Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Demon Lord vs. DnD: Classes and Paths


I had big hopes and dreams for doing a series of comparative posts contrasting 5e D&D and Shadow of the Demon Lord. Last year I managed to write two of those posts: one on the games' basic mechanics and one on D&D's "races" vs. SotDL's "ancestries." Unfortunately, the series petered out for one reason or another. Since this incomplete series has felt like it's been hanging over my head, it's time to get back into the thick of things. In this installment, I'll be talking about the differences, similarities, and quirks of D&D's classes vs. SotDL's paths.

D&D's classes are so iconic at this point that they hardly need introduction; classes such as fighter, paladin, cleric, and wizard are part of the lingua franca of fantasy rpgs at this point, defining the character archetypes expected to be available to players. Each class comes pre-packaged with its own fictional conventions. For example, if you're thinking of playing a strong warrior who relies on heavy armor and a shield for protection, you pick fighter or paladin. If you want a more agile combatant, you probably opt to make a rogue or monk instead.

The wrinkle that 5e introduced to D&D's class structure is the notion of picking a subclass. At first, second, or third level (depending on the class in question), you pick a subclass that tailors the "generic" class toward a more focused or specific archetype. For example, a rogue might be an assassin, a thief, a swashbuckler, or a scout. This choice adds different abilities and skews the character toward a particular style of play. If you pick scout as your rogue subclass, expect to use your nature skills; if you pick swashbuckler, you're likely to take more of a social role and engage in melee duels where possible. 

Subclasses provide a nice bit of differentiation between characters of the same class and expand the available options. They're necessary, as 5e has been quite reluctant to introduce new base classes. (The only new class to appear outside of the Player's Handbook is the artificer introduced in the 5e Eberron book.) A good subclass can make a class that was previously unappealing seem interesting and worth a try. That said, not all subclasses are created equal in 5e. Without house rules, the Way of the Four Elements monk subclass is notoriously disappointing, and the pre-errata Beast Master ranger in the PHB doesn't really satisfy the fantasy of having a powerful animal pet. 

Additionally, it's a shame that many of the subclasses are held off until you reach third level; this can lend the feeling of not really getting to play the character you want for the first few levels. On the other hand, the first two levels in 5e D&D go by fairly quickly, often in about three sessions, so it might not be too arduous of a wait. Nevertheless, it does feel strange that some characters get their subclasses earlier than others.

In contrast to D&D's classes, SotDL has paths. Paths are divided into three tiers: novice, expert, and master. These are somewhat analogous to 4e's heroic, paragon, and epic tiers, though they are much less "high-powered fantasy" in execution. Characters obtain a novice path when the party reaches first level. Novice paths represent broad fantasy archetypes: magician, priest, rogue, and warrior. Each defines a basic direction for your character. Warriors specialize in fighting, magicians excel at magic, and priests split the difference between them (and have a slight emphasis on providing bonuses to others). Rogues are like a very small salad bar; you can choose abilities from their available options to make the classic "thief," but you can also grab a little magic or other specialties to stray from D&D's vision of the fantasy scoundrel. The novice path you choose at first level provides additional abilities at levels two, five, and eight.

Expert paths function a bit like 5e's subclasses. You pick an expert path when your party reaches third level to further specialize and tailor your character's abilities. You might pick an expert path that builds on the abilities you already have, such as picking the fighter expert path to emphasize your warrior's martial prowess, or you might pick an expert path that gives you access to a totally different suite of abilities, such as picking the sorcerer path to add some magic to your warrior. Your expert path provides additional abilities at levels six and nine.

When your party reaches seventh level, you pick a master path for your character. Master paths are essentially "capstones," providing one final piece of differentiation for your character. As with expert paths, you have free rein to pick whatever master path appeals to you. You might top off your fire-wielding magician by picking the pyromancer master path or polishing off your archery-focused rogue by picking the sharpshooter master path. Your master path provides additional abilities at tenth level--the final level in SotDL's progression.

D&D has a potential issue in that there are no meaningful choices to make about your character's growth once you've picked your subclass; after that, your character's mechanical development is more or less set in stone. SotDL solves that issue by allowing players to shape their character over the course of their growth at steady intervals. Since there are no restrictions on which expert or master paths you can pick, you aren't bound by a sense of linear progression. There are hundreds of expert and master paths scattered throughout SotDL's supplements, so the amount of personalization and variation you can achieve is astounding. 

However, some combinations of paths are more likely to see play than others. There probably isn't much cause to pick warrior, oracle, and illusionist as your novice, expert, and master paths, since the abilities from those paths don't have much synergy and it's hard to imagine what that character is all about from a roleplaying perspective.

Additionally, although SotDL adds a ton of options through its path system, it may still suffer from one issue that 5e also shares: you may have to wait for quite some time to feel like your character is really fulfilling the archetype you have in mind. It's entirely possible to make a character with a background in entertainment who focuses on song magic, but if you want to play a "bard" and will not be satisfied until it says "bard" on your character sheet, you're going to have to wait until seventh level because bard is a master path in SotDL. Similarly, if you want a "beastmaster" ranger, you're going to need to bide your time until the master path for that becomes available. That's an even longer wait than what D&D's subclass system makes you endure; seventh level is basically the start of SotDL's endgame tier--the beginning of the end, so to speak.

Of course, one thing that has to be addressed is the question of balance. It's here that an interesting difference in culture between fans of the two games is evident. Hardcore D&D fans on the internet seem to constantly moan about how some classes are "overpowered" and others are so underpowered that they are "broken." I generally think these concerns are overblown (most casual D&D fans don't even notice any power disparity between the classes in my experience), but there are issues that can come up in play. The paladin class, for example, does just seem to be better designed to fulfill its role than the ranger class does, for example. That doesn't make rangers unplayable, but it does feel like an area of 5e that didn't come out of the oven fully baked.

