Monday, August 21, 2017


Ernest G Henham's 1898 novel Tenebrae gets inside the mind of a morbidly-inclined young man as he spirals into madness and murder after he believes he has been betrayed by his brother. Published during the same late 19th century blossoming of the Gothic that saw the publication of books like Dracula and The Picture of Dorian GrayTenebrae hearkens back to earlier manifestations of that style of fiction. 
What hallucinogenic cocktails is our narrator's uncle cooking up? How much of a debt does this book owe to Poe? Can you ever truly own a woman? Find out in this month's episode of Bad Books for Bad People.
Intro/Outro music: "Demons of the Mind" theme composed by Harry Robertson
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.

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Three Sisters and Their Writhing Entrails

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

Characters: Kylic (half-elf life domain cleric), Thane Ganymede (darakhul wizard), Roland da Cernia (high elf arcane trickster rogue), Leonid Vok (weretouched monster slayer fighter)

Objective: Reassemble the glass item retrieved from a Grail Tomb last session, and learn its purpose.

Events: Kylic sent the shards of magical broken glass the party had uncovered to his friend, the scientific warlock Tobias Rune. Unfortunately, Rune could not make heads or tails of the item--save that it was magical in some way. However, when Rune sent the glass pieces back to Kylic he also enclosed a note saying that a 
Polnezna clan called the Borgavs were famed for their glass-blowing, and thus might be able to help unite the shards so it could be studied in its intended form.

After recruiting Rune's messenger (the aristocratic Roland da Cernia) and reconvening the party from the last adventure by way of fraudulent party invitations, Kylic, Thane, Roland, and Leonid set off for the village greens outside of Sabra where the Borgav clan was currently camped on the village green. The camp was comprised of seven house wagons painted in bright colors, circled around a large, blazing campfire. About two-dozen people were clustered around the fire, singing, dancing, and playing fiddles, squeezebox, and hand drums; they were dressed in colorful patchwork clothing and many were armed with short swords or hand axes at their belts. Four brown bears were chained to wagons.

A weathered man in his late forties, wearing a sky blue headscarf, approached the party--the rest of the Polezna parted deferentially to let him pass. He invited the group to share his clan's food and fire. Under the pretense of wanting to purchase a squeezebox, Kylic began to make inroads into getting Eli to trust him. Once a squeezebox had traded hands, Kylic impressed the Borgavs by playing a jaunty, yet disturbing tune; the Polnezna clapped and stamped their feet to his song. The party was offered a spicy rabbit stew served out of glass bowls.

As the night's entertainments continued, Thane was asked to dance by a young woman of the Borgav clan. It was quite a sight to see a monstrous alchemist with a ghoulish heritage dancing with a beautiful young woman, but somehow Thane managed to keep up with the skilled dancer--even though the tempo of the music played by the Borgav musicians kept increasing until it reached a fevered pitch. At the close of the dance, the assembled crowd gave a great cheer; the men of the clan clapped Thane on the back and gripped his hand in welcome, Aneeshka, the dancing girl, stole a kiss from Thane before scampering away.

Partaking so avidly in the clan's traditions had sealed an unspoken level of trust extended toward the group. Eli drew the group aside at the end of the evening and explained that his son, Donya, was engaged to Lelianne of the Varlik clan, who were camped three hours away by the trade road, to seal an alliance between the two families. There were rumors that an exile, a handsome black-haired youth named Hans, had been following the Varliks because he was in love with Lelianne. 

Donya was worried that Lelianne’s affections had been swayed by Hans, and also concerned that Hans may become desperate and hurt or kidnap Lelianne. Since the Borgravs were forbidden by custom to approach the Varlik camp before the wedding day, they were willing to pay the party in gold coin and repair the glass object if they delivered a gift to Lelianne (an ornate iron and paper fan), ascertained the current state of her heart, and (possibly) drive off Hans. Donya was particularly receptive to Leonid's idea that perhaps Hans should be castrated.

