Friday, September 23, 2016

Bad Books for Bad People - Image of the Beast and Blown

Kate and Jack discuss Image of the Beast and its sequel Blown by Philip José Farmer. Released in 1968 and 1969 by adult science fiction publisher Essex House, Kate describes these ultra-explicit, super-bizarre novels as "like the monster mash version of Georges Bataille's Story of the Eye." But that's only part of the picture as we follow private detective Herald Childe on his journey into a world of monsters, ritual murder, and warring horror memorabilia collectors.
 The guest reader is man of mystery Baron XIII, who has the distinction of being Kate's most frequently punched-in-the-head friend. Baron XIII reveals his seven-day drawing challenge in exchange for reading one of the most extreme passages from these books.
Are these books sexy? Will we learn anything about Philip José Farmer's sexual preferences? What lives in that one character's nether regions?  What does Lord Byron have to do with all of this? Tune in to this episode of Bad Books for Bad People to find out!
Listen here!

We're also now on iTunes and Google Play.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Grand Guignol, Reading Like a Victorian, Fascist Building

My dear friend and co-conspirator Tenebrous Kate has a great piece on the recently-reissued Theatre of Fear and Horror: The Grisly Spectacle of the Grand Guignol of Paris and an interview with the book's author, Mel Gordon. The book and the interview are must-reads. (by Tenebrous Kate for Heathen Harvest)

Want to read Victorian novels as they were originally read? This site does the heavy-lifting to give you the full Victorian experience: A Way to Read 19th-Century Novels Serially and in Their Cultural Contexts.

The Fascist Building in Upper Manhattan. (by Caroline Wazer for Atlas Obscura.)

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

How to Make Characters in Modern D&D for Old-School Players

I’ve seen a lot of old-school gamers complain that making a Pathfinder or 3e D&D or 4e D&D or 5e D&D character is too hard or requires too much work compared to old-school editions. They’d rather not have to make all those decisions about feats, skills, powers, etc. or even buy in to the system mastery needed to know what the good choices are; it would be better if you just got set things each level like in the earlier editions.

I can sympathize with that, to a degree. I don’t want to read 20 pages of feats either to pick out which one my 1st level character gets either. But then again, this is 2016 and the internet has already done the heavy lifting for you.

I’m here to help.

Let me show you how.

As you can see, if you do a search for just about any Pathfinder or 3e or 4e or 5e character class + "builds" or "guide" you will get a highly-detailed guide on how to make such a character. Just treat the "build" as a class where what you get is spelled out in advance each level. When you hit level 2, don’t worry about reading through all the feats to pick a good one–just go with the one spelled-out in the build document. The people who write those treat it like it’s a calling, so you aren’t likely to get burned.

Letting the internet make all the choices for you takes all the work out of it; now you can get on to the part you presumably like: killing goblins and collecting loot. Or maybe role-playing a character. Whatever you’re into.

My point is this: Pathfinder or 3e or 4e or 5e might not be your favorite editions, hell, you might even hate them, but if you get a chance to play with some cool people don’t let "It will be a drag to make a character" or "This edition isn’t my favorite one" be the things that stop you. That goes double for "Well, I only like playing D&D."

Personally, I’d rather play with people who are cool using a system that isn’t my favorite than with a system that I prefer and people who are terrible. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Final Projector

I accepted a challenge to watch the movie version of Wild Wild West and come up with something gameable from it. So, I bring to you a new piece of equipment that would be right at home in my Scarabae setting: the final projector.

As it turns out, the commonly-held belief that the last image a person sees is burned onto their retina as they die is true. The final projector can be used to unlock that last image: it is a device that bores a hole into the back of a deceased person’s head and shines a light through their eyes, which projects the last image they saw onto a prepared screen.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Occult Activity Book, Volume 2

The Occult Activity Book, vol. 2 is now available for preorder from Munich Art Studio. I contributed some writing to this, but trust me when I tell you that it is going to be full of absolutely amazing art and fun ways to idle away the hours until the midnight bell tolls.

The first volume sold out almost instantly, so don't be left out! Preorder here.

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Dove of Eisengraz

Anton Sellvek, who had come into a bit of coin as a consequence of having helped slay a vampire in his lair, did not accompany his compatriots on their journey to explore the under-levels of the Church of St. Othric. Instead, he opted to make a splash in the city of Chancel and grow his reputation as a man about town. 

