Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Rawblood, Celestial Blues, Crimson, Stygian Bough, and More

Things that brought me delight in August, 2021:

Catriona Ward, Rawblood

Catriona Ward's Rawblood centers on a family suffering from a mysterious malady that is passed through their bloodline. This "illness" may be madness, inheritable disease, a curse, a haunting or some tangle of those as yet undefined. The narrative combines strands from different time periods and different members of the family across the ages. When things converge they unveil a common tragedy uncommonly rendered: the doom that comes with the all too human failing of misapprehension--of each other and of ourselves. 

Ward has a particular and noteworthy talent for depicting mundane horrors; the scenes detailing child abuse, animal experimentation, and the treatment of the mentally ill make all the spectral incursions pale by comparison. Rawblood also plays with my favorite Gothic trope: time being out of joint. In this case, however, it's the future that has "returned" to trouble the present, rather than the past. The skein of this tale is complex, but ultimately satisfying. I love the way Ward uses the Gothic convention of the fragmentary narrative, yet weaves everything together into a model modern ghost story.

King Woman, Celestial Blues

It's been a few years since King Woman's debut album, Created in the Image of Suffering, dropped and immediately blew my mind. Created in the Image of Suffering was my favorite album of the year, but does the King Woman formula hold up on the sophmore effort? Absolutely. The crushing doom is still in full effect, as are the hazy, post-metal aspects of the project's sound. If I had one complaint to make about Celestial Blues, it would likely be an unfair one: King Woman can't catch you by surprise twice, which makes this album both welcome and less impactful. 

Abigail Larson, Crimson

I've adored Abigail Larson's art for about a decade now, so it is absolutely wondrous to have such an exquisite collection of her works in hand now. Larson has always had just the right influences to enthrall me: old Gothic tales, mythology, and fairytales all updated with a darkly modern style. The book itself is a treasure; beautiful reproductions, black-edged pages, a nearly malevolent cover...Crimson is perfection itself. And the kickstarter certainly didn't skimp on the extras.

Bell Witch & Aerial Ruin, Stygian Bough Vol 1

I wasn't sure what Bell Witch would do after releasing the monumental Mirror Reaper; following that masterpiece with another record felt fated to disappoint. Having their next release be a collaboration with downer folk artist Aerial Ruin was a great move: since this isn't a full Bell Witch album, it really can't be compared with Mirror Reaper! And yet, it is a great album in its own right. Stygian Bough is a collaboration in the truest sense of the term. Bell Witch's unusual melancholic doom meshes perfectly with the folk accents provided by Aerial Ruin. Since it is titled "Vol 1" perhaps we will have more of this to look forward to in the future.

Ben Templesmith, Singularity 7

Singularity 7 was Ben Templesmith's first solo series as both writer and artist, which makes it something of a practice run for Wormwood: Gentleman Corpse. I appreciate that the story gets down to business straight away: alien nanites arrive on Earth, transforming one hapless man into the Singularity--a godlike being with the power to either uplift humanity or destroy it. He opts to go the latter route. In contrast, Thanos gets an entire movie before he gains the power to destroy a significant portion of life; here, it's the starting premise.

Opposing the Singularity are the Specials, humans who are have become hosts to nanites instead of being disassembled by them, as is usual. The Specials quest to deliver a bio-engineered virus to the Singularity in hopes of disabling him before the colonizing Masters arrive. If they success, the remnants of humanity might once again crawl forth from their underground bunkers and live on the surface of the world. 

Singularity 7 is a curiosity. It feels like the work of an artist discovering how to tell a story, which is probably a nice way of saying that not everything in the comic works well. Templesmith's art style, for example, is not particularly well-suited for the momentum needed in its attempts at epic battles. Still, this has some verve to it that makes it worth picking up, especially since used copies seem to go quite cheaply.

Hooded Menace, Ossuarium Silhouettes Unhallowed and Darkness Drips Forth

Hooded Menace's particular style of death-doom crawls forth like an ancient abomination, long thought dead, now devastating all in its path. There's something undeniably grimy and crepuscular in Hooded Menace's sound that sets them apart, as does their agnosticism toward a single tempo; though they can do crushing doom with the best of them, there's no stopping their juggernaut of unrelenting riffs when it gets started. And yet, there are even disquietingly placid moments on Ossuarium Silhouettes Unhallowed, such as the classical guitar interlude on "Black Moss," before we plunge once more into the abyss. There's something about Darkness Drips Forth that feels viscous and slimy, like being drowned in mortuary effluvia. These are two great albums from the Hooded Menace catalog; can't wait for the new one to drop next month.

Tanith Lee, The Storm Lord

Based on cover of my copy of Tanith Lee's The Storm Lord, you would be forgiven for thinking that the novel is a tale of blood, thunder, and thews, but in typical Lee fashion the story has a stranger take on sword & sorcery. Lee's protagonist is much, much more morally gray than Howard's barbarian, who I think is misread as an amoral example of the ubermensch. Rather, Conan's strong moral compass is meant to contrast the decadence of the civilization. Raldnor, Lee's protagonist commits acts that Howard likely wouldn't have recorded as part of the tale. For example, the protagonist rapes his beloved. Though he later regrets this and finds himself shameful, Raldnor is a man of contradictions, weakness, and faults the widen like chasms.

It occurs to me that Tanith Lee wrote a better (and far more compact) verion of A Song of Ice and Fire and managed to combine two of its most potent strands into one cohesive fiction with The Storm Lord. The Storm Lord has the political intrigue of Westeros alongside the sword & sorcery exoticism of Essos. Lee's peculiar brand of dreamlike fantasy works surprisingly well with the bits and pieces of sword & sorcery she has borrowed. There's also something Dune-like like about the narrative arc. When Raldnor becomes an emblem of his downtrodden people, he loses his individual personality and becomes something mythical--a king, a god, an ideal. His friends note the difference with a bitter feeling of tragedy; although content to follow him out of awe for his godlike presence, they mourn the loss of the man they called friend. 

