Saturday, June 27, 2009

When Games Aren't Enough

This has been one of the worst weeks of my life. My son Gabriel died inside his mother's womb. The ordeal only begins with the horrifying news that your child has died. You still have to go to the hospital, to the delivery ward and give birth to a corpse. Then you come face to face with how fragile life really is, and at how inadequate and powerless you really are. Politics, economics, nationality, philosophy, etc. are meaningless when you see your child taken away before you ever get to know them.

The only that thing makes any sense at all is Christ. It is for this very reason that He came. He took on our humanity, went to the cross with it, to the tomb with it, resurrected with it, ascended into heaven with it and now sits at the right hand of the Father in glory with it. By sharing in our nature in such an intimate way, we are now able to share in His nature. Our humanity sits at the right hand of the Father in glory, our nature is sharing in God's eternity. In Christ, we have eternal life. In Christ, Gabriel's broken form has hope and life.

In a way, this is why I write this blog. All things humanity does is rendered meaningless in death, including (and especially) this game we play; however, I allow Christ into every aspect of my life, including the way I play D&D. Through Him, even something as frivolous as rolling a d20 can bring hope. Playing D&D cannot be an escape from the reality my son is dead, but it can be an expression of my faith in Christ's words, "Let the little children come to Me, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven" (Luke 18:16).

May Gabriel's memory be eternal.

Monday, June 15, 2009

In Defense of Clerics II

In my last post, I made the argument that Clerics belong in D&D, especially considering the historical simulation roots of the game. However, there are the arguments that the mace-wielding battling bishop is not very historical and that Clerics were only born out of the need to fight the vampire Mr. Fang. This is where the war gaming roots of D&D become important.

War games are by their very nature abstract, and, when it comes to those meant for public consumption, are meant to entertain. This results, on the one hand, in arbitrary mechanical and mathematical representations of all kinds of things like troop size, training, skill, technology, speed, range, etc. On the other hand, in order to make the game entertaining, there is also a need to balance things out so that one side, or one troop choice, etc., has advantages and disadvantages that create interesting game play. It is out of this perspective that D&D has the classic Fighting Man and Magic User. One choice allows all weapons and armor, but no magic while the other choice forgoes all weapons but the most basic and all armor in order to be able to use magic. This concept of classes does not come from literature, where magic wielding characters of all stripes are seen wielding swords and even wear armor — its roots are in war gaming.

This is where the Cleric begins to make sense. A need arose within the game — Mr. Fang and how to defeat him — and new mechanics had to be created. Given the historic pedigree of Christian adventurers, the medievalism of the game and the iconic image of vampire hunters wielding a cross to fend off the undead, it made sense for the new class to be some kind of psuedo-Christian adventuring priest. Given the mechanical balance of Fighting Men and Magic Users, it made sense that the Cleric should sit somewhere in-between:

Clerics gain some of the advantages from both of the other two classes (Fighting-Men and Magic-Users) in that they have the use of magic, armor and all non-edged magic weapons (no arrows!), plus they have numbers of their own spells. — Men & Magic

Note that the justification of "weapons that don't draw blood" is only inferred, not explicit. Rather, it is an easily defined category of weapons that arbitrarily limit the number of weapons a Cleric can use. The armor-clad, mace-wielding bishop may largely be absent from history, but from a war gaming perspective it just makes sense. So much so, that it has been with us since 1974.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

In Defense of Clerics

Since I started to connect with the RPG community on the net, especially those interested in old-school gaming, I have found that the Cleric is not a very popular class. This dislike ranges from the ambivalence of James over at Grognardia to the elimination of the class in Geoffrey McKinney's Carcosa to Delta's outright glee of removing the class from his gaming. Now, I am not going to say that any of these interpretations of the game are wrong. In fact, I appreciate the fact that each of them is coming at the game from the perspective of the S&S roots of D&D. I even use James' interpretation of the class as a kind of Magic User when dealing with non-Christian/pagan priests. However, there is another perspective: the historical simulation in the war gaming roots of D&D.

I have to admit that I played my first war game before I ever heard of D&D and in my adult life have played as many hours war gaming as I have role-playing, if not more. I am also a trained historian. Thus, this aspect of the game's roots really speaks to me and I emphasize it in my games.

