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.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Closing the Red Window

The gang got back together, along with a new player, for more of our Savage Krevborna campaign. This adventure was the culmination of a few plot points the players had decided to follow for a while now.

The Characters

Pendleton Torst, rogue anatomist

Catarina Redmoor, prioress of an unusual convent

Panthalassa Laurentide, an orphan who's made a pact

Raoul Carathis, necromancer

Geradd, down-and-out swashbuckling noble


Now that the Widow was safely recovering in the care of Viktoria Frankenstein, the group prepared to once again attempt to find the occult Red Window and shut it before an entity called the Chained Scholar could enter the world. Skirting Valekia, they made their way to the Karthax Mountains and discovered that there was a small village sitting at the base of the mountain they were seeking. A red tear in reality hovered above the town. As they approached, massive tentacles emerged from the tear--the mysterious Red Window--and began to lay waste to the town. Additionally, red lighting was pouring out of the Red Window, catching several buildings on fire.

With Gerodd in the lead, they began to ride harder for the town. When they arrived, they found the gate sundered. The group pitched in to aid the townspeople--whom the noted were all snow elves. Gerodd and Panthalassa helped move debris off of trapped citizens, while Pendleton and Catarina provided what medical aid they could. Raoul summoned his giant skeleton to shift fallen buildings as needed. Their helpful efforts caught the eye of Namariel, who ironically welcomed the to the town of Karstabellum.

This was an expedient chance meeting; Namariel was a scholar of all matters connected to the Outer Dark so she was able to fill in a few gaps in their knowledge about the Chained Scholar. She was able to tell them that the Chained Scholar, an eldritch entity from the Outer Dark, was worshiped by renegade Vlaaks. This was judged to be abhorrent in the eyes of other Vlaak, as the Vlaak's ancient enemies were creatures from the Outer Dark--so this was regarded as a betrayal of their history. In fact, the mainstream of Vlaak culture may have made war against the Vlaak who revered the Chained Scholar, killing them off before the Vlaak's general decline.

When asked if any of the snow elves of Kartabellum would be interesting in accompanying them to close the Red Window, Namariel returned with three of the town's rebellious youth--they were teenaged elves looking to take down a worthy foe to prove that they deserved to be admitted to Eisengraz, the fortress of the most bellicose of Krevborna's snow elves. Namariel took this ragtag group out to the foot of the mountain, where she was able to activate the Stairs of the Scholar--an expanse of black stone that stretched upward, held aloft by thick chains that seemed to disappear into another dimension. 

The Stairs of the Scholar led into the Red Window. It would be quite a hike to ascend it, but the group set off with haste. They passed waystations on the bridge and many statues of a hooded figure with manacles dangling chains from each wrist. Geradd was the first into the Red Window when they reached the top. Inside the Red Window, everything they saw was colored in hues of red. Before them stretched a vast, humid swamp. There was also a strange vessel, shaped somewhat like a galleon though it had no sails or mast, perched nearby. The group decided to explore the ship first.

Inside the ship they spoiled the ambush waiting for them--a number of injured humanoids were hiding with crossbows. They were surprised that the humanoids were Vlaak--who were supposed to be long extinct! Also surprising was the fact that they seemed to share a language with the Vlaak. The Vlaak captain informed them that they had come to re-claim this place, and that it was an "sky island" called the Mote of Sycorax held aloft by eldritch machinery left behind by the previous Vlaak. However, the Vlaak had encountered "specters of the past" in the swamp that claimed half their number; now their plan was to abort their mission and leave. Before they departed, they did give the group a rough map charting two possible courses through the swamp.

As they traveled into the swamp, they began to hear disembodied moans. The sounds were coming from a vine-covered ruin that was to be half-sunk into the swamp's murky water. Inside the building they found a large statue of the Chained Scholar. A strange fleshy growth, that pulsated with life, was attached to the statue. Geradd lanced the thing and was splattered with horrid viscous fluid. 

The moaning sounds now intensified, and a quick look out of the ruin's window showed that a group of spectral Vlaak surrounding the building. One of the ghostly Vlaak asked the group how they would die, and then battle began! The group was victorious; even their adolescent snow elf companions racked up a few kills.