Even so, the way Raldnor leads his people to liberation isn't of their choosing and has no congruence with their own wants and desires. Like Paul Atreides manipulating the Fremen, Raldnor uses his mental powers to move their hands to violent action in ways that are contrary to their nonviolent nature. This, too, is potent tragedy. The cost of freedom is paid with a violation of personal agency--blatant manipulation is usurped by its more subtle cousin.

Eye of Nix, Black Somnia and Ligeia

Lydia Lunch never really fronted a metal band, but if she did it might sound a bit like Eye of Nix. Listening to both Black Somnia and Ligeia feels like a fiery castigation to which there is no adequate rebuttal. Each album is incredibly dynamic; crashing waves of post-metal give way to blackened doom, operatic damnations, and moments that nearly feel like the stranger ends of Projekt's darkwave catalog.


To me, David Cronenberg's Scanners is a sci-hi/horror cult classic that feels like a fever dream every time I watch it. There are enough factors weighing against it that shouldn't work, such as the sometimes wooden performances, FX that hovers in between realistic and phantasmagoric, the murky ideas, the mystery that is not really a mystery, etc., but it has a way of sticking in your brain that sleeker, more seamless films just can't even begin to approach. Although most infamous for its exploding head scene, Scanners has so much more to offer in addition to the justly celebrated practical effects.

Suicide Forest, Reluctantly

The musical embodiment of despair is back with another bleak slab. Reluctantly begins with all the dreaded pomp of a Bloodborne boss fight, but quickly settles into the depressive black metal groove the project is best known for. Introspective ambiance gives ways to the rending of garments and near-biblical wailing. Reluctantly is the perfect album for those nights where you want to grind away your soul and leave nothing behind.

Sina Grace, Not My Bag

Not My Bag is not at all what I was expected. Somehow, the cover sold me on the idea that it would be a more fantastical affair--something with Lovecraftian sentiments in retail drag, perhaps. Instead, the comic is an autobiographical tale about a cartoonist who takes a high-end retail job when the repair bill for his hybrid car comes due. There is a haunting in Not My Bag, but not of the fun spectral sort; the protagonist is haunted by the ghosts of his prior relationships and haunted by the person he becomes in the course of his job. The thing I admire most about this comic is the creator's willingness to show himself to be naïve, needy, petulant, self-absorbed, snobbish, and petty. At least, I hope that was intentional. However, it looks like he wrote his own wikipedia entry, so I have doubts about his powers of introspection.

Green Lung, Woodland Rites

I don't have a lot of room in my life for modern stoner doom that doesn't say Electric Wizard on the cover, but Green Lung's Woodland Rites is an exception to the rule. The riffs are Sabbath-inspired, as you may well have guessed, but Green Lung add enough folk horror-pagan-"you're going to die in the woods" atmosphere to this slab that they do manage to stand out from all the other kids smoking in their vans.

Dan Abnett, Malleus

Dan Abnett's Eisenhorn series continues to be far better than any game tie-in fiction has any right to be. In this volume, Imperial Inquisitor Gregor Eisenhorn finds himself branded a heretic and subsequently on the run across the universe as he is pursued by his own cohort. Racing against time, he and his allies seek to stop a great evil from the past and clear his name in the eyes of the Imperium. Malleus isn't quite as good as Xenos, and certainly doesn't feature the buffet-style pilfering from a multitude of genres that enlivened the previous book, but this is still a solid and worthwhile read. I will definitely try to find time to read the third novel in the series next month, if possible.

Jess and the Ancient Ones, Vertigo

Jess and the Ancient Ones have never really brought a ton of doom to their occult psychedelia, but Vertigo feels like their heaviest album yet. The vocals soar, the organ grinds maniacally, the guitars and bass couldn't be more retro, yet everything remains upbeat even in the heat of going to some weird, dark places. Vertigo is a great record to give someone just beginning to dip their toe in the hazy occult pool.

In Fabric

In Fabric surprised me. I thought it was be a too-arty-for-its-own good riff on the fashion industry, it is, after all, an A24 film, but instead it's a hauntological combination of horror film and British comedy. Think Scarfolk meets Jam and you've got the right feel. 

Which is not to say that In Fabric isn't arty; you're going to have to be in the mood for at least a little bit of pretense to make it through this one. And yet, the laugh-out-loud moments make it all worthwhile, especially if you've ever been a weird person working in the peculiar hell that is retail.

HellLight, Until the Silence Embraces

When the pandemic began, I found that music from my beloved funeral doom genre did not really appeal. Perhaps returning to HellLight for Until the Silence Embraces is a sign that nature is healing. Fans of HellLight will note that their formula has not changed on the new album. Creeping, crushing riffs plod along into the crepuscular apocalypse while keyboards fill the gaps with washes of ethereal, elegiac ambiance. Expect epic-length tracks and the heights of despair.

The Blood Spattered Bride

I had been meaning to watch this for years, but every time I finally found the time I would discover that it was no longer on whatever streaming platform I had tracked it down to. Little did I know that The Blood Spattered Bride was a loose adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu's infamous Camilla. I bet Le Fanu never imagined a scene in which his titular vampire is dug up on a beach wearing nothing but a snorkel. In any case, The Blood Spattered Bride rises above many of the other Camilla adaptations by virtue of what it adds to the story. The Blood Spattered Bride posits the vampire women as a kind of eternally recurring response to the misogyny of abusive men. In its way, the film is as influenced by Carmilla as it is the tale of Bluebeard and his brides.

Arcane Existence, Colossus and The Dark Curse

Arcane Existence are a recent discovery for me, but I am already enthralled by their mixture of blackened death metal and melodic orchestral metal. Colossus and The Dark Curse have it all: harsh vocals, piano, crushing riffs, and harp (!!!) collide in various configurations that somehow manage to feel thrilling and new, even if the notion of adding orchestration to heavy music is pretty well-worn at this point. Unexpectedly fresh.

Too many people's names to type out, Gotham Academy Volume 2: Calamity, Gotham Academy Volume 3: Yearbook, Gotham Academy Second Semester Volume 1: Welcome Back, and Gotham Academy Second Semester Volume 2: The Ballad of Olive Silverlock

I read the first volume of Gotham Academy last month, and liked it enough to continue with more volumes to polish it off in August. Calamity picks up where the first volume ended, but introduces a new mystery. It's not quite as interesting as the first go round, but that was admittedly a tough debut to follow.

