Tag Archives: horror

Intro to 5E Ravenloft

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been prepping a campaign for two of my kids and their friends. We made characters and discussed expectations, and I wanted to give my sons a chance to figure out how their powers and abilities work.

Then Curse of Strahd came in the mail, with an introductory exploration through a curious, musty manor in a mist-veiled town, offering a perfect opportunity to get the role-playing started…

Check out the review here on my new site, and give that site a follow for more updates as my players and I experience what 5th Edition has to offer.

On the Hunt

Here’s this week’s #BlogBattle entry for “Hindered,” a continuation from last week’s episode in which Teagan killed Birgitte, the vampire Brood Mother who enslaved Grant to fulfill a task for the enigmatic Viscount Tarvinthian: opening an ancient prison of sunlight holding something at bay.

Genre: Adventure/Action (1,498 words)

Update: Thanks to those who voted and made this the winning story for the week!

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From the Adventures of Grant McSwain, Cartographer of Uncharted Domains, Champion Pugilist, and Collector of Priceless AntiquitiesAccompanied as always by his hapless assistant, Teagan O’Daire, the Ginger of Galway

Teagan dashed between gravestones and family reliquaries, constantly checking over her shoulder in her mad flight—even though it led to several painful collisions. The wind whipped through her red hair, and the humid mist filled her lungs, making each stride a strain. Her sides burned and her legs screamed, but she gritted her teeth and pressed on.

If I pause for a breath, they’ll be on me in an instant. And I don’t think I can resist a second time.

The memory of the smooth ivory face and piercing eyes washed over her and she almost stumbled. Just a glance from one of Tarvinthian’s progeny and she’d nearly succumbed. Teagan could no longer hold anger or jealousy toward Grant about his year-long escapade while enthralled by Birgitte, the Brood Mother. Younger vampires took hours or even days to turn a mortal to their will. But for these ancients, the allure of their mere presence seemed sufficient to draw Teagan under their thrall.

She felt the tingle throughout her body, the urge to give in, to turn and offer herself—arms extended, head raised to the cloudy night sky, neck exposed to cold air—

The breeze chilled her skin and she blinked, then realized she’d stopped and assumed the position she imagined. “No,” she howled into the night, fists clenched. “You twisted monsters, find a weaker mind!”

Three humanoid forms came into view, bounding across the earth and sky like a pack of predators on the hunt. Teagan turned and ran.

A battered chapel lay ahead, the dim light within a welcome sign of refuge. Hopefully Grant had done his part. Hopefully Birgitte’s ‘daughters’ aren’t pursuing him either. I don’t want him to be the weak-willed man they find.

She scrambled up the cracked wooden steps and tugged on the heavy doors. Grass rustled behind her, the vampire’s footfall soft even from dozens of feet in the air. Teagan froze and shut her eyes, focusing on the silent approach of a curious sensation. Her will began to buckle under the enormous weight and incessant pull toward this supernatural being. Had she tried to run, her feet would betray her, leaden and obstinate as if her boots had been nailed to the floorboards. If she looked on that face again—that glorious, radiant face—she would succumb and be his.

Her heartbeat thudded in her chest and she knew he must hear it, must sense the rich blood flowing through her veins, the life force that could feed his insatiable hunger, the captive will that wanted to do nothing else…

The wood behind her creaked under his weight. Teagan snatched the sawed-off shotgun from the holster on her leg and fired it blind over her shoulder. Flaming bits of dried, minced and powdered garlic sprayed from the barrel, and the thing shrieked.

The spell broken, Teagan turned, raised the gun toward the ravaged, peppered face, and pulled the trigger. Lust and hunger forgotten, the creature’s eyes blazed with fury and hatred for an instant before the golden cloud of garlic blurred Teagan’s view. Then it fell to the ground, screaming and clawing at tattered flesh.

Teagan traded the shotgun to her left hand and slipped a silver crucifix from her belt into her empty palm. At the foot of the cross, the silver extended into a point like a railroad spike. “The Lord rebuke you, fiend,” Teagan said, and jammed the holy ornament into the vampire’s back.

It howled and thrashed across the ground, fleeing her wrath. But two others alighted on the grass near the chapel, their stern gazes devoid of mercy.

