Saturday, October 31, 2015

The King is Dead: The Long Halloween Continues...

And so thirty-one days of (more or less) The King is Dead content concludes. For me this is just the beginning; the next several months will see Wine and Savages most likely reduced to one post a week as Robin and I work on the book. Even when The King is Dead is published next July, I expect I’ll still be providing content and running TKiD games well into next October.

It’s going to be a very long Halloween indeed…

A few hours ago, I caught up on my weekly TV viewing by watching the Bones/Sleepy Hollowcrossover. The first The King is Dead post premiered August 13th and Sleepy Hollow premiered September 16th of that same year; they’ve always been part of the same zeitgeist, but I’ve never before seen an episode of that show embody TKiD – or Savage Worlds-style craziness – quite so much. “Dead Men Tell No Tales” featured Betsy Ross, secret agent, mowing down an army of undead redcoats with a repeating crossbow that shot Greek fire-headed bolts. I fell off the couch laughing, recognizing her weapon as a Weird Science version of the bolt power with a “fire” trapping.

It’s obviously a sign from the game gods that we’re on the right path.

Blue Greek fire, I should add.

My thanks to all of you who have +1d my The King is Dead Google+ posts, left comments there or here at Wine and Savages, or just plain visited the site. My thanks to those French guys who linked here that one time, forcing me to Google Translate their comments and discover that TKiD has an international audience – and my thanks to the Russian and Spanish roleplayers  who have also expressed their interest. My thanks to +Clint Black  and +Richard Woolcock  and everybody else who has chimed in with rules suggestions and critiques (even – no, especially – when I have disagreed with them). My great thanks to +Kristian Serrano  for giving us the Savage Bloggers Network and Google+ Savage Worlds community and helping us all meet in the first place.

My sincere thanks to +Eric Simon for asking to publish The King is Dead through Four-in-HandGames; I really, really didn’t want to go through all the headaches of setting up my own publishing company. I wish I could tell everybody how immensely supportive and generous Eric has been – both with TKiD and Steamscapes – without delving into confidential business matters, but I can’t so you’ll just have to take my word for it. He is a gentleman and a scholar, and I hope The King is Dead is a success for his sake as much as my own.

Finally, my everlasting thanks to my wife, +Robin English-Bircher. Her support and encouragement would alone be more than I could hope for, but she is also joining this project as my co-writer and editor. You can expect to see fiction and in-universe poetry from her pen helping to flesh out Malleus and the world of The King is Dead; perhaps we’ll even dole some out over the next few months.

As for me, I need to write up a bunch of NPCs to flesh out Thornburg, the setting of the ongoing TKiD playtest, so that next week’s game has a bit more meat on its bones. I’ve got the shape of the book in my head, so it’s time to get that down on paper and outline the danged thing. With that in place, I’ll be able to jump around from chapter to chapter, writing things as they come to me, filling it all in a bit at a time. As anyone clicking the TKiD banner at the top of this page knows, there’s an awful lot of material already in place on the blog – and I’ve got several chapters of the book basically written on top of that. Now’s the time to standardize spellings, fill in some blanks, and get The King is Dead ready for the world before the zeitgeist passes us by…

Friday, October 30, 2015

The King is Dead: It Begins!!!

It's been hinted at and mentioned in passing, but now it's official: Four-in-Hand Games, publishers of Steamscapes, will bring you The King is Dead in July 2016. Check out the announcement at the new Four-in-Hand Games site and read more about this exciting news tomorrow!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The King is Dead: vs. Rippers

I like the way Mina was promoted to leader of the Rippers in Resurrected

Well, I write “versus,” but it’s the same kind of “versus” we’re bound to see in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice: two heroes at cross purposes who really have a lot in common and end up becoming best friends.

(Or something like that.)

I’ve read (and sort-of played) the original Rippers and I was an eager backer of the Rippers Resurrected Kickstarter. I love Rippers! I love Victorian horror and sci-fi. I love Rippers’ cinematic precedents: the Universal Monsters, Hammer Films’ horror classics, even Stephen Sommers’ less-than-perfect Van Helsing. I love RippersAnno Dracula/League of Extraordinary Gentlemen-style crossover universe. I would happily write the Japan chapter for Frightful Expeditions.

(Lafacadio Hearn would make an awesome lodge leader.)

The King is Dead certainly exists in a dialogue with Rippers; I chose “cabal” as the name for player character parties for a reason, after all. The basic premises are similar (secret societies battling monsters) yet potently different (Rippers is about protecting civilization from monsters in the shadows, TKiD is about heroes in the shadows destroying a monstrous civilization), they’re both period pieces (though the differences between the bawdy late 18th century and the prim late 19th century are HUGE), and they both posit heroes capable of being as monstrous as their opponents (though rippertech and the Dark Secret Hindrance are very different both mechanically and tonally). Rippers and The King is Dead occupy a similar psychological niche, but their differences outweigh the similarities.

(Admittedly, I suggested a map of an English country house as a reward for Rippers precisely because I wanted one for The King is Dead.)

I’m still working through my copy of Rippers Resurrected, but it looks like all of the differences intended between TKiD and Rippers are still there. TKiD cabals are proactive, setting goals and maneuvering to execute them in a manner more like heist film thieves than the reactive defenders of horror and superhero movies. Rippers factions are still more of a background element than the foregrounded goals and rivalries of the TKiD secret societies. Rippers is still international, sweeping across nations and continents, while The King is Dead is narrower in focus, a more intimate, involved exploration of a nation in revolt. The huge thematic differences between the two settings reveal themselves in dozens of subtle ways.

In other words, you’re still going to want to buy The King is Dead.    

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The King is Dead: I am a man of many hats

...And they're all tricornes.

Derived from military designs that allowed soldiers to more easily sight their firearms, the tricorne (or “cocked hat,” as it was actually known in the 18th century) is ubiquitous with 18th century fashion. The lifted sides allow onlookers to view a gentleman’s artfully arranged and carefully curled wig, while the hat itself tucks neatly under the arm when one is indoors. Within the world of The King is Dead, the cocked hat is the de rigueur headgear of the middle and upper classes.

