"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Monday, July 27, 2015


In the central part of the kingdom lis the unassuming castle of Anatrea, a noblewoman who has traceries of light running just beneath her skin in elaborate patterns...Anatrea has a fascination with the numenera and dreams of one day fusing herself entirely with a machine, ascending to a type of godhood, as she believes the people of past aeons once did...


One of the usual tricks I use in running a campaign is to set aside a few sessions to focus on each of the characters, something I learned from watching TV shows with large ensemble casts.  The session involves everybody, but the focus that week is squarely on one of the protagonists.  Basically I take cues that the players give me--either from choices in play or character creation--and run with them. On a few occasions, such as when one player in Unknown Armies told me he wanted to play a reincarnated Roman soldier, entire story arcs emerge from this.  In the second episode of Numenera: Jihad, "Castle Aventur," I singled out the Jack, "Beatrix."  His Focus is "Fuses Flesh with Steel" and he chose to leave it open-ended how that happened to him.  How could I resist such an invitation?

THE STORY BEGINS right where we left off.  The Wasteland visionary, Lugar of the Marked Name, bought time for the escape of his comrades from the Shadow Table by turning to confront the pursuing shadow wraith alone.  They make the portal that the shadowy numenera-broker Drakoven opened for them, and Lugar braces for a fight.  It never comes.  The wraith encircles Lugar and prepares to devour him...until suddenly recoiling and fleeing with an unearthly screaming sound.  Something about Lugar scared the thing, and badly.  More on that later. (Hint: It has something to do with HIS Focus, 'Knows Too Much,' from the 'Celestial Wisdom' sourcebook)

Back in Qi the others check into an inn and wait to see if Lugar survived.  The as-yet-unnamed Nano Who Works Miracles (hint to his player...get a name STAT) notices that Beatrix has gone missing.  There are signs of a struggle in his room, but no trace of him.

Half-way across Draolis, in the shadow of Castle Aventur, Myrna--a Graceful Jack Who Fights With Panache--is fleeing a pack of weird Broken Hounds fused with numenera under cover of darkness and in the pouring rain.  She has recovered a powerful numenera artefact from a ruin on the lands of Lady Anatrea, and the noblewoman believes the device rightfully belongs to her.  Despite a valiant effort she is captured, and brought to the cells beneath Castle Aventur.  

Much of the action takes place in this cell block, so we should take a moment to describe it.  There are six cells, three on each side of the hall, labelled "A Matrix," "B Matrix," "C Matrix," etc.  The doors have no bars but approaching them causing severe weakness, nausea, and collapse.  Myrna has been tossed into the A Matrix cell, which has yet another occupant.  This is the girl, Ama, an unfortunate creature who has been the subject of hideous experiments.  (Ama 2(6), a mad deformed thing of putrescent flesh and sticky, oozing metal)  Sometimes she screams herself hoarse in agony, while much of the time she is just catatonic.

The cells have another guest.  Across the way in B Matrix is our missing Jack.  He and Myrna are able to speak across the corridor and he reveals he has been here before...in fact, he spent years on that cell and the laboratories nearby.  In her quest to fuse herself with machine, the Lady Anatrea experimented on Beatrix and his sister, Ama, as well as their other siblings...none of whom seem to have survived.  He escaped a few years back but she has found him and brought him back.

Back in Qi there is a division in opinion how to find Beatrix.  Lugar wants to return to Drakoven, whose information network and teleportation portal could be valuable.  But his Nano companion is against this; he distrusts the shadowy Drakoven and questions his motives.  He decides instead to reach into his own past; though now his is something of a wandering charismatic, part con artist and part faith healer, for years he studied to be an Aeon Priest.  He goes to the Order and his old mentor, Elder Jansen.  Jansen promises to help, and warns him against Drakoven, who is believed to be connected to the Convergence.  