In the morning, the party set off for the Varlik camp, which was three hours away along the trade road. The camp consisted of six house wagons, but where the Borgav's wagons were painted in garish colors, these wagons were painted in dull browns and greens. There were a dozen people working around the small campfire, polishing shields and fixing wheels, who eyed the party suspiciously as they approached. Kylic played a Polnezna song he had learned the previous night to signal their fellowship as the party made their way to the Varlik camp.

The group talked to Aydem, a scarred man in his early forties with powerfully muscled arms from his years before the anvil, and Grandmother Tazhlia, a gray-haired women missing most of her teeth. Aydem was curt and made it clear that he wished for the party to conclude their business quickly and leave his camp--he was clearly agitated about something. He also let slip two interesting tidbits: the party should tell him no lies, as Tazhlia had the Sight and would see right through them, and that there was another non-Polenzna within the camp at the moment.

Aydem refers to Lelianne and her twin sister Patreesa as the family's "treasures" because they are beautiful and can be used to help cement alliances with other clans. They are also gifted with the Sight. Unfortunately, the door to the sisters’ wagon was discovered hanging open yesterday, and both were gone. Aydem blamed their disappearance on "that whore’s son Hans," who had been lurking at the outskirts of the camp but was now nowhere to be found. It seemed obvious to Aydem that Hans forced the sisters to leave with him.

The adventurers, however, were not so sure. Left to their own devices, they investigated Lelianne and Patreesa's house wagon. The wagon was decorated with bunches of hanging herbs, beaded curtains, a small table, bunk beds, and dark scarves covering the windows. As he was snooping around the wagon, Leonid realized that the scarves were dark enough to obscure light from outside completely when they were tacked over the windows. He also detected the smell of vinegar throughout the wagon, and found two small casks of the stuff under the small table.

Thane attempted to detect magic, but nothing seemed noteworthy inside; more importantly, he found 
a layer of dark, earthy soil under the blankets on each bunk. Leonid found a piece of clothing worn by one of the girls he could use to track them with while in wolf form. Grandmother Tazhlia entered the wagon while Thane and Leonid were having a look around. She told them that a few eager youths had followed tracks into the woods, but without result. Tazhlia insinuated that she believed that the girls could still be found if someone went after them, but clearly Aydem had given up that hope.

Before taking any further actions, the party decided to ascertain the identity of the non-Polnezna in the camp. Knocking upon the lone tent revealed that its occupant was the mind-enslaving artist, Pietra Donna Sangino, whom Leonid and Thane had tangled with before. Due to the powerful blow Marek had inflicted on her with his greatsword, she now had a livid scar running the length of her face. Sangino assumed that the party had tracked her to the camp to kill her; the party assumed that she may have had something to do with the girls' disappearances. She claimed to be there merely to paint the occasion of the wedding ceremony; she was shaken by the appearance of adventurers she had fled from, but seemed to be telling the truth. When questioned about the portrait she had painted of the Master found in the pirate cave, she admitted that she had been hired to paint him--and also that he was the most terrifying being she had ever encountered.

Sensing that something was amiss with what they had learned thus far, the party ventured into the deep of the pine forest in search of Hans, Patreesa, and Lelianne. In wolf form, Leonid easily caught their sent and gave chase. After a few hours of tracking, the party happened upon two women with pale blonde hair--one in a riding outfit bearing two swords, the other in a frilly bonnet and dress. The woman with the swords warned the adventurers that the forest was home to a monstrous beast they had been tracking for days and that the forest was unsafe. The two groups parted ways.

An hour later, the party found the beast the women had been stalking: it was a monstrous, shaggy thing with an ursine body and a head erupting with plates of bone and curved horns. Kylic took up a defensive posture, Roland hid behind a tree stump, and Thane cast a spell that rendered him invisible...which left Leonid the obvious target of the thing's bloodthirsty anger as it charged through the woods toward the party's position. The thing grabbed Leonid in one paw, slashing him and attempting to pound his body into the forest floor. Roland landed bolt after bolt into its hide, dealing significant damage and fading back into cover where the beast could not find him. Kylic bashed at it with his mace. In the end, Leonid leaped free of the beast's grasp and tore out its throat before landing on his paws.

