Tuesday, November 24, 2015


With King Diamond coming to perform in Boston tonight at the Orpheum, I've been revisiting my old King Diamond and Merciful Fate albums. 

King Diamond was an important part of my evolution as a young metal head. I progressed from hard rock like Guns N' Roses and Led Zeppelin to Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath and King Diamond before getting into much heavier stuff. 

King Diamond was important to me because like Iron Maiden, he always had a penchant for strong melodies and story. He might wedge melodic lines in between some bitter chords but they are definitely there. And that fondness for real melody remained with me, even as I got into heavier things. Also being a guitarist, I think the neoclassical sound of Andy LaRocque's playing was a natural fit. His concept album approach, where he tells a complete story appealed strongly to the gamer in me (something about listening to Abigail or Them while preparing Ravenloft adventures just worked). I liked that storytelling aspect to his music and I loved that they were basically horror movies put to music (I was also really into Hammer Movies, old Universal Films and silent horror movies at the time). 

My first introduction to King Diamond was Conspiracy, which is a sequel to his album Them. That was a bit of a confusing intro, since it resumed the storyline from Them, but the sound and concept approach really piqued my interest as a listener. However, it wasn't until I picked up Abigail, his second album, that I became a lifelong fan. 

What was most striking to me was the melodies, particularly the stuff King Diamond did in falsetto (both in King Diamond and in Merciful Fate). If you've never heard King Diamond he is known for using a lot of different voices to bring characters in the story to life. His natural voice is more in the mid-range, but he mastered this shrieking falsetto that in my view no one has ever really been able to repeat to the same effect. And he used multiple tracks to, which allowed for harmonies on the vocals. He kind of oscillates between sounding like a Gremlin to sounding like a banshee. Anyone interested in getting a sense of the Merciful Fate or King Diamond sound should probably pick up the Dangerous Meeting Compilation. That will give a sense of the breadth of stuff they were doing. 

The melodies and choruses in a lot of cases could almost pass for pop or even motown but with a slightly perverse and baroque twist. Tracks like Behind These Walls have progressions that sound like a Bonnie Taylor Song. This is even more obvious with some Merciful Fate material. It is oddly sweet and bookended around shrieking and jagged riffs. These moments come in flashes but they are apparent (in Evil, A Mansion in the Darkness, Shadows, Halloween, The Legend of the Headless Horseman, Father Picard, Gypsy, Into the Coven, Come to the Sabbath, No Presents for Christmas, etc). It is a strange combination of styles but it works. King Diamond is a master at crafting compelling melodies that stick in your head. 

I discovered Merciful Fate after I'd been into King Diamond for a while. This was back when you really didn't have the internet to tell you everything about the bands you wanted to follow. There were fan zines and a few magazines (but most metal magazines I remember from the time catered a lot to more popular hair band acts). People also passed around tapes but that was mostly for bands you couldn't find at stores. For the most part it was word of mouth and looking through the shelves at the record stores. So at first I had no idea that Merciful Fate existed, and when I became aware of them (probably from posters or something), I didn't know King Diamond was their singer. However I learned about them at a good time because much of their old material was being released and they had an upcoming re-union album. 

Merciful Fate is pretty similar to King Diamond's eponymous work except the guitar is a bit different and less concept material. It had many of the same members, including King Diamond, Michael Denner, and the bassist Timi Hansen. I think the primary difference in sound is the presence of Andy LaRocque in King Diamond, who added more of a Randy Rhoads sound to the lead. Merciful Fate came before King Diamond but he would re-unite with them and continue to release new material as he was also releasing solo work. Somehow I got my hands on their album, Don't Break the Oath. Soon after they released, A Dangerous Meeting, a compilation album of both King Diamond and Merciful Fate, and Return of the Vampire, quickly followed by In the Shadows (a surprisingly good comeback that I rank right alongside their first two records). I was hooked after that.

As far as metal goes, King Diamond is fairly light by today's standards (more in the vein of British New Wave Metal but a tad harsher). His themes were always on the darker side and occult. But for me it was the guitar work and the vocal melodies that drew me in. 

As a teenager I played guitar in a death/doom metal band and while King Diamond was pretty far from that sound, and I had become interested in things heavier by that time, I still listened to a lot of his catalog (including the Merciful Fate material) because the riff work and the melodies inspired a lot of interesting ideas that gave us a more unique sound. A lot of the stuff I was listening to at the time was very heavy on the power chords, and the riffs tended to be power chord based, with frequent inversions and stacks. This is just a way of saying there were lots of harmonies and big, full sounding power chords. But that was pretty unwieldy and harder to do intricate riffs with because the stacked chords were big and the inverted power chords demanded careful planning. So I found by mixing it up with more of a Merciful approach to riffs (which is a better blend of smaller power chords and single note lines) I got a more varied and melodic sound. It basically allowed for moments of greater agility. For me this was a very conscious thing where I was trying to emulate their style. 