Some online SotDL fans, on the other hand, are more insistent that the paths are all exquisitely balanced, but I don't think that's entirely accurate either. In the novice paths, for example, there is a strange quirk at first level where rogues feel like they're better in combat than warriors. Warriors can take a negligibly higher amount of damage and get a bonus to their weapon attacks, but rogues get a bonus to their attacks and a bonus to their damage. The rogue's bonus can also apply to most rolls you'd want to make, not just attacks. It's hard not to feel like the rogue is just an immediately superior choice.

Also, it's odd that magician is the only novice path that doesn't ever get a boon to use for its core shtick: casting spells. This means that rogues and priests can potentially feel like more proficient spellcasters than the class that supposedly focuses on that ability. Again, the rogue rears its "pick me!" head: the rogue's ability to get a boon to attacks can apply to spell attacks and their bonus to damage can apply to spells--the latter another thing that neither the magician or priest get. Although the magician may get access to more magic than the rogue, the rogue's combo of bonus to spell attack rolls and spell attack damage sometimes makes them feel like the superior spellcaster in a lot of situations.

Balance issues are potentially exacerbated by expert and master paths that can vary wildly in power level. Remember, there are literally hundreds of them; it beggars belief to think that they have all been exactingly balanced against each other. It's hard to really say that paths that grant abilities to instantly slay a foe if the conditions are right, such as assassin, or the straight-up buffs that fighters get are equivalent to the bonus to nature skills and the ability to teleport between trees that the druid gets. 

Again, this doesn't mean that some paths are "traps" or that others are godlike in power, but it does mean that not every path is the equal of its peers. The disparity only becomes more apparent when you look at the expert and master paths from the less well-vetted supplements that followed after the core book, some of which have absolutely mind-bogglingly more powerful abilities when compared to the initial paths in the core rulebook. This also happens with some of the variant novice paths that have been written for the game; as an example, whenever the spellguard path comes up in conversations on the SotDL Discord...well, get ready for a lot of bitching about it. To be honest, "power creep" is an issue. 

The insistence that SotDL's paths are finely tuned things of beauty contrasts badly against the amount of conversation in SotDL spaces about "builds" and optimization. Ironically, this is the sort of thing that SotDL fans often accuse D&D fans of being obsessed with, but it's not at all uncommon among SotDL fans in my experience. Here's an example from the SotDL reddit:

Power gamers and minmaxers, like the poor, will always be among us. I think Jesus said that.

It's widely accepted that 5e D&D has balance issues in the higher levels; even if the "martial classes" are consistently capable, they're outpaced by the miraculous things that spellcasters can eventually do. There is some validity to that complaint, but I think it's both overstated in some ways and also highly dependent on the people you're playing with in others. 

Instead of addressing that issue, SotDL merely reverses its polarity. It's noticeable that SotDL's "martial paths" tend to deal more damage with their weapon attacks than its spellcasters do with their magic. Low-level damage-dealing cantrips feel like a poor choice, since they are a limited resource (no all-day cantrips here) that deliver damage on par, if not inferior to, basic weapon attacks. Even taking into account access to "area of effect" spells (which have their benefits mitigated by the fact that's better to deal a killing blow to one foe than it is to damage multiple foes due to the vagaries of the action economy), spells just aren't on par in a game that is, like the D&D chassis it's built upon, focused on combat. The end result in SotDL feels like an over-correction to D&D's fetish for magic This issue is only more pronounced when the characters face higher difficulty monsters, which tend to halve damage taken from spells.

One thing I do tend to like about SotDL's paths is how condensed they are in terms of information and the delivery of mechanics. As an example, consider the D&D paladin's Lay on Hands ability (on the left below) versus the SotDL paladin's Faith Healing ability (on the right below). They have the same intent, but the SotDL version is much terser and less "fatty" in terms of verbiage:

Since SotDL's paths only need to account for ten levels of play, versus D&D's twenty levels of character progression, there is far less cruft or "ribbon" abilities that are there for flavor. SotDL characters feel lean and mean; they have interesting abilities, but at no point does your sheet feel like it has too much stuff to keep track of on it. In comparison, a 5e character sheet often feels littered with things you've never used and probably never will. That said, their paired-down suite of abilities can sometimes make SotDL characters feel a little incomplete. Because abilities are tersely defined, parceled out according to a strict path progression, and few in number, sometimes there isn't room in a character's lifespan to get an ability that feels like it should be a natural feature of your character. 

Sunday, April 24, 2022

The Viscount

The Viscount

An NPC from my Ravenloft campaign

Elleri Ban’Ethyn, more commonly called the Viscount because of his gallant manners and eloquent mode of speech, is a drow gunslinger with a fearsome reputation. Originally hailing from Faerûn, Elleri was once an enforcer employed by a crime syndicate in Waterdeep. The mastermind at the head of the syndicate used Elleri and his deadly skill with firearms to eliminate her rivals one-by-one, until the survivors were forced to band together to end her reign of terror. As his boss lay bleeding to death, Elleri tried to flee the city by night, but his flight plunged him into the midst of a disorienting fog that transported him into the Domains of Dread.

Elleri has attempted to atone for his misdeeds by living the peaceful life of a wandering gambler in this accursed land, but his reputation always uncannily precedes him in the form of a mysterious woman in black who tells tall tales of his matchless aim and his past as a remorseless hired gun. These tales cause many to give the fabled Viscount a wide berth, while others treat him with contempt as they have already judged him to be a cold-blooded killer. Few look upon the Viscount as a friend.