Further in the swamp they found a clearing in with a massive, gnarled tree. Bits of eldritch machinery emerged from the tree, as did an observatory tower. A huge knothole at the base of the tree proved to be an entrance. They explored the tower first, but the machinery inside was impossible to understand. Back on the "ground floor," they found a praying figure kneeling before a statue of the Chained Scholar. Unwilling to engage, Catarina shot the figure from behind. They simply dissipated, leaving behind nothing save a hooded robe.

Placing a skull in one of the statue's hands and a grimoire in the other caused the statue to shift backward, revealing a set of stairs leading down. In the depths, they found the tree's blackened and burned roots. Nestled among the roots were a number of pustules similar to the one they had previous encountered. In the center of the chamber was a tall figure wrapped in chains--the avatar of the Chained Scholar was in the process of being born before their very eyes! 

Of course, this was the eventuality they wanted to prevent, so they once again leaped into action. However, things immediately got off to a bad start: the Chained Scholar invaded their minds and revealed horrible images specific to each member of the party. Catarina saw a woman who had stolen her appearance murdering her husband; Pendleton saw Seraphina hung by her neck from a gallows tree; Geradd had a vision of himself being surrounded and then stabbed to death by the husbands of women he had seduced; Panthalassa saw the primordial spirits she had made a pact with luring her missing father into the depths of the sea; Raoul saw himself losing control of his giant skeletal minion as it crushed him to death.

This psychic assault left the party reeling, but they slowly regrouped and turned the tide. Pendleton's alchemy proved especially effective: he managed to both blind and instill fear in the Chained Scholar's avatar. Panthalassa also acquitted herself well, striking several brutal blows against the aberrant entity with her pickaxe. Raoul summoned his giant skeletal minion--ultimately, the undead creature got the Chained Scholar in its grasp and crushed him. 

With the death of the Chained Scholar, the machinery keeping the Mote of Sycorax aloft began to fail; the Mote was now falling deeper into the Red Window. This sent the party scrambling to get back to the Stairs of the Scholar before the Red Window closed, consigning them to oblivion. They made it--just barely.

Sunday, September 3, 2023

Silver Nitrate, Home Sick Pilots, Ghoultown, and More

Things that brought me delight in August, 2023:

Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Silver Nitrate

I've enjoyed everything I've read from Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and Silver Nitrate continues that trend. Mexico, the early 90s: a horror movie-obsessed film editor and her childhood friend, a former soap opera star who is currently out of orbit, get mixed up in a nexus of cinema and the occult. This is not an action-packed novel, particularly in comparison to the previous The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, but rather a simmering mystery that reminded me a bit of The Club Dumas. Bonus points for the allusions to Hanns Heinz Ewers (by way of the fictional German occultist "Wilhelm Ewers") and to Carlos Enrique Taboada, a Mexican director whose work I've just begun to explore.

Watters, Wijngaard, Bidikar, Mullen, Home Sick Pilots vols. 1-3

Home Sick Pilots has one of the more unusual premises I've encountered in a while: the comic is about some kids from the 90s punk scene who stumble into a supposedly killer haunted house--carnage occurs, and one of them realizes she has the ability to pilot the haunted house like a kaiju powered by the afterlife. And things get really kaiju-tastic when the house has to fight a machine of war that's fueled by all the misery of America's nuclear tests and, well, all the other bad shit America gets up to on the day-to-day. Somehow, Home Sick Pilots works.

Ghoultown, Ghost of the Southern Son and Curse of Eldorado

Ghoultown is one of those bands that I absolutely loved, but for one reason or another they eventually fell off my radar. August was the month to check in on them. In the intervening years, they've released two albums: Ghost of the Southern Son and Curse of Eldorado. To my ears, they sound even heavier than before (especially on Ghost of the Southern Son), but they've lost none of their trademark macabre cowpunk vibe. The urge to run the most fucked up Deadlands game increases with every listen.

