Friday, September 30, 2022

Between Two Fires


Episode 59: Between Two Fires

It’s no secret that 14th Century Europe was not a very fun place to be. Christopher Buehlman’s 2012 novel Between Two Fires leans all the way into the hideousness of plague, war, and famine while adding in a heaping helping of medieval horror. Jack and Kate jump into this apocalyptic landscape, which takes them from France to Hell and back again.

Does this book reveal the secret origin of the stag party? What even is grimdark? All these questions and more will be explored in this episode of the podcast.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

The Blood-Soaked Diva

Below is an NPC from my Ravenloft campaign. If you like this sort of thing, check out Strahd Loves, Man Kills #8, the pages of which are guaranteed to be haunted by the Blood-Soaked Diva!


The Blood-Soaked Diva
Karmina Scarabasca was an elven opera star whose career was derailed by scandal and whose life was cut short by incurable consumption. After losing her position as a respected singer when she was exposed as the paramour of a married noblemen, Karmina found that the only venue that would have her was the Midnight Cabaret, a shabby music hall located on a particularly disreputable lane in Dementlieu.

Karmina’s health suffered amid the grime of the Midnight Cabaret; the flecks of blood that began to decorate her lace handkerchiefs when she coughed indicated that her days were numbered. Unable to endure her fall from grace or face a painful death from illness, Karmina took her own life by hanging herself from the rafters of the Midnight Cabaret. Embittered by her tragic end, Karmina’s spirit lingers within the music hall, attacking any performers who seem poised on the brink of greater success. Her true name is forgotten, but her legend lives on under the name “the Blood-Soaked Diva.” Performers at the Midnight Cabaret report spotting a spectral figure clad in an opera gown soaked through with blood; they fear hearing the sound of a ghostly aria—the telltale sign that the Blood-Soaked Diva has crept near.

Karmina Scarabasca’s Traits
Ideal. “I must sing, though my voice now brings death.”
Bond. “I cannot leave the confines of the Midnight Cabaret.”
Flaw. “I hate anyone living the life that should’ve been mine.”

Adventures with the Blood-Soaked Diva
The Blood-Soaked Diva is a banshee. Consider the following plots when featuring Karmina Scarabasca in your adventures:
A fan wishes to be reunited with the singer who once stole his heart—even if she be among the undead.
Karmina has set herself against a young starlet.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Trail of Destruction

I've been running the adventures in Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel as part of an open table campaign on my Discord. Without further ado, here's how "Trail of Destruction," the seventh adventure, went for my group. 

Dramatis Personae

Captain Horatio Gurthus, human barbarian

Brother Albany, human monk

Dreams of Fire and Ash

The current dream that was afflicting Horatio and Brother Albany was fairly simple, as far as visions granted by a strange angel go: they dreamed of a isle on which all the volcanoes were erupting at once, resulting in a flood of lava destined to wipe out the entire population. They awoke certain that this was no natural disaster; with their intervention, the catastrophe could be averted. And so they traveled to the isle of Telepec in Valachan.

As they traveled the road to one of Telepec's towns, they began to smell smoke. Rounding a bend in the path revealed a horrific sight: the rain forest was smoking due to the flames emanating from a creature with a humanoid body and a long, snake-like tail. The creature was accompanied by two giant snakes, each also wreathed in flame. The creatures had overturned a cart full of food, flowers, and gilded items belonging to three figures in priestly vestments. Now that the wagon was upset, the creatures were attacking the clerics. Unwilling to merely watch the carnage, Brother Albany and Horatio entered the fray and dealt with the attacking monstrosities.

After helping right their wagon, Horatio and Brother Albany spoke to Sister Amelia, the leader of this pious expedition. She explained that they had set out to leave offerings to the goddess Ezra at a shrine known as the Gate of Illumination, in hopes that the offering would cause the goddess to intervene and end both the earthquakes and the attacks by monsters that had been plaguing their town. The attack by the snake-like creature had convinced them to turn back. 

When Horatio and Brother Albany expressed their willingness to look into the matter further, Sister Amelia drew them a map of the vicinity, pointing out the Two Gods Observatory, a town called Xotol, and the location of the Gate of Illumination. On the chance that they went to the observatory, she asked that they inquire about the whereabouts of four templars she had sent to the scholars therein to gain information about the recent increased spate of volcanic and seismic activity.

A Horned Friend and a Large Friend

The pair were most interested in the Gate of Illumination, but since it looked like it would take them a full day to reach the shrine, they decided to explore Xotol on the way and gather more information about the unfolding situation. When they reached Xotol, they found many of the businesses there closed; the townsfolk were instead pitching in to repair the town's stone walls and other damage caused by the earthquakes. They also noticed that the residents of the town seemed to be of a different ethnicity than the priests they had encountered earlier, a fact that would become important later on.

Brother Albany and Horatio booked rooms at the Jolly Parrot, the only inn still open in town. The only other guest, a tiefling Vistana named Ollin, bought them drinks, so they sat down in the common room to enjoy his company and generosity. Ollin proved to be a font of information about Telepec. As a Vistana wanderer, he had made it his business to collect folk tales and local history. 

Prompted by speculation that something monstrous was behind the volcanic activity, Ollin told them that in the days before the Church of Ezra's missionaries had arrived in Telepec, the native population had worshipped the "gods who lived in the volcanos," and had used offerings not unlike the ones they had seen in the priests' wagon earlier to placate their gods. As is often the case, the Ezra-ites had appropriated the ancient shrines and re-dedicated them to their goddess, which the pair began to suspect was behind the awakening volcanoes and the incursions of the snake-like, fiery monsters.

Ollin practically invited himself along on the rest of their journey; he was eager to add more lore to his store of knowledge about Telepec. The group set out in the morning for the Gate of Illumination. On the way, they encountered another overturned wagon surrounded by corpses, but this time the wagon had been stripped of offerings. Once healed, the sole survivor told them that fire-wreathed snake creatures had made off with the goods. 

The group also encountered a red-bearded giant who forcefully warned them to turn back from "the maw of doom." However, by expressing an interest in saving their fellow humanoids from the coming apocalypse, they managed to get the giant, who introduced himself as Copal, on their side! To speed their haste in reaching the Gate of Illumination, Copal scooped them up, set them on his shoulder, and make quick strides to the shrine.

Izel, Lord of the Inferno

The Gate of Illumination proved to be an ancient shrine built into the base of a clearly active volcano. A red light pulsed from within--the interior walls of the shrine were laced with magical veins that looked like molten magma. A red haze hung in the air; the interior was hot, but not as hot as a building connected to a volcano ought to be. Of course, as a giant, Copal was too large to enter with them, so he waited for them outside.

The interior of the shrine confirmed their suspicious: the placement of statues of Ezra in front of murals depicting lizard-like volcano gods made it obvious that the Gate of Illumination was formerly a "pagan" shrine devoted to the creatures living within the volcanoes and that it had been appropriated by the Church of Ezra to aid their missionary efforts. 

Exploring further, they found a trio of statues--two of which were holding urns. When the third urn was found and replaced, a miraculous thing happened: a red, peppery liquid appeared in the central urn. The trio took a chance and quaffed it; a little experimentation revealed that it had made them resistant to fire and heat. They also found a wounded snakeman and healed him. 