Lugar, meanwhile, goes straight back to Drakoven...who is indeed able to help.  His intelligence tells him Beatrix is back in the dungeons of Aventur, and he sends Lugar there via his portal device.  His arrival is timely.  Myrna and Beatrix had been working together to escape, and Lugar is able to help them do it.  The Nano arrives independently as well; the Order was able to "hack" the dimensional tunnel Anatrea used to abduct Beatrix in the first place and send him through to the source of the transmission.

Their attempt to escape the dungeons fails, and trapped in Anatrea's laboratory they confront her guards.  Hovering in the centre of the room is the Silverite Womb...a blob of protoplasmic silvery liquid 2-three meters in diameter that hovers off the floor.  This numenera fuses any living matter thrust into it with machine.  It was used on Beatrix successfully and Ama less so.  Anatrea hopes to some day use it on herself.

As they confront the guards the lady herself makes an entrance, and we learn the final truths.  Beatrix (whose name comes from his designation, B-Matrix) is not only Anatrea's experiment...he is her son.  Ama is her daughter.  In her obsession, Anatrea used her own children to explore the possibilities of fusing flesh and machine, believing what would work on them should work on their mother as well.  As the others defeat the guards, Beatrix confronts his mother, and tosses her into the Silverite Womb, throwing whatever numenera and random detritus is lying around the lab inside as well.  The Womb seems to overload, it collapses into a puddle on the floor with no trace of Anatrea...as if it digested her.  Beatrix scoops up as much of the silverite liquid metal as he can.

Upon returning to Qi, Beatrix tosses the liquid at the feet of Anatrea's ninth husband, Beleth, who sits on the Council of Spheres.

Missed Episode One?  Look here.

Friday, July 24, 2015


It's a bit unfair to B.E. Scully to kick off my review by saying the book was a disappointment, because ultimately the blame doesn't lie with the author, it lies with other reviewers.  Verland has been on my radar for some time, at last since I reviewed Michael Rowe's Enter, Night back in November, 2014.  In that time I read a number of reviews for Verland, many of them united in trumpeting the novel as a departure from the romantic vampires of Anne Rice, Charlaine Harris, and Stephenie Meyer.  Several described it as a return to the traditional vampire, a la Stoker or King.  I suppose this just goes to show how far things like Twilight and The Southern Vampire Mysteries have really lowered the bar, because once again in Verland we have a sympathetic,  attractive vampire protagonist wrestling with his transformation, looking for meaning, and stealing a page from Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, caught up in the schemes of the novel's true antagonist...a human being.  The titular vampire is never even a threat.

The story follows true crime writer Elle Bramasol, mysteriously selected to write about a high-profile murder committed by a Jerry Bruckheimer-esque movie mogul, Eliot Kingman.  Kingman, apparently, singled her out to write it even though she isn't terribly well-known.  Instead of spilling his guts when she goes to meet him in prison, he directs her to his mansion, where his wife and a creepy research assistant give her access to an antique journal.  This is, apparently, a vampire diary, beginning the story-within-a-story saga of Verland from his transformation to the present day.  The diary portions of the novel are told, as with Anne Rice, in the first person.  To make a long story short, Kingman discovered the journal, tracked down the vampire, and like any narcissistic Hollywood type on a permanent power trip tried using it to blackmail Verland into giving him immortality.  

All in all, it's a well-told story.  The vampire diary bits are a bit rushed and thin, and the human characters come off a bit two-dimensional (the gay agent, the surfer-turned-policeman-on-again-off-again-boyfriend-who-is-a-decent-guy-and-is-waiting-for-Elle-to-settle-down, and Elle herself, whose only character flaw seems to be lingering sorrow over her mother's death), but a it is a page turner.  It might have even been an enjoyable read if I hadn't kept waiting for it to become a horror novel, or live up to its "return to classic vampirism" praise.  But Verland doesn't belong on the shelf with Stoker or King (Michael Rowe does); it belongs right there with Rice, Harris, and Meyer.