Twisted Metal

Twisted Metal is not a smart show, and sometimes it's not even a particular well-done show, but it is a surprisingly fun show. It's also an extremely PLANET MOTHERFUCKER show, so take that for what it's worth. Set in a slightly psychotronic and violent post-apocalypse, "milk men" (aka couriers) deliver goods between various walled-in enclaves, braving raiders, insane clowns, religious nuts, and cops. And, as it turns out, the cops are the fuckin' worst. Big surprise there. Anyway, I can probably sell you or unsell you on Twisted Metal in one line: a guy smashes a watermelon with his huge dong and then a fight breaks out on a stripper pole.

Stephen Graham Jones, My Heart is a Chainsaw

A slasher is about to embark on a bloody rampage throughout Indian Lake, and only a disaffected teenager girl with an overenthusiasm for horror can prep the final girl for her inevitable confrontation with the killer. Or maybe...? If the quality that makes for a good slasher movie is keeping the audience guessing as to the identity of the killer, then My Heart is a Chainsaw is at the top of the heap (of bodies). Stephen Graham Jones's love of the slasher genre really shines through, especially in the slasher-obsessed character Jade Daniels, who narrative voice felt instantly recognizable to me. Loved this one all the way through and couldn't put it down.

Amy Chu and Soo Lee, Carmilla

I'm immediately suspicious of any story that bills itself as a sequel to Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's classic Gothic vampire tale, especially after the ham-fisted Dracula tie-ins by Dacre Stoker. That said, Amy Chu and Soo Lee's Carmilla is both gorgeous and interesting on its own as a comic. When young women of a certain "type" start turning up dead in NYC, a dedicated social worker gets involved...and then gets in over her head. I'm a little unsure about the inclusion of a familial connection to vampire hunting--that felt like a late-game inclusion that took away a bit from the more grounded premise--but it's hard to argue with the nuances that Carmilla puts front and center. 

Witchery, Nightside, I Am Legion, and In His Infernal Majesty's Service

Another band I caught up with in August is Witchery, who specialize in blackened thrash. Witchery are at their best when they let the thrash elements get nice and crunchy, but even when their sound is less precise they are a ferocious beast in action. In His Infernal Majesty's Service is probably my favorite of the lot; it has a ton of great, infectious riffs. Nightside is more dense; it's almost like being smashed in the head with a gravestone. I Am Legion feels like Witchery's take on a latter-day Slayer record, which may or may not be to everyone's taste, but I think it's great.

Junji Ito, Tombs

I worked my way through Tombs, a collection of Junji Ito's short horror comics, over a few days in August. What can you even say about Junji Ito's comic work? Ito remains unbeaten in the horror arena; the stories mine the grotesque, his black and white artwork always hits, and the "shock" pages work exceptionally well. My favorite stories in this collection are "Tombs," in which a hit-and-run accident has bizarre consequences; "Bronze Statue," a semi-comic Gothic shocker that has a twist ending right out of Tales From the Crypt; and "Washed Ashore," in which the corpse of a newly discovered sea creature hides a dark mystery.

Erin A. Craig, House of Salt and Sorrows

Erin A. Craig's House of Salt and Sorrows is a secondary-world Gothic fantasy that veers into a fairytale murder mystery. A family of accursed sisters seem to be dying one-by-one due to mysterious circumstances; they discover a door that lets them travel to the masquerade balls of their dreams--or nightmares because all is not what it seems. The worldbuilding has some exquisite touches; the dark "nautical Gothic" setting is particularly up my alley and the way it's detailed is not heavy handed or overly lore-laden. I will admit that I was a little disappointed that the novel pulled its big tragic punch in its final pages, but I guess not everyone is as much of a fan of suffering as I am. I'll definitely be reading the sequel.

Talk To Me

I have a fairly rocky history with A24 horror movies, but I was genuinely surprised by how much I liked Talk To Me. When some Australian teens get ahold of a strange "embalmed" hand that lets them contact (and be possessed by) the dead, things go very wrong when two of them bring something back from the experience. Of course, it doesn't help that the main character is already traumatized by the death of her mother and entranced by the possibility of using the hand to communicate with her. There's some real brutality to this one and it's not really reliant on jump scares--win/win in my book.