They found themselves on a rocky "shore" that terminated in a lake of lava further in the shrine. They also found the four missing templars manacled to the wall, presumably left as sacrifices for whatever was moving beneath the flow of the lava. Brother Albany freed the templars and sent them outside to shelter with the giant. The group then watched in horror as a massive, lizard-like being of immense size and power pulled itself from the lava and stood erect on the rocky causeway. The creature was covered in black scales, but blindingly bright light began to pour from the seems between them.

The trio engaged the ancient "god" in combat, but it proved to be a worthy adversary. It belched gouts of super-heated, liquidized rock that both pummeled and burned them. Ollin was killed outright by the pyroclasm. Although Horatio and Brother Albany managed to wound the creature greatly, it beat Brother Albany into unconsciousness and Horatio also found himself near death. Before the monster could attack again, Horatio pulled Brother Albany to safety and exited the shrine. The "god of volcano" mockingly laughed as the pair retreated from its lair.

A Different Tack

Outside, the pair healed themselves as best they could and hatched a plan. Although Copal was too big to enter the shrine through the door, they figured that he could climb the volcano, dive down into its heart, and make his way to the lake of lava that the volcano-god had emerged from. Brother Albany and Horatio again entered the creature's chamber to engage the monster while Copal got into position. The plan worked; Horatio and Brother Albany further wounded the creature--and then Copal emerged from the lava to deal the creature two massive blows with his maul. With the monster knocked down, Brother Albany finished it off.

With the death of the "god," Brother Albany and Horatio were fairly confident that the island's volcanoes would now resume dormancy, but they returned to town and stayed long enough to make sure. When no more earthquakes rocked the area, they were assured that they had done their duty and saved the people of Telepec. Before leaving, they suggested that the Ezra-ites build their own churches instead of repurposing older shrines--they believed that this is what had awoken one of the "ancient gods" of the isle. Also, they requested that all the offerings that were going to be brought to various shrines be given to Copal instead.

Friday, September 23, 2022


Below is a Gothic "powder keg": a cast of npcs with deeply perverse and entwining goals and desires--a mess perfect to throw the characters in your game into. If you like this sort of thing, keep in mind that you can get the print version in Strahd Loves, Man Kills issue #8. Only a few copies left!


Wildeacre is a country estate in a rural stretch near the moors of Mordent; it has long been the seat of the venerable Caulheart family. In terms of farms, tenants, and landscape, Wildeacre is a typical example of the gentry’s holdings, complete with a slightly run-down manor house at its heart. The estate is currently owned by the brother and sister team of Adamus and Adela Caulheart, but there is something rotten at work in Wildeacre.Adela Caulheart
Adela is unduly and obsessively attached to the land of Wildeacre. Her love of the estate and its farmland is a dark undercurrent of unwholesome, pagan passion; whether through delusion or
supernatural agency, the land whispers to her in her dreams.

When Adela realized that her brother would inherit the land she loved, and she would inevitably be married off and sent to live on her husband’s property, she seduced Rikard Lemka, Wildeacre’s groundskeeper, and convinced him to assassinate her father. Once her father was out of the way, she
lured her craven, weak-willed brother into an incestuous relationship in order to maintain her connection to Wildeacre. By mastering Adamus, Adela has become the true lord of Wildeacre.

Adela Caulheart’s Traits
Ideal. “I will remain the mistress of Wildeacre until my dying day—and perhaps even long after my demise.”
Bond. “I cannot bear the thought of being separated from my beloved estate.”
Flaw. “My love of fleshly pleasure obeys no moral strictures.”

Adventures with Adela Caulheart
Use the statistics of a noble to represent Adela. Consider the following plots when featuring Adela in an adventure: 
Adela wants to hire adventures to exorcise Rikard Lemka’s spirit from Wildeacre.
Having grown bored of Adamus’s slave-like devotion, Adela frames her brother for the murder of their father. Playing the part of a betrayed sister, she entreats the characters to bring him to justice—helpfully freeing her from his lusty and tedious attentions.

Adamus Caulheart

Adamus would be an utter failure as the master of Wildeacre if it were not for his sister’s administration of its farmlands and their tenants. He is over-educated in academic matters and under-educated in practical concerns. 

While at boarding school he fell in a crowd of boys who used him, literally, as their whipping boy. Masochism is now an ingrained predilection that shapes his tormented psyche. It was the discovery of his masochistic streak that allowed his sister to seduce him; now she uses her body and a barbed lash to bend Adamus to her will.

Adamus Caulheart’s Traits

Ideal. “I wish to be left alone and absolved of all responsibility for Wildeacre.”
Bond. “The pleasures found in pain bind me to my sister.”
Flaw. “My wife looks at me with pity, and that destroys me.”

Adventures with Adamus Caulheart
Use the statistics of a noble to represent Adamus. Consider the following plots when featuring Adamus in an adventure: 
Adela begins to spend less and less time applying the lash to Adamus, causing him to suspect that she has taken another man as her lover. Acting under the guise of a concerned brother, Adamus hires the adventurers to spy on her to determine what (or who) is occupying her evenings.
Unable to stand his wife’s obvious disdain, Adamus murders her in a fit of passion. However, now that she is gone, her clockwork assassins have no one to keep them in check. The deadly toys begin to run amok, necessitating Adamus to seek outside assistance to deal with them.

Cecilia Caulheart

Adamus’s bride, the child-like and fragile Cecilia, seems relieved that her husband’s amorous attentions are directed elsewhere, but she is not truly as naive as she appears. Skittish Cecilia sees everything and has set her own schemes in motion.

As the daughter of a family renowned for creating complex clockwork toys, Cecilia labors away in her workshop in Wildeacre. She crafts a small army of automatons designed to murder her husband and his sister so that Wildeacre will become her family’s property.

Cecilia Caulheart’s Traits

Ideal. “In an ideal world, I would fritter away my time crafting new amusements for children.”
Bond. “My family has entrusted me with the duty of killing the Caulheart siblings and inheriting their estate. I will not fail them.”
Flaw. “My husband’s touch makes my flesh creep.”

Adventures with Cecilia Caulheart

Use the statistics of a spy to represent Cecilia. Consider the following plots when featuring Cecilia in an adventure: 
Cecilia needs one final ingredient to unleash her army of murderous clockwork toys: souls to power them. Cecilia invites the adventurers to Wildeacre, intent on killing them and using their spirits to animate her toy assassins.
Cecilia’s schemes came to the attention of one of the Caulheart siblings, who quietly sent her to an early grave. Cecilia’s parents hire the characters to investigate her mysterious death at Wildeacre.

Rikard Lemka

After Rikard murdered Adela’s father, she set a bear trap in his path so she might dispose of her inconvenient lover and the one man who knew of the plot to kill her sire. The trap crushed his legs; Rikard was left to die alone and in great pain. His specter continues to haunt Wildeacre, dragging behind it the trap used to end his mortal life.

Rikard Lemka’s Traits
Ideal. “I will torment Adela
until she confesses to my murder.”

