Friday, February 12, 2016

Van Richten's Guide to Fiends

Van Richten’s Guide to  Fiends is written as the thoughts of Ravenloft’s famous monster hunter, Rudolph Van Richten, with additional gray text that represents game mechanics related to Van Richten’s observations and hypotheses concerning “fiends” (a catch-all category for demons, devils, daemons, etc.). 

Van Richten’s musings begin with him receiving a number of esoteric tomes as a bequest from a departed friend. Among these books are a sixteen volume set called The Madrigorian. Though these texts are said to amount to two piles that stand at chest-height, Van Richten manages to digest them over the course of nine days. (I’m guessing the author of this supplement has never had to actually engage in that magnitude of scholarship. Van Richten’s fellow academic, O‚elie Farringer, manages the feat in only six!) Though initially dismissed as the ravings of a lunatic family, it is discovered that The Madrigorian is actually the record kept by a fiend who possessed many members of the same familial line.

The supplement offers a number of interesting theories that could come up in-game to explain the existence of fiends. One theory is that fiends are a stage in the development of the lich. Once such a being leaves behind the last of their physical remnants as a demilich behind, perhaps their unholy spirit is reborn as a fiend. Another theory holds that fiends are created through the accumulation from the malignancy of human actions within Ravenloft. It is also suggested that instead of summoning fiends from afar, magical conjurations actually will fiends into being.

Of course, it is also suggested that fiends are an influence from another plane of existence that is beckoned into Ravenloft through the horrific sins of the demi-plane’s residents. This last theory is particularly well-fleshed out with game mechanics; offered within the supplement is a system through which a character can be slowly taken over (both physically and psychologically) by a variety of fiends. There is great potential for both body horror themes and the
conventions of possession and exorcism to enter the game here. The mechanics are similar to those of Ravenloft’s usual Dark Powers checks, but instead of turning into a monster the character is sent to a hellscape and replaced with a fiendish power who is now trapped in the demi-plane. 

Unfortunately, this early section of the supplement also evidences its biggest problem—and one of the biggest problems with TSR’s mindset during its contemporary era. While it’s clear that fiends in Ravenloft should be unique, singular beings of immense terror, the text bends over backwards fitting that idea into the already extant framework of demons, devils, etc. (in their sanitized 2nd edition forms). The usual demonic and diabolic types seem a poor fit for
what the supplement is trying to achieve, but it’s shoe-horned in anyway because all of D&D’s settings are supposed to share the same common conceits. The Blood War, in particular, feels especially like a square peg being forced into a round hole in this context.

While I was initially finding a few interesting bits in the early sections of this supplement, the middle section drags on and on. Once the book turns to the explication of the various powers that fiends possess, you realize that what it’s really doing is blowing up what should be a single line description of a power in a monster write-up into a full paragraph (or more) that adds nothing new. For example, "Only hit by +2 or better magic weapons" becomes...thirteen paragraphs of text, including *shudder* in-character epistolary fiction. This is the sort of bloat that pads out much of the 2e AD &D era’s books.

The section on additional powers granted to fiends by the various Ravenloft domains they might find themselves trapped in is at least useful and a bit interesting. But then we hit the section on cults that serve fiends. That absolutely should be fascinating; cults are awesome antagonists. For example, look at the best of Warhammer’s adventures, Runequest’s deeper look at fantasy religious allegiance, or even the cult-centric nature of 5e's published campaigns. But it’s difficult to imagine a section on cults that is more lackluster than what we get here. We learn that cults lure in their prospective adherents, that they swear an oath of fealty to the fiend, and that this oath is corrupting. It’s almost as if the book is trying to describe a cult to someone who has never heard of the phenomenon before.

Worse yet, the example cult that serves "the Black Duke" is so devoid of imagination that there is nowhere to go with it. Even the names of the people involved reek of generic fantasy: meet the rogue Scarhand and Sir Ironhand. (I suppose the mighty mage, Merlin Wandhand, was elsewhere at the time.) The cult is called the Brotherhood of the Whip, which barely has potential, but then we’re immediately told that they are so named because the Black Duke carries a whip. It’s all a bit on the nose...and that's the problem with Van Richten's Guide to Fiends overall.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Occult Activity Book

Coloring books for adults are all the rage right now, but if you're of a somewhat darker bent you might be feeling left out of all the fun. Well, witch-friends, the answer to your prayers to the Gods of Dark Laughter have been answered with the arrival of The Occult Activity Book. I contributed some eldritch Mad Libs to the book, which sit nicely alongside the Elizabeth Bathory paper dress-up doll, diabolic "spot the difference" games, fiendish crosswords, and more.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes

I'm not big on New Year's resolutions, but when I do set one I like to keep the bar nice and low. This year's resolution is to re-read the original run of the Sandman comics. I'm pretty sure I never read every single issue as they came out in the 90s, and I'm also fairly sure that I didn't read it in a strict order at the time.

