A while back we played our third session of Harrowlands, with mixed results. It was kind of a bummer for me as we set up and then couldn’t play for very long – about half a session – and the kids were already pretty much wiped and had very little attention to give to the game.
One thing I notice, is when the kids are distracted, I get really distracted and have a hard time GMing, I forget things and have trouble making the non-player characters fun. I’m definitely going to think on ways to improve my improv when my children are involved.
The session I was setting up had a little too much chat in the beginning and not much action. I probably should have jumped right into action, but since I’m setting up the location as a potential “quest hub”, I didn’t want to blow through things. The next session will hopefully go longer and be more action packed.
I’ve been putting off editing the audio for some time, and just finally muscled my way through it. We recorded for 38 minutes, but the final audio – subtracting long pauses from the GM, fits from the kids, and a couple other uncomfortable and distracting noises – only ended up being 25 minutes. The audio is a little less clear of the players as my Blue Yeti microphone got disconnected and apparently all the audio was coming in from my laptop, so I am really loud and the others pretty soft.
I’m definitely no audio guru, but I cleaned it up as well as I could.
The group finds themselves stranded at a farm and go to ask for help where they interact with three NPCs: Gurla, Momma Yrla, and Sluglump. They receive a somewhat cold welcome as they seek help getting their cart fixed on the night of the Butcher’s Moon and the Alfablot.
Hopefully, we can get a game in next weekend before the holiday and see where they go when the Alfablot truly begins.
Next on my monster list is not really a monster but instead a revered spirit of the forest that I found very cool. The otso is a bear-spirit guardian of the forests that was worshipped by ancient Finns. The imagery of the otso is of a giant bear with trees growing from its back.
I couldn’t resist making this into a monster.
Normally, the otso is a benevolent spirit, but if the heart of the forest is corrupted (one of the themes hinted at in Bursten Claw-Jaw’s origin story), then they can turn evil and become fell bears bent on destroying man and all they represent.
This corrupted creature is a jaeger, a cruel type of warg intent on punishing the weak and the isolated.
I don’t like the bear design I came up with the otso as much as the one I did for the moroi, as I was trying for a shaggy cave bear look and I’m not sure I did it justice. However, the point of doing these is to make them good enough, not perfect. Maybe someday when I have some downtime, I’ll rework this one.
The game with the boys was delayed another week. With Mother’s Day, me prepping for a business trip for the day job, and other commitments, we just couldn’t fit it in. We’re hoping to get the next session this upcoming weekend.
I was doing some monster research in the short chunks of downtime this week, because that’s what I do, and I was making notes to write out descriptions and some monsters for the game, when I came across a couple of monsters that caught my imagination earlier, but now really forced me to stop what I was doing and flesh them out.
The first was the moroi. Most descriptions of the moroi are that they are Romanian vampires or ghosts with some shared traits with werewolves. However, there is one particular description that really sticks with me: some versions of the moroi are spirits that like to possess the bodies of bears.
I still haven’t tracked down the origin of this, but I just love the thought of some demon spirit inhabiting bear corpses (I took the term “bodies” to mean dead) in order to get whatever vengeance or whatever else they were compelled to finish.
Since the main descriptions of the moroi are vampiric, I decided to have the spirits inhabit bear corpses to sate their need to taste blood.
I’ve tentatively assigned this monster to a type of ghost, the bound ones in my notes, but I may change it over to the thralls known as vessels, or even come up with a fourth ghost type if need be. I think it all depends on how characters would have to deal with the monster. If the purpose is just to destroy the bear corpse or break the link between the corpse and possessing spirit, then it should be a thrall, but if there needs to be a way to release the spirit itself, then I should stick with ghosts.
Definitely something to think about. I don’t have any immediate plans for the moroi in the game, but I do like to have them in the stable, ready to go.
The illustration I put together for the moroi, I didn’t want to go all gory and have bones and rotting flesh falling off, but more of a fresh possession. I’m fairly happy with it, though for some reason it feels like I’m trying to channel my inner Gary Larson.
When coming up with a new monster for the game, I can start from any number of places, but after that, I seem to have an actual process.
Starting with the idea
The Skogsra has not been on my radar hardly at all. Just one of the many Teutonic themed monsters in my notes patiently waiting for my imagination to get a hold of them. I have a couple of forest adventures planned ahead for the party, but none of them really involved this type of creature. I had some thoughts of impish river spirits and a mini quest with a completely made up monster, the iron-toothed grubkin.
