Three fictions for your entertainment and edification:"The Empath"
Tuesday, December 28, 2021
Thursday, December 23, 2021
Episode 52: Best of 2021
Jack and Kate look at what they've read and watched in the year that was 2021 and make some recommendations in the world of books and beyond. The rules of engagement are simple: the hosts each choose one movie, album, TV show, and book that was the best experience of its kind encountered during the first half of the year.
Join your hosts for a discussion that ranges from various ways to hunt supernatural creatures to cursed hunks to weird acting choices by 80s pop stars.
Wednesday, December 15, 2021
Three worthy reads:On the Haunted Lives of Girls and Women
Sunday, December 12, 2021
The most hated NPC I've ever made
It is often remarked upon that Donesta Sangino’s rise to fame in the art world was meteoric, and indeed she seemed to appear out of nowhere to become the name on every aesthete’s lips, but her origins were actually quite humble. Donesta was born to a poor, working-class family in Ghastria. She evidenced a talent for art, particularly for portraiture, and she contributed to the family’s meager finances by sketching passersby in charcoal for a few paltry copper pieces.
In her teenage years, Donesta Sangino found a patron—a wealthy nobleman who dabbled in the occult. Her patron not only supported Donesta monetarily, raising her out of poverty, he also taught her the arts of wizardry as well. This tutelage would prove to be his undoing; Donesta was a quick study, and she soon mastered enough enchantment magic to mentally enslave her patron. She drained his wealth, used his contacts among the upper crust to establish herself as the artist of the moment, and finally abandoned him to a life of abject penury when his money ran out.
As she continued to ply the trade of a portraitist, though by now she had exchanged the charcoal of her youth for vibrant oil paints, Donesta discovered arcane ways of using her art as a medium for her magic. When she paints a person known to her, she doesn’t just capture their likeness—she also captures a bit of their free will and binds it to the portrait. Some have noted that many of the incidental figures in her paintings resemble her artistic rivals—the very artists she has eclipsed seem to be referenced in her works. In truth, she has siphoned away the agency of her contemporaries and paved the way for her own success by bending her patrons and clients to her will.
Donesta Sangino is currently one of the most popular painters in the Land of the Mists. Despite the isolation that afflicts many domains, she is an uncannily well-known figure throughout Ravenloft. She is sought after by nobles, rich merchants, and powerful members of the clergy. Having one’s portrait painted by her is guaranteed to be worth the extravagant cost when balanced against the social capital to be gained from being noted as one of her patrons. Of course, none know the true price of sitting for Donesta Sangino’s cruel art.
Donesta Sangino’s Traits
Ideal. “I will rise up in the world by bleeding the wealthy and prestigious dry.”
Bond. “I only feel secure when surrounded by sycophants or those who are under my control.”
Flaw. “A return to poverty would be a fate worse than death. I willingly take great risks to grow my wealth and status.”
Donesta Sangino’s Powers
Donesta Sangino has the statblock of an enchanter, though her Charisma is 16 and she is proficient in the Deception and Persuasion skills. She also possesses the Displacement ability of an illusionist, which recharges whenever she casts a spell of 1st level or higher. Donesta can channel her magic into her paintings in the following ways:
Monster Creation. Donesta Sangino can create any monster by painting it for a number of uninterrupted days equal to the creature’s challenge rating. At the end of the final day, the creature springs forth from the canvas and obeys her will.
Painted Portals. When Donesta paints a landscape, she creates a mystical conduit through the Mists to that location. As an action, Donesta can touch a landscape painting of her creation and be instantly teleported to that area.
Soul-Stealing Portraits. If a humanoid has had their portrait painted by Donesta Sangino, they make saving throws against her spells with disadvantage as long as the portrait is in her possession.
Adventures with Donesta Sangino
Donesta Sangino deftly maneuvers the rich and powerful into her web like a cunning spider. As a renowned artist, Sangino finds herself in demand—it is considered a mark of power and prestige to have your portrait painted by Donesta or to have the essence of your estate or home captured in one of her famed landscape paintings. Consider the following plots when featuring Donesta in an adventure:
• A friend of the characters has had their portrait painted by the famed artist Donesta Sangino. They will be horrified to discover that their ally is now seemingly under Donesta’s thumb, lavishing her with extravagant gifts and throwing ostentatious parties in her honor.
