Tuesday, June 29, 2021

The Price of Beauty

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

The Characters

Rufus Clarke, human barbarian played by Steve

Doctor Tobias Wolfe, human sorcerer, played by Dennis

Elsabeth, human paladin, played by Anne


Rusfus, Tobias, and Elsabeth were charged by Lorris Niss with locating a missing fellow librarian, a dwarf named Falthrax. Lorris reported that Falthrax had been depressed of late, particularly lamenting the wasted years of his life, but had found some measure of solace in a book called The Price of Beauty. The tome's green leather cover had a mirror embedded in it. When Elsabeth looked at herself in the mirror, an elven face appeared in the glass. The elven woman asked Elsabeth questions about her self-image, opined that she might try a new haircut or style of dress, and then launched into a sales pitch for The Restful Lily, complete with tinkling jingle. A portal then opened in the room. Tobias examined the portal and determined that it led to an idyllic woods containing a bathhouse, a tower, and a shrine. Once it had been determined that the book could be used to open a portal back to the library, the trio stepped through in search of the missing dwarf librarian.

Inside the bathhouse, they were greeted by a dark-haired man named Saeth who explained the various treatments and pamperings available at The Restful Lily. He offered to let them look around the establishment and sample its luxuries. Hoping to gain access to everything, they readily paid the admission price, locked away their adventuring gear, and changed into the robes provided for them. 

Tempted into the bathhouse proper, Elsabeth stepped into the pool, dunked her head beneath the water, and felt someone running their fingers through her hair and massaging her scalp. Tobias and Rufus both saw a woman with blue-green skin and hair arise from the water behind Elsabeth. When questioned, this woman told them that she was a nature spirit bound to pool, that the hot spring had existed prior to the construction of The Restful Lily, and that an elf woman named Sylvarie was formerly the proprietor of the bathhouse, but she had vanished without saying goodbye before being replaced by the three sisters who currently operated it. The spirit did not like the three current owners, though she couldn't say what they were up. She did miss Sylvarie terribly, and asked that the group perhaps find where she had gone to or what had happened to her, since they were looking for Falthrax anyway.

In the lounge they encountered two silent, creepily smiling employees and a black haired elven woman named Morganna who was one of the three owners of The Restful Lily. Although Morganna attempted to seduce them into enjoying their stay at the Lily, her altogether too forward demeanor put the trio on edge. When questioned about Falthrax, she claimed to not remember a guest by that name and her strangeness was too off-putting to be read for deception.

While in the lounge, the group had the opportunity to eat delicacies prepared by Greensong, another elven co-owner of The Restful Lily. Greensong wore a strip of linen tied over her eyes, denoting possible blindness, but she navigated the lounge with ease. She also claimed that her kitchen could produce anything the group might desire. When asked if she had occasion to prepare any dwarven food lately, she said no, but then too quickly produced a dwarven feast of slow-roasted meats.

Further exploration brought the group to the garden, where they found the third elven "sister" who ran The Restful Lily. Instead of being welcoming like the other two, this one immediately started berating them as "worms"! This sister was operating a gymnasium in the garden; she challenged the group to attempt her workout regime. Tobias kept pace with her demands for ever faster, lower, and higher squats, Rufus channeled his beastly rage and handily beat her in a tug of war match, and Elsabeth managed to keep up with frantic double dutch rhythms as the elven woman and an enchanted tree limb spun chains as jump ropes. 

The woman was impressed with the group's ability to succeed at her challenge. She rewarded them with a potion of giant strength and conspiratorially asked them if they were really into building their strength and if they might be interested in a shortcut to bodily improvement. Elsabeth played along. All Elsabeth would need to do is agree to pose for a portrait. Elsabeth agreed, the woman produced a canvas, easel, and a set of oil paints. The woman was painting at a furious rate, but the painting she produced of Elsabeth was a stunningly good likeness. Elsabeth felt her muscles bulging; she had indeed gotten stronger! The woman left them to their own devices as she scurried away toward the tower with the painting.

The group's next move was to explore the nearby shrine looking for more answers. Rufus discovered that the shrine's stone doors were sealed shut with some kind of hard resin. However, he spotted a hole in the roof that would allow him to drop down. Once inside, he managed to force the doors open to let Tobias and Elsabeth inside. In the basement of the ruined shrine, they found Sylvarie hiding in the shadows. She told them that it would be dangerous for them to look upon her; Elsabeth correctly intuited that Sylvarie was now a medusa. She explained that she had been cursed by the three women who had stolen The Restful Lily from her. Tobias also correctly guessed that the three women were actually hags. Handing over a hooded robe, the group brought Sylvarie back to the bathhouse to be reunited with the spirit of the hot springs.

