Monday, February 27, 2017

The Walking Dead: Miles Behind Us

The first volume of The Walking Dead ended with the death of Shane, and there is no way that the second is going to let us forget that. We immediately get a flashback scene to the start of Lori's affair with Shane, which is in turn linked to the notion that to live during the apocalypse inevitably changes a person. Rick describes the change in Shane's character as "drastic," but that undersells it by quite a bit. It would be more accurate to describe Shane's descent as a "monstrous" change of heart. But even Shane's sudden, horrific willingness to kill his best friend is given an understandable explanation: the stress of survival is transformative, and whatever alterations it brings pose profound dangers to the self and the cohesive of the social units to which they belong. Any individual person can only endure so much before the breaking point makes them a liability to the survival of the group and an internal threat. Stress we cannot cope with makes us the enemy within.

As a way of exploring the idea that the group's survival is dependent on the individual's ability to handle stress, The Walking Dead starts loading its protagonist with new stresses to illustrate that not even a square-jawed hero is immune to the eruption of personal demons. First, Rick learns that Lori is pregnant. If the world hadn't gone to hell, this would be cause for celebration; but in a zombie-plagued landscape where the living are hanging on by a thread, being in the family way pushes new obstacles and concerns to the forefront for a guy who is already expected to provide for and protect both his immediate family and the larger familial unit of the group. When Lori and Rick break their news to the group, no one knows how to respond because, given the context, this isn't a joyous occasion. Of course, because The Walking Dead is a soap opera at heart, Lori's pregnancy carries an additional layer of stress in that Rick can't be sure that the baby is his. 

When The Walking Dead starts piling it on one character, it really unloads on them. With the prospect of a difficult addition to his family on his mind, Rick also has to deal with his son Carl getting shot during a hunting accident. This is the incident that pushes Rick past his personal breaking point and reveals that, although it might take more to get him there, he has the same sort of monstrosity lurking under his heroic exterior that we have already seen unleashed through Shane's murderous breakdown. Rick's blind rage and willingness to kill Otis for shooting his son is understandable, but it also delineates that even a good man might not hesitate to pull the trigger when the thing he clings to is being taken away from him. Perhaps we get a sense of why Lori is drawn to both Shane and Rick; they aren't so different, after all.

Of course, Rick doesn't end up killing Otis, but it's easy to imagine that if he did it would have a disastrous impact on the group's stability. Knowing what we do about Rick's sentimentality and hidden fragility, it is likely that he would soon spiral out of control and leave the group without its linchpin. The comic gives us a displaced version of how Rick might hypothetically response to loss; Allen's nearly-complete emotional shut down after the death of Donna could be taken as an alternate universe version of Rick's fate should he lose Carl, Lori, and his internal moral compass. Indeed, this chapter of the story gives us another instance of a good man who is pushed too far by hellish circumstances; after the death of his son and daughter in the barn, Hershel snaps and draws down on Rick the same way that Shane drew down on Rick and in the same way that Rick drew down on Otis.

Much of the stress depicted in this chapter is directly related to the assumption that if the group is it to survive it must have a leader who is both stereotypically male and stereotypically capable. Dale reveals that the reason the group hadn't moved camp earlier was because Shane--the default masculine authority--didn't endorse the idea. Now that Rick has assumed the role left vacant by Shane's death, it all falls to him to be the locus of authority they seem to expect and desire. Dale makes it clear that it has to be Rick: Dale is too old (and therefore too weak), Glenn is too young (and therefore not yet truly a man), and Allen is simply too incompetent (he later reveals that Donna wore the pants in their family, which is a damning sin according to the patriarchal order being established here). The oddest part of the exchange between Rick and Dale about the need for a man to lead them to the promised land of safety is that Rick doesn't question the imposition of the role or even the worldview behind it. Rick also seems to believe that the role is a natural requirement and that he is the obvious candidate to take on the mantle.

