Friday, June 23, 2017

Gilded Needles

Michael McDowell's Gilded Needles is a captivating tale of two families from dramatically different circumstances, engaged in a bitter feud set against the backdrop of late 19th Century New York City. This grimy vision of the metropolis, populated by opium addicts, thieves, and lesbian brawlers, could easily have earned the moniker Fear City long before the first stag reels flickered onto the screen of a Times Square grindhouse. Get to know the Stallworths, a family with wealth and political ambitions, and the Shanks, a clan of criminal women who have found their place in lower Manhattan's Black Triangle. How do these families' lives overlap, why do they loathe each other, and what are the consequences of their battle?
Jack and Kate have kept this episode spoiler-free in an effort to encourage others to seek out McDowell's under-appreciated thriller.
Intro/Outro music: "How We Quit the Forest" by Rasputina
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Thursday, June 22, 2017

Beguiled, My Cousin Rachel, The Alienist

2017 isn't doing a great job getting me excited to go to the theater. I was looking forward to XX, but it was a disappointment. I was excited for a good Dark Tower movie, but the trailer looks like garbage.

Please please please let these be good...

The Beguiled

My Cousin Rachel


The Alienist

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Your Problem is Not My Problem

"Your problem is not my problem" sounds more flippant that I really intend it to be, but one thing I've noticed in talking to people online about D&D is that a lot of people have concerns that just wouldn't have ever occurred to me on my own. In the examples below, I'm specifically talking about problems that some DMs encounter that don't factor into how I run games; some of these I understand, and some of these are just plain alien to how I approach gaming.

The Character Information Problem
Recently I was in a thread on G+ where several people expressed that they have difficulty keeping track of all the player characters' powers, spells, and abilities in medium-to-heavy complexity games. This one baffles me; when I'm running a game I don't focus at all on what the player characters can do--that's the job of the player of the character because I've got enough on my plate as it is when I'm busy being everything else besides the players' characters.

If I need to adjudicate a rule in play regarding a character's ability, I ask the player to tell me what it does or I have them read me the text of the ability from the book if we've got a question about how it works. It's their responsibility to keep track of it because it is an aspect of the game attached to their particular character. I think of it like this: if someone is playing chess, and they don't know how the knight moves so they never move it, well, that's on them. 

The Cleric Problem
This one I understand: D&D's archetypal cleric just doesn't fit into the campaign settings some DMs want to play in. As a character class, the cleric is such a D&Dism; it doesn't really have much in the way of antecedents in the literature that inspired the game, or even in fantasy in general until the fantasy began to respond to D&D's cultural and aesthetic influence. For example, if you want to run a game that is true to the sword & sorcery genre, the cleric fits badly. 

The most obvious "solution," simply taking the cleric out of the game, presents some mechanical difficulties; in many editions of the game, healing magic is mainly sequestered in the cleric's hands, and without it the game's balance can be thrown off. Luckily for me, the cleric class tends to fit my settings pretty well. In my Krevborna setting, for example, the idea of a divinely-empowered inquisitor, a fanatical exorcist, or a vampire-hunting priest hits the aesthetic conventions I'm going for. 

The Game With No Players Problem
Offering up a game is a way of putting yourself out there; I have sympathy for people who are trying to get a game together but are struggling to find players because if people aren't interested in your game, that probably feels like rejection. My sympathy ends, however, when that feeling of rejection becomes a jealous hostility toward people running games that have no problems attracting players who want to play in them. Instead of moaning "My game is more fun than that guy's game, why aren't people playing in my campaign instead of theirs?" consider what the people who are running successful, beloved games are doing to make their games attractive and figure out how to incorporate that into your own games.

Part of this problem is that a lot of DMs construct their philosophy of what makes a "good game" from bad sources. Instead of thinking about the things they could do to get the game experience they want, they default to theories and perspectives that have more ideological value when arguing about games on forums than they have in utility value for games being played. Not all advice about how to run a game is equal. I have my own opinion on this. Mathematically speaking: Advice from DMs who frequently and currently run games that people are excited about is greater than:

  • Advice from DMs who maybe ran some games "back in the day." 
  • Advice from "game designers" who don't actually seem to run games. 
  • Advice from people who design games that few people are interested in.
  • Grognard consensus about the "right" way to play D&D.

So instead of deciding to die alone on a lonely hill of bitterness because other people are running games that people want in on, consider asking them what they're doing and what is working for them. Maybe people aren't interested in your game because you're presenting limited player options, maybe you're so invested in the metaphysics or history of your setting players feel like they're just along for the ride--but you might not figure that out until you honestly compare your techniques and ideas against those of people who are getting the kind of results you want.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Martyr's Kiss


Tracklist:
† The Howling Void, The Womb Beyond the World
† Funeral, From the Orchestral Grave
† Evoken, Where Ghosts Fall Silent
† Skepticism, Pendulum
† Rise of Avernus, Disenchanted
† Lychgate, Letter XIX
† Myrkur, Skadi
† Peccatum, Parasite My Heart

Monday, June 19, 2017

More Than a Likeness

Pietra Donna Sangino is currently one of the most popular painters in Krevborna. She is much sought after by nobles, rich merchants, and powerful members of the clergy because having one’s portrait painted by the artist and being seen as one of her patrons is guaranteed to be worth its cost when balanced against the social capital to be gained. One of Pietra’s current projects is a massive set of paintings upon the ceiling of a chapel devoted to St. Ophelia in Piskaro.