The stories told about Elleri also draw unwanted bravos into his orbit. These fellow gunfighters seek a duel against the Viscount to test their skill against his under the glare of the sun at high noon. Thus far, Elleri has emerged the victor from each challenge, but the death of every gunfighter he sends to the grave weighs heavily upon his already burdened soul.

The Viscount’s Traits

Ideal. “I want to die having made peace with who I was and what I did in Waterdeep.”

Bond. “I must discover the identity of the woman in black who tells tales of my crimes and deadly deeds.”

Flaw. “Although I try to atone for my bloodthirsty ways, I still take pleasure in felling a foe with a well-placed shot.”

Adventures with The Viscount

The Viscount has the statblock of a drow gunslinger. As long as Elleri wears his trademark pair of violet spectacles, he does not suffer from the Sunlight Sensitivity trait. Consider the following plots when featuring Elleri in an adventure:

  • Angry townsfolk believe that Elleri is responsible for the murder of a beloved citizen. The characters know him to be innocent of the crime, but will they be able to apprehend the guilty party and clear Elleri’s name before he’s forced to shoot his way out of a difficult situation?
  • The Viscount has mistaken the characters for a group of assassins sent to take revenge on him over the outcome of a previous duel.
  • Elleri has devised a method of creating bullets that detonate with the force and effect of a fireball spell, but he needs help obtaining the ingredients needed to make his incendiary dreams a reality.
  • Tired of chasing the woman in black, the Viscount needs aid concocting a scheme that will bring the mysterious woman after him instead.

Sunday, April 17, 2022


Below is my take on the Ravenloft domain of Souragne done up in the 5e D&D style. My approach here was to combine the "Louisana voodoo" vibe of the domain's original presentation with the carceral-focused vignette in Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft. If you like this sort of thing, check out Strahd Loves, Man Kills issue four. Just as a heads up, I'm down to two copies of the new issue, so don't wait too long if you want a copy. Or pick up a back issue while you can. Issue two is sold out again, and there's only five issue left of the reprint of the first issue.


Domain of Carceral Horror

Darklord: Anton Misroi

Genres: Folk horror and Gothic horror

Hallmarks: Imprisonment, swamp magic, class divisions

Mist Talismans: Gris-gris bag filled with swamp herbs, nail-studded cross, cloth doll stuck through with pins

The island of Souragne is a humid, insect-infested domain largely comprised of swamps and fetid bayous, with a few grand plantations dominating the scarce arable land. The dreaded Detresse Prison sits at the outskirts of civilization in Souragne. 

The ground in Souragne is perpetually sodden. The deceased are buried in above-ground crypts rather than interred in the waterlogged earth. Even then, coffins are wrapped in chains prior to entombment—a local superstitious custom undertaken to prevent the dead from returning as ravening zombies. 

The aristocratic plantation owners of Souragne tend to belong to the Church of Ezra. Commoners, especially plantation laborers, follow an animistic, druidic faith that venerates the spirits of the swamp. Chief among the nature spirits they placate are the feared Baron of the Dead and the protective Maiden of the Swamp. The faithful of this folk religion dance themselves into ecstatic trances to the sounds of wild drums. In this deranged state, they are sometimes possessed by the nature spirits they serve.

Noteworthy Features

Those familiar with Souragne know the following facts:

    • Souragne is a land of swamps and bayous. 

    • Most of the populace live in the city of Port d’Elhour or on one of the plantations surrounding Marais d’Tarascon.

    • Detresse Prison incarcerates the island’s most dangerous criminals. It is said to be inescapable.

    • Souragne’s commoners worship nature spirits who dwell within the land’s mysterious swamps.

Souragnien Characters

Souragnien society is deeply divided between the lower class of plantation laborers and fishers and the hereditary, land-owning aristocracy. When players create characters from Souragne, consider asking them the following questions.

Who do you know in Detresse Prison? Everyone in Souragne knows someone who was sentenced to incarceration in Detresse Prison.

Which faith do you belong to? Although the Souragniens are spiritually divided along class lines, commoners sometimes give lip service to their masters’ faith in Ezra while continuing to venerate the spirits of the swamp. Likewise, members of the aristocracy sometimes slip out under the cover of night to secretly join in the worship of swamp’s nature spirits.

Have you ever ventured into the bayous? Souragne’s bayous hold a curious attraction, even though they are known to extremely dangerous. Souragniens sometimes feel themselves beckoned into the uncharted wilds of the island’s wetlands.

Settlements and Sites

The inhabited areas of Souragne cohere around the vast plantations maintained around Marais d’Tarascon and the seaside city of Port d’Elhour. 

Detresse Prison

Detresse Prison is an imposing edifice of gray stone surrounded by a tall wall topped with shards of broken glass. Within the prison, the inmates are subjected to corporal punishment, torture, and hard labor as a rehabilitating regime supposedly intended to reform them. 

Anton Misroi, the prison’s warden, lends prison laborers to the island’s plantation owners for a small fee, but the prisoners he brings them are strangely silent, tireless, and require remarkably little sustenance. The unspeakable truth is that the prisoners that Misroi sends to the plantations are already deceased—they are zombies reanimated from the corpses of the prisoners who die behind Detresse Prison’s grim walls. 

Maison d’Sablet

Few live within Maison d’Sablet, Souragne’s seemingly endless mire of mossy swampland, but some loners dwell in floating houses secreted deep within the isle’s overgrown bayous. Besides these isolated misfits, the swamps are home to alligators, giant insects, bullywugs, and snakes. The Maiden of the Swamp, a powerful dryad who numbers among the most respected of the spirits of the swamp, makes her home among a tangled grove of weeping willows.

