Sunday, February 27, 2022

On Stranger Tides

Episode 54: On Stranger Tides

Tim Powers’ 1987 novel On Stranger Tides weaves a swashbuckling adventure combining buccaneers, voodoo, and romance set in the golden age of piracy. But fear not, because reading the words “avast matey” just now in this description is the only piratical talk you’ll encounter. Join Jack and Kate as they hit the high seas and discuss this rip-roaring slice of speculative fiction.

Why have your hosts encountered so many puppeteer protagonists? How does this book deftly avoid the pitfalls of other occult thrillers? What is the worst kind of metal that exists? All these questions and more will be answered in this episode of the podcast.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Old Secret Societies Arise Anew

This post updates a few old secret societies and faction from previous versions of the Ravenloft setting for my home campaign. If you like this sort of thing, check out my Ravenloft zine, Strahd Loves, Man Kills.


The Ata-Bestaal is a lodge of monster hunters who track and slay the unnatural beasts that stalk the Land of the Mists. However, the Ata-Bestaal do not pit their lives against monstrosities because they are motivated by altruism or a higher calling. Rather, the members of the Ata-Bestaal revel in the hunt itself and the glory of primal bloodshed. Each member of the Ata-Bestaal longs to shed the trappings of civilization by becoming bestial and untamed by the laws of society. To the hunters of the Ata-Bestaal, embracing a philosophy of “might makes right” and an outlook that idealizes nature as “red of tooth and claw” offers a model of vital existence far superior to that of the civilized world’s stifling insistence upon propriety, restraint, and self-control.

Some members of the Ata-Bestaal pursue the goal of transcending the burdens of civilized life by engaging lycanthropes in hand-to-hand combat in hopes of both defeating worthy foes and acquiring their peculiar curse. Others seek the aid of mad scientists, such as Frantisek Markov and his ilk, who are willing to transform them into mongrelfolk. One group of Ata-Bestaal hunters have captured an enclave of scientists belonging to the Simic Combine who were brought through the Mists from Ravnica. The unfortunate Simic biomancers are being forced to graft bits and pieces of animal flesh onto the hunters’ bodies to alter them beyond their mundane origins.

Church of Hala

The Church of Hala is a mystical, nature-based faith practiced by self-proclaimed witches. The Church reveres Hala, a Witch Goddess who is believed to the last remaining member of a nine-god pantheon. Since witchery is generally associated with the malignancy of hags and the practice of black magic in the Land of the Mists, the witches of the Church of Hala often find themselves misunderstood, if not reviled outright. Even so, the witches of Hala operate a number of small hospices that offer healing to any who seek their aid. 

Lately, the witches of the Church of Hala have taken an interest in the land of Tepest. In particular, they plot to overthrow Lorinda and free the people of Viktal from the bloody burden of the Tithe.

Dark Delvers

The Dark Delvers are a group of spelunkers, cavers, and dungeon explorers who search deep beneath the earth for a primordial entity known as Hated Mother. The Dark Delvers believe that the Hated Mother is the source of the supernatural evil that pervades the Land of the Mists; their hope is that if the subterranean lair of the Hated Mother can be located, she can be killed and the land thereby restored to a forgotten state of purity. 

The Dark Delvers maintain fortresses and fastnesses throughout the mountain ranges of the Land of the Mists. Most of these structures predate the Dark Delvers adopting them as headquarters—they seemed to be waiting for the Delvers’ arrival, complete with inexplicable labyrinths winding down into the abyssal depths beneath them.

To keep knowledge of the Hated Mother from spreading among the uninitiated, the Dark Delvers have created their own secret language known as the Mother’s Tongue. The Dark Delvers use this invented language to safeguard their findings from prying eyes and to inscribe markers left behind in their underground explorations to guide fellow members of their secret society.

The Eternal Order

The mystics of the Eternal Order belong to a cult that venerates a patchwork pantheon of deities borrowed from other religions. All of the gods they venerate, such as Vecna, Myrkul, Jergal, Vol, and Nerull, are associated with death. Members of the Eternal Order believe that undeath represents a transcendence of mortal frailty and willingly serve powerful undead entities in hopes of learning necromantic rites, such as the rituals of lichdom, that would allow them to become undead creatures.

