Monday, January 23, 2017

III. Those Who Worship the Empress

Some of her worshipers see the Empress as the patroness of artists. It is, after all, the feminine principle that gives birth, and since art is the most arcane of births it is only suitable that the Empress is praised as the aesthetic mother. She is at once both muse and ur-artiste. Artistic adherents of her faith often purposefully leave their works unfinished; since the Empress is associated with ideas--the seeds of artistic birth--they claim that works half-done are a fitting tribute to the ephemeral inspiration the Empress provides, but which cannot be fully realized.

Other worshipers of the Empress view her divinity as a fecund principle. These adherents believing in birthing families of enormous size. The pack, the horde, the writhing mass--that is the ideal they see within the Empress. The faithful of this order often depict the Empress as a goat-like being of ambiguous gender; "she" is a figure of motherhood, yes, but of a motherhood that surpasses the boundaries of biology. In their eyes, the Empress is the beginning of a multiplicity they must work to extend until the world teems with pious offspring.

The Empress is also regarded as a personification of love, but some adherents of her faith revere her as a manifestation of the cruelest form of love. They see the Empress's love as that of the conqueror, one who bends another's will to her own under the auspices of romance. The Empress's love is a colonial, imperialist love. Following her example, the faithful who worship this aspect of the Empress are usually gigolos and powerful courtesans who use their wiles to curry influence and power.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Bad Books for Bad People: Alraune

New podcast episode is up!

Hanns Heinz Ewers' 1911 novel Alraune is part horror, part science fiction, part decadent prose, and absolutely of the most extreme femme fatale stories ever written. Kate and Jack tackle Ewers' complicated personal and political history and why this German author's weird tales deserve to be read alongside the work of other horror luminaries.
Kate and Jack selfishly take on the role of readers this month, highlighting the author's luridly beautiful writing.
Explore sexy funtimes dekadentenstil with bloodletting, gender bending, and attempts to scientifically identify the sluttiest woman in Berlin. What on earth is a German fencing fraternity? Why should we bring back dueling for satisfaction? How can reading out loud be an effective pathway to getting laid? Find out all this and more in this month's episode of Bad Books for Bad People.
As our way of showing how much we love you, we reveal details of our first give-away, which is open until February 1, 2017, at midnight ET.
Intro/Outro Music: "Dekadente Nächte" by Porta Nigra.
Find us at BadBooksBadPeople.com, 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.

Listen here, listen now, listen forever!

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Two Things I Want Cover Art to Do

Should the covers of RPG core books be designed to serve a purpose? As a thought experiment, I propose that core book cover art should be designed to answer two questions: who are the characters and what do they do?

(I also want the art to be good, but that goes without saying.)

Let's see how a bunch of RPG covers stack up according to my rubric:


Moldvay Basic D&D 
The gold standard of D&D covers. The game is called Dungeons & Dragons, the art shows that the player characters are fantasy adventurers who go into dungeons and encounter monsters--like dragons, for instance. Easy win.



3.5 Dungeons & Dragons 
Absolute failure. What is this game about? Also: ugly and so very brown. If anything, the only vibe it gives off is about what the player, not the character, will have to do in this game: it might be a warning saying "This is a textbook, get ready to study."



Pathfinder
Cover art is a place where Pathfinder smokes 3.5 D&D. Borrowing a page from Moldvay, we get fantasy adventurers versus fantasy beasts in fantasy dungeons. It does what it says on the tin.



4e Dungeons & Dragons
We get a sense of who the player characters are on this cover, but not of what they do. You could argue that it looks like they're exploring subterranean depths, but it looks way too cautious for the big set-piece battle style that 4e supports.



5e Dungeons & Dragons
A return to form for D&D cover art: adventurers fighting monsters in fantasy locales. The slightly over-the-top heroics of the cover compared to Moldvay Basic give a fairly good indication that D&D isn't a necessarily a meat grinder anymore.



1e Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay
The characters depicted on the cover look like they were rolled off of random tables, stuck together in a party, and are now facing a tough battle that will leave some of them dead and others hideously wounded. I'd say that's a good encapsulation of the WRFP experience, actually.





7e Call of Cthulhu
It is usually the case that earlier editions of Call of Cthulhu have moody, evocative covers that show Cthulhu being generally menacing and whatnot, which really doesn't give an indication of what the game is about. The newest edition does a better job of this by splitting the game into two books, and thus has two covers. The cover of player's guide shows investigators getting way over their heads by discovering a cult idol--a pretty good indication of how the game is likely to play out.


Deadlands
I love the Brom painting on the cover of this book, but...you're probably not going to get to play a harrowed gunslinger so it feels a bit like false advertising. 



1e Shadowrun
The cover reads as "fantasy Flock of Seagulls steal data and do violent stuff in a cyberpunk dystopia," so it nails the premise fairly well. It may also hint at the idea of the party's hacker going on their own Matrix adventure while everybody else does other stuff.



