Daughter Of Frankenstein Explores Horror In A Penny Dreadful-Inspired TTRPG Campaign
The book uses WotC's 5e system and also takes inspiration from the likes of Resident Evil, Nier, The Thing, and Fullmetal Alchemist.
I adore Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. It's a story that awoke an insatiable desire within little Jordan to consume gothic horror and science fiction in equal measure--a hunger I'm sure will plague my mind for the rest of my days. The novel has been a large inspiration in the types of stories I like to tell in tabletop roleplaying games, both as a game master and player. So it comes as very little surprise to me that I'd be immediately smitten with the idea of Daughter of Frankenstein, an upcoming TTRPG campaign sourcebook. Daughter of Frankenstein is the first project from Bardhouse Media, a publisher looking to focus on accessibility and collaboration in the tabletop gaming space to welcome new and lesser-heard voices.
The team of writers contributing to Daughter of Frankenstein is led by a name that many folks in the TTRPG community may find familiar: Beth the Bard. Beth the Bard is a professional game master, co-founder of Bardhouse Media, and the best-selling author of She is the Ancient: A Genderbent Curse of Strahd. She is the Ancient reimagines and rewrites the backstory, societal role, gender, race, and connections of the NPCs found in Wizards of the Coast's popular gothic horror adventure, Curse of Strahd.
Writing She is the Ancient is part of Beth the Bard's inspiration for Bardhouse Media. She points to the help and support she received from those already well-known and published within the community as part of why she was even able to get a foot in the door to create something like She is the Ancient. The goal is for Bardhouse Media to help prop that door open so new game masters and tabletop gaming writers can follow Beth into the space, receiving the necessary support to get their work out there.
"[Co-founder Jayden King] and I created [Bardhouse] as a way to house publications that we put together with the community, for the community," Beth the Bard told me. "So the idea is all the publications through Bardhouse are going to be ADHD-accessible, just really GM-friendly material, but also have a heavy focus on BIPOC and women and making sure that there is a platform that's not just for people who are already established. [Bardhouse Media] is for people who want to get into the community, who want to learn how to write one-shots and then get published."
For Bardhouse, that means helping unpublished writers learn the ins and outs of the publishing process, like pitching and workshopping. And, perhaps most importantly, understanding your worth and getting paid for the work you do--a well-known and ongoing problem in the tabletop gaming space. In my conversation with Beth the Bard, she talked about many of the issues that she and King have faced. "So many companies that I've worked for so far, they will do--it seems--anything to rip you off," she said. "Like, 'Yeah, we'll pay you six cents a word.' One company, a really big company--I will not name names--still has not paid Jayden and me for work submitted last April. Just over and over and over again [Jayden and I] have come into contact with these shady practices."
In the current landscape of tabletop game writing, if you plan to avoid using a publisher altogether, your best bet in the TTRPG space is to self-publish through Dungeon Masters Guild. It's a popular site in the community filled with incredible supplements from a multitude of writers. It's where Beth published She is the Ancient--it holds a Best Platinum Seller ranking, putting it in the top 3% of published works on the site in terms of popularity. Lots of game masters and players turn to Dungeon Masters Guild when looking for extra material for their campaigns or characters. Heck, I use it. But, as pointed out by Beth the Bard, it is an imperfect solution to the publishing problem.
"[Dungeon Masters Guild] makes it very hard to actually make a living because you're not allowed to crowdfund," Beth the Bard pointed out to me. "And so when you bring writers on, you can't afford to pay them well enough because you're not allowed to crowdfund. And so then a lot of people are like, 'Oh yeah, you can come write for me [and my project] and you'll get 2%.' And then it's like, 'Cool. So I'm going to give you a bunch of writing and I'm going to make a whopping $20 on it. Thanks. That's wonderful.'"
To that end, Daughter of Frankenstein is launching through a crowdfunded Kickstarter and features several up-and-coming voices in the tabletop gaming community. Brazilian illustrator Fernando Salvaterra is making Daughter of Frankenstein's in-universe map. Venezuelan character artist Yorsy Hernandez and Croatian scientific illustrator and concept artist Stjepan Lukac are the book's cover artists. The book's masthead includes game master Pedro Filippo, game master and writer Gabby Bangert, ReRoll game master Pita Cruz, and game master and TTRPG homebrew creator Brook Horn--a collection of voices hailing from Brazil, Mexico, and the United States.
"Some of the writers on this book didn't do any writing before," Beth the Bard told me. "And so we walked them through all the steps. And now they're getting published in their first project." The book is already written, though Beth the Bard says that there are still a few minor tweaks that need to be made. The writers have been paid for their work--the Kickstarter is to raise funding to finish layout design, afford more art for the book, and give the writers a bonus.