Saeth noticed that the group had brought back a hooded figure with them. They found Morganna, the athletic sister, and Saeth waiting for them. Tobias cast dispel magic on Morganna, revealing her true form: a pale thing with bits of bone and teeth tied in her hair, her mouth ringed with bleeding sores. Elsabeth channeled the power of the divine, which sent Morganna and her athletic compatriot fleeing. Saeth revealed his true form as well, that of a red-skinned fiend, and his fiery claws raked over Elsabeth. A psychic spell from Tobias also caused Saeth to attempt to flee, but Elsabeth plunged her sword into his back, killing him.

Before seeking the two hags who had fled, the party went to check on Sylvarie, but during the melee she had left the pool and attacked Greensong, the third hag, in the kitchen. She had turned the hag to stone. In the kitchen, the group also found an unnaturally aged Falthrax working as a slave preparing food for the Lily's "guests."

With Sylvarie in tow, the group now pursued the remaining hags to the tower. Inside, they found the enchanted paintings that the hags were using against their victims: there were paintings of Falthrax, Sylvarie, Elsabeth, and an unknown tiefling man. The paintings of the unknown man, Sylvarie, and Falthrax were destroyed in a stove; the destruction of each caused the destroyer psychic wounds, but the immolation of Sylvarie's painting caused her to change from a medusa to her original elven form. 

At the tower's final floor, the group found the two hags and engaged them once more. Elsabeth fell victim to an Otto's irresistible dance spell that caused her to prance and pirouette as she fought the hags. Morganna attempted to mentally dominate Tobias, but the master of the mental arts proved too powerful to be overcome. Sylvarie managed to shank a hag with a trio of quick dagger strikes. Rufus unveiled his claws and tore out a hag's windpipe. 

After the hags were dealt with, the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. Rifling through the hag's possessions led the group to conclude that the paintings gave them power over their subjects, and that they were created on canvases made of humanoid skin and painted in hues that contained demonic ichor. It was also discovered that the hags had been taught the art of magical painting by none other than the notorious artist Sangino.

More backstory was revealed. In a moment of self-doubt, Sylvarie had bargained with the hags for enhanced beauty, but after a year their "blessing" reversed itself, turning her into a medusa. The hags locked her away in the shrine, then took over The Restful Lily, where they enticed others into fell bargains that brought ruination in their wake. This is what had befallen Falthrax, but he was now returned to normal by the destruction of his painting. The unencountered tiefling man proved to have been enslaved as a masseuse, but the destruction of his painting had set him free as well. The group left Sylvarie and her pool maiden friend to reassess what could be salvaged from The Restful Lily. The group took Falthrax and the tiefling with them back through the portal; another mission completed by the Special Collections Department.

Previous adventures in this campaign

The Joy of Extradimensional Spaces (part 1)

The Joy of Extradimensional Spaces (part 2)

Mazworth's Mighty Digressions

Book of the Raven

A Deep and Creeping Darkness (part 1)

A Deep and Creeping Darkness (part 2)

Shemshime's Bedtime Rhyme

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Shadow of the Demon Lord vs. Dungeons & Dragons: Ancestries and Races

My comparative review of Shadow of the Demon Lord and 5e D&D continues! This time we're looking at ancestries and races.

Somewhat presciently, although perhaps the writing was already on the wall in 2015, Shadow of the Demon Lord eschews "race" as a designation, substituting instead "ancestry." The ancestries available in the core book include humans, changelings, clockworks, dwarves, goblins, and orcs.

Overall, I like the way SotDL presents the game's ancestries. They are briefly described, but there are interestingly elements here that give even the usual suspects a bit of additional interest. For example, orcs in Shadow of the Demon Lord are a magically engineered race who were used as slave soldiers by the Empire, but they have recently cast off their shackles and claimed the Empire's throne as their own. 

Each ancestry entry also gives a brief set of starting special abilities. Dwarves, for example, have darkvision, a hated enemy they're especially proficient at fighting, and a heightened ability to resist poison. One thing I really appreciate about SotDL's ancestries in comparison to D&D's races is that the amount of abilities an ancestry adds to your character sheet is far less than what the typical D&D race adds. And, frankly, D&D races add a loft of cruft, abilities you feel obligated to note but will get very little use out of; when was the last time you used your wood elf's Mask of the Wild ability or even remembered what it does?

Shadow of the Demon Lord's Ancestries also determine your character's starting attribute scores. You don't roll your ability scores in SotDL; rather, each ancestry lists the typical attribute array for each ancestry. A goblin, for example, starts with: Strength 8, Agility 12, Intellect 10, Will 9. (Yes, SotDL has four attributes compared to D&D six ability scores; frankly, this is a great way to cut down D&D's obligatory six ability scores in a way that makes more sense.) 