To be fair it is a novel with something to say.  Death sucks, and grief is painful, but it is also a part of life, and the alternative--undeath--isn't a solution as much as just a delay of the inevitable.  This message makes the novel more philosophical and melancholic than anything else, and Verland never reaches the intensity or fever pitch Anne Rice's Interview With The Vampire did exploring the same theme.  It is hard to see how anyone could come away from the book with a "wow" reaction.

If you like sympathetic vampire fiction, read Verland.  It is certainly better than a lot of what it out there.  But a return to classic vampires?  Not even close.

Friday, July 17, 2015


Literary critic and Lovecraft expert S.T. Joshi was perhaps a bit too lavish in his praise when he called Nazareth Hill the equal of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House.  On the other hand, it's easy to see where the comparison comes from.  Both are a very specific sort of haunted house novel, leaving you wondering at the end if you had just experienced a supernatural event or simply been witness to a psychological break-down. But in Jackson's novel we never actually see anything, and can never really be certain if the house killed Eleanor or she self-destructed under her own internal pressures.  Nazareth Hill by contrast has for more in common with The Shining--more the Kubrick film than the King novel--because there are ghosts aplenty, and it seems pretty clear that they are trying to drive a father into committing unspeakable violence.  All three pieces may be in the vein of the psychological haunted house tale, but Hill House is infinitely more ambiguous than either, a trick only Jackson and Henry James truly mastered.

That out of the way, Nazareth Hill is still an excellent horror novel. Insurance agent and arachnophobe Oswald Priestly forces his eight-year-old daughter Amy to confront her irrational fear of Nazareth Hill, a burned out ruin in the center of town, one Sunday while the family is out walking.  He holds Amy up to a window to peek in and prove there is nothing there to be afraid of.  The problem is she does see something, and is so shaken by it she represses the memory.  

Nearly eight years later Amy's mother has died leaving she and Oswald alone.  Nazareth Hill has been refurbished into a luxury condominium complex, and the surviving members of the Priestly family are now actually among the people living there.  It's an exclusive place, and there is a whiff of "lord of the manor" English class snobbery around its residents.  The real estate company that revamped the place, meanwhile, is keen to keep its history hidden.  Nazareth Hill was once the haunt of a local witch coven, some of whom were eventually caught and hung from a tree there, and later of an insane asylum that was consumed by a suspicious fire, burning all the inmates alive.  Coincidentally perhaps, many of those inmates were survivors of the old, local witch families.

Neither Amy nor her father are the most stable of people.  Both are still damaged from the loss of Mrs. Priestly.  Oswald is priggish, over-protective, and a bit too concerned with propriety.  His arachnophobia is also off the charts.  Amy meanwhile suffers from headaches and takes homeopathic pills for them, and is working overtime to be the rebellious teenage daughter.  Oswald fears she takes after her maternal grandmother, a superstitious old woman obsessed with tarot, tea leaves, and spiritualism who eventually went around the bend.  There is some implication in this that Amy, through her maternal line, might have descended from the local witches that died at Nazareth Hill. More on that later.

The second half of the novel could be read in very Haunting of Hill House terms, as it follows Amy's descent into obsession with the history of the building and her father's parallel descent into paranoia that Amy is being consumed by the madness that took her grandmother.  The first half, however, makes a purely psychological interpretation harder.  After all, a photograph taken of Nazareth Hill shows a hideous face in one of the windows, the photographer is subsequently killed by the burned to a crisp undead that haunt the house, and an old man sees the apparition after.  So it is fairly clear the place is haunted.  This makes the shift into the second half all the more jarring, as if Campbell was not quite sure if he was telling The Shining or Hill House.  There is a terrifying scene later in the book that might lead the reader into thinking poor Amy really is going mad (it involves handwriting), but because Campbell played the ghosts so strong in the first half it is easy to pin the blame of them.  If the first half had been as subtle as the second, Nazareth Hill might have been more like Hill House or Turn of the Screw.  