RIFTS
So, we play the alien-chicks version of Charlie's Angels trapped in that one Rick Springfield video? No? Oh...in that case, this cover doesn't work for me; it really doesn't tell me anything about the player characters or what they get up to. Also, I know this is a beloved piece of RPG art, but I've always found it really static and a bit ugly.



Savage Worlds RIFTS
Okay, the amount of trade dress on the cover is excessive, but this gives me the impression of playing a post-apocalyptic punk with crazy weapons who fights robot Nazis, which is actually much closer in spirit to what RIFTS is about than the original cover.



Burning Wheel
Yeah, I would have no idea what this is about if I saw it on a shelf. Ridiculously uninformative. The cover is actually really attractive, especially when you see it in person, but it doesn't get me excited about the premise of the game itself.







Swords & Wizardry Complete
I'm not going to go to hard on this one since it's already been a lightning rod for grognard ire, but it suffers from the same problems as the Burning Wheel cover above. While I really like the image, it doesn't really indicate that the game is an OD&D clone.



Traveller
Seriously, go fuck yourself.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Romasanta: The Werewolf Hunt

Romasanta was far better than I expected it to be. The acting was good, the women beautiful, and I really liked the weird anachronism of the setting (it’s set in 1851, but looks like it’s set in the early modern period...and then someone mentions genes, which is a solidly twentieth-century understanding of biology). 

That said, the poster art is massively misleading. Anyone expecting a low-budget riff on the same territory covered by Brotherhood of the Wolf is bound to be disappointed; despite the garb showcased in the above image (which doesn’t even feature prominently in the film–if at all), Romasanta doesn’t have any of the swashbuckling kung-fu of that film.

Werewolf film buffs in general are liable to be disappointed as well. By the end of the film it’s not clear that there even is a werewolf at work here. Romasanta is based on the life of a nineteenth-century Spanish serial killer Manuel Blanco Romasanta, who claimed that he murdered because he was under a curse which caused him to turn into a bloodthirsty wolf. His trial is noteworthy because it featured phrenology (my favorite pseudo-science) and because Romasanta’s sentence was commuted by Queen Isabella II. Interestingly, the sentence was commuted at the request of a mysterious Dr. Phillips (possibly the exiled hypnotist Joseph-Pierre Durand de Gros) so the doctor could study this case of "psychological lycanthropy."

So, between the real-world case and the film, what’s gameable here?

  • The tension in the question of whether a series of murders are the work of a madman or a werewolf is worthy of mining.
  • Romasanta was collecting the fat from his human victims. Why? Was the fat used in a ritual to bring on his lycanthropic transformation or to keep it at bay?
  • Furthermore, Romasanta inspired the legend of Sacaúntos, sinister men who killed children for their fat. What if these bogeymen were a particularly malicious sort of fey sent to frighten a human community away from an ancient faerie site?
  • Who was this Dr. Phillips and why was he so interested in studying this werewolf? Perhaps the crown commuted the sentence in hopes of harnessing the occult secrets of lycanthropy as a weapon against an enemy nation.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Walking Dead: Days Gone Bye

This is a read-through of The Walking Dead, from the beginning: headshots only.

The first issue of The Walking Dead is all about establishing what the audience is supposed to know about Rick Grimes, the primary protagonist of the series. We are introduced to Rick in the middle of a gunfight in which he, as a police officer, is shot down by an escapee from a nearby prison. We next see Rick awaken in a hospital, the zombie apocalypse having happened in the interim. The juxtaposition of Rick being wounded and regaining consciousness amid a world gone to hell underlines an important trait that will define who Rick is: he is a survivor

Rick's ability to survive whatever human and inhuman obstacles the story places in his way marks him as a protagonist; metaphorically, the ability to survive might be his "superpower." As the series unfolds, the narrative development is in how he survives and especially in what he finds difficult to survive or cope with.

However, the association between Rick and survival isn't meant to be taken as a solitary orientation; The Walking Dead is not the story of a lone wolf's struggle in a zombie-infested world. Instead, The Walking Dead is a story about community in the face of crisis. As such, Rick's survival skills have a communal, outward-facing focus. When Rick encounters Morgan and Duane, for example, he uses his abilities and access as a (former) policeman to give them guns and a better vehicle to help enable their survival in this tough new world. At this point in the story, this is Rick's default position: he is a survivor who feels a duty to help others survive.

Rick's default position proves to be troubled or strained by another trait of his that we're introduced to early on: his sensitivity and sentimentality. Even though he's been told by Morgan that wasting a bullet on a zombie that can't get at you squanders an important and limited resource, he takes the time to finish off a crippled and "suffering" zombie he had encountered earlier. Interestingly, Rick knows that his sentimentality is a potential liability; when he attempts to cheer himself up by relating the story of his son's birth--a story he tells to a horse, of all things--he remarks that "thinking about the good times makes all this seem so much worse." 