Bond. “I can feel the presence of my mother on the estate, but I dare not manifest to her.”
Flaw. “Even in death I feel pain.”

Josette Lemka

Complicating matters is Josette, Rikard’s Vistani mother, who is known to be a witch. Formerly a
tenant of Wildeacre, she vanished soon after her son’s death, but has recently been spotted wandering the estate’s woods. When Josette discovers the cause of her son’s untimely death, she will make it her life’s work to cause the downfall of the Caulheart family.

Josette Lemka’s Traits

Ideal. “My son’s death was no accident; I will uncover the truth of his demise.”
Bond. “My son’s torment pulls at my heart.”
Flaw. “I cannot rely on the forces of law and order for justice.”

Adventures with the Lemkas

Use the statistics of a specter to represent Adamus. Use the statistics of a Barovian witch to represent Josette. Consider the following plots when featuring the Lemkas in an adventure:
Rikard appears to the characters, attempting to lead them to evidence that would prove he was murdered by Adela. 
Josette enlists the adventurers’ aid in staging a play for the Caulheart family. The plot of the play includes details exposing the Caulhearts’ many crimes and moral failings. Josette hopes that the play will catch their consciences and cause them to admit to their misdeeds.
Rikard intermittently possesses one of the characters to use them as the instrument of his revenge against the Caulheart family.
Things come to a head when the tribe of Vistani that Josette formerly traveled with arrive and set up camp on the outskirts of Wildeacre. Josette has called in a very large favor—the Vistani are willing to wage outright war against the Caulhearts at her behest.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

One-on-One Play

I recently had a game scheduled for two players. Unfortunately, one of the players had Real Life Stuff come up the day of the game and couldn't make it. No harm, no foul; things happen, life intrudes, and sometimes you've got to take care of business. However, the remaining player and I had nothing better to do, so we decided to play through the scenario one-on-one anyway.

I probably wouldn't consider playing one-on-one with little pre-planning in every system I run, but I felt pretty confident we could pull this off on short notice. A few factors helped ease the way. I've been running 5e D&D for a very long time, so I feel pretty confident in my ability to modify stats on the fly to adjust difficulty as needed. The scenario I was planning to use felt like a reasonable adventure that one character could see through to the end. The character who would be going on the adventure is a barbarian with the Tough feat, so he's ridiculous durable and hard to kill--a veritable one-man army--so he had a good chance of surviving anything the adventure threw his way.

That said, the character in question isn't a jack of all trades, a generalist, or even particularly well-rounded. He's great at taking hits and he gets an unusually high number of attacks per round for his level, but he's not without his weak points. Specifically, he's not really adept at investigation skills and he's a bit deficient in social skills as well. This is actually important to keep in mind.

A character on a solo adventure obviously has no compatriots of equal capabilities to rely on in situations that don't play into their strengths. A character without social skills can't defer to the party's face when someone needs to be persuaded, a character without martial skills can't count on their allies to soak up hits and deal damage in their stead, and a character without a depth of knowledge has on one to fill in the gaps for them. 

What they need to do, then, is find creative ways to navigate around their deficiencies. This navigation is always an opportunity for character development that a player wouldn't get otherwise in the context of an adventuring party; left to their own devices, a player learns something about how their character approaches problems they would generally let someone else in their group handle instead. If you get the chance, I highly recommend one-on-one play if the opportunity comes up for exactly this reason: it will reveal aspects of a character that would not come to the fore during normal party-based play.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Gold for Fools and Princes

I've been running the adventures in Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel as part of an open table campaign on my Discord. Without further ado, here's how "Gold for Fools and Princes," the sixth adventure, went for my "group." Only one player could make it to this session, so we played it one-on-one.

Contentious Beginnings

Horatio dreamed of a boy, destined to lead a revolution against tyranny, who was trapped underground. Fearing that the lad would never grow up to strike a blow against oppression, Horatio followed the hints provided by his dream to the mining town of Anisa, in Hazlan, where he discovered that the local gold mine had suffered a collapse and several miners were thought to be still trapped inside.

When Horatio arrived in Anisa, he was just in time to witness two Mulan noblemen, each with their supporters in the crowd, arguing in the town square over who would lead the expedition to free the trapped miners. The crowd was a mix of upper-class Mulan and Rashemi workers; each of the noblemen seemed favored by one of those groups. Horatio also met Uzoma, the dwarf overseer of the mine. She informed him that the two young noblemen had long been at each other's throats, particularly as both had been maneuvered by their respective families to marry Duchess Inaya--so they were both competing for her hand. Uzoma also told him that a survivor of the mine collapse claimed to have seen golden-furred monsters with multiple legs burrowing through the tunnels.

The nobles' squabbling was interrupted when a giant scorpion tore out of an alleyway, sending the assembled crowd into terrified flight. The two noblemen leapt down from their platform to fight off the beast, but Horatio was faster on the draw--he was soon hacking at the creature with his claws and deftly avoiding its stinging tail. 

This combat was instructive regarding the two noblemen. Lord Kirina, a hulking, axe-wielding noble clad in surprisingly utilitarian Rashemi clothing, was tall, imposing, and clearly a seasoned warrior. Lord Simbon, the smaller of the two who was dressed in the height of fashion, was clearly out of his element as he engaged the giant scorpion with his scimitar. Of course, neither could hold a candle to Horatio, who ripped the scorpion's head off and dashed it to the ground.

Extinct Monsters?

As soon as the creature was slain, Lord Simbon and Lord Kirina began arguing again--this time over who had acquitted himself the best against the beast. Uzoma stepped forward and interrupted their argument before it came to blows; she sent Lord Simbon with Horatio to consult with Father Kendrik, a priest of the Lawgiver, about the nature of the creatures that might await them in the mines, while she and Lord Kirina would head to the mines to supervise the excavation efforts.

On the way to see Father Kendrik, Horatio learned more about Lord Simbon. It was Lord Simbon's family's desire to see him wed to the wealthy and powerful Duchess Inaya, though he rued having to give up his decadent, womanizing lifestyle.

Once ushered into Father Kendrik's study in the Anisa Academy, a site of occult scholarship founded by Hazlik, they found the priest surrounded by a number of heavy tomes, scrolls, and papers--utterly engrossed in his work. He clearly regarded their visit as an intrusion. He dismissed talk of the monsters supposedly spotted in the mines; naming the creatures "aurumvoraxes," he informed them that the species had been hunted to extinction in ages long past. Father Kendrik also evidenced an obvious dislike for Lord Simbon.

Into the Dark

Their consultation with Father Kendrik now over, Simbon and Horatio arrived at the mine. Uzoma and the miners were too afraid of what might lay beneath, so it was left to Horatio, Simbon, and Kirina to venture into the dark in search of trapped miners. 

The bickering and sniping between Simbon and Kirina continued inside the mine, punctuated with violent encounters with the supposedly extinct aurumvoraxes. Eventually, Horatio discovered two things of note: a half-buried stone covered with script in the tongue of goblins that glowed with a rust-colored aura and a hasty bolthole in which the miners were hiding! Horatio and the two noblemen led the miners to safety, fending off one last attack by the aurumvoraxes. 