After this violent interlude, Leonid again picked up the scent and the party returned to the hunt. Their destination circle of thin, curved standing stones in a clearing. In the center of the circle was a hole with stone steps leading down into the darkness. The steps were rimed with frost, even though it was currently summer. Down they went, into a pagan burial chamber. The air was thick with piney resin; two corpses preserved in a brown-black substance lay upon wooden biers. A third bier stood empty, one corner was occupied by old chariot wheels, and a passage flanked by stone statues led to a long hallway. 

The hallway was engraved with images of three goddess-like figures--sometimes arranged so that the tripartite heads occupied the neck of a single figure--being offered sacrifices by human figures clad in furs. The hallway ended in three doors. The party chose to enter the door on the left, which unveiled a mystifying seen. In the center of the room was a coffin-sized block of ice, on top of which was the squirming figure of a dark-haired Polnezna man who was held fast by four hands of ice that emerged from the block's surface. Within the block was what appeared to be another human-shaped figure. Standing next to the block were two identical, slim women in the dour clothes of the Varlik clan. They were smiling ominously.

Those ominous smiles turned even more sinister as both sisters untied the velvet bands at their necks; their bodies slumped to the floor like rag dolls, but their heads floated in the air...trailing lungs, viscera, and writhing intestines beneath them! The sisters' heads swooped at the party, their entrails dripping with corrosive acid. Leonid tackled the two penanggalans head on with sword and axe; his flesh sizzled as grasping tendrils of viscera bludgeoned him, but he was dealing horrific damage in return. Thane and Roland tried to damage the ice block with fire and crossbow bolt, but the ice was resilient. Roland switched to his short sword to fend off the penanggalan that swooped at him.

Leonid continued to hold his own, hacking away at the entrails of the penanggalan assaulting him. Kylic grabbed a penanggalan by the hair and attempted to destroy it with a necromantic spell, but the energy dissipated harmlessly across its skin. The sister Roland was fighting got the best of him, the pain of its bite rendered him unconscious. The tide was turning against the party, so Kylic rebuked the undead, sending one of the penanggalans to cower in the corner of the room; Kylic grabbed Roland and dragged him out of the room. Leonid and Thane followed suit, exiting the chamber and retreating to safety. As they left, they could hear Hans's anguished cries as he was pulled into the block of ice, followed by the fiendish laughter of the two sisters.

Kylic used his magic to stabilize Roland, and the party made a swift exit of the burial chamber. Thane decided to cast an invisibility spell on himself and return to loot the unexplored rooms in the ancient dungeon...alone. As he crept past the penanggalans under the cover of invisibility he had a moment of terrible realization: they could see him. Their attack left him dying on the cold stone floor. 

As his body died, Thane found himself in the a dark room facing a ghoul dressed in lordly attire upon a throne. The enthroned creature remarked that it was a pity that Thane's aspirations toward power and a noble title had gone unfulfilled. The room then expanded into a ballroom in which richly-attired people danced and feasted. Thane was being enticed with all the things that could be his, if only he lived. The enthroned man then asked Thane to take his hand and live to see those ambitions through. Thane clasped the stranger's hand and found himself healed and running away from the penanggalans toward the burial chambers' stairs.

The party reported the strange fate of the sisters to the Varlik clan, who immediately began to pull up stakes and move on from the cursed spot. The party also informed the Borgav clan of what had happened; the Borgavs were much more sorrowful than the Varliks had been over what had transpired. Kylic returned the fan to them, and in return they gave him a repaired item made from the glass shards he had brought: in its complete form it was a glass lens that resembled a human eye with a blue iris. Back in Piskaro, Kylic sent the lens to Tobias and then boarded a ship to parts unknown.

XP: 569 each.

Loot: Empty handed! 

