Sunday, May 9, 2021

My Ravenloft

In anticipation of Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft, I've been posting some aspects of the canonical Ravenloft setting that I exclude from my games set in the Domains of Dread. This time, I want to talk about the changes I tend to bring to the setting instead of things I avoid. With Van Richten's Guide on the horizon, it will be interesting to see how closely the new version of the setting hews to how I like to use the setting. (I've added some notes based on my best guesses as to how closely the Ravenloft of Van Richten's Guide will hew to my vision of the setting.) My Ravenloft deviates from the standard presentation of the setting in the following ways:

Brighter Points of Light. Any large town in the “official lore” is probably at least a small city in my version of the setting. Additionally, the landscape is dotted with many villages, farmsteads, and towns not detailed on conventional maps of the setting. There are more inhabitants in Ravenloft and consequently more institutions of note. For example, the city of Ludendorf in Lamordia is home to the acclaimed Ludendorf University, a college focused on the sciences and natural philosophy. Ingenious scholar teach there—though they are shadowed by rumors of dark, inhumane experiments. (Note: By breaking Ravenloft's "Core" into a bunch of islands floating in the mists, it seems likely that the new version of Ravenloft won't quite adopt this the way I'd prefer.)

The Seas are Harsh Mistresses. The Nocturnal Sea and the Sea of Sorrows are both dangerous, but they can be traversed reliably and are central in connecting the civilized lands through trade. Persistent mistways—passages through the mists that form the boundary of the known seas—allow for more frequent visits to otherwise isolated island domains. Knowledge of the mistways is carefully guarded by captains and navigators who wish to have a monopoly on trade with those lands. (Note: it's unclear to me right now, but it seems like sea travel and interconnection between domains is being downplayed in Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft.)

A Land of Strange Visitors. Because strangers from other worlds are often pulled into Ravenloft by the mists, the people of Ravenloft are more used to—and more accepting of—encountering a wider variety of folk. Although they may be rare, any race or ancestry can be found in the land. Strangers bring their cultures, factions, and religions with them—some of which will have taken root in Ravenloft to become new institutions on foreign soil. (Note: I suspect this will be the standard in the new Ravenloft, actually. WotC must know that now is not the moment to explore "fantasy racism" again in the setting.)

Haunted by Evil. The people who inhabit Ravenloft know that their land is plagued by supernatural evils. They might still cling to inaccurate superstitions about magic and monstrosities, but they harbor no illusions about the world around them. For example, the people of Barovia know that Strahd von Zarovich is a vampire—but there is precious little they can do about the undead sovereign who rules their land. (Note: WotC actually made this change to Barovia in Curse of Strahd. Good on 'em.)

Ravenloft with a Twist. Several bits of "lore" that I find silly don't make the cut. For example, the people of Darkon do not suffer from magical amnesia. In particular, the darklords’ backstories will be significantly different and, in the cases of the more convoluted origin stories, vastly simplified. It is unlikely that my version of Urik von Kharkov is a panther who was transformed into a man who later also became a vampire. Also, I feel absolutely free to add many factions, religions, secret societies, and nonplayer characters borrowed from the Ravenloft fan community and of my own devise. (Note: It will be interesting to see if there is one of those "the setting is yours to modify!" disclaimers in the book.)


Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Mazworth's Mighty Digressions

Photo by Egor Myznik on unsplash
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 "Mazfroth's Mighty Digressions." I called "Mazfroth" Mazworth instead, mainly because Forgotten Realms names are terrible and do not exactly slide off the tongue easily. Fair warning: spoilers lurk below.

The Characters

Elsabeth, human paladin, played by Anne

Rising Leaf and Raging Storm, human monk, played by Michael

Rufus Clarke, human barbarian played by Steve

Doctor Tobias Wolfe, human sorcerer played by Dennis

Events

Elsabeth, Leaf, Rufus, and Tobias were assigned to shelving newly acquired books in a restricted portion of the library. Leaf dropped a book, which happened to flip open to an illustration of a bloated, bat-winged demon with the head of a skeletal goat. As he bent down to pick up the tome, it transformed into a whirling mass of black energy and a crackling lightning strike erupted from it! Rufus attempted to pull Leaf out of harms way, but his act of altruism did not go unpunished; he was blasted by a bolt from the creature. A brief melee erupted within the aisle, but the group soon killed the monster--as it died, it contracted into nothingness.

During a debriefing session with Horatio Lupa regarding the incident, they learned that two other books had transformed into monstrous creatures and attacked library employees. Horatio set them to a task: discover why recently acquired books were becoming monsters and, if possible, seek replacements for the three books (Mazworth's Digressions, The Dark Hunger, and Fallen Tethyamar) that had been lost from the library's collection. Horatio gave them two leads: Mazworth's Digressions had been brought to the Creedhall University Library by a scholar named Yalerion, who could often be found at the shrine of St. Iona, and The Dark Hunger had been donated by a woman named Valor, who was currently repairing the roof of a library building as payment for the damage caused by the book she had gifted.

The group decided to start by questioning Valor, since she was closest at hand. Valor was a powerfully built, broad-shouldered tiefling. She was was not happy to have her work interrupted; she clearly wanted to fix the roof and be on her way. She did, however, tell the party that she purchased The Dark Hunger at a book stall in Creedhall's Wide Market in hopes of trading it to the library for access to books that would help her find someone she was looking for. She couldn't remember the exact location of the bookstall because she didn't stay in the market long; it "reeked of greed," to her.

Yalerion was found lounging on a pew inside the shrine to St. Iona. He also purchased his book from a stall in the Wide Market, and he remembered that the stall had "dune" somewhere in its name. He decided to donate Mazworth's Digressions when it turned out to be a book about demon lords instead of a more uplifting theological work. Having determined that neither Valor no Yalerion seemed to have seeded these monstrous books within the library, the group set off to find the bookstall in the Wide Market.