Yearbook is a different kind of volume; it is a series of vignettes by a variety of authors and artists (too many to mention on the cover, in fact) strung together by not one, but two frame narratives. My one complaint about these volumes of Gotham Academy is that they're tied in to the greater DC universe; they mention something about the Robins being outlawed or something, but honestly that kind of continuity wank is boring to me and detracts from the focus. 

Things pick up in Second Semester; at least the continuity stuff seems to have burned itself out. Speaking of burning, these last two volumes finally address the heat that's been building in the previous issues. All in all, this is a solid little series that shows the ways in which the the DC universe can actually be interesting.

Nightfall, At Night We Prey

I haven't been a Nightfall fan for very long, and to be honest I'm mostly familiar with their earliest albums, but I am pleased to report that At Night We Prey is an absolutely ferocious album. The mixture of Gothic and extreme metal styles recalls Moonspell and Rotting Christ, but there are enough quirks here that the album doesn't feel like the work of a cover artist. There's something vaguely "occult" here (which, I realize, is probably a meaningless distinction when it comes to metal) that lends a particularly dark tone to the record.

Nosferatu in Venice

Nosferatu in Venice is an unofficial sequel to Werner Herzog's remake of Nosferatu. Nosferatu in Venice doesn't have the dreamlike, phantasmagoric beauty of Herzog's film, but it does manage to be a nice slice of Gothic nonsense on its own merits. The fact that the film is watchable at all is a minor miracle given Klaus Kinski's infamous on set tantrums and erratic behavior. Of particular note is the soundtrack for Nosferatu in Venice, which is worth the price of admission alone, in my opinion.

Kody Keplinger and Sara Kipin, Poison Ivy: Thorns

I picked up Poison Ivy: Thorns on a whim because Barnes & Nobles gave me a gift card as a refund instead of doing the sensible thing and just crediting my Visa for a return. Things worked out, though, as I loved this comic. Thorns is a decidedly Gothic take on Poison Ivy's origin story, complete with scenes of wandering a house of secrets by candlelight, with added elements that reminded me of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter." You can tell that Thorns isn't the usual DC fair, as the book is in a slightly different format than the standard graphic novel. 

Lindsay Schoolcraft, Martyr

Martyr is a solo album by Lindsay Schoolcraft, whom I became aware of during her tenure with Cradle of Filth. Sonically, the album is far afield from Cradle's Hammer Horror-inspired extreme metal; Martyr immediately recalls Evanescence, which shouldn't be too surprising, as Rocky Gray worked on it. Schoolcraft's use of harp on the album definitely sets it apart from the pack. I'm not convinced of the necessity of the Cure cover on this, but then, I never am.

The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf

Nightmare of the Wolf is an animated film set in Andrzej Sapkowski's Witcher universe. Rather than continue Geralt's adventures, the movie focuses on Vesemir, the man who trained Geralt in the path of the witcher, and details the events that led to the witcher order facing near-destruction at the hands of angry townsfolk and a particularly vengeful sorceress. The film looks great and it most definitely does not skimp on the blood and guts. The opening scene pulls absolutely no punches! I was keeping it cool prior to this, but now I can't wait for the live action series to return in December.

Wayfarer, A Romance with Violence

From the opening strains of saloon-style piano, you know that A Romance with Violence is going to be an unusual sort of metal album. What follows does not disappoint. Taking the Wild West as their point of inspiration, Wayfarer melds black metal to American folk and a country sensibility. It's such an unlikely mix, but it works. The combination of blackened vocals, tremolo riffs, and the occasional Southern Gothic flourish add up to something unique. And, to be honest, A Romance with Violence is Wayfarer's most cohesive expression of this sound to date.

Kendare Blake, Anna Dressed in Blood

Kendare Blake's Anna Dressed in Blood is a YA horror novel about a mouthy teenager who hunts murderous ghosts to send to them to the afterlife, but he falls in love with the titular Anna, a ghost in a blood-soaked gown, whom he has moved to Canada to slay. (Happens to the best of us, kid.) An ethical quandary the novel doesn't really explore: does a ghost count as a teenager if they died at age 16 even if fifty years have passed since their death? Is this teenage ghost-hunter being groomed? Anyway, this is a very quick read, no heavy lifting required, and will appeal to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer crowd. I'll hit up the sequel closer to Halloween to check in on whether the boy gets the girl ghost, in the end.

Monday, August 30, 2021

Candlekeep Mysteries: Sarah of Yellowcrest Manor and Lore of Lurue

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

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

Sarah of Yellowcrest Manor

Written by Derek Ruiz, developed & edited by Scott Fitzgerald Gray

I appreciate the thoughtfulness of Sarah of Yellowcrest Manor as an adventure. The early, investigation-based part of the adventure gives you a fairly wide selection of options. Even beyond the obvious leads, there are plenty of ways for the players to get at information that will help them figure out what is going on. They can pursue as many or as few of these options as they need or want to; none of them are necessary and there isn't a prescribed order of events that needs to be followed--which ultimately creates an adventure where the players are well and truly calling the shots and working things out the way they want to.

The latter part of the adventure, the cult's dungeon, is more direct in presentation, but it still features good set-dressing and interesting encounters in the ruined tower. Add that to a great premise centered on a ghostly haunting (one of my favorite hooks) and this one is a winner.

Lore of Lurue

Written by Kelly Lynne D'Angelo, developed & edited by Kim Mohan

This is a difficult adventure to comment on, as my group had a very fun time playing it, but I suspect the fun we had was dependent on the lengths I went to alter and revise it. As written, Lore of Lurue commits many unforgivable sins. I feel confident that this adventure would have fallen entirely flat if we had played it straight from the book.

To start with, the adventure doesn't have a strong hook. Worse yet, it uses magical coercion as its inciting incident. It's intended that the players find a magic book that, when opened, casts a gate spell on them--no save. The spell transports them into the forest that is the singular adventure location. I hate that: the hook is really just "Okay, you're in the adventure now." That's not interesting, or even a hook as such, and it feels way too forced for my tastes.

