From Ancient Grudge – Review

An adventure for Lvl 4-5 parties from Winghorn Press. 235338

The party is tasked with clearing a haunted castle of its spooky inhabitants by a local bigwig. To do so, they’ll need to bring an end to a tale of woe that owes a little something to that of Juliet and her poor Romeo.

Disclaimer: My copy of ‘From Ancient Grudge’ was given for review by Winghorn Press himself, Richard M Jansen-Parkes. Who I will refer to as ‘Winghorn’ as it’s shorter. He’s the author of my favourite introductory adventure, The Wild Sheep Chase. Check it out!

The Setting, the Story and the Structure

“Two households, both alike in dignity
In fair Verona Yartar, where we lay our scene
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life  are betrayed
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife  a castle of ghosts is made 

-William Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet. Butchering by myself.

Off the shelf and before the DM puts their grubby mitts on it, From Ancient Grudge is an adventure set in the Forgotten Realms, in the town of Yartar. The author has done his research and anyone sticking to by-the-book Faerun will even be able to put this little town in its canonical location. Of course this isn’t necessary (Faerun always has the numbers filed off in my games) but I’m impressed that Winghorn has done the research in the endless stacks of Candlekeep lore. After all, it’s probably a safe bet that most adventurer’s will come straight out of the Mines of Phandelver. Anyway, the agents of Lawful Good need the adventuring party to clear out an ancient fortification and is willing to pay a low-level party of freelancers a reasonable sum for their work.

So at a glance, the central premise of the adventure is solidly familiar. But then you don’t need to reinvent the wheel if you just want to have a fast trip downhill. The openly Shakespearean plot and the interesting encounters make this more than the average dungeon crawl. As the players explore Arevon castle, they’ll uncover the legacy of the bitter feud between the Montague Tomagune and Capulets Talpuce families – and why Romeo & Juliet’s secret marriage was a better bet than creating the perfect Red Wedding scenario. Thankfully, the spirits of the castle will give plenty of opportunities to uncover both the story and putting the dead lovers, their families and their footmen to rest.

At first, you’re just wandering through a creepy but pretty harmless abandoned castle. Hopefully picking up useful clues about just what happened here and how you might solve things. However sooner or later, night will fall and the more dangerous sort of spectre shows up, including Romeo Ricard and Jaleta Juliet themselves. With some help from the ghost of the Nurse Priestess of Sune, the adventurers will (or should) learn that they must finish the interrupted marriage ceremony in a ritual featuring where two members of the party must play the parts of the star-crossed lovers, whilst the rest hold off a horde of ghosts. Complicating all of this further is a sort of gestalt of ghostly hatred, the combined fury of all those whose suffering would be made meaningless by peace between the two houses. After all, what makes a feud more futile than peace?

One thing that might be a problem with this module is how during the day, the adventurers are effectively unmolested by anything worse than a case of the creeps. If you don’t start in media res at the castle itself, you could well lose time with the questgiving portion at the beginning and then end up bogged down in overly cautious exploration of the building itself. Thankfully, Winghorn have come up with a great idea for ensuring the passage of time isn’t entirely arbitrary or overly long. Taking a cue from the board game Betrayal at House on the Hill, it’s suggested that the DM rolls a D12 every time the party enters a new room; if they roll under the number of rooms visited, then The Haunt Begins. I am sure this is from Betrayal because this is literally the exact words used in that great game – and implementing it here for D&D makes for a simple but sweet mechanic that bakes tension right in to the game.

Art and Design

Winghorn makes a pretty book. The design and the layout is clear throughout with sidebars, headings and crisp bodies of text interspersed with fitting artwork sourced from Adobe Stock, all of which is integrated beautifully with the text. The best piece of artwork though is the centrepiece, a commissioned work showing the living (?) embodiment of the ‘Ancient Grudge’ itself. On top of the evocative art (forlorn spectral figures, haunted castles, all that good stuff), there’s some solid maps made via Campaign Cartographer and at the back a nice set of appendices featuring stat blocks, items and handouts carefully crafted to be more fun than plain text. One thing that’s easy to take for granted is how all of this is set in a visual style straight out of the 5E handbooks, creating a nice consistent visual tone for all your D&D needs.