Undeniably a page-turner, and packed with ample scares, the book also has something to say about domestic violence and the domination of men over women.  Nazareth Hill, the locale and not the novel, was the site of a circle of powerful women broken and hung by patriarchy.  The mental institution was more of the same, with "hysteria" replacing "heresy."  And as Oswald falls deeper under the spell of the place, he becomes very much the stern, puritanical Christian father we might find in Miller's Crucible.  The house has a pattern of men caging and trying to break women that threaten them, and this is brilliantly played out between Amy and her father.  Again, their are hints here (Amy's response to the house and it to her, the suggestion that her grandmother was--like the earlier witches--locked up for her interest in all things pagan and unChristian, and the climax of the novel) that make you think Amy descended from that original coven, and that she is doomed to suffer the pattern of male domination as a result.  Campbell prefers to imply rather than tell, and that works just fine for the atmosphere of the novel.

Nazareth Hill is certainly one of the better haunted house novels, but I am reluctant to call it "Haunting of Hill House" good.  It does (as the better novels of the genre do) strip the trappings and frills off the ghost to expose it for what it really is...the past refusing to let go of the present.  This definitely elevates it above hundreds of other haunted house tales.  It's a must read if you like "pressure cooker" haunted houses, and books that have a bit more to them than just a fear of the dead.

Thursday, July 9, 2015


This is the first chapter of the Numenera: Jihad campaign.

It starts with the "Numenera Main Theme," the fantastic "Restart" from DigitalRepublic.

Then, in the back alleys of Qi, two strangers sit in on a game of Triads.

A Triads board

Triads is a strategy/card game popular throughout the Steadfast.  Two to six players sit down at a hexagonal board divided into triangles.  Each player begins with 20 stones of a single colour.  In the first round, a coloured stone is placed at each of the corners of the twenty four triangles.  The colour of the stone is determined by each player drawing a numbered card, and the lowest card wins.  Once all the stones are placed on the board, play begins.  The object is to take control of as many triangles as possible by having your stones at each corner of it.  To seize control of a corner from another player, a wager is made and five cards are drawn.  Three cards are selected to create the lowest total possible (lowest always wins).  Once initial wagers are made, the opponents each have the choice of raising up to three times.  At the end of the final raise, both must show their hands or the loser surrenders.  Surrendering loses the initial wager and the corner, matching the final wager and losing costs the final wager and corner.  The game is player until one player controls the entire board or the other players run out of Shins to bid.

The game comes down to Jaxon Piaxxi (Level 2, Triads 3) and Beatrix, an Impulsive Jack Who Fuses Flesh and Steel.  When Piaxxi runs out of Shins, he wagers an acorn-sized crystal of pale blue, claiming it contains a map leading to treasure.  This is quietly confirmed by another player--Emerson, a Learned Nano Who Fuses Mind and Machine.  Emerson spots Beatrix the Shins to match Piaxxi's wager and the Jack comes out on top.  He collects the crystal and he and the Nano leave together to discuss how to settle their joint custody of it.

In the back alleys they are ambushed by Piaxxi's men, eight street thugs (Level 2, light weapons, no armour).  Outnumbered they start to fight.  Luckily for them, two passersby leap into the fray to assist them.

They are Lugar of the Marked Name, a Wasteland Glaive Who Knows Too Much and an unnamed Charming Nano Who Works Miracles.  The Wastelander had met the Nano just days before and enigmatically declared the Nano to be "the one I was sent to serve."  He has been following the Nano about since.  When the Wastelander spies Beatrix, he calls him by name (though they have never met) and jumps in to aid him.  