Fraternity of Shadows

The Fraternity of Shadows is a secret society of wizards who operate throughout the Land of the Mists. Contrary to the name of their organization, the Fraternity admits both men and women into their ranks, though this was not always the case. Members of the Fraternity of Shadows recognize each other by the silver rings, fashioned in the shape of two intertwining asps, worn by those who have been admitted into the cabal. 

Although the wizards of the Fraternity seek to master many kinds of magic, they have an especial interest in illusions. Their study of the illusionist’s art has led them to the realization that the Land of the Mists is itself a construct, an unreal nightmare where fiction has been given a strange half-life in order to torment the Darklords trapped therein. The wizards of the Fraternity of Shadows hope to learn enough about the land’s true nature to wrest control of it from the Dark Powers.


The Ildi’Thaan present themselves as a society of like-minded individuals who share an interest in unlocking the potential of their minds. In particular, they seek to awaken and sharpen their psionic powers. As members of the Ildi’Thaan progress toward harnessing their psionic power, they find themselves visited by terrifying nightmares. These dreams are initially surreal and phantasmagorical in tone, but as they become more intense they impart an underlying urge—each member of the Ildi’Thaan finds themselves called to the strange land of Bluetspur, where the mind flayers promise to reveal untold secrets of the psionic arts in return for aid in discovering lost tomes of ancient prophecy known as the Thirteen Texts of Thaan.

Viktra’s Children 

Viktra Mordenheim tends to either destroy or cast out any experimental constructs who do not meet her exacting expectations—a common enough occurrence, since none of her creations have managed to equal or surpass her beloved Elise. Although most of her surviving creations wander away into the wastes of Lamordia to live as solitary brutes, some eventually awaken to new or forgotten intelligence and become reasoning beings all too aware that their creator has abandoned them as unfit and unworthy. 

A few of the sentient and intelligent constructs that Viktra has crafted have banded together into a coterie obsessed with their creator’s work. Naming themselves Viktra’s Children, these constructs work in concert to discover the processes of animation for themselves so that they might reproduce their kind through scientific means.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

The Legend of Vox Machina Review


If you had told me back in 1993 that Dungeons & Dragons would one day be popular enough again that a huge corporation would make a cartoon based on somebody's home game, I wouldn't have believed you. And yet, here we are, it's 2022 and Amazon produced a cartoon series based on Critical Role's first campaign. It's mind-blowing to me that The Legend of Vox Machina exists. But is it any good? Well, I've finished the first season and I have some thoughts on it.

The Good

Overall, yeah, I'd say it's pretty fun. The animation is generally well done, the voice acting is great (it should be since the cast are professional voice actors by trade), and it has some pretty memorable sequences and story beats. In particular, I thought there were some great fight scenes, especially where the undead were involved. The undead look really good throughout The Legend of Vox Machina. If you have good, creepy undead you've already managed to go a long way toward selling me on your project. But I digress.

As someone who doesn't tune in every week to watch Critical Role, I really had no idea what this arc would be about. I know very little about the campaign that catapulted them into the livestream spotlight. Being unfamiliar with the arc allows for nice moments of surprise; for example, I was absolutely delighted by the villains of this season. The Briarwoods are so arrogant, imperious, and nefarious that I'm genuinely a little jealous that I didn't invent them first. Also, it's wild to me to see a big-budget cartoon featuring Vecna. Okay, they have to call him "the Whispered One" for legal reasons, but it's still damn cool.

The Surprising

It's interesting that the Crit Role folks decided to go full-on adult content with this series. I saw somebody complain about the swearing in the first episode; if they stuck around, I'm sure they got an eyeful of stuff they weren't anticipating. It's got plenty of bloody violence and some viscerally gross bits that I enjoyed. It's got depictions of torture and execution that are actually a little harrowing. It's got tits, cunnilingus, and anal beads. It really doesn't hold back in that regard. Caveat emptor.

The Critique

I know the character is beloved and everything, but the bard's musical interludes are the kind of thing that make me grind my teeth. The "theater kid" energy coming off those scenes is palpable. It's a relief when they end. This stuff is not for me, but I can definitely imagine that it will appeal to others. After all, people like Hamilton and go to see Welcome to Night Vale live of their own volition. 