Marais d’Tarascon

The town of Marais d’Tarascon is named after the wealthy Tarascon family who continue to reign over Souragnien society. The town sits at the center of a series of sprawling plantations, each dominated by a grand plantation house, that are owned by the island’s aristocratic families.

Port d’Elhour

Port d’Elhour is a small city on Souragne’s coast. The city feels cramped, with low stone buildings crowded close together. The city’s compact sprawl is interrupted by narrow, winding streets weaving throughout. Most common folk in Port d’Elhour fish the island’s coast, but they stay far from the Mists that border Souragne’s stretch of sea. 

The current mayor of Port d’Elhour is Bernard Foquelaine, a pale, spidery man who is keen to see the arrest of his fellow citizens for the most minor infractions. Those hauled before his court are often sentenced to life imprisonment in Detresse Prison. Residents of the city worry that Port d’Elhour is slowly sinking into the sea.

Anton Misroi

In society, Anton Misroi presented himself as an upstanding gentleman. But within the walls of the prison over which he was warden, he was a sadist who believed righteousness was on his side. When his torturous punishments finally drove the prison’s inmates to rise up, the bloody riot that ensued drew the attentions of the Dark Powers. During the uprising, Misroi was drowned in the swamps surrounding the prison. But he rose again soon after, an undead warden in search of inmates.

Misroi’s Powers and Dominion

Anton Misroi has the statistics of a zombie lord (see Kobold Press’s Creature Codex), but he uses a hat of disguise to walk among the inmates and officers of Detresse Prison as a tall, thin man with a stately posture and steely eyes.

Dance of the Dead. Anton Misroi can animate any corpse within Detresse Prison as a zombie. He can control an unlimited number of zombies that have been created in this manner.

Closing the Borders. When Anton Misroi wishes to close the borders of his domain, a thick red fog rises from the swamp and creeps across the land. Anyone who enters this fog finds themselves confronted by endless hordes of zombies clad in the tattered remains of prison uniforms and dragging broken manacles in their wake.

Misroi’s Torment

Anton Misroi is compelled to imprison and punish those who have been sentenced to Detresse Prison, but the order he craves is always disrupted by the rebellion of the prison’s inmates:

    • Despite Misroi’s draconian rule and love of sadistic punishment, Detresse Prison is a site of sporadic and violent riots and uprisings among the incarcerated.

    • Although none have yet managed to escape, Misroi’s prisoners continually attempt ingenious plans to breach Detresse’s walls and seek freedom.

Roleplaying Misroi

Anton Misroi is self-righteous, but his belief in pain as the path to redemption is a mask for his sadism. He convinces himself that the horrible conditions in which he keeps his prisoners and the harsh corporal punishments he metes out are for their benefit, but in reality he merely pleases his own warped desires.

Personality Trait. “I alone walk the righteous path.”

Ideal. “I punish to purge the sickness of criminality.”

Bond. “Every prisoner is like an errant child, and I, their strict father, must take pains to correct them.”

Flaw. “Even in death my charges are not purged of their crimes. Their bodies must continue to work off their debts to society.”

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

The Keep

Episode 55: The Keep

F. Paul Wilson’s 1981 novel The Keep has one of the great pulp story setups: Nazis versus vampires … but it turns into something a little different. When Nazis occupy a castle in Romania, they unwittingly unleash an ancient evil and set the stage for an epic confrontation between supernatural powers that have clashed throughout the course of human history. Join Jack and Kate as they venture into this epic battlefield of historical horror!

Have you seen the Smith and Jones “Nazi Generals” sketch yet? What energy does the name “Glenn” exude? Who is cooler: Dracula’s friend or a wizard from Atlantis? And what does Donkey Kong have to do with all of this? All these questions and more will be explored in this episode of Bad Books for Bad People.

Sunday, April 10, 2022


Below is an npc from my Ravenloft campaign. If you like this sort of thing, check out Strahd Loves, Man Kills issue four. Just as a heads up, I'm down to just three copies of the new issue, so don't wait too long if you want one. Or pick up a back issue while you can. Issue two is sold out again, and there's only five copies left of the reprint of the first issue.


Birdlime regards himself as a professional henchmen and an able aide-de-camp for whatever villain will have him. No task is too lowly or grisly for Birdlime; he is equally gleeful when emptying his master’s chamber pot and digging graves as he is assisting with the creation of a monstrous construct or in the completion of a nightmarish ritual.

The whole of Birdlime’s life is shaped by his adoration of evil as a cosmic principle. Corruption and self-interest are his keenest delights. However, he understands himself well enough to realize that he is not a brilliant villain in his own right. He is slow of wits, but just bright enough to know that he will never be an evil genius. Thus, he contents himself by helping those he regards as living exemplars of evil—advancing their ends and facilitating their iniquitous schemes.

Birdlime’s Traits

Ideal. “Evil warms the cockles of my heart.”

Bond. “Furthering my master’s schemes gives me a sense of purpose in life.” 

Flaw. “Perhaps I grovel just a little too obsequiously.”  

Adventures with Birdlime

Birdlime is an aarakocra who resembles a bipedal vulture. He usually dresses in the austere attire of a butler or other high-ranking household servant. Consider the following plots when featuring Birdlime in an adventure: 

    • Birdlime has abducted a noble from a carriage at gunpoint. The noble is to be forcibly married to Birdlime’s nefarious master so that they might get their hands on the noble’s inherited wealth.

    • Birdlime invites a group of heroes to an isolated villa, where they are to be massacred by the maniac he serves. His master plans to trick the party into a dungeon filled with bizarre traps and monsters.