So I am glad to see that King Diamond is coming to Boston tonight. My understanding is this concert will be devoted to his classic album, Abigail

Wednesday, November 18, 2015


Joseph Bloch is releasing an OSR Wuxia RPG called The Golden Scroll of Justice. I had a chance to talk with him about the project and find out more about the project. 

The Golden Scroll of Justice is available HERE

Brendan Davis: What is The Golden Scroll of Justice?
Joseph Bloch: The Golden Scroll of Justice is a rules supplement for old-school role-playing games, that helps the game master create a campaign setting based in the history, mythology, and folklore of ancient China, combined with the sensitivities and tropes of wuxia ("kung fu") films, television, and novels. It's sort of a reaction to the original "Oriental Adventures" supplement for AD&D back in the 1980's, which I felt was far too skewed towards Japanese culture. Not that I don't like ninjas and samurai, but that book gave the impression that "Oriental" meant "Japanese" and I wanted to write a book to counterbalance that impression.

BD: Who did the cover and interior art for the project?
JB: I'm fortunate to have a wonderful stable of artists that I've worked with in the past, but I'm also constantly looking for new artists to work with. For this project, a new (to me) artist, Khairul Hisham, did the color cover art, and a mix of familiar and new arists—Gennifer Bone, Christopher R. Conklin, Khairul Hisham, Eric Quigley, Jeshields, Cary Stringfield, Josephe Vandel—did the interior b&w art.

BD: You describe the game as Wuxia/Mythic China. What can players and GMs expect in terms of flavor?
JB: Mechanically, my hope is that it feels just as comfortable as any regular 1E-derived role-playing game. The mechanics are going to be familiar, so you can concentrate on the setting elements. In that sense, it should hopefully feel like entering a whole new world, with monsters, spells, and magic items that are completely unknown, and which derive from a culture that is going to be somewhat unfamiliar, and thus just a little...off...to an audience used to settings and trappings that are based on European or Classical mythology and history. And when you add kung fu to the combat system, it stays abstract, but there's also room for cinematic kung fu moves that will add a lot of "zing" to melee without throwing everything out of balance.

BD: What were your major sources of inspiration? Were there any movies or books that were important to you when working on the project?
JB: There's actually a listing of inspirational and source books and film in one of the appendices; my own "Appendix N" for the genre. But for me the first kung-fu movie I ever saw was the Five Deadly Venoms, back in the late 70's/early 80's, and that sort of over-the-top presentation of kung fu as this collection of specific, but interlinking, skills really stuck with me. Plus those wonderful masks. ::grin:: But of course there are also classics of Chinese literature, such as Journey to the West and the Outlaws of the Marsh, but I'm also very much a fan of folk-tales as a mirror of the beliefs of the common people. I did a lot of reading of collections of Chinese fables and folk-tales, and a lot of that is reflected in the book as well.

BD:  What were some of the challenges you faced designing Golden Scroll of Justice?
JB: This is the longest book it's ever taken me to write; about three years start to finish. There were some philosophical and mechanical issues that I just couldn't work through, and the book got shelved more than once. Then I'd come back and tinker on the edges, and put it back on the shelf. But once I figured out how to handle kung fu, the whole thing snapped into place and just poured out of me.

Also, I very consciously didn't want to place the book in any specific setting; the idea is for the game master to create their own setting from the material in the book, so there's no equivalent of Kara-Tur. Balancing that against the need to impart as much Chinese culture as I could was challenging, but I think I hit a good balance, based on the way the original D&D books handled European and Classical mythology and culture in terms of magic items, spells, classes, etc. without being bound by a particular setting.

BD: What approach did you take in terms of mechanics to bring wuxia and mythic China to Adventures Dark and Deep?  How does a Golden Scroll of Justice campaign/adventure differ from a more standard fantasy campaign/adventure?
JB: Mechanically, aside from the cosmetic items such as the classes and armor types and such, the importance of the kung fu system, and the mechanics by which characters spend experience points to get skill levels in kung fu, rather than using those XP to gain levels. So, as a rule, a campaign using these rules is going to feature lower-level characters, although a 5th level fighter with three levels of kung fu skill is going to pack much more of a wallop than a normal 5th level fighter.