I’ve recently discovered that the two most expensive of the four tricornes I own are actually made wrong. I can tell you from personal experience that the cocked hat is useless in providing shade against the sun, but that’s because you’re supposed to be able to lower the lifted sides of the brim. You see those laces on the officially-licensed Captain Jack Sparrow hat? They’re actually supposed to tie the brim to the crown, allowing the wearer to untie or loosen the brim and wear it down to block sun or rain. The cheap tricornes I picked up at the Spirit Halloween Store are actually slightly more accurate; the buttons on the side do allow one to lower the brim.

In contravention of the usual Savage Worlds approach to clothing, I’m considering devoting a full page of the equipment section to different pieces of clothing. Fashion is an important part of courtly intrigue, and it seems to me that giving players a more extensive list of clothing choices would be wise. Of course, too much research can be the death of a project. The extended fashion section will only exist if I can find some quick, easy way to research comparable prices, fabrics, etc.

(Which might mean simply browsing the pages of reenactment societies and suppliers like The Quartermaster General, Smiling Fox Forge, or Smoke & Fire Company.)

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Not The King is Dead: Retribution RPG Kickstarter

I’m sure that – like me – many of you are awaiting the release later today of the first set of rewards from the Rippers Resurrected Kickstarter, but did you know that there’s another Savage Worlds supernatural setting Kickstarter still going?

Obatron Productions, the current publishers of Savage Insider and my frequent publishers, are running a campaign to fund Retribution, a paranormal fantasy setting. I call it “paranormal” rather than “horror” because many of the concepts seem to me to lean closer to parapsychology and spiritualism than you normally find in a setting full of ghosts. Since the advertising copy specifically states that player characters may find themselves allied with the dead, I would definitely slot it into tales of mediums and psychics. 

(I doubt Vickey and Bob Beaver would agree, but I kinda find myself thinking “fantasy Ghostbusters.”)
Retribution character sheet
See what I mean about parapsychology?

As of October 27th, the campaign has 12 days more to run – and it’s been stuck at the same amount for a couple of weeks. I was the first backer and I obviously have a vested interest in helping Obatron Productions succeed (who will publish my weird articles otherwise?) but I also know from personal experience that Vickey and Bob are good people who love Savage Worlds. Savage Insider has helped a number of us reach a bigger audience, and it certainly provides a much-needed intermediary between fandom and professionals. Can’t we give them a bit more of a boost?

(Oh, and Vickey has previously announced that she’d be happy to give interviews. I’m stupidly busy – you can count on me to pretty much fall off the map at the end of October as I get busy writing TKiD – so would anyone else like to take her up on the offer?)

The Retribution Kickstarter runs until November 8th. More information can be found at Obatron Productions.

From the Kickstarter page:


Retribution is a supernatural fantasy setting for Savage Worlds, requiring a copy of any edition of the Savage Worlds rulebook. With some patience and creativity, it can be converted to other systems.

Key Points of Interest

  • PCs can be any of the six primary races (human, elf, dwarf, orc, gnome, half-folk) or hybrids of them.
  • If a PC dies, there is a chance she will be transformed into a playable ghost (spirit).
  • Besides the general fighter, cleric, magic-user, and other, familiar character types, Retribution offers Edges and Hindrances to create specialized characters such as unjailers who work to free entities who have been bound to this plane unwillingly, necromancers who study mastery of the dead, exomancers who have the power to work with extraplaner beings, and others that add to the Retribution experience.
  • Necromancy is more than just animating skeletons or raising the dead as zombies, covering also medium arts, binding spirits, and working with other aspects of death.
  • Exomancy is much like necromancy, but applies only to those who come from beyond the mortal realm.
Play Possibilities
Venture across the sea from the original homelands to Agador to escape a troubled past; seek to restore your ancestral village, leading to any number of options; portray a group of ghost hunters who want to banish any who don’t belong; assemble a group to search for relics of bygone days; work the trade routes, protecting merchants and finding adventure; be part of the burgeoning Agador Guard, who keep out pirates, or at least keep them under control; quest to release trapped spirits or try extra-planer entities who mean harm; or become part of the new political structure satisfying your own interest in power.
Retribution Setting Summary
The Great Betrayal – the civil war of Agador – led to the sundering of the veil between the physical realm and many others. Play in a world where the planes of existence have leaked into Agador, introducing ghosts set upon retribution for their deaths, allowing entry of previously unknown entities, and upsetting the natural order of the land.
Many are dead-set on wreaking havoc or have other mysterious agendas. However, not all are hostile. Some seek unjailers who can send them back to the planes from which the magical attacks and malicious intent pulled them. Others wish to explore what is here. There are those who are trapped by necromancy or exomancy. A few see themselves as new guardians of Agador.
This is a land of opportunity and peril. A place where the natural and supernatural collide. The Great Betrayal nearly destroyed all who inhabited it, but survivors and questors choose not to let it die. Join the ranks of descendants who are determined to restore order and bring renewed prominence to the island nation. Come to Agador to prove your strength and test your mettle. Break the cycle of Retribution.