You can customize these starting attributes a bit in SotDL by raising one of them by a point and lowering another by a point. I do wonder how well this fits the recent move toward the idea that ancestry (or race, species, etc.) should not determine "essential" attributes as a bulwark against biological determination in fantasy rpgs. Personally, I don't mind how Shadow of the Demon Lord does it; although you have to penalize one of your attribute scores to get there, it's still possible to make a dwarf with above-average intelligence who would make a competent magician.

Each ancestry entry is capped off by a series of random tables to determine things like age, appearance, background, personality, etc. The kind of backstory material that D&D offloads to its backgrounds is rolled into ancestry in SotDLIn general, I like the array of starting ancestries available in SotDL's core book. There are some familiar faces, as well as some intriguing additions that give the game it's own flavor. D&D gives you the races that long-time players have come to expect; SotDL, on the other hand, marks a point of difference by offering clockwork automatons and changelings. 

One thing you may have noticed is that elves are not available for play in SotDL's core book. Not to be all Talislanta about it, but no elves... Although they are included in the fey-specific supplement, and they're given a makeover as horrifically cruel, beautiful, and alien, not putting them in the core product for SotDL is another way of setting some expectations about how the game is different.

Other ancestries, including some now-common fantasy types omitted from the core book such as halflings and the tiefling-like cambions, can be found in the game's supplements. SotDL even goes to some surprisingly weird places that D&D seems too timid to attempt. For example, it's possible for players to play both tiny pixies or huge jotun. The jotun are especially satisfying, particularly in comparison to D&D's goliath. Both are "giantkin," but because D&D's goliaths are still "medium" in size, the don't really have any abilities that play into the hulking and powerful story that the race promises. Jotun, on the other hand, use larger, more damaging weapons and are designated as a "powerful ancestry," meaning they get their own suite of giant-flavored abilities where characters of other ancestries are instead getting abilities from their "paths" (we'll get to them, but for now all you need to know is that a path is like a class in D&D). In a direct comparison, jotun "feel" like giants, whereas goliaths feel like any other "strong" D&D race.

SotDL also isn't afraid to get a little weird. There are cockroach people, mole-men, undead revenants, just to name a few of the more exotic choices available.

One last thing I want to mention before moving on to those paths I mentioned above: each ancestry grants an additional ability to a character at level four. Players usually have a choice between taking this ability or having their character learn a spell if they are magically inclined. I like that ancestry continues to be relevant and not just something you pick at character creation. D&D sometimes does something similar; some races gain additional abilities as your characters levels up, but that isn't true across the board and it's often easy to overlook that your fallen aasimar gets a Necrotic Shroud at 3rd level. In SotDL, every ancestry potentially gives you a little flavorful ability at the same level.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft: Lamordia, Mordent, and Richemulot

There have been many people covering the rules content in Van Richten's Guide, such as the new lineages, new subclasses, dark gifts, and other widgets, but I want to talk about the domains as a long-time fan of Ravenloft. How do they stack up, what alterations have been made, and how gameable does this iteration of the Domains of Dread feel? I've covered Barovia, Bluetspur, and Borca herethe Carnival and Darkon hereDementlieu and Falkovnia here, and Har'Akir, Hazlan, and I'Cath here, and Kalakeri and Kartakass here. This time I'm covering Lamordia, Mordent, and Richemulot. 


In the 2e era, Lamordia was extremely focused on the story of its Darklord, Victor Mordenheim--Ravenloft's Victor Frankenstein analog. Beyond Mordenheim and his flesh golem creation Adam, there just wasn't much to the domain. The most interesting thing about the people of Lamordia, for example, is that they are atheists. Van Richten's Guide gives Lamordia a much-needed makeover that manages to put its Darklord front and center while also giving the domain more general utility overall.

The new version of Lamordia has been reimagined as an all purpose domain of mad science. Lamordia retains its frozen wilds, but now features industrialized cities where constructs work for the populace and areas of arcane radiation. I was surprised to see that the text explicitly defines the domain as a "steampunk" riff. Amazingly, Lamordia now features Ludendorf University, a place of scientific breakthroughs and unwholesome experiments; my personal vision of the setting has long included Ludendorf University in exactly that capacity! I also like the addition of ironclad whaling vessels that hunt...something...in the frigid waters offshore of Lamordia. Shades of Dishonored, there.

The Darklord of Lamordia is one of the handful who have been gender-swapped in this version of Ravenloft. Victor is now Viktra Mordenheim, a brilliant by utterly amoral scientist, and frankly she's much more interesting than her antecedent. Her creation is Elise, her former body snatching lover who was reanimated after an untimely demise. However, Elise now continually flees from Viktra--keeping both herself and Viktra's greatest scientific triumph just out of reach. Mordenheim's section includes many hooks that involve the characters falling into her clutches and being remade as her servants. Many of these ideas are quite unorthodox for D&D, and they do a great job emphasizing the body horror aspect of the domain. Overall, this new Lamordia is a triumph--I love this domain much more now than I ever did in the past.


