Tuesday, February 28, 2023

The Marigold, The Whisperer in Darkness, Holler, and More

Things that brought me delight in February, 2023:

Andrew F. Sullivan, The Marigold

The central character of Andrew F. Sullivan’s The Marigold is decay, though here decay is multiform, omnipresent, and overwhelming. The book considers environmental decay, the decay of the drunken dreams of capital, the decay of the human animal’s ability to recognize the shared life of humanity; it examines the skeletal linkage between seemingly disparate decompositions, tracing the taught sinews that connect the dooms that loom above and lurk below us. 

Despite being well-realized and compelling as narrative agents, the novel’s characters function as discrete elements of a larger Greek chorus–each strand of specificity they represent emerges from the profuse soup of collective decay to shine brightly in their moment before being subsumed back into the inescapable mire. In other places, by other mouths, mostly likely at the boardroom level, that mire is called progress–but The Marigold is wiser and knows better. This is what good horror is: an expanding of uncanny possibilities and an admission that our worst fears are only ever the observable symptoms of an obfuscated illness allowed to run wild. For profit, for greed, for sheer bloody-mindedness and the belief that only our finite lives matter–this is why we live in hell. The rot runs deeper than we dare admit, but The Marigold tells all.

The Lovecraft Investigations: The Whisperer in Darkness

I continued with my journey through The Lovecraft Investigations by listening to the episodes of the "Whisperer in Darkness" arc. Lovecraft's "Whisperer in Darkness" marked a turning point, where he began to experiment with mixing horror and science fiction in earnest. As part of the Lovecraft Investigations, the story bridges a similar change in the podcast; although it has some folk horror elements, it also introduces anxieties about alien abduction into its already laden version of the mythos. I love that Jack Parsons and numbers stations float around the edges.

Savage Worlds: Holler

I haven't been excited for a new game to arrive for a while now, but Holler showed up and it's so fuckin' cool. I guess this might fit into a "regional Gothic" framework: the game is about a supernaturally isolated Appalachian town where you play folk fighting back against the Big Bosses. So there's some cryptid action, backwoods hoodoo, hootin' and hollerin', and some capitalist critique going on here. Also, those ready to play character cards are a brilliant idea and more games should have them.

Jaimee Wriston Colbert, Wild Things

Jaimee Wriston Colbert's Wild Things is a collection of linked stories that survey the "regional Gothic" that clings to the broken-down places. Wild Things gives such an accurate rendering of how depressing upstate NY is I thought I might murder myself by the end of it.

However, one thing that Wild Things has left me thinking about is how the idea of the "regional Gothic," whether it be the Southern Gothic or the upstate NY version found in this collection, is at heart an invitation to turn our eyes from the entire picture of a local culture. The work of the regional Gothic in amplifying and distorting the homegrown flavor of a locale's grotesquery is always selective, perhaps even reductive--there is always more to the lives of the downtrodden than just meth and abuse. Is the act of looking away our own falling to perceive wholly what is there beneath the grime?

Worm, Gloomlord

The success of Worm's Foreverglade and the acclaim that met the recent Bluenothing ep has brought a reissue of Gloomlord. It shows the marks of being an earlier album; at times it's more primitive in conception and execution, but that doesn't mean that it's without its own guttural charm. There's a nice, churning mix of black, death, and doom metal on the album. Definitely worth checking out if, like me, you're a more recent Worm convert.

Call of Cthulhu: Doors to Darkness

Doors to Darkness is a book of five scenarios purpose-built for people new to Call of Cthulhu. The adventures contained herein all look pretty good, though they do tend to feature the user-unfriendly blocks of text that published adventures almost always have. For a game like Call of Cthulhu that places a lot of emphasis on building a picture of what's going on in a scenario from the minor details, the use of those big blocks of text opens up the possibility of the details either getting lost or being hard to find in play. That said, the book does feature solid advice for new Keepers who have just started running Call of Cthulhu. My group has played through one of the adventures so far, and we had a blast.

Jonathan L. Howard, The Brothers Cabal

After finishing Wild Things, I knew I needed to read something amusing and fun next as a counterbalance, so I settled on Jonathan L. Howard's The Brothers CabalThe Brothers Cabal witnesses the return of Horst, Johannes's vampire brother. Much of the novel is structured as Horst telling Johannes the events that have already transpired; many authors wouldn't have the chops to pull off this long stretch of retrospective storytelling where the protagonist of the series isn't present, but Howard is too skillful to fail here. 

Agatha Christie's Poirot: The Third Floor Flat, Wasps' Nest, The Veiled Lady

Finishing reading Poirot's Early Cases has left with with a nice, healthy backlog of adaptations to watch. The short fiction make for taut episodes; in truth, the stories are so pointed that they have to be expanded or fleshed out in their adapted forms. It's fascinating to see where the padding lands.

Xandria, The Wonders Still Awaiting

Gothic-symphonic metal maximalists Xandria are back and they have not pared their sound back one iota. Like many bands in their niche, they've returned bearing a new singer at the forefront; where does this endless stream of sirens come from? If anything, The Wonders Still Awaiting's biggest potential flaw for the casual listener is the epic length of the record--you need to be all in on this sound to make it to the other side, but if this is your bag you might just have your album of the year in The Wonders Still Awaiting.

