Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Common Tongue and the Tower of Babel

I’ve seen a good deal of pontificating about alignment languages over the years on forums and blogs; seems silly to me. 

What usually gets overlooked is the glorious expediency of the concept of Common as a language spoken throughout a campaign world. As anyone who has run a globe-spanning campaign set in a historical era of our world can tell you, it is a huge pain to juggle who can understand what based on where the players are and where they’re from. The presence of a Common tongue in a game setting side-steps all of that, giving a baseline of communication that lets you get on with the game.

But where does Common come from? It seems miraculous, really, so why not give it a miraculous origin? Here’s how I explained the existence of Common in my Ulverland setting, and how I plan on explaining it in Scarabae as well:

Every civilized man and woman in the world speaks the Common tongue because of the existence of the Lexicos Spire. Long ago the Spire was erected by wise Matriarchs who performed a ritual upon it that grants the world’s denizens knowledge of a shared language. Unfortunately, this shared language has done little to end factionalism and war as the Matriarchs had hoped it might.

(Obviously inspired by the Tower of Babel.)

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Grail Tomb Beneath The Church of St. Othric

Months have passed since the party killed Edgar Bolgakof, a vampire in league with the mysterious Master. 

Due to the valor and competence the party illustrated during the attack on the execution of Imogen Olashenko, as well as the mighty deed of having slain a vampire, the Church of Saintly Blood began to show a marked interest in the rebirth of faith in St. Othric that seems centered on the group. To this end, the Church sent Kamilus van Hoven, a member of the Choristers, to discuss bringing the burgeoning St. Othric movement into closer partnership with the Church.

Kamilus, a no-nonsense man of middle years, offered money and labor to build-up the Bolgakof castle that Pen wanted to reclaim for Othric (turning it into a barracks for the training of future Knights of St. Othric), the watchtower built in Sellvek's Hollow (turning it into the hub of a proselytizing mission led by Seraphine), and the Church of St. Othric where Tristan and company saw an act of miraculous healing (clearing the caved-in entrance to the lower floors so that further mysteries of St. Othric may be discovered).

In return for such boons, the Church did insist on some degree of oversight of the reborn Knights of St. Othric to make sure that the sect is in compliance with its teachings and in no way harbors heretical practices or beliefs. The party agreed to these terms, and thus faith in St. Othric re-emerges as a bastion against the darkness once more. And it is sorely needed, as reports of the ravages of the undead and cropping up now with alarming frequency.

Luka has officially joined the reborn Knights of St. Othric. Tristan has been busy organizing the rebuilding of St. Othric's grandeur (and perhaps plotting future forays against the undead). An exploratory expedition was sent into underground level beneath the Church of St. Othric, but the vanguard reported that it was extremely cold down in the depths and the atmosphere was too unnerving for them to bear for very long. After meeting with Kamilus, the group decided that they would be the ones to explore what lies beneath the church. Kamilus explained what little he could uncover; he said that the Church of St. Othric rested on the site of a Grail Tomb--a structure build by the ancient Lamians, a civilization the predated the rise of mankind. Since part of Othric's lore was his dedication to sealing away evil beneath his holy sites, what horrors might lurk beneath the church that carries his name?

Luka and Tristan arrived at the Church of St. Othric to find a scene of bustling activity; new buildings were being erected around the church. They also found a tall, rangy man with uncanny features lounging upon the steps leading down to the church's door. After introducing himself as Kylic, and explaining that he had followed the "bones of the earth" to the Church, he offered to accompany Tristan and Luka down into the hypogean depths--he sweetened the deal by proclaiming that he had to the power to heal any wounds they might incur as they explored underneath the site.

After a quaff of ale (Luka needed to settle his head in the wake of Kylic's dazzling wordplay) and a bit of banter with one of the bandits the party had previously converted to the service of St. Othric, the trio descended into the uncovered depths via a wooden scaffold that had been built as part of the excavation. The most evident thing at the bottom of the scaffolding was the intense and unnatural cold; all three men began to shiver uncontrollably despite it being the dog days of summer above. The next thing they noticed was that the walls were covered with engravings depicting the Lamians--many of which featured grails and goblets as motifs.

Exploration happened.

Tristan kicked open a stone door, which promptly caused an explosion of necromantic energy that nearly dissolved his flesh. Kylic felt a disturbance along the skin of the world and flattened himself against a wall to avoid the blast; Luka's superior reflexes saved him.

The group discovered an inert man-like construction made of wood and iron, slumped against the wall of a chamber as if it were crying sorrowfully.

A trio of women in black lace dresses were discovered trying to open a stone door. They attacked our heroes with baleful necromancy, but were killed without mercy. The group got a key that opened some of the chambers they discovered.

They discovered two altars, one that had a carved skull atop it and another that supported an ornate mirror with a black surface. They shut the doors to those chambers without messing with either of those objects.

An ancient bedchamber was uncovered, the four-poster bed topped with golden eagles. The walls in this chamber were carved with images depicting St. Othric fighting against a dragon-like creature.
Another room was decorated with graven images that seemed to continue the story: these depicted St. Othric and a retinue of knights dragging a bound fiend up a mountain to be fed to the conquered dragon.