After a digression in which Elsabeth was hornswoggled into buying a book on crystals and their energies, the group located the Amberdune bookstall at the mouth of an alleyway on the fringes of the market square. The two employees of the bookstall were surprised to hear that books from their stock had been turning into murderous creatures, but were otherwise unhelpful. Leaf demanded to speak to the manager, which sent the older of the two sellers scuttling off. He returned with an imposing woman named Korvala who was brusque and unobliging. They group pretended to leave, but kept close watch on the bookstall. When Korvala left, Rufus and Tobias shadowed her to a hovel in a rough area of town. 

Clearly, the booksellers were hiding something. When the party reconvened, they decided that a frontal assault on the hovel was the way forward. The hovel's door was kicked in and then the fun began. The group was assaulted by the rug in the common room, which tried to smother Rufus. While they fought the rug, two jackalweres ran into the room to join the fray. A mimic posing as a chest was fought. More jackalweres rushed in to their deaths at the hands of the Special Collections Department. A young man cowering the kitchen tried to enforce his will over Tobias, but Tobias's eldritch mind proved too powerful. The elder man from the bookstall tried to make a break for it, but was subdued. Korvala ran upstairs to confront the party, only to be massacred immediately.

When the dust settled, the group had taken several captives and discovered a pile of gold, several books of note (including the ones Horatio had requested they find), and a desiccated heart wrapped in parchment. A wagon was procured and the captives and the loot were transported back to the library. 

After examination by senior Special Collections staff, it was revealed that the booksellers were jackalwere demon cultists who had once been led by a lamia, whose shriveled heart they had kept after she was killed by adventurers. The cult had been selling simulacra of its most valuable books to raise the funds needed to resurrect their master from the grave, but these simulacra were monsters in disguise--the cult relished the added chaos that their attacks would cause. But, ultimately, the cult was subdued by the brave men and women of Special Collections.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Madhumati, The Bitter Truth, The Old Dark House, and More

Things that brought me delight in April, 2021:


Madhumati

Madhumati is an Indian film that melds Bollywood with the Gothic mode in a surprisingly effective way. Of course, my predilections are well catered to here, as Madhumati begins with a frame narrative. An engineer and his friend find themselves stranded at a spooky manor house when the road becomes blocked with debris during a storm. While inside, the engineer discovers a portrait that he is sure he painted...though not in this lifetime. From there, we're catapulted into the past to follow the story of the engineer's past life as the manager of a timber business connected to the manor house. Madhumati becomes a tale of love and loss as the manager's burgeoning relationship with a beautiful young woman is imperiled by the machinations of a corrupt Raja. Further Gothic complications begin to pile up: murder most foul, spectral visitations, uncanny doubles, and all the trimmings. Madhumati is quite long, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.



Evanescence, The Bitter Truth

Admittedly, I am far too old to have nostalgia for Evanescence. Nevertheless, an ironic attraction to their hard rockin' gothic bombast and emotional histrionics has evolved into a genuine appreciation of their music. There's something sinuous here on The Bitter Truth, and plenty of honest--if simple--emotion, but the album also doesn't skimp on roaring guitars and shimmering electronic flourishes. All that plus a cover of Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain" that somehow manages to not feel embarrassingly unnecessary. 


The Old Dark House

With the long march of years, the premise of The Old Dark House has become well-worn and familiar: a group of travelers find themselves lost during a torrential rainstorm and head to the lone light they can see--a light belonging to an old house containing ominous residents who offer them shelter. ("There's a light over at the Frankenstein place," if you catch my meaning.) In The Old Dark House, this chance meeting of is between an decaying old family of the bygone era and a younger cohort who have been disillusioned by the war; this contact perhaps becomes illustrative of a projected generational "fate." As the older generation's dark secrets come spilling out, they are threatened with dissolution, but the newer generation finds reasons to carry on and value the future. Even though the house is a site of peril for them, one night in the old dark house offers a kind of strange rebirth.


Rob Zombie, The Lunar Injection Kool Aid Eclipse Conspiracy

When you're a long-term Rob Zombie fan, there's always a bit of trepidation when he puts out a new album. Is it going to be the real shit you dig or a dashed-off record that drops between movie projects? Rejoice, Zombie fans, for The Lunar Injection Kool Aid Eclipse Conspiracy hits different, even if you're never going to remember the title. Although it doesn't really offer a new spin on the Rob Zombie experience, if you're into Rob Zombie records this is a Rob Zombie record you will be into.


Berlin: The Wicked City

Berlin: The Wicked City is a supplement for Call of Cthulhu by David Larkins, with additional development from Mike Mason and Lynne Hardy. I've been getting back into Call of Cthulhu lately, and its noticeable that the 7th edition line of supplements for the game are of a uniformly high quality. None more so than Berlin: The Wicked City, a weighty tome that adapts the mythos to the setting of Weimar-era Berlin. As a particular fan of that decadent period, this supplement strikes all the right notes. It doesn't hurt that David Larkins was the lead on this project; in my opinion, he's one of the best writers working in rpgs at the moment. If you love Babylon Berlin, this is a must-have. 


In the Mood for Love

Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood For Love had long been on my to-watch list and I finally got a chance to see it in April. It's reputation is richly deserved; rarely have I encountered a film this certain of its aesthetic with a taught emotional core. Neighbors change from strangers to confidants to something undefinable when they realize that their spouses are having an affair. Is this the sexiest movie without a sex scene? Quite possibly. One funny thing: that dancing scene is so famous that I was ultra surprised to discover that it's a deleted scene!


Blackbriar, Our Mortal Remains, Fractured Fairytales, We'd Rather Burn

Blackbriar's music reminds me a bit of Dark Sarah; the three EPs I've been listening to, Our Mortal Remains, Fractured Fairytales, and We'd Rather Burn, all evidence a theatrical Gothic metal style, though Blackbriar's music is more song-oriented than cinematic. Blackbriar never lets the symphonic elements of their sound overwhelm their tracks. Additionally, each EP is a marked improvement on the one that came before, so I'm looking forward to spending some time with their recently released debut full-length to see if they remain on that upward trajectory.