Tanith Lee, Sabella or The Blood Stone

One of the promises I made to myself was to read more Tanith Lee in 2023, so I picked up Sabella this month. If you've ever in the market for a melancholic, yearning tale of the vampires of Mars, this should be your first stop. Lee's work has all the stuff people see as lacking from modern SFF: her characters are beautiful and horny, her prose is dreamlike and poetic (I heard the kids like vibes), she never over-explains anything about the fantastical elements in her fiction, and she's fairly unflinching about mature topics. It's a real shame that people who ostensibly want science fiction and fantasy written for adults haven't made the effort to rediscover her work.

Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Cliff Rathburn, The Walking Dead vols. 12-

I put down The Walking Dead back in 2017; luckily, I blogged about the volumes I was reading at the time, so I knew exactly where I had left off. I'll say this about The Walking Dead, it's extremely easy to jump back in after a multi-year hiatus in reading it. That feels like a positive right now for me because, hey picking up right where I left off!, but might be a negative overall because that might mean that not much happens overall. It's hard to believe that I'm sixteen volumes in and still haven't met Negan yet.

Agatha Christie, The Secret Adversary

I decided to reach into my treasure chest of Agatha Christie books and select a non-Poirot novel. I settled on the first book to feature Tommy & Tuppence, two twenty-something knuckleheads who decide to become "adventurers" because they've got no lucrative work to attend to. The Secret Adversary is much sillier than the usual Agatha Christie book. It seems like British secret agents contract the two young dipshits for Important Duties based solely off the fact that they seem "plucky."

Lord of the Lost, Blood & Glitter

Blood & Glitter is a pretty bold about-face from Lord of the Lost's prior album, Judas. Blood & Glitter favors a glam maximalism version of the band's trademark stomping Gothic metal. This record won't be to every fan's taste--a reaction that the band has already anticipated with the track "Leave Your Hate in the Comments"--but if you're in the mood for something colorful and out of the ordinary, check this one out.

Hack/Slash Omnibus Volume 1

I was sorting some comics one day and happened upon a few issues of Hack/Slash that I absolutely do not remember buying. Where did they come from? The mystery remains. Still, I read them, enjoyed what they were going for, so I got ahold of the first omnibus collection of Cassie Hack's adventures versus undead serial killers and had a hootin' and hollerin' time. These are not deep comics in any way, shape, or form, and they certainly don't "elevate the art," but sometimes that's just what you need. 

John Langan, Corpsemouth and Other Autobiographies

The and Other Autobiographies bit of the title is particularly apt for this collection of short fiction by John Langan, as it's plain to see where the lives of the characters intersect with his own. At their best, the stories mine the rich veins of childhood drama and the frustrated desire to get back at those who harmed you (as in "Homegrown Monsters) or the way stories passed down through a family become a distorted lens of monstrosity (as in "Corpsemouth").

When the formula startles, it really works. When it falls back on the same recurring ideas (far too many "it was like something out of a Stephen King novel!" moments for me, too many characters have the identical background of having Scottish parents who moved to upstate New York) it falls a little flat. Also, as forewarning, this is definitely a "grappling with the death of my father" collection, if you know what I mean.

Delain, Dark Waters

Back in 2021, Delain lost all of its members, save for founder Martijn Westerholt. Westerholt is back with an entirely new lineup on Dark Waters, and the result is uncanny. Not only has the band retained its essential sound, but Dark Waters is a damned good entry in the Delain catalog. The new singer may well have been grown in a lab, that's how close her voice is to the departed Charlotte Wessels. My favorite tracks are, of course, the ones where the keyboards and choirs conspire to bring some Gothic majesty to the proceedings, but the whole package is pretty tight.

Stephen King, The Drawing of the Three

I fell in love with The Gunslinger when I read it in the 80s. When The Drawing of the Three came out, I was disappointed. It doesn't really have the same combination of mystic Western and post-apocalyptic horror that drew me in, and at that tender age I felt the shift in storytelling to be a kind of betrayal.

Nevertheless, every time I re-read The Drawing of the Three I find more to appreciate in it. While it's not the most action-packed volume in the series--it mostly functions as an extended "getting the posse together" episode--I see more and more here that catches my imagination.

TORG Eternity: Orrorsh

To be honest, I probably wouldn't have bought this if I hadn't been able to pre-order it on Amazon for ten bucks. The Orrorsh supplement for TORG Eternity retails for $39.99, which seems pretty pricey to me since it's got less than 150 pages of content even if it is a hardcover. But for ten bones I was willing to give it a read, particularly since I have a nostalgic interest in Orrorsh--TORG was one of the "big three" games, along with WFRP and D&D, that we played in high school. 

I've always thought that TORG didn't do enough with the rich promise of "Victorian Gothic horror, but in a colonial context," and I'd say that follows through in this modern incarnation as well. That said, the monsters developed from Indian myths are quite cool, and I really like the Church featured in the setting.