When looking at the game from the perspective of historic simulation, the Cleric deserves its place in the game. Not only has religion been central to every culture in human history, but Christianity has been a major factor in European history and culture since the second century. One need only look at the weapons and armor in D&D to realize that the combat being simulated is based primarily on the way war was fought in Medieval Europe, when Christianity was not only dominant, but assumed.

The spell list  for Clerics in D&D reflect this historic reality — they simulate the kinds of miracles that fill Christian lore. When you believe that every Christian is the temple of God Himself, in the person of the Holy Spirit, then daily miracles are not out of place.

In terms of the classic D&D paradigm of Law vs. Chaos, Christianity has historically been equated with Law and civilization in Europe. When Rome fell, it was the Church that sheltered and protected people. It was the Church that protected the vestiges of civilization — books, scrolls, etc. — because it valued things like science, philosophy and education.

History is full of Christian adventurers. Monastics travelled the wilderness — the Biblical realm of demons — in order to take on the devil where he lives. Missionaries travelled into barbarian lands to spread the Gospel. They followed the example of the Apostles, who travelled as far as India in the east, and Britain in the west. Before them, the prophets took on all manner of ancient armies and pagan gods.

I will grant that S&S often seems incompatible, indifferent or even hostile to Christianity. Given this, the Cleric seems out of place. However, S&S itself provides the answer as to why the Cleric has a solid place in D&D — the genre blending that S&S is so comfortable with. Given that one standard fantasy trope is to tell stories of earth's distant future and given that the Church is not just a human institution, but also a divine one — "And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it" (Matt. 16:18) — the Church easily fits into any world that depicts a future earth because the Church will survive into that future. Indeed, this is the model I use in my Erimia campaign.

Whether or not you use the Cleric in your games is largely up to how much you want to pay homage to the historic simulation of war games at the root of D&D. Whereas it is possible to say that I don't want Clerics in my game, it is impossible to say that Clerics don't belong at all. I hope that some of you will explore the historic simulation roots of our hobby and learn to embrace the Cleric as gleefully as I have.

Appendix N

I know I'm quite late to this party, and two things are going on here to make me so. First, life continues to happen and there are a couple of books on this list which, though very influential, I had a hard time remembering titles and authors' names for. Second, though I have written about the shift away from literature our hobby has made, I had failed to realize how radical that shift was until recently. In other words, I thought the exercise was a bit of fun, but not really important.

I am trying to be an ambassador for old school gaming and am close to convincing a 3.5 group to give me a chance to run a game with them. However, I found myself at a loss when trying to describe some of the settings I have ready to play. Here are a few of the terms, titles and names that had absolutely no meaning to my audience: high fantasy, dark fantasy, Lovecraft, Moorcock, Elric, Vance, Dying Earth, and the Black Company. When these failed to evoke any meaning, all of the examples that they came up with to find some kind of footing were self-referential — RPG settings or games. 

I should know better, but I was stunned. Thus, in order to rectify this reality I came face to face with, even in only a small and insignificant way, I give you my own personal (inexhaustive) Appendix N: 

The Old Testament. This is just chuck full of great stuff, especially if you like clerics, as I do. Elijah vs. the priests of Baal is still one of my all-time favorite stories (1Kings 18:1-46).

Alexander, Lloyd, The Chronicals of Prydain. These were the first full blown fantasy books I ever read. The image of the Black Cauldron pouring out an army of undead Cauldron-Born is hard not to be inspired by.

Cook, Glen, The Black Company. This book contributed to my group's proclivity towards dark fantasy and the nigh-hopeless fight against overwhelming evil. It inspired inclusion of several mercenary companies in our campaigns, and at least one campaign centered on all characters being members of a mercenary company. It also taught us that character death could be cool and even seen as an opportunity.  

Leiber, Fritz. I remember reading several stories of Grey Mouser and Fafhrd, wondering how this affected D&D. I then went on to play my first thief, to create campaigns centered on being in a city, and even named a character Mouse.

Lovecraft, H.P. Lovecraft's incredible images of the creeping alien evil always at the edge of your vision, always hungering for your entire being, and the utter madness of choosing to follow it into oblivion have inspired me for years.

Moorcock, Michael, Stormbringer, etc. I was never much of a fan, and only vaguely remember trying to read some of his stuff; however, my friends were huge fans and the worlds I adventured in as a player were heavily influenced by Moorcock.