Transformations: Thane's right hand and forearm are crossed with a network of jagged, recently-healed wounds that appear from wrist to elbow. He's made a pact with...something.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Dark Tower and the Three Fights You'll See in Every Damn Thing

I find myself still thinking about how cruddy a movie The Dark Tower was. What a missed opportunity. The movie was so bland that at a point early on in its (blissfully short) run time I found myself thinking more about the "action structure" that it shares with most fantasy films. When it comes to fight scenes and the way they are used to propel both narrative and theme, there is a commonality shared by most action-fantasy films: they all have versions of the same three fights:

  • The protagonist fights a big monster. This illustrates that good triumphs even against overwhelming force. The Dark Tower had this in the scene where Roland kills the demon. 
  • The protagonist fights a lot of evil minions. This illustrates that good triumphs over the amassed efforts of villainy. The Dark Tower had this in the fight against the Man in Black's minions in the village. 
  • The protagonist fights the film's avatar of evil, and wins. This illustrates that good inevitably carries the day against evil. It isn't much of a spoiler to tell you that Roland kills the Man in Black, right? Anyway, I'm doing you a favor so you don't have to watch this movie.

Bonus fourth convention:

  • If the film features a naive, young protagonist there will be a scene in which they narrowly escape the clutches of corrupt agents of the greater evil. This illustrates plucky resolve in the face of depravity, or some such thing. The Dark Tower had this in the scene where Jake runs away from the fake boarding school employees.

Think about that formula, the narrative structure it serves, and where you find it in any number of action-fantasy films--both good and bad. Of course, the difference between The Dark Tower and any number of better movies that use the same structuring conventions is that the better films have the decency to obscure their generic conventions with interesting characters, plot development, and non-wooden dialog.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Five Items, No More

WotC used an interesting format to express the basics of some of their settings in the campaign books they published in the 3e and 4e eras; they had lists upfront that briefly detailed the elements that set each of those worlds apart. For example, the Eberron Campaign Setting had "Ten Things You Need to Know" (the 4e version of that list is here) and the Dark Sun Campaign Setting had "Eight Characteristics of Athas."

Think of it like an elevator pitch; if you can express what your game is like, what it's about, and what characters are likely to do in the game, the better your chances of attracting players who will be interested in what you're throwing down. The keys to doing this well are threefold: present something that will be intriguing, memorable, and succinct. But I'm going to make it tougher: you don't get ten or eight items for your list. You only get five.

A useful exercise: can you express what your D&D campaign is about in only five lines?

Since I'm currently running two separate campaigns in two separate settings, I'm doing this twice:

  • Gothic horror. Once a country of picturesque villages, deep forests, and sublime mountain ranges, Krevborna is now preyed upon by werebeasts, witches, malicious fey, fiends, and the undead. 
  • A hunter must hunt. As a player, your goal is to hunt monsters and fight back against the darkness that taints the land. 
  • A fallen monarchy. The hereditary royalty was overthrown generations ago. Farmsteads, villages, and towns are now independently governed. Chancel and Piskaro, the largest cities, are under the Church's control. There is no monarch, no standing army, no dominant power to protect the land and its people. 
  • The mark of evil. The mining town of Hemlock is ruled by a coven of Graymalk witches; in the cold, northern realm of Lamashtu, the populace pays a tithe of blood to the vampiric Countess Alcesta von Karlok. Fell influences tighten their grip across Krevborna. 
  • Blood-red religion. The Church of Saintly Blood venerates a cult of martyrs through rites that involve the imbibing of sanctified blood. It is the last bastion of authority in Krevborna, yet the Church is internally divided by factions, intrigue, and corruption.
  • A megalodungeon. Scarabae is a city that spans five islands in the Ink Sea. It is so massive and complex that no accurate map exists of its entirety. Slithian Vor, a devil from the lower planes, is Lord Mayor; she receives council from the Courts of Swords, Coins, Cups, and Wands. (They oversee military, economic, religious, and magical affairs, respectively.) 
  • Cosmopolitan fantasy. The city's populace is an anarchic mix; the usual fantasy races—such as humans, elves, goblins, etc.—rub shoulders with otterfolk, minotaurs, genasi, and even stranger folk. 
  • Picaresque adventure. As a player, your goal is to explore the city's strange locales, acquire its valuable artifacts, interact with the intrigues and schemes of its odd denizens, and defeat ne'er-do-wells and monsters alike. 
  • A magical-industrial society. Magic is commonplace in Scarabae and often used to achieve marvels such as ethergram communication, mechanized factories, automatons, and conveyances such as worm trains, airships, and submarines. 
  • The Major Arcana. “Gods” are thought to be aspects or guises of the tarot's Major Arcana. It is believed that each Major Arcana represents a cosmic principle that shapes existence. The Major Arcana are opposed by the fiendish Maraphim. 