Tuesday, April 5, 2022


Below is my take on the Ravenloft domain of Saragoss done up in the 5e D&D style. If you like this sort of thing, check out Strahd Loves, Man Kills issue four. Just as a heads up, I'm down to single-digit copies of the new issue, so don't wait too long if you want a copy. Or pick up a back issue while you can.


Domain of Nautical Terrors

Darklord: Draga Salt-Biter

Genres: Gothic horror and body horror

Hallmarks: Pirates, horrific dreams, dark oceanic cults

Mist Talismans: Compass, torn treasure map, spyglass

Saragoss is an island domain comprised of an amalgamation of seaweed, wrecked ships, the bones of the drowned, broken chunks of coral reef, and other bits of flotsam and jetsam that have accumulated into an uncanny island. Although many sections of the island have dried into a spongy mass capable of bearing the weight of its ramshackle buildings and squalid dwellings, some areas remain perilous sinkholes ready to suck the unwary down into a morass of algae and brine.

Teetering buildings built from detritus, foundered ships, and reclaimed materials crowd together like crooked teeth across the canals that fray the island’s southern edge. Reefmire, the island’s largest township, is a thriving center of maritime trade and a haven for pirates. Reefmire’s wharves bustle with the lading and unloading of full-rigged ships, and its dangerous quayside taverns are frequented by cutthroats, whalers, and other sea dogs. 

Surrounding the island is a cold, tumultuous stretch of waters perpetually bordered the Mists. These seas are infested with an unusual number of bloodthirsty sharks and other monsters living beneath the waves. Saragoss sits at the center of a web of Mistways carving stable paths through the Mists. The Mistways lead to the navigable waters of other domains, allowing the sailors of Saragoss access to all the Land of the Mists' ports.

Saragoss’s settlements are only nominally administered by elected governors. It is a lawless place, and its authorities generally turn a blind eye to the activities of the buccaneers operating out of its wharves. Justice in Saragoss most often comes in the form of bloody retribution, rather than a fair trial among peers.

Sleep in Saragoss is often disturbed by hallucinatory nightmares, prophetic dreams, and foreboding omens. The deformed and reeking remains of unfathomable aberrations occasionally wash up on shore. 

Noteworthy Features

Those familiar with Saragoss know the following facts:

    • Saragoss is an unnatural island comprised of wrecked ships, stinking kelp, and maritime debris.

    • The island is the base of operations for many dreaded pirate crews, outlaws, whalers, and sailors.

    • Some members of the island’s populace have an unusual appearance. Folk who evidence bulging or unblinking eyes, a marked lack of hair, or fish-like visages are said to possess “the Saragoss look.”

    • Saragoss's buildings are decorated with occult graffiti and scrimshaw charms meant to ward off violence, tropical storms, and death at sea.

Saragossan Characters

Characters from Saragoss favor nautical backgrounds, such as sailor, fisher, marine, mooncusser, shipwright, or smuggler. Because so many of its residents are pirates and thieves, the people of Saragoss regard each other with paranoia and suspicion. When players create characters from Saragoss, consider asking them the following questions.

Have you heard the call of the sea? If you have fallen prey to the siren call of nautical adventure, what unusual phenomena or monstrosity have you encountered, witnessed, or fled from?

Has your life been touched by crime? Saragoss gives nearly free rein to pirates and other criminals who adopt the island as their home because their ill-gotten gains bring prosperity to the isle. Were you part of a notorious pirate’s crew or a criminal gang? Were you victimized by the island’s criminal element?

What troubles your sleep? People native to Saragoss often find their slumber haunted by nightmares and hellish dreams of an approaching doom that threatens to emerge from the deepest depths of the sea. The terrifying dreams that afflict the residents of Saragoss frequently hold prophetic meanings—what horror do you believe awaits you in the future?

Settlements and Sites

The southern reaches of the island are dominated by the town of Reefmire and other smaller seaside ports. In the north, isolated farmers grow crops such as sugar cane, cotton, rice, citrus, and tobacco from the nutrient-rich combination of rotting driftwood and sargassum that comprises the island’s soil. 

The Chapel of Our Lady of the Drowned

The Chapel of Our Lady of the Drowned is a temple in Reefmire dedicated to a morbid goddess of the sea. The chapel was built from the remains of ships that have capsized, foundered on Saragoss's shores, or otherwise became less than seaworthy. The chapel’s altar is constructed from carved figureheads recovered from sunken ships. The faithful come to the chapel to pray for the souls of those lost at sea and to petition the goddess for safe passage before undertaking sea voyages. The chapel is presided over by Ulia, the high priestess of the cult devoted to the Lady of the Drowned.

The Hook

The Hook is a rough sailors’ tavern in Blighter’s Manse, one of the smaller seaside towns of southern Saragoss. It is primarily frequented by residents of Saragoss who possess “the Saragoss look.” Although other members of the island’s populace are welcome to drink there, they are expected to ignore the unnerving and inhuman idols carved from black, oily stone that decorate the interior of the Hook.

Prison Hulks

Saragoss's residents favor executing the most egregious of its criminals and hanging their corpses in gibbets as macabre cautionary displays. However, dangerous criminals who might prove needful at a later date are kept incarcerated in prison hulks anchored offshore. The hulks are decommissioned ships that have had their masts removed and have been refitted with barred cells to serve as floating jails.

Quega’s Shack

The tortle herbalist, apothecary, and tattoo artist Quega inhabits a shack perched atop stilts on a lonely stretch of the coast. Quega dispenses medicines and potions to the ailing, inscribes magical tattoos for those with ready coin, and can offer advice on all manner of occult matters.

The Vengeance

The barnacle-encrusted remains of the Vengeance, a once fearsome brigantine, stand at the center of Reefmire and now serve as the office and residence of the port’s governor. Captain Draga Salt-Biter, a respected former sailor, currently stands as governor. Draga provides a modicum of stability in Reefmire, but he is loathe to interfere with the schemes of its pirate captains.