Also, although this is a common element of modern animated series, I still find the combination of traditional animation and CG graphics to be a bit distracting at points. It's not a deal breaker, but even with all the money behind it I can't help but think that the pairing can look a little cheap.

There are also some artifacts of translating a D&D game to the screen that become narrative problems in the series. For one, it feels like there are too many characters in the main cast. Crit Role plays at a big table, but as the protagonists of a story the large cast feels crowded. Some characters (the gunslinger, the twins, the druid) get more narrative weight, but that makes some of the other characters (the barbarian, the cleric) feel unimportant enough that it's not clear on a narrative level that they really even need to be there. At one point, the barbarian got knocked out and it wasn't until he got up later that I even remembered he was in the cartoon.

The concessions to the players made during a game also make the story an odd fit to a cartoon series. For example, one of the players in the campaign couldn't make all the sessions due to filming a tv show, so her character wasn't present for all the action. The show tries to shore that up by having her character experience a crisis of faith that entails her taking a solo trip to get her mojo back. That's a good enough rationale for a home game, but as an element of the show it just feels like a fairly pointless side trip that's afforded little gravitas. 

Overall, though, even with my caveats the show is fun. It's a good time and a decent piece of fantasy media. If you aren't scared of animated breasts and can stomach the occasional musical number, give it a shot.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

The Tower of the Swallow


Valley of Plenty 6: The Tower of the Swallow

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 The Tower of the Swallow, the fourth novel in the ongoing saga of Geralt of Rivia and his various adventures and... not-so-adventures.

Who gets a really trashy tattoo? What's that vampire guy named Regis up to this time around? And how do winter sports come into the picture?

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Strahd Loves, Man Kills: A Review, a Ransom, and the ZC MAG

Strahd Loves, Man Kills #3 got a very nice review over at Halls of the Nephilm. There are still copies available for purchase here, but they've been going pretty fast, so maybe don't wait too long, you know?

To sweeten the deal, what if I told you that the previous issues were now available as free pdfs? Strahd Loves, Man Kills #1 is available here and Strahd Loves, Man Kills #2 is available here. If you like what you see in those issues, you'll love Strahd Loves, Man Kills #3.

Strahd Loves, Man Kills #3 will also be made available as a free pdf when its print run sells out. It's honestly pretty close to selling out right now. This is a ransom model: every print purchase helps move the issue toward being part of the community's treasury.

Speaking of free zines, a print at home version of Dirge of Urazya has been added to the holdings over at the Zine Crisis Mutual Assistance Group's print at home library. Check it out and check out all the other great zines available at this amazing resource.

Sunday, February 6, 2022

My Experience Running Blades in the Dark

I've played a good bit of Blades in the Dark, starting back when it was just the pre-release documents that were polished into the final game, but until recently I hadn't actually run it. For a long time, the game felt daunting, but I realized the other day I probably understood enough of it to make an honest attempt, so I put the call out on my Discord, got three players roped in, and went for it. You can read the write up for the first half of the session here and the second half here. Below are my thoughts on running the game and introducing it to a group of players who hadn't played before.

The Good

Blades in the Dark is a game that you can get going pretty quickly, even if a group has no prior experience with it. The playbooks are admittedly busy looking on a visual level, but you can make characters speedily by just focusing on the stuff that will come up in play. I had them pick backgrounds, vices, a special ability, and assign their "skill points," which was more than enough to start playing with. Frankly, we could have skipped backgrounds and left vices for the wrap up of the session. 

Everything else on the playbooks got worked out when we needed it. They picked friends and enemies during the "gathering information" part of the pre-heist action, for example. The core mechanic--roll dice equal to your dots, pick the single highest die to determine your result--is easy to explain and immediately graspable. Other mechanics, such as resistance rolls or the engagement roll, were easy enough to explain when they came up.

Blades in the Dark's specialized mechanics for emulating heists and other crime-related activity, such as taking stress to push yourself for more dice, Devil's bargains, and flashbacks, really go a long way toward pushing the genre as an integral part of play. As above, these mechanics were easy enough to bring into the game when the opportunity presented itself. 