Tolkien, JRR, The Hobbit. I have to admit that as much as I admire the other works of Tolkien, it took me 20+ years of struggling to actually get through the Lord of the Rings trilogy and I never intend to read them again. However, the Hobbit profoundly affected the way I imagined D&D. The quest to recover the lost treasure of a by-gone era, forests filled with giant spiders, and magic swords with names are still integral to my understanding of the game.

Vance, Jack, The Dying Earth. I was one of those players who always chaffed at the Vancian magic of D&D until I read this. In someways, I am more comfortable with the strange, alien and genre blending world Vance created than most of the other fantasy worlds in this list.

Watt-Evans, Lawrence, The Seven Altars of Dûsarra. This was my introduction to S&S and I found this far more inspiring and useful than the stuff my friends were reading at the time (i.e. The Lord of the Rings). The protagonist (Garth the Overman) is sent to steal several powerful magical artifacts from the altars of dark and evil gods. Magic is scary; magic items are mysterious, powerful and dangerous to use; and, for those of you who point to S&S as a reason to remove the cleric from D&D, is chuck full of examples of clerics. I also credit this book for my proclivity to consistently play half-orcs (the closest thing in D&D to an Overman) on the rare occasions that I play a non-human PC.

Willey, Elizabeth, The Well-Favored Gentleman. This lovely book (one of a handful that I have read multiple times) is not only an example of what high-level D&D ought to be about — ruling, maintaining and protecting your own realm that you and your party have created — but also joyously plays with genre blending and world building using a kind of sub-planar understanding of realms.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Monster: Kouphasa

Here is another monster from the Erimia Campaign:


The nations shall see and be ashamed of all their might; They shall put their hand over their mouth; Their ears shall be deaf. — Micah 7:16
Armor Class: 6 [13]
Hit Dice: 1
Attacks: 2 claws (1d3) or 1 weapon/beak (1d6)
Saving Throw: 15
Special: Scream
Move: 6 (on ground) 12 (in air)
Morale: 8
Challenge Level/XP: 1/15

Kouphasa are chaotic bird men with ratty feathers covering random parts of their bodies and skin ranging from blue to red covered in caruncles. Once per day, each Kouphasa can let out an earsplitting scream that can deafen any non-Kouphasa in a 30'r. Those who fail a save to negate the effect will be completely deaf for d6 turns.

Monster: Chiata

Here is another monster from the Erimia Campaign:


As one who catches at a shadow and pursues the wind, so is anyone who believes in dreams. What is seen in dreams is but a reflection, the likeness of a face looking at itself. — Sirach 34:2-3

Armor Class: 5 [14]
Hit Dice: 2
Attacks: 2 claws (1d4+1) or 1 weapon (2d4)
Saving Throw: 15
Special: Surprise on 1-3, Shadow Magic
Move: 9
Morale: 8
Challenge Level/XP: 2/30 XP or 3/60 XP

Chiata look like humanoid panthers. They tend to be solitary hunters, but it is not unknown for them to hunt in prides to take down larger game. They prefer to attack out of ambush and avoid any stand-up fight. When fighting a group, they use hit-and-run tactics — they attempt to isolate members of the group in order to get easier kills. Chiata can see in any kind of darkness and surprise on a 1-3.

Chiati leaders all have shadow magic. On a roll of 1-2 on a d6, any Chiata encountered have one or more of the following abilities:
  1. Darkness 30' r.
  2. Shadow Shapes — functions as a Phantasmal Force spell.
  3. Summon Shadowspawn — summons d6 creatures with 1/2HD. This can be done once per encounter.
  4. Summon Shadowspawn — summons d3 creatures with 1HD. This can be done once per encounter.
  5. Summon Shadow Sword — create a weapon out of shadow that functions as a +1 magic weapon. Once formed, the weapon is permanent until dispelled or exposed to sunlight, when it is immediately destroyed. Only one weapon can be summoned at a time.
  6. Summon Shadow Armor — create a suit of +1 magical chainmail. This improves the AC of a Chiata to AC3. Once formed, the armor is permanent until dispelled or exposed to sunlight, when it is immediately destroyed. Only one suit can be summoned at a time.