The thugs are defeated and introductions made.  The Wastelander, plagued by prophetic visions, has seen the others in his future.  Intriguingly, the acorn crystal responds to him as well, changing colours.  The Nanos analysis it, and discover it projects a hologram of an inverted pyramid, with coordinates spinning around it.  It lies somewhere off the coast...and 3000 meters above the surface of the sea.  It is called "The Shadow Table." They decide it might be worth seeking out.

As they head for an inn to plan, panic electrifies the streets.  The sky overhead darkens as if by eclipse, while bright flashes of heat lighting flicker and dance.  A smell of ozone fills the air, and static electricity seems to trickle over everything.  A voice speaks, simultaneously in both ears...to every man, woman, and child in Qi.  Possibly even the Steadfast...

I am in Truth he that is called Durranet VI, Keeper of the Keys of Saint Calaval, who Sought and Found the Truth.  I am the Father of the Steadfast, who has ascended to the Throne.  Let all who would Speak the Truth and Seek the Truth know me, and witness the Truth of these words.

O my Sons and Daughters, I am in fear.  The Eidolon of Those Who Went Before has shown me the Storm.  I have seen the Lightnings and heard the Thunders.  I have been torn by the howling Winds.  It rises in the North, O my Steadfast, across the fields of Cloudcrystals, it grows in the black hearts of those who reject the Truth.  It is a seed, a cancer growing in the minds of the Barbarians who cling to superstition and deny that great and glorious First Truth, the words that bring solace and comfort to all Mankind...Nothing Cannot be Understood.  The spirit worshippers, the Gaians, those who deny the Eidolon who raised Men from the Drit, they sharpen their swords, yea verily even now they sharpen them!  They assemble their legions, and they are coming for your children, your lands, your blessed Order of Truth.  Like a living darkness exhaled from the jaws of the Traducer they spread across the sky, blotting out the Light, the Sun, the Truth.  I say unto you, my Steadfast, they come out to extinguish that Holy Flame Saint Calaval returned from the Dying and Reborn Sun.

They come!  They come!  But to all of you I say in Truth, NOT ON MY WATCH.

O ye Nine Rival Kings, from Navarene to Milave, from the Sea Kingdom to imperial Pytharion, all of you who make your habitation between the Black Riage and the Secret Seas, lay aside all differences and be as One in the Truth!  One Body, One Spirit, One Kin, holy and pure and True.  Hear the call of the High Father Above to defend what is right and real.  Arm and armour yourself for the Crusade!  Raise your armies, ye Princes of Men, lift your weapons ye Knights, gather and form O Soldiers!  For night falls and the Sons of the Light must rage against it.  The Jihad is upon us for the sake of Truth!

The skies lighten, the words fall silent.  Life returns to normal, but all is changed.  The Amber Pope has never before spoken to the masses this way.  Who are these Gaians, these enemies of Truth?  

The characters ponder this, but also how to pursue their quest.  Are the two connected?  It would seem a stretch, but the Wastelander's strange visions urge him to think so.  They debate whom to turn to for aid...one of the Nanos has contacts in the Order of Truth, and they are always keen to sponsor investigations into new numenera.  And yet, under the laws of the Steadfast, the Order has the right to select any numenera recovered for itself from any expedition it sponsors.  This leads to the other alternative.

The Jack knows of a collector, an extraordinarily wealthy and reclusive man in Qi by the name of Drakoven.  The story goes that he sponsors expeditions for numenera all the time, and charges only one price.  Anything recovered must be given to him and "scanned" by a strange machine in his possession.  It is then returned unharmed to those who recovered it.  Darkoven seems interested in knowledge only.  

They go to him.

(This will turn out to be one of those choices that shifted the entire direction of the campaign)

Drakoven (Level 6, 7 regarding numenera) is a quiet, still man in simple black, neither overlarge nor imposing, but radiating a chill nonetheless.  He meets them and after examining the crystal reveals a portal in his possession.  He sets the coordinates to those in the crystal.  They have but to prepare and step through...

