Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Unwanted Audiences in a Vampire Court

Campaign: Game of Fangs (Krevborna, 5e D&D).

Characters: Magnus (dhampir mastermind rogue), Florian d'Targan(half-elf lore bard), Orest (human divination wizard), Maria Marzistrada (human crown paladin).

Events: Magnus was awoken by servants of the castle at an hour he was largely unacquainted with. He dressed hastily and was ushered into the candle-lit library of Castle Maylak. Awaiting him was a severe woman dressed in black lace and furs; it was Magnus's aunt, Kristianna Rhiannon. Kristianna expressed grave concerns about Magnus's ability to bring House Rhiannon to a position of power over House Maylak. 

Although Magnus had few examples of success to cite, he did manage to argue Kristianna into a stalemate; she would allow Magnus to continue to call the shots, but she also made it clear that she would be remaining at Castle Maylak and was prepared to take over the mission should he continue to move slowly.

Orest also found himself the subject of a sudden audience: he was taken from his dank cell in the dungeons and escorted to a room deep within the crypts where he found Baroness Maylak, Sonder Skellig (the Baroness's dour personal bodyguard), and Florian waiting for him. The Baroness had brought the famed greatsword of House Maylak with her; she absently stroked the sword's keen-edged blade while she interrogated Orest about his previous outburst. 

Orest revealed that he had heard of a plot against the Baroness's life as a bargaining chip to regain his freedom. The Baroness didn't seem alarmed at this piece of intelligence, but her curiosity was definitely piqued. Orest pushed harder, vowing to the Baroness that he and Florian would expose the traitors in Court Maylak...he then floated the idea that if the Baroness has not been aware of the plot against her life, perhaps her network of spies at court had been compromised. 

Sensing an opportunity, Florian intimated that if he and Orest had access to the Baroness's web of spies and informants they might be better equipped to serve the Baroness's interests. The Baroness surprisingly agreed to their request, but required that the pair swear upon the ancient Sword of Maylak that they would serve her faithfully in this task. Sonder remained obviously skeptical about Orest and Florian's true intentions.

Maria "ambushed" Kristianna Rhiannon as Magnus's aunt was making her way back from the castle's library. Maria attempted to ply Kristianna with flattery to learn her aims and perhaps sound her out as an ally for plans of her own, but Kristianna deftly maneuvered around Maria's clumsy attempts at gaining her confidence. However, while they were conversing in the hallway, Maria noticed that under Kristianna's many sumptuous rings are arcane patterns of scars on her fingers. Back in her own chambers, Maria recorded the general shape of the scars so that she might research them at a later date.

Orest's sprite familiar had overheard Maria's conversation with Kristianna and duly reported it to her master. Orest met with Florian and Magnus to discuss the content of Maria's attempt to forge a bond with Kristianna. Combined with their vague knowledge that Maria was making private inroads with the Convent of the Heart-in-Twain, Orest put forward the suspicion that Maria had "gone rogue" and was no longer pursuing the group's interest. Magnus would hear no talk of dissension; he chalked Orest's suspicions up to the devil still possessing the wizard to sow division, and stormed out of the meeting. Even Florian, Orest's staunchest ally, was unsure that Maria's conduct hinted at deceitful aims. There is now disunity within the ranks.

As he stalked back to his chambers, Magnus encountered a beautiful woman just arrived at court: Melinda Maylak, the Baroness's cousin. Melinda offered a bottle of wine and coquettishly asked if Magnus would like to meet the castle's ghost?

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Horror of It All, 2017 (part 2)

As per tradition (and my natural inclinations) I watch as many horror movies and Gothic thrillers as I can in October. Here's the lowdown on the second week of morbid curiosities I've been parading before my eyes:

Transylvania 6-5000 (1985)
Tabloid reporters Jack Harrison and Gil Turner are sent to Transylvania with two choices: find the Frankenstein monster or find new jobs. But before the jumpy journalists can dig up their big story, they must first face the horrors of an extremely clumsy butler, a nymphomaniac vampiress and a semi-mad doctor, as well as assorted mummies, werewolves and more Transylvanian oddballs. Can these two bumbling heroes unravel this monstrous mystery or are they in for some very scary surprises?

I can't believe I'd managed to avoid this before now. Transylvania 6-5000 was a movie made to free a chemical company's frozen assets in Yugoslavia, and it shows. Not even Geena Davis in a vampy outfit can save this one.

The Asphyx (1972)
English country squire Sir Hugo Cunningham searches for immortality by literally 'bottling up' the Spirit of the Dead, or Asphyx.