In terms of campaigns, one of the great things about the wuxia genre in general is its adaptability. While there are certain themes (justice, the wandering hero, etc.), the creativity and flexibility in how the genre is approached is nearly boundless. So you can have a campaign that's more focused on politics, or a war, or discovering lost secrets of kung fu, or fighting corruption, or whatever. In comparison with more standard fantasy games, I would think that there's a lot less emphasis on the dungeon crawl, and more on the wilderness adventure, but even there, the genre is flexible enough to encompass just about anything.

BD: Were there any specific pitfalls you tried to avoid when designing the system?
JB: I was very conscious that I wanted to do a supplement, rather than a stand-alone game, so the mechanical choices I made had to reflect that. I didn't want to create a large number of new game systems and mechanics; wherever possible I stuck with the familiar mechanics already present in the core game (and, naturally, in most other old-school games that are compatible with the original 1E or B/X versions), and simply added to them.

BD: What do you like best about The Golden Scroll of Justice?

JB: The core Adventures Dark and Deep rules use a skill system based on one created by Gary Gygax for Castles & Crusades. What really excited me about this project was the way I was able to take that skill system and radically expand it into the realm of combat; it forms the core of the kung fu system, which is not only completely consistent with the standard 1E-style combat system, which is very abstract, but allows the players and GM to include a lot of the special "cinematic" kung fu moves that most people associate with television and movies in the genre. A lot of the kung fu skill abilities came straight out of hours and hours and hours spent watching those films, and I think fans will really find something to like in it. Plus, it's completely expandable, so any GM can create his own kung fu styles using the ones in the book as a template. It really worked out wonderfully.

About Joseph
Joseph Bloch has been playing wargames and role-playing games since the mid-1970's. He is the author of the Adventures Dark and Deep RPG, an attempt to expand and develop 1E along Gygaxian lines, and Castle of the Mad Archmage, an immense old-school megadungeon adventure, along with various other role-playing projects. He is president of BRW Games, and runs the Greyhawk Grognard blog. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


This is the campaign log for the eleventh session of a google+run Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate campaign. The previous session is described HERE

Note: I am running two campaigns in the same setting and treating them as occurring in different realities with some vague similarities. Characters in one may appear in the other, but there are no direct causal effects from one campaign to the next. Partly this is to playtest, but this is also partly due to the multi-dimensional aspect of the universe I run all my games in. It would theoretically be possible for the party from the Blood of the Demon Moon cult campaign to dimension travel to the Secret of Je Valley Campaign, in which case direct interactions could occur (and they could even meet their counterparts in the alternate dimension). This was a one-player session. 


Player Characters
Mofeng: A young wandering Hero who is frequently at odds with his traveling companion Zhang Wan
Zhang Wan (Bone Breaker): An unpredictable and violent martial expert who is the brother of Zhang San. Third chief of Qui Pan Bandits
Zhang San: A wandering hero and sister of Zhang Wan, more calm than her brother
Chen: A poisoner and healer known for his lazy ways.

Key NPCs
Jade Priestess: Bone Breaker's Sifu and former member of the Demon Moon Cult
Jade Butterfly: San's Sifu
Prince Yuan: Son of the King of Li Fan, controls the eastern territories.
General Dee: An important military commander in Hu Qin who pays Bone Breaker for services

Iron Spear Tip: A magic weapon with a mind of its own, the bride of Zhang Kang.


Bone Breaker began preparations to go west and retrieve the head of Vaagu. He also awaited the arrival of the Senior Grand Councilor Cai Yuanyu.

He planned to bring 300 men with him initially but Jade Priestess was concerned this wasn't enough. Even the 600 he could muster wouldn't be able to deal with the thousands of Kailin horse riders they'd face at Vaagu. She had been conducting research and was aware of another gift the Demon Emperor could bestow that would help them defeat an army but the cost would be his arm. Bone Breaker thought about it and decided to perform the ritual. Jade Priestess cut off his right arm and he awoke a day or two later. Jade Priestess explained that she had made an appeal asking for him to be given the Wind of the Demon Emperor. He was vaguely aware that the power resided in him and could be used once per lunar cycle to wipe an army with air from his lungs. He also knew that it had to be a proper battle for the gift to work.

Before he left, the Senior Grand Councilor came to the Ogre Gate Inn and stayed in camp outside. Bone Breaker met with him and discussed his plans. He also revealed that he had cut off his arm and lost years of his life in service to the demon emperor. The Senior Grand Councilor was impressed and explained that his aims were much grander than what Bone Breaker had in mind. He wanted to "invert heaven" by restoring the Demon Emperor. He believed it was fate that brought them together, because the Face of Vaagu was a key part of his plan. He instructed Bone Breaker to refrain from taking the face to Reckless Storm (his initial intent) and instead take it to the badlands of Yao, where they would meet again. The Senior Grand Councilor promised to handle Reckless Storm personally and to look into the matter of Bone Breaker's curtailed life span (he couldn't make any promises but said he would see if a solution existed).