More than a hundred years ago, elvish explorers discovered an undeveloped island. They set up camps and cataloged their discoveries. Word spread across the other lands. Intrigued, many sailed to new lives. For decades, the fledgling island nation grew in peace, with small settlements taking hold near the shores and in the wilds in between.
Side by side, all manner of people worked the land: its fields, stones, and trees. Some sought more than they had. Whispered half-truths spread from small town to port city and all assemblies in between, sparking unrest. One by one, allies turned upon each other, seeing foes where friends had stood.
Fighting broke out. Families were divided. Civil war consumed the nation. Just as the violence reached its apex, some who’d been searching for answers – suspecting Agador had been sucked into a manufactured crisis – found proof of their hypothesis. It was too late.
Each side had ramped up all manner of fighting, engaging the deadliest of magical attacks and counterattacks that any had ever seen. Alas, in a fearsome display of power, the fighters of Agador did something none knew was possible and was not at all intended: they tore into the veil between the physical world and that of the dead. The recently departed flooded back into the mortal realm. The chaos did not stop there. The act reverberated across planes, allowing creatures beyond their imaginations to cross into their world.
In the span of just a few minutes, the civil war – The Great Betrayal – ended and a new, much more desperate one began.
And Now
It’s been 50 years since the war ended and Agador united to defend itself against those who don’t belong. While many of the unearthly beings have been dispelled, banished, or otherwise stopped from occupying the physical world, the fabric holding the planes apart has never completely healed.
Several leaders are attempting to rebuild Agador, returning it to the splendor and purpose it achieved before The Great Betrayal. They’ve reached out to the faraway homelands inviting adventurers, merchants, and anyone else who will come in peace. They’ve rallied descendants of the first settlers, as well, hoping to harness their ambition as heirs of lost settlements. It is up to those who accept the challenge to quell the ongoing quest for retribution while aiding in the reformation of the once-proud nation.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The King is Dead: Fully Photo-Illustrated

One of the weirder ideas I've had for The King is Dead is bypassing the drawn and painted art usually found in RPG manuals for photography. I'm taking a very "Hollywood History" approach to this imaginary 18th century, and films and TV have been central to inspiring and developing this world. I'm an amateur (though published) photographer and I kinda fancy the idea of taking a few pictures myself, buying some stock photos from Adobe Stock, and Photoshopping them all into something at least as good-looking as a late Hammer Films feature.

(I kinda want the book to look like a licensed game for a license that doesn't exist.)

This is quite possibly a terrible idea (The Book of Erotic Fantasy, after all, did not benefit from using photography). I'll know in a few months after I've had time to experiment a bit more with the software (and after the inevitable Kickstarter sets my art budget).

(Which makes me consider running a top-tier reward where the backer gets to fly out to Texas for gaming, wine, and a photo shoot in the Hill Country.)

In any case, here's a few examples from a shoot Robin and I did a few months back:

I rather like this one.

The highwaywoman makes her move!

A garishly Hammeresque title card in the making.

An experiment in "blue for night;" I still haven't figured that out yet.
If the majority audience reaction is to stick with normal illustrations, I will bow to conventional wisdom. As the book isn't going to have the art budget of a PEG or WotC production, this may mean extensive use of period art. Thankfully, we're talking the post-Renaissance period, so people had finally learned to draw and paint the real world. I could do a lot worse than Joseph Vernet.

Nicely done, Mr. Sherlock-Holmes'-ancestor!

Unfortunately, there is very, very little stock RPG art available for an 18th century setting -- and I'm pretty sure Wizards isn't going to sell me a secondary license on the art from the Innistrad Magic; The Gathering series (more's the pity).

They certainly wouldn't license it for what I can afford.

Feel free to chime in here or on Google+! I'm very curious to hear how people feel about potential art in The King is Dead. Thanks!

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The King is Dead: Immortality (1998)

Have you ever watched a movie and not been sure whether you liked it or not? Immortality (AKA The Wisdom of Crocodiles) is slow and hypnotic and weird. I think I liked it, but I'm not sure.

What I am sure of, however, is that this is a near-perfect reverse TKiD film. It's set in the 20th century and the plot is about a serial killer (and probable vampire, though the only really supernatural thing we see him do is painful and disgusting) stalking and seducing an innocent woman while evading the cop who's after him for killing his previous girlfriend. But just imagine that Jude Law's vampire is actually a heroic revolutionary assassin, and you've got a very instructional film for TKiD GMs. The heroes of The King is Dead, after all, have to cover their tracks more than most RPG characters.

A really weird film, but educational nonetheless... 

Friday, October 23, 2015

The King is Dead: Franklyn Arrowet, Occult Scholar

Heath Ledger in The Brothers Grimm
The Illuminated
Freethinkers and kabbalists

“Magnus ab integro seclorum nascitur ordo – a mighty order of ages is born anew.  A new order shall emerge and mankind shall not bow to darkness.”
Vulkan (pseudonym of Franklyn Arrowet), Declaration of the Rights of Man.

Franklyn Arrowet

This scholar of the classical world has studied the battles of Remula and the mysticism of ancient Tsion, searching for the secret of how those ancient lands resisted the vampires -- even if their resistance was ultimately futile. His curiosity leads him down dark and dangerous paths, inquiring after long-forgotten gods that perhaps should stay forgotten.

Arrowet spends his free time writing incendiary pamphlets under the pen name "Vulkan." In them he expresses such noble sentiments as democracy and freedom, but the curiosity that drives his arcane research is sadly lacking in his personal life -- or perhaps it is his native caution that prevents him from fully challenging such ancient institutions as slavery. While extra care is admirable in drawing magic circles to bind daemons, it is less admirable when it withholds freedom.