Into the Light

Despite having saved the miners, Horatio was unsatisfied with the way things had turned out: he felt that he had treaded the symptoms, but not the disease afflicting the mines of Anisa. After presenting the stone to Father Kendrik, the priest confirmed that the markings on it were in goblin script, and that the stone's purpose was to summon monsters. However, Father Kendrik noted that the stone itself wouldn't be enough to summon the monsters that Horatio had encountered--other, sympathetic, runes would have needed to be etched at the sites where the monsters had taken root.

Early the next morning, Horatio set off for the mine once more. With the monsters plaguing the mine now dead, he made a more leisurely exploration of the mines and discovered markings resembling those on the stone drawn on the walls in white chalk. Horatio rubbed out each of the markings, rendering them powerless. 

Figuring that whoever might be responsible for summoning the monsters would return to the scene of the crime, Horatio hid in a bunkhouse tent and was unsurprised when he spotted Father Kendrik approach and enter the mines. Horatio stealthily shadowed the priest, and observed that Father Kendrik made his way to each place he had found summoning markings. Father Kendrik carried a rag that he intended to use to destroy the evidence of his involvement.

Horatio confronted Father Kendrik, who admitted his part in the plot. He had engineered the mine collapse to provide an opportunity for Lord Kirina to prove his valor--and thereby increase his appeal in the eyes of Duchess Inaya. Of course, Father Kendrik had hoped to use Kirina to gain influence over the Duchess. Believing that Horatio now knew too much to live, the priest attacked, imbuing his staff with radiant power and summoning a sword of spiritual power. But it was not enough; Horatio killed him within the mines and hid his body among the rubble.

This left Lord Kirina to deal with. Horatio found Lord Kirina regaling the common folk of a tavern with tales of his own valor in the mines. Horatio brazenly challenged him to a fight. The commoners circled around the pair as they sized each other up. Lord Kirina struck mighty blows with his axe, but even his great strength was no match for Horatio, who knocked him unconscious with ease. 

Once Lord Kirina was imprisoned in a storage room beneath the tavern, Horatio explained all to the town guard. Horatio's allegations were confirmed both by Kirina's admission of guilt and papers found in the office of Father Kendrik.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Review: Salted Legacy and Written in Blood

Now that I'm running the adventures in Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel, I'm going to be writing reviews of them informed by my actual play experience, much as I did previously with Candlekeep Mysteries. First up, "Salted Legacy" and "Written in Blood." Warning for those who plan on playing these adventures: spoilers ahead!

Salted Legacy

Written by Surena Marie

One thing I really liked about "Salted Legacy" as an entry-level adventure is that it eschews the "fighting kobolds or goblins in a cave" convention and instead drops the characters in the middle of a contentious social situation. That's honestly a nice change of pace for what is to all intents and purposes and entry-level adventure.

 Although there are a few occasions for combat, mostly in the market games, as written the scenario doesn't necessarily have to be solved with violence. The premise, exploring a vibrant night market in search of clues as to what is going on with a burgeoning feud between two food vendors and interacting with the market's sellers to get a sense of the forces at play, is pretty solid and offers a backdrop I haven't really seen done before.

That said, the night market games do feel a little game-y, especially since it's explicit that taking part in them is the only way to raise your renown high enough for the market folk to actually tell you anything important. I didn't mind that, but people with fragile senses of "immersion" could well be bothered by how this aspect of the adventure gamifies the renown rules in a blatant way.

Additionally, the adventure might be a little too "soft" in terms of stakes. The two rival families in the market are antagonistic to each other, but the text makes it clear that they will stop short of "harming" each other. I think that's a mistake; when I ran the adventure, I had the threat of them becoming violent hang in the air as an impetus to spur the players to action and as a possible consequence of their failure. Painting the two families as the Montagues and Capulets of the local marketplace raised the stakes considerably from "these two families yell at each other in public sometimes."

Also, I wanted to note one minor flaw that isn't impossible to rectify, but a DM might want to be aware of in advance: it's a little difficult to thread the needle on the third party being the real villain without either making it obvious who is inflaming the two families' mutual enmity or making the third party's influence too obscure to be picked up on during play.

Written in Blood

Written by Erin Roberts

There are a lot of great creepy details in this adventure that definitely fit the style of adventure I like to run. Additionally, crawling claws are often a generic "filler" monster in horror scenarios, but the way they take center stage here works well, particularly with the inclusion of the multi-armed soul shaker as the "evolved" or "greater" version of them.

I didn't really anticipate it, but the encounter where a pit opens beneath the wagon, creating a sinkhole that is then used as an ambush site by crawling claws, made for a pretty tense encounter. I don't think the characters were really in danger, but the set up made the players think that something catastrophic was possible, if not eminent.

Also, the abandoned farmhouses are given slight-but-creepy details that set them apart from one another, and the details are just enough to create an atmosphere of dread. My players wanted no part of those houses--which I take to be an element of successful design.

That said, the journey from the town to the farms at the frontier felt a bit linear. Things get better once they reach Kianna's farmhouse and begin exploring, but it would have been cool to see the possibility of picking alternate routes to get there. If you wanted to expand on this adventure, one obvious thing to do would be to create multiple approaches to the farmstead and let the players choose which way to go. Of course, you'd want to plan for different kinds of encounters along each of the pathways you devise. 

This may or may not be a negative aspect, depending on your preferences, but it's quite possible for the players to finish the adventure and still have only an inkling of what was going on with Kianna, Culley, the lake, and the monsters. Because so many npcs in the adventure "awaken" from their trances with no memories of their actions, there is a lack of material to piece together into a coherent picture for the players. 

In my opinion, this is actually fine for this particular adventure; as a horror-based scenario, it isn't out of line that they come away knowing that something awful was occurring, yet not completely assured that they understand the underlying cause of the terrors. In a horror-centric scenario, it's okay for uncertainty to linger--even after the adventure has been completed.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Sins of Our Elders

I've begun to run the adventures in Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel as part of an open table campaign on my Discord. Without further ado, here's how "Sins of Our Elders," the fifth adventure, went for my group on Discord.

Dramatis Personae

Captain Horatio Gurthus, human barbarian

Dwalin Codbiter, dwarf artificer

Through a Haze of Nightingale Bell

After the tragic events of the last adventure, Captain Horatio Gurthus was searching for a way to bring his comrade Brother Albany back to life. To that end, he teamed up with Dwalin Codbiter, who was looking for a way to send his departed uncle past the veil of death, as he was currently stuck in a half-life as a floating skull with many opinions on the doings of the living. The duo made their way to the fabled city of I'Cath, but upon arrival at the docks they were surprised to see that instead of a metropolis of endless wonders, they were instead in a squalid, poverty-stricken port of call.

They headed to the Yeonido ward, where they had heard the boundary between the land of the living and the land of the dead was particularly thin. Unfortunately, all they discovered was the run-down remains of a park in which homeless people were huddling around the base of a worn statue. When asked for directions, one of the homeless, an obviously diseased man with a wooden prosthetic nose strapped to his face, offered to taken them to the "Nightside" of the city--if they were willing to pay the price of his admission as well. 