Eric Powell, Hillbilly vol. 1-3 and Red-Eyed Witchery From Beyond

After finishing Eric Powell's The Goon, I made sure to have the collected volumes of Hillbilly waiting in the wings. I dove in during what I knew would be a tough week, hopeful that Powell's tales of a backwoods weirdo hunting witches would carry me through. I was not let down. Although there's plenty of limb-chopping to be found in Hillbilly, the comic is surprisingly not gory for a title focused on an accursed man bearing Satan's own meat cleaver. The comics collected in the compilation volumes are very episodic; you don't need to worry about all that continuity stuff, just dive in and have a good time. It does culminate in an epic battle of great destiny, which is fun. Red-Eyed Witchery From Beyond collects a later miniseries, with art mostly supplied by Simone D'Armini. This one has a bit of a Lovecraftian bent to it; I didn't like it as much as the main series, but it still had some pretty cool bits.

Robert Bloch, American Gothic

This was a Bad Books for Bad People read, but suffice to say that I sure am glad we read it! We have a lot more to say about the novel here, but for now I'll say that I enjoyed delving into a longer work by Robert Bloch in more detail--it definitely gave him more definition in my mind than just being "the Psycho guy" or what I knew of his fiction from anthologized short stories. Plus, American Gothic is just a cracking good read: brisk text, something is always happening, no filler!

Sunday, February 26, 2023

American Gothic

Episode 64: American Gothic

Robert Bloch is one of the best-known names in American horror fiction: a protege of HP Lovecraft and the author Psycho, which would be famously adapted for the screen by Alfred Hitchcock. He was also heavily inspired by historical crime, as we’ll see in the subject of this podcast episode, American Gothic. Join Jack and Kate as they explore the murder castle of the nefarious G. Gordon Gregg.

Just how much like the historical HH Holmes is GG Gregg? What are the perils of being a lady reporter in late-19th century Chicago? Is every American gal just after a big, shiny wedding ring after all? All these questions and more will be answered in this episode of Bad Books for Bad People.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

The Ultimatum (Part Two)

This is the second half of what happened in this session of my "Savage Krevborna" game. The first bit is recapped here.

The Characters

Doctor Pendleton Torst, a sinister surgeon and anatomist

Dalton Thayer, an explorer who collects rare specimens

Countess Catarina Redmoore, a young and mysterious widow


After learning the location of the Church's "secret weapon," Pendleton, Catarina, and Dalton all set about researching it in hopes of learning how it might best be dealt with. One avenue of inquiry indicated that the Ultimatum might be an artifact from the Church's early days of spreading the faith by force. Long thought legendary, the Ultimatum was an object contained in an ark that was brought to offending pagan cities and let loose--where it inevitably caused a reign of bloodshed.

Other research postulated that the Ultimatum's madness-inducing effects were slow acting; prolonged proximity to the artifact was required and its effects wore off quickly once someone was out of the scope of its maddening aura (1). The group agreed that it was best to destroy the item or otherwise remove it from the Church's hands. Belle Silvra agreed and outfitted them with a ship that would take them to the Monastery of Pont de Rais.

The monastery proved to be a former fortress repurposed as a leper colony and place of spiritual contemplation. The isle's pier was mostly made of new wood; clearly, someone had made recent repairs. Waves crashed on shore and the calls of seagulls were nearly deafening. A path wound up the black pebble beach, disappearing into the stone archway of the monastery's surrounding wall.

Passing through the monastery's courtyard, the group got a better sense of the structure. The monastery itself was a small fortress of foreboding gray stone. Attached to the monastery was a belltower. Surrounding it at the front was what was once a garden capable of providing for the residents meals, but it showed signs of becoming overgrown and untended. The monastery's front door wouldn't open; it appeared to be barricaded from within rather than locked. Also, the group noted dried bloodstains on the stones directly in front of the door (2).

The window to the dining hall was broken, so they used it as an entryway into the monastery. Inside, they discovered wrecked furniture, broken dishes, and more dried bloodstains. As they explored, they found more signs of violence within. In the monastery's scriptorium, they found sheets of parchment scrawled with "I saw the angel in the marble, and I carved until I set him free." The madness brought on by the presence of the Ultimatum had been unleashed within the Monastery of Pont de Rais just as it had aboard Captain Laurant's ship.

On the second floor of the monastery, they found a strange set-up in an isolated chamber. A stone basin, its sides decorated with religious motifs, sat below a round mirror that had been suspended from the ceiling (3). Water was poured into the basin and immediately a face formed in the mirror above the water. The face possessed a fierce androgynous beauty and piercing green eyes. The being's mannerisms were strange; it referenced being "carved free." When asked if it was an angel, it replied, "Of course. I am a child of the Word and the Light."

Fearing that they had just freed the Ultimatum, the party made their way to the bell tower, where they found the figure they had been conversing with dusting chucks of marble from its radiant white clothes. Stone shards lay strewn at its feet where it had burst forth from the block of marble in which it had lain dormant. Speaking to the angel proved ineffective; the group soon found themselves ducking and parrying the angel's expert sword blows (4).