The Senior Grand Councilor told him to go to General Dee before heading west. He promised the general would present him with the Seal of the Demon Emperor as a reward for his service (a device that enables teleportation).

In Yuzhing, Bone Breaker found General Dee's residence partially burned. The general explained that they had set an ambush for some meddlesome heroes, who managed to escape. Bone Breaker offered to track them down and kill them when he had time. The General was grateful and gave him the Seal of the Demon Emperor. 

Bone Breaker also asked the general for advice about marriage. The General suggested he consider marrying the daughter of an important sect leader, or perhaps the Little Venom of Zhaoze sect (whose father was a well known poisoner and martial expert). 

After meeting with General Dee, Bone Breaker returned to Ogre Gate Inn. From there he headed west and took nearly 600 men with him. He also brought a significant store of Divine Powder and Jade Priestess. They marched for seventeen days and finally reached the plains north of the Kailing Desert. There a tall and narrow stone formation rose high into the sky, the tip resembling a giant human head. This was the face of Vaagu.

At the base of the Face of Vaagu was a Kailng encampment of about six thousand men. Bone Breaker approached, instructing Jade Priestess to command and prepare the forces in case anything went wrong. He had Sand Demon Burrow beneath the camp and asked if he could meet with their leader. They took him to the tent of Princess Samga, who was flanked by guards and sitting on a raised platform and throne. He said he wanted to work something out, that he needed to borrow the Face of Vaagu.

This infuriated the Princess who immediately rejected the idea. Bone Breaker told her not to be hasty and signaled Sand Demon who sucked one of her men below the sand. Princess Samga promised to kill Bone Breaker, so he signaled Sand Demon to attack her. It burrowed beneath her and tried to drag her below the sand, but she flipped in the air and evaded its clutches. Bone Breaker then unleashed Spear Tip on Samga, which went threw her stomach and out the other side.

Princess Samga leapt forward to knee him in the jaw but he spinning back kicked her and she crashed back on her throne, nearly dead. As Samga's men formed a line to protect her, Bone Breaker heard the sounds of war outside the tent.

He used Spear Tip to threaten Princess Samga's life and took her hostage. Then he went outside and keeping the spear tip against her throat calmed the battle. The Kailin let him retreat with the princess to his side during the lull in fighting.

He took Samga to Jade Priestess, and they debated a course of action. He decided to unleash the wind on the Kailin. Inhaling deeply, Bone Breaker blew a hot breeze across the encampment and watched as it tore away the soldier's flesh, leaving heaps of bone in its wake. This sent a murmur of fear through the ranks of his own men, but they quickly fell into line once he commanded them to take the Face of Vaagu. At first they tried to scale the rock formation so they could use Divine Powder to precisely explode beneath the head. However stone shapes attacked anyone who got more than fifty feet up and dozens of his men fell to their deaths. Instead Bone Breaker opted to blow up the base of the rock formation.

When the Divine Powder was lit, there was an enormous blast and the Face of Vaagu came crashing to the ground, releasing a huge plume of dust and debris. Concerned that the Kailing settlement to the south would hear or see what happened, they quickly began dragging the face back the way they came. Bone Breaker also took the Princess with him and wrote a ransom letter to the leader of the Kailin, demanding he personally come to the Badlands with a quantity of wealth sufficient to reclaim the princess.

It took nearly a month but they reached the badlands. This is where the session ended.

Monday, November 16, 2015


I saw this article by Clem Bastow in my feed today, which examines the ethics of violence in roleplaying games. It is an interesting read and features commentary from Ethan Gilsdorf, a writer I have a lot of respect for. Some of the points raised I agree with, some I disagree. I won't tell my readers what they should think of the article. Read it for yourself and decide. It is definitely worth reading, whether you agree with the views expressed or not. It certainly got me thinking about the subject. Here are some of my thoughts. 
The person playing Jesus in
this campaign kicked puppies for fun.
The guy playing Satan
volunteered at the local soup kitchen.

I've run mafia campaigns, evil party adventures and am presently handling a group of players who are trying to overturn heaven by aligning themselves with the Demon Emperor. These are not how most of my campaigns play out but as a GM I am pretty open to darker PCs. I've always liked monsters and villains, and these are characters I enjoy seeing pop up from time to time. So my perspective not he issue may be different from many others. 