Sarah Andersen, Fangs

Fangs is a collection of comic strips by Sarah Andersen charting the romantic relationship between a vampire and a werewolf and the series of dates over which they fall in love. I really enjoyed the way Fangs retrofits the usual tropes of dating to the context of supernatural creatures. The art is cartoony, but has moments of surprisingly lush beauty that I wouldn't have expected from Andersen's other comics. This was the perfect chaser to my recent re-watch of Penny Dreadful, in which a werewolf and a vampire woman are a bit more...star-crossed, we'll say.


Shadow and Bone

I read the first trilogy in Leigh Bardgo's Grishaverse series in advance of Netflix's adaptation; I enjoyed the books quite a bit, and I've heard very good things about the second set of books set in the same universe. The Shadow and Bone series produced by Netflix is quite faithful to the original trilogy's, and it also incorporates characters and plot elements from the second batch of novels, but since I haven't read them, I can't comment on how closely it follows those latter events. (I'm guessing not that closely, as the series intertwines the two stories.) The show is enjoyable and the casting in general is excellent, but what surprised me is that the characters I haven't experienced yet in the books were the ones that really popped for me in the series. If nothing else, the show has made me move those books up in my queue. I'd like a little more of Blades in the Dark-esque skullduggery in my life from Kaz and his crew of interesting ne'er-do-wells.


Norihiro Yago, Claymore vols. 11-14

My plan was originally to read two volumes of Claymore a month, but I find myself unable to stop reading them and obey my own self-imposed limit; they're pretty perfect for a quick blast of action, violence, and drama. I've mentioned before that the art has come into its own in the past few volumes, and the quality of illustration continues on the upward trend; Norihiro Yagi is hitting a stride, particularly when it comes to the monstrous yoma and "awakened ones" that the Claymores fight against. The series still issues with differentiating the Claymores from each other (what a choice to give them all blonde hair and have them wear similar outfits!), but it does introduce a dark-haired Claymore (and a lot of attention is drawn to that) as well as two Claymores in black armor, so maybe this is a known bug.


Shanghai Express

The black and white films of the pre-code era do so much with light and shadow; it honestly feels like a lost cinematic art that we're poorer for losing sight of. Also, you absolutely can't go wrong with a movie that has both Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong. Both are legends, particularly in this film, but as someone pointed out to me, Dietrich is shot in the devotional angles you really only ever in art of Catholic saints. Breathtaking object of worship.


HIM, Tears on Tape

I should not enjoy HIM; something in my nature is supposed to be viscerally opposed to this band, and yet...you ever throw on one of these overblown records and drive around with the windows down in the springtime? Can't be beat. Anyway. Tears on Tape was HIM's last album, and man did they go out with a bang. Strong material, no sign of slowing down. Hits fairly hard for this sort of thing, easy to sing along to. Are your windows down yet?


Hirokhiko Araki, JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Phantom Blood vols. 1-3

I'll talk about this more on an upcoming episode of Bad Books for Bad People, but this thing took me on a real roller-coaster ride.




Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The Joy of Extradimensional Spaces (part 2)

The Creedhall Mysteries, part 2

I've started 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 second part of the "The Joy of Extradimensional Spaces." Fair warning: spoilers lurk below.

The Characters

Elsabeth, human paladin, played by Anne

Rising Leaf and Raging Storm, human monk, played by Michael

Events

Elsabeth and Rising Leaf were still on the hunt for the last volume that would be the key to them leaving the extradimensional manor created Fistandia, a search that took them down into the building's basement. 

The first room they explored appeared to be a summoning chamber. A magical circle surrounded by runes was etched into the stone floor, an empty book stand stood nearby, and the room smelled of sulfur. The room's only resident seemed to be a toad. As Rising Leaf searched the room, Elsabeth bent down to get a closer look at the toad--which promptly launched itself at her face, transforming into a quasit as it leapt through the air. 

The quasit clawed Elsabeth, poisoning her. She dropped to the floor, inert. Thinking quickly, Rising Leaf grabbed Elsabeth, dragged her out of the summoning chamber, and slammed the door shut before the quasit could escape the room. The quasit rattled the door in its frame, but proved too weak to be able to open the door from inside.

After Elsabeth regained consciousness, the pair continued their exploration. They discovered a chamber filled with specimen jars, some small, some disturbingly large. Each container held a preserved monster; they noticed a cockatrice floating in formaldehyde, a giant jellyfish creature with eyestalks, a fungal monstrosity, a jar full of clawed hands, etc. One jar had been broken; pieces of shattered glass littered the floor. Whatever had been inside had since fled. Not wanting to hang around in a room full of monsters, dead or not, they pushed on.

The final chamber in the basement proved to be an alchemy laboratory featuring vials of unidentifiable fluids, charts detailing arcane formulae, and stacks of books. Among the books, they found the tome they were after: a book with the letter E inscribed on its spine. Elsabeth and Rising Leaf mused on the meaning of the letters they had collected, and Elsabeth realized that the codeword was "LIBERTY."

Returning to the foyer, the command word was spoken and the portal was reopened. Traversing the purple door returned Rising Leaf and Elsabeth to the study room in Creedhall. However, there were a few additions to the room that were not present when they had left. Doctor Matreus, who had fled through their original portal last time, lay dead on the ground, apparently the victim of some sort of poisonous sting judging by the lump on his neck.

Another new wrinkle was revealed when the duo attempted to leave the study room to get help with the doctor's corpse. As they approached the door, the imp that Doctor Matreus had smuggled out of the extradimensional house became visible and attacked! Rising Leaf smashed it with his staff and stamped on it; Elsabeth wound up and gave a mighty swing that sent the imp flying through the air, where it collided with a wall and fell to the ground. Curiously, in death it had transformed into a stone figurine of an imp.

Help was called for and the job was wrapped up. Although Doctor Matreus was now dead, Horatio Lupa was pleased that his whereabouts had been ascertained and Creedhall University Library had gained some potentially useful information about how to enter and leave Fistandia's secret home. Horatio congratulated Elsabeth and Rising Leaf on a job well done, let them keep the healing potions found on the doctor's body, and told them that Doctor Matreus's death would be ruled a "heart attack" to maintain the university's reputation as a safe place for students and scholars to pursue excellence.