Mordent has a long history in Ravenloft, dating back to 1e's House on Gryphon Hill adventure, and it has always been the setting's premier domain for ghost stories in the British tradition. Mordent retains the feel of being a haunted countryside, but this version manages to be both bucolic and more populated. It's also got a dark heart: everyone who dies in the domain is destined to return as an unquiet shade. As such, Mordent is a realm in which the present can never truly escape the traumas of the past.

Mordent has all the hallmarks of the British ghost story: haunted estates, prevalent spiritualism, and a fixation on "proper behavior" that masks base prejudice. Lord Wilfred Godefroy makes for a good spectral Darklord, there are details about important NPCs who call Mordent home such as Van Richten and the Weathermay-Foxgrove twins, and we get a little bit about the famed Apparatus that was central to The House on Gryphon Hill. I like everything here, and to be honest I wouldn't have minded even more detail.


Richemulot previously stood as the rural version of Gothic France in contrast to Dementlieu's urban iteration of the French Gothic. Now that Dementlieu has been reimagined as a dark fairytale realm, Richemulot is free to be something other than Dementlieu's bumpkin cousin. Nevertheless, much of the old Richemulot remains; the domain is generally more urban, but it emphasizes urban decay: the cities are rife with abandoned buildings, plagues decimate the population, and swarms of marauding rats flood the streets. Jacqueline Renier remains largely unchanged as the domain's wererat Darklord.

To be honest, coming off the Covid lockdowns makes the disease-and-quarantine theme of Richemulot hit a little close to home. Richemulot's section features rules for the plague's cycle, for those that wish to delve into that aspect of the setting. All in all, I really like the feel of Richemulot as it is presented here. It reminds me a bit of the "Night of the Hunt" from Bloodborne, in which monsters and disease take over the streets by night.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Space Vampires of Mars

I've been reading a lot of Vampirella comics lately. The thought struck me: if Dynamite can have Vampirella team-up with Dejah Thoris, why not make a Space Vampire class for Aos's B/X Mars setting? The following class is presented with Aos's seal of approval; it just might appear in a supplement currently in the works. 

Also, did you know that Drivethru is discontinuing the format that the B/X Mars book is printed in? If you want a copy, do it before the end of the month!

* * *


A traveler from the Vampire Planet in a far-away solar system who has crash landed on Mars.

AC starts a 5 and goes down by one on odd levels.

Prime Attribute: Charisma. A Space Vampire with a 13+ in Charisma receives a +10% bonus to all experience awards

Hit Dice: D8

Starting hit points = Charisma

At first level:

Beguile: A Space Vampire can exert powers of animal magnetism over living creatures who are sentient and understand language. The target of a Space Vampire’s beguilement must make a Saving Throw vs. Warp. On a failed save, the target will try to reasonably accommodate the Space Vampire’s requests, but will not put tempt death on their behalf. This effect lasts for an hour. Creatures with more Hit Dice than the Space Vampire are immune to this ability. A Space Vampire can Beguile a number of times per day equal to 1 + their Charisma modifier.

Vampiric Immortality: Once they reach adulthood, Space Vampires cease aging and can live indefinitely. Space Vampires take damage when deprived of food and water, but they cannot die from deprivation; at worst, they are reduced to a single hit point. Most eventually succumb to either ennui or violence. Additionally, a Space Vampire’s fangs can be used to deal 1d6 points of damage to any creature that has blood, is biological, and is living.

Note: Like Terrans, Space Vampires do not gain access to the normal skills Martians possess (see page 9) until they reach 3rd level.

Beginning at level 2 and every other level thereafter, the Space Vampire may select one Mastery. The Space Vampire fights as fighter.

Space Vampires use the Princess’s Saving Throw table. (They'll have their own bespoke Saving Throw table in the final version.)


The following Mastery options are available to Space Vampire characters:

ALIEN HUNGER (Space Vampire) Any blood a Space Vampire consumes counts toward their daily water requirements. Additionally, when a Space Vampire drinks a living creature’s blood, they regain 2 hit points.

BATWINGS (Space Vampire) The Space Vampire can cause bat-like wings to sprout from their back at will. These wings give the Space Vampire a flying speed of 30’.

NOCTURNAL SUPREMACY (Space Vampire) When the sun sets, a Space Vampire’s  Strength becomes 19.

SHROUD OF MALKUTH (Space Vampire) This ability allows the Space Vampire to become invisible for ten minutes. Success against unwitting targets is automatic. Active searchers must make a successful Saving Throw vs Warp to locate the Space Vampire. This Mastery can only be used once per day.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Candlekeep Mysteries Review: The First Five Adventures

I've been running the adventures in Candlekeep Mysteries, a book of seventeen scenarios based around the legendary library of Candlekeep and the strange tomes kept within. The adventures in the book aren't necessarily meant to be played one after another; they're more geared toward being dropped in between adventures of your own devise, but playing them back to back hasn't been much of an imposition.

