Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Making B2 Green

Recently, I ran across three things that have inspired me to recycle:

1) James C. Boney's wonderfully evocative concept for Advanced Adventures #6
2) Allan T. Grohe Jr's piece on one-way doors and variable stairs in Knockspell #1
3) Philotomy's article on the megadundeon as the mythic underworld

Having encountered these three in quick succession and coming to the realization that I have in my possession more published worlds for D&D than I will ever be able to use in my lifetime, I had a bit of a brainstorm that I'd like to share:

I came up with an interesting twist on the classic dungeon crawl. Take the classic B2 Keep on the Borderlands and re-imagine the Caves of Chaos as a portal to multiple worlds. To start off with, take three or four of your favorite exotic D&D settings that have been collecting dust, because you'll never get around to using them. Maztica, for example. For each setting, populate the Caves of Chaos with setting appropriate monsters.

The characters start off in your standard D&D world, such and the Known Realms. They go off to explore the standard version of the Caves of Chaos. Little do they know that the caverns simultaneously exist in parallel on several worlds. At regular intervals, these parallel versions of the caverns switch places and anyone who is inside the caverns is transported to a different world. Thus, as the party emerges from their first successful foray into the caverns, they find themselves in a completely different world. When they return to the caverns, in hopes of returning home, they might find the caverns occupied by a completely different set of creatures. This can be used for as many worlds as the players have patience for.

Thus, with very little effort, one might be able to actually get some use out of those settings which, while appealing enough to be on the bookshelf, never were going to be used for an extensive campaign. And that one map from B2 can be an unexpected surprise every time a party dares to venture in to try and go home.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


I have always been of two minds about alignment. On one hand, I have found the AD&D system of LG, LN, LE, CG, CN,CE and N to be far too complex and restrictive at the same time. Even James' excellent house rule on alignments, which I find far more insightful and useful than the AD&D system, is a tad bit too restrictive. Sure, we have a lot of choice that covers several world-views, but that choice eliminates subtleties that exist in reality and in fiction.

I have also noted that the characters that I have played over the years often become through play. Although I conceive of a starting point and what I think is a personality and belief system for a character, these things are very rarely, if ever, what the character becomes through interaction with other players and the game world. Thus, on paper, my character may be Chaotic Neutral, but through play is very keen on and busy stamping out evil of every stripe. By the time the party has accidentally released a being of pure chaos into the world (an event a Chaotic Neutral character might have actually seen as a goal) my character is actually extremely uncomfortable with the idea and seeks to repair the damage done through his actions. What good has putting "Chaotic Neutral" on my character sheet done anyone?

On the other hand, I do believe there is a need for codes of behavior. Given classes like the Assassin, Cleric, Druid, Paladin, Ranger, and Monk, there has to be a means of determining whether or not the character is behaving in a manner that qualifies them for their profession. An Assassin who won't kill isn't an Assassin at all, and therefore could not continue to progress in skill as an Assassin.

Additionally, within Christianity, there is a very clear dichotomy between God and those who direct their lives and the world around them toward Him versus the Demonic and those who either actively work against God or passively turn their back to Him. As I've noted before, Schmemann leaves no room for neutrality in the Christian world view.

For gaming purposes, where does this leave me? I have come to appreciate the flexibility of the Lawful/Neutral/Chaotic alignment system. Lawful can encompass all those who are Godly, those who would fight on the city wall in order to save civilization from destruction at the hands of demonic minions, and/or those who desire to live an orderly life. Chaotic represents the demonic, and those forces that would destroy civilization in any form. Neutrality, to me, is a bit of a cop-out. The idea of Balance in any fashion is really a Lawful world-view. Thus Neutrality really means apathy.

However, in practice, this system means that all characters are going to be Lawful. No adventurer would be apathetic and thus Neutral, and no adventurer would be Chaotic because then they would be siding with the monsters, and personally I would never allow it (primarily because it is never fun to have that kind of destructive behavior in a group).