Combat Encounters & Challenge Rating

Winghorn recommends a party of 4-5 adventurers of a similar level and certainly that seems like it would be a good fit for a challenging but probably achievable adventure. The biggest threat is going to come from the nasty stat damage the ‘mook’ spirits of the castle can deal (hope CHA isn’t your dump stat) and the potentially disastrous encounter with the rather brilliant GoldBeast. This is a nice non-ghostly threat that players might not even encounter – but almost certainly will since it looks like a pile of 200GP. Anyway, the GoldBeast is tough and a party that doesn’t play it smart here will struggle with the climactic battle.

Speaking of which, the battle is probably the point where things would go awry for anyone. I’d encourage a short rest in the ‘safe zone’ of the Sune shrine prior to the ritual and hand over control of Mother Laurent to the party. Not only will the party have to fulfill the ceremony, they’ll be facing as many as 8 mook spirits and an even deadlier version of the ‘Spirit of Vengeance’. Four turns isn’t the longest time in the world but for a low level party, some bad dice rolls and spent resources might spell disaster. Throw in some damage resistances and some interesting moves from the bad guys, a party will have to think on their feet. Good, I say.

In a lovely touch, Winghorn has some advice on how to scale the adventure up or down in the final appendix. It’s this kind of attention to detail that I think sets Winghorn apart from the average author, even before you get to the production standards and fun central conceits. Although this is one area where I’d disagree with the author as I don’t think adding more bodies to a fight generally improves D&D, unless you fully embrace cannon fodder as a concept (AKA why goblins and kobolds should never leave your table). My experience is that whilst solo monsters die fast, outnumbering the party leads to a slow game.

Final Words

From Ancient Grudge isn’t my favourite of Winghorn’s adventures, but it’s a damn good one by any standard. It doesn’t have the whimsy of Wild Sheep Chase, the straight-up nastiness of Horror at Havel’s Cross, the crazy high-level messiness of To The End of Timethe easy adaptability of Honour Among Thieves or the compellingly weird problems of Wolves of Welton. Its closest rival in Winghorn’s library is probably The Hound of Cabell Manor, another module with a literary premise (though a little more recent) but one that’s a little more short and straightforward. I’d probably put this somewhere above Hound and below Horror.

Comparing the best with the best isn’t a particularly useful exercise though, so I’ll leave it there.  It’s only in comparison that this adventure suffers really, though I would think that it would need a disciplined DM to keep the party moving and prevent this from sprawling into multiple sessions where one would really be sufficient. The high number of potential encounters might bite into that precious time too.

All told From Ancient Grudge will put any party through both combat and social challenges as well offering any dedicated roleplayer the chance to bite into some juicy narrative. Any Shakespeare geek (or even a fan of Robb Stark’s scarlet ceremony) will love the scenario and the nods to that classic tale of romance and woe. And hey, even a purist has to acknowledge that the bard himself was a big fan of curses and hauntings.

TLDR – The Highlights:

  • Clean, crisp layout and good design throughout. Excellent production standards.
  • A solid amount of story and narrative throughout, with a nice climactic battle. Perfect structure for a oneshot.
  • The closing ritual – playing possessed characters is always great.
  • New monsters! My favourite is the Goldbeast.
  • Maps & Handouts
  • The “Building and Breaking Tension” mechanic – Using a twist on the Haunt roll from Betrayal at House on the Hill to move things from Day to Night (from safe to dangerously spooky)
  • A nice cast of NPCs both alive and dead to play with

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Baby’s First Tables

To warm-up a little on writing, I decided to take some tables from bigger, better blogs and make my own additions. Hopefully no one will mind.