People moan about the cost of WotC's D&D books, but I paid $30 for Candlekeep Mysteries and have gotten seven sessions of at least three hours each from the first five adventures in it. That works out to about $1.40 an hour for fun with a bunch of friends, which feels like good value for the money to me. And there are twelve more adventures in it we haven't played through yet. 

But is Candlekeep Mysteries good? In this review I'm going to give my impressions of the first five adventures in the book, so you can better decide for yourself whether this is a sound purchase for you and your group.

The Joy of Extradimensional Spaces

Written by Michael Polkinghorn, edited by Hannah Rose

This adventure takes the characters in search of a scholar who has disappeared into to the extradimensional home of a wizard. Overall, this is a solid adventure. It's got a number of interesting features to explore inside the extradimensional house and the monsters, such as a bookcase that wields the tomes chained to like flails, are far more surprising and interesting than the usual fodder thrown at 1st-level characters. The house also traps the characters inside, and the solution of the puzzle that will release them works as both a motivation to explore the space and forces a non-combat resolution to the adventure. 

However, there is one bit of this scenario that falls a little flat: when the characters encounter the sage they've been looking for, he asks them to continue to explore the extradimensional space on his behalf while he skedaddles back to the real world. The rationale for continuing to search the house once he's been found feels pretty thin, and unlikely to be satisfying to players who aren't content to go along with it just to further the plot. Grade: A-

Mazfroth's Mighty Digressions

Written by Alison Huang, edited by Hannah Rose, developed by Hannah Rose & Christopher Perkins

This adventures centers on discovering the source of books that have been transforming into monsters and attacking the unaware. Overall, the early portions of the adventure feature really good opportunities for investigation; my players were asking questions, shadowing suspicious individuals, and staking out a potential hotspot of cursed tomes in short order. 

This adventure gives a lot of options for resolving the conflict non-violently, which was completely wasted on my group; once inside the house of the culprits, this adventure turned into a bloodbath. To be honest, I can't blame my players one bit for the path they took. Although the creators of this adventure took great pains to give alternatives to the D&D's typical "solve the problem with bloodshed" paradigm, they didn't really build-in any compelling reasons not to. The villains are up to no good, they're actively harming innocents just to sow some chaos, so why not put them to the sword? Grade: B+

Book of the Raven

Written by Christopher Perkins, edited by Kim Mohan

"Book of the Raven" is easily the biggest disappointment out of the early adventures in Candlekeep Mysteries, which is surprising since it was written by Christopher Perkins, the guy in charge of D&D's adventure storylines. There's a creepy "abandoned" house to explore in this adventure, which works well enough, but the narrative links between the house's past, the wereravens currently squatting there, and a trip to the Shadowfell at the end are seriously lacking. 

The pieces just don't fit together into a coherent whole; of all the adventures in the book I've played through so far, this one required the most rewritting and revision to make it work. To be honest, this adventure really felt like an excuse to lore-dump about the Vistani, which is weird because they don't factor into the actual action of the scenario at all. Grade: C+

A Deep and Creeping Darkness

Written by Sarah Madsen, developed & edited by Michele Carter

This is a pretty good adventure that leads the players into exploring an abandoned mining town haunted by unusual monsters. Overall, this was a pretty enjoyable adventure; a hallmark of a good mystery, such as what doom befell this town, is how much it makes the players conjecture about what's going on--and my players certainly had a lot of competing theories about the fate of the town and people who lived there. 

There are a couple small missteps and missed opportunities here, though. The characters have the option of stopping at another town for information prior to arriving at the abandoned mine, but I wish more happened there. Also, though the early portions of exploring the town work for creating an atmosphere of dread, I do wish that a few more opportunities for explosive encounters were seeded in; things come to a nice climax at the end of the adventure, but I think the earlier portions needed a bit more action. Similarly, this adventure would benefit from additional "set dressing" and detail. Overall, though, this is a pretty good adventure. Venturing into the mine at the end felt sufficiently eerie. Grade: B+

Shemshime's Bedtime Rhyme

Written by Ari Levitch, developed & edited by Michele Carter

Shemshime's Bedtime Rhyme is an excellent adventure. It's a bit of a "bottle episode," with the characters locked into a subterranean library with a cast of interesting NPCs because they've all been "infected" with a supernatural tune that they must continually hum and sing. Although this adventure is very light on combat, with one fight at the end that can end very quickly if the players have pieced together what they need to do, the lead up to that is fantastic. There are NPCs to question and secrets to uncover. The claustrophobic atmosphere of the adventure and loss of control experienced by the players works really well. Although the adventure revolves around a nursery rhyme, it all comes off as suitably creepy and a little unnerving.