Of course, forming communal bonds is itself a survival instinct for the protection of the herd, but forging those ties is rendered problematic by moments of profound upheaval and instability. There are dangers here: there is already fear about cultural backsliding in this new apocalyptic age (Donna's fear that the equality of the sexes will fall by the wayside), there is the possibility of old resentments tearing apart a new community now that the old boundaries of social propriety are no longer in play (Shane's feelings for Lori), there are conflicts of ideology (the religious Donna doesn't approve of Andrea and Amy sleeping with Dale in his trailer), there is tension over who is going to be the leader and who has the best plan for the group's future (Rick and Shane butt heads to establish alpha male status).

None of this is easy, and the group is essentially living during wartime as they are besieged by enemies from without and from within. The fault lines already apparent threaten to erupt into irreparable rifts; disagreement over responsibility for the deaths of Amy and Jim lead Shane and Rick into a deadly confrontation in the woods--a confrontation that only ends when Carl shoots and kills Shane before Shane has a chance to pull the trigger on his father. This is how The Walking Dead registers the fallout of the group's strain: it asks, how does this effect the youngest and most vulnerable members of the group? How are they changed by the experience? And can the adults manage and handle that change in the children?

The problems of survival and community collude to make Carl learn the hard way that killing a living, breathing man is not at all like killing a dead, shambling thing. It's a lesson he wouldn't have had to learn otherwise, but the world he now lives doesn't leave him with that luxury.

From the hip:


  • I love that Rick's survivor skills are exemplified by how easily he adapts to using different modes of transportation; all within the first few issues he walks, rides a bike, drives a car, and rides a horse. That Rick can do anything!
  • Rick and Lori's disagreement over whether Carl should have a gun to protect himself parallels the ongoing debates about access to firearms in the US. Here zombies stand in for "terrorists" and "criminals"; clearly an armed populace can better protect itself, right? Right?
  • Note that many of the characters were plagued by debt before the zombie apocalypse, perhaps hinting that the alternative was a slow moving and persistent economic Armageddon. 
  • The issue where Carl kills Shane is the first issue that doesn't feature zombies. The violence between the living is allowed the space to stand on its own.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Things to Look Forward to in 2017

Books

Kim Newman, Anno Dracula 1899 and Other Stories
"A brand new collection of chilling stories by master of horror Kim Newman, in which Jack the Ripper still stalks the streets, Frankenstein’s monster rises from the Arctic ice, and the terrifying legacy of Dr Jeyll and Mr Hyde haunts fog-shrouded London. This volume also includes a brand-new, exclusive Anno Dracula story, ‘Yokai Town: Anno Dracula 1899’, which sets the scene for the forthcoming novel Anno Dracula 1999: Daikaiju."


Neil Gaiman, Norse Mythology
"In Norse Mythology, Gaiman stays true to the myths in envisioning the major Norse pantheon ... Gaiman fashions these primeval stories into a novelistic arc that begins with the genesis of the legendary nine worlds and delves into the exploits of deities, dwarfs, and giants. Once, when Thor’s hammer is stolen, Thor must disguise himself as a woman―difficult with his beard and huge appetite―to steal it back. More poignant is the tale in which the blood of Kvasir―the most sagacious of gods―is turned into a mead that infuses drinkers with poetry. The work culminates in Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods and rebirth of a new time and people."


Caitlin R. Kiernan, Agents of Dreamland
"In a ranch house near the shore of the Salton Sea a cult leader gathers up the weak and susceptible ― the Children of the Next Level ― and offers them something to believe in and a chance for transcendence. The future is coming and they will help to usher it in. A day after the events at the ranch house which disturbed the Signalman so deeply that he and his government sought out help from ‘other’ sources, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory abruptly loses contact with NASA's interplanetary probe New Horizons. Something out beyond the orbit of Pluto has made contact."

Daniel Mills, Moriah
"Silas Flood is a broken man in a broken country. Nine years have passed since the end of the American Civil War and Flood is helpless to escape its shadow. In the summer of 1874, he is dispatched to the mountain village of Moriah, Vermont to investigate sensational claims of supernatural happenings. There the brothers Thaddeus and Ambrose Lynch are said to converse with spirits and summon the dead. As Flood investigates the true nature of these phenomena, and the difference between the hauntings of the living and the dead, he must first come to terms with his own past and with the hold it has upon him—before he can behold the mysteries of the other side."


Cherie Priest, Brimstone
"In the trenches of Europe during the Great War, Tomás Cordero operated a weapon more devastating than any gun: a flame projector that doused the enemy in liquid fire. Haunted by memories of the woman he loved and the atrocities he perpetrated, Tomás dreams of fire and finds himself setting match to flame when awake.... Alice Dartle is a talented clairvoyant living among others who share her gifts in the community of Cassadaga, Florida. She too dreams of fire, knowing her nightmares are connected to the shell-shocked war veteran and widower. And she believes she can bring peace to him and his wife’s spirit."