Once ready they find themselves on the base of a smooth, black, inverted pyramid, high above the seas.  On the centre of the the monolith is a door that opens every 39 seconds and stays open exactly 13 seconds.  They jump through.

The gravity reverses, so now down is up and up is down.  They are in the centre of a black metal labyrinth.  

Once inside they find a fearful anomaly...the interior will not conduct sound of any sort.  Not a word, not a tap, not a scream.  Navigating the maze to its centre, they find a large round room filled with smoky black quartz crystals, some are several meters high, others litter the ground.  It is a treasure trove.  They find several Mass Nodules, Disrupting Nodules, and Invisibility Nodules.  They even recover a Thought Storage Sphere.  Strangest of all, in the bones of a long dead explorer, they find a curious cube or carved brass the size of a fist.  Before they can investigate, the horror within the Shadow Table descends....

It is a Wraith, a thing of tenebrous shadow devouring living matter to exist in this dimension.  Level 5, Armour 2, Damage 4.  They must defeat it to survive...




Tuesday, July 7, 2015

NUMENERA: JIHAD (An Introduction)

Numenera: Jihad is a campaign set against the backdrop of the Amber Pope's call to war against the Gaians.  It follows the adventures of a group of Ninth Worlders at a time when politically and culturally the Steadfast is going through upheavals around them.  The campaign is constructed to follow the players' lead; in other words, though the Crusades are building up around them, the characters are not necessarily forced to get involved.  They are free to join the Holy War or to ignore it, to side with the Order of Truth or against it.  All choices have consequences.

And if you have no bloody idea what Numenera is, look here first.

For months leading up to the first game session, I have been dropping hints on my Facebook page.  Most of them concern the key players in the coming struggles; the pseudo-religious Order of Truth, the animistic Gaians, the shadowy Convergence, and the Angulan Knights.  Some of those teasers follow here;


I added one thing to the Order...a quasi "god."  In my conception, when Calaval entered the Amber Monolith it brought him to "the Throne," a citadel in the heart of the Sun.  There a disembodied intelligence, "the Eidolon," revealed itself to him.  It taught Calaval the language known as Truth, and claimed to have been a servant of the Men Who Went Before, the human masters of a previous world who were godlike masters of time and space, matter and energy, life and death.  The Eidolon further claimed to have raised the current, Ninth World humanity "from the drit," from genetic traces the First Men left behind.  It intends to help humanity reclaim its birthright, and sent Calaval back as the first Amber Pope to teach Truth and the core message, "Nothing Cannot Be Understood."

Go ahead, click to enlarge


In the lands of Lostrei, beyond the Cloudcrystal Skyfields north of the Steadfast, people follow a radically different faith.  They believe the Earth is alive and aware, they believe the inhabitants of the previous worlds all ascended into a state of "pure spirit" and merged with the Earth and Nature.  The Amber Pope and the Order of Truth have tried, unsuccessfully, to convert them.  Now they have declared a Jihad.  The question is, "why?"  Are the Gaians a genuine threat, as the Order claims, or is this merely a bid for power over the Nine Rival Kingdoms of the Steadfast?


Depending on your philosophical outlook, they might be the Bad Guys or the ultimate Pragmatists, but the Convergence is a shadow fraternity of Nanos and sorcerers that shares the Order of Truth's vision of human ascension...but for themselves alone, not everyone else.  A secret society, they study the numenera and comb the ruins for the secrets of lost worlds, and are deeply suspicious of the Eidolon and the message it is selling.  


A warrior order of the Steadfast, they have taken the Order of Truth's teachings one step further.  The Men Who Went Before were like gods...not the abhumans, the mutants, or the Visitants.  Among the first to answer the call to Holy War, the power of the Angulans will wax strong as the Jihad progresses, and their quest to purge all genetic impurity from the world to prepare it for the Ascension of Man will reach frightening proportions.

In the next post, I will be putting up notes on the first scenario, a brief summary of play, and some other goodies.  Stay tuned.