Attitude: Arrowet is Helpful toward his intellectual equals in the Zunft von Hohenheim and Friendly toward the Bloodstained Blade and their ancient knowledge, but only Neutral toward members of the rest of the secret societies. He prides himself too much on his enlightened attitude to be Uncooperative or Hostile toward any co-conspirators, but the Bluestockings and Ananzi's Web really try his patience with their pestering. 
Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d8, Spirit d8, Strength d6, Vigor d8.
Skills: Fighting d4, Investigation d8, Knowledge (Battle) d8, Knowledge (Occult) d8, Notice d4, Persuasion d4, Riding d4, Spellcasting d8, Stealth d4.
Charisma: +0; Pace: 6; Parry: 5; Toughness: 6
Hindrances: Curious, Dark Secret [Major] (see below),* Bad Eyes [Minor], Cautious
Edges: Arcane Background: Magic, Connections (Illuminated), Scholar 
Gear: Dissertations on classical warfare (Knowledge (Battle) +1), formal clothes, grimoire (+1 to Spellcasting rolls for summon ally only), half-finished treatise, rapier (Str+1d4, +1 Parry).
Special Abilities:
  • Power Points: 10
  • Powers: bolt, detect/conceal arcana, smite
* If Franklyn Arrowet is revealed to have a Dark Secret, choose from or roll on the chart below:
  • 1. Arrowet's researches into the occult produce catastrophic results. The cabal comes upon him in the last moments of a summoning ritual and watches in horror as a Daemon of the Outer Air (Fire Elemental) erupts from its wards, incinerating Arrowet before turning on the rest of the cabal.
  • 2-3. Arrowet's researches have led him to an ill-considered dalliance with a Dhampir Sorcerer; this sorcerer may be either a radical student of the Scholomance or a devotee of Countess Erzbeta Battori. Fearing for its life and reputation, the Dhampir Sorcerer snaps Arrowet's neck before attacking the cabal.
  • 4-5. Arrowet's researches have led him to enter into a blood-pact with an ambitious Vampire Sorcerer. Discovered by the cabal in the act of sating his bloodlust, Arrowet turns on his former companions. Use the statistics for an Eldritch Moroi as Arrowet attempts his escape.
  • 6. Arrowet's researches have led him to knowledge man was not meant to know. The cabal comes upon him in the last moments of a hideous sacrifice and watches in horror as he is transformed into something... wrong. Use the statistics for a Tentacled Horror as he runs amok. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The King is Dead: Dracula, dude!

Last year, I backed several RPG Kickstarters with the express purpose of metabolizing their contents to help fuel development of The King is Dead. One of these projects was The Dracula Dossier from Pelgrane Press, an attempt to meld Bram Stoker’s novel (in all of its variations) with spy fiction into a multi-genre, multi-generational campaign. What little I’ve been able to read so far has been great, but I think my favorite bit to come of this is Kenneth Hite’s essay series that runs this month – 31 Nights of Dractober – in which he examines many of the cinematic interpretations of Stoker’s story.

Of course, Hite pisses all over my favorite version: Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

This isn’t really surprising. Many Dracula aficionados dislike the film; for example, Leslie S. Klinger goes out of his way to spew venom at it in The New Annotated Dracula. Obviously, I don’t share this aversion, but Hite at least succeeds in making me understand why he dislikes Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Basically, it’s because Dracula isn’t really the bad guy.

He’s right, of course. The tagline for the ad campaign was “Love Never Dies,” so it’s self-evident that the vampire in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula is positioned as the romantic lead. The 1992 film wasn’t the first time Drac was framed as a figure of romance – Frank Langella was smoldering and sexy in Dracula (1979) and George Hamilton played Dracula as the lead in a rom-com in (the shockingly racist) Love at First Bite (also 1979, weirdly enough) – but Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a supposedly serious attempt to bring the original novel to life which nevertheless inserts an original plot about Dracula and Mina’s time-lost romance. I can understand how this textual infidelity in a film claiming to be the most faithful adaptation yet might offend fans of the novel. In the end, Coppola turns Dracula into the hero of the story.

A creepy, creep hero, but the hero nonetheless...

I disagree that this is a problem, of course, just as I disagree about the complaints that the film’s Victorian England is corrupt and over-sexy, that the weird special effects are too campy, and that the performances are weak. (I mean, yes, Keanu is bad and Winona Ryder gets worse every time I watch the movie, but I think Coppola cast Keanu very deliberately and back in 1992 we all thought Ryder was a better actress than history has shown.) I can’t claim to have watched quite as many versions of Dracula as Kenneth Hite, but I have yet to see one that serves up Bram Stoker’s heady stew of psychosexual weirdness quite like Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

If you don't like weird werewolf sex, then you won't like this movie.

(And let me admit that this is certainly Francis Ford Coppola’s version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It is not the novel – I consider this a point in its favor – and so I constantly jokingly refer to it – even when speaking – as “Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.”)

I could make the excuse that Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula was my first real Dracula movie. It’s generally accepted as a truism that your first version of a thing will always be your favorite (the actor you first see playing James Bond will always be your Bond, the actor you first watch playing the Doctor will always be your Doctor Who) but this doesn’t really hold true for me. Technically, George Hamilton was my first Dracula – which might explain why I’m sympathetic to romantic Dracula – but I also try very hard to be open to revising my opinions (my favorite Bond is Daniel Craig instead of the actor I was named after, my favorite Doctor is Matt Smith). The truth, though, is that I was already pretty familiar with Dracula (on screen and off) well before Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula… Not that there isn’t some nostalgia involved in my love of the film. 

These go for hundreds of dollars each now.

Thanks to the Crestwood House Monster series, I knew way more about classic horror movies – including Bela Lugosi’s turn as Dracula and its sequels – than most kids born in 1973. I’m also pretty sure that I’d read Stoker’s novel before seeing Coppola’s film; my oldest, most battered copy is not a movie tie-in, so I’m pretty sure I got it before the film came out. Admittedly, as a sex-obsessed 19-year old, I was perfectly willing to read as much kinky subtext into the book as I could, but even I couldn’t do so if the sub- wasn’t hiding in the text. Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula came out in 1992, and deconstructing subtext the way that movie does – the way I did and still do – is the most ‘90s thing possible – and if there’s any nostalgia involved here, it’s my nostalgia for the ‘90s.

Exposing subtext and revealing hypocrisy were pretty much defining interests of both my sub-set of Generation X and the filmmakers of the early ‘90s. Deconstruction ruled the day. The grunge movement, after all, was about stripping rock and roll back to its basics again and sabotaging the mindless music industry machine; Kurt Cobain wrote a song that called out the thoughtless idiots who sang along but never understood his lyrics. In cinema, just a few months before Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Michael Mann had given the world a version of The Last of the Mohicans that Mark Twain would have enjoyed; the American Indian villain was a complex, intelligent character instead of an idiotic stereotype, the duplicity of both the British and the French was on display, and the white hero was deferential to his American Indian mentor. The exposure of Victorian hypocrisies and the inversion of their values present in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula simply puts the film in the same revisionist mode that dominated the early ‘90s.