With all of this potentially fatal stress buffeting the group at every turn, the characters use sex as their release valve. There is a massive, and obvious, emphasize on sex, pair bonding, and the need for physical and emotional intimacy even in close quarters in this volume. Dale and Andrea are spotted having sex as a way of getting through Amy's death; Glenn and Maggie have sex to boost Glenn's feelings of inadequacy and give Maggie something of her own not related to her family; Chris and Julie have sex as a form of rebellion against life under what they perceive to be Tyreese's thumb; Tyreese immediately pairs off with Carol beause both need reaffirmation after their personal losses. Even the interactions of Carl and Sophie are viewed by the adults in the group through this lens; there is a heightened level of projection here that assumes that the children will ultimately end up together because they will inevitably need to rely on each other in the same way that the adults currently need each other as physical and emotional reassurance.

However, as much as sex is one of the few pleasures they have recourse to in an anhedonic world, it is an imperfect form of release. Sex can function like any other stressor for the group and can threaten the group dynamic. Rick's worries over Lori's pregnancy, to say nothing of his anxieties that another rooster has been in the hen house, are the most stark illustration of this, but it crops up for the other characters as well. The introduction of Tyreese and the ease with which Tyreese catches Carol's attention puts Glenn in a mindset where he reconsiders his sense of belonging within the group; the sexual relationship between Chris and Julie sets Tyreese on edge because it is a facet of the social dynamic he's not fully in control of; catching Glenn with Maggie is the event that pushes Hershel into ejecting Rick's group from the safety of his farm. Sex, physical contact, and pleasure are things we cling to when the world upends, but they also leverage already extant cleavages in the social dynamic--pairing off with one person is always already a matter of exclusion, and exclusion is a luxury that survivors don't have.

From the hip:

  • It's interesting that the introduction of Tyreese--a powerful, former NFL player--doesn't shake up the masculine pecking order established earlier in the comic. He doesn't seem to challenge Rick's leadership of the group in any meaningful way. Is it assumed that the leader of the group will be white and this is just an unspoken part of the job's requirements?
  • The depiction of Glenn as not masculine enough to be a leader is reinforced by the later revelation that he is a virgin. But now that he's got some stank on his hang-low I'm curious to see how his place in the larger narrative evolves. Also worth noting: Glenn isn't positioned as a potential leader and he's also not a white guy.
  • I stopped watching the tv adaption of The Walking Dead once they reached the farmhouse because their stay there seemed interminable. The comic handles this episode at a much brisker pace; the comic's depiction of those events is quicker moving and ultimately more satisfying because of it.

Friday, February 24, 2017

One Night at Fayaz's

Campaign: Scarabae (Open Table 5e D&D)


  • Theobaldo, the Marques de Carabas - refined and gentlemanly tabaxi rogue
  • Mortimer - pugilistic human monk
  • Dr. Aleister Wiffle - human fighter conducting research into infectious diseases
  • Ash - human monk and accomplished sprinter
  • Zunx - fidgety little warlock mole-ish thing

Objective: To find a dwarf child in a Chuck E. Cheese gone mad and return him to his father

