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, and L. 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.