• Artists on the brink of success are being killed by monsters who bleed oily pigment when wounded. Following the trail of death and destruction will lead back to Donesta Sangino, who is using her painted monstrosities to murder artists she considers potential rivals.
• After a previous run in with Donesta, the characters learn that she has painted their portraits from memory. They have a vested interest in stealing or destroying these portraits before Donesta Sangino can use them to exact revenge against the characters.
• Donesta has decided that one of the player characters is her latest muse. She will stop at nothing to kidnap the source of her inspiration.
• Donesta’s peculiar skills with magical painting could provide exactly the aid needed for the characters to take down a greater evil, but what horrific price would the artist want in trade for her services?
* * *
If you like this kind of content and you haven't check it out already, print copies of Strahd Loves, Man Kills are still available here. Only a handful of the first and second issues left, though!
Wednesday, December 8, 2021
Welcome to the Valley of Plenty! In these green and gentle pastures, Jack explains the plots of stories from the Witcher series to Kate, who feels like she already completed her tour of duty in this particular fantasyland. In this bite-sized episode, Jack explains what he's learned about the world portrayed in Andrzej Sapkowski's Time of Contempt, the second novel in the ongoing saga of Geralt of Rivia and his various adventures and... not-so-adventures.
Where do Witchers go for professional advice? What is terrible about going to a wizard party? What is a sound investment in this fantasy universe? All these questions will be answered in this episode of the podcast!
Sunday, December 5, 2021
If you're starting up a campaign set in Ravenloft, and a player wants to create a character native to the Domains of Dread, you can't very well expect them to read the entry in Van Richten's Guide for every domain before making their choice. There's just too much material to synthesize quickly, and let's be honest, your players aren't looking for homework before the game begins anyway.
To that end, I've made a quick cheat sheet to give the basic gist of every domain, which you can access here, if it might be useful to you. Each domain gets a brief description and a media example that, to my mind at least, captures its general vibe.
Wednesday, December 1, 2021
Things that brought me delight in November, 2021:
Pu Songling, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio
Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio is an 18th-century collection of Chinese folktales. Published after Pu Songling's death, the book features a hundred and one tales that range from a paragraph in length to ten pages or more, but most are a scant few pages in length. Here's what I've learned from Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio: fox-spirits will probably cause you a lot of trouble if you meet one (but they might also do you a good turn, so I guess you roll the dice on that), guys will immediately have sex with strange women who enter their chambers at night even if there is a good chance that they're ghosts, and Taoists are extremely weird, possess magic, and are often in need of a thorough scrubbing in the bath.
Fizban's Treasury of Dragons
It's interesting how infrequently dragons actually feature into a game called Dungeons & Dragons. Fizaban's Treasury of Dragons aims to fix that by presenting dragon-themed character widgets (such as variant dragonborn types, two draconic subclasses, and feats), lore about the role of dragons in the D&D universe, lair information, adventure seeds, random tables, and a bestiary filled with new types of dragons and dragon-adjacent foes such as draconians, dragonblood oozes, and eyedrakes. Fizban's Treasury is essential for anyone who wants to run a dragon-centric campaign, but for the rest of us there are probably enough bits and pieces here to make this worth considering.
Victoriana: Free RPG Day
Victoriana's premise is right up my alley: imagine Warhammer-style characters going on steampunk adventurers in the nineteenth century and you've got the gist. I've owned previous editions of the game (each edition has used a different system), but I've never been able to actually get it to the table. I'm curious to see if the new edition, which is based on 5e D&D's rules, will be the one to do the trick or if this attempt to capture a segment of D&D's audience is destined to crash and burn. If nothing else, I can play through this Free RPG Day adventure to get a taste.
Opera Diabolicus, 1614
This will inevitably read like gatekeeping, but I believe that if you aren't into at least one ridiculously over-the-top band like Opera Diabolicus, you aren't a real metal fan. Opera Diabolicus's Gothic theatrics will definitely appeal to fans of King Diamond, Powerwolf, and Ghost. More playful Therion fans might also get something out of the operatic flourishes and symphonic bombast. Also, there are many songs out there about Erzebet Bathory, but 1614's "Blood Countess Bathory" is one of the best.