The adventure also gives you two options when playing it out: you can have the events of the scenario occur slowly to heighten the dread of the adventure or have the events proceed at a breakneck pace so that the players barely have time to breath as the problems begin to mount. I went with the latter option and it worked well; things moved along briskly, but the players were able to suss out the cause of the issue and its solution in good time. Admittedly, I did amp up the tension in ways that the adventure (written for a more general audience) wasn't ready to commit to. That said, this adventure worked really well with my style of DMing and this was a great time. Grade: A

Candlekeep Mysteries Cumulative GPA: B+. 

So far, we've had a very good time with these adventures. They hit above well above average, and I've appreciated how little work it takes to prep them. Although I've made alterations to them here and there, that's par for the course with published adventure scenarios, so that's no cause for demerits. Of course, the adventures are hampered a bit by WotC's usual presentation, particularly in sections where the boxed text doesn't include all of the immediately obvious facets of a room or area, but the content has worked really well for me thus far. I'm definitely looking forward to playing through more of the adventures in Candlekeep Mysteries. If they maintain this level of quality throughout, I would be confident in calling the book a resounding success.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Shemshime's Bedtime Rhyme

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 "Shemshime's Bedtime Rhyme." Fair warning: spoilers lurk below.

The Characters

Rufus Clarke, human barbarian played by Steve

Doctor Tobias Wolfe, human sorcerer, played by Dennis


Rufus and Tobias were assigned to help in the restoration of the Firefly Cellar, an old underground library archive famously lit by fireflies kept in lanterns and jars down in the depths. The duo descended into the Firefly Cellar via a book lift; they first encountered an elven scribe named Varnyr who asked them to take a load of books into the level below to a man named Ebder. 

Ebder, however, didn't have a use for the books, so he sent them even further down in search of K'Tulah, a tabaxi scholar currently researching folk magic. They also noticed that the ceiling of this floor featured a ridiculous statue of an open book suspended from chains. The words "BE CURIOUS" were etched on its front cover. After poking around in the lowest floor, they startled K'Tulah by abruptly bursting into her bedroom. Once things were smoothed over by the delivery of the books, K'Tulah showed Rufus and Tobias to their chambers for the night.

In the morning, both Tobias and Rufus awoke with a song stuck in their heads. The song didn't seem familiar, but the melody was insistent. At breakfast with the assembled group working in the Firefly Cellar (Varnyr, Ebder, Ebder's daughter Gailby, K'Tulah, and Crinkle the kenku caretaker), everyone began to hum the song. In fact, it was only with force of will that anyone could avoid humming the tune long enough to speak! Everyone was perplexed by this phenomena; no one recalled hearing the song before, but humming it was irresistible.

Varnyr got up from the breakfast table and made her way upstairs. Everyone could hear the book lift ascend, followed by the sounds of the hatch leading down into the cellar being locked multiple times in a myriad of ways. Varnyr explained that when she had first arrived at the library over six hundred years ago the librarians were concerned about an outbreak of "singing sickness." Because the sickness was communicable, Varnyr had alerted the librarians above about what was happening in the Firefly Cellar and had sealed off access to the wider world. Everyone was now trapped below, hoping that those above could discover a cure. K'Tulah did not take this well and began to panic. When asked what could be done, Varnyr gestured to the library around them and stated that perhaps a clue to a cure was somewhere amongst the mess.

A high-pitched wail broke the silence. Tobias and Rufus ran to find the cause and discovered Ebder on the ground, his eyes bulging as he screamed. His daughter ran to him, with Crinkle trying to comfort her. As the duo examined him, the bookshelves in the room began to divest themselves of tomes in a barrage that battered everyone in the chamber. When the assault had subsided, Ebder stopped screaming, though now the song began to alter. Instead of just a hummable tune, the song began to have lyrics and everyone in the Firefly Cellar began to sing. The song seemed to be a nursery rhyme about the doom that befell a family: a wife who slays her husband with a scythe, a dog that bites off the mother's hand, a son who drowns...all hinted to be caused by a supernatural being called Shemshime. 

Rufus and Tobias noticed that a voice not belonging to anyone present had joined them in singing Shemshime's song. They followed to voice to its source: a secret alcove in Crinkle's room. Inside the alcove, they found a collection of items that Crinkle had stolen from the others and a strange mechanical pop-up book whose pages illustrated the tale told by the song. The book's spine was also a music box, though it was obviously damaged. 

Calling a meeting of all within the cellar resulted in Ebder and Crinkle coming to blows, as one of the things Crinkle had stolen was an amber ring that belonged to Ebder's deceased wife. A calm emotions spell from Tobias broke up the fray. K'Tulah lost her grip on sanity, fled to the first floor of the cellar, and began to use her cat-like claws to climb up to the sealed hatch. Her attempt was in vain; she could not open the hatch, she lost her balance, and plummeted to her death on floor below. 