The angel's skin was supernaturally tough, rendering it difficult to wound. Pendleton took a savage gash from the angel's sword, and luck alone prevented Catarina from being pierced through. Pendleton began to trim the wick of one of his bombs in hopes that this desperate measure would bring the angel down, but Dalton managed to duck under the angel's sword swing and sever the angel's head. In death, the angel became a thing of shattered stone (5).

After the angel's fall, the group did a cursory exploration of the rest of the monastery. They found a pile of stinking corpses that looked to have torn each other to pieces in a fit of insane rage. They also found a bolt hole full of hiding lepers, but they quickly closed that and let them cower in peace (6). Satisfied that they had destroyed the Church's secret weapon and saved Lachryma from immediate reprisals, they returned to their ship and reported their triumph to Belle Silvra (7).


(1) - Each player rolled a different skill here: Academics, Occult, and Research. I gave them each a different piece of information based on their level of success, which I think added up nicely to a fairly complete picture of the Ultimatum's true nature.

(2) - The bloody footprints they found here belonged to Church agents who came to check on the Ultimatum and found that its influence had caused the monastery's leprous inhabitants to turn on each other. The thing that Captain Laurant didn't tell them last time is that something similar had happened on her ship as well. 

(3) - Using the basin and the mirror was the key to either unleashing the angel from the block of marble that "imprisoned it" or re-encasing it into its marble shroud. Unfortunately for the players, they found the basin and mirror before they discovered warnings about what it was or instruction on how to use it!

(4) - Once unleashed, the angel's solitary motivation is meting out violence. There's nothing they could have said to stay its hand. To be divine is to be merciless.

(5) - The bomb idea was potentially a good one, but also carried a risk of blowing up the characters or at least destroying the tower they were standing within.

(6) - Nobody really wants to mess with lepers.

(7) - I confess, I think the map I used for the monastery let me down a bit. There were other cool, interesting things to find there, but the "flow" didn't really put those things in front of the players easily enough. 

Sunday, February 19, 2023

The OSR as Afternoon Culture

Some seventeen notable empires rose in the Middle Period of Earth. These were the Afternoon Cultures. All but one are unimportant to this narrative, and there is little need to speak of them save to say that none of them lasted for less than a millennium, none for more than ten; that each extracted such secrets and obtained such comforts as its nature (and the nature of the universe) enabled it to find; and that each fell back from the universe in confusion, dwindled, and died.

- M. John Harrison, The Pastel City

Probably about a minute after it began, the first proclamation that the OSR was "dying," or that it was already "dead," was posted to the internet. I've seen an upswing in chatter about the Death of the OSR lately, but in my view it lives on as long as someone out there is hammering B/X into a pleasing shape. 

Every attempt to pinpoint the OSR's date of death is asking the wrong question. Instead, I think it's more useful to ask "How has the OSR changed?" or perhaps even "How is it continuing to change?" 

What follows is my answer to the first of those question based on my remembrances and limited perspective. I was there for a good deal of what people think of as the height of the OSR on Google+, though I have no idea if it really qualifies as a height or not--better days could be on the horizon, for all I know. 

That "for all I know" is something I want you to keep in mind as you read what follows because there came a point where the OSR's online culture became antithetical to what I'm interested in; after that point I was merely a spectator, despite my earlier work in that vein.

I still continue to write for the occasional OSR or OSR-ish project. You can find my name in issues of KNOCK!, the Book of Gaub, Deluge, etc., if you feel the need to check my credentials. Nevertheless, I want to stress that I am not an expert on the OSR, I do not see myself as a central figure, and I am decidedly not a historian of old-school gaming. What follows is how I saw things and how I remember them. If you disagree with what I have to say, well, I'm fine with that. None of this really matters much in the grand scheme of things. Remember, Elfgames: Not Serious.

The Appeal of the Free-Wheeling Era

When I first stumbled upon the OSR, there were two things that made it appealing to me. First, the effort to keep older D&D rulesets available and in-print through games such as Labyrinth Lord and OSRIC felt like true labors of love. In comparison to modern retroclones, those games often featured clunky writing, amateurish art, and nightmarish internal organization, but their deficits were made up for by serving a purpose in an era where official, easily accessible pdfs of B/X and AD&D did not yet exist, so it would be childish to find fault with them--especially since they all had free versions that anyone could get ahold of as needed. A flawed version of a game you like is preferrable to 4e D&D or Pathfinder if you were one of the many people who didn't find much to love in those newer games.

Second, people were building on the free retroclone rulesets and, more importantly, they were often sharing the fruits of their imaginations for free! There were blog posts with new monsters and spells, pdfs of full dungeons and settings, and collaborative projects that came into existence simply because people enjoyed the act of creating together within their shared hobby. 

The uniting thread of the above two items was this: anyone could get in on it. There was no barrier to entry besides having a fun idea and following through on it. Those two elements, and the free-wheeling culture it enabled, persisted for a while, but a change just visible on the horizon altered both of them.

From Projects to Products

In my view, a cultural shift began when a few publishers and creators pivoted from retroclones as free, community-centered projects to boutique products intended to seize the moment (and the dollars). To be clear, I have nothing against people getting paid for their creative work; I have several gaming products I'd like people to buy, so I'd be a hypocrite to say otherwise. 