One rule that my players especially seemed to like concerned loadout. In Blades, you start off a mission by deciding whether you're taking a light, average, or heavy load of equipment and gear with you. You don't have to pick exactly which items are in your loadout. You can check the items off on your playbook, asserting that you brought it with you, as play progresses. This is such a great way to do things, especially for the genre. Sure beats turning the game into "guess what would be useful ahead of time" or a minigame of managing your inventory like an accountant.

The session was also extremely easy to prep: I used a very basic premise, "there's these weird sisters who have a magical meteorite, and you've got to steal it," made a couple of notes about rooms in their house and the possible encounters therein, and left everything else up to improvisation. The brief details for the Dimmer Sisters and their allies Roslyn and Irelen were enough to slot into my idea for a heist without much work; there's a lot of utility in the book's brief setting descriptions. In a long-running game, you'd want to invent some of your own content, but there's more than enough in the book to play with for quite some time. 

Divergences of Style and Preference

It's important to note that I probably ran this session in a way that is not necessarily the intended play style. If the example of play in the Blades in the Dark book is anything to go by, and it should be since it is the example of play, the game is meant to be played in a more mechanistic, detached way. There's not a ton of talking in character, but there is a lot of discussion of what will be rolled. Similarly, I've found that livestreams with John Harper, the game's author, running the game feel more removed from the roles and setting than I'm used to. 

I suppose this is what people mean by "storygaming," as the focus is more on the wider scope of the narrative than the immediacy of the characters, but as a critique even that feels like it misses the mark for me as a way of describing the style. For a "fiction-first" game, as Blades proclaims to be, it often feels like more attention is paid toward filling in clocks and other mechanical elements rather than the drama of being part of a criminal enterprise.

I ran things differently. The back and forth of setting scenes by describing the environment and letting the players' decisions guide what happens wasn't that different from how I run D&D. I also kept some of the stuff going on mechanically entirely behind the scenes. I used progress clocks, but I kept them to myself instead of making them part of the "play space." I can see the benefit of sharing access to the progress clocks, but I didn't want the mechanics to be the focus. The play is the thing, in my opinion. Folk on the Blades in the Dark reddit will tell you this is absolutely the wrong way to play, but it worked for me without any issues.

Additionally, it felt more organic in that the players had to determine the magnitude of the threats and tasks in front of their characters by probing the fiction, instead of looking at the mechanical doodads. 

A Few Critiques

Although the basic mechanics are easy to grasp on the player side, the intricacies of position and effect are not immediately easy to implement on the GM side of the table. I'm sure the "handling time" of position and effect would become easier with practice, but because those tools are meant to be loose and able to accommodate a wide range of situations in play, they can feel vague and a little shapeless in terms of concrete rules advice.

Also, I think that Blades sometimes feels a little more like a toolkit for a game than than a laser-focused game in its own right. It gives you a lot of tools, but you can't (and shouldn't try to) use them all in one session. There is enough going on with actions, resistance rolls, engagement rolls, flashbacks, taking stress, resisting harm, Devil's bargains, etc. that it can feel like juggling chainsaws. (I definitely messed up a few instances of resisting harm in the swing of things, for example.) I tried to work in as much of the mechanical options as I could to give the players a sense of what the game is about, but there were still mechanics we didn't touch, such as assisted actions, project clocks, leading an action, etc. 

The mechanics are pretty intricately tied together, but avoiding a few of them won't make the game fall apart. In addition, the end of session rules for indulging in vices, healing harm, gaining heat as your gang's activities affect the criminal underworld, etc. are all very cool, but keep in mind that they also bulk up the amount of rules that need to be checked and mechanics that need to be referenced. Again, I'm sure it becomes smooth with practice, but there are a lot of moving pieces to negotiate that definitely do not fit the "universal mechanic" way of doing things, if that matters to you.

In Closing

I really do think Blades in the Dark is a great game. I had a blast and I'm pretty sure my players had fun too. I own too many games that have a premise I enjoy, but the idea of introducing them at the table just doesn't appeal to me. Not so with Blades. I would definitely run this again.