  • The crew was assembled in the early hours of the morning by Koska, who sent messengers to fetch them to a location on Porthos Street in the Redgutter Ward. The client is a male dwarf whose beard is threaded with gems. He sits in a gilded carriage and speaks to the party through the carriage window. He explains that his young son Allan attended a pizza party at Fayaz's Pleasure Palace for Children last night, but come this morning he discovered that neither his son nor the servant sent as his son's chaperone had returned. Surmising that his son was still at Fayaz's, he sent three armed servants into the building to find his son, but...they never came out again.
  • Gesturing to the building across the street, the dwarf pointed out Fayaz's. The building is a single story tall and built from new brick, with a faux gilt dome on top and a gaudy sign out front. Strangely, the building had no windows. Scouting the perimeter revealed that there is a front entrance and a side entrance that is probably used to bring in foodstuffs for the kitchen. Ominous black clouds whirled above the building, propelled by winds that no one on the street can feel.
  • The characters chose the front door for their initial point of entry. Inside the front door they found three ticket booths, all of which were occupied by the corpses of the ticket-sellers. The room was illuminated by an enchanted, glowing ceiling. Obnoxiously loud carnival music blared from speakers in every room of the restaurant. The corpse of a gray-haired elf lay face down on the carpet in front of a door marked MANAGER'S OFFICE. Examination of the elf's body indicated that he had been assaulted by something capable of both bludgeoning him and slashing his vest to ribbons. Rifling his pockets gained the party a set of keys that unlocked the manager's office.
  • The manager's office proved to be fairly mundane, save for a crystal ball on the desk. When fiddled with, the ball swirled with mist and then resolved itself into an image of what appeared to be a women's bathroom. The characters had tuned in just in time to see the door to the bathroom close--something was on the move. 
  • Further manipulation of the crystal ball showed them a room lined with mechanical rides and games such as a magic dart board and an automatized whack-a-mole. Seated upon the mechanical rides were three corpses armed with swords, presumably the dwarf's servants who had been sent in prior and who had not returned. The final image the party got out of playing with the crystal ball was a constructed pit filled with multicolored rubber balls. Also in view were what appeared to be naked, chubby pink legs walking out of view. The party wondered if these legs might belong to overgrown babies, and they weren't half-wrong. 
  • And then...the crystal ball suddenly went dim and the glowing ceiling extinguished, leaving the crew in total darkness.
  • A lantern now lit, the group decided to retreat outside and try the side entrance--which put them in a pantry filled with shelves of canned ingredients and bags of flour used to make the pizzas served at Fayaz's. Aleister opened a door to see what was beyond; he found the restaurant's kitchen and also two human-sized mechanical cherubs staring back at him blankly. 
  • Shutting the door quickly and informing his fellows of what was approaching, Aleister and co. readied themselves. Mortimer quickly tied a couple aprons together; when the cherubs wrenched the door to the pantry off its hinges he was able to throw it over a cherub's head to "blind" it. The rest of the party let loose a barrage of gunfire, rapier stabs, and fisticuffs that quickly brought the two automatons down. 
  • From the kitchen, the party entered the dining room where they found several long tables still laden with food and drink. Unfortunately, they also found many adults who were either parents or staff, all of them apparently dead save for one half-orc woman. At their right was a long stage full of mechanical cherubs going through their prescribed motions--some were dancing, others playing instruments. 
  • The half-orc woman muttered something about "the children" and "the control room." Aleister decided it would be best to carry the half-orc woman back into the kitchen where they could tend to her wounds; as he was carrying her back to kitchen, however, the fattest of the cherubs on the stage shot her with an arrow and things looked grim for her, and the party, at that moment.
  • Battle broke out between the crew, the fat cherub, and a cherub drummer who also left the stage to join in the fray. The party managed to put a lot of bullets into the fat cherub, but the situation become worse when the opposition was joined by four more of the mechanical monstrosities. (These four were the ones they had caught glimpses of in the crystal ball in the manager's office.) 
  • In the ensuing battle, the party started to take quite a beating. Two of the cherubs (including the deadly bow-wielding one) were taken down, but Mortimer and Theobaldo both went down as well. Sensing the tide of battle turning against them, the remaining members of the group dragged their comrades back to the relative safety of the kitchen where they were patched up by Dr. Wiffle.
  • Oddly, the cherubs did not pursue them into the kitchen. Exploring a different path through the building brought them to a janitor's closet and then to Fayaz's control room. Listening at the door let the crew hear whispering voices seemingly talking to themselves. How they would storm the room was much debated. At last, they threw open the door, ready to hack and slash one was inside.
  • Built into the desk were a number of switches and dials used to control the various enchantments at work in the building. Also on the desk were a crystal ball like the one in the manager's office and a large black egg swirling with shadowy power. Zunx used his magic to manipulate the control panel to restore the light throughout the building and (finally) kill the ever-present music. Zunx also picked up the crystal ball and...sent it crashing into the black egg, shattering both. (And, it should be added, severing the outside influence exerting control over Fayaz's mechanical cherubs.)
  • Although normalcy was restored, they still hadn't found any children. The next door the party tried opened into a long hallway lined with half-built or semi-repaired cherubs. Fearing that the automatons could come to life at any moment and overtake them, they decided to test their apparent inactivity. 
  • Ash volunteered to sprint the length of the hallway, turn around, and sprint back so that his fellows could pick off anything that came after him. Ash ran his race safely; nothing sprang out at him or followed in his wake. A more cautious exploration of the hallway revealed that several children were hiding behind the cherubs, including Alan, the dwarf boy they had been sent to rescue.
  • The crew ushered the children outside, reuniting Alan with his father--who certainly won't be winning any Parent of the Year awards, as he seemed to have trouble recognizing his offspring, but such is the way of rich folk who leave the upbringing of their heirs to servants. 
  • The party returned inside, as they knew that there should have been more children inside that they hadn't found. They were right, but there were no more children to be discovered within. What had happened to them? The only clue they discovered was a black ashen ring featuring leaf-like sigils burned into the floor of a workshop--a sign they recognized as belonging to the Children of Fimbul, a dark sect of druids that wish to begin the apocalypse to rid the world of machines and usher in the rebirth of a more natural age.