That said, I think the pervasive move toward monetizing the DIY hobby space was a more disastrous cataclysm for the OSR than the shuttering of G+ because it fundamentally changed the culture of the scene at that time. 

Free supplements gave way to Kickstarters promising deluxe books in hardcover, with fancy paper, color art, and honest-to-god ribbon bookmarks. You can see where that led; where once OSR folks derided the full-color, expensive hardbacks published by WotC under the Dungeons & Dragons moniker, they now prized the same level of production values. 

It's common for the bigger-name OSR-derived games to now come in expensive, over-produced packaging--in some instances these games and their supplements are pricier than what WotC and Paizo produce. The difference is more aesthetic than idealisticcultural, or intentional. It's clear that these are boutique collectibles, not a revitalization of the TSR era or a strictly hobbyist approach to creation. 

This change had additional detrimental effects on the the OSR end of the G+ experience. There came a time when the push for monetization meant that your G+ feed was, more likely than not, a wall of Kickstarter announcements, pleas to back various Patreons, and sometimes outright panhandling. It felt like a community that once saw each other as united in a shared hobby now looked at each other as walking wallets to be rifled.  

Truly DIY projects didn't end during this shift, but it became more and more difficult for them to find an audience and they often weren't seen as "serious" work within the community that birthed them. For example, I remember one prominent OSR blogger announcing that he would never again buy a print-on-demand product; only books made with offset printing and "real" bindings counted, in his opinion. I can't imagine a position more contrary to the OSR's DIY origins. That kind of hipsterism always leads to a demarcation of who matters and who does not, creatively speaking. And it did. 

Egalitarian Community vs. Personality Cults

One of the biggest changes in the OSR's culture that accompanied this shift toward products-over-projects was the formation of cults of personality. The introduction of professionalization in the OSR often separated the community into creators and consumers. Certain "Big Names" became the quasi-official writers, artists, and designers in the scene; they were the ones elected to create within the OSR space, and to an extent were also the tastemakers who decided what was orthodoxy, permissible, or "true" about the scene in general.

This was not always by design or an element of malfeasance. It's absolutely true that some people simply develop a solid track record of creating great products and achieve a measure of respect and name-recognition off of that. It's also true that even in the OSR's early days there were people who jockeyed for position and generally threw their microfame around in unseemly ways. Once a constellation of would-be luminaries was established, hopefuls sycophantically positioned themselves as willing to fight various boneheaded culture wars on behalf of Big Names who had less than stellar intentions--usually in hopes of "'winning" a seat at the Star Chamber's table.

The worst offenders in this period were the people who enabled obnoxious behavior. For a group that prided itself on rejecting corporate orthodoxy, many within it were amenable to following the loudest and most abrasive voices in the room. Of course, those same enablers have largely disavowed the jerks they previously hoisted around on their shoulders, but they should have been less spineless at the time and they should be more embarrassed now by their past behavior. 

The rise of the auteur class created casualties: collaborative efforts saw a sharp decline, the always-on-offer G+ games dwindled, and the OSR fragmented into smaller niches based on loyalty to specific retroclones, publishing imprints, cliques, or "manifestos." 

(Political views would later lead to more splintering into competing tribes, but that's a post of its own that I will never write.)

The kicker is that during the monetization and professionalization period it was clear that some of the Big Names who came to prominence as content creators didn't actually play rpgs very much, if at all. That should have been a clear sign that things had changed, and not for the better.

In summary, I have no recollection of the OSR dying, but that is how I remember the OSR changing in the period before G+ closed its doors. 

The OSR Today

Are things different now from when I bowed out? It must be, things always move on. I often think the amount of free (or at least cheap) stuff on itch.io sounds like a positive development, and I can find nothing bad to say about the occasional enthusiastic creation I see coming from the trenches, but I haven't delved into it in any meaningful way in years--and I'm not likely to as my interests are now elsewhere.

I still sometimes detect the fallout of the period under discussion that continues to not be to my tastes. The focus on zines in the OSR should be extremely my shit--I love a small, cheaply printed DIY project--but many of the ones I've seen are so slick and professional that they don't really count as zines under my personal definition. (If you are hiring a graphic designer to make your zine you are not actually making a zine, in my opinion. Please note that my opinion carries zero weight.)

When I look at the names of people currently working in the OSR space, I don't recognize most of them. That's probably both a good and a bad thing. I hope they're having fun. I hope they're actually playing games with their friends; that's the stuff that really matters. I also hope they've learned to avoid the pitfalls from the period I've been talking about in this post.

All of this to say: I don't know where things stand currently.

But is the OSR dead? No, I suspect someone is cross-hatching their dungeon map right now as I type this final line.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Clanbook: Brujah

I bid you...welcome to a new segment where I, someone who knows very little about the lore of Vampire: The Masquerade, read one of the Clanbooks and try to piece together the insane metaplot and backstory of the game and its Gothic Punk setting. 