To remedy this, I added an entire layer to the adventure concerning a manor house and a missing daughter of mysterious parentage. I absolutely felt like I had to give the players a reason for their characters to get involved because otherwise they're just trapped in an adventure with extremely low personal stakes. I thought my additions fit the underlying themes and aesthetics of the adventure, which has a fairytale feel to it. It made sense to add a missing girl lost in a strange new world, as that reads very "fairytale" to me. Of course, it also gave me the opportunity to add disturbing implications in the style of Angela Carter and Tanith Lee, which felt right for the adventure too. Otherwise, the adventure has very little texture to it. It comes across as a standard accumulation of D&D tropes with no particular aesthetic or sensibility.

Once the characters are in the woods, the adventure is an absolutely linear path between encounters. It's an explicit railroad: if the characters try to go to other parts of the forest, they find "invisible walls" that won't let them pass. That is unbelievably lame. I also cut out all of the suggested NPC dialog that tells the characters where to go and what to go because I play with adults who can make their own reasonable choices. 

The solution to the railroad in this adventure is such a ridiculously easy fix that it beggars belief that someone in the design process didn't implement it: just put all the encounter locations on a map and let the players decide where they want to explore. Spread out the clues about what is going on in the forest and you have a pretty simple, but satisfying, pointcrawl instead of forcing the players' hands.

Also, if any characters die in this adventure they literally respawn so they get to try again. Someone needed to say "Come on, this isn't something we can include in an adventure we want people to pay money for." Again, there is potential here, and we did have a blast in this session, but I sincerely believe that the adventure provided very little of that fun on its own.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Gods of Debauchery, Weakness and Lust, Psychic Wound

Three howls of the damned for your sonic edification:

Seven Spires, "Gods of Debauchery"

Blackbriar, "Weakness and Lust"

King Woman, "Psychic Wound"

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Creedhall Dekonstruktion

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 "Candlekeep Dekonstuktion." Fair warning: spoilers lurk below.

The Characters

Elsabeth, human paladin played by Anne

Rising Leaf, human monk played by Michael


Books related to the ancient Lilitu civilization were going missing from the library's restricted archives. Elsabeth and Rising Leaf were set to the task of identifying any other books that may have disappeared from the library's shelves. As they were scouring the stacks, they were approached by a fellow member of the Special Collections Department, a dwarf named Buron. Buron approached the pair with a heavy black tome in his hands; when he reached the duo, he held up his hand as if he had a point to make, then immediately collapsed dead at their feet. 

Medical help was sought, but it was too late for Buron. The book, however, turned out to be a tome on the history of the library's architecture. A silk ribbon in the book marked off a chapter dealing with the Old Tower. Leaf and Elsabeth knew that the Old Tower was the oldest structure on Creedhall's campus; it predated human settlement in the area--Creedhall had been built around it. They also knew that the Old Tower was no longer used by the library; it was said to be structurally unsound and thus sealed off from the public. The margins of this chapter of the book were filled with diagrams that appeared to be schematics for inexplicable machinery.

Elsabeth and Leaf brought this information to their superior, Horatio Lupa, who asked them to investigate the Old Tower in case it had a connection to the missing books. Rummaging around in this desk, he even managed to find a key that would open the door to the Old Tower. As they approached the Old Tower, the earth began to shake. An earthquake! Or was it? 

The Old Tower was certainly a strange sight. Although it was a mere three stories tall, it was clear that the tower was an inhuman construction. A sign on the door advised that the tower was dangerous and that no trespassing was allowed. Imagine, then, our heroes' surprise when they entered the Old Tower and discovered that it was not empty.

Inside, Leaf and Elsabeth saw that the bookshelves in the first floor of the tower were filled with books and that three other members of the S.C.D., Marcassia, Rafferty, and Varnam, were within. Marcassia lured Elsabeth toward one of the bookshelves by offering to show her an important discovery they had made in the tower, while Rafferty closed the door to the outside. Once the door was sealed, Marcassia told her companions to kill Leaf and Elsabeth! Easier said than done, of course. The renegade members of the S.C.D. were cut down, but not before Rafferty managed to grievously wound Elsabeth with a spell that castigated her flesh with frost and rime.

The books in this chamber proved to be the stolen volumes that were missing from the library. They all dealt with the Lilitu in one way or another. The walls of the tower were also scrutinized. Etched into the stones were images of the Lilitu, grails, and what appeared to be rites that involved the drinking of blood.

On the second floor of the tower, Leaf and Elsabeth found that a great deal of nonperishable food has been stored, as if in preparation for a long voyage. They also found four more members of the S.C.D. tied to chairs in a circle. Leaf began to untie one of the group, but they protested against this--they did not want to be freed from their bonds! They also intimated that, like the trio fought on the previous floor of the Old Tower, they had defected from their duties to the library. They mentioned something about "going to see the dread gods of the Lilitu," which did not seem to bode well. As Elsabeth went to explore another chamber on this floor, Leaf quietly murdered them all as they sat bound to their chairs. The earth shook again, sending vibrations throughout the tower.

The top floor of the Old Tower was an observatory equipped with a telescope that could peer beyond the translucent metal cap on top of the citadel. A steering wheel inscribed with runes they could not decipher was present as well. There was also a lever that Elsabeth and Leaf figured must either start or stop something within the tower, but it gave no indication about whether it was currently engaged or not. Another rumble shook the tower. The duo decided that it was time to move all of the stolen books out of the tower before something else happened.

Removing the books from the first floor triggered a hidden door to open, revealing that the tower sat atop an ancient dungeon--quite possibly one of the fabled Grail Tombs. Venturing down into the circular chamber directly below the tower revealed two strange things. First, four cylinders were positioned beneath the tower. These cylinders each had a core of white-hot fire at their center and were giving off a great deal of heat. An earlier surmise proved to be accurate: the Old Tower was actually an ancient vehicle created by the Lilitu. The traitorous S.C.D. members were set to launch it into the mysterious vastness of space to find the gods of the Lilitu!