They were surprised when the man took them to a sordid drug den, where the proprietor brought them each a wooden pipe packed with a substance called nightingale bell. As they smoked, they felt their bodies relax, then grow numb. As they begin to drift away into the intoxicant's revery, each of them closed their eyes. When they opened them, they found themselves standing again in the Yeonido ward, but instead of the squalor they had experienced prior, the city was now a bustling, glamorous metropolis filled with beautiful, decadent citizens.

Memory Holes, Government Work

Now in the Nightside of I'Cath, Dwalin and Horatio began to explore the mysteriously altered form of the domain. They were on a busy street, teeming with people, when a strange fog began to rise from the cobblestones. Out of the fog emerged a jade gargoyle with the contorted face of an angry human woman. The creature slew a passerby with its claws, but was soon slain in turn by our heroes. However, as the fog retreated and the gargoyle's remains melted into mist, a strange thing happened: the people who had witnessed the creature's attack looked bewildered for a moment and then went about their business as if nothing strange had occurred! 

Seeking answers, the duo met with Kun Ahn-Jun, a local magistrate. The harried Ahn-Jun bluntly asked them if they had had an unusual experience in the Yeonido ward and was relieved to hear that they remembered the gargoyle's attack. She told them that the strange fog and the monsters it brings was a regular occurrence, as was the people of the city immediately forgetting these bizarre incursions as soon as they were over. Until meeting Horatio and Dwalin, Kun Ahn-Jun seemed to be the only person in the city who could remember the murderous oddity plaguing the ward. 

Since they had the ability to remember the mists and their horrors, Ahn-Jun offered them a few leads that might intersect with their own interests: she told them of a construction site that had suffered multiple attacks, a royal park that had witnessed several attacks, and a tea house when two nobles had been found grievously wounded.

A Light in the Woods, a Cup of Tea

The pair decided to investigate the construction site first, and found it to be an area of the city that was expanding into the surrounding forest. Laborers were hard at work felling trees, while an overseer and two guards stood watch. While looking around the site, they found a cobblestone path leading into the woods; following it brought them to a moss-covered monument and a stone lamp whose flame shone with a strange blue light. Brushing the moss from the marble slab revealed it to be a memorial to a woman named Dae Won-Ha, a "Warrior of the People." Below her name was a long list of the civic accomplishments she had achieved as a magistrate of the ward. 

Taking the stone lantern with them, the pair found that the strange fog had returned and that the workers at the construction site were under attack by huge tigers with the faces of an angry woman--the same face that had encountered previously on the jade gargoyle! With the aid of the overseer and the guards, they managed to kill both creatures, but not before casualties were inflicted on the workers. However, as the fog receded, no one present save Dwalin and Horatio remembered the attack; the workers assumed their comrades had had "an accident."

Their next stop was the Phoenix Tea Shop. When they arrived, they were perplexed to discover that its proprietor was the same man who had taken them to the drug den in the squalid version of the city, but here in the Nightside he was a kindly and healthy man. The tea shop was decorated with a number of cups that had been signed by local celebrities and people of importance. When asked if he had a cup signed by Dae Won-Ha, he brought forth a matching pair of cups: one signed by Won-Ha and another signed by Young-Gi. 

The proprietor helpfully explained that Young-Gi had been a close friend of Won-Ha, that he was formerly an advisor to Tsien Chiang, the ruler of I'Cath, but that he was quite old now and lived in retirement in his mansion in the Estate Gardens area of the ward. He also revealed that although Won-Ha was once regarded as the savior of the Yeonido ward, she had died largely forgotten. Interestingly, when the teacup was brought into proximity with the stone lantern they had found earlier, it shone with a similar blue light. They took the teacup with them.

The Guilty and the Grand Guignol

Horatio and Dwalin used a letter from Kun Ahn-Jun to gain an audience with Young-Gi. Young-Gi was an elderly dragonborn gentleman whose red scales had faded to a rusty color. In contrast to the bustle and noise of the city, his house was a bastion of tranquility and serenity. Dwalin was initially suspicious that Young-Gi was summoning the monsters to preserve the memory of his departed friend, but Young-Gi was much more sanguine about the situation; as he reached the end of his own life, he had come around to the perspective that legacies are fragile things that cannot always be preserved. 

When presented with the teacup, a soft glow came from within Young-Gi's silk robes. He produced a gold amulet--Dae Won-Ha's badge of office as a magistrate, which she had given him as a token of their friendship. Young-Gi gave them the amulet in hopes that they might be able to use it to solve the mystery of the attacks on the city.

In the Park of the Elders, the pair decided to get a closer look at the statue of Tsien Chiang that a local drunken teenager had described as "creepy." The statue depicted Tsien Chiang as a beautiful paragon of wisdom; however, closer inspection of the legend inscribed at the base of the statue revealed that all of Dae Won-Ha's accomplishments had been ascribed to Tsien Chiang! The unnerving fog once again rose from the ground, and with it arrived the ghost of Dae Won-Ha, accompanied by two more jade gargoyles who bore her face.

The ghost of Dae Won-Ha complained of being forgotten by the people of ward; she threatened to take everything form the populace that she had poured her life into fostering. When presented with the lantern, the teacup, and the amulet, she began to believe that she had not been wholly forgotten. However, it wasn't quite enough to sate her. She offered Horatio and Dwalin a bargain: if they would find a way to bring her name back into public prominence and expose Young-Gi's role in Tsien Chiang getting the credit for her good works (because despite their deep friendship, Young-Gi was too loyal to the vile ruler of I'Cath), she would cease her attacks on the Yeonido ward, help negotiate for the return of Brother Albany's spirit, and usher Dwalin's uncle's spirit into the afterlife.

The pair settled on an ingenious solution: they commissioned a playwright to pen a play that cast the spirit of Dae Won-Ha as a boogeyman haunting the Yeonido district. This pleased Won-Ha as it reimagined her role, gave her prominence, and included Young-Gi's treachery as part of her villainous origin story. By the time the play premiered in the endless night of I'Cath's Nightside, it had become a thrilling Grand Guignol-style production with special effects overseen by Dwalin's keen eye for artifice. The play was a success; Won-Ha's terrifying name was now back on the lips of the people of her district.

She also kept her word. As Dwalin and Horatio dozed in their private box at the premier as the dose of nightingale bell wore off, they awoke in the city's squalid true self again--but the skull of Dwalin's uncle was now gone and Brother Albany's eyes shot open and he gasped with living breath!

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Maximilian's Waxworks

Here's an adventure location I wrote up for Strahd Loves, Man Kills issue eight. Only about fifteen copies left, by the way!

* * *

Maximilian's Waxworks
Maximilian's Waxworks is a wax museum attraction that can appear in any domain you wish. Run by the changeling Maximilian Drear, the waxworks features a number of grisly displays for paying customers to gawk and gawp at on their tours of the premises.

Each Domain of Dread in Ravenloft is represented among the wax museum’s displays by a tableau re-enacting the downfall of its Darklord. For example, the Barovia exhibit shows a wax sculpture of Strahd von Zarovich lusting after Tatyana, making a pact within the Amber Temple, and ultimately murdering his brother in a fit of jealousy and rage.