It is much-remarked upon that Pietra’s rise to fame was meteoric; she appeared out of nowhere and now is the name on every aesthete’s lips. Some have noted that many of the incidental figures in her paintings resemble the persons of her artistic rivals; the very artists she has eclipsed seem to be strangely referenced in her works.

The truth of the matter is that Pietra’s art carries a dark secret. Although she is a talented artist, the secret to her success lies in her mastery of an occult formula she uses when painting: when she paints a person known to her, she doesn’t just capture their likeness–she also captures a bit of their soul and binds it to her portraiture. In this way she has siphoned the souls of her contemporary artists and paved the way for her own success, as well as insuring her own popularity by ensnaring the spirits of her patrons.

(Joint effort by myself and Katie.)

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Horror of Art

Campaign: Krevborna Open Table G+ (5e D&D)

Characters:

  • Gisbert Highforge, dwarf fighter exiled from his homeland
  • Marek, human fighter on the run from a tyrant lord
  • Tobias Rune, human warlock focused on the science of the arcane
  • Thane Ganymede, monstrous darakhul wizard 
  • Leonid, rough-living weretouched fighter 


Objective: Discover the whereabouts or untimely fate of Nikolai Rodescu, a member of Windermere Parish's watch.

Events: The party was hired by Alice van Kemper, a watchwoman employed by the Parrish Church of St. Ophelia, to investigate the disappearance of her fellow watch member, Nikolai Rodescue. Nikolai had been investigating the murder of six local drunkards, each found throughout Windermere Parish with strange piercing wounds, before his own mysterious disappearance. Alice had been investigating Nikolai's whereabouts herself, but had been told to cease her search by her superior, a clergyman named Father Raspard. Raspard claimed that Nikolai's experiences as a soldier had traumatized him, and that it was only a matter of time before he ran off. Alice gave the party a key to Nikolai's apartment.

They considered dressing one or more members of their crew as inebriates to stake out the parish, but first the party decided to investigate Nikolai's apartment. On top of his desk was a note that read:

  • Stale beer
  • Beliza, Old Dieter, Coppermop, Rose, Callister, Vargo
  • Woman in paint-stained cloak
  • North Street Smilers
  • (the last item on the list is a sketch of a winged monstrosity with an elongated snout)
The party deduced that the the six names in the second line of the list were the names of the six murdered drunkards. Marek knew that the North Street Smilers were a gang of ruffians and thieves operating in Windermere Parish who could be identified by tattoos of open straight razors on their left hands. Rifling through the drawers of Nikolai's desk discovered a potion of healing and an arcane scroll.

Further investigation of the apartment revealed a flat parcel wrapped in oilcloth sitting on Nikolai's kitchen table. Leonid examined it and found that the parcel had been unwrapped before and later re-wrapped. Removing the oilcloth unveiled a portrait of Alice van Kemper--with her throat slit! There was a three-part signature in the corner, but the name was impossible to make out. Gisbert's investigation of Nikolai's bedroom turned up the watchman's sword from his soldiering days underneath the bed and, strangely, a mix of both men and women's clothes in his trunk.

Reporting on what they had discovered to Alice added more pieces to the puzzle. Alice told them that the reference to "stale beer" in Nikolai's list likely indicated a nameless tavern that sold the old beer from other establishments to a particularly destitute and downtrodden clientele. When shown the oil painting of herself with her throat cut, Alice was aghast with horror; she knew nothing about it, but did give the address of an art dealer who might be able to help them track down its painter. Pressed about the presence of women's garments at Nikolai's apartment, she admitted that their relationship was more than just comradeship in the parish watch.

The group ventured to the poorer, more lawless, section of the parish, reconnoitering the headquarters of the North Street Smilers and eventually entering the stale beer tavern. Banter with Wolfric, the dandy bartender at the tavern, added the fact that a nobleman had visited this down-and-out establishment offering hard money for the address of Nikolai Rodescu--the nobleman claimed that he had a parcel to deliver to the watchman. Wolfric pointed out an old, broken-down man who had given up Nikolai's address; plying the old man with beer made him very agreeable to leading the party the nobleman's residence.

The party followed the staggering old man to a small stone cottage in a nicer section of the parish. Through the front window, they spied a man with a long blond mustache wearing finery and military medals he almost certainly hadn't earned. The party split up--with Gisbert, Leonid, and Thane covering the back door in case the noble tried to run, and Marek and Tobias at the front to try to get information from him by persuasive means. Marek knocked at the door...and was surprised that the face of the nobleman who answered bore a striking resemblance to the tyrant he had armed his countrymen against. 

The conversation that followed indicated that the nobleman had been acting in service of Pietra Donna Sangino, a portrait artist of high repute in Krevborna, because she held leverage over him. He stated that the portraits she created gave her power over their subjects. The nobleman assumed that Tobias and Marek were in the same boat as he was, and had come to him for the woman's address, so he made them an offer: if they would agree to steal back the portrait that she had painted of him back, he would take them by carriage to her home.