Teagan ducked inside, hoping ancient sacred ground might slow their pursuit. A priest stood before the altar, chanting warding prayers in Latin with a rich, sonorous tone. As the last syllable left his mouth, the atmosphere changed. The misty gloom and dread Teagan felt vanished in the soft glow of candles and an inner warmth of hope.

The priest turned to Teagan and smiled. “It seems to have worked. I’m honestly surprised. I don’t believe anyone has sung that canticle in many years.”

“Father MacCleary,” Teagan gushed, “it’s been too long. So good of you to come.”

“So good to see you again, Miss O’Daire,” he said, “even if you no longer wear the nun’s habit.”

Teagan pursed her lips, but sensed no judgment intended. “Not a very good sheep, I’m afraid. Never been willing to stay in the pen.”

MacCleary nodded. “I know, lass. But praise be that the Good Shepherd is ever willing to travel far and wide to find the one who goes astray.”

Something raked the wooden walls, and a window shattered as a chunk of gravestone flew through the stained glass. A pale face with glowing eyes peered inside before skittering into the darkness.

“The Good Shepherd’s not the only one chasing me tonight, Father,” Teagan said. “But they don’t seem willing or able to breach your spiritual defenses. So yes, praise be.” She looked over the less mystical preparations Grant had made during the day, and smiled. He had done well.

“Alas for Mister McSwain,” Father MacCleary said, “caught out in all that danger.”

Distant shotgun blasts rang out in the night, and Teagan laughed. “Don’t waste your worry on him. If I know Grant, he’s loving every moment of this.”

“Well, he can have it all,” MacCleary said with a forced laugh. “I still don’t want to believe this is happening. On a chill night such as this, I would much prefer a cup of tea and reading the Good Book by candlelight in the comfort of my parish.”

“You’ll be back to your disciplines before you know it, Father. Your help tonight may well save not just our lives but the souls of many potential victims.”

Another window shattered, and stone crashed into a dusty wooden pew. Father MacCleary and Teagan both spun toward the sound. Then Teagan sighed with relief. “All they can do is hurt the look of the place.”

More shotgun blasts echoed in the night, closer than the first. More unearthly shrieks, too, and a hearty laugh. Grant must be alright. Teagan stared blankly through the broken window into the night, her hands absently turning her holy medallion between her fingers.

Then an oppressive and palpable darkness swept through the chapel. The walls shook and groaned like a tremor passed through the earth. Thunder boomed and the thick wooden doors flew apart in splinters.

Tarvinthian himself stood at the doorframe, decked in a fine burgundy tuxedo as if attending a lavish ball. His beady eyes stared down his hawkish nose at Teagan and Father MacCleary. Then he brushed the tails of his coats back and cracked his fingers like a maestro about to perform.

The vampire lord stepped into the sanctuary, his motion slow and labored, though his face showed no sign of strain. Bands of light flickered, wrapping around like invisible cords resisting his pale skin and dark suit. He took another step and the bands flashed brighter, stretching his clothing across his torso and limbs. The intermittent flashes became constant as Tarvinthian forced his way forward.

The wards snapped, and the doorframe and surrounding wall crumbled with a thunderclap. Tarvinthian raised an eyebrow. “Impressive, priest. I haven’t dealt with such a hindrance in over a century.”

Father MacCleary stammered and shrank back toward the altar, his white-knuckled fingers wrapped around a rosary.

“Pray all you like,” Tarvinthian said, “but you needn’t fear. I am not here for you, man of a so-called God. Nor for the one killing my children outside—though I will end him.”

His gaze fell upon Teagan, and his cracked, deathly lips parted like rotted cloth. “I am here for you, the one who dared to slay Birgitte–a very goddess. My goddess.”

Teagan fought the fear rising in her and stood firm in the front of the sanctuary. Her hands twitched, demanding in panic that she draw her shotgun or at least another crucifix—anything to defend herself as Tarvinthian steadily advanced.

Then he stepped on the loose floorboard where Grant had placed the trigger. Beneath the sanctuary, a latch released the line once held taut, which led behind the altar and up the inside of the bell tower’s base. Released from its bond, the rope hissed through metal loops toward a massive wooden spike soaked in holy water, mounted on a spring-loaded beam attached to the ceiling.

The spike swung through the center aisle in a blur and impaled Tarvinthian where he stood. His flesh smoldered where the wood touched it, and he bellowed in agony.

Teagan drew her shotgun, then advanced on her prey. “That’s right. I slew your goddess. And I’m not done yet.”