Tear of blood... Can you be more '90s?

And why not invert the values of Bram Stoker’s novel? They’re hardly worth protecting. Mina Murray is a competent, intelligent young woman who is nevertheless written as shy of the “New Woman” label and happy to serve as Jonathan Harker’s secretary; excuse me if I prefer a Mina who yearns for something more. Excuse me for preferring a sexually-aggressive Lucy Westenra to a virginal doll fawned over by a trio of stalwarts. Excuse me for preferring a Dracula who transcends the Yellow Peril undertones of his conception, whose promise of sexual freedom and defiance of social mores is yearned for by the filmmaker and his heroines. I mean, am I the only person who reads some sort of symbolic gangbang, some patriarchal claiming ritual into Mina and Jonathan’s son being named after all the heroes in the novel?

(Yes, I probably am.) 

Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula was the inevitable ‘90s version of Dracula, a “Do you have anything from the vampire’s point of view?” deconstructionist revision that sympathized with the monsters and showed the brutality of the heroes. I’m pretty sure Coppola cast Keanu Reeves because of his stiffness, because he wanted Harker to seem a poor second to Dracula. Hannibal Lecter plays the craziest (and best) Van Helsing for a reason. And the sexy yet grotesque Brides were perfect for the Lollapalooza crowd.

'Nuff said.

Not that ‘90s nostalgia translates into an objective defense of the movie, but there’s no such thing as objective correctness in matters of taste. Enjoying or disliking Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula is certainly a matter of taste; to love it one must embrace the Gothic camp of the costume designs, the in-camera SFX, and the deliberately grotesque sexuality while to hate it one must ignore the fact that it’s still one of the most textual accurate adaptations of Dracula despite its interpolations. I’m certainly not claiming a superior opinion to Kenneth Hite’s, just a different one. 

It would be against my ‘90s values of multiculturalism and individualism to do otherwise.

That said, my favorite version of Dracula has a cowboy. Does yours?

It also has a Dread Pirate Roberts. Does yours?
(Oh, yeah, Shadow of the Vampire does.) 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The King is Dead: Ernest Grost, God's Madman

An abbreviated post again today. I'll work up Attitudes and Dark Secrets when I can. 
October is so, so busy for us! Birthdays! Mid-terms! Ren faires!

The Bloodstained Blade

Soldiers and saints

Sir Anthony Hopkins in Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula
"And I say unto thee, that thou art my rock, and from this stone I shall smelt a steel, and from this steel I shall forge a blade; and this sword will pierce the heavens!”
Gospel of the Pariah 16:18 

Ernest Grost
A grim, determined scholar of vampire lore.
Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d6, Spirit d8, Strength d6, Vigor d6.
Skills: Faith d8, Fighting d4, Healing d6, Investigation d6, Knowledge (Occult) d8, Notice d6, Persuasion d4, Shooting d6, Stealth d4.
Charisma: +0; Pace: 6; Parry: 4; Toughness: 6 (1)
Hindrances: Arrogant, Stubborn, Vengeful [Minor]
Edges: Arcane Background: Miracles, Connections (Bloodstained Blade), Holy Warrior
Gear: Crucifix, doctor’s bag, lantern and oil, leather greatcoat (Armor +1), pistol crossbow and 13 quarrels (Range: 6/12/24, damage 2d4, AP 1, 1 action to reload), saw, shovel, (severe) normal clothing, 2 stakes (Str+d4) & hammer (+1 damage vs. grappled/helpless target), 17 reichsmarks.
Special Abilities:
  • Power Points: 10.
  • Powers: darksight (burning eyes), fear (bellowed passages from the Gospel of the Pariah put the fear of the Unseen Creator into his foes) 

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The King is Dead: Return to Dark Secrets

Vincent Cassel reveals his giant boner bone sword/Dark Secret in Brotherhood of the Wolf

Man, October has been crazy. Last weekend we went to the Texas Renaissance Festival; the weekend before that was GaMExpo. There has not been a lot of time to catch our breath, and I’ve exhausted my queue of prepared TKiD posts.

In the midst of all this craziness, I realized I never responded to some concerns from +Richard Woolcock  and others about the Dark Secret Hindrance. There was some trepidation about the double points value, the way it only comes into effect after play begins, and other aspects. Let me just say that I understand your concerns – but I’m sticking with the way I wrote it.

The King is Dead’s Dark Secret is not meant to be a generic Hindrance, easily imported into other settings. While I think it could easily be integrated into Rippers and other Gothic settings, it’s really designed quite specifically for TKiD. It’s meant to create the tension and fear that’s present in both Gothic romances and spy stories, both of which are essential components of TKiD’s DNA. Dark Secret does this by becoming its own mini-game, a gamble on the future of a player’s character.

The card draw at the beginning of every session is a ticking clock, a time bomb waiting to go off. Just as the Dread RPG uses a Jenga tower to create tension from real-world interactions, so does the card draw for Dark Secret create a moment of genuine suspense at the beginning of each session. Will this be the time the player finally draws a club? Even after passing Veteran, there’s less than a 1-in-4 chance of drawing a club. Maybe – just maybe – the player who chooses Dark Secret might be able to go the whole campaign without ever paying the price for those extra character creation points.

Dark Secret is also meant to be pretty meta. I didn’t communicate this well in the initial post (so I’ll obviously fix it in the book), but a Dark Secret doesn’t exist until it’s revealed. It isn’t meant to be a part of a character’s motivations and history as such; it’s meant to be a “gotcha!,” a sudden reversal, a Shyamalan twist. Meta-fictively, a character doesn’t have a Dark Secret until a club is drawn – and then the Dark Secret brings the character’s whole world crashing down. That’s why the Major version of the Hindrance can be such dramatic revelations as the hero “really” being a pawn of the villains all along; it’s not that the player has been acting against the rest of the group this whole time, it’s just an instant ret-con that – comic book-style – everything the player and the rest of the group thought they knew about the hero was a lie.