A shattered door opened up into a chamber littered with pulverized bones. When Kylic strode into the room and stood upon the bones, they began to rattle and vibrate, but they eventually stopped and nothing more happened. The room next door had piles of treasure--coins mixed with miscellaneous pieces of armor and weapons--scattered on the floor. The party shut this door as well, expecting a trap.

Another altar, but this one was attended by three cloaked figures praying to a glass eye upon a brass stand. Luka didn't wait for an invitation; he fired at one of them and combat began...but none of the creatures attacked the party as such. Rather they avoided the party's attacks as best they could, while simply gazing upon their foes with fiery red eyes. The mere gaze of these beings withered the flesh and shook the souls of the adventurers. Mid-combat, one of the creatures spoke to Luka, revealing a part of his past that he generally prefers to try to forget. The battle was harrowing, but the party eventually prevailed due to the curative magic provided by Kylic, whose words above about healing sundered flesh proved accurate.

After the battle, a mysterious voice reverberated throughout the chamber, saying "You have slain the last of my faithful. Who will worship me now?" In response, Luka said, "Not me" and sent the glass eyes crashing to the stone floor...which caused it to release wisps of blue haze that matched the color of the eye's iris. The voice then said, "You have served me far better than they," and then was silent.

Their resources greatly depleted and the cold quickly exhausting their vigor, Tristan, Luka, and Kylic decided to venture back to the safety of the church above and gather their strength before continuing to explore the Grail Tomb. As they climbed back up the wooden scaffolding, Kylic heard a woman's voice singing--intoning the kind of song a woman would sing while pacing a widow's walk, staring out to sea, even though she knows her love has been lost to the waves.

* * *

The Spoils
XP - 550 each

Inspiration - Kylic gets inspiration for his delightful and bewildering performance of his personality traits

Treasure - Three small books written in Abyssal, bound in black leather

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Bad Books for Bad People: BleakWarrior

Did you know I do a podcast now with my dear friend Tenebrous Kate? Here's the pitch: "Every month (or so), Tenebrous Kate and Jack Guignol cover the weirdest, kinkiest, and most outrageous fiction they can unearth."

In this episode, Kate and Jack talk about BleakWarrior, Alistair Rennie's 2016 novel in the New Weird genre that at least one reviewer has linked to black metal. Jack provides some far more accurate (and alluring!) descriptions: "as if Soul Calibur were a porno directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky" OR "as if you got your weirdest friend drunk on cheap tequila and asked them to describe what He-Man would be like if it were dirty and a bit Shakespearean." A race of super-humans leaps through time and space in search of ultra-violent battles and super-kinky sex in this sordid tale that your hosts enjoyed far more than they should have.
The guest reader for this book is Degtyarov, founder and editor of Black Ivory Tower, a website and zine devoted to esoteric black metal and related musical genres. How black metal is this book? Do your hosts care very much? To what extremely obscure and unlikely things will they compare this novel? Will the guest reader be able to hold it together through the entire passage he's forced to read that contains all manner of abominable human behavior? Tune in to this episode of Bad Books for Bad People to find out!
Listen here!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Hangman's Daughter, Oliver Potzsch

If you like Warhammer, boy do I have a book recommendation for you! Definitely check out Oliver Potzsch’s The Hangman’s Daughter. While it doesn’t have orcs, elves, or griffin-riding emperors, it does have:

• An early modern setting: Bavaria, after the Thirty Years’ War.
• A less-than-heroic cast of protagonists: a hangman (ex-soldier), a physician’s apprentice, and an herbalist.
• A plot concerning murdered children whose bodies show the marks of witchcraft, which leads to the threat of a witch-hunt hysteria.
• A murderous villain with a skeletal hand.
• A dungeon crawl through some "dwarf hole" tunnels beneath what will become a leper colony.

To me, that’s "more Warhammer" than any of the official game-related novels that feature vampire protagonists or magic-laden, invincible poets.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Magic, Dragons, and Saints in Krevborna

A typical scene of adventure recruitment in Krevborna

More Krevborna setting lore 

Krevbornites react differently to feats of magic depending on the enchantment's apparent provenance. Magic that is connected to the Church's teachings or seems saintly in origin would likely be regarded with awe and reverence. Magic that appears to originate in esoteric study and occult lore will probably arouse suspicion. Magic that carries a whiff of the infernal would certainly cause panic and revulsion, and might possibly result in an angry mob forming or the intercession of the Church's witchfinders. In more rural areas, pagan folk magic often exists uncomfortably side by side with belief in the Church's saints. In Lamashtu, the vampire lords attach no stigma to the use of any form of magic; in Hemlock, witchery and deviltry is unusual, but also unsurprising.

Dragons in Krevborna are also known as the Beasts of the First Sin. Ancient texts record that mankind's first transgressions against the commandments of the gods coalesced into the form of a dragon that punished human frailty. Great sins, whether personal or communal, continue to give birth to dragons. It is debated whether dragons exist as a scourge that punishes mankind for its moral outrages or are simply the unintended consequences of man's flawed and immoral nature.