Peter Fehervari, Requiem Infernal
Tenebrous Kate and I have much more to say about Peter Fehervari's Requiem Infernal on Bad Books for Bad People, but for now it will suffice to say that this book will appeal to anyone who won't mind a little Event Horizon or Uzumaki atmosphere popping up in their Space Nuns with Guns fiction. The Warhammer 40k books continue to be much better than they have any right to be; isn't tie-in game fiction contractually obligated to be awful? If so, we have a clear breach of contract with Requiem Infernal, which is an engaging sci-fi horror novel in its own right. It's also an incredibly strange novel; it's quite surprising, though commendable, that Games Workshop is willing to publish books like this that run contrary to their established "lore."
SLA Industries, 2nd Edition
SLA Industries is one of those long and storied rpg lines that I know almost nothing about it, save that it has a byzantine backstory and a cultishly devoted niche fanbaseBut now that there's a second edition, there's no better time to check it out, right? SLA Industries might fill the hole for me that cyberpunk games have generally failed to satisfy. It's essentially a game about "operatives" being sent on violent, cloak-and-dagger missions, but it has the added edge of positing an extremely weird and idiosyncratic vision of the dystopian future. (As opposed to cyberpunk visions of the future that already seem as quaint and wholesome as 1950s rocket ship fantasies compared to where we've ended up in real life.) The cyberpunk comparison seems apt, as SLA Industries has page after page of weapon porn.
Ad Infinitum, Chapter II: Legacy
As a marker of how long the pandemic has been going on, I picked up Ad Infinitum's first album near the start of it all and now I've gotten their second and the pandemic is still ongoing. Chapter II: Legacy is a concept album about Vlad the Impaler; couple that subject matter with Ad Infinitum's brand of symphonic metal and I'm absolutely sold on the entire package. Interesting to hear some deathcore or djent influences creeping in, but I don't mind them in the least.
Dark Heresy, the whole line, really
As I become more and more enraptured by the idea of running a Warhammer 40k rpg, I've begun to look into possible sources of inspiration. Although I'm most likely to run Wrath & Glory as my system of choice for this endeavor, the old Dark Heresy line has absolutely become my go-to trove of ideas. These books really did come out of a special zeitgeist in gaming history. Yeah, the rules in them aren't great (they're fiddly and favor failure in a way I don't like), but the combination of evocative art and textual deep dive made them an extremely attractive package at the time and an unimpeachable resource today.
The Veil is an anthology series from the 1950s hosted by Boris Karloff, who often plays at least a minor role in each episode. "Horror" probably isn't the right descriptor for The Veil; rather, it is a show that dramatizes "unexplained phenomena," such as prophetic visions, hauntings, and the like. Think of it as a quainter Time-Life Mysteries of the Unknown: slightly spooky, but ultimately pretty cozy. As a bonus, one episode is set in my beloved Gloucester, MA.
Terror Thirteen: A Horror RPG
Everyone has encountered their fair share of fantasy heartbreakers at this point, but horror heartbreakers are a little thin on the ground. Enter Terror Thirteen, an obvious labor of love. I have to admit, it was the homeliness of the cover that drew me in; it is an apex of the "my little brother drew this" style of rpg art. And yet, at first blush, the game itself seems like a pretty solid option for horror gaming. There's evidence that thought about what goes into creating different flavors of horror has had some effort put into it, even if Lovecraft is hanging out in the Victorian horror section for reasons that elude me. I bought this on a lark for an extremely low price, but it actually seems fairly playable. It's mostly a trad rpg, with 3d6 + stat + skill vs target number as the basic resolution mechanic, but there are some newer school elements like bonds that factor into the design as well. I need to do a deeper dive into this, but it is a charming artifact in any case.
Andrzej Sapkowski, Time of Contempt
As part of the ramping up of excitement for the next installment of Netflix's Witcher, I'm back on my Sapkowski bullshit with Time of Contempt, the novel that picks up where Blood of Elves left off. I'll have more to say about this novel when Valley of Plenty returns to Bad Books for Bad People, but this is a pretty interesting book in that it doesn't give Geralt much to do (except get dragged by a wizard) and it poses interesting questions about the futility of trying to maintain a stance of neutrality in a world rapidly going to hell.
Kendare Blake, Girl of Nightmares
Girl of Nightmares is the sequel to Kendare Blake's Anna Dressed in Blood and the conclusion of the duology. Cas, a ghost hunting teenager armed with a magic knife, becomes obsessed with venturing into hell to retrieve the formerly murderous ghost girl he fell in love with over the course of the first book. There's not much ghost slaying in this one, but there is a sinister-ish order of pseudo-druids and a forest full of suicide zombies. Also, I have to say, the ending of this book really did take me by surprise! It didn't go for the expected happy ending; the curveball was much appreciated.