She leveled the gun at his face and fired.

Story By Numbers

“Story-telling and writing fiction are very different skills,” the professor said.

I immediately wanted to disagree with him. But then I thought about that dictation software I purchased and rarely used. For somewhere around $70 I had a top-of-the-line program ready to turn my speech into text. In the end, it turned hard drive storage into wasted space.

Telling a captivating story out loud is not the same as writing a page-turner novel. I’ve written some decent stuff over the years, and I’ve told some decent stories to my friends. But you can’t transcribe the latter and automatically have a great piece of prose ready for readers.

So I decided to listen and accept that maybe Dr. Guthridge knew what he was talking about.

(His awards and successes could have sufficed.)


Last week, a local college with offices on-base provided a free two-hour workshop: How to Write a Short Story

Dr. Guthridge provided a formulaic method for plotting and outlining short stories–one that presumably works pretty well with full-length novels. 

Cool idea

Protagonist

Emotional problem

Outer problem

False solutions

Final solution

For sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, start with your cool idea. Maybe it’s a magic system, a piece of technology, or a creepy monster. Honestly, you can also come up with cool ideas for mainstream fiction–you just need an interesting fact or two upon which to base the story. 

Brainstorm a protagonist and a problem that protagonist might have, based on the cool idea or historical inspiration. The protag should have an inner, emotional problem that needs to be resolved… insecurity, hatred, fear, anger. Something they’ve tried to keep at bay, but it clearly affects everything about them.

The outer problem is the conflict that forces the protag to deal with their inner emotional baggage. It’s the issue that pulls all of that junk to the surface to be confronted. 

Brainstorm a few false solutions. These don’t have to be super intellectual and creative; in fact, we often distract ourselves and delay coming up with useful ideas by looking for the most creative, least expected attempted solution. These solutions are intended to fail, so it’s fine–maybe even preferred–if they’re the “obvious” answers to the outer problem. Unstable magic energy is creating a disturbance? Great… send in a magician to collect or contain it. A piece of technology isn’t functioning, and threatens innocent lives? Pull the plug… it’s a no-brainer.

Also brainstorm easy ways that these failed and false solutions will make things worse. Skynet starts a global thermonuclear war when the military tries to pull the plug. Noble men go mad with lust for power when they try to use the Ring of Power as a weapon against Sauron. Bullets don’t stop Jason Voorhes, they just make him chase you.

The final solution is where brainstorming and creativity come into play. This has to be unexpected. (Readers will be unsatisfied if they guessed the ending from the beginning.) This has to be unique and intelligent. (Readers will be frustrated if the answer is something obvious and simple like pulling the plug.) And this solution has to not only solve the outer problem but also resolve the protag’s internal conflict–because that’s really what the story is about.

Since “everyone is a unique snowflake,” the creative person in me hates the idea that good fiction usually has some clear structure we should mechanically duplicate. Where’s the freedom of expression? Where’s the special quality that sets apart one writer’s fiction from another’s?

But this sort of construct works really well as a framework upon which we build and decorate a house.

It reminds me of James Scott Bell’s LOCK concept: 

Every story has a relatable and interesting Lead. The lead character must have an achievable and important Objective. There must be considerable and meaningful Conflict preventing the lead from easily achieving the objective. And the reader expects a Knockout ending that wraps it all up in an exciting way.

The fact is, the meat of telling a good story or writing good fiction hasn’t changed much over the centuries and millenia of recorded human history. These are the tales that speak to us and capture our imaginations over and over again.

Even if it feels formulaic, why fix what isn’t broke?

What do you think? Is this too simplistic a view? Is there more to the story (pun intended)? Let me know in a comment.

No One Questioned It

Here’s a Blog Battle short story (998 words, pushing my luck) for the theme: Head.

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Deep in the Utah boonies a ways off I-80 stood a little town–so small you’d drive past in the time it took to Google directions back to civilization. One lone church stood above the houses and shops like a shepherd over the flock. The town’s few heathens joked that even Westboro Baptist members thought Last Days Holiness Tabernacle a bit extreme.

Five years ago, Last Days’ new pastor Eli took that as a point of pride. On his first Sunday, he praised the congregation for following their late pastor’s example so well.

When the ladies of the church invited Pastor Eli’s wife Edith out for tea and gossip in the form of prayer, she graciously declined. “I’ll need to check with Eli about that. The husband is the head of the wife, you know.”