Usually I'm a sucker for anything horror set in the Victorian era, but The Asphyx was truly soporific. Apparently the spirit of death looks an awful lot like Slimer's Fraggle-ier cousin.

Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968)
When his brother disappears, Robert Manning pays a visit to the remote country house he was last heard from. While his host is outwardly welcoming - and his niece more demonstrably so - Manning detects a feeling of menace in the air with the legend of Lavinia Morley, Black Witch of Greymarsh, hanging over everything.

A bit wobbly, but Curse of the Crimson Altar has the kind of atmosphere I like. Plus, come on, it has Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff, and Barbara Steele. 

Lore (2017)
From the executive producer of The Walking Dead and the executive producer of The X-Files, this anthology series brings to life Aaron Mahnke's "Lore" podcast and uncovers the real-life events that spawned our darkest nightmares. Blending dramatic scenes, animation, archive and narration, Lore reveals how our horror legends - such as vampires, werewolves and body snatchers - are rooted in truth.

I only watched the first episode of Lore...and it might have been the only episode I watch. Lore is a spooky history-themed podcast that has been turned into a television show by Amazon, just in time for the Halloween season. Unfortunately, the jump to a visual format has really been to the concept's benefit; it mostly feels like a podcast that has been jammed over top dodgy History Channel-style re-enactments.

And then there are the inaccuracies. Mercy Brown was not "America's first vampire." Mercy Brown's story was not the inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula. (It may have been among his inspirations, but claiming it as the origin point for Stoker's novel avoids all the scholarship we have about his inspirations.) The phrase "saved by the bell" isn't actually a reference to people who were rescued from death by anti-premature-burial devices. (The earlier known usage of the phrase comes to us from the world of boxing.)

The Boy (2015)
An intimate portrait of a 9-year-old sociopath's growing fascination with death.

Not the one with the doll that looks like Jared Kushner, the one with Dwight from The Office. Slow-burn (hey oh!) about the makings of a future serial killer. Key word: slow.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Krevborna: The Book

I've mentioned this on Google+ but not here: I've been working on a campaign setting book for Krevborna

If you don't know what Krevborna is, it's a Gothic Fantasy setting for roleplaying games inspired by Bloodborne, Hammer Horror, and Eastern European folklore. I've been building the setting on this blog; you can read about the setting here and read actual play reports from games set in Krevborna here.

Take a look to the left; that's the Table of Contents as it stands right now.

Current state of the book: 
- I'm fairly confident that the manuscript is done.
- The manuscript has been handed off to an editor.
- I've been talking about potential ideas with the cover artist and she is at work on an initial sketch. I might be able to preview the cover image at some point, but we're at an early stage with the art.

Below is an example of what the page layout looks like in general. Each major location in the setting gets four pages in this two-page spread format; here is the section on Hemlock, a town of witches and apostates:

It's interesting that Hemlock won the poll of which area I was going to preview in this post as it's also a location that my players steadfastly avoided going to when they had the opportunity.

Aside from location detail on five major locations and four other dangerous locales, here's what else is in the book:
- Brief general notes on the setting, its people, its secrets, and its general aesthetics and themes.
- A map of the setting by Michael Gibbons, so you know that's good.
- People who have played in my Krevborna games will definitely recognize some of the NPCs, monsters, and locations described therein. Don't be surprised if you even run across some easter eggs related to your characters!
- Stuff for players, including advice on character archetypes that fit the setting, dark secrets that lurk in characters' pasts, and details on otherworldly beings that characters might make pacts with.
- Information on the setting's factions and important NPCs, and advice on how to use them in your games.
- Background on the world of Krevborna and its cosmology.
- My best advice for running "Gothic Fantasy" games.
- An expanded adventurer generator, a bestiary of sample monsters in the setting, and a list of inspirations that gives credit where credit is due.
- The book is fully indexed. There's even a separate index for all the random tables in the book for ease of use. Here are the unedited draft of the indices:

Some names are placeholders; some names still need to be added.

Why I'm proud of this project:
- I've put a lot of effort into making this book support the principles of setting presentation I talked about here and here
- The book is designed to deliver adventure-oriented detail instead of big honking paragraphs of frustrated novelist writing; expect setting info to be deployed via bullet points and terse description you can use in play.
- I've got a great cover artist lined up and am super excited to see where her inspiration takes her on this project. Hopefully I'll be able to preview some art in the near-ish future.

Additional details:
- Right now, the book is 100% system neutral.
- The book's dimensions will be 6x9, and it will probably be between 110-120 pages long.
- The book will have a color interior.

