I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Friday, April 24, 2020

100 UNDEAD!

My latest tile is here: 100 UNDEAD!

This is a collection of undead creatures for your dark fantasy games.

Like other books from the Dark Fantasy line, it focuses on the grim, creepy and scary. However, it came out a bit darker than planned. There is nothing here that you wouldn’t see in a horror movie, but some of the themes are quite heavy. You’ve been warned!


This book doesn’t follow the tradition “bestiary” approach, with a collection of monsters and statistics. The goal is not opening the book when you need a monster on the fly.
Instead, each entry is a collection of visuals, stories and ideas for your games.

Here are a few pages (click to enlarge):



If you want to create your own undead, I’ve added a drop die table in the last page of the book to give you some inspiration. You can see it here.

Hope you enjoy it!

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

DROP DIE UNDEAD (and quick characters)

I've been a bit obsessed with drop die tables lately.

If you know what they are, you can skip the next bit.

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A die drop table is a special type of random table. To use one, you need to roll your dice over a physical (printed) version of the table. The result of the roll will be determined not only by the number in the dice, but also by the place where the dice falls.
For example, if you roll a d10 over the next page, and get a 7, this might indicate different things depending on where the dice falls. If it falls near the upper left corner, give your NPC the “ranger” background. If it falls on the lower right, it might indicate that the NPC is carrying an oil flask… or has a wounded knee!
It is useful to have some sort of barrier (such as a box, etc.) to prevent the dice from rolling away from the page. This is not strictly necessary, however; you can just aim for the center and bring the back to the page if it falls somewhere else (if it falls to the right, for example, put it over “sins” or “motivation”). 
---

Here is the page I'm referring to; it is in the latest update for Dark Fantasy Characters:


So, in this example, the NPC the characters just met is a helpless cultist in rugged equipment. This is enough to generate at least a few interesting situations:

1) The poor old soul they met is a cultist in disguise. He will say he is lost, but he is only waiting for the right moment to betray the PCs.

2) This young woman really believed her cult would create utopia, until it became clear that the cult leader just wanted to sacrifice her. Now she on the run from crazy cultists and asks the PCs for help.

3) This young man's cult performed a ritual to bring prosperity to a village. Something went wrong. Everybody died. Now he s the only persons that can help identifying the evil they released upon the world. The surviving villagers, of course, want to kill him immediately.

If this information is not enough for you, you can roll to establish the character's appearance or motivation. Use d20s since there are two columns for each.

Let's try! I got 7 and 13. 13 means line 3 of the column on the right.

A disfigured appearance could fit any of our characters. For example, NPC 1 is mutated by demonology; NPC 2 joined because she was shunned for her looks; and NPC 3 got hurt in the ritual.

What about rebellion as a motivation? NPC 2 is already rebelling against the cult. Maybe the other NPCs are rebelling against authority? Could this cult have legitimate grievances against the local powers?

The possibilities are endless!

My latest effort in this area is an undead drop die table that I've included in my latest book, 100 UNDEAD.


So, we got a glowing ghost that moans and... drains your voice? Like some kind of banshee, I guess.

A baffling result, but looking for an explanation is part of the fun!

Source.
Maybe it needs your voice to be able to speak. Maybe it was killed by a knife in the throat. Maybe it hates noise, and it moans in despair, with hands on the ears, as the characters approach - so it silences them before attacking.

I can already picture an interesting encounter... The ghost shouts BE QUIET and suddenly the PCs who cannot make a save lose their voices. Now they cannot communicate, cast spells, etc.

Anyway, this is an interesting mechanic that is largely ignored in most RPGs - except for a few OSR titles. It has a lot to do with the posts about RPG & Design I've been making... but the important part is that this is something cool for you to try and use in your games.

Monday, April 20, 2020

RPG and Design VI - Unproductive fluff (and crunch)

RPG and design series so far:

I - Vocabulary; Manual x Encyclopedia
II - Crunch x Fluff
III - Crunch IS Fluff (excavators can't jump!)
IV - Theme, Mechanics, and Narrative
* V - Incongruous and dissociated mechanics
VI - Unproductive fluff (and crunch)
---

In this post I'll talk about unproductive fluff and unproductive crunch. Unproductive is the best word I could find, I think. I considered "useless", but even unproductive fluff can be used an inspiration. Let's see.

