this feels like more of the same. Of course, you aren't really meant to play the adventures in Candlekeep Mysteries in sequence, so part of the issue is something I am bringing to the table that the book isn't meant to address.

To give this adventure some shine, I will say that the fight against the Princess of the Shadow Glass is very fun. Whoever made her stat block did a great job: she has a lot of flavorful attacks that lend themselves to cool description and keep the players on their toes. She's a great example of what a higher-level foe should look like.

As an aside, there is one thing I want to comment on about the higher-level adventures in Candlekeep Mysteries: many of them feature a sidebar about how to address certain spells that can "ruin" the mystery of the scenario. Luckily, no one I've been playing with is playing a caster with access to these spells, but I think this points to a potential design issue with the game as a whole. If there are known spells that can mess with the fun of players solving a mystery, those spells might need to be addressed in a way other than "here's how to make sure the spell doesn't work as written in this adventure."

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Alkazaar's Appendix

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 "Alkazaar's Appendix." Fair warning: spoilers lurk below.

The Characters

Elsabeth, human paladin played by Anne

Gnargar, kobold monk played by Heather

Aula, human rogue played by Ridgely

Rufus, human barbarian played by Steve


Elsabeth, Gnargar, and Rufus were tasked with joining a joint operation with the Church of the Sorrowful Vision. After being partnered with Aula, an operative of the Church, the assembled group was asked to return to the strange chamber that Elsabeth and Rufus has previously discovered in the ancient temple beneath the church and use the chamber's portal to Mudraal so that they might search for one of the fabled Blood Sea scrolls rumored to be secreted in that area.

Upon traversing the portal, the group found a younger man and an older man excavating something from the sands. Lending a hand, the group discovered that the item appeared to be a large stone statue of a man-like figure with a blue circle radiating rays of sun embedded in its chest. The pair of men, Pesh and Shamir, had hoped to sell the statue at a profit, but it was unclear how such a heavy object could be transported. This problem solved itself when the partially excavated statue heaved itself out of the sand, stood under its own power, and began to survey the surroundings as if it were getting its bearings. 

Gnargar's attempts to communicate with the stone man revealed that it could not speak, but it attempted to express itself in an unknown form of sign language. Upon further inspection, both Elsabeth and Aula felt certain that the sun symbol on the stone man's chest related to the ancient beginnings of the Church of Saintly Blood. When the stone man began to stalk off across the dunes, the group decided it would be best to follow--since the stone man was related to the church, perhaps it could lead them toward the Blood Sea scroll they were after. Pesh, Shamir, and their camel also came along.

After several days of travel, the group arrived at Haruun, also known as the Caves of the Worm, a set of natural caverns riddling the wall of a canyon. The sands here showed signs of a sand worm's passage. The group also felt the ground suddenly shake ominously, an indication that the purple worm may be nearby. Most of the caves had been filled in by the worm's burrowing, but a crack in the stone wall of the canyon seemed to indicate a mostly extant cave. The group, including the stone man, proceeded inside. The cavern stank from worm dung and the interior passage was partially blocked by stone churned up by the worm's movements; Rufus and Elsabeth's attempts to clear the stone were not as quiet or gentle as they may have liked--part of the wall of stones collapsed, after which the group again began to feel the tremors of the worm's approach. 

The chamber beyond the stone blockage had preserved several murals that imparted important information about the fate and whereabouts of the Blood Sea scroll. The murals mostly involved three figures in clerical vestments and a saintly prince of ancient Mudraal. In one mural, the three priests were shown animating the stone man with holy magic. Another showed the prince and the stone man stowing a golden scroll case inside a vault and attempting to fight off an attacking dragon. The final painting showed the prince willingly accepting a curse causing him to exist in a state between life and death as the guardian of the Blood Sea scroll so that the dragon could not get its claws on it. The stone man studied these murals intently. Contemplation of the story they told indicated that the group's next stop should be the ruined city of Azumar.

However, the worm's attention had been drawn at this point. It erupted from the sands outside the cave. The group chose to wait out the worm rather than fight it off. Their ploy worked, at the cost of Shamir and Pesh's camel, which was tied up outside. Eventually, the worm retreated back to the depths of the earth.

After several more days of travel, the group found themselves in the ruins of Azumar, facing a raging sandstorm that only vented its wrath in a circle around a step pyramid necropolis they recognized from the murals in the Cave of the Worm. Pesh and Shamir decided that they would wait for the party as they had no interest in attempting to traverse the sandstorm. The rest of the group was not keen on venturing into the sandstorm either; it looked strong enough to flay flesh from bone. Gnargar asked the stone man if he could enter the sandstorm; as the stone man lurched into the biting, gritty winds, he held his hands aloft. They flared with blue light, and the sandstorm parted. The group followed the stone man to the foot of the pyramid.