The Sandman was the first comic series that I at least read semi-religiously; prior to that, I read a comic here and a comic there, but was never really devoted to picking up every issue as they came out. Will Sandman hold up to my amber-colored memories of being engrossed in it? Let's find out.

Aesthetically, I love the way the early sequences in which Morpheus is held captive by Roderick and Alex Burgess adopt the style and look of DC's horror comics from the 70s, and then effectively segues into Morpheus encountering Cain, Abel, Destiny, and the hosts of The Witching Hour

That those cameos are inserted in such an interesting and clever way rubs uncomfortably against the avalanche of cameos that follow. Some of these cameos work well (Doctor Destiny is especially well-appropriated as a villain--his occupation of the diner is easily one of the darker turns in the Sandman series) but others (John Constantine, Etrigan, fucking Martian Manhunter) feels a bit too much like fanservice and inclusions that exist just to let you know that you're in the DC Universe. My memory tells me that as the series progresses it becomes a bit more deft at reinventing DC characters and mixing them with characters of its own inventions, but we'll have to see how that plays out.

One thing I hadn't counted on before starting this re-read was how heavily the specter of AIDS/HIV would loom in the background of the narrative. It's easy to forget it now, but at the time Sandman was coming out the disease was a predominant, era-defining anxiety. I'd hazard to guess that the Death Talks About Life mini-comic taught a lot of people about AIDS awareness and how to put on a condom because that specter was always in the shadows.

Speaking of Death, Preludes & Nocturnes concludes with "The Sound of Her Wings," which was the first bit of Sandman I got hold of. In retrospect, it's a weird place to start: it's a bridge between the just-concluded arc of Morpheus regaining his tools and the next arc about Morpheus chasing down errant dreams. Still, reading it again makes it clear why it inspired me to go back and read what I had missed; "The Sound of Her Wings" was like a revelation that comics could be so much more than how we usually imagine them within the strata of pop culture.

Friday, February 5, 2016

An Unholy Misc

Aos sent this along to me and, who knows, it might prove useful for you too:

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Trey sent along this great Gothic & Gorey cartoon. Definitely worth your time!

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An important gif:

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Kylie Minogue reads Nick Cave's letter to the MTV Awards. Words to live by.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Ones Left Behind

Pale hands reaching out of a swirling cloud of shadow and ethereal luminescence--they are the remnants of a cosmic being, shattered by contact with the madness of mortal men, and left behind by their fellow travelers of the universal void.

Each hand frantically signals a single word in sign language. Driven mad by a desire to be understood--and destined to never be fully comprehended--the Ones Left Behind are plunged into a despair that quickly turns to rage. Rage leads inexorably to the hands pronouncing doom on those who cannot, or refuse, to understand them. Each hand is also capable of creating a baleful magical effect. 

Stats as beholder; exchange eye stalks for hands, etc.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Carcosa, The Urantia Book, Herbal Tea, Racism [???]

Is the Urantia Book the ultimate supplement for Carcosa games? Well, it does have multi-colored people in a horrific sci-fi/mystical/alien backdrop:

“The earlier races are somewhat superior to the later; the red man stands far above the indigo — black — race,” says Paper 51 of The Urantia Book, and “each succeeding evolutionary manifestation of a distinct group of mortals represents variation at the expense of the original endowment.” Furthermore, “The yellow race usually enslaves the green, while the blue man [which corresponds to Caucasians] subdues the indigo [black].”

Friday, January 29, 2016


The Uncaring
Chelsea Wolfe - Maw † My Dying Bride - The Whore, the Cook and the Mother † Sabbath Assembly - Risen From Below † Huntress - Four Blood Moons † The Black Dahlia Murder - Vlad, Son of the Dragon † Myrkur - Skadi † Paradise Lost - Forging Sympathy † Ahab - Red Foam

The Death of Needless Aspirations
My Dying Bride - Vast Choirs † Anathema - Sleep in Sanity † Paradise Lost - Rapture † Katatonia - Murder † Tiamat - Scent of Incense † Lychgate - Truimphalism † Burzum - Naar Himmelen Klarner † Emperor - The Ancient Queen

Remember mixtapes? These are mine.

This one isn't mine, but it's also great and worth your time:

The Sexuality of Your Shadow