We have established that most of the actual "role-playing game" takes place purely in the fluff or in the interaction between fluff and crunch. More precisely, the role-playing game happens while the players can interact with things that happen to their characters, usually by making meaningful choices (see the post by The Alexandria in part V).

While a PC is talking to an NPC, that is obviously role-playing. When the player rolls a dice to see if the PC can hit a foe, he is also playing a role-playing game.

There are some details, however, that are so removed from this experience as to be near useless; they do not affect the things that happen to the PCs.


In the diagram above, such unproductive parts are marked in red; they are far from one another (i.e., unproductive fluff has no effect on crunch and vice-versa) and far from the emerging narrative. In short, they are peripheral to the role-playing experience, at most.

Lets tackle unproductive fluff first.

One example is the detailed chronology or geography that was included in some old campaign settings.

If a king died 100 years ago leaving no descendants, castles, lessons, factions or relics for the PCs to interact with, the fluff is entirely unimportant to what happens to the PCs, and thus almost useless for the actual role-playing game.

Likewise, the fact that one village produces barley while the next village produces rice does not affect most adventures.

In theory, ANY piece of information can be relevant to a campaign. However, these are examples of things that are unlikely to be relevant.

There is at least one good reason to include unproductive fluff in RPG books: solely to provide inspiration. Maybe the manner of death of a king sets the tone for the campaign, for example. In this manner, they function like a beautiful piece of art inserted in an RPG book (like art, however, they serve other functions such in layout, etc.).

Still, feels wasteful to provided inspiration that do not affect the PCs. If the king was killed in an undead invasion, where are the undead now? Could they rise again? Did they leave relics? Etc.

Therefore, the fluff included in a book should either affect the lives of the characters, provide inspiration for the reader, or, preferably, BOTH.

Details that do neither are both useless and boring.

Unproductive crunch is a bit trickier - only because we are so used to it.

I call unproductive crunch the mechanics that take you away from the fluff, and therefore away from the actual game. These mechanics are not entirely removed from the fluff, or they wouldn't be included; in fact, they just add unnecessary steps.

Let's say a stealthy thief turns a corner in the dungeon, sees a goblin, and attacks it. These are the steps the group can take when playing 5e, for example:

* Check for surprise [maybe for BOTH sides]
* Roll initiative [also for both sides]
* Roll to see if you hit [re-roll 1s if you have such feature]
* Roll for damage
* [Re-rolls 1s and 2s if you have such feature]

In old school D&D, things are not necessarily any easier - initiative can be a lot more complicated, for example.

There are other complications, of course. In 5e, for example, a dragon might have four different rolls to decide: if it attacks first, it its breath in available, if it success in hurting the PCs, and how much damage it causes (sometimes, this is actually an automatic hit with two separate rolls for damage: "dexterity saving throw to take half damage", etc.)

We are used to this stuff. It feels familiar. But it is far from necessary. The entire situation could be resolved with a single d20 roll. You'd think dividing it in many phases would give you a more detailed account of events:

- You approach the goblin [roll] but he sees you before you attack. [roll] however, you have the initiative [roll] and you hit the goblin [roll, maybe re-roll] but your attack is not strong enough to kill him.

However, a single d20 has enough results to account for all these possibilites (specially if the enemy rolls as well), including variable damage if you find this useful, and also some non-binary possibilities that are both realistic and fun. For example, the goblin is "half-surprised", etc.:

You approach the goblin [rolls 15] and quickly hit him before he can react, but he is still alive.

The first method takes longer to get to the same result (the goblin is wounded), and includes lots of rolling without meaningful decision from the players (all decision were made before the rolling starts) and results that do not really matter (did the goblin avoid a blow because he saw the PC coming [perception], because he prepared quickly [initiative] or at the last moment, when the PC swung his sword [AC]? I doesn't matter).

Notice that each roll involves other steps such as adding different your ability modifiers, skills, choosing the dice that corresponds to your weapon, etc. In addition, 5e has multiple instances of re-rolling, ignoring the result of the dice if lower than X, rolling multiple dice and ignoring a few (I'm not talking about ad/disad, but things like the savage attacker feat).

