Tuesday, October 3, 2023

The Dei-Phage

We finished up the first leg of the Apostasy Gambit! In this adventure, the inquisitorial agents continue exploring the Haematite Cathedral, make a stunning discovery, and come face to face with a Daemon of Tzeentch.

The Characters

Ash Underblade, assassin plucked from a Schola Progenium and trained for murder

Absalom Athanasius, sanctioned Imperial psyker with a talent for telekinesis 

Erastus van Saar, ancient and venerable savant who hails from a Hive World of scum and villainy

Sister Lucrezia, a Sister Hospitaller adept at both healing and confronting heretics with a hand flamer


The acolytes continued to explore the Haematite Cathedral after Ash pryied open the rusted door to the sanatorium. Unfortunately, as soon as they entered the northern wing of the cathedral they were set upon by rotting mutants. One of the mutants, Vorkas Hekate, made a direct line for Erastus because the savant was still carrying the hunting rifle that used to belong to him. Ash put a few mutants down with headshots from his rifle; Sister Lucrezia lit some up with her hand flamer. Ultimately, Vorkas proved difficult for them to put down. Erastus gave up the rifle, which Vorkas repeatedly tried to brain him with until he was finally slain.

Inside the sanatorium cells they found a mysterious message scrawled on one of the walls, as well as an image of a bird-like Daemon gouged into the plaster. The final room of this wing was a chamber in which a skeleton was strapped to a medical table. A broken-down auto-surgeon loomed above. Sister Lucrezia determined that the auto-surgeon had been used to perform operations of little medical merit; mostly it had been used to perform trepanations meant to increase the patient's "cosmic awareness."

The group then decided to explore the planetarium tower. Inside was a large model of all the planets in the system; each planet was represented by a human skull encased in glass. Above them, it was apparent that the top of the tower could be opened up to allow the planetarium's telescope to gaze upon the night sky. When the inquisitorial agents started to experiment with moving the planets in the orrery, suddenly Koronath Hekate appeared at the room's desk. Koronath's skin was covered in strange mathematical equations, and his appearance in the room was accompanied by the tower opening and the telescope extending. Weirdly, an unnatural light began to pour into the room from above.

Erastus engaged Koronath in a spirited debate over the hidden truths of the cosmos. Koronath's position was that the stars still had much guidance to provide to mankind, while Erastus insisted that the only beacon of light worth following was that of the God-Emperor himself. Ultimately, Sister Lucrezia ended the debate by turning her hand flamer on Koronath, melting his flesh from his bones. As he sizzled and liquified, he thanked them for giving him much to think about. After he dissolved, he left behind the third portion of the skull-and-cog emblem that would fit into the depression by the canon in the nave.

Their next stop was the library. A little searching revealed a hidden alcove of secret books. Sister Lucrezia attempted to read one, but all she got for her efforts was visions of a galaxy on fire; the book then dissolved into green slime that ran through her fingers. Erastus fared better with the two books he examined. The first book made an unreasonable anger boil up within him; however, he mastered himself when he realized that he had drawn his snub revolver and was deciding which of his companion's he should execute with it. The third book, bound in bronze plates, contained the Tzeenchian theories of Koronath Hekate.

The group returned to the nave, noting that there were now three desiccated corpses sitting on the pews, and fit the skull-and-cog emblem into the matching depression in the wall. A section of the floor opened up, revealing a shaft that went down into the darkness. The shaft looked like the inverted image of a spinal cord, complete with handholds and footholds. A quick test, dropping an object into the shaft to listen for how long it would fall before striking something, revealed that the shaft was quite long. 

At the bottom, they found themselves in a small circular chamber lit by servo-skulls. The sound of machinery was very loud down there. A strange map on the wall revealed the Haematite Cathedral's biggest mystery: it was no place of worship, but rather an Imperator Titan! The upper works that they had explored was simply the structures built atop the titan's exterior; now they were in the belly of the Pax Macharia!

As they explored the interior of the titan room-by-room, they found the corpse of Barabus Zanatov, aka "Tauran Hekate." Zanatov's head was missing, but a bolt pistol was by his side and a vox recorder sat in his lap. By replaying the vox recording, they learned that Zanatov had come to the planet bearing a secret uncovered by Inquisitor DeVayne. Zanatov traded his rogue trader riches to establish himself and his crew as the noble Hekate family, all the while building the Black Sepulchre to decipher that secret. He also claimed that the Gilded Cathedral had been built to block the Black Sepulchre from fulfilling its purpose; the Black Sepulchre needed unfettered access to the dark of the Barsapine's night sky. Zanatov also mentioned that he had been pursued by agents of the ruinous powers and the Dei-Phage moved to stop him. Rather than be driven insane, Zanatov resolved to take his own life. The last thing captured on the recording was the chilling sound of Zanatov blowing off his own head with a bolt pistol.

The group also located the genatorium, but the chamber was clearly befouled by Chaos: daemonic ichor ran down the walls and the floor was covered in pulsating flesh! However, in another chamber they were able to restore a cogitator to power; the cogitator explained how to raise the genatorium's shield and replenish the titan's fuel. Donning protective gear, Ash successfully revived the Pax Macharia from its long slumber. In awakening, the titan began to free itself from the "cliffside" that had accumulated around it over the long generations. A mechanical voice called out, telling them to man the "battle stations," as a Daemonic presence was now incoming.

The agents rushed back to the nave, where they saw a one-armed Daemon of Tzeentch rise from the sea and begin to fly on tattered wings directly toward the Pax Macharia. Erastus and Ash sprang into action; Erastus quickly figured out how to make the nave's canon operational, and Ash was ready to fire it as soon as it powered up. When the time was right, Ash pulled the canon's triggers--and the canon promptly exploded, sending both Ash and Erastus hurtling across the room as the canon destroyed itself. Though the canon was now inoperable, it had indeed hit the Dei-Phage. 