(In other words, while any player choosing Dark Secret is obviously gambling with the safety and success of not only his own character but the entire cabal, the player is not actively working against the group. The character might be retroactively shown to be a mole, but the player can act in good faith.)

This is obviously a big, weird, crazy thing. Potentially, this sudden revelation can really cock up the campaign. Most players wouldn’t want to risk it, but I genuinely feel the suspense and Gothic-style fear of one’s self that the Hindrance engenders is worth it – which is why I dangle a huge carrot in front of the Hindrance by making it worth double the usual character creation points. Even then, I know it isn’t a Hindrance that will appeal to everyone; thankfully, a one Advance difference (or even two Advance difference if you use TKiD's version of Super Karma) between characters is almost negligible in Savage Worlds, so a group composed of players who chose Dark Secret and those who rejected it will not suffer a game imbalance.

Hmm… I realize the Hindrance isn’t going to appeal to both immersive roleplayers (like +Robin English-Bircher ) and to crunchy power gamers because it involves potentially losing control of the character. The most likely people to choose it are more casual players; this actually seems like a good idea, because it offers a hook to lure less-involved players deeper into engaging with the game.

(Man, I’m really rambling today…)

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The King is Dead: "Captain" Harker, Gallant Highwaywoman

I'll get this updated to the same level of detail as Myra Wolfenstein after the weekend...

Robin M. English-Bircher as "Captain" Harker
“It’s about more than greed, boy. It’s about standing up to the vampires and the churchmen and all their ilk and making a life outside of their laws and their greed.” 
“Captain” Eve Harker, quoted in Confessions at the Gallows.

“Captain” Eve Harker
A bandit who knows her life depends on a fast horse and friends who keep her secrets.
Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d6, Spirit d6, Strength d6, Vigor d6.
Skills: Fighting d6, Intimidation d6, Notice d6, Persuasion d6, Riding d8, Shooting d6, Stealth d6, Streetwise d6.
Charisma: +0; Pace: 6; Parry: 5; Toughness: 6 (1)
Hindrances: Heroic, Greedy [Minor], Loyal
Edges: Beast Bond, Beast Master, Connections (Raubritters), Steady Hands.
Gear: Elaborate saddle, Pair of flintlock pistols (Range: 5/10/20, 2d6+1 damage, RoF 1, 1 action to reload), Leather greatcoat (Armor +1), Rapier (Str+1d4, +1 Parry), 70 reichsmarks to spend on bribes and pleasant company

Horse, Riding
Attributes: Agility d8, Smarts d4 (A), Spirit d6, Strength d12, Vigor d8
Skills: Fighting d4, Notice d6
Pace: 10; Parry: 4; Toughness: 8
Special Abilities
  • Fleet-Footed: Horses roll a d8 when running instead of a d6.
  • Kick: Str.
  • Size +2: Riding horses weigh between 800 and 1000 pounds.
Happy Birthday, Robin!

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The King is Dead: Dr. Braunstein, Obsessed Physician

Kenneth Branagh in Mary Shelly's Frankenstein

“The goal of alchemy is to change lead into gold – to change the dross of a dark and hopeless world into freedom and progress.”
Dr. Igor Braunstein, The Progression of the Ages.

Dr, Igor Braunstein
This member of the Zunft von Hohenheim is not afraid to break taboos (like grave robbing) in the name of knowledge.
Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d6, Spirit d6, Strength d8, Vigor d6.
Skills: Fighting d6, Healing d6, Investigation d4, Knowledge (Science - Medicine) d6, Notice d6, Persuasion d4, Riding d4, Stealth d6, Streetwise d4, Throwing d4, Weird Science d6.
Charisma: -4; Pace: 6; Parry: 5; Toughness: 6 (1)
Hindrances: Bloodthirsty, Death Wish [Minor] (will eagerly die to conquer death), Enemy [Minor] (His father, Squire Heinrich Braunstein, blames Igor for the death of his sister Ziza)
Edges: Arcane Background: Weird Science, Healer
Gear: Alchemical compounds, anatomical diagrams (+1 Physiology- and Healing-related rolls), axe (Str+d6), scalpel/dagger (range 3/6/12, Str+1d4, RoF 1), leather greatcoat (+1 Armor), normal clothes, syringes, 5 reichsmarks.
Special Abilities:
  • Power Points: 10
  • Powers: healing

Friday, October 16, 2015

The King is Dead: Robbie Macferguson, Hunted Highlander

Liam Neeson as Rob Roy.
Seriously, who else was I going to pick?

“Ne'er forgit an' ne'er forgife, th' high king charged th' kin'.  Accept nae surrender in yer barnie fur freedom, an' mah loove yoo'll hae forever.”
Robbie Macferguson, The Works of Osean.