One night while gambling among the upper-crust, he was approached by an attractive, middle-aged woman with red hair. The woman introduced herself as Mirella and thanked him profusely for paying for her treatment at an asylum. Unfortunately, Anton was positive that he had never seen this woman before and he certainly hadn't paid for anyone's stay in a madhouse.

Sellvek asked the woman to accompany him to the inn where he and his friends have been staying. None of them remembered her either, but she effusively thanked Anton for his kindness in using a large sum of his own money to pay for the rehabilitation of a perfect stranger. 

When questioned, she remarked that she had been under the care of Dr. Victor Velken, and that she felt indebted to Anton because it was unlikely that she would ever be able to fully pay him back for his charity. As the night wore on, she excused herself--she left her address with Anton should she ever be able to do him a service--and the group agreed that this mystery was worth looking into.

Two of the assembled party were feeling the ill effects of the curse brought upon them by a fiend encountered in the Grail Tomb beneath the Church of St. Othric. The black taint of Luka and Kylic's wounds was beginning to spread spider vein-like tendrils across their skin. Worse, similar tendrils of black began to seep in from the edges of their vision, as if a darkness was threatening to engulf them. That night, Tobias used the skull of Iokanaan to summon the shade of the wizard from across the astral veil; he asked the shrewd necromancer if there was a cure for the curse afflicting his friends. Iokanaan replied that they could travel to the village of Eisengraz, and seek one called Celestine the Dove. She could lift the curse.

Eisengraz was a village condemned to the fire, burnt to the ground for some unforgivable act of heresy. But some things die hard in Krevborna; it was known that despite the passage of time, the smoking remains of the village persisted. It had been utterly reduced to rubble before, yet some buildings that had been destroyed always seemed to come back. The wreckage still bore the marks of the fire that consumed the village, still smoking and reeking of immolation.

Before the group set out for Eisengraz they went to visit Dr. Velken to unravel the mystery of the red-headed woman. Victor Velken turned out to be a rather young, and wild-eyed man--overly enthusiastic and vainglorious of his considerable talent as an alienist. He naturally assumed that either Tobias or Kylic was a prospective patient to be treated (Anton preferred to remain anonymous for reasons of his own), but they quickly got down to business. 

He explained that Mirella was a former patient, and that her treatment had been paid for by a Mister Sellvek, but not by an Anton Sellvek. Rather, she had been placed at his asylum by a Mister Tarvin Sellvek. When the woman was restored to her senses, she badgered the doctor for the name of her mysterious benefactor--and he gave her only the name Mr. Sellvek. She had clearly been asking around after a Sellvek and had stumbled upon Anton by mistake and assumed that he must have been the man who had helped her regain her sanity. An enigma unraveled then; but, what was the cause of her madness, and what knowledge might still be locked in her mind? Questions for another day, surely.

The road that led to Eisengraz proved to be in disrepair; eventually it became simply a grassy path overgrowing what used to be a road in better days. The party's carriage thundered along without incident until they saw a crossroads in the distance. A gibbet hung at the crossroads, a corpse was within the gibbet, and three cloaked figures were in the process of attempting to pry open the gibbet's cage. 

As the carriage approached, the three figures conspicuously turned away from the passing vehicle to hide their faces, but in a fit of perversity one figure turned his head just enough to make the briefest of eye contact with Luka, Tobias, and Anton. The face under the cowl was snake-like and reptilian.

The carriage continued to travel apace until Luka decided he could not suffer such an abomination to live. He threw the reigns of the carriage to Anton, drew his musket and fired upon one of the figures. His shot hit true, and all three figures broke for the treeline--each seemingly carrying away part of the corpse with them. The carriage was wheeled around, and the wounded snake-like man was eventually put down by a combination of Luka's sharpshooting and Kylic's magic--Kylic crumpled the thing like a child might destroy an origami figure.

The remaining two cloaked figures made it to the treeline and disappeared within the forest. No one but Luka wished to give further chase, so instead the group examined the body of the snake-creature and the corpse in the gibbet. The snake-man's body was covered in grayish-green scales, his tongue forked like an adder's. He carried nothing save a wand of withered wood that he had not had a chance to use and one of the gibbeted corpse's hands. The corpse's other hand, and one foot, were also now missing. (Luka took body parts from the serpent-man for possible later identification.) Onward then, to Eisengraz.

The adventurers could smell Eisengraz before they even laid eyes upon it: it smelt of charred wood, the scent of a campfire grown monstrous. When the remains of the village did spill into view, it evidenced still-smoldering grass, blackened fields, and the occasional ember still glowing from within rubble that used to be a human habitation. Strange, for a village that was burnt to the ground over a century ago. Some buildings remained standing, scorched but largely intact. 