This leaves us with the conundrum of what to do with the Assassin, Cleric, Druid, Paladin, Ranger, and Monk classes. For this I find that there does need to be some kind of code of conduct set up from the very beginning by the Referee. This code needn't (nor really should be) all-encompassing, but does need to be restrictive. If you cannot or will not behave in some basic fashion, you cannot be these classes. In addition, I would encourage players to come up with an ethos through play. For example, within the martial arts world there are several styles and philosophies behind those styles. A practitioner of Karate thinks differently than a practitioner of Tai Chi. By the time the character has reach 2nd or 3rd level, I would expect a player to have settled into a personality and a set of behaviors that represent an ethos above and beyond their code of behavior. These in combination would then represent a base line for determining whether or not the player has acted counter to his code of behavior and thus lose the benefits of the class. This allows a creative cooperation between the referee and the player that will at the same time be challenging and entertaining.

I do believe that having such codes of behavior are integral to the entertainment value of a game. One of the most fun I have ever had playing a character was during a d6 Star Wars game. I played a Fallen Jedi who at the beginning of the campaign was a drunk and an alcoholic. The other players actually asked be to play another character because this one was too disruptive. I assured them that I had no intention of being a drunk forever, and by the time the campaign came to a close, my character was the de-facto party leader and had retired from the game to become the Master of two of the other PCs who wished to become Jedi. This evolution could not have been possible without the Jedi code of behavior.

In the end, I suggest to do what is fun. For me, having a restrictive code of honor that I must live up to is challenging, entertaining, and ultimately very rewarding.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Planar Cosmology of D&D Part III

The Fall

The Greek word for Devil is "diabolos," which means “slanderer” or even more literally, “the one who divides.” The Fall is division. When humanity turned its back on God and tried to be divine without God by partaking of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, humanity divided itself from God. Since humanity was given the special role to keep the garden and all of creation for God, humanity took all of creation with it in the Fall. Creation, in the person of Adam (which literally means “humanity”), tried to exist without God. Since creation came from nothing (and will, by nature, return to nothing), death, decay, destruction and sin all came to rule over everything. As a sign of this, Cain murdered his brother Abel — humanity is even divided against itself.

Unity in Diversity

The Planar Cosmology of D&D, especially that depicted in the Planescape setting, simulates fallen creation extremely well. All of creation is divided against itself, warring over philosophical absolutes, where even those who profess to be Good not only war against others who claim to be Good, but will ally themselves with those who are Evil to battle a different variation of Good. Power is all consuming, where beings from every Plane scramble to become gods, without God. In a world where magic exists, this illusion of divinity without God becomes even more powerful and difficult to see through. Belief has the power to shape the multiverse, and everyone strives to bring some kind of unity through belief — a desperate attempt to be God without God. Of course, all such attempts will fail and only bring about more death, destruction and sin. The only being able to save, to bring true unity in the vast diversity of the multiverse is God. This unity is made manifest in the person of Jesus Christ, where all of humanity, in its infinite diversity can become one. This radical equality happens not by eradicating diversity, but through that diversity. Each individual brings to the Church — the Body of Christ — her own unique and unrepeatable person, talents and skills. Thus, with the vast diversity of the D&D multiverse, the Church represents the one truly divine means of unification, despite the radical differences that exist across the planes.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Planar Cosmology of D&D Part II

In my last mediation I left with the disturbing notion that God created the Devil and allows him to work evil in the world. The reason for this is human freedom which comes out of the image and likeness. I have meditated on the image and likeness of God before, however, it is worth doing again. In part, because it is difficult to let go of our scientific and genetic world-view, but also because it liberates us from the limitations of the scientific and genetic world view.