I think it would be possible to ignore all of that, but that's a difference subject that deserves a post of its own.

For completeness sake, I must include that useless minutia should be included in unproductive fluff (and crunch). Two quick examples:

* "The good king William was killed by Saxons a few decades ago" versus "The good king William was killed by Saxons in 1053 at the age of 44 in the battle of Justinvented near Hoocaresatall."

* A feat that will give you 3% additional damage on average, but this raises to 7% with the right build.

The "incredibly long and boring backstory" that some players write to their PCs fall unto the same category. Likewise, when GMs do the same for their NPCs and setting. Ultimately, this is a futile exercise because it doesn't affect the actual play; it has no effect in the table. Again, it might provide inspiration, but other than that it becomes irrelevant.

"Metaplot" (as in "things that happen without the PCs being able to interfere") is the same. It only becomes relevant when it affects the PCs and allows players to react.

Most RPG players know these things are bad ideas, anyway - but it is useful to know why these ideas are bad in the first place.

In short: both the fluff and the crunch should be in service of telling the players what happens to their characters (an the surroundings) so that they can make informed decisions on what to do next.

The rest is filler.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Dark Fantasy EVERYTHING!

If you are interested in my Dark Fantasy books, you might like to know that I put them all in a discount bundle for the time being.

It currently includes 8 books for 9 dollars (honestly, I am not sure how long this will last; my plan is to keep this price at least for a few weeks).

These books will work well with fifth edition, OSR games, or any system really. They are mostly system-less, with lots of random tables and only a few references to six ability scores, saaviong throws, etc. The only exception is "Dark Fantasy Basic - Player's Guide", which is my own own OSR system (which could still give you some ideas for OSR games and 5e).

If you already have some of them, the price is even lower.

If you already have ALL of them, I really appreciate it! I will look into including more titles in the future so you can get them for a discounted price too!

In addition Dark Fantasy Magic is still PWYW for now. You can get it for free in DTRPG to see if you like my writing.


I hope you like them! Let me know in the comments!

Monday, April 13, 2020

DEGENESIS - One of the most beautiful RPGs EVER, now FREE!

Thought I'd share the news.

Degenesis is one of the most beautiful RPGs I've ever seen.

First time I got it in my hands it was still only available in German (a language I can't read!); I made a post about it a long while ago.

Now both the German and English versions are free!

If you're interested in RPG book design, you MUST check it out!

I have never actually played the game, but I have friends who do. The impression that I get is that the system is decent enough and the setting is very cool. The art and design, of course, are superb.

Get it here!









Thursday, April 09, 2020

RPG and design, V - Incongruous and dissociated mechanics

RPG and design series so far:

I - Vocabulary; Manual x Encyclopedia
II - Crunch x Fluff
III - Crunch IS Fluff (excavators can't jump!)
IV - Theme, Mechanics, and Narrative
V - Incongruous and dissociated mechanics
VI - Unproductive fluff (and crunch)
---

In parts III and IV, we've established that, in RPGs:

* Crunch IS fluff and vice-versa.
* Most of the game comes from the interaction between crunch and fluff, OR from pure fluff, but never form "raw crunch".

There are exceptions but this covers 99% of the cases or more (consider that D&D  + Pathfinder alone are 80% of the market or more).

So, as a rule, each "piece" of crunch corresponds to a piece of fluff; i.e., everything that is in the rules corresponds to something that existis in the fictional world. The opposite is NOT necessarily true; i.e., there are things (specially distinctions) in the fictional world that have no corresponding rule.

The relation is not always EXPLICIT or OBVIOUS, but it should be clear most of the time.

For example, a RPG may have different damage dice for different weapons (1d4 for a dagger, 1d10 for a bastard sword, etc.). Another RPG may say that all weapons deal 1d6 damage, or that weapon damage is defined by the wielder's skill (these are still incongruous of there is no mechanical difference but there are difference in weight and price; see below).

However, if weapons ARE distinguished - by size, for example - an a dagger deals 1d4 damage and a bastard sword 1d10, a short sword CANNOT deal 1d12 damage without some explanation within the fluff (for example, the sword is magical or finely crafted).