Luka extended his senses over the area and determined that there was a creature of divine origins nearby; was this the Celestine they were in search of? Anton led the exploration by examining a paddock; from the scraps of wool scattered around the fire-touched bones it was evident that this used to be where a farmer kept his flock.

The sound of a frenzied search could be heard coming from within the house across what used to be the village's high street. Tobias sent his imp, Malphas, through the house's broken window to investigate; through his familiar's eyes, Tobias could see three figures searching through the rubble within the house. The leader was a tall, thin man clad in ragged cloth and fur crudely shaped into a tunic and trousers, his face obscured by a mask of leather that has been haphazardly stitched together with black twine. The overall effect of him was of a ragdoll come to life. His compatriots were a man and a woman in tattered and dirty leather armor.

(At least one player assumed that the leader was a leper based on this description. I wish I had thought of that, actually.)

Anton assumed a position by the window where he could hide and snipe if need be, while Kylic strode into the house to parlay with the looters. The trio were not happy to find other visitants in Eisengraz, but the leader of the crew offered to let the group loot half the town if they would pay a toll--he claimed a first-looter's right of domain. Communication eventually broke down when the group refused to pay the toll or divide the town with the looters. Kylic grabbed the leader's leather mask and channeled a massive amount of necrotic energy directly into his foe's face. Although deeply harmed, the man in the leather mask fought back and nearly cut Kylic down with wild swings of his great axe. Luka engaged the leader's lackeys, and Anton and Tobias took shots at them with bow and spell. Malphas stung one of the looters to death with his poisonous tail. Kylic's healing magic kept everyone alive until the three looters could be sent to their graves. Alas, all the looters had on them was a paltry handful of coin.

Further exploration of Eisengraz took the party to what had formerly been the village's inn and public house. Malphas was again sent in to investigate. Inside, the inn looked like it had been abandoned suddenly; soot and ash covered everything but plates of food were still on tables, jugs of ale were still waiting to be poured--even after the passage of the years. And yet, not a single person was evident inside. The rafters of the main room, however, were festooned with an unkindness of ravens. The birds' eyes turned toward Malphas, even though he was scouting invisibly.

Kylic entered here as well and addressed the ravens. The many birds in the rafters answered back with one voice. When asked if they might direct the party to Celestine the Dove, they replied that they might help if given something nice in trade. Kylic offered them carrion and tiny red tongues darted about black beaks in anticipation. 

Anton dragged the female looter's corpse into the inn and the group was stunned as the birds flew down from their perches and lifted the body into the air, where they promptly began to devour it as they held it aloft by the flapping of their sable wings. Sated with this offering, they directed the party to seek Celestine in the cottage at the furthest extremity of the village's eastbound arm.

The cottage was of better construction than the previous buildings they had seen--being of white stone touched by scorch marks instead of wood--and before they reached it the group could hear the rhythmic sound of metal striking metal coming from inside. The door was opened, revealing a woman wearing a leather apron hammering a piece of red-hot metal upon an anvil, her white-blonde hair tied back with a scrap of leather and a roaring forge at her back. She ignored the group as they entered...until Kylic cut his hand and cast his blood over her work. 

She was indeed Celestine the Dove. As the group spoke to her in an attempt to draw her out--and make her more amenable to the idea of removing the curse from Luka and Kylic--they learned that she was self-imprisoned in the uncanny remnants of the village (a chain shackled her to the forge) because she was an angel who had attempted to save the inhabitants of Eisengraz from destruction, but had failed and been forced to watch the village and its people put to the torch. 

And, she added, the arsonists responsible for the razing of Eisengraz were agents sent by the Church of Saintly Blood, the very religion to which she had been a servitor. Now, in imposed exile, she watches the days pass in the haunted figment of the village she could not save. 

When asked what she was forging, she replied that she made a sword, only to remake it anew when it was finished, in preparation for the day it could be put to use against the very church that she felt had betrayed its principles.

Anton attempted to appeal to Celestine's finer feelings for the people of Eisengraz, while others assured the Dove that the church could be brought around to the idea of sanctifying the village--perhaps to atone for the gross misdeeds of the past. But Celestine was not convinced; her heart was hardened to the church long ago. Instead, she offered to finish forging the sword--and to give it to the group so that they might take it and slay a priest with it. If they were to do such a thing, take the life of a holy man of the hypocritical faith, then she would lift the curse from not just Luka and Kylic, but from Tristan as well.