Previous Adventures

The Joy of Extradimensional Spaces (part 1)

Monday, April 26, 2021

Wormtongue

"You should let me add a boon die to this
attacl because my character has the
high ground and also the wind is
blowing in a favorable direction."
When I started playing Dungeons & Dragons with my friend Kevin in grad school, he introduced me to a slang term his previous group used: wormtonguing

The phrase comes from Grima Wormtongue, the advisor in Lord of the Rings who pours rhetorical poison in Theoden's ear. (Although, to be honest, the fact that his name is Grima Wormtongue should have been a clear indication that he was not a guy you could trust with matters of state.)

In a gaming context, wormtonguing is when you're trying to convince the Dungeon Master that the course of action you're proposing is reasonable or even that your success is probable. You're wormtonguing when you're lobbying for some sort of bonus to your roll because of circumstances you see as favorable to whatever your character is attempting.

It seems like many Dungeon Masters hate being wormtongued; I've seen complaints about wormtonguing-esque behavior, although I've never seen it explicitly defined as such. The slang phrase Kevin and his group gave to this tactic hints at its slyness, selfish guile, and potential duplicity; that said, they clearly used the phrase in good humor. You could roll your eyes at a wormtonguing player, but it was accepted as a matter of course and as an expected part of playing the game as a group. You could laugh about a particularly bald-faced attempt at wormtonguing after the fact, but its use was enshrined as part of their social contract.

Personally, I love it. To me, when a player is attempting to sway things to their advantage, it's a sign that they're engaged with the game. They're thinking about the world, they're considering their character's goals and desires, and they're invested in the situation and outcome currently unfolding at the table. I suppose it could become wheedling, whining, or demanding when used by an unpleasant player, but you shouldn't be playing with that kind of person anyway. In my eyes, a good lashing from the wormtongue most often indicates excitement about the game. It's a sign that things are working as intended.

So, yeah, wormtongue me, baby.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Demon Lord vs. DnD: Comparing Core Mechanics

Some fans of Shadow of the Demon Lord maintain that the game is very different from 5e Dungeons & Dragons, but I don't think that's a particularly accurate claim. As I stated here in my Four-Way Grimdark Shoot-Out post, I think SotDL is a great alternative for a group already familiar with D&D who want a darker experience. Although SotDL is a dark fantasy rpg, most of the familiar elements of D&D are present in some fashion, albeit that the tone of SotDL is much more apocalyptic and grimdark; SotDL's default setting exists in a state of upheaval and things are headed toward a horrific end as the titular Demon Lord begins to exert its world-ending influence more strongly. D&D doesn't usually get that dark, even in the Ravenloft or Dark Sun settings.

Comparisons of Shadow of the Demon Lord to Dungeons & Dragons feel inevitable, as Robert J. Schwalb, SotDL's author, also worked on fifth edition D&D before lighting out for his own territories. This is the first in a series of blog posts detailing both the similarities and differences between SotDL and D&D as a way of examining where the resemblance and divergence of the two games might matter to a gamer choosing between them. Let's start by comparing the core mechanic of both games. Shadow of the Demon Lord clearly springs from the same mechanical design principles as the latest version of D&D

The core resolution mechanic in SotDL is a d20 roll modified by an attribute penalty or bonus and possibly a number of boons and banes. Boons are d6s that are added to the roll; boons are gained from a variety of sources, such as special abilities or favorable circumstances, but you only ever take the highest number rolled among the boon dice. For example, if you make a roll with three boons, you'd roll 3d6 but only add the highest of those three dice to your d20 roll. Banes represent penalties; you subtract the highest bane die from your d20 roll. Boons and banes cancel each other out on a one for one basis; if you make a roll that has three boons and two banes attached to it, you'd make the roll with a single boon.

This core mechanic is clearly similar to D&D's, but in D&D the core resolution mechanic involves rolling a d20 and adding an ability score modifier and a proficiency modifier. In SotDL's system, boons are obviously taking the place of a proficiency bonus that scales as you gain levels. Even with this difference, however, they arrive at similar results because the more boons you roll with, the more likely you are to add a higher number, which approximates a rising proficiency bonus that is added to your roll. 

To spell it out more clearly, this is the breakdown of the core mechanic of each game:

  • In 5e D&D, mechanical resolution is d20 + attribute mod + a proficiency bonus that ranges from 2-6
  • In SotDL, mechanical resolution is d20 + attribute mod + the possibility of boons add an additional 1-6

The similarity is impossible to miss. Where they differ is in the potential for randomness. D&D's proficiency bonus is a static number; you can count on a +2 proficiency modifier to always add +2 to your roll. In contrast, SotDL's mechanic makes things a bit swingier; a single boon is as likely to add +1 to your roll as it is to add +6. Personally, I tend to find SotDL's greater randomness more exciting; in my experience, it leads to bigger moments of triumphs and memorable catastrophes. On the other hand, I could see gamers who prefer consistency preferring D&D's system, even though any d20 roll is bound to have a measure of unpredictability no matter what.

However, one area in which SotDL's core mechanic that diverges from D&D is that boons and banes are also used to in place of D&D's advantage and disadvantage rules. In D&D, when a character has advantage they roll two d20s and take the higher roll; when a character has disadvantage on a roll, they roll two d20s and take the lower. Mathematically, advantage and disadvantage is approximately equal to a +5 or -5 modifier.

In SotDL, situations or abilities that would grant advantage or disadvantage instead add boons or banes to the roll. This means that mathematically the benefit and penalty would be smaller, except that SotDL allows for multiple boons and banes to apply to a roll. In D&D, circumstances that grant advantage or disadvantage cancel each other out, even in cases where you might have multiple sources granting you advantage or disadvantage; for example, if you have two sources granting your character advantage and one giving you disadvantage on a roll, they cancel each other out entirely--you make a straight d20 roll. 

In SotDL, if you have two sources granting you a boon and one penalizing you with a bane, you still make the roll with one boon because banes cancel out boons on a one-to-one basis. This gives more granularity, but also potentially increasing the "handling" time of figuring out how many boons or banes you actually need to include as part of your roll.