Visitors to Maximilian’s Waxworks claim that the wax figures seem to move slightly, or flash a hellish grin, when glimpsed out of the corner of their eyes. Indeed, Maximilian has endowed his creations with the power of animation and malign intelligence. Anyone trespassing within the museum at night will find themselves stalked by waxen duplicates of the Land of the Mists’ Darklords.

Each display is also intimately tied to the domain it replicates. If a character brings a Mist talisman to a domain’s display in Maximilian’s Waxworks, the Mists will pour forth from the museum’s floor and transport that person and their companions to the domain in question.

The wax figures and props that Maximilian Drear uses to tell the sordid tales of Ravenloft’s Darklords are crafted by ghouls in 
his employ who labor in the building’s basement. As payment, the ghouls are offered the flesh of any wayward visitors to the museum who overstay their welcome. With no need for sustenance, the wax figures are happy to drag the corpses of interlopers into the cellar for the delectation of the ghastly artisans below.

Adventures in Maximilian's Waxworks
Consider the following adventure seeds when including Maximilian’s Waxworks as part of your campaign: 

Having fallen in love with a dying woman, Maximilian Drear stole her body from the morgue after her demise and has preserved it in wax within his museum. One of the figures in the waxworks contains the woman’s corpse; the characters are offered a generous reward by her family to enter the museum at night, determine where her body is hidden, smuggle it out of the waxworks, and return it to them for a proper burial.

The souls of visitors to Maximilian’s Waxworks are being harvested for use in animating a colossal wax replica of Gravedrinker. This creature is in the process of being fashioned by Maximilian’s ghouls in the museum’s basement. If its construction is not stopped, this gargantuan horror will be unleashed and allowed to rampage.

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Strahd Loves, Man Kills: Issue Eight Released, Issues Four and Five are Now Free!

It's hard to believe that I've managed to publish EIGHT issues of Strahd Loves, Man Kills! The new issue is now available from my Big Cartel site, and in my estimation it's an absolute brawler--probably my favorite issue yet. Here's what's inside:

Lurid Locations explores four locations you can add to your games: Maximilian's Waxworks, Briarhurst, Wildeacre, and the tower of Eisengraz.

Seeds of Evil details adventure seeds you can use to craft scenarios set in Ravenloft.

Portraits of the Damned details nonplayer characters such as an apothecary with a dark past, a vampire pugilist, a miner’s specter, a member of the Kargat, and Strahd’s bastard son.

Forged in Shadow adds three magical items to your potential arsenal of rewards.

Grim Phantasmagoria explains my goals, principles, and best practices for running adventures in Ravenloft.

Fatal Frames focuses on frameworks to unite your players’ characters into a cohesive group.

Cryptic Alliances revises the Ba’al Verzi cabal of assassins for use in your Ravenloft campaigns.

* * *

Also, if you're looking to fill in a gap in your Strahd Loves, Man Kills collection? Look no further! Here's a Big Cartel listing for the back issues that have been out of print until just recently. Please specify which issue you want a copy of in the comments when you order.

* * *

Finally, issues four and five sold out of their initial runs, which means the pdfs are now absolutely free for everyone. Please buy issues 6-8 so they too can sell out and become part of the community treasure chest!

Sunday, September 4, 2022

Wages of Vice

I've begun to run the adventures in Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel as part of an open table campaign on my Discord. Without further ado, here's how "Wages of Vice," the fourth adventure, went for my group on Discord.

Dramatis Personae

Captain Horatio Gurthus, human barbarian

Brother Albany Palmer, human monk

A Cry for Help in a Dark Alley Leads to a Job

Brother Albany and Captain Horatio dreamed of vibrant pink flowers growing in an orchard near a steaming jungle; the flowers began to rot before their eyes. The dream segued into a vision of the people of a town making a desolate exodus--with the flowers dead, there was no reason for them to stay in their home. Both awoke knowing that if they did not intervene, an entire town would suffer. And so they set off to a destination unknown, traveling into a bank of thick mist--emerging out of a jungle, with a town of gleaming white stone in view.

After taking their toll, the two guards at the gates of Zinda welcomed the pair to the town's March of Vice festival. Inside the town's walls, they found themselves on a wide street whose cobblestones have been painted gold. Even at an early hour, the streets were filled with revelers, vendors, and street performers. However, as they passed an alley they heard a cry for help. Investigating the sounds of distress, they found a dwarf slumped against a wall in the act of expiring.

Two guards, each wearing a gold-chased breastplate, entered the alley and accused the duo of killing the dwarf. Once they had examined the body and were subjected to some exculpatory quick-talking, their suspicions were allayed. The guards were joined by a tall elf woman in a sumptuous orange gown, her hair pulled back into dreadlocks. She introduced herself as Samira Arah, one of Zinda's "Kings of Coin," a consortium of guild leaders who are the de facto rulers of the town. 

Sizing them up as experienced adventurers, Samira wished to hire Horatio and Brother Albany. Although she was the leader of the jeweler's guild she commanded the guards of the Silent Verse (the soldiers with fancy breastplates they had spotted throughout Zinda), she had need of agents who were unknown to her compatriot Kings of Coin. In particular, she wanted the pair to investigate a recent spate of attacks on the children of the Kings of Coin. She explained that the dead dwarf was Jacopo Ain, the son of Massimo Ain--the leader of the smith's guild. Indeed, on the previous day Zenia Ruba, the daughter of Nargis Ruba, the King of Coin who oversees taverns and entertainment in the town, had been attacked in the street.

Fearing that a conspiracy was afoot, Samira wanted the duo to talk to Zenia and find out what exactly had happened. Believing that the girl was being kept under her father's watchful eye at a tavern called the Thornapple, Samira sent them in search of an audience with her.

Death by Pestle

On the way to the Thornapple, a stout women in yellow and green jostled Brother Albany as she quickly made her way through the crowd. Immediately after, they heard a cry of pain from behind them. They saw a man from a herbalist's stall bludgeoning a fallen teenager with a pestle; the herbalist had a crazed look in his eye and swung the pestle with a madman's strength. Intervening, the pair managed to subdue the herbalist, but not before he brought the pestle down with fatal finality on the prone man's head. 

After the brief brawl, they learned that the victim was Arel Avim, son of Solenn Avim, the King of Coin overseeing the weaver's guild. During this sad episode, they also made the acquaintance of Captain Adann, a self-proclaimed "Bloodletter," a member of a political faction that wishes to see the overthrow of the Kings of Coin and the imposition of a more egalitarian economic system in Zinda. Furthermore, a girl informed them that she had seen a stout woman in green and yellow talking to the herbalist just prior to the attack.

Near Death by Stiletto

When they arrived at the Thornapple, they found it to be a well-appointed tavern already crowded with patrons. They were greeted by Nargis Ruba, the King of Coin responsible for entertainments and drinking establishments throughout Zinda. The Thornapple's stage was being set for a performance; as Brother Albany engaged Nargis in conversation to distract him while Horatio approached Zenia, Nargis told him that his tavern was proud to host a series of performances by Diva Luma, a famous singer from Kartakass. 