The Daemon barreled into the nave ON FIRE and badly wounded. Nevertheless, it was still a great and terrible threat to the inquisitorial agents. Though they had managed to grievously wound it with the titan's canon, they were now having trouble piercing through its unnatural, warp-tainted toughness. (Absalom telekinetically hurling a flaming piece of wreckage at it was fairly effective, though.) The Dei-Phage, however, was not having trouble wounding them. A blow from its claw ripped through Sister Lucrezia, and another blow nearly killed Absalom. The Daemon flew at Absalom again to finish him off, but the psyker managed to send all of his kineblades against the horror, shredding it into a mass of rapidly putrefying meat just as its remaining claw grazed him.

Once the Dei-Phage was destroyed, the Pax Macharia began to march through the sea in the direction of the Gilded Cathedral. When the Pax Macharia arrived, it sent the city into a panic. Masses of people were screaming and running, alarm sirens were sounding. The Pax Macharia announced that it had brought the agents to witness what was to follow. The Pax Macharia then charged its Plasma Annihilator and fired it upon the Gilded Cathedral. The Gilded Cathedral was reduced to golden slag. The destruction of the Gilded Cathedral, and the deaths of all who were within it, immediately robbed the city of all light; all that remained was the Black Sepulchre. But what secret did it hold?

Sunday, October 1, 2023

Disharmonium--Nahab, I'm In the Band, and More

Things that brought me delight in September 2023:

Blut Aus Nord, Disharmonium--Nahab

The great thing about the arrival of a new Blut Aus Nord record is that you never really know what to expect. On Disharmonium--Nahab, Blut Aus Nord operates with a mastery of dissonance. This is a churning, expansive project that evokes the darkest corners of the monstrous and unknown cosmos. Highly recommended for fans of the cosmic strain of weird fiction; this might be the soundtrack to all your favorite books that you never knew existed.

Sean Yseult, I'm In the Band

Sean Yseult's I'm In the Band is a book that documents the bass player's time in White Zombie. The landscape format, while a little awkward to hold, is put to good use here as it's absolutely packed with pictures from tours, publicity, and candid moments from the era. Accompanying the pictures are Yseult's reminiscences about what it was like to be in a weird band that, against all odds, rose out of the ranks of the underground and found unexpected mainstream success. 

House of Darkness

House of Darkness was actually a pretty interesting film. A businessman gets more than he bargains for when he picks up a beautiful woman at a bar and drives her home. The film is mostly one long scene of seduction, interrupted by little moments of weirdness, until the final scene. House of Darkness really extends what would probably be the first half hour in a different film. It's pretty easy to see what's coming, and I'm not sure this is what most people think of as a horror film, but I liked the drama of it all. I guess I just don't get tired of Justin Long being a jerkass who gets menaced along the way.

Christa Faust, Gary Phillips, and Andrea Camerini, Peepland

Peepland is a pretty solid crime comic that captures the seedy vibe of Times Square in the 80s. The story centers on a punk rocker who's working the peepshow booths, when one day an on-the-run pornographer passes off a videotape to her before he is unceremoniously pushed in front of a subway train. When the videotape reveals the truth about a seemingly random act of violence in the city, our punk rock sex worker finds herself in the crosshairs of some powerful people who will do anything to get the tape. This one's a nice little jolt of hardboiled, with very fun, evocative art that really nails the grimy, gritty feel of the era.

EYEHATEGOD, A History of Nomadic Behavior

EYEHATEGOD might be the ultimate in Feels Bad music. Their sludgy, punky take on metal feels like being down and out, hungover, and praying for death. Time really hasn't dulled their razorblades at all; despite being a latter-day record, A History of Nomadic Behavior is lacerating stuff. I'm almost afraid to put on some days.

Joe R. Lansdale, The Drive In 2

I really loved Joe R. Lansdale's first Drive In book, but this second one is definitely a different beast. It's a bit odd, structurally speaking, that the sequel is a mostly comprised of lengthy flashbacks. The narrative's forward momentum only peaks it head out of the carnage in the last ten pages of the book, and even then the story of The Drive In 2 really centers on how sometimes it's too late to get a good resolution. That wasn't what I expected out of Lansdale's b-movie madness, but to be honest I appreciated the turn toward the arthouse. I do wish the dinosaur on the cover did feature more prominently in the novel though!

Christa Faust, Mike Deodato Jr., Lee Loughridge, Bad Mother

My monthly tour through Christa Faust's comic output continues. In Bad Mother, a criminal organization kidnaps the wrong soccer mom's kid! While it may strain credibility if you really think about how easily the mom in this comic slips into the role of criminal-thwarting vigilante badass, remember the maxim of MST3K: repeat to yourself it's just a show, you should really just relax. Come for the unusual premise, stay for the hardboiled crime violence meted out with an unnatural and disturbing precision. 

Freaks on Parade, Scranton PA

Luckily it only started pouring as we were driving away from the venue! Great show, but we've determined we HATE the venue. Absolutely insanely chaotic clusterfuck parking situation and every employee at the place seemed to disappear as soon as the show was over. Just...no one directing a massive amount of traffic out of there. Also, compared to the awesome food trucks that showed up for the Ghost show the month before...the only choices were really expensive carnival food.

We got there in the middle of Filter's set and used their remaining time on stage to get beer and pizza because we do not give a shit about Filter. Ministry was surprisingly really good! And I appreciated that they didn't fuck around by playing songs from their latter-day albums that no one knows or cares about. Straight goth club banger hits out of them, bless. 

I have not traditionally been the biggest Alice Cooper fan, recognizing that he is a classic guy who doesn't really grab my attention, but his show was fantastic actually! Also, Nita Strauss was one of his touring guitarists for this tour. If you put "make a rock chick" into the computer from Weird Science, Nita Strauss would step out. 

Rob Zombie was great. If anything he's gotten more energetic on stage--now he does a lot of high kicks? His on-stage banter is weirdly normie--but the setlist was great. Here's a funny thing: before the last song they played a commercial for the release of House of 1000 Corpses. I'm not used to a commercial in a gig, dude.

Witchery, Witchkrieg

I didn't get around to Witchkrieg in last month's return to Witchery, but I sure as hell made time for it in September. Frankly, Witchkrieg kicks like a mule. Super tight blackened thrash all the way through, with a bunch of pretty good guest appearances to boot. This thing threatens to push your face in, and then it follows through.