Draga Salt-Biter

At the height of his sailing career, Captain Draga Salt-Biter had command of three ships that prowled the seas, looking for trade opportunities and gullible natives to exploit. One island he discovered in his travels unveiled a hideous secret: its residents placated the vile sahaugin with human sacrifice in return for golden treasures brought up from the bottom of the sea.

Wishing to emulate the islanders’ exchange with the sahaugin, Draga entered into a fell pact with the sea devils. The sahaugin demanded sacrifice, which Draga was happy to provide. He turned pirate, taking plunder for himself and prisoners to be given over to the sahaugin. Draga married a sahaugin priestess and even willingly underwent a ritual to seal his compact with them—one that forever transformed him into a monster.

As he sailed the seas looking for further sacrifices to offer Sekolah, the bloody god of the sahaugin, Draga’s fleet encountered a strange fog that encircled his ships, rendering them hopelessly disoriented. When then fog cleared, Draga found that his flagship, the Vengeance, was embedded in an unnatural island of sargassum and seaborne detritus. Draga soon discovered that the isle served as a hub for the kind of piratical activity that had seduced him into a life of murderous greed and that sailing his beloved sea was now forbidden to him. 

Draga’s Powers and Dominion

Draga Salt-Biter is an attractive man, albeit in a brutal, swaggering way. Although Draga looks human, his true form is now that of a wereshark. (See Kobold Press’s Tome of Beasts 2 for the stats of a typical wereshark.) Unlike others of his kind, Draga can breathe equally well on land and in water when he is in his hybrid form.

Call of the Sea Devils. Draga can command the loyalty of any sahaugin he encounters and can call them forth from the depths when needed.

Ulia. Ulia is the wife Draga took as part of his pact with the sahaugin. She will use her fell magic to his benefit in any way that might be required.

Closing the Borders. When Draga closes the borders of Saragoss, the island is slashed by the wind and rain of a fierce tropical storm. Any ship that attempts to outrun the storm will inevitably be destroyed.

Draga’s Torment

Draga can no longer sail the seas beyond his island prison. He is doomed to remain on Saragoss with the sea’s promised freedom always in view, but forever out of reach:

    • Any ship he attempts to sail out of the domain is destined to founder, drawing him back to Saragoss.

    • He is cursed with the enmity of the sharks that teem in Saragoss's waters. They will attack him relentlessly if he ventures into the waters beyond the Mists.

Roleplaying Draga

Draga Salt-Biter delights in cruelty and torture. He is extremely self-centered, caring only for his own gain and recognizing only the pain of his own torment.

Personality Trait. “A wrong perpetrated against me cannot be allowed to go unaddressed.” 

Ideal. “One day I will once more know the freedom of the wide-open sea.”

Bond. “Sekolah is worthy of both my fear and my reverence.”

Flaw. “The swift application of the lash quells the most vociferous dissenter.”

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Children of the Stones, Two Piece Puzzle, Manhunt, Devotion, and More

Things that brought me delight in March, 2022:

Children of the Stones

Children of the Stones is a British children's television series from 1977, but there's something you need to understand from the outset: this show is actually unsettling. The plot concerns a father and son who move to a village located within a Neolithic circle of standing stones; as newcomers to the village, it quickly becomes apparent that something nefarious involving pagan beliefs, strange technology, and the all too happy demeanor of the other villagers. There are moments of the uncanny here that are a bit unnerving: some of the imagery verges on nightmarish psychedelia, the soundtrack is suitably eerie, and the baroque plotline offers much more than you would expect from a show aimed at kids.

Rosalie Cunningham, Two Piece Puzzle

There's something truly extravagant about Rosalie Cunningham's solo work post-Purson; perhaps its a detectable feeling of the freedom to pursue whatever sound catches her ear without having to curb it to the want and needs of a band. Two Piece Puzzle isn't far afield from the psychedelia of Desire's Magic Theatre, but it's amazing that an album this intricately constructed doesn't come off as sterile or overly composed. The balance is just right throughout Two Piece Puzzle; there's always a danger of veering into kitsch, but instead the record feels like an artifact that's slipped through a wormhole from an alternate universe where everything is still groovy.

Gretchen Felker-Martin, Manhunt

I had built up quite a bit of hype in my head around Gretchen Felker-Martin's Manhunt, so much so that when it finally arrived I wasn't sure it could possibly live up to my heightened expectations for it. It exceeded them. Now, as much as I loved this novel, it's not one that I can recommend to everyone in good faith. It's absolutely brutal, both in terms of visceral violence and emotional heft. It also doesn't bow to any cultural niceties; this is the rare book that doesn't flinch from showing you true ugliness when it needs to. 

On paper, the pitch for Manhunt is pretty wild: a virus called t. rex has descended on the world, turning anyone with too much testosterone into a ravening cannibal rapist. Beth and Fran, two trans women, spend their time traveling the wilds of post-apocalyptic New England hunting the men who have succumbed to t. rex for their balls so that they can extract estrogen--the hormone they need to prevent themselves from sharing the same fate as the men they slay. Throw in an army of TERFs and an enclave of women who want to talk to the apocalypse's manager, and you've got the gist of what to expect. Again, Manhunt isn't going to be for everyone, but this is going to be a hard book to top for the best of the year, in my opinion.

Julia Gfrorer, Devotion

Devotion is a mini-comic containing four stories of love and sex. Devotion isn't really about narrative; the space constraints in a mini-comic of this format don't really allow for that. Instead, the comics in Devotion are all about the atmosphere, which is melancholic, pained, but also insistently noble in its sacrificial bent--there is an abnegation of the self at the heart of the concept of "devotion," something that I think is on full display here in this comics collected in this work. You can get a copy from Julia's Etsy shop here.