The party regrouped and set off in two carriages to the three-story home of Pietra Donna Sangino. Unlike it neighbors, this house did not have an entrance at the ground floor; rather, a set of wrought iron stairs led up to an entrance at the second floor. Two ruffians, one in a top hat eating an apple and one shuffling a pack of cards, sat on the bottom stoop of the stairs--clearly hired protection from the North Street Smilers. There were no lights on in the house save for the third floor. Thane had his raven familiar scout the perimeter; the raven saw that there was an open skylight at the third floor, and that the entirety of the third floor was an artist's studio. Inside sat a plain woman with black curls in a painter's smock, working away at what appeared to be a wintry landscape in oils. 

Thane made an ill-fated attempt to stroll by the front of the house and cast a casual sleep spell on the two toughs, but never were affected. Backpedaling Thane's strange gestures and arcane words into a religious greeting, Marek thrust Nikolai's list at them as if it were a religious pamphlet, but the thug in the top hat visibly recognized the drawing of a monster at the end of it, which prompted both of the ruffians to draw their weapons. 

The thug in the top hat flicked his fingers out, revealing blades at the end of his gloves; his compatriot merely had a straight razor. Leonid assumed his hybrid werecreature form, Marek hefted his greatsword, Thane and Tobias readied their spells, and Gisbert stood fast with his shield and pick. The combined efforts of the party eviscerated the North Street Smiler gang members in short order, but as the last thug died he exploded in a shower of wet pigment--luckily everyone was able to dodge out of the way in time.

The immediate opposition eliminated, the party made their way up the stairs to the second floor. They entered Sangino's parlor, traversed the back hall, and found stairs that went to both the first and second floors. They deliberated whether to search for Nikolai on the first floor or head directly to the third to challenge Pietra Donna Sangino. They chose the latter. Approached in her studio, the group attempted to parlay with Sangino, hoping to get her to let them leave with Nikolai--but at the mention of his name it was clear to her that if they knew about him than they certainly knew too much about her to live! 

Her opening salvo was to cast a wicked spell upon Tobias and whistle shrilly; his mind was wracked with an image of all his diabolic research amounting to nothing in the end--the mental damage from his psychic assault nearly ended the warlock. While the party attacked her in return, the creature she had whistled for--a large, mosquito-like monstrosity that matched Nikolai's hasty sketch--arrived at the open skylight and flew in to join the fray. 

Sangino proved to be a slippery opponent; sometimes an attack that seemed to hit her would reveal a simulacrum that dissolved into oily paint upon the studio floor. Ultimately, she lost the upper hand and attempted to run back to the landscape painting she had been working on--as she retreated the party took their parting shots at her, nearly killing her before she reached the painting, but reach it she did and...she disappeared as she touched the canvas. Left to face the party on its own, the mosquito thing traded piercing strikes from its proboscis before falling to a fiery blast from Thane.

Among the blank canvases in the room, the party discovered three portraits--including the one they had been asked to retrieve by the nobleman who took them to Sangino's studio. On the first floor, Thane rescued a battered and weary Nikolai from where he lay tied in a sack. Unfortunately, Thane's attempt to detect magic in the house was interrupted by the arrival of another mosquito-like beast. Having secured the kidnapped watchman, the party chose retreat over further acts of valor--but not before the mosquito-thing destroyed Thane's raven familiar as it sat perched at the skylight.

The nobleman had his portrait returned to him, for which he gladly returned the group via his rented carriages to Windermere Parish. Gisbert opted to stay with Nikolai in his apartment--where he fortified the watchman with dwarven liquor--while his compatriots found Alice and told her of Nikolai's restoration. Alice and Nikolai's reunion was emotional, but restrained--used to hiding their relationship, they weren't performing their joy at being brought back together, but to them it was everything.

Nikolai confirmed much of what the party had already surmised: he was on the trail of the murderer of the drunkards when he was told about one of the victims being seen in the company of the a woman in a paint-stained cloak; he had also heard the inebriated ravings of a homeless man who ranted about a "thin-winged monster" that chased him through an alleyway; he got a tip that the North Street Smilers were involved; apparently his inquiry had been noticed by Sangino and she had done a little investigating of her own--she had sent him the portrait of Alice with her throat slit and a note that he was to come--alone--to her residence or Alice would be killed; he was overpowered at Sangino's studio and confined to the basement.

Mystery solved!

The Spoils:
XP - 335 each.


Coin - 50 gp each from Alice +5 gp each looted from the pockets of the North Street Smilers.

Salable Items - Two paintings by Pietra Donna Sangino, price depends on if you sell them anonymously through a fence or take them to a reputable art dealer; you also have the painting of Alice with her throat cut, which would require find a morbid sort of art buyer. The first two paintings detect as magical, but how you would use them is unclear.

Magic Items - Potion of healing, scroll of phantasmal killer (I believe Thane took these).

Intangibles - Alice and Nikolai will provide you with whatever help they can muster on a future occasion.