Thursday, February 3, 2022

The Only Good Indians, In Nomine Sanguinis, Gwen, in Green, and More

Things that brought me delight in January, 2022:

Stephen Graham Jones, The Only Good Indians

I'm surprised I enjoyed a horror novel where the climax involves a one-on-one basketball game with a supernatural creature this much. The Only Good Indians is about four Native American men struggling to make something of themselves and struggling to find a way to fit into the world encompassing them. But more than anything, they are four men navigating the nebulous line between tradition and modernity, a conflict that comes into sharp relief when they find themselves stalked by the memory of an ill-fated hunting expedition in forbidden territory. Excellent stuff that hits many moods; the novel has moments of jaw-dropping violence, but it's also funny and heart-wrenching in equal measure.

Theatres des Vampires, In Nomine Sanguinis

Once a black metal band more in the vein of Cradle of Filth, Theatres des Vampires have evolved into a Gothic symphonic metal band with a heavy emphasis on seductive horror. But the darkness and evil doesn't preclude well-placed pop sensibilities and electronic elements on In Nomine Sanguinis. And yet, the band can still throw down when need; see the track "Lady Bathory," for example. This record could make an excellent bridge for goth fans who'd like to explore more extreme music. There are songs on In Nomine Sanguinis that would hit just right either on a goth club dance floor or a metal festival.

Hugh Zachary, Gwen, in Green

Gwen, in Green is a 1974 horror novel that has been brought back into print by the Paperbacks From Hell Imprint of Valancourt Books. Gwen and George seem to have it all: enough money to live in relative leisure, a private island home, and a steady romantic connection with each other. That all changes when Gwen encounters something on their property that changes her from a moderately frigid housewife into a temptress who is both horny and murder-y. A ripping little read; I suspect it would be hard to get more than a few days of reading out of this novel because it scoots along and keeps you thumbing the pages. One thing I noted about the writing is the way the sex scenes aren't particularly "sexy," but Gwen's feelings of dirtiness and shame when the sex is over are depicted in a truly delicious way.

Katsura Hoshino, D.Gray-Man

Having caught up with Black Butler, I wanted another manga set in the 19th century with Gothic-adjacent themes, so I settled on starting Katsura Hoshino's D.Gray-Man from the beginning. D.Gray-Man definitely has less historical research flowing into it; the focus is much more on action and adventure.

In D.Gray-Man, demons are being created from people consumed by sorrow at the hands of a strange being known as the Millennium Earl. Opposing the Earl is the Black Order, a group of exorcists who hope to collect a strange substance known as "innocence" before the Earl's minions can get to it. The art in D.Gray-Man is sometimes difficult to follow as a visual narrative, but so far I'm enjoying the ride.

Unto Others, Strength

Many bands have attempted to become a "heavier Sisters of Mercy." Arguably, even the Sisters tried to become a heavier Sisters of Mercy, to decidedly mixed results. Unto Others are the most successful to enter that arena to date. There is a certain sense of style, a certain urban effortlessness, that permeates the tracks on Strength; the mix of heavy guitars, percussion, and world-weary vocals is just about perfect. All this, plus a cover of Pat Benatar's "Hell is For Children"? We're living in a great moment for goth-metal crossover.

The Veiled Picture; or, The Mysteries of Gorgono

The Veiled Picture is an edit of Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho that was first published as a chapbook in the early 19th century. The Veiled Picture cuts the sprawling majesty of Radcliffe's novel down to a breathless, breakneck-paced read. The increased velocity of the piece results in some curious artifacts, such as what would be long stretches of uncertainty or perilous dread in Radcliffe's text being reduced to mere fleeting moments, but overall it somehow manages to preserve the skeleton of Udolpho's plot, against all odds. The book is certainly a curiosity, but it makes for oddly compelling reading. If you don't have the stamina for The Mysteries of Udolpho, this honestly isn't a poor alternative. 

The Shadows of Esteren

There was a point where I wasn't really sure that I would actually get the stuff I pledged for in the last Shadows of Esteren kickstarter, but wonder of wonders, it finally showed up! And there's a lot more stuff here than I even remembered pledging for.

Shadows of Esteren is a dark fantasy rpg inspired by Celtic cultures and the Gothic. In my opinion, it's got the best art of any modern rpg I can think of. The lore is just deep enough and the system just different enough, that I'm not sure I'll actually ever find a group willing to give it a whirl, but for now I'll just marvel at the beauty of it all. 