Made in the Image and Likeness

Genesis 1: 26 states, “Then God said, 'Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.'” Since God is ultimately free, humanity must also have freedom. God placed the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil within the garden in order that He protect humanity's freedom — to choose to follow God or to turn away from God. Even in humanity's fallen state, God provides for our freedom. The Devil is allowed to work in the world so that humanity may continue to have the freedom to accept or reject God. For God to abolish evil in the fallen world would be to destroy our freedom to choose evil, and thus God would destroy the image and likeness of God within humanity — something He declared very good (Gen 1:31). To destroy the image and likeness in humanity would make God a coercive and evil being. He has revealed to us His goodness and His longsuffering love by sending His Only-Begotten Son to take on our humanity, so that by willingly going to the cross and to the tomb, Christ might raise us up with Him in resurrection and to ascend to sit at the right hand of the Father. Our very nature, in the person of Jesus Christ, can now participate in the very being of God. Our choice to follow God allows us to tap into the power of the Holy Spirit, which allows us to overcome anything the Devil might throw at us.

To insist upon a scientific and genetic understanding of humanity severely limits what it means to be human. Historically these limitations have been used as excuses for racism, slavery, murder and genocide. The human person is not determined by DNA. We know this, because identical twins with identical DNA are unique and unrepeatable human persons. They may look alike, they may share many of the same interests, but each one is their own person. If DNA were determinative of the human person, then a twin could murder their identical sibling with no consequences, because they would be the same person.

In terms of the Planar Cosmology of D&D, the term “humanity” must be understood in context of the image and likeness, and not race (another word for DNA and genes). Even if we don't fully embrace the concept of the image and likeness, in a multiverse where magic exists, our scientific understanding of evolution becomes irrelevant. Any sentient being with the freedom to choose should be considered “human” in terms of their relationship with God. Elves, Dwarves, Halflings, Orcs, Goblins, Celestials, Abyssals, etc. are all created in the image and likeness of God.

In my own world-building, the origin of all these various races is in the Fall. Influenced by magic and the various conditions found in the environments of all the various planes, each race came into being from their human progenitors. Regardless of origin, however, no one race is inherently better than any other in the eyes of God, because they are all made in His image and likeness. When Christ came, He did so in order to save all of humanity and all of creation. That means every sentient race in the multiverse, and the entire multiverse itself.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Planar Cosmology of D&D Part I

Images have power.They stay with us for years and influence how we see and understand things. Images from the early days of D&D still hold sway over how certain monsters are envisioned. This image from Issue 6 of Strategic Review certainly has influenced D&D, both in the way it's played and in the way its rules have been written. It, and other attempts to map the planes, have contributed to the systemization of polytheism into the D&D ruleset.

On the surface, this map poses a serious conundrum to a monotheistic world view. How can there be a one God, when there exists all of these planes, each representing/encompassing a particular world view/alignment? If the traditional Christian God can be understood as Lawful Good, how do explain the planes of Chaotic Good, Chaotic Neutral, etc.? How can there be one God and multiple Prime Material Planes?

In this first installment of a meditation on the Planes in D&D, I will begin to try and answer these questions from a monotheistic and Christian point of view. My goal is to demonstrate that the Planes, even as envisioned by Gygax in Issue 6 of Strategic Review, do not require a polytheistic point of view. Let me begin with a very key Christian dogma.

Creation from Nothing

The idea that God created everything from nothing is implied in the first chapter of Genesis, “In the beginning God made heaven and earth,” with the phrase “In the beginning” also implying that time is part of creation. The dogma is explicitly stated in 2 Macabees 7:28 “I beseech thee, my son, look upon the heaven and the earth, and all that is therein, and consider that God made them of things that were not; and so was mankind made likewise.”

This is in marked contrast to pagan thinking, where gods create the world from something that was already in existance. Whereas pagan gods are limited and part of creation, the Christian God is radically free and radically different than His creation.

God exists outside of time, without beginning. Time is part of creation, which has a beginning and therefore must have an end. All of creation will move towards its end — a return to nothing — save for the will of God.

In terms of the Planar Cosmology of D&D, God is not limited to His corner of creation because the entire multi-verse is part of creation. From a Christian point of view, every plane in existence was created by God, not just our version of the Prime Material Plane. All of creation — every plane in every diagram of the planar map — is hurtling towards its own end — a return to nothing. However, in His benevolence, God is willing it all to continue to exist.