"I want to be really loud in the community and be like, 'We're starting off with 10 cents a word and we want to make sure that we can get it as high as we possibly can,'" Beth the Bard told me. "And I just want to be extremely blatant and open with everyone in the community about what we're doing, how we're doing it, and how you can do it too."
She added: "With [Bardhouse's] model, you're going to get paid for any Zoom meetings we have to do to keep things on track. You're going to be getting paid for proposal words, for everything. When you submit the first draft, you will get half of the entire payment. On the final draft, you get the other half. We're going to make sure that people are actually able to do shit with this."
Unlike She is the Ancient, Daughter of Frankenstein isn't a reimagining of another tabletop adventure. Though its setting and characters draw parallels to Mary Shelley's work--and take inspiration from numerous other sources, like Resident Evil, Bloodborne, The Thing, Penny Dreadful, Nier, and Fullmetal Alchemist--Daughter of Frankenstein is a new adventure. Set in the icy land of Promethea, Daughter of Frankenstein tells a 10-chapter story in which three to five players role-play as members of the Caligari Inquisition sent to investigate Burkeland, a city with a history of serial murder and body-snatching. The mission eventually ties into a larger series of mysterious happenings at play that then leads the players into the surrounding countryside where they'll face monsters and moral conundrums in equal measure. The story is a Tier 2 (levels 5-10) to Tier 3 (levels 11-15) adventure--probably not something you want to throw brand-new players into.
Writing She is the Ancient informed how Beth the Bard tackled Daughter of Frankenstein's story, which focuses on body horror and supernatural terror to scare players. The adjustments to Curse of Strahd in She is the Ancient make for a remarkably different (and better) story where the central narrative theme of Curse of Strahd--abuse and control--isn't just repeated examples of women and children being subjected to sexual violence or traumatic experiences. She is the Ancient doesn't erase violence from the story; instead, it shifts the source of the horror so that it isn't solely at the expense of marginalized characters.
In the same way, Beth the Bard wanted Daughter of Frankenstein to be horrifying and scary but for its themes of body horror to not dip into ableist language and tropes. The story avoids the use of real-world trauma, like sexual violence against children and racism, when it comes to scaring the players. "It's cheap horror," Beth the Bard said in regard to using real-world traumas for fictional stories. "It's just taking stuff that people are literally traumatized by in day-to-day life and being like, 'Oh, it's so scary. Everything is so scary. Aren't you scared?' And it's like, 'No, what?' We can be so much more creative about this."
She continued: "The whole concept of [horror based on trauma] bothered me so much, and I couldn't put my finger on why until talking with Jayden a lot about it. And it's the same thing as when you watch a movie that has to do with female trauma or Black trauma and the whole movie is just this trauma porn. And then at the end, it's like, 'But we solved it!' And it's like, 'Who are you trying to make feel good about this? This experience felt crappy the whole time. 'Yay, we overcame adversity, but also what the fuck?' The only person at the table enjoying battered women and children and sex offenders all up until the end when they're finally vanquished are the white men."
Beyond horror, Daughter of Frankenstein plays with themes of mystery too, one of which has to do with the title of the book. "We ended up settling on that name because it's threefold and then some," Beth the Bard said. "There is a huge secret about it, but there's also the blatant one. Victoria Frankenstein is literally his biological daughter. And then the woman on the cover, with the very Frankenstein's creature-looking vibe, she's one of the Created and there is a story there that implies she's also considered one of the daughters of Frankenstein. And I won't mention the third one--that one's super secret. But yeah, [the book's title] has a lot of meanings and a lot of depth to it."
Daughter of Frankenstein is built with Wizards of the Coast's 5e system but given the recent developments with the D&D OGL and the rising number of players now looking to other TTRPG systems beyond Dungeons & Dragons, Bardhouse Media is looking to adapt the book to more. "We're starting off with 5e because up until a couple of months ago, I'd only had experience with 5e," Beth the Bard told me. "That's what I've done 40-plus hours a week for years now. But when the whole debacle happened, I was like, 'Okay, I'll try another one.' And I was like, 'Oh, these other ones are really fun too.' But the book had already basically been completely written with 5e in mind so I was like, 'Let's just keep it going that way.' But we're already going to make a second version of the entire book built for Jayden's Back 2 BASICS system that he built--it's a really cool, much more narrative-based system. We definitely want to be branching out and working with other stuff."
I find myself in a similar position to Beth, having only played D&D 5e for years and now wondering what, if any, system I should jump into if a lot of my favorite creators are leaving Wizards of the Coast's 5e behind. For both of us, we've discovered what many players in the TTRPG community have been saying all along--the 5e system is incredibly complicated in comparison to practically everything else, for better and worse.