Cultes des Ghoules, Haxan

Grimy and grim, Haxan exudes a thick miasma of primal, charnel menace. Compared to Cultes des Ghoules' later efforts, particularly Henbane and Coven, Haxan lacks the surprising macabre flourishes, preparing instead to carve away flesh and bone with a direct and unrelenting approach. Haxan creeps along, for the most part, until it bursts into a frantic, runaway train pace. Guttural, but you have to appreciate the roots.

Dracula A.D. 1972

Dracula A.D. 1972 isn't the best of the Hammer Dracula films, but it does have its charms. Although the movie squanders the premise of Dracula's culture shock at and/or adaptation to the groovy scene of 1970s London, there's some decent cult-related shenanigans and, of course, some beautiful and imperiled women falling into the Count's clutches. And really, any movie with both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing is worth a watch.

Swallow the Sun, Moonflowers

Swallow the Sun have gone for magisterial on Moonflowers, an album that feels impossibly dense and commanding. The band aren't strangers to epic slabs of death doom, but this record shows incredibly attention to finesse and restraint. The devil is in the details, and the grooves run deep. The vibe is generally grim and a bit occult, but they also aren't afraid to let the hammer fall and remind you that they are, in fact, a metal band. If you can, pick up the two disc version of Moonflowers; the second disc of orchestral variations is absolutely worth it.

Andrzej Sapkowski, The Tower of the Swallow

The first novel I finished in the New Year was the penultimate novel in the Andrzej Sapkowski's Witcher SagaThe Tower of the Swallow is not much of a Geralt-centric book at all; this really is a novel focused on Ciri's travails, although both Geralt and Yennefer do get at least a nod in the subplots. I'll have more to say about this one in an upcoming episode of Valley of Plenty on the Bad Books for Bad People podcast, but for now it will suffice to say that the series' unique combination of dark, war-torn fantasy and extremely silly elements continues to floor me with how brazen and idiosyncratic it is. I genuinely wish more of the dumb elements made it into the Netflix series.

Darkthrone, Eternal Hails, Old Star, Arctic Thunder

It's me, I am the fair-weather Darkthrone fan that your TR00 KVLT friends warned you about. I love the band's early black metal albums; I mean, what fan of extreme music doesn't have a soft spot for those?. But...I have to admit I dropped off the bandwagon when Darkthrone went into their crust punk-inspired phase. It's only recently that I've been delving into their more recent return to what I consider darker metal territory. This is the good shit, if you ask me. Even if Arctic Thunder sounds like the name of a store-brand Mountain Dew.

Eve Harms, The Secret Name

The Secret Name is a novella about a young woman who takes a job cataloging the strangely expansive library of a rich, but odd, filmmaker. The story is told in blog post format, which I don't love, generally speaking; somehow it never works for me in the ways that a traditional epistolary tale does. Things start off mundane, but it is quickly apparent that something terrible is happening in the director's house involving his "secret wife." Things come to a head quite quickly! This is a fast, fun read. I finished it in about an hour, but I'm still thinking about demons and jinn days later.

Powerwolf, Blood of Saints

Blood of Saints is absolutely a "Krevborna album." In particularly, it feels extremely well suited to Chancel since the opening track, "Agnus Dei," flows directly into a song called "We Drink Your Blood." Absolutely over-the-top Gothic-inflected power metal with symphonic and choir elements. Amazing stuff. I digested Powerwolf's other albums not that long ago, but this one was hard to come by at the time. Nice to see a timely reissue. 

Matthew Mercer, Hannah Rose, and James J. Haeck, Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting Reborn

I bought this book mostly out of curiosity; I had read the previous version, which I reviewed here, and truth be told this version is mostly the same, but with some updates and expansions. If you liked the previous book, or want a solid baseline vanilla fantasy D&D setting, you'll probably like Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting Reborn. Personally, I found myself paying the most attention to the design of the book itself, which rides a line between standard WotC and Paizo levels of presentation and art. One innovation: the setting map is tucked into a little pocket instead of being glued in at the back--so much better!