The other oddity the pair encountered were two suits of articulated armor with the heads of cockroaches flanking a door leading further into the dungeons. The pair thought that perhaps these suits were protective gear and sought to don them, but they turned out to be automatons that attacked when approached! The constructs bit the pair repeatedly with their mandibles. Elsabeth was knocked out by one of them, even after pushing it under the fiery inferno of the tower's thrusters. Leaf managed to break away from the construct that had latched onto him, gather up Elsabeth, and channel his ki to leap up into the first floor of the tower.

Elsabeth regained consciousness to find that Leaf had loosely strapped her to a chair in the Old Tower. His thought was that if the tower was going to launch into some strange new realm, there might be a great evil to be defeated there. Unfortunately, the Old Tower was still home to a more terrestrial form of maleficence. Three more rebel members of the S.C.D. emerged from the sublevels to attack the pair. They were led by a "man" named Starkely, who revealed himself to be a vat-grown flesh golem created by the Lilitu in the age of the ancients. His only goal was to rejoin his creators. 

Battle was joined. Starkely's fists hit with the force of a maul; Leaf was laid low by a punch that sent him into the darkness of unconsciousness. Elsabeth managed to deal with Starkely's compatriots and hit the flesh golem with a divine smite that dissolved the stitches holding his abominable form together; he simply fell to pieces on the cold stone flags of the tower. 

Returning to the upper floor of the Old Tower, the switch was thrown--which caused electricity to arc everywhere. Luckily, Leaf's agility allowed him to leap and roll out of the way of the blast. The Old Tower ceased to rumble. The two loyal members of the S.C.D. had managed to recover the lost books, stop the tower's launch, and bring the traitors to a violent end.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft: Monsters of Ravenloft

Now that's I've made posts covering all of the domains in Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft, I want to do a brief overview and review of the rest of the book's content. So far I've looked at Chapter 1: Character CreationChapter 2: Creating Domains of Dread, Chapter 3: Domains of Ravenloft, and Chapter 4: Horror Adventuresso now we're concluding with Chapter 5: Monsters of Ravenloft.

Chapter 5 begins with rules and suggestions for using monsters in a horror-centric D&D game. We get more tips for how to describe monsters, focusing on their "wrongness," using sense memories, and making the horror they represent personal to the players. There is also a section on the kind of tactics that monsters might use. Interestingly, "goblyns" (which used to be their own monster type in the 2e AD&D iteration of the setting) are now simply hobgoblins prone to devouring their foes alive. 

There are also suggestions here for treating the various monstrous traits that creatures can have as Legos: essentially this is permission to modify stat blocks to create new bespoke creatures when needed by adding traits to pre-existing creatures. Additionally, this section contains rules for adding abilities to "minions" so that they are thematically consistent with the greater evil they serve. 

Next, we get advice on creating monsters "from scratch," which uses the "bagman" (a creature lurking in your party's bag of holding) as an example. Infamously, some people were upset that the bagman was not given its own specific stats, but as this section is basically a wordier retelling of my own advice to "just use bears," I'm pretty onboard with the philosophy being laid down here.

The rest of the chapter is a bestiary of monsters and nonplayer characters for Ravenloft. The monsters given full write-ups in this chapter are generally well-chosen given the horror focus of Van Richten's Guide: there's fiendish slasher killers in the vein of Jason or Michael Myers, evil marionettes, headless horsemen, gremlins that effect magic, hopping vampires, more powerful werewolves, feral vampires, and Cthulhoid terrors. Of course, there are monsters I wish were included from previous Ravenloft products, such as the poisonous women who serve Ivana Boritsi, but I'm sure hard choices had to be made. Overall, this is a strong selection of monsters that reinforces horror tropes.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Lore of Lurue

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 "Lore of Lurue." Fair warning: spoilers lurk below.

The Characters

Elsabeth, human paladin played by Anne

Rufus Clarke, human barbarian played by Steve


The Special Collections Department sent Elsabeth and Rufus to Catafalque Manor on the the outskirts of Creedhall. The lord of the manor, Laymon Price, had promised the library a magical book in return for help locating his missing daughter. As the duo arrived, they noticed that a strangely unruly and wild forest was encroaching on the otherwise manicured lawn of the estate. The pair were met at the door by a ridiculously handsome butler named Godfried and ushered into a parlor where they were served tea and tiny sandwiches shorn of their crusts. 

Laymon entered and explained the facts of Esper's disappearance. The forest they had observed approaching the house was indeed unnatural; it had sprung up suddenly. One of Esper's slippers and an enchanted book were found on the path leading into its wooded depths, so it was presumed she had wandered inside the woods and become lost. The book was roughly the dimensions of a children's storybook; when it was opened, it looked blank at first but then an unseen hand began to write out the beginnings of a fairy tale involving the forest. However, when asked about Esper's age, Laymon couldn't rightly remember. He had to ask the butler how old his daughter was! Elsabeth and Rufus were unimpressed with his concern over his daughter's life.

Taking their leave of Laymon, the duo were escorted to the forest path where the slipper and book were found by Godfried. Along the day, Godfried was questioned and several interesting piece of information came to light. Laymon Price's wife had been dead for many years; the official cause of her death was said to be a heart defect, but locals whispered that Laymon had her poisoned when he discovered that she had been having an affair. The handsome butler had been in Laymon's employ for eighteen years, and since Esper was currently seventeen years old that raised some suspicions in Rufus and Elsabeth, particularly as Godfried seemed far more concerned with Esper's welfare than her "father."

As Elsabeth and Rufus readied themselves to enter the mysterious woods, they flipped to the next page in the book, which caused a map to be drawn in watercolors. Six locations inside the forest were marked out in magical animation: a meadow featuring a tankard that overflowed with ale, a plateau with a large tree with a face that vacillated between jovial and wrathful expressions, a mushroom forest with twinkling lanterns, a cottage made of gingerbread with smoke billowing from the chimney, and a campsite with a flickering fire. Part of the map, however, was missing--the page was torn. The pair decided to head for the meadow first.

While in the meadow, they heard the sound of drunken laughter as a trio of clearly intoxicated satyrs emerged from the woods. Unfortunately, the satyrs and the librarians had no languages in common, but they bridged the communication gap by sharing swigs from the satyrs' wineskin. The satyrs were headed toward the plateau, so Rufus and Elsabeth decided to travel with them. At the plateau, they encountered Feynor, a massive treant. Feynor attempted to commune with the creatures of the forest to ascertain Esper's whereabouts to no avail. Feynor suggested that Wheeldoli, the "mayor" of a fairy settlement in the mushroom forest called Dewlight, might be able to help them locate the girl. Before they departed, Feynor also gave them a potion of giant strength.