Christa Faust, Mike Deodato Jr., Lee Loughridge, Redemption

Compared to the other Christa Faust comics I read in September, Redemption is a totally different deal. Taking place in a post-apocalyptic Western landscape, the comic deals in regret, vengeance, and the high price paid for holding onto ideals. There aren't many surprises where the characters are concerned in Redemption, but the worldbuilding is pretty nice; it gets the mix of Western conventions and post-apoc bad times just about right. However, whereas Bad Mother felt nicely self-contained, I wouldn't have minded a few more issues to let Redemption really stretch its legs a bit more. I still really enjoyed it--I mean, c'mon, I'm asking for more here!

Still Dead: Book of the Dead 2

Still Dead: Book of the Dead 2 is a book I got my hands on back in 1992, and it was pivotal. I was just getting seriously into horror fiction at the time, I was exploring the more transgressive ends of art, and this splatterpunk thing was...a thing. This book wrapped all of that up in a putrid little package. I wasn't sure that I'd like it nearly as much after re-reading it decades later, but this thing still kicks so much ass. Nominally based on George Romero's zombie flicks, the book collects a number of stories with a real punk rock ethos. Things are seedy, trashy, sardonic, and there's heart under the black leather and rotting flesh. I can't stress how badass this anthology is--I'm not sure it's ever been equaled. I talk about it more on this episode of Bad Books for Bad People.

Dan Brereton, Night Owls

I found myself turning to Dan Brereton's art books for inspiration after devouring a ton of them last month. In September I got ahold of Night Owls. Night Owls mostly collects pin up art of his characters from Nocturnals, but toward the end you get more of a mix of his renditions of monster girls and characters famous from comics and movies. Brereton has a type and man does he follow that muse no matter what dark alley it leads him down.

Do you like pumpkins? Get this. You like hot spooky chicks? Get this. You like some of the best painterly art out there at the moment? You get the picture.

Jill Bauman's art

I picked up some new art in September, including this piece by Jill Bauman, which was used as the cover art for Tor's original edition of Ramsey Campbell's The Doll Who Ate His Mother. I've long loved this particular piece; I probably love the art for that particular Campbell novel even more than the novel itself! There's something about the contrast of classical ruin with the blood and the threat lurking within that really gets me. Just as a fyi, Jill Bauman's prints are quite reasonably priced and come expertly packaged--if you're an afficionado of dark art, you're likely to find something in her catalog or prints that catches your fancy.

Christa Faust, Pricilla Petraites, and Marco Lesko, Hit Me

Rounding out my tour of Christa Faust's crime comics was Hit Me, in which a "professional pain slut" gets mixed up in the criminal underground when a client dies in possession of a bag of stolen diamonds. It turns out that being a sadist is a valuable skill when you're being worked over by the mob during an interrogation. The comic has a wonderful mix of seedy characters, nice action sequences, and a lively, glitzy art style throughout. Not every author successfully makes the transition for comics--and most who try don't get it together--but Christa Faust feels like a natural.

Ramsey Campbell, Ghosts Know

I've been iffy on Ramsey Campbell's work for a long while, despite really wanting to get into what he throws down. That said, Ghosts Know was the easiest of Campbell's novels to get into, so far. Ghosts Know is about a radio host who is trying to expose a "I can hear your dead grandpa" style psychic who seems to be exploiting the family of a teenage girl who has gone missing, but the radio personality ends up accused (in a veiled way) of her murder by said psychic. I would characterize the novel more as suspense than horror, but I appreciate that Campbell didn't tie up all the loose ends too nearly. Also, it's worth mentioning that one technique he makes good use of is hinting at the violent wellspring of the protagonist's anger before spelling out his dark history.

Slasher: Solstice

I was in the mood for a slasher flick, but the movie I picked out was so bad I only mention it here to warn you off of it: Alone at Night. Disappointed, and with my slasher itch unscratched, I turned to the third season of Slasher, a series I that's been languishing in my queue for years. And you know, contrary to some opinions I've seen, the Solstice season is actually pretty fun! There are some inventive kills, and a fairly intriguing storyline. Sure, it stretches credibility that most of the potential victims live in the same apartment building, but no more so than a summer camp where murders regularly occur staying open. Spoiler: some folks don't like that "bad" characters survive in the end, but I say if you're watching slashers for the ethical lessons you've already fucked up.

El Gato Gomez's art

While I was on my little art buying binge, I bought a couple pieces from El Gato Gomez. As you can from the picture on the right, I picked up a great vintage-inspired spooky print. You can practically hear the wind blowing eerily, right? I also picked up a not-pictured print depicting all the monster cereal mascots. Damn, I love those guys and want to party with them.

Dan Abnett, Pariah

Is Dan Abnett the most talented author to write tie in game fiction? It sure feels like that's the case. Pariah is the first novel in a sequence that threatens to cross the streams on two of his best series; the book reintroduces the character Bequin, though this is a different Bequin than the one we new from previous novels, as a way to set up the epic confrontation between the inquisitors Ravenor and Eisenhorn.

The setting details in Pariah are great. There are streets in the city of Queen Mab considered holy because a saint once walked down them, so they've been abandoned in reverence by everyone except the PTSD riddled augmented soldiers who make war against each other; Traitor Marines are depicted as monstrously as they should be. And readers of the previous books will get the peculiar joy of noticing elements from the past and figuring out how they fit into the scheme of things. 

Ash vs. Evil Dead, Season 2

I'm pushing on with Ash vs. Evil Dead. To be honest, I think this season doesn't hold together as well as the first, at least overall. The episodes in the asylum, in particular, didn't do much for me! But on the positive side, I have to note that Season 2 does all in on some great gross-out gags. And by "gag" I mean you might just gag when some of these scenes roll around. I plan on finishing the series in October; hopefully things pick back up. Spoiler: also, boy, Ash's love interest in this season sure does get over the death of her husband and daughter in short order!!