Another example: let's say HP represent fighting endurance. Wizards are frail and get less HP, and fighters are strong, with more HP. If I add a sorcerer class, with less magic than wizards and less fighting prowess than the fighter, I CANNOT give him more HP than the fighter just to make things balanced without an explanation IN FICTION: maybe the sorcerer has dragon blood, etc.

This sounds very obvious, of course, since we re accustomed to RPGs and how they work. Sometimes, however, RPGs include mechanics that do not seem to clearly corresponded to fictional circumstances.

One useful term is "dissociated mechanic", as defined by The Alexandrian:

"An associated mechanic is one which has a connection to the game world. A dissociated mechanic is one which is disconnected from the game world.
The easiest way to perceive the difference is to look at the player’s decision-making process when using the mechanic: If the player’s decision can be directly equated to a decision made by the character, then the mechanic is associated. If it cannot be directly equated, then it is dissociated."

Read that post; it is very interesting and well-written, and it inspired a lot of the stuff I wrote in this series.

Anyway, I use the expression "incongruous mechanics" to the mechanics do not seem to fit the fluff. From Merriam-Webster's Dictionary:


In short, a mechanic is incongruous when it doesn't seem to fit; it is usually a matter of degree rather than yes or no. There is a possible explanation for the mechanics, given he fluff; the explanation is just not good enough.

I'm not using it as a synonym to "dissociated", necessarily, and I'm not sure the player’s decision-making process is fundamental to calling a mechanic incongruous.

For example, falling damage. In D&D, falling damage is traditionally 1d6 per 10 feet, meaning a 10th level fighter will survive a 100 foot fall about 99% of the time in 5e (or something like that). In reality, the number of people who survive a 100-feet fall is closer to zero than one percent.

Is there an in-fiction explanation for that? Well, it might be - maybe 10th level characters are demigods? However, in 5e, most 10th-level characters will perish if they spend 12 days without food (in fact, level is irrelevant to this calculation). One day without water, unlike a 100-foot fall, creates adverse effects automatically.

Both mechanics are "associated", having obvious connection to the game world; it is just the quantity that seems off.

Here are a few other examples that are really specific and will only interest you if you want to read about 5e D&D combat; otherwise, skip it.

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In 5e, weapons that do more damage are usually more expensive or heavier than other weapons. However, quarterstaves do the same damage as the (more expensive) mace if used with one hand (!) and the same damage as the (heavier) greatclub if used with two, making both the mace and the greatclub useless under normal circumstances. Notice that both price and weight exist "in fiction ", and while "1d6 damage" is not something characters would say, characters  would presumably choose heavier and more expensive weapons because they know they are deadlier.

Or consider the "Great Weapon Master" and the "Sharpshooter" feats (and this is really nitpicking, I know). Both allow you to attack with a penalty to get a +10 bonus to damage. However, in the first case the reason seems to be that the weapon is heavy - and in the second, that the weapon is precise. By themselves, the mechanics are perfect, but when you consider that two opposite reasons "in fiction" lead to identical mechanics, while excluding all the weapons in between (and, curiously enough, the greatclub, which is heavier than most "heavy" weapons), they seem incongruous - like they were put there for some weird balance reasons instead of reflection something that exists in fiction.
---

These 5e examples are pretty weak and forgivable, I think. The Alexandrian uses examples from 4e, which had much better examples - it might be one of the reasons 4e failed to have as many fans as  5e. So his "dissociated mechanics" would be extreme versions of what I called incongruous mechanics here.

In any case, 5e has plenty of "dissociated mechanics". The Battlemaster fighter seems to be inspired by 4e. He has the only ability in the PHB that allows a PC to disarm a foe (IIRC; the DMG has an optional rule that allows anyone to disarm), but this ability is limited. If a battlemaster uses this ability to disarm four foes, he must rest before trying it again. Which might make sense - maybe he is tired? However, if he falls from 100 feet, he can disarm a foe immediately.

[One big caveat is that dissociated and incongruous mechanics are NOT necessarily BAD mechanics; I usually dislike them, although, like salt, I am willing to accept a bit, but not as the main course]

At this point I feel I'm am repeating myself and, to be honest, repeating Justin Alexander's points, so I'll stop here.

Next post in this series will probably talk about inefficient/useless mechanics.