On the way to the mushroom village, the duo encountered four injured wolves who snarled and snapped at them. Rufus transformed himself into his lupine form and tried to convey that they meant the wolves no harm. Recognizing him as one of their own, the wolves became docile and nonthreatening. Elsabeth channeled the power of her oath to heal the wolves. Grateful for aid, the wolves followed the pair to Dewlight.

Dewlight proved to be a series of homes built into giant mushrooms that had tiny lanterns strung about them. Rufus and Elsabeth were greeted by Wheeldoli, a sprite in dapper clothes who dragged a human sized pipe filled with dank "pipeweed" behind him. During their conversation with Wheeldoli, red lightning crashed overhead; Wheeldoli said this was a sign that a "battle was brewing." Wheeldoli had not seen Esper, but the fey of his village had seen a number of unknown hunters in the woods. These hunters seemed to be indiscriminately killing whatever animals they could find for unknown purposes. When asked about the missing portion of their map, Wheeldoli informed them at a sacred pool could be found in that area of the forest. The group decided that the pool was their destination.

The path to the pool took them by the gingerbread house they had seen on the map. The house had a well out front and a barn behind it. Sensing an opportunity to gather a little more information from someone who might have encountered Esper, the pair knocked on the door of the cottage, which opened just a crack, revealing a blue-skinned hag. The hag asked for a description of Esper, said "She sounds delicious!" then slammed the door in their faces. Rufus knocked the door in and the duo were confronted by a horrific sight: the hag's gingerbread hovel was covered with mold on the inside and two fey woman lay bound and gagged on the floor.

After a short battle with the hag, her prisoners were freed. They had been lured into the hag's cottage with the promise of candy. They were also concerned about the fate of their friend who had been with them. The librarians suggested having a look in the barn, which proved to be filled with cages holding an array of wild animals. In the last cage, the third fey woman was discovered, but she was badly injured and unconscious. Elsabeth again altruistically used her divine magic to heal a wounded stranger. The fey women imparted some useful information: the hunters in the woods were wolfish beastmen and they had traded animals to the hag in return for some kind of alchemical unguent.

Before leaving, the group also dealt with a monster living in the hag's well. Rufus cut the rope dropping down into the well as the creature tried to climb up it. Elsabeth then called down a moonbeam into the well that decimated the creature.

Resuming their journey to the sacred pool, they encountered three of the wolf-headed hunters. They shadowed the hunters to see what they were up to. They watched in horror as the hunters felled a deer with their spears, then began to immediately feast on its remains. Figuring that there would be three less hunters to deal with later, the pair attacked. The battle was hard fought: Elsabeth and Rufus both took several injuries, Elsabeth used most of her magical resources, but they ultimately prevailed. They then chose to push on instead of resting, feeling that time may be of the essence.

When they reached the sacred pool, Elsabeth and Rufus discovered that it is not what had been promised. Everyone they encountered stressed the beauty of the pool, but instead of crystalline waters it was streaked with foul reds and blacks. Worse yet was what was happening at the pool's edge. Three of the wolfish hunters had made a pile of dead animals, on top of which was a young, unconscious girl who was missing a slipper. Rufus and Elsabeth immediately noticed a familial resemblance between the girl and Godfried, confirming their suspicions: the butler was her real father! In any case, she was clearly in need of rescue.

Since Elsabeth had taken considerable damage in the previous melee, she decided to hang back with Rufus's crossbow to harry their foes. Rufus asked the wolves that had been following them for aid, and they seemed to understand him. He also drank the potion given to them by Feynor. Elsabeth unleashed a crossbow bolt and Rufus threw a few javelins before moving into melee range with the hunters. The wolves also entered the fray, and proved surprisingly effective. Rufus was dealing massive damage due to his heightened strength, Elsabeth was peppering their foes from afar, and the wolves were finishing off the badly wounded hunters.

Unfortunately, the hunters weren't the only thing they had to worry about. Esper's body shuddered atop the pile of animal corpses, split open, and a gore-covered black unicorn emerged from the girl's body. The unicorn was a formidable foe: it was immune to the poison of Rufus's sword and dealt necrotic damage that he had no resistance to! However, that didn't stop Rufus from performing a heroic deed: he grabbed the unicorn, threw it prone on the ground, and then lopped its head off.

As the unicorn died, Esper gave a gasp and sat up. She no longer seemed to be torn asunder or bloodied in any way. She was, of course, disturbed to find that she was sitting atop a mound of dead animals, but the duo quieted her and led her out of the forest and back to Catafalque Manor. The mystery of the book was quickly unveiled: Godfried had sent the book to Laymon Price as revenge for killing his lover, Price's wife; as Godfried said, "You ruined my fairytale romance, so I hoped to entrap you in a fairytale that would be your ruin!" However, Esper had intercepted the book and been the one to be drawn into the magical forest. 

Godfried drew a dagger and advanced on Laymon, looking to enact his frustrated revenge personally. Elsabeth and Rufus chose to...simply look the other way as Godfried stabbed the lord of the manor to death. They judged that Laymon had it coming. Leaving with the promised book in tow, Rufus and Elsabeth left Godfried and Esper to sort out their new father-daughter relationship, the death of Laymon Price, and the rest of their tangled family drama.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Sarah of Yellowcrest Manor

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 "Sarah of Yellowcrest Manor." Fair warning: spoilers lurk below.

The Characters

Rising Leaf, played by Michael

Tobias Wolfe, played by Dennis


Rising Leaf and Tobias were summoned to a particular section of the library to deal with a problem: namely, that it was haunted. Whenever the name "Sarah" was said aloud in one area of the stacks, the ghost of a young woman would appear--her tongue missing and her body riddled with stab wounds. 