Famous Monsters, In the Night!!! and Around the World in 80 Bikinis

You can tell that Halloween is right around the corner because I'm digging out all the spooky and fun tunes already. Famous Monsters is an all-girl group who specialized in monster-themed surf rock. Although not the most technically proficient group--if I recall, a couple members may have been fairly new to their instruments--In the Night!!! and Around the World in 80 Bikinis have a primitive charm that's really hard to deny.

Necropolis 2350

Since I was running a hack of Dark Heresy and Savage Worlds in September, I dug up Necropolis 2350 and its supplements for mechanical inspiration. For those who haven't seen it, Necropolis 2350 is basically Warhammer 40k with the numbers filled off and the premise boiled down to a singular focus; instead of presenting a science fantasy world as expansive as 40k's world-building and competing factions, Necropolis 2350 pits a religious human empire against the forces of the undead. There's a lot of cool ideas here, and plenty I can repurpose. I will say, though, that the print in the adventure collection is so miniscule as to be unusable!

Enys Men

I'm not generally a fan of movies with more ambiance than plot, but Enys Men was pretty good. I wouldn't recommend it to many people, but if anyone wants to watch a good approximation of the "hauntological" 70s British horror aesthetic and just let the folk horror vibe wash over them, this is a decent bet. After watching Enys Men, you'll probably be like me: left with no idea what is happening in the movie. Something about an isolated woman on an island with a mournful monolith, reliving her past trauma. Also something about eerie invasive lichen. It hardly matters; just enjoy the creepy ride.

Sandra Niemi, Glamour Ghoul: The Passions and Pain of the Real Vampira, Maila Nurmi and Cassandra Peterson, Yours Cruelly, Elvira

One of these is a biography of Vampira, the other an autobiography of Elvira. I won't say more now, but you can look forward to a very special October episode of Bad Books for Bad People in which we explore both in terrifying depth!

Daniel Way, Jen and Sylvia Soska, Rob Dumo, Kill-Crazy Nymphos Attack!

I hope you weren't expecting subtly from something called Kill-Crazy Nymphos Attack! because you sure as fuck aren't going to get it. Delightfully over-the-top and unafraid of being charged with bad taste, the comic concerns a cut-rate scientist who concocts a formula to make every woman his sexual plaything--except that he's terrible at science, so he just manages to turn all the women in his area into the titular kill-crazy nymphos. You can expect blood, lowbrow gags, and no punches pulled from this baby.

Ghoultown, Best of the Dead West Volume One

Although I've got a bunch of the songs on this "best of" disc from Ghoultown on other releases, there are enough rarities here to make it a worthwhile listen. Of particular interest is "Mistress of the Dark," the band's paean to horror hostess extraordinaire Elvira. "Werewolves on Wheels," "Dead Outlaw," and "Drink With the Living Dead" are also treats.

The Nun II

Let's be honest, The Nun and it's sequel are not good movies, but I'm giving The Nun II some credit for being a bit of decent escapism exactly when I needed it. Although it's a movie that fundamentally doesn't trust its audience--there are at least three instances of flashbacks inserted to explain the (actually quite simple) plot of the movie just in case the people watching are dum-dums--and it's honestly light on scares (even jump scares, oddly enough), but some of the Catholic Lite location work is kinda fun. Also the effect where the demon nun makes a bunch of magazines look like...a demon nun...is pretty cool, even if it makes little sense in the context of the movie.

Dan Abnett, Penitent

I enjoyed Penitent, but it might be the first time where I thought Abnett's plotting gave way to a kludge of necessity rather than just being a cool series of pulpy events. Bequin descends into the city's underbelly, where the desperate and depraved are competing against each other in a bloodsport, just to say thank you to a guy who is not going to remember her? Weird.

Anyway, things get better from there, but it's also an odd choice to have Eisenhorne and Ravenor act like children when they're hundreds of years old. Additionally, one funny thing in the climax: Penitent ends with the revelation of a character's real name, but I'm not steeped deep enough in 40k lore to escape saying "Oh...who is that guy?" Now I've got to wait for the third installment, which is nowhere in sight.

Tales From the Loop: They Grow Up So Fast

They Grow Up So Fast is a campaign book for the Tales From the Loop rpg that focuses on some fateful camping trips and what the kids find out there in the wilderness. I was thinking of running one of the adventures in this book as part of my Halloween games, but they fit so well together as a campaign I can't bear to pry them apart; They Grow Up So Fast feels like an "all or nothing" proposition, which I mean in a positive way.

Gordon Rennie and Martin Emond, White Trash

White Trash is one wild-ass comic, man. An Axl Rose-lookalike falls in with Elvis on the road. Elvis, it turns out, has made a deal with the Devil that requires him to mount a comeback in Las Vegas. Along the way, Elvis engages in extreme ultraviolence and says a bunch of slurs; KKK members, rednecks, and evil preachers get merked left and right and Elvis and his little buddy head toward Sin City. White Trash is an absolutely amazing skewering of American trash culture; absolutely essential PLANET MOTHERFUCKER inspiration, if you ask me.

Hexvessel, Polar Veil

On first listen, Polar Veil was a huge surprise. I'm used to Hexvessel delivering weirdo psychedelic, arboreal folk, but Polar Veil presents an unrelenting wall of churning guitar that is somewhere between shoegaze and Emperor. Hexvessel is outstandingly aggressive on this release, and frankly this curveball is a welcome change. This one is going to require multiple listens to really come to grips with, but I'm legitimately fascinated by this record. 

The House That Screamed

Every Halloween season I make a list of movies I want to rewatch (usually ones that my girlfriend hasn't seen yet), but I also always sneak in a few movies that I've been meaning to scratch off my personal list as well. At the end of September, I finally got a chance to see The House That Screamed, aka The Finishing School. This flick concerns a boarding school for young women with some sort of illicit darkness in their past, and of course it isn't a safe or supportive environment. I love a boarding school Gothic, and this one is fantastic. You can definitely see how it influenced films as diverse as Suspiria and a whole host of slashers. Also, I want to note that Arrow Video's restoration of the film is exquisite!