The skogsra came to my attention only when I arbitrarily chose a more fantastic description for Snarl Wort, a dangerous herb the party will need to collect:
This thorny root is a rare plant found only where a skogsra, a dangerous forest spirit, has made her bed. It has a sweet spicy flavor and is said to protect from fae curses. Beware the uncooked thorns, however, for their prick can cause one to fall into a deep slumber.
That was it. Just a throw-away line to make the origin of the plant more interesting. But that was more than enough to plant the seed.
Research the folklore
A few days later, I gathered a number of my books to see what I could find on the skogsra. She is a forest spirit with a fox tail and a back like a hollow rotten tree. She likes to play tricks on men, getting them lost in the woods, ruining their hunting, stealing their cattle, and sending them erotic dreams. She’ll also try to seduce men and keep their souls forever.
There are themes on her having a siren-like voice and crazy herbalism knowledge. One particularly interesting method for dealing with the skogsra is to slyly ask advice on how to get rid of a problem nearly identical to the one the hero has with her, but pretend it is about their cattle or another foe, and she will tell exactly what is needed to banish her or break her charms. Additionally, there is a very similar wight called the skogsfru, who generally has the same goals but can turn into an owl and likes to drink and dance around the fire.
There are some pretty typical cures for the skogsra also: turning clothes inside out, saying a prayer, throwing steel over them. Not sure how many of those I’ll use, but want to keep them in mind.
Pick a monster type
While there are a few ideas swirling around in my head about what I want to do, I need to figure out how the skogsra will fit in with my monster taxonomy. I pretty much have the type as a wyrm. They don’t fit in with the warg type, as they’re not violent or uncontrollably lusty. They do have some imp characteristics, but the tricks don’t seem to be an end-goal. Walkers, ghosts, and thralls don’t really fit at all. The wyrm type have a corrosive relationship with the living, often driven by jealousy.
Since the skogsra is beautiful from the front, and she can sing like a siren, I decided to make her into a lurker sub-type
Start drawing and doodling
In an ideal situation, this would come last, after I gathered all the information about the monster and their moves and precautions, so I’d know what little details to add to make the illustration better, but I get so much more out of drawing at this stage. As a highly visual learner, I think more creatively when I have a visual to work with. I could try to find what other artists have done, yet I’m already kind of solidifying in my head what I want and it’s hard to nail down those specifics. So, I try to the best of my ability to get the monster down the way I’m currently feeling about it.
Add imagination stew
Now that I have read the actual legends, chosen a type and sub-type, and have a drawing of it, I let my imagination run for a day or two and think of cool, custom moves or precautions based on the general story I get from my readings. This is the fun part.
For the skogsra, I immediately wanted to remove the sexual nature from the game version. I decided to keep the flirting and some alluring powers, but got rid of sex as a goal. She wants the boys and their souls, but I decided she wants them for dancing. It’s a pretty typical folklore thing where fae make people dance forever, or at least until they die. She gets to feed off their life while dancing with them. She is jealous of the love that humans have for one another, and thinks this is the way to get it, for she cannot show her true nature where she is rotten inside and incapable of actual love.
Since wyrms are based off of unused creative potential and they despise those who actually use their creative talents, I figured that her beautiful singing voice was also a glamour. So, through galdr, she can make her voice sound beautiful and that compels her victims to dance, but if the spell is broken for any reason, the human hears only the terrible screeching of owls.
If I were to put this into custom moves, I’d say Galdr Song, Exhausting Dance, Forest Prank, Owl Form, and Spout Herbal Knowledge. Precautions would be tricking her into giving the solution, somehow breaking the illusion (like getting a glimpse of her backside), wax earplugs, offering her iron or steel, etc.
This is the stage I’m on now, and over the next couple of days, I’ll be coming up with descriptors and trying to figure out what makes the most of her story and how the party would be able to deal with her.
I haven’t had much opportunity to work on making new art for the kids game recently, but I wanted to get some monsters onto the Harrowlands site, so I decided to finally color in some of last year’s Inktober beasties. I didn’t get real far with Inktober because the day job started melting down and I was working way too many hours to participate.
Not all was bad, however, because the work burnout made me stumble upon the specifics of doing the Kids RPG Journal and slowly making the Harrowlands game for the boys. I likely wouldn’t have gone down this particular path if I had more time and was not dissatisfied back then.
I’ve taken to paying just a little more attention to how I’m coloring in my monsters and other game resources recently, as some of the previous items were coming out a bit muddy. I think it was a combination of the muted palette and the Drippy Deek brushes which are a little bit darker and less chromatic than some other brushes.