The Take:

  • XP - 205 each.
  • Assorted coins and jewelry looted throughout the premises and your fee from the dwarf: 318 gp each.
  • The crystal ball from the manager's office will allow you to see into any room of Fayaz's, which might come in hand if you ever need to peek into whatever business sets up shop in the building. Fayaz's is undoubtedly closed for business.
  • That smoke-able stash of drugs you found in the kitchen turns out to be magical; when smoked it functions as a potion of heroism.
  • Two of the now-dead parents were apparently in the habit of communicating to each other with a pair of sending stones.
  • One woman was wearing a bracelet of prayer beads; 5 of them turn out to be beads of force.
  • Talk among yourselves and let me know how you want to distribute the magic items.
  • Also, if you'd like to note some aspect of the adventure that was important to your character as a way to get Inspiration in an adventure to come, feel free. I've written up my Inspiration replacement rules here. Let me know if you have any questions about that.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Art of Gothic: Britain's Midnight Hour

The Art of Gothic: Britain's Midnight Hour
There is a hallowed tradition with this sort of BBC documentary: at some point it's going to go comically off the rails. The first third is the strongest bit; it gives a lively and informed overview of the Gothic as a historic term, a style of architecture, and a burgeoning literary form that officially started with the publication of Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto but already had deep roots in British literature. If I had a nit to pick with the first episode of the series it would be that Ann Radcliffe didn't get nearly as much spotlight as she deserves as an innovator in the mode. Radcliffe's short-shrift is emblematic of a recurrent problem throughout The Art of Gothic; this documentary seems to imagine the Gothic as the province of male thinkers and male artists without daring to peer outside that blinkered view. (Mary Shelley and Jane Austen are the exceptions, but then, they always are, aren't they?)

But it's in the second act where things start to go a bit strange. The documentary is forced to grapple with a time line in which the Gothic enters a fallow period in the mid-nineteenth century, and thus it starts creating dubious links between cultural artifacts and a larger Gothic worldview to fill in the gaps. Analysis of Augustus Pugin's work on Westminster Palace gets spun-out into grandiose feelings about the inherent darkness of his architectural and decorative ideas (with Charles Barry's work on the Houses of Parliament oddly downplayed to fit the narrative), and the discussion of renaissance faire cod-medievalism is a square peg being fitted to a round hole. 

Worse yet, untenable claims begin to crop up. The idea that the nineteenth-century Gothic made self and identity the site of phantasmagoric horrors is advanced, seemingly without knowledge of James Hogg's eighteenth-century work in the same vein or a consideration that the horrors of self and identity informed the Gothic's literary ancestors. A case is made for Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater as the invention of drug usage as escapism, which conveniently ignores a long history of European alcoholism at the very least.

The third acts starts briskly by giving pride of place to Bram Stoker's Dracula and the various cinematic terrors it inspired, but the documentary ultimately does what many contemplations of the Gothic attempt--it aims to make the Gothic more respectable by tracing its lineage to markers of Real Culture in the twentieth century. Sure, we can read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness as colonial Gothic, but then T. S. Eliot is dragged in, one imagines against his will, as is Francis Bacon. All the insight displayed in the first hour of the series falls away, leaving us with the lazy notion that if a thing is grotesque it's probably Gothic. The ending moments are the most cringe-worthy, as they reveal--in what is probably the most British flourish ever--that the mobile phone is the true modern form of the vampire! Muahaha, the call is coming from inside the house!