Dark Heresy: Black Sepulchre

We played through Black Sepulchre, the first third of the Apostasy Gambit campaign, in September. (Although we used a hack of Savage Worlds and Dark Heresy instead of using Dark Heresy proper.) I was surprised to see that this series of adventures is held in low esteem in some quarters of the nerd-ass internet; personally, I thought this one had a nice mix of exploration and action, to say nothing of a great introductory scene and a fun "big reveal" at the end of the book that will be especially thrilling to hardcore Warhammer heads.

Soska Sisters Print!

This signed print came with my copy of Kill-Crazy Nymphos Attack! Man, I love the Soska sisters.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

The Haematite Cathedral

Our excursion into the grimdark future of Warhammer 40k continued!

The Characters

Sister Rhiannyan, member of the Sisters Repentia who seeks atonement for the galaxy's many sins

Absalom Athanasius, sanctioned Imperial psyker with a talent for telekinesis 

Erastus van Saar, ancient and venerable savant who hails from a Hive World of scum and villainy

Sister Lucrezia, a Sister Hospitaller adept at both healing and confronting heretics with a hand flamer


After the execution of Bulagor Thrungg, Inquisitor Sebaton Valker ordered his retinue to investigate the demonic hand that the corrupt nobleman had wielded. Their inquiries brought them to a site called the Haematite Cathedral, a sprawling black edifice festooned with gargoyles. The cathedral appeared to be abandoned; the cathedral was perched atop a cliff overlooking a tumultuous, slate-gray sea. The surrounding area was overgrown and the gardens lay in ruin.

When the retinue entered the cathedral, they immediately noticed that the nave featured a massive cannon. Erastus examined the cannon and found that it could be made functional with only a modicum of repair. Furthermore, the cannon was still loaded. Near the cannon was a grandfather clock that was still keeping accurate time. Next to the clock was an impression in the wall shaped like a cog inset with a human skull.

After Sister Rhiannyan cut through a door that had been painted over with her Eviscerator, the group found a corpse laying on a bed. The body had been stabbed through with a dagger; the dagger's hilt had the initials G.H. inscribed upon it, which led them to believe that the dagger may have belonged to Gustavus Hekate. Upon further examination, they saw that the corpse's skull had three eye sockets--it seemed that they had found the body of a Navigator who had been murdered within the Haematite Cathedral.

Absalom detected the presence of the Warp inside a large, walk-in oven in the Skulleria. A hidden door opened up into a sweating stone staircase leading down into the darkness. The stairs ended in a bronze door; the area smelled strangely of preservative chemicals. The chamber beyond the bronze door was filled with large cages and operating tables crowded with both medical and occult instruments. A complex symbol was inscribed on the floor. More horrifyingly, the back wall was "decorated" with a number of corpses that had been modified and turned into artificial grotesqueries. 

Erastus could tell that the markings on the work surfaces in this chamber indicated an interest in alchemy and the pursuit of eternal life. He also noted the symbol of the Ruinous Power known as Tzeentch among the symbology present in the room. Flipping a switch in the chamber caused the wall mounted with deformed corpses to slide open, revealing a hidden part of the room. Oddly, the only thing they spotted in this secret space was a large loose flagstone. When Sister Rhiannyan heaved it aside, a terrible charnel smell filled the room. They could see a multitude of corpses and brown sludge clogging the pit beneath the stone.

Moving the stone also caused a manifestation to occur: a man wearing navy-blue formal attire appeared in their midst. His hands were bleeding and he had a massive wound that tore through his midsection, yet he did not seem to be in pain. In fact, he demanded to know why they had broached his inner sanctum and were disturbing his "work." They were face to face with the Warp specter of Gustavus Hekate! A goading word from Sister Lucrezia infuriated Gustavus, and he launched himself into combat against the group. 

He was joined by ambulatory corpses that kept emerging from the pit; Erastus managed to put a few of them down, but ultimately Sister Lucrezia blasted the pit with her hand flamer, nipping that problem in the bud. Gustavus proved to be very difficult to wound. He became immaterial as they pressed their attacks against him, but in the end he too was set ablaze and melted into ash. He left behind a metal object that appeared to be one third of the cog-and-skull that would fit the indentation they had found earlier in their exploration of the Haematite Cathedral. 

After a brief rest, the retinue continued to search the cathedral. Erastus took an interest in an antique hunting rifle, so he took that with him. They found an unsent letter from one Vorkas Hekate to the planetary authorities; the letter was meant to alert said authorities to the suspicious conduct of Koronath Hekate. Beneath a glass display dome, they found a letter of warrant authorizing a family known as the Zanatovs to operate as Rogue Traders, which struck them as odd as everything else in the cathedral seemed tied to the Hekate family.

As they pressed further into this wing of the cathedral, they kept encountering banquets and entertainers, though the entertainers were all corpses arranged around a dinner table. A hidden staircase was located; it proceeded in a strange helix pattern up a tower with a mirrored interior. At the top of the tower, they encountered the Warp specter of Nikaea Hekate, a stout woman clad in an ornate purple ball gown and a towering powdered wig. When the group accused Nikaea of Chaos worship, she attacked them. Luckily, she proved easier to deal with than Gustavus--in no small part to Erastus blasting away with the big hunting rifle. When she "died," she left another third of the object meant to fit into the indentation in the nave.

Speaking of the nave, when the retinue returned to it to breach the northern wing of the Haematite Cathdral, they found that the corpses of Gustavus and Nikaea were propped up in its pews.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Wrath & Glory Review

As I've mentioned a few times here on the blog and on my Discord, I've been interested in running an Inquisition-focused game inspired by Dan Abnett's Eisenhorn and Ravenor books. On the official front, the options are the old Dark Heresy rpg, the newer Wrath & Glory, and the brand-new Imperium Maledictum. This post is a review of Wrath & Glory and why I'm not using it for my current 40k campaign.

First, a Positive: High Action

I want to start by praising something I like about Wrath & Glory: the game is meant for high action 40k adventures where the characters are larger than life figures that overshadow the common citizens of the Imperium. This is an aspect of the game that makes it a good fit for Abnett's books. The characters in the Eisenhorn and Ravenor novels are all outstanding individuals with skills and abilities far beyond average. 