One of the logical conclusions to this dogma is that God created the Devil (and in the D&D multiverse all the various planes of evil and chaos) and continues to allow them to exist. God remains a good and loving God despite this because the existence of the Devil (and the planes of evil and chaos) guarantees human freedom. Without choice of good or evil, law or chaos, humanity would not be free and God would destroy His image in us.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Why I Love the Third Imperium

Recently, I have been able to get into several boxes that haven't seen the light of day in about five years. One of these contained all of my Traveller books. I have played Traveller on and off since the late 70s. However, like many, my favorite aspect of the game has always been reading up on the setting created for Traveller — the Third Imperium.

The one aspect of this massive setting that I love the most is that when humankind finally reaches out to the stars, the first alien species they find is . . . human. To me, this is far more challenging, horrifying, and alien than any of the various alien species offered by any science fiction setting anywhere (as an aside, I also love the fact that the most unsavory of three major human cultures is the one that originated on earth). I have previously explained why humans make the best monsters, and the Third Imperium has certainly contributed to this belief. The concept of human beings as alien forces upon us a very important question — what makes us human?

The game itself offers up three answers to this question, all of which popped up in one way or another over the course of human history:

Culture. In Traveller, over 40 planets were seeded with humanity by the Ancients. Yet, all of them are culturally similar enough that the Third Imperium encompasses most of them.

Technology. In the Traveller universe there are what are called Major Races and Minor Races. The bench mark for this differentiation is the independent discovery of Jump Drive.

Genetics. The Solomani Hypothesis states that all of the various human races seeded throughout the universe are all genetically the same species and that species originated on Earth.

Yet, just as they have been historically, all three are unsatisfactory. Culture, genetics, and technology (and the human intellect and reason that created technology) have all been used as excuses for us to designate one segment of the population as sub-human. This, in turn, has resulted in discrimination, war, murder, and genocide — all inhuman behaviors that make everyone less than human.

Christianity offers an answer to the question that encompasses culture, technology, intellect, reason, and genetics and also transcends them. That answer is found in Genesis when God creates humanity in His image and likeness. In other words, what makes us human is the ability to share in divine characteristics — love, creativity, freedom, justice — and to become like God.

By defining our humanity as the image and likeness of God, we free ourselves from the limitations of culture, technology, reason, intellect and genetics. We are faced with the reality of the radical other. As created beings we are finite with a clear and definitive beginning and end. In contrast, God is beginningless and eternal. Yet, we are endowed with His image and likeness. Throw in Christ, and we are confronted with the reality that this radical other became one of us out of love to ensure that all of creation might share in His eternity.

When we limit ourselves to culture, technology, reason, intellect and genetics, the idea of a sentient alien species wrecks havoc with our belief systems. There are countless sci-fi stories out there that abandon Christianity for this very reason. However, Christianity is not limited in this way, and is far more resilient than many understand it to be. The question we need to be asking of these sentient alien species is this: are they created in the image and likeness of God — Can they love and create? Can they value and participate in freedom and justice? Can they be transformed and become more like God? If these can be answered Yes, then they are human.

I can say this with boldness for two reasons: 1) For us to say that God cannot create sentient aliens — radical others — endowed with His image, especially when He himself (a radical other) became human, is not only is nonsensical, it is to claim that we can limit God. 2) Part of our growth as human beings is a confrontation with the other — both in the form of God Himself and the immense variety found within humanity, with all its cultures, its technology and its genetics. We are called to love the other no matter how alien or different. It wouldn't surprise me in the least if God someday decided that for our own salvation we were confronted by an alien species — a radical other — that challenged us to love His creation as He loves it. Remember, His love is not limited to humanity — He became human in order to save all of creation. This includes every sentient alien species that might exist out there.

The Third Imperium expresses this concept in a real way. It forces the issue by placing an actual human face on the first alien species humanity finds when they reach to the stars. It forces us to come to terms with our own humanity and what it means to be human, what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God and what it means to love as God loves.