Zeal & Ardor, Wake of a Nation

I spent some time with Zeal & Ardor's third album last month, and my estimation of it hasn't really changed; I think it's a good album, but not a great one. It turns out that the fire that I was hoping for from it is in Wake of a Nation, the EP that proceeded it. This is the Zeal & Ardor I was hoping for from the self-titled disc! The rage, mourning, and riot is all here. I could do with a full album of this style, but perhaps the EP really is the right format for it as it never wears out its welcome.


Benedetta is based on the life of Sister Benedetta Carlini, a nun and Christian mystic who was condemned for her lesbian desires. As a film, Benedetta captures the curious hypocrisies of the Catholic Church: it views the body as a damaged vessel of sin, yet includes the Song of Songs among its canonical texts; the possibility of the miraculous is taken as a given, but the very idea of divine manifestation is left open to fallible earthly judgement; God is the basis of love, but not all love is viewed through the same lens. As a Paul Verhoeven film, it's also completely over the top and chock full of prurient eroticism. As it should be.

Mirka Andolfo, Mercy: The Fair Lady, The Frost, and The Fiend

It's fascinating that "Victorian Gothic Body Horror Comics" has become it's own fully fledged genre at this point. Mercy is a good example of the genre in action: it concerns otherworldly monsters who wear human bodies as disguises, and they're absolutely desperate to reopen the portal in a ruined mine that leads back to their home world. Mercy doesn't quite stick the landing, in my opinion characterization goes off the rails in the final act, but overall this was a pretty fun comic. I'll definitely check out the promised sequel if it ever materializes. 

Alison Rumfitt, Tell Me I'm Worthless

If you're wondering if Alison Rumfitt's Tell Me I'm Worthless is the book for you, consider this: one of the protagonists is haunted by Morrissey, who steps from a Smiths poster like the girl from The Ring crawling out of a tv. 

The book poses interesting questions (what if a haunted house was fascist?) and has some memorable moments (its riff on Bluebeard is particularly fine), but it also has a few flaws. Tonally, the novel feels like an off-balance combination of Bizarro fiction, self-serious theory-based capital L Literature, and traditional horror; the seams show and it oddly relegates its larger points to on-the-nose imagery. (I wish there was a way to spoiler tag on blogger because one of them is a doozie that I'd love to share. It's so gonzo it wouldn't be out of play in, say, the film Society.) 

I'm also not convinced that all of the novel's experiments with form work or are strictly necessary. That said, what Tell Me I'm Worthless does better than any other novel I could name is illustrate what a fresh hell the Very Online have made for themselves. I don't generally like to speculate which beliefs belong to a novel's characters and which are extensions of the author's point of view, but Tell Me I'm Worthless does feel like it's too closely in conversation with Twitter-style politics--with all the simplistic takes over actual nuance that implies.

Critical Role: Call of the Netherdeep

Call of the Netherdeep, a campaign set in Critical Role's bespoke D&D setting, surprisingly has a lot going for it. Underwater adventures are pretty rare, but this gives that premise a pretty full consideration. The idea of an alien substance called ruidium that corrupt magic items and monsters is pretty fun; it can also poison the characters in your game. (The tendrils that grow as you flip pages in the book is a nice touch.) Call of the Netherdeep also uses the idea of a rival party that develops in power and changes as the campaign progresses to good effect. I'm still digesting the contents of the book (it's long, these things take time), but this seems like a pretty strong entry in 5e's campaign offerings.  

Regina Maria Roche, The Children of the Abbey

I was pawing through a cardboard box of Dazzler back issues and old copies of Life Magazine at the antique store when I came upon this: a 1878 edition of Regina Maria Roche's The Children of the Abbey. Although it's little-known today, The Children of the Abbey was one of the best-selling novels of the 19th century. (Roche is mentioned as one of the Horrid Novelists in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey and this novel was cited in Emma!) Of course, their was no price tag on this wonderful find, but I managed to get it for a mere four dollars. Treasure!

In Secret

I'm not sure I could say in good faith that In Secret is a great movie, but it's definitely my kind of movie. Based on Emile Zola's novel Thérèse Raquin, In Secret is a historical drama that is equal parts hot & sad, my personal favorite combination of flavors. The plot is exactly what you might expect from Zola: an unhappily married woman becomes embroiled in adultery and murder when she forms a too-strong connection with her husband's best friend. The naturalism Zola was known for really comes through; everything feels sordid, tortured, and destined to end in misery. Again, hot and sad, just the way I like it.

Rivers of Nihil, The Work

Rivers of Nihil's Where Owls Know My Name got a lot of buzz and a lot of critical acclaim, but for some reason I found it a bit impenetrable. The Work, the follow up to that album, is a different story; although the sonic palette they're working with is amazingly diverse (there's even a  bit that sounds suspiciously like a cock rock ballad), the tangents keep you on the edge of your seat, wondering what will come next. 

Messa, Close

I've enjoyed Messa's two previous albums, but Close feels like the band really finding its own voice. On Close, Messa fully assumes their role as the doom metal Dead Can Dance. Big songs, big range of influences, even bigger moods. This album is great fresh out of the wrapper, but I strongly suspect that it holds treasures and secrets that will only unveil themselves after repeated listens. Close is going to be in rotation for a very long time to come.

Ghost, Imperia

I can't help but think Ghost are ridiculously fun. Imperia follows suit with their other releases; it's got anthemic moments, earworms galore, and is fated to be deemed "not metal enough." All of which I am more than okay with. Also, it's pretty clever to pair the theme of fallen empires with so many musical inspirations lifted from 80s hair metal--itself a fallen empire, if you think about it. I've probably listen to this the most of anything new to me this month.