Rob Zombie, Zombie Live, Spookshow International Live, and Astro-Creep: 2000 Live

I'm generally not a live album guy, but I'll make an exception for Rob Zombie. I also pulled these out to prime myself because we're going to see the Rob Zombie experience in September. There's something missing without the stage show, but these three records are a good way to get excited for the main event, in my opinion.

Linda Sejic, Blood Stain, Volume 4

I still find it hard to believe that I enjoy this comic. Blood Stain is essentially an extended "meet cute," albeit inflected with a loving send up of Gothic fiction. Elliot Torres seems like a Gothic heroine: she's invited to work in an isolated lab overseen by a boss who may just be a murderous mad scientist. Or the two of them might just be two barely functional nerds incapable of viewing their situation in real terms. (Though, admittedly, the protagonist's lens is justly distorted by the fact that her boss is named Vlad Stein.) Like a latter-day Northanger Abbey, Linda Sejic's Blood Stain playfully uses the Gothic's sense of excess to explore other, more mundane, sources of anxiety in the modern world.

Elizabeth Massie, Sineater

Elizabeth Massie's Sineater is one of those novels that was much talked about when I was getting very into horror fiction in the early 90s, but unfortunately it was also one of those novels that was impossible to find locally. But now, thanks to the fortitude of imprints dedicated to bringing classics back into print, I got my hands on it. (Though, I do have to note that this edition really did deserve another editorial pass. There are enough typos in the text that I'd characterize it as "slightly distracting.")

Sineater sits on the border of Southern Gothic and horror. A rural Virginia community practices a form of Christianity that features some non-standard beliefs, such as the necessity of having a sineater who consumes food left on the bodies of the recently diseased so as to cleanse them of sin. But as death and violence rears its head in the small community, who is to blame? Has the sineater become the devil incarnate due to an excess of sin? Has the sect's leader become unhinged and taken the punishment of sin into her own hands? It lands on the sineater's young son, a boy ostracized by the community and troubled by his backwards family, to unravel the mystery.

You Won't Be Alone

You Won't Be Alone is billed as a horror movie, but I don't think that's quite accurate. Despite being about witches, it felt more like a film that takes fairytales and folklore seriously. You Won't Be Alone is about a witchling girl who can assume the flesh of those she kills; by swapping bodies and identities, she gets to participate in a full range of human experience--fuller than any of us get in a lifetime, really. All the while, she's watched by the jealous witch who "created" her. The witch is always ready to interfere and dash her attempts at finding happiness. Again, I'd say this is less a horror movie and more a beautifully-shot meditation on the unfairness of life and learning to find joy in what little a life really is.

Light of the Morning Star, Nocta and Cemetery Glow

Light of the Morning Star was one of Tenebrous Kate's picks on one of the Best Of episodes of Bad Books for Bad People. I really dug the album she was talking about, and now I've finally made some time to go back and explore their back catalog. Light of the Morning Star make Gothic metal that bears a more obvious goth rock influence than many of their peers; you can definitely hear elements of darkwave and deathrock playing off the heavier elements of their sound on Nocta and Cemetery Glow. I absolutely love this stuff; it's exactly what I wanted to hear this month.

Bloodborne: A Song of Crows; The Healing Thirst; The Veil, Torn Asunder; The Death of Sleep; The Lady of the Lanterns

It's always a bit of a surprise when a tie-in comic is actually pretty good, but the Bloodborne comics buck that trend. The first four series are surprisingly experimental and philosophical. Rather than focus on the action-forward monster hunting of the game, they tend more toward contemplation and grief. The extended wordless segment in A Song of Crows is particularly exquisite. The Lady of the Lanterns, which is by a different creative team, changes things up and gives a decent story about a group of misfit hunters coming together to rid a town of an alien menace. 

Nick Cutter and Andrew F. Sullivan, The Handyman Method

The further I get from teaching, the less I want to ever do that again; and then along comes a book like Nick Cutter and Andrew F. Sullivan’s The Handyman Method that has so much to say that I wish I could build a whole course around it. A veritable canon has been written about Gothic feminism, and rightly so, but this book opens the door to the dank basement of Gothic masculinity, forcing us to examine the dark shape of manhood in the current moment. I've got a lot more to say about The Handyman Method, but you can read my full review of it over on the Bad Books for Bad People blog, if you've a mind to.