Today, I took my inspiration from the great material over at Rowan, Rook and Decard. Creators of the exciting looking Spire RPG and the fun Hearty Dice Friends podcast, this is the blog of Grant Howitt and Chris Taylor. Grant is probably slightly more famous due to the popularity of his amazing one-page RPGs, particularly Honey HeistRR&D has a lot of fun and inspirational content in the form of tables, generally themed around two Dx worldbuilding projects called  ‘Remnants’ (where a cataclysm splintered reality) and ‘Glimmers’ (a world of urban horror where the web of streets and roads could hold anything).

Anyway, here are some additions I came up with.

Whats Different about these gnomes?

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1. They all look a little too similar. Gnomes might look humanoid, but they actually reproduce like certain plants – asexually. At one point this wasn’t true as it seems like there are several ‘types’ of Gnome at large in the world, and most Gnomish settlements are made up of at least four or five. Male and female iterations are produced though only the females can breed, which has led to Gnome societies being either fiercely matriarchal or stiflingly patriarchal. Fortunately for individual gnomes, the similarities appear to be physical rather than emotional or temperamental. This weird biology may be why Gnomes have an utter lack of sexual interest – at least, in their own species.
2. They don’t eat anything raw. The act of invention and creation is pretty much the only holy thing in the Gnomish belief system. At some point in their past, this led to a social taboo on raw, unrefined materials – including food. Most gnomes feel simply preparing food (peeling and slicing an apple) is enough to honour this tradition, but the orthodox minority go so far as to employ servants to chew their food prior to ingestion.
3. They can’t read but they love books. You gain power from what you eat, so why not knowledge? Unfortunately for the rest of the civilised world, this seems to be at least somewhat true for Gnomes.

 

How are you still alive?

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1. Sheer ignorance. Other people keep trying to tell you something but you long stopped listening to the petty comments of the haters. If someone manages to pierce the bubble of apathy you’ve surrounded yourself with, you might notice that every shirt you’ve put on comes back red and wet, but for now it’s something that your dry cleaner has to deal with.

2. Poor Diet. Things were already so bad in there that normal operations ceased a long, long time ago. Nodules of fat and deposits of starch have formed structures that can’t be disrupted by something so simple as a mortal wound.

3. A Blessing from the Deep. Leaking water rather than blood came as a surprise, but it *is* a lot easier to replace. You’ve plugged the hole as best you can and as long as you drink quickly enough, it seems like you can stay on top of this. You’re a bit sick of leaving a puddle behind you everywhere you go though.

4. The Stars Were Not Right. Something massive and ancient and beyond the physical realm stirred at the instant of your death, and with a jarring lurch you were suddenly fine. Confused the hell out of the driver who hit you and the paramedics. Your horoscopes have started to get weird though and you’re getting a dreadful feeling about your birthday next month.

5. Emotional support. The body was weak, but the heart was strong – thanks to your friends. They’re not doctors or medics but sometimes all you need is a shoulder to lean on, even when half your internal organs have been perforated. They’re all impressed by just how strong you are but you know you couldn’t do it without them.

 

What’s Weird About These Elves?