First up: the Brujah. The Brujah are the "punk" vampires of the Gothic Punk World of Darkness. They have anger management issues as part of their specific vampire curse makes them more liable to violent frenzies. 

Brujah come in three flavors: Iconoclast, Idealist, and Individualist. The Iconoclasts are rebels to the core, favoring constant violent revolution. Idealists are more philosophical rebels, with hints of Ivory Tower nonsense. Individualists...okay, the book doesn't really give me a good sense of what their deal is; apparently they "walk the line between the Iconoclasts and the Idealists," but in practice I don't know what that is supposed to entail.

One detail that keeps coming up in this supplement is that there once was a city called Carthage that was the dream-paradise of the original vampire named Brujah. It's a bit unclear if this is supposed to be the historical Carthage. The city was betrayed by the other vampire clans and fell--since then the Brujah clan has been doing their damnedest to rebuild Carthage. The closest they've come so far is establishing the "Anarch Free State" in California. There aren't many details about the Anarch Free State here, but I bet it got its own supplement at some point.

The Brujah Clanbook also states that every revolutionary movement has proceeded under the influence of the Brujah, though the book hedges its bets and pulls them out of the limelight when it comes to the American Revolution. (That said, Crispus Attucks is a Brujah vampire!) The American Civil War did see team-up between the Brujah and the younger Ventrue against the older, plantation-owning Ventrue, though.

The section on Brujah activity in Russia is buck wild. The Russian Revolution was backed by the Brujah, but when they couldn't control Lenin they engineered his death and replacement by Trotsky (!). The Brujah would have killed Stalin had they not needed him as a bulwark against Hitler. It was the Brujah who influenced Stalin to sign the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (!!). Apparently Stalin had ties to "mages" and the Sabbat. Oh, and Gorbachev? Totally a pawn of Baba Yaga (!!!).

One particularly silly bit here is the grand scheme of a powerful Brujah called "Smiling Jack." His plan is basically to be a vampire deadbeat dad--go city to city, creating new vampires willy-nilly, and then leaving, making them someone else's problem in hopes that they will destabilize the reign of the city's prince.

An observation: the Brujah are presented as Big Rebels, but they also seem very scared of violating the Masquerade--which makes them feel a little toothless as far as the ultimate rebellion is concerned. It might be the case that presenting them as all talk when it comes to rebellion--at least in comparison to the Sabbat--is a point being made here.

The Brujah have three types of meet-ups: Rants, Debates, and Raves. Rants are held after concerts and counter-cultural events; from the sound of it, they are an excuse for Brujah to yell at each other, making them the worst afterparties imaginable. Debates are the Q&A segment that follows any academic presentation, with people jockeying for position by asking each other asinine questions. Raves...I think are supposed to be like the blood rave in Blade, but require a scavenger hunt to find. I admit my eyes were clouding over at this point.

The Clanbook details a few special powers that Brujah might have. My favorite is Burning Wrath, which feels like a fighting game power-up: it causes a Brujah's face and hands to turn red and they deal burning damages when their V-trigger Burning Wrath is activated.

My favorite part of flipping through the Clanbooks when I was a teenager was browsing the example templates because some of the character concepts are extremely funny. I think they're useful in retrospect as a window into the kind of characters the designers had in mind. Clanbook: Brujah offers the following:

  • Anarch Terrorist: your basic violent revolutionary, complete with Desert Eagle
  • College Professor: Idealist in training, but with grading to do
  • Computer Hacker: It was the 90s
  • Elder Representative: Basically a kiss-ass who speaks for an elder vampire who can't be bothered to attend Rants in person
  • European Idealist: Eurotrash vampires! This is a fuckin' perfect concept
  • Fake Rapper: For when you absolutely must play a vampiric Vanilla Ice; I love how goofy this one is; this is a game of "personal horror," but you have the space to stop, collaborate, and listen
  • Rapper: The real kind; the in-voice writing is pretty embarrassing, but again, it was the 90s
  • Rogue Cop/Vigilante: They may bend the rules, but they get results
  • Skinhead: The first line of their quote is "Hitler had it right"
  • Streetwalker: Of course

All right, that's enough for now. Next time we're getting wild with the Gangrel.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

The Ultimatum (Part One)

After battling through some illnesses and family crises in real life, we managed to reconvene and continue our "Savage Krevborna" game!

The Characters

Doctor Pendleton Torst, a sinister surgeon and anatomist

Dalton Thayer, an explorer who collects rare specimens

Countess Catarina Redmoore, a young and mysterious widow


After the previous adventure, the characters had in their possession a signal lantern and a book of signals with which they could direct the Church's smuggling ship as it cruised the coast near Lachryma. At Belle Silvra's suggestion, they plotted to board the ship to find information on what the Church was planning. Before setting off, the group commandeered a group of cultists to accompany them, and Pendleton acquired a few bombs. 

After disguising themselves with the Churchmen's cloaks they had discovered in the "haunted house," they signaled to the ship, indicating that it should drop anchor and await their approach. They rowed out to the ship in two boats and claimed that they had come for more crates of weapons, bibles, and food for the safehouse. After being shown the stores held in the ship's hold, they were left alone as the sailors went to fetch more hands to load the items onto their boats.