From the pyramid's base, the group could see a number of man-sized figures and giant scorpions milling about at the top. The group attacked from afar, with Elsabeth calling down a holy moonbeam, Gnargar throwing a searing sunburst, and Rufus firing his crossbow. Withering under this assault, the figures at the top of the pyramid scurried down the stone stairs to engage the party; they turned out to be a group of desiccated wights and undead scorpions! The group began to lay into their foes in earnest, but the opposing party was soon joined by a giant skeleton bearing a greatsword and a large horn strapped to its back. After the wights and scorpions were dispatched with, only the skeletal giant remained. Aula proved her worth by climbing the skeleton and dealing a massive strike to its neckbone that severed its head.

The group climbed the step pyramid, then descended into the depths of its necropolis. A door at the bottom of the stairs was blown off its hinges by Gnargar using the horn they took from the undead giant. Inside, the torches in the chamber lit automatically as they stepped inside. The chamber's only feature was a door framed by a dragon bones set into the wall around it. The bones began to crackle with electricity, and the dracolich pulled itself from the wall to attack! 

The dracolich had a number of fiendish abilities: it breathed gouts of lightning that filled the chamber, its teeth and claws arced with electrical power, and its tail lashed fiercely. It attempted to cave in a portion of the ceiling to bury Rufus alive, but he managed to leap out of the way of the falling debris. Elsabeth was knocked unconscious by the dracolich and inched even closer to death's door when the vile creature sent a surge of lightning arcing throughout the room. Ultimately, Gnargar called on every last reserve of ki he had to bash at the dracolich with his nunchaku and finish it with a fiery punch that burned with the heat of a thousand suns. The dracolich was reduced to nothingness; only its shadow remained etched into the stone of the necropolis.

Breaching the door to the crypt, the group found an ornate sarcophagus. Inside was the incorrupt body of the prince from the murals, clothed in funeral regalia, and the golden case containing the Blood Sea scroll. The stone man handed the scroll to Gnargar; Gnargar hugged to stone man in return. The stone man then gingerly picked up the body of his prince and walked toward the far wall of the crypt. The painting of heaven on the wall began to animate; the stone man carried the body of the holy prince into heaven.

Returning to the surface, the group were happy to note that the unnatural sandstorm was now gown. After paying Shamir and Pesh generously for the loss of their camel, the group returned to the portal and brought the Blood Sea scroll back to the Church of the Sorrowful Vision, where it was copied for the library's archives and subjected to further study.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

The Scrivener's Tale

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 Scrivener's Tale." Fair warning: spoilers lurk below.

The Characters

Elsabeth, human paladin played by Anne

Gnargar, kobold monk played by Heather


As Gnargar and Elsabeth reported for work at the library, they found their morning interrupted by screams coming from the campus grounds. Peering out a window, they saw a dark elf mage astride a malformed, bulge-eyed giant. As this uncanny pair neared the library, they attacked the scholars and students in their path with crackling bolts of lightning and a massive stone club, respectively. Elsabeth and Gnargar rushed to the defense of the university. Gnargar was able to stun the giant with a martial arts technique while avoiding the drow's blasts of electricity. The drow was knocked unconscious, but as he fell he uttered a spell in a strange voice; it began to rain inky black fluid, and where the liquid touched the gathered crowd's exposed skin, it formed miniscule words written in Sylvan.

Although none of the afflicted had knowledge of the Sylvan language prior to this event, they all discovered that they could now read it. The words marked on their flesh seemed to be part of a tale of some sort. They all also disconcertingly found that they cast no shadows! An expert in Sylvan literature, Professor Teles Ahvoste, was summoned to examine the strange words and hopefully make sense of it all. After arranging the afflicted in a rough order so that the bits of the story could be read in sequence, he determined that the words were from a book called The Scrivener's Tale, a story about an archfey of the Unseelie Court named the Princess of the Shadow Glass who had been driven out of the Feywild by the Queen of Air and Darkness.

Once the drow had been revived, he was questioned. His name was Eldrath, and he was a disciple of the Princess of the Shadow Glass. He claimed that the Queen of Air and Darkness was a terrible tyrant who had warped the nature of the Unseelie fey with her cruelty and that freeing the Princess of the Shadow Glass would allow her to wage a war against the Queen's evil in the Feywild. He was under orders, always delivered to him in dreams, to obtain The Scrivener's Tale because the Princess was trapped within its pages. He was to take the book to a place where the binding magic could be dispelled. Unfortunately, the whereabouts of that place had not yet been revealed to him by the Princess.

That night, both Gnargar and Elsabeth dreamed the same dream. They fled a battle between inhuman soldiers by hiding in a ruined tower. Inside, the found a spear thrust into the ground. Hanging from the spear's crossguard were two crowns: a silver circlet and an adamantine crown meant to be worn over a helm. Encircling the spear's blade was another crown--this one made of gold and inlaid with emeralds. As they reached out to claim the crowns for themselves, they awoke. Consulting with Teles Ahvoste revealed that historians believed there was a civil war among the Lilitu known as the War of the Three Crowns. This was culminated in a battle for a city called Delimbria, which was destroyed in the conflict. 