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Elf art = Fetish art, eep
  1. There’s no such thing as Elves. There never was, or at least Elves weren’t what left those ruins. The revered civilisation of ancients is actually just a group of human magic users who got carried away with a prank. During a wild woodland retreat a few centuries back, the fraternity of the Mysteris Academis couldn’t resist playing on the superstitions of the various outskirt villages. A little illusion magic and a decent set of false ears go a long way. The prank was passed down to new members of the order in time, and the claims that the woods are only safe to visit ‘during the summer court’ have worked out so far. Even the barons fell for it.
  2. They don’t live any longer than humans. They just eat, sleep and drink well and have good personal hygiene. Their staggering lifespans of 80 years seem magical to the peasants, and the lack of alcohol or excess (and the yoga) makes them seem so much younger than the human nobility.
  3. They’re very boring. The unchanging nature of Elven society has been attributed to their long lives. They often claim that they are above the fleeting glories of human fashion and change. The truth is they’re just really unimaginative. Everything they have today was inherited from their Ancient creators, who got bored and left without a note one day.
  4. The Drow are the first Elves. The surface ones are the exiles, cast out from the glory of their subterranean homes for their horrible crimes. For centuries they’ve been playing the long game, creating propaganda to poison the surface world against the utopia beneath their feet.
  5. They come from Halflings. A halfling is a baby elf. It lives a full life of fun and adventure before growing old and going on ‘one last wander’ into the wilderness. Somewhere away from prying eyes it makes a cocoon in a tree on instinct, and within 10 days emerges as a tall, slender, pompous immortal.
  6. They think they are hideous. That whole disdain for other races is just an act. Elves can’t stand the sight of themselves and can barely stomach looking at others of their race. There’s a reason all these half-elves keep popping up.
  7. They live long lives but have really short memories. Long term memory for an elf is about 20 years. Beyond that, things start to fade. It’s one reason that Elves can seem immature despite being around for hundreds of years, and why no matter how much they practice they don’t actually seem to end up all that great at anything.
  8. They are the dreams of the forest. Elves only appeared in these woods around the same time as the first human settlers. The sleeping psyche of the forest spirit took on aspects of the humans. When it was just woodsmen and rangers, there were only wood elves. When the first of the noble hunting parties arrived, the High Elven city began to form. Elven fatalism comes from the inner knowledge that one day, the dream will end.
  9. They have no sense of taste. Either in terms of flavour or fashion. This is why their society seems so rigid – once long ago a benevolent traveller convinced them that no one would take them seriously if they carried on like that. They don’t dare move away from the guidance he left, as they can’t tell if they’ll end up looking really foolish. The food thing is why they’re generally thin.
  10. They came from the future, to doom the past. These Elves are an offshoot of humanity from the deep future. They came back to ensure their society (which dooms the planet) will survive in a closed-loop. The other elves can smell the gene-splicing but don’t know what to make of it.

 

What Does This Serial Killer Collect From Their Victims?

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  1. Socks. Every victim is found barefoot. The detectives suspect some kind of foot fetish but actually this sicko just wants a bigger group of friends for his sock-puppet theatre. Although he can only have two friends at a time, the range of voices is getting impressive.
  2. Regrets. Often this kind of killing spree results in a whole mess of unquiet spirits, seeking some of cure for the pains they acquired in life. Not this time. The psychics say that despite the mess on the walls, floor and ceiling, there’s something almost peaceful about the crime scenes. Somewhere though a collection of frustrations, broken promises, missed opportunities and old wounds is growing.
  3. Brains. The visitor just needs a little more computing power and this is the only medium that’ll do the job. If only you could check out the specs before making the purchase, this could all have been over by now.
  4. Hobbies. After every death, some niche interest finds a new fan among their number. For a few months the murders stop as a new hobby takes up the killer’s time. Before long though the stolen-shine wears off, the passion fades and its time for something new. How about Golf?
  5.  Library Cards. It’s a drastic way of getting more books from the library to be sure. But whilst credit and bank cards are tracked, no one is really watching out for the City Library Service.
  6. Recipes. All the deaths take place in kitchens, as someone cooks a recipe passed down from grandparents or cousins or old lovers. The killer’s writing a cookbook but they don’t have any family recipes of their own. This way, it becomes theirs.
  7. Lives. This killer is pretty derivative.
  8. Subway cards. The killer refuses to pay for public transport, the very idea makes them insane with rage. But they’ve got to get around somehow and they’re not going to help kill the planet in a car, no sir.
  9. Fingers and Toes. How else does anyone count past 20?
  10. Litter. Receipts, scrunched-up napkins, broken pens, empty coffee cups, wrappers – their absence has been overlooked so far. There’s a hoarder in this city whose collection is growing slowly but steadily, and no one would guess why they keep these bits of detritus and not others. The Waste God is happy with his follower though.

Extremity – Image Comics

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Two Tribes Go To War. Or more accurately, one tribe seeks a bloody vengeance against the other for the atrocities that destroyed their home. In a fallen world of floating islands and lost technology, burning hatred keeps a group of survivors dedicated to taking everything from their enemies. Even if it destroys the only remains of their former home.