Horatio flashed the insignia that Samira had given him, causing the two members of the Silent Verse flanking the girl to depart. Zenia was impressed that Horatio was an adventurer, an interest he parlayed into getting her story. She told him that she had been shopping when she suddenly felt quite ill, and then suddenly her servants began attacking her and each other. She recalled seeing a cloud of pink ash around them when the melee broke out, and that a woman in green and yellow had bumped against her just before her servants went mad!

Just then, Diva Luma took to the stage with a cohort of dancers and musicians. The singer reached into a pouch by her side and threw a handful of pink glitter into the air. As it descended upon her, her stage-bright smile turned into a look of malice; she removed her stiletto heels, brandished one as a weapon, and began to run toward Zenia! Horatio positioned himself between the girl and the diva; he, Brother Albany, and eventually the two Silent Verse guards, managed to subdue the crazed singer, but only after being stabbed repeatedly by her heeled shoe.

Once Diva Luma had been knocked out, Nargis rushed to his daughter's side. Clasping her to him, Nargis began to weep only. When pressed, he admitted that the attacks on the children of the Kings of Coin were "his fault." He confessed that the six Kings had made a pact with a witch from the jungle known as Proud Edun. Proud Edun had brought them prosperity, but of course there was a price to be paid: the six Kings were meant to bring the witch their firstborn as payment. To avoid paying their debt, Nargis hatched a plan to lure Proud Edun into a "meeting" that was actually an assassination. 

One of Diva Luma's entourage reported that the bag of glitter, which was found to be tainted with pink ash, was given to her outside by a woman wearing yellow and green. The woman even gave her name, Kala Marbarin, which Nargis recognized as the name of Proud Edun's daughter who was presumed lost to the jungle years earlier. Apparently she was back and looking to avenge her mother.

A Side Trek, A Parade, Death Rears Its Ugly Head

Brother Albany and Horatio decided to venture into the jungle to find Proud Edun's hut to see if it would reveal any clues to Kala's plan. The hut had been recently inhabited, and the cauldron evidenced pink residue from whatever substance Kala had cooked up to turn innocent people into violent madmen. Also, they found a list of names (each of the Kings of Coin, save for Samira Arah) scratched into the dirt floor of the hut.

When they returned to Zinda, they discovered that a parade down the golden road was now underway. Revelers were begging for beads and sweets from the Prince of Vice, a masked man who they quickly figured out was Azra Nir--son of Amos Nir, one of the Kings of Coin. Spotting a flash of yellow and green in the crowd, it was apparent that Azra was to be the next victim.

Kala emerged from the crowd and ensnared the Prince of Vice's parade float with vines conjured from the pavement. Horatio and Brother Albany rushed to engage her and protect the Prince of Vice. However, Kala threw a fistful of pink powder into the faces of Azra's guards, turning them into insanely violent allies. 

When Kala was taken down, a smokey substance issued from her nose and mouth--it coalesced into the spectral form of her mother, the witch Proud Edun! Proud Edun's wraith attacked Brother Albany with a fury--killing him outright. She then raised his shade as a specter under her control. Horatio had no recourse save destroying both hateful spirits.

The danger to the children of the Kings of Coin now dealt with, Horatio collected his reward, bought a horse and wagon, and had Brother Albany's body safely ensconced in a coffin. Consulting with the Kings of Coin set him on a possible path to Brother Albany's resurrection: he was told to seek out the fabled land of I'Cath, which will be the basis of the next adventure.

Friday, September 2, 2022

A Young Person's Guide to the Gothic, The Tindalos Asset, and More

Things that brought me delight in August, 2022:

Richard Bayne, A Young Person's Guide to the Gothic

Richard Bayne's A Young Person's Guide to the Gothic is exactly what it purports to be: an introduction to Gothic fiction intended for a younger audience. Bayne explores the Gothic by breaking it down intro discreet conventional units, such as Setting, Scenery, Plot Devices, and Characters. Interspersed throughout the explanations of key Gothic concepts are copious examples pulled from Gothic texts. The book also includes several complete short stories, by the likes of Poe, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and M.R. James, to illustrate what the Gothic looks like in action. The wonderful cover and spot illustrations were done by Richard Sala; Sala's art really is a perfect choice for this sort of thing.

As someone who is a bit persnickety about how the Gothic is taught, I do have some criticisms. The book could have used another editorial pass. Sometimes the excerpts used as examples go on for far too long; the concept they're meant to highlight can get lost in the amount of text that's used. Oddly, the Harry Potter series is frequently referenced. I understand the tactic here--use a "touchstone" that will be immediately recognizable to a young audience--but I think that dates the book straight out of the gate. Subsequent generations are likely to be less and less familiar with Harry Potter, which renders any utility mute going forward.

My criticisms aside, this really is a wonderful introduction to the Gothic. The short fiction that is included, some of which I hadn't read before, is nearly worth the price of admission on its own.

Caitlin R. Kiernan, The Tindalos Asset

The Tindalos Asset is the third book in Caitlin R. Kiernan's Tinfoil Dossier series, in which Burroughsian spies deal with the cosmic threat posed by Lovecraftian horrors. I enjoyed the previous two installments, Agents of Dreamland and Black Helicopters, but The Tindalos Asset might have hit me at just the right time; I didn't know I needed a shot of spycraft and weird horror, but the novella delivered it anyway.

The Tindalos Asset focuses on an "occult assassin" who has been drawn out of hazy, drug-addled retirement to stop the machinations of a cultist with a powerful connection to Mother Hydra. What I really enjoy about the structure of the novella, which offers brief peaks into the story's even across a wide range of time periods, is that it gives you a palimpsest of clues and inklings to work with rather than a straightforward spy thriller. 

Marilyn Ross, The Curse of Collinwood

The Curse of Collinwood marks a significant departure from the Dark Shadows books Marilyn Ross had penned previously. The opening pages quickly upend several situations that had been simmering since the first book. Ernest Collins, a character invented for the book series to be Victoria Winters's love interest, is quickly killed offstage; Elizabeth Stoddard discovers that her "dead" husband is actually still alive, which causes her to suddenly thaw out and take on a fairly different persona; Carolyn has had a breakdown. So much change is glossed over so quickly that it's a bit dizzying.

Another big change in this volume is that the supernatural is actually real! Previous books in the series go in for an Ann Radcliffe/Scooby-Doo effect where any supposed specters or ghouls are exposed as mundane criminality in the end, but not The Curse of Collinwood, which features Derek Collins and his bride returned to haunt Collinsport as zombies!

Also, it's worth noting that Victoria goes from mourning Ernest to kissing Burke Devlin at every chance in record time.

Scare Tactics

Scare Tactics was a short-lived DC comic from the 90s about a gang of monsters on the run. To remain under the radar, they form a band and go on tour so they aren't sitting ducks for the shadowy organizations that are after them. I'm not sure how grabbing the spotlight is supposed to keep them cloaked in secrecy, but that's the premise we're rolling with.

I hadn't actually heard of Scare Tactics until last month, but I was able to buy the full run at less than cover price. Since I love a monster mash, this one felt like a no-brainer to me. It's not a "deep" comic by any means, but I love the idea of rockin' monsters getting into scrapes with men in black, vampire hunters, and hillbilly werewolves. Unfortunately, it was canceled after its twelfth issue. The series does try to wrap itself up in the face of doom, to predictably bizarre results. 

Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel

Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel feels like a very special book of D&D adventures, unlike anything that has come befpre, so I hope it's getting the attention it deserves and hitting tables for actual play. Written by a cohort of POC, many of whom don't have long list of previous credits, the book promises to offer fantasy scenarios inflected with cultural influences far from the usual conventions, images, plots, and tropes most often found in D&D. The adventures have a wide range of themes, and a wider than usual range of ways to complete them. 

Of course, the true test of any book of adventurers is actual play at the table, but the content is fascinating enough that I was looking forward to running them back to back as a campaign, much like I did with Candlekeep Mysteries. As of this writing, I've run three of the adventures in the book; so far, so good.

Allison Saft, Down Comes the Night

I picked up Down Comes the Night because it showed up on a bunch of "best new Gothic novels" lists, so I was surprised that it started off as that particularly YA genre of "young people at war in a fantasy world," not unlike Shadow & Bone or Wicked Saints. The novel focuses on Wren, a combat medic who has trouble following orders and who got redeployed to a mining operation, where she will clearly die, as a punishment. She goes AWOL to a neighboring nation to heal a nobleman's servant of a mysterious ailment. And that's where things get Gothic; she arrives at Colwick Hall, a crumbling manor that is rumored to be haunted and owned by an infamous dandy. 

(One interesting deviation from the formula: instead of the manor being an artifact of the past, it's actually more modern than the protagonist is used to in that it has electricity.)

Down Comes the Night isn't perfect. There a few plot elements that are either too convenient or blindingly obvious. For example, at one point the protagonist needs to find a key...the location of which has been pointed out in nearly flashing neon several times, but gosh she just can't figure out where it might be. Still, this one cracks along and has plenty of people wandering around with candelabras. 

Chris Dows, Colin Clayton, and Horus, Autumn: Terror in the London Underground

Originally published as a three-issue series by Caliber Entertainment, Autumn: Terror in the London Underground is a tale of obsession and revelation. During the Blitz, a young boy has to shelter in the Underground as bombs fall on London; this fateful night, a killer begins stalking the city, returning to his grisly crimes every autumn. The boy becomes fixated on the murders, well into adulthood. When the killings come close to home and involve him personally, he ventures into the depths of the Underground and discovers the strange nature of the murderer and also has a moment of terrible revelation about himself. The black & white art, combined with the subject matter, reminded me a bit of From Hell, but the horrors of Autumn are all of their own piece.

Julia Gfrorer, Tartarus

I didn't read much in the middle stretch of the month (always a bad sign), but Julia Gfrorer's latest comic zine Tartarus came in the mail, so I made an effort to read it straight away. Although the visuals don't really present any bold surprises or unexpected moments, as a whole the comic is a  pretty interesting take on the role of AI in art and having a personal, aesthetic commitment to meaning in the face of so many shortcuts and low-stakes Big Ideas.

The Sandman

Although Netflix's adaptation of The Sandman isn't an unqualified success, it deserves a place in this month's list for actually managing to film a comic I had previously considered possibly unfilmable. 

The show is mostly faithful to the source material, save for where it makes deviations to separate the story from the larger DC universe. (For example, Johanna Constantine is substituted for John Constantine, and much of Lyta Hall's storyline is altered.) Unfortunately, those changes don't always work particularly well. Additionally, there are a couple casting choices that didn't do it for me; personally, I find Patton Oswald extremely distracting as Matthew the raven.

Thing seem to be set up for the Season of Mists storyline next, but with streaming services backing away from expensive productions at the moment, who knows if we'll get it. Still, it was nice to see at least a nice chunk of Sandman's early plotlines.

Christopher Buehlman, Between Two Fires

I'll have more to say about this on the next episode of Bad Books for Bad People, but suffice to say that Christopher Buehlman's Between Two Fires challenges the notion of grimdark fantasy by asking "Why not just think of this as horror set in an earlier era?"

Concerning the journey of a fallen knight, a troubled priest, and a divinely haunted girl through the hellscape of France during the Black Death and Hundred Years' War, Between Two Fires is a travelogue of human degradation. It probably isn't for everyone, but it's probably for the freaks who read this blog.

Spelljammer: Adventures in Space

Often wrongly predicted, if not demanded, every time a new D&D product was about to be announced, 5e's update of Spelljammer is finally here. And generally, it's pretty cool. The ship designs are awesome, the new races present the right kind of Star Wars cantina vibe, and new monsters are always welcome--even if they do split the difference between silly and Lovecraftian.

If there's one failing in the set, it's that its format (three hardcover books and a screen in a slipcase) promises an abundance of riches that it doesn't quite deliver on. As a concrete example, there are rules for ship-to-ship combat, which feel essential to the milieu, but they're a cut-down version of rules we've already seen in Ghosts of Saltmarsh and Descent into Avernus. There is a feeling of squandered potential there; we could have a nice chunky section of modifications and magical weapons that ships can be outfitted with, but it's almost all the same catapults and ballistae on every type of ship.

No comment on the adventure, as I haven't read it. Someone might be running it, so I have to abstain for a bit.

The Annotated Dracula

I undoubtably have more copies of Dracula than any one person strictly needs, but my girlfriend bought me this amazing copy of The Annotated Dracula. Not only does it reproduce the entirety of Bram Stoker's novel, it also includes extensive illuminating annotations and some wonderfully otherworldly art by Wilifred Satty. Just an amazing volume all around, and now it is mine!

Eric Powell's The Goon Bunch of Old Crap An Omnibus Volume 3

Since I started my re-read of The Goon, I've been curious when I'd run across the point where I had bailed on the comic previously. It turns out that the breaking point for me was somewhere in the issues collected in this third omnibus. 

The story isn't bad by any stretch, but this does feel like the slowest, perhaps most protracted, of The Goon's arcs. Still, this time it won't kill my momentum--onto omnibus four next month!

Soul Arts

Soul Arts is a wonderfully deluxe art book that was crowdfunded by VaatyaVidya, one of the foremost Soulsborne lore youtubers. The book collects fan art from the various art competitions that VaatyaVidya has hosted over the years, with themes based on prompts such as "Imagine what Bloodborne II would be like" or "Invent new prosthetic weapons for Sekiro." Although the art in the book is "fan art," don't suppose for a second that it's amateurish; the pieces in this book are as good as any of the official art from games like Elden Ring or Dark Souls.

The Invitation

Going to the movie theater is a rarity for me these days, but I had an afternoon off and since there was a new horror movie just out...I was off to see The Invitation. The Invitation is a fun little riff on Dracula; a recently orphaned woman discovers that she's related to a posh British family, who are a little too eager to meet her. Of course, she's being lured into a dark familial mystery.

Nathalie Emmanuel turns in a credible performance as a leading actor, and the film has a nice, creepy Gothic atmosphere. I don't think this movie will blow anyone away, but I think it's a bit better than many critics are saying.

Halloween Masks

We got these on our first pilgrimage of the year to the Spirit Store. The best time of the year is fast approaching!