Elsabeth and Gnargar decided to head for the ruins of Delimbria in hopes of finding more information on the Princess and the strange writing that had appeared on their skin. They took a wagon and decided to bring Eldrath, Teles, and The Scrivener's Tale with them on the trip. One night, as they made camp, a shadowy figure approached their fire--they were privy to an audience with a vestige of the Princess of the Shadow Glass herself! The Princess of the Shadow Glass commended them on following the trail to Delimbria. She also informed them that the words on their skin was part of a curse laid by the Queen of Air and Darkness meant to prevent anyone from freeing the princess from her book-bound captivity--and that the curse would prove fatal if it were not removed. Before she departed back into the darkness, the Princess promised to remove their curse...as soon as she was released from the book, of course.

When the group arrived at Delimbria, they immediately saw the ruined tower that featured prominently in Elsabeth and Gnargar's dream. At the foot of the tower was a stone spiral staircase leading down into the earth; the walls of the shaft were etched with images of inhuman Lilitu monarchs donning the crowns from their dream. Excavating a collapsed doorway in the chamber at the bottom of the stairs allowed them access to the rest of the underground complex. From the crumbling and ancient desks they discovered, the complex appeared to be some sort of scriptorium. In their explorations, they uncovered a tunnel leading to an underground waterfall (complete with the skeleton of a previous explorer), a stone door with no handle that had three glyphs etched into its surface, and a vast chamber with the image of a dragon etched into the wall.

Examining the draconic image more closely, the group found that an image of a Lilituan abjuring it with an iron rod accompanied it. The iron rod was not part of the etching; it was in fact a real iron rod embedded in the wall. Also, the dragon's eye was an actual hole of some considerable depth. Unable to resist the temptation to toy with the possibilities presented here, Elsabeth pried the metal rod from the wall and inserted it into the hole in the dragon's eye. Formless darkness began to pour out of the rod, pooling on the stone floor. One great taloned leg, then another, then a horned reptilian head pulled itself from the inky pool--a dragon emerged from the mysterious morass!

The dragon had been imprisoned within the wall by the Lilitu, but now that it was free it demanded that the group stand aside so that it might leave and "feast." Unwilling to unleash this creature on an unsuspecting world, Elsabeth and Gnargar pretended to step aside so that they could better attack the dragon from the rear. Enraged at being hindered in its hellish purpose, the dragon unleashed a blast of caustic acid that injured Elsabeth and Grargar, nearly killed Eldrath, and absolutely dissolved Prof. Ahvoste. The dragon's teeth and claws proved extremely dangerous, but Elsabeth was able to ram her sword into its chest. As it reared in pain, it began to dissolve. As her sword fell to the ground, Elsabeth caught it midair. 

Once the dragon had been dealt with, Gnargar and Elsabeth decided to investigate the glyph-warded door further. As they examined it, a spectral Lilituan appeared and introduced himself as "the scrivener" who had written the book that the Princess of the Shadow Glass was contained in and had engineered the ritual that had trapped her within it. When asked about the Princess's motives, compared against the motives of the maligned Queen of Air and Darkness, the scrivener said that both were forces of ill and that it was impossible to weigh them against each other. At this point, Gnargar and Elsabeth's suspicions about the Princess's desire to be released from her prison were all but confirmed--she was not the freedom fighter she claimed to be. 

However, as they were victims of a curse, which they were more and more sure originated with the Princess and not the Queen, her release might be the key to saving themselves. The scrivener confirmed this: the only way to free themselves would be to release the Princess of the Shadow Glass using a ritual, kill her, and then finish the ritual before she could reform from the stuff of shadows. Elsabeth and Gnargar decided to take their chances with the path that the scrivener proposed; however, since they knew that Eldrath was still firm in his allegiance to the Princess, they knocked him unconscious before having the scrivener unseal the door to the ritual chamber so that they might confront the archfey who had guided them to this point.

Following the scrivener's instructions, The Scrivener's Tale was placed at the center of a ritual circle carved into the floor of the chamber and the candles around its perimeter were lit. A presence emerged from the book, taking the form of a tall, willowy fey woman whose silver hair trailed off into wisps of smoky darkness. Elsabeth and Gnargar were right not to trust her; she announced her intentions to kill them and conquer the Feywild! The Princess of the Shadow Glass had a number of tricks up her sleeve; she caused Gnargar and Elsabeth's stolen shadows to attack them, she commanded the long mirrors hung in the chamber to shatter and their shards to explode outward like glass-packed grenades, and she used tendrils of darkness to pull the duo through one mirror only to be spat out another. Ultimately, the two librarians were triumphant. The Princess was slain and the candles snuffed--ensuring that she would trouble the world no more.

Before they left, Gnargar and Elsabeth loaded the many ancient Lilituan manuscripts found in the ritual chamber into their wagon...for which they would be rewarded with extraordinary wealth by the library's Special Collections Department.