Ghost live!

My girlfriend took me to a Ghost concert in Syracuse, and it was a truly great show! I was only familiar with the opening act, Amon Amartha, by name, but they were great--if not exactly my thing. Their brand of viking metal was fun, and hey where other bands bring back-up dancers, they bring a couple of guys to swing swords and axes around.

Ghost was great, of course. What a show. It's funny that Tobias Forge sings songs about Satan, but in his stage banter he's all "Gosh darn!" Great setlist, super tight musicianship, just excellent all around. 

The Last Voyage of the Demeter

The Last Voyage of the Demeter is Dracula On a Boat, that's really all you need to know about it. Loosely an expansion of the "Captain's Log" section of Bram Stoker's Dracula, the movie is about what happens when Dracula makes his journey from Romania to England aboard a Russian ship. (Though, in practice, the ship in the movie does not feel very Russian.) The Last Voyage of the Demeter doesn't offer much in the way of surprises, but it's a solid movie that does what it says on the tin. The funniest thing is that the final reel seems to set things up for a sequel, but I'd be astounded if this one got the box office needed to make that happen.

Igorrr, Hallelujah and Spirituality and Distortion

I'm back on the Igorrr train. If you haven't heard them, well, Igorrr is extremely hard to describe. I've heard them called a "more metal Mr. Bungle," but my take is that they're more like if Cirque do Soleil's music was done by extremely weird metalheads. Both Hallelujah and Spirituality and Distortion are incredibly varied; even if this isn't your bag, you're bound to find something interesting on these records.

Hailey Piper, Cruel Angels Past Sundown

I made more progress in my quest to work through the ever-expanding Splatter Western line. Cruel Angels Past Sundown begins with a late-night visitation at an isolated ranch: a pregnant, naked woman with a saber and the hellfire and brimstone preacher who is hot on her heels. Things do get a bit convoluted and the end plays out on a much larger theological scale than is usual for these books. Spoilers follow! The main character ends up with the Mark of Cain and then she fights, and apparently kills?, the archangel Gabriel in Heaven's potting shed. This is a decent entry in the Splatter Western series, though I'm not convinced that all the elements in the novel work together well. 

Dan Brereton, In the Night Studio, Mercenary, Enchantress, Sorceress, Children of the Night

As Lux Interior once said, "I don't know about art, but I know what I like/I'll be a-surfin' in your blood on a Saturday night." And that, my friends, is the experience of leafing through any of Dan Brereton's art books. If you like pretty ladies, Halloween, and monsters, you owe it to yourself to check these out. There's plenty of art of his Nocturnals characters, but for my money I looooove the way he draws the Bride of Frankenstein.

Metalocalypse, Seasons 1-4, The Doomstar Requiem 

There's a Metalocalypse movie coming out (and it might even be out as you're reading this), so I decided to re-watch Metalocalypse in preparation for it. I'm pretty sure I didn't watch all of it when it originally aired on tv, but I was surprised by how much I remembered from the first season. If you haven't seen the show, here's the gist: the extreme metal band Dethklok is the most popular in the world; they're an economy unto themselves that is larger than many nations. The members of Dethklok get into all sorts of brutal shenanigans, all the while they are observed by a shadowy cabal of powerful men who are interesting in thwarting the band...maybe. This is the kind of lowbrow humor that makes me laugh out loud.

Faetooth, Remnants of the Vessel

Surprisingly, this is something I listened to because my girlfriend recommended it to me. (She's not generally a heavy music person.) But Faetooth make solid, sludgy doom metal in somewhat in the vein of Windhand or King Woman. Remnants of the Vessel gets surprisingly gnarly in places, but the lead-off track (aside from the intro) is quite catchy, melding doom with a bit of grunge and a smidge of goth gloom. Definitely a band to watch; hopefully they get to refine and expand on this sound.