One of the best comics I discovered in the last couple of years. Extremity bounced off my radar after reading a short preview right back before #1 and I never got around to checking out more. That’s a mistake I’m kind of glad I made, as it meant I got to devour all 11 issues out so far. Extremity is a fast-paced, furious story of revenge that takes place in a fantastic and strange world.

The lead characters at the heart of this conflict all wear their hearts on their sleeves but none of the narrative suffers for being plain about their feelings. The leading family of the shattered Roto nomads is consumed by the revenge of their patriarch, and the anger over what was taken from them. Not just a mother and a home, but a daughter’s art. This is a story about loss and the cycle of violence, told in broad strokes of brutality and bloodshed. All that trauma and rage comes out perfectly through the focus of Thea’s lost hand – how the anger and cruelty of the conquering Paznina destroyed something beautiful. Not just a way of seeing the world but a means of creation – and the broken thing that remains can only bring forth painful reminders of the past, at best.

So, it’s a vengeance story which doesn’t become tired and trite. Part of this is because as readers, we can’t help but want retribution for the wicked and cruel actions of the Paznina. Yet we see that even that was a reaction to a mistake by the Roto, one that left their princess horribly scarred. Piled atop generational hatred, the Paznina pursued a wicked persecution against the Roto for this mistake. And the Roto, at least those who survived the shattering of their home, pursue the Paznina in turn. At first we want justice but through the brutality of their retribution, we see the victims have simply become the wicked and cruel in their turn. Even as we’re happy to see the Paznina die, it never feels righteous.

The burning hatred at the heart of the narrative fuels a narrative engine that never slows down. This series moved along at breakneck speed, building a vivid world of weirdness and exploring wider themes without ever taking the foot from the pedal. Sadly, this pace means Extremity feels even shorter than it is. Just after reading issue #11 I learned from the creator’s twitter account that the series was about to come to an end with issue #12. Fortunately this wasn’t due to a cancelled run, but because Warren-Johnson felt that in the course of those issues, the story had ultimately reached it’s natural end. And what an end it is shaping up to be. I think I can just about forgive this, even as I long for more.

Extremity‘s influences are wide and ranging, with shades of Akira in the hoverbikes reclaimed from antiquity to medieval style troops of soldiers, Fallout-style vaults and, of course, Castle(s) in the Sky. All of it detailed in absolutely lovely artwork from Warren-Johnson, supported by simpatico colours from Mike Spicer. The pencils are detailed but never static, holding a flowing nature that evokes the chaos of combat as well as the serenity of the wide yonder (and the quiet, painful moments of regret and reflection between the battles). Something about the combat reminds me of anime – namely Princess Mononoke – and the confused but regimented nature of mass combat, as the Roto band pours out of its flying home into pitched battles with often superior forces. This certainly isn’t a comic that spares the ‘good guys’; blood spills all around.

Extremity’s writing, art and inks are by creator Daniel Warren Johnson, with colours from Mark Spicer. 

The RPG Angle: 

Lots of inspiration here. Floating islands are a staple of a lot of D&D games, and there’s a Dungeon World published setting that absolutely fits this (the Inverse World). Microscope would be a cool way of exploring the wider story of how the setting came to be through your own lens. This system would be great in building up the story of clashing clans, fallen lands, world-shaking discoveries from the past, incursions from the void and the deep. But playing in the setting of Extremity would depend on what kind of story you want to tell in this world; what we see in the comic is a lot of mass combat, with large groups of fighters clashing in bloody, brutal battle. The main characters fight and flee amongst the critical scenes of these conflicts, rather than act as your typical adventuring party. In other words there’s always alot of bodies around every character and after a couple of panels of action, half of them are dead. It would be good to capture the sense of tides of battle pushing and pulling as the characters pursued their own objectives.

This could certainly work in 5E or Dungeon World with some supporting mechanics, and you’d also need to throw in some airship and weird tech too (this is a fallen world, even if it floats). You’d really be missing out if you didn’t have mechanical support for flying the hoverbike in daring maneuvers, or for airship maintenance and exploration. I’d lean more towards DW as I feel like combat in 5E isn’t quick or brutal enough to reflect the blood-soaked world we find in Extremity. Leaning more into narrative play would spare the need for lots of additional rules to support, but it would certainly be an option. Just men and the monsters they made. There’s probably an OSR system that would be perfect for this but I’m not familiar enough.