Mary the silver-haired organist chuckled. “Yes, dear, of course. But the wife is the neck and can turn the head whichever way she sees fit.”

Edith’s face blanched and she shook her head. She shot a quick glance at her husband, who stood in the foyer with the men discussing politics and such. When she whispered, “Perish the thought,” no one questioned it, though Mary rolled her eyes.

When Mary was asked to step down two months later, no one questioned that either. The pastor’s daughter Gracie was quite accomplished on the organ, even at age ten. Her youthful energy brought joy to the congregation, or so said Pastor Eli.

Three years ago, Gracie’s Sunday School teacher Rebekah asked her husband Levi over dinner to consider some strange things the girl shared in confidence.

Levi grunted from behind the sports section of the Herald, which Rebekah took as yes.

“I figure you might know best,” she said. “Gracie said her pa sometimes sends her upstairs to the attic for her daily Scripture reading. She hears Edith downstairs in the workshop crying out, even screaming now and then.”

Levi glowered over his newspaper. “I don’t think I ought to know the pastor’s private doings, ‘Bekah.”

Rebekah grimaced. “She said it only happens at the beginning of the week, because sometimes Edith can’t walk right for a couple days after. Her pa calls it cleansin’ Edith’s sin, scourgin’ away her transgressions. You an’ me both know Edith ain’t ever seen a sin no closer than the horizon.”

“Ain’t my place to judge another man’s affairs, ‘Bekah. Not yours either.”

When Rebekah brought her concerns to Pastor Eli, he smiled and assured her things were fine at home. Gracie had been reading some trashy novels she picked up from kids in town, that’s all.

And no one wondered why Gracie didn’t play hymns the next Sunday, what with the terrible fall that sprained her wrist.

Some folk did wonder at how fast Levi and Rebekah found themselves under the pastor’s rebuke two years ago. “She has a Jezebel spirit,” Pastor Eli said of Rebekah, slamming his fist on the pulpit. “No woman ought to manipulate the head of her household, and no self-respecting man should stand for such.”

For the next few Sundays, he read the Old Testament stories about Jezebel and condemned all the ways she usurped spiritual authority. He warned of the dangers of following in those footsteps. It all sounded pretty clear-cut, so no one questioned it.

Except Levi, who stood one Sunday with a page of notes. “I’ve been reading materials online, explaining what the Bible really means about being the head and all that. Pastor, it seems most teachers understand the husband’s role to be servant leadership, not tyranny. He’s to love his wife like Christ loves the church… to give his time and energy in serving her needs. Right before ‘wives, submit to your husbands,’ it says ‘submit to one another in the Lord.'”

No one thought it strange that Pastor Eli kicked Levi out right then. You can’t stand up in the service and challenge the head of the church without consequences. And they’d been warned by Eli not to trust just any so-called minister of the Gospel on the Internet.

So when Eli preached, “be the head of your house, not the tail” each year, no one doubted his judgment. They’d all seen how dangerous challenging authority could be.

A year ago, the wives whispered at how quickly Edith aged, how frail she’d become. But Gracie had grown into a beautiful teen, kind-hearted and meek. Still, her shoulders always seemed bent by an invisible burden.

Pastor Eli sheltered his family from the world, and no one questioned it, because everywhere they looked, they could see how corrupt the world had become.

Best to keep Gracie pure from all of that. Everyone said some day, she’d make an excellent wife for some lucky man.

“So long as she stays pure from sin,” Eli would answer, and people would nod in agreement.

Three months ago, the church secretary overheard Eli and Gracie arguing in his office. He promised to deal with her sins when they got home, said the time had come to cleanse her mouth and purify the rest of her from whatever vile wickedness had latched on.

She ran out the door crying.

Raising teens was hard work sometimes, everyone knew it.

When Edith showed up later, the secretary mentioned the argument. She didn’t expect the fire that flared in the quiet woman’s eyes, or her haste in returning home.

That night, the sheriff stopped by the pastor’s house. There’d been a gruesome accident in the workshop, Edith said. She led him downstairs and showed him around. He came up whiter than snow, wiping vomit from his mouth. The official report said “suicide,” even though all that remained was the pastor’s severed head. No charges were filed, but whispers spread.

In the months that followed, Gracie played hymns with a carefree passion like never before, and Edith sang louder than anyone else, her face alight with joy.

And no one questioned it.