Things that still need to get done:
- I need to make some decisions about the interior art.
- I am planning on releasing the pdf and print hardcopy through DriveThruRPG/RPGNow, so I will have to figure out how that works.
- Release date tba.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Paperbacks from Hell

Paperbacks from Hell by Grady Hendrix strikes the perfect balance of context, curiosity, and lurid sensationalism in its approach to the paperback horror boom of the 70s and 80s. Daring to peer beneath the gruesome (and often just plain baffling) covers, Hendrix and his colleague and researcher Will Errickson chart the trends, history, and notable figures involved in creating these once ubiquitous tomes. This book will slake your thirst for killer crabs, Nazi leprechauns, and suburban devil cults.
On this mini episode, Kate and Jack talk to Will Errickson of Too Much Horror Fiction about his horror paperback collection, some of the factors that came into play during this particular period in pulp fiction, and the role of these books in today's popular culture. Catch Will and Grady on the Paperbacks from Hell book tour at Powells Books in Beaverton, OR this Thursday October 12.
Intro/outro music: "Halloween" by the Crimson Ghosts
Find us at, on Twitter @badbooksbadppl, Instagram @badbooksbadpeople and on Facebook. You can discover where to get all the books featured on Bad Books for Bad People on our reading list.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Horror of It All, 2017 (part 1)

As per tradition (and my natural inclinations) I watch as many horror movies and Gothic thrillers as I can in October. I'm off to a strong start; thus far I've managed to watch a movie a day. Here's the lowdown on the first week of morbid curiosities I've been parading before my eyes:

Grace (2009)
After losing her unborn child, Madeline Matheson insists on carrying the baby to term. Following the delivery, the child miraculously returns to life with an appetite for human blood. Madeline is faced with a mother's ultimate decision.

As sub-genres of horror, "Pregnancy horror" and "child horror," don't do much for me; doubly so in a case like Grace where the film isn't particularly well acted or constructed. There was a real lack of interesting ideas and development here. 

Beetlejuice (1988)
When a recently-deceased ghost couple find their now-vacant home invaded by an obnoxious family, they hire a sleazy ghost who gets rid of humans to help them.

Films like this (idiosyncratic, but made for mass consumption) just aren't made anymore. I think Beetlejuice is essentially a perfect movie; there isn't an ounce of fat that could be trimmed. I'm glad I got to see this again recently on the big screen.

My Cousin Rachel (2017)
A young Englishman plots revenge against his late cousin's mysterious, beautiful wife, believing her responsible for his death. But his feelings become complicated as he finds himself falling under the beguiling spell of her charms.

My Cousin Rachel is a quiet Gothic film that has been met with a lukewarm response from critics. I enjoyed it, but then I'm also not vexed by the film's thesis: young white men with authority ruin the lives of everyone around them who don't have the same set of privileges. 

Nightbreed (1990)
A troubled young man is drawn to a mythical place called Midian where a variety of monsters are hiding from humanity.

Nightbreed is truly phantasmagorical. I hadn't seen this in ages...and you know what? This is still a bizarre film. Although it probably isn't a great movie on any terms, it's so unaccountable and audacious. Go on, name a movie that feels like Nightbreed, I'll wait.

Raw (2016)
When a young vegetarian undergoes a carnivorous hazing ritual at vet school, an unbidden taste for meat begins to grow in her.

Raw isn't bad, but this is a textbook example of a film that got too much love from critics without just cause. It suffers from being a series of set pieces rather than a cohesive narrative. There's some decent abjection here, but it doesn't really hang together for a cohesive impact.

The Handmaiden (2016)
A woman is hired as a handmaiden to a Japanese heiress, but secretly she is involved in a plot to defraud her.

The Handmaiden was my favorite film of last year, so it was nice to get a chance to watch this amped-up Gothic thriller again with a class full of undergrads...especially fun noting which scenes made some of them look away from the screen.

Under the Shadow (2016)
As a mother and daughter struggle to cope with the terrors of the post-revolution, war-torn Tehran of the 1980s, a mysterious evil begins to haunt their home.

I love getting a chance to see the new horror films coming from non-Western countries. Under the Shadow was good, but ultimately a little too slow moving for my tastes.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Attack of the Wigmother

Campaign: Scarabae (Open Table, Hangouts, 5e D&D)

Characters: Traviata Manu (human alchemist artificer), Khajj Khala (minotaur life cleric), Gisbert Highforge (dwarf fighter), Crumb (artificer).

Objective: Discover why adventurers are disappearing in Redgutter, and put a stop to the disappearances.