Friday, August 11, 2017

Games (of mine) People Play

People say nice things about the games I run, so consider this my thank you! I wouldn't run these games if I didn't have great players coming to the "table."

Anne at DIY & Dragons has done two great write-ups of the Scarabae games of mine that she's played in. The first one, House Cleaning a Memory Palace, is here. I especially liked reading more about her character; Traviata is a really interesting character, so the deeper dive into the inspirations behind her was illuminating. The second one, Iditarod & Medvac in Scarabae is here. That one is a really good window for me into seeing how players perceive the setting and what they get out of it. It also sheds some light on my own unconscious influences. When she writes "This reminds me of what an abortion clinic looks like when it's being besieged by anti-rights activists," I don't think she's wrong at all--even if that isn't what I had immediately in mind. I find that things like that happen all the time with Scarabae; there seems to be a lot of channeling of contemporary, real world influences that sneak into the adventures without me noticing them. For example, the adventure in which the players explored a warped pizzeria seemed like the specter of Comet Ping Pong in retrospect.

Trey has a post over at his blog From the Sorcerer's Skull talking about the G+ Hangouts games he's been playing in, and he has some kind words for my ongoing campaign set in Krevborna. He also talks about the GRIDSHOCK playtest that Paul V's been running; since I also play in that one, I can verify Trey's claim that it's a good time. I would tell you that Trey's blog is great, but you probably already read it.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Agents of S.T.I.L.E.T.T.O.

I've been watching a lot of films and television from the action-spy genre lately: Atomic Blonde, Casino Royale, Jessica Jones, Salt, and even the noir-ish parts of The Expanse probably count. Between watching all those and talking about how to translate the genre into gaming terms on G+, I was inspired to write up the following 5e D&D hack to do something similar in my Scarabae setting:

S.T.I.L.E.T.T.O. is a secretive intelligence operation within the Court of Swords. S.T.I.L.E.T.T.O. recruits the best and the brightest to spy upon the other Courts and advance the causes of the Court of Swords; agents are trained in hand-to-hand combat, physical skill, investigative acuity, and general skulduggery. Agents of S.T.I.L.E.T.T.O. engage in acts such as the prevention of terrorism within Scarabae and abroad, the securing of counterintelligence assets, sabotage of subversive forces, and espionage against the other three Courts and the Lord Mayor's Office.

S.T.I.L.E.T.T.O. most often tangles with criminal organizations, overreaching thieves' guilds, and villainous masterminds. The agency both competes against and shares aims with the intelligence arms of the other Courts, such as the Court of Wand's C.A.U.L.D.R.O.N. Alliances are ever shifting and it is best to keep your enemies closer than your friends.

Officially, S.T.I.L.E.T.T.O. does not exist.

* * *

Character Creation
Ability Scores: Arrange 16, 16, 14, 12, 12, 10 to taste.

Level: 4. Instead of increasing an ability score at 4th level, please pick a feat from this list instead: Alert, Athlete, Actor, Crossbow Expert, Dungeon Delver, Firearms Expert (as Crossbow Expert, but applies to firearms), Grappler, Martial Adept, Mobile, Observant, Sharpshooter, Skilled, Skulker, Tough.