After the remainder of the group reassembled, another death occurred. Seemingly in a daze, young Gailby picked up the mechanical book and brained Crinkle to death with it. Varnyr picked up a small knife used to repair books and began to advance on Tobias and Rufus, but Tobias cast a charm person spell that brought her to her senses before she could act under Shemshime's influence. Ebder agreed to let Tobias put them into a magical sleep so they couldn't be taken over by Shemshime. As an elf, Varnyr was immune but she agreed to lock herself in her chambers while Tobias and Rufus figured out what to do.

Tobias decided that the best course of action was to attempt to repair the music box on the book's spine. However, as he fiddled with the book, it attacked his mind with psychic force. Although repairing the book brought him within the reach of death, Tobias managed to fix it. Doing so revealed that there was more to the story: another page turned and the pair were treated to the image of a young woman tricking a shadowy form into standing beneath a millstone, which she then cause to be dropped on top of him. The song they were singing also added a new verse that told this part of the tale.

The music box began to leak black steam that coalesced into a human-like form: Shemshime was here. Wasting no time, Rufus flew into a monstrous rage, climbed onto the granite table, leapt into the air, and grabbed onto the stone statue of a book. He pulled it from its chains and sent it crashing down on Shemshime. An explosion rocked the chamber as the statue shattered...but Shemshime was vanquished. Everyone could finally stop singing.

In a few days time, the Special Collections Department sent a squad of heavily armed and armored goons down into the Firefly Cellar (whether to cure the afflicted to exterminate them before the magical singing contagion could spread, who can say?) but they found that the problem had already been decisively dealt with by Rufus and Tobias.

Previous Adventures

The Joy of Extradimensional Spaces (part 1)

The Joy of Extradimensional Spaces (part 2)

Mazworth's Mighty Digressions

Book of the Raven

A Deep and Creeping Darkness (part 1)

A Deep and Creeping Darkness (part 2)

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

A Deep and Creeping Darkness (part 2)

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

The Characters

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


We last left our heroes in the midst of searching for a safe place to bunk down in the abandoned mining town of Vermillion. They had just explored the blacksmith's shop and had now turned their attention to the stonemason's residence. Unfortunately, the stonemason's shop looked like it had been ransacked. The front door had been torn off its hinges and lay forgotten in the grass. 

Inside, it appeared as though someone had also thought to use this building as a shelter; they found a bedroll and pack. However, the bedroll was spattered with bloodstains that were neither old nor entirely fresh. Checking the nearby pack revealed that whoever it belonged to had stolen a number of diaries from the burgomaster's residence. The first few volumes documented the town's day-to-day operations, but the volume that would have held the juicy details of the doom that had befallen Vermillion appeared to be missing.

Since the stonemason's door was compromised, the group decided to spend the might in the smithy instead. During his watch, Tobias heard a strange scratching at the window. Then, the door to the smith's cottage began to shake. A closet door flew open, shadowy tendrils emerged and wrapped around Elsabeth--who was then pulled into the closet, which shut with a slam. (Later, when the closet was re-opened, there was no sign of Elsabeth inside.)

Rising Leaf had had enough; he kicked the door open and saw that their shelter was under assault by three small insect-like humanoids with crab-like claws, clacking mandibles, and bodies covered with coarse quills. A brief skirmish decided the victor: the party emerged a bit worse for wear, but their foes lay dead before them.

In the morning, the group headed toward the opening of the mine. Inside, they found that the darkness strangely seemed to repel the light of their lanterns and torches. Rufus and Rising Leaf both heard a cacophony of voices drifting forth from the tunnels, but Tobias heard nothing unusual. As they explored, the group found a mossy trap and strange pools of black water. Farther into the mine, the tunnels that had been dug into the mountain became oddly smooth and showed no signs of having been created with conventional mining implements. The walls of these tunnels were covered with a strange black fungus.

After following a number of branching tunnels, the group found themselves in a larger, perfectly round chamber supported by four fungus-encrusted pillars. Also within this chamber were a number of stone slabs, one seemingly occupied, and another group of the creatures who had attacked the blacksmith's shop. The combination of Rising Leaf's martial arts, Tobias's mentalist magic, and Rufus's werewolf-like transformation into a powerful beast again carried the day.

When the dust had settled, the occupant of the slab turned out to be the man who had tried to seek shelter in the stonemason's shop. Unfortunately, he was half-transformed into one of the creatures haunting the town! The man was anguished and panicked over the alterations made to his body, but the group managed to talk him down with promises of finding him help once they arrived back in Creedhall. A pile of aborted transformations was later uncovered--clearly the process didn't always result in a success. Also discovered in a heap of rubbish was the missing diary. The group loaded the man and their treasure trove of books onto their wagon, and headed back to the University Library with their spoils.