Events: The party met with Koska (tiefling quest giver), Voone Jaskar (tortle fence of looted goods), and Wick (fire genasi owner of the Bullroarer, a tavern that picaros hang out at), who explained that the rash of disappearing adventurers was hurting their businesses. They hired Traviata, Khajj, Gisbert, and Crumb to do some investigating and fix the situation, if possible.

The adventurers had little to go on: a party of crypt-kickers last spotted down by the old wharf, an elf trying to sell a crate of powdered wigs before he disappeared, and the tale of a drunk wizard claiming that something not of this world was active in the Redgutter Ward.

While investigating, the party realized they were being tailed by a halfling wearing a powdered wig. They managed to turn the tables and ambush him, but in the ensuing brawl they discovered that the wig was actually an alien creature holding onto the halfling's head with pincers; the wig had been controlling the halfing's actions.

Freed from the wig's influence, the halfing took the adventurers to where he had been ambushed by his wig-controlled friends and had a wig thrust upon him. They found the box that the wigs had come in; it was an old tea crate with an address for a broken-down warehouse near a disused section of the docks. Inside the warehouse, the party found a well and managed to traverse its treacherous handholds.

A giant skull was spotted in a flooded chamber; Gisbert was secured with a rope and sent down into the water with Traviata's cap of water breathing to ivestigate. Gisbert quickly discovered that a crab-like thing was using the giant's skull as a surrogate shell. Gisbert was yanked back to safety with the rope, but the crab followed. The aggressive crab was fought off.

Further exploration found a chamber in which massive black and violet mushrooms were growing. The mushrooms were being "fed" by rivulets of black liquid flowing from a statue of a woman sculpted from dark stone. The statue appeared to be wearing a white fur cloak, but further inspection revealed the "cloak" to be a giant powdered wig that had adhered itself to the statue's back. The wigmother sprang upon the party and, after a battle marked by many whiffed attacks, the picaros prevailed.

An adventurer was found chained in a chamber with alchemical gear; he was roused and set free. The party also found a bedchamber that was obviously still being used. It was duly looted. In the next room the party found a mockery of a dinner party: missing adventurers wearing wigs were dining with a man wrapped in a leaf-patterned cloak--clearly a member of the Children of Fimbul! Khajj charged in, horns first. Traviata used her newly acquired magic dagger to inflict a massive wound on the druid cultist. Crumb blasted away with his firearm. Gisbert protected the others with his shield while swinging his war pick. The group managed to kill the wigs without harming the adventurers they were controlling. As the druid died, he ominously proclaimed that "It was too late! Our plan is already in motion!"

The menaces beneath the warehouse now dealt with, the party continued exploring the depths. They found a large chamber in which a number of knocked-out adventurers were being kept chained to the walls; all were free, all were thankful, and all were pressed into service carrying the picaros' loot out of the warehouse. 

The party also took the druid's corpse with them, which proved to be a smart idea. When the party returned to inform Koska that they had accomplished their mission, they discovered her frantic and teary. While the party had been dealing with the mystery, more Children of Fimbul had teleported into Koska's home and abducted Yuriko, Koska's adopted daughter!

Aurulent Masque was able to conjure forth the dead druid's spirit from his corpse so that the group might learn more. The druid's spirit admitted that the plot to use the wig-creatures to abduct adventurers was deployed purely to get them out of the way so that the Children of Fimbul could more easily kidnap Yuriko. He also explained that the wig creatures had been stolen from a downed ethercraft while adventurers employed by the Magpie Museum were busy looting other sections of it. Finally, before departing for whatever afterlife awaited him, he let slip that Yuriko had been smuggled aboard a ship traveling to a southern jungle land where the Children of Fimbul hoped to use her in a ritual to bring forth a great marauding beast that will destroy the world!

NPCs: Koska, Voone Jaskar, Wick, Aurulent Masque.

Foes: Bewigged adventurers, wigmother, bone crab, a Children of Fimbul cultist.

Loot: 207 gp, 4 sp, and 5 cp each from looted coin and Koska's payment for the job

Ivory dice 75 gp, onyx locket 25 gp, silk handkerchief 20 gp, feather mask with silver threading 30 gp, soapstone pitcher 25 gp, antique iron dagger 100 gp, trade goods (tobacco, herbs, mead) 105 gp. If sold this adds 95 gp each to your haul.

Dagger of Venom (claimed by Traviata)

Scimitar +1 (Claimed by Gisbert)

Pistol +1 (treat as hand crossbow, the name "Heartseeker" is carved into the handle) (claimed by Crumb)

3 Potions of Greater Healing (split between Gisbert, Khajj, and Crumb)

2 Potions of Poison (claimed by Traviata).

XP: 308 each