Jeff VanderMeer, Borne
"In Borne, the epic new novel from Jeff VanderMeer, author of the acclaimed, bestselling Southern Reach Trilogy, a young woman named Rachel survives as a scavenger in a ruined, dangerous city of the near future. The city is littered with discarded experiments from the Company―a biotech firm now seemingly derelict―and punished by the unpredictable attacks of a giant bear. From one of her scavenging missions, Rachel brings home Borne, who is little more than a green lump―plant or animal?―but exudes a strange charisma. Rachel feels a growing attachment to Borne, a protectiveness that she can ill afford. It’s exactly the kind of vulnerability that will upend her precarious existence, unnerving her partner, Wick, and upsetting the delicate balance of their unforgiving city―possibly forever. And yet, little as she understands what or who Borne may be, she cannot give him up, even as Borne grows and changes . . ."

Games

Adventures in Middle-Earth, Loremaster's Guide
"Packed full of advice and ideas to help make your Adventures in Middle-earth 5e games awesome, the Loremaster's Guide brings you: swathes of invaluable setting information brings Middle-earth to life, a Middle-earth bestiary detailing the enemies arrayed against your heroes, fights that feel like those in the books, advice on creating and running Middle-earth adventures and campaigns, expanded rules and options for Journeys, Audiences, the Fellowship Phase, character creation, multi-classing and more!"

The Book of the Righteous
"In 2002 Green Ronin published The Book of the Righteous, a massive tome for the Third Edition rules describing an entire pantheon of gods, as well as their churches, worshipers, and defenders. It was a big hit for us and became one of the most critically-acclaimed books of the d20 era. Now we are bringing it back for the Fifth Edition rules as a beautiful, full-color hardback book. Even better, the new rules material will be designed by Robert J. Schwalb, one of the designers of Fifth Edition!"

I'm also interested in the Critical Role stuff that Green Ronin will be publishing, but so far details are thin on the ground.


Films


XX
"XX is a horror anthology film directed by Roxanne Benjamin, Sofia Carrillo, Karyn Kusama, St. Vincent and Jovanka Vuckovic. It stars Natalie Brown, Melanie Lynskey, Breeda Wool and Christina Kirk."







The Dark Tower
"The Dark Tower is an upcoming 2017 American science fantasy western horror film directed and co-written by Nikolaj Arcel, based on the series of novels of the same name by Stephen King. The film is a quasi-sequel to the The Dark Tower book series, following the ending of The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower. The film has been stated that it won't be a typical adaptation, but more of a new take on the series. Additionally, King has tweeted a photo of the Horn of Eld with the caption "Last Time Around", which is related to a scene from the end of the final book and Arcel said that fans will know the movie is a sequel to the book series."

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Shadow Falls on Duryn


Campaign: Adventures in Middle-Earth

Characters:

  • Heva the Small, Woodman Slayer -- a harrowed woman haunted by visions of the growing Shadow
  • Odo Hayfoot, Shire Hobbit Treasure Hunter -- a reluctant adventurer with a greed for gold
  • Thuradiel, Mirkwood Elf Wanderer -- a world-weary traveler who tires of life in Middle-earth
Objectives: To discover who or what is behind the Orc-host that is currently terrorizing the land.

Events:

  • Duryn is not as the characters left it prior to their journey to Falastur. Although the people of Duryn had previously expressed desires to aid and shelter their neighbors from Falastur, the refugees are greeted with thinly-veiled hostility. Strangely, the town seems to now be home to a proliferation of black cats who roam the streets.
  • The characters spoke to a number of prominent citizens in Duryn (Astrid, the baker; Ragnarr, the archer; Ormund the Grey-beard) but each gives a different and conflicting reason for the change of heart toward the people of Falastur. Astrid believes that the Falasturians engineered the downfall of their town for nefarious ends; Ragnarr believes that outsiders simply cannot be trusted; Ormund fears the drain on Duryn's resources that taking in the refugees will cause.
  • Walking the streets for reasons he kept to himself, Odo overhears guttural voices coming from inside a granary that indicate that someone named Beruthiel wishes to sow discord among the Men of Middle-earth. Odo rouses his companions, who rush back to the granary--discovering Orcs (accompanied by their great black cats) busy poisoning the stores of flour. The fray is joined valiantly, and the Orcs are put to the sword. 
  • Examining the ragtag armor worn by the Orcs reveals markings that seem to indicate that pieces of it were pillaged from a long-abandoned keep to the north. It is resolved that the party will seek that desolate fort to delve deeper into the mystery of the Orcish horde and their master Beruthiel.