Tobias went in search of an old library custodian who would be familiar with any killings in that section of the library, while Rising Leaf looked for any books in that area bearing the same tree symbol that the ghostly woman had on her servant's uniform. No murders in the library were known, but Leaf did find a book that appeared to be the spectral woman's autobiography. The earliest pages of the book were just clumsy repetitions of her name, as if she were practicing her writing. This was followed by lists of household chores. Eventually, toward the middle, the book turned into a diary of undated, jumbled entries. The final entry describes spying upon her employer, Lord Vialis, as he studied a magic circle with some sort of viscous fluid contained within it. This entry was accompanied by a rendering of a monster with bulbous, multifaceted eyes.

Investigating Lord Vialis uncovered that he was once the owner of Yellowcrest Manor, which had been the site of a horrific massacre. His wife, children, and servants were killed while he was away on business. Rumor had it that all the slain had their tongues severed. After these events, Lord Vialis moved to the village of Greenfast, though he still owned several tanneries in town. Conversation with a drunken tannery employee revealed that Lord Vialis never returned to Creedhall to tend to his business; instead, he sent a man named Faerl to collect the profits and distribute wages. 

Tobias and Rising Leaf decided to stake out one of the tanneries to observe Faerl. Faerl arrived in a large, ostentatious carriage. He was a dandy with a huge floppy hat, and was flanked by goons and sellswords. Tobias and Leaf decided to shadow Faerl and his crew back to Greenfast. The duo debated whether to break into Faerl's home during the night, but decided to ask around in Greenfast instead.

They spoke to Old Fargo, the owner of Greenfast's tavern. Old Fargo didn't have kind words to say about Lord Vialis, whom he regarded as a bad influence. Old Fargo's son had fallen in with Lord Vialis; Old Fargo hadn't seen him in over a month. The pair also learned that Lord Vialis had taken possession of a ruined tower to the south and was supposedly refurbishing it as a rural retreat. The tower became their next destination.

The tower was indeed in ruins. Tents, presumably for workers, were pitched nearby, but they were all empty. In fact, there was no activity to be seen around the tower. If the tower was being restored, work was going slowly--or not at all. 

Tobias and Leaf climbed to the top of the sundered tower and peered down into it. Inside, they saw that the interior was lit by braziers shedding an eerie blue light. The walls were carved with hideous otherworldly forms. The chamber was occupied by four people and two hovering creatures that looked like brains sprouting tentacles and bird-like beaks. An attempt to leap down into the tower to take those within by surprise was less than successful; however, after a hard fought battle in which heavy injuries were taken, Leaf and Tobias managed to best their foes.

Further exploration of the tower, and its depths, revealed clear signs of cult activity. One underground chamber was a workshop devoted to the carving of wooden tongues. Meddling with the items in another chamber resulted in Leaf and Tobias falling into a barred cell facing another cell full of kidnapped people intended for sacrifice by Lord Vialis's cult. Ultimately, our heroes found themselves in a profane chapel with a monstrous statue with multifaceted eyes that matched the picture Sarah had drawn in her diary. Within the chapel they faced cultists, more grells, and Lord Vialis himself. However, before they could deal a death blow to Lord Vialis, he was grasped by a massive, clawed hand that reached through a dimensional portal to pull him to safety.

The ritual chambers of the cult were deactivated by Tobias's magic, thereby allowing Sarah, the ghostly servant haunting the library, to seek the sleep of ages. The captives were released and the cultists who had been subdued were turned over to the locals of Greenfast for whatever justice they saw fit to dispense.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft: Horror Adventures

Now that's I've made posts covering all of the domains in Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft, I want to do a brief overview and review of the rest of the book's content. So far I've looked at Chapter 1: Character CreationChapter 2: Creating Domains of Dread, and Chapter 3: Domains of Ravenloftso now we're moving on to Chapter 4: Horror Adventures.

Chapter 4 opens with tips on how to set expectations for a horror game. It suggests that the players be given surveys about what kind of content and themes they want or are uncomfortable with, as well as what their gameplay expectations are. It also offers best practices for a "session zero" where expectations, boundaries, and house rules are discussed. I admit I've never done any of this in my own games, but nothing in this section jumped out at me as particularly onerous. 

This section of the book also gives advice on more mundane details such as limiting distractions, using props, music, and lighting. It gives DM-facing advice for creating and sustaining a horrific atmosphere. I particularly liked the advice given in this section about how to describe things typically found in D&D adventures, such as what monsters look like, how they attack, and what kind of wounds they deal, in way that better suits a horror game. 

This section also gives advice on using consent tools and deploying after-game discussion that amounts to "aftercare" to check in with the players to make sure that no boundaries were transgressed. Again, I've never used tools like these in my games, but I gather they are quite important to many people and nothing seems particularly outrageous in the way they're described here.

The next portion of the book is given over to a horror toolkit. Earlier editions of Ravenloft had extensive sections on curses, for example, which return here. The advice to deploy curses that can't simply be defeated with a remove curse spell feels like a fine suggestion; in fact, I've been doing that in my Gothic horror games for years. There are a number of sample curses that you can use straight from the book or as inspiration for your own creations.

Ravenloft has also traditionally had extra rules for fear, but the previous editions' Fear and Horror checks have been replaced by new mechanics. Van Richten's Guide details "Seeds of Fear," particular phobias or objects of fear that grant Inspiration when a player roleplays their character's terror in response to them. These "Seeds," as well as other fearful things, can force saving throws against gaining the frightened condition. This section also introduces a Stress mechanic. Each character gets a Stress Score that increases as a character encounters stressful things; this Stress Score counts as a penalty to attack rolls, ability checks, and saving throws. The Stress rules feel a bit like they were inspired by Darkest Dungeon.

A number of "Haunted Traps" are also detailed in mechanical terms. Like the sample curses, these can be used as presented or used as models for traps of your own devise.

Horror Adventures presents rules for playing "Survivors," characters that are not nearly as powerful as standard 5e D&D characters. These Survivors feel a bit like 0-level characters or funnel characters from other games; they are intentionally meant to be more "mundane" to heighten the feeling of their frailty in a monstrous, unforgiving world. There are four broad types or classes of Survivor: Apprentices (arcanists), Disciples (the religiously empowered), Sneaks (rogue-lites), and Squires (warriors). Survivors do, however, have the opportunity to level-up. Every Survivor can achieve "third level"; at each level they gain a new talent from a small list. The list of Survivor talents feels like an excellent place for homebrewers to intervene and expand the scope of what is presented here.