Brian Evenson, The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell

Brian Evenson's The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell was a bit of a surprise, as its quite different from the previous short story collections I've read from him. It's not uncommon to see people in my extended social circles complaining about the dearth of well-written, dark science fiction, but what this really means is that we've all been sleeping on The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell. Evenson's sci fi in this collection deals largely with ecological collapse; though there are menacing aliens, or at least non-humans, in these stories, it's hard to escape the feeling that the real monster is human negligence. There's an elegiac quality to these stories that really hits hard.

That said, not everything in the collection is science fiction. There's fair more in-line with what I've read from Evenson previously, and even a tale or two that feels like a homage to late Victorian or Edwardian horror in the vein of Blackwood or Nesbit.

Yana Taboso, Black Butler volume XXXII

Black Butler continues to detail the backstory of each of the Phantomhive household staff as part of the larger narrative. This time, we get the tragic past of Baldroy, the "invincible" American soldier. His story is pretty interesting and surprisingly layered: it involves his family being massacred by Native Americans, but it gives the attack more context than just "they're violent bad guys." I honestly wasn't expecting the manga to be as thoughtful about the idea it was working with as it was, but that's definitely a pleasant surprise. All the backstories have been fun, but I'm looking forward to getting back to the blood-theft plotline.

The Pope's Exorcist

The Pope's Exorcist is categorically not a good movie, but there's something charming about the way its well aware that it's not very good. The characters comment directly on the movie's plot holes; I'm surprised they didn't look directly into the camera and break the fourth wall like Catholic Kool Aid Men. 

Aside from all that stuff, this is standard demonic possession fare: a kid does something sexually inappropriate, a head is turned in an unnatural way, and a girl spider climbs up the wall. Also, it turns out that the only reason that the Catholic Church supported the Inquisition was because of demonic intervention. Hilarious premise.

John Kenn Mortensen's Night Terror

I've loved John Kenn Mortensen's art since I first saw his doodles of monsters on Post-It notes. The premise of Night Terror is that it's a collection of art that captures the artist's fever dreams and nightmares. In practical terms, that means there's a lot of art here of children with monsters. What I really like about Mortensen's art is that it's not only visually stunning, it's also highly ambiguous. You get the sense that these meetings between children and monsters could go either way. And hey, in the back there's more monsters on Post-It notes!

Adam Mansbach, The Devil's Bag Man

The Devil's Bag Man is the sequel to Adam Mansbach's The Dead Run, which we did an episode of Bad Books for Bad People on. The Devil's Bag Man picks up exactly where the previous book left off: Jess Galvan is struggling to contain the Aztec sorcerer who now lives in his head and attempts to adapt to life with superpowers. Meanwhile, his daughter is trying to adjust to life with salt-of-the-earth cop Nichols and cult deprogrammer Ruth. Of course, all hell breaks loose--literally. This one has the same tone as The Dead Run, but I did find the writing in The Devil's Bag Man to have a bit less swagger and I thought the ending felt abrupt...almost like there's room for a third book in the series, which I'd welcome.

Garbage Pail Kids book

I grew up in a fairly permissive household, but there were two things that my mother didn't want in the house: Fangoria magazine and Garbage Pail Kids cards. This book collects every card from the earliest series of the cards. This is truly a time capsule that captures an era the likes of which will never be seen again. It's pretty easy to see why the juvenile grotesquery of these cards captured the prurient interests of kids and freaked out parents--they're all Id, lashing out in every direction.

Stephen Graham Jones, The Least of My Scars

For most of The Least of My Scars, I was thinking that this was going to be my least favorite book by Stephen Graham Jones. Generally speaking, fiction about serial killers often lose me by making the murderer's thought process "weird" in a way that ultimately reads as the dark side of quirky, when in reality a lot of murderers actually seem like mundanely monstrous fuck ups. The Least of My Scars has something of that nature going on with its protagonist, a killer who has been sequestered in an isolated apartment by a crime boss; when the boss needs someone disposed of permanently, he sends them to the murderer's address. All of that becomes complicated by the intervention of a woman who wants revenge for her husband's murder. I wasn't entirely sold on the book until the final chapter, where everything kicks into high gear and never looks back.