Print Weaver, Blood Heist, The Martial Cult of Blood Knight Gaius

Not only was I busy finishing up some of my own zine projects in March, I also made some time to check out a few game zines by other people. Let's take them one by one:

The Martial Cult of Blood Knight Gaius is a dungeon crawl intended for use with either Knave or B/X D&D. The adventure centers on vampires who eschew their unholy thirst for blood, drinking only from those they defeat in honorable combat...which may include any characters who venture into their monastery. Bloodheist is a self-contained game about playing thieves out to heist a valuable object from a vampire. Character creation is focused on random rolls, but the results are much more evocative than I'm used to. Print Weaver is the strangest of the lot, being a fantasy game where character creation is guided by your unique fingerprints!

Katsura Hoshino, D.Gray-Man vols. 7-9

With Allen Walker side-lined by injury, the rest of the cast gets a chance to shine in these volumes of D.Gray-Man. The gang takes part in a harrowing and tragic sea battle on the way to Japan. Things don't get much better when they reach Japan, as they find that the nation is the domain of the Millennium Earl and his army of akuma. It's nice to see the return of Miranda Lotto, I think she's quickly becoming my favorite character. The revelation of the new form of Allan's powers is a little wild; honestly not sure where that's going. We'll see when I tackle the next few volumes in April.

Lychgate, Also Sprach Futura

I'm not sure Lychgate have made a single misstep in their musical offerings. Great album followed by great album, all the way down. On Also Sprach Futura, an ep in between larger releases, the band shoots for the stars and gets a little sci-fi. The sound is still extreme metal, with a Gothic edge to it, but there's enough modulation here to let you know that they've headed to space for the time being.

Susanna Clarke, Piranesi

I had been meaning to read Susanna Clarke's Piranesi since it came out, but something or other was always coming up and getting in the way. Thankfully, I finally found the time; this novel is a treat. A man wanders a world of statues, halls, and tides, his only "friend" the strange Other who seems to be using him for an obscure purpose. As the enigmatic story unfolds, it involves quack academics, other worlds, occultists, and some fairly interesting thoughts about how we acquire and maintain a sense of self. I know some readers were disappointed in Piranesi's ending, but it all worked for me.

Eve Harms, Hellcrafter and Shadow Puppet

I had also meant to find the time to read Hellcrafter and Shadow Puppet directly after reading The Secret Name, the first volume in the series, but as always things came up. So it goes. 

Imagine if the heroine in Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a doofus with a blog, and you're on the right track with Kendra Temples. In Hellcrafter, she is given a pulp fantasy paperback from the 70s that seems to indicate that her dead boyfriend is traveling through a hellworld...and that it might be possible to save him. Shadow Puppet has djinn, goth clubs, possession, and the like. Both are fast reads, very entertaining and light, perfect for in between more serious or weighty tomes.

Brent Hayward, The Fecund's Melancholy Daughter

Anne from DIY & Dragons recommended Brent Hayward's The Fecund's Melancholy Daughter to me ages ago; I finally got around to reading it in March, and what an unexpected pleasure it is! Attempting to describe the plot without spoiling any of its reveals feels like a fool's errand. Suffice to say, it involves a city riven by class tensions defined along the lines of medieval humors, an imprisoned monster who gives birth after consuming dreams, decadent ennui, and strange things happening in space. I definitely recommend this novel for fans of M. John Harrison's Viriconium books or maybe even K.J. Bishop's The Etched City

Stephen Jones (ed.), Clive Barker's Shadows in Eden

Shadows in Eden is a collection of writings about Clive Barker and his work. I had a copy of this in the 90s, but I suspect I lent it to someone who disappeared with it into the mists of time. Invaluable resource that it is, since I've been teaching Clive Barker's Books of Blood this semester, I decided I'd like to have this back in my life. Nice to see you again, old friend.

Isabel Fall, "I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter"

I taught "I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter" this month as part of my lit class. Very interesting reactions from students. Worth noting: they were both unaware of the story and unaware of the controversy surrounding it. This was their first, unsullied encounter with it. 

I feel like they picked up on everything the takes on Twitter missed, but then, they read past the title and have a different relationship to memes than older sff people do. To them, the central relationship was read as tender and actually open-hearted. The ending that gestures toward and always changing and evolving sense of what gender, sex, and identity are made sense to them, but then, I find it hard to see why people took issue with that--or with the story in general. They also picked up on how the story is critical of the military-industrial complex, but then they would...they aren't primed to pick up any awards from a Raytheon-funded convention. (Gray!)

The Woman in Black

I'm quite familiar with the Daniel Radcliffe-helmed adaptation of Susan Hill's The Woman in Black, but somehow I had never seen the earlier film version, even though it was frequently mentioned in hushed, still-terrified tones by the Brits of my acquaintance when I lived in London. Someone on my Discord mentioned that it was available to watch on Youtube, and I can now report that it indeed a creepy little film that sticks with you. I can see why this version of The Woman in Black was foundational for so many people of a certain era.

F. Paul Wilson, The Keep

This was a Bad Books for Bad People read, so as always I will have a lot more to say about it with Tenebrous Kateon our episode about it. I've had a copy of F. Paul Wilson's The Keep on my shelf for a very long time, and I never got around to reading it, so I'm glad that Kate picking this as our book for March actually pushed me to read it--even though, as you'll hear if you listen to the episode, this is a book I did end up having some problems with! I really do think the first-to-middle bit was pretty fun, but that last 50-75 pages become a struggle when the plot twist hit.