It strikes me that you could tweak Blades in the Dark’s sci-fi conversion, Scum & Villainy, and make something that works in the world of Extremity. You’d need to make strong anchor points so that you don’t feel completely adrift in the world, but the factional play  and heat would easily support modelling the wrath of those you’ve crossed. The use of cohorts could model the larger scale clashes – and there’s certainly plenty of support for Tinkering with old tech.

Role Playing Games & Me

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So in a bid to keep writing, I’m going to talk more on a broad subject I’m barely qualified to talk on – my newest and deepest hobby, Tabletop Role Playing Games. After years of looking on from a distance, I bit the bullet and started playing D&D in early 2016 – and after a rocky start, I spent mid-2016 to late 2017 playing at least once a week. In that time I was lucky to find an amazing group of players and ultimately, friends at my local gaming store. We played 5E in off-the-shelf Forgotten Realms, blew through a politics-and-sky-pirates homebrew campaign from our DM, tried out fun systems like Police Cops and Dread in off-weeks, took the express route of Horror on the Orient Express in CoC, and I even graduated to secondary GM and ran a little campaign of linked one-shot adventures and forced people to play Red Markets. Since moving, my real world gaming has died off but I managed to bribe my old group into some online gaming and we tried out the sublime Cthulhu Dark.

And in between the long-awaited gaming sessions, I disappeared ever further own the rabbithole of RPGs. I read book after book. My diet of film review, culture and science podcasts was replaced almost entirely with the works that helped get me in to D&D – podcasts like One Shot, Campaign, The Adventure Zone were soon joined by the more long-form examples like Friends at the Table or Role Playing Public Radio, a leviathan that conquered my initial hesitance to 4 hour long podcasts and proved a gateway to many others. I still only listen to the handful above on a dedicated basis (Plus NeoScum) but my tolerance for cross-table talk, dice rolling and math arguments – or even the dreaded VoIP difficulties – has extended immensely. I can’t get enough. Beyond the podcasts, my notebooks have become stuffed with great ideas plucked from (and my bookmarks filled with) blogs like Goblin Punch, Tribality, Loot The Room, and more; the first place I go to on Reddit is /RPG; my favourite place to check out in any town is the gaming store to see what esoterica they have in. The only reason I even have a Tumblr account is to look at Adventure Zone fanart and follow RPG blogs.

I am a nerd and I found my jam. Oddly enough, this seems to have been around the same time many other people came to RPGs via Stranger Things (another nudge for me) or Penny Arcade‘s Acquisitions Inc campaigns and of course, Critical Role.

Those latter two have decent venn-diagram crossovers with the RPG crowd anway, but like me, many won’t have gone past playing Baldur’s Gate before this little explosion of popularity. For me the first push on actually moving from CRPG player and occasional book skimmer was when the excellent Stuart Wellington of The FlopHouse podcast talked about this fun thing the McElroy brothers were doingand I liked what I heard. Half a year of listening to that and discovering One Shot showed me that RPGs weren’t all math and tables (though now I have come to enjoy both of those things for their own merits). By the time I actually came to the table, I was filled with prior knowledge and an understanding that fun came first. Or at least it would in any game I wanted to play.

Beyond the hobby itself, RPGs gave me back my enthusiasm for telling my own stories. Not only that but also for living in the worlds of others for a longer period than the brief moments it took to read a sentence. I started drawing again for the first time in years, doodling my character and others around the table (badly but hey, who cares). I kept little notes on what happened in each session and tried to tie it all together. I started organizing the group when something fell through so we’d play something that week.

Today, I’d rather play an RPG for 2 hours than watch a movie, and I’d almost rather read a sourcebook than a novel (depending on the authors of either book). I pretty much exclusively listen to Actual Play podcasts and RPPR alone provides my background noise. Now that I’m actually using this damn thing, I think I’m going to write a post on every one of the great things that have kept me company, inspired me and drew me ever further into the fold over the next few months. I want to talk only about the things I like or love here, and there’s little I love more these days than this fantastic world of imagination.