Monday, April 06, 2020

RPG and design, IV - Theme, Mechanics, and Narrative

RPG and design series so far:

I - Vocabulary; Manual x Encyclopedia
II - Crunch x Fluff
III - Crunch IS Fluff (excavators can't jump!)
IV - Theme, Mechanics, and Narrative
V - Incongruous and dissociated mechanics
VI - Unproductive fluff (and crunch)
---

Here is one of the most interesting and straightforward articles I've ever read on game design. It seems to focus primarily on board games (like monopoly, etc.), but the jargon and ideas are useful for RPGs too (and, I'd bet, computer games, etc.). Go take a look:

http://www.leagueofgamemakers.com/theme-vs-mechanics-the-false-dichotomy/


Awesome stuff, right? I often feel that board games are light-years ahead of RPGs as far as game design is concerned.

Now, notice that, like I've said in the last post in this series, RPGs are unique among tabletop games.

For example, one article in the same site says that (emphasis mine):

"When talking non-RPG tabletop games, mechanics make the game. Mechanics ARE the game. Themes and components can enhance games and create more immersive experiences, but the core of a game is ultimately the mechanics"

In other words - the CRUNCH is the game, the FLUFF is a "coat of paint", like we discussed in this series.

When talking about other games, you can agree or disagree with this affirmation. In RPGs, however fluff IS crunch and vice-versa, which is why the affirmation doesn't apply.

Trying to use the exact same jargon to talk about RPGs is hard - feels like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, specially because "mechanics" and "narrative" have other connotations in RPGs, and components aren't nearly as important (although dice, pen and paper are still fundamental to RPGs).

It would be possible, I"m sure - but not as useful as doing something specific to RPGs, IMO.

Here is my attempt a similar Venn diagram for RPGs. It looks awful in comparison, but includes the ideas I find important.


This is what it means:

- Crunch: the game mechanics, rules, procedures, etc.

- Raw Crunch: rules as written. The game mechanics, rules, procedures, etc. in abstract. They exist before you start playing.

- Fluff: Whatever happens in the fictional game world. "The setting and ambiance of a game, as distinct from the rules/mechanics, particularly in reference to written descriptive material" (source).

- Pure fluff: Things that happen in the fictional game world and do not affect the crunch directly. For example, the illustrations inside a book, or little pieces of "flavor" fiction.

Some aspects of the characters can be pure fluff. Again, because of the unique nature of RPGs, it is hard to think of an example with no exceptions. But let's say your character wears a purple cape because he likes the color, or has a big nose - this is pure fluff. Likewise, the fact that your sword is curved and not straight is pure fluff in most games.

Likewise, some settings details are pure fluff. In a Gothic world, the moon might be blood red, but if this doesn't affect the mechanics, it is pure flavor.

- Role-playing: or, more accurately, "pure role-playing"; when the players are playing their characters with no reference to the mechanics. For example, if they are talking to an informant that is already willing to help, no dice roll.

- Game: the interaction between the crunch and the fluff. For example, the player says "I rolled a 17", and the GM answers "you hit the goblin, it dies screaming in pain".

- Emerging narrative / experience: Emerging narrative is what happens to the characters during play(i.e., their backgrounds- whatever happened to them before the game begins - is not part of it). Experience is what happens to the players during play (we should probably include the GM too).

I put both in the same circle because this is what we understand as RPGs: players experience waht their characters go through, in a way. Of course, the fact that a player is hungry can affect her experience, but this is irrelevant to the act of playing an RPG.

Notice that "raw crunch" does not affect this circle directly. The crunch only comes into play in interaction with the fluff. In RPGs, there is no rolling dice just for the sake of it. All those annoying +1 and +2 bonuses included in the rules aren't necessarily annoying because they exist, but because you must use them during play.

This is also why people say things like "if the result isn't interesting, don't roll". For example, say the PC wants to pick a lock. She fails, than tries again, and again, until she succeeds (if there is no rule in place to prevent this). She rolled four times with no effect in the fluff - "the door is now open".

While the crunch isn't in contact with the fluff, the game feels to be "on hold", which detracts from the experience.

"Useless crunch" and "useless fluff" deserve a post of its own.

This yellow circle includes both the "role-playing" bit and the "game" bit. Although I had some difficulty to represent this visually, the entire intersection between fluff and crunch is part of the game.