Robbie Macferguson

Accused of a crime he didn’t commit, this warrior-poet is out for vengeance on the man who framed him for the murder of his wife and children. Five years ago, Captain Alberick Trench was in charge of eliminating Clan O’Naill resistance in the far north of Lochland. Unable to capture the highlanders on the heaths and moors, Trench turned instead to undermining their support with the people. He made a show of showering kindness and affection on Macferguson’s wife and ultimately framed Robbie for the brutal slaughter of the Lochlander’s family.
Macferguson was forced into exile, doubted even by his kinsmen. Finally, years later, Trench was reassigned to the very province Robbie Macferguson had made his home, and the highlander could begin to plan his revenge.
Attributes: Agility d6, Smarts d6, Spirit d6, Strength d10, Vigor d10.
Skills: Fighting d8, Healing d6, Intimidation d6, Notice d6, Persuasion d4, Stealth d4, Streetwise d4, Survival d6, Taunt d6.
Charisma: +0; Pace: 6; Parry: 6 (5 with claymore); Toughness: 9 (1)
Hindrances: Dark Secret [Major] (see below),* Enemy [Major] (the cruel moroi Captain Alberick Trench), Death Wish [Hero is willing to die to restore his family name], Wanted [Minor] (Captain Trench’s minions will execute him on sight, but there are no warrants for him in Malleus)
Edges: Brawny, Connections (Clan O’Nail)
Gear: Claymore (Str+1d10, Parry -1, 2 hands), old-fashioned belted plaid, journal in which he writes poems about pining for Lochland and Keltisch mythology,  leather greatcoat (Armor +1), leather gorget (Armor +1, neck only).
*If Robbie Macferguson is revealed to have a Dark Secret, choose from or roll 1d6 on the chart below:
  • 1: Robbie is a Barrow Knight, one of the Sleeping Undead of Keltisch myth. Awakened by grave robbers, he has been studying modern society to see if the Sleeping Kings should reclaim the land – and he has decided it is time to return to the ancient ways of the Threefold Dead. His feud with Trench is entirely fictitious. Use the statistics for a Barrow Lord as he makes his escape.
  • 2-3: Robbie is Captain Trench’s thrall, tortured and tempted into servitude by the sadistic bloodcoat long moons ago. Their games of cat and mouse are only cover for Robbie’s position as Trench’s spy. He killed his own family on Trench's orders. Add +1d to Robbie’s Strength and Vigor as he makes his escape.
  • 4-5: Robbie is a moroi of the supposedly lost line of Macfindlay of Moray, the deposed Red King of Lochland. Rather than being loyal to the Great O’Naill, he instead conspires to restore Lochland’s vampire king. His feud with Trench is entirely fictitious. Use the statistics for a Beast Moroi as he makes his escape.
  • 6: Robbie is a Changeling, one of the weird children of the Fey. The haunting songs of his father’s people have echoed in his mind throughout his lifetime, leading him to commit murders he doesn’t remember (such as that of his own family). Robbie metamorphs into his true, hidden self and plagues the countryside as a spirit of malice and trickery. Use the statistics for a Rotcap as he makes his escape.

Happy Birthdays to Us!!!

+Robin English-Bircher and I are taking the weekend off for some big, round-number birthdays. (There may be some fours and zeroes involved.) Yes, I wrote "birthdays;" our natal days are only two days apart.
In lieu of cards, consider buying copies of Steamscapes: Asia or Strider: A Steamscapes Adventure. Preferably Strider; I get paid more from that. :)
In lieu of TKiD content, here's a song I like:

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The King is Dead: On The New Shaken Rules

It used to be that three silver bullets through the heart might at least Shake a vampire for a round or two...
(Love at First Bite)

The interview Jack Shear posted yesterday at Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque was conducted several weeks ago. One of the questions was how I felt about the new Shaken rules for Savage Worlds, and I didn’t have a good answer at that time because I’ve mainly been playing D&D 5e in 2015. Ironically, since the interview was completed, I have now had time to play some Savage Worlds again – specifically a half-dozen playtests of The King is Dead – and now I have an informed opinion about the new rules.

Oh my gods, they make it hard to kill vampires!

(Or, at least, they make it hard to kill my vampires.)

For those presumably few readers who don’t play Savage Worlds, SW’s damage system is deliberately streamlined compared to most RPGs. Similar to the Storyteller System, characters have a wound track instead of hit points, with every level of wounds imposing increased penalties on rolls. There’s only three wound levels before you’re incapacitated, though, and each level only has one box in it. This seems quicker and deadlier than it is (though it is pretty quick and deadly); characters can still make a roll to soak damage, and damage rolled has to beat a Toughness threshold by four or more points to even cause a wound.

If damage meets or exceeds Toughness, but isn’t high enough to cause a wound, a character is instead Shaken. The Shaken condition is meant to emulate things like blood in your eyes from a scratch on the forehead, stumbling backwards from a parry you barely made, ringing in your ears from a nearby explosion, and other debilitating but survivable incidents. In most games, this would mean a few lost hit points or a check or two along the wound track; in Savage Worlds, this means your character can’t do anything but move until it gets its shit together with a successful roll against its Spirit attribute (what in other games would be Wisdom or Willpower).

The old rules were that a character that rolled a normal success on the Spirit roll was no longer Shaken, but had used up its turn. You had to roll four higher than the minimum difficulty to un-Shake and act in the same turn. Several months back, Pinnacle Entertainment Group (publishers of Savage Worlds) published a new rule that said characters who rolled a normal success were now un-Shaken and could act that turn as well – making it much, much easier for player characters and important NPCs to just blow off the Shaken status and keep fighting.

On paper, this seems like a great idea – heck, it probably works fine in certain genres – but the last several The King is Dead games tell me it’s problematic in that setting. Yes, it’s great that players don’t have to worry so much about sitting out combat scenes doing nothing, or burning the hero points mechanism called Bennies to snap out of being Shaken. It certainly lets heroes get back in the action quicker, and lets them keep their Bennies for more awesome things than shouting “I’ve got to get it together!” Unfortunately, it lets the villains do the same.

I’m sure this is no problem when you’ve got your good guys fighting a bunch of low-level Nazi goons or orcish rabble, but that is not The King is Dead. TKiD is… Well, it’s hunting Dracula over and over again. The first time, he’s Bela Lugosi’s slow-moving bored aristocrat. The second time, he’s Christopher Lee’s feral brute. The third time, he’s Gary Oldman’s shape-shifting warlord. The fourth time, he’s got Luke Evans’ giant cloud-fist of bats. By the time you get to the end, you’re fighting Alucard from Hellsing, and he’s this protean, impossible, Lovecraftian god. The vampires get tougher and smarter and just plain stronger the higher you murder your way up their hierarchy. It becomes easier and easier for them to un-Shake.

For example, the 12PM Saturday game at GaMEXpo was about hunting down the “rabid” dhampir Erzbet Mullins. She has a Spirit rating of d8, meaning she rolls an eight-sided die when rolling Spirit-related tests. As a Wild Card (an important character with the same benefits as a player character), she also rolls a d6 when she makes a trait test, taking the best of the two results. 

The number you have to beat to un-Shake is 4.