An interesting difference between the core mechanics of the games is what you compare your roll against. In D&D, your d20 roll is compared against either the Armor Class of a foe you're trying to hit in combat or a range of possible Difficulty Classes if the roll is an ability check or saving throw. In SotDL, rolls are compared either against an attribute (such as Defense for a melee attack or Intellect for a mind-effecting spell) or against a flat 10 for challenge rolls. (Challenge rolls are most often analogous to "skill checks" or "saving throws.") Instead of adjusting the target number to represent varying difficulty in SotDL, that is instead handled by boons and banes. Ten is an easy target number to remember, so I like that for ease and speed of play. 

Another benefit that isn't readily apparent in the way SotDL does things is that there is no Difficulty Class that scales out of reach as characters face ever more deadly foes. 5e D&D has a problem with this at higher levels, particularly in regards to saving throws. Because only two of a characters six saving throws tend to increase as they gain levels and the saving throw DCs of their enemies increase similarly, saving throw DCs eventually reach a place where characters are unlikely to make successful saving throws against baleful effects. For example, a high level fighter can easily be locked down by an ancient dragon's fear effect, which runs contrary to the fantasy of being a dragon-slaying warrior of renown. Although powerful foes in SotDL might have abilities that are resisted with a bane or two, the roll needed to resist those abilities remains 10 or higher, which feels like the characters at least have a shot at survival even against horrific monsters.

Next up: D&D's races vs SotDL's ancestries.

Monday, April 19, 2021

The Joy of Extradimensional Spaces (part 1)

Photo by Natalia Y on unsplash
The Creedhall Mysteries, part 1

I've started 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 first part of the "The Joy of Extradimensional Spaces."

The Characters

Elsabeth, human paladin, played by Anne

Rising Leaf and Raging Storm, human monk, played by Michael

Events

Elsabeth and Rising Leaf were summoned from their quarters in the early hours of the morning by their superior, Horatio Lupa. He explained that the Library was facing a matter of some urgency: a visiting scholar named Dr. Matreous had requested a specific study room and a specific tome needed for his researches. However, he had disappeared; no one saw him leave his study room, but he definitely wasn't in there. The duo was tasked with finding Dr. Matreous and safeguarding the library's reputation.

Our heroes first decided to investigate the room that Dr. Matreous had requested. It was fairly bare, but the book he was studying was still inside. The book was a tome written by a woman named Fistandia and it speculated about other planes of existence and the theoretical possibility of creating one's own interplanar space. The book also featured a lot of marginalia penned by its author, but the marginal notes were written in a much more frenzied hand. Both Rising Leaf and Elsbeth were sure that there was a coded message in the marginalia, but neither could figure it out. Stumped, they pressed a scholar of the university's math department into their service and had him figure it out for them. The notes were hiding a code word: "scepter."

Returning to the study room, Elsbeth said "scepter" out loud, which caused a spectral double door to appear in the air. Figuring that Dr. Matreous had also discovered this secret and entered the doors, Elsbeth and Rising Leaf ventured inside to try to find him. The doors led them into the interior of a house made of gray stone with dark hardwood floors. Purple light streamed in from the windows; the world outside seemed comprised of swirling, luminescent purple mist. The two set about exploring.

They encountered a couple of giggling invisible beings in an arboretum; while Rising Leaf was inspecting two floating, glowing orbs in this area, he was doused with a mysterious gas that made him feel euphoric. They encountered many black cats in various rooms. They also encountered two obsequious homunculi working in the kitchen. The homunculi introduced themselves as Cumin and Coriander; Cumin was created by Fistandia, mistress of the house, and Cumin was the creation of someone named Freyot. Neither homunculi had seen their creator in a very long time. They also learned at some point Fistandia had summoned an imp in the house, but it was no longer in residence.   

The characters inquired about Dr. Matreous's whereabouts, and the homunculi informed Rising Leaf and Elsbeth that he was just now on the stairs. Unfortunately, they were just in time to see the man rush past and flee through the portal they had used to enter the house. The doors closed and the portal vanish. They then heard a far-away sounding scream. They were now trapped in Fistandia's extraplanar home.

However, they were not without hope of egress. They discovered that Fistandia had hidden a number of blank books throughout her domicile; each one had a single letter on its spine. The theory is that if all the books are collected, the letters will spell out a word of command that will reopen the portal back to the study room. 

Of course, not all of the books were easy to come by. In one chamber, they found themselves attacked by a pile of books that animated into a man-shaped monstrosity. In another, two longswords engaged them in a duel to the death. Rising Leaf angled the five telescopes in a planetarium room to reveal a hidden door. Beyond the hidden door was a strange bookcase draped with thick iron chains. Each chain was attached to the metal cover of a book on its shelves. As they got near it, the books took flight and began being whipped around by the chains like a series of flails made of iron books. Rising Leaf dashed in, grabbed the only book with an initial on it, and dashed out...narrowly avoiding being pummeled by this strange contraption.

Thus far, the duo have managed to acquire books with the initials I, R, T, L, B, and Y. They are just now heading into the hidden basement to complete the collection...

(Special thanks to Aos for sending me his notes from the game; it made the write-up very easy.)

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Blessed Monsters

When I finished reading Wicked Saints, the first book in the Something Dark and Holy trilogy, I was willing to accept that the book was the imperfect debut of a young author; the book had a lot of problems, but my hope was that with further experience Emily A. Duncan would grow into the skill to do justice to some of the interesting ideas in their novel. Now that I've finished Blessed Monsters, the final book in the trilogy, I have to admit that this series is unfortunately a case of diminishing returns, with each novel being a bit worse than the one that precedes it. My optimism lies defeated by the last of the books in the trilogy.

Blessed Monsters does not start well. At this point, I'm not sure Duncan could write a novel if you excised the words "broken," "disaster," "boy," and "nightmare" from their lexicon. (Blessed Monsters adds "entropy" to the list of go-to words.) The three main characters spend about the first hundred pages moping; these initial chapters could easily have been condensed into something more profluent, but the issue with them points to another element that makes the novel difficult to get through: the author focuses on parts of their story that I imagine most readers don't actually care about instead of the elements that had the potential to be captivating and memorable.

