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


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 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, 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 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.