One thing I had not been doing, but started up again, was putting a background color under my artwork. Working on top of white is fine, particularly in the watercolor painter mindset, which is how I approach my work on the game, but painting over a base color gives it some much needed pop without going back to the more outlandish color palettes I was using before.
I found I had already colored in a couple of them with the previous palette and was working on a third, but I just was not feeling it. I went back and started over again and can say I’m pretty happy with the results.
For the ghoul, I started with a lighter yellow background color which tied the colors in nicely and I felt I could do a little bit more with the wash brushes.
The end result came up much better than what I was going with on the first try.
For the vampyr, I chose a muted blue green to accentuate the undead nature. It gives a nice base, particularly under the skin tones that makes the “otherness” really come through.
All in all, I’ll probably go back and color in all of the previous Inktober pieces. For now,
When we last played the Harrowlands game so very long ago, the adventuring party had just survived the bee swarms and crashed their wagon. We will begin the next session in Yrlashof and they will need to find a way to get their wagon repaired. However, there is a problem.
It is the night of Alfablot and not only do folks need to stay off the roads, but no one will offer them hospitality and allow them to come into their home, for the dead travel on this night. The main quest for this session is going to be to survive encounters with any vengeful spirits who wanders too close.
First, they will carve faces into their turnip lanterns to scare off the spirits (the players will draw scary faces on turnips and we’ll fashion lanterns with them using mini tea lights) and roll to determine how effective their artistic skill is. With the howling wind and lack of time, it might be a challenge.
Then starts the procession of the wild hunt, led by the Alf King on his massive spectral boar. If all of the lanterns hold up, then it should be pretty straight-forward, but if not, then they will need to find alternative methods for dealing with any wights who will come into their camp, without fighting. There may be some trickery, parley, wrestling, or offerings to ensure that no one gets hurt.
I created a number of props for the quest, turnip papers for lamps, a “battle map” of Yrlashof to show where the wild hunt will be passing through, some overhead drawings of hunt members, and the quest image. Additionally, I set up the quest pages on the Harrowlands website for online use:
I have loved monsters since I was a tiny child. Before my introduction to Dungeons & Dragons, I would get all of the books I could from the library on monsters and myths. I read Dracula way too early and I still get goosebumps when I think of some of the scenes. Later, the Monster Manuals took so much of my time and I spent many a sleepless night pouring over every detail of each creature.
Yet as I grew older, I found myself less interested in combat stats of the monsters and wanted to know their story. So I dug deep into the original folktales, ghost stories, sagas and myths from where they came. I studied the work of Marie-Louise von Franz and her explorations into the psychology of folktales.
I picked up DMing again with the release of D&D 5E, but the one thing I was always disappointed in were the monsters. It may just be failings as a DM, but the monsters simply ended up being something to cut down with an axe. I ended up exploring a number of more story-centric RPGs like FATE, Dungeon World, Fiasco, Seven Leagues, etc. but had a hard time getting a group together to play.
I doubled down on my research and had ambitions of making something where the folklore and the story of the monsters shined, but could still make something fresh and exciting. I created a monster taxonomy based on psychological traits and impulses and I catalogued all the ways I could find that “heroes” defeated monsters in the tales. I wasn’t sure what format this project was going to take—RPG, field guides, comic, novel—but I have tinkered with it for the last few years.
Working on the Harrowlands game for the boys has really allowed me to clarify what I want to share about monsters and stories in general. This search for a new Monster Manual page started long before the kids RGP journal, but has finally solidified into something I am happy with.
These monster sheets are almost entirely focused on role-playing. It emphasizes the instincts and mannerisms on the top of the sheet, with keywords right in the center to help get focused right away. The bottom has easy to find moves and precautions which further the role-playing aspects. There are a number of ways to deal with each monster that does not have to involve combat. In fact, some of their own moves may pull them out of a fight.
There is a lot of work to do on the design before I would ever consider putting it out for public use, but the format will work perfectly for my use in-game. I will tinker with them here or there as I build out the content, and the more monsters I add, I’ll inevitably get the bug to make it shiny. But for now, I am really happy with what I have to work with.
I finally designed character sheets and monster sheets that I am happy with. It includes seven sections to help me role-play the characters from one sheet.