Race: Any.

Class: Monk or Rogue only. Available monastic traditions include Way of the Open Hand (PHB), Way of Shadow (PHB), Way of the Four Elements (PHB), Way of the Long Death (SCAG), Way of the Sun Soul (SCAG), Way of the Cobalt Soul (Tal'Dorei). Available rogue archetypes include Thief (PHB), Assassin (PHB), Arcane Trickster (PHB), Mastermind (SCAG), Swashbuckler (SCAG).

Background: Any, but you might want to keep an eye out for ones that will open-up access to useful skills for a spy such as: Charlatan, Courtier (SCAG), Criminal, Faction Agent (SCAG), Knight of the Order (SCAG), Mercenary Veteran (SCAG), Noble, Sailor, Soldier, Urban Bounty Hunter (SCAG), Urchin.

Equipment: Fine clothing, two daggers or a dagger and a collapsible baton (club), a pistol with twenty shots, a mark of credit accepted at most establishments. Most other adventuring goods should be available from your headquarters.

Characters may spend hit dice after resting for 5 minutes. 

Abilities that recharge during a short rest still require an hour of inactivity. 

Also, during a short rest a character regains up to half their hit dice if the rest involves the consumption of alcohol, particularly in the form of cocktails or fine wine. 

Long rests remain unchanged, but are best spent in expensive hotels.

Mooks, Chumps, and Lackeys
Combat uses an asymmetrical set of rules when characters face off against mooks, chumps, and lackeys:

Roll to hit as normal for your attacks, but when determining damage only roll the dice associated with your attacks--do not add a bonus to the damage based on ability score modifiers, etc. This goes for both characters and mooks.

Player characters take hit point damage from attacks as normal.
DM-controlled enemies do not have hit points; instead, they can take damage equal to their hit dice before being taken out of a fight.

Example: An Agent of Stiletto with 18 hit points is facing off against an enemy Thug with 5 hit dice (normally that would be 32 hit points, but we only care about the hit dice in the Thug's stat block). The Thug gets the drop on our Agent and deals 3 points of damage, bringing the Agent's hit points down to 13. On her turn, the Agent hits the Thug twice; the total damage from these attacks is 6, which is more than enough to take out the Thug's 5 Hit Dice--the Thug is knocked out.

Cleaving: When an Agent's melee attack reduces an undamaged creature to 0 hit dice, any excess damage from that attack carries over to another nearby mook. The attacker targets another creature within reach and applies any remaining damage to it. If that creature was undamaged and is likewise reduced to 0 hit dice, repeat this process, carrying over the remaining damage until there are no valid targets, or until the damage carried over fails to reduce an undamaged creature to 0 hit dice.

Example: Let's continue the previous example, but this time that Thug had a buddy. Since the Agent did 6 hit dice worth of damage and 5 of that took out Thug 1, Thug 2 is taking a hit die of damage from the leftover damage; Thug 2 ends this exchange with 4 hit dice left of its original 5.

Duel of Wits
To handle social maneuvering, interrogations, high-stakes poker games, etc. and with important NPCs, we'll use Skill Challenges; the PCs will need to roll their relevant skill versus the NPC's passive Insight score after each verbal exchange, in most cases.

Before beginning the Skill Challenge, make the stakes clear at the outset: use the player's intentions to set the number of successes needed depending on how resistant the NPC would be to that outcome. 

Similarly, state what will likely happen if the character does not succeed in the Skill Challenge. Let them know the potential fallout in advance.

A verbal exchange needs to be substantial and advance a meaningful point to merit a chance to roll an ability check toward completing the Skill Challenge.

Hardcore Parkour
Genre-wise, it's best to let the players have a little authority to make declarations about the environment to include objects their characters can exploit.

Example: The answer to "Is there a canister of kraken oil in this refinery that I can shoot to cause an explosion behind the thugs?" should probably be "Yes."

Characters making use of the environment in dramatic scenes such as chases, evasions, infiltrations, etc. get advantage on the relevant ability check.