"[5e] is so complicated," Beth the Bard said. "And these other ones are so simple and wonderful. But then I realized character-building in those [simpler] systems isn't quite as in-depth as you're able to do in 5e because 5e is so complicated. There are huge pros and cons either way."
Beth the Bard added that her experimentation with systems outside of 5e led her to try Vaesen this past January. "Oh my God--I vibed so hard," she said. "And a lot of what's in there is what I was wanting to bring into [Daughter of Frankenstein's] setting and then future books within this setting." Vaesen reimagines 19th-century northern Europe into a place twisted by Nordic folklore, Scandinavian myth, and gothic horror. It uses Free League's Year Zero system. Though fans of XCOM may not know the system, they likely will recognize one of the other worlds created with it: Mutant: Year Zero, the TTRPG setting used in developer The Bearded Ladies' Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden.
"Playing in a [Vaesen] game where you weren't a magic caster and you were just a human doing things, I was like, 'Oh, this is better for horror,'" Beth the Bard said. "I loved their archetypes. You got the doctor, the occultist, the investigator--things like that. And I was like, 'I really need these Sherlock Holmes or Penny Dreadful kind of character feeling vibes [in Daughter of Frankenstein]. How do we do that?' And [King] was like, 'Okay, I got you.'"
Those vibes are several new homebrewed subclasses that will be included in Daughter of Frankenstein, offering new ways for players to both role-play and fight. I wasn't able to get specific mechanical examples on every new subclass included in the book--Beth admitted gameplay mechanics are more King's domain than hers, and these subclasses are still being workshopped ahead of the book's release--but we did talk about the new bard option that's included and how it will at least feel to play. "There's definitely going to be some sort of artificer-inspired bard subclass," Beth the Bard said. "We're going to be doing stuff for sure with bards because the way they're built is perfect for the setting with their versatility."
While talking about Daughter of Frankenstein, the conversation kept coming back around to how the adventure and content in the book are being designed to be more ADHD-accessible, a term I hadn't heard used to describe a TTRPG book before.
"First of all, I could never teach design because I'm a 'feelings' designer," Beth the Bard said, laughing. "I'm like, 'What feels good to me? This? Okay, cool.' I can't explain what I did, but now it feels right. And so I've just been making things for me and how I can understand things with rampant ADHD. And that includes things like just a lot of visuals, a lot of text breakups, which I learned from being a professional blogger for many years. That's just part of blogging--making things accessible to read on the internet. You want to have things broken up and you want to have imagery, and you want to do all these things in order to help keep [the reader's] attention. And it's the same thing in books, but nobody does that. And I understand because it's more expensive--it's so much more expensive."
Funnily enough, despite having never heard of making a book ADHD-accessible before, hearing the explanation for it made me realize that it's exactly what I've wanted from TTRPG creators for a while. There are a lot of great sourcebooks and adventure books out there, both first- and third-party, but so many of them are just walls of text that are difficult to focus on. I know why it's usually done that way--like Beth said, you save so much money by cutting down on your total page count when printing a book and that's just easier to do if your book is mostly printed words.
"But honestly, I don't care," Beth the Bard said. "I will spend what I got to spend. We need these resources. I have never been able to sit and read a whole D&D supplement at all--the best I've been able to do is I copy text from D&DBeyond and then I throw it in Speechify and I listen to it while I'm doing stuff because I'm not just a visual learner but I'm a hands-on learner. So I have to do things [in a multisensory style]. So [Daughter of Frankenstein] is basically keeping people like me in mind, which I think is just going to help a lot of people. So lots of visuals, lots of text breakups. No going on more than necessary--that's another blogging thing. If you can say what's in these seven sentences in one or two instead, it's just as impactful and you've kept the attention [of your reader] a little bit longer."
Beyond finding more ways to break up the text in Daughter of Frankenstein, Beth the Bard also organized the book so that story information, NPC backstory, and location descriptions are organized narratively as opposed to by section. The aim is to make all those details easier to reference and prevent frantic game masters from having to quickly flip through the book if their player poses a question about a person or place upon encountering them for the first time.
"We want to do audio versions as well," Beth the Bard added. "It's hard with the tables and stuff--we're still trying to figure out the best way to do that with the mechanical side of things. But I'm like, 'Well, let's just start by making an audiobook of [the adventure]. And then we'll dive into maybe having more interactive stuff on the website where it's broken up e-course style and chapters and things [that are more mechanics-driven] just get little snips of audio. I don't know how we're going to do it but we're going to figure it out."
Daughter of Frankenstein's Kickstarter campaign will conclude on March 23. The book is scheduled to launch prior to the end of 2023.
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