Profile: the character’s name, overall concept, and portrait
Role-Playing: the character’s motivation, appearance, voice and mannerisms
Keywords: Just a list of keywords to keep in mind while playing the character
Custom Moves: key actions the character can take
Gear: anything cool that they carry on their persons
Thoughts: Short quotes in the character’s voice about key topics
The format will allow me to quickly scan things at a glance, so I don’t miss a key characterization and focuses on creating a compelling and memorable character. Now that the design was completed, all I had to do was create a sheet for all of my NPCs (non-player characters).
The main problem with designing my various game materials with Clip Studio on the iPad is that adding and updating text is kind of a pain. The popup keyboard takes half of the screen and maintaining font styles can be inconsistent. I wanted to find a better flow for the kind of sheets I plan on putting out with lots of text and styles.
To test things out, I built out a NPC sheet in Affinity Publisher to see if I could get something that would be easy to templatize and make multiple characters with minimal design work (outside of the character portrait). The template was more manageable than Clip Studio, but I still had to manually click into each field to update content and that would get tedious pretty quick.
Publisher, Affinity’s competitor to InDesign, is still in beta and does not have the full range of features that it will hopefully have later on. One bit of functionality that InDesign has that Publisher is currently lacking is the ability to import data into a template.
Unfortunately, this was kind of a deal breaker for me. And I’m not about to go back to Adobe’s products.
I work with lots of data in my day job and I enjoy building out data systems. I knew if I could find some way store data and import it into a template without messing with design, I would have an ideal setup.
So I went back to the drawing board and back to my comfort zone, building it in HTML. I created all of the data tables and input a good chunk of content into the database, so I could test out the template and started building the web pages. This wasn’t a small task and I’ve spent about three weeks putting everything together.
And I’m finally finished with the basic template for NPCs on the upcoming Harrowlands website. The three characters I have completed are:
Having everything online and in a database has many benefits: I can access with any device, everything is easily indexed, and of course the more content I can put online, the better the search rankings become. And most importantly, I am getting started on building the knowledge base for the Harrowlands game.
The one place this is lacking is when I want to have a copy of the sheet in hand.
Which is why one of my next steps is to edit the print CSS styles to give me the ability to print a single page directly from the browser. It may lack a little of the nuance of a custom designed sheet in a graphics program, but I won’t need things to be super pretty for games. Besides, I’m confident I can get the stylesheets to print out something quite nice.
Typically, I wouldn’t talk about a highly personal subject like depression, but since it is something I’ve been dealing with and has affected the work I’m doing on the game, it seemed appropriate to put into the journal. I want to include the problems along with the successes here as I make my way through the creative process.
For those who suffer from depression, the symptoms and effects can vary wildly. It took me the longest time to understand that I dealt with depression and not simply being lazy when I could not bring myself to do work, or even get out of bed. Even doing little things was overwhelming. Blaming myself would drive me into a deeper spiral that seemed impossible to get out of.
Since recognizing the symptoms as depression, I can remain somewhat functional when I am down. The last few years, I have found a number of ways to minimize the effects when depression hits and the bouts are fewer and farther between.
Recently, I fell into a depression that I could not seem to shake off. Doing anything creative was a huge struggle and all I wanted to do was sit around and watch Netflix. Being there for the kids was never an issue, but all of my remaining energy went to surviving the day job and getting the bare minimum done, meaning that there wasn’t anything left to work on the Harrowlands game and the kids RPG journal. I did a couple of drawings, but couldn’t get anything more than that out. Illness and constant rain didn’t help much.
Two methods I typically use to “snap” out of my overwhelm – music therapy (curated playlists that make me feel things other than helplessness) and deep-dives into folklore research (inspires me and gets me excited to create again) – did little to help me this time.
I tried to find anything that would help me get some wins even though I wasn’t able to focus creatively. Everything I wanted to do involved too much work. My process for making the monster and character sheets was difficult to layout and would require modifications every single time I wanted to make something. So I switched gears and instead of trying to make content for the Harrowlands game, I focused on more technical methods I could make my processes easier.
I wanted to create a knowledge-base website for the game, but wasn’t planning on doing it until I had a sizable amount of content. For over a decade, I’ve worked in web development and system architecture. Doing the planning for this didn’t seem scary for me, so I started dabbing my toe into designing the structure.
First came the database and all the tables I’d want to make. Then I got all the server work done on Google Cloud. My momentum started to pick up and instead of mindlessly consuming media, I found myself opting to work a little more on the site.
Changing directions worked.
I built character pages online and started doing a little bit of writing to populate them. I am creating once more. I still have a ways to go before I’m back into a regular flow, but I’m getting there and the game is moving forward.
Remember to go easy on yourself and keep doing your best, even if your best at the time seems to be incredibly small.