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Bad Books for Bad People: The Incal

After failing in his quest to find financing for his 18- to 24-hour-long film version of Frank Herbert's Dune, Chilean-French filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo and Santa Sangre) partnered with French artist Moebius to create a science fiction graphic novel titled The Incal. This epic, first published between 1981 and 1988, takes its hapless hero John DiFool across strange galaxies while providing a platform for Jodorowsky to explore his esoteric ideas, which blend shamanism, the tarot, Freudian psychoanalysis, and theater. As you might gather, there's a lot going on here.
Jack and Kate break down how Dune's DNA exists within The Incal even though its creators take the tale in a direction that's far more madcap, alchemical, and... well, French.
Can a work of art succeed at being both serious and light-hearted at the same time? Why are women so goddamn allegorical? Is there such a thing as an unfilmable graphic novel? Who is Kill Wolfhead and why is he the best? Find out all this and more in this month's episode of Bad Books for Bad People.
Intro/Outro Music: "5:55" by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Air.
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.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Three Wells I Drink From to Bring Them Pain and Torment

A lot gets written about RPGs. A lot of it is forgettable. (I know because I write a lot about RPGs and then immediately forget about it.) Here are three articles/essays/whatever that I keep coming back to, and what I've learned from them:

Yes I Sank Your Barge, by James Wallis
Lesson learned - If you want your game to be dramatic and fun, you can't allow the characters or their players to become complacent. You have to keep their lives "interesting," by which I mean "terrible."

A 16 HP Dragon, written by Stras, archived at Sage LaTorra's page
Lesson learned - It isn't the numbers that players should fear in your game, it's how you use words to make the opposition worthy of fear.

Grand Experiments: West Marches, by Ben Robbins
Lesson learned - How you set up the social aspect of the game changes how the game is played. It's worthwhile to think about how you can arrive at the kind of game-play you want through altering the relationship of the players to the game.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Darkness is Eternal, Unfettered, and Hungry.

Campaign: Krevborna (5th edition D&D)

  • Kylic, fey-blooded half-elf cleric who feels an evil at work in the bones of the world
  • Luka, self-sacrificing human ranger who has lately converted to religious service
  • Tristan, human paladin who has sworn an oath of vengeance against the undead
Objectives: To kill the Master!