On a d6, you statistically have a chance to un-Shake half the time (all you need to roll is a 4, 5, or 6 out of six possible outcomes). This actually goes up to 5 out of 8 times on a d8 (4, 5, 6, 7, or 8). I’m no mathematician but it’s obvious Erzbet has a chance to un-Shake significantly better than 50/50 – and that’s not even considering she can spend a Benny to un-Shake immediately.

A d8, I should point out, is only one step above human average. 

(Honestly, it seemed like the absolute minimum rating to emulate the raging instincts of a starving blood-drinker.)

I saw how pointless the Shaken status is now when the heroes tried to stop Erzbet as she was fleeing from a crime scene. They hit her a couple of times with enough power to Shake her, but she immediately un-Shook on her next action without even spending a Benny. “Oh, you shot me with a crossbow? I’ll just tear out the quarrel and slaughter these soldiers standing between me and the exit, thank you very much.” I couldn’t really complain at the time (it was their first encounter and I wanted her to escape) but it sure hammered home how much the new rule changes things.  

Several magical powers were designed to inflict or heal the Shaken status, and they’re barely worthwhile now. At the very least, they’re useless against vampires, even if they’re sort-of useful against human mooks. I’m kind of sad about that, because those powers are very flavorful for psionic characters.

I think I’m going to have to include a discussion of the new Shaken rules in The King is Dead, laying out the pros and cons of both versions. (Pro: Vampires are tougher; Con: Vampires are tougher.) The new rule is only [edit: in the] online download[s] (for now), so players who only have the [edit: physical] books aren’t going to be aware of it anyway. (As I saw in person when this came up at the convention.) In fact, letting GMs choose their poison is probably the best bet, period. The King is Dead is a setting that can be played as anything from high camp to deadly seriousness, so giving people the power to customize the setting is always the best choice.

Damn, I hope Pinnacle doesn't publish a new edition of Savage Worlds anytime soon.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The King is Dead: Interview at Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque

The inestimable +Jack Shear has an interview with me up at the always-awesome Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque! There's some insights into TKiD, some previews of art I'm working on for the book (yes, those are my photos and my clumsy photoshopping), and some Steamscapes talk as well. Check it out!

And for those coming here from Jack's site, you can find more (much more) about The King is Dead by clicking on the banner above or here, Steamscapes: Asia and the adventure I wrote for it, Strider: A Steamscapes Adventure, are on sale at DriveThruRPG and Studio 2

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The King is Dead: Lessons Learned at GaMExpo

My eyes are almost as red as Christopher Lee's in Dracula Has Risen From the Grave
Things I learned at GaMExpo:
  • The setting actually runs exactly how I wanted it to. All four sessions basically involved me pointing the players at a target and sitting back to watch them scheme up a way to kill him. It was perfect.
  • I suck at welcoming people to the table. I should have a couple of glasses of wine before every game to loosen up. (Damned GAD!)
  • I’m going to get some masking tape or glue and just permanently assemble all of my paper minis. While paper-clipping them together means I can disassemble them for easier storage, it takes too long to set them up. Also, it gives me an excuse to not make eye contact and ignore people. Bad Sean!
  • I’m going to need to include lots of random tables and other tools in the final book to help GMs improvise their way through sessions. Thankfully, that was always the plan.
  • Repeating crossbows suck (for vampires). Unfortunately, they were invented by the Chinese in the 5th century BCE, so there’s really no excuse to not have them in TKiD.
  • Having a member of the gentry or nobility in your cabal makes life a lot easier.
  • Restricting big explosive powers to higher ranks enforces genre emulation.
  • Running four highly-improvised games in a weekend is a bad, bad idea. I am still so tired…
While I recover, why not check out Steamscapes: Asia and Strider: A Steamscapes Adventure?

Monday, October 12, 2015

The King is Dead: Steamscapes: Asia is out!!!
Sorry, this is the best resolution version I could capture this morning.
Woo-hoo! Steamscapes: Asia, the work I can truthfully describe as professional RPG design by me, is out and available for purchase online! Working with Steamscapes head honcho +Eric Simon has been a blast, and I expect we'll be able to talk more about Four-in-Hand Games' publication of The King is Dead in the next few weeks.
In the meantime, I'm really proud of my work in Steamscapes: Asia and of the book as a whole. Few RPG products have made the effort to look at Asia's myriad and distinct cultures; all too often they get swept into a generic "Orient." While my chapter is on Japan -- one of the cultures that gets a lot of attention anyway -- I'm really proud that this book also contains chapters on Burma, Korea, Thailand, and more!
I got my contributor's copy on Friday, but I haven't had a chance to really look at the whole book yet. I do know that it contains new Savage Worlds setting rules and several adventures -- as well as the alternate history I helped pen -- making it useful for GMs and players interested in 19th century Asia in general, as well as expanding the world of Steamscapes.
Buy Steamscapes Asia at DriveThruRPG -- and pick up Strider: A Steamscapes Adventure by yours truly while you're at it!
Vampires run rampant in the Uttermost East as well as Erebus and Malleus. Cathay is home to a dynasty of imperial Immortals, while unliving ancestors rule over generations upon generations of descendants. Wa, the Land of Harmony with Nature, however, has closed its borders to foreign traders, burning any shipwrecks and slaughtering their crews rather than let their islands be tainted by vampire blood!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The King is Dead: GaMExpo

As those who follow me on Google+ know, I spent this weekend running a highly-accelerated mini-campaign of The King is Dead at the inaugural GaMExpo here in San Antonio.

It's been exhausting, fun, and highly educational. I've learned a lot about how players interact with the setting, and made a few "discoveries" about the setting itself. In particular, I realize I'm going to need to provide TKiD GMs with tools to be able to improvise around the players' schemes.

But enough about that. Here's some photos:

Wine and Savages Team Now Co-Lead Developers for Savage Rifts®

While most interested parties already know this, Robin English-Bircher and I have combined forces with Sean Roberson as Lead Developers...