There might be some corner cases, say, when a GM is rolling on a random table to create a dungeon room. But this isn't part of the role-playing game (nobody is playing a role here), just a tool for the game (usually employed before the game, in preparation).

- Theme: theme is "what your RPG does". It encompasses everything. For example, my preferred theme is dark fantasy, which is why I use "dangerous magic" rules, but also why my NPCs are often morally grey. Preferably, all the rules and all the fluff should fit the theme. Ultimately, the player's experience will reflect the chosen theme.

(It might be possible to play a fun game without adhering to a single theme; but this is a different subject).

We didn't talk about components much. The components can fit the theme - a"grim" character sheet, or using cards instead of dice in a Victorian setting - but this is highly optional, not an integral part of RPGs.

The exact components are not as relevant to RPGs except as parts of the "crunch", which would encompass both the mechanics and the components. One player could use an app to count HP, while other uses a pen, and the third uses counters, and it wouldn't matter.

Anyway, this is a complex subject, and I would appreciate any feedback.

Further reading:

* The League of game makers stuff is very interesting:
http://www.leagueofgamemakers.com/theme-vs-mechanics-the-false-dichotomy/
http://www.leagueofgamemakers.com/mechanics-are-more-important-than-theme/

* The Disorietned Ranger also has interesting stuff on the subject, from another angle:
https://the-disoriented-ranger.blogspot.com/2019/01/lets-talk-setting-and-genre-folks.html
https://the-disoriented-ranger.blogspot.com/2017/09/rules-are-compromise-you-agree-upon.html

Saturday, April 04, 2020

The absence of God

This setting idea was was partly inspired by reading Hell Is the Absence of God, although the result is nothing similar.

Lost Gods by Brom is a better source of inspiration for this. Yes, that Brom - did you know he is an impressive writer in addition to being an amazing artist? Check that one out, it has awesome depictions of the afterlife. I'll write a brief review later, I think.

Art by Brom - source.
Anyway, the idea reminds me of sword and sorcery settings... places with demons but no true gods in the modern sense. At least, that is what I feel when reading some stuff by Vance, Robert E. Howard and Clark A. Smith, for example, or settings like Tékumel and Dark Sun. Well, there are not many demons in Dark Sun IIRC, but they FEEL appropriate for some reason.

Here is how I summed it up in Dark Fantasy Settings:

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The absence of gods



The rapture has come. The gods left, and with them the righteous. The rest of the universe was found wanting, and was abandoned. The problem is, nobody remembers it.

Humankind has a hole in their souls, but they don’t know why. There is no memory of the gods – the whole concept is alien. Altruism is almost unknown. Needless to say, there are no clerics or paladins, only different kinds of sorcerers. Temples are all fallen and desecrated – to most people, they look like ordinary ruins.

Demons are common throughout the land, but have no lower purpose other than gaining power, pleasure and gold. The word “demon” has lost its meaning. Humans treat them like a dangerous different people – the strong ones should be avoided (or worshipped, as they grant gifts), but some can be reasoned with, enslaved and even breed with humans. They also have no memory of the gods.

Bizarre monsters are also common. With no concept of natural order, there is also no separation between animal and monster. They are all bizarre beasts. No one cares to catalogue then, and everyone know you cannot predict what kind of creature you will find in your travels.

The most dangerous creature in these lands, however, are the Nephilim. Nobody knows that they are the angels that failed to save this world from judgement and damnation. These ancient, immensely powerful beings have a few clues and recollections on what happened before… However, none dare see the whole picture. Some gouged their own eyes out to avoid seeing how damned the lands have become. Other chained themselves for fear of destroying everything, or twisted their own limbs into tentacle aberrations. Many disfigure themselves to avoid the pain of remembering they were created in the image of perfection, while other carved their guilty into their own flesh. All became insane.

Maybe, if someone could put all the pieces back together, they could pray for one of the gods to look back on this damned world…

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As I've said above, this is from my book Dark Fantasy Settings. It contains shorts essays and many tables to generate grim settings. You can find it by clicking on the link above. If you like this, you'll find more stuff like this on my Dark Fantasy line

It is also a great way to support this blog!

Hope you enjoy it! Thanks!