So one thing that’s going to keep popping up in my posts is the inevitable RPG ANGLE. Every RPG player or GM does this I think, but it’s going to be the little theme of this blog – whenever it’s of any relevance, I’m going to jot down the ideas that whatever I’m talking about gives me for gaming. So, if I talk about a horror movie or book, I won’t be looking at it primarily for their gaming content. But at the end I’ll write down a bit about where it took me in my head and how I would (honourably) pillage it for gaming inspiration; would this cult be a good antagonist for Delta Green? Could you run this comic in Red Markets? What kind of class would this character be? And so on, and so on, and so on.

The Realm – Image Comics (2017-)

A mercenary and his masked pal lead a group through the dangers of a war-torn world transformed by a fantasy invasion. Better than Bright.

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Initially I was very dubious about this fantasy post-apocalypse (though I would enjoy reading more of actual fantasy post-apocalypses, where Rivendell has been nuked). Something doesn’t work for me in worlds where the 21st century falls to pieces due to magic, orcs and beasties. This sort of situation is only slightly more favourable to me than Shadowrun or ‘Bright’, where the otherwise technological world gets magicky but holds it together and suddenly you’ve got Elves in your Starbucks and Orcs in your LAPD.

Mostly I find the concept never lives up to its promise, and I end up longing for a Weirder apocalypse or a more traditional story of magical beasties, where swords and magic aren’t around in a world that has already seen the horrors of the Big Bang Theory. 

However, the first issue of The Realm won me over pretty quickly.  The artwork is nice, crisp and functional whilst containing enough fine detail to sell a crumbling cityscape. The character designs are great. People wear a mix of typical post-apocalyptic survival gear, normal clothes and fantasy costume. So far, so normal but the main characters all have a clearly defined look that goes from panel to panel without ever feeling like a superhero costume or complete affectation. My favourite  of the fantasy bits is the younger scientist’s little Conan belt, which seems out of place but suitable for a nerd, and my least favourite is bad guy Necromancer ‘Eldritch’ (Hmm) who dresses like every cliché of a dark metal cover.

The central concept isn’t overly explained but you get enough to go along with, relying on the familiar just enough without losing all that’s intriguing. The Weird stays just weird enough, even to people who have apparently been living with this madness for what we’re given to understand is about a decade. It’s a nice touch that one character starts screaming about an orc using a gun (“Since when do they do that?!”) and a vast megalith can be viewed floating in the distant sky, and no one leaps to talk about it. In brief, this world didn’t sell itself short by immediately being overly familiar with its central high concept. They may live here but they still don’t take it for granted. Orcs don’t make people freak out but there’s stranger things out there and people don’t just take it in their stride.

By issue 5, the world is a little more fleshed out. You find out that there are both humans and orcs fighting on behalf of some Dark Lord, responsible for the floating citadel thing and presumably the world as it is. There doesn’t seem to be much organisation among the non-evil humans, looks like it’s all gone a bit feudal out there, but there’s a sense that this isn’t all there is to the world. The non-combat NPCs on this escort mission came from somewhere after all.

The cast of characters gets more interesting as the cast expands. You have a grizzled one-man OrcSlayer off to the side, running in parallel with  the main plotline – a merry band of protagonists led by Will Mason and his masked companion hardass, Rook. There’s a couple of ‘scientists’ with a secret and their soldier bodyguards, and even after the cast doubles, some more party members are added during random encounters in the waste. So far they don’t seem like extra narrative baggage. Given the grimness of the situation there’s a space for plucky scavenger Eli and the aptly described ‘magical boy’ Zach, who reads lots of comics and survives by well, magic. Who incidentally must have a good collection in his satchel because someone ‘born into this craziness’ knows enough pop culture to call Rook ‘Boba Fett’.