The overall premise of Blessed Monsters is fine. "Monstrous old gods have awakened amid a never-ending war between blood wizards and religious zealots whose deities are not what they seem" is perfectly cromulent. On a smaller scale, however, the premise is undermined at nearly every turn by a misguided narrative focus. There are big, potentially action-packed events that occur in this novel that should be in the spotlight, but aren't. For example, there is a chapter in which one of the main characters is led to a pyre; she has been condemned by the matriarch of her religion to be burned alive, while her friends are locked in a prison powerless to stop her death as a presumed heretic. But then, with little explanation, another main character (literally) swoops in, rescues her, and then the next chapter begins with her and all her friends now hiding out in a safe house. Exactly how they all fled the city they were held captive in and how they managed their escape is omitted. 

There's a fight with an actual god that is dealt with quickly and somewhat breezily; a fight against a malign divinity should be momentous, but here it's a speed bump in the way of the moping, the snarking, and the Reylo-inspired will they-won't they relationship at the heart of this series. Also, there is a tendency to skip over details Duncan just doesn't seem to care enough about. A character picks up a sword on his way to fight the rampaging god and all we get is a note that he acquired the sword from somewhere or other. Why not have this character pull the sword out of the grasp of a dead soldier to add some specificity here?

I can imagine the hypothetical reader who wants to skip the adventuresome bits to get to the thwarted, poisonous romance, but the emotional stakes that Blessed Monsters tries to play with don't work very well either. The main characters are obsessive about each other, but the reasons why aren't particularly clear and by the end it's difficult to care because they all seem like obnoxious people. Not flawed people, which could be interesting, rich, and complex, but rather just bratty, self-absorbed, and emotionally unstable.

It doesn't help that Duncan doesn't seem to have a firm grasp on their characters' motivations or even an interest in presenting them as people with consistent wants, needs, and desires. In a moment of emo despair, one character bemoans that he has never has strong attachments to other people until the moment he's experiencing right now, yet a few chapters back he was also having an emo moment of despair over the death of a friend he had a strong attachment to.

Duncan is also not particularly consistent in regards to extent of the power wielded by their characters. One of their protagonists is "reborn" as a "god of chaos," but it's unclear that this makes him any more powerful than what he was previously as a monstrous wizard who uses his own blood to power his magic. Similarly, the three main characters die and return to life multiple times, often reviving mere pages after their demises. In Duncan's fiction, death has no sting; it's a temporary respite from moping and snarking that only ever becomes the occasion for ever more intense bouts of moping and snarking.

I also want to mention, in passing, that there is a magical sex scene, and it is as awkward as you fear. One character's "third eye" is probed at the same time as her vagina. Now you know.

The plot, such that it is, doesn't really hold together. The novels in the series have been set up to have three main characters who each get their own point of view chapters, but as we head into the conclusion the plot suddenly requires that four of the series's characters act in unison to fight off certain destruction, which means that the fourth character added to the initial triad gets short shrift. We barely know anything about her, despite the fact that she's been kicking around in the narrative since the first book, and she only gets "interlude" chapters instead of being a focal point in the story. Her role is basically standing around near the other three to improve their odds of success because she radiates magically good vibes.

As further evidence of a lack of attention to what should matter in a novel, consider the climax: a fight against two elder gods released from their prisons to bring wrack and ruin to the world. One of them is fought and defeated entirely "off-camera" by the side characters, but at least that elder god is described: she's a giant spider monstrosity, which is fair enough. 

In contrast, the main event, the attempt to bind the Big Bad Eldritch Horror of the novel, is an absolute cheat. Rather than describe what this cosmic monstrosity entails, the villain of the piece is conveniently invisible, and therefore doesn't need to be described. We also fade to black at the moment where things are decided one way or another because the important bit is the aftermath of, you guessed it, moping and snarking. 

The reluctance to show or describe throughout Blessed Monsters is  odd; at the end, one character remarks that another has been physically changed by the ordeals they've faced, but the reader is never clued in to what those changes are. It's never described or detailed for the reader. It feels like the author wanted to spend time with their characters, but wasn't necessarily interested in writing an actual story about them that can be read and enjoyed by someone who isn't in love with the idea of these petulant, patience-trying characters.

Similarly, we get a tantalizing hint about the mother of one of the main characters, a substantial missing piece of the puzzle of her life, but then we receive no follow-through that builds on that. It's left as a loose thread, as is the motivation and nature of the powerful witch who occasionally pops in to do a bit of exposition over the course of Blessed Monsters. When you tally up the accumulated loose ends, lax storytelling, and the avoidance of description, action, and resolution, it doesn't exactly make for a thrilling conclusion to an entire trilogy's worth of books.

Nota bene: Apparently Emily A. Duncan is either "canceled" or is in the process of being canceled. I can't comment on the reasons why because I am not familiar with the situation, and delving into it would mean descending into the utter snake pit that is the online YA book community.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Four-Way Grimdark Shoot-Out

We are living amidst a grimdark renaissance. If you want to play a dark fantasy rpg, you will find yourself awash in options. In this post, I am going to do capsule reviews of the four most noteworthy grimdark fantasy games currently on the market: MÖRK BORG, Shadow of the Demon Lord, Warhammer 4e, and Zweihänder

These reviews are going to be "from the hip"; you can expect them to be highly subjective, narrow, and quite possibly not very helpful--although I will try to at least gesture toward who each of these games might appeal to.


MÖRK BORG

This is likely going to be an unpopular opinion: MÖRK BORG's presentation isn't all that. For a game that's lauded as an artistic masterpiece, there sure are a lot of pieces of public domain artwork here that we've already seen hundreds of times before in other games. Yes, they are dressed up with harsh yellow and pink colors and about a million fonts, but to me the end result looks more like a mess than "artpunk" or "cutting edge design." It's a shame that other creators have decided this is the approach to ape.

That said, the original art pieces in MÖRK BORG are fantastic. I wish there were more of them! In general, I have a hard time swallowing the idea that MÖRK BORG is like a "punk zine." It's far too glossy, far too designed, and far too expensive for what you get to accurately fit that tag. MÖRK BORG could easily be cut down into a truly slim, fightin' mad little game with no loss of content, but that would necessitate sacrificing the graphic designer wank, which seems like it was at least half the point of making this game.