This section of the book is concluded with an actual adventure, "The House of Lament." As I have not run the adventure yet, I want to refrain from commenting on it too much, but it looks like a solid introduction to Ravenloft. And it stealthily introduces yet another domain and Darklord!

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft: Domains of Ravenloft

Now that's I've made posts covering all of the domains in Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft, I want to do a brief overview and review of the rest of the book's content. So far I've looked at Chapter 1: Character Creation and Chapter 2: Creating Domains of Dread, so now we're moving on to the parts of Chapter 3: Domains of Ravenloft that I haven't previously covered.

At the outset, I want to touch on overall changes and the current shape of things. I am sure many will disagree with this sentiment, but I think that every instance where WotC has gender-swapped a Darklord has resulted in a more interesting character. Overall, the domains in Van Richten's Guide are the best versions of them we've had so far. I'm not sold on the idea of change for its own sake or change for the reasons of mere cultural or political optics, but the revisions in Van Richten's Guide have just plain resulted in a more interesting and gameable setting.

Aside from the featured domains, Van Richten's Guide also briefly details another twenty-two domains. Most of these domains get a sole paragraph of a few scant sentences by way of description; a few get a couple paragraphs of prose. Clearly, these entries are meant to wet your appetite, but if you want to use them in your games you're going to have to either look to earlier books for inspiration or invent new details wholesale. Personally, I find that inspiring, but I can see how someone new to Ravenloft wouldn't necessarily get much out of these "capsule domains." And their presentations certainly all of an even caliber.

The domains selected for the truncated treatment are universally niche or narrowly focused in intent, so it makes sense that they didn't get as full consideration as domains such as Barovia or Darkon. Most of the domains come from earlier iterations of the setting, but there are a couple new ones here as well. Cyre 1313, for example, is a magically ghost train originally from Eberron. Personally, I would have have had less domains in this section and more detail for the ones that survived the cull. I think Zherisia, Invidia, Ghastria and Markovia deserved more attention, while at the same time remain suspicious that we needed two different "evil theater" domains.

Of course, the problem is that fans are unlikely to agree on which of these domains should have gotten larger entries at the expense of the others. No matter: these domains are fine fodder for expansion by introducing your own idiosyncratic ideas if you have both the time and the inclination.

The rest of this chapter is devoted to detailing the factions and nonplayer characters that players might encounter in Ravenloft games. Only two factions are given lengthy descriptions: the Keepers of the Black Feather and the Vistani. The Keepers of the Black Feather began as a cabal opposed to Strahd's machinations, but their purpose has become diluted; they are now a society of dilettante spiritualists and hack occultists. Oddly, the Keepers also serve as Ravenloft's postal service. Personally, I prefer to have at least some members of the Keepers of the Black Feather to be competent and with a clear mission in mind.

The Vistani entry treads carefully as it attempts to reconcile a faction that has always been based on ethnic stereotypes to a new mission of better representation. I'm scarcely qualified to judge whether that mission succeeds or fails here, but I can say that nothing jumped out at me as obviously or immediately offensive. I do like that the idea of the Vistani as a "family of choice" is back; any "race" can be a Vistani as they are willing to adopt new members into their clans. 

Like the section on domains, this one ends with much smaller entries devoted to a few other factions and secret societies: the Church of Ezra, the Circle (a knightly order whose good deeds always seem to bring doom unto them), the Kargat and Kargatane (the secret police of Darkon), the Order of the Guardians (monks trying to keep evil magic items out of the hands of malefactors), the Priests of Osybus (undead cultists trying to free Strahd from the Mists), and the Ulmist Inquisition (psionic inquisitors!). It's great to see the older factions return, even if only in a limited form. I also think the Ulmist Inquisition is a welcome addition. Fanatical inquisitors are a staple of Gothic fiction, so it's nice to see that emphasized in Ravenloft--and making them psionic is a solid D&D-flavored take on the idea.

The rest of this chapter is devoted to NPCs, and I think they largely made the right calls as to which personages from Ravenloft's history made it into the book:

  • Alanik Ray and Arthur Segwick, Ravenloft's Holmes and Watson analogs, are in and this time they're explicitly a gay couple--I find this fun, as slashfic about Watson and Holmes is a time-honored tradition at this point. In 2021, it is now obligatory to show a character in a wheelchair; Ray's it.
  • The Caller, formerly the Gentleman Caller, Ravenloft's premier scheming fiend, is back--though his mission of banging a bunch of important NPCs to leave a trail of fiendish bastard children in his wake goes unmentioned here.
  • Erasmus van Richten, the ghost of the famed monster hunter's child, in included. As is a note that he is "aromantic," which feels like a clumsy nod toward inclusivity and representation. He's a ghost, who cares if he's aromantic?
  • Ezmerelda d'Avenir is here. I have a lot more to say about her portrayal in Van Richten's Guide, enough that it probably warrants a separate post. Suffice to say, she's inexplicably shortened her name to "Ez."
  • Firan Zal-honan, the mortal aspect of Azalin, is present for roll call. There's enough weirdness surrounding Azalin in this book that I suspect we'll get a campaign about him at some point.
  • Jander Sunstar, the elf vampire who somehow predicted the Twilight phenomenon is here as well. Can you believe this guy has been in two different 5e books? Apparently there are photocopies of him throughout the multiverse. Truly the cosmos is a dark and merciless place.
  • Larissa Snowmane, your Flashdance druid, is still at the helm of her cursed riverboat. It's interesting that characters from the Ravenloft novels were even under consideration for this book! Oddly, I find her presence here comforting. 
  • Of course Rudolph van Richten, Ravenloft's Van Helsing archetype, is here. He seems like a maniac, which is fitting.
  • The Weathermay-Foxgrove twins are in too. They're my favorite and I like that they seem less simpering and more deadly in their presentation here.
I would have loved to see a few characters like Ratik Ubel and Lady Kazandra make it in to the line-up, but that's just my nostalgia and personal preference talking.