In contrast, Dark Heresy, which is ostensibly a game about playing characters in an Inquisitor's retinue, tends to produce characters that feel like greenhorn Imperial failsons. The fetish for "You are playing an incompetent loser" strikes again in its design, in my opinion. I've figured out ways to hack Dark Heresy to get the kind of characters I want to see in my game (namely by starting at Rank 5 and giving a bunch of free stat boosts, which is admittedly a lot of extra work in character creation), but this is something Wrath & Glory manages straight out of the gate.

All Things to All People: A Losing Proposition

The earlier 40k rpgs, Dark Heresy, Only War, Deathwatch, Rogue Trader, are all hyper-focused on portraying a specific aspect of the Warhammer 40k universe. (They are focused on Inquisition agents, soldiers of the Imperial Guard, space marines, and err rogue traders, respectively.) In contrast, the Wrath & Glory core book offers a wide variety of possibilities as its baseline. You can play as Battle Sisters, Astartes, Orks, Aeldari, Imperial agents, gangers, etc. Unfortunately, a focus that wide means that the game is ill-equipped to handle any of them with detail and depth. There's just too many possibilities competing for space, so most of them have yet to be fleshed-out.

The Imperium of Man gets the most focus in Wrath & Glory, but even that feels under-developed. Of course, there is an element of unfairness in this critique. To use Dark Heresy again as a point of reference, that game had an expansive line of supplements covering almost every possible element of being a member of an Inquisitorial retinue. Nearly everything I've gone looking for in Dark Heresy is tucked away in one sourcebook or another. In contrast, Wrath & Glory just doesn't have the backlog of material to draw from, and I honestly don't think it will exist long enough to get to that point. 

While it's true I could homebrew any missing content I need for Wrath & Glory, I prefer having that work done for me in Dark Heresy.

Sloppy Sloppy Sloppy

The last thing I want to focus on is the seeming lack of care that has gone into Wrath & Glory. This isn't something you immediately notice; it reveals itself over time the deeper you delve into the books. As an example of this, consider the Telekinesis psychic discipline. According to the book, "A mind practised in telekinesis can bend physics to their will, moving, crushing, or blocking objects using raw mental power." Sounds good, except there are no abilities for moving things with your mind. There are plenty of powers for throwing objects at an enemy or crushing them with telekinetic force, but I didn't find one that does what you probably think of when you hear the word "telekinesis." 

(There are a few minor psychic powers that let you manipulate objects, but nothing I could find would let you move a heavy object with your brain, catch a falling ally mid-air, etc.)

To stay in the psychic powers chapter for a second, here's another instance of the sloppiness I'm talking about: the Flame Breath power fails to note how much damage the fire actually deals. It's been years and this had not had any errata.

This sloppiness isn't confined to the core book. For example, in the Forsaken System Player's Guide, both the Astartes Chaplain and Astartes Librarian archetypes have an ability called Chapter Cult, but the abilities are completely different. This is clearly a copy & paste error that never got fixed prior to publication. These issues are small, but they add up to contribute to the game being an unappealing option to me.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Death From Above

I've finally followed through on my long-standing threat to run a Warhammer 40k game in which the players are part of an Inquisitor's retinue! To be honest, I experienced a little trepidation before we got started; would I be able to make the game feel like 40k? In retrospect, I'm pleased with how it went. I wanted the vibe of Dan Abnett's Eisenhorn and Ravenor novels (minus the presence of an Inquisitor directing things) and I think we got there. Plus, it was a blast. 

I'm using The Black Sepulchre, the first adventure in The Apostasy Gambit campaign published for Dark Heresy, but for the system we're using my own hack that combines Dark Heresy with Savage Worlds. It worked well; the characters felt competent like the agents in Abnett's fiction, so that is a win. 

Below is a record of what went down.

The Characters

Ash Underblade, assassin plucked from a Schola Progenium and trained for murder

Sister Rhiannyan, member of the Sisters Repentia who seeks atonement for the galaxy's many sins

Absalom Athanasius, sanctioned Imperial psyker with a talent for telekinesis 

Erastus van Saar, ancient and venerable savant who hails from a Hive World of scum and villainy


The retinue had been tasked by Inquistor Sebaton Valker with collecting evidence of Bulagor Thrungg's heresies; in particular, they were to locate any items from the "Museum of Apostasy" in the dissolute noble's manor. To fulfill the Emperor's will, the retinue found themselves in a Valkyrie swooping in on Thrungg's manor as the Imperial Guard stormed his compound and engaged Thrungg's household guards in combat. The Valkyrie shot a hole in the glass-ceilinged chapel so that the retinue, each of them strapped into a grav-chute, could infiltrate the manor.

The chapel was supposed to be unoccupied, but instead two of Thrungg's guards and a gun servitor had been pushed back to the chapel. A pitched battle ensued, but the retinue managed to kill one of the household guards and disable the gun servitor. The other guard surrendered, but Sister Rhiannyan decapitated him with her Eviscerator anyway. Those who deny the Emperor must fall!

With the room clear of threats, they investigated the chapel. The most noteworthy thing in the room was a dead priest, whose arm had been severed at the elbow, but his lower arm was missing. He was lying facedown in a pool of blood; there was also a great quantity of black feathers that had been scattered throughout the blood. In the priest's remaining hand was a book of Imperial prayers--but Erastus quickly determined that the sermons contained therein had been altered in such a way as to encourage a congregation to adopt heretical views.

Their vox beads crackled with a message from Captain Scipio of the Imperial Guard; Bulagor Thrungg had slipped away and was holed up in the manor's menagerie. He asked the retinue to cut off Thrungg's escape. They opened the hallway door and were nearly felled by a blast of fire--the las fire from the guardsmen and the household guards had lit the manor on fire. 