  • The party convened at the behest of Kylic, who used his network of urchins to pickpocket both Luka and Tristan and lead them into a dead-end alley where he could dramatically tell them that he felt the eyes of the Master elsewhere for the moment. With the Master distracted, his mind on other matters, Kylic felt that this was the time to strike and rid the land of his vampiric menace!
  • Two days later, the party took to the road. The weather had turned unseasonably cold, and what remained of the harvest still lay in the fields--but it was now blanketed by snow.
  • As the party traveled southeast toward the coast, they encountered a vagabond woman named Annoushka and her child making camp for the evening. Tristan approached the woman and discovered that she is a tinker. As she posed no danger, the group joined her camp for the evening and partook of her lentil stew. 
  • When asked if she knew anything about the Master's castle, Annoushka informed that she had passed it but had given it a wide berth. She said that a forest of impaled bodies stood before the castle now, and that it was a place "where hope goes to die," which proved to be oddly prophetic. Much of the conversation proved to be unplanned foreshadowing; when Tristan expressed his burning need for vengeance against the undead, Annoushka warned him that this was something that could consume him. Similarly, much was made throughout the session of the notion of Luka as a self-sacrificing man whose fate tended toward doom.
  • The party arrived at the black castle of the Master after a few days of additional travel. The iron gate was wide open, which marked a change since the last time Kylic had ventured inside. Annoushka had informed them truly of the forest of the impaled; Luka would diligently to behead each corpse in fear that they might rise up against them if they had to make a sudden retreat from the castle. Sadly, there would be no retreat for most of the party.
  • The heavy, iron-studded doors of the castle swung open easily; either the party was expected or the residents generally had no fear of intrusion. Inside, the group began to explore. Kylic, in particular, was driven to reach the highest points of the castle. 
  • The dining room in which hung the painting featuring the now-deceased Anton Sellvek was rediscovered. A bell tower was ascended as well, but so far there was no sign of the castle's inhabitants.
  • The music room, however, did prove to be occupied by a woman in a white lace dress seated at a harpsichord. Since her back was turned to the party, Luka decided that the best course of action was to sneak up behind her and attempt to end her life abruptly. Although he did get the drop on her and managed to inflict grievous wounds that turned her white lace to a crimson field of gore, she managed to find her feet and transfixed Luka in place--his lungs felt like they were filling with water and he found that he could not move from the spot.
  • Tristan and Kylic moved to Luka's aid. A door in the music room flew open and a thin, young butler with slicked-back black hair entered the room. The wounded woman was easily dispatched, but a wave of hatred and anger emanated from the servant that inflicted horrid pain on the party. The butler did not attack them directly, but whenever his stare fell upon one of our heroes it brought horrible thoughts and images to their mind's eye. 
  • This was to be the first to two battles that went back and forth; characters repeatedly went down under the barrage of negative emotions and psychic attacks rippling from the butler, bringing them to death's door, only to be revived by healing magic so the fray could continue as things spiraled dangerously out of the party's control. Ultimately, they were victorious and the butler fell has Tristan split his head with a deft halberd attack. The party barred the doors and recuperated as best they could.
  • Further exploration revealed an iron spiral staircase leading up into a clock tower. Amidst the machinery, Kylic sensed their quarry looming in the shadows. After a very short burst of banter that confirmed to Kylic that the slender, bearded "man" was indeed the Master, Kylic attempted to take him by surprise with a blast of holy power, but unfortunately his spell missed and the time for talk was now over. 
  • Much like their previous battle, this one was back-and-forth. Tristan, Kylic, and Luka all went down at some point only to be brought back to fight again until...a stalemate, of sorts. Tristan had previously abjured the Master with powerful magic that had made the vampire feel fear, but the Master had felled Luka with a vicious claw attack and now held him on the point of death as a hostage. 
  • Tristan attempted to barter for Luka's life, but all the Master wanted was for Tristan to break his oaths as a paladin and devotee of St. Othric--which Tristan could not bring himself to do. Seeing the catastrophe unfolding before his eyes, Kylic fled back down the stairs, out of the castle, and ran toward the party's carriage. Tristan considered running as well, leaving Luka to his fate, but ultimately it was in his nature to stand against the darkness even at the cost of his own life. Tristan made one last valiant attempt at slaying the master, but he too fell before the count's rending claws. 
  • Both Luka and Tristan had moments of lucidity as the horror that is the Master remade them in his own image. Through a blood-red haze they saw the Master bending toward them, they could feel a rush of anguish and pleasure as the vampire feasted upon their blood. When they regained consciousness they were no longer men of valor and conviction; they were now accursed creatures of the midnight hour bent to the will of a greater evil.
The Spoils:
  • XP - Kylic receives 1000 XP

* * *

  • This turned out to be an action-packed session that was a roller coaster of hit points lost and gained, more death saves than any one session has ever called for, and the tragic death of Krevborna's two longest-lived and much-beloved player characters. As much as I'll miss having Luka and Tristan in the game, that's where the choices led and where the dice fell. 
  • For much of the session it felt like the players were doing a "speed run" to the final boss; they pushed hard and fast in their exploration, focusing on finding and fighting the Master. Unfortunately, that had repercussions. Luka's attack on the woman in white did a good job of taking her out quickly--but ambushing her actually removed a potential ally for the party who knew the ins and outs of the castle and the Master's various weaknesses. 
  • Similarly, the rush to the clock tower left much of the castle unexplored; there were a number of things to be discovered that hinted at better tactics or points of leverage, but they went unseen. At one point Kylic had the idea that the clock tower's mechanisms were connected to the Master's invasion of Krevborna from the nightmarish realm of his origin--this wasn't correct, but he was on the right track that the clock tower did have a purpose that the party could use to their favor. 
  • Of course, in any game with dice it's also going to come down to where the bones fall. The Master was tough opposition, but not insurmountable. What did tip the scales in his favor was that I rolled two critical hits against Luka and one against Tristan, which turned the tide greatly in his favor since the party was running low on healing resources. Conversely, some of the characters were faced with bad luck on their rolls--such as Kylic's spell attacks.
  • I was on the edge of my seat during the battle against the Master, that roiling feeling present in the belly as everything fell apart for the characters, and the next day I was fairly bummed out about their dooms. All this means, of course, that the players were doing their jobs and created characters worthy of emotional investment.