Previous Adventures

The Joy of Extradimensional Spaces (part 1)

The Joy of Extradimensional Spaces (part 2)

Mazworth's Mighty Digressions

Book of the Raven

A Deep and Creeping Darkness (part 1)

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft: Kalakeri and Kartakass

There have been many people covering the rules content in Van Richten's Guide, such as the new lineages, new subclasses, dark gifts, and other widgets, but I want to talk about the domains as a long-time fan of Ravenloft. How do they stack up, what alterations have been made, and how gameable does this iteration of the Domains of Dread feel? I've covered Barovia, Bluetspur, and Borca here, the Carnival and Darkon here, Dementlieu and Falkovnia here, and Har'Akir, Hazlan, and I'Cath here. In this installment, I'm discussing Kalakeri and Kartakass.


When it was first teased that Kalakeri was going to be one of the domains included in Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft, I assumed that it was a new Indian-themed domain that was replacing Sri Raji, a similarly themed domain from the second edition version of the setting. It turns out that my assumption was only half true. Kalakeri is a remake of Sri Raji that preserves the name and monstrous nature of the land's former Darklord, the rakshasa Arijani, though it replaces his backstory entirely.

Kalakeri is now a land of civil war and betrayal. Control of the domain is contested by three siblings: the new Darklord of the domain is Maharani Ramya, a death knight risen from the grave after being betrayed by her siblings, who is cursed to fight endlessly against her Arijani and Reeva, her brother and sister who have been transformed into a rakshasa and an arcanaloth respectively. The overall effect reads as an Indian-esque, scaled-back "War of the Five Kings"-era Game of Thrones, with additional secret monstrosity thrown in the mix. As a war-torn land, Kalakeri feels well-suited for the horrors of battle or shadowy intrigues. It's actually a potent change for Kalakeri because it's previous felt a bit underwhelming as a location of high drama and adventure.

This particular remake has had some care put into it. Gone are any references to actual Hindu deities. There's also a nice set of rules for using the renown system from the DMG to track the characters' standing with either Ramya's loyalists or the rebels who have rallied around Arijani and Reeva. I do think that the "horror" content feels a little light in this domain, however. A clever DM could amp it up easily, but I would have liked to have seen more guidance about how to emphasize the horrific aspect of this domain.

One thing that seems odd, however, is Maharani Ramya's status as a Darklord. Becoming a Darklord is supposedly a punishment for horrific, unconscionable sins, but it isn't clear from the backstory exactly what terrible deeds Ramya is guilty of. She didn't usurp the nation's throne; she was hand picked by her father to receive it. She didn't work against her siblings; they grew jealous of her power and murdered her. As far as I can tell, Ramya was about as moral as several NPCs from other settings who are explicitly labeled as the good guys. It's strange that she is Kalakeri's figure of tormented evil.


Kartakass is a strangely beloved domain from the 2e-era of Ravenloft. The premise of Kartakass has always been "land of bards," so it's popularity has always perplexed me a bit given how many people loudly proclaim their hatred of bards. The version of Kartakass presented in Van Richten's Guide will do nothing to salve the bard-hate, as it is now a land of try hards

To outsiders, life feels staged and surreal in Kartakass, as every plant and beast, every peasant and performer strives to prove their greatness. Trees and flowers burst into bloom and then wither after their extended spring, while songbirds sing themselves hoarse. And every local, from the youngest child to the most venerable elder, knows that dreams, fame, and immortal adulation are theirs for the taking—if they prove worthy.

Essentially, entering Kartakass will feel like walking through the doors of a Denny's a 2am when the drama club kids hold sway, high off a fresh performance of Little Shop of Horrors. Truly a horrifying prospect.

Familiar touchstones remain. Each settlement in Kartakass is independent and ruled by a meistersinger. Meeklebrau gets a shout out. And yet, the strange and fantastical elements get bolstered this time out as well. There's a village comprised entirely of actors who stay in character around the clock and there is a musical venue inside a massive geode. One of the towns has an evil record label feel, as the aging powermongers in it are always on the lookout for ways to exploit the talents of young and gullible performers.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the changes to Harkon Lukas, the domain's Darklord. Apparently many people are upset that the illustration of Harkon Lukas does not feature his trademark monocle. I admit that I've never paid much attention to Lukas, but even though I read an entire novel about the guy it never sunk in that wearing a monocle was a central facet of his character. Additionally, Lukas is no longer defined as a "wolfwere." Now he's a loup garou, which are basically super-charged werewolves. I love this change because the concept of the "wolfwere" is some truly goofy D&D nonsense that's right up there with space hamsters. Lastly, Van Richten's Guide presents Harkon Lukas as a black man, which some people are also upset about. To which I can only say, "Hold that L and die mad about it."