Anyway, ultimately everyone other than redshirt Laszlo has some sort of schtick (Archer, Masked, Old Scientist, hidden magician, Magic boy, optimist, and main man Will and his magic arm/black veins), and so he is clearly marked for death. Our time with each character is brief and main man Will’s mercenary attitude is typically undermined by his clearly heroic nature, but it all works well so far and it doesn’t feel like Super Friends at this point, just some capable people in a world where capable people survive and others don’t.

How long the good times last will depend on if the bad guys can progress beyond Eldritch McDarkMetal, and what kind of central narrative develops around the mysterious scientists and Will’s left hand of darkness – but for now I’m happy following this crew on their journey of side-quests and urban skirmishes.

The Realm’s creators are Seth M. Peck (writer) and Jeremy Haun (art), with solid colours by Nick Filardi and some interesting letterwork – namely Orcish font – by Thomas Mauer. I read Issues 1-5 to form this opinion.

 

RPG Obsessional:

Having read this I feel like I’ve finally found something that tempts me to play D20 Modern. Maybe. But I’d still veer towards Red Markets because hell, that game is great and a character who collects toothbrushes from the pre-fall would fit right in. Casualty and infection rules would be limited to certain encounters but having Orks and rivals as market forces would fill that void. More ‘Aberrant’ style enemies would be needed for the monsters that we see in the badlands now. But otherwise, you wouldn’t even really need to introduce a magic system as only the bad guys seem to have any command of the occult. Just weirder stuff from the environment and encounters.

Beyond that – as anyone familiar with genre fiction or tabletop knows, The Realm is clearly RPG fodder. Main character Will is an adventurer by any standard, not just by Red Markets Takers. Depending on how far the feuding feudalism extends (not really seen past that first issue) amongst humanity, you could even hack Blades in the Dark’s turf/factional setting to illustrate carving out territory and power in the badlands. And of course, Apocalypse World could easily take place here. That’s beyond the relative non-issue of just shoving some guns into D&D and running with it.

What to write?

So – this post is going to be the mission statement for this place. It’s not going to change the world, it’s not going to make me a new career, it’s not going to rise to the top of the interwebs or even gain a secret, dedicated cult following (few in number but driven in their unholy attentions, obviously). So what will it do, then?

It will give me a space and a purpose to write again. Something I used to love doing, until I did it for a living. They say you should make your job something you love doing, but I have my reservations about making something you love doing your job. Most of the time it’s only one little bit of what you love doing that is of worth to someone with the money to pay you, and it’s easy to get things twisted in the cogs of the great economic machine.

For me, the endless grind of writing SEO-geared content for small businesses – of effectively regurgitating ‘news’ from already dubious sources and cramming it into the narrow overlap between the client’s products and the keywords identified as viable – absolutely killed the appeal of writing for a living from me. Quantity and a quality only suitable for brute forcing search algorithms stripped my brain of the joy of the written word. I never stopped reading for entertainment, but I veered away from anything long-form – anything creative, challenging or interesting. I stopped writing altogether. I did take up exercise, which was pretty cool and it’s own reward, but my idea of ‘fun’ became consuming, not creating or even the active, critical consumption that marked the Time Before.

And it’s taken quite some time, but that frozen approach has thawed in recent years. I’ve re-embraced reading as a past-time. I’ve started diving back down those holes of information and imagination that end up filling notebook after notebook (well, metaphorically – the only notebook I can keep hold of lives in the cloud). I’ve started learning things again. Most of all, a new hobby in tabletop gaming has shown me the joy of writing and creating simply for the sake of itself, and provided me with a structure to take baby steps in exercising my imagination once more. Soon enough, I hope to run.

But for now, this place is for practice. Hopefully at some point that practice might be of some kind of interest to someone else – but if not, who cares? At least I’ll have strung some sentences together, attempted to explore prose and creativity with my words, rather than simply detailing the prosaic as I have done for a good decade of employment in one form or another.

So – here will live my thoughts, given form. Those thoughts that deserve a little more living space than the closed-circle of my inner world, that have sat in their confines for too long, and need to finally move out of the box room that my mind has become after so many years of procrastination. Should be fun (for me) – and if its not, then it should at least be educational.