MÖRK BORG is rightfully referred to as "the doom metal rpg." It has an atmosphere of crushing despair. The prose drips with misery, so much so that the game actually feels faintly parodic.  I've see more than more person complain that MÖRK BORG is "barely a game," but that's a claim I disagree with. There is a game here, even if it isn't particularly deep, and it's a game that looks like it would be fun in small doses. The system itself is simple; it's OSR derived, which means in a grimdark context you shouldn't expect to get lengthy campaigns out of this game. Again, small doses.


Shadow of the Demon Lord

The fans of Shadow of the Demon Lord who champion the notion that this game is vastly different from 5e Dungeons & Dragons have got it all wrong. Shadow of the Demon Lord is a grimdark game for the 5e D&D crowd. It's a niche game that could see actual play by a general audience. If you've played 5e, you will easily come to terms with what SotDL offers. Rolling a d20 plus an attribute modifier plus one or more d6s is just not that different from rolling a d20 plus an ability score modifier plus a proficiency bonus. Choosing an ancestry, a novice path, an expert path, and a master path is not substantially different from choosing a race, class, and subclass.

That said, Shadow of the Demon Lord is the best of the current grimdark crop, in my opinion. Not only does it have an easy approachability for people who have already played D&D, it has great modularity, streamlined rules, an eminently playable setting that isn't buried in minutiae, and tons of options that are actually optional. 

It also gives you a bit of the old Warhammer feel without trying to be a copy of Warhammer. (See below for two instances of that particular phenomenon.) Shadow of the Demon Lord has rules for corruption, insanity, monsters that are mechanically unnerving, and magic that actually feels terrifying or grotesque. It takes the expected experience of playing a fantasy rpg and drags it kicking and screaming into a dark place.


Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play 4e

First-edition Warhammer FRP was one of the games my group played the most in high school. In many ways, it felt more like our game than D&D. What really drew us in back then was how unique WFRP felt. In comparison to D&D's generic heroic fantasy, WFRP core book was chock full of John Blanche's sublimely grotty art, a decidedly gritty and European take on fantasy, and enough content inside to make it feel like you wouldn't ever need supplements to beef it up. WFRP had a mystique; it had mystery.

Decades later, the fourth edition of the game arrives and it feels devoid of mystery. At some point, the scales tipped and Warhammer went from being a unique alternative to vanilla fantasy to becoming another fantasy institution. I just don't get the same feeling of wonder that WFRP initially provoked. Everything here feels neat and tidy. The art looks like what you would find in a dozen other fantasy games, and the art budget here does not seem to have been particularly generous; in comparison to the other games reviewed in this post, WFRP is strangely spare and barren. There's also a feeling of being driven primarily by nostalgia here; from the cover image the recreates the original WFRP cover for what is at least the third time to the re-release of souped-up deluxe editions of The Enemy Within campaign, it seems like the creative spark is gone.

This could well be a great game, mechanically speaking, but I'm sad to say it does absolutely nothing for me. Nothing here makes me want to play. It feels like a modern Star Wars movie; it vaguely reminds you of something you loved in your youth, but it's a pale figment of the thing you remember so fondly.


Zweihänder

Zweihänder presents itself as the spiritual successor to WFRP, which is in itself a little annoying. In reality, what that means is that it's hard to think of Zweihänder as anything other than a bare rip-off of Warhammer

Nearly everything in the book, from the rules to the setting elements, reads like Warhammer with the serial numbers filed off. That initial impression isn't helped at all by the author's aggressive style of of marketing or by the fact that Zweihänder is hideously over-written. Yes, it's a weighty tome, but it could be substantially cut down with the added benefit of getting rid of every instance where the rules you need in play are utterly encased in a padded word count.

That said, I would much rather play Zweihänder than the fourth edition of brand-name Warhammer. Although Zweihänder is slavishly imitative of WFRP's earlier editions, it at least focuses on the parts I enjoyed about those games while introducing some modern mechanical refinement. And the black and white interior art by Dejan Mandic absolutely captures the mystique of old Warhammer without being derivative or overly nostalgic. It is, however, wild how boring the cover of the core book is.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Cathedral Walls, Dance with the Dragon, Strangled Idols

A few howls of the damned for heading in the weekend:

Swallow the Sun, "Cathedral Walls"

Dark Sarah, "Dance with the Dragon"

Cadaveria, "Strangled Idols"

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Dark Secrets (100 Entries)

 

Photo by Mathew Schwartz at unsplash.com

I've published various versions of the table below on this blog before, but each time the table expands horrifically. It began as a twenty-entry table, then fifty...and now it's a full hundred options.

Dark Secrets

In some games set in Krevborna, the characters may not be pure-hearted heroes in the traditional sense. If you want a cast of characters burdened by their past misdeeds, have each player either pick or roll for a dark secret from the following table.  






d100

Secret

01

Abandonment. You abandoned your family, leaving them to fend for themselves.

02

Abducted. You were kidnapped by bandits or pirates as a child.

03

Abusive. You were physically or emotionally violent to someone vulnerable.

04

Accomplice. You covered up the heinous crimes committed by some else.

05

Accursed. You are the unfortunate inheritor of a familial curse.

06

Addict. Perhaps you favor the sweet oblivion of opium or cannot resist drinking yourself into a stupor.

07

Assaulted at night. You are visited by a hag who sits on your chest at night, rendering you unable to move.

08

Bedlam. During a time of crisis you had a complete mental breakdown and were institutionalized.

09

Black mark. One of your family members is an infamous criminal.

10

Blackmailer. You extorted a prominent member of society because you knew their secret.

11

Bleak outlook. You find no pleasure or value in life.

12

Bloodsport. You participated in or were part of the audience for a game that was fatal to a participant.

13

Born under a bad sign. The night you were born the stars turned blood red in the night sky.

14

Brawler. You entertained yourself by getting into needless, brutal fights.

15

Bully. You tormented someone else, pushing them to the very brink.

16

Burdened by family tradition. You were born into a family of monster hunters and feel compelled to follow that path despite your aversion to it.