Here is a list of saints reverenced in Krevborna with a bit of lore related to them.

St. Othric
Things we know about St. Othric:

  • In life, Othric was a slayer of the undead; he was martyred by the vampires of Lamashtu for his crusades against them.
  • The holy symbol associated with St. Othric is a downward pointing greatsword.
  • There was once an order of knights dedicated to St. Othric, which had dwindled over the generations and had essentially died out when bandits killed the last of them at the Church of St. Othric. 
  • Nevertheless, the Knights of St. Othric have begun to experience a rebirth due to the actions of players in my current game. The bandits mentioned above were converted to the faith, and a number of recent converts were placed in control of a watchtower in the town of Sellvek's Hollow.
  • The Knights of St. Othric used the vaults beneath their churches and cathedrals to imprison supernatural creatures who could not otherwise be destroyed.
  • Pen Bennett's research uncovered the location of a mythical, sacred being called Volamnus the Holy Flame, who once devoured a demon on behalf of the Knights of St. Othric.
  • The skull of St. Othric possesses healing powers when used according to an ancient rite within his northern church. 

* * *

All of the above is setting information prompted by questions from current players in the campaign. Writing what is needed and filling in details as they come up is proving to be a much better method than drafting a giant setting Bible before play even begins. As always, I'm showing my work on the exam and pointing out my influences:

  • The place of magic in the setting was inspired by Innistrad and The Last Apprentice novels in about equal measure.
  • The stuff about dragons is mostly original ideas I've been hashing out forever; there is a bit of Dark Souls in the saints document. Note that the number of saints in Krevborna matches the number of clerical domains currently in 5e D&D. I could spell out which saint matches which domains, but also I don't care which domain and saint players pick for their clerics, so...
  • St. Othric started as a throw-away setting bit that was only going to factor into one adventure, but since some players took an interest in the saint he has become a part of the themes running through the campaign overall.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Worlds' End

Of course, after the momentous Brief Lives arc, the narrative of the Sandman Saga needs a pause to regroup before pushing forward--and that pause comes in the form of self-contained, single-issue stories that connect to the main plot in only minor ways. The conceit of the stories in Worlds' End is that each issue is a story told by a traveler who finds themselves stuck at the Worlds' End Inn while they wait out a "reality storm." The tales told, as well as the tellers themselves, are remarkably varied; we get a man who falls into the dreams of a city, a tale of faerie trickery, etc. Morpheus makes brief appearances in the stories, but none of the stories are really about him. 

And, at first blush, the stories don't seem to be about anything in particular. They don't connect, they don't cohere into a larger narrative moment. In a sense, they make the reader feel like they too are stuck in the Worlds' End Inn, waiting for something greater to happen.

But that feeling of suspended moments whiled away--in which stories told help us to kill time--might be the larger point in itself. What if, despite our best pretensions to the contrary, stories are only ever about passing time? What if all that muck about "expanding our point of view," "enlarging our ethical sympathies," and "coming to self-knowledge through the mirror of fiction" is all just empty justification for what we're up to when we give and receive stories? Maybe we're not making sense of the world at a fictional remove, maybe we're just watching the hour hand move round the dial at a glacial pace.

If that's what Gaiman wants us to realize, then Worlds' End is provokingly placed since it comes just before the big climax of his now epic-length series. A moment of self-doubt perhaps? (Why have I spent all this time working on this story if it has just been a distraction for the audience?) A dire warning to the reader? (This all means nothing, in the end. We're just passing the time, each and every one of us.) Toying with expectations? (I'm telling you this is a waste of time, but maybe the big stuff will start to happen and you'll have to reconsider the importance of storytelling for yourself...)

My money's on that last one.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Youtube Theatre: The Best DM Advice

Ah, Youtube, home of cat videos and the most venomous comment sections known to mankind. But, there's also some folks making decent videos with advice for their fellow DMs about running games. I don't agree with everything said in the videos posted below, but these are my picks for the most helpful videos of this sort.

Being Everything Else playlist (Adam Koebel and Steven Lumpkin. This series of videos is a good walk-through for the starting DM; they cover the basic of what a DM does, the best ways to prep for a game, how to make memorable NPCs, etc.)

Running the Game playlist (Matt Colville. Another good series for the beginning DM, especially if you're planning on playing D&D specifically; he covers expectations for your first session, how to make the starting location for your game, etc.)

Office Hours playlist (Adam Koebel. Koebel answers questions sent in by viewers; he hits a wide variety of topics from how to use cinematics in your game to how to be confident speaking in front of your players.)

Matt Mercer's DM Tips playlist (Matt Mercer. General advice, mostly with a modern D&D flavor. Covers things like how to build social encounters, and how to roll with it when your players do unexpected things.)

RPG Discussion Topics & Advice playlist (aFistfulofDice. This series is a bit scattershot, but has interesting videos on how to introduce new players to RPGs and how to be a better roleplayer.)

Hack Attack playlist (Adam Koebel and Steven Lumpkin. This series is all about how to hack an existing game to get the experience you want out of it. This is based in real-world application, as you get to watch them hack 5e D&D, Shadowrun, and Star Wars for their Rollplay shows on Twitch.)