A key question the Bastow article asks: "is D&D violence more sinister [than other media] because we are the ones manifesting it?". I think there is a genuine concern out there that if you play a truly evil character, this will somehow carry over into your regular life, or that it is a reflection of something really dark inside that person. People have expressed similar concerns about horror movies and video games. In the 80s parents groups and religious organizations had such concerns about D&D. Now I find a lot of gamers asking the question themselves. 

In my experience running games with evil characters, this just isn't the case. I've actually seen quite the opposite, with the people who are the most adjusted and "normal" being the ones who are able to play fully evil characters. I've also never seen any bleed from what peoples characters do in the game (whether that be cold blooded murder or torture) into peoples' every day lives. If anything it seems to be a release valve the same way aggressive music is. We are playing characters because they are fun and compelling, not because we want to be them. 

Another question that is raised is the morality of killing nameless orcs and kobolds in D&D. While I think in the real every day world we absolutely have to be careful about demonizing people and groups (and that such demonization is often a precursor to horrendous acts) this is ultimately a fantasy. I can conceive of a game world where there are objective forces of law, chaos, good, evil and neutrality, where the creatures inhabiting that world are often in cosmic alignment with those forces, and not have that shape my world view in any way. Frankly I think if you are relying on your D&D game to inform your sense of right and wrong, you are looking in the wrong place for morality. 

When I first started playing D&D, I had a lot of trouble understanding how the god of the bible wasn't in the GM's setting. I had been raised very religious and this was something I just had difficulty imagining. I kept pestering the GM with questions about where God was? He would just say "he doesn't exist in this setting, there is a pantheon of gods instead." I didn't understand this and had trouble accepting it because I couldn't separate my own beliefs from the beliefs found in the game. I needed them to align. As I got older, I began to understand this is more like a thought exercise. You can have a setting that doesn't have gravity for example or doesn't have the color blue. You can also have a setting that has different moral assumptions built into the universe itself. They don't have to align with the morality we carry with us in our daily lives. Fort his reason, I think it is okay to have a world where orcs are evil and humans are good, so long as you are not using orcs to stand in for a real world group of people or something. I will say, I personally find that a more boring approach to play (just my personal taste). But I don't think there is anything wrong with it. 

The article raises the issue of GM responsibility in terms of policing player behavior or ensuring there is some kind of cosmic justice. Here I think the GM's only responsibility is to the welfare of the players themselves and to the integrity of the setting. If player characters kill without mercy, the consequences that stem from that, shouldn't be so I can teach the players a lesson about how to conduct themselves in the real world (they are adults and I am not their teacher or psychologist). The consequences should just be whatever the natural consequences of the action would be (they could be beneficial or harmful to the characters depending on the circumstance). 

My view here is we are all mature adults, and we can all hold these things at arms length. Just like if we were to sit down together and watch the Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the Sopranos, my friends don't need me to lecture them on the inappropriate use of chainsaws and firearms. They already know not to saw people in half or shoot them in the back of the head (and if they don't, I doubt a speech from me is going to change much). It is the same in gaming. The players come to the table equipped with their beliefs about right and wrong. It isn't my job as the GM to alter that or shape it (and any disagreements about morality among people at the table should be handled in the real world, not passive aggressively handled in the campaign). It is certainly interesting to see moral dilemmas the characters face unfold, but I wouldn't mistake that for any kind of personal development on our part. At the end of the day this is just a game, it is a fantasy and entertainment. 

However, I do think there is an ethics of evil in gaming that is important to address. This isn't a question of what your player character does to NPCs or PCs (in many games player characters slaughtering the innocent or killing their fellow party members is perfectly fine). It is a matter of what how your character's actions affect other players at the table. Basically, is everyone on board with you playing your character at "maximum evil" or is there an expectation that you will tone it down a notch. There is an unspoken divide between players who fully commit to being an evil character and the more typical approach which is to play a sanitized version of evil. I think this is where the ethics of evil in gaming becomes more important because instead of fretting over the fake death of imaginary orcs, this is about the impact you are having on your friends at the table. When there is clearly an expectation that you should "tone it down a notch", then the right thing to do is tone it down. But if everyone is onboard for random carnage, go ahead an crank it up. 

In short, be as evil as you want in your games. Just don't be a jerk about it. I've run enough mafia campaigns where player characters are trying to kill each other to know that can be a great deal of fun and present interesting challenges for a group of players who want that kind of game. But it would be a horrible choice for a group that wants harmony in the party and with players who don't want to worry about their character being killed by a fellow PC in the middle of the night.