The group used this time to explore. Dalton and Pendleton entered a room at the aft of the ship, finding themselves in the bosun's cabin. Although they were initially startled by the screech of the bosun's parrot, they were even more startled to discover that the bosun's cabin was connected to a makeshift brig and that the brig held a prisoner in a ragged cloak. The prisoner was one of the fish-folk; when asked what crime they had committed, the fish-person replied, "I am the crime" (1). The fishman assumed that they were members of the Church, since they were still disguised, and they chose not to blow their cover by revealing the true reason they were aboard the ship.

Catarina explored the first mate's cabin, which had a small table bolted to the ship's floor. Upon the table were several books charting sea routes and detailing maritime law. As she flipped through the books, a slip of paper fell out. The paper was filled with the repetition of a single phrase: "I saw the angel in the marble, and I carved until I set him free" (2).

When they emerged from the hold to find the captain waiting for them. They were surprised to find that the captain of the boat was none other than Vanessa Laurant, who had been the captain of the Dawnskimmer the last time they saw her (3). After the Dawnskimmer's destruction at the hands of the "sea goddess," Captain Laurant had thrown her lot in with the Church. Catarina's persuasive quick talking deceived the captain into thinking that the group really were agents of the Church.

Pressed for information about the Church's plans, Captain Laurant told them that they had previously had the Church's "secret weapon," which she referred to as the Ultimatum, onboard the ship, but that its presence had begun to have a deleterious effect on the crew's sanity (4). For safety's sake, they had deposited the Ultimatum as a leper colony called the Monastery of Pont de Rais on Ulminster Isle (5). When the Church was ready to unleash the weapon on the heretics of Lachryma, the Ultimatum would be retrieved from its hiding place and brought to the wayward town.

Thanking the captain for the supplies, the group and their cultist henchmen departed, but not before Pendleton had a chance to stash a bomb that blew up the Churchmen's ship as the group rowed back to shore (6). They gave instructions for the cult members to patrol the beach and slit the throats of any survivors of the blast who managed to swim to shore, a task the cult members seemed to particularly relish (7).

To be continued...


(1) - What the fishman meant by this is that his very existence as a fishman is considered a crime in the eyes of the Church.

(2) - "I saw the angel in the marble, and I carved until I set him free" is quote ascribed to Michaelangelo. I snagged it from the Lovecraft Investigations podcast, which I've been listening to lately. The reason why I used it will become apparent in the second half of this write-up!

(3) - Pendleton knew that Captain Laurant had survived the sinking of the Dawnskimmer because he saw her on the streets of Lachryma as he left town after the first adventure.

(4) - The "deleterious effects" were largely madness-related, as evidenced by the papers they found indicating that the sailors were compelled to write "I saw the angel in the marble, and I carved until I set him free" over and over again in frantic, frenzied handwriting. However, it was pretty clear that Captain Laurant was not telling them the entire truth here.

(5) - Catarina's player correctly intuited that I had John Carpenter's The Fog in mind here.

(6) - I hadn't anticipated the ship being bombed, but it actually sets up something I'd like to weave in later. In a way, this game is becoming the origin story for a villain in Krevborna that I hadn't planned on, but it's all fitting together perfectly.

(7) - It was at this point that I was sure that I am running one of those "evil campaigns."

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Siege, Seafaring, and Spelljamming Weapons

I don't think it's exactly a hot take to say that the rules in 5e D&D for firing vehicular weapons, whether we're talking conventional seafaring vessels from Ghosts of Saltmarsh or the spelljammers from the Astral Adventurer's Guide, are serviceable but not particularly exciting or dynamic. One thing that bothers me is that these weapons work the same way no matter who happens to be firing them. Individual skill isn't taken into account by the rules at all.

A side effect of that is that it's often better for a character to use their regular attacks, spells, and abilities than it is to use shipboard weapons. That's lame; the shipboard weapons are there to be used, so they should be more attractive options. 

The rules below aim to take the talent and experience of the people manning the weaponry into account. This gives the players a chance to show off the expertise of their characters, but it also gives you a reason to have enemy and allied vessels with crack teams of seasoned mariners and spacefarers that are better than any standard-issue crew.

Siege Weapon Attack Rolls and Vehicular Weapon Attack Rolls

Each weapon, such as a ballista, canon, or catapult, has a ranged attack bonus in its stat block. If the person who fires the weapon has a higher ranged attack bonus than the weapon's standard bonus, use their personal attack bonus instead.

Additionally, if the creature who fires the weapon has a Dexterity bonus, add it to the damage dealt by the weapon.

Note: You may wish to restrict the ability to substitute a character's ranged attack bonus for the weapon's ranged attack bonus to characters who are either proficient in martial weapons or who possess the relevant Vehicles proficiency.

Extra Attacks

If a creature operating a siege or vehicular weapon and have the Extra Attack feature, each of their allowed attacks counts as an action toward loading, aiming and firing the weapon. For example, a fighter with three attacks per round from the Extra Attack can use their three attacks to load, aim, and fire a ballista on their turn.