17

Buried treasure. A map to a trove of pirate treasure has come into your possession, but you do not know how to read it.

18

Caliban. You have a physical malformation due to a hag using black magic in the vicinity of your birth.

19

Cannibal. During an expedition you were forced to commit cannibalism to survive.

20

Charmed. You were once under the control of an arcanist who used enchantments to break your will.

21

Compelled to sail the seas. You were press-ganged into the crew of a ship.

22

Compelled. You have always heard voices in your head urging you to do cruel, inhuman things.

23

Coward. You once witnessed a grave crime, but did not intervene.

24

Cultist. You were raised in an unwholesome cult.

25

Dancing with the green fairy. You are visited by an archfey when you drink absinthe.

26

Debasement. You supported yourself by engaging in activities you believe are beneath you.

27

Deserter. You were a soldier, but you abandoned your duties to save your own skin.

28

Double. Someone else in the world looks exactly like you and sometimes commits crimes in your name.

29

Double. You have adopted someone else’s name and identity to escape from your old life.

30

Duelist. You killed someone in a duel of honor.


31

End of days. You only ever dream of bloody war and world-ending confrontations.

32

Enslaved. You were once kept in bondage as a slave.

33

Entrusted. You were given a letter to deliver by a dying traveler.

34

Escapee. You managed to escape from a prison before finishing your sentence.

35

Expelled. You were forced to leave a school or apprenticeship due to an indiscretion.

36

Extortionist. You demanded money and used the threat of violence to get it.

37

Failed execution. You were believed to have been executed for a crime, but you miraculously survived.

38

False witness. You turned in a rival who you knew was innocent to the authorities.

39

Feytouched. As a child you frolicked with the wicked Hollow fey under the cover of a deep, secret forest.

40

Fixated. You have an unhealthy obsession with another person.

41

Flagellant. You abuse your body in the name of your religion.

42

Forbidden love. You are in love with someone unsanctioned and disallowed.

43

Foundling. You were raised in an orphanage or foundling hospital.

44

Framed. You were imprisoned for a crime you did not commit.

45

Fraud. You pretended to be someone or something you are not in order to enrich yourself.

46

Friend turned enemy. A childhood friend is now your bitter enemy.

47

Gambler. You are addicted to gambling and have racked up an impressive debt.

48

Gossip. You spread malicious rumors, ruining someone’s reputation and good name.

49

Graverobber. You violated the sanctity of the grave for your own gain.

50

Harangued. A saint regularly chastises you for your moral failings.

51

Haunted. You perceive the ghost of someone you have wronged at inopportune moments.

52

Hedonist. You are addicted to sensual pleasure and have led others down the path of the hedonist.

53

Heretic. Some of your religious sentiments run contrary to accepted church dogma.

54

Hideous parasite. A monstrous parasite lives within your body.

55

Hunted. You were born the heir to a bloodline that someone with power is invested in destroying.

56

Hypocrisy. You publicly crusade against a sin you freely indulge in private.

57

Illness. You suffer from an incurable fatal disease.

58

Imaginary friend. You never outgrew your childhood imaginary friend; they urge you to commit misdeeds.

59

Imp of the perverse. You face a constant urge to do things that you know to be wrong.

60

Jealousy. You are consumed by jealousy over something that another person has that is absent from your life.

61

Lovelorn. You are in love with someone who does not return your affections.

62

Mad scientist’s assistant. You assisted an insane artificer with their horrid experiments.

63

Marked for sacrifice. You were very nearly sacrificed by a cult or doomsday sect of the Church.

64

Masochist. You find pleasure in accepting pain.

65

Massacre. You were a soldier who participated in war crimes against civilians.

66

Meddler. Your meddlesome ways have ruined someone’s life.

67

Missing relation. One of your family members vanished suddenly; you want to track them down.

68

Murderer. You have taken a human life in cold blood.

69

Mysterious key. You were entrusted with a key to a vault—but the vault’s location is unknown to you.

70

Mysterious scars. Your body is defaced by scars, but you have no memory how you earned these wounds.

71

Nightmares from the Far Realm. An Elder Evil speaks to you in your dreams.

72

Parricide. You killed one or both of your parents.

73

Past life. You have vivid memories of your previous life before being reincarnated.

74

Plague survivor. Your village or neighborhood was decimated by disease; you were the only survivor.

75

Predatory. Your financially predatory ways have ruined someone else’s economic prospects.

76

Pretender. You claim an accomplishment or title that you have no real right to.

77

Promised in marriage. An arranged marriage you do not want awaits you.

78

Publish and perish. A book or tract you have written has earned the ire of the authorities.

79

Punished by the gods. You were struck by lightning and survived.

80

Raised by a monster. You were raised by the monster who slew your parents.

81

Raised by wolves. Your parents abandoned you to nature in a place of desolation.

82

Red of tooth and claw. In your dreams you roam the night as a predatory animal.

83

Repression. You are nagged by the certainty that you have repressed a traumatic memory.

84

Resurrectionist. You exhumed and sold fresh corpses to medical schools for their anatomical lessons.

85

Robber. You stole an item of great worth.

86

Sadist. You find pleasure in delivering pain.

87

Secret royalty. You are distantly related to Krevborna’s executed royal family

88

Sold to a hag. You parents sold you to a vile hag who raised you in a hut deep within the woods.

89

Spendthrift. You squandered your inheritance shamefully.

90

Stolen valor. You pass yourself off as a hero.

91

Survivor’s guilt. You are the sole survivor of a terrible shipwreck.

92

Sworn. You have made an unholy pact with an otherworldly creature.

93

Target of temptation. A fiend regularly attempts to coax you into a pact.

94

Uncanny home. The house you grew up in was haunted.

95

Unholy. When you enter a church, you can feel your skin crawl.

96

Unnatural jailers. Your family guards a prison that confines a monster.

97

Unwilling warrior. You were drafted into a mercenary company by force.

98

Vampire’s thrall. You willing gave your blood and service to a vampire.

99

Voyeur. You take pleasure in watching and spying on others surreptitiously.

100

Roll twice on this table; yours has been an eventful life.