In the menagerie, hundreds of exotic birds had been released from their cages and were flying everywhere, obscuring line of sight. When they finally spotted Thrungg he was holding the leashes of two vicious beasts that looked like hybrids of crocodiles and hyaenas. They also noticed that one of Thrungg's arms ended in a large, demonic, armor-plated hand. Thrungg loosed his creatures on the retinue. Sister Rhiannyan fended off Thrungg's beasts. Ash crept into the underbrush to get the drop on Thrungg. Erastus took potshots here and there. Absalom focused his will and used his telekinesis to pick up one of the creatures and hurl it at Thrungg. This proved to be highly effective--the creature bowled into Thrungg at velocity and broke the heretic's neck.

When Thrungg died, the demonic hand detached itself from his body. Ash tried to destroy the hand with gunfire, but it was impervious. The retinue decided to place the hand in a bird cage so they could carry it around without touching it directly. Also, in one of Thrungg's waistcoat pockets they found a key. The mystery of the key's purpose was solved when they found a maid cowering in fear in a side room. The maid informed them that the key unlocked the trapdoor leading to the Museum of Apostasy. She showed them where the trapdoor was--underneath the body of the dead priest in the chapel. 

Down in the depths beyond the trapdoor, they found a series of pedestals showcasing a variety of heretical items. Among the weapons, Xenos artifacts, and books of Chaos was a single data-slate. When the data-slate was examined, it powered up of its own volition; it flashed a strange image of a golden cathedral atop a blackened heart. The data-slate also contained Thrungg's personal diary of heretical thoughts and his involvement with the Ruinous Powers of the Warp. Sister Rhiannyan recognized the cathedral as the Gilded Cathedral of Barsapine.

After the group forwarded the seized forbidden items and their findings to Sebaton Valker, he commanded them to board a rogue trader he had hired and make their way to Barsapine in search of information about the origins of the demonic hand that Thrungg had attached to his body.

The city of Kephistron Altis on Barsapine was located on the part of the planet that was cloaked in perpetual darkness. An orbital mirror had been placed to allow a single beam of sunlight to fall on the city. It was positioned to hit to Gilded Cathedral--the shining place of worship illuminated the entire city. 

At the Gilded Cathedral, the retinue were greeted by the elderly Abbot Jurutas, who offered to show them to the library where they might find the information they sought. On the way to the library, Jurutas pointed out a large something built into the cathedral that was covered with an expanse of black velvet. Abbot Jurutas explained that it was the Black Sepulchre, a tomb that hid a great weapon of the Imperium. Once they were ensconced in the library, the retinue decided to split their efforts. Erastus would look through the books for any references connected to their previous mission, while the others would attempt to take a look inside the Black Sepulchre.

Sister Rhiannyan caused a distraction by flagellating herself with her scoriada. Meanwhile, Ash attempted to look under the velvet covering. What he saw was a black doorway with a protrusion that looked not unlike a lascannon. However, attempting to get close to it was made impossible due to the presence of a protective field that repulsed their advance.

Back in the library, Erastus found references to a Haematite Cathedral that was involved with the Hekate dynasty, the Changer of Ways, and a Warp entity called the Dei-Phage. He also found corrodinates for the Haematite Cathedral. After Erastus relayed his findings to the others over their vox channel, they decided to pile into their transport and head to Haematite Cathedral to gather more intel. However, they were attacked on the steps of the Gilded Cathedral by cultists pretending to be beggars. Among the cultists was a pyrokinetic psyker! 

The cultists were dispatched fairly easily, but when Absalom attempted to channel his powers he triggered the Perils of the Warp--his eyelids melted, fusing his eyes closed! Luckily, Sebaton Valker had equipped them with a medicae servitor skull that was able to provide some (painful) impromptu surgery to unseal his eyes. These are the mortifications required of those who serve the Emperor's will.

Next time: The Haematite Cathedral.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

How I Craft a Campaign Arc

We recently wrapped up a pretty momentous arc in our Savage Krevborna game. This is a post about how I set it up; I'm making this post to show you the techniques that I used to make an arc that was both super-satisfying to my players (or so they say) and easy to implement on my end.

To sum up what this arc entailed: in an early adventure, one of the pieces of loot that the characters found was a chart of the cosmos. In a few of the adventures that followed, they discovered complimentary cosmic maps that could be overlayed on the one they already had; doing so changed the nature of the maps and indicated a location in the mountains connected to the mysteries of the cosmos.

Meanwhile, in a different adventure, the characters had taken a mysterious comatose woman encased in a glass coffin from an isolated lighthouse. They decided that they would attempt to lift the curse that was keeping her unconscious. When they accomplished this goal, the first thing the woman said was a warning that something ominous called "the Red Window" was opening. And it turned out that the location on their cosmic map was the site of the Red Window.

Everything came together, and they decided that their new goal was to shut the Red Window before something eldritch and terrible slipped out into their world.

In play, I think this felt very cumulative--like pieces falling into place as planned. Which means I must have had all of this elaborately planned from the start of the campaign, right?

Lol, lmao.

* * *

One piece of advice I give in the Krevborna book is this: "keep an eye out for the things that pique your players’ curiosity and catch their imaginations, then give them more of that. Shine the lantern’s light on the things that grab them." This campaign arc is a great example of that advice in practice. What it means is that you do not have to write a novel's worth of plot before you start playing; your players will gas up the car as they drive around in your sandbox.

Technique #1: When you're planning out the loot in your adventures, add a couple items that seem interesting, but that you have absolutely no idea what they're for.

The first cosmic chart they found was essentially a throw-away item. Just a star chart with some otherworldly atmosphere. Nothing to it. But one player immediately took an interest in it. Noting his excitement about this inconsequential item let me know that I should make it consequential going forward. Thinking on it between sessions pushed me to the idea that there were more cosmic charts that were additive with this first one. Note that I still didn't know that they would point to the Red Window. I didn't need to know that yet.

Technique #2: When the players set a goal, you follow it even if it leads to Hell.

I was surprised that during the lighthouse adventure the players ended up taking responsibility for the woman in the glass coffin's well-being. I'd run that adventure before with different groups, and they had all inadvertently killed Rebecca by shattering the glass coffin. But this group made it clear that they were going to find a cure for the curse keeping Rebecca in a state between life and death. They handed me a plot hook for future use; I could have made adventures that veered in a different direction, but that would have been folly. If they're hot on something, you should be hot on it too.