Azzarello, Bermejo, Batman: Damned
In Damned, after the Joker is killed, Batman is left wondering if he is responsible for his arch-foe's death. True to character, Batman becomes obsessed with this question, which leads him into the depths of the DC Universe's supernatural underground. He meets several off-kilter versions of notable odd DC characters, such as a skinned Deadman, Etrigan as a rap god, and ranting, homeless Specter. The answers Batman seeks aren't easy, and the truth he finds might be worse than anything he's fought on the streets of Gotham. Damned has beautiful art throughout and a tense little story.
Kathleen Jennings, Flyaway
When a teenager trying her hardest to lead the most normal life possible discovers that the brothers she thought long-gone might be lingering near her rural Western Queensland home, she takes two former friends on a veritable odyssey in which the mythic history of small town life explodes into view. It's blood and magic all the way down, of course.
There's a blurb praising Flyaway from Kelly Link on the back of the cover, which makes a lot of sense; if you like Link's deft language and peculiar magic, it feels safe to say that you'll like Kathleen Jenning's as well. Flyaway contains an amazing amount of world for such a slim novel; even more impressive is how it is all woven together by the final pages.
Vlad Dracula Tarot
I was interested in this tarot deck when I first saw it being kickstarted, but at the time the money just wasn't right for it. Luckily, it seems to be quite a success story: I recently found out it had entered into wider distribution. Lovely art, but you have to wonder: is it even possible to get a truly positive outlook on the future when using something called Vlad Dracula Tarot?
Perilous Garden: The Art of Der Orchideengarten 1920 (16-24)
Time has a way of running away from you; I got a notification that the newest collection of art from Der Orchideengarten was on its way to me, which prompted me to remember that I hadn't yet looked at Perilous Garden. Perilous Garden is essentially more of the same: a collection of the fantastic art that accompanied the stories published in the German precursor to Weird Tales. Interesting historical tidbits also abound; for example, one issue of Der Orchideengarten eschewed the usual focus on macabre and fantastical tales to instead offer a plea for the return of prisoners at war still suffering in Russia and Siberia.
The Great, season two
Comedies are not usually something I get too excited for, but the over-the-top cruelty of the first season of The Great really appealed to me. The second season is just as mean. Catherine manages a coup, tries to keep Peter under house arrest, and has to navigate pregnancy, her vision for Russia, her feelings for her husband, and the pig-ignorant decadence of her court. And no one, including Catherine, is particularly likeable or "good." Deluded, yes. Good? No. Fantastic stuff; I hadn't laughed that much in a very long time.
Andrew McClean with Mike Spicer, Head Lopper & the Island or A Plague of Beasts
Michael of Metal Earth recommended Head Lopper to me, and since I can't remember him steering me wrong with a comic, I got a copy of the first volume while it was on a deep discount. He has still not led me wrong. There's a Mignola energy to the art and a Robert E. Howard energy to the storytelling, which is a pretty perfect pairing. There's bog wizards, giant wolves, blue-skinned witches, and a whole lot of decapitations. What more could you ask for? Head Lopper: it does what it says on the tin.
Bitter Blossoms: The Art of Der Orchideengarten 1921 (1-6)
Of course, there was no way this series could draw to a close on a positive note, given the nature of the history involved. Der Orchideengarten was one more casualty of the terrible times that led to World War II. It's all downhill here here, I suppose, and there is one more volume to come by my math. Art became more sparse in the 1921 volumes, but what is here is, of course, remarkable. One fun bit of synchronicity: one of the tales that gets an illustration is one of the Pu Songling stories that I read at the start of the month!
The release of the live-action Cowbow Bebop got me interesting in watching the cartoon version, which I had never seen before. I can see why it is regarded as a classic. It's got heart, it's not derivative of other media, doesn't rely on cameos and Easter eggs to keep your attention, has great action...basically, it's everything everyone lies and says that The Mandalorian is. No way I'm watching the live-action version though.
Tiamat and Warduke
I'm still in amazement that there is a line of D&D Funko Pops, particularly now that it has moved on to a couple cool characters I first encountered in the 80s cartoon and toy line. Tasha, when?