The attack roll to crash a spelljammer or other vehicle into another object is a d20 + the pilot's Dexterity modifier and their proficiency bonus if they possess the appropriate Vehicles proficiency.

Note: I could probably be talked into using Intelligence or Wisdom modifiers in place of Dexterity.

Ramming and Other Melee Attacks

If the creature who uses a ram, such as the hammerhead ship's blunt ram, or a similar weapon, such as the scorpion ship's claws, has a higher melee attack bonus than the weapon's standard bonus, use their personal attack bonus instead.

Note: You may wish to restrict the ability to substitute a character's melee attack bonus for the ram's melee attack bonus to characters who possess the relevant Vehicles proficiency.

Ship Repairs

I would allow ships to be repaired when not berthed. Furthermore, I would remove the "repairing 1 hit point of damage to a ship takes 1 day" stipulation: you can restore 1 hit point per 20 gp spent per day, providing that laborers capable of performing the repairs are available to do the work. 

I'd rule that anyone proficient in carpentry or smithing would be capable of performing repairs, depending on what the ship is made of. I might even expand that to anyone proficient with the kind of Vehicle in question.

I imagine that docks would might offer spellcasters capable of casting mending to help speed alone the process, so determining what they charge for that service would be helpful here. 50 gp a casting seems about right to me.

If nothing else, keeping a ship repaired might be a decent way to keep characters hungry and in search of loot.

* * *

The items below are things I'd like to continue to think about and work on:


I'd like to work more on positioning rules to give the pilot at the spelljammer helm more to do.


I don't know why, but there aren't a lot of canons on spelljamming ships. I'd probably replace a lot of the mangonels with canons when I run a Spelljammer campaign.

Magical Weapon Options

The lack of magical shipboard weapons in the Spelljammer book feels like a real missed opportunity. This is D&D we're talking about, why wouldn't there be lightning canons or acid hurlers or eldritch machine guns?

If I were running a Spelljammer game, I'd definitely invent some bespoke magical spelljammer weapons. Adapting some of the weapons from the infernal war machines in Descent into Avernus would be a start.

My gut instinct is that magical shipboard weapons could use ranged attack bonuses as above, but also might be able to substitute ranged spell attack bonuses as well to give spellcasting characters more to do during ship combat.

Frankly, options to customize your ship is a huge part of the fantasy of owning one in the first place so it's a tremendous dropping of the ball that they couldn't find space or the inspiration to add the options to the Spelljammer set. 

(Note: I've largely abandoned this tangent as I probably won't be running a Spelljammer game anytime soon, but I'm posting them anyway in hopes that they are useful to someone, somewhere.)

Sunday, February 5, 2023

Alcesta von Karlok and Magnus Draghul

I detail two of the big villains of the Sibersk area of Krevborna below. This is one of the largest revisions of this bit of the setting; previously, Countess Alcesta was the undisputed ruler of the "vampire adventure" area of Krevborna, but now I'm convinced that having two powerful vampire lords who intrigue against each other offers so much more opportunity for drama and intervention by the players' characters.

While I'm here, I thought I would answer an interesting question someone recently asked me about Krevborna: "How are Krevborna's Big Villains different from Ravenloft's Darklords?" To my view, in Ravenloft each domain is an extension of its Darklord. In the earliest box sets for the settings, most of the world-building is tied up in the Darklords' tragic backstories. Each domain is a custom prison cell containing and frustrating the Darlord who lies within it; each domain is a reflection of their evil.

In contrast, each named villain in Krevborna is an exemplar of what's wrong with that region of the setting. For example, both of the vampire lords below are personifications of the feudal, class-based anxieties that Sibersk is meant to explore.

Countess Alcesta von Karlok

Alcesta von Karlok is a masterful gatherer of information and an adept manipulator. Alcesta favors indirect machinations; she prefers quiet assassination and complex stratagems over blatant aggression. She regularly holds salons in Castle Siebenhurst to stave off boredom and keeps a harem of beautiful, intellectual, and artistic men and women to provide her with whatever stimulation she requires.

    • Appearance. She is a breathtaking, red-haired beauty who refuses to be dressed in anything less than the height of fashion. 

    • Personality. She appreciates witty conversation and demands to be amused by those around her.

    • Motive. She wants to be privy to every secret and experience every possible pleasure—no matter how base or degenerate.

    • Flaw. She detests the inescapable ennui that comes with long centuries of undeath.


Count Magnus Draghul

Magnus Draghul only ever truly feels comfortable when striding across the battlefield clad in his blood-red armor and giving vent to his violent impulses against whoever dares to oppose him. Magnus has few close relationships, but his most trusted advisors are his three vampire brides: Lilandra, his cunning spymaster; Phaedra,  his private assassin; Maxima, his military strategist.

    • Appearance. He is a towering vampire of rigid, militaristic mien, with a long mane of hair, a sweeping mustache, and piercing eyes. 

    • Personality. If a subordinate does not bow and scrape before him, they will learn a grievous and painful lesson.

    • Motive. He is driven to seek glory through military victory.

   Flaw. His belief in the superiority of his martial skill sometimes blinds him to obvious danger.