Luka agreed to take the sword and kill a priest in the name of Celestine. 

The group waited until the next morning before leaving haunted Eisengraz, and were presented with a beautiful finished sword whose blade is etched with runes and images of doves bearing blades in their beaks. A sword they must now bear, but toward what ends?

* * *

The Spoils

XP - 
750 each (let me know if anyone is leveling up; you'll need to spend your downtime and a little bit of gold training to get your new stuff and that new level smell.)

Treasure - 
Wand of Lightning Bolts from the snake-man (does not require attunement, but only has one charge per day)

17 copper, 28 silver, 10 gold from the looters' pockets

Sword of the Militant Dove (longsword, +1 to hit and damage, does an extra 3d6 damage to priests)

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Kindly Ones

There are few things I can tell you that are true of all works of literature, but I'm on solid ground with this one: if a story starts with three women--one young, one motherly, one bent with age--snipping a skein of thread short, well, the story in front of you is about fate and death.

At this point in its run, The Sandman is well and truly an epic--which dictates that the narrative must resolve itself according to the rules of the epic. Indeed, Sandman enshrines the idea of following the rules of story. Morpheus is made to face the ultimate price levied by the Furies because he has shed familial blood. Granting Orpheus an asked-for death may have been the kindest of boons, but it is an act that must be punished because that's the rules, that's how the game is played, that's what duty calls for.

The rules that guide the narrative conclusion of Gaiman's saga are drawn from the most classical of sources, the Greek tragedy: not only do we have the introduction of the Furies as a grand nemesis, we have Lyta Hall's transformation into a bereaved gorgon, Morpheus's enlarged and cosmic hubris, and a chorus of side characters who provide both counterpoint and collectively voiced commentary to the unspooling drama.

And so The Kindly Ones comes on like a beloved band on their farewell tour. All the greatest hits get played, and a few deep cuts sneak into the setlist to please the obsessive fans too. We revisit Rose Walker, Nuala & Cluracan, the Corinthian, Lucifer, Fiddler's Green, Matthew the Raven, Desire, Odin, Thessaly, Delirium, Lucien, Titania, Cain & Abel, Loki & Puck, etc, etc. &c. The audience can't leave without feeling sated. That's a rule too, and it must be followed.

But if The Kindly Ones is a Greek tragedy, whose tragedy is this? Who stands at the center watching everything fall apart around them?

Morpheus is the obvious choice, but his inevitable death is confronted with a stoic indifference--shot through though it may be with moments of pathos--that derails the utmost gravity of the events that have unfolded. 

What of Lyta Hall, then? She plays both the villain and the tragically condemned; she pursues revenge against Morpheus because she believes he has stolen her son (he hasn't), invoking the incessant Furies against him. But at the realization that Morpheus isn't the guilty party she's been seeking, this new gorgon would call back the Furies, but she cannot. The Furies do not pursue Morpheus for the crime Lyta accuses him of; rather, they pursue him for different transgression--a transgression of which he is guilty and must answer for. Those are the rules, and Lyta realizes too late that she can't change them. 

We etch commandments into stone for a reason--once set down, there is no revision possible. Only the slow erasure afforded by time allows for the rules to eventually be rewritten. When the slate is clear, we can start over afresh. Never before.

Lyta feels the injustice of that, and it turns into self-condemnation. Lyta has gross, glaring flaws, flaws that is often blind to, and it is the unseen flaws that ultimately consume her. Even the act of becoming a gorgon resonant with mythological structures of revenge partially erases who she is; reshaping yourself to fit an archetype means losing personal identity. Gaiman pairs her mythological ascension with earthly madness for a reason: whether high or low, both states are changes that deprive her of access to who she was and who she could have otherwise continued to be.

Worse yet, her single-minded quest to avenge her son sets in motion the events that will forever part him from her. After Morpheus's death, Daniel Hall assumes the mantle of the Sandman. This is a loss doubled, then; if Lyta loses part of herself in becoming an archetypal avenger of wrongs, that process ensures that Danial will lose part of himself as he is in turn transformed into the archetypal King of Dreams.

We've already learned Morpheus's lesson in the previous issues. Now we learn from Lyta's mistake, her tragic placement within circumstances she doesn't fully understand--and which we, as readers, are left to puzzle over because it is not clear who manipulated events to bring this ending to pass. And that's the song the chorus sings, in the end.