But I also gave them choices of where they could potentially go to seek help reviving Rebecca because this wasn't a railroad. They choose to travel to Creedhall and ultimately attempt to get Viktoria Frankenstein to aid them. 

Technique #3: Always cross the streams. 

I was already thinking about cosmic matters since they had an interest in the cosmic charts, so it made thematic sense to have the root cause of Rebecca's stasis to be eldritch in nature. When they effected a cure, Rebecca's first words tied everything together neatly: she spoke of an eldritch entity she had encountered while a soul was detached from her body inside glass coffin. And it just so happened that their cosmic charts were pointing them toward an encounter with that same entity. To move toward a conclusion, different strands need to entwine.

There were other small elements I also managed to tie in here. For one, they had made a mechanical NPC called the Widow their friend and companion, which let me slip in--via Viktoria Frankenstein--that the Widow's animating lifeforce also originated in the eldritch cosmos. This was connected to both the place on their cosmic map and to Rebecca's curse. For another, when they were in the process of stealing the third map they needed to complete their set, I had them discover that a noble was harvesting the brains of people who had been similarly afflicted with Rebecca's curse; in fact, he had a spot open for Rebecca's brain.

Technique #4: Add some urgency when it's time to resolve an arc.

Now that they had all the maps indicating a location and some basic knowledge about the Red Window and what resided there, all I needed to wrap this up was some anxious impetus to get them moving. The idea that the Red Window was opening, and that something really bad was going to come slithering out of it, put them in motion toward nipping that in the bud with some finality.

Technique #5: Blow your FX budget on the finale.

I wanted to make resolving this arc special, so I tried to give them a sense of being involved in grander things. The idea of leaving Krevborna to enter a tear in reality to another plane entered here, as did a set of otherworldly stairs leading up into the sky. And, of course, confronting the eldritch entity at the end of the rainbow had to feel BIG and WEIRD too. When they got there, killed the avatar of a cosmic horror, and accomplished what they set out to do, it felt like epic heroism on their part because they stakes were high and they had to sweat while doing it.

Bonus Technique #6: While you're resolving a set of plot hooks, keep throwing MORE plot hooks at them to see what sticks.

Even as we neared a focused goal for this arc, I kept seeding the game with potential hooks for future arcs. They met an NPC during their heist of the third part of their map who they now know has been kidnapped by their foes and is in grave danger. On the way to the Red Window they failed to stop a vampire lord from being released from her underearth prison; now they know she's sucking blood of innocents all across the land. They heard that one of their allies seems to be searching for something of great import. All or any of these might be the basis of the next arc.

Do I know what will happen? Have I got it all planned out in advance? Hell no, but I can't wait to find out what's going on and I can't wait to see how they fight their way out of the scrapes to come.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

The Matrix: Resurrections


The most shocking thing about The Matrix: Resurrections is that it's a mostly decent movie. It's also a decent encapsulation of the experience of watching the original trilogy. The first half most closely resembles the first movie in the series: it's stylish, action-packed, and leaves you wondering what exactly is going on. Unfortunately, the second half mirrors the latter two movies: way too much talking. The talking is an issue on at least two fronts; as ever, the dialog has been written with a leaden ear and the more the movie tries to explain itself, the more it reveals the vacuous Philosophy For Dummies underlying its Big Ideas. It even doggedly sticks to the notion of ending things on an anticlimax. 

Monday, September 11, 2023

Deadlands: Grim Prairie Tales

Savage Worlds has never been a game with a dedicated series of "monster manuals" meant for general use with the system; rather, bestiaries are largely setting-specific or exist as chapters in the various Savage Worlds genre companions. Grim Prairie Trails (whose name is surely an allusion to the classic horror western anthology film Grim Prairie Tales) is a hybrid book for Deadlands: Reloaded that presents a heapin' helping of monster stats within the context of short adventures that showcase how a GM might use the new adversaries found within its pages.

Included within the book are "generic" monsters and unique, named villains. General monsters include:

  • Bloat: an animate, waterlogged corpse
  • Clockwork Demoler: a robotic vermin-hunter
  • Death Cloud: a sentient mist created by the fallout from experimental weapons
  • Doomsower: blood roses that spread disease
  • Fever Phantom: a specter of someone who succumbed to ghost rock fever
  • Gluttonous Ogre: Asian-flavored ogre
  • Hodag: a demon-possessed, undead ox
  • Javeraha: a tusked beast
  • Lyncher: the animate corpse of an innocent who met their end at the hands of mob justice
  • Minikin: a murderous porcelain doll
  • Raven Mocker: a vampiric being with avian talons
  • Swarm Man: man-shaped thing formed from masses of beetles
  • Terrormental: a corrupt elemental
  • Weaver: a giant spider who can control people like puppets with its webs

Among the unique named villains are: 

  • Agatha Leeds: a black magician of the Whateley family
  • Jebediah Nightlinger: the proprietor of a supernatural carnival
  • Redcap Morris: an undead bounty hunter
  • The Squatpump Gang: inbred hillbillies
  • Wilton’s Head: a head in a jar with malicious powers

The book is rounded-out by a selection of useful "regular folk" and animal stats. Excepting the regular folk and generic critters, each of the above monsters is accompanied with a briefly-sketched adventure. This has become one of my favored ways to present monsters; by giving you both the stats for a new monster and an example of what you could do with those stats you get an incredible amount of utility from the book. 

Overall, the variety of foes presented in Grim Prairie Trails is wide, ranging from undead, beasts, and even weirder tangents. The art is nice throughout, and having a varied selection of one-shot adventures with monsters the players aren't expecting is never a bad thing. This is a great little book for people running Deadlands: Reloaded, and the conversion work to bring it in-line with the current edition of Deadlands: The Weird West is minimal. The conversion work for other "weird west" games, such as Owl Hoot Trail or Haunted West, will be more arduous the further the system ranges from Savage Worlds' baseline assumptions, but it still might be worth picking up on the cheap as a source of ideas and adventure sketches.